Monthly Archives: January 2009

Have you twigged yet?

At the end of the weekend away at Rob’s (Weakened away), Stew was unable to take my brother and I to the station and so Rob stepped into the breach.

We packed all of our stuff into the back of Rob’s car, waved goodbye to the house and set off to the local station. Soon after setting off, we could hear a strange scratching and scraping noise coming from under the car. Rob was worried, could it be his exhaust? We didn’t have much time before our train, so Rob decided to go for the pragmatic approach and hope for the best. We’d check it out once we got to the station. All the way there it continued to scrape. It was a strange transition, at first the noise was unwelcome – a sign that something had gone wrong. Once Rob had decided that he was going to hold on until the station the continued noise was a blessing – it meant that whatever it was hadn’t fallen off.

We pulled into the station and all three of us got out of the car. Immediately it was obvious what had caused the noise. Sticking out of the rear passenger door that none of us had used was a small branch of a sapling – something about half a metre long with about 10 twigs on it. We all had a good chuckle of relief; Rob opened the door and pulled the branch out. Then he started breaking the branch into bits and putting the twigs back onto his back seat. But as he was doing this, a young boy approached.

“Why have you got a branch attached to your car?”, he shouted.

We didn’t really know how to respond to the question. We hadn’t planned this thing, and yet that was clearly the only way that this kid could imagine something like this could have happened.

“Why have you got a branch attached to your car?”, he shouted again, although he didn’t need to shout as much this time as he was standing right near to us.

Rob is, I think you could say, somewhat of a hippy nature. And he decided to emphasise that style in his response.

Rob: “I think it just wanted to come for a ride, man.”

Rob had, as this was going on, almost finished putting the bits of branch into the back seat.

Boy: “Why are you putting a branch back in your car?”

Rob: “It just wants to go home man. I’m just going to take it home.”


The boy, it would seem, had a small number of rage issues. My brother judged the moment…

Pete: “Hey, stop giving us so much stick.”

We chuckled to ourselves about this joke. The kid was clearly not best pleased.

Boy: “Don’t you insult me mate. Don’t you insult me you pr!@k!”

Pete: “It was only a joke, mate.”

Boy: “Oh, you think it’s funny to insult an 11 year old kid, do you? Think you’re tough insulting an 11 year old kid?”

Pete: “No.”

Boy: “My dad’s a f*£king traveller and he’ll do you if he finds out that you’ve been messing around with his kid.”

Pete: “Right.”

Me: “I think we have a train to catch.”

Boy: “You better get on that train because my dad’s going to come down here in a moment and he’s a f*£king traveller and he’s going to get you.”

We all started to edge towards the station, except the kid who seemed to be edging towards wherever his dad was. Just as we were almost out of earshot, Pete again judged the moment correctly…

Pete: “I can’t believe you two didn’t stick up for me.”

We all started laughing again. We are quite easily amused. This, however, wasn’t wise as the kid, who presumably hadn’t heard what Pete had actually said (not that it would have mattered) thought we were laughing at him.

Kid: “Right, I’m getting my dad.”

We should have told him to leaf it out, or we’d call the copse.

Spare me a quarter

It’s January and I am a quarter of the way through the first draft of my new novel. That sounds really a lot better than it should. I conjures up ideas that make it seem like I might be finishing said draft by the end of April. No, it’s taken most of 2008 to get a quarter of the way through the novel, which is a bit of a long time. The problem is application of course. It takes an awful lot of time to write a novel and time is something that I don’t seem to have an awful lot of.

My work day is 8am to 6pm which rules out quite a large chunk of the day. Especially as my commute is another hour and a quarter on top. Writing in the night is difficult. I agree with Gunter Grass who said, “I don’t believe in writing at night because it comes too easily. When I read it in the morning it’s not good.” So I must write in the morning for an hour before I go to work. That means I get up at 5:30. Start writing at 6am and then leave the house at seven. Normally I get home again around eight because leaving work is harder than it should be, which means I have about an hour or two before going back to bed. And because that plan is so crazy, it has tended not to work as well as it might. I could try a different plan. That’s possible, normally when something doesn’t work, it’s best to go back to the beginning and try a different tack. But I just don’t see how I can. So this plan is it. Perhaps the next quarter will be faster?

When I ever mention that I am a certain distance through a novel or a piece of work I am often asked how I know. Well the simple answer is that I don’t really know of course. A page might take a week to write in first draft or it might take 10 minutes. And that page that took you ten minutes to write might change the course of the novel and add another chapter or subtract one. It is an imprecise measure. I haven’t done as some have and tried to come up with a number of words for a novel and then fit that. I think that doesn’t really work because every novel has a different pace and speed. I know it will be roughly a novel-length story, which is, I suppose, somewhere between 65,000 – 150,000 words. But that is a pretty big somewhere. The safest way I know is that I have an idea of all of the scenes and moments that I want in the novel. I have a list of them and to try and keep myself on track I have marked them as short, medium and long. This helps with the pacing while I’m in the trenches. Do I need to make this a fast punchy bit to get somewhere else or should it be slow and relaxed so that an emotion can be drawn out? Once I had the first few versions of those short, medium and long scenes done for this book, and I know how many of them there are I can tell how far I am through the book. That’s my method. Your mileage may vary.

The second thing that people ask me is always, “what is it about”? And the answer is, “I’m not telling.” I have to keep it a secret so that people don’t accidentally influence it. It’s hard enough second-guessing my own brain, let alone all of yours. Imagine I told you the book was about fish. And you said, “Oooh, I like books about fish, I always like it when books about fish have bits in them about the swim bladder”. That sounds like a perfectly natural thing for you to say (well, maybe not quite). The problem is that while I’m writing I’m always going to be trying to get that dang swim bladder into the story, even if the story would be much better without it. And even worse, the other way around you might say, “I don’t like books about fish.” And that doesn’t help at all.

So a secret it must be. But I feel like by telling you that it’s being worked on, I might keep the pressure on me to finish it. I’ll let you know when I’m half way.

Weakend away

I’ve had a few weekends away recently that have caused me to feel more tired by the end of them than the beginning. This trend started back in early December when my brother Pete, my cousin Stewart and I went out to visit another cousin, Rob.*

We were off for an exciting adventure in the countryside. Pete and I only missed a couple of trains in the bar at Waterloo getting up the Dutch courage that is required when us city types venture outside of Zone 6.**

Eventually we set off with a couple of beers for the train. We hadn’t seen each other for a bit so we were the kind of annoying people on trains who are loud just when you’re trying to go home / sleep / slip into a coma. Luckily several others decided to join in with our conversation. We offered them beers but none of them decided to accept. This may have been to do with my continued insistence that they weren’t poisoned.

Anyway, eventually we arrived and were picked up at the station by Stew. And soon we were resting in front of Rob’s fire and eating pizza as they did in days of yore.***

The next day we needed to get a bit more serious about the whole weekend business and so we walked to the pub. Before we went we decided to get some wood for the fire. Rob showed us where we could get some nice sustainable wood sources and off we went.

After an afternoon in the pub playing pool it was time to go back home for a couple of bottles of wine and some roast dinner.

We decided to quickly divide into teams. Rob and I would be in the kitchen. Pete and Stew would go and get some wood.

I declared myself Rob’s Native American chef**** and off the others went. Rob was explaining how much he enjoyed being out in the countryside – the connection with nature, the way that the wood in the fire was found rather than farmed. And he said, “You have to tread lightly on the Earth”.

Just as these words were hanging in the air, Stew came storming back into the kitchen.

“I’ve hurt my leg”, he said.
“How did you do that?” Rob and I chorused.
“I fell out of a tree.”
“What were you doing in a tree?”, asked Rob.
“I was sawing off some wood”.

He slapped his leg better and headed back outside. “Don’t be too much longer,” I shouted.

I decided to lay the table. I even managed to fashion some napkins from some toilet paper that was available (don’t worry, it hadn’t ever been near the toilet). And soon everyone was sitting down to Rob’s lovely roast beef. As we sat down we were joined by the house cat Gizmo. Giz was not, it must be said, the kind of cat that waits for you to do something for him. He’s an off-on-his -own-and-doing kind of cat. So as we all sat down for dinner Giz knew what to do. Other cats I have met would have tried to jump up on the table or tried to move in and wait for a scrap to be thrown to them like a dog. Gizmo had other ideas. A few minutes later we heard a crunching cracking noise. We looked down and we could see the hind legs and tail of a mouse hanging out of Gizmo’s mouth. As we all looked at him he looked back with an expression which seemed to say, “What are you looking at? Oh, you’re so much better than I am, are you?”. It was a look that was hard to disagree with.

After dinner, we decided to return to the pub where a band was performing some live music. Folk music out here isn’t a concept; it is what music is. The pub was rammed with people all enjoying a great set by a band whose name escapes me. The characters were all out in force. Everyone knew everyone, except us London types who stood out like a sore thumb. There were conversations like this going on:

“Sorry I puked on your sofa.”
“That’s okay fella, but next time try and clean it up okay?”
“What happened to that sofa, by the way?”
“I had to throw it away, it was ruined”
“I could have sold it for you, you should have called me.”

The walk home seemed a lot shorter than the walk there which was handy as it was several degrees below freezing. And when we got back we stayed up in front of the fire and talked the night away.

It was a great weekend.

* Stew and Rob are cousins too, not brothers. Everyone in this story is a cousin, except me and my brother, who are brothers, and the cat, who is no relation.

** I know Zone C is technically the zone furthest out, but that isn’t really London anymore.

*** Italian yore but yore nevertheless.

**** Soux chef. Do try and keep up!

After Rothko

Last weekend Katherine and I went to see the Mark Rothko exhibition at Tate Modern.

This is me before Rothko*:

This is me after Rothko:

*I only look quite so strange because I was trying to stand very still, as one false move would have caused my scarf to fall down, ruining the effect.

How many holes does your shirt have?

Katherine called out to give me an update on matters of laundry, “you have a hole in your shirt”.

“Oh dear, that’s a shame,” I answered, “I’ll have to buy a new one.”

This, I knew was the nice safe answer. The answer that would steer me out of danger. It wasn’t the answer I was thinking of though. I really wanted to say, “that’s good, otherwise I’d never be able to put it on”. But I guessed, rightly I’m sure, that this wouldn’t be what she wanted to hear.

Of course this got me thinking, just how many holes do I have in my shirt?

Well when it’s buttoned there is the one for my neck and the one for my torso. There are the two for my arms and there are the two for the cufflinks I’m not wearing (this shirt has buttons and cufflink holes). There are also the two holes that are there so that when you roll up your sleeves you have enough material to do so. These are the kind of slits (or darts if you prefer) that run down the last quarter of your sleeves on the inside. Also my top button is undone giving one extra hole (the buttonhole). And finally the shirt pocket hole. So done up my shirt has 10 holes.

What about undone?

Well, if I roll up my shirtsleeves I don’t actually change the number of holes as I gain two for the buttonholes and lose two for the slits as they are now subsumed into the sleeve holes.

On the front of my shirt I get two extra holes for the collar buttons and I lose two for opening the shirt. The head and torso hole disapear. But I do gain one hole per button. There are eight buttons on the front of my shirt but the top one was already open. So I add seven.

So when open my shirt has 17 holes! So what’s an extra hole here or there? I was obviously just trying to make it an even 18. I thought about mentioning this to Katherine but I decided this might cause more of my shirts to develop extra holes.

So, readers, how many holes do you have in your shirts?

Winslet’s weepy win

Why wouldn’t Winslet weep when winning?
Wouldn’t we weep, when winning when weary?
Whatever we want, won? Wonderful.
Weak wells wash winkholes.

Three Tic Tacs

Imagine the situation. A person kindly offers you a tic tac. Normally when this happens you get two tic tacs and then you can chew one on each side of your mouth like a normal person. If they, for some strange reason, offer only one you can generally ask for a second without too much bother.

But what if you get given three? Now you can’t really ask for a fourth they are likely to accuse you of sheer unmitigated greed. And you can’t give one back that seems ungrateful.

But you clearly can’t eat an odd number of tic tacs. So what to do? I’m considering carrying a spare packet of tic tacs just in case such an incident occurs. So I can provide the extra one. The only problem is getting the spare out of your pocket and in to your mouth without the giver seeing. You wouldn’t want them to notice. Because then people would know how crazy you are. And you really want to save that for your blog.

So what would you do if you were given three tic tacs?

Is this a covert way of saying you want more of my tic tacs? You could just ask me, you know. I already know you’re crazy. – Ed

Finding focus

I have been trying to become slightly more organised. I don’t know exactly what I’d like to be slightly more organised than. Perhaps an elephant? Yes, I think in a fight to the bitter foolscap hanging file, I would like to be more organised than an elephant but I’m happy to be pipped to the lever arch by an ocelot. Caveat emptor, dear reader. Do not try and out-organise an ocelot*.

I have employed an application called Omnifocus to get things going for me. It is available for the Mac and iPhone only. So IN YOUR FACE BILL GATES, how are you ever going to get organised enough to conquer the world now? Oh… wait… Perhaps he is using an undocumented feature of Outlook?

So I have been using this software on my iPhone. It only costs £10 and it works really well. There is a £70 version for the desktop and so far I haven’t seen the need for it, so there you have my review. It is really really really worth £10 if you have an iPhone and you want to be more organised than an elephant but less organised than an ocelot.

What it does is basically provide you with a task list that you can categorise in two ways. So you can say this thing I have to do is to do with Christmas and to do with Shopping, because it’s buying a Christmas present. But this other thing is to do with Christmas and being at home because it’s writing my christmas cards. The projects are things like Christmas, Contexts are things like Shopping and being at home. It’s very handy because when you are out shopping you can look and find all the things you were supposed to do when you were out shopping.

However there does seem to be one really annoying problem. There are two kinds of tasks in the world***: those which are like publishing an article on gamboling and those which are like making the potato mountain in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Lots of people think there is a distinction between tasks that have steps and tasks that don’t but I think that’s a lie. Every task has multiple steps, sometimes it’s not worth breaking them down because you’re only going to do the thing once. Do you think Richard Dreyfus ever planned to make that potato mountain again? No, of course not. That was it. The thing was done. But once he had done it, it was done and he knew it, we knew it, even those aliens knew it. He had it checked off. But even something as simple and crazy as a mashed potato mountain has inner steps:

Step 1 – Wash Potatoes
Step 2 – Peel Potatoes
Step 3 – Boil Potatoes
Step 4 – Drain Potatoes
Step 5 – Mash Potatoes
Step 6 – Sculpt Potatoes

There is, believe it or not, a process for Gamboling articles too. It has far less to do with potatoes and can be described like this:

Step 1 – Ignore Potatoes
Step 2 – Come up with idea for article
Step 3 – Write article
Step 4 – Edit article
Step 5 – Get Katherine to edit article
Step 6 – Publish article

As you can see the concepts have exactly the same number of steps. The difference is that I do the same thing time and again. Over and over. Round and round. For years. And the difficult part is keeping track of which article is at which stage. What I need is to basically be able to add an idea and then have it create all of those steps for me automatically. I guess this would be called something like a template. And then I would be able to tell what is actually going on.

Why is this important? Without templates the software just doesn’t do what I need at all. When I look at my entry which says “Build Mashed Potato Mountain”, I can see that because it’s unchecked it’s not done. And when I start the project, it’s hard not to fall through the sub-steps without ending up with a mashed potato mountain. I mean if you miss out certain steps then you could burn your house down. That sort of thing will tend to focus your attention. But with the gamboling articles there might be weeks between the beginning and the end of each one and more than likely multiple articles being worked on at different times and at different stages. Keeping track is quite a lot more complicated. And at the moment I can’t cross off each bit when it’s done, so I can’t tell at what stage each of the articles is at by looking at it on the list.

So yes, I guess until they get this sorted, Bill Gates can rest easy, which is a shame.

* I did attempt this in the long lazy summer of 2003, by breaking in to his filing cabinet and rearranging everything, much to the ocelot’s chagrin.**

** In fact the only disorganised ocelot I’ve ever met was the one which kept Salvador Dali as a pet.

*** There may be more, let me know.

Leap second

At the end of 2008, a leap second was added to the last minute of the year. This makes sense because if it weren’t added then after a while the sun wouldn’t be at it’s height at noon. And as that’s basically what noon means, it would lead to all kinds of problems.

My issue is this. When it’s a leap year you add a day to the year. This event was advertised as a leap second and yet we added a second. Surely we should call it a leap minute if we’re adding a second. No?