A Suitable Blog

At a little over 590 thousand words and spanning 1,349 pages, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is almost-certainly among the top ten longest single-volume English-language novels. It’s pretty fucking huge.

A Suitable Boy, seen from the edge
I’ll stick with the Kindle edition: I fear that merely holding the paperback would be exhausting.

I only discovered A Suitable Boy this week (and haven’t read it – although there are some good reviews that give me an inclination to) when, on a whim, I decided to try to get a scale of how much I’d ever written on this blog and then decided I needed something tangible to use as a comparison. Because – give or take – that’s how much I’ve written here, too:

Graph showing cumulative words written on this blog, peaking at 593,457.
At 593,457 words, this blog wouldn’t fit into that book unless we printed it on the covers as well.

Of course, there’s some caveats that might make you feel that the total count should be lower:

  • It might include a few pieces of non-content code, here and there. I tried to strip them out for the calculation, but I wasn’t entirely successful.
  • It included some things which might be considered metadata, like image alt-text (on the other hand, sometimes I like to hide fun messages in my image alt-text, so perhaps they should be considered content).

On the other hand, there are a few reasons that it perhaps ought to be higher:

  • It doesn’t include any of the content “lost” during the July 2004 server failure, some of which (like this post about Orange) were later recovered but many of which (like this post about Christmas plans and upcoming exams) remain damaged. It also doesn’t include any of the lost content from the original 1998/1999 version of this blog, only the weird angsty-teen out-of-context surviving bits.
  • Post titles (which sometimes contain part of the content) and pages outside of blog posts are not included in the word count.
  • I’ve removed all pictures for the purpose of the word count. Tempting though it was to make each worth a thousand words, that’d amount to about another one and a half million words, which seemed a little excessive.
A delicious-looking BLT. Mmm, bacon.
Another reason for not counting images was that it was harder than you’d think to detect repeat use of images that I’ve used too many times. Like this one.

Of course, my blog doesn’t really have a plot like A Suitable Boy (might compare well to the even wordier Atlas Shrugged, though…): it’s a mixture of mostly autobiographical wittering interspersed with musings on technology and geekery and board games and magic and VR and stuff. I’m pretty sure that if I knew where my life would be now, 18 years ago (which is approximately when I first started blogging), I’d have, y’know, tried to tie it all together with an overarching theme and some character development or something.

Or perhaps throw in the odd plot twist or surprise: something with some drama to keep the reader occupied, rather than just using the web as a stream-of-conciousness diary of whatever it is I’m thinking about that week. I could mention, for example, that there’ll be another addition to our house later this year. You heard it here first (unless you already heard it from somewhere else first, in which case you heard it there first.)

Annabel sitting on her daddy's knee and looking at sonograph pictures of her future baby brother.
Brought up in a world of tiny, bright, UHD colour touchscreens, Annabel seemed slightly underwhelmed by the magic of a sonograph picture of her future baby brother.

Still: by the end of this post I’ll have hit a nice, easy-to-remember 594,000 words.

Ice and Lemon

I recently finished reading a novel called Ice & Lemon, which was given to me by my mother for Christmas (my reading list is quite long at the moment; I’m only just getting close to catching up!). I could tell you about what I liked about the book – and I will, in a moment – but before that I’d like to mention what makes this book personally so spooky to me, as a reader.

Ice and Lemon, by Pete Hartley
Ice and Lemon, by Pete Hartley

My mother got it for me because the coincidences apparent on the front and back cover appealed to her:

  1. The author’s name, Pete Hartley, is remarkably similar to my father’s name, Peter Huntley.
  2. The strapline contains a date, and that date is my mother’s birthday.
  3. The protagonist of the story is called Daniel, which is – prior to that point in the late 1990s when I started going by Dan among virtually everybody – my name.
  4. The front cover shows a picture of a baby’s hand, and Ruth‘s expected delivery date of New Year’s Eve was thus a hot discussion topic for us all around Christmas-time.

Okay, so – that’s a handful of quirky coincidences, certainly, but I’m sure if you looked at every volume in a bookshop – in the right frame of mind – you’d find a dozen other novels that seemed similarly fortuitous. But as I began to read the story, I discovered that I shared a lot more in common with the story’s Daniel than I could have possibly predicted. It was almost as if I were reading an alternate-history version of my own life – it’s incredibly easy to see how believable choices made in the early 2000s could have lead to a reality that even-more closely paralleled with my own:

Dan with a golden banana nailed to a stick.
In 2006, I won an award of dubious value for my stand-up act: a gold-plated banana nailed to a plank of wood hewn from the funniest tree in town.
  • Daniel’s partner is called Claire. In 2005, when the story is set, I too had a partner called Claire.
  • Daniel grew up in, and lives in, Preston, near to the football stadium and his local supermarket, the Deepdale Road/Sir Tom Finney Way Sainsburys. I grew up in Preston, and my parents houses are both within sight of the football stadium. My father used to, and my mother still does, do their shopping at the Deepdale Road/Sir Tom Finney Way Sainsburys.
  • The story begins with Daniel travelling back from a trip to Spain. I too spent time in Spain in 2005.
  • Daniel is a stand-up comedian and a veteran of the Edinburgh Fringe. I had an incredibly-short career as a stand-up comedian, and of course I too have a history with the Fringe.
  • Some time after an apocalyptic event takes place, Daniel joins a group of survivors who call themselves “Camp Q” (no explanation is given for the choice of name). Some time after the date of the event as it appears in the story, I changed my surname to Q.
The Sainsburys on Deepdale Road/Sir Tom Finney Way, in Preston.
Before the apocalypse, Daniel did his shopping here. Before I moved to Aberystwyth, so did I.

There are about a hundred smaller coincidences in Daniel’s story, too, but after a few of them you stop looking objectively and you can’t help but see them, so I’ll spare you the list. If I wanted to, I’m sure I could find plenty of things that definitely didn’t fit me: for example, Daniel’s significantly older than me. That sort of blows the alternate history idea out of the water. But nonetheless, it was a disturbing and eerie experience to be reading about a protagonist so much like myself, travelling around a post-disaster area that I personally know so very well. I feel like I ought to reach out to the author and check that he’s not just pranking me, somehow. His son features in the book, but somehow the coincidences that naturally occur as a result of this are less-impressive because they’re pre-informed.

The book itself is pretty good: a soft science fiction story full of a thorougly-explored post-apocalyptic grief. Very human, and very British, it exemplifies that curious sense of humour that we as a nation exhibit in the face of a disaster, while still being emotionally-scarring in the sheer scope of the tragedy it depicts. The science of the science-fiction is… questionable, but it’s not explored in detail (and it’s only treated as being speculative by the characters discussing it anyway, who aren’t scientists): this is a story about people, suffering, and survival, not about technology nor futurism. There are a handful of points at which it feels like it could have done with an additional pass by a proofreader; while occasionally distracting, these typos are not problematic. Plus: the book contains the most literal deus ex machina I’ve ever encountered (and thankfully, it doesn’t come across as lazy writing so much as general wasteland craziness).

It’sunder £3 in ebook format, and if I didn’t already own a paperback copy, I’d be happy to pay that for it. Even if it didn’t make me feel like I was looking at an alternate version of myself.

Surprises, e.g. a Brother-in-Law

Last weekend was an exciting and unusual experience, full of exciting (expected) things interspersed with a handful of exciting (unexpected) things. Let’s go chronologically:

Thursday/Friday – Mario, Magic, Marriage

I left work, picked up a rental car (having unfortunately forgotten to take my counterpart driving license to the rental place, I had the choice of either cycling for an hour to collect it or else paying a fiver for them to run a DVLA check, and I opted for the latter on the grounds that an hour of my time (especially if I have to spend it cycling back and forth along the same stretch of road) is worth more to me than a picture of Elizabeth Fry. I drove home, packed a bag, said goodbye to Ruth, JTA, and Annabel, and drove up to Preston.

"I just found this card."
“I just found this card; is it yours? Maybe it will be, later.”

There, I spent most of Friday playing the new Mario game with my sister Becky, gave a few small performances of magic (did I mention I’m doing magic nowadays? – guess that’ll have to wait for another blog post) at various places around Preston, and went out for a curry with my mother, my sisters Becky and Sarah, and Sarah’s boyfriend Richard. So far, so ordinary, right? Well that’s where things took a turn. Because as Becky, our mother, and I looked at the drinks menu as we waited for Sarah and her boyfriend to turn up… something different happened instead.

Sarah and Richard announce to the rest of the family that they're now married.
Never before in our family has a marriage been conducted with so little pomp nor pre-planning. Except for our mother’s, of course.

Sarah turned up with her husband.

It turns out that they’d gotten married earlier that afternoon. They’d not told anybody in advance – nobody at all – but had simply gone to the registry office (via a jewellers, to rustle up some rings, and a Starbucks, to rustle up some witnesses) and tied the knot. Okay; that’s not strictly true: clearly they had at least three weeks planning on account of the way that marriage banns work in the UK. Any case case, I’ve suddenly got the temptation to write some software that monitors marriage announcements (assuming there are XML feeds, or something) and compares them to your address book to let you know if anybody you know is planning to elope, just to save me from the moment of surprise that caught me out in a curry house on Friday evening.

Richard pushes Sarah around Sainsburys.
Tie some cans behind that trolley and spray “just married” on it in shaving foam, would you?

So it turns out I’ve acquired a brother-in-law. He’s a lovely chap and everything, but man, that was surprising. There’ll doubtless be more about it in Episode 32 of Becky’s “Family Vlog”, so if there was ever an episode that you ought to watch, then it’s this one – with its marriage surprise and (probably) moments of magic – that you ought to keep an eye out for.

Saturday/Sunday – Distillery, Drinking, Debauchery

Next, I made my way up to Edinburgh to meet up with Matt R and his man-buddies for a stag night to remember. Or, failing that, a stag night to forget in a drunken haze: it’s been a long, long time since I’ve drunk like I did on that particular outing. After warming up with a beer or two in our hotel room, the five of us made our way to the Glenkinchie Distillery, for a wonderful exploration into the world of whiskies.

Still #1 at the Glenkinchie Distillery.
It’s hard to appreciate how large the pair of stills at Glenkinchie are, if you’ve only seen the stills at other Scottish distilleries before. See the people in the background, for scale.

And then, of course, began the real drinking. Four or five whiskies at the distillery bar, followed by another beer back in the hotel room, followed by a couple more beers at bars, followed by another four whiskies at the Whiski Rooms (which I’d first visited while in Edinburgh for the fringe, last year), followed by a beer with dinner… and I was already pretty wiped-out. Another of the ‘stags’ and I – he equally knackered and anticipating a full day of work, in the morning – retired to the hotel room while the remainder took Matt out “in search of a titty bar” (a mission in which, I gather, they were unsuccessful).

The Glenkinchie Distillery bar.
The Glenkinchie Distillery bar carries a full range of Diageo Scotch whiskies, plus a handful of other brands, and expert staff are on hand to help with tasting.

Do you remember being in your early twenties and being able to throw back that kind of level of booze without so much as a shudder? Gosh, it gets harder a decade later. On the other hand, I was sufficiently pickled that I wasn’t for a moment disturbed by the gents I was sharing a room with, who I should re-name “snore-monster”, “fart-monster”, and “gets-up-a-half-dozen-times-during-the-night-to-hug-the-toilet-bowl-monster”. I just passed out and stayed that way until the morning came, when I went in search of a sobering double-helping of fried food to set me right before the long journey back to Oxford.

All in all: hell of a stag night, and a great pre-party in anticipation of next weekend’s pair of weddings… y’know, the ones which I’d stupidly thought would be the only two couples I knew who’d be getting married this fortnight!

“Uncle Dan”

A week ago, Ruth pushed a baby out of her body, completely upstaging my birthday and, incidentally, throwing all of our lives pretty much into chaos. Having gotten to the point at which she’d resigned herself to “being pregnant forever“, Ruth would have certainly been glad to have that stage over and done with, were it not for a long and painful labour followed by a torturous and exhausting birth.

JTA, Ruth, Dan and 'Tiny' in the delivery suite.
If Ruth looks like she’s about to die of exhaustion in this photo, that’s because that’s how she’s feeling.

There’s a lot that can be said about the labour: a 38-hour crescendo of Ruth gradually and repeatedly finding levels of pain and tiredness that each seemed impossible, until she reached them. But Ruth has suggested that she might like to write a little about it herself, so I shan’t steal her limelight. What I can say is that I didn’t – and I don’t think that JTA, either – appreciate quite how emotionally draining the experience would be for the two of us, as well. There was a strange sensation for me about twelve hours in: a sensation perhaps most-comprehensible by our friends who’ve done emotional support work. That was: after watching somebody I love so much suffer so greatly for so long, I felt as if I’d somehow begun to exhaust whatever part of my brain feels empathy. As if the experience of supporting Ruth had served to drain me in a way I’d never fully experienced before, like when you discover a muscle you didn’t know you had when it aches after an unusual new exercise.

Forcep-marks still visible, the newborn takes an extended nap in a crib alongside Ruth's recovery-bed.
Forcep-marks still visible, the newborn takes an extended nap in a crib alongside Ruth’s recovery-bed.

Of course, after the ordeal we got to take home a little bundle of joy, who continues – despite now having a perfectly fabulous name of her own – to be referred to as “tiny”, even though her birth weight of 8lbs 12oz (that’s about 4kg, for those who – like me – prefer to think in metric) doesn’t really make that a very fitting nickname! Nor the amount of damage she did to Ruth on the way out, which also might be ill-described as “tiny”! She’s also often referred to as “the poopmachine”, for reasons that ought not need spelling out.

Dan rocking the baby, in the sunlight.
I’m smiling, because I don’t yet know that, within seconds of this photo being taken, she’s about to fill her nappy.

My employer was kind enough to give me paternity leave, even though I’m not the biological father (JTA is; and he’s very-much still in the picture!). I’d looked at my contract and discovered that the wording seemed to imply that I was eligible, stating that I’d be permitted to take paternity leave if I was about to become a father, or if my partner was about to give birth, the latter of which seemed perfectly clear. To be certain, I’d wandered along to Personnel and explained our living arrangement, and they just had looks on their faces that said “we’re not touching that with a barge pole; let’s just err on the side of giving him leave!” As a result, we’ve had all hands on deck to help out with the multitudinous tasks that have suddenly been added to our lives, which has been incredibly useful, especially given that Ruth has been spending several days mostly lying-down, as she’s been recovering from injuries sustained during the delivery.

Tiny in front of the new beta version of Three Rings.
If only we had some kind of way to set up a web-based rota of feeding, changing and comforting the little one…

Despite everything, we and the rest of the Three Rings team still managed to push the latest version into testing on schedule, though fitting in time for bug-fixing is even harder than it would be were we at our “day jobs” during the daytimes! It’s not that our little poopmachine takes up all of our time, though she does seem to take a lot of it, it’s simply that we’re all so tired! For the last few nights she’s been fussy about sleeping, and we’ve all lost a lot of rest time over keeping her fed, clean, and feeling loved.

Ruth snuggles with her baby.
Who loves boob? Baby does! Also, everybody else in the house.

For all my complaining, though, what we’ve got here is an adorable and mostly well-behaved little bundle of joy. And when she’s not covered in poop, shouting for attention, or spitting milk all over you, she’s a little angel. And I’m sure you’ll all be sick of hearing about her very soon.

The Family Vlog

Those of you who’ve met my family will probably already have an understanding of… what they’re like. Those of you who haven’t are probably about to gain one.

My sister devours a mango.
Did you did you… did you know that: Becky can eat mango, all by herself?

It started on a weekend in April, when my mother and I went to a Pink concert. The support act were a really fun band called Walk the Moon, who finished their energetic set with I Can Lift A Car, with its’ catchy chorus hook “Did you did you… did you know know: I can lift a car up, all by myself?” Over the weeks that followed, perhaps because of its earworm qualities, this song became sort-of an inside Rickroll between my mum and I.

A series of text messages from me to my mum, telling a story about separating large and small particulates of granulated agar, and culminating with "I can sift agar, all by myself" - a clear reference to "I can lift a car."
For example, this Bel-Air-meme style text message used a shaggy dog story to deliver a play on words.

At one point, she sent me a link to this video (also visible below), in which she is seen to lift a (toy) car. My sister Becky (also known as “Godzilla”) was behind the camera (and, according to the credits, everything else), and wrote in the doobly doo: “I think I’m gonna start doing family vlogs.”

She’d experimented with vlogging before, with a short series of make-up tutorials and a “test video post” on her blog, but this represented something new: an effort to show off her family (and guest appearances from her friends) as they really are; perhaps this was an effort to answer the inevitable question asked by people who’ve visited them – “are they always like that?” Perhaps that’s why she chose the name she did for the Family Vlog – “IRL”.

Becky and Sarah in the front of Becky's car, as seen in "IRL - Week 8". Sarah's boyfriend Richard, and my mother, can be seen in the back seats.
The essential Family Vlog (“IRL”) scene is the car scene, with the camera facing backwards from the dashboard. See also my second review…

At the time of writing, Becky (on her YouTube channel) has produced eight such videos (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight), reliably rolling out one a week for the last two months. I thought they were pretty good – I thought that was just because they were my family, but I was surprised to find that it’s slowly finding a wider reach, as I end up speaking to friends who mention to me that they “saw the latest family vlog” (sometimes before I’ve had a chance to see it!).

Me reviewing me reviewing my family, from Review 6.
As I was visiting Preston, I ended up featuring in “IRL – Week 6”. My review (click on the image for it), therefore, seemed to be equal in parts recursive and narcissistic.

Naturally, then, the only logical thing to do was to start producing my own YouTube series, on my channel, providing reviews of each episode of my sister’s vlog. I’ve managed to get seven out so far (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven), and I’d like to think that they’re actually better than the originals. They’re certainly more-concise, which counts for a lot, because they trim the original vlog down to just the highlights (interrupted only occasionally by my wittering atop them).

The widget above (or this playlist) will let you navigate your way through the entire body of vlogs, and their reviews (or lets you play them all back to back, if you’ve got two and a quarter hours to spare and a pile of brain cells you want killing). But if you’re just looking for a taster, to see if it’s for you, then here are some starting-out points:

  • The best review? Probably five or six.
  • The best episode? My favourite is six, but number two has the most views, probably the keywords “lesbian foursome” are popular search terms. Or possibly “girls peeing”. I’m not sure which scares me the most.
  • Of if you just want to drop-in and have a taster, start from the latest review.

Update: the family vlog now has an official website.

Second Time Lucky

At the end of 2012, I shared some sad news: that Ruth and JTA had suffered a miscarriage. It was a tragic end to a tragic year.

I just wanted to share with you something that we’ve all kept quiet about until now, until we all felt confident that we weren’t likely to have a repeat of that tragedy: as Ruth just mentioned on her blog, too, she’s pregnant again! With a due date of New Year’s Eve there’s plenty of time for us to get settled into our new house before then, but it looks like she’s still going to find herself excused of all of the heavy lifting during the move.

Needless to say, this is all incredibly exciting news on New Earth, and we’ve had to bite our tongues sometimes to not tell people about it. Apologies to those of you who’ve invited us to things (e.g. at Christmas and New Years’) that we’ve had to quietly turn down without explanation – at least now you know!

I’m sure there’ll be lots to say over the coming months. I can’t promise as thorough updates as Siân‘s fantastic pregnancy blogging, but we’ll see what we can do.

Days Like Weeks

You know how when your life is busy time seems to creep by so slowly… you look back and say “do you remember the time… oh, that was just last week!” Well that’s what my life’s been like, of late.

Enjoying a beer at the launch of Milestone: Jethrik, the latest release of Three Rings.
Enjoying a beer at the launch of Milestone: Jethrik, the latest release of Three Rings.

There was Milestone: Jethrik and the Three Rings Conference, of course, which ate up a lot of my time but then paid off wonderfully –  the conference was a wonderful success, and our announcements about formalising our non-profit nature and our plans for the future were well-received by the delegates. A slightly lower-than-anticipated turnout (not least because of this winter ‘flu that’s going around) didn’t prevent the delegates (who’d come from far and wide: Samaritans branches, Nightlines, and even a representative from a Community Library that uses the software) from saying wonderful things about the event. We’re hoping for some great feedback to the satisfaction surveys we’ve just sent out, too.

The Three Rings Birthday Cake. It boggles my mind how they've managed to make the icing look so much like plastic, on the phone part.
The Three Rings Birthday Cake. It boggles my mind how they’ve managed to make the icing look so much like plastic, on the phone part.

Hot on the heels of those volunteering activities came my latest taped assessment for my counselling course at Aylesbury College. Given the brief that I was “a volunteer counseller at a school, when the parent of a bullied child comes in, in tears”, I took part in an observed, recorded role-play scenario, which now I’m tasked with dissecting and writing an essay about. Which isn’t so bad, except that the whole thing went really well, so I can’t take my usual approach of picking holes in it and saying what I learned from it. Instead I’ll have to have a go at talking about what I did right and trying to apply elements of counselling theory to justify the way I worked. That’ll be fun, too, but it does of course mean that the busy lifestyle isn’t quite over yet.

My sister Sarah, with TAS managing director Adrian Grant, at the UK Bus Awards.
My sister Sarah, with TAS managing director Adrian Grant, prepare to announce the winner of the Peter Huntley Memorial Award for Making Buses A Better Choice.

And then on Tuesday I was a guest at the UK Bus Awards, an annual event which my dad co-pioneered back in the mid-1990s. I’d been invited along by Transaid, the charity that my dad was supporting with his planned expedition to the North Pole before he was killed during an accident while training. I was there first and foremost to receive (posthumously, on his behalf) the first Peter Huntley Fundraising Award, which will be given each year to the person who – through a physical activity – raises the most money for Transaid. The award was first announced at my father’s funeral, by Gary Forster, the charity’s chief executive. Before he worked for the charity he volunteered with them for some time, including a significant amount of work in sub-Saharan Africa, so he and I spent a little while at the event discussing the quirks of the local cuisine, which I’d experienced some years earlier during my sponsored cycle around the country (with my dad).

So it’s all been “go, go, go,” again, and I apologise to those whose emails and texts I’ve neglected. Or maybe I haven’t neglected them so much as I think: after all – if you emailed me last week, right now that feels like months ago.

A Broken Oath

As part of the ongoing challenges that came about as part of the problems with my dad’s Will, I was required the other week to find myself a local solicitor so that they could witness me affirm a statement (or swear an oath, for those of you who are that-way inclined). Sounds easy, right?

A close-up of my dad's Will, showing where it was clearly re-stapled.
One of the more-significant issues with my dad’s Will was that it was re-stapled sometime after it was signed. This was probably legitimate, but it quickly makes it look like it’s a forgery.

Well: it turns out that the solicitor I chose did it wrong. How is it even possible to incorrectly witness an affirmation? I wouldn’t have thought it so. But apparently they did. So now I have to hunt down the same solicitor and try again. It has to be the same one “because they did it partially right”, or else I have to start the current part of the process all over again. But moreover, I’ll be visiting the same solicitor because I want my damn money back!

I’ll spare you the nitty-gritty. Suffice to say that this is a surprising annoyance in an already all-too-drawn-out process. It’s enough to make you swear. Curse words, I mean: not an oath.

4 Things You Should Do When Writing A Will (Which My Dad Didn’t)

Since my dad’s funeral earlier this year, I’ve been acting as executor to his estate. What this means in real terms is lots of paperwork, lots of forms, and lots of dealing with lawyers. I’ve learned a lot about intestacy law, probate, inheritance tax, and more, but what I thought I’d share with you today are some things I’ve learned about Wills.

[spb_message color=”alert-warning” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]Note: This blog post discusses the duties of an executor in a way that some people might find disrespectful to the deceased. No disrespect is intended; this is just the way that I write. If you’re offended: screw you.[/spb_message]

Here are 4 things you should do when writing a Will (which my dad didn’t):

1. Keep it up-to-date

What you should do: So long as you’re happy with the broader clauses in your will, there’s no need to change it frequently. But if there’s information that’s clearly missing or really out-of-date, it ought to be fixed.

What my dad did: My dad’s Will was ten and a half years old at the time of his death. In the intervening time, at least five important things had happened that he’d failed to account for:

  1. He’d bought himself a flat. Unlike his other real estate, he’d not made specific mention of the flat in his Will, so it fell into his “everything else goes to…” clause. We can only assume that this is what he intended – it seems likely – but specific clarification would have been preferable!
  2. I changed my name. This was a whole five years before he died, but his Will still refers to me by my birth name (which wouldn’t necessarily have been a problem except for the issue listed below under “State your relationships”).
  3. I moved house. Seven times. The address for me (under my old name, remember) on my dad’s Will is one that I lived in for less than six months, and over a decade ago. That’s a challenging thing to prove, when it’s needed! Any of the addresses I lived at in the intervening 10+ years would have been an improvement.
  4. The ownership model of a company in which he was the founder and a large shareholder changed: whereas previously it was a regular limited-by-shares company, it had become in those ten years an employee-owned company, whose articles require that shares are held only by employees. This posed an inheritance conundrum for the beneficiaries of these shares, for a while, who did not want to sell – and could not legitimately keep – them. Like everything else, we resolved it in the end, but it’s the kind of thing that could have been a lot easier.
  5. His two daughters – my sisters – became adults. If there’s somebody in your Will who’s under 18, you really ought to re-check that your Will is still accurate when they turn 18. The legacies in my dad’s Will about my sisters and I are identical, but had he died, for example, after the shares-change above but before my youngest sister became an adult, things could have gotten very complicated.

2. State your relationships

What you should do: When you use somebody’s name for the first time, especially if it’s a family member, state their relationship to you. For example, you might write “To my daughter, Jane Doe, of 1 Somewhere Street, Somewhereville, SM3 4RE…”. This makes your intentions crystal clear and provides a safety net in finding and validating the identity of your executors, trustees, and beneficiaries.

What my dad did: In my dad’s Will, he doesn’t once refer to the relationship that any person has to him. This might not be a problem in itself – it’s only a safety net, after all – if it weren’t for the fact that I changed my name and moved house. This means that I, named as an executor and a beneficiary of my dad’s Will, am not referred to in it either my by name, nor by my address, nor by my relationship. It might as well be somebody else!

A (censored) fragment from my father's Will, showing where he used my old name, old address, and did not state my relationship to him.
My workload has been increased significantly by the fact that I’ve had to prove my identity every time I contact somebody in my capacity as executor. Here’s why.

To work around this, I’ve had to work to prove that I was known by my old name, that I did live at that address at the time that the Will was written, and that he did mean me when he wrote it. And I’ve had to do that every single time I contacted anybody who was responsible for any of my dad’s assets. That’s a job that gets old pretty quickly.

3. Number every page, and initial or sign each

What you should do: If your Will runs onto multiple pages, and especially if you’ll be printing it onto multiple sheets of paper (rather than, for example, duplexing a two-page Will onto two sides of the same sheet of paper), you should probably put page numbers on. And you should sign, or at least initial, the bottom of each page. This helps to reduce the risk that somebody can tamper with the Will by adding or removing pages.

What my dad did: My dad’s will is only dated and signed at the end, and the pages are completely un-numbered. It clearly hasn’t been tampered with (members of the family have seen it before; a duplicate copy was filed elsewhere; and we’ve even found the original document it was printed from), but if somebody had wanted to, it would have been a lot easier than it might have been if he had followed this guideline. It would have also made it a lot easier when he made an even bigger mistake, below (see “Never restaple it”).

4. Never restaple it

What you should do: Fasten the pages of your Will together with a single staple. If the staple bends or isn’t in the right place, destroy the entire Will and re-print: it’s only a few sheets of extra paper, the planet will cope. A Will with additional staple marks looks like a forgery, because it’s possible that pages were changed (especially if you didn’t number and/or sign every page) after the fact.

A close-up of my dad's Will, showing where it was clearly re-stapled.
In this picture of my dad’s Will, you can see clearly the marks left from a previous stapling, alongside the actual staple. Sigh.

What my dad did: His biggest mistake in his Will (after failing to identify me in an easily-recognisable manner) was to – as far as we can see – print it, staple it, remove the staple, and re-staple it. It was the very first thing I noticed when I saw it, and it was among the first things out lawyers noticed too. In order to ensure that they can satisfy the Probate Registry, our lawyers then had to chase down the witnesses to the signing of the Will and get statements from them that they believed that it hadn’t been tampered with. Who’d have thought that two little holes could cause so much work?

More?

I could have made this list longer. I originally started with a list of nine things that my dad had done when he wrote his Will that are now making my job a lot harder than it might have been, but I cut it down to these four, because they’re the four that have caused the most unnecessary work for me.

Unless your estate is really complicated, you don’t need a solicitor to write a Will: you just need to do a little reading and use a little common sense. I’m a big fan of people doing their own legal paperwork (hence my service to help people change their names for free), but if you’re going to write your own Will, you might like to do half an hour’s background reading, first. This stuff is important.

When I first looked at the task of acting as my father’s executor, after his death, I thought “I can have this all wrapped up in eight months.” That was six months ago, and there’s probably another six months or more in it, yet. I heard from a friend that they call it “The Executor’s Year”, and now I can see why. We’re getting there, but it’s taking a long time.

Even when all the crying’s done and the bereaved are getting on with their lives, the executor’s always got more to do. So please, for the sake of your executor: check today that your Will doesn’t make any of these four mistakes! They’ll thank you, even though you won’t live to hear it.

Update 01-Sep-2012: corrected a typo.

 

A Bus Called Peter

Before he died earlier this year, one of the last pieces of work my dad had done in his career as a transport consultant was to visit Trent Barton bus company and make some suggestions about how the new “The Threes” service should be branded and launched. Following his death, Trent Barton decided to honour my father’s memory by naming one of their brand new vehicles after him, and my sister Sarah and I went up to Nottingham to attend the naming ceremony.

My sister and I with the bus named Peter Huntley.
My sister and I with the bus named Peter Huntley. If you look closely, you can see the plaque in the windscreen. A larger plaque above the luggage rack, inside the bus, explains the reason for the naming.

I’m not sure that they expected me to attend. I’m certain that they didn’t expect me to bring a bottle of Guinness Original with me. But I had a plan: when the moment seemed right, I got everybody’s attention and – explaining that my dad was never really a wine drinker but enjoyed a good stout – christened the vehicle with a spray of beer.

I hold a bottle of Guinness in preparation of "breaking" it over the front of the bus.
In spite of how this photograph is staged, I decided that smashing the bottle against the front of the bus, as one might a ship, would probably make me unpopular amongst the staff, and I opted to “shake-and-spray” it instead. Unfortunately I don’t have a photo of the “spray” moment itself.

I think that this is a wonderfully fitting tribute to a man who did so much for the transport industry, and – based on the mutterings I heard at the naming ceremony – I wouldn’t be the only one to think that perhaps other bus companies ought to have done the same! In any rate, as I joked to my sister: “My dad would have been delighted to know that now all of the young ladies of Nottingham can ride on Peter Huntley all day.”

If you find yourself in the vicinity of Nottingham, keep an eye out for a big orange Optare Versa, registration YJ12 PKU. That’s Peter Huntley you’re riding, too.

Further reading: another take, including a photo of the new bus driving around.

The Coroner’s Inquest

[spb_message color=”alert-warning” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]Warning: this post contains details of the nature of the accident that killed my father, including a summary of the post-mortem report and photographs which, while not graphic, may be evocative.[/spb_message]

Last week, I attended a coroner’s inquest, which (finally) took place following my father’s sudden death earlier this year. It’s been five months since he fell to his death in the Lake District, while he was training for a sponsored trek to the North Pole this spring. Despite the completion of the post-mortem only a week or so after his death and the police investigation not running on too much longer after that, it took a long time before the coroner was ready to set a date for an inquest hearing and finally put the matter to rest.

Legal gavel and books and stuff.
A selection of “lawyer things” notably absent from our minimally formal inquest hearing. Photo courtest s_falcow (Flickr).

I made my way up to Kendal – presumably chosen for its proximity to the coroner who serves the hospital where my father was airlifted after his fall – in a rental car, picking up my sisters and my mother in Preston on the way. We were joined at the County Hall by my dad’s friend John (who was with him on the day of the accident), Kate (a partner of my dad’s), and – after his complicated train journey finally got him there – Stephen (one of my dad’s brothers).

Mostly, the inquest went as I’d anticipated it might. The post-mortem report was read out – the final verdict was that death was primarily caused by a compression fracture in the upper spine and a fracture of the base of the skull, which is a reassuringly quick and painless way to go, as far as falling injuries are concerned. John’s statement was summarised, and he was asked a series of clarifying questions in order to ensure that my dad was properly equipped and experienced, in good health etc. on the day of his accident.

The route up Blea Water.
The last walk my dad ever made: the yellow line shows where he and John walked. The magenta line shows the path of my dad’s fall.

This was clearly a painful but sadly-necessary ordeal for John, who’d already been through so much. In answer to the questions, he talked about how he and my dad had rambled together for years, about how they came to be where they were on that day, and about the conditions and the equipment they’d taken. And, in the minutes leading up to my dad’s death, how he’d been coincidentally taking photographs – including the one below. He’d been in the process of putting his camera away when my dad slipped, so he didn’t see exactly what happened, but he looked up as my dad shouted out to him, “John!”, before he slid over the cliff edge.

Later, we heard from the police constable who was despatched to the scene. The constable had originally been en route to the scene of a minor road crash when he was diverted to my dad’s accident. He related how the two helicopter teams (the Air Ambulance hadn’t been able to touch down, but paramedics had been able to leap out at low altitude, so an RAF Search & Rescue helicopter was eventually used to transport the body to the hospital) had worked on the scene, and about his investigation – which had included seizing John’s digital camera and interviewing him and the other ramblers who’d been at the scene.

My dad, climbing, moments before his accident.
This photo of my dad, approaching a snow bank as he scrambles up the hillside, was taken only moments before he slipped and fell.

That’s all very sad, but all pretty-much “as expected”. But then things took a turn for the unexpected when Kate introduced herself as a surprise witness. Making an affirmation and taking the stand, she related how she felt that my father’s walking boots were not in adequate state, and how she’d told him about this on several previous occasions (she’s now said this on her website, too).

I’m not sure what this was supposed to add to the hearing. I suppose that, were it not for the mitigating factors of everything else, it might have ultimately contributed towards a possible verdict of “death by misadventure” rather than “accidental death”: the subtle difference here would have affected any life insurance that he might have had (he didn’t), by giving a reason to reject a claim (“he wasn’t properly-equipped”). John’s statement, as well as subsequent examination of my dad’s boots by my sister Sarah, contradicted Kate’s claim, so… what the hell was that all about?

A Search & Rescue helicopter hovers above my dad and the paramedics with him.
A further photo by John, showing one of the two helicopters that were involved in the operation, hovering above the spot where my dad is attended by paramedics. A selective blur filter has been added.

We all handle grief in different ways, and its my hypothesis that this was part of hers. Being able to stand in front of a court and describe herself as “Peter’s partner” (as if she were the only or even the most-significant one), and framing his death as something for which she feels a responsiblity (in an “if only he’d listened to me about his boots!” way)… these aren’t malicious acts. She wasn’t trying to get an incorrect verdict nor trying to waste the courts’ time. This is just another strange way of dealing with grief (and damn, I’ve seen enough of those, this year).

But I’d be lying if it didn’t cause quite a bit of concern and confusion among my family when she first stood up and said that she had a statement to make.

Anyway: regardless of that confusing little diversion, it’s good that we’ve finally been able to get the coroners’ inquest to take place. At long last – five months after my dad’s death – we can get a proper death certificate I (as an executor of his will) can start mopping up some of the more-complicated parts of his estate.

Living In The Future

Eurovision Night 2012.
Eurovision Night 2012. In a moment of surreal awesomeness, Matt R holds a mirror up to the webcam in order to show Gareth the collection of whisky that’s just outside of his field of vision.

Sometimes it’s really like we’re living in the future. Exciting new technologies keep appearing, and people just keep… using them as if they’d always been there. If tomorrow we perfected the jetpack, the flying car, and the silver jumpsuit, I’ll bet that nobody would think twice about it.

Recently, I’ve had two occasions to use Google+ Hangouts, and I’ve been incredibly impressed.

The first was at Eurovision Night 2012, which was quite a while ago now. Adam did a particularly spectacular job of putting together some wonderful pre-Eurovision entertainments, which were synched-up between our two houses. Meanwhile, he and I (and Rory and Gareth and occasionally other people) linked up our webcams and spare screens via a Google+ hangout, and… it worked.

It just worked. Now I know that the technology behind this isn’t new: back in 2004, I upgraded the Troma Night set-up in Aberystwyth to add a second webcam to the Troma Night live feed. But that was one-way, and we didn’t do sound (for lack of bandwidth and concerns about accidental piracy of the soundtracks to the movies we were watching, of all things, rather than for any particularly good reason). But it really did “just work”, and we were able to wave at each other and chat to each other and – mostly – just “share in the moment” of enjoying the Eurovision Song Contest together, just like we would have in person when we lived in the same town.

At the weekend, I was originally supposed to be in Lancashire, hanging out with my family, but owing to a series of unfortunate disasters (by the way; I’m walking with a stick right now – but that’s not interesting enough to be worth blogging about), I was stuck in Oxford. Despite torrential rain where I was, Preston was quite sunny, and my family decided to have a barbeque.

A Google+ Hangout with my family and I.
I join a Google+ hangout at my (late) father’s house, where the rest of my family are having a barbeque.

I was invited… via Google+. They didn’t have Internet access, so they used a mobile dongle plugged into a laptop. I connected in from my desktop computer and then – later – from my mobile phone. So yes, this was at times a genuine mobile-to-mobile multi-party video conference, and it was simple enough that my mother was able to set it up by herself.

Like I said: living in the future.

Signs Seen in Service Stations

It feels like most of the time I’ve spent in a car this year, so far, has been for travel related to somebody’s recent death. And so it was that yesterday, Ruth, JTA and I zipped up and down the motorway to attend the funeral of Ruth’s grandmother.

It went really well, but what I wanted to share with you today was two photos that I took at service stations along the the way.

Sign: "Alcohol purchases in this motorway service area can not be consumed inside or outside the premises."
A sign I discovered at a motorway service station.

This one confuses me a lot. If I buy alcohol from this service area, I can’t drink it either inside… or outside… the premises. Are they unlicensed, perhaps, and so the only way they’re allowed to sell us alcohol is if we promise not to drink it? Or is it perhaps the case that they expect us only to consume it when we’re in a parallel dimension?

Costa's slogan, "The Americano Addicts."
Costa have decided to cut down on graffiti by writing all over their own walls.

It’s hard to see in the second photo without clicking (to see it in large-o-vision), but the sign on the opposite wall in this Costa Coffee implies the possibility of being an “Americano Addict”. And there was something about that particular marketing tack that made me cringe.

Imagine that this was not a café but a bar, and substitute the names of coffees with the names of alcoholic beverages. Would it be cool to advertise your products to the “wine addicts” or the “beer addicts” of the world? No: because alcoholism isn’t hip and funny… but caffeine addiction is? Let’s not forget that caffiene is among the most-addictive drugs in the world. Sure, caffeine addiction won’t wreck your liver like alcohol will or give you cancer like smoking tobacco (the most-popular way to consume nicotine) will, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that there are many people for whom a dependency upon caffeine is a very real part of their everyday life.

Is it really okay to make light of this by using such a strong word as “addict” in Costa’s marketing? Even if we’re sticking with alliteration to fit in with the rest of their marketing, wouldn’t “admirer” or “aficionado” be better? And at least that way, Costa wouldn’t leave me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

Worst Weekend Of Cinema – Part 2

This weekend was the worst net weekend of cinemagoing experiences that I’ve ever had. I went to the cinema twice, and both times I left dissatisfied. An earlier blog post talked about the second of the two trips: this is about the first.

You know what – 2012 has been a pretty shit year, so far. We’ve had death (my father’s), more death (my partner’s grandmother’s), illness (my sister’s horrific face infection), and injury (a friend of mine lost her leg to a train, a few weeks ago, under very tragic circumstances). We’ve had breakups (a wonderful couple I know suddenly separated) and busy-ness (a cavalcade of day-job work, Three Rings work, course work, and endless bureaucracy as executor of my dad’s will).

But it gets worse:

Piranha 3DD. Twice the terror. Double the D's.
Of all the things that have gone horribly, tragically wrong so far this year… going to the cinema to watch this film was the worst.

On Friday night, I went out with my family to watch Piranha 3DD.

This is one of those bad films that falls into the gap of mediocrity between films that are bad but watchable and films that are so bad that they wrap right around to being enjoyable again (you know, the “so bad they’re good” kind of movies). To summarise:

[one_half]

The Good

  • Lots of nudity, all presented in 3D. If there’ll ever be anything that convinces me that 3D films are a good idea, porn will probably be it. Boobs boobs boobs.
  • Fun cameos from Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown!), David Hasselhoff, and Ving Rhames, along with enjoyable accompanying pop culture references.

[/one_half]

[one_half_last]

The Bad

  • 3D films remain a pointless gimmick, still spending most of their time playing up the fact that they’re 3D (lots of long objects, like broom handles, pointing towards the camera, etc.), and still kinda blurry and headache-inducing. Plus: beams of light (e.g. from a torch) in 3D space don’t look like that. The compositor should be fired.
  • The cameos mostly serve to show off exactly how unpolished the acting is of the less well-known actors.
  • Plenty of less-enjoyable pop culture references: if you’re not going to do the “false leg is actually a gun” thing even remotely as well at Planet Terror, don’t even try – it’s like trying to show a good movie in the middle of your crappy movie, but not even managing to do that.
  • Unlikeable, unmemorable characters who spend most of their time engaging in unremarkable teen drama bullshit. Same old sex joke repeated as many times as they think they can get away with. And then a couple of times more.
  • Lackluster special effects: mangled bodies that don’t look much like bodies, vicious fish don’t look remotely like fish (and, for some reason, growl at people), and CGI that would look dated on a straight-to-video release.

[/one_half_last]

So yeah: give that one a miss.

Top of the World

This Saturday, my dad finally made it to the North Pole. Or, at least: some of him did.

Members of the polar trek team in training in Norway, last month.
Members of the polar trek team in training in Norway, last month. With thanks to Geoff Major (click photo for his blog post about the training).

My dad was killed in February while training for his planned exhibition to the North Pole, fundraising for charity TransAid. Since his funeral last month, my life’s been a whirlwind of emotional ups and downs and administrative challenges with the handling of his estate, of which I’m an executor.

Geoff Major's tweet about my dad reaching his destination.
Geoff Major’s tweet about my dad reaching his destination.

So it was a really special moment to discover that, this weekend, my dad finally made it to the pole. My sisters and I had arranged that a portion of his cremated ashes would be carried with the polar trek team and scattered at what must be one of the most remote places on Earth – the very top of the world. It’s nice to think that not even death was enough to stop my dad from getting to the planet’s most Northernmost spot, even if he had to be carried for the last 600 miles.

My dad, "dressed for cold weather", according to my sister.
My dad, “dressed for cold weather”, according to my sister.

Meanwhile, donations flooded in faster than ever to my dad’s fundraising page, taking the grand total to over £12,000 – significantly in excess of the £10,000 he’d hoped to raise. My family and I are gobsmacked with the generosity of the people who’ve donated, and incredibly grateful to them as well as to the team that took him on the last ten days of his journey to the Pole.

The fundraising total, according to JustGiving.
The fundraising total, according to JustGiving. A significant amount of money was also raised offline, via donations at or around my dad’s wake, and is not included in this already-impressive total.

It pleases me that my dad gets to trespass somewhere he shouldn’t be, one last time: this time, breaking the international conventions that require that nothing gets “left” at the North Pole. The remainder of my fathers ashes will be scattered by my sisters and I from the top of a particular mountain, as he’d sometimes said that he’d wanted.

And after all of these adventures, I think he deserves to get what he wants. With no apologies for the pun: he’s urn‘d it!