Category: Travel

One Of The Perils Of Getting Older Is That Many Things End Up Reminding You Of Other Things, Which Leads To This Sort Of Post

Over the weekend, I was on a train, and saw two young-ish chaps talking quite excitedly. They were twenty years old at most, and they were chatting as they passed what looked like a glossy magazine back and forth.

If you’re thinking it might have been a … let’s say ‘gentlemen’s leisure interest periodical’, then I’m sorry to disappoint you; it was, as I saw when they sat quite close to me, a glossy rulebook or other supplement for a role-playing (or tabletop miniature combat) game, and their excitement and interest seemed to stem from the implications of this on their chosen game – I could hear them saying things like ‘magic attacks’ and ‘stats’, which rather reminded me of my teen years.

It probably won’t surprise longtime blog readers to know that I was what is now known as ‘a nerd’, though back in those days you were more likely to be labelled a ‘square’ or ‘boffin’. But we all know what that means – probably wearing glasses, not physically confident, not very good at talking to girls, and so likely to have solitary (or at least indoor) hobbies such as playing Dungeons & Dragons or computer games, or reading books or comics. And of course there were quite a few of us at school, as well as all the others who weren’t like that.

Strangely enough – on a mathematical basis if nothing else – my school’s equivalent of the cheerleaders and jocks so often shown in American films seems to have been known as ‘the popular kids’. I say ‘strangely’ because the school year I was in had so many ‘factions’ in it (why, even the secretary in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off refers to “the sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wasteoids, dweebies, dickheads” at Bueller’s school), that if you took out my group of friends, the other groups such as the gothic kids and the very studious kids, and the various loners, there were probably only about fifteen of the so-called ‘popular kids’, and none of us really gave a monkey’s about them and what they did, so I have no idea where the presumed ‘popularity’ came from.

It’s not like we ever took a vote on it or anything… though maybe it was an early example of the kind of ‘implied consensus’ or ‘silent majority’ that you often come across in later life. Returning to a film that was out at the time (and whilst it may seem lazy to refer to 1980s films, they were the cultural backdrop of the time, and I think we tend to try to find something that mirrors our own experiences in films and other stories), there’s a nice exchange in The Breakfast Club which may touch on the truth of this:

THE PRINCESS
Your friends […] look up to us.
THE GEEK (LAUGHING)
You’re so conceited, Claire. You’re so conceited.

… I never actually heard the ‘school dynamic’ verbalised like this, but I hope I would have responded in this fashion, as my circle of friend didn’t look up to the ‘popular kids’. We were too busy worrying that playing Daley Thompson’s Decathlon on our ZX Spectrum computers would, as legend had it, kill the keyboard before its natural expiry date.

Anyway, when I saw the two chaps on the train at the weekend, I looked at them with a mixture of recognition and almost-pity; I say ‘almost’ because I was genuinely happy with my life in my teen years, even if the things that made me happy were incomprehensible – or risible – to other people: I was more concerned about whether I’d get my D&D character to Level 5 than whether I’d get to home base (no, not the shop) with a girl (and one of those events certainly seemed much more probable than the other during that era of my life). So I can’t honestly look back on that period, and the way I led my life, in such a way that I pity those who seem to be treading the same path.

Yes, I could have shouted to the chaps on the train, “for the love of God, shave off the wispy beards and get some contact lenses and spend more money on cool clothes than 20-sided dice, and maybe you’ll get to touch a boob this year”, but they seemed pleasant and happy enough, and besides it’s possible that they were both total hits with the ladies (or gents, I don’t want to presuppose too much), and that I’m just projecting.

But after I’d thought about this sort of thing a bit, and both wallowed in nostalgia and cringed at the recollection of the clothes and large aviator-style glasses I wore, it occurred to me that there are often articles in papers and magazines nowadays with headings such as ‘The Geeks Inherit The Earth’, talking about how the rise of the internet, and the information age, has meant that many of my pasty cohorts have become very successful in their chosen fields, with the financial rewards attached to that. The heads of IT firms, founders of websites, creators of best-selling computer games and apps, and even the directors of films, are shown to have had classically nerdy formative years – and whilst some of them have made their way in the world by appealing to nerds alone, many of them work in fields with wider audiences.

It’s intellectually amusing to see large crowds of people getting excited about seeing films like Watchmen and Avengers Assemble, when I was reading the source comics twenty-odd years ago, and whilst there’s a slight frisson of ‘Hah! I was right all along!’, I can’t get too triumphant about it – possibly because having that kind of teenagehood doesn’t necessarily prepare you for being the victor, and maybe because of that sense of loving something niche that gets a little soured when it breaks through to a larger market (which of us hasn’t either been or known someone who talks up a band, but the minute they get big, starts talking about them ‘selling out’?). More than anything else, though, I think it’s because the stuff I was into back then, like the stuff I’m into now, was a genuine interest, and wasn’t on my list of ‘Likes’ to impress other people: it was stuff I was actually into.

Which, it strikes me, is probably why there are fewer bold claims of triumph from the swots and nerds and squares; whilst the people who were concerned about looking cool as teenagers are keen to claim they were right all along, when offered the chance to write a book, Bill Gates writes about future technology and the like. Whilst the ‘popular kids’ at school spent a lot of time (and, I’ll wager, their parents’ money) on their outfits for the ‘5th year social’ (aka what would now probably be called a Prom), I was reading and re-reading Batman Year One, and not bothering about what anyone might think about this.

I think that’s why the articles you see about the Rise Of The Nerds will tend to be written in the third person plural – that is, not written by the geeks in question; because they’re still out there, doing their thing – coding, writing, rolling dice or whatever. But the chances are it’s indoors.

They say the best revenge is living well, but I suspect many of those who were made to feel somehow ‘geeky’ will be living well albeit unseen by those who may have ostracised them in the past. Except for those of us who decide to post about it on the internet, of course.

Canon And Balls

A few years ago, when on holiday in Morocco, I had a stomach upset.

Well, no, that’s putting it mildly; on my return to Blighty, it was diagnosed as amoebic dysentery and an infection of the intestine, but what’s relevant to this tale (which started charmingly, I think you’ll agree) is the fact that it utterly scuppered my holiday and made me have to stay in my hotel room much of the time, visiting the bathroom literally dozens of times per day, and being unable to eat for a couple of days. Over the course of the ten days or so it lasted, I lost a stone and a half (but no, I would not recommend it as an approach to weight loss).

After a week or so of this, I’ll cheerfully admit that my mental state was pretty strange; I was dehydrated and lacking in intellectual stimulation (you can only stare at the ceiling for so long before it starts getting boring – for me, about three days is my limit), and the vast majority of my interactions with other people (mainly hotel staff) were being conducted in French, leading to a slightly odd state where my mind was simultaneously translating my thoughts even as I was thinking them. In short, I was not a well chap.

They say that if you don’t use it, you lose it, so I decided to stop the mental rot, and do a bit of writing. I started well, coming up with a pretty decent ‘Elseworlds’ Batman story (that is, a story based in a slightly different version of the Batman set-up), but that was about it for writing, until the wooziness and general illness passed again and I decided to make a deal with the universe.

Yes, you read that correctly. Don’t ask me to explain it, just chalk it up to me being profoundly unwell.

So, I made a deal with the universe, which went pretty much like this: if the universe let me live, and get well again, I’d finally get round to reading the key books by all the ‘big and important’ authors. The ones I’d always pretended to have read, but really I was just bluffing based upon having seen them referred to in other places, or having read the back covers or other synopses. Don’t look at me like that, you’ve done the same sort of thing, whether it was about books, films, music, art or whatever. You don’t fool me.

Anyway, I compiled a list of authors, and then against each name, put the most important or famous book they’d written (if you’ve never made such a list, I recommend it as an intellectual exercise – it’ll make you realise just how daunting it is trying to read all the books that are supposed to be classic or important or both). And I made a solemn vow that if I got well again, I’d keep up my end of the bargain.

As you can tell by the fact I’m telling this story in the present day, I didn’t get better – I died alone and unmourned in a Morocco hotel room, and my body was shoved into the wardrobe of the room, the better to frighten the next inhabitant of the room. Or, rather: I got better, and returned to Blighty, and there, once I was strang enough to leave the house, and the urge to sleep non-stop, along with the infection, fled my body, I set about buying the books on the list. And then, more importantly, reading them.

I’m not going to name the authors or books involved (well, with one or two minor exceptions; see later), but a lot of the authors were male, a lot of them were reviewed as groundbreaking and important, and a lot of their books were either boring or self-indulgent or pointless or all of the above. Several of the books featured self-absorbed male characters (I won’t call them protagonists, for reasons Robert McKee acolytes would understand), wandering from one joyless and cold sexual encounter to another, full of loathing for, and a baseless sense of superiority to, the world around them.

It was hard work reading these books, and whilst with some of them I struggled all the way to the end, it was after about ten such tomes that I developed my reading rule, which I live by to this day, and which I think is worth your considering as well, so I’ll put it in bold here and now: If I’m not enjoying a book, I will stop reading it after 100 pages, or one-third of the book’s overall length, whichever is the shorter. Obviously, we all define ‘not enjoying a book’ in differing ways, but I think there are common ways in which the lack of enjoyment manifests: not remembering the character’s names, not remembering story details, not caring what’s happened or what might happen to the characters, staring into space instead of reading, having to read pages over and over again, looking at the page numbers and figuring out how much further you’ve got to go… that sort of thing.

I know a lot of people feel that once they’ve started a book, they have to finish it, and some are even thoughtful enough to say that the author probably worked hard on it, so they feel obliged to do do. I don’t feel this way – I think there’s an implied agreement that the author will try to hold your interest, and if they fail to do that, you can leave – and anyway, there are so many good books in the world that I’ll probably never get round to reading that I really can’t afford to spend time on ones I consider to be … let’s say ‘not good’.

Interestingly, the male authors tended to be the ones who interested me least, and after feeling things were improving a bit with The Bell Jar, I found that next on my list was To Kill A Mockingbird. And what a relief it was to read: likeable characters, a moral centre to it, a mystery element, courtroom drama, issues of race and prejudice, and an ending which came as a bit of a surprise, despite it being referred to early on (if you’ve read it, you’ll know what – or rather who – I’m referring to). A brilliant book. That’s how you do it.

For me, working my way through the list of ‘great books’ was a bit of a chore, and because of that, a revelation. I remember being told at college* that the ‘canon’ of good books was heavily influenced by F.R.Leavis (who we all know best from his appearance in the Bridget Jones film), and whether or not this is strictly accurate, I certainly learned that it doesn’t always do to take other people’s words for it about books.

Bearing in mind that I haven’t posted in a while, only to return with what appears to be textual diarrhoea (perhaps appropriately, given the opening paragraphs), I’d like to try and find some message or conclusion to all this, maybe even a lesson or two, so here we go – what I learned:

– If you’re unsure about your stomach’s resilience, don’t have salad in Morocco
– Read books because you want to, not because someone else insists you must (unless you’re a student)
– Some classic books may be respected because of the step they made at the time, not how they read now
– The library is your friend (as is Project Gutenberg if you’re techno-hip and modern), especially for relation to books you may only read once (if that)
To Kill A Mockingbird is a fine book, and if you haven’t read it, I heartily recommend it.

I hope this has been helpful.

*I was, on the other hand, told this by someone who believed that books were the one and only valid art form (forget about painting, photography, film, or music), so I should perhaps have taken the remark with a kilo or two of sodium chloride. BlogBooster-The most productive way for mobile blogging. BlogBooster is a multi-service blog editor for iPhone, Android, WebOs and your desktop

Canon And Balls

A few years ago, when on holiday in Morocco, I had a stomach upset.

Well, no, that’s putting it mildly; on my return to Blighty, it was diagnosed as amoebic dysentery and an infection of the intestine, but what’s relevant to this tale (which started charmingly, I think you’ll agree) is the fact that it utterly scuppered my holiday and made me have to stay in my hotel room much of the time, visiting the bathroom literally dozens of times per day, and being unable to eat for a couple of days. Over the course of the ten days or so it lasted, I lost a stone and a half (but no, I would not recommend it as an approach to weight loss).

After a week or so of this, I’ll cheerfully admit that my mental state was pretty strange; I was dehydrated and lacking in intellectual stimulation (you can only stare at the ceiling for so long before it starts getting boring – for me, about three days is my limit), and the vast majority of my interactions with other people (mainly hotel staff) were being conducted in French, leading to a slightly odd state where my mind was simultaneously translating my thoughts even as I was thinking them. In short, I was not a well chap.

They say that if you don’t use it, you lose it, so I decided to stop the mental rot, and do a bit of writing. I started well, coming up with a pretty decent ‘Elseworlds’ Batman story (that is, a story based in a slightly different version of the Batman set-up), but that was about it for writing, until the wooziness and general illness passed again and I decided to make a deal with the universe.

Yes, you read that correctly. Don’t ask me to explain it, just chalk it up to me being profoundly unwell.

So, I made a deal with the universe, which went pretty much like this: if the universe let me live, and get well again, I’d finally get round to reading the key books by all the ‘big and important’ authors. The ones I’d always pretended to have read, but really I was just bluffing based upon having seen them referred to in other places, or having read the back covers or other synopses. Don’t look at me like that, you’ve done the same sort of thing, whether it was about books, films, music, art or whatever. You don’t fool me.

Anyway, I compiled a list of authors, and then against each name, put the most important or famous book they’d written (if you’ve never made such a list, I recommend it as an intellectual exercise – it’ll make you realise just how daunting it is trying to read all the books that are supposed to be classic or important or both). And I made a solemn vow that if I got well again, I’d keep up my end of the bargain.

As you can tell by the fact I’m telling this story in the present day, I didn’t get better – I died alone and unmourned in a Morocco hotel room, and my body was shoved into the wardrobe of the room, the better to frighten the next inhabitant of the room. Or, rather: I got better, and returned to Blighty, and there, once I was strang enough to leave the house, and the urge to sleep non-stop, along with the infection, fled my body, I set about buying the books on the list. And then, more importantly, reading them.

I’m not going to name the authors or books involved (well, with one or two minor exceptions; see later), but a lot of the authors were male, a lot of them were reviewed as groundbreaking and important, and a lot of their books were either boring or self-indulgent or pointless or all of the above. Several of the books featured self-absorbed male characters (I won’t call them protagonists, for reasons Robert McKee acolytes would understand), wandering from one joyless and cold sexual encounter to another, full of loathing for, and a baseless sense of superiority to, the world around them.

It was hard work reading these books, and whilst with some of them I struggled all the way to the end, it was after about ten such tomes that I developed my reading rule, which I live by to this day, and which I think is worth your considering as well, so I’ll put it in bold here and now: If I’m not enjoying a book, I will stop reading it after 100 pages, or one-third of the book’s overall length, whichever is the shorter. Obviously, we all define ‘not enjoying a book’ in differing ways, but I think there are common ways in which the lack of enjoyment manifests: not remembering the character’s names, not remembering story details, not caring what’s happened or what might happen to the characters, staring into space instead of reading, having to read pages over and over again, looking at the page numbers and figuring out how much further you’ve got to go… that sort of thing.

I know a lot of people feel that once they’ve started a book, they have to finish it, and some are even thoughtful enough to say that the author probably worked hard on it, so they feel obliged to do do. I don’t feel this way – I think there’s an implied agreement that the author will try to hold your interest, and if they fail to do that, you can leave – and anyway, there are so many good books in the world that I’ll probably never get round to reading that I really can’t afford to spend time on ones I consider to be … let’s say ‘not good’.

Interestingly, the male authors tended to be the ones who interested me least, and after feeling things were improving a bit with The Bell Jar, I found that next on my list was To Kill A Mockingbird. And what a relief it was to read: likeable characters, a moral centre to it, a mystery element, courtroom drama, issues of race and prejudice, and an ending which came as a bit of a surprise, despite it being referred to early on (if you’ve read it, you’ll know what – or rather who – I’m referring to). A brilliant book. That’s how you do it.

For me, working my way through the list of ‘great books’ was a bit of a chore, and because of that, a revelation. I remember being told at college* that the ‘canon’ of good books was heavily influenced by F.R.Leavis (who we all know best from his appearance in the Bridget Jones film), and whether or not this is strictly accurate, I certainly learned that it doesn’t always do to take other people’s words for it about books.

Bearing in mind that I haven’t posted in a while, only to return with what appears to be textual diarrhoea (perhaps appropriately, given the opening paragraphs), I’d like to try and find some message or conclusion to all this, maybe even a lesson or two, so here we go – what I learned:

– If you’re unsure about your stomach’s resilience, don’t have salad in Morocco
– Read books because you want to, not because someone else insists you must (unless you’re a student)
– Some classic books may be respected because of the step they made at the time, not how they read now
– The library is your friend (as is Project Gutenberg if you’re techno-hip and modern), especially for relation to books you may only read once (if that)
To Kill A Mockingbird is a fine book, and if you haven’t read it, I heartily recommend it.

I hope this has been helpful.

*I was, on the other hand, told this by someone who believed that books were the one and only valid art form (forget about painting, photography, film, or music), so I should perhaps have taken the remark with a kilo or two of sodium chloride. BlogBooster-The most productive way for mobile blogging. BlogBooster is a multi-service blog editor for iPhone, Android, WebOs and your desktop

Up Above The Streets And Houses

Despite the usual Bank Holiday weather, this morning Mrs Wife and I went for a brief helicopter flight along the Thames. Here, by way of proof, are pictures from mere hours ago…


The Excel Centre in East London. I think you can see the queues for the next series of The X-Factor at the right of the building (seriously – they’re holding auditions there this weekend).

The Tower of London, with Tower Bridge in the bottom right corner (with the skid of the helicopter)

The mother of Parliaments was the turn-around point for our trip, so it necessitated the mother of all steep turns. No, it wasn’t just me being all artsy with the framing of the shot, this is how it was.

And heading back out towards East London, and Soanes Towers, we see the Dome and Canary Wharf. Not everyone’s cup of tea architecturally, either of them, I know, but to me being this close to them says one thing: I’m almost home.

On which note, I shall get back to enjoying the Bank Holiday Sunshine, which is currently dripping down the windows. Hope you’re enjoying this Now With 50% Free weekend.

I’m Still Alive!

(Which, coincidentally, were the words I texted to friends and family late on Saturday afternoon.)

By way of proving that the claim to be a ‘mountain-climber’ in my profile on the right of this page is true, and also explaining the lack of posting here on’t blog in the last few days, I respectfully offer the following:

That, m’loves, is me at the summit of Ben Nevis on Saturday. So that’s the highest mountain in the UK ticked off my ‘to do’ list.

Not sure what chunk of earth will be next, but the freshness of the air and the scenery has reminded me just how much I enjoy the mountains, so there will be another. Oh yes.

He’s Back… And You Never Even Noticed He Was Gone

Well, the ongoing updates here should have meant that you didn’t even know I was on holiday – that’s a professional level of service, I know – but I have been, and now I’m back.

Where was I, you ask? I’m glad you asked…

That’s right, Mrs Soanes and I went on a rather belated honeymoon to India. I’ll post more pictures, and some simply gripping travellers’ tales, over the next few days.

In the meantime, you may have seen about the longest total solar eclipse of the sun this century which took place this week. We were there, and it was awe-inspiring; our view of it, over the Ganges in Varanasi, was as you can see at about 0’29” in this BBC video:

Because, y’know, nothing says ‘romantic honeymoon’ better than the sun turning black and darkness cloaking the face of the earth.

My Brother And I Once Got A Bit Lost In New York. A Woman Approached Us, Carrying Some Liquid Soap. “She’s Going To Wash Us To Death,” My Brother Said

Consider, if you will, the following; the first two are taken from Twin Peaks, and are spoken by Moriarty-like villain Windom Earle, and the third quote is from Rupert Giles in Buffy The Vampire Slayer:

Earle:
“…A place of almost unimaginable power, chock full of dark forces and vicious secrets. No prayers dare enter this frightful maw for sprits there care not for good deeds or priestly implications. They are likely to rip the flesh from your bones then greet you with a happy “good day”. And of the highest, these spirits in this hidden land of unmuffeled screams and broken hearts offer up a power so vast that its bearer might reorder the Earth, to his liking. Now this place is called the Black Lodge…”
[2×19]

Earle:
“…These evil sorcerers, dugpas, they call them, cultivate evil for the sake of evil and nothing else. They express themselves in darkness for darkness, without leavening motive. This ardent purity has allowed them to access a secret place of great power, where the cultivation of evil proceeds in exponential fashion. And with it, the furtherance of evil’s resulting power. These are not fairy tales, or myths. This place of power is tangible, and as such, can be found, entered, and perhaps, utilized in some fashion. The dugpas have many names for it, but chief among them is the Black Lodge…”
[2×20]

Giles:
“…The Spanish who first settled here called it ‘Boca del Infierno’. Roughly translated, ‘Hellmouth’. It’s a sort of, um, portal between this reality and the next.”
[1×2]

The Lodges in Twin Peaks owe a lot to the thinking of the Theosophists, granted, but I think it’s a fairly common idea that places can become in some way batteries for bad feelings, or centres of negativity.

I guess we’ve all known of places which somehow have a ‘bad vibe’, whether it’s a case of turning a corner in an unfamiliar area and getting a ‘bad feeling’, or the many reports of places that migrating birds avoid and the like. I suspect it’s more prevalent in fiction than reality (though tales of the Amityville House arguably straddle both those camps), but I somehow find the idea that a location can, in itself, be ‘bad’ and bring nothing but trouble for anyone who strays there, very interesting.

And if nothing else, it certainly explains the lives of the residents of Albert Square.

Today’s picture, incidentally, is by Gustave Dore, and is called The Gates Of Hell. Good artist, I think you’d agree.

TRAVEL: The Lonely Death Of The Long Distance Travelling Salesman

This picture, taken last week, shows you the oh-so-luxurious segregated check-in area allocated to members of a famous hotel chain’s loyalty scheme. A lovely rope separates members from the proles, and they get the privilege of standing on a small mat as they check in. To be honest, I’d feel kind of guilty lording it up so much over the lower orders if it was me, but I’ve always been quite sympathetic to the finer feelings of my servants.

Anyway, I had to stay overnight in a hotel last week, for a meeting the next morning. And within a couple of hours of arriving there – despite it being a reputable chain (though one of its heirs seems determined to sully that legacy if possible) – I could understand why Willy Loman and Alan Partridge alike loathed being away from home so much.

The setting and reception were pleasant enough, but when I checked into my room and dumped my bag on the bed and looked around, I felt a sinking feeling; there was a TV, an ironing board and iron, a selection of menus and other bits of information for guests, and (oh yes) a Corby trouser press. I had, I suddenly realised, become that clich√©, the chap who stays away from home overnight for work. I was thankful I’d travelled there by train and taxi, rather than driven there in a car with a suit hanging in the back and ‘Top Gear Driving Anthems 2’ on the stereo, that would have made the picture unsettlingly complete.

Deciding to eschew the bar or restaurant, I instead ordered some room service food, and settled down to see what was on the TV, by way of a mental sorbet. The standard terrestrial channels were there, along with a number of on-screen adverts for the fact I could pay ¬£8.50 to watch Beowulf in glorious normal-sized-TV-o-vision. I decided that I’d rather either see it at the cinema for that cost, or even buy a copy of it for slightly more, and instead opted to watch a Batman cartoon which was on (for reasons which elude me, they had the Cartoon Network in addition to the usual channels).

The food, for the record, was fine, and a bit later on I chatted to my beloved on the phone, which made things feel a bit less grim, but there was something strange about the overnight experience; I was reminded of the narrator in Fight Club talking about his apartment building being a filing cabinet, and the food on planes being single-serving. The hotel felt the same – the room was functional but not luxurious or welcoming, and the miniature toiletries were like a plastic soap-filled summation of the transient nature of it all.

I slept all right, but when I went to breakfast the next morning, there were a couple of chaps in shirts and ties sitting at a table already, eating breakfast and talking about their sales targets. Just overhearing them, I swear I could actually feel my soul shrivelling like a slug in a saltstorm.

I took my tray, and its single-serving breakfast, and sat in the furthest possible corner of the restaurant.

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