Monday, February 21, 2011

Wet monday and waiting for the postman

I'm on holiday this week and it's pouring. And I mean properly pouring; the decking swamped, the sky a soggy lilac, next door's cat sheltering in our outhouse. It's going to stay all day. Meanwhile Dylan is beside himself because the postman hasn't arrived. He's been up since six-thirty waiting for the knock on the door that signals the parcel from Amazon. If I suggested going out, it would tip him over the edge.

So it's a miserable day and we're stuck in the house. A few years ago I'd have been swearing at the clouds, insisting we 'get on and do', make the most of time away from the office. When I first came to Wales I took up kayaking as an alternative to climbing because it rained so much. And yet, despite the damp weather, I'm quite content.

I'd like to think I've mellowed, acquired a stoicism that transcends immediacy and embraces what can't be changed. But that would be bollocks. There's a part of me that can still get annoyed at the weather and waiting for the gas man is as irritating as ever. No, the truth is more practical than philosophic - a few years ago I bought some time.

To be more precise I negotiated a flexible contract. My company agreed I could work an 'eighty percent' arrangement, which isn't quite the same as a four day week. About two thirds of the year I work Monday to Thursday - it's like having a bank holiday every weekend. For the remaining months, I work full time and accrue holiday that I use in blocks. Previously, I'd never have had sufficient spare to take the February half term.

What has struck me most about my new arrangement is the disproportionate difference it has made to the quality of my life. The change in ratio from five and four to four and three, may not seem huge - but it's fifty percent more freedom. And in reality it works out more than that, because so much of our supposed spare time is spent in chores and other prosaic tasks.

When I asked for the 80% contract I had grand ideas: I'd write in the library, take long weekends camping, return to painting, run every day - make up for the years sacrificed to my desk. It hasn't turned out like that. I usually spend Fridays faffing about, going for a stroll, filling the bird feeders, having lunch with Jane... I might write a blog post, or even two.

At one level this might seem an indulgence. My reduced contract didn't come for free - it cost me 20% of my benefits, and though I kept a senior job in a good firm, realistically it killed any prospect of promotion. That's a high price for a stroll and lunch with Jane.

But what I've come to learn is that by allowing myself to be less frantic (just some of the time) I'm better able to appreciate and participate in what remains. It's not only the extra time I've gained - it affects all the time I have, including when I'm at work - and especially rainy days in Pembrokeshire.

I often say to people that there's a time in your life to do something like this - and it's probably not when you're twenty five. The implication being that anything less than full time work will reduce salary and career prospects to unacceptable levels, especially for the young. In saying this, you might say I'm trapped in the old thinking - that what matters most is cash and career, security and seniority.

Perhaps, but I'm not so unrealistic that I don't recognise I only made the change based on enviably solid foundations. Not everyone can afford a 20% drop in salary - though perhaps more could if they reassessed priorities. There are others who  would not want the change - I have many colleagues, particularly senior managers, who define themselves by work. They find it hard to see how commitment means anything less than 150% - and in my experience, this remains the dominant professional culture.

As more of the population gets older the incidence of flexible working is predicted to increase. It would be pity though if that shift is restricted to mums with young children, those boosting pensions, or to low paid jobs stacking shelves.

It's a pity too that so many organisations are not far sighted enough to see that flexible working increases satisfaction and productivity. That its possible to be 100% committed (or 150% if you like management bullshit) for 80% of the time. That by working a little less, we might actually work more creatively, more intelligently, less wastefully. And that our lives might just be better as a result - which is, after all, why we work the first place.

These are hardly unique insights, but to me the practical impact has been a revelation. And today, as the rain drums the windows and Dylan interrupts me for the third time in ten minutes - why isn't the hour hand moving; do you think the mail man knows we're waiting? - I can sense it more than ever.

Two years ago I'd have been bouncing off the walls. As it is, I've got some books to review, some cooking to look forward to, and oh how lovely, Dylan's just got out the Buckaroo...

Look, here comes the postman.

Monday, February 7, 2011


I've been writing about the places to which I find myself returning.  Here's an adapted extract; perhaps one day I'll see you there.
On the low sloping cliff to the north of Porthgain is a white tower. It is made from field stone, about the size of a small lime kiln, mortared with mud and covered in a flaking wash. The tower is one of two that indicate safe passage to the harbour. A few years ago its starboard sister was struck by lightning – the locals rebuilt it. For in a heavy sea and squalling wind the fishermen need these towers still.
I walked there recently, alone on a December morning. I’d forgotten a scarf, my ears were sore in the wind. As I climbed the mud sticky path a flock of curlew rose from the sand by the slip. They flew to the crumbling walls of the stone hoppers that loom over the quay. The hoppers, a relic of Porthgain’s industrial past, once stored the graded stones that were loaded onto sloops bound for Liverpool and Newport.
Looking north, I felt the curve of the ocean folding over my shoulder. The light at Strumble was flashing and I could make out Pwll Deri hostel beneath Garn Fawr, the big cairn. That morning the sea was flat, a gunmetal grey darkening to a pewter horizon, lobster pots bobbed in the marbled swell. I have stood there, in other Decembers, as the waves swallow the cliffs and clots of spume settled as if it were snow on the dun grass.
In the lee of the stack I thought of the times I have come here; the years of looking, of painting the view, counting boats; that first time, with Jane. And I remembered too, our boys running round it; how we said it was the magic tower; five times for luck, five more to earn a wish. They used to hold their coats like kites above their heads, screaming and leaning into the breeze.
As I made to leave I had a sudden urge to measure the tower’s circumference; holding my arms at full stretch I sidled round, hugging the pock marked stones. Its girth is four and half spans and I have the whitewash on my fleece to prove it. 

Two gulls were circling above; they were black-backs, dismissive of the kestrel that hovered in the faint ridge lift; its tail held flat for balance; down and into the wind.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Books I'm reading # 9

It's been a while since I did a books post, and that partially reflects that I've not been reading a great deal. But what I have read has been pretty good, and a little different for me. I'll not bother with links to the books, just Google them or try Amazon.

Niall Griffiths is one of my favourite authors: gritty, honest, often profane, but always compelling. His latest book The Dreams of Max and  Ronnie is part of a series in which contemporary authors  reinterpret tales from the Mabinogion. I especially liked Giffith's second tale, in which gangster Max, sending his henchmen to find him the perfect woman.. with tragic consequences. It's impossible for me to compare these to the original Mabinogion (such as that exists) because, shamefully, I have never read it - but the tales did inspire to buy a copy, which as a matter of fact, arrived this morning.

Pollard by Laura Beatty was the recommendation of a friend with impeccable taste. The story of an abused girl with what we'd probably call learning difficulties, making her home in a wood. As the sprawl of development threatens her home she is forced into ever more desperate measures. The descriptions are rooted in nature, the situation not so fantastic as to make you think 'that's ridiculous', and the unfolding of the plot is entirely believable. For a first novel it's a triumph; one of the best I read last year. My only criticism is that it ends rather abruptly; I wanted more.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, is an old best seller from Oliver Sacks. Sacks is a neurologist who describes a variety of his patients' conditions with care and intelligence.  These include the man who cannot recognise objects (hence he confuses his wife with his hat), another whose memory stopped 40 years previous, and - the case I found most disturbing - a woman with no proprioception. Proprioception is the unconscious awareness of our body and where it is - although the woman was not paralysed she had no awareness of her body, she could not 'feel' it in action, and could only sit or stand using visual clues and statuesque postures; she described herself as a 'pithed frog'.  The triumph of Sacks' writing is that he transcends the medical, and indeed the vaguely comic, to make us think about our own condition, and what it is to be fully human.

The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund De Wall came recommended too, and I wanted to like it, I truly did. But after a four attempts I gave up. It is the story of De Wall's ancestors, told through the collection of Japanese ivory carvings he inherited from an uncle. The bumf says it's a gripping tale of war, peace, and romance. The trouble is, I just didn't care about his ancestors, no matter how rich and powerful they were. And frankly, I didn't much care about the netsuke carvings either. Sorry; boring and over hyped.

Betrand Russell wrote the Problems of Philosophy in 1912; he called it his 'shilling shocker'.  I took it down from my bookshelf, unread for twenty years. Now I appreciate this isn't exactly the sort of book you'd curl up with your partner and read; but it's pretty fantastic nonetheless. I'd forgotten how clear Russell is, how he gets over the most complex of concepts in easy language (well, relatively speaking), and leaves you with enough brainpower to think it through. I wish he were alive today to describe the banking crisis or Middle Eastern politics.

The Butterfly Isles by Patrick Barkham was a prize from the National Trust. Barkham's quest to find all of Britain's resident butterflies in one summer is a deeper book than it appears; it is also a book about dreams, childhood, and his love of his father. His description of the Painted Lady invasion of 2009 was especially poignant for me; I remember camping on St Davids Head when they arrived in West Wales - 3000 an hour were passing us at one point. Lovely book, would make a nice gift for almost anyone; not just sad entomologists like me.

Stalin's Nose was the debut novel of Rory Maclean, my co tutor on the blogging course (yes, you know about that...) The story of a chaotic drive through Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is peopled by Rory, his aunt in search of new false teeth, her pet pig Winston, and a piece of statue that is Stalin's nose. It is also a story of his family, torn apart by the communist divide, and of the many  secrets and resentments that followed from the allegiances they chose. This book has recently been reprinted and it includes a generous introduction by Colin Thubron.

I've written before about West: A Journey Through The Landscapes Of Loss by Jim Perrin.  It so affected me that I read it again (rare for me) and I know many readers of this blog have bought it too. I also have a copy of the film Jim made on his 60th birthday, returning to climb the Old Man of Hoy, a Scottish sea stack where an accident had occurred which led ultimately to his son's suicide. It won the  won prize for best short film at the Banff festival and its narration is reprinted as the last chapter of West - it is writing of the very highest order. My book of the year by a country mile; it comes out in paperback soon.

And finally, When it Changed, a collection of short stories by writers working in conjunction with scientists. I bought this to read Sarah Maitland's prize winning, The Moss Witch - and good it was too, but like all short story anthologies the collection is mixed. The book's premise is to reconnect literature with research, authors with scientists, and for each to learn in the process. Reading the scientist's notes after each story, I have the impression the writers got the more out of it. An interesting twist, but I'd rather have Raymond Carver any day.

That's all for now. What are you reading?