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Sitebuilding, yay [Nov. 29th, 2010|06:00 pm]
[Feeling |cold]

So, I've been keeping myself busy these last few days building a new site. It's for people looking to buy rock salt in response to the current cold weather.
LinkPoint of Order, Mr Speaker!

Give me 12 inches (and make me a wig) [Dec. 21st, 2007|02:24 pm]

The fear of going bald does strange things to a man - just ask Mark Oaten.

Thing is, there's no turning back from it. Greyness can be dyed - or embraced as distinguished - while general creakiness and excess weight can be argued away with vague promises of the gym. Hair loss, however, is the end to your illusions of eternal youth.

In my case, I've spent the last couple of years cultivating a ponytail that reached halfway down my back. It's gone now - sent to a charity that makes wigs for child cancer patients.

Before

For the last month or so I'd been seeing signs that screamed 'hair loss'. From the scalp pains and the variable depth on different parts of my head, to the slimmer ponytail and the dead hamster in the plughole each time I showered, it looked very much like the game was up.

My mum, briefly a hairdresser in her youth, disagreed. So did Beloved Other Half who, despite her fondness for radically short styles, still has more experience than me in possessing long hair. Both argued that hair can, and does, thin under the stress of length.

Nevertheless, I decided it was time for the ponytail to go. If the barber discovered acres of rolling space, we'd have an answer.

I'm now back living in my home town after 20 years away in Norfolk and London. The barbershop I used to go to when I was younger is still there, although the staff has - of course - completely changed.

Once, it was dominated by a cartoon Italian with long permed hair and a moustache, a twinkling smile, and a love for the ladies. Alas, it transpired that one of the ladies he loved was aged 14 and, faced with the police, he threw himself under a train. The young lad who cut my hair barely remembered him - he'd seen him for childhood haircuts but never worked with him.

These are the things that underline the passing years.

Has to be said, young Rez did a fine job on the hair. After checking three or four times that I did really want the ponytail cut off, he sheared it away. A brief look of panic crossed his face when I cried out "nooo, I've changed my mind", but it was replaced by a broad grin when he checked in the mirror and saw from my expression that it had been my idea of a joke.

After a remarkably short time, and an even more remarkably small bill, I was shorn neatly and the ponytail, still secured by its hair band, was wrapped up in tissue in my pocket. He conducted a close inspection of my scalp and declared that no, I had nothing at all to worry about in the hair loss stakes. Not yet, anyway.

After the chop

And the ponytail? That's going to charity.

I have an ambivalent attitude towards cancer charities. Heroes during one close family member's illness, villains during an in-law's last months. However, I was determined that I'd do something useful with the discarded hair.

The Cancer Research UK page on the subject of hair donation is not terribly encouraging. But Beloved Other Half did some digging on those ol' interweb things and came up with a charity called the Little Princess Trust (website / Facebook group) which was set up to provide wigs to children with cancer and other illnesses that cause hair loss.

Now, I'm not generally one for excessive pinkness. And I do tend to believe that little girls are better served by aspiring to be engineers rather than princesses. But there are times to be a grouch and times to shut up and embrace your inner sparkliness.

The Little Princess Trust was set up by the parents of Hannah Tarplee from Hereford, who died in June 2005 of cancer, aged five. It helps parents of children with cancer and other illnesses that cause hair loss to find and pay for realistic-looking wigs made from real hair.

And, obviously, the hair has to come from somewhere. Hence the donations page. The rules (lifted here word-for-word from their website) are simple:


  1. Ensure you have at least 10"-12" of clean, good condition hair.

  2. Hold the hair tightly whilst cutting it and securely tie the follicle end of the hair ensuring all the hair is lying in the same direction.

  3. Package the hair in such away that it cannot become tangled.

  4. Send it to;
    Little Princess Trust
    43 George Road
    Edgbaston
    Birmingham
    B15 1PL

It turned out, when measured, that my ponytail was exactly twelve inches. So off it goes.

I think I'll stay short-haired for a while now. It'd be sad to turn 40 looking like a member of Status Quo, after all. But its nice, and a trifle ironic, to reflect that my brief panic about getting old has resulted in an action that will - hopefully - help someone young whose battle is simply to get where I am now.

LinkPoint of Order, Mr Speaker!

Knifage [Nov. 22nd, 2007|08:07 pm]

Off to hospital again yesterday (the Charing Cross, in Fulham Palace Road) for a check-up following my leg and elbow operations earlier this year.

This has been a long-running saga, dating back to at least early 2003, which came to a head this year when I finally persuaded them to get to work on me with a knife.

To summarise, some time in 2002 a numb patch appeared on the outside of my right thigh. In Feb 2003 a neurosurgeon diagnosed me with meralgia paresthetica and put me on a waiting list for surgery. He warned me it would take a year or so before anything happened. Over the next few months I had some conductivity tests (electrodes jammed into the leg) which confirmed the diagnosis, and settled down to wait.

After that, nothing happened.

For several years.

In late 2006, with the leg worsening and new problems developing in my left elbow, and a few other unrelated health things also worrying me, I got bored waiting and went for private consultation, first with a GP and then with a neurosurgeon, who stuck a rocket up the backside of the NHS and got things moving again.

More tests and consultations followed (mostly repeats of the 2003/04 stuff) then in July they finally did the cutting. Transposition of the left ulnar nerve and decompression of the right cutaneous nerve of thigh, for those who thrive on details.

If you were stuck in hospital with nothing but a piss-pot and some coloured pencils, you'd find this funny too

I woke up after the surgery to mixed results. The elbow? Perfect. No more finger-twitching or numbness. The leg? Disaster. Much more numbness and a world of pain. Some very unhappy weeks followed, involving painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs, horrible limping, sleepless nights, black despair and a walking stick.

Eventually, some of the numbness and most of the pain receded. It still hurts occasionally, but there's variety in what type of pain occurs and it never lasts long, so that's an improvement on balance. The numbness is significantly worse than before the operation, but I can still detect pressure, even at the place with least sensation, so I'm no longer worried about not knowing if I'm burning myself against a radiator or whatever.

And there's more than a chance it will improve further over the next few months.

Which is where I was yesterday when I went off for what turned out to be the final stage in the saga. A quick five-minute consultation with a jolly woman I'd never met before and that was it - discharged, with an open invitation to contact them again if there was any deterioration.

A bit anti-climactic, actually. I don't know what I expected, but this was something that had for a long while been a major part of my life (or, during the early years, something lurking on the edge of my attention, impossible to entirely forget) and it just fizzled out. On balance, I'm glad I had the operations done - the elbow was a success, the leg about break-even with hope for further improvement. But where was the full stop at the end, the handshake with the surgeon and the "good luck, old chap" to see me off?

I wasn't sure what to do with myself afterwards. Having dragged myself down to London on just three and a half hours sleep and then waited around in a hospital corridor for a late appointment, it seemed too soon to go straight home again. On the other hand, I was dog tired, had nothing in particular to do, and wanted to be back before a workman arrived to fit blinds to two rooms in the house.

I pottered up the Fulham Palace Road, peering in through the window of the Spitfire Polish restaurant at the Battle of Britain memorabilia, then trailing around a bookshop with no great enthusiasm. Eventually I refuelled with a cheese and mushroom crepe and a coffee from a hole in the wall in the Hammersmith shopping centre and descended back onto the Tube. A train was just about to leave Kings Cross when I got there, so I was relieved of the need to think about anything and away I went. A brisk walk from the station and I was home in time for lunch.

LinkPoint of Order, Mr Speaker!

Back in the jug agane [Nov. 17th, 2007|11:18 pm]
[Tags|, , , , , , ]

It's been quite a while now since we moved out of the flat we rented for nine years and into a house of our own - but for one reason or another we're only just in the process of giving notice.

Today we were back there cleaning carpets and painting window frames - and we were reminded of exactly why we left.

Same killer motorway traffic a stone's throw in every direction, same ghoulish upstairs neighbour looming randomly out of the shadows with her dog, same feeling of being under everyone else's noses (partly, admittedly, because we have the curtains down for cleaning), same odd detritus of other people's lives under your feet (discarded latex gloves in the car park tonight, close by where a couple can sometimes be seen sat in a car in the dead of night and where we once found a discarded condom wrapper - unsavoury thoughts follow inevitably).

But most of all, the same bloody moronic pounding thumping dance music through the walls and floors, like having your teeth drilled (trust me on this, I have a season ticket to the dentist at the moment), making you want to go downstairs, knock on their door, smile sweetly and say "excuse me, could you possibly turn your music down before I STUFF YOUR FEET UP YOUR NOSTRILS?"

And now I'm back home, at my desk in our office with a mug of hot tea, in the blissful uncrowded silence of the outskirts of an unassuming market town, thinking 'ahhhhh... THIS is better'.

Which is probably why I've managed to write something again, five years and ten days since I first set up shop on DeadJournal.
LinkPoint of Order, Mr Speaker!

Wordage [Mar. 31st, 2007|11:55 pm]
The Red Anthology cover

If I type this really fast it may just sneak under the wire and count as a March post, thus keeping up my new average of a post a month in 2007. Pretty grim stuff, compared with the several a day I used to manage when writing this thing was fresh and new in late 2002.

It's not like I've been writing nothing at all, though - the anthology with my story in creeps ever closer to becoming reality. That's its cover over there, beside these words. Neat, huh?

Got an email from the publisher today - they've now got a MySpace page, heaven help us all. For those who are into that sort of thing, it's at myspace.com/norecordpress.

In other news there was this, which just felt like one of those things that needed to be done.

LinkPoint of Order, Mr Speaker!

Perplexity [Feb. 17th, 2007|08:34 pm]

So, well, yes, it's been a while since I last posted. Quite a bit's happened, actually.

For starters, we're probably only a month or so away from the publication by a small San Francisco press of an anthology of short stories that includes one of mine. More on that when I have more, but right now I'm tremendously excited, because it's the first time in a very long time that any of my fiction will have been published.

Also taking a lot of my time is MyBathroomFinder.com, the first step in our fledgling business empire. It's starting to find its feet and generate traffic. Not a lot of income yet, but it's early days.

And the other big thing is Perplex City, the £100,000 / $200,000 treasure hunt and alternative reality game that's been running for the last two-and-a-half years. 50,000 players, 92 countries.

We won it.

If you're used to my usual writing style you're probably waiting for me to qualify it and say something like "well, what I actually mean is that 5000 of us were declared 'winners' but only one person got the prize and it wasn't us".

Well, as it turned out it was us.

It's been a very weird couple of weeks, with a lot of nice messages of congratulations from people (including some of the ones who came closest to winning it themselves) and some emails and phone calls from friends I'd lost touch with and who saw it in the news.

There's an awful lot to say about it, so I built a small website with the story and a link to my Flickr photos. Go explore, Digg it or stick it on del.icio.us or whatever if that's your sort of thing - I'll still be here when you come back. And believe me, no matter how surprised you are at the news it's nothing to how stunned I am, as I look back at it.

LinkPoint of Order, Mr Speaker!

Loans that change lives [Jan. 5th, 2007|02:17 am]

Numerous things to write about - Christmas Day on the Cornish cliffs with Beloved Other Half, dashing across Heathrow Airport in the rain to meet Ali before her flight to LA, good books by Gordon Ramsay and Monty Don to review - but they can wait for another day.

Instead, here's a really easy way to make a difference to the lives of people in developing countries. It's not charity - all being well, you get your money back - and you can cough up as little as $25, which is not much more than a tenner for those of us on this side of the pond.

I came across Kiva on Heck's Kitchen, where Jenny Miller and her housemates have evidently been spreading their dollars around to good effect. What Kiva does is simple: it acts as one central partner for a whole raft of microfinance organisations around the globe, making it easy for the likes of you and me to send small sums of money via PayPal to help fund small businesses in cash-poor parts of the world.

You can choose to send your $25 (or more - I've loaned $300) to Ugandan seamstresses, Azeri taxi drivers, Ecuadorean farmers or electricians in the Gaza Strip. Other people around the world also chip in, and when the requested sum is raised the money is passed to the borrower. The microfinance organisation supervises the repayments. You don't get interest, but you do get a warm rosy glow.

I've split my fee for a day's work, more or less, between three African businesses:

  • Justina Azamachi in Ghana sells frozen food to an established customer base, but lacks storage facilities to expand.
  • Joseph Onyango in Kenya is a dressmaker with a large family, including a badly disabled son, to support. He has a full order book, but needs to invest in stock and equipment.
  • Denise Tidatoa in Togo supports her family selling basic goods such as canned food and soap. She plans to lease a shop and increase her stock.

They seem such small ambitions when you look at the details - help with buying a sewing machine, a deep freezer, or some pasta - but at the same time they're huge. They represent an income, schooling or medical treatment for a family, independence.

They also represent an investment in the future of the countries involved. Bulgaria joined the EU a few days ago and the newspapers over here were full of dire predictions about how the UK would be swamped by swarthy economic migrants. Well, through Kiva, you can finance Bulgarian shopkeepers, printers, tradesmen and farmers who are trying to make a go of it in their home country. Repayments from businesses in Gaza have been a bit erratic recently, for obvious reasons, but surely the future in that troubled part of the world must in part depend on the establishment of a viable economy? And so it goes on, around the globe.

As schemes go, this one strikes me as a really good investment - of time (it's quick and easy) and of money too.

Link

2006 and all that [Dec. 31st, 2006|07:26 pm]

And so it's time to do my annual round-up of the year's highlights in this journal, just like in 2004 and 2005. Except, this year I've written so little that I'm not sure there are any.

Obviously, there was all that kerfuffle at the beginning of the year, during which I wrote a lot about the Liberal Democrat leadership election and achieved a small amount of notoriety, especially for a post entitled "Chris Huhne - just say 'no'". Ultimately, I ended up taking part in the first-ever unmoderated Q&A session between bloggers and the leader of a British political party. But after that, I wrote no more about politics - the compulsion had faded and there were no words left. And if you're interested in that sort of stuff, you can find a round-up of it here, not here.

So why am I writing less? Well, there have been other projects taking time that I would otherwise have used - MyBathroomFinder chief among them. But a big, big part of it is that I now have four versions of this blog running, and that makes it such a bloody effort to update that it doesn't seem worth it most of the time. Which is a shame.

Next year I hope to find a way of concentrating on the version hosted at www.andthenhesaid.com, while still not losing touch with friends on DeadJournal, LiveJournal and JournalSpace. And after I've worked out how to do that, for an encore I plan to discover a cure for cancer, achieve world peace, and add 15 per cent to the Liberal Democrats' opinion poll ratings.

Anyway, here are a few bits and pieces worth remembering:

April 14: The house of discipline, and other photos
I can remember when products were built to last and didn't stop working just because they'd been thrown across the room in a cold fury a few times. I say this because my phone finally started malfunctioning beyond a level I was prepared to tolerate, so I had to replace it.
April 19: Fairey story
Life is full of strange moments: today I was followed in a traffic jam by a Fairey Swordfish.
May 21: A snog for Europe
Never let it be said that elections don't produce representative results. The voting in our household last night exactly reflected the UK Eurovision voting, in that the British 12 points went to the latex-covered Finnish rock Gods Lordi - Beloved Other Half's choice - and the 10 points went to my selection, the besuited and terribly direct Lithuanians whose song repeatedly chorused "We are the winners of Eurovision".
May 24: Shahbazalangadingdong
This year's Big Brother is, to all intents and purposes, already over - despite only six days of its 13-week run having passed.
May 27: Something going down on Upper Street
My vague potterings were interrupted last lunchtime by a cat's cradle of blue tape across the road in my path, cordoning off (among other things) the scene of a shooting the night before and the restaurant where I'd been planning on eating.
May 28: Who do you think you are?
There's still time - just - to get over the Passport Office's website and renew your passport before the end of the month. I did mine a couple of days ago.
May 31: DNA of London
In my household we tend towards the view that Douglas Adams wasn't, in fact, a novellist but instead a philosopher and a researcher of the infinite who chose to present his theories and conclusions in the form of radio scripts and sci-fi novels. He was also - despite most of his work being set on other planets - one of the most observant chroniclers of London since Dickens.
August 6: The Romans in Britain
A couple of weekends ago we combined two of our favourite interests - good books and archaeology - in one visit to the excavations at Silchester Roman Town. Every year, Reading University holds a dig for its students and stages a couple of open days - this year they did something extra: a visit from one of our favourite authors, Lindsey Davis, who gave a talk, read from one of her Falco novels, answered questions and signed autographs. A second, overlapping, post that's more about the author and less about the archaeology appears on MyWeeklyBook here.
October 4: Vegetable love
For anyone motivated by a passion for vegetable growing, Rosemoor - the RHS gardens near Torrington in Devon - are a 'must see' at this time of year. I said I'd write more about our recent weekend spent camping, but frankly I'm inclined to let the photos do the talking.
October 6: Oh Brother where art thou?
The third and final batch of photos from our camping weekend (a dim and distant memory now, I fear) comes from Cleeve Abbey, which was strictly second division in the pre-dissolution abbeys and monasteries league, but which now boasts some remarkably complete ruins and is therefore well worth a visit.
November 15: Viva la raza
Monday was the first anniversary of the death by heart failure of the wrestler Eddie Guerrero - and, to judge from the fresh set of comments that have appeared on YouTube tribute videos, his memory has lost none of its power to affect people.
November 19: Lions and tigers and bears, oh yes
Saturday saw us belatedly celebrating Beloved Other Half's birthday with a trip to Whipsnade Wild Animal Park, which I must surely have visited as a child, if only I could remember. Won't forget today in a hurry, though.
December 4: In search of the English Roswell
So, yesterday we went to have a potter around some woodland where, 26 years ago this month, an alien spaceship was seen to land. Possibly.
December 22: Clarity
This is nice. I'm sat with a cup of tea in the bright, airy garden room of a National Trust holiday cottage in the far south west of Cornwall, free from most of the cares of normal life and about as far as you can get from the barrage of Christmas commercialism.
Link

Clarity [Dec. 22nd, 2006|01:38 pm]

This is nice.

I'm sat with a cup of tea in the bright, airy garden room of a National Trust holiday cottage in the far south west of Cornwall, free from most of the cares of normal life and about as far as you can get from the barrage of Christmas commercialism. Hopefully we'll make it back to the Smoke in time for me to meet Ali before she returns to LA, but apart from that - goodbye world!

We're frequent visitors here and know the area well so Beloved Other Half has gone out exploring, to reacquaint herself with the coastal footpaths and sights here. I haven't joined her - instead I'm having a lazy few hours recovering from the aches and stiffness caused by nearly eight hours in the car yesterday getting here.

We're gloriously fog-free here at the moment - you can see for miles from our hill-top retreat - but most of yesterday was spent crawling through thick, freezing banks of the stuff, all the way from London to Bodmin. There we abruptly broke out of it and, in the space of a couple of yards, went from zero visibility to being able to see the Milky Way with the clarity of a planetarium display.

At one point, somewhere beyond Salisbury, we spent some 90 minutes in static traffic backed up from what appears to have been a very nasty accident about a mile ahead. We were on a dual carriageway, and we saw a procession of emergency vehicles come up the opposite site past us then, about five minutes later, force their way up from behind us through the immobile traffic on our side of the road.

Two fire engines came first, followed by a pair of ambulances a couple of minutes later. The police turned up maybe five minutes later, by which time the two lanes of traffic on our side of the road had long since arranged itself neatly on the verge and against the central reservation to create a clear lane between them.

While all this was going on, some of the cars stuck in the traffic jam were doing three-point turns and driving back against the traffic flow down the clear lane, braving evil looks from the rest of us, then diving down a side road to villages with names suspiciously like Royston Vasey. On at least one occasion, a car found itself nose-to-nose with an emergency vehicle. Serves the impatient bastard right, we all thought.

Finally, an hour later, five flatbed rescue trucks came through to clear away the wreckage, followed by one last police car, which made a big - and completely unnecessary - show of flashing its lights to clear a path that was already clear. We figured the driver was just throwing his weight around to cover up the fact that his role was going to be nothing more than standing there in a tall hat, directing traffic. The traffic started moving again and by the time we got to the accident scene most of the emergency vehicles had gone, leaving just a line of wrecks by the side of the road, some appallingly bent and some just slightly dented and two of them on the back of flatbeds, plus a couple of depressed-looking policemen waving us past.

We finally arrived at the cottage at a time not unadjacent to midnight, lit a fire in the new stove, and sank into the lumpy armchairs with a glass of wine.

Bliss.

LinkPoint of Order, Mr Speaker!

I deny everything [Dec. 21st, 2006|02:10 am]

Just to clear up any ambiguity caused by this post on Northern Irish uber-blog Slugger O'Toole, let me state clearly that I have no inside knowledge of whose hands have been delving into Lembit Opik's underpants, or for how long.

A few days ago, when the news broke that the Lib Dem MP had split up with fiancee Sian Lloyd and was now shagging a Cheeky Girl, I remembered a souvenir I still have of my days in student politics - one of Lembit's election leaflets for his unsuccessful run for President of the National Union of Students. Headlined Like it? You'll Lembit, it features a photo of him sitting in a rubbish skip, with the caption "I'll never be too proud to take a tip". I thought, "I could give you a tip or two right now, matey".

What I forgot, though, was a comment I'd posted on Paul Staines' / Guido Fawkes' blog, back in June, when he ran a caption competition with a photo of the Lib Dem candidate in the Bromley by-election surrounded by Cheeky Girls.

My entry? I'm just looking after them for Lembit.

Slugger O'Toole blogger Belfast Gonzo tries to spin this into a suggestion that I might have had insider knowledge that the Opik-Irimia relationship had been going on longer than anyone had officially admitted. He (she?) does quote the bit on my blog where I say I'm an ex journalist and former politician, which ought to suggest I'm no sort of insider at all, but seems to decide it means exactly the opposite - presumably on the grounds that all politicians and journos are lying bastards anyway, aren't they?

Actually, I was just making a vague allusion to the Popbitch rumour about the un-named high-flying MP who was generously rewarded for driving two female party colleagues to conference, and had no idea what was in the stars for the asteroid-fearing, gravitationally-challenged Parliamentarian.

But now a horrible thought has gripped me.

What if he saw the caption?

What if it was me who put the idea in his head?

I may give up this blogging business altogether - it's obviously too bloody dangerous...

LinkPoint of Order, Mr Speaker!

In search of the English Roswell [Dec. 4th, 2006|04:27 pm]

So, yesterday we went to have a potter around some woodland where, 26 years ago this month, an alien spaceship was seen to land.

Possibly.

The Rendlesham Forest Incident, in which a group of American airmen rushed out to what they thought was a crashed aircraft, is sometimes known as the"English Roswell". Some, including a fairly senior officer, still believe with total sincerity that they encountered an alien craft that night. Naturally, a lot of people who can't be doing with that sort of thing have developed perfectly sensible arguments explaining why they didn't.

Our view? Just because an object flies and can't be explained, that doesn't make it an alien spacecraft. Equally, it's perfectly reasonable to assume there are some things in the sky - particularly the sky around two military airbases - that the average person has insufficient knowledge to explain. You can dismiss the suggestion that the airmen actually saw Orford Lighthouse (a tiny winking dot on the horizon when we were there yesterday) without having to accept they must therefore have had a close encounter.

These days the forest is rather different from that night in 1980. A combination of the Great Storm and regular Forestry Commission logging has radically changed the tree cover, the Americans have left the nearest base and, last year, the 25th anniversary of the incident was marked by the establishment of a three-mile marked "UFO trail" that takes a walker around the key locations involved.

Since the site is near the Suffolk coast, and we are on the west of London, it took us a while to get there. With the short winter days a factor, we tried to walk fast. We failed. By the time we reached the little clearing where the landing is supposed to have happened, it was pretty dark. Not as dark as the photos suggest, but plenty dark enough to reduce the visible detail and dramatically ramp up the atmosphere.

Do we think we stood in the shadow of where aliens once trod? Pffft - I seriously doubt it. Did we stand on the site of a mystery that, so far, has defied convincing explanation? No question.

Start of the UFO trail
The start of the UFO trail, in the Rendlesham Forest Centre car park
Easy, well-signposted broad paths
Easy, well-signposted broad paths make up most of the trail
But soon we started to lose the light
Easy paths were helpful - because soon we started to lose the light
This object in the sky was easy enough to identify
This object in the sky was easy enough to identify...
RAF Woodbridge
Landing lights near the gate of RAF Woodbridge - why are so many 'sightings' by military bases?
From then on, it just got darker...
It just got darker...
...and darker...
...and darker...
...until, by the time we got to the landing site, we could barely see a thing.
...until, by the time we got to the landing site, we could barely see a thing.
Which didn't stop us trying.
Which didn't stop us trying.

Photos 1, 3, 6, 7, and (obviously) 9 by Beloved Other Half.

LinkPoint of Order, Mr Speaker!

All the news that fits [Nov. 21st, 2006|11:20 pm]

Newspaper bills - the posters outside shops with snappy headlines - are supposed to intrigue you into buying the paper by giving you a taster of the story. They're not supposed to leave you so doubled up with laughter that you decide it's safer to pass them by and look the stories up later online.

Newspaper bills

Which is what these two bills, classics of their kind, did to me today. They are, if the photo doesn't make it clear, on opposite sides of the same noticeboard - which surely counts as too much excitement in one place at one time.

Here are links to the stories, from the Bucks Free Press. One is a complicated tale of unsympathetic parking wardens, the other a jolly romp at a nightclub.

Jan's fined £30 ... for being 60 seconds late
One of the 37 Wycombe motorists incorrectly fined by disgraced parking attendants has slammed the way he was treated.
Jan Lada, 52, from Cressex, was given the fine in September for being just 60 seconds late getting back to his car.
Rugby player takes pole dance title
Five hopefuls shimmied their way through the bar final of a national pole dancing competition on Thursday night - although a male student bucked the trend by taking the crown.
Crowds packed out the dance floor of Butlers in Frogmoor to cheer on the finalists who had spun, slid and shook their way through four heats to reach the bar final of the annual Polecats competition.
Link

Lions and tigers and bears, oh yes [Nov. 19th, 2006|01:31 pm]

Saturday saw us belatedly celebrating Beloved Other Half's birthday with a trip to Whipsnade Wild Animal Park, which I must surely have visited as a child, if only I could remember. Won't forget today in a hurry, though.

The night before, I'd read through pretty much all of my 2003 entries in this journal - comments too - and been saddened by how different I feel now from how I was then. The 2003 me seemed more carefree, quicker to joke and laugh, more likely to just bash out a couple of quick paragraphs as an entry without worrying too much about it - better company, probably, and definitely someone on whose shoulders the weight of the world sat less heavily.

Well, should you find yourself in a similar position, I can suggest a visit to see penguins, bears, rhinocerii, giraffes and infinite numbers of free-roaming wallabies as a powerful antidote.

It's impossible to pick a high point of the day, as each new thing seemed to top the last one.

A low-key start saw the bear enclosure apparently empty - we speculated they might have, very sensibly, packed it in for winter - and the penguins at the penguin pool sat stoically, doing nothing much at all. But even sedentiary penguins are a fine sight on a cold Saturday, and we spent the longest time watching them as they mooched around, occasionally peering quizzically back at us.

From then on, new and exciting things piled up rapidly, despite the growing inconvenience of walking on what I'm now absolutely certain is, after all, a broken foot.

I'm searching for the right words to describe what it's like to see these exotic creatures so close - often just a couple of feet away across a fence and ditch - and what strikes me now is that, for a lot of the animals, it was remarkably like watching English farm animals with a surreal twist. For example, the zebras - and, to an extent, the giraffes - behaved and looked like horses in their fields and stables. Except one set had a Photoshop filter of stripes applied and the other lot had proposterously long necks and patchwork hides that Beloved Other Half described as looking like motheaten old sofas.

Nowhere, for me, was this more marked than at the rhinoceros enclosure, a vast open grass space with a stable building in one corner. The rhinos formed a herd - males, females and a few young ones - and they wandered around the enclosure very much like domestic cattle, even ending the day all standing in a row in the lee of their building, catching the last of the sun. The very English setting enhanced this feeling, of course, as did our experience strolling through countless cattle herds when walking on the South West Coast path, and other walks. But never have we walked through a herd where the animals were van-sized blocks of dark concrete on legs, with little beady eyes and horns like seige weapons.

Not everything looked so homely, of course - the hippos in their pool, the families of elephants eating their high tea in the elephant house, the ludicrous pink flamingos, they all felt more like traditional zoo attractions, packaged for attention-challenged visitors and their Ritalin-fuelled offspring.

And then there were the predators - wolves, lions and tigers.

Of them, the lions seemed least threatening. They lay placidly, watching us watch them, until eventually the female got up and wandered over to check on the cubs. The cubs - quite large now - responded by jumping on her, practicing how to take down prey. She calmly endured their antics for a few minutes until they got bored and everyone settled down again. They looked as dangerous as a family on holiday by the pool. Only the thick safety glass we were watching them through suggested otherwise.

By contrast, the wolf pack was scary in a way that probably harks back to some long-buried ancestral memory of when humans weren't quite so secure in their mastery of the world. Like the lions, they barely moved. In their case, however, their stillness looked like a pause before a full-scale pack pursuit of some hapless tourist. A few ears flicked, a few heads turned, and three wolves stood as sentries, permanently alert and poised for action.

The tigers were a higher level of threat still, having seemingly developed the ability to silently teleport. For quite some time as we stared into the enclosure we thought there was only one, lying in the middle surveying its domain. Then I looked up to see a man walking along the outside of the fence towards us. He was about 12 feet away when I heard him. With a feeling of complete shock I suddenly realised he was walking to keep pace with a tiger patrolling the inside of the fence. If it hadn't been for the relatively noisy person, that tiger would have been literally under our noses before we saw it. And, a minute or two later, as we watched the patrolling animal receed, we suddenly noticed a third, standing hidden in full view. It was a frightening thought, to imagine being suddenly inside the enclosure and watching the first tiger as you planned your escape, while two others were out there, unnoticed and able to be on top of you before you were aware of their very existance.

On the other hand, not every dangerous animal looks dangerous. After a flask of hot soup, we made a second attempt to see the bears - and this time we were successful. Large brown bears are, of course, highly dangerous creatures. But it's very difficult to remember that when you're watching one carefully climb a tree that seems far too small to hold its weight, a look of intense and slightly nervous concentration on its furry face. The ease with which this enormous animal scaled the trunk was something of an eye-opener but, as it sat at the top munching berries, we wondered how it was going to get down again. And we wondered just how safe was the other bear, sitting under the tree in apparant blissful ignorance of the heavy weight that was bulging out in all directions from the unfortunate tree-top, five feet above its head. We'd have liked to hang around to find out, but it was cold and time was short.

In the end, we didn't see everything. To our disappointment, we missed the llamas and the lemurs, and saw little of the camels - just a row of them in the distance. Tickets are pricey, too, so we'll not be popping up again just to fill in the gaps. But after a while, when the memory has faded a little and needs refreshing, and when the world is a little too heavy again, we'll be back.

LinkPoint of Order, Mr Speaker!

Viva la raza [Nov. 15th, 2006|12:53 am]

Monday was the first anniversary of the death by heart failure of the wrestler Eddie Guerrero - and, to judge from the fresh set of comments that have appeared on YouTube tribute videos, his memory has lost none of its power to affect people.

On one level, pro wrestling is undoubtedly rather silly - but on another it's a form of storytelling and, like all stories, when it's told well by a skilled practitioner it has the power to touch people's hearts. Eddie had that skill.

Back when he died, I created a graphic captioned 'gone to soon', with Eddie's photo and those of four other people who left before they ought to have - Kirsty MacColl, Screaming Lord Sutch, Glenn Quinn and Stuart Adamson. According to my referrer stats, it gets hit again and again from Google image searches, and most of the people are looking for Eddie.


In memoriam

Nor is it just online that you can see evidence of how he connected with people. From time to time I wear my tribute t-shirt, the one sold by the WWE to raise money for Eddie's widow Vickie, and more often than not someone comments on it. They didn't yesterday, as it happened, but then I hardly spoke to anyone during the day.

I wore it while delivering leaflets during May's council elections and on three occasions found myself deep in conversation about his legacy and his greatest matches - twice with the sort of groups of teenage boys that usually give me the wiggins, once with a pleasant young man who I met in the street outside a friend's house and who turned out to be a fellow candidate.

Then there was the time down the gym, when I was talking to a fitness instructor and he literally faltered to a stop mid-sentence as he read the "1967 - 2005" caption - his eyes bulged in appalled surprise and he blurted out "Eddie Guerrero's dead?" I had to tell him the whole sad story as he shook his head in disbelief.

But most bizarre of all was at the check-out in Tesco one lunchtime, when the woman behind the till broke off without warning from swiping my shopping to start talking about how terrible his death was and how she and her daughter had been such fans of his - just launched into it as if we'd been chatting away every day for weeks. As unlikely a wrestling fan as you could imagine, but that was Eddie for you - he touched everyone who saw him.

LinkPoint of Order, Mr Speaker!

Limping forwards [Nov. 12th, 2006|01:17 am]

When I fell on Friday I didn't hear the heavy, muffled sound, like a thick bar of chocolate being snapped in its wrapper, that heralded my broken foot of a few years ago. That was some small consolation as I floundered on the ground in the dark, sick with shock and unable to stand, wondering whether I'd have to crawl back to the office on hands and knees. I'd fallen victim to a lack of street lighting and a pothole big enough to relocate the Eden Project to, wrenching my left foot to what must have been the limit of its endurance. And believe me, it hurt.

In the end I pulled myself upright, hopped back to the office, and sat unseen on some garden furniture while I took stock. No chocolate-bar noise = nothing broken. Grazed knee = painful irritant at most. No torn clothing, though one boot was badly gouged. Result: drive home and count yourself lucky. So I did, and found that I couldn't bring myself to top 50mph on any of the motorways, much to the irritation of a Polish trucker who had greater ambitions. Now, a day later, the foot has swelled up like a balloon and gifted me a limp that might politely be called a conversation piece.

Plenty of opportunity for conversation, too, as we continued our house hunting and then dropped in on my parents. We looked at two houses today, but neither turned out to be goers: one was large but bland and the other was wonderfully individualistic but impractically small. Ah well.

Of course, we want the impossible - space, privacy, lots of rooms, parking for two cars, a garden big enough to let tortoises roam while still allowing plenty of space for a vegetable plot, with a good rail link to London (my home town in North Hertfordshire is where we are mainly looking) and of course within our budget. Oh - and one more important criterion: the vendor must be prepared to actually sell it. We had, in fact, found somewhere that met every single one of our requirements, at the price of needing a lot of work, but our making an offer so unnerved the owner that she promptly took it off the market. Nothing we've visited since has quite hit the spot - though we were tempted by another place that looked good until we inspected the alley at the foot of the garden and found it ankle-deep in empty beer cans.

Life, in fact, has thrown a succession of huge things at us in a quite overwhelming manner. I can't even begin to list them, but the weight of the world on our shoulders has been such that writing about it has seemed trivial and impossible. Hence the silence in this blog, which celebrated its fourth birthday (in its DeadJournal form) a few days ago with no fanfare and without pomp and ceremony - or even jelly and ice cream. I don't want to stop writing, but I'm going through a patch where actually sitting down and doing it seems nearly impossible. I have taken one positive step, though - removed myself from Lib Dem Blogs. I realised, in the end, that being on it was a cause of my creative block - I was feeling a responsibility to be serious and sonorous, and to think great thoughts, and that prevented me from just posting as I used to. So now that's gone, at least for the time being. When I've finished migrating all my posts and comments since November 2002 to the newest version of this journal then I'll put back a feed that just includes any political posts I make. Until then, the Lib Dems will just have to manage without me.

It's not like I could deliver leaflets anyway, with this foot...

LinkPoint of Order, Mr Speaker!

Modern Manners for Monday Mornings 3 [Oct. 23rd, 2006|09:06 am]

Strip number three: conversational gambits, wristband etiquette and that resignation...

Part one
Part two
Part three

Last week's, which I forgot to cross-post, is here.

Built using Witty Comics

LinkPoint of Order, Mr Speaker!

Live news as it happens! [Oct. 22nd, 2006|01:55 pm]

Bucks Free Press bill
I wonder if he's landed yet?

LinkPoint of Order, Mr Speaker!

Ctrl-Alt-Delete [Oct. 13th, 2006|09:55 pm]

I've often wondered what the effect would be on the Earth if the human race winked out of existance overnight: I always figured the nuclear power stations would be where the trouble lay. Turns out, in this fascinating New Scientist piece, that multiple worldwide meltdowns wouldn't be such a big deal after all.

In fact, apart from long-term traps like groundwater and the ocean beds, it'd only take a few decades before the worst of the damage we're doing to the environment would have repaired itself.

Imagine that all the people on Earth - all 6.5 billion of us and counting - could be spirited away tomorrow, transported to a re-education camp in a far-off galaxy. (Let's not invoke the mother of all plagues to wipe us out, if only to avoid complications from all the corpses). Left once more to its own devices, Nature would begin to reclaim the planet, as fields and pastures reverted to prairies and forest, the air and water cleansed themselves of pollutants, and roads and cities crumbled back to dust.

"The sad truth is, once the humans get out of the picture, the outlook starts to get a lot better," says John Orrock, a conservation biologist at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California. But would the footprint of humanity ever fade away completely, or have we so altered the Earth that even a million years from now a visitor would know that an industrial society once ruled the planet?

A lot of its conclusions on how long it will takes cities and the more obvious tell-tale signs of humanity to disappear are based on what happened around Chernobyl in the years following the disaster - buildings are crumbling thanks to invasive plants, but wildlife (after a few years dominated by rats and feral dogs) is booming:

"I really expected to see a nuclear desert there," says [environmental biologist Ronald] Chesser. "I was quite surprised. When you enter into the exclusion zone, it's a very thriving ecosystem." [snip] Wild boar are 10 to 15 times as common within the Chernobyl exclusion zone as outside it, and big predators are making a spectacular comeback. "I've never seen a wolf in the Ukraine outside the exclusion zone. I've seen many of them inside," says Chesser.

It's not all rosy - some species are past the point of no return already, some damaged ecosystems have already struck a new balance that squeezes out native wildlife, and nothing's stopping global warming for a while yet - but for the most part things just keep on getting better.

All things considered, it will only take a few tens of thousands of years at most before almost every trace of our present dominance has vanished completely. Alien visitors coming to Earth 100,000 years hence will find no obvious signs that an advanced civilisation ever lived here.

[snip]

Ocean sediment cores will show a brief period during which massive amounts of heavy metals such as mercury were deposited, a relic of our fleeting industrial society. The same sediment band will also show a concentration of radioactive isotopes left by reactor meltdowns after our disappearance. The atmosphere will bear traces of a few gases that don't occur in nature, especially perfluorocarbons such as CF4, which have a half-life of tens of thousands of years. Finally a brief, century-long pulse of radio waves will forever radiate out across the galaxy and beyond, proof - for anything that cares and is able to listen - that we once had something to say and a way to say it.

But these will be flimsy souvenirs, almost pathetic reminders of a civilisation that once thought itself the pinnacle of achievement. Within a few million years, erosion and possibly another ice age or two will have obliterated most of even these faint traces. If another intelligent species ever evolves on the Earth - and that is by no means certain, given how long life flourished before we came along - it may well have no inkling that we were ever here save for a few peculiar fossils and ossified relics. The humbling - and perversely comforting - reality is that the Earth will forget us remarkably quickly.

LinkPoint of Order, Mr Speaker!

Modern Manners for Monday Mornings [Oct. 9th, 2006|02:35 am]

I don't have the resources (or the body) to try video blogging, so I thought I'd try an older style of satire: the cartoon strip....

Part one
Part two
Part three

Built using Witty Comics

LinkPoint of Order, Mr Speaker!

Oh Brother where art thou? [Oct. 6th, 2006|12:55 am]

The third and final batch of photos from our camping weekend (a dim and distant memory now, I fear) comes from Cleeve Abbey, which was strictly second division in the pre-dissolution abbeys and monasteries league, but which now boasts some remarkably complete ruins and is therefore well worth a visit.

View across the cloisters
Time warp
Looking across the cloisters to the largely-intact buildings on the other side, it's very easy to believe you're in a working building that just needs some repairs - not a relic from the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Rear view of abbey buildings
Up to Bedfordshire
From the rear of the abbey complex, the two storey building with the dormitory upstairs and the ruined stub of the Chapter House sticking out. In the foreground are the footings of the reredorter (bathroom, to you and me).

Heraldic tiles form a historic floor
Floor story
The late thirteenth century heraldic tiled refectory floor, discoved by excavation and now presenting a headache over how best to preserve it.

Upstairs in the dormitory
Monk beds
Upstairs in the dormitory - very atmospheric, and easy to visualise what life must have been like.

Up a chimney
Watching for Santa
Up a chimney, taken with my head stuck in the fireplace. Couldn't resist it, sorry.

Mediaeval graffito of a monk
Unholy mess
Graffito of a tonsured monk, from a corridor - it certainly looks contemporary with the famous mediaeval wall painting in a nearby room. And the art is to a higher standard.

Sunset across Bridgewater Bay
Obligatory sunset shot
Westwards from Blue Anchor. Who can resist a sunset? Especially with a thumping great cloud like that one, so artfully posed.

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