Questival 2010

Last Friday I headed up to Yorkshire for the Questival camping weekend. It was aimed at skeptics / agnostics / atheists / freethinkers / whatever rationality-based label people wish to apply, and I was one of the organisers.

NomI hadn’t been camping for years, which is no kind of excuse for forgetting my sleeping bag. The one damn thing I had to remember for our tent, and it didn’t even cross my mind until late evening, when I was able to sheepishly borrow one. I began to doubt my competence at this point, a concern not helped by then only getting an hour’s sleep on the first night. I’m fairly practised at not sleeping, and knew I’d be fine for a day, if not at my sharpest. Which was slightly annoying, as there was lots to do.

Round-table discussions on atheism, humanism and skepticism (I missed these due to buying food, so will skilfully and imperceptibly gloss over them) were followed by rounders, which our team won by approx. a billion to six, because we a) rocked b) changed the rules halfway through. Then came my skeptical quiz, which went over pretty well despite being a bit too formal. It was only 90mins, but felt long – in hindsight I should have made it much more relaxed, and probably had it in the bar. Still, it’s got to be one of the few times in history Immanuel Kant has been mentioned in the same context as a giant penis painted on a roof, so that’s something for the CV. People seemed to enjoy it, happily – I’ll put it online soon.

Iszi LawrenceOur guest speakers were Skepchick founder Rebecca Watson and comedian Iszi Lawrence, and I was asked to introduce Rebecca. I’m generally comfortable speaking in front of people, and had already run the aforementioned quiz, but Ms Watson is a skeptical hero of mine and I got weirdly nervous – I was actually shaking a little and had to read my intro (I usually memorise these things). Anyway, she and Iszi Lawrence were hilarious and easily had the room of 20 people enthralled – at one point during their joint Q&A they and we completely lost it over something to do with whale shit. You had to be there. I didn’t even think to take a photo of said moment, which is a rare state for me.

Unlike the wet and cold Friday night, Saturday was clear for Perseid-gazing, and a few people stayed up until 3ish, apparently getting quite a decent display. I skipped this in favour of a blessedly solid night’s sleep. Next morning we headed out to climb and picnic at Malham Cove, one of those places where you wish you knew a bit more about geology – the cracked limestone ‘pavement’ at the top is pretty bizarre – before realising you don’t have to as there are signs which explain it all. We left just as the approaching storm began to make itself known, and on the way back drove past the Morecock Inn, then later the Ye Olde Naked Man Cafe, situated upsettingly close to the Singing Kettle Restaurant. We didn’t laugh at any of these, though, because we are adults.

I had a good time, and feedback has been positive. Everybody got on, and the whole thing was nicely relaxed. Overall, really pleasant – we’re planning to do it again next year.

Off to Questival

questival logo

Quite excited as I’m off to Questival this morning – a camping trip for skeptics / atheists / humanists / freethinkers / rationalists / anybody who fancies it. I’m on the organising committee, and it’s been good fun getting everything ready – even if the last couple of days have been a bit manic. Iszi Lawrence and Rebecca Watson are coming along to provide skeptical awesomeness, and there are lots of activities planned, including games, Perseid viewing, attempting to cook on the BBQ, plenty of socialising, and the Invisible Unicorn Challenge. Weather looks erm, tricksy. Right, off to pick up provisions.

Dubai hi

I’m typing this sitting on the floor in Dubai airport, plugged into one of the many helpful laptop-charging-stations. It’s 5am my time, and I may start hallucinating shortly (apologies if this post descends into detailed descriptions of moon-badgers).

I am happy. Uganda was wonderful, and has pretty much rendered useless my stock of superlatives. It is a land of poverty and wooden scaffolding and bright colours and religion and nestled treasure and stars and crazy bike-taxis and monkeys and fruit and malaria and the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered. Seeing the schools was a lesson in the realities of life in such small communities, and you can’t help but admire the kids – their dedication in the face of such odds was remarkable.

I took a shade over 6000 photos (though many are rapid-fire duplicates), and I’ll process them as soon as I can. Here’s lunch being prepared at the Isaac Newton School (where we stayed for a week):


IsaacNewtonLunch3 IsaacNewtonLunch2

and new chum Ivan next to one of the stranger water dispensers we encountered:

Ivan and Acid

I’d best stop there – feeling pretty weird now. 3.5hrs till my Birmingham flight. Back soon.

Visiting Brighton and the Labour Conference

Brighton #02Last Tuesday I headed down to Brighton to take some photos at the Labour conference. Both the town and the event were new to me, and it was a fun day.

I stayed overnight in Dorking – a couple of hours drive from Stratford – and headed into Brighton at just gone 07:00. Traffic was surprisingly light, but parking was difficult. I was hoping it’d be as easy as when I photographed the Dawkins event at last week’s Lib Dem conference: I parked outside the hotel. This wasn’t possible in Brighton due to tank-proof concrete barriers and men with frankly-excessive machine guns1. I swung up into town to find a car park, and the first had a large queue as the police searched every body/car. I figured I didn’t need that hassle, so eventually found an extra-expensive NCP multi-storey and walked down to the seafront. It was a lovely morning, and I found myself wondering – as always, when I’m outside at that time – why I don’t get up early more often.

I was there to photograph the BHA’s no-prayer breakfast – with secular pastries! – and it went pretty well. There was a good turnout, with A C Grayling, Lord Macdonald and Kelvin Hopkins MP answering questions amiably as everyone indulged in probably too much chocolate for that time of the morning. It was also nice to see blogging chum Mr Skuds in the audience, and we had a chat afterwards.

I was done by 09:30, so wandered around for a bit. I hadn’t been to a party conference before – not inside the secure areas, anyway – so everything was new. The hotels are crammed full of booths owned by all sorts of groups and organisations, all trying to attract Labour members and MPs. They often give stuff away (although I hear the real goodies are found at the Tory conference this year) and at the Terrence Higgins Trust booth I was handed free condoms – those’ll be handy – as well as a frisbee (with a disappointing lack of tossing jokes). I also had a go in their STI tombola and was pronounced clean of infection, so there’s no need to wash after reading this. Despite this I was curiously ignored by most booths, probably because I was carrying a large-ish camera and looked like one of the many professional photographers milling around, so was free to walk around unhindered and peek into the conference hall (my pass wouldn’t let me in, sadly) where Gordon Brown would speak later that day. It’s odd to see these important, glamorous tv-locations first-hand – it’s just like a big room. This is possibly not the most profound observation ever.

Eventually I ran out of things to see, so I left the secure zone and walked up the rocky beach for a while, taking the occasional photo but mostly just enjoying the quiet. I eventually started worrying about sunburn, though, so headed into town in search of food. It was only 11:30 by this point, despite feeling like mid-afternoon, but once I’d decided where to eat – there were about a billion possible cafes, all of which were perfect for me – the resulting fish and chips was most welcome.

In a curious fit of culture, I next decided to visit the Brighton Museum. This immediately proved a mistake, with the main hall displaying varying furniture styles from 1800-the present. This was, well, dull as shit, and I wondered how long I could pretend to myself that I was having a good time. Then, through a doorway, I spotted some Egyptian sarcophagi. Now you’re talking. Turns out some dude born in Brighton excavated lots of Egypt, so the museum has a fair bit of the resulting loot. This was better. Hieroglyphics, weaponry, mummified kittens…this is what museums are for.

My faith in culture was completely restored until I exited the exhibition and saw this:

Crap painting

It’s like a Photoshop Disaster of the 1800s. What the hell is going on with his right leg? No wonder the dog looks nervous. Why would you hang this up anywhere? Why?

Anyway. By this point I was somewhat sleep-deprived, so had a doze in the car for a couple of hours before heading down to the sea for golden hour. I walked up the almost-deserted pier as the sun set, then headed back to the beach for the final rays. I’m quite pleased with some of the resulting photos:

Brighton #16 Brighton #15

Brighton #18 Brighton #20

After that it was off to a Bloggers4Labour meetup, which just happened to be on the same day. The very friendly Andrew, Mr Skuds and Tom were there, and I finally got to meet Damian, who I’ve been communicating with electronically for years. I hadn’t been to a meetup for a few years, so it was cool to see people in person. I couldn’t stay for too long, sadly, as I didn’t want to be too tired on the ~3hr drive home, but I’m glad I hung around town.

  1. seriously, what’s that going to achieve that a handgun isn’t? Are the BNP trenches going to go over the top? []

Looking for things to do in west Lancashire

I’m going to St. Annes this weekend. It’s with my dancing group, and I’ve been twice before, but this time it’ll be without any of my regular partners. I wasn’t planning on going, but a couple of other people in the group talked me into it at the last minute1. Which was actually really flattering, and I was quite touched.

But while it’s lovely that they asked me, I’m still going to stand out like a priapic Beefeater. I’m, um, a fair bit below the average age, and the only person not in a couple. I’m also hardly the life of the party at the best of times, what with my tendency to go quiet when nervous, and I don’t want to be the dude who hangs about making everyone feel slightly awkward. This could all be in my head, but I’m worried nonetheless.

There’ll be dances on the Friday and Saturday evenings, and I reckon they’ll be ok. At least, if the Friday is terribly awkward I’ll bow out of Saturday and go take photos of the seafront or something. But during the day on Saturday / Sunday I’ll feel bad about latching onto someone, so I figure I’ll disappear off somewhere else. I might try and talk someone into riding The Big One. And then maybe go to Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

Actually, no. I just wanted to write that. Blackpool is, um, not my favourite place in the world. In fact, twenty minutes on the promenade and I’ll happily lobotomise myself with a spade. If there is a hell, Blackpool has a franchise. Lots of people find its apparent isolation from the last fifty years quaint and charming, and I’m glad, but one visit was almost enough to turn me Catholic2 and that’ll do, thank you3.

So I don’t really want to go there. So, erm, to anybody I haven’t offended: any recommendations for interesting things in west Lancashire? I haven’t had a proper look around as yet. I could head up to Kendal or thereabouts, but that seems a bit OTT. Plus I’ve been there before. Hmmm.

After five minutes of googling:

Oh, no. There’s a Doctor Who Museum. In Blackpool. Oh god.

  1. everyone else booked six months ago, I booked three weeks ago []
  2. I’m not sure if they believe in Limbo this week, but it’s as good an explanation as any []
  3. I was going to say ‘life is too short’, but ironically another Blackpool visit would rid me of that particular trope []

Symonds Yat dance weekend – the good

On Saturday morning a group of us headed over to the Hay Festival. Originally only two of us were planning to go, but we’d been explaining its literary nature the night before, and at breakfast a few others asked if they could join us. The Hay Festival is a week-long event, run by the Guardian, at which authors and thinkers debate, lecture and engage with anybody who wants to come along. I’d never actually been before, and was looking forward to it. Hay-on-Wye turned out to be further away than I’d anticipated, and after a lengthy journey via the sat-nav’s favourite country lanes we parked in the wrong car park and walked up to the festival site.

It was a gloriously sunny day, and we wandered beneath the tents. While the others bought “sheeps’ milk” ice cream I wandered into the official bookshop, and looked up to see Neil Gaiman:

Queue for Neil Gaiman

He’s one of my favourite authors, and for a few moments I hovered in front of a woman I later realised was Anne Fine, and took a couple of pictures. I had Fragile Things in my bag, and made to join the signing queue, but a lady ahead of me was turned away as they’d closed the line. She was most annoyed, wanting to know why. I wasn’t, strangely. It would have been cool to get something signed, and I even had something not-too-stupid to say – I was going to wish him luck with his new dog – but I didn’t mind not being able to say hi. Maybe I’m not as dazzled by celebrity as I used to be.

I think the Hay festival isn’t designed to be something you just turn up to. There’s a huge amount going on, but most of it is scheduled and ticketed, and the most interesting things were sold out well in advance. I’ll certainly go again next year, but shall plan ahead. We walked around the stalls for a while, and just before lunch caught the shuttle bus into Hay.

This is an incredibly obvious thing to say, but there really are a lot of bookshops in Hay-on-Wye. I can’t understand how I’ve never been before. I’ve also no idea how they all stay in business. One in particular was enormous, and I nearly got lost upstairs. Every aisle looked like this:

Shelves and shelves

It was too much, actually. I could easily spend ten minutes going through the contents of an individual shelf, and spend days in there without realising. I’ll have to go back with Abi. None of the bookshops we visited had any comics or graphic novels, strangely. I wonder whether it’s because they’re too niche, and keeping a decent stock would require a reasonably detailed knowledge of a subject your average book lover doesn’t find interesting…I can’t think it’s a snobby thing.

The town itself was decked out in bunting, and it was a lovely day to walk around. Despite numerous warnings from Lynsey, I got sunburnt. No excuse.

We had some good times dancing, too. It’s rare to have a ballroom not in the basement, and it was nice to dance in the evening sunlight:

Packed dancefloor - 4

On Sunday we drove home via Ross-on-Wye, complete with steampunk fish and enormous houses, and Ledbury with Mrs Muffins and happy dogs. I also drove into this particularly evil bit of kerb:

Evil kerb

on my new-last-week tyre. Whoops.

But the best thing I saw all weekend was the people who ran to Harry’s side on Saturday night. Although ultimately unsuccessful, they knew what to do and didn’t hesitate. I was barely aware what was happening, and they were already working. They’d undoubtedly deny it was brave, but anybody who has the ability and presence of mind to react and help in such situations has my full admiration.

Not a weekend I’d want to repeat, but there were good times too.

Birthday Macaques

Thanks you to all the people who’ve left encouraging comments about my receiving an offer for the photography course. I’m still trying to decide what to do, but the support and advice is very much appreciated 🙂

I had a great birthday weekend. I’m currently listening to one of my presents: Jarvis. I’ve always admired his voice and songwriting style, although I only have the one Pulp album. I haven’t had a proper chance to get into this, his first solo project, yet, but I’m already in love with “I will kill again”. I also received Rodrigo y Gabriela, which I listened to while driving on Saturday and enjoyed, then played on my proper speakers this morning and was blown away. I can only imagine their guitars were designed for playing doorbell chimes at the gates of heaven. Wonderful stuff – many thanks to Skuds for plugging them on his blog!

Late last week I invited various friends to a party using the following ditty:

The 19th sun of the fifth month – it’s May!
bounds into the sky, screams ‘dude, I’m all yay!’
as at the hour of ten, in Dorridge-based houses
a group they do gather in glorious trousers.

They flee in their whizzers, across the country,
an hour they drive, and celibacy
isn’t a virtue nor even a crime –
forgive me my father I needed the rhyme –

and their journey resembles the Faraway Tree,
but less of dear Moon-Face and more of Monkey
Forest that they find with the use of their (wo)menthumbs
is swirling and gorgeous and not far from Trentham.

And evening: once the moon’s a mere whisper,
we’ll eat, therefore laugh (I am no sophister)
we’ll pierce the future with games (or a Ball),
so come one and all to the end of this
poem, with a cute little stanza that employs mis-
direction and know well if you can
come along, this lark it will rock: be better than

Slippy Sarah’s golden gherkin,
a menstrual minstrel’s mouldy merkin,
Roland Rivron’s lucky garter,
all nothing next to Andrew’s parter-y!

Which had the desired effect of appalling people sufficiently that they quickly replied with various levels of abuse, and on Saturday we headed out in an M6 convoy.

Monkey Forest, at Trentham Gardens near Stoke, is a free-range reserve containing 140 Barbary Macaques, of which only 10,000 exist in the wild. There are no barriers – the macaques regularly cross your path as you stroll around the grounds – and it’s surprisingly cheap: £5.50 per person is pretty good when you consider Warwick Castle is £13. I really enjoyed it. As well as the obvious attraction of (not actually) monkeys, the guides were knowledgeable and friendly, and with it being cup final day there were very few people around 🙂 I took over 150 photos with my cheapo 300mm1 lens and was happy with some of the results:

Just like us

The masseuse hits the spot

Macaque Yoga

This seemed bigger before. I don't know what happened.

I is Tarzan

One particular macaque took great exception to being photographed. I guess to him I’m the paparazzi. My favourites are, inevitably, the babies:

What is? Is for me?

Dual huntings

Oh dear

Macaque biologist

I wanted to go on the nearby Aerial Extreme rope course, but it turned out to take 90 – 150mins to complete, so I decided against it. I’ll just have to go back! After this it was back to a friend’s house to do very silly things with another of my presents: a remote-control Dalek:

Uninvited Guest


It has a button specifically for ‘EXTERMINATE’. It is fun times.

I had an excellent day, with wonderful company, great cookies and some very exciting presents. I must say a big thank you to the extremely kind online chum who bought me the surreal DVD – I’m very much looking forward to watching it! I am a very lucky person all round.

  1. 480mm with my 300D’s cropping factor []