A few nights ago I woke up around 1am, aware of a low frequency noise I couldn’t account for. At first I thought it was a distant aircraft, but the noise continued at the same sort of level, rather than tailing off. Then I wondered if it might be rumbling traffic, but there’s very little traffic in these parts at that time in the morning, so that didn’t make sense either.
As I lay in bed wondering what it could be and why it was lasting for so long, I had the idea that it might be something mechanical in the house. It sounded a bit like a washing machine gearing up for the spin cycle, but since it was 1am and the rest of the household was all tucked up asleep in bed it couldn’t be that.
Perhaps there was a party or something going on a few streets away and I was hearing the low bass noise from an amplifier. Eventually, I got out of bed and opened my window to see if it was coming from outside, but it didn’t sound any louder with the window open.
Completely puzzled, I wandered downstairs and looked into various rooms, including the kitchen to check on the washing machine. Nothing was astir and although I could still hear the noise it seemed slightly less obvious downstairs. I went outside and strained my ears but I could barely hear it out in the garden. Most curious.
Thinking it might have stopped or I was imagining it, I went back upstairs and got back into bed. To my surprise, I could still hear it as loudly as before, apparently louder than it was downstairs and definitely louder than it had seemed in the garden.
I tried to ignore it and get back to sleep but that proved impossible. Maybe, I thought, it was something unique and local occurring on that particular night. If that was the case perhaps I’d find something online about it. There would surely be other people up and about discussing it or trying to find out what it was.
I powered up my laptop and typed ‘low frequency noise at night’ into Google. Top of the results list was a report from The Independent dated about a year ago entitled ‘Have you heard ‘the hum’?’ Straight after that was a website for The World Hum Map and Database. The third hit was a Wikipedia entry entitled ‘The Hum’. I looked at all these websites in turn.
Most people find this website because they are searching for the source of an unusual low frequency sound. The sound is called the Worldwide Hum. The classic description is that it sounds like there is a truck idling outside your home. For some people, it is a deep and distant droning bass tone. Some people perceive the sound as a rumbling noise. The sound is louder indoors than outdoors, and louder late at night than during the afternoon. It can suddenly appear or disappear for days or months.
I read on and, discovering I could add my own experience to the database, set about answering the various questions on the form and describing what the noise sounded like to me. After this I read a few of the entries other people had added, interested to note that the noise had been detected across the world since the 1970s.
According to the map on the World Hum Database, more than 9000 people have recorded their experiences in recent years, many having heard it in the UK and across the USA. Could this suggest it might originate somewhere in the North Atlantic? Among the explanations offered for the hum are volcanic activity, factory output, submarines, mating fish and the pummeling of waves on the seafloor.
All of this was very interesting to me, as was the suggestion that if you hear the hum it’s a good idea to try and see it in a positive, rather than a negative, light. The hum has been known to blight the lives of people who hear it, many of whom suffer from the noise for weeks, months, or even years on end. Bearing this in mind, I went back to bed attempting to think positively about it.
As I lay there, trying to come up with some sort of friendly, soothing explanation, it occurred to me that for years humans have been sending signals into outer space hoping aliens will pick them up and respond. Maybe the hum is their response. An outlandish theory, perhaps, but it was just the job to get me back to sleep. I had a little chat with the aliens, thanking them for their communication and assuring them their signals were welcome. The hum continued droning on in the background, just as it had done before, but I was no longer troubled by it and in fact I rather liked the idea of communicating with aliens.
At some point, I don’t know what time it was, I noticed the noise had stopped. I strained to hear it but it had gone. It was wonderful to be lying there in blissful silence again, but a small part of me felt slightly sorry the aliens had vamooshed. I soon drifted off to sleep and when I woke up in the morning there was no sign of it. I haven’t heard it since, but if it should reappear I’ll be ready for another little chat with my new alien chums.
“The dream shall never die” by Alex Salmond (2015), non fiction
This book was purchased while mooching around the bookshops of Wigtown in Galloway. My parents and I had been enjoying afternoon refreshments in the cafe of Beltie Books and were on our way out of the shop when a pile of books attracted my dad’s attention. He picked one up and splashed out the required £12.99. It’s a signed copy, which is a nice little bonus.
For several days after our holiday my dad was often to be found sitting quietly on a sofa deep in the pages of this book. At mealtimes he regaled us with amusing snippets from it. When he’d finished it he urged me to read it myself, and I gladly accepted the offer.
After a brief prologue and an introduction of around 30 pages, the meat of the book begins. It was as I started reading this part of the book that I discovered how engaging Alex Salmond’s writing could be.
On 18 September 2014, the people of Scotland went to the polls to vote on the issue of Scottish independence. The question we had to answer was: Should Scotland be an independent country? The only possible answers were ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
In the run up to the referendum Alex Salmond, as First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP (Scottish National Party), was campaigning enthusiastically on behalf of what was known as ‘Yes Scotland’, the main organisation in favour of independence. The opposition group, campaigning for Scotland to remain a part of the UK, was known as ‘Better Together’.
‘The dream shall never die’ is written as a kind of diary of events covering Yes Scotland’s 100 day campaign to persuade Scots to vote for independence. During this period there was a great deal of campaign coverage in the media, and constant speculation about which side was ahead in the polls and who was doing a better job of persuading voters.
One of the things about the run up to the referendum that stands out in my memory is how positive the Yes Scotland campaigners were compared with the Better Together lot. As Alex Salmond points out in the book, it’s far easier to be upbeat when campaigning for a positive outcome than when backing a negative.
This book benefits not only from the unique perspective gained by one of the campaign’s leaders, but from the entertaining way in which that perspective is conveyed. Alex Salmond’s sense of humour is evident throughout the diary-type entries. Far from being a dry and plodding read, as has been the case with some political observations I’ve read, I found it surprisingly fresh and engaging.
In the end, the people of Scotland voted against independence (the result was 55% against and 45% in favour of independence), and Alex Salmond took the decision to resign as First Minister for Scotland. The final sentence of his resignation speech was: “For me as leader my time is nearly over. But for Scotland the campaign continues and the dream shall never die.” A rousing note to end on and an optimistic title for his subsequent book.
Earlier this year the SNP won a third term in government, now under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon. Next month the whole of the UK will vote in another referendum, this time on whether to remain in the European Union (EU) or leave. The question is worded so that there isn’t a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ option. Instead, we’ll be asked: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
A recent opinion poll, published in The Scotsman newspaper yesterday, indicates that more people in Scotland want to remain in the EU than leave. This does not seem to be the case in England. If the UK votes to leave the EU, but Scotland wants to stay in, a second Scottish independence referendum will surely be inevitable. If that happens, Alex Salmond’s dream might well come true in his lifetime.
“The secret life of the grown-up brain” by Barbara Strauch (2010), non-fiction
There are many books about the brain and how it functions, and I’ve read one or two, but this is the first I’ve come across that deals specifically with the brain during middle age.
While reading this book I assumed that Barbara Strauch was some sort of brain scientist herself, but it was only after finishing it that I learned she wasn’t a scientist at all. She had a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and I don’t think she ever worked as a scientist. She died last year of breast cancer, aged 63, and prior to that worked as the health and medical science editor and deputy science editor at The New York Times.
I was sad to learn of her death, not only because she was relatively young, but because it seemed so poignant after she had dedicated herself to this particular area of study. She died in what the book defines as middle age, i.e. loosely between the ages of 40 and 70.
It is during these years that the brain is now thought to be in prime condition. Anyone, like me, currently in this zone might find that hard to believe. I’m 44 and I’ve noticed in the last year or two that I more often struggle to find the word I want. This happens quite a bit when I’m writing, and if it wasn’t for the magic of a thesaurus I suspect I’d be a very frustrated and distressed individual.
Strauch argues that although we have a greater tendency to forget things and take longer to learn new skills during middle age, our brains become far more flexible and powerful than they were in our earlier adult years. In middle age we’re better at making sound judgments and finding solutions to problems, because we have a wider understanding of life and a greater appreciation of the possible consequences of our actions.
Part of the book that particularly interested me was the section on diet and how it might affect our brains. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has developed a system for ranking foods in terms of their antioxidant capacity, and this list is apparently responsible for the recent idea of blueberries being some sort of superfood. As a brief aside, this ties in with a programme I watched on TV recently that showed research being done into the beneficial effects of purple as a food colour. The consensus was that purple or dark red foods are especially good in terms of helping us age well. Blackcurrants came out far ahead of blueberries in that programme, but they were using a scale that tested for the presence of a particular chemical rather than the food’s antioxidant capacity.
Back to the book, and Strauch very helpfully details the top 25 foods on the USDA list. They are as follows: prunes, raisins, blueberries, blackberries, garlic, kale, cranberries, strawberries, raw spinach, raspberries, Brussels sprouts, plums, alfalfa sprouts, steamed spinach, broccoli, beets, avocadoes, oranges, red grapes, red peppers, cherries, kiwifruit, baked beans, pink grapefruit and kidney beans. As you might have noticed, most of these foods are dark in colour, which is apparently a key to their success. Carrots, incidentally, come in at no.40 on the list, and tomatoes no.42.
As is virtually always the case in science, nobody yet fully understands how or why things work the way they do. One week we read in the newspaper that dairy products are good for us, the next they’re bad, and it can be very confusing to try and work out what we should eat, how much and what sort of exercise we should be getting, and what we can do to keep our brains in good condition as we age.
As Strauch says in her book, there are many factors at play in terms of the health of mind and body and some of these, such as our genetic make-up, we have no control over. Her message, however, is a generally positive one.
By middle age, our brains have trillions of carefully constructed links and pathways that make us smarter, calmer, wiser, happier. These are the connections that let us, in an instant, recognize the underlying patterns around us and make sound judgments – good choice, bad choice, friend or foe? By middle age, our brains navigate complex situations and complex fellow humans almost on autopilot.
I had been hoping that the book might include a practical section that neatly wrapped up all the research into a ‘how to live long and prosper’ sort of instruction manual. Sadly, there is as yet no one-size-fits-all answer to a long and healthy life for everyone, but drugs companies are currently working on a pill that might well slow down the aging process considerably. I’m not sure how I’d feel about taking an anti-aging pill. Something about that seems as if it would be going against the natural order. Then again, if it weren’t for the excellent modern healthcare I grew up with, I might well not have made it into my forties.
Only time will tell if there’s a sure-fire way of preventing our middle-aged brains from potential deterioration in later years, but in the meantime I’m going to keep that list of antioxidants handy and do my best to incorporate as many as I can into my diet.
“The sound of my voice” by Ron Butlin (1987), Fiction, 143 pages
The edition below was published in 1994 by Black Ace Books (ISBN 1-872988-16-4). It includes an introduction by Randall Stevenson.
This is the story of 34-year-old Morris Magellan, married with two children.
With a loving family and a successful job as an executive in a biscuit factory, he seems to have everything going for him. Unfortunately, he also has an addiction to alcohol which is on the verge of destroying all he has.
The tale is unusually told in the second person ‘you’ form, which made me feel almost as if I was inside Magellan’s head.
‘You are thirty-four years old and already two-thirds destroyed. When your friends and business colleagues meet you they shake your hand and say, “Hello, Morris.” You reply, “Hello,” usually smiling. At home your wife and children – your accusations, as you call them – love you and need you. You know all this, and know that it is not enough.’
Ron Butlin manages to keep up this style of writing throughout the entire novel, which seems quite an achievement.
As I followed Magellan through his ups and downs, I felt I understood his warped view of himself. His periods of elation made me smile and I had a sense of sympathy for his self-deception. In this respect, Ron Butlin has done a wonderful job of engaging the reader with his protagonist.
When I was into the last quarter of the book I began to wonder how the author would manage to draw a close to the story. It seemed there was only one way it could go. Endings are the bits I always find the most difficult in my own literary attempts, but Butlin made it look easy. I found the ending very satisfying and it left me with an uplifting feeling of hope.
Many thanks to Ruth Orr, for so enthusiastically recommending this book and lending me her copy to read.
Dear J K Rowling, for the past few days, while reading “Harry Potter and the order of the phoenix”, Professor Umbridge has been reminding me of someone but I couldn’t quite think who it was. Last night I realised it was Donald Trump and it seems I’m not alone in noticing the resemblance. (If you want to see what I mean, click here.)
Dear spring flowers, I’ve been waiting patiently for you to bloom this year and although a small number of you have finally come out and are looking beautiful, there seems to be considerable sluggishness elsewhere. If you wait too long the summer flowers will be muscling in on your display and you don’t want that, do you? Carpe diem!
Dear warm air, according to the forecasters you’re coming up from France at the weekend and enveloping the south of England in your comforting embrace. Why stop there? Keep going north and you’ll be made very welcome.
Dear Easter chocolate, I’m astonished there’s still so much of you left. An unopened Cadbury’s Easter bunny sits on my bookcase, next to a little bit of remaining Chocolate Buttons egg, another smaller hollow chocolate egg and a Malteaster minibunny.
Dear Tesco, I really didn’t need to yield to your tempting offer of 5 Malteaster minibunnies for the bargain price of 50p (see letter above). Despite finding them sickly sweet, I confess a 66% reduction seemed too good to miss.
Dear Prestat Marc de Champagne Truffles, what a wonderful gift you were from a dear friend of mine. When it comes to chocolate nibbling time I don’t know how to choose. Although you’ve landed on me at a time of great abundance (see letters above) your five different truffle options are extremely thrilling.
Dear wood pigeons, I apologise for the persecution you routinely face in our garden. If it were up to me you’d be welcome to peck up as much seed as you wanted from underneath the bird feeders, but alas one amongst our number is sizeist. My dear mama doesn’t care for anything bigger than a blackbird, unless it’s a crow (impressive problem solving skills), a pheasant (rare visitors with novelty value), or a thrush (rarity value and a lovely song).
Dear postie, I wonder if you realise how much joy you spread with your energetic delivery methods. Watching you leg it along the street, run up the driveway and vault over fences brings endless pleasure to us all.
Dear McVitie’s, Usually, when biscuits get smaller over time I’m disappointed by the shrinkage, but when it comes to Rich Teas you’ve done me a service. I remember in my youth having to nibble the edge off a Rich Tea in order to fit it into my mug. Today’s smaller circumference allows me to dunk an entire un-nibbled biscuit straight into my tea, which is far more satisfactory.
Dear weather, You were absolutely magnificent on Monday. Since then, you’ve gone back to your recent default setting of cold, grey and cloudy. Don’t let those gloom-mongering forecasters dictate to you. Whip out your golden rays and show them who’s boss.
Dear Elaine, Thank you for introducing me to Friday letters, I so much enjoy reading yours. 🙂
I know you want a plastercast on your arm that you can get people to sign and doodle all over, but it really isn’t worth breaking any bones for. You may feel slightly short-changed now, but by the time you reach your forties (yes, really) your lack of broken bones feels like a major achievement.
I fully expect this next bit of advice to fall on deaf ears, but if you saved up your pocket money instead of blowing the lot on sweets every week you could start a business in your teens and become an entrepreneur. Not appealing enough, is it? Pity. You just can’t see past those brightly coloured sweetie wrappers, can you? Oh well, at least you’ll keep your dentist busy. You have lots of new fillings to look forward to, and the joy of a removable brace you’ll take out so often that it has little effect and your orthodontist gives you up as a bad job (you’ll regret that).
On the up side, you do eventually cut down on the sweets and even learn to enjoy tea without sugar (it’s not horrible, it’s heavenly). On the subject of tea, remember this: no situation you have to face is so bad it can’t be improved by a nice cup of tea. If there’s a biscuit or two to go with it, all the better. Eat as many scones as you can. This will prove to be a long-held and very rewarding hobby.
Welcome to my new blog. This is, I think, the thirteenth blog I’ve started and I hope it will be the last for some time.
In the past, when I wanted to branch out in a different direction, I created a new blog dedicated to whatever my new enthusiasm was at the time. This was fine for a while, and I quite enjoyed having a variety of pies that I could stick my fingers into, but it eventually got a bit out of hand.
“Jack of all blog” is intended to be somewhere I can write about any topic, in any way, with or without accompanying images. Most of my previous blogs have been driven by images, which I enjoyed taking and including in posts, but sometimes I felt I wanted to write something without a picture. I could have done that, of course, but I thought it might be letting the side down.
Readers often stay loyal to certain blogs, not only because they’re interested in the topics covered, but because they know roughly what to expect when they visit. Having a blog that doesn’t have a predetermined structure may not be the best option for maintaining a loyal readership. Although I intend to give myself complete freedom, I can only write the way I write, so there will at least be some sort of continuity in terms of writing style.
Thank you for reading this far, and if you’d like to follow this blog to see what becomes of it, that would be lovely.