So yesterday, I had one of my cataracts fixed – a novel experience. B had his cataracts done a couple of years ago and assured me it was a cakewalk – just a minute or two and it would be all over.
Er no, for me it wasn’t.
Three or four years ago, I had humoungeous problems with rotting teeth and gum infections, needing lots of sessions of extractions and fillings. The first session ended abruptly when I had a panic atttack and bolted; not wanting to live with my teeth problems any longer I went to Doc G and explained, he prescribed some Valium. I took one before each trip to the dentist and sailed through everything she could throw at me – in fact, before the final session I forgot to take the pill, but sailed serenely though nevertheless. I kept the remaining pills just in case of another trip to dental hell.

Despite B’s reassurances, I was nervous about this op, sleeping very badly the night before. So, belt and braces, I took a valium on the way to the hospital. Good foresight, it turned out.
Sitting in the waiting room, B pointed out the Mission Statement on the wall – the usual three paragraphs of corporate bafflegab. “Wonder how much they paid for that?” he murmered. “If you actually need a mission statement WE WILL DO WHAT WE ARE SUPPOSED TO DO surely covers everything.”

Then it was prepping, with the usual three-times-repeated safety check of name, date of birth, organ/body part to be operated on (just to be absolutely and totally sure, a big mark was inked above my right eye). Then onto the the operating table. A sterile mask went over my face (with a cheery “Don’t worry, we’re piping in oxygen to you.”) and an eyehole was cut out. Then came the bombshell.
The surgeon addressed me. “I’m afraid this will take some time – twenty minutes, perhaps thirty…”
He explained; I have a problem eyeball – it’s small, a little misshapen, and left nearly immobile by the operation I’d had as a child to correct severe astigmatism. Plus the lens was unusually thick. So I could forget about the quick ‘pop the old lens out, pop in the new one’ routine that B had gone through. Inserting my new lens would involve extremely careful slicing and stitching.
Oh well, only thirty minutes at most, I can do that….
There came the familiar scratching of Anxiety at the cellar door and the mask suddenly felt claustrophobic. Valium quickly stepped in; Anxiety was menaced into silence, I relaxed a little. And the op began.
The first few minutes were fine. I didn’t feel worried. At all. Until the lens was lifted out. Without a lens to concentrate the image, there was nothing for the retina and optic nerves to make sense of. It was just a flood of photons. With the overhead light pouring in, everything went a sort of indigo-gray interspersed with sharp-edged, flickering irregular black shapes. Like lightning flashes in negative. This must have been the surgeon, working with his instruments. Abruptly, I felt unreasoning terror – I was blind! That eye had never been much cop before, but at least it had bought me colours and shapes, however fuzzy and indistinct. Anxiety was pushing through the door, with Panic screeching right behind.
Then Valium stepped in again, fulfilling its Mission Statement quite magnificently. Both Anxiety and Panic were efficiently cudgelled into silence, kicked back down the cellar steps and the door firmly bolted. I could still make out a faint whimpering from the depths, but I felt safe again.
The operation went on, with lots of prodding, poking and, eventually, beautiful flares of colour as the lens was slid on and painstakingly stitched into place. I was relieved to (literally) see the end of the greyness – the shapes of the surgeon and nurses came into view behind explosions of pink, blue, yellow and white. Then it was finally over.
Faint and shaky, I had to be helped off the table. My years as a life model meant that I can stay rock-still for any length of time; but art classes don’t have people poking sharp pointy things into your eye! So it had been quite a strain.
When I stumbled/floated back into the waiting room, high on relief and my eye taped up, the next patient was already waiting. She had been chatting with B. and he had been reassuring her, as he had reassured me. “Yes!” I told her brightly. “It’s easy-peasy! No problemo! Just so long as you don’t have a bollixed-up eye like mine!”

B hustled me out rather quickly.

Last Friday was a bit of an adventure. It started off at 7:30am with one of my usual tachycardia attacks. After an hour it was clearly not going away, so me & B abandoned our plan to spend the day doing our monthly shop, and I necked a couple of betablockers and settled into bed for the duration.
By 3pm, I was very bored indeed with reading and tweeting; my fast heart-rate seemed to be slowing down, so I reckoned it was safe to get out of bed and get onto the sofa instead. I get very dizzy when I’m on my feet during one of these attacks, but I’m usually all right if I go carefully and cling to the wall and other supports. I got to the living-room sofa and sat for a while, but,unusually, continued feeling light-headed. Not having eaten anything all day, I thought it might be low blood sugar; not wanting to bother B, who was on the computer in the office, I staggered carefully into the kitchen to find something to eat. There my dizziness got worse. Hanging onto the kitchen counter and realising that I’d made a bad mistake, I shouted for B to come and help.
With that, I abruptly found myself in a darkened concert hall listening to Mozart (or was it Handel?), with glowing half-recognised faces swimming in and out of the shadows; this dream/hallucination seemed to last for several bars of music before I came to in B’s arms – he was desperately trying to lower my twelve stones to the floor without putting his already fragile back out. I’d fainted and he’d caught me in the nick of time.
Lying on the floor, I felt better, but didn’t dare get up. A panicky B called our GP, who called an ambulance, which took me to hospital. The drive into Dumfries was long and rough – our local roads are never in the best repair and lying flat on my back, I felt every pothole and bump. Once in the ED I was attended to very quickly, by a doctor who insisted on being called Joe. He was utterly charming, easy-going, attractive in a hunky sort of way. And – I had to tell myself with some regret – he was probably younger than my son.
He checked the cardiac and blood-pressure readings that the paramedics had taken, then took a history. He was concerned that I had these lengthy attacks quite regularly for years but had never had any emergency medical attention for them before. He gently scolded me “It doesn’t matter if you think you can cope by yourself, it’s not good for your heart in the long run – every attack causes a little more damage.” That was the first time any medic had given me such a warning – not even my GP who has treated me for it for years. I’d been quite proud of how I was dealing with my condition, always shrugging it off as no big deal, nothing to bother the docs about. Maybe I should be more complaining?
Dr Joe then told me that he’d be giving me something to bring my heart-rate back to normal; a cannula went into my arm and an IV line attached. “This might be quite unpleasant…” he warned.
I waited.
Two seconds.
Then something punched me in the chest, hard, with a feather cushion. There was a mildly disturbing prickling in my head. Then somebody poured a whole bucket of gloriously fuzzy warm sparkles into my brain and my world lit up. That’s the best way I can describe it – it was like like walking into sunshine after a week of grey, cold rain. Everything looked fresh and new.
“How do you feel now?” smiled Dr Joe. He was now glowing slightly. “Wonderful!” I breathed, just stopping myself from adding and I’m in love with you!
“Always nice when that works!” he twinkled back. He took my pulse and blood pressure again.
“You’re down to 53 BPM, no wonder you’re feeling better.”
“What on earth was it you gave me?”
“Adenosine, and you’ve just had a cardioversion – never had one before? No? It probably won’t be your last – you have to come in the next time you have an long attack. Sorry, but you can’t take it at home – it has to be done under medical supervision.”
“OK, doc, I promise.” Especially if you’re on duty, you luffley man…

And so me & B shook his hand goodby and the Amazing Dr Joe went off to save a life elsewhere. And we drove back through the warm sunny evening. And everything still looked glorious.
And I suppose I will be seeing more of Dr Joe…..

Mr Poe

Mr Poe

As you may know, we have had a raven residing in our garden for the last couple of years. To be accurate, he resides in a beech tree just across the road; from there he is lord of all he surveys, which is a large swathe of fields and hillside along with our third of an acre. Two or three times a day he comes to our garden; we always leave out some choice scraps – cake, bread, crusts, a little meat – for our neighbour, in the so far vain hope of making some closer acquaintance with him. We have of course given him a name; to us he is, inevitably, Mr Poe.
This morning, however, a challenger to his crown arrived, boldly setting up a roosting station in one of the beech trees in our garden, directly facing Mr Poe’s perch. Naturally, Mr P has been challenging him right back, screaming imprecations whilst flying full claws out at the invader. The other bird has rereated but always returned, sometimes even chasing Mr P back to his own tree. Their fight has so far lasted the best part of four hours and seems to have reached stalemate. Both birds seem to be now resting up in their respective trees and are silent – for the time being.
It’s possible that the interloper may stay, there’s plenty of room. If he does, I’ve already decided on a name for him: Griswold. And if he is staying, he’ll get first go at our scraps, simply by dint of being closest. Seeing how Mr Poe copes with this will be interesting!

Ever since I read May’s Lewis Trilogy I have looked out for more of his books, hoping to find more gritty, absorbing mystery thrillers. But I always seem to end up a little disappointed; they’re good books all right but just not up to the standard I was expecting. Entry Island invoked the supernatural way too much for my liking; Runaway would have been much better split into a memoir and a novel.
‘Coffin Road’ looks like being yet another disappointment – I’m only about a third of the way through it and already I don’t think I’ll bother to read any further. It’s starts off very promisingly:

The first thing I am aware of is the taste of salt. It fills my mouth. Invasive. Pervasive. It dominates my being, smothering all other senses. Until the cold takes me. Sweeps me up and cradles me in its arms. Holding me so tightly I can’t seem to move. Except for the shivering. A raging, uncontrollable shivering. And somewhere in my mind I know this is a good thing. My body trying to generate heat. If I wasn’t shivering I would be dead.

A man comes to washed up on a wide, empty sandy beach with no idea of where he is, what has happened to him, or who he is. He cannot remember even his name. He meets an old lady who evidently knows him and helps him to his house – conveniently for him, it’s just a short way up the road. Inside the house, he finds almost nothing to help him remember who he is. His wallet is almost empty; there’s some cash, but no driving license (although he has a car) or bank cards. There’s a utility bill on the table, so he knows his name is Neal Maclean and that this house is in a hamlet called Luskentyre, on the west coast of Harris in the Hebrides. Like all of May’s locations, it’s a real place – you can see it for yourself on Google Street view – and its every bit as astonishingly scenic as he describes. May’s descriptive writing is terrific – the Scottish tourist board must throw a party to celebrate every time he brings out a book set in Scotland – and this doesn’t disappoint on that score. If you don’t want to immediately travel to the Western Isles to experience the georgeous landscapes for yourself, then you have no soul.
What does disappoint me is his sloppy plotting. He’s managed to construct a pretty good and intriguing storyline – Maclean can’t throw off a feeling that he’s committed some terrible crime, he sees somebody keeping watch on him, somebody tries to kill him, he finds he’s made considerable efforts to hide his past and that he’s having an affair with a married neighbour; there’s a laptop with an internet connection, but it’s been cleaned of everything that might help him find his identity. All very intriguing.
But May’s irritatingly careless over details. For example, take the aforementioned utility bill. That’s what May actually calls it, a “utility bill”, not an electricity bill or an oil bill or telephone bill. When did you ever hear somebody IRL talk about having a “utility bill”?
Then there’s the old lady who comes to his aid at the beginning of the book; he’s just staggered up off the beach, wet, disoriented and with an obvious head injury – yet she never asks him what happened, or even offers to call a doctor. And though she lives nearby, knows his name and where he lives, and regularly walks her dog past his house, she doesn’t ever call on him to find out if he’s OK; her usefulness over, we never hear from her again.
Thete are other irritations as well. May tends to dump huge gobbets of information into the text; a visit to a nearby cathedral turns MacLean into a tour guide, telling the reader all about the building’s history and architecture for about a page and a half; the unexpected find of a beehive prompts a long speech that reads like the Wikipedia entry on bees and beekeeping. And so on. It all feels like attempts to pad out the wordcount.
And then thete’s the time he finds a folder of newspaper cuttings that finally give him some clues to who he really is. He finally has a name, an address in Edinburgh, and a few biographical details. So he rushes to his laptop and…. googles himself to find more? No, actually. He goes to BT’s online telephone directory and checks that he’s listed at that address. Then he looks up maps and timetables. And that’s all the checking he does before excitedly setting off for Edinburgh.
Earlier in the story, we’re told that he has no trouble operating the laptop and that it all feels so comfortable and natural that he is sure he was an expert IT user in his previous life. Mays also writes him (very well) as constantly feeling angry and despairing that he can’t remember who he really is.
Yet, with a fully functioning laptop with an internet connection in the house, at no time does he ever attempt to look for clues on the internet! Obviously his name is common enough to generate thousands of hits, but he has no shortage of time to look through them. He does use the internet for looking things up – timetables, local history and so on, but it never occurs to him to search on his name. His married girlfriend, who is almost certainly not what she seems, also never suggests this. Finally, he never thinks that there might be something odd about being still currently listed as renting a telephone line at an address he left two years ago (there again, he’s never wondered how his car’s tax, insurance and MOT have been kept updated here for the last two years). Either this is another example of bad plotting or it’s an authorial signal that something sinister, perhaps connected to his memory loss, is going on.
I carried on a little further but it soon became obvious where the plot was heading, and reading the spoilers in the Amazon reviews confirmed my fears that it was turning into an anti-GMO polemic. I already read enough of those on Facebook and I spend far too much time refuting and correcting them (no, Monsanto doesn’t sell ‘terminator seeds’, GMO food won’t give you cancer, Roundup doesn’t kill bees…. etc bloody etc). I don’t want to read the same badly-informed propaganda when I’m relaxing with a thriller. So I’m not bothering to read any further.

I’ve recently discovered Markdown and it looks quite handy – a simple markup language that produces formatted text that can be exported to HTML and PDF without further conversion. It’s an attractive idea but I couldn’t see any way I needed to use it, since I’ve already got at least a dozen fully-featured text editors for producing both web pages and PDFs. Just possibly I could use it to write an extremely simple web page, but that was about it.
However, my search for a note-taking application (see last post) turned up WriteMonkey.This is an extremely simple, barebones writing program, and you can use Markdown in it. (You don’t have to, you can write in plain text if you want to, but then why use WM in the first place?) According to the testimonials, many writers use it; the main point of using Markdown for writing lengthy text that needs some formatting – novels, stories etc – is that you can format text as you write instead of breaking off to highlight a word or sentence, search the task bar for the right button, and click on the button. In other words, your writing flow isn’t interrupted.
I’ve had Scrivener for a couple of years, attempting to write a book. In many ways it’s a good program for writing, with lots of useful features. However, for me there are just too many features, with a hard-to-navigate interface. Lots of professional writers swear by it and it’s clearly hugely useful for them, but it’s just too cumbersome for me and I simply can’t get the hang of it – I’m forever stopping to try to find some bit of text or information that I put on the corkboard somewhere. And of course, there’s the formatting faff. So WriteMonkey’s “zenware” approach has me hooked.
My initial experience with it wasn’t positive – it opened with a full-screen blank splash page that had a grey background that appeared on my screen as an eye-aching flicker. The task bar was almost empty, with things like Preferences, Save and so on nowhere to be seen. After a lot of fruitless searching, I’d almost decided to give up on it, when an accidental right-click on the page bought up a long list of options. All part of WM’s minimalist approach, but it would have been helpful to have been told about it somewhere in the documentation! However once I’d found that, I quickly customised things (getting rid of that migraine-inducing splash screen was first) and started playing.
The basic program is free and is perfectly adequate for a writing project. If you want more flexibility, there are a number of plugins – all available for a single one-time donation – that add a spellchecker, search, thesaurus, extra export options and several Scrivener-like features, particularly a ‘board’ where where you can store odd bits of text, graphics or information to be used in your project. The difference with Scrivener is that you can choose which features to install, and they don’t complicate the interface – you can just get on with writing your brilliant prose! If you want, you can go full-screen and have a page completely clear of visual distraction; if your preferred writing style is the ‘straight-from-the-brain-to-the-keyboard’ sort, you can disable the Delete, Backspace, Copy and Paste commands; you can minimise, or even do away with, using the mouse with a huge number of keyboard shortcuts; the story files are saved as .txt format so that they can be opened in any text editor. Finally, it’s very small and can be installed on a USB key.
All that means that WriteMonkey gets the thumbs-up from me.
PS – it’s a Windows-only program. Sorry all you Macheads and Linuxers!

Back in 2001, I acquired the beta version of a handy little piece of software called Jot+ Notes and I’ve been using it ever since for, well, notes. All kinds of notes – to-do lists, text copied off web pages, a personal journal, lists, random jottings etc etc. It’s really useful; it has nested subpages so that you can keep notes neatly categorised into trees and taxonomies, extensive text formatting, and password encryption for anything you want to keep private. I depend on it to keep my work-life in order.
On the other hand, it’s getting seriously out of date; it hasn’t been updated for five years and appears to be no longer supported. It runs in my 64-bit Win7 environment and it’s reportedly stable in Win8.1 (it’s windows-only software). But I plan to switch to the new Win10 later this year and I have no idea if Jot will run in that – there’s nothing on the website about it. Also, its proprietary software – you can’t access it with any other program.*

So I’m looking around for a replacement. Here’s four that I’ve looked at.
First up is One Note, from Microsoft. This looked promising. The glossy web page doesn’t actually tell you much, no list of features or anything. But hey, I thought, it’s free, let’s try it. So I downloaded the installer. As soon as I hit ‘install’, up popped an orange square reading ‘Office’ with a rapidly spinning download counter. The bloody thing was apparently downloading some version of bloody Office without even asking! So I quickly killed the process. I never use Office, there are plenty of free/cheap alternatives and I do not want it on my computer. I was not pleased – not only was One Note advertised as a standalone program but it’s the height of IT rudeness to download stuff onto your machine without permission. What’s worse, on googling, I discovered that it apparently requires a Live account to function. if the attempted Office downloading hadn’t already put me off, that certainly would have.
So, next up was Scribbleton. This is a ‘desktop wiki’ (ie, it sits on your machine, can be used offline and has no cloud storage); it’s currently in Beta, so it’s very basic and lacks lots of features. However, it runs on all platforms, has page-linking, can be used from a thumb drive and exports both individual pages and whole wiki files to either HTML or text. It’s perfectly adequate for simple note-taking and list-making, but was a bit too short on things like like nested pages for my liking.
Evernote. I already use the free version of this, but only when I’m on my tablet and want to clip web pages or save text/notes for later use on my desktop PC. Looking at it for desktop note-keeping, I fairly rapidly decided against it. The interface is crowded and confusing, and even the free version is overloaded with features I’ll never use.
I then looked briefly at Silvernote. That looked nice – note-taking, lists, the ability to draw straight onto the page, a simple word-processor type interface, the ability to import doc, pdf and other text files into notes, the ability to save notes in a wide variety of text formats…
However, I’ve yet to try it out because I had already downloaded and installed Zim. This is another desktop wiki, but with pretty much all the features that I want, particularly the unlimited page-nesting. It’s multi-platform and everything is saved as wiki-formatted text; thus you can open and edit the files with any text editor. Usefully, you can import plain-text files into it. And did I mention that its free and open-source? I’ve been playing with it for an afternoon and very pleased with it. So this is what I’ll be using for notes from now on.

*Don’t let me put you off Jot+ Notes, btw. It’s good software and very cheap (buy it from If you’re not bothered about updating to the very latest Windows, you’ll find it very useful.

Vetinari: “You know, it has often crossed my mind that those men deserve a proper memorial of some sort.”
Vimes: “Oh yes? In one of the main squares, perhaps?”
Vetinari: “Yes, that would be a good idea.”
Vimes: “Perhaps a tableau in bronze? All seven of them raising the flag, perhaps?”
Vetinari: “Bronze, yes.”
Vimes: “Really? And some sort of inspiring slogan?”
Vetinari: “Yes, indeed. Something like, perhaps, ‘They Did The Job They Had To Do’?”
Vimes: “No. How dare you? How dare you! At this time! In this place! They did the job they didn’t have to do, and they died doing it, and you can’t give them anything. Do you understand? They fought for those who’d been abandoned, they fought for one another, and they were betrayed. Men like them always are. What good would a statue be? It’d just inspire new fools to believe they’re going to be heroes. They wouldn’t want that. Just let them be. For ever.”
– Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett

Yes, it’s about time I wrote something here. Been busy with the new house, redecorating, DIY, taming the huge garden…. And trying to get on with putting next year’s Elfin Diary together.
Money’s short of course (when is it not?); so I’ve decided to try for more web design work. So, anybody wanna website, go here. Or use the contact form on here. Or tweet me.
OK, commercial over.

view through window

View from my office

At least I’ve got much nicer working space. I’m no longer squeezed into a draughty hallway, fighting for space and wishing I could see some natural daylight; instead I have a big room with a fabulous view. It’s not all mine – I share it with B and his array of mighty laser printers. But it’s big enough for both of us, our books and files and even a sofa.

And I can’t believe how lucky I am to be living in a beautiful place like this.

I’m a big fan of Serif software – I’ve been using their PagePlus DTP program since v2 – which came out sometime in the mid-90s. Since then I’ve also added two other Serif programs, Photoplus and Drawplus. I’m happy with the performance of all three and use them all the time; I do the entire Elfin Diary in PagePlus, for example. But until now, I’ve never bothered with their web design program, WebPlus. That’s because I’m entirely self-taught in web design and consequently learned to code in Notepad and other text editors and never had any need for a WYSIWYG editor like WebPlus.Continue reading