Friday, 31 January 2014

Getting back to walking

I've decided to wean myself back onto walking. It's nearly a year since my back went, and none of the exercises seems to be fixing it fully. I therefore intend to try putting my rucksack back on and heading out on a few trial walks. Perhaps the cause will also be the cure.

My first plan was to walk the guided busway between St Ives and Cambridge, but I have walked that many times before, and the stretch near St Ives is flooded (as it always seems to be).

I'm therefore looking for another route. Ideally it would have the following criteria:

  1. Between 10 and 15 miles;
  2. Preferable on a good surface due to the weather;
  3. Has public transport at regular intervals in case my back goes
  4. Optionally has lots of interest to see and do.
  5. Preferably within easy access of Cambridge.

I's prefer an easy (tarmac / gravel) walk as any slipping is likely to aggravate my back. So I'm thinking old railway lines, or possible canals through / between towns of cities.

Any ideas?

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Murder rates

An American blog features a good dissection of the comparative murder rates between the UK and the US.

If you were to ask the average person on the street here in the UK, they would probably say that America has a higher murder rate. The raw statistics back this view up.

However, the blog points out that it is not that simple for various reasons. For one thing, the definition of 'murder' in the US statistics is different to murder in the UK, and you end up comparing apples and pears.

The post makes good reading if you are interested in the way statistics can be devilish creatures, even when not being manipulated for political means.

And the answer? No-one knows whether, per capita, the UK or the US has more murders.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Michael Schumacher

A month after his tragic skiing accident, Michael Schumacher remains in a medically-induced coma in France. There are rumours that his doctors are lifting the coma, but it is hard to know if this is true or just another fabrication.

Whilst we all hope and pray for his recovery, it may be worth reading Gary Hartstein's blog. Until 2013 Gary was the Formula One Medical Delegate, in charge of the medical side of the sport. He therefore knows a great deal about head injuries and neuroscience. He has also contributed to an article on the BBC's website.

Gary has no more information about Schumacher's condition than the rest of us, but he has made a stab at decoding some of the messages coming out of the hospital, and his careful informed guesswork seems much better that that published in the press. In particular, he has some knowledge of possible outcomes given the time Schumacher has been kept in his coma.

He is calling for the makers of ski helmets to learn from this accident, and to change designs to try to reduce the effect of brain injuries.

In the meantime, let's hope Schumacher recovers as well as possible.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014


Below is a video of a cross-channel ferry being beached in Aliaga, Turkey, ready for breaking.

As can be seen, this is an environmentally destructive way of doing things. I hope the various protesters who stopped Able UK from breaking ships in Hartlepool are satisfied when they see such scenes.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Book review: "Rivers of London", by Ben Aaronovitch

It is unusual to come across a book that defies classification, but "Rivers of London" is such a book. At its heart is Peter Grant, a probationary constable working for the Met. He is partnered to an attractive fellow probationer, Lesley, whom he is utterly failing to have a relationship with.

When Lesley and Peter are called to the scene of a grisly murder in Covent Garden, Peter is surprised to find a ghost hanging around. Not just because he does not believe in ghosts, but also because the ghost tells him vital information about the murder.

Soon, Peter is inducted into The Folly, the Met's mysterious-crimes-and-magic division. What follows is a chase across London, featuring River Gods and Godesses, childrens' entertainment, nasty murders and rioting patrons of the Royal Opera House, all topped off with a trip into London's prehistory.

If that sounds a mess, then it is not doing the book justice, because Aaronovitch winds and merges these disparate ideas into a genuinely compelling story.

What matters in this book is the details, and the details are both imaginative and unintrusive. The police work is well researched (so much so I wonder if Aaronovitch has been in the force), and the details are described in such a way that they enhance, and do not interfere, with the flow.

In addition, the use of language is excellent, including a few laugh-out-loud moments. It is well-written, entertaining, and macabre in one package.

I would award this book four and a half out of five stars. It's sequel is sitting on my reading pile ...

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Who was the first person to walk the coast of Britain

Oh his Facebook page, Craigs walk round Britain, Craig asks if John Merrill was really the first person to walk around the coast of the UK. It's an interesting question, and first we need some definitions:

1) The 'coast of the UK' is the mainland of England, Wales and Scotland.
2) The walk has to have stuck as close to the 'sea' as was practical.
3) It would have had to have visited the vast majority of settlements on the coast.

I've given this some thought in the past, and think that John probably was the first.

Firstly, you have the problem of time and resources to do such a tramp. Any such walk takes a practical minimum of nine months. Both time and money are needed, and the amount of people with both of these in past times were few.

Secondly you have legalities such as footpaths, which formally came into being in the 20th Century. Before then, large tracts of land would have been forbidden to walkers, limiting access.

Thirdly you need maps; again, OS maps really became commonly available in the 1900s. Without maps, such a walk would have been much more difficult, and would have very much depended on local knowledge.

Fourthly, any such tour would probably have been publicised, either by the writing of a book or other means. I've never been able to find any references to such a walk.

People will have travelled around Britain, visiting towns and keeping mainly to roads - for instance Pennant's tour of Scotland in 1769, or Johnson's tours of Scotland six years later. But none would have stuck 'to the coast' as it is now, or were on foot.

If anyone knows of any potential candidates, please let me know.

Saturday, 25 January 2014


Ten years ago today, the second of two NASA rovers landed on Mars for a planned 90-day mission.

After five years, one of the rovers - Spirit - became immobilised.

Exactly ten years into its 90-day mission, the other rover, Opportunity, is still doing useful work. Although you wouldn't want to use it for your daily commute - in that ten years, it's only driven 23 miles.

For more information, see:

It is an amazing achievement. Ninety days has become ten years.

Long may it continue roving.

Friday, 24 January 2014

When grouting goes wrong

In civil engineering, it is common to use a wet type of concrete called 'grout' to stabilise holes or voids underground. For instance, grout can be used in drilled piles.

It is a good idea not to drill a pile into a building (*). Say, a tube line signalling room, before pouring the grout in.

And pictures:

That's going to cost someone a lot of money ...

(*) I have no idea if that is what happened; it is a guess. I think what happened might just be related to the Crossrail works, but who knows.

Thursday, 23 January 2014


Bill Gates has written his 2014 Annual Letter. This year it is about global poverty, and it is well worth a read.

In it, he tackles three myths about poverty:
  • Poor countries are doomed to stay poor
  • Foreign aid is a big waste
  • Saving lives leads to overpopulation

Foreign aid is a hot political potato, and it is interesting to see the world's richest man - and philanthropist - give his opinion.

Who can disagree with one of his conclusions:
If you read the news every day, it’s easy to get the impression that the world is getting worse. There is nothing inherently wrong with focusing on bad news, of course—as long as you get it in context. Melinda and I are disgusted by the fact that more than six million children died last year. But we are motivated by the fact that this number is the lowest ever recorded. We want to make sure it keeps going down.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

HS2 news

I am a cautious supporter of HS2, the proposed rail ling between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. There is an apparent capacity problem, and HS2 seems to me a reasonable method of fixing that problem.

Therefore I thought I'd produce occasional blogs about HS2 news, along with my comments on them:

1) A phase 1 legal challenge has been lost. A legal challenge to phase 1 of the HS2 project (the stretch of line between London and Birmingham) has been lost today. It has been judged that the impact on the environment was properly considered, and it is unlikely the complainants will be allowed to appeal further.

2) HS2 sent 15,000 letters to households before Christmas, incorrectly stating that their property was to be compulsory purchased. This follows a previous letter where the length of works was massively overstated. Needless to say, it is impossible to defend such mistakes.

3) The consultation for phase one was has been extended by two weeks after 877 pages were left off USB sticks containing the environmental impact assessment. Although they were not on the USB sticks, the pages were available online. This mistake makes an already tight timescale for phase one even tighter. The consultation now closes on the 10th of February. In slight defence, the documents are over 50,000 pages in length, and collating them must have been a nightmare. On the other hand, HS2 will be a complex project, and it would be hoped that they could cope with simple documentation handling.

So one story positive for the project, and two negative.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014


A few years ago I was reading some book blurbs; the text written to entice a potential reader. It can either be a short description of the book, or a note about something else by the same author, such as: "For all those who loved Chocolat ... Vianne is back"

For instance, here is a brilliant short one from James Herbert's book "Fluke"
"The story of a dog who thinks he's a man ... or a man who thinks he's a dog"
This works; it describes the central theme of the book well, and introduces a mystery that might appeal to readers.

Not all are good. One, for an American romance-slash-action thriller, had the following:
"He was fire. She was ice. Together they made steam."
It may work for some audiences, but for me this seemed an absolutely horrible piece of text. It told us nothing about the book, and as a hook it was meaningless. It's fun inventing alternatives, though:
"He was fire. She was ice. Together they made a puddle."
"He was fire. She was ice. She extinguished him."

Monday, 20 January 2014

Drake's equation redux

A quite startling five years ago (have I really been blogging that long?) I wrote a post on the Drake Equation, the formula proposed by Dr Frank Drake in 1960 to try to guess the number of intelligent species ("Intelligent Life Elsewhere") in the galaxy.

Since that post, there have been a number of developments:

  • Many more extrasolar planets have been discovered; there are now 1070 planets in 810 systems (some systems have multiple planets). Most of these planets are large, some even larger than Jupiter, but a few Earth-sized ones have been detected. When I wrote that post five years ago, it was just 339 planets. When I was a child, some scientists claimed that our own solar system might be unique - they have been proved utterly wrong.
  • A couple of dozen planetary atmospheres have been detected, although most of these belong to gas giant planets like Jupiter. This allows temperatures and atmospheric composition to be detected in some cases.
  • The first direct pictures of an extrasolar planet have been taken by the Gemini telescopes. It is of Beta Pictoris b, a gas giant several times the size of Jupiter. It orbits the young star Beta Pictoris, which is 63.4 light years from us.
  • As we discover more extrasolar planets, we are able to classify them. This has led to a list of planet types. My favourites have to be the puffy planet and Super Earth, the latter of which brings to mind a planet populated with the likes of Clark Kent and Kara Jor-El.
  • Latest estimates show that there might be 11 billion Earth-size planets in our galaxy
  • Only a small fraction of these planets may be in the so-called 'habitable zone', where life in our solar system can exist. However recent research shows that life may exist much further from the sun that we previously thought.
This progress can only continue. I find it an absolute wonder: the galaxy is turning out to be so much more interesting than I could ever have guessed as a child.

And the conclusion must be that we are not alone. The chances of life only developing on our planet in our solar system, when there are so many similar planets, must be minute.

So why are we not hearing them? Why are we not conversing with them? My views have not changed from five years ago, and that one of the following options is true:
  • We are the only intelligent lifeform in the Galaxy;
  • We are not listening for messages in the right way;
  • Other ILE is too far away from us, and their signals too weak for us to detect;
  • Other ILE has developed, perhaps several times over, but died out many years ago (disease, nuclear devastation etc).
  • They are around us as we speak, watching us and waiting for the right moment to intervene...
Let's see how things change in the next five years.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Duck House

On Saturday we went to see the matinee performance of 'The Duck House' at the Vaudeville Theatre in London.

This farce is based on the expenses scandal in 2009, with a Labour MP (Ben Miller) wanting to move over to the Conservatives just as the scandal breaks. The deal is done: all he has to do is impress a Conservative bigwig who is coming to visit. The only problem is that he's bought just about everything in his house on expenses (including the eponymous duck house). How will the bigwig react to the hanging baskets, massage chair and manure, yet alone the life-size portrait of the MP hanging on the wall?

It was very funny if you like farces; real put-brain-into-neutral-and-laugh stuff.

Having said that, it is not a classic: the farce is a little too contrived, and the second half is considerably weaker than the first, whilst the ending is fun although very predictable. Much of the comedy is also rather unoriginal. Neither is it deep: the real issues behind the expenses scandal, which captured saint and villain alike, were mostly glossed over.

Ben Miller steals the show with some excellent comic timing, whilst Debbie Chazen was hilarious as the MP's UKIP-supporting, illegal immigrant, Russian cleaner. Indeed, the cast were all rather good, and any problems came from the material rather than the acting.

I'd recommend it, but don't expect depth or a comedy classic.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Human Genome Mapping

For the last three decades or so, it has been possible to 'map' the human genome, to untangle the code of guaninecytosine, adenine and thymine (GCAT) that comprise out genetic make up.

This has revolutionised parts of our life, including crime detection and paternity tests. It has had a much smaller effect in medicine, where there are few treatments available that use genetics. In fact, the whole area of genetics is more complex than anyone realised thirty years ago, and now other concepts such as epigenetics are coming to the fore. It has proved relatively easy to find genetic markers for certain diseases; it has proved much more difficult to produce the long-promised cures from that information.

For years, scientists strove to create the first map of the entire human genome. An international collaborative project called the Human Genome Project started work in 1990. The machines were expensive, and worked slowly, with some human interaction required. The project was scheduled to run for around 15 years to produce a typical map.

Neither was it to be one individual: the map produced was to be of a composite of people.

However the technology continued improving, and in 1998 an American scientists, Craig Venter, set up a company called Celera Genomics to sequence the entire genome of an unknown individual by 2001, a few years earlier than the public project. To pay for it, he wanted to patent important parts of the genome, meaning that any scientists wanting to use that genetic information would have to pay Celera for the honour.

To make matters worse, the public project had released lots of the information they had already sequenced, and Celera did not need to resequence those parts - they used the public information.

This got the scientific world in a tizzy. The public project had a series of meetings, and the Wellcome Trust  threw a massive amount of money at the public project, accepting to sequence a third of the map by itself, rather than the sixth it was scheduled to do. Other companies pledged to give more money to the public project: science could not allow genetics to become patented.

It became an arms race between the private company and the public effort. Thanks to this massive effort by the Wellcome Trust and others around the world, the first drafts of the HGP were completed in 2001, at roughly the same time as Celera's project.

Later, it turned out the Celera's unknown individual was Venter himself. He is, in my opinion, one of the greatest scientific villains of the last few decades.

It's worth looking at some figures.

In 1990, the project believed it would cost $3 billion and take 15 years to sequence the genome.

In 1998, Ventor believed it would cost $300 million and be done in five years.

Now, we have machines that can sequence the map of 1,800 individuals a year, at a cost of $1,000 per sample.

The march of this technology is absolutely fantastic.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Lack of walking

As some people have noticed, I have not been updating my walking website. The reason for this is simple: for almost a year, I haven't been doing any long walks.

There are several reasons for this sad state of affairs, the main one being that I have a lower back problem that kicks in around the nine-mile mark of a walk.This problem has proved hard to cure, and has made walking with a backpack quite miserable.

I'm hopeful that I'll manage to shrug it off this spring. I'll be back on the hills soon, and at home writing walks up for the website (complete, of course, with the obligatory typos).

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Book review: "Kind of Cruel", by Sophie Hannah

A locked room, four people going missing on Christmas Day, and murder are linked together in this psychological thriller by Sophie Hannah.

Amber Hewerdine has not been able to sleep since the death of her best friend. She and her husband have taken in her friend's two young daughters, who they are trying to adopt. Driven to the end of her tether by sleeplessness, she visits a hypnotherapist, who inadvertently uncovers a link with a recent murder case that has police baffled.

Now a police suspect, Amber has to discover how a vital piece of evidence became buried deep in her subconscious before the killer strikes again.

I am not ordinarily a fan of psychological thrillers. This is particularly the case for densely-written psychological thrillers - this book weighs in at nearly 500 pages. At times the prose felt a little like wading through mud - every character's thought and emotions are dissected, often in too much detail. This may appeal to some readers, but I would have preferred it if the plot moved on at a faster pace.

It is one of these stories where virtually every major character - and every adult character - has a psychological issue that drives the plot along. One person is sexually repressed; another finds it hard to forgive her sister for a past transgression. All the characters are individuals - but it would be hard for them not to be when they are written about in such depth. Sometimes a page or two pass without anything actually happening, as the text is descriptions or interior monologue.

Despite this, the linked neuroses and issues work. The key to the story  - and the main villain - was fairly easy to detect, but I was left reading to work out the why the crime was committed - as could be expected, it was a very psychological motive.

I found my credulity stretched towards the middle of the book: for instance, how could these characters afford to live their rich lifestyles? Fortunately that credulity was not stretched to breaking point, and the questions - all relevant to the plot - are neatly answered by the final page. The plot is fairly complex, but the author plays the clever trick of simplifying the complexities as you near the end.

One downside: there is a moment of drama towards the end of the book that puts some characters in peril, that is fixed by a rather startling coincidence. It isn't a major problem, but the author could easily have found a better way of saving them.

I give this book 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Lord Rennard

Today's events in Lord Rennard's case are interesting for a number of reasons: he has not been fulsomely cleared, but neither has he been found guilty. The report says that the evidence against the peer was 'broadly credible' and that the allegations were not politically motivated, and yet there was little chance that harassment charges could be proved.

For this reason, he is in limbo. It's a mess.

The report also calls on him to apologise: so far his reaction has been a statement saying he wants his old job back.

That's enough about all of that: what I'd like to mention are the most important lessons from this affair.

  1. Every organisation, however large or small, must have clear, well-defined and well-publicised procedures to deal with claims of bullying or abuse by staff members, both within and without the organisation.
  2. These procedures should be the same for all members of an organisation, from the CEO to a janitor, and be visible to all members.
  3. There should be methods of reporting abuse that are outside the normal reporting line; often bullying or abuse occurs between manager and staff member.
  4. All claims should be documented, and treated in the same manner, whether the accused is low down in the organisation, or high up.
  5. Whenever a claim is received, existing documentation should be searched to check if the accused has had previous accusations; this could show patterns of behaviour that might need to be addressed.
Let's hope the Liberal Democrats - and indeed all the parties - have now got robust procedures in place for such occurrences. 

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Another 787 problem

It has been reported that another JAL 787 has suffered a battery-related problem whilst on the ground. This follows a number of incidents since the plane was introduced.

I daresay Boeing will say that the redesigned batteries performed as desired. If they say that, they are wrong. There is a problem. It needs fixing, and this time fixing properly.

Even if it was just 'venting of a single battery cell', and things 'appear to have worked as designed', it is not good enough.

The root cause needs to be understood, and it needs fixing. If the planes need grounding - again - in the meantime, then so be it.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Everest panorama

I have never considered climbing Everest. I get worried if I have to start using my hands whilst out on a walk, so scrambling really is not my cup of tea, yet alone climbing. But I do quite admire people who are adventurous enough to risk their lives to reach the top of the world.

This two-billion pixel panorama, taken a couple of years ago, shows Everest. See if you can see the tent-strewn camp, or the climbers on the icefall.

You can click on the green boxes to get different panoramas.

Sadly, I can't help but think the tents make the place looked damned messy.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Will your novel be a bestseller?

Gizmodo has an interesting story about writing. Researchers from Stony Brook University in New York have created an algorithm that attempts to predict how well a novel will sell.

They have tested their algorithm against the text of many books over several genre, and compared their results against the books' sales.

The basic results show that high numbers of prepositions, nouns, pronouns, determiners and adjectives are all indicative of highly successful novels, whilst higher percentages of verbs, adverbs, and foreign words characterise less successful novels (ref. Table 6).

I would be intrigued to put some of my writing through this, and I can imagine that the researchers would be able to make a little money from desperate literary novelists (or publishers and agents wanting to reduce the size of their slush pile).

I generally tend to be sceptical about this sort of research, but these results seem to make sense, at least to a certain extent. However one of the most successful recent novels - Dan Brown's (yes, he) "The Lost Symbol", scored poorly. Which shows that plotting and oodles of publicity can overcome the predictive power of algorithms.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Book review: "The yard", by Alex Grecian

The Yard is set in the immediate (and literal) aftermath of the Jack the Ripper murders in 1889, in a still-formative detective service that is utterly demoralised by their failure to catch Jack.

When a detective's body is found in a steamer trunk at Euston, with the corpse's mouth and eyes stitched shut, it falls upon newly-promoted Detective Day to find the killer.

The characters are very well, if lightly drawn; the detectives all have set characters, and you can almost read the plot from those characters: you can tell the heroes and villains a long time before they are unveiled.

The book is lightly-written, but in this case that is a positive. At nearly 600 pages it is not a short book, and the plot is fairly complex, if linear. The lightness and fast pace means it is a fast read, although without massive depth.

It follows a familiar and well-trodden pattern: there is a lead detective, with a junior policeman as a foil, and a police doctor who helps them look for evidence. But the fact the story is set a a time when police procedures were in their infancy gives it a freshness.

The author is American, and sadly this shows in some of the dialogue. The names of some characters (for instance Hammersmith) may have grated with some, but I actually found they enhanced the book.

The atmospheric touches are also simple (for instance, a man sweeping up the horse dung from the streets), and I learnt nothing I did not already know about mid-Victorian London. Instead of giving you a mirror-sharp image of the times, what you get is a fuzzy, early Kodak box camera-style picture.

However I found these slight problems did not matter, as they were overwhelmed by some great characterisation and a fast-moving plot. By the end, the various plot threads were neatly delivered tied up with a ribbon. I managed to read the book in a fairly intensive day-long reading session and found myself yearning for more.

It is a flawed book, but if you look beyond them there is some real heart. It will not be to everyone's tastes, but it was to mine.

I would give this book 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 10 January 2014

We're tops (well, nearly)

We British are nearly unique in routinely talking our country down. Nationalism is seen by many as a dirty word that conjures up images of skinheads and blokes with St George's Crosses tattooed onto their ample bellies.

Perhaps this is a result of the fact we were once the world's pre-eminent superpower, and have slowly lost that position. Not a week seems to go by without someone writing with relish about the prospect of our leaving the G8 or the UNSC.

It's therefore interesting to see that, according to one study at least, we are the second strongest global power, behind the US.

These sorts of studies are almost always bogus, taking only a handful of criteria, not all of which can be accurately measured. But on the face of it, this study seems to include some interesting factors such as diplomatic influence and cultural pull, well away from the classic measures such as GDP or PPP.

Thursday, 9 January 2014


A few days ago I wrote about the recent storms, and wondered whether they are quite as bad as people make out.

It seems in the North Atlantic, they were hardly trivial:

I would not want to have been on that ship.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

London in the 1850s

Recently I've been doing a little research for fun into mid-Victorian Britain. It is the Britain immortalised by Dickens, of orphans, of the workhouse and of the lucky others: the upper classes.

I wanted to see if I could get some non-fictional accounts of life, and laboured through various sources until I came across Henry Mayhew's excellent four-book series "London Labour and the London Poor"

In these volumes, he describes in sometimes tortuous detail the lives of various London citizens. He quotes extensive interviews, giving a direct account of people's lives. These interviews give flesh to the rich seam of statistics he also includes.

The wealth of detail is astounding: for instance, there are a couple of pages on "The Street-Sellers of Dog-Collars", including the life story of one person, or when he went to a "Meeting of Thieves" - the British Union gave out free tickets, and 150 under-20 year olds turned up.

An example of the detail he goes into is a section entitled: "Of the cesspool and sewer system of Paris", where he describes the situation in the French capital, all the better to understand the English system. The job of Chiffionniers - men, with baskets on their back, who scavenged the piles of refuse outside French houses at night - is even gone into in detail. So is more scatological detail, like the fact that the average Parisian contributed 243 litres of waste to the city's cesspools each year. This is less than it should be for the obvious reason: the Parisian poor rarely used commodes, simply because they did not have access.

Poverty pervades this book. And so it should: because although there were rich people in the metropolis, the vast underbelly of the poor is poorly acknowledged, even in Dickens' work.

For instance, here is an interview with a forty year old homeless miner, who Mayhew classes as a genuine case of hardship:
"I'm a minor, sir, and I've been working lately five mile from Castleton in Darbyshire. Why did I leave it? Do you want me to tell the truth, now - the real truth? Well then I'll tell you the real truth. I got drunk - you asked me for the real truth, and now you've got it. I've been a miner all my life, and been engaged in all the great public works. I call a miner a man as can sink a shaft in anything, barring he's not stopped by water. I've got a wife and two children. I left them at Castleton. They're all right. I left them some money. I've worked in eighteen inches o' coal. I mean in a chamber only eighteen inches wide. You lay on your side and pick like this. (Here he threw himself on the floor, and imitated the action of a coal-miner with his pick.) I've worked under young Mr.Brunel very often. He were not at all a gentleman unlike you, sir, only he were darker. My last wages was six shilling a day. I expect soon to be in work again, for I know lots o'miners in London, and I know where they want hands.

And a section on "Park Women, or those who frequent the Parks at night and other retired places.":

Parkwomen, properly so called, are those degraded creatures, utterly lost to all sense of shame, who wander about the paths most frequented after nightfall in the Parks, and consent to any species of humiliation for the sake of acquiring a few shillings.You may meet them in Hyde Park, between the hours of five and ten (till the gates are closed) in winter. In the Green Park, in what is called the Mall, which is a nocturnal thoroughfare,you may see these low wretches walking about sometimes with men, more generally alone, often early in the morning. They are to be seen reclining on the benches placed under the trees, originally intended, no doubt, for a different purpose, occasionally with the head of a drunken man reposing in their lap. These women are well known to give themselves up to disgusting practices, that are alone gratifying to men of morbid and diseased imaginations. They are old, unsound,and by their appearance utterly incapacitated from practising their profession where the gas-lamps would expose the defects in their personal appearance, and the shabbiness of their ancient and dilapidated attire.

Hyde Park's certainly changed!

As a social record it is invaluable: as a description of utter poverty it is depressing; as a measure of how far we have come it is commendable.

All four volumes are freely downloadable in PDF format from

Volume 1: The London street-folk

Volume 2: The London street-folk comprising: Street sellers. Street buyers. Street finders. Street performers. Street artizans. Street labourers.

Volume 3: The London street-folk comprising: Street sellers. Street buyers. Street finders. Street performers. Street artizans. Street labourers.

Volume 4: Those that will not work, comprising; Prostitutes. Thieves. Swindlers. Beggars.

They are well worth a browse if you have time.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

In defence of Dan Brown

Dan Brown has made many himself a fortune by selling books containing fairly implausible plots that revolve around tortuous conspiracy theories. Two of his novels have been made into feature films which have entertained millions and kept his bank manager smiling.

The one thing he lacks is plaudits from the critics. His books, it is said, are poorly written, ridiculously plotted hyperbole that have spawned thousands of worthless copycats in the treasure-hunting-conspiracy genre. His books are repetitive, contain totally unnecessary description and feature poor sentence construction (indeed, even worse than my own).

And the critics are right. Some examples of his writing can be found in the link below:

I first read a Dan Brown book whilst I was on the TGO Challenge in 2005. A nice Swiss lady in Alltbeithe Hostel gave me a copy of "Angels and Demons", which I read over the next few days. It was fairly ridiculous stuff and hardly grand literature, but - and this seems to be the fact the critics miss - it was enjoyable. I found myself stopping at lunch, nestling down in the heather and getting the book out for five minutes just so that I could read a little more.

A couple of years later I stayed at a B&B, and at breakfast the owner's daughter was reading 'The Da Vinci Code'. I asked her if she was enjoying it, and she stated that she was - and that it was the first book she had ever read. What is more, she said she might read other books. Dan Brown's novels might just have opened the door to a world of literature that was unknown to her before.

Yes, the books are nonsense. Yes, the plots are ridiculous. Yes, the writing is poor. And no, they will never be classic literature.

But they're also enjoyable and accessible.

We can't all read Tristram Shandy, Lord of the Flies or Anna Karenina, even if we should.

Thanks, mister Brown. Just try to write some proper literature next time, just to show the critics you can.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Book review: "The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry", by Rachel Joyce

I picked up this book in Waterstones based just on the title, blurb, and a picture of a pair of yachting shoes on the cover. I like books about walking, and it seemed to be about an elderly man's journey across England.

It turned out to be a good choice.

Firstly the book is well written, with a deft use of language and a perfectly judged pace. Secondly, what appears to be the main topic - a journey - is really a hook on which hangs a brilliant character study.

Harold Fry is an utterly ordinary man, recently retired after a lifetime in one job in South Devon. His marriage to Maureen is unhappy as they have slowly drifted apart over the 47 years of marriage. One day he receives a letter from an old colleague, Queenie, stating that she is dying of cancer, and saying goodbye. He had not spoken to her - or even given her much thought - for over twenty years.

Yet a chance meeting on the way to post a letter to Queenie sets him off on a totally different course. Without going home or telling Maureen, he sets off to visit Queenie in Berwick-on-Tweed, with a certainty - almost a faith - that she will live long enough to see him. If he walks, she will live.

As he heads north through Britain he slowly drops the trappings of his previous life, deconstructing himself as he comes to terms with key events in his past. One, the day his son nearly drowned in the sea, proves a pivotal moment in the lives of his family and in his relationship with his wife and child.

Harold's simple journey and story affects many of the people he meets - at first he is naive, and whilst some people spur him on, others laugh at his mission. But as his journey progresses and he meets more people, so his simple faith touches more lives.

But Maureen also goes on a journey without leaving her home. As the days pass her annoyance with Harold is replaced by other emotions and she is forced to examine their relationship anew.

No-one understands why he is undertaking the pilgrimage, and most assume that Harold once had - or even still has - had a sexual relationship with Queenie. Yet the truth when it emerges strikes much more to the core of Harold's being.

This is not a religious tome; whilst Harold is perfect happy with other people's faith, he himself is not religious. Instead, his faith grows during the course of the book; it is not a faith in God, but a faith that an ordinary man can do the extraordinary.

Some pages make you laugh; others are filled with pathos and grief. But these are both deftly handled and force the reader on. The basic question first posed in the book: will Harold reach Queenie before she dies? is replaced with others, all of which are compelling and beautifully resolved by the last page.

I would award this book five out of five stars. It is a truly excellent book that thoroughly deserved to get on the Man Booker longlist last year. Indeed I would go further: this book started off as a play on Radio 4; it should become a film.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The weather

Being English, it seems perfectly acceptable to write a short post about the recent weather, especially as the wind is whistling outside my study, and the roof's making disturbing creaking noises.

This winter has, so far, been mild and stormy, compared to last year where there were very cold snaps in early December and early March. In fact, we have only had two and a half frosts here in Cambridge, but the garden is little more than a soggy green carpet.

And yet for what feels like a fortnight, we have been told of the massive floods that are affecting the country. Whilst some parts of the country have had it bad, I wonder if these floods are that bad from a a historical point of view, or if is due to the 24-hour media's thirst for *any* news story?

Saturday, 4 January 2014


When I was a child, my parents owned an old walled garden in South Devon. They put a caravan within the walls, and we would go down every Easter and summer for a week or two to relax. It was a magical part of my childhood: we would clear the vegetation off the land using slashers (long wooden handles with a sharp metal blade at the end), and later on dad bought an old Fergie tractor to clear the many month's of vegetation that would build up between our holidays.

An old orchard lay outside the walls, and lack of care had converted the trees into a moss-covered, dark space that was a wonderland for an imaginative child. Pirates would be hiding behind that tree; treasure would be buried under another.

We would go down to Teignmouth and Shaldon to paddle in the sea, and eat rock cakes at the Clipper Cafe. Dad would collect a jar of pennies and tuppences during the year, and we would spend them in the machines on Teignmouth Pier.

Those holidays defined my childhood; I even took my first steps within the garden. Later on, during my coastal walk, I made a pilgrimage back to the place to find it even more overgrown and magical than it had been as a child.

Ornaments lay in the grounds, including two ponds (one broken by my dad to drain the water after my tomboyish sister fell in). A stone sundial with a carved lion's head on each of the column's four faces was situated just outside the wall, beside an old, overgrown driveway. Tall trees overhung the driveway, meaning the sundial sat in a shaded area with an ivy floor.
The gateway into a wonderland.

One day I watched an animated version of 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe', and immediately afterwards went down to the clearing and sat in front of the sundial, staring at the lions' faces. The column seemed tall, and the lions imposing. But they were not lions: they were Aslan.

Years later some of the surrounding land got developed, and builders cleared some of our property. So went the sundial, never to be seen again. But I still remember it with fondness, and hope it gives some other child a sense of wonder. But I doubt it: it belonged in that shaded dell.

We sold the land some time ago, and I will never be able to walk around it again. I have no pictures of that sundial, and have been able to find nothing similar on the 'net. Looking back over thirty-five years, it is one of the things I miss most from my childhood.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Book review: "The Whole World", by Emily Winslow

"The Whole World", by Emily Winslow

"The Whole World" is Ms Winslow's first book. The book is firmly based in Cambridge, with the recent building of the massive Grand Arcade development taking centre stage.

The book is written from five viewpoints, each in the first-person. The first is narrated by Polly, a young woman with a dark past who has fled the US to attend Peterhouse College. She is keen on Nick, a graduate student, but her reaction when he attempts to kiss her kicks off a chain of events that leads to his disappearance.

I have read such multiple-viewpoint books before, where each view adds a different perspective onto events. I tend to find them boring, as it is hard to create unique voices or new angles on events. Ms Winslow avoids this by having each narrator progress the story, so they not only give a fresh perspective on known events, but also add extra layers of events. This means that Nick's disappearance is a catalyst for the story rather than the main crime. The becomes obvious when the author skilfully makes him the second narrator, giving the story of his disappearance from his perspective.

Ms Winslow captures Cambridge well in her writing; she has the view of an outsider who has come to love her adopted home. In this way her writing is a little like Ian Rankin's, although Cambridge is a quiescent place that lacks Edinburgh's natural buzz. Despite this, she captures the city's atmosphere well.

The characters are also well-drawn and were, for me at least, believable, if somewhat eccentric in some cases. The story revolves around a love triangle involving Nick, his embryonic relationship with Amy, and her best friend Liv, another American student. Add in Morris, the detective investigating Nick's disappearance, and Gretchen, a blind university professor who is trying to decipher her past, and you have an interesting collection of misfits.

I would award this book three out of five stars; it is certainly a good attempt at a first novel. It would have been at least four stars, except for an issue which I describe below. Warning: this is a slight plot spoiler.

*** Plot spoiler ***
There was one area in which this book failed spectacularly for me. After Nick and Polly argue, a series of events unfold. These end with him walking to visit an old friend who lives in a ramshackle old farmhouse. She is not in, and when he lets himself in using a key, he falls down the cellar stairs, twisting or breaking his ankle and trapping him in the farm.

He manages to stay there for nearly two weeks, whilst his disappearance triggers a series of other events. Eventually his friend returns from a foreign trip and finds him. This is where suspension of disbelief flies out the window like a prize canary.

The friend makes him comfortable, but because there is no mobile phone signal in the house, nor a land line due to the renovations, they decide to drive him to hospital. However, instead of her driving, or making him comfortable at her home whilst she goes, she thinks he should drive. Despite the fact that it is night, he is weakened after two weeks in the house, has a badly-injured ankle that prevented him from escaping, and he does not know how to drive.

It was such an improbably stupid decision to make. Worse, the author than has Nick getting lost and running over another major character by accident. If his ankle was bad enough to stop him escaping the farm, it would hardly allow him to learn to drive, especially at night.

Sadly, this spoiled a large section of the book for me.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Parish notice

When I first put Google Maps onto my website a few years ago, I used version 2 of their maps API. Sadly Google now state that this version of the API is being deprecated, and that I have to move to the new version 3.

I have been rather hesitant to do this for a number of reasons, but with version 2 now out of use, I have had to bite the bullet and do the work. This involved an almost total rewrite of the code that displays the maps on the website. Hopefully this process is now complete, and you will not see any difference

Happy New Year

Happy New Year everyone!

Hopefully I shall be able to get back to blogging more regularly in 2014, in a year which promises to see a great change in our lives.

We live in exciting times ...

(And no, it is not another house move)