Sunday, 6 July 2014

Train of thought

Denis looked out of the window… and burped. Not loudly. Just enough of an expulsion of air and sound to feel satisfied. After all, what’s the use of being comfortable if you can’t be comfortable? And despite being on a train, comfortable he was. Extra wide seats, with plush velvet upholstered foot and head rests. There was an unexpected meal and drinks service, along with free WiFi and very polite staff.

Outside, the Belgian countryside whistled past at high speed in glorious sunshine, whist inside his head - by way of his iPod! - the Stereo MCs were playing one of his favourite tunes, "Ground level”.

They was on-board the Eurostar service to Amsterdam, or more precisely, they were on the second leg of the journey which was actually a Thalys TGV service to from Bruxxelles- midi to Amsterdam Centraal. With Gavin riding shotgun, he headed for a weekend in Amsterdam.

Thus far the journey had been a pleasant surprise. Through the magic of appropriate timing, He'd had been able to book ‘standard premium’ tickets for the same price as regular ones. He hadn’t expected much of a difference  - a power access point and reclining chair at best - only to find themselves sitting in what would be first class on an English train.

“English trains”, he muttered to himself out loud, with a sigh. As he did so the sun briefly disappeared behind a cloud as if the mere words could invoke doom & gloom. The service concierge who was walking through at that moment - giving out belgian chocolate coated nougat treats - looked at him quizzically

“Is Monsieur ok?”, he asked, offering the tray of sweets.

“Yes! very much so,” Denis-Jose replied, taking an offered sweet and surreptitiously palming a second as his hand moved away. “Sorry, I was just thinking out loud. I’m very, very OK!” The concierge gave him a relieved look. Almost as if he’d have had to raise an alarm if it were anything other than that.

“Enjoy the rest of your journey with us sir” he said, and continued along the aisle.

"Oh I will", he said to himself, popping the pilfered candy into his mouth "I moft thertainly mm, mmm, will..."

* * *

Living in the UK, it’s easy to forget - or even never experience - the magic and romance of train travel. I don’t mean this in a nerdy, train-spotter like way. I just mean in a comfortable, elegant, civilised way. Train travel in the UK is so expensive and poor quality, that most people see commuting and long distance travel as a chore at best and as a punishment at worst. We would fly everywhere if we could.

However, if you cross the channel onto the European mainland, it becomes a very different experience. First of all, it’s much cheaper. For example a typical 1.5 hour / 100km journey in the Netherlands, Belgium or Germany will cost you around 18 Euros. That's £15 for the standard fare, no discounts or weekend away day specials or anything. You can get em cheaper if you try. That same journey in the UK can cost as much as 3 times that amount. And you wouldn’t necessary even get a seat.

Secondly the trains are, for the most part, really clean and well maintained. You can sit down without worrying too much about what you are sitting on or in. You can use the toilet relatively safely.

Thirdly - and this is the one that’s hard to frame if you’ve never experienced it - they are punctual. I mean, really punctual. If a timetable says 13:52, you better be on that train at 13:51 or you are waiting for the next one.

Add to that frequent services going pretty much everywhere, crossing boarders without passport checks or needing to change currency and it changes the prospect of travelling around quite dramatically. It’s not just OK, it’s great!

I first started doing regular European train excursions when I was in my early 20s. In 1991, me and the chaps went on an epic journey to see Roger Waters perform The Wall at the Berlin Wall. Back then it was still a split Germany, so we had to navigate our way through East-Germany, changing trains as we went and on our way back we decided to spend a couple of days in Amsterdam. I think all of us on that trip were surprised at how easy it was (not to mention cheap, relatively speaking) and that sparked a series of frequent trips to various far away places - all by train. for me, this culminated in a grand adventure around Europe with an inter-rail card (along with Pete, Lisa and a few other randoms) in 1992. I wrote about that in a pre-blog world. I might post it one day…

I never really came back from that trip. I ended up living in Europe for a total of nearly 13 years , only returning to the UK for the occasional holiday and one ill fated business venture. It was 2005 when I finally returned back to the UK to live full time. In truth, it was nice to be home again, but what a rude awakening that turned out to be! Not just with mundane things like passenger trains but, well, everything.

I love the UK. I was born there, grew up there and still plan to spend a good portion of my twilight years there (at least until I can afford a nice place somewhere warmer). But it saddens me that most of my fellow Brits don’t really understand how much better life could be if we did some things the European way. The idea that the standard of living is better on the continent isn’t just preposterous to most… well it’s unthinkable. I don’t think the thought that our European cousins might be getting a better deal socially is even considered. Britain is stuck in the notion that getting involved with Europe or being European means losing sovereignty, identity and everything that's British.

But you only have to do on a train journey like this one to see that this is so much nonsense. We’ve been through 3 countries already - France, Belgium and The Netherlands - and each one is distinctly and discretely different from the others. There is no mistaking the different national identities.

Perhaps because they don’t have to waste time worrying about certain social aspects of life, such as healthcare, transportation, public sanitation and education, they can get on with the business of being themselves. Britain should give this a try. Worry less about being british and care more about the welfare of individuals. This European approach will probably lead us to a better Britain and give us the resource and freedom to be great again.

I’m sure there are lots of people who will disagree with me on this and point out all the problems that the European countries have right now, especially where their economies are concerned. But before you write me off completely, go on a holiday which takes you across several countries in Eurpoe in one go. By train bike, car. but not by plane. You need to see things from ground level. As the stereo MC’s said:

 “it just depends how close to ground level you are, so get on a train of thought.”

Friday, 13 June 2014


Time. It waits for no man. And it certainly doesn't wait for me.

As I look back at my run of 30 day challenges and especially the one I'm currently on, it is apparent that the biggest challenge in my life - by far is time. Lack of it, management of it, just plain not having any of it.

In the first challenge, on the occasions that I didn't go to the gym (or do the equivalent work out), it was because I didn't have time. When I struggled to buy Gavin gifts in the second challenge, it was because I didn't have time to go shopping (although I still managed to give him a nice gift, MERF!) On the days when I failed the writing challenge it was  because I didn't have time to spend sitting at a PC or even with a pad - despite having a topic I wanted to write about. I even said at the end of that particular challenge that I'd continue... and I haven't, because of.. you guessed it... lack of time.

And now, the current attempt to meditate everyday has been (so far) an absolute failure. The combination of not being able to find somewhere quiet when I have the time to do it and, mostly, not having the time to do it, means I've utterly, utterly bombed out on this one. It's day 13 and I've only succeeded on 5 days. That's abysmal.

So why is this? When did my life become an overloaded, never-ending sequence of things to do and places to be?

I want to blame the internet. Hey, it's a great thing to blame! Distracting me all the time, increasing the number of TV shows I can watch exponentially. Hell, let's blame the internet for everything that's wrong with the world!

But no. It's not that. It is true that it takes up time, but, when I was doing the 'no recreational internet challenge', I still managed to fill my day to the brim. And, more pertinently, when I lived in Japan I had internet access on tap, all day, everywhere, Yet I never struggled with my daily routine the way I did before or after that. So it's definitely not the internet, but there maybe a clue right there. Hmm. Japan...

Japanese culture is different from our own in so many ways. Obvious ones and not so obvious. And the not so obvious one where I think I'll find my answer. It's to do with idea of multi-tasking.

At some point in the last decade, someone, somewhere, came up with the idea that multi-tasking is the way forward. I think it started off with the meme that women are much better at multi-tasking than men. Or at least, this common thread (certainly on Facebook) appeared around the same time. Which is probably true, by the way. 

It has since become the mantra of today's modern, mobile device enabled, flexitime, protein drink boosted, do, do, do, urban society. To get anything done these days, You have to multi-task. You have to do many things at once, because if you aren't multi-tasking, you aren't making the best use of your time.

I call bullshit on that. Multi-tasking is bunk. It's something that computers can do. That machines can do well. But It's not something that we - human beings - do well.

Yes, we can do several things at once, but most of those are unconscious actions. Walking, talking, avoiding objects, while taking a drag on a cigarette and scratching an itch - can all be done at the same time, but only one of those activities - talking - requires concious effort and not that much. 

What I see around me are people doing many things poorly. I see people (myself included) only partially engaged with their jobs, each other and their location. I see a general acceptance of lack of craft. We accept poor quality in lieu of efficiency and convenience. Which brings me back to Japan.

I only lived in Japan for a year and a half, so I'm not going to claim to be an expert. For one thing, I don't speak Japanese and for another, the company I worked for held my hand the whole way and made life really easy (in a right-wing Christian sort of way, but that's another story). But I was there long enough to see some fundamental differences between cultures. And one of those is where and how you focus. Craftsmanship.

I'm going to generalise now. The Japanese don't cut corners. They do things properly. By which I mean, if there is an accepted, right way of doing something - say, building something, crafting something, growing something - they will do that way. No need to find another, quicker way to do it, if the accepted way gets the best results. That doesn't mean you can't improve the technique, but doing something quicker is not necessarily an improvement.

So why would you multi task? Why would you reduce focus on what you are doing? Why wouldn't you give something all the attention that it deserves? If it's not worth doing properly, why do it at all?

The end result of this, is a much calmer, lifestyle, rich with skilled artisans, each profoundly good at doing whatever their thing is. Masters of their craft.

It also results in a much simpler personal agenda. It's a lot easier to manage your day if you are not juggling several things at once.

So, I need to simplify my daily routine. Juggle less stuff.

Mono-tasking. It's the way forward.

and remember: Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Inner Peace

It's time for a change. It's time for something new. it's time... for a new challenge!

The last couple of days I've been hanging about on street corners, asking people for ideas. On sunday I stood on a crate at speakers corners and challenged people to challenge me. I shouted from the highest mountain. I... I... I...

I did none of those things. I did the next best thing. I asked Facebook.

Lots of ideas came flooding in. Most of them quite doable. All of them interesting in their own way. I might list them all in another blog. Right now, however, whilst I need only one, I'm going to make a challenge out of two of them.

First of all, from the other side of the world, Suzanne MacNish suggested...
"I also noted a theme in your blog about some of these challenges making you feel better- so from a sleep deprived mother I have the sleep challenge for you (oh how a good nights sleep would make me feel better!). It may be too tough for a London summer so may be best to hold off to later in the year. But the challenge is to set yourself a reasonably early time that you need to be in bed by every night (eg 10pm). You don't necessarily have to be asleep- you can read a book or get up to other bed activities- but no TV or ipads. This includes Friday and Saturday nights- where the challenge gets tough!"
Then, from much closer to home, Martin Barry suggested...
"Meditate for 30 minutes each day.Or just find 30 minutes where you just sit down and shut yourself off from the world and try and empty your mind."
I like them both, so I'm going to combine them into one. The challenge will be to spend 30 minutes each day meditating or sitting peacefully, clearing my mind, switching off from the world. BUT, if I have failed to do that by 10.00pm, then it's off to bed with me!

I recently had a preliminary diagnosis of potential Hypertension. AKA Extremely High Blood Pressure. How high? Well, on successive readings, it tends to be 150 /110 on average. High enough that my Hernia operation was cancelled until it got below 140/100... but since the op it's gone back up again.

Now, this is related to a number of things, but one of them is lack of sleep and another is stress at work, so this combo challenge is an opportunity to positively affect my health in an area that really needs it.

I started yesterday. I managed to lie down in a quiet environment for 30 minutes in the middle of the day, thinking of nothing. I played some really mellow ambient music in the background and I think... I'm not actually sure... that I drifted off into a weird semi dream like state. Afterwards, I felt strangely serene and a bit floaty. Not the same as if I'd just had an afternoon nap. different some how. Perhaps as the challenge goes on I'll have better words to describe it.

Today I wasn't so successful. I went to a small park at lunch time with the intention of sitting peacefully in the sun, but ended up on the phone to my sister for the entire time. Later, at when I got home, I tried to lie down quietly but failed again: there were just too many distractions. Everything from fighting cats in the back garden, to an ice-cream van out front. So it's off to bed early with me, as soon as I finish typing this.

I can see this isn't going to be a walk in the park...

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Day 31: Baby it ain't over till it's over

Wow, that was quick. Well it was actually 31 days, but it seems to have rocketed by. So how did I do?

Hmm... 23 out of 30 by the looks of things. Can I call that successful? I'm not sure. What do you think dear reader? The fact that I wrote 23 blog pieces in a month is pretty good going, even if I didn't hit my target of 30. The point of a 30-day challenge is to experience something new, either by giving something up or taking on a new thing, so from that point of view I was successful: I now know what it's like to have to write everyday for an audience, on top of my regular routine.

This was definitely the hardest challenge so far. Not because I had trouble finding stuff to write about, but because of the time involved. Writing is not something I can just hammer out in 10 minutes. OK, I probably could, but it wouldn't be very good. It would be like this piece. Just a stream of thoughts and words.

My approach - with only one exception - was always to think about what I'm writing first, then write it, then read it through, and then, very often re-write entire sections. The thinking part of that often takes the whole day and I probably change my mind about the subject several times. The writing part can take up to an hour, including edits and publishing on-line.

I'll probably change this when I read it though. There I just did!

I read somewhere once that there is no such thing as spare time. All our time is ours to command. We know exactly how many hours there are in a day, so there is no extra. Nothing is spare. If you chose to do something, then it's knowingly at the cost of another thing. It's unlikely that anyone suddenly stumbles across a few extra hours they didn't know they had and certainly not on a regular basis. The only real spare time is either accidentally mis-allocated time (I didn't think I'd finish the mowing the lawn so quickly) or just a bit of luck (what were the chances of there being no traffic in the west end this afternoon! I got home 20 minutes early!) And if you are the happy beneficiary of one of these unlikely scenarios, seldom does it allow for much more than a hastily grabbed extra phone call or a few extra minutes of rest.

So this challenge was hard because I always had to move things aside for it. Now I've learned how tough that is in my current life schedule.

Saying that, however, I'm a bit disappointed that I didn't make all 30, even if I have mitigating circumstances. The missing 7 days were all pieces I either really wanted to write or promised I would write, so...  I'm going to do them anyway and over lap this challenge into the next one!

Baby It ain't over till it's over. Watch this space.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Day 28: Chinese Night

My friend Pete is an exhibitionist. Not the kind that takes off his clothes in front of an audience (although he may do that in his spare time, I don't know him that well!), but the kind that likes to take on seemingly impossible feats, just for fun and then surprise everyone by going one step further.

His speciality is dinner parties. Simply put, he will choose a country or theme - Indian, Mexican or Thai for example - and then declare that there will be a feast at his home for the first thirty people who claim an invite. Yes, thirty!

I'm sure when he started, it was about 10 people and the numbers have increased slowly over time. And, rather than the portions and amounts of food getting smaller, they've grown in size too, roughly in proportion with the number of guests. At most dinner parties you’ll get maybe three or four dishes if your host is handy in the kitchen. At Pete’s, it’s always in the double digits.

Of course he doesn't do this completely alone. He invites people to help him and if you are near the kitchen while the action is going on, you’ll be tasked with something. That's right, in addition to everything else, he does it live. with hardly any prep or pre made items. Pretty much all the dishes are made just before chow time, while there are guests milling around and the drinks are already flowing. Did I say impressive? Impressive!

If you're wondering what I did to help, I’ll tell you. I bought some of the trickier to find ingredients in China Town, just before the meal, and stirred a wok full of noodles for about 5 minutes. Utterly invaluable, he couldn't have done it without me. Yeah, right.

Thursday night was...

Chinese Night!


Steamed Prawn and Pork Wontons
Canton Style Spare Ribs
Crispy Duck Pancakes
Sticky Sesame and Soy Chicken Skewers
Spiced Mushroom Soup Shots

Kung Po Chicken
Beef in Black Bean Sauce
Dong Po Pork
Spicy Szechuan Prawns
Shanghai Noodles
Steamed Rice

Needless to say it was all good and he got the portions perfectly right.

But the most remarkable thing about Pete is (and I mean this honestly) is his enthusiasm. The next morning, just after 8.00am, after no doubt spending hours cleaning up the house (and garden), but before going to his regular day job, he sent out an email, inviting loads of people to another feast in a few weeks time.

I'm starting to wonder if we need to stage an intervention…

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Day 27: at the pictures

I'm sitting in the cinema writing this. Don't worry, the film hasn't started yet, so I’m not offending anyone or breaking any rules. In fact, the lights haven't even dimmed - they are still playing slides.

Still playing slides! Funny that they still do that in 2014, albeit via power-point or something similar. But then, why not - the basis for the whole experience is about 100 years old. Some things have changed… some things have not. No, I’m not old enough to remember that far back!

It's a good day to 'go to the pictures'. Gloomy, raining, midweek, early evening. Stopped for a bite to eat on the way (Pie & Mash), rocked up to the theatre without booking first, wrestled with the decision of buying popcorn and/or pick & mix (chose neither)... this is all pretty old school.

We are at the Vue Westfield Stratford city. Screen 5 to be precise. I like it here. It's far from home, yet still less than an hours journey. It think this might be the most recently built cinema complex in London. Which translates to a very good quality screen, projection and environment. And, due to Stratford city being a little bit chavy, slightly cheaper than it’s counterpart across town in Shepherds Bush.

I’m tired of 3D, so we've elected to go 2D, also known as ‘normal’. I never walk away from 3D feeling I enjoyed the film more for it. Just that I have a slight headache and pay about £3 more for the privilege. Instead we went for a VIP seat at the Extreme screen. Combined with the digital projectors they have here, it’s a good looking picture. And fairly big too.

Sound just came on. It's pretty good... and loud.

Lights are dimming. A shame there are no curtains to open. Where’s the showmanship? I doubt anyone cares any more...

Here come the trailers! Time to put this away...

Next: Days of Future Past

Monday, 26 May 2014

Day 26: time travelling and alternate universes

Today, whilst I travel through London's relatively empty streets, on this sombre, damp, public holiday, I find myself thinking somewhat speculatively about could-haves, what-ifs, buts and maybes. The world that is, the world that isn't and the world that probably never will be. The decisions I've made that led me here and the opportunities that have past me by. This train of thought, which is in no way, connected to my hangover, eventually arrives at the subject of time travel.

What would you do, if you could time travel? I mean, seriously? Aside from my own wandering thoughts, driven on this and other occasions by regret, I've asked many people this question as part of an audio podcast I was working on a few years ago. The question I would pose, is actually multi-part:
  1. Would you go forwards or backwards in time?
  2. Where and how far?
  3.  What would you do when you got there?
  4. What would you take with you?
  5. What would you bring back?
  6. If you met a future or past version of yourself and gave him/her advice, what would it be and would they listen?
Unsurprisingly, the most common general answer is 'I'd travel back to last week with this weeks winning lottery numbers'. Aside from being extremely unimaginative, we've seen and read enough works of time travel fiction to see where the perils in this particular course of action may lie. From the classic movie Back to the Future to the more recent and darker sci-fi cult fave Primer and all the tales in between - time travel as a get rich quick scheme idea seldom turns out well, for anyone.

So lets put the lottery numbers (or horse race results or stock exchange history) aside. What would you do? While you think about that, let me tell you what I would do (other than going back to last Friday evening, surprising myself whilst I'm on my way to the bar at The Plough and giving myself a crisp slap round the face and a lecture on common sense).

Assuming I have multiple trips available I'd probably visit my younger self with some advice, ranging from simple, but cryptic things like 'don't step on the first cockroach' or 'don't visit a barber who has never cut afro hair and has chosen to name his salon the joke shop', to the more straight forward 'Don't let them talk you into taking that business loan' and 'It does matter if you don't spend Christmas together'.

Would I listen? Actually, I think I would. My younger self would probably reason that if older me is smart enough to figure out time travel, then I/he must know what I/he is talking about and wouldn't have made the effort without good reason. That, and, What the hell happened to my hair and waistline?

And then I'd go forward in time, far enough that I'd be dead. I don't want to know how things end for me. I want to know what happens after that, in general. What I'm going to miss. Are we heading in the right direction as a society? Is everything going to be OK? Or do I need to take action now?

Whilst time travel might not be a reality (at least not now), I do believe in the concept of parallel universes. Every time we decide on a course of action (or not) we don't just alter our path, we create a fracture, an alternate universe where we made the other decision. I think if time travel were possible, to go forward would be to visit the future of your current set of choices - the ones you are currently on a path to make - and because they haven't happened yet, you can effectively change them, with a little bit of fore-knowledge. I don't think this would break or damage anything that hasn't happened yet (unlike going back in time and trying to change the past).

Which brings me back to today. I wonder if there are other realities where I haven't got a hangover. Or do I have a hangover in all of them? Or none of them?

Yes, there may be realities similar to this one where we've all made different choices and regret different big things, but chances are the little regrets are still the same. The things that lead to those aren't strictly choices. They are just our nature and I don't believe we can change the fundamentals of who we are.