If I Was Yours

In honour of them wining the Grammy, and because this is the first V. day I’ve spent on my own for eight years. Though that isn’t as entirely sad as that sounds; it’s both absence and space.

If I was scared
I would
And if I was bored
You know I would
And if I was yours
But I’m not

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The best book I read last year was The Odyssey

2010 was often a rotten year, both in books and out of books. Not that I am blaming the books you understand. If anything, there was comfort to be taken from the fact the pages did not misunderstand me by being full of sweetness and light.

Instead the books I read were often frustrating, full of let downs and wrong turns, the promises made on the first page escaping, slipping away, as if through the holes in the letters. There were books written by people failing to get their great ideas onto the page — or read by a reader who failed to get them off the page, the ink too dry and brittle to make a mark. The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris certainly falls into this category, as does Tyler Cowen’s The Age of the Infovore. Both are intelligent, curious books which I just didn’t connect with.

There were books that just didn’t pan out in the way I wanted. It’s too easy for new novels to get to a certain status on little more than fumes. Have a link between author and topic that’s easy to summarise, strengthen with topicality and a certain obviousness and you’re away. That’s certainly how I felt about The Reluctant Fundamentalist, an easily blurbable book thanks to its concept and direct opening, which sees the fundamentalist of the title beginning an unctuous monologue with an impassive listener in a cafe in Lahore. Said listener is an American capitalist pigdog, easy in his skin, silent with his Amex and keys to the world. The narrator quickly becomes deeply irritating, the plot is full of soft contrivances. The result is a book which lacks the confidence to indict either the American or the Fundamentalist, never getting up the guts to really howl, or to get as dark and difficult as the subject demands.

Laura Cumming’s book on self-portraits, on the other hand – A Face To The World – absolutely has the courage of its convictions, and it’s impossible not to connect to them. It’s a series of luminous essays giving a close-reading to a wide range of images, its thematic chapters sweeping with an easy grace through over five hundred years of art history, but never forgetting to bring you up close to the pictures. You finish the book feeling as though you’ve not only seen the self-portraits, but are so convinced by the psychological insight of the writing, you’ve become the blank canvas sat before the painter, looking at him while he paints.

The Lost City of Z was terrific too, a book about a dangerous journey into the Amazon by the last of the lunatic Victorian gentleman explorers – the kind of gent who considered a well-waxed mustache and a sense of God-given grace was sufficient protection against one of the world’s most hostile environments. I bought myself a copy, and then one for a friend, and then one for my brother and I’ll keep on buying it.

I enjoyed The Leopard, particularly after watching a BBC 4 documentary about it. It’s one book where I think a good Google before, and during, reading, really helps. David Mitchell continued to be the contemporary author I find most in tune with what I want from literature; The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was great. Colonialism. Capitalism. Japan. Lost love. Ninjas.

But the best thing I read this year was The Odyssey. Not much of a recommendation, really, because not a single person will likely read it as a result. I mean, it’s The Odyssey. No-one actually reads The Odyssey any more. There’s no link between the author and the text, no link between the story and the world now, no momentum at all. It’s like the giant stone fragments of the Pharoahs in the British Museum: it’s amazing that they’ve survived, but they’re not the kind of thing you want in your lounge. They’re just not relevant.

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New Day Rising

New Day Rising

The massive disco ball which stands on the prom at Blackpool, just south of the Pleasure Beach. From last Autumn’s trip, but with the weather this week showing a few chinks in winter’s armour, it seems apt.

Where you come from, where you go

In the phone's gallery

I went to New York last week, mostly for work, but I had two free days at the end to explore the city. I took, as always, a Lonely Planet guidebook, but most of the time I built a list of places to go from going online. It strikes me now how easy the world has become, and simultaneously, how difficult.

It’s easy to find places in a new city now. I wrote ‘in New York’ on Facebook and people sent me bits and pieces of information. I looked at I suppose what you would call conventional review sites, places like Tripadvisor and Chowhound. I had places bookmarked and saved in a list on Simplenote, restaurants and shops and bars that had been mentioned in RSS feeds the few months previous to the trip. There were some saved bookmarks (Pinboard now Delicious is dying), and I went for a coffee at La Colombe Torrefaction in Soho because Joanne McNeil posted a photo of a beautiful coffee on Instagram just the week before I was due to go, and of course, everything on Instagram is neatly geo-tagged.

It’s hard to work all this out. It’s hard if you’re someone who doesn’t live on the internet; conventional search is just so bad at getting to it. I’ve built this delicate web of connections and conduits over years. Ways of filing information, having it there and ready. Ways of trusting people, too – I’ve never actually met Joanne McNeil, just swapped a few tweets and read her blog for a long time and yet that picture was all I needed to know that La Colombe Torrefaction would be selling one fine cup of coffee. Typing “best places in NYC for x” into Google is weak compared to all this, but it’s all most people have.

And it’s hard to work out if you’re talking about advertising. One of the chimeras on the web is stats: you get some numbers and you think they describe the world perfectly, completely. Entry pages, exit pages. Conversion rates. Numbers leave no room for the messiness and the softness, the permeability of the real world. Advertising played a role in where I went: it was on the sites I visited, and to take the coffee place as an example, the look and feel of its own site was important to me. But accounting for that? When, as a commercial person, you’re doing your reports for the money you spent? That would be hard. So much of the research for that trip wasn’t caught in the numbers – or to give the Google argument maybe it was, it’s just buried very deeply.

A week with the iPad and my family

Normally I spend my time surrounded by people who are completely comfortable with technology. They are – we are – people who work at computers all day long. That’s not a small thing. It changes your perceptions of how you approach problems, how you find information, how you communicate, how you get from A to B and how you shop.

Crucially, I think working with computers teaches you that they’re fun: it’s in those drifty moments at work when someone sends you a video of Dinner Time With The Dog-Man or that you spend time organising drinks for a friend’s birthday or marvelling at The Big Picture that you learn a sense of computers as enjoyable. Modern desk jobs force you to sit and stare at a computer for eight hours a day, so this hardly surprising: any time people are forced to do anything they find a way to have fun, whether it’s doodling in the margins of maths books or inventing games to pass the time at the checkout.

My life is changing, so I recently took a week off and went North to visit various members of my family. I took my bike so I could get out in the countryside, and I took the iPad so I could talk about some of the new things I’m doing at work. The people I visit do lots of different jobs – my Aunt’s a teacher, my cousins are retail managers, mechanics, academics and my Grandfather is rather actively retired. None of these are the 100% desk-and-data jobs my friends and I do, so it was fascinating to see how they got on with the iPad.

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Today was the first day of Autumn

The Time It Passed So Easily

Two weeks ago: This is last week of the holidays (passing two schools on my way to work, I’m still attuned to the calendar). The kids will be getting their new uniform, the nylon stiff and the shirt folds still sharp. I am getting my old jumpers out; I feel the cold first in my finger tips as if the season is withdrawing into my body, as if heat comes from the heart. Reminds me of my favourite Greek myth: Persephone and the underworld.

Earlier this week: Cycling home, and as the sun drifts away, St. Paul’s is pink, like the last moons of Tatooine, inside, an orchestra playing, Luke Skywalker’s yearning. On the bike, time feels more present. You ride between the cracks in the hours, down the gap between late afternoon and evening, like a fold in a sheet of paper, a gunnel in which the dusk collects like dust. Feel the heat in the air, or a cold draft coming off the common.

Today, it felt like the first day of Autumn today; grey and blowy.

And the photo? The Swedish coast, a million months ago, well before summer even thought of ending.

Six things I have learned from cycling home

The clunk of the crank and the spin of the wheels with sun in their spokes; the way your legs move like you’re running but your feet never touch the ground. Stopped traffic, the smooth swoop of a fast corner and with it the freedom of the city.

I cycled quite a lot when I was a teenager, but stopped when I came to London – my big, heavy mountain bike was a pain to haul around and it sat mouldering at the top of the stairs before I gave it away. Ten years since my cycling heyday and I decided to get back into it, buying myself a bike through the excellent Ride 2 Work scheme.

Here are some things I’ve learned from cycling to and from work. Obviously, YMMV.

1. Don’t bother with a hybrid. The problem with hybrids is that they seem so logical – particularly if you’ve been away from cycling for a few years. If you had a bike as a teenager, it was probably a big heavy lunk of a thing made by Raleigh, and designed to be knocked around. It probably looked like a mountain bike. Problem is, if you look at mountain bikes now, well, they’re pretty much like motorbikes without the engines. Disk brakes, chunky tyres, suspension front and back, strange shaped frames – exciting stuff, but not really what you want for riding through London.

So the natural next step is a hybrid; they look like the mountain bikes of old, only on a diet. They still have the flat handle bars and a little bulk, but they’re sensible. You can ride them on and off road. It’s the best of both worlds… right?

The problem I found when researching is hybrids are invariably compromised. Some come fitted with slick tyres – so you’re not going to be able to ride off road without changing those. Then there’s the fact they’re not really that light, and don’t always come fitted with larger wheel sizes. Light bikes with big wheels go further and faster with less work from the rider.

And really, are you ever going to ride off road? I wanted a light, fast bike that I was mostly going to spend riding to and from work, or around South East London. So I bought myself a real road bike. It’s brilliant; fast, nimble and something I really look forward to riding.

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