Sunday, February 26, 2012


This weekend was Satellite 3 in the Grand Central in Glasgow. It was extreme fun in a slightly debilitating way. I’ve mentioned this before. Going to a convention is like having a planned illness. There is too much to drink, too much to eat, a non-congenial venue and late nights.
When I say a non-congenial venue, the Central has had a lovely face-lift. It looks fab, especially if you remember the tired and grubby visage it had towards the end of its former life. But the lighting is always conducive to SAD, the air is filled with the pollution inherent in refurbishment, it’s either too hot or it’s drafty, and there is never anywhere really comfortable to sit. 
The rest is very much self induced. Too much to drink? Just say no! Both Saturday and Sunday the first glass of beer was welcome and delicious. After that, well with nasty tea at £1.80, no tap water available and wine at £16 a bottle (red or white), I end up drinking beer that I don’t really want and don’t enjoy. 
I almost always walk away from conventions feeling mildly to extremely grotty so why keep turning up? It’s more than just turning up to the family dos that have the nearest similar pull. It’s that you see people you wouldn’t see all together anywhere else, that you have conversations and think about ideas that just aren’t sparked anywhere else and occasionally you spend some time preparing (sort of) for a panel item and are reminded of why you read that stuff in the first place.
I only got about half  way through ‘White Mars’ ready for the Literary Mars panel I was supposed to contribute to. It was dull. Mark Meenan says you have to have read Kim Stanley Robinson’s coloured Mars books and I never even finished Red Mars. I’m not convinced I will finish White Mars. I raced through CS Lewis’s ‘Out of the Silent Planet’ and though, as it did when I was fourteen, the religious stuff left me cold, the planet and the ‘people’ were as much fun as I remembered, especially the Hrossa; fishers, boaters, poets. Arthur C Clarke’s ‘The Sands of Mars’ was not poetic in any way, a bit of an old pot boiler to be honest, but still, readable and with a more realistic Mars. The book that I didn’t finish before the panel was Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Silver Locusts’, my copy of which seems to have been ‘borrowed’ from Lawnswood School in 1974 and never returned. Oops. Bradbury wrote believably monstrous people and beautiful crystal cities built on the shores of empty seas. This is the Mars I long to visit, respectfully, reverently. Alas.
Why has Mars been portrayed as it has? It’s conceivably reachable, it’s potentially terraformable  but mainly, I think, it’s a longing for a new frontier, a new beginning. If we found a planet populated by exquisite people with a wise and humane culture I suspect we would treat it as Bradbury’s characters did. I doubt people will walk on Mars anytime soon, but when we do we will use the fragile towers and crystal windows for target practice, metaphorically, as we try to turn our ancient neighbour into a meagre copy of the amazing world we are currently vandalising. 
And speaking of target practice. I know it is sad and niggardly of me to complain about a frothy science talk which was great fun, but there must be a different gas for Jon Davies to use to sound like Darth Vader or just drop it. I’m guessing a dense gas is what he needs. Sulphur hexafluoride has a few disadvantages though. It is 22,800 time worse as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and has been banned for all applications except high-voltage switchgear under the F-Gas Directive. The balloon full that he used today to sound like Darth Vader will have a long term effect on the atmosphere for something between the next 800 - 3200 years. The mild amusement is not worth the long term effect. Colour me not amused but appalled!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Where I am

Oh, so long since I wrote anything. In fact, I’m only finding the time now because I’m on a train to Maidenhead and I didn’t download work documents from the cloud to my computer.  Connectivity on this particular train line is rubbish for Orange. Of course, I could be reading a book about Mars in preparation for Satellite 3 or thinking up jokes for the show at Eastercon. Or knitting. Or just sleeping.
Things are a bit anxiety inducing at the moment. For a few months in the lead up to Christmas we knew, in my lovely team at work, that work was too scarce to support three people. The directors wanted to make one of us redundant. We weren’t keen. As you may imagine. We had a number of out of hours meetings and thrashed our options out. Our strategy was to continue to work hard to find more work, for us each to apply for jobs so that one of us could move to a secure company and, in the meantime, for us all to go down to a three and a half day week. As I was only working four days anyway it wasn’t a huge hit for me but Catherine and Alison would take a fairly hefty pay cut. 
I applied for a job. So did my colleagues. After my interview the very nice man noted that I didn’t seem to have had much recent experience with interviews. Nope, not for five years. I consoled myself with the thought that no-one gets a job from their first interview. Then both Catherine and Alison did. Excellent! From the end of January we went down from three people doing work sufficient for two people to one person doing work sufficient for two people. Actually maybe a little less than two as there always tends to be a tailing off of work as the end of the financial year approaches. Still, quite a lot of work. I’m around 155% utilised and only the fact that it takes a while for the security check to be done for one of our contracts saves it from being higher. 
One of the suggestions I had made when we were looking at our options was to go independent. As a three person consultancy our overhead costs would be very much lower, it would be easier to find work at a lower day rate and we would be able to work on our own terms. Lovely idea, my colleagues thought, if Alison’s husband’s business had been launched already and was bringing in lots of money and Catherine wasn’t still paying off a student loan and planning a (v. expensive) holiday of a lifetime in Japan. Once they’d both captured lucrative jobs and heartlessly abandoned me I thought about it for a bit and decided that the possibility of independence as a sole trader might still be worth thinking about.
I didn’t want to cut all ties (and my throat) with my current company. I’d have to build a client base from nothing, contractually I’m not allowed to poach my clients, and it would leave them with no-one to fulfill the contracts on the books. I spoke to the MD and we agreed that we would recruit a senior consultant and I would work, with a one year contract, as a sub-contractor for the company. A number of people within the company have wondered why, given that most of my work will continue to be with the company, branded as theirs, why I want to make this move. Mostly it’s to find a bit of freedom. The idea is that, on the days when I have no scheduled work, I can spend the day on the allotment or wander into town or whatever I fancy. If I end up doing the amount of work that I’m doing at the moment I will earn lots more money, if I don’t bring in enough work I live on potatoes and kale and turn the heating off. The risks are higher but so are the payoffs. And some days I can just goof off without guilt. I can work when I’m at my best, afternoon and early evening, and I can spend the time I think is necessary to prepare for a course without being told to 'leave it now, it's good enough'.
Of course, whilst all this is going on I have become treasurer of the Sheffield Allotment Federation, I’ve agreed to work with Dave Hicks on programme for Novacon, I’m supposed to be reading about Mars for a programme item at Satellite and I really need to maintain some relationships outside of work. Occasionally I need to sleep and at least once a week I need to cook. Oh yes, and if I don’t have at least 75% of my allotment under cultivation they will take it off me.
Hence the lack of blog postings. I haven’t even written up the three books I’ve read over the last four months. I’ll have to turn in my Bookworm Badge. And yet, through the exhaustion, I feel the tingling of a mild excitement at the freedom. And the insecurity.