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…’

An Exercise In Misplaced Smugness

Whether you believe there is order in the Universe or not, I am amused sometimes when things happen in a way that seems spookily connected. In essence, I do not really care whether it is an actual random coincidence, part of an ineffable plan or a trick of the human mind, because anything that can make you laugh these days is probably worth celebrating rather than worrying. You know the kind of coincidence I am talking about. You go to Barcelona where among the thousands of people in the city you know one well. You have not arranged to meet them but still you somehow bump into them in the park. Or like this weekend, where after a breakfast conversation with friends on the effectiveness of my anti- squirrel measures connected with our bird feeder seemed to spectacularly back fire later in the day. You see, Id taken some pride in keeping the furry little buggers of the feeder. An upturned plastic barrier half way up the feeder was the main defence, but that’s not enough in our garden where overhanging trees provide the perfect launch pad for the rodents to hurl themselves at the nuts and seeds. You may not like grey squirrels much but you have to admire certain aspects of their behaviour and courage/reckless abandon is one of them. It took the best part of the week slowly moving the feeder around the garden to reach the sweet spot that was just too far for any of the little devils to make the leap. I had defeated them. Humans: 1 Squirrels: 0.

So, revelling in my smugness I was less then pleased to see the grey squirrel sitting happily on the feeder, gorging on the delights that I thought I had protected for my feathered friends.

I may have uttered some naughty words and I was frankly flummoxed. Was this some kind of super-squirrel? Had the ones in my gardens suddenly evolved so that they could fly?

I needed to know. So I chased it off the feeder, went back inside and waited to see if the secret would be revealed.

The plastic barrier has curving down edges and was completely smooth and about three feet off the ground. What I had not reckoned on is that a flat metal feeding tray was just a few centimetres further up and the edge of it was about flush with the edge of the plastic protector. To my amazement, and with some grudging admiration, the squirrel launched itself almost completely vertically up and grabbing the edge of the feeder with its front paws, was able to haul itself over the plastic barrier and onto the feeder. Humans: 1 Squirrels: 1.

When I was at school, one of my maths teachers tried to explain trigonometry to confused eleven year olds using the device of a Harrier Jump Squirrel. Up to now, I had always assumed he had made it up. Now, I see he probably was just referring to actual experience. I forgive him this (although not the practice of scrawling ‘Vile!’ in red pen all over my maths homework, even if this was probably an accurate description).

A quick run into the garden waving hands at the interloper soon saw it make a tactical withdrawal. Then, after a bit of a fight with a rusty wingnut the offending feed tray was removed and once more the observation post that is the kitchen window was manned.

Needless to say, since it knows the food is there the squirrel was soon back and took little time in propelling itself upwards reaching out with its claws, and, this time finding no purchase on smooth plastic, falling backwards in space with a thump on the ground. I think it is fair to say I winced, but I will not go as far as feeling guilty at this or the next few attempts the squirrel made that resulted in slamming its body against plastic and/or ground before finally giving up – at least for today. Humans: 2 Squirrels: 1.

I’m sure it will be back. But I ‘m going to be less smug about this now in an attempt to put of any actions of the rodent deities – never underestimate your opponent, even if he/she is vermin.

Stairway to Shakespeare

I think this weekend is the first time I have ever felt déjà vu in relation to a staircase.

This weekend we decided to go walking in Epping Forest for the first time and apart from a few cases of getting slightly lost – always, it seems to me, a threat in any kind of woodland – it was a fine day with some nice surprises, including one of the most stunning caterpillars I’ve come across (that of the Pale Tussock Moth, google it – very striking but with a very clear message of ‘don’t touch me’). We started out from Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, a Tudor (actually despite the name, built by Henry VIII) Grandstand for in favour guests of the king to be able to stand on top and take pot shots at deer corralled to make it a bit easier, not so much a hunt as shooting fish in a barrel. Despite the tasteless nature of its purpose, it’s a fine building and as I was climbing the wide and stable stairs towards the top it did dawn on me that the staircase seemed quite familiar. But I know for a fact that I had never been to this building before.

The answer turned up in the historical notes. I had been on this staircase before, or at least one just like it, many, many times. Apparently when they rebuilt Shakespeare’s Globe theatre on the South Bank, it was this staircase that was used, in exact proportions, as the model for the stairs in that building. Who knew? I didn’t, but at least that explained the odd familiarity with the structure and size of the stairs.

The Lovely Wife and I have been to the Globe numerous times over the last ten or so years, usually two or three times a year, depending on what the productions are. On the whole, I prefer the history plays or the comedies to the tragic works, but they are almost always enjoyable. This year, King John was surprisingly entertaining for example, and a play I knew nothing about beforehand. There have been some highlights – Jamie Parker as first Prince Hal in Henry IV parts I and II, and later in Henry V was stunning, and well worth picking up the DVDs of those performances (in the latter case he is even able to make the coda of the wooing of the French princess entertaining and that is quite a feat). There have also been the odd dud, when no matter how hard they try the play is so unredeemable dull that it cannot be saved – Anthony and Cleopatra a few years back being a case in point.

But normally there is much fun to be had, even with the tragedies. The joy of the approach at the Globe is to recognise that the plays are not some kind of sacred art but a source of – often raucous – entertainment. Yes, they can be thoughtful and shocking, but in the end people want to be entertained and the minimalist approach means that no one is under any illusion of trying to suspend disbelief and the Fourth Wall is breached continuously and deliberately with the regular interaction with the audience – don’t think that just because it is Shakespeare you are safe from being dragged up onto the stage – and joking about the various distractions that are inevitable London, such as helicopters, trapped pigeons and, of course, rain. One particular vivid memory is of a production of Faustus, with Arthur Darvill (he of Rory in Doctor Who fame) as Mephistopheles in a tight red leather suit (for some reason the Lovely Wife also finds this memorable) stood on stage in a torrential downpour and looking and gesturing to sky with an expression of such withering scorn that you kind of felt either sorry for a demon or, more likely, that the rain should probably stop if it knew what was good for it. The crowd, encased in their soaked plastic Globe ponchos loved it.

I’d heartily recommend going if you have the chance, and I am not sure it matters much what is on. Just go expecting to laugh and be entertained, and remember to hire a cushion if you are lucky enough to be sitting as the benches are hard, and while you might be OK for The Comedy of Errors, Hamlet may cause longer term issues. And when you are climbing the stairs you can now point at them and use a new bit of trivia to bore whoever you are going out with at the time.

The North Wind doth blow…

Yesterday was the first day I felt a little cold wandering out on the way to Brussels. After a summer that could best be described as ‘meh’ , neither really terrible or particularly good, we’ve had a rather nice little space of sun and blue sky in early October, but while the sun itself is warm enough the breeze accompanying it whispers ‘October’ in a way that is hard to ignore.

In Brussels it seemed even more bitter, and a big contrast to only a few weeks ago where it was still very much T shirt and shorts friendly. But autumn appears to have arrived and you would assume that winter will follow, although on the basis of recent year’s maybe that is an assumption that may or may not prove accurate.

Back in the late 80s the rock band Marillion put out an album titled ‘Seasons End’. The title track put a fair amount of emphasis on the blending of the seasons in the face of the (then) still vary nascent views on global warming, on Seasons ‘we would never see in England’. Since then we have had a few slightly harder winters (unhappily for me while training for my last London marathon) and the odd hot-ish summer, but there is a nagging feeling for me at least that we are going through a period where if we do have a cold spell it will be short and sharp, but otherwise it will just be nondescript grey and a bit damp and chilly.

What I wrestle with personally is whether I think this is important enough for me to wory about. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not discussing global warming. Fact is that the planet has warmed up and cooled down many times and long before we came along, although the question as to whether we are impacting on the natural process in a significant way is one that will perplex us for some time (and whether those impacts are local or global, or short or long terms adds additional complexity that I do not think will allow me to do justice to the subject in a few hundred words).

But I do wonder what the young folks today will think about as they grow up. Personally I have very vivid memories of heavy snow falls and massive drifts and ice incrustations, but then I grew up in the North East and the 70s. These days for a kid to see snow where I live now they probably have to go to the nearest indoor winter sports centre and indulge in a little bit of artificial icy fun. Possibly just as well as even the pathetic snowfalls we have had seem to cause increasing levels of chaos in our growing inability to be able to manage them. We live on the commuting route to the station and watching from the window can be interesting, with a never ending supply of inappropriate shoes and clothing and worse, terrible driving in adverse conditions. I feel allowed to say that as I am well aware that in snow and ice I am a liability, unlike the Lovely Wife who has far more technique and patience in such matters.

For all the frustrations it causes I am hoping we will have some kind of recognisable winter this year. I appreciate that is very selfish but there is something special about each of the seasons and you can feel a bit cheated. A hard winter makes you love spring all the more I think, and those short days and long nights build up the excitement for the long days of summer. We once discussed what it would be like to live in the Caribbean where the days are more or less consistent in length and decided that we would soon get bored with the monotony of that all the year round.

I guess I’m just awkward.

Yeast’s Lament

When you look into a beer glass, or indeed a wine glass, and consider what has gone into the making of the product you increasingly realise how complex that process is. Having had a go over the years at brewing homemade wine from the excessive amounts of Bramley apples that come off our tree – a tree that is probably older than the house, and which amazes me every year by not dying and seeming instead to get more productive, to my consternation with what to do with the produce – I can testify that as well as care and skill, a fair amount of luck is also needed when working on a small scale with limited resources and space. At least the luck is needed to produce something that might be considered drinkable.

I was trying to think about what is particularly interesting to me about the production of alcoholic beverages and came down to the fact it is an unequal partnership between me and another living organism. I think that people have a tendency to forget that yeast, whether used for baking or brewing, is a living organism, a unicellular fungus. Brewing is not just adding substance A to substance B, throwing a bucket of water and some sugar into a vessel and watching a chemical reaction. What we are doing is creating a temporary environment for yeast to feed and multiply, and the alcohol is the by-product of that activity. Or rather one of the by products, as while that nice glass of Pinot or pint of London Pride may look clear and enticing in the end it is a cocktail of interesting organic chemicals of which ethyl alcohol is only one, and many of the others are (like alcohol itself of course) toxic in one way or another, or rather would be in sufficient quantities. But it is this mix that also provides the flavour and texture to the drink that takes it beyond an attempt just to get drunk and making drinking the pleasurable experience it can be if managed carefully and individually – as everyone’s body works a little differently and that includes processing and management of chemicals.

The conditions are vital. The vessels need to be clean; the sugar source, whether grapes, apples, grain or whatever needs to be the right quality for what you want to achieve. The sugar, the water, the temperature and the type/strain of yeast to be used equally need to be chosen carefully. Get any of that wrong and the end product will be at best below par. Poor sterilisation might result in natural strains of yeast and other micro-organisms getting into the mix and becoming dominant – and while this is sometimes the actual aim, the results will be extremely variable in comparison to a brewing yeast.

In a commercial operation of course this is crucial and cannot be left to chance as consistency is a priority. Get it wrong and at best you have wastage, at worse the business might be undone. I do not have to worry about that, and it is just as well, as I do not have the ability to control conditions sufficiently in the space I have. In particular I cannot keep the temperature correct and consistent for optimal fermentation; and so my little yeast friends do their best, but like any of us working in a poorly heated office, our product and productivity is impacted.

So when it comes out OK, I feel quite pleased. But sadly, my poor yeast friends do not get to enjoy the triumph of a half drinkable apple wine, or a slightly less winky wine from my mother in laws vine. No. They are left first to starve themselves as they happily convert most of the sugar to alcohol (also eventually poisoning themselves), and then I effectively make sure by murdering them all by the process euphemistically referred to as ‘stabilisation’. Still, they have had food and lodging presented to them on a plate for many generations by this point so perhaps I should not feel too guilty. Maybe instead I’ll just raise a glass of our dodgy co-production in their honour. Cheers!

I wasn’t expecting that

Do you have moments when the way you see the world changes, if only a small way? I’m not thinking so much about the Road to Damascus kind of moment as much as those times when reality proves that something you always believed was true is, in fact, wrong or at best an oversimplification of the truth. It can quite seriously shake you.

For most of my life I thought I was Mr Immunity. Unlikely to join the Avengers any time soon admittedly, but I had absolutely convinced myself that somehow through an accident of birth or development I was immune to most known child’s diseases. This somewhat low grade superpower meant that I could sit in the middle of a bunch of infected kids and somehow manage not to contract the various dreaded lurgies that seemed to afflict anyone else. Nothing could touch me. Measles, chicken pox, mumps… No problem for Mr. Immunity. True, there was a slight wobble with a very mild case of what I guess I should now call rubella, but that was clearly a special case and quickly dealt with.

Not that I was not ill as a child. Like any good superhero I had my weakness. Until I had various small parts of me surgically removed at the age of 8, I had tonsillitis pretty much constantly (there’s a clue in the condition as to what was removed). Incidentally that was a weird experience to be in a children’s ward in the 1970s; in my head it has a nightmarish quality now, including a hatred of soggy Rice Crispies (about the only thing you could eat post operation for several days) and what I recall as the mysterious disappearance from the ward of the girl in the next bed down out of the mixed ward I was on; although that may have been because she seemed obsessed with lifting up her nightdress to all the boys at every opportunity. Anyway, it all was made better by the blatant bribe from my parents of a Dinky Space: 1999 Eagle which probably is still favourite toy, if a little battered. (sadly, instead of the ships in the actual series the toy version did not have an unlimited supply of spare parts/pilots. Seriously, where were they keeping all those Eagles? The number of times that Eagle One gets totaled…)

Digressing again, back once more to reality shifts.

So, we were having a lovely holiday on the Island of Lundy, and we were just waiting for the boat back to Devon. I felt a bit ill, but put it down to a bit too much sun the day before (no, really, even off the Devon coast) and he fact I had managed to brain myself on a metal stairway while exploring the Island’s old lighthouse. That does not make you feel particularly well. But it was not until the next morning that I found the rash and found, after all, that my super powers had failed me. I had chicken pox. A good friend of ours had had shingles so maybe that was the source or maybe coincidence – in the end it did not matter. I was not immune after all. Immediately my world view had changed just a little bit. The obvious conclusion is that if I could catch this, then what about the others… And almost all common diseases of this sort are worse as an adult. Oh goody. Thankfully for me it was a mild case (the nurse on the end of NHS Direct line seemed actually relieved when my description of symptoms was not half as terrible as she might have been expecting) and even the recurrence – yes, folks, I have shingles at the moment as the damn virus is with you forever, is proving more an irritation (pun intended) than anything else. So maybe I am not after all Mr Immunity, but I’m certainly blessed in this case.

On a serious front it is a reminder, if I needed it, that complacency is one of the biggest things we need to worry about. Just because it has been fine for thirty odd years does not mean it is going to be fine tomorrow, so I’m taking it as a lesson to enjoy when the sun is shining a little but more, as it might not be shining tomorrow.

A Model Village

There are some things that are just too quirky or silly to admit some affection for them, not if you want to retain any credibility that is. Luckily, since I have never really had any credibility to start with there is nothing much to lose to say I have a fondness for what I think is a very British bit of weirdness; that massive contribution to world culture that is the model village.

If you’ve never been to a model village, or do not understand what I mean, first I should explain that this is model in the sense of a small representation of a larger original, as opposed to an ideal example of what that should look like, although there is an element of the idealised in their design (incidentally, my ‘perfect’ village is Bamburgh in Northumberland, which has every element that any good village should have, including nothing at all to do if you are a teenager).

No, model villages of whatever size are where buildings and other structures are created in reduced scale (usually something like 1:25 ratio) and laid out in pattern so that the visitor can, Gulliver – like (or, if, you prefer, more like a very careful Godzilla) wander through the landscape admiring the level of detail. Sometimes the buildings are copies of real examples, others are fictional ‘examples’ of what, say, a thatched pub should look like. In the more sophisticated sites, there is often electrically operated features; a train always makes a good impression, or a windmill with slowly revolving sails, or a bridge that lifts to let and equally miniature boat sail through, doomed to repeat the journey many times a day on its underwater line.

All this is very twee, and sometimes it might be difficult to see the appeal. But what I like most about most model villages is the attention to detail and sense of humour. No opportunity is ever missed to get a little joke in there somewhere so miniature posters, bill boards or banners are always worth reading. My personal favourites have been the tiny model workman who’s miniature van proudly has ‘no job too small’ emblazoned on the side and a house where a man clings onto the roof dressed only in spotted boxer shorts while an angry husband remonstrated with his sheet covered wife in the window below. This latter one was actually in the Mini Europe attraction in Brussels so probably should be disqualified, but considering the scene is pure British farce it must get an honourable mention. In fact this place is very weirdly British, as a tiny Tardis next to the House of Parliament shows as even in these days of the revitalised series Doctor Who is still something I tend to believe is largely a British phenomenon.

There are a mere handful of Model Villages in the UK. Probably the most famous is Bekonscot in Buckinghamshire (http://www.bekonscot.co.uk/) where the aforementioned helpful tiny workman can be located. They cost a surprisingly large amount of money to maintain (being outdoors and small and detailed are not good bedfellows for longevity) and are something we should cherish. Go visit and take children with you (although if you are short of them, as we are, then your own inner child does just as well).