Bread Winner

Yesterday, Ruth and I attended a Festive Breads Workshop at the Oxford Brookes Restaurant Cookery and Wine School, where we had a hands-on lesson in making a variety of different (semi-)seasonal bread products. It was a fantastic experience and gave us both skills and confidence that we’d have struggled to attain so-readily in any other way.

Dan wins a certificate for being a Star Baker
I am the Master Baker! The Bread Winner! (Okay, so everybody got one of these certificates…)

The Oxford Brookes Restaurant is a working restaurant which doubles as a place for Brookes’ students to work and practice roles as chefs, sommeliers, and hospitality managers as part of their courses. In addition, the restaurant runs a handful of shorter or day-long courses for adults and children on regional and cuisine-based cookery, knife skills, breadmaking, and wine tasting. Even from the prep room off the main working kitchen (and occasionally traipsing through it on the way to and from the ovens), it was easy to be captivated the buzz of activity as the lunchtime rush began outside: a large commercial kitchen is an awesome thing to behold.

Prep room at the Oxford Brookes Restaurant
Working in our kitchen at home I often have less space than my entire work area in this, the smallest room of the Brookes’ kitchens.

By early afternoon we’d each made five different breads: a stollen, a plaitted wreath, rum babas, a seeded flatbread, and a four-strand woven challah. That’s plenty to do (and a good amount of standing up and kneading!), but it was made possible by the number of things we didn’t have to do. There was no weighing and measuring, no washing-up: this was done for us, and it’s amazingly efficiency-enhancing to be able to go directly from each recipe to the next without having to think about these little tasks. We didn’t even have to run our breads in and out of the proofing cupboard and the ovens: as we’d be starting on mixing the next dough, the last would be loaded onto trays and carried around the kitchens.

Bread making class at Oxford Brookes Restaurant.
Start from the right and weave to the left: over, under, over. Repeat.

The tuition itself was excellent, too. The tutors, Amanda and Jan, were friendly and laid-back (except if anybody tried to short-cut their kneading of a wet dough by adding more flour than was necessary, in which case they’d enter “flour police” mode and start slapping wrists) and clearly very knowledgeable and experienced. When I struggled at one point with getting a dough ball to the consistency that was required, Jan stepped in and within seconds identified that the problem was that my hands were too warm. The pair complemented one another very well, too, for example with Amanda being more-inclined than Jan towards the laissez-faire approach to ingredient measurement that I prefer when I make bread, for example.

Ruth shapes her woven challah loaf.
It looked a little lopsided at this point, but Ruth’s challah looked among the best of all of them among the final products.

The pace was fast and Ruth in particular struggled early on to keep up, but by the end the entire group – despite many hours on our feet, much of it kneading stiff doughs – were hammering through each activity, even though there was a clear gradient in the technical complexity of what we were working on. And – perhaps again thanks to the fantastic tuition – even the things that seemed intimidating upon first glance (like weaving four strands of dough together without them sticking to one another or the surface) weren’t problematic once we got rolling.

Glazing and seeding bread before it goes into the oven.
Having great equipment like large hot ovens, a proofing cupboard, and an endless supply of highly-active live (not dried) yeast might have helped too.

Our hosts, apparently somehow not having enough to do while teaching and supervising us, simultaneously baked a selection of absolutely delicious bread to be served with our lunch, which by that point was just showing-off. Meanwhile, we put the finishing touches on our various baked goods with glazes, seeds, ribbons, and sugar.

Dan and Ruth's challah, between two others.
Dan and Ruth’s challah. Ruth’s is the one with white sesame seeds; Dan’s is the one with poppy seeds to the left of it.

And so we find ourselves with a house completely full of amazingly-tasty fresh bread – the downside perhaps of having two of us from the same household on the same course! – and a whole new appreciation of the versatility of bread. As somebody who makes pizza bases and, once in a blue moon, bread rolls, I feel like there’s so much more I could be doing and I’m looking forward to getting more adventurous with my bread-making sometime soon.

Ruth among the challah, stollen, and wreaths.
Tired-but-proud would be a pretty good description of Ruth here, I think.

I’d really highly recommend the Brookes Restaurant courses; they’re well worth a look if you’re interested in gaining a point or two of Cooking skill.

Devon – the trip we’ll never forget

[spb_message color=”alert-warning” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]Update: following feedback from folks who found this post from Twitter, I just wanted to say at the top of this post – we’re all okay.[/spb_message]

Our holiday in Devon last week turned out to be… memorable… both for happy holiday reasons and for somewhat more-tragic ones. Selected features of the trip included:

Croyde

A Fish & Chip shop in Croyde
This pile of breezeblocks on the edge of a camp site was perhaps the sketchiest fish & chip shop we’d ever seen. Not bad grub, though!

We spent most of the week in Croyde, a picturesque and tourist-centric village on Devon’s North coast. The combination of the life of a small village and being at the centre of a surfer scene makes for a particularly eccentric and culturally-unusual place. Quirky features of the village included the bakery, which seemed to only bake a half-dozen croissants each morning and sell out shortly after they opened (which was variably between 8am and 9am, pretty much at random), the ice cream shop which closed at lunchtime on the hottest day of our stay, and the fish & chip shop that was so desperate to “use up their stock”, for some reason, that they suggested that we might like a cardboard box rather than a carrier bag in which to take away our food, “so they could get rid of it”.

Annabel on the beach with Ruth and JTA
“You’ve never seen a beach before, have you? Isn’t this exciting?”
/stares in wonderment at own thumbs/

The Eden Project

Annabel looks out over the Eden Project
In the right dome, a Mediterranean climate. In the left, a jungle. In both, lots of things for Annabel to try to grab hold of and put in her mouth.

Ever since it opened in the early 2000s, I’d always wanted to visit The Eden Project – a group of biome domes deep in the valley of a former Cornish quarry, surrounded by gardens and eco-exhibitions and stuff. And since we’d come all of the way to Devon (via Cardiff, which turns out to be quite the diversion, actually!), we figured that we might as well go the extra 90 miles into Cornwall to visit the place. It was pretty fabulous, actually, although the heat and humidity of the jungle biome really did make it feel like we were trekking through the jungle, from time to time.

Annabel gets a drink in the cool room.
The jungle biome was a little hot for poor Annabel, and she was glad to get into the cool room and have a drink of water.

Geocaching

Stile to an overgrown path; Devon.
In Devon, nipple-high grass counts as a “footpath”.

On one day of our holiday, I took an afternoon to make a 6½ mile hike/jog around the Northern loop of the Way Down West series of geocaches, which turned out to be somewhat gruelling on account of the ill-maintained rural footpaths of North Devon and taking an inadequate supply of water for the heat of the afternoon.

Very badly-maintained footpath in North Devon.
Seriously, Devon: if I need to bring a machete, it’s not a bridleway.

On the upside, though, I managed to find 55 geocaches in a single afternoon, on foot, which is more than three times my previous best “daily score”, and took me through some genuinely beautiful and remote Devon countryside.

Dan with GC24YCW - Way Down West 105
GC24YCW (“Way Down West 105”) was the last in my 55-cache series, and my body was glad of it.

Watermouth Castle

We took an expedition out to Watermouth Castle, which turned out to be an experience as eccentric as we’d found Croyde to be, before it. The only possible explanation I can think of for the place is that it must be owned by a child of a hoarder, who inherited an enormous collection of random crap and needed to find a way to make money out of it… so they turned it into something that’s 50% museum, 50% theme park, and 100% fever dream.

ABBA Robots at Watermouth Castle
A group of animatronic robots playing automatic-organ versions of ABBA songs greet you at Watermouth Castle. And then things get weird.

There’s a cellar full of old bicycles. A room full of old kitchen equipment. A room containing a very large N-gauge model railway layout. Several rooms containing entertainments that would have looked outdated on a 1970s pier: fortune tellers, slot machines, and delightfully naïve peep-show boxes. A hedge maze with no exit. A disturbingly patriotic water show with organ accompaniment. A garden full of dancing gnomes. A hall of mirrors. A mock 1920s living room. A room full of primitive washing machines and their components. The whole thing feels schizophrenic, but somehow charming too: like a reminder of how far entertainment and conveniences have come in the last hundred years.

Baggy Point

Ruth, JTA and Annabel on Baggy Point
The tip of Baggy Point gave me vibes of Aberystwyth’s own Constitution Hill, with the exception that it was sunny at Baggy Point.

We took a hike out to beautiful Baggy Point, a beautiful headland stretching out into the Atlantic to make it the Easternmost point in North Devon. It was apparently used by soldiers training for the D-Day landings, but nowadays it seems mostly to be used to graze goats. The whole area made me reminisce about walks to Borth along the Ceredigion coast. Unfortunately for Ruth and JTA, who headed back to our accommodation before me, I’d failed to hand them the key to the front door before we parted ways and I went off to explore the rest of the headland, and in my absence they had to climb in through the window.

The Collision

For all of the wonderful things we got up to in Devon, though – everything above and more besides – the reason that we’ll no-doubt never forget this particular trip came as we set off on our way home.

[spb_message color=”alert-warning” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]Warning: this section discusses a tragic car accident.[/spb_message]

About an hour after we set off for home on our final day in Devon, we ended up immediately behind a terrible crash, involving two cars striking one another head-on at an incredible speed. We saw it coming with only seconds to spare before both vehicles smashing together, each thrown clear to a side of the road as a cloud of shattered glass and metal was flung into the air. JTA was driving at this point, and hit the brakes in time to keep us clear of the whirling machines, but it was immediately apparent that we were right in the middle of something awful. I shouted for Ruth and JTA to see what they could do (they’re both Red Cross first aiders, after all) as I phoned the emergency services and extracted our location from the SatNav, then started working to ensure that a path was cleared through the traffic so that the ambulances would be able to get through.

Police car in Devon
Ambulances, fire engines, and police cars arrived quickly, or so it felt: honestly, my perception of time at this point was completely shaken.

A passer-by – an off-duty police officer – joined Ruth and I in performing CPR on one of the drivers, until paramedics arrived. My first aid training’s rusty compared to Ruth and JTA’s, of course, but even thinking back to my training so long ago, I can tell you is that doing it with a real person – surrounded by glass and oil and blood – is a completely different experience to doing it on a dummy. The ambulance crew took over as soon as they arrived, but it seems that it was too late for her. Meanwhile the driver of the other car, who was still conscious and was being supported by JTA, hung on bravely but, local news reported, died that afternoon in hospital. Between the two cars, two people were killed; the third person – a passenger – survived, as did a dog who was riding in the back of one of the cars.

The emergency services from a distance
Once we’d handed over to the emergency services, we retreated to a safe distance and, for perhaps the first time, began to contemplate what we’d seen.

I am aware that I’ve described the incident, and our participation in its aftermath, in a very matter-of-fact way. That’s because I’m honestly not sure what I mean to say, beyond that. It’s something that’s shaken me – the accident was, as far as I could see, the kind of thing that could happen to any of us at any time, and that realisation forces upon me an incredible sense of my own fragility. Scenes from the experience – the cars shattering apart; the dying driver; her courageous passenger – haunt me. But it feels unfair to dwell on such things: no matter what I feel, there’s no way to ignore the stark truth that no matter how much we were affected by the incident… the passenger, and the families and friends of those involved, will always have been affected more.

It took hours for us to get back on the road again, and the police were very apologetic. But honestly: I don’t think that any of us felt 100% happy about being behind the wheel of a car again after what had just happened. Our journey back home was slow and cautious, filled with the images of the injuries we’d seen and with a newly acute awareness of the dangers of the glass-and-metal box we sat inside. We stopped at a service station part-way home, and I remarked to Ruth how surreal it felt that everybody around us was behaving so normally: drinking a coffee; reading a paper; oblivious to the fact that just a few tens of miles and a couple of hours away, people just like them had lost their lives, doing exactly what they were about to go and do.

It’s all about perspective, of course. I feel a deep sorrow for the poor families of the people who didn’t make it. I feel a periodic pang of worry that perhaps there were things I could have done: What if I’d have more-recently practised first aid? What if I’d more-quickly decoded our position and relayed it to the operator? What if I’d have offered to help Ruth immediately, rather than assuming that she had sufficient (and the right kind of) help and instead worked on ensuring that the traffic was directed? I know that there’s no sense in such what-if games: they’re just a slow way to drive yourself mad.

Maybe I’m just looking for a silver lining or a moral or something in this story that I just can’t find. For a time I considered putting this segment into a separate blog post: but I realised that the only reason I was doing so was to avoid talking about it. And as I’m sure you all know already, that’s not a healthy approach.

Right now, I can only say one thing for certain: our holiday to Devon is a trip I’ll never forget.

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!

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.

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!

Ashes to Ashes (The Funeral of Peter Huntley)

Friday was the day of my dad’s funeral. If you’ve just tuned in, you might like to see my blog post about his death, and a second article about the things that have been hardest, so far, in its aftermath. I’m not inclined to say too much, so I’ll be brief and let pictures, and a video, tell the story. As usual, you’ll find that you can click on the pictures to enlarge them.

A convoy of buses arrive to deliver attendees to the funeral.

A remarkable number of people turned up to mark my dad’s passing on this sad occasion. I was genuinely surprised to see how many lives he’d touched (and to hear about a great many more from people who couldn’t make it). About 350 people struggled to fit in to the cramped crematorium, and many had to stand outside where – thankfully – there were repeater speakers.

The buses with digital display boards, provided by Stagecoach, had been reprogrammed to show my dad’s name and years of life.

My sisters and I were determined that this event would be a celebration of our father’s life. So rather than focusing on his tragic and premature death, we made every effort to commemorate his achievements and reinforce the lessons that we can all learn from his time with us. In a similar vein, we’d told everybody that we had the chance to that there was no need to wear black for this funeral: that people should wear what’s appropriate to them for their personal act of mourning and remembrance.

In memory of my dad, I wore his old-style bus driver’s license badge, as well as wearing both socks and sandals together, as he often would.

We’d hired a former minister, Ken Howles, to provide a (thoroughly secular, under threat of non-payment!) framework for the service, but we “rolled our own” so far as possible. Seven individual tributes and eulogies were given by people representing different aspects of my dad’s life: from my mother, from his partner, from the friend with whom he was walking on the day he died, from the managing directors of the company he founded and the company he last worked for, from the chief executive of the charity he was fundraising for, and – finally – from me.

(if you can’t view the YouTube video above, or if you want to share it with others, you can also view it on YouTube)

The contrast between the different tributes was stark and staggering, reflecting the huge variety in the different facets of my father’s life. From guerrilla gardening to trainspotting, lessons learned to tyres pulled, we collectively painted a picture of the spectrum of my dad’s life. The tributes given were, in order:

  • My mother, Doreen (watch), who talked about their adventures together as young adults and the roots of his career in transport
  • His partner, Jenny (watch), who shared the experiences they’d had together, and mourned for those that they would not
  • His friend, John (watch), who let us in on the things that they’d talked about during my dad’s final hours
  • Adrian, the managing director of the company my dad founded (watch), on his success in the world of transport consultancy, and working with him
  • A break in the middle to watch a video of my dad singing karaoke
A picture of the “Celebration of Life” order of service that we distributed at the funeral. Click on the picture to download the original (which includes a list of some of the charities my dad supported) as a PDF.


  • Kevin, the managing director of Go North-East (watch), on the subject of my dad’s recent career and influence on British transport
  • Gary, chief executive of TransAid (watch), announced the future creation of the Peter Huntley Fundraising Award, and thanked my dad and his supporters on behalf of the dozens of charities my dad helped
  • And finally, me (watch), contrasting all of the above by talking about what my dad was like as a father and a friend, and the lessons we can learn from him

If you can’t watch YouTube where you are, you can also read the full text of my personal eulogy here.

JTA serves butter pie, mushy peas, and hotpot – classic Lancashire comfort foods – to guests at the wake.

Afterwards, we held a wake at Grimsargh Village Hall which, on account of the sheer number of bus industry attendees, rapidly became a micro-conference for the public transport sector! It was great to have the chance to chat to so many people who’d worked with my dad in so many different contexts.

Mourners gather near the (convenient!) bar at Grimsargh Village Hall. I’ve decided: all wakes should have a bar.

Between hot food provided by a local caterer, cold savories courtesy of Jenny’s daugher Eppie, and a copious quantity of cakes baked by Ruth, there was an incredible superfluity of food. These two, plus JTA, Paul, and Eppie’s boyfriend James, provided a spectacular level of “behind-the-scenes” magic, keeping everything running smoothly and ensuring that everything happened as and when it was supposed to.

Among other things, Ruth baked biscuits in the shape of buses, decorated in the colours of the different routes that my dad rebranded during his time at Go North-East.

We set up a “memory book”, in which people could write their recollections of my dad. I haven’t had time to read much of it yet, but one of them stands out already to me as a concise and simple explanation of what we achieved at the crematorium that day. It reads:

“Great funeral, Peter. Sorry that you missed it.”

It was certainly a great send-off for a man who did so much for so many people. Thank you so much to everybody who made it such a success, and to everybody who, in the meantime, has donated to TransAid via my dad’s JustGiving page (or by giving us cash or cheques at or after the funeral). You’re helping his memory live on, for everybody: thank you.

My dad didn’t teach me to drive. But he did teach me to read a bus timetable. Thanks, dad. I love you.

Full Stop

Update: the funeral will take place at 4pm on Friday 2nd March, at Preston Crematorium.

On Sunday, my dad died.

And honestly, I’m not sure what else to say. There’s nothing else left to say. It felt like my tweet – like all tweets – said too little, too. But I didn’t want to keep anybody in the dark about this tragic news, so… well…

As I mentioned in December, my dad had planned a sponsored expedition to the North Pole, this April, in order to raise money for TransAid, a charity about whose work he was passionate. As part of his training, he was up on High Street, a fell in the Lake District, with his friend John. There, he lost his footing and slipped, falling over a 200 foot precipice. He was discovered to be dead when the air ambulance arrived; almost certainly killed pretty much instantaneously by the fall.

My dad, doing what he loved the most: taking on the world and braving the elements.

Since then, I’ve been in Preston, where my sisters, our mother, my dad’s partner, and our friends have been trying to come to terms with this tragic loss, and to make arrangements for his funeral. We’re keeping busy, which is probably for the best, right now. I’d like to say thank you to everybody who’s sent cards, emails, or text messages: your thoughts and sympathies are really appreciated, and I apologise that there simply hasn’t been time to reply to you all individually.

My dad died doing what he loved: exploring the outdoors, walking, climbing, and pushing his limits, in aid of a worthy cause that meant a lot to him. He was in incredible physical fitness, and I’d always suspected that 15 years from now, with him in his 70s and I in my 40s, he’d still have been able to outpace me on a scramble up Helvellyn’s Striding Ridge.

I’m sad that that’s a theory that I’ll never be able to put to the test. I’m sad that my dad never lived long enough to see if he’d have any grandchildren. I’m sad that the world is so cruel as to deny us all those conversations left unfinished and those mountains left unconquered. I’m even sad that I’ll never again get an out-of-the-blue call from him on some Saturday afternoon because he  can’t work out how to use his printer, or fix his Internet connection.

And I still don’t know what to say. So for now, at least, that’s all.

Update: Added photo and funeral info.

Argh, It Burns! Night

This weekend the other Earthlings and I celebrated Burns Night. Of course, we’re just a little bit eccentric between the four of us to celebrate it like normal people, so we decided to apply a little bit of a twist to a tried-and-tested theme.

A traditional Burns Night consists of a hearty meal of haggis, ‘neeps and tatties, drinking of whisky, and the recitation of songs, poems, and stories (with a particular emphasis on works by the poet himself). We all enjoy a nice haggis – albeit a veggie one, which I dubbed a vaggis, for Ruth and Paul – and a dram or two of decent whisky – with the exception of Paul, who substituted a series of Irn-bru-themed cocktails – so these aspects were kept intact. But we decided to swap out the traditional songs, poetry and storytelling for something a little more contemporary…

In our newly-invented, “Argh, It Burns! Night”, attendees each perform a reading of the worst piece of fan fiction that they can possibly find. There’s a wealth of truly awful fan fiction in the world, and we wanted to do justice to it by performing readings and voting on which was the most awful, or most entertainingly terribly. I suppose this was inevitable: after Troma Night gave us years of watching the worst films imaginable, the next step had to be to expand to other media.

After finishing our supper and fortifying ourselves with a drink or two, we drew lots to determine who was to go first. JTA began.

JTA begins his reading.

JTA had chosen to read Guywars, by Josh Vandergriff, a strange crossover between the Monkey Island and Star Wars franchises, with an embarrassing number of “jokes” stolen verbatim from Spaceballs. Depite lurching between the past and present tense and riddled with humour a little immature even for the playground, we couldn’t help but laugh out loud at some of the accidental moments of literary genius, like this gem:

Guyvador [a Darth Vader-like character] breaths like someone breathing out of a paper bag might breath, only without that great lunchy smell.

Paul and Ruth appreciating the... umm... "art?"

Next up was Ruth, who shared with us all Garfield: First Blood, the first in a two part series of stories in which Garfield repeatedly rescues Natalie Portman from vampire gangsters. And I’m ashamed to say that I really enjoyed this piece. Not because it was good – far from it – but because it was so beautifully awful.

“HAHA Garfield!, We demand the blood Bank of USA give us 600 million gallons of blood, all in one hundred dollar bills or else we will be making evening breakfast out of Natalie Portman!” Said the head Vampire Gangster with menace.

I’m honestly not convinced that the author  is even aware of who Garfield is, because instead of being a lasagne-eating, lazy feline, the Garfield in this story carries a handgun (difficult with paws), drives a pickup truck (very difficult when your knees are backwards), and woos movie stars. I would love to see somebody make a comic book of this story.

But although the author – the optimistically-titled “ShakespeareHemmingway” – may not know who Garfield is, he certainly knows who Natalie Portman is. The story ends with a postscript to let her know, if she’s reading this, that if she would like to date him, that would be okay.

Ruth performing a reading.

Paul took the chair next, giving us a reading of the first six chapters (they’re miniscule, although one gets the feeling that this is perhaps because large chunks of them are missing, based on the continuity problems) of HHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH – yes, that’s really it’s title.

Listening to this story is like going to Azathoth‘s house and dropping acid. While outwardly it sort-of appears to be Harry Potter fanfiction, I’m convinced that it’s something more: I’m not sure what. Perhaps it’s a chant to summon demons of insanity, or perhaps it’s a piece of neo-Dadaist genius, but there’s something there. What I can tell you, though, is this: hearing it makes you feel like your brain is at risk of melting out through your ears.

Harry vomited steam and summoned a great meteor from space to smash into Hogwarts and kill everyone there, for no reason at all… He encased the entire meteor in a wreath of holy fuckfire and flew through Mercury, killing the fuck out of it. Then he sent Mercury’s carcass into Venus, killing the fuck out of it and making every vagina in the galaxy explode, and inside every vagina a booby sang of mortal life’s fleeting precipice.

Seriously. You can’t tell me that doesn’t mean something?

Paul and JTA listen and prepare for the voting...

For my story, I’d selected QUAKE THE EPIC FIGHT!, which is – I hope – probably the only piece of Quake-themed fanfiction to have ever been written. It’s starts – and finishes – with Chapter One, which kind of makes me wonder why it bothers with a chapter title in the first place, and tells the story of old schoolfriends Bill and Norman as they fight together against the, and I quote, “evill strogg robot alien things who kill humans”.

It’s pretty dire, and remarkably hard-to-read on account of it’s random tense changes, spelling (both awful and inconsistent), and the absence of punctuation. Let me share a sentence:

ther vas loud boom when bills ship crash but ther vas louder more BOOM when normans did. “oh no is he ded!” bill sayed lik sad but ther vas body who climed up from shp and they ran to others in happy!

Ballot papers.

Finally, it came time for the voting – by STV, of course, because we’re not savages. After a run-off round between tied winners Ruth and Paul, Ruth finally came out on top! Garfield had it!

The prize! Jack Daniels and ginger. In a can.

JTA has decided to provide a prize that fit with the theme. Fanfiction is a good way to ruin a perfectly good story… so what happens if you ruin whisky? You get this, it turns out: Jack Daniels and ginger, in a can. Ruth was less-than-delighted by her prize (it didn’t taste too bad all by itself, but the soapy aftertaste was pretty grim), but managed to gulp down the whole can with minimal help from the rest of us.

Ruth with her "prize".

Ruth mentioned that there existed a sequel to the piece of fan fiction she’d read, and we insisted that she give us a reading of this, too. And so, we got the dubious pleasure of a live reading of Garfield: First Blood Part II: The Legend of the Warrior of the Forever Fist, feature fantastic paragraphs like this closing moment:

Garfield and Natalie Portman went on her bed and embraced for love makings. They rubbed eachother with oil and perfume and touched eachother all over. Their bodies then joined like peanut butter and jelly and created delicious loving all night long.

Wow. The author even updated his postscript to let his admired Natalie Portman know that he’s still single (shocking, I know, that a talented author like this can’t get a date) if she’s interested.

All in all, the first ever Argh, It Burns! Night was an amazing, hilarious, and only sometimes painful, success. We’re totally going to have to do this again next year.

Thirty – Part Two

Last weekend, I turned thirty. As I described earlier, I had originally planned to write a retrospective summary of what I’d been doing for my life so far (y’know; what’ve I been up to these decades). I wasn’t terribly satisfied with what I’d written, so far, and by the time that the party was over I’d changed my mind completely. So I threw out everything I’d written so far and wrote this, instead.

Part II: The bit that’s different from what I expected to write.

As I said in Part I, I had originally planned to write a long and drawn-out retrospective, looking back on my life. I wanted to try to encapsulate it in some kind of bubble or capture it in some way that condensed it into something concise and manageable. But every time I tried to begin to put down words to express it, it always came out looking cynical and pessimistic. And that doesn’t reflect how my life has been this far: to the contrary, my original plan to write about the last time years has nestled within it most of the very best years of my life thus far. I took a moment to contemplate my situation: why was I unable to describe this period with the liveliness and joy with which it deserves. And then I realised: the reason that I was writing so pessimistically is because – unusually, those who know me will surely agree – I’ve had a somewhat pessimistic view of the world, recently… and this depressing outlook was infecting my words.

This last year and a bit have been hard, for me. Things like this, and this, and this, and this – among other events – have worn me down and made feel, quite often, that I’m fueled only by nostalgia and that I’ve been struggling to find motivation for the future. Even happy events, like Ruth & JTA’s wedding, have often been an intense emotional rollercoaster ride, full of ups and downs that would be an easy ride under normal conditions but which were each just “one thing to many” when combined with everything else. In short: it’s been a tough year.

The last ten weeks or so have been the worst. Struggling with a variety of different issues and, buried deep in the cold and the dark of a particularly bleak and challenging winter, I’ve periodically found myself a very long way out into the Not OK half of the room.

It’s been particularly unpleasant: not just for me but, I’m sure, for the folks who’ve had to put up with me while I’ve been so irritable and grumpy.

But it’s not all bad. The worst has passed, I think, and things are getting better. I’ve got all the support I could need, and it’s been getting better a little at a time – a little more each day. My birthday, though, was different. It wasn’t a step forward: it was a flying leap! Where I expected to be looking back over the past, I instead found myself looking forwards to the future. And being surrounded by the wonderful (infectious) bounciness and enthusiasm of so many great friends, piled into one place, was incredibly liberating. For the first time in weeks I felt a surge of optimism that persists even now.

I managed to find the time – but not the words – to try to tell some of you who were there how important it was for me that you’d been able to come and make the party a success. I hope that this blog post makes everything clearer.

Thanks to everybody involved for a fantastic party.

All comments on this post will be moderated before publication. If you don’t want your comment to be published, please state this in your comment or instead use the contact form.

 

Thirty – Part One

Last weekend, I turned thirty. I had originally planned to blog this weekend in a retrospective manner- looking back over the last decade or so of my life: a particularly common theme for the time of year, when we look back over our resolutions and count the years as they pass, and also a common activity suitable for a birthday so (arbitrarily, but apparently appropriately) significant as one’s thirtieth. However, I’ve had a change of heart, for two reasons.

Firstly, but least significantly, the numerical significance of a decade of life truly is arbitrary. This was expressed quite clearly, I think, when Finbar looked at my birthday cake, and, misinterpreting the writing on top of it, said, “You’re… 3D years old?” After a few seconds of mental arithmetic, I replied: “Not for another thirty-one years, I’m afraid.” Unfortunately my joke – based on the implication that my age was being expressed in hexadecimal base – was wasted on those within earshot (Angharad, Ele, and Lee, I think), but still gave me a moment to think: seriously: is the significance of my age really dependent upon the fact that it’s an exact multiple of the (modal – this isn’t quite true for all) number of digits on the uppermost two limbs of a human?

But more importantly, the reason behind my change of heart was primarily because of a shift in my attitude, brought about, I think, as a result of the birthday celebrations. I’ll talk about that in the next blog post. But first, I thought I’d tell you all about the party:

Part I: Surprise! Or: how to organise a surprise party that’s still surprising even though the person being honoured knows it’s happening.

Ruth tried ever so hard to keep my surprise party a surprise. It’s generally hard for her to keep secrets about which she is excited, and she’d become ever so proud of herself for managing to keep her plans under wraps for so long. Unfortunately, there was a miscommunication, and Finbar first heard about the party without being told that it was to be a surprise.

I received a text message from him towards the end of last year:

Hey Dan, I haven’t been watching my inbox and Angharad tells me you’re doing a thing on the 6th for your birth cycle. If we attended, could we pitch a tent behind earth? Happy birth cycle, by the way. Hard to believe you’re already 25.

This caused some confusion. Not only had he gotten the date wrong (a separate misunderstanding), but he was also talking about an event about which I know nothing. I began to compose a response, correcting him and explaining that no, nothing is planned – but perhaps if he and a few other people were free we could get together anyway. As I typed, I quizzed Ruth to see if she knew from where the confusion might have arisen. And so: the truth came out.

A 'Happy Birthday' banner in the hallway of Earth.

Nonetheless, the party was a success. Particular highlights (and surprises) included:

  • The attendance of so many people, and from such far-flung corners of the country! I was honestly overwhelmed by the attendance of so many friends at (what felt to me, at my late discovery) such short notice.
  • A beautiful cake produced by Ruth to show a group of Pikmin of various colours crowding around a large object that would require 30 of them to lift it: a wonderful interpretation of the (adorable) Pikmin characters for the medium of a birthday cake.
My birthday cake. With pikmin on it!
  • Drinking cocktails out of the largest martini glass I’ve ever seen. Seriously: I could easily have drowned in this thing (sorry; no picture – others took some, though, and I’ll add one to this post if somebody can supply one).
  • A mixture of party games both silly (like the Christmas-themed pass-the-parcel which used up a lot of our spare Christmas supplies) and spectacular (like JTA‘s clever and complex treasure hunt, which has hampered only by the sheer number of guests involved even after Liz, Suz and I kindly offered to sit on the couch and take managerial roles). Even those games that didn’t get off the ground, like the short-lived game of charades, the on-again-off-again game of Apples To Apples which finally went ahead the following morning, and the ill-conceived fruit-passing game – not suitable for seated players, we now know – that ultimately lead to the spillage of lots of booze were fun in their own ways.
  • Discovering new things about old friends (the kinds of things that earn them even more Awesome Points™).
  • The thought and consideration that evidently took place in the minds of my fellow Earthicans, from the kids-party themed food and drink (plus alcohol, naturally) that I know that Ruth and JTA were up far too late preparing, to the blatantly catered-to-me playlist that first appeared on the music collection (thanks, Paul!). Even down to the detail of taking me outside again after everybody had arrived so that I could come in any everybody could shout “Surprise!”, as if I didn’t know (sorry, folks: I knew).
Leading candidates in the ad-hoc 'best boobies' competition. I still like Ele's.
  • Feeling like I was the core of a group of people that varied, over the course of the evening, between one and three parties (which shall be referred to as Party A, Party One, and The Upstairs Party).

Put simply, the party was fantastic. Everybody who came helped to make it awesome by bringing a bit of their own magical selves (or by contributing from afar by ordering the pizza, of course). Thank you all so very much.

The following morning, Matt eats a breakfast of muffins... and milk???

Edit: Part 2 is now online. It’s significantly less jolly, but ultimately optimistic.

The Wedding – Feedback

Ruth & JTA haven’t gotten around to blogging about their wedding since it happened, yet, and I’ve so far failed to make available copies of many of the photographs I’ve been sent (although you can find a link to a few photos on this page) – although, in my defence, I’ve only just gotten the chance myself, this weekend, to see the official photographs. All of this will happen in time, I promise. In the meantime; here’s some of the feedback that I collected from around the web in the aftermath of the wedding:

Alec tells Facebook that he had a great time.
Alec tells Facebook that he suffered afterwards.
Ele tells Facebook that it was “Wedding-tastic.”
Before the wedding, Harriet tells Facebook that she’s enjoying being one of only two Trevor-Allens, before Ruth becomes a third.
Harriet looks back on the weekend, on Facebook, and answers comments asking about her journey home.
Matt P tells Facebook simply “wow. that was amazing!” Andy K, who couldn’t make it to the wedding, replies to ask if Matt was talking about University Challenge!
Sian tweets simply, “Aww, I love weddings me!”
Selina gets back to the land of bacon, Lego and beer, and congratlates the happy couple via Facebook.
Sarah, who couldn’t make it to the wedding, thanks Becky for delivering her wedding cupcakes.
Ruth gets back from her and JTA’s mini-honeymoon and tells Facebook about how many sugared almonds she’s eaten (ultimately, she made herself quite unwell).

You might also be interested in the following things that people have been saying around the interwebs:

I’ll try to keep this list of links up-to-date, so if you’re aware of anything that I’ve missed, let me know and I’ll add it. And needless to say, you’ll hear a little more about this from me when I get the chance.

What’s that you say? You’re wondering about the strange parcel?It turns out it was an Amstrad CPC 464 that my mother found on eBay. More on that later, perhaps.

Ruth & JTA’s Stag/Hen Party Weekend, Part III

With their wedding just around the corner, Ruth and JTA had a combined stag/hen party weekend, a couple of weeks back. You’ve probably already seen part one and part two – here’s the finale! Click on pictures if you want to see them larger.

Sunday

A Simpler Breakfast

Compared to the big fry-up of the day before, Sunday’s breakfast was a far simpler continental-style affair with croissants and fruit.

Sunday’s breakfast. Help yourself!

Suit Up

For today’s event, many of us had decided to dress as superheroes/costumed heroes/costumed vigilantes (Paul wouldn’t let me use the generic term superheroes to describe those without superpowers, and JTA objected to the notion that his costume – Rorscach from Watchmen – could be considered  a hero, so I’m using these three terms together in order to satisfy everybody).

Superheroes/vigilantes/whatever gathered with civilians outside Jordans YHA.

I was The Flash, which pipped my first choice – Bananaman – to the post after I became concerned that Bananaman’s cape would prohibit me from wearing a climbing harness (in actual fact, it wouldn’t have caused any problem, as Owen – dressed as Batman – demonstrated).

The Flash picks Batman up by the neck.

Needless to say: all being dressed as comic book characters quickly lead to a series of play fights and staged photos.

The Flash, Batman, Robin, and Catwoman beat the crap out of Kick-Ass.

This silliness persisted all the way to our destination.

Batman and Catwoman face off.

Which, in case you hadn’t guessed already, was…

Go Ape!

Ruth and I had been together to a Go Ape! centre before, while celebrating our third anniversary last summer, and she’d decided that it was so much fun that it should absolutely be on the list of activities for the Stag/Hen weekend event. As Siân once wrote: you get to channel your inner Indiana Jones and traverse ricketty bridges between the tree tops, jump from platform to platform, scramble across cargo nets and… fly down the zip lines.

The safety briefing.

Of course, everything is even more fun when you do it wearing a silly costume. Except perhaps putting on a climbing harness: this was particularly fun for Robin – dressed as Robin – when the instructor discovered the padded bulge in his tights while helping him tighten his straps.

The Flash climbs from tree to tree above the forest floor.

Climbing, leaping, swinging, flying. Even the most cautious in our group got into the swing of things as they hopped from tree to tree across the ropes and bridges that stretched around the forest. The tarzan swings – and especially the second one, with it’s “drop off” before the rope catches you – were particularly awesome at the Black Park Go Ape course. Needless to say, we got plenty of attention from confused-looking ramblers on the ground as they saw costumed heroes leaping around above them.

The Boy Wonder on the Bat-Zipline.

There’s also a lot of fun to be had in playing at being superheroes and fighting atop a high platform, punching your opponent and sending them flying (secured to a wire, of course) off the side and away. Yes, we played like little kids, and it was awesome.

Kick-Ass slams into a cargo net at the end of the smaller of the two Tarzan Swings.

After we’d come down from the trees, we ate lunch – leftovers from breakfast, mostly – and greeted passing children with calls of “Did somebody call for a superhero?” The original plan would have seen us go to a nearby sauna/spa to chill out at the end of such a long weekend, but we’d spent so long playing about at Go Ape! that we decided to drop this from the plan, and instead call an end to a fantastic weekend.

Catwoman dodges Batman’s flying kick in the Go Ape! car park.

All in all, a fantastic weekend. Huge thanks to everybody who came and helped to make it a success. See you at the wedding!

Photos

If anybody’s interested, there’s a gallery of many of the photos we took, including the ability to download the high-resolution versions in a convenient ZIP file for your offline use, here.

Ruth & JTA’s Stag/Hen Party Weekend, Part II

With their wedding just around the corner, Ruth and JTA had a combined stag/hen party weekend, a couple of weeks back. I wrote a little about it already – here’s the second of the three parts. As usual, click on pictures to embiggen.

Saturday

A Mighty Fry Up

Matt, Paul and I kick-started everybody’s morning with an enormous fry-up. We’d be needing every calorie for what was to come next.

Paintball

We spent most of the day at a nearby paintball centre. We got quite horribly lost on the way there, and it took a few attempts for our convoy of cars to finally find the place. I’ve never seen a paintball centre so large, before – everywhere I’d been has catered for up to about 80 people at once, maximum, but this place was enormous. Packed in with hundreds – maybe thousands – of other players, we were herded like cattle through our boot camp and equipment handout.

Party people planning paintball play preparations.

My team – Team Black – kicked arse, and not just because there were more of us than our rivals, Team Gold (which was especially true after a handful of Team Gold members were thrown out after one was messing about with his mask). I particularly enjoyed working alongside Ruth’s brothers as a three-man assault team during some of the more team-oriented scenarios.

Paul doesn’t approve.

It wasn’t for everyone, though. Perhaps because of the atmosphere, or the stretched-to-breaking-point old equipment, or the half-arsed attitudes of the staff, it was only to be as much fun as you made it. And, of course – as with any war – there were injuries.

That’s gonna sting in the morning.

The moral: in future, stick to the small, friendly paintball centres and not the behemoths.

Leaving the paintball centre.

Troma Night On Location

We raced back to Jordans to fight for the limited supplies of hot water for showering, and then got started at setting up for a wedding-themed Troma Night On Location. Ruth & JTA had chosen four films – an old one, a new one, a borrowed one, and a blue one – to use as our theme, but after a day of running around and being shot at, not one of us was particularly optimistic that we’d be able to sit through all of them!

Troma Night On Location kicks off.

Our first film was the topical How To Murder Your Wife, an underrated and fabulously funny adventure in lost bachelorhood. We ordered pizza from the nearest Dominos’ (still a couple of towns away), and had a large stack of pizzas dropped off with us only about 40  minutes; not bad considering the distance and how well-hidden the hostel is.

The film is paused for a surprise interim activity.

And then we stopped showing films for a little while…

Nurse Kitty

You see: as a Best Man, I have certain responsibilities, and there are certain traditions that ought to be upheld. One of these traditions is that it’s not really a stag night unless there’s a stripper. So I hired a stripper.

Given our mixed-gender/sexuality/outlook group, I made sure to warn everybody that this was going to happen… well, everybody except JTA, anyway, who seemed quite genuinely surprised when I announced that there was a special guest here to see him, and opened the door to “nurse Kitty”.

Nurse Kitty checks JTA’s temperature and remarks on how hot he is.

“Did somebody call for a nurse?” she said, “Is… JTA here?” JTA’s hand went up, slightly sheepishly, as Kitty slid around in front of him and checked his temperature (I’m sure that when NHS professionals do this it involves less breast-on-face action) and pulse (I’m not sure that conventional medical practice requires that this is done with a thigh, but who am I to argue with a nurse who’s suddenly wearing a lot less than when she came in.

Peeping at the contents of her nurse’s bag as she put away the thermometer, I caught a glimpse of what was yet to come: baby oil… whipped cream… and – Lucky Stars? That’s a new one on me. But all became clear by the time the CD player had started the second song and the slender young lady in front of us was wearing tine cones of whipped atop her nipples, each topped with a small milk chocolate star. “I didn’t think I liked Lucky Stars,” JTA said, later, “But those were pretty good.”

Ruth had been worried that this diversion from the night would be incredibly socially awkward, but it wasn’t. Thanks to a little injection of humour and a little bit of warning (at least for everybody except JTA), everything was fun and friendly (as well as pretty hot). And Kitty hung around with us afterwards for a while to drink and chat, and turns out to be a really interesting person with a fascinating “day job” (I won’t mention what it was here because the last thing we want is to “out” her as a stripper to her mother, who doesn’t know about her other job).

(there’s a video somewhere which I’ll share with you if the person responsible for it ever gets me a copy)

There’s actually a whole blog post worth of writing about hiring a stripper to come to an inaccessible village in the middle of nowhere, how to handle cancellations, and more – but I’ll save that for another time, if anybody’s interested.

Back to Troma Night

And so we got back to Troma Night and our second film – one of my favourites – The Mating Habits Of The Earthbound Human. I really love this film, and it was great to be with folks who’d never seen it before; to see their happy little faces at the conception analogy used in the film, for example – a wonderful little joke in a brilliant movie.

Hanging out at the end of the evening.

And then, we gradually drifted off to bed, one by one. Nobody had the energy for even a third film, never mind a fourth, and we’d need a surprising amount of energy for tomorrow’s activity… [to be continued]

Ruth & JTA’s Stag/Hen Party Weekend, Part I

With their wedding just around the corner, Ruth and JTA had a combined stag/hen party weekend, a couple of weeks back (yes, I know it’s taken me a while to blog about it. Here’s some of the highlights. As usual, click pictures for bigger versions.

Friday

Jordans

Most of the party was to take place at the youth hostel in a Buckinghamshire village called Jordans. With a little sweet-talking to the lady who runs the hostel – which we’d rented outright for the weekend – we were able to check-in a little early, to at least be able to leave our bags and cars there.

Jordans Youth Hostel

Matt, who was to join us for the next part of the adventure, was running late, so we explored the nearby Quaker meeting house – one of the oldest, right on our doorstep, and the burial place of William Penn – while we waited for him to show up.

Ruth, JTA, and Paul, standing around wondering where Matt could have gotten himself to.

Eventually we had to set off to London without him, on the train. We hid his train ticket inside the least-likely-looking leaflet we could find at the train station, texted him instructions to find it, and got underway.

In which leaflet do you think we’ve hidden Matt’s train ticket?

Paul split from us shortly after Marylebone Station to pursue a quest of his own: to find a stack of foreign candy and purchase it. Meanwhile, we went on to…

Volupté

The festivities started with lunch in Volupté for Ruth and JTA, accompanied by maid-of-honour Matt (when he caught up with us) and I. You might recall that Ruth, JTA and I had been before for their “afternoon tease” a few months ago, and loved it. Volupté is a fantastic little burlesque club buried in the middle of London, and we enjoyed their ostentatious and eccentric cocktails as we ate our dinner, listened to some live music, and watched JTA help a young lady undress by tugging on the end of one of the series of wrap-around dresses she wore.

JTA and Ruth at what we’ve now decided is our ‘usual table’ in the cocktail lounge, waiting for Matt to arrive.

Given our dormitory-style accommodation, he probably thought that this would be the only time he’d be helping a young lady to undress all weekend, but this assumption would turn out to be false later in the weekend…

Ruth & Dan’s Stag/Hen Party Game Which They Couldn’t Agree On A Name For

Back at Jordans, our other guests were beginning to arrive. Ruth’s brothers, Owen and Robin, were among the first, followed by Alec and Suz, Siân, Adrian and Abby. That’s when we got the phone call from Liz.. giggling as she went (perhaps from the painkillers?) she wanted to apologise that she and Simon wouldn’t be able to make it, because she’d suffered a rather unpleasant injury. And so began the first of our evening’s entertainments: coming up with awful and tasteless puns about poor Liz’s accident.

The drinking begins. Here’s to you, Liz, for being so unflappable.

As our chefs in the kitchen prepared everybody’s dinner, Ruth and I began to explain the rules of Ruth & Dan’s Stag/Hen Party Game Which They Couldn’t Agree On A Name For.

Paul, Robin, and Ruth prepare dinner.

Two teams were formed. The aim for each team was to help their team-mates traverse a Twister mat by competing in a series of challenges to win a number of “spins” of the Twister spinner. When a team-mate got across the mat, they were awarded a hat; and the first team to be entirely “hatted” is the winner. Easy, right?

Sian stands with one foot on the mat as her team-mates struggle to complete their first challenge.

The challenges were about as varied as Ruth and I could manage to come up with. The first, for example, had blindfolded players trying to solve a jigsaw under the (verbal-only) guidance of the rest of their team. Another required the team to transport water from a stack of jugs to a distant bucket using only a leaky length of guttering. A third had each team playing charades.

Alec and JTA, blindfolded, attempt to solve jigsaws.

Remarkably, few people were hurt. Sure, the water-pistol-fight-while-carrying-lit-candles game was pretty safe, but the “human jousting”, which saw piggybacking riders attempt to dismount their competitors by beating them with foam swords, stopped barely short of bruising poor Suz as she was repeatedly whipped by Matt.

Human Jousting.

Quite-remarkably, Alec lost to Paul in a doughnut-eating competition. Meanwhile, the most spectacular bobbing-for-apples competition ever seen – between JTA and Owen – ended with a spectacularly close and exciting finish… and water pretty much everywhere.

Alec having lost a doughnut-eating competition; still wearing the blindfold, tiara, and earrings from two previous challenges.

Drunk, tired, and – in some cases – wet and covered in doughnut crumbs, we went to bed. Tomorrow was to be a long day… [to be continued]

Murder At The Magic College

A week last Sunday – just a couple of day’s after Paul‘s arrivalEarth hosted a housewarming event combined with our latest Murder Mystery, Murder at the Magic College. While we’ve had our fair share of Murder Mystery Nights before, this is only the third one I’d authored (after Murder in the Reign of Terror and Murder… in Space!), and only the second to use the non-scripted approach that many of have rapidly become fond of.

As usual, planning actually started about six months prior, when I made the first notes about what would eventually become the plot of the event, but that’s reasonably unexciting (although everybody does seem to be shocked when I point out that excluding all of my notes, the final printed materials given out at the party itself totaled a little over 26,000 words: just a little shorter than my dissertation!). Instead, let’s skip to just before the party, so I can have an excuse to show off the enormous amount of shopping we had to do in advance (as usual, click on any picture to embiggen):

Ruth did her usual heroic quantity of cooking, starting several days before the event, and she was still sorting things out when Liz, Simon, and Finbar arrived, and quickly got roped into helping out.

Turn up early, will you? That’ll teach you. Ruth had gone all out on the magical theme to the food, with treats appearing on the table such as rat-on-a-stick, spider pies (with legs sticking out of the top!), pastry “bones”, cakes decorated with magic wands and witches hats, and spacey twinkles on everything.

As the time came around for the party to start, a crisis occurred – as is traditional, just to keep my blood pressure from getting too low. This time around, my sister’s friend Zara had been hospitalised following an asthma attack, and this was destined to keep my mother, her partner Andy, my sister Becky, and her friends Zara and Jemma, from coming on time. As Zara got herself onto a nebuliser I re-jiggered all of the characters and got as many guests to Earth as possible, so that we could kick off.


(if anybody is concerned about Zara’s health, I wouldn’t bother – she was later spotted smoking a cigarette in our garden, obviously feeling a lot better for her hospital trip)


As the Harry Potter films’ soundtracks played quietly in the background, the news came that the Dean of the Faculty of Runic Magic, Lewis Sloman, had been murdered, and the investigation was underway. Thanks to a few refinements made to the structure of the evening since Murder… in Space!, people managed to get “into character” quite quickly and the plot progressed reasonably smoothly all by itself.


This Murder Mystery gave me the opportunity to try out a few experimental new ideas, which were – with one exception – reasonably successful. One new idea was the possibility for the murderer, later in the evening, to “Strike Again!”, taking extra victims in a bid to escape detection. Normally I would be very wary about adding the capability for a character to be “knocked out” of the game (after all, what does the player do for the rest of the evening, then?). However, at the Magic College, death doesn’t have to be the end, and a deceased character can continue to haunt the halls as a ghost (although they’re only permitted to communicate with particular other characters, and only under special circumstances).


In addition, most of the characters (all of the faculty and students, but not so much the muggles) were “spellcasters”, and had not only one or two Ability cards to make use of, but also one or two Spell cards. The Spells were powerful (typically) one-shot abilities, but most of them were capable of being “recharged” by getting hold of a handful of “magic herbs” from the magic herb seller (who knew full well what her wares were worth and made a killing out of them).


Another experimental feature of this Murder Mystery was that a handful of the characters could read one of the two “magical languages” of the land: “Runic”, and the “Language of the Mystics”. Characters who could read one, the other, or both of these had simple substitution cipher decoder keys printed on their character sheets. Now and then a clue would turn up that was written in one or the other language, so it was critical that characters had found multilingual characters that they could trust if they wanted to work out what these clues said.


I’d deliberately tried to keep the pressure on, pushing events onwards throughout the evening and making sure that it was impossible for each character to achieve everything they wanted to with every other character before each Act ended. I wanted to create a mild sense of panic and urgency and an slight out-of-control feeling, but moreover, I wanted to give the players the sense that no matter what subplots they’d discovered and how close they were to working out who the murderer was, there was always something else going on that they just didn’t have time to look into right now.


By way of example, here’s a list of some of the subplots – aside from the murder – that comprised the event (if you were there, how many did you pick up on?):

  • All of the Faculty (Vesper Martini [JTA], Alan Tworings [Andy], Maggie Vixen [Liz H], and Sybil Scrawny [Doreen]) had a motivation to become the new Dean, but how important it was to them varied from character to character. Vesper Martini eventually achieved this goal by making outrageous promises to get people on his side.
  • All of the Students wanted to pass next week’s Potions exam, but there were different ways to achieve this. High-flyers Harriet Plotter [Liz V] and Eskarina Smythe [Ruth] would pass without effort, but Ronald Ferret [Simon] and Daniel Paulson [Statto] wouldn’t. An answers sheet stolen by Ron would guarantee a pass, as could Sybil Scrawny’s exam exemption certificate, but Eskarina had the more-challenging goal that she wanted to get the highest mark, which involved ensuring that Harriet had to sit the exam and that no other candidate cheated.
  • One muggle, Melinda Spoolreel [Rosalind], actually had a Spell that they were capable of casting.
  • Old Betty [Sian], formerly known as Bethany Spoolreel, was actually the mother of Melinda Spoolreel, who for most of her life she’d believed to have been deceased. Had the late Dean’s plan to in-source the production of spell reagents gone ahead, it was Betty’s daughter who would lose out the most.
  • Harriet and Ron were both addicted to the consumption of magical herbs, and worked together to try to ensure that none of the faculty discovered their habit (while still trying to feed it!).
  • Eskarina was infatuated with her teacher, Vesper Martini, but he took her interest in him and his work mostly as her being just a promising and dedicated student.
  • Daniel was due to be expelled this afternoon by the old Dean – he’d even gone so far as to sign out the expulsion form (which began in Alan Tworings’ possession, and could have been a great way for a faculty member to threaten a student! Of course, by the time Daniel turned up (late – he was busy smoking magic herbs with Harriet) to his appointment the Dean was already dead, and as such wasn’t answering the door.
  • Lewis had been cheating on Alison with Sybil, but had called it off in an attempt to turn over a new leaf and repair the relationship with his wife.
  • Eskarina’s Spell, Reveal, let her get herself and two other characters together and all put their Secrets in a heap, then flip a randomly-selected two of them. Old Betty’s Ability, Stoicism, could temporarily counteract the ability to expose her secret, so, unlike all of the other Ability cards, it was printed on the same-coloured card as the Secrets were, in case she were targetted by Eskarina.
  • Harriet had the unusual second-Act goal that she wanted some people to accuse her of being the murderer! (but not enough to have her executed, of course)
  • The old Dean was aware that money was disappearing from the Library’s funds (because Alan Tworings was diverting them to the greenhouses, much to Old Betty’s surprise, to ensure that her Skeleton Key Tree was ready for his use), but he’d mistakenly assumed that librarian Eric Lazyman [Finbar] was embezzling. This had strained Lewis and Eric’s relationship and almost cost Eric his job.
  • The murderer didn’t know that the deceased would be given minor clues as to their identity, and didn’t necessarily know that the deceased would be able to communicate with the living (until Maggie Vixen leapt excitably across the room shouting about how thrilled she was that the body was still warm and the soul still fresh).
  • Vesper Martini was trying to recover a pendant to which only he knew the name (but it was on his Secret card, if anybody exposed it) that could, when worn by somebody who knew its name, protect the bearer from death.
  • Vengeful Alison wanted her husband’s killer brought to justice, and was also quite keen that the “other woman” in his life died, too.
  • Horny Ronald wanted to get a date with Harriet, Eskarina, or Maggie, but failed miserably.
  • Mark Woodbury [Peter] wanted to get hold of the magic bookmark or the alchemy textbook to include in his muggle-world theme park.
  • Maggie’s Womanly Wiles Ability would not function against Alan Tworings (who, as we all later found out, was gay), but had she tried, she wouldn’t be told specifically why it had failed.
  • Both Maggie and Sybil wanted to show off their abilities, which required them to cast their Spells and to later share the knowledge they’d gained with others.
  • Eric’s library book contained on the inside front cover a library slip that demonstrated that Alan was last to take it out before it was reported damaged, and only borrowed it for a single day.
  • Alison wanted to finish the evening in possession of her husband’s last letter: some time after Eskarina put it up on the whiteboard for everybody to see, it mysteriously went missing…
  • Every Minor Character had a clue: did you get them all?


Another distinction setting this Murder Mystery apart from others was the Minor Characters twist. Pushed for time and with more and more potential guests (and with several guests saying that they didn’t really want to have to take part in a huge way), I came up with the idea of casting some people as Minor Characters, with a lesser role to play. This backfired somewhat, it seems, because the Major Characters, stressed at having to discover clues at speed, tended to ignore the Minor Characters (who were less use to them), making them feel left out. I’m not sure that Minor Characters are unfixable, but they definitely need more “bang” if they’re going to appear in any future Mystery I write.


This Murder Mystery had the greatest proportion of “newbies” of any I’ve ever been involved with, with the exception of the very first. Of the 13 Major Characters, only 4 had any kind of previous interactive Murder Mystery experience, and only 2 of those had experience of an unscripted interactive experience like this one. I was a little nervous that people would be able to get into character, but adding “just read it out” style introductions and a handful of tips of “things to try first” seemed to make all the difference, and the characters all sprung to life remarkably quickly (aided, perhaps, by the copious quantities of alcohol available).


In fact, I’ve been told that in some cases people’s enthusiasm for playing the part of their character and wanting to show off their trivia and silly accents actually got in the way of the players’ investigative efforts. Everybody was having so much fun playing make-believe that they sometimes completely forgot to gather clues and achieve their goals, instead simply chatting about their projects, about upcoming exams, about who they think will become the next Dean, and about tasty tasty rat-on-a-stick.


There were plenty of secret negotiations, alliances made and broken, and plenty of lying and backstabbing. I’d given more-than-usual freedom to the characters to lie about things than ever before, this time, and some imaginative (and in some cases accidental) lies quickly turned into rumours and spread via gossip throughout the cast. At one point I heard Dirk the Dragonslayer [Paul] talking about something “he’d heard” (which I knew not to be true: I’d never written anything of the sort, and it directly contradicted some of the less well-known evidence), and later heard a cluster of other characters trading this gossip it as information.


Yet again, the players exceeded my wildest expectations in their ability to bring my characters to life. For anybody not aware of my process, I don’t write particular characters to fit particular players (I couldn’t if I wanted to: when I start writing the characters up to half a year in advance of the party, it’s far too early to plan such things), and in fact it’s not even me that assigns the characters. Instead, I write the characters and then have Ruth – who only gets to see one or two sentences about each – assign them, and so it’s particularly amusing to me when a secret character trait appropriate to a player gets coincidentally given to them. And in the other cases: well, that’s what role-playing is about, isn’t it – getting into a character that isn’t yourself, and it pleases me immensely to see the characters I’ve spent months crafting brought to life through the interpretation of my friends.


At the end of the evening the votes came in as to who everybody thought was the murderer. Alan (actually the murderer) took the first few votes, and then Ron (innocent!) rocketed ahead. I couldn’t understand this: why were so many people suspecting poor Ron? It turns out that it was all because of a lie he told early on: in order to try to cover for the fact that he’d stolen the answer sheet to next week’s exam, he tried spread a rumour that he was busy revising in the Library during the afternoon. It later became apparent that this unsubstantiated alibi (which could only have been exposed by persuading his friend, Harriet, to come clean and tell everybody that they’d been together, doing drugs, at the time) placed him unfortunately right where many people suspected that the murderer must have been at that time! Worse yet, those who realised that he was lying about his whereabouts at about the time of the murder quickly made the assumption that he must be doing this to cover for having been the killer!


Another quirk to this particular party was a final secret ballot to nominate the new Dean and to pick the favourite costume, acting, and best investigator from the group. Alan managed to get away with the murder (and with managing to also kill the librarian, during the evening, whose strong and very vocal public accusations were starting to intimidate him), but didn’t quite manage to take the Deanship: that was snatched by rival Vesper Martini, who’d spent the evening spinning a web of false promises, playing to the characteristics that everybody wanted to see in their new Dean.

So there we go, another fabulous Murder Mystery – perhaps the best yet! I’ve learned a lot, as always, that I’ll be using for the next Murder Mystery, Murder at the Rock Concert (working title), that we’ll be running in the New Year sometime. This new Murder Mystery will be set at the backstage party of a 1974 glam rock concert where the lead singer will turn up dead, so find yourself a pair of platform soles and some glittery make-up (guys too!) and we’ll see you then!

Further reading: