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Posted by markswill in Uncategorized.
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Every Saturday the Times’ Weekend section has a double-page spread which plays to the anxieties of what I’ll call Missing Out Middle England, shaming them about their supposed social, sexual or physical shortcomings, their faded if not failing marriages and dysfunctional families. I usually skip such nonsenses because I have, of course, a perfect body, social and sex-life and being single and childless I lack such cares in the world, but nonetheless last week (May 13th) I was tempted to indulge in this narcissism porn by the cover pic of a rather sassy blonde woman and the headline ‘How I got my best body at 60’.

Now I am well past 60 and you may have gathered that I am a man, but I am also a bit if shamelessly vain and as my metabolism slows down am finding it harder than doing 10 mins weights and a hour’s walk or cycling most days to stay trim, but when I read Fiona Lambert’s – for that was her name – “mission to get as fit as possible” I almost wept with laughter, or possibly sadness that anyone would go to such lengths to lose 4% of their bodyfat. Briefly, because it really is execrable, before her “challenge”, she’d already traveled to London from Leicester – don’t they have any gyms there? – to visit her personal trainer each week for five years (!), sometimes did 5km runs and half marathons (!!)  and did a spot of rock climbing abroad  (!!!), but then as put-upon “managing director of clothing brand Jaeger” I’m sure she found it hard to find the time and money to accomplish all that.

However to reach her goal of seeing how great she now looks in the “birthday photoshoot” she’d booked for her 60th – but then haven’t we all? – she upped her gym trainer to twice, ran 5km once and did a 30mins work-out thrice every week. Obviously Pilates too, foreswearing boozo the wonder drug and dieting like crazy and yes, according to the suspiciously Photoshopped pic in the paper she now looks pretty sprauncey in her gym-kini. But my point in gently lampooning this self-indulgent self-improvement is that it perfectly illustrates how the class divides in the country are ever widening. This was further exemplified by the egregious Home Sec. Suella Braverman blithely claiming that as Brits we should train our fellow countrymen to become fruit-pickers and lorry drivers rather than allow those pesky foreigners over here to do it for us. This frankly risible claim: has she ever visited a fruit (or salad vegetable) farm and seen the working regime there, or examined how much it costs in time and money to get an HGV licence whilst otherwise unemployed? Of course not, because the political classes really have little or no idea how the majority of their constituents live. To them, the ‘cost of living crisis’ is an abstract concept to be bandied about in speeches to their loyal and invariably well-heeled supporters, probably including Fiona Lambert and her tennis playing hubby, Kev… and the sort of dwindling readership the Times’ editors try to cultivate. The same might be said of Kier Starmer and Ed Davey, although at least their shadow cabinets are not stuffed full of multi-millionaires whose idea of deprivation is hailing a black cab outside the Garrick Club instead of a chauffer-driven limo.

Anyway that’s enough angry ranting for now, as I want to finish off by reporting on my first full week’s holiday in years aboard the narrowboat I co-own – a bit like a time-share but all 22 of us actually own and maintain it – which was blessed with reasonable weather and the company of a new friend who had barged before and was thus undaunted by locks and mooring and proved to be a damn fine pilot herself, although she did consistently beat me at Scrabble… Grrrr.

I mention this because the gentle, 3mph mode of transport conversely coupled with the mental acuity necessary to keep a 58ft long vessel moving in the right direction come sun, rain or especially wind and through narrow bridges and into even narrower locks, is exceedingly satisfying. So too is enjoying the rural and sometimes the urban landscape from a perspective unseen from road or rail and all the wildlife that goes with it, e.g. herons, kingfishers, moorhens, swans and owls. And all that certainly re-charged the old spiritual batteries which real holidays are supposed to do. Sadly, the only demerit of the whole escapade was noticing how large housing estates are now creeping onto farmland up against the canals where they can offer waterside views to ‘executive-style home’ owners who are certainly not the migrants that Ms Braverman and her neo-fascist National Conservatism pals want to keep out of the country… so we can train ourselves to earn below minimum wages picking fruit in all weathers for supermarkets to sell at improbably marked up prices to the likes of Fiona Lambert and her appropriately slender, Jaeger-clad women of a certain age.




Posted by markswill in Uncategorized.
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Well so far my post texting-purdah regime is going pretty well – see April 22nd’s blog – if somewhat to the irritation of a couple of correspondents who themselves obviously lack self-discipline! However I wanted to get another rant in before I go off for six days on my barge (April 28th) which I’m much looking forward to, despite a crew that’s new to me but fortunately not the boat.

And so I’m minded to lash out on the broader picture which is nothing less than the state of the nation, if not the world. The irritatingly fast-talking Amol Rajan commented on yesterday’s R4 Today prog that, “the national mood at the moment seems to be unsettled and fearful,” which echoes what I’ve written here previously and now prompts further dismay.

For example, the boss of the Bank of England lectured us on Tuesday of the need for us all to get used to the idea of being poorer, though obviously not him on a £190,000 salary, and twice this week, also on Today but on Newsnight, too, ‘business leaders’, if such they be, have openly criticised Brexit for the damaging effect it’s having on our economy. And on a micro– but typical level the last lacemaking company in Britain faces closure having already laid off 90% of its staff owing to the onerous paperwork and costs of exporting to Europe fabrics that have to be sent there for dyeing, then re-imported back before final export – a process which makes it unaffordable to its prime market.

There are examples of this sort of nonsense right across the business spectrum so no wonder it impacts the UK economy by some 5.5% and cost the average household £201 p.a. up until the end of 2021, and now clearly much more.  But of course only a bold politician of any stripe will admit Brexit was a terrible mistake, even Kier Starmer, who will only say that despite campaigning to Remain, he listened to “the emotional case for change.” Emotional but ill-founded.

What ails Britain is a long list but some of those that especially anger me are: the £2.6 – 4.8billion for developing Euston station to take HS2 trains that few will want or can afford to use, up from £2.6b in 2021 and never mind the damage it’s causing to our countryside; the billions wasted on deathly smart motorways when but a fraction of that is spent on repairing the millions of potholes that bedevil cyclists, ‘bikers and car suspensions and tyres; the fact that outside America we are the most obese nation in the West with the attendant bombshell this costs an already beleaguered NHS.

I write this on the eve of council elections in much of England where over the border in Herefordshire there’s some small chance that the Greens will unseat some smug Tory councils who have been nodding through the poisoning of local rivers with giant chicken farm waste – yet another shocking example of how corporations are allowed to pollute our waters with chemicals and sewage whilst lining the pockets of shareholders . However I must sadly say that things are getting to the point where politicians – left, right or centrist – are unable, if they are even willing to improve the lot of the people who put them in power. But before I sign off, and thanks to Terry Keruger, here’s Carl Sagan, writing in 1977 about an impossibly bleak future for his homeland but which has a prescience for us, too:

 “I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing Industries have slipped away to other countries, when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide down, almost without noticing.”

And if that wasn’t enough, thanks to Pete Smith for this list of what 13 year’s of Tory misrule has left us:

1,000 sure start centres closed * 780 libraries closed * 700 football pitches closed * Food bank use up 5,400% * Homelessness up 1,000%  * Rough sleeping up 1,200% * Evictions at record highs. * Student fees up 300%. * Student debt has risen 150%. * Eradication of EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance). * National debt has risen from £850billion to £2.25trillion * GBP fallen by around 15% versus EUR and USD Manufacturing in recession * Construction in recession * Services close to recession * 25-30% cuts to all govt departments * 20,000 fewer prison officers * 10,000 fewer border officials * 10,000 fewer fire-fighters *10,000 fewer medical professionals * 14,000 fewer bed spaces for mental illness * Creation of 1.3m jobs, mainly temporary, self employed, gig economy and Zero Hours Contract * Only 30k full time work positions created * 25% cuts for our disabled community * 80% cuts to Mobility allowance * 40% of working households with practically no savings * 70% of households have less than 10k savings * 60% of households can only survive 2 months without a wage * 50% increase in hate crimes * Increase of knife crime by 150% to 22,000 per year * Life expectancy down 3 years * Voted down a bill which would have forced landlords to make their rental properties fit for human habitation * NHS satisfaction level at lowest recorded rate * Council home building down 90% * 200k social homes lost since 2010 * Zero starter homes built, despite Tory flagship programme * 36,000 fewer teachers * Six form funding cut by 25% * 33,000 nurses leave the NHS each year.

So welcome to Third World Britain!



Posted by markswill in About me, Media, Navel Gazing.
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Six days ago I began an experiment by closing down WhatsApp on my phone and laptop. Conscious of my frequent, almost addictive attentions to its texts and phone calls, I wanted to see if it made any difference to how I spent my day and the quality of it – a nebulous concept I know – but also if the more traditional means of communication, i.e. landline, emails and, yes, actual human interface increased and were enhanced or otherwise. And now that it’s done the results are, well, interesting.

Before this began, I reckoned I spent around three hours each day using WhatsApp, instantly reacting and responding to texts and phone calls that inevitably prompted further exchanges which interrupted whatever else I was doing. This meant lost concentration and diminished focus which in turn meant a frustration that some things never got finished, or even started, and their results often less satisfying, indeed less successful than they might otherwise have been… but who knows?

However living alone and very dependent, consciously or not, on friendly communications with other people, I knew I’d have to use those ‘more traditional means’ to maintain what passes for my sanity. So I elected to spend an hour each morning and early evening attending to emails or landline calls, including voicemails left. Needless to say, it didn’t quite work out like that. Having alerted all my regular WA pals to my new regime, the volume of emails increased exponentially and so because I’m so damn polite, that hour invariably extended to 70, 80 or 90 minutes. And a few people used regular mobile text messaging to alert me to important matters concerning narrowboat shopping lists and walking their dog. However despite that, the periods of being incommunicado that I sought were longer, and more unadulterated than if I’d been open all hours to WA.

So how did it change my life? Well for the first 24 hours I got rather twitchy, having to stop myself looking at my phone in anticipation of someone WhatsApping a query about how my day was going or could they borrow my bicycle, or indeed indulging my concerns for someone’s bad day at the office. By Day 2 that had seriously waned and I found myself able to catch up on housekeeping, metaphoric and actual, and concentrate on resuming writing the book I’d begun, and failed to get an agent interested in, three years ago which, truth be told, was one of the main drivers of my WA hiatus.

I also found myself thinking more deeply, and perhaps more forensically about some issues that had been troubling me for months and coming to conclusions about how I might better deal with them, or in a couple of cases, jettison them.

And untroubled by the phone pinging intermittently, I was able to read a book for more than 20 minutes without having to think about something else that was pinging through my busy mind. And as for actual (landline!) phone calls, these were longer and I hope more mutually satisfying than of yore.

Finally, my sleep patterns changed and improved a bit by not turning on my phone when I woke for an early morning pee in anticipation of vital messages from friends who went to bed hours before me anyway and assumed I’d be dying to receive their mischievous chides well before breakfast… which was in fact often the case.

However I have now just returned to the warm digital embrace of Mark Zuckerberg’s idiot bastard offspring but informed by my experiment, please be warned that I’m now going to try and limit my use of it, along with emails, to my post-breakfast/pre-elevenses and post-cocktail hour/pre-supper schedules. Unless, of course, I really, really have to email my friend Dick about a niggling computer problem, or ask the witty, world-weary minx I’m hoping to meet if I embark on the admittedly soulless, text–driven business of online dating again whether she wants prosecco or an amusing Bordeaux I’ve just discovered with the romantic little supper I’m cooking for her.



Posted by markswill in Uncategorized.
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I keep thinking of the eponymous REM song – whatever happened to them? –  after returning from a typically jam-packed week in London which in its bitter-sweet way crystallized thoughts that had recently been bubbling away.

As ever, frequent trips on public transport found me faintly disapproving of my fellow passengers who, with few exceptions were glued to their smartphones, a reality repeated on my longer train journeys and in cafés where newspapers, magazines and books would’ve once provided information and diversion. The same went for walkers over the Heath or along canals and even couples in restaurants found iPhones and Androids more compelling than actual conversation.  This of course was a phenomenon noted in my Feb 11th and March 8th blogs and I allude to it again here because I’m slowly realising that this is part of a new norm which it’s probably unrealistic to lament.

Many of my cohort – the baby-boomers – denounced what we felt were the outdated customs and values of post-war society, some of us using the underground media, sex-drugs and rock’n’roll to what we perhaps naively thought would change the world, but I now found myself experiencing the confusion, intolerance of and yes, the fears for the future, that my parents generation must’ve felt back then.

Having sat in several near-empty auditoria last week, at a hideously early Soho breakfast my sister who, as my regular reader my recall manages a chain of some 28 cinemas, admitted that thanks to the streaming accelerated if not facilitated by lockdowns, and a cost-of-living crisis that’s rendered ticket prices almost unaffordable, “It’s all over for cinemas”. She did however predict that catering to cognoscenti a few will remain, sometimes screening films simultaneously streamed on t.v. in much the same way that there are still theatres catering to the well-heeled who thrill to the experience of live performance.

The same situations exist with live music venues and even art galleries who must raise admission prices to all-but prohibitive levels simply to survive. Even pubs and restaurants are closing at previously unimaginable rates due to energy and supply costs, as evidenced by the huge piles of  beer boxes and ready meals in every corner shop and of course, Uber Eats and Deliveroo.

Until recently I’ve found all this rather depressing because, I’ve just explained, it goes again the grain of what I regarded as how life is, indeed should be, but as Megan Nolan noted in a her arguably bleak Point Of View on R4 this morning (April 2nd), almost everyone under 30, or even 40 now relies on a digitally driven world where the social realities are more comforting and less questionable, social influencers and politically maneuvered opinions more soothing. And this is the world we should now all accept, if not, as is clearly in my case, embrace because ‘they‘ will make of it what they will, and whatever that turns out to be.

Thus it is that 28% or Brits, and almost 50% of Americans are clinically obese, something that already ailing health systems won’t be able to withstand, and one reason why cars are now built so much larger and airline seats wider than 30 years ago, communications by WhatsApp and Twitter encourage instant, barely considered one-dimensional exchanges that so easily mislead, inflame or affirm in its adherents prejudices in ways that talking or meeting wouldn’t, we lie about time spent working from home in our sweatpants without the human interaction that once permitted accord, insight and even companionability, we see the building of office blocks commissioned before Covid that will never be occupied, an HS2 trainline that will barely get used and the accelerating financial decline of an economy built on such certainties on an island that deliberately cut itself off from a European mainland that may just escape its worst fiscal ravages.

But, but, but… I am trying not to avoid terminal despair about this new world because the one thing we cannot fight is change, especially when digitalization and artificial intelligence – and don’t get me started on that! – are moving things along at such a rapid, perhaps terrifying rate. As I think my parents probably did in the 1960s, I can still try and maintain my values and predilections and just about live my life accordingly for the years I have left, hopefully in unison with a diminishing alliance of like-minded souls, several of whom I met in London at the latest of recent funerals that are the sorry reality of my age. Yes, that may be the attitude of an ostrich, but for me anyway, the alternatives are confusion, inability to cope and bemusement bordering on dread, none of which really appeal! And even though to quote REM again, we are no longer Shiny Happy People, the Great Beyond may not be as intimidating as we once feared.


LOSING IT March 17, 2023

Posted by markswill in About me, Navel Gazing.

This is the toughest blog I’ve ever felt moved to post, ‘move’ being a key word here because in the past few weeks I have been ‘emotionally transported’ – prolix phrase I know – by events almost entirely beyond my control. And I write about them now partly to ask if I’m alone in my reactions, self-pitying though they may be, but partly, hopefully anyway, because it may be cathartic.

Characterising my problem is a deep sense of loss, something that we all, at some points in our lives, have obviously experienced when, for example, a friend or family member has died. But in just 17 days I’ve lost not one but four friends who have been a major part of my life for many decades. They were people I’ve lived with (platonically I should add), worked with, travelled with, partied with, seen through their own emotional ups and downs and in some cases all of the above. It is fair to say that two of the losses were sadly expected once terminal illnesses had been diagnosed, and I’d managed to spend at least some time with those dear friends as they stoically eked out what life they had left – but that didn’t make their ultimate loss any less painful.

But what in every case made it worse was that unlike most of my remaining friends, I did not and do not have close family whose love and support I could fall back on when the sadness of loss turned into deep distress. And maybe some of you may understand the sorry impact of that scarcity? When, for example, my wife without any indication suddenly left me, I took it exceptionally hard because she had to all intents and purpose been my family. And that experience, plus the events of the past 17 days, have made me feel that I’ve made a big mistake by not having any children, grandchildren or nearby siblings of my own into whose arms, metaphorically or otherwise, I can collapse into.

This is all of course much a consequence of the age I am, and perhaps you, dear reader, are too? A miserable consequence compounded in recent years by the lack of any meaningful work that for much of my silly little life meant I forewent or didn’t adequately nurture loving relationships. Sacrificing those on the altar of career satisfaction is of course a fairly common phenomenon but one that also means you end up not making families of your own! Ironically, my dear and now old friends had become a sort of surrogate family, but now they’re all disappearing – nearly a dozen of the buggers in the past eight years.

So in a very real sense I have myself to blame for the overwhelming and debilitating feelings of loss I’m now experiencing, something further exacerbated by the loss of a future that I’d glimpsed over the past many months which could’ve proved much happier than all these losses now seem to foretell…. And again, that was arguably my own fault.

So to return to the top of this dispatch: am I, indeed are we of an age where death increasingly surrounds us and stalks our future – whether we are fairly healthy, as I am, or not? And is that hastening sense of mortality something that we should just philosophically embrace as inevitable, and/or do our damnedest to outwit, or perhaps compensate for by throwing ourselves into ever-pervasive diversions, mindless or otherwise? Right this very moment I’m too mired in and immobilised by personal grief to know, and also unable to “pull myself together”, as my ex-wife scolded me when I bemoaned to her the effect her departure had had on me. But to quote the blessed Mr. Harrison, I’m clinging to the hope that all things must pass… It’s just that they may pass onto something even less palatable than we’d like to think they should!

Cathartic? Sadly not yet!



Posted by markswill in About me, Media, Navel Gazing.

Over the past year I’ve found my ability to concentrate on even the most humdrum activities somewhat lacking, to the point where I really have to force myself to read more than a few successive pages of whatever book I’ve got on the go and skim rather than properly study my daily ‘paper. Even fairly mundane goals now require me to write a list in my diary – yes, I still keep one – which I then tick off as they’re completed, a process I’d once effortlessly achieved mentally. So on top of short-term memory issues that I feared might be the precursor of dementia, this prompted me to undergo a Memory Clinic assessment which I was relieved to find suggested nothing of the case. Phew!

But then in last Saturday’s Times Weekend section there were two pages headlined, ‘Easily Distracted? Here’s How To Boost Your Concentration’ which unlike many of the worried-well, vanity-massaging features this section specialises in, I actually managed to read in its entirety! Needless to say, Professor Gloria Mark, of California University cited our digital lifestyles as the prime reason for our diminishing attention spans, supported by some frightening statistics.  She noted that that we check our smartphones “at least 150 times a day” and in some cases up to 344 times! And according to a 2022 Ofcom report the average Brit spends 2 – 4 hours a day on social media which includes an average of six different platforms, e.g. Twitter, WhatsApp, FaceBook, Instagram etc.

Moreover Prof. Mark claimed that “the average attention span on a screen was now a paltry 47 seconds”, compared to “two-and-a-half minutes in 2004”, which even though my own social media diet is limited to WhatsApp and very occasionally FarceBerk (which I loath and use mainly just to promote these blogs!) strongly suggested what lay behind my reduced concentration. So in the past couple of days, and admittedly very roughly, I decided to measure my own screen time and was shocked to discover that on my phone alone, it averaged 58 minutes but when I added that to time spent on my laptop – where I actually do the bulk of my WhatsApp-ing and emailing – it was almost three hours!

This may also be explained by Prof.  Costas Andriopoulos at London’s City University: “As humans, we like new information. It activates the dopamine rewards system in our brain, and the more excited our brains get, the more we go looking for it.” And thus Google searches have increased by 10% every year and why, as Prof. Mark claimed, “the IQ of distracted workers (falls) by ten points… by constantly switching attention between tasks” which also “causes blood pressure and heart rate to rise, and physiological markers show the presence of stress.”

Living alone also increases my own focus on screen-time which years ago might’ve been directed at reading books, listening to music, phone calling etc. all of which I’m now too easily distracted from doing. And in one of those irritatingly compelling little quizzes beloved of the broadsheets, I discovered that my score indicated that, “There is some room for improvement” in my powers of concentration and I should, “take breaks (from screen-time) to restore clear thinking and help resist distraction”.

The article also offered the inevitable self-help solutions some, like “Writing down what you want to get done in your day” and “Don’t Work From Home” stating the bleadin’ obvious, others like “Jigsaws are good from your brain” – hello Russell and Andi! – “Let yourself be bored” and “Eat an avocado every day”, rather less so.

But where does this leave me, or indeed you gentle reader? Indeed are you perfectly happy with your digitally–heavy if not –addicted lifestyle? Would you find, as I increasingly do, that a dependency on texting and emailing is a poor substitute for human interaction and too easily leads to merely slight comprehension or misunderstanding? Again, if you live on your own and people no longer meet impromptu in the pub and even popping in for a cuppa often has to be arranged days, even weeks in advance and indeed phone calls to friends and family must be booked by text hours if not days ahead, our lives lack the physiological, social and cultural nourishment which Google, social media and bookmarked webzines are no substitute for.

What’s to be done, then? Answers on a postcard please – which BTW, I still mail two or three of most weeks – because at least you don’t need to concentrate too much to scribble a postcard!

P.S. And if your attention span got you to the end of this one, you might be interested in a rare bikey blog I also just posted at http://www.runningoutofroad.uk

If you enjoyed this one, or even if you didn’t, why not sign up for alerts to future blogs using the button in the RH column. And please do comment using link (far!) below.

TICK-TOCK, TIKTOK, TIME BOMB February 21, 2023

Posted by markswill in Media, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.

Following the pattern of my friend Roslyn Byfield’s now fortnightly blog (https://therapistinlockdown.co.uk) this time I’m attending to several disconnected matters rather than one or two usually tortuously connected items, and without her forensically researched if righteous, even angry eloquence.  

What prompted this approach was the outcome of Nicola Bulley’s disappearance, or rather the fact that dozens of self-appointed ‘investigators’ and ‘journalists’ on social media had descended on her home-village to dig-around for clues, or rather conspiracy theories on what had happened to her, their ghoulish, fantastical approach only matched by their shamelessly intrusive behaviour. According to one analyst, Connie Dimsdale, there were some 3,000 such videos posted on TikTok alone, viewed by 341 million users, half of them  18 – 24 year-olds. This is, of course, nothing new – cast your mind back to the dubious claims of Covid deniers or the Manchester Arena bombing plot-theorists – but served to emphasise the fraying of the unspecific but tangible social fabric that binds us together.

Because I believe that madness lies within its very addictive nature, I refuse to have anything to do with social media apart from the occasional forays into FarceBerk, mainly to announce the posting of another of these rants, and WhatsApp which I use solely as a quicker, easier way of messaging a few friends none of whom are part of any group that could otherwise get out of control and waste a great deal of my time. But it’s clear from the aforementioned stories, and the way in which everyone from businesses to politicians to sad individuals who seek meaning from lives they otherwise seem to have no control over, that Twitter, TikTok, Instagram et al have become a default means of communication. Hitherto that was print or terrestrial broadcast media which at least required forethought if not pause for thought before airing instant views and news that nowadays can reach hundreds of thousands of not millions. And because it’s such a new phenomenon, and one that its users feel flattered and indeed empowered by, there is a strong tendency to unquestioningly believe whatever social media conveys.

Anyone traveling on London Underground, a train or a bus will’ve noted that one’s fellow passengers have replaced the newspapers and magazines (and indeed books) they almost universally once read with mobile phones where there are no checks, balances and certainly no legal oversight to control misinformation or crazy and malevolent opinions which their users invariably take as facts. And the Online Safety Bill currently meandering through parliament is being woefully watered down concerning ‘legal but harmful’ content.

This in turn has meant that newspapers that were once at least fairly reliable sources of news now read only, if at all, by the over 60s are in such steep decline that soon there will be no such things, merely the odd entertainment-besotted tabloid trying to feed the short-attention spans of smartphone addicts.  And as successive governments clamp down on the freedoms of broadcast media, how easy will it become for Britain to drift into authoritarianism… Or for someone like me to become a conspiracy theorist?!

FOR LUNCH I NORMALLY HAVE A SMALL SALAD consisting of cherry tomatoes, cucumber, and cooked beetroot but all that had suddenly ended because those first two ingredients have disappeared from my local greengrocer. Enquiries there revealed that unseasonally cold weather in Southern Spain and Morocco, plus the soaring costs of heating the poly-tunnels in which they’re grown, mean that they’ll be absent from my lunch table “for several weeks”. Let them eat cake is one tempting solution, but not so good for health or waistlines.

Further evidence of irreversible climate change is even closer to hand as here in mid-Wales there has been no appreciable rain for over a month and MetCheck’s 16 day forecast says there will be none anytime soon. And this is winter, when the reservoirs and aquifers that were so depleted during last summer’s drought were supposed to be restored to optimum levels, one consequence of which I’ve noted is that root crops planted hereabouts before Xmas are failing to sprout. Killer typhoons in New Zeeland, floods in Pakistan an empty salad bowl in Powys… where will it all end?

WELL THE END IS NIGH, at least as far as this rant is concerned for I write this as Mr Putin and Prez Biden have both just delivered messages of doom regarding the former’s war on Ukraine (Feb 21st). Within the next 24 hours media of all varieties will have pored over what they said, experts – and conspiracy theorists – will have waded in with their analysis and portents, but whilst I am neither, having listened to and read a lot on this issue, I insist on the right to my two-penn’orth. I think the war will drag horribly on for 18 – 24 months and will end with Russia taking no more territory than it already has, but losing none either. And by then the effects on Western economies due to energy prices, food shortages and especially the cost of providing lethal weaponry will be such that upholding the principle of democracy will have faded to the point they’ll let China broker a peace deal which will allow them to re-build a physically and economically wrecked country, in the process turning Ukraine into a dependency whose natural resources and brutalised citizens can be endlessly exploited.

Ever the optimist, that’s me!



Posted by markswill in About me, Cars and Bikes.
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Listening to Mathew Crawford, the American futurologist on R4’s Today prog (Feb 6th) got me thinking about my own transports of delight past, present and sadly, future. He discussed the underlying fallacies of self-driving cars which, although research affirms there’s no public appetite for,  manufacturers seem determined to foist on us. It is, he points out, part of a wider tendency to infantalise us with AI solutions to problems we never knew we had – e.g. self-guided vacuum cleaners, fridges linked to online supermarkets, robot pets – a tendency accelerated by years of lockdown immobility during which our self-determination and physical abilities became atrophied.

Crawford also argued that although road safety is touted as a major benefit of self-driving cars, if so-called ‘drivers’ become inured to not having make judgements whilst traveling in them, it’ll further increase a dangerous tendency for us all to rely on big tech, big business, and ergo big government, to manipulate how our lives are run, and ergo how our brains work. He pointed out that Tesla’s own internal report on the efficacy of its self-driving cars was woefully short of the practical, never mind that as regular reader Terry Kreuger pointed out to me, it costs far, far more in energy consumption and precious metals to build the blighters than it does normally aspirated vehicles or, for that matter – and it does matter – there isn’t the electricity generating capacity to fuel them in the sort of numbers we’re led to believe are necessary to save the planet.

And that all had resonance as I just back home after a rather frantic week in London which it’s almost impossible to drive to now both because economical parking within the North/South Circular is unfeasible, the ever expanding ULEZ means we must buy new cars we can’t afford,  plus one gets easily caught out by CCTV driving down once familiar roads and end up, as I did previously, paying £195 in fines for thrice mistakenly entering a Low Traffic Neighbourhood.  Needless to say, these LTNs are controversial, with many local businesses losing desperately needed custom and some councils on the receiving end of judicial reviews, but the alternative to driving is of course train. And as our railway system, like our road maintenance regime steadily descends to third world level, reliability and affordability are things of the past: the last three times I traveled to London by train three were cancelled at short notice, two were seriously late and aboard two it was standing room only in just two jam-packed carriages.

All of which finds me musing on the contrasts, perhaps disparities would be a more honest term, for the life I, and indeed some of the friends I spent time with in London, live.

Time was not so long ago when admittedly thanks to luck and hard won income I felt equally at home in the metropolis and the rural backwoods I’m now writing from. For almost 50 years I managed to combine work in London and recreation in the country, and sometimes vice versa, enabling me to enjoy the benefits of both, especially social and cultural nourishment. Indeed many of the friends I had – still have – here in Wales arrived via the late ‘60s/early ‘70s diaspora when we hippies went off to “get it together in the country, m-a-a-a-n”, the joke being that the Welsh Marches was where the petrol in our VWs and Ford Cortinas ran out. And as recently as the mid-noughties my film reviewing job had me spending half my time in London, and the rest building and writing about motorbikes in the country. Of course then, and to varying extents always, I was lucky enough to have both rural and urban domiciles, usually shared, which made that possible. So it seemed entirely natural to spend Thursday night at the Almeida Theatre or Brixton Ritzy, and Friday night getting well-soused listening to Dave Luke’s band in the Farmers Arms before hiking somewhat bleary-eyed up Hergest Ridge on Saturday morning.

And back in the ‘90s my international publishing job often saw me flying off to Milan, Paris or Barcelona on a Monday afternoon after a weekend’s bucolic bliss. Of course I was far from alone in straddling two lifestyles, two cultures: the wealthy of this world invariably have homes all over the place, although are often seen as parasites, uninvolved in the cultures and economies of wherever they lay their metaphorical hats and wilfully displacing the locals on the housing ladder. And even the not-very-wealthy, amongst whom I count myself, managed to zip between town, country and even countries but perhaps on not so regular a basis, and deliberately involve themselves as best they can in both, or all three.

But for me, and for many of them, too, that’s changing. Partly it’s due to money, because now late in life we no longer have careers and consequently decent incomes, partly we don’t have the energy to gadabout so much, partly because we’ve decided to settle in one location for family reasons and, certainly in my case, maybe because all or any of the above mean we don’t have the physical footholds in the city that we once had.

And so our city sojourns are governed by the limitations of AirB&B or prevailing on friends in their often downsized homes during which we cram in as much essentially ‘catch-up’ socialising, gallery, cinema and if we’re lucky, theatre hopping, and for some the sort of retail therapy impossible in the country save for Amazon-ing which I personally try to forswear. So I think my days of embracing both town and country life may be coming to an end unless, of course, my fuel duty- and traffic violation-exempt self-driving camper van can keep driving around town whilst I patronise entertainment venues and dine with friends and carry on doing so whilst I sleep in it.

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OLDER, WISER… OR WILDER? January 20, 2023

Posted by markswill in Uncategorized.

Only because it was too long to segue, as originally intended, into yesterday’s epistle, here comes another – and marking the shortest ever gap between rants,  something of a record! But the fact of that itself underpins today’s subject which, I’m afraid considers getting on a bit or, as Ken Loach – now aged 86 but still enthusiastically making films – recently put it, the frailty of age.

As the hidebound old inky that you know I am, I still subscribe to several magazines, some of them admittedly taken out on a four-issues-for-a-fiver ‘inertia renewal’ deal that I then cancel before they rise to thirty quid a year if I find them not to my liking, and the Oldie was one of them. Actually in that case I was interested to see if they might need a motoring correspondent but rather annoyingly they already had one. So that learnt, I cancelled my sub although for some reason it keeps arriving and as I flick disconsolately through each issue before moving on to Readers Wives Monthly* or Thrasher** what a sobering, even depressing experience it is. For starters the Oldie is chock-full of ads for care homes, walk-in baths, stair-lifts and mobility scooters which are woven around numerous obituaries of minor-ish celebs, politicos and arty-types and reminiscences by and about what used to be called the ‘great and the good’.

True, nostalgia is a growth industry these days and one I dabbled in with my sadly short-lived Classic Motoring Review. And indeed one or two of my younger family and friends – yes, I have some – have an unaccountable appetite for stories from my own chequered if hardly impressive past, but as much as possible I personally try to look forward rather than backwards, which is becoming ever harder to do.

Perhaps it’s a commonality of mortality awareness amongst my peers that’s diminished their collective enthusiasm for socialising, gigging and spontaneous jaunts, although that may be a hangover from the enforced introversion of Covid, or a combination of both. However a chance email exchange with a sometime paramour who is also a deeper thinker concluded that for those who have children and now grandchildren there’s an often unspoken meaning to life that those without offspring are denied, a void that I’ve always filled with what I laughingly call a vocation, or at least some absorbing and rewarding toil.

Musing over this recently I realised the malign influence of serious illness and death which, now I’m into my 70s circle around like covered wagons in the wild west. Never mind the Christine McVies and David Crosbys of this world, in recent times several friends and acquaintances have died, and several more diagnosed with serious illnesses the terminality of which they’re stoically resisting. And it’s that realisation which I’m sure subconsciously drives me towards Dr Google – see the link to yesterday’s rant? – every time I suffer a new ache or itch which years ago I’d have ignored or laughed off. 

As with others I know, even those who do have kids, with work now pretty much dried up, to some extent we fill our hours with voluntary work or, if we can afford them, hobbies. But flicking through yet another magazine, this time donated by a neighbour, Vintage & Classic Motorcycle, I was disheartened to read not just the inevitable obituaries, but also the classified ads for ‘bikes whose owners’ illness or infirmity obliged them to sell. But then I thought about my own riding which has become a bit slower, more cautious even in the last couple of years and the (minor) accident I had last autumn might’ve been down to the poor judgement or diminishing spatial awareness that a doctor recently told me comes with age. So is that a remaining hobby, once virtually a way of life, which age will oblige me to abandon and are you, dear reader, finding yourself in a similar dilemma?

For if so, the oft-expressed trope that the idleness of retirement leads quickly to expiration is something we should repel at all costs. Now the aforementioned Ken Loach in his excellent interview on Sky Arts referred to “the energy and mischief of youth” which I like to think still lurks within many of us once insubordinate baby-boomers, qualities I think we should give all possible rein to if we’re to stave off the inevitable shuffling off mortal coils… even if the flesh isn’t quite as willing as it once was. And if it comes down to it and with no disgruntled offspring to attend to my incontinence or immobility, I’m damned if I’ll be riffling through the pages of the Oldie to find a care home to submit myself to… After all, that’s what large, powerful motorcycles, Jack Daniels and brick walls were invented for!

* Sadly no longer in print   ** Not what you might think it panders to, but the world’s No. 1 skateboard magazine – and I say that as respectful ex-publisher of No. 2 !


NET GAINS… AND LOSSES January 19, 2023

Posted by markswill in Media, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.
Tags: ,

I’d intended to focus today’s self-indulgent bleating on the perils and pluses of the internet but after a surprisingly productive budget meeting last night, a drink in the pub with fellow town councilors prompted some not unrelated thoughts on equally relevant matters, well relevant to me, anyway.

Whilst bemoaning the dismal records of the county councils’ and Welsh government’s road maintenance, planning and flood defence policies hereabouts, and their huge and unregulated overspend and under-performance – about which several blogs could be scribbled – one of my colleagues in the know pointed out that these public servants spend so much more time dealing with stuff online, much of it parrying legal issues resulting from their incompetence, than they do actually, well, doing stuff to remedy what ails us tax payers. So the roads don’t get repaired (and they’re in third world conditions locally), the flood defences are in danger of collapsing and buildings get built in the wrong places, and/or at hideously excessive cost or don’t get built at all when and where they’re needed.

Conversation then turned to rural policing, an issue raised when what were supposed to be three local officers attended a recent council meeting to supposedly reassure us about tackling an upsurge in local vandalism, none of whom it turned out actually had the power to arrest such miscreants because they were either merely support offices or trainees! Again, one fellow councilor pointed out that even at a local-ish, i.e. county level, so much police time nowadays is spent shackled to a computer dealing with cyber crime and CCTV surveillance, or sitting lucratively behind hedges catching speeding motorists – recently including, I have to admit, yrs. trly. – rather than, well, policing the streets.

And hence the relevance of the digital world which has become our world, or at least a massive part of it to, I contend, our mental, physical and emotional cost. Three-plus decades ago, communicating with friends, family and the businesses we worked within was by phone, fax and even letters. It made for a wider understanding of those we dealt with, and what they were up to or suffering from than the brief WhatsApp messages that are now the default means of contact and the misunderstandings and slender realities they sanction. And when the internet really got into gear some 20 years ago, I began my days attending to emails which, whilst not demanding the brevity and one-dimensional currency of texts, largely replaced the need for actually talking to people, gauging how they felt, what else they were up to etc., etc. So now I regard all this as harmful to our mental, even emotional wellbeing and an even loftier claim, mankind’s progress and the root of so much that’s contributed to the grim state of the world.

On the other hand of course, websites like Google have transformed the lot of us journalists who in times past had to ring up the Daily Telegraph’s information service  – which I actually enjoyed because one spoke to human beings! – and enabled the worried well to angst over what might be a heart condition… or just heartburn. And of course I can instantly listen to the works of favourite musicians, albeit who get paid sod-all for providing it, and if  I want to buy some blank CDs or a clutch cable for a motorbike I can do that with a few clicks of a mouse because there are now no longer any appropriate physical retailers within a 50 miles radius, largely because the internet has put them out of business. But that same internet has become the source of mental despair and disorder thanks to so-called influencers playing on physical and mental insecurities, and those addicted to Twitter, TikTok etc.  – which I am not – are prey to equally damaging trolls and sexual predators.

I do, however, occasionally use FarceBerk, although mainly to promote these blogs and respond to a few friends who use it to amuse or inform us about  shared interests. And I recently turned to Linked-In, which I lazily joined many years ago now in the mistaken belief that it might lead to some income. And according to Linked-In I have 463 ‘contacts’, most of whom I don’t know from Adam, who seem only to send ‘messages’ boasting about their achievements which mean damn-all to me. However having had almost none this past two years, and feeling spiritually if not financially bereft as a consequence – rather sadly, I’ve always largely defined myself by my work – I posted a modest appeal for writing/editing/editorial management work, and of course came back there none.

Larky pieces occasionally appear in the national press written by bored hacks who elect to take an on-screen hiatus for a week or so but who rarely manage more than a few days, which just confirms that it has changed the way we live our lives and interact with other human beings. Obviously from the thrust of this little rant, you’ll gather that I consider this a Bad Thing, so if I ring you up announced – and our internet life now requires us to make a text appointment to do so – which I’m increasingly trying to do, I hope you’ll respond with good grace even if you’ll curse me when you’ve put the phone down and you can get back to Googling jam roly-poly pudding recipes.

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