Things that make me go “Ooh…”

Mont St Michel from a distance

On Sunday, I visited Mont St Michel (yes, again – that’s the second time this year!). This time, it was with a translator colleague for a guided tour. When we arrived at the car park, it was absolutely pouring down, but by the time we’d got across the causeway and up to the abbey, where we had to collect our tickets, it had pretty much stopped. However, the glum face of our extremely serious guide more than made up for the lack of rain.

Mont St Michel - view from the abbey roof

But it only took a few moments of his introductory speech for us to realise this was just part of a running joke that continued throughout the entire two hours of the tour. And it turns out that François Saint-James is as much of an institution as the site he knows so well.

As he took us right up to the roof of the abbey and deep into the crypts beneath it, he would periodically offer us the choice of visiting a part of the abbey inaccessible to the majority of visitors… or going straight to the shop. He also had some extremely forthright views on the superiority of Normans over Bretons, and which crêperies on the island were worth patronising (answer – there’s only one that actually prepares the crêpes fresh). 

Mont St Michel - flying buttresses
The lacework flying buttress at the very top is in fact a bridge

The tour as a whole was fantastic and highly recommended – you get to see some really interesting things, you get to cross the extremely fragile lacework stone bridge disguised as a flying buttress that leads to the roof, you learn fascinating facts about the abbey (normally involving bits of it collapsing. “One collapse every hundred years. Last collapse 1811. Keep together”, said Mr. Saint-James)… but the things that really made an impact on me were less obvious.

Mont St Michel - the archangel

The first was that you can visit the second church to be built on the site, Notre-Dâme Sous-Terre. This was once a normal roofed building, dating right back to 966, and forgotten for many centuries after the vast structure above it was constructed, which is impressive enough in itself. But when they excavated behind the double altars, they found a wall from the original church on the site – constructed in 709 by Saint Aubert. And if you go on this tour, you can touch the stones of this wall! Maybe this wouldn’t do anything for you, but I trained as an archaeologist, and to me there’s nothing quite as exciting as being able to put yourself in the place of the original inhabitants of a site.

My second spine tingling moment was in the monk’s refectory, where our guide demonstrated how the acoustics didn’t work for normal speech, but that they did for a kind of chanted speech id (there’s a word for this, but neither my colleague Nelia nor I can remember it!). He read a short section of the Benedictine rules – as would have been done during every meal the monks ate there – and everyone in the huge room turned to listen as his voice effortlessly cut through the background noise, like a beam of warm, magical light.

And the third moment, which actually came at the very start of the tour, was listening to the bell being rung in the abbey. For 11 minutes. At 11 am, on the 11th day of the 11th month…

Mont St Michel - secret garden

If you get a chance to do this particular tour (assuming you speak French, of course), it’s definitely worth doing. I think you’d have to do it several times before you took in all the information and sights that flood over you as you’re marched at top speed around the abbey, and it only cost 13€, which is just 3€ more than the standard, unguided entrance fee – and you effectively get that included in the price too! 

We’d both seen the abbey before so we decided not to go back and have a further look this time – and also by this time we needed coffee. So we went down into the town and headed for a crêperie I’d visited last time I was there. We drank our coffee, and when we tried to pay the owner refused, saying that it was on him because it was his last day open before the winter break. So all in all, we had a really great day out!

And of course I took some photos (all of the ones in this post, in fact) with my new camera, the Yashica Y35 too.

Mont St Michel - view from the cloisters
Mont St Michel - the light of the archangel

Yashica Y35 camera – first pics

A few days ago I finally received the Yashica Y35 camera I’d backed on Kickstarter more than a year ago.

This is a strange gadget that looks like a traditional film camera, into which you insert plastic “digifilm” cartridges to obtain different effects. The ones I ordered were as follows:

  • Black and white (of course!)
  • 200 ISO
  • 1600 ISO
  • 6×6
  • Yashica blue
  • In my fancy (a kind of 1970s colour effect, on which more below)

You could also order a fancy holder for your cartridges but they were rather pricey and in any case I have a couple of camera bags that these would normally fit in. However, I don’t have them with me at present, but I do have a spare (sealable!) plastic bag courtesy of an extremely rude woman at Southend Airport, so that’s what I’m carrying them in.

I gather the camera has had some pretty negative reviews, but other than a couple of slightly questionable choices in terms of design/build quality, it does exactly what I expected – it’s a cheapish, fun camera that makes you think differently about taking photos.

Given that my other cameras are a couple of Nikon 1 S1s and a 1982 Polaroid, I’m not exactly a typical gear head when it comes to camera equipment, so I think this fits pretty well with my photography style.

I took a couple of shots in the house (including the inevitable shadow selfie):

YASHICA - digiFilm in my fancy

YASHICA - digiFilm in my fancy

Then I went out on Friday to a nearby ruined castle and took a few test shots to try out the different “films”:

YASHICA - digiFilm in my fancyYASHICA - digiFilm in my fancyYASHICA - digiFilm in my fancyYASHICA - digiFilm in my fancyYASHICA - digiFilm in my fancyYASHICA - digiFilm in my fancyYASHICA - digiFilm YASHICA blueYASHICA - digiFilm 1600

All of these were taken with the “in my fancy” digifilm, except for the last two, which were taken with the “blue” and 1600 ISO cartridges.

I’m pretty happy with these, I have to say. Yes, I could have obtained the same effects by mucking about with stuff in Lightroom and/or Photoshop, but I don’t do post-processing as a rule – and in any case I’d much rather have random effects created by the camera.

I’m not sure how much use I’ll get from all of the digifilms, but so far I’d say that this is a camera I’m likely to use quite a lot. It’s a neat enough size to fit in my handbag and seems to react reasonably quickly. And I’m used to shooting with a prime lens on my main camera, so the lack of zoom isn’t an issue either (I’m guessing this is throwing some users). In fact until I sat down to write this post I hadn’t even noticed it didn’t have one!

In fact I’ve used it since on a visit to another ancient monument. But that’s another story…

There’s no place like home

The really great thing about the UK is that visiting it always gives me so many reasons not to regret having left it in the first place.

Of course I often also get to meet up with family or friends, or encounter lovely new people, but such meetings could always take place elsewhere. And after Brexit they may well have to.

But it’s the grime, the pettiness and the sheer 1984-ness of the place that really shocks me every time.

Naturally there are bits that aren’t quite so dystopian. My native Isle of Man isn’t generally too horrible, for example… provided you stick to the unspoilt bits in the middle, rather than the vast swathes of detached luxury executive dwellings in non-vernacular styles and the almost continuous traffic jam of four-wheel drive vehicles on the Island’s tiny roads.

This time, however, I was in south east England – including three days in the hellhole that is London – and I was constantly reminded of Ford Prefect’s words to the Golgafrinchams. “You’re all a load of useless bloody loonies”.

I know, that’s a bit harsh. There are, I’m sure, plenty of nice people in London – indeed, I got to meet up with not only the aforementioned lovely new people at Procopywriters’ Copywriting Conference, but my best friend Nick, who currently has the misfortune of being stuck there for work.

But even nice people can be insane. And as someone who discovered the term “hypersensitivity” with an enormous feeling of relief and recognition, that’s what city dwellers very much seem to be.

I can just about cope with somewhere like Malmö (population 340,000), which even to my eyes is really only a large town. But once an urban area hits the million mark in terms of population, the levels of crazy seem to increase exponentially.

This time I didn’t even manage to get off the plane before the nausea set in. Flight Time, Flybe’s inflight magazine, is a macrocosm of all that’s wrong with the modern world. Aimed, presumably, at the affluent 30-something, there’s a lot of chat about design and branding, including, horrifyingly, with reference to Liverpool, a city I have a great deal of affection for. In the early 1980s it introduced me to the monstrosities of Conservative policies. In the late 1980s when I was at university in Wales, it was my jumping off point for the Isle of Man. And now apparently it’s a place where hipsters can experience world-famous brands.

DSC_0593.JPG

But the inflight entertainment wasn’t over with Flight Time. Because even the Flybe menu card had something to say about Britain in 2018, being a showcase for the current emetic tendency to describe everything in terms so sycophantic even a member of the Royal family might blush. (Or then again maybe not.)

First we have a posh pot noodle with a “hand-crafted broth”. What does that even mean? Are we expected to believe that there’s a chef somewhere on the plane carefully chopping herbs and reducing stock to make this exquisite offering (which would of course cause third-degree burns if served filled up to the brim like this).

More emetic branding

And then there’s that thing – and I’m sure there must be a term for it other than “we’re a bunch of culturless wankers and we’re pretending we still remember what history means” – where everything has to be tied to a particular locale and then drenched in treacle.

I present a delightfully delicious and drinkable beer, with, presumably, the character of an over-priced caravan in an insular, damp and windswept part of the UK mainland where the locals talk with incomprehensible accents. Whatever that tastes like.

Emetic branding in handy can form

And then I got on the train, and the bombardment became audible as well as visual, and still just as pointless. I mean, is it really necessary to tell people at every stop not to forget their stuff and to mind the gap? Does that actually even work? How many people who travel on those trains every day even hear the warnings any more? Or do they think “Ooh, I’m so glad that automated announcement cautioned me against leaving my belongings behind, because otherwise my handbag and all my shopping would still be on the train. Silly me. That’s the fourth time this week I’ve nearly done that”.

But that kind of thing, annoying as it is, pales in comparison with the frankly scary “See it. Say it. Sorted” campaign, which involves both incredibly repetitive announcements and posters, and which made me feel like I was in that sketch off Not the Nine O’Clock News (you know the one). I mean, why not just put up a big poster saying:

“Let’s get rid of these nasty foreigners!”

Every time I encountered this message I felt ashamed, not only to be British, but even to be anywhere near the UK, as if I was condoning it simply by being there.

DSC_0614.JPG

But the Brits do love a good sign.  Especially in Debenhams in Chatham, apparently.

And I for one was very glad they were there. Because I never expect hot water from a hot tap, and I certainly wouldn’t turn the tap off if there wasn’t a sign asking me to. What kind of person would?

But once again, the winner of the “Most pointless instruction” contest was a woman employed by Southend Airport. (Do they do special insensitivity training, I wonder?) Last time, it was someone stridently insisting we “Stay behind the yellow line” as we walked across to the plane, despite the fact that the yellow line ended right where she was pointing at it, leaving us with another 20 metres of tarmac to cover, unaided by lines. “I’m going to be so glad to get back to France”, muttered the smartly dressed and very Received Pronounciation elderly lady walking beside me. “They’re all just so stressed here.”

This time, the instruction was, if anything, even more intended only to bolster the ego of the issuer. It’s also a bit of a conundrum, to my mind. Because one of these bags is a sealed bag for toiletries, and the other, apparently, isn’t, despite a) being equipped with a zip and b) having been used to contain toiletries for travel on a plane many times (as you can tell from the state of it), thereby presumably putting every other passenger on that flight in danger, including people using Southend Airport.

DSC_0670.JPG

Now, my first thought was that this woman was just being a po-faced jobsworth. Indeed, my second, third and fourth thoughts were exactly the same. But I’ve just discovered that there may be a valid reason for demanding that toiletries are placed in a self-sealing bag. Apparently some security instructions contain this line: “Your plastic bag must also be airtight so that vapour testing can be successfully carried out on the contents”.

But once again, this is just so much bullshit. (In fact it’s just a continuation of the other flight security myths I wrote about a couple of years back.) In the unlikely event that the security check finds something dodgy in my toiletry bag, I’m pretty sure they’re capable of shoving it in their own sealed bag for vapour testing. Or are they saying that they can tell it’s not got holes in just by looking at it? In which case I’m off to join a UK airport security team to get X-ray eye implants. I’m sure they’ll make it easier to spot all those nasty foreigners, for a start.

 


PS – If you’re one of the nice people sharing my flight back to Caen, sorry it took so long to write this. I did warn you!

 

 

 

Writing news 22 October 2018 (Part Two): Resist

Sometimes things just fall into your lap. Sometimes you have to struggle to make stuff work.

And sometimes the two combine to give you an opportunity to do something mad and exciting and all-but impossible, something that leaves you feeling exhilarated and alive and glad you did it.

It’s only been just over a fortnight since SF author Christie Yant asked who her Twitter followers recommended for proofreading, and I semi-flippantly answered “Well… me”.

But today, when the Resist anthology is exclusively released as part of the “Get the Vote Out” Humble Bundle and starts raising funds for the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, it’ll in part be because I threw caution – and my fee – to the winds and agreed to proofread 350+ pages in PDF format in an insanely short period of time, even though I knew that I’d also be spending a week in the UK, including a full day at a conference, during that fortnight.

Because sometimes, when the time’s right, when the cause is good – in fact, even when the time is wrong, if the cause is a good one – you have to act.

In today’s world, you may think that your actions can’t possibly achieve anything. You may think “Oh, I can’t contribute. I can’t stop global warming or help prevent human rights abuses, or stop the Saudis killing journalists and getting away with it”.

And maybe your contribution can’t be very big. My contribution to this anthology is a small one. But I made it all the same, and it’s helped a bit, and I’m proud that I did it.*

This week I’m also launching a new website for my business (or will be if I can get it to behave). On it, I explain my philosophy in life, which sounds grand, but it’s quite simple:

“If we all helped other people and made their lives easier, the world would be a much better place for all of us”

It’s that simple. Just do that. If you do nothing else today, this week, this year, just do that. As well as complaining about the state of the world and sending cat gifs to your friends to cheer them up, do something small and positive to make the world a better place.

You can pick up three pieces of plastic every time you visit the beach, or a park.

You can invest in solar energy projects in Africa.

You can contribute to raising funds for an ocean-going plastic recycling factory.

You can do something local and important to you, like teaching elderly people a new language (good for keeping brains active – both theirs and yours), visiting people who live alone, or helping out in an animal sanctuary.

If you’re in the US, you can vote (if you haven’t been removed from the electoral list, that is). And you know which way to vote, don’t you?

And, of course, you can help raise funds for the ACLU.

Because the important thing is simply to resist.

Resist_001

*I’ve got to say too, that seeing emails whizzing into my inbox from people like Christie Yant, Hugh Howey and Gary Whitta has been a blast. I’ve also discovered a truly excellent book designer in the person of Matt Bright, who had the unenviable task of converting my proofreading notes into reality in the finished layout.

Drowning in “resealable” plastic

Apart from the total lunacy of our politicians, one of the big topics for discussion at the moment is, of course, plastic. I gather the BBC have just shown a depressingly realistic programme about how our planet is drowning in the stuff.

I’ve also recently started doing translation and proofreading on a voluntary basis for an organisation called We Don’t Have Time. You may have heard of them before; they’re the people helping Greta Thunberg to get her message to a wider audience.

Reading their material, and above all seeing this article in the Washington Post, about how the Trump administration not only recognises that climate change exists, but thinks the planet is already so screwed that they’re not intending to do anything to mitigate it, has made me even more angry. Maybe it is too late. I don’t have kids, so to a large extent I don’t even care. But even if you’re heading towards the cliff edge and you’re sure your brakes don’t work, you don’t just give up trying to stop the vehicle.

So here’s a thought about how to save on plastic. How about the companies selling us products with “resealable” packaging just save everyone’s time – and our planet’s resources – and stop pretending that this rubbish actually works? Because in my experience, it never does.

I encounter umpteen examples of this particular myth every week, but here’s the latest one.

DSC_0554.JPG

This is a nice quality organic, fair trade tea, from La Route des Comptoirs, a company that clearly cares about its products and customers. The packaging is paper. But they’re still using one of these sticky plastic labels that seals exactly once and then never works again.

And I wonder what’s the point of this thing? What’s the total cost of designing, selling, manufacturing and applying this completely useless piece of plastic to every packet? Can we not just skip this in future – for as long as we actually have a future?

Meanwhile, if you really want a resealable packet, simply apply a clothes peg (wooden, obviously).

Or alternatively, use tins, or something like this. Genuinely resealable, and recyclable too!

DSC_0556.JPG

(Of course I’m well aware that tea should be kept in an opaque container, but this is all I had to hand at the time – and in any case, they normally live in a box under the kitchen counter.)

How to make friends and influence… dinosaurs?

This a flash piece I wrote for A. Merc Rustad’s wonderful Robot Dinosaurs. They didn’t choose it for publication, but that’s OK. Anything that makes me write, and finish, a piece, is good! Also, this one isn’t strictly about a dinosaur (although I only discovered that as I was writing it…)


 

She’s slumped in the sweltering shade in the garden, sweating and irritated, when she first hears the noise. Of course, that’s not actually strictly true – she was a kid when she first heard it in some corny old film, and there was one on that Bowie track. But this is the first time she’s ever heard the sound in real life.

It doesn’t register to begin with. There are cars driving past in the distance, and she’s just so hot that nothing’s really sinking in.

Then she thinks it might be a notification on her phone, some new app that makes a noise like… And that’s when she sees it. It’s gliding down in the middle of the lawn, about 50 metres away. She knows what it is immediately, even as she’s walking, disbelieving, towards it – a pterodactyl. Smallish, maybe 50 cm from one wingtip to the other. As she gets closer, she can see that it’s definitely artificial, but at the same time kind of… organic? Covered in dark brown stuff that looks like velvet or the short fur on a cat’s ear. It looks up at her from where it’s crouching awkwardly on the parched grass and goes “Squeeeeee?”

She can’t stop herself calling it Terry. It has a little crest on its beak, but not a very obvious one, so she can’t work out if it’s meant to be any specific gender.

She discovers that these days they aren’t called pterodactyls any more, but pterosaurs. And that in fact they aren’t even dinosaurs.

She never finds out where it came from. Nobody seems to be missing a robot dinosaur. Or if they are, they aren’t looking for it very hard.

She goes on a date with Johan, a guy she doesn’t really find attractive, just because his profile mentions that he’s a palaeontologist. They actually have quite a nice time, although there’s no way she’s going to invite him home.

Terry’s a pretty good houseguest. It seems to run on solar power, because it likes to spend a good amount of the day standing about in the sun with its wings partly open like a drying umbrella. The rest of the time it sits on her desk in a cardboard box filled with tissue paper, which it tears up periodically with its pointed beak, dropping the bits onto her desk as if bringing her gifts. It doesn’t ever eat anything, although it occasionally snaps at flies if they’re bothering her, which is endearing but kind of scary because it’s so quick. It catches them quite often, too, dropping the squashed remains on the little heap of paper beside the box. At night it insists on clambering up the stairs with her when she goes to bed, where it sleeps on her discarded clothes.

It smells of cinnamon and gun oil, and now so does she. Several people are complimentary about her new perfume.

Terry’s pretty ungainly on the ground, because its wings don’t really fold up tidily, and it has to walk like a bat, kind of on its elbows. But it can launch itself into the air by doing a surprisingly high leap off all fours, and once there it’s really quite nippy. They play frisbee in the garden, her throwing and Terry snapping the plastic disc out of the air and dropping it at her feet.

As the weather finally gets cooler, she notices that Terry’s moving more slowly, so she brings out the big daylight lamp and the robot pterosaur does its umbrella trick in front of that instead.

After it’s been with her about six months, Terry occasionally starts coming over and pecking at her keyboard, then peering at the screen. She shows it how to type “Terry”, though it doesn’t seem to understand. But a few weeks later she comes downstairs in the morning and discovers that she’s apparently ordered a whole load of electronic components from Kjell & Company, plus some stuff she can’t even identify from a lab equipment supplier. When she confronts Terry with the email confirmations, it gives a tiny pterosaur shrug and settles down in its box.

The deliveries start arriving a few days later. She feels ridiculous trudging up to the village shop in the snow to collect packages ordered by a pterosaur, but she does it anyway, bringing them back and laying them out on the garage floor. Terry shuffles up and down, inspecting the items and turning them over with its beak. She digs out her old laptop and sets that up on the floor too, and watches as the robot pterosaur taps away at the keys, occasionally using a rear claw or a forelimb to move the mouse.

It clearly understands English, but it never communicates with her directly other than with the odd squawk or crooning noise that a cat might make to its human. She wonders if it somehow can’t associate the sounds she makes with the symbols it sees on the screen.

At any rate, after a day or two using a freeware CAD program, it produces a neat diagram showing how all the parts fit together. She’s pretty good with a soldering iron, and she’s used to making models for wargaming, so it kind of makes sense. She prints out the diagram, lays out the tools she thinks she’s going to need, and starts work, with Terry watching closely.

It takes her nearly a month, because some of the organic parts have to be grown in glass beakers. They just look like blobs to her, but sure enough when she lays the blobs in the right place in the structure, they ooze into position like they’ve always been there.

And when she’s finished, Terry squawks in satisfaction and stabs at the Enter key on the laptop, and the second pterosaur – a bit chunkier, a bit more obviously robotic – looks up at her from where it’s crouching awkwardly on the garage floor and goes “Squeeeeee?”