Dressed for Success

 

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When the first thing you do in the morning goes well, it can really put you on a roll. It gives you a sense that today you’re going to eat all your problems for breakfast, then eat your lunchbox problems at your desk at about 11am and be thinking hungrily about a three-course problem dinner by mid afternoon. The simplest things can start this chain reaction – finding an actual matching pair of socks first time, catching all the green lights on your way to work, or managing to plough through a few simple emails before the phone rings. My problem is that none of those are strictly relevant to me, because I work from home.

“Working from home” was a phrase I used to raise an eyebrow at when I worked in an office. It was a sceptical eyebrow that said, “just take the day off, why don’t you?”. In my mind the phrase meant lying around in your pyjamas, sending an email every hour or so to prove that you’re awake and getting nothing of any worth done at all. When I first realised that working from home was to become my reality, I made myself a promise that it wouldn’t turn out like that. I’ve actually partially succeeded, but only because I don’t own pyjamas. As for the rest, I have to admit that the sense of purpose generated by the simple acts of showering, dressing and leaving the house for a place of work has been proving a little hard to come by. It’s starting to take longer and longer for me to even notice that I’m still wearing a bathrobe.

I had never realised how the routine of work, so often derided and despised as soul-crushing and pointless, had taken root in me and made me, apparently, dependent on its familiar rhythms. In an attempt to create a diluted, medicinal form of structure, I started making task lists for each day. At first these contained valid but unhelpful jobs such as, “pull self together” or “take good look at life”, but I quickly constrained them to things that were actually possible. For a while I even wrote, “shower”, “get dressed” and “have breakfast”, just for the satisfaction of crossing things off and getting that feeling of momentum going. This was another partial success. Believing that these first few tasks would set the tone for the day, I got so caught up in perfecting them that I bought 10 pairs of identical socks and got rid of all my others. I could confidently reach into that drawer, pull out any two socks and they’d be fine. Boom. Easy win. This day is going to be great! Then I decided to make coffee an acceptable form of breakfast. Time-saving genius! Still in my bathrobe? I think you mean, “dressed in my housecoat”. I was flying now. Every day began with a rapid-fire burst of achievements. Eventually, I considered myself so good at mornings that I started to take a little break around half nine, to reward myself for my clear mastery of life. Usually this would finish some time after midday, when the trickling sense that I hadn’t actually done anything finally broke through my walls of misplaced satisfaction.

The eventual solution, I have found to nobody’s surprise but my own, is a sort of compromise. I now make a list of things that aren’t just part of being a functioning person and do those. I have drilled the showering, dressing and eating into myself and treat the lounge where I work as an office, behaving almost as if there are other people there. Even the most modern hipster company probably doesn’t let people just walk in half-dressed. Little by little, I have gradually forced myself to become the dedicated, self-motivating person that my CV has always lied about me being and with that in mind, it’s time I stopped blathering along here and get on with the next thing on the list, which I handily keep right here in the pocket of my bathrobe.

 

 

Taxing avoidance

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I give someone a piece of paper. I push some buttons. I type a few numbers into a computer. I wave a piece of plastic near a small machine. Simple movements of my hands. That is all that’s happening there. Or, more accurately, that’s how my brain chooses to record certain things. Preferring not to think about what’s actually going on, it logs such actions in the form of calmingly uncontextualised records of physical motion. On no account does it allow the words “money” or “spend” to be attached to any of them. This has been my general fiscal policy for some time thanks to my financial advisor, who is an ostrich at Bristol Zoo and was presumably rehoused there when the bailiffs came round to find him with his head in a plant pot next to a stack of unpaid bills.

Recently though, going freelance has created such a critical mass of doubt about when and if money might ever again travel the dusty road to my bank account (the outward road is a four-lane superhighway), that I’ve realised that something has to change. The penny finally dropped when I logged into my internet banking and assumed that the sum sitting off to the left in the main transactions section was an alignment error, when in fact it was the single lonely item in the “In” column and I was just unaccustomed to seeing anything written there. I decided it was time for action. As long as action was free.

The first step was to get a clear picture of how things stood, even though I suspected that they stood as shakily as my finance ostrich being ridden to debtors’ prison by a drunk Mr. Micawber. Nevertheless, I made a tally of all my regular outgoings, assigned functions to my online accounts and renamed them to reflect their purposes. I laughably entitled one of them, “Savings”, moved some money into it and then a week later, when it was empty again, relabelled it, “Unicorn Fund”, on the grounds that that was closer to the truth. The second step, to my guilty delight, was to make a spreadsheet. On this I laid out anything I expected to earn, when I might invoice for it and when it might then come in.

I spent a considerable amount of time applying my enthusiastic amateurism to Excel, while studiously ignoring the mountain of more constructive things I could and should have been doing. I setup some conditional formatting and formula cells and got thoroughly carried away with making things add up, divide and change colour, based on various occurrences. After a couple of hours I sat back and surveyed my handiwork. It was perfect. Action had most definitely been taken. I now had  a completely clear picture of my finances both in the present and in a likely enough version of the future. It felt good. It felt adult and responsible. It felt as if I had taken control of my life. Plus, now that the finance issue was sorted, I could moved on to other tasks. Except that I had forgotten about the third step, which just happened to be the important bit. The third step was the small matter of actually changing what I was spending, or earning. Without that step I had merely exchanged burying my head in the sand for lifting the sand up and carefully sculpting it over my face. More elegant perhaps, but no more effective in stopping yourself getting killed by leopards.

Somewhat hopefully, I went back to the spreadsheet. I had to really look at it. I needed to find out exactly where I could economise and then get on and do it. Suddenly the sheet seemed vague and unhelpful. I had to go deep. Cracking this was clearly going to require a microscopic inspection of all my expenses. Then I could staunch the superfluous spending in tiny, easy actions. I set to it. Another busy two hours passed. I sat back again. I was looking at a meaningless jumble of numbers and names. It was a mess. In trying to trace where I had gone wrong, I started by working back from the last point on the sheet where anything made any sense. I decided that this was just before I had labelled Column R as, “Average Daily Vegetables” and assigned its cells a value which appeared to be calculated based on the presumably once-meaningful acronym in Column G, “FMC” and Column S, “Veg Price – excl. avocado”. Avocados turned out to be the single item on sheet two, “Non-recurring Fruit & Veg”. With a sigh, I printed the spreadsheet and went in search of help.

Up at the zoo, I threw the hard copy over the fence into my accountant’s enclosure. He seemed upset that I’d discarded his primary strategy of avoidance, but offered me some sound advice that I could have taken if I had either the ability to run at 40 mph, or some spare skin that could be made into surprisingly expensive leather goods. I had neither of course, and suspected that they wouldn’t really have helped unless I needed a handbag or Lloyds Bank had taken to releasing an angry black horse to literally pursue you for your debts. Ignoring the doomed spreadsheet and the one piece of sound financial advice that I’ve heard from even the stupidest ostriches, I got a takeaway coffee and sat down to think it all over. I decided that I had to repeat steps one and two, but make sure I did step three and stop before that fourth step took me over the edge of a financial and mental abyss. So I returned to the spreadsheet. I pared it back. I accepted its clarity. Then I bought a sandpit.

 

Categorically flawed

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Most everyday objects seem to be available in three broad categories which roughly correlate to their price and usability. Category One contains the cheap, functional things. They are plainly made and do a job, but not for very long or very well – like forks that instantly bend, clothes that lose their colour after one wash, or people on work experience. Category Three is the super expensive things, usually designed by a Scandinavian dressed entirely in beige, living in a box made of glass in a forest somewhere. They will work perfectly forever and are so discreetly fashioned that only people rich enough to be allowed into the shop you bought it from will know how much it cost. But the category in the middle is the most complex and sadly the most common.

Category Two is made up of things that were clearly designed solely for the purpose of being moderately expensive and with only secondary consideration given to whether or not they work properly. They always seem to have begun with basic function at their heart, but to have become confused along the way and randomly gathered up a mess of strange quirks and unhelpful features. Also like people on work experience. As far as I can tell, the process for creating a Category Two object goes something like this: Person A, probably with a degree in engineering but not wearing enough beige to get the top jobs, thought about what they were being asked to make and, in about ten minutes, sketched out a design that would work. Then along came a load of other people, most likely higher up in the same company as Person A. These people obviously thought that the design, while doing exactly what it was supposed to, didn’t really reflect the company ethos. They knew that their brand didn’t have the clout to get away with charging £400 for an ergonomic teaspoon, but they also knew that they weren’t paying a mostly-beige level designer to churn out crap for Poundland. So they got out some crayons, glitter and glue, chuck them at the sketch until they were quite sure that it looked like some very serious designing had happened to it, then hit their clients with an enormous bill for what they probably refer to as, “Product Imaginification.” The cost of their work was then passed on to the consumer. The simple design had evolved into a perfect Category Two object.

That secondary group of people are responsible for the Upward Heat Dispersal Valve that causes all Category Two kettles to direct scalding steam up onto your hand as you pour from them. They patented the “compact” handles on the ridiculously heavy ceramic lids of my dad’s expensive saucepans that forced you to either train like a Shaolin monk until you could lift a kilo with the tips of your fingers, or hook your knuckles under the low protrusion and risk the kind of burns that your sadistic kettle could only dream of inflicting on you. They are the reason that someone I know has a set of coasters made of a net of irregular glass beads which generate no friction with either beverage or tabletop and so fail utterly in their two simple duties of being flat and staying in the same place. But they look nice, those coasters. They’re shiny and so very tactile. It’s not hard to picture how that particular meeting ended. “Top imaginifying today team! Now let’s all knock off for a drink. Only don’t put anything on those stupid coasters, we can’t afford the carpet cleaning.”

I’d been wondering where on earth this practice had sprung up from for some time. Then I went to buy running shoes. I like a flat, minimal trainer for running, so I went into a nearby shop, found a few pairs that fit my specifications and started trying them on. It was during this rigorous testing that the reason for the existence of Category Two objects became clear to me. As an experienced runner, I fully laced each shoe, flexed my toes to check the fit, rolled my ankles a little and took a few steps back and forth. This was all to disguise the fact that I was actually glancing sidelong into a mirror to make sure that the trainers passed the most important test of looking good. One pair I tried were perfect, but when I saw the price I knew instantly that I wasn’t going to buy them. Their subtle colouring made my feet look like hot coals, glowing from my devastating speed, but they were clearly Category Three shoes. For a second, I had a mental image of a pale figure shaking his head in disdain and retreating into his glass box to wash the taste of my relative poverty out of his mouth with some nettle tea, poured by his non-kettle-burnt hands into an earthenware bowl sitting on an austere coaster, set on a huge granite table in an otherwise empty room. It was a crowded second.

At the end of that second, I had begun to understand. I realised that I had already discarded the cheapest trainers and some of the more common brands on the grounds of nothing more than style, while telling myself that it was because they weren’t well made enough to last. I had now ruled out the really expensive ones too. I could see where this was heading. The painful glow of the Category Two shoes gaudily caught my eye. Picking up one pair, I could see the basic principle which had been considered far too dull to look expensive. The imagineers had whisked them off to a paintball range where Team Dayglo were playing Team Neon, and let chaos do its work. Then they’d placed them in the shop and waited for someone like me to come along. So here I was, caught in Category Two between my own meanness and my stylistic aspirations. Right where the imagineers wanted me and where they knew I’d end up. Category Two products were made for me. That was why they existed. I sighed, squinted at the trainers to convince myself that they didn’t look too bad, grit my teeth and bought them. I’ve only actually run in them once though. I’ve been out injured with steam burns and a fracture I picked up when I slipped on a drink that had mysteriously spilt despite being on a coaster.

 

 

Thin Ice

IMG_1011I had breakfast this morning! Now don’t worry, I’m not about to turn this blog into some kind of written version of early Instagram. There won’t be posts entitled, “Look! It is sunny” or, “Someone drew a face in my coffee”. No, I mention the seemingly ordinary fact of my eating breakfast precisely because it is not ordinary. Over the last couple of months I have, basically, stopped eating.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. I’ve always liked exercise and keeping in shape, but from time to time this seems to gently warp in my mind, slowly turning into something hugely damaging but still, somehow, masquerading as a desire for well-being. For extended periods I will eat one small meal a day and that’s usually only because someone is there to see me do it. I combine this with attempting to derive the energy that a rounded diet would normally deliver from the sole source of coffee. A few days into this inspired health regime, my brain is flickering on and off like a broken neon light, I’m so sensitive to sound that I flinch if I’m walking near traffic and my concentration is so poor that it takes me half an hour to leave the house because I can barely get dressed without losing the thread of what I was doing. But I’m not hungry. No, of course not. And worse, I’m loving it.

That’s the problem. Or one facet of the problem at least. Part of me manages to consider this behaviour to be a victory of some sort. I’ve spent whole days surfing on a secret wave of near hysteria that hunger is pulsing through my head and actually gone to bed thinking, “Ha! One satsuma all day. And nobody noticed a thing.” In some internal scoreboard I just had a massive negative calorie day, which is apparently good to the new Anti Chris Party government in my head. Of course, people probably did notice, at least indirectly. When I left my job a while ago, I gave them three dice that they could use to replicate my input into discussions after I’d left. The first one told you whether you were talking to “Grumpy Chris” or “Happy Chris” and determined which of the other two to roll next. One of those featured extremely positive and the other negative, responses to any proposal. It was a joke, but there was a truth in it and I don’t think I need to see a graph correlating my food intake to my mood swings to know what was going on.  Which is the strangest thing about it for me. I consider myself reasonably self-aware and certainly scientifically literate enough to understand that I’m doing myself no good. After all, you don’t exactly need a biology Phd to understand that food is kind of useful in your daily life. So where does it come from?

Obviously, there’s a word that I’m avoiding using, which is “denial”. Oh no sorry, “Anorexia”. I’m avoiding using it for a few reasons.  Firstly, it seems like a word that people just throw out there as if it’s one thing that’s the same for everyone, when in fact it must surely be an infinitely complex issue that is sparked by different pressures and manifests itself in different ways, for everyone it affects. The temptation would surely be to think that now I’ve identified it, that’s job done, when there’s so much more behind the word itself to understand. I’m also worried about appearing to trivialise what is for many people a truly destructive problem, something that can ruin lives. I know I am far from being the worst sufferer of Anorexia. I DO eat reasonably for long periods, even though sometimes I can feel a part of my mind calculating how much I’ll have to deny myself later to balance the books. But that moderate strength doesn’t mean I shouldn’t address it. It isn’t trivialising the issue in general to say that my case might often be quite mild, or that I can cope. But it is still ignoring it. Because mostly, I admit, I just don’t want to admit it. I want to hide behind my shield of “fitness” and “discipline”. So I take pride in the fact that I’m still functioning with so little fuel in me, but then at the same time deny that I am deliberately starving myself. This unwillingness to put a name to it is, sadly, probably rooted in the thankfully threatened but still prevalent dominant perception of “manliness”. This is another thing by which I’ve mistakenly assumed I was largely unaffected. I’m not the sort of laddish bloke who’s going to think that eating disorders are for teenaged girls or that men don’t get sick apart from that curiously gender-specific form of flu they often encounter. And yet, it has taken me a long time to edge my way to the conclusion that I have got a real psychological problem, or at the very least an extremely unhealthy relationship with food and self image.

The most insidious thing about this problem is how it can twist itself in my head. I can’t speak for anyone else who’s struggled with this sort of thing, but it doesn’t feel to me like I’m fighting a destructive urge within myself. The internal logic is so complex and complete that I actually feel like I’m doing myself good, when in reality I’m not trying to stay fit, I’m trying to stay thin, because that is what, on some level, I am suddenly using as the single indicator of health. I tell myself that I’m just keeping in shape, fighting the onset of middle-age spread, being responsible even. So any attempt to counteract the idea in my mind meets with accusations that I lack the strength to do what is necessary to make me…whatever it is that I seem to think this process will make me.

My attempted solution so far has been comprised of long and unproductive attempts to rationalise my way out of it and present myself with an argument so compelling that it instantly banishes all doubt from my mind. These determined and analytical efforts have finally produced an insight worthy of the name, which is that the worst person to help me with being stuck in a closed loop in my own head, is me. So this is Plan B. I’m telling everyone about it. Yes, all three people who read this blog! The plan is that maybe, the next time I’m in the office for lunch, I’ll feel like I have to eat something or people might mutter things to each other. The theory is that I’m British enough to be so worried about being the target of frowning and whispers, that I will instantly fall on and conspicuously consume any food nearby, possibly even any people who just aren’t moving much. I freely admit that leveraging the insecurity of a fear of embarrassment to cure an eating problem doesn’t appear to be a completely positive way of addressing the issue, but the one thing that racing round the same thought patterns in your head for a while does do, is give you a handy sense of your own weaknesses. What it doesn’t tend to give you is the tools to fight them. Those you often need to borrow from someone else.

 

 

 

 

 

The New Wave

IMG_0835When the Leatherman was lost, a prophecy was made. A husky, ephemeral voice in my head whispered, “mum will buy me a new one for my birthday.” As with all the great prophecies, something just similar enough happened that I was able to conveniently forget anything from the wording that didn’t fit. It was, in fact, my girlfriend and her family that replaced the device, but I decided that that was close enough and cut myself a little soothsayer slack with the Leatherman’s invisible yet very handy “Figure of Speech” tool. After all, if Nostradamus had got even that close with any of his, then books about him might not all be written by people using tinfoil hats to stop the government controlling their minds.

The new Leatherman is the silver version of my old matt black one, The Wave. I wondered initially how the colour would affect my feelings about it. The black version had had an understated, serious air. “Don’t sit looking at me,” it seemed to say, “just get out there and cut shit to pieces.” The silver version seems more showy, despite presumably being closer to the metal’s original, unadorned colour. I performed the new ownership ritual of opening out every device then putting them back again, resisting the temptation to blindfold myself and time the process with a stopwatch. The silver Wave was pretty slick. Its shininess gave a dashing, dramatic feel to all its many tools, even the tiny pointy thing which was still, as with the previous version, of mysterious purpose.

Soon enough, a job came along that not only called for the Leatherman, but confirmed my sense that the new, gleaming Wave was destined for tasks more creative than destructive, in contrast to its predecessor. Having been charged with printing out tickets for a festival-themed hen do, I found myself with sheets of thick paper, each with four copies of the ticket aligned across it. Instantly, I realised that the main blade was the perfect device for cutting them out. I grabbed a chopping board to protect the floor and, evidently feeling that that was quite enough in the way of sensible thinking for one day, took the glass top off a small table in our room and attempted to use it as a straight edge. If anyone had seen me trying to manoeuvre a 3ft long pane of glass to hold a 6 inch ticket in place on top of a 1ft chopping board, I think the one thing that would have occurred to them was a fervent desire that I should not, under any circumstances, be given a sharp knife.

Taking my sharp knife, I ran it along the edge of the pane of glass, attempting to separate one of the tickets from the sheet. The glass seemed not to balance very well on its tiny chopping-board workbench and the line came out wonky. I sat back and considered the problem. I reasoned that either I needed to make both the tickets and chopping board 2.5ft and 2ft longer respectively or, which seemed more likely, I had not really put a lot of effort into finding a straight edge. I can only be thankful that the first thing I saw when I started looking for one wasn’t my own foot. Next I tried the cardboard cover of my notepad and was amazed to find that the knife I was using to cut thick paper was not adequately restrained by a barrier made of slightly thicker paper. Eventually I discovered a tray buried under the sink that would serve the purpose. The new silver Leatherman was quickly learning the disgust at my abilities that I am convinced had caused the previous one to desert me. When I had finally arrived at a setup that would allow it to work, it performed perfectly, even down to trimming the white paper overlap on the edges where I had erred on the side of caution. I recorded the successful configuration on one of the larger remaining notebook fragments and went to finish the job.

When printing the tickets, I had added a piece of text next to the main graphic, to replicate the terms and conditions that you usually find there. In a fit of boredom, I decided that what the tickets really needed for full authenticity was perforation between the picture and what would then become the stub. For an ecstatic moment, I thought that the day had finally come when the tiny point thing would find its purpose. A series of increasingly less ecstatic moments later, tiny pointy thing had mauled one of the tickets into a pulp, giving rise to my latest theory that it’s actually for making wasp nests. I completed the perforation easily with the tip of the main blade, which is clearly the smug superstar of the Leatherman team, a less shiny Cristiano Ronaldo.

When I was finally finished, I sat back to reflect on the satisfaction, not of a job well done, but of a job done with needless complexity and struggle. Deprived of my Leatherman, I had missed the sense of joyous over-confidence and disregard for my own safety that came from owning something that was so cleverly designed to do absolutely anything. Managing to cram that much danger and stupidity into a task that primary school children would have accomplished safely in an arts & crafts session, was surely what owning a Leatherman is all about. My heart, if not my terrified extremities, gave thanks for the prophecy coming true and to those who made it so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tough Job

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Job hunting is a famously depressing activity. Nothing drains the light from you quite like spending hours crafting a cover letter, then phoning a company a few days after applying and hearing an HR person sigh as they struggle to locate, in both their mind and their filing system, even the tiniest shred of recognition of your name or existence. But at least that’s a simple problem, with a simple answer. You just keep battering away and improving. It’s all you can do. The real problem, the thing that really bothers me about job hunting, is the language. I can’t read a job description without thinking that someone is trying to hide something or in fact, that someone is trying to hide everything. After some time reading these things, I’ve concluded that what is being hidden is actually the embarrassing fact that there really isn’t that much to say.

Most job descriptions could be reduced to a couple of lines, but someone long ago decided that that doesn’t look professional enough and that the way to get the people you need into your organisation is to launch a giant snowstorm of jargon and see who can navigate it. Presumably the unspoken “key capability” on all job ads is, “you will be able to read this all the way through and not want to shoot yourself”. One job that I’ve done myself was advertised with at least two pages of copy, but could easily have been represented by the following: Angry people will phone to shout at you. Calm them down and try to help them. Use a computer to record whether or not you were successful.

From this it perfectly clear to me what skills are required and what the job will actually involve. I will have to use a computer in some form and have enough patience to suffer the irony of someone saying, “I don’t like to complain” and then doing exactly that for about an hour. The job description never used any of those words of course, preferring instead to demand that I be a, “skilled, multi-directional communicator”, which to me meant nothing more than that I ought to be able to speak and that I must have a neck of normal, human flexibility.

That’s the sort of language that’s everywhere in the job hunting world. I’ve seen roles that require the successful victim to, “support the overall brand communication strategy” or “create sophisticated, event-driven, personalised communications”, which I think broadly translate respectively to, “don’t go thinking up crazy stuff on your own without checking with anyone” and “send out messages when things happen”. But there very rarely seems to be any correlation between the job as advertised and what you actually end up doing, at least in a linguistic sense. Nobody ever turns round to you in the office and says, “Could you please deploy your technical competency and problem-solving positivity to realise caffeine-related goals across all platforms”, they just ask if you could get some drinks. The moment you start work, all the jargon is gone. You can’t remember who you’re supposed to be “liaising with” and who you only “work alongside”. If someone asks you to put together a newsletter about a new product, I’ll lay decent odds that you don’t reply, “Of course, I will immediately design and execute that B2C engagement motivator to ensure the upward curve of our customer dialogue statistics.” You just get on with it.

The sad truth, I suppose, is that the need for obfuscation in job descriptions is entirely necessary. If you told people what they were really in for, you’d never be able to hire anyone. Who would apply for a job which promised that you would sit right through an unproductive three-hour meeting, only to hear someone say to the people already in the room, without apparently joking or actively trying to get punched in the face, “we need to all sit down and talk about this some time soon.” Who would apply if you honestly said, “this job is tough and it will eat your life and the fragile, hard-won joys are rare, but hey, in two years time it’ll look good on your CV, if you can stay sane.” Perhaps if you print them out and hold them up to the light in a certain way, job ads do actually have this secretly coded into them, so that you can’t later say that you weren’t warned. If they don’t, then maybe they should.

 

The Mystery Bus

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I just travelled the length of a continent with only the occasional delay. I figured out bizarre schedules and nonsensical routes and always arrived, reasonably on schedule, with nothing more than a little weariness. But finally, I find myself faced with a travel challenge that defeats me in its demanding complexity. Wiltshire.

If you look on a map, the places in Wiltshire to which you might wish to travel are quite close together, but what you cannot know is that the entire county is riddled with a kind of reverse wormhole that makes two points much harder to get between than they should be. These anomalies, which appear shaped like buses to the naked eye, bend space and time to make, for example, the 40 minute drive from Devizes to Bath occupy an indeterminable period. If you undertake the entire round trip by public transport, you may arrive home to find that so much time has passed that your grandchildren have paid off your student loan. It might well explain why everyone on the buses is white haired. Some of them are probably centuries old, still travelling to places that have long since ceased to exist, like railway stations perhaps, and now trapped in a dimension in which time has become tangled up in the dense hedgerows and will never pass again.

Clearly the problem is not new. Some archaeologists suggest that local monument Stonehenge is an early attempt to determine where the X72 bus is going to appear next. The route the bus takes is so arcane that it’s perfectly likely that ancient civilisations worshipped its erratic, shining appearances in their landscape. Some of the stones in the megalithic structure may have come from Wales, but this was probably less about the suitability of the rock and more due to the fact that, even then, the rituals of the region required the builders to go all the way to Cardiff in order to get from one small settlement to the one over the hill. Centuries later, the magic was still strong  enough to inspire the planners of the A roads around Devizes to inscribe a giant empty rune upon the land in tarmac, with the town at its centre. Within this symbol, the bus-shaped phenomena weave sacred patterns designed to ward off the souls of dead trains, which still haunt the empty rails of the defunct lines left over from the dangerous era when Wiltshire was briefly connected to the outside world. Bus passengers engaged in the literal rite of passage stare in vacant obedience as, time and again, they approach a turning to Bath and then veer away at the last minute towards a small village, to check if any of its residents are A: not yet dead, and B: making their annual trip to “the city”.

Of course, growing up here I should have been used to all this, but I couldn’t shake the sense of frustration until I realised that the problem was entirely one of perception. I was no longer, “travelling”, I was now just trying to get from one place to another. Tangled routes and lengthy confusion about schedules had been an adventure to me when they involved far-off place names, but now I could only view a diversion through Monkton Farleigh as an irritation. So I relaxed. I told myself to enjoy the rambling roads and treat the places so familiar as something new. I settled into the bus journeys, looking out at rural England like a tourist. I smiled at rose-draped thatched cottages and swayed as the bus made tight turns around sombre war memorials present in even the smallest villages. I picked out the huge chalk white horses on the hills and watched the wind chase silver trails across the gentle green landscape. I learned to love Wiltshire again. Then someone leant me a car. I still love Wiltshire of course, but now I can love it in a straight line that takes me, oddly enough, about the time you’d expect to travel along it. May the ancient gods of Stonehenge forgive me.