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Gumbification is the name of the game: the capriciousness of science, things and me.

Yes, I have been on holiday! Woot.

Apologies for my absence last week. Though on holiday I was writing and meant to sort out a blog post while the others were skiing but I got too into what I was doing and dismally failed to leave enough time. Which reminds me the final score for that week’s writing was 7,570. Dead chuffed with this as I had to integrate enough exercise into my day to be able to eat as much as everyone else and there were usually things I had to pop down to town and get as well. Walking was very enjoyable but fuck me it hurts. I was so delighted to get home and tackle the hill up to town on a bike instead of my creaky knees. Pain aside though, walking was lovely as not only was the countryside stunningly beautiful but for some reason, I find there is something intrinsically humorous about snow.

Mmm … cheescake anyone?

Interestingly, when you go up a mountain, science tells you that the air pressure around you will not be as high but apart from seeing a slightly elevated heart rate, perhaps, your imagination doesn’t really furnish you with the full implications of what this might mean. Not until you open a bottle of shampoo. Then a practical demonstration will soon put you right.

The thing is, obviously, it’s logical that something which has the same amount of air per cubic inch inside as outside down in the valley is suddenly something with a far higher amount of air per cubic inch inside, than outside, when you go up to an area where there’s lower air pressure. And that only means one thing. The air inside is going to leave very quickly when you open the lid and if there is something between the air and the lid, that’s going to be pushed out with the air, and it will also be leaving the bottle very fast.

Thus it was that our packet of almond biscuits – newly purchased in the valley – ended up looking like a mini zepplin by the time we’d got it up to our apartment nearer the top of the mountain. I also forget to shake down my half full tube of hand cream, which exploded out of the tube when I popped the lid, depositing a neat white worm on the wall near me, my shampoo, suncream and toothpaste all reinforced this lesson (I’m a slow learner it seems) and yes, I was also foolish enough to open a brand new tube of echzema cream for my son which went off like one of those indoor fireworks that ends up looking like a huge silver poo.

Luckily, there is not photographic evidence of this. You’ll just have to take my word for it that I’m as stupid as I say, but I do have a picture of how the empty water bottle I’d closed up at the top of the mountain looked when we got back into the valley. Just shows you how rarefied the air was up there. Not as much inside as outside, you see.

Mmm … pressure inside and outside no longer equal.

Even the ever-efficient McOther didn’t escape gumbification of his own making. We always play scrabble while we’re on holiday. It’s great fun and we all get the giggles most of the time. Imagine McOther’s consternation when he opened our splendid car boot sale travel scrabble – probably circa about 1967 – only to find that somewhere on its way from his desk to his suitcase the bag with all the tiles in had dropped out. Our first game, then, was called ‘making the tiles’ which we did with paper, snortle. Then there was an added frisson of what would happen if anyone sighed too heavily towards the board or, heaven forfend, sneezed! We did have to remake an R after I laughed too hard, sending the ’tiles’ scattering like confetti, and we were unable to find it afterwards.

Paper travel scrabble. Mmm ritzy.

Our fantastic paper tiles, demonstrated is the characteristically excellent hand I drew in one game although for once this was not the norm.

Having taken the piss out of McOther, now, clearly I have to do so about myself ‘for balance’. Here, then, is something that happened the week before we left.

In my town, everyone’s as skint as the rest of the country, ten years ago, when we moved here, there were lots of houses for sale on our street. Then the economy went down the lavatory and most things over two bedrooms and pretty much everything over three bedrooms went off the market over night. It seemed that everyone who was going to move tightened their belts and decided not to. Instead they started converting lofts, cellars, out door sculleries, they started building on, building sheds … you name it they’re doing it. The net result is that there is never a shortage of skips.

As a keen skip shopper I find this rather splendid. OK so I missed three bicycles the other week – not good bikes but I could still have ‘downloaded them’ checked them over and flogged them for £20. However, they were gone by the time I’d returned from the school run. On the up side, at least I know somebody else took them and is either cycling happily or made a few quid.

Then there’s the useful things like boxes and drawers, c.f. my sad tale the other week about locking myself out and having to use a discarded kitchen drawer to gain the height required to lean over the back gate and open it so I could get in and retrieve my keys from where I’d left them in the garden.

There has been one particularly useful skip near us, literally at the end of our road, 20 metres or less from our house. It’s been useful for the plethora of lovely stuff within – cf the bikes but also some new skirting board for our bathroom – and of course it’s also very handy for putting things in. It is intriguing watching a skip, seeing what appears and what disappears especially a long term one. There is definitely a thriving up and down-cycling economy here.

Anyway, the other day, I saw the skip had been emptied and a new one had arrived. I had a peek in the bottom and there I saw a wine rack. A 25 bottle wine rack no less. McOther has a large cellar and wine racks are always greeted with enthusiasm. So I picked the wine rack out of the skip and took it round to our back gate. When I’d unlocked, I picked up the wine rack and realised there was a lot of dust under it.

Hmmm, I thought.

I checked it more closely and … yes … it had woodworm. Then again, I had some treatment for woodworm so I could treat the wood, I reasoned and then give it to McOther. After all we’d discussed, only a few days previously, how sad it was that one of his racks had woodworm and decided that it wasn’t worth treating. If I fixed up this new one, it might be a nice surprise.

But realistically, could I be arsed to treat it?

No.

Accepting this, I picked it up, took it back to the skip and put it in again.

However, it did prompt me to remove a wickerwork chest of drawers from our utility room which has been sitting in a pile of tell-tale dust for some time and treat that for woodworm.

When McOther came home, the skip was full and I told him about the wine rack.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘you know that one we were talking about the other day?’

‘The one of yours?’

‘Yes. That one. Well, I threw it in the skip.’

‘So … you mean I nearly rescued our wine rack?’

‘Yes dear.’

I was quite glad that I hadn’t brought him his own wine rack back. I’d have looked a bit of a chump. As for the chest of drawers, on reflection we decided that despite being treated it had reached the stage where there was more air than wood and we decided to bin it. I forgot to put it out in the skip at night so whizzed round and dumped it in on the way to school with McMini. By the time I returned from the school run the skip had gone. It hasn’t been back since.

That’s the logic of MTM then, bin something I find in a skip because I can’t be arsed to treat it for wood worm – something which is ours, anyway and which I put back because I can’t be arsed to treat it for woodworm twice – then spend hours treating something else for woodworm only to throw it in a skip.

That is illogical, Captain.

Ho hum.

My best eyebomb ever … probably

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Real Life is underrated. Using mundane events to fuel your writing mojo.

I’m not here this week, I am going to post to my blog and give a talk at the same time.  Sadly this is through the wonders of modern technology and not because I have a clone but there we go, you can’t win ’em all. So without more ado, here’s a piece outlining my theories about pimping your world to add realism to your writing. At the risk of sounding a bit waffly …

_______________________________________________

Pimp your world!

Real life can feel like an unwelcome and endlessly demanding interruption to your writing happiness.

However, it doesn’t have to be like this. The mundanity of your reality depends on how you see it. Even if you write science fiction or something that is very much not real life, observing what is going on around you can bring you huge dividends if you can put the right spin on it for yourself.

This is an owl; in flight, even though it looks like some kind of ball. Yes. Real life can often be quite weird enough – without the help of a writer.

How does this work?

Embrace the mundanity, be interested in everything, because it’s the sense of natural curiosity that will give you answers to the odd but boring questions of life. And knowing those boring answers will give your writing texture and make it real. Sure, nobody wants to know what that broken bent thing at the back of the drawer is but as a writer, you do because you never know when you’re going to discover a use for it in your books.

Exercise your writing muscles when you’re not writing.

No I don’t mean your hands! I mean this; if you have to do some mundane chore when you’d rather be writing why no approach it a different way? For example, if you have to go shopping, maybe try to see the dreary trek to Tesco’s as if you are making it for the first time, narrate your progress in your head, as if you’re writing a book.

You can make your approach to this exercise range from lateral to literal, for example, your first thought might be, ‘Why am I pretending it’s the first time I’ve ever been to Tesco if I’ve lived here all my life?’

From there you could go on to ask why the character in your head is only visiting now if they’ve lived here forever. Why, how and where have they been shopping in the years leading up to today? What does the sudden need to visit Tesco’s signify? What changed that put them there?

Alternatively, you can take a different approach and narrate your progress without really thinking of the whys and wherefores but simply as if it’s a scene in a novel. Think about whether the ‘you’ in your narrative is sad, happy, bored or something else. If they are, why might be the cause? How could you show it?

For example, if they see a thistle growing between the cracks in the pavement would their mood effect it. EG flowers, spring, lovely. Flowers, funerals death horror. Thistle, prickly and difficult.

Would they notice different aspects of their surroundings in different moods and interpret them differently?If you have access to MP3s on the hoof you could pop on a pair of headphones and see if different types of music inspire different scenarios. Would up beat songs make your character skip happily over the tarmac? Do sad songs make them drag their feet etc.

The point is, if you are thinking this way, it can only help you to develop your writing voice and style at times in the day when you aren’t able to do any writing.

Engaging with your surroundings brings rewards.

Yep, as much as you can, even when it seems as if there isn’t any point. First; you never know what you might see second, if you want to get interesting stuff out of your head, you have to put things in; experiences, ideas, knowledge and you have to be open to them when they occur – which is often when you least expect it.

Terry Pratchett talking about books said:

You don’t know what’s going to be interesting until you’ve read it. Somewhere in a book on the history of false teeth there’ll be the making of a novel.

He’s spot on.

Seek out the small details going on around you.

The other day, as my son and I were driving along, a middle aged woman passed us on her mountain bike coming the other way doing a huge wheelie. She, and we, were going under the A14, in different directions, her on the cycle path, us on the road. As she landed, having wheelied all the way under the bridge she pumped one fist in the air. My son and I didn’t have time to hoot, wave or give her the thumbs up before she was gone but that experience had both of us thinking. We spent the rest of the journey making up a story about her. We are probably the only people that noticed what she did.

Another time, waiting in queue to go to work at Milton way back in the late 1990s I looked up into the blue spring sky. As I sat stationary in the traffic I watched someone in an aeroplane with one of those smoke canisters in it flying round above. They drew a smiley face. Did anyone else see? I don’t know. Weirdly, a couple of years ago, someone did the same thing over the skies of Bury St Edmunds. On both occasions, it left me feeling up beat. I haven’t put either event in a book yet, but I probably will.

Be interested in your surroundings.

Why? Because the insignificant details of what is going on around you are where you will discover the things that will give your work texture and realism. Look at the world around you, be curious, ask questions. Pepper your stuff with answers you discover and it will feel so much more real to your readers, no matter how outlandish it is.

The wall of the Baptist church, in my town, has what looks like bullet holes in it. I’ve always wondered what happened to that wall. I’ve seen bullet holes in things on the continent, where battles took place in the second world war, usually. My son was intrigued, too, and decided to try and find out. It turns out that those are, indeed, bullet holes. The church was used for communications of some kind during the war and a German fighter plane came over and shot it up. Another one flew over one of the main streets, shooting up a pub called the New Inn and the house next door, which just happens to be ours. So it turns out my house has bullet holes in it. Something like this would be a great story to fictionalise or, if you write non-fiction, a collection of stories like this about your local community can make for really intriguing reading.

Similarly, my son has made a point of learning the names of all the local cats, so now as we walk down the street, we greet them by name. This is probably quite weird but if you have a character in a book doing this it can tell you so much about them; that they’re soft hearted that they like cats? Or maybe, that they don’t like cats but they’re too soft hearted not to greet them anyway. Or, possibly, they’re scared of cats and greet them out of superstition, the way some folk salute magpies. One tiny detail, lots of potential.

Be interested in people.

Find out who they are, what they have done.

There was an old man who lived down the same road as my parents who my parents were on nodding terms with. As he became older, he began to suffer badly with arthritis and couldn’t get out much, so Dad started popping in to visit. It turned out that this fellow that my parents had known for years was in the 1936 British Olympic running team. He was injured just as he arrived in Berlin and the Germans gave him one of the best seats in the house to watch the rest of the games. He saw Jesse Owens win and since he was sitting few yards away from the ‘royal’ box he also saw Adolf Hitler having a massive melt down and completely throwing his bricks out of the pram when it happened. But he always swore that Hitler did shake Owen’s hand … when he had calmed down.

Often, each person is the sum of some amazing stories. People love to talk and if you listen, you will hear incredible things, things that also shed light on human nature.

For example, my mum grew up in the country and recalls how she and her brother saw a plane fly across the garden during the war. Some people had been shot at on the Downs while blackberrying the week before but Mum and my uncle were on their own and were delighted to be able to wave at the plane without being told off by an adult. They were even more delighted when the pilot who was blonde and curly-haired waved back! It was only after the plane had gone that they realised it had a cross on the side of it, not the circles of the RAF. Meanwhile Mum’s friend Norah used to talk of the time a ME109 was brought down on the Downs near Steyning in Sussex. Everyone was arming themselves with pitchforks, kitchen knives, pickaxe handles etc and went off to capture the pilot. The gentleman in question unwittingly evaded capture and was discovered wandering local lanes by someone taking an afternoon constitutional, someone who was unaware that a dangerous armed enemy was on the loose. The pilot asked, politely, for directions to the local police station so he could hand himself in.

All your characters need a back story that is as real to you as life, even if it is never mentioned in the actual book you write about them. Collecting stories like these from people you meet can give you some fantastic, readymade back stories, or at least a place to start.

Use the mundane.

Also using mundane events in writing can tether your writing to the real world, giving the most outlandish scenes realism or throwing scary stuff into stark relief.

So for example, say you have a character who is held captive by a scary bad guy. Her guards take her to the bathroom. It has one of those fans that comes on automatically when you turn the light on and then chugs away for several minutes after you’ve turned it off again. When she is finished the guards turn the light off and take her back to her cell, but she can hear the fan droning on for several minutes. A lot of us can identify with listening to that kind of fan. So when our heroine hears it in book we can immediately get alongside her. It grounds the narrative in reality making a situation that may be difficult to imagine more realistic, while, at the same time, highlighting the unusual or menacing nature of parts that are different.

To sum up then, there is gold all around if you if you look.

I think it was also Terry Pratchett who said something along the lines that if you want to write convincing fantasy you will need a better handle on how reality works than anyone else. It’s a strange dichotomy that fictional or hard-to-imagine events seem to spring to life if you can fix them to reality every day real things.

It’s worth taking notice, observing the everyday and riffing with your surroundings in your head as you go about normal life. Because if you practise your writing by adding a little fiction to your normal life it will help you to develop your writing style and voice, and train your brain to view the world differently. Likewise if you look for little snippets of reality to use in your writing you can add immense power and depth to your words.

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Toboggan update, a war story and McMini versus Alexa.

It’s been a busy week this week. McMini is due to go on a school trip which involves two nights away. I have therefore been spending most of the week with a list of required clothing working out which items we have and buying the ones we don’t have. Pretty much all of them.

In order to try and train McCat out of some of his many behavioural problems, I have bought a thing that senses when he goes near the bin to flip the lid off and search for scraps and squirts a jet of air. Unfortunately, though this is working, the people who set it off 99.99999999% of the time are McMini and McOther.

It’s nearly run out already and judging by the cost of the refills it’s actual solid gold in there rather than the air the makers claim, or it’s liquidised diamonds or something. I thought one would do but with my menfolk, no chance, it’ll be hard put to last the week.

I also bought a static electric mat. Unfortunately it comes with no meaningful instructions. I think I switched it on but after an hour it started beeping and the battery died. I haven’t tried it since.

Ho hum … a partial success then.

Sadly, I also jinxed any chance of tobogganing joy this weekend by retrieving the one I had as a kid from Mum and Dad’s, barn, washing the mouse and spider pooh off it, along with the yucky, knackered crispy wood louse carapaces left by the spiders, and bringing it home. Turns out it’s a bit older than I thought as it’s a Flexible Flyer No 1.

It looks as if it may be Great Grandpa’s rather than Granny’s. Luckily, I don’t think that makes it any more valuable, so it’s still worth the same as a modern replacement, which means we can use it. Oh yeh.

Except for that bit about the jinxing. Yes, now that we have a slightly more McMini-friendly toboggan, we have had the usual boring Bury St Edmunds snow: chuffing cold, snows all day but doesn’t sit. Seriously I have no idea how it can be this fucking cold and still melt. It’s a bastard miracle. Climatologists should look into it because frankly, I reckon there’s something going on. Also, I’m getting a bit bored of being cold. I wish it would either snow properly or just piss off. It’ll probably snow properly tomorrow when I’m at my club dig out in the country at the bottom of a hill (note to self, take a tow rope).

Also this week, I went with Mum to the funeral of a lovely lady who used to go to their church. The chap doing the eulogy told a splendid story this lady used to tell about the time a ME109 was brought down on the Downs near Steyning.

The word spread like wild fire and everyone armed themselves with pitchforks, kitchen knives, pickaxe handles etc and went off to capture the pilot. Meanwhile, the gentleman in question unwittingly evaded capture and was discovered wandering local lanes by someone taking an afternoon constitutional, someone who was unaware that a dangerous armed enemy was on the loose. The pilot asked, politely, if they could tell him the way to the local police station. Unaware of the posse the other side of the Downs looking for him, he then calmly followed the directions he’d been given and handed himself in. Stories like these say so much about human nature.

In a bid to keep the screen time to quality time, I have given up doing the social media stuff in the evening in front of the telly in favour of knitting. I now have seven pairs of socks – and I’ve only shrunk two pairs so far – along with a smaller pair for McMini, and a pussy hat – but in red and light pink because militant use of pink is vile and gives me the boke.

Meanwhile McOther has purchased an Alexa. It’s quite good but not able to answer many questions. For example, I asked it how to make pasta the other day … about seventy times.

Try as I might I couldn’t get it to understand that I wanted it to make actual pasta, not a pasta dish. It came up with a whole variety of pasta dishes but not the ration of eggs to flour I required to knock up a few sheets of lasagne. It was like …

‘Alexa, can you give me the recipe for pasta.’
‘I found this recipe for pasta with meatballs on Recepidia.’
‘No, stop Alexa. I meant the actual pasta.’
‘I found this recipe for beef ragu with fusilli.’
‘Stop Alexa, please. OK, Alexa, if I have some flour and an egg and I’m Italian what can I make?’
‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you with that.’
‘Jeez …’ Recording of dull thudding sound made by MTM’s head beating against the kitchen work surface, ‘I just want to make a lasagne sheet, Alexa.’
‘Lasagne is a dish comprising tomatoes, bechamel sauce and-‘
‘Alexa stop. What are the ratios of egg to flour I need to make pasta.’
‘I found this great recipe on Recipedia for egg and spinach-‘
‘NO! Alexa STOP! Don’t they have the recipe for pasta on Recipedia?’
‘There’s a recipe for salmon and seafood with pasta shells, difficulty level, easy on Recipedia-‘
‘Alexa STOP! For the love of God, or I shall do you an injury.’

And so on ad infinitum. Alexa stores all these exchanges on an app on McOther’s iPad. I think he enjoyed reading that one.

This morning, I overhead McMini talking to it.

‘Alexa can you set a timer for cheese?’
‘I’m sorry I do not understand your question.’
‘Oh. OK. Alexa, set a timer for seven years.’
‘I’m sorry I can only set a timer for a time within the next 24 hours.’
‘Hmm … OK. Alexa, set a timer for seven hours.’

It might be sensible to occasionally say, ‘Alexa, stop timer,’ to it I think. Just in case.

In next week’s post I’ll be talking shop. I’m giving a talk called, ‘Real Life is underrated. Using mundane events to fuel your writing mojo,’ and since it’s 1,200 words long, I thought I’d reproduce it here, for your delectation, as I deliver it. And also because I’ll be actually doing the talk at the time, so I won’t be here to write a blog post … so … until next week!

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Sleigh that again?

It’s been all go this week. Snow has fallen (snow on snow) and it’s been fucking freezing (pardon my French) all week. We’ve had about 8 inches of snow, going by the pile on top of the wheelie bins, but the first four inches melted a bit before the second four arrived so it was only ankle deep here in town. Still looked cool though (see photos). What I like about snow is the way it lets you see the world anew; the same old same old, yet so different. I don’t know about you, but a quick dose of snow always helps me to appreciate my surroundings more. For us, here, there was just enough to be pretty and fun and not so much that things began to get a bit dicey.

That said, I believe there are folks out towards Norwich who have seen some impressively big drifts and now have a good grasp of how the average raspberry feels atop a pavlova. While others have no power. Definitely less fun for them.

On Friday, after school, I took McMini tobogganing. Our sledge is a plastic one, but slightly different to the usual in that it has a raised back and a lowered front. Apart from the fact makes the thing look more like a boat it also makes steering harder and you can’t use it lying down, face first. That didn’t stop fourteen stones of British lard from careening down the hill though – I lay back, skeleton style – but McMini was rather more cautious. I understood his reticence, my first memory of tobogganing is of me, my brother and my dad, all sitting on our toboggan and feeling very frightened.

Judging by the size of our toboggan, I must have been very small, in fact I’m amazed that the three of us fitted on. My misgivings soon disappeared when I discovered I could lie on it and proceed face first. Our toboggan was some ancient thing that had belonged to my mother as a child so it had steering, which helped.

On the down side though manoeuvrable, it was extremely fast – although that was also an up, in many respects. I remember visiting my uncle, aunt and cousins in Kew over New Year – a visit that was famously cut short after I ate an icicle off the bottom of a car and was violently sick about fourteen times but that’s another story. Where was I? Ah yes, tobogganing with my cousins. We took our toboggan to a hill in Richmond Park. It was icy, very steep and rammed with other folks on toboggans, mostly plastic ones or the Blue Peter home build (like the one my cousins had). All were going very slowly.

Our toboggan was not only the one Mum and my uncle had used as kids, it was the one which, in turn, my grandmother had used when she was a child. Antique and battered it may have been but this thing went like shit off a shovel – it still does. It looked rubbish, it also still does, and as you arrived on any packed slope you could almost feel the other kids watching you go past thinking,

‘What the fuck is that?’ and snickering contemptuously at your toboggan POS.

Then you’d take a run down the hill and the impression you got was that they were still thinking,

‘What the fuck is that?’ but with a different inflection entirely.

On this occasion, it was like trying to drive a Grand Prix car at full speed through a shopping centre without hitting anyone. You know the first car chase in the Blues Brothers, when they’re trashing the mall … that’s our toboggan with all the other kids pootling about around it. My cousins’ Blue Peter model seemed faster than everyone else’s as well, so it was kind of a rinse and repeat on theirs only with no steering! Unnerved by a couple of rounds of toboggan frogger we decided to move to another part of the hill which wasn’t being used.

Despite being a bit mad and fast, things were much easier with our toboggan on home ground. I grew up in two places at once, the staff side of the house in the school where Dad was a housemaster and our own actual home, which we lived in during the school holidays. Both places were half way up a down … well … the housemaster’s one was more three quarters of the way up but you get the picture. The point is, you could walk out of either house and pretty much onto a big hill. Five minutes and you’d be away. On the few occasions it snowed in the holidays, we’d spend hours up on the hill. There were thrills, spills and luckily, no injuries.

This is a ‘Down’. As you can see from the photo, the downs could be more appropriately named, ‘ups’.

The other great thing about living on a down was that you are not going to get that many people up there, and if you do, there’ll be plenty of room. The downside is that they look smooth but in reality there are a lot of sheep tracks up there so try the wrong slope and it’s like tobogganing down steps. Also there are fields up there, and the thing about a field is it usually has a fence. Hedges were getting pretty rarified in those days so said fence was usually three strings of barbed wire and some shuggly posts.

My father embraced the joy of tobogganing with even more enthusiasm than his children so we usually went as a family, or depending on school holidays etc it would be me and Dad or Dad and my brother and Mum back at home getting some peace and quiet. One occasion, I remember we had already moved out of the school for the holidays into our actual ‘home’ but needless to say, my school term hadn’t ended. Dad and my brother went for a tobogganing session while Mum collected me from my last day at school. We returned to find the two of them at home, which was not expected. There was a perfect field, just as you come into our village; a nice gentle slope, someone was even skiing on it one year, but it did have hedge at the bottom, in the middle of which was the ubiquitous knackered downland barbed wire fence, and beyond which was a trunk road. This wasn’t troubling the four or five other sledgers who were out the day Dad and my brother went but our mad toboggan was faster than all comers, as usual, so it went further. After a few runs it was clear that my dad and brother could only ride safely from half way up the hill, unless they wanted a close encounter with the hedge.

The field was L shaped and the road turned away taking the hedge away and leaving a lovely big square of unsullied virgin snow. My brother and dad wishing to experience full tobogganing joy trundled along the hill until they were above this. Now they could go from the very top and would have a huge amount of run off ground where the toboggan could come to a safe halt. Unfortunately, they moved along at the top of the hill so they didn’t hoist in that, where the road and the hedge turned the corner, the crappy barbed wire fence from the middle carried on, across what they thought was a wide snowy gap.

Dad went first and as he careened off down the hill, three things occurred to my brother:

  1. He noticed the barbed wire fence for the first time.
  2. He realised that Dad was short sighted and still hadn’t seen the fence.
  3. He realised that, not only had his loving father not noticed the fence but that he was unlikely to do so until he caught it in the neck while riding a toboggan at speed.

My brother set off running in hot pursuit shouting, ‘Dad! Fence.’ My father was sitting on the toboggan and steering with his feet. It had picked up some serious speed and there wasn’t a cat in hell’s chance of it stopping before it hit the fence. Luckily some other folks further down heard my brother and also ran towards Dad, relaying the message, with a bit more volume. Dad heard them and saw the fence, at a distance of about ten feet. There was no time to think, no time to steer and for whatever reason, it didn’t occur to him to bail out. Instead he lay calmly back, flattening himself against the toboggan – and probably the ground behind it – as if he was doing the Luge for real.

According to my brother, Dad passed under the fence at high speed. He took a slight scratch on the nose and it whipped off his red woolly bobble hat but otherwise, he and the toboggan came out the other side unharmed. My brother said it was one of the coolest things he’d ever seen because Dad had been so calm, but also one of the scariest because he felt he was about to witness his father’s untimely death. That said, I suspect Dad may not have felt as calm as he looked, since he suggested that they’d probably done enough tobogganing for one day and that they head home for a cup of tea, some biscuits and a plaster.

I guess the moral of this story is that few things are as they seem, ever.

On a side note, it turns out that the toboggan, itself, is not as it seems either. Indeed, it is a collector’s item. Which just goes to show that, coming from good Yorkshire stock who are too tight to throw anything away has its benefits (even if it was via five or six generations exiled down south to soften them up).

The toboggan is in Sussex and I’m in Suffolk so I can’t send you a picture. I can, however, show you what it looks like.

Thanks to Sledhill.com for this. Check out John’s Sledhill P1 in the menu for details of ours; it’s either a FFNo2 or an FF2B.

Like the snow on Bury, trying to find a picture of our toboggan has made me see it afresh. I knew it was old but it had never really occurred to me to think how old. Over 100 years. And it’s from the USA. I can imagine Grandpop (my great grandfather) going to Harrods or somewhere – possibly Hamleys – to get it for his son and daughter one Christmas.

That’s a hell of a thing.

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How not to live number 12: Drains, mailings and finance #IFuckedThisUpSoYouDontHaveTo

Yep there’s a match made in heaven and here’s another how-not-to post from the queen of fuck ups at Spigot Towers.

Today’s topics are Drain Rodding, financial prudence and how to alienate just under five thousand potential new members of your mailing list in one fell swoop.

Mmmm… bet you can’t wait. OK on we go.

I think this captures the mood …

Tuesday morning and if you’re local to Bury St Edmunds (if you’re not you’ll just have to use your imagination) you may remember it was a bit of a crap day; the wind howled and the rain fell. Worse nature had plainly forgotten to switch the lights on because despite being officially ‘daylight’ the world outside was submerged in a kind of sub aqueous gloom. Obviously, my reactorlights went black the minute we went outside (fucking things) but their behaviour has no obvious baring on the amount of bright light in the environment requiring blocking which is why I look like one of those twats who wears sunglasses at all times because, basically, the fucking things turn black the minute I go outside. Yes, even in twilight.

Anyway, where was I? Ah yes. Tuesday. The clock is ticking, it’s time to get ready for the rainy walk to school and after two cups of coffee it’s also motility time for Mummy. Yes. I know. A liiiitle too much personal information there but it is relevant to the story. When I rose from the lavatory, refreshed, happy and several kilogrammes lighter, I flushed and the water level in the bowl rose alarmingly and stopped. Then there was a glubbing sound, a bubble rose to the surface and slowly, it disappeared down to normal levels. I almost expected it to burp but it didn’t.

‘Hmmm,’ I thought.

I flushed a second time and the same thing happened.

‘Hmmm,’ I thought a little more slowly and emphatically this time.

I ran upstairs to the third floor and flushed the loo up there. No problem, everything disappeared the way it should. Middle floor ditto. Last time this happened, that hadn’t; the upstairs loos had filled and glurped too.

‘Okaaaaay,’ I thought. ‘The downstairs loo is blocked, but clearly somewhere between the bowl and the drain because this upstairs loo is working perfectly. If it’s just a lump twixt cistern and drain I can probably unblock it myself, thus saving my bank account a £70 spanking if I can find some cheap drain rods. Joy.’ This was especially pertinent as I’d paid another £100 into my bike fund so there wasn’t £70 spare for said account spanking!

There wasn’t much more I could do then, so while McMini was getting his shoes and coats on I surfed the internet with my phone by googling, ‘drain rods for sale in Bury St Edmunds’. I found a set of at Argos for £13.99 and decided that even if I didn’t use them on the drain, they would come in handy for use when our drain pipes and guttering get blocked – which they do with monotonous regularity. So, I purchased them using the handy ‘collect from store’ option. To my delight they were ready for collection at once. Brilliant. I could pick them up after I’d dropped McMini at school. Woot!

Needless to say, unbeknown to me, the bottom of bag the rods came in was split. Yes. That’s right. The first thing I did as I came out of the store was drop them all over the pavement.

Thanking heavens that I don’t give a shit about my street cred (because if I did I’d have died of shame many years ago) I put them back, strapped them on my bike and went home.

So there I am at home, I get the rods and … they’re not bendy enough to go down the loo.

Arse.

I take them out, dry them, put them outside to really dry and go back inside. I look at the loo, half full of wee water.

‘Hmmm,’ I say.

I have an idea. I rush down to the cellar and get some bendy plastic that looks as if it’s part of some kind of contraption to hang half window net curtains, then I get some rubber gloves. I stuff the bendy plastic down the loo, it isn’t really bendy enough to go down so I put my gloved hands right in to coerce it round the U-bend. It finally goes and as it does, I push my hand in just a little bit too far and my right glove fills with wee water. I retract my hand, fast, because, wee aside, my not waterproof Fitbit is on that wrist, in that glove. I take the glove off, and the Fitbit which I then wash with antibac soap – very quickly because it’s not waterproof – and then dry it using some of the copious sheets of paper towel with which I have equipped myself, ‘just in case.’

Obviously, I throw the glove in the bin but keep the other because it’s not full of wee water, is still protecting my hand and I need it. I’ll just have to clean out the cat litter box one-handed until I remember to buy another pair.

Then I put my bare hand down the bog and rod it with the piece of plastic. I get too enthusiastic and wee water splashes onto my favourite jumper.

Joy.

Nothing happens to the water level.

‘Ah,’ I think.

Maybe I will have to go and open the drain outside and rod it with the rods from there. Yeh. Good plan. Then I will put my wee water spattered jumper in a boil wash which will probably kill it.

Out I go. I remove the big stump that is sitting on the drain lid – by the way, it’s not there for any sinister reason, just because it looks cool and hides the drain lid. There are little holes each side of the lid so you can insert a special tool and lift it up but even I can see that the drain is rusted shut. I try with a rake but it’s not budging. Then, looking through the hole, I notice a little white dot of light, the reflection of the sky, through the hole, on standing water. There shouldn’t be standing water in there, which means the loo to drain bit is fine, it’s the whole chuffing thing is blocked.

Nob ends.

There’s nothing for it, I will have to call the nice man I always call when this happens. The drains blocked the week we moved in. McOther was away on business (one of the few times) and me and 3 month old McMini were in the house alone. I called Drain Repair Man then and since he was a lovely chap and clearly knowledgeable, I kept his card. He has since had to unblock the drains the other side as well. We have two drains which does, at least, mean that if the loo in the en-suite blocks you can still have a poo in the others and vice versa. Drain Repair Man is a lovely chap with something close to a photographic memory. He makes the problem go away very quickly but making the problem go away is going to be expensive, especially now VAT is 20%.

But … I can’t get the lid off and there’s water in there.

Further along the pipe to the road there’s another drain. I go and haul the plant pot that sits on top of that onto the patio. It’s pretty overgrown round the edges. There will be smelly gunk and slugs, there’s only one glove and I don’t have time to go back into town and buy another pair before school pick up time. Can I be arsed to open it and utilise my rods? I think about trying to rod drains with McMini’s help, and about the alternative; more attrition to my jumper and the joy of passing brown goo covered rods through one not-gloved hand.

No.

Luckily Drain Repair Man is with me in minutes. Except there’s a dodgy moment when we think he might not get in because the bolt on our gate has rusted in position. However, luckily he is able to lend me a 2lb twatting hammer to hammer the bolt open and it works. Finally we are in. I make him and his sidekick (Drain Repair Robin?) a cup of tea and he makes the drains work again. It costs me £72 including VAT, plus £13.99 for the rods I didn’t use. Not bad for a good job’s jobby shifting but at a bad time for my bank account.

Sure enough. All is good until later on in the week when I get out some cash and see that I only have £88 in my account.

Shit. That’s not going to cover the £72 cheque I’ve given Saved My Butt Drain Repair Man and the £100 I’d paid to the bike shop, the day before, towards my new bike.

So I rush round transferring cash, I pay myself the petrol money for next week’s visit to my parents early, remove the last spare pennies from my business account and I am ready for the onslaught. Then I look at my bank account to check it’s all gone in. It has but of course, that’s when I discover that the £172 has also already gone out. I held onto the cash from my parents, it’s only 5 days early after all, but I put the pennies from my business account back.

It occurs to me that I could have saved myself a lot of phaffage and worry if I’d checked the actual drain, before I took any action and also if I’d checked my bank account before farting about transferring cash in from here there and everywhere.

I decide to chalk it up to experience.

The third instance of idiocy this week was with a mailing. I’ve just taken part in a prize draw and I have just shy of 5,000 people to write to. In theory, they should know they are signing up to the mailing lists of all the authors taking part when they enter the giveaway but no matter how often they are warned about that by the organisers there will nearly always be some who fail to take it in. Because of this I’m always very careful when I email them and in addition, since my work is pretty niche, I usually offer them Few Are Chosen free in return for signing up to my mailing list. I offer the book three times and then anyone who downloads it is transferred automatically to the list. Anyone who clicks unsubscribe is deleted from my files and at the end of it, anyone who’s not opened the emails or done nothing gets deleted as well.

This was a big giveaway so we were all allocated days upon which we were to contact the folks on the list. My day was yesterday. It involved moving to a higher price band on my mailing programme and to make it simpler, I did the three emails as a set-and-forget automatic series. Except that yesterday dawned, the send time came and went and they didn’t go. I spent the day, on and off, talking to my mailing provider’s customer service. They were great and eventually I made a new automation and a new list and copied the folks over to the new list. Half of them went and then it stopped. Half an hour later and the mailing had still only gone to half of them. It was getting on for six pm. Soon my access to the computer would be over for the day and if the automation didn’t go I’d have missed my slot. I panicked. Switched the automation off, set the three emails up as one ready to go draft and two separate emails on timed release, so to speak, made a list of people who hadn’t yet received the first letter in the automation series and sent them the first email manually.

Upshot of this? Yes, that’s right. Everyone got two.

Who replied first? Well obviously the first email I received was a massive bollocking from some irate woman who hadn’t read the giveaway blurb (it was there in BIG letters) and didn’t understand why all these authors were suddenly emailing her.

Bollocks. Way to win them round M T.

Then, this morning, I realised I’d had twenty 404 hits on my website because I’d managed to post a dud link. Which one? Why, the unsubscribe link of course. Let’s make the pissed off people really annoyed.

Head. Desk.

So what can we learn from this catalogue of stupidity? Is there a moral?

Yes: Look before you leap.

… Oh, and don’t rod drains in your favourite jumper.

On the up side, while I do still only have one cat litter tray cleaning glove, Favourite Jumper did survive the boil wash.

Ho hum. You can’t win ’em all.

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What do you see when you look at me?

You see a bad mother.

Church, if you want to do it, can be a bit of a conundrum with small people. McMini being a bit older now and more susceptible to boredom, it is not so easy to persuade him to come to the Sunday service. Furthermore, when he does, it’s probably no longer appropriate for a young gentleman his age to sit there with a huge stack of Beanos and a flask of tea, however quietly it is done. That’s why I jumped at the chance when the powers that be decided to introduce a more informal service during the week. Small church. It is called.

McMini is one of four to six small parishoners; the two youngest are girls, one of about eighteen months, one of three, then there is another little lad of five and McMini at nine. He enjoys the stories, the drawing and occasionally, when the vicar is around, and brave enough, to have a ‘mini mass’ he gets to serve. As he has expressed an interest in being the thurifer, we now have incense at this and take our lives in our hands as McMini enthusiastically wields a steaming hot thurible in our faces.

However, formal this sounds it isn’t. Last mini mass the adults tried to contain their laughter as the small parishoners wandered around, apparently oblivious to what was going on. One withdrew to the table to draw, McMini was sitting next to the radiator upon which he’d perched a cup of tea (next to the bread and wine) and was calmly drinking sips in between the responses. The two girls had a bit of a contretemps and we had ‘pencils at dawn’ until a smart adult realised they both wanted a pink and purple one and found a second pink and purple pencil so they could have one each. A few seconds later and the small plaintive voice of the three year old said, ‘down there’ and pointed to the grating. Her crayons had disappeared. Doubtless they are somewhere beneath the hot pipes but none of us dim-eyed adults could see them and so far, they have not been found.

Meanwhile, McMini had miscounted the amount of wafers – or sherbet free flying saucers as we blasphemously call them at home. This meant that, communion done, there were extras left. Quick as a flash, McMini chimes in.

‘Oooh look! There are some left over! Can I have another one?’
‘I’m not sure that’s quite-‘ I begin weakly, poker face in place, toes to curling silently.
‘Actually, as we have to eat them all up now, it’s quite acceptable for you to have another if I ask you to help me so, McMini, would you help me by eating another one?’ says our vicar as, completely unfazed, he proffers the platen towards my son.
‘Thank you, and the wine was delicious today,’ says McMini hopefully but luckily there’s no extra wine to finish.

I remember the day when McMini, after his first communion, stuck out his tongue and wiped it on his sleeve with a loud, ‘Yuck!’ to try and remove the taste of the wine from his mouth. Yes, well, at least he’s got used to it. Maybe I should thank myself for small mercies … possibly.

Usually, small church, is less eventful, indeed it’s rather like a normal Sunday school, a bible story, a discussion and some prayers, during which we all light a candle each and put it on the um … candle holder thingummy.

Two weeks ago, we were talking about thinking before we act. When prayer time arrives, my darling child comes up with the following gem.

‘Please guide Mummy to listen more and think before she acts so that she will be a good mother.’ He then places his candle in the holder with a very serious expression, to the sound of stifled sniggering from the grown ups.

‘Am I a bad mother?’ I ask afterwards, thinking that this might stem from my harrying him to clean his teeth that morning before school.
‘I’m afraid so, Mummy.’
‘Was it the teeth cleaning incident this morning?’
‘No Mummy it’s because you swear all the time and some of the language you use in front of me is very inappropriate, which is a pity, because you could be a very good mother otherwise.’

Damned with faint praise. What the right hand giveth the left hand taketh away so to speak, or at least, the other way round in this case, and also furnishing me with a very interesting insight into how his teacher talks when she is telling him off. I remember how much trouble I got into at school when I was a few years younger than him, for saying, ‘bloody hell is a very bad word, isn’t it?’ to my best friend and then, how mortified my mother was upon discovering that, when asked where I’d got such filthy language from, I’d told my teacher, ‘Daddy.’ And yes McMini has also done this to me with a similar situation centring around his use of the word, bollocks.

This last week, the theme was giving thanks for people who make the world a better place through their actions; folks who let their light shine in the world is roughly how the story put it. As we sat discussing this and deciding who we will pray for as folks who shine the light of kindly goodness in our lives, the small people all say ‘Mummy and Daddy.’ Except for McMini. I should be so lucky. Unfortunately, the fact that he got a laugh last week from chastising me hasn’t escaped his attention.

‘What about your Mummy McMini?’ says someone. ‘Aren’t you going to thank God for her?’
‘Regretfully, no,’ he says.
‘No?’ I say with mock affront. ‘Is that because ‘of the-‘
‘Swearing?’ He fixes me with a very serious look while the other adults snort with laughter behind their hands. ‘Yes.’
‘Have I not been better this week?’
‘No Mummy. Well, you have. You haven’t been doing it in front of me as much but it’s really not appropriate behaviour,’ there’s that word again, ‘in the presence of a nine year old.’
‘I don’t do it in your presence do I?’ I ask him omitting the ‘much’ that would make that statement a lot more honest.
‘True, Mummy, but you do it a lot in the other room when you think I can’t hear you.’
‘Then don’t listen,’ I tell him.
He shakes his head sadly. ‘You have a very loud voice Mummy. It’s difficult not to and you see, it will influence me.’

The lady who makes the tea and serves the biscuits, and who is trying so hard not to laugh she may, possibly, be in danger of rupturing herself moves away out of earshot.

When we eventually make it to prayer time, the other kids all thank the Lord for their mummies and daddies. Finally it is McMini’s turn. He says thank you for the ambulance staff, police and fire brigade who make the world a better place by protecting us and looking after us, and then says thank you for everyone and anyone working in the church. There’s a bit of a pause. He gives me a look and I start to giggle.

‘What about Mummy?’ asks one of the grown ups.
McMini heaves a sigh and then he finally adds, grudgingly,
‘Oh alright then, and thank you God for Mummy, too, because although she is a Bad Mother she is funny.’

The worst thing is, I know he’s doing it to take the piss out of me, no the worst thing is that I know it and I’m proud of him. But if he’s that sophisticated about taking the mickey out of me now, heaven help me when he’s older. I probably shouldn’t have played this in the car so much when he was tiny. I really don’t have a fucking clue about this parenting lark but it is fun.

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Calm in a crisis; elementary burglary for dunderheads …

One of the strange things people tell me often is that I am calm in a crisis. Positively the ice woman, apparently, in my capacity for quick thinking action.

Want to know a secret about that?

It’s bollocks.

Well not wholly bollocks but mostly. Amazingly, I am actually extremely cool-headed in a crisis, I can make calm decisions in the heat of the action and the blink of an eye. They are not always the best decisions, but they are decisions that are, usually, a great step on from the nothing at all that others are doing. Sometimes, my decisions even precipitate a solution of sorts. Let’s make it clear, we are not talking about the kind of person who is likely to confront an armed robber, but if someone else is in trouble, I’m usually reasonably handy for doing the thinking, or taking action, if they can’t. But that isn’t because I’m the kind of clear-thinking, lion-hearted, V.C. winning material that the phrase, ‘cool headed in a crisis’ conjures up.

No.

It’s because I’m a complete and utter twat.

Allow me to demonstrate.

Yesterday is an excellent example of why monumental twattery makes for good crisis management.

It’s three o’clock; time to walk up to the school to collect McMini. I grab the keys as I leave the house but when I shut the door and the yale lock clicks I can’t find the keys to do the chubb. I know what’s happened, I’ve grabbed them, and as I put them and the bag of post school snacks for McMini in my pocket, I’ve missed and dropped them. I look inside but can see no keys lying on the floor.

Aaaaaargh! No keys! What shall I do? Dan-dan-daaaaaargh! Thinks Mary … NOT.

It’s three o’clock and while I can break in and search for my keys it will take time. McMini is to be collected at three fifteen and if I’m late, he thinks I’m dead and gets worried. I will have to go. I mean, the door is locked.

‘Yeh laters,’ I think, since, in theory, I don’t need to try and get into the house for another forty minutes. The locked-in keys are not an immediate problem.

Except they are.

Having put the absence of keys aside to deal with later, the next, more immediate, thorny issue pops up; how to make the gate look locked, yet leave it secretly unlocked, so McMini and I can get in, but no-one else will try to.

Casting around I see the large chunk of a fallen tree trunk which we are using to edge a flowerbed. Thanking the good Lord for the gym, I heave it down the path and lean it against the back gate. Carefully, mind, I don’t want it to get jammed against the wooden reinforcing planks across the middle and jam it closed. That done to my satisfaction, I slip carefully through the gate so it continues to lean on the right place and head for the school.

When we return, the gate is still closed, yet we are able to open it because the wedge has worked correctly. Excellent. I shut the gate, flip the latch down so it locks and put the tree trunk back where it was. Now to open the yale lock.

Taking off my anorak I spread it on the doorstep because it’s damp and I don’t want to be soaked as well as irritated. Then I rummage about in the potting shed and select a long bamboo cane. I tie some wire round one end in a D-shaped loop, lie on the anorak and feed the pole, and my arm, through the cat flap. McMini holds the door handle down while I loop the D round the catch for the yale lock on the inside of the door. That done, I check he is still holding the handle as I require and pull the stick downwards, so it pushes against the straight side of the lock handle and turns it. You need the wire because the weight of the bamboo pole and the force of me are not strong enough on their own. The door opens and we are in. My keys are still on the peg, so basically, it seems I just bashed them with my hand in the way past. Yes, I created a crisis because I reached for my keys and actually, genuinely forgot to grip.

Give me strength.

Never mind. All is well. Total time to break in about thirty seconds; or roughly five minutes from the start of our search for a suitable stick.

How come I can break into my own house so fast?

Practise.

Practise? How do I get to practise?

Weeeeelllll. Being such a total fucktard, I manage to lock myself out of my house several times a month. See how it is that an event which would be a disaster for anyone normal is rendered routine and mundane by my awesome twattery. Yeh! Go me. Lock-out is a blip, a minor inconvenience to Mrs Shit-for-brains and son. Notice, too, how this crisis is of my own making.

So there you have it. I suspect, there are two vital components to managing a sudden crisis; the first is to be able to act at once, without being British about it and pausing to wonder if you ought to interfere. If you’re a prize pillock then clearly, you will have got over any feelings of self consciousness – or at least buried them – by din’t of the fact that you cannot afford to countenance what others think of you or you would never leave the house.

The second component of successful crisis management, I suspect, is to be able to suspend your disbelief. What I mean is that you just need to find a way of not noticing how gargantuan the pile of shit you are in actually is, but just approach it as a problem to be solved. In short, it’s down to conditioning. And if you’re the kind of spanner who regularly locks yourself out of the house, strands yourself in the middle of nowhere with a flat battery and jump leads that don’t work, misses planes, boats, hovercrafts and trains, loses your passport, takes a plane a day early etc, then you probably tackle a crisis of some sorts most days to the point where, for you, even a major crisis feels like a normal part of your day.

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs, and blaming it on you,
You are, most like, a porridge-brained idiot
Who can’t remember their own name or find their own arse,
In the dark, with both hands. But when shit goes down, you stand up.

I’m really sorry Mr K.

If you want a calm head in a crisis you need practise, and being an utter tool in your day-to-day life will give you that practise. Yes, in every disorganised bollock-head lives the ice woman or man. Probably.


If you are despair of ever bing a big enough twat to crisis manage successfully never fear, why not pep yourself up with an uplifting, noblebright, humorous, science fiction fantasy box set for 40% off.

Yes, there are still a couple of days to get the K’Barthan Series Box Set at a drastically reduced price on Kobo.

To find out more – just click here.

On the other hand, if you are already becoming adept at creating small crises for yourself, failing to procure a calendar for 2018 for example, you can always grab an eyebombing calendar from my recently re-vamped and re-tidied Zazzle shop here.

Postcards of my best eyebombs are available there, too, along with K’Barthan bling and some other stuff.

Last of all a glimpse at my new marketing technique: I’ve decided to try threatening people*. So here we are. Buy my stuff or Lord Vernon will visit you.

Buy my stuff! Or I’ll send him round.

* That’s a joke, obviously. It’s a bit crap though, really, isn’t it? oh well, never mind.

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