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Sweet home Alabama [2]

It never ends.

Evil incarnate

Evil incarnate

There’s always something to do, whether it’s laying turf, repairing hoses, or pulling up the wild onions.

I’m taking advantage of the unexpected time off to fix things around the house and garden. In the best traditions of yak shaving, there’s always several things you need to do before you can fix the thing you set out to fix. The chess pieces you have to put on the board (and the multiple trips to Wickes) before you can actually drain the hanging water feature to reseal it.

And of course while I’m going around the garden I spot other things (including wild onions, natch) that I didn’t even think about before I saw them and I then I have to sort that out before I get to job I started—or intended to, anyway—a week ago.

And then there’s the stuff that critically fails just about just before you’re about to go out for your pre-birthday dinner.

Gaffer tape for the win

Gaffer tape is the best. Except when it’s black insulating tape.

Which resulted in another trip to Wickes on Saturday and, what of all days I’d forgotten, was Vaisakhi, which explains all the magnificent dastars, not to mention the surfeit of BMWs and Mercedes parked all the way up our road. And what should have been a 5-minute dash turned into a 20-minute detour through the less frequented parts of Gravesend and slightly elevated cortisol levels because I had to finish fixing the hose (and several other things, ibid) before an indeterminate number of people turned up for my birthday party.


Fire makes it good

I did make it back in time to light the pizza oven, lay out the kegs, and even enlist the Pawns to help me decide whether any of our homemade wine was worth serving (or even legal). They didn’t take much persuading, it has to be said.

And the win, the real win, was that the 2023 harvest (Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay from the greenhouse vines and possibly even more Chardonnay from the barbecue corner [we have no idea what it is because we didn’t plant that vine. It just produces hundreds of pounds of grapes every year]) not only popped when I opened it, but retained its fizz, and was eminently drinkable (if a little cloudy at the moment). I have, finally, cracked the Merret problem, and we opened another bottle today and it was just as good.



How was your weekend?

Posted in Birthday, grapes, Me, offspring, Pawns, personal, pizza, Science-less Sunday, Spring, wild onions, wine | Leave a comment

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Hard to believe, but 4 years ago we were in lockdown. Bit of a shit time, really, with scary NHS bears yelling at us to STAY HOME, schools shut, people being shouted at for being (gasp) outside, and all that NHS crapping clapping. At least there was Joe Wicks.

Scary NHS bear

Let’s not do that ever again. Please.

It wasn’t all bad. I built a scale model of London City Airport (and of all the airports in the world this being the best is the hill I will die on). I learned how to make bagels.

And I built a treehouse.

Throw a pallet in a tree

This started with me throwing a pallet up into the willow tree and then figuring out what I needed to put on top of it, and then negotiating the shortages of all sorts of building materials (because everybody was at it, remember?) and fucking social fucking distancing at fucking Wickes to collect the damn materials once they were in stock and cramming it all into my tiny Peugeot (God rest her soul) to get them home.

Treehouse, nascent
Joshua, being 6 at the time, wasn’t exactly helpful, but at least he enjoyed it.

Today, nearly 4 years after assembling the roof and then disassembling it ‘cos I had to get it into the damn tree, I finished the project.

Oh, it’s been loved and used (and almost turned into a gin deck) since June 2020, but the skylight was just just a hole covered by loose roofing felt.

One of my ‘sabbatical‘ projects was to actually fit the skylight.

Today, dear reader, that happened.


And Joshua was actually helpful. He was able to hold the window from the inside, chip away at the rough edges, and even wield the No More Nails gun to immense effect.

I guess 40% of your time on Earth will make that kind of difference.

How times change.

Posted in Don't try this at home, fucking scary NHS bears, Joshua, Lockdown, offspring, Science-less Sunday, treehouse | Leave a comment

What I Gave Up For Lent

The thing I usually give up for Lent is abstinence, but it turns out that my deprivation this year was more substantial. As you’ll both know, for a while I’ve not been listening to, watching or reading the news. It turns out, entirely by coincidence, that the day I decided to do this was Ash Wednesday, so I decided that I should return to the world of current events on Easter Sunday.

So what’s changed? Not much. It’s a case of Meet The New Boss, Same as the Old Boss. There is still conflict in the Middle East. There is still conflict in Ukraine. There is still antisemitism. There is still transphobia. The England team invariably loses. If Norwich City gets promoted to the Premiership, it’s bound to be relegated given another year, two at most. The governments of those countries that feature prominently in the news seems as inept/venal/corrupt as ever. Some politicians/football managers/celebrities have disappeared from the feeds, to replaced by other politicians/football managers/celebrities identical (to me) in all but name. King Charles III and his daughter-in-law, the Princess of Wales, have been seriously ill, but are now getting better. This is a good thing, but people are becoming ill, and getting better, all the time. Except that some get worse.

So, what did I miss?

As it turns out, nothing much. So my return to the world of news was not marked by a sudden rush to buy all the papers, log on to the news websites every five minutes or impose a hush when news bulletins come on to the radio, still less the TV. Instead, I find myself bumping into the news in a much more muted, less enthusiastic way than I once did. I’ve not bought a newspaper (I find them all universally dreadful). The only periodicals to which I subscribe are The Literary Review (which I read avidly) and The Spectator (which I dip into only now and then when I’m feeling especially depressed). I’m willing to bet that one would have to wait many months — perhaps years — before the news became substantially different. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

So why are people (some people anyway) obsessed with news? I have no idea. It all seems so — well — trivial. The only thing likely to stir the sludge of my cynicism is the re-election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States, if only to confirm my dim view of the human condition, for the section of humanity represented by Trump seems to be intent on diminishing the reproductive self-government of women, and it seems a truth that’s self-evident (to me) that the reproductive self-government of women is the only thing worth getting steamed up about, as any and all benefits experienced by humans in general, such as increased health, wealth, welfare, contentment, education and longevity stem, ultimately from that sauce source. Societies that restrict the empowerment of women will either fail to develop, or go backwards.

In sum, my experience of news abstinence (I have coined the term nayesrein) is the cultivation of a kind of Philosophic Repose (on a good day) or Swiftian detachment (on a less good day). For in the end, we’re all doomed.

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This is what we find

While making Richard’s Famous Margaritas(tm) (note to self: post this on Magirism at some point) this afternoon, I had to clear the Triple Sec optic from the sugary lunge build-up. After cleaning, I picked up the wrong receptacle and dropped two measures of triple sec into the dregs of my Tribute instead of the cocktail shaker.


Jenny said something about my career coach and turning disaster into opportunity, so I dropped in the juice of half a lime and a couple of measures of pisco and made something that was quite wonderful.

Come to my birthday party and discover more about this metaphor.

Posted in 15MinutePost, Science-less Sunday | Leave a comment

What I Read In March

UntitledAustin Wright: Nocturnal Animals Teacher Susan Morrow used to be married to a failed writer called Edward. Twenty years later, divorced with two children and comfortably re-married to a physician, she receives a manuscript from Edward, from whom she hadn’t heard for all that time. Over Christmas, when her husband is away at a conference, she dives in and discovers a terrifying crime story in which a husband, wife and teenage daughter are hijacked on the freeway during a vacation. Much of the rest of the novel consists of Edward’s novel seen through Susan’s eyes, interspersed with Susan’s reflections on her own past and present life, all the while asking the question of why Edward has sent her this novel, after all these years — a question that’s, teasingly, never answered. This is one of those novels that’s gripping at the time but which one forgets as soon as it is finished, even though, so it says, it is now a ‘Major Motion Picture’, a strap line that seems to ensure obscurity for almost any book to which it adheres.

UntitledMichael Reaves and John Pelan (eds) Shadows over Baker Street I had never before heard of this cobwebb’d grimoire: news of it was bruited forth to me, no doubt by some eldritch form of astral projection, by my associate Mr. C___ D___ of Leeds, our correspondent in all matters chthonic. The great thing about fanfic, I suppose, is that the author is free to do mashups of otherwise separate tropes of popular culture. Offspring#2 and I have wondered, for example, whether the egregious intrusion of Tom Bombadil into The Lord of the Rings might be spun as an incursion into Middle-earth by Dr Who circa Matt Smith, with Alex Kingston as ‘the River Woman’s Daughter’. But I digress. Conan Doyle’s well-loved stories of the tenants of 221B Baker Street have inspired a legion of knock-offs; as have H. P. Lovecraft’s demented demonology that is the Cthulhu Mythos. Some of these are really good — I cite for example the TV series Sherlock in which Holmes and Watson are re-cast in modern dress, and the novels of Charles Stross set in ‘The Laundry’, the government’s department of the occult. But what if Holmes and Watson were themselves to encounter the Elder Gods? Think about it. Holmes succeeds by the application of pure reason. Lovecraft, by the conjuration of an ectoplasmic atmosphere of supernal terror (or so they tell me) which almost by definition defies ratiocination. So here we have a collection of stories in which Holmes and Watson are invited to investigate cases of reanimation, eructations of ancient cults, and people who seem to be turning into fish. The best one is the first, A Study in Emerald, by Neil Gaiman (of course) and most of the rest are a lot of fun. Real people such as H. G. Wells get stirred into the mix, along with — on one occasion — William Hope Hodgson’s character of Carnacki the ghost hunter. The High Victorian atmosphere lends itself to excursions into orientalism that might not be welcome nowadays except in the guise of pulp pastiche. There’s a lot about Watson’s time in Afghanistan, for example, and the abhorred Necronomicon of Abdul Al-Hazred makes several appearances. I could have had more about Moriarty, to be honest (he only features in two of the eighteen stories) and overall they get a bit samey after a while, though nothing less than enjoyable for those of a certain cast of mind. I am struck by Philip Ball’s contention in The Modern Myths that the literature that gets into the popular imagination is that which is formulaic, and not necessarily very good. One cannot deny the power of the Music of Erich Zann Cheap Music. Your powers of deduction amaze me, Holmes, how did you work out that our visitor was an acolyte of Nyarlathotep, the blind idiot God who resides in the very vortex of the void, whisperings of whose existence have only otherwise reached our ears through the terrified murmurings of those who have delved too deeply into the occult, the forbidden, and the arcane? Elementary, my dear Watson. It’s the tentacles.

UntitledCixin Liu: The Three-Body Problem When one is listening to audiobooks, the program will sometimes come up with suggestions of the if-you-liked-that-why-not-try-this variety. So imagine my puzzlement when after listening to Barbra Streisand’s memoir My Name Is Barbra the algorithm came up with hard science fiction from China. Naturally, I dived in. I’d heard vaguely that Chinese SF is cool and trendy, and that the big name in the field is Chinese-American Ken Liu, but hadn’t heard of Cixin Liu, a Chinese author, here translated by Liu (sensu Ken). I shall ask no further questions of the algorithm, as  The Three-Body Problem is one of the very best modern SF novels I have ever read. The novel starts in 1967 when a young girl, Ye Wiejie, witnesses her father, a physics professor, beaten to death by high-school students during the Cultural Revolution. This traumatic event shades her future, and — eventually — that of humankind. We see her brutal exile to a remote logging camp, to her involvement as a technician in a secret radio-astronomy program of initially unknown purpose,  to her political rehabilitation, and, finally, retirement as a physics professor at Tsinghua University, where her father had once taught. But there is another strand to this — or, rather, several, as the novel is somewhat nonlinear. In the present day, Wang Miao, a materials researcher working on a super-strong nanofilament, is coopted by a bluff, hard-drinking, hard-smoking cop Shi Qiang to investigate the mysterious deaths of several scientists. This leads us, through various diversions, to a secret scientific society charting the very limits of science; eco-terrorism; an eerily realistic computer game set on a planet orbiting chaotically in a triple-star system (hence the title); and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The scope is vast, and some of the set-pieces are truly staggering. Witness, for example, an analog computer consisting of thirty million soldiers arrayed on a vast plain using black and white signal flags as ones and zeroes. And the efforts of alien scientists to create sentience by etching microcircuits inside protons. It shouldn’t really work, but it does. There is a lot of exposition, which I don’t mind, but others might find it holds up the action. I was captivated by the sense of exoticism: Ken Liu’s translation is compelling for an English-language reader or listener while maintaining the original novel’s distinctive Chinese flavour. Imagine my surprise, when looking up from this bravura feast of diamond-hard SF, to learn that there are sequelae, and, not only that, a televisual version on Netflix. Unlike Nocturnal Animals, I don’t think I’ll forget this one, and I have already cued up the sequel. I may be some time…

UntitledSerge Filippini: The Man In Flames To the modern mind, Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) is a martyr to an embryonic science in an age of intolerant religion, burned at the stake for his doctrine that each star was a Sun with its own system of planets. There was more to it, of course. In addition to his cosmological speculations, Bruno evolved a philosophy — even a religion — based on the idea that God lived in all things, and that people should be free to worship as they wished. It was a dangerous time to hold such views, and Bruno was nothing if not tactless in promoting his prolific works and disparaging of anyone who didn’t agree with him. Not surprisingly he made more enemies than friends and was forced to leave the city in which he resided at any time and hit the road. He never stayed anywhere long, and lived the life of a perpetually peripatetic scholar (nowadays we’d call this a ‘postdoc’), picking up lecturing jobs where he could before the tides of religion and politics turned against him. Born in what was then the Kingdom of Naples and initially a Dominican monk — before he was (inevitably) excommunicated — he progressed through Italy, Switzerland, France, England, France again, Germany and was lured back to Italy where, in Venice, he was betrayed, imprisoned, tried, transferred to Rome, tried again, and finally executed. The Man In Flames is the autobiography he (probably) never wrote, during the final ten days of his life, as revealed to author Serge Filippini and translated from the French by Liz Nash. The book stays fairly close to what is known of his life, but of course takes some license,  allowing us to meet, through Bruno’s eyes, contemporaries such as Montaigne, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Giacomo Archimboldo, Philip Sidney, King Henri III of France, Queen Elizabeth I of England and even a young William Shakespeare. A story of passionate love runs through the book like a thread: the love of Bruno’s life is Cecil, a brother of Philip Sidney, who, as a diplomat to the Venetian Republic, is unlike Bruno in every way. Cecil is calm and urbane where Bruno is an excitable loudmouth who promotes his heterodox views to everyone he meets, whether they are welcome or not. Even Cecil cannot save Bruno from a fate that he seems to have brought upon himself. As a book, The Man In Flames is an enjoyable, occasionally scatological romp through an often lethally turbulent time in early modern history.

Posted in Writing & Reading | Leave a comment

The Country Life

I set up a WhatsApp group for the locals, so I can let them know when I have eggs available.

“Hello Richard!” they’ll message, “Any eggs available today?”

At this time of year, with an average of 4 eggs daily, the answer is invariably ‘yes!’, and they’ll pop round, cash in hand, 20 minutes later.

There’s something deeply satisfying about the whole arrangement.

I also have a standing order (6 eggs/fortnight) and an advance order for Easter Saturday, so I have to watch supplies, but I still had 2 eggs at lunch today, as well as enough to make gelato and pavlova.

In news to warm the cockles of Henry’s, I planted out my potatoes today. Jenny has been chitting the Maris Pipers and the Charlottes since January, and now they’re looking alien enough to go in the ground. It’s also past the Spring Solstice, so the time is right, and in they go.

I’ve got 2 rows of six of each, plus a couple of tubs for the leftovers. It’s taken about 8 years but the main ‘physic’ patch in the garden felt like real soil this afternoon, so we’re hopeful for a decent crop.




Posted in 15MinutePost, community, eggs, Gardening, nature, potatoes, Spring | Leave a comment

Sourcing music – a Making Music webinar

I recently attended a webinar about sourcing sheet music, organised by Making Music. There were more than 100 attendees, mostly from amateur orchestras and choirs, all eager to learn about the best and most cost-effective ways to procure musical scores for performing groups.

It was a comprehensive overview: we heard from 11 separate speakers, each promoting a different service. I knew something already about music libraries and music publishers, but it was interesting to learn about some of the newer community initiatives. Some of the services go beyond simply supplying scores and can help music groups discover new repertoire.

  1. Music Bank, Ben Saffell

This is a service that Making Music (MM) runs. It is a catalogue of music which can be borrowed by MM members from other MM members. Anyone can search and see what pieces are available but to see which member holds the piece (so that you can ask them to borrow it) you have to be a member of MM.  There are nearly 13,000 holdings listed.

The search function is quick and allows you either to search for a specific composer or title, or other keywords. You can also specify the work length, composer nationality, musical genre, instrumentation. It includes both choral and orchestral music. MM members can make a small charge for the music loan, but this is expected only to cover ‘postage and packaging and a small and reasonable admin fee’.

  1. ENCORE21, Lee Noon

Lee Noon is Librarian for Music and Performing Arts at Leeds Libraries – one of the biggest music lending libraries in the UK. He is also on the committee of IAML UK & Irl (the UK & Ireland branch of the International Association of Music Libraries) and was here to tell us about a service that IAML UK run called ENCORE21. This is a union catalogue of choral and orchestral sets held by libraries in Great Britain. Most of the holdings are in public library collections, but it also includes holdings in university libraries and music colleges.

It is free and open to anyone to use. It is straightforward to search but there are not any browsing options (duration, genre, nationality etc). Lee mentioned that there is uncertainty about the future funding for the maintenance of ENCORE21, and currently IAML UK is seeking views on the service.

Lee also talked in general about music services provided by public libraries. Some of them will loan direct to groups across the country. Lee recommended people to use and support their local library music service as they have to demonstrate that they are needed and useful.

In discussion it was noted that there were some interesting developments in Norfolk and Bristol public libraries.

  1. NPALS (Nottingham Performing Arts Library Service), Stephen Chartres

Stephen Chartres works for Nottingham City Council and he was the project lead for NPALS when it was developed in 2015/16.

The service has 3,500 titles and 87,000 copies. A bespoke IT system was developed that allows users to search and reserve sets without the need for manual intervention. This self-service system is available 24/7 and is designed to be sustainable and affordable and to meet user needs. It has delivered efficiency gains and has made the service more widely available. NPALS will lend directly to groups across the UK, though groups outside the east midlands will need to register (this is free). The catalogue is open to anyone to use – it allows searching by composer, title and publisher.

Details of charges are on the NPALS website. NPALS has 380 registered groups using its services, and gathers feedback via user groups. It uses some volunteer effort, though not much was said about this. NPALS is still run by Nottingham City Libraries.

The IT system that NPALS developed is also used by NewSPAL and has recently been licensed to Hertfordshire Libraries.

  1. NewSPAL (New Surrey Performing Arts Library), Mark Welling

Mark Welling is chair of the trustees of NewSPAL. NewSPAL was set up by users of the former Surrey Performing Arts Library (SPAL) when that was closed by Surrey County Council. It is an independent charity and took over the stock of the former SPAL. It has over 4,000 titles and about 125,000 copies. The catalogue is free to browse and you can also check availability. The music was recatalogued by volunteer musicians and singers.

NewSPAL uses the NPALS software to provide an online catalogue and reservation service.  It lends directly across the UK and more than half of its members are outside Surrey. Users need to register (costing £15) in order to borrow, but there is no annual charge. Hire charges are benchmarked against public library charges. NewSPAL is not-for-profit. It is always interested to hear what users want, and it has made some acquisitions in response to demand.

There are two professional music librarians and volunteers also help to run the service.

  1. PMLL (Printed Music Licensing Limited), Viki Smith

Viki Smith is general manager of PMLL, which is part of the Music Publishers’ Association. PMLL represents the rights of music publishers and issues licences on behalf of the rights-holders permitting the reproduction of printed music.

Viki told us about the Amateur Choir Licence. This licence enables choirs to legally copy sheet music, and allows minor arrangements (eg a key shift). It is only for pieces up to 16 pages long. There is an annual charge for the licence, based on the number of members of the choir and the number of works to be licensed. Choirs need to report what they have copied. Copies can be used for 24 months; after that the choir will need to re-license them.

There is guidance on using the licence on the website and also guides on hiring and using music. The PMLL website also has a useful section called ‘Raising the bar – Essential Advice on Launching Your Amateur Choir’.

  1. Hal Leonard, Oliver Winstone

Oliver Winstone is Strategic Partnership & Education Manager at Hal Leonard, which is both the largest print music publisher in the world and also the biggest music distributor in Europe, representing more than 100 publishers. Hal Leonard also owns and provides digital music services. Their website has a comprehensive catalogue of all the music that they can supply.

Oliver said he was interested in feedback on digital services for choirs, and the digital learning tools. I couldn’t find details of these on the Hal Leonard website, but I think he was talking about ChoralMix – see this article to learn more about it.  He also mentioned the Arrange Me function, whereby you can upload an arrangement that you have made of a work and Hal Leonard will sort out the rights and profit share with the arranger.

  1. Composers Edition, Dan Goren

Dan Goren is the founding director of Composers Edition (CE), a different kind of contemporary music publisher.

CE has about 90 living composers as members and it works hard to promote them and their music, working with professional and community music groups to support performance of contemporary music. CE will help performing groups to find new music to fit into a programme and can help to make links between groups and composers, e.g  commissioning new works. A section of the CE website is devoted to commissioning new works.

The CE catalogue can be browsed by composer and by category (choir, orchestra etc), and you can apply filters such as ‘theme’, duration, and date range. You can also preview the score before committing to purchase.

Dan said that CE is keen to support community music groups and is prepared to be flexible when making deals.

  1. Choir Community, Piers McLeish

Piers McLeish is the CEO and cofounder of Choir Community, a music publisher that provides high quality musical arrangements of a wide range of titles and genres. They have about 25 arrangers on the books and about 1400 titles. You can freely search or filter by composers, genre, choir type, voicing, accompaniment, duration and difficulty. CC aim to provide music at affordable prices. Choirs must register and provide information on the number of choir members and the cost of a licence for an arrangement is based on this. Currently CC has about 9,500 registered choirs, half of them in the UK.

You can preview the music and also listen to an audio file. There are also learning tracks available to purchase.

CC makes some items available free of charge. They are a musical partner to RNLI in its bicentenary year and have published a collection of pieces with a maritime theme. One of these is free to download too.

They have a blog, and there is an interesting blogpost on Making Music Day, 21 June 2024.

  1. Newzik, Emma Hakimi

Emma Hakimi is a sales manager at Newzik, a digital music provider based in France. Newzik launched in 2014 and its first paperless concert was held in 2016. They have 40,000 clients, including many leading professional orchestras and ensembles. Newzik works with most of the leading music publishers.

The company provides digital scores, and these are held in the cloud. Performers access  via the Newzik app and will see their part in the app, drawn from the same central score. Each performer can mark up their part as they wish. Newzik has collaborative features that can be useful – e.g. allowing performers to share their markings if they wish. Emma said that this can save time in rehearsal.

Newzik has many interesting features, and clearly represents a very different model. Emma mentioned that they give discounts to small and amateur groups. I’m not sure whether many amateur groups are ready to move into digital music, but I expect it will start to happen in the next few years.

  1. Contemporary Music for All (CoMA), Emory Southwick

Emory Southwick is Music Sales and Catalogue Coordinator at CoMA, an organisation that encourages amateur musicians to take part in contemporary music making. Its music collection includes 900 pieces of vocal and instrumental music, many with flexible scoring. Included in the collection are many partsongs. Prices range from £20 to £60 for a full score plus parts.

  1. Light Music Society, David Greenhalgh

David Greenhalgh is a trustee and librarian of the Light Music Society, which is the custodian of the Library of Light Orchestral Music. This is based in Bolton and holds about 40,000 sets of orchestral and dance band music. About 5,000 composers are represented, including more than 100 women composers.

The catalogue is free to use and loan charges range from £10 – £40, plus an annual membership fee of £33.

  1. Other sources

During the session some other sources were mentioned too, by the organisers or other attendees or in the chat.

  • Gerontius has a searchable directory of music for hire
  • IMSLP (International Music Score Library Project) is an online library of public domain (out of copyright) music
  • Musica International is a database of choral music, about 200,000 items
  • CYM Library is an independent not-for-profit music library with nearly 1500 sets available for loan. (Disclaimer: this is where I volunteer).

Two other services that weren’t mentioned but I have heard recommended are:

  • Chameleon Music Hire has over 4,000 titles available to choirs
  • Zinfonia  combines information from many hire and sale catalogues in one place.
Posted in Libraries and librarians, Music | Comments Off on Sourcing music – a Making Music webinar

Switching to a new library world

Between leaving school and going to university I spent a year working as a library assistant in a public library service; not a branch library but the headquarters of the service. The Library HQ had a large reserve stock, supplementing what was held in the branch libraries, and some specialist stock (standards, sound recordings, music & drama). It received many requests from branch libraries every day so things were always busy. I had already decided that I wanted to become a librarian and this temporary job gave me a useful introduction to some basic bibliographical skills, book handling skills (shelving, tidying) and practice at clerical tasks.

There was a group of half a dozen library assistants and we cycled through various different departments on a monthly basis.  At least, that was what was supposed to happen but after a few months the cycling stopped as we were short staffed. One unfortunate person got stuck on general duties but I was lucky to be in the Music and Drama section at that point and I spent six months there altogether. Our job in this section was lending out sets of orchestral parts, vocal scores and plays. This was great for me as I was a classical music fan and keen on singing in choirs.

Fast forward nearly 50 years. My career in biomedical libraries is completed and I’ve retired. I’ve spent a goodly amount of my spare time during those years singing in choirs but I’ve stepped back from that too. What next? It’s time to combine my library and musical expertise, and give something back to the world of amateur music making.

Eighteen months ago I started volunteering for the CYM Library – a music library that lends out orchestral and vocal sets. Mostly we lend to amateur groups – choirs and orchestras. Once again I am counting vocal scores, checking orchestral sets are complete, rubbing out pencil markings, checking our catalogue and the shelves to see if we can satisfy a request, making up parcels.

The CYM Library is an independent charity with one paid (part-time) member of staff plus several volunteers. It is self-funded, though occasional external grants make it possible to purchase new stock. It’s been good to feel that I’m contributing my time and skills to a worthwhile cause.

Obviously it is a very different library world from what I’ve been used to, but there are overlaps and parallels.  Some of my ‘transferable skills’ come in useful too.

Anyway, don’t be surprised to see a few posts here from the world of music libraries.

Posted in Libraries and librarians, Music | Comments Off on Switching to a new library world

In which I dream

Lab worker looking at a Petri dish

One from the archives: I check out some urinary tract infection bacteria, circa 2016

Last night I dreamt I was pipetting.

It was a beautiful Gilson p200, the classic model of my formative years. The precision instrument felt reassuringly heavy and solid in my right hand. Despite its age, the movements were smooth and easy after years of faithful service. Double-slam the yellow tip, plunge, immerse, pull up, transfer, expel while mixing up and down, shoot the spent tip into the benchtop bin with a satisfying rattle, repeat ad infinitum – movements as familiar and thoughtless as clutchwork while shifting gears.

I was in the midst of one of those experiments where you’d have to perform the same rote transfer hundreds of times, the hours somehow compressed into timelessness, into a state where tedium encroaches upon nirvana. The manipulations require little thought, so your head fills up with all sorts of other things: the next step in the protocol after these racks of tubes are finally completed; when you will get a chance to collect ice and thaw the enzyme, eat, grab a quick coffee, nip to the loo, write up your notes; what time you might manage to leave the lab, and whether any other late workers along the corridor might be up for a spontaneous evening social. It could have been one afternoon in any of the thousands that occurred in the roughly 25 years when I was heavily active at the bench, not just funding, planning, analysing and writing up research like now, but actually performing it manually.

When I woke, I wasn’t sad to find those days far behind me. My plate is full of ample nourishment. In the grand principal investigator cycle, I currently have two grants under consideration, three in preparation, two newly funded with personnel to hire, and two papers at draft stage. My substantial team is busy producing interesting data. I’ve got about ten invited talks or keynotes to discharge so far this year, and while teaching itself is winding down for this term, there is still plenty that needs attention in that sphere.

Do I miss my Gilsons? Of course I do. There is something raw and vital about benchwork – not just the work itself, but the phase of life it punctuates. My lost youth is rattling in that cardboard tip waste box, along with the camaraderie of my fellow travellers. It’s lonely at the top, and scientific friendships – though still present and important – are never the same as during your PhD and postdoc, when everything seems possible and the future is a bright unknown. The reality is probably less exciting, but far more satisfying than those long-ago aspirations.

I wouldn’t be young again for anything – but a girl can dream.

Posted in academia, careers, Nostalgia, Research, Scientific thinking, The ageing process, The profession of science | Comments Off on In which I dream

My Generation

Lady Tulip

Lady Tulip

Back in January I predicted that we would hit our 14 kWh daily average sometime around the end of April.

I was a little off, as we first passed that marker on 1 March—surprisingly for such a rainy day, I thought. The battery kept us going all night, too.

Since then, we’ve had a week of 10 to 13 kWh, and then we’ve been wet and gloomy and down at the 5 kWh per day level. But yesterday we were just shy of 20 kWh, and the battery again lasted the night.

I ran the Zappi this morning though, and it’s clouded over again, so we’re still not turning a profit.

We had the tall eucalyptus tree trimmed last weekend, as it was tall enough to reach the house if it fell in the wrong direction, and was throwing shade on the solar panels in the afternoon. I don’t think I’m going to be able to test what difference it has actually made to the generation, but it had to be worth something.

In any case, the days are getting longer and brighter, the tulips and cherries are coming into bloom, and all five ladies are doing the business, sometimes all on the same day. I’ve also turned the heating off.


They sure are

You really can’t stop it now.

Posted in eggs, flowers, hens, home, nature, solar, Spring, tulips | Comments Off on My Generation

Country House

It’s March, and that means there’s far too much stuff to do in the garden.

Beans bursting out

Bean love

A few years ago we went to a PYO and got a pumpkin (or 12, whatever). It was a Blue Hubbard, and we saved the seeds and sowed them the next year.

We got a bit of a sport from that that mother, cute in a blue-ish, wonky sort of way, and my daughters for whatever reason named it ‘Ken’. The family chat group, somewhat inevitably, was renamed ‘The Ken Fan Club’. Over the years the chat has been renamed ‘Son of Ken fan club’, and of course ‘Ken III fan club” as we (mostly Jenny, to be honest) have saved and vernalized seeds from each subsequent generation.

Today I sowed some Ken III seeds and we hope that this season we will welcome Ken IV (and turn him and his siblings into pumpkin pie, but let’s not talk about that yet).

Ken and friends

They look small now…

I also sowed sweetcorn and mange tout and peas and while that doesn’t take up much space at the moment, we’re going to have to pot them on at some point.

But as Jenny said of the 34 sweetcorn pots, “We’ll worry about where to put them later”.

Sweet. Corn.

I remember when this was all fields.

Posted in 15MinutePost, Gardening | Comments Off on Country House

Futurepub March 2024 – International Women’s Day

The latest event in the Futurepub series, on 4 March 2024, took International Women’s Day as its theme. The topics of the talks were related to women and four out of the five speakers were women.

It was held at Bounce – a large basement bar and table tennis venue. As with the event last October (which focused on AI) there was not an emphasis on publishing and scholarly communications. It was an interesting evening nonetheless.

The talks were recorded and will be available on the Cassyni platform.

Suze Sundu was the host for the evening. Suze wrote recently on the TL;DR blog about ‘Empowering Women in STEM‘ and in that piece she mentions her recent interview with Dame Athene Donald (an Occams blogger).  Dame Athene’s book Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science  is required reading for anyone who wants gender balance in science.

  1. Subhadra Das

The first speaker was Subhadra Das, talking about ‘The History we Deserve’. Subhadra is a ‘writer, historian, broadcaster and comedian, who looks at the relationship between science and society’. A historian of science, she is particularly interested in the history of scientific racism and eugenics.

Subhadra clearly knows her subject and she also knows how to communicate. She had the audience in the palm of her hand, making us laugh one moment and think (or wince) the next. Her recent book, Uncivilised, is definitely going on my personal reading list.

Subhadra said that ‘old ideas shape new stories’. I guess that implies that we should try to break free from the constraints that these old ideas can place on our thinking. She reminded us that the complete title of Charles Darwin’s famous work is ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life ‘. Ouch! That subtitle is very uncomfortable. Subhadra asked us if Darwin was racist, answering her own question in the affirmative but adding that it was more complicated than a simple ‘yes’.

She also introduced us to a less familiar evolutionary pioneer, Edward Drinker Cope (1840-97).  Cope was a self-taught palaeontologist from the USA who made significant contributions to the field, but he had pronounced racist and sexist views. Those ideas seem very out-of-date to modern ears but there are plenty of people today whose thinking is influenced by them, knowingly or otherwise.

Subhadra finished by giving us a short reading list:

  • Annabel Sowemimo’s book Divided on racism in medicine
  • Ruha Benjamin’s Race after Technology on how social hierarchies are embedded in internet tech
  • Joy Buolamwini’s Unmasking AI on encoded discrimination and exclusion in AI.
  1. Hélène Draux

Next up was Hélène Draux, a Senior Data Scientist at Digital Science, talking on ‘What The Decline in Women’s First Publications Means For Research’. She told us that while the trend in the proportion of women publishing their first academic paper had been increasing since 2000, it peaked in 2021 and is now in decline. It is not clear what is causing this reversal, but it is a worrying trend. I suspect that the COVID lockdown might have something to do with it.

You can read more about her findings in this blogpost on TL;DR.

Hélène posed some questions that need further exploration:

  • Is this trend true at institutional level?
  • Is there a difference within fields of research?
  • Is there a difference between funded and unfunded research?
  1. Jennifer Rohn

Jenny is well-known to Occam’s regulars as the author of the Mind the Gap blog on this platform where she writes about her life as a professor at UCL, a scientific researcher, a novelist and a mother. Her subject this evening was ‘Outsmarting urinary tract infection’.

She noted that her area of scientific research, UTIs, was typically a conversation stopper. But it is an important issue.  There are about 400 million cases of UTIs every year and it is predominantly a disease of women. Jenny noted that there has been little progress in this “mostly women” disease and research funding is hard to come by. (Funders – you need to do better!)

Antibiotic treatment often fails as the bacteria causing UTIs can evade the drugs commonly used to treat them. Jenny’s lab has developed a 3D model of human bladder tissue that allows her team to study what is going on at a cellular level. Jenny is using this miniature system to study UTIs and how we can deliver drugs directly to the site of infection and knock out the offending bugs.

  1. Joe Twyman

Joe is the co-founder and director of the public opinion consultancy Deltapoll so he knows something about survey technique. His talk was provocatively titled ‘Sex with Strangers – what could possibly go wrong?’ It’s a serious-sounding topic but Joe had the audience in uncontrollable laughter from the outset.

He told us about a classic paper by Clark and Hatfield: “Gender differences in receptivity to sexual offers” that was published in 1989. The authors found that whereas 75% of men will have sex with strangers, 0% of women will do so. The paper has been cited more than 1200 times.

Joe dug into the details to give a devastating critique of the paper – the small sample size, the homogeneity of the sample (one Florida university campus), the cis-het focus, the way the questions were asked, the survey technique. Joe also pointed out that a high profile serial murderer and rapist had been active in the area prior to the research being undertaken. All in all, the paper’s findings can be called into question.

In the midst of his very funny presentation he raised a serious issue about how and why a flawed piece of research can become such an influential and highly cited paper in its field.

Joe summarised with a couple of points:

  • The questions respondents actually answer do not always align with the questions that respondents are asked
  • You need to know ‘how the sausage is made’, particularly in the context of gender
  1. Kate Devlin

Kate Devlin from King’s College spoke on ‘Navigating the AI sea of dudes’. She displayed a photograph of the 1956 Dartmouth AI workshop – all those shown were men, though there were women doing important work in AI at that time.

In 2016 Margaret Mitchell, an AI researcher at Microsoft, talked about a ‘sea of dudes’ in the AI space. People (i.e. men) told her she was wrong. Mitchell pointed out that this imbalance is important because ‘gender has an effect on the types of questions that we ask’.

Kate asked what has the discipline done since 2016 to improve things and make it fairer and more representative of the world? Sadly, nothing. She showed us persuasive evidence that there is still still a serious dude problem in tech. Things are improving, but very slowly.

  1. Wrap-up

The evening ended with food and drinks and networking, as well as a (very noisy) table tennis tournament. It was good to catch up with various people from the scholarly comms world. I hope future events will bring back some scholarly comms focus to the talks.

I tweeted and skeeted a little on the #futurepub hashtag. I didn’t see any other social media activity about the event, aside from a few pre-event posts on #futurepub. I guess that event tweeting (etc) is dying out.

Posted in Futurepub, Journal publishing, women, Women in science, Women in tech | Comments Off on Futurepub March 2024 – International Women’s Day

Take Five

It‘s a crazy mixed up world, and the snowdrops were early and then the daffs were late but now there‘s tulips, tulips I tell you, showing their red little faces among the hyacinths and the daffs at the Gillingham roundabout.

It‘s probably something to do with climate change and technically being in an ice age but who knows? Life still, fortunately, goes on, and our hens have woken up to the fact it‘s 2024. First Iris (a while ago, now) and then Arty and Athena, and finally, today, Rhea lays a misshapen but ever-so-welcome little blue-green egg and suddenly I‘m going to have to start selling eggs to the neighbours again.


Eggsellent work, ladies.

Nike, of course, is wondering what all the fuss is about.


Posted in 15MinutePost, hens, wibbling | Comments Off on Take Five

Desires of my heart

Let the little children come to me

14Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

St Mary’s volunteer lanyard

A St Mary’s volunteer lanyard, on seemingly semi-permanent loan from the church.

Once St Mary’s clocked that I was not working and was willing, I got pulled in to assist with all sorts of activities. My experience with art-making made running a preplanned craft activity at the Light Party seem feasible. But things progressed fast.

I was then asked to help deliver an exploration of the Nativity to local schoolchildren. The step up in what was being demanded of me felt considerable. Experience Christmas focuses less on crafts and more on Jesus. The evening before, I was in the pub with the bellringers. When the bellringing gang looked dismayed at my leaving early, I told them

I’ve got to go. I have to get up in the morning. Gotta go indoctrinate some small children.

They told me

You don’t seem wild about this.

The Youth Minister at St Mary’s bashes the kids over the head with a Bible less than I had feared. Still, the Experience was a bit overwhelming and when I confessed this to Chloe, she said breezily

Don’t worry. There will be more for you to do at Easter.

I thought:


Command them to … be willing to share

Art materials are a vessel. They contain my anxieties. Art-making distracts and serves as a shared focus. By my third or fourth time volunteering with the kids, I have given up on reticence. I get called in to help facilitate a visit to the church from the local primary school. In contrast with previous times when I have delivered a pre-planned craft activity, this time I am to devise an activity myself in line with the themes for the day: faith, community, diversity and inclusion.

18Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.

When given a problem I do not know how to solve, my first strategy is this: find someone who has solved this problem before, and ask them. I fired off an email to my art psychotherapist asking for suggestions. I needed a ten-minute activity with a one-word prompt, to go along with the themes for the day. After a brief exchange of ideas about structure, art materials, and underlying motivations, I went with the theme of sharing.

Year 3 from St Mary’s Church of England Primary School rotated around different tables at church in small groups, thinking about and discussing different aspects of our themes.

At my table, we asked

What might we share? What do people share with us?


Why do we share? Why is sharing important?

Answers ran the gamut from my Nintendo, the Bible, food and toys through to things we should not share: your credit card number. Among motivations for sharing, joy was commonly put forward, a bit of a surprise as I was expecting answers based on physical needs.

Then we got stuck in the the creative process, drawing pictures of what we might share and assembling a giant collage.

Sharing collage

Sharing collage.

Take delight in the Lord

Year 3 took their collage with them back to their classroom. I am left exhausted but exhilarated. I am finding it hard to accept how much I am enjoying It All. Early on in the journey, in the free fall furnishing my vertiginous descent into Christianity, I plied one of my disciplers with

But how can I trust this? How?

By this I meant Jesus, God, the Bible. Anything.

With that circular reasoning characteristic of an Evangelical, they offered scripture. As if that would help.

3Trust in the Lord, and do good;
so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
4Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
5Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him, and he will act.

A year later, it is dawning on me that the desires of your heart routine is a double-edged sword of laser precision. You will be given, in time, everything that you never knew that you wanted.

Not for human masters

23Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

As Richard moves into job-hunting territory, I, with God’s will and a following wind, move out of it. All of that getting stuck in at St Mary’s this past year has paid off. I have been offered a job in the St Mary’s church office.

I feel I can breathe again. That stage of the job hunt seems to be over. I have concerns though. When James mentioned the upcoming vacancy my first response was

Isn’t that really risky, working for your own Vicar.

To which James replied


At least we are on the same page, then.

The congregation seem delighted it will be me in the role, but I am wary. Will how they see me, change? I have been off work for some time now. Will I cope? What the heck does God have planned for me next?

At least, provided I do start as planned in a few days, I will have a new job title. Thus I have solved one problem which was bothering me: what to put on my LinkedIn.

This post comes with particular thanks to: nwg of Essex, the cheer squad, and everyone who cajoled, commiserated, believed in or prayed for or with me during the job hunt; everyone who agreed to provide a reference, met me for coffee, or pointed out a potential job. Most of all thanks to God for his guiding and guarding hand over all of us, and thanks to the good people of St Mary’s for giving me this opportunity.

Posted in career, careers, Children’s ministry, discernment, Faith, Life | Comments Off on Desires of my heart

The (Damaging) Power of Silence

There are many strategies for dealing with an overfull inbox, not all of which are helpful to the person who sent the email. I have weeks where I feel more or less on top of things and other weeks where too many slip through the cracks. Then I find myself, weeks later, sending an email saying ‘I do apologise for not replying sooner but….’ After that beginning I can try to find some plausible excuse along the lines of the dog ate my homework. However, these days I tend just to say ‘I’m afraid it got lost in my inbox’, which is usually the truth. Along these lines, I was amused to read a decade-old post of mine about constantly living on the edge of chaos, along with all its comments, which was complemented by the next post about the importance of knowing when to say no.

However, there is another way to deal with an overfull inbox, particularly when some of the emails are tricky or embarrassing to answer. That is to do absolutely nothing. Silence. Ignore the email, either as a deliberate strategy or in the hopes that if you don’t reply the whole problem will go away. Although I can’t say I have never used this strategy occasionally (but I hope not often), when someone does this to me in reverse, I find it intensely annoying. There was the time when I wrote to a colleague in Cambridge pointing out that the way he kept patting me on the arm through a dinner wasn’t particularly a problem for me at my advanced age, but might be regarded as totally inappropriate by a student. When no response was received, I felt strongly enough to send it again, to which I eventually received the reply ‘Athene, I got your email the first time.’ That was all. A totally inadequate response, but of course my original email had fallen into the ‘tricky or embarrassing to answer’ category. At least I felt I’d tried, not been complicit in letting bad behaviour go unremarked.

However, there are persistent offenders who simply do not answer when a direct question is addressed to them. If a PhD student asks ‘can I have access to your equipment?’ and you choose not to reply, where does that leave the student (or indeed their supervisor, if it gets escalated to them)? If an administrator tries to convene a meeting to discuss space utilisation, and the key professorial (robber) baron doesn’t acknowledge the email, let alone confirm a possible time to meet, how can space be fairly allocated? In both these cases, there is a power imbalance implicit in the situation, and a senior professor can get a long way by ignoring emails they would prefer not to answer. It is a very difficult situation to resolve, particular when someone is a long-term offender who hogs equipment, space etc but is never prepared to engage in a dialogue. Sadly, I have seen this situation (appropriately modified to any particular departmental situation) more times than I care to recall.

It is, of course, a form of bullying. Bullying by default. In my experience this passive sort of bullying is just as damaging to the local culture as anything else. If someone lower in the food chain tries similar behaviour, there tends to be recourse. If a PhD student silently but implicitly refuses to let another student use equipment, in principle (although in my experience most reluctantly) escalation through their supervisor may resolve the issue. It may not, however, lead to any sort of sanction being applied to the student in question, who then learns they can get away with being obstructive. They may anyhow have learnt this bad behavioural trait from their supervisor.  There is no doubt that students learn ‘acceptable’ behaviour from those around them; badly behaved supervisors can perpetuate a pattern of poor behaviour indefinitely.

To me, silence in these sorts of situation, including email, is a form of passive-aggressive behaviour that can be hugely damaging to an individual and a community. The one-off ‘oops’ moment, the email that slipped through the net inadvertently, the one put off and off because a reply is tricky until ultimately it vanishes from consciousness, that’s one type of failure. (Sadly, I would guess most of us have sometimes fallen into that trap; most certainly I have and usually with deep embarrassment when I realise this has occurred.) But, the repeat offender who thinks this is a good way to get on in the world is destructive to those around them, even if sadly it appears to be a constructive way to get on for the guilty party. It is , however, just one of the multitude of ways that enables a toxic culture to be built up, and one that is extremely difficult to unpick.

Posted in bullying, complicit, email, power imbalance, Science Culture | Comments Off on The (Damaging) Power of Silence