Thursday, August 27, 2009

The pint of Guinness holiday

Best Beloved remarked that this was like all the holidays we would have had if we had met earlier, had some kids of our own, done this more often ... all the triumphs, all the mistakes, rolled into one.

"It's a pint of Guinness holiday," I agreed.

On the first night we had had our first Guinness in far too long: as the wisdom would have it, it's a drink, a meal and a smoke all in one glass. Bonusbarn turned the offer down, his taste being corrupted by abominations such as chilling and widgets. If you can't strain the Liffey silt through your teeth, I say, it's not real Guinness.

Let's not dwell on the mistakes ... but okay, I will beat my breast a little. Despite having once seethed in frustration when a boneheaded head of family scheduled a holiday for the week my A level results arrived, guess what I did 26 years later? The only justification I can offer is that they were AS levels, not real A levels at all, utterly unnecessary make-work for the educational establishment with no real merit and therefore not on my mental radar. Well, yes, I can tell myself that but they do kind of matter to the present generation. And as it turned out, our resident member of the present generation did quite reasonably well, thank you for asking.

So, anyway. There is a lot to be said for a holiday where everyone drives on the left, speaks English and uses the same plugs. The Irish use a strange currency that I kept referring to as dollars (my first venture into the Eurozone), but even that you get used to. And, vide Best Beloved's earlier remark, it really was our first family holiday to somewhere that wasn't a family residence.

Dublin airport is an interesting mixture of what looks like a 1930s central building, an ugly concrete 70s (I would guess) terminal and some gleamy shiny brand new buildings that are in the process of being built, some already in operation. The area around Dublin airport looks like a roadwork, and a common sight around the countryside is a new motorway in the process of construction that is no longer being constructed.

The area around Dublin airport also contains the Hertz offices, which contain a silver-tongued employee called Karl who is skilled at the traditional Irish pastime of relieving the English of their money. This particular Englishmen wanted to treat the family (within the holiday budget) and so played the game. "We've got you an Avensis," quoth Karl in a silvery manner, "... or would you like something nicer?"

The magic word was "Avensis". If he had said something like "Mondeo" I would have left it at that, but I disliked the last hired Avensis (in Sweden) so much I was prepared to consider alternatives. Via a Range Rover, which was frighteningly big and I couldn't work out how to make the automatic gears work, we finally settled on this modest little family runaround.

Well, it brought a smile to the family's faces, though 'wince' might be a more accurate description for one of them. We all came to appreciate it: very handy the automatic gears were, for some of the windy, gear-intensive roads we ended up driving along, and the suspension could float over the more idiosyncratic Irish road surfaces. By the end of the second day we had worked out how to open the glove compartment and, more important, the petrol cap. It took another day after that to shake the feeling that I was driving around in a stolen car.

I would however list a few design faults: no rear wiper, difficult to look left and right (can't lean forward because your head hits the windscreen, and thick side pillars block the view), and while the TARDIS console style pop-up gear selector dial is very fancy it's one more thing that could potentially go wrong and anyway I like to put a car into gear, not dial it in.

So, Day 1, a 2.75 hour drive down to Kilkenny where one of Bonusbarn's late dad's best friends works as head chef in the 4-star Pembroke Hotel. Very nice. We tucked into his delicious baked Toulouse sausage and sauté potatoes, then stayed up when he came off shift and chatted, accompanied by the aforesaid Guinness and Jamesons and Irish coffee.

Day 2, a gentle stroll through Kilkenny in the morning before checking out. Kilkenny, and later Dublin, were to strike me as ... well, I'm not sure of the word. "Varied?" Every shop is different. Instead of the dreary monotony of about six high street chains, every shop is something new. And packed, and thriving. It's like an English high street from 30 years ago. This was when I started to love Ireland for more than just the scenery. (Update: further research suggests my view is a little rosy, not to mention uninformed and generally wrong. But I stand by the impression.)

But speaking of scenery, we then meandered through the countryside, including Mount Juliet and Tinakilly where Bonusbarn's dad had worked, and back to Dublin, southside, to meet more friends who also happen to be Bonusbarn's godparents. What they might have made of the physical manifestation of 17 years-worth of the occasional prayer, we didn't ask. The nearby Sandyford industrial estate looks like photos you see of Dubai – amazingly ugly brand new futuristic buildings all at different stages of construction, but hopefully not facing Dubai's credit problems.

Day 3, a drive through the stupendous Wicklow mountains in (somewhat unusually) brilliant sunshine, ending up at our lodgings for the new few days – Kiltale Holiday Homes, Co. Meath. A farm until a few years ago, the outbuildings have been converted into self-catering apartments.

Highly recommended for a quiet break from it all, but not if (like one of our number) you have a hankering for the internet, or if you mind having to sit down to shave to get your face at the level of the mirror, or resent being woken by a loudly braying donkey at 6am. This was the scene of one of the fuller and more comprehensive exchanges of views that the three of us have known in three years of being a family, as tiredness + results frustration + the thought of three more days of sight-seeing + internet deprivation + delayed bereavement grief all combined into a perfect storm of teenage misery. I began to wonder if this would be the Holiday from Hell. I've never had one of those and the writer in me was wondering what it would be like.

With that out of the way, however, we moved on to Day 4 and more traditionally Irish weather ...

... as we went Neolithic, taking in the Hill of Tara, the Neolithic mounds of Knowth and other such venues. Towards the end of Knowth, Ireland decided it was No More Mister Nice Guy and it rained on us. Oh, did it ever rain on us, as in, soaked through to the underwear. The general adversity did much to lift Bonusbarn's spirits.

Day 5: lunch with another old family friend at Roly's (Dublin's Herbert Park, opposite the US embassy) and then Day 6: Dublin itself. Ireland repented a little to give us another day of glorious sunshine to explore its capital, and what a splendid capital it is. The traffic would drive me mad if I had to live there and the suburbs are a warren, but the centre features these marvellous wide open Georgian boulevards along the Liffey. The English built this feature of Dublin, I mused, so why the heck couldn't we have made London just as nice? Our loss, their gain. We bought fish and chips from Leo Burdocks, following in the footsteps (the sign said) of such luminaries as U2, William Shatner and the parents of Justin Timberlake, and ate them in the park next to St Patrick's cathedral.

Then we wandered through the city centre. See above comments. Bonusbarn cashed a postal order at the GPO and I wondered what fool, and I mean fool, would try and hold such a wide-open place as a fortress; and then on to Trinity to marvel, and I mean marvel, at the Book of Kells. Try doing that in Adobe Illustrator. We could even make out some of the text: 'non habeamus' and 'panem' and 'pisces', from which Best Beloved correctly deduced we were looking at the Feeding of the Five Thousand. (I had already glanced at the printed tab next to it ...)

Then finally Day 7, weather back to normal as we cruised in an anticlockwise circle to the north west, taking in such sights as the cairns of Loughcrew and the more recent but equally historic houses where Best Beloved first worked after leaving Sweden. Loughcrew is quite off the beaten track, but I was delighted to learn that the Office of Public Works pays an ex-farmer to sit at the top of a windswept hill and talk about the mound to any strangers as may turn up.

Returning home included the minor inconveniences of yours truly dropping our boarding passes somewhere in the airport terminal, and having to seek out a computer terminal and reprint them (Ryanair's DIY check-in policy is a mixed blessing), and then remembering to use the gear stick again as we drew out of Birmingham International. And here we are. The End.

But in all seven days we only had that one pint of Guinness, so we're going back.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Off again tomorrow, this time with the family and very little intention to seek out any kind of internetty stuff. Montreal was technically work: this is holiday.

Closer to home; also officially bilingual; foreigners assume we're all part of England; and it's not named after emeralds for its mineral wealth. Work it out and talk to you soon.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Spam almost right

Some spam is just weird. Like this, received today by both me and my colleague:
Hiya. Long time no speak.

It's Nan's 95th Birthday next month, any ideas on what to get her this year?

Love Sis

Current email was sent by an Evaluation License.
Note: This footer will be removed with Licensed SSL/TLS Version
Straight text, no URL to go to, no viruses attached, no request for personal data to let them into my bank account.

But. My sister would never sign herself Sis and anyway, Nan's 95th birthday was five years ago. Her hundredth was while I was in Montreal. So, I don't think I will pursue this any further.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

This country, eh?

I spent some of yesterday's jet lag recuperation at home phoning round driving schools, to get an idea of lesson prices for Bonusbarn. BSM came up with a pretty good package of 6 hours on the simulator (in Cowley Road, though I don't know if it actually simulates Cowley Road complete with innovative kerbless pavements), 10 hours on the road and a bundle of CDs to help you through your theory test, all for £300-and-something. But they also asked: What is your aim for these lessons?

My aim? Oh, let me see, I know this, um ... it's ...


I want him to have this useful life skill.

I want him to kill or maim only the barest minimum of people when he gets behind the wheel of a car.

I would like him to break as few laws as possible.

Stop me if I'm going too fast for you.

Meanwhile, now I'm back in the country I thought I should check to see if I'm worthy of it. Apparently I'm not, scoring only 54% (13 out of 24) on the Practice UK Citizenship Test. Deary me. No matter that I can talk for hours on the history of our parliamentary form of government, or recite all the monarchs from Henry VIII onwards (and a good few before) together with a summary of the effect of their reigns on our way of life. No, what matters is that I know things like there are 15 million children and young people up to the age of 19 in the UK (which I got right - lucky guess).

It's all multiple choice and the questions can be broken down into: 1) who cares? 2) give me a break and 3) wrong!

Example of (1): does it really matter when women got the right to divorce their husbands? 1857, if you were wondering. Example of (2): options for the afore-mentioned number of kids are 13, 14, 15 or 16 million, all of which seem like a reasonable guess. And 3): Many job applications will require a covering letter and: a document showing proof of identity; your NI number; a CV; or a signed photo. The approved answer is a CV. Cobblers. Many employers require you to fill in a form of their own devising, which requires your NI but specifically excludes a CV.

But, as with so many of our target-driven government's obsessions, it's not actually a test of good citizenship. It's a test to see if you've read Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship Handbook, from which all the questions are drawn. Maybe, therefore, the actual questions in the test are, you know, RELEVANT.

Or maybe not.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

So long and thanks

Monday 10 August
Almost there ...

A reading first thing, at which I didn't know 50% of the audience. So if you stick to percentages, that's quite good. I gave them both the first chapter of the current work in progress and got some suggestions for speeding it up a bit.

Then, out of curiosity, the panel "Polyamory: Not quite as Heinlein described it". (This doesn't narrow it down as a subject.) Hmm.

Worth quoting the programme listing here:
"One of our panelists once described poly as "always having someone to miss". A livejournal poster described the moment of realising she didn't know which house needed the mustard: others talk of the wonders of Google calendars. Proposed: poly, properly done, is calm, quiet and perhaps a little dull but an awful relief from the drama."
Right ... I'll let myself be marginally more convinced by the above coming from two people I know and respect on the panel. (Though one of them was the emergency moderator, roped in at the last minute and I didn't catch whether he is of this inclination.) The other three all cheerfully self-identified as poly but asked not to be identified in blog reports as they are all academics and don't want this to be the first thing their students learn about them. (But they are all listed in the programme ...) Still came away with a sneaking suspicion they were making life more complicated than it needed to be ... I mean, drama? What drama? That last sentence sounds like a good description, and an excellent justification, for monogamy.

And suddenly ... well, that was it. Nothing more I really wanted to do. I can never decide if cons are always a day too long, or just long enough to let me go home with my head held high and not a backwards look. But my plane wasn't until much later so I went to see Wall-E, this year's winner of the Hugo for the best long-form drama.

And what a good film it is! You can't help but love Wall-E himself, the most anthropomorphic, resourceful, plucky little robot since R2D2. An astonishing amount of design work went into it so that there isn't a single visual that doesn't look right but plenty of detail that slips right past you on just one viewing. I also saw it on my last day in Denver last year, so maybe I'm destined to see it on the last day of worldcon for ever more.

It also struck me that this was the perfect response to the polyamory panel. Wall-E is quietly getting on with his life, not minding or even really noticing that he's lonely ... until he meets the one person who can fill the gap in his life, after which he will move heaven and earth to keep her. Wall-E the Polyamorous Robot really would not work.

So, what of the con itself? I would say a well varied programme, though the videos could have been better advertised. The Palais is unspeakably ugly, as previously mentioned, all exposed girders and brutalist concrete ... but in its sixties way I found it preferable to last year's gargantuan sterile airport lounge. The spaces were large enough for a crowd but small enough to feel at home in.

The Dealers' Room was disappointingly small, not a lot bigger than at some Eastercons, though I gather that's the fault of Canadian Customs being extra unfriendly this year. Still bought enough books to bust the wheels on my lovely wife's case.

The badge was inspired, even if I first met the idea in 2002 and it may be even older than that. It's not just a badge, it's a wallet, see. So you can put things in it. Unlike most badges it will actually outlast the con by a factor of years.

And so to the airport, wondering when I'll do this again. Not Melbourne next year - though an Australian holiday would be nice, one day, given time and money - and not remotely interested in Reno in 2011. (Both subject to immediate change if I suddenly become Big in the countries concerned.) In fact, maybe not ever again. At my level of fandom it's not really a time- or money-efficient way of having fun. Let's see where the career takes me, eh?

Back-to-back bluffing

Sunday 9 August
"Like gay men taking over a lesbian bar": YA author Fiona Patton describing how media fans moved in on the literary sf scene in the late seventies, post-Star Wars, at a panel on writing for teens, moderated by yours truly. This was meant to include Eoin Colfer who hadn't been seen for the entire convention - the latest report was he hadn't checked in. Speculation was rife, including that he may have unwisely told an immigration officer he was here for business, been unable to produce a work permit, and been bundled on the next flight out again. Apparently it happens. Cons are not business, even for working authors. They are Fun.

Before that, the annual ecumenical service led by excellent the Rev. Randy Smith. I wish our vicar was called Randy because he always starts his services with "I'm Ron, I'm the vicar ..." I know, I know, it's just short for Randall and Randy is a top guy.

The afternoon was the back-to-back bluffing with me on two panels I don't actually know that much about: the Napoleonic wars and science blogging. I obeyed my mother's instruction to let everyone know my 3xgreat-grandfather has his horse shot from under him at Salamanca. But Steve Stirling and Walter Jon Williams could manage quite well on their own. Still, my knowledge of things Napoleonic is encyclopaedic compared to my science blogging savvy. I could say I follow Ben Goldacre's Bad Science site, but I still got a tinsy bit confused and thought he was the one being sued by the chiropractors, despite having signed the petition and told you all about it.


At the end we were each asked what we'd like to see in the future of science blogging. This being an sf convention, I proposed that an artificial intelligence - say, Skynet, if it wanted a more useful outlet for its activities - could produce a web page of 10 random facts a day. But, each fact would be impeccably researched and linked, free of all political and financial bias, so that the interested reader could drill down and find out the absolute truth. Co-panelist Chad Orzel, one of the two professors up there with me, thought this was good idea, so I will plug him and his forthcoming book How to Teach Physics to Your Dog.

Little becomes big

Saturday 8 August
A day of unexpected highlights from items I wasn't too sure about.

Patrick Rothfuss, Brandon Sanderson, Nalo Hopkinson, Doselle Young and me did a panel on "Archetypes and Stereotypes", exploring the fine lines that distinguish them and also working out where "cliché" fits into the equation. And I don't know how well we satisfied the audience but it was great fun - a lot of laughing and also a few good points made, though I say it myself. One lady afterwards told me it was the best panel yet, and this guy would seem to concur.

Then there was the signing, at which several people I didn't already know produced copies of The New World Order and The Xenocide Mission and of course Time's Chariot. 3/4 ain't bad.

The one I really didn't have high hopes for was "Size does matter" - a panel discussion on small presses. 8pm on a Saturday night, most people can think of better things to be doing, especially when it's scheduled against the Masquerade. I had an invitation to the launch of ChiZine, which essentially said "we're delighted to see you're on a panel about the virtues of small presses: please come to our party to celebrate the launch of our small press which is scheduled right against your panel on the virtues of small presses." Do you begin to see the flaw?

But anyway, the audience eventually outnumbered the panel and the proceedings unexpectedly became pretty well a monologue by Ron Drummond on what sounds like a breathtakingly beautiful museum edition of John Crowley's Little, Big, to mark its 25th anniversary. Not quite bound in silver-engraved handtooled unborn calfskin but getting there. January 2010, people.

Servants of the Walk

Friday 7 August
The first morning walk of the con - a concept carried over from last year, therefore now in its second year, so it must be a tradition. We assembled by the fountain next to the Palais ...

... which every now and then excitingly starts to steam. It seems to be a design feature and not a faulty valve.

Then a nice stroll around Vieux-Montreal. I got chatting to one Colin Harvey, mostly because his badge identified him as coming from Keynsham, which I always confuse with Eynsham and so thought he was relatively local to me. A serendipitous error. With my usual memory for names I had completely forgotten he's the editor of Future Bristol, review by me appearing in a forthcoming Vector - though I'm glad to say it's favourable. He's also an Angry Robot author and invited me to the launch tonight.

Chatting to Farah Mendlesohn, she said that she once shook hands with Michael Foot, and he once shook hands with H.G. Wells. It's something like the Apostolic Succession. (And I've probably shaken hands with Farah.)

First must-see event of the day was the Golden Duck Awards, which were obviously not invented by someone familiar with cricket. They're a bundle of different awards for younger readers under one title. The Eleanor Cameron Award for Middle Grades went to Lighter Than Air by Henry Melton and the Hal Clement Award was tie with a title I forget and Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. After the awards were given this turned (unexpectedly, but hey) into a panel discussion with all the authors present on writing for teens. This in turn got a little side-tracked with the specific discussion of how much sex you can get away with, but again, hey. And I got to tell Cory about how I once got a speed ticket on his behalf.

The Angry Robot awards in the evening were fun - a not too crowded hotel suite, for a blessed change, and a variety of wine. On the 28th floor of the Delta Hotel, a woman was observed freaking out because CBC News had just announced to the nation that the 28th floor was the party floor. Fortunately Angry Robot was on the 22nd. Anyway, I thought that if all the various bid parties stationed runners in the lobby to catch the hordes as they came in, they could make a killing.

Didn't get to see the carnage, though, because at 9pm I was on "Just A Minute" back in the Palais, with Tom Galloway, Steve Green and Dave Clements, Nicholas Parsonsed by Paul Cornell. Maybe I'd had a bit too much wine, maybe my reactions are slow: for whatever reason I floundered a little even on subjects like Narnia and Gerry Anderson, before rallying disgracefully on Servants of the Wankh. My fourth place was made a bit more respectable with the help of my competitors. (Beep. "He needs the points." Beep. "I agree.")

Said subject had also been a title in the previous night's charades, which I didn't get to. Hint for anyone doing this in the future: you can get a similar effect with Obi-wan Kenobi.

Celts, Connie and Critiques

Thursday 6 August
Got off to a flying start with "The werewolves of Brigadoon" - a panel discussion on the cultural appropriation of all things Celtic by Hollywood and/or bad fantasy, and the atrocities committed against same. George R.R. Martin represented all things evil and American, Kari Spelling ranted about the myth of a Celtic matriarchal pagan goddess worshipping sexually liberated paradise, and the whole was moderated by the lovely and extremely Irish Peadar Ó Guilín (not Peadar O. Guilin, as his publisher's page would have it ... If you haven't read Peadar's The Inferior, go forth and rectify this gaping flaw in your life now).

Quote of the day from George R.R.: "The Celts got their butts kicked for the entire length of the Eurasian landmass and wrote sad songs about it."

I had lunch with Peadar afterwards. He left his receipt on the table. I pointed out he could keep it and claim expenses. He pointed out Irish writers don't pay tax. Bastards.

A panel in the afternoon on "When is genocide justified?" ("is mass slaughter of innocents only bad when bad people do it?") had Connie Willis pointing out, in her understated Willisian drawl, that you can write about it without being in favour if it, and the Twit of the Con in the audience saying that genocide was all very well as a punitive measure but would the panel like to comment on using economic boycott as a means of expressing displeasure.

The Opening Ceremony included a speech by Dr Marc Garneau - scientist, Canadian shuttle astronaut and now MP for Montreal. An astronaut MP! I have a lot of time for Dr Evan Harris but I'm afraid this wins.

Because Nobel-winning Paul Krugman talking to Hugo-winning Charles Stross was postponed I unexpectedly found myself at a session by Scott Edelman aimed at new writers on "How to respond to a critique of your writing". Well, it's always fun to sit in on these and feel superior: the presenters generally produce the train crashes for people to admire and laugh at, and this was no different. Scott's take was how to avoid being less like Alice Hoffman (who went insane on Twitter following a poor review) and more like Brad Meltzer. Brad took the juicy extracts from his poor reviews, put them in the mouths of the kids he coaches and the folks at his grandmother's nursing home, and recorded the whole. And it's very funny.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Wednesday 5 August
Vieux-Montreal is where it’s at. Cobbled, winding streets that could almost be European – admittedly with a slight bias towards gift shops selling amusingly captioned t-shirts and maple syrup. The best and longest of these is Rue Saint-Paul, which winds because the shops on its south side used to back directly onto the St Lawrence River. The backs are still marked with the names of the shops of old, for the benefit of the boatmen, though now there is 100m of reclaimed land between them and the nearest water, which makes a fantastic promenade when the sun is bright and the wind is off the river – as it was today.

Thirty five dollars gets you an amphibious tour of the backstreets of the old quarter, followed by a plunge into the river and a chug along the waterfront.

Interesting fact of the day, unless the guide was winding us up (as when he told a tourist that the tyres hanging alongside all the quays were taken from amphibious buses attacked by great white sharks): local law says that no building in Montreal may be taller than the top of the cross on top of Mont-Royal. The tallest skyscraper downtown is 15cm shorter.

Opposite all this loveliness, the other side of the water – the quite astonishingly ugly Habitat 67, built for an Exposition back when the point of expositions was to date the event firmly with a style that could never be replicated in any other year. Logan’s Run should have been filmed here.

Wandering around on my own afterwards, I wondered if the Centre des Sciences de Montreal named its café deliberately, or if it finds it a bit of a hard sell and wonders why.

Never mind yesterday’s basilica and sorry apology for an Anglican cathedral – Vieux-Montreal has the churches worth looking at. The chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours is worthy of note for several reasons: its ministry to many different groups (plague victims, sailors, women); its age (the basement contains the foundations of the original stone chapel dating from the 1650s); and the story of its founder, Marguerite Bourgeoys. She came over in 1653 to start the first school but decided what the old place really needed was a church, which she pushed through despite opposition from the priests. Which raises the question of what the priests were doing there in the first place, but perhaps they thought keeping the uppity women in their places was far more important in the eyes of Heaven than, you know, preaching the good word and helping the poor and all that.

Two things I enjoyed about our guide. One was his Franco-American accent, pronouncing ‘epidemic’ with the same emphases you would put on ‘academy’ and ‘hypothesis’ as ‘hypo-thézus’. The other was his candour. When asked if the chapel converted many natives: “No, no, no, no, no. They killed them all off. Different strategy.”

You can also go up the tower of the chapel for some excellent views of the waterfront.

Over to the other end of the old quarter you get the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montreal, and for the first time I can say that the interior of a church took my breath away. It is astonishingly beautiful – and I say astonishing because it isn’t a slavish copy of European originals but done in a wood-intensive style I’ve not seen before anywhere else.

Despite that, I have to say that by now I was getting a little churched and Catholiced out so I didn’t linger. If you’ve noticed a certain Marian emphasis to the whole place – well, apparently the original settlement was dedicated to Mary and was originally named Ville-Marie. That would explain it. I still wonder what Mary makes of it. As a good Protestant I’m sure she hands over the bundles of prayers she receives every day to the appropriate authority, and feels rather embarrassed about it.
“Sorry, they’re still at it, praying to me rather than you. I mean, if they work for a company, do they direct requests to their CEO or their CEO’s mother?”

“I know, hurts, doesn’t it? But their hearts are in the right place so they’ll still be welcome up here.”

“Still, I can’t wait to see their faces when they learn Luther was right ...”
Oh, and speaking of ugly (as I was) I tracked down the Palais des Congrès, where the whole point of the visit starts tomorrow.

Mont Royal

Tuesday 4 August
So, today I walked up a mountain, technically. Which mountain? Why, the one in the middle of Montreal, of course. The eponymous Mont Royal, that gave its name to the city, Why? Because it’s there, you fool. Tcha, the questions you ask.

According to the Rough Guide, Mont Royal is only 233m high, which is why I say ‘technically’. It’s heavily wooded and lightly landscaped by the same guy who did Central park in New York. There he started with a blank slate – the park was literally blasted out of the ground. Here he had to work with the fact that there was a 233m bump in the way. The Parc du Mont-Royal still has a Central Park-ish effect, with artfully placed lumps of fractured rock and excitingly curvy paths that meander off into the undergrowth. If it’s fake nature, it’s very convincing (again, like Central Park). I took the Rough Guide’s recommended approach which is an hour-long stroll up a wide gravelled drive, made for horse-drawn carriages, that twists and turns and gets you to the top so gently you hardly notice the slope. There are several tops to choose from but only one for me, (a) because it’s the obvious destination of the route I took and (b) because Bruce Willis and Matthew Perry have a scene there in The Whole Nine Yards. It’s a semi-circular plaza with a fantastic view out over downtown.

On the way up I passed a group of about twenty youngish mums, all in sports wear, pushing their babies in buggies and exercising according to shouted commands from the buggycise mistress. A nice way of combining the demands of motherhood and the needs of the self, I thought, even the bits where they had to wave their hands over their heads and let the buggies continue to roll through momentum. Actually it was only one hand at a time but momentum still played slightly more of a part than I would have liked if I was one of the dads.

Then down to downtown, which seems generally like a North American city. I’ll look at Vieux Montreal tomorrow. Why do American cities all have such ugly pavements? They are just white-grey concrete slabs, not even with cracks to avoid walking on. Boring. But, as predicted, downtown Montreal has way more life and zing to it than Denver. Many restaurants have the nicely European habit of opening up the entire shop front to the pavement, so diners can enjoy the natural air conditioning (always nicer than artificial) as they eat.

I’ll spare you photos of the churches visited – the Basilique-Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde (a scaled down copy of St Peter’s) and the Anglican cathedral, the most boring cathedral in the world EVER. They didn’t even try. They asked themselves: what kind of cathedrals are there in the Old World? Um ... oldish looking ones. Okay, we’ll fake an oldish-looking cathedral. Style? Perpendicular? Gothic? Italianate? Norman? No, just ... oldish-looking.

However, had I been here in the mid eighties I wouldn’t fail to show you a photo of the cathedral on stilts. They decided they wanted to build an underground shopping mall beneath it. So, they cut away the ground and left the cathedral standing. On stilts. There are photos of it on display and it’s surreal. The mall is now there, of course, and very handily included somewhere I could buy a decent towel. I decided I couldn’t face another six mornings of drying myself with the handkerchief-sized scrap of cloth that passes muster for a towel at UQAM. It was obviously based on the same physical ideals that inform their notion of what makes a double bed. Everyone I’ve seen so far looks normal sized (or American) but there must be a colony of right titches somewhere.

As far as I’m aware the Canadians don’t kick up too much of a fuss about being subjects of Her Majesty the Queen. Maybe they leave the republican sentiments to the pigeons.

More on monasticism

Tuesday 4 August
That was a rather throwaway reference yesterday, so some clarification might be in order. I have a room and a bed and a table and chair; I have an en suite bathroom with shower, sink and toilet (no extractor fan or plug); I have a small cooking unit and fridge which would be handy if I had anything to cook or keep cool; and I have the possibility of Internet access. I do not have TV or air conditioning. I do, though, have a ceiling fan, which with the road noise means I need ear plugs to sleep. It’s a busy main road out there, the old boulevard René-Lévesque Est.

The room is officially "studio with double bed". Right ... Well, the bed is comfortable enough. The mattress is a foam block wrapped in plastic, reminding me of the jump mat from long ago school athletics. Two thirds of it are a solid block, and one third of it is a zipped-on slightly narrower block. Presumably that officially transforms it from single to double by some strange quirk of Franco-Canadian mathematics, which is so much superior to the Anglo type that I learnt at school.

If I lie on it, my ankles dangle over the end. Fair enough, I’m used to that. If I hold my arms out, and my left hand is just on the edge of the bed, my right elbow goes past the opposite edge. So, if that’s a double, Montrealeans are either very small or sleep in multi-story mode rather than the more traditional side by side.

And the sheets aren’t quite wide enough to tuck in by more than about a centimetre on all sides, and the friction of sheet-on-plastic-mattress is minimal. So, no matter how carefully you turn over, you will end up lying on a thin ribbon of rumpled sheet beneath you. Maybe that’s why it’s considered a double, because you actually need two of you to counter-rotate.

Anyway. I slept. And so to see what Montreal has to offer.

Bonjour hi

Editorial note, 11/8/09: the remark below about not seeing these posts for a week was prophetic. I carefully recorded my worldcon experiences in diary form against the day when the internet would once more be mine ...
It’s Monday 3 August and I’m in Montreal. Résidences universitaires UQAM (Université du Québec à Montréal), 303 boulevard René-Lévesque Est. If I can’t get an Internet connection then you might not read this until Tuesday 11 August and I’m getting my $15 for a week’s connectivity back. [I did.] We’ll see.

The approach to the airport gives a fantastic view of downtown Montreal on the left hand side, and a nice passport control guy told me he would look my panels up at the con. A nice undemanding 7 hour, 3 movie flight. I like to eschew the conventional Hollywood blockbusters for some of the more quirky offerings.
  • The Great Buck Howard. John Malkovitch as only John Malkovitch can be, playing a man who is simultaneously brilliant – a mentalist who wipes the floor with the likes of Paul McKenna – yet is doomed forever to be the kind of guy who only plays to half-packed theatres in small towns in Ohio. A brilliant study of pride and pathos.
  • Stone of Destiny. A more or less real story about a group of Scottish students who over Christmas 1950 stole the Stone of Scone from Westminster Abbey and brought it back to Scotland. My interest here is twofold: a further success on the CV of Charlie Cox (see here for my declaration of interest) and because several members of the Delightfully Dotty Car Club, whose club magazine I edit and which thus paid for this trip, contributed cars and sound effects. Also stars Begbie and one of the interchangeable hobbits.
  • Coraline. Pants-wetting animated fairy tale based on novel by Neil Gaiman, reminding everyone of exactly why he is this year’s Worldcon guest of honour. I was also grateful for Mr Bird’s Lower 6th English lessons, because despite all the obscure poetry that I never really understood, enough sunk in for me to realise who the baddie is.
It’s 01.50 by my body clock, I’m in university residences that are less monastic than the Boston YMCA (Worldcon 2004) but considerably more so than the Grand Hyatt, Denver (Worldcon 2008). And I’ve no Internet. Yet. But I’ve been out for a delicious gnocchi + Italian sausage meal and I’m already getting a better vibe from Montreal than from similar exposure to Denver a year ago. I look forward to seeing what else it has to offer.

Canadian money is very pretty and apparently works just like real dollars.