The Diary: The Joy In Small Things

***
Seemingly like in the blink of an eye – like play like play in the pidgin English of my youth –  we are somehow at the end of May!  Summer is finally here, bringing in its wake the realisation that if I had stayed up North, the first of my Nine Fridays of Summer would have just gone past. As it is though, I find myself in an intermission of sorts, loitering in the space between a past life and the future in which an adventure in the sun hovers just out of reach, 70 days late. There are of course worse things than swapping grey granite for verdant green or being cooped up with family, like dying or very nearly dying like so many people, including a few closer to home for me, have over the past few months of this pandemic.

The reality of the lockdown first hit on a personal level sometime in late March, when my flight out was cancelled. My initial reaction is to take it as an extended holiday of sorts, cue extended hours of Football Manager but as time passes, each day blurring into the next, I find life without the tether of routine somewhat disconcerting. Its the first time since the autumn of 2009 that I have been in this place where there is plenty of time on my hands. Six weeks of a creative non-fiction writing course and National Poetry Writing Month do provide some structure and help mitigate the sense of floundering, the result of decisions taken earlier in the year as part of fleshing out what My Year of Delving Deeper would look like. It is thus only in May that the desire to stay creative and productive kicks in, no thanks to the reminders of the supreme productivity of Newton and Shakespeare in similar times from the Twitter productivity gurus.

One of the bigger impacts of all the time everyone suddenly has is a significant regression in the quality of my Whatsapp messages. Being Nigerian, with loads of older, Christian folk in my contacts, I find my inbox something of a ground zero for conspiracy theories of all flavours, from the 5G one peddled by a certain Nigerian MOG through a raft of others suggesting it is all a ploy to foist some religious or moral imperative on the rest of us. Elsewhere in my wider (Pentecostals) network, the miracle of hindsight manifests itself in various names – both well known and lesser-known lights – claiming some sort of prescience or other in having prophesied that a pandemic of such a nature was coming. What those who forward those messages on to me fail to answer is why, if these prophets were that certain, they didn’t shout louder for those of us at the back as Nigerian Twitter likes to put it. Those who cling to conspiracy theories do so as an attempt to find certitude and assert control of what is fundamentally an uncertain state, at least so says Skye Jethani who is a lot more clued into the Christian sub-culture than I am.

In retrospect, the things that stand out from the past 70 days – and some – are the little unplanned things; a picture from 2016 which brings back memories of Lagos and hanging with the old gang, an impromptu WhatsApp video call which segues into a three-way call that drags in A, I and C and dredges up fantastic memories of life, youth and friends that have become closer than brothers as it were.  I find myself measuring time in the small things and new routines, Mondays as bin days, Wednesdays as my Alpha Online days, Thursdays for joining the line that snakes around my local Tesco to stock up on food and water and Sundays for lengthy phone calls to friends and family around the world. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays have become portals of exploration, as my runs take me along paths which weave their way around the River Wey navigation paths. The bucolic sights that greet one’s eyes these days belie the fact that as recently as the 1960’s these were functional navigation routes. Private boats and yachts now line the waterway in places, a nod to the relatively well off folk who are our neighbours out here. Even those lie quietly, all furloughed in their own way, more than a few clearly showing signs of age and disuse, a metaphor for pausing to smell the roses and to enjoy the whispers of nature the world would otherwise have drowned out.

This is what my days have boiled down to; Reading, Writing and Running, and finding Joy in small things.

On Leaving

Of the many conversations I have had over the past few years, one sticks out in my mind, not for its length or its importance but for how odd it felt at the time. As I recall it, a travelling salesman and I had just finished a meeting and were heading to the kitchenette at work to drop our coffee mugs off when he asked: “How did you end up here?”.

Given he was white, and I am very much on the darker side of brown, it seemed at least to be somewhere between insensitive and provocative. That he needed my say-so to get his product approved only made the question, and its timing, even more interesting. Years later I would find out that he was Zimbabwean born, and that he took every opportunity to return there especially over the winter months. His question thus reflected more on the city than it did on me and my ‘rights’ to be there. As I sit here now with the benefit of time and some distance from my sojourn in that city, it seems like an appropriate time to revisit that question.

To begin, I have to return to my first days there, the enduring memories of which are of stiff upper lips, heavy overcoats and bitterly cold evenings with winds so ferocious they seemed to find their way through multiplied layers of clothing to torment my skin. What daylight that managed to penetrate the thick fog which sometimes rolled in from the sea overnight fell on dour, grey buildings, built in the main from the granite which was plentiful in the area.

After sharing a flat with a colleague for a month, I moved into the 13th floor of a council tower block, Spartan lodgings shared with a graduate student from the University a mile away, one of two which made the city a destination for students from all over the United Kingdom. Council tower blocks being what they were, it was not uncommon for the lifts to stink of stale cigarettes, for fights to break out in any one of the flats which often required the police to attend and for there to be someone stationed, permanently it seemed, on the benches next to the smoking area asking for spare change. There was a stabbing somewhere in the area, which prompted the police to visit with flyers appealing for information. Even the Receptionist at the Medical Practice I registered at made a point of warning me to be careful, once she’d seen my forms indicating I lived there.

On the plus side, on the days when the fog lifted, I could just about make out the sea in the distance, the number 13 bus stopped a few feet away from the entrance to the block which made getting about easy, and there was a football stadium a short distance away. They used to be good and counted themselves as one of a select few Scottish football clubs to have won a European Cup, thanks to the stellar talents of future Manchester United legend Alex Ferguson in the early 1980s.

I told everyone who cared to listen that this was merely a pit stop on my journey elsewhere. I was here for work and work only. “A year or two at most” was what I told The American when she DTRed our budding romance.

***


Tethered as it were to the sea, water and war have shaped the City’s identity over its more than 8,000 years of existence, enabling it to evolve from two tiny burghs at the mouths of the Dee and the Don Rivers, into its current status as Scotland’s third-largest city. Picts, Scots and the English all held sway over the city at various times and fought for it. Even the German Luftwaffe came visiting during World War Two, with unexploded ordinance being retrieved from its international airport as recently as 2018.

The sea though is not especially forgiving to those who depend on it for sustenance, the vagaries of weather and fish stocks sometimes combining to create extended periods where the catch is poor and thus food less plentiful. That and long, harsh winters which are not conducive to non-essential, frivolous activity perhaps place into context the people’s reputation for being grim and miserable.

Oil – also inextricably linked to the sea – has come to define the city to outsiders more than anything, as does its reputation for terrible weather, stark, grey granite city centre buildings and gruff people. All of this makes for interesting conversations with outsiders, who are wont to consider it a backwater of sorts saved only by oil revenue, the nouveau riche of cities perhaps.

To reduce the city to oil though is to do it a great disservice and minimise the tension between the old and the new which are visible beneath its façade. Wandering through the city centre, it is difficult to miss this in the smell of processed fish and the old derelict processing plants towered over by gleaming office blocks along Palmerston and Poynernook streets. Even the Torry suburb across the Victoria Bridge with a reputation for being rough has ceded significant swathes to the new, most recently a new housing development which replaced Craiginches, the now-closed, notoriously overcrowded prison. In pivoting to oil and gas the city has merely traded one fickle source of sustenance for another, big oil’s boom and bust cycles meaning periods of significant purse-string tightening and job losses are always around the corner.

To sense and understand these tensions is to take the first tentative steps in falling in love with the City for which I had The American to thank. We split up in April of my second year there, which made me accept that my lot was firmly tied to the city for the foreseeable future and opened my eyes to all the ways the City had been reaching out to me. I discovered a church family through the one person I knew in town and met a few others from work.  We still only grabbed lunch somewhere in the only decent mall we had, Union Square, or went out for evening drinks at Malone’s, an Irish bar just down the road from the office but what was clear was that a sense of being in it together was slowly building.

I learned to make small talk: gripe about the weather, the latest failing of the local football team and the ineptitude of the city council. I learnt to enjoy a full Scottish breakfast, dig into haggis with gusto, down a neat Scotch and to ken the difference atween smirr, dreich and drookit. Even the sea and the fog it brought was useful, lengthy runs by the beach became a staple of my exercise regimen.

***

In the days before I leave the city for the last time, it seems only fitting to revisit the people and the places it brought my way in my time there.

V, the precocious six-year-old who I have claimed as a God-daughter, bursts into tears when her father tells her I’m leaving town. I met them when I lived in the flat after the squalid council block in a season of loneliness and enjoyed their hospitality on many a Christmas day. The entire family and I spend a leisurely Saturday at the only amusement park in town. We have dinner together after which I get a handmade card as a memento. There are more tears and then a group hug and picture.

R, with whom I shared an office for six years, and I meet up for lunch the day before I’m due to fly. Between handling vendors and packing up my life into boxes, I arrive two minutes late just after he has fired off a typically acerbic text message wondering where I am on my phone. It’s our first face to face meeting in over a year but slightly more grey hair and slower movement apart, not a lot has changed for him. In many ways, he embodies my relationship with the city; simmering not sizzling, steady but close, more curmudgeonly grandfather than delectable damsel of interest.

Between sips of Turkish beer and bites from the koftes we order, we muse over the past ten years and our lives before that. “It’s the longest I’ve been in one place,” he says and then proceeds to reminisce on his life before coming up to Aberdeen. Madras, Delhi, Goa, Aden, Perth in Australia, London, Perth in Scotland all come up, and it shows in his accent which I imagine is a unique amalgam of all these places. Although retired, he’s opted to remain in the city even though somewhere warmer is ostensibly an option. “Aberdeen feels like home now”, is his explanation for not exploring other more exotic locations. Elsewhere for him, there are only vague, tenuous links to extended family to cling on to.

There is a faint nostalgia in his voice that I can relate to, seeing as I have now spent just over a quarter of my life there. This is a city that grows on you. At first brush, there is little of note to see but with time the city clasps you in a tight embrace. You get to know the city, delve into its innards and fall in love. It becomes home. And in leaving I find myself feeling like a prodigal turning his back on home, trading it for the lures of a far country.

I’ll be back.

A Sense of An Ending?

 

Spread out in various states of recline around a long table in the inner room of the Indian restaurant we have gathered in, I imagine we cast a scene not too dissimilar to the last supper. Not only are we thirteen (ignoring for a moment that S is barely 9 months old), it is a last supper of sorts, pulled together to celebrate the two J’s, in these their final days up here before they up sticks and move to study not too far off from ground zero in America’s bible belt. That we’ve plopped for Indian cuisine is perhaps a slight oddity given all thirteen of us have African roots. I suspect it is more indicative of the paucity of suitable eating options than adventure, which is why phones come out when it is time to order; google comes to the rescue. All that drags out the ordering process, which has a knock on effect on when we get our food.

When dinner finally arrives, we break out into leisurely conversations, in which it transpires that the two J’s are not the only ones on the verge of leaving. R is off in about a month’s time, O has his feet on two continents already, A’s entrepreneurial life is very much in full flow, two other youngsters are on the cusp of going away to University, and I am one job opening away from upping sticks myself. Even those who do not have active moves planned suggest in conversation that they would consider a move outside of town, all of which feeds the sense that a lot of change is afoot, and that the group is tottering on the edge of significant change, particularly over the next few months.

With the benefit of a few days to reflect over the events and feelings of the day, I find myself wondering what about these particular set of circumstances make the sense of change deeply personal. It is not like the group has stayed the same over the past few years I have been part of it. As recently as three or so months ago there was a significant departure, which make my initial guess that it is the sheer number of moves in a relatively small time scale that  has largely engendered this feeling. Other possible reasons might be the relative importance of some of the people on the move this time, the season of life I am in, or just a plain, unexplained increased sensitivity to all of this.

Change they say is inevitable but on this occasion I feel like I am being dragged kicking and screaming towards it.

Winging It

I am seating in a meeting, listening to the folk around the table drone on about some subject now lost to memory when it hits me – in the way I imagine an out of body experience might – just how much of what is often dressed as expert opinion is little more than strongly expressed opinion. Far from thumbing my nose down at others, it is a farce I very much consider myself as a contributor to. That sense of winging it, making things up as I go along, is one which has come to define the first half of the year for me; from the vagaries of the aforementioned work situation to the minutiae of doing life, spread as it has been between the grey, dull granite of the ‘Deen and the leafy, colour-suffused greenery of the Wey country.

In the best of years, I face the second half of the year with a sense of tentativeness, primarily due to the fact that the six weeks between the 8th of July and the 15th of August are deeply emotive ones. This year, that sense of being dragged unwillingly into the second half of the year is heightened by my middling attempts at meeting the goals I set for myself at the beginning of the year. Boiled down to its essentials, 2018 was the year I would read (and write) more, lose weight (to the tune of ~ 10kg), go a long way towards replenishing the savings my Chelmsford exertions drained and complete a timed 10k race. Some progress has been made towards running that 10k (I am currently training for the Simply Health Great Aberdeen Run) and have managed to complete 7 of the 25 books I hope to read in 2018, but what is abundantly clear is that a humongous effort is required to recover and meet these targets.

Elsewhere work (and multiple trips to the middle of nowhere), travel and machine learning have been my continuum. In addition to Pula, pit stops over the course of the year have included Inverness, Glasgow and various dodgy London backwaters. I am only six weeks into a twelve week machine learning course on Coursera but what it has done to reignite niggling doubts in my mind about the future cannot be completely quantified. Poring over matrices, gradients and numerical computations has brought back to mind things learned in Further Mathematics many years ago, with the near instant feedback a few lines scripted in Octave can bring raising the question in my mind of what I want to do long term. A year ago, I could have sworn the corrosion and materials discipline was it for me (hence the Rust in RustGeek) but a combination of needing to move down south and studying has made me question what shape or form the move should take. I am far from being at a level of proficiency required to completely dump my past life and switch industries but I suspect if this horse had its wish, I would be dumping my rust geek card and picking up a Deep Mind one, never mind they are riddled with contractors.

It is not only on the subject of the future that niggling doubts assail me. Faith, developing a coherent world view and how that interfaces with science and what we know about the physical world is something that has floated on the periphery of my consciousness for a long time. The pitfall in all of this thinking is entertaining doubt for its own sake only, or worse as a proxy for a cool, worldly wise spirituality rather than as a means to an end, figuring out objective truth. That, this engagement of the mind and reason in the sphere of faith, is one that the church has a rich tradition of; Augustine, Origen, Eusebius, Anselm – to whom the motto fides quaerens intellectum – and more recently the likes of CS Lewis and John Stott all come to mind. Three books, one on the go and two on the to-read list, are likely to feature prominently here; Diarmaid MacCulloch’s (the partly read one) A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years which attempts to chronicle the coalescence of various ideas into what we know and practise as Christianity from a historian’s viewpoint, NT Wright’s Paul: A Biography which looks to reinterpret Paul’s legacy from the perspective of a theologian’s who is not afraid to colour outside the lines a bit, and Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood which given her antecedents is likely to be a more modern, doubter turned believer again view. Paul looms large in all of this, predictably, given his outsize influence on the New Testament and its shaping, and also how a lot of the ‘problematic’ bits of the new testament, especially it’s treatment of women relate to his teaching.

Identity is also another topic which has lingered on my mind these past few months, triggered in the main by the World Cup and the make up (and performance) of the French, Belgian, English and German teams. Trevor Noah’s take, the response from the French ambassador and his response all demonstrate how deeply nuanced the subject is. Whilst there is certainly some delight in seeing people like me do well for these countries (sans the English team of course which being the dour, Calvinist almost Scotsman I am I must hate), the fact that none of the ‘proper’ African countries made it out of the group begs the question of if these sons of African émigrés have achieved what they have in spite of, rather than because they have African roots. The Mezut Ozil saga does suggest it is a little bit of both, with there being a sense in which the acceptance of one’s visible otherness is bestowed almost as a reward for being of the good other. Acceptance or not, the one question I have’t being able to wrap my head around is what I would do if I had a kid who was great at sport. Would I encourage them to represent Nigeria or their adopted country?

There are a lot of weighty things to mull over, and a few trips to the middle of nowhere to navigate but I would like to think I can make writing more a focus for this second half of the year. The benefits are obvious, I think, from providing an outlet for clearing my head and organising the prodigal thoughts swirling about in my head to providing opportunities for deliberate practice. I make no promises though, may what will be be.

Coming Up For Air


Photo by Zen Photographer on Unsplash


Eat-sleep-work-walk; wash-rinse-repeat. This just about sums up the past six weeks for me, travel down south being one of the few brights spots in an otherwise humdrum existence. In that state the days blur into each other – the weekend when it comes offering scant relief – before being quickly subsumed by a new Monday morning and the start of a new cycle of drudgery.  It is that time of the year when the final reports from last year are being reviewed and finishing touches made to the detailed plans for the new year’s work so there is little scope for escape.

The various iterations of the  Beast from the East have also had their say, ice and snow being so serious that for the first time in a while those who live in the sticks were permitted to work from home. Being a centre dweller, I managed to make it into work regardless, the main impact of all that snow and ice being to put paid to my practice of lunch time walking and my running. That at least is my excuse. The one upside has been the opportunity to load up on the reading – the small matter of six books being downed from the twenty five I plan on reading this year.

Away from proper books I have been doing a lot of web-based reading, which is how I stumbled onto Tom Chritchlow’s Small B- blogging post (via Om Malik’s link). Tom’s premise is that purposefully crafting content for a small deliberate audience provides more value to both the writer and the reader than the content market approach that larger networks seem to favour. It is a sentiment that has been kicking about in various forms in the networks I float about in, a piece on the ‘demise’ of the mommy blog and one by Ethan Zuckerman being the examples that come most readily to mind.  Although the Zuckerman post is a plug for gobo.social,  it raises a number of points which, in our very own Facebook inspired 1984 dystopia, are particularly relevant. For what it is worth, I believe I read and follow a number of solid small b-blogs; Caitlin Kelly’s Broadside Blog, Elizabeth Adams’ Cassandra Pages and the aforementioned Ethan Zuckerman’s My Heart Is In Accra all come to mind.

The Social Media as Big Brother narrative has most certainly come home to roost on Facebook’s porch,  Facebook’s dealings with Cambridge Analytical leading to investors voting with their money to the tune of $58billion and counting. That Facebook has been harvesting user call log and messaging data for quite a while only worsens the situation, discovered ironically as users have exited the service in response to the Cambridge Analytical findings. Amidst the hue and cry,  I found William Davies’ take in the London Review of Books more clear eyed than most. Whilst Facebook might currently be the most egregious example of the social-as-big-brother problem , it is one which is deeply intertwined with the very fabric of the internet. Unplugging might be a solution, except for the small matter of the fact that everyone – Amazon, Google, Free wifi on the London Underground and almost every single online media outlet (including the ones who have raised the hue and cry) all gather data on their users. That horse may have already bolted.

Loads to reflect on then – big and small over the last few weeks. For me, my love hate relationship with Facebook continues. How long this latest season of deactivation lasts remains to be seen.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Glow

42-Glow

More shimmer than glow but I suppose the view of the sea from the Beach Esplanade as I headed out to last Saturday’s Aberdeen Park Run counts.  I am only five official runs in but it is very quickly becoming a key part of my Saturday mornings, when life allows me spend the weekend in the ‘Deen.

Next step the Baker Hughes 10k next year.


For the WordPress Photo Challenge Prompt: Glow

Wandering, Wondering, Pondering

january-weather

A damp squib of a day is perhaps as good as any to wrap up January, given how off script the weather has been. It used to be that loads of snow and travel disruptions were par for the course for this time of the year; neither happened. Even the threat of thunder snow  – cold air from Canada invading our own Northern skies – failed to materialise, a few inches of snow and gale force winds being the worst of the lot.

Work, like the weather, has been out of character too. Far from easing into work following an extended break for year end, it has felt like a schedule from hell; meetings, reviews and more meetings being the bane of my life. As week after week has hurtled past, I find myself hoping for 4.30pm on a Friday, leaving and then bingeing on Elementary over the weekend, before suddenly realising it is Sunday night, with a return to work looming.

At the beginning of the year, I was sure that developing a daily consistent practice of writing would be one of the focus areas for the year. So pumped at the prospect of that was I that I bought a URL, set up a publication on medium, and updated my social media profiles to reflect this. As the days have dragged on, what has become obvious is that more thought and planning was required than I had applied. My cringe-worthy musings on there very quickly became more the fevered thrashings of a wondering wanderer than the coherent, collected thoughts of the thinker I persist on believing I am.

The point of all of this- if there is a point – is tactfully beating a retreat from those grandiose plans, back to this place of certainty and reality to begin yet again. To aid my recovery, I have decided to use WordPress Blogging University’s Finding Everyday Inspiration course as a prompt which brings me to the question for today, Why I write.

When I have considered this question in the past, most recently here, I have honed in on the cathartic reasons for writing – the memories and the clarity of thought that comes from relentless massaging whatever is on my mind. Reading through George Orwell’s thoughts on the subject – recommended reading for this prompt – brought a new one to the fore in my mind; sheer egoism. 

I suppose everyone who writes publicly  as opposed to in a private journal is motivated to some extent by this; which would explain why we crave comments and feedback. For the one or two who still pass through these parts, indulge my curiosity… Why do you write?

22. (Not) Crying Wolf

Source

There is a lot I enjoy about my work, not least being a purveyor of the somewhat esoteric knowledge of materials and how they perform in a variety of service environments.

Most of the time I am advising, providing insights into what types of degradation can occur, how likely it is to progress and what actions we should be taking to assure ourselves of the future integrity of the kit we look after.

Once in a while bad news strikes, a failure or an inspection finding that requires significant (and often expensive) action surfaces. My job in those circumstances then morphs into one in which I become the bearer of bad news.

I suppose it is the same way — in a manner of speaking — that a doctor who has to break the news of the diagnosis of a terminal illness feels; the need to get a job done been tempered by the tension between providing clarity around the seriousness of a situation and softening the blow. Different consequences of course….