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This blog documents my staying at home and writing (and the subsequent whatevers to that writing). It also serves as an online journal for friends and family. It is more-or-less guaranteed to be sans intérêt to most anyone else.

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2004 Reading List

Being a list of books read during the current year.
Moving Pictures
Soul Music
Faust Eric
Small Gods
Carpe Jugulum
Men At Arms
Feet of Clay
Lords and Ladies
Reaper Man
Witches Abroad
Guards! Guards!
Interesting Times
Equal Rites
The Last Continent
Wyrd Sisters
The Eighth Colour
The Light Fantastic
Dark Side of The Sun
Only You Can Save Mankind
Johnny and The Dead
The Discworld Companion (with S.Briggs)
- Terry Pratchett
A Child Across The Sky
The Wooden Sea
The Land of Laughs
From the Teeth of Angels
A Marriage of Sticks
- Jonathan Carroll
Northern Lights
The Subtle Knife
The Amber Spyglass
I was a Rat!
Count Karlstein
The Ruby in the Smoke
The Shadow in the North
The Tiger in the Well
- Philip Pullman
Charmed Life
The Lives of Christopher Chant
Witch Week
Howl’s Moving Castle
The Magicians of Caprona
- Diana Wynne Jones
What a Carve Up!
The Rotter’s Club
A Touch of Love
The Dwarves of Death
The House of Sleep
- Jonathan Coe
The Empty Sleeve
The Sound of Coaches
Blewcoat Boy
- Leon Garfield
The River Styx Runs Upstream [Le styx coule à l’envers - Nouvelles]
- Dan Simmons
The Black Book
Set In Darkness
The Hanging Garden
Hide And Seek
Black And Blue
Bleeding Hearts (Jack Harvey)
Witch Hunt (Jack Harvey)
- Ian Rankin
The Wish List
Artemis Fowl [2]
- Eoin Colfer
Smoke and Mirrors, Neil Gaiman
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K.Rowling
The Shining, Stephen King
Eastern Standard Tribe, Cory Doctorov
Free for All, Peter Wayner
Desolation Point, Dan Brown
Darwinia, Robert Charles Wilson

2003’s reads can be found here.
On the Streets of Amsterdam

On the Streets of Amsterdam

To survive in the streets of Amsterdam, you need to understand the pecking order in operation there. While it can appear rather strange at first regard if you come from another city—particularly one like Paris where cars occupy ninety percent of the ecosystem—it is really quite simple.

The most important rule is that everyone gives way to the tramways. Next on the evolutionary ladder come bicycles. They will bear down on you, poor lost and dismayed tourist, ringing their bells righteously. Occasionally even—and this has happened to me—a cyclist will shout at you to get out of the way rather than swerve.

At the bottom of the pile are cars, vans, lorries and all four-wheeled affairs that use an internal-combustion engine. In fact the rapidity at which the cars will screech to a halt as soon as you just look like you are considering crossing the road implies that Amsterdam still uses the death penalty (and successfully in this regard) for all motoring offences, particularly those involving pedestrians, as this is not only a bad show, it is also not good for the tourist industry.

We had the privilege of seeing a car—accidentally and embarassingly—blocking a tramway. The car had turned out of a sidestreet in front of the tram while the latter was taking on and squeezing out passengers. It, the car that is, could not go any further as it was blocked both fore and aft. It could only cower in front of the tramway with a pityful expression on the driver’s face as the tram driver hooted at it. It should be noted that the trams are equipped with horns obviously recovered from de-commissioned ocean liners that could not only silence a Welsh rugby choir at a distance of at least half a mile, but probably frequently do.

Seeing the car writhe in the full blaze of the horn gave one visions of the number plate being flashed to the Central Police Station, where the driver would be identified from the files. The next morning just before six, members of a Select Hit Squad will arrive at his front door and drag him off, screaming, to pay for his crimes. The police will wear uniforms identifying them as Elite Traffic Cops through the means of large elegantly designed but agressively flourescent words with too many vowels. This is designed to call maximum attention to their actions in order to keep up the deterrant effect. And the Netherlanders do love ‘Good Design’.

. . . . .

Window (Un)dressing

Once you have assimilated the traffic system, city walks can be considered a national spectator sport. To this end Ludivine had warned me, Amsterdammers go in for window dressing on the scale of a national passion—but there again, a few centuries ago, they also collected tulips like mad, so it all goes to show that you never can tell. Street-level window sills are filled with fun, artistic, kitch or just plain homely displays that compete in the attention stakes with those of the neighbours.

So I called Ludivine’s attention to a Hello Kitty Parade that I was engrossed in, all the while trying to understand the heavy glances that she was giving to my interest in this particular display. At this point I glanced down. It was a curious site, a pair of headless boobs cupped upwards, standing on a pair of pointy legs. And in the window next door was a mirror image.

It took me a moment to figure out that with the angle and the amazing foreshortening of perspective that this view implied, I was in fact looking down on a rather well-endowed lady standing behind a window wearing nothing but skimpy underwear. And that the mirror image was another lady standing behind another basement window next door to her.

General confusion, and the fact that my mind was still full of the Hello Kitty scenes, meant that I was gazing down for longer than would normally be considered polite.

“You mean you really didn’t notice?” asked Ludivine, dubious.

I had come face to face with my first Amsterdam Sex Workers. Or I hadn’t, as I still hadn’t seen their faces.

All moral considerations placed aside, I cannot understand how these ladies make a living for themselves. Yes, I know that the answer is that they get paid in exchange for sexual services, but this is the theory. What happens in practice? And I donít mean; How do they lift a leg?

While thinking back later in the day, what struck me was the very bored way that they appeared to be standing there, and how un-remunerative this activity also appeared to be. While I will admit that this wasn’t a scientific study, we did wander around the town, including the Red Light district, more or less at random, at different times of day and night. At no point did we see anyone enter or leave one of these window booths. Nor did we see the curtain pulled, indicating I was told, that the occupants are otherwise engaged. Considering the random nature of our travels we would have expected to cross the path of an occupied booth at some point, no?

This begs the question of the economic viability of this activity. Possibly the services of these ladies are inordinately expensive, thus allowing rare and short bursts of activity to provide for long periods of calm. Were this the case, we could suppose that the only thing holding back business would be financial—we could suppose a large number of potential punters, but not all possessing the capacity to pay. A situation that the diamond merchants, another of Amsterdam’s top industries, and their professional cartel, tries to encourage. To encourage for diamonds I mean, as far as I know they have nothng to do with the Sex Industry in Amsterdam.

Were the Sex Market purely economically driven, we would see new-comers and marginal players tempted to undercut prices in order to get a foothold, like the Russians did at one point in the diamond market, and the way that fly-by-night African states still do. But nowhere did we see prices displayed—perhaps there is a central office, a Sex-Workers’ cartel, or another price-fixing system for this… But I donít think so. Which leads one to assume that business is not a question of pricing. That while people are willing to wander around for the ‘thrill’ of peeking at the bored ladies, they don’t actually wish to cross the threshold. That they are part of the general window-dressing for neighbours and tourists that one expects of Amsterdam.

In the same manner that the tolerance to funny cigarettes is part of a larger strategy that has helped keep the abuse of so-called hard drugs and the syringe-based propagation of AIDS to a lower level in Amsterdam than in places like Paris where the authorities are not only heavy-handed, but also counter-productive in their management of these issues, so I suspect that the tolerance that extends to prostitution, also contributes to its slow eradication, not through control, but just through normal and ordinary economic forces. And meantimes, this tolerance prevents those involved from disappearing underground or behind the scenes where it is hard to contact them in order to talk about violence, abuse, STD and whatever. During that time, as usual, France is criminalising the activity…

. . . . .

Well, I’ll be Amsterdammed!

In the tram was an advertising poster inviting one to ‘Find out why the Dutch are so funny. Funny?’ This, of course, takes its humour from the fact that this is not how one would spontaneous describe the Netherlanders. Earnest, yes. Polite, yes. Except when they are bearing down on you on a bicycle (see earlier). But definately not funny.

Funny, that.

. . . . .

Vowel movements

It occurs to one that at some point in History there was a vast pan-European redistribution of the alphabet. Probably as an annexe to one of those windings-up that they had traditionally at the end of the Wars that swept across the pages of school text books with boring regularity. Like the treaties of Versailles, Utrecht, Mastricht, Yalta... As usual the East European countries got the hard end of the stick—you can understand, after the event, why they threw themselves into the arms of the first advancing Soviet armies that happening to be passing by—and ended up with vowels being severely rationed.

The Dutch—the idea of calling them Netherlanders came about later—being one of the vast maritime nations with trading posts and colonies in all four corners of the globe, came out on top on this occasion and got a double ration of vowels. This must have been an amazingly large stock because since then they have been been using them lavishly on all their beautifully designed signage and public buildings.

. . . . .

A Bicycle Made For Three

Two-seater bikes are nothing in Amsterdam. Two a penny. Well, twenty-five eurocents anyway.

I was rather unnerved when I saw a baby being perched on the handlebars of a bike, as this does appear to be a safety hasard: one sharp break and the kid’s in the canal or flat on the street. Perhaps this is why stopping, swerving or braking all seem unethical to Amsterdam bikers…

The family bike has a basket up front for the shopping, a saddle for the driver, and one, even two, seats for kids on the back. There are also rickshaw-type affairs, and bikes with sidecars. And those that push a large cart upfront like an old-style ice-cream trike with passenger space now where the ice cream isn’t.

I also saw mums out cycling with teenage kids sitting sidesaddle behind. While I can understand that the family that repairs punctures together, stays together, surely these kids were big enough to have bikes of their own, no?

We saw bikes as fashion statements, bikes as works of art, bikes as engineering feats and, of course, plain black, not forgetting the famous Amsterdam white—and sometimes, all of these types on the same bike! We saw bikes attached to everything, including each other… seemingly spontaneous or organic (orgiastic?) gatherings of bicycles. The sign—Please don’t lean your bike against this window—is probably the most widespread piece of literature in the City.

My favourite bike scene involved an ordinary black affair that passed me in the street while I was waiting outside a store. Mum was pedaling, and daughter was seated behind. They chatted as they advanced, and it was obviously the sort of pleasant conversation that one has with lttl’uns when one picks them up from the kindergarten; What’d you do today dear? Oh yes? And how come? And what did he say afterwards? Are you really sure he wasn’t hurt? Did you remember to say ‘Sorry’ afterwards? That sort of one. And, with its trotters firmly anchored in the front basket, with its pink snout to the wind making it look aerodynamic in a way that I had never thought about before, with its eyes half closed as if really enjoying the cool air flowing over its little pink body, was a medium-sized pig.

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