Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Saturday 23 January 2010

Burning issue

Monday being the traditional celebration of a certain Scottish poet, my local Waitrose has (oddly, perhaps, since there isn't a noticeable Scottish community in the area) put out a rather large special display of haggis. It looks like a national promotion, since it comes with a glossy poster proclaiming the day.

Only - someone obviously hasn't bothered to check the man's name, so they're suggesting we celebrate something called Burn's Night.

Does no-one care about apostrophes any more?

Gey few, and they're a' deid.

Thursday 21 January 2010


Name: Cheapo Microwave
PorridgeTick VGThe best results to date; care and attention needed to prevent natural exuberance from causing entirely avoidable explosions.
Frozen sconesTick VGVery pleasing presentation.
Buns and muffinsSatisfactoryResults acceptable, but a little more work needed to arrive at a happy medium between flabby and stodgy.
Scrambled eggsGoodResults very acceptable, but seems to require close and repeated attention, showing little improvement over traditional methods.
Baked potatoPassableTimidity tending to excess effort for less than optimum results.
Suet rolypolyPassableSee Baked potato.
Curly kaleGoodVery acceptable results.

General comments: 

A good start.

Sunday 17 January 2010

Intrigued by the mysteriously glowing yellow/orange thing in the sky (what do they call it again? I've forgotten), I dragged the bike out of the garage to see if I - and it - could actually move again.

Where to go? A quiet ride up the Regent's Canal, with a coffee break at the Pavilion Café in Victoria Park (the Sunday clientele here very much the knit-your-own-bicycle antithesis of what you might see around Canary Wharf).

Not so quiet, as it turned out. The towpath was approaching congestion, what with family groups out for a stroll and endless runners - clearly training for the marathon is getting under way. At an emptied council housing block in Hackney, windows are boarded up with photos of former residents, in this installation.

After following the canal to Islington, it's downhill all the way through Clerkenwell to Bloomsbury, to pick up a new book about one of my heroes, what to do? Well, once in Bloomsbury, the British Museum always has something new, and for the moment, it's the "Staffordshire Hoard", a newly-found collection of battered and crumpled Anglo-Saxon gold artefacts found in a field. No-one yet knows what it was all about, though to me it looks distinctly like the quickly-stashed proceeds of looting.

As a relief from all this high-mindedness, just around the corner is the Cartoon Museum, whose current exhibition on the magazine Viz is for the easily amused, but not for the easily shocked.

And on the way home in Shadwell, in the late afternoon sun (ah yes, that's what it's called), a blackbird was singing.

Saturday 16 January 2010


The temperature may not have been much above freezing for nearly a month, with barely a couple of hours of sunshine in all that time. But, in amongst the dead and wilting remains in my window-boxes, the pelargoniums and petunias are still putting out the odd floret, and I'm sure there's a new clump of nemesia - in full flower.

Wednesday 13 January 2010


The best part of two weeks since I've been home, and next to nothing to write about. I blame the weather, of course: trudging through the slush encourages a sense of trudging through the days.

But there's been some fun playing with my Christmas toys. I've loaded up my spiffy new digital photo frame as far as I can. Once again, I contemplate the thought of digitising all my old photos, and then all the different forms of audio recording I have (hundreds of 78s, vinyl LPs, cassette tapes). After about five seconds of that, contemplation passes to procrastination - indefinitely.

I have another new (to me) toy, the penny finally having dropped that perhaps it would be more economical on electricity to use a microwave for the amount of stuff I freeze. So far, it works excellently on soups and scones, but not at all on crumpets (might as well put those straight into the toaster). I shall leave it to the weekend before I risk experimenting with (if the Internet is to be believed) exploding porridge.

For a while, e-book readers intrigued: Waterstone's have been pushing the latest model of the Sony, and the papers are full of Amazon's apparent success with the Kindle and the new business-oriented Que. Looking at an apparently ever-increasing collection of books (they breed, I tell you), the thought of having everything on one pocket-sized machine is immensely appealing.

But then, so much depends on how one actually uses books. Books are more than just the words on the page. For many, the physicality of paper, illustrations and layout is an important part of the experience. For others, books need to be read in context with others: researchers need to be able to cross-refer, so what would help them is the ability not just to make notes, but to link, and perhaps (assuming e-book files can have a standard set of bibliographic data) automatic construction of citations and bibliographies.

What we have here is the issue of convergence that makes so many new technology developments uncertain: which digital functions do you combine with which in a single device? I know someone who reads books on her i-Phone; the Que runs diary functions, spreadsheets and other office documents, and can download news updates; the Sony not only has an MP3 player built in, but it displays photographs (though the particular screen technology it uses renders them as a rather pale monochrome which soon loses its appeal). If there were a way a user could, on a single device, switch between the e-paper technology of e-book readers, and the backlit screen of a conventional computer (with, of course, full colour).......

And then there's the book-on-the-beach problem: a book can still be used even covered in suntan oil and ice-cream, and it can be left on the towel with far less worry than a £150 piece of electronic kit. And who wants to lose those stocks of abandoned books that some hotels accumulate, providing an opportunity on a rainy day for an in-depth study of the appeal of Netta Muskett?

Saturday 2 January 2010

One of my reasons for going to Krakow was that my father was, as a prisoner of war, working in a coal mine in the area in 1943/44. I'd been able to find in the National Archives a report from the Red Cross inspectors of the time that identified the place (Bory, near Jaworzno) from the camp number, and with a bit of digging on the internet I'd been able to link the German names of that time to the Polish ones.

A bit more digging with Google maps and satellite views, and the local bus company's own online information made it possible to work out how to get there and back by train and bus, reasonably simply.

Jaworzno made a change from tourist Krakow, at the very least. An agglomeration of small villages into modern town planning and development, mixing little streets of one-storey cottages reminiscent of parts of Scotland (a few of the cottages appearing, where the dilapidated render is crumbling, to be built like crude drystone walls) with Soviet-era housing estates and half-hearted shopping centres along modern by-pass roads, and an attempt at a modern town centre. It's actually quite reminiscent of similar attempts in British industrial centres.

Eventually, the bus route ends outside the most likely candidate for Dad's mine. What can I say? I don't quite know what I hoped to find, or what he would have made of it. Had he wanted and been able to visit for himself, he would probably have said - more or less politely - that he recognised bits of it, whether he did or not. It's a mine like many another; the winding gear is spruced up and brightly painted, and most of the buildings are anonymous and undateable. Some of the outbuildings look old and crumbling, but the remains of slagheaps look more like ski-slopes in the morning's fresh fall of snow. The cold at least gives a sense of the desolation I'd have expected to feel in Dad's situation.

There doesn't appear to be anywhere to eat nearby, and if I don't get the bus that's coming, I'll have to wait an hour, since it's Saturday. The only thing to do is to run for the bus, head back to the train for Krakow - and be grateful I've got the option.
I've never been a great one for celebrating New Year's Eve, and even less on a cold and slushy evening after a day at one of the most miserable places in human history. There was a stage show on the main square, apparently, but a pop concert doesn't appeal at the best of times. So after catching some photos of the more striking Christmas lights and decorations, it was an early night in for me, and Sasha the cat (who comes with the flat). I watched some TV, but the English language world news channels don't hold the attention for long, and the main Polish TV channels have a strange habit of not just dubbing foreign programmes, but overlaying the dubbing on top of the original soundtrack, parts of which remain just audible in the background. Maybe it makes for subconscious language practice, but I found it damned annoying.

The obligatory fireworks took up quite a bit of the night - not much to see in view of the general murk, but plenty to hear, not just a half hour fusillade at midnight, but occasional resurgences throughout (and occasionally the next day, too). Sasha the cat (who comes with the flat) hid under the bed - no more to be said (I'd better stop before I start imagining that Sasha the cat has a big hat, etc., etc.).

Apart from the fireworks, it was also possible to hear that rain was clearing the snow a bit, which meant that New Year's Day was misty. It was also very, very quiet. Not much was open, so I waited to watch the Vienna New Year's Day concert on TV before a brisk walk around the Wawel hill and its cathedral (the decorative rain-spouts making their function very clear).

On my way back to the tram, I discovered that the Mariacka church was open to visitors, and stopped to - well, sorry, gawp at the profusion of gilding and the detail of the mediaeval altarpiece: