Memento Mori

Commuting days until retirement: 477

After my stay in what is officially an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, here’s some beauty of a less conventional kind. I glimpsed it out of the train window, and it stayed in my thoughts, and maybe dreams, for a few days afterwards. Since it’s right by a station I was able to return and photograph it.

broken shed
At this point I wondered whether I should simply leave it there for you to enjoy (or not), but since writing is what this blog is really about, I’m going to go ahead and write about it.

What this perfectly exemplifies for me is all those abandoned and forgotten enclaves of wilderness that are constantly close to us, especially in an urban environment. Many of them seem to be created by the presence of railway lines, which carve out little squares and triangles of unusable, inaccessible land which grow weeds and irresistibly attract plastic bottles, tin cans and all the detritus of the surrounding activity. Activity that’s hard to escape from if you need to earn a living, serving a multiplicity of ephemeral but urgent needs. (I’m sounding like an Church of England sermon.)  I wanted to say that forgotten outposts like this pictured one, by contrast, lie outside the frantic zone, and just are. This example is just by the main line where hundreds of thousands of commuters pass daily with their laptops, iPads, dry cleaned suits and power hair styles. Some of them, like me, must give it their attention as they stare out of the window.

I like the way that it immediately changes the perspective that my mind is locked into much of the time. The effect is like one of those stark portraits of an elderly person on the fringes of life, usually from a third world setting, that you often see in the work of a professional photographer. You are struck by the deep wrinkles, the inscrutable expression and the steady gaze. Here it’s the thoroughly wrecked appearance, as well as the utter unregarded dereliction, that invokes some obscure emotional response. Dirt and decay. How did it come to suffer not only broken windows and a holed roof, but also a total structural dislocation, as if picked up and thrown down by a giant hand? It seems to mock the vertical regularity of the flats visible behind it.

It has itself been regular, designed artefact, originally formed out of the surrounding chaos only to be irresistibly drawn back into it – and I think that’s the morbid attraction of a sight like this. For the purposeful, dressed and coiffured commuters who pass by daily it’s a reminder of the disorder and death on the fringes of their assiduously chased aspirations. I’m reminded of the famously death-averse (and dead) poet Philip Larkin, and his poem titled with a jaunty irony Next Please. He characterises our hopes and ambitions:

Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.

But concludes

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence.

Too much to read into a picture of an old shed? If I have made anyone unnecessarily gloomy I apologise. Perhaps blogs should carry warnings, like films or TV programmes: This post contains thoughts that some readers may find depressing. But I like a good wallow.

It’s commuting, but not as we know it

Commuting days until retirement: 487

No commuting this week: we are spending our Easter holiday, as we have for several years now, on Scilly, a group of islands 30 miles off the coast of south west England. And this break in the usual rhythm of my life is a chance to – among other things – think about the differing rhythms of some other lives. I believe the island where we are staying, Bryher, is the smallest inhabited one of the group – it has a permanent population of about 80, added to seasonally by people like us.

Imagine an island about two miles long, with the mildest climate in the British Isles. Its south-eastern end, sheltered, with palm trees and colourful flowers, has an almost tropical feel (Green Bay), while its north-eastern extremity consists of moorland covered in heather and ending in cliffs facing out into the Atlantic storms (Hell Bay). To live here is to be permanently surrounded by exceptionally beautiful, almost deserted, scenery. In order to enjoy this you’d have to accept being cut off from the mainland – in the sense that it requires an expensive boat or plane trip to get there. You have phone, TV/radio and the internet, of course (eagerly adopted by these islands when it arrived), but work here mostly consists of farming or servicing the tourist trade – in other words a lot of tough manual labour.

But there are other blessings: almost no motorised transport, apart from tractors, quad bikes and a few Land Rovers, and a complete absence of crime. Nobody locks their doors, and if you’ve ordered food from the shop it may be delivered while you’re out, neatly put away in your kitchen or fridge. It’s perfect for idle holidaymakers like us: there’s a hotel, two other restaurants, a well-stocked shop and, as of this year we discover, even a pizza takeaway open two evenings a week.

Scilly-commute0Commuting, where it exists, is of course something completely different – maybe by boat, between islands. Young children here commute to school by a short boat trip to the next island, and older ones board weekly at a secondary school on the largest island. But here’s a commute which I rate as the most desirable I have ever come across. There’s an artist who works on the island, and has what seems to be a good living. Paintings in his recognisable style appear in hotels and other settings around the islands as well as the nearby mainland. The island hotel has adopted a detail from one of his paintings as its logo, and he sells prints and merchandise to many of us tourists. In the picture below you can see where he lives and where he works. This is a commute that I could put up with indefinitely.

Scilly-commute2

Gardening Leave

Commuting days until retirement: 499

A cold, windy garden, seen from a warm study

A cold, windy garden seen from a warm study

A day off, supposedly to do some gardening, but the sub-zero wind is keeping me indoors. Delicate plants, we office workers.

A chance, at any rate, to reflect on that back and forth journey that the rest of my fellow commuters have resumed for the week. When you look at all those other blank faces on the train, you do wonder about what’s behind them. When they look around at their fellow passengers (carefully, so as not to catch anyone’s eye), what are they thinking about this repetitive enterprise that we are all involved in? Why does it take place – beyond, that is, our individual needs to make a living? Backwards and forwards – reciprocal motion, like the pistons in a car engine. The pistons keep the car moving, irrespective of where it’s going, and of course we commuters, busy driving the engine of society, have no more idea than do the pistons where our vehicle is headed.

No doubt that is unfair to some, who have occupations with a very explicit social purpose. But I’d guess that the majority of us work for private companies, and are driven by the profit motive – a force as amoral as the torque of the car engine, which may be propelling the car towards sunlit uplands of some sort – or over a cliff edge. The difference in our case, of course, is that there’s no driver, no consciously directed intention, no steering wheel.

Or is there? Here we could head into either politics or religion, those two traditionally taboo topics of polite conversation. But it’s religion I’m thinking of. A few posts ago I referred to a Bible-reading passenger sitting right next to me on the train. I see such people regularly, and no doubt they are quite clear about the purpose question. But the rest of us?

Winning the argument

It seems as if the atheists are currently winning the argument. Once rather less focused, nowadays they have some strident and articulate standard-bearers. This has perhaps lent some conviction to the waverers among us. There was a time when religion, for most, was more of a social badge. My father, for instance, would unhesitatingly write “C of E” (Church of England) on any form that asked for religion, but would never be seen in a church, other than for weddings or funerals. And this wasn’t hypocrisy: he was quite up-front about his beliefs, or lack of them. More recently, most people would mutter something vague to the effect of “Well, I think there must be something…” if asked the religion question.

But now, surveys and censuses show that there are a many more who will happily call themselves atheists, or at least agnostics. The New Atheists, as they now tend to be called, have got across the message that we don’t need a purpose imposed on us from above – we can formulate our own. We don’t, furthermore, require a God or a scriptural set of rules in order to tell right from wrong. And our sense of wonder has its needs catered for by the impressive discoveries of science.

So I think, on the face of it, I have pretty good credentials as an atheist. I more or less agree with the above statements; I don’t believe in an old man in the sky, or some more diffuse entity of which he is a personification; and creationism seems to me a ragbag of prejudice, ignorance and wishful thinking, as opposed to the coherent and justified body of theory which evolutionary biology gives us. Large, received bodies of doctrine from organised religion I am unable to swallow. So why is it, that if I see, for a example, a TV debate between an atheist and an apologist of religion, I feel myself instinctively sympathising with the religious point of view? (That’s assuming the religious side doesn’t represent creationism, or some swivel-eyed variety of fundamentalism.)

Stop worrying

Could it be the unbearable smugness which seems to hang like a cloud around the atheist programme? Individually, the most vocal atheists seem to be perfectly decent people, and some – for example Dawkins and Hitchens – are (or were) brilliant writers in their different ways. But somehow the public face of the movement seems to patronise us, with its inverted holier-than-thou expression.

That ghastly bus advertising campaign didn’t help: for those who don’t know it, there was an atheist-sponsored poster campaign on London buses a few years back, with the slogan ‘THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD. SO STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE.’  Of the many reasons why this is objectionable, it’s difficult to pick out the worst. I would go for the fact that many people are worried a lot of the time, and not enjoying their lives, and for whom the existence of god is the last thing on their minds. So to be be dogged by fatuous slogans such as this does not make things any easier for them.

At least the campaign provided us with a bit if fun, when a religious group complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The advertising code of practice lays down that ads must be “Legal, Decent, Honest and Truthful’. Well, we can probably get away with the first three here, so that leaves the issue of truthfulness. Which leaves the hapless ASA with the task of ruling on the probability of the existence of God. I have heard of no outcome to this, so perhaps they are still deliberating. Or maybe they judged the probability of the existence of God to be the same as that of Carlsberg being the best lager in the world.

Stuff and experience

No – for me, what is most importantly wrong with the atheist agenda is what it leaves out, what its vision simply doesn’t encompass. There are many aspects to this, so let’s start with the moral one. Of course, we can agree, our morals don’t come direct from the ten commandments. or any other body of doctrine. They come from the fact that we are sentient, conscious beings, who know what it is to suffer, and understand the importance of not inflicting such suffering on other beings – and of promoting their happiness and wellbeing.

That of course, I know, is a massive oversimplification, culturally, historically and emotionally – but it still has at its heart this question of consciousness, of private experience. No scientific theory yet has come anywhere near providing an account of this which can assimilate it into our account of the physical world. There’s ‘stuff’, and there’s ‘experience’. Science deals with the first; morality has more to do with the second. I’d maintain that the question of how, or whether, we can unify our knowledge of the two lies at present outside science, and will remain so unless science becomes a very different kind of enterprise.

These mysteries are, I would maintain, part of what religion is a response to – they are its stock-in-trade, what it is most comfortable with. But for the atheist/materialist agenda it’s necessary to assert that science has either explained them already, or will have them under its belt after some more investigation. I would respectfully disagree – and hope to expand on this in future posts.

More commuter’s tales

Commuting days until retirement: 503

This morning’s train journey had something of a surreal air about it, and the oddities started at the ticket office. This was the day when I surrender my monthly arm and leg in exchange for a season ticket. There was one passenger ahead of me, already at the window, and it was clear from his tone of voice that all was not well.

‘But I need it to claim the expenses!’
‘Well look, I’ve done you a photocopy. ‘
‘But they don’t accept photocopies! I have to have the ticket!’
‘I can’t do that. It’s railway property.’
‘I only need my ticket!’
‘You don’t buy a ticket. You buy the journey.’

This last point proffered with smug satisfaction, as an argument clincher.

ticketsAnd after only a few more exchanges, to my surprise, the passenger gave up. I wouldn’t have. And the clerk in this office had always seemed quite affable – I hadn’t put him down as a jobsworth. I thought of the vast majority of tickets I have ever bought, which have ended up in the bin at home. Will the railway send the bailiffs round one day, to enforce a mass repossession of these cherished items? The sheer Orwellian absurdity is difficult to believe. If the clerk had just given back the ticket, would he have ended up hanging by the wrists in some fearful house of correction for errant railway employees? I can just imagine it, under one of the dingier railway arches near the back end of Waterloo, where screams are heard on dark foggy nights.

‘Now once again. Who do the tickets belong to?’
(Yelp of pain)
‘Yes, that’s right – they belong to us.’

I had to catch the later train – the earlier one would have been before the ticket office opened. So a few minutes later I was on it, standing room only. Once we were under way there was a beep and a throat clearing – the driver had something to say. Drivers on the PA system vary in my commuting experience, from completely taciturn (a blessing if you’re reading) to chronic verbal diarrhoea. This one was well to the latter end of the scale.

I have an announcement, particularly for those who have joined the train at the last two stops.’ (Pause for effect.) ‘The state of the train is not at all what it should be today. It’s filthy. I can only apologise for the state of it. Last night we had late night revellers using it as a pigsty. Frankly I’m embarrassed to be driving this train. It’s a mess.

At this point, passengers are nervously catching each other’s eyes, in the British manner, not sure whether they dare to embark on a shared joke. They don’t quite manage it, not in my carriage, anyway. I look around, and it doesn’t look that much different from usual. I catch sight of one beer can under a seat, but that’s all. Meanwhile the driver is getting into his stride.

And this morning we had a cleaner off sick. So that’s why the train is in this state. It’s not good enough. It’s a shambles. You don’t deserve to be subjected to this.

It seems as if our main function is to be witnesses to this man’s grief.

The only crumb of comfort I can offer you is that I will be making representations at the highest levels about this. It’s unforgivable and something must be done.

Well, I hope for his sake that these higher echelons will have a sympathetic ear for him. But I rather suspect that they’ll be too busy counting their precious bits of cardboard.

Bus travel, a politician and a dark brown comestible

Commuting days until retirement: 504

These days the last leg of my journey into work is by bus. This is because, given my advanced age, I qualify for a bus pass, which saves me enough money to make it worthwhile. What hadn’t really struck me was, as my daughter had already told me, how much more civilised a form of transport it is than the tube (underground or metro, for non-UK readers). Instead of a brutal ten minutes of shoulder-to-shoulder, er – (as I try to think of a suitably claustrophobic word here, my spookily intelligent phone keyboard suggests ‘wrongness’. OK – ‘shoulder-to-shoulder wrongness’ will do very well.) So instead of ten minutes of that, a long way underground, I have twenty minutes of mature reflection as I survey busy London streets from wide top deck windows. And the frequent background of Eastern European chatter creates a sense of being delocalised, as if I am viewing the frenetic urban activity below from some privileged, remote vantage point.

And here's some proof, found in the back of a drawer by my sister. Also proves my age, unfortunately.

And here’s some proof, found in the back of a drawer by my sister. Also proves my age, unfortunately.

As this mobile ivory tower lurches and judders around corners and through traffic lights I sometimes think of a dictum of Margaret Thatcher’s: ‘If a man of over 26 finds himself on a bus he must consider himself a failure.’ I’m 64, so I don’t know what that makes me. And in this connection I also think of a school friend of mine, who, when we were about 12 or so, was quite single-mindedly fascinated by everything to do with buses. I caught the bug too, and for a year or two would join him on ‘Red Rovers’ (bus tickets that gave you travel all over London for a day), visit bus garages, and even take black-and-white photos of buses with our Kodak Brownies (remember them?). I can recall my mother gawping at my photo album, and obviously wondering what sort of psychological backwater her son had ended up in.

Well, (typically for me) the enthusiasm didn’t last long. But my friend proceeded to a career in management with London Transport, while marrying and raising a family. I haven’t seen him for a while, but I’ve heard that now, with that responsibility discharged, he is doing what he always really wanted to do – he drives a bus. And this seems to me to be a resounding success in life, although it wouldn’t register on the Thatcher scale.

Before expanding on the character of the former prime minister I naturally checked by Googling the quotation, to only to find that she never actually said it. It’s a sobering experience, having launched your carefully engineered, watertight Titanic of an argument, only to have it encounter the iceberg of a factual inaccuracy. My lifeboat will have to be the thought that it wouldn’t have been attributed it to her unless it had seemed to fit. And the point I was going to develop – which is now thrashing about in the freezing water but still alive – was how essentially one-dimensional her outlook was. Much more a conviction politician than many others, and one of immense strength of personality – but as we all know, a current gathers greater force when constricted into a narrow channel.

Margaret Thatcher, as depicted in TV's Spitting Image

Margaret Thatcher, as depicted in TV’s Spitting Image

Perhaps this accounts for how polarised people’s opinions about her tended to be. Either you admired the ‘iron lady’ strength of character, or if your politics differed, then what you saw as forceful wrong-headedness inspired a forceful dislike. Thus she became the Marmite of politicians: I don’t know if this is known beyond the UK, but Marmite is a yeast extract spread which is famous for being either adored or reviled – indifference is rare. (I’m an exception; I can take it or leave it, and I mostly leave it.)

Which takes me back to a residential poetry course I did a few years ago. One of the tutors was the poet Sean O’Brien. When the Marmite controversy arose at breakfast one morning, he nailed his colours firmly to the Marmite-lovers’ mast. (On Thatcher, his politics would put him in the other camp – see for example his wonderful poem Cousin Coat.)  I hope he won’t mind me playing fast and loose with his copyright, but the next day the following little poem appeared, and has since found its way into his collection November.

marmite

The Plain Facts of the Matter

There are two tribes this world can boast:
The Marmite-lovers and the damned.
Fact is, though, everybody’s toast
Whatever breakfast they’ve got planned.

It’s not for us to turn away
The sort who shun the dark brown jar,
But sure as sure come Judgement Day
The Lord will know who His folk are.

Believe it or not

Commuting days until retirement: 513

We commuters have our darker evenings, when everything goes wrong (why always evenings, when we’re on the way home, and not when we’re headed to work?) but there seem to have been remarkably few of those for a while. Until today.

Well, it wasn’t that bad – only an hour’s worth of delay. Seeing that my usual fast train was going to be very late I had made a snap decision and got on the non-delayed slow one. Mistake. We ended up stuck interminably in a station half-way, while everything, including the slow/fast one, overtook us.

But of course if you’re a reader there’s an up side to this. And I now have on my Kindle the Will Storr that I mentioned last Sunday, and was attempting to read that. I say attempting to – a couple of seats from me was a bishop, purple and splendid, and having a magisterial speaking voice to go with it. Clearly he was used to projecting his words around cathedrals, and so our railway carriage had very little chance. He was talking to his wife, who sat opposite him. I hadn’t really thought about it, but the decibels must be an occupational hazard if you’re the wife of a bishop. (Or the husband of a bishop, if we ever have any of those.) The subject matter, on the other hand, was not at all episcopal, but quite mundane, even though rendered beautifully and sonorously – perfect, in fact, for undermining the concentration.

And so that is how my exploration of why we believe what we believe was disrupted by a booming bishop.

Exciting times

Commuting days until retirement: 515

Up to now, there’s been a lot here about how I go to and from work, but not much about what happens when I’m there. I suppose I’ve been fighting a little shy of the topic – after all, it’s the reason this blog is anonymous. Well as I have said elsewhere, I do find satisfaction in the job, and I’m lucky to have a decent set of people as co-workers. Most – no, all of them – are younger than me, you won’t be surprised to hear, and I ‘m very happy with that.

fruitfliesWhat I wanted to do here was just to say something about the linguistic oddities of the work environment. I have found that in the artificial atmosphere of a big company – and this one is certainly the largest I have ever worked for – these rather grotesque business-speak distortions of everyday language thrive and breed like mutant fruit flies.

Perhaps it’s the superfluity of written communication which encourages this. As if the excess of personal emails, and copies of emails, which multiply exponentially with the size of the organisation, were not enough, there are official collections of ‘news’ that thud into your inbox two or three times daily. These of course are relentlessly upbeat in tone, even at times when the public business press (which I don’t often read) is painting a gloomier picture of the company. It’s rather like living in a totalitarian society, albeit a reasonably benevolent one. On the shop floor these emails appear to meet with the same sort of unspoken, weary indifference as official pronouncements in the streets of communist era Moscow.

But what of the language? Emails, both corporate and individual, are replete with the sort of jargon you can find in any Web dictionary of business clichés. And of course they find their way into spoken language – or is it the other way around?  This is well worked-over territory, so I’ll just look at a few of those that particularly irritate me.  Here are three that I encounter especially frequently:

  • Going forward – in the future, from now on.
  • Leverage (pronounced the American way, and used as a verb) – to make effective use of.
  • Bandwidth – the capacity or time you have available to take on additional work.

It has to be admitted, looking at the definitions, that the last two are succinct, even if they are ugly. And looking over the Web I have found some that I positively like. Here’s one I found which describes a situation I am well familiar with from my working life – only I never knew of a name for it. Imagine you have a boss who makes it his duty to find shortcomings, real or imagined, in any work that you come up with, and puts you to extra work remedying them. The way to deal with such a person is to deliberately insert a flaw which is glaringly obvious but easily put right. The boss finds it, you save time, and everyone is happy. This is giving the dog a bone.

But descend with me now into the teeth-on-edge zone, if you haven’t got there already. There’s poor, weary old thinking outside the box, so universally derided that it should have been in its grave long ago. But nevertheless, its undead carcass continues to lurch about the workplace; I still hear people use it without irony or embarrassment.  And here’s one I particularly detest: any ordinary, workaday act of communication with someone (emailing, phoning or simply meeting them) is referred to as reaching out to them. In traditional language, you might reach out to someone in distress, for example. But importing this phrase into the utilitarian world of commercialism seems like an attempt to clothe perfectly honest, but quite insignificant actions with a bogus air of wisdom and beneficence which they really don’t merit. And of course it’s used so often that it has become meaningless.

excitedBut now I come to what is for me the buttock-clenching nadir of business-speak – and this is one that I haven’t seen in anyone else’s list. My first encounter with it was when I was only just starting my job, after some years of working for myself. An email from one of the heads of the new company welcomed me, and said that, with my business knowledge, he was excited about taking me on. I wasn’t sure whether to be more surprised at the image of him jumping all over the furniture with breathless euphoria in his office, or at the idea that I had any business knowledge. (I haven’t – I can only put it down to having done my homework and tried to ask some intelligent questions in the interview.)

But I soon found that this was now the standard way of speaking of any forthcoming development in the corporate world, especially in written communication. It’s difficult to believe, seeing people soberly go about the everyday tasks of their jobs, that all this excitement is crackling in the air. But everything issued by the leaders of the company is saturated with it – it’s as if they are all competing with each other to be more excited than their fellow executives. You imagine that a board meeting must be like a pentecostal prayer gathering in the American bible belt. And of course those emails I mentioned are positively tumescent with excitement.

Well not so long ago, an employee questionnaire went round. Yes, as you’ve guessed, up came the question I dreaded. Was I excited?  A dilemma – it was supposedly anonymous, but bearing in mind that totalitarian analogy, you can’t be entirely sure.  Reader, I entered into a Faustian pact, and said I was excited. (Well, quite high on a scale of 0-10 – you know how those questionnaire things work.)  So I just hope that He Who Knows the Identity of Every Anonymous Blogger won’t hold it against me in the final reckoning.

So it’s not just the end of commuting that makes me to look forward to retirement. It’s a life of breakfast cereal, the postman, the shopping, grass, trees, earth – ordinary things and ordinary language. Now that makes me excited.