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.