This Last Week

On Saturday, I indulged a little home-assembled time travel. I managed to blag a spare ticket from a friend to the 2011 Graduation Day, and a foretaste of what I may be doing in one year’s time – assuming that I pass my exams. I suspect that I won’t be too observant next year, that the  day will fly by. But unless the uni make wholesale changes, I’ll have had a useful dress rehearsal.

That was about the only relief last week from a punishing schedule – I’ve now delivered a sample chapter and synopsis for the new book, but getting it done that every spare second was eaten up – I even ate at times staring at the laptop.

This week should be a little easier, starting with the monthly meeting of the Bristol SF and Fantasy Society.  A few drinks, some good company….

• July 25th, 2011 • Posted in General • Comments: 0

An Unsatisfactory Ending

One of the drawbacks of real life when compared to the tidy plotlines of story, is that it refuses to be shaped into any kind of ending, let alone the uplifting ones beloved of Hollywood.  When it’s the lives we’re living, where does one fade out, run the credits and play the epic power ballad?

So it is with the series of posts on the blackbirds outside our back door that I’ve been running for the last three or four months.

Last week I reported that Mrs Skanky, widowed, was trying to bring up three chicks on her own. We didn’t know if she’d kill herself in trying, or bring back insufficient food for all three chicks, leaving only one or two to survive, or whether all three would grow to adulthood. What we’d forgotten about is that real life is seldom that conclusive.

For four days it looked as if, against all the odds, she and her chicks were going to prosper.

Then on Friday morning, we heard the sounds of blackbird scolding (and boy, can she scold!) outside the kitchen. Mrs Skanky was sitting high at the top of the hedge, well away from the nest. The nest itself was empty and tipped over.

Kate checked the small bushes at the base of the wall, where a fluffy ball the size of an apple  opened its mouth in an obvious ‘feed me’ gesture. Kate righted the nest, scooped up the chick and dropped it back in the nest. A few minutes later Mrs S returned to her now solitary offspring and examined the nest as if to say ‘what the hell happened here?’ We assumed that something, perhaps a cat, perhaps an adult magpie had attacked the nest, but we couldn’t know.

For the next two days she continued to feed the last chick, and then yesterday we looked, and it was empty. We’ve seen Mrs S around; she may have moved the youngster to cover, and hidden him somewhere; we couldn’t find a body, although a predator could have carried him off.

And then yesterday afternoon, I heard a little quiet birdsong from the main flowerbed, on the opposite side of the the garden, some fifty yards from the nest. Mother must have smuggled him out at first light, but there sat the missing chick, with Mrs S in attendance.

This sort of happy ending is that rarity in life, a moment of uplift, so I’ve decided that I’m going to draw a line here under the blackbird saga, because it’s the nearest we get to a happy ending.

• July 18th, 2011 • Posted in General • Comments: 0

All Over The Place

Today is the third Monday of my summer job for this year, and my first week solo: My predecessor -and my trainer for the first two weeks- Heather, has moved on. Suddenly I feel like a tightrope walker who’s had their safety net removed. There are a million and one things to remember, and I’ll be  handling cash, which leaves no margin for error, although there’ll be checks on checks on checks.  

My day the same as in the previous years, and indeed my Mondays over the last university year except that I walk Alice around the park before catching the bus three days a week, and the bus is into Bristol, rather than the bus to Bath. The ride is a lot less interesting or scenic than toward uni, as the traffic crawls along through the crammed streets of Bristol.

Geographically I’m very close to where I worked before; the Abbott’s House is just behind the Eye Hospital, that little building crouching among the surrounding behemoths that loom over it. In many other ways though, it’s a million miles away from previous years.

I’m working in a small office that belongs to Above & Beyond, part of a quasi-autonomous operation that’s staffed by only fifteen people, mostly young, and all enthusiastic, so there’s a definite buzz to the place. They are a charity specifically set up to support the nine (or is it eight? Or ten?) hospitals that make up the United Hospitals of Bristol Trust (or UBHT – the NHS likes its acronyms).

But. This year I’m working 3 full days, from Monday to Wednesday, 9 until 5.30. During that time I’m pretty much offline, so virtually all the jobs that I need to do to keep the business ticking over has to be crammed into four days. And that’s before I start writing.

Three, actually; the last two weekends, we’ve spend part of it away. Last Sunday we went down to the in-laws before hurtling back, while on Saturday, I travelled up to Derby (and back). It’s made it almost impossible to work out a routine, and ironically my one absolutely free day -Thursday- has been spent doing odd little jobs that have become overdue during the intervening three days.

I’m gradually easing toward some sort of routine, but I still feel all over the place, both physically and mentally. Somehow I need to find enough energy in the evenings to sort out some of those niggling, time consuming jobs -like ordering printer catridges or posting parcels- during Monday to Wednesday, either during the evening or in my lunch break.

It’s helped that I’ve managed to sort out some problems with a horror story called ‘Razorbill Island’ that I’ve been bogged down with, and get about two thousand words done over Friday and Saturday, and Alt.Fiction has been put to bed for another week. That went very well from the perspective of entertaining and educating the audience -at least I hope it did!- but book sales were on the floor for everyone, except for those offering one and two pound second-hand books. Dark Spires sold no better than anyone else’s work.

I think it’ll  be some time before I’m completely comfortable with the new routine. Who knows? It may take all of the eleven weeks I’m scheduled to be at Above and Beyond….

• June 27th, 2011 • Posted in General • Comments: 0

The Second Wave

It seems that there’s no stopping Skanky. Our tail-less Lothario has been at it again. Not content with raising one brood, he’s now fathered a second wave, such as the little blighter in the picture.

At one point we thought that he might even have fathered a third brood; at one point on Friday night we had six, maybe even seven blackbird chicks hopping in and out of the big flowerbed at one side of the front lawn. Every time Kate turned around from where she was standing in the flowerbed, another fledgeling was cheeping at her.

Then we saw the second male, much less…well…skanky, full grown tail feathers, sleek black plumage…but no match for our resident bruiser who glared at him from the top of the greenhouse. Perhaps it was the presence of the youngsters that kept Skanky from launching himself at the interloper. in all likelihood, half of those fledgelings were his.

To be honest the birds are becoming more reliant on us for food than I’d like, but there seem to be many less bugs and pests than in previous years, and if the alternative is that they starve, then a few quid each week on mealworms and sunflower hearts is worth it.

• June 20th, 2011 • Posted in General • Comments: 2

Last Week

Illustration by John Tenniel

Why I’ve been “a bit quiet” lately (because, according to several –unconnected– people, I have been….). 

To celebrate my finishing the academic year, Kate and I took a couple of days off last week — we went to Dorset  and spent a couple of days down beside the sea. On Thursday Kate went to the Royal Bath & West (Agricultural) Show and returned clutching plants for the garden, while I manned the fort – or in this case, the in-law’s garden.

And it was our 23rd wedding anniversary as well on Saturday (anyone know what wedding that is, if silver’s 25?) on Saturday. I got Kate the usual – chocolates, CD (Goldfrapp’s Supernature,  ‘ cause she likes a good toon) and a book – David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day. Kate said as I opened mine, “I’ve only got one thing for you this year.”

Only one thing: Only a November 1939 first edition of The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll ! I wondered why she was quizzing me about what he wrote about a week before. In passing I’d mentioned that I’d never read ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ – something I put right in the sunshine on Saturday afternoon.

It was a low key anniversary, but sometimes they’re the best sort. And it’s nice to know that we can still surprise each other -occasionally- even after a quarter of a century….

• June 6th, 2011 • Posted in Uncategorized • Comments: 0

The Pitmen Painters

A night out in Bath brings an unexpected bonus as Kate and I visit the theatre.

Into Bath, to the Theatre Royal last night: Last night’s performance was The Pitman Painters.

My heart had sank when I read the pre-performance blurb. The cast -all refugees from such solid BBC series as Byker Grove, Spender and Our Friends In the North– read like Rent-A-Geordie leavened with a couple of regulars from The Bill. The subject sounded uninspiring, too.  A bunch of miners in the 1930s took up painting after a series of Art Appreciation Lectures.

What I hadn’t expected was that it would be quite as funny as it was; the rule quoting shop steward who consulted the rulebook at each unexpected situation, such as the artist’s model who arrived expecting to strip off, the Socialist war veteran  who quoted Marx at every opportunity, the scally who had a one-liner for every occasion – all of them had us roaring with laughter, the dialogue razor-sharp, the delivery whip-cracking.

There was unexpected pathos as well as one of the miners was offered patronage from an heiress – her offer of £2.50 a week was more than he could earn as a miner for work that was literally back-breaking should a roof collapse. But the group were a collective; what would he do? Should he leave the community that was everything to him, friends, family, companions– and if he did, would he lose the very identity that made his art what it was?

Because this was based on the true story of a group of Durham miners who received unexpected national acclaim amid the poverty of the 1930s, there were no easy answers, and George spent the rest of his life wondering if he had made the right decision.

Written by Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliott (which was set in the same area, but 50 years later) the play wore its Old Labour sentiments on its sleeve, depicting a time when many of its protagonists lived in poverty, and the Attlee government’s aspirations were like a call to the New Jerusalem – healthcare for all, an end to poverty, and the dawning of a new democracy. Which made our cynicism-drenched hindsight of the outcomes all the more sad.

Long after the doors had closed, I kept thinking about how much of what we take for granted was denied to these men; we assume that anyone who wants to be a painter now has access to education and opportunities, but to these miners the world of art was closed, which made their achievements even more remarkable.

And the bonus? Because the theatre was empty, we got an upgrade from our £6 at the top of the theatre bench to £30 seats so close to the stage that we could see the cast’s hobnailed boots. 🙂

• May 28th, 2011 • Posted in Events • Comments: 0


Regular readers will know that we gained not only a blackbird and his mate nesting outside our back door at the beginning of May, but their four chicks as well. Three of them survived to leave the nest, but unfortunately they dropped into the garden next door, which is separated from ours by a high brick wall.

Nonetheless, two of them have survived and have  returned and started foraging on their own (one of them is pictured here – not very blackbird like is he? But they only develop the black colouring when they’ve moulted and assumed adult plumage).

As well as blackbird fledglings, I also startled a young starling that was lurking amid the pots on Saturday, and we also have a juvenile sparrow who missed Kate’s head by bare inches. It seems to me as if more and more the garden is starting to resemble an avian crèche!

• May 23rd, 2011 • Posted in Uncategorized • Comments: 0

Blackbird Update

It’s going to be a relatively short blog today. I’ve finally finished the last assignment for uni; I spent 45 hours last week –out of a 64 hour total– working on that damned essay, but now I’ve finished it, I’m finding it hard to start anything else.

So I’m going to keep the rest of today’s blog to the now weekly update on our feathered lodgers. Last week the kids left the nest, to take their chances in next door’s garden. Yesterday we saw one of them for the first time since they left, sitting in our apple tree (so he’s learned to fly, even if it’s only short distances).

It’s good to see him. Hopefully, we’ll see more of them.

• May 15th, 2011 • Posted in Uncategorized • Comments: 0

Empty Nest

I posted last Monday about the blackbirds nesting just outside our kitchen. apart from the one casualty -the brood shrank from four to three chicks- the family Skanky have clearly been prospering, because this morning two of the three surviving chicks had fledged.

That left the one solitary survivor in the nest, and just before we took Alice for her daily constitutional, he too had left the nest. (You can just about make out Junior lurking in the thick cover of the honeysuckle in the lower right side of the photo)

By the time we had returned, he too had dropped to the ground.

Sadly, he’d gone next door like his two siblings, and the high walls mean that we won’t get to see them any longer. It would have been nice to have had them in our undergrowth, as had happened in prevous years, but the main thing is that they prosper. If all goes well, we may see them as they get older and learn to fly.

But I can’t help feeling a little lost, rather as any parents do when their kids (or grandkids) leave the nest.

• May 8th, 2011 • Posted in Uncategorized • Comments: 0

Is It Just Me?

Everywhere I turn this morning, I seem to be confronted by bits of technology not working as they’re supposed to, or in many cases not working at all. I’m starting to wonder whether I have some mysterious aura that fritzes machinery and electronics.

We have BT Vision which -in theory- allows us to tape and watch TV programmes at a later date with a simple press of a button on the TV Guide. Except that a significant  proportion of said programmes cut out after 5 to 10 minutes and insist that the recording has completed. BT told us some weeks ago that it was known problem which had been resolved. Not on our set it hasn’t.

Yesterday I thought I was close to completing my last film assignment; I’d written the text, all that was left was to upload said text to Blogger and paste in the links. Er, except that Blogger keeps crashing my machine when I switch from HTML mode to standard mode; then last night it refused to preview beyond a certain point; then it simply refused to save. I suspect that the blog post has reached a certain permissable size, but that’s only a theory, and Blogger Help is as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike.

Is anyone out there an expert on Blogger, by the way? If you, feel free to get in touch via but put ‘from the website’ in your header. I’d hate for the spam filter to chomp you up.

In the meantime, I shall have to break the blog post into three and hope that that doesn’t contravene the assignment isntructions, and it also calls for yet more links to be inserted. With breaking the original assignment into three equal-ish parts that isn’t going to be a short job — and it may turn out to be due to some other problem entirely.

Lastly, we recently switched to British Gas. We are obliged to provide a meter reading online. Guess what? That didn’t take, so they asked me to call in via an 0800 number. And when I did, I got a “sorry, there is a fault” on the line.

Perhaps I have unrealistic expectations, but rather than being more convenient and saving time, as the ads claim, it’s actually considerably less convenient, and has added probably an hour two to my working day in each of the last couple or three days. Seriously, is anyone else having this level of technology fail?

• May 7th, 2011 • Posted in Uncategorized • Comments: 0