Monday, February 28, 2005

Leave of Absence

The beautiful Caroline has asked me to explain her temporary absence from the blogging world. However to make it more interesting we thought we’d make it a multiple choice thing.

So you choose; Caroline is currently off-line because:

a) her broadband connection has gone down
b) she’s on blog strike until Sally agrees to come back to the fold
c) she’s the secret understudy for Comic Relief does Fame Academy and they’ve got her locked away in mystery hotel
d) she’s a jury member on the Michael Jackson trial
e) the incident in the car park took a turn for the worse and she’s currently enjoying a stay at the NHS’s pleasure awaiting further scans
f) the situation at work took a turn for the worse and she’s currently enjoying a stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure
g) Charles Clarke has taken her threats against pedestrian kind as being evidence of
terrorist links and has her detained under house arrest
h) The hamsters found out about her plans to purchase a mechanical hamster clock and have her under house arrest

Friday, February 25, 2005

Yellow Pencils

Stuart and I have been wondering about the purpose of the strange giant yellow pencils that have been springing up around the streets of Manchester.

Thanks to google, the mystery is solved, our schools link guess was correct.

Of course, given that word as to their purpose doesn't exactly seem to have spread like wild-fire, there could be a slight down-side in motorists taking their eyes off the road to ponder "look at that strange giant pencil, I wonder what that's all about...".

So consider this public service announcement or something...

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Cat walking

As I put the car in the garage last night, I was greeted by a local guy who regularly walks his dogs in the midnight hour around our neighbourhood.

He always stops for a short chat - I guess you don't get to interact with that many people at that time of night - well certainly not in any way you'd particularly welcome...

What stood out last night however, was the fact that his two dogs were being trailed by a cat. It transpires the cat is also his and has taken to joining him and the hounds on their midnight constitutionals.

He tells me that the cat thinks it's a dog.

Which is a step in the right direction I suppose.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Life Aquatic

Thanks to a friend’s brother who has a job in PR, we occasionally get the opportunity to attend free advance preview showings of forthcoming films.

In the past it means we’ve seen films like LA Confidential almost a month before it’s release date. I assume the purpose is to try and get people talking about great films that could be hard to sell to the public through the usual advertising channels; films that defy easy categorisation, films that just have a certain something.

Tonight’s offering of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, certainly falls into that definition, though with only 2 days to go until its general release, I’m wondering how much word-of-mouth momentum such preview showings will build up (still I'm writing this blog I suppose).

It’s a very hard film to explain, I loved it, but I’m not entirely sure I can properly explain why. Perhaps the most useful thing to say is that it's directed by Wes Andrson, who also brought us The Royal Tenenbaums and if you dug that film, you’ll dig this one too.

There are huge similarities between the two in terms of the creation of a strange world portrayed as entirely normal, twisted relationships, dysfuntionality, captivating innocence and many a knowing wink to the audience.

I could tell you what the plot is about, but it wouldn’t even begin to explain things; this is a film that has to be seen first-hand. It’s a feeling, an atmosphere, a whole concept wrapped up in celluloid.

One of the very last scenes follows the cast in an underwater trip in a ‘yellow submarine’ style diving craft. The film-makers have wisely decided to forego the eternal quest for realism in CGI in favour for an altogether more exotic and colourful option. They have me convinced – why stick to reality when ones imagination can create so much more colour and vigour.

Truly, beautifully strange.

We head from the Filmworks to Zinc Bar and Grill. Definitely a better idea to watch the film first and then drink…

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Taking the Rise?

I feel like I’ve joined some sort of internet club today.

I received my first ever viagra spam-mail.

I suppose I’m lucky to have survived so long spam-free. Well I say luck, I’m ever vigilant about when and where I disclose my email address and make sure it’s never on a website.

You can imagine how delighted I was therefore to discover a few weeks ago that a certain group (who if I didn’t think were lovely people and well intentioned, I’d be shouting the odds at), decided, without warning or announcement to list all the subscribers email addresses in a semi-public webspace. I took my address off the list as soon as I found out, but…

Chances are it may just be coincidence that a few weeks later I get my first ever piece of spam, but even so, it makes me all the madder that people that I want to approve of so much could make such a ridiculous (and chances are data protection act busting) foul-up. I know the error of their ways has been well expressed to them by others and so I won’t heap coals on their heads, but it doesn’t mean I’m not ever so slightly fuming.

I’m also slightly tempted to type the email address of the list administrator here so that some nice spam spider can come and pick it up and return the favour…but I figure I’ll take the higher road.

Monday, February 21, 2005

The Book Loft

I didn’t expect to be able to make tonight’s Book Group (I was to have been at the Wedding Present gig, but less said about all that the better). Accordingly I hadn’t worried too much that I hadn’t managed to track down a copy of J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, in time to read it for tonight. The first of the two stories collected here is only 30 pages, so maybe if I can grab 30 minutes in the car before we meet…

With this plan in mind I manage to get away from work sharpish and head to my favourite second hand bookshop in the world, the W@rrington Book Loft (handily open to 7pm most nights).

Situated in part of an ugly old factory building with an unimposing sign over the stairway, you could drive past every day and never realise it was there. But any book lover who finds it, is bound to return. It’s a fairly rough and ready place (no aesthetically pleasing wooden avenues of bookcases filtering dusty sunlight here I’m afraid, strictly modern muddle, carpet tiles and strip lighting), but it’s a total temple to books and the quiet and peaceful perusal of such. Handwritten signs remind customers that this is a haven of quiet, so please turn off your mobiles. By the door sits a crate of books that are presumably un-sellable and another handwritten sign invites the passer-by to help themself. I’ve never found anything in this free pile that I would want, but I kind of like the fact that this is an establishment that would rather try and find them a free home then dream of discarding them.

The myriad shelves in the loft itself are stacked with a wide range of literature. What can’t fit on the jumbled assortment of mismatching shelves and racks, are kept out back. The woman who runs the loft appears to have a complete database in her head as to the current stock (trust me this is not the kind of place that would countenance the presence of a computer!). Regularly I ring up to enquire after titles and 90% of the time she’ll know off the top of her head whether she has a copy of even the more obscure titles. I can’t even find books on my own bookcases; the woman is a scientific marvel!

She is also everything you could want from someone who deals with books, the librarian dress-sense is complemented with a matching demeanour of calm, quiet helpfulness. Altogether this creates a place that says “come and see these wonderful books, have a leaf-through, stumble upon titles you’d never think to search for on Amazon, feel how much these books have been loved, maybe you’ll be the next person to love this tome, or how about this one here, stay awhile, escape from the rush of modern life, browse, ssshhhhh…”.

Consequently I’m lulled into taking the time to trawl some shelves whilst I’m there and hence wave goodbye to any thoughts of grabbing some pre-meeting reading time. Needless to say I also don’t manage to leave with just the Salinger; but 5 books for under £9 is a bargain by anyone’s standards.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

The Global Village

Sarah and I head over to M’s this afternoon, bearing early birthday cards and presents. Phil is busy catching up on chores, so the plan is to spend a few hours with M and then come back to pick him up before getting a meal somewhere.

We should probably stop bothering telling M “don’t do food” as it inevitably falls on deaf African ears. I think she’d rather die than let us leave her house unfed.

Mindful of Phil we held back as much as we could (not easy when the girl serves up plantain!) and fortunately didn’t feel so bad about not fully appreciating her efforts, when it became apparent that we weren’t to be the only guests.

All in all a party of seven adults and the cutest baby you ever saw (and hey I don’t generally like babies!), sat around shooting the breeze in a mixture of four languages.

It’s amazing how in such situations, people with no shared tongue can communicate and get along just fine. Certain themes are universal and it didn’t take an interpretation from M for us to work out the leg-pulling that was going on regarding Thiery and Stephanie sloping off to the kitchen together…

Similarly watching videos of pop stars from M’s home country was great entertainment. You also realise how small a world it’s become, when M divulges that several of the artistes are new since she had to flee the country, but she keeps up via a guy that sells DVD’s on a stall in Manchester.

One video in particular did highlight that in other ways the world is still very diverse. My French was good enough to work out the introductory playlet. Basically the female lead refuses the amorous attentions of her husband due to being exhausted, only for him to consequently pack his bags and walk out to ‘get better elsewhere’, deaf to her pleas for him not to leave her and the children.

Sarah and I were expecting the song therefore to be along the lines of “the man done me wrong” (maybe a west African take on I Will Survive”?), but no, our able translator M, tells us quite the opposite is true. Whilst female emancipation is a growing force in her home country, there is equally a backlash calling women back to more submissive roles. This song falls into the latter camp and basically exhalts women to treat their men right so they don’t leave in search of the greener grass.


Faith is restored with the next video however, of an altogether more self-assured woman seemingly far more in command of her sexuality than the bum wiggling eye-candy in the videos thus far. M tells us she’s quite famous and owns one of the countries radio stations. Makes sense – we can’t see her taking any nonsense from men. Or M for that matter…if ever there was a person for whom the phrase “doesn’t suffer fools lightly” was invented.

Eventually we take our leave, pick up Phil and head for the Punjab (where Sarah and I satisfy our selves with starters). It’s probably a sign that we definitely go there too much, when the head waiter excuses his usual litany of good-natured abuse on the basis of “yeah but you guys aren’t customers, you’re…”.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Night Out

Caught up with Jo tonight as we headed out for what are becoming regular girlie nights out. We’re definitely doing far better on the meeting up regular score of late.

It’s weird to think how long I’ve known Jo, we worked at the same place over 11 years ago.

I don’t think I have many friends that go back that far; certainly only a handful that live in Manchester.

Should I worry about that?

Friday, February 18, 2005

Top Shelf Publications

Caroline's Blog reminded me of the incident that lead to this discussion.

I was in a local newsagent's tying to track down a copy of the NME, when I was mildly pleased to notice that the shop in question didn't stock the usual type of magazines one might usually see on the top shelf.

However as I fruitlessly scanned the wall of publications to try and find what I was after, I realised that my sub-conscious was very uncomfortable with me raising my eyes to the top shelf.

When another customer walked in, the situation got worse. It felt so dodgy to be looking upwards, above the usual 'safe level'.

On sharing this experience, Caroline (wise as ever) pointed out to me that the problem was unsolvable as "there will always be a top shelf". This of course is perfectly true, but they could of course leave it empty, no?

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Nutsford Vale Project

A stone’s throw from my house (or a 30 second sprint for your average burglar) is a large patch of wasteground that has become known as Nutsford Vale.

It’s alternative local moniker of ‘Jackson’s Tip’ gives a clue to it’s recent past. The area used to be the site of Jackson’s brickworks, but by 1980 the brickworks was long gone; our little estate of houses replaced the old kilns and buildings and the old clay pits had been used for landfill and capped off. All that remains of Jackson’s is the old and rather imposing office building now used as an Islamic Academy.

The landfill site has been left largely untouched since and as a result we now have a wild and unkempt heathland in the middle of an inner-city area.

A group of local residents have been working for over six years now to try and get this green space protected and properly managed. Most of the time however it feels like we’re wading through treacle and trying to get anyone to take responsibility for the land has proved nigh on impossible. Half the land is owned by Greater Manchester Waste, the other half by the City Council, but finding any individual or department in either organisation that feels they have responsibility for the upkeep of the space has to date proved to be a fruitless endeavour.

In addition to organising clean-up events, fun days, eco-surveys and stream sampling, we’ve been pretty successful in getting grants to improve the border security, lay hedges, cut back vegetation, create a protected newt pond and so forth. However, it becomes so disheartening to only be able to approach the issue in a piecemeal fashion or to discover the GMW have just laid weedkiller across the wild flower planting that has just been undertaken…

A major obstacle has proved to be the long mooted, potential transfer of management of the land to the Forestry Commission. Whilst I have some reservations about this (the FC being the party that planted 3000 hawthorn and similar saplings adjacent to main paths without any local consultation and in doing so created a major security issue to the space), at least it would mean that the management responsibility would at last be formally resolved. Unfortunately the transfer is still only a ‘maybe’ (the latest we know is that we’re on a reserve list). Accordingly we’ve now had years and years of being in limbo. Our plans get blocked in case they clash with any future proposal of the FC, but at the same time we’re no nearer to the FC taking over management than we were 3+ years ago.

If I sound frustrated it’s because I am. This space should be a community asset. It’s valuable, wild and beautiful. In a sea of tarmac and concrete it’s a little glimpse of nature un-restarined, fighting back against the human destruction that lies a few feet below the surface.

Tonight’s meeting however seemed like a little chink of light might at last be breaking through. Our MP Sir Gerald Kaufman attended and listened to what we had to say about the space and the problems we were having. He came across as sincere and supportive and has promised to see what he can do to help us. He was also able to give some excellent advice as to how we might resolve the ‘responsibility’ issues. We’ll see how it goes…

Also at the meeting was the local Operations Manager who heads up all the local community wardens and the Ward Co-ordinator (mind you, nothing is that simple – the land spans 3 wards!). They were really helpful and have promised concrete support and use of some of their resources.

Maybe this is the breakthrough we need. I do hope so, I’ve become really disillusioned of late.

If nothing else, I did at least manage to look Sir Gerald in the eye, without summoning up images of ‘that’ Spitting Image puppet…

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Lock up your comes SpongeBob!

Sometimes all you can do is despair. According to this BBC report the right-wing US group Focus on the Family are up in arms about a video featuring SpongeBob SquarePants.

"...conservatives say it sees the video as a cunning attempt to promote homosexuality.

"They point to the fact that the WAFF is linked to a pledge being promoted by some liberal groups which includes a recognition of tolerance of
sexual identity."
Recognising tolerance of sexual identity? How outrageous! Next thing you know these darn liberals will be promoting tolerance and then we'll all be straight to hell in a handcart!

Sunday, February 13, 2005

On a Wing and a Prayer

I’m tired and exhausted from the Wing and a Prayer weekend, but it was definitely worth it.

Working at the festival in August means I never have time to see much of the programme or even catch up properly with all the amazing people I have come to know through this strange festival.

This weekend is a chance to redress that balance.

It’s good to be able to catch some comedy, music, speakers, workshops and so forth, but it’s even better to be able to spend time chatting, laughing, drinking and even crying with some of the best people I know.

My soul feels warmed.

My liver however may be slightly less happy…

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Phone Conference

Tonight we had the first of what is set to become a monthly telephone conference for the 5 Greenbelt Operations Managers, the Festival Manager and the Programme Manager.

I always find telephone conferences rather awkward and stilted, lots of pauses followed by two or more people attempting to talk at the same time.

Fortunately there wasn’t too much of that tonight and the meeting was really valuable. This year there’s going to be lots of things shaken up at the festival including lots of major changes to the site layout. Needless to say there are major implications in that to the way we operate and indeed programme the site. Being able to get key people together to identify these issues early and then pass them on to the various teams is going to be invaluable in making it all work.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Shrove Tuesday

Pancake Party at mine tonight went well. It’s quite impressive how fast you can prepare food when you’re short of time (and didn’t do any preparation the night before as planned).

In one hour flat I made a huge quantity of fabulously fluffy batter, savoury fillings (veggie chilli and garlic mushrooms with cheese) and prepared a tray of ‘sweet’ options (pears, pineapple, banana, mandarin, whipped cream, Cointreau, lemons, sugar, syrup).

I’m not what one would call a domestic goddess so forgive me if I revel in this out of character achievement!

It all seemed to go down pretty well. Phil is clearly better (well judging by the return of the appetite!) and even Sarah and I polished off a fair few. Which was just as well really as M had to pull out at the last minute when she got offered some lucrative over time.

It was a shame not to be able to catch up with her, but she needs to get the money where she can and with a fairly demanding degree course, evening and weekend shifts are a matter of necessity.

So we’ll have to wait another year then to swap cultural takes on Shrove Tuesday – I was quite looking forward to the face M would no doubt pull when we introduced her to the fine and noble art of tossing the pancake. She has a fantastic way of letting you know that you and your culture are clearly quite, quite mad without ever being less than polite.

Though perhaps you don’t have to come from West Africa to be a little bemused by the whole pancake phenomenon. The topic of conversation at work this afternoon was “how come Pancake Day is so early this year?”. My response that it was because this year Easter fell so early, was met with blank looks and it became apparent at this point that none of them had any concept of what Shrove Tuesday or Ash Wednesday were about, let alone why they might have a chronological relationship with Easter.

It’s not that I had any expectation that they would have any great appreciation of the liturgical calendar, but I was surprised that they were merrily making plans for ‘Pancake Day’ with no curiosity as to the origins of the tradition. After all I guess most people have a least some grasp of the Pagan, Christian or political histories that give us Christmas/Yule, Easter and 5th November.

I suspect most of my colleagues would also know why the US celebrates 4th July, but it seems they can happily shovel batter, lemon and sugar down their necks all night without a thought as to why.

And of course they have every right to do so, I’m just intrigued as to their lack of curiosity and acceptance of traditions as being something we just ‘do’ without knowing why.

That said, once the subject had come up, they were keen to find out more, so I guess there is still some residual inquisitiveness.

Mind you, I think that mentioning Mardi Gras in the ensuing conversation may have been a step too far. The expressions on their faces suggested that this was akin to showing magic tricks to dogs.

Monday, February 07, 2005

A Handmaid's Tale

At Book Group tonight we were supposed to discuss Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. However, due to a variety of work commitments and holidays, I was the only one to have managed to read more than 50 pages!

It was a really enjoyable night as we chatted about everything under the sun and put the world to rights over a few drinks, but it was unfortunate that we didn’t really get to discuss the novel.

It’s the second time I’ve read this book and I’m struck by how real life events in recent years in the US (where the book is set), haunt this repeat reading so intently.

Last time around, my fellow readers (I read it as part of a night class in literature), who were predominantly male, thought it was far-fetched and didn’t ring true, whereas I accepted it more as a potential ultimate conclusion for some of the remaining attitudes of men on women, that I witness almost daily.

Maybe it’s regularly being around men when they forget there is a woman in earshot or maybe Engineers are significantly less evolved than the wider male population, but again and again I’m surprised by how some men (and the good news is that it is only some), really dislike women and resent any ‘need’ they have for them.

Combine this with the continued rise of the religious right, with all it’s convenient twisting of biblical history and texts and the whole concept of a governing class ruling through induced fear and the need for patriotic relinquishment of one’s ‘rights’ for the greater good and suddenly Atwood’s set-up doesn’t seem quite so unthinkable after all.

It certainly leaves me thinking that we shouldn’t as women ever undervalue the hard won for progress that has been achieved thus far in our emancipation and we should never take these freedoms for granted.

Of course the fact that Atwood is a skilled and accomplished writer means that above all this book is a highly engaging. It makes you think, but is highly enjoyable in the process. I’d recommend it highly.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

A Feast

I like Saturdays when there is nothing that has to be done. Just an expanse of hours that can be filled how you choose. Go out or stay in, do something exciting or just kick back and relax.

Waking up with a nagging headache, I opt for a lie in followed by a lazy day of reading, listening to music and catching up on phone calls etc. Unfortunately the rest of the world hasn’t come up with the same plan and my morning of sleep is repeatedly punctured by the phone ringing…ahh well.

Come the evening, I’m round at Stuart and Karen’s for a fabulous meal. It’s hard not to feel overawed and a tad guilty when you realise the time and effort Karen has put into the meal (the girl knows how to entertain!).

However one mouthful of the amazing ragu or the baked Italian cheesecake is sufficient to convince that the hours of preparation are totally worth it and I’m just really lucky to have friends who can cook this well.

For my journey home, I entrust my life to a mini-cab driver who is clearly rather intent on beating the land-speed record. Luckily the wine takes the edge off this experience and I just buckle up and hold on tight.

Friday, February 04, 2005

The weekend starts here

After a day spent mainly on a cold and windy wastewater treatment I’m ready for the weekend. Well let’s make that a hot shower and then the weekend.

It starts with a night out with Jo; drinks in Dimitri’s, tapas in Evuna and a film at the Great Northern warehouse.

Ocean’s 12 is an ok way to spend a few hours. It’s watchable enough, but you get the impression that the actors are having more fun than the audience…

Thursday, February 03, 2005


Ah, the wonders of the iTunes library; a quick export to Excel a simple pivot table and lo I can calculate that I am apparently made up of: 33% Alternative & Punk, 28% Rock, 16% Electronica/Dance, 8% Unclassifiable, 4% Pop, 3% Soundtrack, 2% Books & Spoken plus trace elements of Country, Hip Hop/Rap, Easy Listening, Folk, Blues, R&B, Gospel & Religious, Metal, World, Alternative and New Age.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Gun Culture

Two new sculptures have caught my eye this week. Situated at opposite ends of the country (one in my old home town of London, the other in my adopted home of Manchester) they each in their own way are inspired by guns.

The first may not look particularly remarkable, until you read it’s background story. The Tree of Life was commissioned by Christian Aid and the British museum and was formed from decommissioned weapons in Mozambique. A present day take on the biblical concept of turning swords into ploughshares.

The second is the B of the Bang; located over by the City of Manchester Stadium about a mile and a half from where I live, it was finally completed and unveiled recently.

It's certainly impressively imposing.

Again the backstory helps one understand it better. Commissioned to mark the Commonwealth Games, held in Manchester the other year, the sculpture is inspired by a quote from the sprinter Linford Christie regarding his mental attitude at the start of a race and how he aims to be out of the blocks at "the B of the Bang”.

It’s no surprise to me that this piece was selected by local residents from a range of choices, there’s something about that quote and concept that fits well with the city and it’s civic pride. Something about being up and at ‘em, first off the blocks, exploding into action and innovation.

It’s also fitting that to get to the sculpture from mine, means a trip down Alan Turing Way.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

When your legs let you down

Multiple Sclerosis is a bitch of a condition, both for the sufferer (in this case my mum) and the carer (my dad). Life is truly struggle.

Back in the autumn, Mum had a bad fall and sustained injuries on her legs that just would not heal. As a result she’s been having to go down to the see the nurse at their GP’s practice twice a week to have dressings changed etc whilst the wounds slowly healed (aided in part by some antibiotics).

There’s no such things as a quick trip out for Mum, getting in and out the house and in and out the car are tortuously slow and painful exercises.

To make matters worse, just after Christmas, she had another bad fall, twisting her ankle and bruising her legs badly. When I visited for the weekend a few weeks ago, things were really bad, with Mum in severe pain and with movement even more restricted than usual.

Looking at the leg, which was very red, swollen and hot, I feared I recognised the signs of Cellulitus and sure enough on the Monday the doctor confirmed this and course after course of antibiotics is only now starting to beat back the infection.

Her foot was also twisted out and giving unusual pain, but it was hard to tell what pain was being caused by what.

Another trip to the doctor’s on Monday, resulted in a visit to the hospital today. Sadly the X-Rays reveal Mum has fractured a bone in the foot (that’ll explain matters then!) and is now the proud wearer of a light-weight cast (bright blue apparently). Fortunately the fact that Mum has been unable to ‘walk’ more than a couple of steps of late means that things probably haven’t been made too much worse by the late diagnosis.

Apparently the foot feels far less painful now it is supported and Mum has nothing but praise for the excellent doctors, nurses and radiographers that handled a person confined to a wheelchair so smoothly (“we’ll bring the X-Ray machine to you seeing as you can’t get up on the table”, “we’ll get the cast team to come to this hospital rather than make you trek up to the one they’re based at” etc).

I’m slightly worried as to how we’ll monitor the cellulitus now that the leg is covered up, but I guess that’s one for the GP to figure out.

Mum and dad both seem very cheerful in the circumstances, but I know it’s not what either of them needed. More limitations for Mum and more strain on Dad.

I’ll see if I can squeeze in another visit soon…