pergamond: ([PoT] Kaidoh // not listening)
"That will be 25p," the man behind the counter of Jessops camera and print shop in my parent's city of Leicester told me.

Bargain! I had gone in to print out a set of photographs that my Dad had taken that morning, ready for an express renewal of my passport while I was in the UK.

"Yes, it's cheap if you do all the work yourself!" the shop assistant joked as I rummaged in my wallet.

I tipped a collection of coins in my palm and examined them. "Is this a ten pence?" I held up a silver coin that seemed about the right size, although the design was different to how I remembered it.

The shop assistant looked at me oddly. "Where are you from originally?" he asked.

"I.... um .... here," I muttered. "It's just... been a while."

Major fail!
pergamond: ([PoT] Karupin // Christmas)


This is exactly how I pictured Christmas in Canada. White crunchy frosting everywhere and a hoard of snowmen to form an Arctic version of a zombie apocalypse. However, the photo is actually of my parents' garden in Leicestershire, since the UK responded to my move north by promptly filling up with snow. It brought a whole new meaning to the old concept that everything you search for is in your own backyard. Literally.

The real question is though, was this a white Christmas?

Let's consider the facts: It was (1) Christmas Day and (2) white. You might think that this was rather damning evidence and that it was a straight-forward done deal.

And you would be wrong.

Apparently, the official criteria for a white Christmas is that a single snowflake must fall in the 24 hours of the 25th December anywhere in the UK. So in fact, everyone could be up to their necks in snow and living in igloos due to brain-eating Frostys having invaded their kitchens and it could still not be an official white Christmas. Conversely, London could be improving their tans, but if that solitary snowflake lands on a bag pipe in Edinburgh, a white Christmas it be!

The Met Office web pages reveal nine 'Official white Christmas monitoring sites', one presumes for the people who have decided to bet their life savings / house / pet dog / first born on it being a white Christmas in a particular year. These locations are Aberdeen Football Club, Aldergrove Airport in Belfast, the Bullring mall in Birmingham, Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Edinburgh Castle, Glasgow Cathedral, Albert Dock in Liverpool, Buckingham Palace and Granada Studios in Manchester. Presumably, people are hired for this snowflake counting. It could be quite lucrative, if not in over-time pay, then in bribes from people whose partner has bet their eldest son.

So was 2010 a white Christmas in the UK?

Yes.

Second children everywhere are disappointed.

Happy 2011, folks!
pergamond: ([Toy Story] Buzz // wibble)
'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring....

... Except me because I'd just blown one of the circuit breakers. Whoops.

Using my iPad as a flashlight, I wove through the dark living room to the fuse box and examined the situation. On the top row were a half dozen black rectangles that resembled dominoes. I had no idea what to make of those. The lower row showed six switches, one of which was in the 'off' position. Ah-ha! I was a genius! I flicked it to 'on', God said 'let there be light!' and....

.... nobody paid the slightest bit of attention.

I returned to the kitchen and confirmed that no one had listened there either. Dejectedly, I flicked the light switch a couple of times and returned to study the fuse box. It was after midnight, so possibly the best thing to do would be to go to bed and sort it out in the morning when it would be daylight and my parents would be awake. I looked at the switch I had just turned on and paused. Had I flicked the unmarked one on the end or the one beside it labelled 'cooker'? If it was the latter, then the oven had probably reset itself... The oven with the turkey in it.

That ... would be bad. Oh yes.

Deciding I would be in deeper trouble for letting such a catastrophe go unmentioned than for waking someone up, I crept upstairs with my iPad-flashlight. I have to say, the illumination from this make-shift lamp was not great; there should totally be an app for this. Creeping past my brother's room, I tapped on my parent's door.

"Mum? Uh... I blew all the lights.... And maybe the oven."

I'm unsure whether it was a reflection on my childhood that my mother seemed totally unphased by this occurrence. She located a real flashlight and I moved to documenting the events via twitter on my freed iPad as we moved around the house. Returning to the fuse box, Mum took out one of the domino thingos from the row above the familiar breaker switches. It turned out these were breakers too, but ones which you had to manually feed a strip of fuse wire into yourself.

I feel the need to confirm this was Christmas Eve 2010, not 1910.

One screwdriver and a length of 5 amp fuse wire later (5A for fuses, 15A for most electrical appliances and 30A for cookers. It's never too late in the year to improve your education of devices you thought you were born too late to have to deal with) and we were back in business. The other breaker switch that I had flicked turned out to be the unlabeled one and was not connected to anything. Actually, we're not sure, but Mum turned it back to 'off' to see if anyone complained.

"Sorry to wake you," I said sheepishly. "But I wouldn't have had a clue how to reset that fuse."

"It's fine," Mum said cheerily. "You can see why I study fossils now... Anything old is right up my alley!"

I consoled myself by thinking that at least I got to demonstrate how to get new mp3s onto her iPod this week.
pergamond: ([Blackadder] You cannot be serious.)
I have long believed I knew the source that would ultimately cause the downfall of human civilisation.

It was not, as seems to have been suspected by magazine headlines, that Brad Pitt's daughter enjoys dressing up as a boy. It was not even that googling 'Palin for President' produces serious hits (and one frankly awesome one). Nor was it that the Large Hadron Collider is planning to recreate a mini Big Bang or that there are people who will honestly freak out about this.

No.

It was that the UK military satellite system is known as 'Skynet'.

However, I was wrong. This is merely a Hollywood decoy for the ultimate peril. The real threat comes from a far more covert operation; the UK's private health care sector. Unlike the headquarters for the Secret Intelligence Service which is pointed out on boat tours of the London Thames, few people suspect the UK even has private health insurance companies. This is what makes this idea brilliant.

And evil.

In truth, everyone in the UK is covered by the National Health Service and for emergencies, there is no competition. However, if you have a non-urgent complaint such as a nagging sports injury, you might find yourself on a waiting list just below the item 'improve the railway network'. For such times, some people (including my parents) invest in private health insurance.

While talking to my dad about his policy last weekend, I discovered that the cost of this added coverage changes depending on how much you exercise. On the surface, this seemed logical and harmless; fitter people are less likely to get sick and need to use private health facilities. It did nevertheless, raise one important question:

How do they know how much exercise you did?

The answer, unsurprisingly, was not the honesty of the client. I guess as a health service, their psychology was good enough to understand the limits of human self-interest. They turned out to have a variety of systems. The first was to offer you money off your gym membership. Once you applied for this, the gym would then record how often you went and pass this information on to the insurance company.

I chewed my lower lip. Having to 'check in' to the gym was a little bit like being back at school. I supposed with social networking sites now offering to list your location when you log in, many people did this optionally, but I still wasn't entirely sure I was comfortable with my free-time being recorded. There was also another problem:

"You don't use the gym," I pointed out to my dad. "You go out cycling. Does that not count?"

"Ah!" he replied enthusiastically. "They give you something for that!"

The 'something' turned out to be a heart monitor that you wore while you exercised and which then transmitted the data back to the insurance company. For a gadget geek like my dad, it was a good bit of fun .... of the ominously Orwellian kind. 

"It would get really worrying if an ambulance showed up at your door for a heart attack they could tell you were about to have in thirty minutes!" Dad suggested. ".... or maybe that would be reassuring. If it were a hearse that would be worse."

Yes, yes it would. I laughed. Then stopped and checked the street for stretched black cars.

And there was more. It was possible to link in your supermarket loyalty card and get an even larger discount based on the amount of fruit and vegetables you bought a week. I scratched my head, thinking this through.

"But you and Mum don't buy most of your veg from the supermarket," I said. "You get a vegetable box from the farmer's market."

"That's true," my dad pondered this. "Perhaps we could ask them to set up cameras in the house so they could see all the food we have coming in!"

My head hit the desk with a clonk. Move over Terminator, Big Brother is watching you. And it's all because the public demanded their vegetable boxes be registered.
pergamond: (narnia: once upon a time)


Hardwick Old Hall was built by Bess of Hardwick, a feisty and incredibly rich (thanks to four marriages) woman in Elizabethan times. "Building Bess" designed the hall herself to replace the original family medieval manor house that sat on the same site in Derbyshire. Once she had eight children (via marriage number two) and become a countess (marriage number four), Bess wanted an abode that would reflect her new station in life and, naturally, one that would live up to those of her friends. An understandable enterprise made fractionally more ambitious by the fact her closest companion was Queen Elizabeth I.

A prophesy was foretold that Bess would not die while she continued building and it was perhaps this that caused her to start work on Hardwick New Hall before the Old Hall was fully complete. England's aristocracy frequency held different residences around the country but the notable fact about the New Hall is that it was built right next door to the Old Hall. This is quite literally so; they are as close as two spaciously detached houses although rather on the larger side. The picture at the top shows the New Hall photographed from the Old Hall.

Unlike the first building, Bess did not design Hardwick New Hall, employing instead the professional architect, Robert Smythson. The defining feature of the new abode is its owner's initials, in large stone letters, scattered liberally about the rooftop and the wide windows, which produced the phrase "Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall" to describe the location for the last 400 years.

Despite this brave attempt to keep the building work continuing, a hard frost in 1608 halted work and Bess died, fulfilling the prophesy. A cynic to such topics might point out that her being over 80 might have also had something to do with it.

Even though the Old Hall and New Hall were built a mere three years apart, they now look vastly different. The New Hall has been completely maintained while the Old Hall has fallen into ruin. The latter came about because descendants of Bess in the 18th Century sold part of the building to raise funds while they lived at their preferred location in Chatsworth. Apparently, declaring that you had not the cash, but your debtors could help themselves to eastern dinning hall wall was completely acceptable ...

The western half of the Old Hall is less ruinous than its eastern side and you can climb up the stairs to gain a stunning view over the Derbyshire countryside. Between the trees, you also catch a view of the M1 motorway, something I am quite sure Bess intended. Everyone, after all, likes to keep an eye on visitors, especially estranged husbands who were cracking until the strain of their indomitable wife.
pergamond: (Alanna: won't look back)


The problem with tourist attractions is that it tends to be only tourists who schedule going to see them. In fact, I didn't think I'd ever been to the Tower of London before until a dim memory of the sparkling crown jewels resurfaced. Since that time, I'd developed a strong obsession with reading Tudor history (and probably learnt to read period; it really had been a while) where the majority of the notable figures seemed to like to hang out in the Tower and, you know, be decapitated.

We took advantage of the tour offered by the Beefeaters, the origin of whose name is lost in history but most likely stems from their original payment being of meat; a reasonable fare in a time where most could only afford vegetables. Members of our tour group came from around the world and included Americans, who, the Beefeater cheerfully pointed out, would be able to claim all this history if only they had paid their taxes.

With our guide, we started at the watergate, later renamed 'Traitor's Gate' where prisoners were brought into the tower by boat. One of the most famous entrants through this system would have been Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII and later her cousin, Henry's fifth wife, Katherine Howard. Neither ever emerged and are buried alongside one another in the Tower's chapel by the place they were executed. Next to them lies Anne's brother, George, Duke of Rochester (beheaded for supposedly frequenting his own sister's bed) and his wife, Jane (beheaded later with Katherine Howard for concealing her ... sharing nature in regard to bedroom partners). When it comes to playing with power, the great Tudor families were not quick learners.

Perhaps more sympathy should be shown to the 16 year old who lies buried at their feet. Lady Jane Grey ruled for nine days, having been coerced onto the throne in opposition to the Catholic Mary by her father and father-in-law. Her husband, Guilford Dudley, met the same fate and engraved his wife's name twice on the walls of his cell, which can be seen along with the stone etchings of many other unfortunate residents of that room.

The chapel also contains the remains of Charles II's bastard son. The merry king was blessed with 14 (acknowledged) children, but since none of them were from his wife, the throne was due to pass to his brother (an unpopular move, but surprisingly one that did not end in the Tower). His eldest illegitimate off-spring attempted to take the crown himself, resulting in the removal of the necessary body part for said ornament. Upon beheading, however, it was realised that no official portrait existed for the son of this king, which apparently was unacceptable. The head was therefore stitched back onto the body, adorned with a large ruff and an artist called in to capture the likeness within twelve hours, least the corpse start to smell. The painter finished in eight and the image is now in a private collection. Our Beefeater tour guide claims that it does not look life like.

This is of course, only a fraction of the people who met their end in England's greatest stronghold (another one being the inspiration for this entry's title; Sir Thomas More, later canonised for what compensation that is). Close to 1000 bodies are buried under the floor of a chapel that contains no more than ten rows of seats. When the building was restored in Queen Victoria's time, the floor was uneven due to the shallow shuffling of graves.

In the centre of the grounds stands the White Tower. Originally build by William the Conqueror in 1077 as his place of residence, it is the oldest of the buildings and contains a museum of armour. It is also where a chest containing two small skeletons was found, identified as the remains of the "Princes in the Tower". These two boys (12 and 9) were murdered around 1483 by persons unknown, although eyes tend to drift towards their uncle who seized the throne even while they lived.

Opposite the White Tower is the most secure place on the site where the crown jewels are kept. The doors that allow you into that area weigh 2000 kg each. Rather like the Scottish deep fried mars bar, here lies anything that someone thought might look good dipped in gold. Crowns, swords, spurs and a whole load of plate.

Twinkle.

One crown, known at the India crown, was only worn once, during a visit of George V to Delhi in 1911. Since by Old Royal Law the official crown (or, more accurately, the crown jewels) is not allowed to leave the country, another priceless identical one was created for the occasion...

As closing time rolled round, we vetoed the prospect of spending the night in the dungeons in favour of a pub in Charing Cross. This area of London turned out to be full of black phone boxes. Black. WTF, London?
pergamond: (Golden pair)
"Do you remember the time Al walked in on you handcuffing Steve to a chair?"

I looked across the room at the previously compromised individual, who also happened to be the groom. Initially, my answer was negative and a strong denial was on my lips before a scene floated to the top of my memory of a college room, a chair and .... ah.

"The reason was innocent," another friend helpfully chipped in. "There was a cops and villains theme that night."

I hoped it was innocent. If it hadn't been, the very least I could have done was remember it. Still, it was not so surprising. Steve and I had adjacent rooms the first year at University; who else would I try a pair of handcuffs on? I looked around the table. Seven faces looked back at me and, frankly, they were all perfect candidates for such an occurrence. Pleasingly, my memory had at least given me ammunition of my own:

Did we, per chance, recall the time a member of our table procured a kebab after an inebriated last night of term and, rather than consuming his purchase, packed it in his luggage?

What about the random guy who tried to climb into a (male) friend's bed, having gotten the wrong room?

Or the fact that the same friend mirrored this event himself one drunken night down the line?

Then there was the bucket of tar in the police car park, which had been reached by climbing over a wall (ironically in an effort to get home), the traffic cone that sat in our hallway for a week, the 'mind your head signs' that appeared all around college (ok, that was me again) and the bar crawls. Really, we had enough material for several weddings.

Of course, not everything changes over the years:

"Do you remember when you reached for the mouse in the computer room but grabbed the hand of the girl next to you instead?"

"Oh, I do that all the time!"

Without a doubt, the concept of someone throwing a gigantic party and inviting you and all your friends rocks. It is perhaps a trace stressful for the bride, groom and immediate family but I'm prepared to tolerate their discomfort for the massive benefit to my own. To add to the complete win of this occasion, the ceremony was held in an idyllic village church and the reception was on a farm. When you live abroad, there is really nothing more exciting than a sheep. Except maybe a cow. Seriously, I could have hugged them all, except that might have disturbed the groom's family (the owners of the farm) even if it probably would not have surprised the groom himself.

My restraint was rewarded by the presence of plastic farm animals and a fuzzy-felt build-your-own farm yard on each table. The small toy hare was the same size as the cows which served as a warning to all guests on the perils of non-organic farming. Then there was wine, a hog roast (if you can't hug 'em, eat 'em), more wine, desserts, champagne and a ceilidh.

It was somewhat of a miracle that as dusk fell we were still capable of organising the flat-packed set placed into our hands into a lantern. These paper globes were lit at their base and then rose into the air to float gently off into the sky. Or crash and burn, depending. There was probably a profound analogy to be made regarding the fate of paper lanterns and our paths through life, but the only questions on my mind right then was how the bride was still looking beautiful and energised and whether there were any cup cakes left.

It was only when the un-handcuffed, newly wed groom came up to say hello and said how much it meant to have me there that day that I understood why people cried at weddings. I wonder if I could persuade them to do it again next year.

pergamond: (cunning plan)
As America tunes to the State of the Union address (or American Idol, depending), Britain's most famous broadsheet, The Times, is sending its reporters out to shop in their pyjamas.

It started when a woman in Cardiff was thrown out of Tesco (a major supermarket chain in the UK) for shopping in the a fore mentioned nightwear. She told reporters:

"We was only popping in for a pack of fags. If we were doing a proper full shop, then obviously we would have went in clothes."

Well, obviously.

Tesco claimed that such attire might offend the other shoppers so, to test out this theory in the most scientific way possible, a Times reporter was dispatched to roam the streets of London in his PJs. In order to ensure a small exploration of the parameter space, he first donned a £750 velvet dressing gown and £125 pyjamas before moving on to a more normal £20 ensemble. Apparently, no one batted an eyelid.

Ultimately, the only question later raised was the one traditionally asked to kilted Scots; what are you wearing underneath? In response, the report notes:

"Suffice it to say The Times prefers not to take risks unnecessarily."

pergamond: (Default)
Snow! Here in the UK, who would have guessed it? Naturally, no one (despite the fact that it usually occurs at some point during any twelve month period). Therefore, hundreds of people are stranded at airports, in their cars, department stores and, possibly most oddly, the channel tunnel which you would naively think would be unaffected by the weather.

Since living in NYC and now Canada, it's fairly hilarious watching the country dissolve in chaos from a few inches of frozen water. That said, it'd doubtless be rather less entertaining if I weren't safely at home with a hot mug of tea. The problem I guess comes from the rarity of such conditions making it impractical for the Government to purchase serious snow equipment for a single use a year, although the BBC have now printed an article on how to grit a road, in case anyone was up for a change of career. Given the STFC's science proposal for the next five years funding, it's not without appeal.

Meanwhile, I'm attempting to demonstrate the benefits of gluttony to our ailing family cat who, at twenty, has decided food is for "them young things". It's not quite as I would have it, but I suspect when I reach the equivalent age in human years, I won't give a damn either.

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