The Blogg52 challenge

This is my 52nd entry At the Quill tagged #Blogg52 and want to spend a little time meditating on this blog challenge and the value of blog challenges generally.

I came to Blogg52 after an invitation from Susan Casserfelt, one of the two curators (the other being Anna Hellqvist). It wasn’t a personal invitation, I think Susan sent it out to all the members of Egenutgivarna, but it came at just the right time. I was looking for something to give me a reason to blog on a regular basis, but the Blogg100 challenge that some of my friends were taking part in seemed far too demanding. Blogg100 encourages participants to post blog entries one a day for a hundred days; by contrast Blogg52 calls for one blog entry a week over a year.

I started blogging with the hashtag Blogg52 in March last year (here’s my first entry). Clearly I didn’t quite manage one blog entry every week or I’d have finished in March 2015. However, counting backward from today this is my 52nd entry.

On balance, I’ve enjoyed participating and the discipline has been very good for me. I’ve tried to follow the rules set out on Anna H’s website and have read, I think, the majority of all the entries that everyone taking part in the challenge has posted. I’ve also managed to comment on at least one – and often more than one – blog entry every week, though as I’ve been reading many of them on my mobile phone it’s often been easier to post comments on Facebook rather than on people’s blog sites.

It has to be said that I haven’t found all of the entries interesting – some have been written on subjects about which I am indifferent others have just not caught my attention – but many have been interesting and most weeks I think I have learnt things. And I’ve certainly been entertained.

I’ve also “met” some really nice people here – people whose comments on my own writing I have looked forward to receiving.

From the beginning I was aware that, as the only person blogging in English in a Swedish challenge, I was putting up a barrier between my writing and potential readers that went beyond subject matter and style. I know from personal experience in the reverse situation that, however good my receptive skills in Swedish may be, reading longer texts – especially more literary ones – requires a greater effort and I remain “tone deaf” to many of the nuances and references. I presume this is the same for Swedish speakers coming to my efforts. Yet I have been delighted to see (with the help of Google analytics and WordPress statistics) that many people have come to my blog posts over the months, even if not so many have been motivated to leave comments on the website or Facebook. (For links to the most popular entries see below the bar at the bottom of this entry.)

Of course, I greatly appreciate the comments I’ve received from everyone who’s made the effort, but especially from my more regular commentators: Kim, Eva and Pernilla.

In fact, at the very beginning, I was concerned enough at the thought that other Blogg52ers might think I was an English-language imperialist muscling in where I was not wanted that I actually asked the curators if it was okay for me to join in as an English-language blogger. I’m grateful that they were so welcoming.
I’ve already mentioned discipline as one of the most important values I think taking part in a blog challenge has. Even though I missed a number of weeks on a couple of different occasions throughout the year – mostly when real-life intruded – just knowing that on Wednesday I was going to try to publish a blog entry, that some people would be looking out for it and that I might disappoint them if I didn’t manage were powerful motivators.

Some days – as today – I have found myself composing the entry actually on publication day. More often, recently, I have managed to plan my entry a couple of days in advance and draft the entry beforehand. Even today’s piece I’ve actually been turning over in my mind for a couple of days now, though as I write this sentence it is 12:59.

Along with the discipline, motivation and planning, following a blog challenge has also helped me to better compose my entries.

I had an idea at the beginning that I should restrict myself to a maximum of 800 words. It was Kim who asked me, Why? And as I had no good answer I gave up that idea. Instead I find myself writing pieces that run naturally to about 1200 words – sometimes a couple of hundred more, sometimes two or three hundred less. Within this length I’m learning how to pace myself – to tell a story when I’m telling a story, or to present an idea when that’s what I have to share – so that there is a rhythm to my writing. I try to compose a good introduction, something to hook a reader’s interest. I follow it with a couple of higher and lower points along the way and a solid conclusion. I know I haven’t achieved this with every piece that I’ve written, and I know that some weeks I have been considerably more successful than others, but it’s my impression that I have become a better writer (if only of blog entries 🙂 ) as the challenge has gone on.

So where do I go from here? I see two ways forward.

First, I’m going to start looking for English language blog challenges and if possible find something which has a similar pace to Blogg52. Once a week for a year, or once a week for a quarter for example. I still don’t think I’m up to attempting a blog entry a day. Blog challenges are not so easy to find in the great Ocean of the Internet – it looks like I need to be a member of a writers’ group – but if any readers out there would like to recommend something, please do so!

Second, as I really don’t want to give up my contact with my Blogg52 friends, and as it seems as though the Blogg52 challenge is rolling on, I’m looking forward to continuing here. However I think I need to change gear somehow. Unless there are howls of protest, from next week I’m going to respond to the challenge from more than one of my websites. Specifically, I’ll keep on writing an occasional piece about writing At the Quill, but I want to introduce you to my new website of travel writing, Stops and Stories. I mentioned it in an earlier entry and it’s just about ready to go public so I hope that next week’s Blogg52 contribution will be on that website.

So, there we have it, just about 1200 words and my fifty-second Blogg52 entry. Thank you for reading.

These are the ten most popular posts At the Quill tagged #Blogg52.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

A dark and stormy night

Dark and stormyIt was a dark and stormy night, though more so the night before last. We caught the edge of the storm that swept across central Europe from the North Sea to the Alps and left in its wake destruction and even death, so the BBC tells me. Here in Brussels it was less dangerous, but yesterday the streets were strewn with leaves and twigs and branches — and rubbish — and every so often the windows were blasted with a shattering of raindrops that seem to be trying to squeeze through the glass. Yesterday, in the late afternoon, through the living room window, the cloudscapes against the setting sun were dramatic and ever-changing.

It’s quieter this morning, calmer, though just now as I was making myself a cup of coffee there was a shower of hail, brief but distinct, beating a tattoo on the balcony and for a moment turning the lawn white down there.

Here on the fourth floor I have a grandstand view of the crown of a chestnut. I discovered it was a chestnut only last week. Before it was just a tree, winter-bare against the sky. When I got back from England the buds on its branches had swollen and coloured, and now they are bursting and the little candles are appearing. This is the tree in which a couple of magpies have been building a nest, fighting the intrusion of a couple of crows who are also nest-building in a lower-standing birch a little further off.

At first I thought the crows had decided to squat in the magpies’ nest, then that they were determined to demolish it. Now I think they were just using it as a handy source of nesting material for their own effort. The magpies were determined and resisted, but while two magpies can force one crow to flee, two crows have more muscle and perhaps more cunning than two magpies. Whether by strength or guile, the crows won and stole what they wanted from the magpies and I thought the magpies would give up, seeing all their nest removed twig by twig. However, the crows now seem satisfied with their extraordinarily ragged nest in the birch and the magpies have rebuilt their nest in the chestnut.

I stand at the window watching the birds through my binoculars and my wife says “You have become your mother!” It’s true my mother can spend hours watching the birds in her handkerchief-sized garden, and true I’m beginning to appreciate the fascination, but I take issue with “have become”.

“Not yet,” I insist.

I had all sorts of vague ideas about what I might write for this week’s blog entry, but in the end I let the weather steer me. Today is 1st April and I felt for a time that I ought to be concocting an April Fool’s prank, but I couldn’t think of one – or at any rate not one funny enough to perpetrate. At least I got to start this blog entry with “It was a dark and stormy night.” Which means I have to use a picture of Snoopy. (Apologies to the shade of the late Charles M Schultz.)

dark and stormy

The illustrations are borrowed from the work of Charles M Schultz. They are not out of copyright, though widely available across the Internet (search: “dark and Stormy” + Snoopy). If anyone representing Schultz wants me to take them down, just drop me a line – use the contact form – and I will do so at once.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Talking aloud

Elin's Outline
Scrivener pinboard outline of the first part of Elin’s Story.
Once upon a time I started studying for a PhD. I never completed it because I couldn’t finance myself. (That’s one reason. Life is complicated; there were other reasons, but let that one suffice.) The PhD was supposed to focus on a form of school education called Content and Language Integrated Learning and drew on my experiences and research I carried out in the classroom. Part of the preparation for the PhD involved studying aspects of qualitative research and trying out techniques. One technique which my tutor was keen for me to experiment with was called “vocalised internal monologuing” or “intra-personal communication” – basically, talking aloud to yourself.

Apparently, in an effort to find out what people are thinking when they are doing things some researchers have wired up their subjects and got them to talk aloud. The assumption is that recording what the subject says gives an insight into the subject’s semiconscious or even subconscious choices. I don’t want to reject this technique out of hand – I can even imagine that it might work successfully with people who are able to express themselves at the same time as they are physically doing something that does not require thought – something repetitive. I could certainly see myself talking aloud about what I’m doing whilst washing the dishes for example. In my case, though, my tutor was asking me to talk aloud about the process of writing and analysing written documents while I was actually writing and analysing. It just didn’t work.

It’s hard enough, I find, to dictate into word recognition software (as I’m doing the moment) simply creating a text. If I have to create a text at the keyboard while at the same time talking about what I’m doing, the two processes conflict to such a degree that nothing gets done. For me at least, the creative act of writing and the act of reflecting on the creative act of writing must happen one after the other and not concurrently.

I started thinking about this now because I wanted to say something about my creative process, but putting on the microphone-headphones and starting up DragonDictate tripped me back 14 years into my memories of working on the PhD.

To get back to what I meant to write about when I started…

After expressing my wish last week for a more settled life that might allow me to focus on my writing, I decided to try and do something about it. On weekdays now I am setting myself the task of writing in 45 minute blocks throughout the morning from about 9.30 until about 1 o’clock. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to keep this up – the everyday does still intrude – but at least I can make the effort. The 45 minute rule is intended to keep me from sitting for hours in front of the computer. I’m using the timer in my telephone and when the alarm rings I get up, stretch, walk around, go and make myself a cup of tea. As I have a desk which I can raise or lower, when I come back I make sure I change from sitting to standing or vice versa.

Under the new regime I have created a document in Scrivener for the whole of Elin’s Story, all of the four (or it may be eight) books I’m currently planning. I have written a description of the whole story as a very abbreviated summary, and I’ve started breaking the summary down into chapters.

I’ve lived with this story for getting on for six years now, so I have a lot of it in outline either in my head or in various electronic documents and physical notebooks. The summary is not by any means complete. I fully intend to add to – and probably subtract from – what I have written now, but it feels good to have created this outline structure and to have at least an idea of where I’m going. The full summary is about 3500 words long and the projected novel (all the books together) is 480,000 words, so I have a way to go yet.

My next task is to build up my cast of characters and assign them to different chapters in the first part of the first book so that I know when I am introducing them and can focus on bringing them in appropriately. To help me I am creating family trees, character sets and timelines using Scapple, software that was recommended by my fellow Blogg 52er Lars Billbäck. (Thanks Lars!)

I brought a mass of material with me on memory sticks (I have used two or three different computers to write Elin’s Story over the last five years) and I find that I’m also going out on the Internet to track down other information so I’m not sure how fast the story will advance, but I’ve got things to keep me busy at least. And that takes me to the end of my second 45 minute session dictating this blog entry so I’ll close now and promise to keep you posted on future developments.

The illustration is a screen-capture image from my desktop.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

A nice cup of tea

I like a nice cup of tea in the morning
Just to start the day, you see…

A nice cup of tea
A nice cup of tea
In January 1946 George Orwell published an essay discussing the craft of making “A Nice Cup of Tea”. I don’t have a copy to hand, but I think he said he was concerned that the years of war rationing would have caused the British to forget how a proper cup of tea was made. Rationing began in 1940 and continued in some degree until 1954, so 1946 was in the middle of things, though Orwell wouldn’t have known that at the time. When he wrote, the war in Europe was over and he might reasonably have expected rationing soon to be phased out.

The essay appeared completely serious, but reading between the lines you can see that Orwell was probably having some fun. He wrote about “my rules for making a perfect cup of tea, every one of which I regard as golden”.

I read the essay when I was a student at Leeds University, and I disagreed with several of his rules — the one about heaps of sugar in particular — but one rule that I liked was the rule about when to add milk. (There is, of course, no question of not adding milk.)

Orwell admits the issue of when to put in the milk is one that has divided the nation – not to mention the families of the nation – but comes down on the side of adding milk to the cup of tea because it’s easier to see how much milk you need. This was an argument that raged in my own childhood home. I think my mother thought putting the milk in the cup first, then adding the tea, was somehow more refined. With Orwell to back me, I switched to tea first and have never looked back.

When I graduated from Leeds I had no idea what to do with myself. At that point I didn’t want to go on studying, but I stayed in the city and hung about the University with my friends. To pay my way I also took work where I could, and one job was with a steel fabricating company. Basically it was a large workshop constructed under one of the arches of a railway bridge in the town. In the workshop the men built things in steel and then drove them out to various building sites to install them. Fire escapes, the frames for factory doors, metal walkways over vats of seething chemicals, support structures for heavy motors at the top of lift shafts. I was the tea boy.

My job was to get to the workshop every morning before 8am and brew up the the first pot of tea. Then I had to make tea at least four more times during the day — at 11, at 1pm, at 3 and at 5. Orwell would have recognised the process, though it broke most of his rules. First I filled a pan with water and put on the stove, then I added a spoonful of tea (Tetley’s Yorkshire Tea), one spoon for each of the men and one for the pot. Then I added the sugar and the milk, brought the whole lot to the boil and when it was the “right” colour — a kind of dark orange-brown — I poured it out through a strainer into mugs for everyone. Though some of the men thought I didn’t put in enough sugar, I think I was quite successful as a tea boy — certainly more so than I was as a lathe operator or a builder’s mate which were my other roles in the firm.

And at half past eleven, well, my idea of heaven
Is a nice cup of tea.

Time passed. I found out what I wanted to do and I moved on — to Birmingham to train as a teacher and then to Bulgaria to take up my first job. In Bulgaria I discovered that the tea I was used to drinking was “black” tea and not terribly popular. The only black tea you could get relatively easily in Sofia in 1982 was from Russia (actually from Georgia) and I liked it as little as most Bulgarians. On the other hand you could make it strong and put milk in it which you couldn’t do with Bulgarian tea. The Bulgarians preferred herbal tea — which I decided must be what Hercule Poirot calls une tisane. (I was right.)

It was possible to buy English tea at the Naafi shop in the basement of the British Embassy. It was teabag tea — PG Tips. PG Tips was the tea we had at home, but never as teabags. My mother wouldn’t be seen dead serving teabag tea. I bought it with shame. Come New Year I took a holiday from behind the Iron Curtain and visited Vienna, capital of Western vice and magnet for all Balkan expats in those Cold War years. I’d heard tell of a tea shop…

I found it, too. It was an emporium of tea, a palace, a place of wonder where the scent of fine tea enveloped you. As with everywhere else in Vienna, I felt very much out of place. I had travelled from five years of student poverty in England to Bulgaria where my worn jeans and Doc Martins and winter anorak were clearly western and gave me a certain cachet. But that didn’t carry over to Vienna. Now I stood in this polished and scented shop waiting to be served by a polished and scented young man who looked me up and down, but consented to speak with me — in English — and try to sell me something.

I wanted some tea, I said. For the morning or the afternoon, sir? To drink with lemon or honey? First flush or second flush? Darjeeling, Oolong, Dimbula? Scented or unscented? I was confounded. Indian? I suggested.

I’m not sure what it was he sold me in the end, but I know it made a nice cup of tea. I decided then that I would learn about tea and next time I went back I would be able to order with confidence. I never did go back to that shop, but at least I’m now able to put a name to the teas I like to drink.

I like a nice cup of tea with my dinner…

For years, in Sweden, it was pointless to buy tea in canteens or cafés. You’d collect a cold cup , then stand in line for a teabag (Liptons Yellow Lable), then get some ice cold milk, pay and finally reach the hot water which would always have a temperature below boiling. What you got in your cup after all that was brown and tepid — if you were lucky. No, better to go with the flow and drink coffee when out, save the tea making for home.

Which is what I did and still do, though changes have taken place over the years. Swedes have learnt to make tea with boiling water, they have embraced the concept of different sorts of tea, they have dared to step away from the teabag. On the other hand there was quite a narrow window when you could be guaranteed a cup of decent tea in a Swedish café. Pretty soon things went overboard as Sweden became obsessed with green tea, white tea, red tea, herbal tea and scented tea. There is some really foul stuff that makes your tea taste of cream. Cream! For goodness sake. You should only drink skimmed milk in tea (that’s one of my golden rules, by the way) so why would anyone want to make their tea taste of cream?

And a nice cup of tea with my tea…

Back to just post Bulgaria — I had gone on and on (and on and on) to my Swedish girlfriend about how to make a proper cup of tea. The warming of the pot, the spoons of tea, the water boiling when it hits the leaves, the three, four or five minutes brewing (depending on the tea), the pouring and straining, the skimmed milk. When I took her home to meet my family and friends I was horrified — horrified — to discover that, while I’d been gone, teabags had conquered the country. Even – and this was the greatest betrayal — even my mother was using them! Well, not in my home, damn it. (Unless dire circumstance requires.)

When we moved from Sweden at the New Year, we took only two foodstuffs with us. We took a big round tin of Swedish crispbread and we took tins of tea: Earl Grey, Lady Grey, Darjeeling FOP, Lapsang and Södermalm. I thought I’d quickly find a decent tea shop here, but had the tea with me to avoid stress. That worked for a time, but as the level of tea in the tins sank and as I kept on not finding a tea shop, panic set in. No Darjeeling left, no Lady Grey, no Earl Grey. Nearly no Södermalm. I don’t like Lapsang on its own. With no tea to fuel me, how would I be able to write anything? On Monday I was forced to buy a box of teabags (at least they were Twinings Earl Grey).

At the last minute — actually yesterday evening — my good wife followed a tip from one of her new colleagues, and tracked down a real tea shop. She came home with three bags – two sorts of Darjeeling (first and second flush) and a bag of Earl Grey blue flower. Saved! I shall be making an expedition to the same shop in the near future to stock up.

And when it’s time for bed, there’s a lot to be said,
For a nice cup of tea.

(Mind you, the above was produced exclusively with the help of coffee…)

The illustration is from Wikimedia Commons. See the original version here: A nice cup of tea

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.


Two lumps ?!
Two lumps ?!
I woke this morning with a sensation of pins and needles in my left hand – specifically my thumb and the first two fingers. Two hours later it’s still there. I know what it is – it’s a pinched nerve somewhere and I rather hope that it will un-pinch soon.

I’ve always been a bit of a hypochondriac. Essentially I am physically quite healthy, thanks to the genes I’ve inherited from my father, but whatever small things happen, I tend to fear the worst. On my mother’s side of the family several people have had problems with their spines as they grew older. Neck vertebrae develop a form of arthritis and pinch nerves that affect their arms and hands. That’s what I’m afraid is happening here.

Another explanation is that I have a touch of repetitive strain injury in my wrist. After problems with my right wrist a number of years ago I switched using my computer’s mouse from my right to my left hand. It could be my left hand is finally protesting.

Or, of course, maybe I just slept on my arm.

My father was remarkably healthy right up until near his death. No, that’s not true. He smoked all his life. He was a 20 a day man, and none of your poncey light tar coffin nails, thank you very much. He smoked Player’s Navy Cut – Medium or Gold Leaf. Every time he went to the doctors in the last 10 years or so of his life – regardless of whatever it was that had taken him there – the doctor would try to get him to stop smoking. It didn’t work. “It’s not the bloody cigarettes, is it,” he would say to me belligerently. “It’s a rash. It’s my feet. I’m just feeling under the weather.”

It would, I’m sure, have given Dad great satisfaction to learn that the autopsy after his death showed he died of pancreatic cancer. No sign of lung cancer. Not that his lungs were a pretty sight (I’m guessing). He would have felt vindicated.

But, of course it was the bloody cigarettes, you silly old bugger!

I don’t smoke. I don’t drink – well, not that much anyway. Not as much as my father used to. I don’t get enough exercise and I overeat, especially when I’m anxious, so I’m overweight – though not as much as he was. Though, I don’t know – I take the same collar size as Dad now. 17 ½ inches.

I started putting on weight – I mean seriously putting on weight – at the end of the 90s. That was when I first fell into a depression. Eating seemed to take my mind off things. I must have gone up in weight quite dramatically over a couple of years because I remember visiting my mother and overhearing her on the telephone. “He’s so big. He looks just like his father did, you know, later on.” Mum had already started going deaf and couldn’t judge how loudly she was speaking.

I’m rather hoping I haven’t inherited my mother’s genes for deafness. Mind you, she didn’t start going deaf until her 80s and her mind is still as sharp as ever. I’d like that.

Picking and choosing among my family’s gene pool.

Apparently it’s now possible to get a map of your own DNA so you can see what genes you’ve got, what probability there is that you’re going to develop this disease or that, what likelihood there is that you’re going to die early or live long, what risk you run of Alzheimer’s. But where’s the fun in that?

There’s a classic book of English humour – Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) – that starts with hypochondria. Do you know it? The narrator/author Jerome K Jerome opens a dictionary of common ailments, starts reading and discovers that he suffers from everything. Everything except Housemaid’s Knee, if I remember rightly. He is a bit put out to find that he doesn’t have Housemaid’s Knee, considering he has everything else. He talks it over with his friends George and Harris, who also find themselves suffering from a range of illnesses. They decide they are overworked, and this is why they should go on a trip up the River Thames in a boat.

Where would we be without hypochondria?

The pins and needles in my left hand is still there, though not as much as earlier, but my left forefinger has started to twitch. I don’t know if that’s a good sign or a bad one. Maybe I should look it up.

Or maybe I should just bring this rambling to an end and go and get ready for work.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Half full or half empty?

Wine glasses
A good measure – but not full

“Are you a half full or half empty kinda guy,” she asks.

I never know how to answer questions like this. I know the polite response is to choose the one or the other and let the questioner make pseudo-psychological assumptions about you, but I think slowly. She takes my hesitation for misunderstanding.

“I mean,” she says, “do you think the glass is half full or half empty?”

It must be exasperating for people to have to explain a clichéd metaphor. I don’t go out of my way to be a nuisance, but I’m a pedant as well as a slow thinker. And, okay, sometimes I take pleasure in being annoying.

At one of the schools where I used to teach, one of my science teacher colleagues had a couple of trick wine glasses. From a distance they looked exactly the same. He would put them out in front of his class and carefully fill one of them with coloured water. Then he would ask the students to tell him how much liquid was in the glass. After he’d collected in several different answers he would take the full glass and poor its contents into the other glass. The water only filled the second glass about half way.

The point, of course, was that the quantity of liquid was the same but the different glasses distorted how it looked.

Having had his little trick played on me once I’ve never since been able to take the half full/half empty question seriously.

The question isn’t about the actual quantity of what’s in the glass – in your life – it’s about your attitude, your perception. But my perception of my life, and my attitude towards what I perceive, both change depending on – what? On my mood. On where I focus. On how much sleep I had last night. On the time of year. On who’s asking.

Here’s another observation to do with quantity and perception. Have you noticed how, in a bar or a restaurant, the glass of wine you’re served is never full? It’s always more than half full – you can’t play half full/half empty with a bar-bought glass of wine (unless you have a trick glass) – but it’s never full.

Once though, when we lived in Bulgaria, my wife and I were in a restaurant where the waiter filled our glasses to the brim. We would drink, carefully, put the glasses back on the table and then the waiter would come by and top them up, right to the brim and above, so that only surface tension was holding the wine in the glass. Between us this is known as “Bulgarian measures” and has become a family expression.

My life recently has resembled a glass filled with a Bulgarian measure of wine. I’ve not written here for a couple of weeks partly because of this – so much has been going on. At the same time, not all of it has been positive. It seems that it is possible for me to be a “half empty kind of guy” even when my glass is full to the brim.

Well, I suppose I knew that all along.

It’s like this.

Empty glasses
Empty glasses – pretty shadows

First, I’ve been working for more than a year in a school that teaches by distance over the Internet. I started working there largely in order to be able to work with a particular colleague and partly in order to help create teaching material for distance education. Getting a regular pay cheque was also attractive. I have helped create teaching material, the money has been welcome and I’ve really enjoyed working with my colleagues (and when I remember all that the glass is definitely half full).

But for the last few months the job has boiled down to marking essays – and marking essays is soul destroying. When I think of that the glass looks pretty empty.

Second, as readers of At the Quill will know, I am in the middle of a crowd funding campaign to finance the publication of a photo book, My Gothenburg Days. That got off to a great start at the Gothenburg Book Fair (glass more than half full).

However, for the last three weeks instead of spending all my (limited) free time promoting the campaign I have been engaged in a dispute with the crowd funding website I’m using – FundedByMe – over a bug in their software that means people logging in to my campaign site see all money as fractions of Euros instead of round numbers in Swedish kronor (glass half empty). (I think this might be fixed now.)

Third, I try to find time to do something creative every day. Whether it is writing, or going out with the camera, or finding teaching solutions, or translating, or making illustrations, or cooking, or working on my websites doesn’t really matter – the important thing is to be creative. When I am creative I’m happy and my glass has a waiter’s measure of wine.

But recently I can only find the time for this with difficulty, fitting it around work and the campaign – around marking and disputing – and my glass only holds dregs.

One glass of red

Finally, we recently heard that our life is about to change dramatically – or at least geographically. My wife will be seconded from her current job to a new post in Brussels for at least two years and I’ll be moving with her. This has been in the air for a couple of months, but she had it finally confirmed some ten days ago. Since when we have been picking through all our worldly possessions deciding what to take, what to leave… and what to throw or give away.

On the one hand the coming move is like a sharp sword through the Gordian knot – a release from all the old entanglements (and my glass is half full again).

On the other hand, it means I have even less free time for the campaign, even less time for being creative, and I get stressed out whenever I have to throw things away. (And we’re back to half empty.)

So here we are, back in the crowded bar on Sunday evening and making conversation with the people around the table and in Swedish-accented American English my neighbour asks: “Are you a half full or half empty kinda guy?”

And I hesitate.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Not singing or winning so much

…and not much of a blog entry, but this describes my recent ups and downs. Do you remember “Tubthumper” by Chumbawamba?

Keep Calm and Thump a Tub
Keep Calm and Thump a Tub

I sit up and I feel hopeful
Do you think I’m gonna keep it up?
I stand up and I start climbing
Do you think I’m gonna keep it up?
I get up, and I get high again
But I’m never gonna keep it up.
I get high, but I crash down again
I’m never gonna keep it up.

(Sleeping the night away, I wish I was
sleeping the night away.
Instead of sitting awake,
I wish I was –
sleeping the night away.)

I drink my milky tea, I drink my lemon tea,
I drink my honey tea, I drink my milky tea,
I read the poems that remind me of the sad times,
I read the poems that remind me the lost times.

(Oh Prufrock, oh – not Hamlet no –
Nor Michelangelo.)

I sit up and I feel hopeful
Do you think I’m gonna keep it up?
I stand up and I start climbing
Do you think I’m gonna keep it up?
I get up, and I get high again
But I’m never gonna keep it up
I get high but I crash down again
I’m never gonna keep it up…

Ad nauseum

By way of explanation:

On Friday and Saturday (despite an eye infection) I got onto a creative high preparing my photos for the Planket exhibition and then standing for 7 hours to present them to passers-by. It was very enjoyable and I felt really happy. But after the high comes the low. On Sunday I was exhausted, couldn’t go out, pains in my feet, couldn’t focus with either eye. On Monday I started back to work – I was slow and thick headed. Various plans for the My Gothenburg Days project were abandoned. By the end of the day I was convinced of my own incompetence, couldn’t sleep that night, sat up drinking tea, feeling sorry for myself and reading poetry. Among the poems, “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”, which seems an eerily accurate description of me now. “I grow old, I grow old…”

But the dark has a dawn and here I am again, sitting up and feeling hopeful.

The above should really have been published on Articulations, but I needed it here for this week’s #Blogg52 challenge.

Besides words

I love words. Words are at the core of what I do, both as an English teacher and as a writer, and words endure. But words have their limitations. So, besides words, what? I think about this frequently as I work with my photography, but it is something that is refreshed from another perspective when I am brought to think about dance.

Koffi Kôkô
Koffi Kôkô directly after dancing the part of le Baron in the ballet “Un tango avec le baron”

There are two things that attract me about dance. The first is the way dance can make a magic that words cannot match, the second is the fragile, ephemeral nature of dance.

Writing is one of the most permanent of art forms. There are buildings and cave paintings that are older, but The Epic of Gilgamesh dates from about 2000 BC. Four thousand years is a good long time for an art form to endure. However, dance – dance takes place and is gone.

Almost my whole experience of dance is from the perspective of an audience. I don’t really suppose the dancer’s concept of his or her dance is nearly as ephemeral as the audience’s experience of it. Dancers build on years of training and focused preparation, and – I’m told – can reproduce their performances (with minor variations depending on the situation) for many years. But it still comes down to a physical memory encompassed by an individual or a group of individuals, and when those individuals pass, so passes the memory of the performance.

These thoughts are sparked by having been to see two modern dance performances as part of the recent Gothenburg Dance and Theatre Festival (GDTF), but they are ideas I have been turning over for many years. Dance, as I say, is an art form I know mostly as a spectator. A natural clumsiness coupled with a poor sense of balance and a sad tendency to try to think things through gets in the way of dancing for me.

Although, not always. There was a time in Finland when my wife and I took part in a regular ring-dance class run by a friend. Karelian, Russian and Balkan dances taught in Finnish. I quickly gave up on the instructions and tried instead to follow the movements of the people either side of me and listen to the music, and I managed creditably. My wife, who was studying Finnish, concentrated on the instructions and kept getting out of step or turning the wrong way.

This experience reinforces my feeling that dance and language walk beside one another but are not alternatives. You can’t dance a thesis!

Well, actually you can. There’s an annual challenge called “Dance your PhD”, and there have been some striking interpretations of the most abstruse subjects.

However, generally speaking, dance is a means by which something is communicated that is other than whatever we do with words.

Coming back to the GDTF, the two dance performances I enjoyed were Un tango avec le Baron and tauberbach. And now I’m going to try to do what I really don’t think is possible and tell you in words what they were about.

Kettly Nöel
Ketty Nöel who danced the part of le Baron’s consort in the ballet “Un tango avec le baron”.

In Un tango avec le Baron, two dancers (Koffi Kôkô and Kettly Noël) presented a surreal performance that seemed based on a mix of voodoo ritual, dances from around the Caribbean (and there was a tango in there too), spirit possession and West African dance. There wasn’t a narrative and I don’t think there was a resolution, though there was a kind of conclusion. I think anyone looking for a story would have been disappointed, but anyone open to the beauty and power of physical movement and rhythm would, like me, have come away with a head full of images and ideas that they would then spend hours trying, and failing, to put into words.

The second dance, tauberbach, was performed by Les Ballet C de la B. This one had a story – at least, the programme described it as based on a documentary film about a woman who lives on a rubbish tip. The music of Bach was also relevant – in some cases performed by choirs of deaf singers. On a stage completely covered with second-hand clothes the performers danced out a representation of schizophrenia in a world obsessed and possessed by things. There was great humour too, pain, desire, violence, joy. But once again the performance went to a place I have great difficulty believing words could describe – or at least could describe as well, as economically, as powerfully.

I don’t know. Maybe modern dance is not your thing. Most of the audience gave tauberbach a standing ovation but one man a couple of seats from me stayed grimly seated, arms folded and as we were leaving said something about “an hour and a half of crap”. But you can’t reach all the people all the time.

Dance can go where words cannot, and though I love words, I love too that there are other art forms beside words. Not least because, however clumsily I do it, they give me subjects to write about.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Black boxes

I have been thinking about black boxes. Thinking in particular about the black box that they’re searching for from the Malaysian aircraft that disappeared.

I imagine this black box, it’s a metal box, slightly longer than wide, slightly wider than deep. A black metal box, like one I once owned, with a clasp at the front for a padlock.

Black boxI imagine it in the water, sinking. The light fades and the box sinks, fathom after fathom deep, deeper than light reaches, deep into darkness. Finally it grounds, and as it strikes the bottom, a great cloud of mud and debris billows up around, obscuring it for a time, then sinking back and leaving it there in the sand and the silt at the bottom of the ocean, half exposed – black in the dark – invisible but for the regular, persistent pulse that it sends out to the world saying: Here! I’m here, here with my memories. Come and find me!

And there, ignored by the benthic beasts and the other inhabitants of the abyss, the giant squids and the angler fish, self-illuminated monsters of the deep, it calls. And nobody hears. Even though we are listening for it. Listening with all the technology that we possess. Maybe it’s here and maybe it’s there. The search goes on up above, but nobody knows where it is and though it tries and tries, for days and weeks, eventually its batteries weaken, the sound dies and finally the black box lies in silence at the bottom of the ocean and its memories are lost.

Oh yes, I know it’s a misnomer. Black boxes are anything but black, manufactured in bright colours, in fluorescent colours for all I know, to be easy to find. Far tougher than my old tin box too, built to withstand the pressures deep under the sea. And this black box is unlikely to have become detached from the aircraft of which it was a part. It’s probably locked still inside the wreckage. And maybe, maybe it will yet be localised. Maybe the search will find it, maybe it will be retrieved, it and its memories, and we’ll find out what really happened aboard flight MH 370.

Maybe. But in my mind’s eye it is still this black metal box, sinking, calling, sinking, calling – and unheard.

Have you noticed how, when filmmakers want to contrast the experience of air and water, they contrast sound and silence? Sound in air, silence under water. When a swimmer breaks the surface of the water or plunges beneath. Clarity and sharpness above; a muffled, dull, distortion below. And that’s our experience too: the children’s laughter on the beach, by the pool, dulled or obliterated when we dive into the silent world.

And yet, when they were looking for the black box one of the comments I remember was: “It’s difficult to hear the beeps black boxes emit against all the other sounds – because the ocean is a noisy place.”

And now, like me, you think of whales, calling, singing to one another across the distances underwater, and, sure, there’s that sound, but there’s more. So much our air-adjusted ears can’t hear. There are the geological noises of earthquake and eruption, the mechanical sounds of tankers, cargo vessels, factory ships and liners, the grinding of drilling rigs and the explosions of prospectors, the sounds of naval war-and-peace – the carriers, the cruisers, the battleships, the sonar.

Water carries sound far, far further than the air carries it. To our ears it appears muted, but to the sea’s creatures the sound of the sea is rich, and since man increasingly has polluted the ocean also with noise, it is cacophony.

And into all this noise the black box sends out its cry. It’s little, bleak: I’m here! And we too send out our cries, our little cries: I’m here! Come find me! Drowned in the cacophony all around.

How difficult to reach out to others, how difficult to be heard. And as we sink into the depths our black boxes cry: Remember us! These are our memories! Remember us before we fade, before we die.

And some of us try to find ways of preserving our memories, and maybe it’s photographs, and maybe it’s stories, and maybe it’s things we have made, and maybe it’s our children. But always, always, the memories are corrupted, the memories are lost. Sinking into the abyss, sifting down, to join the sand and silt on the ocean floor. Lost finally and forever in the dark. In the cold dark.

To hear some of the sounds of the sea visit this BBC website.

The anglerfish in the illustration started life on the pages of Wikimedia commons.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.