Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Pyrate, pyrate, burning bright

Is it any wonder some memories are a bit hazy?

During the summer, we attended a party at the house of my good friends who are generally known as the Weasels, for reasons too tedious to go into here.1 Parties at their house invariably involve fire, mediaeval weaponry, and a muchness of alcohol. During the evening, someone (I can’t for the life of me remember whom) strongly recommended that I read the Tim Powers book On Stranger Tides, upon which the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie had been loosely (very loosely!) based.

The next day, when the hangover had dissipated, the burns soothed, and the photos of Mr Weasel with his beard aflame duly uploaded and laughed at, I vaguely remembered this book’s title and downloaded the sample to my Kindle. Later that summer, sitting on a dhow in the Mozambique Channel, I began reading.

Now, it may be that there are better places to read a book about pirates and voodoo than on tropical beaches and boat-decks above coral reefs whilst drinking copious quantities of rum, but personally I can’t come up with a better one. Certainly, I consider this to be the best book I read in 2011, and have since re-read it in dreary old Blighty, and still hold this opinion. It has all the good bits of the POTC films without any of the naff bits. Or mermaids. There’s a wonderful blending of the natural with the supernatural, and the fact with the fiction. Many of the characters genuinely existed, and, on searching Wikipedia at a later date like the sad little nerd I am, I realised that several of the events referenced in the novel actually happened (although probably without the supernatural voodoo explanation offered by the author).

Whilst doing my internetty-research, I kept finding reference to A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, so eventually I tracked down an electronic copy here. It is very clear that Mr Powers used it heavily as his source material for the above novel, and it’s fascinating reading. Admittedly, the veracity is dubious – the author’s true identity unknown and writing for a public who loved sensation more than truth, but there are certainly many facts in there. What I found most intriguing was that Madagascar was on the Pirate Round, and that many of Captain Every/Avery's associates had settled there and still have descendants alive on the island today. Even those pirates who didn't settle would frequently visit the island in order to replenish stocks and careen their vessels.

Having learnt this, I resolved to read Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe is popularly thought to have been the author of A General History of the Pyrates, although nothing has ever been proven), and The Diary of Robert Drury - an account (also believed to have been written by Defoe) of a shipwrecked sailor who washed up on the shores of Madagascar, and was kept as a slave for ten years, before finally escaping and returning to England. The latter was long thought to be a complete fiction, based on the fantastical nature of the tale, until recently the wreck of the ship was discovered and archaeological evidence shown to prove that there was indeed a Malagasy settlement exactly as described in the tale.

Then I accidentally discovered the Game of Thrones novels and have become distracted by trashy Swords-and-Sorcery. But mostly swords. But I’ll let you know how the pirates got on when I get back to my educational and improving reading. 

1 I often think that there ought to be a less patriarchal collective noun for their household, since the “Weasel” derives from Iain’s nickname, and might be thought to exclude Bryony who is a person in her own right and not at all a possession of Iain’s. But nicknames are an organic thing, and “Weasels” seems to have stuck.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

That's what friends are for

 My friend Charlotte is a far better photographer than me, so I asked her to show me how to use my new flash (I may have bribed her with vasty quantities of curry). So she came over, carrying large amounts of camera paraphanalia.

Having helped me with some of the basics ("here is where you adjust the flash compensation in the camera; here is where you adjust it in the flash"), she then proceeded to set up three or four flashes, plus a lens that looked like she'd nicked it from the Hubble Space telescope. At this point, I decided not to compete with my own snaps, and merely watched.

She did produce some remarkably good shots.

...and then one of the ferts nicked her phone and we had to spend a while hunting for it until it was located in the bottom of the wardrobe...
More of Charlotte's picures here.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Moving - very much moving - Pictures

The following (admittedly poor quality) video demonstrates typical ferret behaviour:

I think this explains why 95% of the photos I take of the mustelids are out of focus, or, in extreme cases, contain no mustelids whatsoever!

Monday, January 9, 2012


The Evidence


 The suspects

Name: þ, aka “Thorn”, aka “Badger” (for his size), aka “Duracell ferret” (because he just keeps on going).

Likes: Food. Cat food. Running around, Jumping on other ferrets and kicking ‘em inna head. More cat food. Digging up houseplants.

Mmm, catfood!
Dislikes: Scary things (not sure what they are, but every so often he’ll hide under the bed and have a freak-out-episode). Baths.

Notable achievements to date: clambering on to the windowsill, and emptying two potted amaryllis bulbs and a full watering can over a stereo and a stack of forty CDs.


Name: ð, aka “Eth”, aka “Scrags”, aka “Get off me!”

Likes: Socks (especially when on the foot). Chewing things. Kitty milk. Corks. Chewing Thorn. The sock drawer. Stealing Wiimote covers and stashing them in the sock drawer.

Dislikes: Having corks, feet, Thorn, and other chew-toys confiscated.

Notable achievements to date: Removing the scroll-wheel from a mouse, and the buttons from a remote control.

Name: The Honourable Kitty Packenham, aka “Kitty”, aka “little madam”, aka "One-eye", aka “No!”

Likes: Jumping up and down onna bed. Playing hide-n-seek under the duvet. Jingly balls. Chasing the cats. Getting inside the sofa and slowly destroying it from within. Biting people who are playing with her. Sleeping in her penthouse hammock at the top of the cage where the Boys rarely go.

Dislikes: Being removed from the sofa and told-off. Being kicked inna head by Thorn.

Notable achievements to date: It’s a tie: either it’s having an eye gouged out by a cat and still not learning to keep away from them, or it was losing a fight to a box of miracle-gro and having bright blue feet for two days.

Oddly enough, these shoes *do* appear to have been made for walking

 Genetics is a fascinating subject. For instance, everyone knows the problems that too much inbreeding can cause, but very few people appreciate that too much outbreeding can also have issues. Offspring can end up with non-compatible features. As an example, consider the following cross:

Small teeth & small jaw x Big teeth & big jaw

Imagine – this could produce offspring with large teeth which don’t properly fit into their small jaw. I am such a case: I’ve had eight teeth removed, and the remaining ones are still crammed together awkwardly after years of orthodontic work.

Similarly, my feet. My feet are wide at the toe end, narrow at the heel end, and have an incredibly high instep. Combine this with my thin bony ankle and my chunky cyclist’s calf, and you will realise that shoe-shopping is quite a tortuous business for me.

I have a little bit of a reputation when it comes to shoes. I like shoes, possibly beyond the bounds that would be considered “healthy”. I get very cross when I notice a pair of elegant stilettos tripping along with the seductive curve of the instep marred by a price sticker – or worse, the tattered remnants of a label, with bits of carpet fluff and dog fur attached to the exposed glue.1 This isn’t OCD2 as some people tell me it is. It doesn’t keep me awake at nights, any more than the five wrongly oriented carpet tiles in my newly refurbished office do. It just jars, like a continuity error in a film. 

I think my shoe obsession is a relatively recent (well, the last six years) habit. My childhood shoe-shopping trips were long painful ordeals, inevitably resulting in me ending up having to wear the only pair of shoes in the entire High Street which would go on my feet. I could claim that the orthopaedic-style clunky shoes led to me being bullied at school, but I suspect that the frizzy hair, knee length skirt,3 braces, big owlish glasses, and complete lack of knowledge of anything remotely fashionable or up-to-date were more significant factors.

I was therefore both surprised and delighted when stilettos and outrageously platformed shoes came in to fashion a few years ago. All of a sudden, shoes which fitted my feet existed! I had a choice! It is possible than I never got over this abundance of choice, hence why I now own many many many pairs of shoes – mostly tall and teetery. People invariably ask me “how do you walk in them?” to which the obvious answer is “left, right, then left again!”

My summer sandals - somewhat battered due to much wear
The bizarre thing is, teetery tall shoes are comfy. Possibly it’s because the way they curve fits my high instep, or maybe it’s because the height gives the illusion of a narrow foot, so the designers can actually make the toe box relatively wide. Either way, I can last a lot longer in stilettos than people expect.

My current winter boots - also well-worn
 Nonetheless, I recognise the use for some flat shoes or boots in a wardrobe, so this winter I set out to get some. I have now spent a month searching for some “sensible” footwear, and have begun to think it is impossible. Ballet pumps? By the time I find a pair wide enough for my toes, they slop around at the heel, and fall off as soon as I try and walk in them. Welly-style boots? Seem to be designed for people with flat feet, and my feet are usually too tall to fit in them. Riding style boots? They are too tight around the calf and go baggy around my ankles. This season’s fake-sheepskin-trim boots? Desperately naff. Ugg boots? Bleargh! Lace-up boots? Fit me perfectly, but all the lace-up-boots have high heels, which is not what I was looking for. In a month of searching, I’ve found two pairs which fitted me – one had a low (only two inches) heel, and cost significantly more than I was willing to pay, and the other was frumpy and ugly and dog-turd brown. It was back-to-school-shoe shopping all over again.

So instead I bought myself some comfortable shoes to cheer myself up. 

 1 Helpful Household Hint – Lavender silicone furniture polish usually removes this residue. I usually have a tub reserved solely (badoom-tish!) for shoes.
2 Or CDO, to be alphabetical.
3 All the girls at school would roll the waistbands of their skirts over and over, to shorten their skirts and avoid conforming. I would argue that as the only one in school who didn’t roll my skirt up, I was therefore not conforming to the ubiquitous non-conformity, and therefore I was more non-conformist than the rest. Somehow, I still failed to acquire street credibility, despite my principles.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

And then I drifted of down the road to Mombasa

I don’t have any grandparents of my own. I lost all mine relatively1 early on, due to various smoking-related diseases, or dementia, or other such carelessnesses on my part. I don’t have many other elderly relations either, other than a Great Aunt who is utterly fabby and entirely unlike the Great Aunt in the Swallows and Amazons books. This means I have an inclination to adopt elderly people in place of my absent grandparents, provided they are sane and reasonably non-flatulent. Ideally I’d like to have Dame Judi Dench as a grandparent, but until I find her forlornly by the side of the road looking for an adoptive grand-daughter to rescue her, I have Tim’s grandfather.

Tim’s grandfather is fantastic. He’s approaching ninety-seven, but still has all his marbles, plus several extra he won in a round of Bridge. Given people in my family seem to start losing it at around fifty2, I find this rather wonderful.

Grandpa, winning at cards. Again.
Grandpa is still as sharp as a razor, can play whist all evening and win outright, and on the way home can list who played which card in which order for every hand throughout the night. Me, I daren’t play against him – one of Tim’s aunts is invariably in disgrace for making the “wrong” call, and I doubt I’d play to an acceptable standard either.

But the best thing about him is his stories – by the time one gets to nearly-ninety-seven, there’s very little that one hasn’t done or seen. Grandpa has served in the army, and is proud of the fact that he shot a German after the war was officially declared “over” (“Well, I told him if he went on burning those documents I’d shoot him, and he went on burning them, so I shot ‘im!”). He tells stories of attending a court-martial (not his own) in Antananarivo (“No, not many lemurs there, but we were only there for a day.”)

There's the saga of trying to get a column of supply trucks across an African desert, double-declutching all the way, and smoking the leaves confiscated from the local drivers en route (“They said it was marijuana but it didn't really do anything – quite a disappointment!”). He avoided trouble when he overslept after an epic gin session only to find that the unit had moved on without him (““What time is it?” I asked. “Oh, about eleven in the morning” said my medic friend. “Eleven! And we're due to move out today! We'd better get a move on!” “Oh, the unit left yesterday. We tried to wake you, but couldn't. Don't worry though – I told everybody you had malaria.””). I think the court-martial he did receive was for cannibalizing some of the more decrepit trucks for parts to fix the others, and consequently arriving with fewer trucks than ordered (“Well, I pointed out that at least I had arrived! They let me off in the end...”)

After the war was over, he worked for the company which installed the elevators at Buckingham Palace (“We had to design corgi-guards for the elevator doors. That was a challenge”), got used to working with the royal family wandering by (“The Queen Mum was lovely. Very gracious. And drunk as you like by midday!”), got threatened with prison by Black Rod (“Well, you see, a question had been asked in Parliament about when the lifts would be finished, and they said “three months”. So they said to me “you will finish the lifts in three months”. And I said “We can't – the parts are on order and won't be manufactured for another six months!” And that Black Rod, he said to me “Parliament has said you will install them in three months. Are you aware that if you don't do it in three months that will count as Contempt of Parliament, and you can go to jail?”)

The thing is, Grandpa's stories are fascinating (and a lot more audience-friendly than the tales my own Granddad would tell me,3) but we've heard them all many times before. It just takes the phrase “And another time on the road to Mombasa....” and we all zone out. Whenever someone new visits, Grandpa delightedly begins recounting narratives to a new audience who listen with amazement. At that point, I start to think “Actually, these are quite impressive, aren't they?”, and wonder whether anyone ought to be writing them down for posterity. But I wouldn't have a clue where to start.

Still, I'm sure there's plenty of time. Grandpa's currently making plans for his 100th birthday – I think we're all having a huge family shindig in Rhodes!

1 See what I did there? “Relatively”, when talking about relation- Oh, never mind.
2 With the exception of my fabby Great Aunt mentioned above.
3 My granddad, of whom I was very fond, was an ambulance driver on duty in Benfleet on the night of the 31st January 1953, and therefore was called out to Canvey Island. It clearly affected him, and I think he still suffered post-traumatic stress about the incident. He would tell tales of breaking off the rooftops of houses to find drowned corpses huddled in the attic, where they had scrambled higher to escape the rising sea and then become trapped in the icy water. Or the miracle baby, whose entire family had perished in their sleep, but the crib had floated and the baby was saved. That last one sounds suspiciously like an urban (or possibly rural) legend to me, but Granddad always swore it was one of his friends who found the baby.