Saturday 10 November 2012

In Defence of Ryanair

When will I ever learn? Never get involved in an argument with someone who refers to Ryanair as "Him" (and we all know who we are talking about).

I had a discussion recently about "hidden charges", printing boarding passes etc etc. So this is my response:

I suppose the most common criticism is that one selects a flight for €1 only to find that it has shot up astronomically to €25 by the time one comes to pay for it. I remember being in Girona 10 years ago and the only way one could go back to the UK was on a charter flight where a return ticket was mandatory - I remember paying something like €150 for a Monarch flight but fuel prices were much lower then. Now Ryanair flies to an amazing selection of destinations in Europe for a fraction of the cost. For people in Girona, there has been a vast reduction in flights as he (sorry, Ryanair) have moved their base to Barcelona - as opposed to Barcelona Girona as it was called. Or was it Girona Barcelona?

A surcharge on the use of a credit card was recently outlawed by the European Union and this also used to be a bone of contention with many people, but you pay in the end some way or another. Ryanair has to pay for its staff, aircraft and overheads somehow and this was a contribution to that. (I'm quoting Michael O'Leary as that was his response when asked about it). It's rather like free banking - no such thing. Or a free lunch. Whenever I got on a Ryanair plane, it felt as thought it had beeen delivered by Boeing that morning.

People get rather cross about the €60 fine for not printing out a boarding pass before arrival at the airport but this tactic has worked. Apart from "who is the next President of the USA?" this is probably one of the most well-known facts in Europe. No one dares turn up without the famous A4 sheet of paper and it saves the airline money and therefore the flights are cheaper. You have 15 days to print it and, even if you are away for more than 15 days, virtually every small town has an IT shop or internet café.

Insurance. Now here I have to agree with my friend to a certain extent. It is quite tricky to de-select insurance but, once you know how, it's easy.

Priority boarding. My friend criticised the fact that the default was "yes". But it's simply a check box which gives one the choice of either having it or not and most people know about check boxes these days. As it happens, I often choose priority boarding as I like to look out of the window. I remember an awful flight back from Teneriffe where I had an aisle seat and there was a loose panel in the floor. One of the flight attendants had heavy-soled shoes and the vibrations shuddered through to my head each time he passed.

One thing I do feel is ridiculous is the scramble to stuff barely legal-size bags into overhead lockers while the hold underneath is virtually empty when one priority is a quick turn-around. But baggage handling at the airport is charged to the airline and the passengers would have to pay. AENA, who run Girona Airport, are probably not very happy to see all those passengers toddling away from the checkout with their bags on the way to the gate. If it saves on the price of the ticket, then I suppose people are prepared to suffer the inconvenience of always being with their luggage.

I am a rebel. Unless I'm going away for just a couple of days, I take a bag for the hold and I expect to pay (indirectly) AENA for the privilege - and the receiving airport as well. Last time I looked it was €25. I have always enjoyed dumping my bag at the checkout and wandering around the departure lounge with just a light bag over my shoulder. Anyway, things like shaving foam can't be carried in hand baggage so a bag in the hold has much more relaxed regulations as what can be taken.

People talk about "hidden charges" but this is a myth. True, charges get added as one progresses through the booking process (or maybe not, depending on your choices) but they are all clearly visible. If one gets to know the process, then one can turn down all the options, stuff their bag in the overhead locker and buy a very cheap ticket.

That's the bottom line. The price of the ticket. Does my friend fly Ryanair? You bet, "it's really cheap".

I rest my case!

I wrote this post on 10th November 2012 but, in December, may I add a couple of small points?

People complain that they are treated like cattle; the lowest of the low. But I've never had that experience. The staff are pleasant and the aircraft are clean and new. 

Girona! Some people here are upset that Ryanair (he) has moved its base to Barcelona. But wouldn't you if the opportunity arose? Barcelona is bigger. We don't have some kind of inalienable right to three flights daily (or any flights) to London from Girona. We hope for those flights, for sure, but airlines have to fill planes and presumably they didn't pay, especially during the winter. 

By the way, I went to the UK recently and went by BA which was a very pleasant experience - the flights were around €120 each way (I took the option to pre-book a window seat). I was staggered by the size of Terminal 5 at Heathrow with its vast steel pillars supporting the roof. I had to book at short notice and Easyjet was much more expensive. Ryanair has very little to the south-east of the UK in the winter even from El Prat.

Friday 26 October 2012

Quick on the Draw

While I was writing the post about my watercolour from life, I thought about another type of art that is great fun. I remember sitting in Waterloo Station in London waiting for a train and I attempted to sketch people as they passed by. Obviously it required very fast and rough drawing as not every subject was standing still. I guess I took between 5 and 10 seconds for each sketch.

This is very useful as a library of ready-made people to populate a painting.

By the way, don't forget that, as people (standing) appear in a drawing further and further away, their heads all remain in a horizontal line (assuming that you, the artist, are standing and looking horizontally). Their feet move, if you see what I mean!

Thursday 25 October 2012

Painting from Life

I always tell people how impractical it is to paint from life as shadows change and the appearance of the subject changes as the light changes. So I use my iPod a lot to take photos and then paint the subjects back home in my studio (my lounge actually but it's more like a workshop!).

But, for "quick and dirty"  watercolours, nothing beats actually looking at the thing that I'm painting - there's simply no comparison between that and using photos. I went out for a walk a couple of days ago to the next village, Juiá, as the sun was low in the west after a day of rain. The cumulus clouds were spectacular against a pale blue sky with their edges a dazzling white as they caught the rays of the sun. I found a bench and sat with the paper on my knee. This is the result:

I added the lower half of the trees, the field and house later at home. I included a plane landing at Girona Airport. For the sky I used Cerulean Blue. There's a watercolour of Puig de Misa in Ibiza which I use as a kind of trade-make on my business card (I sold the picture recently) and this was also painted rapidly on my knee on location. 

Typically I spend one day painting an A4 size watercolour so that has to be done from a photo but this is a different kind of painting and it's great fun!

So, inspired by my Juiá sunset, I bought myself an aluminium folding stool with a canvas seat. It was marked at €32 in Servei Estació in Girona which I thought was rather steep so I persuaded them to knock €5 off the price. Even then it was quite pricey as it's a very simple device (they called it a fisherman's chair) but I wanted to capitalise on my new enthusiasm for painting outdoors again.

I think I prefer this painting on the knee to taking an easel and painting standing up but both have their merits. One problem is that walking along, one sees a nice view but, on sitting down, it all changes!

Saturday 20 October 2012

Independence for Catalonia?

Such is the fervour for independence here in Catalonia, I feel that it's almost politically incorrect to express a view in the opposite direction. But that's what I'm going to do!

I have just been interviewed (by phone) by a reporter for Diari de Girona for an article to be published tomorrow (Sunday 21st October). She approached Girona Grapevine, which I run, looking for English and especially Scottish ex-pats who had an opinion about moves for independence for Catalonia and Scotland and how they compared. I suggested Moira who is Scottish and who has lived here so long that she considers herself Catalan but time was short and she didn't reply to my e-mail in time. So I became the subject. I had listened to Toni Strubell at the U3A so I had a very good idea of what he wanted to see. As an MP in the Catalan parliament, he is very strongly in favour of independence and he spoke for about an hour and there wasn't much time for questions. 

Catalans vote in a referendum next month and, judging by recent public displays of support, it looks as though the majority will be in favour of independence. Last time 51% were in favour. But, what happens next? That question was addressed to Toni Strubell (his father is English and his mother, Catalan, daughter of the famous Josep Trueta). He didn't really have an answer. Catalonia is tied to Spain by a constitution which appears to be unbreakable. But he replied "there is a moment when legitimacy shifts". He also quoted José Manuel Barosso, the current President of the European Commission, as saying "(independence) will be the result of negotiation in an international context". These are rather vague hopes though.

"What do Catalans Want?" It's the name of Sr. Strubell's book and something I think about a lot. I've lived here for 7 years but don't speak Catalan. In my own view, I only need one language to communicate but I'm aware of the painful history of Catalonia, especially during the Franco era when the language was prohibited and the culture suppressed. So, maybe people are offended by my use of Spanish due to its associations with this period. But, since everyone, Catalans and Spanish are unreservedly nice to me, I have to assume that I'm not creating too much bad feeling. This is not sufficient motivation for me to learn a new language, in other words for reasons of courtesy, not communication. I already have the latter.

There are only two people who don't speak to me in Spanish, everyone else speaks both Catalan and Spanish (and many of those are keen on learning English). One friend doesn't speak Spanish so has to talk to me in English. The town hall, the ajuntament, is very Catalan as one would expect. They fly the Estelada, the independence protest flag, outside the town hall. Jordi in reception always talks to me in Catalan and I speak to him in Spanish - no problem. I understand Catalan fairly well but I wouldn't know where to start putting together a sentence or speaking it. I get e-mails telling me from the ajuntament about free Catalan courses in Celrà as if the fact they are free makes them easier! So, there I have no doubt that people are expecting me to speak Catalan but that is an exception. Many of my friends are Spanish and many, of course, English-speaking.

So why am I not in favour of independence? Well, I don't fear it so, if it happens, I won't be emigrating or anything like that. Toni Strubell says that the language would not be imposed on anyone. By that I take him to mean that, if there was independence, the two languages of Catalan and Spanish would continue to co-exist as they do at present. Letters from my gas company come in both languages but, as one would expect, letters from the town hall come in Catalan. And I'm happy with that, of course!

One of my main motives is not to see the European Union being too top-heavy and for Spain not to be fragmented. By that I mean that the EU should be like a company with a kind of tree structure. The parliament comprises Euro MPs rather like the board in a company. Beneath the board are managers (the countries) and beneath them, the regions, the employees. If too many of the regions aspire to independence then the parliament would grow too large and unwieldy.

Catalans are angry with Madrid because the taxes they pay to the central government are not reflected back in benefits received (but they are also angry about the Franco era - represented by Madrid). In other words, Catalonia, being relatively wealthy, subsidises the poorer regions of Spain. If Catalonia left Spain then poorer regions would be poorer still.
But this is the way of the world and Catalans may find themselves in a similar situation in the European Union which, in addition, distributes money to poorer countries. In the case of Scotland, as I understand it, they want to hang onto oil revenue. But world resources are for the whole world and should be distributed more fairly. Actually my politics are to the right (life-long Conservative) and this seems a socialist theme but my politics apply inside countries rather than on a world scale where there is enormous injustice. Catalans are in a fortunate position despite the fiscal deficit with the central government of Spain. 

The big problem in my mind is not so much the fiscal deficit, it is to do with pride, history and a feeling of injustice going back centuries. But many country boundaries have been created as a result of war and one can't re-write history. I always find it strange that the Diada, the national day of Catalonia on 11th September, celebrates a famous defeat in 1714 which often I feel that Catalans want to reverse. Catalans refer to the Pyrenees Orientales in France as Catalunya Nord. Sr. Strubell talked about Catalonia as the "southern part of Catalonia". Actually I use the same term sometimes and there are many Catalan flags flying in Perpignan but it's France all the same!

To summarise: my main reason for being against independence is to do with the structure of Europe rather than the age-old animosity with Madrid which I don't feel qualified to comment on. There is a lot of buried pain left over from the Civil War and the ensuing period of repression and I don't even speak the language. But I still feel that I'm allowed to express a view. I'm still nervous about the article in Diari de Girona! It will have my cheery photo and me saying that I don't agree with what most people around me think. But it is allowed... isn't it?

Tuesday 24 July 2012


Many years ago, when I was still in the UK, a couple of young girls came up to me while I was sitting outside the golf club with a beer. Maybe I was drawing something but they asked about art and filled one side of a sheet of paper with their doodling in bright colours.

I turned the paper over (this was fairly heavy grade watercolour paper) and started to draw the two girls - I guess they were around 9 years of age. One was outgoing, the other was pensive with a quizzical expression. Within a few minutes, I had captured them on paper. Maybe it was the beer and the relaxed surroundings but I've never been able to draw a person (let alone two) so quickly and well. Sometimes I can spend hours changing a face on paper, never getting close to the actual person. Eyes too low, too far apart, mouth too close to the nose, etc etc. I know the rules of proportions of a face (and they're different for children) but, with the two girls, I didn't follow any rules, it just happened. Normally I would ask permission before publishing photos or a portrait on the internet but it was a long time ago and I don't suppose they look like that now!

The trouble is, that because I imagined something happened which I don't understand, I feel that I can't recapture that skill, if one could call it that. And people have that skill, it's a gift. Newspaper cartoonists can represent a person very accurately although the face may be distorted in order to make a joke.

Five years ago - in Catalonia now - I used to sit outside the Civic Centre with a beer after swimming. There are quite a few children from The Gambia here in Celrà. Someone told me once that there is a concentration of Gambians around Girona, somehow the city became popular in their home country. Oddly enough, they seem to be almost all girls here. I ended up drawing one or two of the girls and the results were quite reasonable. The African features and the dark skin didn't pose any special problems, in fact I found the features easier to draw than the comparatively bland European faces.

Then, about 3 years ago, I had a bit of a black patch in my life and thought that I'd never be able to paint or draw again - especially portraits which I had decided required a special kind of delicate skill. Well, that's been disproved but I still felt that I'd never be able to go back to portraits - the most rewarding type of art in my view. This wasn't helped by my recent attempts to draw a friend's daughter from a photo. Never draw from a photo - fatal! I could not get anything right, eyes too low, etc etc as before.

Then, as I was sitting in a tree-lined area next to my flat a couple of days ago, who should come up to talk to me but a group of Gambian girls who wanted their portraits drawn (maybe they'd spoken to their friends who I'd drawn previously). I arranged to come back the next day at 5pm with all my gear: an easel, chair and materials. They wanted three portraits, the youngest was little more than a baby and wouldn't sit still, the second - about 5 years old - had a dazzling smile which nearly split her face in two. The last was the oldest girl there, I would guess around 15 or 16. You're probably asking why I always end up drawing young girls and not adults or boys but that's just the way it happens!

Now I'm coming round to why I'm writing this!

Because I was drawing from life and not a photo, I could interact with the subject and extract a variety of expressions and responses and this to me is vital. I found the old feeling coming back and, although the results weren't brilliant, I was greatly encouraged. I was working rapidly and the finished results were quite rough. The girls seemed happy. We're having another session tomorrow and I'm  going to use a different paper as previously I was using watercolour paper which is too textured. It tends to capture the graphite too much and then it's difficult to erase. I have loads of paper especially for drawing.

So, in my view, it's about understanding the rules of proportions (the gap between the eyes tends to be one eye-width, for example) but, also, it's about the subject's personality. That's what I'm out to capture - to do something that even a camera doesn't always do.

Today, I went back and drew some more portraits. I made the mistake of drawing one girl at 3/4 angle because she looked attractive at that angle but the mouth was very difficult. No problem drawing lips from the front where they are symmetrical but part side-on, it's a different story. Maybe it's difficult because they are African lips which, of course, are larger and more prominent than the European version. The lips are actually paler than the surrounding skin and, in one case, there is a pale line above the upper lip.

I just ordered some water-soluble graphite for the dark skin. This may give a smoother result as I try to darken the drawing with a graphite stick which leaves lines. I suppose I could sprinkle graphite dust onto the drawing but I didn't think about it at the time.


Friday 27 April 2012

Bill Gates and Me

Bill Gates and I share a momentous time in the 1970s but our paths have diverged somewhat since then. At that time, there were computers of course but they were large and heavy and spoke a variety of different languages: Some sat on desktops but they were still large and heavy. You will probably think that I'm going to say that this period marked the arrival of the personal computer but that came later, in 1981. What changed the world was the microprocessor which first arrived in a very simple form in the early 70s.

I clearly remember being at the Sotheby's Sale Room in London watching and waiting while an IBM desktop computer whirred and clunked as it loaded its programme from a tape cartridge. (You can just see it bottom-left in the photo). The computer was being programmed to calculate prices in various currencies as the bidding went up in Pounds Sterling. I was there because I'd designed and built a large (and very heavy) display which hung above the auctioneer, it connected to the computer and displayed the foreign currencies for all to see. I had used small mains-powered bulbs to make up the numbers and I had painted reflective paint around each bulb to prevent light from spilling onto other unlit bulbs. Unfortunately, this increased the temperature inside the bulbs and they started burning out. In the end I had to buy a variac (transformer) to reduce the mains voltage to the display. I'm not sure how Sotheby's heard about me, they didn't do a search in Google, that's for sure.

I looked up an old colour slide of the display and was staggered to see a piece of Veroboard (prototype board) in there. You can see it next to "Pounds Sterling". The crudity and complexity of the manufacturing was incredible! I can't believe I built that thing, it's like another world.

Another large display that I built was destined for Nigeria, in fact I went there to install it. Again, another company had written a programme on a computer, a PDP-11 (remember, this was the beginning of the 70s so there were no PCs). The project was a lottery for the state of Ilorin but tickets, previously using books of tickets, were sold throughout Nigeria so it was quite big. The main prize was usually a car. I was with the software designer in Nigeria when an awful penny dropped. Books of tickets, with their stubs, ensure that only numbers sold go into the draw. But the software didn't take account of that, it simply chose a 6 digit number at random and there was no guarantee that the number had been sold. Oops! Well, I was in the clear, I was only the messenger. I think the whole system ended up in the Atlantic.

So, at this time, at the beginning of the 70s, IBM was making computers (together with many other manufacturers, of course) and I was designing and building electronic devices, having aborted a career with the BBC as a sound engineer in TV. My products were digital (in other words, controlling or displaying things) as opposed to analogue products such as audio amplifiers. They usually comprised many logic chips - building blocks - mounted on a circuit board. If, on testing the product, I found a mistake, it would be "back to the drawing board" and I would have to re-solder components or cut tracks on the circuit board. It would be wrong to say that the microprocessor changed all that; it still involved lots of chips on a circuit board but much of the functionality was in software which could be changed without hacking up the circuit board. But what happened in these traditional designs, before the microprocessor, was that everything happened more or less at the same time in various chip neighbourhoods on the circuit board. Then, in 1971, a very simple microprocessor arrived on the scene.  Intel produced the 4004, a 4-bit processor followed by the 8080, 8086, 80286 and now we have all singing dancing, dual core processors but they are still based on the original Intel architecture. Forgive me if I get rather dewy-eyed. For an electronics engineer of this epoque, these are magic numbers.

I could see the possibilities fairly quickly but I couldn't get my head round this new way of doing things. I pored over the Intel documents but I could see no way in. At the same time as Intel produced its first 8-bit processor, Motorola had produced their own, the 6800, with a completely different architecture and they sold it in a "bubble pack" kit with one or two other support chips. I soldered it all together, pressed Reset, and the terminal printed an asterisk! By the way, at this time, I was using a mechanical teletype machine with a punched-tape reader. It hardly seems credible in these modern days but I was there.

(the photo shows the "computer" that I designed around the Motorola 6800 microprocessor, with 8 inch floppy disk!)

So where does Bill Gates fit into the picture? I guess he is a fair bit younger than I am and he would have been a student during the later 70s. To me, his great success was not so much technical as political in that he managed to persuade various developers, all of whom had their own pet projects, to create a common effort (this is rather an imperfect way of describing how it happened). During the latter part of the 70s, the microprocessor had spawned many personal computers which no longer exist (with the exception of one, Apple, which pre-dated the PC).
Bill Gates persuaded IBM to use his operating system, MSDOS, in their new personal computer and there was no looking back for Microsoft. As we all know, MSDOS grew into Windows and all personal computers, at least in the early days, used MSDOS. I know it's a bit daft comparing my career with that of Bill Gates but I feel an affinity with him because I remember those formative years so well. And it was very exciting because, even then, one could see the possibilities. Anyway, I continued in electronic design as opposed to computer design but both used the same device: the microprocessor. Later came the microcontroller which had loads of legs which one could waggle up and down in order to control external devices. By the late 70s, I was producing what is called BMS, building management systems. This is a general term meaning control and monitoring of heating, air conditioning etc. My systems went into several large shopping centres.

Microsoft comes into a lot of flak on the grounds of monopolising the market much of which I feel is unjustified. Had Bill Gates not cornered the market by getting MSDOS and Windows as the default operating system for the PC, we would now have a plethora of different operating systems all talking different languages. A similar situation occurred several years later when Tim Berners-Lee, an Englishman working at CERN, banged heads together to persuade developers to abandon their pet projects in favour of a common language for the World Wide Web: HTML. Before that, the Internet existed but it was a network of computers all talking different languages, initially government establishments and, later, colleges in the USA. To define the Internet and WWW: the Internet, in my view, is the physical network of cables and wireless links which (amazingly to my mind) circle the earth. The WWW is the community - the protocol - that resides in the Internet. And Tim Berners-Lee still works in the constant development of the web which has to move with every new development that comes along, not the least of which is mobile computing.
I continued to use Motorola microcontrollers in my products right up to 2003 when I retired. My company gradually lost its clients due to the fact that regulations were tightening up regarding products for buildings, especially fire alarms, and they could no longer deal with a one-man-band. Incredible as it seems now, my BMS system not only controlled the lighting in the shopping centre in Dubai but it was the fire alarm system. And I still slept at night, possibly through naivety at what might happen if it failed.

I must mention one thing before I close. At one time in the 80s, I had systems installed in various centres in the Middle East and I could phone them and update the software or diagnose problems. I used to tell friends that I could turn off the fountains in a shopping centre from my office in the UK. How did I do this? Spyware! Yes, effectively. I was using a remote control programme called Carbon Copy - perfectly legal. I installed the Host software in the remote PC (this is what is uploaded illegally when one's computer is infected) and the Guest software ran on my PC back in the UK. I could go into the PC in Dubai and fiddle around with it, delete files etc. Sounds familiar? And this was before the WWW; it was simply on a telephone link.

Now, living in Catalonia, I use my PC a lot. It gets switched on even before I have my breakfast and it's the last thing that goes to sleep before I do. I use all the regular programmes, Word, Excel and some which are orientated towards art, Illustrator and Photoshop. I use Dreamweaver for web design. It's all backed up but I don't relish the thought of re-installing everything if my hard drive packs up. It's all come a long way since the 4004 and I've been fortunate to have lived through such an exciting time. I guess younger people these days take technological marvels for granted but, for one who remembers film arriving from America on a 707 (no other way), I will always be in awe of how much has changed and will also thank the pioneers who helped make it happen.

E&OE! I wrote this piece primarily to recount my own story rather than present an accurate history of the microprocessor and the personal computer so my apologies for any inaccuracies - I'm afraid I didn't do many hours of research in Wikipedia! If you want an accurate history of the period, then that's the place to look.

Friday 13 April 2012

An Exhibition in Celrà

All mi Own Work

About 4 years ago, I put on an exhibition in the Civic Centre in Celrà. I called it "All mi own work" and I sold 7 paintings, including one to the Civic Centre. The original remains in the office of the Centro Cultura and 500 litho copies were printed and distributed to visiting dignitaries, including José Montillo who, at that time, was President of The Generalitat de Catalunya (the central government in Barcelona). You can see this picture on my web-site.

Admittedly most of the paintings were sold during the inauguration with wine flowing freely!

I had another exhibition in the same space during May so I thought I'd write a little bit about it.

I would rate it as a greater success than the previous one although I'm for ever being told that no one has any money. The highlight was being featured on TV during the TV3 News Feature for Comarques de Girona. I didn't see it but several people cam up to me to tell me they had. Previously I had made sure that the two main newspapers in Girona had details of the show so maybe they passed them on to TV3.

Today, three days after the show ended, I'm handing over three pictures with a value of about €200 - I sold 9 pictures in total but the big success was "A Rainy Day in Girona" which wasn't actually at the show but it is on my website and in the catalogue; either I gave it away or I lost it. So far I've sold 6 copies and given one to El Punt as a prize for their raffle as part of the TV3 "Red Nose Day" (sorry, I don't know the name of the programme). Maybe TV3 heard about me through that.

One or two people told me to make a note of what has been popular so that I can repeat the same style. Certainly, there is one oil that springs to mind, The Picnic. I must have spent days fiddling around with it but it didn't sell and isn't likely to. On the other hand, I had a simple watercolour of the cathedral and Onyar houses in Girona (ref 71) in grey and blue which I painted very quickly and I sold it quickly too!

Now I intend to continue selling my pictures, both the current catalogue and new pictures. With the summer coming up, there will be loads of visitors to Girona and, next week, I'm going to try to find somewhere to show the pictures.

Obviously one way of selling my art is to sell prints of my paintings and so I need to build up a stock or devise some way of printing to order.

The swimming pool in Celrà opens on 9th June so that will be something of a temptation and I love to go out on my bike. But I'm greatly encouraged by the exhibition. Lots of people said very nice things about my art (when they didn't have to) but I know my place in the general scale of things. But then none of my pictures is over €100!

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Publishing a Kindle Book

I just published my brother's book of poems - Metre Readings - on Amazon. It's very interesting to do and I thought I'd add my own experience to the many posts and forums on the subject.

At the end is a brief summary of useful information for someone thinking of buying a Kindle.

I prepared the original document for the book in Word which doesn't have to be a very recent copy as the document should be saved as .doc, not .docx which is the latest Word format. I used Arial throughout as the Kindle only uses one typeface and I placed the various illustrations (in JPG format). The document was then saved as "web page filtered". This creates an HTML document.

This can then be edited if necessary. I discovered that Amazon automatically indents the first line of all paragraphs and this is inconvenient for poetry which depends very much on retaining its original format, unlike simple blocks of text. I opened my document in Wordpad and found the CSS tag which applied to the body of the text and added "text-indent:0;" (not forgetting the semi-colon!).

I have Sarah Dawson in the UK (Poetry after Ink) to thank for pointing out text-indent:0.

It looked like this:
 /* Style Definitions */
 p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal

In other words, if you're not familiar with CSS, this says that:

"every time there is a <p> tag, a  <li> tag or a <div> tag called MsoNormal, apply the following (8) settings".

This is a typical line of text in the body of the document:
<p class=MsoNormal align=center style='margin-bottom:0cm;margin-bottom:.0001pt;
text-align:center;line-height:normal;text-autospace:none'><span lang=EN-US

Verbose, isn't it?

Having tweaked the HTML file, I then opened it in Mobipocket Creator which I downloaded from This converts the HTML into a .PRC file in two stages which is one of the formats that Amazon accepts. I could then copy it directly to the Kindle in order to test it.

Also Amazon provides a Kindle preview application but, for some reason, it didn't work on my Windows XP computer (it just shut down when I loaded a book) but it was ok in my Windows 7 netbook. To download the Kindle previewer go to this link.

When first I published the book, I uploaded my HTML file to Amazon but, 24 hours later, when the book appeared for sale, the illustrations were missing. My first guess was that they were too large but the Kindle screen resolution is 600x800 pixels and most of my JPG images were in that region and I had carefully kept the image file sizes below the 127k limit which Amazon specifies. Most were around 80KB. But one was still in RGB mode and was too big, so I changed it to Grey Scale. I've re-submitted the book and I now have to wait 12 hours to see if it is ok this time. The book is already up for sale but anyone buying it will get rather a raw deal, no illustrations and no quick link to the Table of Contents!
So, another important point is not only to have a Table of Contents but also to tell the computer at Amazon that it exists. It's no good just having a list of items with hyperlinks to each chapter, the Kindle will recognise the hyperlinks, that's no problem, but the "Go To" menu in the Kindle won't recognise the TOC and the selector will be "greyed out". I tried to create a TOC in Word and became very frustrated and gave up! I looked again at "Convenience Features" at Amazon and the solution is simple. One places a Bookmark in Word at the Table of Contents calling it "TOC" and the Kindle will recognise it. Google calls this feature "Guide Items".

I just checked the book for sale but it still doesn't have its images. When you think about it, there's no point in sending just an HTML file because, of course, it doesn't contain images. So now I've zipped my HTML file together with the folder containing the images that Word saved and I've sent that. 

Now on Saturday 24th March, the book is published... with illustrations! I think many people have similar problems. It's important that, when zipping the HTML file and its illustrations, that the illustrations are in the same sub-directory that Word used to store them when saving the book as "Web page filtered". It's all too easy simply to zip all the files together in one chunk losing the sub-directory relationship but this won't work. This is the main reason for using PkZip, it's not the compression that's so important, it's the relationship between directories.

The book is called "Metre Readings" and it's at or depending on where you live.
Are you thinking of buying a Kindle?

I have the earlier keyboard model so I have no experience of the new cheaper (sorry, more economical) version with touch-screen. I don't use the keyboard very much but it's handy for doing a word search inside the book.

All Kindles have the facility to alter the text size so, if your eyesight isn't very good then this will solve the problem. You can also choose between viewing the book in portrait or landscape mode. When I was preparing my brother's Kindle book, I soon realised that page numbers were meaningless (in fact they don't exist). This is due to the fact that because the user can select a text size the total number of pages will change. So the Table of Contents is vital and it should have hyperlinks to each of the chapters (or poems in the case of my book). I.e., click on the item in the Contents and it will take you directly to the poem or chapter.

Where to buy your books. You don't have to buy all your books from Amazon but those that you do are "locked in" to your Amazon account and can't be copied to friends. On the other hand, there are many sites in the internet that sell books in formats that the Kindle can read. Sometimes "Kindle Format" is specified but .mobi and .prc files providing they are not copy-protected can also be read by the Kindle. Simply download the file into your PC and copy to the Documents folder in your Kindle. There are so many sites that it's impossible to list them here, just do a search for Kindle format books (or free Kindle books). There is one site worth mentioning and that is Project Gutenberg: (Gutenberg was the inventor of the printing press). At this site you will find many free books for your Kindle.

One disadvantage of living in Spain is that one can't buy Kindle books from (unless one has one of those crafty service providers that makes it appear that you are in the UK!) You are stuck with buying from in the USA or This point is often raised in forums.

One other subject which is frequently raised is why Kindle books are sometimes more expensive than their printed counterparts. The reason given is that the cost of printing is not very great and, as with the limitation as to where one can buy the books, the reason is all tied up with copyright and royalties. But I don't pretend to understand it!

Wednesday 7 March 2012

The Wonderful iPod and a Tripod Mount

About a year ago, I bought an iPod Touch with 32Gbytes of memory and I wouldn't be without it. It's an iPhone without the phone so it's slimmer. But it has wifi so, providing I'm close to a hot-spot (and virtually the whole of Girona is covered) I can use it for e-mail and browsing the net.

I have Plane Finder, Boat Finder, Ultralingua English-Spanish and English-French dictionaries which are superb and my entire collection of 170 CDs. I had an Ultralingua dictionary on my old Palm PDA and it was awful. The difference bewteen that and the iPod version is astonishing.

My latest passion is to use the built-in video camera. Frequently I use the camera for taking pictures which, later, may become paintings but I'm keen on producing videos about art. For this, I need a tripod mount for the "camera". Apple doesn't produce such a device so I did a search on the web. They do exist but I decided to make my own. I used a flat metal plate with a 1/4" thread in the middle which was originally supplied to artists for mounting an art board on a tripod and I built a wooden frame for the iPod. I then mounted the contraption on top of a small tripod and I use it for mobile shots, rather like a "Steadycam" but a little cheaper. Note the tasteful varnish.

You've probably guessed the reason why I haven't shown my iPod mounted in the wooden frame!

I've ordered 100 square nuts to take a tripod mount which I plan to use to make my own iPod and iPhone tripod mount. The photo shows the home-made version but obviously the production version will be more sophisticated. So, if you live in the Girona area and you would like more information then please contact me. The price will be around €15.

I've upgraded my Quick Time application to the Pro version which enables me to edit videos. I need to buy a decent microphone to clip onto my clothes which then plugs into the headphone/mic socket on the iPod. Being an ex-BBC sound man, obviously I need to produce the very best quality audio!

Stand by for art videos on this Blog. I know I have a bit of catching up to do but I get there in the end!

Sunday 4 March 2012

Making Money Out of my Art

I know that many artists are driven by a deep passion for something in their lives and their paintings reflect that particular subject. There is a clear theme running through all their pictures. I wish I could say the same about myself but my paintings reflect many different themes and are painted in a number of different styles, from conventional watercolours of landscapes to slightly surrealist oils!

My motivation is this: I love experimenting with different mediums, papers, canvasses and paints. As a consequence, I end up spending large sums of money on materials, some of which I give away if they are not a success. To compensate for this I need to sell the end result rather than having it stacked up in one of my bedrooms.

My exhibition in May should help my plan as it's the pivot for a lot of self-publicising at this time. But I'm always being told that no one has any money these days. I tell people that, one day, my paintings will be more valuable when I'm not longer able to paint - that's a euphemism for being dead. But it doesn't seem to help!

Many artists make money by producing screen prints, etchings and other forms of art where one can create several copies fairly quickly but one can still say that they are the work of the artist. I  discount here lithography which, to me, is just printing, unless of course it is done manually by the artist with plates and tins of printers' ink. But that sounds incredibly messy! 

No, what I mean is a shop simply ordering a print run of, say, 500 and calling it a "limited edition". There is no harm in making money out of litho copies. I have a friend in Barcelona who makes a good living out of selling his incredible original artwork as posters in the newsagents in La Rambla. But they are posters, nothing more. The artist makes no contribution to each copy as it rolls off the press.

I tell people that I'm more than happy to print a poster of any of my artwork, whether or not it's previously been sold, on heavy watercolour paper on my A3 printer for €12. I'll even sign it! The result is very good but only is really authentic in the case of watercolours. All ink-jet printers are "watercolour", they uses water-soluble ink. If the original is in oil, then the copy looks nothing like the original.

Making money

I don't claim to be anything more than an upstart amateur. I never received formal training in art but people make many kind and positive comments about my work so I must be doing the right thing. But, at my level, I can't hope to sell my pictures for €2000 or to make a good living out of art. So I will build on my strengths. I'm a technician and I've written elsewhere that I'm fascinated by the "technology" of art. My latest purchase is transparent gesso primer. I'll tell you about my plan.

Recently I painted an acrylic of Celrà as a commission for my doctor but I wasn't sure whether it was destined for the health centre or for his home. In the end, it was the latter and I was disappointed that it's not reaching a wider audience because I really liked the painting but I didn't like the colours. But see my posting elsewhere in this Blog about acrylics. The original version is on my web-site.

I'm going to re-paint it, this time in oils. Every painting gets scanned into my computer and my plan is to print it but as a weak image onto A3+ heavy grade paper. The paper is so thick that it has to be fed in at the back of the printer and it remains flat during the printing process. Being water-based, my first step is to seal it with a fixer spray which is normally used to seal pencil and charcoal sketches. Then I will paint a coat of transparent gesso primer.

The image is now ready to receive the oil paint. I can re-paint parts that I didn't like but I have the advantage of starting with the outline image. Now, I have to think of a name for this process! I like the word "re-mastered", it's rather cheeky as it is used in sound recording to re-mix the original multitrack tape into a new stereo copy in order to squeeze more sales out of the original recording.

I suppose the closest thing is in the case of artists producing monochrome etchings which they then paint with colour, each copy therefore is different.

This process gives me some more ideas. Now I can paint oils onto any surface, including paper, but retaining the original image. I can draw a sketch on paper, seal it, prime it transparently and apply the oils. I can go back to some of my early pencil sketches and update them in oil.
But, in the end, it is a commercial process! I need to recover my material costs. In this year alone, I've spent around €350 not forgetting the stock that I've carried over from previous years, very little of which has been paid for through sales.

I seem to have lost one of my paintings, "Arcos de Pals", but it's still in my computer and on the web-site. So it's not totally lost! I'll re-master it, make a clone. Aha, maybe that's the word to describe what I'm doing. (1st June: just sold the replacement Arcos de Pals).

Tuesday 21 February 2012


Noise is always a bit of a problem in Spain, especially in flats which, although built with reinforced concrete, seem to ring like a bell with sounds travelling vast distances through the structure!

But I have found a new sound to add to my collection of dogs and babies.

By about 6am on most mornings, I'm starting to wake up which is rather on the early side. At exactly 5:50, for the past few weeks, I've heard the sound of a car followed by a "beep" on the horn - rather annoying although I'm on the 4th floor. I assumed it was someone picking up a friend and the beep was to tell them that they had arrived. Since it is always at the same time and sufficiently accurate for me to set my clock to it (I would do so if it wasn't for the fact that my clock is tuned to the atomic time which is transmitted from Rugby in the UK), I thought that it would be unnecessary to announce the arrival.

One morning, I leaped out of bed and, on hearing the beep, went out onto the balcony - it was very cold - but there was no car. Very mysterious.

Then, two days ago, having given up going back to sleep, I lay in wait for the mystery car. At exactly 5:50, I heard a car being started and then it came into view. Beep. It drove off down the road. At least I got a view of the car; it was a large dark-coloured saloon.

I assume that the driver is saying goodbye to their partner but who knows?

My only solution is to post a note on what I think is the offending car in the evening saying "Please don't beep your stupid horn when you drive past my flat", and "by the way, why do you do it? I want to finish writing a post on my Blog and my readers won't be satisfied until they know the answer." Of course, there's no guarantee that I get the right car. The only alternative is to stand in the middle of the road at 5:50 in the morning.

By coincidence, at 5:30, sometimes I'm woken by noises from a flat above me. It's difficult to tell which one it is as sound travels around the building in rather a peculiar way but I reckon it's my neighbours above who are connected with the dreaded beep. A couple of nights ago it was loud - I'm not absolutely sure it's always the same car!

27 Feb

Manuel, who is the president of the community very kindly re-wrote the notice that I sent him and he posted it on the door today. So, let's see what happens now. If you don't understand Spanish, basically it says that, if it's you making this beep, then please don't. And, by the way, why do you do it? - I'm interested. Is it saying goodbye to your partner? This will test if the Spanish (or Rumanians) have a sense of humour because it's all done with good humour - I'm not angry about it. It really isn't that important, just strange!

28 Feb
No beep this morning. I think the problem is solved!

Monday 23 January 2012

Frames and Canvas

Picture Framing

For my own paintings, I make my own frames. Life would be very expensive if I had to send off my pictures to be framed professionally each time. This applies mainly to watercolours and acrylics as I usually paint oils on "3D" canvas which doesn't require a frame. More about that later.

Some artists paint their pictures to match one of the standard sizes that one can buy in the shops.

I read a Forum recently about framing which asked artists if they framed their own material. There were several replies by picture framers, one of which said that "artists know nothing about framing", which I thought was a bit of a cheek (but it made me laugh!). Well, they would say that, wouldn't they? Pere, a carpenter in the village where I live makes three profiles for me which I've published on my web-site: http://www.mezcla/framing_UK.html l buy these in 3m lengths and then cut them to size on my mitre saw. I have to be careful the cut doesn't get distorted by movement of the wood or the blade; it's not ideal. I did have a look at power mitre saws which would give a more precise cut but they were all a bit fearsome for what I wanted. For watercolours, I mount the picture conventionally with mount-board and 2mm glass which, conveniently, I also buy, cut to size, at a really good price from Pere.

For acrylics, which often I paint on 3mm MDF, I have a frame profile (B) which creates a kind of display case where the picture is actually mounted on a backing board a little behind the glass. I know there is nothing terribly original about this but I like it a lot.


Now to another order that I place with Pere. I've recently become interested in making my own canvasses. What converted me was going to a shop in Girona to find that a 50x50cm (x35mm) "3D" canvas was almost €18. From Barna Art in Barcelona, the price is €10 but one has to allow for shipping. From the UK, the price drops to €8 if one buys a pack of 5 but the shipping costs are prohibitive. There was only one thing to do. I went back to Pere and ordered some profiles 35mm thick to match the side of the canvas which I can cut on my mitre saw.

On my last trip to Barcelona, I went to Barna Art, which is not far from the Metro at Paseig de Gracia, just a walk away. Not only did I spend a leisurely time looking at different materials, cotton and linen, both primed and unprimed but I also managed to pick up one or two tips about making my own canvasses. I was keen on buying unprimed material as I had learnt that the material would shrink on the frame (bastidor in Spanish) after being primed. Normally the wood frame is referred to as made up of "stretcher bars" which implies that they can be adjusted after the material has been fitted. But I'm not buying stretcher bars as this limits me to the size of canvas that I can make unless I hold a large stock or wait for the shipment to arrive. My profiles don't stretch; they are completely rigid, being glued and stapled at each corner. Another item that has always intrigued me is the wedge that gets slotted into each corner of the bastidor. When I used to buy ready-made canvasses, often the wood frame appeared to be so rigid that it would be impossible to stretch it even if one bashed the wedges into the corners. I think I understand their role better now. I suspect it is more a case of "locking" the wood frame into a rigid and square shape, rather than actually increasing the dimensions after the canvas has been purchased. If the material has been fitted well and stretched onto the bastidor, then it shouldn't be necessary to stretch it further. Well, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it!

As you can see from the photo, I came back with a good selection of samples and material; a mixture of linen and cotton both primed and unprimed. I started off by making up a couple of canvasses using frames from which I'd removed the original material due to failed paintings. I used unprimed material and, having seen the shape of a frame which had been distorted due to too much shrinkage, I was careful not to stretch the material too much but I found that, after priming, the material (each a different type) had shrunk by different amounts. But not by a great amount. So, obviously one can't depend on shrinkage to achieve a tight canvas. Since my profiles are quite thick and strong, I use my stretching tool whether or not the material is primed. But, a word of warning, don't stretch the material too much if it is unprimed and the frame isn't very strong as it could well distort the wood after the primer has dried.

Another advantage of making my own canvasses is just what I've described. That is, if a painting is a failure, then the whole canvas isn't a write-off. I just rip the material off the frame and stretch a new canvas.

Rather like framing my own watercolours, it all feels part of the creative process.

Here is a photo of my bastidor-making department, I'm waiting for the glue to set. Then I'll turn the frame over and bang a strong staple across each corner. I guess I should be using corner clamps, that will be next time. I just wrap masking tape around the corners to hold them together.

The bastidor on the table is 50 x 28 cm which represents an aspect ratio of 16:9, the same as a widescreen TV. I imagine a great deal of time was spent choosing the most pleasing ratio for television screens so I thought I would copy it. My "mini" paintings on MDF are also 16:9 (24 x 13.5 cm).

Wednesday 18 January 2012

New Painting Discoveries

Like all budding artists, I've discovered that the internet is full of art classes, information and tutorials. I wanted to make my own canvasses so I went on a search for the same. I watched a video of a young woman who didn't seem to have a work bench, instead she made her frames on the floor of her workshop using a power mitre-saw. Everything she did was on the wooden floor. I did discover one useful tip and that is that (naturally) the material, whether it be cotton or linen, will shrink after it has been primed. So I decided that the best bet was to buy my material unprimed and then prime it after I had fixed it to the frame (bastador in Spanish). I have a local carpenter who makes the wood profiles which I can then chop into whatever size I want without having to wait for a delivery.

As part of my search, I came across . It comprises a very friendly art site administered by an artist/teacher who provides help and advice in addition to organising many different tutorials. I had a browse and decided to submit a painting in response to a "Painting Challenge". There is a selection of photographs and the artist is invited to provide their own version and post it on the site. I uploaded my painting and received a rapid response. So, I followed the advice and did it again and submitted the second version:

If you follow my blog and you're interested in art, I can recommend this site. It feels quite intimate which is unusual for the internet. One is used to numbers in millions and yet there were only 12 other versions of this particular photograph and I ended up swapping e-mails with the teacher. Why look further? I'm hooked! I'm sure there are many other similar sites but I'm happy with this one.

Back to canvasses. I went to Barcelona yesterday to buy canvas (ie cotton and linen) from Barna Art and then met a friend and went to the Miró exhibition at the Fundació Miró in Montjuic. This is a superb exhibition (if one like surrealism) and the usual paintings were augmented by many more which were borrowed from galleries around the world. Previously it had been in London at Tate Modern and it was due to move to Washington, USA in May. Aren't I lucky, living so close to Barcelona!

I really liked Miró's early work but I found videos of him burning canvases and daubing paint on the side of buildings in later life rather sad. I bought a book of his pictures and the story of his life (in Catalan) so I will have to swot up on my non-existent Catalan. It was only €8 so I couldn't resist it.


As part of my keeping fit (I hope!), I go swimming about once a week at the Piscina Municipal de Girona. I only heard about the pool from the lifeguard at Celrà outdoor pool during the summer when it was about to close for the season. Previously I went to the pool at Salt, which is a "suburb" of Girona, but is was much more expensive, probably because it also included the gym which I never used. When one is used to cycling down country lanes, I can't understand the appeal of cycling and not going anywhere!

Anyway, back to Palau. On Wednesdays I meet my friends from Girona Grapevine for coffee in Girona and then I catch a bus to the area around Decathlon, Bauhaus and Media Markt. I always enjoy browsing around Meda Markt, even if there's nothing I need to buy. I have lunch at McDonald's (shock, horror) and then take the short walk to the pool, having wandered around the stores to let my lunch settle down.

Since I'm over 65, I only pay €31 a year for the membership at the pool which is great value. Normally there are six lanes open, labelled Slow, Medium and Fast but, on Wednesdays, there's an aquarobics class which takes up half the pool, so it's not the best time to go. Apart from concentrating all swimmers into three lanes, the class makes the water rather choppy; more like swimming at sea! Fortunately, normally there are only around six swimmers at any one time, so it doesn't get too crowded even with the class in action. I normally end up in the Medium speed lane but I can't swim more than 2 lengths without taking a breather. Maybe I should swim more slowly but I'm then in fear of sinking!

During the summer months, I go to the outdoor municipal pool in Celrà which is superb. One can easily avoid the busy times when the pool is full of children so I can swim several lengths without too much traffic!

I added this paragraph after returning from my trip to Girona. I was at McDonald's and, as I looked up at their name on the side of the building, I realised I had left off the apostrophe earlier in this post. So I added it just now while no one was looking. This is a contentious issue in the UK at present with the book shop Waterstone's removing their apostrophe! You see, McDonald's actually belongs to someone called McDonald... I think.

Sunday 8 January 2012


I used to have a regular theme with a friend in the UK. Not having a family of my own, from time to time, I would send her a photo by e-mail of my bike parked at some beach or another, in place of a family photo. When I stayed in Ibiza on holiday, I sent her a photo of my bike in Formentera. I cycled from Santa Eulalia, where I was staying, to Ibiza Town, took the ferry to Formentera and then rode right up to the lighthouse at the far end of the island, which is a fairly steep climb. This was a great adventure - I did it twice in total. Having said that, I ought to have a photo of my bike here but I'll have to wait till next time. It's an old Peugeot racing bike which I'm very attached to.

Now that I live in Spain, my cycling is in the immediate area of the Costa Brava, between Girona and the coast. This morning, I went on my regular 37km circuit. The sun was warm but the air was cold so I had to wear loads of gear, including black tights. My route takes me, firstly, to Bordils which is the next town in the direction towards the coast. Then I take the long climb up to Madremanya and try to reach the top in about 30 minutes. After that, it's downhill all the way to Monells and then there's a flat section which takes me to Corça where I re-join the C66, the main road to Palafrugel. After less than a km, there's a roundabout where I turn right but this is the moment of decision in the summer. If I'm feeling fit, I carry straight on to la Bisbal (where there are all the pots outside the shops) and continue to Playa de Pals where I sit on the beach most of the day!

But today was not beach weather! So I carried on to Parlava and then turned left for home. This is a deceptive stretch of road which I don't like very much. It looks like a very gentle uphill climb but, by the time I reach the turning for Foixa, I'm panting for breath (well, I am 68!) I pass the picturesque old town of Foixa and then there is a very steep climb out of the village which I have to take with my very lowest gear.

Then there's a long decsent through the woods, past St Laurenc, where, on a Sunday, men are out shooting (presumably) wild boar. I arrive in Flaça and then it's plain sailing, I re-join the C66 again and pass through Bordils.

I often see other bikers, some look very young and fit - there are several professional racing teams based in Girona.

Unfortunately I'm rather limited in the routes that I can take. The road to Girona, to me, is too dangerous with various turnings off to other main roads and there's not much to see in that direction anyway. Who wants to cycle in Girona?

But my favourite trip is Pals and back in a day. Apart from the lure of the beach and sea, I have friends there. I don't have a car so that is the only opportunity I have to see them, unless they come to see me, of course.