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Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Review - Helen Garner: Everywhere I Look

Helen Garner 
Everywhere I Look (5*)

I'd not heard of Helen Garner until a newspaper interview caught my interest. It mentioned a short piece about playing the ukelele which I found online and was instantly captivated by her rich and clever blend of observation, reflection, personal experience and human reaction. Exactly the kind of thing countless bloggers try to turn out, me included, but so much better.

Such as when, after seeing and hearing a ukelele for the first time, and then finding the Oxford Companion to Music's snotty description of them as popular amongst those whose desire to perform exceeds their willingness to acquire technique or musical ability, she writes:
So. It was a cop-out for the lazy and talentless. I went straight downtown and bought the first one I saw ...
I wondered why anyone should bother to read us when they can read her. The reality, I suppose, is that we write for ourselves and are thrilled if others like it.

Everywhere I Look is a collection of around thirty essays, diary entries and other short pieces, most of them previously published elsewhere during the last couple of decades. The ukelele piece, Whisper and Hum is the opening item, but I also loved The Journey of the Stamp Animals about a nineteen-forties children's book which had left strong memories but was now so elusive she doubted it had ever existed, From Frogmore, Victoria about Raimond Gaita and his memoir Romulus, My Father, a memory of a former teacher Dear Mrs Dunkley who she belatedly learns to respect, Red Dog: A Mutiny about reaching a compromise with her daughter's dog, The Insults of Age which is about not accepting any more bullshit from people ... I could go on - I loved it all and was sorry when I reached the end. Nothing in the collection disappoints and Helen Garner is rightly described as one of Australia's finest writers. Make that one of the world's.

Key to star ratings: 5* would read over and over again, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Self-Doubt, Imposter Syndrome and Hegemonic Masculinity

A couple of weeks ago, the normally so impeccable Hadley Freeman, writing about self-doubt in her Guardian column, said:

 “I have yet to meet a man who has worried he’s not good enough for a job he’s been offered, whereas I have yet to meet a woman who hasn’t.”

Well, I don’t know what circles she moves in but that is simply wrong, as many of the responses to the online article make clear. Imposter syndrome is not just a female thing.

She finds it impossible to imagine a woman who, like certain men she amusingly identifies, is “perennially mediocre, untouchably arrogant, and eternally gifted by opportunity and protection by the establishment”. You only have to look at some of the women in high political office to see the error in this.

As regards men who worry they are not up to jobs they have been offered, there are lots, myself included. When I got good grades at ‘A’ Levels the second time round in my mid-twenties, and then a good degree, I felt that almost anyone could do it, and still do. When that led to jobs in universities, it felt like unmerited good fortune. When I got research papers into academic journals, I wondered why no one had seen the gaping holes they contained.

This is of course both blowing and sucking my own trumpet at the same time, but I just want to say that even for those who invented the concept*, hegemonic masculinity was never assumed to be universal.

* Connell and Messerschmidt.
The cartoon is from startupbros.com - click to link to its source.
Here is another relevant article from The Guardian.

Friday, 19 January 2018

My New IKEA Sit/Stand Desk

Bekant sit/stand desk 120x80cm
Bekant sit/stand desk, oak/black, 120x80cm

Health sites are good at scaring hypochondriacs like me into believing that sitting down for too long can lead to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and depression. Some even make out that sitting is as bad as smoking. Can it really be so harmful? I am not so sure. Being a complete couch potato is obviously undesirable for lots of reasons, not least that you begin to hate yourself, but what is unclear is how sitting at a desk relates to other levels of activity. It might not be all that bad for those who are otherwise reasonably active.

All I know for sure is that lengthy computer sessions, seated, make my back sore. Despite trying different seating configurations, I end up shuffling around like an arthritic super-centenarian. I have also seen the effects of entire working lives spent at the deskface. Men (mainly) with bad backs, stiff necks, severe stoops, obesity, shortage of breath, high blood pressure and other problems were all too common in the offices of the sixties and seventies – an unrecognised industrial disease from the public health dark ages. We had to put up with any old chair and desk available, no matter how worn out and unergonomic. Worst affected were those who sat down all day in a cloud of cigarette smoke – either their own or other peoples’. Some even put sugar in their tea as well.

So, I broadly accept that sitting down for too long is bad for you, and have for some time been thinking about getting a standing desk. What made me hesitate was (i) not knowing which type to get – a desktop frame or a complete desk, and (ii) the cost – it might be an expensive waste of money.

I thought about making one. It would be fairly simple to construct a sturdy table to stand on an existing desk, although it would not be height adjustable, and deciding its exact height might be a bit hit and miss. I know that a standard four-drawer filing cabinet is quite comfortable for someone of my height to work on, although I don’t know for how long, and getting it wrong could be worse than not having a standing desk at all. Anything I made would probably look naff anyway.  
   
Desktop frames are the cheapest option to buy, albeit not that cheap. For under £250 you can find a work surface to go on top of your existing desk, which can be raised and lowered by means of a pantograph mechanism. Some also have separately-adjustable keyboard trays. But you would have to put the whole thing aside to revert to the original height and space of your desk, and they look several times more naff than my imagined self-made version – lots of cold and clanky metal, like working on the roof of an electric train.

It therefore had to be a full adjustable sit/stand desk or nothing. They are expensive. Some cost over £1,000. A more affordable one was the Bekant desk from IKEA, but it has some damning reviews – unreliable, wobbly, poorly made. It is also 80cm deep (2 feet 7 inches), which is 20cm (7 inches) deeper than my normal desk. The hesitation continued.

Fortunately, we live near enough to an IKEA be able to look in-store. We twice braved the rank smell of Swedish meatballs to play with it, and it looked all right. We wondered whether a cheaper hand-cranked model might suffice rather than an electrically adjustable one. No. Stiff and awkward.

So, a month ago I splashed out £475 on a 120 x 80 cm Bekant electric sit/stand desk. It was Christmas after all. The price included a little extra for the oak veneer top which looks attractive with the black legs. 

I don’t usually review things (except books), and probably wouldn’t even if you paid me (although everyone has their price) but I am so happy with my new sit/stand desk that this once I will. I am not going to go into the technical specifications, plenty of other sites do that, but let me tell you about the experience. It was simple to assemble. It is not poorly made. The height adjustment mechanism, hidden in the legs, seems sturdy and reliable. The desk is not wobbly – the 80 cm depth allows you to stand and lean on it with the full length of your forearms, with the keyboard in the centre of the desk. It does not tilt when you do this. Alternatively, and perhaps better for your posture, you can place your keyboard or papers at the front of the desk to stand and work tall and free. It seems perfect for home use. I don’t know how well it would cope with commercial use but the IKEA staff have them in-store.

Just a few tips if you get one. During assembly, look carefully at the orientation of the brackets in the diagram when fixing them to the underside of the desk. I initially put mine on the wrong way round so that the flanges were too far apart to fit the base, although it was not too much of a problem to take them off and refit. Secondly, if you put weight on your arms while standing, get a foam pad for support, otherwise your elbows might feel sore. Third, replace your office chair with a light stool that can easily be moved aside when you want to stand, and brought back when you want to sit down. You might even want to lower the desk as far as it will go and kneel on the floor. Lastly, the buttons for adjusting the height are fiddly, but easy to use once you get used to them. And a warning: the legs and frame are very heavy.

After a month I find I can stand and work non-stop for a couple of hours or longer, although my ankles, knees and hips did twinge a bit at first. Nothing too bad – I have yet to experience ‘cankles’. Sometimes my shoulders ache a little as well, but moving the desk up or down an inch soon gets round that. And best of all – my back no longer suffers after a long computer session. Costly, but worth it.

I wish standing desks had been around during the years I spent in accountancy in the sixties and seventies, and in computing in the eighties. You would have been labelled a weirdo just for thinking about it.

What next? A treadmill desk? A cycling desk? A hamster wheel desk? I don’t think so. They really are only for weirdos. 

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Kinder Scout

A favourite Derbyshire walk through the years, possibly a metaphor for life

A walk on Kinder Scout (route from an early John Merrill book)

The bleak Kinder moorland can be incongruously beautiful on a fine day, but it was not like that on my first visit in 1974. It was dark and grim, covered in cloud, difficult to know where you were heading. As we ascended Fair Brook, veils of thick, grey mist closed around us, washing away the last of the autumn colours. Drizzle drifted down from the plateau, permeating our cagoules and soaking my canvas rucksack. It had been drenched so often it was beginning to smell like a bag of old socks. It could have been a metaphor for my life at the time: three jobs inside a year and a pointless, wasted term at teacher training college.

Fair Brook crags: 1974
Seeking shelter: Fair Brook crags, 1974
Kinder is a silly place to be out in bad weather, but Neville and I likened ourselves to hardened Himayalan mountaineers. I had even started to grow a beard like Chris Bonington’s, a new self-image to get life and work back on track. The comparison was ridiculous, of course, but role models and self-images can be helpful. There is nothing wrong in trying to find a bit of mental strength and inspiration, despite the obvious differences between the Himalayas and the Derbyshire Peak District, or for that matter, between a fearless expedition leader and an assistant accountant in an office.

We sheltered under overhanging rocks at the top of Fair Brook to eat our sandwiches. From there we took a rough bearing across the moor to Kinder Downfall: about 255 degrees. In more forgiving terrain, you would pick out a distant landmark and head towards it, re-checking your compass just now and again, but distant landmarks are few on Kinder Scout: there is only moor and sky if you’re lucky, and mist if you’re not. You can believe it the roof of the world where abominable bipeds dwell.

Kinder Scout: spring 1975
An abominable biped on Kinder Scout: spring 1975

The surface is broken into a maze of peat ridges, or ‘hags’, by deep, slippery trenches known as ‘groughs’, which twist and turn like waves in a sea of mud. Groughs can be fifteen feet deep (five metres), and there are a lot of them to cross.

Hags and groughs on Kinder plateau: David Appleyard, Wikimedia commons
Hags and groughs on Kinder plateau, 2005

Just as in life, you glide effortlessly along the tops of the hags until they veer off in the wrong direction or lead to a patch of impassable bog. You backtrack, looking for a place to cross a grough, and descend, half-walking, half-sliding, half in control, struggling to keep your balance and stay clean and dry. Inevitably you end up smeared in black peaty mud. You follow the grough until it narrows to a steep watery ‘V’ where, legs apart, one at each side, you struggle to continue. Or again, the grough turns in the wrong direction or leads into a pond. You look for a place to climb out and follow the tops of the hags again. Before long, you are laughing like a toddler stamping through muddy puddles in Wellington boots.

You check your direction constantly but cannot tell how far to the left or right you have drifted. Soon you can be a hundred yards or more off course. You might be enticed into following footprints, but they can easily be from someone else who was helplessly lost, perhaps one of those abominable bipeds. You might see other walkers and decide to follow them, only to find they are wandering round in circles. You really have to trust your compass, no matter how fallible. Providing you do, then sooner or later you will come upon the River Kinder: not a river in the ordinary sense, but a wider, flatter trench than the groughs, with a stony and sometimes sandy floor. For most of the year you can walk westwards along its bed until you arrive high above the sheer gritstone gorge of Kinder Downfall.

River Kinder: 1974
The Kinder River: 1974

Kinder Downfall is the highest waterfall in the Peak District, where the Kinder River tumbles a hundred feet (30 metres) from the plateau. It is magnificent in spate, especially when the wind blows it back upon itself in a shimmering rainbow cloud. At such times it would not be unreasonable to call it Kinder Upfall.

Kinder Downfall in spate: Dave Dunford, Wikimedia Commons
Kinder Downfall (or should it be called Kinder Upfall?), 2005

We pressed on along the edge of the plateau – part of the Pennine Way – in our murky globe of gloom. We could just about make out the distinctive starfish shape of Kinder Reservoir below, but there were none of the distant views beyond Manchester to the mountains of Snowdonia you see in clear weather. We began to doubt our route. A couple of walkers came towards us, the only others we had seen all day. We asked whether we were on the right path for the Snake Inn. They looked doubtful.

“Probably, but it must be at least ten miles,” they thought.

That worried us. But that’s the thing about walking. It is a metaphor for life. Whether you are slogging up a mountain, plodding endless distance or trailing others in wretched misery, you have to keep going through the grit and grimness. You have to get back on the hags and leave the groughs behind. Usually you do. In my case, it was the accountancy that got left behind. The Chris Bonington thing really did help, even though Bonington would never have been an accountant in the first place, or had his sandwiches made by his mum.

It turned out we were right and the other walkers wrong. Within half an hour we reached the corner of the plateau above Ashop Head, where a steep slope descends to a signpost at the junction of the Snake Path and Pennine Way. Within another half hour we were at the derelict Ashop Clough shooting cabin where we stopped for the last of our coffee, and for Neville to smoke his pipe and reflect upon the meaning of things.

Ashop Clough shooting cabin: 1975 and 2011
The derelict shooting cabin in Ashop Clough: 1975 and 2011

Such as what did the shooting cabin mean? In 1974, it still sheltered you from the worst of the elements. You could just about visualise the cosy refuge it must have been for the privileged few before the “right to roam” trespass of 1932. The likes of us would not have been welcome then on the Kinder moors, I would have not been exploring different careers, and most of Bonington’s mountaineering pals would have been at work instead of climbing. The derelict structure was like a monument to social progress and freedom of opportunity. 

Tellingly, it provides no shelter at all now. During the last forty years or so, the east gable end, the fireplace and roof have disappeared without trace. The only slight improvement is to the bridge across the stream to Black Ashop Moor, which is now marginally sturdier than the precarious plank you once dared cross at your peril. Fortunately, you never had to. The route continues on the northern side of the stream and soon passes through woods to steps back up to the road.

Seal Edge looking towards Fair Brook
Looking along Seal Edge towards Fairbrook Naze on the far right

Since then, I have wandered this northern part of Kinder Scout at least a dozen more times, in every kind of weather. One summer day, when the sun was shining and the ferns and heather at their loveliest, I took my son and daughter, she was then only seven, across the bottom of Fair Brook and up to Seal Edge, forgetting just how far it is to return down the Fair Brook valley, but she did it without complaint. Another day, on the same route, I surprised two wild wallabies at the western end of Seal Edge, although not as much as they surprised me. They jumped out and disappeared across the moor before I could get my camera, leaving me wondering whether I had simply imagined them.

Icicles on the Snake Path: winter 1976
Icicles on the Snake Path through Ashop Clough: winter 1976

I have been on the Snake Path when the Ashop was frozen hard and long icicles lined the banks like crystal chandeliers. I have walked east along The Edge aiming for the top of Fair Brook and completely failed to recognise it (not alone I should add), and had to hitch a lift back to the car after finally descending to the road. That’s what happens on Kinder Scout when you arrogantly think you know it well enough not to look at your map and compass. I once tried to cross the top of Kinder from the Downfall to Fair Brook, which requires more accurate compass use than east to west, and after what seemed like an eternity, emerged way off course near Fairbook Naze looking over The Edge. Not accurate enough! When I eventually reached Fair Brook that day, the descent just about finished my knees. Lessons, lessons, lessons, but things turn out right in the end.

I suppose now, with satnav, you know exactly where you are all the time, but I’m not having one of those. It’s cheating. I don’t want to make things too easy for myself. It doesn’t fit my self-image, even though, unlike Sir Chris Bonington, I won’t be shimmying up The Old Man of Hoy at the age of eighty.

Ascent to Kinder Scout via Fair Brook, 1974 and 2007
Fair Brook with Kinder Scout in mist in 1974, and clear in 2007

You might also like Road To The Isles

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Review - Matt Haig: How To Stop Time

Matt Haig
How To Stop Time (4*)

I enjoyed this immensely. It interleaves several stories connected across the centuries. Tom, the protagonist, was born in 1581, but has a condition called anageria, which means he ages so slowly that today he only seems forty-one. A few others have the same condition, and a secret organisation protects them from the dangers they face if discovered. It is a great plot with lots of historical name-dropping.

The book also posits various philosophical beliefs, such as that the weight of memory can be painful - perhaps a warning to ancient bloggers like me who write about the past and often feel like they have been here for several centuries already.

Matt Haig is a very good writer, but in just a small number of places he seems not to have revised the text to the same high standard as elsewhere. He also makes an enormous historical howler. Early in the book, Tom consults the Victorian physician Dr. Jonathan Hutchinson, one of the first to identify the rapid-ageing condition progeria. Hutchinson (like many other characters in the book) did exist in reality. I know about him because I once visited the museum he founded in his home town of Selby, Yorkshire (sadly, the museum closed in the nineteen-seventies). In the book, Haig's secret organisation bumps Hutchinson off in 1891, but he actually lived until 1913. If in doubt look on genealogical resources which clearly place him at Haslemere, Surrey, in the 1911 census, and index his will in 1913. Did Haig have to rush the book to a deadline?

Key to star ratings: 5* would read over and over again, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.