Category Archives: Things I Like

Things I Like #5: Team Putney

Technically, I left the house in Putney two weeks ago. But it isn’t about the place, it’s the people I’ve only just left behind; Tavs, Vaughan, and Nikki.

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Living with friends can be a risky business – unlike living with a significant other or family member, the ties that bind you are less strong, and it can be more difficult to form a cohesive household. You never know what people will be like to live with until you try – the most amicable people can turn into filthy, passive aggressive psychotics in a domestic situation.

But for the last year and a half, I’ve been blessed with three wonderful housemates…

Vaughan “VJ” Jacob

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Greatest Domestic Attribute: Probably the best drunk in the world (sponsored by Carlsberg).

Crime Against Domesticity: Those teabags in the sink…simply unforgivable.

Paul “Chance” Tavner

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Greatest Domestic Attribute: In a house (and a friendship group) filled with hopelessly impractical arty types who wouldn’t be able to change a fuse if their life depended on it, he is the light, bestriding practical, manly household tasks like a colossus. A colossus with a full toolkit and massive flinty balls that strike sparks when he walks.

Crime Against Domesticity: Slams doors when angry. Has been known to murder prostitutes after drinking absinthe.

Nikki “Nikabell” Blemings

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Greatest Domestic Attribute: The cakes. The cuddles. More cakes. More cuddles. Outstanding for late night, tea fuelled chats, and often wanders around in a towel/underwear. What more can you ask for?

Crime Against Domesticity: Sister, those dishes don’t wash themselves. Visitors have been known to become lost and starve to death in the jungle of clothes on her floor.

Against the odds, this random group of people, thrown together by chance and convenience as much as planning, has worked as a domestic unit. I’m sorry to leave them behind for a time, but who knows? Perhaps we shall cook/clean/drink absinthe together again some time soon…

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Things I Like #4: Taking The Time To Eat An Apple

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The apple is the most meditative of fruits. I am sure that cracking of a coconut has a particular satisfaction, and that other fruit lovers will swear by the pear or plum, the papaya or pineapple as the highest form of fruitly perfection. They are fools, sinners and apostates. Nothing can compare to the spiritual comfort offered by the leisurely eating of an apple.

It is the fruit of gods and devils. When he chose the apple to be the fruit hanging from the Tree of Knowledge in Eden, Milton didn’t lie but he was misinterpreted – the forbidden knowledge is not in fruit itself, but in the time it takes to eat it and the sensations it provokes. The apple is just a catalyst for a volatile reaction of the mind and the senses.

The time it takes to eat an apple is just enough time to mull over a difficult thought or make a  decision of moderate importance, to create a line or two of rough poetry or have the very beginnings of a good idea. The cracking crunch as you bite in (always too loud in your head), the waxy smoothness of the skin beneath your fingers and the fleshy kiss of the the fruit inside – all conspire to provoke and inspire, to soothe and to stir all at once.

And, finally, it is a philosophical fruit. As oxygen browns the exposed fruit even as you eat, it is as if all the forces of nature were conspiring to shout “carpe diem!” at you from the atrophying pulp. Eat up and be merry, is what the world tells you through its oracular apple. You have but a little time to spare before the fruit is spoilt – so eat, and be content. Ripeness is all.

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Things I Like #3: Lofty Peaks

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Mountains call to us. They whisper promises of grandeur to the egotist, visions and inspiration to the artist, scenes of great beauty to the naturalist, geological wonders to the scientist. They don’t speak to everyone, but I think it is a rare person who can stand at the foot of a mountain and not have some kind of desire to be at the top of it, touching the clouds and surveying the landscape that rolls, infinite, before you.

It wasn’t always so – until the Romantics and natural philosophers began waxing lyrical about the wonders of mountains in the 17th century, Europeans regarded them as abhorrent, ugly things, rocky warts on the natural landscape that it would be foolish to climb. The Sherpa and Bhutanese, who have lived in and around the Himalaya for centuries, believe that gods live atop the high peaks and see no reason why any right thinking person should want to go up them. They view the desire to reach a summit as a mixture of insanity and blasphemy.

A love of mountains (and a desire to be on top of them) is something that we have learnt, not something we are born with.  In some way that it is impossible to understand, the love and lust for mountains is a reflection of our modern Western society. We have evolved into a society of summit hunters.

It is insane in many ways – hundreds of people lose their lives climbing mountains each year, and for what? And yet when I see a great mountainside like the North Face of the Eiger, I want to climb it.

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It has killed so many, and there is no logical reason why I should want to get to the top, yet as I look at that forbidding wall of rock I am already trying to map a path up to the top. Something in it calls to me.

Perhaps this desire comes from simple territorialism – the desire to be king of the castle, the master of all we survey. Perhaps we have become a bored, soft race of people who have to create our own dangers artificially, by hurling ourselves at inaccessible peaks. Perhaps it is pure ego, the longing to achieve where others have failed or are too scared to attempt. Perhaps it is an expression of the self-destructive urge, the death drive that compels people to risk their lives for no good reason.

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This love of the mountains may well be part founded on these less pleasant emotions, but there is something else to it as well – the truth lies beyond mere egotism or a desire for self-destruction. There’s something hidden up there in the mountains, up there where the air is thin. Not on the mountains themselves, but in the human mind.

Strange things happen to people at altitude. Sometimes terrible things – retinas torn loose, brain cells asphixiating for want of oxygen, lungs filled with blood, hands frozen black. But beautiful things as well; clarity, humility, peace, joy, an absence of the self, a connection with the natural world and the present moment.

The fascination of mountaineering is that it is a journey in the world of the spirit translated to the physical. Spiritual hardship is substituted for physical danger, moral hazard for the cracking ice, loose rocks and sudden storms that are the common threats on the mountains.

To climb a mountain, no matter whether it is Welsh peak in Snowdonia or a eight-thousander in the Himalaya, is in some way to wager one’s life on a pilgrimage of sorts, to accept discomfort, pain, and the chance of death in return for the psychological reward at the top. The spiritual journey of a philosophical discourse or crisis of religion made into tangible sensation. Mountains are not places human beings are supposed to be – alien, high and dangerous. To make a summit and come down again is to journey to some forbidden corner of the soul and come back alive.

No matter how hard I try, I doubt if I could express these these thoughts with the same clarity (and brevity!) as the famous Russian climber Anatoli Boukreev, so I’ll leave you with his wonderfully poetic justification for the madness of mountaineering.

“Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion…I go to them as humans go to worship. From their lofty summits I view my past, dream of the future and, with an unusual acuity, am allowed to experience the present moment…my vision cleared, my strength renewed. In the mountains I celebrate creation. On each journey I am reborn.”

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Things I Like #2: St Crispin’s Day Speeches

The eve of the battle of Agincourt. The English army, exhausted, disease ridden and demoralised faces a vastly superior French force. All looks lost, until Henry V delivers a speech and inspires his troops to a famous victory. In the original St Crispin’s Day speech, Henry inspires his troops with a careful mixture of patriotism, brotherhood, courage, and the promise of future glory. At least, that’s what he says in Shakespeare’s Henry V. In real life, he apparently took the somewhat more prosaic and honest line of telling his men that as commoners they were unlikely to ransomed,  so they had better fight to the death or win.

Take a look at Kenneth Branagh making a decent fist of Shakespeare’s version…

The stirring eve of a battle speech is now a cliche repeated across hundreds of books and films, from Braveheart to Lord of the Rings. St Crispin’s Day speeches even crops up in the real world from time to time – here’s Branagh again, this time recreating the famous speech made by Colonel Tim Collins on the eve of the second Gulf War…

When they are bad, they are an embarrassing limp mess of cliche. When they are good, they are very, very good. It is hard not to watch Branagh in the two speeches above and not feel that here is a man and a cause worth fighting and dying for. Even though the original St Crispin’s Day speech offers little more motivation than glory and bragging rights for the few who will survive, it is still stirring stuff. The speech by Tim Collins seems to lay out the template for a just war and the way to prosecute it – the ultimate moral bankruptcy of the Iraq escapade just serves to give the it an additional degree of poignant potency.

At the same time, there is a deeply manipulative, unpleasant quality to St Crispin’s Day speeches. Those that make the speeches and give the orders are rarely the ones that have to do the dying (or indeed the killing). That task falls to those deemed disposable, the ones who can’t make pretty speeches but can die well enough to serve a purpose.

In The History of the Peloponnesian Wars and The Travels of Marco Polo, before major battles generals on both sides are often described as giving speeches to their men. Irrespective of the rightness or wrongness of their cause, whether they have started a war to defend the liberty of the people or to enlarge their personal empires, these speeches usually make for stirring reading. As the poem I Have a Rendezvous with Death shows, the death drive in many men is significant (I generalise hugely by saying men, but I think the love of a violent death is more of a masculine trait). All it takes is a little push, a little speech, and many will be willing to die for the cause you have put to them.

And yet, and yet…manipulative as they may be, they offer up a wondrous vision, allow a soldier to step out of a world of pain and glimpse something greater than themselves, something that is worth the risk, pain and struggle. Those of us who live in less heightened circumstances, who face no great physical dangers, can’t help but feel a longing for the clarity of purpose offered by a St Crispin’s Day speech. Listening to one of these speeches, the sense of self fades away. All the worries and concerns and selfishness that dominate day to day life become irrelevant. Self-sacrifice can be one of the most admirable qualities –  it seems to go against all natural interests of self-preservation. This is the true beauty of a great St Crispin’s day speech; not that it inspires people to fight and kill, but that it takes them beyond their own selfish cares, not for the stirring rhetoric, but for its awakening of this spirit of willing self sacrifice, one of the most beautiful facets of the human personality.

P.S. Apologies for the somewhat martial tone of the blog so far this week. I’ve been wrestling with my Tax Return for the past few days, and am thus in the mood for killing (or dying). Finally got it off yesterday, so perhaps will be able to write about something more cuddly in the near future.

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Things I Like # 1: Post House Party Fry Ups

Brief Preamble: Just a list of things I like, to be added to over the days/weeks/months/etc to come…

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The morning after the night before. As people crawl from sleeping bags, beds or from their bivouacs of cushions, chairs and piles of clothes, they have one focus above all others –  food. Fried food, greasy food, the only thing that can take the pain away.

Food is a problem because the kitchen is a disaster zone, a Ground Zero of filthy plates and glasses, crushed cans and empty bottles. There is no food in the kitchen, there is nothing to eat it off, and besides, the kitchen is now a depressing place. Every possible container has become a receptacle for a foul combination of stale beer, cigarette ash and half chewed food. Someone has probably urinated in the bin. No one can be expected to go near such a place in a fragile state, and washing up is simply out of the question. Food must be found outside of the house, and so everyone who can still walk pulls on the clothes from the previous night and stumbles out into the cold, slouching towards the Bethlehem offered by a greasy spoon or greasy Weatherspoon.

Sometimes I think I go to parties just to go for the fry ups the next day and enjoy the sense of kinship that exists between the Hungover. Suffering brings people together and allows them to share a rare connection, even if said suffering has been caused by half a bottle of Glenmorangie and three glasses of Sainsburys Basics red wine. Booze brings people together as well, of course, but at a party people tend to have different objectives. Flirting, fighting, fucking, whatever takes your fancy. Everyone is there for their own reasons and wants to see different people – there is a shared agenda, but not much of one.

Not so the next day. Just as people are united by their drunkenness, the morning after they are united in suffering, but this suffering (and the cure for the suffering) provides a much more unified purpose than the vague injunction to Have Fun. Aching guts, china plate heads and a mouth that tastes like a bag full of mouldy socks have a strange capacity to bring people together. No one has the time or energy to think about how they look or what they are saying. Everyone is too busy taking comfort in two of life’s great pleasures; good food and good company.

Whenever I find myself at one of those tables, surrounded by friends as we sit reverentially before our plates of fried filth, I find myself grateful for these things – hearty food and people who inspire and bring comfort to me. It shouldn’t require me to soak myself in whisky and then sleep on a hard floor to really appreciate these things, but it helps.

A hangover, fried food, and some good friends to enjoy it with. As a combination, that’s one of the things that I like.

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