Feature

Book of The Week

I don’t normally promote other people’s books because I don’t know many writers. But on this occasion, I will. One, he’s a friend. And two, I enjoy his work.

His latest book, New Ghost Stories Volume 3, starts with the unnerving introduction:

“Ghosts don’t care if you believe in them or not.”

It’s a chilling line, don’t you think? Poking fun at a casual non-believer like myself. Shoving these ghouls and ghosts in my face and saying, ‘Prove we don’t exist, then!’

It’s a skilful tagline I have to admit, and one you’d expect from an experienced copywriter. But there’s a serious side to these books. Because while they boast the author’s name, he didn’t write them.

‘Duh! Well, who did. A ghost?’

Well yeh, sort of.

David Paul Nixon has spent more than ten years chronicling real ghost stories from people who swear that what they experienced was real. Actual accounts of terrifying, traumatic and harrowing events (let’s call them hauntings) that have shaped their lives. More a case study on the human mind than an account of the paranormal. But all thoroughly investigated and painstakingly transcribed. And all incredibly scary.

But are these ghosts real? And if they are. What are they?

Humans are clever, there’s no denying that. We’ve made discoveries and achieved feats of engineering that would astound our ancestors. I live about an hour and a half away from the Eiffel Tower, and every time I see it, it blows me away. Built as a temporary structure from railway girders 132 years ago, it still stands. Yes, it’s clever.

But not that clever. We might be able to build towers and go to the Moon, but even the most celebrated cosmologists, astronomers and physicists admit most of the stuff out there still baffles them. Take Superstring Theory for instance.

Developed in the seventies, string theory attempted (among others) to unite general relativity (gravity) with quantum mechanics (gravity on an atomic scale). It ultimately failed to find a link, but did spawn the idea of multiple dimensions.

The four dimensions we know (length, height, depth and time), plus another six for good measure. Some brainboxes have even postulated the existence of 23.

Most of us struggle with the 4th dimension when it comes to being on time (me included!), so imagine living in a world of 23 with twisting space-time realities, parallel universes, time loops and worm holes.

‘Hey mate, have you got the time?’

‘Err.’

Point is, even trying to imagine this stuff is impossible. Even the guys who make this up admit the human brain simply can’t process these ideas. Visualising this world is beyond us. But it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

We tend to think of the universe where all this weird shit happens as being out there in the distant darkness of space. How did Star Wars begin?

…In a Galaxy Far Far Away.

But it isn’t. The universe is right here. In your coffee cup, in your cupboard, in your basement, in your attic, in your bedroom, in your house. It’s even in our heads. 23 dimensions in our heads. Imagine that? No wonder we’re so fucked up! No wonder we see stuff!

I’m not trying to rationalise, explain or even downplay the strange events that take place in David’s books. I’m just curious. Curious to come up with some explanation as to why. Nothing weird has ever happened to me. Nothing like in the books. But it might, so I have to be armed so I can deal with it when it happens.

‘Ah, I know what you are? You’re not a ghost, you’re a dimension. Number 23?’


New Ghost Stories Volume Three is out now.


Or listen to David read from Volumes one and two below:

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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.

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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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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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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

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

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Feature, UK

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

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Copenhagen, Feature

Notes from Copenhagen #4: Tuborg Lager

I’ve been in Copenhagen for 6 weeks now and it’s rained for half of them. The barkeeper in the pub down the road told me on Thursday night that it’s been the worst summer for 38 years.

‘It’s not normally like this,’ he said pouring me another pint of Tuborg.

The day after was glorious but I didn’t notice it. Laid up on the sofa all day with the worst hangover for years. A quick calculation from the money I didn’t have in my pocket gave me a total of 9 pints. Elizabeth grinned at me from the armchair egg and bacon butty in hand as I lay there groaning like an old man. Managing to sip my cup of tea without having to rush to the bathroom.

I’d so far resisted the bowl. My prized capacity for alcohol wasn’t going to be beaten by some dodgy Danish beer. Which was of course the reason I felt so wretched. And not the fact that I can’t take my beer any more.

I’ve suffered some cruel hangovers in my time. Hard, grinding ones that seem to hang around for days like the smell of bacon fat or burnt toast. I haven’t had one of those for years. Partly because I don’t drink as much. But this laid me low. Like a man who’s suddenly contracted a terrible illness and has days, if hours, to live. Melodrama being one of the traits of drinking too much.

I was actually on call to work as a cycle courier, but luckily there were no orders because half of Copenhagen is on holiday. August 1st is when things spark back into action here. This was good fortune as while I’ve gone to work in the past with the most frightful of hangovers, I didn’t fancy charging round the city with a thundering headache barely able to keep the contents of my stomach down on what was a really hot day. If you know what I mean.

Today is cold and raining again as predicted by Stig, the barkeeper on Thursday night.

‘If you’ve got anything planned for the weekend, see it tomorrow,’ he advised.

I said I would make full use of the glorious weather. Then he poured me another pint. Although in truth I did make it to the sea for a swim yesterday in a desperate attempt to kill my aching head.

I like Copenhagen. Swimming in the harbour is one reason. But there are many. It’s phenomenally relaxed, it’s not as expensive as people always say (4-5 quid a pint), it’s friendly, and there’s loads to see. Plus you can cycle everywhere. It’s quite easy to get a job, people speak English (or French/German) and nobody really gives a shit.

It’s perfectly normal to see people of all ages and social backgrounds wandering round the streets or the parks with a can of beer in their hand. It’s also normal to see people picking them up off the floor and putting them in plastic bags.

This is called Pant collecting. Pant in danish meaning deposit (or mortgage.) as all bottles and cans here (except wine bottles and a few others) have a value depending on their size. Each bottle or can is labelled according with either Pant A, B or C.

When you get enough, you take them to the machines in the supermarkets where you get a ticket for the value you collected. With this you can buy more beer (or food).

It’s  a good system as it discourages littering. And if people do, there’s always people (like me) who’ll pick it up.

It’s become an obsession of the city. Everybody does it. Especially in the parks and open areas. The Fælledparken near here is a goldmine. After the recent Guns & Roses concert we collected almost 120 kroners worth of Pant. A similar amount after a football match. Even on a nice summer’s evening (rare) there’s enough for a meal and a few beers.

But you’ve got to be on the ball. If you don’t get there on time, there’s not a can or bottle in sight. The entire park scavenged by anybody with a bike or a bin bag. The entire park spotless within hours. It’s amazing. As though the park has a built-in self cleaning function. Press the PANT button and within hours the park is as clean as when it was built.

It’s funny because of all the things to do in Copenhagen, this is one of the things I enjoy doing most. You wouldn’t think it would you? But along with my bicycle courier wage, I’ve been able to scrape together enough to live on. So much in fact that I can afford to go and drink 9 pints of Tuborg on a Thursday night.

(*My absurd guidebook to France, A Man in France, is currently free to download until 31st July – click here)

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Copenhagen, Feature

Notes from Copenhagen: The Bicycle Courier Part II

I’ve been a bicycle courier in Copenhagen now for two weeks. I’ve delivered spring rolls, chicken wings, Korean noodles, calzone, spaghetti bolognese, coffee, smoothies, alcohol, fags, sausage rolls, Indian, Turkish and Chinese. Even aspirin.

In the afternoons waiting for my shift to start I watch the Tour de France on TV. Imagining myself climbing up the Tourmalet, or Mont Ventoux, or Alpe D’Huez on the way to the maillot jaune. Then it gets to four o’clock and I put on my grey T-shirt, strap my pink styrofoam box on my back and away I go into the mists of Copenhagen.

Most people rarely do this for long. A summer at most. If that. Not only is it phenomenally dangerous. It’s also incredibly knackering. 40 km in four hours isn’t a lot by cycling standards. Last winter in Auty I cycled 100kms most Sundays in three and a half hours. But I didn’t have a square box on my back full of pizza, booze and energy drinks. Neither were there any traffic lights, people, cars, crossroads, flights of stairs, customers, glass strewn roads, wrong addresses and cancelled orders.

On Friday for example I arrived at an address in Amager to deliver a vegan burger and quinoa salad (Copenhagen for you), only to discover not only were the flats not built yet but neither was the street. In fact, they hadn’t even started building anything. Just a few isolated portacabins on a waste ground where the groundwork contractors ate their lunch.

One came out to see what I wanted (A man on a gold Peugeot bike wearing a pink box on his back would attract attention in any city even Copenhagen), so I asked him if he knew where Luftmarinegade IV was.

He laughed a great booming Danish laugh, his mouth still full of egg and cold ham from lunchtime. He told me it hadn’t been built yet, pointing across to the mirror-flat waste ground stretching out to infinity ahead of us.

I thanked him and called the guy who runs the courier company. There had been a glitch in the system he told me. There was no order.

This has happened twice before. The software they use sometimes generates orders on its own accord and sends them randomly to one of the 30 restaurants we use without any payment being made by anybody.

The previous two times this glitch has happened the addresses have actually existed. This time though the software had sent me to an address that didn’t. Not yet anyhow. Maybe the developers had already let Google know of the impending new street even though it hadn’t been built. (The star marks where Luftmarinegade IV will be one day.)

I’ve now been told that the glitch has been fixed – not that I care that much (I get a free dinner each time it happens). But it made me think how intelligent software is getting when it can make a human being run around the city delivering burgers at will. (Memo to G. Orwell for possible sequel idea to 1984.)

Another amusing incident occurred last Wednesday when I took an order (real this time) for one bottle of Jagermeister, 2 litres of Coke, 3 packs of fags, and eight Pølsehorn (Danish sausage rolls).

This would be a fairly normal order for the time of day which was about 6 o’clock. Pre-going out Jagerbombs for a group of fresh faced blond Danes waiting for their ignition fuel.

Instead when I arrived there were three fresh faced guys called Ahmed, Abbas and Yousef eagerly waiting for me at the top of their stairs. We had a joke about how bad the Danish weather is – I was soaking wet – gave them their grog and grub and away I went.

So why was it amusing? Am I inferring that three guys called Ahmed, Abbas, and Yousef can’t order alcohol? Not in the slightest, I know plenty of Muslims who drink. It wasn’t the alcohol I think they were looking forward to. From the grin they gave me when I handed over the Pølsehorn it seemed that the forbidden pleasure of a pork sausage roll was more of a thrill than the bottle of high strength spirit I’d just given them.

The next day I got another order from the same guys, two packets of aspirin and four milkshakes.

It’s been an interesting few weeks I have to say. But perhaps the funniest event was last Monday in McDonald’s – Yep, I have no soul: I’ll deliver anything from vegan burgers to dirty frankfurters to Maccy D’s any day.

The order was for a Big Mac Meal and two Chicken McNugget Meals. I ordered from a girl who looked barely out of primary school and while waiting witnessed a middle aged Japanese man freak out because they didn’t sell beer. (Memo to Ronald McDonald, USA: sell beer in stores.)

Then the girl gave me three cups telling me to choose my drink pointing to the soft drink taps at the back of the store.

Two things went through my mind. ‘Free Coke for the bike courier!’ Followed by paralysing horror. ‘Oh my God! I don’t know what drinks they want. It’s not on the order!’

In panic I asked the girl what do people normally have with these meals. I didn’t expect her to reel off a selection of fine Burgundies, but I did expect more than a shrug of the shoulders followed by a noncommittal. ‘Coke?’

Luckily I had the customer’s number, so I phoned him.

‘Coke, for me,’ he replied when I asked him. ‘And milk for the kids.’

‘MILK?’ I replied loudly.

The restaurant had been very noisy, so I had been shouting to make myself heard. Only at that precise moment in time the restaurant went silence. All that was to be heard was a loud Englishman wearing a stupid pink box on his back shouting the words: ‘MILK! YOU WANT MILK?’

In end the man was very happy with his Happy Meal. And milk. And that was another day finished.

At the moment I work every day, but I don’t mind in the slightest. I cycle every day, earn a few coins, I see the city and get to learn more about this very strange species called Homo sapiens. Who might one day be overtaken by their own machines. Or Google.

 

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