Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The return of Sparks

Sparks, a.k.a. the ever so slightly weird Ron & Russell Mael, made it big in 1974 with This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us. Thereafter they released a range of singles and albums in an ever-decreasing rate of excellence until disappearing into a mire of electropop in which The Number 1 Song in Heaven was but a deceptive patch of dry land which doesn't really bear weight or close inspection.

Until now. Yesterday evening I heard Stuart Maconie playing what I thought must have been a lost gem from the 70s. It wasn't. "Good Morning" is their new single.

Welcome back, boys.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Radio days

The very first car I owned was a Renault 4, which is like a 2CV with the coat hanger left in. It had many major positive qualities and one big deficiency, in lacking a radio.

And so I bought one - a cheapo Saisho radio/cassette recorder from, if memory serves, Dixons in Basingstoke.

A few years later the Renault died of rust and was upgraded to a more forward thinking car that included a radio (and tape player) already. And so the radio was brought indoors and perched on the cabinet between the bath and the lavatory, and there it stayed for the next 14 years. Often the first voice I heard each day (excluding the clock radio alarm), filling me in on the day's events, pouring John Humphries's dulcet tones into my ear as I shaved and brushed my teeth.

Many things have I heard on that radio. It was a faithful and loyal servant ...

Until last week when I, um, mumbles, knocked it into the toilet and it stopped working. This was such a ludicrous thing to do, almost impossible to repeat, that I can only assume it wanted to go. It was getting on for 17 years old. I don't know what that is in radio years but I'm sure it's a lot.

And so this morning I took it to the dump. I like to think that when it comes to household appliances, I am a hard but fair master.

In honour of its passing, I have dug up this little gem from YouTube.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Underground criminal activity

What exactly is it with the Austrian obsession for keeping women in cellars?

Recently ...

... and two years ago.

(Memo to self: this could very easily become distasteful. Must self-restrain.)

Is it some kind of status symbol with neighbours vying to compete? Like garden gnomes, only more extreme? Could it become a national sport? Granted that on the Loopy Austrian scale from 0-Hitler, this guy is at the relatively harmless end of the spectrum, but even so.

Wife Rosemarie seems adept at the other Germanic national sport of Knowing Nothing, Not Even Suspecting.

"Ach! Rosemarie! Zat daughter of ours has left another grandchild on the steps for us to foster!"
"Tcha! That girl! She never writes. Could you pass the salt cellar?"
"Cellar? Cellar!? I haf told you never to mention ze cellar!"

My feet are straddling the border of fine taste. I will stop now.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

A locomotive going backwards down the M4

Not a crossword clue - just something I actually saw. A locomotive, going backwards (on a low-loader), down the M4, this afternoon.

It had the number 5552 on the side. A little searching suggests it to be locomotive GWR Prairie 5552, now belonging to Bodmin & Wenford Railway. I honestly never, ever, ever thought I would be trainspotting in cyberspace. Ever.


As for the photo ... harrumph, hem hem, yes, let's assume it was taken by a passenger who wasn't driving, shall we?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Give them to the birds and bees

Bonusbarn is at home today due to his teachers being on strike. It’s hard not to be sympathetic. The government may have sound reasons and even good ones for its pay policy but I know exactly how long I’d be inclined to work for someone who gave me less than the inflation rate.

Instinct says the money has to be out there somewhere. Income tax, council tax, fuel tax – the present shower are hoovering up the dosh like none before, more and more each year, so where exactly is it going? Cost of everything seems to be going up and I’m really not spotting the benefits. (Actually I tell a lie. My car insurance has gone down, I learnt yesterday. Fourteen mostly accident free years with the same company pays dividends.)

Sweden’s taxes are high but there you do see the benefits. My 82-year-old, one-legged father-in-law can still live on his own on a farm with dignity and independence, in a way that would be impossible over here; and even in the middle of nowhere the roads are built like runways. (In fact the roads very often are runways – if you come across a straight 800m stretch of highway with surprisingly large parking spaces, just big enough for a Saab Grippen, there’s a reason. I assume they at least put up a notice, or something like that, to warn traffic; maybe someone standing with one of those stop/go lollipop signs.)

Where exactly do governments get the notion that they can reasonably pay people not enough, and expect them to be grateful for being on the front line of the government’s far-sighted policies?

During the war, of course, we famously all tightened the belts and loved it. Apparently. My parents are just about over it, but every now and then as I grew up they would say or do something truly jaw-dropping that made me remember they were children of rationing. To them it was normal. My own memories of public spending, or the lack of it, probably start with Thatcher, who wouldn’t spend anything on anything, hallucinating that The Market would sort it all out to everyone’s benefit. Are today’s leaders the heirs of Thatcher? Was she herself just an extension of the Blitz Spirit? Or was even that something that we Brits have been doing since time immemorial?

If Henry V had stinted on yew wood, we could all be speaking French ...

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I watched TV with my eyes shut

I know that kinda misses the point, but they don't do Dragons' Den on the radio. I could listen but I couldn't bear to watch.

Normally I don't even tune in to Dragons' Den or any form of reality TV. It's just not my thing. There's the occasional success story, yes, but most of it is deliberately designed to "entertain", i.e. to humiliate the participants. Either the producers set these up to be appalling from the beginning - cf. Big Brother - or they just point the cameras at a clueless no-hoper and sit back, letting them self-destruct for all to see. Not much fun either way.

But occasionally my buttons are pressed, and an easy way to do that is to be clueless about publishing. I know how fiercely the publishing flame burns within an author's breast; but I also know how easy it is to be clued up about the business before dipping your toe in the water. In the absence of certifiable mental illness or other similar unavoidable circumstances, those who have one without managing the other are fair game.

Last night's Dragons' Den on BBC3 was a repeat of a programme first shown last year in which one Denise Channing, a.k.a. self-published author Jaq D. Hawkins tries to get investment in her film company that is producing a movie of her self-published fantasy novel Dance of the Goblins. (Actually not technically self-published; it's the second book of a total of two in the publisher's catalogue. The first is the publisher's own book.)

The total budget for the movie is £1.5m, of which £1m is the associate director fee for her big name - whom Denise can't actually name, or she's in trouble. He was apparently in both Pirates of the Caribbean and Phantom of the Opera, so a little elementary searching narrows him down to Kevin McNally. Whether Mr McNally knows he's associated with the movie and can command million-pound fees is unknown at this time. His IMDB entry says he has mostly acted with a little singing and some writing. No producing, associate or otherwise.

Denise's director of photography has been in the business for 18 years. What's he done? "I can't tell you what features he's done - he hasn't told me that." It was obviously an in-depth interview that signed him up, then. Or she hasn't mastered the IMDB herself.

A little mathematical wizardry shows that if you subtract Mr McNally's putative fee, the total budget for the movie is "considered in film terms, very low" ... half a million. Well, yes, it can be made cheaply, says Denise. And how.

Has Denise any experience of moving making at all? No.

How has the book sold? 2000 copies since 2005. By Big Engine standards it's a bestseller, but then, I never went on Dragons' Den.

Here's the Dragons' Den page, including a link to the actual presentation and grilling. Watch it if only for the reaction of Theo Paphitis:
"You need to go home. You need to go home, go to your bedroom, turn out the lights, get under the quilt and get some sleep. When you wake up in the morning if you really think this is a really good idea, may I suggest you turn the lights back off again and go back to sleep ..."
And then Peter Jones tops even that.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Beardy Ben

This was the week I accidentally grew a beard. I could have stopped at any point. I skipped shaving on Saturday morning, as we got up at 2.30 to drive to Stansted, so by bedtime on Saturday I hadn't shaved for a good 40 hours.

"Are you growing a beard?" asked Best Beloved as we turned in. "Ooh, please do ..."

So ...

It's something I've always resisted before as I hate being unshaven for too long. It gets itchy. But in the interests of science and wifely curiosity, I went along with it.

Some observations for the record, taking the first Saturday as day 1:
  • day 3: becomes visible in photographs.
  • day 4: can feel it at the corners of my mouth when I shut my lips.
  • day 5: becomes visible in my lower peripheral vision, as if a crumb was clinging to my upper lip. Annoying.
  • day 6: realise I have acquired the habit of running my fingers through it.
  • day 9: shave it off.
Some more general observations: not as dark as I thought it would be - more just the colour of my hair, though streaked with silver here and there. This either means I'm darker than I thought or the beard is lighter. Not as densely packed as I thought it might be; skin still clearly visible on day 9. Feels softer than I thought it would.

I may now play with Photoshop to see what I would look like with just a moustache ...

I fed no moose

[Previous Sweden posts here (2007) and here (2006)]

Didn't even see one, in fact. That's what comes of my lovely wife hailing from the south end of Sweden. However, it is an area replete with history, much of it to do with carving out the Swedish kingdom. Three pitched battles were fought within a few miles and years of each other to rid the country of the Danes, after which Sweden could get on with becoming. As my own parents live not too far from the stomping grounds of Alfred the Great, who did his own bit to rid us of the Danish yoke, I feel that as a family we have the Danes pretty well hemmed in.

At one of these places we found this stone lying on the ground (my lovely wife providing some human scale perspective):

But not just any stone! No, no. This is the Drängasten, weighing 368lbs/167kg. If you applied for a job on the farm, you had to lift it three times. If you wanted to marry the farmer's daughter, you lifted it seven times. I did marry a farmer's daughter but luckily I did it in England where brains are valued more than brawn in prospective spouses.

That interesting looking structure behind Best Beloved is in fact a belfry. The Swedish Christians got the idea of churches long before they got the idea of belfries to go with them, so they had to be added later. Here is church and tower together.

The white walls + black roofs and windows theme is a very common one among the churches, making them striking both from a distance and close up. The graveyards, as commented, are always immaculate, many not only with raked gravel paths but with rakes provided for visitors. I somehow don't see this catching on over here and it's our loss.

So, much driving around looking at immaculately kept churches and graveyards, and fields where battles were fought that decided the fate of nations. The post-glacial landscape is scattered with massive boulders, smooth and round, that break the surface like whales coming up to breathe. Often these natural outcroppings will have been utilised by the builders of forts and now the sites are also scattered with carved stones in such a way that you can't tell where geology ends and archaeology begins. Very Tolkienesque. In a similar vein, we came across these water falls where once there stood a mill, now just ruins. The entire far bank is in fact a wall, carved blocks of stone mouldering with moss and age. It really was like something out of Middle Earth.

Complete with trolls.

Yes, fairness makes me report we were accompanied all the while by a bored teenager who DESPITE being reminded as almost the very last thing to bring his iPod charger, didn't. No internet and no iPod for a week. Oh my, how cruel we are. Still, the alternative to coming with us was staying with his 80 year old non-English speaking grandfather, so really we were stuck with him and him with us.

This year's hire car was an Opel Astra - a nicely restrained and much preferable choice to last year's tank - and to alleviate the boredom I gave him driving lessons. Round and round his grandfather's yard, never higher than second - or if he felt really adventurous, down to the end of the drive, after which either I had to drive further to turn the car round or he had to reverse back. After the first couple of days he stopped leaving little craters behind as the wheels skidded at take off, and he was hardly ever stalling. It's a start. When he starts proper lessons he'll have to learn to change gear with his left hand rather than his right, but the pedals will still work the same way. Hopefully he'll also remember the other key lessons acquired this week: wear glasses, and when reversing, it's helpful to look behind you.

You may notice that I haven't referred to this bored teenager as the Boy. The Boy is no more. I learnt a new word: bonusbarn, meaning stepchild; literally, because a stepchild is one you get for free when you marry. So Bonusbarn he will be from now on.

Two out of three of us had a lovely, quiet, peaceful week: absence of internet is a blessing if correctly viewed, rather than the curse the third of us seemed to take it as. And even he enjoyed it more than he will admit. The weather was bright and sunny, with a cold dry wind: infinitely better than the grey cloud and drizzle I see outside now.

And I grew a beard, but this really requires a post of its own.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Travel advisory

There once was an editor needin’
To take a week-long break in Sweden.
When back he will drone a-
bout saunas and kroner,
Ticks, lakes, Saabs and moose he was feedin’.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Jim Davidson in Appropriate Joke shock

My chiropractor is quite a chunky guy. So am I. This makes him perfect for jumping up and down on me every six weeks or so and making bones and ligaments creak and crack. Whenever he's about to twist my head round to make my neck click, I give my toes a wiggle just in case it’s the last time I ever can.

But my chiropractor is currently Off – not unironically, with a sore back – so today I got his stand-in who is half the height and weight. And so we got to use – da duh DAA! – the Table.

Actually we use the Table every time I go, but normally I just lie on it. I hadn’t realised what a cunning piece of engineering work it is. It’s broken into segments, each of which can be made to pop up a couple of inches by pressing a pedal. Thus it can elevate your feet, knees, waist, trunk, head or any combination of any of the above. Puny Chiropractor might not be big enough to make me go pop but he’s strong enough to push the segments down again. The energy of the added momentum goes into my body, sandwiched between descending chiropractor and ascending table, and works the necessary magic. An added benefit is that the noise and vibration are so loud that I don’t hear the noise of what’s going on inside me. I quite like it.

But next time it will probably be back to Regular Chunky Chiropractor, and audible crackling. Of all my various medical practitioners - GP, dentist, chiro - he's the only one I'm on first name terms with. He recently went through quite a bitter divorce and to my surprise I could actually cheer him up with a Jim Davidson joke about marriage: next time I’ll just find a woman I don’t like, and give her a house and half a million. He takes away my pain, I take away his. Seems a fair exchange.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The circle is now complete. Twice.

When I pull names off the database for mailing, it's very easy to include colleagues at my work address. Sometimes I forget to weed them out of the results. And so, our latest mailing included one item sent to a colleague in the same building as me. Except that he no longer works here.

And so the envelope disappeared into the mailstrom that is the Royal Mail ... round and round it went ... until finally it bobbed up back here. The receptionist saw that it was addressed to someone who no longer works here, failed to spot the strangely reminiscent sender's address, slapped a "gone away - return to sender" sticker on it and put it back into the post.

Round and round in the Royal Mail it went ...

Until it got back here. Again. This time the receptionist saw that it had a "gone away" sticker on it so gave it to me, in charge of the database, to deal with.

This is why we need the post office.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Urge overkill

One of my lasting regrets is that I missed the time our vicar talked to the teen group on Relationships, Squishy Stuff and All That. Apparently it contained very little the young people didn't already know about themselves and way too much they didn't already know about the vicar. As in, his addiction to certain teenage Urges, the time he first saw his wife naked ... WAY too much.

But, excruciating as I'm sure it was, it probably takes a back seat to Knowledge for the Growing Boy by Sid G. Hedges, first published in 1941 and kindly made available by Ship of Fools for download in 2008.

There's a little background information also available.

You have to remember that, stilted though it is, it's still probably more than boys were officially being told until then. The Revd Chad Varah founded the Samaritans after a girl in his care killed herself ... because she was having her first period and didn't know what was happening. You can't fault the motivation to be helpful, and its advice on generally healthy living, treating the opposite sex as friends rather than sex objects etc. is valid in any time period.

His uses for discarded cotton reels, on the other hand (page 18) might raise eyebrows.

Yes, we have moved on from this time, but that time itself had moved on from what was before it. Boys were considered ready for some, but not all information ...
The "semen" is discharged from the "penis" into the passage in the female body behind that through which the urine is discharged.
A particular bone of contention with Sid is that way too many boys apparently waste this "important fluid" deliberately. (Though in the absence of any females lying conveniently close to them it's hard to see why they would want to. [Yes, his all-important tip for making love is that the couple are lying close enough together for it to happen.]) Up with such Sid will not put, though he does concede that the habit, once acquired, may be difficult to give up. It's still doable, and without the slighest sense of irony he extols us in a little couplet:
"For the things that are easy have little regard,
But always be glad for the things that are hard."

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Televisual double strike

Excuse me.

[ ]

That was my eloquent silence on the subject of tonight's Dr Who. To expand: oh, my. I know Russell T. Davies is the golden boy of the BBC but is there no-one there who thinks to check/is capable of checking his scripts? Oy! Ten seconds of foreshadowing intrigue towards the end, but as for the rest of it ... Cute. Smug. Unscary. Everything that killed it originally.

Anyway. And then The West Wing. Channel 4 showed the first four series of this on terrestrial TV. Then, come the nail-biting finale to the fourth series, they stopped.

For the last couple of years More4 has been re-running the shows they originally broadcast. This has been fun but I was intrigued to see if they would carry on past the point where Channel 4 left out, which was tonight ...

The good news is, they are going to. The bad news is, they're moving to a new timeslot of 11.45. What is it about quality shows like this that makes Channel 4 treat them with such contempt? Is it jealousy that they'll never make one as good? Is it because it's not The Sopranos? If President Bartlet swore a lot, whacked some guys occasionally and cheated on his wife, then would they show it at a decent time?

Screw this, I'm getting the DVDs.

And as for Dr Who ... Okay, later in the season we get the returns of the Sontarans and what looked in the trailers suspiciously like the Sisterhood of Karn, so all may not be lost.

Signèd Chariot

And so to Mostly Books this morning to sign copies of Time's Chariot. And a very nice display it is too. I was very flattered that they've compiled the little information notice about me and the book. Sources are mostly reviews from the book's web site ... and the last paragraph is my Wikipedia entry, composed by the Boy, if I recall correctly (and formatted properly by Semicolon).

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Dis claimer, dat just small print

I sent a request for an estimate to some printers that I haven't used before. It came back promptly and I sent them the job. Only then did I look more closely at the standard small print disclaimer that far too many emails have nowadays:
This e-mail is intended for the named recipient only. If it has come to you in error then something catastrophic has happened. Quick, delete the file and any attachments and lock the doors. In fact, deny everything.

Obviously we don't accept responsibility for the contents of the e-mail, and any opinions written by the author are his alone.

We have tried very hard to make sure this e-mail reaches you in tip-top condition, free of viruses, Trojan horses, Phoenician sheep, Etrurian geese, Assyrian voles and other nasty things too.

No paper was used in the creation of this e-mail, but several billion electrons were diverted from their original destination. Sorry.
If you really need to print this e-mail - please do so, but another species of dolphin will probably become extinct as a result.
I think I'll be sending them more work in the future.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Not yet officially out, but ...

It exists!

[Picture taken by the Boy, who is much taller than the angle would suggest but insisted on lying down to take it. He is a martyr to his art.]