Bedding Down

Finally winter has arrived, for those of us lucky enough to be able to be welcomed home to a warm house and a casserole. Hopefully it will be a chilly but relaxed winter – enough to reset the plants and animals in the garden to a proper winter cycle which we have not really had for a few years. As discussed recently the last thing we need is it to be inconsistent with a mid-December heatwave; the species that are likely to wake up too early from hibernation could do with a year off – we’re pretty sure the local bat population in particular has suffered in the last couple of years by being woken by unexpectedly warm weather only to find no food, and unlike the birds it is not something we can do a lot about to compensate.

It has been a good year for us in the garden –plenty of redcurrants, blackcurrants, apples and a good crop of home grown garlic to liven up several months of casseroles and pasta dishes. Less successful has been some of the decorative planting, where the inevitable squirrel/pigeon and most of all, the blasted slug, onslaught on anything new in the garden has been again a source of frustration and ultimately disappointment as suddenly without warning the promising looking Lobelia is munched to the ground overnight (after weeks of being untouched, clearly just lulling me into a sense of false safety). The worst part of it is that I actually quite admire slugs and snails, but we would get on a lot better if they would eat the ground elder rather than my Salvia.

I know nothing about gardening. As a child, it was a chore, and I hated anything to do with it. Admittedly, the only aspect of gardening my youthful self was ever involved in was mowing the lawns, which could never be viewed as a particularly interesting job. Actually, I will make an exception there – the Lovely Wife and I do agree that mowing the lawn could be fun if you had a huge lawn… and therefore needed one of those little lawn mowers you can sit on and, um, play on. But aside from that fantasy scenario it is probably my least favourite chore. After hoovering the house… Oh, and ironing.

But I really don’t know what I’m doing messing around in flower beds, so anything that seems to grow and thrive is either very lucky or extremely robust.

Part of the problem on my part is a lack of planning. The Lovely Wife and I have a recognised ‘poles apart’ scenario here, which goes a bit like this. I see an interesting looking plant/shrub/tree in a shop or market stall and proceed to buy. At that point I look to shoehorn it into what seems an appropriate gap in the garden. Several times this year I have returned, beaming, from the market with several (reusable!) bags of bedding plants to be greeted with something along the lines of ‘that’s all very nice, but where are they going to go?’ (My reaction is usually a bit of a shrug, unless I’ve had an inspirational moment, although I’ve yet to try the vague gesture towards the end of the garden with a deliberately ambiguous ‘over there of course’ gambit). The Lovely Wife of course looks at the space, thinks about what the space could look like, considers the drainage and level of shade etc. etc. and then determines what we need to go and buy. I’m always terribly impressed, and I’m trying to learn to do the same, honestly I am, but my natural tendencies tend to reassert themselves at a moment’s notice.

Of course, by this point I’ve already filled that place with some random plant picked up on a whim, but at least she can be reassured that the chances of it dying by being in the wrong soil and location and/or will be massacred by the local wildlife, so order will have a chance of being restored, eventually.


Yes You Can (probably)

At the weekend I found myself listening to someone talking about a subject which I have had many conversations and thoughts over and has never been boring to me because of its importance. The subject was gifts; not, as perhaps is becoming more and more topical as Christmas bears down upon us, gifts in the sense of presents, but the gifts that individuals have. Or their talents and skills, whatever words you would like to use.
The fact is that everyone is gifted in some way or another. One of the best ways to get me mildly annoyed is to moan about being ‘useless’ or rubbish about not having anything to contribute. Particularly annoying is that I sometimes get that from young people, where the power locked up in them is so obvious to me I want to get a magic mirror to see if I can persuade them to see what I can see in front of me – unlimited potential for change and improving the world around them for the better, if they can be bothered and have the belief that nothing is impossible (albeit some things highly improbable, but worth a go surely?).
Why do people have such low opinions of what they can contribute?
Certainly sometimes it is hard to understand what you can bring to the party. For many years I struggled with it myself. It never seemed to me that I possessed anything that seemed to be the mark of the gifted. I was never very good at anything physical, so sports were out. My artwork far surpassed the worst extremes of abstract, which would have been fine if I had been aiming for abstract but not great when you were supposed to be drawing a horse. I seem to have some kind of inherent blindness when trying to read music and I failed at the recorder, which still keeps me away from any form of musical instrument to this day – my ukulele lies sadly unused because I still think that it is fairly pointless me even trying. In academic work; well, that wasn’t so bad. But there were always people brighter than I was. No one actually is happy being third best.
The last ten years things have changed a little for me, through a mixture of affirmation from the Lovely Wife and others and from a more clinical look (through things like the Gallup Strength Finders programme). My big revelation was to accept that there were a lot of people who are more obviously talented than I am. But they do not always see it and/or they lack the confidence to push those talents to a point where they are starting to see just what they may be able to achieve. I can help. I want to help. I’m an encourager, sometimes a catalyst, sometimes just extra fuel for an engine already running. I do not have to achieve anything myself, my contentment can come from having a tiny part in helping others succeed.
I’m reminded a little of one of the few successful showbiz marriages. No one would doubt that Dame Judi Dench has certainly been a success in her career as an actor. For many years she was married to Michael Williams, another actor, until his death some years ago now. Rarely do two actors manage to hold things together but by all accounts their relationship was close and loving right up until Williams died. What struck me as the most interesting part of this was in an interview I remember reading where he was asked if he resented in any way that his own career was eclipsed by that of his wife. He was clear; not at all. It was not just that he did not resent it, but that he felt that his role in supporting her meant that he also got the thrill from her ever increasing profile. Her success, her happiness was mirrored in him. I love that. For me, the ability to touch and encourage lives is a great blessing, and I understand the risks – sometimes you might encourage and find that in fact the path you’ve just pushed them down doesn’t work… But if you take that attitude nothing will ever be achieved. Together, using the gifts we all have we can achieve anything and it is one of the few things that gives me hope for the future.

Life on Mars

Despite suffering from some kind of international lurgy (I cannot blame it on any particular country having just been at a meeting where there were people from all corners of the globe), we managed to stagger to the cinema last night – well, we had booked the tickets a few weeks before as the wonderful Odyssey cinema with its comfy chairs and ‘event’ atmosphere somewhat demands that. So even though I did not really feel like it, wasting tickets is not my thing, and after all it was just around the corner.

We were going to see The Martian, with a mixture of hope based on good reviews and a bit of trepidation in that Ridley Scott’s directorial output really does range from the sublime to the ridiculous and while they always look great the substance can be a bit more on the dodgy side. Also I remember my childhood memories of the 1964 Robinson Crusoe on Mars (anyone else remember that?) and wondered how original this really was. As I should have known it is a very different movie but I’m not intending to spoil it for anyone so forgive generalities.

Well, it certainly looked great. Part way into the movie I was perfectly able to suspend disbelief that they had not in fact, shot a lot of the movie on Mars. But I had expected that so no surprises. But did it live up to expectations in other areas? Well for me, mostly it did.

I’ll get my moans over early. I found the soundtrack, while it provided some good gags, was ill judged in places and undercut the drama just that little bit too much, leaving me in less doubt of the outcome then I otherwise might have had. There have been comparisons with the funky retro soundtrack for Guardians of the Galaxy, but in that case it is more (1) firmly linked to the lead character as a plot point and (2) Guardians has a talking, gun toting raccoon in it. Slightly different overall feel to both movies, I think.

Secondly, by nature of the story and its progression there is an awful lot of Basil Exposition but only a few times is it jarring – and to be fair, characters are often explaining what’s going on to each other in a way that might have been necessary, as often they are specialists in their own area. But there is a surprising amount of talk for a movie where half of it is basically a man on his own trying to survive.

But apart from that, it’s a clever, funny and affirming movie. Two aspects particularly made me cheer.

One, I cannot talk about as it would be a plot spoiler. But at one point something makes and appearance – and becomes fundamental to the plot – that was an air punch moment that was just lovely for anyone who has followed the real Mars programme.

The other was, as noted, the attitude. This is a movie for anyone who is a scientist, specialist, or believes we can do pretty much anything with the right attitude. I’ve seen it before in the business world, with the rejection of something being impossible and rather seeing it as a set of smaller problems, with ‘what needs to be true if we can make this worse’. In this case you deal with the immediate, smaller problem first and move towards the bigger resolution in baby steps. Time and again, different characters in different situations are creative and constructive to try and resolve the issues they are facing, and able to change plans to respond to unexpected circumstances.

It is hard not to like such a positive movie (there are no bad people in this movie – everyone is doing what they think is best, even if you don’t agree with them) and one that I suspect will inspire younger viewers towards science and technology while reminding them that it is also a lot to do with heart. One caution for my friends with children – I think BBFC have got it spot on as a 12A… Considering the situation and the way this story should be lead to a need for some more adult visuals/dialogue.

But generally I felt the balance was close to being spot on and would encourage younger teens certainly to see this and start dreaming of what they can achieve.

Oh, The Horror…

Yesterday morning St Albans looked far more appropriate for Halloween than it did on Saturday where bright sunshine and above average temperatures kind of detracted from any atmosphere of doom and horror (for those that like that kind of thing – personally I don’t and prefer the lighter side of dressing up, although apparently many of the outfits I’ve sported previously – especially those involving tights – can be just as terrifying as some monster). In particular the St Albans fog really does feel that it should have some zombies shuffling out of it intent on consumption of the living. Actually the only thing rambling out of the fog and fallen apples from our tree are a couple of wood pigeons (or as we tend to refer to them, fat pigeons) which tend to inspire laughter by their general bumbling rather than strike terror into our hearts.

Apparently this kind of fog is termed radiation fog, which means that the zombies should I presume be glowing and you’ll know they are close by the increasingly loud ticking of the Geiger counter…

I’ve never been much of a fan of horror movies. I think it is a genre you either get or you don’t and I am not sure exactly what puts me off. It isn’t the ludicrous nature of most horror scenarios or the clichés that seem endemic to them – I’m more than happy to sign up to the extreme silliness of much science fiction/fantasy/superhero movies for example, although a few of the horror movies I have seen often turn out to be more laugh out loud funny then many so called comedies. I can appreciate when horror movies are good (to my mind those that show less and tease more, and are more creepy than scary) but they simply are not my cup of tea (like most romantic comedies, but that is a different rant).

I think the problem is the general sense of negativity and the high body count. Here is my problem; I’ve always had a soft spot for secondary characters in dramas. The principals are all very well but I’m rooting for the guy at the back looking slightly bewildered at what is going on. I think it is perhaps because we do not know much about that character that I am more interested which is unfortunate as, certainly in a horror movie, he’s almost certainly for the chop (or bite or whatever other form of dispatch is intended). The Alien series of movies is a good example of what I do and don’t like; Aliens in particular I love because there are other survivors other than Ripley (not many, admittedly, and poor old Bishop has literally gone to pieces) and as they’ve been whittled down the colonial marines have some kind of personality (I still have a particular sad spot for Vasquez, as competence should be rewarded) which means you care. It is also why I detested Alien3 from the moment they wiped away those characters that I’d cared for and cheered at their survival in the first few moments of the movie.

So come to think of it I cannot really take most horror movies because I cannot allow myself to relate to any of the ‘B’ characters as I know they are likely to meet a sticky and probably unfair end. In the end I always see myself as that character rather than the protagonist. As a result I’d spend too much investing in them and thinking ‘get the hell out of there now’ in the same way as you do with any red shirted Star Trek security guard. About the only thing that I like about first Jurassic Park sequel is that Pete Postletwaite’s mercenary big game hunter literally does what anyone with any sense would do – basically saying ‘you’re not paying me enough to get eaten’ and wander off out of the narrative. It very slightly made up for the one thing I disliked about the original movie, which is that Bob Peck’s character should have survived – that character does in the book – as he knows how to manage around dangerous animals (basically hide in a pipe until help arrives although, that admittedly does not make great drama). But if ever I get around to ever writing any horror I’m going to try and reward common sense.

‘When the zombie pigeon apocalypse arrived, Matthew got a group of his most practical minded friends together, picked up a big stick and headed for the hills… And they didn’t go back for the cat…’