Blog : Posts from November 2006 : Page 1

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Shaggy Dog (part three)

In which the tale is concluded


The conclusion. If you need to catch up, here is part one, and part two.

The next day, crowds went to the carpenter’s workshop, as usual, to
try to ask him to build and carve for them. But he was not there.
They looked through the windows, but his workshop was empty. They
looked through the windows of the house, but there was no sign of him.

They searched the entire village, but there was no sign of the
carpenter. After a while the village constable agreed to break
into the carpenter’s house, to find him. But he was nowhere to be
found.

The whole county started searching for the missing carpenter, but he
could not be found anywhere. He had disappeared, completely. They
searched for months, but the carpenter never returned.

Some people thought that he had got so angry with being asked to paint
everything he made, that he had decided to retire and move away. They
could not explain, though, how he had disappeared so suddenly. Others
thought that a disappointed client, who could not find a painter, had
done something; or that a great lord elsewhere had kidnapped him to
create beautiful furniture for the lord alone. Noone ever saw any
furniture in the carpenter’s style, though, but somehow this made
these people even more adamant they were right. Some thought he had
been murdered for the great riches they assumed he had made from his
work; but they were wrong, for he worked for the love of carpentry and
had spent all his money on expensive woods from overseas.

The carpenter never returned to the village, and noone ever saw
furniture like his again. Those things he had made were preserved
carefully by their owners, because they knew they were irreplacable.
To this day, what happened to the carpenter who refused to paint
remains a mystery. As far as anyone could tell, he just varnished.

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House Hunting

In which Big Dave prepares to leave, and Windows Vista prepares to arrive


Big Dave is busy at the moment. Not with work, but with finding somewhere to live. As he’s moving down to London at the end of the year, he’s spending nearly all his office time scouring the internet for affordable flats; mouse in one hand, A-Z in the other.

I’ve become his guide to London, it seems. “What’s Bermondsey like?” “What about Beckton?” “Silvertown? Where the hell’s Silvertown?” Work, so far as he’s concerned, has gone out of the window. Which, in a way, is a good thing. In a few weeks time, I’ll have to do all the work myself anyway. So, I may as well start doing nearly all of it now, whilst Dave is still around to bug if I get stuck.

The other main job for the moment: thinking up jokes about Windows Vista ready for its years-late release tomorrow.* There’s no chance at all we’ll be buying the thing at work, because none of the company’s PCs will actually run the behemoth at all well. PCs we bought a fortnight ago fail the Microsoft upgrade check. Hmm, maybe there was a reason they were so cheap.

* To get some idea why it’s so delayed, and why it’s such a behemoth, read about the byzantine management arrangements responsible for the shutdown options on the Start menu.

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Books I Haven’t Read (part seven)

In which we fail to read “Victorian Railway Days” by Francis Bennion


I haven’t read Ian McEwan‘s novel Atonement. It is fetching a lot of publicity at the moment, because McEwan has been accused of copying phrases from the biography of wartime nurse and romantic novelist Lucilla Andrews. He, of course, says the claims are ridiculous, and that all he did was normal research. Other people have said the same thing, noting that he has acknowledged his large debt to Andrews.

I haven’t read Atonement; nor have I read No Time For Romance, the book he is accused of cribbing from. This post, though, is about neither of them. It’s about another book they reminded me of, a book that I read some time ago, but was unable to finish, because I felt the author had gone rather closer to his source material than he should have. It’s not a book you’re likely to have heard of, either. It’s by a top lawyer and Oxford don* called Francis Bennion, and it’s called Victorian Railway Days.

It’s an episodic novel about the social changes wrought by the arrival of the railways in the 19th century, owing quite a bit in its style to Charles Dickens’ Mugby Junction stories. I found it in my local public library when I was a teenager, and took it out. I didn’t get very far into it, though, before I found a passage that I recognised, about the importance of the railway station to rural village life. It’s quite long, and I’m not going to quote it. But I am going to quote something very very similar.

The Jones’s who don’t associate with the Robinsons, meet there. Mr Jones would not like the stationmaster to touch his cap to the Robinsons, and pass him without notice, so he sends the stationmaster a hare. The Rev Mr Silvertongue is always wanting to take a party somewhere at single fare for the double journey, or some other concession, so he honours the stationmaster by conversing with him, as an equivalent for concessions. The old lady with her dog would not, on any account, have the little dear put into that dreadful dungeon of a dog box when she travels, so she sends the stationmaster a basket of plums once in the year […] ‘My lord’ knows he has no right to bully at the railway station, so he brings a brace of pheasants, and thus adds Mr Station Master to the train of his servants.

That quote is from an obscure Victorian autobiography called Memoirs of a Station Master, by Ernest Simmons. Obscure, yes, but republished in the 1970s by Leicester University Press courtesy of the historian Jack Simmons.*** It’s the sort of thing that would be vital research material for anyone writing a book set at a Victorian railway station. Moreover, the same passage was also quoted in a well-known book about railway history, The Country Railway by David St John Thomas;**** and that book is definitely one I’d expect Bennion to have read when researching his own.

So, when I came across an extremely similar passage in his novel, I was rather disappointed in it. It was extremely similar indeed. I can’t remember, now, if it was indeed a word-for-word copy, but the basic structure was very clear, and it closed in a very similar way indeed. I wish I’d been able to find a copy of Victorian Railway Days to write this post, so I could put them side-by-side for a comparison.***** I was so disappointed to read something which seemed to my teenage eyes to be such a blatant lift, that I stopped reading immediately, and put the book aside. I’m not going to accuse Professor Bennion of the P-word. For all I know, his echoing of Simmons’ words may have been entirely unconscious. It was enough, though, to make me stop reading. Victorian Railway Days remains another book I haven’t read.

*with a long list of personal achievements – drafted the constitution of Pakistan, formerly ran the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, drafted the Sex Discrimination Act, managed to put Peter Hain on trial for his anti-apartheid protests, and get him convicted, and chaired Oxford United FC, among other things.

** because I don’t actually have a copy of it to hand

*** no relation, as far as I know.

**** originally published in 1976 by St John Thomas’s own publishing company, David & Charles, although the copy I have is a Penguin paperback edition from 1979.

***** I suppose I could always buy one from Bennion’s website and revisit this post another day.

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Shaggy Dog (part two)

In which the story continues


If you need to catch up, part one is here.

The carpenter was asked to build a bookshelf for the mayor of the
nearest town. He built the best bookshelf anyone in the area had ever
seen. It had strong, firm shelves, yet such fine carving that anybody
who saw it was amazed. Other carpenters from around the county came
to see it, and all came away disappointed that they would never be
able to create such a bookshelf themselves.

The mayor said: “Plain wood will not match the furniture I already
have. Would you paint it for me?”

The carpenter replied: “I have created some of my finest carvings for
this bookshelf. Painting them would ruin the sharpness and the
definition. In any case, I am a carpenter. My craft is wood, not
paint. I will not paint the bookshelves for you.”

The mayor went away disappointed, despite now having the finest
bookshelves anyone had ever seen. All the visitors to his home wanted
to see them and admire them, and the carpenter’s fame grew further.

The bishop of the diocese travelled to the carpenter’s village to see
him. “My palace needs a new dining suite,” he said. “Will you be
able to build me one?”

It was the carpenter’s largest commission yet, but he took it up with
confidence, even though so many people were giving him work that he
was having to turn people away. After several months, he had
completed the finest dining suite yet seen, with intricate seat-backs
and delicate table legs, so finely-carved you would barely believe it
was made of wood.

“Will you paint it for me?” said the Bishop.

“I am not a painter!” said the carpenter. “I am the finest carpenter
this country has known, but people keep asking me to paint my work!
Slapping thick, sticky paint on such delicate chairs would ruin them!
And besides, I am not a painter. I am a carpenter. I work with wood.
I am the finest woodworker anybody knows, but I cannot paint. I will
not paint these chairs, because that is not my craft.”

The bishop went away, disappointed, even though he had the finest
dining suite in the land.

To be concluded…

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Ink Polaroid

In which we look up at the stars


This is a slightly faded memory, from a few years ago now, from the last time I was in the Outer Hebrides. It’s a late night, two in the morning or so, in August. You can hardly make out a thing in the darkness. There’s a crowd of us sat around in deckchairs, in the front yard of the University farmhouse, heads leaning back. We’ve all just returned from the “local” pub, about six miles away, and we’re sitting outside to watch for the Perseids. Out there on the Atlantic coast, the sky seems, strangely, lighter than elsewhere, because of the number of stars scattered across it. The sky is filled with patterns of light, coming from millions of years ago; and leaning back in a deckchair, the age, complexity and size of it all fills me with a slightly dizzy awe.* Every thirty seconds or so, a meteor flashes across the dark sky, and everybody watching smiles.

* Not to mention that the rocks beneath us, the Lewisian Gneiss Complex, were themselves nearly three billion years old, older than the light from some of the stars.

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Frenzy of destruction

In which we discover some consequences


A follow-up’s due on this post from June: “JCB Maniac Demolishes House”. Said JCB maniac has now been sent down for six years. It turns out, too, that he was previously responsible for driving someone off the road (using a tractor – there’s nothing like overkill) and threatening people with a pickaxe. If you ask me, he has issues.

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Shaggy dog (part one)

In which we start to tell a tale


There was once a man, who was a talented carpenter. He just had to
touch a piece of wood to know how it could be worked, how it might
split, how it would behave under his tools. He started off as a
little village carpenter, making furniture and doors for the people of
his village.

One day, he built a chair for a local dignitary. The dignitary asked
if he could paint it, too.

“Oh no,” said the carpenter. “I’m not a painter. I only work with
wood. I have built you the best chair I can, and I wouldn’t want to
spoil it. If you want it painting, find a painter to do it.”

The dignitary took his chair away, unhappy. Many visitors to his home
saw the chair, though, and were very impressed. Some of them came
back to the village to visit the carpenter themselves, when they
wanted furniture making.

To be continued…

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Uncovered

In which we find out what Big Dave was up to


Well, I’ve found out what he’s been up to recently.

Big Dave has resigned. After Christmas, until they find somebody else, I’m going to be working on my own.

He’s moving to London, too. This morning he handed in his resignation; this afternoon he went out to buy an A-Z.

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Laziness

In which we pretend to break something


I’ve noticed I’ve been a bit lax updating recently – if you look on the sidebar, you’ll notice these past few months have had far fewer posts than before. Back in January I said I was going to going to try to update every day. As you can see, I haven’t been managing it lately.

“Why do you have to update if you don’t have anything to say?” Someone asked recently. I feel I should, though. Previous attempts at creating diaries have always faded away due to laziness; when I started this site, the intention was to try to stick to one post per day. No more, no less, and the rhythm would stop it fading away. I don’t think there’s any risk of that happening quite yet, but I am going to try to put more effort in.

Big Dave is still up to something – he’s been up to something all week, I’m sure, but he’s not saying what it is yet. Lots of phone calls that he won’t take in front of people.

We were both up to something the other day, to be honest – we found a rather good screensaver* that simulates, very closely, a computer that has crashed so horribly that it won’t start up. Dave, of course, couldn’t resist installing it on the PC of someone who recently played a joke on him. He waited until we knew the chap was away from his desk, installed it remotely, then sat back and waited for the phone call.

The funny thing, though, is that he also installed it on his own PC, so he could see what it does. So now, every time he comes back to his desk,*** he has a millisecond of “Shit! Aargh!” before remembering that it’s his screensaver. Our fear of blue screens is that ingrained, he can’t help it.

* It’s from Sysinternals, a very good site if you have to be a Windows geek, with all sorts of useful semi-official system tools. It used to be independant, but was absorbed** by Microsoft this summer.

** or maybe “adsorbed” is a better word.

*** after answering one of those mysterious phone calls he keeps getting.

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Returned

In which the cat comes back


Back in July, my mother lost the cat, accidentally releasing him on the way to the vet’s. She spent hours putting up posters in that part of town, searching round the neighbourhood, answering calls from people who thought they had seen him, but to nothing. After a month or so, the calls dried up, and we assumed he wasn’t coming back.

Yesterday, I got home from work. I went upstairs, changed out of my work clothes, and went to the bathroom. In there, I heard something squeak. A door, or something, squeaking once then twice, just like the cat used to miaow. Strange, I thought, opening the bathroom door to find him wandering on the landing, rubbing against the corners of the walls.

The mother had a phone call yesterday, from an elderly woman living maybe a quarter of a mile from where he had gone missing. She’d been feeding him for about a fortnight, and happened to go in a shop which still had his poster on the wall. She phoned us, dragged him out from underneath her sofa, and the cat came back. He’s lurking in the garden now, trying to re-establish his position in cat society.

Cat

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