A Tale of Three Rebeccas

16 Feb

Over the last few months, I have watched three different film versions of Rebecca, and read the book. This sounds like an obsession, but I assure you it’s not. It began innocently enough with my sister, my brother-in-law and myself all watching the new version of Rebecca, with Armie Hammer. (And as I check the spelling of his name online, I notice that some kind of scandal regarding him has just broken. I am accidentally topical, as ever. Also, I notice that his real name is Armand. If I was called Armand, I would not go around asking people to address me as Armie. But I digress.)

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My prescription for lockdown

25 Jan

There was much hilarity at the Glasgow Esperanto Club this month. We were using Gather (an odd little meetup platform with very ’90s graphics) to play the ‘Secret Rule’ game, and the secret rule was that everyone had to laugh whenever Peter’s hand(s) were in shot. Although the laughter started off artificial, it soon became real when poor Peter was sitting with his hands clearly visible on top of his despairing head saying that he just couldn’t work it out. There is something very funny about a group of people who are not allowed to stop laughing, while someone else has no idea why.

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My year in review – 2020

31 Dec

It seems redundant to say that this year has not been what I expected. Unless you’ve been living in an isolated Amazon tribe (in which case I’d love to know how you’re reading this) you already know that 2020 was the year that said ‘no’. If you want to read about my experiences of the first lockdown, click the link. This winter lockdown feels much less new and exciting and much more of a dull, dark slog. However, life goes on regardless, so I will give you a quick review of my year as a whole.

Travel

Let’s get the obvious one of out the way: I went nowhere. Well, virtually nowhere. I was meant to go to Leiden in the Netherlands in February, but that was scuppered by Storm Ciara. I could have rescheduled it for April but there was talk of this novel coronavirus thing so I hedged my bets and went to St Andrews for a day trip instead.

However, once things opened up again in the summer, I did get to – Haddington! I have a good friend, Susan, who hails from this East-Coast town and who is almost always overseas, so I risked my life at Hermiston Gait and took the opportunity to visit while she was temporarily stuck in the UK between exotic postings.

Haddington was kind of charming in a small-town way, with a nice river walk and some identical metal bars they laughably call an outside gym. It reminded me of Dunbar, and I said so, and thereby found out that the way to annoy a Haddingtonian is to compare their town to the very similar town half an hour or so down the coast. I think this insight will provide endless fun in my relationship with Susan 🤭

I also managed to get down to Derbyshire for my mother’s birthday, which miraculously fell between periods of restrictions, and as the celebration was held in a hotel, we were even able to get three households together.

The only other travel I have been doing this year is in my mind, planning an epic Interrailling trip for when the world is back to normal.

Learning

This category has been much, much more active than my globe trotting.

Sourdough

At the start of the pandemic, when yeast was scarce, I saw someone on Twitter saying “yeast is never scarce” and so my journey into sourdough making began. Sourdough uses wild yeast, which is found in random places like the air and the bloom on grapes. I raised a sourdough starter from scratch, which my nieces named Olaf. He is a little less pampered now than he was, but he’s still going strong and makes us a dense, crusty loaf about once a week.

I used the same wild yeast to make elderflower ‘champagne’ a little while later. It was – alright. Not much like champagne, but kind of like very sweet, slightly alcoholic elderflower Schloer. I also tried making elderflower cordial, not realising (because my foraging book did not tell me!) that the stalks are poisonous and must be removed before you make the cordial. No harm done, but not a pleasant experience.

Esperanto

My cancelled journey to Leiden gave me the opportunity to go to an Esperanto club in Glasgow, because I had cleared my diary for the trip. I started an Esperanto course on Duolingo (where I had been learning Dutch) because I had fond memories of learning it as a teenager after reading the Stainless Steel Rat books. I thought the club would be a one-off, but 2020 has given me the opportunity to attend pretty much every club meeting, as they are all online, and the woman who runs the anti-trafficking group I’m also a member of kindly changed those meetings so I could attend both. I have just about finished the Duolingo course, have read my first novela in Esperanto (see Books, below) and have even written an article for the magazine Esperanto in Scotland (Esperanto en Skotlando). I’m not fluent (yet) but it’s definitely become my third-most proficient language, after English and Albanian. I didn’t see that coming!

Paleography

I had almost forgotten about this one – I took a wee online course in paleography, in case I ever have cause to read old documents (not that unlikely, in my line of work). It was very interesting and I could definitely read more by the the end of it. It was one of those courses where the lessons are free but you have to pay if you want a certificate, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

First Aid

My new year’s resolution for 2020 was to learn first aid. I thought that would be easy – booked a course with the Red Cross, job done. Unfortunately the original date was cancelled due to lack of participants and the rescheduled date was cancelled due to Covid. Instead, I downloaded the British Red Cross apps, First Aid and Baby & Child First Aid (both free) and worked my way through them. In theory, I now know basic first aid, and if I forget, I still have the apps to refer to.

Calligraphy

Most recently, I have been busy getting half-decent at calligraphy. Again, this is a hobby from my childhood that I’ve picked up again. I’ve been doing mostly brush pen, but some pointed pen (nibs and ink) as well. My ambition when I started to get serious about it was to make gifts for my new friends from my friend Tanya’s Check In and Catch Up group, which she started in order to keep us all sane during the first lockdown. I managed that, and also make quite a few Christmas cards using calligraphy, so I feel the effort has not been wasted.

One amusing side effect of learning calligraphy is that you see it everywhere. My sister must be sick of me picking up a magazine, greetings card or menu and saying, “Oh look, modern calligraphy!”

As these last two categories suggest, I’ve made quite a few new friends and acquaintances this year – more than most years, I think. Zoom/Skype/Teams are annoying in comparison with real meet-ups, but after this year I can’t deny that you can form genuine friendships with people you have only met in the form of electronic pixels on a screen.

I have also learned to darn socks this year – a less social pursuit, but handy, and one that is very much in line with my attempts to be eco-friendly. The fact that I spilled red nail varnish on a perfectly good pair of jeans while writing this post is less eco-friendly of me, but according to the internet, hairspray will sort it out. We’ll see.

Books

I’m letting GoodReads do the heavy lifting for me again, even though I’ve almost certainly missed some out. There were a couple of re-reads this year, including Dracula, which is rather quaintly written from this distance in time, but still interesting. I read it again after coming across the nugget of information that Dracula was an alchemist. As you may know, I’m trying to write a non-fiction book on alchemy, a subject that fascinates me. Unfortunately, like many people, I have found that 2020 gave me plenty of spare time, but not that much mental energy or direction. Maybe next year…

Meanwhile, my novel Daughters of Fire creeps along. It’s the second in a series of three, the first of which is called The Sarcophagus Scroll. I was planning to do a fair bit of travel as research for book two, so that being cancelled hasn’t helped much, and I’m also suffering from the lethargy induced by yet another lockdown. However, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph it is getting there.

I did manage to write a couple of not-bad short stories this year, ‘The Untouchable Collection’ and ‘The Price of Exposure’. I’m fond of short stories, reading them and writing them, so it’s good to dip my toe back in while the novel is slightly in the doldrums. I also wrote a couple of articles for Christianity magazine and there should be another one coming out near the start of next year. And I won a limerick-writing competition about the pandemic, netting a modest cash prize.

Getting back to books I have read, the one that packed the greatest emotional punch, if you can believe it, is Lemony Snicket’s All the Wrong Questions series (which are all so short, you may as well consider them a single book). I only picked it up from the library for my niece, read the blurb on my way up the library stairs, and was instantly hooked by the humour. It’s a perfect little noir mystery, with dry wit and a wonderful femme fatale “with eyebrows like question marks and a smile that could mean anything.” And it leads unarguably up to an ending of inescapable, exquisite tragedy where there is simply no good option. It was heartbreaking.

I should add, for the sake of balance, that my nine-year-old niece said, “it’s not sad at all”.

The best book I read this year was David Copperfield, but that feels like cheating because it is such a classic. The best new book was probably The Golem and the Jinni, which really surprised me. The worst was The Serpent Grail, which was utter tosh.

Hacks

From David Copperfield I learnt that you can use beeswax on thread to get it to go through a needle, rather than licking it. This is useful to know in times of pandemic, and it is also more effective and longer-lasting.

I also found out while writing this post that hairspray does remove nail varnish from jeans – at least from black jeans. Phew!

Miscellaneous

I was a guest on a podcast about dyslexia; did a reading at an online ‘bar’ and subsequently had a story published in the bar’s best-selling anthology (that was nice, as you can imagine); appeared in a ceilidh video by Jiggered; hosted a YouTube/WhatsApp Eurovision party (which was probably the highlight of my whole year); and made a gingerbread zoo as my Christmas gingerbread project. There’s a wee ‘flyover’ of it embedded here.

Pets

My budgie Roland moved cage this year to bigger digs, and on Christmas morning, two adorable guinea pigs, Squiggles and Socks, arrived to join the family!

Crochet

I made a few wee things this year, including snowflakes, socks with decent ribbing (using knowledge acquired last year), a couple of baby blankets, a random wee shawl, a gingerbread man square for my patchwork blanket and a couple of dinosaurs. (I also made a fair number of face masks for obvious reasons, but not in crochet, for equally obvious reasons.)

And of course…

🥁🥁🥁

…the temperature blanket! Here it is, in all its multi-coloured glory! (Click on the photo for a larger image.)

Naturally, I have another ambitious crochet project planned, but it can wait for next year. Meanwhile, there’s hogmanay to enjoy, with champagne for the bells to bid a firm farewell to 2020. Never have the words of Tennyson’s ‘Ring Out, Wild Bells’ been more appropriate than this year, so here it is to finish. Have a wonderful 2021, and I hope it brings you everything you are dreaming of.

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Christmas songs that aren’t

19 Dec

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, when songs from 50-odd years ago get dusted off and Noddy Holder informs us all once again that “It’s Chriiiiiiiiiistmas!” But among these festive hits and Christmas carols, there are some that aren’t actually about Christmas at all. This is mostly because here in the northern hemisphere we associate Christmas with snow and ice and wintry pursuits, even though the chances of it snowing on any given Christmas Day are about as high as Lapwing getting to number one (although they are currently number 13 in the UK iTunes chart, which is respectable). So here are a few songs that you perhaps believed were Christmas songs, but aren’t.

Photo by Julia Freeman-Woolpert from FreeImages

Jingle Bells

What, Jingle Bells not a Christmas song?? But find me any reference to Christmas in the lyrics. Go on, I’ll wait.

The reason you won’t find any is that this is just a song about winter frolics. Yes, it does mention a sleigh, but it’s only now that a sleigh automatically brings Santa Claus to mind. Back in the 1850s, when it was written, a sleigh was a fun way to travel in winter – with a horse, rather than nine reindeer.

Let it Snow!

Again, nothing Christmas-related in the lyrics. This song was written during a heatwave in Los Angeles as a pleasant fantasy of cooler conditions.

Baby it’s Cold Outside

You’re getting the idea now, aren’t you? This mildly creepy song is just about a cold evening, which could be anytime between November and March. It was written for a housewarming party, apparently, and was subsequently used by hosts as a hint to guests that it was time to go.

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Yes, it mentions sleigh bells, but probably just the kind of sleigh from Jingle Bells, not the reindeer- propelled variety. This is (yet) another in the “it’s not Christmas, it’s just cold” category.

Ode to Joy

I’d never thought of this movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as being Christmassy at all, but apparently many people do – particularly in Japan, for some reason. My brother-in-law referred to it as Christmas music when it appeared in the soundtrack of Die Hard, but conceded that he may consider it Christmassy because it’s in his favourite Christmas-adjacent film*, rather than because there’s anything Christmassy about it in itself.

I considered including When a Child Is Born in this list, but decided against. It’s borderline. It doesn’t mention Christmas, and reading the lyrics the ‘child’ is either every child that is born (most of the verses) or a saviour who has not yet been born (the talky bridge and the last verse) rather than explicitly being the baby Jesus. But it does mention a star and says “this comes to pass”, which is very biblical sounding, so I’ll allow it.

I’d be happy to tell you which are my favourite (actual) Christmas songs. If you would like that in another post, leave a comment to that effect. Mariah Carey doesn’t make it in, I’m afraid.


* Christmas-adjacent because it is not a Christmas film. Yes, it happens at Christmas, there’s the odd Christmas-related quip and some Christmas music, but the events of the film are not contingent upon it being Christmas. John McClane could have been attending his wife’s office shindig in July and things would have panned out just the same.

Every song on Radio 1

5 Dec

Although I am demographically more of a Radio 2 listener, for the last few months I have been listening to Radio 1 every morning. This has exposed me to a great deal of modern popular music, and I have noticed some patterns. In fact, I have identified a few (a very few) categories that probably 90% of the songs fit into.

Rap/Grime/Drill/Hip-Hop (as if I know the difference)

There seems to be only one kind of song in this musical genre(s), at least among the stuff I’ve heard, and it goes like this:

I used to be very poor.

Now I am very rich.

My wealth and fame give me entry to exclusive locations, the ability to purchase expensive items, and access to many women.

I also swear a lot.

Pop

There’s more variety among the pop offering, and it’s largely divided according to relationship status.

I am in a relationship

You are very attractive.

I think about you all the time.

I enjoy having sex with you.

I am looking for a relationship

You are very attractive.

I think about you all the time.

I very much hope that we will soon be having sex.

Those songs are generally sung by men. The ladies’ response can be split into two other categories:

I don’t know what you’re waiting for.

I think I’ve made it clear I’m interested.

or

Not a chance, pal.

Now get out of my dancing space.

I am no longer in a relationship

There are two categories in this relationship status, too, and there is a pronounced gender divide.

Generally men:

I used to be in a relationship with you.

Now I am not.

The breakup was my fault / I don’t understand where I went wrong.

I am very sad and regretful.

Generally women:

I used to be in a relationship with you.

Now I am not.

The breakup was your fault and you were very foolish.

I am happy and have no regrets.

So there you have it: 90% of the songs on Radio 1 in a single blog post. This doesn’t cover weirdy indy songs where you don’t even know what they’re singing about (although often they are the men’s “no longer in a relationship” category, I think). It also doesn’t cover Christmas songs, which are starting to creep onto the Radio 1 playlist, and had already conquered Radio 2 by December 1st.

Speaking of Christmas songs, there is an utterly adorable new song about the weirdness and sadness of Christmas in 2020, our reassessment of what matters and our hope for better times. And it has a catchy chorus and a gorgeous video of Glasgow. It’s by a couple of Glasgow teachers called (collectively) Lapwing, and you can listen to here:

Being topical, accidentally or otherwise

19 Nov

One of the worries when you are writing for magazines is that your article will already be outdated by the time it’s published. It takes longer than you might think to put an edition of a magazine together, and articles are usually commissioned weeks or even months in advance. When I wrote my latest article for Christianity magazine about the effects of Covid-19 and associated lockdowns on vulnerable children throughout the world, we were in lockdown. By the time it was published, we were in that beautiful period of semi-normality between the first and second waves of the virus.

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Sci-fi and fantasising

27 Oct

Over a month has flashed by since I last blogged, even though time also appears to be practically standing still. It’s just one of the weird things about 2020. “Time distort 4”, as Blake might say.

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The book WASN’T better

16 Sep

A controversial topic this time, so please keep your comments civil! I’m going to be taking you through a short list of books that I have read* which I think were not as good as the film adaptation.

(Warning: there are some spoilers in the Princess Bride section.)

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Let me ask you a question

14 Aug

One of the many things I do to scrape a living together is survey design (because for all the jokes about becoming like J K Rowling, writing is not a lucrative profession). For a very reasonable fee, I either build people a survey from scratch, or tell them what’s wrong with their own one. And often there is plenty wrong.

Just as my work as a proofreader means I can never simply read text without picking out all the errors, so my work as a survey designer means I can never take an online survey without going “that’s ambiguous”, “you should allow more than one option here” or “this matrix is far too big”, and so on.

These things are not just annoying for the people taking the survey; if you ask the wrong questions, or provide the wrong answer choices, you end up with unreliable data, or your respondents give up halfway through, both of which rather defeat the point of sending out the survey in the first place.

But rather than try to explain what I mean in this post, I’m going to invite you to take a survey I have specially designed to be as useless and annoying as possible. SurveyMonkey rates it as ‘great’, by the way (see the picture below), which just shows why you need to apply human intelligence to these things.

What a wonderful survey I have designed, according to SurveyMonkey!

I won’t be held responsible for any damage to your phone that occurs from throwing it across the room in frustration.

I only have a free SurveyMonkey account (because the paid ones are so ludicrously expensive) which means that only the first 100 people to click the button will be able to take the survey. If the maximum has already been reached, drop me a note in the comments below and I’ll see what I can do.

And if you are now in awe of my survey design skills, you can hire me on PeoplePerHour. Or just consider this your free tutorial in how not to design a survey.

Not just your basic, average, everyday, ordinary, run-of-the-mill, ho-hum dyslexic

5 Aug

And if you didn’t get the film reference in the title, shame on you.

A few weeks back I was interviewed by Darius Namdaran, director of the BulletMap Academy, for his Dyslexia Explored podcast. He got in touch because he had come across one of my posts on this website about the joys of dyslexia (yes, there are some).

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