Book Review: About a Boy

About a Boy by Nick Hornby
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

About a Boy is a simple tale about a relatively shallow man in his thirties who thinks he has everything, and a twelve year old boy who is struggling to fit into life at a new school after the separation of his parents. The two of them go on a journey of self-discovery as their lives become more entwined.

Nick Hornby’s easy, humorous writing style is pleasant and engaging, and the development of the characters and story is thorough. I read this book in a week, which is very quick for me, and a sign of how enjoyable it was. I intend to read more of his books.

I was in the position of reading About a Boy after seeing the film at least twice over the years. Personally, I found this to be a good thing as it meant I could picture the main characters straight away. Other people may disagree, and feel the book should always be read first.

View all my reviews.

Feelings of Nostalgia During Lockdown

Searching this phrase turns up some interesting results on Google. I’m not the only one feeling nostalgic at the moment. Lockdown is having a big effect on people, creating mental space for reflection, and for many, nostalgia is proving to be an effective coping mechanism as we try to process the daily death tolls.

Hay-on-Wye, 2019.

I’ve always enjoyed the experience of nostalgia. That bittersweet feeling of happy memories mixed with a sense of time lost forever. When the UK went into lockdown at the end of March, it didn’t take me long to start losing myself in daydreams about the past.

It all started when I had to write a few simple Java programs to help me understand a technical issue I was having at work. I haven’t been a programmer for many years, and writing code again felt very therapeutic. It reminded me of my younger self, my first computer, my first job, the old Apricot Xen I used at the office back then, and of course the freedom I enjoyed from earning my own money.

Lots of memories from that time started coming back to me, probably because my mind had room to wander instead of worrying whether the Central Line was running, or whether my train would leave Euston on time come Thursday afternoon.

Lockdown has been easing for a few weeks now in the UK, but my feelings of nostalgia haven’t.

Some of my memories have been so powerful I wanted to record them, so I started writing a semi-autobiographical story. A scene I wrote recently was a simple recollection of my weekly trips out to a local branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the friends I went with. I was surprised at how much detail I could recall when I thought about it. I could remember snippets of conversation, songs on the car stereo, my friends singing along to evocative tunes from my youth.

A day after writing the scene I was driving to my first riding lesson in nearly ten weeks when my iPhone decided to shuffle play The Boy With The Thorn in His Side by The Smiths. So many emotions hit me at once. I burst into tears.

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It can make us happy, but at the same time make us sad. That’s what makes it so special. It’s not just the act of reminiscing, it’s a feeling, an experience in itself. Definitely something worth bottling.

Morning Pages

A couple of years ago I read a book called Gravitas, by Caroline Goyder. I read mostly on the Virgin train travelling from Wigan to Glasgow on a Monday morning. I was always happy when I could get a seat to myself and spread out, relax without worrying the person next to me would want to squeeze past to visit the loo. (I always book aisle seats.)

Early morning, Kensington High Street, London.

One concept that really stood out in the book was something called Morning Pages. As soon as I read about it, I closed the Kindle App, launched Notes and started writing my very first Morning Page.

It’s very simple. You write for five minutes, anything that comes into your head. Then stop.

Julia Cameron first came up with the idea of Morning Pages. Lots of other people have written about it since. Tim Ferriss has written about it, and calls it Journalling. About the practice, he says “What I needed was a daily and meditative practice of production, like the tea ceremony.”

I enjoyed the process, and eventually tried again, but this time I did it in the evening – making it an Evening Page, as it were. Then my enthusiasm waned and a month went by before I did another. I continued in this similar sporadic fashion until I had five in total, spanning about eighteen months. After that I didn’t do any for another year.

Recently, I started again, but this time wanted to do it in a more planned way as part of my morning routine, which is already pretty ingrained. Every morning, one of the first things I now do is spend five minutes writing a Morning Page.

What to write about

It doesn’t matter what you write about, as long as you write something, continuously for five minutes. I just start writing about whatever is on my mind the instant I open my note-taking app. Some days it will be a frustration hanging around from the previous day, other days it will be a hope for the day to come.

For example, my first Morning Page after the long break was about an impending meeting that appeared in my work calendar. It looked vague and sinister and my mind immediately began conjuring up negative thoughts that had to be exorcised. Of course, the meeting was nothing to worry about in the end.

Has it helped me?

I haven’t been practicing with Morning Pages for long, but already I can see some benefits. My mind feels lighter, and my focus clearer. It’s a sort of purging experience, getting your thoughts out first thing in the morning. A kind of morning ablution.

Since I started I have felt much more productive, and more able to concentrate on what I want/need to get done that day. I procrastinate less, achieve more, and actually feel more content and satisfied.

Morning Pages are so easy to do, and take up so little time, so just get started and try it. It’s worth getting up five minutes earlier so you can fit it into your day.

How it Really Feels to Shave Your Head

Spoiler: it’s amazing!

Back in March, just before the UK announced it was going into lockdown, I buzzed all the hair off my head. Two months later, I’m still sporting the buzzed/shaved/bald look, and loving it. Here, I’m going to address some of the doubts other guys may have when they are thinking of embarking on the same journey.

Since March 2020, I’ve looked something like this. In this picture my hair is just under 1mm.

First of all, let me set out where I was before I decided to buzz. My hair was definitely receding. I had a great barber who was doing a brave job of concealing it, but looking back it was pretty obvious that I was losing my hair. It wasn’t horrendous, but it was receding at the temples, and I had that vast expanse of forehead that was barely being hidden under a French crop.

It’s very distressing to go through the hair loss process. It knocks your confidence in so many ways. Trying different things to conceal or reverse it just compounds the problem.

The Big Buzz – An Immediate Improvement

When I first buzzed my hair I could immediately see an improvement in the way I looked. My wife took a few days to get used to ‘the new me’, but I felt better almost straight away. Words that kept coming to mind were ‘neat’, ‘tidy’, and ‘smart’.

I like to keep myself fit, and I was delighted to notice that somehow having no hair on my head also seemed to make me look more toned and muscular. I have no idea how that can be, other than perhaps making my head seem smaller.

Out of interest I started doing some Google searches so I could read about the experiences others guys have had. There are some great articles around with descriptions that mirror my own first-hand experience. I felt the same tremendous sense of relief that the worry was over for me. I had found a look I was happy with. My hair loss no longer mattered.

Mirror, Mirror …

For a few days, every time I walked past a mirror I would get a bit of a shock if I forgot about my hair, but after a proper look I always preferred the new me.

I started spending more time in front of the mirror, moisturising and taking a bit more care of my skin. I’m not sure whether it was the enhanced beauty regime or the simple fact that a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, but I started visibly looking younger.

Instead of frowning into the mirror and seeing nothing but a receding, thinning hairline, I was now seeing a good-looking man. My eyes were wider and less tired, my jaw was strong, and my cheekbones were chiselled. My thin, wispy hair had been preventing me from seeing all these positives for years.

Venturing Out

My first trip out was to my local supermarket to buy essentials during the COVID-19 crisis. It was early days and we weren’t yet in full lockdown, but everyone was starting to get nervous so the shop was pretty quiet which suited me while I took my first tentative steps.

One of the first people I saw was a woman who worked at the supermarket. What I’m about to describe probably happened because I was studying her closely to try to read what she made of my new look, but while stacking baskets in the shop she actually struck up a short conversation with me, and I got the distinct impression she approved of what she saw. The reality of course is that she had never seen me before, and this was just her response to a guy who seemed to be checking her out!

Two days later, the same thing happened a couple more times with women in a different supermarket. All of this gave me an extra confidence boost on top of what I’d already enjoyed after the big buzz.

Now, before you write me off as an egotistical w***er, know this: I’m useless at flirting, have never been a player, and most of the time wouldn’t have a clue if a woman was attracted to me unless she wrote it on a Post-It and stuck it to my chest.

With Hey, Ho, the Wind and the Rain

As a guy with thinning, receding hair I hated the weather. After spending time carefully arranging my hair, I would step out of the door and a puff of wind would destroy my efforts in a second.

So far we’ve had an amazing spring in the UK and I’ve yet to feel rain on my bald head, but the first time I encountered wind without hair was a wonderful experience. Instead of that horrible whipping, flapping sensation, I had the lovely feeling of the air whooshing over my scalp, and didn’t have to worry about my hair being messed up.

This sounds like such a trivial thing but believe me the sense of relief was amazing.

Phantom Bangs

I’ve heard about people who have lost limbs experiencing phantom pains or itches, but I never knew people could also feel phantom hair falling out of place.

Prior to buzzing, because my hair was receding and thinning at the front I would often run my fingers through it to make sure it was in place on my forehead, and providing some even coverage. For a couple of weeks after buzzing, I kept doing this move even though there was no longer any hair to fiddle with.

Every time I did it I would catch myself and smile. No need to do that any more. My ‘hair’ was now perfectly in place. All the time. Forever.

Shaving – The Final Frontier

After initially letting it grow out to a ‘number two’ (6mm), I bought myself some new Remington hair clippers and trimmed my hair gradually shorter. First I went back down to ‘number one’ (3mm), then I dropped to 2mm, then 1.5mm, then 1mm, which was the limit of the clippers, but also my favourite length. After a few weeks, I decided to go all the way and shave skin-close with a safety razor just to see how it looked.

I liked the result, but wasn’t convinced the extra effort and discomfort was worth it. I nicked myself with the razor while shaving and the whole thing took way too much time. I swore to stick with 1mm from then on.

About three weeks later, I found my old beard trimmer/shaver and decided to try shaving my head using the foil on that. The experience was much more comfortable and I got a really good finish, but it still took a lot of time. Two weeks later, when I tried again it was perhaps a bit quicker, but I suffered some mild irritation afterwards.

To Shave or Buzz, That is the Question

Getting a super-smooth finish isn’t really high on my list of priorities, and I actually prefer the feel of my head the day after shaving skin-close. It feels great for another three or four days until it grows back to about 2mm, at which point I want to buzz it off again.

Looking at it from that perspective, shaving is beneficial because I don’t need to do it as often. However, the extra time it takes and the discomfort involved means it’s not a clear hands-down win for shaving.

One thing is for sure: I will never go back to the old self-conscious me that was trying to hide his hair loss, terrified to go out in the wind. There is absolutely no question of that.

I’ll end by saying I wish I’d buzzed seven years ago when I first started noticing my thinning hair. Battling on for so long was a losing game and I wasn’t fooling anyone but myself.

This is the first time I’ve written such a personal post, and I feel a bit exposed putting it out there. However, if this helps just one other guy make a tough decision, I’ll be a happy man.

The Old Sand Works

I still like hanging around dumps

I spent the morning of the Spring Bank Holiday walking around a piece of wasteland in Marshside, Southport. It’s known as the Old Sand Works, and there really isn’t much there apart from what you see in the pictures. Having said that, I still found enough to keep my photographic eye interested, and I’m glad I took my camera along. It was good to get some new pictures after being in lockdown for so many weeks.

Social distancing was easy. Who else would want to hang round an old dump?

Computers used in the Classic Dallas TV Series

Ewing Oil Computerised in 1982

JRsFirstComputer

Earlier this year I began watching the classic TV series, Dallas, which ran from 1978 to 1991. I don’t recall what made me look, but I discovered all 357 episodes on Apple TV, and committed myself to a new daily routine of watching one over breakfast each day.

During the first five seasons, the appearance of a computer on the show was very rare. Season five saw a Tandy TRS 80 Model III appear briefly on top of a hospital filing cabinet, but I don’t remember spotting any others. (Maybe this is a great excuse for me to watch them all again sometime?)

As some point in 1982, Ewing Oil was obviously computerised, as computers begin making a regular appearance on the show. JR, Bobby and their secretaries all started using shiny new NEC PC-8001As, as seen in the photograph above, which is a screen grab from Season 6, Episode 9, “Fringe Benefits”, where JR can be seen flicking through a manual and using one finger to randomly press keys just before he receives a visit from his rival Cliff Barnes who has just purchased a refinery that JR himself wanted to buy.

Ewing Oil used Home Computers for Business!

It took me a long time and lots of Google searches to discover what these computers were, because I didn’t have much to go on other than a few seconds of footage. I tried searching for early 80s PC clones, dumb terminals, minicomputer terminals, you name it. Eventually I stumbled across the image I was looking for.

NECPC8001

There was no mistaking the unique combination of dark key surround, separate numeric keypad, the row of five function keys, and those two sets of vents at the back.

The PC-8001 was actually marketed as a home computer, so it’s interesting how someone at Ewing Oil decided to deploy them for business use. I’m not sure whether old Jock Ewing would have approved of that. They had just 16KB of RAM, could display 8 colours, and ran N-BASIC which was a variant of Microsoft Disk-BASIC. Optionally, the CP/M operating system was also available. Back in 1981 this machine cost $1,295, which in today’s money is around $3,857. You could buy a pretty amazing PC for that amount in 2020.

Business Applications

Unless Ewing Oil hired a consultant to develop some bespoke business software in N-BASIC, they were probably using a packaged application available for CP/M, which means they paid extra for the optional CP/M operating system. They could afford it!

There were several off-the-shelf CP/M applications such as WordStar, word-processing software which cost $445 (including the manual) in 1979. Although it was more likely JR was getting to grips with the sister product CalcStar,  spreadsheet software he could use to quickly calculate how much money he was making on a deal. Then again, maybe he was using InfoStar/DataStar to computerise his rolodex so he could call the Cattleman’s Club himself instead of getting Sly to do it every time.

Evolution of IT in Ewing Oil

As the show rolls on through the 80s I’m expecting to see a change in the computers being used. I suspect PC clones will start to make regular appearances. Maybe the Apple IIe will feature too, or the Lisa or the Macintosh. Who knows, maybe JR and Bobby will be super innovative and invest in some NeXT Computer workstations?

My next task is to figure out what computer Cliff Barnes has in the corner of his new office at Barnes Wentworth…

This is all making me feel very nostalgic for the early days of my IT career.

Thoughts on Hair

I realised I needed a haircut.

APC_1466

A few days ago just before the UK went into a lockdown, I realised I needed a haircut. My barber had closed to limit spread of the Coronavirus, so I decided to take responsibility, and actioned a DIY buzzcut. This was something I had always wanted to try but I never had the guts due to the client-facing nature of my work. Facing weeks of working from home, I decided it was now or never. This was my opportunity.

As hair fell to the ground on Sunday morning, 22nd March, I was worried. The only clippers I had to hand were actually a combined beard trimmer and shaver. Would it be up to the job of cutting head hair? Did I know enough about hair cutting to actually get through the amount of hair on my head? Would I look awful when the deed was done? These were my main concerns as the clippers buzzed and worked in my hand. However, as the finished look began to emerge I started to feel pretty good.

I have enjoyed a genuine boost in confidence.

For a few days I had a shock every time I walked past a mirror, but I now really like my new look. My hair was past its best anyway, and no longer having to worry about styling it is incredibly liberating. Unexpectedly, I have enjoyed a genuine boost in confidence.

I have yet to go “out” out, and be seen in public places like pubs, bars and restaurants. They are obviously all closed at the moment. My work colleagues have also yet to experience The Big Reveal, whereupon I expect to enjoy some friendly teasing.

Will I have decided to grow it back by the the time normal life resumes? Or will I still be embracing this bald bold new look?

As with everything in life at the moment, I’ll take each day as it comes. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world right now, and it’s hard to look beyond a horizon of a few days.

Getting Back on Path

Man does not live by photography alone.

To-date, apart from the odd wobble, this blog has been mostly about photography. There’s nothing wrong with having a dedicated blog, and everyone says you should focus and specialise, but I can’t help feel that practice is limiting.

Maybe my own life is reaching one of those turning points. I still love making pictures but it feels a little less important to me than it did say a year ago. Now I’m writing again, and I don’t know where that will lead. Essays, short stories, maybe even another novel?

From now on, I’m going to be taking this blog back to its roots when I ‘restarted’ it in 2015. Here’s something I wrote when I was originally defining what this blog is about.

Will 2020 be The Last Year of Flickr?

I really hope I’m wrong, but I have a sad feeling that 2020 is going to be Flickr’s last year. I’ve been a ‘Pro’ (paying) member of the photo-sharing site since 2006.

FlickrAlbum

The early years

I remember the earlier years of Flickr very well. For me, it went through a Golden Age which ran from about 2007 until 2010. During those years I found many friends on the site, and am still in touch with a couple of them who post to this day, albeit much less frequently.

After a break of a few years, during which I still made photographs but didn’t feel the need to share so much, I came back in 2013 to find things still going strong. Most of my old friends were still there and I undertook an ambitious 365 project through the site, to try to get my creativity back again.

The community spirit on the site during that year was wonderful. Lots of interaction, lots of constructive criticism, and lots of great photos from other people.

The last days of Yahoo

By 2007 when I joined, Flickr was of course already under Yahoo!’s ownership. I personally didn’t notice whether the departure of Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake in 2008 made a difference, but I’m sure to some people it did.

For me, the big changes happened between 2013 and 2018 during which time Yahoo! was mostly being led by Marissa Meyer. Back in 2013 there was a major UX/UI update which drove many users away, but I stuck with it for a while and actually preferred the new look. I believed the new Yahoo! CEO was going to do great things for Flickr.

Gradually, however, the audience floated away. I stopped using the site regularly at the end of 2013 for personal reasons and posted only sporadically for about four years. Strangely, everyone else appeared to do the same, and over the course of the next five years Flickr faded. I’m not suggesting it was anything to do with Marissa Meyer, because I don’t know whether that was the case. Was it due to lack of investment? Was it due to the rapid growth of Instagram and market competition? I don’t know.

The Smugmug takeover

In 2018 I received the email from SmugMug in which they announced they had bought Flickr and were promising to revitalise the service. I started playing around with it again and began posting images more regularly, but most of the people I knew had long since deserted it.

I had faith, and renewed my Pro membership, looking forward to a rebirth. When the new team got rid of the awful Yahoo! login constraint I was excited for the future. When they moved the platform over to AWS, I really believed they were going to save Flickr.

But the interaction just wasn’t there. The groups weren’t the same, and had become dumping grounds for people who tried desperately to raise their view counts. Flickr had become like Instagram. People liked, but hardly anyone ever commented, which was one of the great things I remembered about Flickr from around 2009-2013.

The email from the CEO

On December 20th, I received an “Important letter from Flickr’s CEO”. I guessed it wouldn’t be a happy letter and braced myself for a shutdown notification, but the news wasn’t quite so bad. However, Flickr, the “world’s most-beloved money-losing business” still needs help, and is not yet making enough money to survive. It needs more paying Pro members.

I believe Flickr is far superior to Instagram for photo-sharing, but without the audience it isn’t going to make it. Me asking the few people who read my blog to sign up is not going to help. It saddens me to think 2020 may go down as The Last Year of Flickr.