Monday, 5 October 2015

On Contentment

I just got back yesterday from two glorious days climbing at Stanage Edge in the Derbyshire Peak District. Amazing weather for October - warm, dry, even occasionally sunny - and thankfully the midges which plagued our last visit have nearly all gone.

Returning to rock climbing after a break of twelve years, something has changed. Well, obviously; I'm not getting any younger and I'm certainly less fit. But there are mental changes as well as physical. The drive to climb isn't the same; I'm less willing to force a way through the feeling of danger in order to reach the next island of relative safety; there’s no strong sense of purpose.

It’s hard to say exactly what that purpose was in the past, although I remember its effect as a burning need to go climbing, rendered all the stronger by being mostly unfulfilled. Perhaps it was a need for achievement; looking back, that was probably something missing from any other source at the time. Was I looking to prove something – as much to myself as to anyone else - about who I was? Perhaps it was about identity; I was in my mid to late 40s, family growing up fast, and for much of my adult life identity had been pretty much defined by parenthood. Personal achievements came way down the priority list. Or perhaps I just needed challenges where I was completely in control of overcoming them.

So what’s changed? Certainly, that driving need for achievement and the search for identity beyond family seem to have gone, although whether that is through fulfilment or abandonment is far from clear (and perhaps worthy of further thought another time). But I guess I don’t feel that I have anything to prove any more, least of all to myself.

I've begun to feel old. I don’t mean that in any negative sense; not as something unwelcome, to be fought against; not as a judgement. Simply that I'm passing from one stage of life to another. The outward changes are simple and obvious - children leaving home, retirement, a few more grey hairs. But there are accompanying inward changes too. One’s outlook changes; motivation changes; thought patterns themselves change. And I think a feature of that change, coming when you’re already two-thirds of the way through life, is becoming comfortable with who you are and what you've done. That’s not to say that there isn't still plenty of scope for doing more – in fact there’s a huge freedom to do more now that doing is driven by choice rather than by need. And maybe that’s what has changed – I no longer need the adrenaline rush, the escapism, the self-validation that climbing brings. If I choose climbing now, it is for different reasons than it was fifteen years ago.

We didn't do a huge number of climbs over the two days. It would be easy to default to seeing that as a disappointment. But this is how my outlook has now changed: it is enough simply to be there, spending time climbing, in good company. How many ticks you can put in the book and against what grades are barely relevant if you are content with each moment.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Much Ado About Nothing

Recently, I was supposed to be playing in the band for a charity production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat". Last minute changes meant that there was no live band, and no-one to play Jacob. As I already had the dates in my diary, I allowed my arm to be twisted... 

So, was it a big deal, or wasn’t it? It feels huge, and it feels trivial, all at the same time.

Those whose passion for as long as they can remember has been performing, probably won’t have a clue why anyone could possibly be worried about being on stage, singing a few lines solo in front of an audience. But that’s something I’d never have believed I’d ever do. If I’d had time to consider it properly, I’m sure it would have felt like a huge mountain to climb, even though in reality all I had to do was don a costume, wig and beard, shuffle on stage, sit in a rocking chair, nod sagely and sing a few simple lines. Hardly an Oscar-winning performance; hardly a performance at all, really. So what is there to be nervous about? 

And therein lies the key to the riddle – much to my surprise, no nerves materialised. There simply wasn’t time. In any case, nerves would be a borrowed fear, something whose origin comes from outside self. I “ought” to be nervous, because that’s what’s expected. But the moment the question was asked – would I do it? – alongside that instinctive urge to say no, there popped up a totally unexpected person inside who actually rather fancied the idea, seeing it not as a trial but as an adventure. It makes me wonder who else is hidden in there...

It must have been that little spark of excitement that tipped the balance and made it possible to see beyond any worries and reframe it all as an adventure. I’m too old to pass up the opportunity for an adventure.

The bottom line is that it was no big deal after all. The role was tiny, the audience – though hugely appreciative and filling the hall – was small, and expectations all round were of fun rather than professional polish. 

There are any number of ways of splitting humanity into two camps; one such way is to divide it into those who revel in performing on stage and those who shrink from the very idea. I thought I was one of the latter; now I’m not quite so sure...

Friday, 23 May 2014

Why did I stop writing?

A couple of days ago, out of the blue, I had an email from someone who had come across my old blog and wondered what had caused me to stop writing. It’s a long time since I wrote much more than a brief paragraph of Facebook status update, but something gave me an inkling that it might be worth exploring the answer to that question. Four pages of scrawl later...

Why did I stop writing?

There are so many possible answers to that question, and I’m not sure I even know just how much – or how little – they really give an honest or complete answer, but here goes.

When I started my blog, back in 2003, one of the first decisions was whether to adopt a pseudonym or whether to blog under my own name. At that time, hardly anyone in the UK had even heard the word “blog”, let alone read them or had one, so the chance of anyone I knew in “real life” coming across it seemed vanishingly small. It felt dishonest, inauthentic, to blog anonymously so from day one my blog carried my full identity. To begin with, that worked out fine. Within a few months I was sharing some of my innermost thoughts, both on my blog and through comments on others’ blogs, and found unexpected delight in the community of like-minded souls of which I somehow became a part. But as time went on, this “hiding in plain sight” was no longer possible. Blogs went mainstream (for a while, before Facebook and Twitter took over) and people I knew in the real world began to discover my online presence. That might not have mattered, but my online self exposed parts of me that were usually hidden to others; I became more circumspect, more aware of the potential knock-ons if what I wrote got read by people I’d rather didn’t see it. That in itself may not have killed the blog, but it certainly was one of the nails in the coffin.

I think perhaps others blogging at that time felt something similar. Those first years of the 21st century seem to have been a golden age of blogging. We felt like pioneers exploring limitless new territories – but sparsely populated territories, so there was a spirit of comradeship, sharing what we knew, supporting each other, offering a form of hospitality – opening our doors to strangers and inviting them in. But as this world became more populous, the barriers began to go up; people retreated inside their walls. There was a sense of “now what?” The community lost its vibrancy and vitality and began to stagnate. People drifted away and for whatever reason weren’t replaced by new virtual friendships.

Perhaps that was one reason my own outlook went through a change. At one time, this new-found virtual world assumed such importance for me that it almost eclipsed the real world. These connections made with friends around the globe felt deeper and more significant than the connections with most of those around me, immediate family excepted. But even family belonged to a different world. It seemed that blogging gave an opportunity to sidestep the facade that many of us maintain – knowingly or unknowingly – and connect at a deeper, more intimate level. This led to something of a crisis in my own life, albeit one that I kept mostly hidden in the everyday world. This new-found persona was locked in combat with the “old me”, and I spent 18 months having counselling to try and resolve the struggle and allow both sides to live in harmony. But in the course of this, something strange happened. I was beginning to realise that, attractive as the possibilities of this “new me” were, I couldn’t ignore the old me and the real world. I was neglecting my job big-time; my whole focus had drifted into something that, looking back now, seems almost a fantasy world. I made a decision that, whatever else, I needed to make a real effort to take work more seriously. After all, there were bills to be paid and a family to support. 

Without meaning to, I banished my muse. It happened in a dream; I was in a room full of people, and there were two of me, as two distinct people – the old, familiar me, and this new person, almost a stranger, whose motives and potential actions scared the old me rather. In the dream, I was looking through the eyes of the old me, and for some reason, without being aware of any motivation, I suddenly lashed out at the new me – and he vanished, in a flash of light, as in some magician’s trick. He never reappeared. I kept the blog going for some while after that, but it was never the same. Eventually I closed it down, but not wanting to abandon writing completely, I started another - this one. It was never the same though; no community of friends, no real purpose in writing; my heart had gone out of it.

So I’d lost the drive to write. But where had that drive come from in the first place? When I began blogging, it wasn’t out of any burning desire to communicate or to express myself; I certainly didn’t feel I had any writing talent. It was more a matter of curiosity, and a desire to be part of something interesting and exciting. To begin with, I was perfectly satisfied to post just a short simple paragraph based on some observation or experience from the day. But as time went on, and I read more blogs and gathered more readers to my own, I found to my surprise that people seemed to appreciate what I had to say. I began to try and craft my words more carefully, and people seemed to appreciate that too. I was hooked – but not actually on writing itself, rather on the recognition that came from writing. I’d post something in the evening, then rush downstairs in the morning eager to see what comments has appeared overnight (as most readers were in North America, UK overnight encompassed their evening). Coming from a background of science and engineering, I was something of a geek – a techy, usually only becoming verbose and excited over intricate technical details. Never in a million years did I imagine I’d find people calling me “a writer”, yet here they were, many of them genuinely good writers in their own right – even some professionals. I even got a mention in the Washington Post.

There was a dark side though. It raised my expectations of myself by an order of magnitude. Suddenly I was censoring, editing, word-smithing, anxious to maintain a standard, and more to the point the recognition that resulted. There was good and bad in that – I think my writing did actually improve, but there was a cost, in that more and more I became dissatisfied with what I wrote. Where once I might have posted a spontaneous paragraph giving raw expression to something, now I edited and rewrote so much that the original emotion was left on the cutting room floor.

It was probably that developing writer in me that enabled me to continue writing long after I’d so unceremoniously kicked out my muse, my alter-ego. I guess that in order to answer the question of why I stopped writing, I have also to address the question of why I banished him.

If I’m honest, I guess it was fear – fear of where he might lead me. I was starting down a road going in a radically different direction to that which I’d been following for the previous fifty years. This wasn’t just about writing; I was uncovering aspects of self I barely even knew were there. Things that had lain dormant in my psyche for decades; creatures left to slumber were beginning to stir. I was afraid what might happen if they fully woke up and began flexing their muscles.

Some time before all this, I’d seen something similar happen to others. At that time, I was studying counselling at evening classes, as a precursor to try and shift career into management development. Odd choice for an engineer, I know, but that’s another story, albeit perhaps linked by those dormant aspects of self. Although originally I was only doing this because it was recommended as a first step, I found an unexpected affinity with the precepts, especially of Carl Rogers’ “Person Centred” approach. There were a couple of people on that course who unexpectedly quit part way through. Although no reason was given, my guess is that, like me, they’d realised they were going down a path which led somewhere that, from the perspective of where they then stood, they were scared to be.

Who can say whether those choices – theirs and mine - were good or bad choices? Exploring new paths, to continue the metaphor, might be exciting and lead to wonderful new lands, or they might lead to a back-breaking tumble over a cliff edge or drowning in a swamp.

Perhaps that exposes another reason why I stopped writing. Life on the edge is exciting; safe is boring. Without fully realising what I was doing, not for the first time in life I opted for safety, living in a comfortably upholstered rut. There’s little worth writing about there.

Five years down the line, life continues to be largely comfortable. Maybe some discomfort wouldn’t go amiss.

Thursday, 19 April 2012


If I had anything to say, I might start writing again.  But I suspect the stuff I might say is getting held back, blocked behind the stuff I can't (or won't) say.  I guess that means it's time to start writing morning pages again.

Friday, 16 September 2011

A landscape of interminable undulations

“…all this had caused him most unpleasant dreams; waking at very early dawn… he had found himself comparing this ghastly journey with his own life, which had first moved over smiling level ground, then clambered up rocky mountains, slid over threatening passes, to emerge eventually into a landscape of interminable undulations, all the same colour, all bare as despair.  These early morning fantasies were the very worst that could happen to a man of middle age; and although the Prince knew that they would vanish with the day’s activities he suffered them acutely all the same, as he was used enough to them by now to realise that deep inside him they left a sediment of sorrow which, accumulating day by day, would in the end be the real cause of his death.”

From "The Leopard" by Giuseppi Tomasi di Lampedusa

Monday, 29 August 2011

Trial By Jury

I spent the last 2 weeks on jury service; it left me with real doubts about the fairness of our famed English justice.  This is an attempt to get my thoughts in order before possibly following up elsewhere. [Updated 13:30 30th August 2011].

Remember the description of planet Earth in Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”?  Mostly harmless.   Trial by jury is a bit like that – mostly fair and effective.  But not entirely so; it may be good but it isn’t perfect.  Even after all these years, flaws remain.   Any business manager worth his salt will tell you that system design should be open to continuous improvement, uncovering the flaws and refining them out of the system, but one senses that the English judicial system has become too inflexible to allow adaptation.  While there’s no obvious case for revolution, the principle of continuous improvement means there is always a case for evolution, yet the system seems too rigid to permit even the contemplation of the minor tweaks that could address the flaws.  Flaws that in some cases result in justice so crude it verges on being arbitrary.

The adversarial system – a theatrical and sometimes barely civilised battle between opposing counsels for prosecution and defence – inevitably tends to create two interpretations of the circumstances of an alleged crime that are polar opposites.  Prosecution paints the defendant as blacker-than-black, pulling out every shred of evidence that can be used to bring out his or her guilt.  The defence, always on the back foot since the prosecution necessarily goes first, attempts to create an opposing view, re-interpreting events to put the defendant in the most positive and sympathetic light that the evidence allows.  Perhaps if a simple verdict of guilty or not guilty is all that the jury is required to decide, this approach is good enough.   No nuanced judgement is required, there are no shades of grey, just a simple verdict of did or didn’t the defendant commit the act of which they stand accused.

If our case had been that simple in its structure, there would have been no problem.  But it wasn’t that simple.

Although there was only one incident – a stabbing – there were two charges, one an alternative to the other; unlawful and malicious wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, or a lesser charge of simply unlawful and malicious wounding, without any statement of intent.  The difference between the two charges has very little to do with the cause of wounding, but is about the intent behind the action.  The jury is asked to determine, on the basis of the evidence, not only what actually happened, but what was in the mind of the defendant at the time.  It is important to recognise that both charges are of malicious wounding – wounding that was deliberate as opposed to accidental – but the more serious of these charges concerns the intention behind the act of wounding.  Did the defendant intend “merely” to hurt the victim, or did he intend to cause really serious harm?

This makes the task of the jury more complicated on two counts, compared to a simple “did he or didn’t he” verdict.

Firstly, they are asked to evaluate not only facts, but what was going on in the mind of the defendant, which they can only infer from the details of the circumstances surrounding the actions.  Secondly, they have to make a fine value judgement, placing that intent somewhere on a continuum between accident (“I only meant to scare him”) at one end of the scale and attempted murder at the other.  Furthermore, having placed the perceived intent on that continuum, they have to determine whether it sits on one side or the other of a dividing line called “intent to cause grievous bodily harm”.  And as if that wasn’t enough, they have to figure out for themselves exactly where that dividing line itself sits on the continuum.  This is a whole different ball game to the simple “did he or didn’t he” form of verdict.

Answering “did he or didn’t he” commit the act fits comfortably within the black and white framework constructed by the adversarial approach of prosecution and defence.   But that approach gives very little substance with which the jury can work in that uncertain middle ground where they have to try and unpick the hyperbole and establish  exact shades of grey where the only colours presented to them have been black and white. The whole thrust of the prosecution is that the defendant is guilty of the more severe charge; the defence’s line is that the defendant didn’t even carry out the act so how they be guilty of either charge? At no point in the court proceedings does anyone - neither defence or prosecution counsel nor the judge - address the evidence in a way which might shed any light on the possibility that the defendant is only guilty of the lesser charge. 
To reach a fair verdict in these circumstances, the jury needs knowledge in three areas, none of which was adequately addressed:
  •          An appreciation of the continuum of intent (from scaring off, to murder)
  •          An appreciation of the continuum of harm (from a scratch, to life threatening injury)
  •          Sufficient evidence to be able to determine the position of the defendant’s mind on the former continuum, and his intended result on the latter continuum – i.e. what injury did he intend to inflict (which may not be the same thing as the injury actually inflicted) and did that intended injury cross the boundary into GBH?  Note that there seems to be no legal definition of what constitutes GBH – the only guidance we were given is that it is “really serious harm”.

Based on the debate which took place in the jury room, I don’t believe the majority of members of the jury had either of those two appreciations; unless these could be established, any review of evidence has no frame of reference within which to make a judgement.  It was clear from what was said that, in the minds of most jurors, the act of stabbing necessarily indicates an intent to cause GBH.  But if that were the case, why would there be the lesser charge?  The implication of the very existence of the two charges is that the law makes provision for the possibility that wounding may be malicious without necessarily being intended to cause GBH.  Yet that provision was lost on the majority of the jury.  It has to be said, too, that the adversarial approach tends to reinforce that viewpoint, by seeing everything from points of view which are polar opposites with no exploration of the middle ground.  That exploration is left up to the jury, if they ever even realise that there is a middle ground to be explored.

Although the judge gives a certain amount of explanation to the jury before they retire to consider their verdict, that explanation still tends to reinforce the black and white view of things, with no attempt to describe the continuum either of intent or of harm.  The question remains stated in simple terms which mask the complexities which underlie it - did the defendant intend to cause really serious harm?  Yes or no?  To the layman, who has already determined that the defendant carried out the stabbing, what other interpretation can there be but that he intended to cause GBH?

The jury, with no legal background and only cursory guidance, are being asked to make a fine judgement with enormous implications for the life of the defendant.  A conviction for the more serious charge is likely to carry a sentence three times as long as for the lesser charge – 6 years as against 2.  With actual time served  likely to be half of those figures, and taking into account the 5 months already served in custody in this case, the effective difference is even more apparent – 31 months against 7.  You would think that after 5 days of trial, the court ought to take sufficient steps to ensure that the jury has a thorough understanding of the task at hand and the parameters it has to consider when reaching a fair verdict.

This is where the flaws in the system start to become apparent, opening up the way for improvements to the process.  Given that the jury can be assumed to start with no actual legal knowledge, but instead many preconceived ideas concerning all manner of legal matters and terminology, there has to be some communication to impart the necessary level of understanding.  Now, communication is a 2-way process.  If A wishes to communicate something to B, it is incumbent on him to verify that B has not only heard the message but has understood it.  Yet in the case of a jury, the communication is 1-way only.  The judge makes many statements in court but the jury must remain silent at all times.  The only communication allowed back to the judge is by way of a written question, which is taken to the judge who may answer it by calling the jury back into court – where, again, they must remain silent as they receive his answer.

People reach mutual understanding by a process of dialogue – a 2-way exchange.  Yet the legal proceedings are structured in such a way as to make that impossible.  So we’re left with a jury whose knowledge of the parameters  by which they are supposed to be determining guilt or innocence is at best both sketchy and varied, and at worst plain wrong.  To this day, in spite of mulling over the verdict we reached almost every waking hour for the last three days (and I suspect for many of the sleeping hours as well) I have absolutely no idea whether the verdict we reached was fair and just, or not.

Somehow, in a case like this where the jury is judging not black and white but shades of grey, a means has to be found by which the jury is furnished with the understanding necessary to complete its task according to some clear predetermined principles.  If conventional 2-way dialogue cannot be accommodated within the processes of the court, then some other means – a form of jury education – must be found to enable the jury to make a sufficiently nuanced determination.  The impact is potentially huge – in this case it could have knocked several years off a prison sentence.  If anyone who sits on the right side of law cares, that is.  I gained the distinct impression that most did not.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Bass Guitar transcriptions

I spend a lot of my spare time, when I get the opportunity, playing bass guitar for shows put on by a number of local amateur dramatic groups, including Meme Productions, FFBOS and Completely Productions.  For full shows, the scores are usually provided, but sometimes we do extracts or an evening of "songs from the shows", which usually means working from a piano part and and an MP3 or Youtube clips.  Having spent several hours transcribing bass parts, using the superb (and free) Musescore software, I figured I might as well make these available, on the unlikely chance that someone, somewhere, might by trying to do just the same thing.

They can be found via the main menu bar above on the Music Transcriptions page