and a stick to beat the devil with

I am 21!

(…an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone…)

On the 25th Zoe (Oliver’s girlfriend) was moving into Birmingham, and her parents offered me a lift back to Bristol, which I gladly accepted. We spent the afternoon at Zoe’s house nomming delicious steak, failing at racing games and playing Risk with her brother Mark til Dad finished his orchestra and came to pick us up, and I went to my top-floor bed and slept there for the first time in what felt like (but hasn’t actually been) a long time.

“Bro, what do you want for your cake this year? A hedgehog?”
“We’ve made quite a few hedgehogs, haven’t we?”
“A tortoise?”
“Hmm, maybe. Ooh! I know!”
“What?”
“A star fort!”
“…hmm.”

On the 26th, Olly taught me WordPress things that will come in useful if I end up being the IT monkey for Redbrick, and we rebuilt most of my computer in my new case. (Which is awesome. 120mm fan at the front, great airflow, HDDs come in a removable thing; I am happy.) I visited Maeve’s house down the hill, and she gave me birthday biscuits. Bill and James came round and, and we did bro things. Bill gave me a copy of the new PCG, full of Valve goodness.

We did lots of Geometry and Measuring and came up with a five-pointed fort with good overlapping fields of fire and cannon-resistant icing. It was a very scientific cake, and Mum now knows her bastions and ravelins better than any other mum. She also makes better birthday cakes than any other mum. I challenge you – who else has had a trace italienne cake for their 21st? Nobody. Took Bill, James and brothers for a massive burger-dinner at YoYo (aka Burger Tank), and came back via Tesco when Mum called and requisitioned extra Madeira cake for more ravelins.

And on the 27th I woke up legally older, and enjoyed the first of what are bound to be many long, lazy lie-ins as a 21-year-old.

Nick had school and Mum had work in the morning, so the actual festivities were to be held off til lunchtime. I was moving computer things around in the sitting room, setting up in preparation of an anticipated graphics-card-esque present, when Dad came in and said “Hey, could you… look at something downstairs?”

(A SURPRISE!)

Jez and Sue had come up from London to wish me a happy birthday. They’re my Un-godparents, best of our many family friends and companions on numberless shared holidays. Love and compliments were exchanged; then a couple of minutes later they innocuously asked me if I’d like to help unload their car.

:0

A new bike. No, really, a new bike (well, a six-month old bike with one extremely careful owner.) And a really warm upmarket-looking reflective cycling jacket (but thankfully no skin-tight lycra shorts). And a Jez and Sue for my birthday. All this came so completely out of left field that I confess I just sat there grinning and mumbling thanks for a few minutes.

Bill arrived, as did Mum, and we all tucked in to a huge birthday roast duck. Then it was PRESENTS O’CLOCK. Mum had bought me new panniers. And my shiny new 5770, all huge and gleaming red and silver and copper and HNGGGG. Nick showed up from school with his suit and his too-much-hair, ate and presented me with the tortoise drawing that had won him VICTORY in GCSE art. Mum had made me another kite, to replace my dearly beloved lost one; white with red stars. And a Beano with a little wind-up thing that launched whizzy helicopters, because if you turn 21 around you get 12.

Installed the new GPU with Bill and played some test rounds of L4D with all the graphics turned up to fifteen and 8xMSAA just because.

We besieged the star fort (four candles to a bastion plus one on the parade ground) with knife and spoon, and it was glorious and delicous. We took lots of pictures, but there is a good reason I’m not posting them at the moment. We plotted a possible holiday to Sri Lanka next-but-one Christmas, and Dad and Jez both got hilariously out of their skulls on wine and champagne, while the younger generation exchanged embarrassed looks. Jez and Sue left in a taxi, mildly sozzled, and Owen and Joey arrived and gave their regards. Full of cake, we went out into the garden and lit a massive bonfire to burn the accumulated dead plants of recent gardening tidy-ups and dance around naked shouting heathen nonsense. Human faces look wonderful by firelight.

Mum had dropped the camera somewhere while dragging a huge pile of brambles down to the fireside, and we hunted fruitlessly for it in the dark for a while. The only full-size firework we had left was a Catherine wheel, and we accidentally nailed it to the tree the wrong way round, but short of making the blue touch paper rather more fiddly to get than expected, it wasn’t a problem; it was just as pretty, with a marvellous blue corona at the end.

Owen and Joey excused themselves to go and get dinner, and we Geeked and drank masses of tea, and then all decided we were very hungry and mounted an expedition up to the chip shop. On the way up Hensman’s Hill, we bumped into Owen and Joey, who had changed their minds and wanted to dine with us after all. Masses of haddock and chips were subsequently consumed.

Best 21st birthday I’ve ever had, even if everyone is telling me it’s only downhill from here. This morning, parents found the gutted remains of the camera in the ashes of the fire. But other than that, it was good.

we shall arrange the blocks and toil forever and a day

Wild Bill Hovercraft says:
[02:16:13] ­ok, I know ending a sentence with a preposition is bad, at least in pedant english
­underneath the open sky says:
[02:16:31] ­it is but real people don’t give a fuck
­Wild Bill Hovercraft says:
[02:16:39] ­(though churchill or someone said “ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put”)
­underneath the open sky says:
[02:16:48] ­grammar is much more mutable and forgivable than spelling, especially online
­Wild Bill Hovercraft says:
[02:17:03] ­but how the fuck do you resolve “Some of which I collaborated on”?
[02:17:16] ­”I collaborated on some of them” sure
[02:17:28] ­but would it be “Some of which on which I collaborated”?
­underneath the open sky says:
[02:17:40] ­I would go with the first
[02:17:49] ­and if an english language student started fretting
[02:17:57] ­I would bounce my cock off their forehead and tell them to get a real degree
­Wild Bill Hovercraft says:
[02:18:14] ­I would like to see that
­underneath the open sky says:
[02:19:01] ­for the sheer hypocrisy?
­Wild Bill Hovercraft says:
[02:19:10] ­for the cock bouncing
[02:19:15] ­it’s an amusing mental image

I am the man who arranges the blocks that descend upon me from up above

Whenever I’m on a long journey, and I often am, I like to talk to strangers. It’s not an objective or anything; I don’t feel a trip is a failure if I haven’t engaged in conversation with someone I don’t know. By the end of it, whatever else happens, I’ve got where I want to and the scenery is usually good. But it’s something I aim to do.

Striking up that sort of random conversation, in polite British society, is both rare and weirdly awkward, with all the endless barriers of polite apathy and withdrawn decorum we put up. But most people, I think, love a bit of attention from an unexpected quarter. And it’s so easy. We’re all human, we all have things we can share (this is the other reason people always talk about the weather; everyone lives underneath the sky.) All you need is an in, and they’ll talk to you.

The National Express driver up from London laughed when I put my laptop screen in his face. “Very nice!”
“I… lost my printout. Thank heavens for unsecured wifi, eh?” And that was my in.
“Tell me about it!” And I could tell we could have started talking tech right there, but he had a job to do and neither time, tide or the large woman behind me would wait. I took the front seat, just behind his, and half a minute after we’d rolled out of Victoria station, blowing down the back roads heading for the big ones, there was another touch of that fleeting contact when some elderly, rich-looking woman had her taxi stop in the middle of the road in front of us, and the coach driver slewed around them both with a honk of frustrated disgust.
“Considerate,” I said.
“Hah! Welcome to London!”

Maybe I’ll see him again. I hope so; we pulled into the new spick-and-span Birmingham coach station ten or fifteen ahead of schedule.

On the train from University to Selly Oak there were two men sat in the six-seater across from me. One looked late forties, in that anorakish, very British retired public servant sort of way; suit trousers hitched up showing short socks rolled crease-straight above his ankles, watery eyes behind glasses, cheeks rosy with broken veins, desperate-looking hair trying to escape his pate and his chin, friendly smile behind a clerical newsletter with a header in Latin. His friend looked the same plus a few decades and minus all the hair and all the blood in his face.

The train stopped at Five Ways, and the older one looked around, worried. “Are we there yet? Is this-?”
“I think it’s Five Ways,” said the younger one.
I checked through my window. “Yes, it’s Five Ways. All the stations here look the same, all depressing corrugated metal,” I said. The younger one looked at me, and saw my t-shirt, which bore a lion’s head and said Singapore. And that was the in.
“No, I’ve never actually been there – well, I might have stopped on a flight, but not seen the place. We have family friends who bring us exotic t-shirts from all corners of the world; I have a load of Costa Rica t-shirts, and I haven’t been within a thousand miles of the place.
“Oh. We’ve both spent quite a bit of time there – Tony” (indicating the older man) “lived there for a while and I worked there.” And we chatted happily, Tony chipping in from time to time, about Singapore and Sri Lanka and War Studies and Birmingham, until Selly Oak appeared outside the windows. I rose, and shook his hand. “Jeremy.”
“John.”

And everything I told him about my degree and my life was true, because what did it matter? I know I’ll never see him again, and I’m cool with that, but it was nice to meet him.

On the way back from the station, on my way to pick up an absurdly cheap and nomlicious dinner at Big John’s (Selly Oak’s premier grease outlet, with the best money: deliciousness ratio of fish and chips I’ve yet experienced; seriously, cod and chips for £2, and the good stuff, chips not fries, real fish in real batter – but I digress.)
“Eh, mate, what’s the time?”
I glanced at him. An oldish chap, looking like the stereotype of a 1930s hobo, sitting on a roadside bench with a younger, sharper looking man. I thought for a second, pulled out my phone and told him. “9:37.”
And that, he thought, was his in with me.
He nodded, digesting this; his mate gave him a look. He got up, shook himself down, looked at me square like a man. Up at me; he wasn’t tall, and I am. I knew he was about to ask for money.
“I’m homeless, and-”
“Sorry, man, I’m a shit-poor student. I won’t be able to afford to eat next year. If I could, I would, but I can’t.”

And none of that was exactly true. (Well, I am a student, and barely solvent, but unlike a lot of students I’ve got a decent savings buffer; I will be able to afford to eat next year, just not eat and rent at the same time.) Because I couldn’t really afford to buy him supper, and I didn’t want to, because you can’t turn fellow-human-feeling to straight altruism that fast. And as I walked off to my 99p supper, I pondered that was why the blokes ahead of me didn’t answer him, and why random conversation isn’t so popular after all.

I hope I don’t see him again, but I bet I will.

“Denmark does not need a military. Denmark needs an answerphone that says ‘we surrender.'”

I’m sitting in Tom’s conservatory in London, after a nice settled plane ride back from Copenhagen (which followed a truly delicious bacon-and-tea combo provided by Lotte). He’s painting Dog while I play Dylan on his tiny round doom-speakers, drink tea and read him quotes from /r9k/ (which is surprisingly good, and makes me feel much better about my life). Tonight, we’re going to go and see Inception at the Angel cinema I haven’t visited in like seven damn years.

(Tangled up in Blue plays.)
Tom: What’s this song about?
Me: A woman. Loneliness.
Tom: Really, though.
Me: (reading from Wiki) ‘”Tangled Up in Blue” is one of the clearest examples of Dylan’s attempts to write “multi-dimensional” songs which defied a fixed notion of time and space. Dylan was influenced by his recent study of painting and the Cubist school of artists, who sought to incorporate multiple perspectives within a single plane of view. As Neil McCormick remarked in 2003: “A truly extraordinary epic of the personal, an unreliable narrative carved out of shifting memories like a five-and-a-half-minute musical Proust.”‘ What the fuck am I reading? It’s about a woman, okay? Okay.
(Idiot Wind plays.)
Tom: About a woman?
Me: And a messed-up marriage! You know, I love Dylan’s lyrics to death, but the dude really can’t sing, can he?
Tom: No. Amazingly flat.
Me: Awesome, though.
(You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go plays.)
Me: HAY TOM GUESS WHAT THIS SONG IS ABOUT
Tom: You know what, I have a challenge for you – find me something by Dylan that’s about happiness.
Me: …I was going to try to troll with something by Dylan Owen, but shit, he didn’t do happy either.

honours degree is BACK! thanks marmandy dalrymple

Having poked at the university website, which is shortly going to revamp itself (inb4 this), hey, result! Well, several results, to be precise.

67 overall for the Modern History module. Which, since I got 34 last time (with the panic attack) is much better than I was expecting (Hovercraft, who crunches numbers, tells me the last paper will have got 73% – highest mark of the YEAR). What I wrote was a couple of very erudite but rather uncertain essays on subjects I really hadn’t revised well – European nationalism (namedropping Garibaldi at random, who turns out to have been exactly who I needed him to be) and British colonialism in India (talking mainly about infrastructure/railways, and based almost entirely on what I remember from The Age of Kali.) Gift horse, I trust that you have lovely teeth, please carry on.