Thursday, March 27, 2008

Big Questions

There is a programme on the TV on Sunday mornings called “The Big Questions”. My wife likes it. My wife watches it. The other Sunday she was unable to watch it as we had to go out. Having recently forgiven Sky TV for their past misdemeanours in the after-service department, we have recently taken out a new contract with them and have Sky Plus. So………we recorded “The Big Questions” for later consumption.

This past weekend, we were away in Scotland. My wife had a falling accident and hurt herself, so much so, she spent a night in hospital before I was able to (very carefully) transport her home the following day. The doctor said she must have 24 hour care so I am not allowed to leave her unattended for the next few days. I am therefore not going to work for the moment at least.

Bored with the mid-week daytime TV, we decided to watch the recording of “The Big Questions”.

This programme is one of the pseudo-religious affairs where they talk about all sorts of social problems and issues with a live audience. There are always a mixture of people from a number of different religions – and no religion. So….you see the odd dog collared vicar, scull-capped Rabbi, bearded Muslim, habited nun or robed monk etc.

One of the big questions which caused a lot of shouting and argument amongst these ambassadors for God was whether there should be a division between Church and State. The conversation turned into an argument about how awful it is that the Heir to the Throne cannot marry a Roman Catholic. This caused much excitement and shouting.

Now, the reason I am writing this little sketch, is to point out that all this argument and expensive air-time is in reality a load of wasted hot air. The big question they should actually be addressing is the existence of God himself (itself). My point is this: there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of God – any god. Belief in this Being is based upon an irrational unreason which might have seemed reasonable before the Enlightenment, but we know enough about the universe, and our reasoning and logic have advanced to the point where the very idea that there could actually be a god makes as much sense as arguing over how many fairies can dance on the point of a needle. I am not going to waste time writing out the details of why I am totally convinced of the non-existence of God - for the moment at least. It has always been my experience of convinced religionists that their minds are (in the main) closed to reason and logic, and trying to argue your corner with these people is like farting against the wind. Even so, there are a few who make it out of La La Land, I being one of them.

So – returning to the question over whether there should be a division between Church and State. The answer to this is most obviously “yes” because the Church is based upon an erroneous belief in a God which doesn’t actually exist. This renders their bishops valueless in any issues of import to the State because their whole world view is based upon an untenable notion.

Its time the world woke up and stepped into the wonderful light of reason. Think of all the wars which have been waged because of belief in God. Think of all the dead. Think of all the suffering. Think of all the obscene waste of human resources and creativity in promoting a non-existent entity. God is a neurosis which needs eradicating from the human psyche. Imagine what a far better future we could have without a humanity burdened by religion.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Walking the West Highland Way - Episode 4: Don't mention the War

Leaving the Tyndrum Lodge Hotel the next morning, feeling refreshed (sort of in a morbid kind of way), we boldly went, one foot before the other, blisters pressing to bursting point ….uugghhhhhh. Actually, it wasn’t my blisters I was worried about – I didn’t have any; it was my son’s blisters which bothered me. His blisters were just awful and I knew from past experience what misery and agony they can be. Our first main resting point along the way today, was Bridge of Orchy. Knowing there was a railway station there, he decided that this was to be the point where he made the decision to go on or not. I would have been really gutted if he had left at that point having come so far, but when push comes to shove, we all know our limits.

Thankfully, this part of the walk wasn’t too bad in the sense that it was flat and we had a single track to follow, so there was nowhere to take a wrong turn. The countryside wasn’t exactly awe inspiring, but it was nevertheless a million miles from the flatlands of Cambridgeshire. What really made it for me was the fact that we were walking next to a railway track. What do railway tracks make? … Yes, you’ve guessed it – trains! I don’t really know why, but I absolutely love trains. I can’t fathom what it is about them, but I’ve always felt this great surge of joy tinged with excitement when I see a train. And yet I’m not an anorak! I don’t stand around on platforms all day having orgasms every time a train goes by, diligently noting the numbers of the engines, counting the coaches, noting the exact time to the second. No, I don’t do any of that. I do, however photograph them. I have a friend at work, who is also a fellow athlete and member of the running club I belong to who regularly keeps me informed whenever a steam train is due to pass through Huntingdon. Armed with this info, I have a tendency, often accompanied by my wife to lurk at some vantage point beside the railway track hoping the train hasn’t been cancelled (the story of my life). Steam trains are in a different league to the sleek electric speedsters of today. Steam trains were real trains, what trains should always have been. I just love the smell of steam train smoke in the morning! I love the sound of a steam engine – all that pumping power, hissing and spitting steam with great chuffs of white smoke forced into the sky. Wonderful.

Anyway, back to the walk. We had no steam trains to accompany us, only the odd goods train or electric passenger train. Whenever one passed, I amused myself in photographing it. All the good photographs I take, I put onto an on-line photo library I subscribe to. So far none of my train shots have made a sale. Even so, I live in hope. We managed to keep up a good pace on this part of the walk. Finally, we found ourselves approaching Bridge of Orchy railway station. At around this point, we were caught up by a bloke and his son from Cambridge who had previously walked the West Highland Way. We got talking to them, as you do, and the bloke decided to advise us to use the baggage carrying service the next day when we were due to ascend the worryingly named “Devil’s Staircase.” Being determined to carry my rucksack the whole way, I politely acknowledged his sage advice, but decided nonetheless I was going to carry my rucksack come what may. I’m not a wimp.

The sight of the railway station brought great joy to us as it marked another significant milestone in our quest. It also marked decision point for my son. To get the train home, or not to get the train home – that it is the question. Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune walking on blistered feet……………… He decided to carry on. Wonderful. I breathed a sigh of relief. The walk continued…..

Crossing the river Orchy – and the A82, we continued on an upward incline into forested slopes. We all started to walk at our own pace, so we got spread out and I lost sight of the others, apart from my nephew who walked with me. Presently, we came over the rise and beheld a beautiful landscape with Loch Tullah to our right. The land was much more open so we had a better sense of progress. When walking along tracks in woodland shrouded with trees, it is difficult to judge distance, but now, for the time being at least we could enjoy the changing landscape. We were, of course, still feeling pretty exhausted, lets not forget. My blowfly bitten swollen ankle was still extremely painful, and would remain so for the remainder of the walk. My nephew was still letting out the occasional “Ow!” with every step injecting pain into his blister ridden foot.

Walking onward – and downward, we spotted what looked like a pub, with a number of people lurking around outside. When we got closer, the pub turned out to be the Inveroran Hotel. Our countenance transformed to cheeriness and a slight spring sprang in now springing steps as we agreed on how lovely it will be to relax in the comfort of its confines for half an hour or so, with a pint of the Landlord’s best bitter refreshing our sagging innards. The dream was short lived. When we got there and walked into the bar, then the restaurant, then the rest of the premises, there wasn’t a soul around, save for the gaggle of apparently Germanic walkers mainly of a middle aged chronology, it became oh so painfully clear that the place was shut. It had probably called time shortly before our arrival as the other walkers looked as if they had recently received refreshment. Even so, I dare say they would never have needed as much refreshment, or as badly needed it as us because they were far too smartly attired to be attempting the heavy duty type of walking we were doing. They were dressed more for a Sunday stroll down to the paper shop along the path across the golf course than to be remotely considered to be serious walkers. We walked on, but I am convinced that if we’d waited, a bus would have picked them up and dropped them off about fifteen minutes walk from the next pub. As the next pub was probably about ten miles away, they would probably have boasted (in German) to their erstwhile friends and colleagues that they had in fact walked it all. But then, they were not the REAL walkers. We were the real walkers. We were the ones in pain, exhausted, sweaty, weighed down by overweight rucksacks and a distance still to walk which would leave your average townie hailing the next cab .We were the real deal.

With the desolate hotel now firmly behind us we crossed the Victoria Bridge over the river flowing into Loch Tullah, and onwards along an old military road. The landscape ahead was very undulating, panoramic with big skies. The road, which after a very few miles became more of a stony track, seemed unending. It would stretch way off into the distance, and when you reached that point the view was very similar gain. We were, by this point, completely knackered and longing to reach the welcoming embrace of the Kings House Hotel in Glencoe where we were headed. I have to say that I am very familiar with Glencoe as I have driven through it and stopped by it many times. Although we seemed to have been walking towards it for ages, the scenery around did not look at all like what I was hoping to see – until – a familiar looking mountain came finally into view. We felt heartened at this, but still could not yet see the Kings House. It is easy to spot the Kings House, because it is the only building of any substance around and coloured white, which makes it stand out against the rugged backdrop. Presently, the Kings House itself came into view – a little more than a light dot in the distance. It was some distance below us as we came over the ridge. I estimated it would take us about half an hour to reach it. My nephew estimated that it would take us about an hour to reach it. He was right and I was wrong.

We reached it with the light rapidly fading, billowy clouds wrapping around the tops of the peaks and a couple of well antlered deer looking on as we crossed the threshold to our hearts’ desire and the fulfilment of all our longings.

After some refreshments I went to chill out in the lounge where there was a big fire place, a carpet, a comfortable sofa and other plush implements of relaxation – and two Germans.

My brother was in the lounge as well, but after I struck up a conversation with the Germans (both of whom were of the male gender), he became bashful, shied off and I next saw him the following morning at breakfast. Having lived for three years of my life in Germany, I was interested to chat with my fellow Germanic walkers. It turned out they had started out camping, abandoned their tent after getting bitten half to death by midges. I know what this is like, as I have experienced the self same thing myself many years ago. We talked about the problems of the world and solved them all – as you do. They kept buying me drinks. I kept drinking the drinks they bought me. Conversing about Europe, as we find it today, we found ourselves agreeing that there was a Polish problem. It occurred to me that one of their former political leaders also thought there was a Polish problem! I didn’t mention the war. Honest.

Crashing out in my single room above the bar, I slept like a log, with no one to be kept awake by my snoring.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A Comedy of Expenses

There seems to be some mysterious force at work in my life, which I have not quite got to grips with. I know it is there because I experience its effects regularly. It’s a bit like Newton's Third Law of Motion which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. There is also a third law of finances, which I have discovered and runs parallel to Newton's Law. It states: "For every saving there is an equal, opposite, and unforeseen expense". I'm not sure what the first two financial laws are, but I'm sure that if I sit in the bath and think about it for long enough (topping up the hot water from time to time - of course), like Archimedes, I'll have my own "Eureka" moment. In fact, looking over my past and present fiscal affairs, it would be fair to say that the third law could be amended to read: "For every saving, there is a GREATER, opposite and unforeseen expense". This then, is McAdam's Third Law of Finances.

Most people on a reasonable (or even not so reasonable) income have a monster lurking outside their house which has the potential to wreak havoc with their finances, and a lot of other aspects of their lives besides. This particular beast has an antenna which is tuned into to its owners perception of his or her own financial wellbeing and is programmed to respond to McAdam's Third Law of Finances. The monster, of which I speak, is, of course, the car. Allow me to explain………

Being a particularly frugal (tight) sort of person, I tend to look after my loot. I have a system of saving which provides a cash boost to our current account every few months. I would tell you what that system is, but then that’s my business and its secret! Anyway, the upshot was that at the beginning of the month we found ourselves with an extra few hundred pounds in our account (our = me and my wife). This gives one a nice warm and comfortable inner glow, which is all the better at this miserable time of the year, not long after Christmas.

Then………….it all started to go wrong. I should have known. I should have expected it, because it is the story of my life.

Each working day, I go home for lunch and let Sally the boxer into her run to relieve herself. I’d had a particularly busy morning and was feeling somewhat tired so I relaxed back into my recliner and shut my eyes for a few minutes – as you do. Unfortunately, the few minutes turned into about half an hour. I awoke with a start and staggered out to the car to head back to the funny farm, not wishing to be late. I turned the key. The starter motor rotated. That’s all. No engine bursting into life. No power. No traction. No hope. I rang my rescue service, who were very quickly on the scene. He couldn’t get the car started for love nor money. Next, the rescue low-loader appeared and my car and I were transported to the friendly garage who look after my car the other side of Cambridge. It turned out the security system was at fault, and it needed a new one. That cost me nearly £300.

A few days later I booked my car in for a six monthly service. This should only have been a relatively cheap one. I say relatively because anyone of sound mind ought to know there is no such thing as “cheap” where car maintenance is concerned. Even so, I wasn’t particularly fussed – it was planned after all. No such luck. I was sat at my desk. The phone rang. I was told the brake pads and disks were worn right down. Only a few hundred miles of wear left at the most. What was I supposed to do – scrap the car?? Another £200 or so on top of the bill. Picking up the car, I pretended the bill for a little over £400 was good value. Like I’ve got money to burn. Ha Ha.

A couple of days later I had to re-tax the car. £180. Wonderful – but expected, so mustn’t complain.

The following weekend, my wife and I took our annual jaunt out to “Focus on Imaging” at the NEC. This is the country's premier photography show for professionals and keen amateurs. I had been looking forward to it. Nothing was going to spoil the day. Driving back, I was feeling a bit tired. Rather than falling asleep at the wheel and killing myself, my wife, and whoever I ran into, I decided to stop and have a caffeine infusion. I pulled off the A14 and parked up at a theme pub on the outskirts of Kettering. I had a nice rest, shutting my poor weary eyes a while, and when feeling well rested, we got back into the car. Looking around, there were no other cars around, and nothing but empty, unobstructed car parking space around me – I thought. Wrong! Reversing back, I applied a bit of right lock to bring myself to face in the correct direction to move off. The next thing I heard was scraping and graunching. Braking quickly, I brought the car to a sudden halt and then straightened up back into the parking slot. My wife got out and inspected what I thought would just be a bit of a scratch. The alarm in her voice made it clear I was deluded. It was a dirty great dent going right in on the passenger’s side wing just behind the headlight. This was caused by a short concrete bollard set into the tarmac beside my parking slot, and just below the driver’s line of sight. £495 repair bill. Ker-ching!!!! It wasn’t worth having it done on the insurance. I have a huge excess and it wasn’t worth the no claims loss. No, I don’t have protected no claims. Don’t ask!

And, oh yes – I nearly forgot. My car insurance is now due. All donations gratefully received.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Photo Tips - Light on Landcsape

We all see beautiful landscapes around us if we care to look. However, it often happens that when we try to photograph it, the resulting print looks rather bland and flat compared to what we remember seeing at the time.

The RAF (then Joint, now Defence) School of Photography had a motto (maybe it still has) which translated from the foreign language in which it was written means “We write with light”. This is a true saying and worthy of remembering, particularly where landscape photography is concerned. While the subject matter might look attractive, without good lighting the resulting photograph will be disappointing. It therefore follows that if you want to take some memorable landscapes which stand out by their own merits, then pay close attention to the lighting.

The two photographs featured here were taken in Scotland – I bet you would never have guessed! They both show Eilean Donan Castle, but from two very different view points and in very different lighting conditions.

If the photograph showing the rainbow over the distant castle had been taken a minute or so earlier, it would have looked extremely drab. Through the viewfinder, the shot looked OK, but it needed that extra “something” to bring it to life. There had just been a storm, and I noticed a break in the clouds and realised that if I hung around a bit, the scene might look more attractive in the encroaching sunlight, contrasting with the dark brooding clouds overhead. Well, the light washed its way across the landscape, and I could hardly believe my luck when this gorgeous rainbow appeared. The result speaks for itself.

The second shot of the castle, from much closer in, was taken in the evening shortly after sunset. In the daytime, the castle looks quite dramatic by virtue of its own architectural merits, but in the evening, it takes on a different life altogether, and in the right lighting makes for a much more attractive photograph. Apart from the clarity of the evening sky, the silhouetting of the castle itself, the hint of artificial light on the castle stonework, the reflections in the still water of the Loch put the final cherry on the cake.

Finally, I would suggest that you need to take a lot of landscapes and exercise a lot of patience to come up with the odd “cracker”, but he – or she who perseveres will be rewarded.