Wednesday, November 03, 2010

A Post on the Subject of Travel in Sweden

It had been far too long since such a jaunt.

The Oresundsbron, a bridge that connects the Danish capital, Copenhagen, to the west, with the Swedish city of Malmo to the east.

From the train, edging into Malmo.

As one of Malmo's outdoor markets close up, the culture of van decor presents itself.

Saturday morning strolling leads to the fish market, and eels.

And maybe a hint as to where just a few of the local residents got their spectacular good looks from.

And to the Turning Torso, a residential building - the tallest building in Scandinavia - that overlooks the Oresunds strait.

And back to what you know, with the same eye for the unusual, the unlikely, and the oft-unremarked upon.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Post on the Subject of Environmental Psychology, and Formal Education

From my new workspace, I'm overlooking a small gravelly garden, big fir trees, a chaotic bamboo patch, and a dovecote. The birds that are a-twitter at the tops of the firs seem uninterested in the seed-feeders, below - wise, given the number of cats that frequent this area.

There is something really rather pleasing about the swoop and swirl of blue tits.

Just yesterday, I mentioned to a teacher - a bit stressed, she was - that were her school located within an entirely concrete landscape (as so many are), then that pressure that she was feeling would somehow be a fraction more overbearing. Casting a casual glance across the green fields adjacent to the staff room, and to a hill beyond, she murmured.

'Mm. You know you do talk some shit sometimes, but I know what you mean.'

Then I added to her workload.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Post on the Subject of a Weekend of Lurid Cultural Learnings

Privy to flirting
The Tube - arm-pits and elbows
Dinner by the Thames

What? No parakeets
Tate Modern and swing-dancing
Exposed and hair pinned

A fine shirt, fit for
Gay flings, breakfast, and intros
- a stellar stranger.

Monday, August 30, 2010

A Post on the Subject of Mundane Violence - Spiritual, Physical, Memorial.

I felt – interpreted, sensed, imagined – a disjuncture, as I recently listened to the cremation service of my mother’s aunt. At one point, biblical references were creatively and affirmatively related to the dead woman always having ensured that the (food) cupboards were well-stocked – something about providing for the family, et cetera, et cetera, and so I’m sitting there knowing that this was a woman who was a generally prolific consumer… often received as communicating pride in her personal appearance, in her home, and in much else that no one (except her) really cared about. I found this vulgar, and dubious, to say the least, in what it and she communicated in terms of the Christian values that were said to underpin the service, throughout which, the speaker – a collared churchwoman – spoke without the merest flicker of embarrassment or irony. And so it goes.

Whilst in the north east (above), it was good to reacquaint with the deceased aunt’s husband, daughters, and their families. I also got to hear my mother and sister discussing various local folk’s trials and tribulations. For much of the time, I was left with the sunken feeling (sinking didn’t last very long) that these locals were the cast of soap operas that were routinely so violent, far-fetched and lacking in basic humanity that no outsider would wish to endure their grim narratives. And so I went. Leaving early, my drive back to the Midlands coincided with quiet roads – good thing, autopilot, quick. Whatever it was that I had on the radio – maybe podcasts, possibly Saturday evening Radio Four, I failed to take in – distracted. Sister’s casual mention of the young woman who’d just skipped out of town with her own sister’s husband, that was nothing – that occupied me as far as the end of my mother’s street. The matter of the house with the big shed changing hands, that was with me through to somewhere in North Yorkshire – say, Leeming Bar. It wasn’t so much the house, but more the previous owner. ‘What happened to him?’, I’d asked. ‘He went to prison, didn’t he. D’ y’ not remember?’, said mother. I didn’t remember, I’d never been told. She explained, sort of - ‘Prison - somethin’ t’ do with his step-daughters… y’ know’. His step-daughters, yes, I remembered them - the ones who my own sister used to play with. But for much of the journey, I was thinking about the old friend who I’d run into at the town’s football club earlier that day. As teenagers, we’d played football and knocked about together. At around 16, maybe 17, we drifted apart. My pathway was study and getting away, his was different. He didn’t have the scar when I knew him. Of course, as we caught up, I didn’t mention the line across his face. We talked jobs, where we now lived, and how our footballing allegiances had shifted over the years. His physique told me that it was a long long time since he’d last played football. As sister and I later departed the football club, she explained the old friend’s changed appearance - ‘It was Lenny Fulton that did it’. The name meant nothing to me. ‘He’d be about 40 now, lived down at the bottom of Chapel Street. They got into an argument one night, Lenny just slashed him.’ As sister sought out her car keys, I asked more – why did Old Friend and Lenny Fulton argue, why the violence, and what happened to knife artist Lenny. She explained, ‘It was nowt – drugs probably… He went to prison for it, though he’s dead now - alcohol.’ All of that, and the perfectly horizontal register of it – from just behind the ear, through the ear, across the left cheek, falling just short of Old Friend’s top lip – consumed me across the M62, to the M6.

In around 1990, maybe ’91, I thought it was cute, the way sister – then aged about five or six - would tackle a minced beef pie, as I watched the town’s football team with pals. She would then go and run up and down the undulating hills that flanked the western side of the football ground – all within my sightlines. We’d later jog back home – a distance which must have felt enormous to her short legs. In the same place, now, she explained to me how one of those pals who’d have been with us happened to look like something from a horror film.

For the final, short rainy stretch of the M6, I wondered about Lenny Fulton, about the final words that would have been conjured by and for his kith and kin, and whether his mother's food cupboards would have been well-stocked. My guess was that they weren't.

Saturday, August 07, 2010


The Boy and I are in WH Smith's, using up an old voucher card (we didn't know how much was on it) on some new kit for his 2010/11 school year. After bagging the various pens, glue-sticks and primary ephemera, the cashier - a pretty, young female - explains that there's just over three pounds left on the voucher card.

Shane: Er... just throw it... no! Are those scratch cards?

Cashier: Mm.

Shane: Pound each?

Cashier: Yeah. D'y' want three?

Shane: Yes please (actually a bit excited at the novelty of such suchness).

Cashier: Shall I give you three different kinds? (she has sensed that we don't normally do this sort of thing)

Shane: Yes, please.

We leave the shop with our scratch cards and retreat to a local cafe, wherein we read about what we must reveal in order to win.

The first two cards pass without success - we did not reveal a hatrick of matching amounts, and we did not reveal a logo of a dog. This is how I imagined it would go.

We move onto card three, and the boy suddenly shrieks.


And so we had. Ten pounds worth of pig logo. We eat our lunches, drink our drinks and return to WH Smith's. We have filled in my name and address on the back of the card and are feeling upbeat as we wait in a short queue to collect our winnings. I see the potential for boy-amusing playfulness.

Shane: What do I say when I get to the front?

The Boy: Just tell her that we've won ten pounds and give her the card.

Shane: (entirely straight) Oh, ok. (pause) Should I say that we've got a pig?

The Boy: (amused, but trying to suppress the smile) Yeah, say that, say 'We've got a pig'.

Shane: Mm. (pause) Y' sure?

The Boy: (failing to suppress The Grin of Social Mischief) Yeah - 'We've got a pig', and give her the card. That way she'll know it's ten pounds.

Shane: (playing it naive) Mm, ok.

We are at the front of the queue. The cashier looks to me.

Shane: (playing it straight, handing her the card) We have a pig.

The cashier is temporarily raised from barcode bleeping boredom - she, too, fails to suppress the grin. From low down to my immediate right, I hear a boyish snort of laughter.

I continue to play it straight, entirely pleased with myself.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010


In no particular order:-

Moving house
A taste of (life) coaching
Feeling tense
Looking to do something selfish with the week after next
Not reading enough
Removing the cat from where he tears papers
Becoming an angler
Enjoying Sherlock
Feeling underwhelmed at the dawn of the football season

Thursday, July 22, 2010


During his bath-time, The Boy and I talk. He makes a surprising remark about one of his class-mates, and this leads to me wondering about how developed these children's expectations of one another are, even by the age of nine (a serious interest, though not phrased in these exact terms at that moment).

Shane: Let's play a game where I ask you questions in three parts and you answer them - dead easy.

The Boy: (looks at me, chooses not to bob back under the water, though not yet committing to this nonsense)

Shane: Okay. Think of all the people in your class. I'm going to name three of them - not including you, and you've got to tell me what you think these three might end up doing when they're older - what you think they might end up working as.

The Boy: (wet-haired, possibly interested) Mm.

Shane: Let's start with... Imran.

The Boy: (reaching for shampoo, though interested - thinking hard) Mm. (still thinking - taking this very seriously) The thing is, I don't know Imran very well, so it's hard to say.

Shane: Okay, no problem. Let's try a girl. How about... Danielle.

The Boy: (shampooing) Mm. I don't know about Danielle, but I can find out tomorrow.

Shane: No no, let's not do that. That would sound weird - it might scare her if she thought that your step-dad was wondering what she might end up working as. No, let's think of someone who you do know - last try at this.

The Boy: (mildly amused) Yeah, that would have sounded weird.

Shane: Yeah.

The Boy: (back to being serious, reaching for the rinsing jug) I think I know what Ryan wants to be.

Shane: Alright, tell me what you think Ryan might end up being.

The Boy: (jug of water cascades noisily and splashingly over head) (louder, straight tone) He wants to be a wrestler.

Shane: A wrestler.

The Boy: (hair dripping, eyes still tightly shut) Mm.

Shane: Mm.

I can't be sure that my original ponderance has been effectively handled.

I pass a towel.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Recently, The Boy and I were walking one of his pal's home, following their after-school knock-about time (various larks and boyish shriekery, all of which sounded like a good time was being had). The unusual detail to the evening, was that this pal was not one of the usual suspects, so when I was asked whether he'd be allowed to come back with us, I was keen to say 'yes' - The Boy's sociability is one of the things that most pleases and impresses me.

As we walk, I ask The Pal whether he walks to school or is dropped off by car. He explains that for mother's walk-related schedule, it tends to be car, apart from her one day off per week. He then pipes up with, 'But I couldn't walk from my Dad's - that's too far'. He adds that Dad lives in Nearton, only a couple of miles away. And I remember there being mention, only a month or so ago, of this young lad's parents separating (I still don't know what that means... half-way house, permanent split, or otherwise). The Lad - who I'd distantly read as a bright-eyed chap, suddenly looks a bit serious, though not quite mournful. It is a sensitive moment, as I happen to catch the eye of Alex, who seems also to recognise this with the most acute of eyebrow twitches. And Alex speaks.

'There's no way I could walk to school from my Dad's house! (mock laugh) He lives in London!'

'You could' I suggest, 'but you'd have to set off about a week earlier'.

'Yeah', he agrees. Continuing, he turns to his pal, 'Imagine that - having to set off a week before we're meant to be at school - that's just nuts.'

His pal joins in with the mock laughter, and seems to relax - the frown dissipating.

It is gentle, it is normalising, it is a moment in which my love for Alex is immediate and felt.

'Race you', he calls, as he tears off from his pal and I. The Pal runs off, too, albeit bearing a school-bag weight disadvantage.

We reach The Pal's house - another first, for me. Mother answers the door, relaxed in enormous pink slippers and pleased to see her little man. I proffer the ever-pleasing complimentary remarks about her son, and The Boy and I bid these folk, plus younger brother, a good evening. The novelty of the drop-off - we grown-ups remaining largely unfamiliar, means that there is a certain stiffness, but all is fine. There is simplicity and gorgeousness in all of this.


Turning back to wave at The Pal and his mum, The Boy calls out - all high spirits and with comic intention, 'See you later, suckers!'.

I roll my eyes, sigh, and am relieved to note that this has generated a genuine smile from the mother.

The Boy and I walk home.

Friday, July 16, 2010


I had some really interesting conversations, this week. To and from Lake Windermere (a day-long meeting plus sleep-over), my journey's sidekick (who I didn't know very well) proved the ideal companion, and reliable navigator (short-cutting it through back-waterest North Staffordshire should never be taken-for-granted). During our journey north, we established that we both identified with the fundamental qualities of The Brunettery. On our south-bound return, we compared mental notes from the previous 24 hours. They seemed to correspond.

Whilst in Windermere, or nearabouts, I had the pleasure of a longish walk-and-talk with another Don't-Really-Know-This-Person. This was good for some of the finer detail - how and through whom the conversation came about, the speed with which we seemed to establish trust, the fact that we recognised this and spoke it out loud, and the subject matter that - through our handling of it - further conveyed this trust (what poor phrasing... I'm slapping myself, for you). Skimming over talk of overseas property and what it is about time away or time in the sun that enables a person to relax, we got to discuss how we met our respective partners and with that, somewhat more taboo matters. Throughout, questions and answers were reasonably frank. And all the while, we enjoyed the back-drop of low-flying swans, gambolling pied wagtails, driftwood under foot, and the lapping of water. Quite, quite right - so much more preferable than the staid surrounds of the conference room.

Regular doses of that leg-stretching, mind-uplifting outdoor thing are absolutely vital to the task of breaking up the week, so it was good to share in this in a rarefied fashion.

Back in blighty, The Boy and I made use of the heavy downpours we've been having. Fully braced for a drenching, Wednesday evening saw us head out on the bikes to our favourite local woodland. Exiting the wood furthest from our house, we spotted a lapwing as we darted through a field into the Barlaston Park area, then down past the Wedgwood facilities - including cricket club and fishing ponds. Stopping to look at one of the ponds, we both gasped as our immediate sighting was of a kingfisher rising out of the water with its small catch. And then on to the Trent and Mersey canal path, and back home. A bracing circuit, with good rapport and observations all the way.

This weekend, Emma and Alex are in London, and I'm left to face workish loose ends that have been loose too long.

Yet the call of Anglesey, of White Beach (west of Penmon Point), and of the Menai Straits (west of the Britannia Bridge), is reaching me. The beachcaster rod stands in the hallway, suggesting that it's there and ready for me to reel in tea (not that I have any experience of actually catching anything - such a novice as I am). But I can't possibly listen to the rod... a week from now I'll be on the Yorkshire coast, with plenty of chances for staring at the sea.

And so harrumph and harrumph. All cooped up, with no excuses for not doing what I'm meant to.

Living for the weekend? I think not.

Monday, July 05, 2010


I attend The Boy's sports day. He is to race the three-legged race (they won, with his larger sidekick practically carrying him over the line - messy, but victorious) and the bean-bag race (a creditable finish somewhere in the middle).

At some distance from us, Emma spies the egg-and-spoon racers lining up.

And they are off.

They totter and teeter and wibble and wobble towards us.

Absent-mindedly, I gaze around, as many about me squeal and applaud in support.

Emma: Those eggs don't look even.

Shane: There'll be fallers.

Emma: No. I mean the actual eggs. They're not egg-shaped.

Intrigued, I look, and focus in, and all becomes clear.

Shane: That's because they're not eggs.

The racers get ever nearer.

Emma: They're potatos.

Shane: Potatos, they are. And the girl in yellow seems to be suffering from a particularly knobbly potato.

Emma: Stewards enquiry?

Shane: (momentary ponder) Not at all. This is education. It's all about how they deal with the uneven playing field.

Emma: (sighs) Profound.

Shane: Thanks.

And I am gone - remembering walking up Snowdon with my favourite spoon.

A potato bobbles towards my feet, a child in green feverishly following it, snatching it back and pressing on for the line.

My revery is mashed.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


Monday to Wednesday, I was in Manchester, on a course that I enjoyed thoroughly - fellow participants exceeding my expectations around humour, deep thinking, and scope for creating intrigue.

Monday morning, during a break, I am walking down a wide looping staircase with a fellow participant, The Dane. She is 30ish, she is tidily casual, and we've already spoken of various cultural interests.

The Dane has mentioned that she 'manages a small design team'. With this, I hear urban. I hear urbane. I hear cutting edge. I hear technology. I hear city centre. I hear cosmpolitan. I hear Frappuccino. Descending the stairs, The Swede makes a remark about being very hard-pressed, financially.

Shane: What did you say you did?

Dane: I manage a small design team.

Shane: But, minimum wage?

Dane: Well, less than, actually.

Shane: How?

Dane: Well, the thing is, we're trying to run it in an ethical manner.

Shane: (Here, there is much to unpack - much that we don't have time to unpack. I sense that The Dane knows that whatever is being referred to as 'ethical manner' is unsustainable.) Mm.

Dane: (sighs) Mm.

Shane: Y' know, maybe what you need to do, is abandon the whole ethical approach - unethical is the new ethical, kind of thing. Then you'll be fine!

Dane: (frowns, looks me over - a bit puzzled)

Shane: Ah! Don't worry. Free consultation. I'm just here to help.

Swede: (briefly puzzles) (smiles)

I move on, confident that I have much to contribute over the next few days.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


I receive a copy of The Yacoubian Building (Alaa Al Aswany), from a most unexpected source.

This pleases me and is a part-fix to yesterday's foul mood.

Today, I will avoid all television, radio and news print. The fall-out from England's 0-0 draw with Algeria - neither the end of the world, nor the end of the World Cup - will be unnecessarily brutal.

Today is also a day for hosting the parents, and for walking by water.

Friday, June 18, 2010


I had a great day, yesterday. It was an early start, that took me to the mac, in Birmingham, then a drive up the M6 to a school, for some head-on talk with a headteacher and two of her colleagues.

Throughout the day, I spoke with several people who I find - found - interesting. These outshone the couple of drones who I had to endure. These earlier folk - their ways of thinking and talking, were the essence of the great day.

During one early conversation, with Kay, a former colleague who'd worked on a difficult project with me, a few years ago, I enquired as to how she and her sidekick, Leon, were.

Kay: Well, you did know that we were partners - we lived together - you knew that?

Shane: (it had never been spoken out loud, but still) Yeah.

Kay: (straight-forwardly) Well we're not together any more.

Shane: Ah. And how are you?

Kay: It's been difficult. He was the love of my life, really.

Shane: (admiring the candour) And do you know how Leon is?

Kay: Oh, Leon will always be Leon. He'll work out who he is, eventually.

Shane: (oh lordy and gulpy gulpersome) What does that mean?

Kay: I think he looked up to me, a bit too much. He looked to me to tell him what to do, how to be. He's attractive, intelligent, he's good at what he does, but I don't think he understands that.

Shane: (some of this pricks me into reflecting) (a quiet sigh) How long had you been together?

Kay: Twelve years.

Shane: That's an amount of time.

Kay: It is.

And we talk on for a short while, easy enough, and move on to covering why we are where we are - the work stuff.

During the drive out of Birmingham, some of Kay's comments echo over the top of Radio 4. I find myself wondering - but not so much wondering as perhaps grimly knowing - how one particular old flame would have spoken of me, to those in her post-Shane life. Mentally, I wince - the past is the past, some things change, some things don't.

Later, as my working day draws to a close, I'm gathering papers and a notebook, at which point I am lauded with a grand, public gesture of thanks - for work that I'd taken for granted as par for the course that I play, and for (in my view) being in no way better than that work that I've done for others recently. The gesture is pleasing, though it raises feelings of bashfulness.

Driving home, I think back to Kay, and to Leon, and to where they've been, and where they are now. With this, I'm thinking about myself, and I'm wondering about where I've been, and where I find myself. And I sleep.

Today, I had another early start. At the point of departing this morning's meeting, a colleague says, 'I want to get you something' - a statement which I query. As I begin to wonder whether there's been something in the air or the water around these parts, she explains - unprompted by any personal knowledge of me - that she feels that I deserve some reward, and bluntly adds, 'Tell me what you want, and I'll get it'. It's an entirely straight-forward point - no subtext, no subconscious anything. I feign dismissiveness, say that I look forward to seeing her and colleagues again, and I move on. There is much that I could have said that I wanted.

Today should have felt better than it does. Today is my birthday. I reckon that in a week or so, I'll work out what I wanted. I'm reminded of Leon and I know that I'm being a self-defeating idiot.

Monday, June 07, 2010


We've been back in blighty for a week, having spent a few days at the festival in Hay-on-Wye. The week of down-time left space for several longish local walks - woodland, meadows, canal - all with Alex several counties away (he returned well, he returned happy, he returned yesterday). The following notes are late reflections on what I - we - sat in on (and missed), whilst in Hay.

Henning Mankell (Saturday 29 May, morning): cancelled. Explained here (Mankell was aboard one of the flotilla boats that sought to break the blockade of Gaza).

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Ruth Rogers, in conversation with Jim Naughtie (Saturday 29 May, early afternoon): The River Cottage and River Cafe chefs and food writers spoke in memory of Rose Gray (co-founder of the River Cafe). Whilst Rogers extolled the virtues of Italy and its sun-drenched produce, Hugh F-W's bent was differently located. Throughout, there was a quiet distinction in that the ethics and politics of food were much more to the fore in F-W's general message. Key word: sustainability. Jim Naughtie left enough space for the foodies to speak for themselves, and was a beacon of how best to facilitate engaging and occasionally challenging discussion.

Small Space (by Jane Nash and Dan Milne) (Saturday 29 May, early evening): We met by the town's clock tower. And were then guided towards this piece of theatre - a one hour two-hander, performed in the kitchen-diner of a nearby cottage, to a sell-out audience of 20. Themes of intimacy and honesty were charted through the fragmented story of a couple's meeting, marriage, and learning to live with one another. It's rare that theatre gets to be so intimate that you really are looking into the whites of the actors' eyes, and they your's, but more importantly - it's rare that theatre is so tightly written and sharply executed. A great production, that made me want to return to New York, stand up from my uncomfortably high stool and applaud loudly, then quickly push on with my own writing pursuits.

Richard Layard, Geoff Mulgan and Anthony Seldon discussing the Movement for Happiness (Sunday 30 May, early evening): We attended this for a mix of professional and personal interest reasons - as if those things could so easily be separated. It was reference to what this movement's aims might yield - in terms of an approach to education - that drew us in. In short, the movement - as it is being referred to - seeks to provoke people into thinking and acting their way into living in both more personally fulfilling, and socially conscientious ways. Discussion of this raised enormous questions regarding the political, economic and psychological affiliates to what initially sound like radical changes to how we live - or rather why we live how we live. Many questions were discussed, rather than answered - and herein lies the central challenge to the happiness movers (and to many other fantastically worthwhile and creative intellectual endeavours). Translating big thinking into coherent, digestible, points for practicable action is not always so straight forward - although Seldon did articulate a 5-point list that I didn't make a note of. We'll be watching and listening and making some contribution to the furtherance of ideas that were presented, as we work on through 2010 and beyond.

One more point on the above session: Rosie Boycott, entirely open in her manner and (stand-in) chairing of this discussion, made interjections which seemed to naively lay bare the kinds of personal dissonance and social discord that will occur when a critical mass of individuals pursue lifestyles that are largely, if not entirely, self-serving. In suggesting that our domestic economy and broad social behaviour would become 'just a little boring' were they to more closely resemble those of, say, Denmark, the example of the individual chasing down 'some hot-shit media job' and all of the prizes that go with that (read personal wealth, reward, and an enhanced sense of self... self self), Boycott provoked a murmur of disapproval and a more glaring sense of cultural disunity within the room. Anthony Seldon seemed to observe that it was exactly such a profoundly self-oriented caricature (as was perhaps chairing the discussion) that was anathema to what the Movement for Happiness sought to inspire. Whilst not righting off personal ambition, the suggestion was that this might be most socially progressive were it wedded to (what I read as) an Adlerian sense of gemeinschaftsgefuhl - simply put, a sense of community, or social interest. That said, perhaps the entirely self-oriented individual will read their own progress as absolutely a matter of broad social interest. And so it goes.

Audrey Niffenegger in conversation with Lisa Allardice (Monday 31 May, morning): The author of The Time Traveller's Wife, and Her Fearful Symmetry, proved to be an elegant, engaging, and wry discussant of her motivations, passions and working practices. This was most in evidence as the hour-long session was opened up to questions from the floor. For the 25 minutes up to this point, I was reminded of how good an interviewer Jim Naughtie had been on Saturday afternoon. Whilst Allardice' editorship of the Guardian Review is no doubt high office, it probably demands a different set of qualities than does the task of being a stimulating literary interrogator. At times, Niffenegger appeared justifiably bored by the fawningly fannish initial questioning.

And that, was that.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010


Jim (cat) has gone missing.

Whilst being a cat of distinction, a man-cat of routine and strict habit, I like to think of Jim as my OneTrueColleague.

This morning, I felt some degree of empathy towards those people who distribute 'lost cat' posters.

Alex is with his Dad, and their extended family. This is his longest break from us, ever (Day 5, of 9 days). Come Sunday, I'd rather he be returning to the household as was, rather than as was minus cat.

We shall see.



Jim-Cat Is Returned!...

Quite unscathed, not saying a word about where he's been, unwilling to meet my eye.

I think he may have found himself a woman*.

* Old, living alone, a generous feeder - my archetypal nemesis figure.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


We have become friends with a really rather cool mother and son, plus grandparents, who live in a massive, rambling, tree-lined property that's close to us. Having done a lot of running about last week and over the weekend, by Sunday afternoon I felt the need to unwind. So we took up an invite to join said mother and son, at their place - for drinks in the shade.

As I looked over some outbuildings, Emma was given the formal tour of the gardens, and Alex took a turn towards the vast hen enclosure (later showing off at being able to gently gather up the more dull-witted of hens). Later, as we exited Rambling Manor, I mentioned that I'd needed that break. The Lady of the Manor seemed glad for the remark.

Then. Yesterday evening. Just before bed-time.

Alex: (casually having a wee) Shane.

Shane: (pasteing up the toothbrushes) Mm?

Alex: Y' know when I was with the hens yesterday?

Shane: Mm.

Alex: Well, now don't tell me off for this cos it wasn't my fault -

Shane: (not impressed) What did you do?

Alex: I didn't do anything, it was the hen.

Shane: (oh Lord) What?

Alex: Well I needed a wee, so I went down to the bottom - behind the shed, near the weeds. I weed in the weeds.

Shane: Did a hen peck your pecker?

Alex: (amused) No. It tried to peck my wee.

Shane: What?

Alex: The hen tried to peck my wee! And I ended up weeing on its head.

Shane: (he weed on the hen's head!) A tiny bit funny, but really not very cool.

Alex: It wasn't my fault! It was too lazy to go up to the water buckets, so it tried to drink my wee.

Shane: That's foul. And that was it, was it?

Alex: I turned the tap on for it, but it ran back up to near the gate, so I turned it off.

Shane: Hmm.

It is with the 'Hmm' expression that I convey the moral significance of non-human animals. This, I imagine, is what The Boy reads from the Hmm, too.

If you were out, I hope you wore sun-block.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Emma and I take our seats in the theatre, for illusionist and mentalist Derren Brown's 'Enigma' show. All about us, there is an adrenal air of anticipation. Behind us, a young couple take their seats. With thoughts towards the seeds of likely tricks, the young man speculates to his irony-free companion.

Man: Back there, in the foyer - I bet there were loads o' subliminal messages an' that.

Woman: I didn't see any.

I smile to myself.

The show turns out to be excellent - as much for Brown's mastery of the stage, as for the mental mechanics of the acts that we witness. We were sworn to secrecy, so I'll say no more than that.

Friday, May 07, 2010


I'm taking a measure of the atmosphere, and the result demands a light note on which to end the week.

We are to move house, to not very far from where we are now. Until a week or so ago, I'd asked both Emma and Alex to not go broadcasting this information - keen as I was for the move to seem more definite before any public notice - as I say, that was until a week ago.

About a fortnight ago, collecting Alex from school, a rush of his classmates spill out into the area where their parents and so on gather to collect them. Immediately, a huddle of boys gather about me.

Boy1: Hi Shane.

Shane: Hello Boy1.

Boy2: Can Alex come round mine on Thursday?

Shane: Thursday, Boy2? Hmmm, I don't know about Thursday - I'll have to check whether we've got anything else on. He'll be able to let you know himself tomorrow.

Boy2: Okay.

Boy3: Thursday - Alex can't on Thursday - he's going to an estate agents'.

Shane: Is he? (There was never a plan to go to any estate agent on Thursday.)

Boy3: Yeah. He told us.

Shane: Who's us?

Boy3: The class. You're moving to Canal Road.

Shane: Oh, right. So it's sorted then?

Boy3: Yeah.

As per usual, Alex is one of the last to leave the building - quite unwilling to be hurried. He passes his bag to me.

Alex: I made everyone laugh today.

Shane: How did you do that?

Alex: I told them that we won't even need to get a lorry when we move house - we can just carry our stuff to Canal Road. I said, 'We'll be like an army of ants - ants carrying pants'. They all laughed.

Shane: Mm. Didn't we say that we'd not tell people about this for a little while?

Alex: Did we?

Shane: Mm.

Alex: I wasn't listening.

Shane: Ah. That'll be it.

Alex: Mm.

We walk home, glancing left down Canal Road as we pass it.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010


There is a definite buzz about Thursday's general election, the suggestion - a whiff in the air - that something quite unusual - historic, even - might be about to unfold. With the many and varied social media platforms awash with soundbite proclamations of political support (and apathy) and the mainstream media peddling slightly fattened versions of much the same, I will add a side note to the political aligning that is quite reasonably au fait.

On the back of the expenses scandal (in my view, the scandal being the light touch with which party leader/s were handled, and the throw-away 'we've all had our problems over expenses' euphemism), I remember raising an eyebrow at talk of one or two famous folk lining up to contest parliamentary seats. In particular, Esther Rantzen standing in Luton South seemed to get a lot of coverage. A radio programme (possibly BBC Radio 4's PM, or BBC Five Live's Drive-Time) invited discussion of the pros and cons of this kind of independents-in move. Clare Short MP, whilst acknowledging the well-meaningness of many likely candidates and the understandable public anger at the expenses furore, was not supportive of the independents' rising star/s. In short, her challenge was that independents - whilst not being aligned to any major party - could not be readily associated with a set of core principles and values, beliefs or policy intentions. On the surface, a fair criticism, it seemed - so the public would have to ask questions, or read a little deeper into independents. A problem? I didn't think so. But Clare Short's comments stayed with me, they seemed to be premised on a flawed set of assumptions.

When it comes to distinguishing between the mainstream parties we can refer to history (recent and not so recent), we can look out for specific policy pledges, and we might ask what is the fuel (political, economic, moral) that drives Party X's agenda. All sound so far. But where does this take us? We are still resting on the hopes and assumptions of candidates sticking to what they've promised, to understanding what they've promised, and to 'filling in the gaps' positively for us. I don't believe that there are many voters who would deeply believe their election choices to amount to a 'Me versus Society' play-off, even though part of my occasionally reactionary way of thinking would tell me that that is how I hear some politicians. My point - getting back to Clare Short's assumptions regarding the oblique presentation of independent candidates: the biggest variable upon which people will make their voting decisions is trust. Plain and simple. And what this does, is it somewhat undermines the need for detailed policy presentation and party affiliation. It is for this reason that we have would-be prime ministers being analysed (by 'serious political commentators') for whether they looked into a television camera, or whether they made reference to the names of people who've asked questions. It's light, it's superficial, it's ephemeral. It seems that we are next door to - if not entirely in the land of - talk of 'gameplans', and mass readings of body language. And on these terms - the terms with which ordinary punters, such as we are, come to distinguish between political leaders - independent candidates are no different from those who carry higher profiles. We will analyse them - should they get as far as the starting line - in terms of how far we might trust them to do the right thing, whilst in office.

I do not need to know what every policy initiative would look like - that would be an unreasonable ask. What I want to believe, is that under whichever administration is formed over the coming days, that those who are most vulnerable in society will be best looked after. I want government to be big enough to be paternalistic, to be strong enough to be interventionist, and to be responsible enough to not simply allow the 'natural forces of the market' to steer us to wherever. At the level of the individual candidate, there are individuals from all major parties, and several minor parties, who convince me of their goodness of thought and spirit, that would inspire my trust in them. And sadly, there are individuals who might be aligned to broad political churches with which I am comfortable, who fail to inspire such feelings.

At risk of completely losing my thread, I will round off. On Thursday, I will vote. I won't feel any strong sense of what the next four or five years might have in store for any of us, but I will vote. And the thing that will determine who gets my 'X', will simply be that bloke (for they are all blokes) who I most believe could be relied upon to approach problems from a sound social and moral standpoint. It's not religious, it's not borne of any profound economic or even political ideology, it's just simple, human and humane.

I hope that anyone who glances over this missive will be voting too, regardless of where their X may land.

See you on the other side, perhaps for a collective sigh. Perhaps.

Monday, April 19, 2010


I have just engaged in an economic transaction. On reflection, this is how it feels like it went:

Shane: Hello. I need a quote for a windscreen replacement.

WomanOnPhone: Okay. Make and model?

Shane: Oh, I don't know, just an ordinary windscreen - whichever is most popular. Or cheapest. And safe.

W.O.P.: No, no. The vehicle.

Shane: Oh. VW Passat.

W.O.P.: Registration?

Shane: Yankee Doodle Zero Blah Echo Dandy Beano.

W.O.P.: Great. And have you currently got sensors?

Shane: ('Like daleks?') Er.

W.O.P.: Rain sensors. Do the wipers come on themselves when it rains, sometimes?

Shane: ('Well, yeah. But that can't be sensors in the windscreen - I'd've seen the wires or sensor pads, surely. Must be just under the windscreen.') Er, no. I don't think so.

W.O.P.: Okay. And you'd want it doing today?

Shane: Yes please. Do you come to me? ('Or do I risk being lacerated in the face, by coming to you?)

W.O.P.: We can come to you. Where are you?

Shane: I'm in BlahBlah. ('Shit. I bet she adds More Pounds because of that.')

W.O.P.: Ok. Well that's coming out at Some Pounds.

Shane: Some Pounds? Ok. Let's do that.

W.O.P. and I agree a time at which A Man will come to me.

Later, A Man arrives and looks over his task like a true Windscreen Professional.

Windscreen Professional: Did she give you two prices?

Shane: No. Just the one for Some Pounds.

W.P.: Mm. It's just that you've got the rain sensors, see? (points at very obvious and highly visible rain sensors)

Shane: Yes, mm-hm. ('But of course, the rain sensors of obviousness')

W.P.: So that'll be More Pounds.

Shane: More Pounds, oh that's fine. ('Not that I'm rich or anything, you understand.')

W.P.: Right then, if you could pull the car forward - I'll need to open both doors. I'll get on with it.

Shane: Okay. And would you like a drink?

W.P.: No thanks, I'm not gay.

Shane: Okay.

He gets on with being A Man, and I leave him to it.

It didn't feel like a balanced transaction. Definitely a sense of being all at sea on that one.

Will have a look over the OU website later. They probably run courses on Manning Up.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

seven survey*

Having listened to his appearance on BBC Radio 4's Book Club, with James Naughtie, I've been reading Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street.

It's been a while since I experienced such a thing, but I think I've been struck by a case of Man Love. And from this (below), I think it should be easy to understand why:

Good day.

* references the Chapter Seven title of 44 Scotland Street: The Survey.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

six movements

Friday evening:

'Did I tell y' about the doctors' surgery?' asks mother.

'No', says I.

Soon after, I'm looking at this:

...And my sister and I are laughing at the very twenty-first century apology, from So So Sorry, of Spennymoor, that appeared on the local newspaper's website. (It was his kid wot dun it, apparently - burned the doctors' surgery down.) Confirming the gravitas of the blaze, mother grimly adds, 'They had to close Asda'.

On Saturday, my mother laid some flowers in the walled remembrance garden at the crematorium, in Durham. It was a bittersweet moment. She cried, I patted her back.

Later, in Durham, sister and I were on a Day-Before-Mothers-Day mission.

'Do we need wrapping paper?' I ask.

Sister locates the wrapping paper in Waterstones, swears, and re-directs us. 'Haway. Indoor market'll be cheaper.' A daughter's love, a daughter's economy.

Later still on Saturday, I recognise some things about mother's life in the small town that I'd previously undervalued. As she's describing the trials and tribulations that various friends and faces have been dealing with, I ask where she gets all of this information from. Seems that a walk through town is sufficient. People on the street. Tiny details, good for the soul.

Sunday, we went out for lunch, prior to my drive back. In the family restaurant, it seemed like tattoos were en vogue. But then I notice that many of said tattoos have that slightly blurred - stretched - quality. And I listen to how some of the fellow diners are speaking. 'More on rogue, than en vogue', I decide, admiring the line, but choosing not to share it. Wouldn't want to offend, see. Or get beaten up.

I get back to Stoke-on-Trent at around 6:45pm, and Emma gives me the lowdown on her weekend. 'I missed you', she adds. Fifteen minutes later, The Boy - returned by his Dad - steps in, throws his arms open and around me for a big hug, and says, 'We didn't win the talent show, but everyone laughed when we mixed the cat food into the rice pudding. And Miss Stokes asked who wrote our script. She wants you to help her with something, I think.'

And not to miss out on this lo-fi reunion, the cat wanders in, heads for the fireplace, and starts to bite the tulip stems.

Kettle on.

Friday, March 12, 2010

five star

Early 2010 featured far too much death and distraction for me to commit to being anything more than a punter at the second Stoke-on-Trent Pecha Kucha event. Pecha Kucha: Japanese for chit-chat. Here, taking the form of a presentation, over 20 slides/images, each given 20 seconds - total presentation time: 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

The Fat Cat Cafe Bar
, on the edge (the best bit) of Hanley, was a very good venue - its subterranea being sufficiently lounge-like and ill-lit, to foster a warm, relaxed atmosphere.

With Anna Francis' cool hosting, presentations began with local photographer, Mark Brereton, on responses to the Haitian earthquake. With this, there were related historical references to architecture and global network-based fund-raising efforts. A gentle opener.

Taking on the baton, was Nottingham-based Andy Clark, whose disarming moustache-fronted opening paved the way for a wry discussion around men's health. The timing, content and all-round intelligence of this presentation justified the rapturous response that the speaker received. Personal trials with prostate cancer were the background to what was effectively a health education message that the crowd actually wanted to listen to. Of course, self being self, I had to later daydream about the vast monies that are spent on getting such messages out, but with nothing like the appeal or flair that this self-effacing speaker achieved. Andy's happening to have the family in tow for the evening, was a warm detail that wasn't lost to me. I spotted his wife say, 'Proud of you', following his post-presentation kiss. Lip-reading, eh, whatever next.

From this, Gemma Thomas shifted us towards 'Collaboration'. Ultimately, a workish presentation, that was a little light on the trials of working in collaboration, or in partnership. Here, I have to acknowledge that whilst the desire and optimism attached to the 'Wouldn't things be better if we could all work together' sentiment, is attractive, I've known far too many collaborations and partnerships - in-depth - to know that the detail of such working arrangements, can create a lot of additional work in and of itself. A point that was oblique, here.

In discussing folk memories of the city (Stoke-on-Trent), Darren Washington (another local photographer), drew upon his own archive of images, along with spoken word recordings made around the Potteries. The pacing of this presentation, and its meandering content, was sufficient for many of the crowd to appreciate the humour in lo-fi everyday reflecting.

During a break in proceedings, throughout which local electronic musicians bITjAM provided the background music - agreeably non-disturbing, I talked with a fellow north-east exile about his recent move south, and about the university course that he's now leading.

Perhaps the most surprisingly entertaining talk came next. Anwyl Cooper-Willis, visiting from Bristol, provided a most elegant account of the grand architecture attached to the electricity sub-stations of Stoke-on-Trent. To many, this might herald a 'Y' wha'?!' response, but this was really about paying attention to and seeing the merits of those details of our everyday backdrops that we don't always see. I would fail to do justice to Anwyl and the sub-stations, were I to try to say more.

The one technical glitch of the evening occurred next. One speaker's presentation images were lost to the stomach of a laptop and so he had to stand down. I hope he returns, next time there's a Pecha Kucha event. Hearing reference to this SpeakerWhoWouldHaveBeen being from my part of the city, I was quietly excited - hoping that he was about to add a dimension to this most local of locales, that would have undermined some of my dearest prejudices. He looked like a decent sort.

From that hiccough, to Nantes, and Celine Siani-Djiakoua's reflection on the semiotics of her former home ('Where are you from?') city. In the imagery, advertising hoardings and text about the streets of Nantes, Celine discussed the traces of the city's historically pivotal role in sustaining the slave trade. Altogether, the narrative was fragmented, but such a patchwork quilt of talk was strong enough in its detail to hold interest.

And finally, they'd been spotted about the building earlier, Denim and Leather were to play 'Live!'. Stepping up to the microphone, the duo's manager, Hugo Nowhere, presented a 6-minute 40-second introduction. Recounting his boys' past tours, their achievements, and the underlying philosophy of these most fashionably unfashionable ne'er-do-wells, 'Rock is a three letter word', we all knew which S-word he was talking about. But lo, but behold. Due to their rockish excess, Denim and Leather failed to make it to the stage. Images suggested that their non-specified binges had led to unpleasantness in the toilets. The crowd were disappointed, if taken aback at such antics - on a Thursday. One suspects that they'll rock on, to make a difference at other performance events. Nowhere struck me as a man not to be trusted, though. Debauched.

By 11pm, I was back at the ranch, and settling self down for some really odd dreamsleep. I blame Hugo Nowhere.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

four tits

From recent observations, a gentle audit:

Blue - simple, pretty and common.

Great - 'Fat Blue Tit, with black belly stripe', I think to myself.

Coal - my favourite - a demure wee thing.

And now, Marsh - as we approached Doxeys Marshes, I saw the fleeting wag of a tail and proclaimed, 'Long-tailed tit' - really loud and professional, like. But on closer, quieter inspection, The Boy put me right, 'It's a Marsh Tit... (whispers) punk ass fool'.

Sunday felt like Spring, and the beginning - proper - of 2010.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

three moments

Eleven days ago.

Ahead of the recent cremation of my grandmother, I'd had a falling out with my sister - nothing more than a brief flare-up, but this was unusual - Sister and I generally get on well. Leaving the north east, prior to my return for the cremation, we'd not healed the rift. Unsatisfactory, but something that we could both live with.

On my return for said cremation, about to enter the familial home's front room, I wondered what kind of atmosphere awaited. As I move into the open doorway, Sister spotted me, suppressed an embarrassed smile and raised an eyebrow at me - a quiet 'Hello'. In response, I stick two fingers up at her and ask, 'Cup of tea?'.

That's how we don't deal with issues.

After the cremation service and an entirely pleasant afternoon, spent with relatives who I'd not seen in years, I requested a lift to the station from Sister, and she obliged. En route - a 15 minute hop, we discussed our mother, and strategies for helping mum - mam - to move on from our grandmother's death. Broadly speaking, we were as one. On reaching Durham, I stepped out of the car, took my bags and said thanks for the lift. Sister replies, 'Y' alright'. And then, as I have my hand on the door - about to shut it, she calls out, 'Oi! Git!' 'What?' I ask, leaning back in. 'Thanks for doing that today', she said, to which I nodded. 'See y' next month', and closed the door.

That's how we draw lines under issues.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

two dramas

Walking into the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, last Friday, I was reminded of the Green Room, Manchester - large glass frontage, confident contemporary air to the space, and just a hint of middle-browness.

I was there with The Professor, to see a Love and Madness production of Sam Shepard's Fool for Love.

Reviews had been mixed, and the particular hook for drawing me in was the knowledge that this was Carl Barat's first professional acting gig. Walking into the theatre space, we enter at stage level, with the cast already in position - Barat (as Eddie) sits, head bowed. On a nearby bed, Sadie Frost (as May) is curled up. Gerard McDermott (as the Old Man) is half-way up a staircase, amongst the one-tier bank of seats. A small amount of additional seating is at stage level. The capacity looks to be around 300. As the play begins, I count 23 of us and immediately make the mental note to not spend the next hour or so (it's a short play) doing arithmetic and getting distracted by the economics of such a production.

(Photo: Luke Varley)

Soon, we are immersed in the messy, alcohol-fuelled relationship of Eddie and May. There is an undertow of violent potential - with drawled cat calls and deep southern swagger the order of the pair's clashing over Eddie's time away. The motel room environment is claustrophic.

(Photo: Luke Varley)

About twenty minutes into the play, I think to myself, 'It's not entirely obvious where this is going'. By now, we've had the addition of the Old Man's third-party perspective, narrating against the main protagonists' conflict. The Old Man is drunk, and has a different kind of energy to the younger actors. The professor will later comment, that 'He held the whole thing together'. Looking at the text of the play, it would be easy to take the same view. Thus far, each of the three characters have presented the further challenge for the actors of 'doing drunk', or 'doing drinking', but they're getting by.

(Photo: Luke Varley)

Whether by design, or fluke, McDermott's Old Man makes good use of the light in the space - stepping into and out of the shadows, and at one time, resting amongst the audience.

(Photo: Luke Varley)

As the play moves on to further disrupt the Eddie-May dialogue, with Neil Sheppeck's Martin - a humble man with a romantic interest in May - entering the fray, we build to revelations surrounding the identity of the Old Man, and the conequences of this for the doomed duo. Martin, meanwhile, is a character that hardly develops - aside from deciding that he wants to get out of there.

(Photo: Luke Varley)

In all, the production was competent - unremarkable, but certainly not bad. My guessing is that some of those mixed reviews would have warded off a good degree of shot-in-the-dark footfall, and so our two dozen get to do theatre intime. Through the course of the production, I wondered at the processes that may - or may not - have been undertaken, by way of casting. I wondered about the extent to which voice coaches would have worked with the cast. And I wondered how the cast would have felt, before, during and after the play's run. The experience of playing to a packed house would surely have generated nervous energy, but might smaller audiences risk the demeanour of going through the motions. I don't know - and the answer to the question wasn't obvious from any of the performances. The one technical criticism, that I would put forward, would be regarding the use of the whole body - and movement - through the play. The Old Man gave it 120% swagger, the awkward Martin was very much a stiff character, but - especially with alcohol in the air - I found it hard to imagine that Eddie and May would have been quite as static - quite as hands-off (despite the second photograph, above), were we in the real world. But perhaps this is a detail that we can forgive, given the revelations regarding the Old Man. See how I don't spoil.

If anything, Fool for Love was drama - writ large.

And so onto Saturday, and Bette Bourne and Mark Ravenhill, presenting A Life in Three Acts at the Soho Theatre.

(Photo: uncredited)

As this image attests, the staging of A Life in Three Acts was quite a different affair to Fool for Love. I'd seen Bette Bourne about a decade ago, playing Quentin Crisp, in Tim Fountain's Resident Alien. From that show, I'd deduced a warmth and charm to Bourne, that instilled confidence.

The Soho Theatre - on a Saturday afternoon - was packed. Maybe 200 folk, covering a broad white-only demographic, sat down for the one and a half hour show.

Ravenhill bounces onto the stage and speaks to us, explaining that a year ago, he began to interview Bette, and that with the assistance of a transcriber, a picture researcher and a long self-editing process, he and Bette had reduced those interviews down into a stageable, digestible form. And that, as the title of the piece suggests, the life of Bette Bourne - and with that, a rich seam of social, sexual, identity and performance history - was the central subject matter. And so we welcome Bette Bourne to the stage. Aged 70, he had a quiet charisma, if not an entirely lithe physique. Refreshingly, there was an honesty to the production - the process through which it came about, and the matter of the performers have the 'script' in front of them, was there for all to hear and see. The professor later commented, 'Within 30 seconds of his being on stage, I was with him'. It also happened to be the case that within 30 seconds of his being on stage he was recalling - and self-parodyingly performing - boyhood amateur dramatics, undertaken with his mother, as his father was at war.

Of white working class stock, Bourne was one that got away - or was, perhaps, rescued by himself and by the good fortune and direction of one or two of his tutors. In a life that spanned intimate and sexual relationships with men and at least one woman, a life that saw Bourne at the fore in the Gay Rights movement, and that saw his Bloolips performance troupe play through Europe and New York, Bourne had much to unfold. Beyond the drag and the suggestion of often larger-than-life self-characterisation, there emerged a thoughtful, quieter, more comfortable-in-his-own-skin individual. Particularly insightful moments came about as he discussed his decision to leave a commune, as the drug scene therein became too much, too negative, for him. And furthermore, in discussing the early 1980s, AIDS, and those who fell to it, he portrayed an individual who was fully aware of the tragedies that he had lived through. In discussing a relationship with a woman, which came to an end as he had to explain 'I'm not straight, I'm not bi, I'm a gay man', he acknowledged that he had at times been complicit in more local tragedies. 'I hurt her', he said quietly.

But heavy and profound as much of this was, there was - is - an air to Bourne, that reminds us that life goes on, and that we should make the best effort to get the most out of life. Ravenhill's discreet interventions - moving the narrative along - was a wise production decision - a constant visual reminder of the relational quality of biography. After all, what is a biography without a reader, a listener, or anyone who cares.

If anything, A Life in Three Acts was drama - writ deep.