All the things I remember from GCSE English

“‘Above all, these poems are preoccupied with loss.’ To what extent do you agree with this view of Wilfred Owen’s poems?”

Of course they’re preoccupied with loss. They’re about world war bloody one, and the misery of the humans involved, and the scale and magnitude of half a decade of desperation and confusion, when the old order toppled leaving nothing in its place but the industrialisation of death – it is all loss. I cannot answer your question. I cannot breathe for all that blood and gas. I cannot demean that world or its desperate literature by farting out essays of my own.

Nor can I tell you about George and Lennie, plucked from Of Mice and Men thanks solely to its brevity. Their slim lives spelled out a world so foreign to me that I have no hope of commenting on Steinbeck’s use of imagery and metaphor because I cannot get the girl in the red dress out of my head, nor stop the shudders from those clumsy, oblivious hands.

I remember Simon Armitage burning a girl’s hand, the 6 o’clock news in a Scottish accent, and I have the vaguest sense of a poem about race, whose title, I think, has now been censured, and erased from modern vocabulary.

I remember not reading Macbeth, just the summary plots notes at the top of each page, and feeling uncomfortable at our teacher’s attempts to make Romeo and Juliet relevant by highlighting all the references to sex, in a class whose own tender sexuality was already producing enough poems and crude jokes by itself.

I remember being asked why I didn’t participate, and what I was reading behind my text book, and did I think that was appropriate for my age. And I remember thinking, none of this is appropriate, it is brutal.

Your demands are a betrayal of all the characters that support me, and the lines and plots that sing inside me and I cannot answer your question on loss because my loss would be too great. The words are too real, too precious to me, but yet could bare none of your artificial scrutiny, because in this hollowed out war of a world, with its adult themes of work and sex and death blowing in from every corner – they are all that supports me.

And I remember reading, many years later, that there are moments in reading where a hand reaches out and takes yours. And then, bound across the ages, we reach out together and stick two fingers to your question.

1001 albums you must hear before you die (Second edition)

“What did you get for your birthday then?”
“Oh, you know, the usual. Some bath stuff, a CD or two and a couple of bits for the kitchen. Oh, and a book.”

Dear Auntie Jane,
Thank you very much for your kind gift, 1001 albums you must hear before you die. It really is an excellent book. As I’m sure you’re aware, I love music and this book will no doubt help me explore that interest further, with the added encouragement of it setting a deadline.

I have begun at once with Adam and the Ants’ Prince Charming – after all there is no time to lose, as the potted biographies of John Lennon (Imagine, #475), Freddie Mercury (A Night at the Opera, #786) and Kurt Cobain (Nevermind, #613) so gently remind me.

I note with interest that this is the second edition of 1001 albums you must hear before you die. I hope I have not wasted precious time by listening to a record that is no longer an essential auditory experience. I have used the book voucher Auntie Chris so kindly sent to buy the first edition. I will double-check and let you know.

Sorry to hear you are still in hospital. I wish you a full recovery, but if not, don’t forget to listen to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust before too much longer. I am told it’s excellent.
Your loving niece.
Kathryn

*~*
Subconscious credit due to Finnemore for that deadline gag, I think.
Oh, and the people in question are made up in my head.
*~*

A hand has come out and taken yours

I wrote someone a letter today. An electronic one, obviously. And that reminded me of a moment – must have been a couple of years ago – when just for a second, the world caved in.

The letter was about depression. Something I have had in a number of guises and severity levels, and something which I generally live with today, unbothered except for a few dark hours. Though aware that it could change at any moment.

I don’t know the person at all who I wrote to, beyond a few basic facts about her life, and that we share a few common interests. One of those interests is BBC quiz shows and we chat sometimes about their interconnected hosts and guests. Victoria Coren (Mitchell), for example.

As I wrote to – let’s call her Julia – I recalled something Victoria Coren wrote in the Observer a few years back. It’s to do, slightly, with depression and it completely took the wind out of me. Here it is:

“Should I wait until I stop waking up in the night in tears for everything I might be screwing up in my own life, holding on to heartfelt faith but doubting my own hopeful actions and inactions, staring my errors and fears and faults and massive life-gambles in the face, praying daily that this risky, bumpy and winding path leads home, before I start judging other people?”

Those words, appearing in stark contrast to the otherwise light-hearted commentary on drugs and the Olympics spoke so instantly and deeply into the state of my own soul, that is, the state of my own wakeful nights, that even though I was in the middle of an office during a busy working day, I simply sat at my monitor and cried. Not just through sadness, but through… recognition?

Now, this blog has lain fallow for a few months, partly due to life taking over, but mostly because I’ve been having far too much fun on Tumblr. Fun laughing and fangirling and -new word coming up- shipping various combinations of fictional people who seem real and real people from whom we’ve extrapolated so much they’ve basically become fiction. I love tumblr, life ruiner though it is.

Shall I tell you who I talk about most? It’s, in no particular order: Stephen Fry; Manic Street Preachers; Victoria Coren/David Mitchell; the BBC in general; Brideshead Revisited; Sherlock; Cabin Pressure; Monty Python… A collection of smart funny people whose public work I enjoy and whose private life I probably pay a bit too much attention to. And writing, music and books.

But, and here’s the point (FINALLY, you all cry), although I collect comedians, it’s not because they’re funny. Funny, I like. But things to knit my soul to… They come in the deeper moments, born when the darkness seems to sparkle. Moments, like the one above, when it feels as someone has been staring right into my very being, and shown me the reflection.

Here’s another one of those moments, which had the same flooring effect, and also makes the point far better than I can. From Alan Bennett’s diaries:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours”.

That’s when I fangirl the most. Except in those moments I’m not fangirling or shipping, I’m holding onto something, anything, for dear life because it feels as if someone has simultaneously given me the world and snatched the rug from under my feet.

And, back to depression, it’s these moments that in part – I would not wish to do disservice to the friends, family, faith and prayers that also carry me daily – that get me through. The knowledge that I am not alone, and the wider narrative of their lives which indicates that this black dog is neither all nor everything. A reminder that the sun does come. So when I say ‘I like Victoria Coren’ or ‘Alan Bennett’s a really great writer’, I do mean it, but what I also mean is: thank you.

Cruel Britannia

I tried to go home today. Back to the UK, I mean. I’d done everything properly. Last week I squeezed my belongings into two battered suitcases and even ventured to clean the oven. I shouldn’t like to leave an untidy flat for the next occupant.

Today, bag in hand and documents in wallet, I left the flat. I checked the post box, and descended the small flight of stairs to street level. The same as any day, except today I was going home.

Because Latvia is in the Eastern European time zone (GMT +2), and a flight from Riga to London takes two hours, it’s possible to make the journey in almost no time at all. If one is lucky it can take all of five earth minutes.

And so it was today. With little more than quiver on my clock, I arrived at the border, the last leg of my journey taking me across a junction, around the corner and past Queen’s – my local, and a pub as traditionally British as any you care to name.

The gate was locked, but in fairness, I hadn’t told them I was coming. Generally when I speak of going home, my fellow countrymen promise they will welcome me in at any time. I expected today to be no different. With cheeks flushed and a smile spreading at the thought of my green and pleasant land, I stood at the gate and rang the bell.

“Yes?” said a voice.
“Hello!” I said. “I’ve come home. Can I come in?”
“Who are you?” said the voice. “What do you want?”
“I want to come in,” I cried. “I’ve spent a year in Latvia and now it’s time to go home.”
“Do you have an appointment?” he crackled through the speaker.
“No, but I’ve got friends here. They said I should come and visit.”

There was a pause, then the electronic lock on the gate gave a clunk. I pushed the weighty frame aside and stepped over the threshold. I beheld not Anglia, but a security guard. The mystery voice.

“Do you have any ID?”

I handed him my driving license, hoping it would suffice as I’d carelessly left my passport in Latvia. The guard surveyed it briefly and asked me to wait. He then disappeared, leaving me trapped in customs limbo with a second guard keeping a watchful eye on my every move. What if Britain didn’t want me back?

Five minutes later he returned.

“Britain is in a meeting,” he stated. “Perhaps you should come back another day.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I will. Thanks so much for you time. Sorry to bother you.” Even if Britain is too busy to greet me, I will still maintain my customary apologetic politeness ‘wards her.

I turned to leave, all the time regretting that my beleaguered nation no longer runs its embassies like it used to. I walked all the way down the road and everything. A long road. And I was humming Jerusalem at the time.

Mind you – political territory or not – I’m not sure that little compound was truly our Great Isle after all, in soil or in spirit. Among other things, a sign on the gate indicated that no umbrellas were allowed.

(Fret ye not. I will actually return to the UK, properly, on 1st August.)

Stamp collecting

I thought since my own National Health Service is being roundly decimated* I’d write a bit about my recent exchange patient experience in a Latvian hospital.

Slow down, beating hearts! I wasn’t ill – I just had to prove it. Because I volunteer for a charity that works with disadvantaged children – day to day, this involves a strenuous workload of losing at Uno for five hours in a row – I had to acquire some offical documentation which stated I could breathe, had a blood pressure, and didn’t have TB. Apparently my ability to move and talk, and the massive vaccination scar on my left arm, was not evidence enough.

I had been directed to a health centre a few minutes walk from my house. After some preliminary investigation I decided the best course of action was to pay them a visit, wearing my best Latvian. You will be pleased to know that since we last discussed the matter, my Latvian language skills have progressed a little further down the road to fluency: I can now add to my list of essential phrases ‘I work with children’ and ‘Please can I have this?’, the latter accompanied with a hopeful gesture. With these two phrases waiting on the tip of my tongue and a bit of paper stating the exact form I required, I approached the receptionist.

She was the first and last person I met in the health centre who spoke any English. This was not unexpected but it certainly added a fissure of unwanted excitement to the proceedings. I performed my piece for her; she told me to go ‘over there’. I duly went ‘over there’ where about twelve other people were sat. I joined them, dug out P.G. Wodehouse’s Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen from my bag – could you find a book less Latvian, or rather, more conspicuously English? – and waited. An hour later, when I’d all but reached the end of Bertie’s adventure (he got engaged, had some comic japes with an animal, a fight with an aunt and was right in the pit until Jeeves came to his rescue – who’d have thought?) everyone else was gone. I had not been looked at once, never mind twice.

Wondering if I had gone to the right ‘there’ after all, I approached a doctor and recited my little speech to her. (As well as not speaking English, every professional I encountered from doctor to telephone answerer was a woman.) She gave me a variant on the classic Latvian Death Stare – more benign, but mixed with flushes of ‘you’re an idiot’ – and took me back to the receptionist.

Yes, my instinct proved right. I was not meant to be there, but there. There turned out to be a previously undiscovered room just to the right of reception. I creaked open the door having no clue what to expect on the other side. There were two woman who looked liked some degree of administrator. Time for that BAFTA awarding-winning recital again. This time my performance was met not with directions or death stares but questions.

Questions! I had not bargained on questions. I had my name, personal code (like a national insurance number, needed to do anything official here) and bit of paper with Precise Document Name on. What else did they need to know? Quite a lot apparently, so here I caved and rang the wonderfully bilingual head of the kids’ centre, and asked her to do a spot of interpreting. I know not what they said, except at the end of their brief conversation I was issued with an A6 booklet, a sheet of A4 paper and two small slips of paper barely a few inches square, and a demand for 10 lats (about £12). All my bits of paper had been photocopied to within a smudge of their life. I completed some personal details in my book, and in return I was given a stamp on one of the pages.

Achievement unlocked. I had now progressed to level two. I was instructed, in Latvian, to pay my money and then ‘come back when I was done’. So pleased was I that I had understood this instruction that I forgot to ask the crucial question: done what?

Paying I could do. I went to the receptionist. She relieved me of my cash and put two more stamps in my book. Uncertainly, I turned my attention to my bits of paper. Through the dark haze of photocopier ink I could just about make out a room number on each of the smaller slips. Not knowing what else to do, I decided to try my luck in the first, Room 214.

I eventually located this in the depths of the building and knocked on the door. No answer. But my earlier unnecessary waiting was instructive after all. I knew that whoever lay behind that door was with another patient and I simply had to wait, but this time with a magic appointment slip. We’ve been here before I thought, and dug out P.G. Wodehouse. About 10 minutes later it was indeed my turn.

I was gestured in, and Laurence Olivier himself would have swooned at the way I gave my ‘I work with children’ lines in perfect iambic pentameter. I was, however, entirely uncertain what the doctor was going to say or do to me. I sat in the patients’ chair at the side of her desk and tried to give a look that was a mix of amenable and expectant. Before long I had been examined and it was confirmed that I could breathe and my heart was beating (but not too fast). At least, that’s what I assume. The important thing was that I got two more stamps and was allowed to leave.

It was a similar story in Room 19, though I have even less idea what happened in there. I knocked and was called in instantly. After a standing ovation for what I hoped would be my final performance, the doctor invited me to take all my clothes off. The consulting room was a long rectangular affair on the ground floor. Along one of the long walls ran pane after pane of glass windows with no frosting or curtains, looking straight out onto the street. Or to put it another way, the street was looking straight in. There were some blinds, but as the window sill was lined from left to right with pot plants, it seemed unlikely that they were ever used.

I decided to defrock one piece at a time until she was happy. Surely she didn’t need me quite as God made me? Luckily not. (But if she did, how many stamps would I get?). In the end my state of undress was about 50% – I will not trouble you with the details – and I stood in the middle of the room while she answered the telephone. I turned my back to the window and waited, wondering if I could just reach over and stamp my slip myself.

Before long, we were back to me, but I still had no idea what I was meant to be doing, or even where I was. It is a very odd feeling indeed to be standing semi-naked on public display and have no real idea why, or any way of asking. The doctor took matters, and me, into her own hands and guided me towards a large brown plate with metalic lines across it that was pinned to the wall – right by the huge window, of course. She arranged me face first against this cold sheet and then ran away. There may have been a flash, but in my bemused confusion I can’t be sure.

She came back a couple of seconds later from a closet at the other end of the room. I can only assume I was x-rayed. If so then, teeth excepted, I’ve just had my first exposure to the revealing rays and I barely noticed! Ah well, all she has to do now is stamp by book and then –

Except she didn’t stamp my book. She told me to come back the next day. Return I did, only to find a different doctor in Room 19. Brilliant – an encore! This doctor stamped my book and slip, and victorious I returned to the admin people with all my ink and paper and did the hopeful/expectant look that features so prominently in my repertoire. The admin person looked at my vast collection, then promptly went back to the x-ray person to get a couple more. By this time, I estimate, I had about 11 stamps.

On her return she gave me a couple stamps more for good measure and then, the magic word – viss! All is done. You may go, officially certified as unharmful to children. So here I stand now, with all manner of awards and decorations. Now no one may doubt my Uno-playing qualifications, or, it seems, my ability to negotiate the unfamiliar world of post-Soviet healthcare. So far.

(I should say this much – despite my diversions into exaggeration and irony, all the staff in the health centre were helpful and understanding, slowing down their speech and gesturing where needed to help me to comprehend what delights I faced next. I don’t mean to demean them in any way. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised about how conceding they were to me. So, in the unlikely event that you go to the effort of translating this, thanks.)

*For those of you struggling with this assertion, I refer you to the Guardian Style Guide entry on use of Latin phrases: Some people object to, say, the use of “decimate” to mean destroy on the grounds that in ancient Rome it meant to kill every 10th man. [However] as our publications are written in English, rather than Latin, do not worry about any of this even slightly.
Secondly, I would note that the NHS, and everyone it serves, would suffer greatly from being reduced by even 10%. (I am not a supporter of the cuts that are currently being inflicted on the UK in the name of government.)
For those of you trying to work out what ’roundly decimated’ looks like, just understand that 10/π looks decidedly unhealthy and we’ll leave it at that.

Dear The Queen,

I wish to formally express my intention to apply for the post of Archbishop of Canterbury. I attach my application below. (I do hope that you are accepting outside applications; as I’m sure your Majesty is well aware our own Lord Jesus Christ was not himself one of the Pharisees or religious stalwarts of the day, and look what he achieved.)

Personal Statement*

About Kathryn
Kathryn is a loyal subject of your Majesty, so much so that she has moved to Latvia. (I am aware that should I be successful in my application, relocation will be mandatory. I trust the Palace has some kind of relocation loans scheme in operation.) She is currently self-employed and spends many days in her own company. Kathryn also volunteers regularly for a local charity which supports disadvantaged children. This quiet life of self-sacrifice ideally lends itself to the role of Archbishop, not least because it involves living in Canterbury, of all places.

Why I am suitable for the role of Archbishop of Canterbury
I feel I am uniquely placed to fulfil the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury for the following principle reasons:
– I hold moderate left wing views, which express themselves in a strong social conscience.
– I am a woman. Appointing me is a simple way to silence the debate about women in church leadership, as I can hold the debate privately, in my head.
– I know all the words to Jerusalem and Henry V’s ‘St. Crispin’s Day’ speech.
– I believe in full seperation of church and state. My appointment will neutralise me and render me harmless to the Anglian church. (Do you really want to leave me on the outside pissing in? Well do you? Don’t cross me, your majesty, I have a blog and I’m not afraid to use it.)
– I look stupid in any hat so that one won’t matter.

Transferable skills
I can read, write, speak, listen and create dodgy powerpoint presentations as much as the next person.

Education and qualifications
– I was christened into the Anglican church, and I went on to play Mary-Mother-of-Jesus in the 1994 nativity. Previously I gave my ‘Angel number three’ and ‘Surprised lamb’ to great applause. All this was years ago; I must be due for a promotion by now.
– I possess three bibles in two languages.
– I have a half-GSCE in Religous Studies (A grade). For my final paper I debated the ethics of George Orwell and Brian May. (You like Brian May, your Majesty, he’s been on your roof. Allow me to ingratiate myself to you further, your Highness, by stating that I like him too.)

Other notable achievements
– I once prayed over a broken CD player, which subsequently worked.
– While at University in Sheffield, I walked up a truly massive hill to get to church each week. If that doesn’t spell commitment to the faith, I don’t know what does.

Closing remarks
I should also add, although I hope it does not hinder my application, that I am a practising christian and I do believe in God, Jesus and the Holy spirit. And, of course, your majesty’s continued health. I don’t fancy that Charles as a boss, thank you very much.

Thank you for your time, your Highness. I trust in your prompt response.

*I have diverged from the standard ‘CV’, lest your Majesty find the Latin unhelpfully Roman in its tastes.

Stalking tour of Camden

I do not know Stephen Ryder personally but I know where he lives. I know that he is married and has a young family. I know what he does for a living, where he likes to go at weekends and what his tastes in television are.

He didn’t tell me any of this directly; I read it in the papers and online. Stephen writes for a national newspaper, as do many of his friends and family. He’s not what you’d call famous but he is well known to the middle-aged middle classes. And me. Because I know where he lives.

Stephen, I should add, is not his real name. I’ve given him a new one to protect his privacy. Sort of. See, all that stuff about his job and his tastes he wrote himself and let it be published. His frank, open style is part of what makes his submissions entertaining. He’s written about his family, friends, holidays and working habits. But the one thing he categorically did not give out what his address. Yet I know it.

Here’s how. Stephen’s style is not only open, but detailed. He’s not shy of describing a pub as his ‘local’ or mentioning an ammenities centre ‘at the end of [his] road’. Over the weeks and months I read his contributions, I built up a pretty good mental map of his local area. More than once I’ve visited these same roads and shops, always half-excited in case I bumped into the illustrious man. How cool would that be?

Not cool at all, is the correct answer. I’m not that kind of nutjob and I don’t wish to be. Here’s the crucial thing: it’s my local area too. (Or was before I moved to Latvia.) I recognise all those shop and pub names because I walk past them each day, down the same roads that he does. The only reason I know where he lives is because I live there too. So that’s OK right?

Well, maybe. First off there’s Google Search, Maps and Street View. I don’t really want to dwell on the great privacy panic of the 2010s but it is worth noting that in previous times one would have to know an area to – like me – recognise its shop names from a newspaper article. Nowadays one can plug the names into the all-knowing fact machine up pops an address, complete with handy instructions on how to get there. You can do that from Canada, sure, but you’re unlikely to cross the Altanic to visit Stephen’s favourite pub. He’s not that famous.

The cross-referencing isn’t always deliberate though. Here’s another thing I know about Stephen: he’s related by marriage to a famous comedian. It was an accidental discovery made by reading two articles by two different people. One mentioned a circumstance but no name, and another mentioned a related circumstance and a name. Together, I could make the match. I didn’t want or need to know this, and I feel a little bit awkward that I do, as to my knowledge it’s never been mentioned publically. I know I have my heroes but I hate to intrude. Not a stalker.

I have an odd relationship with fame and the famous these days. I used to think I was ‘above’ the gossip-mongering of Now! magazine and the like, but I’ve realised recently that I’m not. I have people I hold in esteem and I quietly enjoy their twitter feeds and the FYtumblr streams dedicated to them. I get excited about their lives and like to watch them through my collection of little glass screens. Just because Victoria Coren isn’t as ubiquituous as Victoria Beckam, doesn’t mean that my interest is any more appropriate.

But it is OK as long as there’s a distance. Other people are not my property. Only, when I like things, I like them lots (cf. Manic Street Preachers, Sherlock etc). So I try to be principled: only know what’s public, only ask what’s relevant. The distance can be through space (I will not go to Newport to hunt down Nicky Wire, because it’s inconvenient. And wude.), metaphysics (Sherlock Holmes was not real so I can happily visit his fake address and buy branded pens), or time (Michael Palin’s diary were written in the 1970s so walking down the same road now is fine). So while I like what Stephen writes, while he lives just around the corner from me, now, in real life, it would not be OK to persue that.

Knowing about Stephen’s half-hidden comedy connection isn’t really bad, it’s just a bit weird. While it does make me feel uncomfortable, it’s still just a piece of information. I imagine that all the people involved know about it – of course they do – and to anyone else it’s meaningless if good gossip.

What is seriously not OK what happened the other day. I was walking in the Camden area, having been for a stroll on the heath, and took the route back to my house, which happens to run along the street where Stephen lives. It’s a long road, but as I passed one of the houses, I immediately knew he lived there (or if not there then next door). Some tell-tale recent building work, also mentioned in his regular output gave me the final clue. Now I know not just where abouts he lives, but his actual address. And then, presumably, post code, phone number whatever – should I want to.

I really do not want to. I’m angry that I even know this much. Suddenly, without even trying, I’m one of those weird people that the police know about. All because I read newspaers. Screw Stephen and his compromised privacy. I feel violated.

We were never told it would all be so beautiful

I’m holding good on my promise to finally, properly write that book that’s been bugging me for about five years. Provisionally titled ‘Lo! The Flat Hills Of My Homeland’* it is, like most first books, a lot about me in disguise, but also a lot about things that aren’t me, an element which fiction leaves me free to express.

Five years is a long time, and I’ve been stop-starting all over the place. As I was digging out some notes from deep within my hard drive, I came across this, first written a couple of years ago, from before I made the switch to fiction. I won’t be using it any more, but I thought I’d post it here because it outlines one of the themes I want to get across in my story, and from a personal perspective I stand by every word.

Unlikely Army

I am struggling to start this. I want to. It’s been on my mind for days and now and in my heart for much, much longer. But I can’t. You know why? Because I am gripped by a powerful cocktail of coffee, a song I love, and the resulting feeling of peace and affirmation that lies within the two.

Actually, the coffee isn’t that important, but it heightens the feelings. I am slouching on my bed, propped up against the wall. And when I am not looking at this screen, I raise my gaze slightly and see the opposite wall covered in black & white photos of the Manic Street Preachers. They wrote this song, Motorcycle Emptiness, that is currently holding me captive.

I adore this song. It’s stuck by me through thick and thin. The words are joyous (but believe me, not joyful) and the music’s the sort you can hum, air guitar and blast out depending on your mood. It’s also over six minutes long, so long I can truly bathe in it and appreciate every resonating sound.
Oh hang on, I’ve got going now. I’ve gotten into writing this and the grip of the song has loosened slightly. In writing about my situation, it altered. I’m no longer lost in it, but viewing myself from the outside. And as I do, I realise that the symphony of emotions and senses I’ve just described exists somewhere else too: when I worship Christ.

This thought crystallises and I feel slightly dirty; like I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. How can I look upon a pop band the same way I look upon God? Isn’t this idolatry, forbidden outright in the ten commandments? It isn’t, though looking back across my years, it might have been once. Today, I know I adore the Manics but I do not worship them. I know some of their flaws and I know some of their strengths, and I know that they cannot save me. I don’t want to worship them because I know that they are just like me: human. By contrast, Christ I know and love as God and my saviour. I love to worship Him, for he is the only one worth worshipping.

So what of that moment then, lying on my bed loosing myself to the Manics? Well, chances are you don’t know me, and I could get away with saying it was just me enjoying music, something which we all do. Who hasn’t drunk from a melody before, let the notes flow right through them? I could just say that. But it wouldn’t be true. The feelings that fell through me during that moment of musical indulgence were of joy, thankfulness and belonging, tinged with memories of sorrow but met with laughter at the way things have turned out. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said it was like worship. And the reason I feel that way is because that’s what happened.

Long before I fell in love with Christ I fell in love with a pop band. Four blokes from South Wales who would, in a matter of months, change the course of my life. (Of course God was there too, but I didn’t know it at the time). Speaking of politics, philosophy and misery, they broke, then re-created my teenage self into something very similar to the model you can find today. It was alternative education which taught me that knowing how to feel is far more important than what you feel. I was given an identikit identity to cover up my lack of self-worth and away we went.

That’s the key: identity. As I built around myself around the Manic Street principles of intelligence, anger and introspection, Christ was breaking in. He asked me to build myself around him. He gave me understanding, peace and love to match. As I submitted myself to Christ I realised that were some areas where the Manics and God might not get on. I had to make choices about my life and beliefs. Who, when crunch time came, was I really going to side with?

This wasn’t always a debate I could have in private, with just the three (or eight?) of us. I had friends, some of whom would come firmly down on a particular side, others fence sitting, but they were all still watching. And as well as my personal decisions, there was scrutiny from opposing sides. From Manics fans who didn’t like my faith, and from Christians who were unnerved by my devotion to this strange group of androgynous guitar-wielders. This was a battle for my identity and life, and it was being played out in public. I was scared of doing the wrong thing, scared of confrontation, and scared of losing my friends.

I write this in the past tense, but it’s still going on. The Manics are the biggest player, but there’s others too: science, sexuality, other music, culture, comedy… There are so many elements of my life where, rightly or wrongly, I feel like a double outsider. A stranger to both worlds. I feel so often as if I can’t take my Christianity to my culture: it’s ridiculed, hated or ignored. And that I can’t enjoy my pleasures, ask questions or reveal my hurts to many fellow Christians, mainly because I fear being misunderstood, dismissed as sinful and excluded because of them.

I felt trapped in this for ages. Now the debate goes on, but I walk (mostly) in freedom. Stef, the pastor of our church speaks of us as ‘a right rag-taggle bunch’, or more seriously as ‘God’s unlikely army’. The moment I heard this, I loved it. I am odd, unconventional and struggle to feel 100% comfortable in any earthly arena (if truth be told, I actually quite like it this way). We all are. Whether I feel it more than most, I couldn’t say. But I do know this: the Holy Spirit lives inside me, so wherever I go, I take God with me, and can do his work. He will use me, often in spite of me and my screw-ups. And it’s not that my strangeness doesn’t matter to God. No, it’s better than that: I am allowed to be strange!

Hearing those words, unlikely army, gave me the strongest grip on my identity that I’ve ever had, and sent everything else cascading into place. I don’t have to try to be ‘christian’, whatever that is. I am one because I place my whole life at Christ’s feet. It set me free to build my own identity, based on Christ, but tied into things I enjoy on this earth too. I am an outsider, I am odd, and I am God’s. He’s changed me, and will keep on changing me, but I don’t have to become a clone.

On the face of it, this [book] is about my faltering attempts to take God to these outside places and to find God in them (after all, I believe he is everywhere). But beneath it all, I hope it shows Christ in all his glory, making himself known in the most unexpected ways, and ultimately changing my life.

*Not really, but you get geek points if you understand. Geek points can be redeemed for cookies.

There is a light in your eyes.

Riches I need not, nor man’s empty praise.
Thou my inheritence now and always.

Self-confidence has never been my strong suit. My earthly identity is the classic conflict of the shy and odd: I’m happy to be left-field as long as I’m not left alone. My spiritual identity tells me that Jesus is all the strength I need. I find myself in the middle of this needing ultimate validation from God and kind support from fellow humans.

And on this earth I have my close friends and distant inspirations. Of this second group they’re the usual crowd: writers, comedians and musicians mostly. This combination is specific to me but the pattern is repeated everywhere. Everyone has their own favourite books, lyrics and films, right? Maybe less commonly (but not, I don’t think, unusually) I also care about the people behind them, the authors and actors. And when one of these distant inspirations speaks of God, my God, my heart is filled with joy.

There’s the bass player & lyricist whose hunt for God in a mixed up world often reduces me to tears. And the stroppy guitarist whose lullaby to his baby boy so perfectly reflects God’s love for us. I liked these two anyway, their bands massive parts of my life, but once I understood these moments I was overjoyed.

Being honest, I don’t know much of their faith. Each example makes up only a tiny fraction of their output. I can’t be certain of it and I’d not dare proclaim it on their behalf, but it’s visible enough for me to take hold of it. You see, there are any number of outsider icons to be had, and any number of christian examples, but often they seem worlds apart. To find someone who’s even slightly both (and therefore, I can be both) is massive. It’s like this book says: God’s in the imperfect attempts so much more than pious righteousness.

There’s a third. A writer, who’s autobiography and columns allow me to know a little of her mind and again I find something of me, and of God. (And again I wouldn’t dare to presume anything about the shape of her belief, other than that on some level it’s there.) From afar, I enjoy her humour and grin when God gets a look in. And then on a train journey yesterday, there was a moment of twitter weirdness. The way it brings one – somewhat falsely – to those who used to be distant is confusing at times and this was one of them. This woman who’s life I’ve grown to care about is publically upset. I sympathise. But it’s more than that. I find myself praying, fervently for this woman I don’t know and I’ve never met. I ask God to comfort her. I ask Him to be her light in the darkness, thinking how if there wasn’t darkness then it’d be pretty pointless having such a powerful light as Jesus.

I stop. Because it feels far too weird. But not before God’s had a few words with me too. It’s a weekly battle to get me to church. A daily battle to get me to pray. I wasn’t going to go, yesterday, Sunday, because I was feeling antisocial. Sometimes I don’t want to go because I decide I’m doing well enough and don’t need it. Sometimes I don’t want to go because there’s so much darkness it would be painful to look at the light. All are rubbish. What God demanded to know on that train was how come I could be so desperate for one person I don’t know and in the same breath decide he isn’t worth two hours of my life?

Ouch. Truth is, I’m very good at behaving like Arthur in Spamalot.

(Yes, look, I know Monty Python isn’t the most likely source of spiritual guidance but it’s true. I’m so good at the woe is me thing I forget God in the hour I need him most.)

So, firmly kicked up the bum, I went. It did me the world of good. As I walked home I pondered the whole strange afternoon. Is this is how God is meant to work? None of this made sense and I felt like a stalker. Then again I was reminded of the light in the darkness. It’s got to be odd, off, weird, strange, dark sometimes. That’s where God does his best work.

New generation calling.

On the face of it, this post might seem like it’s about yet another obscure piece of fan trivia, the kind that Fact & Breakfast makes its bread and butter. But it isn’t. This post is about the internet, libraries, user generated content and how – despite what some might have you think – they are not diametrically opposed but work together for all kinds of end. (Including, admittedly, solving obscure bits of fan trivia.)

Side A: Problem finding

In October 1994 Suede released their second album Dog Man Star. In October 2002 I fell in love with it. In June 2011 Suede re-released it as a ‘deluxe’ edition featuring demo and pre-edit versions of some tracks. Last week, I played these new versions for the first time and awoke some old curiousities.

So I did what I always do.

There are no results except a link to the Suede forum. Well, I guess if anyone’s going to know it’s them.

Oh.

I have come to rely on the internet to tell me things. Before I was merely curious. Now, after being told I shall never know, I am determined that I will. So, I think, maybe there’s some clues within the clip. The newly-released deluxe version is two minutes longer and has more samples. There must be a hint of something in there.

I listen. You can listen to the standard album version. The extended version is similar. The main difference in the sample is a few seconds seemingly broadcast from the Cheltenham races. But can any of it help me? As it turns out, yes. And it all hangs on the closing seconds of the song. …here at Cheltenham.

Side B: Problem solving

How? Here’s how my thought process went:
Key assumption: That the Suede forum is right and the sample was recorded directly off TV. This thesis is supported by the white noise sounds that break up the sample.
Therefore: TV has a broadcast date. Broadcast schedules are published. Determine the date > Locate schedule > Name film.

Easy. What’s the date?

We need TV schedules across three months in 1994. Range too big.


We need TV schedules for every day in April-July 1994 that there was racing at Cheltenham. Still a potentially large range.


The sample mentions that the horses will also be at Newton Abbot today. We need TV schedules for every day in April-July 1994 when there was racing a Cheltenham and subsequent racing at Newton Abbot.

Let’s compare racing schedules for Cheltenham and Newton Abbot and see where they coincide.
Cheltenham race schedule
Newton Abbot race schedule

There’s only one match: 20th April 1994. (The 27th April is also a possibility as there’s racing at Newton Abbot two days later, and I can conceive that horses might travel a day or so before a race. We’ll keep that one as a back-up).

Cool, who has TV schedules?
Not Google, it’s too long ago. But in those pre-historic days of the early 90s, they were at least published. On paper. But who’s got a copy of them now?

Enter Westminster library, who kindly give me access to UK Press Online.

A bit of boolean querying. I knew that degree in Information Science was good for something. Not that one really needs a degree to understand boolean operators.


Dear UK Press Archives. Please can you show me all pages from the 20th April 1994 with the words ‘Television’ OR ‘TV’ please? Ta.

Yes, indeed it can.

Full image

There’s the Cheltenham races on BBC2, and then at the same time:
– On ITV a studio talk show which accounts for the If you’d like to take part in fu-… bit of the sample;
– On BBC1 Hawaii Five-0 which might explain the violent punching sounds. Or that might just be Brett and Bernard finally loosing it;
– and, wonderfully on Channel 4 a film, Woman’s World, from 1954 (plummy accents) and according to Wikipedia a character called Bill.

Bing-bloody-go.

I posted my findings back on the Suede forum with the caveat that (a) I’m a complete geek and (b) I could be wrong and it’s all been a collossal waste of time.

A day later, this was posted:

Here’s the video clip – a direct result of all this wrangling.

My level of excitement was beyond embarassing:

Hidden track: Why bother?

16 years of uncertainty over in a couple of hours. But like I said, this isn’t a post about obscure fangirl things. I’ve written this screed to prove a point.

As meaningless as this discovery is, I couldn’t have made it without databases (racing and TV schedules), search engines (Google), or user-created content (forums and wikipedia). And I certainly couldn’t have made it without Westminster library telling me the press archive even existed, and then paying for me to access it. I reached it from my own PC and all I needed was my library card number.

Those TV schedules are on the net, but not Google-able. So are dozens of other databases, reference books and collections. Not only do we collectively not know they’re there, we don’t know how to work them and are unwilling to pay for them when we do. Libraries, God bless libraries, solve the last one, though I really wish they’d shout more about the first two.

But this isn’t a post about how wonderful libraries are, though I’ve been known to write them in the past. The point I want to make is that databases and early computers did not kill libraries, or render them obsolete. The internet did not do away with structured information or negate the need for books. User-generated content, when used with sound mind, enhances rather than destroys ‘proper’ sources.

I needed all of these to make this meaningless discovery. We could make things of actual value if we learned to stop polarising old and new, formal and fun, tactile and virtual, and just enjoyed the wealth of information that – with a little effort – is available at our fingertips. This rant is a little without context, but think of the number of X or Y debates there are – Mac OR PC, print OR screen, facebook OR real friends – and think of this as the same. Not or, both. BOTH.

High horse off. Over and out. Time to listen to Still Life.