Wednesday, January 27, 2010

In what do we trust?

It's funny, isn't it. Someone says something, with which you think you completely agree, only to find, after a period of reflection, that you don't agree with it at all!

Enough waffling . . . you'd like me to be specific.

"You can't trust anyone these days," said a friend the other day.
I thought about the daily diet of exposures offered to us by the Press, and sadly agreed. We did seem to be living in a world where trust could only be given grudgingly, if at all.

To cheer us up, and dispel this depressing thought, I went into the kitchen to prepare the tea. The water poured freely from the tap into the kettle. I allowed it to boil. I then took the tea-bag from its box and put it into the tea-pot. Finally, I found the cake that I'd bought the day before, and placed it, together with a knife, on a plate.
Our tea was nearly ready.

Only then did I realise that the whole operation had been one of total trust. I had never questioned that water would flow from the tap, nor had I doubted its quality. I had taken it for granted that the electricity supply would power the kettle, and it hadn't crossed my mind that there might be anything harmful in the tea-bag. The fact that the cake was fully edible, not to mention delicious, had never been a matter of doubt.

After my friend had departed, I reflected on the amount of trust that each one of us displays every day.
We trust that the air we breathe will not harm us . . . we trust that the shops will be open in the morning and that there will be food on the shelves . . . we trust the abilities of the bus driver who takes us home with our shopping. A friend offers us a chocolate, and never for a moment do we doubt the integrity of the chocolate-maker (nor our friend's good intentions).

After reflection, it struck me forcibly that human lives, from dawn to dusk, are one long example of the art of trust.

Perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, all this is far more important than any creative accountancy in Westminster or the City?

I'm now trusting that the unfathomable mysteries and wonders of modern technology will deliver this letter safely . . . and, if you're reading it, my trust has been fully justified!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Two Ghosts in Galloway

Tell me, did you pick stars when you were little? No, I'm not being fanciful (or only slightly) but, when I was a child, living in the country, I really believed that, given a tall chair or a step-ladder, I could have reached up into the blackness and picked any number of the vast, shining stars that clustered in the night sky above the garden. They seemed so close . . . so tangible . . . so alluring.
Then we moved to the town . . . and the stars disappeared. But the stars also disappeared from the countryside, so it was wonderful to hear on the news the other day that the first Dark Sky Park in Europe has been established in Galloway. Now the children of Scotland can go star-picking!

I love Scotland. It's a country I've visited frequently. As a student, I even worked on a pig farm near Stirling . . . but that's another story!
Dumfries and Galloway is now in the news, but it was one of the lesser known regions of South-West Scotland when I took Rupert there a few years ago.
Have you been there? As you can see from this map, it's all rugged coastline and rocky inlets . . . quite staggeringly beautiful.
Most of my time was spent exploring the coast, but, one morning, lured by the attractions of the hinterland, I took the car and followed the narrow, winding road that went deep into the mountains. Not only did it go deeply in, it also went steeply up.

With Rupert sitting happily in his usual position on the passenger seat, we climbed . . . and climbed.
I began to get slightly worried. Had I enough petrol? What if we met another car on the very narrow, winding road? As I slowly realised, this particular mountain had two distinct gradients. One very steep, a regular challenge for climbers, the other more gentle which permitted our road to ascend almost to the summit.

It was quite a relief to reach the very small, wind-blown car-park. I stopped the car and looked out. Only yards away a track coiled upwards to the mountain peak. It seemed a pity to have come so far and not make the final few yards. A pity not to be able to say that Rupert had climbed a Scottish mountain . . . all right, ninety per cent of his ascent had been on four wheels, but at least he could make the short journey to the summit on four legs.

After attaching his lead, I let Rupert jump out of the car and we both of us started up the rocky track.
I wished I had put on climbing shoes . . . or climbing attire . . . or that I looked a little less out-of-place on a mountain-top. But, stumbling in shoes better suited to London, I made it round the rocky bend.

The view down from the summit was breath-taking. Rupert and I perched on a rock and drank in the incredible splendour.
Only then did I hear the unlikely sound of voices.
Way below us, climbing the mountain by the traditional means of stout sticks and nailed boots, came a party of climbers.
I watched their slow and laborious approach until, finally, they rounded a rock and saw us sitting there awaiting them.

Looking at their startled faces, I had the feeling that they knew nothing of the car-park. That, as far as they were concerned, theirs was the only means of reaching the summit. To have discovered a woman, dressed for the London streets, with, of all things, a Burmese cat on a lead . . . well, it must have prompted fears of hallucinations at the very least!

It seemed best not to try to explain.
They clearly felt the same and, without saying a word, silently moved on.

Did they think they'd seen a ghost . . . two ghosts?

Shall I tell you what I like to imagine? I like to imagine that, for evermore, in the pubs of Galloway, when people come in after gazing at the stars, and tales are told in the chilly winter evenings, this ghostly story will surface.
Of how, if you climb to the summit of the local mountain, there, looming out of the mist, you might encounter two fearful mountain ghosts.
One, a very strange woman from the city . . . the other, a large, grey cat on a lead!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Between The Lines

I had a form to fill the other day
Which, when completed, could be said to be
An outline of my life. How carefully
I edited the story to portray
Apparent purpose, shaping facts so they
Would inter-lock and leave no hint of the
Long stretches, haunted by uncertainty,
That came between. Although I shouldn't say
So, when completed, I was quite impressed;
I seemed a person I'd be pleased to know.
Until I realised it was the rest -
The many failures that I didn't show,
The doubts and longings that I'd not confessed -
That, in the wilderness, had made me grow.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Blow, blow, thou winter wind

Perhaps I shouldn't write a letter today. The noise from outside has made me cantankerous.
But, if you've a moment to listen, you'd help me to let off steam . . . and it won't take long.

Unwittingly, I think I've discovered a symbol that distinguishes what it is to be a man . . . or,
conversely, what is not required of a woman.

Any ideas . .. ?

It's the ubiquitous leaf-blower - which now, so it seems, is being used to blow away the snow!

Think about it for a moment . . . have you ever seen a woman with a leaf-blower?
By the same token, have you, in recent years, seen a man with a garden
broom? It isn't a question of efficiency, or even speed (in many ways a broom is both more efficient and quicker) it's all a question of not losing face.

To carry a leaf-blower gives a man kudos. He has supreme mastery over a piece of intricate machinery. True, it's probably the noisiest piece of machinery (given its capabilities) on the market, but what it lacks in efficiency it provides in status. Who could doubt that the man in charge of such a noisy implement is performing a vital, manly task?

A broom, by contrast, is wholly unassuming, peaceful and dull. It creates no noise, other than a gentle swish, needs no mechanical maintenance, and makes no claim to fame other than a distant association with witchcraft. Clearly it's a woman's implement, a woman's fabled source of transport . . . definitely an inappropriate and demeaning tool for a man.

But surely our world is noisy enough? Not only that, the carbon emissions from these ineffectual leaf-blowers are doing no good to our beleagured planet.

Where, I wonder, stands a man courageous enough to lay down his leaf-blower for the good of the environment . . . ?

Step forward, Sir Lancelot . . . armed with a good, old-fashioned, highly-efficient broom!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Where have all the humans gone?

Am I growing old and grumpy?
No . . . you needn't reply to that question. The answer is probably 'Yes', but it's immaterial. I may be grumpy, but I'm also deeply puzzled . . . not to say unhappy.
I repeat my question, "Where have all the humans gone?"

Have you recently needed to phone any large, impersonal organisation with an enquiry? If so, did you get a robotic voice that was almost scaring in its lack of humour and common understanding?

To give you an example. The Christmas cards that I ordered from a large charity had failed to arrived by early December. A little worried, as the overseas cards needed posting, I phoned the charity to enquire if there had been a problem with my order.

"What's your post-code?" a female voice intoned.
I told her . . . and was left holding on for several minutes.
"Your order has been received," she told me on her return, "we can guarantee that it will be with you by Christmas."
This was ridiculous . . . I was growing exasperated.
"Look . . . I haven't ordered these cards for my own enjoyment!" I retorted, "They've got to be written and posted before Christmas!"

"Your order has been received," she repeated, "and will be dealt with in due course."
Far from allaying my fears, the colourless person on the other end of the phone didn't even recognise the ludicrous nature of her response.
Was it a 'she', or had the charity employed a little green alien with no sense of humour or humanity?

The cards did arrive . . . just in time.

More recently, I received a letter from my bank. Any communication of a financial nature always leaves me feeling baffled and inadequate, but this particular letter had a reassuring final paragraph.
'If you need any assistance,' it said, 'contact a Personal Advisor . . .' and it provided a phone number to make good its offer.
I phoned.

My Personal Advisor sounded defensive rather than helpful. I outlined my difficulty. She explained that she, personally, was unable to assist me.
"But it says in this letter that I should phone your number for help?" I said, baffled.
"I can help you to find the relevant part of the letter that relates to your problem," was the response.
"But it's the whole letter . . . " I was growing confused, "it's why you sent it to me?"
"In relation to your question, I can't give an answer," said my Personal Advisor.
I tried to be specific.
"You talk about percentages," I said, "can you explain how they would relate to my account?"
"In relation to your question," she replied (was this a phrase she'd been instructed to use at every opportunity?) "I really can't advise."
"But surely you can explain what I would receive from the percentages you quote?"
"I don't have a calculator," said my Personal Advisor conclusively.
Our relationship, such as it was, had reached an impasse.
"You'd better phone this number," was her final, and only, advice.

With little faith, I phoned the number she had given me.
Oh . . . what a delight! A voice with a smile in it! The voice of a woman who sounded as though she had a real life . . . a life with relationships, hopes and aspirations.
Within minutes we had sorted out the problematic letter.
When we concluded our conversation I felt as though I had made a friend, or, at the very least, had held out a hand to someone who had accepted it.

Are all these so-called Personal Advisors being told that hostility is the best approach? Is this an example of the defensive culture depicted by those alarming restrictions imposed by Health and Safety?

I'm sorry . . . this is no way to start a New Year. But do you see why I'm feeling grumpy and anxious?
And what makes it worse is the fact that hostility is infectious. When we receive hostility, it's all to easy to offer hostility in return.

It seems to be time for a New Year resolution . . . how's this . . .

"I will do my best to respond sweetly to robotic voices and not to be grumpy with my friends."

There you are . . . but I'm afraid there's no three-hundred-and-sixty-five-day guarantee!

I know it's a little late to say this, but 'A Very Happy New Year'!