Sunday, September 20, 2020

Holiday

We’ve just returned from holiday (or, as you in the US might say, We just got back from vacation) and, as usual, it already feels like we never left. There is laundry to be done, dishes to wash, and it seems that no one did the hoovering while we were gone.

And right now, what sticks foremost in my mind, is not the relaxing time we had, but the driving.

In traveling to and from the cottage—as well as nearly every excursion we went on during the week—we routinely ran into ROAD CLOSED signs. As you can imagine, due to the roads in that locality being unfamiliar to us, this caused quite a bit of consternation. And our Sat-Nav was of little use. No one had informed it of the road closures so all it did was lead us to closed roads and then try to circle us around so we could see the ROAD CLOSED sign again.

We saw a lot of these on holiday.

Travel aside, the weather was stunning and at least we were able to go on holiday.

When things began to open up, we decided to try to go…somewhere. Abroad was out of the question as it was too much of a crap-shoot: you might book a holiday only to find your location added to a “No Go” list at the last minute or, even worse, get there and then find your destination on the “No Go” list. Therefore, we stayed in-country, opting to go to Somerset, instead, which was very nice, indeed.

The cottage was located in the countryside, with the back garden bordering a broad field, offering views of curious alpacas and the gentle, unending hum of a nearby highway. Inside, the furnishings were POSH, almost too POSH.

Evening companions.

The dishes were heavy and thick and gaily decorated in an afternoon-at-gran’s sort of way. The place mats were likewise flowery and eager to alert me to the fact that Digitalis Purpurea translates to Foxglove and Syringa vulgaris is the Garden Lilac. The cutlery was so substantial I wouldn’t have wanted to accidentally drop a soup spoon on my toe, not unless I was wearing steel-toed boots.

The bathroom, as in many of these places, appeared to have been an afterthought. It was, however, nicely appointed, with a heated towel rail, plush bathmat, and posh toilet paper. It is a good thing, though, that toilets come in a standard size, or I am sure they would have bought one from the same Munchkin factory that produced the absurdly tiny sink. The shower was of adequate size, which was handy because you had to dry yourself while standing in it as there wasn’t enough room if you stepped out.

Still, these were small considerations; we only rented the place for a week, it’s not like we signed a seven-year lease.

On the first day, we did a twelve-mile hike to Shepton Mallet. The weather was grand and so amenable to walking that neither of us felt it was too long. As a bonus, we were able to start and end at the cottage, as the circular hike coincidentally ran right by where we were staying. We went, for a good deal of time, along an old Roman road known as the Fosse Way, which is everything an old Roman road should be—straight and wide and well-used, and great for walking. In the peace of the countryside, it was easy to forget about face masks and social distancing. It was nice.

The Fosse Way

And it was good that the hike included a loop through Shepton Mallet, as it saved us a special trip to see what it was like, which is a bit down-at-heel. It appears to be the poor cousin of Wells, and looks a little ropey and sorry for itself. Still, it was an approachable town with some nice places to sit and eat lunch. We didn’t feel the need to go back, however.

On another grand day, with blue skies and low wind, we set off to Glastonbury and the Tor.

The Glastonbury Tor is famous, and prominent. You can see it from almost any place in central Somerset, except Glastonbury.


We parked our car, followed the signs to the Tor and were pleased to discover that the prehistoric people who built the Tor kindly put in steps and concrete paths, knowing their descendants would be unable to climb to the top without such assistance.

Due to the Tor and its mythical history, and the ancient well, and Arthur’s Tomb, there are a lot of shops in town selling necessities like healing crystals, dream catchers and vegan sandals to people dressed in flowing garments and shimmering harem pants. It made me think that it must be a difficult place to live if you want to be a chartered accountant, or have a sudden urge for a bacon cheeseburger.

Magic Wands and crystal dragon skulls--all your shopping needs.

On another day, we visited Weston-Super-Mare. It was a nice town, approachable, tidy and filled with amusements; all the things you want in a seaside town, except people. Granted, we visited on a weekday in mid-September, but it was sunny and warm and in any other time (READ: The Before Time) the place would have been heaving. I suppose I shouldn’t complain, I’m less comfortable in crowds than I used to be, and hundreds of people pressing in from all sides would have made for a less enjoyable day. Still, the near solitude couldn’t help but get me thinking about all the money they must have lost this season.

Weston-Super-Mare

By noon, the place began to fill up with a reasonable number of people, though it still didn’t compare to anything you might have expected in a more normal time. Most things were open, however, and the people did their best to flock to them. We went to a nice bistro, which was bustling, where we enjoyed a satisfying, socially-distanced lunch. I’m sure they were glad for our (and everyone else’s) business.

That, of course, was last week, when things were looking a bit more rosy. Now, we’re just glad we got away when we could.


Friday, August 21, 2020

Closing the Barn Door

My Postcards books were published a decade ago, and some of the essays in them are nearly twenty years old. So why did I suddenly, and so belatedly, re-release them?

Am I really that vain? Do I crave riches and glory? Have I run out of things to say?

Okay, I’ll cop to some of that, but the real, honest-to-God reason I began this revision journey was because, incredibly, people are still buying the books.

It remains a source of pride, humility, chagrin and incredulity that every month a dozen or so people, for some reason or other, purchase one or more of my ten-year-old humor books. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased as a puppy in a squeaky-toy factory, but after a time I started feeling like people were paying good money for day-old bread. This was why, some years ago, I dropped the Kindle price to $.99 on all the books. (The paperbacks have always been set to nearly their lowest price, and there’s nothing I can do about that.) Then, in the lull between finishing my latest book and picking up the next one, I thought I’d combine all three books into one so the price could be even lower.

This took a couple of days and the results looked fine and I was about to release it into the wild when a nagging voice from the back of my mind said, “Really, if you’re re-publishing it, you ought to give it another once-over.”

Now, these manuscripts have been read and re-read, and checked and re-checked, and proofed and re-proofed, but I couldn’t shake the notion, so I thought I’d try a new proofing trick I had just learned and…oh…my…lord. There were errors, small ones (mostly), ones readers might not even see, but their numbers were scandalous.

The trick is this: MS Word now has the ability to read your text back to you. Reading your work out loud has always been a basic method of proof-reading, but having a machine read it works a hundred times better than reading it yourself. The robotic voice never reads what it thinks it sees, or glosses over missed words; it says just what is there, exactly as it is written. It even has inflection, so extraneous (or missing) punctuation is also highlighted.

Click for larger image

And so, I spent a few days listening to George as he read through the new tome—all 542 pages of it—interrupting him every few paragraphs to eradicate yet another of the astoundingly frequent boo-boos we found. (Yes, George. The Read Aloud function has three different voices: George, Susan and Hazel. If you are in a document set to UK English, you get David, Zira or Mark.)

This, however, allowed me to put the book up on Amazon with a clear conscience. Then that niggling voice said, “What about the ones already up there?”

And so, I spent a few more days fixing each, individual manuscript and re-loading the updated books to Amazon. They are all up there now—Postcards From Across the Pond, More Postcards From Across the Pond, and Postcards From Ireland—and they are as error-free as is humanly possible. (Well, possible for this human, anyway.) Now, the baker’s dozen of purchasers will, at least, be getting better books. Sucks about all the other people but I can only do so much.

The lesson learned: Never, never, (never) publish anything until you have it read back to you by a machine, and—despite this—there are always, always, (always), ALWAYS more errors.


All of my books are available on Amazon:



Thursday, August 13, 2020

Summer, Revisited

2020

I’m sitting in my office with a limp breeze floating in through the open window, bringing with it the scent of dry grass and sun-baked tarmac, as well as a distinctive “new clothes” smell, as I am wearing a shirt I just bought from FatFace. The odd combination brings to mind vivid memories of the first day of school, and an ache of nostalgia.

My intention was to write about the blue skies, blazing sun and record-breaking heat we’ve been enjoying (well, I have, anyway) this past week or so, but I think I’ve done that to death and, rather than rehash something I’ve already said, I will, instead, offer up a post I wrote a decade ago, of another heat wave, as it takes place in the “Before Time” and speaks of the same subject, but in prose so poetic that I can only look back on it in wonder.

2011 

And so, it is summer. A heatwave: that’s what the locals are calling it, despite the improbability of it meeting—as far as I am concerned—any of the criteria. But who would want to quibble over esoteric details on such a fine day? Certainly not I, especially when I’m on a mission.

The days here are hot, the nights long and soft, leading me back to my younger days when, like today, I remained at leisure while my elders toiled these most enjoyable of days away. I’m heading into town, to journey to a place I have never been before; a rare adventure, which makes the pull of my youthful memories even stronger. And so, as I wander past the shops selling mobile phones, iPads and the latest in electronic wizardry, I find myself yearning, with an intensity that makes me ache, for those days when a game of hide-and-seek was enough to satisfy, and the latest in high-technology was a three-speed bicycle.

One, lone person, brave enough to face the heat.

I wait in solitude at the edge of the market square, watching life buzz around me: Near the bandstand, a clutch of young mothers clucks and coos over the latest arrival while, at the bus stop, a doddering of matrons looks on with approval. In the shade of the chestnut tree, an elderly woman stands still as a frightened fawn, watching other pensioners parade past in jackets and jumpers. On the benches a languor of long-limbed ladies (heedless of the dangers of excessive alliteration) lounge lazily in the sun, their white skin steamy in the sultry heat. Nearby, an indolence of boys—bare-chested, tattooed, and rugged—gaze on in anticipation. There is nothing for me here, so I move on.

I’m on a reconnaissance mission to scope out a local village in preparation for a meeting I have there next week. I find it advantageous to make a practice trip in such instances for reasons that become obvious even as the bus rumbles along the impossibly narrow country lanes: if you have never been to a place before, how do you know when you have arrived?

When we enter an area where there are at least a few houses, I get off the bus. I had envisioned a twee village, perhaps with a cobbled main street lined with shops, an old stone church and the pub I was searching for. Instead, there were just empty roads, some houses and, alarmingly, no people. I walk up the road and down the road but find nothing promising. At the opposite bus stop I see a young woman and, as she is my only option, I approach her.

“Do you know…” I begin, but then I realize I have nothing intelligent to ask her. “Where I am?” would make me seem hopelessly inept and, perhaps, dangerous. Asking the location of the pub would be a good opening line, but I have neglected to memorize it. I didn’t feel the need, as I have memorized what I regard to be the one piece of information I need to know: it is the only pub in the village. But where is the village?

So I continue. “Is there anything that resembles a village around here?”

She seems puzzled by the concept of “village,” so I take her to be a local.

“Well, if you go up this road and take a left, you’ll find a pub and a store,” she tells me. I thank her and set off, but soon begin to wonder if, having noticed my accent, she has decided to play “trick the tourist.” The road I am on is narrow and empty and I am about to turn around and try the opposite direction when I round a corner and find, just as she promised, a pub, a store and little else.

But the pub is lovely, old and dark with low, beamed ceilings, and the publican is cordial. I had planned nothing more than a quick drink and a return trip, but the waitress explains to me that the bus service is…well, …

“Crap?” I offer.

She smiles, relieved at not having to break the news to me herself.

“So, I’m going to have to stay here until four o’clock?” I ask, incredulously.

She shrugs and looks at the pristine sky.

“It’s such a lovely day; I shouldn’t think you’d mind.”

And, indeed, I don’t.



Monday, August 3, 2020

Faking It

The US 2020 Presidential Election is beginning to gear up, and we all know what that means: the tidal wave of Fake News (real Fake News—not opinions you don’t like) that is currently swamping Twitter and Facebook (and wherever else virtual people gather in virtual meeting places to argue with virtual strangers) is set to swell into a tsunami.

For the most part, people seem unwilling or unable to do much about Fake News other than spread it. I do not; I’m one of those obnoxious people who call it out.

What do you think? Real, or Fake?

This, however, gives me little satisfaction, and it takes enough time as it stands now, so when the election really gets rolling, it’s going to become a full-time job. Unless I do something about it, and since I can’t stop it, the only thing I can do—the only thing that remains in my control—is to not look at it.

This won’t be easy, as it is so pervasive, but what I propose is this:

If anyone I follow posts Fake News, I will block and/or de-friend them.

I don’t take this challenge lightly, as I have few enough friends—real or imagined—as it is, but at least the few that I am left with will have their feet firmly planted in reality. I’m not saying I’ll agree with them, I’m just saying I don’t want to engage in conversations with people—real or virtual—who base their opinions on fantasy. 

The Fake News Spreader comes in a variety of flavours, but I don’t wish to sample any of them:

- The Originators: I don’t have to worry about these people, they are not on my Friends List, and most of them are in Russia, operating out of some dank warehouse, churning out pseudo-news for fun, profit or world domination.

- The Believers: These are the people who can look at a mocked-up news story that wouldn’t fool a five-year-old and exclaim, “Oh, my GOD! I have to send this to as many people as possible! This has to get out! People need to know this! How come CNN, FoxNews, NBC, ABC or any major news outlet anywhere in the entire world has not picked up on this yet…ow! My head hurts! I must be doing something I’ve never tried before…like…like…thinking…”

From the 2016 Election. A Chihuahua could tell this has been Photoshopped.

- The Provocateurs: These people know they are posting lies, but they don’t care. 

I tagged this as Fake. The thread was deleted. Then it was 
put back up without my comment on it.
So I tagged it again...

There really is no lower form of human endeavour, except, perhaps…

- The Clueless: These are Believers who are so wilfully stupid that they cannot tell the difference between real fantasy and fake reality, causing them to post satire and call it truth.

These people should not be allowed out without supervision, and should be discouraged from watching movies like Game of Thrones, The Hobbit and Avatar.


I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, or that I might not come upon some disappointing truths while attempting to ferret out lies.

I looked this up. It really did happen. I guess, as far as the
US Government is concerned, black lives don't matter.
But using it to scaremonger a vaccine is just crazy.

Nor do I harbour any hopes of being able to completely avoid it. But I do hope, when the tsunami does hit, that I will be on ground solid enough and high enough where I will only get wet and not washed away.



Saturday, July 18, 2020

The NeverEnding Story

During those long-ago days, when Lockdown first began, I—and almost everyone else in Britain—began a Lockdown Diary.

For me, this wasn’t a big change. I have been keeping a journal since the age of eleven and the only difference between the Journal and the Lockdown Diary was that I proposed to update the Journal every day and number the entries accordingly. Therefore, I am, as of today, up to Lockdown Day plus 117 (reminiscent of the WWII designations of D-Day plus ##).


Initially, I determined to keep the daily lockdown entries going until normal life returned. After a few weeks, however, I realized this was never going to happen.

The earliest entries in the Diary contain accounts of the peculiar qualities life had taken on, followed by the repeated chronicling of events before the shutters came down — the period I now think of as The Before Time — and the unbelievably rapid unravelling of normal life. Accordingly, for a week or so, I obsessed over The Last Time I… 
  • went to the cinema
  • had a drink in a pub
  • got a haircut
  • visited a tea shop
  • browsed a bookstore
  • rode on a train
  • etc... 
It was, I see now, my method of mourning for a life that, deep down, I knew was never going to return.

After that, it became a record of how we, and the rest of the world, were coping.

But then things began to open up and, gradually, the entries became more (for want of a better word) normal: we were allowed a second walk, we had a cup of tea in the park, we could go to a different park, we could drive to another part of the county…

It was then that I thought the Diary had gone on long enough, but I wanted a clean way to cut it off, so I decided on an event that would act as a bookend, of sorts, and signify that Things Had Returned to Normal. That event was to meet up with my friend in a pub for a pint.

I didn't take any photos in the pub, so I had to steal this.
It had been one of the final normalities in that eventful week before Lockdown, so the ability to revisit the event would, I supposed, confirm that Lockdown was over. Only, as the day approached for our planned meeting, I began to have doubts. We might be meeting in a pub for a pint, but things were far from normal.

First of all, I had to make a reservation. For a drink. In a pub. Then, I was shown to my table by a staff-member wearing a facemask. I ordered food and drink from an app on my mobile phone and the items were brought to the table by other staff members, also wearing facemasks. Could I really claim that this was enough like The Before Time to allow me to call an end to my Lockdown Diary? I didn’t think so.

But as we sat and chatted, certain things began to occur to me. While it might not have been Normal when compared to The Before Time, it was as normal as it was going to get for now. Also, I rather enjoyed the idea of having a time slot rather than just showing up and hoping I could find a table. And ordering via the app was kinda fun: you press a few buttons on your phone and someone comes and gives you food. What’s not to like? Finally, the pub, although not full, was buzzing and busy and a lot less surreal than the original visit I was comparing it to, where my friend and I were, for the most part, the only two customers, and the bar staff clustered around a container of hand-sanitizer worrying about not having any jobs.

What the pub pretty much looked like the last time I was there.
That visit, back in March, during those twilight days just before Lockdown, was much more surreal, and laced with foreboding, than the visit I was currently enjoying. Therefore, I felt it met—and, indeed, exceeded—the criteria.

And so, what I am calling Lockdown Diary #1 has—instead of becoming a never-ending story—finally come to an end.

Let us all hope I do not have occasion to begin Lockdown Diary #2.


Monday, July 6, 2020

Adventures in Baking

I’ve always had a fondness for baking bread. It was a nice winter pastime, something to do on a snowy afternoon when I had no place to go and nothing else to do. I hadn’t done it in a few years, mostly because I’ve been too busy. But then came a lot of free time, and my thoughts turned to baking—along with about 47 million other people’s. (I’d say 60 million but I assume some people must not be baking, though I have no proof of that.)

Consequently,… but you already know this; there was no flour to be had. Anywhere.

Remember the Great Flour Shortage? It came right after The Great Toilet Paper drought.

The odd thing was, despite the empty shelves, there was not a flour shortage, there was simply a shortage of flour in 1.5 kg bags. So, I went on-line and ordered a 16 kg bag. Problem solved.

Yes, 37 pounds of flour, delivered by Amazon.

Sort of. But after we found a place to store it, things went a little easier.

And so, for the past two months, we have not bought any bread. I am making two loaves and a dozen rolls every week. With mixed results. Thing is, I’m a numbers guy; I believe in formulas and precision, and the notion that, if you follow the instructions and do it the same way every time, you will get the same results, sort of like those chemistry experiments we did in high school.

Turns out, baking isn’t science as much as it is art—and a dark art, at that.

Not sure what caused this...

The variables are too numerous to track and on-line advice needs to be treated like anything else you read on-line: with suspicion.

For example: prior to buying 37 pounds of plain, white flour, I did my research to make sure I could use it for bread making. The alternative was to have one 37-lb bag of bread flour for me and another 37-lb bag of plain flour for my wife (she manages the cakes and scones baking division). That wasn’t really an option, but I was assured—on several bread-baking websites—that you could make bread with plain flour. Bread flour, they told me, was optional. And it was—the same way that wearing underpants with your new blue jeans is optional: you don’t need to, but you may experience unanticipated outcomes if you don’t.

This resulted in several disappointing weeks of attempting to make sandwiches between slices of bread with the consistency of battenberg cake. (This, however, was an improvement on the loaves I baked that had the consistency of a breeze block.)

Fortunately, I discovered that you can make plain flour into bread flour with just a bit of wheat gluten. The downside was I could only buy it in 1 kilo bags, so I now have enough wheat gluten to make 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of bread flour.

Unfortunately, this did not solve all of my loaf-consistency issues. Too much flour, too much kneading, too much moisture in your oven—all of these things (and many more) contribute to the stability of your loaf (no, that is not a euphemism).

And then, stable or not, crumbly or not, cake-like or not, you have to cut it. Whoever said, “the best thing since sliced bread,” knew what they were talking about, and being a generation or two away from the era where a bread-knife was in daily use, trying to obtain an actual, store-bought-loaf-sized slice of bread is something of a challenge, especially with those aforementioned stability issues.

Seeing as how we are committed to eat whatever results from my weekly bread-making fiestas, lunchtimes might have become a gruelling exercise, had it not been for the buns. Oddly, happenstancially, and thankfully, I make really good bread rolls. And I don’t mean in comparison to the disappointing loaves, I mean I’d rather have the ones I bake than the ones we used to buy in the store. They are that good.

Given that, if my experiments with loaves don’t yield better results after another few weeks, I at least have the option of switching exclusively to rolls.

They’re easier to cut.

Dodgy loaves; nice buns!


Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Lockdown Letup

Sorry I’m late with this post, but I’ve been sorta busy.

I had to take the car in for service this morning and the traffic was bad. And then I took it to get washed. We filled the tank yesterday for the first time since March, and it cost so little I didn’t think it was done pumping. And last Friday, I actually double-booked myself and had to chose between a Zoom Book Club Meeting and visiting our friends for an afternoon of seared meat and alcoholic beverages. (Guess which won.)

We’ve also had to pop to the shops to pick up some needed items and later today we’re out for some volunteer work.

Traffic in early Lockdown                                                             Traffic now            

Yes, the Lockdown is letting up here in Blighty, and none too soon, in my view. I think the Government looked at Dominick Cummings and his thinly disguised lies (I mean, absolutely rational excuses) about what he was doing at Barnard Castle and figured the population was catching on that no one in power was planning on following the Lockdown Rules, so they’d better loosen the leash on the public or there might be riots.

Then, of course, there were riots, but not about Lockdown, so that was okay.

I’m pleased to see that the new rules include a “Social Bubble,” which allows a person who is isolating by themselves to select someone else to share their bubble with. This was to encourage lonely grandparents to pick their favorite grandchild but I suspect it’s being used to rekindle all the illicit affairs that had to be put on ice these past three months (unless you were a member of the Government—I’m looking at you Professor Ferguson).

West Street in early Lockdown                                             West Street now             

Life is, little by little, becoming busy. Our social outlets are expanding, retail opportunities are proliferating and even our volunteer work is back on, sorta. This means we are going out into the world more often and for longer and with more to do while we are there. It is not, in any meaningful way, getting back to how it was before Lockdown, it’s more a case of it settling into that New Normal everyone was talking about a few weeks back.

This new world is one decorated with Sneeze Guards, One Way arrows, lots of warning signs, and markings on the pavements telling us where to stand. It’s a world where it’s hard to tell the difference between a group of people milling around and a queue. And it’s an evolving set of social conventions where walking across the road to avoid someone is looked upon as polite, and talking with friends involves shouting.

Note the hand sanitizer, footprints and arrows.
I'm pretty sure this will be the norm for quite a while.

Time was, when we left the flat to go into town, I checked for my keys and my wallet. Now I check for my keys, wallet, hand sanitizer and face mask. And I think it’s going to be this way for some time.

And so, in the mornings, we go for a walk into town, just as we usually did. If it’s a market day, we buy what necessities we can there in order to support local businesses. Otherwise, we pick up sundries at Wilkinson’s or Waitrose. We note that Waterstone’s is now open, but remind ourselves that we don’t need any more books and a nostalgic visit to the bookstore would not be a good idea. We go for a cup of take-out tea in the park and sit in the garden behind the Registry Office, enjoying the flowers and the surprisingly bold wildlife.

The Park in early Lockdown                                                 The Park now           

As we continue through town, I am pleased that they finally have a system in place to avoid collisions. Keep Left signs are now as prominent on our streets and in our malls as Keep To The Right signs are in the London Underground. It helps us maintain social distant, as much as is possible, now that the crowds are becoming larger, and it is a long-overdue improvement on the game of Bumper-People we were forced to play back when people just barged toward you and expect you to get out of their way. Or not.

As we leave town with our purchases, satisfied that we have done our bit to jump-start the UK economy, we look forward to a nice walk through the park on our way back home, only to find a leisurely stroll is not in the cards as a primal urgency takes over and forces us to cut our walk short. This is due to one of the more unexpected wrinkles in this New Normal: a lack of public conveniences.

Therefore, in the future, our Leaving-the-Flat ritual needs to be updated to: keys, wallet, hand sanitizer, face mask, and use the loo.    


Tuesday, May 12, 2020

It’s a Classic

One day, while I was still in single-digits, somewhere around 6 or 7, I went exploring in my parent’s bedroom closet. This was because I was young, unsupervised, and very bored (there was no Netflix back then; explain it to the youngsters). At any rate, I dug through the shoes and boots, and crawled beyond the bags of cast-off clothes, into the far, darkest reaches, and discovered an old cardboard box filled with what looked like magazines.

Now, in a normal house, this would have been my dad’s porn stash, which would have solved the boredom problem until my mom caught me. Instead, it was a treasure trove of old Classics Illustrated Comics, which held my fascination for many years.

This was one of my favorites!
There were dozens in the box, and from them I gleaned a knowledge of literature I otherwise could never have attained, even if my mom had had the original books.

First of all, I wouldn’t have voluntarily picked up a volume of Great Expectations, other than to use it as a weight for pressing leaves. (Explain it to the youngsters.) Secondly, the vividly colored panels, and the actions and dialog they conveyed, brought the stories to life in a way the stilted prose of the past couldn’t hope to.

What a story! And, even now, I'm not sure
I could conquer the actual book
They were old and dogeared when I found them, and by the time I lost track of them—somewhere in my late teens—the covers were falling off, the pages were cello-taped together and every volume was worn from having been read time and time again. It is because of this serendipitous find that I am able to hold my own in a conversation about Moby Dick or Lorna Doone or King Solomon’s Mines. And even when I am not trying to fool my fellow, ersatz literary snobs (they didn’t read the books either; they just read the Cliff Notes) the knowledge they conveyed remains.

Another favorite!
In addition to classic novels, there were also comics about science and nature. I recall one that purported to show how atomic power was our friend but was, in retrospect, little more than laughably ham-fisted propaganda. Others, however, contained things like dinosaurs and information about space, the universe and everything.

Yes, I even read Gothe (pronounced Go' theee)
They also proved useful as I progressed through school, enabling me to write reports on notable books I hadn’t actually read. (This is not really an impressive feat; who among us hasn’t turned in a book report based solely on the blurb printed on the dust jacket?)

How and when I allowed these comics to slip from my grasp I cannot say, all I can say is I have regretted not keeping them, repairing them, and cherishing them. I supposed it was due to an error in my thinking (which I still suffer from) that everything remains the same. I just thought, if I wanted them again, I could find them somewhere.

Nothing like a bit of Shakespeare when you're eight and a half.
Alas, one cannot. (Unless you are prepared to source expensive collector's items, but that’s another issue.)

Desiring to give my own children a taste of this literary magic, I ordered a full set of Classics Illustrated comics for them, but they were a shadow of their former selves. Gone were the glossy covers and lively interior artwork. The ‘New’ Classics Illustrated were booklets of uninspiring line drawings. My children gave them no more than a passing glance, and I didn’t blame them. In researching this article, I found that you cannot buy them at all anymore, not in any meaningful form. More’s the pity.

This is what they looked like inside.
If I had the chance to turn back time, I would visit my eleven-year-old self and tell him to treat the comics with care. I would urge him to protect them, and to keep them in a more secure container than my dad’s old cardboard box so that, in future years, his own children might benefit, and that he also might retain some cherished memories of his youth.

Scary stuff!
Then I’d tell him to not buy a Betamax. (Explain it to the youngsters.)






Monday, May 4, 2020

Quarantine Quandaries

To start off, I have to say that,  if someone put a gun to my head and forced me to pick a period in my life where I had to suffer through a global pandemic, this would be the perfect time to choose.

Neither my wife nor I have jobs, so we don’t have to worry about losing them, yet we’re still young enough to escape being put on the “Vulnerable” list. We don’t have anyone depending on us, we’re not dependent on anyone else and we’re not stuck in a one-bedroom, inner-city flat with three kids we need to home-school while worrying about how we’re going to pay the rent. Quite the contrary; our days consist of a refreshing walk around our lovely town park followed by a range of indoor interests to keep us occupied (now, now, I’m talking about arts and crafts), and very few worries.

The sudden halt of social interaction, retail activity and travel plans was a bit of a shock, but on the upside, we’re saving a lot of money and, incredibly, losing weight. So, swings and roundabouts, as they say here.

(To explain the previous paragraph: Pre-COVID, our walk in the park always ended at a café and generally included a nose around the shops. Tea in the café wasn’t a problem, but, gee, those triple-chocolate muffins look good and, bingo…there goes the diet. Likewise, forays into shops—even when we didn’t go in to buy anything—rarely saw us emerge empty-handed. I hasten to add that none of this was a problem: treating oneself is what makes life worth living, and we were content knowing that we were helping the UK economy chug along. Now, however, when we go for our daily walk, I have to wonder about all the stuff we used to buy, and what we did with it.)

In short, quarantine isn’t as much of a hardship for us as it is for many, many others, and we are pretty much okay with it.

Pretty much.

Contented we may be, but we are now starting week seven of our Lockdown (Your Lockdown May Vary), and things are beginning to pinch around the edges. Consequently, an issue arose. The problem was our hobbies or, more specifically, my wife’s hobbies.

Unlike me and my writing, my wife’s hobbies take up room. Early on, she did a lot of knitting while seated on the sofa watching telly. This worked until she ran out of wool, so she has recently attempted to do some sewing, which has reminded her why the sewing machine she got some years ago has since been collecting dust: there is no place to use it.

Sewing requires space, and the ability to leave a project as it is and come back to it later, which takes the dining table out of the running. With nowhere else to put it, the sewing machine continued to collect dust. Likewise, art, which, in addition to being messy, requires a permanent and more spacious area than one end of the coffee table.

And this brought us back to the unassailable fact that we live in a tiny flat.

Now, we have, in the past, been able to “find” space using a variety of clever methods, but this was a big ask, and we had already wrung as much hidden space out of this rabbit hutch as was humanly possible. More, in fact. But, undaunted, we put our minds to it, hoping, once again, for a triumph of will over physics.

And we found some. Quite a lot, as it turns out.

The second bedroom, which is too small to raise veal in, is where I have my office. We tried to shoehorn a second desk in here when we moved in but abandoned the idea and, instead, I built a storage unit, so my wife at least had a place for her stuff. Most of it, anyway.

Wife's side of the Office

My Side
 But now she wanted a place to call her own. Fortunately, when I built the storage unit, I made it modular, so we were able to dismantle it and re-stack it, like a set of Tetris blocks, into a storage unit that contained a two-foot by three and a half-foot, flat, and pleasingly desk-like, area.

Same amount of storage space, but with a desk.
It looks the perfect solution, and makes me wonder what other bits of space I’ve overlooked. I’m in no hurry to search for any, though. I just hope we get released before my wife decides she needs a walk-in wardrobe.


Monday, April 20, 2020

Once More Into the Breach

Early in 2013, while wrestling with the plot of my hopefully-to-be-published second novel, I stepped back from the tangled mess I was making and diverted myself by writing a quick story for my grandsons. It involved them being transported back in time, and to England, where they faced a dragon, evil knights and a band of ruthless outlaws. (Hey, it could happen.)

In this dark-ages tale, they met an old Druid and encountered a magic stone called the Talisman.

Oh, and Arthur, they met King Arthur, too.

I spent some time trying to figure out a method of transporting the boys, and eventually settled on a cloak. This was due to my wife finding some blue, velvet curtains in a charity shop, which she made a large cloak out of, to go along with the book.

The finished product was titled The Magic Cloak.


I had two copies printed up, complete with illustrations. I put them aside to give to the boys as Christmas gifts and went back to my tangled plot.

But the little story wouldn’t let me go, and I found myself thinking more about that book than the one I was trying to write. So, I put my ‘adult’ book aside and wrote another for my grandsons.

In the second installment, they visited Roman Britain.

There, they were served some drinks, carried in by a servant girl. That was her role, to walk in, put a tray of drinks down and disappear. She didn’t even have a name. But, like the story itself, this girl wouldn’t go away. Eventually, I discovered that she wasn’t just a servant girl, she was the central figure in the book, and the lynchpin of the overall series, which continued to take shape in my mind.

The next year saw the G-Boys fighting in the Battle of Hastings, and the year after that, conscripted—along with Shakespeare—into the army that Liz the First gives her famous “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman,” speech to.

   

From the vantage point I now occupy, I can’t say how the story grew, or when decisions were reached but, as the years passed and I continued to write the books, the epic eventually solidified. Naturally, I thought I’d like to publish it, but knew from the start that I couldn’t think about that until the series came to an end. This was because each book brought new revelations, and often those revelations meant revisiting earlier books and making adjustments to the story arc. But now, the entire series has solidified and I can start thinking about going back to the beginning to rewrite and revise and see if I can make it publishable.

Once I finish the final book.

The books, you see, aren’t written in the way a sane person would write a novel, which involves a detailed plot outline. These are written using a method we in the business call “pantsing” — i.e. Writing by the seat of your pants. With only the slightest idea of where I am going. (For Book V, the entire outline read: “the boys visit The Great Exhibition in 1851 London, and have an adventure.”)


What I do is, I sit down at the beginning of every year and start to type. It’s not how I want to write these books, but there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about it.

While I always have an idea of where the overall story is heading, the path leading to that goal remains dark and mysterious. I can only discover it by walking along it, and occasionally falling off. Each book, therefore, is born from a series of dead ends, long periods of doing nothing, protracted bouts of agonizing over where I went wrong, and a few joyful realizations that I have hit upon an unexpected, but obviously correct, direction in which to move the plot.

The book where I have the boys flying a bi-plane in WWI—Book VI—was, by far, the most torturous of writing experiences…


…until I started the next one.


I have just finished that book—Book VII—which revisits Arthur, completes the narrative circuit and sets the stage for Book VIII.

I am now several chapters into that one, and I am already floundering.

After the sweat, blood and tears of the yearly novel, and once it is neatly confined between the covers of a book, I always tell my wife that the next one will be easier. It never is. It is so gut-wrenchingly NOT easy that my annual assertion has become something of a joke. This year, however, I have a new, and undeniably true, addendum: “The next book,” I told her, “may not be easier, but it will be the last.”


[NOTE: I wrote the above shortly after I began the book, back in August of 2019.

Since then, progress has been typical:

I wrote 1,000 words in one week, then sat for two months brooding about where the book was going. Then I managed 5,000 words in a single week in November before going dormant until February, when I trashed what I had done and started over. Eventually, I got to 12,000 words, then lost momentum due to an unexpected trip to the US.

I kicked the plot around for the next few weeks and now, for some reason I won't mention, suddenly find myself able to devote a lot of time to it.

I am about halfway in, and writing a chapter a day now, so I hope to have it finished by the end of May.

And then the fun begins.]