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May. 21st, 2019


The Impossible Dream

When my flatmate found out that Kelsey Grammer was starring in a production of Man of La Mancha at the ENO, with a cast including Nicholas Lyndhurst, I begged her to buy tickets immediately. Last night was the night.

I read Don Quixote in my teens, and it's one of my touchstone books. I first found out about the musical from the episode of Quantum Leap in which Sam has to save an elderly actor from falling to his death on stage, and was so wildly excited by the whole thing that I bought the Broadway soundtrack on cassette.

I met Sarah and our friend Bec for a pre-show Wagamama before we took our seats. Monday not being a popular night for the theatre, we found we'd been upgraded from the Upper Circle to row H of the stalls. The London Coliseum is everything a theatre should be - red velvet seats, ornate ceilings, private boxes - and we enjoyed gazing around before the curtain went up.

The musical has a straightforward plot: thrown into gaol, Miguel de Cervantes ropes his fellow-prisoners into enacting his tale of a Spanish noble who decides to revive knight errantry singlehanded. I've seen it before, but always am-dram productions, so I was blown away by cast and spectacle.

Sancho is funny; Aldonza is fiery. Nicholas Lyndhurst excels, switching between the self-appointed judge of Cervantes' mock trial and the affable innkeeper who knights Don Quixote. Everyone in the cast makes the absolute most of their role, particularly the padre and the barber.

And Kelsey Grammer is a humongous ham, and thus perfecly cast as Cervantes/Don Quixote. I have never seen anyone look quite so happy during a curtain call.

"You're Niles," Sarah informed me at the interval. "Because you know all the words but Frasier gets to sing the songs."

May. 13th, 2019


Make The Grade

I had a karate grading yesterday.

It had been noticed and remarked upon that Shihan had spent a lot of time over the last few weeks picking me up on little details of my kata and picking on me to ask questions. At the end of Tuesday's class he asked if I wanted to give it a go, and since it's been three years since I graded to shodan-ho I thought I'd better.

In the event, the grading was nowhere near as tough as my last one, which was genuinely one of the most horrific experiences of my life and made the soles of my feet bleed.

There was one other shodan-ho grading to shodan, and we were very grateful for each other's company when everyone else had sat down and we were left demonstrating our grade kata, seppai, in front of instructors, fellow-students and assorted friends and family. Then a spot of sparring, always my least favourite part, then a cooldown, then relief that it was over followed by the agonising wait to see if our names were called as a pass.

Mine was, and my fellow black belt's, and the three other students from my dojo. There were hugs and handshakes and congratulations, and our nicest sensei presented me with a bottle of wine. (I kissed him.)

Since my last grading, I've held the rank of shodan-ho: black belt, but technically a provisional grade until I achieve dan status. Shodan, or first dan, indicates that I'm a 'proper' black belt.

"I'd better start behaving myself, then," I said to my instructor.

"Or you could just continue being you," he told me.

May. 8th, 2019

The Spy Who Loved Me

The Goodest Boy In Cambridge

I spent a lovely Bank Holiday weekend with my friend M. up near Cambridge, drinking slightly too much, watching DVDs and quoting Archer at each other.

On Saturday we found time to visit several of Cambridge's fine museums, of which my favourite was the Scott Polar Research Institute and the statue outside commemorating the many teams of sledge dogs who worked alongside Antarctic Survey researchers. (Team names included the Moomins, the Hobbits and the Orange Bastards.)

Happily, a couple of local furry friends spotted our tweets, deduced that we were in the area and suggested we meet for a drink. It was nice to catch up outside the usual noisy, busy convention environment I see them in.

Sunday meant a double helping of church for M. I joined him for second service to see him looking impressive in his robes, and enjoy fish-shaped biscuits made by the vicar afterwards. We managed a quick visit to the local beer festival before devoting the rest of the day to telly.

On Monday we made a nerdy road trip to Old Buckenham Airfield to see the tank from GoldenEye, which lives by the entrance going rusty. I'd visited before and enjoyed the food and friendly service in their café, so I was glad to make a return trip for the all-day breakfast.

I returned home down the M11 feeling as if I'd done, as well as eaten, a great deal over the course of 72 hours.

weekend 2 weekend1

Apr. 30th, 2019

Dogfight [by the_gneech]

Only Angels Have Wings

Last night I dragged a friend to the BFI for Only Angels Have Wings (1939), or, as he described it, 'your Cary Grant aeroplane movie'. I enjoyed it just as much as you're imagining I enjoyed Cary Grant in a Howard Hawks film about pilots, and possibly a little more.

The suspense comes not from whether Cary Grant will get Jean Arthur, because duh, but in who will live and who will die among the men running a shoestring airmail operation out of a South American port.

Flying the mail between the wars was a risky occupation (see Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Southern Mail), in which you must constantly weigh up current and future weather conditions against the need to get the mail through in a timely fashion. The planes flown by Barranca Airways are too old and underpowered to climb over the mountains, so they have to aim for a narrow pass often rendered impassible by cloud or condors.

The flying scenes and model work are surprisingly effective, but it's the stuff on the ground, with everyone pretending to be hard and callous to mask their true feelings as their friends set off into the storm, that makes it.

only angels

Apr. 29th, 2019

Of Rassilon

Lost In Thought And Lost In Time

Yesterday I travelled to Oxford for the 30th anniversary of the Oxford Doctor Who Society, which I joined when it was six years old and known as OU Who.

I don't revisit my alma mater very often; it's not that I didn't have a good time there, more that it is so very much its own particular time and place that I prefer to keep it locked in its box. So it was strange to ride down the Banbury Road, past my old college and the spot where a motorist once threw a baguette at me as I was cycling, park on St Giles and immediately see the Oxfam bookshop where it always had been and where I had not given it much thought since 1999.

I found my way to the hall in Mansfield College and quickly discovered that the only person I knew was parrot_knight, who had to spread himself pretty thinly because he was the only person a lot of people knew. Luckily everyone was very nice, and nowhere near as aggressively young as I'd feared.

Katy Manning (Jo Grant) had been invited but was unable to attend. Instead, she had recorded a video message for us which captured her lovely, bubbly spirit perfectly.

John Leeson, the voice of K-9, couldn't make it either, but very kindly offered to send a signed photo to anyone who wanted one. (How did he know to sign mine 'Tailwags'??)

parrot_knight gave a presentation on the history of the society, which made me feel as if I was part of something important and historic rather than just someone who spent most Monday evenings of her student career sitting in the dark watching videos.

There was a quiz, for which I teamed up with daniel_saunders and we did OK (by which I mean he did OK; I was useless). There were screenings of The Doctor Who Years: The Seventies, which combined clips with songs that were charting at the time and was very much to my taste, and the first episode of the animated Wheel in Space. Then there was a group photo, and then it was time for me to head home.

I owe DocSoc a lot; I wouldn't have seen nearly as much Who as I have without it, let alone other offerings like Blake's 7 and The Prisoner, nor met several of my friends. I'm glad it's still going, and taking itself just as seriously as it always has.

docsoc1 docsoc2

Apr. 12th, 2019

Cat Air

Saturday 23rd March: Never A Dulles Moment

Lori had to go to work, but returned in time to take me for a farewell meal at the Mount Airy Tavern before driving me to the airport. We had nachos and cocktails, and a friendly waitress asked me about my stay in Maryland...and, inevitably, about Brexit.

When it was time for us to leave, we saw she'd written 'Have a wonderful flight!' on the receipt.

"Nearly there," said Lori an hour later, as we passed a sign for Baltimore–Washington International Airport.

"I'm flying from Dulles," I reminded her.

We arrived with an hour to go before my flight took off. Our goodbyes were hasty, but heartfelt.

While my entry into the country had been forbidding, my exit couldn't have been nicer.

“I love your bag! Is that James Bond? You’re a Brit, right?” exclaimed the man whose job it was to help me put my possessions through the x-ray, admiring in turn my aeroplane-print rucksack and my phone's lock screen.

I took off my shoes, jacket and hoodie for security, but set off the scanner by having a roll of Candy Money in my pocket and had to be frisked by a nice woman originally from the northwest of England. During the process she lifted my watch and found my 007 tattoo: “Okay, Special Agent James Bond," she said delightedly. "No wonder you were armed.”

I had a row to myself on the flight, during which the captain called our attention to the spectacular view of Manhattan on the left (my!) side. I watched Wreck-It Ralph 2 and ate dinner, spent half an hour trying to sleep then got bored and watched Casablanca. Before that was over, the cabin crew had put the cabin lights back on and woken everyone up for something they claimed was breakfast.

We arrived ahead of schedule and emerged into the grimness of early-Sunday-morning Heathrow. As I waited in Arrivals, who should I spot but my Welsh friends from the convention, who had been on the same flight?

Then Howard appeared, holding a sign in case I didn't recognise him and bearing Marmite crisps in case I needed an emergency dose of Britishness.

I had an amazing time in the US - full of new experiences, old and new friends, and furries two- and four-legged. I made memories I'll always treasure. And it all happened because I write stories with talking animals in and am pretty publicly into James Bond.

The lesson here, I think, is to be you, do what makes you happy, and with luck good things will follow.

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Apr. 11th, 2019


Friday 22nd March: Frank Zappa Way to Canine Road

I'd asked to visit Baltimore again because I knew it boasted a statue of Frank Zappa, who was born there and would later pen What's New In Baltimore? about it, in the great tradition of musicians writing songs about how boring their hometowns are (cf. the Weakerthans' tribute to Winnipeg, One Great City!). I wanted to check this out on behalf of my dad, who would have loved it.

The bust of Zappa's head is a copy of an original created for the people of Vilnius, in Lithuania, and donated by them to Baltimore. It's in Highlandtown, which turned out to be a groovy and multicultural neighbourhood. We found the sculpture in front of the library and celebrated with a very American all-day breakfast at an Asian café.

My other request for my stay was a trip to the National Cryptologic Museum, which is part of the National Security Agency at Fort Meade.

Lori had put the museum's location, on Canine Road, into her sat-nav. We found ourselves approaching a security barrier along a road marked AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY, but obviously this was no problem; we'd just tell security that we were going to the museum.


An armed police officer exited his box.

“Do not step out of the vehicle. Do not move unless I tell you to.”

Two cop cars, lights flashing, moved across to block our way in case we decided to ram the barrier. The officer directed us to go through, U-turn and drive over to his colleague, in another box. We did so and explained ourselves.

“That’s OK! I just need to see your driver’s licence and car registration. And what country are you a citizen of? And stay off your phone.”

By this point I was dying for the loo, but I didn't want to do that literally, so I stayed put. This is why you should always go before you set off.

Eventually we were sent on our way, and America was safe from the awful threat of two middle-aged women in a green Kia.

"I'm gonna check Google Maps," Lori said, pulling up in front of the Lockheed Martin building. "That's what they taught me in spy school."

We returned to the highway, took the next exit and ended up at the museum...which was on the other side of the barrier where we'd initially arrived.

We had a guided tour, which was very good. There was a lot of focus on the Enigma machine - a bit of a pity for me as I can go to Bletchley Park to learn about that, while I didn't know anything about codes in the American Civil War or Japanese ciphers broken in the Pacific theatre.

My favourite thing in the museum was the Navajo Code Talker GI Joe, who says phrases like REQUEST AIR SUPPORT when you pull his string.

The gift shop closed early, depriving me of souvenir socks, but you can't buy an experience like being seen as a potential threat to national security.



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Apr. 10th, 2019

Cross stitch

Thursday 21st March: Thrifting

The weather forecast was for non-stop rain, so we planned a quiet day of pottering about. We visited the thrift shop in Mouth Airy, where I bought some terrible spy novels and a corduroy jacket for a total of $3. We bought sandwiches from Mike's Jersey Subs and I experienced my first Philly cheesesteak, eaten in the car while Lori got her hair cut. I also tried an Orange Crush, just because of the R.E.M. song.

I'd noticed a lot of cars sporting bumper stickers with the Maryland state flag - Lori's was shaped like a crab - so I asked where they came from and was taken to a local supermarket, where I bought a pawprint one to go on my bike.

By the time we got back, it was almost time to leave again. Two of my local furry friends from the convention, Alkani and Sparf, had invited us both to have dinner in Baltimore.

From their list of suggestions, I'd picked The Food Market, which specialised in delicious American takes on world cuisine. Lori bravely drove us there in the rush hour, in the pouring rain.

We shared a selection of small plates (including Amish pretzels with beer fondue, which were amazing), then I had a club sandwich featuring Maryland crab. There was a friendly and enthusiastic waiter, ridiculous cocktails (I tried the Love Bug), and talk of furry, movies and theatre, and local attractions.

Another rainy drive back to Mount Airy, where Lori and I wound down for the night by watching Nailed It.


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Apr. 9th, 2019

Cross stitch

Wednesday 20th March: Amish Country

"We need to get going in 45 minutes," Lori said, knocking on my door at a quarter to eight. "I have a latte and a hot scone for you, and I'll even keep the dog out."

Lori wanted a bridle for Rudy the pony, so he could earn his keep pulling a carriage, and we were going to buy it from the Amish-run Yonie's Harness Shop. As my only reference point for the Amish was The X-Files, I was very intrigued and looking forward to the trip.

45 minutes later we were off like a herd of turtles, as Lori put it, driving over to her friend Mary's farm to arrive simultaneously with her other friend Franny. We all transferred to Mary's car and set off for Pennsylvania.

We crossed the Mason-Dixon line:

"Franny, explain the Mason-Dixon line to Alice."

"Good idea, Mary. Off you go, Lori."

We passed through little towns where everything was 'cute', and took photos of signs for the town of Intercourse. I saw a wild turkey in a field, and the Most American Sign Ever:


Soon we began to see Amish in straw hats or bonnets, riding square little black buggies and ploughing fields with teams of horses or mules three, four, five and even six abreast.

The harness shop was gaslit, and all the staff bar one were related. We were served by Aaron, a gentle young man with an impressive beard who said 'ee-quine' and 'vee-hickle'.

While he prepared the harness, we were sent to the nearby September Cheese Farm for lunch: "It's a deli, nothing fancy."

'Nothing fancy' turned out to be a huge farm shop and café selling local and handmade produce. I had a ham and Swiss melt on a pretzel roll, followed by coffee and an apple cider donut.

While the harness was checked and loaded into the car, I wandered up the road to photograph some goats I'd spotted in a nearby field. From the way they stared, ran away, then crept back to stare again, they didn't get many visitors.




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Apr. 8th, 2019


Tuesday 19th March: Tater and Tots

Lori had a lunch date, so I entertained myself with the TV and the pets until her return, when we headed out to the barn to feed the horses - some hers, some boarders.

There was a pony called Rudy, a donkey called Tater and a mule called Moses, which I thought were splendidly American names, and several barn cats, including a fat and friendly tabby named PeeWee.

Horses called in, fed and let out, we headed to CarterQue, home of black raspberry BBQ sauce, which I remembered fondly from my previous visit.

It was 'Tots Tuesday', so I seized the opportunity to find out what Tater Tots are (delicious balls of fried potato, it turns out), as well as trying the house red ale. I'm not a big beer drinker, but it seemed right.

We drove back in the dusk, surprising a couple of foxes who loped out of the road as we approached.


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