Monday, September 26, 2011

The nest empties

If you're sending your only (step)child off to university, you ought to make an occasion of it. There's no reason you can't spin the weekend out a bit, so we did.

Departure time was set by mutual pre-arrangement for 10.00, Saturday morning. At 05.00 he finally rolled in from saying goodbye to his friends. At 09.20 he was finally persuaded that if he wanted to make the journey washed and fed, now would be a good time to get up. At 09.45 he was saying, "look, can we speed this up a bit?"

An uneventual journey, apart from learning that Pease Pottage actually exists - or at least, motorway services of that name do. Luggage unloaded, new housemates met, and his mother allowed to make his bed, after which we were politely but firmly shown the door. And quite right too. I think I went through similar with my own mother in October 1984, apart from the making the bed thing.

So. Beloved had never been to Brighton before, so into town we went, me pointing out the church that actually features (though not by name) in The New World Order. Parking charges and crowds of no less than a couple of thousand put us off cultural activities like looking around the Pavilion. We edged our way along the sea front for a bit, then retrieved the car and drove along the coast from Brighton to Eastbourne - not least because Sandi Toksvig did exactly the same journey in a bus on Excess Baggage a couple of weeks ago and it sounded nice. Every now and then we would utter something wistful, like "I am so glad he got a house in Brighton and not Eastbourne, like the university were advising him to." It's a beautiful 20-mile trip, but a very long 20 miles.

More positively: a beautiful landscape of rolling downs, sparking sea, quaint villages, Roedean looking like a cross between Hogwarts and an HM penitentiary clinging to a cliff, Beachy Head, and just one man urinating at a bus stop while his fellow future passengers showed resolute Englishness by queuing in the opposite direction and ignoring him. Cream tea in the Victorian Tearooms on Eastbourne pier, then a cross-country trip through more lovely rolling downs bathed in sunlight to stay the night with an old school friend who lives in the vicinity.

Sunday morning: exploration of Horsham and then, finding it unexpectedly close, Guildford Cathedral. We wanted to go somewhere to kneel and say a brief prayer of thanks for the boy finally entering higher education, and where better than a place firmly associated with the Antichrist?

So it was perhaps ironic that the place was full of several hundred Masons, all in full aprons, medals and other forms of togs, gathered together for an annual service of thanksgiving. Seats were reserved for men with titles like "Provincial Grand Steward", which frankly I think is setting your sights too low. If I was going to be a Grand Steward, no way would I settle for being merely Provincial. Fortunately we still had about an hour before the service began so could explore in relative peace, if not quite the quiet we were hoping for. I stood next to one of the gents in the Gents, and found jokes about funny handshakes filling my mind. I'm quite glad none of them slipped out.

Then home, finally, to a strangely empty flat. You'd think that if we just shut his door and drew his curtains then for the rest of the flat it would be just like him still being there, but no, apparently not. I took the opportunity to hoover his room and could have sworn the carpet screamed: "stop! What is this strange thing you are doing to me?"

Followed by: "Hmm, actually that's quite nice."

And then: "Oh yeah, baby, more."

At which point I stopped.

Five years ago he couldn't wait to move in. Five years later he couldn't wait to move out. The mind and the spirit left some time before the body. This is life, and it is good. And now we see with no small level of interest what happens next.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Bits and pieces

Someone has built a 2-metre Imperial Star Destroyer out of Lego. The 10-year-old Ben would have enthused. The 46-year-old article merely ventures, ‘meh’.

First of all, what can you do with a 2-metre Imperial Star Destroyer? You can hardly hold it in your hands and make it swoop and soar, which is the object of any Lego-created offensive weapon. You could leave it on its table and buzz it with handheld fighters – though very small, undetailed fighters if we’re talking the same scale – which would be a reasonably faithful reproduction of various key scenes from the movies but not much more. And it would be a right bugger to rebuild after the required climactic explosion, which would surely be the point of any attack scenario.

Second, what’s the fun of building it in the first place? From the pictures, it’s obviously a 2-metre Imperial Star Destroyer kit. There are pieces here that could not be meant for anything else. If it had been cobbled together out of standard parts – now, that would be worth noting. But this? Meh again.

In my youth I would often be given a Lego kit for birthday or Christmas. Rarely anything very exciting, at first glance. I would dutifully build whatever appeared on the front of the box, for form’s sake. But then. Ah, then. The name of the game was cannibalisation.

Sure, I would try to model my favourite spaceships and other such machinery. That’s only to be expected. The joy, the triumph was in bending the set pieces to my will. Those 45-degree fins at the front of Fireball XL5? Four-blob roof bricks. They gave the fins a slightly more stepped appearance than Derek Meddings would have recognised but my model was clearly a superior variant.

I think the only model I ever had with one-use only pieces was an air liner. This had two blue, flat, roughly triangular pieces that could only be wings – well, control surfaces of some description. Wings of a small plane, tailplanes of a larger one; maybe the fins of a Stingray-derived submersible. The fuselage of the air liner, being long and thin as such things are, was two or three 8-piece blobs with four windows painted on either side. Now you’re talking! Air liner windows, Pah! They could so easily be the openings of gun barrels, or rocket exhausts, or some kind of grill or just a bit of detail added to make a model look that bit more interesting.

Actually, I did have an electric motor, which very soon failed because I lost the wires that connected it the battery section and then lost the battery section anyway. It was a quite distinct, idiosyncratic shape, not easily adapted to other uses – but on the other hand, it was solid and heavy and so served as the base or chassis for all kinds of construction requiring a solid anchoring.

The standard 8-blob hinge pieces could be retractable landing gear, or supply the elevation to guns, or be landing ramps or hatches or … or anything requiring a hinge. The circular 12-blog turntables could be the attachments for helicopter rotors or gun turrets or a handy twirlable control knob on some gadget of my own devising (possibly a tricorder). There were some designs I never could quite crack – I never did quite master gullwing doors, for instance – and I will admit I sometimes wished they could have made backward-sloping roof bricks, i.e. with the smooth part on the inside. But the joy was in the trying.

It would be fun to cannibalise the many parts that went into the 2-metre Imperial Star Destroyer. It would even be fun, I suppose, to build it once as seen. But that’s all.

And anyway, a Battlestar could whup an Imperial Star Destroyer, any time.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 thoughts and memories

I suppose it was my generation's defining "Where were you when ..." moment, like Kennedy for an earlier generation, trumping even when Thatcher resigned and Diana was killed. (Funny how all but one of those spawned conspiracy theories.) I was waiting at the Frilford traffic lights en route to work in Witney when the Classic FM news announced preliminary reports that a plane had hit one of the WTC towers. Like everyone from George W. Bush down, I assumed it was a small propeller plane that had got off course.

Over the afternoon, further reports began to come in, but I was working in an office with very restricted bandwidth and no radio and so we couldn't really keep up. I only got the full brunt of it on the drive back home, listening to the car radio.

I had set the video at home to record Channel 4's showing of That Hamilton Woman starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. During one ad break, Peter Sissons popped up to break the news; at the next ad break, the film was put on hold and it became non-stop New York footage. I had to wait for Channel 4 to repeat it months later to learn how it ended (though I had a shrewd suspicion).

The next day, Classic FM had suspended its usual programme and was just playing appropriate requests. Someone requested "Lacrimosa" from Priesner's Requiem for a Friend, and that was the point my eyes filled with tears and I almost had to pull over.

This wasn't how we wanted 2001 to be, was it? We wanted a thriving moonbase and orbital colony and all the petty affairs of mankind put behind us. Instead, apparently, exactly one American was off-world at the time, up in the ISS and all this was going on below. In the unlikely event of an alien intelligence monitoring us from the Moon, I think the gist of the report home would have been, "avoid." But to be quite honest, that describes most days before and since.

Personally I think 9/11 was also a Titanic moment - a foreseeable, avoidable tragedy that nonetheless saved thousands more lives than were lost. After the Titanic, ships carried enough lifeboats. Before 9/11 you could have got an elephant through US customs but not after; 9/11 may well have prevented the Great Al Qaeda Nuclear Strike of 2015. As part of the package we also got less than fond memories of George W. Bush, an extremely dodgy war in Iraq, the Department of Homeland Security ... but to be quite frank, if we hadn't had those then we would have had something else. We've never lived in a paradise and, this side of the end of time and space, we never will.

Sometime after 9/11 we heard in the office that Sarah Ferguson had apparently had a meeting scheduled in the WTC for later that day. There was a moment's thoughtful silence among all of us, and then the boss exclaimed, "Shame on you for what you were just thinking!"

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Fame and fortune and everything that goes with it

Along with the usual random collections of invitations to bid to write someone's medical research paper or biographical squibs for a website featuring nude Bollywood stars (I know, I wish I was making this up too), this morning's inbox delivers the following treat.
"Dear Ben

This is $SCAMMING_COW from $SCAMMING_COWS_INC. [Names changed not to protect the innocent – as if – but because I have no intention of publicising their scamming set-up.] We are a full service media relations company that works with authors, speakers, thought-leaders, coaches, internet marketers, business experts, health and wellness leaders, etc. to secure media exposure for them and their businesses. We've taken specific interest in you and your business as someone we'd like to represent and would like to further discuss the possibility of representing you."
Well, I do have an agent, y'know, but okay, I'll read further. Nice to know someone thinks I could be a thought-leader, or even a thought leader.

My eye is caught further down by a very promising list of prices. If these people can get me these, I'll be laughing.
  • Online radio: $60 per booking
  • Terrestrial radio: $100 per show per market (for example, If a show is syndicated into Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago that appearance would be $240)
  • Television: $150 for local, $500 for national
  • $1000 for major network shows
  • Print media: $750 per placement
  • Blog features: $50 per appearance
  • Webinars-hosting and inviting attendees -$250
(Incidentally, are you picking up the vibe that these people think I'm American?)

Except that I then read the bit just before:
"We also now offer pay as you go PR. Experts can join the PR company and pay per booking that we get them."
So … you want me to pay you $100 to get me on a radio show? In fact:
"Our media relations representation packages start at just $500 per month and guarantee a minimum of 5 engagements per month!"
So I'm paying you $500 a month. My incentive is presumably the carrot you dangle in front of me of fame, fortune and media exposure. What exactly is yours? You're getting $500 a month, and I'm also paying you for the extra promotion. Why do you want to do anything at all on top of that?

Answer, you don't. Children, if you get anything like this, it's a scam. Genuine PR agents take a cut of your earnings: that's standard and accepted and it's what makes them tick. No earnings, no cut. That's how the big wide world works. Sadly, it is a feature of the same big wide world that there are people like $SCAMMING_COWS_INC. out there always ready to prey on the needy.

Like all good scams it finished with a morsel of truth.
"All of the MEGA best-sellers were born in the mass media (Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Tipping Point, Rich Dad Poor Dad, The Success Principles, etc.) here's your chance to do it in a very cost effective manner."
Well, yes, they grew big through the mass media – but I promise you, their authors did not pay $500 a month for a minimum of 5 engagements. Or even:
"Reputation Management $250 a month -in which we control the search engine to overtake any negative reputation harming search entries and articles."
Oh, and on the credit card authorisation form that they so helpfully send, they manage to say "Public Relaitons" instead of "Public Relations".

Back to the attempts to earn an honest living {sighs}.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Quarterly report

Well, it's been three months since the Morning of the Long Knives. How's the freelancing going?

It ... goes. I think.

To recap: summoned to a meeting early at work, told the department was being restructured, warned I was at risk of redundancy, sent home for a week (which turned into three weeks) to think things over. On the understanding that I would be retained to work for the old place for 5 days a month, I took the redundancy and became a freelance technical writer.

Later on the same day as the Morning, I went into London to meet some nice people who wanted me to do 36,000 words of ghost-writing. That was fun, and lucrative, and it kept my mind off worrying what to do next. Sadly that's now over.

In the meantime I was signing up with various agencies who handle people like me. They were all saying essentially "work's always thin on the ground at this time of year but it picks up in September". It's now September so I'll be holding them to that.

And meantime - oh, dear - meantime I signed up to websites like and I helpfully get sent daily lists of jobs being offered that I am invite to bid on. At first this was almost suicidally depressing; now I just keep getting the alerts as incentive - a dreadful insight into what could be.

Example, in today's post:

"I will need 500 articles of 100 word length as soon as possible ... All writers will be given a list of keywords to write at. You MUST be able to do at least 20-30 short articles a day ... My budget is $30 for each set of 100 short articles (100 Words Each)."

So, $30 for 10,000 words.

The only thing more depressing than the tenders is that there are people who still make bids, with persuasive notes such as:

"Respected Sir, I want to establish long term business relations with you because I can do your project and it will help us to develop healthy business relations.Sir, I will provide you high quality work under dead line."

On the bright side, the 5 days a month at the old place pays the mortgage and fuel bills, so at least I can starve in the warm and dry.

To be blunt, I miss working in a team that I got on with doing work that I valued. I miss my friends and I would much rather have a full time job. However I don't want one so badly that I'll just take anything, and I don't want to have to take a step back: hence, no real desire to return to journal publishing, for instance. I'm a realist and I know that beggars can't be choosers - but I'm not yet a beggar, and shouldn't be for some time to come.

And now, if you'll excuse me, it's September and I have stuff to do ...