Friday, April 24, 2009

Party excuse

If you find the sidereal calendar just so drearily predictable, there is an alternative. Decimalise!

I am currently 16140 days old. My next centennial birthday is on 23 June this year, when I'll be 16200 days. Or maybe I'll just keep my strength for the millennial celebrations on 1 September 2011 when I hit the big 17000.

I may just call it 17 mega-days. I'll be 17 again but without the spots and hormones.

Spread the joy and work out your own:

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Way to stand for your principles, Ben ...

So, I thought I'd send an email round to far too many contacts asking for sponsorship for our team in the forthcoming Dragon Boat racing. And because I value online privacy, naturally I put all the addresses in the BCC field.

When my own test copy for the first batch of mailing arrived, I thought, "oh, that's odd. As the sender, I can see all the addresses in the BCC field ... in the B- ... uh ... in the ..."

Biscuits. I of course put them all in the CC field. Apologies to all involved. Anyone I mailed in the second batch, where I got it right, may feel smug.

But should anyone not contacted be feeling generous ... 1/3 of money to Abingdon Vesper Rotary, 2/3 to Cancer Research, handy sponsorship URL at

It's the colour that counts

I think the first audio cassette I ever held in my hands belonged to my grandfather. I’m guessing it emerged after he died in 1975. And it was so frustrating because nowhere in my grandparents’ or my parents’ house was there any kind of device for playing the thing. Goodness knows what Granddad was doing with it in the first place.

We’ve almost come full circle …

Over the last six months I have discovered iPods. First, Bonusbarn upgraded his white iPod Nano to a green one. I bought the white one off him and put my downloaded music onto it. This didn’t take long. Bit by bit it began to fill up with other stuff. I bought a widget for playing iPods on a car cassette player. See, it was dawning on me that my beloved set of car-listening compilation tapes was wearing thin, stiffening up, stretching, generally getting wonky … and I had no means for re-recording them. A lot of them came off LPs I had once bought but no longer possessed, and even if I still possessed them I no longer had the means to play them. Some came off CDs which I still own but we barely have the means to re-record them. The only tape mechanisms now in the flat are the ones accidentally attached to a couple of radios. They record, but the quality ain’t great and the new recording often sounds worse than the one it’s replacing.

And now the white iPod is full, so I have been given permission to upgrade to a purple one with eight times the capacity of the white one and twice, or possibly four times the capacity of Bonusbarn’s green one. It was a cheaper option than buying a decent tape recorder. He doesn’t know this yet.

But this means I can go one step further than with the compilation tapes. I created them in the first place because while I enjoyed the works of the selected artists I didn’t necessarily enjoy them by the albumful; and anyway it was fun to mix and match the absolutely best songs. Which led to the inevitable heartbreak of having to leave some of the good, but not entirely the best good, stuff off as it can’t all fit onto a 90 minute tape. With a purple iPod this is no longer an issue.

Of course it’s not quite as flexible as mixing and matching the recording of your own tape, or if it is I’ve yet to find out how. iTunes will let you shuffle your music randomly, or play it album by album, in alphabetical order of title rather than year of release, and in track order. But you can still have a certain amount of geeky fun classifying everything by genre and playlist. You’re essentially populating a database, after all, and fun doesn’t come more geeky than that.

It’s not quite as fun as the good old days of putting coloured stickers on your cassette collection for ease of classifying, but it’s better than nothing.

It also goes without saying that I totally ignore Genius, the cunning means by which iTunes studies your musical tastes and suggests music you might like to purchase to go with it. Until iTunes drops DRM completely and unconditionally, it will be a cold day in Hell before I buy something there. Anyway, one of the joys of life is serendipitously picking up a track at random from the background noise of your day to day existence, deciding you like it, hunting it down and acquiring it. Being fed music by Apple would miss the point completely.

And speaking of DRM ... it was a truly frabjous day when Amazon launched its own reasonably priced DRM-free MP3 download section. That way I’ve been able to select favourite tracks from LPs that I formerly owned and added them to the purple iPod too. It means that in some cases I have paid for something twice in the course of my life, but only by a matter of pennies.

But this led on to a further moral conundrum. Another huge plus of the unambiguously legal Amazon service was that the dubious attractions of the dodgy Russian download sites vanished. I admit to having frequented them in the past but it was becoming clearer and clearer that the money wasn’t reaching the artists concerned, even if the Russians maintained that was the artists’ fault and not theirs. So I stopped using them.

But some tracks that I want to iPodise aren’t available on Amazon. I’m thinking specifically of the early work of Mr Oldfield and the entire oeuvre of Sky. The dodgy Russians have the Oldfield corpus covered, and do at least have Sky’s second (and best) album and half of their fifth. So on the grounds that I have already bought Sky2 and Five Live in my youth, and Sky have had their royalties off me, I admit to reacquiring them for a handful of roubles.

But now the question looms in my mind: what will replace the iPod …?

I comfort myself that both LPs and audio cassettes needed special, though cheaply available, equipment to play on. As do MP3s and whatever format it is iTunes converts them to; but even so, more and more of my music is becoming available on a big electronic database somewhere and I’m reasonably certain it should therefore be convertible to any other format that comes along. We have the raw data; what we make of it is up to us. No one will be stumbling across mysterious recording media in my effects after I’m gone; what I have will be plainly available, there on screen, in rights-free format, for anyone who wants it.

For the fun of it, here is Toccata from Sky2. Drummer Tristan Fry looks like he's enjoying it most. For his more energetic solos he was known to take his glasses off.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"The floor dropped away from me before I started to follow it"

Okay, a bit of friend-plugging for the entertainment of a wider audience, on behalf of the wonderful Molly Brown.

Apparently the Sci-Fi London 48 Hour Film Challenge assigns competing teams with a title for a film, a line of dialogue and a prop. Teams then have 48 hours to complete a film incorporating all of the assigned criteria.

For Molly's team:
  • assigned title: "THIS IS..."
  • required line of dialogue: "The floor dropped away from me before I started to follow it."
  • required prop: a map of Europe with three red circles drawn on it.
And here is the result, with Molly appearing a few times as Puzzled Housewife to drive the plot along.

A behind the scenes video is also available ...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Revving like a souped-up Ford Cortina

The comedy duo Kit & the Widow have a number called “Love Song in a Major Key”, about the affair between two of our formerly prominent politicians.
“Edwina, O my Edwina,
Other men would rather swig industrial cleaner …”
Other rhymes for “Edwina” include “let’s make love until you scream like a hyena” and the title of this post. Somehow I could never quite rid the back of my mind of it as I waded through A Parliamentary Affair

Well, I told you I was reading it and I know everyone was waiting for a report.

A Parliamentary Affair was published in 1994, which means the present day reader has an advantage the original readership didn’t: we know the author had a four-year affair with John Major when she was a newly elected MP and he was a Whip. A nation felt faintly queasy over its breakfast cornflakes as the news broke and didn't want to imagine too many details. And guess what, here the female protagonist, newly elected Tory MP Elaine Stalker, has an affair with one of her party Whips. In the light of what we already know there's a terrifying suspicion we're getting just too much information. You read the sex scenes with a growing, horrified fascination: oh, please don’t say you did THAT? Like, did he really have her backwards in his office over a leather blotter with the Commons crest pressing into her face? And there is one scene involving whipped cream, strawberries and the male anatomy that … well, fortunately I never liked whipped cream with my strawberries anyway.

Moving on. I would say Currie chose her order of careers – MP first, then novelist – wisely because she started off by playing to her strengths. Novel writing isn’t one of them, or at least it wasn’t in 1994. This was her first and she may have improved. All the newbie habits are there: inability to settle on a point of view character for any one scene; occasional rants on subjects that the author feels strongly about (amoral tabloid journalists, overweight working class people); a very strong authorial voice that sometimes delivers information direct to you, sometimes lets it emerge through character dialogue. Sometimes you can only tell which is which by seeing if there are inverted commas wrapped around the paragraph you’re reading. The characters have the kind of conversations where they reveal exactly the information required by the scene without any sense of it arising naturally through dialogue. A test I like to use for natural sounding dialogue, which I think I learned from David Langford, is: can you imagine it being shouted across a room? This definitely fails the shouting test.

(It does not however pass the Soft Porn Dialogue Test. After the first Encounter, she says to him [staring intently at the anatomical part with which she has just become orally familiar] "It certainly gives a new meaning to the term Honorable Member". I wish I was making this up.)

And yet it grips you, in a West Wing kind of way, because of the author’s obvious love of the parliamentary process and the minutiae of how the great British political machine goes about its stuff. A lot of stuff I’m sure comes straight out of Currie’s own experiences, in particular her frustration as an underappreciated intelligent and capable woman in the 99.9% male world of Westminster. Yes, I can well believe she was felt up by a smug Tory patriarch as all the MPs milled together at the bar of the House to elect the Speaker.

But of course we’re not reading this for the dialogue or the politics. It’s all about the shagging. It doesn’t take us long to get into the swing of it, as it were: two on-going hetero adulterous affairs and one gay one between elder statesman and underage boy (underage meaning 19, as it still was in 1994), with a bit more bonking, titillation, adolescent sexuality and one rape going on in the wings. And here I have to admit Currie surprised me – a little.

My chief memory of the 1992-1997 Major government is a never-ending series of scandals and resignations (Wikipedia helpfully lists 13 of them, averaging at 2.6 a year), mostly to do with affairs. I distinctly remember getting to the point of wondering why Major didn’t just give his Cabinet an ultimatum: dump the mistress or get out, now. Of course, we now know he was in no position to point fingers. (What’s grey and smells of Currie? Moving swiftly on …)

Currie convincingly portrays the Commons as such an alien world that affairs become almost inevitable. The hours, the pressure, the sheer detachment from what passes for normality in the outside world. You’re thrown against these people who understand, unlike the wives and husbands trapped back home in their normal day to day lives, and who can deliver what said spouses can’t in terms of support and meeting of minds. Don’t think for a moment that I believe she excuses the behaviour, but she does explain it much more than I thought possible. Sadly, she then goes and blows it with Elaine’s righteous indignation when her husband also has an affair. The difference is obvious, at least to Elaine. Elaine and the Whip are engaged in doing Great Things in Parliament, so that makes it All Right. Their affair is what keeps them sane. Elaine’s husband is caught in bed with a neighbour who is not very intelligent and overweight and generally menial, and he’s obviously there for the base reason that he isn’t getting enough in the marital bed, so clearly that’s grounds for divorce. Well, obviously.

It all works out, sorta. Elaine goes through a learning process that I’d like to think the rest of us never needed to. There’s a sudden IRA bomb threat plot that feels a little grafted onto the end of the book, but it does bring about closure. The book ends on a nice note, keeping us in suspense at the fictitious 1996 election with the results about to be read for Elaine’s constituency. And just to show that Currie does have a sense of humour, one of the more repellent characters is polished out of the story with a nasty dose of salmonella.

So, where does this leave the proposed political bonkbuster Best Beloved wants me to write? Not sure. I can probably supply the plot, she can provide the gossip, but then there’ll be the, um, stuff that probably wouldn’t occur to me in a month of Sundays under normal circumstances. Like novel uses for dairy products and fruit. Ah well, thinking cap on, and I can console myself it will all be tax deductible.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Påsk i Sverige

Pause for a moment and consider the end of eras.

Our usual habit is to come out to Sweden for a week, make a base at my father-in-law Morfar’s farm and venture out on day trips. Sadly, this habit is now so usual after many years that Bonusbarn is quivering on the point of mutiny, having seen all the local sights so often he could do the tourist commentary. Plus at Easter everything’s closed and other typical Swedish activities – walks, swims in lakes – aren’t really viable. So we’ll probably next be in Sweden next summer, 2010 – by which time my stepson will be an 18 year old school leaver, quite possibly with plans of his own for the summer.

And consider the old man himself, who is always delighted to see us but it clearly becomes more of a strain every time he does. He gets stressed that he isn’t being hospitable enough – but, confined to a wheelchair, that translates into micromanaging Best Beloved to ensure that she is providing us with the kind of service he would like to give us. Which really isn’t necessary. The slightest departure from his decreed norm causes him endless worry, and meanwhile he gets vaguer and more forgetful; unable to remember (for example) if he’s already demonstrated to us how he uses his pee bottle, and unable to conceptualise that maybe we don’t want a demo anyway.

In short, the kindest way of staying in touch in future will probably be a long weekend on the farm – we could probably coax Bonusbarn out that long – and then explore further afield, while we send the young man gratefully back home to his friends and wireless internet. There’s plenty more of the country I’d like to see and Best Beloved would like to show me. And Morfar is always convinced that each time he sees us will be the last anyway.

But it was a good stay. Previously we’ve had snow at Easter: the snow poles are still out on the roads and the hire car (a Volvo, the best result yet in the Avis lottery) still has studded tyres. And yet the weather was so summerlike that I often wished I had bought a light jacket instead of, or at least as well as, the winter coat. We didn’t have an Easter bonfire because Cousin Valter, who as a mere sprog of 82 is responsible for physical and maintenance activities on the farm, decreed that the undergrowth was too dry. Then the wind blew and I was grateful for the woollen jumper and cords. A season of contradictions.

I still love that little house on the Västergötland prairie. It’s made of wood, but so snug and tight that I could sit out a blizzard there. And so quiet. There were times I quite literally could not hear a thing apart from my own heartbeat. No one else in the house, no traffic, no wind, nothing. Quite astonishing. But it is a relief to know that tonight I sleep in my own bed, which must be as much younger than me as the one in Sweden is older.

We met Senior Niece’s baby, who is most babylike with a cute smile and habit of vomiting without warning or apology. As expected, really.

I enjoyed the unusual (for a writer) experience of a couple of hours’ honest work, helping Valter split logs. He has a machine for the purpose that pushes them against a metal blade and they split without any apparent effort. Harder than it looks.

Power lines run through some woods at one end of Morfar’s property, and new laws increasing the amount of free space around them has led to a few extra logs needing to be dealt with.

And then of course there was Easter. A fairly High Lutheran service but I was raised fairly High Anglican so can cope with that. The words are pretty easy to follow – the Lord’s Prayer, the creed ... Or this one? “Helig, Helig, Helig, Herre Gud Sebaot; Himlarna och jorden är fulla av din härlighet; Hosianna I höjden ...”

I had my annual reminder that the words for Spirit and Duck are the same: thus Helig Anden could be the Holy Spirit or the Holy Duck. You have to take your best guess.

It was an old church but refurbished in a modern style inside – big windows, pastel shades, pine furniture, comfortable chairs, full of light. The choir really sounded like they meant it, with some songs and tunes so joyful it didn’t matter that I understood one word in ten. During communion they sang a Taizé chant, over and over again, and kept singing as they went up to the rails. This meant that we who were among the last of the congregation to go up suddenly realised the singing was following us. Quite beautiful. The closing hymn was sung in question-and-answer style, with the men essentially asking what this Easter thing is all about and (appropriately for the season) the women telling them. It was a dignified, proper hymn with a light and happy tune that I've not heard before, but I wanted to take a copy to give to our own worship leader and say "more like that".

The sermon – I was told later – mentioned a Palestinian family whose 12 year old child was killed by an Israeli soldier. They donated the child’s heart and it now beats inside a young Israeli. The two families have got in touch and as much as possible are friends. And that, said the pastor, is the Easter message. Hear, hear.

[Previous Sweden posts for 2008, 2007 and 2006]

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Reading so you don't have to

Best Beloved is determined that I will one day write a bonkbuster filled with politics, diplomacy and intrigue and sex. She will feed me snippets gleaned from her time as an au pair to a diplomatic family in Saudi, where the shenanigans and goings-on would not meet with approval of the mutaween (which is a pretty good reason for doing anything) and we will retire on the proceeds.

Therefore, strictly for research, I must report that the next title on my reading list is Edwina Currie's A Parliamentary Affair. There, I said it. A report may or may not be following. Likewise the proposed bonkbuster.

Now off for a week for our annual Sweden pilgrimage where Internet connectivity will almost certainly not be forthcoming. To fill the void in your lives, here are some things you probably didn't know about me. Why not look yourself up too? You may be pleasantly surprised.

Ten Top Trivia Tips about Ben Jeapes!

  1. The Church of Scientology was founded in 1953, at Washington D.C., by Ben Jeapes.
  2. Ben Jeapesology is the study of Ben Jeapes.
  3. Ben Jeapes can eat up to four kilograms of insects in a single night.
  4. Julius Caesar wore a laurel wreath to cover up Ben Jeapes.
  5. Ben Jeapes can squeeze his entire body through a hole the size of his beak.
  6. Ben Jeapes can smell some things up to six miles away.
  7. A sixteenth century mathematician lost his nose in a duel over his love for Ben Jeapes, and wore a silver replacement for the rest of his life.
  8. The Vikings believed that the Northern lights were caused by Ben Jeapes as he rode out to collect warriors slain in battle.
  9. The number one cause of blindness in the United States is Ben Jeapes!
  10. Japan provides over thirty percent of the world's Ben Jeapes supply.
I am interested in - do tell me about

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Ancient and modern

Ancient: this nineteenth century writing desk brought back from my grandmother's flat yesterday, already lightly encrusted with clutter. "French mahogany secretaire a abattant with boxwood outline panels" ...

and "... satinwood veneered interior with an arrangement of six drawers".

It replaces a much more modern G-plan writing desk, so while we've probably traded down in terms of storage capacity we've traded way up in style. It now looms over to one side of our room like a TARDIS with a slightly iffy camouflage circuit. If it was a TARDIS then we could have just landed it, rather than have to manipulate it up a flight of stairs slightly narrower than it is with two right angled bends. A good family bonding exercise, not least for Bonusbarn who was squished against the wall on a couple of occasions but took it like a man.

Modern: later the same day, an Oxfringe do at Borders in Oxford on Reading & Writing Sf and Fantasy. A panel of three - Juliet McKenna, Chaz Brenchley and yours truly - talked about what we like to read and write, while an audience of 11 - so at least outnumbering the panel, always a good thing - listened with rapt attention. So, nice people happy to let me talk about myself for a lot. I could get used to that. As Juliet put it in her email inviting me to attend, it was:
"Essentially, a panel discussion of the kind we're all so used to via the convention circuit and which so many bookshops/libraries regard with awe akin to someone splitting the atom in their back bedroom."
Well, quite. Let's hope they don't catch on. Mark Chadbourn was meant to attend but couldn't, which sadly meant I was unable to tell him I read his novel Jack of Ravens on honeymoon and still turned in my review of it on time (the five hour round trip to the Scillies did help). The review was only mostly complimentary, but he's a pro and I'm sure he could have taken it.