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Well, hello there

In which things start again


I don’t believe in round numbers.

Other people, though, do believe in round numbers, and I admit I compulsively watch the odometer turn over on the car. Five hundred miles since the start of the trip, you know. So the start of a new year marks a good point to maybe try to start writing things down once again. Not that I have any overinflated enthusiasm about the worth of my words, but more as something I can look back on myself once in a while to find out what I have been thinking about.

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The Writer’s Voice

In which FP reads, and learns more about writing as a result


Writing this post from the other week, with its long rant about the poor quality of the worldbuilding in BBC3’s Being Human, has made me think more in general about the quality of writing, and the quality of my own writing. After all, am I in a position to excoriate other people’s ability to write and worldbuild, when I don’t exactly have much to demonstrate on my own behalf there?

It set my brain off on a tangent, though. Not so much about worldbuilding, but about the authorial voice. Because that’s something I used to worry about, years back: I would never be any good at writing because I didn’t have my own voice. If you read any of my prose, there would be nothing at all distinctive about it. Whether that was true back then, back when I used to worry about such things, I don’t know, and I have no real desire to go back and read anything that old. It probably isn’t true any more, though. Certainly, one of the things K likes about my blog posts is that, she says, in my writing I sound just as I do when I speak.

I’ve been a reader since I was small: I’ve been able to read since before memory, since before virtually all of my memories, so I have no conception of what it feels like to see words and not understand them. Ever since I started reading for myself, though, I’ve been a silent reader, a very quick reader, and I also tend to be a very poor reader. Because I’m a quick reader I skim too much. I miss things. I miss things out, have to go back, don’t notice Important Plot Points and don’t take in any of the craft involved in the work. However, I think I’ve found a solution to this. I’ve started reading things aloud, and it has turned around the way I look at writing.

What started all this was: I’d just started reading a book I’ve had sitting around unread for a couple of years almost, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.* Only on the second or third chapter, we had to take a plane journey, and K didn’t have anything interesting herself to read. “Read to me?” she asked. So, since, I’ve been reading a passage of Wolf Hall to her in bed every evening. It’s been a couple of months now; reading aloud is much slower than reading silently, and we’re not awake enough for a chapter** every single night. In doing it, I’ve learned a lot about syntax, prosody, and prosody’s representation. Hilary Mantel has been one of my favourite novelists for many years now,*** and Wolf Hall, award-winning and all, is very readable, but it’s not always the easiest novel to read aloud. Its long sentences are just slightly too long for comfort in the voice: lists of things, and there are many lists of things, always have one term too many to easily read aloud. Her authorial voice is very readable, very concise and very accessible, but her sentences are sometimes a little too long to know automatically where the stresses are intended to fall. Which isn’t to deny that it is, absolutely, an excellent novel; it just isn’t perfect for me to read aloud, at least not without a rehearsal.

Wolf Hall‘s sequel will be coming out before too long, and no doubt will be something I will read to K at some point. In the meantime, we are assembling a list of books to be read: The Third Policeman after last week’s opera;**** some Peter Ackroyd, such as Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem; maybe Lanark, although that will be a mammoth adventure. In the meantime, I am taking a lot from reading aloud. It makes me confident that I do have a voice when I write, a voice I can manipulate if I want to. It makes me confident, too, that I have a readable voice, a voice that might be publishable. Most importantly, it has helped an awful lot to reconnect the craft of writing with the act of reading. The two, obviously, are very closely linked; but I think I’d forgotten just how closely linked they are. I think I’d forgotten to write for the reader.

* I can tell you where I started reading it, too: waiting for a train in Frankfurt an der Oder.

** Strictly speaking, it would be very hard to read a chapter every night, because Wolf Hall has very uneven chapter lengths. Some are getting on for a hundred pages of the book; others are no more than two or three.

*** At root, her earlier historical novel about the lives of Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins is one of the things to blame for the time I got myself on the telly the other year.

**** Tricky, with all its footnotes.

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The Parsimonious Bonfire Night

In which the noise and the smell are as important as the sights.


Today, we were up in Worcestershire; and as we drove home down the dark motorway, we watched rockets flying up into the sky, from all the towns and villages along the way. Strensham, Tewkesbury; Gloucester and Stonehouse.

Back at Symbolic Towers, we have a tiny little pocket garden, almost all of it rather flammable. Now, if you read the instructions on a box of fireworks, you’re supposed to leave more space between firework and buildings, firework and burnables, firework and yourself, than we ever have any chance of having behind our house.*

Despite that, when we got home, we went through to the back of the house and stood out in the garden, the air damp and smoky, and listened to the sound of Bonfire Night. Living in a city, the dark evening was a constant bubble of crackles and bangs, deep bass thumps and high-pitched, tense rattles. Every now and then the sky would flash; every now and then there would be a rocket close enough to see. We stood out, until it got too cold, stood still, sniffed the burning in the air and listened to the noises of the fireworks. The noises of winter starting.

* Of course, the same applies to the vast majority of gardens, because you’re supposed to leave a huge amount of space for safety. But that doesn’t really alter the fact that, if we were to try setting off a rocket from our little patch of land, we – and the garden – would end up rather singed.

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Suddenly, half a year

In which FP exercises


Well, hello again. Apparently, it’s summer.

Regularly, I do get urges to come back to the Admin Interface and write a bit more prose-doodling for this website. There are so many other things to do that keep me occupied, though. Now it’s summertime, the garden at Symbolic Towers is lush and green, and instead of getting on with things indoors you can regularly find me outside, hiding behind the Bee House,* pottering around the garden, deadheading the marigolds and worrying about the effect of leafhoppers on the potato harvest. As the gardens at Symbolic Towers are barely the size of a damselfly’s bandana, though, I am usually easy to spot.

Checking back, I’ve just realised that the entries on the main page still include things I wrote over a year ago now – for example, you can still see the ice monster we defeated when we moved house, down below this one. It’s not very good performance, for a blog that was originally started with the aim of posting every weekday. There are, however, more things in my head that I do plan to write about, some time over the next few months. Maybe I’ll actually manage them at some point. If nothing else, I should start posting pictures of the verdant garden, before it stops being verdant and crumbles back into autumn mulch. The pea plants are already starting to look a bit mildewed.

Lots has been in the news in the past few months about exams: about exam boards getting the questions wrong, about teenagers staring down baffled at unanswerable questions, and then about kids and parents complaining that they don’t want to be marked down for the question-setters’ mistakes. I have to say, my first thought was: surely, this is a learning experience? One of the first tips I was taught at school was: exam questions, numerically-based ones, are usually carefully worked out so that you’ll get nice neat answers at the end. The real world, of course, doesn’t work like that. When you’ve left school, you’ll find out that real world questions don’t have nice neat answers, and that often people will ask you things that are unanswerable, or insoluble with the information you have. Discovering that fact in the middle of an exam is probably a very good place to learn it. Possibly, this is why I should never become a teacher.

For now, that will do for a blog post. I will come back and try to write more in a few days; get my writing muscles unstiffened and flexible again. Because, as anybody who’s ever tried it knows, the more you write the more you want to write.

* Not one of those big boxes you use to house domesticated, sociable bees in the hope you can steal their honey, but a boarding-house for antisocial solitary bees. None have, as yet, taken up residence, but neverless I always check.

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Quiet, please

In which the reference library is louder than you might expect, but somehow seems quieter than normal


Saturday night: to Bristol Central Library, for a gig by The Wraiths, a local band whose “thing” is setting classic poems to music. We’d seen them twice before, at various events,* but last night was the first time we’d seen them performing as a full band.

You might think that a library – the Reference Library Reading Room, in fact – is a slightly odd place to hold a gig. Unusual, I have to admit; Lancaster Library is a regular indie venue, but this was only Bristol Library’s second public concert. The tickets impressed me, for a start: the organisers were clearly trying to set the theme.

Library bookplate or concert ticket?

The library reading room is an amazing space. Part of an early building by Charles Holden, the architect of various iconic London buildings,** it has a high, vaulted ceiling wtih two gallery levels. Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought to bring a camera along; the clatter of a camera shutter can sometimes be a little unwelcome at quiet, intimate gigs. I’ll have to come back on an evening sometime, when the library is open for normal business, and see if they’ll let me take some photos of the interior. It is, allegedly, haunted; the band tried to persuade the gig’s librarian organiser to give us a talk on the various ghosts that live in the building, but sadly it never occurred.

The gig itself can’t really be disassociated, in my head, from the venue. The overall effect was magical, the music filling the vault, although if anything they should have turned the volume up slightly. Although there wasn’t any support, the band played a very full set, two halves and an interval, and the library reference desk had been turned into a cafe-bar for the night. As I said above, we’d seen them twice already, but this gig, with a fuller band, was by far the best; maybe because this time, they were the headline act. They persuaded us to buy their CD,*** and happily encore’d away, slightly tentatively, at the end.

All in all, a great gig, and the second good gig I’ve been to at the library. I’m hoping now that the library sees fit to extend this event into a whole series of concerts: they have a wonderful room, after all, and it makes the music shine.

* and I have a photo of the first time we saw them performing.

** including Senate House, 55 Broadway, and various other Underground Group/London Transport Art Deco premises. At the time Bristol Central Library was built, of course, Art Deco had not yet been thought of, so it’s in more of an Edwardian Classical style.

*** or, rather, the CD of theirs that we didn’t already have.

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Overheard

In which we are nosy


Overheard: a youngish woman walking down Bedminster Parade, phone in hand:

“I think I’m in Bedminster, Mum, but I don’t know where Bedminster is…”

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Monetising Friendship

In which FP wants to sell all his friends something they don’t really need


I’m inviting a few friends round one night. We’ll have a few drinks, a bit of a laugh, and I’ll show them a pile of stuff that I’m trying to sell. Hopefully, they’ll buy some, and I’ll make a tidy profit.

NB: the above paragraph is not actually true. I am not going to do this, and I don’t have anything to sell.* As a scenario, though, it’s a pretty common one. People all over the place are handing out Avon catalogues, Christmas hamper brochures, and organising parties for Foreverware storage; or cheap-looking expensively-priced nylon lingerie and sex toys. It makes me wonder: do some people really value money that much over friendship, that they see their friends as a source of income?

On the face of it, evidently so. I hope that maybe I’m just being pessimistic in my analysis. Maybe the people organising these events really do mostly believe that they’re doing their friends a favour, giving them the opportunity to buy Impressive Things at almost-bargain prices; and the money they make back for themselves doesn’t really make any difference to them. Certainly, in the true “multi-level marketing” organisations that are scarcely different to pyramid schemes, most of the bottom-rung salesforce are unlikely to come out of it in profit. On the other hand: I have known people, setting up these events, to excitedly say: “and it means that I can buy them for myself, cheap!” It makes me slightly uncomfortable, seeing people trying to use their friends in this way: it’s more than a little manipulative.

In one way, this is the root of the current fashionable trends in marketing: using the social network to save the marketeers the hard work. Viral marketing, for example, where you, J. Random Netuser, sends the latest cool advert you’ve seen on to all your friends: you receive a frisson of group-bonding pleasure in return for doing an ad agency’s work for free, just as if you’d invited them all round to your house to sell them the product. Facebook games are also similar: little money-churning devices that you, game player, spread awareness of among your social network. Maybe it’s going to become a long-term trend: I suspect the reason it’s so popular is that, after all, it’s cheap; or, at least, the costs are passed on to other people and other companies. It’s slightly different, too, to selling things directly to your friends through a catalogue or at a party: if you’re playing Farmville, your Facebook friends might have to put up with being told how your farm’s doing every few hours, but that’s as far as it goes. You’re not expected to buy things, yourself, until after you’ve been sucked in. You’re not expected to make your friends money, directly.

Maybe that’s the reason I feel so uncomfortable about this technique of monetising friendship: it is about directly turning your social relationships into monetary ones. It probably works best in social networks with a clear or semi-open hierarchy, because it’s potential very much about reinforcing that social hierarchy with money. I know such hierarchical social networks exist – I see them everywhere – but I do tend to feel that the world would be a nicer place if they didn’t.

* Although, if I was going to do that, I suppose we could always knock up some “I visited Symbolic Towers and all I could buy was this beautiful high-quality clothing product” t-shirts.

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Why We Now Have A Frost-Free Fridge

In which things got icy


When we first moved to Bristol, we moved into an unfurnished flat that came supplied with white goods, partly because it made life much easier for us when moving. No worries about having to find a cooker, a washing machine or a fridge: but the downside was, we didn’t get to choose them.

When we moved in, the fridge was nice and clean and empty.

A few days later, though, we noticed that a bit of frost had started to build up on the back of the fridge. No problem, we thought. When we get chance, we’ll defrost it; it’s normal, after all, for fridges to get a bit of frost at the back.

A few weeks later, we noticed that a can of Kopparberg at the back of the fridge was looking rather iced-up too. We turned the fridge down* to its warmest setting, to give the ice a chance to melt away a bit. The fridge was still perfectly cold enough to keep everything, even on that setting. The Kopparberg, though, stayed icy. Indeed, it almost seemed as if the ice was still growing.

A few months later, I remembered I had some Kopparberg in the fridge. Except … it didn’t seem to be there any more. And there was, now, quite a lot of ice at the back. It seemed to have a shadow in it at one end.

Twenty-one months or so after we first switched the fridge on, we suddenly realised we were about to move out. So, we’d better switch the fridge off now, and maybe, just maybe, we might have a chance of defrosting it. We stuffed the bottom of the fridge with towels, turned the power off, and waited. Slowly, ever so slowly, the ice started to drip. The can of Kopparberg started to reappear; when I prised it out of its icy prison, and shook the tin, the ice inside it klunked against the edges. After about twelve hours of melting, I gave the block of ice a jolt. The whole thing, along with one of the fridge shelves, came free. I moved it to the sink.

Ice from the fridge Ice from the fridge Ice from the fridge

We hunted down a tape measure, and K measured it whilst I took photos:

Ice from the fridge
Ice from the fridge Ice from the fridge

That’s about 4 inches deep, 14 wide and 11 tall. It’s not a cube, of course; on the other hand, it had already lost several inches in size. Overall, I think we must have had at least 6 or 7 litres of water stuck to the back of our fridge.

Moving to somewhere new, we had to buy ourselves a fridge, along with all the other kitchen equipment. As soon as we went shopping for one, we made a bee-line straight in the direction of the frost-free refridgeration section. I think, from the pictures, you can probably see why.

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Collodion

In which we go to London for the photography


Back in the mists of time, I used to think it would be a nice idea to move to London. There’s always something going on, of course. Always plenty to do, and always plenty to keep me entertained.

When I lived in a remoter part of the country, with not much to fill my spare time, this seemed like a Good Plan. Now that we live in a reasonably-civilised city, though, we have far too much to do as it is. And I just know that, if we did live in London, it would go one of two ways. Either we would spend all our time feeling sad about the events that we just didn’t get chance to make it to, or we’d retreat into a bubble and never do much at all. When we do visit, we can easily manage to fill a day and have plenty of things left over that we could have done.

Yesterday, for example: we almost managed to avoid the day’s main event and tourist attraction, the Pride March.* We did have to scoot around a few barriers, though, and avoid a few crowds of pre-march spectators, because the main reason we wanted to go to London was for the current exhibition at the Photographers Gallery: The Family And The Land, a retrospective on the American photographer Sally Mann. Mann became well-known** for a series of photos she took of her children, growing up, twenty-five years ago. From there, as the exhibition title suggests, she moved on to the past of her homeland, taking landscapes of American Civil War locations, before, more recently, producing a series on death and decay, literally: decaying bodies, outdoors, at a forensics research lab. Much of her work has been produced using 19th-century techniques: the wet-plate process, which requires its own portable darkroom. The photographer dips a glass plate firstly in a solution of nitrocellulose, then in one of the usual photographic silver salt solutions; then it is exposed, quickly, before it dries.

When we look at a photograph, we respond to subconscious cues as much as we do to our conscious view of the image. That’s why photos taken with tilt-shift lenses, or fiddled to look like they have been, look like photos of tiny models. Moreover, wet-plate photographs have a very particular look to them: a sharpness of grain but a softness from the antique lens; a time-exposure blur and a particular tonal range. So, if you know a little photography and you look at a Sally Mann photograph, it looks like something that has jumped out of the past. A valley whose river is time-blurred to mercury smoothness looks like something produced by a 19th-century war reporter; and a decaying corpse could have died decade after decade ago.

After visiting the Photographers Gallery, we wandered across London to the Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, to see the Free Range graduation art show, collecting new art graduates from all over the country. It is an utterly massive show, its displays changing weekly, and each display enormous in itself. We were amused to see places we recognised in a handful of the works: line-drawings of buildings in Bristol, and photos of UFOs over Inverkeithing.*** Being a graduation show, it did seem slightly discordant and mixed-together; possibly even patchy in parts. I found myself wondering, at one point, what art students do when their ideas don’t match their budget, and if any of them ever felt constrained by the limits of their budget and their courses’ deadlines. I wondered what the photography graduates would have done with a wet-plate camera, and whether modern photography is the better for being less of a craft.

By the time we left Free Range, we were, I have to say, almost entirely arted out. We did manage to fit in another couple of smaller shows; but the amount of art we’d seen had filled our heads up to the brim. We filled the rest of our evening by ambling around on London buses; again, avoiding the crowds. London might be a nice place to visit; but if we lived there, we’d end up always finding too much to do. Best to keep it at a distance: we can always pop over for a day, when we want to be inspired

* although we did spot one butch lesbian in bondage gear and rubber hotpants having her photo taken by a passing tourist.

** indeed, infamous.

*** The UFOs over Inverkeithing were by an Edinburgh College of Art graduate called Andrew Jay Harvey; and we think the Bristol buildings were by Emily Ejderos.

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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* corner pieces. The product web page should make it clear. The assembly instructions are just as 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,** 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.

* Or Mazak, if you prefer to call it that.

** I haven’t seen my vernier calipers since the house-move-before-last.

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