Monday, 12 November 2012

Of Tea Strainers and Men

“Although I have read a million words on the necessity for the cuts, I have not seen a single letter on what the exit plan is: what happens in four years’ time, when the cuts will have succeeded, and the economy gets back to “normal” again. Do we then – prosperous once more – go round and re-open all these centres, clinics and libraries, which have sat, dark and unused, for nearly half a decade? 

It’s hard to see how – it costs millions of pounds to re-open deserted buildings, and cash-strapped councils will have looked at billions of square feet of prime real estate with a coldly realistic eye. 

Unless the Government has developed an exit strategy for the cuts, and has insisted that councils not sell closed properties, by the time we get back to “normal” again, our Victorian and postwar and Sixties red-brick boxy libraries will be coffee shops, Lidls and pubs. No new libraries will be built to replace them. These libraries will be lost forever.” 
Libraries: Cathedrals of our Souls - Caitlin Moran

The Second Law of Thermodynamics – bear with me – states that, in a closed system, things tend towards a state of entropy; a state of chaos. In physics and engineering, this means that no reaction or process can ever be 100% efficient, as some energy will always be lost. Life tends towards disorder too: an abandoned building will be overrun, given time, with opportunistic vegetation, as will a brand new island, created from a volcanic eruption; an untended lawn will become quickly ravaged by weeds; dead organic matter decomposes over time, its elements redistributed by scavengers and bacteria; and, perhaps most vividly, if I decide not to look after myself for only a few days, I will have a full, bushy beard and my wife will complain.

And yet, when it comes to the human world, things often tend not towards disorder but to a state of lethargy, monopoly or lack of choice. Things stagnate. Once the libraries close, they won’t come back. Once the supermarkets outcompete the final delicatessen, all independent, specialist shops will have had their day too. Everybody will go to one place for what they need, which means they probably won’t find what it is they want, purchasing what is forced on them instead. I know this all too well, because, for neither love nor money, I cannot find a tea strainer on sale anywhere in Birmingham. A tea strainer. I have been banished to using only tea bags, despite the loose leaf tea that remains, impractically, in my tea cupboard. It sits there, begging to be drunk. No supermarket, nor Homebase, nor the TK Maxx or Debenhams in the Bullring have but a single tea strainer. Tea pots, yes; coffee percolators, yes; but no tea strainers. The practicality of the tea bag and the demise of the hardware store has led to a world without tea strainers. A WORLD WITHOUT TEA STRAINERS.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Good for the soul

ON the opposite corner of the table, a group of teenagers and young adults chatted animatedly, involving anyone who might walk past. They laughed. They raised their voices in excitement. Some of them had cake.

In my corner, Rachel, myself and an elderly lady sat in silence.

It was the tea and coffee moment after church; the time when the congregation are encouraged to meet and socialise, for regulars and elders to welcome newcomers like Rachel and myself. This particular church provided something of a step up from the standard urn and paper cup setup, providing neatly laid tables in the church hall, each with their own tea and coffee making facilities, around which people could sit and enjoy a leisurely Sunday morning beverage. This encouraged an intimacy I am unaccustomed to, but one I could invest in, should I ever get over my social inhibitions of making conversation in unknown environments.

But this was not my church. These were not my peers. They weren’t even speaking English. The language of choice here was German, of which I know nichts. And yet, for all of the discomfort at being out of my depth, unable to hear and unable to communicate, there was something rather cathartic about being so exposed.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012


AND then it was all over. Seventeen days of competition, seventeen days in which the world marvelled at dedication and achievement, have come to an end; seventeen days in which a country, so comfortable with a default attitude of cynicism and discontent, figured out how to be happy, and how to be proud. I have no idea how the outside world has received London 2012, but to that world I say: these three weeks have transformed a nation ruing its own decline into a proud, defiant population of disparate, diverse cultures that knows it can punch above its weight. Thanks for giving us that opportunity.

As a nation we were never universally excited about hosting the Games. Up until the very start we picked holes and predicted gloom. I attended the rowing at Eton Dorney on day 1 and, despite the most efficient transport system and event management I have ever seen in this country, people around me were picking holes from the moment the gates opened: there were not enough food and drink outlets or enough bins; it was too far to walk and so on. All of this, in spite of where they were.  I began to wish I was Australian, their default attitude summed up by a fan interviewed on Simon Mayo's drivetime show on BBC Radio 2 the previous evening, just prior to the opening ceremony: "I don't know what all the whining is about, it all seems pretty incredible to me," the wise Australian declared, without prompting.

But it didn't take long for the whining to stop. The Opening Ceremony showed the world what this nation is: a hodgepodge of cultures and nationalities united by a history of progress and revolution, of social mobility and pioneering enterprise. Suddenly the nation had found what it had been looking for for so long: a modern definition of itself. With that established, it was time to cheer. And then Team GB won their very first race on the rowing lake.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Return of the Mullet Hunter

I'M pleased to announce that I've been helping out Simon Varwell on the sequel to Up The Creek Without A Mullet, which I previously reviewed on this blog. In fact, it is because of that review that Simon and I began to work together, and I've really enjoyed being involved in the editing process.

Simon has written some very nice things about me over on his blog, which I urge you to read - not for the compliments, but for the latest news on the book. I have the final draft open at this very moment, giving it a final check through.

The whole process has inspired me to do more editing work. I've enjoyed it greatly but being a bit busy in PhDland I've not had the opportunity or spare time to do much. Certainly I would consider returning to the trade once the thesis has been submitted. The future seems a far off and scary place, but it's nice to see possibilities and ideas opening up.

Anyway, Simon's post is here. I urge you to give his first book a go too, which is available... here.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

An Exchange

Student: 'Are you from Ireland?'
Me: 'No I'm from Devon.'
Student: 'Oh ok, so you're a European exchange student.'


Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Queen

FOR a long time as I was growing up I had no opinion about the Queen. She was neither someone I looked up to nor someone I opposed, she was simply the Queen. She was there, on the throne, and that was that. But over recent years I have come to think about the monarchy debate, brought into prominence I suppose by certain recent royal events, and I have come to a firm conclusion not about the royalty or the fact that we have a monarchical system but about the particular person who happens to be our Queen.

As with every good story, the road to this decision begins with an orphaned girl in Uganda. But not just her: a drumming band from the slums of Nairobi features too, as does a blind, left-handed guitarist from the Gumatj aboriginal mob in Australia. To make sense of this, we must talk about Gary Barlow.

Captain Barlow, of the good ship Take That, has put together a song for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. It takes the form of a patchwork of on-location recordings of people from all over the commonwealth, including the aforementioned African Children's Choir, the Slum Drummers of Nairobi and the brilliant Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, among many others. Each was recorded, and wished to take part, in order to make a present for a woman they had not met. What is more remarkable, however, is that many of these artists are coming to the UK, leaving their countries for the first time, to perform the song for the Queen at the Diamond Jubilee Concert tomorrow night at Buckingham Palace. Such is the effect she has.

Last month, Rachel and I, along with members of her family, attended the Windsor Diamond Jubilee Pageant in the grounds of Windsor Castle. As an addition to the annual Windsor horse show, this was a four-night event attended by members of the royal family, in which representatives from many of the countries the Queen had visited throughout her reign demonstrated or performed in whatever capacity they could in a two hour spectacle in her honour. Of course the show was largely horse based, with Karabakh horses and Cossacks and Royal Canadian Mounted Police and many others displaying their mastery, but there was also music, dancing and, in the case of the Cossacks, gravity defying acrobatics, on horseback, at full speed. Not only were the nations represented by officialdom, but indigenous people, too, were performing - Maori, Aboriginal, Solomon Islanders and Artcirq among others. Even Alan Titchmarsh was there. I felt guilty that up until the show started I had no clue as to what I was about to witness, having agreed to attend after the kind offer of tickets from my mother-in-law without any knowledge of what it was. My guilt arose because the event was a sell-out, and I was certain many who would have been eager to have attended would have missed out because of my nonchalant acceptance. I didn't know what it was so I wasn't excited, and I certainly had no clue as to how big a deal it was.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Look Around You. Just, Look Around You

I HAVE recently had the honour of reading the unpublished manuscript of a forthcoming travel book, which shall remain unnamed but will probably be guessable if you read this blog closely enough. I shan’t spoil any of the details, other than to say that it’s great. A significant portion of the book is set in New Zealand, which I visited back in 2007 (that it was 5 years ago is beyond ridiculous). I enjoy reading all travel writing but there is always more enjoyment to be had from reading other’s recollections of places you have visited yourself, so I took a keen interest in the overlap between this journey and mine — jealous of stories from places I never reached, and intrigued by alternative views of the places I did. Of particular note was Wellington.

I spent three days in Wellington in the middle of a frantic tour of the country, courtesy of a well known student operator. Beginning two weeks previously in Christchurch, I had already circled the South Island, reaching as far south as Queenstown, before island hopping on the ferry from Picton to Wellington, our base before the final push north through Taupo, Rotorua and Auckland.

The capital of New Zealand and the second largest in the country, Wellington is a city that New Zealand is very proud of. Voted the “coolest little capital in the world” by Lonely Planet in 2011, it is a city rich in entertainment and art, gourmet food and cafe culture. According to Lonely Planet itself, there are more bars, restaurants and cafes per resident than New York. It has its own film culture, is home to Peter Jackson's movie empire, has a vibrant music scene and is a cool and happening place. On the islands of the harbour, I now know of pioneering conservation projects and regions devoted to some of the most unique creatures on Earth.

I saw none of this in those three days.

Friday, 6 April 2012


This video was made last year by the youth of my church. To me, this is pretty powerful viewing. Such a story has greater power when you imagine the characters involved are actually the friends you spend your free time with, and with whom you would share everything. I know the individuals in this video, and whilst I don't know them personally that well, re-evaluating the events depicted considering if they had been in my community, with these community members, strikes a very intimate chord.

This is the story of Easter. No chocolate eggs, no rabbits or fluffy chicks, but a harrowing tale from 2,000 miles away and 2,000 years ago.

And yes, those really are wrestling pandas.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Science in Seatoller

is dedicated to those unlovely twins
staunch supporters that have carried me about
for over half a century,
endured much without complaint,
and never once let me down.
Nevertheless, they are unsuitable subjects for illustration.

A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells, being an illustrated account of a study and exploration of the mountains of the Lake District. Book Six: The North Western Fells
A. Wainwright, 1964

ONE of the perks of life in our lab is the opportunity to attend a lab retreat, where we go away for a few days with our collaborators for both social time, and to share ideas and hatch plans for the year ahead. It is safe to say that this year I did not want to go.

Such is the way with PhDs that progress rides on a sinuous wave of fortune, soaring high for a fleeting, exhilarating moment before crashing to the ground and swirling, seemingly forever, with the tortuous eddies and vortices of disappointment. Emotions, unnecessarily, get caught up in amongst these movements. With each crash morale takes a hit, but with hard work, a lot of luck and often a change of experimental direction, the wave can begin to build once more. The challenge then is not to go along with the movements of fortune, but to surf atop them, keeping afloat for as long as possible.

By the time of our retreat in November 2011, I was drowning beneath that wave. An optimistic and exciting start to the year had slowly been taken over by failure. I had built many useful tools, but experimentally nothing had been fruitful. There are two kinds of failed experiments — those that yield believable results that say the opposite of what you were expecting; and those that yield no results at all, any conclusion being untrustworthy because the experiment simply did not work. Mine, of course, were the latter. I’d had one modest success, which I was presently trying to add to, but in all other ways the year was a write off. I had one final deadline to meet before the retreat, to build a genetic construct, but with only days to go curious anomalies and problems were creeping in, the likes of which I had never seen before, despite plenty of cloning experience. (When I finally got the correct construct a week later, I discovered a fault in the planning that had slipped past all those who had checked it. I had to start again, all because of a single nucleotide.)

To then spend four days in the middle of nowhere, cut off from all means of communication from my wife, while trying to put on a brave face and admit to a year of nothing, was not how I wanted to end November.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Happy New Year

Happy New Year from us.

May 2012 be the year in which you grab the reins of your life and find the niche in which you wish to live.