Friday, October 03, 2014

The emperor's new trucker hat

I was knackered coming home today. I was sitting on the tube with my head bowed, staring vacantly at my feet. For a few stops nothing much happened in my field of vision -- black brogues shuffled in and out of view, heels teetered past, and battered Chuck Taylors leeched visible stench lines. When the train pulled away from Moorgate, however, a pair of the ugliest brown loafers I've ever seen stepped into my view.

They looked like mummified elephant scrotums, decorated with the tassels from an old lady's lampshade. Protruding from the tops of these loafers were a pair of slender, but masculine ankles. There were no socks, just pasty white skin and curly hair. As my eyes drifted up I saw skintight jeggings in ironic 80s stonewash, complete with factory-fresh tears at the knees. Above that was a near-concave chest bearing the printed slogan "LaFayette County Highway Cleanup" and quite possibly the deepest V-neck you can have on a threadbare sleeveless t-shirt without it splitting in half. There was an ironic anchor tattoo on the left forearm and a red scarf draped over the shoulders. In the right hand was a crumbled dark blue trilby.

I paused for a moment to take this all in before glancing up at his face. I could have guessed what I would see there: Freddie Mercury mustache, gauged earlobes, and a pair of the sort of glasses favored by Bill Gates in the late 1970s. The hair was shaved at the sides, but long and floppy on top.


Now, I've worked in east London for a good few years and I've seen plenty of hipsters. I've walked through Hoxton Square on a sunny Saturday. I've browsed the racks at Rough Trade East. I've gone to fringe theater nights in Camden nightclubs. Yet even in those floppy-haired dens of painfully sincere debauchery, at the height of the skinny jeans era (back before it went mainstream), I'd never seen anyone sporting the full set of sartorial hipster cliches.

Then it dawned on me. This man was wearing the apotheosis of late-noughties hipster-chic, with all its ironic cultural references, ironically. This presumably means that in the near future the arthouse crowd are going to have to learn to distinguish between people wearing ironically ugly clothing ironically (cool) people wearing ugly clothing ironically (late-to-the-party middle-class wannabes, not cool) and people just wearing ugly clothing (cool, in a noble-savage sort of way).

I'm not sure if they can cope with this.

Monday, August 11, 2014


I came across this picture earlier today while doing some research for work. The original caption read, simply "Private Roy W. Humphrey of Toledo, Ohio is being given blood plasma after he was wounded by shrapnel in Sicily on 8-9-43".

If it were just the two figures in uniform, this would be a fairly unremarkable picture. Distressing, perhaps, but sadly not unusual. The medic (No stripes, combat helmet. Not a doctor.) is trying to do his job while visibly discomfited by the presence of the photographer. Given the point in the war that this picture was taken, it's quite possible he'd never given a transfusion to a wounded man before.

The young man on the stretcher is either unconscious or close to it, the ragged bandage around his neck hinting at the severity of his injuries. He probably endured an excruciatingly painful trip back from the frontline, getting bounced and dragged on the ground as his comrades scrambled him to the dressing station, but now he's gone somewhere calmer: morphine, probably. He's not dead, incidentally, or at least he wasn't at the time this picture was taken. A quick search on google turns up a Roy W. Humphrey (1919–1981) buried with full military honours at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery in Kansas. He lived a long (for a working-class American who grew up during the depression) and probably blessedly uneventful life after the war. 

The thing that I find fascinating about this picture is the audience of Sicilian civilians (say that five times fast). The first thing you notice about them is their poverty. Mussolini’s largesse clearly never reached this part of Italy. Their clothes are ragged and worn, tatty to a degree that looks -- to modern eyes -- like stage dressing from an over-the-top production of Les Mis. Only one of them has shoes. There is a young woman and a child who is presumably her daughter, but no father. I expect he was in the army somewhere, or (more likely by this point in the war) whiling away the days in an allied prisoner-of-war camp somewhere in Scotland or Canada. The only man visible is old and bald, sitting off to the edge of the frame.

The two older women both wear expressions of concern, their eyes locked on the life-or-death struggle unfolding in front of them. The seated woman grimaces and the standing woman wrings her hands. The young man on the stretcher in front of them probably looks a lot like the sons or grandsons that were taken by the army a year or two before. The old man looks annoyed, if anything. He's not looking at the wounded man but at the photographer. Why is he taking pictures?

The young woman is not looking at either the wounded man or the strange photographer, but at something in the distance, over the photographer’s left shoulder. She looks worried, scared. More wounded men being carried up the road, perhaps, or the smoke of battle.

The little girl stands in the oddly contorted, fidgety position of a child watching something they find equal parts scary and fascinating. Her legs are crossed, one hand clutches her dress, the other holds onto her mother's back. She's twisted up like she's trying to hide behind herself. She watches with half-closed eyes, ready to close her eyes and recoil in squealing horror if something disgusting or terrifying happens. All the same, she clearly feels safer within arm’s reach of her mum than she does anywhere else. I expect ground was shaking with every bomb blast and artillery shell.

I wonder how clearly she remembered this event when she was older. She doesn't look much more than five years old, but probably old enough to fix things in her mind.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Cookie-tin Banjo

Really lovely little song this. A James-Taylor-like ode to childhood and the lasting impact our parents have on who we are. It's perhaps a little over sentimental, but I'm a secret sucker for that sort of thing. I won't lie; it made me cry.

It's not hard to guess why this song would have such an effect on me, after all, my father has an old guitar and he plays me folk songs. I grew up in a house full of musical instruments and music, with both parents playing the guitar and singing. Growing up I thought it was completely normal to be lulled to sleep by your mother singing Irish folk songs ('she is handsome, she is pretty, she's the belle of Belfast city') and woken by your dad playing raucous dixieland jazz on his guitar, making silly trumpet noises with his mouth for accompaniment.

Unlike the singer, however, this musical home never inspired awed reverence for music as a child. I would sit at my dad's knee and listen as he played his songs for maybe 40 seconds before ricocheting off on some hyperactive tangent. When he played me silly songs to wake me up in the morning I'd snarl and thrash as if it was just another alarm clock. I wonder if perhaps the ubiquity of music made it fade into the background somehow. Just something that was always there.

I liked music, don't get me wrong -- there were numerous albums that I listened to over and over again until I wore them out and songs that I'd bug my parents to sing for me -- but generally it had to be both loud and fast to get me interested. As I child I would fidget, bounce, and squirm my way through every school day and run through every weekend. I rarely stopped moving, and even more rarely stopped talking. My parents attempted to get me interested in a seemingly endless series of hobbies and pastimes over the years in an attempt to get me to focus on anything for more than five minutes. Amongst them was a 3/4-sized guitar that a relative unearthed from an attic somewhere. I think I played it for perhaps an afternoon before bouncing off in some other direction and never giving it a second thought. The only time I ever picked it up was to bang on it like a drum. Perhaps encouraged by this, they let me go to drumming classes. Presented with an actual drum-kit, however, I quickly lost interest.

I don't think it was until my early teens, when my brain slowed down enough to notice that the statues around me were actually adults going about their business, that I really took a serious interest in music. I can clearly remember the day when my mum, having finished restringing her old guitar, quickly rattled off an impromptu performance of "Blackbird" by Paul McCartney. Somehow I'd never heard that song before, I just stood there agape.

When I was sixteen I unearthed my dad's old bass -- a baroque slab of mahogany made by Gibson in the early 1970s. Dad showed me the basics, and then I taught myself to play a few punk songs. Over the next few weeks I progressed from "Dammit" by Blink-182 to "Longview" by Green Day to "Travelling Without Moving" by Jamiroquai. I don't know whether it was simply the passage of time, or if years of playing videogames had finally given me the ability to focus, but either way, I was practicing something and actually getting better at it.

The fact is though, I started too late. I'm a competent bass player, but I'm never going to be great, no matter how hard I focus. That hyperactive fidgetyness never really went away either. Perhaps the real reason why I'm not a very good bass player is that I'm also a bad guitarist, an awful mandolin player and a distinctly shaky performer on the upright bass. Like my father, I can't sit in a room with a musical instrument in it without getting an uncontrollable urge to pick it up and try and get a noise out of it (unless it's a piano, obviously. I'd be content to just sit in front of one of those).

I'm not generally bothered by this (this blog's title is an allusion to this, after all), but somehow that song reawakened in me the vague feeling that I should have tried harder to be something in particular.

Thursday, July 10, 2014


This morning I sat down on the train opposite a young man who was probably no more than 21. His clothes were fashionable, in a hipster-y sort of way, and his hairstyle looked time consuming, if not necessarily stylish. He was sitting in that sprawling, spider-like way of gangly young men everywhere, and reading a Penguin Classics edition of John Milton's Paradise Lost.

As the train rocked its way from Ladywell to London Bridge, I watched as his head dipped lower and lower. I don't remember if he actually turned the page in the whole time I was sitting opposite him, but by the time we were gliding through Bermondsey he was clearly fast asleep. His head was pressed against the window and his damp hair made a little halo of condensation on the glass.

I suspect if I'd seen this guy three or four years ago, I would have viewed him as a ponce. I would have scoffed at his inability to stay awake while reading Milton, despite the fact that such a feat is equally beyond me. I would have walked away feeling like I had won, in some small and unconscious way, and that I was the better man.

This morning, however, I was amused. In the same way that you can be amused by the imaginative ramblings of a cute little kid. His attempt to become the sort of person who reads Milton on the train struck me as adorable rather than vain. From where I stand today, happily married and edging ever closer to thirty, I can admit that I spent many years doing more or less the same thing. Everyone does when they're teenagers, I think, but particularly men.

There's something  inherently insecure about the male psyche, a lack of self-awareness that we find secretly bewildering. Unsure of who exactly we are, we consciously shape our actions in emulation of who we'd like to be -- a sort of internalised propaganda of the deed.

It's all a mating display of some sort, I think. Colourful feathers. Those who decorate themselves with the trappings of intellectual curiosity and creativity, no matter how thin this veneer of decoration is, are vastly preferable to those who pointlessly bash their antlers together.

Actually no. Bad choice of words. Anyone who has ever been in Leicester Square of a Saturday night knows that the noble stag is entirely the wrong animal to use as a metaphor. The dominance fights of walruses, with all their flapping flesh and uncoordinated heaving, bear far closer resemblance.

Ultimately, these displays don't seem to count for much. I don't think women pay them much attention. I'm sure that Kristen has a far better idea of who I am than I do, and made her judgement based on that, rather than (thankfully) the conceited and pretentious persona I projected at the time (and to an extent still do).

P.S. I'm aware that pedants will insist the plural of walrus is Walrii. I think they're wrong. We don't import plurals for any other language we've borrowed words from, why should we make an exception for latin?

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The German Ocean

I recently finished reading The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. As with most of his books, you go into it expecting a daring tale and action and suspense, but end up finding something much more thought-provoking and strange. I'd strongly recommend reading it. It's short, entertaining, and out -of-copyright. There's no excuse not to.

While reading this book I was struck by Wells' use of a term I'd never heard before. The action of the The Invisible Man takes place around a sleepy village on the east coast of England, and as an inevitable consequence of this setting, he frequently refers to the North Sea in his descriptions of places. The odd thing is that he doesn't call it the North Sea. He calls it 'The German Ocean'.

At first I thought this was a term Wells had coined himself, perhaps a sly hint that the world of this novel was not quite the world he was living in. A few days later, however, while leafing through a set of seventeenth and eighteenth century maps of northern Germany (I have a strange job) I saw it again. A quick scan through another set of old maps confirmed that Mer d'Allemagne, Oceanus Germanicus, and German Ocean appeared just as often as North Sea or its variants. I was curious. When did this term die out, and why?

For the answer to the first part of that question, I turned to the all-knowing google hive-mind.

Here are the Google Ngram results for the relative frequency of the two terms in English-language texts since 1700. The X axis is time, the right axis is frequency. Frequency is expressed as the percentage of the total number of words published in a given year that word represented. It's a largely incomprehensible figure, so I've cropped it out.

As you can see, the two were used pretty much interchangeably throughout the eighteenth century. When you factor in variants of German Ocean -- like German Sea, Oceanus Germanicus, etc -- I think German Ocean probably has the edge. The two terms appear to have existed side by side until around 1850, when North Sea experiences a sudden rise in popularity and 'German Ocean' begins to drop away. By the time H.G. Wells used 'German Ocean' in The Invisible Man (around 1897) it was already well on its way out, and may have even sounded a little archaic to his readers.

So that's the when, but what about the why?

It is a well known fact that when a poor, innocent sea or ocean finds itself caught between two major political powers, things can get very ugly. In parallel with the fight for the physical owership of the sea -- the warships, trawlers, etc. -- there's also the more abstract fight over naming rights. Both sides typically want the official name of a sea of ocean to imply that they have undisputed strategic dominance over its waters, regardless of what the situation is on the ground (well, on the water). Sometimes the two countries can seemingly agree to disagree (as with the English Channel/La Manche), but most of the time it turns into nasty international confrontation in which the poor cartographers are caught in the crossfire (as with the Persian Gulf/Arabian Gulf).

For most of the nineteenth century, the British had enjoyed undisputed control of the North Sea. They had not bothered to change the name, however, because the name did not imply strategic dominance by any other state. It was neutral. The name 'German Ocean' was just a holdover from Pliny's Oceanus Germanicus (ocean surrounded by stinky Germanic barbarians).

In the mid-nineteenth century, however, the Kingdom of Prussia smushed into Saxony and Bavaria, making a new state called Germany. By a quirk of history and language, this new state was gifted symbolic dominance over the North Sea on English maps, even though it didn't really have a navy to speak of.

From this point, however, the English press started to become a little squeamish about writing the name 'German Ocean'. You can see in the graph above that 'German Ocean' begins to get dropped in favour of the neutral 'North Sea' the moment Germany emerges as a rival European power.

The abandonment of 'German Ocean' accelerates dramatically shortly after the passing of Kaiser Wilhelm's 1898 Fleet Act -- which began to ambitious process of bringing the Imperial German Navy up to parity with the British Royal Navy. Now that the Germans were seriously contesting England's ownership of the North Sea, to call it otherwise looked unpatriotic. The outbreak of war in 1914 made it look treasonous. By the beginning of the 1920s, the term 'German Ocean' was dead in the water (so to speak). 

The odd thing is that, so far as I can tell, the name for the North Sea in German is, and always has been, Nordsee, or 'North Sea'

Friday, April 04, 2014

Long-lost relatives

Here's an interesting little story from the Memoirs of Peter Henry Bruce, Esq. (London, 1782). Bruce was a Scottish-born military engineer and artilleryman who served in the British, Prussian, and Russian armies, visiting places as far flung as Sweden and Iran.
At the time our troops were in Holstein, General Baur, who commanded the cavalry, and was himself a soldier of fortune, his family or country being a secret to every body, took an opportunity to discover himself, which surprised and pleased those who were about him.

Being encamped near Husun, in Holstein, he invited all his field-officers, and some others to dine with him, and sent his adjutant to bring a miller and his wife, who lived in the neighbourhood, to the entertainment. The poor couple came very much afraid of the Muscovite general, and were quite confused when they appeared before him, which he perceiving bade them make themselves quite easy, for he only meant to show them kindness, and had sent for them to dine with him that day, and talked with them familiarly about the country: the dinner being set, he placed the miller and his wife next to himself, one on each hand, at the head of the table, and paid great attention to them, inviting them to make free and eat hearty.  In the course of the entertainment, he asked the miller a great many questions about his family and his relations: the miller told him, that he was the eldest son of his father, who had been also a miller at the same mill he then possessed; that he had two brothers, tradesmen; and one sister, married to a tradesman; that his own family consisted of one son and three daughters.

The general asked him, if he never had any other brother than those he had mentioned: he replied, he had once another, but he was dead many years ago, for they had never head of him since he enlisted and went away with soldiers when he was but very young, and he must certainly have been killed in the wars. The general observing the company much surprised at his behaviour to these people, thinking he did it by way of diversion, said to them; “Gentlemen, you have always been very curious to know who and whence I am; I now inform you, this is the place of my nativity, and you have now heard from this, my eldest brother, what my family is.”

And then turning towards the miller and his wife, he embraced them very affectionately, telling them he was their supposed dead brother; and, to confirm them, he relating everything that had happened in the family before he left it. … General Baur then made a generous provision for all his relations, and sent the miller's only son to Berlin for his education, who turned out an accomplished young man.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The man who would be half-emperor

Another tale from Januarius MacGahan's Campaigning on the Oxus, and the Fall of Khiva.

One day I mounted my horse and rode to Hazar-Asp, where I was hospitably entertained by Colonel Ivanoff. While taking dinner with the Colonel, an orderly came in, and informed him that a woman was waiting outside, asking permission to lay a complaint before him
   The Colonel turned to me and said, “come along now, and you will see something curious.”

   As the regular course of justice had been interrupted by the flight of the Governor, the people of Hazar-Asp, it seemed, came to Colonel Ivanoff, who was then the supreme power, to have their wrongs redressed and their quarrels settled. So we now went out into the great porch, which I have spoken of as the Hall of State, or audience chamber. Here we sat down on a piece of carpet, and the Colonel put on a grave face, as befitted a magistrate in the administration of justice. The woman was now led into the court which was some three or four feet lower than the floor of the porch on which we were seated, she came in leading a lubberly-looking young man of about fourteen, and bowing almost to the earth at every step, and addressed the Colonel, whom she took for General Kauffmann, as the “Yarim-Padshah,” or ‘half-emperor’, which title the Colonel accepted with grave composure.

   She was an old woman, clad in the long dirty looking tunic of the Khivans. The only article of dress that distinguished her from a man was the tall white turban worn by all the Khivan women. She brought in a little present of bread and apricots, which she handed to the bemused Colonel with many profound bows, and then proceeded to state her case.

  “My son,” she said, pointing to the gawky boy who accompanied her, “had been robbed of his affianced wife.”
   “By whom?” asks the Colonel.
   “By a vile theiving dog of a Persian slave. My own slave, too; he stole my donkey, and carried the girl off on it; may the curse of the prophet wither him.”
    “So then he is three times a thief. He stole the donkey, the girl, and himself,” said the Colonel, summing up the matter in a judicial way. “But how did he steal the girl? Did he take her by force?”
   “Of course; was she not my son's wife? How could a girl run away from her affianced husband with a dog of an infidel slave, except by force?”
   “Who is she? How did she become affianced to your son?”
   “She is a Persian girl. I bought her from a Turcoman who had just brought her from Astrabad, and I paid fifty tillahs for her. The dog of a slave must have bewitched her, because as soon as she saw him she flew into his arms, weeping and crying, and said, ‘he was her old playmate’. That was nonsense, and I beat her for it soundly. The marriage was to be celebrated in a few days; but as soon as the Russians came, the vile hussy persuaded the slave to run away with her, and I believe they are as good as married”
   “Well, what do you want me to do about it?”
   “I want you to give back my son's wife, and my donkey, and my slave.”

   The Colonel told her, with a smile, that he would see about it, and motioned her to retire from his presence. She withdrew, walking backwards, and bowing to the ground at every step, in the most approved and courtier-like manner. Evidently it was not the first time she had pleaded her own case.

   But her son never got back his wife, nor she her slave or donkey. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Victorian War Correspondents

Januarius MacGahan (1844–78), a gentleman reporter of the old school, describes his journalistic equipment for a trip into Central Asia to cover the Russian invasion of Khiva in 1873.
"Being a man of peace, I went but lightly armed. A heavy double-barrelled English hunting rifle, a double-barrelled shotgun – both of which pieces were breech-loading – an eighteen-shooter Winchester repeating rifle, three heavy revolvers, and one ordinary muzzle loading shotgun – throwing slugs – besides a few knives and sabres, formed my light and unpretentious equipment. A hundred rounds for each of my guns and revolver were equally divided, with many other little traps, among the four saddle-horses.   
Nothing was farther from my thoughts than fighting. I only encumbered myself with these things in order to be able to discuss with becoming dignity questions relating to rights of way and of property with the inhabitants of the desert, whose opinions on these subjects are somewhat peculiar."
Campaigning on the Oxus, and the Fall of Khiva, p.146.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Fear and Loathing in Danzig

From an account by a French tourist, written in 1663.
We were on the point of leaving, when a man some six feet tall came in. He had a clean shaven face, and eyes set in deep folds and wrinkles. It was a Polish nobleman in the company of some fifteen retainers… As soon as he saw us, he came over with a declarations of friendship, shaking our hands and pressing us to accept his expression of respect and chivalry… He said he was ill, and that he had been looking for two weeks for someone who might confirm his belief that debauchery was a better cure than dieting… After we had consumed some fifteen or sixteen tumblers, my colleague offered him his pipe…. He thrust the bowl into his mouth, drawing the full draught of burning smoke straight into his stomach… He said that tobacco should be drunk not blown into the air and wasted… Suddenly, he rushed from the table and, seizing a lighted candelabra started to bang his head on the wall and writhe around on the floor. He was foaming at the mouth like a bull, and looked as if the fury would kill him… But then a little vomiting made him more presentable… Next he staggered blindly in my direction, smothered me with passionate kisses, and announced that he would give me one of his daughters in marriage, together with ten thousand pounds and two hundred serfs. In honour of the forthcoming marriage, we drank toast after toast… Then I looked around and saw that he was stretched out on his back once more, but calling for wine and urging us to drink to the confusion of the Turk and the ruin of the Ottoman Empire. .. By now he had assured me that I was really a Pole, and that I ought to dress like one. Starting with his crimson cloak, fastened with sculpted silver pins, he began to strip, and to dress me up from head to toe in his own clothes. Unbuckling his sabre, he ordered me to kiss it and fastened it to my side, declaring that Poland owed all her Freedom to it… Meanwhile, I was desperately planning my escape.
Quoted in God's Playground: A History of Poland, vol 1. by Norman Davies.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Shrewsbury Park, early 1990s

This story is from way back in the mists of time, when my hair was blond and my clothes brightly coloured. The memory has been swirled around like a piece of sea glass, smoothed and softened by the action of numerous forgettings. These days it's little more than the smell of leaf-mould and wet autumn woodland, a few still images, and a sense of something lost.

There was an area of half-forested parkland near the house where I grew up. I'm not sure whether it was laid out intentionally, or if it was just a patch of the hill that was too steep and unstable to build on. It had Victorian iron railings along the side near my house and half a rather grand gateway. By the time of my childhood the left-hand gatepost was long gone, along with most of the rest of the railing --  lost to vandals I suppose, or weather, or a wartime scrap-metal drive.  Elsewhere, nature had quietly and patiently undone the carefully imposed Victorian order of the place. Tree roots snaked across stone paths and entwined themselves around long-extinguished gaslamps, tufts of grass levered apart paving slabs, and fallen leaves buried what remained. In the winter small streams ran down the hill and where they scoured away the earth you could see the layers than underpinned the crumbling pathways -- tarmac over concrete over bricks and logs and gravel.

The downhill side of the park was, curiously, home to feral cabbages and wild turnips, remnants of a wartime victory garden that had fallen into disuse. The uphill side comprised two open fields, where children played lopsided games of football against the steep slopes and the hilltop winds. Between these two areas was a small patch of woodland, probably less than an acre in size. This was my favourite part of the park growing up, a place where enormous puddles sucked the bright red wellingtons right off my feet and squirrels watched me from bizarre angles, crouched halfway up a tree trunk or on the underside of a branch.

I'm sure that every square inch of that little park was trodden by dozens of dog-walkers, bored teenagers and curious children every week, but to me it was somewhere exotic and unexplored. I can remember squeezing through gaps in the dense undergrowth to find odd little clearings and gullies, convinced that I was the first person to set foot there in decades, perhaps ever. The fact that I was never more than 10 metres from the footpath where my mother stood waiting didn't affect my enjoyment one bit. I remember one summer, coming across a sort of natural dome of holly under a great big willow tree deep in the bushes away from the paths. Inside there was a collection of plastic garden chairs around the remains of a small campfire, a sodden futon, and a load of empty beer cans. To me, it was like finding some kind of lost city deep in the jungle.

On the day that sticks in my memory, I was following one of the old fences that wound through the woodland, tracing the route of some long-forgotten footpath. For most of its length the fence was no more than a line of rotten wooden staves held together with baling wire -- I expect that if you were to go back there today there would be nothing left expect for a few strands of rusted metal half-buried in the earth.  There was one point, however, where the fence was interrupted by a large metal gate, the kind people use to close off car-parks and private roads. I have no idea how long it had been there -- the path it spanned was barely wide enough for two people to walk down side-by-side -- but it was still in good condition. On either end of the gate was a box-steel post, hollow and open at the top.

As a approached this gate, I heard a faint squeaking noise, and then a tiny brown bird darted out and disappeared into the trees. Holding my breath and thinking in whispers, I tiptoed up to the post and looked down into it. At about the height that the mounting bolts for the gate went through the box-steel, there was a little birds nest, made from twigs and bits of carrier bags. The nest held three miniscule birds, just big mouths really, bundled together in a little ball.

I knew that disturbing a bird's nest was a naughty thing to do, so I darted back from the post and hid behind a tree. I waited for what felt like ages to my hyperactive and impatient little-boy-brain in the hope that the mother bird would come back to the nest, but she didn't show. I became worried that perhaps I'd scared her off and ran back to my mum.

I don't recall if I told her what I had seen or not, I probably did. I was really excited. Baby birds! Like on the wildlife shows! We tramped around the park for a little longer before heading home for lunch.
I didn't get to go back to the park for another week. When the weekend finally rolled around, I pestered my mum to take me out for a walk. I picked way way along the paths, looking for the rotting fence. It was late spring, and the plants were getting thicker and greener by the day, it took me quite a long time to find it.

Once again, I walked gingerly up to the gatepost, expecting to be dive-bombed by an angry mother-bird at any moment. She didn't seem to be around this time, and the nest was oddly quiet. I couldn't hear the twittering. I stood up on tiptoes and looked down into the post.

It took me a few seconds to realise what I was looking at. I glanced around, checking to make sure this was the right spot. It definitely was. Where the nest had been -- where the nest still was -- there was a brick. It was one of the mouldering, broken ones from the path nearby. Someone had shoved it into the hollow post, crushing the little nest and its tiny inhabitants.

I backed away slowly, making a sort of whimpering sound. Oddly, for a child prone to theatrical extremes of emotion, I didn't cry. This was, I figured, my fault somehow. It seemed inevitable, just like the way that the bigger boys at school were always breaking my lego castles or scribbling on my drawings. I'd gotten too excited, and the bigger boys had ruined everything.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Missing hours

I don't remember when exactly this happened. I was seventeen or eighteen, I think. Still at school, doing my a-levels, and living with my parents. I remember that it was a day much like this one  -- a cold, sodden day on the dreary side of Christmas. One of my teachers was off sick, so I'd been home since about 2pm. The house was empty and silent aside from the odd knocking noise or crack or creak. I was sitting on the end of my bed, reading a book or doing some homework, I don't remember exactly. It was boring. I guess I fell asleep.

I had a strange, incoherent dream peppered with odd details that seemed to hint at some awareness of the world around me. Crows bellowed in my face and doorbells rang, my arm went numb. After some indeterminate amount of time, it all exploded with sharp, deafening noise. I don't know what the noise was, I later decided that it must have been the phone ringing, but with my mind mostly asleep it was just formless sound. Accompanied by this piercing klaxon soundtrack the dream became even stranger and more distorted. I started feeling panicky and trapped. I had the strange feeling that comes from screaming in a dream and, in some muffled and distant way, hearing your own voice echoing in your ears.


I was standing in the kitchen. My hair was disheveled and my clothes were all rumpled and askew. For a moment there was just complete blankness. My legs ached and my head hurt. I looked at the light from next door's patio and wondered why I was standing in the dark. I switched the lights on over the countertop and glanced up at the clock.


I was up early today.

I pulled open the cupboard and took down the box of cereal. There wasn't any milk so I just sat at the kitchen table eating a dry, crusty brick of weatabix and gulping at a glass of water. It was odd that my parents weren't up yet. I couldn't even hear the faint drone of their clock radio.

Having decided that dry weatabix was, in fact, a terrible idea, I got up and looked around for my bag. I eventually found it in my bedroom, in the attic. My school books were scattered across my desk, my homework half done. I must have fallen asleep mid-way through. While I was gathering up my books and wondering why no-one had woken me up for dinner, I started to get the unsettling feeling that something wasn't right. My bedsheets were tangled and knotted, bunched into a ball at the foot of the bed. Try as I might, I couldn't actually remember getting up or getting dressed. In fact, come to think of it, wasn't I wearing these clothes yesterday?

I stood there for a while, trying to decide whether to change into a fresh shirt. ultimately my laziness triumphed over my admittedly feeble sense of propriety, and I walked back downstairs. On the first floor landing I stopped and poked the door to my parents' bedroom open with my foot.

The room was empty. For a moment I thought that perhaps they'd gotten up and gone downstairs while I was in my room, but I'd heard nothing and could hear nothing still. Sure enough it was just as empty downstairs as it had been before.

I was now very confused. I must have forgotten something. Perhaps dad had a meeting and mum had to go into work early? I couldn't remember anything being mentioned but, then again, I couldn't remember very much at all. Was I drunk?

I figured these mysteries could wait until later, and heaved my bag onto my shoulder. I popped in my headphones and opened the front door. It's English Literature this morning isn't it, Ms Long still pushing us through Dr Faustus.


I was fumbling with my keys, trying to lock the front door when my little sister tapped me on the shoulder. She was holding a bag of shopping. Mum was standing behind her. She asked where I was going this evening. I stared blankly at her for a good few seconds trying to figure out why she'd gone shopping at six o'clock in the morning before it clicked into place.


I still think of that day when I'm asked how long it's been since my last siezure. If I'm only counting the grand mal monsters -- the ones where my body jerks and flails like a broken robot or the hero of a really glitchy videogame -- then I've been seizure free since I was fourteen. I know, however, that there are other ways that the wires can cross.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Bug Chasing in Google Play Books

What I'm about to say concerns the epub rendering engine used by Google Play Books, the Californian tech-behemoth's first major attempt to break into the world of ebook retail. It will explain why I consider Google Play Books to be easily the weirdest e-reader available on the market today. As anyone who has worked with the standards-averse, held-together-with-gaffa-tape world of e-publishing will testify, competition for the title of "weirdest epub rendering engine" is always fierce, so this is quite a claim.

I think my findings back it up though.


Most e-readers ruin your books by not recognising certain CSS declarations, overriding them with their own defaults, or by implementing your CSS in a freakishly non-standard way – not so Google Play Books. The part of Google Play Books that handles CSS stylesheets – presumably forked from the Chrome browser – seems to be excellent, it can understand complex pseudo-class selectors and parse combinations of pseudo-class and pseudo-element selectors with ease. The problem comes from the way that it handles the HTML framework onto which that CSS is applied.

This first became apparent to me when I loaded one of the books I was working on into Google Play Books. This book had drop-caps on the opening body-text paragraphs of each chapter. These were identified using an HTML class (p.first) and a pseudo-element selector (::first-letter). I did it this way because it allowed swanky modern systems like iBooks and Readium to display drop-caps, but phrased it in such a way that Adobe Digital Editions and similar readers (which always render drop-caps wrong) would ignore it (pseudo elements mean nothing to them).

When I loaded this book into Google Play books I noticed something odd. In addition to the drop cap on the first paragraph (which rendered very nicely), it added a drop cap to the first letter of the following page (the page break having fallen halfway through the first para). This seemed to imply that Google Play Books was altering my HTML in real-time (it reacted to changes in font-size and line-height that moved the page break), adding in a hard paragraph break on either side of the page break.

This was weird, but I just thought “meh, I've seen weirder” and changed the pseudo-class selector to counter this odd habit. The drop-cap selector now said div.text>p:first-of-type::first-letter – selecting the first letter of the first child of the div.text container. I figured this would stop it from applying the drop cap to the second, artificial <p class="first">

When I ran this code in Readium, it worked fine. When I ran it in Google Play Books, however, something really strange happened. The text sprouted drop caps everywhere – not only on the first paragraph of the chapter, but also on the first paragraph of each page and the first paragraph after each nested <div>. This seemed to imply that Google Play Books was closing and re-opening the body text container at the end of each page and whenever the flow of text was interrupted by something.

Intrigued, I added another layer to my selector. I changed it to body>div.text>p:first-of-type::first-letter this absurdly convoluted selector should, in theory, have selected only the first letter of the first paragraph of the first div in the whole HTML document. What it actually did was select the first letter of each page.

This seems to imply that in order to render a book, Google Play Books takes the content from your epub and pastes it into an individual HTML document for each page. To make it even stranger, in order to work out where to put the page breaks it must have to apply the CSS to the HTML first, then work out where the page breaks will fall, then chop up the HTML into individual documents and re-apply the CSS. Only after it has gone through all that can it render the page.

This seems absurd, but it would explain some things about the odd behaviour of the Google Play Books app. For example, if you adjust the font size or line height, the screen goes blank and the whole thing has to reload before it can display the changes. This isn't something that any other e-reader does, but would make sense it it was having to re-generate a set of html files. Secondly, even simple books take a long time to load. The same book takes longer to load in Google Play Books – running on a brand-new android tablet – than it does on a first-generation iPad. Finally, there's the strange way that Google Play Books has to pause to load every six pages or so. There’s no way I know of to download and view a fragment of an HTML document, so logically there should only be a loading screen at the beginning of each chapter.

Unfortunately the only way to know exactly what it’s doing would be to break it open and rummage through the source code – a task I have absolutely no idea how to do (I'm just an editor who knows a bit of CSS).

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Theaterbunker

On the corner of Islington Green, facing onto Essex Road, there is a rather swanky apartment block. It is about four stories high, with a central courtyard that faces onto Essex Road. The ground floor is finished with a sort of faux-marble effect -- less tacky than it sounds -- and the upper floors are clad with something like cedar weatherboarding. I wouldn't call it an attractive building, necessarily, but it's clear that more thought was put into its design than you'd expect for an apartment block, even somewhere as swanky as Islington.

I first encountered this building in the spring of 2008, when I started working in an office nearby. I used to walk past it on my way to the shops to get lunch, or when heading to the bookshop a few doors up the street. Though the building was mostly finished, there were still workmen on site handling the fitting out and big wooden hoardings covering the entrance to the courtyard on the Essex Road side. At the time I paid it no mind.
     I started to think things were a bit odd when I noticed that, despite the construction hoardings and empty commercial units on the ground floor, people were living in the apartments on the upper floors. The windows had curtains and I'd sometimes see people wandering around inside. As the years passed a gym moved into the ground floor on the far end of the site, away from the green, and a penthouse apartment was added on to the top floor. The Islington Green end of the site, however, remained boarded up. The courtyard was hidden behind construction hoardings.

There were some other things about the building that struck me as odd. On the Essex Road side of the building there was a heavy-duty freight elevator that didn't seem to go anywhere (it's on the far right hand side of the picture above, notice that the room directly above it is someone's kitchen.) There are also several semi-concealed fire escape doors (the recesses on either side of the courtyard entrance) that don't appear to have staircases above them. All in all, it was a conundrum. I tried googling the building on several occasions, but came up with nothing. How do you google a building if you don't know the address or anything else about it?
    Today, this changed. When I was walking past the building on my way to the shops, I saw a planning application note pinned to one of the hoardings. It was notice of an application for an entertainment licence (theatre/music venue) made on behalf of the 'Collins Theatre'.
I dashed back to my desk and started searching for information. At first I was frustrated by references to the Collins Music Hall, which stood on that site until it burned down in 1958, but I soon dug down to find the good stuff.
     The first article I found was this one "Sally goes underground with £28m new theatre". It stated, to my astonishment, that there was a three-storey high basement under the site containing a 600 seat theatre. The article mentioned an architectural practice -- CZWG -- and a search for them turned up this page. At this point I dropped my soggy low-fat sandwich on my keyboard with a sguidgy flop of shock. Could it be that this basement, less than 100m from my office, was the final resting place of the reproduction of Shakespeare's Rose Theater, built for Shakespeare in Love?
     My doubts as to whether this project had ever actually gone ahead were quashed by pictures I found on the websites of the firm that built the basement, and the firm that created the beautiful glass roof over the auditorium. More detail on the project was furnished by this 2008 article in The Stage, entitled "Mystery surrounds Islington’s Collins Theatre as opening beckons".
     After 2008, however, it all seems to go quiet. The next mention I could find of the project was this article in the local paper "Waiting in wings... theatre still a shell after 20-year campaign", dated June 2009. Then, ominously, came this article in The Stage in September of that year, "BSC plans Shakespeare in Love’s Rose Theatre replica for northern base" linking the Rose Theatre reproduction with the BSC and suggesting that the Collins Theatre plan had fallen though. The next mention I could find of it was a passing mention in an article about a local Labour Party activist and artist called Avis Saltsman Baldry. According to "Great art grows on trees! Hugging Trees by Avis Saltsman at Islington Museum" she had been closely involved in the campaign to build the theatre. Her rather tetchy response, printed the following week, mentions that the state of the theatre was the "subject of litigation".
     Nothing more seems to have been said on the subject until the summer of 2013. The letters page of the Islington Tribune from August contains the following letter  "Still waiting for ‘curtain up’ at our underground theatre", written by Avis Saltsman Baldry. In this letter Ms Saltsman blames the Lib Dems and the economic downturn for the lack of progress on the project before complaining about the negative attitude of unnamed contractors in a manner that I can't really follow. Reading between the lines, it seems to imply that the theatre has no practical way to get large objects in and out, which seems rather a serious shortcoming.
     I would be interested to know more about this history of this project, and how it came to collapse so spectacularly, but I suspect it will be many years and many legal battles before we find anything out. Nonetheless, there are some clues. In a 2008 article questioning the logic of building a shiny new theater in an area that is already very well served with cultural venues, Simon Wroe of the Islington Tribune mentions that the developer was granted an exemption from the affordable housing requirement in return for promising to build the theatre. It seems unlikely that they would do something as expensive as excavate a three storey basement just to avoid putting any social housing in their development, but stranger things have happened. It would certainly explain why they're so profoundly unconcerned by its emptiness.

Having gotten this far, I've just realised that I can't find the Islington planning department reference for the new application, which might shed some light on what is currently going on. I'll have to write it down and check tomorrow.