Thursday, August 31, 2006

The missing jellicle

Yesterday I proposed that TS Eliot should have written a poem about the Varnhem Abbey cat. Now I gather his output has declined with very little new stuff published lately, so maybe he wouldn't feel up to it. Never one to back down from a self-imposed challenge, here's my own take.
Jagerbirl the Abbey Cat
Will always sit upon the mat
Or anything that’s smooth and flat
No matter what the sign may say

Then wanders round the stony tombs
Patrolling all the Abbey’s rooms
(Permission granted, one assumes)
To send the mice up Heaven’s way.

He’ll greet the guests as they come in
(A friendly purr is not a sin)
You’ll find him there day out, day in
Until the Lord may lead his flock home.

He gives his tail a friendly wave
And keeps a close eye on the nave
To see no one disturbs the grave
Of Birgir Jarl (who founded Stockholm).

Anyone got Lloyd Webber's phone number?

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

More reasons to love Sweden

How can you not love a country where the approved method of greeting someone even at a formal gathering is to say ‘hey’? Okay, it’s spelt ‘hej’ but ‘hey’ is how it’s pronounced. Meet more than two or three people at a time and you can start to feel like an extra from Friends.

If you want to be friendly and informal then it’s ‘hej hej’. However, if someone greets you with a ‘hej hej’ then it’s considered rude to respond with ‘vi har den Monkees’.

Best Beloved hails from Västergötland, an area between the two big lakes Vänern and Vättern. It’s highly fertile plainland, scattered excitingly by random collections of boulders deposited by the glaciers which you have to learn to ignore, or work around, or incorporate into your plans, and high-res grass crawls out of the ground at a thousand blades per inch, pushing your feet out of the way if you stand still for too long. In many ways it reminds me of the American Midwest, with fewer Americans (though a lot of classic American cars, tailfins and all). It’s wide and empty, with so much space that if you want to live somewhere then you build a house out of wood and plonk it down away from everyone else. The house is usually painted red or yellow and is immaculately kept, so that it could have been built last year or 100 years ago. It’s big sky country, and on a clear day when you learn to look past the midges the horizon looks a thousand miles away in any direction.

That’s on a clear day. Here’s our itinerary.

Rained. Toured the local area with Best Beloved, the Boy and my parents, getting accustomed to driving on the right. Looked at a nearby covered bridge and the stone circle at Askeberga. Also looked at a couple of churches. Proved by empirical testing and observation that a medium-sized pre-growth spurt 14-year-old male fits comfortably into the boot of a Skoda Octavia.

Then home to a sauna ... mmm. Sauna. My parents were staying in what was technically a B&B, though probably not a typical one, even by Swedish standards ...

... and there was an en suite sauna in their apartment. Ah-h-h-h-h-h. To draw in a deep breath, to feel 65-degree air trickling into your lungs and turning your insides into a molten mass, to feel your entire body liquefy and trickle down between the slats into a quivering puddle on the floor ... bliss.

Rained harder. To Skara, with its mother cathedral (think Sweden’s Canterbury) ...

... and also its tower with dragons, knights and goblins crawling out of the windows ...

... which is of course a bank, hence the cashpoint at the bottom. Then on to the abbey at Varnhem. Asked the lady at the desk if there was somewhere sheltered we could eat our picnic; after a moment’s thought, she suggested the abbey vestry. Gosh. Ate our rolls surrounded by dead stone Swedes, a few yards away from the tomb of Birger Jarl. No picnic has ever been eaten more reverently.

Discovered that some cats will sit on the mat, regardless of what the sign says. If TS Eliot didn’t write about this cat, he should have. Jagerbirl the Abbey Cat ...

Rained less. Looked at some more churches, to the flagging delight of the youngest member of the party. I personally find it interesting to see somewhere like Forshem, which was an approved substitute for Jerusalem if you couldn’t manage a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, or Husaby, which still has the spring where the first Christian king of Sweden was baptised. But I concede that others’ mileage may vary.

A fun feature of Husaby is the square hole in the wall that used to separate the altar area from the rest of the church. In the good old days, when the altar was completely screened off from the plebs in case they saw what the minister was doing, and the clergy were practically a separate species, the minister would preach his sermon standing in front of this hole so that the congregation could see his head and shoulders. A bit like very early TV. Or Punch and Judy.

Someone must have asked this guy why the church doesn't just give all its money to the poor, hence what he's doing with the two fingers of his right hand.

Then on to Läckö Slott, a castle on the shores of Vänern.

Something that’s very rare in this country – an intact castle that’s still pretty well a castle and not yet turned into a stately home. Though you can see why stately homes were invented. It must be horribly cold and draughty in the winter, and when it was inhabited the line between the pampered ruling classes and the servants must have been mighty thin, based more on perception than any material count. When the cold north wind blows, everyone shivers equally. On a reasonably warm summer's day, though, fascinating to wander around.

From the datestamp on the file, this must also have been the day we established that the Boy can still get his toe in his mouth. No recollection of how this came about.

Rained a little. Boys’ day out. I want it on record (and both Best Beloved and my mother agree) that I was quite prepared to stay at home and help prepare for Sunday. But no, it was decreed that everyone with a Y-chromosome would head out and explore and leave the gels to their business, bless them. So the three of us matching that description wended our way up the Göta Canal, the shipping canal that makes it possibly for big boats to get from Gothenburg to Stockholm without going through the Baltic.

Threw the Boy a bone by playing minigolf and going for a swim in Vänern. Yes, I had a sauna and swam in a lake. I have done the Swedish experience. Also discovered what the TARDIS would look like if Doctor Who was Swedish. So there, David. (Sorry, in-joke – apologies to those who are Out.)

Rained hard. Our second blessing – or, as far the local pastor seemed concerned, our first wedding. Well, we got a certificate out of it anyway. Married by a Bond villain, or someone who should be when your name is Eva Post. Interesting mix of high and low church – Eva crosses herself, sings her prayers, and wears a robe that could have been a present from my three year old nephew. A handdrawn cartoon of Noah’s Ark (I’m guessing) was surrounded by coloured handprints made by the church’s Sunday school. Sweet.

Funny, but a small little service with about 20 guests can still feel like a much larger one with about 150, especially if most of the 20 don’t speak English. At v1 in England we were firmly told to sit back, enjoy the day and let everyone else do the running around. At v2 in Sweden I was despatched to the shop after the service to buy more beer, and it got to the point where I wanted to staple my wife's dress to her chair just so that she could sit down and eat and not have to wait on elderly family members.

Still great fun. We read Efesiersbrevet ... I mean, Ephesians 3:14-21 together in Swedish, and I had carefully practiced my bit from v 20 onwards, marking the stresses and writing words like ‘önskningar’ out phonetically. Äran tillhör Gud, som kan göra mycket mer än vi någonsin skulle våga be eller ens drömma om ... The result was apparently quite lifelike – well, it drew some compliments anyway.

The organist had laid on a treat that we only partly expected. A friend of hers, a student called Victor, was training to be a countertenor and would we like him to sing for us ...? Sure, we said with a shrug. And there on the day was ... this person, long flowing hair, gorgeous chiffon scarf and high, powerful voice that filled the building with liquid melody. If Freddie Mercury and Dame Kiri te Kanawa had a child, it would be Victor.

Afterwards, my mother remarked that our weddings just keep getting better with each one she goes to.

Rained. Planned a visit to Karlsborg, the fortress on the shores of Vättern designed to be Sweden’s reserve capital if Stockholm ever fell. Got there to discover that the tourist season had ended the day before and Sweden was now closed for the winter. Looked round a fairly interesting military museum (for a given value of ‘interesting’) but that was it. Somehow – still not quite sure how – persuaded by the Boy to go for another lake swim. Realised as I was changing – and I’m really still not quite sure how this came about – that I was taking my clothes off next to a main road. Got revenge by looking at another church on the way home.

Not a drop of rain. Flew home.

Celebrated our first few wedding anniversaries standing in the passport queue at Heathrow. Not a trolley in sight once we were through. NTL server down when we got back to the flat. Välkommen till Storbrittanien!

Foreigners are funny because they're different

First there was the checkout girl at the supermarket, wearing a badge saying "Kopp av mig". Because of Sweden’s liberal attitude to the letter 'K' – which is modified depending on which vowel follows it, and the side of the bed you got out of that morning – it is pronounced 'shop av mig' and just means 'buy from me'. But I think my inner child was awoken by the sight of a girl wearing a badge apparently inviting you to cop, and after that it just kept regressing.

Like the road sign apparently showing a pair of buttocks and the word 'farthinder' – i.e. traffic calming. Sadly, I didn't take a photo but there's one here.

Or the popular chain of stores that will need some rebranding before it launches in the UK.

The brand of sponge fingers that you probably won’t see on the shelves soon ...

... and my personal favourite, the chocolate bar designed to appeal to small or regressed boys everywhere.

I'm back. Fuller report to follow soon.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Do you hear the drums, Osama?

I feel a bit like Noah resting safely in his ark while he sends the dove and the raven out to scout for dry land. I have been sitting comfortably here in the UK while various friends venture into foreign parts. They’ve all got back safely so it’s time to bite the bullet. Tomorrow we fly out to Sweden for wedding+honeymoon v2. Changed names will be registered in the land of Best Beloved’s birth, inlaws finally get to meet each other and for the first time since 1989 I will be driving a left-hand drive car on the wrong, i.e. the right side of the road. Should be fun. Oh, and another (slightly lower key) wedding blessing next Sunday, in Swedish. So by the end of August we will be about as married as you can get.

The airline says all flights are behaving as normal – possibly because al-Quaida have got them confused with the other SAS, possibly because Sweden hasn’t really done anything to upset the fundamentalists. Or indeed anyone, much, though it’s possible Napoleon was none too impressed when they poached one of his marshals and persuaded him to turn against his former Emperor, with the minor bribe of ‘why not be our king while you’re about it?’ A royal family descended from a French turncoat! (Is there another kind?) They’ll be descended from illegitimate Vikings living in the north of France next.

True, they gave us some of the ugliest cars on the road. They also gave us Abba, Ikea and a stealth warship, which is my particular favourite and way cooler than a Volvo. Anyway, Abba on its own makes up for just about everything. Would al-Quaida be half as unpleasant if they listened to 'Dancing Queen' or 'Super Trouper' every day? Let alone 'People Need Love' or 'He Is Your Brother'. Somehow I doubt it. Driven to the point of psychosis, yes. Unpleasant, no.

See you in a week.

Friday, August 18, 2006

It's like they'd never been away

I hadn't realised how great a part of my life they played. At one time I would get two or three every day. Either they stopped, or my ISP's spam filters got turned up, or something.

Whatever. Today I got my first Nigerian spam in ages.

This one is from one Amos, Esq, Advocate, AmosLaw Chambers, 12 plot Victoria ireland Lagos Nigeria (West Africa). (All sic. I particularly like the West Africa in brackets, just in case I think he's from one of the many other Nigerias scattered around our planet.) The non-existent sum he would like me to launder help him process is $10.5m, allegedly deposited with his firm by someone who then went and died in the Paris Concorde crash.

If anyone wants to send him their bank account details, drop me a line and I'll give you his email.

Or for more harmless fun, just read here.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Money flows towards the author

This is the basic definition of Yog’s Law (see here for origins of the term) and it should be carved on the heart of every author. You can rewrite it slightly to read ‘Money (such as it is) ...’ but otherwise it’s pretty sound. Publishers pay authors. Authors do not pay publishers. But there is a certain breed ...

They’re called vanity publishers, though many prefer ‘subsidy publishers’ as vanity is such a nasty word. You see their adverts everywhere if you look closely. Writers’ magazines, small ads. “Authors! Send us your manuscript! All categories considered for publication!” What will they do? They will take your manuscript and turn it into typeset pages (which any fool with InDesign or Quark can do at the drop of a mouse), bung a cover on it (ditto), pick a print run out of thin air and charge you for the privilege. You are left with a pile of unedited, uncritiqued, uneditorialised books that you are expected to shift all on your own and for which you have paid a great deal of money.

But they couch it in such reasonable terms: a joint venture, shared risk ... No. Wrong. Absolutely not. Don’t touch them. If they want your money, don’t go there.

Marketing? No, your problem. Distribution? No, your problem. But you said my book would be available in Amazon and 100,000 bookshops around the world! Well, of course it is ... if they order it. Just don’t expect us to tell them of its existence. So how will they know to order it? Sorry, your problem.

And even if the bookshops do hear of it, chances of picking it up are slim. For every book that comes to them from a real publisher, they know that the publisher has put themselves on the line for it. The bookshop’s opinion may differ, but at least they know the publisher thinks the book is good and ought to sell. The publisher’s editor will have discussed it with the author and worked on making it as good as the publisher thinks it can be. It will have been copy edited, and proof read, and marketed, and distributed all at the publisher’s own expense. The publisher has reasonable grounds to think they will get all that expense back through sales. That’s quite a vote of confidence in the product.

What does getting a book from a vanity publisher say? It says the author thinks his manuscript is pretty good (duh!) and has more money than sense. Not a glowing recommendation.

Not that a bookshop won’t order a vanity publication, if you go in and ask them to. Hey, a sale’s a sale. But they won’t stock it.

It’s less of a problem (I think) over here than over there, i.e. the US, but there is a thriving industry of publishers that charge authors for the privilege of publishing their books, taking the money and running. There is also a related industry of agents who charge for the privilege of representing their clients or even just reading their manuscripts, stringing the poor saps along forever and never once actually making a sale. Except sometimes they ‘sell’ the book to a vanity press in which they have a share, and guess what, the author is stung yet again into putting some cash up front. And, unless they actively break the terms of their cleverly yet loosely worded contract, it’s all legal.

Sometimes authors can fight back ... and the happy tale of Atlanta Nights is well worth reading.

BOCTAOE, as Scott Adams would say. If your book is a pictorial history of Bury Street, Abingdon, from 1950 to 1960 then no commercial publisher will ever pick it up, and no bookstore outside Abingdon will sell it. And, you may say, what about someone like G.P. Taylor, who self-published Shadowmancer and is now a millionaire? Sometimes you need to pay for the publication of your own book.

Well – quite apart from the fact that on the basis of Shadowmancer, G.P. Taylor is a man who badly needs the services of a good editor, however well the book sold – the key is that term ‘self-published’. Nothing wrong with self-publishing. Nothing at all.

You walk into self-publishing with your eyes open, fully aware that you will come out the other end with a book product which is then your responsibility. Maybe you’ve written for a very specialised niche market, and know it; maybe you just can’t get a traditional publisher for your manuscript (and don’t get me started on the possible reasons for Shadowmancer not making it this way). A vanity publisher will lure you in with promises that never materialise, claiming to do all the jobs that a publisher should do, for a fee – and you’re lucky if the finished product is worth anything. A self-publishing outfit will print your books for you, and that’s it. They won’t even pretend to perform any other services, and they are completely up-front about the fact. With modern print-on-demand, you won’t even need to have a pile of books left over at the end (though unit costs may well be cheaper if you do). Firms like UPSO and (not which is completely different) exist to facilitate the process.

If you can’t write, if you haven’t had it copy edited or proof read, then the text between the covers will probably still be rubbish; and unless you’re a good self-publicist, like Mr Taylor (and kudos to him), then the only buyers will be close friends and family who love you. But that’s your problem, and you will know it, and so will everyone else. No one has been lied to or ripped off.

All this has been on my mind quite recently with the thought that I might reissue my out-of-print work. Print on demand only – I won’t even try to get it into bookstores. And e-books. It’s just that every now and then I get a plaintive e-mail from someone who has read one of my in-print titles and wants to read more. So it shouldn’t be hard.

Maybe when some genius comes up with a clever way of getting more than 24 hours into a day. But watch this space.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Thin end of the veg

For the better part of twenty years I've made my own sandwiches or rolls for lunch. But lately, by the time I've reached the kitchen of a morning, I've found someone else has made them for me. Which is nice.

Now, I don't want to complain but today's offering distinctly had PLANTS in it. One roll had sliced red plants and the other had sliced green ones, both in addition to the regular filling. I think I'm still high on the vitamin C rush.

Some aspects of marriage will take more getting used to than others.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

How it works, boys

It's been brought to my attention that the video clip (which I had no part in formulating) in the last post features a lot of the character Seven-of Nine. Well, that's Voyager in a nutshell.

The conversation at Paramount would have gone something like this.

- Studio President: "Well, we're midway through the projected run of the series, and ratings aren't what they could be. What fruit can we pluck from the hundred year old tree of science fictional excellence to stir into the heady brew that is Voyager?"

- Flunky 1: "How about a republic of scholars dedicated to preserving the scientific knowledge of mankind after the collapse of the galactic empire, saving the galaxy from 30,000 years of chaos and sowing the seeds of a new, even greater empire?"

- Flunky 2: "How about a tragically doomed experiment to augment the intelligence of a simpleton, raising him to the level of genius and beyond, only to save his life he has to revert to being a simpleton again?"

- Flunky 3: "How about a gorgeous babe in a tight one-piece?"

- President: "Darn, this one will cause me sleepless nights."

Then, once the decision had been made, there was a further crisis meeting over the exact level of gorgeousness for the new character - should it be unattainable perfection-type gorgeous, or just the drop-dead variety? Eventually they went for drop-dead based on the novelty factor, as Trekkies are just too used to unattainability in women to bat an eyelid.

Ooh, see me.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Things I bet you never knew #8475

Beer mat collecting is called tegestology.


Some people might be rude at this point, but I'm a Dr Who fan and I live in a glass house.

UPDATE: Wikipedia reports that "There are many subcategories of tegestologists, including those who are solely interested in porcelain or other specific kinds of beermats." These are presumably ceramotegestologists.

This is what family life does for you

You scored as Maximus. After his family was murdered by the evil emperor Commodus, the great Roman general Maximus went into hiding to avoid Commodus's assassins. He became a gladiator, hoping to dominate the colosseum in order to one day get the chance of killing Commodus. Maximus is valiant, courageous, and dedicated. He wants nothing more than the chance to avenge his family, but his temper often gets the better of him.



James Bond, Agent 007


Indiana Jones


William Wallace


The Amazing Spider-Man


Neo, the "One"


Batman, the Dark Knight


Captain Jack Sparrow


Lara Croft


El Zorro


The Terminator


Which Action Hero Would You Be? v. 2.0
created with
And the relevance to family life? Well, as you can see, I tied with 007 and they had to ask a tie breaker: "family is everything" or "the opposite sex find you irresistable". Tough call, but I went for the first one. I hope I don't have to prove this quite as often as Maximus did.

If you think this is obsessive, at least I don't study my own earwax with NMR.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Oh, all right

The deal with Hello! magazine seems to have fallen through - seems they mistook us for Ant & Dec, who apparently got married on the same day, or something. So anyway, courtesy of m'colleague Sue, here in all our finery is ... us.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

As I was going to St Ives

So there we were, parked in a layby on the high ground beyond Penzance. It could have been the Mediterranean - a warm, sunny day with just enough breeze to keep things bearable. The sea was, I'm pretty sure, sparkling azure - not a phrase I ever thought I would use, but it seems to fit. Below us we could see almost the entire expanse of the bay from the Lizard round to Penzance and beyond, punctuated by the dark mound of St Michael's Mount. We ate our sandwiches as we sat in the car, a mechanical marvel that obeys my every reasonable command and burns fossil fuel to transport us from A to B in air conditioned comfort.

We were just down the road from Chysauster, an Iron Age village that we had failed to locate due to the Iron Age road signs. But so what. We hadn't a care in the world.

What, I wondered, would the original Chysausterians have made of us? Could they have comprehended anything at all in our lives that we take for granted?

Ladies and gentlemen, we are living in a Golden Age, and Golden Ages end. I just wonder how close we are to the finish of this one.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Truro Cathedral is bent

See? See? It's bent, I tell you.

It was built in the 1880s but deliberately recalled the gothic perpendicular style of its medieval ancestors. So you get these magnificent soaring columns, rows of vertical lines that draw your eye upwards to heaven, converging in perspective on ...

Hang on, you think at this point, the altar's shifted. Except that it hasn't. The place was built with a deliberate kink in it. The east end is about six feet out of kilter.

The cathedral was apparently built on a relatively shoestring budget, on an irregularly shaped piece of land. Which the architect knew. But rather than revise the plan, or make it just small enough to, you know, fit the land available, he went ahead with a full sized cathedral and then squeezed it in. Like trying to stuff an oversized bag into an overhead locker, only bigger and with less danger that it will fall on your head.

But what the hey. A nice feature of the place is that it replaced the original (smaller) parish church, and rather than knock down the original church, they incorporated it - the original aisle of the church is now the north west side aisle of the cathedral. Nice touch. It's tranquil and like all good cathedrals it has lots of nooks and crannies and curtain walls and different levels so that it never really feels the same from any two angles. And you know God is at home, no doubt chuckling quietly to himself as yet another visitor lets their eyes travel inevitably down the aisle towards the altar ... and then a puzzled frown crosses their face.

The march of literacy

Where to start? Where to start ...

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Wedding report

... but not much of one, actually, because I don't remember that much. I was told this would happen. To gather impressions you need to be an observer on the periphery, not the (slightly offset) centre of attention. I surprised myself by almost getting teary towards the end; isn't that meant to be the mother's job? But in my speech I thanked (and named) the people who had been especially kind to us and most especially to Best Beloved, and suddenly there was a lump where previously there had been none. And before that my uncle had made a little speech of his own, remembering when he had come to Northern Ireland and met me for the first time, and given me a bottle, and then gone downstairs to watch Dr Who. My uncle is pushing 60 and has a mental age of five, and he had spent most of the day before composing that offering. That got to me.

What else do I remember ...
  • my bride alighting from her car and looking absolutely beautiful. And then getting back in again so the photographer could capture the moment.
  • sweltering heat; temperatures inside my hired suit approaching the temperature inside Chernobyl shortly before it became world famous.
  • wrath-of-God-type thunderstorm as we were having our drinks afterwards.
  • a swirl of smiling faces, everyone apart from one whiny six year old (and who cares?) seeming to be happy and enjoying it; everyone there special to at least one of us and wishing us well.
  • year 9 girl sitting on year 11 boy's bike and refusing to move until he offered to marry her. (Me: "It would make a lovely match." Her dad: "Well, for her, maybe ...")
And I think that's it. More may follow. I'd post some pictures, but the deal with Hello! magazine was pretty exclusive.