Friday, 31 December 2010

New Year Resolutions

I wonder how many blog posts are being composed at this moment, across the universe, with this title.  I'd bet on millions.  And of course the corny question, how many of those resolutions will be kept?  The whole notion is nutty, of course.  It's just another date, insignificant in every real sense.  Just a convenient way of keeping track and agreeing appointments.   The so-called New Year occurs all over the place - see here - and the one we celebrate, January the first in the Gregorian calendar, is completely arbitrary.  If anything, here in the northern hemisphere it should be the Winter solstice, when the days start to light up. If it was down to me, I'd go for the Spring equinox, time of renewal and rebirth.

Anyway, time's running out, so I need to make my resolutions.  I've whittled my shortlist of about eighteen down to five.  The baseline rule being that these shouldn't be things you kick into tomorrow and then fail at by the Chinese New Year, but resolutions - things you resolve - to be achieved by this time next year.  Here they are.

Live less in the past and the future.
Break a few useless habits, like sleeping when not tired.
Stop saying 'Actually' and 'Of course' so much.
Finish and publish (somehow) my (partial) autobiography.
Make more music.

Check me out.  Toots Hibbert has just come on.  Have to go.  Happy New Resolutions.

Penultimate Post

No no, not penultimate ever, just of this year; or should it be of this decade?  Eleven years ago there was a debate, as if it mattered, over whether a decade commenced with the year numbered zero or the one numbered one.  If I ask you to count up to ten, I'll bet you'll start at 1, not 0.  So it's arguable that the noughties are about to end, rather than having done so twelve months ago.  Do I care?

No, but it's got me through to 8.43.  Only another 197 minutes to go, minus the three it took me to do that calculation and type this sentence.  Time-filling project going well so far.  Next?

The phone rang at about 2.30 this afternoon.  I should explain that I've recently become the co-co-ordinator of the local Neighbourhood Watch, a role which seems to consist of forwarding messages from the police about local crime, organising six-monthly meetings and the odd social gathering (next one 16th January, mulled wine to be project-managed), and being unaccountably popular for doing all that.  Anyway, the phone call was from A down the road, who'd noticed that a suitcase had been dumped in the Close, next to a white van which had been parked there for a couple of weeks and had a flat tyre, and should the police be notified?  I gently pointed out that they might be a bit busy today, but I would monitor the suitcase.

How're we doing?  9.07.  Not bad.  Just checked - the suitcase hasn't moved.  Yet.

3.30, the phone rings again.  It's C from next door.  She's having lunch in town with a friend, but has just spoken to her frail 91 year old dad, H, who lives with her, and it seems he has a bit of a problem.  I find the keys and dash round.  H has fallen out of his chair, trying to get up to retrieve his stick, which he's left in the next room, and is crouched down facing the chair, unable to move.  I try to haul him up, but he's too heavy.  "Keep still, keep calm," I tell him.  He grins up at me.  "Yes, that sounds like a good idea,"  he says.  He's not in pain, just distressed: as much by his own stupidity as anything, I think.  The amazing paramedic arrives within ten minutes of the 999 call, during which time H has managed, with my help, to get himself back up into a seated position.  Paramedic embarks on an exhaustive series of questions, examinations, tests.  C has got back home by now.  H seems to be fine; I decline the inevitable cup of tea (I think I need a drink) and head back next door.  [At this point, I'd like to pay tribute, not for the first time, to our fantastic emergency services, and pray that this skinflint government doesn't manage to completely fuck them up.]

Unusual day so far, no?  (And I haven't mentioned the morning, also unusual but private.)

Wow, 9.27, doesn't time fly?  And I know my watch is 5 seconds fast, so there's a saving.

Well, actually, that's about it, except for my dinner, which was, for the occasion, haggis, tatties'n'neeps, washed down with my patent onion gravy and a dusty bottle of Cote Rotie I found lurking at the bottom of the wine rack.  (Bottle not yet drained, I hasten to add, it's only 9.33 for goodness sake.)  The haggis was interesting.  Stop yawning please.  I couldn't get a whole one (sold out, just as well, I'd never have finished it) so settled for two microwaveable vacuum-packed slices - genuine Macsween - which were delectable.  As you know, I'm a connoisseur (there's another 45 seconds gone looking up the correct spelling of that word) of comical food labelling, so I'll share this one: "Be careful removing pack from the microwave, as it will be hot."

9.54.  So little time, so much to do.  I still have another blog, about resolutions, to write, and Jules Holland starts at eleven, with Kylie, Wanda Jackson, Toots of the Maytals, Captain Beefheart (only joking about the last) ...  Later.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Monday, 27 December 2010

Scrabbling around

Rosie recently accused me of being a talking crossword.  I have no idea what that means, but I think she must be right, because my brain (or whatever it is) immediately came up with 'Angry chat puzzle? (7, 9)' - which of course means absolutely nothing either as a clue or a solution.  But I can't stop playing with the words and their letters.  I realised just the other day that my surname is actually Elgar.

I've just wasted an hour trying to find an anagram for Happy New Year, or variants thereof, but I can't.  So, in clear:


Wednesday, 22 December 2010


I'm not normally one to brag in public (in private, to myself, that's another thing), but this is special.  So let it be known that today I prepared the following:

A batch of celeriac and leek soup, to be frozen for Boxing Day;
A chicken and lentil curry (murghi aur masoor dal), also for Boxing Day;
A cauldron of minestrone containing seven vegetables (eight if you count the bay leaf);
A batch of ragu al bolognese;
A wholemeal loaf.
Oh, and a gin and tonic.

Look on my works and despair!

Only trouble is, I'm not really hungry now.  Think I'll just make an omelette.

Margaret's Pies

A few minutes ago, as I was sitting here contemplating a pre-prandial dry oloroso, I heard what sounded like a high-pitched road drill out in the back garden.  Has some child received an early present, I wondered? and do they do junior pneumatic drills now?  It wouldn't surprise me.

I went out to investigate.  It was a gang of magpies having a conference, or a war, hard to tell which as I don't speak magpie fluently, in my leafless copper beech.  There must be some tasty carrion somewhere nearby.  The local red kite flew over, glanced down and wisely decided to keep going.  The other birds were keeping their heads down.

Just for fun, I clapped my hands.  The magpies must have experienced gunfire or something in the past, because they all scooted off to the next-door-but-one's leylandiia.  I counted them out: there were seven.  So somewhere out there, there's a secret that can never be told.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Deep and crisp and uneven

I know some people claim to like the stuff, to find it arousing or stimulating or pretty or whatever, but probably they haven't spent the day watching it pile up at an inch an hour while they wonder where the wellies are and when would be a good time to trudge out and haul some coal in, and how many sausages there are in the freezer and whether the corner shop will have any potatoes left that haven't gone mouldy by the time the pavements have become passable, possibly next Wednesday, whilst also wondering whether the folks flying over from Jersey have made it, and if so where they are now; and whether you're glad or not the party's been cancelled, glad because it was always going to be a bit of a trial, not glad because of so much wasted effort and disappointment ...  and how to replan the next seven days, on the assumption, from a position of practical pessimism, that motorised transport can't be counted on, in order to deliver the expectations - yours, but more importantly others - that wrapped and labelled gifts (leaving aside the ones that were meant to be handed to the Jersey folks before they set off, tomorrow morning, to Sri Lanka, from a snowbound Heathrow), soup, rolls and curry for Boxing Day (none of which have been made yet) and onesself (clean and black-tied) will turn up, on time, for champagne and canapes on Christmas Day in the morning.

Let it snow?  Bah, humbug.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Lucky horseshoe

Here's how to get an adrenalin kick.

I came back from my usual Monday overnighter at Datchet, parked up, walked round to the front, opened the door, defused the burglar alarm, closed the door, dumped the bag on the stairs, opened it and pulled out slippers and newspaper; so far, so routine.  Then I remembered I needed to nip up to Waitrose for a few things.  Shoes still on, luckily.  Out through back door, down the garden to the car, up the Oxford Road, whizz round Waitrose, back home, job done.  You're bored enough, so let's skip over the rest of Tuesday and jump to Wednesday morning, today.

Today is the day when the Christmas Shopping Death-Eater is going to be vanquished, or at least severely disabled.  So I'm all geared up, sluiced and breakfasted, list in pocket and ready to roll by nine o'clock.  But, the shops and car parks of Reading Town mostly aren't open yet, so there's time to nip down the shop for the paper, as usual. 

I'm paranoid about leaving the house without my keys, ever since I did it once.  So I check my pocket.  They're not there.  I check everywhere I could have left them around the house.  Not there. 

It's funny how the most irrelevant thoughts flash through your mind at such moments.  What I felt, first, was sadness.  I've had that little silver horseshoe on my key-ring since I was eighteen.  I must have stupidly left the keys in the front door when I got home on Tuesday morning; they're stolen; and now I've lost my oldest possession.  I felt sad.

That didn't last long, of course.  Rational logical practical Tim took over pretty quick.  My house is now in danger of intrusion.  OK, sort it out.  Check details of Chubb front door lock.  Bolt front door from inside.  Exit via back door (key luckily not on lost ring).  Up to Homebase (car key also luckily not on lost ring).  Buy replacement lock. Back home.  Install new lock ...  Forget about Christmas shopping surge for today, probably. 

So that's what I do.  Except that I don't get past step three.  Because as I walk across the lawn towards the car, something glints up at me from the grass ...

That's when the adrenalin kicked in.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Scottish Play

Unexpected evening.  After engulfing my spag bol, the plan was to settle down to Antiques Roadshow and then Inspector George Gently, a gentle Sunday night of mindless telly.  Instead, I somehow found myself watching, on the great BBC4 channel, this riveting political drama/supernatural thriller/demented-late-Pam's-dream-sequence-episode of Dallas.  Two hours later, I glanced back at the original text of Macbeth, hoping (after having seen this thing, now, four times), to work out what the flip was going on.

I still haven't a clue.  But I can report the following: they're all mad.  But they each become madder and saner in turn, swirling around and missing each other's madness and sanity in one of those dances where nobody actually touches, until they all, accidentally or deliberately (nobody's sure which), get killed or emotionally maimed - including, especially, the guy who comes out on top.

Fun evening.  Everybody who believes they know anything and can do something about it should have watched.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Anonymous comment

I get these from time to time.  They never appear under the actual post, just in email notifications.  Usually, I ignore and delete, assuming them to be some weird kind of spam.  But this one caught my eye.

"I be enduring be familiar with a few of the articles on your website in the present circumstances, and I unqualifiedly like your tastefulness of blogging. I added it to my favorites net age muster and last will and testament be checking assist soon. Will report register in view my position as highly and leave to me be familiar with what you think. Thanks."

What do you think?  A computerised translation from a dying language?  A lost work by Ezra Pound?  A coded message from a drunken ambassador?  Whatever, it has a certain surrealistic poetry, so if you're out there, Anonymous, thanks too - I'm not taking the piss, just being entertained.  Giggling, actually.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Safe Christmas.

Finally, in this unprecedented flurry of news-derived blogposts:

Today's Guardian has a two-page feature, under 'Health', full of sound, sensible, stodgy advice on how to avoid injury, stress, accidents, divorce etc. over the festive period.  The following caught my eye:

'Don't leave food that's cooking unattended in the kitchen, and don't cook when you're drunk...'

How does that work, then?

Shark attacks

Well, now we know why they call it the Red Sea.  Interestingly, the word I've seen used over and again by shark experts in reference to these incidents is 'unprecedented'.  Personally I'd have thought that five in three days set pretty much of a precedent, but let that pass.  The best bit was on the TV news the other day, where a British woman said it wasn't going to stop her going in the water.  'You can't let it spoil your holiday, can you?' she said.

Naughtie Auntie!

Just in case you didn't know, on the Today programme on Monday morning, just before the 8 o'clock news, Jim Naughtie accidentally (we assume) replaced the first letter of culture secretary Jeremy Hunt's surname with a C.  Sadly, I wasn't up in time to hear it, but Jim was apparently torn between spluttering apology and choked-off hilarity, blaming it afterwards on 'Dr Spooner'.  It wasn't, of course, a Spoonerism (or Snooperism as by friend Bill used to call it), which is something of the order of 'riding around in roaring pain on a well-boiled icicle'; he would have had to have said 'Heremy Junt', which wouldn't have been funny.

But it gave the Guardian the opportunity, which they gleefully took in today's edition, to print the word in question, unasterisked, twelve (12) times by my count, surely a record.  I must nip out and buy the Mail and Express to see how they got on.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Another one from 87

Upstairs this afternoon, ironing shirts, I looked out of the window at the remnants of the snow, and remembered this.  It - the song - says all there is to know about where I was at when I wrote it in 1985,  as my marriage was disintegrating into painful shards.  I sat there in my house in Harrow, staring out of the dark window, and wrote it down, more or less in real time, as it happened.

By two years later, when I came to record it on my little Fostex 4 track and my Roland drum machine, all that angry emotion had been flushed away, and I could have some fun.   It's the most enjoyable recording I've ever done (until very recently).

Drifting into Danger

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

"A Grand and Bold Thing", by Ann Finkbeiner

As all three of my regular readers will know, I developed an interest in astronomy at the age of six (when the Solar System had only just been invented), and have been keeping a weather eye on the night sky ever since, even though I had no real idea of what was actually going on up there - until now.

One of my favourite blogs is The Last Word on Nothing, to which Ann regularly contributes.  A while ago, she despondently lamented that her book was "dopey" and no-one was reading it.  So, nice person that I am, I bought a copy off Amazon.  It arrived next day, flapping its covers impatiently at me.  That evening I popped out for a quick peek at good old Orion, then switched off the rubbish football and settled down for a read.

This is the story of the Sloan Project, which was conceived back in the eighties by an inspired astronomer called Jim Gunn.  His idea was that, given the rate of expansion of technological capability - almost faster than that of the universe itself - it should soon be possible, using telescopes and cameras and computers and all sorts of other whizz-kit, not to mention human beings and their brains and muscles, to make an observation-based map of that universe.  And even if it turned out not to be possible, that wasn't going to stop him.  So he just went ahead and did it. 

That's a bit of an oversimplification of the plot of this enthralling book.  The story is convoluted to say the least.  From Jim's simple concept, the route to the eventual staggering outcome takes in a huge cast of characters, initiatives and setbacks, the constantly shifting background of the science of cosmology itself; not to mention the esoteric spheres of project management and financial control (without which, of course, the universe wouldn't actually exist).  In less than 200 pages, the book leads you gently through all this, even the science - although the bit of my brain reserved for storing and expanding acronyms did start to smoulder a few times.  But the inspirational final chapter made me feel, even just for a moment, that I actually understood what all that stuff out there might really be, how it got there, and why some driven people will do almost anything to nail it down.

Oh, I forgot to  mention, it's also really funny.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Another laugh (Prudes look away now...)

This one gets extra points, because I stumbled across it whilst looking for something completely different.  It's a newspaper clipping from maybe ten years ago, and I pass it on without comment.  (click to enlarge, if you're up for it)

Reasons to be happy (part II)

After last week's post on measuring happiness, I've come up with a potential yardstick.  Out-loud laughter.  So here are a few things that made me LOL recently:

  • I followed a security van down the Oxford Road this morning.  On the back of the van was a sticker, apparently meant seriously: "POLICE: FOLLOW THIS VAN"
  • The instructions on my Ginster's Cornish Pasty say: "Preheat oven to 180C.  Place on a baking tray."
  • On the A322 near Bagshot, there's a road sign, pointing left, which reads: "A329 BRACKNELL.  A329M READING (M4).  All Other Attractions."
  • In the Guardian the other day, a diary item referred to someone who's apparently writing an "unauthorised autobiography" of Boris Johnson.
  • Duchy Originals Dry Cured Back Rashers: "Free range pork loins massaged by hand with sea salt and sugar, cured slowly and then marinated in duchy old ruby ale and smoked over cherry wood chips ..."  Don't know why that's funny, but it is.  It's bacon, FFS, Charlie.

There's another one, which I'll put up later (if I can be bothered).

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Only 156 rejoicing days to go

Or 3,700-odd rejoicing hours, or ... no, can't do the minutes, because although they've announced the day, they haven't yet set the time, and I don't want to commit lese-majeste.  It'll probably be about three o'clock.  The BBC's rapidly expanding squad of Royal reporters, this evening, hadn't got round  to speculating on that.  Or perhaps the Mail has already snazzled the exclusive.

Question is, can we sustain frabjous joy that long?  Back in 1947 or 1981, it didn't arise.  Expectations were calibrated differently.  But now, the paradox seems to be that it all has to happen much faster, whilst lasting much longer.  (That's why Big Brother and I'm a Celebrity had to be invented.)  There's plenty of material, of course: which coach she'll turn up in; the dress; the honeymoon; what exactly will be promised at the altar, given certain precedents ...  Actually, all this must have been worked out in advance.  As Pa said, they've been practising long enough: spoken, I feel, from personal experience...

By the way, has anybody else noticed when Easter is next year?  Or the May bank holiday?  Look it up.  Clue: the country gets a fortnight off work.  I'll be in Wales, I think.  William is going to be their prince sometime, after all.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

How happy are you?

Start thinking about it now.  The Government is going to want to know sometime soon, according to this report.  To be more precise, the Office for National Statistics is to be tasked with including a Happiness Index in its periodic analyses of the nation's wellbeing.  Details have yet to be worked out, but obviously there'll have to be some common baseline for the data gathering, and this can only start from the simple question: what makes you happy?  Once they've compiled this universal happy-hit list, then they can get round to identifying the units of measurement (happicons?) and answering other awkward questions about frequency-of-happiness-arising-from, duration-of-said-happiness, conflict-between-simultaneous-happiness-sources - not to mention counterbalancing sources of the opposite to happiness, which is called unhappiness ...  In short, all the usual kinds of things good statisticians take into account before they publish their findings.  So it'll take them a while.

But hey, we have to start somewhere.  So here's my random list of a few things that, more often than not, seem to make me happy.  The right weather.  Accidentally stumbling across something I'd completely forgotten I'd been looking for.  The right music.  Corny tearjerker moments in movies.  Empty country roads.  Smiles from strangers.  Accidentally stumbling across something I definitely wasn't looking for.  A problem solved by an insight.  Oh, and of course, flashes of love, however brief.

Go, Office for National Statistics, start counting!  We need your numbers, quickly.  Otherwise, how are we to know how we really feel?

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Treachery of words

Some words seem to have the power to pick you up on their strong wings and carry you off to beautiful realms.  But beware - ride them too far and they'll capriciously let go, abruptly dumping you into a place you'd rather not be.

On a crossword-driven voyage through the dictionary, I stumbled across 'Rosa-solis: a cordial, originally flavoured with sundew juice, afterwards with various spices [Latin, rose of the sun]'

Lovely, eh?  Sounds delicious.  So I looked up sundew.

'Sundew: an insectivorous bog-plant.'

Oh well.

Friday, 12 November 2010

'Is this the real world...?'

Google Maps labelled the island of Calero, just off the Mosquito Coast, as being part of Nicaragua, whereas it's actually claimed by Costa Rica, the dispute having trundled on for about two hundred years.  On this evidence, Nicaragua gently invaded Calero, and is citing Google Maps as its authority - its sole authority - for doing so. 

There was another case recently where someone was allegedly caught on camera stealing a caravan, by Google Street View.  (They couldn't identify the thief, because his numberplate had been pixillated.)

In a few years, will we be hearing, as a defence in court: 'Well, happens all the time on Grand Theft Auto, so it must be all right'?

I could've got away with all sorts of stuff, couldn't I?  'Weren't me, guv, it was Scaramouche done it.'

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Old Song

Listening to me and Rosie's current masterwork, Captain MacKenzie, for the picazillionth time, I couldn't help wondering how it stacked up over the years.  The Captain and his recent companions were recorded on a 16 track Yamaha hard disc recorder, with a host of built-in effects and more bells and whistles than I know what to do with.  Sounds pretty damn good to me, despite all that!

In 1987 (that's right, twenty-three whole  years ago), between marriages, I acquired a (for the money) state of the art recording set-up - a four track Fostex cassette tape recorder, a drum machine and a cheap Yamaha keyboard.  Oh, and an Alesis reverb box (very important!).  Here's a sample of what I managed to come up with.

Looking For Love

OK, it has its flaws, but I'm still quite proud of it.  You had to be ingenious in them days, what with only the four tracks to play with, as any Beatle will tell you.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

New Song

Captain MacKenzie is the latest collaboration from Rosie and me.   She describes it as 'a goosebump tale' - certainly that's what I got when I read her words, and have tried to convey that in the music.  Hope you like it, and it doesn't scare you too much ...

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Old school recorder

For years I'd believed that my most precious musical instrument was my battered, much-repainted and rewired 1964 Fender Telecaster.  I suppose it still is - certainly in monetary terms, probably as an emotional trigger too, that guitar and I have been together to song-loads of places over the stretching years since I bought it from Eddie Moore's music in Boscombe in 1965.

But a challenger for my affections has snuck in from nowhere.  It comes in a brown canvas tube, with LARGE MA IV inked on the outside.  This means Southbourne Prep School, about 1949.  I hadn't really tried to play it since 1967, when we sat in a doorway somewhere in Calabria, jamming out of our skulls, and frightened some children (an event eerily mirrored in Bowie's song 'The Bewley Brothers', which he might have been writing at roughly the same time, a thousand miles away).

Anyway, I needed a kind of flutey sound for Captain MacKenzie to come home to, or from.  Nothing on the keyboard would do the job.  Last weekend I remembered the recorder, and found it sitting abandoned on a shelf in the garage.  I took it out of its case and cleaned it.  Took the mouthpiece off and scratched the string winding to ensure a tight fit, placed my fingers over the holes, left thumb underneath to control the octave, remembered the embouchure and the breathing, all just as I'd learnt when I was eight.  Then I played the tune straight from my head into the microphone.

So that old recorder, somehow containing, unused for decades, all that old memory, deserves to be cherished too. 

The poor old Tele never got a look-in on this song.  Next time.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Just a matter of time

Here's a pretty conundrum.

The clock is the single most significant invention of all time, agreed?  In particular, the version which is round, has two hands and a calibrated dial (we'll leave sundial, water clocks, digital, atomic etc out of it for now, if that's OK by you).  Without it, we wouldn't have had accurate navigation, wage-based employment or Gucci.  But that's not important now.

What suddenly interested me, at  four-fifteen this morning, was the perfection of a time-measurement device which divides the day into two sets of twelve, then each of these into sixty, then allows a calibration of the dial that accomodates not only this fairly complicated set-up, but also presents it in at-a-glance chunks of  minutes (five or ten at a time) and hours (twelve - OK, twenty-four would be more logical, but much harder to read: the designers obviously thought of that).

Except they didn't.  Hours and minutes were invented by the Babylonians, and refined by subsequent civilisations (the hours were originally dependent on the times of sunrise and sunset, which made them variable in length, a defect which took quite a while to spot and correct) so the inventors of the dial clock were in effect stuck with an inherited set of rules for measuring time - which turned out to be exactly perfect.  (Try thinking up a better set, but not if you want to sleep.)

How often does a problem offer such a 'fit for purpose' solution?  Did those Babylonians think "oh yeah, also this'll work really well when they get round to inventing the clock face"?  Or was it just serendipity?  Or was it some kind of intelligent design?  You have to wonder.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Fair enough?

George Osborne informed me on Friday, via my radio, that the cuts are in fact going to be fair, because (I quote, though not verbatim) 'richer people will pay a higher percentage of their income than poorer people'.

OK, let's do a worked example.  All the following numbers are, of course, entirely made up (you don't expect me to do proper research, do you?  For goodness sake!), but the principles hold.  So, take two people, P and R.  P earns £10,000 per annum, R earns £100,000.  Now assume that the cuts affect P to the tune of two per cent, and R by three per cent.  This is what George is calling fair.

So,  my calculator informs me that P will take a hit of just £200, while R will be stung for £3,000.  What could be fairer than that?

Quite a lot, actually.  The problem is that this balance sheet doesn't balance.  To make it do so, we need to consider the impact on each of these people.  So let's introduce the idea that there's a minimum subsistence level - a breadline, if you like - that applies equally to everyone (the basket of commodities used to calculate the Consumer Price Index, for example), and purely for convenience let's set this at £10,000.  To be completely fair, let's give R some credit for achievement and add in an extra bit: three per cent for example.  So P's breadline is £10,000 and R's is £13,000. 

You can see where I'm going, can't you?  When you deduct George's cuts, P is left with £9,800, and R with £97,000, of net income.  P is now living £200 below the breadline, while R has £84,000 of discretionary income above the breadline, as opposed to the previous £87,000.  Hardship if not penury for P.  Slight inconvenience for R.

Fair enough?

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Brazilian butterflies in the supermarket

Chaos theory, one manifestation of which is sometimes called the law of unforeseen consequences, demonstrates mathematically something we all know in our hearts, that great oaks grow from carelessly dropped acorns, sometimes undermining your foundations and causing insurance claims which prove to be the last straw that breaks the back of the global financial camel, etc etc.

Something of this sort must have happened at head office when it was decided that my nearest branch of that top-of-the-market supermarket shall, henceforth, sell 'large appliances'.  This, I was told, means hoovers, fridges and such, rather than obesity trusses.  The shop had already been extended about four years ago (with the principal result, as far as I could tell, of reducing the number of checkouts from twenty to twelve), so that wasn't an option.  Cutting down the stock range was obviously not on either, though I'd personally have settled for a halving of the selection of toilet paper, kitchen roll and washing powder.  So everything else had to be squeezed up to make room for range cookers or whatever.  (Imagine the conversation:  'Darling, have we got everything?'  'I think so, darling, but - don't we need one of these?')

The methodology employed (I always thought that word should refer to 'the study of methods', rather than its common usage, which is a posh way of saying 'method', but in this case I let it stand, as very little actual study seems to have been involved) was not, as it first appeared when I entered the place today, to draw a large map of the store and throw a load of little icons, representing the products, at it to see where they landed.  No, they took a more structured approach, just as a butterfly does when it decides it's time for a wingflap.  If we move the greeting cards up there next to the tonic water, and put one of the two sorts of celery over there by the mangoes, and, and ...  Then, miraculously, a whole empty aisle appears - see? - ready to be filled with freezers and jumbo-sized toasters.

The unforeseen consequence, for me, was that I wasted twenty minutes searching for breadsticks, which turned out to have been moved seven aisles to the south from crisps and snacks, where they'd always been perfectly happy, to reside alongside canned soup and croutons, and I was late for my lunch.  I didn't even have time to drop a new tumble dryer into the trolley.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Caravan Is Closed

I get anxious about all sorts of things, future things, that grow in my mind like little weed seeds over days or weeks - then I get disproportionately euphoric when a simple squirt of the paraquat of real life comes along and solves them, just like that.  Does that make me bipolar or manic/depressive or one of those labels, or maybe just normal?  I don't know.  Do I care?

Closing down the shiny new caravan for the winter was one of these.  Once you grow up, you no longer want to break your shiny new toys, especially as you paid for them yourself.  Drainage was the main issue.  The old van required me to perform contortions that could easily have become another new Olympic sport (blind unscrewing of drain taps with head below ground level, something like that), and then, when I opened up in the Spring, pipes would have burst anyway.  The drain taps on the new one are much more accessible, but carry with them a totally useless set of instructions, which are worth quoting in full:  "Remove binding strips.  Remove insulation surrounding drain taps.  Drain system.  Replace insulation in reverse order." 

Joseph turned up to collect his rent and electricity bill.  "How does this work, then, Joseph?" I asked him.  "Well, ignore all that.  I usually just take the taps off and leave them inside the van," he told me, and showed me how.

So now, that's all done.  The caravan has been drained, cleaned and cocooned until Easter.  Midnight, Saturday night, I looked up, at the last time I'll see the Milky Way until April.  Still, there are comets coming, apparently.  Something to look forward to.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Bored with Blogging

I've been doing this for a while now, never prolifically but always because I felt I had something amusing, or provocative, or at least whimsical to say.  But now, I feel the opposite way.  Actually, that's wrong - 'opposite' suggests only two dimensions, whereas my problem is that I'm getting crowded out by an increasing, potentially infinite, volume of stuff I might write about.  Today's options, just frinstance, have been: final salary pension schemes; Roman warrior's face helmet and the implications of its sale on contemporary moral relativism; George Osborne's possibly botoxed smirk; oddball guitar tunings; and ladybirds (pestilence of).  And those are just the ones I can remember.  (Actually, add in 'neighbourhood watch' and 'wireless video connection' and ...)

You get my point.  How the f am I supposed to choose from that lot?  I'm off to Devon tomorrow, then Kent, then Wales, before I start to settle in to the autumn pre-Christmas hibernation.   So you all have a ten day break from the pressure I know my posts invariably place you under.  Please feel free to inundate me with topics on which you're avid to see my literary gems.  Basically, I just like pissing about with the words.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Rodgers and Hammerstein

I had a long conversation today with a schoolfriend who I hadn't seen for, literally, fifty years.  It was a bit weird to begin with, as you can imagine ("so, what have you been up to ...?")  But we ended up agreeing that the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals were probably the greatest body of artistic work of the twentieth century.  Discuss.

The question of which of them was the very best was left unresolved, but, just as a clue, I stuck on my DVD of "Carousel" this evening, and my many layers of tears of emotion and delight are still welling up. 

What's your vote?

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

La Vendange

Ah yes, two days to October. So, for some weeks it’s been that season when, all across the Northern hemisphere, horny handed peasants have been taking to their fields with their grape-scissors, gathering the harvest from their weighed-down vines and casting the ripe, sweet-smelling bunches into ancient wicker baskets, to be emptied into vast wooden baths and there trodden into fermenting pulp by cackling village crones and delirious olive-coloured bambini; or piled on terracotta platters for the menfolk to pop at lunchtime, one by one, into their juice-stained mouths beside chunks of last year’s Compte or Taleggio and great swigs of a previous treasured vintage … Well, something like that.

I too have this problem, on a smaller scale. Five years ago I accidentally planted a vine, just down near the apple tree, and gave it a puny bit of trellis to climb. ‘Mmm, I like it here’ thought the vine. ‘More trellis, if you please’. Last year, the area of trellis was doubled – but was the creature satisfied? This summer, it’s been aiming for the apple tree. Next year I’ll have to take detours to reach the car.

But that’s nothing. The grapes are the real trouble. They don’t come in huge quantities; it’s the quality. They’re red (that’s fine) but very small. Most of the content is a large pip; and most of the rest is skin, which is tough enough to weave into a handbag or clothe a GaGa. Annoyingly, if you chew one and spit out the resulting waste products, it’s delicious.  (A grape that is, not a handbag or ...)

So, what to do with my crop? Last year I ended up just leaving it there for the pigeons to eat and get drunk on (though I don’t know how you can tell if a pigeon’s drunk – they seem to fall off things regardless). But this time I plan to do better. Here, in brief, is a list of some options I have considered:

Wine. The obvious first choice, recommended by innumerable well-wishers. So I dug my ancient home wine-making manual out of the bottom of the recipe book wardrobe. Sure enough, there are instructions for something called ‘Grape Wine’. (Latour, Ramon Bilbao and co., please do get in touch.) Four pounds of grapes, it said; I can probably muster that much. I have some old demijohns down in the garage, I think. So I read on. The first instruction was ‘Place the grapes in a bowl, add the boiling water and leave for a month, stirring daily.’ So that did it for wine.

Culinary use. There are remarkably few recipes that use grapes. Constance Spry has one which involves halving each grape and stuffing them with cream cheese, to be served on cocktail sticks. Very funny, Constance. Many years ago, faced with an over-purchased glut, I wrote down a recipe for ‘grape puree’, which read: ‘Get some grapes. Puree them. Leave in fridge for three weeks. Throw away.’

Give them away. I’ve tried this. It doesn’t work.

However, I may have hit on the answer. Grape vodka. To be concocted along the lines of sloe gin, which I’ve made many times. It can’t fail, can it? Going to have a go, anyway. It’ll take a few months, so if you don’t hear from me after about February, you’ll know it’s been really successful.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Rainbow over Reading

6.45 p.m. today, just after an earth-shaking electrical storm.
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Sunday, 19 September 2010

On a more serious note ...

Faith and Reason

I listened, as reasonably as I could, to the Pope’s explanation of why John Henry Newman deserves to be recognised in calendars and diaries, celebrated every year on the twentieth of October, beatified (the last step on his road to becoming a full-blown Catholic Saint). The gist of it (leaving out miracles) seemed to be that Newman (who incidentally reneged at a fairly early age from the Protestant religion of his birth to the Church of Rome, for reasons which the Pope chose not to go into) in some way uniquely encapsulated a kind of conjunction of two seemingly opposite, irreconcilable attitudes, or foundations, from which or on which we can base the way we lead our lives and try to affect the way others do – Faith and Reason.

Reconciliation of Faith and Reason. 

Sorry, Pope, I don’t buy it. You are starting from the wrong place. Without getting either too philosophical or too mystical, here’s a nutshell’s worth. Ready?

O.K. All that we start with, all that we possess from the day we’re born, is the input of our senses; and then, as we grow, our power of reason. Neither of these is infallible, or even reliable. I know that my senses are a blunt instrument, otherwise I’d be able to see the spaces in between electrons; and my logic frequently makes mistakes (if you doubt that, just look inside my fridge).

But that does not justify the introduction of a third element to the mix, this thing called Faith.

Let’s be quite clear: by Faith, we are not talking about the day-to-day power which enables us to fail to notice electron collisions or fridge contents.  On religion’s own terms, we are explicitly talking about belief in God; and by that the Pope explicitly means, again in his own terms, belief in the monotheistic God of the Abrahamic religious systems. But that’s not the end: by virtue of the insistence on that particular belief set, we are also instructed to subscribe, unthinkingly, unreasoningly, to the body of legalistic (at best), perverse (at worst) dogma and practice which has stuck, like congealing effluent, to the pure core of that belief. How precisely does that chain of reason, or leap of faith, lead to the beatification and sanctification of John Henry Newman?

I have, as I said, followed the events of the last four days quite closely, because I do think (believe? am advised by my observation or my logic?) that this stuff’s important. And that worries me.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Papal Beef

So, "atheist extremism" and "aggressive secularism", eh?

Right: tailor-made international charter flights (on time); custom-built bullet-proof Mercedes skyscraper; one-off rock-festival podium and sound system; phalanx of black-suited bodyguards straight out of Reservoir Dogs; costumes that would make Kiss blush; orchestrated cheering weeping street mobs; twenty-four hour uncritical media coverage; oh yes, and £15m+ of public money.  (Have I missed anything?)

Looks pretty aggressively extreme to me, at least in marketing terms.  Not many atheists get that lot.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Word music

I enjoy reading, as you know.  And it appears that as time goes on, the content of what I read matters less and less.  Written words sometimes aspire to the state of music; and the more abstruse the music, the more I like it.  I'm not thinking of bad writing, that's just boring; nor of deliberately obfuscatory scrivening (see what I did there?), which is just people who think they're clever.  No, I'm thinking of a piece of writing which is clearly taut, focussed, finely honed - but which has a subject, syntax and vocabulary of which I know absolutely nothing, and yet which grips me as only the very best poetry can do.

OK, here it is, my weekly treat: Victoria Coren, in the Guardian, on poker.  A correspondent recently rightly suggested that her column is best read, out loud or in your mind's ear, in a De Niro or Pacino accent, as if it were a clip from Goodfellas or The Godfather.  Try it.  The great thing is that, probably, none of us has a clue what it means, or indeed if it actually means anything, or whether she's just having us on.  So, yeah, just like the very best poetry.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Wounded in Wales

I’d been to Barafundle Bay many times before, of course, but I hadn’t got lost in the sand dunes since, oh, when would it have been? We debated this as we tried to discern, with the aid of the rapidly disintegrating National Trust leaflet and my brother’s iPhone, which of the five sandy paths before us was most likely to take us towards the Permissive Path which would lead us down to the Eastern Arm of Bosherstone Ponds. In sand dunes, maps don’t help – people think they need to go that way or this way, set out through the scrub and before you know it you have a new path, one never to appear on any map.

The first time, we decided, could have been about 1949 or 50, when he was a babe in arms. But he remembered something more recent. “I got stung by a wasp.” This must have been four or five years later. “We’ll watch out for it, then,” I said. “You don’t want it to sting you again.” “Or one of its ancestors.” “Or descendents even.” He remembered being terrified by the steep descent from the walk across from Stackpole down to the beach; there probably wasn’t a wall back then, but even so it’s only about sixty feet. Heights, we agreed, reduce as one gets taller. Cliffs Kill! Said the banal sign at Stackpole. “No they don’t. It’s the injuries when you fall off them that kill.”

Barafundle is the greatest beach in the world, everyone knows that. Sweeping soft sand, a gentle curve of shore, serrated granite cliffs to each side, even a promontory with a hole through it, dunes behind stretching back forever. No car park, so only those who know how to walk can get there. But we couldn’t linger: we had to get to Bosherstone, the Lily Ponds, and the pub.

It’s remarkable that no injuries had been incurred yet, as we entered the pub. Brambles, nettles, gorse, tree roots, a plethora of dangerous-looking insects – and actually, probably, the occasional adder. Threats aplenty. True, Val had fallen off a chair back at the caravan the day before and grazed (and possibly nettle-stung – to my shame I found I had no antihistamine cream in my pathetic medical stock) her arm (and she already had a bad back), and I had arrived on Thursday with the tail-end of a fit of gastro-enteritis, contained by industrial administrations of cement pills and pink gungey stuff – but otherwise, unscathed.

The first wound occurred in the gents’ toilet back at Stackpole Quay. A door, I discovered, when presented open edge-on, is almost invisible. Invisible enough, at any rate, to draw blood when it encounters a fast-moving sandaled toe. Middle toe, right foot, since you ask. National Trust cafes don’t stock plasters, nor any form of medication apart from tissues. Their outside seating areas do however, stock a plentiful supply of wasps. Evasive and distractive actions were taken over the tea and scones (“put the jam over there”), and nobody got stung.

Sunday afternoon, after they’d left and I was having a post-lunch snooze on the sofa in the van, occasionally opening my eyes to peruse my sea view and compare it to the Barafundle in my mind, I woke up to a pricking sensation in the shin of my right leg (the one with the busted toe). I looked down. There was a glowing red patch spreading out from a white core. “Hmm,” I thought. “That’s a wasp sting.”

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Sympathy for insects

On one of my three favourite blogs, The Last Word on Nothing, Ann has been conducting a campaign against the admittedly sometimes abhorrent behaviour of some of our arthropodal cousins.  Some of it makes gruesome reading.  But, in the interests of balance, I thought I'd pass on this delightful snippet from today's Guardian:   Zombie carpenter ant fungus

Enjoy your meal.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Caravan diaries (cont'd)

I came home a day earlier than I'd intended, to avoid the Pembrokeshire rain.  I couldn't face a rainy Monday sitting in the caravan staring out at the grey Pembrokeshire drizzle.  Pembrokeshire rain is about as depressing as rain gets.  I remember a family August holiday in 1958 when it rained Pembrokeshire rain constantly for three weeks.  The parents were, I imagine, desperate for diversions for us three kids, not to mention themselves - but they never showed it, or if they did, I never noticed.  I spent the whole time writing an imitation Peter Cheyney Lemmy Caution detective novel, with a pencil.  Now, I'm sitting here in Reading wishing for rain, preferably of the Pembrokeshire sort.

Meanwhile, down there, the Pointyheads have arrived.  They don't appear very often, but when they do they are even better entertainment than the rabbits, the woodpeckers (who persist in trying to chop down the poles holding up the electric power lines) or the incompetent jetskiers.  The Pointyheads arrive with three bikes strapped vertically on the top of their old 4x4.  Mr Pointyhead is very tall, skeletally thin, and has a very pointy head, even without his helmet.  He spends an hour (I timed it) removing the bikes from the car roof and stowing them behind one of his two toolsheds (which are never opened).  Mrs and Ms Pointyhead disappear into their caravan and are never seen again.  Various other mysterious procedures take place over the next few hours (two inexplicable eight-foot long poles are removed from the caravan and ensconsed behind the toolsheds), interspersed by long intervals where Mr Pointyhead stands very still and stares perplexedly at whatever it is he's just done.  Next morning he gets out his super-hi-tech racing bike, rides it round the field a couple of times to make sure its seven or eight moving parts have survived the journey, and whizzes off down the slope to ... 

Well, wherever he's going, really. 

Monday, 2 August 2010

I was in two minds ...

... (always a good place to be if you want to get through twice the work, as long as you avoid the white coats) whether to write about el sistema or the banks.  So I (we?) decided to do both.

Mind # 1: well, that's easy.   This tells you all you need to know, to kick off, about this inspirational Venezuelan project that's transforming the lives of deprived kids, in every way from the economically physical to the emotionally behavioural, through the medium of music - and which has just started up a spinoff in a degenerated part of Scotland.  Just have a look, I promise you'll love it and want to dig deeper.

Oh dear, the banks.  Mind # 2  is off to pour itself a glass of wine, because anaesthesis is the only way to deal with this sad but important quagmire.  Fortunately, thanks to a little-known internet portal, I have direct access to the questions that were spinning through the deep subconscious nightmare minds of the CEOs in the lead-up days to their profit declarations.  Space doesn't permit a full list, nor does credulity (nor ennui), but here are just a few.  Beancounters' responses shown in [brackets].
  • How does charging risky businesses three times as much interest as non-risky ones help them to become less risky?  [They piss off to an even more stupid bank, or go bust.  WGAF?]
  • Should I tell the shareholders how much of the £7bn (HSBC) came from derivatives trading or short selling?  [Probably not.]
  • Should we be offering £1bn of the £7bn to flood relief in NW Pakistan?  There'd still be six left over for us.  [Where?  OK, put us down for 100K.]
  • How does selling 318 branches help anybody who lives near them?  [Dunno, ask Brussels.  Glad to be shot of 'em.]
  • Yes, but how does it help the customers?  [Don't understand.  Who?]
  • What am I here for?  [To serve us.]
  • Is there a God?  [Oh yes.  But not on our balance sheet.]

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Loss of E

Ages ago, I wrote a post bewailing the (temporary, as it turned out) loss of the letter Q from my keyboard, and as a punchline thanked the lord it wasn't E.  Rosie commented 'hop it gts fixd', which still makes me laugh when I think of it, as I did for absolutely no reason just now.

So, how many words can you put down, on your blog or in your book, without using that lost button?  Intriguing, I think.  An author, long ago, did a full book of it.  So far, I can just about attain this short paragraph.  What a stupid task to try, what a daft ambition!  I'm going to stop this right now, it's starting to turn a bit silly, not to say into an addiction ...  I'm off for a gin.  And tonic.  Chrs.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Orange Colored Sky

I was sitting around, minding my business - when I stepped outside, an hour after sunset and the thunderstorm, and the sky was full of bright orange clouds ...  Nat King Cole and Stan Kenton

Wednesday, 21 July 2010


Watch the behaviour of my pigeons, as they decide whether or not to come down and have a much needed drink from my blanket-weeded pond, and then if so, how to go about it.  It's high comedy, up there with the best of Buster Keaton or Jaques Tati.  And the reason?  They're not applying normal human rules of rational behaviour (well, they're not normal humans, to be fair - that applies to Keaton, Tati and the birds), and that makes them look funny.  Comedians obviously know and exploit this (pigeons don't, they just do it because that's how pigeons are.  So I shouldn't really laugh at them, but WTF.).

So it was interesting to read an  interview the other day with Ricky Gervais, a comedian who has made a bit of a career out of that sort of (fictional) exploitation of irrational incongruity, in which he banged on at length, and quite funnily, about the sanctity of 'facts'.  In a nutshell, you're allowed to say 'he wasn't funny' (opinion), but not 'nobody laughed' (fact; of course facts, as I understand the word, have to be verifiable, maybe actually nobody did laugh ...  but that's leading me further into the murky streams of the scientific method than I have space to dip right now ...)

(the plain people of ireland : will ye come to the point now? We're tired of all this philosophisation.)

Oh yes, sorry.  Rationality is the inability to hold six contradictory opinions before breakfast.  Contradiction is easily detected, by the application of one or two elementary logical constructs, the best of which is the syllogism.  So when Nick Clegg says that a) our troops will be out by 2014 (first premise), b) our troops will be out only when conditions on the ground permit (second premise), this syllogism leads to only one conclusion: conditions on the ground will permit withdrawal by 2014.  No other conclusion is admissible.  So why didn't he say that? 

Two explanations are possible.  One, he doesn't understand the simple rules of logic.  Or, two, he's trying to disguise a lie with rhetoric.  I suspect both.

Why isn't simple logic a mandatory subject on the national curriculum?  Oh no, of course, they're abolishing that, aren't they?  Just don't tell the pigeons.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Odd-numbered organs and octopi

I posted a few weeks ago to the effect that the bee might be the only creature with an odd number (greater than one) of organs, i.e. three eyes (turns out it's actually five, of two different sorts - thanks Sue!).

I now find, courtesy of Paul the World Cup predictor, that an octopus has three hearts.  How about that for over-redundancy?  Even BP didn't think of putting in more than one blow-out preventer.  They do, however, meet the second definition of octopus in my beloved dictionary, which is "a person or organisation with widespread influence".

Chambers usually avoids value judgements, as dictionaries should, so isn't explicit about the nature of the "widespread influence" in question; but I imagine I can see or hear the raised eyebrow and the sniff.  You wouldn't call BP an octopus as a compliment, would you?  Actually, it's a slight - BP doesn't have even one heart.

Sadly, your average octopus apparently lives for only three to five years, despite all those hearts (it must be exhausting keeping all those tentacles going, though).  This analogy is starting to wear a bit thin, isn't it?  So, to close on a lighter note, a prize to the first to answer this question: "what's the plural of octopus?"

Monday, 12 July 2010

A visit to the Globe Theatre on the Occasion of the World Cup Final


Hot, how hot, how hot, how humid, hot!
And that’s just here in my cool windowed plot!
Withstand that walk to Great Western’s fell lair,
Train, taxi, sun on my thinning hair?
And that’s just Journey – then six hours or more
Of Good Will’s Henry, One and Two of Four.
How shall we survive?

If England’s weak
Faltering knights by miracle should make
The semis, nay the finals, ‘gainst the Hun
(or whoso else hath made it through by then)
Faith, then I swear by fab Capello’s pox
At home I’ll bide and watch it on the box.

Don’t be such wimps! The tickets all are paid
For, months ago, we’re seated in the shade
(I think), and at the breaks your fevered brains
By ale shall slaked be.

I’d prefer champagne.


How can these words so dry and old on th’page
I read last week, (to capture and assuage
The need, should heat o’ercome me, to attend) –
How a simple actor, Allam, doth befriend
Us, dry ‘Sir John’ to Falstaff’s wit-fired heat – ?

I thought it was really good.
Me too. Let’s eat.

Sounds good –
I need a wee –
Don’t tell me the score –
– sounds good to me.


Proud Spain has won, the cup bestowed
Foul and fair, the plays are played
Great Western ploughs its weary road
Back to hotspurred homes – but stay!
Shall we replay, xenophobes?
Shall we return to Shakespeare’s Globe?

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Value for money

I heard yesterday that the careers advisory service in a local authority near me, which goes into schools and tries to help teenagers, not just to find a job but also to explore and maybe overcome the social, familial and personal impediments to this goal, is to be closed down, on the grounds that it is deemed not to deliver "value for money".  In the conversation, I took an accountancy approach: I understand the money bit, it's their budget; but let's see the other side of the ledger, value: put a price, in pounds, on the swim or sink outcome, for the rest of their lives, of each of those kids, please - then and only then can you draw up that balance sheet.  These bastards need to be challenged on their own ground.

O.K., that's straightforward enough.  But, reflectively, I started to ponder this concept of "value".  If we're to take this onslaught seriously, we need counter-arguments.  And, given that by my own admission the "value" side isn't going to be couched in financial terms - I've just demonstrated the banal futility of that - then we need to shift the ground.  You put your money down - I'll call or raise you with my value.

So, as I often do, I resorted to the dictionary.  (Chambers, if you want to check up on me.)  "Value" is of course variously defined, but the most apposite one here, I think, is "intrinsic worth or goodness".  I'd settle for that, in a room with a bean-counter, but let's go a step further.  "Intrinsic: genuine, inherent, essential".  "Worth: moral excellence".  Moral excellence: ponder that, bean-counter ... and also a definition of worth that teeters toward poetry: "deserving, justifying, meriting, repaying or warranting consideration, attention, the effort, the journey, taking some action ..."

I rest my case.  And I didn't even get round to "goodness".

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Funny how time slips away

A weird thing happened forty minutes ago (at least I think it's forty).  I usually watch the BBC1 six o'clock news, which lasts for just under half an hour, when we get the weather forecast and then across to the regional news.  (I'm sure you already know this, but bear with me, the timings are important, not least because the end of the weather is my Pablovian trigger to go and pour a G&T.)

Anyway, at 6.20, that's six twenty, Susan Powell was cued up to do the forecast, and George then handed us over to 'South Today'.  I wouldn't have minded this, I am still capable of overriding pre-programmed synapses even at my age - maybe there was a party political or charity appeal coming up - except that George said, handing over to Sally Taylor: 'and now it's coming up to half past six, and it's time to hand over to ...'

I checked my watch.  It's twenty past six.  I checked several other time sources, which agreed.  I switched off the TV, which was probably a mistake.  The BBC has stolen ten minutes, I thought.  I've just read 'Ghostwritten' by David Mitchell, which plays, amongst many others, with the idea  that time is not necessarily absolute or sequential, according to the physics; which didn't help.  But just for a moment there - and this is the good bit - I felt as if the ground, or the sky, or both, had tilted slightly as time momentarily slipped away.

Then I went and poured myself that gin.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Honeysuckle Rose (with Apples)

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Immigration, football: are they connected?

No more the vuvu's wild zanzara whine
No more the fumbled backpass into space ...

(Sorry, I've been rereading Summoned by Bells, so everything I think tends to come out as Betjemanesque blank verse ('weary and worried the supermarket queue' etc etc)).

But, I was hearing on the radio just now from a healthcare professional about the difficulty of recruiting staff from overseas with the required language and technical skillsets ...  Well, lack of language and technical skill seems to be a required qualification in the English football context, doesn't it?   It's not an exact parallel: in healthcare it's the more menial skills that are hard to import, rather than the managerial ones; and we can't import the menial workers (i.e. players), because that wouldn't be cricket, and we're not Germany. 

But again, the common whinge about England's so-called team has been 'these are world-class players in the Premier League, why can't they perform as well in the national side?'  The answer, of course, is that in the Premier League club team they're surrounded by proper world-class-plus players, who enable them to shine in their own modest way - and who all happen to be immigrants.  Outside this sheltered world, they are revealed as, not so much professional carers, more the carehome patients they are, now, about to become.

Still, the Government is about to ban (well, severely restrict) immigration of skilled labour from outside the EU, so that should do the trick for 2014.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

How many eyes make five?

My Collins 2010 Diary has a trivia/pub quiz question for each day of the year, with the answer conveniently printed, upside down, below the question.  The entry for 24 June is 'How many eyes does a bee have?'  Answer: 5.

I passed this information on in a comment on a rather grumpy, bee-related post by a fellow-blogger, in the hope that it would cheer her up (I think it did!).  But then I wondered: can this be so?  If it is, then it's the only example I know of a creature having an odd number (one excepted, of course) of any organ.  (My blogging partner obviously did some exhaustive research on this phenomenon, because her follow-up comment was 'How strange is that?')

Wikipedia is oddly (sorry, no pun meant) reticent on the subject.  Its bee entry (which is suspiciously hard to find) doesn't mention eyes, except for a scary profile picture on which something called 'composite eye' is labelled.  They don't tell you how many components there are to this, but assuming that our bee has two composites, it would have to be two-and-a-half for each, wouldn't it?  This seems unlikely.  Perhaps my diary only counted one eye.  Hah, Collins!

The research must continue, given the power bees apparently have over the survival of our environment (not to mention the honey and its impact on bears of little brain).  But I can't do it.  My mind has shifted to the related, and equally challenging, topic of bee's knees.

Of course, the diary item was for ten days time, so as the Boss says, 'none of this has happened yet' ...

Thursday, 10 June 2010


As I lay awake in my bed in the caravan, breathing, unable to sleep for the sound of the waves crushing the pebbles on the beach down below, and the way they counterpointed with my heartbeat as it pounded up into my ear through the pillow, I thought about the pulse of life, and where it comes from.  The sea, the breath, the heart.

We started in the sea, then crawled out, so that wave pulse must be somehow dissolved into our bodies.  We grew lungs and hearts that have to breath and beat rhythmically, or we die.  So those are where it comes from.

But then we learnt to walk!  And once you no longer need to walk just to survive, eventually you find out how to dance.  And once you've got the hang of walking and dancing, you have the fundaments of humanity.  Everything else follows.  So, civilisation is founded in the rhythm of the sea, isn't it?

I'll dance to that!

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Caravan diaries

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Remember this, anyone?  When I was his age, I fought my parents for the right to go swimming before the end of May.  Immersing oneself in icy water (and this was Bournemouth, tropical compared to Pembrokeshire) for hours on end was an essential desire.  I'm inclined to think, now, that I must have been mad (I put my feet in for about thirty seconds last Wednesday afternoon, on a scorching hot day at Wisemans Bridge, and they went white); but Cyrus would've stayed there, jumping waves, until the sun had set.  'Aren't you cold?' I asked him when he eventually deigned to come out; I can't express in words quite how his 'no' made me feel: 'old' is one of them, 'mad' perhaps another.  Are children madder than grown-ups?

The 50th birthday party on Saturday, in and around a caravan just up the field, was very Welsh.  Wales had just lost honourably to South Africa at the rugby, which lent an air of, how can I put it, celebratory desolation to the proceedings.   Ribaldry occurred (one lady, having selected a veggieburger and so accused of being a vegetarian, replies tartly 'I don't eat meat - ask my husband'), but the best part was the singing.  Three old guys (who all turned out to be younger than me) did three part harmonies, in beautiful tenor voices, to everything from maudlin welsh-language valley ballads through Tom-Jonesish slush to Buddy Holly and the Evs.  I joined in where I could, and was asked what I feel to be two highly complimentary questions: 'are you in a choir?' and 'are you Welsh?'

Main wildlife sightings: a little bird which I firmly believe to be a pied wagtail, though it doesn't wag as much ('incessantly') as the book says it should (perhaps it's reworking its image); and a baby rabbit, no bigger than your two hands, who bounced out from a hole onto the patio and then back, before I could grab it by the ears.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Pythagorean plant?

Anybody know what this is?

(And don't say 'some plant' if you want to retain my friendship.)  It seeded itself a few weeks ago and has been growing like a triffid. 

The reason I mention it is that it's the only plant I've ever seen that has worked out what a right angle is.  Take a closer look, from above:

Those leaves are at exact ninety degree angles to each other, in opposing pairs all the way down the stem, north-south, east-west, etcetera.  This is extraordinary.  Plants aren't supposed to be able to do geometry, are they?

Pythagoras discovered the right angle, on which, dare I say, much of human achievement has since been built.  (If you don't believe me, read 'Why does E=mc squared?' by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, which lucidly traces Einstein's theory of relativity directly from Pythagoras's famous theorem.  (You'll have to work your brain a bit though.))

So, it appears that this humble weed has, all by itself, grown one of the greatest achievements of the human intellect.  It deserves at least a name for that.  Anybody recognise it?

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Caravan Diaries

Early on Friday evening I was sitting in the van, nursing a drink and studying the way the field slopes down to the sea, past half a dozen dark unoccupied caravans: at that time, I think I was the sole inhabitant of the park, something that always gives me a strange feeling, exhilaratingly creepy.

The field was full of rabbits.  Rabbits of all sizes from new-born bunnies to grand old bucks.  I counted 25, though that may include some duplicates.  Without going all horribly Watership Down on you, I can provide you with the following guidelines should you ever need to impersonate a rabbit in the spring:

1. Make sure no humans are in sight, come out onto your field and start eating grass.
2. Another rabbit will soon emerge close to you.  When this happens, abandon grass-eating and engage instead in acrobatic break-dancing with your partner, including somersaults.
3. For absolutely no reason, both abruptly cease leaping around and go back to eating grass.
4. Repeat until it gets too dark or a human appears (hint to humans: rabbits can't see through glass). 
5. Scarper off to your burrow, presumably to do whatever it is rabbits do in the dark.

On Saturday, returned from a low tide walk over to Monkstone Point with my friends, I'm back in the van, watching again, when a partridge (not a pheasant, I looked it up) strutted across the patio.  'Oh, hello', I couldn't stop myself saying.  The partridge looked superciliously up at me.  'And who are you, pray?'  it said.

We also saw a daddy blackbird plucking worms from the ground and feeding them to his nipper, who was several sizes bigger than him.

Never a dull moment!  And I haven't even started to tell you about the fridge.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Head or heart?

I'd done the simple calculation ages ago: there was no way that the LibDem was going to overtake either of the others.  The 2005 figures (rounded) were: Labour 19000 (45%), Cons 14000 (34%), LibDem 7000 (16%), on a turnout of 55% of an electorate of 72000.  So I had to vote tactically - Labour in order to keep out the Tory.  But it stuck in my craw.  I was about to search out a suitable clothespeg.

But this afternoon I decided to have a closer look (well, it was that or wash the kitchen floor).  I made a few not unreasonable assumptions, and came up with a surprising conclusion. 

The Labour vote in 05 was 8% down on 01, largely as an anti-war reaction.  That it wasn't down further was due to the popularity of our great constituency MP Martin Salter, who has now retired.  So I thought it reasonable to assume that the new Labour candidate would lose this personal vote, especially as he's been helicoptered in from Essex.  So, I thought, reduce let's Labour's share by another 12%.

Assume that the Tory vote here is more or less unchanged.  34% seems about right.  The candidate is local, and seems unobjectionable (apart from his politics).

Apply the national swing to the LibDems, so up from 16 to say 28%.   The candidate is, again, local.

All the above is based on the 2005 turnout of 55%.

But then, assume that turnout is going to increase dramatically.  This is a politically aware constituency (personal knowledge confirms this).  I have factored in a 75% turnout.  I've also, controversially, applied the increase in the ratio of 25% Labour, 25% Tory, 50% LibDem.  (I think this is ungenerous to the LibDems).

Running all that through the calculator, it comes out at near enough 17000 votes for each of the three parties.  Would you believe it?

So, guess what I'm doing tomorrow morning?  That's right, looking again at my maths, checking out the relative health of my head and my heart, then trolling across to Cranberry Road to cast my vote. 

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Can we have the election right now please?

Should be easy.  There are red, blue and yellow buttons on my remote.  There's even a green one.  UKIP can press the 'off' button by mistake because they're pissed.  Everyone else can apply for a postal vote. 

I'm too tired to do an in-depth analysis of the content, so on artistic impression, in reverse order:

3: David Cameron.  Sweaty and shifty.  Consistently answered questions and challenges with evasions and accusations.
2: Gordon Brown.  Second rather than last mainly because he didn't smile so much.  But he did shake his head rather a lot. 
And the winner is -----
1: NICK CLEGG.  A pitch-perfect blinder of a performance.  In a word, charisma.

So there we have it.  As I said yesterday, now we've got that out of the way, this is where it gets nasty.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Who's blown it best?

Given that we're in the most Presidential TV election ever (and I'm not just talking U.K. here), TV moments by the party leaders are much more important than they should be.  So who's ahead on the gaffometer so far?

Well, Clegg did a pretty good job at the weekend, explaining that he'd never ever deal with a first-but-third-place Labour ('absolutely' was his actual word - I think that's longhand for 'yes' usually, but in this instance meant 'no'), then explaining that when he said Labour he really meant Gordon, then clarifying that when he said Gordon he really meant, well, something not quite that precise.  So we'll wait and see on that one.  But he did say it all on camera, and presumably knew this, even though he might have had an 'oh shit' moment afterwards.

This can't be said for Brown, and it makes it worse for him.  Oh, when will they ever learn to make sure the mic is off before they show their true selves - in this case, tired, petulant, churlish, hypocritical and vindictive (but hey, we already knew all that, didn't we)?  Ronald Reagan nuked Russia under similar circumstances, but at least when it was leaked we all knew (or prayed) that he was joking.  Gordon wasn't joking, in fact I don't think he knows how to, unless running an accurately programmed and carefully tested brown-app.  Which he'll contrive to screw up anyway.

As for Cameron, he hasn't had quite such an in-the-face TV moment as yet, more an accumulation of mini-ones, a sludge slide rather than a volcano.  So the flop has yet to drop, at least until this time tomorrow.  After that, they'll think it's all over, but I reckon the fun is about to start.  Seven Days In May.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Effects of Ash

I visited the Datchet folk last night. Datchet is directly under what used to be the Heathrow flight path, about two miles out. The first time I went there, twenty years ago, was a hot Sunday in July, a barbeque lunch. We sat around sipping our Pimms and chatting. Suddenly a 747 roared overhead, so low you could have reached up and spun its wheels. I had to stop myself clutching my ears (and I've heard loud in my time, believe me) - but everyone else just carried on talking - they didn't even notice it! I thought then: what is this doing to these people's long-term mental equilibrium?

Last night, it wasn't like that. It was so quiet you could hear the racket of the birds as the sun set. And I thought: is the equilibrium being disturbed here? Are these folk going to suffer from this unexpected sensory deprivation? Will they be able to cope with the quietness?

They've gone to Jersey now, on a boat, to be introduced to a new puppy.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

The First Debate

Against the odds, riveting TV! I started, as did we all, waiting for the first gaff, sweaty moment or watch-glance. Well, actually, I think I saw Gordon check his watch whilst Dave was speaking, about 11 mins in - the first move, I reckon, in a strategy to rebrand him as a knowing post-ironic icon. His first joke, possibly the only one of the night, came six minutes later, thanking the Tories for showing him smiling in some of their hatchet-wielding posters; he did smile, over the 90 minutes, quite a lot more than the other two, often quite disarmingly.

So, how did they do? Well, all three very well, given the circs etc. Brown was as relaxed as I've ever seen him (I chose those words carefully). Clegg played to his considerable sixth-form debating society skills. And Cameron - well, he didn't come over as all that toffish really. Although, on body language, he was definitely the worst, I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt here - whereas Nick and Gordon could turn sideways to give the impression of listening when anyone else was speaking, David, being in the middle, couldn't really manage this trick without giving an impression of a failed hula hoop player. But staring straight stonefacedly ahead did come dangerously close to a Nixon moment once or twice.

On content: I thought I heard a few radically new proposals from Gordon, but I'm afraid I haven't had time to read any of the manifestos yet, and there certainly wasn't any clear blue water (cliche-watch: nobody's said that yet!). The NIC/JobTax thingie came up a couple of times - I really don't understand why Gordon doesn't nail this once and for all by proving, as he can, that it will make hardly any difference to employment levels and is a blatant political ploy by the Tories' business allies - but that aside, the fact is that there really isn't much space for game-changing political tub-thumping manoeuvre. Not until we get this economy stuff sorted out, anyway. And then we won't need it.

The key buzz-phrase, though, does seem to have been 'I agree with Nick'. Let's see how that plays next time.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Election trivia

Apparently, Gordon entered his manifesto launch on Monday to the strains of 'I'm a Soul Man'. (The laws of nature are obviously no impediment to British politics). Anyway, a Guardian journalist ascribed this song to 'Gordon's late cousin, James'. Not Marina Hyde at her best, but there's a wide open goal there which I aimed a letter at, to the effect that it was cheeky of Gordo to lay claim to this song when it so obviously belonged to Sam and Dave ...

The Guardian totally missed the point and published a po-faced factual correction the next day.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Election reality fever

The options being lock myself into a cupboard for three weeks or engage, I chose the latter. It's too late to retrofit last week's hot number - national insurance contributions, in case you'd remembered to forget - (although, why not, just a quick reminder: 100+ 'business leaders' (out of how many exactly?) say that we must vote Tory otherwise they'll sack us because they can't afford the extra £50 or whatever docked from their bonuses/share options - even though they pay most of their staff less than the £20K cut-off level).

Anyway, there'll be regular, if not frequent, rants (raves unlikely, trivia probable) here for the duration. To kick off, did anyone (I ask the entire universe outside this room) see Paxman interviewing Clegg this evening? (Probably not, it clashed with Corrie). Well, Nick cleaned up! By the end, Paxo was reduced to on-mike spluttering and coughing, while Clegg landed delicately targetted judo chops (sometimes not so delicate - 'what planet are you on, Jeremy' - you could almost hear the missing f-word before 'planet') to the soft spots of the rabid pub-bore rottweiller. Lesson for Jeremy - when you've been outwitted, duck and move. I do wonder, however, why the Beeb staged the interview in what appeared to be a very clean multi-storey car park.

More next time.

Monday, 5 April 2010

New caravan

The call came from Joseph last Monday. "The van's sited. Should be able to connect the electrics, probably most of the plumbing, and Phil's moving heaven and earth to get the gas up and running on Thursday, so ..." I said I'd be down Thursday. He said "what time?" I said late afternoon. I could hear the relief, an extra few hours.

I get there about 3.30.  Joseph and Peter are crawling around under the van on tarpaulins, in Pembrokeshire rain. The entrance to this spanking new caravan is caked in mud. Nearly done, says Henry, few snags, sorry we can't connect the soakaway drains for the bathroom but the kitchen's OK. And look, here's Phil the gasman, and his lad, also called Phil.

I nod and smile, knackered after a wet four hour drive, and start to unload the car, across 100 yards of sodden grass. Normally I'd drive across to the van, but it's obvious that the car would sink in to its ankles if I tried, and I really don't want to ask Joseph to go and get the tractor to tow me out. (This happened once.)

So I unload and survey my domain while Joseph and Peter and the Phils do their stuff for me, outside in the rain. Finally everything's installed and tested, and I should be unpacking the four huge boxes and six huge bags which we parked in the living room three weeks ago when Linda, Alan and I downloaded the contents of the old caravan. That was difficult - I had to be a bit hard, discard some memories and mistakes. I told Linda to throw away a collection of champagne corks, each dated. (She didn't. The last one, I see, was September 2007.)

Finally, I'm installed, to basic camping standards. And now I can pour a drink, sit and remind myself why I did this. It's six-thirty, Thursday evening. The rainclouds have cleared and the sun is setting behind the trees on Peggy's Hill to my right, and before me is the sweep of Carmarthen Bay, from Monkstone Point across Worms Head and the Gower to the distant glow of Swansea thirty miles away - all through the panoramic picture front window. I could never be bored here. Just keeping up with the changes to the surface of the sea takes all your time.

I'll be back down there in a couple of weeks, to finish installing the fridge and the TV and the stereo. I might never come back. Come and visit me.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010


This is how to put photos where you want them within your blog.
  1. Write your blog, in part or full as you wish.
  2. When you want to insert a photo, use the 'Add Image' icon to select and upload the photo. It will always appear at the top of the post.
  3. Click 'Edit HTML' at the top RH corner. You'll see a lot of gobbledegook at the top of the post - that's the photo! You can now cut/copy and paste this stuff to wherever you want within the post.
  4. Switch back to 'Compose' and you'll see the result.

Simple, isn't it? SO WHY ISN'T IT????

Experiment results follow:

photo 1 follows

Some more text - photo 2 follows

final text - if you've read this far - am I an idiot, or senile, or a senile idiot, or all three, for not twigging this simple procedure from the outset? Or am I still missing the easy way?


The Guardian has been running a correspondence in its letters page, people out-clicheing each other for what seems like, ooh, a year and a day. Trouble is, you can't keep up. Cliches are now entirely the province of journalism, and journalists' job is to keep one jump ahead of the zeitgeist: so journo A coins a killing phrase on day 1; day 2, journo 2 schticks it into an article or leader; day 3, it's a brand-new cutting-edge cliche. Day 4, it's in a letter to the Guardian.

But, a letter today suggested that the latest one might be 'I did nothing wrong'. Now that's wrong. The correct formulation is 'I did nothing against the rules'. And that's an important distinction, albeit one with an increasingly (decreasingly?) small difference. Notions of what is right or wrong are blurring into notions of what is legal or illegal. Which brings me neatly to Lord Ashcroft.

I had an enlightening conversation the other evening with a fairly eminent and well-informed person who was able, from direct experience, to confirm my impression that the Lord had had it set up, in 1999, in such a way that the tax regime would be totally legal, would conform in any superficially apparent way to the undertakings given to Hague, and wouldn't questioned (or even noticed) for, let's say, ten years - "which of course gave him ten years' worth of tax, whatever", as my friend put it.

Anyway, WTF. What goes around comes around - and a week's a long time, as the saying goes.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Road Rage Record

I needed to write this down, and thought the blog was as good a place as any. I don't expect comments or anything, though they're of course always welcome. At the least, you'll be able to witness the fact that I wrote the record within 24 hours of the incident (this is mostly a transcription of my notes made during today).

Monday 15 March 5.30 - 6.00 p.m.

  • I'm on my way through Reading to pick up Kate for an evening with Linda and Alan in Datchet.
  • I'm tailgated (2 metres behind me) along Tilehurst Road and down Castle Hill by a white BMW reg T 758 JUR. (It's driven, I later find, by a scouser called P. Pickering. Mobile number 07532 169533)
  • At the roundabout he jumps a red light and takes the right hand lane (IDR) on the slip road. I catch up in the LH lane for Mill Lane.
  • He takes the IDR, then cuts in to the next slip road, trying to get in front of everyone but ending up behind me, ducking and weaving through the traffic so that he ends up in the middle lane, me in the right lane, both following signs and road markings to join Mill Lane (you really need a map to follow this, it's a very complicated junction, but just bear with me - at this point, we're both in the correct lane for where we want to go, even though he's broken at least three laws to get there).
  • Mill Lane starts as two lanes which merge into one. The signs say 'merge in turn'. He's a car's length behind me, to my left, so I signal left and prepare to merge ahead of him. He decides at this point to accelerate, still desperate to be in front - and sideswipes my car with his front bumper.
  • We pull up in the hatched area where the lanes merge.


  • We get out and inspect the damage. It was a minor impact - a graze. No real damage to my car, a bit of loose bumper trim on his.
  • Notwithstanding, he immediately opens up a tirade of abuse and threat which scares me (I'm a physical coward at the best of times, and have still, after 65+ years, not evolved a working set of responses to this kind of stuff).
  • My recollections of just a few of his choice phrases - it'll give you a flavour of his thought processes as well as his mindset and his communication skills:
  • "You fucking cut me up, you wanker, you was in the wrong lane (I wasn't), you cut me up"
  • "I've got a witness" (I laughed at this point, which didn't help)
  • "I'm going to follow you home"
  • "I'd break your nose if you wasn't so old"
  • (later, after I'd made an ill-advised comment 'there's something wrong with you, mate') "I'm going to break your nose anyway" (He didn't)
  • (later still) "I'd break your fucking nose if there wasn't all these cameras around" (he seems to have this obsession with my nose)
  • Much more of the same - that'll do as a sample.
  • He threatens several times to call the police. I say OK, call them (although I really don't want this as I know Kate's getting anxious and I don't have her number on my mobile), but of course he doesn't - pretends to a couple of times, but I call his bluff.
  • My sole response to all of this is "we need to exchange names and addresses". I write mine down.
  • He insists that we need to exchange insurance details as well (we don't), and foolishly I eventually give him my policy number.
  • By now, I've had enough. I can see that he's written down his name and insurance policy on a card, but I still don't have his address. I press him for this, and eventually he says "it's on the back". We exchange cards/notes and drive off.
  • Of course, his address isn't on the back of the card, just a mobile number. So he's actually committed a crime called 'leaving the scene of an accident without ...' whatever.
  • Just before we leave, his parting shot, on seeing my address, is "My mate John lives there - he'll be knocking at your door".
  • I'm in some fear that he's going to to follow me to Kate's, but thankfully he turns right into Basingstoke Road. Hopefully I'll never see the little shit again.
So far, neither Pete or John have called round. I have my defences (door chain, phone, digital camera, machete) at the ready.