12 Sep 2010

How to dissuade a bicycle thief

One of the managers at my office has had his bicycle stolen twice in the past few months. I suspect this has rather a lot to do with the fact that he can’t be bothered chaining it up in the secure car park underneath our building, but insists on keeping it at the public bike racks outside on the street. As he often works late, and the area around our office gets very quiet once the suits have headed home, there's a good chance it will be a prime target for thieves when the sun goes down.

As he still can't be bothered putting it in the secure car park, he has come up with a slightly more... innovative... deterrent. Click here to see.

7 Aug 2010

Body adornments

I like jewellery. I don’t wear it often, especially not at work for a) comfort (rings and bangles are not conducive to eight hours hammering on keyboard and mouse) and b) talking points. I dress as frumpily as possible at work for the specific reason of avoiding the ‘oh, that’s unusual, where did you get that?’ conversation. The people I work with are accountants and statisticians and fit those stereotypes, anything beyond pearls and charm bracelets is ‘unusual’ and therefore worthy of a mildly-horrified comment on my fashion rebellion. I cite an example from a few days ago - another girl, younger than me, but so quiet and socially inept she makes the average church-going librarian look like Madonna. She’s more straight-laced than anyone I’ve met and I find that interesting, because I suspect she has a dark gothic side that she doesn’t show at work. Wouldn’t surprise me to learn she’s a dominatrix at a biker bar on the weekends. My example, however, is an overheard conversation between two of the other secretaries about this girl. Apparently they’d been sitting beside her in a meeting and her skirt had ridden up slightly, revealing, not sensible 70-denier pantyhose, but stocking-tops and the hint of a suspender belt. You’d have thought she’d stripped down to rubber underwear and given the managing director a lapdance, the shock of it was so conversation-worthy. Hence my reticence for any attire beyond a pale blue Marks & Spencer shirt and sensible shoes. If I came in dressed in black, with biker boots and chandelier earrings, there’d be whispered conversations for weeks.

P1050059_sml I also have a problem with spending a lot of money on jewellery (unless it’s handmade and unique), so tend to leave my jewellery shopping for markets, antique shops and thrift shops. Not only will I never afford Tiffany, Cartier, Harry Winston, I can’t tell my diamonds from my cubic zirconias, so it’s all a moot point. My tastes are wide and varied, but head towards vintage, Goth and art deco - drives my chap insane in terms of buying gifts, but he has exceptional taste and hasn’t gone wrong yet - see Figure 1.

When I was younger, I didn’t consider myself a ‘jewellery person’ - ie someone who bought and wore jewellery. I was a stage manager for years - a career in paint, power tools and rigging also incompatible with jewellery, my mother didn’t and doesn’t wear a lot of jewellery (she doesn’t even have her ears pierced) and growing up in the 80s in rural Queensland didn’t provide a lot P1050067_smlof options for anything that wasn’t made of plastic. So I grew up assuming that because I wasn’t a ‘jewellery person’, all the lovely things I saw at markets in London, Paris, Venice, weren’t for me. I confessed some years ago to one of my oldest girlfriends, that I wished I was a ‘jewellery person’, because I’d love to wear some of the things I saw. She looked at me quizzically and said ’well, why don’t you become a jewellery person?’. The simplicity of her solution floored me. Why couldn’t I? Would people who knew me be shocked? Would they think me pretentious to try and change my behaviour after a life time? Would they even notice? Or, as my friend pointed out as I bought a necklace and some earrings, wouldn’t they just enjoy the beautiful adornments as much as I did? 

P1050074_sml Speaking of adornments, this is my latest acquisition, an early birthday gift from another of my extremely talented, beautiful and creative friends, Kriket Broadhurst. See more of her work at www.kriketdesigns.com and make sure you check out her Etsy shop and read her blog. As a fully-fledged ‘jewellery person’, it thrills me to have such gorgeousness in my life.

31 Jul 2010

Sanctuary in the city

The city felt empty yesterday morning. It wasn’t, by any means, still hundreds of people in suits trudging along the footpath, weaving in and out of slack-jawed tourists hauling giant suitcases, tutting at those who cause them to pause in their single-minded get-to-the-office-by-nine scurry. But the air was cooler, cleaner, than it has been for a few days and summer holidays meant the train was less crowded. The lack of closeness in the air, having a seat to myself, the streets free of jostling, shouting school children, made me feel like there was more room in the commuter chaos I find myself swept along with every morning. I wear headphones with my iPod, rather than earbuds, in an attempt to force out some of the ambient noise: other people’s tinny, over-loud earphones buzzing sibilant hip-hop, whining secretaries bitching about colleagues on their phones, housewives incapable of turning off the keypad tones on their mobile devices, which chirp incessantly as they fumble through text messages. Sometimes I wonder if commuting deadens brains to the existence of other people.

The tranquillity I felt yesterday might have been the lack of these distractions Glass and steelon the train. Or the kind of English weather I moved here for - blue sky, cool sun, slight breeze. Or Chris Isaak’s ‘Speak of the Devil’ on my iPod. I felt indulgent as a result and as I was about 20 minutes early for work, I headed to Prét for a coffee and one of their tasty salmon bagettes and snuck up to a place I know behind my office that is usually empty before the working day begins. The building owners have termed it somewhat grandly as a ‘roof garden’ and technically it is a roof and there are things growing, but it’s mostly concrete and steel, looking over more concrete and steel. It’s quite pleasant in a sterile, corporate way, but the best thing is that in the morning there’s no-one there. So I sat, reading, eating my breakfast, looking up at the buildings occasionally when the sun came out. I like my job, I like the work I do and the office I work in, but yesterday, sitting outside, drinking coffee and contemplating the city around me, was by far the most enjoyable part of my day.

18 Jul 2010

Collectormania! (or why I went to Milton Keynes)

On a recent trip to Dorchester, for a music festival my chap was involved with, we decided to stay in Abingdon, about 15 minutes drive from Dorchester and an hour from Milton Keynes – the UK’s answer to Canberra (ie a ‘planned’ city with all the excitement and originality of a rat maze). This is only significant because this particular weekend it was host to *dramatic pause* COLLECTORMANIA! Now, historically I’m not a big attendee of communal sci-fi-related events, there’s a little too much interaction required for my taste and I know I’d look ridiculous in any form of character costume (though as a faux-redhead for the past 20 years, I have considered going as Agent Scully if she discovered Krispy Kremes). But I like seeing all the fans in their natural habitat and I love the chance to buy cool sci-fi and horror secondhand DVDs and CDs at very discounted prices. In the past I’ve acquired some funky jewellery, posters and unusual genre-specific books that I’d have to spend twice the money on ordering on the net – if I had even found them in the first place. Collectormania isn’t sci-fi only, there are also opportunities for those who collect sports merchandise and soft toys (no, mystery to me too), but the driving force behind this event appeared to be the myriad of ‘famous’ guests they’d managed to round up to get paid for photos, autographs and handshakes with the salivating general public. The Milton Keynes website is gone now, but the list of famous faces included, among about fifty others, Kate Mulgrew and Tim Ross (Star Trek Voyager), Barry Bostwick (Rocky Horror, Spin City), Chris Barrie and Norman Lovett (Red Dwarf) and most interestingly, Linda Hamilton and Sir Patrick Stewart. Most of these people weren’t there on the Friday, which is probably just as well...

Now I’ve written quite extensively about my views on 'drive-by' fans (a phrase coined by an astute Twitter-mate of mine named Phil), so I won’t repeat it here, other than to say I understand it (kinda) but I don’t like it. Not from the actor’s point of view - why the hell not make money from saying hi to people agog with your famousness – but from the fans’, collecting an autograph, a photo, a three second ‘experience’ that’s about as genuine as paying for a Big Mac and having the server wish you a good day. But as I was happy to circumvent the queues and head straight for the merch stands, I figured the thousands of fans in their homemade Princess Leia and store-bought Star Trek costumes would be a good people-watch while I pored over books on the art of Ray Harryhausen and behind the scenes photos from the Indiana Jones films. My chap, supportive as ever, agreed to come along on the same basis – and I think he was curious about the mysteries of uber-fandom. Plus, in my role as railway-enthusiast WAG, I’ve been to enough model railway exhibitions in pokey church halls to make up for this geek digression.

The event was held at Stadium MK – a football stadium (this is not my photo, there are people in it) – and the stadiummk[5] organisers had set up stylish white lawn tents  and desks with chairs around the top level of the stadium (the covered bit behind the seating) – the weather is always dodgy in the UK, and the risk of damp celebrities too high to have them set upon the field. We arrived quite late in the afternoon, an accident on the M1 turning our two hour drive into four and half, despite trying two different detours around it, and although I wasn’t expecting hordes of people, being late on the first day of the show and it being a week day, I was anticipating a crowd. First indication something was amiss – not many cars in the car park. We could hear a variety of sci-fi themes being piped through the stadium Tannoy (we arrived to Space 1999 and departed to Voyager) and I shared a ‘watch out for tumbleweeds’ look with my chap as we got out of the car. Inside, we didn’t fare much better. Asking the volunteers at the front entrance where all the merch stands were, my chap was directed to ‘all the celebrities are on this level, round to your right..’ at which point another volunteer corrected our young helper with ‘we don’t use the ‘c’ word, dear, they’re ‘guests’’ (*snort*).

We walked round to the right, glancing into the tents to see Barry Bostwick in a very sharp suit discussing something with the folks at the ’door’ to his tent, Tim Ross and some ’lesser’ Voyager actors chatting and tapping pens on tables and Kate Mulgrew, rugged up against the chill stadium breeze, smiling and looking very blonde, sophisticated and lovely. But there were NO fans. I’m sure there were massive queues right round the stadium over the weekend, but at 3pm on Friday, you could hear crickets, even over the piped Best of Sci-Fi. To be honest, we felt a bit sorry for them all. My instinct was to offer them a cup of tea, just to break the awkward silence and relieve the boredom. I’m sure they’d had a lot of people offering them tea. Biscuits too, at least for the big stars.

We spent about an hour wandering around the vendor stalls, blinking at the vast array of lostboysposter[3]action figures, puzzling   over tables full of Beanie Babies and signed football tshirts, admiring a large set of hand-painted Alien dioramas and pondering the proliferation of ‘Team Edward’ badges (which I explained in rather too much detail to my chap when he asked what it was). We got three DVDs for £6, my chap bought a book on the history of Sherlock Holmes in film and TV and I spent entirely too much money on a silk-screened poster commissioned for a screening of The Lost Boys at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin Texas. Behold its awesomeness.

Then we got McDonalds and sat in a strategically designed park beside the motorway with a man-made water feature. Milton Keynes. It’s all happening there.

22 Jun 2010

Saving the planet one energy company at a time - kinda

A major energy company has offices in the building where I work. This energy company are currently promoting a 'green' campaign and have filled the lobby with banners, bunting and energy-friendly paraphernalia like cardboard trees telling us in bright bold lettering how we can help save the planet by taking alternative modes of transport to get to work, re-using plastic bags and switching off lights and computers.

This company have offices on the second, third and fifth floor of the nine storey building. The entrance lobby is on the first floor. The stairwell door is right beside the first elevator. Our office is on one of the highest floors, so we often share elevators with staff from other firms in the building.

It's been two years since I started working here. I haven't seen one person from this 'green' energy company use the stairs yet.

11 Apr 2010

Which witch, witch doctor?

Found this rather creepy flyer in our mailbox yesterday (click to embiggen). Phone number deleted to protect the innocent – ie the folks he’d be ripping off.

witchdoctor

Aside from the 'mysterious' symbols (why are two missing in the first set?) and the odd amalgamation of problems he can solve - stress, depression, court cases (just who is his target audience?), would you really trust a 'spiritual healer and advisor' who purports to be an expert in a field he can't even spell?

27 Mar 2010

My failure at fandom

I've been a fangirl for more than two thirds of my life. It started in 1985, when I first heard about a Norwegian pop group called a-ha, who I still follow today (and have tickets for their last-ever *sniff* UK concert in November this year). I bought all their albumband_bws in the 80s (replaced them on CD in the 90s, put them on my iPod in the 00s), read all the magazine articles and bought the merchandise. In my 20s, I collected X-Files episodes, memorabilia  and spinoff scientific books on the myths behind them. In a fortunate choice of jobs, I successfully stalked made contact with an actor whose work (and face) I had admired for years and inadvertently got myself invited to dinner at the family home. In my 30s, I followed a British pop band around the country (and even to Amsterdam), then nearly bankrupted myself following a related band after they broke up – this however, resulted in meeting my partner of five years (the drummer's best mate), so there was an upside to financial ruin.

I've hung out on forums and in chat rooms talking about songs, guitars, jeans and haircuts, I've made new friends at gigs (friendships that lasted longer than the bands themselves) and read (and written) all manner of good (but mostly bad) fan fiction, even before the internet existed. I've collected entire series of TV shows and books, I've written reviews (some of which resulted in the band seeking me out to say hi) and taken hundreds of (mostly blurry) photos. I've admired and sighed and swooned, I've cheered and danced and waved my hands in the air, I've gone back to gigs, movies and performances more than once, then tracked down rare footage (well before YouTube) to view at leisure in my home. I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the fan thing. Turns out I was doing it all wrong.

One of the things I was got wrong was that I never crowdreally wanted to MEET the object of my admiration. The few times I did meet them, reality was inevitably grounding and sometimes disappointing. How do you live up to a performance in real life? You can't. I think in the back of my mind I knew that, but for the most part, I didn't want their only impression of me to be labeled, with a gigantic neon sign above my head, as a FAN.

As a FAN, I knew the Famous Person in question would be on  their guard. Fans collect information, they collect it and share it, some to gloat over their ability to acquire it, others just to share and enjoy it with others they know would appreciate it. People in the public eye are aware of this and adjust their conversation appropriately. I wanted to have the kind of conversation I'd have if I was meeting someone through friends, or work, go to dinner, coffee or a pint and have a chat, not the one-sided kind where that someone was worried I was secretly taping the entire thing.

My other apparent mistake is that I don't approach fandom in the same way as a lot of the 'serious' fans out there, who don’t collect information or art, but experiences: conversations, photos with, signed objects, touched objects, waiting at stage door, attending multiple book signings, not to tell the actor/musician/author how much they enjoyed their work and have a conversation about process or other work, but just to say hi, shake hands and tally up another meeting. It's not to enjoy the object or the experience itself, for what it is, but to log another point in the grand scale of fandom.

I came to this realisation very recently – last weekend in fact. I went to my very first book signing. I've never gone to one because I figured while it's nice to have a book with the author's signature on it, I always wondered what the point of it was. The author isn’t my friend and speaking to him for 20 seconds that he isn’t going to remember in the thousands of 20 second meetings he'd have in his lifetime isn’t going to overly enrich either of our lives.

Fandom, I'd always thought, is about trying to make a connection. You see a film, a play, hear a song, read a book, you're impressed, moved, something about the work touches you. The person who created it is obviously someone you admire for their talent and creativity – and we always want to make a connection with someone we admire. In this age of interconnectivity, of Web 2.0, suddenly this becomes more possible. We follow a Famous Person on Twitter, and if we're lucky and clever enough, they'll see a tweet we send to them and reply to it. Receiving a response from someone you admire is heartening and I always harbour a microscopic (and therefore futile) hope that this could, might, just may be the start of an ongoing conversation… but it rarely is. Particularly if, like me, you back off immediately, in terror of being labeled as a FAN.

The book signing was for Joe Hill's new book Horns, and as I've outlined in a previous post, I had a fairly triumphant experience discovering this particular author.

So I went to the signing, queued up for an hour, had my book signed and chatted about jet lag – my 20 seconds with Joe Hill. All fine. But the odd part of the day was the other fans.

hornsI already had my copy of Horns and had considered taking my copy of Heart-Shaped Box, but thought that was a bit presumptuous, as the signing was specifically for Horns. I shouldn't have worried. Some of the other people there had brought two, four, eight and ten copies EACH of the book to be signed. And sign he did, nice chap, knowing full well that these books were going straight onto eBay and he wouldn't see a penny of the mark up his signature would give them. He posed happily for photos and made jokes with everyone, some of whom had been to a few, if not all, of the signings he'd done throughout the UK that week, despite being weekdays and all times of the day.

Now I get the following-around thing. I've taken days off work to travel to the other end of the country to see a band play and meet with friends who are also fans. But that was an entire evening, sometimes a weekend including sight-seeing, four or five hours of music and dancing and drinking… not two minutes of small talk and watching someone sign a book.

A lot of the fans knew each other, obviously from attending signings, and were comparing notes about the next one they were going to (for another author) and past signings with other authors. One woman was joking about how she'd had to curb her book signings because her 'social life' was starting to encroach on the time she was spending with her children. But the most extraordinary thing were the lists. Lists of who'd been to what signing and how many books they'd managed to get signed, whether the author was happy to sign multiple copies and have their photo taken. These signings, it seems, were not a chance to connect with the person who'd enriched your life with their creativity, they were notches on the great bookmark of fandom. Your status as a fan increased with the number and variety of signatures you'd managed to acquire.

I’ve done some obsessive-compulsive things in my fan career, I own some rubbish merchandise and have spent way too much money on things non-fandom folks would see as irrelevant. But if this acquisition of two minute meet-and-greets is what it take to be considered a 'fan' in the age of the internet, I feel that my aversion to meeting the Famous Person, my contentment with a one-sided 'relationship' and my desire only to connect with them to tell them how much I enjoyed their work appears to make me a failure. But I do wonder if my experience of fandom isn’t richer as a result.

9 Mar 2010

The nervous youth

We renewed the tenancy agreement on our flat this month, for another year - mainly because (aside from the fact  that we like it here and the rent's good) we don't want to move house again. We've moved five times in five years and that's just a few too many cardboard boxes. 

As part of the renewal process, our letting agent decided they'd send DSCN3961asomeone round to a) get the agreement signed and witnessed in person and b) do an inspection of the flat to make sure we hadn't sold off the appliances, repainted the walls black or ripped up the carpet. Fair enough, if I was a landlord I'd want to check that too, even if the tenants paid the rent on time, didn't complain (much) or cause any complaints to be made. Like us.

So, in anticipation of a middle-aged hawkeyed spinster obsessed with grease on hob exhaust grilles (yes, I'm speaking from experience), we got up early, Hoovered,  tidied, dusted and even washed the balcony windows (not a big task, but, oh my, the difference - we live on a very busy road with many polluting cars and trucks). The flat looked more than presentable and I was no longer paranoid about the disdainful inspector's imminent arrival.

The doorbell went and I put on my best welcoming smile, prepared to offer said harridan a cup of tea, when in walked a boy.

Yes, in a suit (or rather a sweater vest and tie) but a boy nonetheless. He couldn't have been more than 19, but looked about 15. He smiled nervously and shuffled a plastic sleeve of papers, looking for our tenancy agreement. They hadn't even given him a clipboard, bless - first tool of intimidation, the clipboard. As a stage manager I found it a terrific symbol of authority, right up there with walkie-talkies.

The boy finally found the agreement and we signed it, then he swallowed and said ‘I’ll just do the inventory’ and poked his head into the few rooms of our wee abode, rushing off a series of ticks on his list. I altered his list before signing it (we own the fridge but the other flats came with theirs installed) and he blinked, then nodded, wide-eyed and agreed. Too bad we're so honest, could have got ourselves a washer-dryer and cooker.

He was gone a minute later in a flurry of floppy hair and nervous nodding, but I have to wonder - what would he have done if he'd turned up to find we'd gone all Pacific Heights on the place? What if we'd repainted the ceilings to match the Sistine Chapel, torn up the carpet and carved Satanic symbols into the floorboards, punched holes in the walls and torched the balcony with a bonfire-style BBQ? What if, my chap said, we'd taken out all the walls and tiled the entire flat in pale green, with nothing but a toilet in the centre of the room?

I have to wonder, would our young inspector just have nodded, hyperventilating, and got us to sign the agreement anyway, then run away in tears of terror? I felt at the time that if I'd looked sideways at him and suddenly hissed 'BOO!' he might have wet himself. I can't imagine him standing up to the Andrex puppy, let alone a psychopathic Satanist decorator. Which, fortunately for him, we're not. But I have no idea about our neighbours.

7 Feb 2010

Really old stuff

P1030456 One of the coolest things about living in the UK is just how mind-bogglingly old everything is. In Australia, unless you're looking at Aboriginal art and landscape formations (which are also cool but not as accessible to the city-girl), everything ‘old’ within sensible driving distance of a pub or coffee shop is only just over 200 years old - like The Rocks in Sydney. All the cobble-stoned olde worlde goodness you can handle, but only two streets really, dating back to when the first English chaps decided to set up house when they got off the boats in 1788.

In Britain, people have been building things out of stuff that doesn't fall down (stone, pretty much) for thousands and thousands of years. Skara Brae, in the Orkneys, for example, dates back to 3100 BC - that's FIVE THOUSAND YEARS. I don't know about anyone else, but that starts getting beyond what P1030451my wee brain can cope with. The other useful thing is that the UK is quite small geographically, so most areas near water (rivers, lochs etc) have been populated for a long time by people  fond of building things out of sturdy materials that would withstand snow, ice and the perpetual rain. Which means that today, in our modern society, where we can travel from London to Cardiff in five hours instead of five days, the remnants of these ancient buildings survive in the most suburban of locations all over the place - mostly now protected by government and private organisations dead keen on history.

Half an hour's drive from our flat in Greenwich, is the village of Eynsford. It's one of a thousand 'historic' villages dotted all over the UK, that you drive through in a blink of an eye. They are mostly full of city commuters (the only people who can afford to live in such picturesque surroundings) or families who've lived there since their great-great-grand-someone settled as a farmer centuries ago. These little villages tend to sit between great tracts of open land, but comparatively close together, so a drive through the Kent  countryside will be mostly green fields (crops, sheep, cows) then a tiny village, then more fields, then another tiny village. The villages sometimes join up as the urban sprawl creeps outward and housing developments of 'Tudor-style' semi-detached homes are seemingly dropped into empty land by an unseen hand (my chap likes to call it the 'house-machine being left on' - hundreds of identical houses in nice neat rows), but more often than not, they're quite separate.

P1030433But the cool, if slightly surreal, thing about them is that you'll be driving along and  suddenly, out of the corner of your eye, you'll spot a pile of stones, a shadowy dip in the landscape, a structure that looks out of place in the suburban skyline. It will be sitting there, quietly, as it has for a thousand years, with livestock, tourists and local teenagers wandering past and through it, mostly oblivious to any historical significance (this is particularly true of livestock), it's just part of their neighbourhood. But in a lot of cases, an unassuming pile of rocks, a stone wall or a ramshackle structure will be older than anything around it (the earth not withstanding). Point in case, Eynsford Castle. Or the ruins thereof.

A few weeks ago, on the one sunny Saturday we've had since Christmas, we'd programmed our sat nav with the postcode given to us in the English Heritage guidebook (which lives in our car for such adventures). We drove past the point on the map where the sat nav's voice P1030453 (an Irish chap named Sean) said (or would have said, had we not turned the sound off) 'You have reached your destination', five times before I finally spotted the English Heritage sign post saying 'Eynsford Castle'. I'd been joking to my chap that it was probably in the middle of someone's backyard... well... five minutes later we were negotiating a winding lane, in between the back fences of several semi-detached homes (and some very sweet slanty cottages) to what looked like someone's back driveway, to park alongside what were evidently local residents' cars (including a trailer) and lo, there was indeed the ruins of Eynsford Castle.

P1030434 The ruins are surrounded by what was a moat at some point (if I had a castle I'd so want a  moat) and English  Heritage have built a sturdy wooden bridge over the hollow that was the moat, leading into the main body of the castle, which is built on a raised section of ground. Now basically a pile of stone half- walls, it's more like a fort built by over-enthusiastic boy scouts who were called in for their tea before they could finish it. There is very much a feeling that it was a defined structure at some point, the information boards list out a kitchen, a great hall, a solar (lords and ladies chamber or bedroom) and undercrofts for both, with a spiral staircase that lead up to the first floor. Apparently there was some kind of Saxon structure built there before the castle was built in the late 11th century and many changes of hands and conflict surrounding the building throughout its life - at one point it was even a kennel and stable.

P1030436 It was a gloriously sunny day, but it was still very cold (witness the remains of a snowman still frozen in the  centre of the main section of the castle), not to mention the arrival of a family whose children didn't seem to grasp the concept of keeping their voices below a shout in public, so we did the rounds of the ruins, me taking entirely more photos than necessary, then wandered down to the stream at the back of the ruins. Snow melt water had raised the water to the top of the bank and there were a couple of resilient ducks trying to swim against the substantial current (and winning, to their credit), and the  stream flowed down into fields that were more like wetlands - we suspected the stream had been diverted from its original path at some point, to irrigate the fields below. Sometimes I think we've been watching too much Time Team.

P1030461But there was very much a feeling of something having happened there, rather than a cold, empty pile of stones, which is one of the best things about living in a country with so much history. The sense that you are standing where people stood a thousand years ago, where someone built a home and went about their daily lives, just as you are now (but they were probably considerably more smelly). It's one of what I call 'amoeba moments'. When you realise that in the grand scheme of the universe, you're an amoeba. A tiny, tiny organism bearing little or no impact on the gigantic surroundings that are space and time. That the world will go on around you, or without you, and maybe one day, a thousand years in the future, someone will stand where you stood, wondering what your life was like, but, like you today, with no clue about who you actually were. Or maybe they'll just have a picnic.

2 Jan 2010

Snow

I grew up in Far North Queensland. Which is so far north it requires capital letters. The temperature in summer can get up to 40­­° Celsius and even in winter it doesn't get much lower than about 17°. Humidity stays around the 60/70% mark all year. So it's pretty warm and sticky most of the time, but particularly at Christmas time. Traditionally my family don't do cooked lunch, it's ham and potato salad and sparkling apple juice, then sit around trying not to sweat.

I don't like hot weather. I don't like having to reveal that much skin to anyone but my partner and I don't like wearing shoes with a no-sock requirement. I like trainers. And boots. The sandal and flip flop require a pedicure and inevitably cause blisters while you're wearing them in. I hate blisters.

I moved to the UK in part to get away from the hot weather. That and the lack of culture, artistic merit and availability of tickets to arena concerts (yes, yes I know, topic for another post). But mostly for the weather. Unlike most English people, I like the weather here. I like the rain (unless I'm required to walk long distances in a direction opposite to home), I like clouds and I like the temperature no higher than 22 degrees. While I don't really enjoy the early darkness six months of the year brings, British Summer Time means it's sometimes light at 9.30 at night. Which is awesome.

Phone-0008However, I'm not convinced about snow. The first time I saw snow (actual snow falling from the sky, as opposed to sitting in frozen lumps on the side of a mountain) I was in New York on holiday. I was travelling on my own (though I was staying with my brother in Brooklyn, he had to work all week) and I had just finished looking at treasures in the Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum on Madison Avenue. I was collecting my coat from the cloakroom at the front entrance and looked out through the glass door to see tiny white fluffy things floating around in the air. It took me a minute to realise what it was, and I think I must have been standing there looking amazed because the large black security guard at the door stepped forward and asked me if I was okay. I said I was, I'd just never seen snow before. He was amused in the way that I'd only ever seen New York characters on television amused - he laughed out loud and announced to the couple who were leaving the museum behind me that I'd never seen snow! They smiled in that kindly patronising way that New Yorkers do and stepped past me, putting up their umbrellas as they left.

I had an umbrella with me (my first overseas trip, I had EVERYTHING with me), but I wasn't going to miss out on my DSCN2933first snow - I walked back up to Central Park, gazing around at the snowflakes with an expression not unlike Jeff Bridges' in Starman and trying to catch them on my hand and my tongue. That night it snowed enough to make the pavements slippery and give mailboxes and railings snow cone hats (though CNN would have you believe that a blizzard was on its way). I ventured forth into freezing sleet (this time with my umbrella, can't tell you what a difference it made), thanking my sensible hiking books and diligent shop keepers with grit bins for stopping the worst of the pavement slipping and then realised why snow in an urban environment is not necessarily a wondrous thing. Once the city heats up the snow enough to ice over, everything is slippery. If the snow stays as snow it's fine, you can plough through drifts in waterproof boots and the soles will grip as they should and so long as you don't try and rush, you'll get where you're going without falling over. When it's icy, chances of arriving at your destination without a soggy bum are slim to none.

I hate falling over. I hated falling over as a kid, the embarrassment, the pain and the indignity at not being able to maintain a simple thing like balance. I was always the last one to make it back to the beach when we were rock-climbing, I never let go of the railing on my few attempts at roller skating and I don't even like stepping into a wet bathtub without having a two-handed grip on something that can't break. I hated it as a kid, but now in my late 30s, and weighing considerably more than I did at 14, there's a lot more of me to land on my knee, elbow or my substantial behind.

DSCN2946 So here is my quandary. I love to watch the snow. I love to see the white feathers swirling, floating, piling up on tree branches. I love the way it sits on top of post boxes and window sills, the icing sugar on sponge cake look of roofs and lone trails of footprints (human and canine) through pristine parkland. I like seeing kids (and grownups) making rude snowmen and chucking lumps of it at each other, I like the way that dogs are ridiculously excited by it and zoom around, nose to the ice, trying to figure it out, as if they've never seen it before. It's still a marvellous magical phenomenon to me, and I get completely snap-happy.

I also hate the snow. I hate slipping and catching myself before I hit the ground almost as much as P1030252aactually falling down. I hate having to leave extra time to get to the station in the morning, I hate having to remember spare socks and hoping that my boots will hold up to their waterproof bargain and my toes won't be wrinkled and cold when I get to the office. I hate the messy slippery slush left behind after several thousand pedestrians have traipsed through the snow on their way to work, much earlier than me. I hate the way the UK's transport system breaks down when more than an inch of powder lands on the train tracks, roads and airports. Just before Christmas there was an unexpected snowfall about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, a good two inches landed on London with a 'whoomp' and all vehicular transport ceased to function.

P1030253Trains were delayed, cancelled, gave up and went back to their train duvets in their train sheds. Traffic banked up as cars slipped and skidded on roads (hills were impossible) unless they'd managed to get in behind the frantically-deployed army of grit lorries. Buses stopped in case they slid on the road or crashed into shop fronts at three miles per hour, killing everyone on board and spoiling Christmas displays. We got to our next-to-local train station, waited for a bus in the snow only to be told they'd all stopped, then gave up and walked home. It's normally a 30 minute stroll over a grassy heath and along not-unpleasant shop-lined streets, but it took us nearly an hour plodding along in our hiking boots (I exceeded the limits of their waterproofness at about 40 minutes). I held onto my chap's arm with a vice-like grip, paranoid about ice patches and spent the entire walk with my eyes on the ground, placing my feet in a steady, stomping fashion like so many snow-shoed Eskimos before me.

P1030209aOf course later, in my contrary way, I was taking photos from the window of our flat, watching in wonder at the swirling flurries and wondering how long the road surface would stay coated in the snowy frosting before a car (or a grit lorry) came along to destroy the illusion.

I think snow is a bit like action films where the hero beats up the baddie/alien/volcano with an array of heavy artillery, staggering triumphantly through bloody noses, broken ribs and bullet wounds. I like to watch, but faced with actually getting physically involved, I'd rather stay in with a cup of coffee and biscuit if it's all the same.