Thursday, October 28, 2010

Star gazing

Dave has just started his lifetime's ambition - a part time, distance learning astronomy degree. As you might expect, part of the course work involves observing stars and other objects in the sky, taking measurements of movement, identifying colour and brightness etc etc. Birmingham is hopeless for that sort of thing - it doesn't get dark there so much as orange, thanks to all the street lights - but rural Cumbria is much better, and over the weekend it was clear enough and cold enough to pop out a couple of evenings to gaze at the heavens.

On Saturday we took the car out to a layby part way up a hill to one side of Lake Windermere, where there's a good uninterrupted view of the northern and western half of the sky. When we set off it was clear (and very cold). By the time we'd arrived, only about 20 minutes later, some stubborn high cloud had drifted across and refused to budge. We saw odd frustrating glimpses of the Plough and one or two other bright stars, but nothing else, and we were beginning to turn blue.

On Sunday we didn't even bother with the car, just walked up the road at the back of the house, which eventually comes out onto country lanes in the hills behind the town. Again there was a good view north and west; again it was bitterly cold and this time the sky was clear. It's amazing what you can see when there isn't a constant haze of artificial light; stars were popping out in the most unexpected places. The very bright moon took away some of the clarity but Dave still saw more than enough for his studies. And this time we'd dressed appropriately in umpteen layers and boots and thick woolly scarves, so we didn't even feel the cold.

I have a feeling we'll be doing lots more star gazing in the months to come, as the seaons gradually change and new stars become visible. Thank heavens we spend so much time in an area where we can actually see them...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Currently reading

The last couple of weeks I've been reading 'The Evil Seed' by Joanne Harris (of 'Chocolat' fame). Recently I read her 'Blackberry Wine' and loved it, and was hunting around in our local W H Smith for another of her books to try. I saw 'Chocolat' and very nearly bought that, but then this title leapt off the shelf at me. The cover looked suitably creepy and the blurb sounded really intriguing, full of the suggestion of ghosts and general other-worldliness. I put 'Chocolat' down and bought this instead.

The first thing I found on opening the book was an author's note. Books quite often have explanatory notes from the writer, of course, but they tend to be at the end, once a reader knows what happened and wants some further information. This was at the start, and seemed basically to be trying to disassociate Ms Harris from the book. It was the first one she'd ever written, some twenty years ago. It had been out of print for some time, and only republished at the request of her readers. It had been through some further edits but was mostly still untouched.

It all sounded a little... strange. And when I started reading I soon saw why, because the style was surprisingly different from the seamless, beautiful prose of 'Blackberry Wine'. It was disjointed, with odd unannounced changes in point of view and chapters written in either first or third person depending on which character they represented. On top of that, characters seemed to do the oddest things, like chasing baddies half way across a county in the middle of the night without so much as a torch, and the only explanation was that this was all a bit spooky and supernatural.

The pages turned fast enough because I wanted to know what happened, but I can't really say I enjoyed the experience. The plot became steadily more and more melodramatic and the characters were just plain irritating. By the time I finished I was reading with gritted teeth, and the ending was so dark as to render the whole book rather pointless. Although there were flashes of Ms Harris's later brilliance, I won't be reading this again, whereas 'Blackberry Wine' has gone on my shelf of treasures to be savoured at a later date.

It raises interesting questions about whether writers should give in to their readers' demands. Yes, it sells more books; but if a reader only read this they might go away with a very unbalanced view of the author's capabilities. I'm not sure I'd want some of my earliest writing efforts to ever see the light of day!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Just finished...

I've been scribbling away the last couple of days on a new short story, inspired by recent news events here in the West Midlands. There's been a sudden rash of schools targeted by arsonists - more even than usual - and I was vaguely scratching my head and wondering why. Then a little imp in my head piped up with a wonderful theory and I just had to turn it into a story. I'm not going to give the whole thing away but I will just say 'never trust the headmaster'.

I don't often write stories based on news events; too often they've been and gone before I've managed to think my way through an associated plot. For crime stories, though, a trawl through the newspapers can be invaluable. There are so many people doing so many strange and dark things that it's a positive well (sink-hole?) of inspiration.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Forbidden fruit?

The spam is getting worse, but what an image this particular subject line conjures up:

"Every man should have a huge banana between his legs."

It must be something about the way my mind works, because I've immediately started to think of all sorts of naughty little stories. Bad Fiona. You'll have to blame the spammers.

In the wars...

On Saturday night we went out with friends for a smashing meal at a Thai restaurant in Knowle. The food was delicious and the restaurant very stylish (I set my heart on a beautiful Thai silk scarf that dangled enticingly above our table, but I was good and left it behind.) The only problem was the chairs. I sat down and realised I was a long way from the table, so grabbed my chair to pull it closer. What I didn't realise was that it was solid carved wood, weighed about half as much as a Thai elephant, and wasn't going anywhere. My hand slipped straight off again and I bent back two fingernails so badly that I ate the meal with one hand.

Then this morning our bathroom window jammed shut. It's probably the damp weather we've been getting, coupled with unseasonable warmth, that has made the wood swell. I heaved and shoved and pushed and joggled. Eventually the thing flew open - and promptly banged shut again, straight onto the knuckle of the same hand. It's made a lovely bruise, and typing hurts. Ow.

On a brighter note, I've been getting a sudden rash of spam emails promising me 'Miracle ErectionPills [sic] for you'. All I can say is, if they can give me an erection it'll be a miracle indeed.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Now it's the monitor

Having fritzed my laptop the other week and had to rush out and replace it, I've now spotted that my trusty old monitor is on the blink. It's hardly surprising. I bought it in about 2000, as one of the very first flat screen monitors which at the time was very ground-breaking. Since then technology (as ever) has moved on, leaving my monitor trailing along behind, and it had also faded or 'muzzied' over the years so I was having to sit closer and closer to pick out any detail. Of course, that wasn't doing either my back or my eyes much good, so today I decided enough was enough.

"Let's go to the big branch of Curry's in the Bull Ring," Dave said. "They'll have plenty of choice there."

They might well have, if they still existed. Good grief. We've only been away from Brum for 3 weeks and suddenly everything has changed. That store has vanished without trace, without even a note on the window to tell us where our nearest alternative is, and is in the process of being replaced by yet another teen clothing shop. There are now 953 teen clothing outlets in Birmingham city centre. And nowhere to buy computers.

We drove out to a suburb where we knew there was a Currys and by some miracle that had survived. And I've bought myself a very nice 18.5 inch crystal flat screen that makes reading text a breeze and looking at pictures a pleasure.

But I'm left wondering what's going to break down or give out next...

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Comedy 'riches'

Last night we headed for the Glee Club in Birmingham city centre with a couple of friends, to see the American comedian Rich Hall. In case you haven't heard of him, he turns up quite regularly on tv shows such as QI and Have I Got News For You, and also did a recent series of documentaries about different film genres in the US. Although he hails from Montana he's settled in Britain and has a remarkably British sense of humour. He's caustic, he's sarcastic, sometimes he's downright vitriolic - but he's always very, very funny.

He seems to write all his own stuff and also improvised large chunks of the show, picking on hapless members of the audience and weaving jokes around their relationships and job titles. He had immense fun with one energy manager, for instance, and with a headline he'd recently seen in an Irish newspaper: 'Cork Man Drowns' ("His name was Bob."). He also began with a terrific piece about the Conservative Party Conference, currently taking over a large section of Birmingham city centre around the ICC with the result that parking is almost impossible. "When I say I'm pleased to be here," he deadpanned, "I meant I had to walk all the way from the far side of Edgbaston."

We spent the evening helpless with laughter... which was just as well since the seating arrangements were far from ideal. Around 400 people crammed into a small hall, with tables, is not conducive to space - I've seen sardine tins that were roomier. It was hot, it was squashed, and the poor folk who ordered meals spent the next half hour trying to eat them without elbowing both their neighbours in the ribs (or worse). Rich Hall is clearly a very popular act and you can understand the Glee Club management wanting to cram in as many folk as possible, but this time they went a little too far.

Great night out, though - and we even got a ride back in our friends' swanky new car!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Another chance to see...

Just in case you missed seeing my tiny story 'That Sinking Feeling' on Sunday 19th September, there's another chance now that Paragraph Planet have uploaded their September archive.

Click on the archive link and select Sept 19th from the drop-down box in the middle of the screen. Like my previous Planet entry, 'Rollercoaster Ride', this is based on an episode from my childhood and yes, the neighbours really were that annoyed!

While you're at it, have a look at the entry from Sept 12th which was written by friend and fellow-writer Sharon Maria Bidwell, which is stuffed full of vivid imagery in only 75 words.

You'll be able to catch both stories until the end of November.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Minor disaster

Dave and I were travelling back to Birmingham on Sunday. We always take our last bag of trash to the local tip (rather than leave it somewhere to niff, or bring it all the way back). That morning it was hammering down with rain and there was a big queue for the recycling bins. In the rush the wrong bag got thrown out - the one containing all my work files.

I lost quite a bit. Two whole ring-binders full of work - one a novel in progress, the other a collection of short stories I'm hoping to submit somewhere. On top of that I'd jammed in all my birthday cards, and at least one birthday present. But a cd is replaceable; work isn't. Luckily I had most of the contents saved on a flash drive, but I've still lost all my handwritten notes - and the list of exactly which stories were included in the anthology.

I've spent today printing out two copies of everything so I can keep a copy in each property and not have to ferry files about. I've also slowly rebuilt the anthology, using an out of date copy of the contents list and a good deal of detective work. It might not be 100% back to how it was, but it's getting close.

I still go cold when I think of that bag getting thrown away... but I'm very very grateful that at the last minute I decided to pack my flash drive in my suitcase, not that bag. That really would have been a disaster...