The Best* Thing About Having a Birthday

March 21, 2017

… is the resulting stack of to-be-read books by the bed

bedtime reading

I remember as a small child being quizzed about my birthday presents by an adult who didn’t know me very well. After I’d listed all the books I’d been given she asked, ‘but what else did you get? Didn’t you get any dolls?’

It took her about five repetitions to get the question across, because I had no idea what she was talking about (I kept hearing ‘bells’, which was only slightly more baffling to the six-year-old me than ‘dolls’) and had no conception that you might want anything more than books. If only she’d said ‘killer whale vertebra’ I’d have grasped her meaning much faster.

My birthday wishes have widened somewhat over the years, but even now, the prospect of having not just something, but a whole stack of books to read is an unalloyed pleasure, even if I’m not entirely sure when I will have the time to devour them all.

Equally delightful is a replacement apocalypse proof jacket from the other half, although on the whole I’d prefer not to put either its rain proofing or its apocalypse proofing to the test…

*Oh, okay, the best thing is cake for breakfast in bed. But this is the next best.


Ask a Busy Woman*

March 12, 2017

Finally, after a week in which I’ve almost had to schedule every waking hour to get everything done, I have managed to hit my last deadline, and now only have a small three-city mass bike demonstration to organise plus another active travel campaign for the local elections and the small matter of everything that’s been piling up while I’ve been too busy to do it.

Pedal on Parliament

BTW we’re crowdfunding POP this year, in case you missed it on Facebook, Twitter, my emails … click picture for more details

This has meant compressing the whole of potato day into half an hour (a post in itself), not nearly enough cycling, and spending six hours on various trains on Friday working solidly on my laptop as some of Scotland’s finest scenery passed unnoticed beside me. I was putting the final finishing touches to a piece of editing as the train pulled in to Inverness, and then it was only a small matter of getting a response in to the minister’s Active Travel Task Force about why local authorities might not be putting in ambitious cycling infrastructure (am I the only person who’s a little disappointed that this doesn’t seem to involve nearly enough gunboats? Sometimes talking softly and carrying a big stick is the way to go when it comes to some coonsils. Still, hard to get a battleship right up to East Dunbartonshire, I suppose).

scenery from the train

It’s a mug’s game trying to take photographs through the train window.

As I got back on the train again yesterday, I discovered that the Glasgow train doesn’t seem to come with power sockets, meaning all my plans for another productive session on the laptop came to naught. Fortunately, by then there was only the small matter of a crowdfunding campaign to launch – and there were others who were perfectly capable of getting everything done in my absence. It was no bad thing, in the end, to be forced to spend a few hours actually appreciating the scenery, and reading the weekend papers. Luxury.

Inverness – what little I managed to see of it – seemed really nice. One day I will return and check it out properly. Apart from anything else, it’s full of bikes…

Inverness bikes

* If she’d like to sit down with a nice cup of coffee and a biscuit, while you do one of the million things she’s taken on because people keep asking her to do them because she’s a busy woman who gets things done. It’s really the least you can do.

Time and Motion

February 23, 2017

So I’m gadding about again tomorrow, back to Aberdeen to talk about the Women’s Cycle Forum  so naturally I was still writing my presentation at the last minute. Well, I say writing, but my tactic with giving presentations is to throw together a lot of slides with images that illustrate what I want to say, and then stand in front of them and just wing it, because I’ve spent way too many hours of my life listening to a man in a suit reading his Powerpoint slides to us. It generally makes for an amusing,* if occasionally a bit random, presentation but it does take forever to create the slides, as I worked out this evening

Anyway, if you want to find out whether I ever did track down that image of a princess doll in a ball dress on a toy bike with a cup holder** that I thought was a celebration of cycle chic and everyone else on Twitter thought was the worst case of pinking it and shrinking it they’d seen in ages, then get yourselves along to Aberdeen to hear from a couple of awesome cycling women, and me.

* At least I hope it’s amusing. People laugh, anyway, and you don’t always get that in road safety conferences.

** Spoiler alert: I didn’t

Get a Mac. Or, you know, Don’t

February 14, 2017

It seems to be an iron law of freelancing that whenever you think you might, just, if everything goes to plan, get everything done that you need to do by the time you need to do it – that that is when fate will throw a massive spanner in the works. Or rather, fate doesn’t need to throw anything, it just needs to sit back with its feet up and watch as I leave my laptop power cable on a desk in an office in Guildford, travel blithely up to Palmer’s Green, spend forty minutes or so using the laptop unplugged in, realise I’d better feed it and only then work out what I’d done.

Thanks to the magic of Dropbox, my files were all fortunately available online. All I had to do was borrow my sister’s laptop and I could still get the work I needed to do done, until I was reunited with my own laptop’s power cable. And this is where Fate twists the dial slightly for extra sadism, as my sister’s laptop is a Mac, a wonderful sleek, shiny, MacBook Air that the whole of Twitter suggests I should switch to whenever I moan about my Windows laptop. So wonderfully sleek and shiny that it hides distressingly ugly unglamorous things like scroll bars from you until you give it the right esoteric gesture on the touch pad (two fingers, appropriately enough). So slim and minimalist that it doesn’t have a delete key, only a backspace key and it doesn’t have a page down key because that’s what the scroll bars are for only YOU CAN’T FIND THE SODDING SCROLL BAR because it has hidden it from you when you stopped using it for a second.

Having spent an hour or two last night resisting the temptation to turn my sister’s laptop into a sleek, aerodynamic, shiny frisbee, I thought I’d better get up early this morning to give myself time to get on with some work, adjusting for all the time I was going to have to spend hunting for the disappearing scroll bar. Which was when I remembered she had a password on her mac and I had forgotten it, and the guest account had parental controls on it, and apparently one of the websites that had been banned was one that Word wanted to visit every single time I clicked on it. Who knows what naughty things Word wanted to look at (illicit scroll bars, probably, the dirty tart) because there wasn’t any way of telling it not to bother and it wouldn’t do anything until it had done so so I was stymied until someone in the household got up and could remember the password.

Anyway, thanks to Backonmybike, and an afternoon spent travelling around approximately two-thirds of the Southwest Trains network (it’s always nice to get the full use out of your Oyster card…) I have been reunited with my laptop’s power cable and my laptop is once again in use. After a brief pause to play ‘guess where the Mac has moved your file to mysteriously without being asked’, I have transferred my work back onto the undoubtedly clunky arms of my own computer and all is more or less all right with the world again, for, slow and annoying though it most certainly is, it is my slow and annoying computer and I am used to its little ways.

And now, as a bonus, I have a post I can point people to on Twitter the next time they smugly suggest that I get a Mac. Now all I have to do is spend a pointless day fruitlessly trying to make a linux installation work without having to hand edit a config file, and my life will be complete.

What I Preach

January 27, 2017

They say, if you want tips on getting a good night’s sleep, ask an insomniac, because the people who actually sleep well every night just go to bed and fall asleep and have no idea how they do it. Similarly, if you want advice on avoiding procrastination, ask a procrastinator … but do remember to give them a firm deadline or you may be waiting a long time.

As it happens, this came up at my writers’ group (after we’d just postponed starting our session by two weeks, in a rare example of synchronised procrastination, which is harder than it looks) and I somehow volunteered to jointly run a session on becoming more productive as a writer (stop laughing at the back there). Fortunately there was a firm deadline, and – as I was putting off doing something else more important at the time – I ended up doing a fair bit of reading on the topic and managed to put together an interesting and (apparently) quite effective evening. It ended up as a cross between a group therapy session and a stationery sales convention (there’s nothing quite like a new notebook, calendar or pack of coloured post it notes to take the sting out of actually getting on and doing something, and if that doesn’t turn your crank, then there’s always the option to set up an elaborate spreadsheet).

Anyhow, I thought I had better put my money where my mouth is, so I have made a commitment to try something along the lines of this, to make sure that I make time for my own writing alongside all the other important things I seem to have agreed to do. Today I set up the calendar on my phone and scheduled my first week’s worth of writing sessions – and so far (accountability is everything) I have got that first crucial half hour under my belt, as well as managing to power through a few more things on my to do list.

The problem is, while I feel I’ve actually achieved a fair bit today (and I still managed to spend at least half an hour getting a tricky game of Spider solitaire out), there’s still effectively an infinite number of things I have to do (winning at Spider Solitaire wasn’t one of them, either). One of these days – when I get to the bottom of my current to do list – I shall start learning how to say no to things and concentrate on what’s truly important. Unfortunately, with the way the world is these days, that seems to be everything…

Meanwhile, if you’d like a funny, a bit sweary, but accurate analysis of procrastination, I recommend you start here.

Those Holiday Snaps in Full

December 28, 2016
view from the balcone

“…and here’s the view from our balcony”

Just kidding – after two weeks blogging absence you’ll be relieved to hear I’m not going to subject you to the full ‘and here is the view from the balcony looking the other way’ holiday slide show experience. But there were a few things I wanted to tell you about so stand by …

1. I have veg plot envy

La Gomera vegetable plot

For the second week we stayed in a casa rural on a small organic farm in a lush little valley where orange groves rub shoulders with potato patches and I am so incredibly jealous of the tiny little smallholdings clinging to the hillsides, because oh what a vegetable plot I could have here. I’m particularly taken with the way our host grows his lettuces in a neat spiral – for ease of irrigation, we assume, and although irrigation is not an issue at home, I may well adopt a similar layout for the new vegetable garden. And hell, we’ve already got the terracing in the garden at home, so we’re practically half way there


Look, we’re half way there already. just need to persuade some orange trees to grow in Scotland …

2. I have not cycled for a fortnight and I don’t care.

steps to the apartment

For a place like Playa Santiago, which is mostly steps, there were a surprisingly large number of bikes kicking about – not just road bikes being ridden by men in Lycra with the calves of superheros, but ordinary bikes with baskets and even a fair few folding bikes. In fact, a folder might make sense because outside of the approximately 500m of sea front in both San Sebastian and Playa de Santiago, La Gomera does not do flat, so anyone riding a bike is either toiling painfully uphill or gingerly descending down around narrow hairpin bends. A folder might give you the ultimate in Gomeran cycling – ride it downhill in the morning, and then chuck it in a taxi for the ride home. Although given the squirrely nature of the Brompton at speed, I’m not sure I’d even fancy that on some of the roads around here.

bench with pedals

3. We don’t walk anything like enough at home.

Los Gatos, La Gomera

The active travel mode of choice here is walking and so we’ve borrowed a book of walks written by someone who is apparently four-fifths mountain goat. So far we’ve managed at best a third of one of the easier ones. Book or no book, there are hiking paths anywhere and some of them seem like amazing shortcuts (30km by road, only 7km on foot) until you realise there’s a reason why they didn’t build a road over that ridge.

coastal path

‘Let’s try the coastal path, because it might be a bit easier,’ I said.

There are people who appear to make a thing of walking around the island and you can recognise them by their knee supports, hiking poles and the thousand yard stare that comes from realising that when their book of walks describes a stretch as ‘a steady climb’ it means a switch-backing scramble up a near vertical hillside, and that they have several kilometres of ‘steady climbing’ to go before lunch.

switchback path

“The path then climbs steadily for the next kilometre …”

A walk in La Gomera – hell, even coming back to our apartment from the sea front in Playa de Santiago – means doing more climbing than a postman in a tower block in a power cut. In the first week we almost killed ourselves and had to take a day to recover after each walk, but we have started to shape up a bit and have done a lot more walking, albeit with frequent stops to ‘admire the view’ ‘check out that tree for birds’ and ‘test to see if this rock is a comfortable as it looks’. Indeed, on our last full day we excelled ourselves by wondering if the path went all the way up to the ridge you can see in the distance – and discovered that, why yes, it did.

distant ridge

I am not kidding, the path went all the way up to the little notch you can see in the distance, and so did we


There was some amazing Laurisilva cloud forest on the other side, too*

Laurisilva forest

Literally 50 yards away, on the other side of the ridge, it was all agave and prickly pear. Microclimates in action

4. Hello birds, hello trees.

La Gomera plant

I got a bit obsessed with this bush which grew pretty much everywhere …

I hang my head in shame, but it’s been a while since we did much serious bird watching, but when there are actual canaries flitting around in the bushes you have to make the effort. We’ve done some proper bird watching (the kind where you need to distinguish between a buff or an off-white supercilium) and some just enjoying the spectacle kind (five kestrels enjoying a thermal at eye level to the rock where you are sitting ‘enjoying the view’? Here you go, then) and both have been great. Also the Monty Python fan in me can’t help but enjoy asking ‘African or European?’ as we attempt to identify the collared dove that has landed on our apartment balcony.

La Gomera plant

Not a legume

I also wish that despite over a decade working at Kew I knew more about plants than just being able to identify whether something is a legume or a not-a-legume. There are some fantastic plants here but I have no idea what most of them are. Except for the ones producing avocados, lemons, papayas, mangoes and chestnuts in the garden of our casa rural … did I mention I have veg plot envy?

tree in the plaza, Playa de Santiago

Now these are street trees

5. I can survive without the Internet.

map reading cat

It does help to have local knowledge when planning routes

Well, sort of. OK, so I’ve coughed up the 35p a day to get enough data on my phone to check email, send the odd tweet and google things (because without the internet we are now all completely helpless). But 10MB is not enough to do much more than that – I can forget whiling away a whole evening on Twitter, for a start. Instead we’ve had time to talk, chill out and above all read books. And that’s the rub. I had forgotten how quickly I can get through books when I’m not distracted by everything else. Back in the day, half my suitcase would be taken up with books when I went on holiday (and even then, one of them would be something heavy going by Dickens, to stop myself from tearing through them all in the first few days), but that was before they started charging for checked luggage (and weighing your carry on, for crying out loud). Having only shelled out for 20kg for both of us on this trip I panicked and made the fatal mistake of bringing too few books to read. Fortunately the local tourism office has a book swap arrangement but the choice is somewhat limited if you don’t speak German. I know, I know, you’re all screaming ‘Kindle’ at me at this point – and I think I may have to succumb if we ever do this again. Because while it’s been a real treat to reacquaint myself with the pleasure of settling down of an afternoon with a cup of coffee to hand and a good book – it’s been less so to remember the horror of being only one book away from having absolutely nothing to read.

Valley in La Gomera

*’Cloud forest’ sounds so much better than ‘dreich’, doesn’t it? I wonder if the Dumfries and Galloway tourist board isn’t missing a trick here. Forget messing around with the ‘Dark Skies Park’ and rebrand half the county as cloud forest and you’re laughing …

bush growing from rock

Back to the Future

December 13, 2016

So, tomorrow we set off on our Christmas holiday which in a break from our usual tradition will involve visiting neither set of parents. Instead, we’re possibly foolishly attempting to recreate a fondly remembered holiday we took some time in the last century* in La Gomera.

Back then,* booking a holiday involved sending off for a brochure (in this case it was a pack of postcards), choosing the accommodation you wanted and ringing up to book it, then sending off a cheque* to pay for it. We were met on arrival at the island by the resident holiday rep who had sorted out a hire car, introduced us to his favourite bar, and then left us to get on with it. We knew absolutely nothing about the place, and I only chose it because the holiday company advertised every week in the Guardian Weekend supplement and eventually wore down my resistance through pure repetition. Our research consisted of buying the Lonely Planet guide book and a teach-yourself-Spanish cassette* and our visit consisted of driving around La Gomera’s precipitous roads, hiking, bird watching, and then deciding which of the seven restaurants in the town we would eat at that night, bearing in mind that they took it in turns to be closed on different nights of the week and we didn’t want to repeat ourselves. During the week we were there we heard absolutely no news at all, with our only contact from the outside world being the evening we spent in a bar where a football match was on the television, apparently being played in a blizzard. On our arrival home we quizzed the cabbie (this was back when you could afford to take a taxi from Heathrow*) about what news we had missed and he couldn’t think of anything (I believe it may have been during the Major government – ah, happy uneventful years) although when pressed he did dredge up a mention of the football match. We have been to many more exciting places and seen and done many more ‘bucket-listy’ type things, but that holiday remains one of my fondest memories.

Of course, arranging this holiday has been way more complicated, thanks to the Internet, which meant a painful evening of trying to sort through a bewildering variety of options until eventually I just plumped for a couple of places that sounded okay and were available at the right time. Since then, I’ve been able to stalk the local weather forecast (sunny and 21C at the moment, thanks for asking), check out the accommodation on Google Streetview, fail to learn any more Spanish than we got to with our cassette the first time (dos cervezas por favor) and order a comprehensive bird guide. On mature reflection, given the steepness of the terrain, we will not be doing any cycling, so it’s back to the hiking boots and binoculars. Last time we failed to conclusively identify the one possible canary we thought we saw. This time we hope we will do better.

One aspect of the holiday may be rather too reminiscent of the last time, however. In my haste to get something booked, I neglected to check whether our accommodation actually had any WiFi. The place where we are staying for the first week has, rather ominously, WiFi in ‘some rooms’. The place where we are staying for the second week – a remote cottage on an organic farm in the interior – does not mention any WiFi at all. This may make for an interesting few days…

I could spend the next fortnight desperately hunting for hotspots in order to keep up on Twitter, post the odd blog post, and trying to stop the pile of email that will await me from becoming overwhelming. But on the whole I’m inclined to try and roll with it, get some reading done and unwind. It will either kill me, or do me good.

And oh how wonderful would it be to get back to the UK and discover that nothing at all noteworthy has happened in the world while we’ve been away…

* stop me if I start to sound old here at any point.