Friday, 30 April 2010

New College, Oxford

New College

On Monday, I took my husband to visit my old college in Oxford. I really wanted to show him what it's like in springtime - and since I had my camera, I can show you, too.

The college is a large and imposing complex, but in my opinion the most special parts are not the buildings but the gardens. On a sunny day I would walk into the gardens (round ) and sit on the grass with my books. In my view you could hardly have a more perfect environment for studying - but I was often the only one studying in the gardens. Perhaps that's just because the croquet lawn was so much more popular!

So, welcome to New College (so new, it was established in 1379). I hope you can see why I loved these gardens.



Wednesday, 28 April 2010

A Midnight Visitor

I was not terribly happy to be woken up at 1am by strange rumbling noises from outside. I tried to ignore it and go back to sleep, but it felt like the house was shaking. Eventually my husband got up to investigate... and found a badger just outside our bedroom window!

He was pushing rocks around underneath the bird feeder, and loudly snorting up whatever he found under there. We think it might have been peanuts that the birds have knocked to the ground. I know I live in a great spot for wildlife in general, but this is the first time we've seen a badger on our property, which makes it pretty exciting.


On a side note, although I didn't manage to get a good photo (the flash scared him while I was still focusing), I'm impressed with the performance of the camera. It was pitch dark outside, and this was with an f4-5.6 lens (translation for non-photographers: not brilliant for low light conditions). So although it's only a photo of a badger running away, at least I did get something on camera, and you can see the rocks he was moving around.

He's been back most nights, so hopefully one of these days he'll be loud enough to wake us up again, or else I'll be awake enough to stay up for him. The camera is waiting!

Monday, 26 April 2010

"As you know, your father the King..."

Do you recognise the title of this post?

I'm not sure if it's a commonly used phrase outside of scriptwriting circles, but certainly back when I was writing plays, we used to talk about this concept all the time. It's to do with expository dialogue, hence particularly relevant to scriptwriting, but also applicable to other forms of writing.

"As you know, your father the King..." is a conventional example of really bad dialogue. Not only is it never necessary to tell someone that their father is the King (well, except maybe Oedipus!), any dialogue including the phrase "as you know" should probably start ringing some warning bells!

I wrote about exposition a couple of months back, with a little exercise to show how much can be implied (and inferred by the reader) without resorting to a nasty infodump of expository text.

The whole point of "As you know, your father the King..." is to remind you that allowing the characters to spout exposition is just as bad - if not worse - than doing it in the narrative voice. Characters should never speak out of character; most of the time, that means they're not stating a load of facts.

Think about it. How often do you tell someone something they already know? And if you do have to tell someone a thing you think they should know, you're probably going to get frustrated.

I just re-watched Monsters, Inc. (a film I love) and was struck by the really awkward exposition in the opening scene. Even though the infodump is almost-justified in context by being addressed to some new recruits, it doesn't quite work, because the speech covers some things that everyone in the Monsters world should already know. It just feels stilted.

Films are full of bad dialogue, and if your eyes are open to it, you'll easily spot dozens of examples for yourself. It's a little bit harder to identify with books, but I find that reading the dialogue aloud (without the surrounding description) can help to make sure it flows.

If you get the urge to have your characters relate facts about their situation or their world, just remember to check: is this really for the benefit of the character they're talking to? Or is it a clumsy way of relaying information to the audience?

Saturday, 24 April 2010

An Underground Adventure

CERN has been in the news quite a bit over the last couple of years, thanks to the starting (and stopping, and restarting...) of experiments with the Large Hadron Collider.

One of the main news stories has been about whether this new high-energy collider is going to create a black hole that will swallow the earth (don't panic; it won't).

Even though I'm not 'in' physics any more, I follow news from CERN with interest. Partly because I'm still a total physics geek at heart, and partly because I've been there.

While I was studying for my A levels, I went on two school trips to Switzerland to visit this particle physics lab. As a geeky teenager, it was just about the most exciting trip I could have imagined. We even got to go into the tunnels.

Inside the CERN tunnel
Grainy photo from my non-digital camera,
taken in January 2000

The tunnel, which houses the actual particle accelerator, is 17 miles (27km) in circumference and runs under the border between Switzerland and France. It's such a big circle that any given section almost looks straight, from inside.

When I was first there, in 2000, the LEP (an electron collider) was still running, but parts of the LHC were starting to be moved in. I had a feeling that I was watching history in the making; ten years later, we're finally close to seeing the fruits of those labours.

I'd love to go back one day.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Apparently, I'm Notable

WOW! It's my turn to be featured at Words of Wisdom - which makes me officially their "Blogger of Note", an ego-stroke if ever there was one!

If you're visiting from WOW, welcome, and pull up a chair. There's always a cuppa brewing for friends, and you can help yourself to a slice of cake.

If, on the other hand, you've never heard of WOW, please give me a moment to tell you about it. This is quite a new community, but it was set up by Sandy and Pam to fill a very particular niche: a home for bloggers who focus on their own unique content, rather than on advertising and commercial giveaways. If this sounds like you (or something you might like to read more of) then please drop in and take a look around. I've found a number of very cool blogs in just the few weeks that the site has been running, and it's growing by word of mouth - if you join in, you can help to make it an even better source of great blogging friends for everyone.

I was asked to pick out three posts to introduce myself, which is always a really tough challenge, but here goes.

Ambition, Competition, Motivation is a good introduction to the way I view the world - and why I'm the person who will always be genuinely excited for you because honestly, whoever you are, we're not in competition.

• Travel and adventure is a huge part of my life (and likely to become more so, if my incipient career in travel writing develops as I hope it will), so I often try to bring my readers with me to far-flung places. You can pick out travel adventures by country from the links in my side bar. Our Devonshire Weekend was closer to home, but no less special for that.

• I also write novels in my spare time, so I blog quite a bit about writing; my thoughts on Language in Fantasy probably represent me at my most coherent, combining my academic specialism (linguistics) with my favourite passtime.

I hope you enjoy your visit, and if you do, please consider following along with the adventure that is my life. I'll try to make sure it's exciting for all of us!

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

A Beanburger Recipe

This weekend, I made beanburgers for a friend who's allergic to beans. I realise that sounds like a particularly cruel and unusual punishment, but let me explain.

As always when I'm planning to cook for others, I asked about any allergies or dislikes, at which point the bean allergy surfaced. But in further discussion it turned out not to apply to all varieties of beans. Moreover, my friend hasn't always had this allergy, and used to be partial to a beanburger now and then - a simple pleasure which is mostly off-limits now that the allergy has surfaced.

Well, my dad has developed an excellent recipe for beanburgers, and I was sure I could make them with the one kind of bean she's definitely not allergic to: the black eyed bean. It worked just as well as with the traditional red kidney bean, and I'm sure you could substitute any bean of your choice.


My Dad's Beanburgers
Makes 18 burgers

2 tins of beans (the original recipe used red kidney beans)
1 tin of chopped tomatoes
3 medium red onions
2tbsp soy sauce
12 Ryvita crackers
6 heaped dessert spoons of oats
a large handful of fresh coriander (cilantro)
  1. Chop the onions finely, and fry for a couple of minutes to soften. Leave to cool.

  2. Drain and rinse the beans.

  3. method A - foodprocessor
    Put the beans, tomatoes, soy sauce, and Ryvita into the food processor, and whizz until chopped and combined. Remove the mixture from the processor into a large bowl, and stir together with all the other ingredients.

    method B - by hand (this is how I do it)
    Put the beans into a large bowl and crush with a potato masher. Crumble the Ryvitas using a pestle and mortar. Combine all the ingredients.

  4. Form into patties - I do this by taking a heaped dessert spoonful of the mixture, rolling it into a ball between my hands, then flattening it. Of course, if you have a burger press, you can use that.

  5. Fry at a medium heat for around 5 minutes each side, until cooked through (the outsides will brown slowly).

  6. Serve in bread rolls with your choice of garnish - salad, cheese, and ketchup were popular at our house.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

My Metric Imperial Mixture

When I posted my coconut ice recipe the other day, Jeanne asked me why I gave some measurements in metric and others in imperial units. I'd never thought about it before, but it's true - I operate in an odd mixture of units, depending on the context. In this case, it was inches for the size of my tins, but gram weights for the ingredients.

In general, for distances, I have a good idea of how far a mile is, whereas a kilometre is a complete mystery to me. And I'm better with feet and inches than with centimetres. I suppose this is just the terminology I grew up with.

I'm not great at gauging weights of any kind, but I happen to know my weight in kilos, from when I used to enter martial arts competitions and it therefore mattered.

When it comes to recipes, I don't really weigh things, but I tend to look at the proportion of a pack that I've used - so if I've used half of a 100g bar of chocolate, it's easier to write 50g than to do a conversion. (I'm also learning how very, very easy it can be to cook the American way, by volume, so don't be too surprised if you see a few more 'cups' around here....)

In the case of the coconut ice, I had an 8-inch tin, but was using 200g packets of coconut. There is method in my madness... honest!

Friday, 16 April 2010

The Tallest Building In Tórshavn

It was a grey day when we were wandering around Tórshavn, so our photos aren't as stunning as some of the landscapes we captured later in the week. It was also Easter weekend, so everything was closed. However, as capital cities go, I think Tórshavn is quite an interesting one.

We were slightly amazed at how easy it was to wander between the grass-roofed buildings of the old parliament (now government offices) and peer through the windows.

Faroese Parliament

We were even able to take Androcles II to visit the Prime Minister's office. We had to be very careful with him, though, for fear that he might dissolve in all the rain.Androcles II visits the Faroese Prime Minister

But the thing I really wanted to share with you was the ferry, which runs regularly between Tórshavn, Denmark, and Iceland. It arrived as we were walking around the coast.

Ferry in Torshavn

"When the ferry is in town," we were told, "it's the tallest building in Tórshavn."

Ferry in Torshavn

Zooming in, if you look closely to the right of the picture, you can see the way it towers over the grass roofs of the parliament.

Ferry in Torshavn

It might not be quite the highest point in the city (some of which is built on the hillsides), but it's pretty close.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010


Do you know this little prayer?
God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
My grandma used to have this on the wall in her hallway (maybe she still does? I'm not sure), which is where I remember reading it when I was a little girl. And whether or not you personally believe in a God who may grant you these things, it's hard to argue with the basic sentiment. Some stuff, you can and should change. Some, you can't or shouldn't. It's not always easy to know which is which.

I've been thinking about this lately in the context of my writing. I've been getting loads of great feedback on my novel (from friends and strangers alike), and it's fascinating to compare the notes from different people.

I'm always delighted (yes, genuinely) when someone picks me up on a point of credibility or realism. Factual stuff is easy to fix, and definitely worth the effort, every time.

But I was blindsided recently when someone said they didn't like my style.

That's pretty fundamental. And, since I'm someone who will ignore even elementary mistakes of spelling and grammar in a book if the plot is strong enough, it came as a shock to me that someone would stop reading because of something stylistic.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realised that I'm being silly. Not everyone has the same tastes, which is just as well, because life would be terribly boring if we did. I even know a few people who don't like chocolate! (Which is, if I'm honest, completely beyond my comprehension.) So for any given style of writing, there will be some people who don't get on with it.

My writing style is definitely in the set of "things I cannot change". Some people won't like it; I can't change that either. And that's okay.

Serenity resumed. Thank you, God...

Monday, 12 April 2010

Coconut Ice

When we were in Devon last month, we bought a little bag of mixed fudge from a local craft shop, to share as we wandered around the countryside. It was all yummy, but one of the squares wasn't fudge at all - it was coconut ice.

I'd forgotten how much I love this delight in pink and white.

This may well be the least healthy thing on the planet, but I don't care, it's worth it for the pure coconut taste. It's insanely simple to make, too. I remember making it at school.

I will try to make fudge soon, probably some time this summer. Meanwhile, here's a child-friendly recipe (no heat required) for a pretty and tasty treat.

Coconut Ice

Coconut Ice
(Makes 64 squares)

400g tin condensed milk
300g icing sugar
400g dessicated coconut
red food colouring
  1. Empty the condensed milk into a large mixing bowl and add the icing sugar. Stir until the mixture is smooth.

  2. Add the coconut and mix thoroughly. You may want to knead it with your hands (but be warned, you will get very, very sticky!).

  3. Line a 8in square dish with greaseproof paper (note: my dish was 1in deep and it was just big enough to fit all the mixture in).

  4. Divide the coconut mixture in half, and press half of it into the bottom of the tin, smoothing it with your hands or a spatula to give a level surface.

  5. Use a tiny amount of food colouring to colour the remainder of the mixture pink (note: this stage is optional, but traditional).

  6. Press the remaining coconut mixture into the tin, to create a second layer. Again, level the surface.

  7. Refrigerate for a couple of hours, then cut into 1in squares and spread out to allow them to dry out further.

  8. Serve and enjoy! It would probably keep for quite a while if you store it in the fridge, but in this house, I don't think we'll find out....

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Snow, Hiking, and Fear

Mountainside path

The path up the mountainside is beyond steep, and today it's covered in snow. The only thing keeping me on my feet is the rusty handrail to which I'm clinging with both hands. Then I make my first mistake: I look down, beyond my boots, to the almost-sheer drop. If I let go, it looks like I'd end up in the ocean.

We're hiking in the Faroes, on one of the old paths that lead over the mountains to link the villages. Before the new tunnels and roads, this was the only connection; now, it's a pleasant route for tourists on a warm spring day.

Except it's barely spring, and we're above the snow line. I'm not used to walking in snow, and this is up to my knees in places. I'm slipping with every step. So when I see the drop to my right I freeze, literally paralysed with fear.

At this point I should mention that phobia is nothing new to me. I used to be so bad around needles that I couldn't have my teenage vaccinations. And one of the strangest things about irrational, all-consuming fear is knowing it's irrational but still being unable to stop yourself feeling it. I spent around a year seeing a very nice therapist and eventually, though the sight of a needle still terrifies me, I learnt to come out of the other side of fear and face up to injections and blood tests.

So this mountainside feeling is familiar, if no less pleasant for that. My husband is high above, taking photos, though I yell at him not to take pictures of me when I'm so scared I can't move. He offers to come back and help me. Our friends watch us, and tell me it's not far now, while quietly doubting whether I'll make it to the top. The views are worth it, they say. And while I wait for my husband to climb back down to me, I gradually begin to unfreeze my muscles. I don't feel any better, but I can move again.

It gets a little easier after that, though I can't start to relax until I'm on flat ground again, and it takes much longer before my heart stops thumping.

And the views? I'll let you judge those for yourself.





I'm linking this post up for 'Monday Best' hosted by A Book, A Girl, A Journey

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Faroe Islands: First Impressions

View across Gota

Our plane was due to land at 9.15pm, around 45 minutes after the airport was, to all intents and purposes, closed. This we discovered when we looked up the bus timetable to get to Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroes, which is on a different island to the airport. The last bus left at 8.30pm. The hire car desk also closed at 8.30pm. In the end, we booked a taxi - and you do have to book in advance, so the car can come all the way from Tórshavn to collect you. At least we found this out before we arrived at the airport.

As we approached, the plane had to wait for ten minutes while they defrosted the (super-short) runway so we could land. That was when a group of Faroese teenagers started to sing, a mixture of local folk songs and badly-remembered English refrains. They burst into cheers the second the wheels touched the runway, and I wondered whether some of them were new to flying.

Not just the teenagers but the adults seemed to be mostly importing sweets and chocolate - sacks of Haribo, buckets of Maltesers, and boxes of Wine Gums filled their Duty Free bags. One gentleman strode off the plane, left his bag of chocolates unattended along with his coat and laptop on a chair in the baggage reclaim area, and wandered off to use the toilet; meanwhile, everyone else was preoccupied with collecting their bags and greeting friends and family.

And then we walked through customs to our taxi without even a cursory check of our passports; the immigration desk, like most of the airport, closed for the night.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Another Weekend Break

By the time you read this, I'll be just-home from the Faroe Islands, but I'm writing it before I go. Hopefully my blog has been ticking along smoothly without me, and this should give me just enough time to start sorting my photos for your viewing pleasure.

Grass roof in Gota

I've only been away for about four days. Whoever would have thought that the Faroes were a weekend break location? When we first started planning this trip, I certainly wouldn't have guessed.

But it turned out that there were direct, reasonably priced flights from Stanstead - with a flight time of just over two hours, and no need to change time zones. That's definitely close enough to go for a weekend.

If you've been reading for any time at all, you've probably gathered that I love my weekend breaks. What better way to fit a few extra holidays into the year? Indeed, on my "List Of Things To Do At Least Once A Month In 2010," having a weekend away is right up there with trying a new recipe and doing some crafts.

The only problem I have with weekend breaks is to snap out of the mindset that I have to "finish" a place while I'm there. On a normal trip, I like to feel that I've seen everything there is to see. Can't do that in a weekend! Easter is the longest of long weekends, but certainly not long enough to "finish" the Faroes. Never mind. That just means we'll have to go back.

Hoping to have a post full of photos and anecdotes for you, in the next couple of days, and I'll be catching up on all my blog reading, too. Meanwhile, tell me, where's the most exciting place you've visited for a weekend break?

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Taking Sides

I've often observed this about siblings: they may fight like cats and dogs, but woe betide anyone from outside the family who tries to come between them.

Now, I'm an only child so I don't have personal experience of it, but I've noticed a couple of similar examples from beyond the family sphere.

In Oxford, the student press manages to fill its pages with tales of bitter college rivalries - yet Cambridge is the enemy who readily unites students from disparate halls to form teams for Blues matches. Take one step further out, into the wider world, and I've also noticed that Oxford and Cambridge alumni will tend to put aside their rivalry and acknowledge a mutual respect once the backdrop becomes sufficiently diverse. It seems to be grounded in the commonality of experience: there's no love lost between the institutions, but ultimately there's more the same than different in the collegiate environments with their chapels and quadrangles, the high expectations and intensity of study, and all the eccentric traditions and formal clothes and bizarre terminology.

There's a similar relationship between Lancashire and Yorkshire. Rivals across the Pennines ever since the Wars of the Roses, but we'll close ranks when faced with 'southerners'.

It seems to be part of the human condition to identify groups of "same" and "other" - but almost any individual can be in either group depending on who else is around.

Have you noticed this in your life? What groups are you a part of, and do they form these concentric rings?

Friday, 2 April 2010

My Knitting Box

This is my knitting box:


Yes: that's all of my knitting stuff (and that's an A4-size magazine). I realise that many of my knitting friends will be astonished - if not appalled - at the idea that all of my knitting kit and stash could possibly fit in a box this size. But when you have as many different hobbies as I do, and a finite size of house, you have to find a way to keep your "stuff" under control. This box keeps me honest.

A fair chunk of the space (along the left-hand side in the picture) is taken up just with needles. I have a lot of knitting needles. When I first needed a circular needle, I was looking for bamboo needles and found that I could buy a full set from China for about the price of two needles here! (You have to love eBay.) I then needed 8mm double-pointed needles for the sleeves of my pink cardigan. My local knitting shop couldn't even order these from their catalogue, so I turned back to eBay again... and ordered a full set of double-pointers, also bamboo, also from the far east. Plus a set of bamboo crochet hooks for good measure. They came all the way from Singapore and arrived in less than a week. So now I have almost every size of bamboo needle I could ever need. Along with a fair number of older metal needles, it all makes for quite an impressive collection if I spread it all out.


Most of the time, however, these all live along one side of my box.

I can also fit in around 30-40 balls of yarn. No space in the box? No yarn shopping for me! The only exception is if I buy something that I'm going to knit up straight away. Works-in-progress don't live in the box. But everything I'm not using is here, it's tidy, and it isn't allowed to take over the house.

How do you organise your hobbies?

Apologies for the rather hopeless mobile phone photos in this post!

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