Friends are there…

So today and tomorrow my chum* Chiara is visiting. It’s the first time that she’s been able to visit since we moved up to Scotland, and I have been showing her around a bit and ‘cos we are both photography addicts this has led to some photos…
(*chum, read “best friend”, “bestie” etc.)


Intermission?

I am still not ready to write about Amanda Palmer’s amazing, moving, staggering show “There will be no Intermission”, which I have now seen twice, but here are some photos I managed to get…


Meeting Authors – Part 1 (of a series?)

So, last night I went up to Bedford, from work, to go to an event at the very Rogans’s Books.

For those of you that don’t know – and why would you if you don’t live in Bedford, or attend Children’s Book Festivals (i.e. Booktastic, also run / curated by Rogan’s Books impresario Rachael Rogan, and others – I don’t have names, but I know that their contributions are huge), or indeed simply never have met anyone who has been to the shop. Of course, if you have met someone who has been to the shop, then chances are that sooner rather than later you will also go to the shop and then you’re “in”, forever…

This is Rachael

Portrait of a woman wearing a multi-coloured scarf, standing in front of a display promoting women in STEM.  The woman is Rachael Rogan
This is a portrait of Rachael Rogan in her natural habitat, her own bookshop.

Rachael has started to organise events at the shop, and the inaugural event for adults was last night, Wednesday 20th February 2019, with a visit from Sunday Times Bestselling Author of “The Binding”, Bridget Collins.
This is Bridget:

Portrait of a woman signing copies of a book at a bookshop counter.  The woman is best-selling author, Bridget Collins
Bridget Collins, signing copies of “The Binding” at Rogan’s Books, behind the counter.

The evening began with informal mingling and chatting, as well as nibbles and wine – the most amazing vegan “cheese” straws I have ever tasted – and then was followed by a short reading from “The Binding” given by Bridget herself and then a lively Q&A which offered some really interesting insights into her process as a writer, her career, her inspiration for the book and the way in which it has all come together.

Bridget was really generous with her time, offering entertaining and insightful answers in the Q&A and then really taking time to talk to the attendees while signing copies of her book for us.

It was a real pleasure to meet her and in particular for me that she was kind enough to let me take some photos.

Here are a couple of photos from the Q&A:

A photograph of Bridget Collins and Rachael Rogan sat in front of bookshelves, and before an audience, engaging in a Q&A
Bridget Collins & Rachael Rogan “on stage”
A photograph of Bridget Collins and Rachael Rogan sat in front of bookshelves, and before an audience, engaging in a Q&A - they are both laughing, as are the audience.
Bridget Collins & Rachael Rogan “on stage” – laughter ensued

Rachael informs me that there are going to be more events to come, so keep an eye on the website, or consider following the shop on Facebook, Twitter and / or Instagram.

You wouldn’t want to miss out on meeting someone really interesting and fun, right? And at the same time, what better way to support reading and books than by supporting an independent bookshop, better still an independent bookshop run by a passionate entrepreneur with a deep love of books and bringing reading to life for kids and grown-ups alike.

P.S. I started reading “The Binding” on the train back to London – expect a review, soon.


Saturday walk…

So yesterday we went walking. We were going to go to Loch Achray, but when we got to the top of the Duke’s Pass it was clear that we were not going any further, the road was still deep in snow and untreated.

Instead we went for a wander in the woods at the David Allen Lodge. The kids played with the water course setup and climbed on the deer statues and Lee-Anne and I took photos.

We rounded the afternoon out with a lovely late lunch at The Pier Café at Stronachlachar, and then home to a cosy evening in…


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Cold Morning at the Station

Casements…

The key grinds in the lock, but I am reassured by the agent, in the email, that I should expect this and that the key will turn. I push a little harder and after more troubling sound effects the barrel turns. I feel the bolt pull back and the door springs inward about an inch, as if it had been held closed under tension.

I step inside, into the gloomy vestibule, immediately dancing over empty tile adhesive buckets and discarded broken tools. There is a layer of dust that seems to be so solid that it is undisturbed by my arrival. I find myself wondering where has it all come from? No one has lived here for nearly a decade, and is it not true that house dust is mostly dead skin? How can there be so much dust? It is barely disturbed as I step in and push the door closed; I wonder if it will ever be cleaned away?

The stairs are directly ahead and far more inviting than the dark and dreary corridor leading away towards the dark kitchen at the back of the house. The living room door stands ajar, but even though it is barely half open I can see the stacks of newspapers and magazines that I remember from my childhood. I cannot face the paper-stack maze, yet, I need to open some windows and clear the smell of abandonment out of the place. Similarly I am not enticed by the kitchen the other dark and foreboding rooms on the ground floor, so I mount the staircase instead.

I am amazed that the stairs do not creak as I make my way to the upstairs, not even a low grumble from the bannister as I lean upon it trying to keep my steps on the treads as light as possible, though I have no idea to what end. The smell of emptiness, the musty, yet subtle taint of loneliness and emptiness is not as strong as I reach the first floor, but it is there nonetheless. I stand for a moment at the top of the stairs and close my eyes, remembering a time when these walls were covered in framed photographs and press cuttings, a homespun exhibition of parental pride that has long since been taken down and put who knows where.

I turn the corner and the door to the master bedroom is wide open. Afternoon light is streaming in, diffused by an almost complete blanket of cobwebs strung between the panes of the casement window. Scattered onto the ground there is a broken radiator, some rubble, this is little more than a graveyard for memories. Nothing remains. Gone is the beautiful mahogany wash stand that I used to wonder at, with its large jug and washbowl and its intricate backboard, depicting a coastal scene in the Hebrides. The deep pile carpets, so beloved of his generation and so reviled by my own, are clearly long gone and the floorboards are coated in more of the dust that it now occurs to me may be in part made up of the rotting plaster that is falling from the tops of the walls where they meet the ceiling.

I stand there, transfixed by the neglect and sorrow of a window so bedecked with the trappings of time’s passing. Even the most neglectful householder could never allow such an accumulation of dirt, grime and colonisation of spiders. Simply opening and closing the window every now and again would keep the arachnids at bay, and surely everyone would wash their windows at least once a year?

Stepping into the room, I catch a new smell, the smell of damp and I start to realise why the plaster is rotting. The window frame is rounded at its top by stains on the wall, and I am now sure that the water from the gutter, or perhaps just years of inclement weather with no one in the house to see its effects, has been creeping into the wall above the casement and has been working it destructive magic in the way that only water can.

I am hoping to find some trace of him as I cast my eyes around the room, but there is nothing, not even a discarded letter or trinket, let alone the steamer trunk I was secretly hoping to find. The room seems to me as a skeleton picked clean of the meat that made it his bedroom, all distinguishing features and characters lost to plain floorboards and empty walls, nothing but more rubble and another broken radiator, and just the soft, fractured light from the window.

I retrace my steps onto the landing and realise that I will not be opening any windows, if nothing else I am not certain that it would be a good idea if they are in the process of surrendering to the same rot as the walls. I need to be able to leave the place secure, after all.

I don’t even open the door to the bathroom, something tells me that I don’t want to see it, and I listen to that small voice even though it seems somewhat ridiculous at the same time. Why should I fear the room where he died. It was over a decade ago, surely there is nothing to fear, and yet I cannot steel myself to open it and look inside.

The box room is as empty as the bedroom, and I have almost given up all hope that I will recover any talisman of him from the wreck of his home when I remember the attic. Surely there would be things stored away before the end had come that must lie up there, undisturbed?

I reach into my pocket for the torch that I had been mindful enough to bring, and shine it into the gloom of the box room, looking for the attic door. It is there in the left-hand corner, as I expected, and I shuffle through the dust and plaster rubble and pull it open.

The stairs up into the attic – he would have corrected me and said loft – are not so quiet, creaking and groaning as I place each of my steps on each successive tread. I am not worried that it will give out, but I am puzzled as to how one staircase can be so stalwart and another be so lamenting under the same weight.

The light of my torch is more than enough to find my way to the top of the small flight, and then I am on the boarded platform under the pinnacle of the roof line. I turn my light off for a moment and am plunged into darkness; well at least there are not any large holes in the roof.

I flick the small light back on and start to look around, searching for “boxes of treasure”, as he would have called them. On the edge of the boarded area my light plays across a box with “McCain” printed across the side, faded as if stamped there long ago. Closer inspection shows the words “memories and things” scrawled across the side in his familiar script, and I reach out for the box and pull it across the boards to the space by the top of the stairs where I have the most room to manoeuvre.

The box is old and dry and brittle, the way that cardboard eventually gets to be, and so I am cautious and gentle as I lever the flaps open and point the torch light inside.

The box contains a few of the photographs, in their frames, that I had missed as I climbed the stairs, all of them were pictures of my father as a young man. Some of them in uniform, some in running kit, one in mess kit. If all the rest had been lost or given away, then these were the ones that he could not bear to part with, even if they were in a box above his head, rather than on display. An old diary, a Ronson petrol lighter, an old cigarette tin, Capstan “Full Strength” – though sadly there are none inside. There alongside this ephemera is a bundle of letters, tied with a silver ribbon. I recognise the hand, they were letters from his wife, his first wife, who had sent me cards long after she had otherwise left our lives all those years ago. I wonder if his widow knew that he had kept these at all?

I decide to take the box with me, that this is enough, this is what I was looking for, but then as I am closing up the box my torch plays across a small metal box, almost hidden behind a beam. I cannot unsee it, I am compelled to investigate.

I pull it gently from the shadows and set it on the ground next to the box of memories. It is not heavy, about sixteen inches by nine by five, so an odd shape, but not completely strange. Stamped on the top, on either side of a keyhole and between it and a small handle are his initials, “M N”, in faded gold paint.

The box is plainly locked, so I turn my attention back to the box of knick knacks to see if there is a key amongst the treasures therein. It is not hard to find, it is on a string, looped around an ebony letter opener. I take it out and open the box, which unlike the front door opens smoothly and silently, the lock in perfect working condition, as if it were in regular use.

Inside there are three items that surprise and delight me in equal measure. A Webley service revolver that he must have kept from his time in the Army, during the War. He never spoke of it in life, that I know of, so it must have been a very private keepsake. Alongside it is a small box of ammunition, and a leather-bound notebook. The gun feels heavy, suddenly, in my hand, and while I was not completely comfortable to be holding it, I feel pleased to have this illicit item of his now in my possession. I place it back into the box and lift out the notebook. It is wrapped closed with a leather thong, which I half expect to be brittle with age, but as I untwist and then unwind it I marvel at the way in which it feels supple and warm, like it is new and recently handled. The pages are crowded with his distinctive and almost completely illegible hand, and I realise that I will need better light and perhaps some coffee before I can truly digest the contents. I turn it over my hands as I move to close it, and a playing card falls from between the pages and lands face up on my foot. It is not a playing card, it is a Tarot card; The Magus. The edge of the card is picked out in gold leaf, and the face of the card is inhabited by a hooded figure, energy crackling around one hand, a strange sigil held in the other. Unexpected, to say the least.

I am filled with a desire to leave, and the sure, concurrent knowledge that I cannot leave these things here. I hurriedly return the card to its place between the leaves of the notebook, wrap it closed and place it back into the lock box. I lock it up, place it inside the memory box and put the key around my neck and tuck it inside my shirt, hiding it from view. Then I close up the flaps and lift the box up in my hands and carefully pick my way back down the attic stairs.

I glance, quickly, into the bedroom as I pass, but the afternoon light has been diminished, perhaps by a passing cloud, and the odd character of the place is reduced to a sad, empty room. The window is no longer captivating, more simply ordinary and uninspiring. How telling that light holds the key to so much of that which commands my attention. I wonder if I have somehow removed the last of him, or indeed any character from the place, but I push that thought aside and head down the main stairs to the door.

As I emerge onto the front path with the box of memories tucked under my arm I breathe deeply of the fresh, outside air and feel an unexpected sense of relief to be out of his house. I close and lock the door, and head to my car, keen to retreat to my own, living, vibrant sanctuary that is my apartment so that I can investigate his notebook more completely. That and consider what I should do with the gun.

(This story was inspired by an Instagram post, which you can see here -> joannafurniss )


Travelling with kids – it is NOT easy, but it is worth it.

kids running
My kids, running and playing together at the Hōryū-ji temple in Nara, Japan

The thing about working in startups is that sometimes, as you become the kind of person that makes up a part of the senior team, you have to put the company ahead of your own needs and your own self. As the Head of Engineering at Zipmatch I had, from the beginning, had an honest dialogue with the founders about the fact that there might come a time when they needed to ask me to step away as part of a readjustment of the company’s cost profile. That moment came just after New Year this year, and as promised I agreed to take a bow and step off the stage so that the company could go on. I was not the only person who left, to be sure, but that this decision came so early in the year did have one knock-on effect for me and my family; we could no longer afford to take in both Australia and Japan on our way back to the UK as we had planned. We talked about this and decided on Japan – Lee-Anne and I have both wanted to visit Japan for almost all of our lives – and I have to say I am very glad that we did.

Anyway to the purpose of this post…

Travelling with kids is not easy. That’s not to say that I suggest you don’t do it. Quite the contrary if you have kids and you have the money I would strongly urge you to travel with them, but don’t believe some Pinterest / Facebook / Instagram mashup of well meaning lies that it is easy.

It is not.

It is rewarding though, in all kinds of little ways, and some very big ones as well. The photograph above was one of those precious moments that simply would never have come into my life if we were not committed to travelling with our children. We were coming to the end of a very interesting and engaging visit to Horyu-ji Temple, just outside Nara, and the kids had been a little bit difficult the whole time. We had been forced to constantly remind them to not kick the stones that were so clearly raked every morning by the monks, to not climb on the temple buildings, and to not fight with one another, or scream at a temple-inappropriate level at random intervals. Even with these many micro-aggressions against our calm, it was a lovely visit, to a beautiful, serene and utterly unique place. We were walking back to the bus stop, through the temple precincts when I caught this image. The kids, the Geeklings as I have started to refer to them, are still at a place in their lives and their relationships with one another that they are “best friends”. The whole day had been one of imagined play between them, races between point a and b, pretending that this temple building or that was their special base – the kind of play that we all have almost forgotten as adults and yet when we see it in our kids we know it instantly and value it almost above anything else. They had been very lovely (when they were not being awful), and then to see them running together like this was just a piece of magic.

These moments, and the ones where they break character and are actually interested in something that we are seeing / learning about, and the ones where they try some new food or taste and a look of unalloyed joy spreads across their faces… This is why I do love travelling with my kids, and I know that Lee-Anne feels the same way, but in her own different way too.

We are two-thirds of the way home and I am typing this in a departure gate area in Abu Dhabi Airport, waiting for our connecting flight to Manchester and home. The predominant thought in my mind after seeing Britain again, and seeing Mum and Dad is, if I am honest, the excitement I have for the promise made by my parents to take the kids for three or four days so that Lee-Anne and I can get away (once we are over the jet lag) and just be by ourselves for a little while.


Pictures first, words to follow…


photograph of cup of coffee and plate of toast by a swimming pool

Our Man in Makati..?

So, finally, after two and a half weeks of being here – a BLOG POST!

We arrived in the Philippines after a remarkably easy journey… Seriously both Lee-Anne and I were experiencing a considerable amount of anxiety over how the kids would fare with two eight hour flights back to back, but they were fantastic little troopers. There was one flash-point – what shall forever more be known as “The Abu Dhabi Incident” – but to focus on that would be to completely ignore how wonderfully behaved they were compared to our least terrifying nightmares.

Stepping off the plane, we could tell it was hot, but the corridor we walked into was air conditioned. It was leaving the Baggage Reclaim when we realised that it was in fact HOT. By the time I had turned some dollars into Philippines Pesos (forever more to be known as PHP, which will amuse a tiny fraction of this blog’s readership), walked twenty feet to the man running the official airport taxis and arranged our fare and I was praying that the taxi would have air conditioning.

It did, of course, everything is air conditioned here, even the lifts – or perhaps that should be especially the lifts? We found our AirBnB place – taxi drivers here do know their way around, but it’s not the same as “The Knowledge” in London, it’s more like a Private Hire cabbie in Basingstoke, you know? The place is small, but we expected that and had planned and packed accordingly. I can honestly say after two and a half weeks in the place that we love it; we’ve even toyed with staying in it longer, but I pointed out that as the kids get even a few months older we are going to need a little bit more space to enable us to escape, and to allow them to run about (more).

The first day I was hideously over-confident about the jet-lag. I was soon back in my place, having fallen asleep on the couch before 2100h (local), and thus began the horrific process of trying to recover from jet-lag while one’s own children are failing to recover from jet-lag. I tried to take the advice; swim (no really it helps), eat when you need to, stay up later than you think you should but not too late. I tried, I really did, but the day before my first day at work I woke up at 1400h; not “I stayed in bed until 1400h desperately trying to get some more sleep unable to get up”, I WOKE UP at 1400h.

During that re-adjustment period I did a little exploring, found the nearest thing to what I recognised as a supermarket, and as a family we went to farmers’ market on the park a block away from our condo. The rest of the time was spent sleeping, doing prep-work for my new job, playing Minecraft – I have dragged Lee-Anne over to the dark side and got her on my server, Mwahahahahaha – sleeping and watching BBC World News, oh yeah and swimming as much as possible.

Yeah, I know, “cry me a river” – there is a pool outside your patio, dude! Even so, I was very worried that my first day at work would be a season in Hell. So, I tried to go to bed at a reasonable hour – around 2300h – and I got up with plenty of time to have a swim (cold but genuinely worth the effort), and found my way to the office on the first try. Of course I was the first Westerner there, but that’s ok. I’m not suggesting that my Western colleagues are tardy, they most certainly are not, but they arrive at around 0900h and on my first day I was there by 0820h. A lot of the Filipino members of the team arrive at the office between 0630h and 0730h in order to beat the morning traffic in and to leave early to beat the afternoon traffic on their way home, whereas most of the Westerners are living so close to the office that none of us are driving here, so traffic is not an issue (more on driving in Makati and wider Metro Manila in another post).

Day one was a series of meetings and chats with various people and was over before I knew it. I wandered home, happy and tired, via the “supermarket” and then proceeded to collapse into a heap on the sofa – Lee-Anne was not best pleased. Of course, that was not the whole story, I perked up at around 2300h and then could not get back to sleep…

I am mostly back on a sane sleep / wake schedule now, and the kids are almost there too, but that first week was HARD and the pool + coffee, and the support and encouragement of my awesome wife are the only things that got me through it.

Work is, as I expected, a lot of plate-spinning, a lot of cans of worms to be opened and dealt with, decisions made etc. and I am loving it. It feels as though I am exactly where I need to be professionally, and the people I am working with are all pulling in the same direction, which is something I came to take for granted at the BBC, but am now quite sure that I would be unable to handle the absence of such shared purpose in this new environment.

The next couple of weeks are going to be very busy and very stressful – I don’t imagine that I am going to be able to blog about them because of time constraints – but in a month or so I think that I will be fully in control of the technical side of things, and I hope to be able to get us into a good groove in terms of adopting some good practices and improving on our approach to Agile working. There is a great foundation to work with, but we definitely need some fine-tuning and so that’s what I am going to be doing.

So, in the meantime, please be assured that there is more to come and I leave you with this thought;

"There is no greater stroke of genius, nor is there any greater enterprise of evil than to make it possible to have Burger King delivered to your door up until 2100h at night, that is until you realise that McDonalds deliver 24 hours a day here. Stay Classy, Makati!"

I hope that you are all surviving the extreme weather about which BBC World News has been almost gleeful in the telling, and that this despatch from the Orient finds you all in good health and good spirits. We do miss Blighty from time to time, and many of you far more and more often than the place herself, but it would be dishonest to say that we are doing anything but enjoying the new experiences and the new way of life that this adventure has brought thus far.

More to follow.
.
EOT


More nostalgia from Scott’s second trip to London…

The second time Scott Church came to the UK to do workshops I went along again, the first one having been such a blast, and I never really made a big deal about the pictures I got that day. Recently, however I have gone back and looked at them again and well here are a few more that are Work / Facebook safe that I really am genuinely proud of.