Sunday, December 12, 2004

And again...

Among other things, I went to Poland. And I'd like to talk about that.
I'm going to come back and fill in the gaps, I really am.


Friday, November 12, 2004

Well, yes.


Over a month, hm? Well, I'm still alive, and have been to yet another country in the meantime, but I still dont have time to update this. To add to the list, therefore is:

  • Germany
  • Back to the Albert Hall

I'll get round to it one day, I will.

Friday, October 01, 2004


Still here...

Following Dunx' example, I hereby create a placeholder, reminding me of the things I want to talk about:

  • Proms,part 2

  • New glasses

  • EDIT: The something else was London Openhouse, of which more later

  • Italy

  • Returning to England

Back soon...

Friday, September 10, 2004

Time to catch up

It's got a bit silly, this not keeping up business. There are only so many times I can offer excuses, and to be honest, not keeping up with things other that daily life has been one of the themes of the summer. I've not even reviewed the record number of Proms I've been to, never mind everything else which has been going on. Well, I shall make a start on catching up - 7 Proms reviews, squeezed into the periods of the day when I'm waiting for various reports to compile and run. It will stop me trying to run other jobs in the system, thereby slowing myself down. If I don't reach the end, you can assume that I've had problems with the reports (or that they've run really quickly, which is less likely). Otherwise, here goes:

Prom 12: The Blue Peter Prom

I said we'd be back this time last year, and here we are, after a very pleasant day in the park with long-lost friends, all of us piled in excitedly to a box (all seats one price, so we go for the best). If we enjoyed it last year, I can say that we loved it this year. For a start, we're all here; no one's missing out this time, and there's something on the bill for everyone. I'm most pleased to have finally heard 'Short Ride in a Fast Machine'; there's Chinese lion dancing and Taiko drumming for those who want spectacle; there's 'Also Sprach Zarathustra', complete with organ rumble, there's jazz Beatles (personally, i could have lived without that, but it seemed to go down well), and then there was Ravel's Bolero.

Now, I was a little concerned about it; it's a well-known tune, of course, but somewhat repetetive for those who are not versed in the nuances of orchestral playing. I needn't have worried. The piece began with only three members of the orchestra on stage, and the slightly worried presenters wondering where everyone had gone. As things developed, the orchestra joined us one by one - some reading newspapers, some plainly direct from the pub, some via the audience, some being chased by the police, some in various kinds of fancy dress, one even dressed as a rabbit. There was much hilarity and excitement, yet through it all, the drummer continued his immaculate rhythm in spite of giant rabbits and people trying to reel him in on a fishing line. As we neared the end, I was beginning to be concerned by the lack of a percussion section, but eventually they appeared, being chased through the arena, and took up their positions with less than half a second to spare for the finale. It could not have been better timed, and my children still talk about it. That's how to get people involved in classical music...

Prom 35: Academy of Ancient Music

An unexpected Prom; I was in town anyway, and when my disaster recovery test finished on time (for once), I thought I'd give this a go. It was time - after an absence of several years - for a jaunt to the balcony; somehow it seemed appropriate for an evening of baroque music. The programme was unfamiliar: Biber, Muffat, and Bach (well, I must have heard Bach's Magnificat before now, but I'm not exactly familiar with it.) The gallery turned out to be an appropriate place for it, but for one small detail: the orchestra and choir in the Biber were arranged to give an approximation of how they sounded at the original presentation of the work, in Salzburg cathedral. This meant that the choir was split in three and interspersed with the string players, and that the brass was lined along the top row, where the choir would normally be. This meant that for those of us above the players, the sound was rather too brassy, and detracted a little from the three organs and three theorbos on stage. Excellent playing, though, and lovely singing, especially from some of the soloists. In the end, this one won't live as long in the memory as some of this year's Proms, but I'm very glad I went.

Prom 36: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov

I wasn't going to miss this one, even if it did mean sore legs two days running. I saw Volkov conduct the BBCSO in Shostakovich 10 last year, and thought him astonishing for one so young; I wasn't about to pass up the same forces in Mahler, was I?

Yet my abiding memory of the evening won't be the cowbells of that most peculiar symphony. First up, a tiny Mozart symphony, no 32. It was pleasant enough, I suppose, but served as no more than an appetiser for what was to follow. If I have largely forgotten it, it is because what followed was so startlingly good. Janacek's Eternal Gospel has hardly ever been recorded; had never been seen at the Proms(or anywhere else in the UK) before now, and I am at a loss to explain wahy, for it was a wondrous thing, expertly played and truly magnificently sung by both the soloists and the London Philharmonic Choir, belting out those awkward Czech syllables as if they were native speakers. If only there were an easily available recording of this; it would be my unexpected discovery of the season. Perhaps after this, there will be.

Mahler 7 is a difficult beast. Written at a time of deep turmoil in his life, it reflects all his confusion and pain, and seems at times to have been assembled from scraps. It takes a skilled interpreter to make the final movement in particular hang together and make sense, but Volkov is already a master at such things, and we were in safe hands. There are two moments early on in this symphony which can cause giggling in UK audiences at any rate - the Castrol GTX moment, and the Star Trek moment - but both passed with supreme control, and Volkov scaled the alpine jaggedness of the final movement with real delicate skill, it all pulling together into a coherent whole (aside from the cowbells, which have wandered in from an enirely different piece of music, and which I still cannot get my head around. They just sound wrong whatever you do with them, and I cannot explain them) and surging magnificently to a spellbinding finale. Wonderful stuff, and very nearly my favourite concert of the season. Very nearly.

Prom 38: London Sinfonietta / Yo-Yo Ma / Silk Road Ensemble

I missed the Turangalîla last time it was played, and I missed Yo-Yo Ma last season due to work commitments, so this was something I was particularly looking forward to, and it did not disappoint. Ma is spending much of his time working with the Silk Road Ensemble, bringing eastern and western musical traditions together. This Prom featured a new work by Bright Sheng, "The Song and Dance of Tears", feauring solo parts for cello and piano alongside pipa and sheng. The sheng is a Chinese mouth organ, which is to say a tiny pipe organ powered by human breath, rather than a harmonica. It is a magical instrument, and I most definitely want to learn to play it. Like that's going to happen. The music was intriguing and in places thrilling, never straying into parody of either style, but walking the tightrope between them very well indeed, and thanks to the discreet amplification of the pipa, all the musical elements merged beautifully. Enjoyable and memorable.

Which can also be said for the second half. Pressed for a description of Turangalîla, I'd have to say that it sounds frankly bonkers, with the Ondes Martenot whooping and screeching all over this elemental cacophony. It takes a good number of listens to get into the structure of the thing, and work out what's going on, and needs patience and concentration even once you do know what's happening. There has been criticism elsewhere of Cynthia Millar's Ondes playing in this concert, but I felt it to be perfectly fine, altough not a patch on Paul Crossley's superb piano part. This performance for me illuminated a different side to the whole thing, emphasising the piano part, and allowing the Ondes to stay out of the limelight a little, letting it sing with the strings rather than dominate them. It may not have been perfect, but I still had a big grin plastered all over my face for several days.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Still here.

Things (like new kitchens, and trips to Scotland) have interfered, but I'm still here. I'd like to catch up with Proms if I can, but for now I'd like to share one of those odd things which seem to happen to me now and then.

Last Monday, I was in Kings Cross for reasons which need not detain us here. I decided to go by train, since the place I was going seemed to be just round the corner. What I didn't appreciate was that there is no such thing as just round the corner from Kings Cross station at the moment. While the Chanel Tunnel rail link is fed slowly into St Pancras, the entire area is in uproar. Indeed, St Pancras station itself has moved - the old train hall is empty, and a new, stainless steel station has been built above and to the north of it. This appears to be a temporary move, but in the meantime nothing is where it should be. It took me half an hour to walk what was around half a mile on the map; at one point I circumnavigated St Pancras' Hospital, finding out on the way that the one thing I knew about that institution - that it had a tropical medicines centre - is no longer true. Upon reaching my destination, I spotted that there was a way back signposted through what looked like a churchyard.

So, on the way home, I duly detoured, discovering that this was St Pancras Gardens, the churchyard for St Pancras' Old Church, and that it contains the family tomb of Sir John Soane. The picture here is pre-renovation, and looks slightly sad - today, it is clean and tidy, with a large information plaque explaining the whole thing and pointing out that the tomb was the inspitration for one of this country's most recognisable objects, for it was from this design that Giles Gilbert Scott got the idea for the familiar red telephone kiosk.
This kind of serendipitous discovery keeps happening to me...
More soon, probably.

Monday, July 19, 2004

A pretty good Friday

Well, it was a half day off work, for one thing.  I went up early, not because I thought I might be late, but because I haven't had time for a potter for too long.  So I went to South Ken and I pottered.  I pottered about in the soon-to-be-no-more classical music shop, and I watched a woman spend £1138 on CDs.  Yes, over a thousand pounds.  Pity I'm too polite to ask, really...

I pottered in the Serpentine Gallery, but I wasn't all that inspired, I'm afraid.  I pottered in the Science Museum, but if they still have moon rocks, I couldn't find them. (Remind me to tell you about A Man in the Moon sometme soon).  And I pottered in the new South Foyer of the Albert Hall, where they have a proper shop, and a café and everything.

And then I went and queued up.  It was comforting to be back in the queue again - was it really 10 months?  I tried to blog from there - I managed it last year, but Blogger seems to have forgotten how to work with hand-held devices.  Then there was a deal of cnfusion about bag searches.  We have to have all bags larger than a briefcase searched now.  Fortunately, mine was deemed just small enough not to warrant it, but there was much muttering and mumbling, not least from the stewards, who are normally very cheerful and polite.  Still, it all sorted itself out in the end, and soon there was the familiar snaking, as the queue first contracts as everyone stands up, then expands as the recess in the steps gets ironed out.  The dry, if humid weather, and the general excitement of being back again seemed to produce a real buzz in the queue, and there was a real air of expectancy as we burst upward into the arena.  Now the Hall is finished, it is a truly spectacular place to be in an audience - what it must be like to play, I can only imagine.

The fountain was in place, but the inflatable snake, for some reason, was not.  Miraculously, there were no TV cameras in the arena, which made for a much less crowded experience, although the alternative, a precarious looking boom affair was a tad distracting at times, particularly when it seemed to be in imminent danger of decapitating the tuba player.  Anyway, a review is called for:

Prom 1 - 16 July 2004

The whole point of this evening is to hear the organ, but to be honest, just seeing it all cleaned, polished and properly opened up is quite enough treat for the senses.  The mirror is shining, the stops positively gleam, and for some reason, the surrounding area is trimmed with a kind of mottled blue instead of the traditional maroon.  This, it transpires, is Progress.

So, we wait with bated breath for the hissing and whooshing of the bellows, last heard drowning the old organ out entirely about 3 years ago.  But whooshing came there none.  Instead, crisp, clear, resonant sound issues forth, and it's rather a shame when the orchestra takes over for the fugue.  With most organ music, a little goes a long way, but Bach knew what he was about, and I'd have liked to have heard some of the more unusual settings.  Still, the final rumble was deeply impressive, arriving as it did simultaneously through the ears and the soles of the feet.

Even its best friend couldn't describe The Music Makers  as Elgar's finest work.  Rather too concerned with shoehorning in quotations from everything else he ever wrote, it seemed to me a patchy thing, which only really took off towards the end, when the soloist (who was superb) was soaring all over 'Nimrod'.  What kept it together, however, was some glorious singing.  The BBC Symphony Chorus are justly lauded - I've never seen them be anything other than impressive, and they really excelled in this.

As they did in the second half, albeit briefly, and slightly puzzlingly. The Planets is, I fear, rather on the verge of being hackneyed.  Which is a shame, for it's a splendid thing, with much to enjoy.  Therefore it was slightly worrying that the orchestra got off to a bit of a shaky start - Mars was a touch ragged to begin with, but all fears were misplaced.  As it progressed, the playing got better and better; Jupiter sounded fresh and new; Saturn sublime, and Neptune could not have been bettered.  At the end, the ethereal chorus drifted in - not sung by any of the singers on the stage, and I didn't look around for them, because it would have broken the spell.  I don't know how well it would have come across on TV, but the control as the voices faded and faded and faded was superb, and for once a Proms audience kept quiet until every last breath was done.

Quite wonderful, and an excellent omen for the rest of the season.


Friday, July 16, 2004

First Night nerves...

It's here at last.  My first First Night - I just had to hear the renovated organ, with its 9,999 pipes, and since it feels like an eternity since I was last in the queue, I'm kind of looking forward to it. There will, I'm sure, be a review afterwards; in the meantime, if you can get BBC2, look out for me in the Arena, won't you?

*exits, humming Bach...*

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

20 years? More like two or three, surely...

Friday, July 13th, 1984. Several hundred of us, dressed up as if we were real academics, parade around the McEwan Hall in Edinburgh, are invested with academic magic, and emerge, sheepishly, clutching our little red cardboard tubes. We had, I recall, a rather splendid evening the night before, we saw each other briefly on the day, and then we were gone, newly-qualified graduates (honours graduates!) all, off to be linguists or something else.

Something Else, mostly, I suspect. I remembered this anniversary about a week ago, but there has been no time to do anything about it since. Tonight, in a rare bout of peace, I tried to contact some of them. It's been a bit of a struggle, and so this is my final resort. Here is the roll of honour, in the hope that one or two of them might Google their name someday, and find us that way. Well, it worked for Ranoch Donald.

  • Stephanie Markman

  • G. M Anderson (Graeme)

  • Laura Barnett

  • Jacqueline C. Gulland

  • R. Lickley (Robin)

  • Janice Parkin

  • Susan E. Sentance

  • Catherine A. Urquhart

  • Jaqueline M. Young

  • Janet P. Hawkins

  • Kirsty V. Jeffery

  • Fiona Kennedy

  • Fiona A. Lawrence

  • Margaret Purcell

  • R. M. Watt (who he?)

  • Also:
    Linguistics with AI:
  • H.I.Tobermann (Harald)

  • English Lang and Linguistics:
  • Gillian Lindsay

  • Valerie M Wilkie

  • Italian and Linguistics:
  • Melissa M. Cudmore

  • Marietta di Ciacca

Well, you never know. I raise a virtual glass to you all - wherever you may be. Maybe someone else is out there, remembering that day...

Monday, July 05, 2004


I've tried to read Lord of the Rings three times now. First as a teenager, when I got through it but it seemed to make no impression on me; then about 15 years ago, when a copy liberated from my former employer found its way on to my bookshelf. On that occasion, I read most of it, and the broad outlines of the story stayed with me, along with all those evocative names, some only half remembered.

Then I watched the first two films, and I know people who were much exercised by some of the liberties taken with the text. Fair enough, I thought, it's a film - you can't just put every word on the page into a film, no one would watch it. But I was intrigued. There were things I didn't remember, and I wondered how the dialogue of the books squared with the language of the films. So I rooted around in the roof, and I found my extraordinarily large copy, and I set out to read it properly this time.

There's no point in reviewing it, really, but here are a few passing thoughts:

  • There is far too much poetry. Yes, I know most of them are songs, but we can't hear the music, so it's poetry. I'm not saying it's bad poetry, but there's too much of it.

  • There's a difference between letting the reader flesh out the characters and not telling us anything about their physical appearance at all.

  • Everyone has at least two names; some of them four or five. This is confusing when you are tired.

  • I think I gave up before because the structure of the thing required me to keep too much information in my head at one time. Concurrent action really shouldn't be happening several hundred pages apart.

  • I found the bookmark from the last time just past page 1000 - there was hardly any of it left, but I still gave up.

  • The language is - well, interesting. I could survive a long time without reading about anything else which is carven, for instance.

  • The maps are way, way too small. Headache-inducingly small. for the first time in my life, I seriously considered getting a magnifying glass to help me with my reading.

  • But.

  • But it's still an amazing experience.

  • Having seen the films helped fix certain things in my mind, but Frodo doesn't look like that (although I think Bilbo does).

  • Do I recommend it? Unhesitatingly. Is it the greatest book in the English language, or whatever? Nope. But I think it ought to be read nevertheless. It might help to take notes, though.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

More Speed Cameras:

Apparently, these cameras are 'saving lives'. Not sure how you measure this, but I'm still highly sceptical.

Incidentally, I can't spell sceptical with a k, although I know a lot of people do. There's a psychological study to be done, I'm sure, on my spelling preferences (not that there are many of them). Anyway, that gives me a chance to mention Dr. Bob's Skeptical Quiz, which is always entertaining, frequently because Dr. Bob gets the questions wrong, or makes them slightly ambiguous.

There. That was like a proper weblog and everything, wasn't it?

Monday, June 07, 2004


You might not have noticed, but if you ever want to know what the weather's like at Luton Airport, you can consult my WeatherPixie. Off to the left, and down a bit, if you can't see him.

Yes, Luton Airport is the closest I could get to where I live - about 15 miles or so, so it should be reasonably accurate. Tune in later today for some actual British summer, so I'm told.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Too fast...

I have a thing about speeding and speed limits, thanks to an accident I had many years ago, when I knocked down a schoolchild who ran out in front of me. Now, she was OK, and my car was repairable, but having duly noted the damage that was caused when I was travelling at around 25mph, I resolved always to obey speed limits in built up areas. Living in a village with narrow pavements has only reinforced that resolve, since I know exactly how dangerous it feels walking around with traffic zipping by two feet from your left ear.

However, I am much more ambivalent about speed limits on the open road. For instance, the speed limit on UK motorways is still what it was 40 years ago, and is roundly ignored. I actually have a sneaking feeling that if it was abolished, safety would improve, but no-one's going to take that particular risk. Nevertheless, in nearly 25 years of largely trouble-free driving, I like to think I have developed a pretty keen sense of what is safe and what is not, and I tend to drive a little faster than is legal if conditions allow. Take a week past Saturday, for example. I was running a little late, having been at the 'Tidy Tip' (it's the rubbish dump, really) and I needed to get to Luton to pick up some tiles, so I was probably trundling along a little faster than normal, southbound on the A5, just on the way in to Hockliffe. If you look at that link, you'll notice that the road is particularly straight, owing to it being the Roman Watling Street. It's also wide, and slopes gently downhill. The weather was perfect, and there was very little traffic. I could see probably getting on for 2 miles ahead, and there were no apparent dangers. I was driving at what I considered to be a safe speed. Unfortunately for me, there was a van with a camer in it at the bottom of the hill which took a slightly different view.

Yesterday I got home to discover I had been sent a Notice of Intention to Prosecute. Deep sigh. I can't really complain - I know the rules, and I was breaking them. It'll mean 3 points on my license and a small fine. After all these years, it is kind of annoying, though. And I wonder if all this technology mightn't be better employed somewhere where it might prevent accidents, rather than punish those driving safely in safe conditions. I know the police - sorry, the 'Safety Partnership' - would argue differently, but I see dangerous, often downright reckless, driving every day, and I don't ever see people getting 3 points for that. Oh well. You live and learn, I suppose.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004


I have a - deserved - reputation among certain of my online acquaintances for being obsessed with Mahler's Second Symphony. At times like this I plead guilty and point in mitigation to Gilbert Kaplan - he's way more obsessed with it than I am, although I must say that the idea of conducting it one day - perhaps not.

Recently, I found my old VHS copy of La Double Vie de Véronique, and it started this whole obsession thing off again. I have a copy of the soundtrack, because of the staggeringly brilliant 'concerto' by 'van den Budenmayr' which costs Weronika - no, I won't spoil it, it's a fabulous film. Anyway, I dug out the CD, and played the concerto track on repeat all the way to ework and all the way home again. It's fixed in my head, and if I had a piano to hand, I'd be picking out the spare, haunting melody every time I walked past. And I thought to myself that I hadn't had an obsession like that for a long time.

But I was wrong. Earlier this year, I bought myself the Randy Newman Songbook, and I thought I'd play it a few times, and then simply have it in the library for occasional inspiration. Wrong. Towards the end is one of the great achievements of this brilliant songwriter, The Great Nations of Europe (pardon the link, it's badly spelt, and probably full of pop-ups) and, having heard it once, I couldn't allow anything else to sully my ear for some time afterward. That, too, went on repeat until I'd learnt it by heart, and until it became part of my mental landscape - reading John Wilford's The Mapmakers was an exercise in hilarity thanks to Randy Newman.

And then, before that, it was Bartók. Having experienced a dramatic version of the third Piano Concerto last summer, I had to own it, and having owned it, I allowed myself to become consumed by it. It takes a bit less time than my drive home to listen to, so I delay putting it on until I'm at the traffic lights at Hunton Bridge, then if I get held up on the way, I simply repeat the final movement, sitting in the car on my drive if necessary so as not to miss the astonishing finale.

Actually, that's another thing, now I come to think of it - I can't bear to leave a piece of music unfinished. If I have to get out of the car, or otherwise interrupt my listening before a natural break in the music, I get most uncomfortable. Which is a tad inconvenient if you listen to a lot of Mahler...

OK, I admit it, I'm an obsessive kind of guy.

Monday, May 24, 2004

The rusty cables... Posted by Hello

The famous cable hut Posted by Hello

Thanks to those nice people at Hello (no, not the magazine), the promised pictures: firstly, a big pile of rusty undersea cable alongside the channel down to Porthcurno beach - all that's left of the global network. Secondly, the famous cable hut - this is where it all came ashore. Thirdly, the rather magnificent scenery at the top of the cliffs. Minack Theatre is on the next headland, and the little white pyramid marks where some of the earliest wireless experiments took place. Posted by Hello

Thursday, May 13, 2004

OK, wrong...

I don't have two sets of comments. I'm a) confused, and b) going to stick with what I've got.

What happened?

I go off sick for a few days, and Blogger morphs into... kind of Blogger on steroids. Which is kind of dull for you, the general reader, since you can't see any of the changes, but this is very strange for me.

It appears that Blogger now offers comments, which is going to get confusing, since I had already organised my own. Will I be able to merge them? Do I want to?

I was going to post something, but now I'm just going to potter about in here instead.

EDIT: A little tinkering, and I may now have two sets of comments. This has been done deliberately to confuse you.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

*bounces onstage* I return!

Yes, well.

Something has been keeping the creative juices bottled up this past month or so;don't ask me what. Since I'd rather write nothing than post any old rubbish, this space has been left intentionally blank all this time. But in the last couple of days, I seem to have had an outpouring of determination to do something about the MC novel - I think I know how it should start now, given that the first version was never intended to be a full-length story.

Also, the Proms season is available for perusal, which means it's not winter any more, hurrah! No-one's told the weather yet, but never mind. (nat, if you're out there; it's a whole season of Czech music... *tempt, tempt*) More Prommery soon.

The only thing I've been meaning to blog for nearly a month was my zoom around Cornwall at Eastertime. Summary: cool grey day spent at Tate St Ives (every third shop in St Ives sells Cornish Pasties; yes I did, and very nice they were too), Cape Cornwall, Lands End (better than you'd think) and one other place; gloriously warm sunny day spent near Porthcurno traipsing the Coastal Path, clambering down into one or two coves and driving home via Launceston, which was as delightful as I remembered, but closed owing to it being Good Friday.

The one other place was a delightful surprise. On the way to Lands End, I saw a sign for 'Wartime Museum'. It was pointing down the road to Minack, where I had intended to go anyway, so I thought I'd give it a try. The road to Minack goes through Porthcurno, and if you follow the nice new blue signs, takes you to see 'The Victorian Internet'. I parked and wandered up, all the while dimly remembering something I'd seen on some television programme. Something about undersea telegraph cables. My dim rememberings turned out to be something extraordinary. Drilled directly into the granite cliff are two wartime tunnels, inside which is now the Telegraph Museum, detailing the history of cable (and later wireless) telegraphy. For it was here that the first ever undersea telegraph cable came ashore, and it was here until about 10 years ago that most of them still did. It's a fascinating place, evocative and informative at once. Post-museum, I took a stroll down to the beach, where the original cable hut is still in place. As you leave the environs of the museum, you pass a large pile of rusting cable. These are the last remnants of the mighty cables which ran all the way to New Zealand at one time. I have photos; perhaps my inspiration will stretch to posting a couple...

Friday, April 16, 2004

I have much to blog, but...

While I try to put together thoughts on the last 2 weeks, could I ask people to have a look at that speech therapist link over there ( or this one if you prefer) and let me know what you think? All done by my fair hand, and I'd just like to know if it's legible or is in any way broken.

Thanks. More soon, I promise.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Fit like, min?

Apparently, accents and dialect are undergoing some kind of revolution. And it is noticeable that here in deepest Buckinghamshire, everyone speaks a kind of smoothed out Estuary English - I hear my children occasionally venture a "nuffink". So, I was curious to hear what my native tongue was like, back in Aberdeen for the first time in over two years.

Whenever I travel by air, I am struck by a linguistic phenomenon - everyone on the plane speaks English when we leave London, yet as we descend into, say, Prague, everyone is chattering away in Czech. Somehow, along the way there is a gradual transition - barely noticeable as it happens, but there nonetheless. And it happened on the flight to Aberdeen. As we left, the cabin was full of "Awright, mate?", as we landed it was "Foo ye deein'?" And I'm delighted to report that the Aiberdeen accent is as healthy as ever. That impenetrable blend of Scots dialect and Scandinavian vowel sounds is still as baffling to the outsider as ever, and for possibly the first time in my life, I was glad to hear it.

For who, really, loves their own accent? As soon as you encounter the wider world, and discover that everyone else talks like newsreaders or extras from Eastenders, a sense of shame about your own tongue makes itself felt. It sounds and feels uneducated, and - if you're chameleonic like me - it fades away, unnoticed. You might be sitting with others, watching a news bulletin about fishing, and when the interview with an Aberdeen skipper has your friends scratching their heads, you feel like apologising. Or pretending you didn't understand it, either.

But surely we should be celebrating these dialects? Surely they're part of our heritage, and while you can't preserve language in amber, perhaps we could take a bit of pride in how we sound, and learn not to be embarrassed by our idiosyncratic vocabularies.

Oh, another bit about second hand bookshops: what hope is there for the trade when one of the greatest of them, Leakey's in Inverness, has absolutely no web presence at all. It's the kind of place which should be being celebrated by someone, if not itself, but it's invisible. And it really is worth a visit, if you're ever up that way.

Monday, March 29, 2004

OK, stuff.

I've added the comments just in case anyone gets inspired to write me anything. If they get spammed, they'll just as suddenly disappear again...

I have some comment or other about accents, having been in Aberdeen recently, but I can't seem to make it coherent right now, so I'm going to bang on about second-hand bookshops again.

One of my favourite places on this here interweb is Making Light; I ought to confess that the odd link has come from there over the years (over the years! Listen to me!). Recently I have been following this discussion with interest, for the future of independent and second-hand bookshops is dear to my heart. It surprises me not a bit that the small bookshop in Boston or Chicago is suffering the same privations as the small bookshop in this country, and I am equally at a loss to suggest what might be done about it, but that's not going to stop me trying.
Once upon a time, there was a thing called the Net Book Agreement. It was by no means the universal panacea, but it served to protect the smaller bookshop by preventing price-cutting on books. Everything had to be sold at the price printed on the cover, and although large retailers might make more margin, no-one was swayed by the price of a new book into buying it with the groceries when their friendly local bookshop offered the same item at the same price. Bookshops offered variety, supermarkets offered volume. If you wanted the new Jeffrey Archer or Catherine Cookson, there were hundreds of copies at your local Woolworth, but if you wanted to explore a bit further, there was a little shop just down the road which carried the complete works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera.
At some point between 1994 and 1996, the NBA simply crumbled away. No-one abolished it - the Publisher's RRP is still printed on every book - it just stopped working. And, as appears to be natural, once you allow discounting, prices go up. Prices went up to make the discounts look more appealing, and prices went up because they could. The big retailers had more clout, they sucked people in with their coffee shops and their brightly coloured stationery, and they turned book-buying into a lifestyle experience. None of which is, in itself, a bad thing There really is more choice out there, and the quality of production (if not always the quality of prose) has gone up noticeably in recent years.
But the independent is struggling, unable to meet the big boys' prices, and unable now even to compete on variety. And something strange has happened to the secondhand trade. It used to be the case that old books - battered but loved - were a positive, a sign of something good about a house, but it seems to me that people would rather have shiny new things these days, and the second hand trade (outside of mad places like Hay) is slowly fading away. I don't remember the last time I saw a new secondhand shop open, but I can take you to the sites of at least a dozen which are no longer there. I can't imagine how any of them make money, save the expensive ones (which are, in any case, 'Antiquarian Bookshops') and the ones tied to online selling, of which there are several. But online browsing is no substitute for spending half a day crawling around the creaky floor of a shop which time forgot and eventually turning up that missing Milligan, or finding a pristine copy of Perdido Street Station for a pound.

I really ought to start on that online directory, oughtn't I? When am I going to find time for that?

Friday, March 26, 2004

Meanwhile, in Ancient Sumeria...

Yeah, I know, there's lots of stuff I havent blogged yet.

But this is just the best thing I've heard all day. Properly cheered me up, that has.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Watty's been up a footbridge.

Yes, you read that right. Up. A curious thing. I've been to an exhibition and seminar at ExCeL (sic). As exhibition centres go, this is a pretty good one, well thought out and easy to use, and it's right in the heart of Docklands, which means that there are low flying aircraft going here, and there are wacky footbridges.

Well, one wacky footbridge:

click to see it a bit bigger

You stroll along, and inside that grey tower at the end there are a pair of lifts. I don't think I've ever had to go up in a lift to cross a footbridge before now, but I did today. 'Twas cold up there, but the view was worth it, and as a flight from Antwerp went over, I felt I could have reached up and touched it.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Some kind of significance.

OK, pay attention at the back. That there 2 years is not really significant (especially since there has been a Leap Day in between), but this one is:

On Sunday the 10th of March 2002, I decided to try a little experiment. I gave up caffeine for a week, to see how it would go. Perhaps I should have a celebratory espresso tomorrow, to mark the longest week in history. Two whole years and counting - no coffee, no tea (not that I drank tea anyway), no Coke or its derivatives, no chocolate, no flu remedies. By and large, it has worked.

If you've been here all this time, you'll remember that I started by offering a Depression Index (my caps), tracking how I felt about things, and possibly giving myself a record of what caused my various depressions. Like so many other things in here, it gradually faded away, thanks not so much to my general indifference, but to the fact that the 'no caffeine' thing actually seemed to work. I take no antidepressants; I watch and modify my behaviour, to be sure, but I no longer suffer from the long, black days and nights.

Which is not to say I'm cured. I'm slowly coming round to the idea that I'm not going to be cured of this thing; I'm just going to learn to live with it, and make it live with me. In the last week or so, I have noticed a certain tendency toward 'black behaviour'; I know why, and I deal with it. On Saturday, I had as bad a start to a day as I've had in possibly these past two years, but it passed - I'm more tired than usual at present, and that is at once a symptom and a cause - and I knew that what I needed was time to wake up. Once that had been acheived, by lunchtime I was back in business.

Do I miss my caffeine? Of course I do. The pang I get from smelling coffee brewing has not diminished over the two years, but the way I feel, and feel about myself, is more than worth the cost. I think about my depression every day, but I'm no longer mentally checking myself out every morning to see what kind of a day I'm going to have to suffer; I assume everything is manageable unless I hear otherwise. I come across other people's descriptions of how they feel, and I think "That's how I used to be", not "that's how I am." Of course, now it's like some kind of ritual magic spell; if I accidntally ingest some caffeine, then I fear that everything will collapse about my ears. One day soon, I'm going to eat a piece of chocolate, just to prove that I can do it, and perhaps I'm nearly ready to try decaf again. Maybe I'll learn to like the taste, and maybe it won't make me want to have some full-strength coffee. Maybe not just yet, though. I'm not better, but I'm better, if you know what I mean.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

Two years?

Seems so. That means there is another, more significant anniversary in a couple of days. More then.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Weblog, it's a weblog. Post some links:

Learn Writing with Uncle Jim, in which a Proper Author takes time out to spread a little light on the whole scary business. Not that I agree with everything he says, but it's pretty good stuff. Better still, Uncle Jim does a little real-time editing. You want to understand the difference between a writer and a Writer? It's right here. I love the first paragraph, post edit.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004


Oh, fresh new look? Yeah, I got tired of serif...

Sorted out the lists on the left, too. Who says I never do anything around here?

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Status report:

OK, I kind of knew that this would be harder to maintain as time went on, and so it proves. But I still want to do it, regardless of whether anyone wants to read it, so I'm not going anywhere. The lists on the left are hopelessly out of date, and there's something about the Blogger interface which makes me not want to update them, but maybe I will soon. I've been working, and I've been holidaying, and my report below on writing projects is hopelessly optimistic, but I keep thinking that any minute now, some time will mysteriously appear.

But I bought a Frank Zappa CD, because the opening line of the novel-which-I'll-never-write (tentatively entitled 'Prague Autumn' for now) will be:

"I was in the bath when Frank Zappa called."

and I thought a little more research wouldn't hurt.

Also, I was in Turkey on Friday. Or Tottenham High Road. One of those two. It was quite intriguing, really. One of the things which everyone knows about urban Britain is the Asian corner shop (they're rather patronisingly known in the trade as the "Mr. Patels"). It seems, however, that in parts of North London, they re being supplanted by Turkish shops. The original generation of Asian traders - the ones who arrived in the mid-seventies - is reaching retirement age now, and their children have, in the main, loftier ambitions than selling news and groceries - especially given the state of the independent retail market, squeezed on all sides by multinational corporate grocers. So the shops are being sold off, and the new owners, in N17 at least, are Turkish. There was much Cola Turka - to nat's obvious confusion - together with Turkish confectionery (a lot of it strangely familiar...) and Turkish newspapers. I dimly remembered some Turkish words from all that time ago, but being able to say "The man in the street" has a limited value when you're trying to explain why you're doing software testing in the middle of an off licence called, confusingly, 'Highbury Wines'. (But you're in Tottenham, I complained. The owner - Turkish, naturally - pretended he hadn't heard it a thousand times before). And it was bloody cold, too.

So there we are, I'm still here, and I'm still writing. Sometimes.

Sunday, January 25, 2004


Yes. I know this is now more sporadic than a particularly sporadic thing which doesn't happen very often any more (and frequently makes no real sense either). Look, we now have cats, which ought to be sufficient explanation.

So - I'm going to worry about The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (let's keep that hyphen in there, shall we?). Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast is a sound choice, and anyone other than Stephen Moore as Marvin just wouldn't have been right, but I'm worried about Arthur. Martin Freeman was responsible for one of the best TV moments of last year as The Office reached a near-perfect ending, and I know he can hit the right note of bafflement, but - well, Arthur's middle aged; he has to be. To my mind, one of the reasons that all the versions work so well is the first half-hour, where Arthur is a real person in an ordinary life who keeps having extraordinary things happen to him. There's a grounding there, and part of it is because Arthur's known Ford for so long. OK, I'm not going to obsess about this - I remember the shock of seeing Simon Jones in the TV version - it was the right voice, but he didn't look like Arthur - that worked out all right in the end, and I do fervently hope that this will as well. I just need to keep reminding myself that every version is different; the book is not the radio series (there's some good stuff in the radio series that never got reused); the radio series was not the record; the record was not the TV - you get the idea. This will be diiferent, and I think it will probably be OK. Just wish that Douglas Adams was still around to oversee things. Mind you, it'd never get finished.

Mars. Some of those pictures from Mars are just stunning. This one in particular is truly inspiring. I hear people asking "Why should we go to Mars?" Well, why shouldn't we? Yes, there are other priorities. Imagine if 10% of the world's defence budgets went into space exploration instead. Imagine if ...

Tell you what, instead of me imagining it, try reading Kim Stanley Robinson. Then you'll want to go to Mars.

I went for a walk today, tramping through the Bedfordshire countryside. I saw elephants. Yes, I did.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Watty goes all wistful...

I use Google every day. Often in an idle moment, I find myself typing in a long lost memory, just to see what there is on the net about it - I suspect I'm not alone. I mostly use it to find work-related stuff, of course, or to answer obscure questions (this morning's: "Who was in the Arsenal front line in that game against Lens at Wembley in whatever year that was?" Answer obtained in approximately 15 seconds or so). And sometimes, I wish I had Google to hand while walking along the street or driving to work, because that's when I remember things I want to look up. Things I can never bring to mind again when I'm sat in front of the screen.

Things like the Trigan Empire. Now I must think of the Trigan Empire 5 or 6 times a year, but never when I'm in a position to do anything about it. Until today. Today, I read an obituary for Don Lawrence, who did most of the artwork for the Trigans, and I hastened over here to look and see if any of it is online. And, unsurprisingly, I suppose, it is.

Sorry. I've lost you, haven't I? I don't consider myself an aficionado of the comic book, or the graphic novel. or whatever, but if I was, it would all be because of Don Lawrence and the Trigan Empire. Yes, I'm getting to the linky bit. The Trigan Empire was a comic strip in the late, lamented (by me, at any rate) "Look and Learn" magazine in the late 60s and early 70s. It was a neat amalgam of Romans, time travel and monsters, and it all took place on a planet with two suns and two moons. I just devoured this stuff as a child, and it is one of the reasons why I got interested in that whole SF / fantasy thing. Of course, I had my head turned by whizzy spaceships, and turned into more of a space-opera kind of boy, but there is still a germ of the fantasy reader in me, and it's only now that I realise why I enjoyed reading that Guy Gavriel Kay book so much last year. That was kind of Trigan-like.

Anyway. This post has supplanted the planned one where I worry about the film of Hitch-hikers. That will have to wait.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Watty's been reading Eats, Shoots and Leaves:

Number one in a depressingly frequent series, I fear. I have recently received these two letters, both presumably designed to make me want to do business with their senders. The first one is simply incomprehensible, the second, which I received yesterday, is incomprehensible and spectacularly randomly punctuated. Names have been changed to protect the guilty, for some reason. See if you can make anything of them:

I joined [Company name excluded] on 22nd September 2003 as Senior Business Development Manager. During my first 8 weeks at [Company name excluded], I have been focusing on some clients who we have had a strong relationship in the past.

As a company [Company name excluded] are moving towards a much more professional IT service provider and as to which the skill set of employees in all departments have now changed which is the reason I have come onboard.

My [Company name excluded] role is very clear. Any IT plans you would have, I act as the facilitator for both parties, to monitor, advise and ensure any projects where [Company name excluded] is an integral part of the overall goal; is carried out in a manner that ensures Service, confidence and reassurance are always met. Our teamwork on projects every day, to market concepts for new streams of revenue to business's like yours.

[sic, all of it, I promise.] Don't you just love that semicolon?

retires, shaking head sadly