June 18, 2014

Use the passions that flow

Even I'm old enough to remember the beginning of the World Wide Web, old enough in fact to still have my free-with-Mac-Format magazine "road map of The Internet", when it was all pages hosted by academic institutions, Gopher was still a pretty neat idea, and Kurt Cobain was still alive. I'm therefore invoking a meme from a few years ago because it provides a neat preface; the meme called for one sentence but a few more will help.

"There was still a gaping hole in our plans, however, for with the departure of "Gawain", we had left ourselves nothing with which to replace him! So…, at this juncture we parted ways, Alex, Geddy, Terry and Paul to begin work on some of their overdubs, while I would be imprisoned in my room until I could emerge glowing triumphantly, clutching some wonder of spontaneous genius to my knotted and sweating brow!! — mere fantasy, I fear. Did I perhaps have a title? Ah, no. Did I have a few strong ideas lying around? Well, no. Did I have any ideas at all? Well, maybe, but not exactly. And for two days I stared in frustration and growing unease at blank sheets of paper, and questioning eyes."

I could go on, for the original paragraph is as long again and Neil Peart is a much better writer than I, but on the third day in a newfound welter of creativity he began to piece together a host of ideas and thoughts, at once unconnected and yet circuitously themed. The product was of course a song called "Natural Science". Two days? Eighteen months more like, in my case. I'm far beyond sounding like a broken record: my record has long been recycled into a dainty bowl with crinkled edges, designed for holding pot-pourri or marbles or one of those curious collections of small metal objects typically comprising safety pins, half-broken zip sliders, paperclips and a selection of prizes from crackers—the same hoarded collection of items whose owner would without a hint of doubt claim that they might be useful, perhaps in say ten years; or more likely, never. My record of late hasn't been all that great.

My "Natural Science" ought to bridge that last year and a half, if it could. While the keys rattle under my fingertips I think of my notepads and their pages of handwriting, describing strange, fantastical journeys into the unknown: Mordor turning out to be one of the shabbiest camp sites known to Man; Sendar the growing familiarity of Kensington and Chelsea—if only experienced as a commuter; afternoons spent with toy trains and cable cars…and none of it readily transcribed for your perusal and delectation.

I think of the year in which I tried to declutter, my lovely big car with its faux-walnut dashboard and four flat tyres eventually meeting its maker, and my stop-gap motorbike that I sent packing with not a little 'good riddance!', and the year spent instead relying purely on human power. The car I miss, if only for the comfort of its half-leather seats and the way it ate motorways for breakfast—but it was an ailing dinosaur in its owner's modern life that no longer enjoyed motorways nor had cause to take them. The motorbike, my black Honda VFR with the cracked plastic bodywork that I repaired myself, and a cracked exhaust manifold that I didn't, was a hole in the tarmac into which I poured money. It made all the right noises, as every VFR does, noises that today still make the corner of my mouth turn up, but it was too small. The seat was too low, so the footpegs bent my legs so much I couldn't ride 30 miles without it hurting my knees; the seat was the wrong shape, and the wrong angle, which gave me a numb bum, only lessened whenever I slid forwards on the brakes. The windscreen was too low, even in jacked-up position with a spoiler on top, so my helmet was buffeted all the time. Crouching behind the fairing, MotoGP style, is for short people. And so it was that having spent the better part of five years collecting parts, taking a trip up north to a special garage and back, and latterly going wild with socket wrenches, wire brushes in an electric drill, paint, plastic weld and a sledgehammer,—yes, even a sledgehammer, for how else do you panel beat a bent and bashed bash plate back into shape?—the great beast that was my Honda Africa Twin once more took to the road. So long it had sat forlorn in a corner of the garage, reduced to a 200 kilogramme shelf. And how easily it accepted its owner again with a cackle and a joyous roar that scared small animals and no doubt delighted small boys.

Yet I'm getting ahead of myself, for that was mere months ago. The motorbike project in fact nearly never happened at all, because I was enjoying my economy and coming close to decluttering properly, but I couldn't bring myself to cut loose entirely. An Africa Twin is just a machine after all, just a collection of welded metal tubes and outdated, petrol swilling technologies, but it isn't clinical and efficient like a BMW, or brutish and unhinged like a big KTM, nor a bloated facsimile like its successor; it has a genuine heritage and a friendliness coupled with an old-school vibe that makes it very difficult not to like. I decided I should give it a chance, the chance it never had the first time around.

And yet there was a void. In honesty, none really existed. It was a void that should have existed, and one that I successfully argued did exist despite the rather glaringly obvious evidence. At the root of this was our climate: the culmination of too many years' winter cycling in which my fingers quite predictably turned white. As we all know, cold extremities can be ameliorated by a warmer torso, but I can recall only one occasion when this actually happened. I was wearing the fleece mid-layer that I used in winter motorbike trips (no more such trips, either) and I was riding my mountain bike—dear old Annie the Blue Bike, now mothballed for various reasons—and indeed riding up hills in snow, so my torso had extra-extra-special cause to be warm that day. To really stop the cold hands I needed to get out of the wind, say with a fairing, and if I had a fairing I might go faster: a lot faster if it was a full fairing, and if I was going faster I would need suspension. And if I was going faster with suspension I could go further too. Naturally the thing to do was invest in a velomobile.

Am I insane? Probably, but it was an educated insane, after all I'd been cycling recumbent bikes for ten years and was therefore well acclimatised, and I had spent a splendid afternoon in Toronto racing Bluevelo's yellow speed machine along the Waterfront Trail. It was also not without precedent, because another customer of Laid Back Bikes had already acquired his own for use on the other side of the country, and there were twenty other things that made it all seem quite sensible, like having space inside for four or five bags of shopping, and a warm close-fitting foam cover for when it rained. It arrived at the end of 2012, hit the roads in early 2013, acquired its first scratches within a month ("speed scratches"), and its first crack just a couple of weeks ago. And it keeps my hands warm! Lee Wakefield, known these days for being a dab hand with carbon fibre, as well as a seasoned velomobile pilot, reckoned that I was the first woman in the UK to join the ranks. Little old me! And practically a legend in my own time judging by events the past few days.

There comes a time, though, when novelty wears off. One noticeable manifestation of this is probably the theory of Bicycle Acquisition Syndrome, which I explored at length before, and of which the foregoing is perfect evidence. Even so, a new bike is like a new pair of shoes. Grippy soles contrast with the worn in and worn out predecessor's, laces with neatly bound ends, stitching neat and precise. Then before you know it a year has gone by and your shoes—like your bike—are once again literally an extension of your body, where every crease and wear patch is in the perfect place, and nothing is a surprise anymore. Shoes wear out, at least the modern ones made of petroleum and glue, not classic leather shoes that can be resoled or unstitched and mended; Brooks saddles conform to the rider, and a Rohloff hub wears in, not out. We crave originality and variety, because there's always something faster or more comfortable or that carries more…and we buy more bikes. Travelling the same pattern of roads day after day, month in, month out, just to commute to work and back again, isn't novel. It's our own very real Groundhog Day. Naturally, we notice a new pothole here, a filled one there, the repainted stop line at a junction, and we know the exact line to take across a roundabout to avoid a slippery manhole cover. The route becomes rehearsed ad nauseum, much the same traffic, much the same static hazards. Boredom is actually the overriding reason I change my commuting route so often.

You might say then that I mix up my commuting route to reduce my familiarity with it all, to increase the range of sights and sounds and smells along the way, and perversely to increase the number of hazards to which I expose myself. Danger makes for exciting times, which is why people climb skyscrapers using only their thumbs, drive bulldozers backwards on one track while blindfolded, or put their heads in crocodile mouths without a safety crowbar. And danger is of course countered by experience and practice, which informs skill, and skill informs decision making and reaction times. The problem with all of this is that constant wariness of hazards becomes hard work. Someone proficient at racing cars can't race constantly, even taking out the effect of the inability to simply stay awake. Pierre Levegh did remarkably well to race at Le Mans in 1952, single-handedly for over 23 hours; the speed of the cars by the 1990s—and thus the effort required to drive them at pace—saw the rules mandate a maximum of four hours at a time. But I'm only cycling in traffic, aren't I? I'm only going at 10mph, 20mph, maybe 30mph. How is that hard work?

It's hard work because other people make it hard work. Until the UK, or, in the possible interests of posterity, Scotland and 'the rest of the UK' makes it convenient to bicycle everywhere without the constant danger posed by drivers who think they own the road, or who think they can drive better and with greater precision than they actually can, it's going to stay hard work. There are so many angles one can take on this subject that one day I shall construct a massive family tree of everything that makes cycling hard work and why. Government hand-wringing, silo working, red top newspapers, sloppy journalism, sloppy science, biased court judgements, poorly upheld legislation, Police disinterest, influence of television 'stars', individual superiority complexes, social classes, social networking, and a general economic apathy are all in there to one degree or another.

It's hard work staying on top of things.

And frankly, one day not so very long ago I reached a point where nearly every moment I was seemingly subject to all manner of hazards—I would challenge any everyday cyclist of any ability to name a week in which nothing of note happened to them while they were on the road—and it became too much to bear.

After today's commute I'm beginning to wonder why I keep cycling.

The short answer is it keeps me going. The longer answer is that infernal combustion every day would cost too much and smells horrible, and would erode the first reason further. I was given my first bike when I was very young and the longest I've ever gone without riding a bike was 6 months. Today, and you might be surprised by this—I was too—I realised that I've finally stopped enjoying cycling in Edinburgh. I'm an engineer to my core: I love my bikes; and I try to help people feel that love for their own bikes. Yet each of mine is dangerously close to becoming little more than a means to an end. Far too quickly I'm coming to understand why people don't want to cycle, and I don't want to become one of those people. I shouldn't have to; I shouldn't be made to.

Because I'm fed up; of drivers overtaking me too closely, or undertaking me just to gain five seconds, or pulling U-turns in front of me without consideration of my speed, or shouting abuse at me just for existing. I'm fed up of poor driving standards that ignore conditions, like traction, or visibility, or gradient, or an ability to accelerate, and standards that are seemingly based on the driver's comparison with their performance during the previous five minutes. I'm fed up of the narcissistic me-me-me, me-first! attitude that pervades driving nowadays, in which traffic lights and roundabouts are to be beaten, rather than respected. I'm fed up of being polite on the road, and in return getting none of the human respect I would like. I can get no respect far more easily simply by not caring how I ride my bike.

I'm fed up of our city's roads that are being repeatedly destroyed by buses and lorries and not repaired properly, or even engineered properly. I'm fed up of road repairs that aren't remotely fit for purpose and that shake my bike to pieces.

I'm fed up with our city's pretensions to being supportive of cycling. That it treats me, and everyone else using human power, as though we were whizzing about on micro-scooters, weaving madly amongst pedestrians without a care, and able and happy to jump off on a whim. That it repairs only the roads that carry the most and the largest vehicles, and leaves the quieter, preferable routes to rack and ruin. I'm fed up of useful cut-throughs being 'repaired' to prevent their use by cyclists, forcing us to reconfigure our routes to include more dangerous areas requiring manoeuvres that we were only too happy to avoid before. I can't help wondering how many people, pounding the treadmill or spinning nowhere fast in a gym of an evening, were once busy cycling on the road but had that enthusiasm burned out of them.

I will probably cycle to work tomorrow. The fresh air will do me good, as will a bit of exercise, but my mood is damaged.

People do sometimes give up, opting for a safer, perhaps quieter, indeed less exciting life. But like a broken record, I did cycle to work tomorrow. I think tomorrow was Wednesday, but I might be wrong. I remember commuting on my motorbike the day after that, because it has presence: it's big and tall, and has huge round headlights and a loud horn (not Stebel Nautilus loud, but pretty good nonetheless). That day I enjoyed presiding o'er all the land, and I was surely satisfied as the plebs moved aside courteously as I approached with a rumble. In fact, such behaviour may have had rather more to do with feeling remarkably unwell that evening, necessitating my filtering past traffic like a mad woman while trying valiantly to hold down my lunch amidst a soaring body temperature. And unless I'm Laia Sanz, which I'm not, riding my motorbike is how to get less fit rather than more, and so I cycled the next day. Having been unwell, then, and thoroughly tired, I decided to take the quietest possible route home. Distance becomes a little less relevant when you plod instead of sprint, and I pottered along beside the trams, and around the houses, and sneaked in and out of cycle-type infrastructure,—nothing so grandiose as real custom-designed, all-singing-all-dancing European-level infrastructure I would add, for This is Edinburgh™—making my way home one of the many ways I knew how.

Issues? Yeah, we've got issues, and Edinburgh knows it. The Edinburgh Festival of Cycling was borne in 2013 out of Kim Harding's frustration that our leaders weren't doing enough about meeting the target they'd set themselves (a signatory to The Charter of Brussels, committing to achieve so-many-percent of trips being made by bicycle by 2020). EdFoC featured a varied selection of events, from films to talks to rides, all day things, evening things, overnight things. Strictly speaking, it wasn't the first bikey festival. We'd already had two or more years of the Bicycle Film Festival, largely the product of the energetic Maggie Wynn, and way before that there had been what we dubbed the First Edinburgh International Human Power Festival—ostensibly for recumbent riders, which lasted just for one day. There was never a Second EIHPF, more's the pity. Happily, thanks to the passage of time in which the city gained Laid Back Bikes, that's almost a regular event these days. With the EdFoC now in its second year and happening this very week, interesting stuff is organised: interesting stuff is going on.

One of the first events was the prosaically named Women's Cycle Forum. Apparently the first of its kind in the UK, possibly even the first of its kind. Lots of women ride bikes, lots more men do. Men—in the most general, biological sense—are imbued with a magical substance that helps them shrug off danger more easily than Women, in the most general, biological sense. The more of the magical substance Men have, the more they like to fight each other, and then it makes them go bald. It's often lots of men who attend rafts of workshops and meetings whose discussion points include Why More Women Should Ride Bikes and How To Make It Happen. Well, Men, sorry, but your gender agenda kinda sucks. I went along on a drizzly Saturday evening, badly underestimating how long it would take to ride to the venue in town, not helped by the main cycle route through the Meadows unexpectedly swarming with people wearing serious faces and hi-viz vests that said "Security": sufficiently serious that I cheerily ignored the first half before diverting back onto the roads, thus taking a great Commonwealth Games Baton Relay-avoiding dogleg that wasted valuable minutes; I arrived late and the meeting had already started, Sally Hinchcliffe mid-paragraph in introducing the panel. I'm not entirely sure that I didn't miss the first speaker. I poured myself into a seat near the back, next to a little girl busy making bracelets from tiny elastic bands, and tried to look demure despite generating my own weather by this time, hardly grateful for my decision to wear my crumpled baggy shorts (complete with cat hairs) over my lycra shorts, as if that would look more presentable than simply opting to have velomobile-strength thighs on display. Perhaps fewer people cycled to the event than drove or bussed or walked, although there was quite a range of bikes locked to the railings outside; perhaps fewer people had quite the dislike of bicycle saddles that do I, and were consequently more than happy to cycle in a dress; certainly there was a great absence of black lycra.

We had long, and not so long, introductions from eight highly relevant women. Sue Abbot, who looks like Miriam Margoyles, spoke about having a criminal record for refusing to wear a bike helmet in Australia; Rachel Aldred covered cycle campaigning; Sara Dorman covered 'not cycle campaigning' but getting involved in it anyway; Sally Guyer talked about making nice clothes for cycling in and looking good in; a fresh-faced Claire Connachan was 'fecking knackered' from just finishing a 40-miler with her girl group, Belles on Bikes. Polly Jarman spoke of her work helping young children to learn to cycle; Jo Holtan introduced the Cycle Hack movement for crowdsourcing ideas to improve bike routes; and Jayne Rodgers spoke with feeling about working with disabled people and getting the right bike, trike or quad for them to carry on cycling. Then it was onto group discussions, quick-fire to thrash out burning issues, ways to deal with them and ways to solve them: brainstorm meets cycle hack, if you like. My group was led by Sara, talking a mile a minute and simultaneously writing on the made-for-writing-on red paper tablecloth. Sally joined us, our discussion ranging from too-close overtaking to making street corners sharper to normalisation and destigmatisation to management system methodologies, each of us taking turns to draw diagrams and scribble thoughts, but all pointing towards a general desire for cycling to be safer, dammit.

 photo IMAG0563_zpsc319ddbb.jpg And in fact from the feedback from each of the groups—probably fifty people altogether, covering all kinds of people and all kinds of ages and abilities—the overwhelming desire was exactly that: safer cycling. Not faster cycling, not cheaper cycling, or even more stylish cycling. Safer. Just get the bloody motorists off our backs, but don't you dare corral us into some piece of shit segregation that leaves no room to move and no room for three dimensions. With the thought that cycle chic didn't necessarily mean floaty skirts and Dutch-style bikes with wicker baskets and flowers and little dogs, I took my baggy shorts off for the ride home. No bunching of material, no seams to sit on this time, just a second skin. And on my hips technically a third, because they're Endura mountain bike shorts.

 photo DSC_9333_2sm_zpsdf728f66.jpg Back to my preferred office the next morning for Ligfiets Zondag. Last year my velomobile was, not entirely unexpectedly, a hit, so I rode my usual bike instead this time. To be honest, one can only take so many questions ('How fast does it go?', 'Does it have an engine in there?' 'Where did you get it?' 'How much did that cost?' 'Can I have a go?' 'Can you go up hills?' 'Can I have a go please?' 'Can I have a sit in it?' and so on and so on) and I wasn't particularly minded to field them all again. Besides, a relaxing bike ride to the coast, Cramond and Silverknowes Promenade in this case, is the type of event that starts out specialist and over time becomes diluted, for all the best reasons really, by people riding whatever bike they want to bring.  photo DSC_9334_2sm_zps57eec44e.jpg It becomes 'an outing'. And so we had people on recumbent bikes, like Angelo and Ally still buzzing from their expedition across Canada last year, people like Hannah and John riding trikes or towing trailers, people like Kim using cargo bikes, and people I didn't know at all on their remarkably undeviant bikes. And…, I should have expected it really, losing count after about the third time I was asked where the big red streamlined speed machine was.

 photo DSC_9336_2sm_zps03a1443b.jpg After an early lunch of egg and cheese and bacon, and then an hour or two spent riding up and down the Prom trying different bikes, or playing fetch with John's dog and its slightly soggy tennis ball, or sitting in the sunshine and chatting, I was late leaving! I was later leaving than I even originally planned, too, forgetting that France is one hour ahead of us, and therefore four o'clock in the afternoon there is three o'clock here. And the 2014 24 Heures du Mans was 45 minutes away from finishing. I missed it.

But the ride home along the Roseburn path, bursting with green, was quiet and warm and pleasant. With Angelo and Ally alongside it was a ride full of happy conversation, and my earlier rant faded. It could almost have been written by someone else.

December 30, 2012

The measure of a life

The returning reader is probably an increasingly rare breed in this particular little corner of the blogosphere. In fact, in years past I railed against my adoption of the term blog because mine bore no such relevance. 'It's a diary!', she opined, before suddenly closing the door on it forever. And now with the hoary old tale of not having enough time, or enough inspiration, or enough worldly nous, or more likely, enough enthusiasm to sit and write something, goodness knows I'm trying to do exactly that again.

Where did the hell did my enthusiasm go? What happened to the collective who actually tuned in once a month to stay the challenge of a thousand, perhaps ten thousand, words? I guess most of them had better things to do, and besides, no-one sits around a bonfire that's reduced itself to smouldering embers in order to get warm. I suspect this place needs the proverbial slosh of paraffin. I recently came across the notion of ego depletion, in the context of Why You're Not Getting On At Work, How You Can Boost Your Productivity, and How Not To Get Fired, or some such headline worthy of Yahoo! news. I haven't wrapped my head around the whole psyche of the depleted individual, except that important decision making takes energy, and the more you do it the more you'll need to recharge at some point. That some individuals will succumb to the easiest route—the least difficult option, which is probably to avoid making any sort of decision at all—is inevitable. There is a school of thought which says that a certain amount of giving in is in fact helpful towards not giving in the rest of the time. However, for those the individuals who have found themselves thoroughly depleted, how do they recharge? And what made them susceptible in the first place?

I'm reminded of the analysis that separates people into extroverts and introverts, and by extension illustrates how those people tick when amongst company and when alone. Are the opportunities to recharge themselves more difficult to come by these days for the introverts? Once it was a magical electrical snake of a thing called the telegraph, then the telephone, then the television, and now you can choose from a hundred social networks that push stuff relentlessly into your computer, your phone, into your eyeballs. We live in hyper-connected times with no off switch. Well, there is, but press it and the rest of the world won't wait for you. One case might be the office-based introverts (with lots of people) who need the quiet of being alone (without lots of people) but get lonely doing so and so seek out social circles, as long as they're not too social. But because they prefer to be alone they don't feel driven—indeed, capable—to contribute as much as the more extrovert, and as a result they feel awkward about not fitting in, so they practice not fitting in. I suspect the truth is closer to the introverted individuals and extroverted individuals each wishing they could be more like the other.

Decision making paralysis? Possibly. I may have had a lot on my mind. Try finding a lump next to your breast.

It comes when you least expect it, quite honestly. Suffice to say, I now have some quite big and rather red scars that weren't there two months ago, and spending several nights massively propped up in bed on cushions and pillows is ridiculously uncomfortable, and not terribly conducive to one's beauty sleep. In the last four months I've had so many blood tests that I've lost count, and I think I must have been tested for every medical condition ever discovered, including anaemia (which as an athletic sort of girl I was pleased to find I don't have, though that means my inability to climb on Friday afternoons must be dietary instead). The CT radiographer of course wouldn't even rule out my being pregnant. I really don't think I am, and I said as much to her. Actually the conversation may have involved a few more specifics than that. Mind you, the chance would be a fine thing. The Shoogly Peg definitely is, though, which is just fab.

August 28, 2011

One day I feel I'm ahead of the wheel

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

14.28. Back to idle writing on the train. This time it's the Lightning that's tucked away, but right at the other end of the train. Turns out that the quiet coach is next to the power car - presumably First Class doesn't have to put up with the whoosing, but is also first to crash into anything when southbound. I still think the Mk4 carriages are overly stiffly sprung.

It's kind of nice not having that tight an itinerary, aside from the Shildon bit. But I'm beginning to think that I'm finding it increasingly hard to improvise in situations, or rather that I can cope perfectly well but prefer to be as well-informed as possible. Perhaps trains are a bit of an exception because timing is critical and any delays from time spent thinking, like trying to get a bike onboard, are not acceptable.

I've sort of gone to town with supplies, as I've packed a towel, my hairdryer, shampoo, about four top layers but on bottom only the Endura bike shorts I'm wearing and my lightweight 'desert' trousers. I ought to have included my lycra tights ... perhaps some leg warmers might be available in Cycle Heaven.

I need to find out why the train lurches every so often, as though the driver dabs the brakes and then floors it again. It rather mucks up my handwriting. Timing, it's about three or four minutes between lurches but not totally predictable. Just coming into Morpeth and there's almost no wind whatsoever, and the wind farm isn't doing any business today. My stolen half-window seat is only good until Newcastle so I'm sort of watching the world slip by like a hawk; a hawk who's half-asleep perhaps; a hawk with a GPS unit. The orange brick barn in the middle of fields has collapsed a bit more some last time too - now both walls of the nearer half have gone. The roof's rafters are still there though. Gosh, this bit of track is really bumpy and lurching, and we're only doing 105mph. Through Dudley and Brunswick Village ... they really do like their bricks here. Ok, time to pack up a bit.

21.16. Predictably, no-one arrived for the seat, so I was able to stretch out diagonally at least. It's hard to concentrate to write when someone's mobile phone is playing a slightly honky-tonk rendition of The Entertainer, with a small mistake in it, round and round and round. And round again for good measure. Surely no-one can be that desperate to call someone.

We arrived at York and I spent some time looking at all the bikes parked, and taking the odd photo. I then went to Cycle Heaven and looked at Birdys and Bromptons, thought about buying the third edition of Bicycle Design by Mike Burrows, but didn't: it's not all that different from my first edition, except he wrote about recumbents more. I did get Mike Carden's new book about his Scotland tour. A bit better written, more narrative. Then I got checked in and stowed the bike in the usual place, then went out for food. Since I was on foot I thought I'd stop by Jessops and the other camera shops but every one of them was shut! In the end I wandered back to get a pizza, noticing an enormous motor trike passing by, and chatted to the Turkish guy serving me in the kebab/burger/pizza place. On reflection, a smaller pizza would've been enough—this 13 incher has done me tea and supper and I've drunk about two litres of water: BBQ chicken is good but more sweet than sour, and not enough peppers. Bacon is nicely crunchy. I've spent the evening watching Film4; I came in halfway through a film about secret agent children (weird, especially at half volume so the dialogue didn't really work), then Fool's Gold, which was fun but very silly. And Donald Pleasance is a good actor but here he really looked a bit lost.

21.33 and that phone is still ringing, and that pizza was just too big.

22.02 and almost to the hour, The Entertainer has realised his audience—Mr iPod and Mrs Earplugs—isn't interested and has stopped playing. Hurrah! Now I can read my book properly.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

13.03. Sitting on the steps outside Shildon railway museum, near the children's sandpit, and seven mums with about eight children. The sun is shining but was raining in York when I left. I thought York to Darlington would be a Class 185 but turned out to be a XC Voyager, so at least I knew what to do with the bike. Plenty of seats at 10.00 too! Then onto a Class 142 rail-bus thing of concertina doors and two carriages with tip-up seats. I had a quick ride around Shildon—not a big place—looking for a shop that sold OS maps, but nothing doing. Not even a supermarket here. I don't think Shildon gets too many recumbent bikes either. There didn't seem to be any bike parking at all here, but I managed to get things stowed in a Staff Only cleaners' cupboard. I took my camera and bag, but didn't need any GPS—but wish I'd taken my sunglasses, which it seems I've already scratched today. So, the sandpit is doing a roaring trade, the sun is lovely, and I have a little under two and a half hours before my train back to York. I'm in absolutely no hurry.

20.04. I enjoyed the museum, almost immensely. I actually spent a lot of time looking at the books and DVDs before the exhibits, but decided not to buy any—but The Waverley Route and The A4s' Final Years were tempting, though not at £20 each. I sort of saved the best 'til last and photographed the APT-E and DP1 together, in a sort of 'the future' pose. And Henrietta Brompton is very close in colour to the latter. In the end, I bought a little Rail Art picture and a mug.

By the time I was waiting for my train I'd decided that while architecturally 'nice', Shildon is also full of neds. On the platform, a group of five who delighted in taking a shortcut across the tracks several times. The bike was an extreme curiosity. I got to Darlington easily enough and then found no-one to unlock the luggage door of the Class 91 DVT. A platform person eventually came to help but I had to make a fuss. I spent the 30 minutes standing in the vestibule of First Class rather than wander the entire length of the train for my seat. I was off and running quickly once at York with an East Coast person waiting to unlock the door. I pottered over to Jessops but after all that they didn't have the lens case I needed. The good news is that the new air-padded strap from Calumet works great.

Looking at the OS map I thought I could see the sewage works north of the station, that was Art Deco styled, so I went round the block onto the A19 and then onto the Ouse cycle and footpath (NCN65 I think). I followed it—cattle grids and everything—beyond the ring road and although I smelled it, I didn't see it. It turned out that it was a filter bed and not a sewage works at all. So I went a bit further before joining the A19 again to bomb into town. I paused to photograph a 'Deco cinema, but there are lots of them and the like. Back at the hostel I had a long chat with Aussie guy Duncan, who was about to steal my bed, and then met another Brompton rider who I saw yesterday evening. I ended up getting a load of pasta and salad from the supermarket, rather than more pizza or other junk food, but kept the side up with more chocolate milk. Feeling a bit headachey so I'm calling it a day.

Friday, August 26, 2011

16.37. Today ought to have been 'my' day, for ambling and enjoying and I'm somehow feeling bummed out. It took me ages to get ready to go, then on and off with layers and waterproofs. A quick ride down the road to photograph another Art Deco cinema and then out for the A64 cycle path to Tadcaster. It might be fairly flat and direct but it's bloody scary with 70mph traffic a few metres away with only a metre-wide strip of grass separating road and path. I had to work hard not to sprint along at 21mph or more as I planned to do more than just to Tadcaster and back. The rain came on and basically got steadier.

I spent some time in Cyclesense. I decided to buy some legwarmers (in a thrilling 'extra-large' size) and then looked at Moultons and Bike Fridays. The Pashley Moultons seemed entirely too small for me, while the Bike Friday Pocket Sport with drop bars and telescopic seat tube actually fitted me well. Not that I really want a Bike Friday sort of machine. Would I end up using one in preference to the Brompton? I already know from experience that it stows in places where the Dahon-sized Birdy doesn't, and that was why I bought the Brompton in the first place. Besides, I can't see any unsuspended small-wheeled bike being that much better in Edinburgh than the Brompton. After finishing there, I asked if there was anywhere I could eat my sandwiches out of the rain, and they let me use their kitchen, and made me a cup of tea. I chatted at some length with one of their mechanics who was having lunch. I didn't want to outstay my welcome and left in a bit of a hurry. Again it seemed to take ages packing my panniers and then I realised my back light was missing. I'd ridden a few yards and turned back but there was no sign of it. Nothing for it but to leave, so I started retracing my steps along the crappy bike path. I didn't see my light anywhere. I think my extra bungee must've tripped the release catch on the bracket.

I tried to divert to the quieter path marked on the map, and I did find it, but it was a path across a field and not biking territory. I eventually took the Copmanthorpe turning, to Acaster Malbis and Naburn. I 'photted' the bike on the swing bridge, and noted that they'd painted the bridge all grey; it was rust coloured last time. Then it was a simple matter of following the Velovision route to the race course and back into town, for about 25 miles. Not that far and yet I felt quite tired, and my knee was twinging at about 20 miles. At least I wasn't cold, as I'd put on the leg warmers about five minutes down the road from the shop.

Back in the hostel I was all set to wash my hair but the shower only did cold water, and as I fiddled with the handle it turned in a way it wasn't meant to and then wouldn't turn off. It did once I'd turned it a bit more, but I'd had enough by then. I'm thinking about teatime and what to have. More pizza? It never occurred to me to buy anything while I was out.

Quite frankly, if my train home had been at 16.00, I would've gladly taken it. I've sort of enjoyed myself and sort of not. I've met several 'nice' people, all fleetingly like ships in the night. No-one else seems to have shared a need to chat or for company. And so I carry on my merry, singular way.

Here's a thought. A Bike Friday uses ISO406 wheels, so generally the same sort of machine as my Dahon was. And I got rid of the Dahon because I didn't like its riding position anymore (although BFs are made to measure). It folded to largely the same size as the BF, but didn't pack into a suitcase. A Birdy has the full suspension, and folds to about the same as the Dahon. A non-folding Birdy is kind of what a Moulton ought to be like. And what niche is one of them meant to fill? Not folding, because I have a Brompton. Not longer distance comfort, like today, because I have the recumbent bikes. The Bike Friday did feel impressively rigid. If I was without Annie, what would I use in winter when it snows? If I was doing passenger trains—busy stuff in cities—then the Brompton would win hands down. Do I need a (B+1)? That is perhaps the real question.

21.15. Having read a good chunk of A Bit Scott-ish, it's nice, in a schadenfreudey kind of way, to know that I wasn't the only B&Ber ever to have a bad experience. I had pizza for tea: ham and pineapple as a trust failsafe option, from Chico's a bit further down the road. Almost half the price, half the service, two-thirds as good food as the kebab place. A bit thin, but nice enough though.

Tomorrow's plan is to be up by 8.00 and out before 9.00 with enough time to photograph the other Art Deco buildings I saw in town, and the windmill on the far side of the station. I meant to do that today but ended up on the wrong side of town, but I've marked it as a waypoint in the GPS. Dumbass gave up the ghost in 2009, so maybe I should call this one Dumbass 2, or Divvy, or maybe Dropkick... No, too daggy. The dorm seems quiet this evening: me, the guy with the cratered face who I think is Scandinavian and who never did tell me his name, and maybe one other judging by the luggage, perhaps the Egyptian guy from yesterday whose name I did learn and immediately forgot.

I jumped on a computer for half an hour yesterday to check stuff; I think it was long enough and I wasn't going to pay more for the privilege given my luddite status of non-interconnectedness. Time does fly when you're writing e-mails. I'll head over to Cramond once I'm home tomorrow and see if anyone is around, and if it's not raining. Nearly ten pages of notepad since Wednesday: I must have too much spare time.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

13.16 and Berwick-upon-Tweed is a little way behind and back to bumpy, twisty track. Had a generally lovely morning. I was up early and out to photograph those buildings, and then wandered to York Minster. I took some photo of the outside, then locked the bike and went inside to listen to the organ. Some odd pieces being played: discordant and textured. I looked at the stained glass for a while, and might've mouthed the word 'wow' once or twice. Then out to see the windmill, marooned on its little hill amongst houses. Back at the station, I took the opportunity to make sure the platform staff know I needed the train's luggage compartment open, and then the train was delayed because of engineering restrictions a block or two south. So I chatted with a couple of Australian people and a guy from East Coast, so there were no problems in the end. After all that!

I'm now relaxing at a vacant table so there's plenty of legroom compared with being wedged in before. What are tall people meant to do? Sit and suffer? Or drive cars perhaps? Huh, and motion sickness beckons now, less than ten minutes of writing, but I did read a lot earlier on. Yuck. Cramond later? Time to find out.

I made it to Cramond in a fairly efficient half an hour or thereabouts, but as I rather suspected all along, the group had been and gone. I sat at a bench to eat the remaining half of my cereal bar before taking to the promenade again and wending my way home. Although the bike ride calmed my stomach a bit, it only suppressed the nausea, and a day and a half later I'm still not feeling right unless I'm either eating or working out. All in perfect time for my return to work, too!

A few minutes on the internet revealed that the film with the secret agent children on karts was apparently Catch That Kid, from 2004. I'd never heard of it either. And according to ChrisCooper on RailUK, the lurching or jolting that I've noticed on the Class 91 trains is probably related to the automatic speed controller and the application of the rheostatic braking system. I shall need to have my GPS recording a journey and then later annotating the speed profile with the occurrences of the jolts, but that's for another day.

August 11, 2011

All along our days

For far too long, it seems, I've been staring at a blank piece of paper with no particular inspiration to write. That's not to say that I've not written anything at all, but as someone who takes an active stance against both the endless commentary of microblogging and the rather relentless accumulation of what Mr Zuckerberg rather zealously describes as "friends", and yet who subsequently poked her nose into the whizbang new replacement that xkcd so accurately termed "Not FB!", the more short paragraphs, or even shorter one-liners, that I dash off there through such convenience the more it rankles that I'm serving a network in precisely the manner I never intended, and even worse, not spending time here. Here is where I'm supposed to write about stuff: the music I listen to, the trips I make, the thoughts I have. And yet it's that convenience of not writing a lot that is half the attraction. Of course, both this site and New Social Network are of the same parent so my allegience is already misplaced; but my time and my energies are drawn in other directions too much.

Progressive rock, as a genre, was tied strongly to the new technology of the day, and sought to combine musical styles in new, unthought of ways, through the raw talent of hairy young men. But to carry on performing 30 or 40 years later the product of those early years is not properly progressive, as much as it may pay the bills. It's regressive rock, Mister Emerson. Music evolves even within bands, but other artists of the time made a conscious effort then and now to change as much as possible and to always look forwards, experimenting constantly with influences both personal and prevailing, which is why Wendy Carlos tried out reinterpretations of classical pieces and moved onto microtonal composition and ambient records and scores, and why Rush has taken itself from bluesy hard rock to full blown sword-and-sorcery prog to intertwined sythesiser rhythm heaven to grunge and back to hard rock. More than ever, and perhaps not entirely unconnected with one too many setbacks, I'm becoming aware that I'm not the progressive, forward thinking, forward living creature I want to be, ought to be. It's as though I'm stuck in the past, somewhere, whence my life ... stopped. Sometimes it feels like I've been a passenger, slightly disconnected from the world around me and forever mindful of what once was, as though I haven't achieved all the grand plans in my head while the rest of me makes a good enough go of everything. One might be forgiven for thinking that has all the signs of a mind and body always busy doing and being, never taking enough time to reflect; a whirlwind of ideas never fully realised and filed away in the corners of the memory, or yet another notepad and sketchbook.

My day to day thoughts are no longer full to overflowing with a singular goal, and perhaps that's the problem. I can write, if I put my mind to it, and if I have something to write about. And therein lies the paradoxical beauty of constructing entire paragraphs about it.

I ought to be writing about the ongoing task that is the repair of the rusting piece of junk in my garage that serves as a reminder of both a more foolish and cheap me and the event that still haunts me two and a half years later. At the same time the more recent stablemate, old enough practically to be its Mother, has never properly settled in, forever sounding just a little too notchy on the downshift; unappealingly loud to the idle, with a muffled raucousness in neutral; it's the whisper of a clonk when taking a handful of front brake. The increasing eagerness to ride after taking so very long for that confidence to return is being tested sorely when one is always afraid that something else will go wrong. Gentle and infrequent commutes in the dry and the wet cannot build confidence in a rider, nor of her steed. The project to return the big machine to the road has become a black hole of time, money, enthusiasm, and misplaced ratchet straps. I fear that only when the lazy twin finally coughs into life after sleeping so soundly will that spark return. Meanwhile I carry on raiding the parts counters, electronic and bricks-and-mortar, and chip away at the work that remains. By the vice a new pair of those massive forks sits shiny and reassembled, gaiters scrubbed clean, stanchions polished, while the patient sits ever longer propped on its hydraulic jack and, canted over slightly because its fairing frame is twisted, its huge innocent eyes look forlornly towards the workbench.

I ought to be writing -- indeed I made a plan, subsequently ignored -- about trips across to Glasgow to explore the canal and the railways and the River Kelvin, and to meet friends for lunches and a 30 mile cycle here and there. To take the train through lands unknown, to stations rarely tried; the girl with wheels awaits alone the company her counterparts provide. A social gathering certainly, with a participant at once athletic and effusive, yet tired and shrinking. "Friends" is perhaps the wrong word in this particular case, or at the very least perhaps, not the best word; while "acquaintance" fits the situation, to me it still carries a more impersonal overtone than I feel is desirable. At any rate, a guiding hand to what is still a relatively new community will inevitably mean more exposure to newcomers who, with the occasional exception, by definition one doesn't know. Forever welcoming and meeting becomes taxing to those whose energies are recharged in quiet. But simultaneously the sheer need for small doses of that company is a driver that I find difficult to ignore and also difficult to act upon.

Inasmuch as today I'm lacking inspiration, we'll finish with a joke. Actually we won't, not because I have no joke to tell, which is in fact true, but because these were the toe-curlingly cringeworthy words of a lecturer whose name I would have to look up, and, sounding not a million miles away from Seven of Nine's flat instruction, "Fun will now commence", which I intend never, ever to use. The need to put something down on paper however began several days ago but was prompted today by the desire to put into words some thoughts on one of the loveliest pieces of music I've ever heard. It's not another damn prog thing, is it, I hear you ask? Yes, it is, although strictly it isn't Yes. After the first Relayer tour in 1975 the band faffed around for a time, each member working on a solo project. Alan White made Ramshackled, Patrick Moraz made I, Steve Howe made Beginnings, Chris Squire released his tour de force, Fish Out Of Water, but unsurprisingly it was Jon Anderson who stole the show with the beautiful Olias of Sunhillow. Although radioio and laut.fm tend to play one or another individual song from Olias, to me the album only works as the whole. Anderson may or may not have had help from Vangelis, and may have been completely out of his mind with the concept and the harmonies, but his outlook on life -- then as now -- of the sharing of love and happiness was so carefully wrought that the narrative often becomes another musical instrument in the production. It's the textures of the music I find so appealing: unlike Wakeman, Anderson didn't simply wheel in the old Mellotron for the flutes and violins we all know and love; his toned sounds were mostly the gentlest synthetic kind with a flute-meets-string-meets-oboe, along with his trusty acoustic guitar and beloved harp, and only occasionally did he bring in the rasp of a Moog on sawtooth with the filter cranked up. Anderson layered percussion upon multitracked chants of himself in the vein of We Have Heaven, with accents of glockenspiel and bell trees, all wrapped up in lots of echo. But it's the melodies themselves that are so absolutely gorgeous. Late in the album, Moon Ra segues into Chords, into Song of Search, and the exposed flutey string plays a simple, slow, slightly ethereal line, accompanied by a just-audible stethoscope heartbeat. Bum ... ba bum ... bum ... ba bum. The quiet of the piece is in such contrast to, and so well timed after, the rousing climactic Solid Space and the majesty of Moon Ra and Chords that one is caught in sudden reflection while the music washes over and around. The last minute and a half of the album is a reprise of sorts, with just the sparsest of arrangements that finally bade the listener goodbye as though the music was floating to the sky itself.

June 29, 2011

In bright unbroken beams

Saturday, June 25, 2011

12.06. I've been on the ECML lots of times, on Class 91 electrics, HSTs and Voyagers, and today takes the biscuit. It's cramped here in coach B for anyone with long legs and the ride is stiffly sprung and harshly damped, which means my handwriting is all over the place. Mind you, this is the Edinburgh to Newcastle section, which is always slow and bumpy and twisting. I even had to change seat because my booked seat was so tight as to wedge my kneecaps hard up against the one in front. It's also very stuffy in here, in the quiet coach, and not all that quiet. Just passing Morpeth now. My GPS has recorded an average speed of 95.1mph over 107 miles, and 123mph top speed.

I still feel sure I've forgotten to bring something, but I never did make a 'going away' list. I checked with next door for feeding the wee ones, so that's ok at least. The Brompton is wedged into a luggage bay, not as much space as on a Voyager, but it's ok. I slung the lock around it to be safer, but I'm at the power car end so it's less populous on the station platform. I did scout around the back-to-back seats but they're full of bulkheads or too narrow or have boxes marked "Danger" and "Risk of Electrocution" taking up the space. Man, it's really stuffy in here.

Dave says he'll come to this evening ride if he's there in time, so I might at least have some company, though I think everyone probably knows him. It should be fun, though, as I haven't seen Peter since the last time I was at the show. I'm not really sure why I keep going -- I'm not unaware of new bikes, but I also don't need another one (yet), and I don't need more clothes or more tools.

12.25 and Newcastle. At least this time there seems to be a fairly strong forum presence planned, if they hang around for Sunday; I've booked Monday off for travelling home, so I'll be doing that fairly early. It's interesting how you hear the 'whoosh' of the power car as it energises itself before the train moves off. Ok, another 80 miles to go and maybe time for some proper speed! I'm obviously in too deep already, noticing where goods yards used to be, sidings, old embankments ... it's all ever so slightly ridiculous. But it also reminds me of how much our railways have gone to the dogs, and the roads. We'll be into York about 13.30 so there should be plenty of time to get to my hostel and dump some stuff before visiting the museum. I might -- ooh, this train really jerks as it changes gear -- spend a bit of time seeing York more, and maybe see if I can buy a decent case for my telephoto lens.

Heh. There's a Dad in the seat near me who's just been told off by his seven year-old daughter for letting his iPhone start playing music far too loudly. Twice. Lots of disapproving looks, not just from me! 12.38 and Durham, and we still haven't gone more than 123mph. Driver must be conservative today.

Just gone 13.00 and speeding out of Darlington to Northallerton. I've just noticed that the old train shed at Darlington South Junction still has its little turntable.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

14.16. Well then, I had a nice wander around the National Railway Museum yesterday afternoon, once I was installed in the hostel, which took a while. It was really quite busy. I took lots of probably not very good photos, and then walked back to the hostel to get my bike and collect my bikey stuff. I pottered over to the show, and rode up and down, before eventually finding Peter and a bunch of Velovisioners, and then the yACF contingent arrived as well -- all doing the pub ride! I saw Tony and Joan and TJ, and it was good to see them again. Once at the pub I bumped into Charlotte and Julian who somehow hadn't spotted me earlier (I must've been on the wrong bike), plus Kim and Adam and others. Dinner, which was a big veggie burger with chips and coleslaw, took ages as they had so many orders but it was excellent food. I chatted with Peter, Sue, Mr Sue, Dylan, and Dave who'd just arrived. It was beginning to get dark about 21.45 but we didn't set off until gone 22.00, though no problem as I'd brought lights anyway, and rode back into town along the cycle path through Bishopthorpe and over to the racecourse.

It was good catching up with people. I chatted longer with Dylan before creeping back into the hostel without turning on the light. It was a very hot night and I eventually slept only on and off, plus I needed my earplugs which I'd also thoughtfully brought with me. The man in the top bunk was snoring like a trooper, poor guy.

I was up again at 8.15 and had a lovely breakfast of cornflakes, a croissant with peanut butter and some orange juice. I ambled into town for the show and then over to Charlotte and Julian's tent to say hello and have a cup of tea. I never had tea with milk that came out of a squeezy tube before. So it was about 9.30 and already t-shirt and shorts weather, but I'd brought layers with me just in case, because it always rains at York during the show (except the very first time when I went with Liz, and when it tried to thunder and ended up being roasting hot). And so far, it's roasting hot here! I wandered around the trade tents afterwards with Tony who was camped nearby, and we had a long and interesting conversation about everything under the sun. I did buy a second headlight in the end, although the shoes and socks were all in 'common' sizes so there was very little to fit me. After that I was kind of done by about 11.00, but I wandered around some more anyway.

I chatted to Tony, Joan, TJ and Kim in the food tent and then bought a big hotdog for lunch. It came out of a caravan but actually it was very good. Gosh, it's so warm today! They left and I finished my hotdog, then I went back to Tony's tent and met Adam again. While we were chatting there a guy from Edinburgh came over to us -- he wasn't from yACF or any other forum I knew of, but he was interested in my bike because he was tall too. So then I had a longish chat with him! I didn't bring any sunglasses or a hat and the sun is intense. But so far I'm not burned so that's ok. Dave just called so maybe I'll catch up later on. I can see a huge queue for the ice cream van that's parked up a little way from here. I cannot believe the weather -- it was trying to rain when I cycled down to Waverley. Actually I'm feeling a bit heady right now, and I'm not sure what's best to do, but some riding might be better than sitting like a sea lion on the the rocks.

There are lots of Bromptons around, I saw an Easy Racers Ti-Rush, Lee's brought his Fujin, and there's a Greenspeed tandem; then there are Dawes Galaxies, the odd Litespeed and all kinds of tourers. I also met Nick Lobnitz from Carry Freedom, so I spoke to him for a while about the Paper Bicycle. Decent guy, and a good simple bike.

Hmm, it's interesting how it's now mid-afternoon and I've defaulted to writing and sitting by myself. It's not unpleasant, mind you, except for the heat. It's only a shame that the silence is broken by so many little petrol generators for the burger vans.

16.23. Well I wanted good weather and I got it. This afternoon I think the sun's got to me -- the sweat is pouring off me (mmm, nice!) and I'm feeling headachey and wobbly. I took myself to the supermarket down the road to buy bananas and chocolate milk because I remember what A told me two years ago when I was in the same condition ("eat this, and drink a ton of water"). So I've had one and a half bananas -- they're a good size too -- and I've drunk everything in my water bottle, so fingers crossed. The shop was closing at 16.00, which I couldn't believe, so there was no time or presence of mind to buy paracetamol or a towel or a hat. If I'd only brought my Buff I could have soaked it in cold water. And I'm too cheap to buy another Buff, because goodness knows there's enough choice of them here today. I really need a lie down, to be honest. Dave is off somewhere, Tony's in his tent for a siesta and a plunk, and I wish I didn't get so affected by things like this. The chocolate milk is very good, even though it's Tesco and therefore I don't like it.

It's been a mixed day, really, it started nice and people gradually dispersed. I could have wandered around York but I didn't.

17.03 and I'm feeling a bit better, as long as the sun doesn't get too much. I seem to have acquired rather red legs and arms, in a rather typical cyclist manner. It's still so warm! The show is mostly tidying up now. There are rumours abound that this show is going to be the last one, even more so than the one before, and the one before that.

22.00. I spent the early evening with Tony, Kim, Marj and her family at their caravan and was fed cake. Dave came along later on. I talked to them for a while before the family left for town to get a meal; the rest of us talked a bit longer and footered around in the sun ... but I had to get into the shade because I was cooking and I felt pretty rubbish. Tony came over to chat and I suddenly felt ready to cry from the heat and exhaustion. Fortunately I got over it. We finally left about 18.30; Tony and Kim left for their tents and Dave and I went to find something for dinner. I had a quick change into more normal clothes, and thought I was looking a bit red. Just down the road was a take away, so we ordered pizzas (nice and safe, ham and pineapple for me and about the right size). We eventually ate them at the river side, sitting on the wall with my feet dangling. I would've liked to have my feet in the water but it was a bit manky, plus there were lots of ducks and geese to peck at me. We had a long conversation about cycling and trains and stuff.

I'm sitting here on my bed with my Buff finally soaked in cold water and draped over my forehead. Ahhh! So, an interesting day, not the best for heat and health, but ok. At least I can do more night riding now. When I got back to the hostel the others weren't around yet so I put the light on. I am BRIGHT RED. It was never meant to be so sunny or warm -- I had my cotton 3/4s, my long sleeved HH top and my Goretex jacket with me in my bag because I was sure it was going to rain or be cold. Nothing of the sort, just heatstroke. Mmm, I'm trying to finish my chocolate milk before going to bed; feeling hot and full, and my Buff is dripping cold water on me! So to tomorrow, and an easy start.

Monday, June 27, 2011

11.23. I've just caught my train home. The coach is lovely, the weather is lovely, the temperature in here is lovely, everything's lovely. I was expecting a Class 91 electric at 10.32, and I'm actually onboard a Voyager at 11.18 -- running just a touch late. I'm in the quiet coach on this formation, right at the back, with loads and loads of leg room and little Henrietta Brompton is living on the not-busy-at-all rearmost luggage rack.

I went for a wander over to York Minster to get some photographs and to generally enjoy the place. I set off from there for the station about 10.00, and fairly whizzed along the road. I bumped into Tony on the station concourse so we had another long chat! At that point an Australian cyclist turned up, all sunburned nose and scalp, with a Revolution touring bike and a bike bag for his flight. We talked to him for a bit, he left for his airport train, and then we resumed our own, to talk about wildlife photography. It was a nice, final, chance meeting.

I also had a long chat at breakfast time with a couple from Dunoon who'd been at the show as well. He, a teacher, immediately recognised my engineering interests, and they went so far as to offer me a cup of tea and a bed if I was ever over that way and drookit! Otherwise, the hostel itself was quite businessy, in a way, not as homely or bohemian as Oban was, or indeed mad Carole's place. I took some pics of the grand insides before I left and some of the outside. Apart from dying from the heat, it's been not too bad a trip -- but then adventures always suck when you're having them. What I am looking forward to is seeing the wee ones again.

12.33. The train is still running about 45 minutes late. They said it was to do with problems with lineside equipment near Tamworth, and they hinted at further problems. Great! The quiet coach filled up at Newcastle with the Ibiza bunch, all suntans and overly-blonde hair and mobile phones not set to silent. Mind you, there is precious little reception here and the coach (or DVT I suppose) is completely GPS-proof, so I have no idea how fast we're going. The train guard did acknowledge this fact, with a knowing yet weary smile, when I asked him earlier.

Postscript. The journey back to Edinburgh was as quick as it was uneventful, and true to expectations it was raining when I pedalled out of Waverley Station. But after a mile of Princes St and a stop to buy a birthday card the drizzle was no match for my sunburned arms and legs, as I peeled off Goretex for Helly Hansen and then just my t-shirt for the hilly ride homewards. Through the door and after a quick change of clothes I was out again to buy a present for my next door neighbour, then I was lifting kitchen floor tiles to clear up a little reminder that I wasn't the only one who'd felt unwell during the weekend. With the tiles disinfected and hosed down I then set to repairing the bag of cat food which had been sliced open and cut to ribbons by claws unknown, and then retired to the garage to drill holes in Velma the VFR's windscreen to fit a spoiler.

And then with a dinner of huge slabs of lasagne inside me, I had very long, very enjoyable, hot shower. Maps were put away, batteries were recharged and photographs were pored over. And so, happily, to bed.

May 24, 2011

Let the fray begin

'Yes are winding up the big machinery', he said. Back in late 1995, Steve Howe from Yes had been talking about his meeting with Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, Rick Wakeman and Alan White, and their new "all for one and one for all" rehearsals in San Luis Obispo. That culminated in the now-legendary SLO reformation gigs and the Keys to Ascension albums, and the rest is history. Around the same time, the boys in Primus had recorded only their fourth studio album, Tales from the Punchbowl, and were busy powering their way through MTV's Most Wanted (with VJ Ray "Peace...25g!" Cokes at the helm) and innumerable outdoor festivals. And the Rush machine had toured the slightly grungy sounding Counterparts album and, a year out of step, was getting set to record the long-awaited, modernistic Test For Echo for 1996.

Fast forwarding 15 years -- fifteen! -- Yes has been in the doldrums but perking up of late; Primus has disbanded and rebanded, mucked around, and is carrying on as usual; meanwhile the boys in Rush, ever the innovators, have built themselves a time machine and are taking it on tour.

It's been a long time coming, actually: four years, but it's a steam powered time machine so I suppose one must give them some leeway. In 2004 and 2007 I was down in Manchester with my friend Liz for their R30 and Snakes and Arrows concerts, and I wrote an account of the latter ("Workin' them angels"); at the start of this year my brother had managed to get tickets for the latest tour, of which I had somehow managed to hear absolutely nothing. Considering that Rush first came into my consciousness in about 1992, just after they had left the UK and finished up on the Roll the Bones tour, and with me wondering whether I would ever get to see them live, the third time in eight years was going to be pretty good going. There were rumours that the band had even recorded some new music but not a complete album, and was taking some of those songs on the road. The last time I thought that had happened was with a prototype of Subdivisions, back in 1981 or 1982, and the epic of Xanadu long before that. Keen not to spoil the surprise of new music or the new stageshow, I stayed well away from anything Rush-related. So it was with a happy, optimistic ignorance that I went with my brother and a friend to Newcastle Metro Radio Arena to catch Rush in full flow.

Most recently I'd been to the city virtually, via aerial photographs, to carry out some research on behalf of Newcastle Libraries about the former Forth Goods Station, which curiously enough I'd read about shortly before in From The Footplate: Elizabethan; before then it was only a flying visit, onboard The Cathedrals Express to Carlisle. I'd seen the green-roofed venue and its insalubrious surroundings from the train to London or York many times, but the last time I was in the city on my own two feet was when I visited my friend Charlotte. I think it was so long ago that The Mighty Boosh were still hot property. We had an easy, slightly GPS-assisted drive down and installed ourselves in the car park. Somewhat mysteriously there had been no barrier or ticket machines, and after asking the disinterested girl at the booking office and returning to the car to ask someone else more useful, the rotund security man who looked as though he had more important things to be secure about, like his folding chair, seemed to say 'Yawready part, duhwurry.' although through his thick regional accent it might equally have been his opinion on the latest cricket scores. I slung my bag around on my shoulder, and with the shrugging of shoulders we headed out of the venue and into town, in search of food.

Our wander underneath the dark girders of the railway and up the hill towards civilisation was made all the more creepy when we realised someone was following us, occasionally shouting things in our direction in a loud, penetrating voice. I chanced a look behind me: he was thin and walking with a stiff but purposeful stride, marching almost; we turned the corner and carried on in our supposedly nonchalant manner, but quickly crossed over the road. He followed. I turned around for a second time, slowed and stopped, and he strode past, his eyes fixed ahead like laser targeting beams. His bright pink gloves were a curious match for his anonymous grey trousers and hooded top. We followed him up to the station and watched as he made his determined way along. 'I will have order!' he cried out, arms stretched out wide, as he passed a surprised couple walking in the opposite direction. Perhaps he was an actor, publically rehearsing his lines and character with overt confidence.

We ate at a Pizza Express that had a strange look to it like a reinterpreted 1950s diner, with an angular windowed upstairs landing that looked out on the mall beyond and everyone eating below, as though it had dropped in from a Hollywood space invaders film. In fact, the place had all the hallmarks of Googie architecture. My pizza was large and thin with lashings of red onions and spinach, and at length I followed it up with a huge slice of tiramisu for energy. After all, there was a three-hour concert and a straight two-hour drive home still to come.

Back at the Arena with plenty of time in hand we scanned our way in through the entrance and took in the cavernous concrete underbelly of the seating tiers. I bought myself the latest tourbook, respendent in rivetted copper with delicate gearwheels inscribed with mysterious symbols; Rush, and Hugh Syme, are no strangers to implanting clues and puns on album covers or in the gatefold sleeves: a string of binary digits here, a fire hydrant there, a clock set to twelve minutes past nine, a collection of old television sets, a microphone stand made of Tinkertoy spools...; and to cement the Time Machine theme, an odometer-style counter reading 02011. Rush produces very nice merchandise, it must be said, and I would add it to my little collection dating back to the Permanent Waves tour of early 1979. After attending two previous concerts without the requisite tour t-shirt, I was tempted to buy one this time around, but the ticket had already cost me 65 Pounds, plus the tourbook. I'm a big fan of the band, but even I have my limits!

And with that we took ourselves inside, into the gloom. It was big, not the really big of Manchester, nor the pretty big and decidedly plush of the Edinburgh Playhouse or the fairly big and moderately plush of Newcastle City Hall, and the floor I noticed was concrete as smooth as glass. The curve of the wall hit the point home: this was actually an ice hockey arena, though the clacking of wood and fibreglass and the splashing of blood was about to be replaced by the metronomic pounding of drumsticks, and the splashing of beer. After inspecting the sound desk for a moment, all laptops and rows upon rows of buttons and sliders, we found our seats, at most a dozen rows from the stage on Geddy's side. This suited me fine, of course, with a clear view to his Roland Fantom X7, Moog Little Phatty and bass pedals, over to Neil's elaborate drumkit gleaming in copper and gold and red, and across to Alex's Art Deco guitar amplifers, in beautifully carved wood inlaid with Hughes & Kettner logos. Wood? Copper? And what were those great glass lenses behind Geddy's spot, looking like oversized traffic lights with trumpets coming out of the top?

Time Machine. And as Neil explained in his liner notes, it was the era of Steampunk, that romantic vision of the future as it ought to have been, when men wore hats and carried canes, a world at once eclectic and anachronistic. One might as well be describing the very music of Rush.

The show began with a new film showcasing the irreverent humour of the boys, and in process introduced them to the stage where they dived right into The Spirit of Radio, and the crowd joined in immediately, everyone on their feet. I fiddled around with my earplugs, trying to make sure I could hear the twiddly bass line without being swamped by the guitar chords as happened last time, satisfied myself with the result, and started singing along with everyone else. Standing next to me were two men, from Dublin, I learned later, who had seemingly come prepared with at least three pints inside them and whose enthusiasm was firing on all cylinders.

'Ruuuush!! F*** yeah!! Woooo!!' the one next to me yelled, more than once as the song ended. He turned to face me, his fist shaking. 'Ruuush!!'
'Oh come now, my good man, there's no need to shout so. You're making a spectacle. I love the boys just as much as you.'

Actually I didn't say that. 'Yeahh!!' was the best I could manage while still acclimatising to the Rules of Block A. The band went straight into, of all things, Time Stand Still, from their Hold Your Fire album of 1987. My voice wasn't as warmed up as Geddy's and I struggled a bit with the 'Freeze this moment a little bit longer' line, though I don't think anyone else noticed. Dublinman was too busy jumping around. There was a brief moment that shouldn't have been frozen any longer when a bass pedal note stuck on for too many beats, but they had their hands and feet full with that song. Another unexpected song was up next, Presto, from their 1989 album of the same name. It's not one of my favourite albums by a long shot, especially compared with the synth-happy Hold Your Fire, for its darker mix and generally dark subject matter, although I do like Show Don't Tell and Hand Over Fist.

A quick change of bass for a dropped-D tuning and Geddy introduced the next song: Stick. It. Out., lingering for a moment on the 'Ouuuut'. For this one the big screen played the swirling blue of the music video, which I remembered from the early days of The American Top Ten on ITV. That was a wonderful programme, in the days before the Internet, before YouTube and instant gratification of information searches; younger innocent days when all you had was the ITV Chart Show, Top of the Pops, and the Top 40 on Teletext. Goodness me, the younger generation have never had it so easy. TATT was a window into cool, unusual new music, made by people I'd never heard of, like De La Soul, Gary Hoey, Toni Braxton, Aerosmith, Donald Fagen, Soundgarden, Anthrax, a revitalised hip new Duran Duran... Of course, back then I'd been listening to a bit of Iron Maiden and pirated Guns N' Roses tapes, or Hans Wurman, or a whole lot of classical pieces, and I hadn't broadened my horizons much through NME or Kerrang. And then as 1994 came along, bringing with it the World Wide Web, suddenly everything started to become accessible and nothing was amazing anymore, and The American Top Ten dropped off the airwaves. Now, along with Richard Blade, it seems to have dropped off the face of the earth entirely. I fiddled again with my earplugs, pulled them out to see how loud it was and quickly pushed them back in, and fiddled again for good measure.

The show took a leap forwards to 2007 and Workin' Them Angels, from their brilliant Snakes and Arrows album, and the subsequent equally brilliant tour. Never was a song so well in tune with the rhythm of cycling and touring ('Carried away on a wave of music down a desert road...'), and the crowd was in full voice again. Melody was something that was mysteriously absent on the Vapor Trails album, although I think it was more out of experiment than a paucity of ideas, but they absolutely hit the jackpot on Snakes and Arrows. Damn that's a good album. And straight off the back of that came the steamy, flutey, off-kilter synth pad rhythm that signified the start of Leave That Thing Alone, the instrumental off Counterparts, from 1993. I made sure I had full view of Geddy's left hand, just to see how he played it: plucking every note or pulling-off for minimal effort as I tend to do. Counterparts also signified Neil's move to DW Drums which for a first go sounded robust but lacking in resonance, especially on record, but that was 18 years ago and now, several iterations later we had that tuned pow! sound of the Roll The Bones era that I enjoyed so much. The boys were on a roll and obviously having fun on stage, with Geddy going for broke for an extra couple of minutes at the end of the tune, just for the hell of it.

Then we were back to 2007 and Faithless, a slower-paced song with a lovely string part that's evocative of soaring, swooping Scottish melodies. 'And that's faith enough for me...' chorused the entire audience.

Bringing the show right up to date was a brand new song, [I Was] Brought Up To Believe, although Neil -- so critical of society in the early days of the Internet and instant communication -- had gone so far as to textualise it as BU2B! Dublinman, sporting a spoof Rush t-shirt, had already learned the song off by heart and belted out the words while the tall girl beside him tried her best to catch a riff and a phrase. Who knew that Rush could sound so heavy? We all thought that Counterparts was a departure from the complicated melodic sensibilities, but ... wow! Some songs instantly connect in my brain, like Motorhead's I Don't Believe A Word and Merri-May Gill's Hello, although I think this one needs a few more listens first. Even most of Test For Echo took time to grow on me.

Freewill was up next, one of the crowd-pleasers for its ludicrously high vocal line (c/o vintage Geddy Lee) and the no holds barred middle section where the guitar, bass and drums each goes off at a tangent in very fast three-four time. I used to wonder if the band was trying to copyright its music by making it as difficult as possible to play, though that hasn't stopped legions of tribute acts, and me, from taking it by the scruff of the neck and working through the runs. From the long hair of 1979's Permanent Waves album we slid forwards just six years to the time of sports jackets with the sleeves rolled up, white t-shirts with bold angular prints, and stacks of synthesisers with floppy disk drives and keypads. 'Ping, ping, ping' tinkled the Fantom for the introduction to Marathon. Now that's a song that's fun to perform, with its urgent staccato bass line through the verses and the monstrous pedal sounds and lush pads of the chorus. It all rushed by in about four minutes flat. I'm fairly sure Dublinman and I were singing at the tops of our voices again.

And three years back in time we went for the closing piece of Part One: the awesome Subdivisions. All heads turned towards the centre of the stage to watch Neil -- the master -- letting his arms and legs adopt entirely different rhythms on bass drum, hi-hat, ride cymbal and snare, all combining seamlessly every other bar for two beats before going off again. The video screen replayed segments from the original video, all vacant-looking anonymous housing developments and anonymous lives, while Alex and Geddy alternated with the shrill melodies on guitar and Moog. 'Be cool, or be cast out!' At that precise moment there were about 3003 amazingly cool people in one place and at least three of them singing.

For the next half an hour the house lights were on and people disappeared to buy beer, t-shirts and probably more beer. I watched as one man came back to his seat wearing two t-shirts, removed the topmost one, casually removed the second and pulled on the other again. Several pairs of eyes swivelled in their sockets to observe that fine male specimen. It at least took my attention away for a moment from Dublinman and his partner in crime who were having a loud animated conversation with the two men sitting in front of me, while I attempted to read my tourbook in peace. My brother came back soon after, with a pint of beer, which I tried. Kinda nice, kinda bitter for my tastes, I thought, and with that I had another glass of ye olde Edinbvrgh waterre. The video screen had changed to a big odometer clock, slowly counting up from about 01975. I quickly realised what would happen when it reached 01981.

The lights quickly dimmed right down and a roar came up from the crowd. The clock had only reached 01980, and I suddenly second-guessed myself. Me, a Rush fan who knows the release dates of every album; who knows which is the longest: The Fountain of Lamneth, 2112, or Hemispheres; who knows the running time to the second of Power Windows? I was sure about it! But then, maybe not, for the show was about to begin. And this was the raison d'ĂȘtre for everyone in the Arena: a chance to hear the legendary Moving Pictures album played in its entirety, from start to finish. So no surprises then that the first song was Tom Sawyer. I took a moment to look around the crowd to spot all the air drummers for the play-every-single-drum fill. Having gone for broke during Freewill you couldn't blame Geddy for taking it a little easier on the vocal duties, and they quickly segued into Red Barchetta, introduced with an amusing little film with toy cars. I don't remember very much about the performance of the song, as my brain was too busy thinking about the next one, the titanically tricky instrumental, YYZ. With the guitar and bass doubling each other, the crowd doubled both of them with seemingly every single fan joining in. The little bass and drum solos were flawless as ever. Without pausing for breath they went straight into Limelight, with Alex taking the reins this time with a superbly chunky guitar sound. 'All the world's indeed a stage, and we are merely players...'

The the big one, the one that rarely gets an airing at any concert: The Camera Eye, and at last a rhythm as offbeat as it sounds to sing 'An an-gu-lar mass-of-New Yorkers' -- five-four, or ten-eight, depending on how you define it. Ten minutes went by with lyrics about America and London, and I couldn't help myself with one of the more famously mis-heard lines, 'but the city is calm and there's fire in the sea.' By now the crowd was nearly climbing the walls with excitement. 'Ruuush!! Woooo! Yeaahhh!!', and my left ear was attacked again.

The slow, unnerving, Part III of "Fear" of Witch Hunt came next, with Neil alternating between normal and electronic drums and Geddy teasing out spine tingling chords on the Moog. Many times I prefer the polished studio versions of songs, whether by Rush or anyone else, except possibly Level 42 whose studio cuts always sounded desperately sterile, but Witch Hunt, having made it onto both the Grace Under Pressure tour video (VHS and DVD!) and, in full-on Simmons drumpads mode, the live album A Show of Hands -- both time machines in their own way now --, is a song that comes across beautifully in either environment.

And so to Vital Signs, the intelligent comparison of humans and electronics, with that memorable synth sequence introducing the verses, and then played repeatedly on the bass while Alex played slashing guitar chords all around it. A few more minutes and the long "outro" took us all the way through the album, and the crowd went completely mad.

The second new song from the future album, Clockwork Angels -- a concept album, no less! -- was called Caravan. I especially enjoyed hearing that familiar stop-time feel peculiar to so many other Rush songs: some 'intentionally herky-jerky', as a youthful Geddy once described it, others a calculated but effortless vacillation between four and five and seven. My counterpart knew the song off by heart already, and the new album is looking like it'll be a monster. Vapor Trails was easy to top; Snakes and Arrows less so. Alex and Geddy disappeared off stage, leaving Neil to perform his latest edition of his solo piece, Love 4 Sale, for drums and percussion. It was technically brilliant, mixing African influences with Big Band, but sounded less composed than his previous works such as The Rhythm Method and O Baterista. After about ten minutes of non-stop action, Neil ran off stage for a breather and Alex came on to perform a lovely short tune on his twelve-string acoustic. The audience was appreciative and absolutely silent.

Back as a trio, they fired into their long-time concert stalwart, Closer to the Heart, 'a little Spanish song'. No sooner had they finished it than the ethereal swooshing of an ARP 2600 (sampled and MIDI triggered now, of course) started up, for the beginning of their seminal album, 2112. Suddenly I wondered whether, after treating the audience to an entire album already, whether they might roll out the whole twenty minutes of Side One, but they cut it, probably sensibly, to the stageshow version of Part I: Overture and Part II: Temples of Syrinx. Legions of fans punched holes in the air at the appropriate moments. At once point a wise man with a long beard, dressed in a white silk robe and carrying a staff, wandered onto the stage and fiddled with the Time Machine, its spinning horn speeding up and its lights pulsing faster. Just after, someone in a chicken suit appeared stage right, alongside someone dressed as a gorilla, while Geddy wailed over the top about taking control of everything.

Rush wrapped up the concert with the first song from Snakes and Arrows, introduced with the oh-so-typical offbeat pounding of toms and chords, and a tune you can hum to your heart's content. Far Cry is one of Rush's best moments of the last twenty years. I remember the sneak preview they made available online before the album was launched. It was only the very first part of the introduction -- the offbeat bit -- but it caught every diehard fan's attention with that final magic chord: the Hemispheres chord!

Of course, every concert has to have an encore nowadays, and within a minute the boys were back on stage for a final workout, a chance to goof around and generally impress the hell out of everyone. What we heard was something sounding like a fairground ride, with tuba and tinkly Glockenspiel and Hammond organ in a playful polka, and after a few bars Neil gradually morphed his drum beat into the more familiar frenzy that was La Villa Strangiato: ten minutes of solid instrumental. And finally, they continued the confusion with a slow reggae tune that was reminiscent of Walking on the Moon by The Police, with that bum-babah bum-babah rhythm, Alex playing choppy chords on the last beat, Geddy a slightly funky, slightly sinuous, wiry sounding bass line. What the heck? Only the words eventually gave it away: it was a completely screwed up arrangement of one of their earliest songs, Working Man. They fooled around with it for at least a verse before switching back into their proper manner of playing, Geddy's voice hitting the high notes with aplomb and Alex absolutely on fire for his extended solo spot a bit later. They topped it all off with a few bars of Cygnus X-1, just for fun.

'Thank you very much ... Goodnight!' Well, thank you, chaps. As they scampered off the stage to the tourbuses, the video screen played a lengthy scene of two rabid fans with All Access passes having the worst -- and the best -- encounter of their lives with their heroes. Some of the audience had also scampered to catch trains and beat the 11pm traffic perhaps, but most of us stayed resolutely in our seats, the entirety of the stalls still standing, three hours in. That's the sort of attention Rush generates, 37 years on from the hairy chested, moustachioed bravado of their early twenties.

If they visit the UK again, say in another four or five years, I'll be there.

May 22, 2011

In the oldest eyes there's a soul so young

According to the more helpful Wikipedia, rather than the less helpful MSN whose article reminded me at the time, World Book Day was on April 23rd. In the UK, just to be contrary and to avoid Easter it seems, we hold it on March 3rd. Of course, World Book Day is about encouraging children to read and to realise the enjoyment and journeys of imagination that we all know and love from the printed word.

Plying the airwaves was a short BBC series called My Life in Books, and each edition brought together two notable people from (predominantly) television to talk about their favourite books and what each meant to them and perhaps what those books says about themselves. The series was mercifully free of celebrities in the traditional, quote-unquote sense, a television production more akin to the cosy confines of Telly Addicts with comfortable sofas, coffee tables and carpets. MSN had asked its own staff the question at the time, and it sparked the thought for me.

What book changed my life? Is there in fact a predictable answer?

I was quite young, no more than ten years old, when I discovered the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a single nine-and-a-quarter pound tome of 2537 pages. It unlocked a whole world of incredible and impossibly unlikely sounding words, accompanied by squiffy pronunciation symbols and a raft of archaic references that made very nearly no sense whatsoever. To an essay writer of moderate enthusiasm at school but of less enthusiasm for the contorted, impenetrable lexicon of Shakespeare, but simultaneously the indisputed top speller in her class, this was in fact exciting stuff. What the dictionary impressed upon me most was the notion of there being a word for every instance, a word contrived to represent a precise situation or condition. Plain English I applaud, against the sheer arrogance of some individuals whose writing I detest for the poor sentence construction that seems geared to both obfuscation and self-aggrandisement, but I don't applaud Plain English At All Costs. There is a time and place for addendum, adjunct and appendix, but not the wholesale replacement with addition or also.

There exists a word for every occasion, save for insufficiency of acquaintance, I might say. This is probably not so different from Peter Roget's outlook when he devised his Thesaurus. But like Roget, the OED to James Murray and his immediate predecessors Richard Chenevix Trench, Herbert Coleridge and Frederick Furnivall, and much as were the individual works of other lexicographers such as Noah Webster, Samuel Johnson, John Phillips, Thomas Blount, Robert Cawdrey, and John Withals, was indeed a desideratum of the necessary qualification hitherto unsupplied in any language. To this day I keep a dictionary within easy reach of my desk, though to spare my back I prefer my Chambers Concise version, of a mere but satisfyingly and improvingly grubby well-thumbed 1298 pages.

Rather than one book singled out from its friends for such lifechangery, when I thought about this entry originally I had in mind four others that contributed, especially in my younger years.

Sci-fi! was a collection of children's short stories by one or more authors lost in both the mists of time and my memory. In fact, I don't even know if these were excerpts from complete novels. Star Trek wasn't a big feature in my life; Star Wars existsed only as a colouring book with a red cover and Lando on the front cover, and some three-inch tall plastic figures with chewing marks on the legs. So books were my real introduction to space, foreign planets, and aliens, and Sci-fi! made sufficient impact on me that I still remember bits of it: the rubbery Hypnoplastoids from Gerneid; Bork and Hamer who broke out of Pris-Sat 9; there was a young boy and the hospitalised old man, and a somewhat symbiotic relationship that foreshadowed nuclear disarmament (very Cold War that one, looking back). Despite my best efforts I can't find a copy anywhere on the web. I do know, now, that it's pronounced sye-fye, and not sky-fye... That lightweight introduction brought me gently to Nicholas Fisk (that is, David Higginbottom) whose works I devoured at school, which led to the choose-your-own-adventure Fighting Fantasy books that in the invariable absence of both friends and dice, I played myself using the "cover the options, and think of a number" method. My Dark Ages ended much later with the timeworn Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, quickly followed by most of Douglas Adams' other works in that vein, accompanied by an occasional Asimov title. But the fantasy genre perhaps lay deeper.

While still at school and having experimented with science fiction, Asterix and dictionaries, I discovered David Eddings. Holy cow. Pawn of Prophecy, the first book in his series The Belgariad hit me like a ton of bricks. I'd never known fiction like it, with characters and a depth of backstory I hadn't imagined was possible in writing. Who could not tingle with excitement at Garion's first faltering use of magic, or the power belied by Aunt Pol's school teachery demeanor, and wish for a shock of silver hair; who could not love Hettar's unique and unbridled love of horses; who could not enjoy a little laugh at Silk's secret sign language so cleverly presented to the reader as an entirely new idea? While Eddings was perhaps treading the overly familiar territory of Tolkein before him, in my happy ignorance I had not read The Hobbit, nor Lord of the Rings. And so before very long I would get through each day almost jumping with excitement to go to bed early and completely immerse myself in my newfound world for hours and hours and hours. The Belgariad led without hesitation to its successor The Mallorean, and the world of Torak, Belgarion and Ce'Nedra continued apace. There was a quite considerable hole in my life when I turned the last page of Seeress of Kell. I'm of a mind to re-read the entire series starting tomorrow, but, incredibly, I am yet to acquaint myself with the land of Middle Earth and perhaps I should.

If there was a Roald Dahl book that had any effect on me, it was part two of his autobiography, the same autobiography which he claimed he never would write. Boy was a window into the young Dahl life of boarding schools, canings by the Headmaster and holidays in Norway, but Going Solo was much more interesting because it was of a time slightly more familiar through the regularity of The Six o'Clock News, poppies and Panorama; a time of the great war, of lions and snakes and rickety aeroplanes, and adults. But why stop with Dahl? Lots of other people have written about their lives, or written about other people's lives. And so it began, stepping for a time into the shoes of actors, television presenters, sportsmen and women, even lexicographers. I was fascinated to find out about famed commentator Murray Walker's military days, Billy Connelly's shipyard upbringing, Farrockh Bulsara's enthusiasm to join some little pop band, and the daring tales of Anne Mustoe and Lois Price, who biked all over the world just because it felt like a good idea.

But still there are others, too, without wanting to create a list of every book I have ever read. Cyclecraft made me re-evaluate the way I ride my bicycle, for better and possibly for worse. The Well of Loneliness educated me in its stilted manner about self-confidence and the internal wrangling of a couple of friends of mine. A Brief History of Time made me want to be a scientist, before confusing me so comprehensively that it was 15 years before I understood The Universe in a Nutshell. My brane still hurts a little bit.

I recently worked my way through The Measure of All Things (the Seven Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World), Lambert's Railway Miscellancy, and I'm plugging through Rush: Rock Music and The Middle Class. I shall need to get some fiction back in there!

Every book that 'changed my life!' could be considered a favourite in its heyday, and perhaps a stepping stone to my outlook of today. The main characters of a little story book called The Lorax are a narrating, short stubby creature with a huge whiskery moustache, a small boy, and a seemingly wise but reclusive thing known as the Once-ler that as I recall lives inside a ramshackle treehouse. Printed in a magnificent palette of about five colours, and full of mechanised flights of fancy in an increasingly barren world, Dr Seuss impressed hugely upon my young mind the values of environmental responsibility. In fact, despite not having read the book for years and years, I can still picture nearly every page and if I try really hard, even some of the words.

The landscape of magnificent Truffula Trees, so bountiful in their days and chopped down with ever more enthusiasm by ever more efficient axe-swinging caterpiller-tracked machines, as though the very lovechild of Heath Robinson and Rube Goldberg, became reduced to a land of stumps. Only one seed remained, held by the Once-ler who finally mourned its actions and at last given to the small boy in the hope that he might learn of their destruction and begin their long journey to repopulation. I learned about the fantastic yet blinded attraction to invent a better and better machine -- a better weapon -- and I also learned about the immense sadness of the Lorax at the state of his world, of unfettered greed at the expense of the very land in which we live and on which our lives depend.

All this from a children's book read nearly 30 years ago? In fact it's as affecting to me now as it was then.