Sunday, 4 February 2018

Time to be a Time Lord

The continuing adventures of a woman trying to achieve forty things before she hits the grand old age of forty, although not necessarily in the right order...

Number 1: Appear in a Doctor Who story (achieved – sort of)

I’ll start this with a huge THANK YOU to the charity Children’s Hospices Across Scotland (CHAS), my friend Rebecca and everyone at Capital Sci Fi Con for helping me tick off one of my biggest life goals.

It’s a long time since I started my forty things for forty list. Basic Maths will reveal how close the deadline is. There’s no way I’ll achieve it all in time, but it’s been fun trying. I’ve learned new skills, visited exciting places and enjoyed time with friends old and new.

Having been a Doctor Who fan since the age of 9, which is ... no way I’m telling you how many years ... the first and most important goal was always going to be: ‘appear in a Doctor Who story’.

It’s also one of the trickiest. You can’t phone up the BBC and say ‘hello I’d like a spot on one of your most popular franchises. Yes I’m a serious actor / writer type. No I’m not just a massive fan. Yes, I am currently wearing a long scarf. Wait! Don’t put down the phone ...’

Until Capital Sci Fi Con, the closest I came to achieving my goal was listening to Dr Who audio adventures. Several feature McGann’s Doctor and his companion Charley. An even closer match is the Tom Baker story featuring ‘Charlotte from the village’: like me she’s from a village in Devon and is a Bowie fan.

Close, but not actually me. As a last resort, I started writing my own Who novel.

Then came Capital Sci Fi Con. For anyone who hasn’t been, it’s an IMMENSE event, organised by fans, for fans, for the charity CHAS.

I arrived to a queue around the block. The last time I attended a conference I was 14 so it was ... a while ago. My friend and I were pretty much the only females there. What is lovely about Capital Sci Fi Con is that fans represented all ages, genders, backgrounds and abilities. There were families; couples; friends; hobby groups. It makes for a wonderful atmosphere. Welcoming, friendly and inclusive.

And the costumes! My word. So much effort, detail and love had gone into them.

In terms of the event itself, I could go on for pages about how well organised and fun it was. I can do more of that in my TFN column. For now the main goal: appearing in a Doctor Who story.

I took the opportunity to be photographed with as many monsters, actors and robots as possible in my ‘lash-up’ costume. (Classic Dr Who for me involves some sort of velvet / hat / boot combo.)

I got menaced, threatened at gun point, mock throttled, hugged and fought things off with a light sabre. I struck a Doctor pose inside the TARDIS doorway. The hilarious Terry Molloy (Davros) stuck my Davros figurine up his nose. He probably increased the value by £200.

The final shout out, though, goes to the wonderful Julian Glover. He’s been in Indiana Jones, Game of Thrones, James Bond, Blake’s 7 and pretty much anything you ever enjoyed watching.

For me, he will always be Skaroth (Count Scarlioni) in City of Death. Famous for its Paris location and witty dialogue, mainly courtesy of the wonderful Douglas Adams, City of Death is a classic ‘70s Who story about an alien stealing the Mona Lisa.

I approached Mr Glover a little nervously and explained what I’d like him to do.

There’s a favourite exchange in City of Death between the Count (spoiler- he’s an alien) and Countess Scarlioni:

“My Dear, he’s not as stupid as he seems.”
“My Dear, nobody could be as stupid as he seems.”

It’s one of my favourite exchanges. I have to stop myself adapting it as a retort whenever people say they’re ‘not as stupid as they look’. You lose friends that way.

To cut a long story slightly more mid-length: Mr Glover agreed to be filmed delivering the lines with me. He did it beautifully and didn’t bat an eyelid.

To be fair, for an actor on the sci fi conference circuit, it’s probably not the weirdest thing he’s been asked to do.

Thanks to everyone at CHAS, Capital Sci Fi Con and especially the beautiful Julian Glover, for making my nine-year-old self’s dream come true.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

A pantomime and some very patient friends

No. 11 ‘Have a play performed’ Achieved??

I grew up in a small village in Devon. I was a very shy child and spent most of my time up trees or having wonderful adventures sailing a picnic table that my Dad had helped turn into a pirate boat by putting a proper hoist-able sail in the umbrella hole. (Before you judge, there’s not much to do in Devon. You need a lot of imagination.)

One of the things that really helped to bring my out of my shell was something called ‘Children’s Theatre’. Each autumn I would pull my nose out of whichever book I was reading and gleefully join my friends down at the local Village Hall to audition for the Christmas pantomime. Those performances were the making of my character and confidence. There is nothing quite like getting a round of applause, or even better a laugh, from the audience. Because I was in character, I didn’t feel nervous. It wasn’t me on stage; it was the Witch’s cat, PC Dim the policeman or the vegetable fairy. I even ad libbed a bit, with decent results. It swiftly became one of the highlights of my year.

I wouldn’t say amateur dramatics solved all my confidence issues, I was still pretty socially awkward at secondary school (and some might say I still am) but it was a tradition I kept up through my twenties. By that time, Tinbad the Tailor was replaced by the Femme Fatale in Sherlock Holmes, or the wife in School for Scandal. I loved the costumes, the scripts, the intensity of rehearsals, the lights, the props and the final applause. Being in a fantasy world for a few hours can make the trials and harshness of adult life a little bit more bearable.

As well as being involved on the stage side of things, I’ve been in the audience for some fabulous performances over the years including ‘Noises Off’, ‘the Woman in Black’ and more recently a wonderful version of ‘1984’, one of my favourite books. At school I used to relish the opportunity to go to Stratford and see the RSC in performance and I still adore a good performance of Shakespeare. Theatre remains one of my greatest loves and the times spent around the stage, whether in the wings, on, or off it, have been some of my happiest.

I don’t do any theatre work now as a full time job makes it difficult to commit to the same degree. Rehearsals and performances can be emotionally and physically exhausting, plus the time commitment makes it tricky. Before finally taking a break, I tried my hand not only at both comedy and more serious acting, but also at prompting, props (which I loved) and even Directing, although I don’t think I was very good at it. So it made sense that something on my ‘to do’ list should involve the theatre. Even more obviously to me, it should involve my first love: writing.

I’ve written plays in the past, but not to any degree of success. The structure is something I struggle with. You not only have to be able to pull together the plot and characterisation successfully, you also have to work out whether something works visually. I’ve tried writing thrillers for example and only realised in reading back that I’ve left a character standing on stage for twenty pages, having forgotten they were there.

As the years are rolling by much quicker than my efforts to complete this list (and my access to the RSC is severely limited) achieving a performance was going to have to be a lot lower key than originally envisaged. Not for me the performance of ‘An Inspector Calls’ with rain machine and a three quarter sized house that tilts all the crockery off the walls in act two to symbolise ‘discord’.

This year has been more difficult than most, balancing studying for an MBA with a full-time job (and a major appeal at that). One of the things that has suffered and which I miss most is creative writing. So, I resorted to my staples in times of stress: humour and friendship. In the same way as ‘having something published’ (also on the list) ended up being an article, rather than the Booker-prize winning novel I had hoped for, my play was not even close to the Ibsen-like tragedy, or even slick farce that it could have been. Instead the result was around 5 minutes of incredibly silly pantomime, based around the slightly eccentric personalities of a group of my friends. Slightly too niche even for one of those Edinburgh Festival performances where they use someone’s spare toilet as a venue. I was worried at the time that exaggerating for comic effect might lead to them not being friends any more (!) but bless them, they entered whole-heartedly into the spirit of it. Sound effects were provided, props were wielded and one of them even wore a tutu.

Shakespeare it may not have been, but people seemed to have fun and in the end, as I have learned, if you’re able to make people laugh it’s not such a bad thing.

Thanks to everyone who humoured me in this process. And thanks for still being my friends!

(There are no photos. It’s probably not such a bad thing…)

The full list

For those who have been struggled to make sense of 'the list'.  (Admittedly writing the list in alphabetical order, then writing the blog entries in order of achievement, is confusing.)

1.        Appear in a Doctor Who story ü Achieved, with the help of the lovely Julian Glover

2.       Be a TV/film extra

3.       Buy a home (preferably by the sea) ü Achieved, hurray!

4.       Buy a piano/keyboard

5.       Canoe/see penguins in Antarctica

Fair to say the above is one of my more expensive and ambitious goals. Puffins on Craighleith don’t count.

6.       Drive up the coast of Western Australia, snorkel with whale sharks ü Achieved

(I missed the whale sharks by a week but, meh.)

7.       Get a rabbit

8.       Achieve another qualification ü Achieved

I have gained a rather obscure MINST F (dip) which no-one bar the IoF has heard of. But I am studying for an MBA…

9.       Get something published ü Achieved

Originally I had imagined the item 'published' as being a Booker prize winning novel, but will settle for online/print articles and a regular column.

10.   Go to a festival ü Achieved

11.   Have a play performed ü Well, judge for yourselves…

12.   Learn a martial art

13.   Learn a new language ü Achieved

I learned Spanish via audiobooks, although to date it focuses around ordering wine, buying shoes and finding the toilet.

14.   Learn to fly a plane

15.   Learn to rock climb properly ü Achieved

16.   Learn to scuba dive

17.   Learn to surf

18.   Do a Nile cruise and see the pyramids in Egypt

Again, the above is more bucket list than short-term goal, especially on my salary, but it’s good to aim high.

19.   Rafting in New Zealand

20.   Run the Marathon du Medoc in France

This is the only marathon I will consider as it involves wine and nibbles. I’ve done two half marathons so far and drunk a lot of wine. Does that count?

21.   See a live volcano

22.   See an open air opera in Verona

23.   See David Bowie live L

Sadly the above is no longer possible, so I will have to make do with the wonderful V&A exhibition, fantastic album and less wonderful/fantastic tribute artist I saw.

24.   See gorillas in Rwanda

25.   See lemurs in Madagascar

26.   See orang-utans in Borneo

I did book to do the above, but then number 3, ‘buy a home’, took up all my available cash.

27.   Ski in at least 3 more countries/regions

Two new ski areas down plus a day of terrifying myself ski touring. Or, as I like to call it: ‘skiing uphill, followed by a long tumble back down again.’

28.   Start/run a charitable trust

29.   Swim with whales/dolphins

30.   Take part in a science experiment ü Achieved. Yes, the cheese puff experiment DOES count.

31.   Trek to Maccu Piccu

The above and the next couple below are, again, rather reliant on winning the Lottery. And I don’t play the Lottery.

32.   Visit Petra in Jordan

33.   Visit the Galapagos

34.   Walk Hadrian’s Wall

35.   Witness an eclipse ü Achieved in a very British tea-time way.

36.   Work/volunteer abroad ü Achieved

37.   Work/volunteer in an animal rescue centre

I haven’t yet followed up my certificate in advanced ‘bat rescue’.

38.   Write a science fiction novel

39.   Walk up Calton Hill ü I’d be frankly embarrassed if I’d not yet achieved this.

40.   See dolphins in Scotland ü Achieved

(I’m not sure why I didn’t put this one in alphabetical order. Meh. )

Sunday, 10 April 2016

A month outdoors and no hairy spiders

Number 6: Drive up the coast of West Australia and snorkel with Whale Sharks (achieved- mostly)

Of all the goals on my list, this is one of the most significant. I have been planning it for over 10 years. I started the moment my plane touched ground in the UK last time, returning from six months volunteering in Australia. Those times had been some of my most character building and memorable. Some were happy. Some were rather dramatic. Many provided inspiration for some of my best writing. All helped shape my life today and the adult I have become. (I use the word ‘adult’ loosely.)

You know I love a list. Just imagine: ten years of sub headings, spreadsheets and tick lists. How ironic, then, after so long planning that I should miss the Whale Sharks by about a week. Ah well. For those of you used to my shoddy time keeping, this might not be a surprise.

The lack of the world’s largest marine mammals did not dampen the experience. There were so many other fabulous wonders. To describe them all would take more words than a poor blog-reading audience could endure. My travel journal is over 250 pages long! So, I’ve tried to summarise the many sights, sounds and smells that Australia had to offer over the last month.

In terms of variety and itinerary, my planning did work well. Last time, having had a closer encounter with the interior outback than intended, a major aim was to stick to the coastal edges and let someone else do the driving. In addition, there were places I wanted to return to, old and new friends and family to meet and areas I had yet to visit. Sitting with a map in front of me, I found myself marvelling at how stupidly big Australia is. ‘So if I just hop on a train from here to...oh four days. Right.’

Somehow between planes, trains, ferries, buses and cars I still managed to cover a lot of ground. I started on the east coast in Sydney, with its iconic harbour, botanic gardens, glorious national parks and some fantastic chocolate sundaes. Via train to Bungendore and Canberra, I watched the rolling hills and dry farmlands of New South Wales pass my window, with the occasional kangaroo hopping towards the shade. Getting lost in Melbourne was fun; the hipster districts and south bank arts scene, beer o’clock in the sunshine and just wandering and wondering past the mix of historic and modern buildings.

The next two weeks were spent exploring the West Coast. Stepping off the plane, the heat enveloped me like a warm blanket. For someone who spent the last two years working in a crypt in Scotland it was like recharging my batteries.
From attractive Perth and Fremantle we drove through tall forests of peeling red gums towards wineries and some of the most stunning beaches I’ve ever visited- with barely a person on them. We camped for several nights in a national park, with gaudy parrots, galahs and big fluffy kookaburras for company. Fortunately I didn’t share a tent with any snakes or spiders!

The final week was a group tour up the coast to Exmouth. When booking I had been worried it would be like an incredibly late gap year and I would be the age of everyone’s granny. My concerns were unwarranted. I met some of the loveliest people to share that beautiful coastline with.

Having spent so much time previously on the East, the West was a real contrast. There are less people for a start and many, many miles between sights. I loved the views of semi-arid desert, broken by anthills and the odd emu. Rock sites like the Kalbarri (where we abseiled in the early morning), dolomites and stromatolites were like alien landscapes, built and decorated with unique colours and formations.

We stayed in a ranch, sharing our kitchen some many-legged creatures, and a magical beachside resort in Monkey Mia where the dolphins came to the shore for breakfast. (We didn’t eat them.) The snorkelling, too, was magical even without the Whale Sharks. In water that was cold for Australia, a mere 26%, we swam through blue and turquoise ripples with clown fish, catfish and fantastic corals. It was like another world down there, one I would love to explore further. (Learning to dive is on the list.)

On the return to Perth there was sand boarding to try, resulting in face plants and pockets of sand, then an animal rescue centre where we made friends with an adorable baby kangaroo. Every day ended with the most glorious sunset. Nature really did put on a show.

All good things come to an end. Fortunately for me, my last weekend included a whistle stop return to the place where I had been so happy before: Batreach animal rescue centre in tropical Queensland. From dry deserts to sticky heat.

Winding up the mountain road I couldn’t help grinning at the remembered landscape; slopes of rainforest trees leading down to the coral sea. Kuranda, atop its tropical mountain, really does feel like an outpost. I even returned to Cairns via a historic railway that carved its way through the rainforest.

At Batreach I was greeted by an unchanged sight: the little wooden hut on the edge of the rainforest. My fruitbat friends squawked a welcoming racket. Some of the individual bats I worked with were still alive after twelve years absence. How incredible. There were new furry friends too, like a baby possum who treated me like a climbing frame. Such strange familiarity; sitting with a glass of chilled wine on the veranda, looking out into the tangle of jungle barely kept at bay. It was as though the years between had never existed.

My overriding memories of Australia will be of beautiful landscapes and lovely people, of fruit and veg ripened in the warm weather and some of the most stunning wildlife I’ve ever experienced. After a month living out of a bag I was ready to come home, but I know one day I will return. There is still more to do, even on this list of forty things. I didn’t learn to surf, or swim with dolphins. And then there are the elusive Whale Sharks. Better start planning now...

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Fundraising in the sun- and some very large pumpkins

Some reflections on the last so far
When I first compiled the list back in 2012 I had specific pictures in mind. Sunny climates, large-scale monuments, exciting wildlife and new challenges, all enjoyed in the company of friends old and new.

It was an exhaustive list and one which I realised, even then, I would never complete in the time available. (At least not without a sudden influx of cash!) To have achieved some of the goals has of course been wonderful. But just as important, for me, has been the journey itself. Many of these entries have been about progressing towards the event; running half a marathon, skiing two of three new areas, starting to write or learn or explore.

Perhaps it’s the fault of my imagination, but few of the experiences have matched the pictures I had in my head. However, that has very much been a good thing. ‘Getting published’, for example, was not about a shiny book cover on the shelf of Waterstones or a Booker Prize. (There is still time for these!) It has involved the discovery of a whole new world of writing: blogs, columns, short stories and even social networking. Recently I was even called upon to deliver a writing workshop. In sharing my learning, I again remembered what has been so fabulous about this list: the people I have shared it with, the surprises I have had, the feeling not only of accomplishment, but of there still being so much, still, to achieve.

What a journey to be sharing with some of my very favourite people.

Number 36: Work/volunteer abroad

Being offered the opportunity to work in America for ten days was definitely one of the big surprises in the list so far. Working for a small charity with a very restricted budget, there was no way I would have considered being able to travel as part of my job. When the Trustees suggested I accompany my boss to Washington and Alexandria, I felt slightly surreal. America? For work? Really??

The trip came in the middle of an extraordinary month, which started with a half marathon (my second), progressed through a gala dinner with Alexander McCall Smith and finished with delivering two workshops at the Scottish fundraising conference. With so much on I had little time for the reality of the trip to sink in. The day before it suddenly hit me. I was going to a destination I hadn’t chosen, on a flight someone else had booked, to stay with someone I’d met once, to do ... well, what needed doing. As someone who normally organises their holidays with a spreadsheet at least three months in advance, I was right out of my comfort zone. 80% excited. 10% terrified. But it was quite a big 10%.

As usual my comfort lay in writing. I bought a sexy moleskine journal to record my thoughts and experiences while travelling, as well as my work notes. There is something very reassuring about a moleskine. This reassurance turned out to be much needed as I arrived at Edinburgh airport to be told I was currently ‘on the waiting list’ for my connection to London. These are exactly the words a stressed lady needs to hear. I was given a voucher for free coffee and muffin. Normally I love a free cake. As a substitute for a flight, it ain’t much cop. I turned to the moleskine and poured my concerns into it. It didn’t respond much, but somehow the process of writing the experience down made it a bit less worrying.

As with my previous lost-luggage-flight-connection-bomb-scare experience in Paris, all ended well, but it wasn’t the start I would have chosen.

When I added ‘work or volunteer abroad’ to this list, I perhaps had in mind my previous experience at an animal rescue centre in the Australian rainforest. America was very different, but equally rewarding, tiring and enjoyable.

I am eternally grateful to the family who put me up (and put up with me) for ten days. Having a base that was a living home, complete with young children, was at sometimes a challenge, but it was a much more real experience than staying in a characterless hotel.

The house was based in one of the most attractive areas of North Virginia, on the original estate of Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. Eagles circled in a blue sky above enormous trees. In the times between working and socialising with the family, I was able to rewind by walking along the nearby cycle path and admire the autumnal leaves: custard yellow, fiery red and burnt orange.

On my day off I took the Metro to spend the day in Washington. Uncertain as to whether I’d ever get back there, I did a self-guided walking tour of various memorials. Each had its own unique character, the piercing needle of Washington, the fountains of World War Two, the peaceful Reflecting Pool, the enormous Lincoln Memorial. More sobering were the Vietnam, Korean and Martin Luther King memorials. All provoked very differing emotions, although I began to feel very aware of my lack of knowledge of American History.

I could spend another 500 words at least talking about Old Town Alexandria, Mount Vernon, Arlington Cemetary or that possum I spied in the park. I almost filled my Moleskine diary with various reflections. There were times when I definitely felt out of my comfort zone, but I’m sure that did me some good.

Balancing work across the UK and US was tiring. Waking child-assistedly early I was able to coordinate communications and activities back home via email, despite being 5 hours behind. I was hugely aware of how much the trip meant and how much depended on it, so spent much time planning, contacting, researching and planning again. Every meeting, communication or gathering we had or made in the States had to count. We only had one chance to get it right.

However, my one overriding memory is of how welcome I was. Every single person I met went out of their way to make me feel at home. (Except the security man at the Air and Space Museum who just shouted ‘bag’ at me, making me wonder whether he was mugging me or deriding my appearance.) From those I met at work events to the family I stayed with, the churches I attended and the people who shared my morning unloading pumpkins from a big lorry (one of my favourite experiences) every single person was lovely.

From a work point of view, the trip definitely paid off. In addition, for me, travelling to another country and experiencing a very different culture was a reminder that my way of seeing the world is not the only way. I took many lessons home.

I have to admit, sitting on the veranda drinking beer in the sunshine having just had a number of cheques handed to me did make me wonder... might there be a fundraising job in America???

For now, back to Edinburgh with memories to cherish.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Ground breaking science part two!

The continuing adventures of a girl trying to achieve forty things before she hits the grand old age of forty, although not necessarily in the right order...

When I first drew up my list of forty things, I didn’t actually stop to think how many of them were achievable within the time-frame. It was, therefore, a complete coincidence that number 35- Witness an eclipse, occurred on March 20th 2015.

I did imagine it would be a bit more dramatic; perhaps standing in a blistering desert watching the sky plunge into apocalyptic darkness. However, happen it did and as we all know the list is the list, so here’s the blog.

I should say before I continue that that sounds ungrateful. It was fun and I’m glad it happened, especially as even Prof Cox would struggle to engineer an unplanned eclipse. There is that episode in Red Dwarf where they use the planets like pool balls, but I digress.

The universe rather handily timed the eclipse for my Friday morning off work. As I work in a basement, it would otherwise have been very annoying. Scotland also did a good job of pulling off some pretty decent weather. All the elements having done their fare share, I did my own preparation for the eclipse by running around an extinct volcano. As a sci-fi fan, I’m aware that unusual scientific phenomena are often accompanied by monsters/zombies. It’s always good to be fit for the occasion.

My fellow scientist and I assembled the optimum lab conditions (some sunny garden steps and a nice cup of earl grey) and set up our observation station (a home-made pin-hole camera). Like the Doctor I’m very keen on a home-made ‘lash up’. In his case, perhaps a neutrino converter knocked up with the aid of a multi-quatiscope, sonic screwdriver, some fiddly bits of wire and some string. In our case our pin hole camera was, well, a pin hole in a bit of envelope actually, but it did the trick.   

As I say, it could have been more dramatic. I recall the eclipse a few years back. I witnessed that one sat in a Cornish fog and the sky really did plunge into full night-time darkness. This time it was more a case of an eerie half light. Enough to make the birds sound a bit confused, but not quite apocalyptic enough to lure out the unusual phenomena or monsters. Still I didn’t regret my pre-science run. It made it easier to enjoy the post-science fried potatoes. I was a bit jealous of the next door neighbours’ slightly more impressive pin hole box viewer and digital camera, but then that’s the point of a lash up. It’s lashed up.

So the would-be apocalypse went very peacefully. My tea got a bit cold and so did I. No aeroplanes fell out of the sky. No zombies appeared. The pin hole sized sun projected onto our bit of cardboard went a funny shape, then back into a circle again. The world returned to normal.

Perhaps this blog entry might have been more exciting if I’d witnessed the eclipse from an aeroplane over the Hebrides. Instead, I enjoyed it with a cup of tea on a nice morning sitting in the garden.

However, in my mind the moral of this story is that nice, peaceful days are sometimes just as worthy of recording as dramatic ones. When you have a bit of a flat day, it is often the memory of a pleasant beach walk, or a sunny morning sat in the garden drinking tea, that you go to for good cheer.

Life can’t all be about running away from Daleks and actually that’s a good thing, as I’m sure the Doctor would agree.