Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Villas, smarter Londoners and books in bed

Today is official the last day of summer. Yeah, I know, ridiculous right? It's September 21 and only now is it technically autumn, despite it clearly being cold enough to have justified booking a villa holiday and high-tailing it out of here for about three weeks now.

As I said before, though, I like autumn a lot. It's full of colour and change and enjoyable days in the calendar: Halloween, Bonfire Night, that Christmas thing which seems to be as popular as ever. All in all, it's not a bad time of year.

One thing I've always thought about the autumn/winter season in London is just how much smarter Londerers looks during the colder months than in the summer.

From now on long, smooth winters coats, elegant scarves and fancy gloves are the norm and baggy, ill-fitting, garish t-shirts, shorts and flipflops are mercifully hidden away for another 6-9 months of the year.

I've been fruitlessly trying to track down the medium sized version of a great winter coat I saw in a TK Maxx that only seems to be stocked in the large. Curses.

One other nice thing about all this is that you can spend more time curled up inside with a good book, too. There are few finer things in life than lying in a bed on a cold, blustery day with an enjoyable piece of writing that you can plough through as the weather howls impotently outside.

I once read the entire novel The House of Sleep by Jonathan Coe on one such day, and it was bliss. Recently I've been doing likewise (pre and post rugby world cup matches) with The Atlantic, Ocean of a Million Stories by Simon Winchester, a man who's led a very interesting and varied life as a journalist and writer.

It had a lot of interesting historical, social and maritime facts, stories and topics within its 400+ pages and although not the best non-fiction book I've read of recent years, it was certainly an enjoyable yarn.

For anyone that's had more than a passing interest in the great, grey slab of water that lies off the coast of Cornwall and churns and thunders unstopped until it reaches, by turns, Canada, the US, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, then it would come with a hearty recommendation from yours truly.

Ah, the sunny climes of Brazil and Argentina, it's enough to make you book that winter summer holiday without a thought for the price.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Little known histories

There are so many stories from history. To many to ever be remembered. But here's a fascinating piece of maritime history I read about today. This extract from Wikipedia says a lot:

At 9:04:35 AM, the cargo of Mont-Blanc exploded with more force than any man-made explosion before it. The ship was instantly destroyed in the giant fireball that rose over 1.9 kilometres (1.2 mi) into the air, forming a large mushroom cloud

The force of the blast triggered a tsunami, which rose up as high as 18 metres (60 ft) above the harbour's high-water mark on the Halifax side. It was caused by the rapid displacement of harbour water near the blast, followed by water rushing back in towards the shore.

Captain Haakon From and most of the crew that were on the bridge of the Imo and on its decks were killed by the tsunami. A black rain of unconsumed carbon from the Mont-Blanc fell over the city for about 10 minutes after the blast, coating survivors and structural debris with soot.


When you're young the idea of a sleepover is incredibly exciting. The chance to stay at a friend's house, or have them to yours, is the stuff of "Please mum, pleaseeeee" for years. Yet, even as a child, once the hallowed night has taken place, there's something mildly disappointing about the whole thing. It's just sleeping somewhere else, really, but not as well and coupled with waking in a strange, alien world, of if it's at yours, with a bunch of friends you wish would leave sharpish as they're driving you crazy.

Growing up, such events are obviously far rarer, but the night buses and the early closing of the tube mean that crashing on on good friend's sofa post night out, or after a wine and US Open tennis 2am evening, is preferable to a two hour journey with drunks and weirdos across the city from north to south.

Even so, waking at 7am having had a terrible night's sleep, miles from home, facing a day of relentless yawning, you can't help but wonder if you would have been better off risking the nightmare buses after all. 

It's disappointing how quickly sleep becomes an important part of your life, your thoughts, and defines your ability to function. Not in an active way, an "I must go home to sleep soon" controlling way, but a passive, next day "why did I go to bed so late" moan, that becomes ever more frequent each year, the days of going out til 3am and suffering no ill effects the next day long, long gone. And don't even get me started on two to almost three day hangovers.

Or maybe I am just a wimp. Thoughts?

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The changes of September

Throughout life, until at least the age of 21, life changes every year in September. From a young age it represents a new school year with new expectations, challenges, events and so forth. Then it's university starts, and each year throughout not just a new term but often a new house and housemates to boot.

Since then I, like many others, seem to have stayed in the September to September housing cycle, each month representing a different location, a different set of housemates again, this time though we are professional, clean(ish), and wealthy (compared to former student selves at least).

Not only that, but during September autumn marks its arrival: leaves fall, evenings darken, temperatures drop and the combination of personal change coupled with seasonal change always infuses the month with a sense of, well, possibilities. Of new beginnings and new opportunities. A chance to use the darkness and the cold to get more things done, to enjoy snuggling in pubs or taking brisk walks across moors, heaths, parks.

There's also a loosening of that sense of guilt that rare hot summer days bring. That sense of urgency to do something, to make the most of it. A rare autumn day filled with sun is a luxury, something to fritter away with quiet surprise and enjoyment that we have been afforded an day of warmth and sun.

The angles of the sun throughout this time of the year are wonderful too: lasting just a few weeks but offering a unique combination as the sun tracks from its zenith to the nadir, changing each and every day to offer different shades, tints and hues of sunsets and sunrises, skies and clouds.

I think for all these reasons September may be my favourite month.

Putney sunset as September begins

Monday, September 05, 2011

Bob Dylan, Buenos Aires and Rhyming Dictionaries

Bob Dylan has so many songs it's ridiculous to try and pick a favourite. But it's still fun to highlight moments from his canon from some of the lesser known songs.

For me, Brownsville Girl and The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar are two songs that will never feature in a Best Of, but would make my top 20 without question, maybe top 10.

Groom's Still Waiting...has a brilliant edge to it, the entire band sounds like they're only playing the second or third complete run through of the song having been introduced to it by Dylan during a late night session. Every guitar line sounds partly improvised, a guitarist jamming rather than recording The Take. Furthermore, it contains one of my favourite Dylan verses and indeed rhymes of all time:

Cities on fire, phones out of order,
They're killing nuns and soldiers, there's fighting on the border.
What can I say about Claudette?
Ain't seen her since January,
She could be respectably married 

Or running a whorehouse in Buenos Aires.

That rhyme, January / Buenos Aires is just sublime, especially with Dylan's delivery. It's so well constructed too, the entire verse leading to that rhyme - it's not a rhyming dictionary job that's for sure.

You can listen below.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Books update

Since reading The Corrections I have read a couple of other books recently the first of which was To The River by Olivia Laing. A nice, meandering book about the joys of rivers, water, walking and literary it was, as you can imagine, right up my stream.

It charts a walk Laing takes along the Ouse from its source to its estuary, while taking in the nature, history, society and literary background of the surrounding area. It reminded me of a slew of books that seem to becoming more popular now that use a central subject or cypher around which the author ruminates on various topics. The best examples of this are Philip Hoare's Leviathan, but I also read a similar book in Robin Harvie's Why We Run.

For anyone familiar with the area, or keen to read an interesting take on a river talk and Virginia Woolf it would come with my recommendation.

Second was I'm Feeling Lucky by Doug Edwards, a recounting of the adventures of a mid 40s man taking job number 59 at Google, in the days when it was an unknown start-up. There's plenty of techno speak in there, but also human angles, insights into one of the world's biggests companies, and personal stories to interest the more casual reader, although you'd have to have some base, underlying interest in Google, to make it all the way through. I may do a fuller review for work too, seeing as it's about technology.

That takes me to 21 books for the year, still way off the 51 and 47 I achieved in previous years, but I put this down to reading several very long works this year, mostly In Europe by Geert Mak which took my about six weeks.

Mo Farah winning the 5,000m

Earlier this year I was sat in a restaurant in Hong Kong. I was exhausted, hungover, jet-lagged and hungry. Despite this I felt compelled to try and convince two of my dining companions that running races are genuinely fun when the topic reared its head.

I can see why those who have never strapped on some trainers and tested themselves against the road, the elements, distances and indeed others, would possible view running as a staid, dull sport, but those who have done it, particularly those who race, understand it is so much more than that.

Watching Mo Farah sprint to victory having already run 4,800m in South Korea earlier today I was reminded of this, having myself just laboured to a measly 2km around the streets of South West London. The hit of adrenaline you get as you storm towards the finishing line, over any distance, is like nothing else. I play football and tennis but the buzz from running, particularly as you near the finish line, is better than these sports for a sense of exhilaration you rarely experience in day-to-day life. That runners high you so often hear about.

I once finished 17th in a 10km in Cornwall. It was a hard, wet, muddy, cross-country route, but come the final 200m I found myself neck and neck with some club runner from Newquay. I thought I had the measure of him coming into the final stretch and so started to kick for home, pulling a few metres ahead, then I sensed him coming back at me, no doubt determined to prove his credentials. He was on my shoulder.

We matched each other stride for stride. I told myself I would not let him past me, I would beat him. I dug in again, pushing harder again, and once again pulled away by a few meters. We were barely 50m from the line. The crowd of friends and families that had come to cheer on loved ones noted our battle and cheered louder as we hurtled into the finishing gate. He was closing again but I dug deep and held him off to claim 17th, rather than 18th.

Utterly meaningless of course, but at the time, in the moment as it happened and the glow afterwards, it was exhilarating, and of course exhausting. He shook my hands afterwards and we congratulated one another on a great race.

That moment, more than the London Marathon or other races I've run, always reminds me of why running really needs to be experienced before it can be judged, why my two associates in Hong Kong where so wrong to laugh at the suggestion running can be fun and it's why watching someone like Mo Farah sprint to the line to claim gold for Great Britain is so exciting.

Me post marathon with Will.

When John Gray and Karl Marx collide

I've always liked John Gray, he writes in a nice style of grand statements peppered with historical facts and quotations that augment his argument very convincingly.

His piece on the BBC about Karl Marx and why maybe his views of capatilisms inherent instability is being recognised more widely is exactly that. Worth reading.