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Nov. 25th, 2015

Alice Street

The Street That Time Forgot

I had a parcel to post yesterday lunchtime, and Post Office queues are already ramping up to Christmas crazy. Remembering that a colleague had told me about a smaller Post Office, roughly the same distance away as the one on the High Street but in the opposite direction, I thought I'd check it out. And so I found myself in Chatterton Road, or 'Chatterton Village' as, according to current vogue, it styles itself.

It was like a street from the past. No chains except a small Co-op supermarket. Chemist's. Pub on the corner. A launderette; a wool shop; Waggles Pet Emporium. A model aeroplane shop. And a charity shop for a local cause, where everything was priced so that people who are not professional collectors of vintage retro chic could purchase it too. Toys that kids can buy with their pocket money (which makes me feel bad when I buy them)!

I bought a hardback copy of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, which I've been meaning to read for ages. It cost 25p, because it was classed as children's, and appears to contain illustrator Chris Riddell's autograph. Also: a string of fairy lights shaped like aeroplanes.

The whole thing was rather like the recurring dream I have where I'm at a market or car boot sale and keep turning up treasures.

I may go back for the tiny £3 Krups espresso machine. I lingered over it, but was slightly afraid I would poison, scald or electrocute myself.

Nov. 16th, 2015


The End of the Beginning

When you take up karate, you imagine the black belt, impossibly far off, as the end of your journey and the pinnacle of achievement. Pretty soon, you'll be told that grading to black belt is merely the beginning of the real karate journey.

Yesterday, I embarked on that journey.

I'd been a nervous wreck ever since shihan called me aside at the end of Tuesday's class and told me that, if I decided I was ready, he'd put me up for the grading. Was I ready? I wasn't sure. But I reckoned I was as ready as I'd ever be.

The rest of the week went too fast, yet dragged. At last, there I was, standing in a school sports hall in Sidcup in my gi. Then we were told to line up, we were bowing in, and it had begun.

Senior gradings are attended by red belts and up. They're longer than the public gradings for white to blue belts. We are treated to a punishing warmup and tested on our punches, kicks and blocks, which lasts as long as a regular class, and only then go on to demonstrate the kata, a long sequence of memorised moves.

We go through every kata, from the very first white belt to yellow belt taikyoku shodan, until we reach the one for our particular grade, which in my case is seipai. Concentrating only on your grade kata to the detriment of the others is a bad idea; you are expected to give your all to all of them, and to do them significantly better than lower grades can manage.

The final part of the grading is kumite, sparring. I was dreading this; at lower levels you can partner up with someone you know, or a child, and take it a bit easy, but if you're trying for black belt the instructors will pick you out and find out how much you really want it. I got off reasonably lightly, though I did have to face an enormous sensei who stood in front of me going "Hit me! Go on! You're so timid! You're like a teddy-bear!" - which is exactly the kind of thing that makes me want to curl up in a ball and cry.

When we finished, I knew that my technique might improve, but that if I failed to grade because I wasn't fit enough, or aggressive enough, or sufficiently hard-working, I never would grade, because I had given everything I'd got.

After a cooldown and the bowing out, we sat while the results were read, starting with the red belts and going up. There were only two of us going for shodan-ho, so when the first name had been called and I saw my instructor reach behind him to pick up a second black belt, I knew I'd succeeded. But I only believed it when my name was called and I was bowing, discarding my brown belt, and tying the new one with shaking hands.

Several students I've known and trained with for years were also grading: the other new shodan-ho (we kept perfect time with each other), one grading to first dan, and the others to second or first kyu brown belt. We all succeeded, because our shihan trains us well and doesn't put us up for grading until we're good and ready. There were photos and handshakes and sweaty hugs, and I realised how attached I am to these people I see once a week, under very specific circumstances and never in their normal clothes.

It was early 2002 when I started going to karate. I had no idea I'd keep it up this long, much less reach this level. (It's possible to reach black belt in seven years. I'm not actually very good at karate.) It's been a stabilising influence in my life, giving structure to my week and an outlet to everyday frustrations.

Technically, shodan-ho is a provisional grade, a placeholder until that time at least a year in the future when I have to go through it all again to grade to first dan. But I get to wear a black belt. I'll take it.

Nov. 6th, 2015



For my generation of British kids, perhaps the most startling thing about Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure was the scene where they go to Waterloo, a giant outdoor water park.

During my childhood I was lucky enough to be taken more than once to Center Parcs in their native Netherlands, before we had them over here. Otherwise, like most British kids, my swimming experience was limited to a municipal pool with a rickety, pale blue plastic slide that would be suddenly removed amid rumours that a child had fallen off and been killed/paralysed/lost all their teeth.

But I never lost sight of the Bill and Ted waterpark dream.

That's why I took Wednesday afternoon off to go to Coral Reef Waterworld in Bracknell with yagfox.

Obviously a November Wednesday in Surrey is far removed from the California experience, but we were not complaining. As well as three flumes, one of which was billed as 'extreme' and I was too scared to try, there are bubble beds, whirlpools, a lazy river, and a fibreglass volcano that periodically 'erupts' in a forceful jet of water. We also paid for access to Sauna World, with its three saunas, jacuzzi, steam room and cold pool. I have seldom been more relaxed, or more clean, than I was that evening.

The best thing to do after swimming is to have fish and chips (which was once my post-swimming-lesson treat every Friday), so we went to Fishcraft in Eton, where I had what was probably the best fish pie I have ever tasted. No jumbo sausage in batter, alas.

Nov. 2nd, 2015

Casino Royale

A SPECTRE For Hallowe'en

I had heard mixed reports of SPECTRE, but the thing about Bond is that, good or bad, I will have things to say about it. So on Saturday evening I skipped into Dorchester's shiny new Odeon full of excitement, and I liked what I saw.

No major plot points given away, but if you"re trying to avoid all possible spoilers, do not click.Collapse )

See? Nine-tenths of that could have been about any Bond film, ever.

And here is a major spoiler for you: [Spoiler (click to open)]just once, I'd like a Bond film in which the guy who's trying to shut down the 00 Section isn't working for the enemy, he's simply a bit of a git..

Oct. 30th, 2015

Casino Royale

Partners in Time

The new Bond film, SPECTRE, is out this week (I'm going tomorrow!), and new Doctor Who has been gracing our screens for a month or so now. Two very British franchises, both of which have played a not insignificant part in my life - Doctor Who from the age of eight or so, Bond from my teens.

The two have plenty more in common than my affection, of course. Both have a hero who, every so often, gets a different face; both are accompanied by a succession of young women who, this time, are different, because they're feisty and independent (in Bond's case, I think this was first said about Pussy Galore and has been repeated for every film since). The principal difference is that violence and killing are a last resort for the Doctor, and usually the first for Bond.

When I was a teenager, both series were in a state of hibernation, as well as deeply uncool. The BBC drop-kicked the Doctor in 1989, while Licence to Kill, released in the same year, looked for a time to be the end of Bond. Both were fatally holed by concerns about dwindling fan interest, and the licence to make Bond films also disappeared into legal hell for some years. (Timothy Dalton, my favourite Bond, and Sylvester McCoy, my second-favourite Doctor, both got a bit of a raw deal.)

Both made a comeback during my first year at university, Bond with GoldenEye and Who with the TV movie. Here their paths diverged for a while, the Bond flick enjoying more success than its counterpart. Pierce Brosnan went on to make a further three Bond films, while Paul McGann became a crucial component of the quietly thriving Doctor Who audiobook scene.

The re-reboot of each occurred within a similar timeframe, too. Christopher Eccleston made his debut as the Doctor in 2005, and Daniel Craig starred in Casino Royal in 2006. Both brought a new, slightly thuggish quality to the role, which worked better on Bond. And, suddenly, both franchises were cooler than they'd ever been.

They had new, young fans who were fans because the new stuff was good in and of itself, rather than of interest for what it represented. There was fanfic. The respective fandoms stopped being so male-dominated.

Neither seems to be for kids any more (and let us not pretend that the Bond movies weren't for kids). Doctor Who has been airing long past the bedtime of its former target audience. As for Bond, just look at the merchandising: when The Living Daylights came out, you could get collectable stickers in multipacks of Trio bars. Tie-ins for SPECTRE include Sony hardware and premium vodka.

So what is my problem? Why do I resent the popularity of something I liked during the wilderness years? Maybe I feel I deserve some kind of recognition, to be a higher-tier, more senior fan than the squealing Tennant-is-sexy/Craig-is-sexy mob (conveniently overlooking my own Pertwee-is-sexy/Dalton-is-sexy motives).

Obviously I'm not going to get it, because there is no higher authority (the M or Rassilon of Fandom) to bestow it. But I am grateful that both are providing me with more adventures to get excited or cross about, and while neither Peter Capaldi nor Daniel Craig will ever be my favourite incarnation of the character they play, both are doing a smashing job.

Carry on, chaps.

Oct. 29th, 2015

Snow Fun

Who Shot YA?

I spent yesterday at the inaugural YA Shot, a one-day event bringing together Young Adult and children's writers and readers for a packed programme of panels and workshops.

I made it to far-off Uxbridge with no problems, collected my glittery wristband from the Civic Centre, and met up with slightlyfoxed, who had alerted me to the event in the first place. We went to one panel together, on historical fiction; for the rest our tastes diverged, and we met in between to compare notes and, at 2PM, to enjoy lunch in a nearby greasy spoon.

The most useful panel for me was probably the one on writing humour, and the most enjoyable the one in which we were given party poppers to fire if we objected to an author's statement or got bored and wished the discussion to move on.

The most memorable line from an author reading was "When the scouring-pad drew blood, it became apparent that the penis on my forehead was permanent" from, I think, RJ Morgan's Fifteen Bones, and the best thing said on a panel was "I'll get you next time, Gaiman!", out of the mouth of Stefan Mohamed.

I bought his book, Bitter Sixteen, because I'd heard good things about it and because he came across as a nice guy, but mostly because one of the characters is a talking beagle. When Stefan signed it he asked what my superpower was, so I said "Talking to dogs!" and he wrote "Do they talk back? Woof!" Sweet.

(Oh help, he's followed me back on Twitter and will no doubt think I'm some kind of dog-obsessed weirdo WHEN NOTHING COULD BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH.)

It was a long day and a packed programme, with events running concurrently in four venues (two parts of the Civic Centre, the library, and Waterstones), from 10am until twenty past eight in the evening. Certainly well worth £20 of anyone's money, but perhaps a little overambitious; attendance overall was good, but individual panels were sometimes sparsely populated. I hope they get to do it again next year!
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Oct. 27th, 2015

Monocle Husky

Bright Young Things

Last night I went to a free event at Foyles, at which three authors discussed the publication of their very different debut novels with Vintage. Also there was pizza.

Kirsty Logan's The Gracekeepers is set in a drowned world where bodies are buried at sea with a caged bird to mark the spot. Ruth Ware's In a Dark, Dark Wood is a tale of a hen night gone horribly wrong. Vesna Goldsworthy's Gorsky is a retelling of The Great Gatsby with Russian oligarchs in London (in the shower later, it suddenly struck me that she's missing a trick if she hasn't set it in East Ham).

All had previous publication experience, in short stories, children's fiction and non-fiction respectively, and the focus of the evening was demystifying publishing for aspiring writers as well as interested readers.

What they had to say about writing, editing, publishing, and taking the phone call to say that Reese Witherspoon is interested in the movie rights while you're wrangling your children in the rain (this was Ruth Ware) was funny, fascinating and helpful.

I was particularly taken by Kirsty Logan's advice ("This is BAD advice! Don't take it!"): although now a full-time writer, in the past she always took non-demanding jobs that wouldn't bleed into her writing time. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

I didn't buy any of the books, but I will certainly remember them and probably read at least one in the future. I left full of determination and pizza.
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The Woman Who Lived

I have only one thing to say about Saturday's instalment of Doctor Who and it is: [Spoiler (click to open)]what a happy coincidence that an alien lion man from another planet should have a name that means 'lion man' in an ancient Earth language!!

Oct. 26th, 2015



I spent much of yesterday walking in Windsor's Great Park with a furry friend. The weather was lovely, we saw red deer, partridge, a buzzard and lots of parakeets, and stopped for a mulled cider at a pub where you could, if you wished, tie up your horse while you had a drink. I also met a three-and-a-half-month-old bulldog named Hugo, who was a little tan and white ball of chub.

My legs barely work today. That'll teach me to hang out with young people.

Oct. 12th, 2015

Live Ammo: Ha! Ha! Ha!

International Pop

I'd been meaning to check out The World Goes Pop at the Tate Modern for ages, and on Saturday I managed to get there in the company of two friends who, handily, are members and got me in for free.

I thought I knew pop art. I didn't. I knew Warhol and Liechtenstein. I had no idea about all the stuff that was going on in Brazil, Romania, Spain (still a dictatorship), France (where the contraceptive pill was hotly debated), Yugoslavia: comments on the Vietnam War, on American consumerism, and issues closer to home.

Pop art in fact progressed so quickly that by the late 1960s artists are already riffing on Warhol, with images of his scorched and ripped soup cans as all that's left to represent culture following the nuclear holocaust.

I especially liked the last room, themed around consumerism - much more what we expect from pop art, and wallpapered in a Laughing Cow motif - but the whole exhibition was fascinating, with a large number of beautiful pieces as well as a few I would like to scrub from my brain with a Brillo pad.

Also, ever so many female genitalia. Wow.

A couple of favouritesCollapse )

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