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?