Friday, October 30, 2009

Exercises in frustration and futility

One: Raking up pine needles from the lawn on a windy day.
Two: Teaching the cats to wipe their muddy feet before walking all over me.
Three: Getting PJ to stop playing video games and go out with me to get a curry. Now. I'm hungry.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Fur, feather, and fin -- what fun!

On our return, I discovered a huntin', shootin' and fishin' catalogue had been delivered to us by mistake. I cracked it open and was enthralled! Finally, an entree into the lower levels of the rural aristocracy, the class to which I should clearly belong. It's all pheasants and foxes all the time. On ties, on braces, on boxer shorts, on cufflinks, on teatowels, on luxury cravats, waste paper bins, toilet seats and loo roll holders. You can order leg of mutton gunslips -- "ideal for carrying a broken gun on your motorbike or in your sports/small car" (why would you want a broken gun?) -- or order a leather travel guncase! You can buy wellington boots that cost 200 pounds!! They have strapping young gels -- the sort that can wring a grouse's neck with a swift flick of the wrist while bagging a poacher -- modelling shooting vests, tweed waistcoats, and (unsurprisingly unracy) lightweight silk thermal vests!!! Everything, in short, that the well-heeled country gent could require.

I'm asking Santa for a deluxe cartridge belt (takes 49 x 12 bore cartridges) for me, the diamond top socks in sage with a contrasting cherry garter for PJ, and 2 small Dri-Dog Bags for when the cats come in soaking wet of an evening. Christmas is sorted.


We were supposed to be going up to London for a dinner with the great and good tonight, but the plague/man-flu/cold continues, so we gracefully withdrew -- distributing our germs to the great and good seemed unfair. Luckily, we had no such compunction about spreading them to the less fortunate (in so many ways) inhabitants of Southampton, so took a brief shopping trip there instead. I had a 20-pound Borders gift voucher clutched in my hot little hands, but was slightly flummoxed by the lack of books on offer. Lots of Halloween candy and Twilight tie-ins and packs of cards with your horoscope on, but not so much in the fiction section. Or, more specifically, no Persephones. And at the moment, that's what I want to buy: beautifully designed books by unknown women writers of the 1930s and 1940s. But they were not to be found in this "book" store. Of course, PJ spotted something he wanted and I grabbed a book en route to the checkout in order to not feel left out -- which is why I now own a 500-page hardback biography of Beau Brummell, the ultimate dandy. Right. Not random at all.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I went to London and came back with ...

1. Some pictures of my niece.
2. A line of bruises down my thigh from other people's laptop bags on the Tube.
3. A rotten head cold.

I hate going to London.

On the plus side, we were given a free mint Aero on emerging from the Tube at Goodge Street on Wednesday morning. It's amazing how much a free 50p bar of chocolate can brighten your day.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Winchester railway station: fail

For the past few months, the railway station at Winchester has been worked on -- or rather, from the customer perspective, worked over. Ticket barriers have now been installed at the entrance to each platform, not for the benefit of the passengers -- who struggle to get suitcases through the tiny gates or to run for a train if late. No, these are revenue-generating gates, the front line in the war against fare dodgers, those evil people who don't want to pay the extortionate prices that South-West Trains charges for its services. After all, why hire conductors and ticket inspectors (who might also provide a measure of customer service and safety) when you can just add gates? Along with the gates, which also cause lengthy queues to get OUT of the station when disembarking from a busy commuter train, the powers that be have decided to remove the large and useful information screen from the entrance to the station on the Winchester side. So, you arrive at the station to meet some friends and can't see whether their train has arrived -- or what train is currently arriving or next to depart. To get this information, you have to stand to one side of the gates (of course you're not allowed through them if you don't have a ticket) and crane your neck to see the tiny TV screen hoisted high above the platform. Useless; absolutely bloody useless. The other platform through the underpass has an information screen, but not both. They do have, of course, a CCTV screen, showing the area that you're standing in ... presumably so that they can avoid having two members of staff on duty late at night. Higher prices, fewer staff ... privatisation was SUCH a good idea. Who do I blame? Hmm, let me think ...

Epic fail, Winchester, epic fail.

Wide-angle lenses, depth of field, and point of focus

Yes, it's weeks 2 and 3 of the digital photography course -- and we actually got to take some snaps! We also learned about depth of field: the wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field; the narrower the aperture, the deeper the depth of field. And one-third of the depth of field is in front of the point of focus and two-thirds behind. Confused? OK, let's take a look at it in practice with the help of an attractive model:

Photo 1: wide aperture, shallow depth of field. Shin is beautifully crisp and "large" (not fat) at the front of the picture; the background is pretty fuzzy.

Photo 2: slightly narrower aperture, deeper depth of field, the leaves are starting to become crisper.

Photo 3: much narrower aperture, much greater depth of field, the background is much clearer. Shin appears smaller and further away.

And last week, we headed out into the car park at Eastleigh FE college to take pictures using manual exposure and tripod. Underexposing a shot means it's too dark; you get a negative number popping up in advance on your settings screen, and you play around with the aperture and shutter speed until the camera recognizes that there will be enough light to take the picture. Overexposing means the picture will be too bright, but this time you get positive numbers on the screen. Obviously, at night, you need much slower shutter speeds -- sometimes up to 15 or 20 seconds, as we're not using flash. You can't hold a camera steady for that long, so you need to use a tripod. Although the car park wasn't the most exciting space, it was interesting to see just how well long exposures worked in terms of making use of all the available light. For example:

Best of all, though, is that having a better understanding of what you need to do makes it more enjoyable to go out and experiment. I was up at crack o' eight this morning to feed the cats, and noticed the beautiful light from the rising sun. I grabbed my camera and headed out in my pyjamas (don't worry, there was nobody around) to see what I could get. And while the telephone cables are annoying, this light is superb. I feel ... less incompetent!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Apparently, I was tempting fate

Of course I was. Four mice today. FOUR! One wriggling, two dead, and one disemboweled. Lovely.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Where were we?

Business at work means that when I finish for the day, I rarely feel like pottering about the Web or constructing blog posts. Books, TV, playing with the cats, or removing the mushrooms lurking about under the surface of my once pristine lawn -- fine. Using the PC? Not so much. To get back into the swing of things, a quick roundup of life chez Dumpling.

TV: We've finally finished Season 5 of The Wire. Recorded during August and September, we hit a scheduling problem due to PJ's frequent trips overseas, but we watched the season and series finale last night. Satisfying, I think. So nice to see a show finish properly -- no dragged endings, character replacements, spinoffs. Just, the end. The BBC did a great job of showing all five seasons in such a short period of time, clearly the best way to watch it. Now I want to go back (in a bit) and watch it all over again, picking up on the many things I missed on first viewing. A series that really lived up to its reputation. Next up, season two of Spiral and sexy French detectives and lawyers doing sexy French detective and lawyerly things.

Books: The Reading Detectives project was extended for another month, just after I'd reached my limit on Hampshire-based books. Instead, I've been engrossed in WW2 -- both fiction and historical diaries -- rather appropriately given that September was the 60th anniversary of its outbreak. First up was "Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downs". The first few stories are extremely acidic and very funny, but progressively become more thoughtful, more sad as the war progresses. After, I read "We Are At War", Simon Garfield's collection of Mass Observation diaries for 1939-1940. These diaries are fascinating, and a strong counterpoint to the myth of wartime Britain, the Blitz spirit, everyone thinking that Churchill is wonderful. For the crime fiction book club, I've read "Mistress of the Art of Death" by Ariana Franklin, a story of child murder, anti-Semitism, and autopsy set in 12th century Cambridge. Fun! And, I've just discovered, there are two more available ... time to go shopping.

Cats: The death toll has dropped as the cold weather has put the brakes on rapid mouse reproduction. However, that didn't stop Shin from bringing one in last night and letting it go in my office -- and complaining vociferously when we removed it (still alive) from her. Reports of battles with the big tabby next door have reached us, and I'm pretty sure that he broke in to our utility room, ate their food, and then peed in their food bowl yesterday -- despite the supposedly secure lock on the catflap. Vigilance is necessary.

Football: Another victory for Norwich and we've entered the promotion zone! Yes, it's only October; yes, a lot can happen between now and May; but still -- this is where we should be.

And, finally, it's autumn! Properly autumn! This week has seen the first bowl of porridge, the first log fire, and the arrival of the heavy duvet on the bed. And, of course, rain, pine needles, and yet more mushrooms. However, the over-wintering onions and garlic have been planted; the spring cabbages, radishes, and spring onions are coming along nicely, and the trees are changing colour. It's all good.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

False hope?

Nine goals in 2 games -- and Norwich are suddenly 7th in Division One (or Three, to those of us who remember a time before the Premiership and Championship nonsense). We're still a long way off the leaders, 11 points behind Leeds, but our goal difference looks healthy for the first time since our opening-game drubbing. Perhaps we can make it back up? Perhaps we won't face the horros of Division Two? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps . . . ?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Back to skool

After last year's abortive attempt at an MA, I've opted for something less academic but more creative: a beginner's course in digital photography. 24 weeks, 60 hours, of learning how to use my rather nice Pentax digital SLR camera properly -- no more "Auto" settings for me! We kicked off last night with an "in at the deep end" session on what all the different settings on our cameras mean, which was something of a revelation. Tv = shutter speed priority; Av = aperture priority; AWB = auto white balance; ISO is sensor (or old-skool film) sensitivity; P = program (more control than Auto, but no difficult calculations of aperture or shutter speed); M = manual (scary stuff). We then moved onto apertures and shutter speed. Let me see if I got this right.

Aperture is the size of the hole through which light passes on to the sensor. The shutter speed is how long the light is allowed through that hole. You're aiming to get a perfect amount of light onto the sensor for the picture you're taking. The wider the aperture, the shorter the shutter speed can be; the narrower the aperture, the longer the shutter speed. Now, the complicated stuff comes with the numbers. The widest aperture setting has the lowest number (F1.8); the higher the number, the narrower the aperture, which seems completely counterintuitive but I'm sure there's a good reason for this -- if only there were some kind of worldwide network of computers that shared all this information in an easily accessible format ... oh yes, let's see what Wikipedia has to say.

"The lens aperture is usually specified as an f-number, the ratio of focal length to effective aperture diameter. A lens typically has a set of marked "f-stops" that the f-number can be set to. A lower f-number denotes a greater aperture opening which allows more light to reach the film or image sensor. The photography term "one f-stop" refers to a factor of √2 (approx. 1.41) change in f-number, which in turn corresponds to a factor of 2 change in light intensity."

O-K. This is veering dangerously close to physics, a subject that made me cry when I studied it at O level. I will just take a deep breath, try to repress the awful memories of ticker-tape machines and wave pools, and focus on remembering that the lower the aperture number, the higher the shutter speed.

One week down, 23 to go. There are 17 in the class -- 12 women and 5 men. I was a little surprised by that, stereotypically figuring that more men might be interested in photography, but perhaps the name of the class "Digital Photography For Complete Beginners" provides the explanation; are women more willing to acknowledge that they are complete beginners?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Steep? I should say so!

The Reading Detectives project is keeping me healthy in both mind and body. After reading the poems of Hampshire-based poet Edward Thomas, killed in WW1, we set out on the literary trail that East Hants so kindly provided. It's a killer!

You set out from the church in the village of Steep and amble gently through some woodland, past some sheep in a field, and then alongside the sort of houses I plan to buy when my lottery numbers come up. Then, it's onto a bridleway by a stagnant pool, and up ... and up ... and up. All the exercise in the world will not help a bit when it comes to climbing hills! Thankfully, the climb was "relatively" short and we got our breath back on a long, winding line, full of yet more gorgeous houses and kamikaze pheasants, launching themselves out of the bushes at us.

However, these heart-attack-inducing efforts were worth it. Just look at that view!

We rested here by the Edward Thomas memorial stone, just amazed at the countryside spread out below us. And, as is so often the case in September, the weather was perfect. Not a cloud in the sky, a slight breeze tempering the warm sun. This was good. But steep -- see?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Days 6 and 7: A487, A55, A470

A week back at work and the holiday is already receding into the past, so I'll keep this short.

1. The Welsh Highland Railway from Caernafon to Hafod y Llyn and back, via the Aberglaslyn Pass: Excellent. Steam trains, beautiful scenery (especially on a nice day), and lots of men with beards and cameras, heads poking out of the windows in a flagrant violation of the many notices that say "Do not stick your head out of the window". Civil disobedience is alive and well on the railways.

2. Llandudno: A great seaside resort and not just for the oldies (although there are quite a few of them). Victorian trams up the steep slopes of the Great Orme! Terrifying cable cars back down to the pier! Fish 'n' chips! HMV!! If you go, please stay at the Space boutique B&B -- it's lovely. Charming owners, excellent breakfasts (from what I could see, as I was still recovering from cooked-breakfast overload), and attractive rooms, just a short walk from the town centre. Delightful!

Ah well, it's all over now. Back to clearing away decapitated and incapacitated mice -- 13 in the past 7 days.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Day 5: A487, A497, B4413, B4417, A499, A487 -- or, the Llyn Peninsula

This was the day that the holiday really gelled. We'd set the alarm for 7 a.m. to see if the weather had improved, and it had. Not a cloud in the sky, just early morning mist, so we set off to explore Portmeirion village while it was empty. It's hard to describe just how bonkers this place is and the lack of other visitors made it particularly odd -- as if we'd just walked onto a deserted film set. Well worth a visit if you're in the area.

We headed down to the beach, cursing the fact that we'd failed to buy an inflatable "Rover" at the gift shop the previous day, so couldn't film each other being chased across the sands by it, a la Number Six, but still -- gorgeous. And again, slightly spooky, mainly because of the texture of the sand and all the signs warning you to get off the beach at least 2 hours before high tide or risk being sucked into the quicksand.

After a heartyish breakfast (toast and a boiled egg for me by this point), we set off for our tour of the Llyn Peninsula -- otherwise known as the pointy bit that hangs down from the top. We drove through Pwllheli, called in at the art gallery at Llanbedrog, and pottered down to Aberdaron at the very tip, where some brave souls were swimming in the sea. Then, it was up to Porth Dinllaen to visit what a US colleague had described as her favorite pub in the entire world. She wasn't wrong. The Ty Coch Inn is gorgeous -- or rather, it's in a gorgeous location, overlooking a huge bay, with little fishing boats floating out in the harbour. I mean, look at that view! And then imagine looking at it with a pint in one hand and a pack of scampi-flavoured Nik-Naks in the other! Bliss!

By the time we'd walked back along the beach to the car, we were starting to flag -- too much fresh air and an early start made us nappy. So, we headed off to our B&B inside the walls of Caernafon, had a quick bite to eat at a pub, and then retired to bed -- at 8 pm! Holidays: exhausting.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How many full "English" breakfasts is too many?

Three, apparently. One of the twin glories of the British B&B is the full "English" (even if you're in Wales) breakfast: cereal, juice, toast, and a fry-up.* All B&Bs now have their act together and provide a hearty vegetarian variation on the theme -- but after three days of fried eggs, veggie sausages, fried bread, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, and hash browns, I called it quits. From then on, I could only manage cereal or a slice of toast -- my body just can't take that much protein that early in the morning! PJ soldiered on manfully for a few more days before admitting defeat in Llandudno; getting value for money is one thing, but feeling stuffed by 9.30 a.m. is just not worth it.

*The other glory? Tea- and coffee-making facilities in every room. With biscuits.

Day 4: A496, A487, A497

Oh boy! When it decides to rain in Wales, it really rains! Our plans to visit Harlech Castle and stroll around Porthmadog were abandoned for a quick drive-by/through in each case, followed by a trip to Criccieth in search of a promised but never found Lloyd George museum. We ended up at Outdoor World instead, checking out the tents that we will (I hope) never buy.

I didn't mess up the lighting on this photo; it really was that grim!

We'd planned to spend the afternoon wandering around Portmeirion -- home of The Prisoner! -- but the rain meant that we managed just half an hour wading through the mud on the woodland trail before giving in and heading back to our enormous suite in the Castell Deudraeth and a hot (whirlpool) bath. Still wet, but in a good way.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Day 3: Barmouth to Dolgellau ... and back

This is why we came to Wales -- to do the walk along the old railway line and over the railway bridge into Barmouth. Or rather, to cycle it -- we're not total gluttons for punishment. Actually, after 2 years of only sporadic cycling (Hampshire is hilly!), getting back on bikes was both good and painful. Luckily, the weather improved greatly from the night before, giving us blue skies and sunshine for the first time in the week. The round trip was 20 miles; we stopped for lunch at Penmaenpool, by the cutest bridge and old railway station imaginable; and the whole expedition was just delightful (albeit somewhat muddy, given our lack of mudguards) -- beautiful scenery and an excellent path, thanks to the Snowdonia National Park authorities. If only all cycling was as enjoyable (and flat) as this!

Later that evening, it was off along the A496 (in the car -- like I said, we're gluttons, not gluttons for punishment) to watch the sun set over Cardigan Bay while eating great fish n' chips from the Wayside Fish Bar, as recommended by the gourmand from whom we'd hired bikes. Not a bad day at all.

Day 2: A49, A489, A490, A483, A458, A470 ...

This is not what you want to see as the mist descends over the Cambrian Mountains, the light starts to fade, and there are no signs of a diversion around what turns out to be a landslide. Some helpful Welsh ladies told us we would need to go via a town that sounded like a sneeze but was actually Machynlleth, something we figured out after a Penguin (for sustenance) and 5 minutes staring at a map. ALL Welsh place names sound like a sneeze, so it's difficult to tell one from t'other. 30 miles later, we were the other side of the landslide and heading down the Mawddach estuary to the seaside resort of Barmouth, just in time for a damp, dusky walk up the hill above the town, some dinner at The Last Inn, and then a sodden, rain-swept trot back to our B&B. So far, so not great.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Day 1: M3, A34, M4, M48, A466, A49

Our tour of aging British seaside resorts, accompanied by lashing rain and lots of fish 'n' chips, continues in 2009: This time its Wales. North Wales to be exact. We've just spent the night at The Clive (very pleasant, great food, lovely service), outside Ludlow, and will shortly head over to the very not-Welsh-sounding Barmouth on the mid-Wales coast for a couple of nights. After that, it's on to Portmeirion (home of The Prisoner), the Llyn Peninsula, and Llandudno, before moseying on back home and liberating the cats from their cat hotel. Both PJ and I and the Hampshire wildlife are looking forward to a break from their relentless slaughter.

As I was in charge of map-reading yesterday, we took a diversion from our/sat-nav's planned route from Otterbourne to Ludlow and headed up the Wye Valley, calling in at Tintern Abbey. This was well worth the detour (and getting stuck behind what was probably the only bus of the day on the road). Tintern Abbey was stunning, not dissimilar to Fountains Abbey up in Yorkshire, and in a truly beautiful setting. The rain, that had threatened since we'd left the Severn Bridge, held off, giving us dramatic clouds and bursts of sunshine.

Let's hope Powis Castle is equally impressive.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Road safety pop quiz

If a busy road leading up to a roundabout had a pavement and underpass on one side and a narrow verge leading to a blind corner on the other, would you:

a) Use the pavement and underpass as God (in the form of Eastleigh Council) intended?
b) Walk in the road up to the roundabout, clamber awkwardly up the verge to get out of the way of the oncoming cars, and then decide that walking in the middle of the road makes more sense?

I just don't understand the woman I saw this evening who selected b. If a council is good enough to provide you with a safe option (and the underpass is very short, well-lit on a bright summer's evening, and not at all scary), why wouldn't you use it? Clearly time for a little bit of chlorine in her gene pool.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Norwch 5: Wycombe 2

After a disappointing 2:1 loss to Brentford (Brentford!) mid-week, we rebounded to a more promising victory over Wycombe. We now have Ian Culverhouse back at the club and a new manager in Paul Lambert. Let's hope he lasts longer than 2 weeks, unless his two predecessors.

Watching DVDs, old-skool-style

We've joined Blockbuster. Yes, I know -- we had a subscription to LoveFilm but let it lapse when it became clear we just weren't watching the DVDs quickly enough to make it worthwhile. It's really annoying to work out that the DVD you failed to send back cost about the same to rent as it would have done to buy. Boo! The problem, I think, is that you can put together a list of films that you want to watch at some point -- but they're not necessarily the films that you want to watch now. In contrast, popping round to Blockbuster on a Saturday evening means you can pick up the film that pushes your buttons at that point, as well as fish n' chips (or Indian, or Chinese, or pizza, or Thai). And, you have the pressure of having to return it in a short space of time, which ensures that you watch it immediately.

Last night, we rented Let The Right One In -- excellent. The blu-ray version meant the snowy Swedish landscapes were stunning, the children were suitably chilling, and there was nowhere near as much gore as I had feared; in fact, it was no worse than many episodes of Buffy. The only distractions, as always for us with Swedish films, were the architecture (the swimming pool! the metro station!) and the home furnishings. Yes, we really are that shallow. Highly recommended.

As the cats and I are on our own again for the next few days, I took advantage of Blockbuster's 4 for 10 quid offer and found three more films to watch over the next three days: Bottle Shock (Alan Rickman!!!), The Duchess (Ralph Fiennes!!!!), and Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day (er, Frances McDormand!!!!). One this afternoon, one this evening, and one on Tuesday, drop the DVDs back on Wednesday before 10 p.m., and see what else is available. Nice.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Two decades

While reading a story about this year's record A level passes, I realized that it's exactly 20 years since I got my results. Which means I've been alive longer since I took them than before I took them. Which is ... scary.

Still, I'm glad. I'd hate to be a teenager again -- and I'd hate to be a teenager now. I'd like to think that our exams were harder (or marked more severely), but just passing them was seen as an achievement; you didn't need to have 10 A* at GCSE and 4 As at A level to be regarded as clever. And there certainly wasn't the pressure for places at university -- or the vast costs associated with attending. Yep. It's good to be 38.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Who killed Cock Robin?

"Who killed Cock Robin?" "I," said the Sparrow,
"With my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin."*
"Who saw him die?" "I," said the Fly,
"With my little eye, I saw him die."**

One robin, two mice, and two pools of vomit. What a day.

*If by "Sparrow" you mean Nin and/or Shin and by "bow and arrow" you mean claws and teeth.

**Which would be me and PJ.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

TV shows we're watching

In our ongoing attempt to catch up on the TV we missed while in Amsterdam, we've been watching The Thick Of It -- BBC2's delightfully sweary "mockumentary" of government life. I know, I know: swearing isn't big and it isn't clever -- but this is just incredibly funny, and, scarily, seems like it would be incredibly accurate. We're going to watch In The Loop (the movie follow-up) tonight.

We're nearly at the end of Season 4 of The Wire, and full marks to the BBC for showing all the seasons so rapidly and consistently. It's still grim (and getting grimmer) but thought-provoking and challenging.

Better Off Ted is our palette cleanser after an episode of The Wire; it's a funny, biting look at life in a giant corporation -- Viridian Dynamics -- complete with worryingly realistic commercials for said corporation. As The Guardian said a few weeks ago, if you liked Arrested Development (oh, we did!), then you'll enjoy Better Off Ted. And it was right and we do.

Finally, Desperate Romantics. A few years ago, the Beeb had a series about The Impressionists, which was rather wooden and po-faced with laughable, expository dialogue. I was rather worried that DR would follow the same path, but it's much more tongue-in-cheek and thus lots of fun. Plus, Mark Heap as Charles Dickens! What's not to love?

Norwich 1: Exeter 1

Well, that's better -- I suppose. Given that we have but a temporary manager. However, I think our treatment of Bryan Gunn has been pretty shameful. We (and he) would have been far better served by letting him go at the end of last season, hiring a new manager, and then giving him our full support, rather than binning him just 10 days into the new season. An embarrassing situation all round.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Reading detectives

No, this isn't about detectives in fiction, which was PJ's initial take. This is a literary project, designed to uncover forgotten authors with links to or who took inspiration from five counties around the UK. I'm part of the Hampshire group -- on the trail of authors such as William Cobbett, Patrick Gale, and Otterbourne's most famous resident, Charlotte M. Yonge. It's good fun and is pushing me to broaden my reading habits and explore my adopted home.

Check us out here.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Fresh from the garden

Four weeks ago, I planted seeds. Today, we ate salad -- picked in between torrential downpours. This was SO easy: tip seeds into rows, cover with a little soil, let the July rains do their work, and hey presto -- food!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Woody perennials

Buddleia is, in gardening circles, also known as the butterfly bush. This morning, it was easy to see why: the purple flowers on the bush outside our front door were covered in them. Luckily, these were too high up to make playthings for the cats -- others that have flown into the conservatory by mistake have not been so lucky. Pretty, aren't they?

Sexism in the home

A Southern Electricity employee comes round to read the meter. This is no easy task, as it sits behind a fixed panel, near the ceiling in the office downstairs. As the taller member of our domestic partnership is away for the day, I haul out the stairs and the tool kit. "Right, Phillips head screwdriver" I mutter to myself.

"Oooh," cries the meter man. "Well done! Not many women know what a Phillips head screwdriver even is!"

I take a deep breath and refrain from plunging said screwdriver into his head and removing an eyeball and what few brains sit behind it. After all, I would hate to perpetuate the boring notion that feminists don't have a sense of humor. Or ruin a perfectly good Phillips head screwdriver.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Best sentence of the week

Yes, I know it's only Monday, but I doubt anything will top this:

"Being a vegetarian in France is like being an intellectual in Ipswich. You stand out like a sore thumb, no one understands you and frankly everyone just wishes you’d leave – as quickly as possible."

Thank you, Woman in Black.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Spine flu

Bantam Books, you're on notice (as Stephen Colbert would say). Why are they the target of my (righteous or otherwise) ire? Because they publish the Bryant & May novels by Christopher Fowler -- a series of seven books so far -- and they've already changed the spine design THREE times. To whit:

The first two books in the series: Author above, title below in thick caps, and a box around. Even here, they have two variations on a theme, with the author name in yellow and then white.

The next two: Author above in multicolored font, title below in thin caps, no box, but a story-related icon at the bottom of the spine.

The final two (that I own): Author either above or alongside the title but in very thin, spiky caps; title in white, near-cursive font. No box, icons at the bottom.

It's infuriating! Why would you keep changing the spine design for a series? Not only does it make it harder to pick the books out from a bookstore shelf, but they don't look connected on MY bookshelf. Orion did the same thing with Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus novels, changing the spine font halfway through the series -- highly annoying when you're collecting all 20. Everyone knows that a row of classic Penguins — be they orange for literature, green for detective fiction, or blue for science — is a thing of beauty because of its standardization, not despite it.

And don't get me started on the year-long wait for the paperback version of the B&M novels to be released after the hard-back ...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

It's just not my day

Two mice -- dead.

Two packets of Felix "As Good As It Gets" (or whatever the more expensive stuff is called) -- uneaten.

And now this. My beautifully folded laundry -- sullied.

Don't test my patience (any further), kittens. I am NOT in the mood.

Oh, am I boring you? Tough! And look at me when I'm talking to you!

Oi, Fungi! No!

Not again! Why me? Why my lawn? Why why why?

Yes, I'm really quite upset about this.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Did you know?

That there are seagulls in Bath?

And that seagulls don't sleep?

And that they prefer to squawk loudly at each other -- All. Night. Long?

You would probably only know this if you stayed in a hotel room in Bath that overlooked the River Avon, home of said seagulls.

ASBOs are too good for 'em; pass me my air rifle.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

I'm impressed

Alibris: I owe you an apology. I received an email this morning from a named customer service rep, telling me that I didn't need to return the book they wrongly sent me. She suggested that if I didn't want it, I should pass it on to a friend or donate it to a library. Fast, efficient, thoughtful service -- outstanding!

Monday, July 06, 2009

A dilemma

I receive two packages from Alibris. One contains the book I ordered. The other contains an art book that someone in Australia ordered but that Alibris decided to ship to me instead.

Being a good global citizen, I head over to the Web site to check out what I should do. Hmm. It's easy enough to return books that YOU ordered and that YOU don't want; it's less obvious how you print out a return slip for a book that you didn't order and don't want.

Let's see, Contact Us -- that should do it. The only phone number is a US one -- not that they tell you that, of course. Right, an automated email form. They want an order number -- let's use the one from the Australian order. And off it goes, into the ether.

I am somewhat skeptical that I will ever receive a (helpful) response. Oh well, looks like I'll be able to learn to read Chinese paintings, should the mood take me.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

We hear voices in the allotment

"Can we go home now please, Dad?"

There is no reply. The rain continues to pour down.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Does my Shin look fat in this?

No, no she doesn't.* And you know why? Because she's lost more than half a kilo in weight! We took the girls to the vet this morning for their checkup and vaccination booster, and she had come down from 4.3 kg in February to 3.7 now. This is great news, although it means we won't qualify for Sky's highly educational "Fat Pets, Fat Owners" show. Damn.

*Well, maybe a little.

Friday, June 26, 2009

My blog post worked!

It's raining! It's pouring! We were woken from our sleep by the torrential deluge outside! The water butts are full, the gutters overflowing, the street outside is a river of mud, and the cats are soggy. Hurrah!

Now, about the lottery tomorrow night ...

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Three reasons why hot weather is hateful

1. You have to water your garden every evening or watch your newly grassed patches of lawn and dianthus go brown and die.

2. The twice-weekly runs become even harder and sweatier.

3. Your neighbours start having meat-laden BBQs -- and the chicken wings and sausages smell SO good!

Will these blue skies and this oppressive sunshine never end?

(I have a feeling I wrote a post about hating hot weather before, but with 950 posts to go through, I couldn't be bothered searching for it. Apologies if anyone feels like they've been ripped off.)

Monday, June 22, 2009

It is a truth universally acknowledged ...

That if a blogger isn't writing posts, she's probably doing something more interesting with her life. Such as reading "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies", picked up on a recent visit to Forbidden Planet. Elizabeth Bennet is a Shaolin-trained master of the dark arts, battling the zombie hordes that surround Meryton. Can she find true happiness with Mr Darcy, who's been instructed in the finest dojos of Kyoto or will she succumb to one of Lady Catherine de Burgh's crack squad of ninjas during her practice at Rosings Park? It's gripping stuff, and certainly brings out an ultraviolent subtext that I wasn't aware of in Jane Austen's first (and better-known) draft.

Fine holiday reading fun!

Thursday, May 28, 2009


I [heart] Magnums! Not only is Waitrose doing a BOGOF promotion on their lovely ice creams on a stick, but Magnum is also running a competition. You enter a code from your stick into a Web site and have a chance to win cash cards! So far, I've eaten 3 white chocolate Magnums and won 20 quid!!!! And there are still two more dark chocolate Magnums in the freezer. Great ice cream and cashback -- ker-ching!

(PS: Hello Mr Magnum Marketer: Is this the sort of viral marketing you want? If so, send more cash/ice creams and I will write more blog entries.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Vermin, vermin everywhere

It's been a bumper couple of days for wildlife around the homestead -- look who just popped up on our fence, looking rather damp and bedraggled in the pouring rain!

What next? Foxes? Deer? Tory candidates in the European elections?

Wait a minute!

That's not a bird -- it's a mouse! On my bird feeder! Eating the nuts!

(You might want to click on the photo to enlarge it.)

It is rather cute, with its big eyes, big ears, and little paws. Unfortunately, it's time is almost certainly running out, and I will be forced to remove its limp carcass from Shin's clutches at some point in the near future. But not today; it's too wet for Shin to go outside and she is instead luxuriating on her blankie downstairs. Bless.

Update: As expected, I had to retrieve a dead mouse from Shin this morning. It wasn't quite dead when I fought her off, so I put it in the hedge outside to recover. Big mistake. Nin brought it in about an hour later, and Shin, no doubt outraged by my earlier betrayal, proceeded to wolf it down. Now, I can't guarantee that it's the same mouse -- it actually looks smaller and less golden than the one above -- but it's still depressing. For me, and the mouse (of course).

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Paging Mr McGregor!

There's a bunny rabbit in the allotments, eating the lettuces!! I don't have a shotgun, but Nin shot out of the (upstairs) window, across the roof, down over the fence, and bravely saw it off.

It had better not come near my onions. There's a limit to my love for small, furry animals.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Wot a scorcher!

An equally typical but much sunnier bank holiday Monday today. We set off for Mottisfont Abbey, our nearest National Trust house, calling in at the Hillier Garden Centre en route to pick up some ornamental mini bark mulch. The gardens (at Mottisfont, not at home) were looking glorious: splendid irises, the first of the 350 varieties of old-fashioned shrub roses in the magnificent walled garden, and sweeping vistas of fine English countryside. We ate rose-flavored ice cream in the shade of those trees that survived the gales of earlier in the month; we explored the cool (both literally and figuratively) ice house and cellarium; and we pottered alongside a tributary of the Test River, trout spotting. Then, it was back home to let in our stupid cat (Shin) who can't get to grips with the new, magnetic-lock cat flap that we installed last week and to do a little more gardening. Blessedly, it has also started to rain -- the perfect end to a very hot weekend.

We are an auntie

Yes, to paraphrase my favorite scapegoat, I now have a niece. 7 lbs 6 oz, lots of dark hair, and a fine set of lungs. Probably to be called Scarlett. Welcome to the Internet ...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Confessions of an over-zealous pruner

Last year, before I had any real understanding of gardening (i.e., before I got three books on it for my birthday), I approached the garden with a "slash and burn" policy. Had napalm been available, I probably would have used that, but in its absence, I went a bit wobbly-bonkers with the secateurs. Anything green in the wrong place fell prey to my shears -- including the clematis on the Scots pine. The previous owners of our house had clearly tried to train it up the trunk, tying it with bits of (tatty) raffia. To me, it just looked like messy, unsightly growth -- and to my minimalist mind, that meant it had to go. Hack, hack, hack. It wasn't until my mother pointed out that I was removing most of a rather nice plant that I stopped. As a result, last year's crop of flowers was somewhat disappointing.

However, as with the hydrangea and forsythia out front, it turns out I've done no real long-term damage. This year, we have a beautiful waterfall of flowers from the clematis -- and now that the strong winds of the past 10 days have died down, I've been able to capture them on film. Once these flowers have died down, we'll attempt to tie the plant back onto the tree, but for now, I'm rather pleased.

Next on my hit list: the fuschia!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Being busy, achieving

Well, watching other people achieving on our behalf. To whit:

1. Broken window in conservatory: replaced.
2. Now-cleared border: filled with top soil and reseeded, in lieu of payment for broken window (see 1).
3. Chimney: swept.
4. Lights in kitchen and utility: fixed.
5. Car: serviced and MOT'ed.
6. Kitchen: tiled!

And this is on top of three runs this week and the watching of nearly half of the episodes of Season 2 of The Wire. Like I said, being busy, achieving.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

'Allo, guvnor!

The chimney sweep came round today. He cleaned our chim chiminee, polished the brass knobs, gave me some useful tips on burning fuel more efficiently, and then departed with a cheery whistle. Best of all, we're in his books now, so he'll call us this time next year to come and do it all again.

And he didn't look -- or sound -- a bit like Dick van Dyke. Altogether now:

Monday, May 04, 2009

An English Bank Holiday Monday

Other countries (used to) get military parades. We have grey skies and queues for the car park.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Bluebells and slithery things

This year, apparently, has been a bumper year for bluebells. While out running across the local country estate, we saw that the woods were full of them -- far more than I've ever seen before, and the smell was quite overpowering. Even our garden has several bunches of them, adding a blast of colour and fragrance.

Along with the flora, though, the spring has also brought out the fauna. Meet one of Hampshire's relatively rare slow-worms. These can be quite large and just a little unnerving if met while weeding a border.

Even more unpleasant is the thought of the mess the cats would make if they got hold of one of these. If only their catflap included a checkpoint search facility that made them drop any little bundles of fun from their mouths before entering the house. Cat-flap makers: Look into it.

Just as I'm about to turn the light off

"Squeak, squeak."

"You have GOT to be kidding me."

The next 15 minutes were pure farce: PJ and I chased Shin around the house, while she kept the still-live rodent clamped firmly between her jaws. No video of this; it would be X-rated for language. However, the mouse lived to see another day (unless offed overnight by the many other neighbourhood cats) and we got to sleep without further disturbance.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Testing, testing

Watch and laugh as Shin struggles to get through the catflap. What do you mean, "fat thighs"?

Video courtesy of our new flip video mino HD camcorder -- lots of fun and VERY easy to use, even for a techno-idiot like me. No pictograms, no incomprehensible, poorly translated instructions; just point and press the big red button. I would imagine it's a worthwhile investment for those of you with children. Me, I'll stick to the cats.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Before and after

Nature abounds right now. The lovely warm weather through March and again after Easter has meant that everything is growing rapidly and bounteously -- we are awash with plants. My new borders are rooting in nicely (or at least until the slugs get them), the cherry and apple trees are blossoming, and even the wisteria is starting to turn purple. Most impressive, however, is the herb box.

In August last year, it looked like this:

Now, it's this. Mint, thyme, chives, parsley, marjoram, and coriander -- all growing spectacularly!

In fact, we have so much mint and parsley that I'm running out of things to make with them. Time for some tabbouleh, mint choc chip ice cream, and, best of all, my "Fauxjitos" -- Sailor Jerry rum, mint syrup, and soda water.

Several parts of our back garden, on the other hand, are considerably less abundant than they were last year. After a couple of months of continuous, back-breaking labour, we've gone from this:

To this. My RHS encyclopedia pretty much implies that after three years of neglect, you may as well move house rather than trying to fix the problem, but I'm glad we didn't give up.

Not bad, if I say so myself. The best part of clearing the ancient brambles and tree-trunk-sized chunks of ivy is that we won't have to do this much work again. Uprooting this degree of planting is a one-time job -- particularly once we get the sheeting down and the gravel on top of that. It's a temporary solution until I can figure out exactly what I want to do along this side of the garden.

Finally, the border outside our front door. Annoyingly, I don't have a decent picture of its overgrown state before we tackled it. This is the closest I can get -- you can see the growth in the distance.

Now, we've dug out the various ferns that had taken up residence, removed the hawthorn tree in a giant tub that was nestling in the back, and cut back the budleia and forsythia. In their place, I've planted my evergreen collection: 2 Japanese azaleas, 2 rhododendrons, 2 conifers, a pieris, a euonymous, and some heathers -- all dwarf, thankfully. So far, so good. I'm getting flowers and new growth on all the plants. Keep your fingers crossed that they live long and prosper.