Monday 27 January 2003

Expanding the narcissism horizons

Of course I'm gurning, do you think I always look this way?

Amongst the excellent birthday presents deemed suitable for a thirty year old manchild by my friends - a helicopter ride, a pogo stick, remote controlled cars - my sister bought me a tiny, tiny digital camera.

Now to look for more instances of natural beauty.

Thursday 23 January 2003

Lie back in a cradle of love

Like the Queen, I celebrated my birthday twice. On the chronologically accurate date I had to go out for dinner with ten of my work colleagues. Ten days later I threw a big party for everyone I knew (and their friends too).

I'd forgotten how nervewracking hosting a party is. The first hurdle to cross (not counting arranging venues and timings) is writing the invite. The task of crafting an amusing, informative and succinct e-mail and ensuring the To: list won't cause offence now induces shallow, panicked breathing and trembling fingers far more than my infrequent public presentation gigs. The memory of previous mistakes such as concentrating so much on a good gag that I've got the directions wrong or omitted the date increases the pressure that is relieved only by that final click of the Send... button.

Within fifteen minutes of sending the invite, I'd had six replies all telling me they couldn't come, geographic excuses ranging from Birmingham to Edinburgh to Paris to San Francisco to Thailand to Sydney. A flurry of rejection that was swiftly followed by weeks of disquieting silence from the majority, all preferring to leave themselves in Schrodinger's cat-like limbo and making me the anxious experimental physicist.

The appointed hour rolled round to find me sitting at a large wooden table, in a large wooden pub, in central London. It was all but empty.

Opposite sat my sister, next to me sat Ruffles, across from me sat Pieman. The barmen talked and laughed behind the bar while I nervously fiddled with the remote controlled cars my sister had given me and tried to get conversation moving. An hour later, and the group had tripled in size, conversation was even more obviously stilted as representatives of differing social groups rapidly ran past the opening gambit of "how do you know Simon?" and got stuck in a mire of sober small talk. I was still nervous at the venue's emptiness as the minutes dripped from the clock.

Then it kicked off.

People streamed through the door and poured into the bars smiling and laughing, suddenly there was a queue for drinks, walking across the room required circuitous routes around happy throngs and Ruffles' smooth grooves on the sound system seemed quiet under the roar of talk. I moved into social butterfly mode, a huge grin immovable from my face as I circulated and mingled, grabbing time with the next person I saw. Every time I turned round I bumped into someone else I wanted to speak to all night long, but could only manage five minutes until a tug on my shirt announced the arrival of yet more guests. I couldn't stay still, wouldn't be pinned down, didn't drink but was constantly drunk with pleasure.

By the end of the evening I was exhausted and hoarse, talked and hugged out, but brimming with love. And fulfilment too, my life is not being wasted; I may not have a clue about where I'm headed but I have a fabulous set of friends and I love them all.

This may be a soppy "It's a Wonderful Life" type sentiment, but it's true.

Thursday 16 January 2003

In which the author learns about winter walking

Gus and I packed the boot with winter walking gear; fleeces, coats, down jackets and sleeping bags, bivvy bags, ice axes. When we had no more bags to cram into the car we filled the remaining space with music and set off. A million snare drum snaps and guitar chords from The Streets, The Pixies, The Chemical Brothers and a tiny bit of Bob Dylan fuelled us through the sodium draped Midlands murk into the cold, dark clarity of North Wales.

Saturday dawned frost-covered, the sky empty and sharp. Snow-dusted mountains thirty miles away were etched into the cool blue backdrop like photographic negatives, tiny but ornately detailed through the icy air.

The car spooled the hills closer and closer until we parked at the base of Tryfan and started walking up Carnedd Dafydd. We soon ascended from the sub-zero shadow of Y Garn into the sunshine that cleanly coloured the steep mountain side. Even with our weighty packs we passed dawdling and unfit groups struggling up the scree and shale path, and were in turn passed by the park warden, metronomically stamping out time to a steady but unheard rhythm.

The ground proudly displayed its lowest snow at 400m, and the covering steadily thickened until the summit plateau where it lay inches deep and a thousand needles of hoar frost pointed from each stone. The climb revealed more of the world around us, from the craggy North Ridge of Tryfan, to the sheltered Cwm beneath the Glyderau, until eventually we could see the whole of Snowdonia, the Irish sea, England, the Lake District.

We strode the ridges as afternoon dwindled into evening and the day walkers left us to the empty amphitheatre of our secluded bivvy spot. The temperature dropped to minus 6 deg C just an hour after the sun left the moon alone in the sky and we could only keep out the chill by supping tea and soup and gazing at the dark mountains around us and distant amber lights of Bethesda. By eight o'clock I sought my sleeping bag to add warmth to the five fleeces, two trousers, hat and multiple socks and woke up sweating twelve hours later to a cloudy Sunday.

Strapping crampons to our boots we set off in the strong winds up the North ridge of Yr Elen. The twelve razor sharp points of steel underfoot creaked into powdering snow, splintered the shards of hoar frost and skittered nervously on rock, but turned previously slippery footholes into secure steps. With chilling hands we pulled through pinnacles of rock and over small crags, the ridge and sides of the hill dropped from the edges of the ground beneath our feet. We gingerly picked through flakes of rock and scree consolidated by frost, digging the ice axe shaft into anything trustworthy. We summitted alone, day trippers unable to compete with our advanced starting position, and jubilantly shook hands at our first serious winter ascent.

We walked off battered by winds and low clouds and droned back to London.

Friday 10 January 2003

So, this is how it feels to be thirty

I always thought the age thirty was a place other people went to, not me.

From a youth filled perspective, thirty looked like a glamorous place. I imagined that come thirty I'd be a confident professional of indeterminate occupation, immeasurably successful, simultaneously engaging in deeply earnest adult conversations with my interestingly grown-up friends and tousling the hair of an awestruck young nephew. My foibles would have long been ironed out by a gentle maturation, I would be able to achieve anything.

And by and large I suppose I've achieved my imaginings, I am a successful professional, I can hold earnest conversations with friends who are now all over 25, the only thing I lack is the awestruck young nephew. But thirty as a glamorous destination has been ruined by the presence of all the extra life baggage that unexpectedly came with me; I like Pickled Onion Monster Munch, I play videogames, I laugh at toilet humour, I show no sign of starting a family.

In The Art of Travel, de Botton writes of how daydreams of upcoming holidays never match the reality as the dreams always fail to account for your actual presence. The experience of lying on the sun-kissed beach beneath warm blue skies is spoilt by hunger or a nagging concern about the most recent haircut. The same seems to apply to being thirty. Despite the gap between my birth date and today's date implying that I'm more grown up than I've ever been, I still have difficulty matching shirts and ties, I don't like Brussel sprouts, I can't kick a football very hard.

That said, I don't seem to be having a particularly major crisis about it, partly because I've spent the last six months mentally ticking the next box on demographic forms so this January 9th wouldn't come as a wrench and partly because I've seen many friends step through thirty and beyond and remain happily themselves. I've looked both right and left and right again and I'm ready to step off the kerb, although there's a big chance I've missed something in my hurried glances and could yet get hit by a truck marked "Life Crisis".

Others have written more eloquently than I about this milestone.

Friday 3 January 2003

Poor little rich boy

Don't get attached to anything you can't walk out on in 30 seconds if you feel the heat around the corner.

Neil McCauley (Robert de Niro), Heat

The Sunday Times Magazine once published a feature (which I can't find online) on those who suddenly acquire wealth through lottery wins, unexpected inheritances etc., to determine if those tabloid stories of "Lottery Win Ruined My Life" had basis in fact. The conclusion was that too much money could spoil things and that five million pounds was the right amount to win, enough to ensure you could lead a comfortable life, but not so much that you could acquire stressful belongings. The downside of wealth was high maintenance possessions - the beach house in Malibu and collection of Ferrari's - that required time and effort to look after.

I'm a long way shy of five million quid, but my small, unkempt bedroom is heavy with belongings; CDs stack from floor to light switch, MiniDiscs engulf the toiletries, bag straps spill from the top of the wardrobe, shoe laces trail from the bottom. And books, my God the books, few are on display in the room's confines, but their heft weighs down the boxes that fill the corner, presses from the choked attic crawlspace and distantly tugs from the cases in my parents' home.

With no house or partner to maintain, I translate my pay into an ever-growing pile of things - a slowly expanding camping kit drawer, shelves of music and books, a creaking wardrobe, mountains of electronics. And while I love my slinky MiniDisc player and lightweight titanium camping cookware, each possession drags heavily and brings a weight of maintenance responsibility; the cordless phone has stopped connecting to the phone line, the car tyres are nearly bald, the MiniDisc player loses charge within fifteen minutes.

I daydream of Iain M Banks' Culture, a utopian world where automated production has so outstripped demand that every person can have anything they want, leaving them free to own nothing and be responsible only for themselves and their actions. One of my major joys now is to drive towards that ideal by jettisoning those items I no longer want, I grasp a large bag and a solid resolve and sternly yank out the unworn clothes from the wardrobe and the books I'll never read again to make the trip to the charity shop. The completion of each cathartic episode leaves me lighter, cleaner, stronger.

Peer pressure pushes me in the opposite, acquisitive direction; buy a house, fill it with a settee, a cooker, duvets, toilet roll holders, coat hooks, limited edition prints, throws, rugs, pasta jars, DVDs, but the sheer gravity of such a black-hole of objects would drag me over the event horizon into an adult world I'm quietly trying to reject.

Perhaps I should fill a rucksack and walk off into the sunset, leaving behind a disordered pile of unneeded things. First I'd need to buy a new rucksack...