+++*

Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Page 2

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.

Cultural Appropriation

On stories set firmly in a particular place

There are quite a few ideas for blog posts lining up on my pinboard at the moment, and most of them are the sort that require work to write: long, in-depth pieces that need some sort of study or concentration. With the state of things right now, both in the world outside, here at home, and in the office, the space for that level of study and concentration has been a bit hard to come by. However, there’s one thing that has been in my head, on and off, for years, and it’s been sitting in my head for so long that it’s about time I tried to put it into words. It’s about a book which (unlike these) I have read, a much-loved book, one I love myself, in fact, at least at some level. It’s a classic of 1960s YA fiction, particularly in Britain. The Owl Service, by Alan Garner.

If you haven’t read it: it’s a retelling of one of the most famous stories of Welsh mythology, the story of Blodeuwedd, an episode in Math fab Mathonwy, the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. I realise, typing that out, that if you’re not already a fan of Welsh mythology all those words in the previous sentence might be so much noise to you. The Mabinogi is a collection of four linked stories, written down in the Middle Ages but presumably somewhat older, which survived in two known manuscript copies;* in the 19th century they were translated into English by the aristocratic philologist Charlotte Guest. Math son of Mathonwy starts with a war between Gwynedd and Dyfed started by a magical pig-theft as a grand distraction from a rather more sordid plan, and traces the threads that follow on from that plan and the destruction and havoc that follows as a result. If it can be said to have a single theme, it’s probably that magic always makes things worse. Blodeuwedd is a woman conjured from flowers to provide a wife for the cursed hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes; she is not particularly a fan of the idea herself, and goes off with another man instead. I won’t tell you the whole story here, but you can probably gather that it isn’t going to end well.

One reason I’m not going to retell the whole story here is that if you haven’t read The Owl Service then you should do; as I’ve said, it’s a modern retelling, bringing the story forward to 1960s Wales and turning it into a triangular relationship between three teenagers: an English girl who has inherited a Welsh country house, her step-brother, and the Welsh son of their housekeeper. The country house is located in an oppressive, narrow valley and the house seems haunted by sounds: motorbikes powering along the road up-valley, and invisible vermin scratching in the roof. As the book progresses there are dark family secrets, mysterious paintings, ghostly reflections, and of course the crockery set of the title. As stories go it is short but dense: there is a lot of information packed into its pages. Garner is very good at offhand description whose significance is not signalled, letting you make the connections yourself later. In the telly adaptation, made by Granada shortly after publication, quite a bit of further exposition had to be added, notably a “story so far” narration at the start of each episode which sometimes describes explicitly events which weren’t really explained or shown at the point they happened.

I must have first read The Owl Service when I was in my early teens, and I know that when I first read it I was already aware that it was an Important Book. I knew this because most children’s novels I recall reading included a few pages of blurb for other novels at the back of the book, and I’d read the blurb for The Owl Service several times in this way before eventually getting a copy of it.** Certainly, much of it went over my head, but I was taken with its description of 1960s Wales; of the valley, lush and green, that almost disappears when you hike uphill to look down from the surrounding mountains; and the combination of kitchen-sink realism and deep mythology, of the idea that all myths did happen, somewhere, in the real world, and that their ghosts still haunt those places. That, though—I came to realise many years later—is where the problem is.

Nowadays I have two translations of the Mabinogi on my bookshelf, although I carefully keep them apart so that we avoid a critical mass of mythology in one place (or more likely, questions on why exactly I need two different translations). If you pick either of them up, and turn to Math fab Mathonwy, you’ll see the story tells you exactly where everything happened. I said earlier there was a war between Gwynedd and Dyfed: it ended when King Pryderi of Dyfed was killed and buried near Maentwrog, just off the A496. The other man that Blodeuwedd went off with was from around Bala; and the key events in the Blodeuwedd story all occurred close to the Afon Cynfal, one of the rivers that flows down into the Vale of Ffestiniog. I know the area well.

What makes me uncomfortable about The Owl Service is that it’s not set there. It’s not set in some generic imaginary fictional Welsh valley that only exists in Garner’s (and his reader’s) imaginations, either. It’s inspired by a specific place that Garner had visited, Llanymawddwy on the upper Dyfi. If you read the book alongside the Ordnance Survey map of the area, you can track a lot of the walks that the characters take in the book. Garner describes, for example, the walk up to the Ravenstone on the county boundary; and there it is on the map, Carreg y Frân. This is a real place, a real village. But in Garner’s retelling, this is the place the story of Blodeuwedd originally happened, and keeps happening, reoccurring in every generation; when the myth itself is anchored in another real place, an entirely different stretch of the countryside.

The hills above Llanymawddwy

Is this cultural appropriation? I’m really not sure; in any case, that’s hardly a well-defined term. Garner certainly tried to put a lot of effort into trying to make his story both realistic and respectful. He learned Welsh to write The Owl Service, but not for vocabulary or to read the myth in the original; rather, he learned it so that he could make the English speech of his Welsh-speaking characters follow Welsh syntax, because he felt that this would be a more respectful way to make them sound Welsh than the superficial technique of dropping random Welsh vocabulary into their statements. In general this works really well, with just one spot where he shows off his erudition to the reader in a slightly clunky way. The feeling I am left with, though, is that he did just come along to Wales and immediately feel as if he had found some deep, spiritual, mythological meaning to the landscape that wasn’t actually there, a meaning that was his own romanticised interpretation of that landscape as filtered through one of the most famous of all the Welsh myths. In a sense this is no different to if he’d travelled half way around the world and felt he had discovered something deep and exciting and mystical there; the only difference is that he’d only travelled a hundred miles or so over the border from Cheshire. The village and the valley in The Owl Service are haunted by the sound of motorbikes, because the road through Llanymawddwy leads to Bwlch y Groes, a steep, high pass that has for many years been well-known in the biking world. I have no doubt the reason motorbikes are important in the plot of The Owl Service is that Garner, visiting Llanymawddwy and exploring the valley, will have frequently seen and heard bikers driving through the village and up the valley towards the pass; will have sat up at Carreg y Frân and heard them roaring in the distance.

Am I the right person to point this out? I’m not Welsh either, after all, and although I’ve spent a lot of time there for one reason and another, I’ve never lived there. I don’t speak the language beyond a few simple phrases like “mae hi’n bwrw glaw” or “dw i wedi yfed cwrw gormod”, although I probably speak no less than most people who live in Wales do. As an English person living in England, are my own attempts to learn Welsh and read Welsh mythology just as appropriative as Garner? Some would probably say so. As someone who spends a fair amount of time in Wales—albeit not as much as I did a few years ago when I commuted over the border every day—it feels like the right thing to do.

The Owl Service is still a fantastic book, despite its flaws, and despite the niggling impression I have that it represents one Englishman’s superficial interpretation of a myth more than it represents the myth itself. In some ways I suspect my biggest disappointment is, as always, that the Good is the enemy of the Perfect. The Owl Service is so embedded in the imagination as the reimagining of the Blodeuwedd story, it seems difficult to believe that any other, potentially better, potentially more Welsh reimagining of it would ever take its place in th canon. Am I just being too much of a perfectionist critic? Maybe so. And the story of Blodeuwedd still exists, and is never going to disappear.

* The bound manuscripts are known as the Red Book of Hergest and the White Book of Rhydderch. This naming pattern clearly chimed with JRR Tolkien, as in his fantasy mythology, The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings were the translations of a set of manuscripts known as the Red Book of Westmarch.

** Incidentally there are still a few classic children’s and YA novels that I only know in this way, from the blurbs in the back of other novels. The Silver Sword is one that springs to mind; or Smith by Leon Garfield.

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.

More on the spread of death

Or, the perils of trusting a map

Semi-regular readers might remember that, about a month ago, I posted about Greenbank Cemetery and its history, and looked at the available historic maps online to track its growth through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This weekend I went back to Greenback for the first time since I wrote that post, partly for the autumnal atmosphere and partly to see how much evidence is visible on the ground for the different phases of growth I identified on the maps.

The cemetery today is bounded by roads to the north and south, Greenbank Road and Greenbank View. One thing I discovered when writing the previous post is that, according to the maps, there was a phase when there were bands of allotments between the roads and the cemetery itself. The allotments seem to have been created in the Edwardian period; later, the cemetery was extended and swallowed them up. When I visited the cemetery this weekend I went to look for evidence of the northern allotment. The boundary between the cemetery and the allotments (not to mention the field that preceded them) is still clearly evident on the ground.

Former boundary of the cemetery, now a path

The area on the left has been part of the cemetery since, I think, its first expansion in 1880. The area on the right, where graves are packed in much more closely together, was a field at that point, then became allotments, then cemetery. If you poke around, there’s some signs that the edge of the cemetery might have been a haha-style sunken wall.

Possible former cemetery wall, with walling stones now used as makeshift steps

These four trees would have been on the boundary originally. I wonder if they were planted because there was a gate here from the allotments? There’s nothing marked on the map, though, and the map is quite thorough at including the cemetery’s paths, so they may not have been planted until the cemetery was extended.

Four trees straddling the former cemetery boundary - possibly a former gateway?

I said previously that the extension of the cemetery over the allotments “must have happened some time after 1938, as a 6-inch-scale map revised that year still shows the allotments”. That map’s available on the National Library of Scotland website; here’s an extract from it.

Greenbank in 1938, apparently

However, on walking round the area of allotments shown on this map, I quickly found that an awful lot of graves are of people who died before 1938. The dates on the headstones run back over ten years before that, to the mid-1920s.

Monument to John Smyth, d. 10th Feb 1926

Monument to Ena Sargant (d. 27th July 1925) and Patricia Sargant (d. 13th March 1925)

Monument to Jesse Jordan (d. 16th March 1930), Clara Jordan (d. 19th December 1930) and Agnes Flemming (d. 18th September 1924)

The 1920s-dated monuments run all the way up to the road, so it wasn’t a case of the cemetery taking over the allotment step by step either. Although it’s not unheard of for people to be reburied, or for people to be commemorated on headstones in spots they’re not buried in, there are so many 1920s monuments in this part of the cemetery that you can’t really use that explanation for all of them. So, unless I do at some point find some evidence that there genuinely was some sort of mass reburial and movement of graves in Greenbank Cemetery in the late 1930s, something like a Bristolian version of the building of the Paris catacombs, we have to conclude that this is a mistake on the map; or, more likely, that the map isn’t a full revision and the change in size of the cemetery was one of those changes in the real world that the Ordnance Survey didn’t bother to draw onto their maps at that point in time.

If I had copious amounts of free time, it would be very tempting to create a full catalogue of all of the monuments in Greenbank and their dates, and then develop a typology of changes in funerary design, spotting trends between different undertakers and stonemasons. It would be even more interesting still to then do the same for another large Victorian cemetery in a different part of the country, and track the regional differences. Sadly, I have nowhere near enough free time to embark on such a project. I’ll just have to wander around the cemetery, spot things like this occasionally, and enjoy the views.

Greenbank Cemetery

Greenbank Cemetery

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

We can rebuild it! We have the technology! (part four)

Or, finishing off the odds and ends

Settling down to see what else I should write in the series of posts about how I rebuilt this website, I realised that the main issues now have already been covered. The previous posts in this series have discussed the following:

And throughout the last two, we touched on some other important software engineering topics, such as refactoring your code so that you Don’t Repeat Yourself, and optimising your code when it’s clear that (and where) it is needed.

There are a few other topics to touch on, but I wasn’t sure they warranted a full post each, so this post is on a couple of those issues, and any other odds and ends that spring to mind whilst I am writing it.

Firstly, the old blog was not at all responsive: in web front-end terms, that means it didn’t mould itself to fit the needs of the users and their devices. Rather, it expected the world to all use a monitor the same size as mine, and if they didn’t, then tough. When I wrote the last designs the majority of the traffic the site was receiving was from people on regular computers; nowadays, that has changed completely.

However, the reason that this isn’t a particularly exciting topic to write about is that I didn’t learn any new skills or dive into interesting new programming techniques. I went the straightforward route, installed Bootstrap 4.5, and went from there. Now, I should say, using Bootstrap doesn’t magically mean your site will become responsive overnight; in fact, it’s very straightforward to accidentally write an entirely non-responsive website. Responsiveness needs carefully planning. However, with that careful planning, and some careful use of the Bootstrap CSS layout classes, I achieved the following aims:

  • The source code is laid out so that the main content of the page always comes before the sidebars in the code, wherever the sidebars are actually displayed. This didn’t matter so much on this blog, but on the Garden Blog, which on desktop screens has sidebars on both sides of the page, it does need to be specifically coded. Bootstrap’s layout classes, though, allow you to separate the order in which columns appear on a page from the order in which they appear in the code.
  • More importantly, the sidebars move about depending on page width. If you view this site on a desktop screen it has a menu sidebar over on the right. On a narrow mobile screen, the sidebar content is down below at the bottom of the page.
  • The font resizes based on screen size for easier reading on small screens. You can’t do this with Bootstrap itself; this required @media selectors in the CSS code with breakpoints chosen to match the Bootstrap ones (which, fortunately, are clearly documented).
  • Content images (as opposed to what you could call “structural images”) have max-width: 100%; set. Without this, if the image is bigger than the computed pixel size of the content column, your mobile browser will likely rescale things to get the whole image on screen, so the content column (and the text in it) will become too narrow to read.

On the last point, manual intervention is still required on a couple of types of content. Embedded YouTube videos like in this post need to have the embed code manually edited, and very long lines of text without spaces need to have soft hyphens or zero-width spaces inserted, in order to stop the same thing happening. The latter usually occurs in example code, where zero-width spaces are more appropriate than soft hyphens. All in all though, I’ve managed to produce something that is suitably responsive 95% of the time.

The other point that is worth writing about is the build process of the site. As Wintersmith is a static site generator, every change to the site needs the static files to be built and deployed. The files from the previous version need to be deleted (in case any stale ones, that have disappeared completely from the latest iteration of the output, are still lying about) and then Wintersmith is run to generate the new version. You could do this very simply with a one-liner: rm -rf ../../build/* && wintersmith build if you’re using Bash, for example. However, this site actually consists of three separate Wintersmith sites in parallel. The delete step might only have to be done once, but doing the build step three separate times is a pain. Moreover, what if you only want to delete and rebuild one of the three?

As Wintersmith is a JavaScript program, and uses npm (the Node Package Manager) for managing its dependencies, it turns out that there’s an easy solution to this. Every npm package or package-consumer uses a package.json file to control how npm works; and each package.json file can include a scripts section containing arbitrary commands to run. So, in the package.json file for this blog, I inserted the following:

"scripts": {
  "clean": "node ../shared/js/unlink.js ../../build/blog",
  "build": "wintersmith build"
}

You might be wondering what unlink.js is. I said before that “if you’re using Bash” you could use rm -rf ../../build. However, I develop on a Windows machine, and for this site I use VS Code to do most of the writing. Sometimes therefore I want to build the site using PowerShell, because that’s the default VS Code terminal. Sometimes, though, I’ll be using GitBash, because that’s convenient for my source control commands. One day I might want to develop on a Linux machine. One of the big changes between these different environments is how you delete things: del or Remove-Item in PowerShell; rm in Bash and friends. unlink.js is a small script that reproduces some of the functionality of rm using the JavaScript del package, so that I have a command that will work in the same way across any environment.

So, this means that in the main blog’s folder I can type npm run clean && npm run build and it will do just the same thing as the one-liner command above (although note that the clean step only deletes the main blog’s files). In the other Wintersmith site folders, we have a very similar thing. Then, in the folder above, we have a package.json file which contains clean and build commands for each subsite, and a top-level command that runs each of the others in succession.

"scripts": {
  "clean:main": "cd main && npm run clean",
  "clean:misc": "cd misc && npm run clean",
  "clean:garden": "cd garden && npm run clean",
  "clean": "npm run clean:misc && npm run clean:main && npm run clean:garden",
  "build:main": "cd main && npm run build",
  "build:misc": "cd misc && npm run build",
  "build:garden": "cd garden && npm run build",
  "build": "npm run build:misc && npm run build:main && npm run build:garden"
}

And there you have it. By typing npm run clean && npm run build at the top level, it will recurse into each subsite and clean and build all of them. By typing the same command one folder down, it will clean and build that site alone, leaving the others untouched.

When that’s done, all I have to do is upload the changed files; and I have a tool to do that efficiently. Maybe I’ll go through that another day. I also haven’t really touched on my source-control and change management process; and all I have to say there is, it doesn’t matter what process you use, but you will find things a lot more straightforward if you find a process you like and stick to it. Even if you’re just a lone developer, using a sensible source control workflow and release process makes life much easier and makes you less likely to make mistakes; you don’t need anything as rigid as a big commercial organisation, but just having a set process for storing your changes and releasing them to the public means that you are less likely to slip up and make mistakes. This is probably something else I’ll expand into an essay at some point.

Is the site perfect now? No, of course not. There are always more changes to be made, and more features to add; I haven’t even touched on the things I decided not to do right now but might bring in one day. Thoe changes are for the future, though. Right now, for a small spare-time project, I’m quite pleased with what we have.

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.

Heart of stone

Or, taking The Mother shopping

The other week, I said how you can’t just bury a dead body without there being an awful lot of paperwork involved, at least not in any sort of above-board way. Moreover, one thing I didn’t even get to was that: when you do bury a body, you can’t just pop the gravestone up at the head of the grave there and then. The rules vary from place to place, but to avoid causing some sort of tragic subsidence-induced gravestone-toppling accident, you have to leave the grave to settle for a number of months with some sort of temporary grave marker in the ground instead. Then, some while later—and potentially when you’ve saved up the money, because gravestones are expensive—you can pull up the temporary cross or whatever and replace it with the final thing.

As the months pass after the funeral, then, you can slowly start thinking about what style of gravestone you might like. The Mother, naturally, was all for just going through the catalogue the undertaker had sent her in the post, but I thought it might be a bit nicer to see if we could find a local independent business to work with, instead of a faceless national chain. “I bet all the ones in the catalogue are hugely overpriced,” I said, appealing to her miserly side. “Why don’t we find a local stonemason instead, who you can go and talk to?” But of course I knew we couldn’t get a gravestone put up until May, and in May it would have been impossible to go looking for one. Eventually, though, I realised that we should probably start thinking about getting one before it became impossible again. So, I made the trip up to The Mother’s house, so I could get the wheels in motion.

I was all prepared to go with the “this will be cheaper than the undertaker” line again, but it turned out she had lost their catalogue anyway. “It doesn’t matter how much it is,” she said, “if it’s for your dad.” If only he’d had the same attitude about me, I thought, and didn’t say.

The other thing I didn’t say, but which to my mind was constantly hanging in the air, was: do that many people choose their own gravestone? It must be all people like The Mother, widows and widowers. How much do they actually think to themselves: this will be my gravestone one day? Do they revel in it, or do they just try to blank it out of their mind? I’m sure The Mother, who has been blanking things out of her mind and refusing to talk about them her whole life, will be doing the latter almost without thinking about it, as she’s had so many years of practice.

It’s strange how many Elderly Person tropes The Mother has seemingly adopted. I wonder at what point do they suddenly become the logical way, in your mind, to behave. Her current preferred way to pay for things seems to be to carry around one or two empty coffee jars filled with coins, and complain about how heavy they are. She can’t walk unsupported for more than a few yards without being at risk of toppling over. “You should get a stick,” I said. “The doctor told me to get a stick. Your uncle’s going to make me one from a Brussels sprout plant.” I tried to explain, firstly that he’s probably thinking of a Jersey cabbage; secondly that she doesn’t want an all-natural grown-in-the-ground wooden stick, she wants a nice light sturdy and easy-to-grip medical grade one; and, thirdly, she wants a stick now, not whenever my uncle manages to harvest and dry out a cabbage stem. Nevertheless, without a stick, I still managed to get her to the stonemason’s showroom without her toppling over at any point.

When I was a student I spent a number of weeks making site visits to various disused graveyards around the Isle of Lewis, and I remember thinking at the time: they must be terrible places for family history. Not much of the local stone on the Isle of Lewis is actually carvable; it’s too hard for that. So, most of the grave markers from say 150 years or so ago are plain, rough, uncarved pieces of rock that just happened to be roughly the size and shape of a gravestone. If you wander round one of those graveyards, all you can see are these rough teeth, no inscription, no date, no information. No risk of that now, of course. Moreover, graveyards all seem to have extensive lists of what you are and allowed to put up. I say “all graveyards”; I can quite believe that The Mother’s parish council are particularly pernickity and snob-nosed about it, going by the tone of the signs at the entrance. So, we’re not allowed anything more than 42 inches high; no life-sized angels for Dad then. No kerbstones around the grave, just a headstone. All the inscriptions and designs must be approved by the burials clerk. No inscriptions on the sides or back of the headstone. Incidentally, if you go and have a look around the cemetery you’ll see plenty of graves that do contravene the modern rules.* Clearly, they were erected in a more liberal and tolerant time than we are in now. The modern within-the-rules graves, though, are certainly much more legible than the older ones, to say nothing of those ones I saw on the Isle of Lewis, because they all tend to be in polished black marble with gold or silver inlaid lettering. And, indeed, that was the sort of product the stonemason guided us towards. “It weathers well,” she said.

“Won’t it get dirty from the rain? From all the pollution in the rain?” said The Mother.

“No, it’ll discolour a lot less than a paler colour,” said the stonemason. I’m not sure why The Mother thinks she has particularly dirty rain.

“I hate to be blunt about this,” I lied, “but we do want to plan ahead because eventually my mother will be, you know, using it too.” She looked at me, her expression cold, just as always.

“Oh yes,” said the mason, “a lot of these stones will have space for two inscriptions.” At least we definitely can’t have any of the tacky heart-shaped ones, I thought. “Or you can have one that has two halves, and we will leave one half blank.” My grandparents’ headstone is like that, in the shape of a book; but they died three months apart so the thing came along in one go. It would look a little odd just to fill half of it in for now.

In the end, to be honest, I think it went relatively well. The Mother will be happy with a nice, straightforward, classic design. It might look like most of the other graves in the cemetery, but at least it will look reasonably aesthetic, at least I don’t have to guide her away from something awful, which is mostly what I was expecting to happen.

“Typical,” she huffed, as we got back into the car and I pulled away.

“What?”

“That solicitors over there,” she said. “The first thing it says on their sign is: we can help you with divorce!”

“It’s something a lot of people need,” I said. I often thought, when I was a teenager, that The Mother would have been much happier if they had divorced, when I saw the effect my dad’s frequent sulks and rages had on her.

“Yes, well,” she said, “they shouldn’t.” I turned the stereo on, so we didn’t have to speak.

* I can’t be sure about that last one off the top of my head, to tell the truth. In Greenbank Cemetery, which I wrote about recently, it seems to have been standard practice to put the family surname on the back of each headstone, which must have made navigation an awful lot easier.