16 Jun

The Magic Passageway

When lockdown started, we were very grateful for the magic passageway.

On reflection, I suppose the stranger thing is how ungrateful we had been for it before. I always wanted a secret door behind a bookcase, and the familiarity of the magic passageway made it seem banal by comparison. It had always been there, and there didn’t seem to be any reason for it. A secret door had to have something exciting behind it, or why would you make it secret? It wouldn’t just lead to the corner of Emma’s parents’ airing cupboard.

Emma was keen for a full-size snooker table, plus the slidey scoreboards and ideally a pair of bright white gloves to wear when handling the balls, so I suppose I was at least a little closer to having what I wanted.

Still, lockdown came, and with the school year unexpectedly cut short and only our parents and Joe Wicks for company otherwise, we made all the use we could of the magic passageway. Easy enough for me, who only had to squirm through the little hatch to the eaves in my loft-conversion bedroom; a challenge for Emma, whose parents (one working from home and endlessly distracted, one furloughed and discovering parenting for the first time) may have taken her crawling into the airing cupboard as a sign that she was not coping well with isolation. So mostly we exchanged toys and sweets and notes, the last of which was strictly pointless when we could message each other any time we wanted, but felt wonderful nonetheless. And sometimes, when granted an opportunity by conference calls, exercise, the big shop or the middle of the night, we met up.

‘Isn’t this kind of against the rules?’ Emma whispered one four a.m.

We hadn’t talked about it before. We hadn’t talked about any of it when we met up: we did all our poor-taste jokes and anxiety on our phones, and kept the magic passageway for other subjects.

‘We haven’t gone outside,’ I said. ‘If we haven’t gone outside it’s OK.’

‘But you’re not at home. You’re at my house.’

‘Only in the cupboard. And it’s just like a corridor, anyway. It’s just like we’re in the same house.’

Emma thought about it for a bit, rolling her miniature cue ball around the palm of her hand. ‘But,’ she said, ‘my mum and dad don’t know about it, and your mum doesn’t. They’d know if they lived in the same house. It’s not the same.’

‘It’s not our fault if they don’t know about it. And there’s only six of us.’

‘And some people live in blocks of flats,’ Emma continued, ‘so they wouldn’t have to go outside to see each other, and they do just have to go down a corridor. But they’re not allowed to visit each other.’

‘But-‘

‘And then what if dad got poorly and then I got poorly and then you got poorly and then your mum got poorly and then your grandma-‘

The cue ball rolled off her palm and hit the bare floorboards with a thud, softer than the full-size version she coveted would have made, but still loud enough that we each held our breath. I could have scrambled back through the passageway and tumbled out into the eaves, of course, but that would have left Emma to come up with some explanation for being in the airing cupboard in the small hours. A few of the worse kids at school had started experimenting with pilfered cigarettes a few weeks before lockdown; maybe they would think she had snuck off to smoke.

Silence continued. Of course it did. Who gets up at four in the morning because they hear one thump? And who suspects that their daughter, bordering on irritatingly precocious, would choose to smoke directly into the family’s clean linen instead of out the window?

But then it continued a while longer, and even after I picked up the cue ball from where it had settled against my leg and passed it back to Emma, it continued still. Suddenly I felt very sleepy.

‘I should go back to bed,’ I said. Emma yawned wide enough to swallow a full-size snooker ball, in theatrical agreement. ‘Night Ems,’ I said. She waved, still yawning, and I crept back through the passage, out of the eaves, and into bed, still a little dusty.

We didn’t meet up again after that. Not properly. Even when the rules changed, even when it was all over. We would still pass notes and swap books, and sometimes I would reach through and borrow a towel when I couldn’t be bothered to dig a fresh one out of the chest in my parents’ bedroom, but otherwise, we shrank back into an ordinary friendship, and then grew apart. Later, at seventeen, when Emma’s parents sold up, prematurely downsizing, I thought we ought to meet up in the airing cupboard one last time, although by that time there were better places to sneak off to in the night. But I didn’t fit. I could get a head or an arm through, but no more. I wedged in an old board to stop up the passageway, wary of new arrivals in what the estate agent called ‘a perfect home for a new or growing family’, and forgot all about it.

24 May

Go throw yourself into the sea

A few days ago, when the sun was out, I was walking back from the park, hat on head, sunglasses on face, engulfed in sunblock fumes and feeling just a little bit like I was on holiday, which is a treat of a feeling at the moment. As I got to the corner of our road and stepped into the full sun, tipping over instantly from a little warm to overheating, sweaty mess, a voice in my Henry Hoover screamed loud enough to make actual noise: ‘I WANT TO GO AND JUMP IN THE SEA’.

As someone whose default setting is to stay home, the basic fact of lockdown hasn’t been much hardship to me: less an oppressive restriction, more an unhealthy indulgence of my instincts. But suddenly I was absolutely screaming sick of it, selfishly furious that the tiny round bastard was stopping me from jumping in the sea.

A minute or two later, it occurred to me that I don’t live anywhere near the sea, wouldn’t have travelled to the seaside that day anyway, and am always furious not to be able to jump into the sea when the temperature reaches butter-softening. I remain entirely in the dark about how much the lockdown is bothering me.

Photograph of a directional signpost reading:
Go throw yourself into the sea
Mene Mene 2005
Photo by SafarFiertze
10 May

A note of thanks to Karuna the Panda

I have now meditated at least once a day for 134 consecutive days. This is no kind of milestone. I know it isn’t, because I understand numbers, but also because my meditation app has not sent me a little notification and is still telling me that my next milestone is in 7 days. It also tells me that I have, so far, reached seventeen milestones, which it helpfully lists as: 10 consecutive days; 10 consecutive days (again); 20 consecutive days; 30 consecutive days; 40 consecutive days; 50 consecutive days; 60 consecutive days; 70 consecutive days; 80 consecutive days; 90 consecutive days; 100 consecutive days; 110 consecutive days; 120 consecutive days; 130 consecutive days; 50 days with a meditation; 100 days with a meditation; and 150 days with a meditation. It is partly to spite my meditation app that I am writing this on a day with so little numerical significance. If my meditation app had a cheery cartoon panda who reminded me to meditate, I would hate him deeply and personally, and then I would sincerely wish him to be free from suffering.

It’s important for me to meditate because my brain processes stress like a Henry Hoover. It just sucks it all up with a great big smile, until it’s holding onto so much crap that it chokes up and catches fire.1 I need to empty it out regularly to keep it running. This is a valuable lesson, and one I would be begrudgingly grateful to the cartoon panda for his part in teaching, if he existed. To all the non-cartoon non-pandas who have helped me reach the hugely significant 134-day mark without any unpleasant burning smells or costly repairs, thank you.

And if anyone can recommend an app that will get me into the habit of emptying my actual vacuum cleaner, please let me know.


  1. A genuine Numatic Henry or Hetty vacuum cleaner features a thermal cut-out to ensure your safety and prevent any permanent damage to the motor. The author regrets any implication that Henry is unreliable, dangerous or a product of Hoover or Techtronic Industries; it’s just the only one with a big smiley face. 

07 Dec

Chorlton Good Neighbours: Book Launch Saturday 14th December

This summer I took part in a fantastic new project called Stories of our Lives. Over four Saturdays, the project teamed up volunteer writers with members of Chorlton Good Neighbours, a longstanding community group for older people in south Manchester. The mornings were spent talking and sharing memories, and in the afternoon the writers composed vignettes attempting to capture those memories.

The project was fun, fascinating and a real challenge. On both days I was able to make it, I finished the morning thinking This will be easy! They’ve given me so much to work with!, and the afternoon wondering how in the world I was meant to capture so many memories in so few words, let alone with anything like the charm and wit of the original telling.

The stories have been compiled into a book, which is being launched at 2pm on Saturday 14th December at Chorlton Library. More exciting still, the project is running again next year, this time as a monthly event. If you’re local and interested, I’d strongly encourage you to get involved.

Huge thanks to Jolene Sheehan, Helen Hibberd, Nakib Narat and all the other volunteers for making all this happen.

17 Jan

My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Identifying Latitude

There are some things that it’s next to impossible to remember, like the fact that ‘separate’ only has two Es in, the fact that I don’t have milk in my tea, and which way round longitude and latitude are. At least, I find it so: I accidentally put milk in my own tea sometimes, and the other two are particular weaknesses of mine.

Latitude-wise (whichever -wise that is, I can’t remember), the problem is that most mnemonics aren’t very good. They encode something like ‘north to south’ or ‘west to east’ – for example, ‘lat’ rhymes with ‘flat’, and we naturally think of lines from west to east as flat. But are we remembering the line along which latitude is constant, or the line along which it varies? I can never remember. For a mnemonic to work for someone as thickheaded as I can be, it has to indicate that as well.

So here is my foolproof (not actually foolproof) method by which anyone (or possibly just me) can easily (or maybe with difficulty) remember (or not) quickly (eventually) which one is longitude and which one is latitude:

‘Latitude’ is a very close anagram of ‘altitude’. Altitude changes when you go up and down, and, if north is up, so does altitude.

You can tell this is an excellent mnemonic, because whenever I check Wikipedia to make sure that it’s right because I don’t trust it enough, it turns out that it is.

Unless it isn’t. Let me check again.

09 Jun

Colemak UK layout for Windows

This is a super-boring post that I’m uploading solely for the benefit of people who might be Googling for this specific thing in the future. If you don’t know from the title that this might be useful to you then there’s no point reading further.

I’ve put together a Windows Colemak layout for UK keyboards, available here so that other people don’t have to go through the faff of doing it themselves.

This won’t remap caps lock to backspace; I recommend SharpKeys to do that easily. It does, however, set the shift key to turn caps lock off when pressed, so that if you somehow end up with caps lock on you don’t have to change layout to turn it off again.

This layout is different to the one you get if you just use Microsoft’s custom layout tool, because it will update keyboard shortcuts too. This might be a bad thing if you don’t want to re-learn shortcuts; I already had.

Finally, I’ve added a few extra characters on AltGr, so AltGr and – types an en dash, AltGr and . types an ellipsis, AltGr and 8 types a bullet symbol, and so on. If this is of no interest you it shouldn’t affect you in any way.

If you don’t know what any of this is about but you’ve still read this far despite my clear recommendation, here’s a brief primer. Colemak is an alternative way to set out the keys on a keyboard. For example, if you’re using Colemak and you press the series of keys that would normally spell ‘qwerty’, you’ll type ‘qwfpgj’ instead. The idea is to put the most commonly-used letters on the part of the keyboard where your fingers normally rest, so that you don’t have to move your hands around as much when you type. There are a few of these alternative layouts (you might have heard of one called Dvorak). Colemak tries to be more efficient than the normal Qwerty layout while not moving things around too drastically – so, for example, the Z, X, C and V keys used for undo, cut, copy and paste shortcuts stay in the same place. People don’t generally agree about whether using one of these alternative layouts is worthwhile, and there are significant downsides to not using the standard, so please don’t take this post as a recommendation that you should start using Colemak.

13 Jan

QTWTAIY

‘In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which […] we cannot read?’ asks David Cameron.

Well, yes.

In the spirit of mild defiance, here’s my newly-created public PGP key, which you can use to send me emails David Cameron cannot read.

Read More

09 Nov

Alex Through the Looking Glass – Alex Bellos

I promise I don’t only read books that Katie gives me.

‘How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life’: you have to admire the attempt to make inevitable title for the sequel to Alex in Numberland make sense. A more pedantic author would have gone with Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alex Found There, but then again, a more pedantic author would probably have written a more tedious book. Personally, I would have gone with Do the Fucking Maths, but that’s tenuous even if you place the stress where you need to.

Alex Through the Looking Glass seemed to be perfectly pitched for someone with my level of maths education. If this is intentional, it’s an absolute disaster. I got a good maths A-level without too much difficulty, but was sufficiently baffled by parts of my further maths course that I outright failed a paper and got an overall grade that my wife later advised me not to include on my CV. That further maths course was with a different exam board to my main maths A-level, so I studied some things twice and some apparently quite important things not at all. My level of maths education is not level at all. It’s lopsided and ridiculous. It’s impossible to believe that this book could have been pitched at me, so I think we can assume that seemed that way simply because it’s quite a good book.

Better yet, it cleared up a few of the things that I never understood from my further maths course, and it included a few amusing anecdotes that I would be looking for a way to drop into conversation if only I had a good enough memory to do so.

I recommend buying this book, and then taping it to your copy of The Knowledge to correct some of the latter’s clear and acknowledged omissions.

I have contacted OCR to let them know that I have filled the gaps in my understanding, but apparently this is not sufficient to bump my Further Maths A-level up a grade. I therefore award Alex Through the Looking Glass no stars.

☆☆☆☆☆

17 Aug

The Knowledge – Lewis Dartnell

Not about the streets of London. The Knowledge attempts to summarize the essentials for ‘rebooting’ civilization after a global catastrophe.

About three chapters into The Knowledge, I went to a picnic for science communicatiors and played a game of Kubb1 with the author that lasted so long it seemed entirely likely that civilization would have collapsed by the time we finished. Late in the third hour, despite some valiant cheating by Dr Dartnell, we lost.

The whole experience rather took the edge off the book’s sense of scholarly authority. But it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of it. Dartnell’s explanations are clear and succinct in that way that not only makes new material easy to understand, but makes reading about things you already know strangely enjoyable. And the premise – that this is a world-rebuilding manual for the survivors of a global catastrophe – is a compelling framework for the reader and a wonderful playground for Dartnell’s knowledge and enthusiasm. Or at least, I thought so.

According to the Guardian‘s Steven Poole:

The conceit, then, that this is a handbook for rebooting modern civilisation is really just a cute way of framing what turns out to be something slightly different but arguably more interesting to a present-day readership. The Knowledge is a terrifically engrossing history of science and technology.

In the Telegraph, on the other hand, Tom Chivers complains:

The only jarring note is that sometimes it seems as though Dartnell is taking all this end-of-the-world stuff seriously[…]. In a discussion of how ferroconcrete mixes the tensile strength of iron with the compressive strength of concrete, for example, you are solemnly informed that “this final innovation really unlocks the potential of concrete for aiding reconstruction after the apocalypse”.

Both of these assessments seem a little off the mark to me. One of the book’s strengths is that it mines its premise for every bit of interest it can find. There are interesting lessons in what a postapocalyptic civilization could scavenge and why, for example, which a straightforward history wouldn’t teach. But these aren’t a cop-out or a diversion: Dartnell isn’t about to leave interesting material on the table, and once he’s taught you to scavenge he’ll explain what to do if you can’t. And it’s appropriate for the tone to be serious: the setting may be fanciful, but this is life-or-death stuff in the real world, too.

Indeed, some of the most interesting parts of the book explore how a rebooting civilization could take a different path to the same destination. Some of these are matters of necessity: the survivors of the speculative apocalypse wouldn’t be able to rely on easily-accessible fossil fuel reserves. Others simply reflect the freedom that clued-up rebooters would have from the haphazard way human knowledge has developed. Dartnell imagines wooden sailing ships finding their longitude using not intricate timepieces like those developed by John Harrison, but radio signals from the post-apocalyptic prime meridian – because if you know how to do both, radio signals are probably easier. A straightforward history could include asides on these alternatives, but it wouldn’t be so elegant.

The coming apocalypse also gives The Knowledge a very practical bent, which has left me with a real itch to make some soap. On the other hand, that practicality means that this is a manual for reconstructing a narrow slice of civilisation. Dartell admits that he doesn’t include any grounding in maths, and trusts the survivors to develop their own culture: fair enough, but there are technologies in both areas that could have fit nicely within the scope of the book. Perhaps that’s something for an appendix in a future edition. It’s certainly not a lack I felt when reading: it’s just difficult to read a book like this and not start looking at the world through its weird, post-apocalyptic prism. Which is to say, it provokes curiosity about how things work and how technology changes our lives, which I’m pretty sure the author would call a win.

Unfortunately, The Knowledge does not preserve the rules of Kubb for future generations, and so, with a heavy heart, I award it no stars.

☆☆☆☆☆


  1. If you’ve seen two groups of people standing in a park throwing bits of wood at each other, that was probably Kubb, unless it was low-tech gang warfare or LARPing.