On saving h2g2

About ten and a half years ago you joined an online community. And last week, it came under serious threat of closure.

The thing is, you have always been fascinated by the Internet. Well, ‘always’ is a large statement, particularly given the fact that when you were born, computers still took up entire rooms. But ever since you discovered that it was possible to send an electronic message via a computer to someone else, far far away, which would be sometime in the late eighties, you have been waiting for it to revolutionize your life.

You sent that first piece of electronic mail to Douglas Adams, a satirical science fiction writer, who wrote a radio series and five books in the trilogy The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Among (one or two) other things.

You asked him what brand of toothpaste he used. Which was a little creepy, upon reflection, but hey, you were fifteen and on a work experience project developing a newspaper for the week. It was fun. You also got to play with desk-top-pub-lish-ing software. Since hitherto your experience of computers had been restricted to your Dad’s ZX81 (if you wrote a really long bit of code, you could get it to print ‘hello’ an infinite number of times on the screen) and IT lessons, where the teacher tried to get you all to learn to touch type, it was quite exciting.

Yes, you did go to a girls’ school.

Why did you choose Douglas Adams?

Well, aside from the fact that you go distinctly fan girl at the mention of his name at the best of times, even then, Mr Adams was proving himself to be somewhat more interested in emerging technologies than he ever was in churning out books. He’d been on the TV the night before, talking about this new way of cheating the Royal Mail.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that back in 1999 he was involved in setting up a new Internet project, a project to write, collectively, the Earth edition of the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, h2g2, a factual guide to the world around us.

This site allowed, still does in fact, anyone to come along and write an article and submit it for inclusion in the Edited Guide. Users have personal spaces, and can write journal entries. They can chat with other users, add them to their friend’s list and follow other people.

Sound familiar?

Well, it didn’t at the time.

Sadly, the site succumbed to the dot.com bubble in late 2000. But the BBC bought it and ever since, it has been the jewel in the BBC’s online community crown.

Unfortunately, being the jewel in the BBC’s online community crown isn’t what it could have been, which is why everyone is using WordPress to blog with, Facebook to network and Wikkipedia to plagiarise from. Auntie started backing off from her initial enthusiasm for online communities some time ago, and the site has been pootling along rather too quietly for, in your opinion, rather too long.

Which isn’t to say it has been completely stagnating or that it doesn’t have value any more. The Edited Guide is now virtually entirely community run, bar the final button needing to be pushed by a BBC editor. There’s a peer review process which anyone signed up to the site can join in on, entries are picked by a team of community volunteers and polished by another. There’s a creative writing section, with its own forum for constructive criticism and a deserved reputation for fostering writing excellence, and a long-running community newspaper filled with reviews, personal pieces, cartoons and serials. It’s full, in fact, of experienced and often very very adept writers, and experienced and often very very adept reviewers.

The community itself is also outstanding. It isn’t single-mindedly focused on the writing aspect. It gets involved in frivolous debates, in idle competition, in furious word games, in serious chat and spontaneous conga lines. It’s interesting because there is a genuine breadth of ages, backgrounds, experiences and viewpoints there, which was valuable when you were in the sometimes claustrophobic bubble of expatism abroad, and completely invaluable now that you are back in the sometimes stifling atmosphere of home.

You’ve spent so long hanging out in one particular corner of the site, where a conversation has been going on for almost the entire time the site has been open, that it is almost incomprehensible that a world can exist where you will not spend some time of every day lounging on the virtual sofas there and catching up on what the others have been doing, sipping virtual tea and talking about, well, life, the universe and everything.

But the thing is that there hasn’t been much change for a while. Discussion about what the site is for, why we are all there and how we can improve it have long since died down. No point in talking about something when you aren’t going to get a chance to do anything about it. There’s also a lack of fresh blood due to the fact that we’ve been relegated to a back, unfrequented ally of the Beeb’s website.

Which is why, when the news broke that the BBC was going to try to ‘dispose’ of the site, you first drew a horrified, although not particularly surprised breath, and then, when the community rallied behind one of its members when he decided to form a consortium to try to save it, you found yourself feeling both excited and optimistic.

Whether the Community Consortium takes over, or whether the site goes to someone else, it could be the best thing to have happened to the place in a long time.

You are quite looking forward to it.

And you would encourage everyone to have a poke around at hootoo and the Consortium’s website. While for those on Twitter, there will be regular updates from @h2g2c2 and samples of the writing on the site from @h2g2_Guide.

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On doggeral.

The Star didn’t show much interest in books at first.

That would have required lieing or sitting still for more than thirty seconds.

When he achieved the independence dragging himself around on his tummy gave him, he was too interested in investigating the dust build-ups on obscure parts of your furniture to bother with something Mama didn’t scream ‘No!’ at whenever he got close.

You would like to say that it was your persistence in dragging the Star off to the library every week that finally paid off, but you know the Star just went there on the off chance that he could make a break for the shelves and pull all the books onto the floor while all the other under fives were singing ‘… with a baa baa here…’.

In fact, the Star got hooked on books because your Mother in Law brought over a whole suitcase full of very brightly coloured, very ethnic volumes and spent hours pinning the Star down and pointing out the rabbits! The cows! The snow! The wolves! The silver birch trees! The bears! The geese! The porridge! The foxes! The squirrels! The cute red-headed children! The roosters! The samovars! The babushkas cooking! The dedushkas relaxing on the top of  the stove! The complete absence of any mother or father figures!

The Star’s repertoire of animal noises also came on apace, but he had a distinct preference for books which had a more encyclopedic bent over story books.

You faced a future of  hours spent on the sofa pointing out a red car, a blue car, a yellow car with four doors, a green car with four doors and a roof rack, a white car, a black van, a grey Renault Megane Sport Tourer with

  • Air Conditioning
  • 4x 15W RDS radio CD
  • Height adjustable driver’s seat
  • Electric front and rear windows
  • Centre console with armrest
  • Longitudinal roof bars
  • 17″ ‘Sari’ alloy wheels
  • Parking proximity sensors – rear
  • Front fog lights
  • Multi-functional Tunepoint
  • Arkamys 3D Sound 4 x 30W RDS radio CD with Bluetooth
  • Brushed aluminium effect door mirrors

But then the Star discovered narrative. It seemed to help a lot that you got bored with the board books and boldly went for the more complex floppies. Of course, this means that when you use them as an incentive for keeping the Star at the table and eating, it is much harder to hose them down before you take them back to the library, but then you do pay large amounts in fines on your own account every year, so you figure that evens things out.

Unfortunately, as well as actual stories, the Star has an unfortunate liking for rhymes. Unfortunate because so many of the ones written for children are truly awful.

You have developed a particular hatred for anything written by Julia Donaldson, which is the most unfortunate thing of all as the Star thinks she is so good that you have accidentally and extremely reluctantly memorised the whole of Stick Man.

The poetry rolling around in your brain now consists of part of Romeo’s balcony speech, A Broken Appointment by Thomas Hardy, snatches of John Donne and…

Stick Man lived in the family tree with his stick lady love and his stick children three. One day he woke early and went for a jog. Stick Man, oh Stick Man, beware of the dog!*

This is not as bad as The Snail and the Whale which is a million stanzas all dedicated to finding every conceivable rhyme for ‘snail’ Or possibly ‘whale’. But your real ire is reserved for this bit:

Here are the children running from school, fetching the fireman, digging a pool, squirting and spraying to keep the whale cool.

Now as far as wordsmithery goes, it’s got a nice driving but slightly choppy rhythm you actually approve of. But the accompanying pictures show quite clearly that while the children do the running, the fetching and some of the digging, it’s the firemen who are doing the squirting and spraying and this utter mangling of grammar drags fingernails scraping across the chalkboard of your soul every time you get to it. And that’s really what annoys you, because in every book of hers you come across there’s something, one stanza that is so sloppy it makes you cross. You appreciate it isn’t Shakespeare, it’s just children’s light literature, but really. Could she not have spent another day or two trying to nail the best possible, grammatically correct, phrasing?

Russian children, on the other hand, get Pushkin. Who, in fact, is the Russian equivalent of Shakespeare, even down to a shared delight in the odd filthy couplet.

Specifically, the Star gets the prologue to Ruslan and Ludmilla an epic fairy tale which both Babushka and Papa learned off  by heart when they were kids, with the Star now hot on their heels. He joins in key words already.

You have fallen back on Roald Dahl and his Revolting Rhymes. Which you enjoy, but which suffer from having been written at a time when marketing was presumably not designed to squeeze every last kopeck out of this cash cow and therefore crams six poems into one volume, with the sparing use of only one illustration per story. This, sadly, does not hold the Star’s attention as you might like and somehow it isn’t quite something you feel like memorising to spout on the hoof.

But you are coming to the conclusion that the only way to keep up with the Jonsikovs is to find some great works of rhyming genius to declaim. So any suggestions of poems that are worth the effort and suitable for small people would be extremely welcome.

Preferably fairly short ones though.

*Stick Man, incidently, looks like a stick. In fact you would go so far as to say he is a stick, except with (stick-like) arms, legs and consciousness.  He spends the entire book getting mistaken for a stick, and being outraged about it. You find this surprise very very irritating.

On another book meme.

So this meme has turned up on Facebook, although I firat saw it on Katyboo’s blog and thought wayhay! That’ll do nicely! Since then, Reed and the Singing Librarian have also been there before me. Allegedly it’s a list of best loved books compiled by the BBC, who have also (allegedly) claimed that the average person will have only read six books.

I have read 44.

The idea is to bold any titles you’ve read, put any you have started but flung violently at the wall before finishing in italics and asterisk those you have seen on screen or stage.

1. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien* [I first read this when semi-delirious. I have never recovered from becoming completely confused about who was dead/ alive/ someone’s brother. TLotR needs more distinctive names for its characters.]

3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling *

5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee * [Read at school. And because I read it at school, I would have seen a film. My school never read a book where there wasn’t a film. At least that way people would have a faint chance of knowing what had happened].

6 The Bible

7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell

9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman

10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens [I don’t really do Dickens. Too depressing. Too 19th Century. Too depressingly 19th Century]

11 Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy [If I don’t read Dickens on the grounds of it being depressing, is it likely I would read Hardy?]

13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller [B should read this. There are a lot of Russian satirical books of this ilk. I recommend The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov.]

14 Complete Works of Shakespeare

15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger

19 The Time Travellers Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

20 Middlemarch – George Eliot

21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell [There is a reason I haven’t read most of the books I haven’t read on the list and that reason is that I really don’t fancy them. Scarlett sounds awful. I wouldn’t sully my eyes.]

22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald

23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens

24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy [Which is not depressing at all. It even has a happy ending. Go on! Read it! You can skip the war bits – al the Russians do.]

25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams*

26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky [Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, is as depressing as everyone thinks.]

28 Grapes of Wrath –  John Steinbeck

29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame

31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy [Anna is very tedious. I’m with the husband on this one.]

32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis

34 Emma – Jane Austen

35 Persuasion – Jane Austen

36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis *

37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Berniere

39 Memoirs of a Geisha – William Golden

40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne * [I’ve seen the Russian cartoon. The bear is brown. It’s odd. But B sings the being a cloud stealing honey song in Russian a lot, which is sweet, if nothing like the original. I’ve dug out my book again recently and am reading it to the Star in stages. I don’t know what he thinks about it, but I’ve remembered why it’s just fabulous.]

41 Animal Farm – George Orwell

42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown

43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabrial Garcia Marquez

44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving

45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery

47 Far from the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood 

49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding * [School]

50 Atonement – Ian McEwan

51 Life of Pi – Yann Martell

52 Dune – Frank Herbert

53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon

60 Love in the time of Cholera – Gabriel garcia Marquez

61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt

64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold

65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

66 On the Road – Jack Kerouac

67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy

68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding * [I loathe this. The film is no better. It glorifies female incompetence and rewards it with both Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. Infuriating.]

69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville [I did once attend a lecture on this where the argument was that Moby Dick is a masterpiece of homo-eroticism. Something about the loving descriptions of globules of fat. This is why I don’t do lit crit, to be honest, although as I never did get round to reading the whole thing, who knows?]

71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens * [School]

72 Dracula – Bram Stoker *

73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson-Burnett*

74 Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson

75 Ulysses – James Joyce

76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome* [Not so much this book, but the series is one of my favourite series of books ever.]

78 Germinal – Emile Zola

79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

80 Possession – AS Byatt

81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens *

82 Cloud Atlas – Charles Mitchell

83 The Colour Purple – Alice Walker *

84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White

88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom

89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

90 The Faraway Tree collection – Enid Blyton

91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

92 The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint Exupery [In French. Well, I often looked at the pictures of my Mum’s copy.]

93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

94 Watership Down – Richard Adams [I really hate books about animals, Winnie the Pooh notwithstanding.]

95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute

97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas *

98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare *

99 Charlie & the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl *

100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

On idiolects.

The Star’s obliviousness to subtleties continues to amuse.

Take the word ‘sea’. Sea is a popular theme in the sort of story books you read these days. People tend to set out across the sea, go through a storm, and then unbeach a whale, or visit a desert island populated by dinosaurs, or acquire a persistent but sinister silent penguin, or fight with pirates, or fight for pirates, or disembark the entire natural word two by two, or catch a fish, and then make it back for tea.

So it’s not surprising the Star picked up that word.

Something seems to have got lost in the translation though.

He is convinced that any body of water that he is not planning to drink is ‘sea’. The river, his bath, puddles, a lake, the actual sea, the water in his cup he has finished with but would like to drop spare bits of food into, the toilet, the washing up bowl, soup, your early morning G&T coffee, and particularly runny cheese? All ‘sea’.

No matter how often you correct him.

Still, the Star has just started discriminating between trains (‘toot toot’) and all other forms of transport, especially if it runs on a road (‘sika’). So there’s hope yet.

On ready steady cook.

So about this time last year your were contemplating stuffing the first few mouthfuls of wallpaper paste, sorry, baby rice down the Star, which means its way past time for you to write about Annabel Karmel and her New Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner*.

It’s also way past time your returned it to the library.

Unfortunately cookery books in your kitchen tend to get food liberally dribbled on them and this one is no exception, although the main problem and the reason you’ve already paid out more than twice its RRP in library fines is that the Star has ripped the front and back covers off.

This should in no way be taken as a commentary on the Star’s enjoyment of the recipes inside.

The Star is a thoroughgoing Karmel baby. Well, not thoroughgoing. Annabel’s children come across as being rather fussy eaters who need to be tempted to nibble reluctantly at the dainty morsels on offer and the Star, well, the Star isn’t like that. The Star still eats practically everything except papaya, although he has been refusing cabbage lately as well. So you cannot speak for the quality of the deserts in the book, because the Star tends to be quite happy with a selection of fruit and you are quite happy to leave it that way.

Another area where the Star and Annabel do not see eye to eye is the subject of maple syrup. Annabel tends to drench anything tha stands still long enough and has fruit in in maple syrup. Personally, you are not quite sure if maple syrup wins in anything other than obscure ingredient credentials over sugar in the nutrition stakes, although you appreciate her efforts to give an alternative to honey, potentially, you gather, fatal; in children under 12 months. Either way it doesn’t matter as the Star prefers his porridge neat. You even stopped adding raisins after a while.

But in the main, right from the first the Star wolfed down every weird combination suggested by Annabel for his delectation and you haven’t looked back since.

You feel the blithe disregard she has for the UK obsession that in case the child should turn out to have allergies, any new food should only be introduced every four or five days helped here. Despite being the occasionally nervous mother that you are, as there is no real history of allergies on either side of the family and having the best-selling children’s cookery book to bolster your confidence, you decided to live dangerously and introduced a new food, ooooh, every two to three days.

So far your bravery seems to have been amply rewarded as the only reaction the Star has ever had to a food is to get wicked nappy rash if he eats too many strawberries. You did go a tad slower than suggested by the weekly planners, included to help you have some idea of how to implement a regime based on the recipes, but by and large it did mean that the Star got used very quickly to a range of foods and food combinations.

And so did you, because the other thing the weekly planners and recipes did was give you ideas. Left to your own devices, you suspect the Star would have been fed only on carrot and apple for the first six months. Or else you would have been trying him out on truffles and anchovies in the first week or something. instead, you and, reluctantly, B, have been introduced to a bewildering but baby-friendly range of fruit and veg the like of which you, the British child of the nineteen seventies who mainly eats carrots and B, the man who only eats tomatoes, have rarely tasted before. Butternut squash is nice, isn’t it? And mango.

You have also taken the plunge and started to cook fish, a thing you almost never did before on the grounds of it being too fiddly.

In fact,  it turns out to be incredibly easy. Even you can wrap a marine animal in foil with some butter and herbs and put it in the oven for a while. Or, better yet, poach it in milk in the microwave. Who knew? It came in useful, though, when you MiL bought three whole salmons and stored them in your freezer on the grounds they were cheap at Easter time.

Of course, you haven’t progressed to some of the chewier recipes yet. The Star’s back teeth are stubbornly refusing to show themselves and there’s a limit to what you can do with six front teeth and gums.

But it’s only a matter of time.

In the meantime, you really must go to Amazon and order the library a new copy for Christmas. 

The non-existant front cover of the book.

*Actually, you gather there’s a New New Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner, but it’s not the one you have (appropriated).