Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Christmas of Multiple Malfunction

All within the space of a few days ...

1. The shaving mirror light. Not the end of the world - the main bathroom light casts enough light to shave by, even if I do have to probe the razor into the deeper crevasses of my rugged features guided by little more than guesswork.

2. The boiler pump. Considerably more tedious: a trickle of warm water into the hot water tank and nothing at all into the radiators. But we have enough electrical heating devices to keep us warm, even if it does mean we can't move about in a comfortable ambient temperature; rather, nice warm room through sub-arctic hallway into nice warm room again. And it inspired us to work out how to bleed the flat's ancient and idiosyncratic system of wainscot radiators.

3. The renewed living room leak. Very, very, very, very, very tedious indeed, not least in its sense of timing - first detected by Bonusbarn shortly after midnight on Christmas Day, meaning he never got to see the end of that classic slice of festive cheer, Scarface. Just like in the glory days of a couple of months ago when the builders were battering and clattering in the flat above, thread-like streams of water were trickling down the outer wall of the living room. From previous experience, this means they will also be trickling down the wall of the kitchen in the flat above, but invisibly, behind the plasterboard and newly fitted cupboards. Most baffling of all was that it had rained heavily the previous day (and many times over the last month, of course) and nary a drop; now, out of a cloudless crystal sky, it came. A bit like those horror movies where the walls inexplicably start weeping blood, only in this case it was water. After baffled wails of "why now?" and putting out the buckets and towels, I emailed the flat's owner in the childish hope that he would read it early on Christmas Day and have the rest of the day spoiled, which is exactly what happened, so there. Rather satisfying was his response: he's also baffled, and annoyed because he has recently paid off two roofers, arf. My current theory is that the freezing weather had undone something that they did. It leaked again overnight between Christmas and Boxing Day, and is now in full trickle as a result of 24 hours of sleet and rain.

The Daily Bread Bible notes for Christmas Day concentrated, perhaps a little predictably, on the birth of Jesus as recorded in Luke 2. I liked the point they made that Mary, having been so obedient in everything according to the divine plan, might reasonably have asked why she now had to travel 100 miles on donkeyback and give birth in a manger - but, she trusted. Things like this help you trust if you're open to learning. I hope we're learning. I think we are.

But apart from that, a lovely Christmas, thank you. The main meal on the 25th was mostly vegetarian, simply because of the large proportions of vegetable: roast potatoes, sweet potatoes and parsnips, plus a very large helping of stuffing provided by Ex Mother in Law in Law, and Delia Smith's red cabbage and apple recipe, which Delia says feeds four but neglects to add "for a week". And of course the Christmas pud, set alight with the help of Tesco's Three Barrels VSOP brandy, which is one price tab up from Tesco Value Brandy and does at least come in a proper brandy-shaped bottle. Then to my parents and now back here again, finally settling into one place so we can do things like call electricians and gas engineers.

Before setting off to my parents we put aside the new DVDs received for Christmas, so that even if we returned to an uninhabitable living room we would still have something to watch as we moved into hotel accommodation / in with friends /whatever. And that, I think, is what we will go and do now.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009


Very little of what follows is a spoiler because you'll work most of it out for yourself in the first five minutes, leaving you with 2h35m of brain candy to absorb.

Avatar doesn't have a fresh idea in its pretty little head but its head is very pretty. If you've seen Tarzan (fantastic tree-hugging jungle escapades), Dances With Wolves (out-of-town boy goes native), Aliens (bone-headed military with technofetish hardware) and the work of Roger Dean then you've pretty well got it - but it joins these well-established dots very nicely, with not a single bad performance and nary an unconvincing special effect. Sigourney Weaver - well, naturally, excellent. The aforesaid hardware will appeal to anyone who grew up on Gerry Anderson. Even the bad guys are a little better rounded than in Aliens - the chief civilian would really rather not massacre innocents if he can possibly help it, and the chief jarhead has a job to do which, okay, he relishes a little too much.

The story really is engagingly naive and would have us forget every example from history of what happens when more and less technologically advanced peoples collide. Even in Dances with Wolves, Dunbar knows he's only checked the advance temporarily: he and his friends must head west. Anyone who thinks, at the end of this one, that the humans won't be back in far greater force is a fool. "Nuke the entire site from orbit; it's the only way to be sure," Sigourney once sagely uttered in an earlier Cameron movie. Nukes wouldn't be needed in this case, just masses and masses of weed killer.

Then there's the whole questionable morality of turning so totally upon your own people. I can understand disagreeing with them to the extent that you go and live somewhere else but a massacre of these proportions just isn't on. We've been told that one check on the power of the colonists is public opinion back home, but when word of this gets back to Earth, surely politicians will be elected on the sole mandate of shipping the weed killer to Pandora. And, fatally, it actually gives a bit of sympathy to the chief jarhead. "How does it feel to betray your own people?" are his not unreasonable dying words.

So, zero advance in science fictional story telling but astonishing advances in the visual medium of telling stories. Even without the 3D, the alien world would inspire awe and the 3D itself isn't intrusive. I could comfortably wear the 3D specs over my own glasses and everything on screen looks completely natural. There is no gratuitous waving-things-at-camera to remind the audience they're watching in 3D and you half - but only half - forget it's there.

Whether a story needs that kind of visual telling is another matter. This one doesn't. I would love to see Cameron's Ghosts of the Abyss, which is a factual 3D documentary filmed around the wreck of the Titanic. That would be worth the extra effort. As it is, the 3D is a tool but that's all. Technologically, anything that makes the user jump through one more hoop to achieve an effect is doomed to failure, even if that hoop is as simple as putting on a pair of special glasses. (The behind-the-scenes people may of course be jumping through no end of hoops - that doesn't matter.) 3D will have arrived when viewers can comfortably snuggle down in front of the TV equivalent and watch it with exactly as little effort as they can switch the TV on now.

The CGI effects blend seamlessly with the real actors, so you can see 12-foot blue skinned humanoids and human beings travelling in a futuristic helicopter without once spotting the joins. And yet, when I think back on it everything including the humans appears in my mind's eye as a Playstation-quality generated image. Strange.

And finally, a prayer. The marines are so obviously of the same ilk as the ones in Aliens that I could well believe this to be the same universe ... and therefore, please God let no idiot studio exec decide that what the world really wants is Aliens and/or/versus Predator and/or/versus Avatars.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Deleting comments without an icon - a public service announcement

Friday's whimsical little post about "While shepherds watched" got spammed in the comments by some fool plugging a URL for publicising my blog.

Normally I just delete such comments without a thought. (Why do they do it? Why?) It's easy because if I'm logged in as myself then, when I view the comments, a little dustbin icon appears next to each one. This enables me to consign it to the Void, rightly forgotten and unmade. For some reason that wasn't happening on this occasion: the icon was determinedly absent. Maybe the spammer had been busy and so the icon was running from blog to blog in an effort to catch up. So I left a plaintive message on the blogger.com help forum, and the very next morning, there the solution was.

Needless to say, the very next morning the dustbin icon had finally arrived anyway, but I tried the forum method out of curiosity and it worked. So, for the benefit of search engines and frustrated users, to delete comments without the dustbin icon use the method shown at http://www.blogdoctor.me/2008/09/delete-comments-without-trash-can-icon.html.

You're welcome.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Holy nativi-tivi, nativi-tie

Just in case any Scrooge-like feelings come creeping in this Christmas, I know I'll be cheered up by my recent discovery that "While shepherds watched their flocks by night" (most irredeemably boring of all 19th century Yuletide dirges) can be sung to the tune of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" from Mary Poppins.

I doubt I will hear it sung this way, but just knowing it exists will bring me no end of festive cheer. The only thing that could make it even better would be if it could be sung by a chorus of dancing penguins.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Even a broken clock gets it right twice a day

I remember once reading a short story featuring a boys' school set on a spaceship. The ship was travelling from (probably) Earth to (probably) some colony world. Scientific accuracy was not rigorously enforced: witness the fact that the ship had no artificial gravity (so far, so good) and so everyone on board wore, um, weighted boots. In fact, I think one jolly schoolboy prank involved surreptitiously unlacing one boy's boot so that when he tries to come up to the front of the class his foot and leg float upwards, to general hilarity.

I must have been about 7 or 8 and I'm pretty sure it was included in a collection of similar gosh-wow boys' adventure tales. I'm guessing it wasn't a forgotten gem by some big name author.

But chiefly I remember a wonder material called, I think, viviform. As I recall this was a putty-like substance that could be moulded by hand and would then set diamond-hard. Useful for almost anything, really. I'm sure it played a key part in the plot, though I can't remember what or why. I didn't know it at the time but my generation was probably the first that really reaped the benefits of things like blu-tack and silly putty, and so viviform made sense. Much more than the school on the ship – which was essentially a terrestrial classroom; no prophetic visions of learning technology or anything like that – or the weighted boots, I know this made me think "yeah, why not?" Which is a very important think for a science fiction writer to have.

Why do I mention this now? Because someone seems to have invented viviform, that's why.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Ben the instrument of change

Following the last report about libel reform, I sent the webmaster at www.libelreform.org an email explaining exactly why I wasn't signing. And they've changed it. I can now sign (and have signed) the petition without also spamming Evan Harris.

Excuse me for feeling smug, but apart from once signing up to a demo at university that I never actually went on, this is about as activist as I've ever got, so I may milk it.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

This is not how to campaign for sense in science

I've blogged previously about Simon Singh being sued by the British Chiropractic Association for libel, in a case that debases both science and the libel laws of our glorious land. So far, so good.

An update email from the campaign today asks me to sign a fresh online petition. "Sense About Science has joined forces with Index on Censorship and English PEN and their goal is to reach 100,000 or more signatories in order to help politicians appreciate the level of public support for libel reform." Brill! Point me at it!

It's at
www.libelreform.org. Fired with enthusiasm I go there and hit the "Sign the petition" button. I fill in my details and hit the "Sign now" button to record my total opposition to the ludicrous law that lets dogma triumph over facts.

... And rather than feel a smug glow of righteousness, I get presented with a pre-filled in letter to my MP (his identity presumably gleaned from my post code). There is a note at the top saying "[Please put your address here - MPs often do not respond otherwise]", and a button at the end saying "Send the message". Nothing about the petition that I thought I was signing.

Hang on, hang on. This is not what I signed up for. (a) I don't believe MPs pay any attention to a form letter, even if it has been individualised with the addresses of their constituents. And (b) how do they know I haven't already written to Dr Harris? Maybe I don't want to spam the poor man with duplicate messages. But actually signing the petition (if I haven't already: there is nothing to say either way) seems to lie beyond that "Send the message" button.

So, no, I won't, sorry. This is completely the wrong way to do it. This is a petition about transparency, for Pete's sake. So be transparent! Have a button marked "sign the petition", and have it sign the effing petition. Don't lower yourself to the level of the opposition. Stop trying to be clever. Don't try to orchestrate our campaigning for us.

The email also asked us to "
please spread the word by blogging, twittering, Facebooking and emailing". Glad to oblige.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Shuffle! The Musical

Driving to Oxford and back I had to decide what to set the iPod to. Of late I've worked through all my REM songs, my collection of carols, all the classical stuff, all the synth pop ... I know, I'll set it to shuffle through the musical tracks.

And then I'll pass the time by working out a plot to encompass them all.

Track 1: "At the end of the day" (Les Mis). Easy. There's a lot of poor, discontented people and one woman in particular is forced to prostitution for losing her job.

Track 2: "Everything's alright" (Jesus Christ, Superstar). Sounds like she landed on her feet, falling in with a nice guy who stands up for her even when one of his friends complains about her expensive tastes in perfume. Mind you, he also comes out with the slightly bummer comment that the poor will always be with us, which coming after track 1 is perhaps a little smug.

Track 3: "Invitation to the Jellical Ball" (Cats). Our girl's luck is still in: she gets an invite to the coolest party on the block.

Track 4: "I feel pretty" (West Side Story). Her star is truly in the ascendant. She's met an even nicer guy - or maybe she's just fallen properly in love with the nice guy from track 2 - not sure (the libretto could do with a bit of work here). Her friends are sceptical. To be quite honest, though the tunes are fun this is turning out quite a dull, feel-good sort of thing that Doris Day might have starred in.

Track 5: "One day more" (Les Mis). Aha! Revolution is brewing. That's more like it. I knew there had to be something more.

Can't wait for Act 2.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Random Park Lane-centric musings

The Swinford toll bridge at Eynsham sold at auction yesterday for £1.08m. I have forked out many a 5p to cross this - it's often been a handy short cut to get between north Abingdon and Witney without having to come round the ringroad to the southern A34 junction - but I had no idea I was contributing to an annual income of c. £195,000, nor that the bridge has its very own Act of Parliament (1767) exempting it from all kinds of tax. Cor. Nice little earner - though as the report does point out, maintenance of the bridge also has to come out of that £195k.

I'm going to go out on a limb and bet that the salaries of the spotted youths who sit shivering in the tollbooth day in, day out make a very small dent in the £195k indeed.

Apparently the auction was done in Park Lane. I was in Park Lane yesterday, as Marble Arch is one of the drop-off points for the Oxford Espress. I could have popped in and made a bid. I was however in the area for the much more important Random House Children's Authors Christmas Party, off Berkeley Square. Had a nice chat with John Dickinson and this year finally did get to tell him that his father gave me nightmares when I was 10. He seemed delighted to hear it and told me about the nightmare his dad had, of being burned as a witch, that inspired The Changes in the first place. I also met a couple of fellow ghostwriters: one for someone I have always suspected of being ghostwritten but had no proof, and one for someone I had no idea was, um, writing at all. Officially. We all shared a slightly baffled but gratefully smug bemusement that ghostwriting is actually legal. I mean, it's lying! To children! (Which is not always a bad thing.)

A childhood spent playing Monopoly means I can never quite feel happy in Park Lane. I have a lingering fear I will make the wrong landing and go bankrupt. My cousin's childhood Monopoly strategy was to eschew all properties except Park Lane and Mayfair. Sometimes it paid off richly but it was a high risk strategy with a lot of attrition on the way. I doubt he kept this up for long.

I must have passed it often before without blinking, but for the first time I noticed that Park Lane has a quite large war memorial - certainly larger than a lot of the ones you see for humans - for animals who died in conflict. The statues show pack animals like donkeys carrying machine guns: the engraving on the wall states "they had no choice".

Well, true, they didn't. I would however say they had more of a choice than the people who made them carry the machine guns. A donkey that refused would probably get sworn at. A man that refused would get shot by his own side. That is what I would call having no choice.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Our one source of energy, the ultimate discovery

Came home yesterday to a message on the answerphone. The five second silence that tells me it's an automated call, followed by a sweet old lady's voice saying this was an automated call from a company whose name I didn't catch "on behalf of your electricity supplier". Please could I phone up with a meter reading, or alternatively enter it at a URL that I also didn't get. It really was a crackly recording.

Hmm. They're calling on behalf of my electricity supplier yet can't actually name the company. My electricity supplier can't make a call like this itself. I suspect a cunning plan to enmesh me in a conversation that will lead to my changing suppliers to whoever is behind this little scheme.

Sadly it's probably not illegal, apart from the outright lie of "on behalf of your electricity supplier". There's no law that says you can't ask someone for a meter reading, or try to persuade them to change suppliers. But no, I don't think I will be making that phone call. If it's genuine they'll try again. And the worst they can do is cut m-

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Excuse me, you're standing on my principles

A few years ago - must have been more than four, because that's how old this blog is and I would have mentioned it - round about this time of year I got a mailing from the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists. These are artists who would be very talented even if they were able to use their hands to paint. They can't, for sundry reasons, hence the name of the outfit, and thus are even more worthy of respect. Their pictures are very good indeed, which I say in the full knowledge I couldn't draw my way out of a paper bag. Nor do they want to live off charity - they intend to pay their way. Respect.

What a shame they do it in the most unseasonably cynical, manipulative way possible. The mailing contained a bundle of Christmas cards painted by said individuals. Very nice Christmas cards. Proper Christmassy scenes. Nothing cutesy or twee. With a Christmas message inside - none of this "Season's Greetings" twaddle. The covering letter said I was under no obligation whatsoever but if I liked the cards they really hoped I'd buy them ...

Which I did, with a covering letter of my own saying that admired their work, despised their tactics, and any further unsolicited bundles of cards would be treated as a gift. I didn't hear from them again for at least five years, until last week when they kindly sent me another present.

AAGH! Curse these principles of mine.

The cards are good. The artists are amazing. Their marketing is beyond contempt. If they had just repeated the stunt year after year I would find it much easier to live up to my promise and treat the cards as a gift. But, five years minimum? They may well have a new marketing person. They may be working off an old backup. Or, are they just thinking that enough water has passed under the bridge for me to soften up. How's a guy to know? How annoying that the one known, guaranteed constant is their utterly shameless, scheming emotional blackmail.

So, no, sorry. I said what I'd do and I'm doing it. I've sent the cards out to various friends (hey, free advertising! They do get something out of this) and I'm not paying. There are plenty of charities out there that play the game. Okay, this lot emphasise they're not a charity ... well, there are worse things, you know. You don't have to Bernard Cribbins in The Railway Children. And if you were a charity, any donations could be Gift Aided.

Anyway, what are they going to do? Beat me up?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

It's not just about calendars

The best queue I ever stood in was for Lenin's Tomb. It snaked around one and a half sides of the Kremlin but it kept moving. The Russians did not approve of dawdling. 40 minutes in and out to see the old wax work and then get on with our lives.

Yesterday's queue was 45 minutes stationary in a medieval cloister, but that was expected. We were told to be an hour early for the doors opening to Salisbury cathedral's candlelit Advent service. At T minus 45 minutes, when we got there, the queue already reached round two sides of the cloisters. Before too long we were being asked to squeeze forward as the cloisters were full and people were standing out in the rain. And they were still coming in from the rain when we finally got to go in. (Showing, I thought, a slight lack of initiative: the cloisters are quite wide enough for the queue to coil at least once.)

The people in front of us were well organised, with flasks of mulled wine and Tupperware boxes of mince pies and a large packet of Tyrells crisps. One of them came up with a throwaway line, "When I was on Ark Royal we organised our own Welsh male voice choir ..." Yes, we were in line with the right sort of people.

And how worth the wait it was, even with the extra 50 mintues after we actually took our seats before the service began. I had brought a book - Resurrection Men by Ian Rankin - but thought it would be better just to sit and absorb the atmosphere.

The cathedral is plunged into darkness with just one candle lit at the west end. Light spreads throughout the cathedral - very slowly, candle by candle. (In fact we were all probably standing for about five minutes after the order of service decreed emphatically "The congregation SITS" because of course at that point in the service no one could read the order of service ...) The choir comes in and splits up, going down either side of the cathedral into the darkness while the trebles throw the chorus back and forth from side to side, as if someone is playing with the balance settings.

The light stops at the transept - the east end and the altar stay in darkness. But the choir heads off into the dark, all the way to the Trinity Chapel right at the far end, their singing now slightly muffled but sending back sound signals to plumb the depths of the building. Little stars of light move around as candles are lit with tapers. The east window starts to glow. Light has reached even that far. Utterly magical.

By the end of the service there are upwards of 1000 candles all adding their little flame to the overall illumination. I wondered if the service was tailored to the burning time of a 12 inch candle, or if the candles were ordered in to suit the length of the service. Either way they got it exactly right. And then we sung the outward processional hymn, "Lo, he comes with clouds descending", and I have never meant the words of the last verse more wholeheartedly than last night. I see why the first thing any self-respecting cult or alternative religion tries to do is knock Jesus of his throne, because it's all about him. It was helped by a two minute bridge played on the organ before the final verse, to give the procession time to proceed, during which it got louder and louder and more and more triumphant. But even so:

Yea, amen, let all adore thee,
High on thy eternal throne. (Yea! Sing it!)
Saviour, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for thine own. (Darn tootin'! Take it! Take it!)
Alleluia, alleluia,
Thou shalt reign and thou alone. (Abso-fragging-lutely! Thou alone!)

And not a word about doom. Marvellous.

As I get older I find I require more and more aesthetic satisfaction. The world is so much more than the sun of our five senses but the fact is we have five senses and they require fulfilment. Why cheat them out of it?

My student self would barely recognise me sometimes, but that's his loss and my gain.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Management fail

The management company of our building was incorporated on 28 November 1978, taking over the freehold and all associated functions from the former landlord. Going through the archives last night we came across the Memorandum and Articles of Association.

Cor. One paragraph in particular seems to start as if written by a sane person but descends seamlessly into pure Alice in Wonderland. One of the company's duties, it seems, is:
... to supply to lessees, residents, tenants, occupiers and others necessary services, refreshments, attendants, messengers, waiting rooms, reading rooms, meeting rooms, gardens, cricket grounds, tennis courts, bowling greens, lavatories, laundry conveniences, caravans, lifts, garages, and other advantages and amenities ...
We have so not been doing our job.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


The things I do for my friends ...

D is a cut-back kitchen designer, by which I mean he designs kitchens for a living but his firm has cut him back to a three-day week. So he has time on his hands but not a lot of money. He's also an avid quiz-goer. All these factors mean that when he heard about Pointless, a quiz show that requires pairs to enter, he was up for it and he persuaded me I would enjoy it too.

That was back in the summer, and after sending in the applications we heard no more about it. I assumed that was the end of it. Apparently they had the first series - 4.30pm, BBC2, weekday afternoons, Alexander Armstrong hosting - and it was good enough for a second to be commissioned. So, they trawled the files and got in touch with the also-rans from the first time round. I got a call on my mobile and, having completely forgotten about it, almost told them to take a hike, assuming it was some kind of cold sales call. Oops.

Anyway, long story short, we went for our audition in Shepherds Bush on Friday. Three other pairs were there too so we had: two bubbly sisters in their 20s; two elder Essex lads, veterans of other quiz shows with plenty of entertaining anecdotes and not a nice word to say about Anne Robinson or Martyn Lewis; a mother and son, who was the spitting image of a young Mike Oldfield; and a kitchen designer and technical editor from Abingdon.

No studios or Alexander Armstrong for the audition, of course; this was all in a boardroom at Endemol HQ. For an ice breaker we did Mexican waves around the table and whoever had their hands in the air when we were told to stop had to say a fact about themselves. Mine was that I've been to Buckingham Palace twice. D was kicking himself after: "I forgot to say my grandfather was a bigamist!" (I did ask which wife he was descended from. Apparently his grandfather cunningly married two women with the same name, which is why it took so long for his descendants to work it out.)

Then a couple of rounds of the game itself. It's Family Fortunes in reverse. The organisers previously asked a panel of 100 volunteers to name as many items in a given category as they can. You then get asked to name one item, and you get the same number of points as the number of volunteers who also said that. BUT you want to get as few points as possible. I can use this example because this is the one they use publicly: if you're asked to name a Tom Cruise film and say "Top Gun", 60 or 70 of the panel also said that and so you get 60 or 70 points. If you say "Tropic Thunder", which none of the panel guessed, you get zero points. The winner is the one with as few points as possible.

If, though, you said something like "Gone with the Wind" which is just a plain wrong answer, you get 100 points. Simple.

I won't say the questions they asked. I'll just say we came second, and could have come first if we'd had the courage of our convictions and gone for an answer that we only thought might be the right one. Pah. But it was a lot more fun than I thought it would be; there was a really nice atmosphere between the eight of us, and I think we all genuinely hope the others make it even if we don't. D has been forewarned that, unlike the winners in the clip I saw, if we win I will not throw myself into his arms and he will not do likewise with me. We may go so far as a discreet Anglican handshake, maybe a "jolly good show" or two. No more.

Filming will happen during January: if we're to be on it, we'll hear in the next few weeks. I'll let you know.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A proud godfather

I'm going to have to do a couple of weeks as a snake-handling Pentecostal to get it out of my system. Last week, a requiem mass with smells, bells and Latin. Last night a confirmation service with robes, choir and of course a bishop all mitred and croziered up. I'm just not used to all this high church.

But what a lovely service it was: formal but friendly, exactly as long as it needed to be and with a large element of personal pride. Yes, on Remembrance Day 1995 I became a godfather for the first time. Fourteen years and one week later I formally discharged that obligation. In the intervening years, as a result of a special bulk deal negotiated with the family I also became godfather of my godson's younger brother. A similar bulk deal presumably negotiated with the bishop saw them confirmed together. For some reason the church only gave a week's warning, so we packed into the car yesterday and headed down to the coast.

A strangely eschatological element – readings from Daniel + Jesus talking about the last days – but some good singable hymns, ending with "Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer", and the bish's sermon hit all the right spots about being prepared for life. The fact that we didn't quite get the boys' parents kneeling at the same communion rail at the same time was just down to the timing of the occasion: it could have happened. Peace was very noticeably offered.

"Well done," their father whispered to me as the first boy went under the episcopal hands. Well, I can't claim that much credit but I'm prepared to take every scrap that I can. I was even proud that when the bishop told all the candidates to hold up their confirmation candles, guess whose senior godson was holding his the highest?

And then it was back into the car, returning to Abingdon past midnight and treating myself to a lie-in in lieu of the usual morning writing. Well, it was a special occasion.

I was also delighted that the deed was done by the Bishop of Sherborne. After the service I told him I had been confirmed by one of his predecessors. "St Aldhelm, 705?" he asked.

I say I've discharged the duty: obviously I have no intention of just ticking that box and moving on in life. As they get lives of their own they are more likely to be the ones moving on. But right here, right now and with permission of both parents and the boys themselves, here is a very proud godfather with his senior and junior godsons.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

And all that I knew was the hole in my ceiling letting out water

I like to think (and I probably flatter myself) that I don't make many mistakes, but I have to admit that when I do they are ones to remember.

The great flood of October 09 was the crashing opening note of a symphony that goes on to this day, though I do feel it's in its final movement. The builders performing extreme renovation on the flat above us have never failed to entertain. Next they did something (and we're still not sure what, and that includes them) to divert rain water through a hole in the roof, down one of their walls and into our living room. That does seem to have improved despite an absence of roofwork. Maybe they put the whatever-it-was-they-moved back.

Next the newly installed boiler upstairs decided to leak, also into our living room. Of course, that's on the opposite wall so it missed all the carefully positioned buckets very nicely.

Then all was quiet, waterwise, for a while ... until on Friday I went into the bathroom, turned on the light, and felt my fingers get wet. Water was very gently dripping down the light switch cord. Not a flood. Drip drip drip. 12 hours was enough to gather about 1.5 inches in a bucket. And it hadn't been going on for long. This is at the other end of the flat. Our bathroom is under theirs.

I pointed this out to the foreman. He's an ex-Marine with a Marine's quickest-way-to-solve-the-problem attitude. "We could cut a hole in your ceiling," he said. "Not my preferred option," I replied. "You could lift up your recently laid and heavily, expensively tiled bathroom floor." "Or we could cut a hole in your ceiling," he pointed out.

And that, to my shame, is what they did, even though it meant over-ruling Best Beloved, because I was persuaded it was the quickest way to get the leak stopped, and they could patch the hole on the same day to the point of near-invisibility. "Near invisibility" might depend on what spectrum you're using but in the normal range of human sight it's pretty visible.

Here's the hole in mid-operation. Don't be alarmed - even the best appendectomies probably don't look very pretty halfway through.

Note the drops of water on the left and the dismantled light switch dangling on the right. The right hand pipe that you see had a pinprick hole in it that was letting out a very thin, fine jet of water.

They couldn't plug the hole the same day because the cavity was too wet. The next day I left them to it. When I got back the hole was plugged all right ... and the muppet who did the plugging had moved the light switch. It used to be slightly to the left as you come into the bathroom. It now hangs in front of the door. You have to go into the room, close the door and then turn the light on; and when you go out again, you have to make sure the cord isn't caught.

We have asked for it to be redone.

Before work began, I let the flat's owner know, in writing, that this was a one-off solution to a one-off problem and any further leaks would be dealt with through his brand new bathroom floor. And I suspect there might be some. The leak was a weak spot in one pipe which the plumber thought had been opened up in some old flux because the cold water pipes are now connected directly to the mains rather than to a tank. I know, you're way ahead of me: if one hole can open up in an old pipe under the new pressure, why can't others? Time will tell.

As I drove into work yesterday Classic FM started playing Handel's Water Music. Ha ha.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Requiem for Jennifer

I didn't know Jennifer Swift that well but I knew her well enough to be sad to hear she had died. I must have first met her at a convention but I already knew the name from her stories in Interzone. She was Christian, she lived in Oxford, she wrote sf and she liked C.S. Lewis – obviously we were going to get on. Thanks to her I even got to give a talk at the C.S. Lewis society: Lewis was quite strongly opposed to space exploration, but I humbly proposed a few takes on the topic through the lens of science fiction that he might have approved of.

We developed an annual tradition in which she and her husband Tim would explore yet another picturesque cycling route around Oxfordshire on their tandem, and the route would intersect with a pub where I could join them for lunch and she could pick my brains about agents, writing novels and other related affairs. When Jennifer had identified you as a source of information you got a distinct feeling of being locked on to. She was born to be a journalist. The parallel world where her novel did finally get published is a richer place than this one. My input would have accounted for a fraction of the whole which would have been drawn from the many, many streams and strands of thought that so fascinated her.

Latterly, of course, it was we rather than I who joined them for lunch. No lunch this year, though. Didn't think anything of it and it was probably unrelated to her illness, which was only diagnosed mid-July. Then on 30 September Tim emailed all her friends to say she had died: stage 4 metastatic breast cancer in the liver and possibly the spinal column. Requiem mass sung this morning in the chapel at Magdalen.

Good grief, if I was doing a reading at my wife's memorial service I couldn't possibly be as dignified and calm as Tim was, reading a passage from Julian of Norwich in which she saw God hosting a banquet for all the honoured souls in his house – i.e. all of them – and taking a lower seat himself, refusing to hold an exalted position in his own home.

After a couple of shaky starts – the lad must be just on the verge of his voice breaking – a child sang a solo from Perelandra: the Opera, music by Donald Swann (who Tim has always strongly resembled in my eyes):
No man may shorten the way.
Each must carry his cross
On the long road to Calvary,
Follow where other feet have trodden.
Though the burden seems too great
For bleeding shoulders to uphold,
Too dark the path
For failing eyes to see,
Yet the lonely hill must still be climbed,
The desolation still be borne.
No man may shorten the way.
And what a difference it makes at a funeral where the minister delivering the sermon actually knew the deceased.

Once in a while it's good to splurge out on some really high church. Incense, Latin, the lot. (Though if I had one teeny, tiny criticism, it would be that the incense was kept in a separate room the other side of a closed door, and the server in charge of smells would duck in and out from time to time to get it. The first time he left I honestly thought he might have badly needed a pee and questioned why he had to go in the middle of Tim's reading. Okay, this was probably for a good reason: I expect the incense was kept in a liturgically sanctioned fume cupboard without which it would have reduced visibility in the chapel to five feet – but even so, it was distracting.)

I thought of the contrast with my usual church and remembered an analogy by C.S. Lewis, which therefore Jennifer would approve of. In fact I know that even Philip Pullman approves of this one because he's who I heard it from. Roughly it goes: when I was a child, I liked lemonade but I didn't like wine. Now I'm an adult I still like lemonade but I also like wine. I now enjoy two experiences where I used to enjoy only one: my maturity has enriched me.

Those churches that resolutely use only forms of worship devised this century are confining themselves to lemonade only – and the more determinedly modern they are ("this unsingable piece of whimsy was a hit at New Wine so we must sing it every week until either one day someone learns the tune or we bring back a new hit from New Wine next year – whichever is sooner") the flatter the lemonade is. Everyone needs a good vintage draught from time to time.

Back to Jennifer, her Church Times obituary is a lovely read and I'll finish as the service did. Jennifer:
In Paradisum deducant te angeli, in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere aeternam habeas requiem.

May the angels lead thee to Paradise; at thy coming may the martyrs receive thee, and bring thee into the holy city Jerusalem. May the choir of angels receive thee, and with Lazarus, once a beggar, may thou have eternal rest.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

22 not out

Twenty two years ago today, 3 November 1987 (a Tuesday), I started my first real job. As I'm now 44 that means I have been working for half my life. (This ignores the fact that I was then 22.75, give or take, so the second half will be completed when I'm 45.5, next August.)

I knew I wanted to get into publishing in some way, even though I didn't know much about it. I knew that adverts with bold headings like "BREAK INTO PUBLISHING!" were actually aimed at getting cold calling fodder in to work on business directories, so they were to be avoided, as was anything to do with Foyles (its act has cleaned up a lot since then). I forget how I knew these things but I did. Other than that I was anyone's and had been spraying letters to anyone who remotely looked like a publisher the length and breadth of the country.

Ultimately work found me. My mother's cousin Jessica Kingsley had been running Jessica Kingsley Publishers for nearly a year at this stage, working from home. She had just moved into her new office in the Brunswick Centre, a concrete monstrosity between Russell and Coram's Fields, and she was looking to expand the operation.

We Did Lunch and she explained the set-up and the vision. Jessica was the first person I knew, even among my tech-literate friends from university, to talk about desktop publishing and publishing on CD-ROM. Her imagination was way ahead of the technology (we never did publish on CD-ROM while I worked for her) but she saw it all coming. This was October 1987. She tentatively offered me employment until December, at £6000 pro rata. I joined her a week later, in early November, during which time she had somehow scraped up an extra £500 to make my starting salary £6500, and I worked for her for four years. The pay did go up.

The Brunswick Centre – or the Brunswick, as I gather it now calls itself –is a long rectangular open air shopping centre. It's open at both ends and the long sides on either side of the main plaza are lined with shops; then above them are flats in stepped tiers like a concrete Aztec pyramid. Jessica sublet a single room in a suite of sales offices owned by Gower Publishing. It was a pretty useless location for sales offices, tucked out of the way around a corner opposite the Renoir Cinema, which showed arty foreign films that were never going to generate much drop-in trade. Fortunately a publisher doesn't really need drop-in trade.

Drop-in trade there was, though, not quite of the kind we would have liked. The Brunswick generated an endless supply of winos and beggars. I could go back and point to the exact place where I first encountered a beggar – a woman about my age who came up to me and bluntly, wretchedly, explained that she had no money for food for XYZ reasons, could I spare some? I was shocked, horrified, and as I was coming out of a shop with my hands full of chocolate bars ready for the journey home it seemed unreasonable to turn her down. I think I gave her a pound.

After four years of working in London, though, my heart became more hardened.

One little old lady – Polish, I think, hardly any English – in one of the flats was convinced we were the management office, so would come in with her worries and complaints. Once a very elderly, confused gent wandered in because he was looking for his GP, whose surgery was elsewhere in the complex. He was suffering chest pains and couldn't walk any further. I sat him down and ran to the doctor's surgery, where the impenetrable wall of receptionists simply told me to call an ambulance. He survived.

Another flat was home to a sweet, white haired old gent in a slightly decayed long coat and hat, who was the first gay man I know to have clearly fancied the pants off me. It wasn't reciprocated. He worked as a tour guide – he said, and I assume it to be true – at the Houses of Parliament. He had spied me from a distance thanks to the office's conveniently large studio windows and never failed to get into conversation when our paths crossed on my errands (I generally did the evening run to the Post Office, last thing before closing). We even met for a lunchtime beer a couple of times, which seemed a harmless, no-commitment sort of concession. When there was a Tube strike I was invited to stay over at his place rather than fight my way in the next day through the traffic chaos. Jessica however had already told me I could work at home during the strikes which seemed a better alternative.

I was flush with enthusiasm for my new publishing career and assumed the authors I had the honour to be publishing would share that enthusiasm. A publisher has accepted your life's work; wouldn't you fall over yourself to work with them and polish it up into a work to be proud of?

Well, no, apparently not. Many authors tend to assume that their work is done and polished when they turn in their draft, so responding to the publisher's queries or returning proofs isn't that high a priority. In fact, why show any urgency in turning in the manuscript at all? How hard can publishing a book be? If the publisher says "give us your manuscript in January and we'll publish in June," they tend to hear the "publish in June" bit and forget the rest. Then they are indignant and bewildered when they turn in the manuscript on 31 May and learn that it won't be out until December because the publisher, with an unaccountable urge to keep publishing books and therefore earn money to pay the staff and stay in business, has moved another book into the available slot.

In fact, the whole notion of the publisher being bound by commercial imperatives is a bit beyond many authors. They see the publisher as a slot into which you feed the manuscript and a book comes out the other end. What's the problem?

That was what I learned about authors.

About myself, I learned that I hate confrontation (which I knew), and can be painfully shy (which I knew), and have very little memory for names or details (which I hadn't really realised), and can give vague assurances ("your book will be in stock next week") far too easily. The confrontation and shyness points mean that actually chasing authors, which alas is a necessary part of any editing job, is one of my least favourite activities. I've got better at it over the years. The names and details point meant learning to pay more attention, take notes, write stuff down. The vague assurances meant don't make promises you can't personally guarantee will be kept. Life is just so much easier all round if you can be organised, and straightforward, and truthful.

Jessica had spent New Year's Eve 1986 with a bottle of champagne and her first computer, in her own words "working out how to turn it on". The grand sum of technical knowledge within Jessica Kingsley Publishers hadn't advanced greatly since then. Thanks to my trusty Amstrad PCW and various temp jobs I could already turn a computer on, and I didn't need the champagne, so I found my niche in book production, as much as anyone can have a niche in a company that small. I learnt all the dodges of preparing a manuscript in a word processor (remove double spacing and spaces before carriage returns, find and replace various common errors) and setting it in DTP (Ventura, a lovely smooth DOS-based piece of software which frankly has never been bettered, even with the latest incarnation of InDesign that I now use at work). We were way ahead of our time – when I tried to move on I was held back for a long time by the fact that my experience wasn't yet relevant in an industry that still mostly used hot metal.

We often got books sent in on PCW discs, which meant I could edit them at home. We then had to send them off to a bureau that would put them onto 5.25" floppies (the last generation of floppies that really could flop) for our office PCs. Jessica kindly paid for me to install a second, high density floppy drive on my PCW at home.

I once got an author's disc where he had even broken his chapters into different subsections, each one in its own file named by subtopic. So, the contents of his book appeared on screen as a list of alphabetically ordered subsections. Oh, what fun that was to sort out. One of my first professional paid pieces of writing wasn't science fiction, it was an essay in one of the PCW consumer magazines on how best to prepare your manuscript for a publisher.

It was four highly intense years that I enjoyed hugely, while I picked up all the basic skills I use now (everything else has just been refinement) and my loathing of London grew daily. Soon after I started work there was the Kings Cross fire: the next Christmas, by which time I was commuting up from Farnborough, there was the Clapham Common crash. I was pretty certain, given the gradual and visible deterioration of all forms of public transport, that soon there would be an incident and loss of life that made those two cases look like statistical blips. I wanted to move, to anywhere but London. By the time I left for Oxford in late 1991 my starting salary had almost doubled (I know, I know, twice not very much is still quite little).

January will be the tenth anniversary of my losing my job in medical publishing, which essentially shaped the next decade more than I dreamed could be possible. Expect more reminiscences.

Monday, November 02, 2009

News of the screws

The door of a kitchen cupboard came away in Best Beloved's hand. Diagnosis was easy, the cure even easier. The two screws that hold it to the top hinge had worked loose and didn't grip the wood. They just went round and round and round. It wasn't hard to find two similar screws in the jam jar full of loose screws left over from this job and that: similar but longer, so they do actually dig into the wood but not so long that they go all the way through.

Job done.

Yet now I find myself thinking of that jam jar. I have never consciously cultivated a screw collection, but there the jar is, full of them, all lengths and widths and sizes, long and short, bronze or steel, flat head or Phillips.

Should I be worried that I have accumulated so many left over screws? What are they left over from?

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning ...

I have a case of seborrheic keratosis. Before you exclaim "you filthy beast!" or "serves you right", it's another way of saying what looks like a mole suddenly appeared one day, but it's all right, the condition is benign and temporary. It's also part of growing old, which sadly isn't temporary and invariably fatal, but that's the long-term prognosis.

I discovered the mole simply by scratching my abdomen one day and there it was, with a slight drop of blood where my nail caught it. "It's been traumatised," said the doctor examining it. Well, I'm sorry but how did it think I felt? And I refuse to apologise to uninvited guests on my skin.

So, could be worse, as this guy could attest:

Fulminant acute colitis following a self-administered hydrofluoric acid enema.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

No one but the pure in heart can find google.co.uk

  • Or, for the benefit of the search engines, "How to change the default search engine in Firefox".

Have you ever known someone reasonably well, got on okay, even ventured beyond that into a rewarding friendship ... but every now and then you find a hangup in their lives that just defies all rational explanation?

Like convincing Firefox that you'd like it to use Google.co.uk as a search engine rather than Google.com. So easy, surely? And not likely to be a rare requirement: so, something Mozilla would have slipped in right up front. They are friendly and cuddly and not Microsoft so they love you and want to make your life easy in every way. Except that they don't and frankly they have no intention of doing so.

First, and most obvious, option - click on the little arrow in the search box that lists the search engines available, click on "Manage Search Engines" and change the Google URL. Except that you can't.

Okay ... why not, in an amusingly ironic Zen-type way, use Google to solve the problem? Enter a search term like "change default search engine in Firefox". And we're away.

The first option has an excitingly hack feel to it: it tells you to locate the file GOOGLE.XML in the folder C:\Program Files\Mozilla Firefox\searchplugins and change every instance of google.com to google.co.uk. Fine, easy, except that it doesn't work. Firefox still defaults to google.com.

Second option, and this one comes from Mozilla so it must be right! Type "about.config" in the URL bar, then type "keyword.url" in the filter box. Right click on the keyword.url option that appears below it and change the url in the pop-up box to google.co.uk. Fine, easy, doesn't work either.

Third option: go to http://mycroft.mozdev.org/search-engines.html. This is a page that lets you select a brand new search engine (which, for the purposes of this argument, Google UK is). You're presented with a variety of search boxes but hey, you're clever. You tell it to search for Google in the UK ... easy, right?

Well, no, because what pops up is every instance of a Google UK-based search page. Universities, companies ... they all use the thing. You don't want to make any of them the default search engine. But, go back to that search page and this time ignore the search boxes - click on "2. Google" in the list of popular domains below. Now you get a list of every country-specific Google page in the world and this time - right at the end, of course, since that's where U is in the alphabet, above only Uruguay, Venezuela and South Africa - you get the Holy Grail, Google UK. Do I want to install it? Yes! Oh, yes! Do I want to start using it right away? Hit me with it, baby!

If Galahad had used computers, he'd feel like I do now.

Friday, October 23, 2009

For he himself has said it, and it's greatly to his credit

I didn't watch Nick Griffin on Question Time but I'm relieved to get the general feeling, from those who did, that he didn't exactly emerge victorious. I'm still in two minds as to whether the whole thing should have gone ahead. Con: his odious ilk deserve no publicity or credibility, implied or other, whatsoever. Pro: no one ever became a fascist (or indeed communist) out of perversity: when people vote that way of their own volition it's in response to genuinely felt needs that the mainstream politicians are not addressing. Its not enough for the mainstreamers to dismiss these concerns as "oh, that's just fascism". If Mr Griffin could puncture a little mainstream complacency then the show was right to go ahead.

I don't know if Mr Griffin is familiar with Daniel Defoe's poem "The True-Born Englishman". I certainly wasn't until a friend drew my attention to it this morning. (Mr G and I must have similar reading tastes as we've both read Mein Kampf; rather, I did dip into it for an A-level project. I bought my copy, 1930s edition, at a secondhand shop in Aldershot, home of the British army. I will now cancel this train of thought.)

Even back in 1703 it's refreshing to see that Mr Defore had no truck with any ludicrous notion of racial purity within these isles of ours. The poem is a long one so I shall quote selectively from the transcript made available at http://www.luminarium.org/editions/trueborn.htm:
... The Romans first with Julius Caesar came,
Including all the nations of that name,
Gauls, Greeks, and Lombards, and, by computation,
Auxiliaries or slaves of every nation.
With Hengist, Saxons; Danes with Sueno came,
In search of plunder, not in search of fame.
Scots, Picts, and Irish from the Hibernian shore,
And conquering William brought the Normans o'er.
All these their barbarous offspring left behind,
The dregs of armies, they of all mankind;
Blended with Britons, who before were here,
Of whom the Welsh ha' blessed the character.
From this amphibious ill-born mob began
That vain ill-natured thing, an Englishman.
He continues, dryly:
The customs, surnames, languages, and manners
Of all these nations are their own explainers:
Whose relics are so lasting and so strong,
They ha' left a shibboleth upon our tongue,
By which with easy search you may distinguish
Your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman English.
Not even the flower of our glorious aristocracy goes untouched:
And here begins our ancient pedigree,
That so exalts our poor nobility:
'Tis that from some French trooper they derive,
Who with the Norman bastard did arrive
Here's the bit that Mr Griffin should memorise:
These are the heroes that despise the Dutch,
And rail at new-come foreigners so much,
Forgetting that themselves are all derived
From the most scoundrel race that ever lived;
A horrid crowd of rambling thieves and drones,
Who ransacked kingdoms and dispeopled towns,
The Pict and painted Briton, treacherous Scot,
By hunger, theft, and rapine hither brought;
Norwegian pirates, buccaneering Danes,
Whose red-haired offspring everywhere remains,
Who, joined with Norman-French, compound the breed
From whence your true-born Englishmen proceed.

Thus from a mixture of all kinds began,
That heterogeneous thing an Englishman;
In eager rapes and furious lust begot,
Betwixt a painted Briton and a Scot;
Whose gendering offspring quickly learned to bow,
And yoke their heifers to the Roman plough;
From whence a mongrel half-bred race there came,
With neither name nor nation, speech nor fame;
In whose hot veins new mixtures quickly ran,
Infused betwixt a Saxon and a Dane;
While their rank daughters, to their parents just,
Received all nations with promiscuous lust.
This nauseous brood directly did contain
The well-extracted brood of Englishmen.


A true-born Englishman's a contradiction,
In speech an irony, in fact a fiction;
A banter made to be a test of fools,
Which those that use it justly ridicules;
A metaphor invented to express
A man akin to all the universe.
And finally, a bit of philosophical concluding with which it's hard to argue, even though I can see Jerry Springer reciting it at the end of one of his shows:
Could but our ancestors retrieve the fate,
And see their offspring thus degenerate;
How we contend for birth and names unknown,
And build on their past actions, not our own;
They'd cancel records, and their tombs deface,
And openly disown the vile degenerate race:
For fame of families is all a cheat,
'Tis personal virtue only makes us great.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Highland and Lowland memory

It's a bottle of Glenfiddich. The brown thing strapped to the bottom is a free 500Mb memory stick containing a charming little Flash animation all about the history of the distillery. The wooden casing is stamped "made from a geniune Glenfiddich oak cask". It's the cutest blend of Scottish ancient and modern I've seen since being at a wedding in Edinburgh where a guest took a mobile phone out of his sporran.

At the same wedding, I recall going to the bar for a whisky and being asked if Famous Grouse was okay. To which my reply was, roughly translated from the Sassenach, "no it flaming well isn't. I'm in Scotland. Give me something with far too many vowels that isn't pronounced remotely like you spell it."

I know, there's a very close congruence between the spelling and the pronunciation of Glenfiddich, but I didn't get it from Scotland, I got it from the offie in Ock Street, Abingdon.

Strings attached

Alastair Reynolds posts some musings about the roll-out of the Ares 1-X. (How does it stay up, for goodness sake? It looks like someone balancing a pencil on their finger.) He also engages in some speculation about what the world would be like if Gerry Anderson were in charge of human spaceflight. Like, for instance, the rocket wouldn't roll out; the assembly building would instead roll back. Yes, if there's a way to over-engineer a problem, our Gerry will find it.

Rather, if I may smugly outgeek correct Al (who once trounced me in an informal test of knowledge about prog rock drummers) it would be Derek Meddings or Mike Trim who would find the way, they being the ones who designed the fantastic vehicles that made Gerry famous. But for the sake of argument we will use the umbrella term "Anderson" to describe the milieu.

I actually think they did have a hand in some of the Soviet space designs, like their prospective moon rocket the N1. It looks like an upturned cornetto because the Russkies didn't have the industrial base to build five massive engines as used by the Saturn V. Instead they had to pack in 30 much smaller engines, so the base of the rocket had to make room for them all. The fact that all four of the N1s that actually left the launchpad managed to blow up before first stage separation also has a distinctly Anderson feel to it, doesn't it?

In the Anderson world, anything resembling a Health & Safety executive was strangled by red tape at birth and no one ever invented the fuse. These two facts alone mean that a cloud-piercing skyscraper can be brought down by a small fire in the basement. On the other hand, we wouldn't have had to wait years for the A380. Okay, a couple might crash mysteriously in the development phase but hey, there's always another fresh off the production line. So we can assume that all that spared H&S effort went into enhanced R&D, which included an aesthetic element sadly missing from modern design bureaux. All in all, quite a reasonable payoff.

There would be a strange dissonance between very clunky hardware (all tapes and rackety nosies) running extremely powerful software, not to mention an advanced degree of miniaturisation that enables satellite phones with full video to be hidden in watches, power compacts etc. The roads would be a lot safer because no one would dare erupt into road rage when there's the possibility the object of your rage will sprout hidden machine guns and blow you to pieces. There would be no fuss over a third runway for Heathrow, or anything like that, because heavy planes the size of a 747 can take off vertically (or, failing that, off a short ramp).

At the family level, the high degree of personal automation would make us all very quickly clinically obese: why come through to the dining room for tea when you can be carried there by a chute hidden behind a picture in the wall? On the plus side, if your child's a snotty brat then simply implant a new personality. And think of the saving on driving lessons or indeed any form of education. No, it's not abuse, really.

Overall I think the world would be a happier place. International terrorism would be a thing of the past: how successful would 9/11 have been if the twin towers could simply duck? And even if someone did smuggle a bomb onto a plane it would be handily labelled "bomb", so quickly dealt with.

As long as we don't have to wear the clothes. That's all I ask.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

All those moments will be lost in time

Bonusbarn stuck his head round our door.

"I'm watching Blade Runner. Why have you never told me about this film?"

I'm a proud, proud stepfather.

Monday, October 12, 2009

One on a scooter, beeping his hooter

What better way to celebrate the season of giving than to give to those less well off than you? Thus the premise of Operation Christmas Child: stuff a shoebox full of the right sort of goodies and send it off.

The right sort not including, according to the approved list:
  • war related items (toy guns, soldiers or knives of any kind).
  • novels. Novels?? I can't give novels? What sort of crappy Christmas are you wishing on these poor souls? Ah well, I suppose there's always anthologies. Or poetry collections. Or books of rugby songs. Picture or puzzle books are permitted. I wonder where the dividing line lies. Would the Pop-Up War & Peace be permitted?
  • anything of a political nature. Well, that's probably included under novels.
As guidance for the kind of thing you can give, it helpfully suggests: "For boys trucks and cars, for girls dolls, clip on earrings etc."

Okay, okay, it's easy to sneer and a great deal of good and joy could come out of this. But there's always the sneaking suspicion that outreach like this is a step forward immediately followed by a shuffle back. The interesting blend of gender stereotyped political correctness is (I know) for administrative ease to maximise the number of gifts that actually reach someone ... but as we've already got this far in imposing our western cultural Christmas values on other nations, why deprive them of the annual Christmas "what were they thinking / it's what I've always wanted, thanks" treat that we enjoy so much?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Bringing it one step closer

And so it came to pass that a sleepy teenager was crowbarred into the car at 8am on a Saturday morning and driven by his equally sleepy stepfather to the University of the West of England for an open day. The teenager was able to sleep for most of the way down the M4.

"I've read it all on the web, I don't need to see it ..."

Though even he ultimately admitted he was glad he went.

Accommodation Lady couldn't handle the complexities of interrupting a Powerpoint presentation to show a filmclip off a DVD. Eventually a parent in the audience had to show her how. She got the filmclip running and immediately (for some reason) clicked on the Powerpoint in the background, which of course came to the front and blanked out the filmclip. I have never before heard such tragic two syllable desolation as her squeaked "oh no!"

I fancied I detected a stirring of interest next to me when she got to the university's Student Village: "en suite and wireless internet." I was not wrong.

The course of interest is joint honours in Criminology and Media & Cultural Studies (i.e. watching lots of CSI). Criminology Lady was faced with a roomful of about 100 assorted parents and would-be students. She would wander vaguely around with a pile of about five brochures to hand out, get rid of them all, notice with a start of surprise that there were still some other people who didn't have one, and get another five out of the box at the back of the room. I got hold of one before my pension became due by standing in front of her and not moving until she pressed one into my hands.

The Media Dudes scored the most points with a bit of two-way banter, an interesting presentation and just giving the impression of being guys you could get on with. One had a pigtail and had to be gently coaxed away from getting into a Mac vs Windows dialogue with a parent in a public meeting. (Perhaps he could have a useful word or two with Accommodation Lady?) Definitely a score, anyway.

The course would be at UWE's St Matthias campus, a pleasantly period (I'm guessing Victorian or early C20) place with sixties add-ons, apparently known as the Harry Potter Campus. Across the valley and the other side of the M32 is UWE's main Frenchay campus, sitting gleaming at the top of its hill like mighty Diaspar. That's where the Student Village is, and at some time in the next three years the course will move over there so that's where Bonusbarn will end up. So I took him on a drive around it, also showing him the offices of my ultimate masters, HEFCE (who provide the dosh) and JISC (who pass it on to us).

"They're on a university campus. You're in a science park. Why aren't you in charge of them?"

We tried to drive into the city centre. On a Saturday? I hear distant laughter from any readers who have actually met Bristol. Quite why someone decided to build the M32 on stilts through some quite pleasant pre-war suburbs, injecting traffic directly into the heart of the city, I don't know. He had to take my word for it that once you're through the tangled spaghetti of traffic lanes winding past the feet of concrete monstrosities, it's quite pleasant in there. He's probably taking a year out and he has friends who will be there next year, so they can show him round in due course.

It's quite possible I was present at the precise moment when Bonusbarn began to think seriously about being a student. Cor.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Ode to Abingdon traffic

  • In honour of the experience of sitting in a 20 minute traffic queue because effing Ock Street is closed due to effing Abingdon fair; eventually giving up, parking in Hermitage Road and walking home.
  • To the tune of "Africa", with apologies to Toto.
I hear the fair echoing tonight
The music of the rides' bass syncopation.
The traffic's backed up to the lights
On the road that comes into town from Drayton.
It only lasts another day
I might just make it home by then, it's true.
The glowing clock digits seem to say
Hurry home, your dinner's waiting for you.

[duh, de-duh-duh duh]

Did Bonusbarn put the sausages on when asked?
Or has he forgotten the job with which he's been tasked?
I hate the traffic in Abingdon
I hate the traffic in Abingdon
(repeat to fade)
Now treat yourself with the original. Typical portentous 80s video, musical masterpiece.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The good news is your eBay package has arrived

"That has nothing to do with the bad news," I added on the phone to my wife, "but it might soften the blow ..."

Earlier I got a call at work from Bonusbarn around midday. Praise the Lord that made us for sixth form timetables and free periods.

"Minor problem. We've got a leak."

"Oh, crud. Where?"

"Water's coming through the ceiling into the living room. Should I move some stuff out?"


"Is that water I can hear behind you?"

"Uh, yes."

"I'm coming home."

It could have been so much worse ...

The gauchos refitting the kitchen in the flat above (which traditionally provides us with entertainment of this kind) had capped a pipe which then uncapped itself. Their foreman lamented, "I only left them alone for a couple of minutes!" But it mostly dripped down the walls of the living room or through a few fracture zones in the plaster, like the light fittings: the sound I could hear was it dripping into the buckets that Bonusbarn had already put in place. It had avoided the TV and the computer altogether. The sofas got wet, but not catastrophically; ditto the carpet, but it's a rug rather than fitted with waterproof wood-effect vinyl beneath, so we could lift it up. Tomorrow the penitent foreman delivers a dehumidifier and that should undo 95% of the damage.

The lightswitch was buzzing so I've removed the fuse for the main lights, and until the room is dehumidified we're existing on lights that plug into sockets. We still have hot water and the shower. What effect this has had on the book collection ... well, I'm resigned to that. If anything got wet it's nothing that can't be replaced.

And the biggest plus of all is the calm and sensible way Bonusbarn acted on his own. If he's ever faced with a structural failure in his future home, he'll find it much less terrifying with this experience under his belt. The boy done good.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

We the undersigned think child abusers should get away with it

An online petition demands the immediate release of Roman Polanski. It has some frighteningly recognisable names on it. Also Woody Allen, which shouldn't really surprise anyone.


What is wrong with these morons? He had sex with a 13 year old girl. Accounts vary, covering all points on a spectrum between "he drugged her" and "she was willing bit of jailbait gagging for it," but the basic fact is undeniable. Over 30 years later, the girl is now in her 40s ... and about the same age he was at the time.

Thirty years is certainly a long time. But lest you find your righteous zeal wavering, today's news also reports the guilty pleas of three people, one of them a nursery worker, involved in creating and distributing child porn. And if they'd got away with it until 2039, that would make it okay?

The gist of the petition is "we all love Roman, it was a long time ago, he's very talented don'cha know and film festivals should be above this sort of thing. Signed, lots of luvvies."

Terry Gilliam? Tilda Swinton?? What were you thinking?

The only names that don't surprise me - apart from Mr Allen - are several crew members from Polanski's latest which has now been left in limbo. Sadly this is an adaptation of Robert Harris's The Ghost, which is a film that badly needs to be made. We may just have to live with that.

One opinion I've overheard is that, since he's in Switzerland, the judges should petition for his immediate transfer to Dignitas. Hmm.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Disposing of books is a serious matter

It isn't just one of your everyday games.

I give away a lot more books than I used to. Marriage and the essential storage limitations of a two-bed flat made me bite the bullet, and anyway, if I really can't see myself reading it again - or at least not for another 20 years or so, in which case I might as well just buy a new one - then it's my duty to release the poor thing back into the wild. So, every couple of weeks sees two or three books sedated, put into a bag and carried up the road to a handy charity shop.

Generally we give our books to Helen & Douglas house, which is both a good cause and local. Best of all, it has a darned good secondhand books section - an alcove the size of a small room with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on either side. As the book section of far too many charity shops is essentially a small shelf between the Menswear and Broken Toys sections, I judge our books have the best chance here of finding a new home.

But! Yesterday's giveaway selection posed a condundrum. Included in it were a book on edible plants in Alaska, and Master of Hawks by Linda E. Bushyager. The former is left over from research for some hack writing. The latter I read because the author is our vicar's aunt and the black sheep of the family. "Dark," he says - well, darkly. I wanted to research whether she really is channelling the dark forces in an effort to oust Christ and place the Evil One on the throne of the universe, or whether she is in fact just a really quite differently good writer. As I couldn't get past about the third chapter, I incline towards the latter. (If it's the former then the fact of the latter makes it a really bad own goal for the forces of darkness.)

One of those titles has a distinctly limited interest and is unlikely to find an avid reader in Abingdon through Helen & Douglas. The other I had to buy from a specialist online reseller who handles these rare and OOP titles. So, H&D wouldn't really do it justice either.

Oxfam on the other hand, I gather, have a burgeoning secondhand book business nationwide and so I thought might also have a bibliographic mechanism capable of giving these books their due. So, those two went to Oxfam.

That did however give me further pause for thought, because I learnt of Oxfam's burgeoning secondhand book business nationwide from this article in the New York Times about the tribulations of a secondhand bookshop in Salisbury. I've no idea why the affairs of a bookshop in a provincial English city should attract the attention of the New York Times, but it happened. The contention of the article is that Oxfam is actively putting secondhand bookshops out of business, quite possibly as a deliberate strategy. Which would be a real shame, not to mention a cultural crime. So, was I indeed aiding and abetting the forces of darkness?

It's a minefield, I tell you.

I went with Oxfam (a) because we don't have a secondhand bookshop in Abingdon anyway, and (b) as an Oxfamite fairly points out in the article, "if someone's business model is so marginal that an Oxfam shop opening nearby decimates it, then we are not the problem."

I am not remotely obsessive about this.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Mike Oldfield & me

I hope I meet Mike Oldfield one day. His music was the background sound to most of my writing in the late 80s and early 90s. It would be only polite to say thank you. But as there's little sign of him dropping in any day now, reading his autobiography Changeling seemed like the next best thing.

General legend has it that at the age of 19 Mike Oldfield sold the idea of Tubular Bells to Richard Branson's new music company Virgin, and it went on to make a fortune for all concerned. No Tubular Bells, no Virgin Music, no Virgin Atlantic, no Virgin Galactic. Interesting thought. And that's mostly true, but even so it's not as if Oldfield just whipped it out of nowhere. He had been playing in clubs and bars since about the age of 12, getting more and more session playing experience under his belt, and Tubular Bells had been bubbling inside him for years. (Curiously, the bells themselves were a last minute addition when he finally came to make the album – they were still in the studio from the previous recording session and he thought he could probably use them.) He was able to record it almost from memory, with self-taught mixing and editing skills and with tapes he'd recorded even earlier in his teens.

And then he had to do a follow-up, a process he likens at one point to getting toothpaste out of a tube. He'd had his say! He'd recorded his music! What else was he going to do?

The problems of my life have very little overlap with young Oldfield's, who for one reason and another was a functioning alcoholic even before Tubular Bells, and did a tad too much LSD and needed some severely aggressive therapy in his mid-twenties to sort himself out. (The screams and howls in TB's "Piltdown Man" bit aren't faked.) But I'm eye to eye with him here. Y'see, it's dawning on me that my first three novels – not including The Xenocide Mission, because that was an unexpected sequel – were the three novels I really had inside me, struggling to get out. Simplistically, they were the Space Opera One, the Time Travel One and the Alternate History One. Then I had to write something else. Um.

Anyone who has been foolish enough to ask how my writing has been going recently will know that I've been rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting ... if Hergest Ridge was toothpaste out of a tube for Oldfield, this is like pulling teeth for me. With a pair of tweezers. The first draft itself took some wrenching, but I got a story out and I like it. My publisher didn't, and to be fair I can see what he means. But it's the story! What do you mean, rewrite it?

As the world knows, Oldfield managed. Historical forces were against him – it wasn't his fault that Tubular Bells came out just as punk was coming in. After the rapturous reception of his debut work, he just couldn't understand why all his subsequent stuff was getting panned, even if it did keep selling. Finally he was able to keep going by redefining his entire approach and outlook, employing other musicians, riffing off their ideas and targeting his music at the market, at the same time as keeping it deliberately Oldfieldian. The first fruits of this new approach were his albums Platinum and then my favourite, QE2. He was back on track.

I enjoyed reading the book, even with its occasionally slightly clunky style which persuades me he really did write it himself rather than filter it through a ghost writer. Favourite anecdote: Oldfield's sister Sally, six years older than him, was best friends at university with a girl called Marianne Faithfull ... What with one thing leading to another, young Michael aged 13 or 14 found himself playing guitar in a recording studio with his big sister and her friend and her friend's famous boyfriend in the producer's box. Thus, shortly after, he was able to tell a teacher at his school who was predicting a life of miserable unemployment unless he got a haircut and some decent O-levels under his belt: "I've just been in a recording studio with Mick Jagger and I'm going to be a musician."

Nice one.

Richard Branson emerges mostly with credit. He wasn't the one who spotted the potential of Tubular Bells but he was the one who drove the money-making process. Oldfield gradually came to understand that his motive remained (understandably) making a healthy profit for Virgin, which is how within a few years Virgin had moved from being the company that debuted with Tubular Bells to the company signing up all the nascent punk bands. Oldfield understands but is still a little nonplussed. Tubular Bells' money-making potential for Virgin was helped considerably by the contract Branson foisted on its young, naive composer, giving him the lowest royalty rate possible, binding him to another 9 albums with Virgin and giving Virgin the rights to Tubular Bells for the next 35 years. Oldfield finally got it back in 2008.

There's a parallel universe where Moonlight Shadow still has the lyrics Hazel O'Connor wrote for it, rather than the ones Oldfield dragged out of himself with the help of a rhyming dictionary, a bottle of wine and an all-night writing session. It would make interesting listening. The success of that song gave Richard Branson ammunition to encourage Oldfield to write more and more songs, and less and less instrumental stuff: the logical conclusion was his album Earth Moving, which is all songs, and barring a couple of tracks really is the most forgettable item in his output. Oldfield hit back with the mighty Amarok – nothing that could remotely be made into a single, every instrument under the sun, Zulu choir and Maggie Thatcher (impersonated, in the last couple of minutes) all thrown together into a glorious hour-long mix. And when he finally broke free from Virgin, the result was Tubular Bells II which was and is a work of genius.

He didn't always enjoy the process of re-identifying himself as a musician, with its loss of control and whiff of compromise, but it's what makes him a pro rather than a talented amateur. And face it, when even the work you don't particularly enjoy leads you to live outside the UK for a year for tax reasons, there are compensations.

I'm sure I can learn from this with my own approach to writing. Now I just need to work out how ... I probably won't get the tax problem and I doubt my wealth will be indirectly funding innovative ventures into space. But you take what you can get.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The lesser of two weevils

Tomorrow is International Talk Like A Pirate Day. I will be seriously disappointed if I meet anyone who does any such thing.

I will however buy a drink for anyone I meet who observes International Talk Like Dr Stephen Maturin Day.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Easier than dust and daemons

Philip Pullman is writing a book about Jesus, says the Oxford Mail, exploring the novel concept that Jesus may not have been the Son of God. Oh, yawn.

Granted, this is news to the bookselling trade but in terms of significant theological events it's not even static on the radar screen. As a mild mannered cleric points out towards the end of the article, it's not like he's the first, is it? It's so depressing to think that a whole new generation who missed out on Dan Brown - okay, that bit's not depressing; good on them, I say - are going to be jumping on the rehash of a 2000 year old argument as if it's all brand new and one in the eye for established religion.
"It is understood Mr Pullman also puts forward the possibility that Jesus being the son of God was an invention of St Paul. "
It's like Karen Armstrong was never born.

Nor am I encouraged by:
"For every man or woman who has been led to goodness by a church, and I know there have been many, there has been another who has been inspired by the same church to a rancid and fanatical bigotry for which the only fitting word is 'evil'."
So, Christianity has produced a precise 50/50 split of good and evil, hey? Based on the evidence of Christ Church on Long Furlong, this means there must somewhere be a church that verges on the Satanic. Hmm, I've never felt entirely easy walking past St Michael's ...

I jest. I do however hope his views within the book are more moderately, less Dawkinsishly expressed.

One thing I do learn from the article is that Catholics apparently get Auxiliary Bishops, presumably in case the main one fails.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Whee! I mean, oops

Honestly , it could happen to anyone. I mean, I bet it's happened to you, too. You know how it is. You're sitting in a Victor bomber, which is one of the most Derek Meddings-esque aircraft ever to have actually existed but which isn't actually, you know, at this present moment in time, um, officially air-worthy ... And neither you nor your co-pilot or indeed the plane are licensed to fly ... But anyway, you're sitting in it and you're doing a 100 knot run down the runway to give the spectators a thrill and you really mean to slow down but your co-pilot freezes and doesn't throttle back in time and you keep accelerating and ... well, what would any plane do in those circumstances?

Take off, that's what.

Accident, my afterburners.

The nicest word that comes to mind is "lazy"

I suppose a peril of moving in primarily IT literate circles is that you forget how many illiterates there are out there: not necessarily in terms of grammar and the ability to construct coherent sentences (though to be honest, there is quite a close correlation) but just in terms of etiquette.

Fr'instance, a post two days ago on Terry Wogan and various domestic issues drew the following well-targeted comment, all entirely sic including the unclosed opening inverted commas:

Two things

1) I'd like your permission to (re)print your article on ‘Torchwood'for our website

2) I was hoping we could use your ‘scribing' talent for our website.

The Best Shows Youre Not Watching (dot) com [all one word]
‘Torchwood'one of our featured shows. We're hoping to round up a few people who can occasionally contribute perspective (via an article/blog) on the shows – maybe a recent episode, future direction, plot shortcomings etc.

What's in it for you?
Primarily a larger audience back channeled to your blog. We don't pay but the site has a lot of promise and we're pretty excited about getting it off the ground. Let me know what you think.

[I redact the URL because I've already given the name of their site and have no intention of making life too easy.]

Intriguing, because while I could swear I've mentioned Torchwood more than once, a search on the blog only uncovers one article, written nearly three years ago when the series began. Anyway. To save you looking it up, I devastatingly replied:
First, convince me you really are after my scribing talent as a result of a personal evaluation of my ability as evidenced on this blog, and that this isn't an automatic spam generated by a bot searching on the word "Torchwood".

Why might I suspect the latter case?

1. The only article I've written on Torchwood is nearly 3 years old.

2. There's a clearly visible link in the left hand column saying "contact Ben", and yet you drop a comment into a totally unrelated post. The nicest word that comes to mind is "lazy".

How you go about this convincing of me I leave up to you, but the clue is in point 2 above.
It's not just web spammers but any kind of direct marketing: the key word is clue, people. If you want people to take you seriously, show you have one. Honestly. Do you really, really think that this kind of so-obviously mass-produced, badly worded twaddle is going to convince us of anything, other than the fact that you so clearly haven't gone through our site in a search for exactly the right 'scribing' talent to suit your needs? Put another way: is it really an advert for your site that it's going to be 'scribed' by the kind of people who either write or respond to this kind of thing?

I thought I would test my theory that the commenter may not be 100% inspired by my personal brilliance. A quick search on key phrases of the comment shows:
  • US TV critic Alan Sepinwall got exactly the same, in a post about American Idol and Ellen Degeneres. As a follow-up comment points out, he's apparently a high-profile critic in the US and doesn't exactly need the back-channelled larger audience.
  • Journalist David Kirkpatrick in an article on nanotech. At least Mr Sepinwall has actually written articles on Torchwood. In Mr Kirkpatrick's case the requested article was about The Clone Wars. A quick search shows that Mr Kirkpatrick has previously written exactly two lines in different posts about the Clone Wars: on 7 January 2009, commenting on wii games: "Hell, the Clone Wars lightsaber game is downright tiring", and a link to the show's trailer.
  • Finally, writer Kat Richardson got done with a comment that starts off about Medium but then segues for no apparent reason into The Clone Wars, again. A good 'scriber' is at least proficient with cut and paste and the ability to read their own spam.
And there are others, but I got bored.

Good grief, this is the kind of thing people were doing back when the web was young in the mid-nineties. I may even have done it myself, though I hope I didn't. Is a whole new generation that doesn't remember the mid-nineties now making the same mistake?