Sunday, September 30, 2007

Strange things women say

Abingdon is not a good place for buying men's clothes. There used to be a Burtons. There used to a Ciro Citterio. Now it's all girly boutiques and trendy pre-stressed stuff that's fine for the trendy casual look, not so much for stuff I might actually want to wear. Especially trousers.

Trousers need to fit two measurements, waist and leg. There's plenty of trousers with my leg length but they all seem to stop one waist size too small. When trousers get to my waist size, leg lengths start getting shorter. Trouser manufacturers seem to think anyone with my waist size is short and fat rather than tall and perfectly proportioned.

Best Beloved still suggests that the easiest way to get trousers would be to come down a waist size.

Honestly. Way to miss the point or what.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

I don't care if they're out of line

A mere 18 months or so after this lot were taken down from the wall of my living room for the redecoration, they are finally back up again. Same room, different wall, no longer my living room but our bedroom, in the corner that is sublet to my writing endeavours. Whenever I'm feeling blocked I shall lift up mine eyes from mine computer and behold evidence that I can actually do this thing.

Which is nice.

Original Ben work only, hence no Midnight Library or Vampire Plagues. Otherwise <modest blush>the wall would start being crowded</modest blush>.

I recently got sent a rough for the cover of Time's Chariot, which looks very nice in a retro 50s way. And that will be added here in due course.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sheep and Sugar Loaf

Back in July we visited Hereford, taking in the small town of Credenhill where I used to live. As an adult you observe a lot more than as a child, and one of the things observed was, to the left of the Black Mountains, what looked like a volcano. A tall, distinct, conical pointed peak standing on its own, thirty miles away, which I could swear I had never seen before. As I'm 90% sure there are no volcanoes in the Welsh Marches, I took steps to find out what it was, and it turned out to be the Sugar Loaf.

So, having finally learnt of its existence, finding myself in Abergavenny this weekend it seemed only right to climb the thing.

If I look knackered and sweat drenched, there's a reason. That's 596 metres, boys and girls. Getting on for two thousand feet. Most of them mine. Astonishing views, needless to say, and I'm 90% certain I could see Credenhill.

A lot of sheep had been there before us, in every sense of the word "been". This one was the friendliest sheep ever, and no jokes about Wales please.

It has probably deduced, correctly, that any human who makes it to the top presents no threat at all to any form of life larger than a beetle that they might accidentally tread on. In fact it comes up to you and asks for food. Well, it nuzzled my hand as I was texting my accomplishment to Best Beloved. It's breath was very soft and silky. Basically, I think it thinks it's a cat. Or my phone was food. Or both.

The cause for this little outing was a church-organised Men's Weekend Away. And I have to say, I do feel very Menly.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

I have discovered time travel

For much of the last few weeks I've been in 1996.

I remember it well, for 'twas thenabouts that I was briefly and accidentally an AOL member. I suspect their CD fell through my letter box and I got carried away.

My chief memories are: it taking forever to download new artwork whenever I logged on; their abortion of a browser that couldn't recognise frames, tables, size tags etc in basic HTML; and their utterly rubbish FTP software that could upload one file at a time. For which, if memory serves, you had to enter, manually, the name of the remote destination file and then the name of the local file you were uploading.

Even by the standards of 1996, it was rubbish.

So I was quite surprised to start playing with our new content management system at work in 2007 and find it strangely reminiscent. It's an open source, browser based thing and professionalism prevents me from naming the company responsible but strewth, how the stupid drongoes look themselves in the mirror is beyond me. In this era of drag'n'drop, point'n'click mass selection and transfer of files I do not expect to have to upload files one at a time. And type in their names manually. I find it absurd that to edit a file I have to right click an option from a menu and then click a button and then click an icon. And if I'm stupid enough to look at another file too, forget it, my changes to the first one are gone. Unless I've clicked publish.

Perhaps most baffling of all is that you get two HTML views. Raw HTML, i.e. what you actually code in, and what can best be described as prettified HTML - it looks like HTML code until it starts formatting itself. Guess which of these two is the most obvious, and which is obscurely hidden behind another icon and drop-down menu.

The techies who designed this have the same attitude to users as I have to fairies. I've heard of them but I've never met one and I don't really believe they exist.

Time taken is the worst thing. Until recently, when I clicked publish, the IE or Firefox logo would start to turn as the browser did its stuff ... and stop. It may start again, it may not. You have no way of knowing. The system appears to have crashed, or, it may just be thinking. This can last (literally) for a couple of minutes. I have gone off to make a cup of tea and come back to find it still thinking about it. It may finally decide to save your work, in which case it suddenly springs back to life, or it may crash for good. Again, you simply cannot tell, without calling up the Task Manager. What you can't do during this time is anything else on the computer - read e-mail, work on a document - because that guarantees it *will* crash. I sent my manager a ranting email in which I generously estimated each document averaged at 30 seconds to save. I had put up c. 300 pages that week (we're doing a big web redesign), so that works out at 2.5 hours during in which I was unable to do anything other than stare at the screen and twiddle my thumbs. That's ignoring all the times the system fell over and I had to start again from scratch. And many files took considerably more than 1 minute.

This has improved slightly since I upgraded to the latest version of Firefox. The improvement is that it no longer hangs about for a couple of minutes before crashing, it simply vanishes from your screen.

There is, I have a found, a way round this. Go to the raw HTML view, and code it manually. Yes, manually. I'm actually quite good at this as before I learnt Dreamweaver two years ago all my HTML coding was done manually. Children, I can remember coding for the company website using nothing more sophisticated than Windows Notepad. My productivity has soared.

1996 is a fun place to be. My first novel's been accepted by a publisher and we're due a general election next year. Be interesting to see how it turns out.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The triumph of hope over experience

Jane Felix-Browne, who has been married six times, is about to divorce no.6. (He is not a number, he is a free man.) I'm a believer both in marriage and in second chances but there comes a time when even my optimism is strained. None of the obstacles to a happy marriage were insuperable, but they must have had a cumulative effect:
  • She's 51, he's 27
  • He's the son of Osama bin Laden
Ms Felix-Browne is confident they will re-marry; not clear if she means to each other.

When compliments slip

I dislike easy-target comedy. Damn the strange compulsion that makes me write this, then. We've had an email from our local alternative medicine shop who are celebrating their fifth birthday. And good for them. I say local, I mean local to where I work, which it's no great secret to say is on the Harwell Science & Innovation Campus. Harwell was the site of the UK's first nuclear reactor. The Rutherford Appleton Lab is here. So are the UKAEA, the quaintly named NUKEM, the Health Protection Agency and many more. Science is big business hereabouts.

With a mammoth load of self-restraint before the cheap shots start, let me just point out that I myself am a regular receiver and beneficiary of chiropractic treatment. I keep going back because it works. Treatments of which I do not however partake include:
  • Indian Head Massage. A head massage from an Indian? A massage with the head of an Indian? A head massage for Indians only? Doesn't say.
  • Tongue Analysis. Eugh. They do forensics too?
  • PHd body waxing. !? As with the massage, my inner editor wants to know if this is body waxing by, for or from PhDs? Or a study course? Whatever, we have several PhDs at work and I can safely say just thinking of them and body wax in the same sentence makes me want to go and scrub my brain cells out.
  • Tarot readings. Yup, science rules.
And best of all is that it's free. I've read the email several times and it definitely says "complimentary health treatments".

Even Homeland Security wouldn't go this far

The Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution, which specificially forbids "Cruel and unusual punishment", hasn't reached Colorado. Ananova reports that Judge Paul Sacco is sentencing offenders who break the noise laws to an hour of loud music from a set playlist.

At first glance it might not be so bad, and Psycho Sacco specifically mentions loud rap players as his targets. They might even be educated. The playlist consists of Barry Manilow ("Cocacabana"? A bit anodyne but annoyingly catchy), The Carpenters (lovely!), Dolly Parton ("Jolene"? Surely the anthem of the heart-broken woman) and ... Barney the Purple Dinosaur.

You bastard.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Absolutely no pressure

Godson T was aged 4 months when his parents separated. I was busy losing my job and had problems of my own. He is now 8 years old. A text from his dad:
"Hi Ben, T has asked why we split up. I told him [reasons redacted]. I also said you could explain things in a more fair way than either parent. He accepted this and said he would like to hear about it from you. Cue godfather?"

Yet, flattering.

Monday, September 17, 2007

What shall I build or write

I can’t remember when I last read Arthur C. Clarke’s mighty The City and the Stars, which just for the record I will unhesitatingly recommend to ANYONE. I can remember the first time. I was a teenager, aged all of 18 years old, poised and nervous on the brink of Exciting New Things in life. Or put another way, Things that I Guessed Correctly Would Either be Great Fun or Utterly Horrible but Either Way I’d Get Through Them. Which wasn’t far off the mark. Either way I felt I could easily put myself in the shoes of Alvin, the first entirely new person born in the city of Diaspar in seven thousand years, edgy and irritated in this society borne of millions of years of unyielding stability. Oh yes. And the elegiac, mournful yet optimistic tale of a future far beyond the fall of the Empire of Man very nicely helped me put my own problems in context. Ever since then I’ve always tried to take the long view that This Too Shall Pass.

And I started rereading it last night, out of curiosity. Yup, still got it.

Clarke is famous for predicting the communications satellite (he foresaw all of three of them in orbit, each one a manned installation ... but he got the concept and the maths right). But he also did much more than that. The City and the Stars, Chapter 1, and Alvin and a group of friends are having an adventure that turns out to be a fully immersive, all-senses virtual reality multi-user online saga. Bloody hell! This was 1956 and Clarke predicted World of Warcraft.

Why did no one listen?? You fools, you poor pitiful fools.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Saturday, September 15, 2007

A modest proposal

An item on Radio 4 this morning about roadside shrines - not to any deities but to keep alive the memory of hit and run victims. They spoke to the mother of a 7-year-old, killed at a crossing. She found the spot where he died covered later with crosses and flowers and teddies, and decided to make it permanent. Drivers see the shrine, they're reminded that someone died here so drive safely.

Except that they also spoke to the little boy's aunt, who could completely see the point but also added that mightn't a shrine actually distract a driver at the crucial moment?

I think I'm with auntie on this, at least in principle. And never having lost a loved one to an RTA (fingers crossed) I don't feel in a position to lecture on how letting go and moving on might also be a good tactic, after a decent time has passed. But I see no harm at all in safely conveying to drivers the basic fact that this has been a dangerous spot of the road for at least one person. What's needed is an official roadsign.

What kind of sign? Not one of those black-on-yellow temporary notices that you sometimes get at existing blackspots. They need to be read, drivers are whizzing past and again they're going to be distracting. No, a well designed roadsign with a simple image can convey a key fact in a split second. It's what they're there for. Parking. No entry. One way. It's the power of symbols. The sign shouldn't necessarily be something associated with death, like a skull and crossbones - too macabre - or a religious image, which will be meaningless for followers of other or no faiths. I propose a large reflective C (for "casualty") on a black background. Put it on a pole the same height as a normal speed limit sign, and if you like attach a small plaque giving details for anyone interested enough to pull over and stop. And if grieving relatives want to put up a shrine too, fine, let them, but the necessary information is being conveyed in a standardised and approved format.

Any MPs looking for a cross-party crusading hobbyhorse, you're welcome.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The problem with chocolate fountains

... at 9.10 in the morning, they sort of raise the bar for the rest of the day.

Anyway, C the actress has left us to find fame and fortune in the bright lights of the city.

Missed already.

... and the Giant's Causeway wasn't built by giants either

Continuing my occasional in-depth look at the religions of the Far East (which is another way of saying I was coincidentally rude about Nepal Airlines last week):
"The Indian government has withdrawn a controversial report submitted in court earlier this week which questioned the existence of the Hindu god Ram." [original story]
Apparently a canal project between India and Sri Lanka - which I thought were already separated by sea, but there you go - requires the demolition of what Hindu hardliners say is a bridge built by Lord Ram and his army of monkeys, and sceptical scientists say is a natural formation of sand and stones.

Honestly, put this in a novel and people would say you were making it up.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Snail's pace

Two minutes away from work this morning, I discovered I had a passenger.

This little guy probably spent all night tackling the big metal cliff in the back yard. Why? his friends asked. Because it's there! he answered. Just think of the challenges he had to face. It's not a straight ride up. The wheel arches would have presented colossal overhangs. And this is his reward. He finally makes it to the top, or at least base camp 1 on the bonnet from which he can contemplate the ascent to the summit on the roof ... and the cliff top starts moving. Bugger. Twenty minutes later he's seven miles away from home and all that he loves.

Assuming an average speed of an inch a minute, that will be 443520 minutes for him to get home under his own steam, or 7392 hours, or 308 days, not counting time taken to eat and sleep. I don't know what the average lifespan of a snail is, but I'm guessing odds are against him making it. I think the best bet is for his family to have him declared legally dead so that both they and he can start over in their new lives.

He didn't have a very comfortable ride because he insisted on staying side-on to the wind. He retreated into his shell but the shell itself was bending to windward (i.e. sideways from his perspective). If he had turned into the wind it would probably have offered less resistance, but evolution hasn't really equipped snails with an innate knowledge of streamlining. Who knew?

Q: what did the slug say to the snail?
A: Big Issue, sir?

A challenge for the organist

From the ever-reliable BBC: a church in Cardiff is to host a Dr Who-themed service for young people (young people?! It will be wasted on them!). Organiser Fr Dean Atkins says that as a saver of the world, Doctor Who was "almost a Messiah figure".

So now we know. He didn't Rise, he Regenerated. The tomb was in fact a TARDIS with a functioning chameleon circuit.

Suggestions for hymns?
  • "I the Lord of Sea and Sky (and Time and Space)"
  • "He is the (Time) Lord"
  • "Time Lord of the Dance"
... Hmm, too obvious just sticking "Time" in front of "Lord". Maybe I should be more lateral.
  • "Gallifrey is very wonderful"
  • Anything that mentions "Citadel"
  • "Come on regenerate"
And doubtless others for hours of decreasing entertainment.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Crikey, it's 9/11

Where did that come from?

For the record, not that anyone asked, six years ago I was waiting at the Frilford traffic lights on the A415 en route to Witney when the 2 o'clock radio news announced breaking news that an aeroplane had collided with the World Trade Centre. And like the rest of the world, I assumed it was some idiot trainee in a Cessna. Funny how you never actually see the world change around you. Once the facts caught up, tragic though it was, it did occur to me that maybe it was a bit like the sinking of the Titanic, which ushered in a new world of stringent lifeboat regulations and safety precautions and ultimately saved more lives than it lost. On 9/10 you could have smuggled an elephant through US customs; on 9/12 you couldn't get a gnat in. The attacks might have led to the present mess in Iraq by means that still aren't entirely clear, but they could also have prevented the Great Al Qaeda Nuclear Strike on Manhattan.

Drove home that evening in sombre mood, and for the first time in my life almost had to pull over with streaming eyes as Classic FM played "Lacrimosa" from Preisner's "Requiem for my friend". Or maybe that was the next day on the way back in.

That afternoon I had set my video to record Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in That Hamilton Woman. I watched it that evening, and during one of the commercial breaks John Sissons popped up from Channel 4 News to announce the same breaking news. Then it was back to the film, then another news flash and this time the film never re-started. I had to wait for a repeat many months later to find out how it ended, though I had my suspicions.

A year later - five years ago - I was in the US for my first ever visit. And great fun it was too. The world SF convention in San Jose, fly to St Louis, stay with friends in the strangely named Highland, Illinois (it's flat), sleeper train to NYC via Chicago, train to DC, fly home. Memorable experiences/ticked boxes in the great checklist of life:
  • first night in America, eating in a diner straight out of every movie you ever saw
  • San Francisco, including obligatory drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, but sadly my host vetoed a reconstruction of the car chase from Bullitt
  • the Winchester house, San Jose
  • the Cahokia Mounds and the St Louis stargate gateway arch
  • said train trip: a space age sleeping cabin all to myself and astonishingly beautiful scenery outside
  • New York and the Empire State Building: an ambition ever since I learned of its existence aged about five, in the Thunderbirds where it falls down
  • trying to cash a traveller's cheque in said Highland. Banking lady could not believe someone would come all the way from England just to cash a cheque in her bank. Once the concept had been explained - no, I didn't have an account, that was the whole point - and run past her manager, we had the following memorable conversation as the computer did its stuff.
    • Lady: so, you're from England?
    • Me: that's right.
    • Lady: my stepfather is from Croatia.
I had deliberately timed my departure from the US for 9/12, thinking that if I flew back on the first anniversary the security would be so tight as to be unbearable. As it was, JFK was so packed I missed my connecting flight from Dulles by minutes, and everyone was saying I should have been there yesterday when the place was deserted. The first anniversary itself wasn't too bad. All the hoopla was over by the time I woke up, as all the commemorations were timed for the time of the attacks, early in the morning by US time. Later in the morning I wandered around Arlington (which seemed appropriate), then in the afternoon went with my friends to tour George Washington's home at Mount Vernon. As my friends' kids were home schooled, this counted as edumacation.

Earlier on in New York I had the slightly surreal experience of sharing a lift an elevator in my hotel with a group of police officers from the Met. They were there, of course, for the forthcoming commemorations. A WPC had an itty-bitty truncheon about two centimetres long and an American who was with us observed, "ma'am, that ain't gonna stop nuthin.'" But I think he was impressed that anyone would even try.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Jonathan Aitken and the Big Yellow Stupid

Being thoughts on a couple of books read over the weekend.

1. Pride & Perjury, Jonathan Aitken
I remember once seeing Aitken interviewed by Jeremy Paxman, the latter displaying the intellectual cut and thrust that makes him so feared by interviewees.

JP: so, you lied in court about the payment of the hotel bill and you roped your wife and sister into the perjury?
JA: that’s right.
JP: but that’s despicable. Why did you do it?
JA: because I was proud and stupid.
JP: but it’s a disgraceful thing to do. Why did you do it?
JA: because I was proud and stupid.
JP: but it’s disgusting. Why did you do it?
JA: because I was ...

You get the point.

A couple of years ago, Aitken gave a talk in Abingdon about his life after the perjury trial and his time in jail. Pride & Perjury is about his life before and I’m finding it even more interesting.

He’s a hard man to find stuff in common with. Friends with Middle Eastern nobility (plus Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon); son at Eton; daughter at a Swiss finishing school; described in his own words as not particularly rich, average income £100,000, personal value of £2-3 million ... but by the standards of Tory oligarchs, I suppose he wasn’t that rich, and let’s face it, arms dealers and pimps for Saudi royalty do not scrape by on 100 grand a year even by 1990s prices.

And yet, that is what a series of attacks from the Guardian and Granada accused him of being, with (as it becomes clear) not the slightest justification or evidence. Unsurprisingly he took them to court for libel, and even though the run-up to the trial took years and cost hundreds of thousand of pounds just on the preliminaries, the defendants never had a chance. Because they had lied, and that’s it.

And unfortunately, so had Aitken, on the matter of who paid his bill for a two-day stay at the Paris Ritz (prop. M. Fayed, well known friend of the British establishment, which really didn’t help) in 1993. He was there to catch up with an old friend, not for business, but the old friend was a Saudi prince and his people paid the bill. It was a breach of ministerial etiquette that shouldn’t have happened, but compared to the alleged infractions of creaming off arms deals commissions and procuring prostitutes for rich clients, it was small beer. So Aitken reasoned it was the least of his problems, and lied about it for simplicity's sake, and it spiralled out of control so he got his wife to lie about it, and got his daughter to sign a statement saying it was true. (She was 16; she was 12 at the time it happened and wouldn’t have remembered it anyway, so she just trusted that what he wrote was correct.)

That one little lie ruined his career and brought him to bankruptcy. And quite right too. His wife subsequently left him, but as she had already agreed to give false testimony herself she couldn't really claim the moral high ground.

It just seems a shame that the Guardian/Granada partnership didn’t also get a couple of torpedoes up the fundament in the same way. God knows they deserved it. The Guardian isn’t a rag and there must be decent people working there (even if that’s the kind of statistical assertion that means I can also say ‘there must be decent people working at the Daily Mail’). Why did they do it?

My guess is, for exactly the same reasons as Aitken told his lie. Pride and a distorted hobby horse fixation. Reading the archived Guardian articles on the web is a bit like reading proofs that the Apollo landings never happened, JFK was done in by the CIA, the Queen is a lizard, Princess Diana was Elvis’s lovechild. You can’t prove straight off that they’re rubbish ... but there’s the same overreaching grand tone, broad statements, inferences that almost but not quite follow from the facts, that makes you suspicious. It smells odd, it smacks of obsession. This is why, contrary to all instinct, I’m actually more inclined to believe Aitken’s account of events: it’s simple, it’s straightforward, it tastes normal and it cites his references.

It would be interesting to read the account of the trial from the Guardian’s point of view – more specifically, from the point of view of saner heads within the organisation who came to realise how indefensible were their lies and how totally screwed they were ... until the miracle happened and Aitken got busted first.

There’s definitely a sermon in there somewhere.

2. I, Jack, Patricia Finney
I love books that play metaphysical games with the very nature of being a book to give an extra dimension to the reading. At the end of New World Order, an alternate history novel about two parallel worlds coming together, I included an author’s note saying what really happened in our world ... and in the parallel one.

But that’s nothing to I, Jack. Jack is a labrador – boundy, thick, and devoted to his pack (i.e. the human family that owns him) to the point of imbecility. His entire life revolves around pack and food, with a little sex when the neighbours’ dog goes on heat. What makes it work is that the story is told as a labrador would tell it. It’s not like, say, 101 Dalmatians, where the dogs are basically four-legged humans. Sometimes Jack is HAPPY DOG. Sometimes he is sad dog, but never for long because his entire train of thought can be completely derailed by OH HI PACKLEADER RESPECT LOVE CAN WE GO WALKIES NOW? Sometimes the text waves up and down on the page or goes round in little circles to reflect Jack’s exuberantly boundy mood. Sometimes other typographical features creep in as well, like love hearts when he's feeling especially devotional or when he - ahem - spoils the neighbour's dog's impeccable pedigree.

In short, you can believe this is a book written by a labrador – and just to add an extra layer, there are dry, acerbic footnotes from the family cats giving their own views of the Big Yellow Stupid, as they call him. These are of course written from a cat’s point of view, with their withering contempt for all other lifeforms, their list of things they intend to kill when they have enough data on their weaknesses (vehicles, lawnmowers ...) and their grading of everything according to its edibility. The one thing on which the cats and Jack are united is a desire to find out where the Pack Lady goes hunting because she keeps coming home with all this wonderful food. And they think it’s iniquitous that he gets fed first in the morning.

You can’t do this too often. I gather there’s a couple of Jack sequels but I probably won’t read them. Once is enough, but it’s great fun while it lasts.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Value may go down as well as up

My friend Peter - one of my friends Peter, I have a couple - points out that Wing├Ęd Chariot (incorrectly titled and without the accent, but I'm used to that) is available on Amazon at an interesting range of prices. Used, from £0.01. New, from £999.99.

Snap up your collector's edition now! Or wait until the new edition is published in April ...

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Research question for boys and girls

Something that has bothered me, on and off, for years.

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck at one point disguises himself as a girl for totally plot-consistent reasons which I forget. We can assume that in the style of mid-nineteenth century frontier America he wore a long dress and a bonnet, and he was young enough that five o'clock shadow and a deep voice wouldn't have given him away.

What does give him away is that something drops into his lap - probably off a table, I forget - and to catch it he brings his knees sharply together to increase the catching area. A sharp-eyed woman sees this and deduces he is a boy in disguise, as a girl would have moved her knees apart to spread out her dress and increase the catching area even more.

I've never been entirely convinced by this and have visions of Mark Twain muttering to himself, dammit, I've put him in disguise and now someone needs to spot it, how can I do that in a family-appropriate manner? And he came up with this. Possibly not having asked a real girl first.

A couple of colleagues who have been known to wear dresses from time to time say they would still subscribe to the allegedly boy-typical, knees-together motion. Anyone going to contradict?

Handy hint for travellers

Do NOT fly Nepal Airlines.

From the BBC:
"Nepal's state-run airline has confirmed that it sacrificed two goats to appease a Hindu god, following technical problems with one of its aircraft.

Nepal Airlines said the animals were slaughtered in front of the plane - a Boeing 757 - at Kathmandu airport.

The offering was made to Akash Bhairab, the Hindu god of sky protection, whose symbol is seen on the company's planes.

The airline said that after Sunday's ceremony the plane successfully completed a flight to Hong Kong."
When I'm at 30,000 feet I would much rather know I'm kept up there by the skills of trained technicians rather than Hindu deity. Not very multicultural, I know, but what can you do?

Suddenly Ryanair looks so attractive.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Sure of at least a small surprise

Once I was talking to a colleague whose teenage son had been to a drama camp over the summer. At the end of the week all the students put on a performance for their parents, which my colleague didn't get at all. I commented that like all good art, it makes you ask questions. "Yes," he agreed, "like, why did I spend £200 on that week?"

The Chiltern Sculpture Trail makes you ask similar questions, but it's a nice walk in the woods and you don't actually have to spend anything, so why not? Drive up Watlington Hill to Christmas Common, turn left, drive a couple of miles and stop before you cross the motorway. There's a forestry reserve up there on the right, which is worth a walk in itself. Corridors of trees curve their way across the Chiltern they're growing out of like vast wooden cathedrals-

-and when you come out the other side you get a breathtaking view over a sheep-dotted Chiltern valley, which my phone's camera couldn't really do justice do. And scattered here and there en route are random bits of sculpture.

In some cases, this uses the word loosely.

In others it's more appropriate.

Some just make you think what? And that's when you finally get it. That's why they're here. They might not necessarily mean anything. But take something like "Posts Modern", which I couldn't really photograph because it's ... posts. Seven foot white poles, scattered about the woods. You see two or three, and a fourth behind a bush. You step past the bush to see the fourth, and see a couple more, but now the first couple are obscured ... and so on.

Or this.

What was going through the artist's mind? What is the background? Is this just a wind-up? Questions like that bubble away in a deep molecular level at the back of your mind. You will come to no dazzling insights ... probably. But your mind is set to "receive" and the walk in the woods suddenly acquires a new value.

Gawd, I'm sounding like one myself.

This was probably my favourite.

It's basically a "What the butler saw" machine. You look through the little porthole, turn the wheel to make dozens of still photographs flap past your vision to create animation, and what you see is ... a red kite in flight. Beautiful, awesome birds, iconic of the Chilterns. Yet, as the artist explains in a nearby notice, their presence today is purely due to manmade intervention, reintroducing them after their local extinction a hundred years ago. You think you're seeing something natural in this woodland setting? These woods themselves are a plantation. The machine celebrates the existence of these creatures while its tombstone-like shape laments the loss of nature.

You can pick a dozen holes in this argument in approximately half a second, but that's not playing the game. You have to look at the sculptures and expect to ask questions - like, why have I consistently typed scultpure instead of sculpture throughout this blog (which you wouldn't have known because I have also consistently gone back and corrected it each time, but it bugs me).

Sometimes sculptures are removed, apparently. One such is called "The Beautiful Dress" by Jacqueline Pearce. I'd love to know if this is the Jacqueline Pearce who played Servalan in Blake's 7. As only a certifiable nut could call "The Beautiful Dress" a beautiful dress, it's quite possible.

But still more accessible than Tracey Emin's bed, right?