AUTHOR GUY PORTMAN'S BLOG

PORTMAN'S PONDERINGS, PROCRASTINATIONS, PREAMBLES, PROGNOSES & PARODIES.

1
Update and Book Review
2
CreateSpace
3
The Drought
4
Bitcoin
5
Wenlock and Mandeville
6
Harrods Department Store
7
Easter Eggs
8
Tipping in America
9
Chichen Itza
10
Cenotes

Update and Book Review

You might remember that last week I was so exasperated with issues over formatting my book for CreateSpace that there was a minor tantrum.  Fortunately my fourth attempt was met with success and to my palpable relief the odd pages appeared on the right hand side of the virtual book.  I am now awaiting the arrival of the proof copy from America.  Having paid a priority shipping fee I was under the impression that it was to arrive on Wednesday.  It did not.  And it did not arrive on Thursday either.

Friday – 10:30 – I peer out of the window biting my finger nails anxiously, waiting for the arrival of the postman.

10:34 – A figure appears in the distance at the end of the road, clad in a red anorak like top, as worn by Royal Mail employees.  I wait expectantly.  It is evident as the figure approaches closer that he is not the postman.  Not only is he not pushing a mail trolley, but he is holding a can of Super Kestrel, a high alcohol beer popular with alcoholics.  He stumbles past, mumbling incessantly and continues up the street.

10:37 – I return to my desk.

10:41 – I hear footsteps followed by the sound of post being forced through the letter box.  Going through to the hallway I am disappointed to see there is no book.

On another matter I recently attended a book launch for The Bitter Sea, a fictional account based on real events, at the time of the civil war in China.  The book is published by Quartet.  Please find my review for it below.

The Bitter Sea by Chung Yee Chong

Canton, China – 1948 – The matriarch of the influential and wealthy Fu family is the Dowager and it is her birthday celebration that serves as the opening scene for this compelling novel.  This annual event is interrupted by the attendance of an unsettling presence in the form of a stranger, who casts an ominous shadow over the proceedings and heralds the start of a series of tragic events that will ultimately lead to the disintegration of the family unit.

In this carefully crafted literary masterpiece the tribulations faced by the Fus act as a microcosm for the monumental changes facing China during this turbulent period in her history.  The long civil war is drawing to its inevitable conclusion with Mao Tse-tung’s Communist forces poised to overthrow the Nationalists, led by the ineffectual General Chiang Kai Shek, whose grip on the South of the country is loosening, threatening the traditional fabric of Chinese society with dissolution.

The story follows the Dowager’s three very different sons; the eldest of which is Chuo Kuo, the leader of a political party, desperate to bring peace to his suffering nation.  His role as a go-between for the two warring factions allows the reader an insight into the opposing leaders’ very different personalities.

The author successfully employs a descriptive, often melancholic narrative that offers a deep understanding of the fragility of social and political conditions, as the Chinese old order disintegrates and is replaced with an uncertain new era that will irreversibly change the nation forever.

CreateSpace

I have been very fortunate in receiving a great deal of assistance with cover design (see front cover on right of screen), editing and proof reading for my soon to be released book, all of which I am most grateful for.  An eBook conversion company is formatting the book for the Kindle, whilst I am preparing the paperback version myself.

Monday

07:00 – The paperback formatting begins in earnest with the downloading of a special Word template courtesy of CreateSpace.  With a meticulous eye for detail I diligently change fonts, alter images, move chapter headings, in addition to a whole host of other tasks.

18:00 – The formatting is finally complete.  I convert it into a PDF document and upload it onto the CreateSpace website.  A message informs me that I will be informed within the next forty-eight hours if it has been successful.  I am confident all will be fine.  After all what could go wrong.

Tuesday

13:30 – A message from CreateSpace arrives in my email inbox.  It says congratulations your files have been accepted.  I punch the air with delight.  This feeling dissipates on scrolling down and reading the rest of the message.  I am informed that there are a number of problems; most pertinently is the fact that even pages are appearing on the right of the book.  I open the online virtual version of the book (can only be viewed once CreateSpace have checked your files).  The even pages are indeed on the right.  Deciding that I am hardly in a position to change centuries of tradition (all books have even pages on the left) I sigh with annoyance and make some alterations.  These include adding a blank page at the start.  The next few hours are spent checking the document thoroughly for any untoward changes that might have occurred from my changes; of which there are many.

15:27 – I press upload.

Wednesday

14:00 – The email arrives from CreateSpace.  Despite it saying congratulations I do not celebrate.  On opening the file I find the even pages on the right once again, causing me to swear loudly and scrunch up the piece of paper in my hand violently.  Having calmed down somewhat I analyse the virtual book carefully before checking online for information on the subject.  I then move the text, add some further blank pages and begin the tedious checking process yet again.

17:00 – The file is converted to PDF and uploaded to CreateSpace.  I am not entirely confident that my efforts will be met with success.

Thursday 

13:00 – Pacing nervously in circles I chew on the end of my ballpoint pen, my breathing coming in harried gasps.

13:23 – The email arrives from CreateSpace.  As I hurriedly open the virtual reader, I mutter a prayer to some as of yet unknown deity.  Seeing the even pages on the right again, bitter acrimony descends upon me.  I scream out aloud a number of times and then proceed to throw objects at the far wall, including a large glass ashtray that weighs several pounds.  It smashes into pieces on impact, leaving a large dent in the wall.  More items are thrown, though this time lighter ones; small books and the like.  Sometime later I stop throwing things and lean back in my chair, seething with hopeless introspection, as the gloom from the grey day outside pervades the room.

13:32 – The doorbell is ringing.  I head forlornly downstairs.  Opening the door, I am surprised to see two policemen.  Before I am able to greet them, the shorter of the two informs me that a neighbour has raised concerns about a disturbance on my premises.  I inform them it was merely a solitary outburst brought about by exasperation over an IT issue.  Thanking them for their concern I begin to close the door.  One of the policemen places his hand on it, preventing this from occurring.  They insist on looking inside.  Several minutes later, satisfied nothing sinister has occurred they are ready to depart.  On the way out I ask them if either of them knows anything about CreateSpace.  They say they do not.

Friday

13:39 – I am waiting anxiously for the latest update from CreateSpace.

The Drought

Looking out of the window, I notice that the rain has stopped, for what feels like the first time in weeks.  With no printer ink and an excess of printing to be done, I decide to take advantage of this temporary respite in the weather and head off hurriedly in the direction of the stationery retailer Rymans.

Barely two minutes later I am ordering black Kodak ESP C110 ink, my breathing coming in harried gasps.  The shop assistant examines the shelf behind him for what seems an inordinate amount of time before informing me that it appears to have sold out.  I am at the point of offering a response when he says he will quickly check the store room.  Through the shop’s window tenebrous storm clouds of the cumulonimbus variety are visible as they surge through a foreboding sky.  I wait anxiously as the seconds pass like an eternity.

Eventually the shop assistant returns empty handed and informs me that the printer ink is out of stock.  With a cursory goodbye I flee the premises.  Predictably the deluge begins seconds later.  Lamenting the loss of my umbrella, which had met its demise the previous day when blown inside-out and damaged beyond repair in a howling gale on this same street, I hurry onwards.

I am about to turn the corner when a large advertisement on the side of a bus on the other side of the road catches my attention. Convinced that my senses are deceiving me I stop to inspect it more closely, struggling to read the poorly designed white font over a brown background.  The advertisement is courtesy of Thames Water (see picture) and consists of a drought warning and the plea to use less water.   A car drives past sending a wave splashing onto my trousers, soaking me to the point of saturation.

Continuing my journey I am astounded after what has been the wettest April in living memory how we can possibly be in a drought.  Merely half an hour earlier I had been informed by Sky News that flood warnings were in force across several counties.  Yet despite this seemingly endless torrential downpour, much of the United Kingdom is officially in drought whilst the kingdom of Saudi Arabia with an average rainfall of only 100mm per year is not.

Here are three April rain related statistics from the UK.

  • Wettest April for over a 100 years.
  • 121.8mm has fallen.
  • 75% more than average.

Bitcoin

By Guest Blogger – Adam Riley

It’s a story I tell a lot.  In 2006 I was looking for a way to prolong my life of sybaritic ennui when I stumbled across an article on gold.  At the time it was trading at $400/oz.  Having some cash in the bank from various deaths I thought about buying some.  Why not?  And while I’m at it, get my trotters on some silver as well, at $7/oz.  There is a shop near The Savoy Hotel where you can walk out with a bar of bullion as easily as buying a Twix from WHSmith.  Even I, with a C in GCSE Economics, could do that.

Instead, I proceeded to invest in an Xbox 360 and spent the next six years playing FIFA, GTA and CoD, frittering away my inheritance on Ask pizzas and low quality cocaine.  Not a bad way to live through the credit crunch, you might think, until you reflect that gold is now $1650/oz and silver $30/oz.

Last year I sold the Xbox to pay an electricity bill.

What I’m trying to say is: my instincts were right.  It’s just that I’ve stultified my responses to the level of an inert gelatinous blob with ME.  I guess I’m also saying: do as I say, not as I do.  Because I think I’ve found a new opportunity to squander.  Bitcoins.

The brainchild of a mysterious internet figure with a Japanese name, Bitcoins are an online peer to peer currency that has been running for three years. There’s no central bank.  All transactions are processed through a network of people who have decided to become miners.  These miners are continuously running a program on their computers that is attempting to solve a complex mathematical problem every ten minutes.  The one that solves it will receive fifty Bitcoins, giving everyone an incentive to keep their computers running so that the transactions can be processed.

But that takes electricity and a fast computer.  You don’t have to be a miner.  Bitcoin markets have evolved where you can buy, trade and squander them in your own time.  One enterprising Chinese schoolboy has developed a complicated Bitcoin exchange where you can leverage yourself several times over and thus recreate the global financial crisis from the comfort of your own desktop.

“They’re not real!” I hear you vomit in my face.  It’s true, and the online retailers accepting Bitcoins as payment are a little obscure.  But on Mt. Gox, the most respected Bitcoin exchange, 1 Bitcoin is trading at around $5.  When Bitcoins started they traded at 30 cents.  Last year, someone tried to corner the market, jerking up the price to a stiff $30.  That spike’s viagra has now worn off, and the market flops along at $4 to $5, manifestly the new baseline.

Bitcoins also have built in scarcity.  Only 21 million Bitcoins will ever exist, 7 million are in circulation at the moment.  They are divisible to eight decimal places so there will always be enough currency around.  And even though that means Bitcoin miners will no longer have a reason to maintain the network, the theory is that they’ll start to charge a small reasonable fee.  Well, that’s the theory.

There are some dodgy aspects.  Despite numerous safeguards a high profile Bitcoin robbery was carried out last year, and given the anonymous nature of everything in the network, they are impossible to trace.  The Silk Road, the online black market where you can buy microdots and Tec 9s, will only accept Bitcoins.  That probably can’t last.

On the other hand, what’s the worst that can happen?  Invest in Bitcoins and you’ll have a little online money to buy something particularly useless.  Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll be in on the first viable economic revolution since Communism, that might free the entire world from the tyranny of central banking and represent a step towards our ultimate destiny as immaterial beings of pure intelligence, unencumbered by the mortality of physical existence, a nodal mist floating blissfully through space, dishing out Bitcoins to the aliens as we go.

Wenlock and Mandeville

What represents Great Britain’s cultural heritage, are the embodiment of Great Britain’s Olympic team, the pride of the British public and are made in China?  The answer is of course London 2012’s two mascots; Wenlock and Mandeville (Wenlock on left & Mandeville on right).  To some they are they are the very essence of this festival of sport.  To others they are merely ludicrous and infantile phallic eyesores.  London 2012 chairman Lord Coe has skilfully deflected any potential criticism by stating that the mascots are aimed at children and have the ability to inspire them to participate in sport.

Wenlock is named after the Shropshire town of Much Wenlock, home of the Wenlock games and the birthplace of the modern Olympics.  Mandeville is named after the famed Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire, where Sir Ludwig Guttman, the German neurologist and father of the Paralympics founded a spinal unit in the 1940’s.  The story of Wenlock and Mandeville’s creation could have come from the annals of Greek mythology.  It is said that they were formed from the very last drops of steel from the final support girder used to build the London 2012 stadium.

Not only do Wenlock and Mandeville have their own website, they also have Twitter and Facebook pages, in addition to their own story written by Michael Morpurgo and an animated film.  Over the forthcoming months we will all become very familiar with Wenlock and Melville, as they will be making regular  appearances in a wide range of attire, emblazoned with the much maligned London 2012 logo.

Will Wenlock and Mandeville’s legacy be synonymous with the success of London 2012 or will they be remembered only as objects of ridicule?  If in two or three Olympics time the next Chris Hoy or Jessica Ennis cite Wenlock and Mandeville as being their childhood inspiration for abandoning their sedentary lifestyle to pursue sporting excellence then their legacy will have been secured.

What is your opinion of Wenlock and Mandeville?

Harrods Department Store

Founded in 1834, Harrods  has been popular with London’s wealthy residents and foreign visitors for generations.  As I enter the shop and make my way towards the escalators, a thought occurs to me.  What if you found out that you had won a free gift from Harrods worth between two point five and six times the national average annual pre-tax salary of about £26k?  I expect that you would punch the air with delight and jump up and down in the excited manner of a child.  But there’s a catch you are told.  Your celebrations stop and you listen intently.  The gift that you will be receiving is to be the most overpriced, useless and tasteless item in the store as voted by your peers.  Your expression of glee is replaced by one of confusion but you remain hopeful.  For how bad can a prize costing a small fortune be?

I make the decision to try and locate some potential prize material and decide to make the Fine Arts department my first port of call.  I am met by the sight of a Maquette Jelly Baby Family (see picture 1), created by Mauro Perucchetti.  These are all the rage and there are currently examples at Marble Arch, the tallest of which is 3.2m.  They are an acquired taste and personally I do not find them overly offensive but the price tag of £65k is oppressive, due in part to the fact that these jelly babies are made out of pigmented urethane resin, which I am aware from previous research retails for as little as £28.05 per kilo.  Art is of course a highly contentious and personal matter.  I decide to move on.

Next stop is a department that one would describe as dining orientated.  There are various dining fowl including this large silver swan (see picture 2).  It has no stated purpose other than to sit in the middle of one’s dining table, the light from the chandelier above flickering invitingly on its silver contours.  That is all good and well but with a price tag of £150k I would be expecting far more.

I am perusing the items in the Luxury Gifts department when I stumble into this (picture 3).  A nearly two metre long ostentatious heron-headed boat with mannequins striking ludicrous and vulgar poses on its deck.  A glance at the £124,400 price tag confirms that my search is over.  For not only does this eye-sore have no purpose but it will also take up a great deal of space in your sitting room leaving you little room for a sofa let alone a widescreen television, in addition to leaving your guests feeling nauseous and violated.

So there’s your prize.  Did I mention it’s non-refundable?

Comments welcome.

Easter Eggs

Easter eggs are an opportunity to indulge oneself after the privations of Lent; or at least that is what I thought prior to making the acquaintance of a dairy free, wheat free, gluten free, egg free, vegan Easter egg, (see picture 1).  I have renamed this Easter egg The Lent Continued Easter Egg.  It is ideal for pious Catholics and those with food allergies.  My condolences go out to any unfortunate children who will be receiving Lent Continued Easter Eggs this Easter.

(Easter egg pictures 1 & 2)                                                                                   

My local supermarket contains the expected deluge of Easter eggs (see picture 2), each struggling for attention amongst the crowded shelves.  Perusing these commercial offerings I am unsurprised to see that there is no mention of the traditions of Easter, neither the story of Jesus nor the traditions of Lent.  But the Church of England has not surrendered in the face of this apparent overwhelming apathy and is fighting back with The Real Easter Egg.  These can be found in stores across the UK (see picture 3).  Not only is the story of Jesus depicted on the sides and back of the box but the chocolate is of the fair trade variety and a percentage of sales go to charity.

(Easter egg picture 3)

For those of us emaciated from our Lenten fasts might I suggest a gargantuan Easter egg (see picture 4); an Easter egg that if camouflaged with foliage could masquerade as part of the scenery in any Easter egg hunt.                                                             

                                                                                (Easter egg picture 4)


And for those unwilling to dine on the chocolate of the proletariat there is the Charbonnel et Walker milk chocolate egg with pink mare de champagne truffle (see picture 5).  Or even the rather pompous Ladurée petal egg (see picture 6); an egg not content with being oval it has instead embraced a postmodern deconstructed look.  The Ladurée petal egg is decorated with crystallised rose, jasmine and violet petals, garnished with dark, milk and praline chocolate figurines and bells.  This limited addition offering has a reassuringly expensive price tag of £72.50.

(Easter egg picture 5)                          (Easter egg picture 6)

If anyone has any Easter egg related observations that they would like to share, please feel free to leave  comments below.   Happy Easter.

Tipping in America

A Downtown bar in Miami – I find the cool darkened interior and the myriad of different sports playing on the numerous television screens appealing.  It is an environment where one does not appear out of place without friends in attendance.

Aware that Happy Hour is soon to end, I order two pints of Bud Light, a bargain at five dollars.  I hand over the money to the barman and return my attentions to the television.  The barman does not move.  I glance in his direction.  He departs muttering something under his breath.

The Following Evening – I walk into the same bar and order a pint of Bud Light.  I am in the process of sitting down when the barman (the same one from yesterday) informs me that he will not serve me and I am to leave.  Aware from several previous visits to this establishment that he is quite a jovial character, I assume this is some form of American humour that I am unfamiliar with.  Sitting down I say, ‘very funny’ and then repeat the order.

‘Out,’ shouts another man sitting at the far end of the bar.  Now conscious of the fact that this is not a jape, I am about to protest when I notice that the bearded and heavily tattooed man looking savagely at me is remarkably similar to one of those biker gang members’ with right wing tendencies I had seen on the television.  I leave the bar.  The barman shouts ‘butt head’ as the door closes behind me.  Utterly confused I am half way down the street before I remember that I had omitted to give a tip the previous evening and it must be this that resulted in their consternation.  This had been an oversight on my part and I scold myself for committing what is a cardinal sin in the USA.

A Miami Heat game is about to start and keen to watch it I decide to go to the only other bar I know in the immediate vicinity.  I approach the premises with trepidation, as the previous week prior to the visit to Mexico I had been involved in a minor altercation here.  I had been sitting contentedly at my table watching basketball when a young woman had approached my table and unannounced dragged away the chair adjacent to mine, resulting in several of my personal effects that were resting on it falling to the ground.  With no apology forthcoming, I had unwisely in hindsight made a comment about her expansive waistline.

The comment had been poorly received and I was berated by both her and her companions sitting at a neighbouring table, in a disorderly tirade of English and Spanish.  One of the males, who turned out to be the woman’s brother, appeared to be particularly angry.  He sounded exactly like a character out of the film Scarface though fortunately he was waving around a pastelito, (a snack popular with Cubans) as opposed to an automatic weapon, like in the film.  The argument had resulted in me, rather unfairly in my opinion being ejected by the bar staff.

Back in the present I approach the bar intrepidly and ask for a pint of Bud Light.  I am alarmed on recognising the barman as the same one from that evening.  He informs me that I am not welcome.  I consider arguing but decide against it and depart sombrely.

Chichen Itza

My guide is waiting for me at the main gate of the Chichen Itza complex; the most famous of Mexico’s numerous Mayan ruins.  He greets me with the words:

‘This is Chichen Itza not chicken pizza.’

I suspect that he has said this very same thing at least a million times before and wonder if anyone has ever found it remotely amusing.

The main feature of the Chichen Itza complex is Kukulcan Temple (see picture).  Until fairly recently tourists were able to clamber up its steep steps but several fatalities have brought an end to this practice and one must now be content with merely viewing the impressive structure. My guide, who is standing on the grass directly opposite the entrance at the top of the temple’s steps, proceeds to clap a number of times.  Each clap is followed by an echo, which sounds like the cry of the quetzal bird.  This is not the building’s only extraordinary detail.  On the evening of the spring and autumn equinoxes, the equinox shadows project a snake that descends down one side of the temple as a series of inverted triangles.

We saunter through to the ball court; an expanse of ground with stone walls either side (picture 2 shows one of these walls).  I notice that the walls are perfectly straight; an astonishing feat when one considers the Mayans used only basic stone tools.  This being a skill that my builder back in London has yet to acquire, I take a number of photos to show him on my return.

The exact details of the ball game that was played here are much debated but the basic rules were that the players on the field utilised their limbs to keep a rubber ball in the air.  The ball would be passed up to one player standing alone on the ledge (visible towards the bottom of the wall in picture).  He would then attempt to shoot it through a hoop high up on the wall.

The guide suggests that this game was the forefather of football.  I insist that it was us English who invented the game.  He appears ready to argue this point but, presumably remembering the prospect of a potential tip, does not.

My guide’s theory is that the game’s victor (i.e. the person who got the ball through the hoop) would be sacrificed after the game.  I tell him that this is a ludicrous suggestion and that he must mean that the losers were sacrificed.  The guide remains adamant that it was the victor and that they would have been more than happy to be sacrificed, as they were guaranteed to be transferred straight from this World to paradise.  It is difficult to imagine one of today’s over-indulged sports stars being prepared to forfeit their vast wealth for a ‘guaranteed’ place in heaven; departing now.

Cenotes

I am sitting in the back of a jeep travelling from the Mexican town of Tulum to a local cenote.  Cenotes are inland freshwater sinkholes.  These natural phenomena are unique to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and a few neighbouring Caribbean islands.  They are popular with tourists for sightseeing, snorkelling and diving; the activity which has brought me here today.

The diving instructor, a bandana clad Chilean by the name of Rodrigo, holds the steering wheel with one hand whilst he bangs the other against the side of the jeep in time with the heavy metal music resonating through the vehicle.  The frenetic drumming only serves to increase my apprehension.  My concern is that the majority of my very limited diving experience has consisted of floundering around at the bottom of suburban swimming pools.  This dive will be to forty five metres.

Turning off the main road we proceed to bump along a jungle track and are soon pulling to a halt in a small parking area adjoining a cenote known as The Pit.  As I clamber out of the vehicle, my Swedish diving companion Lars, whose acquaintance I made earlier that morning also confesses to feeling nervous.  I enquire as to why.

‘I am an inexperienced diver,’ he replies. ‘I have only dived forty two times.  How many dives have you done?’

‘Five.’

After peering into the dark ominous waters of the cenote (see picture), I begin to hurriedly assemble the diving equipment, as Rodrigo outlines The Pit’s sinister history.  During Mayan times The Pit had been used for human sacrificial purposes.  He stops speaking suddenly and looks severely in my direction.

‘What?’ I ask somewhat defensively.

‘Your tank, it’s the wrong way round.’

Within a minute Rodrigo and Lars have reassembled my diving kit correctly and I am intrepidly approaching the cenote, along the very same path used by countless Mayan sacrificial victims.

Five minutes later – Clasping our torches in one hand we begin our descent.  I feel somewhat calmer now.  It is as if the cool waters of the cenote have had a therapeutic effect.  Lars and I look around in awe at the rock formations that surround us.  Some thirty metres later we reach a cloud of sulphuric acid air bubbles and our visibility becomes minimal.  Attempting to remain calm, I follow the beam of light being emitted from Rodrigo’s torch and within no time we have passed through it.

At forty five metres we stop and Rodrigo points out some fragments of human bones with his torch. Until recently there were actual skulls here; but the actions of one plundering diver have resulted in the skulls being taken to an archaeological museum.

Rodrigo points towards my pressure gauge, to enquire as to how much air I have left. I stare at the gauge in disbelief; for I cannot comprehend how the reading is only a hundred and ten.  We had been informed that we should have a reading of nearly two hundred when we begun our ascent.  For a terrifying moment I wonder if I too will be making a contribution to the collection of bone fragments.  On the trip up Rodrigo gives me oxygen from his spare regulator.  This action results in him having to stop to take breaths from an air hole in the rock.

An hour later – Both Lars and I are relaxed on reaching our next destination, a welcoming cenote with a wide welcoming entrance and transparent waters (see picture).  The dive will be to about twelve metres; merely the depth of a couple of suburban swimming pools.

Copyright © 2015. Guyportman's Blog

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