Saturday, 10 December 2011

Secret shelves

"Yes I'd love to come to the meeting...but...I'd be at a loose end in town for three hours". Not a prospect I relished at this time of year. Not only have I never really grasped the concept of shopping as a form of entertainment, but one of the three hours would fall in that awkward lull you get in every British city between the shops closing and the "evening economy" firing up. Two of the hours would be after dark, and all three would be cold. And windy. Then I remembered a conversation from earlier in the day:

"There's a library round the back of the_"
"Really?? Open to the public?"
"Yes. Until quite late. It's the City Archives. Anyone can go in"

I left my investigations til after dark. The building's less than a hundred yards from the nearest shops, after all. But you have to know where you're going: there's no light. There are lawns (black), gravel paths (audible), a couple of small car-parks (tenebrous) and, so I'm reliably informed, a legion of legless Roman soldiers marching silently through a basement off to the left somewhere. I feel distinctly under-dressed: my coat should be longer, my hair blacker and my face paler. I walk past a tramp who's looking through some large commercial bins, and then through a gateway in some iron railings ("CCTV in operation") into a velvet-black garden. The tramp decides that lost-looking people are more interesting than bins, and comes over: though he talks with some difficulty, he's obviously "in" on this Archive lark.

He tells me the velvet garden's infradig and if I'm looking for the library the door's just round there. I nearly walk in through a brightly-lit window: the door's right next to it, in complete darkness. It looks like the sort of door that usually has a sign on it saying "Do Not Use This Door". But it's unlocked.

Inside it's wine-chiller cool. There are huge heaters, in theory, but the heat simply soaks into the mediaeval walls never to be heard of again. The staff at the reception desk take time to explain what I can find here, but it all just goes in one ear and out the other as I marvel at how such a place can carry on existing just a hundred yards from shops that are desperate to sell anything to avoid going under with the high rents.

The huge tomes in the first room I investigate, are records from parishes all over the country. I spend some time looking for any of the (many) places with which I have any connection, but draw a blank and start to look for some science. What I find there, quite by chance, are some real eye-openers. J.S. Haldane pondering the social and ethical dilemmas that are (or at least, should be) still alive in science today. A fascinating account of the perils of how the then-new (late 30s) chemically-assisted agriculture renders soil weak and sterile, which wouldn't have looked out of place in this month's Permaculture Magazine. Who knows, if I'd been able to carry on looking, I might even have come across Farmers of Forty Centuries, (celebrating its centenary this year) in which the soil is named as the "staying power" behind China's achievement as the only ancient superpower still extant in modern times.

But it was throwing-out time at the Archives, and anyway I had a meeting to go to.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Sacred space

For some reason, I only noticed the Facebook post the night before it was all due to start. I hadn't really been following any local news about the "biggest strike in a generation": how can you go on strike when you haven't got a job? But it was November, people would be standing outside from before dawn on the picket-lines, and the local wing of UK Uncut were organising a run of hot drinks and snacks. I signed up to help. What better way for someone unemployed to go "on strike" than by getting up at 6:15 and going to work?

The morning was still, dark and quiet. I passed two sets of pickets on the way into town: one at the Police station and one, of all places, at the Barracks. Who would police the day's march and rally? And what would the local regiment of Ghurkhas look like out on strike?

The venue for the tea-making had been described as a "Church Hall" but I pushed open a large arched door to find myself in the nave of what appeared to be a fully functioning church, complete with altar, crucifixes and the beginnings of a congregation. There were even hymn numbers on a board on the wall. But there was a bike-trailer parked in the middle of the room: this must be the right place. I recognised the Pastor: he had made a brilliant speech at a rally in the summer comparing wealth inequality to the suffering in a flood. It had moved me to tears. Now he is letting us use his church as HQ. There's a map spread out on the altar with all the locations of the pickets. They hadn't known about the barracks.

The kitchen was up some steps beyond the altar: thus, all the worshippers would have unwittingly been addressing their devotions to the Place of Food. And we're not talking just tea and biscuits here: we're making bacon butties, veggie sausages, and I got the plate-warmer up and running so that they could go out hot to the front lines. Someone had even brought a thermal picnic bag. Pickets had been briefed: they could phone and ask for food any time between 8:00 and 10:00 am. I stuffed bacon and sausages that someone else had fried, into buns which I then wrapped and counted into bags. Bikes and cars took them all over the city in the early morning sunshine: I hadn't realised how many government outposts there were here.

"Six bacon butties and two veggie sausages!!" A journalist from London came to the door and asked if our effort was being appreciated on the picket-lines but nobody had heard him and that was the first answer he got. We gave our stories. The strike, the backup and the public support were covered as a New Social Phenomenon the following day.

And no wonder: the breathing-space at the end of a working life, just like the one at the end of the working week, is part of life's pattern. You might try and remove it temporarily in times of war, but expecting 68-year-old dusties to lift our heavy boxes of bottles, or 68-year-old police to chase burglars, just because somebody in a bank isn't very good at risk assessment, is a poor show. Especially when, as in the Pastor's metaphorical flood, the people at the bottom go under, while those at the top lose nothing at all.

Sunday, 20 November 2011


Sometimes people waiting at stations do odd things that stick in your memory. During one particular wait, standing in a shelter, I became aware of the sound of paper being ripped. Oddly, this was not followed by the obvious next steps of crumpling or binning the paper. And the ripping was being done at a slower, more deliberate pace than I am used to.

I looked up from my newspaper to follow the sound. It came from a magazine being read by a smartly-dressed middle-aged man, who happened to be sitting facing away from me. As I looked, he read one page, then having read it he very deliberately tore it out of the magazine, then into four squares, and then slid the four ragged pieces into the plastic sleeve in which the magazine, obviously some kind of professional publication in the field of his work, had been delivered. The next page received the same treatment. And the next. Most of the pages, as is usual in that type of publication, were liberally illustrated with photographs of smart, smiling people who were obviously "moving on up", and whose tales of success were being used partly by themselves as a networking excercise, but mainly by the industry "pour encourager les autres".

I began to wonder what particular industry was being featured. The cover of the magazine was obviously long gone, and I was too far away to read the articles. What I could tell, though, was that it would have been perfectly possible, and far quicker, to simply turn each page rather than tear it into quarters. The magazine would then have easily fitted back into its plastic sleeve, rather than forming an ungainly lump as it was now beginning to.

The reading and slow tearing went on until the entire magazine had been devoured. The shelter was quite crowded, and I wondered if anyone else had noticed this little tableau, and if so whether they, like me, had begun to find it disturbing. How often does anyone in the normal course of life deliberately rip up an image of somebody's face?

Perhaps I'm just a bit too sensitive. Perhaps dealing with people was not a strong point of this particular individual, or the line of work in which he found himself. Perhaps I'll not look up right now, because I am just too damn curious about what this man does for a living, and want to catch the words on the front of that sleeve in the split second between its being turned over, and being slipped into a briefcase...blink!

Human Resources Magazine

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Angelic umbrellas

Party fundraising season is with us once again. While for some this means plush dinners at £60 a head, for others such as our little party £6 gets you in to a lively gig with local bands happy to play for beliefs rather than hard cash, in the back bar of our local Picturehouse. And an excellent evening it was, too.

At the end of the evening, a group of us decided to walk home: it was a mild, windless night and our definition of "walking distance" is somewhat elastic. But my confidence (backed up by a glance at the forecast earlier that day) that it wouldn't rain, had turned out to be misplaced. Well, that's Climate Change for you.

Bring on the Angelic umbrellas. They were large, white, and standing in a wooden latticework box behind a leather sofa by the door: I hadn't spotted them on my way in. Anyone faced with the prospect of otherwise getting wet could help themselves to one, no matter how long or variagated their journey home. I was amazed: didn't this little enterprise cost the Picturehouse a small fortune in wayward brolly replacement?

Elinor Olstrom won her Nobel Prize for proving scientifically that this needn't be the case. A "common resource" (fisheries, fields, umbrellas) can be managed by its users, without the need for a typical "top-down" commercial or government set-up, as long as there is some other well-defined social structure, made up of its users, which is as large as the resource in question.

And so I wonder, how big is the Picturehouse Social Structure (note no attempts at an acronym!)? And how strong is our sense of belonging? Do we all think of the place as just a commercial enterprise (in which case we'd nick the brollies: "after all, we've paid for them"), or does it count for more than that? After all, people meet in its foyer and bars, and see classic "everyone should see" films (Walkabout, Apocalypse Now, Metropolis), which make it something of a social and cultural space as well as just a business.

And would you nick brollies from your own and your mates' social-and-cultural-space? 'Course not.

Image blagged with thanks, from "Fresh Eyes On London"

Monday, 3 October 2011

Mind the Gap

There isn't really any excuse for a three-month gap in posting, so I'm not going to offer one.

But the Plot is coming along nicely: there are spuds, giant broccoli, tomatoes, strawberries, and reams of beans. Nearly all of these have suffered some horrble setback near the beginning of their lives, as I start to learn about things like Pigeons, Rabbits, Bindweed, and other pests the like of which one never has to deal with an an ordinary garden.

One evening, round about the time of the London Riots, a hot spell here in Viking City broke into a specatacular rainstorm. The following day I found out that some of the local likelies, apparently having had their barbecue rudely interrupted by unwanted water, had picked up their fire and come and taken shelter in the shed on the Plot. The fire itself was in one of those large old-fashioned metal bread tins. The shed is always unlocked, so nothing has to be broken in order to get in. We have kept it that way ever since discovering, one morning, a twentysomething victim of the recession who had apparently needed it and who had had the decency, and the good sense, to leave it undamaged.

Unfortunately, the local likelies weren't quite so thoughtful. Not bothering to realise that a metal tin with a fire in it is hot on the outside as well as the inside, they set it down on the shed's wooden floor rather than put it up on bricks like a barbecue. And it burned right through, leaving a large, ragged hole.

I took it philosophically: at least a hole in the floor won't let the rain in. But other Plotters said I should tell the Police, so I did.

So there are now files, fingerprints, DNA samples, and a large metal bar plus lock which we have been given to put on the shed door. Rumours of a CCTV programme are floating around. In other words, a lot of extra work for everybody involved (including the likelies, who I presume will shortly find themselves on a Community Payback stint).

I'm fairly laid-back about people using things, as long as no malice is intended and no damage is done. We all do it. Anyone who eats food, or uses energy, is using their surroundings just like the people who used our shed.

The trick is not to burn holes in it, guys.

Friday, 8 July 2011

The man who lost the plot

I never met him. Whoever he was, he had apparently been using his allotment as a tree-nursery, which broke just about every rule in the book. It took the Council at least 8 years to evict him, or possibly just to wait for him to hang up his tools and retire. On 6th June (always my lucky day) Council workers with strimmers came and took away the worst of the undergrowth (the trees, apparently, were all long gone). Two days later we got the phonecall: the Plot was ours, free for the first year if we were up for all the work involved. We had been on the list for over 2 years: we signed up pronto. It even has a shed.

The first time I looked inside, it was festooned with cobwebs. No-one (at least, no-one with fewer than 6 legs) must have been in there for years. There were three old doors leaned up against one of the walls, and a pile of dust which, on being sneezed at, revealed some paint-tins, a bicycle-chain, a pair of scholls (sadly not my size) and, bizarrely, the mouthpiece of a recorder.

A few days later I returned, armed with a broom. I was met with exactly the same interior design (including the small but sturdy spade I had left there), but with one very unsubtle addition: in the middle of the floor was an empty Rizla-packet torn, shall we say, in that characteristic way. It appeared the shed (along with, so the owners tell me, most of the other sheds nearby) had a bit of a social life of an evening.

I set to clearing away all the cobwebs and dust (and the Rizla packet). I found there was a window (it doesn't let much light in though, being just a foot from the high wall of the garden next door), and cleaned and opened it. By the end of the day it was looking quite presentable in there. As I have continued work on the rest of the Plot, a few things have gradually been moved there: a rake, a pair of gardening gloves I found in the street (which are excellent, and a perfect fit), a carpet-square, a bucket and, in case Nature calls, a loo-roll which I tied through its centre to a beam.

So today, after some heavy rain which eases the work, I returned to the Plot to dig out some bindweed. In the shed, everything was exactly as I'd left it...except that the loo-roll was missing. Including the centre, which must have meant someone cutting or untying the string. Leaning out of the window I could see the said centre on the ground, and the sheets too, looking as if they had been useful for something before being defenestrated. But what?? Who had been crying? Or sneezing? Or getting dirty?

If only sheds could talk.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Stop thief

I don't have the world's best memory for faces, but today I was the first to spot him: yes, the Erudite Space has its very own shoplifter. He slopes in, shambles around the shop, and puts small books in the ample pockets of his tatty, unappetising mac. He's particularly fond of Observer books and anything about transport. Let's call him Oswald.

Every bookshop in town has banned him from their premises, but I don't know how that works: I wonder if their own Security Guards, or the Police, march him bodily out into the street, and then I wonder how they stop him from just wandering back in again. I don't think he's ever been arrested. We don't have him banned for some reason, perhaps because we're a charity and we're just supposed to be kind and put up with that sort of thing. So someone has to follow him round the shop, firmly but gently taking books from him and putting them back on the shelves, and answering a string of questions, each one of which makes sense by itself, but which have no logical sequence, are often repeated, and don't really constitute a conversation.

I'm not sure he even knows where he is most of the time. I'd always wondered how long he had been like that, and what horrible trauma in his life had started it all.

A chap I'd earlier directed to the Computing section overheard me warn the Boss of Oswald's presence. And, incredibly, then said right out that as a ten-year-old train enthusiast he had often seen Oswald, then in his twenties but still trainspotting. It was apparent he couldn't fully look after himself even then: perhaps he'd lacked the sense of what other people are, ever since birth. The classmates had assumed he was the sort of person their mums had in mind when they told them never to talk to Strange Men.

All of which means that for the best part of half a century a succession of people have had to provide shelter, food, protection from arrest and accident, and protection of others from inadvertant harm, from Oswald's blithe irresponsibility. In all this time no-one has had the courage or the wherewithal to sieze the initiative and change matters for the better.

Which puts Oswald in unlikely company: the latest campaign by the charity who run our shop is highlighting the effect on the poorest people of a system that has provided shelter, resources and legal protection for large financial institutions, while struggling, and now failing, to protect others from being harmed by their actions.

Sometimes I think that it's time we should all stop just quietly putting the books back on the shelves, and start making arrests.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Advanced motoring

There is a beautiful, tree-lined bike-path along the river, which forms most of my 15-minute trip into "work" at the aforementioned erudite space. The trees are protected by order of the City Council. Geese sit around and watch you glide past. Even the dogs are well-behaved. It is a total pleasure to cycle along: so much so that even getting caught in a hailstorm on the way home isn't too terrible.

There is only one road junction to get through after all that delightfulness, and it has helpfully been provided with one of these advanced stop-lines: a special green breathing-space for cyclists.

Of course, this is incredibly inefficient. Putting all those cars whose makers boast of how rapidly they can go from nought-to-sixty (because they haven't been allowed to boast of top speeds on car adverts since round about the time England won the World Cup) in a queue behind those of us who might, just possibly, make it from nought to six by the far side of the junction (on a good day) could be construed as a criminal waste of horsepower. But the Council is one step ahead: they've been listening to American physicists talking about waves. Who have found, interestingly, that rapid acceleration is one of the things that causes traffic jams: waves of still-ness, in the intervals between futile acceleration, propagate backwards along the road, bringing everybody to a halt in apparently random, unexpected places.

The people campaigning for a 20 mph speed limit on the city's smaller roads are beginning to use this to argue that a lower speed limit on roads which are at or beyond capacity can increase traffic flow...a bit like easing-off the tilt angle of a wine bottle so that the wine flows out smoothly and doesn't "glug". It would also help stop people driving as if they were late for their own funeral.

So there I was yesterday afternoon, sitting waiting for the lights to change, noticing once again that drivers are not always alert enough to actually stop before they end up in the "advanced" bit, because I've had to go all the way round to the front of some posh black thing in order to come to a halt on the small remaining bit of green space...when the full implication of the car's length, blackness, shininess and large floral display in the back window sinks in.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Erudite space

It must rank as my favourite shop in town. And they're looking for people to work in it! Payscales are purely Imaginary, but in this case that's not the point.

I picked up a form and took it home to fill in. It took me days to get round to it: after all, what possible skills could a lapsed astrophysicist with a sideline in environmental campaigning bring to bear for working in a bookshop? Two weeks later I returned the form, with something vaguely convincing filling in the blank space. Then nothing happened, and I forgot all about it.

Until about a month after that, when a voice with a gentle Edinburgh accent arrived on the answerphone asking if I was still interested. I returned the call and fixed up a visit.

The funny thing about shops is the contrast between what you see on the orderly, presentable floor-space, and what lurks beyond. It's not unlike Backstage at the theatre, and in this case there are two whole floors of it. A dumb-waiter links them with the shop area, landing discreetly behind a revolving display of witty postcards ("Why should I tidy my room when the world is such a mess?"). In an office piled high with brightly-coloured former displays, shelves of incongruous objects (flower-pots, weighing-scales, lampshades...) and stacks of recycling-type boxes lurching under their weight of donated books, we arranged my shifts. I was to come back the following Tuesday morning.

The most straightforward thing to do is stock the shelves. Starting with "Politics", "Philosophy", "Business and Economics", "Science", "Sociology"... the weird thing about this is how many of the books turned out to be familiar to me: I'd either read them, seen them cited in books I'd read, read something else by the same author, or heard of them as classics of their kind. Perhaps it was just beginners' luck. Then there are entire shelves on "How To..." just about everything from tracing your ancestors, through winning at Bridge, to origami, knitting and boatbuilding. I seem to be the most agile person who comes in on either Monday or Tuesday so a lot of the shelf-stocking falls to me.

The following week they let me loose on the till.

The best bit is, nobody ever has to come in and browse secondhand books: it's not like, for example, shopping for food or clothes, which can be a bit of a treadmill: eat, work, get latest fashion, repeat... Here, by contrast, is a shop full of people who have only come in because they are genuinely interested in what we have to offer. Which, you could say, is the chance of stepping off the ordinary path, even if just for a short while, and into the wide, Imaginary dimension beyond.

Monday, 2 May 2011

The wet stuff

You're a Brit (well, perhaps not, but if you were...). You take it for granted. It's a trade-off: your garden's always green, but sometimes you lose the entire Outdoors, and the planned activities therein, because water is coming out of the sky and making everything wet. You learn, by the age of about eleven, that if your clothes stay that way for any length of time life gets distinctly unpleasant, because you don't get the warm version here. You carry your own fallout shelter everywhere, just in case it turns up unexpectedly.

You curse it. You insure yourself against it (I'd love to see the Pluvius Policy quotes for Wills and Kate!). You use it as a metaphor for bad times, because it beat down and rotted your ancestors' food in the fields. Your children wish it would go away.

And then one day it does precisely that.

It hasn't rained here, at all, since the beginning of last month. "April Showers", that have been with us as long as the English language itself, have been cancelled.

I'd been wondering whether three barrels for collecting rain was a bit OTT for our small garden, but now I realise it is no such thing: they are rapidly emptying as we run around trying to keep everything alive. I'd put off planting seeds, waiting for wet ground to give them a good start: now they're in, but have to be watered nightly. A stiff East wind spends all day pulling what's left of the moisture out of the soil, and then, if I so much as touch it, pulling away the soil for good measure. Last month's RHS-donated trees at the Orchard and the Battlefield have had to be watered several times (in fact that was what some of us were doing during the Royal Wedding).

Manicured grass is going yellow. The NFU is advising farmers not to promise their buyers too much grain. Moors are quietly burning underground.

For once in my life, I really, really want it to rain. The irony is, I'm pretty sure that once it starts, it'll be with us all summer and I shall end up being sick of it.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The face that launched 500 trees

I am looking back at a life's work. Thankfully the life in question isn't mine, though. It is the life of the Sustainability Subcommittee, now sadly demised.

It all started two years ago, when our local Green Party's chief Organiser of All Things, in the time-honoured fashion, organised it from her place on the Parish Council. I was an enthusiastic recruit, and became secretary (and ideas lab). Collectively we organised a Parish-wide cloth bag campaign, the installation of several cycle-racks, the introduction of Green Burials in the Cemetery (I've often wondered, but never dared ask, what was in the rest of their "Business Development Plan"!), a re-think of the Parish "Design Statement" so that it included proper environmental issues as well as just appearences, and the signing-up of the Parish Council to that pledge to drop energy use by 10%.

But best of all, we brought out the inner tree-hugger in our local City Councillor. The Parish signed up to "In Bloom". It sounds all prissy and ornamental, but actually the RHS have kind of eco-pimped it on the quiet over the past few years. Battle lines are no longer drawn simply on whose patch looks the prettiest, but also on how many (different types of) people are joining in, and how "sustainable" (including things like collecting rainwater, composting and growing food) the area is becoming.

The upshot of all this machiavellian shenanigans was that between them the Orchard and the Parish were given, by the RHS, no fewer than 525 native fruit and nut trees to plant. Finding places in which to do this, though, isn't as easy as you might think. Private landowners are never there to ask, and even if they were, they'd probably have other plans. Some of the common land is being deliberately kept tree-free, for the sake of beetles who prefer meadows. Built-up roadsides have infrastructure underneath. One of the flood plains is set aside for housing. And so on.

We rapidly came to realise that edges were good, and that the best of these lay between the old battlefield (now a playing-field) and the main road. A date was set: perhaps a little late in the season, but then the season this year has been particularly cold. The RHS brief asked us to make an event of it, so we did: the mayor came along in her pink dress and hat to plant the first tree for newspaper coverage, and someone had thoughtfully provided Cava, fruit-juice and cake for all of us. It was, in short, a perfect day.

But don't trees take up space, rather than creating it? Well, that depends on who you are. Obviously if you're playing football on the playing-field, and someone's carelessly gone and planted trees in the middle of it, then they take up your space. But if you're some item of wildlife, or someone who likes climbing trees, then they provide special spaces just for you.

Monday, 14 March 2011

How space can save your life

It's kind of horribly compulsive, looking at those arial pictures of Japanese tsunami damage. And of no help whatever to anyone who lived in all those houses that were there, and are now gone. Except to notice one thing, that might be useful in future: the few roofs still visible in the aftermath pictures all lie directly inshore from city spaces set aside for trees.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Space, for kids

It's the kind of space you don't know you need, until someone grabs it from you.

The 'phone was ringing. I'd woken up in the middle of the night and the phone was ringing. I turned the face of my alarm-clock towards the window to see the time: someone was calling our house at five to one in the morning. And presumably Dad was still at Valerie's, because he hadn't picked up the extension in the main bedroom. Funny, he always made it back by midnight.

I never did like that house: it tried to be modern, but it was so dark. The sitting room had three windows but it never seemed to get any sun at all. The house, in fact the entire village, "nestled", which basically meant you didn't see anything or get any light. Which was probably a perfect end to the day if you'd been up on the fells since dawn looking after cows or sheep, but for an urban type like me it was a bit of a drag. It may have been something like the same feeling that had caused Mum to go and live with Douglas: obviously, because there was nothing bad about any of us. It had only been last month and it had come as a bit of a shock. I remembered wondering whether Chairman Mao's parents had separated when he was a teenager. That would account for a lot.

Come to think of it, the brightest "room" in the house was, in fact, the upstairs corridor, the length of which I was now walking to go and answer that 'phone. It seemed rather a lot longer than usual for some reason. I tiptoed past my brother's room _tiptoed, for heaven's sake why bother? and how could he sleep through that racket?_ pushed open the door, and picked up the handset
RRant RRant RRant RRant hoose RRant RRant!!!
RRant RRant RRant Yew RRant!
Someone was obviously very upset and, to add a surreal twist, she had a huge Scottish accent. I didn't know anybody Scottish, except Douglas, and my Grandfather who lived in Scotland, and they were both very polite and softly-spoken. And of course, they were both men.
I'm, er, very sorry but I couldn't hear what you said_
RRant disnae RRant RRant RRant RRant RRant RRant wukkud RRant RRant RRant RRant RRant!
Well, let's apply some logic here. Though that seems rather difficult (why's that? Does logic need daylight in order to work? Why should it? And is that why school happens during daylight hours?..): this is obviously grown-up stuff, and therefore luckily none of my business, so whoever this is needs to talk to Dad, and she's already got his number, so all I need to do is_
I'm sorry, Dad's not here. He won't be back 'til_
midnight. Oops! And anyway if this happens again tonight I won't get my 8 hours sleep, then I shall be dozy at school and look like an idiot.
_er, 'til the morning.
RRant RRant wutch RRant wrang RRant RRant RRant RRant wurrus RRant RRant RRant Yew RRant RRant!
I decided the next best thing, asking if she'd like to leave a message, was probably a bit pointless, said goodbye as politely as it was possible to do when interrupting someone mid-sentence (which I then felt guilty about) and put the phone down.

Now that I was no longer being ranted at, I could think a bit. Supposing I'd made a terrible mistake, and it was distress I'd been hearing, not anger? What if someone somewhere really needed help? Well I could at least find out who it was: in the days long before 1471 was even thought of, but when there was still operators, you could dial 100 and ask for the last call to be traced, as long as the lines had been quiet in the meantime. I picked up the 'phone again_
RRant chuldrren RRant RRant RRant RRant RRant wrang RRant RRant RRant Yew RRant
but of course the connection only finished once both people had hung up. I remember wishing we had one of those machines that took calls automatically and taped the answers, like the detective in San Francisco:
This is Jim Roquefort*, at the tone leave your name and message, I'll get back to you

by the time I got back into bed I noticed that I'd misread the time: it had been five past eleven, Dad would be home by midnight, and I would get my eight hours. Just.


"You wouldn't believe what happened last night", I began over breakfast. "This mad Scottish voice_"

"Oh, so she finally managed to wake you up without waking me, then" interrupted my brother.
"It's Douglas' wife" said Dad "Just ignore it". Like you can ignore a 'phone?? This was the 1970s, when phones were mighty chunks of engineering hardware that made a right royal racket, not the slim little items you get today that discretely slip out of your pocket and get lost in the park, or on the bus. And they were hard-wired in, too, you couldn't even unplug them. Or switch them off. And if you took them off the hook they turned into air-raid sirens. We thought of wrapping the 'phone in a quilt and stuffing it in the Evil Wardrobe, but somehow never got round to doing this every night.


"Right, pay attention" said Mr Square "Who can tell me how to use one word to remember what Inductors and Capacitors do in an electric circuit?.. Lunchista?"

I always sat in the front row in Physics. My enthusiasm, terrible eyesight and the fact that, in the driech summer we were having this year, it was the warmest part of the lab, made it the perfect place as far as I was concerned.

"It's CIVIL, sir. C for Current" Hang on, "I" is current. So what was the "C"?.."Sorry sir, I can't remember". This was so unusual that the rest of the class went quiet behind me. It sounded odd. Mr Square asked sympathetically if I was alright. "I...
(suddenly realised that saying in front of the entire class that I'd got woken up in the middle of the night by a mad Scotswoman on the 'phone, would probably not be a good idea) "...didn't get much sleep last night, Sir"

Some wag in the back row helpfully added "She was on the job, Sir", which sent a giggle round the whole class. Including me, because the idea was so utterly incongruous: I must have been the least likely prospect in the room for that kind of thing. Even if you included all the lads. "Get Lunchista on the job" added the class reprobate, in a flat tone that implied that he had tried, but found it completely impossible, to imagine.


Douglas turned out to be an interesting and humourous friend ("A collective noun for people who run Universities? Oooh, how about "A Lack of Principles"?"), and Valerie turned out to be the sort of person you could really confide in. The dreadful dark summer of 1977 seagued into a delightful autumn, and the nightmare calls faded away. My old school reports, which turned up in a recent house-move, show a dip followed by a bounce. And I now have two extra parents.

But to this day I consider "I don't have to answer that bloody phone!!" as the statement of an inalienable human right. And of course, we have an answerphone.


*we apologise for the unwarrented intrusion of cheese into this post. The gentleman's name was in fact Rockford.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Smile and say Cheese

Readers may be forgiven for wondering why it seems to have become distinctly overpopulated with dairy comestibles here at Space, but bear with me.

It occurred to us in the early new year that the last time Fille remembered using her camera was on 21st December at 8:15 in the morning. She and I had got up early in the hope of catching the setting, eclipsed moon in the same sky as the rising winter sun: the Selenelion (last seen in these parts in Tudor times, so, a bit special). The camera, too, was a bit special: like the Selenelion it was bright pink, and full of things we would probably never see again in a lifetime.

Its absence started to tell round about the middle of the month. We turned over Fille's room (and in the process filled a rather large Oxfam bag). We moved on to Fils' room, then the two of them decided to tackle the top floor, which is their part of the house, as well as being the venue for the Astronomy mentioned earlier. Two more bulging Oxfam bags, and one cleared floor, later, we concluded there were no cameras anywhere there. The possibility that it had gone for good started to emerge: early in January, friends from overseas had visited. We'd all had a great time, and of course many trips had been made to local tourist attractions: everyone from Dracula to Wallace and Gromet (but not Lunchista) had figured in the ensuing sightseeing-fest.

Oh dear.

We turned the car over. Twice. Not forgetting every pocket, bag and rucksack (including those left in the garage, and then the rest of the garage for good measure), but still drew a blank.

A forensic listing of every venue, with dates, began to be drawn up. After failing to get a result with the first phonecall, I decided we needed some help with the list, and got back in touch with our "tourists" (email subject: "A long shot"). They were diamonds: having come all that way they could remember every single stop, with people, dates, and even whether or not the camera had featured in the mix. Between us all, we managed to track its last known movements back to a cafe in the Dales. No-one could remember its name, but that's what Google StreetView is for.

When I rang the cafe, it turned out that not only had the owners kept the camera, safe in its own little space in the cupboard behind the counter, they also remembered this particular posse of overseas visitors because of taking the time to chat about everything from bilingual families to buying flutes. How often do you come across people in business who make time, or indeed space, for their most eccentric punters?

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Jukebox jury

This may be an urban myth, but here goes.

In the days of pub juke-boxes, when it was the drinkers themselves who got to choose the music to accompany their drinking, rather than have the bar's owners foist upon them some landfill-type noise which, market research had shown, resulted in people buying more drinks, there existed in one particular pub a juke-box with a twist. You could put in your money and buy three minutes of silence.

For all I know it may have been not just any old silence either, but that famous one by John Cage whose length in seconds is deliberately the same as the number, in degrees below zero, of the coldest temperature physically possible (and no I can't resist the urge to say, how cool is that?). Somewhat longer than three minutes, the piece should, apparently, be played in three movements. Which in turn begs the question, what should the intervals between the movements sound like?

If the said pub ever really existed, I wonder, how often people availed themselves of this unique choice? Did the bar-staff occasionally wander on over and select the silence as a break in the evening's racket? Did people rush to buy their drinks in the short interlude in which they knew they'd be heard? Did people, as a result, end up buying more drinks?

Or did the idea die because people just felt awkward, thinking they had to make conversation because there was nothing to listen to all of a sudden?

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The moon is made of Green Cheese

Last summer, a friend of ours was a delegate at a conference of Mathematicians in France. The conference venue, as organised by the University of Toulouse, was the little village of Nant, which happens to lie in the D├ępartement in which Roquefort Cheese is, officially, produced.

Like all the best food produce, Roquefort has a Season. It so happens that early spring milk forms the raw material for the best cheese. After it is fermented, spores from a mould found in local caves (and subsequently named after them) are added, then the cheese solidifies and is shaped into drums weighing a few pounds each. The best time to eat it, if you really like a cheese that fights back, comes about four months later.

Those four months are best spent (I mean by the cheese, not by the prospective diner) in the region's caves, after which the cheese is exported all over the world (except, for a very brief interlude, to the USA, where it was named as a weapon in a Trade War). The caves, after that point, are empty.

At least, they are empty of cheese. However, with four months having elapsed since "early spring" we are now into the beginning of the tourist season. And, by a delightful coincidence, of the conference season. So along come our Mathematics delegates, to sample the delights of Roquefort and see the caves in which it is born. So as to look the part, the caves are now graced with stacks of replica Roquefort drums. We're not talking packaging here, I mean models of what the actual cheese looks like.

And that, of course, begs a question to those of us who study, and comment upon, the wise use of Space in all its forms:

Unless the replica cheeses are inflatable or somehow collapsible, Where are they stored in the spring?