Month: August 2015 (page 1 of 2)

Why am I not more patriotic?

This weird thought came to me while watching Celebrity Big Brother. The current series of Celebrity Big Brother is all about contestants from the UK competing against ones from the US. In the episode I was watching, all of the contestants were singing the British National Anthem (not sure why). I realised watching this that I don’t know all of the words to the National Anthem and that I’d also find it quite tedious to have to stand and sing it (it is after all, quite a dreary song). Should I not admit that? Is that treacherous? So why does hearing that rather famous tune not stir something in me? Why don’t I feel pride for my country?

I think my lack of patriotism started once I lived abroad. I have twice  been the ‘other’, I have been an immigrant. I know what it is like to be a guest in another country. So I don’t think this country is particularly special for two reasons: there are many other special countries out there and we are letting ourselves down at the moment in not promoting what I would argue is one of the most traditional Britishness values, namely, an ability to embrace diversity.

The first time I lived in another country, the Netherlands, I had a very positive experience. I felt very welcomed there. While living there, I was struck by how small Britain in fact is in the world (I think as we grow up we imagine our homes to be much larger than they are) and how unremarkable the British identity is if compared with others. Before then, all I’d known is what I had grown up with. During that year, I lived with and befriended, people from many other countries including Norway, Sweden, Spain, the United States and Russia. Everyone came with their own cultural identity and assumptions. During that year, I learnt first-hand how interesting and diverse the other cultures I came across were and how, ironically, boringly similar we all were even though we’d had very different upbringings. I was also struck by how relatively uninterested everyone else was in Britain. I don’t know why but I expected them to be more interested. Their relative disinterest was, in fact, very normal. They were equally as interested in Britain as they were in Spain, Norway or Russia for example. We were all equally interesting and different and equally boring and normal.

The world’s centre in my mind shifted from the UK to some unknown place, somewhere near Europe. It was as if a giant camera had moved away from Stafford, Staffordshire, the Midlands, England, the UK and towards somewhere in the sea. Somewhere not too far away. I realised that my culture wasn’t a barometer with which to measure others against. There were lots of barometers, all equally as valid.

A city of bikes and many nations

A city of bikes and many nations

The Netherlands isn’t hugely different from the UK. I blended in well once I had my bike. I was even twice mistaken for being Dutch. I learnt a lot by this experience. It opened my mind to the possibility of difference and acceptance. I am still friends with many of those people from Norway and America (I’ve lost touch with some of the others). I gained life-long friends.

My next experience of living abroad took me further away from any childhood feelings of patriotism towards the UK. Spending two years in Japan after I graduated from university teaching English turned me from an insider to an outsider. The change was sudden and remarkable. The rug was pulled from below my feet. I was visually different. It gave me a very important insight into what it feels like to be in a minority in a country that is fiercely proud of its heritage. Japan was a wonderful country to live in for two years and I had a very positive experience there. I treasure that time and I made more life-long friends while I was there too (just look at my Facebook friends list). So even more than in the Netherlands, In Japan I came to realise how small and insignificant Britain is and how ordinary British culture is. Japan has a very strong cultural tradition. Towards the end of the two years I felt some of that love for Japanese history myself.

My camera of the centre of the world shifted further away from Europe and settled somewhere over Asia, or just off the coast.

Iwatsuki, Japan - my home for two years

Iwatsuki, Japan – my home for two years

Returning to the UK after two years away, I saw the UK with fresh eyes and noticed how diverse it is. I suffered from reverse culture shock. I could see that the people of Britain also feel a strong cultural heritage, as strong as Japan’s, but it is an internationally-inspired one rather than a narrow one. There isn’t much that originates from the piece of land we live on, it is mostly from beyond the sea (even as far back as from invaders from France, Norway, Denmark, Rome, and Ireland). Much also comes from our imperialist, expansionist past when we invaded others (something we should not be proud of). Just looking at the history of the English language will illustrate this. We don’t speak English in the UK, we speak a hybrid of lots of different languages.

If we have such a diverse cultural and racial heritage, what is a British identity? If I take my husband as an example. He’s lived most of his life in England, he was born and brought up in Wales, and he’s a quarter Italian. I’m not sure where he would place himself. He works with mostly Americans so some of his speech and tastes are from across the pond. He’s a real Heinz 57.

My youngest is one sixteenth Italian - the question is, which bit?

My youngest is one sixteenth Italian – the question is, which bit?

So I find it quite ironic now that so many people of this diverse land feel such strong a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ when issues regarding visitors to this country come up in the news. There is quite a sense of hostility to people coming to live here (interestingly, in 2011 students were the largest category of immigrants – people such as me moving to Amsterdam). It is the people who come here to live, work and study that have made and continue to make British culture what it is. Our culture is a patchwork quilt of different flavours, traditions, behaviours and norms. Having been a visitor to another land I feel saddened that we are not more welcoming. Traditionally, we have been a very welcoming country. Where has that tradition gone?

I would say that the British identity is best described by the word ‘eclectic’. This is also a good word for our culture. It is a mix. It is a bundle of all sorts. It is the drawer where we put all those things we don’t know where else to place (or in this house, the dish). People from Britain are known for their eccentricity and individuality. Why? Because bits of us come from all over the world. This is something we have in common with our American cousins. Ask any American: where are you from? They will respond with ‘I’m part Lithuanian, part Swede and a little bit French’. So this diversity of racial history should be reflected in our tolerance of those from other lands who choose to come to live here. I am not very patriotic  because I feel quite ashamed of some of the explicit (and implicit) intolerance I hear about and read about in the press and on social media. It is sadly ironic given that we are a nation made of up so many diverse nationalities dating back thousands of years.

So this is why perhaps I don’t feel particularly proud to be British. I have been that visitor. I want to be part of something that is more caring and sharing. I want us to welcome visitors as the Dutch and the Japanese welcomed me. I would like to feel proud of this country because there is a lot to love about it, including roundabouts.

Roundabouts - quintessentially British?

Roundabouts – quintessentially British?

I do, however, feel proud to be perhaps a little eccentric and 100% pure-bred Heinz 57.

A very British American invention

A very British American invention

And as a final thought: where does the word ketchup come from?

Who names roundabouts?

This was a weird thought that I had as we approached the Emstrey Roundabout in Shrewsbury today on our way to Telford for ‘granny food’. My thought was: who gave this roundabout its name? Where does the word Emstrey come from? Is it a place? Is it a person who lived near there? Was Mr or Mrs Emstrey a famous Salopian? And more generally, who names all of the roundabouts in Britain?

Granny Food

Granny Food

My husband claimed, when I posed the question to him, with much confidence I might add, that someone in the council has the job of naming all the roundabouts in a given county. So Shropshire County Council, he told me, has a little man in an office who goes to work every day to name roundabouts. I’m not so sure. Surely roundabout-naming doesn’t constitute a 5-day a week, 7-hours a day job? He assured me that it does.

When we returned home I turned to a more reliable source of information: the Internet. However, google was no help at all with this question. I tried ‘Who names roundabouts?’ ‘Who gives roundabouts their names?’ ‘Names of roundabouts’ and ‘Why are roundabouts given names?’. Certainly there is nothing on google that responds with ‘someone in the local council’. Someone somewhere must do it though. Perhaps the road-sign makers?

British people know the various roundabouts in their hometowns by their name. A typical instruction of direction would be: ‘you take the first left at the Heavitree Roundabout’ or ‘cross Trench Lock’. When we lived in Oxfordshire, we were familiar with, to name but a few, the Peartree Roundabout, the Kennington Roundabout, the Cutteslowe Roundabout and the Headington Roundabout.

This sign does not adequately reflect how SCARY this roundabout is

This sign does not adequately reflect how SCARY this roundabout is

Here in Shrewsbury everyone knows what you are talking about when you refer to the Emstrey Roundabout (see above) or the Meole Brace Roundabout.

My friends do need to know when I am passing my favourite roundabout and the only way I can tell them is on Facebook

Rumour has it that there are rabbits living on this roundabout – the 50p Roundabout

Googling ‘names of roundabouts in Shrewbsury’ throws up ‘Heathgates Roundabout’, ‘The Column Roundabout’, ‘Dobbies Roundabout’, ‘the Two Henrys Roundabout’ and ‘Preston Boats Roundabout’. I don’t think these are all the actual names (i.e. those given by the little man in the council), I think some of these are pet names from the people who live here, such as my ’50p Roundabout’ for the Meole Brace Roundabout or T.S.R. for the Headington Roundabout in Oxford. For example, Dobbies Roundabout is named after a garden centre called Dobbies which is positioned on the edge of the roundabout. The Column Roundabout’s name derives from a big column which is sat in the middle of it. That one might be genuine. The Two Henrys Roundabout is certainly not an official name. The Two Henrys is a pub.

This is an averagely interesting roundabout

This is an averagely interesting roundabout – the Column Roundabout

If I had the job of naming the roundabouts of a county I’d use my imagination rather than just naming them after the area they are close to. If I were lucky enough to be in charge of naming Shrewsbury’s roundabouts I would start by renaming the Meole Brace Roundabout the 50p Roundabout of course. I might chose the names of interesting, slightly famous locals perhaps for some of the other roundabouts. I certainly wouldn’t have a Charles Darwin Roundabout (he has enough fame in this town) but perhaps the Palin Roundabout after Michael Palin who went to school here, or the Heseltine Roundabout after that scary haired Conservative. Or I’d name them based on a quirky fact about the roundabout such as its shape (50p, round, or square), or natural features close by (rabbits, flowers, weeping willows). Or I could name them as if they were episodes of Friends ‘The one with the funny right turn’, or ‘The one with the turning that nobody bothers to go down’.

In the meantime, until the council headhunts me and offers me the job, the best I can do is spread the word about the 50p Roundabout until it becomes common parlance.

I can but dream.

 

 

Charles Dar…who?

Before we moved to Shrewsbury I hardly gave Charles Darwin much thought. He was just a bloke who invented a theory he called evolution which made a lot of religious people cross, and he wrote a book about it.

Where is Adam then?

Where is Adam then?

Since moving here I have become an expert in Charles Darwin. This is not by choice.

My weird thought is: why are the people of Shrewsbury so obsessed with Charles Darwin? I think the obsession goes far beyond his importance, so why?

Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury. He lived here as a child. He went to school here. Then he moved on and did many clever things. However, the people of this town remained obsessed with him. He’s known as ‘Shrewsbury’s most famous son’. My children have learnt a lot about Charles Darwin. They know more than me. He is the natural choice of topic for the local primary schools. Everyone who lives here can tell you all about Charles Darwin.

Here is a list of Darwin-related Shrewsbury things:

  • The Darwin shopping centre. Thousands of people pass in and out of this building every week. Does Charles Darwin, sitting up there in heaven, appreciate his consumerist connection?
Straight on for Top Shop, turn right for Dorothy Perkins

Straight on for Top Shop, turn right for Dorothy Perkins

  • Darwin Town Trail. I have never partaken but it exists.

 

  • Darwin Festival. This happens every year, or so I believe.

 

  • Charles Darwin’s statue. He sits outside the library looking down on the town’s book lovers.
The patron saint of book lovers?

The patron saint of book lovers?

  • The Charles Darwin ‘Quantum Leap’ sculpture. Many local people question the beauty and purpose of this object. I quite like it. It was unveiled by a relative of his in 2009. It sits by the river.
The Quantum Leap sculpture, nothing to do with Dr Samuel Beckett

The Quantum Leap sculpture, nothing to do with Dr Samuel Beckett

  • One of the four houses at my son’s school is called ‘Darwin’. This one is a bit of a cheat because his school is in Newport not Shrewbsury but still…

 

  • The Darwin song. Yes, there is a Darwin song.
The song

The song

 

  • A Darwin video. Watch and enjoy.

 

I feel a little sorry for Shrewsbury’s second most famous son: Wilfred Owen.

World War I poet - his poems had a deep impact on me at school

World War I poet – his poems had a deep impact on me at school

I was quite in awe when I found out that we were moving to the town where Wilfred Owen lived (more in awe than I felt when I found out about Shrewbsury’s first most famous son). On our first visit here we found ourselves eating lunch in a grave yard and a passerby asked me if I knew the location of Wilfred Owen’s grave in that grave yard. Of course I couldn’t help her at the time and my response was something along the lines of ‘ohhh is Wilfred Owen’s grave here?’ That was how I found out about the connection. We live a few houses down from the house where his parents lived. There is a school named after him. However, ask a local who Wilfred Owen was an not everyone can provide an answer. Some will even say ‘he must be the chap who founded the school’. Oh well,  dulce et decorum est.

Not far from here, where Wilfred Owen's parents lived

Not far from here, where Wilfred Owen’s parents lived

I don’t think I have an answer to my weird thought though. I don’t know why this town is obsessed with Charles Darwin. But I love that they are. It is quirky. It is geeky. It is adorably cute.

However, there was a ripple of excitement recently when a rumour went around that GARY BARLOW had bought a house here. Perhaps in 200 years time there will be a Barlow Shopping Centre. It will have to sit next to the Darwin one.

Gary shops in the Darwin Centre

Gary shops in the Darwin Centre

Am I a better virtual friend than a real one?

This thought was provoked by reading this article in the Guardian today. Here, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett argues that social media such as Facebook and Twitter sucks away at time for many people. She feels she is ‘trapped’ by social media because without it, she’d lose contact with many of her friends who exist mostly, and in some cases exclusively, in these forums. What she objects to is the dross of wedding and birthday photos, dinners, breakfasts and trivia that she has to wade through to get to the meaningful stuff. She seems to be suffering from social media fatigue, she says, and she feels that she is not alone. However, she states, she can’t give it up entirely.

In some ways I relate to much of what she says. I also spend more time than I’d like (when time is extremely precious to me) scrolling and clicking and reading on my phone or my laptop. I wake up every morning and spend 15 minutes catching up and clicking. I click and read. That reading leads to more clicking and reading. I post and repost. This all takes time. However, if it wasn’t for Facebook I wouldn’t have come across this article in the Guardian in the first place. I wouldn’t have spent 7 minutes reading it. And I wouldn’t be spending time now writing about it. So Facebook has sucked time from my day today but it has provoked a thought out of me, so that is a positive.

My friends do need to know when I am passing my favourite roundabout and the only way I can tell them is on Facebook

My friends need to know when I am passing my favourite roundabout and the only way I can tell them is on Facebook

My friend who gave up Facebook a while ago is still Facebook-free and shines with health and vitality. Although I admire her discipline and strength, I couldn’t do it. Just as I couldn’t give up cheese and red wine, or  chocolate. And, in fact, I don’t want to give up these things. After recently reading this book I considered again giving up Facebook. But I just can’t and I don’t want to. I wrote here not so long ago about how Facebook reminds me of the social life of university. But there is more to my love of Facebook than that.

Thought provoking about social media - but not enough to give it up and live in a hut

Thought provoking about social media – but not enough to give it up and live in a shed

This blog isn’t about the time suckage of Facebook though, it’s about the friendships I have on there and how those friendships differ to those I have with real, solid people I see in the real world. I have frequently come across the argument in the real world that virtual relationships and virtual friendships (albeit with real people) are not as meaningful and profound as real face-to-face ones in the real world. I disagree and I might make myself unpopular by saying this. I would even argue that for me at least, I find it much easier to relate and converse with people online than I do in real life. I find social situations quite a challenge, especially one-to-one situations (I really struggle with those – give me two other people and I’m fine but just one other, that’s hard). I am far more interesting online than I am in real life. In the flesh I can be really quite boring and not a great conversationalist. I feel great pressure to be witty and interesting.

Aghhh run away!

Aghhh run away!

I find being witty through my fingers much easier than through my mouth (please, no comments, let me indulge myself). So my argument is: virtual friendships can be as deep (if not deeper) than real ones for socially-awkward people such as me. I do have lovely real friends and I value their friendship very much. But I value the friendship of my Facebook friends just as much (many of course, exist in both worlds).

Facebook is a place for sharing your dinner photos

Facebook is a place for sharing your dinner photos

Facebook has done many marvelous things for me. It has got me back in touch with many long-lost friends from school and university and I have and continue to enjoy the lively, engaging conversations I have with them online. I have enjoyed seeing how their lives have turned out, seeing photos of their partners, children, cats, dogs, and even their dinners. Before Facebook, as I went through life I gathered friends and those friends, as a result of the natural turn of life, gradually faded from my sphere of activity as we moved on in our individual lives. That is natural. However, Facebook has brought many of these friends back to me like shiny, happy boomerangs. They have come back into focus and this I treasure.

Facebook also allows me to post my weird blogs and share my weird thoughts with anyone who is willing to spend some precious time-suckage time on clicks to my blog from Facebook and Twitter. Thank you for that, dear friends! Facebook lets me share my paintings and videos and get valuable feedback so I can improve my art practice. It has also allowed me to vent, cry for help, and help others who are venting and crying for help.

So tonight I will drink my glass of wine, eat my cheese and converse with you on Facebook. See you there.

My favourite wine glass

Cheers!

 

Do seaside towns have genders?

This is a very weird thought. It might even be in the top ten of weirdest thoughts I have had since I started this blog.

This weird thought came to me while I was writing my last blog entry. I was thinking about our holiday in Borth and trying to work out why I prefer Borth to Aberdovey.

Aberdovey - a lovely place to be and wear boating clothes

Aberdovey – a lovely place to be and wear boating clothes

For people who live in Shropshire and Staffordshire (and other counties in this area) North and West Wales are very popular seaside destinations. When I was growing up, in Stafford, we ventured to West Wales a lot. I remember going to Aberdovey and later on, to Borth. I also remember Clarach Bay and Tywyn. My thought is about Borth vs Aberdovey.

On paper, Aberdovey seems to beat Borth. Aberdovey is posh. It is full of boats. It has nice shops. It has a Fat Face and a shop that sells Seasalt clothes. It is always sunny there. It has lots of sand. People enjoy sitting on the beach with their picnics there. Borth does not have so much sand except when the tide is out. It isn’t posh. It has just a few boats. It has some nice shops but also some rather run-down tacky shops. People are more likely to be walking along the beach than sitting on it there. It rains in Borth. It never rains in Aberdovey. Aberdovey tinkles gently in the wind. The wind blows harshly yet silently through Borth. Houses in Aberdovey sell for more than houses in Borth.

We prefer Aberdovey to Borth

We prefer Aberdovey to Borth

 

However, I’d rather live in Borth than in Aberdovey. Why? I ask myself: wouldn’t you rather hang out with the posh kids and be in the sunshine wearing Fat Face clothes? I think I prefer Borth because Borth is more masculine than Aberdovey. Aberdovey is pretty. Borth is gritty. I’m not a girly person. I don’t like girly things (Equally, New Quay is quite feminine in my mind and I much prefer Borth to New Quay as well.) I don’t like pink. I don’t wear much makeup. I have always struggled with girly things.  Aberdovey strives for perfection in appearance. Aberdovey cares about its appearance. Borth doesn’t. Borth demands that you either like it or hate it. If you hate it, go away. Also, Aberdovey isn’t quirky. Borth is.

The pebbles of Borth

The pebbles of Borth

I’ve always generally preferred male company to female company. My closest friends have mostly been male. I do have close female friends now and I have done in the past but more often than not, my closest friends have been male. At school and then at university I got on better with the boys than the girls. Girls sometimes confuse me because I’m not like them. I live with four boys. I’ve only got male children. So, I suggest that I prefer Borth to Aberdovey because in my weird synaesthic mind Borth is more masculine than Aberdovey. Aberdovey is pretty and sunny and bathed in a pink hue. Borth is grey, broody and solid. Borth sits in a bluey grey hue.

Borth makes me think of Morrissey whereas Aberdovey is Katrina and the Waves.

So if ever we decide to move to the seaside (not likely but in my dreams) I think I’ll get much more house for my money and be much happier to skim stones on a pebbly beach rather than ride my yacht past the sand dunes and Fat Face.

Fat Face on the beach

Fat Face on the beach

 

 

 

 

Fear of future nostalgia

This is a weird thought I’ve had during this week while in Borth.

We visit Borth every year, thanks to the generosity of my dad and step mum who own a caravan there. I love Borth. I love Borth because I went there for two, or maybe three, years running as a child and teenager in the 1980s. I went with my mum and grandparents and we stayed in a tiny cottage on the main road called Myfanwy. That cottage is still there. I would love to see inside it again. I have such lovely memories of those holidays: spending hours in the sea; sitting in the window reading library books; foreseeing a future of me and a handsome young man walking hand in hand along the beach; browsing the old, dusty seaside shops. I also remember the smell of bacon in the morning, my grandma sitting on the stones in her deckchair sipping tea and the Laura Ashely decor in the cottage which we all admired so much.

Borth - a small Welsh seaside town that many love

Borth – a small Welsh seaside town that many love

The last time I’d been in Borth before I returned as an adult I was 14 years old. I didn’t return for 21 years. I’ve now been with my two then three children every summer for the last eight years. Borth is currently firmly in my children’s childhood memory bank, in fact it is more firmly in theirs than it ever was in mine.

The cottage where we stayed, as it looks now

The cottage where we stayed, as it looks now

Nostalgia is a strange emotion: warm and melancholy at the same time. My strange thought is about future nostalgia not current nostalgia. I can deal with the nostalgia I feel for my time in Borth as a child. But if I imagine myself in years to come, an elderly lady, revisiting Borth I feel deep sadness. I don’t like the image. Because in that future my children have grown up and they no longer live with me. So I see myself in Borth alone and remembering bringing them. For all the complaining and sighing I do at the moment about how tiring parenthood is, I can’t envisage the end of it without feeling deeply sad. I don’t like the idea of sitting on the sea front with the echo of their voices.

I don’t want to be an old lady sitting on the beach in Borth with tears in her eyes remembering carrying her middle son over the stones while six months pregnant because he didn’t like them or watching her three sons skimming stones very badly on the shore line. I need someone to reassure me that if I become that person in 30 years time that I won’t have that moment, or if  I do, it won’t be sad.

They need skimming lessons

They need skimming lessons

I would like to think that I will return and that Borth won’t have changed much as it hasn’t since the 1980s. Perhaps even my children will return as old men and remember how badly they skimmed stones.

 

Why a week in a caravan in West Wales reminds me of Japan

This is the weird thought I had this morning. Being in a caravan in West Wales for a week reminds me of life in Japan for a number of reasons. I wanted to think of ten but I could only come up with six.

1. It is cold in the morning.

Caravans have very thin walls, as do Japanese apartments. So when I am in a caravan, as when I lived in Japan, it is always cool in the mornings. Actually, now I have just typed that I realise that that isn’t at all true. It was always cool in the mornings in Japan except during the months of June to September when it was hot in Japan 24-hours a day. Japanese summers are intense with temperatures of the mid-30s in the height of summer and little respite during the night.

This is how cold it was most mornings in Japan

This is how cold it was most mornings in Japan

2. Vibrations.

A caravan vibrates and rattles as did my Japanese apartment. In a caravan this is caused by children moving around at the other end of the dwelling. In Japan this was caused by small earth tremours. At first I found these quite alarming. By the second year in Japan being woken up by rattling books at 3am was rather annoying.

3. Rooms have more than one purpose.

Some caravans have a living room that doubles up as a bedroom. In the caravan I am in at the moment my youngest child is being transferred from the master bedroom to the sitting room at night to sleep. So every night before I go to bed I have to turn the sitting room into a bedroom and every morning I have to return it to a sitting room. When I lived in Japan my apartment consisted of three rooms: kitchen, bathroom with toilet and main room. I lived and slept on a futon in the main room so every morning I had to fold up my futon and turn my bedroom into a sitting room.

This is not my apartment but looks scarily similar

This is not my apartment but looks scarily similar

4. Sound travels.

Caravans have thin walls (see above), so sound from outside (and inside no doubt) travels. The same applies to Japanese apartments. I tried to be quiet when I lived in Japan. The cicadars outside of my apartment were not so considerate.

This is twice as big as my Japanese apartment

This is twice as big as my Japanese apartment

5. Space is precious.

Caravans are not houses. They aren’t designed to be lived in long term. This caravan I am in right now is twice as big as my Japanese apartment. But despite that, the similarity between the two is that space is precious. I didn’t have much space in my Japanese apartment. I think many people who haven’t lived or visited Japan would be quite shocked at how little space I had. In fact, when I first arrived at my apartment in Japan I opened the patio doors in the main room (which I thought was the sitting room) expecting to find another room (a bedroom) only to find that I was back outside. I had to be a master at clever storage and also good at resisting new purchases. The kitchen was tiny so any cooking I did in my kitchen was simple (toast). I went food shopping daily  rather than weekly.

6. Japan looks like Wales.

This isn’t at all caravan related but I will sneak this one in because this is my blog entry. The first time I travelled out of urban Japan and towards the countryside I was reminded of family holidays in Wales. This similarity was bizarre. Much of Japan is mountainous and rural. It really does look like Wales.

Is this Japan or Wales?

Is this Japan or Wales?

So if you can’t afford to go to Japan, just book yourself a week in a caravan in West Wales. It isn’t that dissimilar.

Why do we enjoy sitting on a hot beach?

This is today’s weird thought. Today, we spent four hours sitting on the beach (in New Quay) and during that time, we hardly moved. It was hot and crowded. We were surrounded by people (an eavesdropper’s dream and a sketcher’s dream). We weren’t alone in our desire to spend the day sitting on the beach.

Everyone and their dog at the beach today

Everyone and their dog at the beach today

About two meters in front of us lay the sea. The sky remained blue all day. The sun shone without respite. The temperature was a nice, even 25. The wind blew gently. The sand was consistently sandy. So that probably sounds perfect.

The lovely blue sea

The lovely blue sea

However, it was actually a bit boring. I managed a day of this but I don’t understand why people can do this for a whole week (probably in Greece or Turkey rather than West Wales), once a year. I had my book with me but over the four-hour period I read only about 40 pages, so that is 10 pages an hour. That’s not very much. What else did I do? I made two sketches. These took about five minutes each. So, what is left? Sitting. I sat. I eavesdropped. I shut my eyes. I watched my children play. I ate warm sandwiches and drank warm diet coke. I watched everyone else playing and sitting, and shutting their eyes, and eating warm sandwiches and drinking warm diet coke.

One of my sketches

One of my sketches

In the real world I’m not very good at sitting. Perhaps that is the issue here.

Today’s lazy day was unusual for me and it was quite pleasant as it only lasted four hours. But I don’t want to do the same tomorrow. I certainly couldn’t do a week of it. And I can’t imagine doing it by a pool in Greece or Turkey where the weather remains constant. So what is it about sitting on the beach with lots of other people that appeals to those lots of other people? Or were they all thinking as I was: ‘Why Are We All Here?’

To find an answer, I’ve turned to that wonderful world of science: we are drawn to the ocean. We’re in a constant search for happiness and calm and the sea makes us feel happy and calm. The sea hypnotizes and we like to feel hypnotized. However, science argues that there is more to it than that. Could it be that the sound of the sea mirrors sounds we heard in the womb (the wooshing of bodily fluids)? Perhaps it is the blue that calms us down? Maybe we feel an evolutionary pull to the ocean as it has provided us with the things we need to survive (food and water)?I love the sea but I struggle to sit in front of it for hours on a hot day.

I don’t think science adequately explains why we want to sit next to this wondrous blue stuff with everyone else and roast like potatoes.

New Quay beach

New Quay beach

The weather forecast for tomorrow is rain so I doubt we will sit on the beach for another four hours. We’ll probably instead sit in a cafe and watch the rain fall on the sea, which I find just as relaxing as watching the sea dazzle the sun. I bet I read more than 10 pages an hour though tomorrow.

 

Why do we empathise with fictional characters?

This is a weird thought I had while watching an episode of Fringe last week. The episode was called Bound, and it was about weird fish, slug type creatures that emerge out of people’s mouths. there was more depth to it than that but that is the main plot point I remember now. I struggled to watch the scenes involving the fish/slugs. I couldn’t cope with the pain that the people probably went through while vomiting fish.

I’ve just finished reading The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas. I finished this book about two hours ago. Already, I miss the characters. While reading, I got cross at Bryony, I despaired at Ollie and I wanted to shake James and tell him ‘wake up!’. Also, I wanted to be Fleur and I to hug poor Holly and tell her to eat and play  tennis. But now I miss them all. I want them back. They won’t come back. I’ve read the last page. I don’t know what happens next.

The book I have just read

The book I have just read

So my weird thought is: why do I feel so much empathy for the creations of someone’s imagination? Why couldn’t I stand to watch Fringe? Why do I miss people in a book? Do some people feel empathy for the unreal more than others? Am I cursed/blessed to be one of those people? I think so because I asked my husband about how much empathy he feels for the people he comes across on TV or in books and he looked at me rather blankly. His face said: ‘You feel what?’

It is, of course, considered a sign of a healthy psyche to feel empathy (and sympathy) for people in the real world: friends, family, and people on the news. That is not my weird thought. But why waste energy empathising with someone who only exists on paper?

I think that this empathising with fictional characters relates to the idea that we create stories out of everything we encounter, whether it be people, objects, art, anecdotes, people in cafes, people on the beach or old abandoned umbrellas. We come across a scenario, whether it be in a film or a book, of a fictional character going through a painful situation and we elaborate in our heads. We may not know their back story but we create it. We may imagine a tortured childhood, a loss, a painful experience. We create a narrative and this makes us feel empathy.

This experiment by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel shows that the subject we are empathising with doesn’t have to be a person, it can be a shape. Watch this video and you may find that you empathise with the smaller triangle and the circle more than the bigger triangle. Why is that? Perhaps your loyalties lie with the bigger triangle. If so, why? They are just shapes. They don’t have feelings or agency.

How would you feel if the big triangle started to eat the circle? Would you be able to watch the video to the end?

Scientists have suggested that when something moves in a certain way, which in the case of a computer screen is based on in-built algorithms, we assign it with agency and react to it as though it were a living thing. This happens even when logic dictates that the thing is not living (I suspect my husband’s ability to let logic dictate his thoughts is very strong). We have what are called ‘mirror’ neurons in our heads and these neurons act to ‘mirror’ the emotions of others for us. Someone feels pain, we feel or sense that pain, even if that someone is a small triangle. This ability to empathise has an evolutionary element: we will survive better as a race if we are to assist those who need help – safety in numbers. We are hard wired to protect our community. So this biological reaction happens whether the ‘thing’ is an algorithm, words on a page, or dots on a screen, whether it be digital or virtual.

For now, I have a new book to read and new characters to feel for. I hope they don’t end up spewing fish.

He doesn't look happy, even though he's only acting

He doesn’t look happy, even though he’s only acting

 

 

 

Why don’t we wear long, satin gloves anymore

A while ago I wrote a blog entry about the decline of the hat as an expected fashion accessory. I like wearing hats but not many people these days wear hats and it is certainly not expected, except at weddings and while attending horse races. When did the hat die out? I suspect it was the 1970s.

If only men dressed like this nowadays

If only men dressed like this nowadays

Now, I am questioning the death (not even decline, but death) of the silk gloves.

Why don't we wear these to the shops now?

Why don’t we wear these to the shops now?

This evening we started watching this film (a charity shop purchase, and a mistake – despite its star cast and amazon star rating it is laughingly bad), and the film is set in the 1950s. In the 1950s ladies wore long, satin gloves to leave the house. So today’s weird thought is: what ever happened to long, satin gloves? Why don’t we leave the house wearing them in the year 2015? Why do we only wear gloves in the winter, and only short wooly ones at that? I’d love to go out wearing long, satin gloves. Why did this fashion happen before I was born? It seems so unfair. I don’t think I’ve even tried some on. I would like to at least try some on.

Interestingly, one can easily purchase long, satin gloves on the Internet. I think they are only for a particular style of wedding (1950s themed, obviously) and for fancy dress.

I think I might have to put ‘pair of long, satin gloves’ on my Christmas list this year. I want some grey ones please. Perhaps I could bring them back into fashion? Single handedly.

 

 

 

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