Past Stuff

A Personal History of Time in Four Objects

Early on, I had a bedside alarm clock: a round, wind-up thing with hands of luminous pale green painted on by poor factory workers, and who might have succumbed to disease and died before their time for their efforts. It seems a high cost to allow strangers to see the time without needing to turn on a light.

Someone then gave me a travel alarm clock. I had yet to travel and had no prior thoughts of doing so being, as I was, not quite ten years old. It seemed an odd contraption: the square body of a wind-up clock attached to the lid of a hinged box by another hinge, so that the three hinged parts could fold in and enclose the clock part. Opened out, it formed a triangle with the base of the box being the base of the clock. The alarm, I remember, wasn’t that loud. Perhaps it’s quieter where people with travel clocks go.

I bought myself a radio alarm clock. Some mornings it would wake me with the sounds of the show before the Breakfast Show; other times I’d be woken by static. The tuning was unreliable and the threat of it malfunctioning on important days kept me awake at night. Then the cat took it upon himself to chew the aerial off. It was just a length of wire hanging down and it must have aroused the cat’s curiosity and so he bit it off gradually by degrees. He never touched the mains cable which also hung down with it. Curiosity didn’t kill that cat, not that time anyway.

The personal tablet is the Swiss Army Knife of the age: if you need something doing, someone has probably devised an app to do it. For it, the alarm clock is a cinch. You can be woken by any number of pleasant or hideous ringtones, or you can choose your favourite song, but be mindful that this can become like Bill Murray’s morning in Groundhog Day; it’s probably better to select “random” from a given playlist. Or you can have the radio. You can have the radio broadcast out of Toronto, Timor or Timbuktu. Be aware that it’s likely not to be first thing in the morning there.

inspired by the brilliant History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor (BBC)


History, Prehistory and Everything Before and After

Ours is not as bad as H.E. Bates’ Larkin’s house where there was always a TV on in every room, but the one telly we have does seem to be on a lot. Mostly, I tune it out but sometimes it worms its way past my unconscious defence.

As it did yesterday. It was showing a medieval drama, a jousting event where armoured blokes upon armoured horses charged at each other, aiming poles at the other’s delicate body parts. And at other times on foot, hacking at each other with huge broad swords. Apart from the jousting scene, you could tell it was a medieval setting because all the poor people were dressed in sackcloth and rags. A funny thing though, a lot of them were exceptionally clean shaven and had nice haircuts, and all of them had really clean faces and hands, as if they’d just taken a hot bath or shower.

To be fair, I guessed it was a semi-comedy drama. What gave it away, and what drew my attention to the telly in the first place, was during the jousting tournament the crowd were all chanting Queen’s “We Will Rock You”, and in a subsequent scene there was an incongruous electric guitar solo – not acted out in the scene, thank god, but on the soundtrack.

During the above faux historical drama, I had begun listening to another podcast about the planet Venus. Early on in our history, Venus was considered to be Earth’s twin, it being close to Earth’s size as well as being our neighbour (Mars is much smaller). It’s also most noticeable in the sky having a highly reflective atmosphere; it appears as a star. Early on, people imagined it contained life and, as it was closer to the sun, its life would be consistent with that of hot, tropical jungles.

That idea was binned once scientific evidence established how hostile its atmosphere actually is: mostly carbon dioxide and so thick, the pressure at ground level would crush a human being, and so hot it would melt lead. Mars seemed a better bet for life after that.

One of the three scientists giving account of the planet gave a short description of how planets formed around the sun, beginning with a swirling of space dust, eventually sticking together by electromagnetism and then gravity, the sun then reaching ignition point, and the residual turning forces of swirling matter making everything revolve and orbit. For Venus and Earth, the period from adhering and coagulating dust particles to a proper orbiting sphere would be around 100 million years. At that would just be the beginning.

I was thinking about my primary school and how I remembered a lot of lessons about prehistoric life. We began with fossils of trilobites and ammonites, those funny looking segmented and spirally sea creatures, then the fishes and amphibians, and eventually the rise and decline of the reptiles – dinosaurs! – and ending with a few early mammals.

It seems to me now how each of these periods in Earth’s past is a distinct portion of the Earth’s life simply because of the huge passage of time each had taken. The Earth has had many lives, so to speak. It may have many more ahead, possibly without us.

And there I was, marvelling at those significant names from England’s “Dark Ages”, and how they seem to dabble in politics and culture as much as we do, and write books about it all. And, well, yes, but it’s only 1400 years ago. Nothing in time. When we’ve barely 100 years each in which to experience existence, how inconceivable is a passing of a million years!

It’s extraordinary to me to think how Earth has sustained some form of higher life for so long, and mostly, if not all, by chance. What are the odds? Do you think we’ll come face to face with aliens from another planet? Across time and space, as vast and hostile as it appears, and to coincide with our time here?

I don’t.

In Future This Blog Will Be Closed On Wednesday Afternoons

In preparation for our house move, I loaded up the car with accumulated garage rubbish and we headed off to the dump (aka “the tip” – official name: Civic Recycling Centre). Damn us if the thing weren’t open.

Lots of other people were caught out too, enough to alert us something was up before we even reached the gates. To be fair to the dump, they’ve always been closed on Tuesdays and there’s a dirty great sign by the gate which says so. The thing is, these days, in England, we’re just used to everything being open whenever we need it.

I’m old enough to remember when shops and stores were closed all day on Sundays and shops would close for Wednesday afternoons, and banks, bless ’em, would shut their doors mid-afternoon, Monday to Friday. Weekend banking? Not a chance.

The thing was that this wasn’t really a problem for most of us as the situation was quite clear. Shoppers had a responsibility to mind the time and, if they missed the shop, they only had themselves to blame. It usually meant opening a tin of something, like it or lump it.

I have noticed whenever holidaying in Wales and Spain – in certain parts, at least – you can’t find a restaurant or gastropub (or whatever the Spanish equivalent of that is) open on a Monday. Sundays is normally dead being the Sabbath, so avoid going on a short break anywhere over a Sunday and a Monday, unless you want to eat McDonald’s.

What’s my (serious) take on this?

Well, for a long while I’ve kind of missed the spirit of the quite Sunday (early closing Wednesday was sometimes a pain in the arse). There was something ineffably calming and peaceful and ordered about Sundays. I mean, it wasn’t ever a religious thing for us but if that’s what it takes, so be it. A sabbath made for man; I quite like it.

Advent Calendar

I have not touched base with my artistic blogging buddy, Johnnynorms, for some time. His WP blog seemed to have ceased in 2014. It’s a shame not least because around this time, he would post a selection of worthy advent calendars.

While there are a number of ways to make your own online advent calendar, and I’ve been tempted to try it, all at once the month is upon us and I fail to make the deadline. Ironically, in a similar way to being adverse to keeping a diary until blogging, I’ve always held the physical calendar, with its cardboardiness and little fiddly numbered doors, in contempt, I really like the concept of online ones.

So, what to do?

I could delve back into my historical presence online and offer a daily morsel from the past. Turn over the soil, so to speak. Or old light through new windows, to paraphrase someone who didn’t quite say that.

Here’s a door.

One hello and two goodbyes

I have written before how I could become in time one of the last sons of Middlesex. I mention this because recently I have seen photographs of this once agrarian county of England being consumed by the creeping tide of a London expansion. Suburbia was to be its new crop, perennial and unyielding, though eventually showing signs of going to seed. Looking over these photos of precise grids of similar houses, of clean, barren streets between orderly rows of little shops, I feel sadness even though I never knew its countryside. I imagine the farms and the people working the fields, and the villagers, self-contained and neighbourly, and their children playing in the streams and brooks, under a broad, open sky.

Samuel Johnson once said, “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life“. But I bet he never lived or worked in its suburbs.

They say that the entire human population can be housed in average sized family homes, with a small garden, in a suburb not much larger than Texas. I think this would be a good idea. And we could all go to work in Oklahoma, leaving the rest of the planet to be “rewilded”. Or at least managed in a sustainable, close to natural way.

I, myself, had a desire to leave as early as ten years old but had to endure it a further fifteen years. Yet, after a further quarter of a century in my adopted home, I can see the invasiveness of urban culture around me. Expansion seems inevitable, grace, peacefulness and beauty is discounted and up for grabs. Our government has promised 300,000 new build homes each year to solve a “crisis”; it’s not clear for how many years.

Idealist, or fantasists, I’m not quite sure, talk of going to Mars. It may come to that and I feel as sad for that generation to come as I do for the generation I imagined in the old photos, losing their lifestyle, their future and their culture. For progress.

Written for Reena’s Exploration Challenge #65.

Middlesex was an English county, known as a “Home County” for being close to London, the capital and traditional seat and home of the monarchy. In 1965, it was divided between Greater London and neighbouring counties; it ceased to be although addresses containing Middlesex were valid until the introduction of national alpha-numerical “post codes” made this inclusion unnecessary.

The name derives historically from the domain of the Middle-Saxons, the collective immigrant/ invaders/raiders (along with the Angles and other Germanic peoples) who came to rule some time after the Romans, around the 5th Century and up until the Norman conquest in the 11th Century.

The radical north-west suburban expansion into what was coined “Metroland” on account of the above ground extensions of the London Underground rail networks, began in the early twentieth century. Further sprawl was partly contained by the “Green Belt”, a narrow ring of permanent countryside, though this is continually under threat.

In Samuel Johnson’s day, London more or less finished at about Hyde Park.

Put this in your pipe and smoke it

(Phew, it’s been so warm, and for so long, it’s getting beyond a joke, isn’t it? This is England!)

Along with such peculiarities as hearing early morning whistling, milkmen, whistling milkmen, chimney sweeps and the rattle of manual lawnmowers on a Sunday, pipe smoking has all but disappeared from English society (and dare I assume most others too?)

I see, whilst searching for a good picture of Bertrand Russell last night that he was a pipe smoker; there were few photos in which he wasn’t either sucking on or holding aloft, as if proudly, a pipe. And, I don’t think, it was because he was old. I remember at school many of the younger teachers would choose to puff on a pipe rather than a cigarette. It may have been something to do with intellectualism; the thinker’s token?

But then, didn’t Popeye have a pipe, permanently sticking out to one side, the one with the inflated cheek? In odd situations, he would opt to ingest his potent canned spinach via its bowl so we must assume it wasn’t always lit.

Then again, I heard somewhere that outdoors workers would invert their pipes in the rain, so the tobacco wouldn’t extinguish. You’d think some bright thing would have invented a cowl to go over the bowl, like you sometimes see atop chimney pots.

But again again, the English comedian, Bill Bailey, on occasion uses a pipe as a comic prop. I believe, as a visual clue to parody or feign an intellectual moment.

My friend’s dad had a rack of pipes which seems an extra odd thing to have, unless each pipe offers a different characteristic to a smoke. He offered us a smoke once, which we did out of curiosity, neither of us being smokers though we had tried cigarettes. It was a full on smoking experience, a bit like inhaling a small bonfire, which I suppose it was in a way.

The process of making up a pipe was akin to making a proper pot of tea; an art of stages, something allowing thoughtfulness in intent and purpose. Unlike lighting a cigarette, or fag as they were called; a mindless activity.

Someone said the other day that you could still buy pipe cleaners – those short, thin, bendy things covered with little bristles, in essence a brush – though they’re more likely to be found in art and hobby shops, bought by art teachers and kids to make models with. They’re still called pipe cleaners though this relevancy is probably lost to all.

Images: “La Trahison des images“, 1928-9, by René Magritte

“Popeye” drawn by Bud Sagendorf

Bill Bailey, comedian


I have been liked by Utsav Raj whose blog is called, My Spirals. Thanks, Utsav.

Let me talk about Spirals,

#1 Drawing Helices

Did you know the plural of a helix is helices? Don’t ask me why. A helix is, essentially, a three-dimensional spiral – like a spring – and it was by far my favourite exercise in Technical Drawing. Many moons have come and gone since my schooldays but I reckon I can still draw one if you’ll find me a drawing board, a T-square, an adjustable set square, a ruler and a sharp pencil.

I imagine Tech. Drawing is one of those subjects made obsolete by technology now. There’s probably an app or software command to which you put in a few numbers and it’ll construct one for you. It’s clear why but it’s also a shame how tech. is making so many beautiful old things redundant. Navigating with maps and compass is another, as well as hand-printing by numerous methods: intaglio, lithograph, etching and screen printing, to mention a few. Even photography, a technology which went some ways to undermine traditional art, has been revolutionised in a way which makes the original skills unnecessary. Nevertheless, I think where there’s still beauty in an act, there’s still meaning.

#2 The Windmills Of My Mind

The theme tune to the original film, The Thomas Crown Affair, starring Steve McQueen, is a French song with English lyrics added. The words begin something like,

Round like a circle in a spiral,
like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning
on an ever-spinning reel.

It had been commissioned specifically to play over the scene where Thomas Crown is flying his glider over an airfield, attempting to unwind (yeah!) from the stresses of planning the art heist. See, a glider climbs on thermals, in an upward spiral, while the protagonist unwinds his coiled tension. A composite metaphor?

#3 Spiral Scratch

I love this expression for a record. More than vinyl anyway. There are many recordings of The Windmills song, one of which is included on the brilliant Dusty In Memphis album, though Dusty didn’t like the song a lot, she didn’t feel for the lyrics.

Who knows who came up with “Spiral Scratch” but it gave British punk band, The Buzzcocks, the title of their first release. At the time, they were unsigned and had to raised the money for recording and pressing themselves, establishing their own label in the process, and having to do their own distribution. Later inspiring other artists to follow suit, they probably began the whole Indie pop business as a result. So we know who to blame.

Of course, the Indie pop movement gave rise to the Alternative rock movement, and what that means is anybody’s guess, but The Wonder Stuff was such a band given this label. They once backed Vic Reeves for a cover recording of the song, Dizzy – originally a 60s hit for singer Tommy Roe. It is the only other song I could think of evoking spirals, in this case a whirlpool referenced in the lyrics.

#4 Whirlpools, Vortices and Maelströms

God, these are horrifying contemplations, aren’t they? We once cycled up to the city reservoirs near Heathrow way; it may have been King George V – funny name for a reservoir – or one close by over which rim we climbed, simply to have a look out of curiosity. There isn’t much to see, mostly flat water, which makes the great, stark hole where the water goes down even more alarming. You wouldn’t want to fall in at that point.

Of course, this could be all in my imagination; a false memory. I had a book of short stories by the writer, Edgar Allen Poe. A contemporary of Charles Dickens, he had a penchant for horror tales and one I vaguely remember is A Descent into the Maelström. I can remember it was accompanied by an illustration not dissimilar to what I imagine would happen when they opened the hole on King George V.
I think I may have developed a phobia.

Time and Mind

My other half is always pointing out the significance of certain days when they arrive: twenty years to the day, so and so passed away; it’s exactly twelve years since we saw such and such; we’ve had this or that for seven years now, that sort of thing.

Her feats of personal historical memory impress me. I have no such ability. Memorising dates or even gauging the true passage of time, is not in my proverbial DNA. Things which I experienced a lifetime ago seem as if they happened only last year while other significant events from last year seem decades distant. As for dates, I barely know which day of the week it is. This isn’t, I’m sure, some mental aberration on my part, I think I’m simply not bothered.

However, I’m getting to the point where life seems like a long book of many chapters. Or perhaps more like a telly drama after many seasons, with a fair few spin offs, and characters getting killed off and new blood coming in all the time. No, on second thoughts, I prefer the book analogy better.

It’s getting to the point where I find myself muttering lines like Rutger Hauer’s character at the end of the film, Blade Runner; I’ve seen things no one else has seen…

Well, it’s true, in the solipsistic sense. It’s funny how we all share this short time in a small corner of this world and we assume we all see and share the same things, the experience of life. But do we?

I once kept a blog for a while in which I suppressed the date and time tags related to all posts. But folk would ask whether it was still active as they had no way of telling. I switched them on again. It’s a pity we need the conformity of temporal order because, to me, the mind works timelessly. It time travels back and forth quite randomly. Memory life is a bit like Doctor Who’s Tardis, you never know precisely when it’s going to land.

Comics and Philosophical Ideas

I loved comics as a kid. The choice in comics was broad and I favoured The Beano mostly, and often its big sister comic, The Dandy. Yet there were others I liked too, Beezer, Topper, Chips to name just three.

In the comic, I had my favourite characters too, as I expect everyone did. Now, I think how clever some of those characters were and how they could sow a seed of intellectualism and philosophical thought in the mind of an innocent child. My favourite of these would be the regular comic strip, The Numskulls, which featured originally in The Beezer.

The idea of homunculi controlling our mind and bodies is an old one. I’m sure at least once you’ve imagined sitting inside your own head, looking out through the windows of your eyes and listening to all the extraneous sounds coming in from the holes on each side. No? Just me then.

In The Numskulls, “our man” is observed going about some ordinary task or involved in some everyday business. He seems totally unaware of his own homunculi and the control they have over his senses, reactions and his subsequent actions. The irony is that we the readers get a cutaway view of the man’s head where we see it partitioned into departments, in each of which resides a homuncule with a specific duty. In the comic they have been given funny names; Blinky (Eye Dept.), Luggy (Ear Dept.), Snitch (Nose Dept.), Brainy (Brain Dept.) and two more, whose names escape me for the moment, in charge of the Mouth Dept. Each department is in communication with others by telephone and so collectively can influence and manipulate their man’s every move.

The odd thing is that they don’t appear to be intent on doing this all the time. It’s as if there’s a counter-intuitive struggle between what the man goes to do and what his Numskulls suggest he does instead. The humour of the strip always comes from the man’s apparent bewilderment at what just happened, why he did something different to what was intended.

This probably all boils down to the philosophical idea of free will, and whether we have it, or not. Now there’s a thought for a small boy chuckling over his favourite comic strip.

Malcolm Judge – cartoonist and creator of The Numskulls

The Hole

The previous post on suits reminds me of a story.

Like the Queen of England, the Pope and the Dalai Lama, and all good religious leaders – not that I’m including myself in the religious leader category, heaven forbid. I mean, what would it be, Bladudism? – I’m not in the habit of carrying small change.

I am in the habit though of picking up stray screws, odd bolts, Allen keys and all manner of possibly useful looking metal objects and carrying them around for months, hence the large hole worn through my jean’s pocket.

And so it was the day I had to break into a five pound note and received in return some small change including a pound coin. Having the coins in my palm as I left the shop for the street, I slipped them into the pocket, unaware of the hole. The first sign was feeling a cool object tickling the hairs of my outer thigh as I strode forwards. For a moment, it seemed to become lodged in the tight space between the cloth and my knee bone. Before I could determine the best course of action, my brain, still not fully comprehending the situation, agreed with my legs to carry on walking. The leg now moving forwards, dislodged the coin and it, passing the hem at speed, hit the ground rolling.

Boy, could that piece roll. It rolled down the gentle incline of the pavement and between the legs of a little, elderly woman holding a full shopping bag in each hand. If I was mesmerised by the motion of my coin, it was nothing compared to the movement of that woman. Like Dame Margot Fonteyn in the All World Finals of the Twister Championships, she pivoted to one side and extended a nimble foot out and over, stamping on the coin squarely and arresting it in its flight. Without concern for the whereabouts of the loser, she put down a bag, bent down for the coin, slipped it in her own pocket and blithely walked on.

Well worth a quid just to see it.