+++*

Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts from June 2010

Obituary

In which the cat, finally, is not going to return

The phone rang on Saturday morning, and The Mother was on the end. “I’ve got some bad news,” she said.

As a conversation opener, it’s not exactly ideal; but it is, at least, straight to the point. “What is it?”

“The cat’s died.”

The cat has been in The Parents’ care for the past 18 months or so, ever since we moved down to Bristol. Nevertheless, he was still always My Cat, and there was always the thought that one day he might move back in with us, once we had a house in a cat-friendly area (check) and cat-flap-friendly doors (uncheck).

Cat at Christmas

My dad found him, on Saturday morning, stretched out dead just inside the cat flap. No signs of injury. The night before, he’d been happy, relaxed and purring; the parents did not try to find out why he had died. He was about a month or so short of his tenth birthday.

Sad to think that I’ll never again be woken by him climbing on top of me and miaowing. He was, I always thought, an unusually intelligent cat: it’s hard to be sure, but I’m confident he understood at least five or six words of English, and when he was a bit younger he regularly wanted to play fetch. He also managed to survive three months living wild, a few years back, after The Mother lost him en route to the vet. Maybe there will be other cats one day, but they’re all distinct.

In a few months time, I might suggest to The Parents that they take on a rescue cat, because I’m sure The Mother is going to miss having him around the house. For now, though, I’ll content myself with getting annoyed at the random neighbourhood cats that dig up our back garden; and remember lying back in bed stroking one cat in particular.

The cat

Brute Force and Ignorance

In which an Ikea Antonius takes rather more effort than normal

Hurrah! A week after it was ordered, our connection to the Internet is all jumpered up and working again. We are connected to the outside world; it’s just a shame that there’s all that unpacking and sorting out to do still.

Talking of unpacking and sorting out: well, it’s not just that. We have new rooms, different storage, so there’s new furniture to buy and arrange. Because of this, my hands are now rather sore-feeling. Not because of the furniture in general, though: because of one particular thing that was slightly harder than normal.

I always thought I was quite good with Ikea furniture. Give me a LACK table or a LERBERG shelf unit, and I can slot it together in minutes. The other day, we put together a HELMER filing cabinet with no problems at all, even despite the metal-bending skills required. So, I thought an ANTONIUS system shelf unit would be a doddle, particularly as we were trying to create the simplest type of ANTONIUS there is, a small rack of shelves to fit under the kitchen worktop.

The thing itself, when you take it out of the packaging, is indeed simple. Two side frames, rectangular, made of rectangular-section steel tube uprights joined with U-section drawer runners. Four bars, made of the same stuff, which join the two sides together. Each bar ends in a pair of Zamak (or possibly Mazak or some other similar alloy) corner pieces. The assembly instructions are simple: hammer each of the corner pieces at the end of each bar into the ends of the uprights, then screw the feet on.

So, nothing particularly tricky. I find some chunks of wood to stand it on so I don’t wreck the floor, and pick up one side and one of the bars. I try it as a push-fit: it doesn’t go. Not really surprising: after all, you want it to be a nice tight fit so the thing stays together. So, I bash it with the hammer. Nothing apparently happens, other than a loud bang.

I look carefully at the work. A bit of paint has chipped off the inside of the upright, but other than that, nothing has moved. The Zamak connector has a half-inch-deep block of metal that has to be hammered inside the tubular upright, but it isn’t going anywhere. I give it a few more (loud) bangs, and take another look. The connector has budged maybe a millimetre or so, and the paint is a bit more chipped.

Maybe that paint on the inside is getting in the way a bit. I hunt around in the tool-cupboard, and find a needle file and a file handle. A few strokes with that, on the inside edge of the upright, should get rid of the errant paint. Bash bash bash, again. Still barely any movement. I give it another good hard stare, and I can see where the edge of the upright has started to cut into the connecting block, and shave metal off its edge.

To cut a long story short, then: to get the thing together took much more work with a flat file. Each of the 8 Zamak blocks needed each side filing down to get the thing vaguely close to fitting together; I didn’t take measurements, partly because I haven’t seen my vernier calipers since before the house move before last, but I’d say each block needed to be taken down by about a quarter of a millimetre overall in each direction. With only a little needle file, that took some time to do; and without a proper workbench, I jabbed my fingers and hands a few times in the process. Eventually, I’d filed off enough metal that the connectors could be hammered home. It still took considerable hammering to do it, and they’re very firmly in there; I have no idea how it was supposed to fit out-of-the-box.

Maybe the connector castings didn’t shrink as much as the mould-makers expected. Maybe the thing was designed with Swedish sub-arctic temperatures in mind, not a hot English June evening; and I’d have had more luck if I’d left the sides in the sun for a few hours and put the crossbars in the freezer. Maybe I just had one of a bad batch. I was still rather disappointed, though. As I said, I’m used to Ikea furniture fitting together Just So; I wasn’t expecting to have to start filing down castings to make them a reasonable fit.

Vampire-Spotting

In which we suspect that some TV cameras might be taking the train

Regular readers over the past couple of years might have noticed that I quite enjoy spotting the filming locations of the paranormal TV drama* Being Human, filmed in a variety of easily-recognisable Bristol locations: Totterdown, Bedminster, Clifton, St George, College Green, and so on. Not for much longer, though, we thought: although the first two series were Bristol-based, the third series is apparently being moved over to Cardiff. Whether it will be the recognisable Cardiff Cardiff of Torchwood, or the generic anycity of Doctor Who, remains to be seen; but this was all clearly set up when, at the end of Series Two, the protagonists were forced to flee the house on the corner of Henry St and Windsor Terrace for an anonymous rural hideout. No more Bristol locations for us to spot, we thought.

Over the past week, we’ve been doing a lot of driving about moving house; we now know every intimate corner of every sensible route from south Bristol to east Bristol, or at least it feels like we do. So we were slightly surprised to see that, about a week ago, some more of these pink signs have popped up. “BH LOC” and “BH BASE”, as before.

We spotted them on Albert Road, near the Black Castle. “BH BASE” points along Bath Road, towards the Paintworks and the ITV studios. “BH LOC”, though, is intriguing. It points down the very last turning off Albert Road before the Black Castle end. That entrance only goes to two places: a KFC branch, and St Philips Marsh railway depot.

If you watched the second series of Being Human, you might remember that there was, indeed, a rather brutal train-based scene in a First Great Western carriage.** So, expect the third series to include, at the very least, an extension of that scene, if not a spin-off plotline. Or, alternatively, those signs aren’t really anything to do with Being Human at all, and it’s just coincidence that they pop up around Bristol a few months before each series appears on the telly.*** My money’s on that train from Series Two being the root of part of the Series Three plot; but, I guess, we’ll just have to wait, watch and see.

* Well, it started off as a comedy, and got more serious as it went along.

** I was impressed that the programme’s fidelity-to-location included shooting that scene in a genuine local train, rather than just finding any railway prepared to get a carriage soaked with fake blood. Of course, it was probably a convenient location too.

*** The third possibility, of course, is that someone in Series Three tries to cure vampires and werewolves of their respective curses by getting them to eat large amounts of fried chicken.

Photo Post Of The Week

In which we go to the seaside

By the time you read this, we will be in internet-connection limbo. The broadband will be down for a few days. No up-to-the-minute topical blogposts. No uploading photos, although, as I’m on a several-months backlog as per usual, nobody is likely to notice.

So, here’s something that’s easy to write in advance. Photo Post Of The Week. Beside the sea side, beside the sea.

Cliffs, Whitby

Whitby harbour

Pier, Whitby harbour

Cliffs, Whitby

Not In My Back Garden

In which we talk about redevelopment and green space

Having just moved house, we’re very aware right now that in the south-west, affordable housing is hard to find. It might be getting harder, too. Yesterday’s news included an announcement that local councils will be able to block developments on garden land.

Note that the article there is rather optimistic as to whether that type of development will be stopped. It won’t be; the decision on whether to allow it will be devolved to local government, which is in democratic terms a Good Thing that’s hard to argue against. In practical terms, though, it means that developments will be stopped in areas where residents have the means and inclination to be influential and to lean on their councillors; and will be concentrated in areas where nobody’s going to complain. In other words, another polarisation policy, to increase the economic differentiation of our towns and suburbs.

At first sight, I thought, it sounds like it might be a good idea. After all, I grew up in a leafy suburb, built in a time and place when housing plots included reasonable gardens, and so I quite enjoy tree-lined avenues and verdant cul-de-sacs that help you forget you’re in a city. But, thinking about it, I’m not so sure it’s a good idea. Verdant cul-de-sacs are nice, but affordable housing is better. A blanket ban on building over gardens isn’t what’s needed; what would be more useful is a more general control on maximum density of housing. If the planning regulations included a rule that every X square metres of new housing must include Y square metres of private or public garden space, then developers would be as free as they liked to demolish old houses and replace them with flats; the open space and the greenery would be preserved, just in a slightly different form.

It doesn’t take much, after all, to give an area the greenery it needs. Symbolic Towers, from the front, has no green space at all, one house in a line of terrace with virtually every front yard concreted, tiled or gravelled over.* At the back, we only have a small square of garden, too. But despite its small size, the garden and the gardens alongside are a quiet, peaceful, green space, sheltered from the inner city with trees and bushes.

It’s easy to forget, when a development is fresh and harsh, how time mellows a landscape. As I said, I grew up in a tree-lined surburban estate, and that’s how it is in my memory. When I look back at photos from my childhood, though, I’m shocked by how bare it looks. There’s hardly any greenery to be seen: it’s a stark landscape of red-brick houses, bare, plain lawns and sticky saplings staked into the ground here and there. In my memory it’s always as it is now, those saplings all fleshed out into fully-grown trees, and gardens grown up to fill in the spaces.** We forget that gardens take time to grow and mature; we forget, indeed, that Britain has no such thing as natural countryside at all, even our “ancient woodlands” being to some extent man-made.*** Developing on garden space isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as some green space remains; and it’s easy for “we don’t want to lose the green space next door” to be a cover for “we don’t want flats that just anyone can afford next door!” If we have rules that ensure that some green space will remain, we can redevelop our cities in a sensible and healthy way. And in thirty years time, those new flats will be surrounded by greenery, and people will wonder that their street was ever any different.

* Do not ask about the gravel. Unless, that is, you would like some free gravel.

** Memo to my parents, 30 years ago: think twice about moving into a house with a horse chestnut sapling planted at the end of the driveway, because before it’s a third fully-grown it will already have buggered up the drains.

*** They are still ancient, of course. But pollen analysis shows firstly that their mixture of trees is rather different to the genuine primaeval forest that grew up between the end of the recent ice age and the start of farming; and, secondly, that we probably have rather more woodland today than we did 2,000 years or so ago.

Solidity

In which FP becomes a rather paranoid architectural historian

In field archaeology, there’s a subtle process that field workers undergo called “getting your eye in”. A plain brown swathe of earth, after a few hours’ work, becomes suddenly a complex landscape of shade and texture. A mass of tumbled stone becomes a distinct sequence of structural building and collapse. All of a sudden, the things on the ground start to make sense.

When you’re buying a house, I’ve found, the same sort of thing starts happening on an architectural level. All of a sudden I can spot cracks in plaster I’d never have noticed before, or the slight dimples in walls that can indicate buried wires. All this, of course, is a result of reading surveyors’ reports, reports that are paranoid to mention every slight little thing that could potentially cause a future problem.

“Large degree of springing in floorboard” first makes me think: oh no! We only have to jump too hard and we’ll disappear into the basement. But then, I think back, and start comparing it to other places. I start walking lighter and paying more attention to my feet in every building I enter. The flat we live in now, for example, has very springy floorboards. If you walk too heavily in the living room, you can see the bookshelves moving slightly. In the hallway there’s a big gap between two boards that you can feel through the carpet with your toes, and another patch where you can feel the boards have been cut then never put back securely. And even this isn’t as bad as another flat I lived in briefly a few years back, with floors so uneven I always think of it as: not so much a flat, as a slightly rippled.

Now, I’m not saying that being sharp-eyed is a bad thing. But sometimes it’s possible to be too sharp-eyed, and spot so many little details that it worries you. This “new” house might have bouncy floorboards here and there, but of all the houses we looked at, it probably has fewer of these little flaws than any others of similar age. It is fun, getting the chance to be an archaeologist again, poking around to work out what’s under the garden gravel and how usable the chimneys are.* I hope that eventually, though, we’re going to be able to relax a little, sit back, and not worry that one moving floorboard means the house is doomed to crumble into its foundations.

* One of the chimneys is definitely still open and functional, but that fireplace appears to have had its damper plate patched up with some sort of papier-mache or cardboard, so I wouldn’t fancy lighting a fire in it.

The Knowledge

In which we plot to go on the telly again

Regular readers of this site might be aware that, in the past year or so, I’ve appeared on telly a couple of times, showing off my inner geekiness. If you weren’t aware: specifically, I was a contestant on the 2009-10 series of Mastermind, parading my knowledge of French history (I won, hurrah!) and steam trains (lost, but not because of the trains).

It was all great fun and a grand couple of days out. Indeed, if you ever get the chance, I’d recommend going on either Mastermind, Countdown or Jeremy Kyle — they’re all filmed in studios alongside each other — because, if nothing else, the backstage food is very good* and it’s always nice to get pampered.**

Now, I’d never tried doing that sort of thing before, despite people saying “oh, you’re clever, you should enter [latest popular gameshow]”. And I don’t want to turn into one of those people who goes on every quiz show going, popping up every week somewhere across the TV schedules.*** But, even so, now the “you must not go on any other telly” bit of my Mastermind contract has (I think) expired, I’ve started casting an eye across the networks and thinking “maybe I could do that”.

I’m not sure that there’s much TV that I’m suited to, though. Definitely not that Channel 4 thing with Davina McCall, if it’s coming back, just because I don’t think I’m the sort of person who would get through their auditions. The more I look at the lists of game shows that are out there, the more I’m attracted to the ones where you don’t actually win anything material. Radio 4’s Brain Of Britain, for example — not TV but you get the point. I also quite fancy the thought of applying to Only Connect on BBC4, because I think I’m quite good at spotting links between things.**** The only problem is, that’s a team game; I don’t know anybody else who would want to do it (or even who watches it, apart from K), and I never know any of their music questions.

So — does anyone have any other cunning ideas? I will have to ponder it over, and see what I can enter. And, then, watch this space.

* Apart from their meringues, which were the worst meringues I’ve ever had – they had the texture of a stale bread roll.

** There were seeming armies of runners with nothing really to do other than be nice to nervous Mastermind contestants and their families. You couldn’t even try to get yourself a cup of water without a runner saying “oh, don’t get up, we’ll get that for you”.

*** Like the woman who beat me on em>Mastermind; at least, my mother said she’s spotted her on TV a few times before. I didn’t realise. Another of the contestants, too, was on A Question Of Genius not long ago.

**** If you don’t watch it: the aim is to spot connections between words or statements. A sample question: “12:00am, 1st January, 1970″ is one clue; “Newlyn” is another; the answer is “datum points”, because the former is the time datum for Unix-based operating systems, and the latter is the site of the altitude datum used by the Ordnance Survey. The full questions have 3 or 4 clues, but you get more points if you don’t use all of them.

Summer railway

In which we have a trip out by train

Never mind “Spring Bank Holiday”: it’s June, and it feels like it’s summer already: last weekend, we had a day at the beach, and both ended up horribly sunburned. As shorts aren’t an option for work, I winced every time I moved my legs. Yesterday: a bank holiday weekend, and beautiful sunshine again, so we went off for a cream tea and a steam train ride.

The footplate of a steam locomotive on a summer’s day is a horribly hot and airless place to be. Nevertheless, riding behind a steam engine seems like such a naturally summery thing to do. So we travelled down to the South Devon Railway,* for a day’s relaxation sitting in railway carriages and watching trains go past.

The South Devon Railway is, as steam railways go, an unusually scenic one. Being in Devon it’s surrounded by lush, verdant countryside; it follows the River Dart down from Buckfastleigh, past rough, rocky rapids; weirs and once-busy mill-races; finally alongside the more placid deeper, lower stretches of the river, down to its tidal weir just by Totnes station. It doesn’t take much effort for a train to trundle downriver; as we sat in the front carriage with the windows open, we could hear the locomotive clanking its way down the valley with barely any steam on, the vacuum pump making a light chiff noise for each revolution of the wheels. Every so often, a gentle touch of speed was needed, and we heard the deeper huffhuffhuffhuff of the cylinders, four huffs to each vacuum pump chiff. We passed sleepy red cattle, wading fishermen, and groups of wading photographers standing on mid-river rocks to take photos of the passing train.

Country trains often ramble a little, and pause unexpectedly. Midway along the line, we halted in a loop, and waited quietly for another train to pass. Other passengers, not used to this sort of thing, looked around and wondered what the problem was. We were too far away from the signalbox to hear the block bells chiming; but we could hear the rattle of the signal wires as the signals for the down train were pulled off, then we watched it slowly chuff past us before we started on our way again.

This is not Photo Post Of The Week, incidentally. That’s because the photos below aren’t ones I took yesterday; as usual, my photo uploads are far too backlogged for that. These, though, are from the last time I visited the South Devon Railway, about three years ago. The fixed stop signal has been repainted since, but not much else has changed.

Buckfastleigh station

Watering an engine whilst rounding the train

GWR tablet catcher, Buckfastleigh

* Things it is important not to confuse pt. 373: the South Devon Railway, the line from Exeter to Plymouth designed by Brunel, opened in the 1840s, and bought out by the Great Western Railway in the 1870s; with the South Devon Railway, the heritage railway formed in the early 1990s to take over the Dart Valley Railway’s tourist line from Totnes to Buckfastleigh and turn it from a business-oriented tourist attraction into a more charitably-run steam railway. You may spot a problem of similarity with the names there.