Monthly Archives: February 2013

The tail end of February

It’s been a thin week, somehow. It feels like treading water, something I am not very good at either in the swimming pool, or metaphorically.

Still waiting for overdue grand-baby #2, and grand-baby #3 is also a couple of weeks away. The days are grey, dry and chilly thanks to a brisk north-easterly. I love Scandi-drama, but they can keep their dour weather.

Spring does not appear to be imminent, although I have ventured into the garden and found it satisfying.  After the endless rain of 2012 our clay soil has turned soft and you can pull up the burgeoning weeds quite easily. I even did a major job of moving a Rosa Glauca which had outgrown its space. I have no idea if it’ll work, but there are embryonic buds on the stems I pruned and it couldn’t stay where it was. I go out now and then to offer a few words of encouragement.

But a calf/shin strain has precluded any running or walking, even when the paths aren’t icy. My serotonin-fuelled pride in last year’s achievements seems a distant dream.  I shall have to start over.

Even the news doesn’t seem to amount to much, and the rolling 24 hours a day which broadcasters have to fill make that all the more obvious. The economy is dull, politics are dull and trivialised.

But then perhaps one should welcome the opportunity offered by a low-key week now and again. The chance to be more than to do, and to recharge the batteries for dramas and excitements that will come with a change in the wind direction.

weather vane


numberless clockThe season of Lent generally seems a long haul, all the more so when Easter is early (31 March this year) and you have to turn your thoughts to self-denial and self-improvement in the middle of February. These days there seems to be an expectation that you should take on something new in Lent, rather than give up an indulgence, and indeed one feels there ought to be more to it than not eating chocolate for a few weeks.

So this year I have picked up Abiding by Ben Quash (Professor of Christianity and the Arts at Kings College London) the 2013 Lent book recommended by the Archbishop of Canterbury, with a foreward by his predecessor Rowan Williams. Of course I have only just begun it (the first chapter ‘Abiding in the Body’ looks at the implications of the Benedictine Rule of remaining in one community for life), but even the book’s title made me think of how diminished ‘staying power’ is these days – not least mine.

For one thing it’s obvious that technology is having an impact on our attention spans – although Nicholas Carr’s book on the subject The Shallows: what the internet is doing to our brains aroused some debate a couple of years ago.

I first noticed it in the younger generation – the tendency to have a dozen search engine tabs open, always to have music and Facebook on and to keep up a text conversation with several friends whist doing homework. But as I have caught up with the technological innovations I have to admit that I have become just as guilty of flitting from one thing to another. And no, it’s not multi-tasking, it’s a lack of concentrated effort and focus. It’s insidious, and quickly transfers to other activities: if I’m drawn to a  newspaper article by its headline, I’ll read the first couple of paragraphs and skip to the end to see what the conclusion is. If I then decide the middle is worth reading, I still jump around in it, so the ideas become a jumble and I have to start all over again.

The laptop, smartphone and tablet devices make it all too easy to feed an addiction to doing a lot of things at once and not really concentrating on any of them. You watch the news on TV while checking emails, social media and other news stories at the same time. When there’s a TV drama or big event going on, Twitter is there to let you find out what ‘everyone else’ is thinking about it – just search for ‘#bigevent’ and add your own twopence worth.

If you don’t do it, living with someone who does is highly aggravating, but once you start it just becomes second nature.

Therefore one thing I have given up for Lent is Twitter, initially because it’s a right old timewaster however much you kid yourself that it’s about keeping up with the news and opinion.  Subsequently I realised it’s just one aspect of Flitting Attention Syndrome, and this is only exacerbated by one’s general rush to get things done in the least time.

The Slow Food movement started in Northern Italy in the 1980s as a reaction to over-processed, over-transported junk food. It seems to me that Slow Food has a parallel in lectio divina – divine reading – another element of the Benedictine way of life.  It’s a process of reading and re-reading a short Bible passage so that you can fully appreciate the layers of meaning and take on board what it may be saying to you at that moment. A form of Slow Reading, as it were – easy enough to describe, much harder to do.

It occurs to me that it herein lies another Lenten discipline – to slow down and pay attention. If I pick up an article, to read it properly from start to finish. To focus on one thing at a time for as long as it takes to reach a conclusion or natural break-point. To resist the urge to flit to something else and the siren call of the alternatives offered by that handy attention-seeking computer device.

Reading matters

We seem to be having a George Orwell moment; he’s certainly all over BBC Radio 4. This encouraged me to turn to his observations on the written word. His essay ‘Politics and the English language could have been written this year, not in 1945, emphasising as it does the way sloppy language habits indicate equally fuzzy thinking. Presumably Orwell would have been utterly dumbfounded by the soundbite-driven vacuous comments today’s politicians indulge in.

The essay includes his six rules of good writing:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or figure of speech you are used to seeing in writing.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I used to run business writing workshops, but it was an uphill struggle [hackneyed metaphor] to get people to address their ingrained writing habits or their bewilderment about grammar and syntax. I concluded that perhaps it’s just not possible to ‘teach’ a business writing style which results in documents (even emails!) which are appropriate to the situation and achieve the desired result. Once people are at work the training seems too much like school lessons and the minutiae [foreign phrase] of getting it right too much like something they ought to know already. [Some very long sentences there].

Yet the world needs good writing now more than ever, given we are tapping away at keyboards all day. When I started work, organisations were still blessed with secretaries who could transform their bosses’ half-baked dictation into a clear and informative document. These days you’re on your own [over-used phrase] and it shows.

A good way to improve your writing style is to read lots of well-written books, and that thought brings me to a slim paperback I was given for Christmas: Howard’s End is on the Landing by Susan Hill. She describes how she spent a year not buying any new books but re-visiting those she already owned. It’s a lovely memoir of the places and people who come to mind as she wanders through her enviably large collection. There is every book you’ve ever heard of from Winnie the Pooh to War and Peace and back again, and many more you won’t know but which sound interesting. I’ve enjoyed it a lot – except for the fact that it’s a book! Susan Hill herself thoroughly dislikes electronic readers and a few years ago I would have agreed with her. But now I found the paperback uncomfortable to hold, awkward to read, and if it had been any more than 236 pages, too big to fit into my bag and lug around.

tempora mutantur nos et mutamur in illis as George Orwell almost certainly would not have said.

Reading matter

The stuff that cheers

So here we are, January already been and gone and 2013 is properly underway. There are other things which have made me happy in the last few days too.

For example, a show on BBC Radio 4 called Cabin Pressure, currently at 6:30pm on Wednesdays. It actually makes me laugh out loud, frequently, within one episode. This is a rarity in the Radio 4 ‘comedy slot’ at 6:30pm, but then humour is an entirely personal thing. I gather some people find ‘Count Arthur Strong’ funny, but it has me flying for the off switch at the very mention. I just don’t get it. Cabin Pressure, on the other hand, is subtly written by John Finnemore and performed with class and briskness by Stepahnie Cole, Roger Allam, Benedict Cumberbatch and John himself. It’s clever and witty and the characters are believable and consistent. Last week’s episode included a highly competitive wordplay game about sustaining everyday (and in-flight) conversation using words of only one syllable. As in: ‘Let me explain this to you in words of one syllable’. It’s not as easy as you might think. Prunella Scales made an appearance too, as a mum who is all the more aggravating by ‘not wanting to be any trouble’.

Second thing – I have just finished re-reading Of Human Bondage by W Somerset Maugham. One of those books which I was really too young to appreciate when I first read it, maybe 30 years ago. I liked it the first time, or I wouldn’t have picked it up again, but now it was a thoroughly absorbing and joyous nightly interlude to share the life of Philip Carey from the point when he is orphaned at nine years old until he’s about thirty. There are people you’d recognise, there’s love and death, art and philosophy, London, Kent and Paris, and increasingly mature explorations of the meaning of life.

Third thing – the first bunch of daffodils of the year is resplendent on the kitchen windowsill.

And then also we went out to lunch, to The Duke of Cambridge in Tilford, and it was a real treat. I tackled an impressive board set out with dainty individual dishes of Thai tiger prawns, crab mayonnaise, smoked salmon pate, crispy baby squid, and marinated anchovies. These delicacies accompanied by olives and feta, cherry tomatoes in balsamic vinegar, a pile of mixed and well-dressed salad leaves, and plenty of bread. All fresh, delicious, and special. Just the sort of thing you hope you’ll get when you pop out mid-week to a country pub.

Reasons to be cheerful

Reasons to be cheerful