Playing Music With Tourettes

Over the past few months I’ve been writing some songs. My first for over twenty years, and I can’t really describe how good I feel. But I’ll try.

You see, I’m a twitcher. I find it difficult to keep still. At night I sleep like a baby. But in the day I can’t stop moving, twitching, spasming, ticking, hunching, spinning, gurning, jerking, convulsing. You might think I’m ill — some have suggested I’ve got Tourettes — (maybe I have), but maybe it’s just the way I am.

I’ve always been like this: I’ve always had a fireball of energy in my belly like I’ve eaten a plate of red-hot chilli ladened with extra chilli and extra cheese, and then some more. And then some more. And then some more. Do you get the picture?

I only did sport at school, not because I wanted to, but because I had to. And it wasn’t that my teachers forced me or anything like that. The total opposite in fact. My school promoted the arts and music over sport, but luckily they did have a PE master. So most mornings and evenings I was out running, or practising gymnastics or swimming. Anything that gave my body a chance to run off its unused energy.

Even now, I can barely stay seated for more than half an hour, before I have to rush outside and expend some energy. Smash some bricks together or chop wood angrily with a blunt axe. It’s why I can’t watch TV, or watch a film without taking endless breaks. Luckily, I have a very patient wife.

So a few weeks after New Year, I pulled my old Washburn acoustic out of its ragged case, restrung it and set it up. If you’re not au fait with guitars, setting-up simply means, faffing around with truss rods (the bit in the middle), strings and fret distances so the whole damn instrument stays (vaguely) in-tune.

Once I’d done that (which took a month of procrastination), I strummed a few bars wondering if my fingers still knew what to do. Luckily, like riding a bike or swimming, you never forget such things, so for a few weeks I played a selection of covers I used to play live all those years ago.

Then I wrote a song.

Back then, I never really wrote songs. My friend Justin wrote the material and I played along, made up riffs and solos, and kind of chipped in.

After we split and went our separate ways, I wrote a few bits and pieces, but they amounted to nothing more than a tortured mess of mangled blues and wailing. So I let it go, and for twenty years, did very little apart from a few jams and a couple of open-mic sessions, most of which I don’t remember ( I was pretty drunk for most of my thirties).

I was therefore naturally quite surprised that by the end of March this year, I’d managed to pen about ten songs. I even bought some modest recording equipment to improve the quality of my efforts.

I was pleased with them. But most of all I’d stopped wandering aimlessly around the farm where I live, knocking down walls or chopping down trees. Finally, I had something real and tangible to put my energy into once again: Recording music in my makeshift studio on top of the chicken shed.

LOCKDOWN SONGS
The Rock Song
Big Blue Sky
Insamia Revisited
The Winter Song 
Hog Dog
All Songs © Philip Ogley 2020
Top Photo by Simone Impei on Unsplash

Why I Hate History

And why I think school is a waste of time. Listen or read below.

I remember nothing from school. Except the Rivers Act of 1876: A tiny piece of legislation to try and clean up the waterways of England.

Why I remember this particular fact is not important. What is important is that I shouldn’t have been learning it in the first place. Or indeed any of the subjects I spent 15 years studying during my time at school.

When I was twelve there were a few things I was interested in: music, drama, cycling, nature and drawing. This is what I actually studied: English, History, French, Maths, Physics, Geography, Religious Studies, Latin, Chemistry and Biology. Out of all of those, there was only one I was interested in. Biology.

A damning indictment of the educational system, surely.

True, if I hadn’t been such a spineless schoolboy, I might have said something like, ‘Why am I study these subjects; I don’t even like them?’

It’s a pretty damn good point, don’t you think?

And yet avid supporters of the educational system — teachers, lecturers, governments — would insist I had a rounded education.

No I didn’t! I didn’t in the slightest. A rounded education would have consisted of me playing the piano while cycling around the UK for instance. Putting on plays in parks or woods, looking at the nature, and then drawing the whole damn thing. That would have been a rounded education.

Chortle chortle chortle, I hear from leather-elbowed-patched, pipe-in-mouth teaching brigade. ‘Such a dreamer this one. This Ogley character.’

I am as a matter of fact. That’s what humans are. Dreamers. Inventors. Visionaries. That’s how we got this far in the first place. We didn’t get here by sitting in a classroom copying out endless tracts of British history. Copying it out into an exercise book, then revising it and rewriting it out onto an exam manuscript so some stuffy teacher can cross bits out and then decide to give me a qualification that assesses my progress in life.

Because that isn’t progress. It’s a failure. It’s a failure of the educational system to actually educate. And I know this, because I’ve been through it. I’ve done it. School, GCSEs, A-levels, university degree, masters degree. In fact I didn’t stop studying till I was 26. What an idiot!

This may sound like sour grapes. That I haven’t made a success of all the education given to me.

It’s not. While I was revising for my GCSE exams at the age of 16, I remember thinking, this is a waste of time, isn’t it? All I’m really doing is memorising stuff other people have done or discovered or invented, rewriting it down in vaguely my own words so another human being, who knows all this stuff anyway, can read it through again. How stupid is that? Why don’t I go out into the world and find my own stuff to write about? That would be fun!

I should have said something. But as I said before, I didn’t, because I was spineless. I was a schoolboy. I was young. I was impressionable. I was an idiot.

So I’m saying it now, nearly 30 years later: Education is a waste of time. School. University. Degrees. Masters. Call it what you want. It’s a waste of time!

There, I’ve said it. Bye.

Photo, Museums Victoria (bottom/Feliphe Schiarolli (top)

The Corona Borealis

If you look East tonight at around 11pm (UK time) you’ll see a semicircular arc known as Corona Borealis in between the large constellations of Hercules and Boötes.

I’ve become quite an avid stargazer recently and download a chart each month that shows me all the constellations and stars. I’ve become quite addicted in fact as I never knew there was so much up there. Some I knew like the Big Dipper and Orion, but most I’d never heard of. Including this small one, Corona Borealis.

When I was young I remember reading that the light from some stars takes so long to reach Earth, that by the time our eyes register it, the stars it came from don’t even exist anymore.

That blew my mind! It meant the universe was big. Very big. And when I look up at the sky now, I never forget that fact. It’s so immense, so utterly big, that even thinking about it makes my head hurt. And as you probe deeper and deeper, reading about the stars and clusters and galaxies, you realise how amazingly small we really are. Smaller than we think.

Which brings me back to Corona Borealis. I’ve read so much about the Corona virus over these last few weeks, that when I looked at my April star chart, the first thing my eyes picked up was the word “Corona”.

Corona, Corona, Corona. Once I knew it only as a beer. Now, it’s a virus and a constellation. What next?

I was planning to write a long sweeping piece on humankind’s folly. But I just don’t have it in me at the moment. Let’s face it, a lot has already been written on the subject; it’s unlikely I can add anything more.

Maybe the only thing I can advise is to look up at the stars tonight. See if you can see Corona Borealis. I mean what else are you going to do now the pubs are all shut…

Useful Links:

Corona Borealis info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corona_Borealis

Sky Charts: http://www.skymaps.com/downloads.html

Online Sky wheel: https://in-the-sky.org/skymap2.php

Always For Hire – A journey into the hidden depths of my CV

With little else to do, I started thinking about all the jobs I’d ever done. All those wasted hours moving objects from one place to another. Then moving them back again. The definition of work according to the dictionary.

I starting writing them down on a page of A4. Then I found two more sheets of paper to finish the job. The results were terrifying. They say a league table at the end of the football season doesn’t lie. Neither did my list of jobs. My CV. My resume – Call it what you want. What a mess! More like some mangled piece of computer code than an ordinary life. I mean, who wrote this stuff? Was it me?

I thought of my cousin Paul, who I grew up with in Leeds. He was older than me by four years, but we got on well. We had the same interests: football, cricket, subuteo, and Madness. And so I naturally assumed that when we grew up, we would end up doing the same things in life. More or less.

How wrong I was.

Since those Sherbet Dip and orangeade days of the early 1980s, I’ve had over 60 jobs and even more addresses. My cousin Paul on the other hand has had the same job since he was sixteen and still lives with my aunt and uncle on the same road we used to play out on as kids.

Sometimes I think he got the better deal. Because the problem is, I’ve never really liked any of my jobs. I don’t know what it is, but a wave of indifference spreads over me as soon as I enter the factory gates or walk through the office door. Causing me to hand in my resignation within a few months. Or simply wait to get fired, so at least I can say it wasn’t my fault.

The few jobs I have liked are the ones where I’ve been left — totally and utterly — to do my work without some dick breathing down my neck. Which I have to say is very rare.

There’s only been one job that has ever come close to fulfilling this criteria. Do you remember the census of 2011? Probably not. Anyway, I worked as a census collector gathering information from households that had been missed off on the original lists. The work was pretty boring, but I had no boss, just an automated system that I emailed my results to each evening. And if I didn’t get any results on any given day, it didn’t seem to matter; I got paid all the same. It was fantastic and a great shame they only do it once every ten years.

This was in stark contrast to working as an order picker at Aldi in 2018. Here I had three different bosses telling me every morning at around eight-thirty the same information over and over again. If you’ve ever watched the film Office Space with those ‘TPS report cover sheets’, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Needless to say, I didn’t last long in that job either. Three months, I think; another entry on my already bloated CV. A CV I must add that I’m actually rather proud of. It’s rich and varied. It illuminates my personality, shows off my character and my abilities as a human being, not as a machine.

Naturally, I would never consider sending it out as it stands. God, no! — I’m not stupid! If I sent this CV out, it’d look like I’m auditioning for a part in the circus. I mean, who in their right mind would hire someone who has worked as a bookseller, a barman, a driver, a chef, and a Christmas tree seller in the same year? No-one. Which is why I stopped bothering with CVs years ago – and generally find a well written, persuasive email or letter is far more effective.

It’s been a good project though, writing them all out. Seeing my entire adult life drift past my eyes as I commit one job after another to paper. It might even become the basis for a book. Now I’ve got the framework in place – the scaffolding. Now all I need to do is build the walls and hang the windows. Fill in the gaps. And believe me, there are a lot of gaps.

The Bloated Badly Coded CV of Philip Ogley, Aged 45
July—Aug 1990: John Smedley Ltd — Labourer
July—Aug 1991: John Smedley Ltd — Warehouseman
July—Aug 1992: Chesterfield Council — Dustbin man
April—Aug 1993: MAFF, Mansfield — Field researcher
April—Aug 1994: INRA, Cavaillon, France — Field researcher
April—Aug 1995: Zeneca, Bracknell — Field researcher (barley)
Sept 1996 — March 1997: Students Union, Nottingham — Cook
July 1997 — Aug 1998: Boulevard Sound, Nottingham — S/engineer
July-Aug 1998 Perth, Australia. Charity fund raiser.
Nov 1998 : Mission beach hostel, Australia — Hostel hand
Nov—Dec 1999: Hockley Organic Restaurant, Nottingham — chef
Aug 2000: Nottingham Language Centre, Nottingham  — teacher
Sept—Oct 2000: Papa Language school, Trikala, Greece — EFL
Oct 2000—June 2001: Cambridge School of English, Warsaw — EFL
July 2001: Nottingham Language Centre, Nottingham — teacher
Sept 2001—Jan 2002: Centro de Lenguas, Granada, Spain — EFL
Feb—May 2002: BRNC, Dartmouth, Devon — EFL Teacher
May—July 2002: Southgate Hotel, Exeter — Barman
Aug 2002—Aug 2003: Globe English School, Exeter — EFL Teacher
Feb—April 2004: Devon County Council, Exeter — Data Entry 
April—Sept 2004: Pavani’s Italian, Exeter — Sous chef
Sept—Nov 2004: La Vega, Venezuela — Field Researcher
Dec 2004—May 2005: Cafe Rouge, Exeter — Waiter
May-Aug 2005 Zizzis, Exeter. Drinks Man.
Aug 2005: Pizza Express, Exeter — Waiter
Aug 2006: Bristol City Council — Telephone Clerk
Sept-Oct: Ff Solicitor, Bristol. Post room clerk.
Oct—Nov 2006: Bristol Novelty, Bristol — Warehouse picker
Jan—May 2007: The Bristol Advertiser, Bristol — Editor
Aug 2007—Aug 2008: The Royal Mail, Bristol — Postman
Oct 2008—Sept 2009: The Bristol Flyer, Bristol — Barman
Jan 2010:The Golden Lion, Bristol — Barman
Feb—April 2010: The Mighty Miniature, Bristol — Bookseller
May—Sept 2010: Gibbs Catering, Bristol — Driver and chef
Nov—Dec 2010: Haines' Trees, Bristol — Christmas tree seller
August 2011 - Capita, Bristol - Census Collector
March—July 2011: Communicaid, Bristol — EFL Teacher
Sept 2011—June 2012: Linguarama, Lyon, France — EFL Teacher
July 2012—August 2012: IFIS, Bristol — EFL Teacher
Sept 2012—July 2013: Linguarama, Lyon — EFL Teacher
Sept 2013—Oct 2014: La Jouachere, Queaux, France — Caretaker
March 2015: Cetradel, Bordeaux — EFL Teacher
Jan — May 2015: Villa Tosca, Taussat, France — Pool boy
June 2015 — Sept 2015: Linguarama, Bath — EFL Teacher
Oct 2015: OTP, Marrakesh, Morocco — EFL teacher
Nov 2015 — April 2016: Chateau Dumas, France — Caretaker
April 2016 — October 2016: Holiday Rep, Souillac, Dordogne
Oct 2016 — Dec 2016: Kokopelli Camping, Italy — Nightwatchman
Jan 2017 — May 2017: Chateau Dumas (again), Caretaker
June 2017 — Sept 2017: Bicycle Courier, Copenhagen
Oct 2017 — Jan 2018: Aldi, Order Picker. Liverpool
May 2018–Sept 2018: Chateau Dumas (again) — Caretaker
Dec 2018 — May 2019: Real Food Kitchen, chef, Liverpool
June 2019 — Present: Farm Hand, Mesnil-Germain, France.

Further Listening and Reading

Listen to other podcasts here.

Listen to audio stories here

Read about my Aldi job: The Soulless Emptiness of a Warehouse Order Picker here

Or read my novel here.

Four Knots & Back

A few years ago, me and a friend swam to a yellow buoy in Falmouth Harbour. Read or listen to this short tale on fear.

‘There could be sharks down there,’ said Richard.

‘Don’t say that word! Never say that word! And stop splashing about!’

‘I’m not,’ he shouted back. ‘Hey! Shall we dive down to see how deep it is?’

‘Are you insane?’

Ever since I’d had to rescue my pyjamas from the bottom of the swimming pool when I was five, I’d been afraid of deep water. The thought of how small, hopeless and insignificant I became — even in a swimming pool — terrified me. The sudden look of panic in my eyes made my friend realise there would be no diving today.

Richard was forging ahead with a nicely timed breaststroke that propelled him through the water like a slow-moving frigate towards the yellow buoy with 4 KNOTS written on it.

It wasn’t just the depth or the sharks that frightened me. It was the chain anchoring the buoy to the seabed. The long, thick, rusted chain snaking down into the darkness. How far did it go? And what was it attached to?

We approached it but didn’t stop. ‘Fuck that!’ I cried out. ‘I’m off.’ So I simply prodded it with my fingers to register the accomplishment and turned back.

For a second, I thought of putting my head under the water to prove the chain really existed. Confront my fears. But I knew that one glimpse of the blackness would incite panic, and in the ocean, panic kills. Especially when there might be…no…don’t say it. SHARKS.

‘Stop splashing about. You’ll attract sharks,’ joked Richard.

Why did he have to say that? Why? It was all becoming too much. ‘Let’s get the hell out of here,’ I cried.

I looked to the shore hoping to see life. But all I saw were dots. People and umbrellas and kites and inflatable dinghies, just multicoloured dots painted onto a band of yellow.

We were miles away. Further than I thought. I felt a cramp in my left foot. Cramp kills in water. Keep calm. It’s just a bit of cramp. Lactic acid build-up in the muscles. It’s nothing, just chemistry, I kept telling myself.

‘Richard, are you cold?’

He nodded.

We kept swimming through the thick, oily water, battling against the outgoing tide which I could feel pushing against my legs and arms. Why did we do this? It looked so easy from the shore. ‘Let’s swim to the buoy,’ I’d said. What an idiot.

Keep going. Keep going. Keep calm. You came out here, so you are going to have to get back. Or you die. It’s quite simple.

‘Richard, are you OK?

He nodded, and I kept swimming while thinking of other things. Anything to keep my mind off the deep sea, the sharks, and that long dark chain disappearing down into the bowels of fuck-knows-where!

Then I felt sand on my knees. The dots came into focus. I breathed an almighty sigh of relief.

As we walked back across the beach I expected a round of applause. But everyone just ate their sandwiches and ice creams and talked to their friends and family just as before. They were all totally oblivious to what we’d been through. We were just two lads getting out of the sea after a swim, nothing more.

If we’d slipped below the water, drowned, or been eaten by sharks, no one would have noticed. They would have all finished their sandwiches, trotted off back to their cars, gone home, and got on with their lives. The Earth would spin, the tides would turn, and the yellow buoy would remain floating in the sea.

And that, now I think about, back home warm and dry, is the scariest thing of all. To be simply not noticed…

Why I Keep My Christmas Tree Lights On — All Year Round

A friend came to visit me last week and the first thing he said was, ‘Shit Phil, you’ve still got your Christmas lights up!’

I think what worried him most was that the offending lights were still hanging on the tree. It was nearly February.

‘Don’t you know it’s bad luck!’ he pointed out.

I explained that the tree was actually an indoor conifer and was there all year round. The fact that there were lights on it was pure coincidence.

‘Jesus, Phil,’ my friend swooned. ‘If I did that where I lived, everyone would think I was nuts.’

I smiled at my friend and reminded him that my neighbours were over a mile away. And even if they did visit me — which was unlikely seeing as they hated my guts — they wouldn’t even notice a Christmas tree. Most of the farmhouses around here are so full of mismatched furniture, broken lampstands, and stuffed animals, they look more like Victorian bazaars than places to live in. A Christmas tree, I assured him— even with sparkly coloured lights — wouldn’t raise a single eyebrow. Even in July.

‘Plus they cheer me up,’ I continued. ‘When I turn them on each morning the bright, festive glow makes me feel like it’s Christmas Day. Don’t you ever wish that?’

The way he looked at me indicated he thought I’d been living in rural France too long. But I wasn’t joking. I was deadly serious. I’d always found it rather sad watching my mum and dad ruthlessly pack away all the decorations when Christmas was over. ‘Why not leave them out?’ I used to whine.

‘Because,’ my mother always reminded me. ‘There would be no joy unpacking it all again next year.’

She had a point. But it might have been pleasant to leave a few lights up to combat those winter blues. Which is what I do. And only replace the bulbs when the dog chews one off. Which she does with a rabid hunger from time to time. How she hasn’t electrocuted herself, I’m not sure.

I thrust a bottle of Pelforth beer into my friend’s hand and tried to explain what life was like here. That the favoured attire this season for trips to the local shop was wellington boots, mud-splattered jeans, padded blue gilets, and thick filthy sweaters. In fact, if you made the effort to dress up, you’d probably get robbed.

‘No one here really gives a shit,’ I went on. ‘People drive without seatbelts, drive drunk, shoot dogs, shoot cats. Even shoot themselves when they get really bored — it happened to a guy up the road a few weeks ago. Boom…’

My friend edged towards the door, thinking of returning back to London as soon as possible. ‘It must be like living in the Middle Ages…’ he mumbled as he tried to get a phone signal while I stood there shaking my head, a mischievous grin creeping up the side of my face.

‘You’d be better off sending smoke signals,’ I mocked. ‘Or, if you’re desperate, trekking up the mud-clogged hill and trying from there.’

‘Do you have internet?’ he asked urgently, looking at me as though he was about to throw himself off a cliff. Maybe he’d forgotten to ask me before he booked his ticket if I actually had ‘The Internet’. My friend being one of those people who can’t leave the house unless there are at least a hundred mobile phone satellites pointing directly into his brain.

I feigned surprise for a few seconds just to get his blood pressure really racing. ‘Errr,’ I said. ‘Yeh. Sort of. But it’s unreliable and slow. And sometimes even goes off.’

My friend’s eyes glazed over as the word OFF almost sent him into a coma. In his world, nothing was OFF: TV, Phone, Internet, Laptop, Radio, Coffee Machine. Always ON. Always ready to GO.

‘But most of the time,’ I finally declared. ‘It’s OK.’

He let out a long, drawn-out sigh, as though he’d just found out his mother was going to live after some complicated brain surgery.

Later, over dinner and wine, he asked me why I’d swapped a life of London cafes and bars, for a life of Normandy cows and barns. ‘I find it odd you came here,’ he ventured, gently sipping the pricy Bourgogne I’d bought especially for his visit, to save him drinking the gut-churning stuff I normally drank.

‘Don’t you get bored?’ he asked gravely, as people do when what they mean to say is: I would be bored out of my fucking mind if I lived in this rathole!!

‘Not really,’ I answered. ‘I know I’m not going to be here forever, so I just try and enjoy the moment. Plus the stuff I do, like herd cows down country lanes, is the sort of shit people do on those stupid self-discovery courses. Or corporate away-days, where all those morons try to get closer to themselves.’

My friend reminded me that he was one of those corporate morons, and had actually been on an away-day, abseiling down the side of a 50-storey building for no reason whatsoever.

‘And did you enjoy it?’ I quizzed him.

‘Yes,’ he agreed. ‘But I wouldn’t want to do it every day; I’m scared of heights for one.’

After my friend had gone back to the capital, I thought about taking the lights down from the tree. Some deep-buried guilt ordering me to conform to some absurd custom I didn’t like. Maybe it was because my parents were coming in a few weeks time, and I was nervous about what they would say.

‘Shit Philip! You’ve still got your Christmas lights up! We took our decorations down weeks ago.’

‘Yes Mum, I know…’

And so I would have to go through the whole conversation again. It was draining enough explaining it to my friend. To my parents, it would be like trying to find a pulse in a corpse.

So what do I do? Lights off, or on?

Difficult decision.

Luckily, I’ve got three weeks to decide. And if you want to find out what happened, you can reread this in about mid-February. You’ll know the outcome because I’ll have changed the title.

Why I Keep My Christmas Tree Lights On All Year Round — Except When My Parents Visit


(Photo by Rodolfo Marques on Unsplash)

My Novel Le Glitch is out now here

Still off the Pills — Why I Haven’t Gone Back to Social Media

A few years ago I wrote a piece called Why I Canned Social Media. This is a follow-up piece – Like one of those What are they doing now? programmes you get on crappy daytime TV.

So how am I doing? Well, I’ve probably lost most of my friends and I don’t get invited out anymore. But apart from that, I’m fine.

To be honest though, most weren’t my friends anyway. They were just people I said YES to when a friend invite came up on Facebook. Luckily, I have my real friends, many of whom, I’ve developed a better relationship with since leaving social media, simply by using email. Or even seeing them in person. Remember that?

I’m also better humoured than I was before. And I laugh more. Especially when I read about 24-hour social media strikes. That gets me laughing! People protesting because they don’t like something Facebook or Twitter are doing, so they don’t use it for a day. Only to rush back the next to see how many LIKES they’ve got for advertising the fact they were going on a social media strike in the first place.

It’s nuts! It’s like boycotting a supermarket. But for one day only. And on the day you wouldn’t do your shopping anyway — like a Tuesday. I mean, if you’ve got a gripe about Facebook, why don’t you just delete it?

I sound like an ex-smoker haranguing smokers to stop smoking. And I know how utterly tedious it is, because I used to smoke, and hated people telling me to stop. I stopped purely for health reasons. Twenty years on the cigs hadn’t done my lungs any good, so I made the decision. And even though I still miss smoking nearly seven years on, I don’t regret leaving social media one bit. In fact, it’s probably one of the best things I’ve ever done. For one, I’ve got more time, and secondly, I don’t get that horrible sense of dread of wondering whether I’ve said the wrong thing. Or offended someone.

I’m quite a sensitive person, and sensitive people should not use social media. If you’re bullish and don’t give a shit about anything, fire away, comment like crazy, LIKE people’s lunch for eternity. But not if you are a fragile soul like myself. You’re just going to do yourself an injury.

The main reason I left Facebook was that I had the audacity to criticise my school (it was an old fashioned boarding school). I wrote a piece on my blog about bullying and advertised my thoughts. God! The vitriol I received from people I thought were my ‘friends’ was terrible. Sullying the good name of the school seemed to be the common thread. Being ungrateful, another. Being spoilt, another one. It was insane. Who defends a school? I mean, if what I was saying was a total lie, that might be fair enough. But this was the truth, and yet they couldn’t handle it.

I couldn’t handle it either. So I left Facebook. And I feel so much better now. And even the small things I miss on it, are far outweighed by not having to be conscious of what people might think, or might be saying about me. Not that it should matter. But if it does, and you are vulnerable, I really would advise deleting it.

I guarantee it, you’ll feel better. That’s a promise.

Of course, I still use the internet — I’m using it now — but I like to try and use it in a way that fits in with my personality: Unintrusive and quiet. Even the thought of that stupid red symbol Facebook has when you’ve got a like or a reply, makes me shiver. I don’t even have a Smartphone for the same reason. I don’t want to be connected 24/7. (I even wrote a piece about that too called Why I Don’t Have a Smartphone)

I’ve often thought of canning the whole internet thing. It’s very difficult to escape. But not impossible. To have nothing. No email. No bank. No online tax return. All possible, people do it all the time believe it or not. You just don’t read about it.

It’s a funny world we live in. And I’m thinking there might be two types of humans evolving side by side. The connected and the unconnected. Two sub-species of humankind, who don’t speak or communicate with each other, and who are totally oblivious to one another’s existence. Which is exactly how I feel when I enter a public place these days. You’ve only got to go into any bar, cafe, restaurant, town centre, shopping arcade, to see that most people are on their phones. Doing what? I’m not sure. I guess they are on social media or looking at the football, or the news. I mean what else would they be doing? Reading a book? Possibly. But unlikely.

In truth, I’m not sure what will happen, or where it will all go. We might just split into two species after all. One with a hand. The other with a phone.

(Photo by Marc Schaefer on Unsplash)

Why I Can’t Talk About Money (Ever!)

(Image/Josh Appel/Unsplash)
During my early thirties, I made the stupid mistake of completing a Masters degree in Creative Writing. I thought I was doing myself a favour, instead I just got into debt.

After I’d finished, I started writing small ads for a local newspaper in Bristol while the bills mounted up. I occasionally changed jobs, but my wages couldn’t keep up with the payments, so I filed for bankruptcy. Then my father found out.

‘Why didn’t you ask?’ he inquired. ‘I could have helped.’ He wasn’t rich, but generous enough to help out when someone in the family needed it.

‘Because I can’t talk about money, Dad.’

Still can’t.

Only last week during a job interview, I couldn’t get round to talking about money. And because my prospective boss didn’t mention it either, the matter seemed closed.

When I got back home and my wife asked me about wages, I just stood there like a dummy. ‘I don’t know,’ I mumbled. ‘I didn’t ask. The minimum I guess.’

This wasn’t the first time. Years ago, I’d worked for a guy selling Christmas trees. And yet three weeks into the job, I still didn’t know how much I was getting paid for standing around in a freezing cold car park selling half-dead conifers.

As time passed, I became more terrified. Each morning I wanted to ask, but as soon as I saw him thumping about the yard like a bulldog with his equally terrifying son, the fear overtook me, and I got on with the job.

I mean, who does this? What loser works for three weeks without knowing how much he’s getting paid? True, my boss was a fierce bastard you wouldn’t want to be up against in a bar brawl — unless you wanted your arms and legs broken. But was I always going to be the coward hiding under the table?

By the time Christmas Eve rolled around (it’s amazing the number of trees sold on the 24th), I still hadn’t asked, and the matter was only resolved when he palmed me a nice roll of twenties. ‘Bet you thought I wasn’t going to pay you, eh?’ he ribbed me.

‘Ha! Not at all,’ I laughed it off, practically fainting from exhaustion and mental fatigue.

When I recovered and started looking for another job after New Year, I vowed never to let the same situation happen again. And yet here I was, almost ten years later, doing exactly the same thing. Attaching no more worth to myself than a man walking up the thirteen steps to the gallows. Even killers had a price on their head — I didn’t even have that.

I had to fix this situation. The thought of starting another job with this kind of uncertainty would kill me — I may as well start knotting the noose myself. Which was why I was standing outside my new employer’s office the following morning knocking on his door.

‘Come in,’ came his reply.

I waited a few seconds, then walked in. He was at his desk, looking straight at me as though he’d been waiting for me all night. I hadn’t slept a wink either due to the worry, so I told him why I was here.

My boss eyeballed me. ‘I’m sorry, didn’t I mention it? It’s the minimum hourly rate. Is that OK?’

I was about to say, ‘That’s fine.’ When a thought opened up in my mind. Was I meant to wrangle here? Was this what normal people did? Negotiate?

On the few occasions I’d bought something at a private sale, the vendors had always looked shocked when I’d paid the asking price. I once bought a van for 900 quid. It was a total wreck. I knew it, the seller knew it, everyone in the entire world knew it. But I paid the owner anyway. Four months later, I sold it for scrap.

‘Could we go for twelve?’ I asked my boss. I was sweating now, this was new territory for me.

‘I could do ten fifty,’ he proposed.

I breathed in. ‘Eleven.’

The boss paused, then shrugged, then pretended to look at some data or chart on his desk, which I saw was actually a blank sheet of paper. ‘OK. Fair enough. See you Monday.’

As I walked home, I felt elated, my pride restored. For once I wasn’t walking into a job with a rope around my neck. And even though I’d only negotiated £1 more, it felt like a million. As though all my numbers had come in at once. I’d overcome something big. Some error in my programming that I’d been carrying around with me for years, had been miraculously rectified. Just like that. Just by being bold.

I’d even enjoyed it and was secretly looking forward to the next interview. Which, if my past job record was anything to go by, wouldn’t be too far away. What would I say? Something like this perhaps:

‘Hi, thanks for inviting me in for the interview. Look, I don’t want to be rude, but before we start, can we please talk about money.’


My novel Le Glitch - a story about getting lost - is out now! Click here for details

The Dead Art of Letter Writing

Last Saturday while reading What am I doing here by Bruce Chatwin in the bath, I was struck by the thought: When was the last time I wrote a letter?

When I lived and worked on a farm in Provence in 1994, I had no phone, no radio, no TV, and of course no internet. Only a guitar, cigarettes, wine, and a cat, whose name I can’t remember (Pascal, perhaps), to entertain me. I used to write regularly to my parents and my friends, and always looked forward to receiving a letter back. It was an incredible event.

I remember the yellow La Poste van rolling slowly up the rutted driveway at about ten-thirty in the morning to deliver the mail to the farm’s owner and some of the other workers who lived there. About once a week (strangely it was always on a Saturday) there would be a letter for me. Either a brown manila envelope from my father, posted from his office, or small, cheaply-made white envelopes from my friends.

I used to save it until the evening and open the envelope under the ancient olive tree in the yard, reading it many times over. Laugh and reminisce and sometimes want to be back in Nottingham with my friends going out on the town, drinking and meeting girls.

Then I would go into the cavernous kitchen of the farm to cook some strange Anglo-French concoction — normally a steak sandwich with brown sauce — and settle down to my reply. Sometimes writing five or six sides of A4 about my life on the farm or things I was looking forward to on returning to England. I would then address it and get excited about posting it in the village on the Monday, which I went to anyway to buy cigarettes.

Now I think about it, it wasn’t really the news or the puerile banter in the letter that counted, but the process of sending the letter. The writing of it, addressing it, sticking on the stamp, walking to the post office in the village. The routine was far greater than what I had to say to my friends— I could have drawn doodles for all I cared. True, I may not have got many replies, except for, ‘Are you OK out there?’ But the ritual of traipsing down to the post office to converse in my mangled French with the postmistress once a week was priceless.

For my brother and sister, who are fifteen years younger than me, the idea of communicating by letter with their friends, is utterly ludicrous. They’ve never done it; there’s never been the necessity. So why would they?

By the time they reached the age of nineteen (the age I was in Provence), the internet and the smartphone ruled, and letter writing became something their parents did — or their older brother. The very time-consuming process of writing on real paper, addressing it and walking down to the post office belongs, in their minds, to the Middle Ages.

The only exception I guess is the Christmas card. But rarely do these contain any pearls of wisdom except a photo of a robin and Happy Christmas scrawled inside. Love Bob and June xxx

When I did return to England after my adventures in Provence, email, texts, and mobile phones were much more in abundance, and I never really experienced that joy again. I wrote letters, but the frequency decreased until one day I must have written my last letter.

And that’s what I was thinking about in the bath last Saturday. When was this? When did I write a letter addressed to a person I know? To be honest I have no idea. Bar job applications, paying bills, or sending documents out, it must be twenty years since I wrote a personal letter. And I miss it.

And brings me back to a topic that floats around my head most days. Has technology made life better?

I can actually make a good comparison here. Because as it happens, I’m living on a farm in France right now. Alas, not in Provence, but in rainy Normandy. But I’m still on a remote farm, and if I was here in 1994, things I guess would be very similar.

Except now I’ve got the internet, TV, films, and two mobile SIM cards (although I haven’t got a Smartphone). True, the reception and internet reliability isn’t great, but I can still phone, write and converse with people pretty much instantaneously

A yellow La Poste van still comes up the lane a few times a week (not the same one obviously), but it isn’t carrying handwritten letters anymore. Oh no, today the postman’s arms are filled with supermarket advertisements, bills and Amazon parcels. There are no badly scrawled letters from my friends giving me the latest news and gossip. No firm instructions from my father to keep working hard and keep learning French. Now it’s just photos of people’s lunch on Facebook.

I blame myself though. I could write a letter, and I often ask myself, why don’t I? But it would feel strange, wouldn’t it? People might actually think I’ve gone crazy (again).

They might ask: ‘Philip? Why are you writing letters? Haven’t you heard of the internet?’

‘Yes, I have,’ I would fiercely reply. ‘That’s why I’m writing you a letter.’

I’m 45 now and a long time has passed since those letter-writing days of Provence — pre-email, pre-mobile phone, pre-social media. Sitting under the olive tree in the sunshine looking at the ants crawl over the baked ground reading letters from my friends. Now I just get an annoying beep to read someone is going to the movies or a new restaurant. Great, I think! Why don’t you tell me about it in a letter, it might be more interesting?

Le Glitch by Philip Ogley is out now. Click here

How French Rural Life Inspired a Novelist

In August 2014, I gave up my job teaching English in Lyon to housesit a farm in Vienne and write a novel. I wasn’t particularly looking for the literary good life. I just wanted a break from the city.

Six months later I finished it. But the elation was short-lived. I didn’t like it at all, so I filed it away in the deep recesses of my computer marked ‘Unfinished’ and started chopping wood instead.

I wasn’t too upset though. I’d thoroughly enjoyed the process: waking up early every morning to write in one of the empty rooms while the sun rose up from the small wood in front of the house. The way I could walk down the hill to the village on a foggy morning and feel like I was walking off the edge of the earth. Because let’s face it, there are few places in the world (from my experience anyway) as quiet (or as beautiful) as rural France in winter.

Sad to leave the farmhouse when the owners returned, and eager to avoid returning to the teaching treadmill, I ended up doing a series of short house sits in Gascony, Aude and the Ariège. Each one more remote than the last. I started wondering whether reintegration back into modern life might be hard. Or even impossible. Not realising that just around the corner was my toughest assignment yet…

In October 2017, I was offered the chance to look after a chateau for the winter in Tarn-et Garonne. The village was called Auty, population 86, and during my first week I saw no one. Just a dog and a herd of deer trotting up the road as though off to a meeting. In my second week, I met the postman, plus a couple of kids on mopeds careering down the hill towards the town of Caussade ten kilometres away.

It was odd. It wasn’t even that remote. The A20 autoroute was only eight kilometres away. Toulouse, one of the biggest cities in France, only an hour’s drive. And yet here in Auty, especially when the snow fell, it felt like I was somewhere far north.

It made me ask myself, what was I doing here? After that first house-sit on the farm, I’d fully intended to go back to my job in Lyon. Now, nearly three years later, the thought of going back to teach the present perfect over and over again just so I could afford a box flat in Guillotière was about as appealing as sawing my own foot off. So I decided to start another novel.

Over that winter I toiled away using one of the rooms high up in the chateau, hoping I could get it right this time. It was cold and isolated and eerie. The chateau was over 250 years old and at times I was sure there was more than one set of ghosts rushing up and down the ancient stairs, getting ready for a party that had taken place over two centuries ago.

The book was finished in March 2017, entitled “Right Time Right Place”. Mainly because I thought I had got it right this time. I was wrong. On reading it through, I wasn’t happy, so once again I filed it away under ‘Unfinished’. I joined the local cycle club in Caussade instead of bemoaning my latest failure.

The Caussade Cyclo Club: A club full of eccentric French cyclists who go out in any weather on a Sunday morning and ride as fast as possible so they could all get back in time for lunch.

On one of our crazed Sunday sorties, round about the time I’d pretty much ditched any notion of ever writing another novel, I had a new idea. We’d stopped to refill our water bottles from the fountain in the quaint village of Bach about 20 kilometres from Cahors. It was May and it was hot, even for ten o’clock, but apart from a group of cyclists dressed in lycra, there wasn’t a soul in sight. I wasn’t particularly surprised of course; I was used to it — I lived in Auty! But as I waited for everyone to finish filling their bottles, I started wondering what would happen if there were more people here.

What if, for example, through some strange glitch, people started mysteriously coming to this desolate village in rural France. All arriving hungry and thirsty with only a drinking fountain for sustenance and a load of crazed cyclists for company. What would happen then? And was there a story in this?

When I got back to the chateau after the ride, and without even changing, I frantically wrote my idea down. I started typing it up and didn’t stop until I had got down a rough draft. Two years later Le Glitch was published…

See my page ‘Le Glitch’ for more details here

(Images and words © 2019 Philip Ogley)

Why I Don’t Have a Smartphone.

On a recent visit to see me in France, my friend asked me if he could borrow my phone for a minute. His was out of battery and he needed to check something. I handed him mine.

‘What’s this?’ he asked.

‘My phone. It’s quite smart. It only cost €5. It’s even got a radio.’

He looked at me in utter disbelief. I hadn’t seen him for a few years so he couldn’t work out whether I was joking or I simply hadn’t caught up with modern life.

‘But it doesn’t even have internet,’ he complained pressing the thick plasticky keys of my Logitech D34.

‘No, it doesn’t,’ I declared. ‘But it does have a torch, so at least I can see where I’m going.’

Once he’d got over the initial shock, he congratulated me, telling me he would love to live without his phone, but sadly, he couldn’t.

‘Why not?’ I asked. I wasn’t trying to be smug or clever; I was simply interested.

‘Because it’s got everything on it,’ he admitted. ‘I mean everything, bank details, work schedules, films, photos, my diary, passwords, my life. If I lost it, I’d be screwed. Even leaving home without it sends me into a mild panic. I sometimes have to drive back home just to retrieve it. It’s like a drug I know.’

‘More wine?’ I asked.

I poured him another glass as we tucked into our confit du canard, which I’d lovingly cooked from the tin. ‘Mmm.’ He licked his lips. ‘Very good. I mean, down our way you can’t even order a pizza unless you’ve got the App! I can’t even remember the last time I actually spoke on the phone. I just communicate via Messenger or WhatsApp.’

‘I prefer email,’ I added. ‘Or the old fashioned landline.’

My friend burst out laughing. ‘That’s why I can never get in touch with you. Who uses a landline these days? Next you’ll be writing letters.’

We laughed and discussed more fantastical scenarios involving the future of technology, and what would happen if one day it all got turned off and we were all forced to write letters again. Then finally, we got onto my novel, Le Glitch.

‘So? I asked him tentatively, slugging back a glass of red Saumur so lacking in body it felt like I was drinking Shloer. ‘What did you think?’

He got my book out of his bag and held it in his hand like he was taking an oath. ‘I haven’t read it,’ he quickly admitted. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘What!’ I exploded. ‘What do you mean, you haven’t read it? You said you would. What were you doing on the train down here? You could have probably finished it, you’re a fast reader, aren’t you? Plus it’s quite pacy — or so I’m told by people who have read it.’

‘I’m sorry, I got distracted.’

‘By what? The view?’

He looked sheepish. I’d known this guy since school and he always looked the same when he’d been caught out. His face muscles tightened and his mouth dropped open like a dead fish, signalling he was about to tell the truth. ‘I’ve just started seeing this new girl, you know how it is. Messaging and texting and before I knew it, I was at the station. It’s why my phone is out of battery. I’ll read it tomorrow.’

Then I had an idea. ‘No, you’ll read it now,’ I barked. ‘I’m not going to give you the internet code until you’ve read the book. And seeing as there’s no mobile signal around here for miles, I suggest you get reading. Unless you want to start writing letters. In that case the post goes at about eleven o’clock in the morning twice a week. But as the postman rarely shows up, you might have to resort to smoke signals to contact your girl. Your choice.’

My friend looked back at me. No internet. No mobile phone signal. His world had suddenly collapsed in on itself, casting him into a sea of impenetrable darkness. ‘But but but,’ he pleaded. ‘Can I just text her to tell her I’ve arrived?’

‘No — get reading!’ I ordered. ‘It shouldn’t take you long. As I’ve said, it’s quite pacy.’

And with that my friend sat down in my armchair, filled up his glass of cheap Saumur, and opened the first page of my book and started reading.

Five hours later he was finished.

‘Well?’ I asked.

‘It’s good. Can I go to bed now?’

‘Oh.’ I looked astonished. ‘Don’t you want the code?’

‘The code?’

‘For the internet.’

My friend rubbed his tired eyes. ‘Nah. Forget it, it can wait till the morning. I’m going to bed. Night.’

(Phone Image/Mashiro Momo/Pixabay)

Le Glitch. A Novel

In April 2018 I started writing a novel. My third.

In the film Sightseers, there’s a bit in which one of the characters boasts about being on his third book. Then gets killed by the guy who’s writing his first. Watch it, it’s funny.

I’m probably not going to die, because this is really only my first book. The other two sit in dark corners on a computer file marked “For later.”

As the title suggests, this novel is about a glitch. A sudden, usually temporary malfunction of electrical equipment, that in this story, changes a man’s life forever.

It’s a classic storyline I admit: Man down on his luck. Just about to throw the towel in on his silly life. When a miracle strikes!

So what about the setting?

How about a deathly French village in the middle of nowhere. Call it Crêpe. Why not? Short, easy to remember. Much shorter than some of those French villages like  Saint-Remy-en-Bouzemont-Saint-Genest-et-Isson that take half an hour to pronounce. Plus Crêpe translates well into English: Crepe.

And the protagonist, this down-and-out joker? What does he do? Well, let’s make him the Mayor of this rathole. Call him Jean Marc Bulot. Bulot’s good. French for sea snail. Slow moving, idle , lazy.

Next throw in a smattering of useless friends. A drunk, a depressive, a half-arsed janitor, a retired English nurse, a crazed old school teacher. Suddenly we’ve got a cast.

What else? How about a rival village?

Ventrèche: A smouldering cesspit of hatred, bad blood and jealousy that’s been at war with Crêpe since the Middle Ages.

And the bad guy? Enter Michel Arnold, the Mayor of Ventrèche. A real slimeball who wears cowboy boots and a Stetson even though he’s nearly seventy (and French). What a clown!

So we’re all set for Le Glitch.

OUT NOW
Paperback
UK: £6.99
US: $8.99
FR: €8.43* 

Puffballs for Breakfast

At around eight thirty after dinner I usually take a walk around the farm Elizabeth and I are currently looking after. Part of the fun is feeding the fallen apples to the cows. Over the past few weeks they seem to have got addicted to them, and pursue us across the fields, their mouths drooling.
It was on this occasion yesterday, as I was attempting to escape the rampant beasts, that I stumbled, quite literally, upon a giant puffball (Calvatia Gigantea) nestled under one of the many apple trees that litter the farmlands.

I had once eaten one at school. Rather bizarrely our physics teacher brought one into class and cooked it on a camping stove during the lesson. Apparently it was part of the laws of thermodynamics module, but I can’t remember the exact context – Everything is created: everything is destroyed (eaten), perhaps…?

Remembering Mr. Mitchell’s culinary introduction to Isaac Newton, I yanked the football-sized mushroom from the ground and carried it home via a trek up High Field, across a small river and down through the apple orchards. When I arrived home, it was still intact.

Despite its resemblance to a brain, it smelt gorgeous. Like a slightly peppered steak.

‘Breakfast tomorrow!’ I exclaimed to Elizabeth enthusiastically.

Her eyes rolled upwards as she recalled the near poisoning incident we had with some misidentified field mushrooms a few years ago. In that instance I picked yellow stainers instead of field mushrooms and needed the bathroom rather quickly after wolfing down a plate of mushroom stroganoff. I was alright in the end, mild gut ache, but I’ve been a little wary of wild mushrooms ever since.

This time though I was sure. Why? Because puffballs are probably the most easily identifiable mushrooms on the planet. They are big and when sliced lengthways they are white and spongy, and have the texture of soft suede leather.

Yes it is true that when they are smaller they can be confused with amanata which are deadly. However when a puffball is sliced open it will be pure white with no internal structures or gills whatsoever – it is literally like slicing through a large ball of mozzarella cheese. Plus when puffballs are this size, it is highly unlikely to be anything else.**

As you can see, it’s lovely white. (If it’s discoloured, don’t eat it as it’s no longer edible.)

Next slice it into cubes like you might do with tofu or pieces of steak or courgette.

Slice 3 cloves of garlic and fry it all up with butter or oil for about 5-10 minutes. Like this:

Et voila, breakfast, with toast of course.

What does it taste like?

It’s clearly a mushroom. But it has a distinct meaty taste, almost like veal. Or even monkfish. It’s hard to describe. It’s certainly not chalky like tofu. Neither is it succulent like fish. It’s a bit slimy – like chicken legs – but it is filling and mildly satisfying.

When I was eating it, I imagined it roasted. Or even made into soup. It’s more of a camping food I guess. Pitching a camp and foraging for a nice puffball, even though it’s availability is limited to late summer/early autumn. Plus they are not that easy to find. While not rare, finding one this big isn’t common.

Best thing is to try it for yourself. It’s out now in a field near you!

Giant Puffball – Calvatia Gigantea

 

(** P.S. I am not an expert. This was my own personal identification using my own knowledge and research. Please do the same if unsure. Thanks.)

The Swimming Lake

Hello.

After spending six months back in the UK, I’ve finally come back to France. To Normandy to look after a farm. How long I’m not quite sure. Maybe enough time to finish a novel?

Yesterday was hot. Very hot, so I spent it in the small lake we have here. More a large pond. Later I made a short film accompanied by music someone recorded in a street in Nantes. Where I am is about 300 kilometres from Nantes so there’s very little connection. Except that it’s in France.

For those of you who’ve never read this blog, it started out in Lyon in 2011. Then it was called BLOGLEY and was about living in Lyon. Since then it’s become a general platform for stories, travel articles, short films, audio pieces, and general pieces about nothing in particular.

So if you have a few minutes of your life to waste you might want to browse some posts. Or you could even buy the book: A Man in France by clicking on the photo of bottles of wine and cans of beer opposite —->

If not, this 60 second film with music from Nantes pretty much sums it all up.

The Mailman Milkman Affair

This is a short story about a good old fashioned punch up between a milkman and a postman on a Bristol common. While this event is fictional, it may have happened at some point in the past. Listen or download the audio version below or read the text. Or both?

I was walking across the park the other day when I saw a postman and a milkman boxing on the section of grass normally reserved for cricket.

They were still wearing their uniforms: white jacket and black trousers for the milkman. Blue trousers and red polo shirt for the postman.

A small crowd had even gathered. Passersby drawn from their daily lives to watch this strange spectacle being fought out on a damp municipal park in North Bristol. As though a page had been ripped out of a fairytale and blown on the wind to this part of town. Picked up by the protagonists and played out as best they could without props or a stage.

Whatever it was – improvised theatre or simply an ongoing feud – I was as transfixed as everyone else and it didn’t take long before people started taking sides.

‘Go on postie! Come on milkman!’ came the shouts as more and more people joined the crowd.

Whether the fighters heard any of this or were simply intent on getting the fight over, so perhaps they could go home, they both seemed to raise their game. The blows becoming faster and more direct until moments later the postman caught the milkman on the jaw with a fierce right hook. Sending him down onto the compacted earth of the cricket square with a loud thud.

But he wasn’t down for long and once they had restarted some shifty character in a flat cap and thick grey trousers started taking bets.

Most of the initial money seemed to be going on the postman, but I wasn’t convinced. While the mailman was certainly the younger and fitter of the two and had already floored the milkman once, the dairyman definitely had the weight advantage. And I was sure he needed only one good hit to finish the contest.

By now there must have been over a hundred people round the ring with money changing hands faster than a Vegas showdown. The bookmaker wasn’t stupid either and quickly realised that in order to maximise his takings he needed to prolong the fight for as long as possible.

He quickly ran into the ring to split the fighters up and announced to the excited spectators that there would be a two minute interval. Slightly bewildered, the two fighters went to opposing corners where some people who seemed to have a knowledge of boxing started relaying tactics and splashing water over their faces.

I’d never gambled before in my life, but if ever there was a time to take a punt, it was now. I waved a ten pound note in the air and immediately a small boy forced his way through the crowd towards me. The boy, no more than nine years old and who had clearly been commandeered by the bookie as  his skivvy, snatched the tenner out of my hand and asked who I was for: Postie or Milko – their official fight names.

I told him my bet and he quickly scampered back to his master to place it. Someone who’d been a boxing referee at one time or other volunteered his services and the bookmaker, who was now all-round promoter, manager and gangmaster, happily obliged him.

What was certain on that Monday morning was that no-one was going anywhere. This was high entertainment.

The fighters were greeted by a huge roar as they bounded back into the ring looking revitalised and eager to go.

‘Milko!’ screamed the fans of the dairyman against the opposing yells of ‘Postie!’ from the mailman’s followers.

Both fighters were now stripped down to their trousers making the whole scene feel like an old French short story set on the damp plains of the Solonge or the Vendee. Two  story-book characters fighting over land, a girl, money, a pig. Who knows? – I was pretty sure no one had bothered to ask them.

Despite their initial enthusiasm the opening encounters to the second round were fairly tame with neither fighter taking any unnecessary risks. This didn’t please the hyped-up crowd and a few boos rang out around the arena. The fighters took their cue and the blows started to rain in much to the delight of the braying mob.

And then Bang! Postie’s guard went down allowing Milko – just as I’d predicted – to slam a perfectly weighted left hook into his opponent’s face. Blood spurting out from a deep cut under his eye as he went down to the floor.

The referee started counting. One – Two – Three, triggering a riotous roar from Postie’s supporters urging him to get up. Four – Five – Six. Postie was hardly moving though. Seven – Eight. The roar became louder and slowly Postie began to get to his feet. Nine! Postie stood on one leg and then after what seemed like an age, finally forced the other one up, until he was standing tall and ready to fight. A giant roar went up from everybody. Nobody wanted this to finish yet.

When the battle recommenced each man was giving it his all. The punches were coming in from all sides as each fighter pushed for the final victory. The noise level increased as the supporters demanded a knockout. Especially as I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be long before the police turned up. Some idiot jobsworth concluding enough fun had been had for one day.

After about another minute of frenetic action, the fighters started to tire. Their work rate dropped and they seemed to be content to lock arms and hug each other, occasionally delivering the odd punch to prove they were still interested.

The crowd egged them on, trying to push one of them on for a final knockout. But they were done. Who knows how long they had been fighting for. They could have been at it for hours, days, years.

So when they finally collapsed to the ground, embraced like two lovers in a tragedy, a huge roar erupted over the park.

And then, just as quickly as they’d arrived, everyone drifted away. Leaving the two fighters, the referee and the bookmaker in the ring.

At first I couldn’t understand why nobody had asked for their money back – it was clearly a draw. It was only when I saw the bookmaker take his roll of money from his pocket and stuff it in between the bloodied bodies of the fighters that I got it.

And then like everyone else I walked away leaving a postman and a milkman lying on the ground, the best of friends. Two men who’d given several hundred people a marvellous morning’s entertainment.

Copyright Philip Ogley 2019

The Mailman Milkman Affair taken from The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd. Available here

Being a Holiday Rep

I work in France near the town of Sarlat in the region known as Perigord Noir. I’m English but I don’t feel English. I don’t feel particularly French either. I’m just grateful to have a job as it isn’t easy finding work round here. I only got it because the last guy crashed the van into a barrier above the town of St. Cyprien and I was the only one who applied to take his place. The French I’ve learnt can be very superstitious. I’m not in the slightest and had no bones about stepping into a dead man’s shoes.

I move bags for a living. From hotel to hotel, hotel to hotel, hotel to hotel, every day except Sundays and Thursdays. People on high-end gastronomic walking holidays, sometimes cycling, occasionally canoeing. Outdoor enthusiasts who want to get from A to B without an engine or the inconvenience of carrying anything. Sometimes they give me a tip at the end of their holiday. More often than not, they just say goodbye.

The work is pretty boring but I don’t have a boss poking his nose in every day to see what I’m up to because my boss is in England. It’s just me and a van and as long as I deliver the bags to the correct people in the correct hotel in the correct order, no one bothers me. Plus when I do get tips, especially if the customers are American, they’re quite big. One time I was handed a 100 Euro note, which I thought was a tenner. When I got home that evening I couldn’t believe my luck.

Today is Monday and I’m on the last part of my day, carrying fourteen bags up to the village of Tamnies in the northern section of my bag run. I’m running late as I was waiting for some incredibly slow Australian to repack his bag fifteen times in order to maximise space. That’s what he said anyway. I think he was doing it to piss me off. As a result, I’m pulling the van around the tight corners of the Perigord roads like I’m racing a dodgem round a crazy golf course. Keeping to the middle of the road as much as possible to save time. My van’s big and white so most people get out of my way except English and Dutch motorhome drivers who hold their nerve until the last minute before swerving into the verge.

I rev the van hard round another tight hairpin, rolling the suitcases in the back violently over to the right. ‘Hope you don’t have a bottle of plum brandy in that carefully repacked bag of yours,’ I say looking into the windscreen mirror at the pile of luggage behind me.

Then I notice it. A small red rucksack has made its way to the top like it’s come up for air. It’s unusual because one, people don’t use rucksacks any more, and two, most luggage these days is ten times the size. Suitcases the width and height of small houses stacked up each morning outside their hotel rooms like sentinels. Packed with wine and brandy ready for the hapless porter to shift to the next hotel.

‘Thanks for that,’ I often say under my breath, my spine bent over like a crane as I drag a fifteen tonne case up five flights of stairs in a hotel built before the revolution. ‘You all enjoy your stay, yeh. Don’t forget me when I’m sitting in my wheelchair in five years time.’

The red rucksack in comparison is tiny. A 15 litre daypack with a couple of notebook-sized pockets stitched onto the outside, big enough to pack in a picnic and a bottle of wine. Just.

‘Strange,’ I mutter to myself, looking into the mirror again, narrowly missing an ancient Renault the size of an egg box chugging along in the opposite direction. ‘I don’t remember packing you, where did you come from?’

I look at the bag once more, give myself a weak Gallic shrug and continue powering towards Tamnies hoping I can do a quick unpack, an even quicker repack and set off towards Sarlat for the last drop of the day before three o’clock.

I get there at four. The result of some bloated angry man at Tamnies claiming I’d damaged his gigantic Samsonite suitcase, even though I know through experience they’re practically indestructible. His complaint centring around a tiny scratch to the huge gold embossed logo on the topside of the case. A mark so minute it was actually harder to see it than not see it. Like a bent blade of grass in an otherwise perfectly manicured lawn. Invisible to the naked eye unless you got down on your knees with a magnifying glass.

I reminded him of the reasonable wear ‘n’ tear clause written into his holiday agreement, but if he had any further grievances he could fill in the online complaint form. Failing that he could claim on his insurance. That didn’t please him one bit and he continued to make a scene in front of the four other people present in the reception: his wife, his daughter, the hotel receptionist and me.

There was nothing wrong with his bag. A monkey could figure that out. It was probably scratched before he bought it from the shit retail park near his Lego brick house. Or scuffed when he took it out of his Toyota Rav4 in front of his neighbours and plonked it onto his granite gravel driveway like an elephant unloading a gigantic turd.

He accused me of being lazy and deceitful. Then a liar and a coward. Then a man who couldn’t own up to his own mistakes. It was quite a show I have to admit, but I couldn’t understand who his intended audience was. His wife, his daughter? A tired receptionist? A bored porter? Were we the only people he dared have a pop at or show off to? Would it be the same if other guests were around, or his boss, or his colleagues? I doubt it. He’d look like a total idiot with everybody bending down on their knackered knees peering through their bifocals at some nonexistent scratches.

After thinking about it, I concluded that all the bravado was for his benefit. To pump his ego up so he could face another day. It probably happened all the time, which was why his wife and daughter looked so utterly indifferent, and simply let him get on with it.

I eventually placated him by giving him a paper copy of the complaint form in a prepaid envelope. It was either that or slamming a heavy oak coat stand into his soft flabby skull. I then bid him goodbye, threw his trunk of a suitcase violently into the back of the van and set off towards Sarlat, cursing the day people started thinking they were superior the moment they went on holiday.

Once there, I ask the Irish born French receptionist, who refuses to speak English to me on the grounds that improving my French will lead to a better future, if she knows who the red bag belongs to. She tells me she doesn’t.

‘If I’d seen it, I’d have remembered it,’ she adds in her soft French-Irish accent, which if it were a drink would be a cocktail of Baileys and Medoc.

‘It’s not labelled either. Idiots,’ I reply in my Yorkshire-French. A mixture of bitter and pastis.

She advises me to put it in the left luggage room with all the other crap customers leave behind at the end of their holiday. I nod and wonder if there’s anything in the bag worth having. It’s an unwritten rule that at the end of the season, I can take whatever is not claimed. Clothes, hats, phones, books, wine, shoes, liquors, sometimes cameras, even laptops, all find their way into my apartment come the end of September.

I’ve hardly bought clothes since I’ve been here. Which will be nearly five years in June. Luckily customers never return to do the same holiday twice, so there isn’t the fear of running into someone wearing their Ralph Lauren polo shirt from the year before. Furthermore, this access to designer yachty fashion does generate better tips. As though the outgoing customers feel the moral obligation to tip the going rate for expensively dressed porters.

So what’s in the bag? This is all I can think about as I drive home. Tomorrow is my day off as the holidaymakers are given a free day on Tuesdays and Fridays to mope around the pool at the hotel or visit the sites. I normally go to the cinema and then to a restaurant. Like most people my days off are precious and I like to put them to good use. Cinema, a good meal, sometimes a walk, or a cycle, or I just read. I rarely watch TV, occasionally football or a film.

As I plate up some spaghetti bolognaise and sprinkle some parmesan over it, I decide I have to see what’s inside the rucksack. I don’t know why, it seems ludicrous to be even contemplating it, but it’s created such a draw in me that the thought of not looking seems worse than doing it. I get like this sometimes, I suppose compulsive is the word.

I finish my dinner and drive up to the hotel. It’s eight o’clock and in the van I think of a story to tell the receptionist when I get there. ‘That red bag,’ I’ll tell her. ‘Well it belongs to the Hunt/Thornton party in Tamnies, they’ve just phoned me. It’s got their damn medication in it. I’m going to have to run it up. Have you got the key for the store room?’

The story will probably sound wooden and unconvincing as I’m a bad liar, but hopefully by this point in her shift she’ll be looking forward to going home. She looks tired most of the time and at eight o’clock on a Wednesday evening, she’ll be too exhausted to spot anything suspicious.

‘Hi,’ I say smiling broadly as I enter the hotel. ‘That bag…’

Ten minutes later, I’m in the van driving home again, the red bag sitting beside me like a child. I even strapped it in using the seatbelt in case it slid out onto the floor with my erratic driving. I don’t know why I’m doing this or what has possessed me, but I’m glad I have because I’m totally bored with this job and if I get sacked, so be it.

My friend Adam once found a camera in an old shoe box in the attic of the expensive flat he’d rented after moving down from Nottingham to London for a banking job. Three years later, he’s an award winning travel photographer who lives out of a rucksack wherever there’s a photograph worth taking. I’m hoping for something similar. There’s only so many movies at the Sarlat cinema I can watch and the food at the restaurant I go to has gone downhill recently. I’m sick of driving, sick of pasta, and fairly sick of myself to be honest. It’s time I did something else.

I get back home and place the bag on the table in the kitchen. I’d be happy with a camera. A great book by an author I’ve never heard of would also be good. Or a pair of walking boots. A block of mouldy cheese or a bottle of old wine would be a disappointment. So would a computer or clothes. Or toiletries.

I hold my breath, unfasten the two straps and open the top. Nothing. Empty save for the bag’s receipt. Walmart, Sainte-Foy, Quebec City, $34.99. The weight of the bag was deceptive I realise, its heaviness due to the thickness of the material. I check the pockets, but there’s nothing in them either except dust. It’s clearly been used and my guess is that it belongs to the Fournier/Defosse party who left two weeks ago after a week of cycling in torrential rain.

For a few seconds, I’m not sure what to do. I’d been expecting something more. Something more tangible to grab hold of. I ponder the situation for a few minutes and then I get it. Of course! This is exactly what I’ve been waiting for and I almost missed it. I give myself a great big smile in the mirror above my fireplace and start packing.

Passport, bank cards, a couple of books, laptop, two changes of clothes, notebook and pen. Everything fits into the red bag perfectly. I put on my shoes, walk out of my flat and drive to Paris. Two days later I’m in Quebec.

*

‘And that’s about it,’ I say to the bartender as he wipes the bar clean for the hundredth time. He’s bored out of his mind I can tell, but I had to tell him.

‘Is it true?’ he finally asks pretending to wring the cloth out in the sink even though it’s practically dry.

‘Of course, it’s true. Look, I’ve got the red bag to prove it,’ I say picking up the now faded rucksack from the stool beside me and showing him. ‘Been all over the world with this.’

‘What are you going to do now?’ he asks filling his own glass up from the pump. ‘Hit the road again?’

‘I’m not sure.’

He stares at me intensely as he drinks his beer. ‘Think you’ll come back?’

‘To live you mean?’ I ask looking at some old faded pictures of the Town Hall screwed onto the pub wall.

‘I could offer you a job if you want. For the time being at least, however long you want. Start tomorrow even.’

I finish my beer and put the glass firmly on the bar as though I’m putting down a mark. ‘I’ll think about it.’

‘It’s not that bad here you know.’

‘Yeah,’ is all I manage to say. ‘I’d better go, haven’t seen my folks yet, they’re waiting for me.’ I stand up and sling the red bag over my shoulder with intent. ‘It’s good to see you again, Mike. It’s been a while.’

Outside I start walking to my parents’ house a few roads up. Walking through the red brick terraced streets, the same ones I played on as a kid. Firing plastic arrows at the old people, water bombs, footballs through windows, hot summer nights riding BMXs all rush back to me. Not many of the old gang are here anymore Mike told me. ‘Most left and went away to London to find money and didn’t return,’ he’d said.

As I slowly walk up my old street, past Mr. Singh’s grocery store that still has the rusty metal sign advertising Blue Riband biscuits above the door, I feel for the first time in four years that I don’t know what to do. I feel tired. Hungry, incredibly hungry. Probably the alcohol wearing off, or the thought of Blue Riband biscuits. Do they still make them, I wonder. Or is the sign a relic of the past. Like Mike and his pub. I could take the job he’s offered me. Live at my parents and settle back down to life in Leeds.

I knock on the door and my mother answers it, tears welling up in her eyes, my father standing behind her, shorter than I remember him. Older. Frailer. My mother hugs me and I can’t help the tears either. I mutter the words, ‘Sorry’ as I press my face into the thick woollen cardigan she’s worn forever.

She lets me pass into the narrow hallway where I embrace my father who’s struggling for words because I know he’s probably missed me more than my mum. I say sorry to him as well and how well Leeds Utd are getting on even though we both know they’re crap.

I follow them into the kitchen where I can smell pork chops and sour tea. ‘We thought you weren’t coming,’ says my father drying his eyes pretending it’s just a spot of hayfever.

‘Sorry, I went to see old Mike down the pub, he offered me a job.’

My mother’s eyes widen like the shutters of a million windows opening at once, her green irises expanding like balloons, a huge smile spreading across her face. ‘Are you going to take it?’ she says a little too quickly. ‘You could have your old room back. If you want to.’

I’ve already made the decision so there’s no point in fudging it. ‘I said no to Mike, it’s a short visit I’m afraid.’

I can see their disappointment. My mother starts stirring the tea in the pot, desperately trying not to cry.

‘Oh well,’ says my father looking greyer than he did a few minutes ago. ‘As long as you’re happy, that’s the main thing.’

It’s the hardest decision I’ve ever made. I’ve turned down good job offers and business propositions over the last four years. Friendships and relationships that might have worked out if my heart had told me otherwise. But nothing compared to this. Declining the unconditional love of your parents when they need you the most.

‘How long are you staying?’ my mother asks recovering her composure.

‘A few weeks, if that’s OK.’

My father laughs. ‘Stay as long as you want, might get a few trips in to see Leeds, depending on how long you stay that is.’

‘I’d love to,’ I say smiling. All of a sudden the thought of going to Elland Road every week with my dad makes me want to stay forever.

‘You hungry?’ my mum asks as she plates up the chops and spuds.

‘Starving,’ I exclaim with a big beefy grin on my face.

We eat, we talk, and after the mandatory ten o’clock news, which is mainly about the ongoing strikes in France, I go to bed. In the few minutes before sleep overtakes me, all I can think about is going to the football every week with my dad. Those special days when we used to wake up late on a Saturday, have a big breakfast, talk about the match. Get dressed and walk to meet our friends down the pub. Go to the match, then back to the pub, then home for tea to talk about the match some more. Reliving every moment in the kitchen drinking tea and eating iced buns. As I drift into sleep, my last thought is that despite everything I’ve ever done in my life, nothing, absolutely nothing, compares to going to the football with my dad.

*For more stories see my books page

 

 

 

Why I Canned Social Media

I joined Facebook in 2009 and for ten years used it almost every day. Ten years of logging on to a web page to ‘like’ someone else’s lunch. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

I thought so. What an idiot.

It was fun for a while I admit. Hooking up with old friends, seeing what each other was up to. Conversing, joking, having a laugh. But then it got too serious and too silly. Too many photos of people’s dogs and children, too many petitions, polls and posters on stuff which didn’t interest me.

The very reason I stopped reading the news in the first place. Now it was being shoved down my throat. Suddenly Facebook had become a news channel in its own right. Personalised and branded news beamed right into my home.

I was a villain in this as much as anyone else. Posting my own self-congratulatory crap. Or links readvertising my book on France over and over again to MAKE SURE everybody saw it.

Buy A Man in France — It’s only been out for two years!

Once I was FB-free I felt lighter. The feeling was palpable, which is quite disturbing seeing as it’s just a website and proves, almost without a doubt, how stupidly addictive it is.

I also realised how much time I’d been wasting. Time I could put to better use, like looking blankly in the sky for instance. Thinking for myself.

Someone once coined Facebook “Boast Book”. I tend to agree, although it’s not necessarily a bad thing — we all show off, it’s part of human nature. But before I deleted my account I looked back at some of my postings. It’s pretty boring. Here’s a cycle/run I did today. Here’s my lunch? This is what I’m reading. I mean honestly, who really cares? Was I that insecure about myself that I couldn’t do anything without sharing it? When I look back now, I’m not really sure what the point of it is.

It didn’t take me long to delete my other social media sites. And last Friday I finally deleted Twitter. This was quite hard as I quite liked it even if I still don’t know how it works.

I can’t remember the number of times I’ve Googled “What is the difference between a reply and a mention.” Before concluding that it doesn’t really matter. Putting a full stop before a @ sign means more people might read that pointless fragment of information I’m posting than if I’d simply left it blank. Which I think I was craving for. A blank in my life. Just me again. And now I’ve turned it all off I feel like I’ve rejoined the real world. Even if everybody else hasn’t.

Last Christmas I worked in an Aldi warehouse as an order picker (I wrote a piece about that too here). At break times we all piled up to the canteen for coffee and cake. There was some lively banter on the way up — slagging off our bosses, goading one another, showing off about how much stock we’d nicked — you know, the usual stuff. However, as soon as we entered the cafeteria and got our coffees from the machine, everyone got out their phones. You could hear a pin drop.

I was the only one sitting there doing nothing — I haven’t got a smartphone either in case you’re wondering (perhaps that’s a boast). Simply looking out of the window drinking my coffee while everyone else was plugged in. I’m not passing judgement on my colleagues, I’m simply making a point. If I had a smartphone, I’d probably do the same. But I don’t so instead I sat there thinking of the pub I used to visit as a student in Nottingham.

It was called the Plumtree and on Thursday nights it was as raucous as hell. Jukebox on full, everybody tanked up, smoking and drinking, singing and talking. Everybody paying attention to each other and nothing else. No phones, no internet, no messengers, no social media.

I use technology. I read a Kindle. I’ve published books on Amazon and I use this site. I’m not anti-technology. I’m 45-years-old so I grew up with it, and yet I’m lucky enough to have lived in an age before it. When I could go to the pub like the Plumtree without the fear of being photographed cross-eyed and blind drunk in the corner. The image of my bedraggled self appearing around the world in seconds.

In 1994 if I took a camera down the Plumtree I would be considered really weird and unless it was my birthday would have probably been kicked out:

“Got some pervert here with a camera photographing everyone — you’re barred.”

I don’t think social media is bad — for a small business, it’s quite useful. But neither do I think it’s good. And I have the feeling (a strong feeling in fact) that as we creep towards the third decade of the century people will start turning off — if they haven’t already. Finding more innovative and fun ways of keeping in touch and promoting business. We might all go back to writing letters to each other. Imagine that?

“Dear Friend, since the last letter I’ve been enjoying fresh walks in the countryside, reading books and generally enjoying life…”

Maybe I’m living in the past. Or maybe social media is the past. A dangerous step back to the days of public floggings and hangings. You say something wrong, something off the cuff and you’re lynched for it. The Spanish Inquisition on hand 24/7. Terrifying eh?

Personally I feel better without it. I feel freer.

Copyright © 2018 Philip Ogley

Images Courtesy of GDJ

A Holiday Inside the Mind: Ten Days on a Silent Retreat

Not particularly excited at the prospect of taking my Spring holiday this year walking in the rain in Wales, or boozing it up on the Canaries, I decided to do something totally different: a 10-day silent Buddhist retreat. A holiday inside my mind.

I walk up the road to The Vipassana Meditation Centre with a terrible fear I’m entering the unknown. I’ve done some pretty harebrained trips over the years, but walking up this lane in rural Herefordshire feels like one of the scariest. On my mind is a snippet I read somewhere describing this type of meditation: ‘Like a surgeon performs an operation on the body, here we perform an operation on your mind.’ I shudder and walk in.

It’s certainly not what I expected. During the weeks leading up to this I envisaged a damp, ramshackle farmhouse tended by a couple of shaven-headed monks preparing huge pots of porridge for their unsuspecting guests. But as I follow the signs through to the registration area, it feels more like an upmarket rehab clinic than the monastic dwelling I expected.

The dining room is airy and I count at least thirty other men waiting for their turn to register. And even more women in the adjoining, yet separate female dining room. Judging by the apprehensive faces, it’s obvious everybody is aware of the seriousness of what they are about to undertake.

I’m not sure whether to join a table and say hello, or just keep myself to myself, bearing in mind that in two hours time we’ll be sworn to silence anyway for the next ten days.

I walk across to the noticeboard on the other side of the room and pretend to read it, even though I’ve read all the information before on the website. All that grabs my attention is a sign telling us which day of the course we are on. Today simply reads ‘Day Zero’.

I decide to make a cup of tea and stand looking out of the window cursing the friend who got me into this.

‘You’ll have a wonderful, relaxing time,’ I remember him saying.

Relaxing yes, but I’m not sure about wonderful given the terrified faces gathered around me. I drain my mug and quickly make another just in case the builder’s tea is replaced by some non-caffeine herbal tea when the whistle blows. Twenty minutes later and after two more cups, I’m called to register and shown my room.

Along with the shaven-headed monks and decaying farmhouse, I also envisaged fifty men crammed into stark, high ceilinged dormitories. So it’s a surprise to discover I’m only sharing with one other, and while the room is hardly lavish, it’s certainly more luxurious than I expected.

I sit on my bed. This is going to be hard and I know it. No books, no writing, no drinking, no meat, no sweets, no cheese, no profiteroles, no coffee, no phones, no internet, no films, no photos, no sex, no smoking, no talking, no gestures, no nothing. Although I know the rules are there to maximise the students’ ability to learn, I feel  nervous about whether I can cope without even a book or a notepad – or a glass of wine or a lovely cold pint of beer. Mmm…

But as my friend pointed out, it’s hard enough to meditate in the first place, imagine trying to do it with a hangover.

We have a light dinner of lentil curry at six o’clock and then are summoned to the main hall by a gong for our first meditative experience and to take the vow of silence. This is where the relative comfort of my short stay so far evaporates when I have to sit cross-legged.

I haven’t sat cross-legged since primary school and hear my knees splinter as I settle down on the thin bamboo mat. The female contingent on the other side of the hall I notice are all calmly sitting in lotus positions as though they were born that way.

Luckily, just as my knees are breaking and I’m thinking of whether there is a last train home, the course leader tells us we don’t have to torture ourselves and can use some extra cushions to prop ourselves up if we like. I kiss him – not really – and grab three cushions to make a nice comfy seat, then plonk myself on it like a gnome, ready for the course to begin.

As it turns out my Indian roommate arrives late. (“Train strike,” he tells me 10 days later.) He can’t tell me at the time because we’ve already taken our vow of silence. And as the vow also precludes any visual or bodily gestures, I have to ignore him for the next ten days. I don’t even know his name and it’s like sharing a prison cell with an inmate who hates me so much he won’t even acknowledge my existence. And vice versa. Or sharing a room with my own shadow. Say what you like, it’s never going to answer back.

That night I’m in bed by nine and asleep by five-past; a miracle for a night owl like myself, but this is my routine for the next ten days: total mental exhaustion on a scale I haven’t experienced since writing my university dissertation in a weekend.

I wake up to the sound of a gong somewhere in my unconsciousness. Even though it’s the middle of summer it’s still dark, so I assume I’m in a dream and roll over. But as the gong gets louder I realise the nightmare is real. I really am at a silent Buddhist retreat in the middle of nowhere! It’s four o’clock in the morning and it’s time for the day to begin.

Explaining meditation is like trying to explain what sex is like to a virgin. You have to experience it, and like sex, it’s a slow process. For the first three days you simply learn how to observe your own breathing. Once you have accomplished this, you can turn your attention to observing every pain, ache, itch and sensation on your whole body.

Every emotion we have – whether good or bad – creates a biochemical response in the body. If you observe this response you’re observing the emotion. The important element is to simply let the emotion rise up and pass without attaching either a negative or positive label to it.

For example, if it is an itch, you try to resist the craving to scratch it. The same idea could apply to a cigarette. Equally, should you experience a negative emotion, such as guilt, fear, jealousy, anger, or hate, then likewise, you try to observe it objectively and let it pass. The idea is that over time you gradually learn how to divorce yourselves from the past and future, and how to observe reality as it is, rather than how you want it to be.

What’s so appealing about this type of meditation to many people, is the absence of worship, blind faith, tradition or ritual. There is no scripture or commandment to obey, no god, deity or idol to worship, and no religious rite, initiation or custom to undertake. And this ‘striving for liberation’ is what I did for the next ten days: up at four for meditation, breakfast at six-thirty, more meditation until lunch at eleven, further meditation from one to five, then tea followed by more meditation until bedtime at nine.

Counting down the days is inevitable, but due to the early starts they tend to roll into one massive meditative blob. You have wild dreams and even wilder visions coupled with personal memories, good and bad, erupting out of nowhere. And this is the hard part, as without the comforts of modern life, you are forced to deal with these sometimes unpleasant memories alone as they filter up through the subconscious. Perhaps one important note is that there is no real fun. People expecting some sort of happy-clappy holiday camp will be extremely disappointed. It’s pretty damn serious, partly due to the silence but also due to these deep seated emotions rising up from the bottom of your mind.

Copyright © 2018 Philip Ogley

For more information about Vipassana Meditation and how to join a course see: http://www.dhamma.org

The Soulless Emptiness of a Warehouse Order Picker

I work in a warehouse for a large supermarket. It’s 5:45am when I arrive. The lights are already on because they are always on. The dull polished concrete floor is the colour of margarine before colour is added. If you’ve never seen this: it’s grey. The sort of grey you find by a city river.

The warehouse is the size of ten football pitches with various office pods dotted around like moon bases. Inside there are no drinks, no cups, no photos, no music, no paper, no life. Everything is computerised and run from terminals. It’s like they said life would be in the future. In the sci-fi films I watched as a kid. Only worse. Those films were in colour, here everything is in black and white. Or white and white.

The only link with the real world is a scratched metal cupboard full of keys for the lockers outside. By outside I mean outside the office. Nothing here is outside. Once you’re in you’re in.

Most people have their own keys but for some reason I don’t so I have to get the master key each morning and be subjected to the magnesium grade lighting. I don’t know how anybody can work in here. It’s bad enough on the  warehouse floor with a billion rows of fluorescent strips shining down. Here it’s like working in the headlights of a car.

My locker is the size of a mouse trap so I put my uniform on at home. A thick woven polyester T-shirt that has the feel of sackcloth. Black work trousers four sizes too big for me. Plus a pair of steel capped trainers which are very comfortable. They have to be because once the signal goes at six o’clock we’re on the go for the next eight hours.In my locker there is a headset, a permanent marker, work gloves and a box cutter – the ‘tools’ of the trade. Plus a battery pod/wireless receiver the size of a large avocado which I plug my headset into and then attach to my belt. I switch it on and a computer generated voice asks me ‘Do I want an order?’

I say ‘Yes.’ We’re on.

‘Go to slot 1726. Picking Area 6,’ the voice says and I obey.

A slot is the space underneath the huge five storey high shelving units where the individual products are located. The picking areas are the aisles in between the shelves where we work. I once asked one the drivers of the high-reach forklifts that replenish the stock if the shelves were safe.

‘Yes. Perfectly,’ he reassured me from inside his metal cage, his eyes shining out like kiln-holes from behind a balaclava to protect him from the dry cardboard chill of the warehouse. ‘Although it depends on the driver,’ he added while grabbing a 5 tonne pallet of sugar as effortlessly as a child takes cookies from a jar.

When I get to a slot I’m required to say a verification code printed in large letters above the product line. This is to ensure I’m at the correct slot and not about to pick up dog biscuits when I should be picking up nappies. I say the code and the voice says: ‘Take 2 (or 4, or 6, or 40…).’

I take the products and stack them neatly on the back of a Chep Euro pallet. The one below is from a catalogue photo. The ones we use are scarred with half hammered-in nails, burn marks and splinters the size of spears. Gloves are essential unless you want to go back home looking like you’ve been washing your hands in a meat grinder.

The pallet sits on a scissor lift order picker.

This too is from a catalogue photo. The ones we use are car crashes. Scraped, banged, bashed, dented, half rusted and coated in congealed chicken sauce, jam, fruit juice and cheap amaretto.

As you might notice the forks at the back are sharp and when fully raised are the perfect height to skewer the lower abdomen. I regularly have a horrible vision of watching my intestines spool out onto the cold warehouse floor after someone’s driven into me fork first. We’re told never to drive backwards for this very reason. But it’s difficult not to.

The skill to order picking (if there is one) is the ability to stack 100 or more cases on a pallet without it collapsing. There are many ways to do this but only one right way. Unfortunately I was never taught properly so I’ve developed my own style – the Ogley Stack. Which resembles the Acropolis in Athens: Exquisitely designed, beautiful to look at but prone to collapse. The slightest bump in the warehouse floor sends my twelve case high pallet of red wine crashing to the floor.

The resulting scene is one of a massacre. Something out of a mobster movie from the 1950s. And if the sun is shining in through one of the high windows, it can look quite poetic. Until the bosses charge over from their office pods to calculate how much I’ve cost the company this time. It’s therefore no coincidence I’ve ended up on the nappie and dog food aisle – The Unbreakables.

Apart from this the job is pretty simple. It’s also phenomenally boring, repetitive and very physical. But not physical in an active manner. As in climbing a mountain or building a wall. Physical in a repetitive manner. The heart never really gets going. It simply plods along a few beats behind the body. Not exactly exercise, more strained movement.

We’re able to have a breather and a chat of course; we’re not in prison. But not for too long. We have targets, called pickrates:

  • 300 cases an hour.
  • Or 5 a minute.
  • Or 1 every 12 seconds

Take your pick. But whichever statistic I choose, it’s hard. And after twelve weeks I’m nowhere near it. Which is why towards 8.30 I start to get nervous. This is when one of our bosses (there’s about 6) tell us our first pickrates of the day (the other one is at 11:00). Something I really look forward to!

‘Morning, Phil,’ one will say clipboard in hand. The young bosses have big quiffs, short back and sides. The older ones slightly smaller quiffs. And like rings on a tree I can tell their age by the severity and angle of their ski-jump hairdos.

‘Morning,’ I say, my uncombed curly locks hanging out of my headset like rogue shoots escaping out of a hanging basket.

‘190 today,’ he says. There’s a pause. A  dramatic pause that doesn’t need to be there because this is a shitty warehouse. We’re not at the theatre. We’re not reciting Pinter. But I know what he’s doing. He’s waiting for me to apologise and promise to work harder.

Instead I say: ‘That’s good. Better than yesterday.’ 

This stumps him because he doesn’t have yesterday’s figures so he can’t verify whether I’m telling the truth or not. So he says good or OK and drifts off to the next picker who says the same thing. ‘Better than yesterday,’ I hear echoing round the place most mornings.

The only person who does have the figures is the section manager who comes once a week armed with a graph to discuss my progress. It’s a total waste of time because I don’t make any progress. The graph is flat. A solid single undulating line running Eastwards across the page.

‘You need to pick it up. Phil,’ he says. ‘It’s too low. We need to sort this out.’

I note the personal pronoun ‘We’ as though he’s going to jump up and lend a hand. In the event of this ever happening I will write a redaction and an immediate apology.

‘I’m trying my best,’ I say flatly. ‘I find it hard.’

‘All the others manage.’

‘Yes, but they’re all wired on energy drinks,’ I reply.

It’s meant as a joke, but I’m half serious because it’s true. Plus most people here are twenty years younger than me. I want to tell him this but he might advise me to find another job and at moment, if I can keep my head down, this is fine.

‘I better get on,’ I say. ‘Otherwise my pickrate is going to plummet.’

There’s nothing much he can say to this and he leaves me, screwing up his colour graph and tossing it in the bin like a teenager who’s been given a crap mark for a presentation he spent hours preparing.

I think regularly of how many people are employed in the retail-industrial complex nationwide. This bank of human bone and muscle moving boxes from one place to another. Then placed on lorries and driven to a store. Unloaded again by more muscle. Unstacked and put on shelves. The process repeated thousands and thousands of times a day. Imagine if the order pickers went on strike. Then what? Bare shelves within days most likely. Maybe even hours.

And those films I watched as a child. The ones set in the future where the work is done by machines and mankind is left to spend his time exploring space or simply doing nothing. Reading. Thinking. I believed in those films and how good it was going to be. And yet I find myself with 300 others at five o’clock on a Sunday morning (no double-time here) hauling dog food and nappies from one part of a giant warehouse to another. Where are the machines? The robots? Surely if they can build cars and go to the outer reaches of the Solar System, they can pick up a few boxes.It’s my 86th job since leaving school. In that time I’ve done some pretty soul crushing menial jobs – data entry, building site labourer, plongeur, dust-binman, salesman, teacher –  to name a few. But nothing as unfulfilling as being an order picker. Maybe I’m not cut out for this work. Perhaps my body’s not connected together in the way others are. My bones and ligaments and tendons and muscles work perfectly when I’m walking. I can walk for miles and miles. Endlessly traipse round a city. Hike a hill. Walk a coastline. Or swim in the freezing cold sea in the middle of winter. No problem.

But if I’ve got to bend down and lift a heavy box in a repetitive sideways movement for hours on end, I’m pretty useless. I suppose that’s just the way it is and why tomorrow is my last day.

Copyright © 2017 Philip Ogley