Monday, December 12, 2011

December birthdays

Pretty twinkly lights
December birthdays have the potential for a great deal of suckage. It begins when one is little, and elderly batty old ladies1 say “Oooh, it must be lovely having a birthday near Christmas! You must get lots more presents!”

Now, any child with a rudimentary grasp of mathematics2 knows that receiving birthday presents in the same month as Christmas presents does not mean that the birthday presents have magically multiplied. There is the same number of birthday presents, and now you’ll have to wait a whole year before receiving any more presents, unlike all those smug summer babies who’ll get a second chance to get the much-longed-for My Little PonyTM Dream CastleTM in a few months’ time.3 In fact, one is frequently worse-off, as the lazier of one’s relatives will pass over two identical gifts, saying “here is a Christmas present for Michael, and a joint Christmas-and-birthday present for Kathy”, and assume that just because Kathy is only five years old, she will not have remembered that Michael also got a birthday present in November.4 Still, it’s hard to blame the grown-ups sometimes – just because it’s December, that lump of plastic tat in the Argos catalogue for which you have yearned all year, and been counting down the days until you can unwrap the box and unleash the Sylvanian Families Caravan With Detachable Horse, will have gone up in price by at least 20%. Thanks, shops. And that’s before I even mention the problems people have with finding wrapping paper which doesn’t have holly or robins on it!

It’s not just the presents that have the potential to suck though. Not by a long shot. Y’see, the really really irritating thing about a birthday in December is Christmas. Christmas is, according to my calendar, the 25th of December. You’d think therefore I ought to be able to have a nice pleasant birthday, doing birthday things, and worry about Christmas afterwards, wouldn't you?


My local Wetherspoons’ has had Christmas decorations up since the 20th of November. Bloody Chris Bloody Evans on the radio was shouting about it being “the fifth day of Christmas!” No, you twat, it’s the fifth day of December, there is a difference. The DJ on Capital Radio (who I turned to to avoid the Radio Two twattiness, and is marginally less annoying than Chris Evans, despite claiming to like home-made gifts “because I’m an aquarium”5) was blathering on about it being “nearly Christmas” on the 7th of December. The high-street supermarket was blaring out naff Christmas songs on the 3rd of December,6 as if the place wasn’t noisy and unpleasant enough on a Saturday. Spontaneity is impossible - Tim arranged a little surprise get-together-with-friends for me, but the pub was packed with Office-Xmas-Let’s-Get-Slaughtereds, and it took a while to find a restaurant which was able to fit a group of seven in without pre-booking.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this little diatribe. Our family custom is to put the tree up on my birthday – two weeks before Christmas – but I know several December babies whose families wait until Christmas Eve before decorating the house, as is more traditional. This gives me a fairly definite “Christmas is permitted to start now” date, which means that I’ve noticed that Christmas genuinely is getting celebrated earlier and earlier each year, and this year feels especially bad.
Moonrise over Oxford Street
I like Christmas, I genuinely do. I’m not like my brother, who goes to pieces over Christmas shopping, and has one of those black “Bah Humbug” Santa hats. I love the twinkly lights and the tinsel and the dark starry nights with Orion in the sky. I love the fact that I get to do exciting things on my birthday – this year I went ice-skating in Somerset House, which I wouldn’t have been able to do if I was a summer baby. I love the time off work, and visiting Tim’s family, and open fires, and good food, and mulled wine and Midnight Mass, and yes, I love the presents. It’s just that I love it all at Christmas time, not on the first of December! Please, on behalf of December babies, give us a chance to celebrate our birthdays without drowning in Christmas!

1 You know, the type who scream when they see a slug, and think that girls should wear pink frills and play with dollies. They say things like “Does oo want to be a nursey-wursey when oo gwows up, and take care of people?” and look a bit nonplussed when you respond with something like “Actually, I can’t decide. I’m contemplating forensic toxicology, but oceanography looks fun too. Want to see the slug I just found?”
2 Which is any child over the age of three. That’s why birthdays and birthday presents exist – it’s to teach children how to count: “Hooray! I have seventeen presents this year! That’s three more than last year!”
3 In my family we have a half-birthday tradition, where one receives a bar of chocolate or a book six months after one’s actual birthday. It goes a little way towards offsetting this problem.
4 That’s the other thing children learn from birthdays: life is essentially unfair.
5 Honestly, I swear she said that!
6 I do appreciate the recent xkcd on this.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

No more electrons any more!

It has been a bad time for electrical MacGubbins in our house. The food processor died last weekend - at least, I doubt it still works after the amount of smoke that came out of it - and it has gone to join the kettle and the landline phone in the pile-of-WEEE-stuff. On top of that, the damp (and therefore not-laundry) weather lately reminded me that I need to try and open up the motor STUFFS of the tumble-dryer and work out why it merely huffs but no longer tumbles. And to cap it all, the charger for my laptop which has been slowly disintegrating entirely-of-its-own-accord-and-the-ferrets-deny-everything finally came entirely to pieces and I no longer had any method of reading the internets other than my phone. Woe!

Hurrah for online shopping! Today I acquired a replacement cable and it is busy sucking surplus electrons out of my laptop, or whatever the SCIENCE says it does. I can once again look at pictures of cats with humorous captions, and read TV Tropes as God intended. All praise the power of the electron-sucky cable! Harrumble!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Lord Mayor's Parade

 The Lord Mayor of Londonton is a very nice fellow who threw together a parade to celebrate my friend Sarah’s birthday. So we went along to Puddledock and watched it with a thermos of mulled wine.


Yay for Viking pillagers!

Those with tanks sneer at traffic lights

Everything is better with pirates. Especially steel bands

Then we went to the London Eye and watched the fireworks.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

There's no arguing with that logic!

Cycling home from Epsom, we stopped at a red traffic light. Cue pedestrian waiting to cross the road launching into tirade:

“Yeah, tha’s right! Yew bedder fuggin’ stop!”

Us: “Yes, the light is red, that is why we have stopped.”

“Yeah, but, but, I betchoo wouldn’t of! Fuggin’ cyclists! CHAV!”


*Le sigh*

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Splortch: a public service announcement

I don’t play many computer games. I find modern soldiery shooty ones either too dull or too disturbingly real, and racing bores me unless I can be armed with banana skins and red shells. But every so often a game comes along and I become obsessed with it, and live and breathe it until it is finished. In terms of two-player co-operative games (and there are lamentably few good ones out there) this was Halo, and more recently Borderlands. It seems I do like shooting things up if there is an element of unreality in the scenario and I can do it in company. Spending an evening with one’s husband clearing an alien environment of evil bitey critters is a Good Thing.

As for single-player games, there was only one franchise I could ever get into: Grand Theft Auto. The universe is surreal enough that the (almost cartoon-like) violence doesn’t bother me, and the driving isn’t integral to the game. But most of all, the aspect I like is the free-roaming: there’s a beautifully crafted city that I can just wander around and admire, and I can choose which mission I want to do next. In the case of Vice City, I spent so much time playing that I began having dreams set there. Seriously. But by the time of GTA IV, I began to get tired of it. The city was a little too big for me to remember my way around, and there was a disappointing lack of interesting non-plot stuff (one hundred pigeons to shoot? That’s all? No taxi missions?).

And then one day last year we were in a shop rummaging through the second-hand bin for any two-player co-op games, and Tim picked up Assassin’s Creed II.

“It has really good reviews.”
“Yeah, but it’s not two-player, is it? Still, if you want it, you can get it, but I probably won’t play it. It doesn’t sound like my sort of thing.”

So we bought it and went home. Tim fired up the game, and I bimbled around the house. After a while, I stopped bimbling, and sat down next to him.

“What are you hitting him for?”
“Who’s he?”
“How did you do that?”
“You mean you can just go anywhere?!”

Tim let me have a go. This go lasted approximately three weeks. As he said, it’s Grand Theft Renaissance, and I fell in love with the world. OK, so the plot is like something Dan Brown would have rejected as too implausible, but I can go anywhere, do anything, deliver splortchy death from on high to any who incur my wrath (or whose death would simply amuse me – I’m not a complicated person).

When Brotherhood came out, I spent my Christmas money on it, and completed the game before Tim did (I think this is the first and only time this has ever happened). And today, Revelations is released.

I may be gone some time. Just as soon as Amazon deliver.


Friday, November 11, 2011

Indispensible accessories

Glove puppets: they're fabulous, aren't they? They can be used to entertain small children, create personal space on public transport, derail team meetings, and exercise pets.

I think everyone should have one!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Wish List

My birthday and Christmas are rapidly approaching, and family and friends (but mostly the former,1 since I don’t have many of the latter who care enough to give me gifts) are asking what I would like. Setting aside such futilities as world peace and a pygmy goat and my very own lemur-infested island, here is my wish list:

A flash for my camera. Preferably one of those really nifty ones which I can detonate remotely without it having to be attached to the camera.
A small portable diffuser for said flash.
Some shades for my camera lenses.
Some clear filters to protect my lenses (miraculously they got around Madagascar unharmed, but I really ought to protect them more).
A backpack for lugging the above camera gear around.
A new mattress, ‘cos the current one is nearly ten years old and very lumpy.
Lady with an Ermine. Conveniently, it’s in the National Gallery in London this Christmas, so you won’t have to go all the way to Vienna to perform the heist.
A new hot water bottle – I have plenty of novelty-shaped cases, but only one bottle, and I think that’s going to start leaking soon.
The latest OOTS book, which is quite fortuitous since I found it under the bed the other day when I was looking for something else.
A ferret-proof kitchen bin (but small, since our kitchen is tiny).
A holiday somewhere with interesting wildlife – I hear Costa Rica is pretty nifty, and not far off the track from the Galapagos Islands.
A plain dark tailored jacket for the office.
A new bit of silicone tubing to repair my swimming paddle.
A sticky-roller for removing cat (and ferret) fur from clothing.
A slow-cooker (and a kitchen big enough for it).
A couple of saucepan lids with handles to replace the broken ones (the saucepans are fine). 
Some more Big Gay Musicals for rainy hungover Sundays. Classic stuff, like Calamity Jane, only I already own that. Oh, and Some Like It Hot - I don't have that in my Monroe collection.


I think that’s all. The problem comes when one is an adult and earning money and in (theoretical) control of one’s life. If one wants something, one buys it. I just ordered the forthcoming Assassin’s Creed game – Tim said “Bugger. There goes that plan for your birthday.” (Yebbut I want to play it now, not later!).

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, and all I ever wanted was a pet cat. Now I’m grown up (ha!), I have two cats, not to mention three ferrets.

I am Living The Dream. 

Smug. I haz it.

1 Who feel obliged to do so.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Duck Soup - a food for convalesent British ferrets

Most ferret-keepers have some equivalent of "Duck Soup" - a high-fat, high-protein soft food to be given to ferrets who are ill or recovering. The only thing these recipes have in common is that they contain no duck...
All the recipes I was able to find online were American, and contained brand-names I'd never heard of, units I couldn't deal with (I can never remember how much is "a cup"), and occasionally contained things like sugary caffeinated drinks, which didn't seem a good idea for a species prone to diabetes and insulinomas. Not to mention all the recipes with homoeopathic tablets in them!

In the interests of information, here's a British recipe, with none of the above problems:


About 250g of dried ferret kibble (mine eat the James Wellbeloved stuff)
1 pack of chicken livers - about 300-400g, I guess
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons cheap cod-liver-oil (the cheapest you can find - it'll be 50% sunflower oil, and really pungent)


1. Soak the kibble in an equal volume of water, until it is completely mushy - about 6 hours for cold water, at least 2 hours for hot water.
2. Melt the butter in a pan, and gently fry the chicken livers until lightly brown on the outside, but still pink inside.
3. Put everything - kibble, butter, livers, cod-liver-oil - in a food processor, and blend until smooth. It will look like chocolate mousse.
4. Feed to poorly ferret.With a syringe if necessary.

This will only keep for a couple of days, even in the fridge, so I usually freeze it in ice-cube trays, and then defrost a few lumps (about 5-10 seconds per lump in the microwave) as and when needed.

Despite multiple terminal conditions, Wellesley lived a happy six months or so on this diet, and I doubt he'd have lasted so long otherwise. I'm currently feeding ð on a pot of duck soup (made for Wellesley) I found in the bottom of the freezer, since he could do with putting on a bit of weight. He seems to like it.

Wellesley, enjoying life

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Weasels are *not* weasily photographed!

We've had the Boys (þ and ð) for two weeks now. So far, they have destroyed one swimming hand-paddle and a Kurt Geiger shoe of which I had been somewhat fond, chewed the scrolly-wheel off a computer mouse, and stolen a waterproof phone case, the rubber Wiimote covers (we call them "Wii condoms") and the nose-piece off my M-frames. I've still not found everything. On the plus side, three ferrets bouncing on my laptop seems to have triggered the charger to start working, so it's not all bad!

I've been trying to photograph them. Ferrets are a tricky subject matter: they are fast-moving, so will inevitably be blurry, out-of-focus, or in a different environment to the one you just set your camera for.

White balance? What white balance?
 They are crepuscular, which is a posh way of saying that they are most active when it's gloomy (or under the bed) and you can't use a low-light lens because of the shutter speed you need to prevent motion blur.

Note ð's cartoon legs as he attempts to knock the stuffing out of þ
 Finally, they like to Take An Interest.

I think the best solution is to wait for them to get tired.

New brake blocks?

Nah, these ones are fine!

Look, the wear-indicator says so!

Granted, they're shaving tinsel-like threads off the rim of the front wheel, but that's just going to give us a lightweight sporty tandem, right?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Janus pumpkin

Hallowe'en is a disgusting recent adoption of American commercialism and threatens the Christian morals of our children. Or something.

Anyway, before I drench myself in fake blood and go to drink beer and offer children-knocking-on-the-door toffee onions, here are pictures of the drunken two-faced pumpkin I carved for my god-daughter.

Happy drunk!

Day Fourteen – The End of the Tale

And that, as they say, is that. It chucked it down with rain the night we got back from Lokobe Reserve. 

The global HQ for Air Madagascar
 The next day we got up early and headed to Tana. We followed the repeated exhortations from the guide books, our guides, and the hotel staff, and prepared to look around the town. As per advice, we locked SD cards and valuables in the hotel safe, hid spending money across a variety of pockets, and made sure we had a sacrificial wallet containing a feasible but not excessive amount of money to give up if we were mugged. Having considered all these aspects, we walked into the main street unacompanied by guides for the first time in our holiday. We felt very conspicuous and very white. Being vaguely surrounded by beggars and people trying to sell us three-foot-long carved wooden galleons (unfortunately I didn't know the Malagasy for "Are you mad? That will never fit in my suitcase!"), we moved through the throng. We had a brief look around the town centre which was a bit like Basildon but hotter, saw possible signs of the political situation (a lorry-load of youths distributing bread to some people, and causing consternation and panic amongst others), drank a lot of rum in the Cafe du Gare, spent another night in Tana Plaza, and headed back to the UK the next day. There was a while when we thought our holiday would involve an unscheduled day in Nairobi, but they held our connecting flight so that we were able to make it despite an eight-hour delay (Many thanks to the Dutch cycle tourists who translated airport announcments and found us free food in the interim). Sadly our luggage didn't get that flight, but it showed up eventually, smelling of vanilla and lemur pee. Much love to Auntie C for collecting us from the airport despite a stinking cold, but she was thankful not to be able to smell us at that point.
In summary, Madagascar is a lovely country, two weeks is not enough time to spend there, and I'm determined to go back.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Day Twelve – Now for some luxury

In order for Mark and Liz to make it to the airport on time, we had to get up obscenely early. We motored into Hell-Ville in the dawn light, accompanied by a pod of three dolphins – or porpoises. That was the end of our time on the Salaama Tsara, and we said our farewells. 

Hell-ville harbour
More harbour
 We were met by our next guide, who took us to our hotel, a somewhat lavish affair. Although the room was not large, after a week of washing with brackish cold water we both spent some time gazing at the eight-nozzled shower with awe.

Having showered, we explored the hotel, accidentally wandered through someone's luxury apartment (we thought it was the restaurant!), and sat on the beach watching two people take a zebu for a bath.
Zebu. Bathing. Obviously.
More clichéd sunsets

Day Thirteen - Strictly Lokobe

 Having not been permitted to explore Lokobe when we were camping on the edge of it (it is classed as a “Strict Reserve”, which is not quite a national park, but similar), we booked a day-trip back there. We were told sternly that we would need to wear trousers and boots, so it was quite a contrast when we were introduced to our guide, Michaela, a young woman in a sequinned kaftan and flip-flops.

As our driver, Jean, drove us out of the hotel (in a car with a cracked windscreen), he halted before we got to the road. “What's wrong?” we asked, wondering if the car was broken.

Chameleon” he answered, pointing at the hedge.

Where?” we asked. “ I can't see anything other than that bright turquoise bit of- Oh, right.”

They weren't subtle.

We were driven through Hell-Ville, past the large cemetery with goats perched on the tombstones (sadly, I felt obliged to respect the fady prohibiting photography of tombs), through ylang-ylang plantations, and to the village of Ambatozavary. 
Ylang-ylang tree. They were all grotesquely stunted, but more sad than horrific.
Ylang-ylang blossoms
Ambatozavary (and pirogues)
 There, we boarded a leaking pirogue, were handed a paddle each, and we set off around the coast. Michaela hitched up her kaftan, sighed, and concentrated on bailing. She said she much preferred taking people on trips to Komba.

Traditional kayaker's photo (with paddle across face)
After about forty-five minutes, we landed in Ampasipohy, a small and rather charming little village. I think it is what Komba would have been like ten years ago. Yes, there were children singing and souvenir stalls, but far less blatantly than on Nosy Komba. 

 From Ampasipohy, we walked into the forest, having been warned to keep quiet so's not to disturb the wildlife. Thus it was that when we saw a maki, we said in hushed tones “Look, a lemur!”, at which point Michaela rolled her eyes and yelled “MAKI MAKI MAKI!” until the lemur wandered over to see if we had a banana.

Oooh, yeah!
Grey-backed sportive lemur. Nocturnal, hence the large eyes and peevish expression.
Boa. Sitting in a tree so close to the path we suspected it was planted by the guides.
Mantella frog (that's a thumb bottom left, stopping her hopping away. She's tiny!)
Vanilla flower
Spider. Seriously. Even the guides had to look twice when Tim pointed it out.
Crab spider (sorry for the focus - the web was moving in the wind)

Gecko licking nectar off banana flower
A walk which entailed much wildlife later, plus a translation confusion over the use of the Quinine tree (apparently Italians, who comprised the rest of the tour group, consider it to be “medicinal” as opposed to “with gin”), we headed back to the beach. 

Gift shop
There, we were served vast amounts of sea food and rum, and the Italians insisted on presenting a group of happily-minding-their-own-business local toddlers with colouring pencils, thus teaching them the art of begging from vahaza