Friday, 26 November 2004

Ragdoll physics

"Squeeze your buttocks. Good. Now relax to 50%. Good. 75%. Good. 25%. Excellent."

In an attempt to correct knee pain picked up during an arduous summer of half-marathons, 100km walks and Alpine mountaineering, I have engaged a physio to prod and embarrass me on a weekly basis. Alison is making me work on my core muscles to provide better support for my knock-kneed pipe-cleaner legs with their tendency to let my feet over-pronate, my knees roll inwards and me generally run like a girl.

"OK, now just tense your left buttock. No, not both, just the one."

I can't, it's either all buttocks or none, not some mix of the two. How can this be? I'm a master at graceful movement through the virtual domains of my work and leisure hours, as at ease piloting the Master Chief around the battlefields of Halo 2 as I am at vaulting along the main highways and quieter backwaters of the internet. I can make my PC sing and could tell within a moment if it had sprained a RAM chip. If I had cyber-buttocks my control would be total, but in this body I've owned for 31 years I find I can't even do a simple thing like clench a single cheek.

"And as I push back on your leg, tell me where you feel the stretch".

An accurate answer is impossible; I can feel a stretch somewhere, perhaps it's in the upper leg, maybe the lower. The depth of my ignorance of my own body is staggering me. Despite being reflexively, acutely, mentally self-aware (cf. this entire blog), I've gone this far through life without turning the analytic lens on my own body. Jules once took me through some Pilates and as I watched her move elegantly through the poses and postures, I was a tumbling toddler awestruck by a graceful adult gymnast. She was fully fluent in a physical language I could only speak in pidgin.

I'm not obviously gawky, but I do not properly understand how to use the primary tool I was born with. Surely there were exams I should have taken before being allowed to run loose with an 80 kilo sack of flesh and bone. Maybe there were, but the consequences of failing or missing those exams are felt on a longer timescale than failing an end of year maths test at 14. It's taken thirty years from my first steps to discovering that the muscles in my upper thigh are mistiming when it comes to stopping my knee veering inwards as I step downwards.

Fortunately, Alison, with her calming, knowledgeable voice and seemingly boundless ways of making my various muscles strain against their currently overly-restricted limits, is optimistic that, provided I am diligent in following her instructions, my knees will improve fairly soon. And, in time, I'll learn to clench each cheek individually too.

Wednesday, 1 September 2004

Stars under the eaves

My top-floor Linhope bedroom, full of clutter, home of a mattress that bears the scars of battles with heavy sleepers and bedroom gymnasts since long before I was born, moonlights (literally) as an observatory.

Some time ago a previous resident took a brush and some luminous paint and, with an eye for the stars, painted dots on the ceiling. No tacky five-point stars or smiling man in the moon for this Marylebone Michelangelo, they accurately recreated the uneven distribution of brightness and density that the true night skies exhibit. A few large, bright blobs, many of average size, and the occasional tiny, turn-your-head-to-see-properly, pinpricks.

The simple genius of the effect is that the dots are invisible under normal light; neither daylight nor bedside lamp allow for a viewing. Only when all lights are off and the sole light source is London's perma glow filtered through the curtains does the room turn into a mini planetarium.

Most times I forget about the ersatz stars that hang inches over my bed, but sometimes, as I flick off the lamp and turn to sleep, it's as if I were beneath the heavens.

Wednesday, 21 July 2004

Trailwalker 2004

The word most frequently used towards the end of Trailwalker is "broken". In the context of a 100km walk it means fatigued, exhausted, pained, as in "my legs are broken", "my feet are broken", or more commonly "I'm broken". Walking Trailwalker is like being crushed by a glacier: the pain is slow, inexorable, inevitable, and it chafes a bit.

Me, Boo, Baz and Tom at the finish

Covering 100km on shanks' pony is a strange endeavour, 62 miles is a prepostorously long distance and 20 hours a ludicrous time to be walking. It's almost impossible to imagine what it's like without taking part. Picture yourself walking for eight hours; enough to cover about twenty-five miles and a decent day walk in most people's book. At the end of that eight hours your feet tingle, your legs are slightly stiff, you're a bit hungry. If you're doing Trailwalker you're not even half way around.

With three 25 mile training walks under my belt I figured I could cover 40 miles without too much difficulty, and then I'd just need to be tough for the last 20 miles. Yet the first 70 kilometres were the hardest; I spent hours walking alone and not quite on the pace. While Boo, Baz and Tom strode the trail as a unit, I yo-yoed off the back; never quite fast enough to keep up and talk to them, never quite slow enough to justify them stopping to wait for me. And their pace was relentless. Limbs got sorer, places I'd rather not talk about chafed, my stomach yearned for food and still the three of them hammered onwards.

At CheckPoint 7, 40 miles in, I hit a dreadful low. An energy gel at the previous checkpoint had given me a peak of energy, but I slid violently off the other side of the sugar high. My head lolled; I could barely fork the hot pasta to my mouth; I had to lie on the bench and contemplate my own weakness. Although not in any great pain, I had no strength to do anything. With encouragement from the team and mindful of the ferocious piss-taking I'd be subjected to if I quit, giving up wasn't really an option, I glugged down some Lucozade, set my jaw and followed Barry's heels out of the car park and back onto the Downs. Two miles down the track I was starting to digest the pasta and feeling fine again.

I wasn't the only one to crack, each of us hit a low somewhere on the trail. Tom's blisters nearly made him quit at CheckPoint 8 - Radiohead on his walkman kept him going. Boo ran out of energy so much she was shaking by the time we reached CheckPoint 9 - a banana and some gel sorted her out. Barry nearly fainted at CheckPoint 10 - a long sit down in the car did funny things to his blood pressure. No-one pulled out, the team stayed together.

Perversely, the last 10 kilometres were by far the easiest. As soon as I realised we were all going to complete the distance the walking became nearly pain free. Fatigue lifted and left behind a soaring sense of accomplishment; I'd pushed my body further than ever before and come through it. We crossed the finish line shoulder to shoulder at 2:20am, 19 hours 20 minutes after we started. The smile stayed on my face until I fell asleep in the car on the way home.

If you're feeling impressed or charitable, you can still sponsor us and add to our total of over 2000 raised for Oxfam here.

Wednesday, 30 June 2004

More photos of derring do

A rare conjunction of Barry's insistent nagging, an evaluation copy of Dreamweaver and some slack time in the office has let me finally get around to writing up a couple of walking trips I went on a few months back.

Present, in all their winter glory, are a December weekend in the Lake District and a February ice-climbing trip to Scotland.

Monday, 28 June 2004

Time Becomes a Loop

The audience at an Orbital gig is not a representative microcosm of modern multicultural British society. There's no young club kids, no crusties, no lager-louts and few women. Rather it's composed of old school ravers and those almost fashionable, slightly geeky guys that try just a bit hard; the bloke from the IT department that doesn't talk about Star Trek but still knows his way around a computer; the mate in the pub who is always pleased to show off the latest phone or PDA. They shop for the modern gadgets and hip t-shirts, but always carry themselves with the knowledge that no matter how hard they try, they still don't *feel* cool. People like me.

That's good because the Hartnoll brothers are the same. Album covers featuring diagrams of electron orbitals, iconic on-stage headwear that is nevertheless a victory of function over form; Orbital are not a fashionable band. They've never had the shouty bandwagon success of fellow "dance" acts like Underworld, they've never achieved the dinner party acceptance of Daft Punk or William Orbit. They've just steadily grown and retained their fans over fifteen years from the second summer of love through to now.

Orbital arrive on stage

Friday night in Brixton academy was their last ever gig. Sort of. After this one they're playing others in Glastonbury, Turkey, Scotland. But this was the last gig I'd see them at and the fifth time I'd seen them live in total. There's no intrigue or mystery with Orbital on stage, like Christmas dinner, the menu doesn't vary much: two blokes on stage prancing around behind a suite of futuristic boxes, recreating the loops and sequences from their albums and singles. It doesn't sound like a recipe for a joyful live show and I've no idea what they do behind their racks of sliders and knobs, they could just be pressing play on a CD for all I care, but somehow they press their buttons and twiddle their drum machines to build an overwhelming, all consuming experience.

This being a farewell gig, there were few surprises in the set list. When crowd-favourite Satan came on, a track no recording can ever adequately capture, it was like sharing a room with a storm. Thunder-clap bass lines pounded out in time with video scenes of despised politicians and atomic explosions. It was so big and loud my teeth started to ache. Halcyon + on + on was as beautiful as ever; spiralling, looping, twisting sequences combined with a heavenly vocal sliced and diced to perfection, before the inimitable Jon Bon Jovi/Belinda Carlisle breakdown, now with added Darkness. The Doctor Who theme (see, geeks) raised the hairs on my arm with the power of the grinding bass.

The set finished, as always, with Chime, a fifteen year veteran rave tune that refuses to age. As the familiar sequences started all of us in the audience went crazy; dancing like dervishes to the huge bass line, smiling and shouting, waving our hands in air spangled with gold from the enormous glitter ball that hung above the stage.

Eventually it all ended. The brothers embraced, couldn't say thanks enough, and we watched their head lamps bounce off stage. Ruffles and I just walked slowly out into the Brixton night, simultaneously giddied by ringing ears and the dancing comedown, and saddened that we'd never get to hear Orbital weave their live magic again.

Tuesday, 1 June 2004

Drowning in words

A near permanent feature of the lounge of my parent's house was the pile of yellowing newspapers that eclipsed the radiator by the patio doors. My father, never one to miss a bargain or price saving even if that meant spending more money buying an unrequired item in a sale, had a subscription to The Times paid for almost entirely through vouchers. Every day another couple of sections would splash onto the door mat and be placed on the pile for reading at a convenient moment. Convenient moments were unfortunately rare, and over time the absence of reading eyes to convert the newspapers into tinder suitable for firestarting let the unread pile tower ever higher, and even though the low-lying strata in the stack of press were old enough to be reporting Queen Victoria's funeral, he refused to throw any of them out without first reading them.

I laughed at his inability to let print go unwitnessed, and threatened to surreptitiously remove papers over the course of weeks until the the stack evaporated. I exhorted him to free himself from the self-imposed reading obligation and spend time doing other things, typically things I wanted him to do like drive me to the cinema, but he always calmly refused. When he retired and freed up his time from the clutches of the Civil Service, he unhurriedly worked through the stack, cancelled the subscription and for a final trick somehow passed on the same habit to me.

I'm a magazine obsessive; I have subscriptions to Edge, New Scientist and Empire, I pick up Trail more often than not, always read Private Eye and Viz when Barry brings them home, and have a sneaking suspicion that given more leisure time I would incorporate The New Yorker, Cycling Weekly, MBUK and Surfing into my habits. Until Christmas, this was a punishing but sustainable load, but then, with not a small hint of revenge in his eyes, my father gave me a subscription to The Economist and I cracked.

The increased tide of reading was achievable to start with. I seized on the opportunity afforded by train journeys to plough through leaders, letters pages were consumed in bed before settling down for the night. I gave up on novels to keep abreast of Vicente Fox's presidency and the latest delays to Halo 2, it seemed a price worth paying. Gradually though, I have been overwhelmed; copies of The Economist spill from my laptop bag, four week old New Scientist's lie unopened on my bedside table. I have no idea what's top of the UK film charts as I can't bring myself to pick up Empire until I've finished this month's Edge. And every week three more magazines arrive to ramp up the Linhope word count.

I could simply throw away the older issues as current affairs and hot scientific topics become history and fad, but binning unopened magazines lies outside the traits I gained from my father. If things continue in this way I'll have to retire or move to escape my subscription oppression.

Thursday, 27 May 2004

Pay here to see a dead man walking

Slipping out of the back of my twenties and into my early thirties is being marked with an increasing participation in events designed to measure the performance of my body: half marathons, 10km runs, pizza eating races. Some friends charitably ascribe it to a decreased fear of looking an idiot in front of others, I reckon it's more likely an attempt to prove that I may be older and saggier, but I still *got it*.

Whatever. This year's primary event is the ridiculously gruelling Trailwalker. 100km, 30 hours, no sleep, walk or run. Boo's done it twice, Baz has done it once, I swore I never would, but now, for reasons probably little removed from raw machismo, I'm lining up with them on July 17th.

The event supports Oxfam and all the work they do to alleviate poverty, and the Gurkha Welfare Trust and their work supporting ex-Gurkha's in Nepal.

Online sponsorship is possible here, so please join me in whipping out a credit card and spreading some love (I've put my money as well as my body where my mouth is). All contributions gratefully received.

Tuesday, 18 May 2004

Asleep in the wild

Dartmoor was large enough to swallow up two thousand keen teens, eight hundred volunteers and enough Army helicopters to re-enact the Falklands War plus assorted ramblers taking advantage of the hottest weekend of the year and still leave a little corner quiet and free enough for four of us to wildcamp in peace.

We picked a spot on some flat grass in the elbow of a river bend, sheltered from the light breeze by high banks. The suntrap formed by the topography was warm enough to keep us in shorts and t-shirt until the sun finally fell below the rocky lip of the surrounding landscape. With the sun's rays gone we pulled on fleeces and down jackets, hats and gloves, cooked up noodles, and, when conversation had run out, retired to bed before it got dark

The bright red Gore-Tex tube of my bivi bag looked like it wouldn't keep out a light breeze, let alone the sudden chill of an early May night, but lined with Therm-a-rest and sleeping bag full of 800g of goose down it was cosy enough to warm my cold body even as the dew started to silver the grass.

It was warm enough to sleep with the hood open; lying on my back, face exposed to the cool night air and the light of the stars. Deep in the silent unlit hills, no light pollution to clutter the spacey black of the sky, I became vertiginous staring at the constellations. My stomach suddenly swooped and the flecks of starlight were no longer arrayed above me, but pinpricks of light scattered on a distant black floor far, far below. No longer stuck by gravity to the assuring solidity of the ground, suddenly aware of the tininess of Earth in the vast vacuum of the universe, I grasped at the sides of my bedroll to stop myself from tumbling endlessly downwards into the firmament.

I slept in short but restful bursts, tracking the passage of time asleep by the movement of The Plough relative to the silhoutted crags of the hills, until I was finally woken by the sun rising above the line of hills to pour gold onto my eyelids and into my dreams.

Thursday, 15 April 2004

Duty of care

Ach, I'm stressed. My mind is inefficiently swirling with a million thoughts, .."phone James".."write presentation".."prepare for meeting"..and my dizzily spinning brain wakes me at 5am to emboss worries on the black escape of sleep. The sheer volume of individual concerns renders me busy but oh so inefficient, I can't focus on any task long enough to complete it properly.

The reasons for my stress are as manifold as they are anonymously dull; incompetent co-workers, underscoped work, potential professional failure; any job could generate such bland trivialities, and many of my previous projects have done so. The slight, annoying, difference this time is I am aware of my stress while it happens rather than recognising it through the dazzle-reducing lens of hindsight. Great, now I have stress about stress, meta-stress, to vex me further.

To relax I try to snag my mind on other distractions, to make the unproductive loop of thoughts jump the mental spools and allow happier images in. I mentally move myself forward in time: it is three months from now, I am in a night club, sweat is running down my face, my fists are thrashing the air. I imagine I am elsewhere: on a windblown mountainside I am turning to survey the swoops and knuckles of a silhouetted ridge. I try to remember how insignificant my concerns are: I stare from the train at the vast blue sky and dream of the many theatres enacted beneath its impassive dome, I smile and stick my tongue out at the bawling baby in Sainsbury's. I try to humanise those that hassle and harass me over the phone and on e-mails: I imagine Sam afraid on a yacht far from shore, I picture Jenny struggling with an umbrella turned inside out by April gusts.

These diversions are right, they are correct, my concerns are short-term and dust-speck unimportant, but attempts to remind my agitated brain of these simple truths act as merely temporary diversions and soon I am again aware that my brow has furrowed and I am thinking about a forthcoming meeting.

The only permanent cure I can think of is to simply not care, to be unruffled by trivial project concerns. Not caring is an alien concept to me, I am mentally geared to worry about work, my job is partly dependent on conspicuous concern for mundane office politics and caring more about system delivery than the other guys. I imagine myself not caring: someone is reporting a problem to me, I am shrugging my shoulders, exhaling with a 'pshaw' through lips pursed with nonchalance, thinking about the fine wines I will drink later tonight. The picture doesn't stick; I don't believe that I will ever really be that way, for if I didn't care about work, what would I care about?

Wednesday, 10 March 2004

The Occidental Tourist

Visitors are always welcome; that's what I said at the bottom of my previous post, and Tokyo-based ex-pat friend Euan took me at my word. A year-long e-mail silence was broken by my Oriental chum, announcing not his arrival in London, but that of one of his close friends. "Could you put Mochi up for a night?" he requested.

I hesitatantly accepted, not through any sense of meanness on my part, but because I always feel conflicted when offering accommodation. It's good to be generous, random acts of kindness can only improve the world and my karma; but on the other hand I'm slightly embarrassed that Linhope doesn't really reflect the kind of slick professional image I think it should portray. By my age I fully expected to be living in an airy penthouse apartment; imported maple floors, more windows than walls, a bed the size of Kent; making Margaritas in a brushed metal cocktail shaker for my playwright friends and journalist lovers as the sun set through the colours of a paintbox above the shimmering river surface. Linhope's, ahem, bohemian appearance doesn't quite paint that picture.

On top of that, approximately half the time people have crashed at my house poorly timed work commitments have put me in a hotel halfway across the country, preventing me from being the Noel Coward-esque gracious host I aspire to, and this time would be no exception.

Fortunately, Mochi, when he finally found the house last night, turned out to be fun and relaxed and had the grace to be genuinely excited when I showed him how to work the Sky remote control to get Spanish Football. I made him a cup of builder's tea, took him to the pub for a proper English pint, gave him a key to Linhope, then left to spend three nights in Nottingham for work. He's in Linhope with only Davis for company for two more nights, I can only hope he and the people of Japan don't hold it against me for long.

Wednesday, 11 February 2004

Come into my world

A photographic pan around Linhope's large, if messy, front room, taken from my regular seat. It is Sunday 8th February at approximately 10pm. Features of note in the photograph (from left):

  • The giraffe on the TV. A full time Linhope resident whose presence predates me. The innominate cuddly ungulate no longer registers on my conscious brain, but is, without fail, the second property of Linhope that new visitors pass comment on.

  • The Television. Almighty and Omniscient Purveyor of Magick and Goode. We, impotent subjects, are in Its thrall, blank canvasses onto which The Television projects whatever It wishes us to see. It is currently displaying snooker for our betterment.

  • Dinner. The empty pizza boxes below The Television represent a full weekend's worth of dining from the official Linhope caterer - GoGo Pizza (0207 402 4022).

  • The Sofa. A spectacularly uncomfortable example of a cheap sofa-bed. Lurking deep within its sprung bowels are fabulous arrays of wealth in the form of loose change and discarded beer caps, ferociously guarded by the ghosts of meals past and the spirit of indolence. The sofa cushions have been custom moulded by years of pressure into the shape of...

  • Barry. Tired wage slave. Barry ran a 10km road race at 11am this morning. On returning to the house he showered and sat down on the sofa. He has not moved since, watching over fifteen frames of snooker and two football matches in nine hours. He will not move again for another two hours.

  • Newspaper pile. Just visible below Barry is the carpet of newsprint formed by the even distribution of unwanted newspaper sections by...

  • Davis. See description for Barry, except without the 10km road race.

  • Dining table. Note how the table has been artfully fashioned into a delightful avant-garde clothes horse.

Visitors are always welcome

Thursday, 15 January 2004

The Purges Continue..

The cathartic urges detailed below persisted when I returned to Linhope and extended to a thorough review of my record collection. Of the roughly four hundred 12" singles I have collected in the last five years at least fifty are now surplus to my DJing needs. There seems little point in sticking them on eBay or giving them to Oxfam (my guess is the average Oxfam visitor is not hunting for some three year old Dutch trance on an obscure record label) so I'm going to give them away to people that want them.

I've detailed the full list here. If you want any of these records drop me a mail to simon at worldofmore dot com and we'll sort something out. I don't want any money other than to cover postage, although I have Amazon or HMV wishlists if you're feeling generous.

Wednesday, 14 January 2004

The Festive Purges

For reasons now lost to me, at the age of fifteen I considered it a good idea to move my limited possessions from the large, spacious bedroom I occupied on the sunny side of my parent's house to the small L-shaped room under the eaves at the front. Perhaps it was so that I could be different to my younger sister whose room was alarmingly exactly the same dimensions as mine, maybe it was so that our playroom would be larger, I can't remember.

Whatever the reason, sixteen years later the room is still mine. I effectively moved away from home at 19 (and again at 23), but I left a large number of my belongings in that cramped bedroom and have never fully reclaimed them. The bookshelves which once supported all the books I'd read still groan under what is now a fraction of the books I own, the wardrobe that used to hold all of my, frequently ill-advised, clothing now holds only those garments I have little use for.

Patiently, my parents have put up with my inability to declutter their house, my mother choosing instead to focus her clearance efforts on my father's Olympic level hoarding skills. And every time I return to spend a night in the battered single bed the fifteen ring-binders full of university notes atop the wardrobe and mounting pile of paper on the desk glower reproachfully at me, a reminder of a life still seemingly in limbo and an inability to properly leave home.

But not this Christmas. Instead of raising the tidemark of detritus in the room with yet more Christmas presents I decided to purge my belongings.

Into the skip went three years of university notes; reams and reams of badly photocopied pages detailing the outcome of hundreds of years of scientific research rained into the recycling bin. Into the bin went the hundreds of grimy back issues of New Scientist, Scientific American, Airforces Monthly and Take Off magazine that I uncovered in the chilly attic, a decade old testament to the hoarding skills of my 18 year old self. To Oxfam went dozens of paperbacks that I decided I would never read again. And into black bag after black bag went random slips of paper, old compilation tapes and empty toy boxes.

I uncovered a few delights. I found a box file of souvenirs from the university black tie balls at which I worked as a craps croupier, fifteen old programs of entertainment and some casino chips. A geological map of Arran detailing the outcrops I visited ten years ago spilled from a folder. In two boxes I found almost every issue of Edge magazine chronicling the history of my twenty year old videogame habits. And on the bookshelves sat a first edition hardback of The Carpet People, Terry Pratchett's first ever novel, priced in pencil at 95p and bought for me to read once when I was 10, now apparently worth well over 600GBP.

For the first time, a Christmas and birthday period has ended with less possessions than I started with and it feels good. My life weighs less.