Friday, 16 October 2015

Well, I'm back...

...but a good deal of the time I wish I were not.  My month of travelling in Greece was an extraordinary experience and I would do it all again in an instant.

I remind myself that I must be realistic about this.  Staying in rent-rooms and small hotels and eating out most of the time wasn't great for my blood sugar.  My readings got slowly less good and in the long-term I think my BG levels would probably have slipped badly.  The starting point was excellent, so slipping didn't take me into a really terrible level but by the end of week four things were noticeably worse than usual. 

A week after getting back, with my diet completely under my own control again, things are getting back to normal; so no outright damage was done, I think.  But I cannot risk burning out any more beta cells, so for that alone I would have had to come back from Greece.  Or else settle there permanently, of course.  The key problem was not being able to prepare my own food, leading to a diet with a number of things in it I wouldn't normally eat.  If I had my own kitchen then that issue wouldn't arise.

Moving on every few days was frustrating, too; in every place I went to I wanted to have more time.  That's a good kind of negative, of course.  Wishing you could get away from somewhere is a miserable state of mind; wishing you had more time does at least leave the possibility of another visit, another time.

On a more practical level, I really began to miss having a washing machine.  Not every accommodation I stayed had a basin with a plug, and scrubbing your clothes with a bit of hand soap and rinsing them out under a running tap doesn't really seem to get the dirt out.  It's been good to have really clean things to wear again.

But, ye Gods, the places I've visited, the things I've seen!  I know what a cliche it is, but my heart is full of memories I'll cherish for the rest of my life.  I've climbed the Acrocorinth.  I've swum in an ancient harbour beneath a ruined Mycenean citadel.  I've drunk from a sacred spring, and watched the new moon rise over the Isle of Pelops. 

And now I am setting myself the task of trying to write about them in more detail than I did in the blog.  The task is a bit daunting but I won't step aside from something just because of that; heavens, one would never get anything done!  I don't yet have a "proper" job; I have begun looking since I've been back, but nothing interesting has come up as yet (well, it's only been a week).  So I aim to make sure I do something useful with the large amount of free time I have at the moment.  Being back from this trip feels pretty depressing; something I looked forward-to for so long, now finished and done, and not to come again.  No job, nowhere to go, nothing to do; I must keep depression at bay, and that means work.  Which means, write.

By damn, though, this country is cold.  And damp.  And dark.  My heart and my bones are missing the brilliant light of Hellas.  "Missing" is too pallid a word, indeed; it's a fiercer emotion that that, it's a feeling that wants to cry out in pain and anger, because I have been taken from what had come to feel like my home, and left stranded instead in this chilly place where the sun hides behind rainclouds and the steady wind is icy and blows from the north... 

So now let me write and remember.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Currently posting as...

If anyone's wondering where I've vanished off to, the answer is Greece.  I'm currently to be found here and will be blogging there for the next month.  Don't forget to come and check it out!

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Three days, now!

It's very close, now; in just three days time I'll be on my way to Heathrow.

I seem to have managed to be very organised indeed - which is good, don't get me wrong!  I was brought up by a chronic worrier and it did rub off, as it was bound to; I don't usually worry about travelling until the last minute, but this is a much longer trip than usual and I did set out quite early on to plan as much as I could well in advance.  The upshot of this is that I find I'm going to have to look for things to do, to fill in the time until Tuesday morning, so that I don't end up staring out of the window and brooding.

There is always the possibility of things happening that I can't control (strikes, bad weather, volcanoes and so on), but I've done my best to plan around everything I can.  I think that's as much as one can reasonably expect of oneself.  I still need to give myself a pedicure, water my house plants, and pack my bag.  That certainly won't take three days; so today I think I might go to the cinema.  A good silly movie, or even a bad silly movie, should take my mind off things.  

Thinking of movies, I took three dvds to the British Heart Foundation donation box on Wednesday.  Three disappointments.  One was "Les Mis", about which I was grumbling a few weeks ago.  One was "Star Trek Into Darkness", which was a muddle and lacked all the panache of the first "Star Trek" reboot.  And the third was "Midnight in Paris", which could have been terrific and was all the more disappointing because of that.

I have to admit I'm not a huge Woody Allen fan.  I was once; he was very funny about thirty-five years ago.  But his films haven't made me chuckle much since "The Purple Rose of Cairo".  I'd bought "Midnight in Paris" because a) it was reduced to three quid in a sale, b) it has a tremendous cast, and c) I was really intrigued by the premise.  It sounded magical and fantastical; and I do love the magical and fantastical.  I didn't really register who it was directed by, I just thought "Time travelling in Paris at the stroke of midnight?  Oooh!" and picked it up. 

Well, the cast is tremendous.  All the historic characters are stunningly well cast, and they all play their roles - many of them just tiny cameos - with an intensity and seriousness that the thin script doesn't really deserve.  Marion Cotillard is luminous and intelligent, as usual, and brings all her quietest subtlety to a part that seems to have been written as a completely empty-headed fantasy.  And the historic sections all look fantastic, too.  The sets!  The costumes!  The cars!  The locations!  Sheer eye-porn.  Especially the costumes, crikey yes. 

And the time-travelling premise is magical.  But the magic is barely noticed; you have to enter into it imaginatively for yourself, because it's hardly explored at all.  In fact nothing is really explored; there's no psychological depth at all, and no emotional depth, much less emotional truth.  The hero's one moment of realisation is cringemakingly clunky.

Then the awfulness of his present-day life is so heavily emphasised it becomes embarrsssing.  I've never been one for the comedy of embarrassment; and in this case it embarrassed me for the film-makers.  One can see pretty much right from the start that the hero and his fiancee are wildly unsuited to one another; so wildly unsuited that it beggars belief they would ever have reached the point of getting engaged in the first place.  The process of their break-up is both obvious and heavy-handed, and one feels not a jot of remorse for them.  One is left feeling they were barely directed at all; "Just be a dumb well-meaning guy, and you, dear, just be a shallow bitch; thank you!"  The hero's reaction to discovering he can time travel is to gape vacuously once or twice, and then just accept it; he barely even seems excited, much less confused or scared, or stirred in any way.  And all he does with this extraordinary opportunity is get drunk a few times and get one person to critique his half-finished novel. 

The whole film smacks of having been scarcely thought about at all, as though the process of writing and filming it had been conducted while deeply engaged with something else.  It managed somehow to be both self-indulgent and at the same time terribly thin.

It could have been so much more, because the idea is a clever one and could have had both heart and soul, if any heart or soul had been shown towards it; and the cast are really very good.  If only the script-writer and the director had been bothered to do more than trot through the motions. 

Yes, I know one can end up in deep trouble with time travel stories.  But if others have known that, and still gone ahead, and come up with stories that had depth and strength (e.g. "Looper"), then I'm sure a different treatment of this story could have achieved the same thing. 

Such a shame.  Well, hopefully it will make a couple of pounds for the BHF. 

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Two weeks to go

In a fortnight's time I will be sitting on a plane, on my way to Athens.

I've planned my route and booked almost all my accommodation, and I've sorted out a lot of information on things like bus routes and ferry schedules.  I've treated myself to a better camera than the toy one I've been using for the last couple of years, and a new sketchbook.  I'm a bit nervous, now the time is getting close.  I'm also very excited.

I am at something of a crossroads in my life.  I’ve been made redundant, I’ve recently been diagnosed with a life-long and serious medical condition; things I'd been certain of have changed irrevocably.  Suddenly my life has been reshaped, and perforce also seems shorter and more prescribed (and indeed proscribed, too) than I ever imagined it would be.  On top of that, in December of this year I will turn fifty.   

I may never have another opportunity as good as this to set aside the demands of regular wage-earning, and the expected cautious behaviour of the middle-aged, and risk doing something that excites me and me alone.  And with my age and my altered health in mind, the idea of travelling alone, trying to fulfil a challenging project, becomes a kind of mid-life rite-of-passage.  

Can I still do something like this at all?  Am I going to be okay, setting off on this daft month of travelling as if I were still 23?

And then that question prompts a deeper one in me, of whether I'll be able to face the next stage in my life with a spirit of hope and adventure, or have to accept lowered hopes and narrowed horizons from now on. 

I want to find out again who I am and what makes my life feel worthwhile.  I want to prove to myself that I can still meet a challenge, instead of running away from it and hiding.

The chances are that I am now getting on for 2/3 of the way through my time on this earth.  I do not want my remaining years to be lived with the shutters drawn. 

Since the Greek government has now quit and called elections for mid-September, I'm going to be travelling during the last stage of the election campaign, and into its aftermath.  The BBC are suggesting that polling day will be the 20th, when I'm expecting to be staying on Poros, one of the islands of the Saronic Gulf.  So that will be an interesting additional thing going on.

So, I’m going on a pilgrimage, at a time of flux in my life, to visit a country also in flux.  I first visited Greece 26 years ago, and so much has changed here in that time.  The country had just joined the EU when I first went there, and has now come close to leaving it again.  When I travelled across Greece in 1989, the drachma was still the currency, and the years of dictatorship weren't much more than a decade in the past.  And it was quite an old-school place in someways.  One could get on a local bus and still find someone in the next seat carrying a pair of live chickens tied together at the feet.  It was still quite common to see elderly people wearing elements of traditional regional costume as their daily wear.  I remember it as an extraordinary shift in atmosphere and pace, after the very deliberate and self-conscious style of Italy.

A lot has changed since then.  Now my beloved Hellas is again in a time of transition, struggling with enormous problems, facing frustration and loss.  It would be crass for me to pretend that I, as an outsider, have any useful insight to offer on the situation of a people struggling to survive and a country rendered desperately poor by a huge complex mess of problems.  All I can speak of is my own experience, as a philhellene, trying to come to terms with my own personal problems and looking around me at larger problems, and at lives affected more drastically, and with less hope of rescue or safety.  I hope so much for things to begin to straighten out for them.

Well, when I get there, I'll see what I find.  For now, I have the remainder of my planning to do, and there are just two weeks left to do it in.  Much of which is already committed to other things (seeing friends, visiting my Mum, doctor's appointments and so on).  So I really do need to get on now.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Recent films I have seen; or, cultural relativism at the flicks...

I've seen several films for the first time lately and looking back I feel they contrasted rather well with one another.  Two were on dvd and three were at the cinema.

They were all, in different ways, very professionally done; slick, highly commercial pieces of work; and they were object lessons in how to do commercial cinema well, and how not to.  At least for my money.

First up was Marvel's "Ant-man".  When I saw a trailer for this, a few months ago, I thought it looked pretty cheesy.  Even the special effects (which after all would of necessity be central to the storytelling) looked poor.  I only agreed to go because my friend Dip the Dipterist wanted to see it (because ants).  In the end Dip wasn't feeling very well and I went on my own; and, guess what? - I loved it.

I gather it has aspects that can be considered highly problematic if you are a fan of the comics on which it's based; in particular, there's a blatant case of fridging of a (of course) female character in order to explain a male character being a prick; and the only black characters are treated as primarily comic relief, despite the fact they are integral to the plot and come up trumps when the shit hits the fan.

But it did have some pluses to compensate for that.  We have an age-appropriate actress playing the female lead, instead of a girl of 20 pretending to be 35 because Hollywood doesn't believe anyone can bear the sight of a woman with a few tiny creases at the corners of her eyes when she smiles.  We have a non-hunk hero.  We have a step-father figure for the hero's child, who isn't a plot device and who acts with exemplary good sense throughout - and doesn't get bumped-off, humiliated or otherwise shelved at the end.  The aforementioned female lead is angry because she has bloody good reason to be, not because she's stuck in a delayed adolescent rebellion - the second film I've seen this year (after "Mad Max; Fury Road") that accepts the idea that women are entitled to be angry if they are treated shittily.  Plus, the special effects are actually fine, and I gather that the ants are pretty accurate from a biology point of view.

And it's good fun.  Where recent Marvel films have been getting pretty dark and bleak, this returns suddenly to the warmth and lightness of spirit of "Guardians of the Galaxy".  Darkness and sadness may be more realistic, but sometimes that fairytale of happy endings for the good-of-heart is an incredible relief.

The next thing I watched was a dvd my mother lent me; "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies."  I came to this with really seriously low expectations, having been terribly disappointed by the first two Hobbit films (bloated, messy, self-indulgent and poorly-scripted).  It was even worse than I feared; which is almost an achievement.  If you felt the first two were bloated, messy, etc, this one is far, far more so.

It's such a shame.  Martin Freeman is a tremendous Bilbo, and most of the rest of the cast are also good-to-excellent (with the exception of a few bits of stupid stunt casting).  It all looks great.  But the padding-out of the plot is ludicrous, there's a pointless romantic sub-plot shoe-horned in for Kili (or was it Fili? - I never could tell them apart - handsome Aidan Turner rather than the other slightly-gormless chap), and on the rare occasions when the dialogue is the original Tolkien rather than invented new stuff, it sticks out like real butter in a plate of bread-and marg, because it suddenly has the ring of Middle Earth in every word, instead of the ring of modern English in pretentious vintage clothes.  Please excuse the bad mixed metaphor there.

With the exception of those few lines of real Tolkien, about the only good thing you can say about the script is that they had just enough nerve not to bottle-out of killing Thorin, Fili and Kili.

Oh well, never mind.  Glad I hadn't forked out to see that in the cinema, though.

Forking out for films is a thing of the past for the next twelve months, anyway, since I've just joined the Cineworld Unlimited scheme.  And my next two movies were both seen on my new Unlimited card.

"Jurassic World" does exactly what it says on the tin.  Fabulous special effects, loads of smashing dinosaurs smashing stuff smashingly, and Chris Pratt on a motorbike.  Oh, and the T Rex gets to win the day and save the day (well, kind-of); the closing shot is his triumphant roar over his regained kingdom.  I suspect the science is wince-making if you know anything about genetics.  But for an enjoyable evening at the flicks, with a straightforwardly exciting plot and a few squeal-moments, this would take some beating.  Ever so much fun.

That was followed by the new Mission Impossible film, "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation".  It's a silly title, but nobody's perfect.  This also did exactly what it should; daft plot, stupidly great stunts, terrific action sequences, lots of Simon Pegg, and the good guys win in the end.  There's a tremendous sequence filmed in the Viennastaatsoper and set to a soundtrack of long chunks of "Turandot", which I'm pretty sure came in the right order and were sung by real singers.  Even in a franchise famous for its exciting theme tune, a slab of full-on Puccini adds instant drama.

There wasn't enough Agent Brandt (but then I would say that, wouldn't I?!) and though he was pleasantly sarcastic and wry in what screen-time he did get, he didn't have much real action; someone seems to have decided to relegate the character to a desk job.  Doesn't seem fair, if you ask me.  On the other hand, we got the first really interesting heroine the MI films have given us; Rebecca Ferguson's bold and capable Ilsa Faust.  Who had agency and motivation, wasn't used as a love-interest, saved the day repeatedly and was generally utterly cool.  Ms Ferguson is also stunningly beautiful, incidentally; but with the beauty of an athlete rather than a supermodel.  Douze points for the MI series for that.

And finally, the second film I saw on dvd; "Les Miserables".  Oh dear.

Unlike the Hobbit, I was really looking forward to this.  It's taken from one of the most famous and succesful modern stage musicals.  It had rave reviews and rave word-of-mouth.  It was praised as "sheer heaven" and seemed to satisfy everyone from the most arty to the most populist of critics.  It had a great cast.  Where could it possibly go wrong?

Okay; the cast are indeed mostly great, though I remain mystified by the attraction of Eddie Redmayne.  Ann Hathaway deserved her Oscar; she's heart-rendingly good and doesn't milk a role that could have been one solid wallow of self-indulgence.  And it looks really good (with the exception of the blank Mr Redmayne); the sets and costumes are uniformly splendid.  I did get a bit tired of all the tight close-ups of singing people with their mouths open showing off their theatrically-blackened teeth, but that's a minor detail.

But for my money there's one big problem with "Les Mis"; the music is rubbish.

If someone wanted to write an opera, but didn't know how, and was too self-confident to ask for help, but also couldn't bear to just not do it, this is the kind of thing they might write.  It's sung-through, but most of the time the vocal lines cling nervously to a tiny range of safe notes; and the orchestration is almost all solid movie-score string-heavy stodge.  There are a couple of Big Numbers, with actual outright melodies.  There are a few of what one might call Small Numbers, with a bit of melody, carefully confined within that safe-note zone.  And there is tons, and tons, and tons, of recitative.  Extremely dull recitative.  They all chunter on and on, up and down on two notes, for hour after hour.  Even one of the supposed Big Numbers is actually almost all sung on just two notes.

It's some of the most boring music I've heard in years.  Pity, that.  Seeing it a few days after "MI:RN" with all that Puccini only served to emphasise how dull and flat and tumty-tum-y it was.

Well, as I said at the start of this post, they were all commercial films.  But I find it interesting that the one which was nearest to being considered Serious Cinema, which was most praised, and least mainstream in subject, which was un-pop enough to please even "serious" critics, was for my money the most disappointing.  "Les Mis" had major pretentions to be Real Art; but it was fundamentally dull, and most of the big "emotional" moments left me feeling cheaply manipulated.  "Ant-man", "Jurassic World" and "MI:RN" all of them made no great claims to be art, and no great claims to have the right to make us cry.  They set out to entertain and thrill, and they achieved it.  Two of them even managed to slip in a tiny amount of genre subversion (okay, maybe 15% subversion maximum; but that's still more than one expects).  And they were highly enjoyable when the would-be Serious Real Art was basically not.

I can't really draw any profound conclusions from this; except to say, I am not ashamed of my eclectic tastes, or of liking things that are "low" culture and not liking something that is "high" culture (or at least, in cultural snobbery terms, very much higher than Mission Impossible).  I like what I like and that's all there is to it.

Monday, 10 August 2015

...if not quite to square one...

I've been writing on and off about this plan to go travelling in Greece this coming September, taking my lead from Pausanias and visiting places he writes about to draw or paint them as they are today.  I just made a list of the places I'd like to visit, that seem moderately reachable (& in some cases, that have been identified with reasonable certainty - not every ancient site is as confidently known as Mycenae, say). 

That is to say, a list of sites in Athens, Attica, Boiotia, Phokis, and Corinth and the Argolid.  I had already accepted I'd need to forget about the whole of Etolia-Akarnania and the whole of the rest of the Peloponnese - Achaia and Elis, Arkadia, Messinia and Lakonia - until another trip.  But I'd an idea I could cover the rest in one month.

It came to 54 sites.  Oh bugger.

Allowing one day per site, plus several travelling days to move between regions and between regional bases, that would mean around 60 days' worth of touring.  And that's without allowing myself so much as a single day to forget being intelligent and cultured, and just go and lie on a beach or sit under a pine tree by the sea and enjoy the view. 

I don't think I'm up for 60 days solid of history without a break.  It could start to feel like a chore instead of an adventure.  And on top of that, my travel insurance only covers me for a maximum of 31 days.
So I need to rethink my plans.  It's back to square one; or at least, back several squares.  This is why planning is so important!  I need to book my plane tickets fairly soon, and at least some of my accommodation.  So I need to have this planning stage sorted out.  Which means I do need a clear itinerary.

So, I must narrow my focus.  Do I start in Athens and then head for Corinth and the Argolid?  Or do I start in Athens and then head west through Boiotia and into Phokis?

I would dearly love to see Delphi again.  But the Argolid is so packed with things worth seeing; and I've only ever paid the most sketchy visit to Corinth, and I've never climbed the Acrocorinth, or been to Isthmia or Sikyon...  Yes, on balance I'm starting to think the logical way to limit myself is to take just that little corner.  A few days in Athens to start with, then cross the Isthmus and base myself in Argos or Nafplio for the remainder of the time.  Then back to Athens in early October for a last day or two, and home.

I can have a city break in Athens in November, maybe. Or at my birthday. 

I can do another region in the spring.

I don't want to skimp, that's the thing.  When I went to Greece for the first time, I skimped.  I knew there wasn't time to see everything, and I knew I'd never be happy just doing the main "circuit" and ticking those famous boxes; Mycenae, check, Epidaurus, check, Parthenon, check.  I tried to fit in more, in the areas I'd picked out; and I still ended up skimping and leaving out places that sounded interesting. 

The problem is, almost anywhere can be intersting, if you look at it the right way.  The world is so full of fascination, the moment you start to go beyond the obvious.  There's always so much more to see.

For example, I don't want to miss out Boiotia altogether this time.  Twenty-six years ago, I went straight through the whole of Boiotia and eastern Phokis on a bus (in the pouring rain!) to Delphi, and ended up staying there for over a week because there was so much to do and see.  I spent three days "doing" the site of Delphi itself, then I went to Amphissa, to Arahova, and to Itea twice (admittedly the second of those days was in order to spend a day at the beach) and I had an amazing day hiking up into the foothills of Mount Parnassos. And I wasn't stopping to draw, then; I was just seeing the sights and taking it all in.

I want to do things differently; properly.  If a job's worth doing, it'sworth doing well,as my late father liked to say.  If that means concentrating more carefully on a smaller area, well, okay, let's re-do the plan and do it that way.

Though maybe I'll tuck in a quick pilgrimage to Delphi, right at the end of the trip.  It was a magical place. 

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Strange thoughts and the taking of plunges

It's a strange state.  I have a lot going on, and yet none of it is really going on yet; it's all planning and sorting out, and wondering, and decision-making.  I feel a bit in limbo.

I was bound to feel in limbo in the circumstances.  I mustn't let it get to me, that would just be plain silly.

I've got two major writing projects nearing completion at the moment.  "If you're interested..." is (there's no way to sugar-coat this) pure smut.  It's actually gone quite well, though, and I've had some good feedback on it so far from dedicated smut-readers (i.e. smutty-fan-fic-readers).  But it is original fiction, not fan-fic.  It's too short to count as a novel; it currently stands at about 26,000 words with maybe another 5000 to go.  Snce erotica is no longer quite the shameful secret it once was, particularly in online publishing, I'm thinking of e-publishing this as a free-standing erotic novella.  I can draw the cover image myself (one of the protagonists is an artist, so a drawing is highly appropriate).  I'm seriously thinking this might be the one to take the plunge with.  Sooner or later I'm going to have to e-publish something.  At least I know erotic fiction has an existing readership.

Then I've also been working for over a year now on a long project, with the working title "The Healers".  More filth, I'm afraid, but in this case the sex scenes are part of a real narrative; a fantasy slightly-alternative-universe Western, set in 1880s Kansas and Missouri. 

I'd had the basic premise on my mental back burner for about fifteen years; but it didn't take off until I got a clearer picture of my male protagonist.  Once he had appeared in (out of?) my head, as well as the female lead, who had always been there, things finally got going.  It's written from the man's point of view, which isn't something I'd ever felt up to trying before.  I'm not sure how well he stands up as a male pov, but it's been a thoroughly enjoyable challenge writing him.

This is now a fairly mammoth piece of work, though; currently at some 130,000 words and not yet finished.  I think it's going to be easily 140,000 before I can wrap it up, and possibly more. 

There are a couple of scenes that got left out, earlier on, in an attempt to shorten the story when I realised how long it was getting.  And there's a subsidiary character who gets very short shrift, who I would have liked to develop more.  It could easily grow to 150,000 words if I let myself expand his elements of the story, and insert the scenes I've cut.

So I'm starting to think, maybe I should split this into two regular-sized novels on the 70 - 80,000 word scale.  And then, since this is also original fiction, maybe they can go the e-publishing route as well.

If I do that, the first one will be called "The Healer" and the second one possibly "The Southern boy".

I do need to do a few other things with regard to this publishing project.  I need to find out how to self-publish online, and sort out if there are any skills involved that I don't have (e.g. I'm hoping you don't need to do any HTML!).  I need to get those cover images done, I need to get them scanned, and I need to see if I can lay them out easily as cover designs myself (or find someone else to, someone who knows what they're doing but will accept only getting a small fee for the commission because I can't afford to pay much). 

Then, I need to revise and proof-read my manuscripts to within an inch of their lives. 

I also need to decide if I risk publishing under my own name, or find a pseudonym. 

And, of course, I  need to actually do it!  After all, there does come a point when all the preparing and polishing can slip into procrastination.  I'm not at that point yet, I know; both of the stories are unfinished, covers undrawn, technical know-how unlearnt.  But that doesn't mean the procrastination point doesn't exist.  I need to be alert to whether I've hit it yet.

At the moment I'm at an earlier procrastination point, where one looks at everything still to be done and gets nervous, and ends up not doing any of it.  This is really not a good idea (understatement) and is something I need to beat.  Example; I have just cleaned the bathroom this morning, not a favourite job by any means, instead of writing.  Bah!  I love writing; but it's a torment sometimes as well.  And I am a chicken sometimes.

On top of this, there's the September project.  Running away with Pausanias.  I need to decide whether to do that in this blog, or set up a new blog for it; if I choose the latter, I need to set that new one up and have it all ready to go.  I need to get a camera with which I can take decent close-up pictures that are in proper sharp focus.  I need to know if I'll be taking this laptop (Tinkerbell) or whether the larger and more comfortable, but heavier, Frankentop is coming back anytime soon. 

I need to decide where I am going, and plan my routes.  I need to sort out all the practicalities.  It's quite a big thing to be planning, after all; a whole month abroad. 

At the moment, it looks as though I could get a pretty good price on daytime flights from Heathrow to Athens with Aegean Airways if I book soon.  I've never flown with them, but all I ask of an airline is to get my and my luggage to my destination; I don't mind if it isn't in luxury!  So I need to pick my dates and commit to that, fairly soon. 

Once that's done, I will have passed the point of no return.  Which is another strange thought.  I've always been a fairly risk-averse person and now I'm planning to do something that excites me but is also risky.  I'm looking some of my fears in the face.  It's okay, I know I can do it; but it still feels strange.  I realise with sadness that I've spent much of my life not facing these particular fears because I've had a good solid excuse not to do so.  The excuse is gone, for now at least.  I can no longer say "I don't have the time" or "I've no money".  I need to walk my talk. 

So I have a lot of stuff to do, and several quite significant plunges to take. 

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

New cookery and recipe blog

I took the plunge this week; the first plunge, anyway.  Hopefully there will be others to come.

Plunge number 1 is this; I've started a recipe blog.  If you're interested you can find it here:

Sunday, 26 July 2015

The first month, and the future

I've been unemployed for four weeks now, and I have to admit, it could get addictive!  It's probably a good thing I will need to get a new job eventually; I could very easily slip into just relaxing and enjoying having my time to myself.  I could very easily get incorrigeably lazy.

I had promised myself I would take a month off completely, once I finished at work.  I've kept that promise and I have indeed been thoroughly lazy for almost the whole of July.  I've read masses, I've gone for walks and bike rides, I've had lunch with friends; I've had a week on a beach in Kefalonia doing absolutely b*gger all but read and swim; I've been to the cinema and to stay with my mother, and I've done some sensible jobs like sorting out all my mending and sewing jobs and getting started on some of them.  I've also had several medical appointments; a blood test, another session of cryotherapy which I think (cross fingers) has finally killed my bloody verruca, and a retinal screening, which was fairly horrible (dilating eye drops, ugh).

Next week I'm going to the cinema again and to Covent Garden to see Carlos Acosta and Co. in action, and then down to Brighton for a girls' weekend with the lovely LadyK, Snoozie and Sammy J.

I haven't done any job-hunting at all.  I haven't even thought about working on my CV.

I wanted to give my brain a chance to flush out all the tension and anxiety and grief about losing my job; I wanted just to sit empty for a while with the air blowing through me.  Sorry about the slightly weird metaphors!

My blood test results were excellent, which was enormously cheering.  I've managed to pull my haemoglobin A1C reading down from 58 to 35 (normal is anything under 45, if I remember correctly).  HBA1C is a kind of average measure of your blood glucose levels for the previous three months, so this is very good news as it means I have kept my BG normal consistently for the whole of that time.  My blood pressure is back from being rather high to being distinctly on the low side, and my weight loss is now official; from 226lbs to 190lbs, 2 1/2 stone lost.  The doctor reduced my medication and said "Well done, keep it up!" and I came out of my appointment feeling hugely cheered.  I'm doing the right things.

Of course, it's the keeping it up part that may be a problem.  I don't want to let myself slip up and slide into having a few things I probably shouldn't eat, and then a few more...  I suppose the price of good health is constant vigilance.  Now where have I heard that phrase before?!

I suspect the reduction in my stress level has helped, too.  The last few weeks at Kew were very peculiar; and the last six months had been frankly horrible at times.  I miss my colleagues - I miss some of then quite dreadfully - but I don't miss the job or the atmosphere at all.

At first I was sad about that; sad to have gone, but more precisely sad not even to be missing something that nine months earlier I'd expected to be happily doing for years to come.  I'd worked hard and been completely committed to the place for more than ten years.  In particular, I'd been very proud of what Paul and I achieved in Travel Trade and Group Bookings since we took it over in 2012.  It seemed a sorry way to go, not even to want to hang on to a job I'd been good at and enjoyed.  But things were the way they were, and that was that.

Having this break has helped me to move on from that state of affairs, to accept that situation and to let it go.

I know "Let it go" has become a cliche over the last couple of years, but sometimes it really is good advice.  You pick your fights, to offer another cliche; and this fight was one I could only lose.

So.  Onwards and upwards.  To infinity and beyond.

I got enough redundancy money to keep me going for at least a year (more if I'm economical) so I don't plan to rush about trying to get any old job immediately.  When I do take another full-time job, I'd like it to be interesting and worthwhile, as Kew was.  In the meantime, I'm very unlikely to get another chance like this to stop and take stock before I reach retirement age.  So take stock I shall; and maybe I will carry on as before, and maybe I will change direction completely.

Unlike many people, I have been lucky enough to have some experience of what it's like doing things that are fulfilling to me, instead of merely paying the bills and praying for Friday each week.  My five years at art college were ultimately a dead end, since my work was neither commercial enough to earn me a liveable income through sales, nor "Art World"-y enough (i.e. bullsh*tting enough) for me to get gallery interest and commissions and Arts Council grants.  But it was a fascinating dead end, one which I will never regret.

Now I've returned to a passion even older than my love of painting and drawing.  For the last few years I've been doing quite a lot of creative writing.  I know I could have done far more, if I'd had a) the self-discipline, and b) the time.  So - until a really interesting new job arrives, I've decided I'm going to fill in the time by focussing on my writing.  I have completed novels I need to revise; and uncompleted ones I need to finish and then revise.  I need to have a stab at e-pulishing, too.  It may not get me many readers, but any readers is more than the precisely-zero who are looking at the work on my hard drive.

I've got an idea for a second blog, too, about cookery and diabetes.  My diagnosis has really revived my interest in cooking.  Maybe some of the diabetic-friendly recipes I've invented would be useful for others; so why not share them?

And I'm planning to spend September travelling in mainland Greece, and blogging about my travels.

It's quite scary to actually say that, here in writing where people can see it and hold me to account over it.  Now I really do have to go ahead with this crazy idea!  But I do want to do this, crazy or not.  It's something I've dreamed about for years.  The chances of getting another opportunity like this are pretty slim, at least before I'm in my late sixties, by which point I'll be worried about being a bit old for such shenanigans.  So now's the time.  If not now, when?  (Hmm, is that cliche number six?).

I'm going to take my beaten-up copy of Pausanias' Guide to Greece (the old Penguin translation; I'm no classicist these days!) and travel around and visit some of the places he visited, and draw and/or paint them as they are now, and write about that.

This will take a bit of planning; and I'd better brush up my rusty Greek, too.  It's never been more than basic tourist level, but even that much could be useful if I revised and practised a bit.  I need to find out lots about public transport (I don't drive) and plan itineraries, and pick likely spots for overnight or longer stays.  I need to sort out a lot of details while still leaving room for the unexpected and the spontaneous.  I'd do well to get back into the habit of taking quick sketches on the fly; so I need to carry a sketchpad around with me this month.  And I may need to get a better camera - my current options are my Zenit B, which is a tremendous camera but is older than me and, of course, for 35mm film only, and the little toy digital camera I bought about 18 months ago, which is handy and very compact but not terribly good (it can't do a close up to save its digital life, and is really thrown by strong contrasts and by anything white).

I am a raving Philhellene and have been for as long as I can remember. It's not my place to pass judgement or pontificate on the present situation in Greece (a situation which alarms and saddens me dreadfully, and which I wish I were able to help in some way).  But it seems to me oddly fitting that I take myself there now, in such a time of transition in my own life.

So that's the plan.  Which leaves me with plenty to do during August.  Watch this space.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Strange week

It's very odd to be, as I currently am, in my last week at Kew.  For all its peculiarities, for all the stress and pressure it's put me (& many others) under over the years, I have loved working here and have been deeply committed to the place.  Up until just a few months ago I honestly thought I'd be here till I retired.  The evening of the day I accepted I would have to leave, I cried for hours (all over a very patient friend whose forebearance and loving-kindness I aspire to have one day).  It seemed beyond belief; and in many ways it still does now.  Yet at the same time, part of me just wants this to be over now.

This last week is so weird.  Each day, when I go out at lunch for a stroll, I know I am saying goodbye.  I am losing my connection to these places, these trees and flowers and historic buildings; when next I see them I will just be another visitor, no longer one of their people.  I am saying goodbye to little hidden corners, to short-cuts behind the scenes, to all the secret places that have given me refuge and a moment of peace on hectic days. 

And, of course, I am saying goodbye to people. 

Many of my friends have left already (or been made redundant); many others are away on annual leave at the moment.  Yet others do not work on Fridays; and still others for various reasons I don't see often to begin with.  By now it's very likely I won't see them again before the end of the week.  And I finish on Friday.

I'm trying hard not to get depressed.  I'm also trying not to brood over-much about what will happen, going forward, to this venerable place as it struggles to modernise without killing itself.  It's simply not my look-out anymore.  I have to let go.

But I look at the big, bountiful shapes of trees, cushiony with foliage, delicate with their many-textures of leaves large and small and bark silken or rough; I smell the perfume drifting down from the lindens as they flower in the midsummer warmth; I see the Rose Garden at last really come into its own, six years after being completely replanted; I talk to people I'm fond of, people I've never told how much I like them; I listen to their sense of humour, I laugh and hear their laughter rolling along with mine.  And I miss everything that has been good about Kew.

I won't miss the stress; I have to be honest about that.  I won't miss some of the really arcane and circuitous decision-making practices, either, or the frankly lousy internal comms.  I won't miss waiting in fear to see if the next difficult, business-essential round of cuts will hit me.  But I will miss the place, I will miss knowing I'm contributing to something of real value in the world, and I will miss the people. 

Well, very soon now my life is my own again, to do with as I will.  And who knows what the future holds?  Not me.

My week in Crete, last month, was so blissful and restful that I'm sorely tempted to do it again.  There are (unsurprisingly) some very good special offers around at the moment for trips to Greece.  I'm sure foreign tourism is too important to the Hellenic economy for them to risk anything impacting on visitors from overseas.  I would take cash with me because I always do take cash anyway.  And I could be sitting on a terrace somewhere with a good book, with a long swim in the sea already done and a good supper of fish and salad to come, putting all this behind me for a week.  I know my few hundred quid of spending money is a microscopic drop in the ocean of the Hellene economic woes, but it would still make a tiny scrap of the difference to the individual restaurants and cafes and shops where I spent it.  And I would have sun on my back and pine trees to walk under, the sea to swim in, and  xiphias and sinagridha and horiatikisalata to eat and a glass of good wine or two. 

On the which note, it's extremely silly of me, but I'm enormously encouraged to discover that the person in charge of the Greek Government's economic negotiations at the moment is Euclid Tsakalotos.  I heard him mentioned on the radio a couple of mornings back and did a double take, and stood in the kitchen with a mouthful of cereal, and a silly grin spreading across my face as I listened.

A long time ago - a very long time! - I used to deal with him in my then job; he was an economics lecturer at UKC, and I was the economics buyer at the Uiversity bookshop.  He was a nice man, always courteous and helpful, and friendly, even to a shopgirl like me (he was also terribly ornamental - I had a dreadful crush on him).  I'm very happy he went into politics.  The world needs politicians who have some empathy with people who work in dull jobs.  I know it's completely idiotic of me, but I do feel reassured now I know that he's working on something so vitally important, for a place I love so much. 

Go well and good luck, sir!