Thursday, February 26, 2015

Radioactive University

I was lucky enough to go to the University of Manchester between the autumn of 1983 and the summer of 1986.

The course was an honours degree in psychology, and because of the slightly ambiguous nature of psychology, you could graduate as a BA or BSc. The psychology department was the largest in the country at that time. It's probably laughably small today, there were about 70 people in my year and together with the phd students and researchers, the department was about 250 strong.

We were housed in the Rutherford Building, one of the older parts of the university around the back of the splendid Victorian Gothic administration building and the Manchester Museum. It was a very important building in the history of science, as in the early years of the 20th century Sir Ernest Rutherford, Hans Geiger, and various other luminaries did amazing pioneering work on nuclear physics. All over the building, here and there were brass plaques, blue plaques and various other kinds of memorials to their breakthroughs.

Unfortunately, messing about with radioactive compounds is very dangerous, but of course the pioneers had no idea of the consequences of their work. When I was learning psychology in the Rutherford building, the main lecture theatre, a splendid rather huge room up in the loft was dark dusty and semi-derelict. We were n't allowed to use it as the area at the front where the lecturers stood was radioactive. Likewise the actual bench where Rutherford set up the apparatus to split the atom was down in the cellar. There were stories that for many years it had glowed in the dark. I seem to remember one other place where Rutherford or one of his assistants had slopped radioactive liquid or something and that was sort of fenced off or something. The details are slightly vague now - it was nearly 30 years ago. 

So I was very sad to read this article from the Guardian in 2009 (how did I miss it?!?) that discusses the early deaths of three of my lecturers. Dr Hugh Wagner was my tutor in the first or second year (I can't remember now!) and is someone I always thought of as a friend. Dr John Clark was one of those splendid English eccentrics, who taught us fascinating thing about clinical psychology. Arthur Reader was another eccentric, one that introduced me to computers and computing.

An enquiry has found that the cancer death cluster is likely to be coincidence, but still recommends that use in some of the rooms occupied by these men should be minimised. If you're doing psychology at Manchester, don't worry - the department has moved now and is a completely separate building.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Laura Robson's Blog

British tennis player Laura Robson has had a miserable 2014 sidelined from the tour with an injury.

But it has given her time to set up a blog called Laura the Explorer which is thoughtful and visual and a delight to read. I've included it in the Tennis links below and to the right of this page.


Enjoy it, and lets hope Laura's comeback which is scheduled for next month goes well.

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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Lou Reed (1942 - 2013)


I still remember the first time I heard the Velvet Underground.

It was the autumn of 1984, the miners were on strike and I was a student at Manchester just starting my second year. Paul my flatmate and I lived in a cold, damp ground-floor flat in Hathersage Road, Longsight.

We'd been invited to a party somewhere in the area, and around midnight, sitting on a stair, bored and lonely and thinking about leaving, I suddenly became aware of a strange driving hypnotic song coming from the stereo in the sitting room. It kept me planted on the stairs, entranced, and then propelled me into the living room where two or three girls danced in a rather ironic way (the song featured a very 1960s Hammond organ sound). Once it was over, to be replaced by the inevitable Smiths or Simply Red song, I asked the host what it was. He handed me a dark green album with a tacky and faintly tasteless graphic featuring a too short mini-dress and leopard skin knickers. It was a live album by a 1960s group called The Velvet Underground. A day or two later I bought the album, and quickly discovered the song in question was called "What Goes On." A little while after that, I bought the famous 'banana album' by the Velvets and was hooked.

Thoughout my twenties I was a passionate Lou Reed fan, who owned many of his albums and loved the bitter twisted anger expressed in a lot of the lyrics, which were often paired with rather jolly happy three chord songs. The production was often minimal, and even the most unpromising material would often feature a passage or an aphorism or simply an odd yet true observation. 

I saw him perform twice - once in the unlikely surroundings of the London Palladium in 1989 promoting the excellent New York album, probably his best solo effort. I believe some of Britain's highly critical music press voted that performance 'gig of the year' in their end of year reviews. A few years later I saw him again with the reformed Velvets on the Paris leg of their rather chaotic once-only reformed world tour. It was nice to hear the standards performed live by their originators, and I was struck by how avant garde the music still sounded and what a good musician John Cale is - he seemed to play everything at that concert including the electric viola which produced screechy haunting very 'avant garde' kind of sounds whilst destroying the bow he was using - at the end it looked more like a horsehair whip than a bow.

Time moved on, I got older and my interest lessened. The last Lou Reed album I bought was Songs for Drella, his collaboration with John Cale to commemorate and celebrate their mentor Andy Warhol. None the less I was saddened by Lou's death and was pleased to introduce M (far more a music lover than I) to some of his best work recently.

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Farewell 2014


I as type, 2014 has another hour and a few minutes to live.

What a great year! Highlights include a really good holiday in Molyvos on the island of Lesbos, spending our first year in our new house, and generally having a trouble free and prosperous year.

Sadly I've lost interest in the blog so much I doubt there will be many entries in 2015. As you can see, my last entry was a kind of obituary for it, aged 10.

And so much for all that - happy new year!

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

10th Birthday

This blog was 10 years old on the 12th September 2014.

It began at the end of a very bad period of my life; the early 2000s were not a good decade for me or millions of other people, particularly in the developed world.

I'd returned from the United States in 2001 just after 9-11 and surprise surprise I couldn't find work. 

When I did get a chance of something, it was to finish in second place in job interviews (often after a gruelling and expensive-to-reach second interview). This happened at least three times, perhaps even a fourth. 

Perhaps this process affected my mind - when I finally did get a job it ended in a rather nasty and brutal fashion, although rough justice was served by the office closing down a few months later. A period of desperate financial and personal trouble followed.

With savings gone and a couple of good friendships trashed in the process (can I ever forgive those people for not helping? If I'm honest, probably not). I was forced to take jobs that I normally wouldn't have considered - most of them were contract roles paying less than the salary I'd been earning ten years before. 

By the time I started the blog, I was doing the worst job I've ever had in a company I hated and despised. My immediate colleague was an eccentric but also kind enough if a bit cold at times. My immediate boss was a decent and kind man (coincidence: I knew knew his sister from university). But the boss above him was the one of the nastiest pieces of work I've ever encountered in an office - a filthy despicable piece of shit.

Of course I didn't know it at the time but life would improve within a year or so (See the Resigned entry for September 2005). I'd start a contract with a really good company really going places! Two good men I'd meet there would have an important influence on my professional life - one that extends to this day.

I still don't know why I started the blog - Work was awful and so was my life - perhaps it was a way of writing something I wanted to write rather than for the dreadful company I was in and keeping.

After the initial flush of enthusiasm I decided I would write one entry a month, and pretty much kept to that from 2005 all the way to 2009. Does the data from the web show those to be the peak years of blogging? Perhaps so - they certainly felt like it at the time. Undoubtedly the peak traffic for the blog and the only time it's been in the public eye was during the trial of serial killer Steve Wright. I knew one of his victims, see the entry for October 2005, which features a somewhat disguised Gemma Adams. I followed the trial from day 1 through the local press and actually went myself in person after doing a night-shift on one of the days. It was a fascinating gruesome business, not least because I'd been interviewed by the police four times during those crazy days of autumn 2006.

Since those days the blog has continued, albeit sporadically, and a recent article in the Guardian  wondered if blogging was dead. I suspect that author Onur Kabadayi may well be right - certainly none of the amateur blogs I used to link to and enjoy reading are still going, which is a dreadful shame. I miss the likes of David Young, Amy Knight and especially my great friend Dave Ramsey. I believe Facebook killed most blogs - it certainly put this one on a care and maintenance program, although Twitter played its part as well.

So what of the future? I find it hard to imagine this blog celebrating a 20th birthday, but for the time being I see no reason to shut it down. It's a wonderful record made up of snapshots of what seemed important on a given day between 2004 and 2014. It's an important decade for me, as at the start, at 39, you can just about persuade yourself you're still young - after all less than four years ago you were 35, which most people consider young. But today I'm 49, and within six months of being 50, which is no way young. As for the world, it covers the last five years or so of what Time magazine called The Decade from Hell. I wholeheartedly agree with Time - for me it really was a decade of broken dreams, getting older, having my confidence smashed by forces outside my control and not coping very well. 

Thankfully, meeting the lovely Mandy at some point in the Spring of 2010 made it all worthwhile. But by god I wish I'd have known that on some grim winter evening in January 2005.

And so much for all that. 

Thanks for getting this far, thank you for your interest in the blog and I hope that at least some of the entries have made you frown or made you smile.

- roGER 

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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Commemoration


This August, Britain has been commemorating the start of the first world war, which began 100 years ago.

As part of the commemoration, 800,000+ artificial poppies have been placed in the moat at the Tower of London, each poppy representing one British or Commonwealth life lost.

It must have been the most devastating war to live through. What always strikes me travelling through Britain and France is how many names there are on each village memorial. Particularly as the villages were almost always much smaller in those days, at least in Britain. Some small communities must have lost all the guys aged between 16 and 35. Probably every family in Britain lost someone; mine certainly did. There was a brother of my father's mother 'shot while trying to escape' from being taken prisoner, which she seemed to find entirely in character. Then there was my mother's mother's father, who survived the trenches only to die in vile influenza epidemic that broke out during the last year of war and the first years of peace.

On my many travels I've developed a theory that Britain and America were actually quite similar in outlook up to 1914. There was an unashamed patriotism, and a strong belief in science and technology as agents of positive change. There was also quite a lot of religious belief expressed and publicly celebrated. Both nations, and indeed countries like France and Germany, felt they were special and unique and blessed by god, or at least good fortune.

After 1918, in Britain and Europe, many people felt that modern war had rendered such beliefs absurd. How do you believe in a technological utopia when science has produced poison gas, high explosive and the machine gun? How would any kind of loving god sit on his hands whilst Europe bleeds itself white, and then rewards the peace with an influenza outbreak that kills almost as many people who died in the war? How can one be patriotic, when patriotism has led to so many pointless deaths? Above all else why was the war fought and was the price in blood and treasure remotely worth paying?

Now I know America did enter the war (late as usual as British cynics would add). But although Imperial Germany felt the growing weight of American arms towards the final months of war, American casualties were, by European standards, tiny. Now don't get me wrong, 100,000+ deaths is awful - far greater than the numbers of US dead in for example, Vietnam. But from a population of 90 million, they don't have anything like the same effect as 700,000+ British dead from a population half that size.

So in the years that follow, the United States remains very religious (at least on the surface), supremely optimistic about science and technology, and unashamedly patriotic. European culture is the exact opposite; and I reckon it's because of the first world war.

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Monday, July 07, 2014

Roger Federer


We went to Wimbledon on Saturday for the women's singles final.

Disappointing as a match, it featured my favourite Petra Kvitova in Matrix like form as she destroyed Eugenie Bouchard 6-3, 6-0 in 55 short minutes. 

A couple of doubles matches followed, but for me the real highlight of the day was at around 11am when, acting on a tip-off from a kindly official, we settled into the tiny outside Court Number 4 and saw Roger Federer practise with friend and hitting partner Fabrice Santoro and coach Stefan Edberg.

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Monday, June 30, 2014

The Best Week-End of the Summer is Over

This was a great week-end as it marks the highpoint of summer for me.

The reason? Wimbledon and Glastonbury coincide, this year along with a World Cup, although the less said of England's results in that competition the better. 

Glastonbury is the only time of the year I seriously pay attention to music these days, and I always make a list of artists that have impressed me. This year the list was:

The Horrors

The Bombay Bicycle Club, although M and I were impressed with them back in 2012 when we saw them supporting Blur in Hyde Park.

Ellie Goulding who comes from near Kington, a village I know on the Herefordshire border.

Kasabian who headlined Glasto this year in the prestigious Sunday evening top-of-the-bill slot.


* Strangely enough the performances weren't bad in a couple of the matches.


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