Planet Sam


by on Mar.23, 2011, under Life with Frood, Planet Sam

avatarOn Monday of this week it was Frood‘s and my twentieth anniversary. Two decades, five weeks and five days exactly had passed since we first met; twenty years two weeks and five days since we got engaged; and thirteen years exactly since we got together with friends in a circle of stones millenia old and promised to do our best to make one another happy for the rest of our lives.

For our twentieth anniversary we made it official and legal in a manner recognised by the state. In other words, we got married.

We were lucky with the weather: it was the warmest day of the year so far and the sun shone for us. There was nothing traditional about it save for the exchanging of rings — the bride and groom would have been the first ones there if we hadn’t had our friend Andy staying with us.

I did, however, manage to resist the urge to have GLaDOS sing “This was a triumph” as I entered.

My thanks to everyone who sent us good wishes, cards, gifts and luck on the day. My especial thanks to Calum and Puzzle, Will, Andy, Neil, my brother Nick and of course my parents for making it a special day to treasure. It was a good day — a great day — because they made it one. Seriously guys, you are all awesome and I’m incredibly lucky to have friends and family like you.

My thanks also to Tom Eckles, for allowing us to use one of his photographs in designing our rings and to Alan at GETi for making them.

Here’s to at least another twenty years of what Red Stags Morris once called, with visible relief, mutually assured distraction.

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Adventures in ice cream

by on Feb.27, 2011, under Food/drink

avatarI am, it has to be said, a bit of a foodie. I don’t talk about food on this blog nearly as much as one might expect given the amount of time I spend thinking about it.

Some genetic quirk left me with a digestive system of the temperamental variety and my interest in food was born from the necessity of dealing with its quirks and foibles. I have a range of variable sensitivities and intolerances, as well as synaesthesia, which together mean I am often uninterested in eating. When food can make you sick for no apparent reason it is easy to develop negative associations with it. Meals can also be awkward when a food, because of its texture, tastes of something that is entirely unrelated to the food’s actual flavour. Especially when it’s not always possible to tell which one is which.

Except for celery. Celery is evil by nature.

Taking an interest in ingredients and preparation isn’t a hobby or a hankering after a future career — I have not contemplated entering Masterchef, not seriously anyway — it’s a survival requirement. If I didn’t care about my food, I wouldn’t bother. Some days it feels like I’ve got some sort of multiple personality disorder, with the other personality occupying the brain in my gut and pissed off about not getting much of a say in anything other than what happens after I swallow (please do pipe down at the back).

For my birthday last year one of my friends, knowing that I have an intermittent sensitivity to dairy but a liking for ice cream, bought me an ice cream maker and a book of vegan ice cream recipes. The first one we tried was a bit of disaster — Frood wanted grapefruit ice cream, and I foolishly agreed to give it a go even though the belly brain (henceforth to be known as RB2) was yelling blue bloody murder and threatening strike action and rebellion and talking about a military coup, while my synaesthesia was building flavour blocks and looking at the resultant abomination like it was the dessert equivalent of the Ryugyong Hotel. Impatience and exuberance with the orange liqueur got the better of me and we ended up with an oddly sepia-toned, crystalline concoction that tasted of hot newspaper ink and air freshener.

The ice cream machine went back into the freezer. At least the alcoholic jellies worked.

Next we tried one of the recipes that came with the machine, which was for raspberry yoghurt ice cream. Although it grumbled somewhat about the combination of fruit and animal fats/proteins, RB2 agreed that the Lactobacillus in the yoghurt went some way to ameliorating the crime and didn’t kick up too much of a fuss, but did caution me not to make a habit of it. This caution turned into a final warning the next time we had raspberry yoghurt ice cream.

Last night we had friends round for dinner. They brought with them some Sake obtained from an artisan winery in Canada, and had requested some of the raw food sushi I had mentioned to them on an earlier occasion.

(My raw food sushi is not really raw. I mean, raw sushi rice wouldn’t be nice. It would be crunchy and wouldn’t stick together. The miso soup I did last night wasn’t raw, nor was the drenched radish, and the tofu wasn’t a raw food either. If I’m fully honest I have to allow that one of the sushi rolls was filled with a chilli, garlic and hot smoked paprika roasted butternut squash, which is neither raw nor traditional. But the other ingredients were a mix of home-grown sprouts, avocado, grated raw carrot and freshly-squeezed ginger juice, so mostly raw. Other than the thin egg omelette. Which was neither raw nor vegan. But it was optional.)

I was in the mood to try making vegan ice cream again, and having friends round for dinner, which I do very rarely, is a great excuse to make dessert. RB2 can be more tolerant when roped in for ideas and the synaesthesia is very useful when it comes to putting flavours together, because when flavours have shape it’s easier to see what goes together and what doesn’t — hence I really should have paid attention when neither agreed on grapefruit. I had some plums and we were having Japanese food, so the obvious thing to do was use Oriental spices to flavour some stewed plums.

The recipe book uses a mixture of soy milk, soy cream, sugar, vanilla extract and arrowroot to form the base for almost all of the recipes, which made for an easy adaptation as there was nothing directly equivalent in there.

The base I made with 2 cups soy milk, 1 pot (250ml) soy cream, a scant third of a cup sugar, 1 tablespoon (15ml) vanilla extract and 2 tablespoons (30ml) arrowroot. It was only supposed to be 1.5 cups soy milk, but I forgot to reduce the arrowroot to suit and ended up with this horrible gelatinous disaster-in-the-making, requiring swift dilution and vigorous whisking to rescue it. The whisking had an added benefit — the resulting texture was light and airy and beautiful, like a zabaione, and I shall be whisking it in future for that reason.

The half-dozen plums I washed, stoned, cut into quarters and stewed in approx. 2 tablespoons of lemon juice with barely a quarter cup of sugar, a little salt, a cinnamon stick, two 5p coin sized pieces of raw ginger and a whole star anise. I passed the result through a sieve after removing the spices and refrigerated everything for several hours.

When it came time to make the ice cream I folded the plum mix into the base and then poured as much of it as would fit into the ice cream maker. Twenty minutes later we had a gorgeous, soft, crystal-free, perfectly smooth and silky, fragrant ice cream.

I don’t think that fruit mixture would have worked so well on a dairy base. Although plums are a soft, round fruit, they have a sharp, almost metallic tang of a flavour that can be reminiscent of rhubarb or other more brittle fruits. This flavour is mellowed by stewing in fat and sugar, making it a suitable eiderdown for comforting pastry, but the spice and the lemon and absence of fat enhanced it. I would not have wanted to put that in the oleaginous, vanilla-scented softness of dairy ice cream. It would have been like taking sandpaper to silk. Nor would I have wanted to go the other way and make a sorbet: there was still some of the round mellowness of the plum (a word that has the same shape as the flavour of the very ripe fruit) in there and a sorbet is bright and brittle and sparkly. That would have been like serving champagne in a leather tankard. Just plain weird.

Vegan ice cream is not, as Wheeler Del Torro claims, indistinguishable from dairy. I wouldn’t be overly keen on a straight vanilla and I’m almost 100% certain that I would not want to make vegan chocolate ice cream (although carob might work. The powdery undernotes would tie the two together quite nicely). On the other hand, there are flavours I can see myself making with a vegan base that I wouldn’t make using a dairy one, particularly using spices that have or combine to make a pointier texture than I think dairy cream can take.

And RB2? Belly brain is complaining about something. I’m not going to accept it was the ice cream, because I want to try more of that, and any new food that makes me say “more please!” is to be treasured. Even Frood said it was nommy and he has no reason not to eat proper ice cream.

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Winter wonders

by on Jan.10, 2011, under Photography, rambling

avatar I have a couple of pictures for you today and not many words to go with them. The first is a photograph of a red squirrel. He was on a tree above the Falls at Acharn, which when we visited were frozen into a cascade of sharpened, jagged teeth and chaotic, amorphous, billowing pillows of sugary ice. I will post pictures of that when I’ve decided which are the best.

My mum thought this little chap was playing peek-a-boo around tree. To me he looked more like a celebrity fleeing the paparazzi, and I was lucky to get a shot of him at all. He was last seen scampering across a fallen tree under the bridge to escape our enthusiastically pointing fingers. The red squirrel is up there on the shortlist of Scotland’s iconic animals, along with the Highland Coo and the haggis. I’ve always assumed that Ratatoskr was a red.


This second picture I took on a horrible, grim, dreich day when the snow was starting to soften and melt. Frood was attempting to stack rocks on the shores of Loch Tay and grumbling about the soft schist and cold fingers. I was disappointed by the light and lack of things to photograph. And then I saw this:

Winter tears

I am not entirely sure what process caused this ice formation, with its fat drops hanging from the brittle, delicate sheet above. I could hazard some guesses and have pondered it at length. And yet, at the same time, I am content to have found a moment of startling and unexpected beauty and captured an echo of it as a souvenir.

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Christmas wildlife

by on Jan.07, 2011, under Life with Frood, Planet Sam, rambling

avatarAs I mentioned in an earlier post, Christmas this year was spent on the south shore of Loch Tay, at Bracken Lodges. Frood and I were both working on Christmas Eve, as well as doing the Christmas dinner, so by the time we got home from work and got everything packed and into the car it was quite late.

It was also incredibly cold. And snowing. We’d had an early start on the back of a month of early starts, which, coupled with my insomnia, meant that I knew that the drive was going to be a tiring one before we started. I did seriously contemplate leaving it until the morning, but I knew Mum and Dad would be disappointed, so I HedTFU and got on with it.

Because the weather had been extremely wintry for several weeks the outer lane on the M90 was restricted width and there was no hard shoulder. The A9 wasn’t much better. There was too much snow. It was also -15°C, which is down around the point where grit stops working. I own a Ford Mondeo Estate, front wheel drive and back-end heavy, and it’s a pain in the ass in slippery conditions, so I was driving very carefully. The other issue we had is that the CD player in my car broke sometime last year, swallowing several of my CDs in the process. There is no MP3 player port so we’re reduced to listening to whatever we can find on the radio.

At the turn-off towards Aberfeldy we hit the roads that hadn’t been gritted adequately and, coincidentally, I became fed up with the interminable club dance tracks Scott Mills was playing on Radio 1. Classic FM was out because it was non-stop little boys singing carols, so I took a gamble on Radio 2 and found a fascinating documentary about Kenny Everett. For the next 45 minutes we minced along the road at about 20mph, discovering that Kenny did all of his special effects using just two tape decks — including the 8 part harmonies in which he was the only one singing. The world turned gradually more and more surreal as Captain Kremen’s Granny turned up and the snow kept falling.

Part of the route coincided with the road I’d ridden during the Aberfeldy Sprint, and I remarked that I’d been faster on the bike. That’s how carefully we had to drive.

At Kenmore we turned onto the narrow, single-track road that winds along the coast of the loch. By the time we got to the other side of Acharn I was really tired, and suffering from continually peering at a frosty road in low visibility with nothing but dark vegetation, the occasional dry stone wall and lots of snow either side of me. The road there was so slippy that I had to concentrate even harder on maintaining momentum over the ice without going so fast that the car slid out of control down the steep bank to the right and, for all I knew, straight into the water.

Frood had been using his GPS to track progress, but kept getting confused between distance to destination and distance to next junction, so I’d been given several conflicting miles to go messages. After what felt like the whole of eternity I asked Frood to call Mum and ask her if this place had a sign or something, because I was sure we’d missed it.

“Don’t worry,” he told me. “She says there’s a big blue Christmas tree right at the entrance and you can’t miss it.”

At about this moment a deer bounded across the path, eyeing us using that backwards glance they give things they don’t like but have ascertained aren’t really predators and couldn’t catch them anyway.

“Grand,” I replied, trying to get my heartrate back to normal after controlling a slight skid under braking.

Ten minutes later there was a dip in the road followed by a slight rise. As we crested this the deer was back and I couldn’t believe my eyes.

It had a blue arse. There was a deer, all delicate legs and waggly ears, looking at us backwards, and there was a bright, electric blue glow where its arse was.

The Blue-Arsed Deer of Perthshire

The Blue-Arsed Deer of Perthshire

I goggled at this like… Well, like you would imagine anyone goggling at a deer with blue light streaming out of its arse. I wondered what in the hell it had been eating.

After a moment the deer hung a sharp left but the blue light didn’t. There was the Christmas tree and there was my mum, standing at the side of the road waving her arms in the air.

I can’t remember the last time I was that relieved to arrive anywhere mostly intact. And, even knowing that what I saw was the light of the Christmas tree, what I remember and always will remember of our drive up north for Christmas is a deer with bright blue light coming out of its arse.

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The long and winding road

by on Jan.03, 2011, under Photography, rambling

avatarI spent Christmas and New Year with Frood and my parents — my brother and his girlfriend Candice joined us for New Year. Like last year, my parents had rented a place somewhere far away from work: this year it was on the south shore of Loch Tay, at Bracken Lodges, a little way along from Acharn. It was a beautiful setting, informed by mountains and water and, for most of it, thick drifts of snow and sheets of ice. I’ve brought back more than 200 photographs, and it’s going to take me some time to go through them all and choose the best ones.

This is one of my favourites so far:

Dreaming of a white Christmas

2010 has been an interesting year, to use the word in the context that Pratchett used it in, if I recall correctly, Small Gods. It has gone incredibly quickly — it seems to be no time at all since we were sitting in the lodge at Erigmore for last year’s Christmas — and in some ways it has been one of the longest years ever. It has certainly had its ups and downs and it’s one I think I shall chalk up to experience rather than relishing in fond memory.

I’d like to think that 2011 will see an upward rather than a downward trend. For the time being I am going to consider that in life’s game of Play Your Cards Right 2010 is what happened when Mr Forsyth turned over the four of spades.

Onwards and upwards.

The long and winding road

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Cute, fluffy, ears

by on Dec.19, 2010, under Life with Frood

avatarI have a minor Stitch obsession, as a few of you might know. This one I got not that long ago. He came inside a massive mug covered in Stitch faces. He is referred to as ‘Scruffy Little Stitch’ to distinguish him from the various other Stitch incarnations in the house, including, most recently, MegaStitch (there will be a picture of him along later).

Scruffy Little Stitch lives on my desk along with the Penguin of Death and the Lara Croft figurine. He’s one of my favourites, despite his small size, because he always looks like he’s holding his arms out for a hug.

At some point Frood put him on the Gorillapod he bought me for my birthday. Stitch then refused to come down — perching up there despite me thumping the desk quite hard — reminding me of the plush Cthulhu we put above the fireplace in Devon as a Christmas decoration one year. He wouldn’t come down, either. He stayed up there for 18 months or so.


He has a particularly smug look about him in this photograph. Either he’s pleased with my word count or he knows something he’s not telling. Being a suspicious cow, I suspect the latter.

Once I’d taken his picture he came down all by himself. He just wanted his picture taken. Such an exhibitionist.

Oh, and this is Christmas Cthulhu. I think I might have been slightly squiffy at the time:

Christmas Cthulhu

2004. It doesn't feel that long ago.

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It’s melting!

by on Dec.11, 2010, under Photography, rambling

avatarThe thaw has come to Edinburgh, and what was a glorious, sparkly, clean landscape has turned muddy and rutted and ugly. It’s like the aftermath of trench warfare out there. I’ve been trying to retain my festive spirit by wrapping some presents today, and the weather forecast suggests that there might be another freeze coming next week. I hope so. I know it has caused a lot of bother to people, and it wasn’t always pleasant — especially when our heating broke down and it was -20°C out there — but I’ve enjoyed the cold weather. I’m not much of a summer person, I don’t like the heat. Summer is great if I have easy access to a nice beach and can spend all day spoffling crabs and sploshing around chasing sandeels. Otherwise it’s a case of hiding from the sun and trying not to burn to a crisp or dehydrate into old boot leather.

The other thing about the recent cold snap that I noticed was the quality of the light. With all that highly-reflective snow around everything looked crisper. It reminded me of the difference between DVD and Blu-Ray. Edges were neater, Fife was closer, seagulls were more graceful, the crows were bigger, the magpies shinier and the sunsets were glorious.

I took this picture coming back from the shop, one of a number of attempts to capture the fleeting softness of refracted light at sunset. It was a gamble, with the framing, and I think it paid off. The setting sun reflects gold in the windows of the neighbouring apartment building and the darkening eastern horizon is a beautiful rosy hue. The steel grey line to the left of centre is where the sky meets the North Sea.

Sunset behind bars

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Mutant brain, synaesthesia, overactive imagination

by on Dec.08, 2010, under Life with Frood, Photography, rambling

avatarHaving synaesthesia means that I see things differently from others all of the time. The very word “see” is generally inappropriate. Light hits the retina, electrical impulses travel back along the optic nerve, and about there the similarities stop. In me that signal is processed by the brain through a weird amalgam of all my other senses. My synaesthesia even includes one of the senses not considered in the usual five: proprioception. Is it because I lost an eye at a critical age, rather than being born blind in one, or losing it much later? I don’t know. Sometimes I think that could explain many things about me, from the way I smell colours and inhabit the shapes of sounds to the way I have to do some things right handed and some things left.

On the whole, though, I think that what I am probably doing there is looking for a reason. And, a lot of the time, things just are. They’re not purposeful, they’re not meaningful, they’re not deliberate, they’re not fair or unfair… They just are.

I get a special thrill from experiencing a similar sense of wonder and joy at a particular thing to that of someone else. While I know it’s terribly unlikely that the other person is excited by the shape formed by that particular aroma, or the soundscape that whispers and hums in the background to a piece of scenery, the sharing of that childlike marvel that the world can be so astonishing and wonderful is more than enough.

Last night the temperature was -15°C and the skies were clear. Outside the snow froze surface-crisp. And how it sparkled! We have a rough patch of waste ground out back, and there’s a car park surrounded by a chain-link fence. It’s not beautiful. It’s no Midnight. Yet, even so, it was astonishing, because a myriad diamond glitters danced across the snow. For a moment I could imagine that stars have a spawning cycle that includes a terrestrial phase, the way coral has a planktonic larval stage, and these were the babies fallen to Earth. Frood also thought it was brilliant and we stood in a darkened room with our noses pressed against the glass, staring.

I decided to photograph it. Sadly the battery on my camera died and I was forced to use my phone, which doesn’t have the optics to do it justice. Although, of course, for me the synaesthetic response is different when looking at photographs. I see the photograph, not the thing in the photograph. So no photograph can ever capture the moment, despite what the camera adverts say.

Doesn’t stop me trying.

Lunar diamonds

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It’s as bad as goblins in the wardrobe

by on Dec.06, 2010, under Life with Frood, Planet Sam

avatarNow, see, I know I’m not the only person to find the Bird’s Eye Polar Bear adverts creepy. I know this for a fact. Other people find him creepy too. The great divide seems to be whether or not we like him.

Short answer: I don’t.

It’s bad enough that there’s this passive-aggressive, snarky mammal in the freezer that in real life would be ten times my size with feet the size of bicycle wheels, teeth designed for ripping seals apart and a tendency to chomp first, ponder prey-appropriateness later. Bad enough that he’s voiced by an actor I best remember going off his head in Platoon. I mean, is that why he can’t tell whether it’s a pea or a cannonball? Because he’s still having flashbacks?

He tries to tell you what to eat! A polar bear! Who lives in the freezer! And somehow can survive the lack of air and general scarcity of seals in the average British domestic household!

Then I realised. He’s trapped in there, talking to himself, going batshit crazy like Adrian Brody in The Jacket. Playing with the switch that makes the light go on and off until the bulb blows; or fapping into the bags of vegetables while trying to drink himself to death on ice-cold vodka. The only interruption in his interminable life of tedium, imprisoned in the dark with the tupperware boxes filled with solidified leftovers and the peas that escaped from the bag to grow wrinkled and grey in the hoarfrost, is when someone opens the door.

He’s deranged. Anyone would be after being stuck in there. There is no one who could possibly survive that sort of environment mentally intact. But these people, coming to the door, letting in a brief glimpse of daylight and a warmer world of colour and sun… He has to be careful. He can’t scare them off. They might not come back. He has to be nice, friendly, helpful.

There’s nothing quite so creepy as a deranged predator trying to be nice, especially when the mask slips and the simmering rage and hatred sneaks out in the form of sharpened sarcasm:

“Hey, Laura. You know, I love preparing chicken.”


“No, Laura, nobody does.”

“I’m feeling a little neglected… And Clive? Don’t be a stranger.”

I swear the subtext to that reads: “Because if you are, next time you open this door you might just find that I gut you like a pig.”

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by on Dec.06, 2010, under kit, Photography, rambling, transport

avatarThere can’t be many people in the UK, possibly the world, who are not aware that we are having our earliest severe snowfall for around 20 years. It started on my birthday and hasn’t let up since, although we’ve had one day when there was no new snow. That was yesterday.

This morning at 6am the sky was still clear, as far as I could tell in the darkness. By 8:30am, when I was leaving for work, the snow was falling in earnest.

I took the car, because I’m still recovering from flu. It took me about an hour and a half to get 5 miles. Sitting at the junction of Quality Street (no chocolate) and Queensferry Road and seeing the traffic at a standstill in my direction of travel, which meant it was probably backed up from the Maybury junction, I turned left instead of right and spent another hour getting home again. Just getting the car into the street and out after finding no parking spaces, then into the car park out the back, took about 20 minutes. The snow is lying on sheet ice.

This is the view from our window:



It has actually become even worse in the time it has taken me to download from the camera and write this much.

For the past week or so we’ve been experiencing problems with the communal boiler, which means there have been a few days when we’ve had no hot water or heating for more than long enough for it to get very cold indeed. I think they’re coming to fit a new part today. As I’m now snowed in — at least until I get the mountain bike kitted out in appropriate tyres and discovered whether my chest can take the exercise — I’m really hoping they don’t have to turn it off today. It’s already chilly in here.

Talking of cold, I ventured out to the shop in my Vibram KSOs late yesterday afternoon. Previously I’d been out in the Bikilas, which are made of a thicker material and have more robust soles (and really are that pink), and that was fine. While I am so enamoured of the VFFs that I never want to wear “proper” shoes ever again in my life, I can honestly report that I thought I’d managed to get frostbite wearing the KSOs on a mixture of packed ice and snow. I think it might be time to get some of the Ininjis or Lizard socks to keep my little tootsies warm if it’s going to be like this all winter.

Here’s the view from the window now. The trees are disappearing. The gas works vanished hours ago.

The gasworks have vanished.

Look! No gasworks!

I hope Frood gets home okay. He’s got cross tyres on Spartacus. He should be fine.

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