Monday, 9 November 2020

Harmless Lollygagging

I saw this on the Federation of Writers (Scotland) Facebook page and made the unwise joke that it would be clever if someone were to use all of these words in one sentence, and it backfired on me. So I did! Below is the result. Kerfuffle and rigamarole are repeated in the list. Did I get them all?

Well officer, I was gallivanting around in my new banger wearing my bright yellow britches – yes these are the ones – when I witnessed something which made me veritably gobsmacked – completely confuzzled I was – and I pulled up cattywumpus and skewiff to this decrepid old codger’s jalopy to find him lollygagging, doing his usual rigmarole, that’s right, his milarky of trying to hoodwink ragamuffins with his customary fiddle-faddle and humbug-like skullduggery, flogging his ‘home-baked authentic pumpernickle’, which I decided right then and there to put the kibosh on, just to scare the bejeebers out of him, the old flibberty-jibbit, and oh, what a hullabaloo it was, after I shouted, “Thunderation, skedaddle you old Numb-skull, you old nucklehead, you, or I’ll be forced to inform the whosemegadget, you know, the old fuddyduddy (no offence officer) that works at the watchamcallit and inform him of your bogus ‘authentic pumpernickle’ poppycock, when you clearly got it at M&S,” and as soon as I said it the whole thingamebob escalated into a full-blown kerfuffle, because not only was he entirely bamboozled, and flabbergasted by the brouhaha with which I had lambasted him, but it was also clear he had had enough of my ‘wishywashy caterwauling’ (which to be fair I had considered rather bodacious camaraderie) but what else could I do, I was so flummoxed and halfway berserk with his shenanigans, his flim-flam, his baloney, that I kicked him right in the thingamijig, his whatsit, you know, right in the periwinkle, and he was not happy the old nincompoop, in fact I would go so far as to say he was most discombobulated, not only by my audacity that I had deigned to kick him willy-nilly right in the doohicky, but also that I would be persnickety enough to come up with such a ‘balderdash concoction’ (his words) as to accuse him of peddling pukka pumpernickle, and I should not have been goggle-eyed when I heard him retort, “Egads, Mr Tiddly-Smythe, I am fed up to the back teeth with your fiddle-dee-dee, your tomfoolery and your fiddlesticks and I wish you would just accept that you are not the only one in this village who knows how to make delicious, home-made authentic pumpernickle!”

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

Fall Garden

"If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need." - Cicero
Our apple tree had a great load of full, sweet, zesty apples this year.

This morning I decided to spend a leisurely forty minutes tidying up the garden. I just wanted to de-clutter the place in preparation for the winter months when everything gets blown about. 

The chicken-wire cane triangles were useful for bean support and apple-catching but just for show now

Last night I built a makeshift fire pit with the mono-blocks we got from the next-door neighbour. I just went ahead and did it, placing the blocks in the time honoured tradition of ‘This looks about right,’ as I could not be bothered getting out a tape measure, digging up turf and putting sand down to make it level. But now I can see the dimensions I know what size it should be and can go ahead and do it properly the next time (if there is a next time).

By sheer coincidence (or just because it 'looks about right') the lid is the exact size of the fire pit. Reminds me a bit of the tunnel entrances of the Morlocks in HG Wells' Time Machine

My son came home and helped me fill it with old cut-offs of wood and he seemed to like the idea of having an autumn and winter fire pit where we can roast marshmallows and sit around telling ghost stories and drinking hot chocolate. Well, that’s the plan. Alternatively we might burn down the shed and the fence erected by ‘the neighbour who shall not be named’ and that would be bad. 

With the lid on it means I can store damp wood in here to dry out ready for burning.

I guess the fire would heat up the monobocks beneath, dry out the grass, possibly scorch the ground, but I can’t see it setting it on fire. This is Scotland, not the Australian bush. I’ll keep a bucket of water handy just in case. Maybe should move it a couple of feet away from said wooden structures just to reduce concerns. Ideally I should dig up the turf beneath and fill it with sand, an area a block’s width all around. Then make sure it's level. It might also help to have one of the BBQ trays inside to catch the ash in order to ferry it to the veg plots afterwards. Because ash is good for the soil, or so I heard …

Drying the wood. Maybe marshmallows tonight

This autumn my son and I planted 12 tree seeds, compared with the 23 last year, of which only one grew into a sapling (4.3% success rate) - this horse chestnut, looking a little ragged today but has shot up to 30cm in since the spring!

1 of the 23 seeds we planted last year grew into a strapping horse chestnut sapling

I once read it takes seven trees to produce enough oxygen for one human being. If you don't have a garden or space to grow trees there are lots of other ways of giving back to the planet. I recommend using Ecosia search engine, which uses profits to plant trees around the world, or even better, as I know them personally, contact Simon & Tracey West of For a donation of just £2.50 a tree can be panted in Kenya which will not only remove a quarter of a tonne of CO2 from the air in a handful of years, but will also provide food and building materials for the locals. For four trees or more you also receive a certificate.

Ten tree seeds, comprising acorn, chestnut and sycamore

I travelled a lot in my younger years, especially to and from Japan, so I want to do something to pay back that carbon debt to the planet. Trees are solar-powered, self replicating, carbon capture-storage devices. And we find the blueprints just scattered around at our feet.

Two fir cones in moist soil. Fingers crossed!

Doing something as simple as putting fallen tree seeds in soil is one of the best things we can do for the planet. Just give them a chance, that's all they ask. Think of them as plants with potential. Grow them in pots for a few years and then plant them in a forest, give them to a friend as a present, sell them online or to a local council for £50. There are a lot of options. Apparently horse chestnut seeds need to feel the cold before germinating, so best to keep them outside.

My second vegetable plot (right) to double yield next year

I added more cardboard to the soil to discourage weeds from sucking up all the nutrients from the recently added compost. According to "How To Garden" a great book by Alan Titchmarsh.

The back hedge I planted a few years ago doing well

I think the back hedge, if I remember rightly, is 'Golden Crest'. It should grow pretty high. The top of the far left one was broken off by a falling child when he climbed over the fence to retrieve a football. I tried to help it re-root next to its body, but my efforts were in vain. Hopefully the rest of the tree will continue to grow without it. Could have been worse. It could have been the boy who got decapitated.

The front hedge I planted this summer starting to fill out

The 'bee tree' near our front door kept producing saplings of its own which my wife replanted in different parts of the garden. So I thought we could move them all to the front and make a hedge out of them to discourage pets from doing their business on our front lawn.

Red berries on green

I really believe in the health benefits of gardening. As well as being able to consume your own organic vegetables, the muscular effort involved in digging the earth, combined with the fresh air and feel-good aspect of nurturing living things, must have a beneficial effect on the soul. 

Now all I need is a library.

Thursday, 22 October 2020

'Coffee Cup Killer' Launch Delayed

Unfortunately, due to last minute editing adjustments and unexpected printing times, the official launch of novella 2 of the Jake Jones Sleuth-Hound series 'The Coffee Cup Killer' will be pushed back to Monday 26th October. I'm very sorry about this.

But if you haven't already, now is the perfect time to read novella 1 'The Old Mice Killer', which has been updated as a new edition, to get into the zone. You can snap it up as a paperback (£3.99) or ebook (£1.77).

I'm hoping to go live on Facebook on Monday and answer your questions about the new chapter in Jake Jones' adventure, so if you have anything you'd like to ask, please leave them in the comments. 

Thanks, and see you then!

Sunday, 18 October 2020

The Coffee Cup Killer

I’m very happy to announce that my new novella ‘The Coffee Cup Killer’, the next episode in the Jake Jones Sleuth-Hound saga since ‘The Old Mice Killer’(2017), will be published by Raptor Filmz on Friday 23rd October! It will be available as an ebook on Amazon and Kobo (£2.99/$3.99) and a paperback from and myself (£5.99/ $7.75).

Jake Jones is a sleuth-hound in a city full of femme fatales, drug cartels, corrupt cops, dirty politicians and dangerous power-lords. He has a nose for trouble and he follows it always. But what starts out as a simple stalker case spirals into something much worse, as Jake finds himself embroiled in the latest spate of bloody murders to plague the city - those of the Coffee Cup Killer...

Many thanks to everyone who has offered insight, advice and encouragement to help Jake Jones on his journey.

Saturday, 3 October 2020

The Karate Kid

Last night my son and I watched The Karate Kid on Amazon and I'm not ashamed to say that I wept. 

Why? Because I only just realised how much Noriyuki “Pat” Morita and Ralph Macchio (now 58) moulded my childhood, even though I never learned Karate or was bullied by a group of high school seniors in skeleton costumes. 

It was their relationship, their spirit, their philosophy and defiance against the odds to overcome and finally prevail, which possibly inspired me to be such the non-conformist pain in the ass that I am today. Only now in my later years do I note that it was probably more thanks to the writer Robert Mark Kamen, who Wikipedia now informs me wrote the screenplay combining elements of his real life with those of a newspaper article optioned by producer Jerry Weintraub.

Sadly Pat Morita (who tested five times for the role of Mr Miyagi before producer Weintraub agreed to cast him, not originally wanting a comic actor to play the role) passed away in 2005, but Mr Kamen is still alive and well at 72 and growing grapes in California.

I just want to thank Mr Kamen for writing the screenplay, Mr Weintraub for producing the film, John G Avildsen for directing, and Mr Macchio and Mr Morita for pouring their heart and souls into such an iconic film providing staple viewing for kids growing up in the 80s, and answering the question "whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them."

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

A Watched Kettle ...

 Waiting for a response from agents and/or publishers for a month or even two, is hard.

Checking your inbox and finding nothing but nothing each morning can really be quite disheartening. But people in the publishing industry are overwhelmed with manuscripts in their in-tray and it takes time; I understand that. There’s nothing else for it but to wait patiently, or even begin some new project.

Being a firm believer of the power of positive visualisation, however, I have decided to imagine the letter that I hope to receive from an agent or publisher in the next few days.

Dear Mr Young,

I would like to apologise wholeheartedly for keeping you waiting but I would like to thank you sincerely for sending us the synopsis and first three chapters of your hilarious and original work, ‘The Coffee Cup Killer.’ We at the office were falling about in gales of laughter and awe. Somehow you have captured the angst of the whole world by harnessing the absurdity of the current situation by using the seldom double-swung double-edged sword of double sarcasm. Wonderful. Poetic. A Chandleresque dog detective in a spoof-noir world of talking animals? Never since Homer’s Iliad in dactylic hexameter has any literary work fully captured the imagination of the planet. May we be the first to congratulate you on such an epic novella and inform you that we shall encourage the Nobel Prize Committee that they need look no further in selecting their next winner. Congratulations in advance. Suffice it to say that we would like nothing more than to have our names associated with yours from now on, in fact we’d like to pay you for the honour, your reverence. Please accept this advance of £15,000 which we trust will cover you and your family comfortably so you can focus on the much anticipated sequels The Puppy Master, The Red Herring and Jeers of Derision, in order to deliver them to the best of your comedic genius and at your earliest convenience to your billions of fans-to-be worldwide.

Ha! I can dream I suppose...

Sunday, 13 September 2020

The 2020 SSFF Awards Ceremony

Which ancient philosopher said, "It's times like these we need film more than ever"? Plato? Confucius? Probably neither, if like me you believe the first film ever made was 'Le Voyage Dans La Lune' by Georges Méliès in 1902.

   But there were many points when the Scottish Short Film Festival 2020 might not have happened at all.

   The first was just after SSFF2019 at the Glasgow Art School when then festival director (me) had his I-phone stolen and was almost stranded in Glasgow City Centre at 11:30pm on a Saturday night. Stressed, dehydrated, suffering from a lingering back pain and not quite turning a profit (even from a sold out event on the Saturday) and after seven years, I turned to festival manager at the time Gina Vereker said, "I'm sorry, that was the last one for me. If you want to carry the torch as festival director, it's yours."

   Gina, who is a freelance events manager, took a while to think it over, and thankfully said yes.

   What followed was a total revamp of the format, website, and entries re-opened for another year in November 2019. Gina deftly breathed new passion into the project and carried things forward, building momentum and anticipation throughout the whole marketing process, and despite being unable to secure funding from sponsors, plowed onwards undeterred.

Gina Vereker & William Samson. Photo by me on Gina's phone

   Then, around March 2020, the Covid-19 coronavirus reared its ugly head and decided to ruin everything for everyone, everywhere. The venue Gina had been pursuing at the CCA Glasgow, due to government's guidelines, had to shut its doors to events, and Gina and I were forced to sit down and rethink the festival. With patience and understanding from the filmmakers, we considered moving the whole thing online, only then realising the huge opportunities this opened up:

   1: We could show more films over the course of a week, as people would have time to spread things out and watch them in a relaxed manner.

   2: We could show films to people overseas, possibly putting names and faces in front of important people in Hollywood.

   Thus encouraged, we looked into various ways of doing this, considering pay-per-view or something similar, but decided in the end on embedding password-protected films on the website.

   Meanwhile we had received an amazing 64-strong submission total via Film Freeway, for which we were extremely grateful. The films, as ever, exhibited a huge amount of energy, creativity and imagination and were a joy to watch. However, it wasn't all a case of sitting back and letting the films wash over us; each judge was tasked with assigning a score to each film over the following 12 categories : Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Editing, Best Costume/Make Up, Best Music, Best Sound, Best Director, Best Script, Best Documentary, Best Cinematography, Most Creative/Original and finally all round Best Film. We also strived (strove?) to give back encouraging and helpful advice to each and every entry received.

   As this was going on, progress was being made towards presentation of the chosen films. Thought was also being put into the Awards Ceremony and how that would work, while keeping everyone safe and staying in compliance with government guidelines. I figured we could at least conduct it from my office using the green screen and suggested selling tickets to a large scale Zoom event. Gina on the other hand was tempted by the opportunities offered by a public Facebook live-stream, which would increase publicity for the film-makers, actors, and everyone else nominated for an award.

   I, who had adorned the tech hat for this year's Awards ceremony, wasn't exactly sure how that would work, but decided to rise to the challenge and find out. 

Gina and me. Photo by William

   A judges' meeting was held on Zoom to thrash out the shortlist, the nominations and winners. What came next was a gathering of Q&A videos, because one of the highlights of any film festival, we're sure you'll agree, is the connection with the filmmakers - the glimpse behind the magic curtain to find out how the film came about and what challenges were overcome. Again, I suggested password-protecting the Q&As as they were golden content and should add value to, and therefor move, more tickets, but Gina opted to keep them public so the filmmakers could use them to promote themselves.

   Everything was coming together. The humorous and dependable William Samson was re-recruited as host. All that was left was how to do the live-stream Awards ceremony.

   First of all, armed with the list of nominations and winners, 12 nomination videos ('Nom Vids') in a kind of Oscars style were put together. These were automatic and William had to familiarise himself  to get the timing right, as there would be no pausing or going back. Hence the 5 second countdown in each corner.

   From previous experience I knew we needed an encoder, so with limited budget I downloaded the free OBS for Mac. This was sometimes temperamental but had a lot of great features and resembled VLC Player in terms of playlists. You could use chroma key with images in the background, fade to video clips, and have intro and outro credit sequences queued up ready to go. The most useful was the 'Your Livestream Will Start Soon' video loop, which a) gives you those ever precious seconds to get yourself together, and b) adds anticipation.

   Warning : Deep Tech Ahead! Feel free to skip the next few paragraphs.

   Problem: How to connect the Zoom audio into the OBS livestream? Ordinarily I might have tried to connect an audio jack from the speaker output to the mic input of my MacBook with a Y splitter cable connected to my headphones. But new MacBook pros don't have mic input jacks.

   Solution: Download and install a free virtual cable called VB. Tell Zoom to output to this, and tell OBS this is where you want the Zoom input to come from.

Gina, William and me sticking to the two metre rule. Photo by Richard Vereker

   What transpired next was a fortnight-long experimental foray into the unfamiliar territory of live-streaming with green screens, video clips and Zoom call integration. It began with William and I messing about live on the Raptor Newz facebook page, progressed to a half decent but laggy Raptor Newz episode, took another step up with the Judges' Discussion livestream, and culminated in the Awards Ceremony. 

   The hardest part was the Zoom calls. Why? Should be easy, right? Wrong.

   a) There was echo as the voice of the person on the other end would come through the mac's speakers and go into the mic. Hence the use of headsets. We looked into such things as Apple earbuds, but the prices were too prohibitive.

   b) The audio and video were out of synch by 160ms, or four frames at 25 fps. This was because the captured Zoom video took 160 ms longer to reach the live stream than the audio. To fix this, you have to add an offset of 160 ms to the headset mic and the ZOOM audio input (via the VB cable) to slow them down slightly, so they arrive at the livestream at the same time as the video.

   c) There was an occasional nasty flicker. This was alleviated by ensuring Zoom and OBS were operating at the same frame rate (25 fps).

   So far so good, then. Famous last words etc.

   On the morning of Friday 11th September, the day before the Awards Ceremony, while I was walking a group of neighbourhood kids to the local school, one of them, while listening to music on his phone, decided just to walk out into the middle of a busy road at a green light. Every morning up to this incident I'd kept telling the child, "Put away your phone, don't walk while using your phone." Fortunately no cars were coming and the kid was fine, but following this I experienced chest pains making it difficult to breathe. No cough, fever or loss of sense of taste or smell, just chest pains, which I'd experienced at times before of high pressure. I went to bed hoping to sleep it off, missing concerned phone calls from both William and Gina.

  The next day and feeling much improved, I got to work on the intro and credits video clips, as well as the Audience Choice Award video, which had been decided by vote the night before. Everything was moving towards completion and the day flew by.

   Due to a desire for staff safety and adherence to government guidelines of using hand sanitiser, masks, open windows and a minimum interpersonal space of two metres, it was decided that we use Gina's kitchen, which was bigger than my office, despite the slower internet connection. A zoom chat with 'Ghillie' film-makers Mike Marriage and Jamie Cooper was tentatively arranged. The most important part was delivery of the awards, but if possible I wanted to pick up the gauntlet of having some kind of live interaction with filmmakers within the livestream.

   We met at Gina's at 6pm in the pouring rain, with plenty of time (or so we thought) before the 8pm kick off. Set up the green screen and lights, hooked up the Mac to a second monitor and using a wireless keyboard and mouse, I was able to run the tech while William and Gina were able to present the show with the open MacBook screen to guide them and record them using the 720p FaceTime camera. 

   We were all good to go, doing a couple of rehearsals, when another problem presented itself: I needed my headset to monitor everything. William could do the nominations 'deaf' as it were, but he needed a headset to talk to Mike and Jamie. Gina's husband Richard had a spare headset. Much time was wasted trying to get the MacBook to play continuously through two headsets before I realised I could just wipe down my headset before giving it to William. I'd be 'deaf' to the Zoom call, which made me nervous, but during our set up check at 7:30 with Mike and Jamie the levels seemed to look okay. Mike and Jamie popped out of the Zoom Room with a view to popping back nearer the time.

   Ideally we would have had twenty minutes here to stand around outside, chilling and having a smoke in the cool evening air (had we been smokers) gathering our thoughts in preparation. But no, it was one final visit to the loo and then on with the show!

   Shortly after 8pm we went live. 

William and me warming up

   "Okay, I'll switch on the mics now!" said I, only to state loudly a few minutes later, "After this is the short intro." But luckily I don't think I was heard over the trailer audio.

   We had about a ten second lag, but everything seemed to be going fine. People could see us, people could hear us. All good.

   William and Gina did an admirable job and the first half went swimmingly. So much so that I made the fatal error of thinking, "This is going to be a breeze."

   Then for some reason OBS chose that moment to play up. Remember I said it was temperamental? The Best Sound clip had vanished from the Scene List. 

   Blackness. Dead air. 

   I took a breath and told myself not to panic. Instead I gestured to William to keep talking while I tried to figure out the problem, of which he did an excellent job.

   Skipping ahead to Best Editing seemed the best option, but that didn't work either. I gestured again to William and he in turn gestured to Gina to come on stage and continue the stall tactics. How they both managed to stay cool, calm and collected in front of the camera was beyond me, but they did great, in fact their improv was highly entertaining. So much so, I kept it in the edit.

   I realised I had to re-import the clips afresh. This seemed to work. In fact to be on the safe side I re-imported everything one step ahead of the segment William was at. Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Film, Audience Choice Award. This meant each one started with a burst of loud volume I had to turn down as quickly as possible.

   Anyway, we'd refound our stride, and again I made the mistake of thinking, "We've done it! Just the credits to go! I've reimported them haven't I?" I saw the scene labeled RN Credits at the very bottom of the scene list. "Ah yes, this must be it." I queued it up, Gina and William signed off and I faded it in and sat back with a huge sigh of relief.

   But wait. Gina was saying something. Her lips were moving but I couldn't hear her. I'd gone temporarily deaf for real. Something about "Wrong credits." 

   I was like, "No, this is totally fine, look, white words on black screen going up, it's credits all right!" That's when I noticed the name 'Phil Hole.'

   It was the Raptor Newz Credits. 'Donuts by Phil Hole. Sound by Mike St And. Wardrobe by Ikea. All rights reserved and some left.'

   I knew I should have deleted all the extraneous scenes from the Scene List but hadn't had time to do it.

   I faded in the right credits hoping against hope I wouldn't have to re-import them and they played fine.

   And that was it. Made sure all the mics were off. Disconnected the livestream. Scanned the comments for something about the wrong credits, saw nothing and finally relaxed.

   William, Gina, Richard and I spent the next half hour decompressing and laughing with relief. It hadn't been perfect, but we'd given it our best shot and people seemed happy. Awards were delivered, and the Zoom livestream was perfect. 160 ms, baby!

From top left going clockwise: Mike Marriage (director), William Samson, Jamie Cooper (Producer)

   Looking back over the video to edit it for Vimeo and re-share I found there wasn't much to do, except trimming, cutting out a few moments of dead air and the wrong credits. In retrospect I should have realised the MacBook mic would not be good enough for two people standing apart and perhaps should have tried to connect my H2 recorder via USB. But again, with all that was going on, I'm just glad we got something out there. It might have taken another day to convince the MacBook to recognise yet another audio input.

   A day later and the livestream had a reach of 1,623, with 594 engagements, 128 comments, 5 shares and 765 views, which is none too shabby for an event.

   The 2020 SSFF wasn't without its challenges, but on the whole, if people look at the creativity, imagination and skill of the modern day film-force of and about Scotland that we were able to deliver and recognise, we hope you'll agree it is a worthwhile cause. In fact personally I would count the whole experience as by far my favourite distraction of 2020.

   With Gina at the helm the good ship SSFF has successfully completed another voyage, and long may she continue on her travels!