Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Starling roost, Plumstone

Starlings 27 Dec 09 - the dot above the trees, left of the starlings, is a Hen Harrier

Near my house in Wales is a starling roost. As many as three million birds return each winter's evening, many of them travelling more than thirty miles to rest overnight in a copse of fir trees on the south side of Plumstone mountain. The squadrons arrive in waves, forming dense clouds that swirl and twist above the trees - not dissimilar to those Attenborough films of fish balling and coiling in defence against dolphins.It is breathtaking to watch.

But why do they do this? Some say it is for security. Other say for warmth, or to pass on knowledge of feeding grounds. Yet none of these explanations seems sufficient. Why travel so far and expend so much energy? Why gather in such a large group, only to leave as individual squadrons at dawn? And why run the gauntlet of the raptors, waiting patiently on the telegraph poles or soaring above the trees. They picking off the stragglers, or, as last night, dive bomb the group and randomly strike for prey.

We can hypothesise over their reasons but, in truth, we do not know. Perhaps they simply have an instinct to return; like salmon returning to spawn and butterflies migrating across continents. Or like me, returning to Wales - seeking a sanctuary that is always worth the effort, logical or not.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Books I'm reading # 6

Christmas is a good time for books, not only do I receive many as presents, I also have the time to sit down and enjoy them. So I'm looking forward to next week, holed up in Wales with a pile to get through - but more of that later. For now, what have I been reading?

After the excellent Remains of the Day, I bought two more books by Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled and Never Let Me Go. What a contrast.

The Unconsoled is the story of Ryder, a brilliant composer, due to give a recital but suffering from memory loss and delusions. The narrative is confined to the days leading up to the concert, set in a city which is unknown to him and yet clearly a part of his past; the characters he meets are both ordinary residents and also his school friends, his wife, his son. The city too is surreal - typically he walks through the back door of an art gallery and finds himself in his hotel - the sort of landscape we might experience when dreaming. Indeed the entire book has a hallucinatory quality - the bizarre accepted as normal, tangental passages reinforcing the psychotic feel, time and events merging into one. Often I longed for the book to end; when it does it is like one of those French films which fade out after nothing has happened, leaving the uncomfortable feeling that you've watched something important but you are not sure why. In summary, a very, very strange book - depending on your point of view, either brilliant or plain weird. On balance I'd choose the later.

Never Let Me Go is the story of Kathy, an ex-student of a seemingly idilic boarding school. But almost from page one we know something is awry with this school and its pupils, and indeed with Kathy. Gradually the shocking facts of her past and present are revealed, again within a time and landscape that is both recognisable and not - it is set in Britain, but not as or when we know it. As the story unfolds it becomes disturbing and compelling in equal measure - at one level it is a story of love and friendship in the face of an unspeakable future - but ultimately it is about how we are all trapped, and how readily we accept our fates. As good as Remains of the Day and very possibly the best book I've read this year.

Fleeced is a rant at the performance of government and politicians in the first decade of the new millennium. It is a challenging, if somewhat biased guide to our economic problems. The authors are the founders of the Taxpayers Alliance a non-aligned pressure group lobbying for reduced taxation and better government. They set out to expose the waste of three trillions pounds, accusing politicians of failing to do what is 'right' in favour of the electorally expedient. It would be easy to dismiss much of this as an extension of the Daily Express, but beneath the jingoistic ranting there are a number of very fair and well researched challenges - the growth in public spending; the lack of responsibility for the collapse of of the banks; the lack of political courage - best displayed in the ostrich like attitude to tackling public service pensions - the squandering of money on a veneer of progress... Makes you think.

Error World by Simon Garfield was an early Christmas present from the Secret Santa at the office. Whoever bought for me, chose well. Breezily written, it is a hilarious celebration of our passions and their absurdity. Ostensibly the central subject is stamp collecting, but it is also about obsession, nostalgia, and our relationships with the things we collect. It rises above the comic by its honesty and personal reflection - stamps become a metaphor for bigger and more universal issues. A book that makes you smile as you read.

Some other stuff too - Esther's Inheritance which I wrote about in Novella, Letters From Father Christmas by Tolkien, and I'm half way through Clock Without Hands by Carson McCullers - not a very popular author in the UK yet well represented in the Penguin Modern Classics. Waiting on the shelf are Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes, Richard Holmes' The Age of Wonder, Albert Camus' The Fall and McCullers again, The Member Of The Wedding.

So lots to get through. In the meantime, the best books I've read this year?

Novels - Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains Of The Day or Never Let Me Go - I can't chose between them.
Outdoor writing - Richard Askwith: Feet In The Clouds - a book about fell running and obsession.
Philosophy - Alain De Botton: The Pleasures And Sorrows Of Work - his best book yet, very funny.
Politics - Tim Garton Ash: Facts Are Subversive - liberal, literate and hopeful.
Welsh writing - Jeremy Brooks: Jampot Smith - a nostalgic coming of age story set in Llandudno
Children's - Eugene Trivizas: The Three Little Wolves And The Big Bad Pig - superbly illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. Here is a sample:

Happy reading.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Diminishing returns

When I was sixteen I began studying for my economics A-level. I was finding it tough and I wasn't alone - the abstract theory in Lipsey's Economics wasn't making much sense to anyone in the class. Then one day, my teacher, attempting to explain the bell curve of diminishing returns, said something like:

'Stop looking at the chart and think of it like this. You eat one Mars Bar - yummy. You eat two Mars Bars - even more yummy. Then three - that last one wasn't quite so nice. Then a fourth - I'm beginning to feel sick. And a fifth - I'm sorry, do you have some soapy water...'

I remember that somewhat exasperated speech, because it was the moment something clicked. I get it, I thought, I finally get it. Mars Bars give you pleasure - but each one gives a little less than the last, until finally they stop giving any pleasure at all. And that's why the graph dips into negative territory. Of course, why didn't I see that before - it's just like getting pissed.

From an early age, we intuitively understand the law of diminishing returns - at least we do once we've stuffed our face with birthday cake and felt 'icky' afterwards. Our understanding of the concept is often reinforced in our teenage years when we drink one too many bottles of cider, or wine, whatever... you can have too much of a good thing, is pretty much the whole theory in an nutshell.

And in later life, if you are anything like me, collecting things can have a strong tendency towards diminishing returns. We start out enthusiastically, each acquisition giving us great pleasure; we delight in the occasional gem or bargain that boosts our collection. But somewhere along the way the joy of each find wears off, our desires gets more expensive or we start buying items to 'complete the set' rather than loving the object itself. I once paid more than a hundred pounds for the Observers Book of Folk Songs - it sits on my shelves unread.

Simon Garfield touches on this in his excellent and hilarious book, The Error World. It is subtitled, a memoir of obsession and desire, and it describes his love of stamps and the absurd length he has gone to in collecting them. After losing out at auction he is despondent (his bid of £6000 was trumped by one of £10,500); eventually he realises that his collection is no longer giving him pleasure. In the jargon of the economists he is experiencing 'negative returns'.

Christmas is diminishing returns on a grand scale. I love Christmas and I tend to throw more cash at it than I should, but I know deep down that the most of the pleasure could be had for half the cost. And sometimes spending less can actually increase our pleasure - forcing us to think about what we really would like to eat, or drink or receive as a gift.

This year, my mother in law has been ill, our plans have had to change and we will celebrate Christmas in Wiltshire before travelling to Wales on Boxing Day. We therefore need to buy enough food for Christmas Day and minimise what will have to be transported or thrown away the next. It's interesting to see how the shopping list changed - to understand what we really consider important to a special celebration.

Coincidentally, I struck Mars Bars off the list - I had wanted some for party a game that would only have irritated my boys. Which brings me back to my economic teacher. His name was Pete Johnson and after his little speech I used to pester him with questions, trying to 'make real' the abstract theories we were learning. As we went through the syllabus I had twice as many questions as the rest of the class combined - at one point he banned me from a lesson for being a nuisance.

I'm sure he was right to do so - quite possibly my questions were giving negative returns to everyone else. But he did have the good grace to call the class to attention at the end of term, addressing us in serious tones :

The average mark for this terms exam paper was less than 4o%. This is deeply disappointing - unless it improves, most of you will fail and have wasted your time. Even the second highest mark was only 60%, which shows the spread of your mediocrity.

There is however one exception - a member of this class who has driven me to distraction; at times I was convinced he was either an idiot or playing the fool. But clearly I was wrong. Mark Charlton, your result was 95% - from now on you may ask as many questions as you like.

I did too, and in truth I've never really stopped. Though just occasionally Jane will remind me that I've reached the point where asking another might not be the best of ideas.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Winter reflections

'Is it winter ?' Dylan asked as we walked to school this morning.

'Almost,' I replied.

'But there's no snow and it's Christmas after 14 sleeps.'

'Yes but it's December and winter sort of starts in December.'

'What do you mean, sort of.'

Like father; like son, I thought.

Philosophers like their definitions to be complete - preferably encompassing what is necessary and sufficient. For example,in defining the requirements for a glass of orange squash we might identify three elements: water, orange cordial and a glass of some sort. Each of these is necessary but none is sufficient without the other two. A glass with water is, well, a glass of water; much the same for a glass filled with cordial; and water with cordial but no glass is ...

This approach works well for glasses of squash, but things get tricky when we use the same technique to define less tangible concepts. For example, a definition of art might view it as representation, or emotional response, or formal structure or historical concept. And what of the line between art and craft, or art and nature?

Sport is similarly difficult to define. Is mountaineering a sport? And why does the Olympics include archery, but not ballroom dancing? When I was involved with Sports Council Wales they refused to recognise darts, regarding it as a pastime. We all have our prejudices: personally I'd disqualify any sport that uses an engine.

One way round this problem is to say that ideas like art are simply, whatever we consider them to be. In other words they are relative to our culture and thinking. I find this unsatisfactory; imagine a culture which considered the moon to be a work of art - does that mean it is really a piece of art? I say it's a natural object which orbits the earth and is no more art than the soil in my garden; others would disagree.

An alternative, and to mind more satisfactory approach, is to acknowledge this as a problem of language. Some terms and concepts are not amenable to strict definition - it is better to think of them as having a family resemblance. Walking to school with Dylan I can usually recognise other children's mums or dads, it is more difficult when it come to Grandma of cousins. Perhaps our understanding of what makes art or sport is a bit like this. We can all agree on the core family members (athletics, football, rugby) but views begin to differ as the family tree spreads out and new generations replace the old (bungee jumping, hare coursing, shooting).

These are interesting questions or pointless ramblings, depending on your point of view. But be aware that definitions matter. Jane's mother was taken into hospital this week with a heart problem; last year, at around the same time, my father died of cancer. The NHS judged my mother in law to be worthy of treatment; not so my father. Ultimately, similar categorisation will affect us all.

So what of Dylan's question? As the world gets warmer is it winter in Britain in December? Is snow necessary or indeed sufficient - or is there a Rubicon date beyond which we are in its grip, whatever the weather?

For me, winter begins with the nativity plays and ends as the crocuses push through my lawn - the quicker the better; the sooner to start afresh.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Thirty days has September,
April, June and November...

Was it really thirty days? Now it's over it feels like fewer - and yet it was certainly more than I expected.

I estimate it took me somewhere between sixty and ninety hours to write a blog post every day in November - mostly in the evenings, seldom taking less than two hours, more usually three. I write slowly, constantly revising and reading aloud what I have composed; adding links, further editing and replying to comments took another hour a day.

But I enjoyed it: the hours at the computer, the time to myself, the planning and researching, and the interest shown by my family. By declaring a commitment I had more motivation to see me through and more support too. 'Leave your Dad alone, he's doing his blog,' was a regular call from the kitchen.

There was much that I missed as I sat here: my hundredth post, twenty years since I moved in with Jane (she forgot too) , bonfire night parties, Strictly Come Dancing... so no loss there, then! But there was also much that I found: new words, new themes, new readers - and a little more knowledge of what works and what doesn't.

In my first piece of the month I wrote about the tension between quality and quantity. I said I hoped to experiment... be prepared to make a muck of it – fail spectacularly if necessary. I don't think I quite achieved that, but I hope I made some progress and made the Bike Shed more distinctive in its way.

I said too that I wanted to use the blog as preparation for the final module of my degree - it begins in January and I have submitted a proposal for my assessments to be based on the writing I produce here. If it is accepted, you can watch and share in my progress.

I have long felt that the writing establishment underestimates the potential of blogs - indeed, I've written about it here, arguing there is an element of snobbery to it. So I was pleased to learn that the Open College are encouraging students to start a blog as a learning journal. We bloggers are making progress; slowly slowly...

A bit like Views From The Bike Shed. After more than 120 posts it has grown from a throwaway notion into something I value highly - enough to spend the equivalent of two working weeks in November writing for it.

Earlier today I checked my blog archive. I was surprised to find that my first post was published on 2 December 2007 - happy birthday tomorrow! I also looked twice at the first words - in one of one's life's amazing coincidences they were:

Where did November go? I seem to have missed it this year.