Here is my pile of forks. The forks live on a shelf above my desk at work.

Every time I get a take away meal from the restaurant I take a metal fork with me. 

I always used to take my metal fork back to the restaurant when I finished my meal. This is because I am the sort of person who likes to keep things tidy. A place for everything and everything in its place. But it was also partly because it just seemed the right thing to do.

And then there was a notice in the staff bulletin saying that staff must return their cutlery to the canteen after their meals.  It listed the number of knives and forks in the canteen on a day to day basis and pointed out that the number was falling.  Staff were instructed to return their cutlery immediately.

Quite naturally, I began to hoard forks.

I know that not returning the forks is childish. I’m also aware that the pile of forks is upsetting me. I’d much prefer them to be back in their natural environment: basking in the cutlery tray. 

But most of all I’m really irritated at being instructed to do something I was planning to do anyway.

That’s why I have a pile of forks.

The Undecidable Blues

I wrote the following lyrics years ago, when I was doing my Maths degree. My friend, occasional collaborator and Dream London crimelord, John “Daddio” Clarke, has put them to music: listen here

The Undecidable Blues
by Tony Ballantyne

Woke up this morning, aware of my own inherent limitations
I said I woke up this morning, aware of my own inherent limitations
The fact that I can't prove them is one of those persistent aggravations

My baby makes these statements that are true, but unprovable
I said my baby makes these statements that are true, but unprovable
I ask her to explain herself but my baby is immovable

The way my baby's treating me don't demonstrate no consistency
You know the way my baby's treating me don't demonstrate no consistency
I say it's axiomatic: that my baby is a mystery

I said: "Baby won’t you tell me, you don't give me no clues
I’m riven by uncertainty, I don’t know how to choose"

I've got them Gödel's incompleteness theorem blues

John Daddio Clarke and the Cyprus Rodeo Blues Sisters sing The Undecidable Blues: listen here

The Pointless Rules of English

I wasn’t really taught grammar at school.  Not in English lessons, anyway.    A friend who knows about such things explained that this was actually good practice, that English is not an inflected language, and that grammar is best taught when studying an inflected language such as German.

I think they’re probably right.  I seem to have absorbed the rules of grammar from somewhere, I rarely get corrected by sub editors.

So I approached this book with a certain amount of suspicion.  Yes, I’m interested in linguistics (as many coders are), but no, I’m not interested in the difference between the subjunctive and the indicative mood.

Or so I thought.

I can’t remember enjoying a book so much in ages

This would be a good book to dip into, but as I’m the sort of person who reads everything from beginning to end (including, when I was a child, a dictionary) I did just that.

And why not?  Everything from coordinate adjectives to the vowel quadrilateral is explained clearly and simply.  There are lots of top tips and random language facts to think about.  The book even manages to squeeze in a brief history of language itself.

Not only that, the book is funny.  Genuinely funny. Who’d have thought a passage on contrastive focus duplication could be so amusing?  I even finally learned how to capitalise properly, something I’ve always been rather ashamed to admit I couldn’t do.

Oh yes, and I rather suspect this may be the first book on linguistics to feature Droylsden market.

The chances are if you’re reading this blog you’re either into coding or writing.  I’m recommending this book to both techy types and writers.  So much so that its now number seven on my list of Six Books Every Writer Should Read.

The Pointless Rules of English by M. Amelia Eikli and Lindsey Williams

How I was fooled by Student Loans

I must admit, the government had me completely fooled over student loans.

Yes, I was annoyed that my children are still going to be saddled with massive debts, despite my wife and I saving up for them to go to college since they were born.

Yes, I was annoyed that people who had enjoyed free education voted to make their children pay for the same privilege just so they could pay a little less tax. (To be fair, some people did vote Liberal in the mistaken belief that they were opposing loans)

And yes, It didn’t surprise me in the slightest that terms and conditions have been  changed so that the interest rate charged is now higher than the rate for regular loans

No, I was sufficiently cynical to have foreseen all this.

What astonishes me was how gullible I was in swallowing the government’s reason for imposing the loans.  I really thought it was because more people were going to college.  I seem to remember that was the line trotted out by Brown, Osborne, Clegg et al.    

How stupid can you be.  No, it was another accounting dodge.  Of course it was.  You can read it about in this article on the BBC News Website.

The full article is well worth a read, but the following quotation sums it up

Under the current arrangements, money lent to students for tuition fees and living costs does not show up as a negative in the public finances.

Ah! And now it all makes sense.

I’m pleased to see that I wasn’t the only one fooled.  Committee chairman and former Conservative minister Lord Forsyth was also shocked.

“I had not understood that by moving to a system of funding through loans, because of the accounting methods of the Treasury, it was possible for George Osborne [then chancellor] to appear to increase funding for higher education by £3bn but at the same time cut his deficit by £3.8bn.”

And that’s not the worst part:

Outstanding student loan debts are £118bn and rising – but when it comes to the public finances and the deficit, the cost of student loans is invisible.

In terms of the government’s reporting of its finances, the cost is kicked down the road and won’t appear until debts begin to be written off after 30 years.

So not only are we sending our young people into debt – my children among them – but just about the time they’ve finished paying it off  they get saddled with this cost as well?

I  tell you what, someone in government really hates kids.

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Influential People

Follow the link if you wish to see TIME’s 100 most influential pioneers, leaders, titans, artists and icons of 2018

I heard a report on the radio about the list whilst driving from visiting my father in hospital.

He’s been in one ward or another now for over a month, tended by any number of nurses and health care assistants. These people have washed and shaved him, changed his clothes, sat him up in bed and made him comfortable. They’ve given him his pills and injections, mashed his food, helped him to eat and drink and done everything they can to help him get better. He spent his 80th birthday in hospital and the ward staff baked not one but two cakes, decorated his bed and even bought paper hats for him and the other patients.

Now, I’m not claiming that all nurses are angels. Not all the staff I’ve encountered have displayed the same level of dedication, but I find it hard to believe that anybody could be doing the job unless they really wanted to look after people. And at the end of the day, they’ve actually done something. Their patients are cleaned, fed and have had their medication administered.

And so, as I drove from the hospital listening to the radio, it occurred to me that I really didn’t care how influential the people on Time’s list are. I didn’t care what they’ve tweeted, what speeches they’d made or how many disaster areas they’d visited. At this point in time, I don’t care about the films the people on the list have starred in, the books they’ve written or how their art inspires others.

Right now, I’m not interested in lionising people who tell others what to do. Right now, I’d rather hear about the millions of people who just get on with their job. I’m annoyed by the list’s tacit promotion of exceptionalism.

Ideas that change things for the better aren’t the preserve of the exceptional few, look around and you’ll see that they’re already being carried out unnoticed every day by the vast majority. Ideas aren’t any the less valuable for that.

Or to put it another way, any half competent nurse is already doing more for the world than at least half of the people on Time’s list.

Nine Lessons and Carols 9

I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day.

You know the song.

Even as I child I knew that if it were Christmas every day then it wouldn’t be Christmas.

I’ve been lucky, I’ve had some big moments in my life: getting married, the birth of my children. Selling my first novel. Travelling. These times are not typical of life. If they happened all the time they wouldn’t be special.

I remember the big moments, but the weeks and months that I look back on with most fondness are filled with times spent laughing at the dinner table, or sitting with friends in the pub after work. I remember walking to work through the snow, breakfasts at conventions chatting with friends, chance meetings in town…

And, in keeping with the theme of these posts, I remember playing in rock groups, jazz bands, folk groups, brass bands, in duets, trios and so on.

I’m a writer. Something compels me to sit alone at a keyboard writing stories and articles. It’s odd, because looking back I don’t remember the reviews – good or bad – the sales, the signings, the fan mail. What I remember are the friends I’ve made, the places I’ve been too, the nights spent chatting with other writers.

Most of all I remember the walks I’ve taken when seeking inspiration. Climbing over the hills in the wind and rain, coming home for a hot bath and dinner.

I think it’s a mistake to have a bucket list, to attempt 100 things before you die. There are too many things to do already that are so much more enjoyable.

I was inspired to write this series of posts by a concert I took part in at a Methodist church. I enjoyed the evening, it got me thinking about happiness, music and performing. Listening to the lessons read out that night, I thought it would be nice to write something positive for a change.

Clearly I’m not alone in thinking this: I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of positive messages I’ve received about these posts.

I’m off soon to for my last gig of the season: playing the accordion for a Christingle, seeing faces lit up by candlelight. It promises to be great fun.

Merry Christmas!

Nine Lessons and Carols 8

Eight lessons in. Where are the carols?

I’ve been playing carols every day in December. I’ve played them in churches and chapels; in school halls, church halls and masonic lodges; outside supermarkets and inside railway stations; on street corners and in town centres. I’ve played them on the piano, the organ, the accordion and the baritone. I’ve even strummed a few chords on the guitar.

Last night, whilst playing carols at my new band’s Christmas party, I was reminded about one big part of banding: children. Their eyes just seen over the music stands, their feet not reaching the floor as they sit up straight on adult seats. The training band were invited up to play at the interval, their proud parents videoing them as they played in public for the first time. Those children have yet to realise that the concert nerves will never leave them, that they’re being trained on how to live with them. They’ll learn that even if something scares you, you can still go ahead and do it.

I’ve seen many children grow up through bands.
There’s something very special about a process that begins with you pointing out the place in the music to a child sitting on your right, and ends a few years later with a young adult sitting on your left shyly giving you hints on how to improve your technique. As I tried to imply yesterday, it’s not about being the centre of attention, it’s about being part of something bigger.

Whilst I’m on the topic, I should mention playing in a trio with my own children every Christmas. They’ve enjoyed it over the years. I think they’ll have to have their own children to appreciate just how special that really is.

Nine Lessons and Carols 7

I separated from someone this year after a relationship that had lasted several years. My baritone partner moved to playing tenor horn.

I’ll miss sharing a joke with her in rehearsals whilst the conductor is picking on the back row cornets, I’ll miss us whispering "eight" or "sixteen" in unison when we’re counting rests. Most of all, I’ll miss simply playing in harmony with her.

There are two baritone players in a brass band. You’ll see them sitting between the tenor horns and the euphoniums. They’re the top of the lower band, they fill in the middle parts. They don’t usually play solos, but you’d miss them if they weren’t there. In a band, as in life, everyone plays a part. You don’t win contests being carried by one or two heroes, you win by everyone playing together. You don’t have to be the centre of attention to be making a difference.

Some players choose between playing a solo part in a third division band or a supporting part in the first division. It’s a matter of matching your talents to what’s best for the greater good.

One of the nice things about playing in a band is the range of people. Age, race and creed are no indication of where someone ends up sitting. Bands are generally meritocracies, you can tell how good you are in relation to others. It’s not your job to be the best one there, but rather to practice and play your best so that you don’t let everyone else down.

That way, you have a band that people want to be a part of, and that others want to listen to.

Nine Lessons and Carols 6

A friend of mine wrote the following in response to the first post in this series. She wishes to remain anonymous.

I think this is beautiful, much better than what I’d planned to write today.

One Lesson, No Carols and Another Parish Hall

Eleven days before Christmas I’ve been at just such a venue – a parish hall in Huddersfield at an English class for refugees and asylum seekers. Even though the activity was different, people’s contributions made the atmosphere the same.

I love these halls, dotted around local villages or attached to churches, built on faith and nineteenth century goodwill. This one is connected to a church built by the great architect George Gilbert Scott, but it’s a bit run down now. It’s no longer at the centre of local people’s lives, but still open and welcoming enough with shabby furniture and a sparsely equipped kitchen that people turn to whatever use their events call for.

It was sleeting when we arrived. Some regular students came early, glad to get inside and help us by setting out the folding tables and chairs. Others drifted in alone or in small groups. We never know exactly who or how many will come, or how much English they already know. By 2.15 there were twenty men and two women from ten different countries. They had eight languages between them, and all but one of them were Muslim.

Our theme today was Christmas. We started tentatively. Did they know the date and the significance of the season? What have they noticed in shops and around the town? Have they seen Christmas celebrated in other countries? Would they like to hear the story of Jesus’s birth from The Bible?

I needn’t have worried; they are eager to know and understand their new country. We contrasted the Islamic prohibition of images of Mohammed with the ubiquitous representations of Jesus, and I used my children’s knitted figures of Mary, Joseph, Jesus , shepherds and wise men to illustrate a simple re-telling of the Christmas story. These students were strong on camels and donkeys, but we had to unpick the confusing iconography of holly wreaths and Santa Claus. We decorated a Christmas tree and tried to explain about sprouts and mincemeat.

There was real goodwill and warmth here. They helped each other to understand, and explained to us some of the traditions and festivals of their own countries. By four o clock they’d learned a lot of new vocabulary and been introduced to Rudolph. Yves, a French speaker from the Congo, remembered a snatch of a Christmas carol he used to know. He hummed a couple of lines, and we recognised “Gloria in excelsis deo” well enough to sing it with him. At the end, they stacked the chairs and tables, shook our hands and went out again into the cold.

For next Thursday we’ve planned a Christmas party with food, music, games and gifts for them from a real Father Christmas. I hope they can all join us; it’s what these halls were built for.