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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Post Category : Dear Diary : Page 1

Astronomy

The art of not seeing very much (as yet)

The other day I mentioned The Children have just turned seven. As The Child Who Likes Animals has spent quite a lot of time in recent months liking space instead, watching Brian Cox’s The Planets innumerable times, memorising lists of dwarf planets, Kuiper Belt objects, centaurs and so on, and learning the difference between a red dwarf, a white dwarf and a brown dwarf. We decided, therefore, that it might be a nice idea for The Mother to get him a telescope, as a suitably grandmothery sort of present. Not trusting The Mother to judge what might be suitable, I reached out to a few astronomers I know for recommendations, and found something that both fell into The Mother’s budget and had a reasonable chance of imaging the rings of Saturn. The number of times I’ve looked down a telescope myself before can be counted on the fingers of one hand; but if I was age seven, was given a telescope, and found that it couldn’t show the rings of Saturn I’d be terribly disappointed.

Of course, I messed up to a certain extent. I’m sure I achieved my objectives, but there’s no way really that The Child Who Likes Animals would be able to actually point the telescope at something himself. So, this is going to be the sort of present that I set up in the garden on dark nights; find out what he wants to point it at; try to point it; and then he looks down the eyepiece. Naturally, it becomes a family event, with The Child Who Likes Fairies also wanting to get involved.

As I said, I’ve hardly ever been near a telescope before, despite having books and books on astronomy when I was that age myself. So, on the few nights we’ve had so far when the cloud has at least been broken rather than blanketing, it has gone something like this: I set up the telescope outside. A child asks to point it at something, in a brief pause for breath whilst running around with crazed excitement. If it is an easy thing—the moon, say—I contort myself to the right angle to try to see through the finder, point the telescope and roughly nudge it about until we can see what we’re looking for, all the time with said thing bouncing up and down in the eyepiece as children bounce up and down on the decking. A child then steps up, instinctively grabs the telescope and knocks it out of alignment, and we go back to square one.

Eventually everyone has seen what we’re looking at, and one of them will name something else. I try to work out how to find it, with my laptop and a copy of Stellarium. I fail to find it, and end up sawing the telescope back and forth across the sky desperately trying to find the thing they have asked for. I try again with the finder, drape myself over the telescope and twist it around until the red finder dot is in just the right place; then look through the eyepiece and see nothing but haze. I look up at the sky again, and my target patch of sky, clear a few moments before, is suddenly covered in thick cloud. This cycle repeats a few times, until we either look at the moon again instead, or The Children get bored and go back into the house.

So far, we’ve successfully looked at the moon, Mars, and some random patches of sky that have lots of stars in but nothing I can actually put a name to. Oh well. I’m sure at some point we will get the hang of it, even if I end up becoming the main telescope user myself. It certainly has shown me just how non-empty an empty-looking patch of sky actually is, even living in a hazy, foggy, light-polluted city like this one. I’ll let you know if I manage to find anything less easy to spot. Or, indeed, if we do ever see the rings of Saturn.

In the footsteps of Fox Talbot (part three)

Or, some cardboard engineering

Another weekend, more work on the papercraft pinhole camera kit I’ve slowly been working on. If you haven’t seen the previous installments, part one is here and part two is there.

This time, I spent most of the time on some of the cosmetic detailing. I glued on a whole set of fake camera controls: shutter button, wind-on lever, timer lever and lens mount release button. They’re not the neatest job, but they’re only there to make the thing look like a camera, so it doesn’t really matter if I don’t get them quite right. More important is the film take-up spool, which I’m trying to assemble very carefully and slowly because, fundamentally, it has to work mechanically as well as look good.

Camera so far

On that photo you should be able to make out that the take-up spool looks as if it has an extra lamination. That’s a strip of card added and only glued at the ends. The idea is, the leader is slipped between that strip and the main part of the take-up spool, and that (with a few turns of the spool) that should be enough to hold the film in place. I’m intrigued how well it’s going to work.

The other part I made up that is fundamental to the camera’s workings is the camera back

Camera back

Given that if the back comes off at the wrong time the whole thing is useless, and that the integrity of the back relies on four small corner tabs, I thought it worth holding the whole thing together with foldback clips whilst the glue did its thing. Normally I’d just rely on a good firm squeeze between finger and thumb, but this seemed rather more important. I suspect I’ll end up taping the back on with something like washi tape when the camera is loaded in any case, because it’s going to be a fine line between a back that’s too tight to go on properly and a back that’s so slack it falls off.

I’m not sure this camera was really designed to run more than one film through it anyway: as I said last time, the instructions tell you to take the whole thing to your local photography lab rather than try to unload the film yourself. Which would seem a bit of a shame, because how are you supposed to learn from your mistakes with a new camera, and learn how it behaves, if you basically have to throw it away before you get the results back? Hopefully it will cope with at least a couple of films before the back falls apart.

Fun times

Or, another post on death, discussed somewhat bluntly

I’ve written a few things so far about my father’s death, just over a year ago now. Some were recollections written recently; the post about his death itself was written down not long after it happened. I’m glad I wrote it when I did, because, in trying to write this post, on how it felt to “host” a funeral, to be one of the more prominent mourners at it, there is an awful lot that I realise now I don’t remember.

It’s amazing just how long it takes to arrange a funeral, after someone dies; all the things that have to be aligned in everyone’s calendar. It ended up being booked for a date about three weeks or so after his death, which at least gave me time to discuss with The Children whether they wanted to go or not; give various other relatives time to decide if they could make it, and so on. “There’ll be a good turnout for his funeral,” one of his old colleagues had said. “There’s always a good turnout for funerals.” He had never been social in any way during his working life; after he retired work funerals had made up a good proportion of his social calendar, or so it seemed. A group of his old colleagues had made a point of visiting him regularly during the four years of his terminal illness; part of me thought it was rather nice of them, given I’d never have thought him likely to do the reverse, and part of me wondered if they were just getting themselves stoked up for the eventual social event that would result.

We got to The Mother’s house in plenty of time, we thought, before anyone else would get there; plenty of time to get The Children into their funeral outfits but not enough time for them to get into a mess. We had, I hoped, already sorted out the debate as to who would travel with who; sorting out the various priority arguments as to who would get to ride in the undertakers’ limousines. My father’s family could hold grudges for years;* if one of his older sisters fell out with the other over some aspect of funeral etiquette, it would be quite plausible they would never speak to each other ever again. Thankfully my cousins all arrived to try to negotiate and marshal things; The Mother sat stony-faced in silence, letting the debate all happen around her, trying to avoid getting involved.

The cortege arrived, and slowly everyone shuffled into their correct seats. “Just follow us in your car,” said the undertaker, “and turn your car’s lights on. That way other people will know you’re with us.” Is this some rule of the road that all drivers know except me, I wondered. The hearse and the limousine pulled away, and I pulled out of the drive behind at dead slow pace.

Being part of a funeral procession gives you a certain amount of privilege, the privilege to make other people stop or delay what they are doing. We glided serenely down the main road into the village, dead straight for a mile. I concentrated on keeping my speed even, worrying throughout what would happen if some random driver did pull out and separate me from the rest of the procession. Who knows if anybody saw us, or realised what was happening? The village church is on the main road, but when we arrived all normal road rules went out of the window. We drove into the middle of the road as if turning into the lane alongside the church; but instead, glided like swans onto the wrong side of the main road to stop on yellow lines, facing the wrong way into the traffic. We carefully unloaded ourselves onto the pavement, and the Rector was there to greet us solemn-faced, her surplice flapping in the wind. I left the keys in the ignition so the undertakers could shunt the cars out of the way for us; it felt unnatural and wrong.

Funeral orations must be a key skill for a priest. As we sat in the front pew listening to her New England vowels, I thought about all the things we had said to her, me and The Mother, when she’d come to gather information for it. I had been pretty open and honest with her about everything I saw as Dad’s faults, his coldness, his distance, his sudden rages. The Mother denied much of this had ever happened; I wasn’t sure if this was a desire to hide things from the Rector, a pair of rose-tinted grief spectacles, or a lifelong inability to admit he had faults. It was impressive to hear the Rector’s editorial skill: how she turned the account of how my parents got together into something resembling a romcom meet-cute, when phrases like “restraining order” are arguably more appropriate. They say, once you’ve seen the inside of a sausage factory you never want to eat another sausage. I’m sure I’ll be rather more cynical listening to funeral tributes in future. Anything at all negative, anything at all that might give the listener uncomfortable thoughts, is carefully wiped away to avoid upsetting them.

I stared at the coffin, looking awfully small. We’d gone for a wicker coffin, nicely rustic and biodegradable, ignoring the undertakers’ warning that it would creak like a ship in a gale as it was carried down the aisle. It was something Dad genuinely did believe in: self-sufficiency, living at one with the land, biodegradability and so on. Of course, due to the delay between death and funeral, and the amount of necrotic flesh already inside his abdomen by the time he died, the undertakers had also recommended we had him thoroughly embalmed. I knew, therefore, that sitting there by the lectern was an environmentally-friendly fully-biodegradable basketwork coffin with a thoroughly-unfriendly preservative-pumped corpse inside it. I still sit and wonder sometimes, a year since the whole arrangement went into the soil, what the relative rates of decay of coffin and body are, and just how recognisable his body still is.

At least myself and The Mother had immediately agreed on the coffin, knowing he would have liked the idea, because talking to the Rector we had disagreed wildly as to what else he had believed. For example, the Rector had asked if he was an religious man: not a surprising question, given that she had probably never seen him inside her church, whereas The Mother is there weekly.**

The Mother: Oh yes, he was always very religious.

Me: Really?

The Rector: I’m sensing some disagreement here…

The Mother: Of course he was religious!

Now, if I have to be completely scrupulous and honest about it, I can’t say. At no point in my life, no point at all, did he ever give me any indication of what he did or did not believe. The only thing I can say is: The Mother, ever since a sudden draught of religiosity when I was young, has gone to church every week as routine as clockwork, dragging me with her until I was old enough to say no. My Dad, barring weddings, funerals etc, went grudgingly once a year to the family event where they give everyone an orange and peanuts.

The Mother: Well, I know he was religious.

I don’t remember, now, what hymns she chose, only that the Rector thought them rather too mournful for a funeral and tried to get her to pick something less depressing. The Mother doesn’t do cheerful at the best of times. The Child Who Likes Animals could not cope with the sound of everyone’s voices around him; I held his ear defenders firmly on his head.

The undertakers hoisted the coffin to their shoulders, and started to process out down the aisle. As we had been told to, the family pews followed behind, through the middle of the other mourners, out into the cold of the church porch. Built in the 1970s, every surface of the church porch seems to be tiled, and at all times of year, whatever the weather, it is freezing cold. The cars were where we had left them, but flipped around.

“Do you want to wait and say thank you to everyone who came?” the Rector asked The Mother.

I was all for staying; it would have been good to shake the hands of anyone who didn’t want to go to the cemetery, or the buffet we’d laid on for afterwards.

“Oh no,” said The Mother, “I just want to get going and get it done with.” And so, to the cemetery, we went.

* One of my dad’s sisters once bought him a ticket for an event he was going to go to anyway, as a present. He was so insulted they refused to speak to each other for over a year.

** Barring pandemics, naturally. But it was the case then.

In the footsteps of Fox Talbot (part two)

Or, recovering from mistakes

At the weekend, I did a bit more work on the papercraft pinhole camera I posted about the other week.

Camera, from behind

Can you see the mistake I made near the start, but didn’t realise until everything was set truly firm and solid? The dashed lines marked on the card are a bit of a clue. The entire central portion of the body is upside-down. Because the film passes through the body off-centre, this means that the frame mask is in the wrong place: it’s about 3mm or so too high. The photos this camera takes are going to have their bottom sprocket holes exposed, but (unless I take a scalpel to the frame mask) will have a black band along the top. Oh well: it’s not as if they were ever going to be perfect photos in any case. I did, at least, realise this before sticking on the film guide rails, because if I’d put those the wrong way round, with the fat one at the bottom and the thin one at the top, the camera would be completely unusable. As a 35mm film canister is handed, they have to be the right way round for the film to slot properly into place. Luckily, I decided to measure up the guide rails against the leader of a new film, and immediately realised what I’d already got wrong.

Camera, from the front

The next step is the takeup reel, which worries me because, even more so than the “shutter”, it’s the one part of the camera that’s made from card but needs to function mechanically. It feels as if the tolerances in this part of the machine are quite tight, which should hopefully help, so long as they’re not too tight that it takes a camera-destroying force to turn the wind-on knob. You can see that in these pictures: a hollow card hexagon which I would imagine is quite easily distorted if the wind-on action is a bit stiff.

Incidentally this camera has no sort of rewind mechanism. The instructions suggest you take it to a photography shop to get the film out again after it’s exposed. Luckily, I have a changing bag I can use to do it myself.

The next update on this project is here.

Overheard

Or, daily life in Bristol

Overheard on Stapleton Road, around lunchtime: a fragment of a conversation as I passed:

“I got banned from the Esso garage ‘cos I was drinking too much, but I can still buy food.”

Across the road, a man stumbled and slowly, gracefully, went head-over-heels and landed flat on the pavement, carefully protecting a lit cigarette as he fell. He didn’t try to get up, but laid on the pavement, smoking his fag, looking for all the world as if he was as relaxed as he could be.

The state of the world

Or, the world keeps turning

Today was the first morning of this autumn with signs of frost on the ground. I sat down at my desk and saw the roofs across the street fringed with white at the edges of the tiles, as the sun rose in a clear blue sky. Winter is coming, and our Hallowe’en pumpkins are in a dark corner of the garden for the local slugs and snails to eat. A robin fluttered around the garden, getting ready for all the Christmas posing; I doubt they go for pumpkin. In the summer the garden was full with house sparrows, as nearly every house in this street has a few sparrow nests under the eaves; but now they are quiet and are staying inside.

A month or so ago, I talked about how awful the world of politics is, too awful to want to write about. This morning, with the results of yesterday’s American presidential election still entirely up in the air, that seemed still very true. This evening, the results of yesterday’s American presidential election are still somewhat up in the air, but not quite as awful. We can but hope.

Since the clocks changed it’s dark now before I leave my desk in the evening, and on nights with clear skies, at the moment, I can see Mars rising, the first “star” visible above the roofline on the other side of the road. It rises above them just as dusk falls, visible already as a dim orange pinprick whilst the sky around it is still blue. Over the course of this year I’ve come to know the roofline opposite my window intimately. I feel like I know all the cracked tiles and broken patches like the back of my hand; I’ve watched the missing tiles on a house down the street get worse as the year has gone on and wonder how the residents cope in rainstorms, and I’ve watched a house a similar distance up the street slowly have its roof replaced, its chimney repointed, everything tidied and neatened and primped. Winter is coming, we are a third of the way through the final quarter of the year. After that, though, things will be brighter again.

In the lead

Or, two Hallowe'en posts in one week!

So, yesterday’s post was originally going to be this blog’s sole Hallowe’en post for this year. As it happened, though, the other thing I did yesterday was take The Children out to visit one of the local castles, which turned out to have at least its fair share of autumnal creepiness and gloom. It was Farleigh Hungerford Castle, just to the south of Bath, originally built in the 14th century by Sir Thomas Hungerford, first Speaker of the Commons. Nowadays it is almost entirely ruined, a couple of jagged towers propped up and stabilised by English Heritage concrete. The only buildings left standing are the chapel and associated priest’s house.

Farleigh Hungerford castle

Farleigh Hungerford castle

I said there was some autumnal creepiness: for one thing, the wife of one 16th-century owner allegedly spent years locked away in one of the castle towers, in top-notch fairytale fashion. The owner himself, Walter Hungerford, was later executed for treason, witchcraft and anal sex; however, how much of that actually happened and how much was just a result of being tangled in Tudor politics is rather difficult to tell.* A few decades prior to that, one lady of the house castle had reached her position by rather nefarious means. Agnes Cotell, wife of the castle steward, had her husband murdered and his body burned in the castle ovens so that she could marry the owner Sir Edward Hungerford. Presumably it was common knowledge; because only a few months after Sir Edward’s death, Lady Agnes and her accomplices were tried and hanged.

Farleigh Hungerford castle

Underneath the chapel, a small crypt contains a handful of anthropomorphic lead coffins, mostly adults with a couple of infants. They sit on shaped wooden boards, bodies presumably still inside them, behind an iron gate. Aside from their silver-grey colour the look for all the world like carefully-shaped human pies or pasties, their edges tightly crimped.

Lead coffins at Farleigh Hungerford castle

Lead coffins at Farleigh Hungerford castle

I was slightly disappointed that no ghostly emanations or mysterious mists appeared on the photos, to be honest. Upstairs in the chapel are a number of tombs and effigies, making me think (as always) of the E Nesbit story “Man-sized In Marble”, in which church effigies like this go wandering on Hallowe’en.

Chapel tomb effigy

Chapel tomb effigy

The older pair of effigies are firmly secured behind iron railings; maybe put there by someone else who knows their E Nesbit ghost stories. Maybe, though, the shiny, glossy marble pair will be getting up and going wandering tonight.

* He was a Parliamentary ally of Thomas Cromwell, and was executed alongside him. Which reminds me, I should really get a copy of The Mirror And The Light by Hilary Mantel, in which Walter Hungerford will presumably appear.

A Night-Time Terror

Or, a true story of the paranormal from Cornwall

As it’s nearly Hallowe’en, I thought it might be time to post a creepy story. And this is a true creepy story. I posted it originally on my Tumblr, six years ago, as an account of something that happened to K and I when The Children were both still only crawling and we took them away on holiday for the first time, to a holiday cottage on a farm in North Cornwall. It happened a few weeks before I wrote it down, more or less exactly as it is set down here, in the middle of the night just before we were due to leave. I haven’t edited the originally, so “about a month ago” should be read as “September, 2014”.

This is not a ghost story. It has no climatic ending, no plot and no dramatic arc. It is, however, something of a paranormal story. Moreover, the reason it has no plot and no ending is that it is a true story. The reason I’m writing it down is because it was strange enough to merit remembering, and I wanted to write it down before its strangeness was corrupted and faded away.

About a month ago, my partner K and I took our 10-month-old twins away for their first holiday. They had reached the stage of crawling, climbing, and taking an interest in everything they saw, but had not quite mastered their first steps or their first words. Thinking it best not to travel too far away for a first holiday, we hired a cottage on a farm in North Cornwall, in the wedge of land between the River Camel and the sea, the landscape that is famously the home of both King Arthur and the North Cornwall Railway. The cottage was, to be frank, more like a modern bungalow than a stereotypical Cornish cottage; but it was indeed on a small, slightly ramshackle farm, and was surrounded by beautiful countryside. It overlooked rolling hills, small ancient fields divided in haphazard fashion by twisting raised hedges and sunken holloway lanes. It was a beautiful, disorienting landscape: looking out from the picture windows of our cottage’s front room, I was convinced I was looking north or north-east until careful correlation of maps and hedge-lines persuaded me we actually faced southwards. A small ravine led the eye gently towards the distant lights of the nearest town, but otherwise there were no landmarks in sight, not even a church tower or a sign of the nearest village. Not being able to find north is unusual for me: I’m normally fairly good at orienting myself. When I was a child, I read lots of Enid Blyton books in which the characters always wake up on the first day of a holiday and, forgetting they’ve gone on holiday, have no idea where they are. To me, this is an entirely alien concept.

We stayed for a week, Saturday to Saturday as is the custom, and greatly enjoyed ourselves; this isn’t the story of our holiday, but suffice to say we had a wonderful time, and returned to our cottage each night to settle down cosily on the sofa. Not having a TV at home, we enjoyed the illicit treat of snuggling up, sleepy babies alongside us in their sleeping bags, quietly watching inane programmes about home redecoration and suchlike.

I wondered a few times just what the night sky looked like on a clear night there, given how dark our cottage felt with the lights out, but most nights, at least when I remembered, the sky was overcast and no stars could be seen. On our final night, though, I needed to go outside, and saw what seemed a perfect black sky, scattered everywhere with starlight pinpricks.

We were cleaning up the kitchen that night, after the babies had settled down to bed, and I said to K, my partner, that we should go outside to look at the stars. It would be romantic, I thought. Outside, though, a mist had started to drift in. Towards the south, the stars were still on show; towards the north the sky was black, and the mist was already thick enough to be noticeable over the hundred yards or so across the farmyard, between our cottage and the farmhouse. “Can we go inside?” said K, nervously. Not to get ahead of things, but she admitted later that, just before this, just as the mist had started to drift around the farm buildings, was the point at which she had started to feel anxious about our surroundings.

We went to bed as normal, hoping that we might get an uninterrupted night of sleep - an unusual treat for us at the moment, as it’s rare that our daughter doesn’t wake up wanting a cuddle and a small drink. In the strange surroundings of our holiday cottage, much darker and quieter than our city home, both babies had tended to go to extremes, either sleeping soundly all night, or waking and refusing to settle back down to sleep.

In the middle of the night, I woke. There was screaming from the babies; loud, urgent screaming from both of them. Where was it coming from, though? I knew instantly, as if the idea had been pushed into my head: the babies were outside. We had left the windows open, I thought, which was why we could hear them; the babies were outside, in the garden, crawling around on the grass surrounded by fog, and I had to go outside and rescue them. It was the one thought in my otherwise terrified mind: I had to go outside. I couldn’t find where I was, though. I stood, next to the bed, and whirled around, arms out, trying to find a wall or a door.

Before I had left the room my mind had cleared slightly, and I realised there was no way the babies could have left the cottage, or even have climbed out of their cots. As I still kept trying to work out which direction the crying babies were in, though, I suddenly realised that something, something nearby, was trying to make me leave the cottage.

Staggering a little, I made it out into the hallway, and quickly closed all of the doors off to the other rooms. Going to the desperately crying babies, I tried all the usual methods of settling them back to sleep: a drink of water, a tight hug, soft words. Nothing worked. I was trying not to think about the dark feeling I had that something else was inside the building, trying to help the babies relax, but the babies were still clearly very upset, still crying, definitely not going to go back to sleep on their own.

One at a time, I hurriedly carried them back into our bedroom, so that all four of us could settle back down together in bed. K has also started to wake, and held them close to her. “Have you shut all the doors?” she mumbled.

“Yes,” I replied.

“I’m scared,” she said. “I feel like there’s someone else in the cottage.”

Rationally, I knew I had locked the doors. The only way in was through a door with a bolt on the inside, which I had bolted before bed. So why did we both suddenly feel that someone or something else was inside? Why had I felt it was trying to trick me into going outside?

I quickly went, trembling slightly, into the hallway. Open the living room door. Flash the light on. Nobody there. Despite what I had thought earlier, the windows were firmly closed and locked. Into the kitchen: nobody there, the windows closed and the door still bolted.

Back to bed. “There’s nobody else here,” I said, “and the doors are all shut.” The babies were slowly calming, drifting back to sleep making quiet whimpering sounds. Slowly, me hugging our son and K hugging our daughter, we drifted back to sleep.

The next morning the mist had gone, the cottage was itself, and it almost felt welcoming again. We were glad to leave, though. I don’t think we even dared discuss it, hardly, until we had loaded the car, had our final chat with the farmer and his wife, and were driving the car under the horse chestnut tree that shaded the farm’s gates, and off down the long dead-end lane that took us back towards the Atlantic Highway. We had no idea, no idea at all, what we had felt, or what could have been influencing us. What struck both me and K, though, was that without discussing it - without even being able to - all four of us had apparently woke up with great distress in our minds. Obviously we don’t know what the two babies were actually thinking; but they were most certainly not their usual awake-in-the-night selves, and nor were K and I. K had been, as I said above, nervous that something was approaching before we’d gone to bed, but she didn’t mention a word of it until the next morning.

I’ve searched for information, since we came home, about possible haunted mists and rural panic attacks associated with that area. I have a vague memory, after all, that the word “panic” originally meant a specifically bucolic terror, after Pan himself. Nothing I’ve found, though, has been connected to that part of the country. K suggested that panics can be caused by ultrasonic noises, which could be a plausible and non-supernatural explanation for us all feeling the same terror. At root, though, I don’t think this is ever going to be fully explained, or fully explainable. All I can tell you is that: it did happen, exactly as I’ve told you above.

Photo post of the week

Or, autumn in the park

I know it can be a bit of a cliche, photos of yellow and orange leaves falling in autumn, but the park was looking so seasonally russet-hued the other day that I regretted not bringing a Proper Camera along. We fed the swans and the ducks, and caused a flurry of seagulls frenzied enough to have Du Maurier reaching for her notebook.

Birds in the park

Birds in the park

Birds in the park

Naturally, the local pigeons also wanted to get involved, despite their inability to swim.

The pigeons arrive

The pigeons arrive

After the food was gone, all was calm again. I photographed The Child Who Likes Fairies staring pensively out across the lake, and in return she took a photo of a tree she particularly liked.

The lake quietens down

The child who likes fairies

A particularly nice tree

In the footsteps of Fox Talbot (part one)

Or, going back to the early days

The Child Who Likes Animals is a great devourer of television, particularly documentaries, and can recite great swathes of the hours of television he has watched. Usually this involves things about his usual interests, such as animals, or palaeontology, or Brian Cox talking about planets. Recently, though he’s rediscovered a CBBC series from a few years ago that has recently been repeated: Absolute Genius with Dick and Dom, in which said presenters learn about great STEM figures from history. He was rather taken with the episodes on Darwin (naturally), the Herschels, and Delia Derbyshire;* but became particularly obsessed with the inventor of the photographic negative, Henry Fox Talbot. In that one, Dick and Dom build a pinhole camera out of an industrial-size wheelie-bin, making it into a binhole camera; the episode is worth it for that pun alone. The Child Who Likes Animals, naturally, wanted us to build our own.

Making one quite that large, I pointed out, wouldn’t really be practical for taking around the place; but pinhole cameras themselves aren’t that hard to build. In fact, as it turned out, we had a papercraft one already lurking in the rainy-day-activities cupboard. Naturally I would have to do most of the building work, but why not get started?

The starting point

The instructions on the packet said it could be built in as little as two hours. If you use some sort of instant-setting impact glue that might be possible, but with standard PVA (the packaging recommended “white glue”) I suspect it will take rather a lot longer, given how sensible it is to stop and let things set properly between steps.

Folding up the innermost box

As expected, not only did I end up doing all of the building work, but The Children rapidly disappeared to go and watch a film or something. In theory, though, you would think a pinhole camera would be an ideal subject for papercraft, because all cameras are essentially just a black box with a hole (or lens) at one end and something light-sensitive at the other. This build seems largely to consist of folding up a few card boxes, gluing them together, and attaching a fiddly-looking but entirely cosmetic fake pentaprism housing on top. By the time it’s finished, I suspect it will end up 75% PVA by weight.

Folding up the takeup spindle housing, with a lot of excess glue

There are two potential issues I can see with the whole thing. Firstly, building a working and light-tight takeup spindle out of card is going to be a very fiddly exercise which might well prove to be the Achilles Heel of the project. Secondly, there are a couple of card edges that the film has to pass over, emulsion-side down, and I can imagine them scratching the emulsion to buggery. Oh well, I wasn’t exactly expecting it to take pin-sharp perfect results in any case.

The basic carcass of the thing

I have to admit that previous papercraft projects have foundered, incomplete, after one or two building sessions. Hopefully given that this thing is at least intended to produce something usable, I’ll manage to get it finished to the point of being able to put a film through it. Whether anything will be visible on the film afterwards (and whether The Child Who Likes Animals will actually want to use it) is another story. I’ll keep you posted.

The next update on this project is here. Part three is here.

* Personally I rather liked the episode about James Watt, which featured the Newcomen Engine at the Black Country Living Museum, the Crofton Pumping Engine, and a few brief moments of the Severn Valley Railway’s Stanier Mogul 42968 at Kidderminster.