Sunday, 15 February 2015

Wormholes 101

You've all watched a science fiction film in which the actors talk about wormholes, right? Of course you have.

The basic concept of wormholes isn't massively hard to understand - someone invents a thing which allows humans to travel vast distances in space by bringing two distant points closer together. I have to point out right here that my knowledge of physics is limited to some GCSE experiments where the whole class held hands and the teacher gave us an electric shock (which I'm not sure would be allowed these days), so please refer to wiki if you want to know actual scientific stuff about wormholes.

But films. So when the plot of a film requires characters to travel a really long way in space and they don't want the actors to have to pretend to be a dessicated corpse by the time they get there, the scriptwriter will have the actors do a thing which I now call Wormholes 101. Because people who watch science fiction films are obviously too simple to understand a sentence or two about the theory behind wormholes, they explain it by taking a piece of paper, folding it in half, then punching a hole through both halves with a pen to demonstrate how a wormhole would theoretically shorten distances in space.

The pen is the spacecraft.

Contact, Event Horizon and Interstellar, to name but a few, have all employed Wormholes 101. Though given some of the stuff that happened in Interstellar, explaining a wormhole would have been the least of any concerns about the limits of audience comprehension.

As you can see from the picture, I created my very own pretend wormhole while humming the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

What I Read In 2014

This year's Kindle total is back up again from last year's 59 to 72. I blame the holidays. 

 By now, everything that could have been said about Donna Tartt's third novel, The Goldfinch, has been said. One of my favourite articles about it is this one from Laura Miller in the Guardian, where this phrase stood out for me:
"Her prose has the inimitable burnish of hammered silver or hand-rubbed wood."
Because it really has. The Secret History remains one of my favourite novels of all time - my paperback copy is literally falling to pieces from re-reading and it only recently became available on Kindle. I didn't get around to reading The Goldfinch until I was on holiday in January this year, but I'm kind of glad because it meant I got to read it without the usual interruptions for getting off the tube, going to bed early or having to do normal everyday things. 

Theo loses his mother in a terrorist attack on New York's Metropolitan Museum, at the same time acquiring a priceless painting which becomes the focus and bane of his life. Like The Secret History's Richard, Theo is sensitive yet dissolute while yearning after a woman he can't have. I can't think of anyone who does drug-and-alcohol-soaked ennui better than Tartt - the passages with a chronically under-supervised teens Theo and his friend Boris knocking back vodka and pills under a blazing Las Vegas sun are beautifully crafted. It almost comes as a shock to hear later in the book how unreliable Theo actually was as a narrator of this period of his teenage years. I hate to keep comparing characters in novels, but Theo seems to share Richard's intense self-awareness but simultaneous inability to see himself how others see him, from the crooked and unreliable Boris, to the distant-as-an-angel Pippa, to his saviour and business partner, Hobie. 

The saddest thing about The Goldfinch is that we'll probably all have to wait another 10 years for Tartt to write her next masterpiece. OK, I've finished gushing now. 

John Connolly's private detective Charlie Parker returns for a 12th book - The Wolf in Winter. My fears for an impending end to Maine's finest just increase with every book because I know it can't go on forever. The seeming suicide of a homeless man and the disappearance of his daughter leads Parker to investigate the insular and prosperous town of, erm... Prosperous. As we've come to expect, there's way more to this than meets the eye. Connolly's ability to convey menace and fear remain undimmed and I've always really liked how he picks up and drops certain themes throughout the series (like the Believers) as he encounters different cases. His long-time sidekicks Angel and Louis feature heavily in this book too, with the level of violence which typically accompanies them. It's hard (I think) to do a 'good' novel which incorporates the supernatural without it being a bit naff but Connolly makes the weird somehow seem perfectly normal. 

A word to the wise (if it's not too late by this time) - I'd avoid the Amazon reviews of this until you've read it as too many idiots seem to be posting spoilers. 

This is a slight cheat because the Stella Duffy Theodora books are actually a re-read but they're so good I want to talk about them. The first, Theodora, Actress, Empress, Whore, covers the early life of the performer who came to rule Constantinople whereas the second, The Purple Shroud, deals with her life as Justinian's Empress. 

As you'd probably expect, Theodora is no wilting lilly. She's hard-faced, ruthless and not always likable, but you cannot help willing her to succeed. The books aren't really typical historical fiction - a lot of the dialogue is necessarily modern which I actually quite like, not being a fan of 'forsooth' prose in books. They're totally fascinating and I found myself wanting to go off and read more about the Byzantine empire, not to mention Theodora herself. She always comes across as no-nonsense, but as the books develop, you really see how she starts to learn the art of political intrigue and by the end she's a master at it. 

I read Conquest (Chronicles of the Invaders 1) by John Connolly and Jennifer Ridyard for two reasons. Firstly, I'd just finished reading The Wolf in Winter before the end of my tube journey and there was an excerpt of Conquest at the end of the book, and secondly, it looked actually pretty good. It's a Young Adult (YA) book but I certainly don't remember YA books being this readable, this violent or this thought-provoking when I was a YA. 

The story of Syl, an alien teenager growing up on Earth following the invasion of her people, the Illyri, converges with that of the human Resistance in Scotland following a mysterious bomb attack and nothing is the same again. It touches on all the kind of themes you'd expect a YA novel to cover - cultures clashing, forbidden love, tolerance of the different, teenage derring do etc. But despite a slight lack of character development in some cases (which I assume is because it's the first in a series) Conquest is surprisingly mature and readable as a grown-up. The only thing I can remember reading as a YA which was vaguely comparable was Louise Lawrence's Warriors of Taan and Andra for the considered exploration of human-alien relationships and politics. 

Having avoided Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine for a couple of years, I thought I'd give The Child's Child a go as reviewers seemed to be saying it was better that RR/BV's recent books. It IS better but doesn't live up to previous Vine novels. Honestly, I wish her editor/publisher/agent would tell her to stop writing modern-day characters as though they've been transported from the 1930s - 'I went off to the university, which all my students call 'uni'' (this is from a PhD aged around 30 living in London in 2011), adding inverted commas to phrases like 'man bag' and making a big deal about pointing out examples of political correctness. It dates her books more than if she just ignored things she clearly believes to be too new-fangled because it's painfully obvious she's uncomfortable with some aspects of modern life. 

That said, I enjoyed the sub-novel which is also called The Child's Child far more than I enjoyed the story of Grace, Andrew and James. I've said before that Vine/Rendell excels at creating the kind of mean-spirited bitter character you just want to shake and Maud is certainly that. 

No Man's Nightingale, on the other hand, was dire. I've long suspended my disbelief on how old ex-Inspector Wexford actually is but having him unofficially solve cases for the police is getting a bit daft now. Rendell does her usual thing with any non-white characters - it's almost like she has a checkbox for creating them. Clergy - check. Female - check. Single mother - check. Asian - check. It's just all a bit cringey. One of the other reviewers on Amazon comments on the same thing - 'condescends grotesquely to ethnic minority characters: their colour is their defining feature' which is pretty much spot on. I think I'll have to go back to avoiding, which is a shame. 

Another one I wish I'd avoided is Craig Stone's Life Knocks. I actually feel a bit guilty about not liking it because I think he's a talented writer, but I just really really struggled with this book. It's described as Stone's memoir and 'his struggle with love, friendship and isolation in his mid-twenties'. My main problem with it was the incessant grating random metaphors ('like trying to wrestle a plunger from the face of an octopus') and phrases which I am genuinely unsure what they are ('my tongue has been replaced by a nun crying alone on a step', 'frightened lettuce'). The other reviews of the book are overwhelmingly positive so presumably it's just me who didn't like it. 

I want everyone to read Terry Hayes' I Am Pilgrim so we can all talk about it. A good spy novel is a great thing and Pilgrim is definitely one of those. Although I'd come across this when it was released last year, it slipped under my radar for some reason until a friend recommended it this summer. 

In the year post-9/11 (thus neatly evading more modern surveillance technologies), a retired uber-spy is tracked down by an NYPD cop. Ostensibly, it's to help solve a murder case but he finds himself on the trail of a mysterious Islamic jihadist who is every bit as talented and resourceful as he is, not to mention hell-bent on the destruction of America. A key plot device is centred around the fact uber-spy managed to write a book which appears to be essentially an instruction manual for terrorists and murderers at the same time as being a go-to text for US government agencies. 

The pace is absolutely ripping with all the globe-trotting, intrigue and unexpected plot twists you'd expect from a good thriller, leading to a gripping showdown. Pilgrim is 700 pages long. I started it on a flight on Friday and finished it on Sunday morning. It's THAT compulsive I even told my husband to shut up so I could read the finale in peace. Slight narks about it are the amount of racial stereotyping - while you can understand why it's happening based on uber-spy's background, it's still a bit grating. Uber-spy is also a bit humourless and narcissistic, but then I guess if you were literally the best spy in the universe you might polish your fingernails a bit too. 

Hayes is a screenwriter by trade and and this has Hollywood blockbuster written all over it. Don't be surprised to see a film in a couple of years. I just hope it doesn't end up having Tom Cruise in it. 

There seems to be an awful lot of sub-standard crime novels out there at the moment. Mark Edwards' Because She Loves Me and The Magpies remain the only Kindle books I've ever sent back for a refund. Sibel Hodge's Look Behind You is another shocker. Aside from the fact the plot is nearly identical to that of Nicci French's (far superior) Land of the Living, it's pretty obvious who the baddie is pretty much right from the start and the writing is just clunky. 

A much much better crime novel was Sara Hilary's Someone Else's Skin, which introduces DI Marnie Rome. It's tense, snappy and an absolutely cracking read, turning the domestic abuse story echoed in Look Behind You on its head. Also high up on the crime must-read list are Sabine Durrant's Under Your Skin and Remember Me This Way. The former has a high profile TV presenter stumble across a dead body on her morning run, becoming unexpectedly involved in the police investigation. There's a big twist which I genuinely did not see coming but I'm not going to spill the beans. The latter is the story of a bereaved wife who starts discovering some odd things about her deceased husband. There's a big twist in that one too though not the one you would expect. The dual narrative reveals a dysfunctional and controlling relationship and the writing of both books is tense and pulls the reader inexorably in. 

If you want an insider's view of the film industry, Observer critic Mark Kermode's polemic The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex is as good a place to start as any. He tackles dumbing down of cinema (hello, Michael Bay!), the scourge of 3D and the futility of remaking foreign language films for English-speaking audiences, amongst other rants about popcorn, Pearl Harbor and Danny Dyer. It's a hugely entertaining read and Kermode's passion for film brings even explanations about how 3D is made to life. 

And now for the honourable mentions. First up is Ben Aaronovitch's Foxglove Summer, the fifth book in the Rivers of London series. Despite the massive shocker at the end of the fourth book, it doesn't get mentioned at all for a good chunk of this one which seemed odd. PC Peter Grant leaves London to do some magical crime-solving in the country. It's no less entertaining to read than the previous ones, but it did feel a bit unfinished somehow, not to mention leaving some pretty big unanswered questions hanging. 

This year I discovered Susan Hill's Simon Serrailler series. If you can ignore the constant reminders of what a terrible commitment-phobe the main character is, these are actually very very good. I'd hesitate to describe them as crime - they are about a policeman and crimes happen but they're more about the impact on a family and local community. 

Sarah Waters' The Paying Guests returns to post-WWI London and follows the impoverished but genteel Frances and her mother as they try to scrape by. A decision to take in lodgers has far-reaching consequences for all involved. 

I loved Matt Haig's Echo Boy. Set in 2115, a young girl forms a friendship with Daniel, who is basically a very sophisticated android. Like his previous book, The Humans, Haig fills Echo Boy with a powerful and thought-provoking tangle of feelings. 

Finally, the fourth Nicci French Frieda Klein book was released this year too and despite our heroine remaining as prickly as ever, everyone seems to gravitate to her. Thursday's Children has Frieda returning to her hometown to investigate something which happened when she was a teenager. Her nemesis, Dean Reeve, continues to haunt her as she digs up memories which are painful for everyone, not least herself. 

See also: 

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

What I Did In My Holidays: Part Eono

For the second bit of my holiday, I went to Maui and basically spent nine days with the theme tune from Hawaii Five-0 in my head.

I hadn't quite appreciated how far from anything Hawaii actually is. It's a five and a half hour flight from Sacramento, 11 hours from Brisbane, 20 hours from London and nearly slap bang on the international dateline. Consequently, there were loads of Americans there, nearly as many Australians and no British people at all when we visited. We spent the holiday being mistaken for Australians, which isn't nearly as uncommon as you might imagine, especially with a London accent. A bit of research suggested the best time to visit is during Hawaii's dry season (April to October), though as it's tropical, it's likely that you'll get rain at some point somewhere. Temperatures were around the 35-39 degrees mark which was apparently exceptionally hot while we were there because the trade winds hadn't arrived but it's usually more like 25-29 degrees.

Landing at Kahului airport, we found it was just as hot as California, except where the latter was dry, Hawaii is humid. Very humid. Our Californian hosts had decided that we were going to get a traditional welcome, which in this case is a fresh flower lei, a lot like this one. They're rather pretty and smell gorgeous so we kept them in our room for a few days until they started to wilt. Our hotel was also giving out shell necklaces to arriving guests, which a number of people (mainly men, it has to be said) seemed to believe transformed them from an overweight and balding middle manager from Iowa or wherever into a ripped surf dude. We saw shell necklaces looped around wrists, ankles, necks and in one case, balanced on a head like a tiara.

Maui appears to be an island of two halves - while both sides are overshadowed by mountains, one is lush with jungle-like vegetation and the other more arid. The road from the airport was a coastal one, with panoramic views across the sea and when we arrived, partially lined with battered trucks. Their owners were out surfing in the bay. Surfing is, of course, one of the main reasons people visit Hawaii. I know zilch about surfing apart from random phrases from the film Point Break, but we saw a lot of people standing on boards paddling along. Apparently, stand-up paddle boarding is popular in areas where there's no wind and smaller waves. It'll also come as no surprise that tourism is Hawaii's number one industry, making Maui alone worth more than £3.5bn in the last few years. 

Something you might want to know about Hawaii before we go much further is that it can be eye-wateringly expensive. We found a meal for two with a bottle of wine in a reasonable restaurant came to around $120 plus service (so about £85). This is partly because something like 85% of their food is imported, but also the islands' popularity as a tourist destination for wealthy nations. The service is super friendly in typical American fashion.

The highway to Hāna

So what can you do there? Well, on Maui three of the big tourist attractions are the Hāna Highway, Haleakalā National Park and Lahaina. We decided to take in the first two on a day trip. The road to Hāna is astonishing. A 60 mile route connecting Kahului with the town of Hāna, one minute there's a vertiginous drop off a cliff on one side and a waterfall on the other, then the next you're driving through a tiny winding road under a canopy of greenery. You can't go more than about 15mph on any of it and in some bits you're literally crawling along at 5mph, so it's not a trip for the impatient. The roads are narrow, badly-sighted and frequently single-track, yet thousands of tourists drive them every day in a shimmering snake of metal that edges through the rainforest. It took us about three hours to drive to Hāna and then you turn around and go back again. Why? The road beyond the town is unpaved and rental car companies stipulate when you pick up your car at the airport that you can't go on it. Given we'd hired a Dodge Challenger, we didn't fancy putting its suspension to the test.

Driving past one of the route's many stopping places, we caught a glimpse of primary-coloured plumage. A man had set up station in the layby with a brace of parrots. I'm still not entirely sure it was legitimate - he claimed to be raising money for a nearby bird sanctuary and the parrots had been trained for films. But the way he flung them around, piling them onto the heads of shrieking tourists and shuffling them like playing cards was a bit unsettling. Despite our misgivings, they were beautiful.

On our way back from Hāna, we visited our second tourist destination of the day - the Haleakalā National Park. Haleakalā is an extinct volcano and we'd been told by a number of people that we should drive up there for sunset. So we did. I will say right here that it's one of the most breathtaking sights I've ever seen and that my stock of superlatives is going to run out pretty quickly. The photo at the top of this post was taken more than 10,000 feet up as the sun sunk below the clouds. It was still light when we got up there, so there weren't that many people around. The silence as you look down through drifting clouds on craters formed millions of years ago is profound. The air is cold and clean and it's just fabulous. As the sun starts to go down, more people turn up, and unlike us, they were prepared. We had a shop owner in Kaanapali Beach to thank for the fact we weren't totally unprepared. At more than 10,000 feet, it's cold. We had jumpers, but the better-prepared had flasks of coffee, blankets, deckchairs and picnics. The best place to watch was from just below the observatory, a very short climb above the car park. First the sky turned a sulphuric yellow, then darkened into a flaming red-orange, the glow spreading out across the clouds. Seriously, if you do nothing else in Maui apart from lie on the beach and mainline Mai Tais, you must visit Haleakalā at sunset.

One of the other things you're meant to do in Hawaii is go to a luau, which is basically a traditional dinner and entertainment. Not long after we arrived, we spent the day sitting by the pool and drank far too many Mai Tais before falling asleep drunk and subdued by heat in our room. By good fortune, our room looked out directly over the area where the hotel's twice-weekly luau was held, so we watched it from the comfort of our own balcony with room service dinner.

Which brings us neatly on to Lahaina. Home to the famous banyan - another big tree and the largest of its type in the US - Lahaina is a bit like a cross between Whitstable and Brighton.The town hosts a huge number of tut shops, restaurants and shops along the lines of Billabong. It's very pretty. We had dinner at Kimo's which was ferociously busy, but a harassed yet charming waiter managed to seat us on the terrace. It shouldn't come as a surprise, but all the fish and seafood dishes we ate in Hawaii were delicious and Kimo's was no exception. I had coconut prawns with honey mustard dip and lobster-topped grilled fish and the other half went for seared ahi tuna. It was dark when we went, but we were told the view over the harbour is lovely during the day. Again, it ain't cheap, but when the food is that good it's hard to care too much.

Some lava

Another day, another volcano, this time an active one. Kilauea on the island of Hawaii (known as the Big Island - we flew into Hilo) made the news recently. It's been erupting since 1983 and when you think of a volcano erupting, you think of fountains of lava spewing upwards from a crater-topped mountain. Not Kilauea. Its lava has been mostly flowing through underground tubes which deposited their red-hot contents safely into the sea (barring miles of charred destruction around the actual crater). Then something changed and the lava began flowing towards the village of Pahoa. The unlucky villagers were evacuated as the lava made its way towards them at a rate of about 900 feet per day. In case you were wondering, the evacuees don't get compensation. We were told that property is very cheap in the area but you pays your money and you makes your choice.

Surprisingly, there are helicopter tours which will take visitors up and fly them around the crater while pointing out blackened landmarks. We went with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters at $200 each for an hour's tour. Hawaii is obviously a completely different island to Maui, so you have to drive back to Kahului airport, queue for security and get on a plane. In my head I thought that island-hopping around Hawaii was going to be a case of jumping on a tiny plane and spending 30 minutes zipping off. It's not that easy and it's not that cheap. We paid just over $100 each for the inter-island flight - it's not hard to see all the costs adding up. The thing is, you come all this way and there is stuff to see which you are probably never going to see again in your life. Like an erupting volcano from a helicopter.

As the helicopter took off, there was a familar roll of drums played through our headsets. Hawaii 5-0! Scott, the pilot, must have had a sense of humour because we also got Ride of the Valkyries from the helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now. The tour was excellent, though it would have been nice to be up for longer. It's hard to describe the devastation around Kilauea. It's just miles and miles of gently smoking charred crust. What trees are left are just skeletons and in places you can see actual lava running underneath the crust. What you see is new land forming. Every now and again, you can see a tree in flames as the lava creeps (I say creeps - it moves at 900 feet per day) further out. Once we'd had our fill of lava, so to speak, we headed back towards the coast to look at waterfalls. Yes, the tour is expensive, but your value for money is very good. The pilot was knowledgeable about the local area, made sure we had plenty of opportunity to take pictures and answered all our stupid questions.

Pearl Harbor

The final trip of the holiday was to Pearl Harbor. Having only seen the crap eponymous film, I didn't actually have much background knowledge of one of the biggest attacks in World War II. Visiting Pearl Harbor (I have to keep stopping myself spelling it with a 'u') involved another island-hop to Oahu. This time it was a bit more like I imagined it. Kapalua Airport is a tiny airfield which was just a few minutes from our hotel. With just six other tourists, we flew over yet more astonishing scenery, including the tallest sea cliffs in the world and a great view of the cockpit. It's about a 40 minute flight from Kapalua to Oahu and cost about $120 each. The plane is so tiny that the airline weigh you at check in though at least the display is pointed away from other passengers. Because I know pretty much nothing about types of planes, I can't say what it was, but there's a picture of it here so the plane-spotters among you can work it out for yourselves.

We were picked up at the airport by a cheery guy in a coach and transported to Pearl Harbor. There are lots of different tours you can do - we were restricted by flight times back to Maui so opted for a trip just to the harbor and the USS Missouri. If you really wanted to, you could also fly around the island in a helicopter, visit the cultural centre and more waterfalls.

Security, for obvious reasons, is pretty tight at Pearl Harbor. You can't take bags so everything has to be carried in your pockets. It's a bit aggravating but there is a cloakroom just outside the centre where you can leave bags and jackets for $3.

So, a bit of history. By 1939, the Japanese were taking over quite a bit of the south Pacific. They'd invaded China and by the middle of 194l, had occupied French Indochina and were starting to eye up Thailand, the Philippines and Burma. Not altogether surprisingly, this alarmed the US, Netherlands and the UK into using economic and trade sanctions to try and curb Japan's ambitions. Although the US had a major base for the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, a lot bit of complacency meant many of the US armed forces were committed elsewhere and they didn't believe Japan had the capability to take them on. Basically, they were completely unprepared for the surprise attack.

On the morning of 7 December 1941, a radar station on Oahu spotted the Japanese planes coming their way but decided to ignore it, believing them to be US planes returning from California. Sadly, it was an error which cost the lives of more than 2,400 people and injured 1,170 others. The attack also sank eight battleships (five of which were later repaired and returned to service), including the USS Arizona, which was left as a memorial, and damaged 10 other craft.

On arrival at Pearl Harbor visitors' centre, the best thing to do is visit the cinema for a short film about the attack. If, like me, you're hopelessly ignorant about World War II, it's really useful for explaining the political situation which led to the attack along with the key players and timelines. A word to the wise - they insist you don't use mobile phones in the cinema so if you're one of those annoying people who can't go for longer than five minutes without checking your phone, try to resist. I'm pretty certain they wouldn't actually shoot you but they might fix you with a glare of disapproval and it IS kind of dickish to get distracted by Facebook while watching footage of injured men in seas of burning fuel during a war.

There's a boat which takes visitors across to the Arizona memorial. Our tour guide suggested we sit on the left hand side so we could get decent photos of the memorial which turned out to be a good tip. The memorial itself is above where the battleship was sunk and looking down through the clear water you can see the ship rusting away, a watery grave for 1,177 servicemen.

The USS Missouri is a short bus ride away. We didn't get a lot of time on it, but in all honesty, unless you're very interested in naval history you wouldn't want to spend a long time there. If you do visit, beware - there's a very long talk at the start which has visitors standing on the deck in full sunlight for quite a long time so water and a hat come in useful. One bit of trivia I took away with me from the Missouri tour guide was that when the ship was being decommissioned, a number of US states expressed an interest in re-homing it. One of the contenders was the state of Missouri, which is inland so could have raised some interesting questions about transportation. I guess you can't Fed-Ex a battleship. I have no idea if this is actually true but I would like it to be.

Another bit of trivia I got from visiting Hawaii is that the name of the 70s TV show refers to the fact that Hawaii is the 50th state of the US. Hawaii is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to. The scenery is just stunning and unlike a lot of beach holidays, it would be pretty easy to see and do something different every day. Nine days was not long enough.

See more Hawaii photos here.

What I Did In My Holidays: Part Five
What I Did In My Holidays: Part Arba'a
What I Did In My Holidays: Part Trois
What I Did In My Holidays: Part Dos
What I Did In My Holidays: Part Uno

Sunday, 19 October 2014

What I Did In My Holidays: Part Five

My latest holiday post is split into two separate parts. This is the first one and the reason it has the number in English is because I visited the US of A and the last time I checked, they speak English over there (although they can't spell properly, bless them).

Our arrival into the land of the free was not auspicious. Having previously experienced the mind-numbingly long waits at US Immigration even in relatively calm times, ISIS has happened since then and we'd mentally prepared ourselves for a queue. To make things worse, we'd flown on 11 September so security was at Defcon 1. The queue actually moved reasonably quickly at first and we thought we might make it out of the airport before Christmas. Sadly, our hopes were dashed by a planeload of visitors from Dubai who'd managed to make it into the queue ahead of our flight. Each passenger seemed to be weighed down by a ream of paperwork and the queue ground to a halt as they were extensively questioned. Just at the 1.5 hour mark, a security guard casually ambled over and smilingly informed us that he was closing the booth we were waiting at because the immigration officer had completed his working day.

I started to go into meltdown at that point. Look, I was tired after a long flight, we'd been queuing for an hour and a fucking half, and I really wanted a fag. Those are the only reasons I would choose to pick a quarrel with an armed security guard in an airport in one of the most paranoid nations on the planet. Thankfully, my fellow queuees backed me up and faced with the prospect of a British person actually complaining rather than just muttering crossly, he steered us to the front of another queue.

By that time, we'd been waiting so long, our bags had been taken off the carousel and stacked to the side. As I waited, a sniffer dog darted between the suitcases, tail wagging. It zoomed towards my hand luggage. Oh god. It had obviously sniffed out the kilo of cocaine I was bringing in*.

'Ma'am (I love it when they call me ma'am), do you have any food in your bag?'
'I've got some salad left over from lunch, I meant to throw it in a bin.'
'Give me the salad, please.'

I'd bought one of those Plane Food picnic things at Heathrow and not eaten the salad, shoved the bag into my carry-on, intending to dispose of it once off the plane. Obviously, I'd forgotten and was now being accused of importing illegal salad or something. The guard confiscated my salad and made a mark on my landing card. It turned out this mark meant I was now suspected of bringing food in and had to go and stand in another queue for all my stuff to be x-rayed in case there was a lettuce in my case.

So anyway, we finally got out of the airport and met the lovely relatives who'd very kindly driven about three hours to come and pick us up as well as helping us organise the holiday. On the way back to their house, we realised that the countryside was looking awfully dry. It turns out that California is experiencing one of its worst droughts on record, and is actually in a state of emergency. As we got further outside of San Francisco, the landscape became more and more arid, yellow grass and brown earth baking in the heat. And boy, was it hot. Stepping outside of air-conditioned interiors was like opening the door of an oven, the relentless heat blasting you.

Because our time in California was fairly limited before we flew on to Hawaii (the subject of the next part), we hadn't planned much to do for the duration. So the next day we went to Calaveras Big Trees State Park, which does exactly what it says on the tin and is full of massive trees. I was particularly interested because having read Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent - Travels in Small Town America, where he talks about visiting a forest with a tree you can drive through. So I was also very excited at the prospect of seeing a tree big enough to fit a car through.

Big Trees is unexpectedly gorgeous, awe-inspiring and tranquil. It's exactly the sort of place where you could go and shed the stresses of life. So how big are the big trees? Well, apparently Sierra Redwoods are the tallest trees on Earth and can grow up to 325 feet high. And they really are red. The park is also home to the stump of the Discovery Tree, which measured 24 feet in diameter at its base, was 363 feet tall, and was determined by ring count to be 1,244 years old. Why do I say 'was'? Because in 1853, settlers came across the tree and were astonished at its size. So what's the first thing you'd do when you came across such a wonder of nature? Why, chop it down, obviously. If that wasn't senseless enough, they planned to strip off the bark and exhibit it around the world, except the bark only made it to New York before being destroyed by fire. It took three weeks to chop the tree down. You can see from my picture how big the stump is.

There are a number of walks you can do through the forest of varying lengths. We did the North Grove hike which is about a mile and a half. The scenery is breathtaking - even the fallen trees are magnificent, their roots clawing the air almost like flames. There was a fallen tree which had been hollowed out so you could walk through it and it's so huge that I barely needed to bend my head.

So when a tree weighing an estimated 2,600 tons falls over, you'd know about it, right? In 1965, one of the larger trees in North Grove came down in heavy winds, and the impact was such that people living nearby thought there had been an earthquake. According to the handy leaflet we picked up along the hike, the redwoods are actually more or less indestructible (over-excited 19th century settlers notwithstanding) and not much short of erosion or fungus which weakens the roots can cause them to topple. Sadly, the tree Bill Bryson talks about in his book has also suffered from human intervention. It turns out that the reason a car can be driven through it is because in the 1880s, in a bid to win back tourists from Yosemite, a tunnel was cut through one of the giant redwoods so a car could be driven through the gap. As a result, the tree's growth has been severely stunted. Thankfully, the California Department of Parks & Recreation are considerably more keen on conservation these days.

On the way back from Big Trees, we stopped for a late lunch at the Snowshoe Brewing Company, a local brewery and restaurant. As you'd expect from an American eatery, the portions are generous and there's a lot of meat. I went for a crab and shrimp melt sandwich which was good, but absolutely smothered in what they describe as cheddar but is actually processed cheese. In all the restaurants we visited, there's a booklet on the table with the nutritional content of your meal but we found that it's best not to look at them. In one diner, my husband had some sort of breaded fried seafood dish and made the mistake of checking the calories - it was a whopping 1,600 for one meal. Yikes. They aren't awfully big on vegetarian dishes in California either. I expect it's different in the cities, but when you visit a diner in a small town, you're limited to salad or a garden burger, which is basically vegetables mashed together and served in a bun. At Snowshoes, you can also take home your own beer in a container called a growler, which made us snigger inappropriately, but the beer was wonderful. My favourite was a pale ale called Thompson.

We also visited a small town nearby called Murphys. It's a former gold rush town which was established in 1848 when two brothers, John and Daniel Murphy, built a trading post and gold mining operation. The brothers apparently took $2m in gold ore in one year, which made them millionaires before they were 25. Murphys was one of California’s richest gold towns and during one winter, gold worth $5m was found in one four acre area. Nearby Columbia has been preserved as a living gold rush town which is also worth a visit if you're in the neighbourhood. We'd been before so we didn't go this time.

Our hosts told us that Gordon Ramsay had done an episode of Hotel Hell there in the centrally-located Murphys Hotel. Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures of Murphys, having forgotten my camera that day, but it's gorgeous. The main street is packed full of quirky shops, galleries and cafes which Shoreditch would be proud of. There's also a cupcake shop, Lila and Sage, which is owned by the 2012 winner of a TV show called Cupcake Wars. Obviously, I couldn't sample all the cakes, but the red velvet one was vair nice. Wine tasting is also big in Murphys so because we're very interested in drinking wine wine production we visited the Ironstone Vineyard. It's actually a rather amazing place to look around, with a gigantic shop/cafe/winery, a gold rush museum which houses a 44lb gold nugget (yes, there's lots of security) and a really really lovely selection of period furniture dotted around the place.

It seems that the recession hasn't quite finished with some areas of California. Our hosts showed us around a housing development built near their house in which a number of houses are empty. There is also a town square which looks amazing, but on closer inspection proves to have just a fraction of occupied shops. The only people we see are two women having coffee but Ed Sheeran's music plays from speakers arranged around the square. It's all a bit eerie, as though the apocalypse has happened which in a way I suppose it has. Much like London, most of the work is in San Jose and San Francisco, but house and rental prices there are so prohibitive that younger people are forced to live some distance outside and commute. Public transport is negligible, so everyone drives and as a consequence, the freeway is jammed morning and evening. We heard that people even live in places like Stockton and commute, which is apparently a two-hour drive each way through horrendous traffic. Our hosts told us that their town is mostly a retirement community, but there's still poverty. Food banks (called food pantries there) are run by the local church and say they serve 50-60 families per month.

As on a previous visit to California, we found overwhelmingly that people were friendly and keen to chat. Our accents marked us out and we got a lot of 'Hey! Are you guys Briddish?' The fact we are from London sparked even more interest and we often found ourselves being asked about random stuff from Boris Johnson to the tube. It was all rather lovely and we thoroughly enjoyed it. If you visit California, be prepared to do a LOT of driving. The last time we went, we drove from San Jose to Las Vegas and back again via Los Angeles and the coastal route and it's many many miles of driving. We visited Monterey, which is lovely and has an aquarium, pier and the best clam chowder (at the Fish Hopper), is a must-visit.

So a few mornings later, we got back in the car and drove to Sacramento airport. Next stop, Hawaii...

You can see more photos here.

* This is clearly a joke. It was actually crystal meth.

See previous posts:

What I Did In My Holidays: Part Arba'a

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Disasters And News Reporting - How Graphic Should We Get?

A few years ago I did a journalism training course with a news agency. During the week-long course, we covered the ethics of what should be reported and how. One aspect of this was around pictures of disasters which involved human tragedy and the example they used was the 2004 Madrid train bombing which claimed the lives of 191 people, wounding 1800 others.

The trainers started by asking us what kind of pictures we'd be happy to see over the breakfast table and most of us looked at each other and shrugged, having not given it any particular thought until then. So they showed us a picture of some wreckage which we all agreed wasn't too bad and we could still eat our toast if we saw it.

Another picture came up on the screen, showing some wreckage and what looked like scattered luggage and personal belongings. Again, we agreed it was more or less OK.

The next picture had a shape crumpled next to the bent tracks which was hard to make out, but we were silent, looking at each other uncertainly.

The final picture showed dead bodies, their clothes blown off in the explosion, some dismembered, some face down, a jumble of hands, shoes and cloth. No-one spoke. I've never forgotten it.

Today, MH17, a Malaysian airliner carrying 295 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur has allegedly been shot down over Ukraine, presumably and tragically killing everyone on board. No-one knows what happened yet so I'm going to refrain from speculation. But the news agency I did my course with has tweeted pictures in which dead bodies are clearly visible. The BBC broadcast pictures from Russian TV where a woman's passport was open at the photo page. Another news outlet asked questions clearly designed to find out if there were any British passengers on board.

Has the world changed so much in the last few years that sensitivity, decency and consideration for both the victims and their families - many of who won't have even been officially told about the crash yet - have been sacrificed in favour of social media stats? An hour after the news agency pictures went up, people were still complaining directly to them on Twitter, yet they remain visible.

Arguably, stuff that can happen in real life is brutal, news agencies exist and have a duty to inform us about the terrible things that go on in the world. And some of them do a fantastic job of it. But tweeting pictures of scorched dead bodies scant hours after the crash demeans news reporting. Broadcasting the passport picture of someone whose family probably doesn't even know she's dead demeans news reporting. Questions designed to find out if any British people were on board as if they're more important than Chinese passengers demeans news reporting. It's a cynical disregard for anything but page views, which shouldn't be what news is about.

My condolences are with the passengers of MH17 and their families.

Update: The Guardian had an interesting article about the same subject and raises good questions about the right of picture editors to effectively censor news photography.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Exercising In Public And Being Harrassed

'Come on!'
'Go girls!'
lots of pointless horn-beeping
unintelligible shouting

The above is just a small sample of street harassment I've experienced since I started exercising outside last year when I joined a local running club and outdoor boot camp. It doesn't look that bad, does it? I mean, they haven't called me a bitch or a fat slag or offered an opinion on whether they'd fuck me. At least not yet anyway.

It's just this bizarre, pointless shouting and horn-beeping. A lot of people would consider it harmless. At last night's boot camp, I counted around 10 separate incidents of total strangers deciding to let us know they'd spotted us exercising - there may have been more but I was concentrating on not dropping a kettlebell on my foot. A lot of the time they weren't even shouting any actual words, it was just this kind of unintelligible roar - 'aaaarrrghhhh, look at me noticing you'.

Because let's face it, women exercising in public is pretty weird, isn't it? In fact, it's SO weird that you need to make a big point of noticing it, then let us know you've noticed it. So what should we do? Should we all restrict ourselves to exercising at home, alone in front of a celeb workout DVD so we don't have to tolerate your ridiculous howling out of your car window as you test your horn? Do we have to find a patch of grass that's well away from any potential passers-by in case you decide to detour from the footpath with your hoodie mate specifically to jeer at us? I mean, you are all grown men, yet you think nothing of bellowing like some deranged sex pest at a load of women you don't even know just because they're exercising outside.

Sarah Ditum has written previously here and here on street harassment while out running, especially at night. Conversely, I found I got less harassment while running at night and when the evenings got lighter I felt strangely exposed and nervous, even when I tried to pick routes away from traffic. Kassondra Granata wrote a letter to men who harass women as they're working out. Bridget Coulter wrote in Vagenda about the harassment women face while exercising outside. In all honesty, I had no idea it would happen this much. As Ditum writes, it's not complimentary or a tribute to our goddess-like attractiveness, it's judgmental, belittling and threatening.

Of course, I can ignore them and I do, but I hate the way it makes me feel - slightly vulnerable, irritated, self-conscious - and when someone does something which makes a person experience those negative feelings, it's not harmless. I don't want you to stare at me. I don't want you to beep at me. I don't want you to bellow out of your car window at me. I'm just exercising, for fuck's sake, let me get on with it.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Police Hunt For Man Who Abandoned Car At Bank Junction

Photo by @adelearmstron11
Look, if it wasn't for the fact that this caused no end of inconvenience to all the people in the near vicinity, not to mention the cost of the police and bomb squad operation and probably not a small amount of fear, I would almost kind of admire it.

Who hasn't been stuck in a traffic jam on the verge of some kind of Falling Down moment which makes you want to just get out and walk away? For the non-Londoners, Bank junction is unutterably awful to drive through. It's a point outside the Royal Exchange and the Bank of England where six major roads in the City meet with enthusiastically-enforced box junctions and traffic lights.There are entrances to Bank tube station on nearly all of these roads, plus it's a tourist destination.

So today, the owner of this green Toyota Avensis just stopped his car, got out and walked smartly to the nearest tube entrance, leaving panic and chaos in his wake. As it's one of the most terrorist-sensitive areas on the City, the first assumption was that it could be a bomb and everything came to a standstill while this possibility was investigated. Fortunately, it wasn't.

The question now remains as to why. Did he feel unfairly penalised by City police over some previous traffic infringement and abandon his car in protest? Did he just lose his shit over the ridiculous London traffic and decide to take the quickest way home? Did he just wake up and think, 'I know what to do today...!'

Answers on a postcard.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Permanently Temporary

Like a lot of people, I was once a temp. My career was measured in one week, two weeks and sometimes months, all dutifully recorded on my timesheet which had to be faxed to the agency every week so I could get paid. If you were a secretary or PA back in the day when companies still employed people (mostly women) to type, file and answer phones, then there's a good chance someone like me sat at your desk while you were sunning yourself in Torremolinos for two weeks. If you were a decent sort, you didn't leave three months worth of filing for me to do and if you weren't, you did.

So how did I end up being temporary? Having left school at 16 with no ambitions, a clutch of GCSEs and the ability to type, I became a secretary until student life beckoned at the ripe age of 21. Temping was the perfect way to earn money during my holidays - and as it ended up - during term time too. It was also a handy way to vet future employers. If the boss was an arrogant control freak or the job described as 'busy PA work' when it actually consisted of eight hours a day of waiting for a phone to ring then it was good to find this out before accepting a permanent job. It also provided an unparalleled opportunity to work in a variety of industries - I think I've worked in nearly everything from motor racing to timber research to education at some point.

There are, of course, downsides to temping. Like the time I turned up for a week's work for a consultant at a large hospital who first put me to work sorting paper from non-paper in the office of a recently deceased colleague (who, it seemed, had specialised in hoarding). He then shouted at me for correcting a misspelt word in one of his letters:
'If I write a word then I expect you to type it the same as I've written it, NOT insert your own interpretation of it!'
Or the time I worked at a company who had sacked the previous PA who had been very popular. Not one person spoke to me for a week. Or the manager who didn't have anything for me to do so sent me out to the factory to fill paint samples until an irate factory supervisor reminded him about health and safety. Or the boss who had the surname Bond, signed all his letters as 007 and kicked a whole bag of putrefying rubbish across the office in a temper which was left for me to pick up. Or the one-man company who was always out but wanted someone to answer the phone and do literally nothing else but stipulated that I was strictly not allowed to read or look at the computer. Get an answerphone, dude.

I've also been told to collect cars, clean toilets, fetch dry cleaning, go and get keys cut, deliver leaflets, find dentists, fill envelopes, book restaurants and order wine. Not to forget the relentless, infuriating tea and coffee making, as though we were all back in the Mad Man era. One agency tried to make me work at a company with a manual typewriter. Given this was the nineties, I can only assume they wanted someone to test a museum exhibit.

It's surprising how many people think it's OK to be rude to a temp and equally surprising how many people who think it's OK to sexually harass them but that's a whole other story. It's also surprising how many companies refuse to give temps work to do, seemingly preferring the indispensable person they're paying £££+VAT for to sit and stare at a wall for eight hours. My first temping job in London saw me finding a villa in the south of France for the volatile owner of a head-hunting company as nearly the first thing I did after walking through the door.

There's also the fact that people don't refer to you by name, instead re-christening you 'The Temp', or perhaps snapping their fingers while trying to remember your name before wittily coming up with 'Lisa MK2!'. There's the people who ostentatiously record to the exact minute what time you arrive and leave (ignoring the fact that most agencies back in the day rounded up to the nearest 15 minutes) while making a point of telling you that you wouldn't be able to slip a sneaky 30 minutes past them, even if that's probably what you do to everyone else. I didn't get holidays or sick days, so I basically never took them except for the time I had flu and the agency accused me of faking before sending my P45. Trust me, love, if I was capable of working, I'd be there because a week in bed means I have to borrow money to pay my rent.

How much did temps get paid back then? The first temp job I had paid £2.75 per hour and I aspired to £5.00 per hour which I managed to finagle from the company by working directly for them. A couple of years later as a student, I managed to scrape £6.50 per hour but this was exceptional - most jobs paid around £5.75. To give you some idea of the wage difference between the capital and the provinces, when I first temped in London (which was only about two years later), my hourly rate was £11.50 before I knew any better and rose to £15.50 once I did.

Fridays were the big day in temping. Companies continually failed to call the agency until Friday, even when they knew they'd need someone at least a couple of weeks before, and that was when I'd get the call from the agency. If I went to bed on a Friday without a job for the next week, Monday morning would be last chance saloon when the permies went sick or walked out.No job on Tuesday? No wine on Friday!

Oh, and the technology. When I first started out, everyone had electronic typewriters and some places even still made you use carbon paper. Carbon paper is a massive pain in the arse. You'd insert a sheet of carbon paper between two sheets of A4 so there would be a copy of the letter you'd typed. Believe it or not, this still happened in the early nineties. WordPerfect 5.0, Word for Windows 3:1, mail merge, 5.25in floppy disks, 3.5in floppy disks, WYSIWYG, audio-typing from tiny tapes, Tippex. Also: telexes.

The thing with temping was that you had to make yourself as amenable and competent as possible so you'd be asked back or even given a longer term job. Two long-term temp jobs I had came about because I'd gone somewhere for a week or two and made a good impression so they asked me to stay longer. I was actually lucky with both of these because they were astonishingly flexible about the hours I worked and they got me through nearly two years of uni. One of them did make the bizarre stipulation that I wasn't allowed to arrive at work in my uni clothes and change in the loos like a normal person. This led to me changing in my car by the side of the road and one memorable occasion when a bus load of passengers saw me struggling into my blouse. The same manager also told me he didn't like my hair, clothes or makeup but presumably failed to find fault with my work. I mean, gosh, it wasn't like I was a goth or anything.

Why wasn't I permanent? Well, I wanted to be. I needed to be to pay my rent. I applied for jobs and went for interviews but being a student counted against me and agencies don't like to lose reliable temps who can do more than one thing at a time without drooling. One day, at one of the long-term jobs (where I'd missed lectures to work and gone in on Saturdays to keep up) every temp but me was called into the boss's office and offered a full-time role. I went home in tears but actually it ended up being one of the things that eventually got me out of the secretarial rut.

And now I'm permanent. And I don't have to do mail merges or make tea for anyone else but me.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Some Stuff On Stranger Shaming

Photo by chutney bannister
Over the last few months I've noticed an increase in people taking photos of fellow commuters and posting them to various Twitter and Facebook accounts. Usually, the people being photographed are transgressing the unwritten rules of public transport, like eating or having a large bag. Sometimes they're simply asleep, or just wearing something odd while being otherwise totally innocuous.

Yet some people seem to feel it's OK to take a photo of a total stranger without their consent and post it up for abuse and ridicule. Frankly, I think this sucks.

It made me so cross that I wrote about it for Londonist.

Now stop taking photos of people on your train for other people to laugh at.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Sunday Video: Curve 'Fait Accompli'

I would have posted the video up here but YouTube doesn't appear to have a linkable copy in the UK. This is one of my favourite songs.

Curve 'Fait Accompli'