May 12 2011

Books!

Category: books,materialism,reviewsSami @ 2:11 pm

So, a couple of days ago, I got a package in the post from Angry Robot Books. I was mystified. I opened it, and there was a slip reading, “With Compliments.”

And then I remembered: Matthew Hughes offered copies of the book to the first 25 people to e-mail him, promising him they’d blog about it in return. I did just that, and apparently I was one of the first 25, because I got one – and the book doesn’t even get released until the end of this month.

Somehow I’d forgotten all about it until the book arrived. Still, I did promise to blog about it – and I will. This is not that blog entry because I haven’t finished reading it yet, although I am a chunk of the way into it. (You can read the first 10,000 words at Mr Hughes’ webpage. I’m a bit further in than that, but it’s enough for you to get a solid idea of what it’s like, I think.)

It’s been a long time since I read a new novel – I’m quite a rereader of fiction, and an extensive devourer of new non-fiction. I’d forgotten, therefore, the feeling I hate that is part of why I so rarely do read new novels: the twisting, anxious feeling that I don’t know what’s going to happen, and yet there’s this complicated situation the characters are in, and – aaaahhh!

Plus novels are so long, something I don’t care about once I start reading them, but which seems daunting at the outset. (For the same reason, I hardly ever watch movies.)

Anyway, based on my impressions so far, if I were to condense my forthcoming review of this book into one of those, “If you like X, you’ll love Y,” statements, I’d put it this way: If you liked Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, you’ll probably enjoy The Damned Busters. It’s not quite so apocalyptic – since, at least in part one of this trilogy, it’s not so far actually about the Apocalypse – but it’s the same kind of interestingly pretty-much-accurate-yet-unusual approach to theology and myth combined with wit and humour.

I like it, but I suspect I won’t love it until I’m rereading it, and can appreciate it, engaging story and clever writing alike, without that anguished tension of not knowing what’s going to happen.

I have to say, given I essentially have a review copy of this book and an obligation to review it since I promised to blog about it, I’m somewhat relieved that it’s actually good.

I have some other books, too, but I actually paid money for them. I ordered some books from Amazon UK all of two days ago, taking advantage of the free shipping that now and for the time being extends to Australia, and they arrived today.

I have:

The Wonderful Future That Never Was, by Gregory Benford and the editors of Popular Mechanics: visions of what the future would be like, from the first fifty-odd years of the magazine Popular Mechanics. Because that kind of thing is the kind of thing I utterly adore.

The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists & Secret Agents, by Alex Butterworth. Radical politics circa the turn of the last century, written as a sort of non-fiction novel.

Molotov’s Magic Lanter: Uncovering Russia’s Secret History, by Rachel Polonsky. Begun when the author was given access to Molotov’s private library.

Red Plenty, by Francis Spufforth. “Industry! Progress! Abundance! Inside the Fifties’ Soviet Dream.”

Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957-1962, by Megan Prelinger. I’m fascinated by the advertising of past eras – commercial or propaganda, but especially, really, propaganda, or propaganda-adjacent activities.

If I ever do get around to doing postgraduate work in history, one of my nominal thesis concepts is: How Vera Lynn Defeated Hitler: The Home Front of the Second World War, and it will be about the frequently-disregarded issue of how and why British civilians, especially the women who shouldered a burden that was almost without precedent, held it together and in doing so brought down the Wehrmacht.

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Jan 11 2011

More Video Game Reviews

Category: video gamesSami @ 11:26 am

The last few months have, for me at least, been a particularly frustrating period overall for video game acquisition and enjoyment.

Allow me to combine an explanation with reviews of several recent game purchases.

Fallout: New Vegas

I bought this for the PS3, and played it quite a bit, with great enjoyment – except for the times it crashed, or bugged, or crashed then left bugs behind. I’ve subsequently been playing my housemate’s PC version, because at least I can access the console to fix some of the bugs. Oh, and several patches had already been released for the PC version when the PS3 version was as broken as ever.

Spending retail new-game prices on what should be, at most, the beta version of a game is irritating.

Civilization V

Civ5 should be a really good game.

But months and several patches after release, it still crashes randomly and is fundamentally broken.

Gran Turismo 5

The closest thing I’ve found to a bug in GT5 so far is that the Lexus IS F is, for some reason, eligible to compete in the German Touring Car Challenge, when it shouldn’t be.

That’s it.

It’s a serious indictment of the others that one of the reasons GT5 is currently pretty much my favourite game in the world is that it works.

My advice?

Buy GT5 if you like racing games at all. Pirate the others until the damn things are fixed, then give them some money.

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Jul 27 2010

Game Reviews: Osmos, Frac/ture

Category: materialism,video gamesSami @ 3:47 pm

These are not new games, I know; not the point.

Osmos: PC, Hemisphere Games

I picked this up in the Steam store because it looked interesting; I’d been browsing through the indie games. It may have been on sale, too, I don’t remember, but it’s currently priced at $9.99 and I think it’s worth it.

It’s deceptively simple in its mechanics, and almost meditatively soothing to play. A gentle, melodically liquid soundtrack accompanies you as you control a sphere of matter, attempting to absorb other spheres of matter while avoiding being absorbed. The rule is simple: bigger spheres absorb smaller spheres, adding the smaller sphere’s mass to their own.

You direct your sphere’s motion by clicking in the direction you want it to fire a little blob of its own mass; this goes shooting off, and imparts some movement to your sphere in the opposite direction.

Of course, when your ejected propulsion mass hits another sphere, the absorption effects still take place, and the kinetic energy it had is also absorbed by that sphere.

The levels with a second animate sphere opposed to yours, and the ones where all the spheres are orbiting a central point, get complicated, but it’s all surprisingly intuitive.

It’s rated E for Everyone by the ESRB.

Frac/ture: PS3, Lucasarts

I bought this on sale at Gametraders, because it was on sale and looked really, really cool. It’s a third person shooter, but it has a twist: your character has an additional weapon called an Entrencher which raises and lowers terrain. (Various grenades also have terrain-altering effects.)

In theory, this could be very very cool.

In practice, it’s *quite* cool, but is let down by a few things.

1) The actual damage-dealing weapons often feel incredibly ineffectual. I play a surprising (to me, since I used to think I didn’t like them at all) number of shooting-type games, and there’s a balance I’m accustomed to between the required number of hits an enemy should take to die, the accuracy with which I’m hitting them, and the grade of weapon I’m using.

The weapons in Frac/ture appear to have appalling range and accuracy, which is odd given that the player’s character is a representative of an army with some incredibly high-tech gear, and to be seriously underpowered relative to the strength of the enemy Pacificans. It’s frustrating to be hitting a standard mook with a hail of bullets at point-black range and finding oneself unable to kill him without having to retreat for cover a couple of times. It’s also frustrating to unload an entire clip of ammunition into one standard mook and find oneself unable to kill him before needing to retreat to reload.

This makes combat against multiple enemies tiresome, especially since on those occasions when your character actually has allies accompanying him rather than sending him off alone to do absolutely everything himself, your allies are completely useless.

2) It can be annoyingly difficult to get certain terrain challenges to resolve at all. In early stages, you will, for example, be required to throw a spike grenade (which makes a spike of half-molten-looking rock emerge from the ground) in a certain place to shift a grating to form a ramp, or similar things. All well and good, except getting the grenade to land in precisely the right spot for this to work can be incredibly finicky.

The sole saving grace is that if the grenade doesn’t land somewhere useful it will generally not detonate and you can pick it up again, but this isn’t much consolation as you search various different launch points and angles from which to throw the grenade so that it will land in the precisely correct place under the grating.

3) The sound is unbelievably buggy. At some point between a few minutes and an hour or so after you start playing the game, it overloads itself and starts making speaker-threatening failure noises. This would be bad enough, but the sound is actually quite important to gameplay. (There is a subtitles option, but it excludes rather a lot of the dialogue, and is therefore pretty useless.)

The sound issue is probably the most frustrating. The issues with the weapons and so on can be annoying, but I’ve still been having a lot of fun with the game… until the point where it just dies on me.

So, sadly, I can’t particularly recommend Frac/ture to those without a fairly strong tolerance for restarting battles and restarting their consoles. It’s rather a disappointing effort from Lucasarts.

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May 13 2010

Final Fantasy XIII

Category: not to be taken seriously,video gamesSami @ 11:43 am

Conversation participants: My housemates.

Dean (reading item description): “Potion. Restores some health to all allies.”
Dave: “In my day, we called those MegaPotions.”
Chas: “And did you quaff them while walking to school uphill both ways in the snow?”
Dave: “Only in FF5.”

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Nov 06 2009

Sami’s UK Travel Tips/Photo of the Day

Category: photos,travel,unsolicited adviceSami @ 6:46 am

1) If driving, get a GPS.

Unless you’re going for a very short stay, buy it; hiring them appears to cost ten pounds a day, and if you buy it, you can get used to it and put in principal destinations in advance.

Some Brits will make snarky comments about how they just use maps, but they’re used to this country and its sodding awful road design. The reasons you want a GPS if you’re not from here are as follows:

i) The road signs here are bloody awful. With a GPS you will STILL sometimes go astray, because you’ll find that you have five metres warning that the lane you’re in approaching a roundabout is right-turn-only, or left-turn-only, or go-straight-only – and there are an absolutely stupid number of roundabouts, and their design has zero consistency. The Magic Roundabout in Swindon is no longer even in my top ten Most Horrible British Roundabouts.

i,a) Don’t even try to work out what they were thinking. Only a sadist or someone who had never, in fact, driven a car would think that combining a roundabout with traffic lights, or having two roundabouts in immediate succession, with traffic lights between them, could possibly be anything other than a terrible idea. Welcome to Britain.

2) You don’t know what time it is. Wear a watch.

When I arrived at the farmhouse in which I’m staying for the next several nights, it was dusk. Naturally, this makes it late evening… except it was a quarter to five. That’s late afternoon. Your subconscious calculations of light levels and ambient conditions to tell you what time it is are wrong.

3) The papers are as bad as their stereotypes say they are.

An example is clear in today’s headlines.

The Times: “A bloody betrayal”
The Daily Star: “FIND THE BASTARD AND KILL HIM”

I only wish I were kidding.

The Daily Mail’s entire front page is dedicated to two headlines. A smaller panel: “Why yesterday was a sorry day for Britain, democracy and the Tories”. The bigger panel has a photo and: “THis is the bloodied flak jacket of one of the five British soldiers murdered in Helmand. Their killer? An Afghan policeman they trained and trusted. What kind of war IS this?”

I couldn’t bring myself to buy the Daily Star or the Sun, and I can’t remember the Sun’s headline, but it was pretty histrionic. The Afghanistan deaths were the front page of all but one paper – that one was about MPs.

4) Irn Bru tastes better in Scotland.

I don’t know why. It just does.

5) Some of the best places you will see are the ones no-one told you about.

Today, on my way south from Edinburgh, I stopped in Coldstream. The museum was closed, but I needed to pee so I stopped by the Town Hall/Library, then, on the purest of whims, I wandered down to Walk the Walk, a government/military surplus and memorabilia shop.

Which, it turns out, is also the building where some of the Coldstream Guards officers were billeted during World War 2, and down a narrow flight of stairs, there’s a miniature WW2 museum that surprises you as you come around the corner. At which point the sound system starts rotating through WW2-era songs and radio broadcasts, like Churchill’s speeches.

I bought three things there. One of them was not, originally, for sale, but he invited me to make an offer on it, and accepted my offer. The reason? We’d been chatting about my grandmother, and it turns out he had a framed set of maps and army print releases from the time and place where she was stationed.

Had. Now I have them.

Today’s photo:

This is a small bridge over the Leithen Water, in the town of Coldstream.

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Oct 30 2009

Quick Post: Video

Category: UncategorizedSami @ 8:23 pm

I’ll be catching up with photo and chronicle posts soon, but in the meantime, here’s a horse getting grumpy with my car at the Highland Wildlife Park near Aviemore:

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Oct 25 2009

Scotland Photos: Western Highlands and Isle of Skye

Category: photos,travelSami @ 7:54 am

So, the Highlands to the west are really quite phenomenally beautiful.

An interesting thing about this following one: The road tunnel is all of one lane through.

This is taken from the inner courtyard of Eileen Donan Castle:

Bogland on the Isle of Skye:

An inlet I thought was beautiful:

Sunset on the Isle of Skye:

And finally, at dusk, the Skye sky eats the mountains:

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Oct 20 2009

Scotland: Impressions and Diary

Category: adventure,travelSami @ 4:53 pm

Impressions on Scotland, and diary:

- Gretna Green

Gretna Green seems like a lovely town – I’d like to return to it. The Outlet Centre there also supplied me with, seriously, the most awesome, snug, comfy and warm jumper I’ve ever owned.

- Edinburgh

Edinburgh is beautiful and ancient, and horrible to drive in – although I imagine it’s not so bad when the city centre isn’t a mess of traffic diversions due to roadworks.

Everyone I met was lovely, with one exception – and he was French. After douchily deliberately interfering with my attempt to take a photo of a cathedral, he gave me a snotty “Bonjour” – to which, naturally, I responded by rolling my eyes and calling him a very rude name in French.

He looked shocked and thoroughly rattled; stereotypical French superiority doesn’t work so well when your target can shoot you down en francais.

- Dundee

I stopped in Dundee long enough to pick up grocery items to have for lunch. Every single person I interacted with was kind of a douche, or an outright and utter toolbag. I choose to believe this was an aberration.

Side note: Man, meek British men who’ve decided to Speak Up are irritating. Dude, either grow a pair, and voice your complaint with authority, or shut the hell up, but the whining, quiet and passive-aggressive approach to complaining bugs me, if only because the soft approach makes me think that they’re actually wanting to have some kind of relevant and polite informational exchange.

(No, his complaint was not justified.)

- Garioch

I stopped long enough to get Irn Bru and some crisps at the Co-Op, because only the Co-Op has delicious gluten-free salt and vinegar crisps. Irn Bru puzzles me – I tried it in Australia and hated it, yet in Scotland, it’s delicious. Clearly Scottish Irn Bru is special.

I chatted briefly to a very nice young man with a mild disability, and was delighted that the Co-Op apparently hires people with disabilities to work there even if it’s a disability that very slightly impairs their ability to do the job – not enough that it’s actually meaningful, but enough that it could be used as a pretext not to hire them.

- The Family Seat

Thursday evening

They’re harvesting at the moment – apparently the farm’s cash crop at present is seed potatoes.

It’s utterly beautiful around here, and my kinfolk are lovely beyond the telling of it. I was shown a scrapbook of my great-uncle Ian’s life, and he told some stories of his youth and his siblings, including my own grandmother, their late older sister, and his brother, who died in the Second World War.

The story of great-uncle James going through the binder has second witness confirmation, which is good, because Mary thought the tale unlikely, and I hadn’t heard it directly from someone who’d seen it happen in many, many years.

Apparently James was quite adventurous and a bit reckless – somehow unsurprising, then, that he ended up a fighter pilot in the War.

Great-uncle Ian also has a photo of himself receiving a trophy from King George VI, as the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother looks on; it seems Ian won a stock-judging competition, with a perfect score – a feat not matched before or since. (Note: His wife brought this up while he looked embarrassed.)

I managed to impress my great-aunt Hilda tremendously. We’d been talking about the local Doric dialect, and Uncle Ian said something to me using it, which I had to have translated; then, for another example, she asked me a question – to which I responded appropriately, because I’d clocked the vowel and consonant shifts enough to link it with my previous knowledge of Scots English, and understood.

I? Am awesome.

Meanwhile, my bed is unbelievably comfortable, and I’m drinking Highland spring water – straight from the tap, because the farm has its own spring, on the hill, and the water is clear and delicious. They’ve never gone on the council water, because it’s chemically treated and you pay for it anyway, whereas the water from the spring is pure and clear and perfect – and free.

The vegetables with dinner were all grown right here, too. The potatoes were the most delicious I’ve ever tasted, and even the green beans were edible, and the carrot, despite being cooked (I prefer raw) tasted pleasant – normally I hate cooked carrot, but I’ve never had carrots this good.

If I had internet, I’d worry I’d never want to leave.

Friday, 2:40pm

Today I tried to climb Bennachie, the hill that dominates this part of Aberdeenshire. I didn’t succeed. It was steep and difficult, but I was managing, until I got above the treeline and a bitterly cold wind seemed to blow through me to my bones. I hesitated a lot, but the mass of heavy, dark clouds the wind seemed to be bringing brought a decision to turn back.

It turns out to have been for the best. My bung knee and ankle found the trip down much more difficult than up, and by the time I got to my car I was barely able to walk. I ate the lunch I’d packed in the car, then drove home to Logie Newton by way of the ruined church at Tillymorgan.

Before I went out this morning, I chatted at length with my great-uncle and great-aunt. Lovely, lovely people. We talked about family, here and far, about life and people.

On the road to the Rowantree Bennachie carpark, I came across a trio of women riding horses – they were having some trouble, because one of the horses was being rather captious, and all of them were very nervous of cars. I stopped and killed my engine, but the one that had shied off in the other direction was insistent about heading that way – despite being also quite unnerved by a bicycle coming the other way.

While two of the women were trying to bring that horse under control, the third was left standing holding the other two – who, when the wind blew gustily, jumped in opposite directions. She held one but the other got away from her – I was standing talking to her, and caught its reins, though it had almost caught itself at that point, by treading on them.

I discovered how little I know horses as I tried to free the reins, and though I talked to her in soothing terms, I didn’t think to tell the horse: “Back up!” Which is the command the woman whose horse it was gave.

The other of the less-nervous horses, whose name was Emma, was 17 hands high. I hadn’t until that moment realised just how big a 17 hands horse is – she was huge.

After I parked at last, I headed up Bennachie.

I took many photos of the stretch I did walk, including some shots I quite like of the dew on spider webs amid the plants. In the end, however, as mentioned, I gave up and turned back when I got above the treeline, and a bitterly cold wind was bringing heavy dark clouds towards Bennachie.

My photos show the steep, narrow and rocky path fairly well, I think; it rather explains why my not-quite-right bad knee and not-quite-recovered-from-spraining ankle were screaming some by the time I got back to my car.

Looking through today’s pictures, I’m realising that the lighting conditions in Scotland are quite different, somehow, from what I’m used to; I think my camera settings are wrong, and the white balance is a little out, so some of my photos are coming out looking a little over-exposed and glare-ish.

Friday, 9:40pm

This afternoon I met, and had the pleasure of spending some time with, my young (around 14) cousin Isla. (I’m not going to try and keep noting precise degrees of cousinhood, here; it’s tiresomely complicated.) She’s a marvellous young woman, absolutely charming, with a quick mind and a distinct artistic aptitude. She has an interest in photography, so this evening I introduced her to some basic principles of the subject and let her try them out with my camera.

She was nervous about breaking the camera, but I assured her it would be fine, just be sure to use the neck-strap. I figure that she’s clearly a responsible young woman, and not careless or clumsy; if she’s using the neck-strap and being reasonably careful, she’s no more likely to break the camera than I am. (And in any case, it’s insured, at the moment.) To reassure her I also showed her the UV filter that’s there to absorb minor damage.

She’s a quick learner. Tonight she had it on largely automatic settings while she learned to use the lens, the controls, focal points and exposure compensation, etc. Tomorrow she’s visiting again, and we’re going to go out to the old church at Tillymorgan to take photos. I plan to take some of my own, but she’ll also get a good chance to play around with the camera. We can share, and I can also take some of my own shots with my video camera, which does take stills. One of the things that I will enjoy about tomorrow is spending time with one of my younger cousins.

It’s an odd feeling, making contact with slightly more distant branches of family. Because they’re geographically distant, if nothing else, I’ve never really known them. I know my mother keeps in touch with her uncle and aunt here (mostly her aunt, I think, because my great-uncle is a fairly quiet man), but I haven’t known them, really; I didn’t know Isla’s name until I met her today.

And yet they’re family, and so there is this sense of instant welcome and acceptance that’s truly lovely. I drove Isla home tonight; there would be a weirdness about being trusted instantly to drive a fourteen-year-old home on dark country roads, except I’m family. And have been driving all over Britain day and night without untoward incident, so my kinfolk figure I must be a safe enough driver. The closest we came to an incident was my pulling over for longer than strictly necessary to let a tractor go past in the other direction, on the basis that I couldn’t work out quite how wide it was, and didn’t dare try to pass it myself.

This is not dangerous. This is Safe Country Driving.

As it turns out it was a tractor carrying a load of tatties, and turned in just behind me; the menfolk are working late at the moment on the harvest. The ground’s wetter than they’re wanting, and so lifting the potatoes is taking longer than it would from drier ground.

As for country driving: So far I have yet to encounter the great road hazard of the area – the equivalent of Sudden Kangaroos here is Sudden Deer. Unlike roos, however, apparently deer travel in twos – if one deer leaps out into the road, there will be another one.

I’m looking forward to spending more time with Isla tomorrow – I enjoy it, and in addition to making my young cousin happy (and giving her experience of Real Photography, that might be of use to her in her future life – you never know what might let a kid find her talent and vocation), it also delights her grandparents, who of course adore her. I like making my family happy.

Saturday, 1am

Despite a day in which I got plenty of exercise, for a change, and had a generally really good day, I can’t sleep.

I’ve been in Britain nearly two weeks now, and in that time, the only time I’ve spent in any major British city was three days in Edinburgh. I have not set foot in London at all; I stopped in Dundee long enough to go to Morrison’s. That’s it.

But the countryside is beautiful and the people are great.

Right now I’m in farm country, and it feels good. That may be why I can’t sleep – I feel too refreshed, too alive, too good to sleep.

So, instead, a note about stereotypes.

The national stereotype about Scotland includes being extremely stingy with money.

This is thoroughly inaccurate.

This does not mean that there is not a different attitude to money here – there is, both in dealing with regular people and in the discourse on the radio and in the papers.

But what it is is that the Scots seem to be very scrupulous about money.

By way of example: The expenses scandal rolls ever onward. But on Scottish radio, the discussion – including the surprisingly, wonderfully common discussion panels with members of the public and members of Parliament as well as journalists etc – is not about angry outrage against the MPs.

Instead, where in English media there seems to be a strong current of angry outrage towards MPs who protest the issue of repaying monies given to them previously for their expenses, where those expenses were legal at the time even if now considered inappropriate, excessive, etc, in Scotland the question of whether it is fair to consider standards of appropriateness retroactively has been much and seriously discussed.

Because, you see, in Scotland, people seem to feel very strongly that monetary dealings must be fair. They don’t want to be cheated, but they don’t want to be a party to cheating someone else, either.

And in Scotland, in discussions with individuals and with media discussions of public spending, you get another impression: Where expenditure is necessary, there is no question that it should be spent. Costs should not be cut where this will have a negative effect on the quality of the result; what you need to spend, you spend.

However, money should absolutely not be wasted.

In Scotland, the discussion is always in terms of fairness and necessity.

I like it.

But I can see where a nation of shopkeepers might find this attitude difficult to deal with.

Saturday, 4:30pm

Today, I: Led my elders astray.

There exists a ruined church, built in the 1830s, abandoned in the 1960s. The first minister incumbent at this church was my great-great-great-grandfather; he came here to found the church, and his daughter married a local lad, my great-great-grandfather.

The church itself is now owned by the proprietors of the house next door, who were apparently supposed to keep the church in reasonable repair, but they really, really haven’t; nonetheless, in the manner of city folk who buy houses in the country, they are incredibly unfriendly and hostile to people even parking on the road next to their house or the church.

They can’t stop people going to the churchyard, but they don’t let people go to the church itself.

My great-uncle and great-aunt and young cousin Isla and I went to the churchyard today, where some of my ancestors are buried, and where the memorial is inscribed to my late and much beloved grandmother.

Where I led my elders astray is in climbing over the gate to the church itself, where we explored the church ruins. The householders arrived just after we’d climbed back out; my great-aunt, great-uncle and cousin were all having “I can’t believe we did that! I can’t believe we got away with that!” reactions.

I’d assured them that if we got caught they should just let me do the talking – I’d talk fast in an Australian accent and just try and charm them out of being shouty and mean.

It’s worth noting that my great-uncle is 90 years old and my great-aunt is well into her 70s, but they were laughing like children. It was rather wonderful.

I take after my beloved grandmother, it seems, including in the way of being rather daring, and inspiring a hint of recklessness in others.

The feeling of reckless defiance, I think, helped us all maintain good cheer as we discovered the ruin that has become of the church. Worse than the decay, the people there seem to be using the old vestry as a storage shed for old junk. I thoroughly disapprove of such treatment of the church that was founded by my great-great-great-grandfather, where my cousin Mary’s parents were married, where my grandmother – and several generations before her – grew up attending church.

I don’t care what your religious inclinations are – that’s disrespectful, to the memories of a place that was so important to so many people, where six children still lie in unmarked graves, where a century and a half of the important events of an entire community were focussed.

Saturday, almost midnight

This evening I went outside, in the freezing cold night, and looked at the stars. Eventually I identified some constellations, I think, from diagrams I’ve seen in the past, but it’s profoundly strange to look to the sky and not feel the instant, comforting recognition of familiar patterns.

I got one shot that I’m pretty happy with.

Afterwards I came in and watched the last few minutes of Man Utd vs Bolton with my cousin Doug, then watched a bit of TV on my own after he went to bed. Now I’m writing this, having resolved a dilemma by recourse to the very special kind of complete bitch I can be.

Killing them with kindness is the phrase. It’s the tactic whereby one is pleasant and nice about things, refusing to acknowledge the faintest possibility that other people might be being duplicitous or passive-aggressive or otherwise deceitful and unpleasant.

Accordingly, if someone were to try and tell another person that I was being horrible, their complaint would get stuck in the form of: “When I told her X, she acted like she thought I meant it!”

Which means, essentially, that if someone has a problem with me, they are forced to say so, or else seethe with silent resentment… and if I don’t like them, I don’t care if they’re seething with silent resentment (and in any case, in accordance with my policy, I will refuse to acknowledge or even perceive their silent resentment).

I only do this to people who are being kind of jerks, as a rule, but I do it very, very well if I’m doing it to someone who’s annoyed me, or whose opinion of me I don’t care about.

I gave a sort of summary of my tactics of Creative Sincerity to my great-aunt Hilda this evening – I was talking about going back to the ruined church, and she voiced the possibility that the people might find me there.

In which case, I explained, I say: “Oh, you see, this church was originally founded by my great-great-great-grandfather. My cousin’s parents were married here, and it was my ancestors’ family church for over a century. My grandmother’s grave is just there. I’ve come all the way from Australia, and it’s really important to me to be able to see the place properly.” While holding a video camera.

Thereby, through being completely honest, I place them in a situation of having to be a really, really horrible person, on film, or let me do what I want.

Thank you for playing Heads I Win Tails You Lose, please come again…

If my time in student politics taught me anything, it is this: It’s not enough to be in the right. You can be right, and still lose. Having the moral high ground is a nice idea… but really, the moral high ground is just a position of tactical advantage for the ensuing combat. You still have to win.

Sunday, 1pm

Have spent the morning chatting with my great-uncle and great-aunt and their son; cousin Doug showed me his collection of sashes, trophies, rosettes and photographs from his days rocking the championships at the cattle shows. He bred Herefords, and very, very well.

Great-aunt and great-uncle and I looked through some tourist booklets and things, too, that I had, and talked about places and people.

The more they get to know me, she says, the more strongly I remind them of my grandmother.

This makes me feel very, very good about myself, actually.

In the morning I’m heading off to explore Scotland more; their granddaughters need to stay a night anyway, and this way I can go look about a bit and come back later, when the harvest might be finished, and I can meet the menfolk of the family for more than a few hurried moments. This afternoon I’m off to Turriff to run some errands, and going to see the White Stones.

An idle note: I am losing the word “yes” from my vocabulary. It was bad enough after visiting with my ex-South-African family in England – the tendency to say “Ja:” (it’s a more elongated vowel than the German) is curiously infectious.

Time with Scottish kin has brought me to start saying “aye” a lot as well. It occurred to me today I haven’t said “yes” in quite some time now.

Sunday, 11:48pm

So, this evening I played Canasta with my great-aunt, great-uncle, and cousin. I was partnered with my great-uncle Ian, and we won. It was fun, if often interrupted – the phone kept ringing and ringing…

Tomorrow I’m leaving, though I’ve promised to return before I leave Britain. I’ll be heading north and west through Scotland; some generalised exploring, first, now I am finally without a Schedule To Follow, and at some point a trip to Aberdeen, to dig through the archives of the city and of the diocesan office. (There are reasons…)

This afternoon was quite an emotional ride. My cousin Doug showed me the way to the White Stones, and I trod in deep slurry, the kind that sucks hard at your boots. After that I went up to the White Stones alone, which is just as well, because I found myself briefly crying like a baby – the ashes of both my grandparents were scattered there, and I felt, for a moment, as I stood by the stones that have been just there for thousands of years, as if all the grief I’ve held ever since my grandmother’s death, in particular, was overwhelming me.

I kicked away a little of the moss and grass that has conquered one of the ancient stone circles. It felt like my own discovery.

This was also, however, just after I discovered my “waterproof” boots were leaking. I shall be writing a cranky letter to the manufacturers. Fortunately, since I still wanted to run an errand in Turriff, my cross-trainers and some dry socks were in the boot of my car, which I’d driven up to the Stones.

This afternoon I also fixed Doug’s computer. It had tied itself thoroughly in knots, but fixably so.

Tomorrow, my rough plan is to visit Culloden, and spend the night somewhere around Inverness. Tuesday I’ll head up to the far north, or into the western Highlands.

Monday, late evening

I attended the evening session of the Moray Camera Club. A photo competition was being judged by a man from Dundee, and I really enjoyed the pictures, but my lord the man has terrible judgement, I found it rather irksome.

It finished at 9pm, and everyone was gathering for tea and socialisation, but I went back to my car, and by the combined powers of the Accommodation Guide I picked up at the tourist info office, mobile broadband on laptop, and actually having a phone with which to call places, poked around until I found a nice place to stay.

One place I called that had no rooms, the woman was trying to think of somewhere that would. She came up with the Premier Inn.

“That’s my fallback option.”
“Yes, it is a bit of a fallback place, isn’t it?”

The Premier Inn is basically a motel chain. I stayed at one in Merseyside; it was nice enough, clean and pleasant and all that, but it’s not at all interesting.

One night in the Premier Inn at Merseyside cost me fifty pounds.

Tonight, for fifty pounds, I’m staying at The Pines Guest House. For that fifty pounds, I’m staying in an utterly lovely room in an old Victorian mansion, with beautiful, beautiful furniture, including a king-sized wooden four-poster bed. Instead of scrabbling for power points, I’ve plugged my laptop into the powerboard – but there’s four other free power points I can see from where I’m sitting. There are fixings for tea and coffee. There’s a lovely gilt mirror.

Oh, and a full breakfast is included, and there’s wifi internet access.

The sheet has some fun bits on the policy stuff. Like the Edinburgh Lodge, they have a towel system whereby you can indicate whether you want your towels replaced or are happy to reuse them; the Pines system is that you leave towels you want replaced on the floor.

They also recycle and use local or Fairtrade products where possible. And have a laundry service – clothes returned washed and dried.

This is why, seriously, finding a B&B is preferable to finding a motel. I have the nicest room in the house, apparently; it was the only room that was left.

Tuesday, midmorning

After a delicious breakfast, I’m lounging in bed watching Jeeves and Wooster and updating photos and things. A proper photo post will have to be forthcoming later, though.

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Oct 09 2009

England, day 3: Hungerford and Portsmouth

Category: adventure,photos,travelSami @ 3:19 am

Full photo set for today is here.

This morning I trotted off to Hungerford, after a leisurely chat with my uncle, to go to a bank before I headed on for my day’s main adventures.

In Hungerford I discovered that Barclay’s Bank didn’t open until 9:30am, Lloyd’s TSB didn’t open until 10am, and Natwest got my custom because it was actually open at quarter past nine, when my wandering down the high street got me that far.

Dear England,

What the hell.

Love,
Sami.

A local I chatted to commented that he supposed they were lucky to have a branch in such a small town; I feel this is not quite the attitude.

Still, Hungerford is a very pretty place, and in addition to getting hold of some actual cash, I got some snacks for the day’s travels, too: strawberries, blueberries, and some gluten-free chips. I also bought copies of the Times and the Guardian, though I’ve not yet had time to read them.

A brief digression on my accent: Apparently, my tendency to absorb accents has not abated. Around my uncle’s house I find myself using occasional South African-isms; amongst the English, I’ve had an odd progression in people commenting on my accent. The first was a woman in the bank, who heard it from their back offices and came out to ask me what time it would be in Sydney. The second was a woman in the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth, who detected no Australian in my accent but picked up the American touch I don’t seem to be able to lose.

The third was another gentleman in another part of the museum, a couple of hours later, who thought I sounded entirely English.

Anyway, after I left Hungerford I headed for Portsmouth. Quite a long drive, but Radio 4 continues to be highly entertaining and the English countryside continues to be beautiful – and their’s something heart-stoppingly wonderful about seeing castles perched on hillsides in the distance.

Finally I reached Portsmouth, and I even found my way to the Historic Dockyards carpark, and then to the Historic Dockyards themselves. My booking on the tour of the HMS Victory was fairly soon, but on the way to it I had the chance to stop in one of the musuem galleries and see the honest-to-goodness actual, genuine Enigma Machine.

As a history buff of the period I follow, I assure you, this was terribly exciting.

After that, I took the tour of the Victory. Note: The Royal Navy still owns the Victory, and forbids photography, so I have no pictures of this. But I do have a picture of me, standing in front of the great ship, taken by the best photographer ever.

Apparently the best estimate is that about 25% Trafalgar materials remain in the Victory; in addition to the extremely heavy damage she took in the battle itself, it’s been an awfully long time, and since she’s now being kept in dry-dock, a number of the original cannons have been removed because she can’t take the weight, and replaced with fibreglass replicas.

That said, I saw, and touched, one of the cannon she carried at the Battle of Trafalgar. (As historic artifacts go, several tons of painted cast iron are on the list of those I do not feel it inappropriate to touch. I’m not sure I could damage it with a hammer beyond maaaybe chipping the paint.)

Walking on the lower deck where the original boards remain, I felt almost light-headed, thinking that my twenty-first century boots were tramping the same decks trodden by the crew – that I was walking where Admiral Nelson once walked.

We stopped in the area of the lower decks where the wounded were taken, and where Nelson himself died. The famous painting of Nelson’s deathbed scene is woefully inaccurate; it features people standing around, instead of hunching, because the ceiling is about five feet high there, and one of the men pictured standing tall with space above his head to spare was in fact six foot seven.

The low beams and the dim, windowless area give the deck a very claustrophobic feel, and the footsteps of people walking on the deck above are loud. It’s hard to imagine what the scene must have been like at the time he lay dying, with the cries of the other wounded, the battle still raging above, the thunder of footsteps amid the deafening blasts of the cannon fire.

After the Victory tour, I went to the museum, and saw the Battle of Trafalgar Experience, and checked out the display of figureheads and the miniature exhibition on the Royal Navy’s role in the ending of the slave trade; I noted that they do, at least, also acknowledge the Royal Navy’s role in the establishment of the slave trade.

*cough*:

After that, it was time to hustle down to the waterfront to board the ferry for the harbour tour. My photos from the tour are limited, as what I mostly did was video the whole thing – at some points the picture from the video gets terrible, because I was taking pictures with my still camera, but the tour speech from the driver was really good and I didn’t want to miss it.

Some highlights -

The white cliffs of Portchester Downs:

Roman fort turned English castle, Portchester Castle:

I disembarked from the ferry at the Gunwharf Quays, and went up the Spinnaker Tower. I’m not sure it would be at all worth it on a day with less clear skies, because for all that you can see for 27 miles, the tower is not that well-designed for good viewing. Nonetheless:

Finally, I wended my weary way back to my car, and drove back to Wiltshire. My plan was originally to have a nice bath and rest a bit before going out this evening to get petrol and do some shopping for winter clothes, but apparently I’m not quite over jet lag yet, because I’ve found myself feeling very, very tired and completely unfit to drive.

So, though it’s only a quarter past eight here in England, it is bedtime for Samis.

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Oct 07 2009

England, Day 1: Stonehenge, Longleat, the Vale of the White Horse, Avebury

Category: travelSami @ 4:30 am

So. This morning I woke at 4am, and headed out in time to get to Stonehenge before dawn. Driving through the countryside at dawn is kind of amazing for seeing small creatures at the edges of the light.

Sadly, I did discover that nowadays, Stonehenge kind of sucks, and it’s “closed” until 9:30am. Still, since nowadays you’re not allowed to walk close to the stones or anything, I’m told you see it just as much from the side of the road.

Especially if, as I did, you have a telephoto lens for your camera:

I will say, Stonehenge is a pretty awe-inspiring sight when you come around a curve and suddenly it’s right there – I nearly pitched into a ditch.

So, having walked about a bit, and started the truly impressive collection of mud the footwell of my car has already acquired, and also wanting to get some munchies, I went to the nearby village of Amesbury and did some grocery shopping. My munchies for most of the morning: A pound of the most delicious strawberries I’ve ever tasted, along with a bottle of gold top Jersey/Guernsey cow-sourced milk that was also utterly delicious.

Oh, I also got some delicious local cheese.

After that, I headed for Longleat, the estate and stately home of the Marquess of Bath.

After that I headed back towards my current home base. I went past Stonehenge again, but it was raining really hard so I wasn’t very tempted to stop. However, my trip was temporarily delayed by encountering something I had to stop and photograph – and the rain had by then abated.

This is one of the White Horses around the Vale of the White Horse. Not the coolest, but the one I suddenly found out ahead of me.

After that I went on to Avebury, which is rather one of the world’s best-kept secrets. You see, where Stonehenge is a church, Avebury is a cathedral – two stone circles *and* a whole lot of other stones, that wrap through and around the village centre.

This stone has been there for six thousand years.

This is the path along the hill above the Sun Circle. The surface is chalk. Wet chalk, it turns out, is hideously slick and slippery – I pitched down hard into the hillside, but fortunately didn’t land on nettles or sheep poo.

The rest of the day is rather less interesting, although after a delicious dinner with my uncle, aunt and cousin, I also spoke first to my cousin Mary and then to my cousin Hilda, and have confirmed arrangements for my visiting Scotland next week. I’m going to Edinburgh from Sunday to Wednesday, then to Aberdeenshire and the historic family farm until I head down to Newcastle to catch the ferry to Amsterdam.

Anyway, the full set of today’s photos is here.

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