Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Layer 370 . . . London, Traffic, Synchronicity, Stephen Fry, Sexuality, Pennyred, Workshops and Seasons

Clearly my son didn't believe me when I said it would take at least an hour, and possibly much more than that, to drive to Paddington. He must have presumed I didn't feel like playing minicabs today. Neither was he impressed with my offer of paying his minicab fare for him. Maybe he likes my company after all. He certainly doesn't like buses and the tube when he's got stuff to carry.

"But it's not the rush hour!"

I needed to put him straight on the fact that there is NO rush hour in London these days. The traffic stays constant. The speed of circulation depends entirely on how many roadworks there are, whether they're controlled by temporary traffic lights which are ignorant of the actual volume of traffic, whether traffic lights have broken down, whether vehicles have broken down, whether drivers are having breakdowns, whether there's been an accident or an 'incident', whether roads have been closed, whether idiots have parked where they shouldn't, whether bus lanes are 24 hours, and so on.

In the event we encountered none of the above, were delayed for just 5 minutes by a huge crane being loaded on to a transporter, and still the journey of 8 miles, which Google Maps says should take 30 minutes, actually took an hour and a half. Figure it out - an average of 5.4 mph.

So that, my son, is why I try to go everywhere on foot and by public transport these days. And at least I can then read the newspaper, and do some proper thinking and planning, and get some physical exercise, instead of just sitting staring vacantly at the stationary vehicle in front when I'm not swerving and dodging and speedhumping and cursing.


"Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."


Johnson: "The happiness of London is not to be conceived but by those who have been in it. I will venture to say, there is more learning and science within the circumference of ten miles from where we now sit, than in all the rest of the world."
Boswell: "The only disadvantage is the great distance at which people live from one another."
Johnson: "Yes, Sir, but that is occasioned by the largeness of it, which is the cause of all the other advantages."
Boswell: "Sometimes I have been in the humour of wishing to retire to a desart."
Johnson: "Sir, you have desart enough in Scotland."

Boswell: The Life of Samuel Johnson

"A country gentleman should bring his lady to visit London as soon as he can, that they may have agreeable topicks for conversation when they are by themselves."

Wikipedia: "Johnson had a tall and robust figure, but his odd gestures and tics were confusing to some on their first encounter with him. Boswell's Life, along with other biographies, documented Johnson's behaviour and mannerisms in such detail that they have informed the posthumous diagnosis of Tourette's syndrome."



Coincidence Corner #1

Following Oxzen's critical remarks about Stephen Fry just over a month ago - about his obsession with Wagner and all things Wagnerian - we now find dearest Stephen in some deep doodoo over some rubbish he's been spouting about women and sex.

Laurie Penny wrote this in the Guardian:


When word got out that Stephen Fry, the tweedy, cuddly face of acceptable bourgeois homosexuality, had said something rather offensive about women, a collective gasp rang out across the nation. He couldn't have, surely? Not lovely Stephen Fry, for whom even the most homophobic grandmother reserves a soft spot; not Stephen Fry, the only man whom both the drugs-and-buggery counterculture and the brandy-and-bigotry establishment recognise as one of their own?

Unfortunately, everyone's favourite gay uncle really has proposed that women only ever have sex for money, or to manipulate a man into a relationship. Despite claiming to have been misquoted by Attitude magazine, Fry is on record in several other interviews opining that women don't really like sex – for if they did, they would "go to Hampstead Heath and meet strangers to shag behind a bush."

Fry now informs me that, as a woman, I lack the necessary equipment to understand sexual desire. As he elucidated in another interview, "you don't get … what it's like to have one of these in your bloody trousers!"

Many have queried whether Fry, a man with limited experience of a lady's intimate regions, has the right to pronounce on female erotic preference. Feminists across the internet have defended themselves against the wearisome patriarchal charge of frigidity.

The more profound question, however, is why Fry feels that females inhabit a world so alien to his own.

Both men and women who grow up desiring men know what it's like to fear violence if we express our sexuality, especially if we're brazen enough to walk alone on the streets at night.

In this context, Fry's spectacular ability to entirely dismiss the culture of shame, sexual threat and social stigma associated with female sexuality seems offensively myopic.

Instead of solidarity in the face of a heteronormative patriarchy that oppresses all of us, there remains a chasm of suspicion and misunderstanding that obstructs genuine solidarity between women and gay men. Fry's words are a perfect expression of that process of mutual incomprehension, a process whereby our culture has become so alienated from its own sexuality that erotic impulses can never be a point of community, only of difference.

For example, despite the bland saturation of our aesthetic environment with images of "sexy" ladies, female sexuality is still a mystery to many men, gay and straight. A lot of men find it hard to grasp the many social reasons for female sexual reticence, and harder still to imagine that a woman's desires could have any similarity to their own.

The uncomfortable truth is that gay or straight, male or female, we all have kinky thoughts. Nearly everyone, whatever their particular proclivities, is liable to go a bit funny when presented with the prospect of a rummage in somebody else's pants. Fusty bourgeois refusal to accept that most people are simply gagging for it most of the time, including women and queers, remains at the root of most sexism and homophobia.

It's worth checking out Ms Penny's blog at http://pennyred.blogspot.com/2010/10/its-been-while.html

Also her blogs in the New Statesman - http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/laurie-penny


Coincidence Corner #2

Having written, a couple of weeks ago in Layer 363, about boys learning to be creative and self-sufficient using tools and materials in their dads' workshops and sheds, it seems an amazing bit of synchronicity to have a new James May series starting on BBC 2 - Man Lab.


Fixing The British Male

by James May


Like many people, I spend most of my working life typing at a computer. During the course of a normal day writing things for the telly, almost everything I do is – well, cerebral is too big a word for Top Gear, but you know what I mean.

After a day like that, an evening spent fixing things – messing around with a bicycle or doing a spot of DIY – is an immense therapy. It is very refreshing to do something with your hands, even if it's only to clean your shoes. Or take a clock to bits and put it back together. Or mend an old motorcycle.

Manual work stimulates and uses a part of your brain that's otherwise lying dormant. It's like one of those yogic stretches that pulls on a muscle that you never normally use. You think: "Wow, ow – that hurts a bit, but it's quite nice." In recent years I've found myself craving evenings on my own in the garage.

Mobile phones, computers, digital cameras – they're all brilliant, but I see very little joy and beauty in them because everything is hidden, obfuscated, and you can't actually see how it works. Mechanics have far more poetry to them and are somehow closer to the human condition than electronics. A mechanical camera, or a steam locomotive with the valve gear on the outside of the wheel, or the derailleur of a bicycle, is wondrous stuff.

Since the rise of laddism there's been a notion that men are incompetent, and that somehow this is fashionable and a bit cool. It seems pretty clear from the research and the reports we've seen lately that women are better at everything than men, and men seem to have just caved in and accepted this.

A couple of years ago I started to get bored with this prevailing wisdom. And I don't think I'm the only one. I sense a change in the national mood: men don't want to be hopeless any more, and women – well, they are fed up with the notion of beer-swilling blokes who just watch the football all afternoon. They don't want us to be useless: they want us to have a bit more clout and be a bit more dependable.

And mostly I think men miss being practical, doing stuff with tools, making things – having hobbies.

Nobody will actually admit to enjoying these kinds of hobbies normally, because it's seen as a bit sad. But if somebody could just stand up and say: "Don't worry – it's OK to like this stuff" then everybody will go: "Wahey! Thank God for that – let's build a boat!" What I'm saying is: it's not uncool to know how to use all the tools in your toolbox.

My love of fixing stuff – and generally fiddling with things – goes back to childhood. I inherited a bit of it from my dad: he worked in the manufacturing industry, running steel foundries, so he was always a hands-on person, technically and practically minded.

He didn't have a shed or a workshop, but there were always tools lying around in the garage, and I knew where they were and how to use them. Rather than sitting over me and teaching me these things, Dad just let me get on with it and subtly encouraged my practical hobbying.

Of course you can argue that there's a generational difference at work here. Basic mechanics and woodwork were common currency at a time when Britain was much more of a manufacturing nation. I spent my formative years in South Yorkshire, where a lot of people's dads were employed in industry, and making stuff with your hands was just seen as a natural extension of the culture of the area. And yes, with the disappearance of those industries, the skills, too, have disappeared to some extent.

But it does sadden me when people feel they have to call in an expert to do something quite mundane like put their gate back on or rewire a socket – I think: "Oh, have a go!" If you break any kind of DIY task into the individual skills like painting, or putting screws in, or wiring sockets up, you're left with simple manual tasks. They're no more complicated than preparing the ingredients to cook with. It's only when you put them all together that they become intimidating.

Ninety per cent of building something is about thought process and confidence.

Letter in the Guardian:

Regarding the claim that there is a liberal gene (Reading this paper? It could be in your genes, 29 October), is there a gene that predisposes some people to think that behaviour is determined by genes?

Andrew Sayer



Having mentioned the glories of autumn in the previous blog post, I came across this fine article in the Observer about the brilliant year we've had for weather and seasons:

Spring, summer, autumn, winter... how this year revived the seasons

Author Rob Penn has watched this year's seasonal changes unfold with such abundant drama they have lured him outdoors and turned his home into a food-processing factory

The year started white and diamond-bright . . .  It was the beginning of a memorable year, a year of four distinct seasons all delivering long periods of fine weather, a year of bounty from the land. At the time, we just took it for what it was: a glorious New Year's Day.

I've often found the garden a burden – a time-consuming distraction from the things that I really enjoy doing, such as reading, riding a bicycle and moaning about the weather in my local pub. This year was different, however: it may prove to have been seminal. Day after day, week after week and month after month, the weather drew me outside. It wasn't that the weather was always good . . .  rather the meteorological conditions seemed to continually distinguish the seasons.

Seasons are at the heart of our fascination with the weather. We're not unique in having four, but it is a privilege. Most of the world's population live in the tropics and subtropics where there are only two seasons – wet and dry.

Autumn arrived with the sound of boughs breaking in the orchard, so great was the weight of the crop. Cooking apples and several different types of eaters all hung from the trees in such abundance they outnumbered the leaves. The perry pear trees, planted over a century ago and once, when the fruit was sold to Bulmers in Hereford, a big part of the farm income, fruit infrequently: this year, everyone produced. A dozen damson trees all bore succulent purple profit.

For several weeks, our house turned into a fruit-processing factory. We were so busy we barely paused to count our luck. We picked, pricked and pared, cored, chopped, stewed and steeped apples, damsons, pears, quince and sloes.

Rob Penn is the author of It's All About the Bike: the Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels (Particular Books, £16.99)


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