Observation

Wine Box Bike Racks

I’ve been doing cycling tours on and off for years. Bike, couple of panniers, tent, sleeping bag, set off, see where I end up. They’ve always been great fun, either alone or with a friend. Total freedom, plus a clean and cheap way to see the world. But where do you put your wine?

There’s nothing more invigorating than drinking a bottle of wine while cycling. I normally keep it in the water bottle holder on the frame, so that when I come to a difficult hill, it’s within easy reach. A slug of Pays D’Oc decreases the gradient of any hill. Even a tortuous Alpine pass turns into a gentle climb.

I’ve loved touring since I was kid. Me and my school friend Duncan used to cycle round Cornwall in the rain and hail of the British summer. We stayed in youth hostels back then and didn’t drink wine. Just the odd fag now and then to fire our lungs up before an ascent of those ludicrously steep Cornish hills.

My smoking days are done, but the cycling continues. And so does the bottle of wine. Even though it has never been particularly secure, jammed into the flimsy metal wire cradle that was originally designed for a light plastic water bottle and not a heavy Bordeaux.

It of course goes without saying that over the years a bottle of Claret has broken free and shattered all over the road. Total disaster for me and any cyclists bringing up the rear in their skinny wheelers.

Despite the water bottle holder’s shortcomings though, I’ve kept on using it as my wine rack. Until a few years ago, when I found an old champagne crate in a dustbin up the road from where I live.

‘Oh Lord,’ I thought as I measured up the dimensions. ‘It’s perfect. Not only for wine, but beer as well. I wouldn’t even have to stop. Just a quick reach around into my portable bar for a chilled beer or a slug of wine.’

It’s not just that it fits exactly twelve cans of beer and two bottles of wine in it. It’s the utter simplicity of it that I find astonishing. A old box strapped to a bike. And yet it serves its function perfectly. Not just for alcohol. For anything. Books, groceries, vegetables, fruit, wood, dogs, fish.

I’ve seen bikes with boxes on them for years. Even on those Cornwall trips I saw crazy cyclists with gigantic trunk like containers on their bikes as though they were heading off to Africa. And yet I never thought of having one myself. Even as an adult.

Two years ago I cycled 2000 kilometres to Santiago from Nantes with my wife and the wine box went with me. As you can see in the photo it slots in perfectly between the two panniers. My tent went on top longways and was held together by a bungi. Sometimes I stopped in a town or a village and I’d share a glass with some other pilgrims. Then after we’d finished, someone would buy another bottle and put it back in the rack ready for the next people we might meet. Times like these made everything worth it. Not just the wine rack or the wine or the trip, but everything. Everything fitted perfectly, which is the way it should be.

That was the last trip I’ve done for reasons most of planet earth is aware of. I can’t wait to do another. I’ve still got the rack and a cellar full of wine. Allez!

wine box
Photo/Elizabeth Milligan

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Observation

Why I STILL Don’t Own a Smartphone

Do you remember when mobile phones were small and compact? When they easily fitted in your pocket? When the battery lasted for over a week? When they did nothing else except take calls. Do you remember those days?

A few weeks ago, my old Nokia 105 (above) clapped out, and I went to the store to buy a new phone. I was set on a smartphone. Why not? Get with the times.

When I arrived at the impossibly over-heated store, I asked the shop assistant about them. His eyes cracked open from his long shift, and he showed me to a stand.

‘We have the new iPhone 12 for €1300, or we have a basic one for €909…’

‘I’m sorry???’ I spluttered. ‘Can I stop you there? €1300! You must have misunderstood me, I’m looking for a phone not a small boat.’

The assistant stared at me unamused. Must have been a long shift after all. I was pretty blown away if I’m honest. Yes, I knew these things were pricey. But €1300 for a phone? I never realised the world had gone so bonkers.

‘We have cheaper ones,’ he said, noticing my shock, and showed me to another stand.

I stood there gazing at a showy array of chunky technology. ‘Do you have anything smaller?’

‘Smaller?’ he replied.

‘Yes. Smaller. Like in the old days.’

His eyes glazed over and he seemed to fall back to sleep.‘ Err, I think we have some Nokias over there,’ he wearily informed me. ‘But they are not smartphones.’

‘Great,’ I beamed and a few minutes later left the store with a brand new Nokia 105 with dual sim, flashlight, radio and headphones.

Can I watch a film on it? No

Can I watch TV on it? No

Can I listen to music on it? No.

Can I make zoom calls on it? No

Can I take photos on it? No

Can I access the internet on it? No

Can I read the news on it? No

Do I want to? No.

When mobile phones became popular in the mid-1990s (I’m 46, so I remember this) people wanted them small. The smaller the better. Remember those trendy adverts for Motorolas that sat in your palm and had the battery life of interplanetary space probes.

So what happened? Overnight mobile phones became as heavy as dustbins, and as clunky as plates.

Here is a quick comparison:

Weight of iPhone 12: 228 grams.

Weight of Nokia 105: 57 grams

Dimensions of Samsung Galaxy: 150mm x 75mm

Dimensions of Nokia 105: 85mm x 45mm

But here is the best one.

Battery Life of iPhone: 9 hours

Battery life of Nokia 105: 18.5 days.

That is not a typo. Yes, 18.5 days. That’s longer than it took the Apollo astronauts to get to the Moon and back. In fact, if they had taken my Nokia fully charged, they could have called Mum to say they were safe the moment they landed. If they’d taken an iPhone, it would have probably clapped out shortly after blast-off.

‘Hello? Is there anyone out there? Shit! The battery’s dead.’

*phone dimensions and prices are approximate and may depend on the model. Although a Nokia 105 is round about €20** from most retailers. Yes, that is not a typo. Twenty.

**Or in Pounds Sterling, multiply 20 by the Euro Brexit rate and see what you get. If the shit has hit the fan, it’ll about £20 or more. If things are OK, it’ll be about £16-18. In $ it’ll be about 25.

***I don’t know why I’m even doing the arithmetic, because I know no one will buy one. But you might.

Further reading: Why I don’t have a Smartphone here.

(Image/Nokia © 2019)

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Observation

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 they add colour. If you’ve never seen this: it’s grey.

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 runs 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.

Most people have their own key for their locker, but I don’t, so I have to get the master key each morning from the office 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.

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 actually very comfortable. They have to be because once the signal goes at six o’clock we’re on the go for the next ten 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. Pick 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 between the shelves where we work. I once asked a driver 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 washed 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 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 1950s mobster movie. 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 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 you choose, it’s hard to manage. And after twelve weeks, I’m nowhere near it. Which is why towards 8.30 I 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 or not I’m telling the truth. So he says ‘good’ or ‘OK’ and drifts off to the next picker, who says the same thing. ‘Better than yesterday,’ I hear echoing around the place most mornings.

The only person who has 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 in this post.

‘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 the 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 we employ in the retail industry. 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, sales agent, 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 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 around 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.

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Observation

New You – New EU?

Image: Samuel Regan-Asante

So the children won. They enthusiastically traded in their shiny new marbles and in return got a few cracked ones back. That’s what leaving the EU feels like to me.

I once traded in a white Renault Trafic van for a Leyland DAF one. I thought I was getting a better deal as the parts were cheaper and it was also meant to be more fuel-efficient. Oh, and it was British (this was in the early nineties) when I was still vaguely proud of my country.

Anyway, within three months it was kaput. Even the garage I bought it from didn’t know what was wrong with it. Total mystery they told me. I took it to other mechanics and they couldn’t work out what the problem was either. ‘Should have stuck with the Renault,’ one bright mechanic joked with me. ‘Much more reliable.’

After seeing more garages that cost me money every time (I even paid for the diesel injector nozzles to be cleaned at huge expense) I ended up trading it in for scrap – I got £50. To say I felt short-changed was the understatement of the decade, and I haven’t felt this ripped off since you know what…?

The Brexiteers claim FREEDOM. But freedom from what and whom? The EU is still there, and getting on with life; while Britain fondles with its cracked marbles.

‘Free to make our own laws,’ I hear people say.

But we did that anyway. Except for some laws that protected people’s rights and dignity. But of course, that’s not important any more.

‘Nay,’ cry the Brexiteers. ‘It’s more than that. We wanted our Sovereignty back!’ Which is actually code for: ‘We don’t want any more immigrants.’

Which is what Brexit is really about. There has been a hundred arguments put out there, but there’s only one the majority of Brexiteers really wanted, and nothing will ever change my mind about this. But well done! You’ve achieved your goal but damaged the lives of millions of decent citizens. British and European. As well as damaging the country’s reputation.

All of his has been said before, and people including myself are pretty sick of it, but I still wanted to say something on it. Plus I still wish I’d never traded in my lovely French van for a crappy English one. What was I thinking?

Other articles: Advantages of the UK leaving the EU on 1st January 2021


My hilarious satirical rural romp.

Out now as an audiobook, eBook, or paperback. Click here

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Feature, Short Story

Guy de Maupassant and The Trip of Le Horla

I’ve been reading the short stories of Guy De Maupassant, a French writer who died over 120 years ago.

I first came across him in a bookshop in Montauban, a small redbrick town, 50 km north of Toulouse. I was looking for some Albert Camus as I wanted to start reading novels in French and was counting on the famous Algerian novelist (and goalkeeper) to get me started. There are only so many times you can read Exupery’s The Little Prince. (Or Night Flight)

I asked the proprietor if he had La Peste (after The Outsider, Camus’ most famous book). He said he had: ‘Four copies in fact.’

I took the one with the biggest print and then he asked me if I’d read any Maupassant. ‘Who?’ I asked. ‘Isn’t that a village near Cahors?’ I joked (The touristy village of Montpezat being close by).

He smiled weakly (idiot Englishman he was thinking). ‘No, it’s not; Maupassant is the master of the short story. Very good for learning French,’ he said in English. ‘Because it’s simple.’

And so began my interest in Guy de Maupassant.

Born in 1857 in Tourville sur Arques near Dieppe in Normandy, he died in Paris in 1893 and was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery. His most famous story, Boule de Suif (Butterball), tells the story of a coach trip from Rouen to Le Havre during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71. The inhabitants: a prostitute, a wineseller, two nuns, a factory owner, a count, a politician, and their wives, constitute a fascinating cross section of French society in the late 19th century.

Image for post

This story is the first one I read and is a perfect introduction to his style. The simplicity of which stems from his first hand knowledge of the farmers, fishermen, tradesmen, prostitutes, soldiers, civil servants, shopkeepers, landowners, writers and vagabonds he encountered in his life.

After moving to Paris in 1878 to work as a civil servant he wrote in his spare time. However, after Boule de Suif was published in 1880, Madame Tellier in 1882, and Mademoiselle Fifi in 1883, his reputation was so high that he gave up his job to write full time. By the time he died he’d written over 300 stories, six novels, plus countless collections of poems and other writings on travel and nature.

One of the things you notice when you read his stories is the phenomenal amount of food they eat. In Miss Harriet, a story about a puritanical English Protestant woman living in a rundown auberge in a small village called Benouville on the Normandy coast, they typically lunch on: ‘a ragout of mutton, followed by a rabbit and salad, followed by cherries and cheese.’ All enjoyed with cider. In another story aptly named The Beggar, their ‘simple’ lunch consists of a couple of chickens, a partridge, a side of ham, followed by cheese and a tart. Again washed down with cider. I daresay not everybody enjoyed such lunches in 19th century France. However, this abundance of food is so common in his writing that I suspect this was how rural people ate.

His stories are also at times very tragic and sad. The Blind Man, the story of a man who’s abused and tortured by his own family because he can’t work on the farm, is one of the most crushing stories I’ve ever read.

Conversely, his stories can be phenomenally uplifting and amusing. Almost farcical. Stories such as The Duel, The Drunkard and The Relic are silly comic book affairs. Whereas stories like The Necklace and A Piece of String (and Boule de Suif) are highly political.

I enjoy his works because they are simple, finely crafted stories distilling a code of values and ideas into short pieces. Normally with staggeringly abrupt endings. So abrupt at times that I’ve wondered whether some pages have been torn out.

There are over 300 stories and yet my favourite is The Trip of Le Horla, a fascinating trip from Paris to Holland in a hot air balloon. It charts an overnight voyage — yes overnight! — from the centre of Paris to Huyet on the Dutch coast. There’s some awe inspiring description of the trip — a trip I assume he made himself — but it’s also a superb meditation. This is one of my favourite sections as they float across France at 2000 metres:

“All memory has disappeared from our minds, all trouble from our thoughts; we have no more regrets, plans nor hopes. We look, we feel, we wildly enjoy this fantastic journey; nothing in the sky but the moon and ourselves! We are a wandering, travelling world, like our sisters, the planets; and this little world carries five men who have left the earth and who have almost forgotten it. We can now see as plainly as in daylight; we look at each other, surprised at this brightness, for we have nothing to look at but ourselves and a few silvery clouds floating below us.”

His diversity is astonishing. Tales of varying length and assorted subjects ranging from tragedy to satire, to comedy to farce. All different and yet all possessing the author’s vivid set of personal experiences.

Visit http://maupassant.free.fr/ where all his material can be found translated into many languages. And all for free. What else could you want for Christmas?

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Commentary, Film

Why Your Fairtrade Organic Latte Isn’t Going To Save the Planet

A few nights ago my wife and I settled down to watch First Reformed with Ethan Hawke. I like Ethan Hawke – he seems honest and humble and his characters are (mostly) believable.

But this is not a film review. It’s a short article written in my head during the part in the movie where the environmental campaigner (Philip Ettinger) explains to the priest (Hawke) that he wants his girlfriend to have an abortion to avoid bringing another child into this world.

It’s a well-done scene and reminded me of a discussion I had with a close friend a few years ago. He asked me one night why I had never had children — he had three. I argued various points about it never being the right time, financial worries, my rather unstable life, difficulty in taking responsibility, blah blah. Until I finally admitted that my main reason was the environmental impact of having children.

My friend looked at me rather blankly. ‘What do you mean?’ he asked.

I wasn’t sure how to put it any clearer, so I said it again: ‘I don’t have kids because every child is an environmental disaster waiting to happen. Get this: I recently read that one extra child produces 60 tonnes of carbon per year. If you go carless for a year, you save two. I mean the figures are astonishing! People go on about going green and recycling, without ever realising that the best thing you can do, is not have children.’

After my rant, my friend looked shocked. ‘Wow, I’d never thought of it like that.’

‘Most people don’t,’ I said. Then I apologised, saying that I loved his kids and that I wasn’t having a go at him personally, his wife or his family. It was just a personal decision. ‘And anyway,’ I smiled at him. ‘You asked the question.’

We went on to talk about other things, but I always remember the conversation and found it interesting to see this idea addressed in a film. True, the guy in the movie was asking for drastic action. An abortion! But the point was the same.

I once read a book by Raj Patel called The Value of Nothing. It was a good book, except the author (a Brit like myself) seemed to think having kids was fine and wasn’t a problem. I disagreed when I read the book, and I disagree now. Surely, this IS the problem.

His argument was that we could accommodate more children on the planet if we dispensed with our rapacious lifestyles. BUT, as I told my close friend later in our conversation that night, that isn’t going to happen any time soon. And how long do we have? Western Capitalism isn’t going to disappear overnight, and as the world’s middle-class expands, the problem will only get worse.

Most parents believe their child will grow up and do something amazing: like save the planet. But in reality, he or she, whatever they do, will simply keep on polluting it. Just by living

It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?

Of course, even I know that in order to keep the species going, we need children. But that’s not going to stop. For starters, teenagers will still get drunk on cheap cider and have sex in the park. The species is safe, so don’t worry!

And anyway, I like children: I value their spirit and curiosity, but maybe less is better. Because here’s the truth:

We can recycle our plastic bags, drink our organic fairtrade lattes, cycle to work, or even go vegan. And perhaps in the long term this ‘ecological dressing-up’ might work. But it’s going to take a long time. Time we probably don’t have. So what are we going to do about it?

Keep tweaking at the edges: a bit of this, a bit of that? Or fundamentally reduce the number of mouths we have to feed and the number of bodies we have to keep warm?

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Commentary, Observation

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.’

(*This was originally published 25 November 2019. I still don’t have a Smartphone. Although with technology creeping up on me and everything requiring Apps these days, I’m not sure how long I can last. I’ll keep you posted.)

Le Glitch is still available here

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Commentary

The Blank Page

What is writer’s block anyway?

I got up early this morning to write something for this blog.

But nothing came.

And as eight o’clock rolled on towards nine o’clock. And nine o’clock nudged ten, I was still staring at a blank screen. My mind felt empty as though my brain had been scooped out overnight and filled with soot. I wasn’t tired or hungover or ill; in fact, I’d been running the night before, and felt fit and fresh. And yet I was totally devoid of even the simplest idea.

I stared at the screen for ages. Then out of the window at the dirty sky wondering if it was going to rain. Then back at the screen. Then back outside again. Was this writer’s block? That mystical thing I hear other people talk about.

Surely not. I looked at the screen again. I’ve always got something to say, some rubbish to write about, even if it’s just nonsense. But today I was stuck, as though my hands were made of jelly fingers, unable to press a single key, incapable of typing a single word.

I briefly thought about writing about my summer holidays like I used to do at school. But as I didn’t have a holiday this year, or the year before, there wasn’t much to say. I could write about life on a rural French farm where I live and work, but I’ve flogged that horse to death enough times already.

Normally when I’m stumped for words, I write a short story starting with something like: ‘I woke up thinking I was Jesus.’ They generally fizzle out after a few pages, but at least I’ve written something.

JG Ballard, one of my favourite English authors, said he wrote a thousand words a day, every day. And I try to match this at least 5 days out of 7. But today nothing. And I hadn’t written for a week.

I almost flew into a mad panic and if it wasn’t for my wife I might have thrown something. A book against a wall. Luckily she arrived just in time and asked me what was wrong. So I told her. ‘I can’t write anything today. My mind is dead. I feel dead.’

She suggested I write about why I can’t write. Reminding me of all the novels written and films made on that very premise. ‘In fact,’ she went on, ‘there’s probably a whole genre in the film industry entitled: Writer’s Block.’

It was a good suggestion. Even though part of me thought it was a bit of a cop-out. Was I too dumb to think of anything interesting? And if so, what was I doing writing in the first place if I couldn’t write down a simple passage of prose, however banal?

A friend of mine who writes ghost stories for a living recently asked me if I’d had any more ideas for another novel.

I laughed. ‘I’ve only just finished my first,’ I informed him.

‘So?’ he shrugged. ‘Are you going to bask in the glory forever?’

I told him I wasn’t basking in any glory, but I understood his point. What he was really saying was, when are you going to write something serious? He knows me well so he can ask me these things.

‘I’m getting round to it. Slowly,’ I told him.

He nodded and we moved on to talk about football, which was a relief.

I actually have written about my life at boarding school and the death of my mother. The problem is, they don’t seem that interesting. The subject matter, however personal, is dull. I can’t make it come to life and I would much prefer to write about what it feels like to wake up as Jesus. Not that I’m in the slightest bit religious; it’s just that when I was young, I thought I was special — didn’t we all?

My friend would argue that all these, ‘Fantastical-what-would-happen-if-stories,’ are all well and good. But how about the ‘What-happened-in-reality-stories?’ Why don’t you cut the gags and get down to the real stuff? The meat. ‘Isn’t that why you write?’

It’s a good question. I probably write because I’ve always written. At school, I wrote an entire film entitled ‘School.’ I enjoyed it and even asked the drama master if we could perform it. He laughed at me and said maybe next year. We never did of course, and I’ve no idea what happened to the manuscript.

It was fun to write because it was just a load of stupid gags and pranks. More a sketch show than a full-blown movie. Of course, it didn’t contain any of the serious stuff: the beatings and the violence, but it was probably why I wrote it, to keep me sane.

But anyway, I’ve reached the 1000-word mark now, so it looks like I’ll have to stop. Just as I was getting started…

Photo by Pedro Araújo on Unsplash

My unserious novel Le Glitch is available here
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Feature, Observation

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.

Here is one...
Insamia Revisited
© Philip Ogley 2020
Top Photo by Simone Impei on Unsplash
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Observation

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)
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Observation

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

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Audio, Observation

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.

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Audio, Short Story

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…

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Feature, Normandy

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
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Feature

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)

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Feature, UK

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

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Feature, Normandy

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
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Le Glitch

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)

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