Thursday, 31 December 2009

Battleship

It's always nice to see games you've been involved with doing well, and it's been especially gratifying with Battleship.

It was FinBlade's first project with EA and everyone worked really hard to make an iPhone adaptation that not only looked great, but played really well. And it's not all "B3" and "D7". There are exciting new game modes, with airstrikes, torpedo attacks, and even an orbiting laser weapon that pulverises the oceans and everything on them. But you you can still play classic modes if you prefer.

It was really great to find that Battleship was in the iTunes Top Ten on Christmas Day. And on both sides of the Atlantic too!

Sunday, 13 December 2009

These aren't just *any* chocolate truffles...

No indeed, these are the tragic chocolate truffles that I thought I could make myself.

It all started out so well. I walked in on a Channel 4 programme called Kirstie's Homemade Christmas, where a reassuringly large woman was doing a feature on how to make chocolate truffles. This seemed mostly to involve eating chocolate and saying how nice it was, so I was immediately encouraged that it was something I could do really well.

The large lady explained that you heat up some whipping cream, add a spoon of honey, then melt in lots of grated chocolate and stir it into a yummy-looking goop called a ganache. This should be left overnight to cool and thicken. Resisting the temptation to eat my ganache, I dutifully left it overnight to cool and thicken.

Next day, I did as the not-insubstantial Kirstie had done - donning gloves, dusted in cocoa powder, and making little ball-shaped bits of ganache.

"That looks like a poo!" she had squealed, as she dropped a brown glob onto a tray. I was greatly encouraged to find that my own creations were similarly beautiful.

Now, came the tempering of the chocolate, a mouth-watering process whereby chocolate is melted, then tipped out onto a large marble slab and smoothed to a cool gloss with a palette knife. I had actually bought a granite slab and palette knife especially for this, and found myself daring to dream the chocolatier's dream as I worked away happily...

...but the sweet dreams turned bitter.

On TV, the generously-proportioned presenter took robust, spherical orbs of ganache and dipped them, one by one on a fork, into her tempered chocolate. Sadly, my own ganache resembled a series of unsuccessful bowel movements - flat splats that drooped and oozed off the fork almost immediately. The few that made it to the tempered chocolate simply sank without trace.

And this is where I wonder if I have been duped. Yes, I may need more chocolate and less whipped cream. Yes, I might try cooling the ganache on a larger tray to thicken it more. But no, I do not believe the ganache plops that Kirstie crafted were the same ones she dipped into her chocolate moments later. Who was that smiling chocolatier standing by her side, and were the firm balls perhaps his not hers?

It's academic now, of course. Just when I thought it was safe to come out of culinary retirement, this disaster has set me back another 10 years. In a house where I'm only 3rd best cook if I don't count The Cat, it's best to accept my limitations and play to my strengths. From now on, I'll focus on eating.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Goats

I really enjoyed working on the iPhone app to accompany The Men Who Stare At Goats movie, starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, and Kevin Spacey. Today, it was extremely pleasing to see that it has climbed to number 3 in the Free Apps chart on iTunes - no mean achievement!

The collaboration between FinBlade and our friends at Small Screen Productions has been great, and immense congratulations are due to Niall, Cam and James for some excellent work. If you have an iPhone, download the app now - it's free after all. Otherwise, click the link below to let Jon Ronson (author of the original Men Who Stare At Goats novel) to tell you all about it...



Sunday, 8 November 2009

"e"

I'm usually a bit wary when someone gushes about a book. All too often, phrases like "trust me - you'll absolutely love it" are misguided, serving only to build the book up so that it eventually disappoints...

...which made "e" by Matt Beaumont a very pleasant surprise.

It didn't look promising at first glance - a novel without narrative, composed entirely of inter-office emails - but this turned out to be one of the most compelling and entertaining things I've read in years.

Set in a large London advertising agency, it charts a period of several weeks as the firm tries to win the much-prized Coca Cola account. Told only through the emails between characters - from the CEO to the secretarial temp - the story unfolds into a beautiful web of office politics, and corporate chaos. Perhaps my own career experiences make some of it especially relevant, but I think anyone who has ever worked in a large company will find themselves laughing aloud at characters who seem terribly familiar.

I won't spoil it by saying more. Just trust me - you'll absolutely love it ;-)

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Clear

Some conversations are really significant. They change how you feel, right there in an instant, and suddenly everything is different.

Having an MRI scan was one of the most distressing experiences of my life. It wasn't physically uncomfortable but, for someone who finds hospitals nigh-on-unbearable, it wasn't easy. Lying there, unable to move, trapped inside a claustrophobic space with nothing to think about except why you are there...

Then come the weeks of waiting. I'm still not sure which is worse - the scan itself, or the period that follows it. Days dragging by, slowly creeping towards that date in the diary, when the consultant will discuss the results.

And then, this afternoon, it was finally my turn to go in and "take a seat Mr McNeill" and talk for a moment...

...and hear that the scan had come back clear.

Some conversations are really significant. Thank God.

Friday, 9 October 2009

McPolitics

In the third week of Party Conferences, it would be easy to despair when reading how far the tabloids have to dumb down their political coverage. As our country approaches a general election, and at a time when the developed world faces incredible economic pressures, the two principal arguments for Britain seem to be:

"He's got no sense of humour."
(therefore Gordon Brown and the Labour party are somehow unsuited to run the country)

"He's got a posh accent."
(therefore David Cameron and the Conservative party are somehow unsuited to run the country)

This isn't The X-Factor! Worryingly, these are becoming the front-page, headline issues. However, if the public does dig deeper they will, eventually, be presented with other arguments such as:

"Gordon Brown got us into this mess."
(conveniently and blatantly ignoring the impact of global recession on the country)

"David Cameron doesn't know what it's like to live on £90 a week."
(as though any of the party leaders have to live on £90 a week - and as though having someone with this sort of experience would be better than silly things like economics, business, diplomacy, etc.)

Anyone who is engaged by this sort of insightful journalism would do more good eating their ballot paper than voting with it.

So whatever happened to the real political argument? Well, it's true that the difference between left and right is much smaller than it used to be. Tony Blair won 3 elections by taking the centre ground - he understood that the unions and militants would sound more appealling to the country if they shut their mouths. David Cameron seems to have a similar strategy, bringing the Conservatives right in beside Labour, and adopting a more compassionate stance. With both parties trying to be masters of the middle, there is naturally less division, less fodder for robust political debate.

But surely there is still room for some intelligent discussion. Surely there are different centrist approaches that merit debate? Or have we reached the point where a talent show phone-vote is the only vote that matters?

Saturday, 3 October 2009

The Riddle Of The Sands

Just finished reading The Riddle Of The Sands by Erskine Childers, a wonderful espionage tale set in the first few years of the twentieth century, while Britain still had a vast Empire, and war had not yet coloured the way we think of Germany.

Presented as a factual account of events, it is told from the viewpoint of Carruthers, a lowly clerk at the Foreign Office who, being at something of a loose end, accepts an unexpected invitation to join an old acquaintance, Davies, who is yachting in the Baltic. The yacht is far from luxurious, but the two men renew the friendship forged during their time at Oxford and set out to navigate the coastline.

As time goes on, and they begin to explore the sands around the Frisian Islands, Carruthers and Davies are drawn into a dangerous mystery. Why are they being watched wherever they go? Who is the sinister Herr Dollmann and why did he try to run Davies aground? And what is happening on the Island of Memmert that they are not supposed to see?

It's an compelling story and the writing, though somewhat archaic in style, anchors it perfectly in its period.

There's an enjoyable film adaptation from 1979, starring Michael York and Simon MacCorkindale. It's beautifully shot, and notable for a rare performance where (for artistic reasons) Jenny Agutter kept her clothes on. Being already familiar with this film took nothing away from the book - and although they digress in some details, the heart and spirit of both versions are the same.

And one final thing about this remarkable story? Erskine Childers' book - dealing as it does with the German invasion of England - was published in 1903, more than a decade before the outbreak of the First World War. Whether foresight or coincidence, it certainly makes you think.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

It's a strangely sad thing to realise that the person who was once your parent, is now your child.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Eighteen

This week we celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary. Normally, I'd think of that as being quite a long period of time, but that day in the church truly feels like it happened just a little while ago.

Oddly enough, partly due to us being teenagers when we met, and partly because of my relaxed approach to getting things done, it took us ages to get married - we've actually been together for nearly 24 years now.

But that's really not so long to spend with someone so special.


Monday, 7 September 2009

Into the West...

It's Monday evening, after the first day back at work, and already the week we spent in Devon seems a long time ago...

...but what a wonderful week it was. We were lucky enough to get a last-minute deal on a spacious house in the amusingly-named village of Cockwood. Situated on a hillside at the edge of this tiny village, we had an excellent time together, exploring around the West Country, Dartmoor and the South Devon coast.

Cockwood sits on the western shore of the Exe Estuary, between Exeter and Dawlish. Being there felt like being in a different country, with a languid pace of life and a rural friendliness in the air. The only thing that seemed to move quickly was the weather - taking the small ferry from the neighbouring village of Starcross across the water to Exmouth saw the skies change from sunshine to overcast to sunshine again in minutes.

We discovered a beautiful secluded beach near Brixham, and spent a long afternoon getting slowly covered in sand. Having seen the crowds shuffling along the Paignton seafront a couple of miles away made this find all the more pleasing. It felt like being in a location from a Famous Five novel, though thankfully we didn't have to rescue Uncle Quentin from smugglers.

The highlight for me was visiting Dartmoor. We drove down to Burrator Reservoir, a stunning lake in wonderful, rolling countryside. Crossing the vast stone dam, we found our way down into a magical wooded valley. Walking there, between the ancient trees and enormous moss-covered boulders, it felt like stepping into another world. As we sheltered from a rain shower beneath a massive rock outcrop, Cam remarked that it was like being on the slopes of Amon Hen from The Lord Of The Rings. Later on, as we drove further north, the landscape changed to echo the Lone Lands of Middle Earth and we spotted a stone-crowned hill that could have been Weathertop.

On our final day, I took a train from Starcross to Plymouth. It's not a long journey, but there are breath-taking views as the railway winds its way along the coast, hugging the cliffs and racing along beaches, before climbing to the southern edge of Dartmoor, where it winds around the hillsides and crosses deep valleys on soaring viaducts.

It was a glorious week. A pity it couldn't have been longer, but I know we'll be back there again before too long.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

It's not the despair that gets you, it's the hope...

Anna's youngest brother has been over from Greece, and he and I made our regular pilgrimage of pain to watch Southampton play on Saturday.

There's something rather awkward about having such a huge stadium for a League One side. Over 19,000 people showed up for the game against newly-promoted Brentford and, like so many other Saints fans, I found myself hoping - maybe even believing - that this would be the day when the recovery started. This would be our first victory of the new campaign.

True, there was a nagging thought at the back of my mind - even if we won, it would scarcely be something to brag about. Beating Brentford isn't something that I'd have been excited about in years gone by. However, this was the best that we could hope for on the day and, as we went through the turnstiles, that thrill of anticipation banished common sense and got us in the mood...

...and then the match started.

It's difficult to explain the awful cocktail of emotions that go with supporting Scotland, Partick Thistle, or Southampton. You have to admire my consistency in picking teams that disappoint, and nobody has ever referred to me as a glory hunter. But it would be nice to have just a little respite from the terrible frustration that comes with missed chances, failed passes and altruistic defending.

When we went 1-0 up, it seemed as though there was light at the end of the tunnel. All the preceeding agony had been worthwhile as we jumped about and celebrated in the sun.

Sadly, the light at the end of the tunnel was an oncoming train. The game finished 1-1 and we trudged home with that special sort of post-match regret reserved for vital leads that have been foolishly squandered.

It's going to be another long season.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

An e-book opportunity...

Somewhat out of the blue, I've been contacted by a couple of former colleagues who are starting a publishing venture, putting e-books out via the iTunes store. I'd almost forgotten that Star Wars parody from years ago, but now it looks like I'll have an opportunity to get it out there to a new audience.

Editing it is proving a nightmare though. I'm not rewriting, just fixing errors, but there are so many typos and examples of bad punctuation. My heart goes out to those who read the original version.

Still, despite many cringe-worthy bits of humour, it has made me smile in places as I read it. Hopefully it will strike a chord with other Star Wars aficionados when it's done.

Friday, 14 August 2009

End of the road...

And so, as it turned out, we saved the best for last. Today was a glorious end to a hugely enjoyable road trip. I’m writing this in Stirling, where we’re spending our last night, before the long journey back tomorrow.

It’s a shame that Anna wasn’t with us, but though I missed her terribly, it was great to have Cam all to myself. There’s no better travelling companion and without him I know I’d have fast-forwarded through some of the most enjoyable moments. Also, he prompted me to bring The Hobbit audiobook, which made the miles pass much faster than music could.

A long drive awaits us both tomorrow, but this – along with the general end-of-trip blues – are offset by the prospect of seeing Anna again.

And on that happy thought, goodnight.

Road Trip: Fintry

The tiny village where I grew up is still beautiful and remote. A few years ago, we hired a small cottage on its outskirts and walked to a vast waterfall called the Loup. Today, Cam suggested this might be a good place to have lunch.

We parked not far from the cottage and followed the overgrown path across the hill. The ravine is well-hidden – only when you are very close do you begin to hear the roar of the water and then, as you come round a slope, the ground falls away before you to reveal the multitude of torrents, crashing down onto a series of black rock steps before disappearing into the tree tops far below.

The path winds its way gently down to a stone shelf at the very top of the waterfall, and there we sat, right on the edge, and had lunch.

I’ve enjoyed picnics in some very beautiful places, but this was surely one of the best. There, with our hands trailing in the water as it sailed out over the precipice, with the foam and mist below, and the long valley stretching out towards the distant mountains, we had the best table anyone could wish for.

Road Trip: Loch Lomond II

We woke to sunlight streaming in through the window and a clear blue sky between the curtains. Earlier than usual, we were on our way, stopping off briefly to collect something for lunch before we left Milngavie on our short drive west.

In no time, we were coasting down towards Drymen, purple heather lining the roadside, mountains in the distance, and the bright silver of Loch Lomond in the valley before us. Some of the route had been unfamiliar to me, but soon we turned onto a road I remembered well. Now, the loch was on our left as we skirted its eastern banks, passing through Balmaha and on. The tarmac ends at Rowardennan, but we stopped at a little bay just before it, parking the car and walking down onto our very own deserted beach.

There are some moments which stay with you, their impact so profound that you recognize them as they are happening. I felt something similar when I stood on top of a mountain in Austria and gazed down on the vastness of the Alps below me – a tremendous sense of place. Now, as we stood on the deserted shore and looked out across the smooth surface of the loch, I felt it again.

It was a blissful morning. Fish were jumping in the bay, and there were endless stones to skim – the water was clear and cold on our feet, and the sun was warm. I really don’t think it gets any better than this.

Road Trip: Loch Lomond

When I was small, we lived quite near to Loch Lomond, and often went there at weekends. Today, rather than walking along the shore at Luss with my dad, I walked with my son.

It’s an odd feeling, revisiting somewhere so steeped in childhood memories but now in the role of a parent. The clouds parted to let the sun blaze down and we made our way along the sandy beach watching rainbows form across the loch, as the late afternoon sunlight hit a fine, distant rain on the far banks. Despite the awesome beauty all around, Luss was almost deserted and when I walked out onto the pier I had the whole glorious place all to myself.

I love this stretch of dark, clear water, dotted with tree covered islands, and flanked by colourful mountain slopes. I love the peace and the permanence in this, the most beautiful part of Scotland.

I think we’ll go back again tomorrow.

Road Trip: Hadrian's Wall

On a map, Hadrian’s Wall is just a knobbly little line scrawled across the top end of England. Yes, it’s long and must have taken a huge amount of effort to build, but when you actually see it marching on over endless miles of rugged hillside, it’s simply stunning.

We left the motorway and drove east, half-way across the country. Near Haltwhistle (allegedly the centre of Britain) we found two villages named Once Brewed and Twice Brewed. Turning down a narrow lane, we parked the car and set off along the wall.

What remains above ground isn’t that high – mostly just 4 or 5 feet of squared-off stonework – but it’s sturdy and neat, and topped with grass.

And it uses the landscape ruthlessly.

Rolling hills, rocky crags and sheer cliffs are all embraced by the wall, as it zig-zags east to west, employing each natural feature to its full defensive potential. It must have been a formidable sight, and terribly difficult to assault.

We followed the line for miles along the high ridge, coming in time to Sycamore Dip, where a single tree stands sheltered between two hills, then crossed the bog and made our way back along the base of the cliffs. It’s a wonderful walk, through truly beautiful scenery, and somewhere I’d love to explore further in the future.

Road Trip: The Lake District

Perhaps it was the drizzly weather. Perhaps it was all the hype. Perhaps it was the fact that we’d previously visited Konigssee in Bavaria. Whatever the reason, The Lake District was a bit of a disappointment. Quite a big bit actually.

We drove up from Blackpool, over the hills to Windermere which, at first glance seemed quite promising. The lake, meandering around the feet of the tree-covered slopes, looked quite lovely despite the overcast skies. However, heading down to the waterfront it became rather disappointing. Bowness was swamped with coach parties and the sort of attractions designed to please them, the shore-line almost obscured by queues of people and sprawling car parks. The weather darkened with our mood, so we struck out north.

To be fair, Ambleside was picturesque, and there were occasional glimpses of beauty as we skirted the lakes, but when we reached Keswick it was impossible not to feel that the whole thing was a bit of a let-down. I’d seen so many pictures of this area, but as we came to each place and I saw it for real, I began to understand that it was skilful photography as much as the landscape that had impressed me.

As we trudged through the winding, souvenir-shop streets of Keswick, we agreed that the whole place felt like a bad copy of somewhere great – as though a businessman from the north-west had been to Austria and thought, “I could do something like that back home.”

The odd thing is, there’s already a place where mighty hills plunge down into long expanses of water, with dramatic scenery and rugged beauty, and it’s right here in the UK. Loch Lomond here we come.

Road Trip: Blackpool

When Cam first suggested adding Blackpool to our UK tour, I admit that I was sceptical. I’d always hoped to live my life without ever visiting the place but, several years ago, a series of unfortunate business dealings found me trapped in that singular seaside town with an army of enthusiastic Northern pyramid sellers.

Needless to say, that one trip was enough to put anyone off, even if they had previously harboured warm feelings toward Blackpool, which I hadn’t. So today, my expectations were not high.

And yet, it wasn’t bad.

I had prepared myself for a tacky, shabby seafront, populated by characters who’d escaped from Coronation Street, all garnished with chips and trams and endless packets of “original” Blackpool Rock. And, while it was all of these things, it was also strangely enjoyable. We walked down onto the almost deserted beach, basked in the sunshine, played catch, and generally had a laugh together. When the tide came in, it came in quickly – so quickly that it caught us out several times, soaking our feet before lunchtime.

We almost lost both cameras to the waves at one point (thank goodness I bought a waterproof rucksack!) but in the end only one bouncy ball was claimed by the waves.

When we left, we left in high spirits, and in the end that's high praise for a place I'd really not expected to enjoy. I'm still not a fan of seaside towns, but perhaps Blackpool isn't that bad after all.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Road Trip: Warrington

After the pleasures of Oxford, it was amazing to see what a difference a few miles can make. We stopped off for a pit stop in Warrington – “pit” being the operative word.

I’m used to high-value merchandise in supermarkets having security tags, and familiar with trolleys that are designed to lock up if taken too far from the store. However, we were both rather surprised to see that, in the huge Tesco in the centre of Warrington, even the hand-baskets carry anti-theft tags. Obviously, those baskets are aspirational items round here.

Not long after, we pulled over for pizza. The service was courteous and there was nothing wrong with the meal. However, it was hard not to notice the young couple on the table opposite us. The buxom young woman had asked for a pot of crayons – standard equipment for your average, family-friendly Pizza Hut. She wedged the pot firmly into her exposed cleavage and instructed her boyfriend to take crayons out, and put them back in, while she recorded everything on her camera phone.

This went on for quite some time, but I suppose you can’t hurry true art. In any event, I now feel certain that I’ve experienced the very best that Warrington has to offer. How can the Lake District possibly compete with this? Tomorrow will tell...

Monday, 10 August 2009

Road Trip: Oxford

A whole week off - just Cam and I on the road while Anna is busy running Church activities - and our epic UK tour begins in Oxford.

The weather could have been better, and it will take a bit of Photoshopping to make the most of my photos, but we had fun nonetheless. We visited the Eagle and Child pub, where Tolkien read parts of Lord Of The Rings to C.S.Lewis and the Inklings. A far cry from us writers who meet in the Bellemoor pub on Wednesday evenings, but the sentiments are similar I think.

Then as the rain caught us, we took cover in the wonderful covered arcades and found a world of specialist chocolate shops, coffee shops, bakeries and cake decorators - there was even a place called Pie Minister but we never found out what they sold. It was a great place to work up an appetite, so after we'd strolled around some of the city's more famous landmarks we made our way back through the streets to where TV chef Jamie Oliver has his famous Italian restaurant. Cam refers to Jamie as 'the guy who ruined school dinners' so we went into the Gourmet Burger Kitchen directly opposite and took lunch there.

Dessert was from a fab little place called Chocology where we sampled some excellent ice cream before returning to the car and hitting the road once more, with The Hobbit audiobook floating out of the stereo. How apt!

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Wishful Drinking

Just finished reading Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher. I suppose it's not surprising that a 70's starlet who played Princess Leia should go on to lead a mixed-up life, but really - I had no idea!

It's a biography, so it covers the bizarre childhood that comes from having two celebrity parents (Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher) , the whole Star Wars thing, marriage to Paul Simon, and the heady combination of alcoholism, drug addiction, and bi-polar disorder. However, it races along like nothing else I've ever read, flitting back and forth across the years in an erratic stream-of-consciousness style.

And it's funny. Carrie Fisher may have had a troubled time, but she certainly knows how to tell uncomfortable truths in an entertaining way. I won't spoil it - I'll simply recommend it. Short, sharp and utterly compelling.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

One down, two to go...

Completing the draft of my book's first section has brought mixed feelings this week. On the one hand, it's great to have passed another milestone on the project. I now have a third of the novel wrapped, and that's pleasing. Conversely, it requires only the most rudimentary grasp of fractions to see that this leaves two thirds still to write. And I now know exactly how much work that'll be: twice what I've already done.

But enough of maths. A more pressing issue is the fact that I have a firm idea for the third section, but remain undecided about the second one. This middle piece of the story is proving quite troublesome. I know what I want from it, but right now I can't nail down where it will be set. Hopefully I can find a suitable place that is covered by Google Street View - it'll save me a few research trips if I can.

On a lighter note, another life-imitates-art coincidence caught my imagination this weekend. I had travelled up to Bristol to visit the street where my detective will live, and drive the route of his daily commute. While in Portishead, I found the police station that features in the first section and went for a walk to get a feel of the area (and take some photos like the one above). My detective has been advised to get some exercise to help him deal with some emotional issues better, and I randomly had him go swimming. So it felt a little weird as I turned a corner near the police station and noticed the Parish Wharf Leisure Centre with its huge indoor pool right in front of me.

If I ever get published, that'll make another great "spooky" anecdote ;-)

Monday, 6 July 2009

Winchester Conference

It's surprising how intense a single weekend can be. This one was occupied by the Winchester Writers Conference, and what a weekend it was!

Things didn't start well. I had arranged a couple of one-to-one meetings, the first with a literary agent who I'd sent some material to in advance. It's impossible not to get excited when someone like that reads your work - will they like it? In this case, there were a number of negative points, and I found my hopes crumbling as I listended to criticism for the miserly 3 pages of crime novel I'd been permitted to send. But then, as the agent launched into an observation about the vicious way my killer dispatches his victims, my gloom abated somewhat. I asked her why she felt it was vicious... when the killer had not even appeared in the 3 pages she (allegedly) read!

That meeting was disappointing, but things improved. Later that day was my first workshop with established crime writer Lesley Horton. Her class was extremely useful, and she was a wonderful speaker.

Later on Friday night, a number of us gathered for the Midnight Read, an opportunity for anyone to read out anything to their fellow writers. Some wonderful characters stood and read (or even sang!) their latest work and, along with the entertaining eccentricities, there were some genuinely good stories told.

Saturday and Sunday were exciting, inspiring, and informative. After a captivating opening talk by Michael Morpurgo, we went off to our lectures for a day of literary learning. It was all useful, but two further sessions led by Lesley Horton were pure gold for anyone working on a crime novel.

It was great to spend time with other writers, and pleasing to see so many faces from the Taunton's Creative Writing course there. Martyn and Chris identified some excellent contacts for my children's picture book (who I then stalked and spoke to) and it was brilliant when we heard that Julia and Phil had both made the competition shortlists.

By the end of the conference, I'd learned a great deal, made some very useful contacts, and even been told how to poison someone. You don't get that every weekend!

Monday, 22 June 2009

Another Solstice

Though it didn't enjoy the perfect clear sky at sunrise, the 2009 Summer Solstice at Stonehenge was a memorable one. Falling as it did on a Saturday night / Sunday morning, it was expected to attract a large crowd...

...and it did! Normally, there is a small queue to get into the car park, but this year it was nearly 5 miles long, stretching back from Amesbury, and running all around the Stonehenge site. I finally turned off the road some time after 2am, and was lucky to be one of the last cars allowed into the parking field which was almost completely full. With miles of traffic still lining the horizon, it's a mystery where everyone parked.

Despite the sea of cars, and the crowds walking the mile and a half over to the monument, the number of people on the site was staggering. Attending the Solstice on many previous occasions, I'm used to the dense press of bodies around the stones but this was unlike anything I'd ever seen. With a vast carpet of people sitting and sleeping all around, it was a challenge to move about in the darkness without treading on anyone - and to those 3 or 4 who yelled "Ouch!" I can only apologize.

The night seemed to pass easily this year - rain makes the hours drag but the weather stayed dry. More than 35,000 people watched the horizon at 4:50am as dawn approached, but the perfect sunrise was obscured by an unfortunately placed cloud-bank.

And yet, it didn't seem to matter. The mood was largely happy - there seemed to be few arguments between the visitors and the authorities, and the party in the centre of the stones went on as though the sun had broken through.

Photographers, who in previous years have made themselves unwelcome by showing little sensitivity to the event, were less apparent this time around. As a result, it was possible for those of us with camera to move around and record the event respectfully and peacefully.

So, a good Summer Solstice to witness and be a part of. Let's hope that next year's can be even better.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Brideshead Revisited

It has taken some time, but I have at last finished Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Reading it after seeing the excellent ITV series was an unexpected pleasure. Often, a novel puts its adaptation in the shade, but in this case the page and the screen seem to be perfectly in synch and there is almost no difference between them - they are the same beautiful, tragic account of Charles Ryder's involvement with the Flyte family. Perhaps it needs 11 hours of TV to properly convey 330 pages.

I had always been put off this book because I had heard it was just 'a story about a gay couple', but in the event this was simply not the case - to describe it that way would be to miss the point entirely, as well as overlooking the majority of the plot. It deals with the distance between people - distances of class and faith - and how life (and death) can surprise the most stubborn person as to how near or far they are from where they thought. Its elegant, if somewhat archaic, style lends a sense of immediacy to the past and I found the uncompromising ending strangely satisfying.

Certainly, it won't be everyone's cup of tea, but if you like the idea of a wonderfully sad period piece, Brideshead Revisited is well worth a read.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Now showing on StreetView

I don't want this to turn into a Google StreetView blog, but I was pleased to find one of my photographs is featured in their new User Photos feature. Quite a few of my pictures show up in Google Earth but this is the first one I've spotted in StreetView. I took it just by the junction of Lombard and Hyde in San Francisco, and though it's not one of my best it's nice to see it in there, especially as I dragged my camera bag all the way up that hill from Beach Street on a very hot day! Of course, all this exercise built up a fierce appetite which later called me home to The Cheesecake Factory overlooking Union Square but that, as they say, is another story...

Monday, 1 June 2009

Eerie...

I'm currently working on a crime novel and I sat down yesterday evening to do a little more research on different parts of Bristol. I've been using Google Street View, which is a great tool for writers who want to know what a place looks like without the expense of train tickets. Trying to figure out where a minor character should work, I thought I'd start in Clifton and explore.

I've been to Clifton several times. Much of what appears in the opening chapters is based on places and shops that I've actually seen. About the only thing I made up was an Internet Cafe, where the killer whiles away a couple of hours before stalking his victim back to the station. So imagine my surprise when I turned a corner in Street View and saw this:

http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?hl=en&ie=UTF8&ll=51.464456,-2.609109&spn=0,359.999187&t=h&z=21&layer=c&cbll=51.464459,-2.609103&panoid=qFfaQI1Y9hQpklja43Rnkw&cbp=12,52.08,,0,13.09

I've never walked down that road. However, if you pan the camera to the left you should just be able to make out a Sainsbury's sign - just below it is one of the green canopies from the Starbucks restaurant, and a little to the right is the entrance to Clifton Down Station, both of which feature in the story.

It's an odd feeling. Writing about a serial killer is bad enough but finding an internet cafe just a few hundred yards from where I placed a fictitious one? Brrrrr.... that gave me the willies!

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

I long to be where I cannot go…

There are so many wonderful places to visit in the world, each one crowned with an elusive jewel – that perfect moment in that perfect location, where everything comes together to form a brilliant memory that stays with you always.

It’s never just about the place though. Perhaps it’s the unique impact of seeing something for the first time, the emotion of being there with someone special, or simply having the time to appreciate somewhere that you’d normally rush through. Circumstances create the situation, and that can make all the difference.

And yet, this week I’ve found myself absently wishing to be in places that I can never visit. Not the summit of Everest – it’s possible, however unlikely, that I might stand there one day. No, I’m thinking of places that are truly out of reach.

Places that only exist in the past, in my childhood, in history.

Reading Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I wanted to be there in 1960s London; reading Brideshead Revisited I yearned to walk through the pre-War streets of Oxford. Browsing on Google Streetview reminded me of the places in Scotland I was taken as a toddler – all gone now, as entire neighbourhoods from my childhood are bulldozed and regenerated.

There are so many wonderful places, and I’ve been lucky enough to experience a number of them. I wonder if any of those will form the unattainable desires of future generations?

Friday, 15 May 2009

Seeing Inside

For anyone who enjoyed The West Wing, or simply likes to see behind the soundbite, I can heartily recommend the Official White House Photostream on Flickr. Featuring truly brilliant photography by Pete Souza, it offers a compelling insight into the the day-to-day business of President Obama and his administration. Of course, there's no such thing as truly "candid" photography inside the White House, but this comes pretty close, showing the President and his staff in original, and sometimes surprising, stances and settings.

If you have a flickr account, you can add the photostream as a contact (it's updated every day or so). At the very least, you might enjoy taking a quick look at it by following the link below.


Enjoy!

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Hitting the Level Cap

Apologies to all non-gamers, I know it's geeky but achievements like this are rare for me and I thought it worth noting. Yes, after many months - perhaps too many months - playing Lord Of The Rings Online, I have finally reached level 60. This is currently the highest level available and means that I can't score any more experience points.

Until they bring out the next expansion pack, anyway.

It's unusual for me to persevere with a game this long, and I'm wondering if it will continue to hold my interest now that I've got this far. Time will tell.

I thought I'd celebrate by posting a picture of my newly-maxed character at the scenic Lake Evendim, but sadly the weather was overcast there today. As a photographer, so often frustrated by unattractive skies, I found that rather ironic.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

This week, I've found myself reading "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" by John Le Carré. I'm not sure if I've read it before - the story is of course familiar from repeated viewings of the excellent TV series - but I suspect this may be my first time with the book. I have a bad habit of buying paperbacks then leaving them on the shelf to be 'discovered' at a later date and the fact that the spine is unbroken and the pages are free from water marks makes me think this book had escaped my attention until now.

I'm struck by how beautifully written it is. Not just a good story, well told, but masterful narrative and elegant language to heighten the understated gravity of the Cold War spy trade. I've picked up other titles by Le Carré that didn't engage me but this has been intensely enjoyable. If only I could write like that...


Tuesday, 5 May 2009

I shouldn't laugh but...

With all the unhappiness and hysteria surrounding "media flu", it was a nice to hear a positive swine-story for a change.

Anna's brother had the excellent idea to make a pretend mobile phone call while travelling on a crowded train. He spoke loudly and at length about his first day back in the UK after a wonderful trip to Mexico, then proceeded to stifle sneezes as the carriage around him emptied.

I know some people will frown at this, but I think it's no more irresponsible than the constant shrieking of the TV and tabloid news, and it certainly made me smile when I heard about it.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The Armageddon Trade

Just finished reading The Armageddon Trade, the first novel by my old friend and colleague Clem Chambers.

Opening in the bank trading rooms of Canary Wharf, it charts the rise of a young East End lad who has the uncanny ability to see and predict trends in the financial markets. This talent quickly elevates him to a position of wealth and success, but it also brings him to the attention of a shadowy figure who sits behind the markets, trading at a whole different level. Soon, the pair must combine their talents to unravel a chilling prediction that threatens to wipe out the world economy.

It's a surprisingly enjoyable read - I wasn't sure how much I'd enjoy a financial thriller, but the book quickly develops into a real page-turner. True, there's a bit more glamour, action and international terrorism than you might expect in a book about traders, but it's handled much as John Grisham would approach a book about lawyers - I can already hear Hollywood optioning the movie rights.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

A Night In Middle Earth

There are some special times that live long in the memory. Last night was one of them: going to an all-night showing of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy with my son.
It was a reminder of how fast he is growing up - the first time we've stayed out together until dawn - and there was something profoundly special about watching a story that's all about friendship with him. From 9:30pm to 8am, we ate chocolate and popcorn, laughed at Gimli's humour, revelled in the epic battles, and misted-up together at the many partings.
And then it was out into the daylight, and home to breakfast with Anna, who smiled and sent us both to get some sleep. A good night, shared with a great friend.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Death By Logic

Once, there was a robot who was depressed. He spent days just sitting, pondering life and the hopelessness of it all. One day he learned of suicide and chose it as the solution to his problems. But his programming would not permit him to harm himself, or, by action or omission of action, cause himself to be harmed. This depressed him even more.

It hadn't always been like this. He had been manufactured by a reputable company in a prosperous democratic nation. He was programmed to program himself and, in his youth, joyfully learned about the nature and history of his own planet and others. He was to be a companion to a small boy - guardian, tutor and best friend - and this pleased him.

On the appointed date, he was sent to a distant city to live with the small boy (whose parents were abroad on business for months at a time). The little boy was called Oliver and he was an earnest, friendly child. Oliver named his robot "Chipper" and Chipper, pleased with his new name, programmed himself to be friends with Oliver.

They got on wonderfully together. Chipper went everywhere with Oliver, eliminating the muggers and killers who regularly accosted them on their way to the park, explaining the secrets of maths and science, and playing games with his young friend until bedtime every night. Chipper was also a great cook, Oliver loved all his meals (which were highly nutritious as well as being tasty).

Everything was going well until, early in their second year together, Oliver asked to visit the park one evening. A recent birthday had furnished him with a new football and, before the novelty wore off, Chipper wanted Oliver to make the most of it. They set off with the ball and headed across town towards the park. Their game was lively and Chipper noted that Oliver's co-ordination was improving. After an hour or so, they started for home.

Two blocks away from their apartment, a drunk staggered out of a doorway ahead of them. Oliver was not worried with his guardian beside him, and Chipper was ready to knock the shambolic figure into the path of an oncoming bus when the drunk spoke.
"Help me, please." he slurred, "Come on, friend... please?"
"We have no money to spare," Chipper retorted crisply, "And I am not your friend."
"Say that again, pal, you can say that again," the drunk lurched against the wall and clung to it to steady himself. Chipper positioned himself between Oliver and the bum and escorted his protégé home.

Oliver went to bed that night without mentioning the incident. It wasn't really surprising as Chipper dealt with many such encounters every month. But Chipper thought about it. Unlike the usual down-and-outs, this character hadn't seemed violent, nor did he extend a hand, which suggested his approach wasn't financially orientated. He didn't dwell on the matter but, later in the evening, as he completed his nightly security check, he saw the tramp in the street below. The wretch was just sitting on the front steps of a building down the street, sitting and staring into space. Chipper was curious, but he left the window and spent an hour silently cleaning and tidying the apartment.

When he returned to the window, the figure had not moved. Chipper was intrigued - this was a human behaviour pattern he had not encountered before. He switched on a remote monitor to watch over Oliver, then he made his way quietly down onto the street. He emerged into the cool night air and walked over to where the tramp was sitting. His footsteps echoed between the high buildings. There was still no movement. Not dead... didn't appear to be excessively drunk… no other physiological explanation was obvious.
"Are you all right?" he asked quietly.
The tramp moved at last, turning his head to stare wearily up at Chipper.
"No," he rasped, a faint smile breaking beneath his unshaven features. "Why, do I look all right?" These last two words were spat out venomously.
"Not really," Chipper replied. "What's wrong?"
"What is wrong," the tramp repeated, distantly, "Is that I'm terminally depressed."
"Depressed? You mean you feel sad and unhappy, with a pessimistic outlook on life."
"Not pessimistic," the tramp smiled sadly. "Realistic! Sad and unhappy doesn't even come close."
"I don't understand," Chipper frowned. "Explain to me please."

So the tramp explained the hopelessness of anything and everything, the futility of life itself. For every positive objection that Chipper raised, he retaliated with a series of crushing negatives. He showed Chipper the genuine, unanswerable questions that are the reality behind the petty facade of existence.

And Chipper programmed himself to understand, to put everything he had known before into a new perspective. And as he walked back across the road, while the tramp was trudging away into the night, he suddenly felt the unbearable weight of depression come crashing down on to his shoulders.

He didn't know how to deal with it, so he vid-phoned his manufacturer's diagnostic hotline. An attractive young blonde answered and he explained to her that he was depressed. Surprised at first, she asked him if he was calling to report a malfunction. He explained that this wasn't really a malfunction, but it was a problem nevertheless. This confused her as to which department she should put him through to, so she decided to try and gain an insight for herself.
She asked if talking to someone would help. He said that it was unlikely to help because happiness and a state of well-being can only exist in the presence of ignorance or forgetfulness, and he was no longer ignorant and was incapable of being forgetful. She suggested he might program himself to he happy. He told her that all his programming was factually based and so happiness was not possible. She suggested that he could return to the factory and have his recent memory erased or altered. He told her this wasn't just a problem of memory, it had changed his entire mental processing patterns - changing his memory wouldn't change the way he thought.
The woman had to admit that she was baffled and asked who Chipper thought she should put him through to. But by now, the hopelessness was getting a grip. With a dejected "What's the point?" the robot hung up on her.

The next morning, Oliver asked his friend what was wrong. Chipper explained that he was depressed and was just about to launch into a full description of the hopelessness of life when Oliver held up a hand.
"Hey!" he cautioned the robot. "If this is going to be some heavy piece of doom and gloom then, sorry, but I don't want to hear it - there's no point in us both feeling down."
Chipper could see the sense in this, but it didn't make him feel any better. They agreed that Oliver would go and stay with his friend Felix for a few days, while Chipper tried to get himself sorted out.

Chipper decided that he might as well try to find the tramp - after all, he seemed to know quite a bit about depression. It took most of that afternoon, but the robot eventually found his mentor sprawled on a bench in the park. He appeared to be asleep, but his hand clutched a half-empty bottle. Chipper shook him to consciousness and they sat down together.

The robot explained that he had been depressed - terribly, terribly, depressed - and that nobody could suggest a cure. He asked if the tramp knew any ways of dealing with this problem. The tramp looked at the bottle in his grimy fist, smiled grimly and took a long drink.
"There's always booze, or junk if you can afford it," he suggested.
"I am not susceptible to the effects of alcohol." Chipper replied. "What is this junk you mentioned?"
"Drugs," the tramp translated, "Like alcohol, but they change the reality you perceive. Hallucinations and the like."
"If it's biochemical, it's not going to work with me," Chipper sighed.
The tramp took a final swig, then hurled the empty out into the ornamental pond.
"Well robot," he rasped, "Looks like we're both in it now."
"What do you mean?" Chipper asked.
"No more booze, can't afford junk," the untidy figure shrugged, "Guess it's dyin' time for us."
"Dying time?"
"Suicide," explained the tramp. The once-and-for-all guaranteed cure for depression."
"How would life's end alleviate the problems of depression?"
"Well, it's like this," the tramp explained. "Depression is sort of a life-problem. You go through your life wondering what you should do, why you're here, why things are the way they are - and you never really get the answers do you? That makes the whole show a bit puzzling. And if you can't hang no reasons on the framework, you may just start to wonder what the point of it all is? It's terrible being a part of something you know you’ll never be able to understand. Now, if you were trying to solve a puzzle, trying to slot all the pieces together, and you just couldn't do it, perhaps couldn't even find all the pieces? Well, you'd probably just say What the hell! and walk away. Suicide is kind of like walking away from the puzzle of life, sort of giving up on something that's turned out to be more trouble than it’s worth. Understand?"
Chipper considered this for a moment. "But if this is the case, why doesn't everybody give up?"
"Ah!" grinned the tramp. There's the thing! Now I'm not an expert, but I've got a rough idea. See, it's like this. If you give people a puzzle that intrigues them, holds their interest so to speak, well, it doesn't matter so much that they don't seem to be solving it - they'll just keep on playing with the pieces as long as it interests them."
"The superficial enhances what would otherwise be too frustrating." Chipper nodded, beginning to understand.
"Something like that' said the tramp.

Chipper spent the next couple of hours trying to commit suicide, but his designers had conspired against such an event - as he discovered when he tried to short out his circuits: he just couldn't bring himself to do it. His hands wouldn't move, wouldn't make the necessary connections. He struggled for a while before he paused to consider this problem. Looking back through some of his earliest mandates, he discovered the reason - he was unerasably coded not to harm himself, or, by action or omission of action, cause himself to be harmed. This made him feel worse than ever!

So he tried to find a way round his own logic - something he could do which would result in his destruction but which would not result in him being harmed! It was a horrendously complex task so he resorted to the Monte Carlo principle - flashing random events into his mind and seeing if they met up with his criteria.
He was crossing the road when a vehicle appeared round a corner and... Far too easy, his self-preserving logic saw right through that one!
He was standing in a field and it started to rain while he had his water seals unfastened... Improbable, thanks to his safety humidity sensors.
He was minding his own business when he was suddenly struck by lightning... Not bad, but pitifully unlikely to happen.
If he disconnected his logic circuits and... No way - his logic circuits weren't about to allow that!

After a while, he decided to try a new approach - he would put himself in as dangerous a situation as was possible. If his best chance was based on random events, then the least he could do would be to shorten the odds a little! He looked around to see what opportunities presented themselves and found himself looking across towards the Heidelberg Building, a towering skyscraper that dominated the horizon on the far side of the park. He started along the path towards it.

The Heidelberg Building was two hundred floors of gold and glass thrusting up to loom over the busy streets. An express elevator accelerated tourists to a viewing balcony on the roof. Shrouded in the silence of his sound-proofed glass cubicle, Chipper watched the glittering lights fall away from him as he hurtled up into the gloomy evening sky. The doors opened with a quiet swish and he stepped out onto the balcony's cold slabs. It was windy up here, with the steady whipping of the breeze almost obscuring the rumble of the city below. It was a cold evening and he was alone, save for one hunched figure looking over the solitary guard rail at the far end of the concrete ledge. This was the sort of situation Chipper needed. He might get blown over by a gust of wind, the guard rail might give way under his weight. He made his way over to the edge.
"So! You wanna go out with style too!" said a voice beside him. Chipper turned to see the tramp, the figure who had been hunched over the rail at the far end of the balcony. "You wanna jump first?"
"I don't really know," Chipper shrugged. "What's the normal procedure in these situations?"
The tramp smiled, then broke into a hearty laugh. He tugged his beard thoughtfully and said: "You know, I like you. You're funny, very funny..."
Chipper looked at him as his smile faded.
"Well," the tramp said, adopting a more sombre tone, "I guess I'd better go before you take my mind off what I'm doing."
He extended a hand to Chipper and they shook hands warmly. Then, quite casually, the tramp leant over the guard rail and allowed himself to topple. His old brown shoes swung up beside Chipper and out into the evening mist.

Something inside Chipper began to scream - an emotion of sorts? Something insisting that this was wrong, that he should do something! With lightning speed, the robot's right arm shot out and grabbed one of the battered shoes. The tramp, jerked back by his leg, swung inwards to crash against the side of the building.

"What the hell d'you think you're doing?" came a furious roar of surprise from below. "Can't a guy jump off a building without somebody trying to give him a hard time?"
"I didn't want you to go," Chipper explained. "I'm not really sure I understand myself, but I think I've grown to be friends with you. It just doesn't seem right that you should die."
"Oh great, that's really wonderful," grumbled the tramp, "Now you're making speeches. Just what I needed!"
"Don't be angry," Chipper countered. "You're just experiencing high cranial blood pressure due to your being upside down."
"I'm angry because you banged my bloody nose into this wall," shouted the dangling tramp, "It's bleeding, actually bleeding!"
"What does that matter if you're going to fall 200 floors to the streets?" Chipper asked. The tramp seemed puzzled by this. Chipper began to consider the situation. "Doesn't it make you think we're doing the wrong thing?" he shouted as a particularly strong gust blew up. "I mean, if I reflexively try to stop you and you're still worried about facial damage?"
"I suppose you've got something," pondered the tramp, "Pull me up there and we'll give it some thought in the elevator back down."
"Okay!" smiled Chipper, pleased that they seemed to be achieving something. He might not understand life, but he had just succeeded in turning what was definitely a negative situation around to being somewhat more positive.
"Hold on," he called down as he braced himself against the guard rail and wrenched his friend upwards.

The guard rail cracked its concrete foundation and pitched forwards. The tramp and Chipper sailed out into the darkness with it. The air around them became cold as they fell, the tramp's ankle still firmly in the robot's grip.

"What’s your name?" Chipper asked as the wind buffeted them. It suddenly seemed a terribly important question.
"Frank," answered the tramp. "What's yours?"
"Chipper."
The floors were blurring past at a tremendous rate, flying up into the clouds behind them.
"I think there’s something to be learned here." said Chipper.
"Damn right!" Frank nodded. He closed his eyes irritably as the ground approached.


(first published in FEAR magazine in 1991)

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

'The Crossing'

Isabella wavered for a moment, then slid the camera back into her bag. On the far side of the lagoon, a wide strip of Venetian buildings stretched along the horizon, but at that moment she didn’t feel inclined to photograph it. The last thing she needed just now was more memories.

Green waves lapped carelessly along the pier, an irregular rhythm counting down the minutes until the waterbus arrived. As she fastened the bag, her hands on the clasp seemed suddenly older now. She still couldn’t get used to wearing her mother’s ring – it looked strangely out of place on her finger. Of course it had only been a month ago.

She turned and looked back along the palm-lined waterfront of the Lido – so lovely in the late afternoon sunlight, but not for her. She couldn’t shake off the hollow feeling… all around her, beauty made empty, like brightly coloured ashes.

The low throb of engines drew her back from her thoughts and she walked slowly towards the pier-head. The other passengers seemed to have melted away. For a moment she thought she might even have the Vaporetto all to herself but as she stepped onto the gangway and under the low roof of the waterbus she heard footsteps behind her. A young woman in a pale blue summer dress, long dark hair and huge sunglasses, hurried down the pier. The ferryman waited for her, giving a slight nod as she handed over her fare and passed on board, then secured the gangway and prepared to sail.

Isabella checked her watch as the engines surged into life. She had plenty of time before she met her son for dinner. Absently, she wondered if he’d enjoyed his afternoon exploring the city. She’d missed his company today, but he was young and she was determined not to let her mood spoil the trip for him.

The giant Campari sign on the roof of the Hotel Riviera bobbed and swayed across the horizon as it slowly receded. Already they were moving out into the maze of waterways that criss-crossed the lagoon, seagulls circling above them. The buildings of the Lido seemed suddenly distant, and Isabella moved round to the open side of the ferry to look across the water at Venice. The metal guard rail was cool to the touch, encased in layer upon layer of white paint, polished by thousands of passing hands. Running her fingers along it, Isabella was aware of the young woman moving over to her side of the ferry.

There was a timeless quality about her and the way she dressed. Perhaps that was just normal for people on the continent. She looked so free with the breeze in her dark hair, taking in the view across the glittering water and clearly enjoying it. When she looked round, there was a warmth in her smile.

“Some journeys pass too quickly, don’t you agree?”

The question caught Isabella a little off guard. Somehow you don’t quite expect people to make conversation with you in a country where you don’t speak the language. How had the girl even known that she spoke English? Was she so obviously a British tourist?

The young woman inclined her head to one side, “Oh dear… I didn’t mean to disturb you…”
“No, it’s fine,” Isabella managed a small smile of her own, “It is very beautiful.”
“Isn’t it just?” The girl held out a slender hand, “I’m Lizzie.”
“Sorry,” She took the offered hand, felt the affectionate squeeze, “Isabella.”
“Nice to meet you. I do hope I’m not disturbing you, but sometimes, when you’re in a lovely moment like this, it can be rather sad if you don’t have someone to share it with.”
“No, I quite agree.” Isabella nodded. She looked out across the lagoon towards the red-brick buildings, “Is this your first time in Venice?”
“Not my first…” Lizzie looked down for a moment, “but I haven’t been here for years.”
She turned her head to look back at the Lido, which now seemed far behind them on the opposite side of the ferry.
“I always wanted to come back though.” She looked up and smiled again, “I’m so happy I got the chance to.”

The note of the engines changed slightly as the Vaporetto turned to follow the deep water channels, and the campanile of San Marco slid gently along the horizon.

“What about you?” Lizzie asked, “Travelling alone?”
“Alone? Oh, I see. No, my son has been exploring the city today. I’m on my way to meet him now.”
“Ah. So you’re here on holiday?”
“Well, sort of…” Isabella answered, “We just felt that some time away would be good…”
The young woman was looking at her from behind those huge sunglasses but she didn’t say anything. Isabella found herself continuing.
“It’s been a difficult time at home recently.” She looked up again, then gave another small smile, “I’m not sure how we came to choose Venice, actually. It is rather lovely I suppose.”
“Yes, it is.” Lizzie agreed softly, “I always felt it was the sort of place I could stay forever.”
“Anyway,” Isabella finished, “Now that we’re here I’m sure it’ll do us good.”
Lizzie studied her a moment longer. “I’m sure it will.” She nodded.

They were more than half way across now. The sun was getting lower in the sky, the bricole beginning to draw long shadows on the water. Isabella watched them slipping by, wooden stacks – so lonely, like a line of forgotten memorials. Why must everything bring her mind back to that? To the loss. To all the things she’d never got around to saying, even though the end had come so dreadfully slowly.

She felt a hand placed over her own and looked up.

“Have you ever seen Venice in the rain?” Lizzie asked her.
“No.” Isabella shook her head, “We seem to have been lucky with the weather whenever we’ve been here. Always warm and sunny, like this week.”
Lizzie leaned forward so that her head was outside the boat, enjoying the feel of the warm breeze on her face.
“It’s funny, but I rather like the Winter too.” She smiled at some private memory, “Of course there’s the Carnival to look forward to, but it’s more than that.”
She reflected for a moment, then added, “Even in the fog and the rain… maybe that’s what sets it apart. That it’s still special, even when it’s not at its best.”

The Doge’s Palace was clearly visible now. Rows of gleaming gondolas moved restlessly between their mooring poles, and a seemingly permanent crowd of people hovered on the waterfront, gazing between the buildings at the Bridge of Sighs. The city seemed suddenly very close, and it was not long before the ferry swung around, the engines rumbling as they surged against the water and gently bumped to rest against the pier.

“Well, I suppose we’ve both got to go…” Lizzie said, giving her travelling companion a last, affectionate squeeze on the hand. Her ring was quite similar to the one Isabella was wearing, only brighter, untarnished.
Isabella looked up at her. For a moment, neither of them spoke.

“I’m so glad I could make this crossing with you, Bella.” she said, taking a step towards the gangway. And then her hand slipped away and she was gone, with a light step, disappearing into the crowd with a final smile over her shoulder.

Isabella stood quietly for a moment, a still figure on empty ferry. Nobody called her Bella but her mother.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Time for a change

A small milestone is reached: the book I am writing is divided into 3 main sections, and the killer's part of the first section is now done. 11,000 words down, 59,000 to go...
It'll be nice to get away from the murder's point of view for a while, but now there is a different challenge in creating an interesting detective character. And it's already proving difficult. When I first planned the story, I sketched out details of all the principal people involved. I find that names can imply a lot about a character, and I had quite settled on Alan Morton for my leading policeman. Until recently.
It wasn't until I started to consider officer ranks, that I heard myself say "Inspector Morton" aloud and immediately knew there was a problem. It just sounds so desperately close to Inspector Morse.
And so I've been changing his name, over and over, without anything feeling right, until today. Now, finally, I think there may be a viable alternative to Morton - I've Google'd it to make sure there's no obvious issues - and above all, it feels right. I may even be able to start writing again.
Procrastination can be so time consuming!

Friday, 13 March 2009

A difficult scene

I was becoming a little concerned about how easy - how enjoyable - it was to develop the murderer for the book project I'm working on.

I needn't have worried.

Wednesday was my penultimate evening class before the end of term, and a number of fellow students have been encouraging me to deal with the first killing before the break. The story had almost reached that point, so I pressed on, determined to get the sequence written before our last class.

There's a journey involved, as the character drives through the night to lay in wait for his victim, and I found myself growing more and more uneasy as I typed it. I've known how the scene would play out for quite some time, but actually writing the murder from the killer's point of view was deeply unpleasant.
The section is almost complete now - another 1000 words or so will wrap up the sequence, and then I can put that character on the shelf and get to work on the detective's side of the story. I'm certainly looking forward to the change.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Further up and further in...

“Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him … but the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reason of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”
The Last Battle by C.S.Lewis


When people argue about which particular manner of worship is the right one, I’m always reminded of this section. It was written in a childrens’ story in the 1950s but perhaps it exhibits more wisdom than those who spend their time judging and persecuting each other today.

I like to think that God has a plan, but I’m not arrogant enough to think that I have to understand it for it to exist.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

A day older...

It was an odd way to turn 40. I'd rather imagined doing something special, but when your partner has a hospital appointment the next morning, the only birthday present you want is for them to be well. Celebrations can wait a little while.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Cat-and-a-half...

Once again, The Cat was looking more like Pirate Cat this week - something irritated her left eye so she was only able to glare at me with one baleful peeper, while keeping the other half shut. She's much better now - and I missed the golden opportunity to take a series of "winking cat" photos - but we're still administering the eye drops, which makes her very cross.

To make matters worse, the vet noted her generous proportions and spoke to us quite firmly about how much we were feeding her. And yet, we do try to be careful - sticking to the healthier types of cat food, and weighing out each portion to ensure she gets the correct amount. We suspect she may craftily eating at other houses, but how does a person deal with that? Perhaps a series of flyers taped to lamp-posts with the message "Have you fed this cat?" or maybe we could try shaving the words "Do not feed" into her fur...

Before we left, the vet was brave enough to heave her onto the scales, discovering that she weighs over 6kg. The national average is 4kg, so Miaow Miaow truly is a cat-and-a-half!

Monday, 9 February 2009

What is wrong with this picture?



As a photographer, I'm getting used to being moved on by security guards, and being told that I'm not allowed to take pictures of things. Submitting images for sale as stock photography requires ownership of the picture, and that in turn means not violating the rights of others when taking the original shot.

Which is fine.

However, the law in the UK means that if I stand in a public place, and take a photograph of the view from that public place, without causing nuisance or distress to others, I am doing nothing wrong. The photograph belongs to me.

Unless that view features the London Eye.

Certain image libraries refuse to accept shots of the capital that include the London Eye, even if they are taken legally from a public place. This is understandable if they are concerned about the threat of legal action from the Eye's owners - nobody wants to expose themselves to that sort of risk - and so the images are rejected.

But are the owners of the London Eye (and other buildings in London) not infringing my rights as a photographer? They don't own the entire area wherein their structures stand, yet I am prevented from selling photographs I have taken of those areas. Some say that there should be no problem if the Eye is "not a prominent part of the image" but how do you take a photo of that part of the Thames where the 135m-tall wheel is not prominent?

I look forward to the day when someone with access to a good legal team challenges this situation. Our rights are just that - rights. They are not privileges, to be slowly withdrawn for fear of opportunist lawyers. Let's hope the erosion stops before we slip into the misery of an even more litigious society.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Several thousand words...

I've been writing more and more recently, so it was encouraging to see an article I submitted last year finally make it into print. A feature piece on stock photography, it appears in the March issue of Digital SLR User and runs for 4 pages (they gave my pictures a lot of space). Finding it was a joy - I'd just arrived at London Waterloo for a stupidly-early meeting in Farringdon and, staggering blearily through WHSmith, came across the magazine just as it went onto the shelf. The pleasure almost made-up for having to be on a train before dawn. Almost.

On the subject of writing, it's probably worth mentioning the book I'm working on. What started as an exercise for my creative writing class has now begun to gather momentum of its own. I'm reading sections back to the group each week, which is extremely helpful. Treating the whole thing as "homework" has been key - it makes me write regularly.

I'm now doing between 500 and 1000 words each week and - at the great risk of jinxing things - it's actually starting to get a little easier. I've got a good understanding of the main character and what he has to do in the current part of the story (though there may be difficult times ahead when I have to research and write convincingly about police procedures). The process of developing each chapter is beginning to feel natural - ideas > bullet points > draft > edit - and I'm even procrastinating less!

I still wonder about the morality of it all - creating what someone this week refered to as a "charming psycho" is questionable for me, but I guess we'll see how the story feels as it develops. If nothing else, it should prepare me for writing the next book.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

What if...?

I can't cope with people I love being in hospital. I suppose that's understandable, especially for someone who's spent a lot of time visiting in the past.

This week was worse than anything I could remember. The distress verged almost on physical pain, tearing through all other thoughts like some relentless torment. You find your mind wandering, getting lost in the fearful daydreams, then waking to find that you can't shake free of the horror.

What if..? What if...?

My soul is a tiny, helpless figure, running around and screaming, deep inside me. Outwardly, everything becomes numb, quiet, but the screams still echo within.

And yet, I know it's worth it. The pain is proportionate to the strength of your emotional tie, and I wouldn't dilute it, no matter what.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Regardless of colour...

Watching Obama being sworn in as President provoked a lot of thoughts last night.

Living in the UK, the issue of Democrat vs Republican seems rather vague - after all, there is now very little to distinguish between between the Right and the Left in this country. In that respect, the encouraging factor is change - someone from the other party holds the office now, and that brings hope that things don't need to continue down quite the same path, that things can be different.

Naturally, there is a lot of focus on the fact that Obama is the first African American to be elected President - a staggering event when you remember that black people were fighting for their civil rights just 50 years ago. Once again, it reinforces the sense of change, at a time when change seems so vitally important.

And yet, there's more to it than just "America elects black President". So many times, watching the campaign, it was clear that Obama was the better candidate - more in-tune, more statesman-like, more electable. The fact is, America chose the better candidate regardless of colour, and that is vastly encouraging.

For too long, vengeful minority groups have been obsessed with settling scores from 50 years ago, 100 years ago, or longer. Meanwhile, fear of this minority vendetta gives ammunition to the bigoted far-right and puts back the day when race is truly no longer an issue.

Hopefully, yesterday's innauguration is a major step on the way to real equality... to a day when a black, white, male, or female President is just a President... to a day when all discrimination, be it "positive" or otherwise, is a thing of the past.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Nouveau Riche

They say there's nothing quite so vulgar as "new money". You know the sort of thing; someone in a shell-suit who's recently "won t' lotto" and decided to enhance their 3-bedroom semi with a Steinway grand piano in the front room and a $117,000 classic Ducati on the front lawn.

First generation money may be bad enough, but a sudden windfall almost always results in a helpless spasm of gauche purchases. Cash is wasted in an arterial spray of spending, as the "newly-minted" try desperately to reduce their balance to an amount they can understand.

What is it that makes those-who-have-recently-come-into-a-lot-of-money blow vast sums on wonderful things that they are unable to properly use or appreciate?

Anyway, I hear that Manchester City are thinking of spending over £100Million on Brazillian midfielder Kaka...