Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Leap Years, Time and Richard Feynman




Tomorrow will be February 29th. As this day doesn’t exist 75% of the time it seems important to write something to mark it. I do understand that time has to be adjusted now and then to keep everything in sync or neatly stacked up on the Gregorian shelves. Every four years we need to go beyond our ordinary temporal selves and accumulate time. However that understanding doesn’t quite affect me as it should as I am a child of Star Trek and Dr Who where a temporal anomaly is always just around the corner and often they come in threes, like buses. Of course in Torchwood we have a rift in time and space in Cardiff. I like Cardiff, haven’t been for years not since it went upmarket but I’m sure the rift won’t significantly effect property prices in fact they may have the reverse effect. There are also tears in space and time in Primeval which seem to operate mainly in London or woods or shopping malls in the Home Counties. I have also found that shopping malls are a prime site for temporal shifts, you go in and suddenly you find yourself clutching a Le Cruset casserole dish, a pair of tights with a map of South America printed on them and the latest book by Alice Sebold. It is already time for coffee and you only had a full monty breakfast a couple of minutes ago, no wonder a Tyrannosaurus Rex could be pulled screaming and kicking through the shopping vortex into the twenty first century.

So here I sit at my computer in the fens pondering on the experience of time about to be conjured up, a whole twenty–four hours created only once every four years I feel I should do something spectacular but I am off to the cinema to sit in the dark and let the celluloid do the imaginative manipulation of time and space for me.

I gather that when the Gregorian calendar was introduced in the sixteenth century a whole ten days were skipped to get us back in line with what they thought was the year Christ was born. The Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius and the astronomer and physician Aloysius Lilius came up with a plan in response to a papal directive to sort time out as those in the know were perturbed enough by the temporal drift of the Julian Calendar to want to do something about it. They didn’t seem to bat an eye when they proposed making a whole ten days disappear into thin air. A Papal Bull was duly issued called Inter Gravissimas (which sounds like one of those songs by an operatic boy band). They had no qualms about that lost ten days but then of course the Pope was behind them and he was infallible. Imagine what chaos would ensue now if we were told that tomorrow when we woke up it would be Monday 10th March, two whole week-ends of fun and frolicking would have been lost and most of the computer systems in the world that coped so well with the millennium paranoia would just slip into real melt down.

I am tempted to write something about these men who sort to tweak time long before atomic clocks. All they had was a decent grasp of maths and pretty ropey telescopes yet a large part of the Western world followed them like lambs. I sense they might have been slightly compulsive obsessive types and would have always felt a strong need to straighten pictures and put right anyone who said that it wasn’t the amount of time you had but how you spent it that mattered.

People born on 29th February are apparently officially called Leaplings, which sounds like a small elvish people you might come across in Middle Earth. Tommy Dorsey the band leader was a leapling, as is the actor Joss Ackland and someone I knew who was less than elvish and relished the magic of having a disappearing birthday.

Cambridge University ,by the way, in its usual refusal to have anything to do with anything slightly papist ignored the Gregorian calendar when setting their term dates and hence the May Week balls are still held in June. Well it is the home of many a great physicist one of whom, Stephen Hawking wrote a brief history of time which didn’t seem to mention ignoring a whole ten days. I tried to read it once and failed and have now resorted to the bluffers guide to quantum mechanics or a long suffering physicist friend and poet, Peter Howard, when desperate to grasp Schrodinger’s cat by its hypothetical tail. In fact he tackled this hypothetical cat once via a sestina called Cat in Hell's. A sestina about theoretical physics and pokes fun at the sestina form itself is above and beyond the call of a poet's duty and the act of a brave mind of infinite complexity.

I did meet Richard Feynman once, who was one of the twentieth century’s greatest physicists. Take the time to look at this old Horizon interview with him and click through to his very honest discussion about his role in the Manhatten project and the aftermath of Hiroshima. The clip about the photon bag and his attempt to explain how you can get something, in this case a photon, from nothing is also interesting as he uses the concept of the spoken word not existing before we utter them. That I am not sure of and need to think about, perhaps I should use this extra day tomorrow to think about that, it seems worthy of thought. I met Mr Feynman at a party many years ago and somewhere in the attic I have a postcard from him that he sent me afterwards. He was more interested in playing the bongos at the party at the time, I recall than discussing the nature of the universe, whatever that time was; perhaps he knew instinctively that time is relative. I shall attempt to make relative good use of the time this extra day has made available to me. Hope you have used it or will use it well too dear reader, it’s a precious commodity, these constant ticks of the clock.


* Strangely after posting this it appeared on the blog site dated as Wednesday 27th February when in fact I posted it on Thursday 28th February. I seem to have lost a whole day, where did that go, perhaps it disappeared just to balance the added day. Do we have an example of something that cannot really be created merely moved around?

Friday, 22 February 2008

Fog, Love and Absence






It has been a foggy week out here in the fens. The last post I made was about love and how unclear a definition of that can be and now this week has been clouded in spectacular freezing fog. I decided to research what fog and freezing fog actually is; having done Latin instead of geography my science of weather only ever amounts to that diagram of the the water cycle most children are forced to do when at primary school. I do have a hazy recollection of the formation of ox-bow lakes and limestone pavements but that isn't about weather or only tangentially. Here is a definition of fog I found lifted from a dictionary ( I swear nothing has been changed only omitted), it sounds as if it could be a a whole metaphor for love, mere fondness and poetry.

Fog is a cloud in contact with the ground.
Fog differs from other clouds only in that
fog touches the surface of the Earth.
The same cloud that is not fog
on lower ground may be fog
where it contacts higher ground.
Fog is distinct from mist.
Fog is a cloud which reduces visibility
to less than 1 km,
whereas mist is that which reduces
visibility to less than 2 km.
Fog can form suddenly,
and can dissipate just as rapidly.
Localised fog is especially dangerous.
When freezing fog occurs
fog droplets freeze to surfaces,
forming small splinters of
white ice, called rime.
It seems to make fog tangible,
as if one could grab a handful.


I have been driving through a great deal of freezing fog this week, the fens are very spectacular in freezing fog mainly because all one sees is grey absence and then suddenly the odd tree or hedge appears covered in rime. Driving is a slow and tentative act of faith on twisting back fen roads. Now and then kinesthetic memory kicks in and your hands recall a sharp bend left or right. You therefore tend to drive more slowly, but then there are the mad people who don’t; who overtake and roar past defying the deep dykes on either side of the road. One wishes them in the old fashioned phrase ‘God speed’, (note the heavy sarcasm in my breath when I whisper that after them). On Tuesday I create a whole story in my head about the over-taker meeting the undertaker.

If you skid into a deep water filled dyke in fog, as in space, no-one can hear you scream and you may not be found until some office in a small Fen town selling bricks or pipes or IT packages decides that it is odd that they haven’t seen Mr X at his desk for a while. His diary says he was out on calls for two days and won’t be in until Thursday. Two days later on Thursday a man from Peterborough has an appointment with him at 2pm about a job and is still waiting. Mr X’s secretary makes this man a third cup of coffee and appeases him with the best chocolate biscuits she found in the tin in the small kitchen on the ground floor. They are rather stale but the waiting man eats them anyway just to be polite and besides he has a small ulcer and eating little and often was what the hospital said he should do.

Meanwhile the secretary of Mr X is in a predicament, initiative is not her thing; her last appraisal said she should have more but if she exercises it something is bound to go wrong and she will be accused of overstepping her job boundaries. Mr X , she knows, lives alone, having separated from his wife; his anger management whilst driving having been cited in their divorce. She has tried his mobile phone several times but it just goes to voicemail. She decides initiative in this instance involves asking Mr Y in the next office what she should do. She decides to go and see him rather than phone although that means walking past the waiting job seeker outside, who she notes as she hurries past is nibbling rather tentatively on his chocolate covered hobnob which she thinks is rather churlish seeing as she doesn’t usually offer chocolate biscuits to men who want a job.

Mr Y says nothing as he doesn’t want to be the man brought up at office parties as the one who over reacted by calling the police, his last appraisal said he over reacted in certain situations. He tells the secretary to send the waiting man home, he is only after a job after all. He suggests telling him that Mr X has just phoned in saying his car has broken down in Grantham and he is still waiting for the AA as he can’t pull the ‘I am a woman on my own’ card to ensure a faster service, which is what Mr Y once made his wife do when they broke down on their way to see her mother in Leeds. She was reluctant as she wasn’t a natural liar, unlike him, but she did it anyway to try and stop him telling her over and over again that this was all her fault for having a mother and for having a mother that lived in Leeds. Mr Y decides it is over reacting to call the police and when they call up Mr X's personnel file from Human Resources his person to contact in an emergency is still his wife at their old home number; he hasn’t bothered to change it since the divorce five years ago. The truth is that Mr X didn’t have anyone to change the emergency number to apart from perhaps his sister Chrissie but she lives in New Zealand. They will wait until Friday, if he doesn’t turn up then he, Mr Y, will do something about it , as that couldn’t be interpreted as over reacting by head office. It is Friday as I post and Mr Y’s slight cold has developed and become a rather nasty cough so he decides to have the day off as his diary is clear. Mr X’s secretary is wondering whether she should exercise her initiative again. She is not sure whether she should, perhaps she should wait until Mr Y gets back into the office on Monday morning as he is paid more than her for precisely this sort of problem.

Meanwhile the last thing Mr X didn’t hear was ‘God Speed’ uttered sarcastically by a careful woman driver feeling her way through the fens in a blue Renault Clio Dynamique.

I feel a little sorry for the over-taker , perhaps he should be missed sooner than a Friday.

For those of you who liked the last Carl Sandburg poem, here is another about fog.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

A Blade of Grass, Hand-Knitted Hearts and Definitions of Love




I returned late last night from a couple of days in London with a friend. As usual my friend and I seemed to attract strange or at the very least unusual happenings. Incidents this trip included the tableclothe on the next table in the restaurant bursting into flames whilst an arguement between waiters broke out in Italian as to who should put the fire out. Much stamping and screaming ensued and we felt we ought to at least give them a round of applause at the end when all the flames were extinguished. There was also an incident involving a glove puppet in a lift but I need to recover from that one before I share that with you dear reader.

Today mooching round Tescos at lunch time looking for a birthday card for a friend I am enveloped in roses. I have an American Beauty moment, rose petals falling like a blizzard about me. There seem to be more male shoppers than usual; men in suits on their lunch break, van drivers, work men in muddy boots, spotty youths, even the odd hoody boy with heavy gold bling. I am confused and then realise it is Valentines Day. What a sad lone creature I am, not realising the day. The nation is consuming Kenyan grown blood red roses to celebrate love at the rate of over 10,000 bunches per hour ( a strange fact shared with me by a Tesco manager recently). They are buying padded hearts and small bears clutching messages for the sake of true love, or guilt, or the need to make sure they are not in the dog house. Is this the bitter and twisted spinster moment creeping up on me, the cynical dismissal of a national day of love? I examine my sensible lace up shoes and feel the pressure of thermal underwear against my skin,the hall mark of the person who puts sense and comfort before passion. Am I becoming too sceptical about love or merely about its commercial expression. How many may have worked at writing a love poem for their partner, gone to the time and trouble of placing a ‘Squeegee loves her Mr Bumble’ notice in the local paper even the Guardian? Perhaps there is a phalanx of hard up or eco lovers hand crafting gifts of untold sweetness and meaning created from biodegradable products or sourced from fair-trade projects. Can you love in a politically correct, eco friendly, non co-dependant, emotionally healthy way? I once gave someone a hand knitted heart for Valentines Day made from an old woollen jumper he loved me to wear but which had given up the ghost.It seemed non co-dependent unneedy and very recycled at the time.

Who knows how you can love and be loved, love hides a multitude of sins and glories, in fact it is probably the tension between the two that makes its pursuit so enticing. Amongst those who would say that love is not all its cracked up to be and that a nice cup of tea with good friends you love is a more than adequate substitute, there is often a back hint of longing for something other, something that could be called romantic love.

Perhaps we are hardwired to long for another, an evolutionary desire to ensure we keep the species ticking over. It may be pheromones, it may be the knowledge that two people can pay a mortgage more easily. I have no idea what romantic love is and why should I know, it has as many faces as people that experience it . I tend to agree with the American poet Carl Sandberg's Explanations of Love, that there is a place where love begins and a place where it ends and the touch of two hands can foil any dictionary. I also think the wonderful Brian Patten’s poem 'A Blade of Grass' hits some tender nail on the head, accepting something as simple as love can be the most complicated thing in the world.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Gobbing from the Balcony, the American Election and the Dangers of Being a Dead Cert.




A friend who lives in the States (American not Emirate) sent me this link to a New York Times article and told me how the Presidential Campaign in the States was becoming a tad more exciting and inspirational than it has been for many a year. The first black president or the first woman president, is this a ‘win-win’ situation for a change in the tone of American politics? However it is also possible that Clinton and Obama are so busy tearing each other up that the solid, elder statesman McCain slips up on the inside and pips them at the post. He may be elderly but he has five years as a tortured prisoner of war in Vietnam to wave like the red badge of courage and people do like a hero, especially if the opposition is busy assuming they have it in the bag if only they get that nomination. Voters don’t like being presumed upon.

I recall watching that Grand National in the fifties when Devon Loch was tearing up to the post to win by miles and then he jumped an imaginary fence, landed on the ground and was beaten. An account of this has recently been posted on Youtube and that old Pathe news style, plus jolly background music pushes all sorts of nostalgia buttons.

There I am back in Ilkeston Road cinema for some reason called The Ritz but which bore no resemblance to anything ritzy at all. Other kids always took delight at spitting down on you from the balcony, the seats directly underneath being referred to as ‘gob alley’. Only the stupid, the naive and those with an already well honed sense of victimisation (who would in later life go on to be deemed passive aggressive) resorted to those seats. The woman with the torch who patrolled the balcony ineffectually waved it about like a searchlight at a POW camp, yelling “Pack it in or you’ll all be for it’ rather than ‘Achtung’. What the ‘it’ was that we were for was never clearly defined but the ‘it’ word was used as the ultimate deterrent. The closest we came to ‘it’ was the short, fat, balding manager who suffered from some sort of asthma and who could hardly breath by the time he got from his Office to the scene of any gobbing crime. I learnt later that at the age of seventeen he had been gassed in the first world war, hence the shortness of breath but of course even if we had known then, children are notoriously unkind when hunting in packs. Later studying Lord of the Flies at school I only had to think back to the Ilkeston Road Ritz to understand not just the metaphor but the thin veneer of civilisation and humanity that really did exist in the world.

The memorable phrase in the race commentary of course was ‘Devon Loch can’t lose’ and a nano second later, he’s on the floor and being passed. The jockey of Devon Loch was Dick Francis who subsequently went on to become famous as a fiction writer. I have a sense that should the Democratic horse fall flat in the final straight; some works of fiction will be perpetrated on the public by the jockey that is eventually given the Democrat ride as to why they lost when there appeared to be such a ground swell of opinion in America for change.

Clinton is playing the ‘I am a woman but tough as old boots’ card but she can still have a little weep to camera just to soften the PR edges if necessary. She has survived being married to a lying cheat of a husband ( quote ‘I did not have sexual relations with that girl’ unquote ) and yet they can still both move through the corridors of power like a dynasty in waiting.

Whatever the outcome at least some people have shown an interest, the poll turn outs have been high and one can only hope that come an election here the public become equally enthused to at least have an opinion and a willingness to get up off their backside and get down to a polling station. Apathy is that one horse race that collapses before the post and of course no-one is ever a winner in those circumstances.

Friday, 1 February 2008

The Survivalist Cult of Snowdrops and Passing Sorrow


Oh sweet snowdrops, you appeared over night,
in only your nighties, that's why you're white.
Anon
(Passed on to me by a friend , winner of the annual worst pastoral couplet)

So driving through the back roads of the fens today, I spot a great swathe of snowdrops and on the radio the weather forecast tells me it is about to become bitterly cold. So it happens every year, up they come and then the sky falls in on them. Such is life sometimes, struggling up, doing your best then getting dumped on. However, from experience I know that they survive thick snow, the severest of frosts but now that the winters are turning to flood round here their survival is even more hard won. Although these are a flower that like damp soil ( hurrah the fens do damp with ease) , they do not survive sodden,; the bulbs rot and they die. Snowdrops have long been seen as a metaphor for survival as demonstrated by Coleridge and Wordsworth. Here is, On Seeing a Tuft of Snowdrops in a Storm by Wordsworth

As you well know dear reader, I am not pastoral, I move amidst nature with a great sense of na├»ve wonderment but little knowledge, all that I know often comes at me via obscure or seemingly unconnected sources. For instance my mother was given a drug to combat Alzheimer’s Disease some time ago. This was a drug based on galantamine that I discovered is to be found in snowdrops. In her case it did very little except make her throw up and spend hours on the loo and still she buried ornaments in the garden, exploded pressure cookers, insisted the neighbours were bugging her telephone and worried about the ducks that were wandering about in her kitchen. Her constant paranoia about being poisoned was, I felt, quite well founded in this particular instance.

So from that experience I learnt that snowdrops were an ancient medicine that a modern use had been found for. Of course googling those particular drugs, I wandered down other internet paths looking at snowdrops. They are not native to Britain, relative new comers, originally from Asia and any in the wild are strictly garden escapees. This applies to so many of the plants and trees we now see as quintessentially English. Would that other kinds of immigrants could also be as happily embraced as having something wonderful and beautiful to offer our country but then I suppose it did take centuries for them to be ensconced in the British psyche as part of our heritage. My own lofty height in the Fens is still, in some quarters, seen as something to be suspicious of, given the small, squat Fen stature; not only an incomer but a notably different looking in-comer, a Redwood amidst the reeds.

The ancient myth is that snowdrops were created by the angel that escorted Adam and Eve from Eden after they messed up with the apple and knowledge busines. He made them from flakes of snow just to show them that it would not always be winter. A sort of wooden spoon, a 'never mind, things can only get better from here'token. Of course I suppose if you had lived in a perfect temperature controlled climate in Eden, snow and winter could come as a bit of a shock and the concept of seasonsand their cyclical nature might be puzzling. One wonders whether Adam would have been quite as thrilled with these small milk sop flowers (their name in Greek is in fact milk flower) after the showy spectacular vibrant colours of nature, I presume paradise had to offer. I sense that his conversation with the bruiser of an angel/bouncer at the gate was less than grateful, ‘Thanks for the puny white thing but now put down that flaming sword and let us come in, it’s bloody freezing out here. We’re on the guest list, in fact we are the only people on the guest list, have a word with the management if you don’t believe me’.

In flower language they apparently mean ‘The passing of sorrow’ but it is also seen as very bad luck to bring them into a house as it signifies death. All helps in their conservation, look don’t pick as you’re tempting fate,a rather nasty fate.

So I start February with nature notes from the Fens, next time I think I should work harder on my mean city street persona or at least mean Fen Drove persona that, ‘Watch out for the dykes they are deep, dark and dangerous round here. You run into one and you may never be seen again.