Monday, 26 January 2009

Cornish History

For many years I’ve been a keen amateur student of Cornish history. I still enjoy the one-volume summary by Halliday, though it’s long in the tooth and a great deal of work has been carried out since its original publication in the ‘50s. These days there are many excellent books available, from tomes covering wider areas, to micro-histories. The latter are particularly interesting; they are often compiled by dedicated local folk who have intimate, unique knowledge of their subjects. Without their efforts, these small pieces of history would eventually be lost to us.

If you’re interested in carrying out some research of your own, there are some wonderful places to visit. The County Museum in Truro is most helpful and contains many interesting records which, by prior appointment, you are welcome to browse through. Redruth is home to the Cornish Studies Library, again with a most impressive set of archives. The Morrab Library at Penzance is privately run, but for a small charge visitors can access their basement files, which include a great collection of local newspapers going back to the First World War. There are a number of other museums and archives in Cornwall, as well as the public libraries, which also bear searching out. The staff really make these places; despite often being under-resourced they are unfailingly ready to lend a hand.

But beware! There is one danger. It’s easy to be side-tracked, so that you might make a visit with one subject in mind, and then find some very interesting document on quite another area that you simply must read. If this happens your visit starts to lose its shape somewhat, but it’s all there to enjoy – and who says there’s nothing to do in Cornwall on a rainy day?

Thursday, 22 January 2009

My Friend at the Docks

For twenty years I worked for multi-national companies on the commercial and contracts side of life, within the defence electronics industry. But an opportunity arose to change my line of business, and I joined the world of ship repair. The difference is staggering between a blue-chip office, and the more (shall we say) grounded surroundings of a shipyard. I found whole chunks of my experience had become irrelevant.

At the docks, there was little use for my understanding of intellectual property, or for the subtleties of software licensing. However, ship repair has its own skill set, again complex and demanding. The new job required an expertise I had to pick up on Day One.

Of course, this didn't happen. But what did happen was that I made a friend. I palled up with a comical, quick-witted colleague who had bags of experience and showed me the ropes. What I had brought to my new industry was an ingrained business sense, and a safe pair of hands when it came to bidding and negotiating contracts with our customers. But Jez helped me so much with the vital tools of context.

He was a model of patience, and a great trainer. He would sit with me and go over first principles, then more detailed examples. Though he was always very busy, somehow he found the time to do this. He didn't have to bother, he had received no formal instruction to take me under his wing. But as I became more able to play a part we both began to get the benefit, and enjoyed working together in what was often a high-pressure atmosphere. We became firm friends and I was sad to lose contact with him when I left the company to return to education.

So, we managed not to lose contact. Recently we went for a quick pint that turned into an evening. Jez and Sam have become parents to Kate, the dockyard is still beavering away, we both had tales to tell and the time flew by. We're going to make a regular thing of going for a beer, putting our worlds to rights, and laughing.

After all, I do owe him a couple of drinks.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Prisoner Cell Block 2

Here we are then - back in the jug again.

I had a month off between Blocks 1 and 2 of my course, to celebrate the festive season. Oh good.
How I detest the commercialism of Christmas. The shops are full of rubbish from August onwards. There is a complete absence of any reference to religeon on television, in advertising, in the shops, and in the spirit of the event (if any). The bills can be stratospheric, as every year the loathsome Megacorp mercilessly horse-whips us toward personal financial disaster. The real concern is that the foregoing has all been said before, countless times, and yet each year the same thing happens. Enough.

So this time, I took a leaf out of my friend Helen's book. Helen refuses to acknowledge or do anything about Christmas until a couple of days before the great day. She then shops sparingly, and goes to someone else's for Christmas dinner. She has a thoroughly good time, gets vaguely pissed among a crowd of friends, and goes to sleep. When she wakes up, it's all over. So that's what I did too - and it works brilliantly.

I managed to get a bit of course work done over the period, which was pleasant. I tinkered with my website and did some reading. I set up some new files for the coming Block 2. I caught up with some old buddies, and missed my friends from Uni. I was glad to get back to UCF for Block 2; it's good to be in the groove again. That said, it took me a couple of days to reconnect with the mindset necessary for careful study, ie attendance, punctuality, deadlines, and filthy fantasies about ...

I've said too much.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Happy Shopper

As a kid, I used to visit the Quality Shop. This emporium was owned by a kindly, middle-aged man with half-moon glasses, who wore cardigans. The Quality Shop sold sweets the like of which you rarely see today, stored in big jars. The man didn't mind waiting while careful thought took place over value for money on a limited budget - two shillings pocket-money - and if you bought loose sweets he'd weigh them out then drop a couple of extras in the bag. He always seemed cheerful, and he also sold Airfix aeroplane kits, which elevated him still further in my mind.

But today, things have changed.

I go into a mobile phone store. Behind the counter is a woman who deeply resents the interruption of her prattle with a colleague which my arrival eventually causes. If I ask her any remotely technical question - for example, how much is this phone? - she will either not know the answer, or will not disclose it. Finally, she offers me a manufacturer's brochure she has never read, which perhaps contains the information I require. As I turn to leave the shop she resumes her conversation where she left off. How I wish she could be forced to work on a commission-only basis, but I know this would in some way infringe her human rights. Sorry to have troubled you.

On to the bakery for a cream cake. Firstly I am offered a cake with no cream at all, and then a cake with disgusting synthetic cream supplied by ICI. After a brief staff meeting it is determined that all the real cream cakes have been sold. This information is given to me without the slightest regret.

In the butchers, the teenager runs his hand over the acne around his mouth, and then picks up sausages to sell them to me. His hair is 'styled' to make his head appear flat, like Herman Munster's. I leave the sausages in their pus-coated cage.

What is happening? Where are the ethics of retail upon which I was reared?

Surprisingly perhaps, the answer is, the local Asda; they can't do enough for you. The staff are cheerful and helpful and busy. If I appear confused - sometimes I can't read my own writing on the shopping list - I am swarmed on by concerned employees. If I ask where a product can be found, I am taken directly to it - not merely given vague instructions as to where it is, or might be. The pleasant, matronly lady at the checkout usually has a jolly word or two, and thanks to the badge on her left breast I know her by name. At least, I imagine it's her name.

The badge says, 'Pat'.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Mr Bouz

I've enjoyed playing music for longer than I care to remember. Most of my friends come from the semi-pro live music scene and some of them go back more than twenty years (clue there).

Like so many people, I started learning music on the guitar. I currently play an early Sigma Martin HD-28 dreadnought acoustic with Takamine electrics. That's to say, I occasionally get it out for a short time; otherwise, it sits in its case.

The trouble with the guitar is, most people can play one. Well, not most people, obviously, but you know what I mean. If you're into music and want to learn an instrument, it's probably the guitar you pick up. The piano isn't terribly portable, while learning the violin is agonising (for others), and the recorder is a pointless little stick. These were the choices when I was at school. On the other hand, the guitar is sociable; you can carry it around, and sing along to it, and the girls will want to shag you.

But when I joined my first real band, everyone could play the guitar, we looked like some thirties jazz combo, all strumming away (and all the same chords) with only - bleugh - a melodeon and a bodhran to break up the wall of jangle. What could we do?

One of my favourite bands is Planxty, a wonderful traditional Irish group who performed their music with real fire and astonishing dexterity. One of their number, Andy Irvine, played the bouzouki. Actually, 'played' is a very weak word, for the man is a genius. The sound of the bouzouki hooked me and I bought one, a Fylde - which was promptly named Mr Bouz. I introduced him to the band, and he really helped to vary the sound.

Since then, Mr Bouz and I have travelled the length and breadth of the southern half of England, playing in pubs, clubs, functions, festivals, and the back gardens of rich people. We've had trips to Wales, Ireland, France, Belgium and Germany. Mr Bouz has picked up many scrapes and bashes during his long career but he's still a beautiful instrument to play. He's been through three electrics fits, four sets of frets, and two cases. The edge of his sound hole has been eroded by billions of strums. His table has lifted around the bridge, but thanks to a couple of minor operations his action and intonation is fine.

Mr Bouz has become an old friend. He's shared a big chunk of my life, and so many memories. I love the feeling of putting him on, and the eerie modal sound he makes. He's a joy to play live, so easy and comfortable, just when you need it. He's also something of a conversation piece; people are curious and aren't quite sure what he is. I'm unashamedly sentimental about him - can you tell?

I sometimes wonder how long he'll go on. I can see him finally giving up the ghost during a gig, his table lifting, his bridge collapsing, the tension of his strings finally pulling him to pieces. It would be rather a fitting end, suitably memorable and dramatic and poetic.

But not just yet, I hope.