Late adopter

In spite of mockery from my peers, I still use a VCR to record TV programmes and movies. This is partly due to laziness and partly due to practical considerations. I already have a video recorder, it works perfectly well, and the quality is acceptable (yes, it could be better, but I don’t really need to be able to see every skin pore on the actor’s face in order to appreciate a good piece of drama).

The move to digital is probably imminent – the analogue signal will be switched off soon, meaning we’ll move to a digital cable service, and apparently you can’t record digital TV onto video tape (so the cable company tells me, and my Dad had the same problem with Freeview in the UK) so I guess at that point we’ll buy a hard disk recording device thingy. And then probably wonder how we ever managed without it. Still, I’ll have to decide what to do with my dozens of tapes of movies, TV shows and animation. I guess stuff that isn’t available in any other format (things I made myself, for example) could be converted to DVD.

In this case the decision is kind of made for me as the analogue option simply won’t exist soon. In other cases I have to evaluate whether the benefits of a new system outweigh the hassles of, for example, transferring all my old stuff onto the new format. For example, I don’t have any plans to convert all my CDs into digital files to load onto an MP3 player. CDs, according to the experts, still give better, more faithful sound reproduction than MP3 files, and the only benefits I can see to the iPod and its ilk is that you can carry a lot of music around with you all the time, which frankly doesn’t appeal. I can play CDs on my stereo at home, in the car, or, at a push, on my old Sony Discman, and that’s quite enough music player options for me. And yes, I still have a lot of cassette tapes too. And a few LPs.

The one format change I recently enthusiastically embraced is digital cinema projection. One chain of cinemas in Brussels shows about half of their films this way, and it’s far superior: no jumps, scratches or colour cast issues when reels change, for example, and this chain plans for all its screens to be digital soon. In fact if I have a choice of venue to see a particular film I’ll often choose the digital screen even if it’s farther away than another cinema.

So, you see, I’m not a complete Luddite.


Old haunts

When travelling from one country to another I much prefer taking the train to flying.  The plane has its own pleasures, but travelling by rail, apart from offering (slightly) more legroom, also gives me the time to acclimatise to my destination. Passing through a country, rather than over it, you see the gradual changes in landscape, architecture, and signage that let you know you’re entering a different space, inhabited by a different culture. On the way down I passed through fields blanketed with snow, where the sheep, normally the cleanest, brightest objects in the countryside, seemed suddenly dark and dirty against their pristine white background. On the downside, the return journey was delayed by localised flooding which turned those same fields (and occasionally the train track itself) into lakes.

But enough of the how; why was I going back to the UK for four days? Long-time readers may remember this little post, concerning children taking photographs of places which were meaningful or memorable to them. More recently I wrote about my home town and my changing relationship to it. These two ideas finally coalesced into a photo project. I took a couple of days off work and went back to the town where I was born and raised to take some photos of places I used to hang out in, or play in, or visit regularly. Little corners, bits of wall or pavement, parks, shops, views. It was the first time I’d gone back there alone since before I was married and I took my time wandering and remembering.

The criterion for the photos was a simple one – places I fondly remember and which have not substantially changed over the intervening years. Every time I go back something has been re-landscaped or demolished or “developed”, so I wanted to make some effort to preserve, if only photographically, the places where my childhood played out. One of the things that surprised me most as I started snapping was that a lot of the places I remember are alleyways and walls – borders and transitional spaces. I also kept thinking about the places I’d love to have photographed but which I couldn’t because I knew they didn’t exist any more – this set is as much defined by what isn’t there as by what is…

The photos aren’t especially beautiful in any objective or formal way, and I don’t expect them to be of any real interest to anyone other than myself, but if you want to take a look, the full set, including more detailed notes and relevant anecdotes, can be seen here.

Don’t be a stranger

Recently I found a couple of people through Facebook with whom I hadn’t been in touch for over a decade. I’m not the kind of person who feels the need to “friend” everyone with whom I’ve ever exchanged three words, but these two were people I’d spent time with, got drunk with, laughed with, and then lost touch with.

Why did we lose touch in the first place? Mostly due to one of us (usually me) moving to a different town or a different country. There are some who say that if the person was that important to you you’d have made the effort to keep in touch with them in the first place, but it’s not always that obvious, phone numbers and email addresses change or are mislaid, and circumstances conspire to separate people.

What does annoy me is when you do make an effort to keep in touch with someone despite a geographical divide, and your efforts are not reciprocated. Both my wife and I have one friend each who behaves like this. You write to them and receive no reply. You call them or manage to meet up with them when you go back to visit and it’s all smiles and “It’s been too long!” and “We must keep in touch!”. And then the next time you write…nothing. Or they make some lame excuse about not being very good at keeping in touch, as if it requires some special talent to reply to an email.

We go through phases in our relationships with these people. Occasionally we miss them (because at one time they were good, close friends) and make an effort to maintain contact. Then time passes and we say to ourselves “Sod it – if they can’t be arsed, neither can I”.

What would you do?

Gulliver’s Travels

Going back to the UK is always a weird, dislocating experience, and becomes moreso as the years go by. While I stay in contact with the motherland to a certain extent via the media, and still have friends living there, there’s no substitute for being immersed in the culture full-time, and the occasional few days back there have two contradictory effects: it reminds me how much we’ve both changed and grown apart, and it reminds me where I came from and, to a certain extent, what it means to be English.

Also, I feel taller in the UK.

No, really. When I wander around parts of my hometown I used to frequent as a child, it always strikes me that I can now, for example, see over walls which were tall and unassailable when I was a scabby-kneed boy trying to climb them. It’s not just a height thing: apparently as you grow and your head expands, the distance between your eyes increases, meaning that you literally see things with a different perspective as an adult.

So the familiar things look different, but there are also the new things. Things that have disappeared, changed, or appeared since you were last there. Each time we go back to either of our home towns my wife and I seem to spend the first day wandering around pointing at things and saying “That’s new; that wasn’t there last time; where’s that one gone?” and “I can remember when all this was open fields!”.

Ok, maybe not that last one.

This applies to the culture as well as the physical environment. References to musicians, TV shows and commercials that have entered the mass consciousness are often mysterious or meaningless to me, making it all the more comforting when I find something I do recognise; a little unchanged corner that I can point to and say “Yes, that’s mine, that’s part of me.”

It also applies to the very house where I grew up. Mostly redecorated several times over since I lived there, I have to look hard beyond the new carpet and re-arranged furniture to recognise the places I used to sit in, hide behind, and play in as a child. I never sat on this carpet as a child, but the stairs beneath them contain memories, if I look hard enough.

In the swim

The other day I took my daughter to the swimming pool. We stayed in the small, splashy-fun pool, but I could see (and, more importantly, hear) the main pool.

I hate swimming pools. I always have. I didn’t learn to swim until I was 12, and I’m still a fairly weak swimmer now. Before that, swimming lessons at school were mostly exercises in humiliation, as I bobbed about squeezed into various flotation aids, clinging to the side of the pool, watching enviously as the rest of the class dove and darted through the water like minnows.

Even now the blueish light, smell and taste of chlorine, slippery surface underfoot, sharp sounds of shouts and laughter echoing off the hard walls and floor make me slightly nervous. The sea, whose uneven bed makes it easy to slip out of your depth, and whose currents can suck you backwards and downwards to a salty grave paradoxically feels safer and less threatening to me than the cold, antiseptic surroundings of the pool.

Besides, you’re less likely to find a corn paster floating in the open sea.

Could do better

I spent the morning browsing through some old school reports (yes, I’ve kept them all). Looking at them now, apart from the endless “could do better, must try harder, not fulfilling his potential” stuff that at least three or four teachers mentioned every year, there are some surprising (and surprisingly pleasant) comments.

Age 9:

  • Physical education – “Simon usually enjoys these lessons”. I was pleased with this comment at the time, but my parents warned that it may have been meant as a criticism, like I was having fun instead of trying hard.
  • Written Work – “He has a good imagination and is correct but does the minimum of work” (this one is repeated, with minor variations, throughout my academic career)
  • Attitude – “Simon is a talented boy who does not seem to work to anywhere near his full capacity”. Duh. Does any nine-year old? We have other things to think about, like drawing tauntauns.

Age 13

  • Religious Studies – “Simon could do better in this subject”. Hah! The following year – “Simon shows little interest in the subject”.
  • French – “Simon has continued to work well and very cheerfully – often extremely cheerfully”. I blame the teacher, who was far too much fun.
  • Music – “Simon sings well”. Nonsense.
  • Art – “Simon has an interesting sense of design and colour and his handling of paint is improving. He has worked well at drawing”.

Age 15

  • French – “Simon has continued to make progress in his usual sprightly, sometimes impulsive manner”. If there’s one word I’m pretty sure could never be used to describe me, it’s “sprightly”.
  • Music – “He has done quite well in class, though for some inexplicable reason made no effort at all in the examination, filled the paper with vulgarities and obtained by far the lowest mark in the class”.
  • Biology – “His pleasant personality is particularly refreshing in class discussion”.

I won’t go into detail about what I thought of the teachers who made these comments (although I’ve long thought that it would be a good idea for pupils to be able to write reports on their teachers, for the sake of balance), but an honourable mention goes to my favourite, my French teacher Mr. Lawrence Sail, who, apart from being the warmest, most humane, funniest and most encouraging, is also an accomplished an acclaimed poet.





From a book I’m currently reading:

“Initially the community may welcome us warmly – even overwhelmingly. But in every culture the newcomer is still exactly that – and newcomers by definition don’t fit in yet. Our basic position in the new community is one of statuslessness. We carry knowledge from past experiences – often including special knowledge of people, places and proceses – but none of that knowledge has use in this new place. No one knows about our history, abilities, talents, normal responses, accomplishments, or areas of expertise. Sometimes it seems they don’t care. Soon we question whether our achievements in the previous setting were as significant as we thought. […] Even with an initial warm welcome, we may discover it’s not as easy as we thought it would be to make close friends. Circles of relationships among our new acquaintances are already well defined, and most people aren’t looking to fill a vacant spot in such a circle.”

More here.