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Jul. 9th, 2018

Ace

The Impossible Dream

The Penny Dreadfuls are a trio of blokes who write and perform comedy shows based on great works of literature (in other words, Peak Radio 4).

I'd very much enjoyed their take on the Odyssey and one about John le Carré, so when I got a BBC Tickets and Tours email to say they were doing Don Quixote, one of my favourite books, I applied for tickets immediately. Soon afterwards, I got an email to say I'd been successful.

Imagine my joy, then, when the Dreadfuls announced on Twitter that their special guest stars would include Sylvester McCoy playing Don Quixote.

The recording was last night, and it was well worth queueing up in the heat outside Broadcasting House for.

A lot of the humour was based around 'ha ha, nobody has really read Don Quixote', which made me WELL, ACTUALLY to myself a bit. That said, it was a very funny script that managed to make some serious contemporary points and present both Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as sympathetic characters, while sticking pretty closely to the plot and spirit of the original.

The cast was fantastic and Sylvester McCoy just lovely, constantly pulling funny faces and doing little bits of Business. My companion and I spent a lot of time in whispered discussion of how very huggable he was. (He got noticeably more Scottish during the retakes, by the way, with some of his Rs lasting several seconds.)

It turns out that one of McCoy's many music hall talents is the ability to burp on demand, so we had a bit of that.

"They never made you do that when you were in Doctor Who, did they?" said the producer.

"They didn't let me."

I'm only sorry he didn't play the spoons for us. I'm sure he would have done given the slightest excuse.
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Jun. 2nd, 2018

The Spy Who Loved Me

007 Is Dead

I enjoyed Trigger Mortis, Anthony Horowitz’s 2015 James Bond novel, a great deal, so I’ve been excited for ages about the release of his second, Forever And A Day, on May 31st. Last night I went to see him talk about it at the Royal Festival Hall.

There’s been more publicity than I remember from previous Bond continuations, or maybe I’ve been more tuned in to what was going on: an ad on the huge display screen at Waterloo, and a roulette wheel in Waterstones Piccadilly where you can win fabulous prizes (or, in my case, a consolation travelcard holder). Waterstones even had branded takeaway cups in their cafe, forcing me (forcing me I tell you!) to have a latte.

I met up with an internet friend from the spy fiction circuit and we had an enjoyably geeky conversation across many fictional universes while we awaited admission.

The talk was a real pleasure. Anthony Horowitz is a lifelong Bond (and Sherlock Holmes, and Tintin) fan who admitted to wanting the continuation gig for years before finally getting the call, and his aim in writing Bond is to entice new readers towards Ian Fleming’s books. What a lovely speaker and person he is - warm, witty, clever and enthusiastic. I'd expect no less from a Tintin fan.

I especially liked the way he involved the two sign language interpreters, who were taking turns and doing a really good job (seeing one of them sign 'the bit in The Spy Who Loved Me where the parachute opens and it's a Union Jack' was a highlight of the evening).

I even managed to put my hand up and ask a question, which I'm usually too shy to do. It was "Who do you picture when you're writing Bond?" and the answer was "Sean Connery, because of the age I am."

There was a long queue for the signing afterwards, but everyone got a nice conversation at the signing table. I told him that (1) I like Trigger Mortis more than I like Kingsley Amis’s Colonel Sun (2) the first Bond novel I read was the same as his: Dr No in the film tie-in cover, and I think he appreciated both these facts.

He not only signed three hardbacks (two for me and one for a friend), but my Waterstones coffee cup (I asked them for an extra, explaining that otherwise I would have to keep an unhygienic coffee-stained one in my home forever).

I managed to find a few more online pals and we enjoyed a drink and some Bond chat (I ended up enthusing about the hovercraft museum for perhaps longer than necessary) before heading out into the humid London night.

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Jun. 1st, 2018

Snoopyteer

Furwell My Lovely

The Bank Holiday weekend was ConFuzzled, my annual trip to Birmingham to hang out with my fellow-furries.

This was the first year I had a brief try at dressing up. The theme was games, so I downloaded and built Wintercroft's low-poly wolf mask, and combined with an all-black outfit it looked pretty effective:

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(The other fellow is my lovely, and tall, friend Francis Shepherd enjoying his very first con.)

Arakin came over from Berlin bringing a copy of Death Train, a terrible 1993 movie starring Pierce Brosnan, Patrick Stewart and, improbably, Christopher Lee. On Saturday evening we gathered together with Francis and JM Horse to watch the hell out of it over a few martinis, which was one of my convention highlights.

I was on several writing and editing panels, including one with Guest of Honour Ryan Campbell and his husband Jakebe, who are both delightful.

Kandrel and I did our now-traditional 'Bedtime Stories', reading our works out loud to an audience as a wind-down at the end of the day, and I reprised my role as reader-outer of entries to the five-sentence flash fiction competition, which is always fun. (Stories have to follow the theme of the convention, and someone had written one about GoldenEye N64, forcing me to read the phrase 'the polygon-etched form of Pierce Brosnan' out loud.)

Another fun event was the Agent November escape room, which I attempted with Televassi, Arakin and Francis. We failed to defuse the bomb in time, but had fun trying (a mission that largely involved running through the hallways in silly hats).

It was wonderful reconnecting with the friends I only see once a year, spending quality time with the ones I get to see more often, meeting lovely Twitter people in person and making lovely brand new friends. And the next con I go to, all being well, will be in Virginia!

May. 14th, 2018

The Spy Who Loved Me

And He Strikes

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I had no idea there was a Vulcan living at Southend Airport, but that's where the Vulcan Restoration Trust is preserving XL426. On Saturday evening they held a screening of Thunderball, which features a Vulcan prominently, to raise funds.

I met up with my friends D and N at Hangar 5, where the Vulcan had been rolled out. The lights were flashed and the bomb bay doors opened for our delight, and D and I paid to climb up in the cockpit, where we gazed about like kids in a sweet shop.

Parked by the Vulcan were an Aston Martin DB5 in proper Bond silver and a DB6 in black, looking sleek and shiny in the rain. Inside the hangar, I was delighted to see a 007 edition 2CV.

The owner's sister came over to talk to me as I was admiring it. "Wow, this is the perfect night for you," she said, clocking my SPECTRE polo shirt and silver Vulcan necklace (I'd got a little overexcited while dressing myself).

After an enthusiastic chat about 2CVs, she asked if I'd like to sit in the car. Are you kidding!? It was the highlight of my evening. (Roger Moore had signed the dashboard, and he must undoubtedly have sat where I was sitting in order to do so.)

After a short welcome speech, it was time for the film. They were hoping to sell over 100 tickets; they sold 160 and the bar ran out of beer, which should keep the Trust in O-rings and things for a while.

Thunderball...well, Thunderball was Thunderball, and enjoyable as always despite the rain hammering on the corrugated-iron hangar roof and the occasional drip on my shoulder. (It's the best Bond film if you enjoy looking at Sean Connery's legs, not that that's my thing especially.) Cheers from the audience for the Vulcan scenes; every now and then I'd look round to see the vast nose of the real thing, framed in the open hangar door.

It was still raining when we came out. Splashing through the puddles to the car park, we looked round at the sound of a polite and genteel car horn: the DB5's owner, waving and hooting to the departing crowd as he drove home.

A lot of love and effort went into the evening, from the gorgeous poster and ticket design onwards, and I'm glad it was a hit. I'm sure I'll visit Vulcan XL426 again.

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May. 11th, 2018

Cat Air

Lassy Come Home

I spent the Bank Holiday weekend in Brittany, in an AirB&B just outside the town of Lassy, thanks to a tempting bike-plus-rider return ferry offer.

Friday was a travelling day, first on the Portsmouth to Caen crossing and then inland.

On Saturday we stopped for coffee in a village and, as we were leaving, noticed a sign pointing the way to The Megaliths. We followed a country road to a pleasant grassy spot where orchids and stonechats flourished around a line of menhirs.

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Our objective for the day was Saint-Nazaire, used as a base for German submarines in the Second World War.

We crossed over the impressive bridge to St-Brevin-les-Pins. It turned out we didn't need to do this, but the bridge was pretty great, and we also got to see the sea serpent sculpture by Huang Yong Ping and a little free library in the park.

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Returning to Saint-Nazaire, we passed the dark concrete block of the former U-boat pens and I spotted a blown-up panel from Tintin. We stopped off at the tourist information centre and learned that Tintin visits the port in The Seven Crystal Balls; I hadn't known this, because in the English translation it becomes Westermouth.

Six comic panels have been set up around the town, along with an 'orientation table' with the directions and distances of the ports Tintin visits on his travels.

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It turned out there wasn't a museum dedicated to the submarine pens, although they have been made part of the rebuilt town. Of the attractions on offer, we chose to visit a postwar French submarine, the Espadon (Swordfish). It's kept in a lock, so when you board to walk through it you're underwater. We marvelled at the intricate systems, the crew berths, the periscope chamber and the galley, officially named Chez Maman. The red lighting and the constant sonar beep made it a creepy experience, and I admired the submariners who crewed it under the Arctic ice.

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On Sunday we set off for an airport that claimed to have a museum attached. The museum turned out to be closed at weekends, but we had a coffee and a conversation with two French guys about our bikes.

We stopped for lunch at a creperie. As we were walking back to the bikes afterwards, a small boy greeted us with "Coucou!" so we said "Coucou!" back, only to hear his father tell him sternly "Eh, one does not say 'Coucou', one says 'Bonjour'!"

It was a hot afternoon - too hot for walking around in bike gear looking at standing stones. Luckily, at Carnac they find themselves by the side of the road, so we could inspect them as we rode along.

We finished the day with a circuit of the Quiberon Peninsula, stopping at the beach so I could have a swim. The water was very cold, and I remembered as I lost all feeling below my knees that this was the Atlantic Ocean.

We broke Monday's return journey at the ossuary in Huisnes-sur-Mer, near Mont St Michel. This is the final resting-place of thousands of German casualties, including women and children, who died in France and the Channel Islands during the Second World War. I don't envy the German War Graves Commission, tasked with gathering remains in the Sixties when feelings must still have been raw.

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Our last stop, for a sandwich and some shopping, was a big Intermarché, my favourite French supermarket thanks to their musketeer mascot. A bottleneck on the Caen ring road meant we cut it close for the ferry, but made it on board in time.
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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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