Autumnal Melancholia? No Thanks.

Today is the first day I felt Autumn fully crash its way through the falling leaves and into being. The days of sipping cider in sun kissed pub gardens wearing flimsy clothing have passed for another year. The coats have been plucked from hibernation and the pub position of choice has moved from garden to Winchester by the fire.

While it’s easy to bemoan the loss of summer and engage in some melancholia for the winter ahead the fact is this is one of my favourite times of year

The air always seems a little clearer in Autumn. Gone is the mugginess of summer and the fog of winter has yet to creep into life. The colours seem a little more defined, perhaps the chill in the air just sharpens the senses or perhaps the falling leaves express themselves that little bit brighter as they rage, rage against the dying of the light.

October and November come with so much promise, the Azure sky signals a time to live and laugh outside. Autumn festivities invite us to cherish the chill in the air before it turns to the bitterness of winter. While the bright Autumnal light remains and the leaves have yet to decide what colour they are to depart the world wearing.

Autumn is the time to be out walking in the countryside, to see the landscape through the condensation of breath, feasting our eyes on the torrent of colour around us. Apple green and Olive Downs form a horizon against the Azure sky; Auburn, Burgundy, Crimson, Bronze and Amber variously paint the trees and quilt the ground. The first frost will soon be here to scatter its dust and bring a crunch to our ramblings.

October’s end brings All Hallows Eve with all of its charm. A time for frightening stories, carving jack-o’-lanterns and apple bobbing. More importantly a time to dress up and come together for mulled wine drinking while children doing the rounds demanding ‘Trick or Treat’.

Chimneys cough and splutter from their summer slumber as eyes, ears and noses ready themselves for the beast of all fires on Bonfire Night.

Oh Bonfire Night, why do you only come but once a year!

Crowds line the streets breathing the evocative smell of kerosene as burning parades march past, mittened and gloved hands clutch pints of ale, cups of roasted chestnuts and plates of pulled pork. Cries of ‘No Popery’ do the rounds as the drums band into life as the serpent of fire makes its way to the Bonfire Ground.

We follow close behind, hopping in and out of low beamed pubs full to bursting to refill our glasses. Walking across the dark river gasps and glinting eyes glint skywards as the first fireworks go up, lovers intermingle coats and hold hands in warm pockets. As the fireworks end the chill which has been kept at bay since before the parade returns and the crowd shuffles and shivers to keep warm.

Eventually a new cheer does the rounds. They’re lighting the bonfire. Dressed as 17th Century smugglers the Bonfire Boys circle with their kerosene torches. Everyone steps a little closer in anticipation of the musky warmth of the fire. A couple of minutes transforms the cold, dark foreboding mass into a towering Babel of fire speaking a mesmerising language of wonder that all understand.

It’s as we turn away from the spectacle that winter places its creeping fingers down our backs, breathing its promise of worse things to come.

So I’m going to enjoy it while the bright Autumnal light remains, while the chill is still novel, while the promise of festivities lays out ahead and while the leaves have yet to decide what colour they want to depart the world wearing.

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Oktoberfest

Oktoberfest 1

An unseasonably hot September day found me feeling out of place strolling through German sunshine towards Oktoberfest. My discomfort came from my attire, jeans and a T-shirt amidst a sea of Lederhosen clad men and Dirndl sporting women. Bavaria takes this seriously.

I had always heard Oktoberfest spoken of as an untameable beast, the world’s largest beer festival wrapped up with the world’s largest fair. Working from this knowledge I had tried to mentally prepare myself as best I could.

On entrance my expectations shattered, all I had prepared myself for left quicker than a beer hall’s decorum. It immediately dawned on me that Oktoberfest is ineffable. To try and get anywhere near explaining the nature of it one must put some quantification to it; 6 million people visit in 16 beer soaked days, the largest beer halls hold 12,000 patrons at a time and roughly 3 Olympic sized swimming pools worth of beer are drained in 1 litre steins.

Bavarians are particular about what they imbibe. Only 6 breweries are entitled to ply their trade here, the beer must be at least 6.5% abv and most importantly must be brewed within Munich’s city limits.

Understandably, and quite rightly, the beer takes top billing. Yet Oktoberfest is about so much more than just beer. It is a celebration of all things Bavarian, people here consider themselves Bavarian first and German second, much of that identity is wrapped up in Oktoberfest.

oktoberfest-tent_munich

Each beer hall has its own Oom-pah band, standing high up on decorated stages they beat out the rhythm of Oktoberfest from about mid-day, often having the traditionally dressed revellers standing atop tables clinking steins long before dark. Food plays a large role in proceedings Lederhosen expanding delicacies litter the menu; salted fish, ham hock, pork knuckle and Hendl style chicken all have their place but the Bavarian favourite is Weisswurst. The boiled veal sausage eaten with a pretzel can be said to fuel the festival.

Absorbed with the beer halls it is all too easy to forget that Oktoberfest is also the Globe’s premier fairground. Rides great and small cover the ground outside and serve as a reminder that this is a family festival; children are encouraged to embrace Oktoberfest.

oktoberfest-panorama

As the sun began to dip I found myself in a small garden talking with a large set Bavarian and his wife. Conversation soon fell into an impromptu history lesson; I sipped a golden beer as my new friends explained that Oktoberfest has for its origin the marriage of Bavarian Prince Ludwig. All of Munich was invited to celebrate the marriage and a festival and horse racing was held, deemed such a success it was repeated the following year soon becoming tradition.

200 years later and celebrating the coming together of people is still the platform upon which the numerous beer halls and fairground rides are built.

At Oktoberfest new friends are made with every Oom-pah beat, I’ll drink to that.

The Human Condition

Silvia Petretti by Marc Quinn.

Silvia Petretti by Marc Quinn.

It’s Sunday morning and I’m following what has become an established routine. I’m en route to meet my friend Thomas outside one of London’s numerous large railway stations, Euston this time. From here we will make the short walk to the Wellcome Collection, the most recent stop on our tour of the capital’s principle museums.

This week’s visit is to a collection titled ‘An Idiosyncratic A – Z of the Human Condition’. Laid out in a rectangular space the premise is simple. One travels the length of the alphabet across the room with each letter representing something directly relating to the human condition. For example ‘A’ pin-points religion through Acts of Faith, ‘K’ vanity in Keeping Up Appearances and ‘X’ is the erotically charged X-Rated.

Travelling through one is forced into a complete evaluation of the human condition and therefore without too much of a jump a complete evaluation of oneself.

The exhibit is not the best I have seen this year (that award goes to the Congo exhibit at Rivington Place) it is not even the most interesting (for this the disobedient objects exhibit at the V&A takes First Prize). However the A-Z does win the prize for ‘Most Thought Provoking Exhibit’. This is not just because of the subject matter on show, but because it is an evolving exhibit that engages with its visitors.

The visitor is expected to actively participate in the exhibit not just passively view it. The A-Z never attempts to define the human condition; it leaves that to us, the humans, to work out. There are plenty of aids to help our thought processes, stories written one sentence at a time by people passing through; philosophical polls conducted using little plastic discs, visitor created portraits both photographic and sketched.

It all forces us to think why?

Why are we this way? Why do we think the way we do? Why do we act how we do?

The exhibit brings us face to face with how limited humans are and much of what we think is incorrect. But it also expresses and celebrates human achievement. This oxymoron within one exhibit is celebrated in the title of one of the lectures that accompany the A-Z, fantastically named ‘Obsolete Knowledge’.

The juxtaposition is perhaps best summed up by my favourite piece in the exhibit. Under C for Chemical Life support is a cast of the body of Silvia Petretti. The cast made from a combination of wax and the drugs on which HIV positive Silvia is dependant for life. The work attacks the prejudice around not seeing HIV positive people as human while also celebrating the lifesaving medication that has been developed.

I always try and take something away from the activities in which I engage and this visit was no different.

The A-Z led me to question ‘Why do I act the way I do?’

The question is one we rarely ask ourselves. This week I am trying to rectify that. Trying to stop and clarify in my mind what I am trying to achieve before acting, hopefully leading me to act with more purpose and presence of mind.

Clarity of thought, Clarity of action, Clarity of outcome in the idiosyncratic A-Z of my existence.

‘An idiosyncratic A-Z of the human condition’ runs until the 12th October at the Wellcome Collection 183 Euston Road, London. Entrance is free.

Find out more here – http://www.wellcomecollection.org/

Writer’s Block

Writer's block

Those of you who read this blog regularly may remember that I am currently working on a novel. A couple of posts ago I expressed my thoughts on how well it was going and that I was finding the going relatively easy.

‘Hey this novel writing is pretty easy’

Well, the inevitable has happened. I’m stuck.

‘Wait a minute. No it isn’t’

It crept up on me ‘Writer’s block’. One day I wrote slightly less, then the next less still, then less again. Until this week I realised Two or Three days had passed without a single word being written at all.
No problem I thought.

‘That’s ok. I got this’

I’ll just sit down with a large cup of tea and put some words to paper/laptop. Except I didn’t. I sat down with a cup of tea all ready to go. I managed a couple of fairly average book reviews. But the document containing my novel just sat there, open but unadded to.

‘Hmmm this is tough. More tea will help me through this’

So I made some more tea.

I checked social media, I read a report of a sporting event I’d already watched, I read the news and I read a couple of blogs. In short I didn’t the internet equivalent of my Television rant of last week.

But still I did not write.

‘I trusted you tea. You’ve let me down’

I have since worked out what I hope will be a sure fire way past the writer’s block. I’ve started writing non-linear. Whenever I feel that I’m stuck or not writing particularly well I move on to a completely unrelated part of the novel and get stuck into that. It may make things rather disjointed for a while, but at least I’m writing and no longer stuck.

‘I’m sure to be unstoppable now. What. A. Genius’

I guess I’m trying to be flexible. The old adage that if you can’t go through it you must find a way over, under or round it.

So that going to be my maxim for the week, flexibility. Hopefully something decent will come from trying to do things a little differently.

So far it seems to be working pretty well.

‘Hold it. You’re writing this blog and not the novel. What. An. Idiot. Better tell them not to listen to you’

But don’t listen to me. I’m here writing this blog, rather than working on the novel.

‘Saved it’

Hey you! Stop watching that Television!

No TV

This morning Holly was channel-hopping and complaining bitterly that there was nothing on worth watching. Yet my suggesting she turn off the television and do something else instead met with recrimination. It is a strange phenomenon, she would rather stare at a flat screen watching something that is neither interesting nor enjoyable than turn that screen off and do something else.

This vice is not peculiar to Holly; in fact I rather suspect that we all do it at times. In George Orwell’s novel 1984 each party member has a Telescreen in their home, the screen acts as both a television and a CCTV camera. Every morning the Telescreen turns itself on and runs programs over which the view has neither control nor ability to turn off. The Telescreen being on is default. It is almost as if this is now a reality in which we live our own lives.

I recently saw a video on social media which emphasised the amount we miss by constantly staring at the screen of a smart phone. What the video failed to understand is that this is not a new problem. We have been staring absentmindedly at screens for decades. Ignoring the world outside of our four walls. Ignoring the world, the people, inside of our four walls. All for the sake of watching programs we don’t care about.

How many hours and days have been wasted watching television programs that one is not the slightest bit interested in rather that actually going out and doing things, seeing things, meeting people and having experiences?

This isn’t a tirade against television; it is a tirade against watching television for the sake of watching television. It’s a tirade against falling victim to the screen in the corner of the room. It is a tirade against our own laziness. It’s a tirade against our anti-living. It is a tirade that 1984 protagonist Winston is not afforded.

Here’s a question for you. Ask the next person you see what they did this summer. I’m sure some people will tell you all about a great holiday they had. Some people will tell you about the brilliant festival they went to. Some people will tell you about the awesome new experience they had.

Not one single person will define their summer by a day spent at home watching television.

So please. Turn off the television. Go out. Make friends. Make memories. Make stories.

Nb. Here is a link to the video mentioned.

The Present

Swimming in the river

This blog has rather fallen by the wayside in recent months so I thought it deserved an update. Recently I’ve been working on other things. I have written a couple of travel articles but much more time consuming and mentally crushing I have been getting stuck into writing my first novel.

The clichés around writing a novel are aft spoken of. It takes years, one often spends days staring at blank pages unable to put a single word on paper and the little that is written is only ripped up and thrown away again the next day. It has always seemed incredibly daunting. Daunting to the extent that I have never even made an attempt. Until now. Previously I have only thrown my pen at short stories and articles, too scared and to be truthful too lazy to attempt the real thing.

It’s this preconception, or rather this fear that has left me pleasantly surprised. I have found it remarkably easy to put pen to paper since I have decided to take the challenge on. It feels smooth, like I have found a medium through which I can fully express myself something which I have always struggled with in the limited word count available to an article. To adopt a cliché for myself I have had a weight pulled from my shoulders allowing not only my writing but also me to have more freedom and purpose.

This isn’t to say that what I have written is any good; in fact I rather feel that most of it isn’t. But at the moment point isn’t so much what I have written but that I am writing. And that is making me happy.

I am trying to extend this new found freedom and happiness into other areas of my life. Instead of looking towards some ambiguous time in the future in which to be happy it is allowing me to concentrate on enjoying the present. The idea is to spend time doing things I enjoy rather than just waste forgettable days at home, to get out and DO SOMETHING!

To pull in one final cliché writing a novel is a journey, a time consuming and incredibly frustrating one at times but also a fantastically enjoyable journey. Sitting at home isn’t a journey and certainly doesn’t contribute towards enjoyment. Going out and swimming in rivers, taking in museums, new restaurants or absolutely anything does.

With enough hard work and enough good luck the future will be exotic and exciting. There is no reason why the present can’t be un-exotic and exciting.

A list of 10.

Reading

A couple of weeks ago was ‘World Book Night’. World book night is an annual event where volunteers give away a number of books free of charge to people they know. The aim behind the project is to get new people interested in reading and to get current readers to engage with new authors or genres.

This year I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of Armistead Maupin’s ‘Tales of the City’. I had heard of neither the author nor the book which the blurb tells me is about ‘a naïve young secretary tumbling into San Francisco life’.

Aside from just giving and receiving new books the event serves to facilitate discussion about literature. During one such conversation I was asked to name a couple of personal favourite books that I would recommend, so I thought I would do a bit better and give 10.

Therefore I have decided to list my top 10 recommendations. The list has no underlying theme or purpose; it simply comprises 10 novels which I love.

Inevitably the list includes internationally renowned works, but also a couple of lesser known works from famous authors and a couple of novels which I consider ‘hidden gems’.

In Alphabetical order they are as follows

Burmese Days – George Orwell – Lesser known than 1984 or Animal Farm this remains my favourite Orwell. A scathing attack on the corruption he believed underpinned Imperialism, Orwell takes us on an ultimately tragic journey through the life of the European elite in small town Burma.

Colony – Hugo Wilcken – Set in French Guiana the heat and humidity drips from the pages. We’re in a penal colony where everybody has something to escape, whether that is the colony, the past or their own mind. The jungle heat haze blurs the lines between right, wrong, reality and fiction.

The Dharma Bums – Jack Kerouac – Another lesser known cousin of a famous author’s seminal work. Kerouac takes us crashing into hedonistic, beat, 1950’s San Francisco with cheap wine and bebop jazz before wrenching us away to climb mountains in search of the tranquillity of a world above the world. Buddhism meets Jazz.

For Whom the Bell Tolls/ A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway – Many people my age have been turned off of Hemingway after being forced to read The Old Man and the Sea at school. However in war we find Hemingway at his best. I have yet to read anyone who better describes the paradox of loneliness, comradeship and love that war brings. Set in Spain and Italy, where Hemingway served, allows him to work the prose into a much more colourful and relaxed environment than the bleakness of Northern Europe.

Kim – Rudyard Kipling – Once voted Britain’s favourite novel. We follow Kim and his Tibetan Lama through an India packed with enough colour and people to show the world in microcosm. Their search for enlightenment while Kim engages in espionage in the middle of ‘the Great Game’ is truly boys own stuff.

The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini – A huge bestseller since made into a film of the same name. Hosseini shows us Afghanistan through Afghan eyes and achieves a much better picture than any news outlet since 2001. The story is a heart shattering and dangerous quest for redemption from past wrongs.

Man’s Fate – Andre Malraux – Shanghai 1927 and a Communist uprising is being planned, poorly executed and brutally repressed. We feel our way half blind through the misty nights following Kyo, the idealist intellectual, Ch’en, the fanatical assassin, Clappique, the businessman gun runner and Katov, the revolutionary as they are all caught up in the inevitability of man’s fate.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey – This book holds such magnitude that it requires little introduction. Kesey creates an incredible exposition of the tyranny of mediocrity. In McMurphy we have the person we all should be; fearless, lively and unrelenting in his fight against Nurse Ratched’s tyranny. By paradox Chief Bromden is the silent witness we all too often find ourselves being.

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali – Gil Courtmanche – Set amidst the brutality of the Rwandan genocide Gilmanche carves a hymn to humanity, a love story amongst the carnage, while offering a searing indictment of both the massacre and the international response to it.

The Trial – Franz Kafka – K is arrested with no charge or explanation. Fighting for his life against a bureaucratic system which seemingly lacks logic Kafka has us feeling fear, unease and futility at facing an enemy/governance about which we know little The Trial has a surreal and morbid inevitability.

So next time you’re stuck for some holiday reading take one of these. You might just love them as much as I do.

I would love to hear any recommendations anyone has for me or indeed any opinions on the books in the list whether positive and negative.

In the meantime, happy reading!