15 December 2014

Phildelphia (City of Brotherly Love) - We Are Augustines

The self-effacing trio We Are Augustines have been making music and friends, quietly and largely unnoticed except by we lucky few. They peviously served a long and bruising apprenticeship as Pela, and more recently reverted to simply Augustines, after resolving a name dispute. This music grips me. Not just a gentle tug but a vice-like clamp; a feeling my very being has been wrenched into the songwriter's world, at once strange and scary yet hauntingly familiar.
 
Debut album Rise Ye Sunken Ships hardly made a splash in these days of autotune, brash vulgarity and manufactured style, yet for the discerning listener it is a stunning creation. Hard on the heels of his brother's tragic suicide and that of his mother years earlier, singer Billy McCarthy poured out his own despair and intensely personal emotions into twelve tracks, a powerful testament combining poetry and gentle minor key melody. The album is never an easy listen. Every song is achingly sad, yet there is an undercurrent of triumphant resolution which draws me to listen to it again and again.
 
The song Philadelphia. better known by its subtitle and translation, City of Brotherly Love, is a shining example of a timeless brotherly tribute. The studio version rocks hard and the official video splices cuts from the band's numerous passionate and freewheeling gigs. Yet tucked away on YouTube are a couple of live performances where this song is performed as a ballad with sparse piano accompaniment. This is the best I have found:

Just when you thought the most poignant songs in history had long ago been written and performed, along comes this. Even if you don't know Billy McCarthy's history, nor are familiar with the heavier version there can be no mistaking the savage grief and desperation in his cracked voice.
 
The video is beautifully shot in high definition sepia tones. The audience is hushed and respectful as Billy delivers a spell-binding performance, ragged and on the edge of tears. I defy anyone not to be moved. This is definitively, my kind of music.

16 November 2014

the man in the shed

It is early and Peter has tiptoed out of the house unnoticed. The enormous sky with high clouds, the warm breeze, the glittery dew, all foretell a glorious day but he turns his back on the hot sun and steals into his shed. A tail of string has hung grey and stiff forever from a nail in the door. He grips the frayed end and yanks the door shut behind him. One quick jerk or it sticks, his old dad had insisted.
 
The dark is immediate and total. Like the end of time. Not menacing, but a comforting embrace. Sanctuary. When Peter was a boy his father reassured him there was nothing to fear from the dark. It's all dark Pete-boy. Seeing, is only light bouncing back. He eases his haunches onto a high stool. The creaking boards and the sweet aroma of old fertilizer are a safe familiar world.
 
Mid morning the back door to the house scuffs open and music spills out, some guy crooning earnestly to his lost lover. She loves that stuff, Hope. He can hear her humming along now, and her slippers slapping on the garden path. The laundry hamper will be tucked under her arm. A big fat sigh as she reaches up for the bag of clothespins dangling from the line. He had hung that line and pulleys two decades ago, greased the wheels every year but she has never once mentioned it. It just works, always.
 
He listens to the swish as she drags a wet cloth along the line, walking arm aloft, from pole to pole, intent on her task, unaware of the wallflowers he had sown in the spring, or the bees busy among them or the woodpecker's distant drill.
 
Hope laps the garden. Peter sits motionless in the dark, his presence hidden.
 
She is hanging the laundry, kicking the hamper forward every few seconds, and by this he charts her progress to the far fence. Val will show up there next, her predictable, round face looming like a stupid, full moon, eager to gossip.
 
His pupils are wide and grey shapes have materialized. A rake and a spade, a broom and a hoe, a big old ho' his dad would joke; the shovel whose shaft he has gripped a thousand times and shouldered like a rifle, on his way to dig trenches; potting shelves lined with old newspaper, thin like brown skin; shrivelled cabbage seeds, in packets brittle with age; trowels and trays.
 
Braying donkey laughter from the yard, then, "No idea, Val. He's probably up the creek fishing or out riding that bike of his somewhere."
 
God, that voice; whining like a rusty gate hinge. Once it had been birdsong, enthusiastic chatter he could have listened to all day. Now it sets his teeth on edge. When had that started? He wants to barricade his eyes and ears permanently and a vivid thought occurs to him.
 
He visualizes the barrel behind the shed, a large one he had salvaged and converted to a water butt ten years ago; two hundred gallons of rainwater restrained by twenty four oak planks and four steel bands. A man could fit in there, submerged. He imagines hoisting his leg over the rim, slipping slowly into the chilly embrace until the water covers his head, those dark depths an effective hiding place. A casual glance and the surface tension might not betray his presence. Depending on vantage point, a hint of head may hover a few inches below, or the sky might reflect its own towering, azure brilliance and so conceal a man's body, isolated from his life, from his love, fighting for his very breath.
 
He shivers, and the idea sinks like a Leviathan, receding into the murk but not gone. Perhaps if they had had children it would be different. Precious new life to care for and nurture, a distraction from the humdrum and new reasons for happiness. From the dark of his shed it's hard to recall young Hope, the nubile siren who had gyrated on the Empire dance floor, who had caught his eye, then grabbed his guts.
 
She's droning on now about the latest American celebrities and the new Danielle Steel and the price of gas and the state of her joints, all the joy drained out of her. And while Val's going uh-huh, mmm, yep, Hope will be working through the clothespins, two in her mouth, two in her left hand, like her mother and grandmother before her; ducking to the pink hamper, and grunting as she straightens to shake out sheets.
 
He sweeps his palm across his father's old writing desk, now doing service as a workbench. Sawdust and bent screws, where once love letters had lain. To my sweetheart... Peter tries to imagine his father writing those words, fountain pen clasped crudely between lumpy, sausage fingers, tongue peeping from the corner of his mouth. He had, undeniably, and the proof lay stowed in an ancient shoebox in the attic. All those notes, dripping with love and bundled with elastic bands long perished and hard, letters which Peter had read once only and wept over, shaking with the sadness of all humankind.
 
That clumsy, beautiful man had built this shed and a happy life around it; had handed down his selfless genes to a dear, sweet son.
 
Val has spotted the wallflowers and now marigolds and pansies. Viola Tricolor, the Latin name marches into his head unbidden. There is a resonance and a beautiful order to floral classification.
 
"Sensitive? My Peter? You're kidding, right!" Hope dismisses this notion with a sharp exhale through her nose. Somehow she has learned to mistake his gentle traits for blandness. She stoops to grab a handful of knickers from the heap and through jaws clamped around fresh clothespins she grunts, "Senseless, more like."
 
Peter stares ahead, unseen and unknown. He rehearses a line of verse he has been working on in his mind. In her youth my Hope was my heart's desire. He wants to sink into the water butt right now and displace his own volume in iambic pentameter, pour out a poignant anthem for young lovers.
 
Val coughs. She sounds embarrassed.
 
When Hope bends, her skirt will be rising to show off the stubble on her chubby calves and the nasty red spot behind her knee which won't heal.
 
If she were to notice his head bobbing under the water would she jump to ram the lid on? Or would she turn into young Hope, swoop in and haul him out by the armpits, let him slither eel-like to the ground, then clamp her mouth on his and pump his chest frantically until waves of watery melancholy came belching from his lungs? But young Hope is gone, lost to the drudgery of middle-age. Life and her view of it has sucked all the loveliness from her.
 
The pulley wheel rattles as the laundry is winched aloft to catch the breeze.
 
The fence creaks and takes the strain of chatting friends, elbow to elbow. The topics are varied and fleeting. Peter hears the banter and the chuckling, gusting off in the wind.
 
Yet, he still believes he can somehow turn this all around. If only her banal exterior would crumble, fall away to reveal the wonderful woman inside. His real Hope. Someone must soften first, eat a generous slice of humble pie and say let's try. In books they go on vacation where sun, sea and sand revitalize drooping spirits and launch lives anew. He doesn't have a book.
 
"Acapulco," he whispers softly in the darkness. "Let me take you to Acapulco!"
 
"Beach, Val?" Hope sounds incredulous. "He wouldn't choose a beach holiday. Me, I always wanted to fly to Acapulco, lie on the sand and soak up the sun, drink piƱa coladas, but how would he have the first clue about that?"
 
Peter smiles but a tear wells in the corner of his eye, trickles and falls unseen in the shed.
 
"See, it's like this Val. Peter doesn't talk to me now. I never know what he's thinking. He disappears for hours on end. We've lost, you know, the spark..." Hope trails off and the laundry flaps.
 
Val is quiet too but Peter can sense her nodding gravely, waiting for more, hungry for morsels of detail, which don't come. He sits statue stiff in his shed listening as Hope's slippers clap the path back to the house.
 
The back door scuffs again then shrieks as she tugs it violently closed. He has deliberately avoided shaving the edge, ill-fitting since the heave of last thaw. He has made her tug it, taught her a tugging lesson.
 
***
 
As sheets and shirts and pants whip and crack in the wind, a reverie takes hold of him. Seven days ago, in a private moment of surrender, Peter conceded to himself that he had long ago slingshot himself into a distant elliptical orbit, his personal wilderness like the great void of interplanetary space. He had scorched a linear trail, a pioneer's route to the outer reaches of sustainable life, and far beyond the scope of two-way communication. The universe had rushed by his cocoon in a never ending stream of black velvet.
 
Without company, devoid of stimulus, he had turned inwards, padded softly along the deep corridors of his mind, not touching the walls, hearing nothing, seeing nothing, feeling nothing. Not dead but barely alive.
 
Yet the profundity of space and time saw good in his heart. Gravitational coils looping into the vastness took gentle hold of his path and a strong, insistent, earthly pull reeled in his pitiful, atomic speck. Demanding to be nourished, the wizened remnant of his soul streaked home. His surrender had begun.
 
***
 
He looks about him, his "shed vision" quite complete now. Even as a kid, he had never told his dad that, after a while, he could see a little in the dark. To say so might have seemed disrespectful. His father had maintained that everything was essentially dark and Peter had wanted to show he believed him.
 
But a little light is filtering in; chinks in the wall boards, a hairline crack in the roof. If you stay in the dark long enough, some light simply must penetrate. It is the way of things. He watches a spider, suddenly alerted by a quiver in its signal line, scuttle to the centre of its web and seize a tiny fly. The ebb and flow of life in microcosm.
 
He has sown flower seeds, carved garden ornaments with his father's woodworking tools; he knows the names of the plants, the animals and the birds but somehow he has failed to grasp life itself. Hope's fault, if it is one at all, has been to take life less seriously, while he has fussed and analyzed and thought every possibility to its logical conclusion, his brow furrowed like a chess Grand Master. Now, is it perhaps too late to make amends?
 
He fishes in his pants pocket and withdraws an envelope. He smoothes the crumples and places it on his father's old writing desk. A message to the present from the past. He stands up.
 
***
 
In the kitchen, Hope re-tunes the radio. She's heard enough crooning for one day and settles the dial on a talk show where the panel is in mid flow, debating the possibility of life on Mars. A scientist who speaks too fast persistently interrupts the host and keeps trying to steer the discussion to interstellar travel. Preposterous he declares, and something about light speed. She knows Peter would understand this, but he stopped listened to the radio long ago. She potters about, darns a pair of Peter's socks, peels potatoes ready for his supper. It's noon and he was gone before she got up this morning. Where the hell is he today?
 
"Hope... Hope... Hope!" She startles wildly, like someone has touched her with a cattle prod. Peter, bawling out her name. She hasn't heard him use her name in so long and now he's yelling it at the top of his voice. Abruptly the commotion ceases. She runs into the yard, calling him, revolving on the spot and scanning the corners of their lot. Nothing but silence now.
 
Val's head appears suddenly above the fence. "What's going on Hope? Is Peter OK?"
 
Hope ignores her and dashes a complete lap of the house. She is chasing past the shed when something catches her eye. The lid is off the water butt. She skids to a halt and her heart is hammering. Something dark with matted hair is floating just below the surface. She can't force herself to look away. It can't be, surely not. Her agony winds up to a crescendo, "Oh my God, no, no, no!"
 
She leans over the barrel and touches the thing. It bobs and rolls and an eye appears. Hope shrieks and faints.
 
***
 
Val is fanning her, wafting something bitter under her nose. "It's alright, Hope, calm down." Val the gossip is gone. This is Val the neighbour. As Hope gets shakily to her feet, Val backs away, deferential and calm.
 
The shed door is standing open. Hope peers inside. She is shocked to see Peter standing in the dim light within. She steps in too, almost falling, but Peter catches her. He sits on the stool and draws her down onto his lap.
 
"Oh, Peter... I thought..." She breaks into sobs, great wracking sobs that shake her shoulders and mess her hair.
 
Peter is making strange soothing sounds, odd little clucking noises as if he were calling chickens. She has never heard him make a sound like this before. It is utterly confusing. His hands are stroking her back, her neck, her arms, tenderly as if she might shatter at any moment.
 
"The cat," he murmurs. "The cat must have slipped off the shed roof. I'm so sorry Hope." His voice cracks and right there is more emotion than he has ever shared.
 
And now she knows he is not sorry about the cat, nor sorry about her fright. He is sorry for the past twenty years of a loveless marriage. They have ignored each other, like zoo animals who are forced to share a cage and choose opposite ends. She knows him but she doesn't know him. He of course knows her though. He always did have the edge in that and she likes it.
 
"I went away, Hope." His beautiful tears are as rare as desert rain. "I was lost but I found my way back." Now he is making grunting sounds, shaking like he has some terrible nervous disease.
 
"Look," he says and taps his envelope. "Look what I did. Did I do right?"
 
Hope lifts the flap and pulls out the contents. Through bleary, bloodshot eyes she can see plane tickets. Squinting she can just make out one word - Acapulco.

06 November 2014

she

she speaks the truth;
as authentic as the day is long.
she is a whirlwind;
falls asleep when she's done.

she bakes me biscuits;
eats only a nibble herself.
she's one tough cookie;
comes undone in my arms.

she is incredibly small;
has the heart and soul of a tigress.
she has my back;
will defend me with tooth and claw.

18 October 2014

the hurricane and the breeze


she roars her presence, screams and crashes off mountain tops,
makes toys of ocean liners and flattens mighty oaks.
barreling up streets she comes, spitting grit in your eye
howling under eaves and screaming through city canyons.

he stirs a gentle eddy of leaves, ruffles feathers
on the robin's back, touches the face of a baby.
with a stream of whispers he enters, softly sighing.
his presence merely an idea, a suggestion.

in the eye of the storm a curious hush resides.
the hurricane and the breeze exchange breath, become one.

09 October 2014

Dovetails


If, like me, you are lucky enough to have met someone new, you will be experiencing that fascinating period of learning and absorbing all you can about them. In the process, you discover areas of similarity and difference. Too alike and you might simply slide right off each other. But what if you are both very different? Will you be able to join like dovetails or will you fail to connect?

Extrovert       Introvert
Meat eater    Vegetarian
Wine             Orange Juice
Loud             Quiet
v Small         v Tall
Talker           Writer
Do-er            Thinker
Impulsive      Considered
Reactive       Composed
Boomerang   Languish     
Busy             Calm
Walker          Runner
Canadian      English


But that becomes inconsequential when each brings out shared traits in the other:
Traditional
Reliable
Private
Sensual
Honest
Comic
Romantic
Attentive
Loving
Caring
Dignified
Hygienic
Neat

2014... a good year.

13 September 2014

flies, damn flies and statistics

The house fly lands on your knee and sets about preening its proboscis. You swipe at it with lightning speed yet it evades your slap, taking off as if you were a slow-motion buffoon. Ten seconds later it alights on precisely the same spot, to the very millimetre, as if taunting you.
 
Here's a trick for those of us in humid climates who made the mistake of opening our screen doors for fresh air. Close your screen and watch the little fecker. If he nears the now closed screen, swoop by and open it. He will be attracted by the draft and fly right out. Fact.
 
Never mind damn flies! Damn pseudo celebrities! Today we've been shown that Miley Cyrus's real bottom is even more hideous than the prosthetic ones she clips on on stage. Ghastly. There are some side-splitting images doing the rounds of the silly girl's head photo-shopped onto the plucked torso of an oven-ready chicken. Believe me, the naked similarity is hard to dispute! And as for her curious snake-like tongue, it spends more time out of her mouth than in it.
 
How many people do you need to assemble before two are likely to share the same birthday? Surprisingly few. It's about the number of possible pairings. 23 people produce 253 possible parings, just over half the number of days in the year. So if you are in a group of 23, there is a better than 50/50 chance that someone has the same birthday as you.

29 August 2014

black dog

The late grey day presses inky misery through hollow walls
where he lies, abandoned to the hungry hellhound of the night.
Loping on long legs, coat matted and alive with fleas, it leaps
and settles on his tired chest, amber eyes like stinking pus.

Outside, the unlatched gate (where beauty and her loving heart
departed) batters and bangs on screeching hinges, hopeless now.
He strains to lift his bones but the black beast, his burden, weighs down.
At daybreak, soaked in sleepless sweat, he shuts the blind, denies

entry to spectacular dawn. Glorious shards of diamond white
will daily spear and soon will pierce his gloom, just not today.

15 August 2014

Prince Edward Island

Red plumes of dust behind my rolling wheels
are torn aloft by ever whipping winds.
In each field a leaning barn will lurk
behind a skirt of rippling grass.

Black rag crows flung between plowed furrows
caw then soar, now bank and dive
behind the tractor's wobbly wheels to
compete with gulls blown in from briny shores.

Red roof, white church, and crumbling homestead
with crooked mailbox and lupin ditch,
nestle under azure skies where great
eagles circle, beady eyes on land.

From a high green hill my eye can spy
the silver thread curving on blue sea;
a mooring rope lest this isle should float
beyond the pull of land and drift free.

Steel piles driven deep into bedrock
carry life and limb and cherished hearts,
over swirling white-capped waves, to these
home shores where time's footfalls gently press.

21 July 2014

the beginning


Some weeks ago I posted an entry signifying the end of my blogging. Thank you to the several kind souls who expressed concern for my wellbeing. Their genuine worry, though unfounded, was humbling.
 
Last month I was motivated to write a submission for the Island Literary Awards and now feel a newer creative stream might be at hand. I may not write with the frequency of ten years ago but I will write with fervour.

28 May 2014

divorcing my shoe


I'm filing for divorce from Madame Saucony. When we first met in 2010, my arches were at an all time low and I fell hard for her undoubted charms, in particular her stabilizing influence. We became comfortable and were soon inseparable. 'Sole' mates.
 
But, four years later there is disharmony. Her rigid ways are a bone of contention. My 'sole' is worn; the smooth outer edge a testament to her dismissive way of throwing my feet to the outside. I confess, I have been straying in search of more understanding company.
 
Lately I have been 'stepping out' with Miss ASICS. Our relationship is young and we are still learning each other's foibles but so far she seems plush and supportive in every department. She's neutral on the thorny subject of pronation and lets my foot roll where it should. A smooth ride, you might say.
 
Time will tell if our affair develops to the next level. Who knows, I might find Miss ASICS too flighty, too skittish. There will be many pitfalls (and potholes) to try us but, for now, we are pounding the sidewalks of Charlottetown together and running the Confederation Trail in silent companionship.

20 May 2014

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt


This is an intoxicating story of loss, of love, of addiction and obsession. It follows the turbulent life of Theo Decker, picking up when he is caught in a terrorist bombing which takes the life of his mother. From there it's a rollercoaster ride of arrivals and departures, of greetings and farewells. Whenever Theo is beginning to settle, he is whisked away to another new start.
 
The Goldfinch of the title is a tiny but immensely valuable painting, oil on wood. Theo has it in his possession and its very presence shapes his life.
 
Donna Tartt's style is rich with description and observation; her language sharp and evocative. The novel is exciting and brim full with real people with real aspirations, faults and successes, doing real things. It's a long read and all the more satisfying for that.

02 May 2014

snooker, the art and the act


As I watch the snooker World Championship, half a day behind, on the BBC iPlayer, my mind drifts back to the dozens of long evenings I spent with my brother at Claude Falkiner's Snooker Club in Bournemouth in the late 1970s. The annual World Championship event had just moved to the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, an aptly-named, claustrophobically small venue (still to this day the spiritual home of this high-precision sport) and was enthralling television audiences the length and breadth of England, and beyond.

My brother and I, inspired by the hushed TV spectacle, quickly learned the rules, bought (nearly straight) cues and took out membership at a dingy, smoke-filled hall, housing twelve full size tables. The beauty of close-up TV cameras is that we had pretty much mastered the stance, the grip, the bridge, the cue action, and the all-important mannerisms before even leaving our armchairs.
 
In fact, before I struck the cue ball you could be forgiven for assessing in me a good degree of experience. Striding around the table with an air of confidence, I would eye up potential chances and occasionally pause to take a pace or two back, as if I had almost overlooked a distinct opportunity. I picked invisible fluff from the table, checked the scoreboard and ground chalk onto the tip of my cue before settling into a convincing stance and addressing the cue ball.
 
This was the point at which the illusion was shattered. Frequent mis-cues saw the white speared off the table to go skittering across the floor under table after table. I won't dwell on the embarrassment of retrieving the cue ball from a distant corner of the hall.
 
It's clear from my modern perspective that as much as we wanted to achieve some modicum of expertise at snooker, my brother and I, we wanted to emulate the consummate professionals we saw on screen, to play the game with integrity, sportsmanship and above all style. Despite missing four out of every five pots we attempted, we would shake our heads every time in mock confusion, as if surely some external force had caused the miss. Often we would turn with a pained expression to address an invisible but clearly sympathetic crowd, just like the pros did.
 
Our standard improved with practice and we began to learn the potting angles on those gigantic twelve foot tables with the slim pockets, lightning fast cloths and super-responsive cushions. We added top-spin or a 'dab of side', and attempted deep screw shots. Nonetheless we could seldom pot more than two reds and two colours before finishing tucked up on a side rail, hopelessly out of position. But, following the example of our idols, we let our frustration show with only a barely perceptible wince, a purse of the lips; more perplexion than irritation.
 
The exuberant rehearsals of our late teens and early twenties gave way to manhood, and responsibilities; grown-up commitments reduced our snooker sessions to occasional outings. Nonetheless the sport has held my fascination over three decades.
 
 
The mannerisms and the etiquette are still entrenched in the modern game and it's one of the very few sports where players will call their own fouls; so small are the margins for error that referees can't always detect them. Dress code and demeanour are as exemplary as ever. The psychological pressure and the mental stamina required for thirty-five frame, two-day matches, relentless. The whiskey glasses and overflowing ashtrays are long gone; replaced by iced Perrier.
 
The standard of play continues to soar. In the 1970s we saw the very first televised maximum break, 147 points: fifteen reds, fifteen blacks and the six colours in sequence. Now there are several players who have achieved this several times over. In the 1970s few professional players had scored more than fifty breaks in excess of one hundred points in their entire careers. In 2014 the world number one has just achieved one hundred centuries, in the current season alone.

18 April 2014

The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty


I have just revisited this classic novel by listening to an audio recording made by the author in the late 1990s. I make no secret of the fact that I admire the 1973 movie and no book review would be complete without at least a passing reference to the film. I was one of the teenagers pretending to ignore the Samaritans as they stood on the cinema steps handing out leaflets. As a naive fifteen year old I was quite affected.

Reading in my mid fifties I can listen to large tracts on my iPod in the dead of night without (undue) alarm. We have to remember that the movie was an adaptation, a distillation of the plot into two hours. Inevitably it concentrated on the shocking. The novel stands comfortably by itself as a clever supernatural detective story which manages to explore faith, medicine and the overlap of psychiatric disorders with physical symptoms.
 
Three individuals lose their lives, a fact some might overlook. A detective working on the first death is inexorably drawn to events and rumours surrounding the house the victim last visited. When the only logical suspect is a twelve year old girl he is mystified. In parallel with his gentle but persistent investigations, the lives of the girl's mother and her household staff begin to coincide with medical doctors and Jesuit priests.
 
The doctors remain insistent on a physical root cause even when presented with extraordinary symptoms to indicate otherwise. This stalemate threatens to slow progress but sub plots are explored to fill the void. As a last resort the help of an exorcist is recommended and events move rapidly to a memorable climax.
 
Pacing is masterful, and matter-of-fact descriptions lend paranormal events an eerie plausibility. It's interesting to hear the author's interpretation of his own work and therein lies the audiobook's only failing. Blatty's delivery is deep and gruff for all characters, male, female, young, old. It's often tricky to identify the speaker in dialogue. Nonetheless the book is tidily written, neatly plotted and hard to put down.
 
I understand Blatty has recently committed something of an authorial sin. In 2011, to celebrate the fortieth anniversary, he wrote a new scene, introduced a new character, and generally spruced up the prose throughout the novel. Well, I listened to the original version and there is little wrong with that.

09 April 2014

The Long Walk, Richard Bachman


This was the second King novel under the Bachman pseudonym. Although published in 1979 King has since confided that he wrote it in 1966 when just twenty, and long before his more famous early works.

Both the premise and its execution are simple: an annual 'last man standing' walking race down the East coast of America during which King explores the physical and psychological effects of a gruelling challenge to the death. Walkers who slow below 4mph or infringe other rules will be 'ticketed', a euphemism for a more terminal penalty. TV cameras relay the entertainment, and the eventual winner will choose whatever prize he wants.
 
Although an undoubtedly good effort from a young author, it suffers from a limited storyline resulting in endless repetition. Whether intentionally or not, the novel's biggest success lies in its foretelling of the age of reality TV and the strange relationship between contestant and viewer. Spectators lining the route of The Long Walk would today be watching Big Brother.
 
The reader observes interaction between the walkers, their division into groups or loners, and their ability to endure suffering of both body and mind. It's interesting, but not fascinating. When I first read this, thirty years ago, I thought it an allegory for the walk of life but it's really less pretentious than that.

03 April 2014

The Gods of Guilt, Michael Connelly


I do enjoy courtroom drama, particularly if it is as accurately observed as the Mickey Haller series by Michael Connelly. Of course to detect accuracy you first have to be familiar with the US judicial system. It is based on the British adversarial method but without the wigs, gowns and general pomp. Procedures are the same, examination, cross, redirect, re-examination, objections etc. Penalties can be a tad harsher though!

Connelly's ease at describing the subtle maneuvering within court scenes brings authenticity. He knows how many looks, facial expressions, nudges and even secret text messages don't catch the judge's attention. Despite what TV would have us believe, witnesses don't make uninterrupted speeches, lawyers can't bring unexpected witnesses or suddenly produced undisclosed evidence. It's his adherence to this realism yet ability to spring surprises which lifts Connelly's dramas well above the ordinary procedural.

The titular Gods of Guilt are the jury and here, while sitting on a murder case, they have to learn how it is connected to an earlier wrongful conviction. Defence Lawyer Haller expertly dismantles and connects both cases while simultaneously repairing his damaged home life, chasing a new girlfriend and trying to recover from a failed run for District Attorney. To be frank, the plot is somewhat weaker than previous outings and if not for the distractions, would have barely carried the book.
 
I love how Peter Giles reads the audiobook. His Mickey Haller is sincere, earnest, hardworking and utterly dependable. I might be in a minority but I disliked McConaughey in the title role of the Lincoln Lawyer. Too self opinionated, too brazen. I wanted to see the humility with which Connelly endows his character. So, I was delighted to hear 'my' Mickey Haller again even if this case wasn't his toughest.

23 March 2014

Dirty Pretty Things, Soton Uni 5 May 2006

Southampton University Students Union gets some pretty good rock bands in the grand scheme of things. Last night I experienced the new phenomenon that is Dirty Pretty Things and I mean lived it, up close and personal. Before the gig a restless crowd of about 300 was jostling and maneuvering for best views of the tiny stage but when the band came on the sudden surge of movement left everyone yards from their carefully elbowed spot…
 
... this is little short of a riot. Dozens swell back and forth carrying unwitting passengers whose feet are off the ground. My mate Steve chooses to edge backwards, I let myself be carried forward on the tidal wave. Within a couple of minutes I am pressed to the stage front with the weight of hot sweaty students pressing hard all around. The music is loud and raucous. Punk rock that ex-Libertine Pete Doherty can only dream of now, while his former band mate Carl Barat swaggers and strides the stage with boyish good looks and black leather charm, singing chidingly, “Bang bang, you're dead, always so easily led.”
 
This is frightening and exhilarating. Youngsters all around are driven to a frenzy of excitement and this ageing rocker is squeezed in with them. Several crowd surfers pass over my head kicking me in the neck and back. Twice I am swamped to the floor by the tide of humanity. Once a girl lands on top of me, her plump white folds pounding the breath out of my lungs. We find our feet but the long laces of my trainers are hopelessly undone. Another surge and I am practically lifted off my feet. The heat is like a powerful furnace. All around people are wilting under the pressure. Pushing and shoving, hanging on to friends for grim death. My tee shirt is stuck to me like a wet rag. I go down again this time with a group of about ten. Hands and arms reach from the stifling blackness and help us upright then the crowds press in again hot and hard.
 
The material is all untried apart from the current single but is so reminiscent of the late lamented Libertines that it is immediately accessible. The handful of original Libertines tracks bring deafening roars and waves of further frenzy from the crowd.

By the time the final number comes I am completely overheating, dehydrated and close to fainting. I have been swept from one side of the stage to the other, been at the front then pushed backwards. The body heat is now unbearable and my eyes sting from my biting, salty sweat. Just as I am about to be overwhelmed a passage opens to my left and I stumble blindly into a brief gap. I lean against the side wall and put my head in my hands. Slowly I regain my breath as sweat streams down my face and neck. My ribs hurt like hell and I know they are bruised, if not cracked.

The band returns for an encore but I am beaten. I continue my slow recovery stage left and I am thinking when people ask in years to come, “Where were you when Dirty Pretty Things played their debut tour?” I’ll say, “I was there mate, soaked and filthy and stinking.” Maybe they will just say, “Dirty who…?"

The cold night air brings sweet relief and I meet Steve outside. “You were at the front?” he quizzes, “that’s bloody rock and roll!”

When you are too old to feel the noise like this you really are too old for life. Oh and the music? Yes, punk rock with style and attitude.

13 March 2014

family history and the aerial detective

When you run out of land-based leads... reach for the sky!

Peckham, South London, was home to the single largest contingent of my Victorian ancestors. One hundred and fifty years ago Peckham was a rural village, nestling south of the River Thames, a two hour horse and cart ride from the teeming metropolis of London. It's streets were separated by open fields where market gardeners grew melons, soft fruit and a range of vegetables.

In the mid 1800s a new arm of the Grand Surrey Canal was dug, bringing industry and growth. New housing mushroomed speculatively along the canal bank. I know from the 1881 census that my great, great grandfather Henry lived by the canal with his blended family: his second wife, a new son, two of her children, and just one of his own six. He was a shoemaker by trade.

The rapid pace of development in south London soon saw most open spaces paved over as the capital spilled ever outwards. Swamped by the inexorable tide of Industry and labourers, Henry moved his family north of the river to Holborn and into a newly built complex called Palmerston Buildings, three six-storey blocks housing 72 dwellings.

Behind him, Peckham's once elegant terraces fell gradually into disrepair. By the early twentieth century they were past their prime, blackened by soot, damp from the fog and the canal, and home to the lower classes. This has made me keen to see a photograph of his house, 3 Maria Terrace, Canal Bank, Peckham. In this 1895 map I have ringed it in blue. The mauve ring marks St George's Terrace, a landmark I would soon find useful.



Despite surviving well into the twentieth century and some even to this day, Peckham's elderly housing stock did not attract the attention of late nineteenth century photographers, so I have been unable to find roadside images of Maria Terrace. Victorian Philanthropists toured the area and their reports make grim reading, so I can imagine how the area must have looked but that's not the same as actually seeing.

On a whim I searched the site Britain From Above, a large online archive of high resolution aerial photographs taken in the 1930s. There are half a dozen plates covering the suburb Peckham from various angles, at a height of perhaps a thousand feet. Having studied ancient and modern maps of the area for two decades, I am very familiar with the road layout. In a view looking eastward, I soon spotted the right-angle canal-turn where the Grand Surrey Canal feeds into its Peckham branch. Following an inferred gap between rows of buildings I reached a crossing which carried horse-drawn traffic over the canal and which I knew was right beside Maria Terrace.

Detail in the image was extremely distant and the houses mere dots but I was sure of the neighbourhood. For pre WW2 the resolution in these images is astonishing and I was able to zoom right in and positively identify a short terrace of 13 dwellings that had to be Maria Terrace (blue arrow). This is the tiny corner at full zoom.


 
In the left middle distance is St George's Terrace (mauve arrow) which stands nearer to us on the East bank and a little back from the canal. That there is a canal and parcels of land between the two terraces indicates the considerable distance from which this photograph was shot and the foreshortening of perspective. Note the five windows and one door to each house in the row. Now look at the same St George's Terrace in 2012 from Google Street View.


 
The door and window openings are unmistakeable; this, considered with numerous street maps I have from the mid 1800s, is more proof that the distant row in the background of the aerial photo is Maria Terrace. Knowing that Henry rented no. 3 (for seven shillings a week [35p]), I can now point to an image of his house, admittedly rather a small image, but probably the only one in existence! In the mid 1980s when I first started researching my ancestors, I found the following census page which lists Henry and his family, including five year old Ambrose, Henry's only child by his second marriage, and from whom a veritable tribe of modern day Bartons are descended.
 

08 March 2014

the pawnbroker's balls

... three golden ones, hanging above a shop, was always the traditional indication that pawnbrokers were carrying on business inside. Fast forward to the 21st century and places like Cash Converters rely more on neon signs.

In the mid and late Victorian era a branch of my ancestors, in-laws of my maternal great grandfather, were pawnbrokers in Whitechapel, Westminster and Marylebone, central London. In 1861 a certain Robert Chilvers was plying his trade on a stretch of Commercial Road, Whitechapel known as King's Place.

When identifying a distant ancestor in early census returns I always set myself the task of locating their house (often doubling as their place of work too); a task made harder in big cities with road name changes, renumbering, demolition and redevelopment. Rural areas bring their own problems: little or no numbering, that being unnecessary at a time when villages were small and if you needed someone, you knew where they lived.

King's Place was the historic local name for a terrace of shop-fronted dwellings. Nowadays the same area is all known as Commercial Road and the numbering runs above four hundred. How to trace 15 King's Place? The 1861 census provided a clue. The King's Arms public house appeared to be at the start of the row. Googling the pub revealed that modern Town Planners have luckily preserved that Victorian building although it is now the offices of a foreign bank.

Now we're homing in. Using Google Street View I counted fifteen doors along Commercial Road; not so easy when premises have merged and door and window openings have been moved. 15 King's Place appeared to be an Asian run cheap clothing shop. No signs or placards on it, or on adjacent buildings proclaimed its history. Or did they..?
 


High on the wall was an ornate but seemingly redundant bracket. I edged into the opening of a side road and viewed the bracket sideways on and zoomed right in, just as all good sleuths should.


 
I knew what I was looking at, the bracket from which the pawnbroker's balls had once dangled! Sharp eyes will pick out two of the three small hooks, the third is end-on at the bottom. The balls are long gone but the bracket remains and speaks across a century and a half. I can now attach a screen capture saved as a jpeg to the data in my files and feel my ancestors are a little closer.

I have also had a piece of incredible success using Britain From the Air, a web site hosting thousands of high resolution aerial photographs, taken in the 1930s mostly of urban and industrial areas. More on that next time!

19 February 2014

Reading and Writing

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson 5/5

An astounding work of great intricacy; a non-linear exploration of what might have been; an authentic account of London in The Blitz, brutal yet poignant; an exquisite portrayal of a middle-class British family beginning in Georgian times.

Atkinson poses a theoretical question: what might happen if we had the chance to live our lives again? Could we alter the outcome of events both minor and monumental? But this is not time travel; nor is it reincarnation. Protagonist Ursula Todd begins life on a snowy night in 1910, an event she will revisit numerous times. Sometimes she reaches childhood, other times well into adulthood but whenever her life ends it recommences, right back at the beginning.
 
There are numerous episodes of deja vu. Some events repeat identically, others are altered by fate or by choice. This is however not merely about how a single little girl's life might unfold. The Butterfly Effect is in full force. In addition to assembling a complex and appealing puzzle, Atkinson has crafted a magnificent tribute to a bygone era. Her descriptions of London and Berlin, before, during and after both Wars are so authentic she might actually have lived through these periods herself.
 
With effortless style she recreates the culture, feel and ambiance of long forgotten times. Life After Life is the kind of novel that lingers in your mind long after you turn the final page, or in my case listen to the dulcet, and very English tones, of Fenella Woolgar on the audiobook. A hugely satisfying experience and one I won't spoil by revealing further details.


Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane  4/5

Nothing is ever quite what it seems in this nightmarish tale of murder, madness and trickery, set entirely on a fictional Island where the criminally insane are kept out of harm's way. Ostensibly, Teddy Daniels is a US Marshall, arriving to investigate the apparent disappearance of an inmate.
 
From that point the plot twists and thickens and both reader and Daniels have difficulty separating reality from fantasy. What seemed simple becomes complex. There are codes for the Marshall to decipher and anagrams for the reader to ponder. The facility is part hospital/part prison and Daniels is convinced the Management are covering up a program of unauthorised experiments on the patients. Lehane does a fantastic job of slowly lifting the lid on a tortured mind.
 
Even as the final crescendo is approached we can't entirely distinguish the good guys from the bad. Not until the closing chapter and in a chilling epilogue does the author reveal the full horrifying story.

 
Writing
 
Much of my reading now is in the form of audiobooks. Days are so full with shuttling the children around and running errands that I spend any spare daylight following my current favourite hobbies: genealogy and running. Reading/listening is strictly a night time affair.
 
Instead of creative writing, I have been writing about my family history, researching the subtle details where possible and putting them into my own words. Although you can never run out of ancestors to reasearch, I have reconstructed sufficient families now (about 800 marriages and 3,000 individuals) to know my inlaws from my outlaws! The names, dates, occupations and addresses are important but hanging flesh on those old bones is what brings the past to life.
 
Run, write, read, listen. Breathe... and repeat!

16 February 2014

The Laughing Policeman, Charles Penrose Cawse (1873-1952)

Growing up in England in the mid half of the last century it was impossible to avoid the infectious novelty song, The Laughing Policeman. Charles Penrose (his stage name) first released this in 1922, after shamelessly poaching both the melody and the laughter from a much earlier effort by American George Johnson.


Clearly they didn't get out much in those days! Penrose went on to record a multitude of broadly similar laughing songs, singing and chortling his way around the Music Hall venues of Britain until his demise. Are the songs funny? Well, a little lame really, but they are sweetly evocative of those gentler times.

On an expeditionary trawl through my thousands of pages of UK Census returns I alighted on the entries for a family of Oldings headed by widow, Elizabeth Louiza. You'll see how deeply I am diving in my gene pool when I explain that Louiza was the wife of my First Cousin, four times removed - that is to say, her husband's Grandfather was my Great (x5) Grandfather on my paternal side.

Okay! I hear you. Enough of this genealogical nonsense. Well, as I browsed a jpeg of the very page on which distant Louiza had written her household details in 1911, I was struck by the wide range of occupations among her adult children and the five boarders lodging with her. I believe Louiza must have handed the form to her boarders and asked them to pen their own details because her neat hand gives way to a series of scrawling, thick-nibbed inscriptions. Among the odd skills my research has honed is decyphering old handwriting. The boarders are:
 
Eric Lenars            23 single     Music Hall Artiste
Charles Pen Caws 35 married   Comedian
Hettie Pen Caws    32 married  Comedienne
Arthur Ewart          24 single     Music Hall Artiste
Bottom of the list is a son of two of the boarders, Charles Alexander Penrose Cawse age 5y 5m.

You don't come across fancy occupations like this too often. Maybe they were famous? So I Googled the married couple and, bingo! Despite the theatrical licence with his spelling, Charles is definitely the rascal who would eventually entertain the masses with his Laughing Policeman. 'Hettie' is his first wife Harriett Lewcock. (Modern comediennes would doubtless consider hers a name to conjure with!) Neither Ewart nor Lenars seem to have left traces but the Penrose star shone brightly for several decades. All thanks to some slightly hilarious giggling and chuckling.
 
I'm assuming the troupe of entertainers were lodging in Peterborough during a tour of shows. For a while, at least, evenings at 12 Cromwell Road must have been a riot, considering the heady mix of residents, Commercial Traveller (Rep for a stationery company on closer inspection), Pianoforte Teacher, Railway Labourer, Tailor, two Music Hall Artistes, a Comedian and a Comedienne. Or did Louiza sigh with relief and bolt the door firmly when they left, trailing jocularity and mirth in their wake?

02 February 2014

Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton

Another in my sequence of reading matter where the book pales in comparison with the film adaptation. Jurassic Park the book reads at times like a scientific manual, at times like an essay, but rarely like a full-throttle adventure story. It would take visionary Stephen Spielberg to achieve that. But I'm getting ahead...
 
The book's premise is marvellous, extracting dinosaur DNA from the stomach contents of flies preserved in prehistoric amber; the tropical island setting is mysterious; and the attempt to explore the moralities of cloning is admirable, but taken as a whole the novel is unconvincing and its execution, disappointing.
 
Crichton approached the work from a scientific standpoint but rather than allow a flow of knowledge from author to reader through character dialogue and through demonstration, Crichton inserts heavy chunks of exposition which would sound at home in a crusty textbook. When he does use dialogue, it's quite unnatural; nobody spouts numerous paragraphs of science without a single response from his listener.
 
I wanted to feel the shock, excitement and terror of the outsiders invited to the island, then trapped when the dinosaurs ran amok, but they scratched their chins and stood around observing the animals as if they were exhibits in an average zoo. The visitors' reactions were calm and studious. Perhaps that's how an aloof scientist might respond but not a paleontologist or a botanist or even a mathematician, surely? Incidentally, nobody mentioned that the dinosaurs featured date mostly from the Cretaceous period. I suppose 'Cretaceous Park' doesn't quite have the same ring!
 
A further blow to credibility came when the Park's owner brought his young grand children to stay. I doubt Crichton had spent a lot of time with children to judge by their antics; the eight year-old girl has the voice and vocabulary of a four year-old, really; the eleven year-old boy sounds like a university student. What do they say, "never work with children and animals?"
 
At very unlikely moments, sometimes under threat of imminent peril, instead of running for their lives, characters ponder the ethics of cloning, and lengthy, thinly disguised essays trip from their lips. Stephen Spielberg cut through the mire and brought a concise and exciting story to the big screen using only a fraction of the novel. Spielberg wisely kept scientific details to a jokey, theme-park-exhibit minimum, and relegated ethical issues to a minor role. After all, people want to experience Tyrannosaurus Rex, not debate him.
 
Crichton's follow-up, The Lost World, together with material excised from the original novel, would provide the basis for two less successful sequels. I hear a fourth film, Jurassic World, is in the works for 2015. Crichton is no longer with us but his original idea lives on.

22 January 2014

Jaws, Peter Benchley 1974

I first read Benchley's book immediately after watching the Spielberg blockbuster at a cinema in 1974 (twice in the same week). Forty years later I have just listened to the 2009 BBC America audio book narrated by Erik Steele, and it still feels strong. I understand that the author had a good deal of advice on changing the mood of the novel so it is unlikely there was a eureka moment as he penned the words 'the end'. However when film producers read the final draft they bought the movie rights before the book had even been published.
 
In Amity Benchley nicely creates the small town feel of a beach resort which relies on summer visitors for its existence. Police Chief Martin Brody is soon in disagreement with Mayor Larry Vaughan over the appropriate action to take after a series of fatal shark attacks on bathers. Brody wants to close the beaches on safety grounds but knows Amity will suffer if summer tourist dollars don't arrive. This dilemma becomes as important an issue as the shark attacks themselves and is the subject of much debate. Benchley goes into detail over the Mayor's financial reasons for keeping the beaches open, hinting at blackmail by powerful property investors.
 
Oceanographic scientist Matt Hooper arrives on scene to advise and identifies the predator as a Great White. Over dinner with the Brodys he falls for the charms of Ellen Brody and a romantic sub plot plays out. They have a liaison at a motel and this sets up suspicion and friction between Brody and Hooper. At last the town decides to hire game fisherman Quint to hunt the shark.
 
The final quarter of the novel is set aboard The Orca with Brody and Hooper acting as unlikely deckhands for the colourful and testy Quint. The shark is a formidable adversary, taking on human attributes of persistence and revenge and appearing to outwit its hunters. After a series of titanic struggles the shark is killed, though not without loss of human life.
 
The film is significantly more successful because it strips out sub plots and shadowy financial motives and reduces the cast to bare essentials. The characters are more likeable, and relationships are realistically portrayed. Casting was of course sublime with Scheider, Shaw and Dreyfuss outstanding in their roles. Putting the lame animatronics aside, it is hard to imagine any twenty-first century re-make coming even close. Jaws the movie is a perfect example of how a more complex story can be distilled into ninety minutes of potent drama.
 
I can't disguise my love of the film, and if pressed will recite large passages of dialogue verbatim. Nonetheless Jaws the novel is an exciting read with enough subtext and motives to stand tall.

16 January 2014

Salem's Lot, Stephen King

Coming from a self-confessed King fan this might be a shock... I re-read Salem's Lot after a break of almost forty years and found a 'Lot' I didn't like any more. To be fair, this was only King's second novel and there are indeed strong hints of the world-conquering style to come. But... there are many faults.

Plot is forsaken in favour of a simple linear narrative; not disastrous but a more tangential approach could have been engaging. The characters are dull as ditch water, with the exception of young Mark Petrie, a trailblazer for many of King's future teenage heroes. Protagonist Ben Mears, author and Van Helsing wannabe, probably has too much of the author in him, and I couldn't believe in his stake-through-the-heart abilities.

King does a great job of creating his trademark small town feel but he would go on to do even better. Really, there are just too many small town people to keep track of. Dialogue is rudimentary and there were times when I said aloud, "Ridiculous. No one talks like that!"

I'm being very critical here but don't forget King himself would later write a whole book on the craft of writing, in the form of an autobiographical account. I grimaced at the many repetitions of a word within the same sentence. One example: you just cannot get away with saying a road is deserted and that a parked car is deserted in the same sentence. I know this sort of nonsense will be eradicated in later works but it sure spoils this ride. Most of the novel is straight exposition but these days we have been taught to prefer being shown rather than told, hence the experience is jarring.

I wonder how good King's editors were. I read several episodes that just didn't make sense. Here's one: makeshift spikes were constructed by plunging kitchen knives through squares of plywood then breaking off the handles. Try breaking off a knife handle! Here's another: a front door of an inhabited house was secured by fastening a padlock to the OUTSIDE. Maybe on a shed, but a house? Lastly (and this will appear throughout his entire career) King stubbornly calls stair treads 'risers.' Steve, you can't walk on the risers as they stand vertically. I just needed to say that.

The novel is very much of its time and only the relentlessly growing pace leaves it readable by today's standards. My own experience was enhanced significantly by the utterly marvelous performance of Ron McLarty who narrates the audio book. Now, don't get me started on the 1979 TV mini-series. The book's reputation is already in tatters! For balance, I did re-watch my DVDs of the adaptation. The strident 'scary music' is reminiscent of fifties Hammer horror films and the whole cliche-ridden thing is drawn out like a length of floppy elastic.

13 January 2014

Family History in the techonolgical era.

 I have over 2,500 names in my genealogical database, and most of those souls are long dead. For over twenty years I have steadily pushed my ancestral knowledge further back in time until I have run out of (close) lines to research. Genealogical research fits nicely with my love of puzzle solving, detection and meticulous record keeping.

Illiterate ancestors would have names written down for them by the likes of Registrars and Census Enumerators resulting in some hilarious phonetic monstrosities! Digitisation has brought an additional layer of inaccuracy. Handwriting might be hard to decipher so names get wrongly transcribed. I have become adept at guessing both alternate and phonetic spellings for names and have broken many deadlocked lines of research with a little creative imagination. Olding, Olden, Aulden, Auldring, Holden, Golden... see what I mean!

Out of curiosity I recently developed some strategies to work forward in time and possibly winkle out living people. Starting with my great grandparents (who died long before I was born) I sought out marriages of their many brothers and sisters. I used likely first marriage ages of between 18 and 30 and in most cases found obvious candidates in the British online records. Bear in mind only certificates of birth, marriage and death provide full details, but there is still surprisingly useful detail in the searchable indexes and lines can be followed forwards using certain techniques.

Take an ancestor with an unusual name, Eric Rine born 1902; there is only one indexed marriage in that name in all of Civil Registration (1837 to 2013). It must be his marriage in 1924 so his bride is Moir Griffiths. Her rare given name will be useful later. Next I search for births with the surname Rine but restricted to those where the mother's maiden name was Griffiths; there are four, registered either in the same district as the marriage or an adjacent one. I now have four more potential marriages look for. Using the same system I identify four marriages and fifteen children born of those marriages. After several hours of generational research into umpteen marriages and their issue I brought the descendants of Eric Rine forward to a raft of births in the latter twentieth century.

The proliferation of divorce and multiple re-marriage gains pace from the 1950s onward so when I fail to locate the birth entry for a wife I have to be mindful she may well be a divorcee. I then search for a previous marriage using her surname for a potential husband and her own given name for the spouse. Any 'Pearsall' marrying any 'Gwendoline' in a thirty year time frame will likely produce only one result, and that will give the spouse's maiden name. Now I can search for her birth entry. Occasionally I may have an even earlier previous marriage to negotiate first!

I'll also look for her death in her married name, any time after the birth of her last born child up to around age ninety. the death indexes quote not just the place but the age of the deceased, and after 1960-ish, their full date of birth. That information helps me pin down her correct birth entry, especially if her maiden name is common (although not ubiquitous), say Griffiths rather than Jones.

Going back to my earlier example of 'Moir Griffiths.' At first I couldn't know which of the four potential births in the indexes was hers - four with exactly the same name, two in one county, two in the neighbouring one. However, knowing she died as Moir Rine and finding a solitary entry in the indexes, the quoted age of that deceased pointed to the only correct birth candidate for this woman.

The site I subscribe to, FindMyPast, has digitised indexes not only of births, marriages and deaths, eight decades of Victorian censuses but a host of other records, including Electoral Rolls from 2002-2013. These you can search by name and place, either town or county, to find street addresses for registered voters. Then it's a couple of laptop clicks and I'm looking at the house on Google Street View; an interesting trail of detection that led from a distant Victorian relative to the lives and homes of modern day third or fourth cousins.

Street View has its shortcomings but an address search usually gets you to within striking distance. To find a particular house number I zoom in and look around the door, front wall or gate. If the number is too blurry I zip along the road looking at others to establish which way the numbers ascend then I work back to my goal address. Odd numbers on one side of the road, evens on the other of course. Other clues are there if you persist. Watch out for wheelie bins with twelve inch white numerals daubed on the sides! Bingo, nineteen times out of twenty I find the right house. Now I can save a screen grab as a jpeg and link the image to the address record in my database. I have several thousand images of people, gravestones and houses!

Next I do a name search in Facebook (both married and maiden names of course!) and narrow the results to a town. When public, I peruse the friends lists of likely candidates' profiles in search of confirmatory links to brothers, sisters, parents and even cousins. It's surprising in this security conscious age how many profiles are public. Once I've established the individual is correct I trawl their photos for recent images and save a copy so I can display a thumbnail head and shoulders on my gigantic family trees.

Well this is a different slant on the family history quest and one which I couldn't have dreamed of back in the nineteen eighties. I can search British digital indexes from Charlottetown on my laptop and bring up probable matches over a half century span in mere seconds. A feat which would have taken days of scouring through handwritten ledgers. I can view streets, houses and faces, all from a great distance. It's even possible to submit a DNA swab and have my ancestry analysed. I could learn from which gene pool I come and I could potentially hook up with international fifteenth cousins.

It's cheap these days at $99, but the hidden price is that your result set includes medical traits and susceptibilities. Information which not everyone is ready for yet.

10 January 2014

Toy Story

"Reach for the Sky!"
"To Infinity, and beyond!"
 
Are these phrases ingrained in your psyche? They are in mine because Toy Story has gripped the imagination of my girls. Their recently preferred viewing schedule has involved watching all three films in order on rotation, resulting in a Buzz 'n Woody fest of mammoth proportions. Just to be clear, video is mostly reserved for after-bath, before-bed scheduling. I do like to see them play with real toys too. If you haven't seen the films then you must have been on a different planet, maybe stationed in the Gamma Quadrant, Sector Four!
 
If you have seen them then you'll know they are a powerful example of what modern computer graphics can achieve; virtual reality is not an over-statement. Skin tones, reflections, shadows, graduated tinting, textures, facial expressions, body movement and landscapes make old cartoons look like, well, old cartoons.
 
But the Toy Story trilogy is not just about visual realism, it's an homage to all children's toys from the late twentieth century, their quirks, foibles and endearing qualities, to children and to growing up. The pixel-people are endowed with proper personalities, and even nicknames, so you care about them. But wait, the films are even more. There are spectacular voiceovers from Tom Hanks and co, including the above catchphrases and dozens more; makers Pixar developed storylines that really matter, involving the eternal struggle between good and evil, capture and escape, fear and fun, love and loathing all culminating in the coming of age of the toys' owner, Andy. There are credible relationships, camaraderie and strong emotions.
 
It's a fascinating and immersive experience with strong appeal from the cradle to the grave. Watching the films on Blu-Ray highlights the astonishing work of the graphic artists. High definition is a phrase which barely does it justice. But even the very best, photographic quality imagery is only half the story though, it demands a script of the highest standard, and here Toy Story delivers consistently across all three films. The humour is subtle and succeeds on more than one level. Kids can laugh at the stunts and scrapes, while peppered throughout are references to the full range of popular culture, which have this old granddad chortling.
 
I love watching these films and I love watching my girls watch them.

"There's a snake in my boot!"

02 January 2014

Winter in Charlottetown

A touch chilly this morning for the first day back at school. Maisie didn't mind the cold and I didn't mind the official one hour delayed start. Kathleen couldn't wait to get back from the school run to crack on with Toy Story 3!

CBC Radio has been offering helpful wintry advice: like, keep your cat indoors. But since when did dogs take 'bathroom breaks,' long or short? And you know you're on a small island when they give out on the news that one especially frozen school bus wouldn't start this morning so those kids can expect an additional forty-five minute delay!

Following hot on dad's heels, Maisie has finished her own five hundred piece puzzle. These days she starts unprompted with the edge pieces, and has now learned to sort the remainder, in this case into sky, trees, hills and main subject. Her tenacity and more than a little paternal assistance won the day.
Returning to the seasonal theme, there have been ominous creaking noises from the roof as the thousands of pounds of compacted snow and ice up there slowly succumb to gravity. You can't help but duck and hurry under the overhang!