Monday, January 03, 2005

Orbs of DoomThe great Christmas write-up (because I never finished off the other one).

I spent Christmas aux mes parents (as if putting it in French disguises the complete lack of alternatives). Which was fairly standard: arguments abound, although this year it extended into world of wine connoisseurism, due to a very nice 1979 Rioja (it turned up somewhere random, and needed drinking). I say very nice because apparently something awful had happened to it, and so all the tannins had broken down. Which means the really vile aftertaste that most red wines have simply wasn't there. So basically it was bit like alcoholic Ribena. Never tried that though, I wonder which spirit I should use if I were to try it?

And seeing as we are such an interesting bunch, the next section is the films on over Christmas. Which the powers that be decided would just be fairly dismal. The best were invariably those aimed at children, but the pinnacle was not high. Shrek: enjoyable, yet I was not grabbed by it (although being Christmas Eve, I was trying to do other stuff at the same time, so that is by no means a fair verdict). Harry Potter: J.K. Rowling was a single mother when she started writing these books. How can one tell? Because my brother and I sat playing spot-the-rip-off. Indiana Jones features strongly. I am guessing she has sat through a fair few 1980's and 90's children's films. And does Alan Rickman ever play anything that which is not archetypal baddy? Capping of the strangely-familiar-fest was the Disney version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. For the record it was my brother who pointed the following out - by singing. One of the songs sounds oddly like Downtown by Petula Clark. And other than that it is a formulaic Disney film. Improbable, high cheek boned baddy, who whispers and swishes about, the inevitable fight of good versus evil, or fun versus control, the have-nots versus the haves.

Post-Christmas: Boxing Day was taken up with other matters. The 27th, and we went to my cousin's in Bury. Or rather we spent the 27th going to my cousin's in Bury. We left late, in two cars, as my brother was going back to London afterwards. I went up in my brother's car. As there was apparently all of 5 miles difference, we choose to go round the bottom of the M25, figuring it would be less busy. Although that decision was partly made for us as the queue from the clockwise slip-road reached back onto the road we came up on. For most of the Surrey section it was solid going the other way, and not much better on our side.

Oh, by the way, singing along to Simon and Garfunkel whilst stuck in slow moving traffic does earn one quite a few odd looks. But we probably gave each other a few whilst trying to listen to one of my brother's tapes (due to me having to choose from his selection, and being in the wrong mood for most of them, and the Rootjoose one being knackered). It was an original version of something by the Pet Shop Boys - the one with Suburbia and West End Girls on it. Only it had sat unused in my brother's car too long, and so we were treated to the remix version. God knows what had happened to it, but it sounded like the magnetised layers were no longer as attached to the cellophane bits as they should have been.

Getting into Kent, the traffic had cleared a little but the signs were warning of more ahead. Oh yes, that little place, what's it called? Bluewater. And whatever the one on the other side is. (It would have helped if we had remembered that it was the Bank Holiday in lieu of Christmas Day). As the end of the traffic jam coincided with Junction 4, we bailed, and after a bit of improv navigating, skirted round Orpington, and up the A20 (which is the route up to my brother's old house).

Deciding now was not the time to investigate the Woolwich ferry (does it still exist? How much does it cost? When does it run? How long does it take?), we opted for the Blackwall tunnel. How many bends does one tunnel need? Popping back out into the day light, and once again impronav kicks in. So we turn of the A12, and I scramble through umpteen pages of the A-Z.

In hindsight taking on what turned out to be the High Streets of both Stratford and Leightonstone was not the best idea I have ever had. Even if it meant I learnt how to pronounce the latter. Especially not when I later discover that to join the M11, we have to go on the North Circular, and to get to that we have to use the, you've guessed it, A12. Which after it disappeared westwards goes round in a dual carriagewayed big loop. Which I did not know about, as the next scale map I had was of South East England, where the M25 is six inches across, and London is a mass of unlabelled green roads. Oh well, speed bumps are fun.

Then we were rung up by the other car, as my parents rang up to say that they were at Bishop Stortford services, and where were we? I truthfully replied that we had just joined the M11, which we had, just a few junctions before we should have done. They [for when on the phone to either parent, it is always they, as both speak at once, and expect the person on the other end to hear everything and cope, often despite one of them being nowhere near the telephone] seemed a bit bemused when I asked which side of the river the services are. Well, how the hell should I know where Bishops "does this need an apostrophe?" Stortford is?

Mutually betwixt my brother and I means we too turn off to enter the services (it was all the speed bumps that did it). Traffic jam on slip road, but this apparently the Stanstead turn-off as well. The jam continues into the services. We jump part of the queue by choosing the Fuel Only lane when it splits off - only to discover that it merges with the main body of traffic again. There is chaos at the petrol station, with traffic jams everywhere. We drive down into the lorries section and pull over at the kerb next to other parked cars. We are both praying the petrol station has a loo. It does, and a queue. Apparently the men's is broken. Helpful. My brother being my brother ignores this, and uses the urinals, obviously working on the theory that as long as it keeps draining everything is fine. The woman in front of me is obviously put out when the man in front of her disappears into the solitary Ladies'. I end up in the disabled loo, and when I come out again, it seems we triggered a chain reaction. Half the shop is the queue for the loos.

Walking back to the car (there's something satisfying about walking past cars which cannot move), and my brother is by it peering at something. Getting in, and he complains about someone denting his wing. Oh. That could be why one doesn't park here. Driving out, and being faced with three lorries blocking the exit, we drive over the kerb between the lorry and car sections, drive at right angles through one of the queues for the pumps (very the Italian Job), down the middle between the pumps, round the back of the building, and ... and straight back into the traffic jam. This is when we discover the entire place is one big roundabout, with lots of short-cuts, and not short-cuts, and when the people waiting at the motorway junction don't move, no-one moves.

The parents ring again, and wonder why we went into the services when we knew what it was like. Because they forgot to tell us. Apparently they've only just got out. An age later, after being overtaken by the lorry that might have hit my brother's car, only which wasn't, as it had scrapes of the wrong colour paint on it, we get out.

Further up, and there's the aftermath of a very entertaining crash. In the outside lane is a silver Discovery, stopped, but looking fine. Behind it is a large white van with a spare-wheel shaped crumple in the bonnet. Behind that is a small red Seat. By the Seat are a cluster of people looking could but fine, and all the vehicles are empty. Only, when I say behind in one of those sentences, for the most part I mean under. The back wheels of the van are either side of the Seat's unbroken windscreen, with the rear overhang of the van sticking in the air.

Sheer fluke is the only explanation. Well, sheer fluke, and the van being empty, and the Land Rover being at a standstill, and the van throwing its nose down, and tail up as it braked, and hopping up a bit more as it pivoted on the base of the Land Rover, and the Seat simply coming in underneath at exactly the right time, and being landed upon. The Land River went forward under the momentum, and van and Seat found they couldn't move. One would struggle to recreate it, especially not having the van fall over.

Before we had got to the crash a police car had come screaming up the hard shoulder past the pre-rubber-necking traffic jam, but it was still battling its way back down the other carriageway when we saw it again a long while later.

Continuing up the provincial motorway, and it is provincial: it has only got two lanes. The main A-road I learnt to drive on has three for a hefty chunk of it. Anyway, we go off on some roman road towards Newmarket, both agreeing it is a very dangerous road, as my brother found himself going, let's just say, somewhat fast. It is long, and flat, and bloody boring. Which reminds me. People complaining that Stanstead should not be expanded in preference over other airports, due to the swathes of countryside which will be lost. Have they actually seen the relevant bits of countryside? It is all industrial monoculture. It is worse than Wiltshire for barren monotony. The spare land left over from the building the motorway is probably the most biodiverse area anywhere round there. Yes, expanding the airports will wipe out millions of plants. But they are all one of three arable species.

Anyway, I don't like places with not enough trees and not enough hills.

And it must be a bloody boring place, as about the most interesting thing round there is the section of road on which they test road marking paints. Eventually we get to Bury, or near Bury, or the roundabout with the big British Sugar factory (it took me much to long to figure out why it was built there, miles from the nearest dock where sugar cane products could come in. Wrong species), and the Silver Spoon flowerbed. My brother ignores my instructions. Or rather he asks for clarification, and so I foolishly read out what the AA said. Which was "third exit". Which is the sugar factory. So he drives past the next exit (which I think was the one we wanted) and drives off on some random road (which may or may not have been the one we just left), and expects me to navigate. I have a jumble of road numbers, but have no idea where we are, and which way we are going. We gradually hone in on Bury itself. And then drive past Waitrose a second time.

This is silly. We have map of Bury, which doesn't seem to feature any of the same streets we are driving past. It mere shows, in colour ill-chosen with regard to conversion to greyscale, a selection of roads, and a route which starts at a junction. How one is supposed to know when one reaches that junction I don't know, nor do I know which direction one is supposed to arrive from (which we might not be doing anyway).

I annoy my brother and insist we follow the signs to the station. Not least because it may be by the town, and the landscape around it might show which direction the town centre is in. But also because, with any luck, it will have a big map outside showing bus routes and things.

Just as we park outside the darkened station (oh did I mention the sun had set just after Newmarket? So, me bringing my hefty camera with which to take pretty pictures of Bury when we go on the inevitable "family gathering, and we're not drunk nor desperate enough for Pictionary, charades or sevens yet" walk, was not really worth it then?), my cousin rings, with my parents in the background. Oh, apparently the AA route is complete bollocks. It has odd little doglegs to account for the all-pervading one-way system, only it does not use the same one-way system, and so it ends with many no-entry signs.

Using the station map, and ignoring the advice of my cousin (would I? Instructions like "Go up the hill, or it might be down then up," do no inspire much confidence), I work out a route. There is still one variable, as I have no idea which way out of the station we should turn, but I know what to do when we get to either end of the road. We go left, and as there is no roundabout, right. Which gets us to a big roundabout we have driven round before. Straight across, and then we want the first right. Which I've already warned my brother might be quite small. Looking down the approaching one-way road onto which we come out further down, I say "Oh, down there, by the car sticking out". We approach what might be it, or might be a drive.

He drives past it. I assume he has seen something I have not, and so keep fairly quiet. We cannot use the next road, and suddenly my brother is refusing to turn right at the one after that. Oh great. Now I am lost again, and off the bottom of the only map I have. He is cross. Apparently I should not have pointed out the car sticking out, as he did not see it, and drove on looking for the car sticking out. Well, if he had tried looking in the first place...

We turn right, and find ourselves driving round the south of a marketplace come car-park, with a big hotel flanking the north side. We drive on, and approaching a t-junction fork, he asks the way. My gut feeling is right, so he goes left. More shops, more people, then fewer shops, and at each road, I peer for road signs, hoping to find any which are on the map. I do not recognise any of the names. Remind me not to let him do the printing next time, as I have three very similar maps, all on a uselessly large scale. To think the guy is an engineer, he's supposed to be good with plans, and having only useful information. [To be fair, he is good at what he does, which is get cross with contractors, and recess boiler flues, and confuse me with the word annular, although that isn't being all that fair. The word means distance between two concentric circles, so it equals r2 - r1, where r1 is the radius of the inner circle, and r2 that of the outer. He also gets cross when I, on seeing pictures of his latest project, point out all the things which should have been done in snagging, and I think knows it. And conforming (especially begrudgingly) to regulations makes some very odd structures].

Anyway, we continue having a flaming row, as we drive past Waitrose for about the fourth time, and eventually we find the right right-turn, and then navigate our way through the narrow streets, and end up outside our cousin's house. At twenty past four. I know we left late, and that was about noon, but over four hours on a two-hour journey? Not quite as bad as the Easter when we went to collect my brother from Warwick Uni, and managed to be forced to go via the outskirts of Birmingham, the total 2-hour journey up taking over 8 hours (we left late because I took, and passed my driving test that morning, and then got delayed as my driving instructor pulled over on the way home [me being in shock] to help a cyclist someone had just knocked off his bike. It was a really nice warm sunny day when my mother and I left, and yet we spent several hours sitting on a causeway in an impromptu lake). Then we had the excuse that the platforms at Leamington station looked like they ought to have lock gates at either end, but just apparently normal heavy traffic, one rogue service station, and a bit of grotty navigating?

So we got there. Hello'd a bit. I got told off for sitting on a radiator (my brother had woollen jumper on under his thick winter coat, I had a thick cotton jumper under leather jacket which was bought to fit my shoulders [read: too big round my chest], as I knew his car was warm. It wasn't, as he was). The Winter Pimms, with extra ice wasn't helping (Pimms, indoors, no lawn, at night? How can this be?). I am offered cake, and by aunt thinks I'm joking when I suggest the end piece, which was the uncut end of the cake. I am ever so glad that in my generosity, I gave that side of the family a big tin of biscuits (which had been given before Christmas). Which I then very nearly emptied, with a little help from the rest of our side, as we had carefully managed to leave before lunch, and arrive a long time after it.

We talk. There is jigsaw-puzzle-ige, as it was left out by my aunt and cousins, and my mother proceeded to point out that they hadn't sorted the pieces, and they weren't, as they thought they were, missing some of the edge pieces, but had got the sky, and the grass wrong. I think my aunt had been working on her own on it for some while, and expected to continue in the same manner. Which given she knows her sister (and how like each other they really are) means she shouldn't really have left it out. My aunt leaves to sulk and criticise her daughter, the daughter pops out with plates of "nibbles". Inverted commas, as they weren't nibbled. Her brother finished off one plate before I found out what it was, and within minutes all that was left were two and half black olives. Why are the green ones so much nicer?

Judging by the sounds emerging from the kitchen, our hostess had realised the locusts and/or gannets have landed, and they won't be stopped by mere trifles (though if you make it a big trifle...). It also appeared that her mother knew better how to make something which she has never made. I don't think it was the Pimms kicking in which meant that level of kitchen clanging rose as my aunt continued dispensing her advice.

Then dinner was served, or rather, we were told to help ourselves (cunning sidestep by my cousin, releasing her from the perils of intolerant diets, diet-diets, judging hunger and stomach size, and all whilst trying to appear fair). Which means we all take exactly the same amount, safe in the knowledge that there will be seconds if we should wish it.

Thai fish curry. I liked it. My mother complained (in the car on the way home) that it was bland. Said she who does not like spicy, nor hot, food, and whose curries are mainly indicated as such by the prescience of sultanas. Her rarely used curry powder was inherited. It has a pre-decimal price on it. The notion of mixing single spices is a complete anathema. My father complains that he was not sure about the fish. Which tasted very fresh, and completely without the going-off fishy smell. The man is getting paranoid about food. He will quite happily leave "Keep refrigerated" food out all summer and then eat it, yet if anyone suggests the fish or meat might be past (or more recently, coming up to) the best before date, and then suddenly it's iffy. If it had fresh blood dripping out it, he'd complain it had gone too cold to use.

So we ate. And then the cards came. Now given most of my family are like me, in that they are thoroughly nonchalant, unless they think they can win, in which bloody well get out of the way; and I know full well my cousins both happily cheat (Monopoly years ago. The male cousin was the banker who hadn't quite grasped that the roles of banker and player should be separate, and my female cousin oddly seemed to have an infinite supply of high denomination notes. Every time bankruptcy looms, she'd fish another one out of somewhere); and those who are most susceptible had been drinking the most alcohol; what would you make the impending scenario? Yes, an ideal one in which to find book on games, and learn a new card game.

I was between my mother and my female cousin. Unsurprisingly, after 7 rounds, I was still in last place. The name of the game was Pip Pip! No, I haven't either (well, until then). Basically at the end of each round one collects points for the picture cards [J=3,Q=4,K=5], the ace [=10] and the two [=11] which one possesses. To collect cards one has to win a circuit (having already used round for something else). Twos score higher than aces, with aces high. We were using two packs of cards, but I don't know if that is essential (I should think so though). A circuit is basically a lap of the table, in which every player plays a card. If one can follow suit, then one should. If one cannot, then one can play any card. The idea is to play the highest card of that suit. If someone else plays the same highest card (as there are two packs), it is the second player who takes that circuit.

However there are also trump cards. These are the cards in a suit which is determined at the start of the round by splitting the pack. They can be changed by someone calling out Pip Pip! as they lay out the King and Queen of the same suit. So if trumps were diamonds and you held the King and Queen of spades, you could call Pip Pip, and change the trump cards to spades. In doing this you would win 50 points, but it also means people know what two of your cards are. I think we restricted calling out Pip Pip to the end of a circuit, as having the trumps change mid-circuit gets a little controversial (especially as it is usually someone realising that they can do it, having just sorted their hand after their go, so play is now two or three players down from them, and the game might have been very different if they had called promptly). If they're nice they might be able to do it on their go.

Right, so each person has been dealt 7 cards (it might be supposed to be the number of players). The rest of the pack sits in the middle of the table, after the pack is split and trumps called. All players take their hands. The person to the left of the dealer (who was originally chosen by splitting the pack, not that it matters) plays [switching to example mode] the seven of hearts, and takes a card from the central pile to replace it (as do all players). The next player to the left plays the Queen of hearts. The next only has the 3 and 6 of hearts, and so plays the 3. The next plays the 4 of hearts. The fifth player plays the second Queen of hearts, and so stands to the win the game. The next player plays the other 3 of hearts. And the dealer plays the 8 of hearts.

So the fifth player wins that circuit, and keeps it as pile facing downwards in front of them. At the end of the round it will score 8, for the two queens.

He then leads with hearts, getting rid of the other 4 (he could lead with anything he likes, but the person who leads normally loses regardless). The next player plays the Jack of hearts. The dealer plays Jack of diamonds (the trump suit) to win control of the circuit. The next player plays the second Jack of Diamonds (to cries about the shuffling). The next player the ace of hearts, and so is the current winner. And after that comes the 9 of hearts, and the Jack of hearts.

So in that round the person who played the ace wins, and will score 10 for the ace, plus 12 for 4 Jacks.

(We were playing the highest scoring card wins, and the most recently played wins. So in a round where everyone played Jacks, the most recently played of either the lead suit or trump suit would win).

[Trying to clarify the rules on Google is a mistake. I cannot get beyond the Miss Havershams and Peripheral Interchange Program. And mentions of the same book we found it in].

That all make sense? Good, or tough.

Anyway, we played a card game, and the game was pretty much irrelevant. Once we finished, we left, although not before my aunt threw out a few well-chosen comments, which were perfectly honed to cause the most offence. She always does it. Usually if it is a brief visit, she scatters them throughout the conversation. But any longer, and she seems to hoard them up for use in the last five minutes. Odd.

The drive home was dull, enlivened only by realising I have seen the Canary Wharf cluster from far North, South and East, in one day. That, and discovering how grotty Essex really is. Everything has lights. There might have been vast tracts of beautiful countryside beside the motorway, but because every single road has streetlights (some on a gargantuan scale), it just seems as if the world is infected with orange mould. We went back over the bridge at Dartford. It's quite big. As is the river there, although in all the lights it took us a while to see where it was.

More recently was the hastily arranged visit to a friend - GA. It was hastily arranged as the last time I saw her she said she'd be at the family's pub for Christmas, but since then she hadn't replied to text nor email. She then rang up to say that she had been there for a week and was bored and wanted to see me. I agree, but she is a bit annoyed when I can't just drive straight over. Anyway, so I do other stuff, and then leave the house at the time I supposed to be there, after cursing the person who moved my car but stopped the engine with the choke out.

Mexican hat plantI get there just over 25 minutes late, but I was stuck behind a tractor for the last section. We exchange presents. I feel guilty for giving her a Mexican hat plant in film container. I get a possibly recycled chocolate orange in return. Which I suppose just about beast last year's Ferroro Rocher, which were allegedly all the village shop had. This year the excuse is that she went to Thorntons and had bought lots of expensive chocolates, but had left them on the island.

Why a small plant in a film container? Because it was supposed to be an avocado. But they hadn't sprouted yet. So she got what was effectively a weed, as the plant produces plantlets along the leaf fringes, which drop off and sow themselves all over the place. So she has an off-cast plant which isn't all that interesting at the moment - although I did tell her it was special and does special things. Why in a film container? Because I forgot to find a pot for it, and then thought about the problems of trying to transport a potted plant on a plane. Also, despite not being able to find anything to the contrary, I wasn't to sure on what customs might make of it (all I could find was mention of "restricted plants", but nowhere would say what those plants were). So a film container seems a fairly innocuous thing to be carrying - until they notice her new SLR is digital (our family has a history of interpreting customs and excise laws loosely. My grandfather's technique used to be to have whatever contained all the normal and legit stuff tied up with an apparently neat and elaborate knot. The customsmen being typically annoying would invariably ask him to open this package. Being able to tie knots, he'd pull one bit of string, and everything would be exposed. The customs men would prod a bit at the bundle of papers or pyjamas, find absolutely nothing of interest, and feeling fools, usher him on, and start on the next person in the queue).

Anyway, does anyone know what the Channel Islands would make of someone bringing a succulent of unknown species in from the UK? I couldn't find anything which makes it clear whether there are any restrictions.

So she now has a nice plant. And I carefully didn't mention that my original has grown the entire height of the window, is being held up with string, and at the top has formed a series of meanders as it has tried to grow through the window recess. At the base of each meander, masses of roots have sprouted. Apparently they flower, but I've never seen one. Oh and the plantlets get everywhere. And they grow everywhere. But other than that, it's a nice plant. One just needs to keep it in a small heavy pot.

All this from a find in a lab coat pocket (I think we were using them to do experiments on stomata). Judging by some of the comments, it only produces the all pervasive plantlets when it isn't all to grow fully. Trying to find more information, and it turns out that there is another plant with the same name. Helpful. Anyway, it appears to be Bryophyllum daigremontianum, native to Southwest Madagascar. God knows the name then.

Enough of the possibly poisoned chalice stuff. Post presents we went for a walk, complete with dogs. There are two. One older one, who is Collie-Labrador cross, and therefore bright enough to know it's me, and know what to try, and more importantly, what not to try. The second is apparently a puppy, but doesn't look it. God knows what she is, although by the look of her, I'd guess some percentage wolfhound. Less bright, and has a lot to learn.

Fortunately my friend has more sense than to suggest I drive in my car (it may have mushrooms, but it doesn't need fertiliser), and so wisely borrows the car of her younger siblings. We get out of the car, and the dogs bound off, ricocheting past the "Dogs must be kept under control" sign. GA talks about the geography project she did on the woods, and then repeatedly manages to get lost. She mentions her new digital camera. I ask her questions. She gets annoyed. Her standard reply involves the "automatic", and the reply after that is along the line of "it just does".

She maintains that whilst she bought it a while ago, she hasn't used it much. I ask her why it is not with her now. Apparently there's not much to take photographs of in late December. There's nothing to look at. Said she, the girl with the first class biology from Oxford, standing on the boundary between two different types of plantation, and two sections of different age woods, with banks, ditches and former canals running through it. Yep. Absolutely nothing of interest.

I try pointing out things, and she complains they are not aesthetic enough. Discussing pine trees, and she cedes some ground, but the changes her defence for not having the camera with her to her lack of case for the camera.

I persist, and having been made aware of the five different mosses growing together, she then protests that she doesn't like the colour green of two of them.

We walk on. I haven't been paying much attention to where we've been, as GA knows the tracks by name. So I'm a bit thrown when she says, "This isn't here."

We try following a road past a house to get back to the car pack, but it bends the wrong way. We turn back at the footpath sign, which helpfully is pointing along the road. Cutting through the woods, we come out by the canal, and after walking along beside it for a while, GA decides we have to cross it. So we then walk along the bank until we find somewhere we can cross it. The bank is what used to be the towpath, and of course, as it is four foot above the neighbouring ground, is pretty much a quagmire. They couldn't possibly have built the canal banks out of clay could they? I do all right until GA stops, and I have nowhere to go but slide slowly down. I still have the clay tidemarks on my shoes (having worn them not my walking boots, as my walking boots are in a box somewhere).

It's my own fault for arguing with her about the directionality of moss and lichen on trees. She says it's bollocks. I say not. She will admit exposure to different factors causes zonation in seaweeds and other stuff lining a shore. Yet the moment I try extrapolating into an environment in a different fluid she refuses to believe me. Despite standing in wood in which every tree shows a similar pattern. She claims that when in leaf the trees block out the light, and would stop sunlight having an impact on the trunks. Said she on mild, damp day in December, when the trees are damp on one side and not on the other - and this is with the sky being heavily overcast, so there is very little directionality to the light.

Oddly, beyond the ring at the base of every tree, mosses seem to favour the southern face, and a grey lichen the northern face. Higher up, rusty algae appears to grow wherever water flows and lingers, and so dominates the northern aspect of a tree. And still it's just chance, according to her.

I attempt to take a picture of an ivy clad tree in stand of grey, fading to pink, pines, but it won't come out, as even with the widest aperture the light levels still needed a slow shutter, and I think I moved. Playing with my camera she sees pictures very differently, although, as she said, it could just be she needs some new glasses. It's not very comforting to know that the person who is driving home cannot see the twigs on top of the birch over there. She could make out the split in the trunks, but not much beyond that. Oh well.

And so back to the pub, only to find that her father is about to go to the cash and carry, and GA volunteers to help him. Er...? Apparently he's hurt his back and shouldn't be lifting things. Oh, and as I'm here (and tall and male), would I mind coming along to?

Ok. I assume we're going to somewhere on the outskirts of Notavillage, Tweeton or Notacity. But then we turn left down narrow country lane. Well maybe we're going to one of the villages near Tweeton. I know I am supposed to abhor SUVs, or whatever the English are supposed to call them, but it's quite nice sitting in the back on one, peering over hedges. And it is a Land Rover, albeit a Discovery. And it does get muddy, ford streams, be dented, and have vegetation wedged in the wing mirror, so it's not as anachronistic as some of them (and don't try arguing that speed bumps are analogous to a ploughed field). Admittedly my car also does all of those things, including drive round with 6 foot of ivy hanging from the bumper. I think it's still got a thick layer of silage round the wheel arches.

Anyway, the magical mystery tour continues, and I can't quite her the conversation in the front. There's talk of 134,000. This is either the tsunami death toll, the overdraft of the pub, or part of the accounts of one of GA's clients. It's worrying when it sounds like it's bad, but I don't know what it was. He's still driving, and hasn't taken either of the turnings I might have expected. We go past the egg farm, and I notice (over the hedge) that there's a massive lake there. Did I never notice when it, or it is new, or is it just flooding? In don't know, and we drive through the village. Then onto one dual carriageway, along a bit I don't recognise, normally having already turned off regardless of where I'm coming from, and then of at the next junction. Through another village, and I wonder whether the route he took really was quicker than via Tweeton. Onto another dual carriageway, and then off and onto another one. I'm being to wonder quite where this cash and carry is.

We turn off, at a junction marked Scarytown. Scarytown really is. I remember going through it on one dark wet night, and being one of the things moving in the place. The only which wasn't another car speeding towards the "You are now leaving..." sign was a man in normal clothes sauntering along with machine gun slung over his shoulder. The entire place is twitchy and menacing - even a cul-de-sac of bungalows somehow managed to be threatening when I had to turn round in it.

Fortunately we don't penetrate the ring of car showrooms, and pull into the high fenced car park of the cash and carry. And then in. Firstly, as it was pre-NYE, the spirits, and the list is long and bizarre, featuring several "what is?" items, and some I simply ask about. And now I see why they bought me. At the back of a row of bright blue bottles is a green one. It's on the top shelf. I can't reach it from the floor. GA can only just reach the top shelf.

Elsewhere we have to purloin a ladder to get a box down, so we can open it. It's all very Shoppers' Paradise, although I didn't see any boxes of broken biscuits.

When I was growing up there were two sorts of household. Those which bought boxes of broken biscuits, and those which didn't. Ours did occasionally. Places like cubs did. I remember the friend whose mother bought only finest things for her child's birthday party, and overhearing her complain about the cost. Anyway she was the type of person who, whilst thinking doilies are infra dig, arranges cakes and biscuits both beautifully and with military precision on what she called "lined dishes". And then is terribly upset when the children disturb the immaculate scene (I could be imagining this, but I'm fairly sure the piñata has sequins sewn on. I remember the mother worrying about getting the bits of papier-mâché out of the lawn). I could never understand such attitudes. Look, it's sugar; they're children: they don't care.

Whereas virtually everyone else, while making symbolic gestures of civility, just bought a box and let the children rummage. And if it means having a small pile of battered bourbons at the end, so be it. But I think there was enclave of thorough pragmatic people where I grew up. Every time anyone had people round, we provided and ate exactly the same things - although it got more standardised after the built Sainsbury's, and forevermore the good townsfolk ate whatever happened to be on mutli-buy.

Although possibly this went a bit far when guests started to know exactly how many packets of what the host would have left. Yes, I am thinking of certain situation here - once upon a time at the house of the people who were washed out of their hotel room. Don't worry, they headed for the nearest palm, and then timed between waves to retrieve a wallet and some possessions. But of all the people it could have happened to, I can't think of better people. I mean that in a good way. These people are the type to be calm, think and cope.

Incidentally I was rather worried when I received a postcard from the Alabamarite. I did not look much at the image after noticing it was a symmetrical figure with red, green and gold bits, with a big blue and gold ring behind the head, and the entire thing on a red background. Late December, and from the Alabamarite: it'll be some tasteless ultra-Christian Christmassy angel. And then I read the first line:
"Hello [G. Bajrangbali] Greetings from India - seriously!"

Oh? Oh!

I read on. I wonder why flying via Moscow was scary. ...Uni...good elephant...henna...peacock...sari...Christmas tree!...Taj with sugar...hands...

[Chounker, chounker, chounker] That's nowhere near there is it?

It says the 15th. I didn't even know she was in India. Oh hang, she replied to the group email when one of the people from our final year flat commented on it being someone else's birthday, and the Alabamarite has the same birthday, and that was afterwards. I wonder if she got postcard with the gilded lily?

So how did she find a gaudy postcard of an angel in India? Turning it back over, and I notice it is a curiously hairless monkey, with a bell on its tail, pulling its chest apart, in a suitably gory way, to reveal a blue man and pink woman both with the gold headdresses both making the international "How" gesture. Either that or it's a pictogram of Stop in the name of love (before you break my heart/rip said heart from the bleeding chest with your bare hands) by the Supremes.

In fairness, the monkey does have flowing tresses and a couple of halos, and the colour scheme matches Catholic imagery, so you can see why I got confused. But the painter's signature does look like A Vishnu.

I've just notice the Alabamarite spells sari as saree.

And I assume G. Bajrangbali is the name of the artist.

Where was I?
Oh yes the cash and carry. GA is useless at shopping. She just doesn't look, doesn't move, and doesn't think. She still moves as if she's reading a book, which she used to do whenever she walked anywhere. Though at least this time she didn't use her finger to scrape out the sludge at the bottom of the free cup of hot chocolate (she invariably used to at school, as the machine spat a pulse of warm water at the powder, and called that mixing. And why are drinks from vending machines luke-warm, and only just over half-full? Unfortunately I can guess at both answers. A: So customers can't scald themselves and sue. B: Because it uses the high-pressure jet to mix the drink, and if there was any more liquid it would spill over the top when the water is squirted in). She's going to hate me for mentioning that. But it'll be fine as long as I don't mention the blue jumper with the big snowflake which she wore during the late 80's and most of the 90s. She obviously didn't grow much. Anyway, I'd better stop being a beastly child and get on with it.

Shop. Back to pub. Eat (remind me not to agree to whatever she has. Jacket potato. For her the main meal of the day. On my scale a snack). Play with camera - hers this time: ac Canon Eos 300D (I think). Get told off for daring to mention manual modes. Apparently I can't use M as I'll start it cleaning itself or something. Break camera. I didn't do anything. You saw me. I was just holding while I read the instructions. Camera still broken. Won't turn on. GA checks the battery. 90% charged. Oh. Put it back in. Still doesn't work. Put it back in again and it works. I've got as far as finding out from the trouble-shooting guide that if the camera won't turn on then either the battery is flat, one of panels is open, or either the battery or memory card is missing.

Tentatively continue trying to use it. I had been asking permission, and double-checking everything beforehand, knowing how infuriating it is to have someone grab something new and do unknown things to it. Oh, now I see what she meant by it having 7 auto-focus points. I assumed she meant pre-set optimums for distances. She meant there's a cross within the viewfinder, and red LEDs flash at each point in focus. I miss the red LEDs the first few times. They're very faint. And I wasn't expecting to see them.

Having been banned from changing anything in any of the remotely automatic modes (she doesn't seem to understand I wanted to do more that turn the dial to the picture of an electrified man. "But what does it do?" is a very dangerous question), I finally get permission to use the manual mode. I take quite a good shot of her (although with a direct flash, no way am I going to try to rotate the flash to bounce off the ceiling, when the flash pops up like a Porsche headlight on drugs, and with a bigger recoil than some guns). She deletes it. Well, if she hadn't been doing stupid things with her eyebrows she wouldn't look so bad in it.

She, of course, keeps the really dodgy picture of me mid-exuberant protestation. I saw it fleetingly, and about the only good things I can say about seeing me portrayed with a mouth like a horseshoe, is that at least it shows I have no fillings. Also I didn't know I had dimples when I did that.

Anyway, I berate her a bit more for having an expensive toy that she hasn't used, and try to disguise my reactions discovering the controls. To change the shutter speed, one uses a tatty little wheel which cycles round endlessly. The shutter speed is displayed on an LCD panel on the back, and it suddenly enters odd settings with nonsensical sets of numbers and symbols. To change the aperture, one has to use press a button, which also does something unrelated if you hold it too long, and then use the same wheel (spot who was groping round for the collar on the front of the camera). Given how poor the volume control on my radio has become, and that it is controlled by a disk in which movement detected triggers the change, not by a physical link, I am worried about how easy to trash this camera might be. Also it annoys me that I have to keep bobbing between the viewfinder and the rear panel. I have to pull out and down, and then go back in, set up the composition again, realise I need to change another setting, pull out again, change it, go back in, realign the camera. Basically it assumes you will never understand how it works or how it ought to work, and so it punishes you for daring to try. And I thought it was supposed to be a good camera.

There goes first and only place on my "when I get round to being able to afford it, like a good little consumer" wish list. Unless the one with less noughts in the name, but more in the price, has a better thought out control system.

Moving on. New Year's Eve was a non-event, literally, for once. The usual fallback, fell through (well I could have gone on my own, but that and having to drive home afterwards didn't feel right), as GA disappeared to the party of the friend of a mutual friend (who didn't tell me about the party, but it might be her type of party rather than my type of party). So I sat, scanned a film I forgot to scan in the last frenzy, stuck them on Flickr, and then watched Jules Holland, who had Basement Jaxx doing the same songs they did on the last Jules Holland I watched.

After that there's not been much, apart from discovering I don't like standing on very thick pile carpet, as it's like scree, and will keep suddenly giving underneath me. There was the traditional gridlock as several entire towns all went to the same set of out of town shops, each of which are having sales. I managed to upset one salesgirl by asking if the extra 20% of the products which were 50% of marked price was 20% of the original price or of the halved price. She didn't seem to understand the difference, and the shop obviously hoped no-one else would, as the reduction was 60% over all.

Oh, by the way what would you make of this?
Product: Linoleum floor covering.
Pattern: Steel industrial flooring [unembossed].
Colour: Grey.

You too can recreate that warehouse feeling, with this unique floor covering. Marvel at the precision copying of the non-slip fire escape pattern [This product is not non-slip]. In elegant, understated, universal grey, this product will bring that little bit of outdoors in.

Ok, so I made the description up, but the place with thick carpets was selling lino patterned with the ubiquitous pattern of modern fire escapes. I suppose it clangs less. Elsewhere in this shop: On the side of a pack of interlockable laminate flooring blocks, it proclaimed, "Wood-like sawing!" I presume that upon being sawn some laminate panels crack and delaminate themselves, and these do not, or possibly splinter lightly. I wonder how much effort has gone into making wood replacements act like wood? Another set of laminate panels proudly boasted that they were "authentic tongue and groove effect." They even had a surface which appeared to be copying the texture of MDF.

Sometimes I don't get this world.

As I've been typing much of this whilst West Side Story was on in the background, what is it about musicals and the name Maria? Admittedly this is based on a sample size of two.

Oh, and warning to the wise. Surely that should be a warning to the unwise, as the wise should already know it. An entire chocolate orange. In one go. Not good. But I had no choice as it had been half molten, so it was more of a chocolate apple, in one solid lump.

And I have not quite broken my mouse. It fell off the desk once too many times, and so the left button still functions, but is jammed at an odd again, and occasionally using it triggers the middle wheel as well. Somehow this means that every other thing I click closes, but then for some reason 4 of one thing will appear. Frustrating.


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