Friday, December 28, 2007

Some Christmas reflections

1. Patrick Stewart -
-is pretty well perfect as Ebenezer Scrooge, but the production as a whole still can't quite approach the sheer joie de vivre of Michael Caine taking the role in A Muppet Christmas Carol.

2. Russell T. Davies -
- given a choice between crowd-pleasing emotion and something that makes sense in terms of plot logic, will generally plump for the former.

Now, he can do plot logic. He has to pilot entire seasons of a TV show and make them all string together. But the man simply can't be trusted with a one-off - like the Christmas Dr Who special.

It had much going for it and the occasional screeching clunk to remind us whose hands we are in. There are some people who can see Kylie reduced to a dispersed cloud of atoms fated forever to drift throughout the universe and think, aaahh!! And there's some people who think 'Gawd, I'd rather just be dead.' I'm one of the latter, and I think so would anyone be who actually got to experience it for more than a second or two. But because this is the Christmas special, and he's playing to an audience that likes to watch Celebrity Chef X Idol and all the other mind-numbing pap that traditionally clogs our airwaves, and he has to keep them happy, Mr Davies goes for the emotion.

I wish he wouldn't. I know, he's a showman, he has to appeal to a wide audience, and he's enough of a fan of the original series to know what happens when the series only reaches out to the fans. But there's a middle ground. Surely.

3. Talking heads-
- (not the group) are the veriest spawn of Satan and I fell into their trap twice over the break. That's my eternal unquenchable optimism for you. Once was a programme revealing to a breathlessly waiting nation the no. 1 Morecambe & Wise sketch of all time. It turned out to be the breakfast sketch, for what it's worth, because they didn't actually show the thing in its entirety - they showed snatches interspersed with various prannies telling us exactly why it was all so clever.

Soon after that there was a programme billed as containing a whole load of seasonal clippings from various classic shows - Are You being Served, Only Fools and Horses and so on. I have fond memories of many of those and it would have been enjoyable, undemanding viewing. But I turned off the moment the first person popped up to explain why what I was about to see was so funny.


Is there, breathes there a producer, anywhere out there in TVland, who has the sheer guts to make a compilation show and broadcast it without any kind of commentary, simply trusting the audience to make up their own minds based upon the content and nothing else? Or do young producers nowadays dream of going to producer school to learn to spoil people's enjoyment with little homilies just in case they've missed the point?

A little over a year ago, Google paid nearly $2 billion for YouTube. Would it have even a fraction of that value if every video it offers was interspersed with talking heads telling you what a great time you were having by not watching the video they were interrupting? I somehow think not. YouTube points the viewer at the content and stands back. That's the way it used to be done and that's still the only way to do it properly.

So here is the Morecambe & Wise breakfast sketch, courtesy of YouTube, with absolutely no talking heads.

Affirmation for a rainy day

Take the Sci fi sounds quiz I received 85 credits on
The Sci Fi Sounds Quiz

How much of a Sci-Fi geek are you?
Take the Sci-Fi Movie Quiz canon s5 is

There's 14 questions, so assuming this means 85% that means I got 12. The two I got wrong were probably the two I guessed.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

You'll have to take my word for it

We lit it.

And it burned.

If you magnify this and look at the centre of the pudding, you can just see a blue flicker of flame.

And if that's too disappointing, here is some genuine Christmas cheer.

Monday, December 24, 2007

A Christmas message

From the Lolcat Bible:
Da burth of Jesuz Christ

18 Now, teh burth of teh Christ was liek dis: After Marry and Joseph waz all "We's gonna get marrieded, kthnx", but before dey could had hankiez pankiez Mary was all pr3ggerz from Teh Forse.19 Joseph was liek "I has virjn - NOOOO dey be stealin my virjn! Must hied hur".20 But when he was tihnkin, zomg, a WallCat frm Ceiling Cat was liek, "Oh hai! I'm in ur dreemz, givin u messij. Don't be scairdy cat. Take Mary as ur wife - is virjn. But teh Forse is strong in tihs wun, lol! HoverCat is on hur, givn hur feetus, srsly.21 "And she gonna made a son, and you gonna call him Jeezus, cuz he save kittehs frum bein bad kittehs. Kthxbye."22 So all dis was all did cuz Ceiling Cat had sed it wud be. His proffet was all liek:23 "Hay guise, look! teh virjn iz all preggers, and dey gonna call him Immanuel", dat be joospeek for "Ceiling Cat wit us"24 Then Joseph waked up, done wat teh angel frm Ceiling Cat tolded him to, and was all liek "U wit me now lol" at Mary.25 And dey didnt has teh HARBL GOES WHERE!?!? til affer dey gets a son and calleded him Jeezus. Ktnx.

Have a good one, everyone.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Bournemouth boa

So, having successfully avoided Bournemouth for most of my life, I drove there today for the third time this year. And handled a snake.

The five foot boa belonged to the neighbour of the flat I was visiting. He has an understanding landlord. And could I resist the chance to hold, um, her?

Snakes feel astonishingly like ... snakeskin, really. Who'd have guessed? Waxy, room temperature snakeskin that creaks when they flex themselves, stretched over corded muscle. First her owner held her while she sampled my fingers with her tongue, but as they probably tasted of WD40 (see yesterday's post) she didn't seem to think much of them. Then he passed her to me. She wrapped her tail tight around my left wrist, not quite enough to cut off the blood but enough that I couldn't have retrieved my hand quickly if I'd wanted to. Then she generally twined herself round my right arm, stuck her neck out and surveyed the room with a proud sort of "I has a tree" look.

Sadly no photo exists of this event as my hands were full in every way, so here's one of me aged 19, in Thailand, similar situation, much bigger snake.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

All the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order


It's December, there must be something wrong with the car

Let's recap on its previous seasonal achievements.

Is it fluid draining out of the power steering? Not so far.

Is it one of the battery terminals corroding off and thus leaving the car completely dead (only a miraculous residual charge meaning you can even unlock the thing)? No, but focus on the unlocking.

I have discovered that the driver side passenger door only responds fitfully to the central locking. It may lock or unlock with the rest of the car ... or it may not. Thus making life interesting by choosing to stay locked when the rest of the car is open - which isn't really such a problem - or choosing to stay open when the rest of the car is locked. Which could lead to awkwardness.

I shall squirt WD40 into the lock, and if that doesn't work then it's beyond economical repair.

UPDATE: it's beyond economical repair, but I expect I'll get it done anyway.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Monday, December 17, 2007

Daisy, Daisy

I've deactivated my Facebook account. There, I said it.

I only opened it in the first place because I'm too weak-willed to resist the siren calls of my friends who kept inviting me in. At least I've been strong enough to keep a 1:1 ratio between what I would call my real world friends, or at least acquaintances, and what Facebook calls friends. The balance was tipped by an increasing number of complete strangers who want to be my friends too. It just seems unkind to reject them while accepting others - so much easier not to present them with the temptation. Sorry, people. I'm flattered and I'm sure you're all lovely, but if you want to say nice things to me, my e-mail is publicly available. I'm also well in touch with my inner grumpy old sod and I simply don't want to write on your Fun Wall or fill in a quiz or play Mornington Crescent or see if I'm within six degrees of separation from Daniel Craig or generally tell you what I'm doing.

For anyone else wanting to follow in my footsteps, which felt quite pioneering but obviously were not, here's how to do it.

Facebook sows the seeds of its own destruction by presenting you with a checklist of reasons why you're doing this. You click on one of them and a counter-reason pops up. I clicked on "I don't find it useful". Up came: well, you might if you interacted with your friends more.

Which irritated me so much I clicked "Finish". Hah! I might have been wavering up till that point.

Even so, here's how it made me feel.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The rum tum tum of a military drum and the guns that go boom boom

Many, many years ago my parents wisely bought a couple of Gilbert & Sullivan classic song LPs. I say wisely in that I approve. I may perhaps mean unwisely as I recall spending an entire holiday playing them over and over again. I was 12 and I finished that holiday a confirmed G&S fan.

It took a few more years to learn what the deeper jokes were actually about but even then I was entranced by the cleverness of the wordplay. Who can fail to love the sheer genius of the frantic, feverish Nightmare Song from Iolanthe?
... For you dream you are crossing the Channel, and tossing
about in a steamer from Harwich;
Which is something between a large bathing machine
and a very small second-class carriage.
And you're giving a treat (penny ice and cold meat)
to a party of friends and relations;
They're a ravenous horde and they all came on board
at Sloane Square and South Kensington Stations.
And bound on that journey you find your attorney,
who started that morning from Devon;
He's a bit undersized and you don't feel surprised
when he tells you he's only eleven.
Well, you're driving like mad with this singular lad
(by the by, the ship's now a four-wheeler)
And you're playing round games and he calls you bad names
when you tell him that "ties pay the dealer";
But this you can't stand, so you throw up your hand,
and you find you're as cold as an icicle,
In your shirt and your socks (the black silk with gold clocks)
crossing Salisbury Plain on a bicycle ...
So, hold that thought.

The Kennington & District United Church Choirs Gilbert & Sullivan productions are like putting on an old comfy slipper. They do one every year in the most barebones format possible, cramming into Kennington Methodist Church with everyone up at the front all at once, with only the leads in any kind of convincing costume. More of a concert than a performance, really. The average age must be 60 at least, which they play for laughs whenever they come across a line emphasising the youth of the characters. And they do it so well, with such love and affection, you couldn't help loving it even if it wasn't G&S.

Last night's show was Princess Ida. This, apparently (and rarely for G&S) was a relative bomb; after its initial run in London it wasn't seen in the West End again until after WW1. Its feminist themes were maybe a bit too outre for the time. Ida, having been betrothed to Hilarion 20 years ago at the age of 1 (he was twice her age, 2, but concedes she has now almost caught him up) has decided this is a mug's game and gone off to found an all-female academy.

Obviously, the thought of educated wimmin is given the ha-ha-ha treatment, and Ida ends by seeing the error of her ways and falling for Hilarion after all. It is pointed out that given her ideal, man-free world, there would soon be no posterity to carry on her ideals. Oops, she hadn't thought of that, what a gurl. So, Gilbert's Victorian audience breathes a sigh of relief.

But here and there, like tiny nuggets of uranium - small but very potent - you get the impression that Gilbert was maybe, just maybe, like, you know, suggesting a society run on more feminine ideals might be preferable to ... well, the height of the British Empire as it then was.

Just maybe.

But, back to the songs. Another song on the aforesaid LPs was King Gama's "If you give me your attention". Gama is the most disagreeable old man under the sun and, in a stroke of genius, in last night's performance was played as a crabby old Scot, complete with ginger wig and tartan tamoshanter. Yet Gama considers himself the life and soul of the party, and can't understand why no one likes him.

Herewith his song.
If you give me your attention, I will tell you what I am:
I'm a genuine philanthropist, all other kinds are sham.
Each little fault of temper and each social defect
In my erring fellow-creatures I endeavour to correct.
To all their little weaknesses I open people's eyes;
And little plans to snub the self-sufficient I devise;
I love my fellow creatures, I do all the good I can;
Yet ev'rybody says I'm such a disagreeable man!
And I can't think why!

To compliments inflated I've a withering reply;
And vanity I always do my best to mortify;
A charitable action I can skillfully dissect;
And interested motives I'm delighted to detect;
I know ev'rybody's income and what ev'rybody earns;
And I carefully compare it with their income-tax returns;
But to benefit humanity however much I plan,
Yet ev'rybody says I'm such a disagreeable man!
And I can't think why!

I'm sure I'm no ascetic; I'm as pleasant as can be;
You'll always find me ready with a crushing repartee.
I've an irritating chuckle, I've a celebrated sneer,
I've an entertaining snigger, I've a fascinating leer.
To ev'rybody's prejudice I know a thing or two;
I can tell a woman's age in half a minute (and I do).
But although I try to make myself as pleasant as I can,
Yet ev'rybody says I'm such a disagreeable man!
And I can't think why!

Occasional recipes: Piquant Pork Chops

More from The Cook's Recipe Collection
  • Pork chops [though loin steaks are similar and don't have those pesky bones]
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 1 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp mustard powder
  • 2 tsp tomato puree
  • 1/2 pint beef stock
  • 1 tbsp Worcester sauce
  • 2 tbsps fresh lemon juice
  1. Heat some oil, brown chops on both sides. Remove from the pan and place in an overproof dish or casserole.
  2. Fry the onion until lightly browned.
  3. Stir in sugar, mustard powder and puree. [If you have previously mixed sugar and mustard powder together, battle evil temptation when stepson indicates intention of eating the mixture. Resist and warn him off.] Add stock and bring to the boil.
  4. Stir in Worcester sauce and lemon juice. Season to taste.
  5. Pour over chops and cook in an oven at gas mark 4 for 40-45 minutes until the meat is tender.
  6. Optional: if your stepson has gone out to feed his grandmother's neighbour's cats, and still hasn't come back, move food to lower down in the oven. All that happens is the meat gets even more tender. When he eventually saunters back home and asks "when's food ready?", reply "in minus twenty minutes."
Goes well with couscous, especially as there's a lot of sauce to soak up. Also goes well (under slight protest) with the first batch of sprouts for the year, mainly because you can smother them in sauce-soaked couscous and they taste quite decent. Oddly.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Traffic tonic

Fuming in a succession of traffic queues; every approach into Abingdon apparently sealed off.

On comes the Huddersfield Choral Society (I think he said) on Classic FM, singing "Gaudete", and everything is better. The volume, the power, and of course the words which thanks to a classical education I can understand.

Sadly they're not on YouTube, so here's Steeleye Span.

Further Golden Compass musing

My publisher was at the movie launch the other week. He was able to tap his wife on the shoulder and say, "darling, have you met Daniel Craig?"

Another ambition to add to the list, except that I don't really see Daniel Craig filling a role in any adaptation of my books. Though there's a couple of parts for Russell Crowe in the full Ben corpus.

Points North

Have not yet seen The Golden Compass, as such has been judged Unhelpful during the period that revision for mocks is meant to be going on. Which probably means we'll see it the weekend before Christmas.

But I've been using the time to re-read Northern Lights, which my UKcentric old school mentality still prefers as the title, so I can do a proper compare and contrast when the time comes. Wow! There's so much I'd forgotten. In fact, maybe because I've now read all three books and understand it all better, I think I'm enjoying it even more second time round.

And take passages like this, as two kids, one Texan and a polar bear head north in a balloon, towed and accompanied by a squadron of witches:
"As far as the eye could see, to the very horizon in all directions, a tumbled sea of white extended without a break. Soft peaks and vaporous chasms rose or opened here and there, but mostly it looked like a solid mass of ice.

And rising through it in ones and twos and larger groups as well came small black shadows, those ragged figures of such elegance, witches on their branches of cloud-pine."
I'm warning New Line now: if that scene isn't replicated exactly as I picture it, there will be Consequences.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

It's not even Christmas

Yet, already this year I have received
  • a Dalek keyring from a colleague ("I saw this and I thought of you")
  • the Official 2008 Doctor Who annual, courtesy of the departmental Secret Santa.
Is someone trying to tell me something?

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Elvis presentation

I just love finding out random stuff, especially when it bypasses my carefully acquired 42-year-old maturity and speaks directly to my inner child.

Like, as of today I now know that we all have twelve cranial nerves, i.e. nerves that don't exit the skull via the spinal cord but come directly through the skull itself.

More here by Jim Macdonald courtesy of Making Light.

One of these is the vagus nerve, which controls heart rate and hooks into various parts of the digestive system (among many other things). In fact it terminates at, um, the same point that the digestive system does. And stimulating the vagus slows the heart.

Thus, when you're having a really satisfying strain, this can apply pressure to the vagus and lower your heart rate. In fact it can lower it so far that, in the elderly or infirm, the heart can give up altogether. Hence the fact that so many heart attacks occur in that position.

This is known as the Elvis presentation after the most likely cause of the great man's death. The King upon his throne, as it were.

Mystery solved.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Occasional recipes: Chicken with Olives

Of course, you could take away the olives and just call this ... chicken.

From The Cook's Recipe Collection, compiled by Jillian Stewart, ISBN 1-85833-441-1
  • 2 tbsps olive oil
  • 30g butter
  • bits of chicken [recommends 3lb to serve 4-6. We just used three thighs to serve 3.]
  • 1 clove garlic [oh come on - 3 minimum]
  • 1/4 pint white wine
  • 1/4 pint chicken stock
  • 4 courgettes [2 sufficed nicely], trimmed & cut into 1.25cm pieces
  • as many pitted olives as you care to mention
  • 2 tbsps chopped parsley
Heat the oil, add the butter. When they're foaming, add the chicken skin-side down. Brown one side, then turn over to brown the other.

Turn the chicken skin-side up and add the garlic, wine, stock, and salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, cover the pan and allow to simmer for a further 30mins or so over a gentle heat. The bits of bird are about half submerged in the resulting sauce, which thickens quite nicely, and go very tender.

Add the courgettes and cook for a further ten minutes. Add the olives, cook to heat through, add the parsley and serve. We had it with rice which absorbs the sauce very nicely. The courgettes don't go all soft and squishy but do absorb the chicken flavour.

Optional: for dessert, for the third week running, use Tesco ready mix cheesecake mixture because your stepson can't be bothered to tax his braincells with anything more time consuming. Resist urge to punch air and go "yes!" when he asks if we can have a different dessert next week.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

I feel such a fool

If only my life wasn't so impulsively spur of the moment.

Just a couple of weeks ago we booked tickets for next year's Sweden holiday. Two hundred quid on Ryanair. Fools! For today I get a nice letter from American Express congratulating me on being selected for the final stage of approval for the British Airways American Express credit card. Once I have my card, and have spent my first £20,000, I'll have enough BA Miles for a return ticket to ... you guessed it ... Sweden!

Ah well, I'll just put it down to experience.

Friday, December 07, 2007

I disapprove of what you say

... but will defend to the point of minor inconvenience your right to say it. Voltaire, paraphrased.

I’m delighted to see that the BBC's director general will not be prosecuted for blasphemy over the screening of "Jerry Springer - The Opera" in 2005. This action had been brought by Stephen Green, director of Christian Voice, an organisation for which Matthew 7:21-23 was specially penned.

Sadly the High Court only interprets laws, it doesn't make new ones or strike old. So it couldn't quite go far enough. Says the Beeb:
"the two senior judges at the High Court said the 1968 Theatres Act prevented any prosecution for blasphemy in relation to public performances of plays. The 1990 Broadcasting Act, they continued, prevented any prosecution in relation to broadcasts."
Says Ben: nothing should be prosecuted for blasphemy. Such a prosecution should not exist in the laws of the country. Any country.

I don't claim to have learnt any major life lessons (so far), but a fairly useful one came somewhere between the ages of 5 and 10. There are people out there who are basically gits, and who like to wind you up by saying unkind things. Boo hoo, get used to it, move on. Be better.

Let's look further afield. Hello, Christians circulating emails to all their friends urging a boycott of The Golden Compass. ("I'd be far more offended if I was a polar bear," says the Catholic Herald’s art critic.)

Hello, anyone who resorts to Creation Science to bolster up their beliefs.

Why stick to Christianity? Hello, rioting Sudanese people.

While Gillian Gibbons was in jail last week, mobs in Sudan were baying for her to face the firing squad. A BBC reporter talked to a pleasant looking, fresh faced young man who explained that this was reasonable because we love our Prophet so much. It brought to mind the Satanic Verses controversy from 20 years ago, only that time it was a saintly old granddad being interviewed, weeping in genuine distress over the affront to his beloved Prophet.

Except that, you don’t love him. You obsess about him, and you can’t bear the thought of him possibly being bigger and better than your tiny little mind can encompass. Stop and think. Your God is annoyed because a teddy bear is named after his prophet / he features in a stage show satirising something I’m certain he already hates (chat shows) / someone writes a book criticising those who abuse authority in his name?

I would gladly be sent to Hell by such a God because the prospect of an eternity in Paradise with him is profoundly depressing. An eternity of walking on eggshells in case I blinked the wrong way.

Voltaire again: "Defend me from my friends; I can defend myself from my enemies."


Best line: "A spokeswoman for Royal Wigan Infirmary said they were unable to comment about the incident." Without giggling? Or just, you know, unable?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Ottawa: more fun than Westminster

Parliamentary privilege means MPs can discuss things openly and frankly without fear of being sued or arrested. Some things, though, MPs can't say as it is officially unparliamentary language. Most of it is things they can't call another person; some of it is words they just can't use.

I always knew calling someone a liar was one of them. (Churchill's "terminological inexactitude" is much more fun anyway.) According to Wikipedia, our MPs may also not say blackguard, coward, git, guttersnipe, hooligan, ignoramus, rat, swine, stoolpigeon or traitor.

(I'm reasonably certain that Freddie Uncle Charlie Katie should be included here, (a) because I can't picture any MP actually being allowed to say it in the House and (b) because I'm sure I remember circumstances forcing a slightly surprised George Thomas to add it to the list. It's hard to be certain because the papers were all so coy in reporting it at the time. I gathered an MP had actually used the offending word X, in describing a telephone prostitution racket as "phone them and X them". So alliteration and a sense of rhythm suggests what the word was, but I can't be sure.)

But compare that to the list of things Canadian MPs aren't allowed to say: parliamentary pugilist; a bag of wind; inspired by forty-rod whiskey; coming into the world by accident; blatherskite; the political sewer pipe from Carleton County; lacking in intelligence; a dim-witted saboteur; liar; a trained seal; evil genius; Canadian Mussolini; pompous ass; fuddle duddle; pig; jerk; sleaze bag; racist; scuzzball and weathervane.

Just the fact that all these terms at one point or another must have been used suggests Canadian politics may be much more interesting than our own.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Aux armes, citoyens!

Listening with half an ear to today's Jeremy Vine Show, I gather some fool is up in arms about verse 6 of our beloved national anthem.

My first thought was: "it goes up to 6?"

My second was: "oh, it's that one."

The verse was penned in the 18th century when a victorious English army marched north of the border under the command of General Wade and put down the Scottish rebels. "Wuffly", as Pontius Pilate might have put it. From memory, since I can't be bothered to look it up:
God grant that General Wade
By thy almighty aid
Victory bring.
May he sedition hush and like a torrent rush
The rebellious Scots to crush
God save the King.
You can of course immediately spot what's wrong with it. Unlike every other verse in the anthem it's quite specific about rhyming with "King"; the sole virtue of the national anthem as a song is that it's interchangeable between King and Queen (neither really rhyming), thus minimising the fuss when there's a changeover at the top.

Note that I say its sole virtue as a song. Face it, it's a dirge. But it is a powerful, stirring tune - without words and for one verse only - to make the breast swell with pride on the right occasion. As both song and anthem, though, the Marseillaise knocks it into a cocked hat. (Witness the great scene in Casablanca.) Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos bataillons! Closely followed by the Soviet national anthem of old, which is only nudged off first place by sentiments I don't entirely agree with. Something about Communism, I think it was.

Of course, everyone on Jeremy Vine was chipping in with their own alternative verses, with the emotional righteousness and depth of a Christmas card. Here's Ben's solution: drop that verse ... In fact, drop every one except the first. Easy.

Meanwhile, Scots, Welsh and anyone else who feels slighted by the national anthem in its present form can hum along to verse 3 of the Star Spangled Banner, national anthem of our beloved close friends the Americans. That's us they're talking about, guys.
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.
And the star-spangled banner, in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Not quite sure how this happened

Your Inner European is Irish!

Sprited and boisterous!

You drink everyone under the table.

Okay, I was born in Belfast so it might be something to do with hereditaryitytytry.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

When good will goes bad

  • Update: very pleased to report that while MADD does exist, it disowns this particular poem. They also give good advice on much more constructive courses of action.

I do not forward circular emails, warnings, prayers, or any other of that ilk. Ever. No exceptions.

A recent and interesting essay by Orson Scott Card points out the dangers of doing so. Who among us hasn't received (or, blushingly, passed on) a hoax virus warning that we believed, or a cute little snippet of wisdom that we want to share, or an online petition for something years out of date ...

"... it is my firm belief that the forward button on your email software should be disabled until you can prove you have visited Hoaxbusters," says Mr C. Absolutely right. But he also goes on to point out that very often what you are forwarding is actually copyright to someone, which opens a whole new can of worms. Anyway, read the article. It's salutory, and apart from anything else will give you ammunition the next time someone sends you something that will allegedly amuse you.

But I wouldn't be saying this now if my ire hadn't coincidentally been raised by an online petition recently received. Well, it calls itself a petition, though as far as I can see it it doesn't actually petish anything. It just consists of a poem about someone killed by a drunk driver. At the end of this is:
When it reaches 5000 we are asked to pass it on to the MADD address in Dallas, TX. It currently has 1243 signatures, of which the last is the distant New Zealand (nowhere near Dallas) relative who passed it on to me. Oh, and let's not forget its final parting shot, in 48pt bold red text.
"If you receive this petition and do nothing but delete it, your selfishness knows no bounds.

Signing is such a small effort to make."
Um - I beg your pardon?

Excuse me?

You preachy judgemental sanctimonious smug self-satisfied obnoxious odious conceited little creep, excuse me?? How dare you - how dare you judge me for not sharing your little crusade? Let me not for one second devalue or disrespect the suffering of people who have lost loved ones to the drink-driving morons out there (the ones whose selfishness really does know no bounds, I might add). People who have had the core of their lives ripped out by some fool with an avoidable one too many. But don't you dare judge me for not sharing your values. Especially as, can I point out again, you haven't actually asked me to sign any kind of petition or do anything that will make the blindest bit of difference. You have asked me to add my name after an unattributed, maudlin poem and then clog up the bandwidth of a server somewhere in Texas, breaking the news to some official that I have never heard of and who has never heard of me that I'm against drink driving.

No. Won't. Kindly pull down your trousers, sit on something very spiky - the Eiffel Tower would work, or the Seattle Space Needle - and swivel. Very quickly.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Ben backs the Bishop

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I give you Alan Wilson, Area Bishop of Buckingham:
“... if I say "gay bishops" everybody except the occasional couple of zealots glazes over almost instantaneously. When I engage about Creation, which I do rather more often, I notice that people light up. Of course they do. There are four or five verses in the Bible that just possibly could have anything at all to do with the Gay issue. Meanwhile ruddy great chunks of it, say a fifth of the text, is the Creator’s love song — heavens proclaiming God's glory, people exercising stewardship, prophets drawing messages from God out of nature. Apart from the anoraks, a few religious correspondents and rentaquote coteries, nobody in long trousers actually gives a pig's burp about gay bishops, compared to staying alive ...”

“...What is God going to say to the Anglican Church in the hour of death and the day of judgment? Well done, you sorted out the property disputes over gays in Virginia but, oops, bad news, you destroyed my world! It's time to get real and get out there.”
Preach it, brother.

And if I may, please give me a pat on the back for not using a single speck of innuendo in the title of this post.

Piper at the Gates of Yawn

Billie Piper is to return to Dr Who, says the BBC. Personally I really, really hope she doesn't.

I have nothing against her. I was pleasantly surprised – and I wasn't alone – to learn that all my prejudices were wrong and she's a pretty good actress. Billie and Rose between them were exactly what the show needed to kickstart it in the twenty first century. When she felt it was time to move on with her career, she couldn't just leave. The producers rightly put Rose in a situation where she had to go, had to stay away and could not come back. Ever.

Except that apparently, she can. Thereby making that heart rending farewell on a beach in Gower Norway ... utterly meaningless.

I has a TARDIS gets it about right, here and here.

But – shows rely on ratings, ratings rely on actors, and as long as the actor is actually alive in the real world (and even then not always) there is always the possibility of their character returning. Producers should be made to hand over their firstborn child as a deposit against yielding to the temptation. It cheapens all that has gone before; it devalues any kind of tension.

Trek did it with their mirror universe. In the original series, in a one-off episode, a transporter accident sends our heroes into a parallel universe where they are evil (and their evil counterparts end up in ours). You can tell they’re evil because Spock has a beard, though fortunately for all he’s just as logical as usual and is key to the plan to get everyone home. And they really have to put their thinking hats on to make it work. It was a conundrum and a pretty good episode.

By the end of DS9, however, people started popping over into the parallel universe every time they put the wrong fuse in a plug. And then they started doing it at will. It had its compensations (evil Major Kira = woof!) but it was still cheap and lazy and diverted resources from doing something really creative.

One more reason why books will always be better ...

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Literary drives

Scott Adams has a book coming out. So do I. Here ends the list of similarities between me and Scott Adams, apart from the obvious (white, male etc.).

Mr Adams threw open the doors of his blog to his readers for possible blurbs to go on the back of his book. You'll have to go there to see them all but no harm in reproducing some of my favourites which I would quite like to see on the back of mine:
A delightful read ... it has everything; humor, words, dangling participles, and did I detect a hint of nutmeg?

I was reading this to my mother when she died. She refused to enter the light until I had finished.

Finally, the answer to the question “What would Jesus read?”

A snake made me read this book and it made me aware of my own nudity! Totally worth it!

I don't want to say that this is the best book ever written, but as I slid it into my bookshelf a chorus of angels began to sing and my other novels were engulfed in holy flame. I guess that's a little ambiguous, though.
In other news, I have discovered a new literary ambition: to win the Bad Sex Award ("for the most awkward description of an intimate encounter"), the latest shortlist for which has just been announced. Though sadly not the entries themselves.

One small obstacle to overcome would be actually writing a description of any intimate encounter at all, other than the entirely tasteful alien sex scene in His Majesty’s Starship. I did once write a post-sex scene for Winged Chariot, which I then cut on the grounds that it just didn't work. The couple in question had just been in mortal danger of their lives and I thought nookie would not be foremost on their thoughts.

I was very pleased to have this point of view vindicated by, I think, Pennski at a panel at Eastercon a few years ago. Or it might have been Farah, the third panellist. Whoever it was, her woman's take on it was: he'd be thinking of sex, she'd be thinking of chocolate.

Anyway, thinking hat on. I shall seek inspiration by reading previous winners.

UPDATE: and the 2007 winner is the late Norman Mailer.
"His mouth lathered with her sap, he turned around and embraced her face with all the passion of his own lips and face, ready at last to grind into her with the Hound, drive it into her piety."
No wonder he got through so many wives.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Spam: a new variant

A cunning reversal of the usual tropes here. All entirely sic.
Greetings.I feel quite safe dealing with you in this important

Though,I choose to reach you through Internet because it still remains the fastest medium of communication.

However,this correspondence is unofficial and private,and it should be treated as such.I am Mr XXX,a United Kingdom Government Auditor and I work in the International operation department in a Bank here in UK. My purpose of contacting you is that I am looking for a Reliable partner in a foreign country to place as the next of kin to a dormant account that have not been operated for years in my bank with a total sum of 39,000,000.00 Pounds and on further discreet investigation I also discovered that the account holder has long since passed on (dead) leaving no beneficiary to the account.I contacted you because you are a foreigner and I will provide to you the necessary claim documents the bank will require from you in other to claim this fund including the details nformation of the account in my next mail.

I will inform you on what to do if you are going to assure me that you will not betray me and my family with this fund in your possession so as to enable me to start the paper work immediately without further delay.I have a family of four,My wife claudia and hailey,brooke. Keep this business within your self for security and safe reasons.Thanks as I'm in anticipation of your favourable response.

Have a pleasant day.


So, he's actually a Brit wanting to get money out of the country? That makes it all so much more believable.

Especially as the standard of English compares quite favourably to some official communications I've had.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Games children play

And so the Christmas shopping begins in earnest.

One item being looked for was a Barbie Horse, i.e. a Horse that goes with a Barbie rather than a painfully anorexic horse with a fixed grin. This was the stated proxy choice for 2.75-year-old niece, who being 2.75 can't really vocalise her own choices well. Quite a why a woman whose legs don't bend wants a horse is beyond me, but then I'm a guy.

Action Man may have been seriously deficient in other boyish areas, but at least he could sit astride something.

Woolworths has such a horse, with - get this - an additional head so you can change horse styles.

Or, one head too many.

Briefly entertain the idea of introducing 2.75-year-old niece to Godfather Barbie ...

Maybe next year.

Occasional recipes: mushroom and potato pie

From The Colour Library Book of Vegetarian Cooking, published by - um - Colour Library Books, with our own embellishments based on our previous enjoyment of the dish last year.

  • 400g mushrooms (book says 350)
  • 3 celery stalks
  • 1 onion
  • as many cloves of garlic as you're comfortable with (book doesn't say any, but come on!)
  • 40g flour
  • 2 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp thyme (ignored 'cos we don't have any)
  • 1/2 pint milk
  • 2-3 teaspoons lemon juice (or just juice half a lemon)
  • 850g potatoes (book says 750, which is too thin)
  • 6 tablespoons milk
  • more paprika
Simmer spuds for 20 minutes to make tender.

Fry chopped onion, celery and garlic for five minutes in butter, then add mushrooms and cook for a further 2 minutes. (The celery is particularly important as it gives the Boy something to do, i.e. carefully pick it all out of his helping before eating.)

Sprinkle flour over mushroom mixture, stir, add paprika and (allegedly) thyme. Remove from heat, stir in milk, return to heat until sauce thickens. Remove again and stir in lemon juice. Season to taste and set aside.

Mash potatoes with milk and butter. (Also a previously cooked and skinned artichoke, for interesting additional flavour. Remember to drain properly in something like a colander. Yours truly was feeling impatient so just drained through a gap between pan and lid, leaving lots of water in and leading to quite runny mash.)

Pour mushroom mixture into oven dish, cover with mashed potatoes, sprinkle with paprika, bake for 20 minutes.

The picture in the book showed a nice diamond pattern of paprika lines over a bed of smoothly furrowed mash. We went more for the "random chaos" look. Tastes the same ...

Friday, November 23, 2007

Ce-le-brate! Ce-le-brate!

Dalek and Cyberman advent calendars! Who'd have thought it?

Verity Lambert died yesterday. I bet she never did.

HMRC: much explained

Everyone has been asking questions about HM Revenue & Customs' entertaining little faux pas, and how it could have happened. Especially as it all seems to be officially dumped on one of the younger members of staff, who are probably a lot more with the technology thang than the Sir Humphreys above them.

There may be a clue in the exchange of emails and correspondence shown here.

The damning evidence is on pages 6 and 7. Hidden among all the censor's black ink, you will notice that someone at HMRC uses Comic Sans MS as their font of choice.

I think we have our culprit, and if we don't, we should.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thatcher resigns!

No, not breaking news. In fact this news is exactly 17 years old today. It's gearing up to its AS's, it's got a deep voice and it needs to shave more than it used to.

Sensing the historicity, I kept the newspaper for that day. All it tells me 17 years later is that it was otherwise a pretty slow news day and that evening was televisually dead on all four channels.

Thatcher's horoscope for that day, according to the Standard (she's a Libra): "Although you may not wish to read any more warnings about travel plans or long-standing arrangements, complex planetary influences over the next week or so signify it is time to confront and challenge those who have either taken your support and enthusiasm for granted - or worse, tried to outsmart you."


It was our generation's Kennedy moment – you always know where you were when you heard. In my case, I was standing by the desk that held the stationery and the electric typewriter, when Piers From The Office Downstairs popped in and said, "have you heard?"

Seeing Thatch leave Number 10, lip almost a-quiver, was one of the two times I could almost – and I cannot overstress the tenuosity of that almost – feel sorry for her. But she was by this point clinically insane and she had brought it on herself, so I let it pass.

The other time was in her infamous Belgrano interview. For those of tender years, she was on a radio phone-in programme – or was it TV? Anyway, she was answering questions from the public. One worthy took her to task for the sinking of the Belgrano, on which the one thing everyone could agree was it had been outside the exclusion zone of the Falklands and heading away from Our Boys when the torpedoes hit.

Thatcher, being Thatcher, was even less able than most politicians to wrap her braincells around the mindset of someone who disagreed with her. If disagreement was outside the script, or not under the rules of Parliamentary debate, or she couldn't ban it, she was clueless. And so, she repeated her points over and over again, while the fool on the other end of the line repeated her points over and over again, and sadly came off looking a little better for the simple reason that it was clear the PM hadn't actually answered her, and therefore instinct said she had something to hide. (This is also why I stopped listening to monomaniac line-toeing politicians doing the 8.10 interview on the Today programme. Same thing. If you want to be taken seriously, drop the party line and answer the question. It will annoy the spin doctors but you will get so much more respect from the public, and really it's more important to keep us happy than them.)

What Thatcher should have said was something like this.
"Yes, the Belgrano was heading away from the combat area. However, we had cause via Naval Intelligence to believe that in common with many modern ships it was fitted with a device known as a ..." [Here she could have twitched her fingers in the air to suggest inverted commas, Dr Evil style] "... 'rudder', which could conceivably enable it to ..." [Another twitch] "... 'turn round'. This would have meant it posed a potential and legitimate threat anywhere within a circle defined by the Belgrano's position as its centre point and the Belgrano's fuel supply as the radius. Therefore we sunk it. So STFU, noob."
Should have, but didn't. Again, it was her choice, so sympathy was not actually that high.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Ayatollah Song

One of the great, ground-breaking sketches of Not the Nine O'Clock News was surely the Ayatollah Song. I can still remember lines off the top of my head.
"Well I used to love Sadat, but I've had that scene (she's had it, she's had it)
I was hit (how?) by Schmidt (wow!)
And I once went for Begin (she began with Begin)
And I had to discard Giscard
Though he was kinda neat and clean
(Unlike Barry Sheen ...)"
And then came the fatwa on Rushdie and the song was never heard of again. Wonder why.

But this story on the Beeb site about Islamic comedians set me to searching YouTube on the off chance ... and blow me down, there it is.

Enjoy while you still can.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Spot the flaw (there must be one)

In my latest bid to become rich before I'm 30 40 50 ...

The problem: URLs, especially those based on a back-end database, can become long and unwieldy. For instance, gets you the complete works of me as known to Amazon, including
Online Information 93: 17th International Online Information Meeting Proceedings London 7-9 December 1993 and Online Information Hong Kong: The 2nd Asian Information Meeting, which resolutely refuse to sell out no matter how hard I try.

But it doesn't really trip off the tongue, does it?

The A solution: tinyurl is your friend. You enter a massive, unwieldy URL like the above and get a nice small one to show all your friends, reproduce in publications etc. In this case that would be

Some magazines, like Focus, gladly use tinyurl already. Organisations with a more proprietorial attitude still prefer to use their own URLs, because no matter how unwieldy (say) the above URL is, it still points you at the Amazon site. A tinyurl URL could take you anywhere, and you wouldn't know until you got there.

Ben's solution: why can't the two be combined? Why can't there be a package sitting on a web server that encodes the URLs in something short and alphanumeric - just five characters long would give you a range of 60466176 entries, which might not be much by Amazon standards but will do fine for most of us - and puts them after the root URL? Thus in bencode the above could be rendered Companies don't have to use a third party, they control their URLs and the customer goes straight to their web site.

This seems so obvious that I can't believe someone hasn't tried it, and that being so, it seems so useful that the only reason you don't see it everywhere is that it doesn't work. So, what's wrong with it?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Occasional recipes: poulet au Jean le Forgeron

This is a development of Sophie Grigson's beercan chicken, reported on last year. The problem with the original is it requires the chicken to be mounted vertically on top of a beercan, which basically takes up the entire oven. And it's quite time limited, while we needed a long slow roast to happen whilst at church. Our cunning resident Swedish chef hit on the notion of a pot roast instead. So, take:
  • 1 chicken
  • 1 can of beer
Stuff the chicken with an onion, cloves and sundry other spices as desired. Put in a casserole dish, pour over the beer, add a similar amount of water. We also rubbed on olive oil and paprika, which was a hangover from the original recipe. Put on lid, put in the oven at mark 3 and forget about it for the next three hours. At the end of this time the chicken will be cooked to perfection, with meat so tender it falls off the bone. Literally. I lifted it out of the pot and the legs stayed behind. Proof that beer makes you legless.

I name this dish in honour of the beer used. It would work equally well as Poulet de la Chateau Nouveau Brun, Poulet aux Directeurs or Poulet au Deux Syllabes, Semblable aux Relations Anormales.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Occasional recipes: Italian stew

This week's recipe comes from Round & About and is Lyn D's recipe of the month. No idea who Lyn D is but she knows her stuff. It costs a bit, as it requires steak and at least two bottles of red - one to cook it with and one to drink with it. It's also very rich.
  • 3-t tbsp olive oil
  • 1 kilo braising or stewing steak cut into chunks
  • 1 heaped tbsp tomato puree
  • salt & pepper
  • 1 bottle red wine
  • 350 ml tinned tomatoes
  • fresh sage and parsley
  • 2-3 garlic cloves
  • 50g fat from Parma ham, diced
  • 350g wild or chestnut mushrooms, chopped
  • more sage and parsley, chopped
  • optional: 250g peeled chestnuts
Heat olive oil. [Always one of my favourite stages of any meal. Warmed up olive oil smells so good and promises so much.] Add the meat in batches to seal and brown, then salt, pepper and tomatoe puree.

Cover the meat with red wine and boil on maximum heat until the meat is almost dry. Repeat at least once. [Lyn D suggests three or four times in total. After doing it twice you notice you're 2/3rds of the way through the bottle and your budget might not allow more. I did this stage the night before anyway, so at this point covered the meat with the remainder of the wine and let it marinade for 24 hours. By this point the kitchen smells fantastic and, if you're wearing something absorbent like a fleece, so do you.]

Re-cover the meat with more wine, add tomatoes, sage, parsley and garlic. Put lid on and simmer, or put in the oven at 160C (gas mark 3), for 1.5 hours.

Saute the ham fat to render it down, add the peeled chestnuts if using and soften them gently. Then add the chopped mushrooms and saute for a couple of minutes. [I completely omitted this stage; the bit about the ham fat because it just didn't sound necessary, the chestnuts because we had already decided not to and the mushrooms because I forgot.]

Add them to the meat with the chopped fresh sage and parsley. Stir well and serve with creamy mash or polenta. [The least successful part of the meal. We went with the polenta. Should have gone with the mash - more absorbent for all the very rich and delicious juices.]

And if you then go and drink a bottle of wine with it, prepare to feel really quite squiffy. I had assumed all the alcohol of the first bottle would have evaporated during the cooking. I think I was wrong.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The future: still imperial

And I was so cued up for a rant about compulsive editing.

Got an email from an editor yesterday who is marking Time's Chariot up for design, checking it was okay to translate all the feet into metres. Discretion was promised in the case of characters from historical periods.

My reply, as I mentally sharpened my blogging quill:

Oh grief. I'd say it's not worth going to the barricades for, so if it's set-in-stone policy that all books are metric then go for it. But I would also mutter under my breath that if I said feet then I meant feet. Indeed, please keep imperial measure for any bygoners, and I'm sure you don't need to be asked not to be too literal - if I said 1000 feet, don't change it to 304.8 metres.

And yes, anything too painful will be changed back at proof stage.
But today, before I could put finger to keyboard, I hear we're sticking with good old feet anyway. Hurray!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Tyrannicide Brief

First off, happy second blog birthday to me! Here’s a link to my very first post. If I had got the hang of tagging back then, it would have gone under 'music' and 'silly'.

To business, and I want to recommend a book to y'all out there – budding lawyers and everyone else. The Tyrannicide Brief by Geoffrey Robertson, subtitled 'The Man Who Sent Charles I to the Scaffold'. The author is a QC but don't let that put you off - his writing is very light and accessible, he has a sense of humour and the story is fascinating.

Hands up who's heard of Oliver Cromwell and Charles I? Okay, that was easy, let's step back a little. Other great names of the Civil War: Fairfax? Prince Rupert? Monck? Pym? Ireton? That thins it down a bit. (Of course, anyone who's read The New World Order will have heard of at least some of those ...)

How about John Cooke?

Cooke was a lawyer. He didn't fight in the Civil War because he was too much of a weed to be a soldier, and even though he was on Parliament's side Parliament didn't entirely trust him. Before the war, when Parliament had been determined to (and did) send the Earl of Strafford to the block, Cooke had offered to defend him. Cooke instead spent most of the war in London handling routine, uncontentious legal affairs like house sales. And after the war, he was the man chosen to prosecute the King.

Cooke seems to have been a remarkable man. (He's obviously a bit of a hero to the author of the book, who is my sole source of information, so I must accept some partiality. But even so.) He was a Puritan, but open-minded enough to have considered other denominations including Catholicism. He settled on Puritanism because it worked for him, rather than blind dogma. He offered to defend the distinctly non-Puritan Strafford because, while the man clearly had his faults, Cooke knew from personal acquaintance that the precise charges against him were incorrect. (At the time Cooke was a relatively junior barrister and seemed almost embarrassed to be making his offer to a legal giant like Strafford: his own legal knowledge, he admitted in his letter, was "as the pissing of a wren in the ocean" of Strafford's own experience.) He was one of the first to urge that barristers should give a certain percentage of their services for free, making justice affordable even to poor commoners, and he drew up proposals for a welfare state 300 years ahead of its time. In short, he was a completely straight, a-political man who let himself be guided more by his conscience's interpretation of the hard facts, rather than by any party politics or received dogma. And the law was all.

Which is why he took Parliament's brief to prepare the prosecution of the King.

No one had ever put the head of state on trial before. Everyone knew the brief was coming and the Inns of Court were strangely empty that day, with members finding all sorts of excuses to visit friends in the country. Cooke sat in his room and awaited the messenger. Eleven years later, in a strange echo of these events, he made no effort to save himself from the vengeful Charles II following the Restoration.

In the Declaration of Breda, Charles had declared a general pardon to all enemies of his father, with the crucial exception of those few who had actually killed him. They were few enough to be named specifically. Later on, the Commons discussed the Declaration and added a few more names. Cooke's was one of them. What must it be like to have the House of Commons debate, in open session, the withdrawal of all legal protection from you, a named individual, which will almost certainly result in your gruesome death? Why he didn't flee I have yet to find out – I haven't got that far. He would have been a relatively old man – 52 – and maybe he thought he had had his glory days. Ultimately he was hanged, drawn and quartered.

He left two legal legacies that last to this day. At his trial, he said he had prosecuted the King simply because a barrister must accept any brief he is given within reason – otherwise known as the 'cab rank' rule that still operates today. And the other is that he was the first to lay down the legal precepts for trying a head of state that have been used in recent times for Pinochet, Milosevic and Saddam Hussein.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

If you're going to spam, get your sums right

See if you can look past the gender-reversing Cinderella sob story and spot the fatal flaw in the following just received. Paragraph breaks and grammar are sic, snips and bold emphasis are mine.
"I am XXX son of late Mr.YYY a licensed solid mineral (gold, diamond, etc) exporter before he passed away. Before his death my father, apparently, married a woman who became my stepmother because my mother died when we was very young. our stepmother already had two daughters of about my sister age, and they came with her to live in our Father's house. I discovered that there was some ill-feeling from our stepmother towards me and my sisther giselle, since then we have been badly treated; being forced

to undertake work befitting only a servant, in our father's own house. [snip] our father before passing away informed me privately that he had an account valued $235,000 usd which he intend to transfer into his foreign associate's account for investment abroad on my behalf, this money he acquired from the export contract he secured and executed under the umbrella of the government.


So please we want to know you better.we are willing to offer you $235,000 for your assistance after the successful transfer of this money for investment; I have plans to do investment in your country, like real estate, industrial production or any other lucrative investment you bring to ourr notice in your country."

Monday, November 12, 2007

A shame it wasn't three minutes later

... but as you have to fix some time for the last train to France to leave Waterloo International, 18.12 is a pretty good choice.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Occasional recipes: sausage goulash

As we get older, our ability to learn things diminishes. Therefore, anything we get quite good at as adults must really be quite simple. I got through university without realising that things don't cook quicker just because you turn the stove up to maximum. Nowadays I quite enjoy this cooking lark. So I think that from time to time I will share some recipes with you. Expect this kind of thing on a Friday night because that's when I usually cook.

Tonight's was an old favourite from my 1985 Dairy Diary for the Home, (c) the Milk Marketing Board 1984. I suspect my mother gave this to me as a student because every week features a new and fairly straightforward recipe. It's also handy for letting me know that 22 years ago yesterday (a Friday) my Comparative Communist Systems essay was due; there was to be a Debate on 13 November; and on 19 November I had to Speak To Richard Re. Friday!!! On 20 November I had to be at the Sports Centre 5.00 With Clive 4 Bottle Filling (of the scuba variety), on 23 November I was going to Loughborough and on 24 November OMD at the Arts Centre is crossed out. I don't know if they cancelled or I couldn't go due to being in Loughborough.

Anyhays, the recipe for week 44: sausage goulash. Serves 4.
  • 25g English butter (any nationality will do, or just advanced butter substitute like Flora)
  • 450g pork sausages (so many types to choose from. Felt like something spicy so went for pork & sweet chili. Could probably even do it veggie. The packet had 6 sausages, which for a serving of four would mean 1.5 each. For a family of three it's much easier just to go mad and give everyone two.)
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed (Huh? I laugh at your 1 clove in a manly manner. Cloves of garlic don't come in units as small as one in this household. Anyway, we had a bulb to finish so went up to ... um ... five, I think.)
  • 1 green pepper, deseeded and chopped (no green at Tesco, used orange.)
  • 1 level tbsp plain flour
  • 225 g tomatoes, skinned and chopped (otherwise known as a can of chopped tomatoes)
  • 1 tbsp tomato puree
  • 1 tbsp paprika pepper (don't have any, used mild chili powder)
  • 300g can condensed tomato soup
  • 300ml (i.e. half pint) fresh milk
  • salt and pepper
  • 450g potatoes, peeled and quartered
  • 2 tbsp natural yogurt
  • green pepper rings to garnish (omitted: see above)
  1. Melt butter and fry sausages until golden brown. Transfer to a plate.
  2. Add chopped onion, garlic and green pepper to pan. Fry for 5 minutes. Stir in flour and cook for a further 2 minutes.
  3. Stir in tomatoes, tomato puree, paprika, soup, milk, seasoning and potatoes
  4. Replace sausages. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes until potatoes are tender. (It had half an hour on a low simmer, which tenderised the potatoes to just the right amount. Keep stirring or, even in the best non-stick, whatever's at the bottom will start to burn.)
  5. Before serving, stir in the yogurt and garnish with green pepper rings. (I always forget this bit and tonight was no exception.)
Accompany with something decent and red. Follow with Delia's basic pancake recipe à la Boy, with vanilla ice cream and that chocolate sauce that sets hard.

I has a TARDIS

This will only be amusing to a tiny fraction of my readership, but anyone who understands why these are funny knows a great deal about me.

Take the language and sensibilities of lolcats, combine it with Dr Who and you get Dr Who Cat Macros.

Actually cats play very little part in them, well over 90% aren't half as funny as they think they are and can they please stop dredging the barrel over the last series. For true art you have to go back to old skool.

A random selection of coffee-up-nose-inducers follows. Putting these inline would break all sorts of rights so you'll have to follow the links. Hopefully the captions will intrigue you enough.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

In which I fess up

I admit it. I've eaten mince pies on Christmas Day (in fact I insist on it), and I'm pretty certain I've put a stamp on an envelope upside down at least once. Thus I have broken two of the recently voted top 10 ridiculous laws in the UK.

I have however never died in the Houses of Parliament or denied the use of my toilet to a Scotsman. Though it's comforting to know that if I wanted to murder one I could, as long as I was in York and was at least reasonably certain he was carrying a bow and arrow. (Hey, things can be planted, you know what I'm saying?)

Looking further afield, I have to admire Alabama's practical approach to road safety, though do wonder why such a law was needed; Bahrainian gynaecologists must develop a good sense of left and right; and the evidence for the prosecution in Indonesia will never stand up in court.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Differently able

My uncle Owen has a mental age of, let's say for the sake of convenience, five. I don't know if he's actually been assessed as such and it's not that informative a measure, because most five year olds aren't five for very long (about a year, usually). Most five year olds are rapid learners and you can see them develop almost in front of your eyes. Owen has been stuck at whatever he is for the last 60 years. So, a very stretched out five.

Owen's greatest misfortune was to be born at least ten years too early. (Still, better ten years too early than any earlier this century or any other time before.) He got the best care that was available at the time, but it was still very institutionalised. He had a brief resurgence during the nineties, when modern methods of care finally caught up with his abilities, such as they are; he could even live semi-independently. It didn't last and he's back into a shared house with a warden. He used to have a part time job working on a farm a couple of days a week, until nice Mr Blair introduced the minimum wage and the farmer couldn't afford to pay anymore. Thanks, Tony.

But hey, he can still party, and a sixtieth birthday is worth partying for, so Friday night saw us, my parents, a handful of helpers and about twenty of Owen's friends in a hired church hall in Bournemouth. There is a certain Alice in Wonderland quality to these affairs. You know you all speak the same language - sorta - but the pattern of neurons connected inside their heads by a given string of words don't necessarily match yours. Owen asked if I remembered his fiftieth. God yes - I mean, yes, I do. Fortieth? Yup. His twenty first? I'd have been three. Oh. Owen has never been good at looking ahead of the curve and knowing when to stop. Mind you, I know a few fully able people like that too.

Okay, I will admit I went into the party with a "this too shall pass" state of mind. Which it did, with birthday honour satisfied, so everyone's happy. Venison burgers were served; only a couple of unexpected vegetarians were discovered (we asked, dammit, we asked). Speeches were made and just about understood, not helped by Birthday Boy's nephew turning the music back up half way through one of them because he didn't realise that the stream of consciousness babble drifting down from the end of the hall constituted a speech still in progress.

And it must be said that no one of sound mind was entirely heart broken that the karaoke machine didn't work. The owner couldn't make it work, nor could the designated helper in charge of it, nor could the visiting Resources Technician from Abingdon & Witney College (to whom I have the pleasure of being married). Fortunately my mother has developed a certain prescience in these matters and made alternative arrangements for music. Abba's greatest hits, vols 1, 2 and 3. Some people took a certain amount of convincing that the karaoke really wasn't going to work, so Abba would be stopped and restarted while they tried again. And again. And again. You can get tired of "Waterloo". I breathed a sigh of relief when we finally made it all the way through "Knowing me, knowing you". It looked like Abba were here to stay.

Good was done, Owen was happy on his big day with people who love him. Seventieth, here we come ...

Friday, November 02, 2007

Strike up the band

If this is genuine then it's very funny. If it isn't then it should be.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, monarch of a nation so open minded the streets are patrolled by religious police who stop school girls leaving a burning building because they're inappropriately dressed, came here for a state visit. (See blog passim.) The Queen met him at Horseguards Parade. The King got out of his car and the Coldstream Guards struck up with ...

Just in case you can't see it or hear it, or recognise it having done so, think Charles Montgomery Burns.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Bermuda here I come

One must tread carefully in this post-Northern Rock climate, but let me announce that I have closed my Post Office account.

Opening the account some thirty years ago was the most grown up thing I have ever done with my money. Borrowing three and a half times my salary to buy a house was nothing compared to handing a five pound note to the nice lady behind the glass screen, and getting it noted down in my little blue plastic book.

(That book came in handy years later when I wanted to join the local video shop in the town to which we had just moved. They required ID with your name and address on and I had nothing to match that description. [This was Tidworth, a garrison town, which really should have been used to the semi-transient nature of its population.] I went home, got one of our new address stickers, stuck it in the book and took it back. I was accepted.)

A few years later I opened my Investment account, getting a little grey plastic book in return. Now I finally reap the rewards of my financial prudence, though to be honest I thought I had done this years ago until I found the books while clearing out the files. The Investment account had grown from £2.07 to £5.10, but I really struck the jackpot with the ordinary account. The 37p that has lain dormant since 1985 had swelled to a majestic 46p.

I'd retire, but I don't know what I'd do with the time.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The people's king

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is here for a state visit. It took three hours for his luggage to be unloaded at Heathrow.

So, no special treatment for him, obviously ...

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Tea with Ladies who Present

Watching Mrs Henderson Presents last night I found myself, as I do, thinking "what if?" What if one of the soldiers who come flocking to the Windmill threatre owned by Mrs Henderson (Judi Dench) went on leave to Cornwall where they met a batty old lady madly in platonic love with a Polish violinist who was washed up on shore below her cottage (Ladies in Lavender, starring Judi Dench); then, having rejoined his unit, got posted to the Allied invasion of Italy where he encountered a fearsome old biddy at the head of a coterie of elderly English ladies interned by Mussolini (Tea with Mussolini, starring Judi Dench).

In fact, for an elderly classical actress, Judi Dench has knocked up a fair tranche of WW2 movies. As has Maggie Smith, who co-stars in two of the above.

But Mrs Henderson Presents is my favourite of the three. It is the largely true story of a hugely wealthy ex-Raj ("in India we always had someone to look down on") widow who, apparently on a whim, buys up the ailing Windmill theatre in London. Mrs H is a woman of impeccable taste and breeding, and can instinctively tell the difference between smut and art featuring nudes, even if the difference isn't immediately obvious to others. She is in no doubt that if she packs her stage show full of nude ladies then the seats will sell out - but at the same time is adamant that this is all in the best possible taste, and the ladies will not be taken advantage of.

The Lord Chamberlain, on whom the theatre's licence depends, talks of bosoms. She talks of breasts. "What's the difference?" he asks. "It's in the soul," she replies. She goes on to point out that art galleries are packed full of nude women. He points out that women in pictures don't move about much. And thus is born a fantastically British compromise. The Windmill theatre can feature nude women - as long as they stay absolutely motionless, poised in carefully arranged tableaux that emphasise the B-word and draw attention away from what the Lord Chamberlain (and John Gielgud before him) calls the Midlands.

The argument obviously worked on the present day film licensing board, because I don't think I have ever seen as much exposed flesh in a 12-rated film before. Though any film that can also feature (briefly) a full frontal unexpected naked Bob Hoskins really should have a certificate category all of its own.

The proud claim of the Windmill was that it never closed, not even during the Blitz. It helped being underground, so as safe as any shelter and a lot more fun. Eventually Mrs H's reasoning comes out. Her own son was killed aged 21 in WW1. Going through his things, she found a nude postcard and realised that this was probably the only nude woman her boy ever saw in his short life. Now the country is once again asking its brightest and best to lay down their lives for their King, she reasons the least it can do in return is give them an eyeful before they go.

Well, it's a point of view.

It's a very sweet, innocent and mostly plausible story, with wonderful performances from La Dench and Le Hoskins, playing characters who are entirely platonic and yet love each other fiercely. You only want to punch Will Young in his film debut two or three times, tops. (Mrs H asks his opinion of the dancers; he explains that he has "other inclinations"; she giggles, "oh, how delicious!") And the astonishing thing is, you probably wouldn't feel shy showing it to a party of 12 year olds.

You have to be older to giggle at the Lord Chamberlain, though. He is played by a tall, grey haired, distinguished man, every inch the aristocrat ... Christopher Guest, who I last saw extolling the virtues of an amplifier that goes up to 11 in This is Spinal Tap.

Moments lost like tears in the rain

Just drove back from my monthly writer's group meeting, down the M4 from Chiswick on a dark and wet evening.

At this stage of its evolution, the M4 is a dual carriageway on stilts that winds its way around the third or fourth stories of ultra modern office blocks, festooned with advertisements. An endless stream of red tail lights stretching ahead, reflecting off the wet tarmac; an equally endless stream of headlights coming towards me, white light collecting in the raindrops on the windscreen before being smeared away by the wipers. And everywhere these adverts - not just posters with a spotlight but (as far as I could tell) internally illuminated LCD screens for holidays and clothing companies that, frankly, are going to cause a crash one day.

It seemed the most natural thing in the world to have The Best of Vangelis on the tape deck, because I swear I was in a scene from Blade Runner.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The angels had the phone box

But they put it down again and are now lifting up the unexpected hovering fire engine on the right.

Day to day life in Abo, folks.

Friday, October 26, 2007

I put my red genes on

Neanderthals 'were flame-haired', says the BBC. A DNA study on Neanderthal remains has found "a variant of MC1R in Neanderthals which is not present in modern humans, but which causes an effect on the hair similar to that seen in modern redheads."

Well, of course they were, you fools, cries anyone who has read The New World Order.

Whose author reluctantly admits to basing it as a bit of fun on an off-the-cuff speculation in New Scientist getting on for ten years ago.

But for the sake of argument, let's just say you read it here first.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Come'n'try Coventry

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. If you ever get married, find a wife with a good-...

Hold on, I'll rephrase that. Gentlemen, boys, if you ever get married, find a wife with a good sense of direction. For if, as we did today, you find yourselves on the Coventry ringroad, you will learn that her value is above rubies. Though I knew that already.

The Coventry ringroad was designed by Satan on a particularly off day, when he had just lost a carefully groomed 99 year old mass murdering adulterer to a deathbed repentance and so was in a fouler mood than usual. The spirals within spirals, some going up, some going down, do have a certain Mandelbrot charm to the right kind of mind; but the slip roads, where in-coming and out-going traffic must cut across each other through the same 100 yard gap ... sorry, that's just mean.

Having penetrated to the city centre, parking was a further new experience. We had cunningly chosen Lanchester Polytechnic Coventry University's open day, and everywhere we went we saw signs saying "Open Day: Use Public Car Parks". The public had needed no second bidding. Finally we came across a car park that was half empty, full of university-reserved parking spaces. The attendant wouldn't let us use it because he said that although he wouldn't book us, chances were good that a university jobsworth would. Thanks, guys, that's not a dog in the manger attitude at all. Huh. Once a poly, always a poly ...

Finally we found a car park outside the ringroad near the Coventry Canal Basin. Well, knock me down with a feather. Three years I was at Warwick, and ... Coventry has a canal basin?

Coventry has a canal?


Anyhoos. The purpose of this expedition was to see the mighty Coventry Cathedral. I don't think I've been back since my graduation ceremony twenty years ago ...

and Best Beloved hasn't seen it at all, until today.

I love Coventry Cathedral. (Still not as much as Salisbury, mind ...) I love it because it is modern, timeless and pleasing on the eye. I love it for the way it was designed from the ground up as a symbol of reconciliation, following the city's comprehensive luftwaffing in November 1940. I love it for its sheer proof that contrary to so much counter evidence (much of which is elsewhere in Coventry), we could build decent buildings that were pleasant to behold during the 1950s. If all our post-war reconstruction had taken the same pains, our national character today would be very different.

Take, by way of contrast, Guildford Cathedral, a building of roughly similar vintage, planned before the war and finished after. It's basically a modern copy of yer trad cathedral and looks like something Albert Speer might have built if he had been given a cathedral brief and a pile of red bricks that needed using up. Coventry takes the trad cathedral concept - a big rectangular building where people worship'n'all - and does something brand new with it. It is full of space and light, almost ethereal. It adjoins the remains of the old cathedral, which is still officially consecrated, so that the two are part of a greater whole. It is also distinctly lower than the old one, to symbolise repentance.

And ... and so on. Just go and see it.

The first time I saw the cathedral - as a prospective student staying the night in Coventry prior to my interview at Warwick - I was so moved that I felt in my bones I would one day write the definitive science fictional treatment of its story. Actually this lot was not to fall to me - it fell to Connie Willis with her wonderful, witty and moving To Say Nothing of the Dog. However, though I say it myself, my own little effort ("Cathedral No. 3", published in Interzone November 1996, html or PDF) isn't too bad ... even though I have since realised it should, technically, be Cathedral No. 4.

To which I say, canal basins.