I am me. Really.

Yesterday I had to visit a solicitor’s office to have my identity validated. I’d failed a money laundering test because I have two addresses and it wasn’t clear to anybody, including me, in which one I lived. According to the test I was a paradox; an object that had failed to satisfy any condition.

Fortunately, these days, solicitors offer an existential service, and for £15 they confirmed that I am the person I’ve been claiming to be all these years. Me. And they stamped a letter to confirm it. But can I still launder money? I don’t know. I paid in cash.

As I walked home to one of my possible addresses I wondered what other philosophical uncertainties the solicitor could resolve and stamp.

  • Why is there something rather than nothing? Because there is. Bring in a photo ID and a recent utility bill. £15. Stamp.
  • Do we have free will? No. Bring in a current council tax bill and a current driver’s licence. £15. Stamp.
  • If I see blue, what colour do you see? Blue. Bring in a letter from your parent or guardian and proof of postage. £15. Stamp.

The possibilities seemed endless. After all, who can argue with a stamped, legal document? But when I walked into my house I was surprised to find myself already there. So I went back out to demand the return of my £15. They were closed.


That Moment

Five months ago a very important person in my life died. I was there. I saw it all. Senses diminished. Movement slowed. Breathing stopped.

It might be witnessing the mechanics of dying, or trying to accommodate the loss, or just failing to comprehend nothingness. I don’t know. But that moment, that image… it just won’t go away. I do get it. I do get that we all die. But for the life of me I cannot shake that moment from my mind, that moment of being and then not being.

Her last breath.


A cure for the common cold

You have razor blades in your throat and water-filled eyes and bubbling nostrils and you’ve become deaf in one ear and you can’t talk without coughing yourself inside out, and every now and then you sneeze and sneeze and sneeze until your nose falls off.

You have a cold.

Some people wrap their heads in gauze and carry on regardless; others share their wet, watery germs with as many people as possible; others stay at home hidden beneath a pile of damp tissues; a few turn to alcohol and other recreational options. However you handle it, there comes a point in the evening when you’ve just about had enough of the wretched thing. Here is a suggestion for when that moment comes.

  1. Run a hot steaming bath and fill it with bubbles. Close all the windows and take something interesting to read – I would suggest one of the graphic guides from the wonderful Introducing Books team (@graphicguides).
  2. While the bath is running squeeze the juice of one lemon into a glass tumbler, and keep squeezing until there is no squeezing left to be done.
  3. Add a spoonful of honey – not set honey but that runny honey stuff that somehow gets all over your fingers.
  4. Add hot water until the tumbler is half full and stir vigorously.
  5. Lie in the bath amongst all the bubbles and the steam, and drink the drink and stay there until you have hardly any energy left at all.
  6. Get out of the bath, dry yourself, and climb into a freshly made bed with clean sheets and a thick duvet.
  7. If appropriate, spray Difflam into your throat.
  8. Think of nothing.
  9. Sleep.

In the morning you will wake up cured. If not, repeat each evening until you are.

Please vote on the 23rd

It would have been lovely, wouldn’t it, if we’d been able to have an inclusive debate in which the pros and cons of remaining in, or exiting from, the European Union were aired and discussed and respected?

But we didn’t.

Instead we have had a highly polarised, venomous argument in which political leaders, elected and unelected, have thrown their weight about and dominated the debate, and left me feeling that the last few weeks have been more about their career aspirations than any consideration for what is good for the British people, and for the people of other countries. Which is a shame because this vote is much more important than any politician’s career, and it is much more important than any general election.

This vote is about us: the populace, the masses, the multitude. And ironically, the nasty nature of the arguments has elevated the debate from a pragmatic question of sovereignty and economics, to something far more reflective.It has become an act of defining ourselves, our country and our continent. And it is as much a vote for our children and grandchildren as it is for ourselves because we are deciding on the type of country and world in which they will live for many years to come.

So no matter how disenchanted you might feel by this whole process, and how weary you might be when trying to find objective facts on which to base an opinion, and how nauseous you become every time you hear the same old rhetoric, please hang in there and make the effort to vote on the 23rd, wherever you intend to put your X. Because if ever there was a decision to be made in which every vote will count, then it is this one.

You are so very very big…

“Let us praise God. Oh Lord, oooh you are so big. So absolutely huge. Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here I can tell you. Forgive us, O Lord, for this dreadful toadying and barefaced flattery. But you are so strong and, well, just so super. Fantastic. Amen.” (Michael Palin as the chaplain in The Meaning of Life)

Fair enough. But look what stunning architecture such flattery creates…

Wells Cathedral

I do like the Python approach, though. Here’s my own prayer in a similar vein.

Dear God.
You are so big and we are so small.
Please don’t tread on us or eat us.
Sorry we are so rubbish.
You are much better.

A quiet night in

It’s official: I have tinnitus. So the cracks, pops, whistles, groans and the constant background hiss, like a layer of cicadas inside my head, are here to stay. For a while at least. Probably. There is ambiguity.

I’m told tinnitus is a symptom and not a condition – causes include noise-induced hearing loss, the side effect of drugs, psychological issues and wax. I had hoped it was wax. Anybody who has ever had their ears flushed out will know what I’m talking about. I go swimming just to encourage the build-up of wax, just so I can have my ears flushed.

But it’s not that, and although it’s possible my tinnitus is the result of an ear-syringing habit, I suspect it’s more to do with the Seventies playlists on my iPod. All those synthesisers and twenty-minute guitar solos have taken their toll and denuded my inner ear of hair cells – which would make me both bald inside my head and bald on top of my head. Damn you, weak follicles. Am I the first person to link tinnitus to male-pattern baldness?

I need to work out how I’m going to say tinnitus. Tiny-tus is out; and although I like the more widely used tinny-tus I am drawn to the strident tin-nightus. That’s a pronunciation I can shout, which is fitting given the increasing level of interior noise. I’ve got tin-nightus I will say with an antipodean inflection. I suppose there’s also tinnight-us, but that sounds too intimate.

During the day other sounds mask the beeps and whistles inside my head and, as with a ticking clock, I am not always conscious of them. And even if I am, somehow my brain can accommodate the duality of interior and exterior sounds. Thank you, brain. Every year I have a full medical check-up which includes a hearing test. I sit in a soundproofed booth with headphones on and listen for tiny pings and beeps. Even though my head is filled with other hums, hisses and clicks I can still pinpoint those exterior sounds. It’s the aural equivalent of feeling beads in cotton wool.

It’s at night when I lay down to sleep that things really get going, and I’m surprised my tinnitus doesn’t keep the neighbours awake. At night a full experimental orchestra kicks off including double bass, bassoons, church organs, industrial generators, steam traction engines and rocket launchers. Not only that, I snore like a hog. It’s an internal and external cacophony.

My doctor said that tinnitus can come and go but if it gets worse I should go back to see her. I will. There are support clinics, websites, distraction techniques, medicines and even musical and sound products available to mitigate the symptom. Apparently, a third of all people are affected by tinnitus at some stage in their lives. So in my opinion it’s an under-researched symptom. In extremis, tinnitus can cause great misery. In extreme extremis those internal sounds can take on a more sinister and frightening quality.

However, as I write this, things are fairly calm. The cicadas are creating their uniform hiss from one ear to the other but that’s about it. Outside my head there are real sounds: cars passing, the wind blowing, distant voices. I can’t imagine what it is like to be in utter silence. I’m sure I once was; I haven’t had tinnitus all my life, have I? But I don’t know. Maybe I have.

In the scheme of things the tinnitus I have is no big deal. It’s a very manageable symptom and nothing to complain about. I’ll continue to go swimming and I’ll continue to listen to that awful music. It’s not affecting my concentration and it’s not affecting my sleep, although from my partner’s perspective that last item is not so good. I think she would like to push all the snoring inside my head. And that would be fine with me because I’m certain the orchestra is missing a percussion section.

For more information on tinnitus, follow this link: http://www.tinnitus.org.uk

2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 400 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 7 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Begin at the end and end at the beginning (or how to fail exams and confuse your friends)

Excuse me if these words look wobbly. I am taking a short break from NaNoWriMo 2015.

National Novel Writing Month means just that – writing a novel in a month. 50,000 words minimum, 70,000+ if you want to hit a more mainstream word count.

That’s a lot of words passing through your mind day and night. A lot of time spent inside your head. It was 2.58 this morning when I stopped nanowrimo-ing and jotted down the notes for this post.

So if these words look wobbly it’s because I’m tired or you’re tired or the screen’s tired, and not because they’re actually… well, let’s not go there. Muriel Spark’s experience with Dexedrine leaps to mind.

Question: do you see words?

I don’t mean when they’re written down, I mean when you say a word do you see it pass through your mind, fleetingly, as a written word?

I think I do. I think that knowing how a word is spelt helps me to say it, which seems to be the wrong way round when you think about it. And putting things the wrong way round is the subject of this post.

When I was younger, school age, I used to enjoy playing with the patterns in words and numbers. In seeing my spoken words as written words, I found I could say them in different ways – backwards, for example.

‘Pick a word, any word,’ I’d say, ‘and I’ll say it backwards’.

I became quite adept at this, and like most hobbyists, I was meticulous in the accuracy of my output – which in my case was reversed pronunciation. After a while I could take on whole sentences, even paragraphs.

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious? No problem.

This wholly useless habit gave me an oddity value at school – much as if I’d brought in a talking parrot or a dancing dog. When my house tutor met my parents at a parent-teacher evening, his comment to them might have been: ‘Jamie is doing quite well; he can say words backwards’.

Tougher children than me would demand to hear swearing backwards, presumably hoping they could curse a teacher with impunity; the more studious would challenge me with onomatopoeia and the formidable, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.

My friends treated it as an annoying tic that was best ignored – and thank goodness they did, because the downside of this mental exercise was that I was conditioning my brain to do it automatically. I realised this when I began processing the wrong numbers in maths exams, and dialling the wrong telephone numbers. It was becoming a habit. It was becoming embarrassing.

The turning point came when I considered signing my name, James 51773.

It had to stop. And so over a term or two I completely weaned myself from that pointless habit – much to my friend’s relief. And now like most writers – known and unknown – when I test words and phrases by saying them out loud, I do so with them in the correct order and the right way round. Which is very useful if you want to write things that people can understand.

Which reminds me, break time is over. It’s time to get back to oMirWoNaN… I mean…

Oh well – I’m almost almost completely weaned.

For more information on NaNoWriMo 2015, follow this link: http://nanowrimo.org/

Living in Bath – cigar optional

It’s more than two weeks since we moved from South London to South Bath; eighteen days since we swapped the bars, restaurants and sirens for the stillness and silence that surround our new home when darkness falls.

It feels like a lifetime, or another world at least. We lived the communal life on the fifth-floor of an art-deco block of flats with views north and south over shops, streets and houses; now we live in a cottage with walls twice as thick as my head on a hill I can barely walk up.

The transition from one to the other is a blurred memory, a series of fevered images punctuated by desperate resolves …

… never again will we stay up until 5am saying goodbye to friends, especially if they are the same friends who will be helping to carry stuff the following day …

… never again will I assume it will be fun to carry a 13-inch thick double mattress that doesn’t bend, down ten-flights of stairs and then, at the other end of the move, into a tiny cottage with a narrow, sharply-turning staircase. (Note to mattress manufacturers: please put carrying handle on all four sides.) …

… never again will I hire a van that’s too small to take all our possessions …

… never again will I select a route to the new house through West London on a day when a home nation is playing at Twickenham in an international rugby tournament …

There were some positive resolves too, such as: always stop for an XL double bacon cheeseburger when you are at your lowest ebb (thank you, Joe), and when finally it’s all over and the back-door of the ludicrously small removal van has been slammed shut for the last time, always eat pizza and drink prosecco.

Cigar optional.

We still have things to collect: books, films, photographs – all the knick-knacks and miscellany that make a house a home. Such as the microwave. How could we leave that behind? And how can I make my morning porridge (porage, porrige, parritch) without it? Don’t talk to me about saucepans and hobs. It’s simply not possible. I create concrete.

And we are still unpacking, still sitting on camping chairs, still hunting through boxes, still learning that our cottage laughs in the face of level floors and right-angle corners, still appreciating that to live in and around Bath is to embrace hills, still remembering to step up from one room and down from another, still sitting up at night and listening to the utter quietness outside, and still staring at the jaw-droppingly beautiful views that make living here like being on holiday every day.

Which way is home?

But we’ve begun to put down tenuous roots. We’ve met the neighbours (and even swapped bumper paint as we master parallel parking), been to a local wine tasting, drunk in the local pub, been to the local cinema, cycled along the canal and established a broadband connection. We know in which bins to put our rubbish, where the post-box is, and when the trains run to London.

Perhaps the thing I like most about our new life is the physical effort that’s needed to move around. My car has broken down (again) and so now I must walk or cycle to get anywhere, and because anywhere is a hill, it’s like being on a permanent resistance machine in the gym, or being in one of those dreams where your legs become leaden and useless.

Even moving from room to room in our new home requires a level of athleticism I don’t have. The garden is level with the first floor and the front door is six-feet above the pavement. But I am adapting, and I’ve learned that the best way to carry anything up any of these narrow winding steps and staircases (other than a 13-inch thick double mattress) is to walk like Groucho Marx – knees bent, back horizontal, head up.

Cigar optional.

Acrophobia (or why I like the valleys)

I live with acrophobia, a psychological nuisance more commonly known as a fear of heights, and which loosely translated means being scared of peaks, summits or edges. In other words, when I am in high places I am frequently and irrationally frightened.

I can’t define how ‘high’ high is, sometimes it’s very high, sometimes it’s not so high. I have no fear of flying, for example, or of cleaning the gutters or of looking out of a fifth-floor window. But when it comes to crossing bridges, standing on balconies, dining on rooftop restaurants, walking along cliff-top pathways, or hiking through mountainous terrain, then it’s a different matter.

Beautiful but daunting

Instead of being pleasant and enjoyable, these activities usually trigger an over-developed sense of survival in which my mind and my imagination become out of kilter. I become aware of myself, of my position in relation to the ground, and of the edge – particularly the edge.

An image of me falling takes on the trappings of a bona fide probability and my body reacts as if I were in genuine danger – which, of course, I am, but no more so than if I were about to cross a road, or if I were standing on a platform awaiting a train.

At these times I realise that the only thing between me and death is an electrical connection in my brain. A decision, a notion, an idea. None of which seem as substantial as ropes and harnesses. I am left wondering: can a thought be stronger than physical movement? If my body receives an impulse is to jump then can my mind stop it? Can I rebel against myself; start a civil war; launch a synaptic coup? I’m frightened that if I imagine it, it might happen.

Sudden and genuine fear is an ugly experience. I’m not used to it and I don’t know how to deal with it. When adrenalin floods my system and freezes my brain, my thoughts become lumpy, less to do with thinking and more to do with thinking about thinking, of simulating thinking, as if each thought is a single, shaky snapshot rather than part of a smooth, continuous film. The first touch of panic, as gentle as a cobweb, soon paralyses and suffocates my reason.

But it’s not the act of being in a high place that’s the problem. If there is no possibility of me falling, then no matter how high I am, I’m fine. The tallest building with glass floors holds no terror for me if it’s sealed, or caged, or otherwise locked down.

The fear arises when there is the possibility of me falling and there is no way of getting down quickly and safely. It’s the fear of panicking. It’s the fear of being trapped and doing something stupid; of doing something impulsive; of behaving like hunted prey which, rather than evading danger, gives itself up to it, embraces it; and gets it over with.

If I’m about to walk across a bridge then the fear increases because I am walking away from safety. If I’m halfway across then the fear subsides because I am walking towards safety. These height-related imaginings are irrational and inconvenient and, excuse the pun, they get me down.

I console myself with the words of GK Chesterton who, to paraphrase, would rather live in the valleys from where everything looks grand and majestic, than live in the mountains from where everything appears small and insignificant.

It would be nice, however, once in a while, to look down rather than up.