Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Organised myself - check!

A short while ago, I read a blog (apologies, I forget whose - maybe Helen Hollick, maybe someone else - or possibly even a comment Helen made on someone else's blog!) who commented that they carried round a notebook to jot down all those ideas they had when not near their PC, because otherwise they just forgot them. A problem in the shower, which is where all my bestselling ideas occur, but the principle was sound. I have plenty of notebooks, I thought, I should do that. (Yes, I know, I should *already* have been doing that, but cut me some slack.)

Then, as part of my continuing effort to lose weight (and to encourage the other members of the household without sabotaging my own efforts, let's be honest!) I started planning menus. Too often I had found that mealtimes would come round again, the fridge would have only half the ingredients for a sensible meal and we'd end up eating pizza. Or chinese. Or fish and chips. (Never all three.) By planning one proper meal a day, and ensuring that I had not only the ingredients for that but also a few things for small meals and snacks for the rest of the week, some of the stress was taken out of it, as well as quite a lot of the calories. Apart from anything else, many of the recipes I've done are 'serves four', so it helps with the old portion control too.

In addition to all this planning, I had often scribbled on a piece of paper the more urgent things that I really needed to get done that day, whether it was checking online for planning permission information for our community newsletter, working out what I was doing with my pupils that week at school or remembering to collect a parcel from the post office - and then with joy I could cross things off the list as I did them. Or transfer them to a new list the following day.

My kitchen table was beginning to look like the result of an explosion in a paper factory. Bits of paper everywhere, all with essential information, perhaps. I needed a system.

Now, way way back in the dark ages, last century, people used something called a 'diary'. They would jot down things like appointments and birthdays in them, a little aide-memoire. In fact, when I was based in New York and working with the fabulous Penny England, she was super-organised and would spend the first few minutes of each working day building up the list in the office diary of what needed to be done, always transferring over the few things from the previous day that hadn't happened (it was off-off-Broadway theatre, there were always things cropping up that meant the usual stuff didn't get done).

You're probably thinking here, 'There's an app for all that.' Well, I have tried. I really have. I use the calendar app in my phone and have linked it to my gmail calendar. I use the reminders app. I use the notebook app. I even paid for a couple of To-Do-List type apps, one of which, Clear, is really clear and easy to use. (Business Insider has it down as one of the 7 Best Apps to organise yourself with.) But the trouble with all of these apps is, you have to use all of them. You have to go to each of them and open each of them and then do the stuff in each of them! I know, it's not really a hardship, but it's too easy *not* to do it. Plus, I suspect I have over-cluttered Clear with lists of plants to buy - eventually - for the garden. The biggest problem I have is that it's easier to write something with a pen (or pencil) than it is to type it in on an iphone keyboard.

It's a bit late in the year to buy a diary for 2013, so I've redirected one of my many notebooks, written the dates for the next couple of weeks at the top of each page, and started including *all* the stuff I need to know in that. And I've bought a proper diary already for next year, an A5 lined page to a day. I will still use the calendar app on my phone, and the reminders. But I now have several ideas for blog entries jotted down at the back of my notebook - you could even say I've got a little list! - and I can also cross off one of today's 'things to do'. Now to tackle the next one - cooking lunch.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Joy of Jam-Making

Last weekend I made jam for the first time *ever*.

This will doubtless seem to some a shocking revelation, while others will be totally unsurprised. I am, after all, hardly a Domestic Goddess. I have just discovered the new nomenclature of 'outsourcing the catering' when having friends over for dinner (aka getting in a takeaway, preferably one that is delivered). But the lady round the corner had phoned in desperation: could I take some plums off her hands, as her trees had gone into overdrive. I'm not the world's biggest plum fan, having endured a surfeit of them as a child, but I had seen a recipe for plum clafoutis that looked quite straightforward and was marked 'easy' in the margin. Yes, I said, I can take a few.

My next mistake was letting the OH go round to collect them. He, of course, did not endure a surfeit of plums as a child and was therefore not shocked when the plum-grower filled a carrier bag (admittedly, a small one) for him with a fraction of her produce.

I shouldn't be eating puddings. I certainly shouldn't be eating plum clafoutis day after day after day, especially when it's made with double cream. What else could I do with it? A vague memory of a jam setting on my breadmaker popped into my head. Would that solve my problem? Fortunately the recipe was extremely easy: 500 grammes plums, halved, peeled and stoned; a cup and a half of granulated sugar; 2-3 tablespoons of lemon juice; some pectin. I can't remember how much pectin because in the end, despite my OH locating some, I didn't use it. There should be enough naturally occurring pectin in the fruit for the jam to set, I reasoned, happy to agree with several in the online fora.

I don't know if you've ever tried peeling plums. You can't use an ordinary peeler as you would for apples or potatoes. And trying to get the stones out of them wasn't always easy either. I was lucky that the halves were supposed to be chopped roughly before putting in the machine. After that, it was easy enough. Switch it on to the correct program, sit back for a few minutes before sterilising the jars (which in my case involved washing in hot soapy water, rinsing and then baking in the oven, as per the breadmaker's instructions; no boiling jars and fingers for me!). Everything went to plan and I have in fact made a second batch, following the same instructions. The jam hasn't set brilliantly but then we bought some jam in the Azores earlier in the year that wasn't set - still tasted amazing. The second batch is darker in colour as I didn't peel most of the plums, hoping that there will be more pectin in the skin.

But what surprised me most was the reaction from my friends. 'You'll have such fun,' they told me. Really? I haven't had the heart to tell them (until now) that I've done it using a breadmaker in case that has taken the fun out of it all. But having to boil away sticky stuff on the hob, testing the temperature at regular intervals, trying to decant the bubbling gloop from a large saucepan into a small jar without spilling it all over the worktop - I fail to see where the fun is. Perhaps I should have taken greater pleasure from having my fingers stained plum-colour for several days afterwards. Suffice to say, the next jam I make (and yes, there is satisfaction in making one's own jam, especially from produce that was free, rather than buying jars of it from the supermarket) will be done in the breadmaker. And I will have great fun sitting reading a book while it cooks.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Birthdays, happy or otherwise.

Birthdays may not yield the post office or Clintons quite as much money as they used to, but it seems everyone needs to know about when your birthday is. Most forms of social media not only ask for your date of birth, they seem obsessed with telling all your friends when your birthday is - purely so you can be wished happy birthday, of course. You can always thwart this tendency by putting in a false date of birth (as quite a number of under-teens do on Facebook, for example) though it must be hard for those few whose birthday really *is* January 1st.

Some people would rather not celebrate their birthdays. One significant birthday (you know, those that end in a zero), I got positively grumpy, despite being offered a party to celebrate it. The OH did then try to offer a party the week before to celebrate the fact that the first digit still hadn't changed, but I was too stuck in my grumpy rut by then.

The next significant birthday, I made up for it. Massive party. And it was really good fun. Somehow, the digit at the front no longer mattered. I have since taken to celebrating the fact that I generally don't look my age (just don't look too closely at giveaway areas like my hands or neck) and delight in surprising people who hadn't realised. Yes, I really am *that* old. And no, I'm not going to say here how old I am. It might be different by the time you read it... I have finally realised that age is relative and it's mostly in your head. Your chronological age is pretty unimportant.

Alternatively, you can follow the example of other cultures. A Polish friend, for example, tells me that birthdays are quite low key but your Name Day, on the other hand, is another matter completely.  Happy Name Day, all you Sabinas out there, today being St Sabina's Day, according to the Catholic calendar.

It also occurred to me, while writing 'happy birthday' in Spanish for a friend, that some of it is in the wording. Harking back each year to our birth when mentioning birth-day is guaranteed to make us feel old, whereas the Spanish 'feliz cumpleanos' would appear to my vague recollections of Latin, to be celebrating the number of years you have completed, a more satisfying approach. Yay, finished another one, pass the sangria!

One of my brothers-in-law has a theory that people who set themselves a (usually totally unrealistic) lifeplan that is not achieved by the time they are 30 find crossing that particular threshold awkward, as if they have somehow failed. There are two potential solutions to this: one is to set yourself realistic goals rather than attempting to be e.g. president of Uruguay or a multiple billionaire by the time you're thirty - very few people manage this, if any; the other is pack so much into your life that by the time you're thirty you have a lot to look back on. My brother-in-law, a busy chap in his quiet moments, enjoyed his thirtieth birthday.

I suspect this is an approach that can be applied throughout the years, whatever targets you set yourself and is quite well summed up by the popular current acronym YOLO - You Only Live Once. Happy whatever you're celebrating today, just make sure you don't let it slip by without doing something to remember!

Friday, 2 August 2013

In memory of Daniel Pelka

Sometimes I find it hard to take sides or make a decision because usually I can see the other person's point of view. I make excuses for people driving badly, for example, (for all I swear at them!) or forgetting to include someone in a group invitation, partly because I can understand all too easily how such things might happen.

But sometimes I cannot understand how someone can do something. The recent case of Daniel Pelka is one of those times. I haven't read all the stories in the news relating to it because it's just too sad and too distressing. The little I have seen projects Daniel's mother and her partner as being like the killers that I normally come across in TV shows like 'Criminal Minds', where it's all fiction and people like that don't really exist. Except apparently they do.

I can *almost* understand the stepfather's actions. I suppose it's the exercise of power by an extreme sadist. But what is so shocking to me is how the maternal instinct seems to have failed so completely in Daniel's mother. Clearly the boyfriend was a scary guy as Daniel's sibling tried to help but did so secretly, to protect both of them. So perhaps Daniel's mother was also scared of him. Perhaps. She didn't appear to show any remorse throughout the nine weeks of the trial, though. Ultimately, I can only agree with the judge who described their actions as 'incomprehensible'. Literally.

Thirty years doesn't seem much for what the two of them put a little boy through. But it will probably be thirty years in solitary for their own protection, because I'm pretty certain that their fellow jailbirds will find their actions incomprehensible too, and many of them will be parents.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Assisting in the birth (of a book...)

Since it seems the entire world is agog over what is, let's face it, an entirely natural process, I thought I'd approach it from a different angle.

This week's blog is about the birth of a *book*. Yes, you read that correctly. And the labour involved in bringing a book into the world can be extremely UNnatural, especially coming as it does after a pregnancy that for many of us is much much longer than nine months!

Just for a change, I'm not going to tell you about the trials and tribulations of exposing my own book, 'Moses in Chains', to the world (though this link should take you to the Amazon page to get it for your kindle if you haven't already!) but instead about a different book of historical fiction, 'The Handfasted Wife', by Carol McGrath.

Carol first got the idea for her book several years ago while visiting Bayeux, and you can read her account of it in her blog. Inspiration comes in many different forms and a small extract of a large picture is not a particularly surprising route, I think. The idea fermented for a while until she started a postgraduate Creative Writing degree at Royal Holloway, for which a completed novel would be part of the final submission. Over several years, she honed the characters and their adventures until it reached the state in which you now find it. We spent many happy afternoons drinking tea in the garden and hot-seating some of the characters, exploring different possibilities and laughing lots. (I think it was tea, though in retrospect it may have been Pimms.)  Other readers gave opinions that were filtered through Carol's perspective and more than one of us went through checking the spelling, punctuation and grammar (it is much easier to find those stray commas and spaces in someone else's work, believe me - though I can assure you, both Carol and I know the difference between villain and villein).

As for the labour, it is all too well documented how difficult it is to find an agent these days, or a publisher. Through the Romantic Novelists Association, Carol had met a number of people who had read her book in its earlier drafts and provided helpful comments - this is typical of the RNA and probably the wider writing community, because they've all been there and they all know how hard it is - and through one of her contacts, Carol was lucky enough to be offered a contract by Accent Press. I say 'lucky' not because she didn't deserve it but because so often great writing is overlooked because it's in the wrong place at the wrong time; you only have to read about J.K.Rowling's recent experience to discover how much is down to who happens to read your draft and when they read it.

Getting the contract was not the end of the process, however. The labour continued as Carol made changes to the text as requested by her publisher, decided on the cover, prepared her blog tour and made plans for the launch. (Here are a few links to the blog tour that Carol managed to organise. Kudos to her!)  Eventually the day came when the book was available as an ebook or paper copy, through print on demand. Carol's busy schedule meant that the launch was more virtual than actual until last Thursday, when Coles Books in Bicester kindly hosted a launch with wine, canapes and copies of the book available to be purchased and signed.

Is that the end of the birthing process? You might have thought so. Carol at least had already decided on the name but the media is still in pursuit - she has had a mention in an article in USA Today and of course has to follow up on the reviews that people kindly write, on Amazon and elsewhere. And of course, since Carol is not a one-book-wonder, there are the other offspring to consider; fortunately the first draft of the second book in the planned trilogy is already complete. I'm pretty certain that the parents of another recent birth can't claim that!

Saturday, 6 July 2013

David Bowie is...

disappointing. Not a word I would ever have thought to connect with Mr B, but true.

Since forever, I have been a David Bowie fan. Back in the day, when my schoolfriends were debating the relative merits of Donny Osmond vs. David Cassidy, I couldn't be bothered with either of them. I preferred the weirdness of David Essex in 'Shine On' and was hooked by 'John I'm Only Dancing' and 'The Jean Genie' (I was a little late learning about pop, having been raised in a classical household). I saw Bowie only once, on the Serious Moonlight Tour, but then my student budget was always torn by the relative costs of food, books and music. The only reason I stopped buying the albums in the late 80s was the rising cost of children's paraphernalia. I should probably rectify some of those gaps now so that I can rip the rest of his oeuvre to my phone.

So I was really excited when my OH revealed that our mystery trip on Sunday, for which I had had to get up surprisingly early, was to the David Bowie retrospective at the V&A museum. I'd been aware that it had been on, but I usually find out about these things long after they've either finished or sold out. For a change, I was in on one of the Big Things.

To begin with, there were timed tickets. That should make sure that there is an even distribution of people going in, so that rather than being part of a crush to see things, you are part of a constant trickle. Should. Didn't.

Then there was the audio tour. Note, not an audio guide. They are very clear about that on the leaflet the girl handed to us before we got our audio sets. The idea was to provide a soundscape to the things we were about to see, in which proximity to the displays linked to a particular piece of the soundtrack, whether music or commentary. Quite a nice idea, especially when used to provide a soundscape for a musician.

I'm not sure how far apart the various timed entrances were, but it seemed as if our 10.30 entrance had been shared by about thirty people. They were all in the first room, I think, but it was quite dark so it was difficult to see. And because they were all there, it was also difficult to see the exhibits. When I finally got closer, I discovered there were small panels of writing underneath the various objects/photographs, usually white print on a coloured background. Difficult to read in the dark, especially when aware of all the other people around trying to get to the point where they could see *something*. At least at this point there seemed to be only one direction in which to move, so we all shuffled forward occasionally, and if someone needed to spend longer reading or studying an artefact, well, we just had to wait, or skip it. I'll be honest, I skipped a few. These were of his early years, stuff I could find elsewhere without waiting for someone else to finish reading it on the internet.

After a display of oranges, which appeared to have slipped slightly, and a short video of Gilbert and George with an soundtrack which I heard at least four times while waiting to move on, we went into the second room. There was a brief moment when the soundscape changed, and then I was back to the Gilbert and George soundtrack. Several more times.  I went back to a docent/guard to ask about it and he gave directions to where I could change the headset. I did try to follow the direction, but 'go to the end of the next room and turn left' was a bit too vague when the rooms are serpentine at best. I headed back to the OH, still listening to Gilbert and George, where my noble OH swapped headsets with me; for some reason, it started to behave. It must have known he would take no prisoners. Either that, or it realised that by moving forward six more inches, we could hear the Bowie medley being played over loudspeakers in the next room. At the same time as the soundscape. At which point, I took the headset off.

The costumes were interesting to look at but again, the low-level lighting - presumably to protect the fabrics - made it very difficult to read the information panels. I really would have preferred a more regular audiotour. The same criticism can be applied to the hand-written lyrics and notes for album covers. The point at which the audioset really was useful was at the compilation of film roles, when the dialogue could be heard, although since everyone was seeing the same thing at the same time, they could just as easily have put the sound over a public system in that room.

I don't want to give the impression that there was nothing I enjoyed about the exhibition: we spent nearly two hours there, including the obligatory exit via the giftshop. But this exhibition has received rave reviews from the critics and I can only assume that the critics got to see it without hordes of the general public blocking their view, because the general public will stand in the way when you want to see things and it will take all the time it wants to do so (I should know, I'm part of the general public!). Ultimately, I felt the only way to see all the information was to buy the book before I left the giftshop and that annoys me. A souvenir should be what it means - a memory, not a first viewing.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Stop the World I Wanted to Get Off (but have possibly recovered now)

When I first started blogging, I was - how can I put this - a little over-enthusiastic. Daily entries, most of them quite lengthy. After the novelty had worn off (and I had read Anne Allen's blog about not overloading your readers), I calmed down to approximately one entry a week.  Regularity of entries was the recommended way rather than frequency.

However, I suspect that a regular once every two months is probably less frequent than even Anne had in mind. My excuse? Too much to write about. That's right, too much. As soon as I thought, 'Ooh, that would make a good topic for a blog entry,' something else would happen that superseded it until eventually my head was spinning in such a whirl that nothing at all got written.

I have finally managed to slam on the brakes, my head has stopped whirling and last week I actually looked at a poem that I started writing back in March but hadn't got round to editing since. So in the spirit of slowing down, please allow me to tickle your semicircular canals with some thoughts about Julia Copus's poetry collection, 'The World's Two Smallest Humans'.

I first came across Julia Copus when studying poetic form with the fabulous Jenny Lewis; after reading some of Copus's new form, the specular poem, we were to try our hands at our own versions. Naturally, the form is deceptive, and creating a poem that follows the rules *and* says something even vaguely meaningful was a challenge too far for me. But her name stuck with me and I recently acquired her latest collection, something slim to read on the plane when I wasn't allowed to read from any electronic device.

My initial reaction on flipping through the collection was disappointment. I know, shocking, but put it down to the tiredness I felt on discovering there were only two specular poems in the whole collection, 'Miss Jenkins' and 'Raymond, at 60'. These two again flex syntax and context to its limits to create a different sense for each line, depending on where it is in the poem. Potted life histories, a man caring for an ageing mother is reflected through the poem to the small boy being cared for, and a retired teacher reflects on the career that has passed. Then I went back to the beginning and read each poem more carefully and my disappointment was subsumed by my delight in what I was reading.

The inside cover blurb describes the poems as navigating a series of landscapes, both external and interior. Much of it struck me as being rather about silence, at three levels. 'Heronkind', which describes a heron catching a fish, as well as the biological necessity for herons to catch fish; I found myself holding my breath, waiting for the fish to be caught, the heron to feed: a silence of a third kind, beyond the interior and external silence of the landscapes described in the poems.  Silence is referenced directly in the poem 'This Silence Between Us', a metaphorical silence that is talked about and around:
                   'This silence that lies between us like a body
                    that long ago gave up responding to pain,
                    still less to light .....'
and the stanza ends with the question that we all feel in our frustration with faltering relationships, 'how long do you suppose it can continue?'

There is also a theme of children, lost, unborn or unattained: in the sequence 'Ghost' about Copus's attempts at IVF; in the poem 'Stars'; in the 'notes' from Sussmayr to Mozart while the pregnant Constanze reclines in the background; in the escaping young teen of 'An Easy Passage'.  Sussmayr complains of having to translate 'direct from the silence', reading between the lines as we all need to when reading poetry.

I could write at much greater length but don't want to  defer the moment when you too can go and acquire a copy of this collection. And when you've read it, tell me what your favourite poem/line/phrase was. It's tricky to pin it down to one, but I think mine is possibly the following, from the fourth packet of 'The Particella of Franz Xaver Sussmayr':

           The soul itself, in that it is wafer-thin,

            is shockable as litmus - yet agile too and slips
            between the present and the past,
            leaving a trail like pollen dust.'


Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Broadening Horizons

My absence has indeed been dictated by my gallivanting, but I don't want you to think I was doing nothing *but* gallivanting. Travel is after all supposed to be educational, broadening the mind and all that. Here are some of the things I learned while away.

1. It doesn't matter how comfortable the shoes are when you try them on in the shop, you must then wear them around the house for several days or you will regret it. Yes, I know, I've learned this lesson before but apparently forgot it or at least thought it wouldn't matter since we were only going a couple of blocks. And back. In hot weather. Ow (for several days). 

2. Gay Pride Parades are a lot of fun. This is really one of those self-evident truths which we hold to be etc etc but I have finally seen it for myself. I have actual evidence, to wit this photo: 

3. When drinking cocktails, it is advisable to attempt to keep count. Especially when other people are just catching the waiter's eye and indicating 'another round' with a simple swirl of the fingertip. An alternative lesson before sitting down with people who do that is to start on lime and soda, but that won't be nearly as much fun. 

4. Coffee with an interesting person trumps a lecture on an interesting topic by a bad speaker every time. And sometimes a lecture by a good speaker, though it depends how quickly the coffee goes cold. There's probably a mathematical formula for it. 

5. Americans clap at the end of a patriotic film in the cinema. Who are they clapping? Themselves, for having stayed awake for the whole of a film or for being part of such a patriotic nation? We saw Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln and Argo during our trip (plus Hitchcock, though they didn't clap at the end of that, presumably too many Brits in it) and while I will acknowledge that the tension in places was excellently constructed, leading to a sense of relief despite knowing the actual outcome in my head, it still seemed strange to applaud Affleck et al. But then I have known for a long time than American patriotism is a far more overt beast than British patriotism, which tends to loiter in the corners of self-deprecation. 

6. Not all Texans are gun-totin' Bible-quotin' Republicans. As the ship had started in Galveston, there were quite a few Texans on board and yet we had only one really awkward moment at dinner, which wasn't even over the Second Amendment. Our Pennsylvanian companion was critical of the Texan congressman who had complained about Federal relief funding after Hurricane Sandy had swept up the East coast, but who was then very quick to ask for Federal relief funding for those affected by the blast at Waco. I don't know if our Texan companion was related the congressman but boy, did he get upset! We'd already covered the failure to pass the amendment relating to universal background checks, without Texan explosions, so it was actually quite a surprise. I quickly changed the subject... 

7. Russell Crowe can't sing.  

8. Ginger tea doesn't taste of ginger if it's drunk in the proximity of peppermint tea. It's as if the peppermint has taken the ginger out back somewhere and kicked its gingery little head in. It's entirely possible that ginger tea *never* tastes of ginger, but I haven't taken that risk yet. 

9. For all those Scots/Welsh/Irish folks who resent being called English when what was meant was 'British', there's at least one American out there somewhere who thinks that Ukraine and Macedonia are part of Russia.  

I probably learnt other things too, but unless I made notes fairly immediately, chances of retaining the information were slim. Here's hoping for more enjoyably-acquired lessons!

Friday, 12 April 2013

Education education education

After a password-induced delay (for which, read: memory-fail-induced delay), a brief blog update.

I see in the news that there is distress about the slimming down of the curriculum, particularly the speed with which it is being introduced. According to the BBC, teachers in secondary schools are perfectly happy with the curriculum as it is. I find that pretty hard to believe, though perhaps it's not so much the curriculum as the sheer workload that teachers have to endure. Whether you have a marking-heavy workload at the upper end of the education system or a preparation-heavy workload with the younger children, all teachers work crazy hours that have nothing to do with finishing at 3 and 'enjoying' long holidays.

Which is why my experience this holiday has been even more distressing. As a private tutor, I tend to see children who are finding things harder, or whose parents think they are finding it harder, so perhaps I'm not speaking from the perspective of a fair sample. But of the four children I have been working with over this Easter break, three have effectively been told by their teachers that they're not good enough.

It's hard enough for teachers to get respect from difficult parents, the government and resentful workers who only see the official hours worked. When there are members of the profession who undermine the rest of us, calling their pupils 'stupid' to their faces or suggesting that 65% in an exam isn't good enough because some people will get 75%, it makes it impossible.

I don't know whether the syllabus should be changed or not; I grew up in Gove's 'fact-rich' environment and as the saying goes, it hasn't done me any harm. I don't know enough about the current curriculum in secondary schools to be able to say how useful it is. But this style of learning and examining doesn't suit everyone and I doubt that employers need their future employees to know the names and dates of accession of the English kings from William the Conqueror onwards. Even future history teachers need to be able to read and write. And telling children who can't jump through an inappropriate hoop (and yes, exam system, I'm looking at you here) that they're going to fail so why even bother trying, is unprofessional.

Just don't get me started on the schools' league tables....

Friday, 29 March 2013

In lieu of ephemera

You may think I had forgotten I was even writing a blog, it's been such a long time since the last post. The problem has been not so much nothing to say as too much to say, and while I could wax lyrical on the topic of the snow and cold (again), the papal election (very corrupt back in the High Renaissance but at least they didn't have twitter then), cats vs dogs, gay marriage equality in the US, Chris Huhne vs Richard III and the BBC's sense of timing when covering the press announcement of the latter (some of us on Facebook got quite worked up about that)... well, it all passes. Even my latest project, about which I am not going fully public until things are firmed up rather more, will get no publicity here yet.

Instead, before March has passed without a single entry, I am going to write my own tribute to the late Richard Griffiths, whose death has been announced today: aged 65, from complications following heart surgery. Skimming through IMDB, I see he was in 'Chariots of Fire' (Head Porter at Caius College) and 'Superman II' (Terrorist #3), but we first noticed him in a short series called 'Bird of Prey', a thriller set in the exciting new world of hi-tech crime. We probably vaguely noticed him in 'Whoops Apocalypse!' but there were so many well-known faces doing bit-parts, it would have been hard to stand out in that. We were delighted when there was a second series of 'Bird of Prey', and then Withnail happened and it seemed that suddenly everyone knew who he was. All this, of course, was before the days of the internet and being able to google someone's cv at a moment's notice and before we had acquired the necessary dosh to go to the theatre regularly. We had no idea then he was a member of the RSC with a whole slew of stage-parts to his name. I sadly missed him in 'The History Boys' as we didn't get to see that until its second run with a slightly different cast, but we did see him in 'Equus' and 'The Habit of Art', in both of which he was excellent. His run in 'Pie in the Sky' brought him back to primetime TV and regularly amused the downtrodden by showing the apparent bumbler refusing to kowtow to those who don't know best. Now, of course, a whole generation know him as the bullying Uncle Vernon from the Harry Potter franchise but for me he will always be the mild-mannered computer programmer Henry Jay, at the centre of an entertaining conspiracy. Those who worked with him have commented in other places about the joy of working with such a professional, though he was also a man who had to do late-night shopping in supermarkets like the rest of us who allow life to take up the better part of the day. An ordinary man yet an extraordinary man.

Rest In Peace, Richard Griffiths. You will be much missed.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Wading in on the Gay Marriage debate

According to the Collins English Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary Online, to 'marry' someone means to join in marriage with them, uniting closely and harmoniously. Neither definition specifically says you have to marry someone of the opposite sex. In fact, the Collins Dictionary goes further: in the origin of the word, it suggests that it is from the Latin maritus, meaning married, and is 'perhaps from mas male'. Women just don't come into it.

I have some sympathy with Christians who say that the Bible forbids homosexuality and that therefore gay marriage shouldn't be allowed. Some, but not a lot. They've been reading their bibles pretty selectively. Bacon sarnie? Don't mind if I do - but Leviticus 11:7-8 has forbidden it, so sorry, you can't. Tattoo with the name of your loved one? Leviticus 19:28 rather suggests not. Beard trimmer for Christmas? You can't use it according to Leviticus 19:27. I could go on, but you might be rather depressed. You might have to chuck out that favourite embroidered sweater... In other words, using the bible as your defence is pretty weak when you really think about it.

But I'm less sympathetic still with those who say, 'It's icky' or words to that effect. Do you spend much time thinking about what other couples get up to in the privacy of their bedrooms, whether they be heterosexual or homosexual? Because if so, you're the one who is a bit icky. Especially if you feel that your imagination is what makes what they're doing 'wrong'.

And as for those who think that everybody is equal but that marriage is still just for a man and a woman (and yes, I'm looking at you, here, Tony Baldry) well, sez who? Because if you're going to tell me that's what the Church says, the Church has changed its mind on quite a few things over the centuries. Really you're trying to justify your prejudices, ones that you've grown up with and that have no real basis in fact.

So yes, it might be hard to take, but we managed to have women vicars giving communion wafers to divorcees and the world hasn't blown up yet. Give it a chance. Or more accurately, give love a chance. If two people love each other enough to want to spend a fortune telling the world how much they love each other and they want to do that in a particular building, does it really matter if both or neither of them has dangly bits tucked in their trousers?

Monday, 21 January 2013

The Importance of Timing

Given the weather, you're probably expecting me to have a general whinge about the weather. The snow, the ice, the buses that can manage to get over the hump-backed bridge into the village but won't risk the three-point turn near the pond at the official end of their route. The fact that it is warmer in my office than in my house and I have been *forced*, I tell you, for the sake of my fingers, to come and do some work. The people panic-buying fresh vegetables that they wouldn't normally touch with that overused barge-pole and won't know how to cook anyway. My woes regarding frostily-disguised potholes and my poor car.

But no. I will give you none of the above, because, frankly, you've probably read most of it elsewhere already. Possibly not the stuff about my car, but that is really more of interest to the garage in Bicester who are sorting it out again for me, having dealt with the pothole-induced slow puncture in December already.  Instead, I give you: working hours.

I acknowledge that this is possibly less amusing than poking fun at people responding to British weather (please note, not the same as climate, there's a reason we don't all have snowchains and that Heathrow has not got a full fleet of highly expensive snowploughs), but it is nonetheless interesting.

I have always known that I'm not really a morning person. Setting the alarm pains me and one of the biggest benefits of ceasing full-time employment has been the ability to wake up when I'm ready to wake up. Of course, it does mean that on the days when I *do* need to set an alarm, it's even harder to wake up, as my body is no longer in the habit of waking at 6 a.m. (Yes, there is such a time. Seven days a week, I discovered when working six days a week yet still waking bright and extremely early on a Sunday.)  I am full of admiration for people who post on Twitter at 9.30 a.m. that they're taking a coffee break after writing for two hours. Most of what I might write in that time is drivel, as anyone following my twitterfeed can tell you. My writing time really only gets going in the afternoon, preferably after a post-prandial cuppa. (It's currently 4.05 p.m. I rest my case, m'Lud.) But trying to do things like housework or exercise are completely impossible in the afternoon. I'm just too lethargic (from what, you may ask. I frequently do. Probably a tendency to anaemia and not enough chocolate.)

So I've taken to organising my days in two halves: mornings are for the treadmill, shopping runs, laundry, and then in the afternoon I contemplate my navel do some writing. Nothing terribly radical about that, I suspect. But given that we are finally realising that teenagers really don't function terribly efficiently at 9 in the morning, perhaps we should instead be asking them to do something different, requiring less intellectual effort. Tidying their rooms, perhaps? Well, it was just an idea...

So, have you found your ideal time to write? And have you been able to organise your day so that time-slot is available? And what do you do if you can't?

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Weird. Just weird.

In my life, I have been known to do some odd things. I don't mean odd by my standards, or even odd by village standards. Just odd. I tend to shy away from such behaviour when at home, but occasionally, unleashed onto the world in general, my natural reserve/common sense gives way and I can be caught surprising myself and the world. Thus I have in my time bivouaced halfway up Mount Etna, learned to drink tequila shots in the back of a moving jeep in Mexico and hiked around a volcanic crater in a cloud forest (at least, they said there was a volcanic crater there. There was certainly lots of cloud and quite a bit of forest.) in Nicaragua.

But this time I think I have excelled myself. I have been mud-bathing in a volcano, El Tortumo in Colombia. There are links on Youtube where brave souls had themselves filmed as they experienced this though I have not done anything quite that rash. Suffice to say, lying back in mud the consistency of custard with gritty bits in was weird enough. It's blood temperature and it doesn't smell (at least, it didn't the day we were there), and for anyone worried about the massage you get from the local guys who work there, that is as nothing compared to the rinse off you get from the local women in the nearby freshwater lake where we all went to get clean(ish). Anyone concerned about propriety should wear a one-piece as the women demonstrated the easiest way to remove the mud from one's cleavage is to rip the bikini top off. Would I do it again? You bet.

For those less interested in mud, we also visited a sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica. Here is a picture of a baby sloth and its mum, as posted by the sanctuary's own website - Facebook kittens eat your hearts out!

For those wondering why I haven't yet followed up on the Next Big Thing, I really really want to, but until I can do it properly and tag at least one other person to carry the meme forward, I shall be holding off. Rest assured, though, the next novel is progressing even as the sales of 'Moses in Chains' shoot solidly into double figures!