Monday, 28 December 2009

Christmas presents

Would you like to read a list of all the Christmas presents I've received? No, I thought not.

So here's a description of just the most charmingly quirky one. It's called 'Giulios [sic] Spaghetti Carbonara', and consists of a little wooden box containing small amounts of eight different herbs and spices (including sea salt and peppercorns), plus a shopping list and recipe. When I got back home yesterday, I couldn't resist trying the recipe (the alternative being to get back in the car and go up the supermarket, which may or not have been open by then - and luckily I had eggs, parmesan, spaghetti and, as one does, pancetta in stock). I have to report that it was possibly the best carbonara I have ever made, and I speak as a self-proclaimed expert in this deceptively tricky dish. (The hard bit is keeping the whole thing hot whilst not scrambling the eggs, as Giulio clearly knows.)

But the best bit is the blurb on the accompanying leaflet, which reads, in part, as follows:

'A much contested noodle dish.
'Once by the children of the world.
'Second by the top chefs of the Italian gastronomy.
Giulio took us to a divine pasta palace.'

It's almost haiku-like, isn't it?

Carbonara was supposedly invented by an Italian peasant cook who was asked by some American troops, in 1943 after the invasion, for bacon and eggs. Whether this is true or not, I doubt whether she put cumin in it ... Nice touch, Giulio.

Happy New Year to all!

Friday, 18 December 2009

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Bird news

The leaves have now all fallen or been blown off the vine, exposing the bunches of useless grapes, which the blackbirds have just discovered. Oh, but those grapes will ferment won't they? So I might have a garden full of drunk birds by Christmas.

As I went down the Close to the car this morning, a pheasant wandered past. That's not meant to happen in town centres, is it? Still, the foxes will have got him by now I expect.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Surprise your local carol-singing group!

I found this in an old book of "Popular Verse" (fill in the other twelve verses for yourself):

"The king sent his lady on the thirteenth Yule day
Three stalks o' merry corn, three merry maids a-dancing,
Three hinds a-merry hunting,
An Arabian baboon,
Three swans a-merry swimming,
Three ducks a-merry laying,
Three goldspinks, three starlings, a goose that was grey,
Three plovers, three partridges,
A papingo-aye:
Who learns my carol and carries it away?"

Who indeed?

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Robert Browning

"That's my last Duchess painted on the wall, looking as if she were alive."

Opening lines don't come much better than that, do they? Most novelists would submit to torture for it. The questions tumble over themselves - who is the Duke speaking to? why is he showing his guest this rather morbid depiction? why is she not alive? What's he up to? In the next fifty four rhyming couplets, he manages not to answer any of these directly - the Duke is, you infer, playing a deep game here - but by the end, by God, this warped personage has revealed far more than he intended of himself, and you wind up thinking: 'No, Count's emissary! Don't let his daughter do it!'

Browning has been classified as the master, not to say inventor, of the 'dramatic monologue', and certainly his yarns rattle along. (Read him on rats in the Pied Piper of Hamelin.) But there's a lot more to him than just that, obviously. A couple more opening lines:

"My first thought was, he lied in every word, that hoary cripple ..." (Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came)
"I am poor brother Lippo, by your leave! You need not clap your torches to my face." (Fra Lippo Lippi)

Characterisation! In those few words, you already know a lot about the person: in the first case a driven obsessive on an increasingly surreal quest, against all odds and advice, for an ill-defined and probably futile goal; and in the second a devious, querulous artist whose aim it is to subvert the medieval doctrine that art must depict the spiritual, not the physical - and thereby spark the revolution in thought that was the Renaissance and so most of what came after ...

But perhaps most importantly, he paints in words. At its best, you can almost read this stuff with your eyes closed. Listen:

"All that I know of a certain star is, it can throw (like the angled spar) now a dart of red, now a dart of blue;"

And finally, of course, he's funny, sometimes self-deprecatingly - the next line of that is "Till my friends have said they would fain see, too, my star that dartles the red and the blue!"

Gosh, that was a fan letter wasn't it?

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Bonfire night

My best ever firework display was the Southbourne Prep School bonfire night in 1951, when I was nine years old. The fireworks were laid out ready on trestle tables on the playing field in front of the school, to be set off, one by one, by the assembled masters after the bonfire had been lit. Boys and parents were lined up on the touchline, ready to go 'ooh' and 'aahh'.

It might have been a stray spark from the fire, or a master's dropped match or fag-end - for whatever cause suddenly the whole lot started to go off, all at once. At first we thought this was part of the show, but then the masters began to run away ... Adult decisions or panic reactions must have taken place, but there was really no choice but to let it run its course. It lasted about ten minutes, and it was spectacular. Rockets flew off horizontally, Catherine wheels span away into the sky, firecrackers leapt around like liberated venomous insects ...

I was enthralled by the undeniable beauty of this unintended display. But the real reason I now think of this as 'best ever' is that it awoke in me, for the first time in my life, a sense of gleeful anarchy, a realisation that the worlds of controlled order and wild chaos are sometimes separated by no more than a random spark. That perverse exhilaration has never entirely died down, and I hope it never will.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

"Selling off the bank branches"

Any clues as to what this diktat from the EU (strangely unchallenged so far by the likes of UKIP) is supposed to mean in practice?

Look at your average "bank branch". It consists of a) some premises which are effectively a retail outlet, rather like M&S or Vodafone; b) some local employees manning the above; and c) a bunch of customers' accounts which have been grouped together, largely for historical reasons to do with obsolete technology relating to cheque clearing, under an identification code known, amusingly archaically, as a 'sort code'. All these branches use exactly the same centralised computer systems, distributed networks, and front-of-house presentation and product range. So what, exactly, will be up for sale?

Well, it could be the the premises - but where I live in Reading, empty retail sites are currently as cheap and available as oven chips, so not much of a deal there. The staff? Nah. So that leaves the business - the customers. But hang on. Does the EU really believe that these are also an "asset" which can in some way be sold off willy-nilly to Virgin or Tesco along with the bricks and mortar?

Given that I will under no circumstances accept the enforced transferal of my banking business away from my current preferred supplier to the likes of Tesco, I would presumably have to go to Newbury or Glasgow or somewhere if I wanted to chat face-to-face with my bank. Meanwhile, a new customer in Reading will have, at best, the same number of local choices of bank as he does now, just different ones. How exactly does this increase competition?

Finally, coming at the question from a slightly different though intrinsically related angle, I've heard a lot of talk about the need to break up certain banks because they're "too big to be allowed to fail". Personally, I'm very pleased that my bank was too big to be allowed to fail - I'd have lost a lot of money otherwise.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Praise for the insurance industry

The back of my car got driven into, on the A303, by a careless van driver. My rear bumper was badly dented, but the car was still driveable. We got off the road, exchanged details, I comforted him for his obvious distress, poor lad, drove on and had a great weekend in Devon.

As soon as I got home, I phoned Privilege Insurance, fully expecting to be told that a form would be in the (postal-stricken) post, and then, etc. Instead, Craig patiently took the details of the accident and said OK, obviously not your fault, shouldn't be any issues, our repair people will be in touch, all warranties unaffected etc. Ten minutes later the repair people phoned - we can pick up the car for repair next Wednesday, OK? Ten minutes after that, the phone rings again - a bunch called DriveAssist, anxious to provide me with a replacement car, OK, would you prefer automatic or manual? fine, we'll deliver it next Wednesday morning ...

7.30 this morning (Wednesday) the phone rings - DriveAssist, is it convenient to deliver your courtesy car in ten minutes time? OK, give me time to get my trousers on ... 8.00, Graem delivers Vauxhall Zafira (not quite a BMW 335, but it is manual). 11.00, repair people come and collect the BMW with its sad little dent - 'should take about a week, but phone next Monday if you haven't heard anything ... shame about this tank of a replacement car, lady last week checked in a Focus and got a Porsche' ... So now all I have to do is learn to drive the tank.

We're not at the end of this story yet, things still have time to go medieval on my ass and it's obviously just my experience, but it does seem to me that levels of service have got significantly better since the start of this so-called recession.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

So what time is it exactly?

Tonight, the clocks go back. Every autumn this event triggers a chorus of complaints, from Guardian journalists and farmers, usually along the lines of 'why can't we keep British Summer Time all the year round?' - sometimes embellished with fancies about something called 'Double Summer Time' in the summer, so that we can preserve the biannual ritual of searching the house for those sneaky little clocks, watches or electronic devices which have to be adjusted even though we probably won't look at or use them for another six months. Oh yes, and don't forget the ones that craftily adjust themselves - but you need to know who they are, otherwise you'll go and reset them yourself and your microwave will get all confused and go into some kind of temporal denial ...

The whole thing's nonsense, isn't it? 'Noon' is the moment at which the sun is at its zenith at any given meridian, and no amount of faffing about with our clocks is going to alter that astronomical fact. Similarly, sunrise and sunset are determined by season and latitude, and are equally beyond our control. In Britain, until the 1840s, everywhere had its own local time (Cornwall is about twenty minutes behind Greenwich, I'm told). But that became impractical with the coming of the railways, which couldn't be expected to run to some kind of infinitely variable timetable as you moved east or west - so GMT was invented, and it seems most people were happy to settle for that. Then some clever civil servant invented 'British Summer Time', to give the farmers an extra hour of daylight in the morning (which they would, of course, lose in the evening). Nobody asked: why don't they just get up when it gets light? Then we go back to normal in October, and everyone moans because, guess what, it's darker in the winter, so we'd better bugger about with the clocks again ... It's robbing Eve to pay Dawn.

It did, however, strike me, years ago on an aeroplane halfway across the Altantic, to wonder 'exactly what time is it now, really?' I expect I could get an app to tell me this on my iPhone, if I had one.

Anyway, I need to get up early tomorrow, to do the great clock hunt ... gosh, is that the time?

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The Unthanks - Here's The Tender Coming

The sole purpose of this slightly drunken late-night post is to instruct you all to acquire, by whatever means, this extraordinarily wonderful album, and listen to it over and over. My ears are full of it, and I want to go to Northumbria, now. Goodnight.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Rooks and crows

'If you see one rook, it's a crow. If you see more than one crow, they're rooks'.

The truth of this old bit of folk wisdom was brought home to me over the weekend. On Friday evening, as I was sitting in front of the caravan sipping the first aperitif, at least a hundred rooks suddenly wheeled in from the east, circling and cawing, lighting in the treetops then taking off again. Twenty or thirty of them perched on the power line which crosses the site between me and the sea. It seemed that they were all facing in my direction. I thought of 'The Birds' - Daphne du Maurier, not Hitchcock; at the time, I was the only person in White Park Farm ...

On my way home this morning, I encountered a single crow which was pecking at some roadkill in the fast lane of the A40, just before Carmarthen. There wasn't much traffic. As I approached, the carrion crow glanced up, and disdainfully stepped aside a couple of paces to let me pass.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Wrong word

In my post earlier this evening I used the word 'amorphous' to describe the culture mix of old Calabria, as documented by Norman Douglas, but it's not quite right. What I'm looking for is an adjective that captures the result, visual or saporous, of stirring various fruit syrups or purees - strawberry, blackcurrant, apple, lime - into a bowl of white yoghurt, enough to make them cross over into each other and be impossible to isolate back out, but not enough to blend them into amorphousness.

I know, it's a big ask! My new Roget's Thesaurus doesn't help at all, waste of thirty quid that was (although it did yield up 'saporous' just now).

As you can tell, there's bog-all on the telly tonight. Off to Spotify some music (Florence and the Machine, my current fave rave I think).


I see on the News that the remains of St Terese of Lisieux (two bones, to be exact) are on a grand tour of Britain, currently in Liverpool. 45,000 people have queued to touch the perspex cover which protects the casket which contains the relics, presumably in the hope of some kind of miracle.

I've been rereading a rather wonderful travel book called 'Old Calabria' by Norman Douglas, first published in 1915. He has two chapters on the numerous saints of this amorphous part of southern Italy, who grew out of the mix of invasions (Greek, Albanian, Norman, Roman, Moorish) that fermented the cultural traditions of the region. Saints were a way of digesting all that, and they grew up in droves. They had many skills, apart from the usual healing and curing and resurrecting and metamorphosing . Most of them could fly - the champion was Joseph of Copertino, who hovered over altars in many locations for most of his life. My favourite miracle was performed by Egidio of Taranto. Having learnt that a cow had been wrongly purloined and butchered by a local merchant, he caused the various parts of the cow to be reassembled, in roughly the right order, on the butcher's floor. Egidio then uttered the appropriate words, whereupon Catherine (that was the cow's name) reassembled herself and wandered off contentedly.

Douglas's final words on the subject are: 'The state of mind which engenders and cherishes such illusions is a disease, and it has been well said that you cannot refute a disease. You cannot nail ghosts to the counter.'

Monday, 21 September 2009


I just noticed in my diary that today has been International Day of Peace. So I looked it up ...

Nothing to add, really.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Cuts and Debts

These seem to be the two words into which the crisis, or whatever we call it now, has been distilled. To summarise, we need cuts in order to repay debts: is that about right?

So (I assume you agree so far, otherwise I might as well stop typing) - cuts in public expenditure are now universally accepted as essential, aren't they? The argument seems to be about what, where and when, bloody good election manifesto that! But I submit, my learned friends, a statement today from British Aerospace (purveyors of WMDs, but leave that to one side) to the effect that they are obliged to make 'cuts' at a number of their UK sites, resulting in up to 800 job losses. Well, what's good for BaE must be sauce for the government gander. So, in future, whenever Cameron, Brown or who's the other one, oh yes, Clegg - whenever they use the C word in future (and they all do now), I'd like them to attach to it the phrase 'resulting in up to nnn job losses', where 'nnn' equals their best-guess lie. I simply don't believe that nowadays you can make 'cuts', in whatever sphere, without sacking people. And of course those people have to go somewhere, if they're not to be just culled (I don't think even the BNP has proposed that yet). And guess where, they're going to go into the benefits regime, aren't they? which means the state paying them (which it was doing anyway), which must of course ultimately result in more, guess what, debt ...


OK, debt. Given that the national debt is in the order of £293768128946235 (I made that number up), or £4567890 for every man, woman, child, foetus, spermatozoon, rabbit and butterfly in the country - who do we owe it to? Who are these people who used to have all this money available to lend to governments, at a time when most humans couldn't raise the price of a Nissan Micra or a bag of Walkers? And, assuming that they haven't just borrowed it from someone else (which wouldn't really get us any further forward), are they now broke themselves? And if the UK government suddenly miraculously found itself able to repay this debt, at a stroke, what would happen then? If I were to donate to these anonymous creditors, free of any let or hindrance, the £1.5 trillion (approx) currently residing in my instant access savings account, what would they do with it? Lend it to some other impoverished government?

For every debit there's a credit. (If you ever try to read a balance sheet, an old banker's hint - the debits are the ones in the column nearest the window.)

It's a serious question, by the way. But of course we already know the answer. It's the Beatles, innit?

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Residents Parking Permits

Gosh, is that the time already? It hardly seems a year since I last wrote on this subject. But yes, the application form has arrived again. This time, all that brouhaha about the return envelope has been cunningly avoided; they don't even pretend to provide an envelope any more. They even give you (in rather small print) the address you should send the form to (in an envelope presumably of your own provision, sucker).

The covering letter begins menacingly: 'At the end of September 2009 all the parking permits in your zone will expire.' I shall set the alarm, and peer eagerly from the front window, at 11.59, to watch all the little puffs of smoke, then await the squads of body-armoured parking attendants who will, I hope, descend to ticket, clamp or destroy by controlled explosion all those cars that have suddenly become outcasts, parked pariahs.

But the form! And the rules! I wouldn't dream, my friends, of inflicting the whole thing on you - read the Maastricht Treaty for light relief - besides, it's time to cook my supper (bacon eggs and mushrooms since you ask); so just a random flavour of this bureaucratic madness:
1. Moving house. You must send your permit in for cancellation, otherwise they 'will not be able to issue permit(s) to the new occupiers.' Oh yeah? Tell that to the new occupiers please. Who, incidentally, can apply for a temporary permit whilst they chase you up - they have of course to submit various proofs, one of which can be a tenancy agreement, but (here's the good bit): 'Tenancy agreements are not acceptable proofs for a full permit.' Sorry?
2. Payment. (You can buy various extras.) 'If you are paying by cash a receipt must be sent with your application.' I can't make that mean anything at all.
3. My favourite - 'We regret that no refunds are available once permits have been issued.' They regret? Then why did they say it????

I think I'll apply this time, just for the fun of it - I have about three weeks to work it all out, after all.

Thursday, 27 August 2009


My skills in this field have recently been questioned, specifically in relation to the word 'mackerel'. Well, really! I'll have you know I got what is now called an A* in spelling at primary school. I can even spell 'bee'. Put me to the test - write down any word you like and I'll tell you how to spell it. (Mind you, they've invented a bunch of new ones since then, so anything post 1953 is subject to fourth umpire adjudication.)

It's worth quoting the Chambers definition of 'mackerel' in full, because somebody clearly put a lot of loving care into it:

"n an edible bluish-green N Atlantic fish (genus Scomben) with a silvery underside and wavy cross-streaks on its back; a pimp (obs)" Poetry. Draw me one, reflecting both meanings.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Weather forecasts

Now I bet that caught your attention! Rant follows:

Why do they always start each new regional summary with 'Now'? 'Now, for Scotland and the rest of Northern Ireland ...' 'Now, for the rest of England and Wales ...'
And why do they give us the exceptions first, then the 'rest of' bit? I tend to listen out for the bits that affect me, which tend to be part of the 'rest of', but I risk missing a subtle exception that might just matter to me. The other day I swear that, as my ears belatedly focussed (or whatever it is ears do) I heard something like ' ... except for the eastern parts of Western Scotland and some parts of rural Berkshire, for the rest of the United Kingdom ...' I exaggerate, but not much.
And by the way, why are they so obsessed with Western Scotland and its isles? I know these places have their own wonder and beauty, but let's face it, most people don't live there. I'd rather have a micro-forecast for West Reading than Stornaway (populations roughly similar I'd guess). Is it simply because they do, actually, have much more interesting weather? (I'd also guess that the good people of Stornaway don't listen to this crud, preferring to look at the sky - see below).
They should also be wary of voicing emotive words such as 'hurricane'. Tomorrow, it's going to be a bit wet and windy across the U.K., as a depression swings in, tail end of a hurricane which blew itself out mid-Atlantic a few days ago. All the forecasts use the H word, and old people who live alone and are hard of hearing and anxiety-ridden pick up only that. Kate, who ticks all those boxes, complains about being unable to sleep through fear that the three loose ridge tiles on her roof will come crashing down and kill her. We had to soothe her with assurances - they always get it wrong, remember Michael Fish in 87 ... luckily I don't think she heard.
Does one barbeque a summer make??
Oh yes, and what are 'organised showers' please?

Now, as I write, there's a mackerel sky, and black cumuli bubbling up. Not a hint of red. Well, I know what that means.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Am I alone in thinking?

I sometimes wonder as I wander through the day. Here's a couple of recent examples:

1. I received a new chequebook today. The cover sheet explains that the number of cheques in the book has been reduced by five, 'to assist in fraud prevention, and in line with the general reduction in cheque usage'.
I can see the first point, yes, the thief will only be able to issue 25 fraudulent cheques instead of the previous 30. But what exactly can be the relationship between the number of cheques I write and the thickness of my cheque book?

2. At the entrances to several residential side roads that I pass going up the Oxford Road to Waitrose, signs have appeared saying 'ROAD SAFETY ZONE. PLEASE DRIVE CAREFULLY'.
I want to know what kind of zone I am leaving if I turn off into one of these roads.
Perhaps I should - maybe there are signs facing the opposite way which read 'ROAD IDIOCY ZONE. DRIVE HOWEVER YOU WANT'.

I'd resolved to do absolutely nothing today, but I see that I have emptied the dishwasher, Dysoned the living room, stewed the windfall apples and pulled up some weeds in the front garden.* I really must get a grip.

*In addition to writing this nonsense, of course.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Hardwick Hall

(The first in an occasional series on the stately homes of England.)

Bess of Hardwick (nee Bess Talbot) was the second most powerful woman in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Of relatively humble origins, she married her way (four times) up to this position, via (#2) the Duke of Devonshire (who built Chatsworth for her - after he died it went to his brother, so she had to do a career swerve). Whilst being obviously recognised and favoured by the Queen, she was also good mates with Mary Queen of Scots - which says something about her swerving skills.

Anyway, once she finally fetched up as the Countess of Shrewsbury, she had Hardwick Hall mark one built for her. It's now a ruin in the grounds of Hardwick Hall number two - it took her only a few years to realise she hadn't set her sights high enough. The 'new' Hall has, on its roofline, the letters 'E S', Elizabeth of Shrewsbury, on each side, high against the sky. The house, on three floors, has as its main feature huge plain glass diamond-glazed windows, which in her day flooded the place with light and illuminated her amazing collection of tapestry wall hangings, which are still there. The higher the floor, the bigger the windows and tapestries - apparently, the grander you were, the more stairs you had to walk up to achieve recognition of your grandeur, at least by Bess's lights. (The servants ate at a long table in the ground floor entrance hall.) The ceilings are, interestingly, completely plain; she didn't want people looking up away from her tapestries, or herself.

There are three original portraits of Bess in the new Hall. In all of them, she has the eyes of Lady Thatcher. A charming National Trust lady agreed with me that it wouldn't have been wise to mess with Bess.

I don't know whether it's sad or not that she only lived there for nine years, much of which time she spent in a rather poky little bedroom on the first floor, quite a long way from the main action, if there was any by then. Norma Desmonde. Howard Hughes.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Swine flu

First, an abject withdrawal of my prediction a few months ago that this was a scare which would vanish into the same black hole as SARS, bird flu etc. I was wrong. Hope nobody acted on my advice. (Although the bit about not snogging hogs stands. And while I think of it, how many pigs have died? They don't tell us that, do they, eh?)

But the advice we're getting, via the media, from a growing number of organisations which are crawling out from under their stones to pronounce their particular brand of wisdom (who knew of the National Childbirth Trust or the Royal College of Midwives before today? or the other one which acronyms as RCOG but is much too hard to spell in full), is becoming genuinely confusing, especially when the government, via the media, attempt to clarify it. Three examples, from today's BBC1 6 o'clock, will do:

  1. Pregnant women, or those toying with the idea, should avoid 'crowds and unneccessary travel', but should nevertheless carry on with life as normal. (Presumably the rest of us can, well, just carry on with life as normal, right?)
  2. The over-65s are amongst those at greatest risk. Last week, we were amongst those at least risk. Turns out that, though we're still at least risk of catching it, we're at greatest risk of complications should we be gaga enough to do so. I'm not sure how exactly to modify my behaviour to take this into account.
  3. Amongst the measures to avoid contracting the disease, if you sneeze, do so into a tissue and dispose of it immediately. Leaving aside how exactly to achieve the latter, for example on the Tube - stuff it into someone else's pocket? - how does this prevent me catching it? Spreading it, maybe, but ... oh never mind.

I've checked my diary, and nothing planned over the next three weeks seems to infringe these or any other advice I've heard. Will someone please let me know when it's all over, so I can get back to risking the idea of not carrying on with life as normal but doing something different...

Monday, 13 July 2009

Exit Strategy

In the growingly converging worlds of media and politics, this expression is the new eye-watering elephant in the room. Today, I've heard it on the radio in the diverse contexts of Afghanistan and cricket, and a quick search will add in the financial crisis, a TV show called 'Lost', and (I kid you not) the Mohawk Indians' intention to withdraw from the US national electricity grid.

Before I use it myself in polite conversation ('gosh, is that the time? Better implement my E S!'), let's try for a definition, or at least a description. Exit strategies are what you invent when it's too late. You suddenly realise you're in this room, and hey, how did I get here, and, okay, there's the way out over there, but I can't see quite how to get from here to that door because there's an eyewatering number of elephants in the way. A youngster will be told 'well, you should have thought of that before you started down the hill on the skateboard/jumped off the bridge/dated those three girls at the same date time and place' ...

Did anybody, anywhere, ever, before starting something, define their exit strategy along with their entry one? I haven't come across an example.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Finn the Greyhound

Lazy dog.


One of the many interesting characters I met on my recent visit to the Peak District. Rocky is a tame sheep who lives in Rosie and John's paddock with his platonic partner Maud (Maud is black, woolly and camera-shy). If he spots you leaning on the fence eating crisps, Rocky will climb up onto it and nudge the back of your legs with his nose.
Why can't I make this text align to the left?
Posted by Picasa

Monday, 22 June 2009

Official - They're All The Same

My local MP, ggg ggg, has been much vaunted (by others as well as himself), for having claimed absolutely nothing on expenses during the course of his parliamentary career. So imagine my dismay on discovering that in fact, according to the officially released data, he put in £5.99 for a box of Ferrero Rocher.

My sense of betrayal is indescribable. This local folk hero, tireless champion of underdogs and lost causes, relentless scourge of injustice and official obfuscation, eats (or at least buys) Ferrero Rocher?

I find myself scrabbling for excuses for him. Perhaps he needed to bribe an ambassador or something?

Friday, 19 June 2009

Pigeon Post

As you know, I like to post incisive, witty, original thoughts on current affairs, politics, international crises, dangerous behaviour by rogue nations and such like ... Hence my absence from these pages recently, frankly that stuff's all been so humdrum and predictable that I find it hard to stir my interest beyond the sell-by dates at my local Londis (which, incidentally, seem to operate on some kind of inverse principle - start from today and work back).

But at last, the pigeon mating season has arrived! The activity levels are intense enough that I fear for the integrity of my copper beech tree and the roofs of some of my outbuildings - and that's just the male rivalries and the foreplay; it's worse than Reading Broad Street at 2 a.m. Saturday morning. Who would imagine that these dumb, bumbling, uncoordinated slow-witted creatures could behave like that? And the pigeons are no better ...

Ah, some Breaking News: The gggggggggggggggg is a pigeon ggggggggg

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Neighbourhood Watch

Just got back from a boozy watch meeting, which was mostly about fending off invaders who take the form of predatory property developers. (Details on application, but rather you didn't.)

Anyway, we were sitting outside in Sarah's garden, discussing how we might get our locale listed or protected, to fend off said etc etc, when suddenly these huge insect things start dive bombing us. Stag beetles? Mayflies? Nigel, who's a professor of this sort of stuff, reckoned stag beetles, because they're the rarest and so most protected - we can get some kind of 'site of special scientific interest stag beetle' status and so fend off the predatory house-building invaders ...

At about this point Clare and a few others announced that they were getting insect bitten and so had, reluctantly, to leave. I hope the stags didn't get them on the way. I stayed on for a few more reds, as you can see.

Off to Sandbanks tomorrow, for some reason.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Battle of Britain

I have just watched my resident blackbird couple seeing off one of the local red kites. The enemy didn't stand a chance - blackbirds coming at him from every dimension, noise guns firing, swooping up out of the setting sun ... You could smell the cordite. Kite slunk back home, dripping feathers. The whole thing took about thirty seconds.

A couple of magpies were stood on aerials, observing from a safe distance, watching for any spoils, like black marketeers in their zoot suits and sunglasses.

Meanwhile, my robin persists in turning up and perching on the handle of the garden fork, eyeing me quizzically. 'Come on, keep digging', he says.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Paranoia time

Did you know that your IP address can pinpoint the exact geographical location of your computer, using GPS technology which I certainly don't remember ordering or installing? It's true - try it. I did, and as a result I now know that I am, in fact, either crawling around the Yorkshire Dales or perched on the railings of Holborn Viaduct in London EC. Or I may be somewhere in Southampton. They're closing in on me ...

Thursday, 21 May 2009

MPs expenses, blah blah ...

If you haven't already, you must hear this one, from Anthony Steen MP (that's Member of Parliament for short, but not for long, ha ha - HAH!) for Totnes, Devon (Con):

He was quoted verbatim, with incisive cruelty, by Dimbleby on tonight's wonderful, possibly constitution-changing, Question Time; and I sensed a shift, or perhaps focus, in the mood of the panellists and the audience as we heard those words, and the insufferable arrogance they welled up from. (I gather he's since apologised, and is of course standing down at the next election - like, not now? - so that's OK then.)

As an aside (asides often interest me much more than the main road) I am intrigued as to how Totnes, a town I'd always pictured as one of the country's convergences of matted-hair bead-weaving alternative new age ley-lines, came to get this Tory landlord as their MP. Weird, man.

I once visited an artist in Totnes who made, and tried to sell, miniature sculptures constructed from the fluff you get out from the filter of the tumbledryer, an idea I'd have liked even better had it been suffused with even the merest hint of irony. Actually, now I remember, that was in St David's not Totnes. But hey, same difference.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Eurovision Song Contest

Hah! I bet you thought I was going to post some kind of ironic commentary on this: how Graham Norton is soberer than Tel; how all the songs are exactly identical (chord sequence Am/G/E/F) except for Lord Webber's variation on his usual C major arpeggio; how Armenia wins the 'most-exposed female skin' prize, or was it Estonia ... well, sorry, but I haven't watched a single pixel of it. I've spent the evening editing my contacts list, defragging my hard drive, surfing Spotify in a desperate quest for something, anything, to draw me away from that vile, vengeful, visceral ... Sorry, just had to switch it on. Norway have won. Great result - that'll put global politics into correct perspective.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Westminster trough

The more or less unanimous (not to say orchestrated) reaction from MPs caught, let's say, optimising the expenses/allowances system they themselves devised - 'we haven't broken any rules' - reminds me of one of Alexei Sayles' old jokes:

'People say to me: Alexei, why do you drink so much? I reply: because I can afford to.'

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Inscrutable Irony?

I heard this on Radio 4 News this evening, and pass it on without comment.

China has opened a Museum of Espionage, in some small provincial town. Entry is, however, barred to foreigners, for reasons of national security.


Someone was blogging about these the other day - oh yes, the brother. Well, I reckon I've got one in my garden, thrusting up through the sage bush. Look:

Is that a bluebell, or what?

They're protected, aren't they? So does that mean I'm not allowed to dig or weed my garden any more, the government will have to come and do it for me?

No, thought not.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

It's rant time!

I've been storing up several rant zones for some weeks, mostly to do with Gordon's mouth (my older readers may remember a post about this wierd organ, its behaviour and emissions - I may have to post separately about this). But the levee has burst, and it's burst all over, guess what, SWINE FLU!

First, some facts, as reported by media up to and including the BBC. We're all going to die. (Well, that's true!) Don't come back from Mexico, if you can help it. If you must, wear a blue gag, just like the reporters (That's the ones wearing the accessory, not the ones telling us they're useless, if not worse - and don't under any circs share masks). As of now, confirmed cases in the UK have increased from two to three: that's a 30% increase isn't it? Or is it 50%? Depends how you measure it. And, worst, one of them is in South Devon! That's not on! Mothers are terrified. Schools are closed. The WHO is poised to escalate from level 4 to level 5, because (I have to go into caps here) - A BABY DIED AFTER CROSSING THE MEX-TEX BORDER!!! National boundaries just don't mean nothing anymore.

So. Some real facts. Around 25,000 people died in England and Wales last year from secondary flu-related complications (bronchitis, pneumonia etc.) The Office of National Statistics is quiet about what proportion of flu cases this represents, probably because the numbers are too big to crunch, and it's pretty normal and boring. But let's guess that it's 5%. (That'd give us half a million flu cases, which doesn't sound unbelievable.)

In Mexico, so far, there are somewhere between two and ten thousand suspected cases, and about 160 deaths attributed to the disease. There hasn't been much information about proven causal links or secondary complications - in fact there's been no information whatsoever. But let's be cautious. On the worst case, we are looking at ten per cent fatalities. So this scary new thing is about twice as lethal in Mexico (or, to be precise, a few small ringfenced bits of Mexico) as normal flu is in the UK. Well, I can live with that. And I didn't even get my jab this year.

This media balloon will burst, or more likely deflate slowly, sadly, to the 'other news' columns on page 7, just like CJD, foot'n'mouth, SARS, avian flu ... If I'm wrong, sorry - I don't think I was the one who sneezed over you.

Meanwhile, just don't snog no wetback hogs.

Acknowledgment to Simon Jenkins of the Guardian for a serious article which triggered these facetious thoughts.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

London Marathon

Several family members partook in this today, here are their results:

  • Alex (nephew): finished in under 3 1/2 hours. An athlete, excels at all his usual sports (football, golf etc) but first time he's done a marathon, so good result!
  • Chris (niece's fiance): finished in under 5 1/2 hours. Wouldn't claim to be an athlete, first significant sporting effort of any kind, I think he'd agree ... So he must be over the moon, think that's the technical term, at making it all the way round.
  • Alan (brother-in-law): finished in under 6 hours. Alan has run quite a few marathons around the world over the years. He was worried this time, as a muscle in his right leg had been playing up a lot during training. On the day, that muscle was fine; but he tripped over a plastic bottle and did in the same muscle in his left leg ... The Law of Sod strikes!
  • Linda and Georgie (sister-in-law and niece): got severely sunburnt as on-the-spot spectators.
  • Tim (me): managed a good hour of watching the TV coverage this morning.

So, all have done well and all should have prizes.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Spotify experiment ...

Carla Bley – The Lord Is Listenin to Ya Halleluja!

An amazing, laugh-out-loud trombone solo which Rick and I found last night around the start of bottle #2, spotisurfing via his vague memory and my undoubted expertise, ha ha... He had to phone his daughter at about 11.30 to slurredly rave about it, to Ellie's slight bewilderment I think.
This link should work, if you've installed Spotify. (If you can but haven't, you really should; if you can't yet, commiserations, hopefully it'll be along soon.) Let me know.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Caravan (Pt 2)

Well, there weren't any flies. But there were two burst pipes, and the gas didn't work. Oh, and the outside of the van was covered in green algae slime. Oh yes, and it took nearly five hours to get there, due to inexplicable sudden tailbacks on the M4 which run for three miles and then just evaporate, leaving you wondering: why? (In one case, near Bridgend, it turned out to be the remains of a small cardboard box in the slow lane.)

Of course, the caravan problems, or challenges, duly got sorted through the application of a bit of elbow grease, with help on the plumbing front from Chris, a salt-of-the-earth site neighbour who laboured for several hours with his head underneath the van to fix the leaks, while I passed him things when he asked. After it was fixed, I went up to his caravan, a solemn expression on my face. 'Oh no, it's not leaking again?' 'No', I said. 'You've actually fixed the gas boiler as well.'

Sunday was perfect. I drove up to Porthgain to visit my friends for lunch. We had a picnic on Traith Lyffn beach in glorious sunshine. To get to Traith Lyffn, you climb up the steps behind the old granite chutes by the harbour, then walk a mile across the cliffs, past the disused quarries and mysterious red brick industrial ruins, through flowering gorse and dizzying views down to the churning sea, and then down about 170 steps of an iron staircase to this splendid low tide beach. Then you drink champagne, eat prawn rolls and throw frisbees. Then you climb back up the 170 steps. Then you glue your legs back on.

Thursday, 9 April 2009


I'm off to Pembrokeshire tomorrow morning, for the grand seasonal opening. Strange how complicated the process of returning to a stripped-down simple environment can be. Can I remember what I need to take? (I have notes, obviously, but are they complete and accurate?) Is the car fed and watered? (yes) What will the ground conditions be like? (I have to drive across 100 yards of sometimes soggy ground to reach my parking spot beside the van - once had to call Joseph out with his tractor to tow me out from a quagmire - then I have to lie flat on my back to reinstall the plumbing, not nice in a bog or rain) ... and then, will there be flies inside the van, and will the fridge have broken down again, making me spend the afternoon bleach sponging lethal mould spores off everything ...

And then I'll get there, and it'll be stripped-down simple, beautiful and challenging, and I'll think 'I could live like this'. Except that there's no mains water supply, sewerage or internet access. But the view and the walks are pretty good.

Friday, 3 April 2009

New song

'Teaching the Blues' now available on, artist timbobig.

I'm not entirely happy with the performance, esp the vocal - needs to be in a lower key, but I could only play it in C. Maybe I should detune the guitar and remake it? No. But I'm pleased with the song.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

The G20 Show - some reflections

Well, it was the G2 really, wasn't it? The Gord'n'Barry show. One of the smartest bits of media manipulation I've seen. Even Gordon came across as charming. And the Franco-Prussian axis got totalled. The few clips Sarkozy got made him look like a petulant marginalised cheese-eating foreigner.

There's a splendid photo in today's Guardian, a smiling star line-up, captioned 'David Miliband, Hillary Clinton, Gordon Brown, Barack Obama, Tim Geithner and Alistair Darling' - but there are only five people in the picture. Guess who's missing? (Hint: it's not the Chancellor of the World Exchequer ...)

And of course Michelle. How did she find the time, energy, charm and composure to fit all those gigs so brilliantly in between her dress-changing commitments? What a woman!

I heard Nick Robinson explain on the radio that the trick was going to be to bundle together a load of disparate and, in themselves, not wholly viable measures into a single, convincing, saleable package that everyone could safely buy ... Hang on, does this ring a bell?

Anyway, at last I know how many zeroes there are in a trillion (twelve). (Couldn't read those Zimbabwean banknotes.)

Finally, I wonder how it played in Ethiopia? They were there too, you know.

PS Strange vehicle update: white van present, bike absent. All conspiracy theories null and void.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Preheat oven

I read this instruction on the back of a 'slut's supper' which, for reasons too shameful to go into, I am obliged to eat this evening, and remembered a comment in the cookery section of a newspaper a few weeks ago, which I pass on in paraphrase:
'Preheat oven. How do you do this? I've tried, but only ever manage to heat it.'

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Strange vehicles

1. A bicycle is tied to a lamppost across the road. It was there for most of January, and the whole of February. It got knocked over several times, but then got picked up. Then it disappeared for three days. Then it reappeared, on the same lamppost.

2. A white van is parked in the Close beside my house. It's been there for at least three years, but isn't abandoned - the tax disc is renewed on time every November. It belongs to a woman who lives across the road. Every three months or so, at a weekend, she drives it away on Saturday and brings it back on Sunday.

I was going to take photos to illustrate this post, but of course, today they've both gone off on their mysterious random excursions. I find myself trying to think my way into these people's lives, the logic of this strange behaviour. I can't. I'm not a novelist.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

20th century classical music

I know - are you asleep yet?

That's what I thought. But, three chapters into 'The Rest Is Noise - Listening to the Twentieth Century', by Alex Ross, I've suddenly started to crave this stuff. (The title alone gets you going, doesn't it?) As a musician, I can just about get some of the musicology - play a chord consisting of two fourths separated by a tritone (F# B C E, big stretch on a guitar, in fact there should be an A at the top) and you're Schoenberg; play a octatonic scale (semitone, tone, semitone, tone etc.) and you sound like Stravinsky; a whole-tone scale, Debussy ... Are you awake yet?

OK, here's Ross on Stravinsky's use of accents, after a considered analysis of their use in The Rite of Spring:
'... Virgil Thompson once explained, the body wants to emphasise the main beat that the stray accents threaten to wipe out. "A silent accent is the strongest of accents ... it forces the body to replace it with a motion." (Think of Bo Diddley's "bomp ba-bomp bomp [oomph!] bomp bomp.") '
Are you getting the picture?

Of course, I thought when I bought the book, that's all very well but I've never really been into this music, he can musicologise all he wants but I haven't got the CDs, so I can't hear what he's on about, so I'm going to glaze over and skip those bits ... But guess what, he's thought of that. So - and this is, I think, revolutionary - there's an accompanying website, here where you can listen to streamed samples of each musical snippet under discussion, and believe me, musician or not you will get the point! Read, listen, read again. I'm only up to Stravinsky, gonna take months to get through the remaining 500 pages ...

But it's not all, or even mostly, like the above. It's a history of the century - its politics, wars, social shifts, economics, fashions - all filtered through its classical music and the biographies of its creators ... I meant the creators of the music, but maybe of the century as well?

Thursday, 12 March 2009

History of the Future: Cars (BBC4)

A wonderful little programme tonight, presented by Phill Jupitus, about the 1950s visions of what back then they thought cars would be like today. Some of those machines made me nearly weep with nostalgia (I really liked the safety concept car which had handlebars instead of a steering wheel, driver sat in the middle, loads of rocket and nuclear (I kid you not!) powered prototypes, and a monstrous Ford with at least three penises at each end). How can the BBC hide a gem like this away on BBC4, and restrict it to a half-hour one-off? It should have been a full hour, if not a series. Still available on iPlayer for a few more days (I may watch it again tomorrow - the TV Thursday good programme scheduling crunch is over for another week, so nothing else to view for the next 130 hours or so...)
A particularly brilliant soundtrack, ranging from John Martyn to Dean Martin via the Clash, Jonathan Richman and many others I've now forgotten.
The reason this post is so late is that I've spent an hour or more trying to hack my way into the Beeb's Points of View website, as I wanted to congratulate and encourage them. I'm a registered member, but hardly ever use it, so had forgotten key information like the name of my parents' first pet or something (must be more than six characters: what?) For a media tart, Auntie sure does build big high thick walls around herself. It's like nailing jelly to custard with a twig for a nail and a meerkat for a hammer.

Monday, 9 March 2009

and another book ...

'Innocent when you Dream' - Tom Waits, The Collected Interviews.

I'm only halfway through, but it might be another late night ...
He talks like he sings, in fact half the verbal flights in here could be songs (and for all I know are).
Just as a taster, here he is on Keith Richards:

"He's the best. He's like a tree frog, an orang-utan. When he plays he looks like he's been dangled from a wire that comes up through the back of his neck, and he can lean at a forty-five-degree angle and not fall over. You think he has special shoes. But maybe it's the music that's keeping him up."

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Told You So

I wrote the following letter to the Guardian in August 2007, and they published a bowdlerised version which attracted no attention whatsoever:

"Let’s get this quite straight.

This crisis in the world’s financial markets is being caused by the behaviour of a very small number (a few hundred thousand?) of highly paid, hyped up, often drug-driven individuals, acting upon unreliable information and psychopathic reaction, in the rarefied atmosphere of a global electronic virtual gambling den, their motivation almost entirely misguided bonus-driven self-interest.

If you dispute that, just ask yourself, well, is it me?

The bad news is, they’re really bad at it! According to the media, panic is the largest determinant of the behaviour of the players in these so-called markets. In their obsessive pursuit of obscene financial gain, via electronics they don’t understand at all, driven only by fear and panic and incomprehension, these few arseholes are accidentally contriving to tear our vulnerable playhouse down – as if we needed their help – because they’re a bit nervous.
The rest of us don’t need this stuff. Panic isn’t a good mechanism to run and save a planet. I say enough. That system has had enough chances. Close down all these so-called markets. Confiscate the financial trading barrow-boys’ bonuses. A few gentle Stalinist measures, Gordon?"


Book reviews

In this funny sub-season - no longer winter, not quite yet spring - I always go into a kind of sub-hibernation, a sort of restless lethargy. This year, to deal with this, between bursts of activity like pruning roses and clearing out the studio, I've been reading books by the cubic yard. So here are some one-liners about a few recent ones:

The Book Thief, Marcus Zusak: well written if slightly contrived tale of survival in Nazi Germany, with lots of sardonic humour from the narrator, Death.
The Polish Officer, Alan Furst: I discovered Furst via an earlier novel, The Foreign Correspondent. He does tense WW2 thrillers, with strong characters and devious plotlines, sort of Le Carre territory. Must read more.
Friday Nights, Joanna Trollope: not her best. I'm usually a fan, she can do good characters and sparkly dialogue, but in this case too many people (I kept having to look back - who are you again?) and none of them very interesting.
Flow My Tears The Policeman Said, Philip K Dick: he always challenges you at the borders between hallucination and reality; in this case, a proper plot would have helped.
When Will There Be Good News, Kate Atkinson: several convoluted parallel mysteries, a burnt-out ex-cop with emotional baggage, three or four very different highly charged female characters, some outrageous plot coincidences - what's not to love?
The Road Home, Rose Tremain: nothing to say except READ IT!
His Illegal Self, Peter Carey: well, this is a weird one. From page one, I had no clear idea what was going on; and devoured it at a single sitting. Somewhere between Cormac McCarthy and Steinbeck, with flashes of Russell Hoban?
Q & A, Vikas Swarup: to be quite honest and with the best will in the world - just see the film.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Fred Goodwin's pension

(I've stripped him of his knighthood.) It's obvious that he's going to keep it, he's going to fight tooth, nail and lawyer for it. First up, I'll be relieved - if his is safe, mine must surely be? (For those who don't know, I too am an RBS pensioner!)

So once he gets it, what's he going to do with it? It's more money than it is physically possible to spend on yourself. I've been trying to think of ways of doing that. £14,000 a week, for ever: even if I dined solely on Petrus, Beluga, Tuscan truffles every single day 24/365, a new vintage Bugatti every six months, houses on every planet, more art than you could ever have time to look at, the money will still keep piling up - and actually, it'd get pretty boring after a month or two. The kind of reaction that drifts across my mind is 'oh good, now I've got all this money, so I don't need to do anything any more...' Poor man.

Perhaps, like Bill and Warren, he'll set up the Fred Goodwin Foundation. Now wouldn't that be fun?

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Technology - dontcha just love it?

This may strike a chord.

I switched on the telly last night, to watch some football (I know...), and got a message from Sky which said 'this channel has a technical problem, please try later'. Oh well, I thought, and went over to BBC4, where I watched something much more interesting (about motorways, since you ask). This evening, I switched it on again, and got the same message on EVERY SINGLE channel. Given that I'd intended to watch the 6 o'clock news, 'please try later' wasn't really that helpful, as advice goes.

Well, I dug out the Sky+ manual, as a first step. Naturally, this error message wasn't listed. (Can you smell the residues of boiling blood yet?) Anyway, being the analyst I am, I thought 'is it possible that Sky has totally crashed and no-one else has noticed?' So I phoned my brother-in-law Alan, and asked him, as a fellow Sky victim, to please check his out. Anything to avoid calling the Sky help-desk. They were just off to their first ballroom dancing class (don't ask), but he reported that it seemed fine. Just as were about to ring off, he said 'actually, I remember something similar ages ago. They told me to power it off, take out the card and put it back, power it back on again.'

This took me back to my days in IT, when 'switch it off and on again' (or as one guy, Neil, charmingly used to put it, 'on and off again' - but he was Australian) was a first resort. Of course I tried it, and of course it worked. SO, why, given that the Sky people by their own admission know that this problem exists, and how to fix it, WHY don't they put this in the f******g manual??

Phew! As Auden put it, nothing like a good dump, is there?

Right, going to watch a bit of telly now (if it still works ...)

Saturday, 21 February 2009

First Bee

My patio, 1 p.m. today, temperature 16C.
Posted by Picasa

Friday, 20 February 2009

Fractals and Dylan

Have just rewardingly wasted an entire evening googling fractals and spotifying bob dylan. The fractal pictures draw you into themselves, then in, then in again, into infinity - and the amazing thing is that this beauty is built from true, proven mathematics, proven facts about our universe.

Much the same is true of Dylan.


There was a man on the News tonight whose house had been repossessed by his mortgagee because he couldn't keep up the payments. Leave aside the individual circumstances, fair enough, we're all aware of that possibility, but it's always puzzled me why a lender would do this - surely better to hang on, waive or reduce the payment schedule until times get better, rather than be saddled with a hard-to-sell property at the bottom of the market, with absolutely no prospect of an income stream?

My eyes have cleared. This man explained that the lender had auctioned the house. Surprise, it fetched less than the outstanding amount of his mortgage. So, they're going to take him to court for the shortfall.

Words fail me.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

A Great British Institution - HP Sauce

A National Treasure, forsooth? The Original.

Invented in 1899 (the height of Empire).
Indispensible with a fry-up or a Cornish pasty.
Additive-free and vegan-friendly.
By Appointment to HM the Queen, 'purveyors of HP sauces(!)'.
The bottle label, virtually unchanged in living memory, still depicts the eponymous Houses of Parliament, Big Ben's hands still stand at nine, in immutable communion with Grantchester ...

Manufactured in The Netherlands by H. J. Heinz Holding B.V.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Guess who I had for dinner?

A Haggis!

Of all the many wonderful things to have come out of Scotland (Rosie are you blushing yet?), the Haggis is the most underrated and maligned by weak-bellied English milk-feeders who wouldn't know one if it jumped into their mouths (not that it would - see below). I spotted one wandering round Waitrose (me, not the haggis, they don't sell them live), and thought yeh, you'll do. Succulently soft yet crunchy, bland yet spicy, juicy yet astringent, fair fa' your honest, sonsie face, great chieftain o' the pudding race ... Sorry, got carried away there. Splendid.

A Scottish friend of mine, Bob, when drunk once instructed me on how to catch one. The Haggis, he explained solemnly, is a timid, retiring little creature that runs around the summits of the Munroes, in a clockwise direction. Because of this, its right leg has evolved to be much shorter than its left. So, you station yourself in its path and wave your arms. It sees you, turns round to run away, and falls over.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Amazing stuff

1. Have you discovered Spotify yet? If so, look away now. If not: it's a free (occasional advert), legal online streaming music service which claims the ambition of supplying all the music that exists, without you having to store any of it on your own computer. In other words, a planet-wide jukebox on free play. I signed up this morning and spent hours trying to catch it out (all right, it doesn't do the dinosaurs like Beatles, Led Zep, Oasis etc yet, and its Little Feat catalogue is less than complete). But, I told my brother about it. He was, I think, slightly sceptical (plus disadvantaged by a very rural broadband connection, to be fair). He told me he'd bought a Count Basie CD compilation, for £10. I Spotified (you read the word here first!) Count Basie and found 2062 tracks - including some wonderful collaborations with Ray Charles, from the 60s, which I'd never have imagined let alone heard. I even listened to a bit of Lily Allen's new one, actually, she's quite good. Spotisurf, there's another new word. Probably, the music industry velociraptors will kill it off, so enjoy while you can.
I'll be coming back to this topic of sustainable internet business models sometime soon, you've been warned.

2. Google Earth 5.0. I've only scratched the surface, but it's a whole new world (gawd, did I write that??)

3. I'm shortly going to post a joky 55 second John Lee Hooker/Jimmy Reed number of mine on Acidplanet, BECAUSE I CAN!!

Wednesday, 11 February 2009


Scientists have now proved that these do NOT cause cholesterol, as long as you don't fry them. A refreshingly frank scientist said something like 'well, we did think that, but when new evidence comes in, we change our minds'.
More importantly, the spokesperson for the British Egg Foundation (or thereabouts) is called Ms Egerton. Sorry, I'm still a schoolboy at heart.

The plumber came to fix my overflow again (a different plumber from the one who fixed it three weeks ago). Without looking at anything, he told me I needed a new hot water cylinder. I suggested he have a look anyway; he went up into the loft and had a look, then came down and told me he'd fixed it, by bending the arm on the ball valve a bit (something I learnt to do when I was about eight).
Never go for a simple solution if a more complicated one is available. He was a nice guy though.

Monday, 9 February 2009

New Red Shoes

Now available on, artist timbobig.

It's been raining for at least 24 hours here. Never mind shoes, I may have to go and get some new red wellies, or a coracle or something. Still, it's washed most of the snow away, just in time for it to freeze as a nice foundation for the next lot. Can I fast forward to May please?

Thursday, 5 February 2009

This and that

Another two inches of snow last night, but it's melting fast. The garden looked lovely first thing, all the weeds and straggly stuff hidden or festooned with white glistening baubles. The lawn looks at its best! I think I'll just keep it this way.

I haven't dared go out in the car for a few days, so am starting to run out of things (shopping list currently says 'snacks' and 'sherry'). So this morning I made a batch of cheese straws, from my mother's recipe. They are highly addictive.
Due to overwhelming popular demand, here's the recipe, annotated:
4 oz plain flour
2 oz Fat [I used butter]
2 oz grated cheese [I used cheddar]
good pinch of cayenne
water to mix as with pastry
Sieve flour with pepper and salt. Rub in fat. Stir in grated cheese. Add water. [Obviously you mix it all till it's actual pastry; I use the Magimix]
Roll out to 1/8th inch thick. Cut into strips and twist.
Bake in medium oven for 20 mins. [on a greased baking sheet!]

I'm about halfway through 'Dreams From My Father'. That man missed his vocation, should've been a novelist ...

Saturday, 31 January 2009

Cherry Butter

A rather wonderful recipe I spotted whilst looking up Colonel Gore's Seville Orange Marmalade recipe in my antique Constance Spry cookbook. I quote in full.

'A good preserve for immediate use.

8lb black cherries
4 lb sugar
grated rind and juice of 2 lemons

Stone the cherries. Crack a number of the stones, extract the kernels, blanch and skin. Add to the fruit with the lemon and put into a bowl in layers with the the sugar. Leave overnight. Bring to the boil, simmer 15-20 minutes, then boil rapidly until very thick.'

You have to ponder the word 'immediate', don't you? (Look closely at the quantities). First one to make it gets to eat it all, immediately.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009


Ironically, all the talk now is about debt - government debt to be precise, rather than the other, toxic sort we don't mention any more. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts (how dare they? they haven't usefully predicted much to date, have they?) that it will take thirty years, with higher taxes and lower spending, to service and repay the borrowing that our government (but it's not just ours) is planning to incur - and that's on some pretty dodgy assumptions, primarily that there's any national income to tax in the first place. If that's not toxic I don't know what is.

So, a simple question. Who is, or will be, doing the toxic government lending? It must be people (I use the word advisedly - it's not gerbils or trees or next door's cat, is it?) who have more money than they need for their own purposes (or those of whatever institutions they control). So who are they? Names and addresses please.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009


Apologies to my overseas reader(s), to whom this will be a small earthquake in Chile. Basically, the Sunday Times entrapped four members of the House of Lords into admitting that they would be prepared to accept varying sums of money in return for attempting to alter legislation that was passing before them. (Endearingly, none of these guys accepts that there's anything wrong with this, but they've all apologised anyway, just in case ...)

As I've noted here before, I actually believe the House of Lords is a pretty good thing. So I'd like to know how exactly the ST selected its victims. Was it on the basis of inside info, or was it random? I haven't actually read the article - newspaper not allowed through this door - but this crucial question certainly hasn't been addressed in any of the subsequent journalistic debate. Hopefully, it was targetted, via some kind of tip-offs, in which case we can just put it down to 'a few bad eggs'; but if they were randomly picked, then we have to suspect that the whole bloody lot are corrupt, or corruptible - in which case I'll be forced to reconsider my attitudes.

How is it that journalists never ever investigate each other?

Friday, 23 January 2009

The Gumption Trap

This concept was invented by Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book which is well due for a revival. I'd sum it up as 'the more you look at a problem, the bigger it gets'.

I had a very big one last night (Gumption Trap that is), when after I'd finished watching 'The Princess Bride' for the zillionteenth time, the touch pad, (i.e. that annoying mouse-clone which enables, indeed forces you delicately and precisely to do with a fingertip what you could previously do, roughly and entirely adequately, with your whole hand), followed the 'cue' example and decided to pack up. Imagine my dismay. I got despondant, paranoid and drunk.

The way out of this trap, as always, is by calm cool analysis. This morning I reinstated the old laptop by way of back-up, then packed this one up and took it to the local Oxford Road repair shop. William delved into the software, because he'd had exactly the same problem and thought it was something to do with it thinking it was a tablet PC (are you still awake?), played with esoteric software settings for the best part of an hour and finally admitted defeat. It's got to be hardware, we can't do that here, you'll have to send it off to Toshiba, but probably cheaper to buy a new machine.

I said thanks mate, what do I owe you? He said don't be daft, I enjoyed that, and it's actually helped me too - why don't you just buy a nice wireless mouse and use that instead? Somewhere during the hour, when we were discussing the 'send it to Toshiba' option, I mentioned in passing the 'cue' problem. He gently lifted up the key pad, had a look and explained why he daren't touch that - something to do with rubber and superglue - put it back, we shook hands and parted.

Well, I went to PC world and got and installed the mouse - it works beautifully on the texture of the sofa under my right hand as I type. And guess what -


The moral of this rambling story is: Don't Give Up. Don't lose your gumption.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009


On 7 February 1964, The Beatles arrived at the newly renamed John F Kennedy airport to a euphoric reception. ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ had hit number one on Billboard the previous week, and America was finding itself, to its entire surprise, being surfed on a curl of optimism, suddenly borne up and over the quagmire of despair which had threatened to engulf them since the murder less than three months before.

I’m old enough to remember those two events, and mature enough to draw parallels. Today, 20/1/09, I saw something very akin to 7/2/64 . Akin, not alike. The tragedy America emerged from then, with the Beatles’ help, can’t in any sense be compared to the tragedy America is going to emerge from, soon, by Barack’s will. But the spirit I saw and heard this afternoon, in his address and in Washington Mall, was that exact same spirit of young America. It worked then and it’ll work now. God bless.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

The letter 'cue'

This letter (you know the one I mean) has just recently gone up in a puff of smoke, well a loud ominous click, on my keyboard. So, after the mandatory five minutes of anger, despondency and despair - will I have to buy a new computer just because of this? do I have to go through the hell of transferring all my stuff? I don't want to do any of that, especially because Windows 7 is about to appear, etc etc - I decide to monitor my, and other people's, actual usage of this character. Initially, I thought: open a big document and do a 'find all', but I rapidly saw the flaw in that ... So, I read about twenty pages of 'Shantaram' (and by the way, do please get it if you've got 1000 pages worth of non-stop spare reading time - just read the blurb on the back if you don't believe me) - guess what, the evil letter didn't turn up once! This calmed me down a bit.

So, I've backed everything up, and on Monday I'll take the laptop down to the friendly computer repair guys who camp out in the Post Office down the Oxford Road. I'm sure they'll be able to fix a little burnt-out relay, hopefully uite uickly oh shit.

Did you see what I did there? Kwality writing I'd say. Just as long as I don't lose E.

Howling gale outside, rain coming down the chimney.

Monday, 12 January 2009


That's the amount every baby born in the UK will start its life owing Gordon Brown, according to the Tory's magnificent new election-winning (for Labour) poster campaign launched today.

Many many thoughts spring to mind, but just one for now: how and when should the parents tell them? First birthday, in writing, I reckon, get it over with.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Recycling ...

I've run out of 'kindling' (or sticks as we used to call them), so the Christmas tree has been dismembered and recycled into my fireplace. Brilliant - it's now so warm in here I've had to take my jumper off. Delivery expected about Tuesday, by when it's going to warm up so I won't need it anymore.
A new musical challenge received, but this one needs drums and I haven't got access to the old Roland TR707 drum machine at the moment, so will have to investigate the sample pads on the Yamaha workstation. I need to get CuBase, but that requires a computer upgrade, a place I'm not prepared to visit just now.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Friday, 2 January 2009

Keep Music Solid

I bought two CDs today: 'Rockferry', the de luxe edition of Duffy's lovely take on Dusty and Aretha and all that 60s emotion (immaculately assembled by the great Bernard Butler); and Amadou & Mariam's exquisite 'Welcome to Mali', as challenging a cross-over album as you're likely to hear this year (and I do mean 2009).

Enough of the rave reviews. My real point is as follows. I paid a tenner each for these at HMV. I just checked, and I could have bought each for eight quid on iTunes. For my extra four pounds, I got sumptuous CD packaging (posters, photos, beautifully textured boxes etc); tangible physical objects which can engage my senses of touch and sight without going anywhere near a bloody computer; and most importantly, CD audio sound quality rather than that depleted MP3 I'd have got from the download versions.

Downloads, MP3 and iTunes have their role, obviously - I use them all the time - but they won't kill off the solid music media just yet.

(Vinyl's even better...)

Thursday, 1 January 2009

New Year's Eve bash

The body count this morning indicates that the ten drinkers consumed sixteen and a half bottles of Nicolas Feuillatte and one of Piper Hideandseek or whatever it's called. When Paul came round to collect his coldbag (and some uneaten cake), he said: 'Is that all?' Actually, come to think about it, it's not really that much over seven hours, is it? (though it didn't feel thay way at 3 a.m. on 1/1/09). Amazingly, no other alcohol was knowingly imbibed (apart from Andrea's three bottles of Carlsberg Low Alcohol lager - she has a very good excuse.) So I have nine unopened reds and six whites to do something useful with. Perhaps I should have another party ...
Plugging the laptop into the hi-fi and letting people loose on iTunes was a very good move. People took turns to sit down and play DJ so that I could carry on dancing with impunity. A mark of a good party - I was forced by Paul, at two o'clock, to put on 'Trampled Underfoot' by Led Zeppelin (on vinyl!)
Just before midnight we googled the original Robbie Burns lyrics to Auld Lang Syne and displayed them on the telly so that they could be totally ignored by all.
The food mostly vanished in minutes, including about a kilo and a half of chilli con carne. The one major miscalculation on my part was french bread. What can I do with six stale baguettes (out of eight purchased)? Don't say 'breadcrumbs', that lot would keep me in weiner schnitzel and meatballs for months.
Clearing up is mostly done, but my so-called non-stick roasting tin might be a goner after Gordon Ramsey's suspect spicy sticky chicken drumsticks did their worst. Val suggested simmering it on the stove with some Fairy liquid, 'like making gravy', but my appetite's not quite up to that yet.