Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Some superb wildlife photography

The Moray Firth dolphins are a much-loved local attraction, spoilt only slightly by the fact that hardly anyone ever sees them. They are apparently the northernmost colony of dolphins in the world, and they are clearly built of stern stuff to survive all that the chilly North Sea, oil-rigs and wind turbines can throw at them.

I caught sight of one about 8 years ago while I was standing alone on a windswept, frozen beach. It was just me on the land and this playful dolphin leaping around in the water. I could have stood there all day if I hadn't been worried about frostbite. I thought that might remain my only sighting, but then this Saturday, on a visit to Chanonry Point, there the elusive little buggers were, frolicking around in the water, waggling their fins and coming right up to the edge of the water. It was a glorious sight. Chanonry Point is the best place to spot them and despite the fact the temperature was peaking at about minus five, around a dozen hardy enthusiasts had gathered more in hope than expectation. And this time we were rewarded.

I clicked off several pictures of these magnificent creatures. And every single one resolutely failed to get a dolphin in shot. Somehow I just couldn't get my frozen finger to press down fast enough and so all I have to mark the occasion is pictures of sea and sky, and no dolphins. Hopefully I'll be quicker off the mark when I'm next due for a sighting around 2018.

But luckily one of the official dolphin spotters was there during, as he rightly says, the mad dash down the beach, and he posted a somewhat better picture on his blog at Adopt a dolphin.

I suppose I'll have to put that picture in my collection and pretend I shot it!

Monday, 22 February 2010

Do people read any more?

Recently I've ended up idling away time in various waiting rooms, and I was struck by an odd observation.

There used to be a protocol to the act of waiting. When you arrived it was essential not to catch anyone's eye or you'll find yourself discussing the weather, you had to sit the furthest away from anyone you can manage, and you had to lay claim to the least uninteresting looking magazine you could grab. And then you found yourself descending into brain-numbing torpor as you were transported away to that weird parallel world where people you've never heard of are deemed celebrities just because they are pictured visiting places and other 'ordinary' people tell you about their diseases.

This time I couldn't help but notice that the quality of the brain-numbing magazines appears to have somehow plummeted. Last year's trivial drivel would now be deemed hard-hitting journalism. All I seemed to find were in-depth articles about fat people wanting to be thin and thin people wanting to fat. Even the comics have become awful. The Beano now appears to have only two cartoon strips amidst the adverts and the only entertainment to be had was punctuating the speech bubbles properly. It's no wonder kids don't understand apostrophes when the comic writers don't care either. Anyway, that aside, the magazines I picked up were old but also very much unthumbed. I can’t blame anyone not wanting to read 'how I lost 27 pounds a month until I disappeared using the sharpened axe diet' but nobody but nobody was reading the magazines.

Once, not long ago, I'd glance up at the clock every so often and note that I was surrounded by a sea of people all immersed in reading material, but not now. Given fifteen minutes of downtime, people would sooner stare into space. I found myself watching people. They'd arrive, plonk themselves down on a chair, look straight ahead, and that'd be it. Never once did their eyes drift down to the colourful magazine covers depicting soap stars, diets, and horrible diseases. It was almost as if reading material wasn't important, something not to look at, something that wasn't in their sphere of interest and so as unimportant as the 'don't...' warnings on the wall, personal hygiene and holding doors open.

It didn’t matter what type of person came in or whether there was an interesting looking magazine on the top of the piles featuring cars, holidays, computers, the history of the Patagonian railway system; nothing generated an interest, leaving me alone to wade through the mire. During one foray I read that Reader's Digest is closing down due to lack of interest. I reckon I saw the reason sitting around me staring into space, deep in thought about more important matters as they awaited the chance to shout, 'I'm at the dentist' into their mobile.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Bleached Skulls in the Sunset

I found out that my 20th BHW Bleached Bones in the Dust will be published in January 2011. I talked about the inspiration for this story in an earlier article as being the title of a novel mentioned in an episode of the British tv series Hamish Macbeth. I also said then that I was almost certain I'd remembered the title incorrectly and as it happens recently I started watching Hamish Macbeth again and confirmed that I had remembered it very wrong indeed.

So, for the record, Hamish Macbeth's favourite western author is Chuck Sadler. His favourite western character is Luke Kincaid and the novel Chuck gives Hamish is The Cowhand's Revenge, a book that curiously is the right size and cover layout to be a Linford Western. Hamish also mentions that his two favourite western novels are Dead Man's Gulch and Bleached Skulls in the Sunset. At least I remembered three out of five words right, but I guess that means the working title for my next book will have to be Dead Man's Gulch as I don't particularly like The Cowhand's Revenge.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Afghanistan defeat the mighty USA...

... at cricket.

In a world going increasingly bonkers, today this small sporting footnote from the ICC Associates World T20 qualifier in Dubai provides some much needed sanity. Over the years cricket has had a worthwhile history of resolving political problems on the sporting field, without bloodshed. On a day in which the world remembers Nelson Mandela's release 20 years ago, it shouldn't be forgotten that the Test cricket boycott from 1971 hurt South Africa more than any other political sanction. The furores surrounding the rebel cricket tours in those years helped to bring home the need for change. And more recently in Asia when Pakistan and India were building up their nuclear arsenals and gearing themselves up for war, the realization that a conflict would stop them playing cricket against each other was one of the key factors in the negotiated settlement.

For balance it should be said that there have been a few political problems started on the cricket field too with Bodyline in the 1930s causing the biggest ever rift between Australia and England and more recently with Zimbabwe's cricket problems only seeming to magnify their issues. But just possibly today a small step towards normality was played out in Dubai when two countries who are at war met on a sporting arena and decided who was the best armed only with a ball and a bat. At stake was a chance to take part in a world cricket tournament with the major Test nations such as Australia and England in the West Indies later this year. With a few places available, the secondary nations are competing such as Ireland, Scotland, Kenya, Canada. Amongst those second-rate teams the Afghan team and the USA were thought to be distinctly third-rate and yet both have surprised with good performances. Afghanistan and USA both beat Scotland. Then USA lost to Ireland and Afghanistan beat them. This was a major shock as Ireland are by some distance the best of the second-rate teams. This led to a situation in which whoever won today would stand a good chance of getting the ultimate goal of a place in the World T20 competition.

The statistics of the game are that Afghanistan made 135/4 (a decent score, but not a commanding one) and in reply USA were always behind the scoring rate and despite some late lusty hitting they limped to 106/7. But the numbers don't matter. Just getting there was an achievement. They played, someone won, and nobody died. Now Afghanistan can continue to give the people back home hope of a better future, one that can be achieved the proper way with googlies, on-drives and maiden overs. And maybe the USA will be so encouraged they'll give up baseball and start playing a proper sport too!

Monday, 8 February 2010

CBB: Ending with a bang not a whimper

Last month I reported on the start of the last ever series of Celebrity Big Brother UK and now with the month long feast of television over with, it feels the right moment to consider whether it was any good. And to my surprise I'd say it was one of the best, and up there with the glory days of Jackie Stallone and Pete Burns. The omens had been bad with the calibre of celebrity being slightly less than you'd expect the average person in the street to have, but the production values were high, the celebrities turned out to be interesting and most surprisingly of all it wasn't particularly inane or tacky. As a result viewing figures were up, the show got some critical acclaim for the first time in years, and people are now even talking up the possibility that it may get a reprieve. What a change a month makes.

Against all odds the series said something important about the state of Britain today, although I'm not sure what. The first 'celebrity' to be evicted was a woman who was famous for having slept with someone who was rich and famous. She got booed. The winner was a bloke who was famous for having slept with someone who was rich and famous. He got cheered. It seems that it may be the 21st century but women who sleep with men for money are still despised and men who sleep with women for money are still celebrated as loveable fools. As I said I don't know what that says about society, especially when the most celebrated thing 6 out of the top 7 had done involved sleeping with someone who was more famous than they were. Although in their defence the glamour model most of them had been with had put it about a bit. Curiously the one who had been happily married all his adult life and who had never slept with anyone famous, relying for his fame on his ability to kick people off the football field and make straight to dvd films, was the only finalist to be booed. The world of fame is an odd one.

Probably the most jaw-dropping moment also involved infidelity when Stephanie Beacham, she of the posh accent and proper British manners, revealed she'd done Marlon Brando (I checked on imdb and it’d have been during The Nightcomers). After which she discovered she had more in common with brothel Madame Heidi Fleiss than she had thought as Heidi had also had an offer she couldn’t refuse. This was followed by a protracted head in the hands sequence where the dangerously stupid Nicole piped up with the useful addition to the debate of who's Marlon Brando? I despair.

Revelations aside the best element of the show was that the conflict was less contrived than usual. Last year we had professional annoying people like that bloke who sang Gangster Paradise and that women who played the roundy nurse in Dinnerladies. But this time the conflict arose naturally and was of the kind you expect to get if you lock a diverse bunch of people up in a room for a month. This resulted in some new conflicts, some perennial favourites, and the return of an old favourite. The new type of conflict was provided by Stephen Baldwin, described by one critic as looking like a serial killer who was wearing Alec Baldwin's face. Stephen was religious, very religious. Big Brother usually steers clear of religion to avoid offending the OFCOM generation, so seeing everyone deal with a God botherer was fascinating. In week 1 Stephen's Bible lessons were well-attended as every celebrity tried to show how tolerant they were. By week 2 only the dim attention-seeking winner was left to show an interest when his publicity agent convinced him, I presume, to pretend to have a divine revelation. By week 3 the news that Stephen had his Bible out cleared the room in two seconds flat. Best of all was the unravelling of his carefully contrived evangelism with him spending 12 hours a day preaching about salvation and the other 12 hours bitching, stirring up trouble and trying to start fights. It took until week 3 before anyone mentioned hypocrisy.

As regards BB's perennial favourite type of conflict we had another display of the intriguing sociological fact that if you lock people in a room for a month, the most important battle will be fought over the kitchen. This has been a feature of most recent BBs. Harridan Carole in BB8 ruled the roost with emotional blackmail and Rex in BB9 ruled with fine cuisine. This year we, bizarrely, had hard man Vinnie Jones mixing both techniques to arrive in the kitchen first, ban everyone from helping, then spend the rest of the time complaining that he had to do all the cooking. This source of tension led to the return of an old favourite type of conflict, the generation gap. With the housemates having a wider range of ages than has been usual recently, there was room for some teenage angst in the form of a grungey rapper called Sov, who was 24 going on 14, and who provided much delight as a classic rebel without a clue. All the talk of Brando had her wondering what to rebel against, seeing what you got, and finding that it was not cleaning the toilet. James Dean she was not and her sulky speeches about being too important to clean the bog probably didn't do much to help her future career.

Conflict aside, what made this series work was that the producers realized at a late stage that they could make the show fun again. And it usually involved simple things like Nicole being asked to insult everyone to win a prize and telling Ivana Trump she looked like a big fat orange, or the simple slapstick of dropping a custard pie on Stephanie Beacham's head. One moment though stands out this year as representing the very best BB can do, being a variation on a theme the producers discovered many years ago that arguments in which everyone is dressed up in silly costumes are funny. This year they discovered that the opposite is true, that funny stuff happening when everyone is dressed up in silly costumes is sinister. The situation was that the presenter Davina was put into the house for an hour dressed as a chicken. The celebrities, also dressed as farm animals, tried to catch her to find who was hidden under the costume. The result was disturbing. The closing sequence shown live on tv as the chicken is cornered and the animals led by a pig move in slowly was somehow funny yet the scariest thing I've seen in years, being part Animal Farm part Night of the Living Dead farm animals. It provided proof that the show can still be memorable and that maybe, just maybe Big Brother may yet live on for a while longer. Amazingly, I hope it does.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Monday, 1 February 2010

Short story accepted for new anthology

I'm delighted to report that I will have a short story appearing in Beat to a Pulp's forthcoming print anthology. David Cranmer reports that the collection 'is shaping up to be one of the top collections ever put together' and having seen the authors he's gathered together he's surely right. I'm honoured to have somehow sneaked aboard.

Details here.