This is how I built a shepherd’s hut from a kit. With deadpan commentary.
I joined Facebook in 2007 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. Blog pieces like this for instance. 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 doubt, how stupidly addictive it is.
I also realised how much time I’d been wasting. Time I could be putting 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.
Over Christmas I worked in an Aldi warehouse as an order picker. 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, 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. Juke box 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 write this blog. I’m not anti-technology. I’m 43 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 round 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 my 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
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
I work in a warehouse for a large supermarket. It’s 5:45am when I arrive. The lights are already on because they are always on. The dull polished concrete floor is the colour of margarine before colour is added. If you’ve never seen this: it’s grey. The sort of grey you find by a city river.
The warehouse is the size of ten football pitches with various office pods dotted around like moon bases. Inside there are no drinks, no cups, no photos, no music, no paper, no life. Everything is computerised and run from terminals. It’s like they said life would be in the future. In the sci-fi films I watched as a kid. Only worse. Those films were in colour, here everything is in black and white. Or white and white.
The only link with the real world is a scratched metal cupboard full of keys for the lockers outside. By outside I mean outside the office. Nothing here is outside. Once you’re in you’re in.
Most people have their own keys but for some reason I don’t so I have to get the master key each morning and be subjected to the magnesium grade lighting. I don’t know how anybody can work in here. It’s bad enough on the warehouse floor with a billion rows of fluorescent strips shining down. Here it’s like working in the headlights of a car.
My locker is the size of a mouse trap so I put my uniform on at home. A thick woven polyester T-shirt that has the feel of sackcloth. Black work trousers four sizes too big for me. Plus a pair of steel capped trainers which are very comfortable. They have to be because once the signal goes at six o’clock we’re on the go for the next eight hours.In my locker there is a headset, a permanent marker, work gloves and a box cutter – the ‘tools’ of the trade. Plus a battery pod/wireless receiver the size of a large avocado which I plug my headset into and then attach to my belt. I switch it on and a computer generated voice asks me ‘Do I want an order?’
I say ‘Yes.’ We’re on.
‘Go to slot 1726. Picking Area 6,’ the voice says and I obey.
A slot is the space underneath the huge five storey high shelving units where the individual products are located. The picking areas are the aisles in between the shelves where we work. I once asked one the drivers of the high-reach forklifts that replenish the stock if the shelves were safe.
‘Yes. Perfectly,’ he reassured me from inside his metal cage, his eyes shining out like kiln-holes from behind a balaclava to protect him from the dry cardboard chill of the warehouse. ‘Although it depends on the driver,’ he added while grabbing a 5 tonne pallet of sugar as effortlessly as a child takes cookies from a jar.
When I get to a slot I’m required to say a verification code printed in large letters above the product line. This is to ensure I’m at the correct slot and not about to pick up dog biscuits when I should be picking up nappies. I say the code and the voice says: ‘Take 2 (or 4, or 6, or 40…).’
I take the products and stack them neatly on the back of a Chep Euro pallet. The one below is from a catalogue photo. The ones we use are scarred with half hammered-in nails, burn marks and splinters the size of spears. Gloves are essential unless you want to go back home looking like you’ve been washing your hands in a meat grinder.
The pallet sits on a scissor lift order picker.
This too is from a catalogue photo. The ones we use are car crashes. Scraped, banged, bashed, dented, half rusted and coated in congealed chicken sauce, jam, fruit juice and cheap amaretto.
As you might notice the forks at the back are sharp and when fully raised are the perfect height to skewer the lower abdomen. I regularly have a horrible vision of watching my intestines spool out onto the cold warehouse floor after someone’s driven into me fork first. We’re told never to drive backwards for this very reason. But it’s difficult not to.
The skill to order picking (if there is one) is the ability to stack 100 or more cases on a pallet without it collapsing. There are many ways to do this but only one right way. Unfortunately I was never taught properly so I’ve developed my own style – the Ogley Stack. Which resembles the Acropolis in Athens: Exquisitely designed, beautiful to look at but prone to collapse. The slightest bump in the warehouse floor sends my twelve case high pallet of red wine crashing to the floor.
The resulting scene is one of a massacre. Something out of a mobster movie from the 1950s. And if the sun is shining in through one of the high windows, it can look quite poetic. Until the bosses charge over from their office pods to calculate how much I’ve cost the company this time. It’s therefore no coincidence I’ve ended up on the nappie and dog food aisle – The Unbreakables.
Apart from this the job is pretty simple. It’s also phenomenally boring, repetitive and very physical. But not physical in an active manner. As in climbing a mountain or building a wall. Physical in a repetitive manner. The heart never really gets going. It simply plods along a few beats behind the body. Not exactly exercise, more strained movement.
We’re able to have a breather and a chat of course; we’re not in prison. But not for too long. We have targets, called pickrates:
Take your pick. But whichever statistic I choose, it’s hard. And after twelve weeks I’m nowhere near it. Which is why towards 8.30 I start to get nervous. This is when one of our bosses (there’s about 6) tell us our first pickrates of the day (the other one is at 11:00). Something I really look forward to!
‘Morning, Phil,’ one will say clipboard in hand. The young bosses have big quiffs, short back and sides. The older ones slightly smaller quiffs. And like rings on a tree I can tell their age by the severity and angle of their ski-jump hairdos.
‘Morning,’ I say, my uncombed curly locks hanging out of my headset like rogue shoots escaping out of a hanging basket.
‘190 today,’ he says. There’s a pause. A dramatic pause that doesn’t need to be there because this is a shitty warehouse. We’re not at the theatre. We’re not reciting Pinter. But I know what he’s doing. He’s waiting for me to apologise and promise to work harder.
Instead I say: ‘That’s good. Better than yesterday.’
This stumps him because he doesn’t have yesterday’s figures so he can’t verify whether I’m telling the truth or not. So he says good or OK and drifts off to the next picker who says the same thing. ‘Better than yesterday,’ I hear echoing round the place most mornings.
The only person who does have the figures is the section manager who comes once a week armed with a graph to discuss my progress. It’s a total waste of time because I don’t make any progress. The graph is flat. A solid single undulating line running Eastwards across the page.
‘You need to pick it up. Phil,’ he says. ‘It’s too low. We need to sort this out.’
I note the personal pronoun ‘We’ as though he’s going to jump up and lend a hand. In the event of this ever happening I will write a redaction and an immediate apology.
‘I’m trying my best,’ I say flatly. ‘I find it hard.’
‘All the others manage.’
‘Yes, but they’re all wired on energy drinks,’ I reply.
It’s meant as a joke, but I’m half serious because it’s true. Plus most people here are twenty years younger than me. I want to tell him this but he might advise me to find another job and at moment, if I can keep my head down, this is fine.
‘I better get on,’ I say. ‘Otherwise my pickrate is going to plummet.’
There’s nothing much he can say to this and he leaves me, screwing up his colour graph and tossing it in the bin like a teenager who’s been given a crap mark for a presentation he spent hours preparing.
I think regularly of how many people are employed in the retail-industrial complex nationwide. This bank of human bone and muscle moving boxes from one place to another. Then placed on lorries and driven to a store. Unloaded again by more muscle. Unstacked and put on shelves. The process repeated thousands and thousands of times a day. Imagine if the order pickers went on strike. Then what? Bare shelves within days most likely. Maybe even hours.
And those films I watched as a child. The ones set in the future where the work is done by machines and mankind is left to spend his time exploring space or simply doing nothing. Reading. Thinking. I believed in those films and how good it was going to be. And yet I find myself with 300 others at five o’clock on a Sunday morning (no double-time here) hauling dog food and nappies from one part of a giant warehouse to another. Where are the machines? The robots? Surely if they can build cars and go to the outer reaches of the Solar System, they can pick up a few boxes.It’s my 86th job since leaving school. In that time I’ve done some pretty soul crushing menial jobs – data entry, building site labourer, plongeur, dust-binman, salesman, teacher – to name a few. But nothing as unfulfilling as being an order picker. Maybe I’m not cut out for this work. Perhaps my body’s not connected together in the way others are. My bones and ligaments and tendons and muscles work perfectly when I’m walking. I can walk for miles and miles. Endlessly traipse round a city. Hike a hill. Walk a coastline. Or swim in the freezing cold sea in the middle of winter. No problem.
But if I’ve got to bend down and lift a heavy box in a repetitive sideways movement for hours on end, I’m pretty useless. I suppose that’s just the way it is and why tomorrow is my last day.
Copyright © 2017 Philip Ogley
It’s six years since I left Bristol to teach English to EDF nuclear engineers in Lyon. Six years since I started writing this blog. Six years since I met Elizabeth. And six days until I go back to the UK. Wednesday 6th September.
For those of you who read this blog, you know the score. And well done by the way! It must have been a terrible struggle for you. But thank you all the same.
If you haven’t read it, here’s a very brief recap.
After two years teaching in Lyon, me and Elizabeth went to live on a farm in the middle of nowhere in Queaux (Vienne), about 90kms from Limoges. After that we went to Bordeaux for three months to look for work but ended up getting drunk on 3 euro pints of Budvar in the Revolution bar. We were saved when asked to look after a posh hotel over the winter on the Arcachon basin in Taussat. This took us up to May 2015 and after a brief housesit looking after three irritating dogs in Alaigne (Aude), we made the disastrous decision to head back to the UK to teach English in Box near Bath. After four tedious months teaching Italian and Russian bankers we jumped ship again and in October 2015 ended up in the minuscule village of Auty (Tarn-et-Garonne) to look after an 18th century chateau. The following spring we worked as holiday reps in Souillac (Lot) teaching canoeing and ferrying tourists round. After this we headed back to the chateau for another winter. But not before looking after a campsite in Serramonacesca (Abruzzo, Italy) for two months. In June 2017 once the chateau finished, we headed off to Copenhagen where I worked as a bicycle courier. This I finished on Monday.
During these six years, I’ve written a book on France based on this blog, a book of short stories (see Books) and a novel (unpublished). I’ve also made many short films which vaguely trace the last six years. (See Films). And also – much to my amazement – some paintings (see Paintings).
I’ve made many friends, met lots of people and done lots of things. Fulfilled lots of dreams. Written a novel, cycled with a French cycle club, cycled to Spain over the Pyrenees, learnt French, been a bike courier in Copenhagen, seen wild boar, lived in a chateau! I never thought these things would happen when I got on the Eurostar six years ago. It’s been one of the most interesting periods of my life and amazing what is possible when you simply don’t think about things too much. Say YES when given an opportunity. If I’d said NO I’d still be in Lyon knocking out phrasal verbs to EDF students. And that’s something you don’t want to be doing in your forties I can tell you that.
I’m not sure when the next post will be. Maybe never. Perhaps it’s taken its course. Achieved its goal of being a log of what I’ve been doing these last six years. For myself as much as anybody else. I’ve certainly enjoyed writing it. It’s been quite a journey. Bye and thanks for reading.
(For a complete breakdown of posts by place or by month click on the ladder shaped menu icon at the top of the page. Or for a more concise read. A Man in France is the book based on the blog and can be bought as an eBook or paperback here)(Or buy my short story collection. The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd, 24 short stories influenced by 20 years of dreadful jobs. A vivid journey through the cesspit of modern life can be bought here )
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)