We’ve had a quiet Christmas at home, the first one we’ve ever not spent with other people. We’ve avoided the traditional festive excess, although I did buy a tree, which is currently festooned with various plush animals, scented pine cones, tinsel and blue lights that resemble tiny aliens or deep sea bioluminescence more than they do fairies. As we’ve both been suffering from the plague that suddenly descended upon Aberdeen, it was quite nice to have the time to recover.
I’m already looking forward to next year’s triathlon season, and contemplating camping destinations for the summer. My new, water-resistant Vibrams should arrive in time for New Year so maybe we’ll be able to resurrect our Hogmanay Chain Walk tradition — winter adventuring has been out of the question for the last couple of years because of my dodgy foot, as the existing Vibram Fivefinger models are neither waterproof nor especially warm. Not ideal for Scottish weather in the cold months.
I have been restricted to short walks in big boots, but there are still beautiful things to be seen even then. One of the joys of this time of year is the low sun in crisp, clear skies.
I have a particular love for the interactions of sun, sea, sand and sky, and in winter they can be especially glorious. My skill with the camera not being sufficient to do them justice doesn’t stop me trying.
I had one of those WTF moments the other day. This particular one happened in Tesco’s car park at Danestone and involved a bumper sticker on the rear offside wing of a shiny red Ka.
As someone with a lifelong interest in things to be found outside the set of stuff most consider to comprise the rational world, this struck me as being, well, to paraphrase Pauli, not even wrong.
Nor is it any of these:
In fact, when I hear the word “angel”, the first thing I think of is something like this:
Now I don’t know if something like that can fly, but I’m pretty damn sure that if I saw one hovering behind me in my rear view mirror, I’d be putting my foot down. Or possibly screeching to a halt at the side of the road and running for it, in the hope it was the car it wanted rather than me.
The King James Version (not the album by Harvey Danger, do pay attention at the back), describes the Angel of Revelation as being:
…clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire
This sounds more like Katamari’s King of the Cosmos, and I can’t think of anyone I’d less like to have my back in the event of a road traffic accident.
Have you played the racetrack level? In Drive mode?
Ezekiel has a bit to say about angels:
I looked, and I saw beside the cherubim four wheels, one beside each of the cherubim; the wheels sparkled like topaz. As for their appearance, the four of them looked alike; each was like a wheel intersecting a wheel. As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the cherubim faced; the wheels did not turn about as the cherubim went. The cherubim went in whatever direction the head faced, without turning as they went. Their entire bodies, including their backs, their hands and their wings, were completely full of eyes, as were their four wheels. I heard the wheels being called ‘the whirling wheels’. Each of the cherubim had four faces: One face was that of a cherub, the second the face of a human being, the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle.
Let’s be honest. That sounds more like a bad acid trip. If you had one of those following your car you’d be calling BUFORA, not feeling reassured about your personal safety.
For me one of the best depictions of angels is in the 1995 film the Prophecy, starring Christopher Walken and Elias Koteas. The film depicts them with a modern imagery, all wings and trenchcoats, but the characterisation is what I enjoyed.
“Did you ever notice how in the Bible, when ever God needed to punish someone, or make an example, or whenever God needed a killing, he sent an angel? Did you ever wonder what a creature like that must be like? A whole existence spent praising your God, but always with one wing dipped in blood. Would you ever really want to see an angel?” — Thomas Daggett
“I can lay you out and fill your mouth with your mother’s faeces, or we can talk.” — Lucifer
Let’s forget, for a moment, the arrogance of assuming that God’s messengers have nothing better to do than compensate for poor driving technique. If all that’s preventing someone speeding is the worry that a supernatural entity of indeterminate appearance — a six-winged sphinx, a semi-precious flying saucer with more eyes than a scallop, a burning bush or Christopher Walken with bad hair — can’t keep up, then that person does not belong behind the wheel of a moving car in a shared public space.
If that person is advising other people the most important reason for watching their speed is the concern that said supernatural sphinx/UFO/bush/Walken won’t be able to match the pace, then he or she probably shouldn’t be allowed out unless in the company of a responsible adult.
But what can you tell about a book owner from her books?
I have been heard to complain about the amount of trashy fantasy cluttering our bookshelves. But when we moved last time, Frood very kindly bought some new bookshelves so we had enough space to put out all of our books, about half of which had been in storage for years. He worked out, using the measure of length of stacked books, that we had around 1.3m for every year we’ve been together.
You can keep all your decomposing flowers, expensive chocolates and dubiously-mined gemstones: that’s romantic.
I have a couple of favourite exercises I do to get a firm grasp of any character I am writing. These exercises do not necessarily make it into any finished story —nor does the character, in some cases— but I find they work for me. One of them is the “what does he keep in his pockets?” exercise (which for one WIP turned into the “what does she keep in her courier bag?” exercise, as cyclists tend to keep not much in their pockets). You can tell quite a bit from what someone keeps in his or her pockets (or bag).
The other one is what the character’s living space looks like. What do they keep to hand? What do they have on display? Is it done for other people or for themselves? Why do they have those things? What meaning do they have?
Sometimes I look at what I keep around me and reflect on what it says about how I’ve changed through the years. My desk, where I write, is arranged differently from the way it was just a couple of years ago, and not just because we’ve moved twice in that period. Some things are the same —the inkpots, some of the pictures, the Penguin of Death— and some things aren’t (it’s a lot emptier now). It’s not possible to recreate a previous living space in a new environment, of course, but we also make very conscious decisions about what to leave behind and what to keep when we move house, and not just in the material sense of decluttering, or paring down to reduce the cost of the process. I imagine most people are the same in that respect.
Taken to the extreme, if a character had to keep moving, all the time, without having a chance to settle, what he chose to keep with him would be very telling. Then the two exercises I described above might become the same exercise.
I think I quite like what my bookshelf says about me these days. But then, it was Frood who stacked it for me.
Do check out his website. It has cool art and hypnotised rocks.
It’s strange, sitting here on a relatively sunny day, during which the temperature hauled itself into double figures with the effort of a powerlifter attempting to beat his deadlift personal best, to think that a couple of weeks ago I was baking in the heat of California.
The story of how this came about starts last Christmas. My family gets together over Christmas —I hardly see them during the rest of the year— and my brother does the drink while I do the food. Being picky, I usually take a few bottles of wine for the Christmas meal itself. Last year I happened to have an Amazon voucher for a £40 discount from Naked Wines, a company I’d already been following on twitter because of a #FollowFriday, but about which I knew very little. We looked at the website, realised we could get a case of decent wine for around 4 quid a bottle using an introductory deal plus the voucher, and thought we’d take a punt.
When I bought my wine, the website told me all about the Angel programme. You give them £20 or more a month, which they invest in wines that otherwise wouldn’t get made, or winemakers who have all the skill but no support, and in return you get at least a 25% discount on wine sold through the site. As one of many new writers struggling to make it out of the slush pile, I know that talent and passion for one’s art isn’t always enough. You also need someone to take notice, to believe in what you are doing and give you a chance. I feel very strongly that artistic talent should be rewarded, and winemaking is, as Jason Moore says, “an art form supported by science”.
I signed up. I didn’t need any more persuading than that.
Roll on a few months. We were still without internet but I was making tasting notes of the wines I bought and posting them when I could. I don’t like reviews that say “I liked it!” or “This was lovely!” They tell me nothing about whether I might like it. You wouldn’t go to see a film based on someone else saying they enjoyed it without finding out what genre it was, at least. You wouldn’t buy a perfume just because someone on a website said it smelled nice. Well, I suppose there are those who would, but I’m not one of them. Having been exposed to plenty of the handwritten tasting notes produced by Oddbins staff over the years, I tried to post reviews that would tell others what the wine was like so they could decide whether or not they might like it.
Converting my synaesthetic experience into something that will make sense to others has been an interesting writing exercise.
Naked Wines have a number of volunteers helping out on their site, called Archangels. These are customers who are good at interacting, who post helpful reviews and do their bit to be welcoming of newcomers, both winemakers and customers. One of the staff asked if there were any Angels who would like to become one. I applied. A while later I got a phone call. I’d been successful. Not only had I been successful, would I like to go to California? A group of Archangels were being sent to Napa to taste wines and choose some to go on sale in the UK.
Yes, of course I would.
Which is how come I ended up flying to San Francisco with 9 other wine enthusiasts for two intense days of tasting.
After the party on the plane (it took me the entire flight to get through the Sherlock Holmes sequel) and dinner at a fabulous Mexican restaurant (I have no idea which one it was, but I didn’t know you could do that with pineapple), we were back to the hotel for a sleepless night before an early start the next morning.
We started with Jessica Tomei, where we sampled half a dozen rather fine wines, then moved on to Jason Moore, where we sampled another selection, including some of the best wines I’ve ever tasted. After that it was a trip to the Patz and Hall winery, by way of a rather famous Champagne house (I had to resist the urge to crawl into the cotoneaster hunting the Californian tree frog I could hear in there), where we were talked through more than a dozen wines by winemakers Robin Langton, William Henry and Randall Grahm. If Robin doesn’t bring me some of that Tallman Sauvignon Blanc I shall be forced to have words.
Lunch was a picnic provided by the rather wonderful William Henry, with me a bit starstruck by the big Ravenswood sign on the way up to the vineyard where we were to have it.
For someone who isn’t used to tasting wines in such rapid succession, and has never had the opportunity to do so in what amounts to a professional context —all the Archangels were very much focused on the job we were there to do— this was an amazing experience. The biggest issue for me was that I can’t taste and listen at the same time, because the synaesthesia means that sound interferes with my tasting, and so I had to choose between being able to taste the wine or listening to what the winemakers had to say about them. I chose the former, and my apologies if anyone thought I was being rude. I did have to explain the synaesthesia about 20 times over the course of the trip!
There was a social evening on the Friday night, where we were able to taste another couple of wines, although I hadn’t been expecting to do another tasting so didn’t have my notebook to hand. We also had the opportunity to speak to the winemakers and get to know them a bit better.
Saturday we started off with a trip to the Farmer’s Market in Napa, the mirthmobile in full swing already. I haven’t been to the Aberdeen one yet, but I hope it’s half as good as the Oxbow. Then we went to the Darioush winery, to experience the bling of the wine world. Bottles here started at around $70, and went up. Boy, did those numbers go up. I think the fact that the winery is apparently a reconstruction of the temple at Persepolis says enough about this particular winery without me having to add anything (although I still enjoyed the Cabernet Franc, even if I was the only person to do so).
From Darioush we went to visit the hugely contrasting Campesino, where we met the lovely Macario Montoya, who is making Spanish wines in homage to the heavy Spanish influence in California. There are not enough decent Albarinos in the world. I’m delighted that Macario has added to them.
Our final stop was one of the major highlights of the trip for me. So high up a mountain I felt I needed oxygen, we visited Christina Pallmann, who offered us some truly delectable wine, including an unoaked Chardonnay that belongs on my wine rack right this very moment, and an example of Zinfandel that caused me to fall in love with the grape after a decade or so of us not speaking to one another any more. It was an absolute privilege to taste her wines in that location, and get to meet her grower, Joe. It was clear that they have a fabulous relationship and acres of respect for one another.
That was the real eye-opener of the trip. These are people who are deeply passionate about their art. It is important to them, and they care about what they are doing. Anyone engaged in a creative endeavour knows that this is what makes the difference. If you don’t have that love and passion then you are in the wrong business. Every winemaker we met was eloquent and engaging about what they were doing and what they were trying to achieve.
If I ever had any doubts that my £20 a month was going to deserving winemakers, this trip got rid of them for ever.
The trip was also part of the Naked Wines launch for the US and Australia. The sales model for wine in the US is a product of Prohibition, and British wine lovers would be surprised by the pricing. Naked Wines intends shaking things up a bit, so wine lovers can pay what a wine is worth rather than what the label suggests someone thinks they can get for it. If you want to be part of that, go to nakedwines.com and sign up as a beta-taster (geddit?).
In the end we could choose only six out of the many fine wines we tasted. The Naked in Napa pack is now on sale for British customers on marketplace at Naked Wines. You’ll have to be quick, though, because it’s selling fast. I’ll put my tasting notes below for the wines that are in this pack, but don’t take my word for it: place a bid and get yourself some.
I’m putting the synaesthetic notes in italics, in brackets, for the sake of completion. Feel free to ignore or point and laugh.
1 x Christina Pallmann Santa Maria Pinot Noir 2010
Berry red and perfumed in the glass, this gives off wafts of violets, panna cotta and roses. It caresses the tastebuds with soft tannins, giving a smooth mouthfeel, but offers up an exciting and tantalising combination of flower petals and pollen with spicy notes of pepper and a structural component reminiscent of juniper.
(Star with rounded spikes made of soft silicon, coated in powdered purple.)
1 x Coloma Syrah “Meatgrinder” 2009
In the glass this is leggy, with a redcurrant translucency tinted by a note of plum. The legs carry on into the nose. It is moderately astringent, ever so slightly disjointed because it has not had a chance to breathe. Exuberant. To taste it is a block of structured tannins, following through with the redcurrant and adding cranberry and sloe wax.
(Honeycomb shape. Almost effervescent. Happy and eager.)
1 x Sin Fronteras Reserve Tempranillo 2009
Blood red, with the most evenly spaced legs I’ve ever seen on a wine. The nose offers an immediate hit of fruit, rounded out by toasted vanilla and locust bean. The taste has enough acidity to give good structure without crossing the line into pungency, and backs up the fruit with hints of coffee and spice.
(Mille Feuille of opaque, teflon-coated microbeads)
1 x Credence Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
Soft red, bluish, lilac meniscus. Long, fading legs. It doesn’t hang about in the glass waiting for you, this one. It’s forward, leaping out to greet you. Big fruit with structural astringency. Damsons and redcurrants, quite leafy. Wholemeal toast and roasting seeds. Tasted quite youthful and a bit of an attention-seeker. Good talking point for a main meal at a dinner party, but give it something robust to lean against or give it plenty of time to breathe.
(Invasive, architecturally hard, but with soft fruit in the spaces.)
1 x Back Door Napa Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
We didn’t taste this as it was away for bottling at the time.
1 x William Henry Riesling NV
We’re pretty sure that this is a 2011 rather than the non-vintage, as that’s what we tasted. I found this shy on the nose, with the odd note of athletic jockstrap. On taste, however, this was as balanced as an Olympic gymnast on the beam, with good acidity and excellent dry but unctuous fruit. This struck me immediately as the sort of white I would want to drink curled up in front of a roaring fire with snow thick on the ground and dripping off pine trees.
(The wine equivalent of Chris Brosius’s Winter 1972. Not immediately stunning but something that lingers in the back of your mind and keeps coming back long after other forms have faded.)
Blimey! It has been a while. Prolonged internet absence has made updating the blog a near impossibility. So what has been happening on Planet Sam?
In the last 6 months we’ve moved house, twice — as mentioned in this previous post, we moved from Edinburgh to Aberdeen last year as I was offered a new position in the day job — first of all to temporary accommodation and then into a wee cottage where it took nearly 2 months to get (very slow) broadband connected (although, on the plus side, we have open fires in every room, a garden full of birds, the perfect length of cycle commute and horses coming to say hello whenever we step out the back door, which is fabulous). Both Frood and I have been very busy in our enforced absence from the Virtual World. He has been looking for work and I have been getting to grips with a new territory and new responsibilities.
People kept saying to me: “I suppose you don’t realise how much you rely on the internet.” Oh, I did. I so, so did. At the time our internet went live I had been without a home internet connection since October last year. It has been frustrating, to say the least. On the other hand, it has given me the space to concentrate on other things and I suspect the experience will change my future internet usage. For the better. I know which things I missed the most and which I didn’t miss as much as I expected (cough FACEBOOK cough).
On the writing front I’ve already made more submissions this year than I have in the last two and am now a member of Lemon Tree Writers, which is proving most interesting. Frood and I are also hard at work on a comic that will allow us to pool our creative silliness into something we hope others will enjoy reading as much as we’re enjoying the process of putting it together.
In March we attended Hi-Ex, which was a great hoot, and definitely going on the repeat list for next year. Many thanks to Vicky and Richmond for putting on a great event and to all the guests for donating their time and effort.
I’m taking another year off triathlon, primarily for financial reasons. It’s an expensive sport, once you figure in the gym membership and travel expenses, and as I’m still working on getting my run fitness back, there’s no point investing in the rest until I’m sure I’m going to be able to complete a race distance. That doesn’t mean I’m sitting on my backside, though. This year’s Dumb Run has been swapped out for an away match. We are doing Edinburgh to Aberdeen instead, with an epilogue of Pirate Adventure Golf and, potentially, GoApe!.
I think that’s enough of a summary for the meantime. Hopefully entries will go back to being at least semi-regular from now on. I’ll leave you with a photo of a badger we took at the gallery in Inverness while we were up for Hi-Ex. We felt very sorry for this badger, who was probably a very respectable, fairly conservative mustelid while alive, and had been permanently fixed by the taxidermist in a position that can only be described as “provocative”:
I had hoped to be blogging rather more regularly by now. Unfortunately we’re still not properly settled in Aberdeen, and currently working with intermittent access to the internet. I’m busy with the new job and various writing projects, trying to squeeze the words in between work, food and sleep. My hypergraphia, which trundles along for most of the year but usually goes for broke in November/December, was a month late this year, and I’ve been frantically scribbling things I can’t use since just before Christmas. It does get in the way.
Both Frood and I will be attending Hi-Ex in Inverness at the end of March, seeing as how it’s practically just up the road. If any fellow writers/artists/comic fans/circumstantial-cyclists want to say hi, he’s the one with the beard and I’m the one with the black right eye and the Pictish tattoo. We’d love to meet you.
As has become something of a tradition over the past couple of years, we’re spending Christmas away from (temporary) home in the company of family. As is also something of a tradition, we’re spending the holiday season in the back of beyond where there is almost no phone reception, so if you have sent me any text messages wishing me good cheer and I haven’t replied it’s not because I don’t love you any more: I haven’t received it. We do, however, have wifi and this year I brought a laptop so I can continue writing.
The lodge where we’re staying is amazing. Seriously amazing. I could live in a house like this quite happily. The only thing that could make it better is if it were a lighthouse, but I’m being picky. The weather so far has been fairly grim and dreich, so the light has been far too poor for taking photographs. Still, I snapped this shot of the view from the upper balcony in an effort to show the spectacular view of the torrents roaring constantly in the background. We sleep with the window open.
Yesterday Frood and I went out with the parents on a short but windy, wet and enjoyable bike ride to explore a little. Needing something that would fit on the rack, and with most of the noble steeds in storage, I was obliged to bring Shackleton, sporting his brand new wheels (more on that particular saga later). The thing is, I’ve put the Hutchinson Gold Cross tyres on him in preparation for the snows, and I left the 16 tooth sprocket on, so he’s currently rolling around with gear inches in excess of 70. This would be fine for the hill-free streets of Aberdeen, but out here in the wilds the roads come in lumpy. I think we did all of 6 miles yesterday and my legs are no longer speaking to me. I am seriously out of practise on fixed!
Finally, here is medium-sized Stitch (still on his Scotland tour) wearing the Stitch slippers Nick and Candice got me for my Christmas:
The Brits are known for their love affair with their pets. There have been documentaries made about it — Nick O’Dwyer’s Most Pampered Pets In Britain, for one. People go a bit mad for their animals, and it can result in them treating their pets as children: they buy them clothes and let them sleep in their beds and then wonder why they end up neurotic and disturbed and in need of assistance from the lovely Victoria Stilwell.
Dogs are dogs as far as I’m concerned. I’m not the sort to be won over by doleful brown eyes trying it on for scraps from the dinner table. I love dogs, and hope that one day our life will allow for us to get one or three —it wouldn’t be fair to the dog to get one before we have the time to commit to ownership— but I don’t believe in treating dogs as if they were human. A dog should certainly be a member of the family, because the family has to be the dog’s pack, but that doesn’t mean they should be treated like the human members of the family, despite current theories suggesting dogs and humans evolved, quite possibly together, to have an instinctive grasp of mutual social language. A bright dog can learn by imitation, and dogs watch their families constantly for instruction and communication the way humans chat to each other. Canines are all about body language.
Given all that, I’m not too sure what to make of JML’s latest range of dog toys, Frood took great delight in pointing out to me:
Crazy Critters are ultra durable and realistic looking plush toys that will provide your best friend with hours of playful fun. What makes them different from other dog toys is that they are stuffing-free, you’ll never have to clean up the mess from a ripped stuffed animal again, plus your pet won’t ever be tempted to eat the stuffing, which could be harmful to its health. Crazy Critters are also machine-washable, so you can use them indoors or outside over and over again.
Admittedly, it’s a damn sight better than buying them tutus covered in Swarovski crystals or a Calvin Klein jacket or even special dog cologne. Dogs are supposed to enjoy worrying dead animals. They are carnivores, after all.
Still. Those Crazy Critters resemble road kill rather more than the usual dog toys I see, and I think I might feel a bit weird offering my dog a squished fox to rip to shreds, even knowing that the dog wouldn’t think it resembled a squished fox in the slightest. I would know.
Maybe they should be renamed “Countryside Alliance Critters”.
It’s my birthday. Birthdays are cool and special and I’ve never grown out of feeling that there is something particularly important about birthdays. I know other people feel differently about birthdays. Some seem to treat them as something to ignore: an inevitable indicator of time passing and thus mortality; another year, another set of wrinkles. To some they are an excuse to party.
To me they are something to celebrate in a congratulatory fashion. Hey! Well done you! You survived another year and you know what? You’re doing okay, actually.
We moved recently —are still sort of halfway, if truth be told— and while packing I found a photograph of myself taken
many several an unspecified number of birthdays ago. It was one of four identical pictures taken in a photobooth, back when I was still cutting my hair very short and shortly after I acquired my very first black artificial eye (a huge moment in the personal history of me). I think this was the year I went to Ashton Court Festival and became inordinately attached to a helium balloon in the shape of a dolphin, which I called Jones.
My friend Charlotte commented:
Cor, that looks like a portrait from the assasins’ academy graduation yearbook.
I think she has a point.
Women with hair that short attract the wrong sort of attention and attitudes. The immediate assumption, if only of those who feel it is appropriate to voice such opinions to strangers, is that one is either a “dyke” or a cancer victim. Unless the woman in question is playing a particular part in a movie, or is a model doing a show that is avante garde, or “edgy”, then hair that short is generally considered unattractive, and I’m pretty sure that presumptions about gender roles play a large part in that. Long hair on a woman is usually better regarded than short hair. Women often invest a lot in having long hair — look at the tearful reactions of the would-be supermodels on reality shows such as America’s Next Top Model during the makeover section, when their precious locks are lopped off in the name of fashion.
It’s only hair. It does grow back.
I loved having short hair. I loved the practicality and fuzziness of it — it was incredibly soft. I liked how it emphasised my bone structure and showed off my ears. I thought it looked good.
Six years ago I reluctantly stopped shearing mine with the clippers once a month, as I was planning on re-entering the job market and I knew it would create a poor first impression. I resent the expense of a hairdresser — when I had it cut for the wedding in March it cost me £60! — and so I have grown it out to the point where it no longer needs that attention.
Although I won’t, because in the real world sometimes being professional requires that one refrains from being unconventional, looking at this photograph made me want to cut it all off again.
It was fluffy. We like fluffy!
We’re packing up the flat today — to be fair, Frood is doing most of the work. Partly this is because there’s not much space to work with all the boxes and things stacked up all over the place, partly it’s because he has ninja packing skills and I’m rubbish; and partly it’s because I’m completely cream-crackered at the moment and feel like a limp dishrag that can’t so much pack as flap feebly at items in an attempt to shoo them into their boxes. I thought I’d come and blog a bit while he’s dismantling my desk. I am sure I’d only get in the way. Every time I offer to help he says no.
I was a big fan of speculative fiction even when I was younger. I read Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed when I was 10, although I didn’t really grasp all of the themes until I was much older. When I was at school I discovered Moorcock, and although I found the Elric and Hawkmoon books more entertaining (at the time), the series that stuck with me was that of Jerry Cornelius.
There is a scene in The Final Programme where Cornelius is attempting to infiltrate his brother Frank’s secret base somewhere on the coast of France, to rescue his sister. Some of the base defences are psychedelic in nature, blasting out hallucinogenic experiences that come straight from a bad acid trip.
When I saw this foghorn on the Torry peninsula Moorcock’s anarchic, polysexual superspy was the first thing that popped into my mind. I can all too easily imagine it blasting out rays that boil the brains of anyone foolhardy enough to approach too close, leaving them as dribbling wrecks whimpering about Cthonic colours and hyperdimensional clowns with spleens where their faces should be.