Monday, 29 December 2008

Christmas

Quiet christmas, back at work today.

Alice gave all appearances of having guessed her christmas present - a DS Lite - beforehand, I don't know if she'd gone rooting or not. I used to have great fun doing exactly the same as a kid.

So anyway I came home early on christmas eve and christmas officially started at about 6 o'clock. I must say that I couldn't have felt less "christmassy", a main reason for this of course is that I am basically working through this year. I have big tax bills I need to pay, plus I suspect the client is grateful to have a technical expert around as most of their other "tekkies" are taking holiday.

Christmas Eve itself was quiet, surprisingly we managed to get Alice to bed at a reasonable hour, and not too excited. There has been decidedly little talk of Father Christmas this year, I reckon she thinks she knows what its all about, but she doesn't come right out and say anything just in case she wakes up and there are no presents! So we got Alice's presents wrapped (organised, that's us!) and had a relatively early night ourselves.

The downside of going to work each day was that on Christmas Day, I was awake at six o'clock. This was partially due to forgetting to switch the alarm off, but also due to Maisie deciding it was time for breakfast. So I got up the enjoy the quiet, although not for long as Alice came into the lounge with armfulls - and sackfulls - of presents. All very exciting as I watched her open her presents. There was the DS Lite and a couple of games, also some jigsaws, DVDs, vouchers (iTunes and Vodafone) from us, plus a load of craft stuff from Santa. There was even stuff from other people. Of course, when you see it piled up it is all way too much (not least Jacqueline tells me she was moaning today that she was bored!). Apart from this, Jacqueline cooked a delicious, traditional Christmas Lunch, though we are all a bit health-conscious at the moment and really the only unhealthy thing we ate were the roasties (unhealthy indeed, since Jac had bought goose fat in which to roast 'em!). Aside from this, Alice verged on the unbearable all day - she was understandably excited but I drew the line at some of her cheek. Still, we cut her some slack and I think she got sent to her room just the once.

The TV on Christmas Day seemed very poor, so we treated ourselves to a Box Office movie after lunch - the Indiana Jones film from last year. I thought it'd be difficult for a sixty-plus Harrison Ford to carry the role, but in the end it was nicely entertaining and a good film. Aside from that I had the laptop on my knee and was sorting out all the photographs that I hadn't bothered processing yet. As well as a few hundred from the trip to France, I also found loads from days out that had never made it off the PC.

As regards the photographs, the French ones in particular were taken in dull, grey skies and were totally underwhelming, though I did a bit of playing with the software and discovered that these same pictures, when passed through a black and white filter, took on a new lease of life. Quintessentially Parisien, even though I do say so myself.


[La Tour Eiffel, viewing from the Panthéon] 

 


[Panthéon]


[Place de la Contrescarpe] 

Having said this, one of my favourite photographs was when Sylvain (Isabelle's husband) hit the shutter release by mistake, resulting in a delightfully blurred photograph which could only ever come about by accident.


 
Despite the generally more pleasant weather in Rouen, I tried the same black-and-white technique with some of the photographs, and in fact while we were there I did do a quick tour around the city centre with the fish-eye lens, to add a little spice. I've included a couple below (all of the "presentable" photos are in the Family Album section if the site, if you want more).


[L'Eglise Saint Maclou] 

 

[Place de la Cathédrale] 

And there we have it - Christmas Day. I was clearly so inspired by the excellent quality of the photographs that Boxing Day (with Jac still in bed and Alice watching the TV) I took advantage of the glorious, clear skies to go out for a walk down by the river. Beautiful "winter" shots of the River Avon, really worthwhile despite the bitter cold. Here's why:

 
 

I'm afraid to say, however, that that was pretty much Boxing Day for me - we all stayed in the rest of the day, Jacqueline with a dicky tummy after her Christmas extravaganza. By Saturday, though, she was right as rain and in fact it was she who was out early, to West Quay shopping centre in Southampton. She was back by lunchtime - with shopping bags galore - telling me how wise she had been to get there early, as the traffic she saw when coming home was horrendous. Still, she'd obviously had some degree of success because the clothes she'd bought were all rather good. She's really chuffed (sometimes to the point of obsession) that she's lost so much weight in the last few months, and of course being able to buy sexy, elegant clothes is all part of the dividend.

As if one lot of shopping wasn't enough, we went into Salisbury this time, somewhat later in the afternoon, primarily so that Alice could spend some of her Christmas money. As it happened, our first stop after parking the car was to visit Great Western Outdoor where both Jacqueline and I got some bargains in the sale. In particular, Jac got hold of a couple of pairs of summer walking trousers which were really good quality (North Face) and outstanding value. But as I say, this trip was really for Alice and so we visited Woolies and then the Entertainer, but she found precious little of interest in either.

We hatched a plot, then, for Alice to visit Toys 'R Us in Southampton on Sunday, and fortunately here was somewhere she was able to spent her dosh! (I happened to get a remote-controlled helicopter also, but we'll say nothing about that!) We'd spent so much of the last three or four days just lazing around, however, that we really felt we needed some fresh air, so we hit one of our favourite New Forest locations at Bolderwood. Another photo opportunity, this time I walked around with the big lens to see if I could catch any distant deer. I did, fortunately, but even more spectacular were a couple of robins I managed to photograph. Now they look really good - I take lots of photographs and most of them are average, but every now and again one pops out just perfectly...





I had to do quite a bit of post processing on these photographs, because at the shutter speeds I was using (I was shooting handheld so needed to shoot quickly) the results tended to be quite dark. I'd love one day to get one of the really fast Nikkor zoom lenses, but these things cost thousands, would end up being very little-used and all in all would be a frightful waste of money!

So, back to the client's today. Very relaxing, with no-one faffing about, plus I actually achieved something I'd been trying to get around to for a while. 'Course, the "getting up" bit at the very start was painful, but I compensated by leaving early.

And the reason for this? Well, dear reader, today is my birthday and a (hopefully) delicious supper awaits me. Happy Birthday to me, Happy Birthday to me...

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Christmas Cheer

Wow, we've been up to a lot this last week. Wednesday night we took the ferry across to Normandie for a short break before christmas. After spending Thursday morning mooching around Caen, we headed on to Rouen in time for Flunch, and our hotel.

We stayed once again in the Mercure, a great little hotel right in the centre, plus we got the room at an excellent rate because I booked it way back when we stayed there in August. Hotels such as these are excellent because you're never more than 10 minutes walk from them, so when you need a break they're close to hand. Plus the Mercure itself is very comfortable. The only perceived drawback is that they don't serve any proper food, although for a hotel right in a city centre, with probably 20 restaurants within 5 minutes walk, this is hardly an issue.

Anyway, Thursday afternoon was spent chilling and mooching - Alice and I gave up after a while and went back to the hotel, but Jacqueline was in her element - all those shops! Unfortunately with the weakness of the pound at the moment, all those shops were very expensive, so for the most part she was window shopping. Thursday evening I'd booked a table at a nearby restaurant, just picked it out of the Michelin Red guide, and was not disappointed. Fresh, gastronomic food - I would not hesitate to recommend Les Petits Parapluies if you happen to be in the area. Jac and I both had the most tender lamb you could imagine, while Alice devoured her favourite Saint Jacques in a delicious asparagus/parsley sauce. All rolled together with a wonderful Provencale Rose wine, and topped off with an unbelievable chocolate dessert. Excellent!

Friday again was just spent at leisure, going around the shops and a decent walk around Rouen - further away from the centre than we've been before. In the afternoon, Alice went ice skating - once again this year the Christmas Market was set up in front of the cathedral, complete with rink and merry-go-round. All very christmassy! Took a couple of photos, but the weather was just so grey I doubt there'll be many good ones. Also did some shopping, got Jacqueline's christmas present.

Friday evening we planned to go to a restaurant that we always visit in Rouen, in the old marketplace, only to find that it was no longer there! A great shame, they always served lovely, homely food and quite reasonable. Also unfortunately, the restaurant we eventually went to was not brilliant. Alive had Saint Jacques once again, but this time in a "Provencale" sauce that was pretty poor. Still, she did have chips with it and was happy (Scallops and Chips - what would Gordon Ramsay say??). Jacqueline and I both had Boeuf Bourgignon which was essentially just stewed beef. No lardons or chalottes, not even a hint of wine in the sauce. Pretty poor.

Big day Saturday, we got the train up to Paris and spent the afternoon - starting with an excellent lunch at the Founti Agadir Moroccan restaurant - with an old friend and her family. This was down by la rue Mouffetard and brought back some wonderful memories. My friend, Isabelle, and I met when we shared digs in Oxford. I was there working, she was doing her year in England as part of her degree in English. Isa studied at La Sorbonne, and it wasn't long after she left Oxford that I accepted her invitation to visit her in Paris, and stayed in her apartment for the week. Her apartment was just off Mouffetard, and marked the beginning of my association with the area. All this must have been in 1993, I think. Isa moved on and out of the area (to live with her boyfriend, who is now her husband), but I liked it so much that whenever I visited Paris I made a bee-line over there. I found a small, decent, cheap hotel which served me well. When I met Jacqueline I took her over there also, she got to know the area as well and especially liked the street market. Especially the cherries in the middle of the summer.....

Anyway, it'd been a couple of years since we visited (I haven't actually stayed in Paris for a good seven or eight years now, nor have I seen Isabelle for over a year), so we seized the opportunity. Lunch followed by a stroll from the bottom of rue Mouffetard up to the Pantheon, then back again. An excellent way to spend an afternoon, and of course great to catch up with an old frield. Of course it helps that she has kids just that little bit older than Alice, but I reckon we'd still be mates in any case.

We left Isa and family to continue their christmas preparations, and we headed over to the Opera - Jacqueline wanted to pick up some coffee from Nespresso - but were totally unprepared for the sheer volume of people there. We literally had to hold on to each other in order to stay together. At that point we had our only disagreement of the weekend. Jacqueline saw the grands magasins and despite the enormous amount of people, wanted to shop. Alice was tired since we had already walked quite a bit, and there was I, stuck in the middle. In the end Jacqueline relented and we walked back to Saint-Lazare, still, I might add, surrounded by thousands of people. Totally unpleasant. I was quite miffed that Jacqueline was sulking because she hadn't been able to visit the shops, and I thought this was totally unreasonable and said as much.

To cap it all, we arrived at Saint-Lazare just in time to jump on a train, but found it full - standing room only - throughout. Taking an executive decision I dragged the family off the train, saying we'd get the next. Very flustered. However, the next train was only a half-hour later, and we were the first people on it so although it too became packed, we sat in relative comfort. Fortunately on the journey home Jacqueline reverted to her normal, lovely self, and Alice was contentedly playing with a present given to her by Isabelle, so the family was at peace once more.

Crowds again on Sunday, when we took advantage of all the "overtures exceptionelles" to do our main food shopping before taking the ferry. From Rouen (we had a very leisurely morning and didn't check out until noon) we headed to Barentin, to visit both Decathlon (quite quiet) and Carrefour (totally manic!). Anyway, €250 of food shopping later, we were on the ferry heading home.

Doesn't time fly when you're having fun? But at least we have lovely French groceries for christmas!

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Making Amends

After an all-round shitty day yesterday, I got home last night to find the house in darkness and a note left on the front door. (Unfortunately because it was dark, I couldn't read the note, but we'll gloss over that!)

Anyway, the door was unlocked so I went inside, and when I reached the lounge I was greeted by a cry of "Surprise", and Alice flicked on the christmas tree lights. Clearly, she'd been working hard since coming home from school on decorating the tree, and to her credit it looked beautiful.

I then got to read the note, which basically said she was sorry about all the grief she'd given me over her homework. Even better than that, however, we sat down and actually finished the homework. In just 10 minutes, and given a little help she was able to work out the right answers. I'm not sure she understands everything fully, but the barrier we had on Sunday had definitely lifted.

At the clients yesterday I spent the day working on a single, trivial problem for them. I must have spent over 95% of the time setting things up so that I could actually see the problem - thoroughly demoralising since it was extremely fiddly to find, even moreso because things had to happen in a certain order and if I forgot to do something it'd all fall down and I'd have to start again. I hate computers. In the end of course, the change I had to make to their system was trivial, but I was far from happy at the overcomplexity of it all.

I suppose after yesterday's blog entry, yesterday was never going to be a brilliant day, but after the day at the client's too (it is seldom exciting there but I am generally able to close my eyes and think of the mortgage!), I was pretty down.

I'm looking forward very much to the weekend, we're meeting up with just about the oldest friend that I keep in regular touch with. I met Isa in 1993, I think, when we shared digs in Oxford, and of course since then we have both gone and done the career and family things, etc., and generally gone down our separate paths. It'll be good to catch up since I haven't seen her now for over a year, and of course it is close to christmas so the kids will all be excited.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Bad Homework Day

Well it is seven o'clock on a dark Monday morning and I am thoroughly fed up. Whilst weekends are normally a time to recharge the batteries, this weekend has just drained me, thanks solely to Alice and her blasted homework.

Yes, we had another session where fifteen minutes' worth of homework turned into a three-hour slog. In the end I gave up - it was pointless her trying to answer questions about bus timetables when she couldn't even work out what the time was an hour before 3:45pm, for example. Not only was this truly easy stuff, but it is easy stuff she's covered before.

Unfortunately, I have to admit, I am such a poor teacher that I ended up getting frustrated and shouting, which clearly didn't help (though I'm not sure it particularly hindered her either).

I find this the most difficult part of parenthood. I started with nothing and anything that I have achieved in my life has been largely due to what's sitting in between my ears. It is profoundly disappointing that my daughter simply can't or won't engage her brain in any way, save for sitting there with the Argos catalogue and pointing out £300 toys she would like for christmas. All this despite knowing how tight things have become money-wise.

I am so fed up with it all. I can't help looking forward to when she is sixteen - if I am still alive then - and she can finally, legally, go out into the world on her own. And I can't help thinking that any half-decent parent wouldn't have thoughts such as these.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Jean Charles de Menezes

It is worth mentioning the news today, the jury in the Jean de Menezes inquest has returned verdicts which are quite damning for the police.

For some reason that I don't understand, the coroner refused to allow the jury to consider a verdict of "unlawful killing", which to be honest stinks big time. So, faced with returning either a rather weak "open" verdict or one of "lawful killing", the jury not only returned the "open" verdict, but on a dozen specific points (again, questions directed by the coroner) were as critical as it was possible to be toward the police.

I suppose my first reaction should be relief. Had the shooting been categorised as lawful, then the precedent has been set. It is then Ok for a policeman to walk up to any of us and not just to pull the trigger, but to execute any of us in a cold and calculated way. We can't forget that the people who shot Menezes didn't just fire a shot in the heat of the moment, but pumped him full of seven bullets over the course of a minute or so. A cold-blooded execution.

But it is more than relief. For a long time now I have thought I have been in a very small minority of people who have grave reservations about this so-called war on terror, about the fact that our liberties are being eroded in the name of our security (if anything I feel less secure, not more), and yes, about the fact that the police can target people and snuff out their lives on a whim. But now I know that there are people out there who agree. And even though the coroner prevented the jury from looking into the possibility that the police acted illegally, they still went as far as they possibly could within the constraints of "the system".

It is comforting that there are other people out there, who when the police and the politicians say "Trust us", will turn around and smell the bullshit.

Of course we should now be asking how the police witnesses came up with such a common story, which they failed to sell to the jury. Collusion? Perjury? I wonder how far they'll take that one? No, I think I can guess.... Shades of Hutton, I think.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Clear Skies?

I just spent a very pleasant Saturday morning walking around a wood near Whiteparish. With wonderful weather and amid beautiful countryside, I tried my hand for the first time at Field Archery. This was the culmination of a four-week evening course I've been taking - the course, I hasten to add, in a well-lit church hall!

It has been really quite good fun learning to shoot, though clearly in such a short time I have only picked up the basics. The next step to improving is to get my own kit and to join the local club. I have to say, I found the experience very similar to golf, in that as you aim your shot there are five or six things that all need to be in place for the shot to be good. Very similar to a golf swing. Also like golf, there is a huge variety of kit available to the unwary buyer - I suspect if will cost me something like £200 to get kitted out with a bow, some arrows and the necessary accessories, though looking on web sites it looks easily possible to spend over a thousand on the bow alone. Plus, of course, you go along there as a novice and you really have to trust the merchant's judgement on what to buy.

Anyway, that's all for the spring. Hopefully by March I'll have paid all my tax bills and will see the way clear to buying some stuff and checking out the local club - a spot of target archery on a warm summer evening sounds wonderful, though I'm not sure how competitive I want to be. For it to work for me it'd have to be a relaxing expereince and I very much got the impression from the coach that there were plenty of people at the club who were more than just "social" archers. We'll see. Hopefully - unlike golf - the club subscription fee will be sufficiently small that I can just pay it and write it off if I don't like it

So Saturday was a busy morning, because before the archery shoot I had to drop my car off for its annual service - I currently have everything crossed that they won't find anything wrong with it. But anyway, I was out of the house for eight o'clock (there is something very wrong about having to get up so early on a non-work day), but what a beautiful day, and being out just after sunrise too. I wish I'd had my camera with me.

I did have vague plans to get up early on Sunday with the camera, though when push came to shove and the alarm went off, I turned back over. A pity, because there had been a thick frost overnight, and Sunday too was cold, cloudless and sunny. I should have headed into the forest.....but there again, it is nice to be able to lie in on my days off.

Sunday remained good and we capped it off by visiting the Christmas Village in Winchester, complete with ice skating. Of course Jacqueline didn't take part at all, preferring to go shopping, which was a pity since it was her idea. I did skate, at least, but only really for fifteen minutes. At twenty, I had a girlfriend who was a mad-keen skater, and from her I learned a lot, but these days I just feel stiff and awkward, and am afraid of falling over and damaging myself - time off sick means lots of money lost. It is sad, I know. Alice, on the other hand, gets noticeably better every time she skates, and seems to really enjoy herself. Maybe she has found an outlet for herself?

Worth noting that because we'd planned to go skating I left the camera at home once again, a great shame because the whole village would have been great to shoot as the sun was going down in the brilliant blue sky. Would have needed a flash and a tripod to do it justice, though.

Maybe next weekend I can go out with the camera and get some decent winter photographs, though next Saturday we also have to buy a very important christmas accessory - the tree.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Ob-la-di

No entries for a while, mainly I'm afraid due to the fact that I haven't been bothered.

On the work front, my clients have had a massive drop in their budget which has resulted both in a cull of employees and the early termination of many consultants' contracts - they have been very secretive about the exact numbers so I would guess that they are sufficiently large to make people think, "Goodness, I didn't realise it was that many."

Fortunately they feel they need my company's services still. Overall this is good news, I suppose, although they did take the opportunity to renegotiate the rate we charge - downwards of course. In the current climate, they obviously feel they can get away with it. It was really quite nice to be told that our services were considered critical, though of course this comment needs to be taken with a pinch of salt - we'll see how critical our services are in three months' time if the slide continues. I mainly deal with middle-managers at the clients, and I do get the feeling that they are quite genuinely distressed by all of this. Clearly there is the personal aspect of their own little empires diminishing but I think there is more to it than this. Not least they must have doubts about their own safety.

Haven't really been up to much else. We did go over to Tower Park in Poole a couple of weekends ago, and had an excellent game of bowling, the first time in a long time. Alice in particular enjoyed it, I guess since it was so out-of-the-ordinary for her. Quite expensive, I thought, though. Alice ticked me off for getting too upset at my poor shots (I played the first game really well, with one of my highest scores, but deteriorated badly in the second.

Last weekend the weather was absolutely awful - the temperature hovered just a couple of degrees above zero and so we just had grey with rain on both days. To celebrate this we had some fun on the Wii - the Mario Karting was particularly enjoyable, though I don't think Jacqueline really "got it"!

As we found when Barney died, Maisie has become more friendly now that she has the house to herself once again. She's always been a tiny thing and I guess Carlo kinda dominated things. We have decided not to have any more cats, though maybe to think about a dog as and when Maisie pops her clogs (which we hope will be many years into the future). Although we are all cat-lovers, it just seems sheer irresponsible to bring a cat into such a dangerous environment as where we live. It is ironic that my mum lives in a big city and has had two cats since I was a child, both of which have lived to a ripe old age (one of which is still going aged 16 now, I think), whereas we live in the middle of nowhere in what at first sight would be paradise for a cat. Needless to say Carlo's loss is still painful, especially for Alice, but we buried him and planted some bulbs over his grave, a small token. Things will get better over time of course but it is scant comfort to talk about this right now.

Apart from that, working hard for the taxman at the moment. Got an old bill to pay and another one in February. Whoopee!