Monday, 21 July 2014

Pale Blue Dot


Grandson duties yesterday required me to coral the darling little monster and herd him into a wire pen filled with death machines, otherwise known as a playground. The place was deserted apart from a small group of five small children and their two dogs. I sat my aged bones down on a particularly evilly built bench obviously designed to make you stand up as quickly as possible. But I'm built of stubborn stuff and continued to sit as the darling GC ingratiated himself with the dogs and children in the Pit of Fun.

The dogs doggedly put up with his kind, though rough, administrations for a mere few minutes before skulking over to me with pleading desperate eyes. They recognised a much put upon kindred spirit I suppose. Despite minding my own business, soon I was delightfully surrounded by small children and smelly dogs.

"I'm Chloe," said a small girl who had decided entirely without invitation to sit close along with her large dog which she plonked on her lap, "and I'm eight, and this is Patch," she added offering me the somewhat hot dog. 

I declined as politely as possible as I neither like hotdogs nor hot dogs.  

'And this is Lucy, she's four...' 'No I'm not! I'm five,' Lucy interrupted, offended. 'Yeah, she's five,' Chloe agreed with an exaggerated roll of her eyes. I'm sure girls are born grown up. 'It's Suzy here that's four.' Little Suzy said nothing, smiling up shyly. 

I smiled back and nodded and looked for an escape. But there was none.  The DGC had made friends and now I was also friend, like it or not.

The eldest of the little group was a quiet young boy who unlike the others, said nothing. For a while... Then he piped up with, 'I'm named after a footballer.' 

I was then informed of his family's desire to name him after a couple of footballers before eventually settling on one Ole Guntar Saltbender or something like that, so he was called Oliver. Oliver was in charge of the biggest dog, a Labrador, which was currently constantly trying to shake hands with me. Or pleading to be rescued, I'm not sure. He also seemed - Oliver that is, not the dog - to be in charge of the group. 

Oliver, aged eleven he announced, proceeded to also inform me he had ADHC. I said I was surprised as he seemed very calm and mature, which was true. He shrugged. I asked if he had any siblings and he told me three, all a good eight to ten years older. That might in my mind account for some of the ADHC, if his elder siblings marginalise him as can sometimes happen. He then announced he went to another, and by implication, much better school than the local one.  

'So you are very clever then?'

He shrugged. Oliver it seemed, liked shrugging. 'I like science. I'd like to go to the Moon.'

I was shocked. I would have expected a family that names its children after spoilt footballers would have inculcated their offspring directly into sporting directions. His announcement of being named after a footballer now took on a different complexion to me. Perhaps he wasn't particularly proud of that fact at all.

'Well, if you wanted, you could.'

He looked askance at me. 'No, really, you could. Did you know that a long time ago before you were born we sent a spacecraft to the stars and before it left our Solar System it took a picture of us here on our planet, the Earth? And do you know what that looked like? What we look like? Just a pale blue dot. A small point of light lost amongst billions of stars. We all must go to the Moon and then on to the stars, if we are to survive as a race.' 

I fished out my iPhone and found the famous picture of our world lost in the vastness of billions of stars.

'Here, have a look.'

I was delighted to see his eyes widen as he took in the picture and what I'd said, ignoring the babble of constant chatter from the  girls around us. 

Then he looked up from the phone and questioned my statement.

'But why do we need to leave to survive?'

'Because our little world is too small for us. Look what happened to the Dinosaurs!'

'Oh? What?'

'An asteroid hit the Earth and wiped them out.'

His mouth hung open, eyes wider than ever.

'Have you heard of a man called Carl Sagan?' I asked.

'No?'

'Well, he was the man who ordered the spacecraft to take this picture. He also helped with its mission.   Look him up on Google. If you can find it, read his book called 'The Pale Blue Dot' I have a feeling you'll like it.'

'Carl...?'

'Sagan'.

He frowned and I could see him struggling to commit the name to memory. 

'Ok, I will.'

With a last look at the image on the iPhone, the incessant demands of friends and childhood took over from this surprising conversation with an eleven year old. But as I dragged the delightful and now screaming DGC back to his mother and left them to it, he gave me a little wave and a smile. 

Perhaps some seed was planted in the mind of that strangely serious little boy thanks to the magic of a small picture taken from millions of miles away and viewed on a phone. I'll never know of course, but one day maybe he will travel to the Moon. And that thought gives me a warm feeling that perhaps that ambition might have been a result of our  small conversation together. In a chanced meeting in the midst of an empty unremarkable playground on a lonely pale blue dot lost in space. 


Friday, 18 July 2014

Flight MH017

For a few minutes yesterday I experienced the numbing sensation that must be familiar to those relatives and friends of the downed jet as I searched to confirm the flight number was different. A friends son who I've know since a baby flew out on MAS at the same time to KL as the doomed jet. They were in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time and chance alone saved them. From such fine threads do we survive.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Royal Military Acadamy, Sandhurst.



Or the 'Rupert College' as some wags like to call it due to the predominance of toffs who attend officer training. Here is a re-enactment of Waterloo where the French got a damned good thrashing, what! 

For these sort of things you really need a fast motor drive and a big camera memory buffer, neither of which I have. So it was down to my little trigger finger and luck to catch the guns firing. I'm quite pleased with these two shots as they seem to capture something of the excitement of what battle might have been like. The bottom one looks quite painterly, but the top one is more visceral. Not really sure which is best.

Friday, 13 June 2014

A Risk Worth Taking

It was as if a raven had been shot mid-flight as the object pirouetted down, hitting the car's windscreen, bouncing and falling onto the tarmac. Despite the squeal of brakes the car's momentum carried both sets of wheels lurching sickeningly over the prone black bundle of cloth.
But the shapeless object lying on the road was too big to be a bird. There was an arm then part of a leg. This was no animal. It was a human being, a woman clad in the black of the traditional Arabic burqa. An arm extended as if in sleep and the hand, henna-painted and resting palm upwards on the tarmac, had gold bracelets bunched at the wrist glittering in the sun.
I hadn't witnessed the actual impact, turning too slowly at yet another blare of car horn, a sound ubiquitous in Saudi Arabia. It was Haj, the time of pilgrimage to Mecca and near the airport in downtown Jeddah which was as packed as any football match. Yet in that second everything stopped, frozen by the horror. Then, as if a whistle had been blown, everyone reacted. I took three strides towards the victim before Kamal stopped me with an arm across my chest.
'Leave her. You can't help,' he said, shaking his head in disapproval. 'You know how the way is here. It is as I explained to you. It's best that you don't get involved.'
Kamal was Palestinian, a refugee. Western orientated he harboured a healthy disrespect, if not outright disdain, for his chosen employers, their country and traditions. I looked back at the scene.
She'd disappeared under a wave of white, of shouting and gesticulating Haj pilgrims dressed in the traditional ihram. I saw the driver repeatedly hit his head, wailing, his hands to the sky. Some prodded at the bundle of cloth in the road. It was difficult to see, harder to watch.
For the victim sake, I knew speed was imperative. I had some first aid knowledge and holding back from offering assistance tore at me. But I stood and watched and didn't help. Kamal's advice was that as a foreigner and an unbeliever, I should never intervene in disputes, especially not in fatal or near fatal traffic incidents. If the victim died then that death could be attributable to me, due to my 'help'. It was rumoured that 'blood money' could be demanded. Or worse, death, as in the eye-for-an-eye philosophy of the Koran. In this country, he told me, it was best avoided. A risk not worth taking.
The police arrived with sirens blaring and two cops began clearing people away. Yet the bundle in the road wasn't touched. A nearby taxi was commandeered and the broken woman was half lifted, half thrown onto the back seat and driven off. Even if she'd survived the impact, the rough handling could well have killed her. The feeling of shame for not doing more, stung.
Kamal shrugged and said, 'Let's go. Tomorrow we go diving. Forget this. It's nothing. Plenty of accidents every day.'
I turned and picked up the scuba tank just filled with air and tried to put his advice into effect, concentrating on the morning dive the next day.
But that night I slept poorly. The next morning I was tired and not in the frame of mind to dive with Kamal; I called him and cancelled. He accepted without comment. I headed alone to an isolated beach out beyond the city, far from habitation and empty of people. I was about to break some cardinal rules. Never dive without a buddy and always leave information about where you are diving. But I'd become tired of advice.
Shrugging on my tank, I walked through dunes towards the lagoon and the Red Sea surf breaking on the reef edge half a mile beyond. The bleached white sand of the beach was cloaked by a dark moving mass. The surface was a vast sea of feeding hermit crabs. I walked into this mass of crabs and a dark wave formed ahead of me, flowing away from my feet as if repelled by my presence. The crabs kept a precise arc of distance, a sentient wave, never allowing me close, as if they could sense my guilt over the death of the woman. They allowed grudging access to their shallow lagoon and then closed ranks behind me with the precision of a drilled army. Behind were the bones of the Saudi Arabian desert and ahead, the inviting warm waters of the Red Sea waited.
Calf deep in the bath-hot water I was wary of sharp coral and alert to the deadly stonefish, a creature that hides motionless and camouflaged on the sandy bottom, its poisonous barbs able to pierce protective footwear. So I started to dance, a shuffling two-step that disturbed clear water and lethal fish alike. It’s a long waltz to the reef carrying a heavy full tank of air, mask and flippers, while scanning the rippled sand for signs of danger.
 Eventually I reached deeper, waist-high water. A few steps further and through the clear water a metre in front, the sand erupted. A grey, disc-shaped object exploded from the lagoon bottom, swimming away from me. A stingray, lying hidden in the sand, had made its escape, its barbed tail lashing inches from my thigh. It's gone in an instant, leaving just a fine contrail of sand in the blue water behind it. I resumed my clumsy safety dance with added vigour.
I arrived at the reef's edge and its vertical drop-off, where more exotic, dangerous creatures awaited. Their colours, undimmed by the water’s shallow depth, flashed as they twisted and turned in the glare of the morning sunlight. They're hunting. Mask on, I ducked my head below the water.
 A slithering motion caught my eye; black and yellow, a sea snake drifted near, smug in the knowledge it possessed one of the deadliest venoms on Earth. I froze and waited for it to pass. I hate snakes; but I respect them more. Languidly it veered away towards the safety of deeper water.
 A gentle swell broke in a white line along the coast marking the reef edge as I re-considered my actions. I was alone. I shouldn't be doing this. But in truth, I had no one to tell and neither did I care.
  Waiting unseen would be sharks, barracuda with their cold, malicious eyes and lurking lionfish with spines ready to inject and poison. At the reef edge and before that final plunge, there was always that fear. I wondered again if I should turn back. Ignoring the only sensible decision, I stepped off the reef and fell into the blue.
 The water was warm but felt cold on my over-heated skin as I floated exposed on the oily calm of the surface. I fitted fins and mask, emptied the buoyancy vest, turned and slid down into the blue depths.
 The sound on the reef flooded my ears, crackling and popping, a thousand fish chewing on  coral for their breakfast. Another ten metres of depth added as I finned down the reef wall, watching two reef-sharks slink away into the gloom far below. Clinging to the underwater cliff for protection I spotted a wary conga eel hidden within the shadows of his crevasse. From there he peered out as if seated in a private box at the opera, watching unimpressed as vibrant clown fish danced within their protective anemones and shoals of stripped triggerfish pirouetted to the undersea ballet.
 Deeper I fell and the density of life faded away. Out of the darkness came a surreal sight. A row of  truck tyres, each tethered by a rope from a sunken wreck below, floated like the dead fingers of the drowned. Their enticing invitation was impossible to resist.
 But a quick check showed I was going to the limits of acceptable depth. I turned and looked up towards an alien sky. Through forty five metres of water the sunlight was reduced to a small coronal haze, to the weakness of moonlight. The ship, lying on its side, was bathed in gothic monochrome. The tyres, once protecting the ships side at dock, now floated mournfully above my head. I finned further along and down the vertical deck, peering through broken windows into dark cabins where shadows morphed into furniture, crockery, the debris of extinct life.
 Deeper into the hulk and beyond the time permitted at this depth, I became bolder. I wanted to go further. A small voice inside in my head shouted vainly at me. Dimly I understood my elation to be the beginning of narcosis.
 It was past time to leave, but no, I wanted to stay in the cool darkness. The voice in my head became irrelevant. Then, with supreme effort, I turned and began to fin towards the surface.  Training had kicked in. I forced myself to go slow, fighting the rising panic, realising at last that I’d gone way beyond normal dive safety limits. My air faded. Don't hold your breath, the voice in my head shouted. Obediently I  exhaled the last of my air from decompressed lungs and ascended at the rate of the bubbles around me.
 Breaching the surface, the previously calm sea was replaced by rough swell. The current drove me towards land and waves tossed me like flotsam against the coral. Sharp edges ripped into skin, scolding me for the bravado of not wearing a wetsuit, then dragged me away before throwing me back again. Each time I was thrown against the rock, I struggled to hold on. Pain stabbed through me with each wave as coral ripped my gloves apart, lacerating my hands and tearing at my bare legs. My strength was fast ebbing away with each failed attempt to escape the surf.
A break appeared in the reef cliff and I recognised the narrow gully. It was an entrance to the lagoon, a route to safety. The current picked me up in it's hand and swept me inside, past sharp rocks and spikes of coral outcrop towards the safety of the lagoon. I swam with the last of my energy, desperate to avoid rock and coral, knowing if I failed I'd be swept mercilessly back out to sea.
Yet I failed. Strength ebbed from my body as quickly as the surf drawback dragged me away from safety. Helpless and exhausted, the sea took me. There was nothing to do but contemplate my foolish arrogance.
A wiry arm appeared, gripped my buoyancy vest, and I was hauled onto the reef. In an instant I was free of danger. On my back like some half-dead fish, I stared up into the blue of a cloudless sky and the wrinkled face of a lone Saudi fisherman. He stood looking down at me and shaking his head. I coughed water, grinned in relief and  thanked him. I wasn't sure he understood, but he shrugged his shoulders and smiled, perhaps thinking about the idiocy of foreigners and their strange games. He then turned and returned to his nets.
 Back at the beach the crabs had gone, perhaps disappointed I hadn't donated my body to their feast. I'd failed to help a stranger, yet a stranger had helped me. He at least, had thought it a risk worth taking.


Thursday, 12 June 2014

Religion, Spiritualism, Humanism or Atheism?

Today I learned about the twenty odd schools in the UK that have as their core curriculum, an American version called ACE (Accelerated Christian Education) My heart sank.

Beaten over the head (physically and mentally) as a boy with Catholic indoctrination, finding myself having to listen to yet more fundamentalist claptrap being promoted towards 'children's healthy upbringing' in patronising and nauseating evangelical zeal in an American accent was more than painful. Difficult to describe. Try thinking of fingernails being dragged over a blackboard as a cat's tail is trodden on. Fundamentalism has always been around but it seems to be creeping ever deeper into ordinary schools. Thank God I'm an atheist.

Here's another wonderful phrase: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Apparently this refers to younger people are turning towards a vague belief that God exists and the point of life is to be happy.  Or how about SBNR which means 'Spiritual But Not Religious'.

The above is from a very interestingly piece by Tom Shakespeare which can be read by clicking HERE.

What do I think? In nearly all religions, aspects like compassion, altruism and a sense of belonging are promoted and encouraged. That's good. Yet these undoubted benefits are outweighed by the corruption of power that zealous leaders and followers gather and promote. The resulting death and destruction towards 'unbelievers' over the centuries is impossible to deny. Then again, Stalin killed millions without any help from religious faith. I guess if I'm challenged at the faith checkpoint I'm an atheist with humanistic tendencies. Alleluia! 

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Beached


Spent last week on the North coast of Devon at Woolacombe Bay. On the two days it didn't rain, it was glorious. These beach huts you will immediately note are all painted in subtle pastel tones. I think they still gave this young lady a headache. Either that or she is panicking, trying to remember which hut is hers. At least that's what I feel the picture suggests. In reality, she's just patting back her hair ready for the boyfriend to snap her standing beautifully in front of them. Interestingly  this beach was used by the US Rangers when practising for the D-Day landings.






Sunday, 1 June 2014

Into Darkness


On Saturday night went along to the Albert Hall to see and hear the film Into Darkness performed as it might have been before the talkies came to town. (click the Albert Hall link above to view the details) But instead of a piano banging away in the stalls, there was a full orchestra and with an eighty piece choir. The film did have subtitles though. Also it was great fun to see trekkies in their uniforms and pointy ears. What a place the AH is. 

Friday, 23 May 2014

Sex Objects

photo by Lisa Holloway

Does an attractive person, either female or male, automatically become a sex object by being portrayed as beautiful, alluring or desirable in an image? This thorny subject is, of course, a complete can of worms. Maybe it boils down to the perception of the beholder. Maybe it's all about context. I remember as a photographer in the seventies if you couldn't drape a semi-naked pouting girl over your product, the perceived wisdom was it wouldn't sell. There's still a lot of that sort of thing today, not as much, less obvious perhaps, but still it persists. 

The bottom line is deep down we like looking at attractive people. Heads will inevitably turn at a passing beautiful woman or man. Gender differences concerning the male dominated visual are much of a myth. Women enjoy looking at attractive bodies just as much as men, they're just more discrete about it. Both sexes will 'cop a look' at a body beautiful. Which is why advertisers who crave our attention, use models. Doh. 

This picture annoys me. The picture itself is beautiful as is the girl. It annoys me because of the placement of her hands and arms and the overdone red lipstick. Two shapeless 'things' reaching up from out of the frame to inelegantly rest on her neck. Is someone trying to drag her down? Perhaps strangle her? And those great big fat red lips. Those lips dominate uncomfortably. And yet, and yet... I still like the picture because the execution, vivid hair colour, her expression and eyes overcome these flaws. And, of course, because she's a pretty girl smiling come hither at me. As I said, very annoying.  

Grate Stuff




This fireplace grate is cast iron and so bloody heavy, I can only just lift it. Bought over thirty years ago (when I had a real fireplace in which to place it) it has spent most of the last twenty-five years outside as a flower pot and as a collected of spiders and dirt. Consequently it became rusty and unloved. But I just couldn't bring myself to get rid of it. Now however, my eldest daughter has moved into a new home which does have a fireplace. I have to say she was somewhat reluctant at my generous offer to lump the thing into her hands, but accepted. So I decided to get out the wire brush and scrub-up the poor neglected thing to make it more appealing to her. 

And in the process, I found out two things. The first being that dull and tarnished brass (as in the finials) come up a treat as does freshly painted cast iron. The second being I enjoyed and found a real sense of joy at reviving such a grand thing.  I had to soak the brass in a mixture of vinegar and salt for a while before polishing to remove the years of tarnish, but they came out glowing and really do set off the ironwork which now looks just as new. Splendid. 


Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Of Mice and Men


An old mate in from Oz on a flying visit invited me to St Albans today for the chance to listen to some very esoteric and expensive speakers. He's not actually buying, just trying to get some inside info for a second hand pair he fancies. 

Always keen for the opportunity to play with exotic hi-tech, I quickly agreed to scrounge a day off from work and consequently met up with him and his brother in law, outside the dealership which turned out to be sitting worryingly right smack in the middle of a grey and anonymous industrial estate. Strange.

Not so strange when it turns out that the dealer was a wholesaler and furthermore no one was there to let us in. My old mate, having seen the swanky listening room on the net, assumed wrongly that it was retail and not bothered with making an appointment.

So there we all stood, outside a veritable palace of delight and forbidden sonic exotica, scratching our heads at the injustice of it all. After his brother in law and I had tired of verbally abusing him for his incompetence, there was nothing for it but to find somewhere to have a drink and devour some comfort food. 

Eventually we alighted upon this vaguely interesting architectural oddity that housed a faux French eatery, complete with faux French waiters in black aprons and waistcoats. We grabbed a table and I snapped my fingers imperiously, shouting: "Garçon! Deux café de lait et un verre d'eau s'il vous plaît!"

Not really, but I was tempted it being about all the French I know.

The food offered turned out to be basically English, but described in French. I don't know, but calling a burger 'Le Normandie" does not really make for true French cuisine. Still, the place had a certain French atmosphere and was thankfully free of any accordion player banging out ambiance musettienne.

What did I eat? Yes, a burger... 











Monday, 19 May 2014

Porthole on the Future.


This little scene was snapped by borrowing my daughters little iXus camera. Whenever I don't take my own camera, these photo-opportunities seem to arrive. It's a conspiracy, I tell you. Fate has it in for me. 

It's not a bad little camera, but the lens distortion, noise and jpg compression is a little high. Especially the lens distortion which is made more obvious by the tile lines. I did try correcting the distortion but that circle gets twisted up in the process so I'll just live with it as it is.



Monday, 12 May 2014

Rejection



‘Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserably sodding rotters, the flaming sods, the snivelling, dribbling, dithering, palsied, pulseless lot that make up England today. They’ve got white of egg in their veins, and their spunk is that watery it’s a marvel they can breed …

DH Lawrence, as you can probably infer from the above, was a tad peeved at having his MS of 'Sons and Lovers' rejected. 

Is it tougher handling rejection if you are a genius? Probably not, no, it's just that by being a genius they can articulate their fury so much better. 

Three months ago I entered the BBC's Opening Lines competition for short stories to be performed on air. I was tilting at windmills, of course. This comp attracts the heavyweights of short story telling and any chance of my effort getting through is of the snowball in Hell variety. Yet still a little seed of hope nestled against my ribs these past long months. Finally, today, the shortlist (or was that the longlist?) of selected entries would be announced. And from the Beeb I heard nothing. No rejection letter, no commiserations, no 'try again next year and good luck'.  If you are rejected, you're simply not told. Suck it up. And so that little nurtured seed of hope died. 

Most writers handle rejection on a daily basis, sending out their ms to multiple editors, journals and competitions. It's a numbers game and some receive so many rejection letters they supposedly have papered their walls with them. I'm not as tough, driven or as talented as them. I'm a bumbling amateur. If something inspires me, I'll give it a go without any real expectation of success. Am I downhearted by this rejection? Sure, a little. More so than losing the lottery perhaps, because here I didn't just pick a number, I put a hell of a lot of an effort into making the work as good as I could. And the cold knowledge it's not good enough, not even for a rejection note, is tough. 

But wait, I now read that the longlist/shortlist will be announced by the 16th of May, not today as I'd thought. That stupid little seed of hope is right back up against my ribs and I've got four more days of thinking maybe, just maybe, that little snowball actually found Hell frozen over. Damn, I hate this...