Phone-friendly website

I noticed a few weeks ago that my website was doing weird things on my mobile phone, with text and graphics re-sizing seemingly at random, which made it quite hard to read.

After a crash course (self taught) in HTML5 and CSS, I’m proud to say that I’ve coded a new version of my site from scratch.  And although it isn’t yet perfect, at least the text is all the same size now, which is a good start!

At the same time I’ve gone through and fixed a few broken links, checked which stories/books are still available, added some more information to my biography, and included a new short story, Footprints, in the ‘Tasters’ section, which is available to read free on the site.  Oh – and I’ve chucked in some pretty new graphics and a general new look into the bargain.

The new improved (I hope!) version is here and I hope you like it.  In the meantime, I’m off to lie down in a darkened room before all that coding kills me…

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Fearful Symmetry

tigerExcellent news today – I’ve had my first short story in ages published over at the Library of Rejected Beauty.

The Library does what it says in that wonderful title – collects stories and other assorted creative content that have been rejected elsewhere, often multiple times, but which the creator still considers to have some worth or beauty.

In my case that was ‘Fearful Symmetry’, a short story I wrote for a contest years ago, and have had no luck placing anywhere, perhaps because it’s told in second person point of view which can be unpopular.  Basically, it tells the story of a dark and dangerous forest during a thunderstorm, but with a unique twist at the end.  And the quote about tigers is something my own Mum used to say to me when I was a small child, which gives it a personal touch as well.

I’ve always loved the hot, steamy and vaguely threatening atmosphere I managed to conjure up in the story, and I’m delighted to say that the Library of Rejected Beauty liked it too.  You can read it over at their website, free, today by following this link.  I hope you enjoy it.  At the very least, you may never feel the same way about curtains again!

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Birmingham Blues

crayLast weekend we dashed down to Birmingham for a very last-minute treat – a concert by the Robert Cray Band.

I’ve been a fan of Cray for years, ever since I heard his famous track ‘Right Next Door’ on a compilation Blues album.  I shouldn’t like it really since it’s borderline soul which I’m less keen on, but the catchy tune and poignant lyrics have stayed with me and it’s still one of my favourites.  So I was delighted when he turned up on Later With Jools Holland the other week, and even more delighted when Dave suddenly said, “He’s touring.  He’s coming to Birmingham!”

Cue a mad scramble for tickets, not helped by falling foul of Viagogo (overpriced and under-ethical, but more on that later).  But two days before the event, the tickets arrived and off we went.  And the concert was worth every penny.  The first half hour was filled with a back-up act, Jeb Loy Nichols, who sang southern US blues/folk, accompanied only by his own guitar, and quipped about his recent move to Wales.  He was surprisingly good and an excellent choice, but paled by comparison when the lights darkened again and Cray and his band came on.

Like so many legends, the difference was striking and immediate.  The sheer professionalism, the passion, shone through.  His guitar playing is every bit as skilled in real life as it is on his recordings (so no tweaking by the production team) and his voice is as smooth as molten molasses, if you’ll pardon the cliché.  What I wasn’t expecting, but loved, was the sense of mischief as he pretended to grumble at his roadie, told the audience “We not so bad after all” and teased his band by keeping them in suspense at the end of some of the tracks.

We got an hour and a half of great music and entertainment.  Not much of a light-show, perhaps, but then he really didn’t need any gimmicks or extras – the power of his music alone carried the event.  I loved every minute and would happily go and see him again.  Just not using Viagogo for the tickets.

A word of warning – Viagogo aren’t an official seller, they purely act as brokers for people trying to re-sell unwanted tickets for a range of music and sporting events.  And they’re not particularly honest.  They add vast amounts to the face value of the tickets in the shape of tax, handling fees and postage (even for e-tickets!), which can bump the cost up by three or even four times.  They don’t make this clear during the purchasing process; the price you see when you click ‘confirm’ is nowhere near the price you end up paying.  And there is no way, at all, of cancelling the transaction or getting a refund.  All you can do is sell the tickets back to them, presumably at considerable loss to yourself.  In the end, we were ‘lucky’.  The tickets arrived in time (some don’t).  They were legit (some aren’t).  And we only paid three times face value (some cost even more).

But I’d never, ever use the company again, and strongly recommend that nobody else does either.  Over two hundred quid for a concert that should have cost sixty?  Now that really is the Blues.

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Arts & Crafts

Bank holiday weekends in the Lakes can be a tad hectic, especially when the weather is as nice as it was last weekend.  So we tend to try to get ‘off the beaten track’ and steer clear of the main tourist hot-spots.  Luckily, there are still plenty of places to choose from.

P1020630One we keep for just these occasions is Blackwell, an amazing Arts & Crafts house just a couple of miles south of Bowness.  Built as a holiday home for the Manchester brewing family the Holts in 1901, it was designed by the well-known architect M H Baillie Scott in a [ ] Arts & Crafts style where everything from the structure to the interior décor and furnishings adds to the overall design.  The result is stunning.

The house sits on a terrace overlooking Lake Windermere, but unusually the main rooms face south, away from the best views, in order to catch the sun.  There are odd glimpses of the fells from some of the windows, making sudden dramatic ‘statements’ as you move around the house.  And if you like Arts & Crafts, then the interiors are to die for.  The main living room resembles a medieval great hall complete with vast inglenook fireplace and minstrels’ gallery, while the smaller drawing or sitting room is a confection of delicate white pillars and foliage, more like some of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s iconic designs.

And although most if not all the original furniture has vanished, the new owners Lakeland Arts have done an amazing job of filling the house with appropriate and complementary pieces by the likes of Knox, Voysey and Benson, as well as furniture designed by Baillie Scott himself, and other pieces by local Arts & Crafts designer Arthur Simpson of Kendal.  It all fits remarkably well and gives a good indication of how the house would have looked in its heyday, while still giving plenty of free space for visitors to wander about.

My own favourite bits are the fireplaces in the main rooms, all built as inglenooks with stained glass windows overlooking the garden, and beautiful tiles.  The garden, although comparatively small, is pretty, and then there are those amazing views.  It must have been a stunning place to live (even for part of the year) and it’s still a lovely place for a mooch.

Here’s a selection of photos I took on Saturday including the windows in the main reception hall, the impressive south-facing “back” of the house, a detail of the garden, and the spectacular view across the lake.

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Filed under Architecture, History, Local stuff

Damson Day fun

P1020621The Damson Day festival is yet another event we’ve kept missing, not helped by the fact that the last two years it’s been cancelled due to bad weather and the after-effects of the Storm Desmond flooding.

The festival is held at one of the historic farms in the Lyth (pronounced ‘lithe’) Valley just south of Bowness-on-Windermere, a lovely area famous for its damson orchards.  I can remember my parents stopping off at the farm years ago for Mum to buy ten pounds of the fruit to make jam, and unlike many other local products, this one has not only survived but is now celebrated with the annual festival.

This year, it was back, and the weather was great, and we were determined to go.  And it was lovely.  Quite a small event but packed with entertainments, stalls, goodies damson-related and not, orchard walks, and a really nice, relaxed atmosphere.

We mooched around the various tents, marquees and stalls, had a coffee, listened to a local band (Jim Beans, surprisingly good), watching a hilarious dog agility display, tried one of the walks only to be beaten back by a vicious stile, mooched some more, had some delicious locally-made snacks for lunch, and even tried our hand at the archery.  This was a first for both of us and something I’ve long wanted to try but been nervous about given my bad wrist.  However, with some assistance and tuition I managed to hit the target with one out of my three arrows and felt quite proud of myself!

Pretty much the only thing the Damson Day didn’t have was… damsons, but they come later, in the autumn.  This event is very much about celebrating their birth – the blossom, the pollination, the crop to come.  It was a revelation.  We came home in the afternoon sun-burned and armed with damson pork pies and damson beer, and determined to go again next year.

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The Conjuring 2

Conjuring_2Last night we spotted that Sky Movies were showing The Conjuring 2, based on the true events of the ‘Enfield Hauntings’ in north London in the 1970s.

In the case, an ordinary family appeared to be targeted by ghostly and/or poltergeist activity in their home, and called in help in the shape of ghost-hunter Maurice Grosse and some specialist paranormal investigators from America.  The whole thing was made into a TV series (starring Timothy Spall) a couple of years ago, so whether or not you believe the events were genuine or a massive hoax, it was interesting to compare and contrast the series with the film.  (There’s a fascinating article, by Will Storr who was researching a book on the case, on the possibilities of fakery, if you’re interested.)

For starters, where the TV series concentrated on Mr Grosse’s efforts to help the family, the movie focussed on the American couple, Ed and Lorraine Warren, who’d helped investigate the Amityville horror.  Presumably this was so that the film could be more easily marketed in the USA, with an obvious American link, and it was interesting to see the haunting through the eyes of other, different people.  However, there were times when it took the focus away from the actual events of Enfield, and may have contributed to a more formulaic, ‘horror movie’ approach.

Where the tv series took a more balanced, down-to-earth view (that the hauntings could, just possibly, have been faked), the film plunged in with a more stereotypical approach: that the paranormal elements were genuine, and that anyone who didn’t believe them was either foolish or controlled by demons.  As a horror movie, it worked well enough.  You rooted for the family who were being demonised (in more ways than one) and wanted everyone to believe their story.  However, as a portrayal of true events it was less successful, because it was so sensationalised that you assumed it was all just movie gloss and special effects.  The real-life story of real (and very frightened) people got lost in the noise, sometimes literally.

The ending of the TV series also worked better, with the revelation that Janet, the child most associated with the paranormal activity, had quite possibly been faking some of the effects.  Maurice Grosse was left with the unshakeable belief that there was something unexplainable going on, but he couldn’t prove it, and ended up having to walk away.  In other words, exactly as it would be in real life.

The movie, however, went off into full scale standard horror film hysteria about twenty minutes from the end, with characters rushing about and screaming, people insisting on going into dangerous situations without so much as a torch, and the demon attacking people willy-nilly, often in different places at the same time.  In other words, it was all very frantic and rather silly, and I found myself chuckling at the overdone, even hackneyed effects.

This is a shame, because the rest of the movie is unsettling, genuinely scary and a good re-telling of the Enfield case.  It’s perhaps just a shame that they bolted on too much of a cut-and-dried Amityville ending to what was otherwise an intriguing and insoluble mystery.

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Filed under Movies, paranormal, reviews

Shadow of the Wind

1232I realised earlier today that I’d never got round to putting a review of this wonderful book on Goodreads.  So, to put the damage right I’ve now added a review and given it five very well-deserved stars.

As I mention in the review, it did take me a while to ‘get into’ the book and I had a couple of false starts where something jarred and I got stuck.  However, the third time the author’s style or voice spoke to me; I got over the sticking point, kept going, and never looked back.

The book is quite simply stunning.  I love the whole idea of a library for forgotten books so much I think I’d want to spend all my time in there!  And the mystery of the book that’s selected, and the danger it brings for the young hero, is really compelling.

As with many of the best reads, this one is by no means quick or easy.  The whole thing clocks in at a whopping 500+ pages and the narrative style is quite slow, even ponderous.  But that and the beauty of the prose just add to the overall atmosphere.  I ended up loving it, and want to doff my virtual hat to both the author and the translator who seems to have done an excellent job transferring ‘Shadow’ to English idiom while keeping the lyricism of the original Spanish.

Oh – and if you want to read my rather more concise review on Goodreads, it’s here!

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