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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Post Category : The Family : Page 1

The Paper Archives (part three)

The title of this series is maybe not quite as suitable as it was

The previous post in this series is here.

Sometimes, sorting through the accumulated junk that fills my mother’s house, I come across things that I remember from my childhood. For example: alongside the stack of modern radio transceivers that my dad used to speak to random strangers over the airwaves, is the radio I remember being my Nanna’s kitchen radio, sitting on top of the fridge.

The old kitchen radio

It’s a big, clunky thing for a portable, its frame made of leather-covered plywood. I know it has valves (or tubes) inside, not transistors, because I remember my dad having to source spare valves for it and plug them in back when my Nanna still used it daily—he was the only person in the family who knew how to work out which of the valves had popped when it stopped working.

With only a vague idea how old it might be, I looked at the tuning dial to see if it would give me any clues.

The tuning dial

Clearly from before the Big BBC Renaming of the late 1960s. I’m not sure how much it can be trusted for dating, though, as Radio Athlone officially changed to Radio Éireann in the 1930s, but I was fairly sure the radio probably wasn’t quite that old. Of course, I should really have beeen looking at the bottom.

The makers' plate

And of course the internet can tell you exactly when a Murphy BU183M was first sold: 1956, a revision of the 1952 BU183, which had the same case. The rather more stylish B283 model came out the following year, so I suspect not that many of the BU183M were made.

I’m intrigued by the wide range of voltages it can run off: nowadays that sort of input voltage range is handled simply and automatically by power electronics, but in the 1950s you had to open your radio up and make sure the transformer was set correctly before you tried to plug it in, just in case you were about to blow yourself up otherwise. I suppose this is what radio shops were for, to do that for you, and potentially to hire out the large, chunky high-voltage batteries you might need if you didn’t have mains electricity. This radio is from the last years of the valve radio: low-voltage transistor sets were about to enter the marketplace and completely change how we listened to music. This beast—or the B283, which at least looks like an early transistor radio—needed a 90-volt battery to heat up the valves if you wanted to run them without mains power, not the sort of battery you can easily carry around in your handbag. The world has changed a lot in seventy years.

The Paper Archives (part two)

More relics from the past

The previous post in this series is here.

Spending some more time going through the things The Parents should arguably have thrown out decades ago, I came across a leather bag, which seemed to have belonged to my father. Specifically, he seemed to have used it for going to college, in the 1970s. Him being him, he’d never properly cleaned it out, so it had accumulated all manner of things from all across the decade. There were “please explain your non-attendance” slips from 1972; an unread railway society magazine from 1977; and the most recent thing with a date on was an Open University exam paper from 1983. It was about relational database design, and to be honest some of the questions wouldn’t be out of place in a modern exam paper if you asked for the answers in SQL DDL rather than in CODASYL DDL, so I might come back to that and give it its own post. What he scored on the exam, I don’t know. There were coloured pencils, and an unopened packet of gum.

Juicy Fruit gum

It seems to be from before the invention of the Best Before date, but the RRP printed on the side is £0.04.

Slightly more expensive: a rather nice slide rule. Look, it has a Standard Deviation scale and all. Naturally, my dad being my dad, it was still in its case and with the original instruction book, which will be useful if I ever try to work out how to use it.

Slide rule

And finally (for today) I spotted what appeared to be a slip of paper at the bottom of the bag with “NEWTON’S METHOD” written on it in small capitals, in fountain-pen ink. Had he been cheating in his exams? Had he written a crib to the Newton-Raphson method down and slipped it into the bottom of the bag? I pulled it out and…I was wrong.

Paper tape

It was a rolled-up 8-bit paper tape! Presumably with his attempt at a program to numerically solve a particular class of equation using Newton’s method.

I don’t know what type of machine it would have been written for, but I could see that it was likely binary data or text in some unfamiliar encoding, as whichever way around you look at it a good proportion of the high bits would be set so it was unlikely to be ASCII. Assuming I’m holding the tape the right way round, this is a transcription of the first thirty-two bytes…

0A 8D 44 4E C5 A0 35 B8 0A 8D 22 30 A0 59 42 A0 47 4E C9 44 C9 56 C9 44 22 A0 D4 4E C9 D2 50 A0

That’s clearly not ASCII. In fact, I think I know what it might: an 8080/Z80 binary. I recognise those repeated C9 bytes: that’s the opcode for the ret instruction, which has survived all the way through to the modern-day x64 instruction set. If I try to hand-disassemble those few bytes assuming it’s Z80 code we get:

ld a,(bc)
adc a,l
ld b,h
ld c,(hl)
push bc
and b
dec (hl)
cp b
ld a,(bc)
adc a,l

This isn’t the place to go into Z80 assembler syntax—that might be a topic for the future—other than to say that it reads left-to-right and brackets are a pointer dereference, so ld c,(hl) means “put the value in register c into the memory location whose address is in register hl. As valid code it doesn’t look too promising to my eyes—I didn’t even realise dec (hl) was something you could do—but I’ve never been any sort of assembly language expert. The “code” clearly does start off making assumptions about the state of the registers, but on some operating systems that would make sense. This disassembly only takes us as far as the repeated 0A8D, though: maybe that’s some sort of marker separating segments of the file, and the actual code is yet to come. The disassembly continues…

ld (&a030),hl
ld e,c
ld b,d
and b
ld b,a
ld c,(hl)
ret
ld b,h
ret
ld d,(hl)
ret
ld b,h
ld (&a0d4),hl
ld c,(hl)
ret
jp nc,(&a050)

Well, that sort of makes some sort of sense. The instructions that reference fixed addresses all appear to point to a consistent place in the address space. It also implies code and data is in the same address space, in the block starting around &a000 which means you’d expect that some of the binary wouldn’t make sense when decompiled. If this was some other arbitrary data, I’d expect references like that to be scattered around at random locations. As the label says this is an implementation of Newton’s method, we can probably assume that this is a college program that includes an implementation of some mathematical function, an implementation of its first derivative, and the Newton’s method code that calls the first two repeatedly to find a solution for the first. I wouldn’t expect it to be so sophisticated as to be able to operate on any arbitrary function, or to work out the derivative function itself.

If I could find jumps or calls pointing to the instructions after those ret opcodes, I’d be happier. Maybe, if I ever have too much time on my hands, I’ll try to decompile the whole thing.

The next post in this series is here

Wibbly wobbly

Or, something from the depths

I took The Children away for a week over the Easter holidays. Naturally, they wanted to go somewhere that had a beach, and naturally, they badgered to be taken to the beach nearly every day we were there. What did we find there, when we went? Jellyfish. Big ones.

Jellyfish

Jellyfish

Jellyfish, at my feet

I poked the bell of one with the toe of my boot, almost expecting it to burst, or my foot to sink into it. It felt surprisingly tough, though, tough and rubbery, not fragile in any sort of way. They were all sizes, from tiny things, to beasts a couple of feet across. I took a photo with The Children in it for scale.

Jellyfish with child for scale

THe big one seemed to have tiny tiny shrimp living in a little hole. I’m not sure if they’d been trapped and eaten by it, if they were in some sort of symbiosis with it, or if they just happened across it as the tide went out and were using it as a kind of emergency rock pool.

Tiny tiny shrimp

One of the regular readers, who I won’t embarrass, has already written to say they’re terrifying. I find them eerie, but also comforting, in that they have been bobbing around the sea happily for millennia, eating away at stuff and just generally doing their own thing. I think these are the barrel jellyfish, Rizostoma pulmo, which can potentially grow to much, much larger than this, and are also known as the “dustbin lid jellyfish” as a result. Maybe one day I’ll come across a dustbin-sized or child-sized one washed up on the shore.

Bad for your health

Or, a sudden flash of the past

The Mother has always lied, and always denied that she does. She hates being called out for her mistakes, and will flatly claim she didn’t make them. Moreover, she’s always preferred to lie rather than admit any aspect of the past she’s ashamed of. Sometimes these things come out, years later, and I start to doubt my own memory. I’m not saying she consciously gaslights people; but she will say one thing one day, something entirely contradictory a week later, and you start to wonder where the truth, if anything, actually lies. This has reached the point where she has been—possibly deliberately—not taking her heart medication, and not going to the pharmacy or the doctor when she should to get her prescription sorted. So, now and then, I go to the doctor with her, to see what she tells him and what he tells her. This woman, who has been telling me constantly that she doesn’t feel well, that she’s constantly dizzy, will tell the doctor that everything is fine. He asks her why she hasn’t been taking her medication: she tells him she ran out, even though she has plentiful stocks at home. He asks her why she didn’t come back for a repeat: she says she wants to help save the NHS money.

Since my father died I’ve been trying to help her come to terms with her grief; but that, too, has in a way been difficult for both of us. I was always aware that there was something slightly off in the atmosphere of the house when I was growing up, although as a child it was impossible to explain or analyse. My father was extremely, intensely controlling, and since his death more and more has emerged which shows what I have been feeling for a while. That, to my mind, myself and my mother were in an abusive relationship with him. She, of course, does not admit this, does not admit that he stalked her before they got together, does not admit that my traumatised memories of his outbursts of anger ever happened, does not admit that he felt anything for us other than love.

Sometimes, though, there are sudden flashes of new information, things I didn’t know, that just go to prove that she should possibly have walked away years before I was born.

As I said, The Mother has always lied. When I was small, back when smoking was much more common than it is today, she told me earnestly not to smoke, that she had never smoked. The one smoker I regularly saw in my life before I started school was the travelling butcher, who would drive round in his van and knock on the door once a week, and then sit on our kitchen stool trying to sell his cuts to The Mother, chain-smoking as he did. She would get an ashtray out for him; it was the only time the ashtray was ever used. He would leave, and she would tell me how important it was not to smoke, that she had never done it.

Later, then, I was a little puzzled when—and I can’t remember the context—she admitted she had once been a smoker, but had given it up. Another of those lies, of something she was ashamed of. I thought little of it.

Until, at the doctor’s this week, the nurse was reviewing all the personal information on her file. “‘Former smoker’, it says here,” said the nurse. “Is that still true.”

“Non-smoker for a very long time,” I interjected.

“Do you know why I stopped?” said The Mother. “It was my husband that did it, before we were married. He said he could never marry a smoker, so I stopped. He said he couild never marry a smoker, and he grabbed the pack out of my hand and threw it on the fire. And he did that every time he saw me with them. So I stopped.”

It was a strange moment. A strange moment of clarity, as to what my father was actually like, back in his early 20s. A little window. I don’t think it’s a nice one.

The paper archives (part one)

Or, evidence worth keeping

Back before Christmas I mentioned that I had finally persuaded The Mother to let me start clearing out some of her accumulated junk. Well, there’s a long way to go yet on that of course, but I’m slowly making progress. Slowly working through piles of things that really should never have been kept, sifting through them just in case there is anything important in there, like family photos in the middle of a stack of 40-year-old bank statements to give one real example. And then, there was one thing I came across, that potentially does have genuine historical interest. Well, there were two (one for each of my parents), but this is one.

A poll tax bill

It’s a poll tax bill! Even though I was only small, I remember these arriving in the post and being a little excited that something controversial and newsworthy was now in our house.

A historical note for anyone reading: the poll tax was a controversial flat tax pushed by the right wing of the Tory Party as a way to fund local government. It replaced “the rates”, a system whose origins dated back to the final years of the Tudor period* based on nominal property values, with an almost-flat system. One single amount for every adult in the same town, unless you were seeking work, in which case there was a discount. Introduced in 1989 in Scotland, 1990 in England and Wales, it was seen as extremely unfair. In early 1990 poltiical demonstrations against in turned into fierce riots; by mid 1990 it was clear there were massive problems with collection and non-payment, and by the end of the year the Prime Minister had resigned over the issue.

This—as you can see from the date—is from the first year the poll tax was introduced in England. It ran for four years altogether, from 1989 to 1993, whilst the Major government hastily thought up a replacement for it. And I am definitely tempted to keep it, as a historical artefact. I’ve destroyed all the ancient bank statements, thrown away the gas bills, but I might keep this as a tiny little artefact of the history of the 1990s. Of course, the most quaint thing now about that period in history is that we had a Prime Minister resign honourably over a disasterous policy, rather than cling on to office with every muscle of their fingers.

There will be a few more things to come from the archives, in future weeks, once most of it has been consigned to the shredder. I do feel like I’ve turned a point, though, where some of the rooms of junk no longer look quite so overwhelmed with junk as they once were. I’m not entirely sure The Mother will appreciate it, though.

The next post in this series is here

* Specifically, the 1601 Poor Law introduced the Poor Rate to pay for social security at the parish level.

Finally, spring

In which The Mother is persuaded a fresh start might come in handy

For years, The Mother has been telling me the house needs cleaning out. “It’ll be too late when I’m gone,” she has said. “You should get started on it now.” And I should get started on it, of course, because for years she has had the false assumption that all of the mess and clutter in the house is mine, or is my fault somehow. This is patently untrue. Things, for example, in my bedroom right now include:

  • a vacuum cleaner
  • a steam cleaner
  • a late 90s CRT monitor (large)
  • a box of parish church paperwork
  • a set of suitcases
  • a set of cigarette cards (framed)
  • several large bags full of used jiffy bags, just in case they came in useful one day

None of these things, you have probably guessed, are actually mine.

Until recently, my bedroom also contained a pull-along shopping trolley, a considerable quantity of winter coats, and a mid-80s portable CD player, the first one my family owned. That, at least, I can claim some responsibility for, as it was my main means of listening to music in my teens. Still, no need for it to be there now. It’s time to bite the bullet, I decided. Time to actually persuade The Mother to get rid of something.

I loaded the coats into a bag, put the CD player in the back of the car, and took the trolley down to the kitchen to start loading it up with unnecessary stuff. Now, the kitchen is full of unnecessary stuff. The Mother has never seen a flat surface without wanting to hoard things on it, so virtually all of the kitchen countertops are covered in piles and piles of things: food that she hasn’t put into the cupboard, crockery that she hasn’t put away, stacks of empty takeaway containers that have been kept just in case they “come in useful”. I start loading the empty plastic into a recycling box.

“You can’t throw those out!” says The Mother, who has crept up behind me. “I’m saving those for your uncle!”

“When is he coming to collect them?” I ask. “They’ve not moved for a few months.”

“Well he comes now and again,” she replies, “and he said he uses plastic tubs to keep them in.”

“He can buy takeaways too, though,” says I, and they go. Behind them I discover gadgetry I’ve never even seen: a slow cooker, and a Nutribullet.

“I didn’t know you had a Nutribullet,” I say.

“What’s a Nutribullet?”

“It’s grey,” I say, because I’m not feeling in a particularly familial, caring mood, “and it says ‘Nutribullet’ on the side. You use it to make smoothies.”

“Oh we tried it,” she replies, “and I used it to make soup. But it was too much of a faff. It’s a right pain to clean.”

“Which is what 99% of people who buy a Nutribullet say,” I told her. “It’s going to the shop too.”

So, out of the house went: the Nutribullet, a coffee machine, the coats, the ancient CD player, a stack of CDs of Dad’s that nobody else in the family wanted, and about a third of The Mother’s excessively large supply of plain, cheap, white coffee mugs. She bought a bulk order, a few years back, so that when my dad’s old colleagues came to see him and have a natter, she could give them some cheap crockery she didn’t care about. I removed a third, on the theory that The Mother doesn’t actually know how many there are and never sees them all in one place; and so far, it seems to be working. The charity shop people were extremely excited about the CD player, it being a vintage piece, but as yet its highest bid is still under a fiver.

Naturally, the house looks barely changed. One car-load, after all, isn’t going to make a dent in many decades worth of hoarding—there is stuff hoarded by my grandparents that has been passed down the line, a line which I am going to be the one to break. Still, psychologically, it’s definitely a start.

An unexpected visitor

Of the feline variety

We had an unexpected visitor in late July. One morning, as I was heading out for my morning 6am walk, I noticed one of the neighbourhood cats lurking outside the house, asking for scratches and strokes. When I came back an hour or so later, it was in the back garden instead. I opened the back door, and it followed me inside. It prowled the kitchen, miaowing boldly, before deciding to lie down as Guardian Of The Recycling.

Random Cat

It came back again the following morning, and the morning after, and started to explore more of the house. Initially it refused to go upstairs, and if anyone went upstairs would sit at the bottom waiting for them to return; but after a week or two it was happy to roam the whole house and particularly liked lurking among the clutter in the office.

Random Cat

The Plain People Of The Internet: So is this one of those situations? The whole “this is your cat now” situation?

I doubt it is, somehow. It’s clearly a healthy, happy cat that has a home nearby. It doesn’t need food from us, and I haven’t given it any. Moreover, as one of the other regular correspondents has pointed out to me: if Random Cat is a much-loved household pet, tempting it away to another home is not exactly a very neighbourly thing to do, however friendly it seems to be and however much it stands by the kitchen cupboards miaowing at me.

Why has Random Cat been visiting, anyway? I realised its visits started in late July, at the same time as the school summer holidays. Maybe one local family’s routine changes so much in the school holidays that Random Cat can’t cope with not getting its breakfast early, and decided to scout around the rest of the neighbourhood instead. Possibly, then, now we’re into September and the schools are going back, its visits will start to dry up again.

Random Cat

Ever since moving house, we have said: we really should think about getting in touch with the local cat shelters and finding one to actually live here. That, in all likelihood, will stop it visiting, although it’s not guaranteed. My garden is already disputed territory between Random Cat and another neighbourhood cat, an all-black one which likes to sit on the roof of a nearby shed. They have face-offs balancing on top of our garden fence. A third cat thrown into the mix might not even change very much.

If we do get a cat to live here, no doubt this blog—and certainly the rest of my social media—will become rather heavily cat-centric, at least initially. For now, though, occasional Random Cat will have to do.

Ar lan y môr

And more than once, too

As it was Easter weekend, we took a couple of trips out. “To the beach!” shouted The Child Who Likes Fairies, so to the beach it was.

Firstly, on Friday, to Aberogwyr or Ogmore-By-Sea, a small seaside village at the mouth of the Afon Ogwyr (River Ogmore). it has a rocky shore of cliffs maybe only ten or fifteen feet high, with many paths and gulleys down through them to the pebbly beach. There isn’t much in the way of sand, especially as we arrived at high tide.

On the slipway

The rocks are interesting, though, with smoothly-eroded limestones overlain by a strange array of breccias. At their lowest are rocks consisting of an amalgam of limestone pebbles, as if a beach or riverbank from a few million years ago had been frozen exactly as it was. Above them are huge, rough black slabs looking for all the world like pieces of modern concrete or tarmac. If you told me that back in the Triassic, dinosaurs had worked out the basics of civil engineering, I’d now believe you.

Interesting rocks

Interesting rocks

Ogmore-by-Sea is at the eastern side of the mouth of the River Ogmore. “Can we go to that beach over there?” said The Child Who Likes Animals, pointing to the far bank of the river. Over there, is Merthyr Mawr Warren, a vast area of sand dunes stretching from the western riverbank to the town of Porthcawl, with a long, broad stretch of sandy beach, Traeth yr Afon, facing on to the sea. So, today, we went to Merthyr Mawr.

At Ogmore-By-Sea, you can park your car at the top of the cliffs and amble down onto the shingle in a matter of seconds. Merthyr Mawr is a bit more of an expedition. The car park itself is by Candleston Castle, a ruined fortified manor that is about a mile or so from the sea. It’s an interesting place in itself, though.

Candleston Castle

Walking the mile through the dunes to the beach itself is quite the exercise. Merthyr Mawr Warren has the highest dunes in Britain, the second highest in Europe. Because the paths through the dunes are frequently disturbed, they tend to be the areas with the softest sand. It becomes something of a slog, and you lose sight of all the wonder in the landscape, the unique flora and fauna that goes towards making it a very special place. Nevertheless, we managed to stop and watch huge numbers of solitary bees of some kind, going in and out of their burrows.

Walking through the dunes is also very disorientating; you start to wonder where you are, whether you are trapped and going around in circles. Nevertheless, if you pay attention to the details, you can begin to see how the dunes vary. Further from the shore, they are more stable, the sand is darker in colour, and there are entire bushes and trees holding the dunes together. Towards the sea, the largest plants are clumps of marram, and the sand has ever more fragments of shell in it. Eventually, breaching the final crest, you slide down onto the beach.

Merthyr Mawr Warren

Traeth yr Afon is a very different prospect to the other side of the river. Open, windy, relatively deserted. Horses and riders gallop along through the firm sand at the shoreline. There is no coffee van, no lifeguard’s tower, no car park. Just the wind blowing fine sand along the surface, and the constant roar of the breaking waves.

Traeth yr Afon

Beach horses

Windblown sand

Which beach is better? That’s a matter of personal choice—and of your mood on any given day. Walking through the amazing dunes, allegedly so sandy and un-British they were used as a filming location for Lawrence of Arabia, is certainly hard work, compared with a beach that’s practically in a village. Walking along a deserted, windswept sandy shore, though, is generally just much more my taste. On the other hand, broad flat windswept dunes don’t also have fossil beds to go hunting in (for that, in the Vale of Glamorgan, you really want the beaches a few miles further east). There are always choices; it’s not a competition. We had two very different days out this weekend, but both were to amazing places.

Onwards and upwards

Or, a trip up a mountain

As I said last week, things are slowly opening up here once more. Last week we could travel locally; from today, in Wales we can travel for leisure anywhere in the country so long as we don’t enter or leave it. I was somewhat tempted to spend the whole day driving to Porthmadog and then back again, just because I could, even though it would be an entirely pointless and childish thing to do.

It dawned bright and sunny, and The Child Who Likes Fairies immediately said: “can we go to the beach?” Naturally, I expected the beach would be packed, as would all of the standard inland tourist honeypots: Cwmcarn Forest, the Sugar Loaf, Pen y Fan, the Blorenge. “The Welsh Government are asking people to avoid flooding beauty spots,” said the news on the radio. I looked at a map, and picked a mountain overlooking Cwmbrân instead.

Mynydd Twyn-Glas is the mountain between Cwmbrân in the Eastern Valley and Crumlin in the Western Valley. It’s really just a slight rise in a broad-shouldered plateau, named Mynydd Maen on its south and Mynydd Llwyd on its north; and the whole, being common land, is also known as Mynydd Maen Common. The southern flank drops off sharply into steep-sided ravines thickly and densely covered with plantation conifers, the southernmost being the aforementioned Cwmcarn Forest. Being traditionally common land it’s now open access land. Despite this, I was surprised just how quiet it was: birds, bees, a handful of off-road bikers and another handful of dog walkers. We wandered across the open moorland, just above the edge of the forest, occasionally shouting into the trees and hearing the echo back from the other side of the ravine.

The ravines dropping away from Mynydd Twyn-Glas

A line of pylons strides across the moor, linking the upper valleys with the power stations of Newport. The wind whistled through them with an eerie note, singing the minor-key chord of a distant angelic choir.

Pylons

We saw a distant, intriguing stone slab, looking for all the world like a gravestone in the middle of the moor. Naturally, we headed straight for it.

Not a gravestone

B H
Boundary of Minerals
Settled by Act of Parliament
1839

Apparently there a few of these stones scattered at intervals through the area: the Act in question is 2 & 3 Vict. c. 38, “Sir Benjamin Hall’s, Capel Leigh’s and others’ estates: exchange of mines and land”. Sir Benjamin Hall MP is the “B H” of the stone: MP for Marylebone for over 20 years, he played a significant role in improving British public infrastructure, and is also possibly the man who Big Ben was named after. However, despite his important role in the history of London, his background was always in South Wales, his maternal grandfather (and source of his wealth) being the Merthyr ironmaster Richard Crawshay. The other side of the stone, incidentally, has “C H L” for Capel H Leigh.

Closer to the summit of the mountain, we found another stone. This, however, is much simpler.

LUP

On top is a simple cross, and on the other side, other letters.

PP

This is a boundary between parishes, rather than mineral owners, hence I suspect rather less money was spent on it. Llanfrechfa Upper Parish, on the one side; Pontypool Parish, on the other.

Finally, we reached the summit. Being a plateau, there wasn’t a dramatic view, just gently shelving moorland. In the distance, the Severn shined silver, down by the wetlands and the mouth of the Usk. England faded away into mist. The big difference—the sign we had reached the summit—was the strength of the unobstructed wind blowing across the mountain.

The Children

“I’m freezing!” said The Child Who Likes Fairies.

“Maybe next time we go up a mountain,” I said, “you’ll wear more layers of clothes like I said you should.”

“I’m never going up a mountain ever again,” she replied. “Ever.”

“What if next time we want to go in the mountains,” I offered, “we find a train that goes near some mountains and look at them out of the window?”

“As long as it takes us back down the mountain again once we’re at the top,” she said. And that, I think, is probably a fair bargain.

Life on Mars

Well, maybe

Astronomy fans probably already all know about the Nasa rover Perseverance, which landed successfully on Mars yesterday evening. The Child Who Likes Animals Space was greatly disappointed that the landing wasn’t going to happen until well past bedtime. “You wouldn’t find it very interesting anyway,” I told him. “All you’ll see is a bunch of people in a control room cheering. You won’t get the good pictures until later.” Indeed, although there was one slightly low-contrast black and white photo through within a few minutes to prove the lander had touched down the right way up, at the time of writing the good exciting stuff is due to be revealed shortly.

As the sun went down, though, the sky outside was crystal-clear and Mars was clearly visible a few degrees above the Moon. “Shall we get the telescope out and look at Mars ourselves instead?” I suggested, and of course The Children jumped at the idea.

I’m getting a bit bored of starting posts on here with “Since we moved house…”, but this is the natural point where I have to say “Since we moved house…”. Specifically, since we moved house, The Child Who Likes Space’s telescope has sat in its box in a cupboard; after all, it is February in Wales and we have hardly had a clear night since we moved in. So last night was the first time in this house that I took the telescope out of its box, set it up in the garden on the camping table, and looked to see what we could see.

To be honest, I wasn’t very hopeful. The new garden has a bright-white LED streetlamp shining straight into it. Moreover, as soon as I went outside, on came an automatic outside light. Could I find an off-switch for it anywhere? No, I could not. I was rather d, given these problems, to see that the sky was a wonderful bright blanket of visible stars, much clearer than anything we could ever see in Bristol.

Mars was easy to find, but still is barely more than a dot with the magnification we have available. After looking at Mars, we saw Orion was bright to the south, so zoomed in on Betelgeuse and then the Orion Nebula, or Messier 42 to its friends. In Bristol, the Orion Nebula only ever appeared in the eyepiece as a pale fuzziness which barely stood out from the background sky. Here, it was startlingly clear by comparison, a cold blue cloud against the background sky. Compared to our previous attempts to observe it, it was an entirely different experience.

By now clouds were starting to roll in from the north, so we packed everything up and went inside. As one last thing to try, I pointed the telescope at the moon and tried holding my phone to the eyepiece. Previously when trying this, I produced possibly the worst astrophotography ever. Last night’s attempt, therefore, can take the second-worst spot.

The moon

Maybe at some point I’ll actually get a proper adapter to strap my phone into and produce something slightly better.

At some point, when we can travel more widely, we’ll have to try putting the telescope in the car and heading up to one of the dark sky sites in the Brecon Beacons, to see just what we can see when we are out of town altogether with no streetlamps and no lights in neighbouring windows. For now, we’ll just have to wait for the next clear night, and see exactly how dark it is when we’re just in our own garden. Fingers crossed.