Wednesday, 30 December 2009

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep is Raymond Chandler's debut novel published in 1939 and it's a corker featuring Chandler's now iconic hard boiled private detective Philip Marlowe. It's filled with memorable characters; tough guys, wise guys, grifters and chancers all playing their roles in the tangled web of a plot. Although complex I really like how much of the detail in the book actually turns out to be connected with everything else. There is no hiding the answers behind piles of irrelevant and unconnected red herrings, which seems to be the the current template for quite a lot of contemporary paint by numbers crime fiction. As more details are discovered and things start to move, stirred by the relentless Marlowe, the picture starts to come together until all eventually becomes clear. Yes I admit, I have seen both film versions many times, though mostly I kept getting flashbacks from the more lurid and inferior 1970s Robert Mitchum version rather than the superior 1940s Humphrey Bogart version. Probably because that version, although set in the wrong country, had more license to depict the more brash and striking elements from the book. And I still haven't mentioned Chandler's colourful and witty similes which are rightly famous and endlessly imitated. Chandler's writing is so much better than the pulp genre it inhabits; there is real heart and emotion here if you persevere to the last page. So if you are stuck for a new detective novel why not give one of the old masters a try. Worked for me.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The Willows at Christmas

Back in the 90s William Horwood wrote three pastiche books that featured the best loved characters from Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. I really enjoyed them. Each book saw these characters mature until by the third book I suspected that Horwood would reboot the series by introducing a next generation of River Bank characters. This didn't happen. Three years passed before he was to revisit Mr. Toad, Mr. Mole and company. When first published after such a lengthy hiatus The Willows at Christmas flew swiftly under my radar, until now. In the hope of having some pleasingly seasonal reading material over the festive period I ordered a copy. Horwood has rolled back time to not long after K.Grahame's classic and prequelling his own trilogy.
Mr. Mole is dismayed to discover that the spirit of Christmas has been lost by the riverbankers and the nearby village. He sets out to try to rediscover it. The early scenes with Mole investigating the causes of the lack of festivity are the best. Miss Bugle's sad little Christmas witnessed by the ever lovable Mole almost had me reaching for the handkerchief and for a mind boggling moment had me hoping for a little inter-species romance. The later sections of the book slide more into the sorts of situations that Mr. Toad's foolishness often resulted in the original. The threat of incarceration and execution should surely be familiar to Mr. Toad. Patrick Benson's rustic little line drawings and beautiful coloured plates complement the writing perfectly. Very good but never really replaces the original book in your heart but for those wishing to spend time with such beloved characters for a little bit longer you really can't go far wrong with this book and the three that preceded it.

Monday, 28 December 2009

A Thin Ghost

M.R. James' third collection of superb ghost stories was published just after the first world war. The first three stories are as chilling as ever. What can beat the visceral chill of thinking you are safe in bed when your dangling hand touches something that is other in the dark. Even though I'm in awe of the whole style of these short form ghost stories I must admit that the closing pair of stories were a little below the standard set in previous publications. I heartily recommend the first two collections to be read before this one. And read them in the depth of Winter when dark and cold holds sway.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Sea Holly

Sea Holly among the dunes at Southport. My resident forager says the roots were once used to make sweets. Being related to the carrot not holly the roots can be also eaten like a vegetable and the young shoots like asparagus. The flower-heads are a misty blue during the summer months and are probably more threatened by being stuffed into vases for floral displays than from rising sea levels. Although they die back like this one in the winter they grow back from the roots in the spring.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Christmas stocking

My sister Debbie made this Christmas stocking for my mum this year. When I was a little 'un we both used to pin up my dad's socks. I'm still trying to figure out how Santa used to get all that stuff into them without waking us up.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The faux tree

Here are some pictures of our ancient faux Christmas tree. First without tinsel and next with. My mum blew a week's wages on this tree over 38 years ago. It is still serviceable. Some of it is perishing and the whole bottom row of branches is long gone, broken and split by the exuberance of a still fondly remembered family dog from decades ago. Some of the decorations are hand made, some are brand new and others are older than me. It's all part of family tradition now. It carries stories and memories on every branch.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Snow prints

My friend Mark took this picture of two footprints in the snow. "One was made by a cat," he says. "Guess what made the other one," he challenges. Aha, the game is afoot. (whoops for the punnage). My guess is a pheasant.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Hedgehog fun

Obviously this hedgehog is from the summer as they are all hibernating at the moment.
The funniest joke at the Edinburgh Fringe according to a panel of comedy critics was by Dan Antopolski.
"Hedgehogs - why can't they just share the hedge?"
I suppose you had to be there.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Another world

There are many ways to get transported to another world without the need for walking through enchanted wardrobes. Reading a good book will sometimes do the trick. Maybe music can sweep you there. Good poetry is always a good bet. Lose yourself in a painting perhaps. Even a movie. A tale told by a good friend must be a sure thing. No need for too much wine or things that bend your mind. For guaranteed results just wake up on a morning with snow on the ground for the first time in ages. First snow of the winter. Works every time.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Miles, Mystery & Mayhem

These three installments in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga are something of a mixed bag. Although they follow on from each other in the general chronology the publication order was quite different and were published over the span of a decade or so. They all use the field of genetics to fuel the plot and themes.
In Cetaganda Miles tries his hand at another bit of detective work. He's on a diplomatic mission to Cetaganda with his 'a bit thick but handsome' cousin. He's not even off the shuttle before he's knee deep in intrigue, and murder, dodging potentially fatal traps as he goes. Spending time in Miles head is always enjoyable and fun. I also enjoyed trying to imagine how beautiful the Cetagandan Haut women were. Probably similar to trying to imagine what Galadriel looked like - an enjoyable exercise but ultimately a futile one.
Don't start Ethan of Athos thinking Miles is in it. You'll only be disappointed. The little guy is mentioned quite a bit though and one of the major characters is Elli Quinn, some might remember her from The Warrior's Apprentice. The main protagonist is this chap Ethan. He lives on a male only planet inhabited by blokes who live in superstitious dread of women (otherwise known as uterine replicators with legs). The fun starts when he has to leave his home planet in search of a replacement supply of ovarian cultures to replace the failing existing cultures, without which his society can't reproduce. Massive culture shock ensues (women everywhere). Ethan soon gets up to his neck in problems he's not really equipped to deal with, problems that he's going to have to rely on a woman to overcome. Enter Elli Quinn. It's all quite light hearted but very amusing.
Labyrinth is a novella which features Miles back at the helm of the Dendarii cruiser Ariel. Before too long everything goes pear-shaped and Miles finds himself in big trouble. And if being trapped in a dungeon with a sex mad teenage werewolf doesn't qualify as big trouble I don't know what does. As fun as ever but still finds time to ask a few questions about what it is to be different.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

The Long-tail crew

A squadron of Long-tailed Tits sometimes flies sorties into our gardens. The bravest of which break off into a little air commando force for a lightening raid on the bird feeders in our front tree. This is normally the domain of a Sparrow colony who usually have their talons full trying to repel Blue Tit invaders. All of which seem to make themselves scarce when the Robin pops in for a snack.
The Long-tailed Tits don't hang around for long though. They fly in in a flurry of feathers and tweets, grab a quick bite and then they're off to the next target.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Shopping for Harry Part 2

And the winner is - the top one from the previous post. Although they advertise a colour selection only the blue and green is available. Here are pictures of the same coat that looks quite different. This time it actually looks waterproof.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Shopping for Harry

Our black Labrador sure does like snoozing. He's not a pup in body any more even if he sometimes forgets this in mind. He takes tablets to help his joints. None of this is going to stop him getting to the front door before you if you happen to pick up his lead however. He doesn't care what the weather is like either. I've been trying to decide on a waterproof dog coat to keep him dry and warm this winter. Here are some that have made it onto the shortlist:This one comes in three colours, fastens with Velcro and has a fleece lining.
This nylon coat is padded and dirt resistant.
This one is more expensive but is more stylish and has a thermal lining.
Another nylon coat.

Friday, 11 December 2009

The Merrybegot

It is Spring 1645 and the first English Civil War is drawing to its inevitable close. King Charles I holds onto his freedom by a thread with his loyalist supporters holding only small pockets of the Midlands & North Wales with his son (Charles II to be) hiding out in the West Country (Cornwall). Matthew Hopkins, self-styled Witch-finder General plies his lucrative and deadly business stirring the countryside to find and nail any suspected of using the Dark Arts. Against this historical backdrop Julie Hearn tells her story of the Merrybegot (a child conceived on Beltane morning who has a special affinity to nature and the healing arts or to some - a witch). The countryside is alive with Piskies and Fairies though you might never see one. The book could be described as a fanciful precursor to the Salem Witch Trials that occurred in New England half a century later. Although I don't rate this one as being as good as Hearn's debut book (Follow Me Down) or Rowan the Strange, I did think it was a very enjoyable read, with pleasing characterisations - some feat considering that one of the characters I ended up caring so much for is a rather foolish chicken. The story is told primarily from our young Nell's point of view with a more retrospective and untrustworthy alternative supplied by the eventual confessions of Patience Madden - one of a pair of sisters who accuse Nell of ill wishing them. The author also does a great job weaving some fascinating folklore and real herbcraft into the narrative.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Grand Turk

Sepia Scenes
Here we have a picture of The Grand Turk, currently at anchor at Whitby Harbour. Here I'm photographing the ship's reflection as much as the ship itself. This was taken during a trip into Whitby last October as detailed here. The ship has appeared on several tv/film dramas most notably Hornblower. If you have a spare £1,575,000 burning a hole in your pocket you could add it to your fleet. And here is the promised figurehead.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The Castle of Otranto

Manfred is having a really bad day. No really, he's having a really, really bad day. It all starts with his son being crushed to death by a gigantic helmet that falls out of the sky. And his day is going to get much worse.
The Castle of Otranto was written in 1764 by Horace Walpole. So many times I have heard the name of this book being dropped by literary historians citing its place as the forerunner to the gothic novel, works that would include author's such as Poe, Stoker and Du Maurier. In fact the book is little more than fluff that just happens to contain a castle and a penchant for the romantic, the unlikely and the plain ridiculous.

Monday, 7 December 2009


I was digging through some paperbacks and found an old scraperboard that I did when I was about 17. Generally the art teachers I've encountered in school and later at college have tried to get me away from my pencils, so whenever the rest of the class was sketching I'd be given some other type of project to try my hand at. One such project was scraperboards. I don't know if schools still do these things but a scraperboard is a layer of white China clay painted over with a coating of black India ink. Using a selection of shaped blades you scrape away the ink to create a picture. Unlike pencil work you can't create shade or highlight by grading your pencil work, instead you have to use techniques like hatching, cross-hatching and stippling. When using pencils I often 'zoned out' because I was so relaxed but that never happened when I was doing these. I guess the technique is a bit too deliberate to be doing that. I did a bunch of others including a march hare, a magpie, a sea eagle and a truly horrendous race horse.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Nutmeg smile

It might be just me but I get the feeling that somebody at our bakery might have a sense of humour.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Relics of the Dead

Having really liked the previous books in the Mistress of the Art of Death series by Ariana Franklin, I was a little underwhelmed by Relics of the Dead. As with the other two books the story is set in England at the latter end of the 12th century during the reign of Henry II, the Plantagenet king who despite his many achievements and strong leadership will always be known as 'that one who did for Thomas Becket'. The majority of the action takes place around Glastonbury Abbey amidst rumours that the skeletons of King Arthur and Guinevere have been found. Henry sends Adelia and her little entourage off to discover the truth of the matter in the hopes that proving that 'The Once and Future King' is well and truly dead would help him with his dealings with the rebellious Celts. Most of the characters seem somewhat diluted from their previous portrayals. I do still like Henry though, even if the author does tend to emphasize his sense of humour maybe a little too much. The book is strongest when exploring some of the historical themes e.g. Henry's judicial reforms in a land where such things had previously been decided by Trial by Combat. There are some interesting musings on the way legends and myths evolve and you can't really find anything more legendary or mythical than good old King Arthur. The horrendously psychopathic Wolf and Scarry surely couldn't be the germ that sparked Robin Hood... could they *shudder*. Where the book really disappoints though is with the softening of Adelia's character and the lack of any real mystery for her to be challenged by. Instead there are a handful of smaller mysteries that practically resolve themselves. Still a very readable book but it didn't quite evoke a sense of place as Mistress of the Art of Death did with its 12th Century Cambridge or The Death Maze with its bitterly cold towers, mazes and landscape.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

That was us

So roll back time to the very early 1970s and this is what you get. This is my sister and myself taking a short break from whatever imaginary world we had conjured up for the afternoon. These fields at the back of the flats we lived in back then were the scene of many a James Bond spy mission, or battle for Parkwood, or if the world didn't need saving that week we might just relax and start up the Debbie and Michael Taxi Service with our fleet of one blue pedal car and trike.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Andy iz Magiik

Congratulations to Andy iz Magiik. He was the first person to actually go all the way and beat the entire 100 mob on the xbox360 live show 1 vs 100. The game is almost exactly like the BBC quiz show but until now nobody has had the guts and the skill to grab the big prize and we are on season 2 already. For the full story and a chat with Andy see the Midlifegamer article. I was in the 30,000 strong virtual crowd, failing miserably to get selected for The One or even the Mob. I've only made it into the Mob a handful of times and I'm always a bag of nerves, so I can imagine how nerve wracking playing as The One would be. I was cheering him on at the end. Well done to Andy and I hope he likes his new camera.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Cunning moss

There may be no Brontes buried in Pleasington cemetery but it does have its fare share of cunning moss and not all of it on the graves.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The metal tree

I don't always know what to make of Blackburn's sculptures. They are something of a mixed bag. Some are very beautiful, some aren't, some are badly situated and some are visually impressive until the local newspaper tells you how many notes the sculpture cost. Blackburn is a working town; you cant get away from that. My family can trace its way back at least two centuries and find hardly any ancestors that weren't cotton weavers at some stage in their lives. The mills are gone but the town still prides itself on its industrial heritage. Many of the sculptures here have some social or industrial connection. There seems to be very little celebration of nature. Even the Bee Hive (one of my favourites) could be interpreted as celebrating the industrial nature of the bees and how they work together for the common good.
This metal tree even seems hard pressed to escape connections to the steel producers that our town is also famed for, with its plane polished surfaces, its riveted on leaves and pipe trunk and branches. This one also seems to have been hidden away among the bushes at an out of the way spot between the retail and industrial parks of Whitebirk. Perhaps it once had a more visible spot and was moved to make way for a larger more showier sculpture - I don't know. It does seem to me to be somewhat outclassed by the beauty of the bushes and trees that surround it. I think nature generally will win these comparisons regardless of the quality of the sculptures. And maybe planting a real new tree could well be just as creative as sculpting one.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Monkey puzzler

A baby Monkey Puzzle Tree looking a bit exposed after all it's neighbours have shed their leaves.
Apparently this conifer got it's name in England in the mid 19th century when someone remarked of a the then rare specimen 'It would puzzle a monkey to climb that'.

Friday, 20 November 2009

View from a bridge

This is another shot of the Raithwaite lake. Railings, parapets, balustrades etc are often something of a hindrance to photography from wheelchair level. In this instance I tried holding the camera up above the barrier and shooting blind. I clicked away for a minute, hoping for the best. Only one was worth keeping - see below. I took the above picture by shooting lower than my usual viewpoint, well at least I could see the viewfinder to frame and focus. I think it turned out ok. The stone pillars actually seem to add something to the shot and the reflection was an unintended bonus.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009


Ahhh...ducks! My good, good friends.
*sniff* Ducks. So fickle.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Woodpecker Hilton

The Greater Spotted Woodpecker remains elusive this year. They've been seen only fleetingly around the garden and once on the lamp post at the front. You can hear them in the woods though, drilling away with their pneumatic-like beaks. They've been here for a while too as this tree testifies. These woodpeckers will sometimes come back to breed in the same tree that they used the previous year, though they usually locate the new residence below the one already used. That's only if they aren't ousted by the local starlings, who sometimes move in after the hard work has been done. Woodpeckers often get a bad name for feeding on other birds chicks but their own eggs are not safe from smaller birds themselves. Sparrows and starlings will sometimes steal woodpecker eggs.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Barry Letts

This squad of Sea Devils was spotted by my sister at Sandsend. It looks like they are making their way back to the sea after a quick sortie ashore. Perhaps they've been to the Magpie for some fish n' chips. I apologise for these Sea Devils being naked. These young monsters have no shame anymore. I remember when any self respecting Sea Devil wouldn't be caught dead without his string tunic with little belt ensemble.
I would like to pay tribute to Barry Letts who died last month at the age of 84. Barry was producer of Doctor Who during the Jon Pertwee years and was responsible for casting Tom Baker in the role of the 4th Doctor. Without Barry Letts' shaping of the show that I've adored since my first memories my life would have been a lot emptier. He was a practicing Buddhist and was one of the first tv producer's to introduce ecology as a major theme in a tv story in The Green Death in 1973. He was a real gentleman. I can still hear his voice in my head from all the stories and anecdotes that he contributed to the classic DVD commentaries.
Other tributes:

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Wolf Hall

"Cromwell, what does he really believe?"
It's a question that Anne Boleyn ponders in the book and I suppose it is the question the reader is also posed with. The book is very well researched by the author Hilary Mantel. There is a huge cast of characters involved here, threading their strands into the tangled weave of politics, intrigue and ambition that surrounds the court of King Henry VIII during his courtship and marriage to Anne Boleyn. At the end of it all I didn't feel I knew Thomas Cromwell any better than I did before. There is no doubt that he was a most remarkable and deeply complex man. History is a very slippery thing to write about but compared to trying to get to the heart of an individual, to get inside his mind with any accuracy, it is almost impossible. It's not that easy to achieve face to face, never mind separated by half a millennium through the dusty filter of historian opinions.
The present tense, third person delivery, from the point of view of Cromwell was sometimes a bit of a clunky style for the author to use so rigidly. I lost his stand point on numerous occasions, mostly confusing him for Wolsey. Some conversations were quite hard to follow. Others stand out, crackling with personality and atmosphere e.g. Cromwell's meeting with the King's daughter Mary. The King is pretty much as I would have expected as is Anne Boleyn. I didn't feel we got to grips with Thomas More fully but perhaps this is because we are seeing him from Cromwell's perspective.
All in all, a well written, thoroughly researched book, sometimes let down by its style and the scope of its ambition.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Frog encore

Watery Wednesday
I snapped this picture of one of the frogs that got washed onto my patio last month. This is a wider shot than the pictures I posted at the time, showing some of the floodwater still pooled about. Half the hillside seemed to come down with the deluge. The frogs were happy enough though.

Winter's rime

Frost rimed oak leaves
brushed by winter's breath.
The thaw reclaims it all,
the birds won't find their death.
Weeds wear white ephemera,
pale signatures of ice.
Sleep on you dreaming creatures,
til the year has had its price.
Michael Finn