We are stardust, we are golden

The C19 pandemic is affecting many areas of our lives and yet we will probably not know the full extent of its long tumbling domino reach for many years.

One clear effect however, is that nature, and this was noticed during the very early weeks of C19, was the first ‘system’ to react positively to a reduction in human activity. Animals ventured into now quiet town centres, the canals of Venice (plus most natural waterways) became limpid and urban skies without airplanes’ vapour trails turned a bluer blue.

As if we needed reminding, planet Earth seems to be seriously better off without human intervention. And yet, this new found appreciation of what benefits the natural world leads to a paradox:

As the planet reclaims its’ inherent qualities of freshness and rawness, this very beauty attracts and pulls human beings towards it. We edge or way out of lockdown, begin our hitherto normal activities and our de facto abuse of the planet starts again. The return to normality is epitomised by ugly sounds and visions of freight clattering its hot smoky routes across the world and people yearning to press carbonic footprints in pursuit of leisure. The re-found polluting circle closes with a vengeance and the gears of self-destruct shift up towards maximum. 

This is obviously disappointing and causes me to wonder ‘Why on earth does humanity fit in so badly with everything else on earth?

Vintage Railway Travel Poster - Gloucestershire - UK - by Claude Muncaster (1903–1974).

After all, our planet is a hermetically sealed unit. Bar the odd asteroid, meteor and sundry items of returning space junk, the only thing that enters our atmosphere is sunlight. The human species has evolved alongside other primates via stages of being fish, flying things and more recently small furry mammals. The point being, that all organic creatures with the help of the sun and that ol’ H2O shapeshifter (water/ice) have thrived in tandem with planet Earth. Human arrival it seems, has bucked the trend and appears, from an objective outer space viewing bridge, to be troublesome.

The notion that we are incompatible with the planet has triggered much debate. In the 1970’s, the Super Swiss Erich Von Daeniken wrote about Ancient Astronauts and professed, along with some nice pictures (but not evidence) that we were put here by extra-terrestrials. Despite him having done no viable academic research or due diligence regarding his sources, he tapped into a concept that sold many books and got the mass market wondering about us not being fully ‘of’ the earth.

Ancient Alien Artifact? - Bath Spa, UK | Okay "Ancient Astro… | Flickr

Elon Musk has recently rekindled another old idea; that we are actually part of a fictional game developed by other life forms. Some of us will recognise this as a version of The Sims, others will look back to the late ’70’s and remember us as an experiment devised by mice.

Religious people will likely baulk at these claims and retort with a selection of theologies in important books about humans inheriting the earth, being masters/mistresses of all creatures and that the invisible force, no matter how many natural disasters occur, still loves us and will see us through, come what may (insert rolling eyes emoji, Ed).  

As a sceptic however, I suspect that the main underlying energy is that of chaos. I’m not venturing into Chaos Theory because the idea of applying a scientific structure to concepts beyond structure feels like a road to nowhere (but a nice PhD if you can get the grant).

Instead, let’s buy into Chaos in the manner of the Stoics and hope for the good bits of the mess to rise to the surface and if they don’t, well, we tried our best anyway.

Remember the cream rises to the top unless you turn the plate downside up.

Renato Fantoni 2020

COMMENT : NO COMMENT

I recently offered a friend some advice on how to go about writing. I hadn’t actually been asked for this advice, but when they mentioned wanting to write I found myself slipping into advisor/mentor mode and sent them a lengthy email with my guidance. However, within moments of sending the message, I felt a certain regret panging its way through my innards.

Had my gesture been in some way arrogant? Was I trying to frame myself as an expert or an altruistic donor to look cool or was I trying to rebuild my ego to counterbalance the fact that what I have had published hasn’t sold particularly well?

I often find myself receiving advice and by and large – I DON’T WANT IT. It happens to us all and a good illustration of this is the life of a new parent. The arrival of a newborn is invariably accompanied by uninvited snippets of wisdom about which direction the child should be facing in the buggy or that the doting parent should keep talking to the baby while changing its’ nappy just to show approval of them having filled it (yes, this crap is true, I remember receiving it). I won’t dare to go into the Kingdom of breastfeeding because I know it’s a Pandora’s can of worms where I would not be too welcome, but any mother will know what I’m talking about. Please don’t listen to me…go here;

After coaching people for a number of years, I realised that I was doing much of this ‘giving’ to actually help myself. Like the proverbial snide jokes about psychotherapists being ‘crazy’ and in need of fixing themselves or entertainers putting themselves ‘out there’ craving applause and validation to feel they exist.

In the wake of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, another friend posted their thoughts. As this person has many Facebook groupies I usually desist from commenting because, probably out of jealousy of their popularity, I prefer being on the fringe rather than among their gaggle of toadies. On this occasion however, I did add a comment because I was getting sick of seeing ‘solutions’ proposed by people channelling Captain Kirk’s universal sensibility but without his ability to implement it (his ability to bring peace to the galaxies is remember, pure fiction. It never actually happened, nor will it, sorry ‘bout that).

James T. Kirk

My comment, which was designed to be uncontentious, was in turn commented upon. It took a few days, but as sure as the sniper keeps on sniping and the swearer keeps on cursing; it happened. Although this person corrected me on a fact that had changed, their comment was right but irrelevant. I had included two examples and one was wrong, so what? My point was still valid.

The internet culture whereby people provide feedback and counter comment deeply irritates me. It is too easy to ‘call somebody out’ on a small error and effectively make them look foolish and by inference, discount their views. Troll Off and leave me alone.

On the other hand, much of the fault of ‘banter/trolling’ lies with the people that begin the pontification first. Particularly in troubled times they tend to write phrases that include the words MUST or SHOULD. These words look powerful; ‘We should all do this, you must do that …’ yet they are delivered in the hope that somebody else will pick up the baton, physically make it happen and then credit the inspiration back to the originator.

Yet, if anything proves that implementation is more vital than ideas, it is this fraction from the beginning of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

“And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.”

So, where are we now? If we are writing on a public forum, we’ve arrived at the point where it is necessary to cancel out ambiguities. You can only make one point and that has to be expressed in very simple Trump/Tweet terms. Aim for the lowest linguistic and intellectual denominator. This is neither the forum for creativity nor being clever.

The acronym KISS has never been more appropriate. If you break this convention somebody will slay you. For safety, add a third S for a second STUPID. Belt & Braces etc.…

If you are writing something personal, experimental or embryonic, keep it very private. I suggest (as I did with my friend in Para 1) to start a blog but ensure it cannot be shared or seen. Use it as your own heavily passworded journal. Keep it under your metaphoric mattress and tell nobody it even exists. That way, even if you die in the meantime, nobody will ever find out.

The best form of factual writing nowadays is academic. I have blogged before how challenging I found the rigours of this approach, but I am convinced that in this age of false news and peacock posturing opinion that academic research is the only way of finding the (near) truth. It’s not perfect as so many contradictory scientists have demonstrated during Pandemic 2020, but is preferable to the miasma of guesswork and leming / bandwaggon thinking that is choking our minds.

Thanks for reading. Absolutely no comment required.

Ends

Douglas Adams quote; https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/79195-and-then-one-thursday-nearly-two-thousand-years-after-one

Shut up photo: https://image.slidesharecdn.com/culturehackonglobalwarming-140609155045-phpapp02/95/lets-do-a-culture-hack-on-global-warming-7-638.jpg?cb=1402394091

Teaching IS doing.

Those that can, do; those that can’t, teach – Man and Superman; GB Shaw.

After completing my teaching qualification I wrote a blog condemning the above quote that suggests people only become teachers if they cannot do anything ‘better’. 

This is a ridiculous notion when there are other more worthy occupations to be rude about such as restaurant critics (wannabe cooks), the mish-mash of malcontents who flail around for a critical voice on Trip Advisor and call centre operatives in cold-call mode. The genuine non-DOERS are those who behave as if they are doing something useful but really aren’t, they are the people who belong on Golgafrincham Ark Fleet Ship B.*

Teachers are absolutely not in this category. Their role is fundamental to human progress; teaching is doing because learning is the first step to everything. Anyhow, pedagogy doesn’t need my advocacy and has offered many adequate replies to the Shavian suggestion.

However, another perspective on Shaw’s words has come to the fore during this, the age of Covid and it is that there are many doers but they are badly undervalued.

Our society has long functioned with a twisted logic. We function in an economic paradigm whereby money, which began after all, as an alternative to exchangeable commodities has become god. It is odd that people who are able to earn money while they sleep are better off than those who get paid by time or output. This is not to say that wealthy people are necessarily bad but, and the people whom the government list as KEY, do not earn as much as those who can get the money system to work for them.

Coronavirus has shone a light on the importance of some of these hitherto hidden people and has challenged the prevailing economic model. Last night I saw a postal worker delivering mail after 7pm. I wished him a good evening and in the ensuing chat he told me he was taking all the overtime ‘he could get’ as it was financially beneficial. Noble as this might seem, is it right that this person was working sixteen hours each day while other non-key people don’t need to?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is sleeping-girl.jpg

In the UK Government’s official Key Worker list (reproduced below) it is notable how often the word ‘workers’ comes up e.g. Food production workers…Transport workers …Utilities workers…bank workers. These are people that DO and we really ought to bookmark this for the Post Coronavirus Social Re-balancing plan.

When the ‘Key’ list was released some two months ago I scoffed at the inclusion of journalists. In fact, I would probably have included them in the Trip Advisor reject bracket, yet on reflection, my sneering was wrong. I feel that media often embellishes and whips up public fervour in order to sell their wares and some commercial TV companies unashamedly do this to protect their advertising income. However, having information and news delivered by newspapers and broadcasters that are regulated and scrutinised is better than what remains the wild west of data and (mis)-information; the internet. After all this time, the web is still the favela style corrugated roofed shelter for fake news, stalkers and hackers.

I anticipate a sense of disappointment on behalf of our new, albeit temporary, heroes because I doubt not think their rights and wages will improve. They deserve better but the world is not a generous place and the forecasted economic turmoil will, as usual, further distance the have nots from the haves. Plus ca change…

For an excellent perspective by a real journalist do read Sarah O’Connor. Weirdly, she’s not writing for Marxism Today or even the Guardian, but a literal bastion of capitalism; The Financial Times. 

She writes so well that I wanted to use her words to conclude this piece but the FT’s T&C’s are fearsome and as a lecturer and examiner I really cannot affored to be sued for plagiarism. Equally, how could I ever penalise students for cutting and pasting if I’ve been caught doing it myself?

The UK Government’s list of key workers

British postman in the 1950s. Two post deliveries a day including Saturdays and no van or hand-cart.

 

Frontline health and social care staff including the distributors of medicines and vital equipment

Teaching staff, nursery staff and social workers

People working in vital public services such as justice system, death registry workers, journalists in public service broadcasting

Government workers in local or national administrations in occupations needed to deliver the Covid-19 response and pay benefits

Food production and processing workers including sales and delivery staff

Transport workers operating services not shut down during the Covid-19 response

Utilities workers including all power, water, sewerage, chemicals

Postal workers, key telecommunications staff, bank workers

THE END

 Lichtenstein style picture with Buffet quote https://www.aliexpress.com/i/4000297349719.html

medical workers photo credit:https://www.bangkokpost.com/world/1900220/struggle-fear-and-heartbreak-for-medical-staff-on-virus-frontline

Postman; /bit.ly/1alhmZX

Failing Freedom of Outer Space= Losing the Plot on Planet Earth.

I think this ‘thing‘ is a bit like being in outer space.

Despite the fact that I can escape my house quite often, I always make the same return journey and come back home as if on a powerful elastic umbilical cord.

Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey to Screen in IMAX
https://cdn1-www.comingsoon.net/assets/uploads/2018/08/2001two.jpg

Although I’m fortunate to have people around me, the reduction in social interaction is reducing me. Conversations are snippets rather than true exchanges and when I find myself talking with somebody or rather, at them, it all gushes out in a stream of mad subconscious breadcrumbs. Having honed my listening skills over many years I was really good at paying attention and excelled in giving the opposite of a poker face. I now fear it’s slipping away. When Mandy and I go for a walk, I try to give good ear but am dreadful at it. If there’s a gap of silence I feel a need to fill it up as if it were a pothole that needs padding out with whatever comes to hand; mud, horse manure and dead hair for making up underwear; all this to avoid my mental wheel (which already has a rocky axle) from falling in to it.

Talking of vehicles, let’s launch…

I think that being in space is like this: 

You’re belted into a very small capsule and you can’t move. Even if you need to empty your bladder, you cannot ‘go’, you simply release.

There’s a round double-double glazed window and everything you can see looks like the 1960’s because that’s when space was invented. The sky, which is really just a lot of tiny zeros, is thoroughly black. Not even navy blue. Not even MIDNIGHT Black/Blue, it’s dead-panned black. And it’s not even the sky because it’s not above you like the real sky is. This thing is underneath you too and it’s around the invisible corners. If you’re lucky enough to be in a space station you have more windows but to be frank, the non-sky, which is the floor, the walls and by now, the inside of your mouth too, is still matt black. A forever deep blackness that knows no time lines or boundaries and ceratinly has no truck with doughnuts or tulips. Loads of sticky stars have been thrown at it and they conspire to give a false sense of comfort to suggest that we aren’t alone. But we are. Alone.

So, I’m strapped in this very confined metaphor, struggling to make it work and outside it is just this corner-less plate of zeros. Except, as I said, the stick-on stars but, and I don’t say this lightly, they’re nobody’s friend. Certainly neither yours nor mine. And let me tell you something else, all this stuff about them twinkling is a lie. The stars are actually a combination of shoddy time lapsed recordings of rude, hot and very loud implosions and explosions. Their only mission is to fry you if you come within a light year. Sparkling, cocky bastards; nothing more. Not your friends.

So, communication from/to this tin can is via a radio or perhaps nowadays, a video link like in The Big Bang Theory when Howard ‘Fruit Loops’, has his moment up yonder but like my walk in the park, it’s no walk in the park. Just crackles, beeps and sounds that remind us of dial-up internet or even…the Fax machine. Communication has been redacted and if only we could read under the blacked out lines, maybe we’d connect properly, like they did in the old days. Freedom to communicate has become a frozen FaceTime image. Over.

TV Classic The Big Bang Theory Howard Wolowitz Fruit Loops custom tee Big Bang Theory Shirts, Big Bang Theory Funny, The Big Bang Therory, The Big Theory, Simon Helberg, Howard Wolowitz, Froot Loops, Favorite Tv Shows, My Favorite Things

I read that Einstein said gravity bends space and because very large objects such as solar systems contain a lot of gravity (suns, planets, aliens etc) they wrap large hunks of it around themselves. I think this includes time too.

This makes me picture a journey that ends at the beginning, just like 2001 Space Odyssey.

So, when flying in my Covid capsule I can see space bending and mashing the freedom of being up and out there – with no obvious obstacles (other than Elon Musk’s growing pile of space debris) with the warm urine dampened space suit of my rocket confined prison. To hammer home the point, if I can leave the capsule to pursue the infinite freedom the lack of long term air suggests that freedom is neither attainable nor desirable.

So, back to earth and shut my mouth. 

I thought I’d do what my then children did some years ago and make a word cloud. The idea was to mix up 4 rock tracks about space to see what the consensus was. The result is quite interesting but not as I grand as I had hoped. When I listen to these tracks, which are all the same theme of being lost in space, I get a large hit of nostalgia. Consider these words by Matt Bellamy (MUSE)

Let’s conspire to ignite / All the souls that would die just to feel alive / Now I’ll never let you go If you promised not to fade away

How, I wonder can nostalgia be triggered for something one never experienced? How do words and music do this?

I can only guess that CoronavirusC19 has triggered a sense of yearning and the mind turns it into a deep space exile. There is something about this present crisis that feels like being jettisoned into the nothing. We shall return, but it will be different but quite how different…

For what it’s worth:

My word cloud throws out: away, never, feels , arms, spaced, time, life, unreal which kind of creates the feeling but as random experiment is nothing insightful.

It includes lyrics from Muse: Starlight, Aerosmith: Spaced (2nd album dummy; Get Your Wings), Radiohead: Subterranean homesick alien and Mott The Hoople: Sea Diver. Obviously I could have used tons of Bowie lyrics (which I did twice in the body) and those who know me will appreciate I left out The Beatles’ Across the Universe and Elton John because I don’t like moist music. Purely my prejudices, nothing more.

I’m in love with my car but prefer wearing lycra.

(Picture above = Colours from a distance by Paul Klee)

Stream of consciousness with a smattering of structure;

Actually, if you know me, you’ll realise this title is ironic. Cars are not my thing but I found my self singing the song earlier today when I went out for another lockdown run. This was unusual because normally when I go out for a 3,4, or 5k run, my head tends to play back whatever music I last heard.

I wasn’t really up for a run today but I was faring better than expected and aiming for a decent time when I bumped into (at 2 metres distance) P and S whom I have known for years. Our kids were at the same primary school as theirs and they are also regular Park Run runners. I could have pretended I had earphones in and continued running with a polite smile but they are really decent people and the chance of a chat (and a breather) was not unwelcome.

This pause was a good learner too because usually when I run and I see groups of folk chatting at the Covidically correct distance (and therefore blocking both the path and the off-piste grass) I scowl internally and roll my eyes. This time I could experience what it was like to be stationary while the remaining inhabitants of planet Lycra went past and between us.

Squabbles between open space users have become fashionable of late. These are the factions that are moaned about and why:

  • Runners – Act like they own the place
  • Walkers –  Meander as if they have no purpose except to pick flowers of wild garlic and berries
  • Cyclists – Who really should be on the roads during this quiet time. 
  • Young Parents with buggies – behave as if they invented children and whose kids on scooters are wayward and probably transmitters of ‘it’
  • Dog companions – It’s good to let Rex off the leash, he knows his own mind and what he wants to sniff. The owners however, are just too distracted by other dogs to notice the other humans (although I can’t really blame them, the dogs are usually more amusing).

In short, just about everybody!

I am at various points in the week a member of all but the last two of these groups and don’t dislike any of them (except Mountain Bikers who ought to go over rough terrains or a cliff edge to justify owning an All Terrain Bike). It is however, weirdly easy to disassociate from who I am not at the particular moment. If I’m on my bike (a Brompton which Lewis refers to as a tricycle); I’m a cyclist, if I’m walking; I’m a walker. Perhaps each outdoor venture is a search for identity…(hmmm a topic for another day?)

The other thought is that social distancing in parklands is a good model for how we ought to manage ourselves when driving our cars. It has taken time for people to learn how to respect ‘the gap’ yet, by and large, we are learning to be thoughtful, more polite and to thank those who are courteous towards us. Surely, this is progress.


Finally, I’d like to share a tip. It is highly embarrassing when moving towards another person and trying to avoid a collision, you both go the same way and back again. I have found that if you look at their feet rather than the eyes, you’ll get a better idea of where they are heading. Somehow the feet follow the brain’s signals before the eyes do.

This also works when your are about to overtake somebody going in your direction. 

Of course, we could all just have a convention to stick to the left, but that’d be too easy.

Pictures: https://www.imj.org.il/sites/default/files/collections/klee-colors%20from%20a%20distance~LB92_25.jpg. Willi Baumeister 1925 (German), Läuferin II (Runner II), Oil on canvas, 120 cm x 80 cm.

I want to be alone (by two metres)

When the recent government directives about social distancing began, my immediate thoughts were that they would be quite easy to adhere to. My wife will tell you that at parties and events I frequently disappear. I will usually drift outside to get some fresh air and then come in once the smokers arrive to get their version of fresh air (and negate mine). 

I have always had an instinct, almost certainly acquired from my father, that when I see a crowd I go in the opposite direction. I’m not a leader wanting the masses to follow me and neither am I a sheep, wishing to keep up with the crowd. In the words of Marlene Dietrich, I (usually) want to be alone.*

Image

Marlene Dietrich by Don English, c.1932 // Freddie Mercury by Mick Rock, c.1973. Permission not sought, so shoot me.

Anyone who has read my intro to these pages will know that I see myself as an observer rather than a participant. My rock music idols were David Bowie and Freddie Mercury and if you read almost any of the former’s lyrics and watched that (5/10) Bohemian Rhapsody film, you’ll understand that these people legitimised (in my mind) the position of being on the fringe. They were both clearly ‘different’ and I related to that difference.

Without too much inspection, we can see that many scientific and artistic successes have had similar outside-looking-in traits; Modigliani, Van Gogh, Lionel Messi, Georg Eliot, Alan Turing, Tracey Emin,  etc…  An obvious observation is that to concentrate, focus, test, re-test and submit, you have to be removed from distractions and distractions at their deepest, can include everything.

Hands-up. I have never been able to look away from distractions. In fact, it’s been the opposite, I find distractions magnetic and stimulating. When some 30++ years ago I took a degree in Literature, I was so distracted towards painted art that I think I learned as much about that as I did about novels, poetry and plays. ‘Sigh’, if only we still had dinner parties  where I could show-off …

Social distancing is not proving easy. I have been scolded several times by my wife when we have been on a walk and I careened too close to another person. One telling-off is enough to get the penny to drop and for me to bring the 2, or is it 3? Metre rule to the front of my mind. And this is the nub, we need to make social distancing our primary thought when we go out and yet it is counter intuitive because it relegates everything else.

I don’t love crowds, but equally, I do like swapping a smile or a greeting with a person in the park. Many of us do and we have all heard stories about how people have become friends because their dogs bonded on the daily walk. Humans and other animals are largely social and physical distancing means we cannot on a psychoanimalistic level smell each other, and that’s what makes it difficult. It toys with our primal senses.

Talking of sensory curtailment, I went for a 4km run this morning. The other people (mainly runners) kept their distances. We were trading body and eye language; ‘I’ll go left, so you too go left’, and it worked except for one person. This is person is known to me already and is on the Autism Spectrum. They are younger and faster and overtook me. Twice! Each time I was lapped they came too close but I couldn’t get indignant because I know they have spacial awareness challenges.  

This is a weird and colourful time. We are in Spring with trees in blossom uncurling their leaves. There’s an abundance of shades of green and flowers and birds. Even the worms are a welcome sight and their greasy stirrings confirm the earth is alive churning out newness.

However, this year and these nights differ from all others because we cannot look at the rebirth (Re-nato btw) we need to contemplate physical spaces and be patient with people who do not quite get it. Just share smiles and distanced greetings.

Remember; avoid breathing in or out and you’ll be fine. 

*Wanting to be alone, is a luxury offered to those who like me, are not alone. Millions of people are alone and do not benefit from that status. I am aware of my privilege and am grateful for it. 

Expression of Freedom

Some months ago I was contacted by a publisher’s agent asking if I would be interested in them publishing my next book.

I don’t know how they knew I had a ‘next’ book but was flattered because it implied they were among the select few who knew I had actually written a previous book. 

The notion that the request came to and not from me was exciting too until my inner cynic awoke and exclaimed ‘scam’! 

A writer pauses. The signals will go either from hand to brain or soul to hand. Only the spark can guess it's own direction.

The Portrait of a Writer Vivan Tjitejian, 1957
Haroutiun Gakentz
National Gallery of Armenian, Yerevan http://100years100arts.com/en/

‘Ah yes’ I thought, they either want money from me or they want to steal my ideas and publish them under another name. I’d been here before and although the alarm bells weren’t peeling in a high decibel panic, they did tinkle like a pillow muffled alarm clock. 

However, I investigated the message, the sender of this message and the publisher behind it and was relieved to discover this was not a scam. I spoke with the representative and learnt that they produce academic material for a growing readership base in the Far East. 

The agent duly sent me the guidelines for writing a book proposal and explained that I needed to produce the chapter headings and detailed synopses along with all the other stuff (my profile, really life experiences etc). In short, I had to write a book about writing a book. They would then let me know if I could write for them. 

At this point my keenness hit the wall. I had just completed a year of academic study and had found the style required stultifying and difficult. Although I was glad to have completed a third of a Masters, the idea of being tunnelled in yet more academic research and writing did not appeal. Even my dreams reflected this. I dreamt of missing deadlines, of leaden doors slamming above me and of trains pulling out of stations with me left on the platform. My anxiety levels rose whenever I thought of producing this proposal and for the sake of my wellbeing; avoided doing it. 

And then I was set free.

A footballing friend called Tom (an extremely good footballer as it happens) told me, among his other his social media followers, about his forthcoming book. I called his publisher them to ask for their own multi paged, civil service style proposal forms. The submissions editor patiently listened to my ideas and asked how far along I was with the first draft. ‘First draft? I thought you’d want a full proposal before I begin any kind of draft at all.’  

She told me that, unlike the academic publisher, they don’t work ‘that way’ and what they want is for writers to write their stuff and then they’ll decide if they can use it. ‘Sorry to disappoint you’, she said, but I was not disappointed in the least because she had in fact liberated me from the sturdy cage of logical planning to the welcome wilderness of getting on with the writing. 

Once again, I can do what I like; write and change, delete and add and allow the shapes to appear. Planning is of course important, but I know I am more effective when motivation and creativity kick off the process and the planning follows.

Retro Planning can be effective too

I realise this means I may embark on a wayward project but quite frankly I am more relaxed with the idea of being able to meander and create rather than conforming to a preordained structure, even if it’s one of my own design.

Rivoli (Part 2): The Castle, a surprise gift and the end of 2001 Space Odyssey.

The self-induced pressure lifted as soon as the hotel receptionist told me that Rivoli’s Castle was just beyond where I had already walked last night. All I had to do was return to the town centre and walk up the old cobbled street.

https://www.castellodirivoli.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/esterno_1.jpg

 The August morning sun was not as vicious as I feared and although the ascent was hot, I did much of it in the shadows of the medieval buildings. I reached the top of the town in about 17 minutes. The Castello of Rivoli dominates the area and the peak of the town steps was no more than 200 metres, through a tree shaded area, to the entrance arch of the castle. I do like historic architecture, but find it difficult to remember styles dates and facts. The smallish red bricks looked Roman but according to Wikipedia (as you can see, I have not researched in depth) it was probably built after 800 AD. I can only assume they either used old Roman bricks or copied that style. Either way, the smell of history was evident both outside and inside the castle. Interior rough brickwork rose high in the entrance hall while blue and green coloured spot lights picked out atmospheric defects.

In exchange for 8.50 Euros, the woman behind the desk handed over my entrance ticket, ‘un momento’ (hold on) she said while reaching down and handed me a mug –sized box; ‘Un regalo’ (a gift). I was delighted and thanked her. With a grin she told my inner child to open it later. I was so excited that I couldn’t wait and leaning/balancing my stuff on a bend in the bannister, I opened it and found a mug. It’s a wonderful souvenir and a reminder that moments of pleasure can come from small things.

Opting to work my way from the top floor downwards, I took the lift to a very long narrow room under the cantilevered roof. The temporary exhibition was called The City of Broken Windows by Hito Steyerl

Given this is a contemporary art venue, I knew I would be seeing ‘strange’ works and was not disappointed when I entered the room to loud repeating glass smashing noises. The screen by the entrance showed various engineers clad in space suits wielding industrial hammers and hefting them into double glazed panes. It looked like a lot of fun. The 150 metres long wall bore a single line of free form ‘poetry’. Despite the post-apocalyptic tone, I was buoyed by the mixed media of sound, video, word and use of natural light in an impressive setting. Whatever the message was meant to be, I enjoyed it.

https://www.castellodirivoli.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Screen-Shot-2018-11-23-at-1.54.19-PM-682x1024.png
Rivoli side street by day.

Although the rest of the exhibition was fascinating, there were a couple of horrible exhibits. One was a life size model of a child sitting at a desk facing a bay window and when you walk around to see her face it’s an awful skeletal vision of death. Another gross item, and I’m told that all the school children of Turin remember this one, is a stuffed horse suspended by its belly from the ceiling. What, I asked myself was the point?

As the end of my visit approached, I made my way towards the exit and found myself, as can be seen in the pictures in a scene from 2001 A Space Odyssey.

A room of human size geometrical shapes lead me through to THE MONOLITH. It felt like a nightmare coming to life as it immediately brought to mind a repetitive dream I had as a child whereby I was forced to build a giant object in a small room with no materials or tools and very limited time.

Fortunately the daytime atmosphere in the castle is uplifting and the windows allow in so much natural light that along with the Piemontese Royal interior décor, there is no gloom.

I’m no giant, but this is …

The visit was brief yet worthwhile and I plan to return to see what other modern day artists are up to.

Where movie dreams become reality

Thomas has Cooked his goose

The collapse of Thomas Cook is the culmination of a long running series of events. Many hard working and well-meaning individuals have lost their jobs and their clients have lost money and well deserved holidays. It was predicted many years ago by travel industry luminaries, yet nobody had the will or expertise to deal with it.

Over the years, people have invested in the heritage of Thomas Cook without efficiently examining its present and/or future performances. Thomas Cook’s investors bought into it not because of its attributes but because of its reputation and vast (deluded?) client database. ‘The collapse of Thomas Cook’ will become the topic for many business studies’ dissertations. The kaleidoscope of errors covers all areas of management and for students looking for examples of ‘bad this and disastrous that’, it is truly fertile ground. I have been in the travel industry for over 40 years and have had occasional dealings with the company. The random observations that follow are simply personal, truthful reflections. I’m neither mourning nor gloating, just sharing what I saw.

Wax your feathers keep away from the Sun, he might give energy but he’s the one who’ll melt your dreams should you fly too close and bread in your hand will end up as toast

In 2011, a senior TUI manager told me that they could ‘finish Cooks off’ whenever they wanted. Some three years later and after another massive bail out, the same person told me they no longer needed to wield the sword of Damocles because Cooks were still on the same suicidal path and the new money was not going towards changing their business, just juggling debts and lining pockets. They took the money and stood still. Of course, cash was spent on a new logo and no doubt some wonderful think tank weekends for their executives in glamorous places but it would have been the same under performers that had always sought comfort by thinking well and truly inside the box.

Throughout 2015 and 2016 I was on a travel industry education committee tasked with developing vocational training. Cooks was represented by three managers. During a coffee break, I was talking to a director of a major Cooks’ rival whom I also knew through my work in education. They told me that Cooks’ presence was somewhat arbitrary because their influence on the group was now so weak and their attitude so inward looking that the other delegates conversed with them only out of politeness.

This drastically contrasts with my interactions with Cooks in the 1980s and 90s. During this period they were a wonderful client of mine. My business is a specialist hotel finder, particularly of Italian hotels. Italy was such a key destination that the Cooks’ Piccadilly office had a dedicated Italy desk and happily they gave us a lot of business. This meant that at least once a week I would stroll from our HQ in Regents Street to Piccadilly to deliver the clients’ travel documents. I remember there was always a feeling of arriving somewhere special and it was a privilege to go through their doors. The interior was modern (for the time) with banks of booking agents behind their airport style desks. Yet the Italy area was away from this functional zone and comprised two large dark mahogany desks. The visitor could sit in a green leather Chesterfield and with a true travel expert, go through their travel arrangements as if they were planning a 19th Centuryesque Grand Tour. Style and substance coexisted and it was still impressive.

This genteel corner of tradition however was on the wane. Even by the mid 80s IT had taken a firm, claws-first grip into the under SPF protected skin of the travel industry. Mr Cook had brought discovery to the kind of people who wanted adventure with comfort. The attraction in early tourism was cerebral and cultural with a safe pioneering feel. Cooks the company had every opportunity to maintain this niche but the myopic management opted to go big and inevitably bad. I am sure that many of their latter day clients that went on cultural tours still enjoyed them but the reality is that there are so many excellent specialists in this field, Cooks won’t be missed. Equally the bucket and spade end of things won’t really miss them either. Cooks was among those that helped regular people discover the thrill of leisure travel and to create a kind of travellers’ democracy. However, the IT mobsters have made it oh so easy for people to fly to the sun that they no longer need Cooks to be their Icarus.

An originator has melted its wings and finally crashed. The short term outcome is repatriation and chaos, the long term outcome will be less choice for consumers and a hike in prices. Book direct by all means, but remember you’re one step nearer the flame and there’s nobody there to shield you.

Photo; Jacob Peter Gowy (c 1615-1661), The Fall of Icarus (1635-7), oil on canvas, 195 x 180 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons

Rivoli Part 1: Cobbles, balconies and Aperol Spritz.

Rivoli has intrigued me for over 25 years. Having frequently travelled the westbound road from Torino in North Western Italy to the French border at Montgenèvre, I had always noted the castle on the hill to the left and wondered why nobody had ever suggested a detour there.

I was watching a TV programme about contemporary artist Olafur Eliasson (Miracles of Rare Device https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00077pm) and my ears pricked up when they showed a brief interview with Marcella Beccaria, the Chief Curator and Curator of Collections at Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea. At once I knew that the castle was not another rural location trying to trap a few tourists, but in fact an internationally known and credible centre of present day art. The lot was cast; I was going there no matter what.

My plane landed in the early August heat. As the passengers walked across the baked 16.30 tarmac, the involuntary inhalation of fuel and tar assaulted my nostrils. I half expected to see some form of vapour but the fumes remained invisible and I stepped with relief through the automatic doors towards the air conditioned indoors and passport control.

Reunited with my luggage, I drove the hire car towards the tangenziale (ring road) and the zone where the sun would eventually be setting.

The first opportunity to tick a longstanding box presented itself in the form of a road sign; ‘Juventus Stadium’. Although I had long since lost interest in the antics of a football club that cheated by doping its players and dodgy financial dealings, I was so enjoying my free time that I knew a detour could be worthwhile. It was entirely on route and as I was only driving 26 Km that evening, I had no obligations to fear being late for. Time, precious time was my own and I was free.

After veering off the main road I followed a winding supermarket style car park track to the stadium and parked in a side road by J Medical, the club’s health centre. The area was easily accessed and the largeness of the low white and wide structure was counterbalanced by the lack of people and traffic around it. Perfection; no cars and no people. I locked the car, ensuring nothing of value was on view, and walked to the stadium entrance. At this point about 20 people reappeared from the main door. Dressed in a variety of soccer jerseys (mainly the 2 big Spanish teams) they spilled onto the concourse having completed the last stadium tour of the day. As the tours were over, I opted to look around the club store instead. I’m not averse to collecting football shirts but €100+ for the 2019-2020 home team shirt with ‘Ronaldo’ across the shoulders caused me to sound my derision aloud with an uncontrolled snort. Rolling my eyes and tutting, I returned to my car.

I arrived at the Hotel Rivoli soon after. The property was easy to find as it is between the motorway and the historic town. It’s a large red brick structure set within an impressive car and coach park. I’ve worked in tourism all my career and do not have a problem with big utilitarian places so long as they function properly. This property was fine. The receptionist knew my name before I told him who I was. This impressed me because it showed he had invested time in looking at the arrivals list. He even spoke to me in English which was not something I particularly wanted (I like to assume a full Italian identity when I’m there) but again this showed he was interested in the guests and keen to communicate. My room was simple but fine. The window offered a long view of the Alps and the Piemontese countryside. Nearer the hotel I could see the gardens were tidy and surprisingly green. To the side, a small water park with its bold red, blue and yellow slides demonstrated that greater Rivoli offers more than just a convenient stop-off place but family activities too.

Armed with a map (Millennials NB, it’s a paper version of Google Maps and paper is what people used to write on before we had screens). I walked out of the hotel’s rear gate and ambled for 2 km to Rivoli’s centre. The route was quiet and safe. I passed playgrounds, a closed-for-summer school and an imposing Jehova’s witness centre. As I approached the central zone I found myself walking past very normal Italian post-war apartment blocks. The street level was occupied by all the usual suspects; bakers, butchers, green grocers and more than enough hairdressers and a barber’s shop. The buildings may have been standard fair, but their balconies intrigued me. Some of the wrought metal looked like 1960’s pin people doing a square dance while others curled where they could in an effort to add baroque to the utilitarian structure.

Much of the town was closed or closing for the mid-summer week and as I arrived in Piazza Martiri Della Libertà, I could see that it was a lively community focal point at any other time during the year but this. Having worked up a thirst, I knew beyond doubt that I had earned a drink. The Caffè Consueto (https://www.facebook.com/pg/Caff%C3%A8-Consueto-1397695793595899/about/?ref=page_internal)

occupies the corner of the square. Its glass front and side allowed internal movements to be seen from the exterior. From across the square I could see pastries, triple layered tramezzini (sandwiches) and an array of coloured bottles upright on the tiered glass shelving. I sat at a small table on the outside without a firm idea of what I wanted until the server suggested an Aperol Spritz. I accepted immediately. Now I know it has become a bit too popular in recent years and does not make the imbiber look particularly sophisticated, but the A.S. is a marvellous aperitivo designed to be taken BEFORE dining. Its flavours blend to stimulate appetite. It is culturally and morally wrong to consume it after dinner. The kind of thing a tourist would do. This rather large drink was certainly ‘pre’, my as yet unplanned dinner and therefore acceptable and besides, the three middle aged women on the next table were sipping Aperol too so I drank mine knowing I didn’t appear to be a foreigner. What did make me look like an out-of-towner however, was the surprise on my face when the waitress brought me a platter of food. I had expected some crisps or bread sticks, but the selection of meats, cheese and pizza brought about a childlike delight. When the €8 bill came, I was just sober enough (I’m not a big drinker) to calculate that I could comfortably and economically live in this bar. I left a €10 note on the table and swanned off feeling magnanimous albeit slightly wobbly.

I was sated and relaxed and ready for my Castle adventure the next day.