Thursday, June 15, 2006

Ten minutes never to be forgotten

By John Stafford

Up to that point Charles had been enjoying the conference. A good hotel of the old style, rather than the efficient modern upmarket MacDonald’s. Varied menu, which enabled him to stick to his diet most of the time, then drop it suddenly after a glass of wine. Old friends to catch up with. And he had been specially invited as a guest, so there was no bill to pay. Even the papers were interesting for an event about Metadata in Database Normalisation. It wasn’t a subject he knew well, but a little homework on the Internet had prepared him to understand the speakers. Yes it was good up to that point.

This lunch was his second meal with Anna. She was a colleague from fifteen years before, though he hoped they would have a more interesting relationship by the end of the day. Their conversation about the Pilgrim Trail to Compostela was interrupted by the Conference secretary at Charles’s side.

“We hoped you would be joining us at the top table for this meal,” he was murmuring.
“That’s very kind of you, Barry. I wonder if I might join you at dinner instead, since as you can see, I’ve already started a conversation with this delightful lady.”
“As you wish, Charles. It’s just that we like to make ourselves more familiar with our afternoon speakers over lunch. Of course …”
Charles didn’t hear the rest of the Secretary’s polite withdrawal. HE HAD JUST SAID THAT CHARLES WAS THE AFTERNOON SPEAKER. What the hell was he supposed to be speaking about?

“Do you happen to have your programme with you?” he asked Anna.
She rifled through her handbag and produced what had been a glossy A4 until folded into an A7 lump. “Yes. Quite an honour for you. I didn’t realise you were giving a paper.”
“Nor did I unfortunately. What’s it on?”
“You’re on straight after lunch. Charles Metcalf: Metadata in application integration. It’s a ten minute review of the field, preparatory for the other speakers, and your own main contribution at, um, four o’clock.”
“Didn’t you know you were presenting on that?”
“I didn’t know I was performing at all. Although I did wonder why I hadn’t paid to come. Know anything about it?”
“As much as anyone. It’s not been a problem until recently. It’s to do with the particular problems of exposing database structures to the open web.”

Charles was a practised public speaker. He had given a sermon once in a Baptist church on the pleasures of single malt whiskies without offending anyone. He could wing it. “I wonder if I might try your patience by using my Blackberry at the table? I’d like to Google a while.”
“Be my guest. David Linthicum’s the man to look up.” Five minutes and he had enough to speak about. He didn’t actually understand much of it, but then he didn’t know much about Scotch either.

There was some kind of fuss at the top table. Barry was involved in some kind of confrontation with a dome-headed little man. Papers were being sorted and produced as evidence, and other conference officials summoned to give evidence. Finally, the secretary strode over to Charles’s table once more, leaving the interloper fuming at the head of the room.
“I’m so terribly sorry, sir, but the gentleman is insisting that he is Charles Metcalf and that you are an impostor. He wants to know why he hasn’t been invited to the top table.”
“I assure you that I am Charles Metcalf. Look, here’s my credit card, my conference pass, all that. It may well be, of course, that he is also Charles Metcalf. But after all, you invited me to speak, not him. Shall the three of us discuss this over coffee?”
As he returned to the other man and Charles got up to take his leave of Anna, she pulled his sleeve.
“It’s a simple case of mistaken identity. Just give in gracefully.”
“What, and give up my free place?”
She giggled. “See you at dinner, then, if you like.”
“I like. You’ll see me on the podium first.”

It was a friendly discussion, in which they were duly amazed that there were two metadata experts called Charles Metcalf who hadn’t heard of each other, let alone met. “It’s the spelling. You Americans write Normalisation with a Z instead of an S,” Charles suggested, and this seemed to satisfy them for no particular reason. They came to a compromise. The dome-head agreed to do the main lecture and Charles did the ten minutes, mostly about American and British spelling and its problem for normalisation of metadata. He paid tribute to David Linthicum, the only expert he had heard of, and somehow brought in both single malt and Compostela. Which is where he and Anna planned at dinner to go later in the month, if the American didn’t get the ticket by mistake.

Copyright © John Stafford 2006

Sunday, June 11, 2006

A Dip into Bath

Sir Isaac Pitman has a memorial in Bath Abbey. If you are over 50, you may know that he invented shorthand, which enabled newspaper reporters and secretaries to write things down fast, in the days when there was still such a thing as a reporter or secretary. You are probably under 50, aren't you? In this case you would not be interested in Bath Abbey, because it's the best bit. Unless you like modern embroidery or fan vaulting? Thought not. The Pump Room, a very expensive restaurant full of German Jane Austen fans, and the Roman Baths are in the same square. Whatever you do, don't be caught by the Full English Breakfast 2 pounds 75 in the cafe opposite. I didn't want breakfast, but it made it look like a cheap place and I spent 1 pound 99 on a cup of tea. Coffee was much dearer. Retro Cafe, round the other side of the Abbey, was much better and is the home of the Mole listings magazine.
The Roman Baths isn't cheap, but it's the best thing in Bath, and is much better value for money than I thought it would be. They lend you a very large mp3 player that you hold up to your ear and choose the track number according to signs on the wall. You don't have to read labels and you do find out the significance of what might otherwise look like bits of stone. The Romans dipped in it, and Jane Austen's lot drank it. So can you, at 50 pence a glass. Don't be tempted to drink the stuff that's actually in the bath though - it's more dangerous than drinking your own bath water.
Bath has lots of other attractions. Visitors from the US will want to see the American Museum, which I'm told is brilliant. I wasn't there for long, though, and didn't get to see it. I can't tell you about the nightlife because, hell, I am over 50.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Jolly Hols

TV Review
by John Stafford

I really thought there was nowhere else for reality TV to go, but “Five!” (it really does have an exclamation mark!) found somewhere even lower than its ever-subsiding predecessors. Whoever thought there was a TV series in the idea of bringing Enid Blyton’s Famous Five to a reunion on Kirrin Island? That may sound a rhetorical question, but Radio Times has the answer – Joe Hope, that’s who, known to media insiders as Hopeless Joe. Conceived, narrated, produced and dumbed down to within a centimetre of its life.

Julian’s over sixty now; Dick, Anne and Georgina can’t be far off. Oh, George, she still likes to be called George. That's only a famous four, not five, but you’ve forgotten, as I had, that Timmy was a dog, not a child, and therefore has been long buried on Kirrin Island. Yes we did see his grave, and yes, everyone wept. They’ve replaced him with a glove puppet – so much easier to control, and cheaper. Did you think they were all made up characters? Well so did I, and I’ve read all the books. But here we have them. Bulging, blustering, balding Dick. Simpering George, who can’t keep her hands off presenter Cat Deeley. Anne seems to be using the opportunity to launch a late blooming musical career – it’s a pity she still performs Joni Mitchell songs. Only Julian is at all impressive: his suave charm and Savile Row suit might not match the concept, but it should get him a deal on an auction-your-granny show.

The challenges were mundane for this sort of programme. They moved a gipsy caravan from in front of the cave entrance before they could sleep there. They captured a pirate gang armed only with piano wire. Eating chocolate biscuits and drinking ginger beer may not seem as disgusting as the stereotypical live spiders, but these people should be on a good-for-your-heart diet at their age.

There was no opportunity here for the participants to talk privately to camera. For that you need to press red on the remote control, and mine has disappeared down the side of the sofa. But I was getting suspicious as time went on that Dick hadn’t even read the books, let alone been in them. The gaff was blown in the judging, when celebrities Pete Waterman, Jilly Cooper and Ian Duncan Smith were joined by Enid Blyton herself, played as you might imagine, by June Whitfield. Yes like all reality TV, it’s faked. I still couldn’t resist spending 60p to text my vote for Julian to get extra lashings of lemonade next hols. Golly!

Reality Check: there is no such programme as Jolly Hols, and no such producer as Joe Hope. They are figments of my imagination. Cat Deeley, Pete Waterman, Jilly Cooper and Ian Duncan Smith are real people but they are not associated with this programme, because it doesn't exist. June Whitfield is a real person, though she is in so many programmes that I suspect there may be more than one of her. The Famous Five are the figments of Enid Blyton's imagination. If you have never heard of her or them, how come you have read this piece to the end?

Saturday, May 20, 2006


Feckenham, by John Noake.
from Noake's Guide to Worcestershire published in 1868
IN a rich valley, a few miles south of Redditch, among gardens and orchards, where formerly dense forests existed, and many a poor Saxon was gibbeted for infractions of the despotic laws of the chase, now resides a population chiefly bent upon supplying her Majesty's subjects with pins, needles, and fish-hooks. The manufacturers of these articles are Messrs. J. English and Co., W. W. Gould, J. Smith, G. Townsend, &c. Feckenham has an acreage of 6,560, and a population of 3,217. There were 136 families (about 600 souls) in the time of Elizabeth. An air of antiquity pervades the village, and there were formerly some very ancient inns here. The Old Black Boy Inn has been kept by the family of the Gardeners for nearly a century and half, and the sign, which was of copper, stood the whole of that time, until taken down in 1854. In the neighbourhood, too, are some ancient moated houses: Shurnock Court, occupied by Mr. R. Merrill; Astwood Court, once the seat of the Culpepers, now held by Mr. T. Pearce; and Norgrove Court, by Mr. Cheshire, bailiff to R. Hemming, Esq., of Bentley Manor. These, as well as the old legends which attach to one or two of them, are well worth investigation; and the antiquity hunter must not forget that an ancient and interesting road called the Ridgeway runs on the border of the parish, between the counties of Worcester and Warwick, from whence very fine views may be obtained. Moreover, the odd names which obtain here are indicative of historical interest, local peculiarities, and legendary lore; to wit: Fearful Coppice, Windmill Peril, Blaze Butts, Big and Little Fire Field, Camp Field, Castle Hill,Wargrave,Warridge, Warralls, Merry-come-Sorrow, Tricks's Hole, Old Yarn Hill, Monksbury, Puck Close, Borrow Hill, Holborn Hill, Kit's Iron, Horcuts, Salt Meadow, &c.
There is no longer copyright in John Noake's work, and no copyright is claimed for this transcript by John Stafford. Click on the link in the book title for a complete set of pages in facsimile and transcript