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Apr. 24th, 2018

Secret Agent Dog

An Honourable Furry

I am both shaken and stirred to announce that I have been chosen as Guest of Honour at Fur the More 2019, to be held in Tysons Corner, Virginia, from 15th - 17th March next year.

This will be the convention’s seventh year, so the theme is Fur the More 007: Furry Never Dies. (I know. I can’t think why they picked me, either.)

It’s a great honour and an amazing opportunity - one that might only come my way once - and I plan to enjoy it to the full.

Guest of Honour duties include taking part in events, hosting panels and, oh gosh, probably making a speech or something, help.

I’ll never forget that at my first furry convention, ConFuzzled 2013, the GOH was the lovely Kyell Gold, who was incredibly kind to me at a time when I was just starting out as a writer. It was a huge boost and it really made the con for me. It would be wonderful if I could do that for someone else.

I am, of course, suffering pretty massively from impostor syndrome; I know plenty of furry writers who are much more talented, hard-working and deserving than I am.

But, in fairness, I don’t know many who are quite so keen on James Bond.

I will try my absolute best to be a good ambassador, and I look forward to keeping the British end up in Virginia.

Apr. 23rd, 2018

Cat Air

Côte d'Opale

The unseasonably lovely weather over the last few days has made everyone go a bit barmy, each of us in our own special way.

In my case it got me checking the price of a day return on the Eurotunnel, which turned out to be not much. So on Sunday morning I set off with the intention of riding some nice roads, looking at the sea and having a nice lunch.

I succeeded on all counts except the lunch, which somehow always ends up being supermarket sandwiches and regret.

I emerged from the Chunnel, did 500m of motorway to extract myself from Calais, and spent the rest of the day on the D roads.

I rode the nice coastal route down to Le Touquet, familiar from a scooter rideout or two, then headed inland looking for a Michelin green (scenic) route I wanted to try. I got lost and didn't find it, but I did find many other things, including Montrueil, a pretty town on top of a hill. The through road turned into cobbles for quite a long way, but it was worth it.

I hacked about in a roughly northerly direction, relying on the position of the sun and vague memories of town names, before emerging back on the coast road 11km from Boulogne. It was a shock to be back on a relatively busy road after an hour of very little other traffic, but fun to pass through the holiday towns with their seafood restaurants and beachwear shops.

The UK Border Force thought the whole business was very suspicious and asked me where I'd been, if I'd brought anything back (a bag of Haribo) and if I'd met anyone (certainly not). Then they graciously allowed me to return home.

250 road miles. I was out of the house ten hours. Modern life is amazing.
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Apr. 16th, 2018

Ace

Hover Bovver

I spent the weekend in Portsmouth visiting my friends Steve and Anna. It's a pleasure at any time, but the excuse on this occasion was a jaunt to the Hovercraft Museum at Lee-on-Solent, which Steve and I made on Saturday by train, bus and the Gosport ferry.

The museum is located close to a former hovercraft testing site, and the exhibits are housed in old seaplane hangars.

Their star attraction is the Princess Anne, the last survivor of the SR.N4 Mountbatten-class cross-Channel hovercraft and the largest civilian hovercraft in the world.

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I love bygone eras of travel, so I enjoyed all the old posters, leaflets and uniforms as much as the technological marvel of it.

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They also have a BH7 Wellington-class military hovercraft. We learned that hovercraft are great for military applications because they can get troops and supplies just about anywhere, and don't trigger seamines.

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There were James Bond hovercraft! The big one had so much tat bolted to it to make it look scary that it became too heavy to hover and had to be towed - a fact which delighted me almost as much as the cardboard cutouts of Pierce Brosnan.

Inevitably, our evening's viewing was Die Another Day.

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Apr. 10th, 2018

Orange Vespa Huskyteer

Long Sutton to Black Dog

Saturday was Somerset Advanced Motorcyclists' South West Peninsula Spring Rally, an event in which you travel Dorset, Devon, Cornwall and Somerset, or at least some of them, visiting checkpoints and answering questions to prove you were there.

I last did the rally in 2014, but when I walked into Long Sutton Village Hall to check in, the couple manning the desk said "Oh, hello Alice! We were just saying, I wonder where Alice is!". Which was nice.

Howard and I had decided to go for the Silver award, which made it a slightly more leisurely day with time for sightseeing. We had planned which checkpoints we would visit when the list was sent out a couple of weeks in advance, and now we were given the list of questions. We set off for Wiveliscombe to discover which sport is commemorated at the entrance to the village (rugby, for the record).

The morning was foggy and rainy, and most of the checkpoints were villages you wouldn't ordinarily visit, up single-track roads that were a little the worse for the weather. On one, I squeezed past a van coming the other way and the driver cheerfully informed me that there was 'two foot of water' at the other end. I comforted myself with the thought that he was probably exaggerating, and, indeed, it was not two foot of water (though it was quite a lot).

I don't think my bike's previous owner had even ridden it in the rain, let alone through a flood.

We crossed Exmoor in the fog and paid a pound each to travel the toll road at Porlock Weir. With six out of twelve unmanned checkpoints in the bag, we stopped for a pub lunch at the Pack o' Cards in Combe Martin. Built, according to legend, using the proceeds of a gambling win, it is shaped like a house of cards and designed around the number of cards in a deck, with four floors, 13 doors on each floor, and 52 stairs.

At Ilfracombe we knocked off one of the two manned checkpoints we needed, which put us halfway to victory. Our second, via a couple more unmanned ones, was at Princetown, where we were recognised from previous years and warmly welcomed. ("Oh, you're the journalist lady!" exclaimed the guy who stamped my card, which is a very generous description of my writing up the 2011 rally for a freebie bike mag.)

We stopped for a coffee before heading over Dartmoor, where the weather was finally kind and gave us views of golden, sunlit hills surrounded by shadows. Three checkpoints remained, one at the charmingly-named and tiny hamlet of Black Dog. (The whole day was filled with wonderful names: Curry Rivel; Fivehead; Sticklepath; Mary Tavy.)

We returned to Long Sutton soon after 8pm, received our certificates and 10th anniversary mugs, had a bowl of stew, and departed around 9, 12 hours after we'd checked in that morning.
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Apr. 4th, 2018

Ace

Weekend Part 2: Do You Really Think That's Wise, Sir?

Our first stop on Sunday was Thetford again, where the Charles Burrell Museum was opening for the season. The museum showcases the steam-powered engines for industry, transport and fairgrounds once made on the premises, although we were mostly interested in seeing Corporal Jones's butcher van, which also lives there.

I had pushed strongly for a visit to Great Yarmouth, our next destination. The pier featured in more than one episode, but I was mostly interested in sausage and chips, a look at the sea and a play on the 2p machines at the amusement arcade (I didn't win anything).

Afterwards we headed to Cromer, largely because I'd been before and remembered both the town and the coastal route from Great Yarmouth as pretty. Black clouds threatened but I had a Lemon & Lime Ripple ice cream anyway. It was shot through with bright green and someone stopped me on my way to the beach to ask what flavour it was.

Back to the hotel via a quick peek at pretty Weybourne Station, featured in the episode The Royal Train and now privately-owned.

More rain was forecast on Monday, but pushing off around lunchtime, so we delayed our departure. The journey home was by way of a roundabout in Bury St Edmunds so we could admire the carved wolf guarding it (a wolf kindly looked after Edmund the Martyr's severed head until it could be reunited with his body).

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Apr. 3rd, 2018

Brigadier

Weekend Part 1: They Don't Like It Up 'Em

I spent the Easter weekend in Suffolk and Norfolk, doing Dad's Army tourism.

It was a wet ride up on Good Friday to the Six Bells, Bardwell, which featured in several episodes and was our base for three nights. Luckily we were made very welcome and fed very well.

On Saturday we set off to collect points of interest (including riding without incident down the road where Sergeant Wilson crashes the platoon motorbike in one of my favourite episodes, The Honourable Man) on our way to Thetford, where much of the location work was done and the cast and crew stayed during filming.

(Thetford's other claim to fame is as the birthplace of Thomas Paine, of whom I had only heard because of Dylan's As I Went Out One Morning.)

The first thing we saw in Thetford was the statue of Captain Mainwaring, sitting on a bench, and a man dressed as Private Pike posing for a picture with him. Dad's Army tourism is Serious Business.

We moved on to the Dad's Army Museum, a small collection run by a group of goodhearted, superannuated, opinionated enthusiasts - much like the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard.

There were some lovely photos and anecdotes, many supplied by locals who worked as extras. Not many props survive from the series itself, but the wishing-well from Godfrey's cottage has been unearthed from a barn and lovingly conserved.

A sign invited visitors to have their photograph taken in Captain Mainwaring's office in return for a small donation, with a note underneath from the verger to say "I think you will find it is the vicar's office and he won't like it".

Afterwards we hoped to get a glimpse of Godfrey's cottage itself, but this turned out to be down a muddy track behind a closed gate. Instead, we rode through increasingly heavy rain to the Station Bistro, Wymondham, which has nothing to do with Dad's Army but was very pretty and did me a hot chocolate that was about 50% marshmallows and cream.

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Mar. 26th, 2018

Ace

Trash Raiders

It's rare for me to go to one new-release movie in a year, let alone two, let alone two in the same week, but that's what's been happening.

Thursday's treat was the new Tomb Raider film with Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft. It had everything I love about the Tomb Raider franchise: lavish sets, gratuitous puzzles, a strong moral code and that move where you hang from a rope and shuffle along it sideways. Plus I completely failed to recognise Derek Jacobi beyond thinking 'who is that sweet old man?'

It's not going to win any Oscars but I very much enjoyed getting all excited about a Tomb Raider movie like it was 2001 (a time, let me remind you, when Daniel Craig was of significance to me only as Lara Croft's dodgy frenemy/occasional bonk).

I miss Chris Barrie as the butler, though.

Yesterday I went to Greenwich for Isle of Dogs, a weird and wonderful stop-motion puppet movie featuring the voice talent of Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum as a fox terrier and a husky respectively. It's the touching, funny and slightly disturbing story of 12-year-old Atari, who flies a tiny aircraft to Trash Island to rescue his exiled bodyguard dog and ends up unmasking a sinister conspiracy by a cat-loving dynasty. Loved it to bits.

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Mar. 15th, 2018

Casino Royale

Who Killed Anne Tenor?

I spent last night in 1969, investigating a murder.

Dead Drop is an interactive murder mystery with secret agents, aviation and horrible puns, so it was obviously going to be right up my street. My companion and I had a wonderful time solving puzzles, playing baccarat and trying to get information out of suspicious characters with silly names.

One of the suspects was carrying a copy of Octopussy as part of his cover, and I quickly abandoned my attempt at interrogation in favour of having a conversation about James Bond set in 1969, which was terrific fun:

ME: There's this smokin' hot dude in The Lion in Winter. Reckon he'd be a good Bond in a few years.
SUSPECT: What, Anthony Hopkins? Bit short, isn't he?

I probed the poor guy's Fleming knowledge extensively and he kept his end up throughout.

An incredible amount of skill and effort had obviously gone into creating a plot with clues you can tackle in any order, sustaining the characters in the face of whatever gets thrown at them, and making the night fun in every way for the guests. Great work all round.

(My hot tip is [Spoiler (click to open)]to return to the baccarat table at a quiet moment, after you have the information you need; you may be offered a quick private high/low game and be lucky enough to win a free drink.)

We failed to identify the murderer but we did win the prize for being the best-dressed agents. Deservedly, I think you'll agree.

Sadly, tonight is the last night of Dead Drop, because the venue, Wringer & Mangle in Spitalfields, is closing down. But I will be keeping an eye out for future games from A Door In A Wall.

Now, how am I going to explain the flaming skull temporary tattoo on my wrist?

1969

Mar. 12th, 2018

Cat Air

Queen Bees and Wooden Wonders

News! My insurer has declared my stolen-and-recovered bike a total loss and agreed to pay me what I paid for it, minus my excess. Bit of a waste of a bike, but the best possible result for me.

To celebrate, on Saturday I went on a bike forum rideout to the de Havilland Aircraft Museum. We met for breakfast at a greasy spoon near Potters Bar (an important part of any biking event), then had a short ride on the back roads to the museum.

Based at the old de Havilland factory, this was for a long time the only museum dedicated to aircraft made by a single manufacturer. It takes us through the First World War, the heyday of light leisure aircraft like the Hornet Moth, with its special space for your golf clubs, to the Mosquito, the Second World War's 'Wooden Wonder' (with parts manufactured by G Plan and Parker Knoll, it was known as the best piece of furniture ever made in Britain) to postwar jets like the Vampire, the ill-fated Comet airliner, and finally a few examples from the period after the firm became part of Hawker Siddeley.

We opted for a group tour and learned lots of amazing facts we wouldn't otherwise have discovered. DID YOU KNOW, for instance, that there was a Tiger Moth variant called the Queen Bee? Remote-controlled by telephone, it was used for gunnery practice and is the reason unmanned aircraft are called 'drones'.

After a coffee, most of us went back to look at the bits we'd been hurried past. I was, predictably, the last to leave, having hung around photographing my bike next to the Dove in the car park.

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Feb. 21st, 2018

Cat Air

Strutting and Fretting

I've been to a fair number of BBC radio recordings over the years, all brilliant, but last night was my first experience of TV since I got the coach to London as a student to see Ben Elton.

I willingly queued in the rain outside the ITV-owned London Studios (next to the National Theatre), for I was going to see an episode of Upstart Crow, the Shakespearean sitcom written by Ben Elton (can't keep away from the man, it seems) and starring David Mitchell as Will.

The queue started moving, I was joined by my companion for the evening in the nick of time, and once our tickets had been validated we popped to the corner shop for sandwiches to eat in the second queue to get in (after a security check which completely missed my Swiss Army knife but was very suspicious of my lip balm).

Phones switched off, we were conducted to the studio, where three sets were waiting: from left to right Shakespeare's London pad, his Stratford home, and Miss Lucy's tavern. We were sitting in the right-hand block of seats, but there were big screens to ensure we could see the action wherever it was, and to show us scenes that had been filmed the previous day.

We were warmed up and taught how to laugh properly by a stand-up comedian named Laura, who told us the reason it was so cold in the studio: if it got too hot, David Mitchell's and Harry Enfield's bald wigs would slip.

She was on hand throughout the evening to entertain us while costume changes and minute adjustments happened. Ben Elton himself also came on and talked about the show, Shakespeare, and his inability to operate Netflix.

The cameras started rolling, and we saw just how difficult and delicate an operation it is to film a TV show. There were several takes for each scene, plus a few retakes of individual lines, and the process of recording half an hour's worth of action took over two hours.

It was fun and fascinating to see the intrusion into Elizabethan England of makeup and props people in modern dress, and the cast break character when they fluffed a line (Liza Tarbuck in particular was having a bad night of it).

Harry Enfield, who plays Shakespeare's disreputable dad, was as constantly smiley and lovely as I had always hoped, using one bit of downtime to look into the camera and say "Hello everybody peeps! Or, in David's case, hello everybody Peep Show!"

I will say nothing about the episode (the series 3 finale) except that it was, by Elton's own admission, 'obviously written by someone who hasn't been invited to the BAFTAs since 1989'.
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