The notebook

Finishing a notebook is… not exactly a very noteworthy (hah!) event. Or is it? I find it’s far more common to start a new notebook than to finish one. But when you spend four years with the same notebook, you start to think, “Hey…maybe this is it? The one, true notebook? Maybe when this one is done I should… Get another one exactly the same…?”

Shortly followed by “Shit, four years have passed – do they even still make this notebook?”

They do.

Thank goodness.

As I say, I’ve never really had to worry about this before. I’ve had jobs where I’ve been supplied with a succession of the same notebooks. At Network Rail, the stationery cupboard was filled with these lovely ring-bound blue hardback A5 notebooks that I loved. And other jobs have supplied me with big ol’ Black n’ Red notebooks that feel very luxe, but the A4 format is destined only for a desk.

But this thing… It’s A5, with rounded corners. It’s got a soft leather(ette?) wraparound cover with nice off-white pages, and a little inside back cover pouch for odd bits and pieces. It has a bookmark ribbon and an elastic band to hold it closed. And I’ve carted it around all over the place: to the park, to the office, to various libraries and archives. I’ve written in it on trains and in cafes and… even, at my desk.

It started out as a notebook, occasionally becoming a diary (for one or two honest-to-goodness dated diary entries when I suppose I must have felt in the mood to write one out longhand), and it’s filled with things on various topics and in a variety of formats from diagrams, lists, scribbles, and word clouds, to multi-page prose and website mock-ups.

It is, I suppose, the nearest thing I have to a commonplace book.

I’ve often wanted to start a commonplace book. In my head, I’d sit and lick the end of my pencil (okay, not really), then note down the things I’d just learned, carefully indexing the pages to ensure I could return to the subject at a later date.


I chuck most of that stuff into Google Keep as, nine times out of ten, the note-taking device I have on me is my phone. So most of my thought-vomit is aimed there, where it is (hopefully) searchable later.

So the notebook is a bit more intentional. I take it places. I have rudimentary sections: short wave radio logs; website mock-ups and admin work logs; diary entries, work timetables and to-do lists; opening pages of unfinished (unstarted!) book projects; sketches of imaginary photo book and magazine spreads. And so on. I can flip through it and see little snippets of ideas that never came to be, or concepts that still bubble around in my head from time to time, slowly gathering momentum. Or I can see, almost word-for-word, the introduction to the first edition of my book on Charles Paget Wade that I scribbled down one coffee-fuelled morning.

And here I am, some four or five years on and I am coming to the end of this one. I didn’t date the opening pages, but not far in there’s a diary entry from January 2016. It has held together beautifully, has travelled well, and has even permitted me to tear pages out occasionally to act as quick notelets. I suppose it’s odd that it’s taken me that long to use 150 pages. But it’s been there when I needed it. And I am very glad WHSmith still sells the same model. Especially so as I was able to see old and new side by side, and see how the years have taken their toll on the first one, as well as how neat and tidy and fresh the new one looks.

What adventures we may have. I can’t wait to see what the new one ends up containing.

George Clarke’s National Trust Unlocked

George Clarke’s National Trust Unlocked is a recent Channel 4 series that saw Clarke (and occasionally his dog) take advantage of the country’s state of lockdown by visiting an array of National Trust properties while they were closed to the public.

Clarke’s a very likeable host – he has somehow wormed his way into my TV viewing via various vaguely architecture-related shows, and his north-east lilt and passion for almost everything he sees or sets foot in is infectious and makes for very pleasant, easy viewing.

This series – which would ordinarily be of quite some interest to me on its own – was brought to my attention thanks to a Google Alert I have set up for mentions of Charles Paget Wade.

I wrote a book on Wade, see, and it’s fun to learn when that book gets mentioned (rarely; usually just bot-led ebook piracy websites) or just Wade in general (of late, mainly his family’s connection to the slave trade).

In reality, Wade doesn’t come up very often. He’s occasionally mentioned in guides to days out in Gloucestershire, or perhaps as the holder of a unique collection of this or that. But it was interesting to see a Daily Mail piece on Wade and his house Snowshill Manor that he spent thirty years filling with stuff.

And why was the Mail talking about Wade? The episode of National Trust Unlocked that aired the previous night had featured Snowshill and its one-time owner.

Wade lived in London from 1906 to about 1919, during which time he worked under Parker and Unwin as an architect and illustrator supporting the new Hampstead Garden Suburb development. When he had done all he was really able to under that umbrella (as well as becoming obscenely rich following the death of his father), he branched out into more illustration projects until the First World War interrupted things. Towards the end of the War he spotted an advert for Snowshill in Country Life magazine and vowed to buy it if it should still be available on his return from the front.

It was, and he did.

He then spent the next few years restoring the buildings, and having the gardens laid out by M.H. Baillie Scott, before moving his already-vast collection of crafts, furniture and…stuff… into the house, and then opening the place up to visitors. Visitors who, as the TV show explains, Wade would lead around the shadowy corners of the house, before nipping into literal secret passages where he would don a theatrical outfit and re-appear somewhere else, making his guests feel even more certain that Snowshill was inhabited by ghosts.

It was really nice seeing the curator at Snowshill tell Clarke about Wade and his collection. It felt somewhat eerie watching someone else talk about something I have decided to become a sort of small-time expert on. Of course the Snowshill staff and curators are Wade experts, but I haven’t been to Snowshill for nearly a decade, and I don’t often find myself in conversations where I’m not the one who happens to know the most about Wade. It’s not that I’m possessive over him – I literally wrote a book about the man in hopes I can tell the world about this fascinating character! – but it’s always a funny feeling when you hear about something close to your heart discussed on TV or in a book.

Anyway, I can thoroughly recommend this episode of National Trust Unlocked, and the whole series seems to just be extremely nice viewing. It’s George Clarke poking around deserted National Trust properties, being delighted at absolutely everything he finds. It’s like a lovely warm, comforting blanket.

There’s a detailed breakdown of the National Trust properties featured in each episode on the National Trust website and the whole series is now available on All4.

The Vast of Night – 1950s suburban technological sci-fi fun

I watched The Vast of Night on Amazon Prime this weekend, and what a fun film it was. The Radio Survivor blog mentioned it and the core components sounded like they’d be up my street: a low-budget lightly sci-fi tale set in 1950s small town America with a backdrop of local radio and telephone switchboards. Lovely.

It’s altogether really just very silly, but presented very seriously. From the snappy opening scene, I felt invited into the world of this little town as the local high school geared up for a basketball game. The way the two leads chatted away about tape recorders and radio voices and broadcasting and interviews had a lovely realism to it, especially with the camera milling around them as they walked-and-talked. Actually, one flaw with the film is that this pair’s relationship never really develops beyond both being witness to a strange event. It would have been nice – though maybe somewhat cliched – to see some more chemistry between them.

I digress. The film’s world feels very believable, and there is nice attention to detail in the technology both used and discussed, along with some enjoyable “gee, shucks” moments of discussing (probably accurate) 1950s descriptions of what life might be like¬†in the year two thousand.

On top of that, the film features some really surprisingly exquisite camerawork and cinematography. For starters there’s a lovely misty murkiness about the whole thing, with nice lighting and lens flare and so on. Characters and extras are given room to breathe as the camera weaves in and around their very natural movements. At times there are some fantastic sequences of either very long one-shot takes, or really nice Steadicam-esque sequences that seem almost too ambitious for what is a silly little b-movie.

And silly it is: the story is a bit one-dimensional, and some of the longer dialogue scenes could do with some tightening up. I saw one review which suggested this would make a good radioplay or podcast, which made me chuckle given the subject matter. But actually I get that, and I can see that too. In fact, I occasionally felt like it would make a half-decent narrative-based point-and-click/walking simulator videogame like Firewatch and others.

But if it had merely been an audio-based production, the audience would have lacked the rather lovely set design, props and costumes/hair/make-up which all come together to paint a very well-fleshed-out and yet not too overly-ambitious world. It’s nice to sink into the world of 1950s excitement about new technologies and a feeling that anything could be out there…

It was a fun little romp and I felt refreshed having watched it.

Review: ETC front fork pannier bag rack / carrier

It’s a brave cyclist who entrusts the fortunes of his luggage (not to mention his safety riding on the road) to a piece of cheap ¬£20-30 metal sold ostensibly as a luggage rack for the front forks.

But that’s just what I did ahead of my recent trip to Cornwall.

My trusty Giant Blvd mk II bike has long had a Topeak luggage rack with matching bags, but for a while now I’d been wanting to add front panniers to my bicycle, partly to boost my overall luggage capacity, and partly to balance out my load. Riding uphill with everything over your back wheel makes the bike feel a little prone to popping a wheelie at a time when such a manoeuvre would not be at all welcome.

I had the image in my head of the type of rack I wanted, and where it would mount. But finding something compatible with my particular bike was less easy. It turns out that a lot of bikes which are designed to take front panniers have extra lugs halfway down the front forks in addition to those near the axle. My Giant lacks these extra lugs, so this ruled out an entire range of front racks which require these.

Instead, I knew I was looking for a rack that anchored itself on the lower lugs by the axle (also used for the mud guards), and used a friction-based grippy fastener which secured the upper part to the front forks at whatever height required. The stability of these two matching side panels then comes from a single piece which goes up and over the wheel, joining the pair together solidly.

The rack I settled on, this ETC model from Amazon, seemed horribly cheap at just a smidge over twenty quid. I’d seen similar racks for more than a hundred. On the one hand I figured it’s a pretty basic construction: just some bent metal made to a tried and tested design.

And on the other hand I feared that something so cheap could not possibly be strong enough – or safe enough – to load up with heavy bags and be reliably used on busy roads. But I decided to give it a go, drop the cash down, and if I had any doubts when it came to installing the rack in terms of its safety, just not use it and either return it or chalk it up as a life lesson.

I also decided to buy some Ortlieb bags to go with it – easily three times the cost of the rack itself for the pair – partly as I’m well aware they’re just the best pannier bags money can buy, and partly as they also double up as drybags. Given that this trip was a camping trip, waterproofness was absolutely a feature I was looking for.

(Kudos, by the way, to Sigma Sports for having my bags in stock, dispatching them super quickly, taking Paypal for payment, and delivering via DPD and their lovely timed slots. They’re about the only courier I trust any more.)

When the ETC-branded rack arrived, its basicness was about what I’d expected from the admittedly mixed reviews I’d seen on Amazon. Some buyers found the kit perfect, easy to install, and almost tailor-made for their particular bike. Others had struggled to get it to fit, ultimately abandoning it – to the point of binning it rather than seeking a refund.

One helpful Amazon reviewer gave detailed installation instructions and a series of photos from various angles, for which I was immensely grateful – until I saw another reviewer had done the same, having somehow successfully fitted the rack a completely different way. Hmm.

I knew I’d have my work cut out getting it together – I already knew that it came with no instructions or even photos/illustrations – and that it would either work with my bike or it wouldn’t. I also knew I’d have an evening of swearing and calloused hands ahead of me, and this turned out to be the case.

But in the end, I got it to work just fine. The rack fitted – just about – and the fastenings felt secure. The biggest flaw was probably the width of the U-bolt which acts as a clamp around the forks. My forks are oval in section, rather than round, and so the U-bolt fits only unevenly around this non-circular fork, requiring the associated bolts to just be tightened as much as possible, which feels secure, but leaves a little room for movement if the bolts happen to work loose due to vibrations.

Thus far, the U-bolt has stayed rock-solid, with only one of the other bolts vibrating ever so slightly loose, but nowhere near being a danger, and a quick tighten sorted that out.

The Ortliebs I purchased came with three different widths of fixtures for different types of racks, and I was able to fit the nearest fitting brackets, adjust the lower ‘foot’, and the bags attach and remove as easily as I’d hoped, but still feel secure when attached.

Six weeks on, and probably 2-300km of riding down, the rack has been a great addition to my bike. The forward distribution of weight makes my bike feel more balanced when paired with the larger rear bags. And the racks don’t move a millimetre while riding, feeling secure even bouncing over potholes in the London roads. The Cornish roads, by comparison, were in pretty good shape, though there were a few off-road sections that tested the rack’s stability. There is some movement in the way the Ortliebs attach to the rack, but this is to be expected.

Overall, I’m really glad I took a chance on the ETC rack – for my particular bike, they worked out just fine. For any would-be purchasers out there, I’d say they’re worth a go. The variety of fastenings included in the pack is quite generous, and I think mean they’ll fit a wide range of bikes. But my advice would be to not force things: if it ain’t gonna fit, don’t try and make it.

Without further ado, here’s the final result – and a series of photographs of how I fitted it to my particular bike, which I hope might assist any other buyers of this rack left scratching their heads when they unpack everything:


Tour de France Stage 10

Yesterday’s TdF stage was a beautiful mess; surreal, stunning, painful, gorgeous… Just a bit of an epic on a day which looked like it could have been so straightforward.

There was one unexpected moment when I all but lost my shit: the helicopter cameras that provide such gorgeous footage throughout the entire race for the TV viewers suddenly showed a piece of coastal defensive architecture – it was only Fort Boyard! A surreal moment in a day packed with them.

The coverage had opened with the reassuring news that – aside from a handful of positive Covid-19 test results which have put individual team members out of action – none of the riders were being forced to leave the race at this point. The Tour’s rest days are being used as a roughly weekly moment in time to test all those participating in the race – the result of two positive results in one team (of anyone including staff, riders, etc) is a forced abandonment for the entire team.

But then came the news that the Tour’s ebullient director Christian Prudhomme has tested positive and is now barred from any in-person involvement. Prudhomme is the face of the Tour, and he is usually seen standing with his head out of a car sunroof as he drops the flag at the start of each stage. The car then follows the route the whole way, giving the race director oversight of the whole thing. News of Prudhomme’s positive Covid result was accompanied by images of him riding in the back of this car during an earlier stage with France’s newly-installed prime minister Jean Castex – masked-up, but very cosily chatting away. Castex has since tested negative, but is self-isolating for seven days to be on the safe side.

So, for now the race continues, though the spectre of “will the Tour reach Paris this year?” looms large. We will need to wait till the next rest day for the next round of tests and possible exclusions.

Meanwhile, Stage 10 looked like it would be pretty straightforward: a pan-flat profile, only one intermediate sprint, and fresh legs following the first rest day. And it was a gorgeous stage to watch, too – starting on one island on the west coast of France, noodling around the low-lying coastal towns and salt flats and ending on another island. The islands and wide estuaries along the route meant for a diverse range of bridges, and as usual there were a number of gorgeous-looking towns and villages passed through at speed, a few of which have been added to my perpetual Google Maps of places I’d like to visit someday. There was even a shot of a transporter bridge which apparently takes bicycles, so that’s definitely on the list.

Unfortunately, despite (or because of) the flat profile, high speeds and a tightly-packed peloton led to a number of fairly nasty crashes. With a whole bunch rolling along, filling the width of the road, all it takes is one momentary lapse of concentration or a sudden piece of road furniture and several riders can be sent flying. There were a number of shots of some very sore-looking road cases of rash, and that Lycra clothing doesn’t offer much protection when sliding along tarmac at 50km/h.

It all culminated in an exciting sprint finish – of course – and a tight victory for a very emotional Irishman who has worked hard towards the goal of a stage victory at the Tour de France for many years, and now Sam Bennett has one under his belt.