Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Hobbies Part II

On reflection, I’ve decided not spell out the details of the end of my adventures in philately.  To do so would entail introducing someone who was involved, but could be identifiable to at least a few of my readers and might, for all I know, actually be one of them.  Best let it lie.  Suffice to say that I no longer possess that Penny Black.

Instead, here are some pursuits* I have followed for a while over the years, which could have turned into hobbies had I possessed the requisite obsessiveness:

Train sets
Home brewing
Model aeroplanes

 And a few I’m sure I’ll never go anywhere near:

Bungee jumping
Flower pressing

* Drawn from my Chambers Crossword Lists book.



Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Hobby (Part I)

‘A favourite pursuit followed as an amusement.’

If I accept this dictionary definition, then I’ve had, and have, dozens of hobbies.  But the definition is far too loose, and misses the crucial element of a true hobby, which is obsession.  In my sense, I’ve only ever had the one, which was – guess what – stamp collecting.

My parents had no experience of bringing up a boy, and my father probably had few memories of his own upbringing, which in any case would have been very different, in the 1920s, to mine in the 1950s.  He certainly had evolved his own set of hobbies by the time I was eight or nine  – woodworking, gardening, fiddling with electrical stuff  – but I’m sure he didn’t think of these as hobbies: they were just the fabric of his life, things ‘done’ rather than ‘followed’.

I was a compliant child until I reached puberty, and took a natural interest in whatever was placed in front of me, so when it was suggested that I might like to take up stamp collecting, I just went along with it.  The idea was prompted by the fact that a particular aunt, Maud maybe, had ‘collected stamps’ and decreed, as late Victorian aunts did, that Timothy might like to inherit her collection and make something more of it.  My mother (who was in charge but also in awe) had no choice but to pass this early bequest on to me; I had a look, saw an opportunity for some sorting and classification*, and got stuck in.

Aunt Maud’s stamp collection was, I rapidly saw, a chaotic mess.  It seemed reasonable to try and make sense of this, so I did, sorting by country, then (having acquired a Stanley Gibbons catalogue) by date, issue, colour variations, perforations …  After a few months, I decided to specialise in what was then called ‘British Empire’.  In 1953, I was gifted a full set of mint Coronation stamps, from every Colony and Dominion.  But what I craved was a Penny Black.  I saved up pocket money for months, and finally went to the stamp shop in Boscombe and bought one, with a rather unusual red revenue postmark, for £2.

Part II will follow tomorrow.


* Perhaps my only true enduring hobby.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Petrol flow theory

I was going to analyse why reducing the number of pumps from twelve to six has improved the level of service at my local filling station, but I can't be bothered.

Here are the hi-res state of the art graphics of the before and after configurations.  (Not to scale.)  Work it out for yourselves.



Saturday, 27 July 2013

Sloppy Journalism

I’ve just caught up with last Sunday’s Observer, where an article suggested that Spotify are ripping off music makers because they only pay 0.004p per play, whereas Radio 2 pay something like £59.75.  One famous musician, and one or two self-serving unknown ones, burbled about how exploitative this was, getting their arithmetic completely wrong.  But what pissed me off was the biased reporting.
In particular, qualifiers such as ‘just’ (in relation to Spotify’s payment) and ‘in contrast’ (re the BBC’s) were bandied about as if they added any value or information to the report.  In fact, all they added was a slant which doesn’t belong in news reporting.
To be specific, the factual content was that, for a million listens on Spotify, the artist would earn about £4,000 (0.004p per listen), whereas, if a million people happened to be listening to R2 at the time, the artist would earn about £60 (0.000006p per listen).  Put this way, Spotify looks like a bloody good deal to me.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

More on wasps

I was going to write about how it is that reducing the number of pumps from twelve to six has increased the efficiency of my local petrol station, but this is much more interesting.

Why is this wasp so hooked on this chair?  He's been regularly coming back to it for two days now.  Okay, there's a smear of something that could be vaguely sugary, but even so.  And why hasn't he brought his mates along?   They only live next door, I'm told by my neighbour.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Seagulls at Sunset

This chalet in West Bay is called ‘Sunset’. 

Here’s why.

‘Sunset’ is on the northern edge of the lagoon formed when the river Brit meets a kind of barrier with sluice gates which prevents it, I suppose, from washing away the rest of the town or something.  On the other side of the lagoon, you can people-watch for hours – they cross and re-cross the bridge, and as you gradually relax into a more natural pace of life you can spin imaginings about who they are, where they’re off to or returning from, whether they will get or have got whatever it was they are or were hoping for…   But mostly you can watch seagulls.
I’ve always thought of them as sea-thugs, and I haven’t entirely modified this opinion.  In their natural element, the air, they’re certainly graceful, even beautiful, like penguins in the water; but standing still they are menacing, their cold staring eyes looking as if they’ve been reincarnated from somewhere down the Jurassic Coast and want to take revenge.  (They are dinosaurs, you know.)  And floating, they just look petulant.
The pit bulls of the shore.  You can see about ten of them in this picture,

but there would often be thirty or forty.  You will know from the media of their aggressiveness and uncalled-for territoriality, but it’s a bit scary to see them operating at full tilt, against each other.  A few hours’ observation, though, revealed some subtleties.  There seemed to be two separate flocks, and a queuing system was in operation.  One bunch would graze, squabbling, on the plankton or whatever it is, whilst the others would perch on a couple of nearby rooftops, garnishing them with guava as they waited their turn at the feeding grounds.

And the noise!  I worked out after a while that they have a vocabulary of five words, four of which mean “I’m angry!” [on a scale from “I’m rather cross” to “I’m spitting feathers (yours!”)], and the fifth of which means “please, I didn’t mean to [insert infringement as appropriate, e.g. ‘steal your chip’, ‘crap on your car’, ‘crash-land on your breakfast table’]”.  (I discovered their attempt at a dawn chorus later.)
Finally, they’re devious.  Oh yes.  This particular character had devised a trick of perching on the wall, looking as plaintive as a Jurassic throwback is capable of looking.  It had only one leg.  We were starting to feel some sympathy for this evident runt-of-the-litter, being tempted to toss it a crust, when I caught it in the act:
The little bleeder was faking it!  Talk about refugees on the Underground!  I half expected it to hold up a sign saying “CRIPPLED.  HOMELESS.  FOUR CHICKS.  PLEASE HELP ME”, before flying off to one of those penthouses across the bay.

So all in all, I wasn’t warming to them.  That is, until the real pit bulls turned up.  Human sort.  There were about eight of them – four male, two female, assorted sprogs.  Alpha Dweeb launched an inflatable dinghy and proceeded to row straight into the floating gulls, uttering his distinctive loud, hoarse, threatening cry, echoed by his onshore companions.  He circled the lagoon over and over for about an hour, plainly bent on disturbing as much peace as he could find, egged on by the rest of the pack.  The gulls at first shrugged and flew away, but some invisible line – who knows the mind of a seagull? – was crossed, and they decided enough was enough.
One by one, they started to swoop – at first at some height, then progressively lower, until they were no more than six feet up.  Alpha Dweeb thought this was hilarious, and began to swipe at them with his paddle, cackling.  I thought of calling out a warning – they can take out an eye or rip off an ear without breaking wing-flap – but decided it would be unfair to oblige the poor lads to have to hurl yet more abuse around, so I left well alone.  Eventually someone shouted “PUB!” (one of the few intelligible sounds I heard) and they packed up and left.

So, I still wouldn’t feed the gulls, but I did end up slightly more benevolent towards them.
Feeding the ducks is okay, though.


Sunday, 21 July 2013

Do wasps eat anything?

Yes, apparently they eat midges.  (No, not Migs.)  I learned this from a man I found myself sharing a table with at a very long, very hot but very enjoyable garden party yesterday, over paella and fizzy liquid.  John was, he told us, a wasp expert in one of his several previous lives (you have to believe that, don’t you?), and explained at some length how they’ve had a bad press, because, well, because they eat midges.  Without wasps, we’d be midged to death.
Someone suggested that there are few wasps in the Western Isles, whereas there’s no shortage of them midges.  So what we need to do, I proposed, is reintroduce wasps to north-west Scotland, a bit like they did with red kites down here.  (Or nothing like they did with red kites down here, actually.)  Then they wouldn’t have to keep trying to eat us.  (The wasps, that is, not the red kites.  ‘They’ being the wasps, not the reintroducers. Or the midges.)
John had, understandably, no answer to that.  It was that kind of party.

Tomorrow, Dorset seagulls, I promise.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Black Spiderman

Let’s see if I’ve got this right. 

King-In-Waiting (maybe), bored out of his head by hyperactive underemployment, employs black spider to write irascible scrawls to anonymised government functionaries, believed to include ministers of the (yes!) Crown, about topics of personal interest, including (we may assume, since we can’t know): the number of motorcycle outriders needed to bring Windsor town centre to a standstill whenever he wants to visit mummy; the brand of nail scissors being used to manicure the lawns at Highgrove; or his Toothbrush-Batman’s* complaints about the difficulty of squeezing these new-fangled plastic tubes from the bottom up, the old lead ones were so much better.  There may be others.
All smacks of National Security to me.  But no, I stand corrected by no less a personage than the attorney general.  (Who, as a minister of the Crown, will one day report indirectly to aforesaid King-In-Waiting.  Maybe.)  No, the problem is as follows. 
The monarch is constitutionally obliged to be politically neutral.  The black spider letters, if published, would incontrovertibly demonstrate that the heir to the throne is no such thing.  Which we already know to be true.  Therefore, they can’t be published, otherwise we would all start believing what we already know to be true.   

Have I got it right?  I have, haven’t I?
What I tell you three times is true.

* See what I did there?

Monday, 8 July 2013

Lord Murray of Wimbledon

Or: Lord Cameron of Wherever?
Anyone remember Sir Fred Perry?  I thought not, because Fred wasn’t knighted for winning Wimbledon three successive times back in 1938.  He didn’t even get a *BE.  Perhaps Neville Chamberlain had a better sense of proportion than our current Prime Minister, who is on record as believing that he ‘can’t think of anyone more deserving of a knighthood [than Andy Murray].’ 
I can, but I’m not going to start the list here, because that would be to open up a can of all sorts and sizes of worms. 
I wouldn’t dream of denigrating Andy’s achievement, he’s a superb athlete and may well turn out to be one of the greatest tennis players ever.  But to be awarded a K for being the guy who broke a 76-year record of failure isn’t the marker I’d want to put on my CV. 
Especially if I were to acquire this honour for being the guy who broke the Curse of Cameron.
Still, a Mail headline is worth a few thousand votes, innit?

Thursday, 4 July 2013


I haven’t delighted you enough recently on this subject, have I?  Tick the appropriate box:



 Oh, all right.  I decided recently (yesterday evening in fact, at about 9.45) that I needed a new hobby.  Or any hobby.  Collecting things is Out Of The Question.  (Yet more stuff?  I think not.)  Researching things requires long-range effort and concentration.  Also OOTQ.  (Checking the gin bottle and the tonic stock is as far as I care to go down that road.)  Then I remembered that, in my twenties, I occasionally used to compile crosswords.

I’d design my own grids (it took me a while to accept that they had to be symmetrical), fill them in somehow (which got easier when I was given a dictionary for my birthday), and then, the really fun bit, make up the clues.  My masterpiece, I vaguely remember, was defined as ‘Workers’ playtime?’, and involved Volkswagens, South African currency and comedy take-offs.  (‘BEER AND SKITTLES’, since you ask.)

Nobody ever actually solved these things, of course – that wasn’t the point.  (I offered one to a fellow-enthusiast at work once; he didn’t get a single answer.)  Nor, I accepted last night, would anyone have a punt at my new ones: apart from anything else, I don’t think I know anybody else who does cryptic crosswords on any regular basis.  (Correct me if I’m wrong.)

So, I spent the next two hours researching crossword compilation applications.  There are a few out there, but they don’t meet my exacting needs.  Actually, all I want is a set of ready-made grids which I can fill in on the computer.  If these happen to be standard Guardian grids, so much the better.  Ziltch.

So I emailed the Guardian’s crossword editor.  (Regular readers may have noticed that I can be a bit obsessive once I’ve snatched at a hook.)  To his eternal credit, Hugh replied by return – but the news wasn’t good.   Digital versions of their grids aren’t available to the general public.  My best plan, he suggested, was to photocopy or download the day’s puzzle from the paper and then use a pencil and a rubber.  Fair enough.  But I reckon I can do better than that.  I feel a highly customised Excel spreadsheet coming on.

Don’t watch this space (or 'light', as we setters call it) though.


Oh, all right – here’s another clue for you all: ‘Harry Potter? (7)’  (Need help?  The 5th letter is K.)


Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The Politics of Parking

There are a lot of cars parked in the Close next to my house.  When the yellow lines were installed, eight years ago, my activist neighbours (unbeknown to me at the time) forced the Council to reserve a car-and-a-half sized unrestricted slot next to my back gate, so that I’d have space for visitors, should any ever turn up. 
Needless to say, that ‘reserved’ parking space is more or less permanently filled by one of three vehicles.  The considerate blue Micra, who always leaves me as much space as she can to get out of the drive; a white van (not the original one from three years ago, but nevertheless a van, and white); and the rusty old Spanish Renault, for which I have a soft spot.  None of these people live here, and initially they made me angry, until my neighbour opposite buttonholed me as I was on my way out one evening.
She’s elderly, like me, but acts the part.  She explained that she had difficulty backing out of her drive, because of those cars parked in ‘my’ space.  What did I think of the idea of asking the Council to extend the yellow lines right up to my gate, which would make it much easier for her?  A bit irritated, I pointed out that the space had been deliberately reserved for me, so that I had some on-street parking just like everybody else (including her).  “But you never use it, do you?” she replied.  I had no answer to that, so I just shrugged, muttered something non-committal and departed.  Needless to say, I never heard any more of it.
Shortly after that encounter, my neighbour took to parking in the road outside her house, rather than in her drive.  Obviously, this makes it much easier for her to make her getaway, and I sympathise with that.  It also makes it a bit harder for me to back out of my drive: this thought doesn’t seem to have crossed her mind, and I wouldn’t expect it to.  Nor do I particularly expect the incomer parkers to realise the consequences of their actions – they’re just looking after themselves.

There are several morals to this story, the main one being that no interactions are ever between just two parties, and that an objective assessment of the weighted balance between even these three simple sets of self-interest is nearly impossible, and probably not worth the bother.  I don’t know whether this thought depresses or enlivens me.