Getting and giving something back from a 50/50 life

We all learn, sooner or later, that one of life’s few constants is change. It’s glib and a justifiably tired cliché. But, as with all clichés, it can pay to linger on it for a while – to ask whether there’s anything useful to learn from it.

Linger has been a word on my mind recently. Or, rather, an idea, a nag, a question. A hope, I think, for that pause to draw breath and straighten out a few things. Its germination has come from thinking about architecture. Not in a significant way, but in a pretty simple context: we want to extend our house and we want to get it right. So, as one reads and watches, one starts to notice repeated words or phrases or motifs in others’ language. Since we all tend to attempt at some level to understand things in our own context, inevitably it creates the question: if adding space at home isn’t about the design or building itself, what’s it for?

But let’s step back from buildings for a moment – hey, we’re not going to be featuring on Grand Designs. There was a time when I sued to meditate by accident. It took a while for me to recognise it: whenever I rode a bike on my own the hours and sometimes days afterwards came with a feeling of completeness, of clarity of thought, of lingering within a space of calm I had created. I hadn’t set out to do that, but there’s something in the rhythm and effort (never more so than on a wet day under grey skies) that seemed to flatten out the spiky thought patterns of everyday life.

These days life’s rather different. The bike, if not gone, is dusty and unused. And the shape of my life has changed: I live it pretty much 50% in my own bed, 50% not. And, without realising, the spiky though patterns are beginning to peak. Not in any sinister way, just that a busy life gets busier and there seems little time to catch that breath.

The life I lead is divided between work in London and home in a rural village. They’re 200 miles apart. In one I am, to quote, 15 minutes from the centre of the Western world. The other involves tractors, flaky broadband and sideways rain. They’re both great, but neither seem quite to offer the opportunity to linger, to enjoy, not to worry about life to a timetable.

Except that isn’t true. The dusty doorway is cracked ajar and it’s clear that those options lie in both locations. London is work and work is lengthy and intense. But London also offers possibilities, even after the galleries are closed and all the shows have started: yoga. It’s 75 minutes and it’s just like the ride: as concentration increases, and focus is narrowed to the real estate of a small mat, so clarity creeps up and envelopes me in its translucent coat.

Home brings a contrast and, last weekend, the benefit of a solo walk. While living in the countryside means looking at it more than setting foot on it, 30 brisk minutes along the lanes and back through the fields brought a similar sensation: a dimming of the noise, the capture of a moment’s clarity and a gentle wave of contented calm.

Now, as one of life’s extroverts, I want to share this feeling, this minor breakthrough. But sometimes it’s good enough to share the outcomes of some accidental mindfulness. Those relatively short bursts of focus on what each day’s rhythm and location brings creates a conscious environment to linger and better enjoy the moment. It’s space, not place.

A weird dream.

Generally speaking, I sleep well. Not during one night this week.

I suspect it was the combination of bottled lager and dining late at the Golden Arches Restaurant, but indigestion was upon me in the early hours (as is too often the case these days). An antacid pill soon started to work, as did the paracetamol for the earlier sudden onset of a left sided sore throat. So far, so not so good.

I was away with work, alone in my hotel bed (still sleeping on the same side I occupy at home, the other side untouched as if I’m waiting for Mrs North to secretly appear). This wasn’t the time to start dreaming about suicide.

We all dream, that’s well known. We all dream weird things. No-one in their right mind would spend too long analysing dreams. Well, Freud and a whole industry of charlatans have. But, on waking, I felt both a strong sense of melancholy, a need to be at home and an urge to open a browser and find some so of explanation.

Without getting into the details (don’t you just hate that), the main premise was that I had – against my own underlying desires – decided to take my own life by overdose. Now, I know more than one person who’s attempted this, and at least one who has succeeded. Let’s get this straight: like old Mersault, I have no desire to die, and certainly never at my own hand. There are no Elysian fields awaiting the other side.

So I just don’t get why it should have entered my head, nor why it had so strong an effect. I ought to dismiss it as nonsense but as certain as I am dreams have no meaning, so I’m just as certain I know how I feel in reaction to it. Scared and worried, and a little more resolved to do some important things I need to for me and my family. Right now, in the here and now.

Which, after all, is what is most important. Whatever weird dreams may mean.

A conscious consumer

As a bit of a follow on from my last post (I do my spring cleaning in summer), I’ve been dwelling on the ownership of stuff and how much of an unconscious consumer I’ve become. In other words, I have some disposable income which I almost carelessly dispose of.

Now, I know that buying things is increasingly shown to have a drug-like instant hit followed by a low, but my recent actions at home have got me thinking. You see, we (yes, not just me) have been de-cluttering. It’s just as well, as we’re both hoarders rather that throwers. And so far we’ve had some success: useless stuff has gone to the dump, more useful items have been advertised or gone via eBay.

We’re fortunate that the money raised is nice to have and not essential. And that, combined with the ease with which we have managed to part with things we thought too hard to deal with – say, the pram we had for our daughter who, after a difficult time a while ago, has turned out to be our only child – has got me to thinking about buying stuff, owning stuff and, well, just stuff in our lives.

In my life I’ve been bought and bought a lot of stuff. And many think that’s fortunate and lucky and what modern life is all about, right. Right? Maybe not. You see, I’ve always felt the burden of gratitude to those who have worked hard and spent their money on me. And that burden becomes a guilt. And that guilt leads me to holding onto stuff. And basically, I’m sentimental about stuff because of its context. Of the love my mum showed when she bought be and my sister a small gift each when we started at a new school miles away from home.

So it’s really nice to move stuff on, whatever the feelings attached to it, and discover that maybe it isn’t so painful after all. But I’m not sure I have yet to move on the sentimentality that goes with things and, in particular their giving. So, when my daughter started school today, I gave her a small doll. Something she’d liked the look of a while ago on holiday and that I bought without her knowing. But, as I gave it to her, I realised I could just as well be giving her something unwanted: sentimentality about possessions.

So the time of renewal is going fairly well, but there’s still a way to go as I try to shake off Christmas 1987….

A time of renewal

Sheesh. A Long time.

But it’s that time of year again. That time of year when my out-of-kilter circadian rhythm tells me it’s time to do things. I wrote a letter to my mother recently about this (I write letters now and again) and found myself laying down in ink (yes, a proper letter) something I’d known for a long time: I do my planning when I should doing the doing, and, er, run out of time to do the do.

My mother’s a bit more of a hippy than me, and pays more attention to things like Chinese years. I’m a dragon. No, really, I am. I lurk in my lair and come out now and again to breathe fire before retreating to the sanctity and darkness. And this is how each year works: the winter passes in long, dark days and nights and I don’t feel like doing much. Then, the rush of summer is soon upon me as I impatiently brush aside spring, and I’m blinking in the sunlight, full of energy and no particular place to go. Before we’ve got going, we’re into the lament of autumn and the inevitable trudge back into darkness. The candle blew out and I didn’t get to make a wish.

So, right now I’m full of future plans: me, family, home and work. But they’re all summer activities, and it’ll soon be over. But rather than try to fight this rhythm, I’ve decided to embrace it. If I can’t think straight enough to plan through winter, I’ll enjoy sowing the seed and allowing it time to germinate, ready for the fresh burst of springtime and the lazy warmth of future summer days.

The first project is the house: time to be a grown up and have some money spent on it. Someone else’s money, no doubt, but what the hell. Now’s the time to plan it, and if I don’t think too much about the rhythm, maybe I’ll miss packing up too early and see it through. All the way through to a new summer….

A known known and a known unknown.

It’s funny how certainty and uncertainty are often one and the same thing. In the absence of thinking properly about one, we convince ourselves of the other. We ignore the unknown and fool ourselves that we know everything. That can only last so long. 

At some point, we have to recognise that Donald Rumsfeld had a point: some things are just unknown unknowns. And the future is just that. We just don’t know. We might like to think about how we’d like it to be, but the reality is that tomorrow never comes. 

And that’s OK. 

It wasn’t always OK. I, like many, have a need to know problem – I need to know everything. And, now I know more than I did, I know that I know very little of now, and nothing of what’s to come. I’m dealing with known unknowns. I’m dancing in the shadows.

There’s a certain sadness at facing up to the fact that life as it has been is unlikely to be life as it will be. And we all have to mourn our lost dreams. But we can’t wear black forever. Sometimes, yes, but only JR Cash could every really carry off that look on a long term basis. For the rest of us, a life in colour is so much richer an experience. Where we can have that, we should.

And I shall. It just requires a renewed focus on what’s a known known, and a known unknown. Or as someone put it more succinctly: 

Don’t let what you can’t do get in the way of what you can do.

A love of austerity – building happiness through less

This isn’t about politics. Though it might as well be. It’s about fountain pens. And right angles. 

Like many, I’m riven by conflicts. From the significant, to the inconsequential. Most of the time – somewhere in between – the stuff that occupies me feels significant enough to pay attention to. In this case, it’s about the place I live. My house. My home. The family home. The people in it.

And, most if all, how we use it. I’m trying not to say “the space” like the architect or interior designer I’m not, but I guess as we crave our own space we must recognize the need for others to identify their own. In this case, I’m thinking about nothing more than a single storey extension to a single storey building. 

But in that there’s a conflict: cash in the bank vs what we’ll need to borrow. Today’s income vs tomorrow’s outgoings. Today’s space vs tomorrow’s roaming. And who lives here. Who uses it and how. These are normal questions, and it’s the inevitable conflict within me and within my other half that’s important. More important still is the conflict between us.

The buildings we live in are, contrary to the TV soul-destroyers, not merely investments, not “properties”. They’re not just Corbusian machines either. They are places for people to live well. Changing them means we want to live beyond the way we do today. Not for the acquisition of kerbside status, but for happiness. 

And so we have to consider austerity to make ourselves happy. This isn’t just financial (since few have no concerns over such prosaic matters), but of paring back to the essence of what we want to achieve. From that, we build our individual and collective personalities into the structure. For me, creating that soul means stripping back.

It’s fashionable right now, but my love of the simplicity of early and mid-century modernism remains. The wilful drawing back of the reality to the essence of living well. I see right angles. I see light. I feel no weight. 

And fountain pens? Why, this of course, and barely a right angle in sight:



(copyright Lamy)

A weekend billed as “spending time among gentlemen” – something like that

One man’s brief recollections of 48 hours in the woods: 

8 hours in the car there (5 hours back).

The forty-five pound chair.


Paul Gadd’s twin. 

Meat. Lots of meat. 

Up Shi….

Chicken suit.

Neolithic monuments.



A blunt axe.

More ale.

More farting.

Carcinogenic fires.

Scaling the North Downs.


More nicknames than people. More nicknames than names.


Rat’s piss gloves.

This vaseline’s for professional purposes.

The Ponceometer. It spoke the truth. 

Herrings, cheese and the dirty paaahnt.

Snoring. Oh the effing snoring!

More fun than can possibly be repeated. Even here.

(Neither of these two are the stag. But they are gentlemen*)



*This may be a lie. You decide.