Friday, August 31, 2007

The comedy of errors

Like Christmas, Easter, Whitsun and the Veneration of the Reserved Host, Holiday Club is an annual rite. At least, it is where I come from.

It's really quite a feat. For four days in August, a couple of hundred primary school age children flock to our church for a programme of fun and silly games, all managed by CRB-registered volunteers and teenagers of the parish in a truly professional manner. And yes, we try to get a Christian message across, but it's in a church, you know, so join the dots.

Oh, and don't forget the songs. Some really quite fun, some truly, truly, horribly, awful. You grit your teeth, stick your hands in your pockets (in case you feel drawn into doing the actions) and remind yourself that this is the faith that gave the world Verdi's Requiem and the Missa Solemnis, so clearly God has a sense of humour. Anyway. Kids get out of the home, the parents get some hours to themselves, everyone's happy.

And the highlight - for me, because it's my sole involvement and doesn't even involve having to turn up, though I like to if I can - is the drama. A scene each day, humourous and light hearted yet embodying that day's themes. These are great fun to write and to watch and as far as I can see to perform, usually by talented teenage actors who get a little taller and deeper voiced each year.

For the first couple of years I wrote these from scratch. Lately the organisers have got off-the-peg ones from Scripture Union or somesuch that require some adapting. Sometimes the adaptation is very light - say, there's five scenes that have to be condensed into four, as Holiday Club only runs for four days. Sometimes the work is heavier because the drama was written by someone who once had "funny" described to him by a bloke he met in the pub, but as neither of them had much sense of humour to start with it hasn't really worked.

This year's tended towards that end of the spectrum. The basic plot was the rivalry between two airlines at Kingdom (of Heaven) Airport. In the original version one of the airlines was called FAG, which really had to go, whether you subscribe to the US or UK interpretation of the word, so it became RASH - the Reliable Airline Syndicate of High Flyers, which wasn't called RASH-fuh because that would sound silly, and which opened the door to all kinds of jokes about "my RASH is still growing" and the like.

And the last scene, get this, revolved around a briefcase exploding. The organisers felt that the subtext of airport terrorism, and the King of Heaven blowing up his loyal subjects, was a little outré for a drama aimed at children, so my revised and somewhat more lighthearted version involved an actor being convinced the briefcase would explode, and trying to stop another actor from opening it, and the latter actor opening it anyway and finding a bit of paper marked BANG.

It would all have been so much more effective if the poor boy had been able to open the briefcase at all ... Memo to stagehands: don't supply as props briefcases with combination locks for which no one on stage has the combination.

Still, the young actors improvised their way through it with great aplomb - the net effect was still that it didn't actually explode, which was all that was really needed - and the comedy was heightened.

My favourite of all the Holiday Club dramas still has to be one I wrote from scratch some years ago, about the adventures of Paul Saint, the demon traffic cop who has a change of heart and becomes a rally driver. Can you spot the symbolism? Can you, I ask? Anyway, I've decided to make it available here.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Woo-hoo! I is scientific geniuz


A slash-wrist-inducing somewhat depressing report in the Times says that examiners have been told to make science exams easier.

A sample GCSE physics paper from November 2006 is given, along with the answers.

Yours truly has just cruised 75% in ten minutes, referring to nothing but my memories of O-level physics from 26 years ago (which I had to take twice to scrape a C). Could someone of a young persuasion tell me what grade that might get?

They didn't do P1V1 over T1 = P2V2 over T2, which is the only equation I remember.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Another reason to love Oxford

When the public information notices contain typos, there's someone to correct them.

In proper proof-reading notation.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Two plus two at an APR of 15.9%

We've received a carefully tailored, personalised piece of junk mail from Capital One. (Strapline: "what's in your wallet?" Response: not Capital One and unlikely to change.) Through the little window on the front I read:
"Dear Occupier. Specially delivered by hand to ensure you receive the enclosed."
There's four flats in the building. They delivered one such envelope. Specially delivered by hand to ensure you, whoever you are, someone, anyone, we're not fussed as long as you've got money, receive the enclosed.
"Please read carefully."
So that's what I'm supposed to do with bits of paper in envelopes that come through the front door? Thanks so much, it's been bothering me for years.

I could read more but that would require opening the envelope. As one of my basic rules of life is never to open an envelope with an APR or interest rate printed on the front, it goes in the bin.

Ooh, breaking news. As I was picking the envelope to throw it in the bin's direction, I see a little message on the back beneath the flap. "Subject to handling fee. See inside for details." However will I contain my curiosity?

I'll manage.

In 1984, Winston Smith writes that "Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows." Nowadays I'd change that. Freedom is the freedom to ignore advertising, marketing, hype. To turn your back on it, to dismiss it from your life with no further thought. To continue your path through life as if the intrusion had never existed. However crappy my day, knowing I (still) (just) have that freedom always puts a little spring into my step.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

That sort of afternoon

[The cast: self, C the actress, R the manager, all braindead from a day of wrestling with the new content management system.]

C: this link won't work.

[Clicks. Works perfectly. Self and R retire back to our desks disappointed at the absence of a valid distraction.]

R: ever heard of Peter and the Wolf?


Self: do you mean the Boy who Cried Wolf?

R: do I?

[Subsequent research indicates he does indeed mean the fable created by Aesop c. 500BC, not the children's story written and composed by Sergei Prokofiev in 1936.]

R: so what's the story of Peter and the Wolf, then?

[C. and I stare blankly at each other. We vaguely remember that apart from the obvious, there's a cat, and a bird of some description.]

C: And the wolf gets caught by the Village People ...

[Mental images of a nightmare beyond Prokofiev's wildest hallucinations cause collapse of all parties.]

C: ... villagers ...

[I finally look it up on Wikipedia and recite the story.]

Self: 'Everyone leads the wolf to the zoo in a triumphant procession-'

C: that will be the Village People, then.

[Brief outbreak of the Y-M-C-A actions.]

Self: 'At the end one can hear the duck quacking in the wolf's stomach, "because the wolf had swallowed her alive."'

C: so it did swallow the duck? I'm sure I saw this animation where it didn't.

Self: it did in the version I saw a few years ago with Rod Hull as Prokofiev ...

[Aghast look from C.]

Self: ... I mean, Roy Hudd ...

[Okay, so you had to be there.]


Today the internet will be abuzz with proud 17 and 18 year olds sharing their A-level results. I thought I'd share mine.
  • English: C
  • History: C
  • Economics: E
Down from a predicted A in English, which was a little disappointing, but the Economics was better than expected. The English prediction had been largely thanks to a pretty nifty essay in my mocks where I argued that Paradise Lost wasn't a tragedy but a comedy (in the classical sense of such terms, of course). Economics was saved from total failure by doing a course on Economic & Social History, i.e. waffly and essay-based rather than having to remember what economic aggregators are, how you calculate them, why, and who cares.

Okay, this was 24 years ago but I still remember it. We were having a relaxing post A-level family holiday in the Lake District, which would have been considerably more relaxing if we had chosen a different week to the one in which the results came out. Not only did I get my results a day later than everyone else but, given the serious down on predictions, it required some intensive phoning ... from a rented cottage with no phone. In the days before mobiles. Not such a problem as I could use the landlord's phone in the house next door, but that meant a clever thing called Advised Duration of Call. You phone the operator to say you're about to make such a call. You make it. You then wait for the operator to call you back and tell you what the call cost - for which service there is an additional charge anyway. You then pay the owner of the phone the total cost of the call.


But that was the only real down in a week of ups that included seeing a beautiful part of the country when it wasn't raining, and tasting milk fresh out of the cow and Kendall Mint Cake for the first time, though not together. And of all my original university choices, the only one I really wanted to go to was also the only one that would consider me without resits. So it all worked out.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Card's right

Ever since I started reading the Seventh Son series back in the eighties, I’ve suspected I would get on well with Orson Scott Card.

He’s American, I’m a Brit. He’s a Mormon, I’m CofE. He doesn't believe in global warming and he probably says ‘tomayto’. But still I suspected, and now I’ve read his recent essay on sport, I know.
“I keep hearing all kinds of wonderful things that playing sports are supposed to do for kids.

Teaching them teamwork, for instance. But doesn't playing an instrument in a band or orchestra teach the same thing? What about singing in a chorus? You can get a lot more than five or nine or eleven kids going at once, and nobody can hog the ball.”
Preach it, my Utah-bred brother, and never mind the extra volume of scripture.

From ages 8-18 I was the victim of compulsory sport for which I had absolutely no motivation. The rugby, I am convinced, gave me chiropractic problems that last to this day. If God intended the second row to exist, he would have made the human skull pointy and ten times stronger, and sweaty rugby shorts would smell a lot nicer. The football (8-13) and hockey (14-18) weren’t so bad as you could run around a lot in the mud, keep warm in the freezing drizzle and (forced) enthusiasm got you just as far as skill. And cricket ... oh dear Lord, don’t start me on cricket. If golf is a way of ruining a good walk, cricket is how to ruin a nice snooze in a field of a summer afternoon. If you ever want to avoid someone throwing a cricket ball at you for three hours, just ask me to stand next to you. I can guarantee no ball will ever come near.

A brief sidetrack: if you have never read Bill Bryson’s book Down Under, do so – now – just for its wonderful, wonderful description of cricket. For instance, with thanks to Wikiquote:
“After years of patient study (and with cricket there can be no other kind), I have decided that there is nothing wrong with the game that the introduction of golf carts wouldn't fix in a hurry.”

“It is not true that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavours look interesting and lively; that was merely an unintended side effect. I don't wish to denigrate a sport that is enjoyed by millions, some of them awake and facing the right way, but it is an odd game.”
Back to sport, and here’s the strange thing. No one ever sat me down and talked to me about it. Academically, I generally had good teachers. If they detected a latent skill in me that they thought could be developed, they would encourage it. If they saw I was having difficulty, they would talk me through it. Nothing like that ever happened for sport. I don’t think they would ever have snagged me for one of the team-based field sports, but it wouldn’t have been too hard to nudge me in the direction of rambling or orienteering or swimming or even just circuit training in the gym – all sociable activities that help you fitten up and enjoy yourself and hang out with your mates. But no. None of these were invited, they were simply decreed. Skill, enthusiasm and motivation were assumed, and I was the one at fault if none of them were apparent.

I did swim, both above and below the surface; I was in the CCF (solo gliding wings, marksman on .22s and SLR); I was in the junior and senior debating societies. I may not have excelled but I was never rubbish. But they were all extracurricular and therefore below the radar. Did any kind of kudos come with any of them?


Back to Card:
“I'm glad that people who love sports have had a good time with them. But don't ever, ever say, "This is a life lesson that you just can't learn any other way." There are no life lessons that you can't learn any other way.

And a kid who's lousy at sports but good at music or theatre or writing or videogames should get as much encouragement and honor as any athlete.

But he won't.”
Indeed. Pah.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Shoulder to shoulder with Richard Dawkins

It’s no secret that I don’t see eye to eye with Richard Dawkins on a number of issues. Well, we may be on opposite sides of the fence but we are at least at the same end of it.

Enough with the metaphors, on with ‘Enemies of Reason’. Part 1 on Channel 4 last night, part 2 next Monday. Sadly, according to the TV guides (so much more reliable than the spirit ones), we won’t be seeing a scene that was withdrawn on legal advice. A medium tells RD that his late father is sorry they parted on bad terms; he replies that his father is alive and well and the last time they saw each other they parted very nicely; and she declares ‘stop the cameras, the interview’s over’. We do however see a group of dowsers getting no more than a statistically expected score in a double blind test. We see Derren Brown explaining basic cold reading techniques, followed by a practical demonstration spiritualist church meeting. (Why do the alleged messages always come from ‘someone ... I think ... a name beginning with F? Something about ... a ... key? A dog? A car?’ Why can’t the spirits just say ‘Hi, it’s Fred, the key to the car is inside the dog?’) We see the Observer’s astrologer claim that the clockwork-predictable positions of the planets are signifiers as to what is happening on the spiritual plane in people’s lives.

Next week – faith healing and, apparently, the lady who believes she can restore the missing ten (ten!) strands of our DNA that separate us from the ancient Atlanteans.

You may reasonably point out that I, a man who believes an unemployed itinerant carpenter rose from the dead, am in no position to mock. Well, leaving aside the items that are just plain wrong (like ten missing strands of DNA), or hugely susceptible to a little logic (planet and star motions are predictable for millions of years ahead, so why not just write down a million-year horoscope now?) or down to active conspiracy to defraud, there isn’t a single positive ‘proof’ of astrology, spiritualism etc. that can’t be explained by statistical clutter, just as likely to happen to believers as non-believers. And to this I will candidly add much of outward organised Christianity.

But it’s not about the miracles. It’s not about following rules. Yes, with a little puff of science and logic, 90% of everything Dawkins hates will just blow away. It’s the residue that’s important.

For me the Trinity isn’t just a point of theological dogma, though that’s certainly how it started out, back in the days when I believed it was all about following the rules or else. It’s the base state of the universe, and the more you fixate on the clothes you wear or the shape of the building you worship in or what Biblical precepts you can shoehorn into your own out-of-context cultural milieu, the more you miss out on that basic fact. Use science to sift away the nonsense and you end up with a view of a universe - and a relationship with its creator - that is full of wonder and awe, so much bigger and better than any tidy pocket cosmology.

‘Science,’ Dawkins declares, ‘is the poetry of the universe.’ To which the Boy, who was watching with me, responded: ‘science is the HTML code, poetry is the web page that it creates.’ Amen.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

From the nation of Drake and Nelson

Seamanship at its hardiest.

From 1977-1979 we lived in Bangladesh. The people of Bengal navigate their waterways in dhows whose design hasn't changed much in the last couple of thousand years. The time was plainly nigh, thought an entrepreneur from a large federal republic across the Atlantic, for them all to swap their dhows for 15-foot aluminium canoes that he would sell them.

Strangely the expected market never materialised and a lot of unwanted 15-foot aluminium canoes were suddenly going cheap on the market. One of them was bought by a countryman of the entrepreneur who, in the custom of his people, decided he should put the biggest, baddest, melonfarming outboard he could find on the stern. As the canoe proved difficult to operate when it was pointing nearly straight up at the sky, he too sold it on. Finally it reached my father, who put a small little 2-stroke outboard on and, guess what, it worked perfectly well. Or, of course, you can just paddle.

Thus we have had a 15-foot aluminium canoe since 1979, ideal for outings on the Kennet & Avon canal -- and indeed anywhere else with sufficient depth (about 2 inches), but it's the Kennet & Avon that gets most of our custom. My father and I once paddled/walked the canoe up from Pewsey to Reading, spending two nights beneath its upturned hull - this was in the pre-restoration days when the canal was part waterway, part muddy trench. This week's outing was less adventurous but no less memorable - the first time it's just been the three of us, and the first time I've been in charge and haven't dropped the engine in the canal. (In other words, the second time I've been in charge in total.) Voices were only occasionally raised and rattiness was kept to a bare minimum. In nautical terms, that means a good day out.

Tick talk

Tick-related things I have not done before.
  1. Acquired one (in England; in Sweden it's practically an initiation rite).
  2. Removed it all on my own.
  3. Photographed it and displayed it to a breathless world.

Still not quite sure how (1) came about; it was probably in the long grass at the end of my parents' garden. Not noticed until the next morning when towelling. Procedure for (2) is to smother with vaseline for a few minutes and then remove it with tweezers; in the absence of vaseline, shaving gel was found to be an acceptable substitute.

So, humans 1, evil vampire arachnoids 0. A thoroughly acceptable result.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Looking at yew

My parents' yew hedge was the bane of my hayfevery teenage summers. It was scratchy and pollony and evil, and guess who got the job of cutting it.

So naturally when my father announces that he intends to cut it this weekend, my inner bastard makes me suggest the Boy helps him. Which he did, to apparently everyone's satisfaction. Dad gets some help, Boy gets out of going on a walk, we get to enjoy some splendid views over Wiltshire without anyone to whinge when the rain starts. And no hayfever, apparently.

In my day the clippings were just thrown away. Nowadays apparently they are bought up by a French company that uses them to make anticancer drugs. Well, did you ever? And apparently it has to be English yew as only that has the right anticancerous properties.

French company. English yew. There is an irony that is not lost on me. If it's lost on you, click here.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Is there a test?

"Tibet’s living Buddhas have been banned from reincarnation without permission from China’s atheist leaders."
I spent a long time thinking how to paraphrase that line from Times Online, but eventually decided, why tamper with art?

This is part of a 14-part regulation issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, aimed at limiting the influence of Tibet’s exiled god-king. Okay, that's the first part. What are the other 13?
  1. No reincarnating without permission.
  2. I mean it.
  3. Think I'm joking?
  4. Look, mush, no freakin' reincarnating, right?
And so on.

I wonder if you have to submit a recent photo with the application form.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Us and Gregory Peck

I was briefly convinced we might have a connection to Gregory Peck. The only one of his movies I have seen where he was really miscast is Hornblower (too old, too handsome, too American) where his wife was played by Virginia McKenna, who also played Violette Szabo in Carve Her Name with Pride and who has met the proprietor of the Violette Szabo museum who we met last month. So, a link all the way to Peck.

Except that Hornblower's wife was actually played by Virginia Mayo, not McKenna. So, in breaking news, I can confirm there is no connection between us and Gregory Peck.

Occasion for this non-speculation – watching To Kill a Mockingbird last night. We both read this recently and the Boy has to read it for school, so we thought watching it would also be useful. (He says it wasn’t but what does he know.) I never read it at school for which I’m very grateful – I would have just got bored and I wouldn’t have understood half the nuances. Harper Lee writes in a way that could make a description of a shopping trip interesting. Her voice is so graceful, her tone so matter of fact that you can easily miss how slyly and how deep she is driving the skewer into the heart of that thoroughly untenable society, the Deep South of the 1930s.

Sometimes it doesn’t seem so bad. There’s no slavery. The blacks and whites live in separate communities and, yes, the whites obviously rule the roost but the blacks have their dignity and both sides seem happy with the arrangement. But look closer and you see how far the civil rights movement still had to go. In the courthouse scenes, the blacks sit in the gallery and the whites get the downstairs seats. Atticus spends the night in front of the jailhouse because he knows a lynch mob is bound to turn up – consisting of decent, respectable citizens that he knows personally. All reasonable forensic evidence shows that black Tom Robinson is innocent, but he is still found guilty by a white jury because the alternative is to admit a white woman was lusting after a black man. And he is condemned for his perfectly reasonable answer to a reasonable question – “I felt sorry for her” – because even though he is a decent, hard working family man and she is just ignorant slutty trailer trash, what right does a black man have to feel sorry for a white woman?

Maybe I should have said earlier: spoilers ahead.

Atticus Finch is the heart, soul and conscience of both book and film. There has never been a stronger, more decent man in literature and Gregory Peck was obviously born with the role in his DNA. Which makes his occasional portrayal of loopiness – Ahab in Moby Dick – or sheer evil – Josef Mengele in The Boys from Brazil – all the more impressive.

Apparently Harper Lee herself came to see the filming and at one point she wiped away a small tear at Peck’s performance. When he commented on this after, she said it was because he had a small pot belly just like her father’s. He commented gravely, “that’s just acting.”

Thursday, August 02, 2007

256k memory lane

A nostalgia-inducing article on the BBC today. Ah, the Amstrad PCW. My friend.

I bought mine with money received for my twenty first birthday. I had already discerned the need for a word processor in my life - easier to write and edit, kinder to my neighbours than the manual typewriter I was then using for writing. Amstrad got their marketing exactly right. Most people probably weren’t going to buy a home computer because they couldn’t think what to do with one – and a computer really was just that, the CPU. Keyboards, monitors and disc drives were optional extras to buy separately. (Mouse? What’s that?) Word processing was the most likely application for home use but word processors at the time tended to be dedicated machines – a computer to all intents and purposes except that they processed words and that was it. A user-friendly word processor on a cheap and cheerful, all-peripherals-bundled computer (including its own one-sheet-at-a-time dot matrix printer) was the perfect solution.

No C: drives, of course. Everything ran off universally incompatible three-inch 180k floppy discs – or 720k if you got the 8512 model or added a high density floppy drive yourself. The word processor, Locoscript, was its own operating system and took up so much space on the boot discs that so you had to switch discs to edit anything if your file was of any decent size. (A fact that you eventually had to work out for yourself.) Alternatively you could load the other operating system, CP/M, and run programs off that. The software came from a different age when everything was about 99% bug free before it left the factory – and people’s expectations were so low that they would forgive the remaining 1% quite happily. (Microsoft have their faults, which you can learn to live with, but the one thing I can’t forgive is the way they have standardised shoddy workmanship to the point where it’s expected and accepted.)

For anything fancy like a spelling checker the world had to wait with bated breath for Locoscript 2. Another problem 2 solved was 1’s habit of scrolling, very slowly, through a document whenever you saved it. Apparently it was to check the formatting. It would head down to the bottom of the file, think about it, then scroll slowly back up again to wherever the cursor was at that point. Fine if you’re just typing a letter; if you’re working on a 5000 word story, not helpful. If you were still working off the Locoscript boot disc, or hadn’t got the hang of working off the memory drive, chances were good it would run out of space and complain at you. I learnt to work in small files – in fact, until very recently I still wrote novels with one chapter per Word file. Old habits die hard.

On the plus side, you weren’t distracted by Minesweeper or Freecell because they didn’t exist ... The nearest games were a whole reboot away and probably written in BASIC so you could customise them to your heart’s content.

At work we often got books sent in on PCW discs which meant I could edit them at home. We had to send them off to a bureau that would put them onto – gasp! – 5.25" floppies (the last generation of floppies that really could flop) for our office PCs. I once got an author’s disc where he had even broken his chapters into different subsections, each one in its own file named by subtopic. So, the contents of his book appeared on screen in alphabetical order. Oh, what fun that was to sort out. One of my first professional paid pieces of writing wasn’t science fiction, it was an essay in one of the PCW consumer magazines on how best to prepare your manuscript for a publisher. I may still have it somewhere.

So the PCW was far from perfect but it introduced a generation to the basic computing habits that we take for granted in any modern software – and indeed hardware. How impressed would you be today if you bought a new PC from Tesco and got blank looks if you asked where the keyboard was? Or had to buy the OS separately? (And I mean had to, Linux geeks, as opposed to optionally buying a better one ...) It changed expectations and set new ones.

My first couple of published stories – and many, many unpublished ones – were written on my old green-screened friend, as were the first few chapters of His Majesty’s Starship. I only really got rid of it and upgraded to a PC to be compatible with work. Windows had just arrived, e-mail and the web were looming on the horizon – the poor old thing would never have coped.

The new PC was a laptop with a 30Mb hard disk. The veritable bee’s knees. Any further advances have been purely cosmetic ...

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

At last the truth can be revealed

- five months after the first veiled hint. Having signed the contract I feel sufficiently jinx-proofed to say that my second novel, Wingèd Chariot, will be republished next year by my present publisher, the mighty David Fickling Books. Springish, the last thing I heard, but will confirm more precisely as soon as I can. Text slightly tightened to reflect nearly a decade’s further writing experience.

I’ve removed it from The three people who bought copies since I put it up last November now have rare collector’s editions on their hands. I have confidence in the marketing department of Random House to do a better sales job than I could manage.

It’s getting the works – everything Scholastic didn’t give it first time round, like a decent cover (I’m told) and a hardback edition and US publication and ... and a fighting chance, for crying out loud! And I’m happy.

Sadly the subtly literate impact of the title is lost as it will now be called Time’s Chariot. Apparently people aren’t sure how to pronounce "wingèd" and not enough of them read Andrew Marvell to understand it. A small price to pay, I say.

As long as you don't mind the occasional strained pause ...

I've heard jokes about it but have never encountered the phenomenon until just now. The sound of a co-worker, in the toilet cubicle, talking on his mobile.

And he hadn't just gone in there for a private conversation because I heard the sound of paper being pulled and-

I'll stop now.

No, I won't. I'll assume for the sake of charity that he received the call rather than initiated it. Still curious about the etiquette. Do you reveal your location to the caller?

Yet another reason why videophones will never catch on.

Now I'll stop.