Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Mouse tale

This was years ago.  I was getting the wellies out of the garage for a trip to the caravan.  We kept one set of industrial socks in the wellies in those days, another in the yomping boots.  This mouse had found a nice cosy nesting place, with a plentiful supply of bedding which only required a small amount of shredding, in one of V's Hunters.  I don't know which of us was more surprised, me or the mouse - I'll never forget the expression on its face.  It certainly had the quicker reactions, though.  V was in the kitchen doorway just in time to see it scuttle away under the cooker.

By the time we got to Wales, there'd been some embellishment.
"The place is infested with voles," our friends were informed. 
"Mice, I think," I added sotto voce.
"Voles!"  Her voice dropped.  "It was not a mouse.  It was a vole.  Wasn't it."

When we got back home, there were skirmishes.  I didn't really want to murder the poor little beasties, but I didn't particularly want them crapping underneath the cooker either.  I got some of those humane traps, the ones where the quarry crawls in after the bait and it tips up so it can't get out again, and bought peanut butter specially.  Friends were generous with advice.
"You need to take them quite a long way away.  They have a range of about a quarter of a mile, like wasps."
"Well, why don't the sodding wasps sting the sodding mice to death, or the sodding mice eat the sodding wasps?"  I enquired.  (We had wasps as well at the time.)

Eventually I came down one morning and one of the traps was clattering around.  Aha.  I put it in the boot (not the welly, silly, the car) and drove it up to Prospect Park.  I opened the trap and gave it a shake, and sure enough something dropped out and scarpered into the undergrowth.
What still preys on my mind (though not in my kitchen) is that, as I watched it run, it didn't seem to have a tail.  I hadn't even opened the drawer where I keep the carving knife.  I didn't look inside the trap either.  I threw it into the bushes after the vole and went home.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Something a bit fishy

About a year ago, I posted (here) what now looks like a fairly topical rant about bonuses - don't worry, I promised trivia and trivia you shall have. 

Sitemeter sometimes tells me that a visit to my blog is the result of a Google search, and sometimes tells me the search terms that resulted in the visit.  For example, if tomorrow someone were to google 'fishy', the current post would probably be somewhere around the two-million mark, *note to self: try it*, assuming that googlebot is keeping up.

I freely confess to checking my Sitemeter stats every day, in order to boost my self-esteem; and sometimes I'll click on the 'detail' box, just out of curiosity.  (That's how I know about the google thing.)

So this morning I noticed that somebody had googled 'undercooked shark steak' and come up with the aforementioned post.  A bell suddenly rang - this has happened before!  In fact, when I think about it, it's happened quite a few times before.  Probably a dozen or more since the original post.  I'd never thought anything of it until now (I tend not to remember that sort of stuff), but today the links clicked together in my brain. 

Someone out there (in the US, actually) either a) is a fan of my blog but hasn't managed to work out a more efficient way of accessing it than to google the title of an inconsequential post from a year ago, or b) has an intriguing fixation on how to cook fish badly.  Any other theories?  It doesn't bother me in the least, but as you know I like a puzzle.

Friday, 27 January 2012


In 1911, a weak Liberal Government forced through the Parliament Act, which effectively disempowered the House of Lords from any lasting control over legislation.  They did this by packing the Lords with new peers who understood that they were for the sole purpose of ensuring their own disempowerment.  It worked.

In 2012, a weak (in perhaps a different sense) Coalition Government has proved itself incapable of preventing the Royal Bank of Scotland’s remuneration committee from awarding their CEO a million pound bonus for failing to meet any of his objectives.  Osborne and his poodles whinge that ‘we don’t wish to intervene in the day-to-day operations of the Bank’ – oh, for ***k’s sake, why not?  We’re not asking you to man the tills.  As majority shareholder, you (via your tame UKFI subsidiary), can surely pack the remuneration committee with your own appointees – just like Lloyd George and Asquith did to the Lords – on the understanding that they may NOT approve ANY bonuses whatsoever.  What’s stopping you, Government?

I know two possible  answers.  Either it’s because you’re still in thrall to those powers-that-were, you still believe that discredited claim that we have to ‘reward talent’ or it’ll go elsewhere (though we don’t hear so much of that nowadays, perhaps because Hester has just sacked most of those people); or, more likely, it’s because you’re a bunch of gutless wimps. 

Tomorrow, I promise some trivia.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Everybody agrees

 The last refuge of the modern-day scoundrel is to establish the ground on indisputable quicksand.  I want to build a conservatory, or concrete over my front garden?  The last thing I want is people wondering why.  If they’re allowed to stray in that direction, I’ll never win.  So what I do is divert the argument into process rather than substance.  If I can achieve that – get them fighting over what might be the best way to solve my problem, rather than wondering what exactly that problem was in the first place – then I’ve won.  So establishing at (or ideally before) the outset, as a sine qua non, that ‘everybody agrees that I need more living/parking space’ is critical.

We can see this strategy unfolding by the day in several areas: HS2 and Boris Island, for instance.  As far as I can tell, nobody, but nobody, has questioned that there are problems, because ‘everybody agrees’ that we have to shorten journey times between London and Birmingham by however many minutes, or pump more and more air passengers through Britain on their way to somewhere else – because otherwise, well, that’d be a bad thing.

 ‘Our future success as a competitive nation depends on it’ is about the most cogent argument I’ve yet heard for these or many other similar proposals.  Nobody seems to be asking ‘hang on, before we even start talking, let’s see some numbers’.  By which I don’t mean fatuous made-up so-called benefit figures, I mean the simple ‘opportunity cost’ question: what will be lost if we don’t do this?  What will be lost, and by whom, and when and where, precisely?  It shouldn’t be that hard to work out.  After all, airport expansion projects have been proposed and rejected for decades.  The projected benefits must have been quantified at the time, and the actuals are obviously available.  But this has never, ever been checked after the money’s not been spent – nor, for that matter, does the converse get checked: what, for example, was the original business case for Concorde?

I think the promoters of projects of this kind should be made to put their money on the table.  If HS2 is going to produce net benefits of £1.80 for every £1.00 spent, then let’s see you commit (in the form of promissory notes, escrow accounts, whatever) £0.80, to be cashed in, one way or the other, when judgement day comes.  Any takers?  Thought not.

I may have strayed off the point a bit.  I apologise, I just needed a rant, any old rant.  And I was distracted by Victoria Coren on HIGNFY.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Linear verbiage

Roaring with pain sorry, pouring with rain; abject crossword débâcle; ironing (almost) done; batch of fridge soup made; not sleepy, ain’t no place I’m going to …  So I decided to measure my books.

The methodology was quite simple.  Most of them are arranged like this on shelves, so ‘Σ shelf length times number of shelves’ gives total yardage of books, by spine. 
Approximations had to be made for this kind of situation:

And after some deliberation I decided to include the antiquarian department, out of respect:

The final outcome is that I possess approximately 28 yards of books.  I have no idea what this means.  I probably need to calculate the corresponding weight and word count for the data to become in any way meaningful.  Plus, I suppose, some form of quality weighting: maybe I can estimate how many times each book has been read, or the probability of it being read again.  But that will have to wait for another wet day, or month.

I left out certain reference volumes, including cookery books.  I have also omitted the new Kindle, for two obvious reasons.  One being the difficulty of assigning a spine thickness to an e-book; the other that there aren’t actually any books in there yet.  This is because I don’t really know what to do with the thing.  I doubt if I’ll let it supplant ‘real’ books entirely, or even in large part, so I have to find a selective rôle for it.  I don’t often go on extended holidays any more, at least not the kind that contain wide open reading spaces.  (I get too much of that at home.)  I daresay it will come in useful once my arms become too weak to hold up a weighty tome, or my eyes demand magnification of 8-point text; but neither of these has happened yet (as at 3.50 p.m. today), and I’ll probably have lost the ability to work technology by the time they do.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Wednesday, 18 January 2012


I spend a lot of time finding things other than those I’m looking for.  So it was that, yesterday afternoon, I discovered that from 1959 to 1962, I had kept a diary.  I’d pretty much forgotten this.  It came about, I now remembered, because late in 1958, my father, who could be quite inscrutable, casually handed me one, with the words “Thought you might want one of these”.  It was a palm-sized week-to-view, published, I found, by The General Electric Co. Ltd. Of England, obviously a free handout at his work.  Each day’s space was about three inches by one. 

I must have been fairly suggestible and literal-minded, because I immediately concluded that I should use this gift to record my day-to-day life, rather than to note forthcoming events and appointments, which was probably my father’s intent.  It obviously didn’t occur to me that perhaps a larger format might have been more appropriate for this purpose.  I just started writing things down, within each day’s little box, as they happened.  There was no room for reflection or introspection, except in the sparsest form. 

Well, you can guess how I spent my afternoon yesterday.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to quote extensively – that will have to wait for when my archives are donated to the nation after my passing.  Nor am I going to draw any profound life lessons from the contents, except, perhaps, to note that I seemingly found it difficult to distinguish one girl from another on a weekly basis (apart from two or three, who seem to recur at varying intervals over the whole four years).
Oh, all right.  At random [there is a ‘notes’ box at the end of each week]:
Sunday 13 March 1960: Read morn.  Rolled lawn, 5/-.  Group practice after at Tony’s.  Not much good.  Vic didn’t turn up.  La Fiesta [local coffee bar] eve.  Saw Bobbie.  Walk with her.  Cliffs.  Wow!  Back to La F then home.
NOTES: I think I’ll go out with her.
And, by contrast:
‘Wednesday 4 October 1961: Did nothing all day and eve.’
But here’s the important bit.  After I went to University in Leeds in 1960, I began to go to the pictures quite frequently.  There was a fleapit across the road from the digs in Harehills, and students could get in cheap to the city centre cinemas in the afternoon (ninepence, I think).  And I tended to note the films I saw in the diary.  This isn’t by any means the full list, but I think it’s quite interesting.

The Greengage Summer
Taste of Fear
The Guns of Navarone
East of Eden
La Dolce Vita
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
The Innocents
A Kind of Loving
Last Year at Marienbad
West Side Story
Fall of the House of Usher
The Alamo 

By the way, can you spot the odd one out?

Sunday, 15 January 2012

How to tame your human

Be a bird.  Robin is best.  If you can’t manage that, try blackbird, or any kind of finch or tit.  Avoid magpie, jay and pigeon (disguising yourself as a dove doesn’t work).  If you find yourself lumbered with being any kind of raptor, gull or duck, forget it, you’re on the wrong career path.

Find a suitable human.  Your parents will probably have done this already.  The human will have a garden, a good nature, and a bird table.  Learn to exploit these assets.
Learn your human’s behaviour patterns.  They are often very predictable, and with practice you can influence them to your advantage.  Observe the times at which the human tends to go into the garden, and try to be seen eating the last few seeds on the table at around those times.  Organise yourselves into tidy queues, by species, making sure that this is noticed.  The human will stand there for several minutes, watching you and possibly going ‘aaaw’.   At this point, fly away.  Usually, the human will go into the house, emerging with a bag of seeds.
If that doesn’t work, perch on a nearby branch and fix the human with that cold, unblinking stare that says ‘I am the descendant of dinosaurs.  I will be here when you are a faint trace in the planet’s memory.  Obey me.’  That should do the trick.
If you are lucky enough to be a robin, you can exploit the human by being cute, like human babies.  Humans are very susceptible to emotional manipulation.
If all that fails, go down the chimney and peck the bastard’s eyes out.

Friday, 13 January 2012

The Rock’n’Roll Years

Part two in an occasional series

The idea that boys like us could actually do it ourselves never occurred to me, until we heard Lonnie Donegan, Johnnie Duncan and the Blue Grass Boys, the Vipers, Nancy Whiskey.  I was given the washboard, and begged my mother for thimbles (the washboard itself acquired from a long gone ironmongers in Southbourne Grove).  Skiffle groups erupted all over the place.  But soon after I’d been issued with my washboard, and the other guys had bullied guitars out of their parents, frustration started to set in.  ‘I can do that’, I thought.  My parents got me a guitar.  The first thing I found out was that, once having managed to tune the thing, if you played the bottom three strings in succession, they spelled out the first three notes of ‘When I Fall In Love’.  So I hunted around till I found the fourth note, then the whole tune. I got a chord book and learned, in about three weeks, how to play four string majors and join them together into as near as I could get to what I was hearing on those relatively accessible skiffle records. 

And then, suddenly, it was 1956.  The 7 inch 45 was invented and we had to have, and got, our green and beige Ferguson record player with the lovely cream and maroon 4-speed Collaro ten-disc auto-changer (the Dansette scathingly rejected).  You could stack up ten 45s – your current top ten – then as the last one drops onto the pile, you take off the arm which had held the stack in place, and the top record plays over and over until you choose to stop it.  Brilliant!  The records themselves were designed for this purpose, with serrations around the outer edge of the label which stopped them skidding or damaging each other as they landed from the stack, like so many flying saucers.  Naturally, I had to own more than ten 45s.  Every penny of pocket money’s worth of 45s.  The exact chronology, obviously, is available elsewhere.  By now, you’d expect it to have turned into one amorphous blur, and to some extent it has, but I like to recall two overlapping phases.  First there was Bill Haley, with a few imitators like Freddie Bell and the Bellboys.  Little Richard and Fats Domino crept in alongside.  And then Elvis came and hit us straight in the ears, guts and seething hormones. The rest followed.  My enduring, confused memory of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ is hearing it late at night on some kind of radio in our holiday home in Pembrokeshire, presented by my sister as a secret thing that parents had to be protected from, weren’t permitted to share.  It was dark, mysterious, unattainable, addictive. 

I loved the sheer energy and meaninglessness of pure rock’n’roll.  By definition, you can’t analyse ‘Tutti Frutti’.   John Lennon said, years later, something like “There is nothing conceptually purer than ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’”.  He was right.  But I loved the slushy stuff too.  My heart still quivers when I listen to Elvis explaining why he’s ‘Playing For Keeps’, or the Everly Brothers’ complaining about ‘Crying In The Rain’.  Even ‘Susie Darling’ by the long-forgotten Robin Luke can catch me unawares.  Why is this?  I sometimes wonder.  The hormones that drove those emotions, all those years ago, have thankfully done their job and fallen back to where they belong; but they left the emotions behind them.

Next: Jazz
Thanks to Rog.  I feel an anthology coming on.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Detox? Bah, humbugs

Monday is officially the most depressing day of the year.  That's good news, of course, it can only get better.  (I'm pretty sure I blogged this identical point this time last year, and probably the year before, but hey, if I'm not allowed to repeat myself, well, I wouldn't be allowed to repeat myself, would I?)  But so-called 'detox' is not the solution.

A friend at work used to give up alcohol for the whole of January.  He was hell to be with, and tipped the first pint of February down with audible relish.  I remember him once saying "Welcome me back to the human race" as he did so.  And science states that so-called detox is a myth: abrupt changes to your body's expectations, as cultivated over eleven months, do more harm than good.  At least the science I read does.

And there are more pressing reasons to abstain from self-imposed abstention.  They come under the collective heading 'Christmas presents'.  Here are a couple:

And of course:

OK, not strictly humbugs; but there must be a hundred of them in there (it doesn't say on the packet), to be consumed by 3 April, when the best-before date starts to poison me.

And I haven't even started on the socks and the handkerchiefs.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Inspired? Moi?

As Z graciously remarked in a recent comment, we bloggers do indeed often inspire each other.  At least, that’s been my experience on the ‘income’ stream; I wouldn’t presume to claim any credit in the other direction.  But at the moment the inspiration-response bit of my brain has stopped, probably due to the onset of Seasonal Cantbearsed Disorder.  So here are just a few questions I most probably won’t be addressing over the coming days:

Is Twitter now the de facto medium of preference for public policy, social commentary, personal gratification and, erm, everything?  Am I right to be scared?
Is writing a Christmas present wish list of any use to anyone over ten?  I asked for a dressing gown and got a Kindle.  So other people are obviously better at writing my list than I am.
How many shirts do I need?  How many shirts have I got?  Why do I only like four of them?
As an Englishman living in England, should I be given a vote in the Scottish independence referendum, if any?  (West Lothian readers need not reply.)
Is there any obligation or expectation to blog even when you have nothing to say?
Why can’t I think of anything else I don’t want to write about?  Oh, hang on, I know this one …

Friday, 6 January 2012

Compare and Contrast

Churchill: "I apologise for the length of this memo.  I did not have time to make it shorter."

Diane Abbott: "Bit much to get into 140 characters."

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Early Music

I had heard, loved, and even listened to music since my ears opened.  My father singing me to sleep with ‘A Long Way to Tipperary’ and ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’ and ‘My Grandfather’s Clock’; ‘Waltzing Matilda’, ‘My Darling Clementine’, even Leadbelly’s  ‘Good Night Irene’ – these melodies and lyrical stories plunged into my psyche at a very early age.  I think those songs will be my last memory traces to erase themselves.

There was a room at the back of the house, beyond the kitchen and the pantry, presumably originally the maid’s quarters.  It immediately became the Den, and the exclusive territory of we three kids and our musical resources – the monolithic oaken radiogram with its fretworked loudspeaker grill, huge piles of 78s of all diameters, inherited and later acquired, and constantly replenished supplies of gramophone needles.  We spent hours sifting through those mysterious, fragile black circles, with their spiral groove etched into their surface in their brown paper sleeves, randomly prospecting for aural gold.  A record would be put on, briefly assessed, then rejected.  Or, occasionally, set aside into the pile that needed revisiting.  Perhaps one in twenty would make it all the way through to the ‘Favourites’, then to be played to destruction forever, or at least for a week.  I’d love to know what those favourites were. 

Of course, there was also the heavy Sunday lunchtime stodge pudding of ‘Two Way Family Favourites’ on the Light Programme.  ‘Children’s Favourites’, with Uncle Mac, was another.  I may kill myself next time ‘I’m a Pink Toothbrush’ or ‘The Happy Wanderer’ slides uninvited into my ears.  But, there were some goodies even in those arid swamps, or soggy deserts.  Even now, I wouldn’t mind listening attentively to ‘Sparky’s Magic Piano’.  And I adored ‘The Drinking Song’.

When I was about thirteen, there was one huge breakthrough: we were allowed to save up and buy our own records!  The significance of this can’t be overstated.  Suddenly, music wasn’t just something that was done to you: you could, within the restrictive boundaries of parental approval and cash, exercise some control, get what you felt, in that instant, you wanted, needed.  How did we know, in the instant, what we wanted?  What told us so undeniably what we needed?  There must have some very special force at play.  Because, back in those 78rpm days, we couldn’t be selective – we had nothing to select from.  But somehow we did.  ‘Chain Gang’ by Jimmy Young, ‘Sixteen Tons’ by Tennessee Ernie Ford, ‘Kisses Sweeter than Wine’ by Jimmie Rodgers.  I have no idea how, but I knew I had to get ‘Zambezi’ by Lou Busch on the purple-centred Capitol label, rush it home and play this fragile 78 rpm single spiral over and over again on the radiogram.

Thus began my love affair with records.  They combined so much art within the single artefact: the simple physical beauty of that perfect disc, with its cryptic centre label which seemed to hold depths of arcane information (what did ‘ffrr’ mean? what was the Capitol Tower? what did all those strange numbers mean?), the music it magically contained; and, dimly, the notion that perhaps here was a new art form in which sounds with no counterpart anywhere else could be contrived, constructed and preserved, like pieces of sculpture, within that black shiny squiggly ineluctable groove.

And then it was time for rock’n’roll.  But that’s another story.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Christmas Card Audit 2011

Snow/Snowmen/Snowflakes:           12

Santas/Reindeer:                               9

Animals/Birds:                                  7

 (of which Robins:                            4)

Landscapes:                                      7

Boats:                                                3

Nativities/Wise Men/Angels:           3

Christmas trees/Baubles:                  3

Comical:                                           1

Puddings:                                          1

Twelve Days:                                    0

Special categories:

Homemade:                                      4

Cards with glued-on glitter:             5

Ecards:                                             1

Wonderfully weird:                          3

No Awards this year, apart from Best Card, which I have already announced.

Although this important data-gathering exercise has been conducted for several years now, this is only the second time the results have been scientifically recorded.  Meaningful statistical trends cannot therefore yet be discerned.  A more formal methodology will, if feasible, be employed in the future, enabling the presentation of the data in the form of graphs, pie charts and year-on-year percentile variances.  However, some early indicators are worth noting:

·         It was necessary to include three new categories: Puddings, Boats, and most significantly, Landscapes.  This may be ascribable to inconsistencies in the categorisation procedures, whereby items now recorded as ‘Landscapes’ or ‘Boats’ were previously placed under other headings; in fact this is almost certainly the case.  The same cannot however be said of ‘Puddings.
·         There is a marked decline in the incidence of Glued-on Glitter.  This may reflect economic circumstances, but is more likely to be a consequence of an increased perception that the damned stuff comes off on your fingers whenever you touch the things.
·         Robins have doubled in quantity, possibly due to the mild weather.