Breaking Chains

Breaking Chains

Growing up, the corner shop
Was like an Aladdin’s cave.
Exciting exotic riches
To be had for pocket change.

Each shop had unique delights:
A quarter of some sweet treat
Or the latest comic book.
You knew where to find it all.

Every town had character:
Independent retailers,
Established eighteen-something,
Or at least before the war.

The cafe on the high street
Where my grandmother drank tea,
The bookshop I frequented:
Many happy hours for me.

Most of those shops are gone now,
Replaced by the soulless clones
That have spread just like a plague:
Uniformity rules now.

I often think I could stand
In any town without knowing
Where I might be in the land:
Everywhere now looks the same.

Mall culture dominating
With the old guard dead, passed on.
Reflecting in nostalgia,
I regret the march of time.

In Camberley or Wigan
The global brands have stolen
The identity that once
Made each town special to me.

In Defence of Corvids

In Defence of Corvids

Collective nouns are a curious breed – they often carry the prejudices of those who coined them. So for the pretty, colourful birds you have an exaltation of larks, a charm of goldfinches or a murmuration of starlings. But the large, black members of family corvidae have not received such sympathetic treatment.

A murder of crows; an unkindness of ravens. What have these birds done that they deserve such negative associations? For in fact corvids are among the most intelligent of our feathered friends. This intelligence has been reflected throughout history by the roles played by ravens and crows in mythology across various cultures, particularly Native American and Norse. Not merely bystanders in various myths and legends, these birds often play a central part as protagonists and messengers.

Some North American tribes’ shamanistic traditions depict Raven as the creator of the world. The chief god of the Norse peoples, Odin, was so strongly associated with ravens that he was known as the “raven god”; his pair, named Huginn and Muninn, being the god’s eyes and ears in the world of men, Midgard. Crows and magpies too have long been seen as spiritual beings, mediators between the realms of the living and the dead. Also to this day there persists a belief that should the ravens residing at the Tower of London ever leave, the kingdom will fall.

My personal belief is that crows, ravens, rooks and the other members of the corvid family are admirable, highly intelligent birds with an air of mystery and spirituality about them and a charming, insouciant – sometimes cheeky – manner. No wonder they have featured as tricksters so many times in mythology. And I love the black plumage with its subtle glossy iridescence.

Brittleness

Brittleness

The rock stands firm against the waves
That batter and break with each tide.
But even rock in time will cave
And crumble, being washed aside.

But standing fast through winter gales,
The willow, storm-tossed in the fields,
Has learned to bend and not to fail:
To the might of the wind it yields.

Some people may be like the rock,
Inflexible, ’til nought remains
But broken shards and sudden shock;
Dreams drowning in a sea of pain.

So like the willow you must bend,
Adapt to changing circumstance.
Go with the flow, and in the end
Once trouble’s past: deliverance.

Hibernation

Hibernation

With a warm richness of color,
Red and gold replacing lush green,
Trees burn their brightest in the fall.

Soon the leaves will drop revealing
Bare branches; the semblance of death
As life retreats from limbs to heart.

But the embers still glow inside,
Waiting to rekindle the fire
And be born anew with the spring.

Different Roles

Different Roles

It’s strange, but my behaviour changes depending on what I’m doing. I reluctantly went to the usual pub quiz last Tuesday night without my wife, who wasn’t well enough. This is the same pub I work in at weekends. When I’m behind the bar, being a barman, I have the confidence to speak to people. Because of the context of the job I can interact with complete strangers. So why do I feel so darned uncomfortable when I’m on my own in front of the bar?

I got there a good hour before the quiz started and the place wasn’t yet busy. I probably knew almost everyone in the there. But I didn’t feel at ease joining anybody’s group. I did hover at the edge of one group for a while but ended up sat on my own at the usual table reading the news on my phone. Even when the other members of the team arrived I felt isolated. It’s not that I wasn’t included; it’s just that I always put myself under pressure because I feel that I should be active in conversation. If it hadn’t been for numerous people asking after my wife’s health I don’t think I’d have said very much all night.

So why does it feel so different among the same people in the same environment depending on whether I’m a customer or a barman? I don’t really know. I do know that I hate to take a break while I’m working because for half an hour I’m out of barman mode and basically just a normal customer. I usually come back early from my break and hope I won’t get sent back out again. I guess it sounds weird but that’s me!

Even when I’m on my own behind the bar with a pub full of customers I hardly ever feel intimidated – I feel safe. Is it the solid counter between me and them? I don’t think so. I suspect it’s because the interactions are constrained and I understand the boundaries – I know what to expect from the customers because they just want to be served. When I’m in there as just me – no role to assume – there are no such boundaries.

I realise now that I can handle much more socially if I am fulfilling a role than if I’m just being myself – exposed, unprotected. In a way these roles are like masks that I can hide behind.

Mourning Strangers

Mourning Strangers

Why does the passing of certain people affect me more deeply, while others may depart with scarcely a thought? I’m not talking about deaths of family or friends here, I mean people whom I have never met and know only through their work in whatever field.

What got me thinking about this was reading yesterday of the death of Dennis Ritchie, a major figure in the world of computing. I started wondering why I felt sad on this occasion, while I was emotionally untouched when I heard that Steve Jobs had died. After all, I never met either of them – I never even saw them in the flesh. And I generally have neutral feelings towards strangers – people I don’t know.

Was there something about Dennis Ritchie that created a connection for me? I think so. When you experience works created by somebody, I believe you pick up aspects of their psyche. It might be from reading what they have written, seeing their visual art, using tools that they have created. An author’s voice is preserved in their writing and transmitted by the act of reading those words.

The second programming language I learned was C, created by Dennis Ritchie et al. The canonical reference book for the language, a work I know very well, was co-authored by Ritchie. And through his involvement in the development of the Unix operating system, there are aspects of him reflected in parts of that and derived works. So despite never meeting him, I do feel a degree of connection, of identifying with him – I feel an echo of him from his works and through that there is a sense of familiarity.

I don’t know how it works for other people – I have known people to feel grief on hearing of the death of some “celebrity”. I guess they watch them acting on TV or read about them in magazines and through that feel that they know them. That doesn’t do it for me. But somebody like an author or an artist with whose works I am familiar – then I feel that I have gleaned an insight into their mind from those works and in a small way I have begun to know them. At that point an emotional bond has been made. For me that is a prerequisite for a sympathetic response rather than just an intellectual one.

That is why I cannot mourn a stranger. As long as they remain a stranger I am unable to respond to their situation except in an intellectual way; until I gain some insight into a person they are just another grain of sand on the beach, indistinguishable at a glance from any other. I’m not saying that I have no feelings towards people in general – I treat them with respect and compassion. But I don’t have any curiosity about their lives; I don’t lose any sleep worrying over them.

When I see reports of some natural disaster on the news I recognise intellectually that it is a difficult, frightening situation for the people involved in it and feel a desire to help on the basis of our shared humanity. But I am unable to grieve for their dead: I did not know them. The images do not directly cause me emotional pain. I can reason about how it might feel to be involved in such a situation – it is an intellectual exercise. I need to analyse their situation, find parallels from my own experiences and consider how I felt in those circumstances to consciously develop an empathic response. But I have found that mourning – grief – is far beyond this in terms of intensity. I can feel sadness or regret  for a stranger but I can only mourn those I have a strong enough bond with.

The Best Card Ever

The Best Card Ever

I’ve been meaning to put this picture up since my birthday last month. It’s the card I got from a couple of good friends. I loved it when I opened the envelope and read the front: “I like having a friend like you. You’re different…”

It might sound silly but I felt really happy – not just accepted but liked for who I was. I think it was the perfect card for me. I don’t usually pay much attention to cards beyond reading who sent them but in this case I made an exception – this one really means something to me and I’m going to hold on to it.

I was in one of my low phases at the time when I got this card and it comforted and cheered me immensely. So a big thank you and lots of love to “B” & “M” who sent me this card – you know who you are…