Sunday, May 31, 2009

The heart and the head

There are few conflicts as great as those between the heart and the head. A clash of ideas is at least open to debate; evidence and counter assertion holding sway. But the tension between our 'innate desires' and what we ‘know to be right’ is seldom amenable to reason. More usually, the choice is binary; and therein lurks tragedy.

Today, we gave away our dog. She will be well looked after; her new owners are doggy people and they know what they are taking on; we can keep in touch because they are friends of our neighbours. When I took her this morning, she settled in within minutes – barely registering my leaving.

And she is leaving us for good reason. When we bought her our boys were eight and nine; they had wanted a dog for a few years, but we waited until they were old enough. We’d had dogs before and we understood the commitment. What we didn’t expect, was a new baby within a year.

But whatever the background, there were always going to be tears today. Jane feels we’ve let the dog down; Daniel is upset to lose the puppy he raised. I was less close, but yesterday on Newgale beach she was a delight: scampering on the rocks, digging with the boys, chasing sea gulls. It brought back memories of walking with her over Bleaklow this spring, a perfect day.

This morning Jane and Daniel dried their eyes and I took some photographs of the dog on their laps. Dylan kept out of the way - Jack Russell’s and toddlers don’t mix. It’s not her fault (the concept doesn’t apply to dogs) – she does what terriers do when prodded and poked by a four year old. But there comes a point when you can no longer ignore the growling and the snarling. And that point came the other week.

Deep down I believe in reason. In the conflict between head and heart it is usually my head that wins. Perhaps this comes from studying philosophy – more likely I was predisposed to the subject. I know that reasoning is flawed, and that too, it is bound by our circumstance and culture. But it has always seemed to me that reason is the best we have – and that despite its failings, it gives much of what we take for granted. I struggle with those who casually disregard it in a few chosen area of life, but expect its safety net in others.

Am I a cold fish? I hope not. There is no necessary inconsistency in being moved and analysing its causes; between acknowledging our desires and recognising that logic has its place. But there you have it, I’m reasoning again.

Peepo bit Dylan last week. It was only nip; she was tied up – he was sprinkling grass on her head. The excuses are easy to find. For all my ranting I cared for the dog, she is a lovely creature, well cared for, well trained, and part of our family. But the fact remains; she bit a four year old child. A few weeks earlier she did the same to a walker in the Peak District – she was cornered, the stupid girl shouldn’t have stroked her, she was nervous. Excuses that time too - though not without some truth.

Aren't dogs supposed to be for life, Jane said. I agree with the sentiment, but the reality is sometimes different. Is it fair (on either side) to take the recommended and responsible measures (a mussel, constant vigilance, separation from visitors) just so we can ‘keep’ her? Sometimes we make honest mistakes; sometimes, despite our best endeavours, plans don’t work out. And when you’ve made compromise after compromise, there is a time to say ‘enough’.

But the inner conflict remains. For the only fact of the matter is that we are all, in our different ways, sad tonight. Even Dylan said he missed her. Do I think the dog would ever have bitten him seriously? No. But I wasn’t prepared to take the chance.

And therein lies a tragedy of sorts.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Good things come

Whitesands - 6.00 a.m. this morning.

Yesterday was one of those days.

The builders turned up to re roof the cottage and within a few hours there were mutterings of 'asbestos' and  'major work' required. Then we went to collect the car - major work required there too; won't be ready for another week.  Never mind, I'm going backpacking with Dan in the Preselis - not so quick, he's stubbed his toe and it looks very nasty. By now, I'm beyond frustration; I'll have a quiet day writing at home - BANG - the electricity blows and along with it, the wireless router.  Aghhhhh!

By six in the evening I get the router working again - and manage a comment on Exmoor Jane's blog - commiserating as she's had a rough day too. Soon after, Emyr our builder tells me he's found a 'work around' to the roof problem and all will be well.  And just as the sun is dipping below the trees Dan says, 'How about we camp out at St David's Head.'  

We arrived for the last hour of light. There were hundreds of butterflies - painted ladies - more than I have ever seen.  They migrate from North Africa, often following routes of only a few yards wide - Pembrokeshire Birds reported over 3000 an hour passing yesterday.  As the light faded skiens of sheerwaters headed towards Skomer, keeping low over the water to avoid the gulls. 

Another group of ladies were at the headland too; singing and worshiping, watching the sunset. They left as we pitched our tent in the gathering dark. A perfect crescent moon lit the headland, the stars beginning to show. Dan decided to sleep in the open, every so often he'd say 'another shooting star.' He told me this morning he kept track of time by watching the Plough rotate round the Pole Star - resourceful chap.

We woke at 5.30 this morning (yes, 5.30), the beach deserted, the Painted Ladies still flying through, a porpoise in the Sound. As I made tea, four choughs hovered on the breeze at Porth Melgan. Thirty minutes later we struck camp and walked slowly back to the car, watching the morning begin.

Good things come...

Thursday, May 28, 2009

It rains a lot in Wales

It rains a lot in Wales.  Sometimes we spend days watching the raindrops racing down the windows. Sometimes I wonder what possessed me to buy a cottage that's exposed to the full force of the Atlantic gales. But then sometimes - usually when I've almost forgotten - the weather turns and I'm reminded why.  

This Whitsun was a rare event; sunshine on a bank holiday. Crowds gathered at the popular beaches; 'like bees to honey pot,' I thought as we joined them, queuing to park at  Whitesands Bay. It is curious how people chose to gather quite so close together on one of the wildest stretches of the Welsh Coast.  At Whitesands this Saturday the popular approach was to search for a space between the hundreds of  families either side of the slipway, strategically placing your windbreaks, beach tents and the like to create your own private space - with luck you might just see the waves.  Yet a hundred yards down the beach there was acres of empty space.  

I don't mind honey pots really; there are plenty of days when the beach is empty, days when we walk the dog and pass maybe one or two other families. Sunny days are for crowds and buckets and spades, and children with ice cream on their faces.  I can appreciate too that it's nice to be with others: the kids playing together, people watching, meeting friends - we don't always want the wilderness experience.  And another good thing about honey pots is that by attracting so many people, the leave the best bits for those more inclined to find them.  

Once the kids were settled and Jane was happy with her book, I went for a walk up Carn Llidi. It's a perfect 'miniature mountain' which stands above St. David's Head.  In less than a mile I could have been in a different land; I passed no more than half a dozen walkers; Porth Melgan, the pristine beach on the far side of the cliffs had one lone sunbather; I met a bird watcher who was revelling in the linnets and stonechats - I told him where the choughs were nesting and he was off before I'd finished speaking.  Looking back to Whitesands I could see the crowds, their density thinning in proportion to the distance from the slipway.

On the summit of Carn Llidi was another honey pot of sorts. A photographic club were gingerly balancing tripods on the rocks, exchanging views on meter readings, apertures and shutter speeds.  One chap spent twenty minutes looking through the camera lens without taking a photograph.  And all around him was some of the best coastline in Britain.  They could have gone off in smaller groups, but they wanted to be there together; it was part of the fun I suppose.

I left them to it, climbing down to a ledge beneath the summit to sit on my own.  I like Pembrokeshire in almost all weathers, but it is days like these that remind me why it is so special. Ramsey Sound was as calm as I'd seen it this year, South Bishop lighthouse was clearly visible, memories of kayak trips to the islands returned.  I dug out my camera and took some snaps, wondering if there was any finer place to be on a sunny May afternnon.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Dawn chorus

Saturday 4.55 am. Can't sleep; too much wine last night; the first light is filling the bedroom. I get up and open the window. Jane pulls the duvet round her shoulders, rolls over and grumbles. I look over the fields and listen to the morning.

I love the dawn chorus. Oddly enough, it reminds of university; of the heatwave in my first summer term, and of lying in bed with my girlfriend, too hot to sleep as the sunlight filtered through the thin curtains. I remember trying not to wake her, and listening to the birds and smelling the cherry blossom from the tree in the garden; and of feeling immensely happy in the way you do when you are eighteen and life is packed full of possibilities.

The fields are cloaked in mist, thin watercolour washes of paynes grey, madder rose and cerelium blue. My eyes take a moment to adjust. I lean out the window and listen: a wood pigeon foghorning to the dawn, the crows gathering in the twisted tree by the church, house martins chirping on the overhead wires; two gulls fly overhead, then more. A marmalade cat that I have not seen before, slips through the hedge and makes its way towards Martin's farm. I can hear geese in the distance though I'm not sure where they are from.

Sometimes, when we see the familiar in a different light it can be as fresh and surprising as anywhere new. Looking from my window, I had the sense of a place I'd not seen before, of coming and goings that passed me by. These were different fields to the ones I knew, the village wasn't the workaday jumble of cottages that I barely noticed each morning, the old drove road which is opposite my house (blackberry lane my boys used to call it) was timeless in the golden light.

As the mist lifted, the street and cottages reasserted themselves in proper order, the fields I knew came back, the crows flew off towards the coast. A bird (a dove I think) was standing sentry on the telegraph pole outside our house; it was watching me closely.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Sony Reader

I dusted off my Sony Book Reader the other day - it's been a bit unloved over the winter. 

I bought it last autumn, from one of the first batches in the UK, and the only time I can remember wanting to be a gadget pioneer. The idea of carrying round a hundred or so books in such a small package seemed neat. I was also interested in the technology, particularly as I work in the newspaper and magazine industry; there'd been a lot of hype that e-readers like this would be the end of newspapers. Two hundred quid was a ridiculous price, but hey, I'd just had a bonus.

I liked the e-reader: it has a bright paper-like screen, it feels pretty funky, and after you get the hang of it, I'd say it is easier to read than most books.  The reader comes in a leather case designed to makes it feel like a paperback, but I actually prefer to use it out of the case. It's light and easy to hold, you can increase the font size (handy if you've lost your glasses), bookmark pages to read again later; skip between books and a handful of other nifty features. I took it on a camping trip – it was great; low weight and it didn't get damp or battered. If you want to, you can download and listen to music while you read; I haven't tried. It also stores photographs, though the screen is only black and white. 

There are other benefits that I hadn't anticipated. Like when I'm reading in bed and Jane decides to cuddle under my arm as she drops off. Nice and cosy, but it's awkward to hold a book in one hand while dutifully stroking your partner's hair with the other - no problem with the e-reader, just click to turn a page!  It displays PDFs and Word documents too, handy if you have large files to read on the train. (I suspect I'm one of very few people in the world with reports from the Office of Fair Trading on their e-reader - how dull am I).  And if you search the web for about two minutes, there are hundreds of free e-books - one click and you can download every Agatha Christie novel in a zip file (Mmm.. not sure that's a benefit). The only problem with the web is that virtually all the free e-books are old classics; Australian web sites have slightly more contemporary titles - something to do with the copyright laws. I suppose as e-readers become more popular there will be scope for person to person file transfer - no different to passing on a paperback really. Lastly, I store copies of my own writing on it, which points the way to the possibility of self publishing e-books, or sharing writing with groups and friends. 

More recently, Amazon has launched a new version of its e-reader, the Kindle – it has a bigger screen and the hype suggested that it would eventually replace the newspaper as we know it. Not for a while yet, I suspect, but I doubt there's a major newspaper that isn't watching developments very closely. On-line newspapers have improved beyond recognition since I went to the US in 1996 to see the first ones in production. But they are more like web-site than newspapers as we know them, and there is no evidence that they are stealing large numbers of traditional readers. Will more basic page downloads to an e-reader have wider appeal? I think they might – and they might be a better vehicle for selling advertising; the biggest barrier to profitable online publishing. There are limitations to e-readers (they don't work well for reference books; no colour) and they are not a substitute for a computer, (no search facility, no hyperlinks, no online comments or feed-reader) but then, other than colour photographs, newspapers don't have these features either.

So all in all, it's a pretty cool bit of kit, and about time I got rid of all those old paperbacks, right? 

Well yes... except there's a problem. You see, despite paying £200 for the e-reader I can't bring myself to pay £6 for an electronic book! At first I thought this was because the Sony e-book catalogue was limited; and certainly their main agent, the Waterstone's website, is dreadful to use. But it wasn't just that, I buy at least a book a week and there were plenty I could have bought as e-books. It's just that somehow, paying for an electronic file instead of owning the physical copy, feels like bad value. There's not much logic in this – I seldom read books twice, they clutter up the place (a little self-deception here, for in truth I take pleasure in my bookshelves) and it would be more convenient to file them on the e-reader. It's also inconsistent with my attitude to other digital technologies: I download music, I take hundreds of digital photos and seldom print any off (I always hated that sticking in photo-albums), and I don't keep hard copies of my writing. I've even digitised most of my paintings. But no matter how many times I remind myself of this (especially as my cursor hovers over the click to buy button) I always chose the hard copy version. 

So there you have it, when it comes to books, it seems that old habits die hard. In the meantime, I find it makes a convenient mouse mat for my netbook.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Collections 3 - My children's drawings

Daddy's office by Dylan, April 2009

When Daniel was about four years old he used to sit on the floor of my studio and draw as I was painting. One time, he took a large sheet of paper and traced a charcoal line from bottom left to top right. What was he drawing, I asked?  An Aeroplane, he replied.  He then drew another line, this one veering off from the first. And what's that?  A parachute, of course!

I have collected hundreds of my children's drawings, each of them catalogued and filed in my studio drawers. They're a wonderful memory of the way they saw the world, more vivid than photographs or a diary could ever be. For when children draw, they respond to their experience of the world, not just what it 'looks' like. And that difference is fundamental.  

The drawings I posted on on my other blog illustrate the point.  In the picture of the boat, Dylan drew the ship's wheel with my fingers on it - he saw no need to include more of me.  In his painting of the bugs, he drew himself the same size as the bowl - because that was how he experienced them. And look too at the simplicity of the images, the lack of arty pretension, the fearlessness of the painting. I could go on.

As children get older, their paintings change.  Adults praise them for the verisimilitude of their efforts. They are taught to create images as near as possible to how things 'appear' - the more 'realistic' the better - after all, that's proper painting isn't it! And yet, if those same adults were to ask a musician to write a piece of music about the sea, they would find it odd if he returned with a tape recording of the waves!   

My old tutor, the marvelous John Skinner, would claim that if we paint our responses, the images are true - more real, in a sense, than any trick of the eye that is conventional drawing. He's in good company in thinking this way; Cezanne said that the challenge of painting is no longer to copy the object, but rather it is to render our sensations in paint

Cezanne was a genius, but for most of us capturing our responses is incredibly hard to do - or at least to do it honestly, and boldly. Writers will know this; how many times do we bottle out, play safe or simply find ourselves at a loss for words. Painting is much the same. I have painted all my life, but I remember  when John asked me to 'paint the taste of ice cream' I stared at a blank canvass and wondered where to begin. Try asking this same question of children and see what they do.  'No problem' said Michael, when he was small, 'Ice cream is lumpy green.'  If only children could paint as they do, but of more meaningful things.

Children draw before they write, before they speak even. John used to say that drawing is a fundamental language, one that children have by instinct; it is a language that as we grow older we do well to remember. More usually, we forget, inhibited by our adult conventions and expectations - and in so doing we lessen our response to those experiences that matter most. Sometimes, when I walk over the mountains, or listen to the sea, or look at my boys sleeping... the feelings are so powerful I almost transcend myself. My experience is greater - much greater - than simply what I can see. But how do you draw that? And how do you do it with truth?

Michael in the studio 1992

Saturday, May 16, 2009

My little i

(From my sketchbook - crab at Abereiddy)

I thought you might like to visit my new blog - very much in preparation, but I've posted a few items so you get the idea.  Perhaps the followers (none yet, but you could always be first) might post pictures too, once I figure out how to sort that?

It's about the little things I notice, draw, make, laugh at.  My youngest son, Dylan, has decided he likes the idea, so it's a bit of joint project.

Please take a look.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Books I'm reading # 2

Here's a selection of what I've been reading.

I Sent a Letter to my Love (Bernice Rubens). Ugly, ungainly, Amy Evans has one last chance at love... and yet you know, as you turn each page, that it must all end in disaster. Bernice Rubens is a new writer to me, though well known in her day (Booker Prize Winner) - the Library of Wales sets out to reprint books by similar, excellent but recently forgotten, authors. The series is financially supported by the Welsh Assembly - I suspect at very modest cost - well done to them for having the vision.

Jampot Smith (Jeremy Brooks) Yet another book from the marvelous Library of Wales series. A semi-autobiographical and sensitive account of growing up in Llandudno during the war; captures the inner voice of a teenager with convincing skill. I hear it is to be adapted for the stage.

Bad Science (Ben Goldacre) I laughed and I cried. My favourite line refers to 'Dr Gillian McKeith, or to use her full medical title, Gillian McKeith.' Ultimately this ought to be a shocking book - and it is - but it says something about my cynicism of journalists that much of it was exactly as I'd expected. The chapter on the nonsense written about the MMR jab is jaw dropping. Good website too.

Where The Flying Fishes Play (George Brinley Evans) This book reminded me of a lovely old couple Jane and I met on honeymoon; one evening the chap showed us a photo that he'd kept in his wallet for fifty years: it was him as young man in the war. 'I asked to be sent to Peterborough,' he joked, 'so they posted me to Baghdahd.'
Where the Flying Fishes Play is Brindley Evan's account of his experiences as a seventeen-year- old, sent to Burma in a waterborne army division. I have seldom read a book with so many lazy cliches - so not brilliantly written, despite the blurb - and yet its detail and sensitivity drew me in. I couldn't help but think about the impact that three years in Burma must have had, about the details he must have left out - and it brought to mind my grandfather's generation, who would talk endlessly about the war, often with an affection that reminds me now of how I sometimes reminisce about my time at university. How lucky I am.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (Alain De Botton)  Not usually a huge fan of Alain De Botton, but this is his best book yet.  Very funny in parts - see my post on who we are and what we do.  Recommended as ironic present for workaholics.

And on the go at the moment:

Selected Writings (Gerard De Nerval) Recommended by Sara, who follows this blog and shares book recommendations with me. Not entirely convinced at the moment - it's odd, but good at the same time. Will report back later.

Flat Earth News (Nick Davies) Insider's account of the ills of modern journalism - the sheer scale of the falsehoods, mistakes, and nonsense we are fed every day - and why, and how, and why we should care. We tend to like books that reinforce our preconceptions, but I'm certain this is going to be more profound that that. One chapter in and I'm desperate to read more - I'll probably stay up all night.

Time for bed.

Imagination and drive

Catherine came to work in my office two summers ago. She was a law student, studying at Bristol University and we offered her a summer placement. She was so diligent and popular that we asked her to come back last summer; she returned for five months before setting off to travel for the remainder of her gap year.

In a sense, there is nothing particularly special about what Catherine is doing. Like many young people, she's taking the opportunity to explore the world (and herself) before settling down to a career and the daily grind. In the Sixties the Hippie Trail was the equivalent; after Iran closed its borders my generation went Inter-Railing or volunteered for Camp America; today's young travellers have wider horizons, but their objectives are much their same.

Catherine is in an enviable position: she's young, intelligent, unburdened by the responsibilities we acquire as we get older, she's even got a job to come back to. So isn't it fairly easy to do what she's doing, and why am I going on about it?

Because her travels reminds me of something I said years ago. I was lamenting how so many people seemed content to do so little with their lives, even when they had the opportunity. Not everyone could be a famous explorer (or writer, or painter, detective, whatever) , but it seemed to me that most people limited their horizons for lack of even trying. 'What they need,' I said (with astonishing arrogance, now I look back), 'is more imagination and drive.' My friends used to rib me about that comment, and though I no doubt deserved to be taken down a peg or ten, I'd still maintain there is some truth in it. Of course, it takes a whole lot more besides, but that's the subject of another post to come soon...

In the meantime Catherine sends the occasional email to the office. We've all enjoyed hearing about her adventures: partying at Mexican carnivals, trekking the forests of Costa Rica, visiting Machu Picchu, staying with the water people in Bolivia, learning the tango in Buenos Aires, relaxing at the vineyards in Santiago, rafting and skydiving in New Zealand, swimming with dolphins and diving on the Great Barrier Reef...

What I admire most about her travels, is not that she's doing something so entirely extraordinary or ground breaking. I'm not even particularly taken by the idea of 'world travelling'; if I had the same opportunity as her I'd probably choose to spend it writing in a mythical village in northern Italy. No, it's not so much what she's doing, as her attitude and approach that I find inspiring: the meticulous planning she put into the trip; the way she raised the money to fund it; the itinerary she chose (interestingly not Bali or Goa); the vision to consider such a wide range of experiences and the determination to achieve them.

Whenever she sends an email I show it to my teenage boys. They happen to go to the same school that Catherine attended (State Comprehensive, though I'd say a good one) - it won't be long before they're off and I'm bereft at their leaving. I hope her emails are an inspiration to them; not to copy her exactly, but to consider what might be possible and how with the right balance of effort and enterprise it might be achieved.

Catherine returns in June. She's coming back to our office for few months then it's law school and and the long hours of a training contract at a top solicitors in Bristol. Compared to many she is extremely fortunate (most of us are, when we come to think of it, especially on global scale) but I'd say she deserves her success. She's worked incredibly hard, but that's not all; to my mind, her most laudable qualities are what I meant, all those years ago, by imagination and drive.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Collections 2 - Observer's Books

Note, number 86 is missing.

Almost everyone of a certain age and status will remember Observer's Books from their childhood; titles such as Birds and Wild Flowers were some of the most ubiquitous nature guides of the Sixties and Seventies.  Ours were kept in a small bookcase in the 'front room', alongside the AA Guide to Britain's Scenic Wonders, and a copy of the Pears Encyclopedia. I rehashed much of the Observer's Book of Modern Art as the basis of my A-level Art theory paper.
The popularity of Observer's paralleled the rise of the motor car and a generation of middle class families taking day trips to the country. Later their appeal broadened and for little more than pocket money a new title could be acquired every couple of months. It is small wonder, with such nostalgic associations, that they are some of the most collectible of books.

My collection came about in an odd sort of way.  When I bought my house in Pembrokeshire, I thought it would be nice to have a few natural history guides to hand. I'd pick them up at car boot sales and second hand shops - no rush to find them, not really bothered what guides I bought... What I hadn't reckoned on, was the prodigious collecting skills of my father in law.

Within a month he'd found me twenty titles, scouring the book shops and antique fairs of South Wales; a month later I had forty.  By the end of that first summer I had over seventy titles ranging from the obvious natural history editions (Birds, Butterflies, Wild Animals) to popular schoolboy collectibles (aircraft, automobiles, manned spaceflight), educational and historical (Weather, Astronomy, Cathedrals) and the more obscure and specialist (Mosses and Liverworts; Lichens, Firearms).

It became more difficult after that. The trouble was, the book dealers told me, that the last few titles were printed in small editions and most of these had been pulped due to low demand. A good copy of World Atlas 1981 was going for over £100. The sensible thing would have been to stop collecting at this point. Instead, I joined the Observer's Pocket Collectors' Society (OPCS), and eagerly awaited their quarterly newsletter with its renowned Obvertsiments section, listing for sale the more cherished editions at bargain prices.

The OPCS is largely comprised of folk who have rejected reality in favour of a more detailed understanding of the archives of Frederick Warne (publishers) Ltd.  From these excellent people I learned there were in fact only 97 Observer books (not counting the Australian Editions) because number 86, Country Houses, had never been published - though some collectors had specially commissioned 'blank books' to fill the gap in their shelves. I learned too... actually, you really don't want to know.

My collection stalled at 96 for some years, until the publication under licence of an Observer's Book of Observer's Books - soon followed by the Observer's Book of the Wayside and Woodland Books (another series byFrederick Warne (publishers) Ltd). The last title I needed - Folk Songs - was bought after earning a very good annual bonus; it possibly constitutes my most pointless ever purchase. I felt so guilty that I donated the equivalent amount to Medicines sans Frontiers ,making it doubly expensive but somehow less indulgent - I believe 'conscience appeasement' is the correct term for this.

Having acquired a single example of each title, my membership of OPCS was left to lapse.  Not for me were the delights of collecting copies of every edition, cataloguing the numerous updates and authors, or cross referencing the content to the Wayside and Woodland series. 

Instead, I had the lichens on my garden wall to identify, the rules of Association Football to clarify, those shells we found on Abermawr... and what is a liverwort anyway?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Who we are and what we do

In his new book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain De Botton reflects on the intricacies of biscuit manufacture. He wittily observes the minute sub divisions of labour necessary for the launch of a new range of indulgent chocolate fancies, Moments. And he wonders, in the face of such absurdities, how we can possibly find meaning in the modern workplace.

De Botton's essay made me smile; almost certainly because the most successful humour plays on our sympathy with the objects of our laughter. His meditations rang true, not least because of the high minded claims that pass for 'mission and purpose' in my own profession.

For years I told myself that distributing newspapers was a vital cog in the wheel of a diverse and pluralist democracy. Whereas now, I passionately believe that newspapers -and especially the quality titles - tell us next to nothing of the truth. Worse, they present a veneer of facts, which (to stretch the metaphor) deter us from questioning the rather dodgy chipboard underneath.

Some years ago I attended one of those excruciating management sessions when you write down six words to describe yourself. My list went something like: father, painter, kayaker, climber, husband, thinker. My new boss asked, 'But what about work?' What about it, I replied. We didn't get on.

The more surprising outcome was that he was sacked and I prospered. A fact, which I like to think demonstrates that truth to yourself can sometimes - just sometimes - win out over bullshit.

In the world of Middle England's mid-size PLCs, defining ourselves by our professions is a pretty shallow existence. And yet, the higher up the corporate ladder we get, the more tempting it is to succumb. In much the same way that crap television and junk food provides us with instant if temporary gratification, our careers provide us with an easy and equally unsatisfying answer to the question of 'who we are and what we do.'
As if by epilogue to these thoughts I walked today along the green lane to Tretower. The house at its beginning is owned by Dick Renshaw, a famous climber, the first man to climb the South East ridge of Dunagiri. A friend told me he had taken up kayaking, paddling some of the hardest if obscure white water rivers in Wales; as we passed this morning, wooden sculptures were in progress in his garden.

I wondered if he had found meaning in his career - how indeed, he defined it - and whether, living aside a two thousand-year-old Roman Road, was inspiration to live more fully, or a cursed reminder of our own insignificance.