Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Monday, December 29, 2008

This isn't any decapitated woman

This is a Marks & Spencer decapitated woman, presumably advertising the new Queen of Scots range.

Still a little creepy to come across in the aisle, though.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas 08

Some or all of these were highlights. You guess, or decide. In no particular order:
  • A big family meal at Frankies in Putney to celebrate a significant decade-changing birthday within the family.
  • Three-year-old niece spotting the bloke at the next table who played Prince Charming when she went to see Cinderella last week, and insisting on going up to him and saying hello. Probably our family's only ever encounter with Gareth Gates.
  • Getting round the giant non-roundabout that is Hammersmith and successfully ending up driving down Fulham Palace Road.
  • A halfway decent Dr Who Christmas special. Though it would have had a struggle to top last year's for sheer awfulness.
  • Through a miracle of logistics, (a) getting Bonusbarn onto the Oxford Tube this morning so he could come down to have lunch in London and (b) finding him at Victoria.
  • Meeting 7 week old nephew for the first time. Low on conversation, but I interpreted his drool onto my shoulder as love.
Happy rest of the year, everyone.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

I have sung the Hallelujah Chorus!

Most of it, anyway. It was the grand finale to Sunday's carol service, and a pretty good service it was too. An excellent, well rehearsed and conducted choir; mostly trad carols played on the organ; an equally well rehearsed trio of piano, bass and drums for the rest. Everything sung at a decent speed and not too many verses. The proceedings kicked off with "the 12 Days of Christmas", arr. John Rutter, sung by the choir and finished - as I say - with a bit of Handel. The choir sung it properly and drowned out the crude vocal fumblings from the congregation, but it's still pretty satisfying to be growling out "And he shall reign forever and e-e-ver" at the right pace and with all the right ups and downs. (Singing in the choir in your youth does pay off, children.) With the umpteenth repetition of "King of Kings and Lord of Lords" from the sopranos, each one an octave higher than before, your ears begin to ache and small glass objects start to vibrate alarmingly, so it's as well it ended when it did.

Another treat was having Canon David Winter of Thought for the Day fame as the preacher. He sat in the very front row, immediately behind the choir conductor, who was on a little podium. He isn't tall - think Ronnie Corbett with a beard, grey jacket and clerical collar - and so seemed to spend most of the carols with his nose pressed into the conductor's armpit. But he praught well.

And so, as Christmas looms, I start to think of all the seasonal favourites I haven't sung, or heard sung, and at this stage probably won't for another year. Depending on how many I can find on YouTube, I thought I'd share some with you.

The Sans Day Carol is similar in content to "the Holly and the Ivy", but finds a better balance of theological and botanical accuracy, and has a better tune anyway. "The Holly and the Ivy" teases us with its chorus - "the rising of the sun and the running of the deer ..." and makes me want to shout, "WHAT ABOUT THEM??"

The Shepherd's Pipe Carol: like the above, an annual favourite of my school carol service at which yours truly was a cherubic treble. This isn't saying much, as in a boys' school where the maximum age is 13 everyone is either a cherubic treble or has recently acquired a voice like a concrete mixer and isn't singing anything.

Its carols like this that I like the most - taking an event of cosmic importance and bringing it down to a personal level. "Going through the hills on a night all starry, I heard this shepherd boy playing his pipes, see, and ..." (lyrics paraphrased).

Actually it has just occurred to me from the last verse that this could be a cunning ruse by King Herod, having failed with the Wise Men:

"May I come with you, shepherd boy piping merrily,
Come with you to Bethlehem?
Pay my homage too at the new King's cradle,
Is it far to Bethlehem?"
So I'll move quickly on.

And now some old traditionals, though not necessarily done traditionally.

Joys Seven. Aren't the little kids cute? This one wins the Tim Rice Award for Forced Rhymes:
"The next good joy that Mary had,
It was the joy of two;
To see her own Son Jesus Christ,
Making the lame to go(o) ..."

Gaudete. Last year I linked to Steeleye Span so this year you get Angel Voices. Watch for the little blond kid who bobs his head with the music.

And of course Mike Oldfield's version of "In dulci jubilo". This was playing in Tesco the other day. I started whistling along to it, then realised someone else in the same aisle was doing likewise. Another few bars and we would have been in a TV ad, with everyday shoppers suddenly breaking into dance, so I forced myself to stop.

And finally, it is of course Rutting Season, i.e. the time you're most likely to hear something by John Rutter (d'you see what I did there?).

The Candelight Carol comes back to the theme of bringing Christmas home.
"Shepherds and wisemen will kneel and adore him,
Seraphim round him their vigil will keep;
Nations proclaim him their Lord and their Saviour,
but Mary will hold him and sing him to sleep."

And the Angel's Carol. This is Christmas, encapsulated. No more need be said. Merry Christmas, everyone.
"Have you hear the sounds of the angel voices
ringing out so sweetly, ringing out so clear?
Have you seen the star shining out so brightly
as a sign from God that Christ the Lord is here?
Have you heard the news that they bring from heaven
to the humble shepherds who have waited long?
Gloria in excelsis Deo! Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels sing their joyful song.

He is come in peace in the winter's stillness,
like a snowfall in the gentle night.
He is come in joy, like the sun at morning,
filling all the world with radiance and with light.
He is come in love as the child of Mary.
In a simple stable we have seen his birth.
Gloria in excelsis Deo! Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels singing 'Peace on earth'.

He will bring new light to a world in darkness,
like a bright star shining in the skies above.
He will bring new hope to the waiting nations
When he comes to reign in purity and love.
Let the earth rejoice at the Saviour's coming.
Let the heavens answer with the joyful morn:
Gloria in excelsis Deo! Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels singing, 'Christ is born'."

Friday, December 19, 2008

Rites and wrongs

I came across this link on Liz Williams's Diary of a Witchcraft Shop in Avalon (i.e. Glastonbury): "Dysfunctional Behaviour and the Pagan Scene". I'd like to be able to quote from it here, in a number of places, but the owner specifically asks that people ask permission before quoting and hasn't replied to my request. So I'll just have to recommend you look at it, and make the following points. The author says (my interpretation):
  1. People too often join a pagan circle hoping to find it full of superior types rather than normal, doing-their-best types just like them. Depending on the level of dysfunctionality of the circle and/or the newcomers, at best this can lead to disillusion, at worst to active abuse.
  2. By a strange paradox, dysfunctional groups don't have to try as hard as functional ones to succeed and therefore last longer. By being permanently in crisis and not having to work hard to ride out storms, deal with conflict etc. they survive where much better groups fail.
  3. Newcomers are drawn in by a misunderstanding of what is on offer. They want a love spell but don't want to be more loveable. They want a spell to make them rich without having to work harder or be better at their work.
  4. The right (or rather, wrong) mentality can quite easily take a good, healthy proposition like "Love your neighbour" and corrupt it – vide the Inquisition. Thus even the positive, life affirming ideals of a good pagan circle can be twisted to justify obnoxious, anti-social behaviour.
... and it strikes me that all of these can apply just as much to churches. Just do a find-and-replace on the terminology and it matches. In fact it quite possibly fits even more belief systems than just our two but these are the two I'll concentrate on at the moment. Unrealistic expectations on both sides, unwillingness to take the rough with the smooth ...

Let's just say they're problems to look out for.

One area where we see completely eye to eye is the notion that to do it properly it must have meaning. It must be relevant to your life. That also means you must be free to ask questions and you must accept that just because person X does thing Y in way Z, that doesn't mean everyone does, or should. You can be trapped in the form and the ritual.

There are several testimonies on this site from young pagans who were raised as Christians, or at least contemplated it, but found what they were getting in church couldn't hold a candle to what they got from a simple walk in the woods. In many cases that could be because the church was in fact doing it properly, and good for it: they wanted power and all the church could offer was humility, so they went somewhere with comforting rituals that at least give the impression of being in charge. See point 3 above. But I've also been in some churches which have as much to offer the modern world as King Herod had to offer the youth ministry, when they should be able to offer so much more. Could it be, I dare ask myself, that they're trapped in their own rituals and therefore don't have anything to offer a genuine seeker? It's not just the pagans who have rituals, y'know. A ritual may be jumping naked backwards over a bonfire while the moon shines above the Eye Stone or it may be singing a chorus in a key that makes dogs in nearby villages bark, and then shifts after the bridge to a key that actively knocks bats out of the sky, and that's before you even reach the fifth repetition.

Nor does it help if the automatic response of the church in question is to threaten such notions with eternal punishment in Hell ...

Just saying.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A tale so free from every doubt

I'd like to be able to report that I now know the plot of The Gondoliers, which is the last big Gilbert & Sullivan I have yet to see. But I can't. The Kennington & District United Church Choirs Gilbert & Sullivan society has become a victim of its own success. Its performances are unticketed, free and, in the case of last Friday's, full up. Memo to selves – get there sooner next time.

The gist of the plot I know simply from one song. A young prince, in his infancy, was wed to a young princess. Later the same prince was abducted by the Grand Inquisitor – the latest in a line of G&S officials with far too much power and self-importance and far too little ability – to save the kingdom from falling into the hands of fundamentalist Wesleyan Methodism. The child was fostered with a highly respectable gondolier who raised the boy side by side with his own son. However-
Owing, I'm much disposed to fear,
To his terrible taste for tippling,
That highly respectable gondolier
Could never declare with a mind sincere
Which of the two was his offspring dear
And which the Royal stripling.
The highly respectable gondolier then goes and dies with the identity of the child still unresolved. The Inquisitor goes on to explain to the now grown-up princess:
The children followed his old career
(This statement can't be parried)
Of a highly respectable gondolier.
Well, one of the two who will soon be here
— But which of the two is not quite clear —
Is the Royal Prince you married!
I only blog this non-achievement now because the chance to play with W.S. Gilbert's lyrics is always too good to resist. Somewhere in the story Giuseppe and Marco, the two gondolieri (but that's a vagary, it's quite honorary) are taught how to deport themselves as befits a (possible) member of the royalty:
I am a courtier grave and serious
Who is about to kiss your hand,
Try to combine a pose imperious
With a demeanour nobly bland ...
And somewhere we meet that renowned warrior the Duke of Plaza-Toro:
In enterprise of martial kind
When there was any fighting
He led his regiment from behind,
He found it less exciting.
But when away his regiment ran
His place was at the fore-oh,
That celebrated cultivated underrated nobleman
The Duke of Plaza-Toro!
So there you have it, and there I must leave it until finally I get to see the show. One day I’ll know how it all works out. Or just look it up on Wikipedia, but where’s the fun in that?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Ten glorious years

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, humans and other, on behalf of Captain Michael Gilmore RSF and the crew of HMSS Ark Royal may I wish you all a happy tenth anniversary of the publication of His Majesty's Starship.

Or, more succinctly, YAY!

Its star sign was Sagittarius, its birthstone was Blue Topaz or Turquoise and it was born in the Chinese year of the Tiger. The no. 1 song in the charts was Cher with "Believe".

Yes, it was 11 December 1998 that His Majesty's Starship hit the bookshelves with the force of a reticent snowflake. And what a ten years it's been. Three more novels have followed it, and that's just under my own name, and don't get me started on other projects started and sometimes finished. The little boys to whom it was dedicated, aged 3 and 1, are now 13 and 11 respectively. Who'd have thought it? I've been fired, set up my own company, gone broke, been gainfully re-employed, got married and acquired a teenage stepson. All once, though not all at once.

Back then we had no Weakest Link or Big Brother or I'm An Idiot, Get Me On TV. I had a personal website but had never heard of blogs. All HTML coding was manual.

I still have and even occasionally use the laptop I bought with the proceeds. It were an IBM Thinkpad, it were.

I used to get up in the morning at ten o'clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, type out an entire trilogy on a typewriter with no keys that were always sticking, eat the paper for breakfast and pay an editor to reject it. And I was lucky.

I continue to believe that publication constituted 50% fulfilment of a prophecy.

It would have been interesting to have written down a list of hopes for the next ten years back then so that I could compare and contrast. Obviously, I hoped the book would take the world by storm and herald the arrival of a new hard SF writer on the scene. It didn't, which is really just as well because in the intervening decade I've managed to go quite off hard SF. I don't even especially consider myself a science fiction writer anymore, just a writer whose oeuvre can most accurately be described – for the time being – as science fiction. That may seem a very picky difference but it's an important one, to me at least. What it means is that I enjoy writing stuff that is mostly science fiction, and I make no bones about it, but am quietly resigned to being officially a young adult writer virtually unheard of within the science fiction field. I don't complain because that gives me much more room to manoeuvre than if I was best known for one kind of thing. If I felt inclined to write it then I could probably turn in a novel about fluffy bunnies and elves to my usual editor and still have a chance at publication. Charlie Stross or Alastair Reynolds probably couldn't.

Back to HMSS. I got a very short-lived thrill when Blackwells got in touch to say it was selling like hot cakes, they'd ordered in a couple of boxfuls and did I want to come in and sign them? Well, I could make a window in my busy schedule ... Turned out to be my housegroup leader buying up a single load as Christmas presents for friends and family. But I still went and signed the couple of boxfuls and I presume they sold too. I certainly hope so, because Blackwells couldn't have returned them after some idiot went and scribbled in them.

My author copies didn't arrive until just before Christmas; I wasn't in, the couriers left a card, and to make sure I got the copies before Christmas I had to drive to the depot to collect them. On the way back home Classic FM played the third movement of Vaughan Williams' English Folk Song Suite, which includes a triumphant trumpet fanfare (around 1m26s on the video below), and then the news announced that Peter Mandelson had resigned (only for the first time but we weren't to know that then). And it was Christmas and I was officially on holiday. That was a good day.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Today I threw my wedding ring away


Honestly, all I did was dry my hands with the paper towels provided in the gents, giving them a good rub all over. Then I used a second towel to clear up residual damp patches, and realised how light and airy my left-hand ring finger felt.

I peered into the bin of crumpled up damp paper towels and something gleamed back at me, so it wasn't too hard to retrieve. Must be more careful in future.

I thought fingers got gnarled and knobbly with increasing age. Mine seem to be slimming down.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Hasten, Lord, the gen'ral doom!

To St Andrews church in North Oxford last night for the Wycliffe Hall Advent Service. An interesting and pleasant time with only one severe attack of giggles narrowly avoided ...

Format was a reading, and a modern chorus played by a band, and a verse of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" bashed out on the organ on full blast to restore order. Then repeat. It was a curiously effective way of doing it that appealed to young whippersnappers and old crustaceans alike. The modern songs ranged from the mighty "In Christ Alone", easily the best chorus to come out of the last twenty years, to something unknown, unsingable and about five minutes old but it seemed a good idea when they planned the service.

The grand finale was "Lo! he comes with clouds descending", old style on the organ with every stop pulled out and the building vibrating. Great stuff!

But ...

It began to dawn on me after a week or so of the last song that there were an awful lot of verses and we were singing them very slowly. Each verse took about a minute to wade through. I yield to few in my admiration for Charles Wesley but this was not one of his finest hours. I had an image of him sitting in his study, rocking back on two legs of his chair, maybe tapping his teeth with a pencil and trying hard to come up with inspiration. It's a writing technique I have often used and it always shows.

The same problem seemed to occur to the band's keyboard player. About a month into the song he sensed us flagging and started trying to accompany the organ with a few melodies here and there, but it didn't really work. The organ was just swamping him. The rest of the band had the sense to stay out of it.

Except for the drummer. Ah, the drummer! That's the spirit. He came crashing in round about verse 497, not just tapping out the rhythm but actively using the entire kit, every drum and cymbal and wall and radiator and anything else in striking distance, giving us rolls and fibrillating syncopation that could more than hold its own against the organ. It didn't speed things up but it suddenly felt a lot faster. The rest of the band finally joined in too and we all joyfully went into the final straight with the church gently vibrating its way up into heaven. Fantastic!

But the giggles? Oh yes. Wesley was definitely off his meds when he wrote that last song, but here's the verse where he was really chewing the carpet. Honestly, you try and sing this in a cheerful, upbeat manner with a straight face:
Answer thine own bride and Spirit
Hasten, Lord, the gen'ral doom!
The new heav'n and earth t'inherit
Take thy pining exiles home.
All creation x 3
Travails! Groans! And bids thee come!
Elsewhere in Oxford Maddy Prior was playing, apparently. I bet she never sings about gen'ral doom. There again, we got mulled wine and mince pies. Call it a draw.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The CIA is hiring!

And I don't mean the Church in Abingdon.

According to their vacancies page, "This includes Clandestine Service Officers to be on the front line of human intelligence." Along with people like Einstein and Hawking? These will be recruited into the National Clandestine Service, the service so clandestine it - um - has a name with "clandestine" in the title. In this field they're basically looking for people to recruit traitors in other countries, but strangely they feel the need for a sexier sounding job title.

Open Source Officer (Foreign Media Analyst) looks fun, but on closer inspection they have a different understanding to "open source". I could reasonably go for Publications Officer, Librarian or Graphic Designer. I have a certificate to say that I successfully completed the LRQA Internal QMS Auditor Course but, even so, Contract Auditor would just be too scary - all depends on what you mean by contracts, eh, nudge nudge wink wink?

Of course, this all leaves aside the needlessly picky requirement of being a US citizen. I bet I know more American history than most Americans, and if Hollywood is anything to be (and has it ever let you down?) the CIA can employ both Brian Cox (Scottish) and Russell Crowe (Australian) so I could probably swing it.

Friday, December 05, 2008

You're a star, superstar

In 1572 a new star blazed out in the sky, so bright it could be seen during the day. The astronomer Tycho Brahe described it in his book De Stella Nova, giving us a word we use even today to describe a crappy little Vauxhall. Apparently he caused ripples by proving it lay quite a way beyond the orbit of the moon, which wasn't officially possible - though even he might have been surprised to know quite how far away it was.

Now, the BBC tells us, astronomers around the world are seeing it again, because light that shot off in the opposite direction is reflecting off clouds of interstellar dust particles and coming back at us.

Is this not utterly astonishing and utterly cool? What an amazing universe we live in.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Another year, another Children's Authors Christmas Party

Well, in chronological order, I first met up with my agent for the first time in the 13 years he's represented me, which was nice. And I'm glad to say we get on well. Discussed various possible projects. Intriguing. All good.

Then on to Berkeley Square for the do. Chatted to various names and faces, authors and illuminati of Random House: some not what I'd expected at all, some exactly as I expected because I met them last year and even the year before. The waiters bearing trays of nibbles retain their extraordinary ability to walk through a room packed to the gills with people and still not quite come near enough to offer food to anyone. Fortunately the wine waiters haven't mastered this art, though I told myself I was only feeling light headed because it was very hot and I had given blood 24 hours earlier.

Retrieving my bag from the cloakroom wasn't as straightforward as you might expect, as the numbered ticket had come loose and was sticking to a woman's handbag. Cloakroom lady took some convincing it wasn't mine. I identified my own bag visually, and to prove my ownership I told the lady that if she looked in it, the first thing she would find was a blue jumper.

She opened the bag. She pulled out the jumper.

"It's black," she said sceptically. The cloakroom was quite dim.

"No, it's definitely blue in the right light," I assured her. She remained sceptical as though I had made a not quite lucky guess. I can only assume the cloakroom was full of bags stuffed with jumpers removed by their owners in advance because they knew how hot the party gets (actually, that could be true). I performed a further feat of clairvoyance by naming the book I was about to pull out of the bag before I had actually looked at the cover. She remained sceptical, possibly suspecting braille, but in the end she let me take it.

I could have pointed out that it was probably the only bag present emblazoned with "Networkshop 36, 8-10 April 2008, The University of Strathclyde" but I was too taken with my own cleverness and I really wasn't thinking very clearly by this point.

The only name I will drop is John Dickinson, who writes very worth reading grown-up kids' fantasy. He sought my views on our mutual publisher's intended new science fiction line but got away before I could complain that his father was responsible for giving me nightmares when I was 10. He might get that a lot.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The feminine side of Ben

... is hidden on my official homepage, apparently, at least according to Gender Analyzer. This site takes a URL entered by you, the user, and (a) applies sophisticated semantic analytical techniques to work out the likely gender of the author or (b) takes a lucky guess with remarkable consistency.

For the record:
  • my homepage - 80% likely to be a woman. To rub it in Google Ads kindly offer an ad for "Understanding Men"
  • this blog - 62% likely male. Obviously because I belch and scratch myself as I type, or possibly because I talk about subjects other than myself ... Google Ad: "Beautiful Chinese ladies seek men for love and marriage. Join free!"
  • work (out of interest) - they guess man (51%), "however it's quite gender neutral". Which is as it should be so my manager was pleased. Google Ad: "Inside A Boyfriend's Mind – 10 Free Secrets On Men & Commitment To Keep Relationships & Love Alive"
I then tried it on the sites of various friends and it guessed them all correctly, except one, the most feminist of them all who comes across as 65% man. Snigger.

Is thermoregulation different for teenagers?

Put it this way. You're sitting having your breakfast in the living room of a clear December morning and you feel a little cold. You're wearing just a t-shirt on top. Do you put on:
  • a) another layer?
  • b) a scarf?
If you just answered (b) then experience suggests you may be a teenager. Or at least a teenager with half-Swedish blood.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

So that's Thanksgiving

Mashed potatoes with turkey? I know, shocking.

We have an American vicar, for reasons I've never quite gathered. (I know why we have a vicar, because we're that kind of church, and I know why he's American because you don't really get a choice in that when your parents are American and you're born in Pittsburgh. I've just not yet quite understood how he ended up here, but I'm very glad he did because he's a great guy.)

Last night we commorated the fact with an American-style Thanksgiving dinner: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, corn bread, peas and sweetcorn. All ingredients genuinely American, acquired somehow from a US airforce base. And the menu ...

The vicar explained beforehand that American palates are not quite the same as British ones. They don't draw the same distinctions between sweet and savoury. And how! The corn bread is essentially dry Victoria sponge. It could have served with the sweet potato casserole as our dessert - except of course that dessert was pumpkin pie and pecan pie. (I was surprised to hear how many people present had never had pumpkin pie - I've had it often thanks to my mother's cooking at home. Never had pecan pie, though.) I think the Americans must have invented cranberry sauce in a desperate attempt to drag it at least a little over to the savoury side of the taste spectrum.

But I quibble. This was my first Thanksgiving dinner and very nice it was too. It certainly whetted my appetite for the real thing in 25 days time ...

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Ofsted, 16th century style

We popped into the Guildhall to buy our annual load of charity Christmas cards. They were being sold in a room adjacent to the Roysse Room, which of course has a certain interest to us as it was the site of the original Abingdon School. (Oh, yes, and we got married there.)

In the lobby outside you can read the rules of the original John Roysse School. They knew their stuff in those days.
The children shall come to school at 6am in the summer and leave at 5pm. In winter school will start at 7am at the discretion of the Mayor and headmaster.
And ...
The headmaster will not allow the children to play for more than four days a year. If he lets them play for more he shall pay three shillings and four pence to go into the school funds.
And (my favourite):
Every six months the Mayor and Principal Burgesses shall visit the school to make sure that all these rules are being kept. The second time they find things not in order the headmaster shall be expelled, especially if he is not doing prayers.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Fraudulent slip

We have very excitingly triggered the first ever investigation into fraudulent activity on the family credit card.

It's that time of year when we book tickets for next year's annual Sweden holiday. Usually we book so far in advance that our carrier of choice, Ryanair, will take us at 2 shillings and sixpence if we promise to strap-hang at the back, plus a small mortgage's worth of airport taxes. This year we've left it late enough that Ryanair is actually slightly more expensive than SAS, so that's who we will be going with, with the concomitant advantage of flying out of Heathrow rather than Stansted and landing at a proper airport at the other end rather than a converted airforce base.

Anyway, I came home this evening to what sounded suspiciously like a phishing scam on the answerphone from the card company. "This a message for-" (change tone) "Ben" (change back again) "-concerning possible fraudulent activity on your card. Please press any button on your phone now ..."

It turned out to be a genuine query and I set their minds at rest. For some reason the ticket purchase had tweaked their antennae and they wanted to verify it. But it's not the first time I've spent a sum like that and previously it's always gone through without a quibble.

"Obviously," I said to Best Beloved as I hung up, "they've got us down as Ryanair customers ..."

Musical movements

A colleague at works likes to sing on the toilet. I discovered this fact today. I didn't recognise the voice or the song, but singing it was.

It wasn't the guy who likes to make mobile phone calls from the same place. His accent is distinctive and Scottish. I'd have recognised him. Today's singer was more generically middle England and there's a lot of us about.

I thought of sending back a few bars of the first song that came to mind, but didn't, (a) because he might regard it as a challenge and (b) because the first song to come to mind was John Rutter's The Angel's Carol, and it would be ironic if he ended up thinking I'm the weird one. There could be a blog out there saying something like "guess what, I work with a guy who likes to sing carols in the toilet ..."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The fourth horseman

I'm pleased to see the Survivors have picked somewhere with an Aga. That will be handy when the cold sets in (assuming they have a continued supply of gas or oil) but is also a subconscious link to the original series. That one was flawed by the fratefully naice middle classness of it all. Our Survivors for a new generation are mixed in race, colour and class ... but they still end up in a house with an Aga.


I vaguely remember the original 70s series, though I didn't see much as it was on after my bedtime. Possibly the main attraction for 10-year-old me was that it was devised by Terry Nation and he invented the Daleks. I finally got to see the first series on video about ten years ago and found it pretty superior fare. The first episode remained the best, starting as the remake did with the virus already in full sway but few realising the danger they were in. The remake pinched the scene of Abby staggering through her home town, finding nothing but dead bodies and pleading, "please God, don’t let me be the only one!"

Then, as now, groups of survivors band together; some get it, some don't. Anyone clinging to the old ways, or claiming authority based on who they were before the plague, doesn't get it. Abby does, mostly thanks to a lecture from a surviving teacher at her son's prep school (who here has transformed into an instructor at an outward-bound adventure school; a nice way of keeping a theme of the original plot, Abby searching for her son, in a way a modern audience can relate to). She says she can find an axe in a hardware store. Yes, but what happens when the last axe head breaks? Could you repair it? Could you smelt the ore to make a new one? Because that's how long things are going to take to get better.

Eventually Abby's group settle down somewhere nice and secluded with large grounds (specifically, this place) for growing crops, keeping animals, accreting more survivors, and dealing with ethical issues like how do you deal with a sex offender in a world without courts (especially when you realise you've got it wrong – bummer).

Our new group has already found somewhere nice and large, though not very secluded – it seems to be a mansion in the suburbs of Manchester, which can't be very pleasant on a hot sunny day when the heat gets to the bodies. Some flaws of the original series seem to have been dealt with, others not. The original class homogeneity has been diversified into a precisely calculated group of mixed men and women. They seem to be dressed a bit more practically, but who knows – maybe their outfits will be as laughable in 30 years time as the costumes sported with pride by our original heroes. The one exception to the original niceness was the almost offensively stereotyped cowardly rat-faced Welshman who was of course the villain, Tom Price; Tom now seems to have a lot more going for him. On the down side, our survivors still manage to keep amazingly clean and there are very few hints indeed that they are surrounded by millions of decaying corpses. I was hoping for something grittier.

Almost 100% of the first episode matched its original series equivalent. Last night borrowed about 50% (see? and this one ...) To judge by the trailers, next week will use about 25%. Zeno's Paradox suggests that the series will never be entirely original but the last few minutes of the last episode will come pretty close.

The definitive post-virus text is of course George Stewart’s Earth Abides which doesn't pull any punches as to the likely consequences of a worldwide plague. Think rats, think insects, populations exploding overnight and then collapsing Malthus-style as their, ahem, food supply gets used up. Significantly, the book doesn't have a happy ending in terms of civilisation restarting, but at least we no longer worry for the future of the human race. By the end of it the children of the survivors have grown up, unfettered by memories of what once was, and they can start a new hunter-gatherer society with the instinctive ease of kids picking up any new talent.

Knowledge of the original Survivors affected me more than I might have realised. Ever since, I've thought – just every now and then, you understand – in terms of what would happen if a worldwide plague came. Frankly, I'd be quite happy with option A which would be dying and making the surviving someone else's problem. But if by some perversity I survived ...

Well, it would be very convenient if the plague could strike while we're on holiday at my father in law's farm in Sweden. Failing that, there is at a specific location in our fair land a house that I know of that was originally designed to be kept warm without central heating, and which contains a gun locker with a hunting rifle and (I think) a shot gun, and I know where the keys are kept. I think I would go there. Bonusbarn points out that if I just want weaponry, RAF Benson is a lot closer and Dalton Barracks practically on the doorstep; well, yes, true, but other plus points may not apply. Salisbury Plain is on the doorstep of the house I'm thinking of. Neolithic man thrived there once; we can do it again. My bible would probably be Bear Grylls: Born Survivor. And the house I'm thinking of has an Aga.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Beenip loses another member

Thanks to Major Clanger for alerting me (via a story in the Times) to the concept of the Hitler Tantrum Mashup. Not something I'd encountered before. The rules are very simple: take the above scene from the excellent Downfall, and insert your own subtitles.

On the Times story linked above you can also get others including "Banned from World of Warcraft" and "Windows Vista problems". You can't (as I write) get this one.

And for the fun of it, here's the one where Hitler twigs someone is re-subtitling him.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Yesterday was the tenth birthday of the International Space Station, measured from the first module being fired up into orbit. Last Saturday (thanks for the up to the minute coverage, Beeb) was the twentieth anniversary of something even more exciting – the one and only flight of Buran, the Soviet Space Shuttle.

Buran was cool and it wasn't just a steal from the US version, unlike the Soviet's version of Concorde; there's only so many shapes something designed to be a space shuttle can be. The Shuttle is a bodge, the rump remnant of a much more ambitious space programme left over from the sixties; Buran did exactly what it was designed to do, and did it well. The Shuttle is inferior technology bolstered up by the politics of the richest nation on Earth; Buran was superior technology let down by a state that couldn't afford it. The Shuttle has to include its own engines to assist in lift-off, and once it ceases its burn those engines are just dead weight until the next time it takes off. Buran left all the taking-off business to its Energia booster, so every ounce and cubic inch on board could be dedicated to being a nifty piece of space kit.

It was also better designed generally. I hadn't realised, until reading the BBC link, that apparently on its test flight it landed within 3 metres of the centre line of the runway, in winds that would have made the Shuttle cancel altogether. And this was under remote control.

Another key difference between the two was that Buran could fly. But it had no engines, I hear you cry! No, but in good Soviet make-and-mend fashion it could. For its test flights, you could strap on some jet engines with some sellotape and string, and it could take off like an aeroplane ...

Basically, the Soviets watched far too much Gerry Anderson.

Of course, this is how a space launch should look.

No computers for the kids, though

This 1969 vision of the computer-enabled household is surprisingly close, in some areas. There's still the occasional gem ...

"What the wife selects at her console will be paid for by the husband at his counterpart console." (We see husband shaking his head dolefully as he survives the wife's expenditure ...)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Beenip and Sergeant

My responses to two items of recent news:

1. Clearly John Sergeant should be the next Doctor Who. Saturday evenings reclaimed – problem solved.

2. The BNP membership list ... oh dear. One of the weaknesses of the McCain/Palin ticket was that it could potentially put the world's most powerful nuclear arsenal into the hands of a woman who couldn't protect her Yahoo email account. Similar thoughts come to mind here. They didn't even have the decency to leave it on a bus, like Labour do with their sensitive information.

Without going into detail I'll admit I have seen a copy (hint: don't use Google, try p2p). What makes it art isn't so much the names as the margin notes. "Owns 13th & 14th century suit of armour. Can do jousting at rallies." "Lives mostly in Spain so opts for overseas membership rate" (yay, clinging to your principles FTW!) And apparently someone was suspended for having "an inappropriate tattoo". Black Power? Luv U Mum? The mind boggles.

A distressing number – i.e. any number greater than 0 – live in Abingdon, including one in Alexander Close, which I had always thought was the heartland of moral middleclass respectability, not to mention a Christian ghetto. (Of the right kind of Christian, not like the Revd Robert West of the Apostolic Church in Holbeach, Lincolnshire.) So, if you live in Alexander Close and your skin is of anything less than snow white perfection, be sure to greet your neighbours with an enormous hug. If you can ham up a fake Jamaican or Indian accent, that would be even better.

The Register kindly provides a link to a nationalist blog where you can entertain yourself reading the howls of BNP outrage. (And doubtless there are plenty more like it.) The image that comes to mind is of cockroaches scurrying for cover when the light goes on.

Disproving the old adage that my enemy's enemy is my friend, Christian Voice also attacks the BNP for being, amongst other things, racist, white supremacist, paganist, volkist, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and ... um ... evolutionist. All quite clearly agendas with equal space on Satan's to-do list. The very next sentence on their site reads "Angry, chippy and defensive are words which characterise a website lacking in Christian humanity"; they probably mean the BNP but you can't be certain.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Not quick enough

With a heavy heart I must consign another book to the "Life's too short" category. And I so wanted to like it.

The last, and first, to suffer this fate was The Dice Man back in January. That one went with much rejoicing and lightness of heart because it was truly quite pants. The latest, tragically, is Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver.

Neal Stephenson wrote two of the greatest SF novels of the nineties. Snow Crash made cyberpunk hip and enjoyable and compulsive reading - something William Gibson, who only invented the genre, could never quite manage - and The Diamond Age is the perfect primer for life in a future, post-national, post-scarcity society. And then the new century was ushered in with Cryptonomicon, which defies categorisation and tragically sows the seeds for The Baroque Cycle, of which Quicksilver is the first volume.

Y'see, each of the above books was getting longer. It wasn't hard to plot ahead of the curve and see that sooner or later Stephenson was bound to turn in a 380,000 word opus and that his editor would let him get away with it. Sadly said editor didn't bother editing.

Quicksilver, which is set around the dawn of the modern scientific age and the Restoration in the late seventeenth century, could have been such fun and is so boring. Pages and pages (and pages and pages) of people talking to one another for no reason than to convey all the research Stephenson has done. I knew the book consisted of three smaller (for a given value of "smaller") books and vowed I would at least get through the first one; then I'd see how the second was going. And it started well ... until two characters spend six (six!) pages riding across Europe to a destination they could have reached in a paragraph if they weren't so intent on telling each other what they already know, or didn't but have no reason to either, for no reason than to give us more of the author's Research.

Life is too short.

Stephenson has a lovely dry way of writing that makes the fun bits a real pleasure to read. Here is lapsed Puritan Daniel unable to shake off his upbringing as he finally has sexual intercourse for the first time with the crucial aid of a sheepgut condom:
"Does this mean it is not actually coitus?" Daniel asked hopefully. "Since I am not really touching you?" Actually he was touching her in a lot of places, and vice versa. But where it counted he was touching nothing but sheepgut.

"It is very common for men of your religion to say so," Tess said. "Almost as common as this irksome habit of talking while you are doing it."

"And what do you say?"

"I say that we are not touching, and not having sex*, if it makes you feel better," Tess said. "Though, when it is all finished, you shall have to explain to your Maker why you are at this moment buggering a dead sheep."
(*an irritating and deliberate stylistic touch is to combine seventeenth century spellings and styles with slap bang modern idioms.)

Or this, about life on the Isle of Dogs in 1665:
"The Irish worked as porters and dockers and coal-haulers during the winter, and trudged off to the countryside in hay-making months. They went to their Papist churches every chance they got and frittered away their silver paying for the services of scribes, who would transform their sentiments into the magical code that could be sent across countries and seas to be read, by a priest, or another scrivener, to dear old Ma in Limerick.

In Mother Shaftoe's part of town, that kind of willingness to do a day's hard work for bread and money was taken as proof that the Irish race lacked dignity and shrewdness. And this did not even take into account their religious practices and all that flowed from them, e.g. the obstinate chastity of their women, and the willingness of the males to tolerate it."
More of that, and less drop-of-the-hat extemporising about the sociopolitical state of Europe and inter-relationships of the various royal families, and Quicksilver would really be quite readable. It is one of the few books where a Readers' Digest condensed version would actually be a good idea, and I don't often say that.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The One with the Silly Title

Quantum of Solace isn't the worst Bond but it's far from being the best. It's far from being as good as Casino Royale. That one rightly won praise for re-inventing Bond. This one is ... more of the same, really. The first one gave us mean, moody hurtin' Bond. This comes perilously close to giving us Bond the Big Baby. Oh get over it, you want to cry out.

Let's not be too negative; let's talk strengths. Daniel Craig is still flippin' good. Judi Dench is even better. Bond is just so beautifully irritating to the baddies. The bad guy isn't a world-dominating ogre, just a well-acted bad guy; and like most bad guys, it wouldn't actually make that much difference to the greater good of the greater whole if he won. But you're glad he loses.

We get tantalising hints of the new Big Bad, Quantum, which might just might just possibly might be a SPECTRE for the twenty first century. And it will be interesting to see how well this films in Bolivia – or maybe they'll dub the name of another country. Not many people want to be told their homeland is a corrupt coup-prone rat infested banana republic. Even if it's true.

The fact that Bond doesn't go to bed with Bond girl gives their relationship a sense of plausibility. Sadly said Bond girl has to be one of the densest of the lot, and frankly that's pretty dense. Having ascertained that her boyfriend has sent an assassin after her, she twice confronts him in a situation that he completely controls and where he could quite easily have her killed without anyone batting an eyelid, and then acts surprised when – um – he tries to kill her. Pattern recognition not her strongest point.

And then there's the fighting. Oh dear, the fighting.

Remember the fight between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love? It was gripping, brutal and to the death. 007 was up against someone who was at least his equal and you could believe (and you cared) that he might not make it (apart from the obvious given that he would make it – but it was fun to see how). Every blow, every shot counted. The camera often stayed stationary for seconds at a time. You could tell what was happening.

Three, four, five times QoS gives us an action scene so fast, furious and blurry you can’t (a) tell or (b) give a toss what's happening. It's a case of wake me up when Bond's won and we'll get on with the movie. At least one of the chases I could swear I've already seen, in the last Jason Bourne movie. Run across rooftops, check. Jump through windows, check. Perhaps the producer got confused.

Please will the producers and directors of thriller movies start trusting the intelligence of the audience again and give us scenes we can follow and care about. Thank you.

Here's how fight scenes should be done.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

If you're in a hole, stop digging

Best Beloved served up some really quite nice rice pudding for dessert. I went to boarding school: "nice" and "rice pudding" have never belonged together in the same sentence. This was hot and creamy with a hint of cinnamon.

Quoth Bonusbarn: "it's a bit like phlegm, isn't it?"

[Transfixed by twin glares]

"I mean, good phlegm, obviously."

[Glares do little in the way of abating]

"The kind that's out, not still in and making you feel unwell."

I think we then talked about the weather.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Face of the Other

So there I was idly reinforcing my insecurity complex by Googling my own name when my eye is snagged by one of the search results: "Ben Jeapes is on Facebook".

To which Ben Jeapes's immediate reaction was "no he flaming well isn't, for reasons chronicled elsewhere but revolving around having a life." Then I looked a bit closer and I thought, oh, so that's him.

For there are in fact two of us, as I discovered a couple of years ago. There's little danger of our being confused as Junior is, so far as I can gather, a pupil at Gravesend Grammar School. And he seems to be quite good at sport, which is why his name gets onto the school website and hence Google in the first place. I wish him well in life; I only ask that if he goes into writing, please could he use a different name. Unless he becomes wildly successful and attracts millions of devoted fans who will buy anything with that name on the cover, in which case please use the name you have with my blessing.

And now I know what he looks like, and if I had a good memory I could name his friends. This all happened yesterday. Recreating the search conditions today fails to get the Facebook link back. Did Facebook release it into the public domain by accident? I've tried going to Facebook with the intention of searching, but they expect me to sign up even to do that much. So take my word for it, he seems a sound, outstanding fella as befits anyone with such an illustrious name.

On a COMPLETELY different topic - except that it relates to online privacy, which isn't completely tangential to the subject at hand - see this page from the ACLU for proof (if it were needed) that you can have too much information.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Dulce et decorum est

I've never had to fight for my country and would be surprised if I ever do. I still like to think that if the need arose then I would answer my country's call. Then I would be so big, clumsy and easily confused that I would be shot during my first taste of combat and the average competence of the army I was serving would go up slightly. So, some good would come of it.

I always took some solace, growing up during the Cold War, that my country's call would be worth answering. I emphatically don't think "my country, right or wrong"; some wars, like the American War of Independence (okay, not a recent example) I am very glad indeed that we lost. We were incompetent and deserved it. But it's not like the Middle Ages: like doesn't go to war with like anymore just because King A's distant ancestor had a claim on territory currently held by King B. When we go to war nowadays it is – mostly – over way of life, and for all the many faults of the western world, I prefer our way of life to any other.

WW1 served no directly useful purpose at all. It broke the age of empires – but that was an unintended side effect. The empires slugging it out considered themselves unbreakable and were as surprised as everyone else when it all went to pieces. Sometimes I treacherously wonder how bad it would have been if we’d lost. Would we have produced some home-grown hate-filled little corporal who would rise to dictatorship and start another world war? Possibly. It's unknowable. What happened is what happened, so let's start from there. I would say that, with the grip of the aristocracy broken, other unintended side effects could come crawling out of the woodwork that include feminism, civil rights for non-whites and much more representative democracy than before. It took time, but it happened. I would rather live in a world that has these things, and the unfortunate legacy of WW1 to look back on, than a world still trundling along under the smugly patrician tug-yer-forelock outlook of the early twentieth century. The war taught us new and modern ways of killing people but it taught us to be better in new and modern ways as well.

Of course, even in the justest war ever (whichever that was), in the bloody heat of combat no one ever thinks about the issues. It comes down to: that person's trying to kill me, better kill him first. We have the advantage of being able to look back.

So, I honour the memory of those who died and I was glad to take a couple of minutes out at 11am to think of them. I don't honour their memory because what they did was in any way glorious or heroic. (They certainly didn't think so.) I honour them because they laid the foundations of the era in which I was born and grew up; and because of them, even though we still go to war from time to time, since 1918 we have put more effort into preserving peace than in starting a new fight. It doesn't always work, and when it fails it fails spectacularly, but it works more often than not. That may be as good as it gets.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

How can you not buy this book?

I'm honoured (genuinely) to announce that Time's Chariot will be a Junior Library Guild Premier Selection in the US in January. They've sent me a copy of the January JLG Monthly in which the book is listed, from which I see I'm rubbing shoulders inter alia with Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. Told you I was honoured.

Each book gets a breakdown of topics listed. Some of these I will gladly admit were in my mind when I wrote it; some I have to say were just brought in to make sense of particular paragraphs. But anyway, for Time's Chariot we have:
Falling. Murder. Anti-gravity. Time. Time travel. Martial arts. Genetic engineering. Knowledge of the past. Codes of ethics. Making powerful enemies. Scientific expeditions. Respect for others. Official reprimands. Class structures. Apologies. Abuse of an official position. Parties. Beatings. Social conditioning. Technology. Prison. Witchcraft. Guns. Illegal activities. Investigative services. Artificial intelligence. Security services. The elite class. Blackmail. Going home. Escapes. Interrogation. Revenge. Trials. Reunions. Choices.

It reminds me of the old joke that Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms sounds like one heck of a fun party ...

But as I say, how can you not buy this book!?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The things old people say

Lunch today was with my grandmother in the communal dining room at the Home for Aged Retired Empire Matriarchs. During the starter course I was surprised to think I heard a particular phrase drift over from the gaggle of little old ladies on the next table.

"Did that old lady just say something about exposed canine genitalia?" I asked my mother.

"Maybe," she replied. We listened carefully. A few moments later, there it was again. It rhymes with bogs rowlocks.

"Yes, she did," she confirmed.

Forensic analysis of what we could hear suggests the lady was talking about QI and Stephen Fry's explanation of where the term comes from. I think I could have guessed. I mean, if you've ever seen a dog that hasn't been Done then the reason stands out like ... well, something very standing out.

But, even so. The standard of little old lady that you get today is just shocking.

Shortly after we heard a conversation starting "Of course, when my husband was at HQ UKLF ..." and we felt we were back on familiar ground.

When her husband was at HQ UKLF, I wonder if he was positively vetted?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Gruesome twosome

Loath as I am - and it's very, very loath - to defend Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross, my inner liberal forces me to consider all sides of the argument. To wit:
  • the offending broadcast went out on a late night show when 2.5 people were listening. Those 2.5, being presumably regular Brand listeners, knew exactly the kind of thing they were likely to be hearing and so their protests can be taken about as seriously as those who watched the sex on Teen Big Brother frame-by-frame before firing off letters of outrage to Channel 4.
  • the aggrieved granddaughter belongs to a group called Satanic Sluts, which rather ups the stakes in trying to prove despoiled innocence.
  • the show was pre-recorded, so while Ross and Brand were doing exactly what everyone expected of them - going for the lowest common humour denominator rather than use their genuine talent to do something clever and original - somewhere there is a producer or editor whose good judgement failed quite catastrophically.
On the other hand, two overpaid twonks are off the air. Result.

And now the politicians are jumping on the bandwagon. Oh dear. Don't they have better things to do, like restore trust in the banking system that underpins the fabric of our existence? Of course, if the offending twosome are to be truly and utterly screwed it just needs Gordon and/or David to express complete faith in them and promise their full support. That's always the kiss of death to any political career.

I'm also delighted that the granddaughter is called Georgina Baillie as it gives me the chance to play this. Seventies cheesefest or francophobe paean to adolescent incestuous longings? You decide.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The martyrdom of St Benjamin

I've decided I have a martyr complex, and I know exactly where it came from. Ten years of stiff upper lip public school education.

Another legacy of public school is hating to travel away from my loved ones. For some reason Woking station after dark always comes to mind, probably because that was where - only a couple of times, but obviously it marked me - I would return to school at the end of a half term break with my grandmother, while my parents were abroad.

Thus, on those occasions as an adult when I still have to travel away from my loved ones the martyr complex kicks in with a whoop of glee. Really heavy duty misery ahead, whoopee! Like, yesterday I had to travel down to Brighton for various meetings this morning. I decided I would head off from work early (4ish), suffer the periphery of the rush hour on the M25 and be bored and lonely all evening.

Result: I was miserable right from saying goodbye to Best Beloved in the morning and for the rest of the day, until finally it dawned on me (thanks to a sane colleague) that I didn't have to do it quite like that. I could go home, have dinner, leave 7ish with rush hour out of the way, get to Brighton, turn right in, not have time to be lonely and do my stuff this morning as planned. The madness is over! The martyr complex is identified and told to go stuff itself!

And so that is what I did. Plus most of the drive was on empty motorways after dark, which I actually quite enjoy. It makes me fell very Vangelis-y.

Bonusbarn comments that I don't have a martyr complex, I just need to develop common sense in certain areas of my life. I cunningly riposte that it's much the same thing, really. Still, I have gained a little in self-knowledge and that's always the first step in self-rectification.

Monday, October 27, 2008


Your result for Howard Gardner's Eight Types of Intelligence Test...


"This area has to do with introspective and self-reflective capacities. Those who are strongest in this intelligence are typically introverts and prefer to work alone. They are usually highly self-aware and capable of understanding their own emotions, goals and motivations. They often have an affinity for thought-based pursuits such as philosophy. They learn best when allowed to concentrate on the subject by themselves. There is often a high level of perfectionism associated with this intelligence.

Careers which suit those with this intelligence include philosophers, psychologists, theologians, writers and scientists." (Wikipedia)

Take Howard Gardner's Eight Types of Intelligence Test at HelloQuizzy

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Bringing down the House

The group mind of my regular readers may recall mention of my former colleague C the actress, who left to find fame and fortune in the lights of the big city.

Actually she left to do a year at drama school which included a part in an off-West End play (a term I just made up; well, if you can have off-Broadway then you can have off-West End. Can't you?). So she's done the year at drama school and is just ending her run in the play. A group of us went from work to cheer her on.

The play was on at the New Players Theatre, just off Villiers St between Charing Cross and Embankment, bang beneath the Charing Cross main line. At various points there is an interesting thunder effect from above as the trains roll in and out. It's exactly the kind of place Joey does all his shows in Friends.

The play is The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca, a laff-a-minute exposé of pride, Catholicism and sexual tension that (Wikipedia says) "foreshadows the stifling nature of Franco's fascist regime." Bernarda is a proud, aristocratic, newly-qualified widow who declares eight years of mourning after the death of her not remotely mourned husband. She has five unwed daughters, none of whom is marriageable as they are the only young senoritas of their class for about 100 miles around. The oldest, despite this handicap, has still managed to get herself engaged. At first Bernarda is of the opinion that even the marriage should be put off for the eight-year mourning period, but changes her mind when she sees how disruptive the man's presence is on the status quo. Best to get it over with as quickly as possible to get him off the scene. But letting the marriage go ahead just makes things worse, since the other sisters are at least all partially in love with the fiancé and the youngest daughter is having an affair with him. The maximum that can be achieved in infidelity is a snog and a grope through a barred window but that can still be quite enough.

One thing leads to another, Bernarda tries to shoot the fiancé (the audience probably wasn't meant to giggle at the off-stage gunshot, but Lorca wasn't aiming it at an audience of Brits) and the youngest daughter, thinking Bernarda actually hit the guy, hangs herself. A delighted Bernarda announces that you ain't seen nothing yet, now we're really going to get some heavy mourning done. (Actually she talks about "drowning in a sea of mourning" and makes sure everyone knows the daughter died a virgin. Reputation is everything - and, bearing in mind the barred window, it's hard to see how it could have been otherwise.)

No man ever actually appears on stage, but that only adds to it. At one point the sisters are listening to the men marching off to the fields singing a lusty harvesting song, and both they and the audience are almost weak at the knees at the thought of what could be. As so often in literature, the way to make something sexy is not to have any sex at all.

A colleague who has previously seen the play advised me that "if you can get halfway through and not want to throw knives at Bernarda, you're a better man than I am." He's a better man than I am - I made it about halfway through act 1. Apparently the play was finished in 1936 but first shown in 1945, which was a missed opportunity on the part of the Republicans. One showing of this in the West End when it was written would have doubled recruitment for the International Brigade.

Anyway. C has done her time and will doubtless soon be appearing as 3rd Body in Casualty, Worried Mum in The Bill and all the other things actresses do at the dawn of their careers. I already knew for a fact that she made an excellent Perdita and Sacharissa in the Discworld plays and I had no doubt she could do it professionally, but it's good to have the evidence of my own eyes and ears. I suppose I can stop calling her C now. Look for Claire Dixon - which isn't actually her name, but someone of her own name already has an Equity card, so Claire Dixon is what she will be known as.

Incidentally, less than two months after he finished the play, Lorca was shot by the Nationalists. It's an extreme form of criticism but you can see their point. Franco's tastes presumably tended more to the burlesque.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Flows in the attic

  • Contains 3 updates (scroll down)
Nothing chills the heart like the sound of dripping water where none should be ...

I tracked it down, yesterday morning just before I was meant to be leaving for work, to a pool of water on the kitchen windowsill that was dripping onto the floor. I mopped it up and tried vainly to find the source. None showed - nothing dripping from the ceiling (and for reasons I'll come to, I couldn't see how this would be possible anyway) so I assumed it was just a bad case of condensation on the window. A very bad case, but I'm an optimist. Then I went to work.

I came back at the end of the day and found the water had repooled. Now I looked more closely it seemed to be welling up through the window sill. Hmm. I've heard of rising damp, but we're on the third floor. Abingdon is not known for its supercharged artesian wells. The only other answer is that water was coming down between the wall and the wooden frame of the window. Down from ...

... Eyes raise slowly, reluctantly to the ceiling.

The ceiling itself still seemed unmarked and there's nothing above us except a very low, cramped attic space. The hatch is too small and the space is too limited to do anything with it, like store stuff. It's just there, cramped and cold and cobwebby. Even more reluctantly, I climbed up to have a look. It took a moment to work out what was going on.

A brief break for further explanation. There is one more flat above ours but it doesn't extend as far as we do. Their kitchen looks out over the roof above ours. The waste pipe from their sink and their washing machine goes through our roofspace. At one point, for a reason which truly baffles me, it turns a sharp 90 degrees, then another 90 degrees to resume its original direction. Then it goes out of the wall. Just after the first bend, it had broken. It hadn't come apart at the seams, the actual plastic had snapped, clean off. Everything that came out of that pipe now went straight into our roofspace.

And here is where we bless and offer up small sacrifices to the Gods of Victorian Plumbing. There's also an old cold water tank up there, probably from before the house was converted to flats. It's not part of anyone's system now and it's bone dry. Beneath it is a small lead-lined trough set into the floor of the attic. It's about 2m x 2m by 4cm deep, and was presumably to catch any overflow from the tank in days of yore. The broken pipe was pouring straight into this. Thus we hadn't had a deluge through our ceiling the moment the top flat ran their washing machine. We had to wait for it to gather enough water to overflow, probably when they did the washing up. No deluge, just a gentle trickle. Down the walls. Up through our windowsill.

So, we spent most of yesterday evening with me in the ceiling bailing out the trough, into a bucket which I would pass down the hatch to Best Beloved, who would pass it to Bonusbarn who would pour it down the toilet. The question of exactly what would snap a pipe like that was shelved for the duration of the immediate emergency. Once it was down to a manageable level we alerted our top neighbours (who are top neighbours in every sense). Forensic analysis was swift. Their pipe had blocked and they had called in Dynarod, the day before yesterday. We're not quite sure what Dynarod did but it involved a "heavy piece of equipment that went on the floor." Down a plastic pipe? They should surely have known better. Anyway, that's what dunnit.

Dynarod have been summoned back by Top Neighbours; any moment now I will be called upon to let them in, as repair work will have to be done in our attic. I await their comments with interest. Updates will be posted.

UPDATE 1: the plumber has arrived and has tried replacing the broken length of piping. Unfortunately we have established that the block is in one of the still intact lengths, and putting the megablockageblaster down it again will just result in a new rupture. Conclusion: next door also has a pipe running through the same space - this one being straight and with a nice fall. It's the waste pipe from one of their bathrooms (they have several ...) With permission of neighbour (since given), top neighbour's pipe will be tapped into next door neighbour's pipe.

UPDATE 2: pleasantly straightforward. It seems to work. All that needed doing after that was vacuuming out the standing trapped water - of which there was a lot more than I realised. Redoubled prayers of thanks for lead lining. The water was vacuumed out with a device a bit like an aquatic Henry, and of about the same capacity - so several emptyings were needed, after which the toilet looked like the family had had an attack of dysentry. Since restored to its normal gleaming freshness, and now back to work.

As I'd left my lunch at work, Top Neighbour kindly bought us a pizza from Domino's. Told you he was Top in every way.

We'll probably have to get a dehumidifier to dry the attic out again, but nothing structural has got wet.

UPDATE 3: Dynarod are delivering a dehumidifier tomorrow morning.

If you see any more updates it will be because something has leaked. Or possibly the duhumidifier blew a fuse and burnt the house down.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Gregory and his girl

For Saturday night's viewing: Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945). I'm still trying to decide if he cheated.

Spellbound stars an astonishingly young (29 years old) Gregory Peck as an amnesia case who may or may not have committed a murder, and Ingrid Bergman as the hypotenuse a psychoanalytic ice maiden who is thawed by his boyish good looks and determined to establish his innocence.

This contains no spoilers as all of the above becomes clear very early on. Many of Hitchcock's films have an innocent man, wrongly accused, trying to clear his name. This is a slight variation in that we don't actually know the accused man is innocent – but if you have a reasonable grasp of movie conventions, and trust Ingrid Bergman's ability to pick the right guy without hesitation, and cannot possibly conceive of Gregory Peck as a baddie (except in The Boys from Brazil, where he is brilliant as Josef Mengele) then you can take a fair stab in the dark.

The difference is that in films like The 39 Steps and the mighty North by Northwest the innocent man goes to a lot of time and effort to find out what is really happening. Spellbound is unusual in that the final revelation comes through a dream, to which Ingrid Hypotenuse applies her superior psychoanalytic skills to establish the truth.

Apparently Hitchcock was ordered by the studio head to make a film about psychoanalysis, and he duly complied. He wasn't too fond of it himself and described it as "just another manhunt wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis".

But like all good Hitchcock, it's still worth watching. You see little quirks and techniques that you barely notice nowadays, and realise he was the first to think of them. The background music is an orchestra complemented with a theremin; this is one of the films that pioneered electronic instruments to create atmosphere. The piece de resistance is the dream sequence itself, shot on a set designed by Salvador Dali.

So here it is.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Eye sight test at Boots

If you can spot one misplaced apostrophe and one typo then your eyes are fine.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ping pong bats

Vampire Plagues! In Chinese!!

Little Brother

Recently I drove home from Northampton to Abingdon. The most logical course for the final stage of the journey would have been to come down the A34 to the south Abingdon exit, then drive towards the town centre and home. A reasonable variant on this would have been to take the north Abingdon exit off the A34 and come anticlockwise round the ringroad. A most unusual and unpredictable variant – and the one I actually used – was to come off at the north exit, drive clockwise around the ringroad to the town centre, head due north again back towards the north exit and this time come anticlockwise round the other half of the ringroad. Essentially, I did a big sideways figure 8 (or an infinity sign, of course). Why? Well, if you must know I was listening to Pink Floyd’s "The Wall" and I wanted to get to the end. It's designed to be listened to in one piece. I've done similar in the past for the William Tell Overture and other pieces of music.

And, well, why not? I’m a free responsible adult. I can take any route I like.

Now, supposing there was a number plate tracking system in place programmed to detect unusual traffic variations, and alert the cops who would subsequently turn up and ask me to prove I hadn't been doing anything suspicious?

Thoughts brought to mind by reading Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. A book not without its flaws but still one that everyone should read.

About five minutes into the future, a terrorist atrocity in San Francisco kills thousands and the Department of Homeland Security (henceforth the DHS, always making me think of sofas) swings into action with a programme it has obviously had long prepared, just waiting for the right opportunity. A security clampdown begins on absolutely everyone except the right people, i.e. the terrorists. Caught up in this, purely by dint of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, is 17 year old Marcus, a techno-savvy geek without (frankly) many redeeming features. Justifiably angered at the illegal treatment he has received at the DHS's mini-Guantanamo in San Francisco Bay, he decides to fight back.

The point isn't to bring down the government or to encourage terrorism. The point is that the DHS has completely missed the point, mistaking looking busy and ideological enforcement for actual results. There is no evidence that terrorists are even in San Francisco at all after the attack, yet the crackdown continues. Meanwhile, with a bit of technical wizardry that anyone can pick up off the web, a kid without a political thought in his head can pull the wool over the DHS's eyes. How much more likely are the real terrorists to get clean away with it?

The situation is not really a thousand miles from what actually happened after 9/11 and continues to happen today. Posters like this one are serious. (Posters like this one, however, are not - mostly.) Have you tried taking any photographs in public lately?

First, things I didn't like.

Marcus is not a sympathetic character, though others will find him so – even some of my friends. He is a cocky techy geek who is heavily into games. Not my kinda guy. He can be bratty and immature. I assume this is characterisation rather than Doctorow's own personality showing through, as Marcus makes mistakes and gets it wrong. He is in love with his own cleverness and can never see in advance that every victory he scores over the DHS will simply make them up the game a little more, thus cracking down even harder. After all, the DHS is run by humans too and they don't like getting it wrong either. Thankfully, Marcus grows up.

There were times that the great cause Marcus et al were fighting for becomes distinctly cloudy. Sometimes it just seems they want to fight for the right to party and be selfish little brats. If Marcus is immature, the self-important rebellion-for-rebellion's sake yoof movement that grows up around him is downright pathetic. There is a fine line to draw between responsible use of freedom and anarchy just because you can. Freedom of speech is not the freedom to shout "fire" in a crowded theatre, and I really don't care who argues otherwise.

In Denver back in August, I witnessed an exciting confrontation between an American gent who called the Democrats socialists and an American lady who called the Republicans fascists. As the native of a continent with plenty of experience of both, I was thinking "rank amateurs, the lot of them", but Americans get like that when they talk politics (okay, okay, Doctorow is Canadian). Someone in the novel who I’m pretty sure we're meant to take seriously refers to "Gulag America" and that really annoys me. America at its worst under the current administration doesn't begin to scratch the surface of the Gulag. Name calling is just babyish.

"Don’t trust anyone under 25!" becomes a major rallying call. What, and I'm expected to put the major decisions into the hands of children with 24 years or less life experience? Feel free to let the door handle hit you on the way out and leave a nice bruise. For the record, according to Wikipedia Doctorow is 37.

But let's talk about where Little Brother, and Doctorow, and Marcus get it right. The technology – well, I take his word for it on the technology. At least I recognise the words he uses (Xbox, Microsoft, Linux) so I presume it's sound. The minimum lesson to take home from this is that the younger generation will always be ahead of the older in finding new and clever ways to utilise technology. What impresses us is already old hat to the teenagers.

Above all I can't fault the logic of Marcus’s critique of the system. He does the maths for us. Suppose, he says, you have a means of detecting terrorists that is 99% accurate? And you apply this to, say, a city like New York with a population of 20 million, to find a terrorist cell that will have only a handful of members? At 99% accuracy you are still going to accuse 200,000 people wrongly. And the DHS does not have a system anything like 99% accurate. No one does.

Thankfully, what carries the book past posturing and preaching to the converted is that the ending, mostly happy, is brought about by the actions of Marcus but ultimately is attributable to forces he has no control over. The rule of law is brought back to San Francisco's streets but this time it is open, attributable, accountable law by grown-ups (yes, even those over 25) who know what they're doing. And not even Marcus is exempt. As it should be.

I quite enjoy not being blown up by Al Quaeda and I'm very glad there are people out there whose job it is to see that I’m not. I accept that they may from time to time find it convenient to read my email without letting me know, or track my car's movements by CCTV that read my licence plate. Let 'em.

Little Brother says that the old security maxim "those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear" is a lie. Actually, it’s technically true. However, everyone has a lot to fear if all that power, all that surveillance data is put into the hands of morons and empire builders. Ian Huntley and the 21/7 bombers were found out by surveillance and studying old records. I'm not against the concept. But what is needed isn't more surveillance of absolutely everything, it's intelligent surveillance of what we have available.

Here are the basic ground rules for using our astonishing technological abilities to keep ourselves safe and safeguard our liberties. First and foremost, there has to be the simple recognition that dissent and disagreement <> terrorism or treason. Unfortunately, a lot of politicians are unable to make this connection and they're the ones meant to be in charge. In another context, I believe statistics show that teenagers from families which openly discuss sex matters are much more likely to go on to have responsible sex lives. Same thing. Just talking about something should never be a crime and school is where it should start.

Politicians and law enforcement officials must realise that the best way to radicalise people against you is to piss them off. You counter insurgency by winning hearts and minds. There has never been a revolution in a happy country. I'm referring here to the hearts and minds of the people, not the headline writers of the Daily Mail or the US equivalent. They may safely be excluded from any decision making process.

I require anyone with this kind of power over me to know and understand considerably more than I do. If someone can't understand why I would add twenty minutes to my journey just to catch the end of a Pink Floyd album then that person should not be put in charge of surveilling me.

From those to whom much is given, much is expected. The people entrusted with power that could ruin lives must get it absolutely right, or else. One of Marcus's friends is detained for no reason other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and kept there simply because it reaches the point where his release would be embarrassing. Now look me in the eye and tell me that isn't the reason a lot of people are still held at Guantanamo. Or, indeed, just cast an eye over reports on the Menezes inquest. The public interest is not the same as saving the blushes of a red-faced politico. If you get it wrong, you are out.

But, they might cry, how can we possibly recruit people into the security services with that hanging over their heads? Well, it's not that different to recruiting people into the armed forces on the understanding that someone might shoot them dead. It happens. Maximise your efforts to make sure that it doesn't happen; but once it has, live with it. They expect us to put up with all kinds of crap for the privilege of not being bombed by terrorists. They might even expect us to lay down our lives ourselves, or at least not raise a fuss if they happen to gun down the wrong person. Expecting them in return to put their career on the line doesn't seem such a hard thing to ask. It's not as if they're left in the library with a revolver and a glass of brandy any more.

I'll close as I started, with a driving-related anecdote. I once gave Cory Doctorow a lift from the centre of Oxford down Botley Road to the train station. En route, a traffic camera snapped me and I got my first ever speeding ticket ...

(For reference, see Farah Mendlesohn’s review.)