Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Barbecue summer

So now the Met Office says we are going to need our brollies quite a lot next month. Apparently the scorcher of a summer they predicted is not now going to happen. What a surprise. So what happened? The Met Office says now that they only predicted a 65% chance of the UK enjoying a long hot summer. When they sent out all their press blurbs though these percentages seemed to have got lost in all the talk of a barbecue summer. At least the Met Office press office was warm as they basked in the glow from all the sunny news reports that deluged us in the spring. Actually it has been a barbecue summer after all for us but only because one of our ovens went on the blink.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Beacon Fell

The first time Mark and I set out to conquer Beacon Fell we actually only got as far as Beacon Fell View Holiday Park near Longridge. As caravan parks went it was fair enough but hardly matched up to the wonders we had been promised. We lurked around the higher reaches of Longridge for a while and tried to wax lyrical about the views it afforded. It was a fairly clear day, revealing a vista that stretched for miles but I had to concede that the view fell somewhat short of revealing the Isle of Man. We ate our packed lunches and turned for home. We're not the best map readers in the world and we do sometimes end up in quite a different place than the location we originally set out for.
The next week we set out again. This time it was an even hotter day. We made our way though Ribchester, passed Longridge without stopping and nearly drove past the turn off for Beacon Fell. Now these were great views. The top of Beacon Fell is quite heavily wooded and a road circumnavigates its summit. We bought some ice-cream at the cafe and took in the views. They stretch back over Lancashire and the Forest of Bowland. Spectacular. They say that on a clear day you can see all the way to the Isle of Man. I believe them. I only wish I'd known which way to look for it. Mark got his camera out and starting snapping away. I should have kept a closer eye on him but I was too busy drinking in the patchwork landscape that stretched one way and the fells and moorland that spread out the other. When we got home I found out that he hadn't taken a single photograph of any of the views. All the shots were either of me with the grassy summit and cafe behind me or the shadowy depths of the woods.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Little dog on the prairie

Harry is in seventh heaven here. An open space where he can get up some speed and he's found some sticks. Don't think that this is the last time that there will be a picture of a black Labrador with sticks on Badelynge. Harry has a vast portfolio of dog with stick photographs.
Debbie says this picture is Harry's homage to Little House on the Prairie. You know, the scene where you see the kids running down the hill to greet someone. No? I suppose that tv series was a long time ago. Here's a screenshot to demonstrate. I almost titled this entry Prairie Dawg but I suppose that was just Harry bringing out my silly side. Watch this space for further adventures with Harry and every loose stick in Lancashire.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

A French detective

An intelligently written, tightly plotted detective story set in Paris. I do like a good detective yarn. Unfortunately many detective books are far from good. This book ticks a lot of the requirement boxes I look for when I'm selecting books. I like detective books that follow the detective almost exclusively; you walk in his footsteps, see what he sees, hear what he hears and match yourself against him with your deductive reasoning. This book never leaves the detective's side. So many detective books don't do this and you have to wade through chapter after chapter of scene changes following peripheral characters, sometimes even the killer, sometimes retreading the same ground with page after page of padded filler.
I was also impressed by how David Barrie managed to depict Paris. There is a city behind all the postcard views of Paris that we don't often get a flavour of in books and the author here is the guide that takes us there. I've read a few books set in Paris, the last was Louis Bayard's Black Tower, which featured one of history's first detectives, Eugene Francois Vidocq, but even that didn't really make you feel you were living there. I liked detective Franck Guerin. He's not flash, he's not hip, he's not on the make, he's just a straight down the line investigator, good at his job (although he's actually a disgraced spook on secondment), conscientious, a bit methodical but far from stupid.
I've got to say that I was as much lost at sea as Franck was amidst all the lingerie connoisseurs (who'd have thought there were such folk), models, photographers, artists, publishers and business people but the way we follow Franck's initiation into this region of the fashion industry greatly helped me find my way to dry land. Barrie's descriptions of the photographic clues, lingerie design and the models within them sometimes flirts with a mild eroticism that sometimes distracts both detective and reader.
I'd certainly be interested in reading any further books by Barrie and if they feature Franck Guerin well so much the better. Wasp-waisted is a surprisingly accomplished first novel. It deserves to find a wide readership.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Hedgehog love

Sometimes we can get sucked into the mindset that only the rare or hard to find creatures are worthy of our appreciation. I'm as guilty as any in this regard, see my Sound of Otters blog entry. I do have a soft spot for hedgehogs though. I love seeing one trundling along. There used to be one at The Tranquil Otter who I could watch walking along the decking on his rounds. Hedgehogs can walk up to two miles a night fact-fans. I learnt that factoid from the British Hedgehog Website. That's a lot of walking considering how short their legs are. Mark tells me I should credit him more when I use one of his photographs. See mate, you can photograph stuff that isn't a sheep.

Friday, 17 July 2009

The cat's meow

I've noticed The Guardian has been running quite a few articles with a bit of an anti-cat bias in recent months. Lots of people have pets, so it comes as no surprise that news services like to publish articles that feature them. They probably have people on staff who write nothing else other than articles about pets, desperately trying to engage us by telling us something we didn't know about our moggies, pooches etc. So far this year there has been quite a lot of articles written using the recession as an angle. First there were stories about cash-strapped pet owners abandoning their animals, or having to put them down. This was followed up by articles giving advice on how to cut the cost of owning pets. Every so often there is the obligatory hero dog article and recently the anti-cat article has crept up and pounced on us like... well like... cats on poor mices. We have had features about their bird killing habits. Another trying to tell us that cats aren't all that clever after all. They have been compared to our MPs; we need them but be wary of trusting them. And this week they've focused on scientific studies suggesting that cats deliberately use a sound in their cries for attention that mimics a high-frequency element that occurs in the sound of a baby crying, which we are hard-wired to respond to. To disguise this the cat purrs at the same time. Here is the article. The BBC ran a similar article the day before.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Blood Ties

Just watched my last weekly episode from my Blood Ties box-set that Debbie got for me Christmas. The series is based on the Vicki Nelson books by Tanya Huff which I started reading at the end of last year. Vicki is an ex homicide cop who has quit the force due to a worsening eye condition; retinitis pigmentosa which results in very poor night vision. The tv series doesn't use the restricted night vision angle as much as the books. It's not thrown away but beyond Vicki wearing glasses it is only touched upon a handful of times.
Vicki sets up her own one woman detective agency and soon starts getting roped into cases with supernatural elements. In the first episode, whilst unknowingly hunting a murderous demon, she encounters Henry Fitzroy who is also hunting the same killer. Henry is a vampire. He's also the bastard son of Henry VIII. The two hunters form a partnership which continues for the rest of the series. My favourite character though is Vicki's ex partner Detective Mike Celluci. The two of them argue like cat and dog throughout in a kind of feral love hate relationship. It works slightly better in the novels as, like a lot of book to tv adaptations, there is a lot of toning down going on. For instance, Henry's is bisexual in the books and continues a relationship with the other regular character Tony Foster (a street boy and Vicki's main source of info) at the same time as trying to woo Vicki. Tony gets completely dropped by the tv series and replaced by Coreen who is an overenthusiastic goth girl, mainly used for googling all things occult or supernatural. Despite all the changes the tv series is really enjoyable. Canada does make some decent tv. The show is set in Toronto, which I'm not convinced gets a huge chance to stamp its personality on the series. Yes there are plenty of city montages between the scenes, the CN Tower is viewed from many angles but beyond these and the whole sunset/sunrise riff Toronto could be almost any high rise city.
Then the series was axed. Well, not so much axed as tangled up in production issues that eventually resulted in the axe. Not as tragic as Firefly's demise but still a shame that a very watchable series ends after one season when dross like Lost and Heroes seemed to go on forever. At least my other preferred supernatural series True Blood based on the Sookie Stackhouse books has managed to get to that all important second season. Series three is planned already.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Stamp collecting

This is a pleasing little murder mystery by Alan Bradbury set in rural England during the early 1950s. You've got to love Flavia de Luce. She is something akin to an 11 year old female Sherlock Holmes before he honed his deductive skills. She's brilliant but still too full of her own cleverness to spot enough of her mistakes early enough to stay out of trouble. Her head is also full of a riot of information, jostling for attention so much that the important clues sometimes get lost in the chaos.
Thinking about creating order from chaos reminds me of my own brief time as a budding philatelist (stamp collector). Stamp collecting was one of the few hobbies that was actually passed down to me from my Dad. When I was a boy he presented me with several books full of the stamps he'd collected when he was a boy. It was all pretty much disorganised, with stamps sometimes glued in or loose among the pages. There were some nice ones though. He bought me a large stamp book and told me I could sort them as I saw fit. He supplied a magnifying glass, stamp tweezers, some other tools like a perforation gauge and loads of those little paper hinges that you could stick the stamps down with without damaging them. Then mum got a job at Park Brothers as a cleaner. This was before she went into nursing. She was able to get thousands of discarded envelopes that came from all the corners of the Earth, bearing stamps both ordinary and exotic. I loved it. I don't think I really appreciated the stamps for their beauty or their rareness, what fascinated me was the whole process of categorisation and creating order out of chaos. Unfortunately this was in the late 1970s and Park Brothers eventually went up in smoke and flames during the firemen's strike. We all watched from my sister's bedroom as the conflagration raged above the terraced rows and Green Goddesses arrived one by one to do little more than try to contain it. The place burned to the ground and Park Brothers and my Mum's job were no more. There were no more stamps after that and the stamp books eventually got packed away and forgotten.
Stamp collecting is also at the heart of Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Flavia's father is very keen on them. The mystery begins when a dead snipe is found with a Penny Black pinned to its beak. Later Flavia discovers a man expiring in the cucumber patch. Her father is arrested and accused of the murder. It is up to Flavia to clear his name using her extraordinary brain, her genius for chemistry and sheer pluck. More of these books featuring Flavia and co are planned. I'll be adding them to my to-read list forthwith.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

The fate of bees

Apparently the UK currently has about 26 bumblebee species. Several species have become nationally extinct in the last 70 years. At the moment there are six species that are threatened with the same fate. Shrill Carder and Great Yellow bees are only surviving in small isolated habitat fragments. Bees are a very valuable creature. Without them entire sections of our agricultural industry would collapse. European bees are estimated to be worth €14.2 billion as farmland pollinators. The main problems that have caused declines in bee populations are the over use of pesticides that have reduced the number of wild flowers and the destruction of valuable habitat like hedgerows and hay meadows. It's estimated that we have destroyed 98% of the kind of habitat filled with the flowers bees love in the last 60 years. Our honey bees are also suffering from disease.
The future of our bees is mostly in the hands of our farmers and the agricultural industry. Hopefully they can find a balance in the way they farm and manage the land that allows our bees to recover. More hedgerows, wildflower meadows and the like would greatly help the situation. Bees work hard for us. As for the rest of us; just a few more wild flowers in our gardens could make all the difference.
On a brighter note, it has been noted that a species not native to the UK is starting to get a foothold here. This European bee is the first new species of bee to take up residence on our island in the last century and a half. The bee is called Bombus hypnorum, or tree bumblebee. It has a light brown thorax, black abdomen and a white tail. They make their homes in bird boxes or holes in trees. If you see one you could try to get a picture of it so that it can be positively identified by the experts. You can fill in a form at the bumble bee conservation site and email your picture at the same time.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Purple, pink and yellow

So they promised us a long hot summer. Or is that just the cider adverts hoping for the best? This week has been pretty much what we've been used to getting from our British summers; lots of cloud cover, short sunny spells followed by showers and the odd rumble of thunder. In short - pretty much perfect weather for our gardens and the wildlife that lives in them.
Thanks to the weather for providing the essential ingredients that made it possible for the flowers to thrive, without which the bee would not have had such a splendid backdrop to pose against, resulting in the new picture Debbie supplied for my Talk of Bees blog entry. I only had one other bee photo which I'd already used. I flipped and skewed the original picture to give it a new look but it still didn't look much different. I've now retrospectively added the new bee/foxglove picture alongside my little poem, which I'm much more happy with now.
The gardens are looking very good this year, alive with colour and life. The resident gardeners here are always trying to grow new things, experimenting with new seeds and cuttings.
The mice have returned, creeping out of the undergrowth to join the equally mouse-like Dunnock, who can often be seen hopping through the leaves to get to the oats left out for him.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Young Miles

For someone who likes Science Fiction it might seem strange that I'm only recently acquainted with the irrepressible Miles Vorkosigan. Better late than never though. I've just burned my way through the first three books featuring the little guy. Maybe it is for the best though, because if I'd read them as they were being published then I wouldn't have been able to read them in chronological order, as some of the books filled in the gaps between previously published books. I'm a linear sort of bloke really. The first book, The Warrior's Apprentice, is a roller coaster of a ride, that really gets going after Miles tells his first little untruth to resolve a situation. The fun starts when the little fib snowballs into a web of lies and half truths with Miles at the centre of an expanding net. I know, I shouldn't really try to get away with such an awful mixed metaphor.
The second story, The Mountains of Mourning, which is more of a novella than a book, ditches the space opera format in favour of a more thoughtful look at the roots of Barrayan society with Miles investigating a Murder in a back woods village. It won the Nebula award. Seeing Miles in such a different setting gives the author an opportunity to show Miles in a different light. It is well handled and the shorter format seems to have focused the author's storytelling and exploration of themes into a more cogent whole.
The third book, The Vor Game, won a Hugo. Different again. The initial setting of the ice base was one that I was really enjoying. Just as you are getting used to the cold, Bujold pulls the rug out from under you again and we are off into the space opera driven rush of spiraling events, the eventual reunion with the Dendarii mercenaries and all those previously laid lies introduced in the first book. Very enjoyable, with no sense ever that the story is being padded, which is something that often happens to long running series. At the heart of it all though is the character of Miles. He's just a wonderful character. You can't really help but like him. If you could bottle his energy in liquid form I wouldn't drink anything else.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Talk of Bees

I wrote this poem last week. My laptop troubles nearly killed this one off. Not because I nearly lost a copy of the verses but because it all happened between verse two and three. Getting my mind to switch from thinking about bees to fixing comps and then back to thinking about bees again isn't the best way to focus my muse. Anyway here it is. I dedicate this one to my very own queen bee whose birthday was only last week.

The Talk of Bees

If you could know
The talk of bees,
What tales they'd speak
Of flowers and trees.
How warm the wind
Or cold the rain,
Would set your mind
To sleep or gain.

Cry hide among
The folk's glove fingers,
When heart alarms
And peril lingers.
What nature's wrath
Or heavy tread,
Can breach your fort
Of hanging head?

Your wistful hum
Of gyring flight,
Turns homeward through
Day's waning light.
Does love of queen
Your soul appease?
A secret held
By talk of bees.

Michael Finn

Thursday, 2 July 2009

These aren't the sheep you're looking for

It's harder than you think writing personal blog entries. I can imagine that there are thousands of blogs all over the internet that start with the fine intention of posting nearly daily or at least twice a week, but after introducing the dog... and then the cat... nothing. Until three months later the next entry turns up about pranging the car or moaning about bloody Christmas coming around again. Pictures help though. A picture can inspire a good blog entry. Only I don't own a camera. I used to be a big camera-holic twenty years ago. My first camera was one of those instamatic Polaroid things with the cartridges and flash bars that cost a fortune for just ten shots. When I went to college it got broken so I bought a Chinon compact for candid shots. I love candid photography - catching people unawares. My family used to tell me off for it either because they were camera shy or because they preferred posed photographs. Line 'em up and smile. That's what they liked. The Chinon eventually developed a problem where it sometimes took double negatives. Then I really got into it and I bought a manual Praktica. Great camera. I bought several lenses and I got quite good at setting up pictures. Manually focusing and judging the light is a photographic skill which has pretty much disappeared with today's automatic digital cameras. The Praktica took great portraits and wide angle shots depending on the lens. The main problem was that it was a little too heavy for me so there was little opportunity for getting candid shots or spare of the moment stuff. Eventually bits started falling off it. One time it famously clattered to the ground on the way back from watching the England football team triumph. We watched it in a bar in Ibiza, got quite drunk, and then I got tipped out of my wheelchair on the way back to the hotel (who put that stupid kerb there?).
So why are all these sheep here? The answer is because although I don't now own a camera, some of my friend's and family do. So I'm always asking for pictures. Because I do get stuck for stuff to write about and as I said earlier they do give me a spark to trip the old mental engine into action.
"Give me some pictures of animals," I told my friend. "Nature pics. You know. Bees, birds and ducks. Please give me ducks. Get out there mate. Or some stuff from your archive, y'know, when we went to...."
The next day he rings me and says, "I got you some sheep."
I was a bit underwhelmed at the time but as you can see, they are very nice pictures of sheep.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Rowan The Strange

An emotional read. Rowan is 13 and it's 1939. The Second World War has just started. The country is gripped by paranoia and fear. Fears of German spies are running wild. Thoughts of threat of invisible killer gas attacks and wondering when the bombs will start to fall occupy the minds of the nation. This is a very bad time to be exhibiting the first signs of schizophrenia as young Rowan does. After an incident where he violently breaks three of his sister's fingers with a piano lid followed by another incident with a knife, the boy is admitted to a place which promises to put him to rights. Unbeknown to his family, he is soon used as an experimental test subject in the use of a new process being trialled in Italy. Electroconvulsive therapy.
The book is extremely well handled with some great characters. I loved Dorothea. But there are other fascinating characters to get to know like Doctor Von whose psychological journey is almost as traumatic as some of his test subjects. The passages where the Nazis' policy is revealed to Doctor Von for killing children who are institutionalized disabled or mentally ill by compulsory euthanasia are truly chilling.The story has some clever parallels with The Wizard of Oz, and the physical performance of Peter Pan as the Christmas pantomime has a profound affect on many of the troubled inhabitants of the psychiatric hospital. Very compelling and memorable. There are two other books by Julie Hearn that are about Rowan's mother and grandmother. I shall seek them out.