Monday, 31 December 2007

Is That All There Is? Ghosts of New Years past...

1986. A friend's house:

"Rich (if slightly cuisine-ey) food...raw mushrooms, etc. But also smoked salmon and expiring stilton. Played 'Give us a clue' reasonably riotously until coffee at around 2.30, pausing only to toast the New Year, dutifully sing 'Auld Lang Syne', kiss a number of people one didn't madly want to in order to be able to kiss the ones one did, etc. To bed, in 1987, in reasonable condition."

1988. Mother-in-Law's house:

"I ventured onto the lawn in the dark to inspect the new summerhouse and stepped in something large, doggy and disgusting. Spent time with a bucket under the security light. A chinese takeaway, then on to the North Pole for the New Year."

1989. The North Pole PH:

"Debbie remarked that I had been 'the life and soul of the party'. A dubious distinction; dancing with two balloons up one's jumper does not make one the most original wit."

1990. Home:

"We saw the New Year in rather quietly - J feeding Robert in bed, I opening the doors to let the old year out and the new year in...and hearing all the village church bells ringing, and fireworks crackling here and there in the moonlit sky. I wonder what this year will bring. War, probably. [It did]."

Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that's all there is, my friends, then let's keep dancing
Let's break out the booze and have a ball
If that's all
There is.

Sunday, 30 December 2007


The Dutch got their surnames later than most. In 1811 Napoleon annexed Holland and a requirement for surnames was introduced. Some people thought that this would only be short-lived, and picked silly names, such as Poepjes, which means 'little poos'; Piest, which means much as it sounds; and Zeldenthuis, which means 'hardly ever at home'. I don't know if the Amsterdam telephone directory is full of little poos, but it would serve them right. There wouldn't be much point in listing the Zeldenthuis's.

There was a man in a local I used to frequent known as 'Pineapple Dan'. This wasn't his real name, which was just Dan, but he used to drink pineapple juice, and every time he came in the landlord would say, "Pineapple, Dan?".

The Social Secretary has a friend named Pat Nobbs.

Saturday, 29 December 2007

Little Known Facts: Languages of the Low Countries

The origin of Flemish is self-explanatory - a reference to the bronchial congestion which characterises the inhabitants of this low-lying, marshy terrain and which led to the guttural, throat-clearing peculiarities of the language.

Walloon or Walon, takes its name from its Welsh origins. It was carried to the continental mainland by migrant Welsh bulb growers following the daffodil blight of 1613-15. Even now, the current standardisation of the spellings of the several distinct Walloon dialects is known as 'Rhonda Walon', while the evidence of Welsh names can still be found in the tulip-growing areas of the Netherlands (Willems, Johannes, Van Rhys, etc).

Frisian developed along the North Sea coast - the continental 'frieze'. Pliny the Younger reported that the Frisians lived on turps; this may explain the anglo-saxon qualities of the language, which bears a close resemblance to the Low English of Romney Marsh, Britain's own nether land [cf: 'Anglo-Frisian Fricatives of Dungeness and New Romney'; Ivan I. Deare; School of Sport and Exercise Science, Loughborough University, 1981].

Friday, 28 December 2007

Little Known Facts: Wine Gums, Face Packs and Edam

Up until the middle of the last century wine producers used a mixture of beeswax and pectin to seal their bottles. The filled, corked bottles would be dipped, neck down, into a heated vat of the wax mixture. As a final stage an épéiste (literally, 'swordsman') would pare away any excess wax before the bottles were packed in straw-lined panniers for transport. At the end of the day the wine workers would sweep up these waxy, 'wine gum' parings and take them home as treats for their children.

Unconscious forerunners of the 'honey for health' movement, their wives soon discovered that the wax was restorative to the complexion, and took to kneading it into pancakes for application to the face. In an impoverished society in which nothing was wasted, the used face packs were often subsequently employed to wrap home-produced cheeses. This was found to prolong the life of the cheese, and was the origin of the wax coating on Edam and Gouda cheeses.

Unfortunately the beeswax/pectin formula was attractive to rodents and weevils, while the recycling of facepacks as cheese wrapping became implicated in the spread of scarlet fever. By 1850 the wine trade had switched to sealing-wax derived from gum arabic, whilst cheese producers favoured the more malleable paraffin wax, which had become abundant as a by-product of coal gas manufacture.

It was an enterprising Toulouse confectioner named Franck Litoshe who devised the first custom-made wine gums. Modelled on bottle-seals and flavoured with fortified wines, brandy and liqueurs, his sweets quickly became popular as a pacifier for teething babies. The green ones (Chartreuse) were considered to be particularly efficacious; three or four could knock an infant out for up to eight hours.

Out of Con Text

K's boyfriend got hold of the Social Secretary's phone last week, and texted her twin sister. The exchange went like this:

Adam: 'Adam is amazing!'
Twin: 'Why?'
Adam: 'He just is. He's good-looking, funny, witty and all in all amazing.'
Twin: (After a prolonged and disbelieving pause) 'K's Adam?'
Adam: 'Yeah!'
Twin: (Click of a light switch) 'I've just realised you dickheaded plonker! You've stolen her phone!'
Adam: Hee hee. Woo, you got it. Take your time. Lol. Adam.

If there was a night club called 'The Garden of Eden', they probably wouldn't allow him in in the first place.

Michael Frayn writes quite good

I am reading Michael Frayn's 'Headlong', which is just arm-sacrificingly good, and is my new recommended read for 2007-2009. It leaves a marginally different epistemological footprint to 'My Boyfriend is a Twat' (my previous recommendation) - indeed, as Frayn quoting Stein-Schneider suggests, "the Familists' doctrines of irenicism and ethic soteriology, together with their sexual asceticism, identify them as a Manichaean movement in the cathar tradition". One really cannot argue with this. But do not be put off; the book is a page-turning and very funny expedition into greed, scholarship and self-deception. Frayn seems to be able to reinvent himself repeatedly ( this is the author of 'Spies' and the creator of the screenplay for 'Clockwork', after all) and entertain in any incarnation. Buy it immediately.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Little Known Facts: How Australia got its name.

When Captain Cook claimed possession of what is now Eastern Australia in 1770, he named it New South Wales. It wasn't until fourteen years later that the continent acquired its present name. This came about in February 1785 when Josiah A Kerr, the coxwain of a penal colony supply ship, landed on the wooded shore of Desolation Bay with a watering party and mistook a bandicoot track for a bridleway. Kerr set off alone to explore it, and was never seen again. His parting words, "There's an 'orse trail 'ere", passed into folklore and became corrupted into Orstralia, subsequently latinised as Australia.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Little Known Facts: Origin of the The Triple Jump

Also known now as the "hop, step and jump", the triple jump appeared in the 1896 Athens Olympic Games as the 'hop, hop and jump', but its origins lie centuries earlier in the tiny Cotswold hamlet of Inn Breding on the Wold. As today's visitors will know, this picturesque settlement is bisected by the River Phoenix, which runs through the central green. When a spate washed away four of the stepping stones in the fifteenth century, villagers quickly became adept at hopping and jumping the resulting gaps (although strangers often came to grief!). The young men of the village would compete to see who could cross the fastest at the annual harvest fair, and from this the Triple Jump was born.


Survived another one, then. And we all got what we wanted, I think.

Mega gave me Zoe's book, 'My Boyfriend is a Twat', which meant I kept everyone awake for half the night. It is very funny and is my recommended read for 2008 and 2009. It also weighs 32 grams which is equivalent to our recommended daily fibre requirement, so when you have finished laughing you can eat it and stay healthy.

The Social Secretary was delighted with Pol Pot's CD (I would have expected the Khmer Rouge to be more familiar with the gamelan pentatonic scale, but his grasp of Italian opera is a surprise). She also received a bottle of Neal's Yard Black Pepper and Juniper Hand Wash. This is glamorously presented but makes one's hands smell as if they have been plunged into a packet of Kettle Crisps.

Bob and K got an impressive selection of CDs and DVDs, with particular emphasis on Newton Faulkner, Amy Macdonald, and the Mighty Boosh.

Mega got tonsillitis.

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, 23 December 2007


A muddly breakfast this morning. I think we're having too many late nights. Adam made a christmas decoration out of the tube from a kitchen towel roll. We think it might have been a joke, but we can't be quite sure, so it will probably have to stay out until twelfth night, and then be put away and brought out year after year, looking ever more sad and impoverished.

Just before the sausages were done a rat climbed up the bird table, so I had to sneak upstairs and shoot it from the bedroom window. So Christmassy.

Then we somehow got into a discussion about who we would most wish to be on a desert island with. K chose Ricky Gervais. Bob chose Ray Mears, pointing out that they could rub sticks together. Worrying.

Party Food

A drinks party last night. I'm not usually mad on these, but this one was convivial, with champagne, cheerful people and great food.

Early on I was talking to a man I hadn't met before. As we worked our way through some cocktail snacks on a coffee table, I couldn't help noticing how carefully he peered at each dish before sampling the contents. After a while he explained that at a previous party he had forgotten to bring his specs. He'd helped himself to a handful of exotic looking nibbles, found them unusually hard to chew, and discovered he'd dipped into a bowl of olive stones spat out by other guests.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Unsustainable Transport

28 December 1995, Isle of Skye.

0930. Load family - Nettie, K (7) and Bobby (5), and luggage into Land Rover (26). Engage four wheel drive and low ratio gearbox, and plough through deep snow to village. Collect 'Diddly' McDougal, local mechanical wizard, who will bring the Land Rover back. Grind 15 miles through snow to Sligachan. This is a solitary hotel (closed, phone and water out) and a bus stop, situated at the foot of the Cuillins in one of the most beautiful and inhospitable places on earth. Wave Diddly off, and realise that I've left my shoes in the car. Wade through drifts to bus stop, and excavate space in snow for cases and children. We know the bus will be late; it has to connect with the Harris steamer at Uig. Our own boats are now burnt, and it is about -15°c. Wonder if we will be found before the next thaw.

1050. Flag down approaching coach. Load cases. K and I wind up in front seat. The driver is the sister of the postmaster, and the speed and recklessness of her driving is a byword. We are late. The road is narrowed by snow, and we have to climb through a hazardous pass over the Red Cuillins. From our elevated seats we speculate as the verges fall far, far down to the frozen shore. I have been coming here too long; each bend marks the spot where a car or lorry has plummeted in the past. Compose news bulletins in my head..."14 die in Highland coach crash horror".

1140. Arrive, pale and shaken, at the ferry square in Kyle with 5 minutes to spare. Heave cases 200 yards through the snow to the railway station. This is the only station platform I know of from which you can fall into the sea. Discover from disconsolate foreign people who haven't that the line is impassable and there will be no trains all day. There is talk of a coach.

1200. A coach arrives, and we board, settling ourselves for the long drive from west to east coast. The coach drives 200 yards back to the ferry square and stops. The driver mutters something in Gaelic, and disappears for half an hour.

1230. Coach departs. Climbing over high passes and descending to sparkling lochs, calling at each of the Kyle line halts, this trip is wonderfully scenic. Clear skies, deep, unbroken snow from frozen lochans to mountain peaks. Deer gather at the roadside. At Achnasheen the coach mounts a boulder and sticks. Without being asked, as if it is an everyday occurrence, the passengers get out and heave it free. Wise fellow travellers, on a day trip to shop at the Inverness sales, have brought food and drink, and share these with us. The road winds and dips, and Nettie goes green and silent, clutching an empty carrier bag like a talisman. Achanalt, Loch Luichart, Garve, and then the bridge over the Moray Firth from the Black Isle to Inverness. It is about 1530, and we have about 5 hours to kill.

1730. Inverness is slippery, shop carpets sodden with slush. To pass the time and get warm, we have a meal in a Chinese restaurant. K acts sophisticated, Bobby upsets his drink, I try to hide my gumboots under the table.

1830. Shops shut. Station buffet shut. No waiting room. It is bitterly cold, and Christmas spirit is wearing thin. We are joined by an overweight, 6'2", whingeing, potentially psychotic big-mouth with a crew-cut.

1930. They let us board our sleepers. Settle family, order coffee etc for morning, then leg it for the first class lounge (well, there are comfy armchairs, and a nightcap helps one sleep). Unfortunately am spotted by Big-mouth, who insists I share his table. Claiming to be Orcadian, he has undertones of Scouse.

2120. Train departs, 40 minutes late. Sublimely oblivious to the body language of fellow passengers, Big-mouth interrupts, wisecracks, argues about prices with the steward and is generally loathsome. Bury head in book. He goes at last.

2330. Totter off to bed (from past experience, I have written my carriage and compartment number on my arm). And so to bed.

0215. Crawl into consciousness at an insistent knocking. It is the attendant. We have not yet reached Kingussie. Far from waking at Euston, we may make Edinburgh by 0630. It means that in the five hours since our departure, we have travelled only 30miles. The locomotive cannot cope with the icy rails.

0230. Now wide awake, dress and head for the first class lounge in search of coffee. Big-mouth is up, but I manage to avoid him. A harassed ScotRail person (crumpled suit, mobile phone) tells me my coffee is paid for. Get talking to a nice Scot from Bonar Bridge, excited at the trip of a lifetime to Canada, to visit a cousin for Hogmanay. He has a hunted look. It turns out he is sharing Big-mouth's sleeper. He has been shouted at for having his reading light on. Confidingly, he whispers; "The man stripped off. Stark bollock naked, he was". "Which bunk were you in?" I ask. "The bottom one", he says with a shudder. "I didn't know where to put my face".

0245. We make an unscheduled stop at Dalwhinnie - something to do with treatment for a diabetic on board. Somewhere on the moors between there and Blair Atholl, the train finally breaks down altogether. Another engine is despatched from Inverness. Have more free coffee. Big-mouth has reduced a sleeping car attendant to tears, but Crumpled Suit has restored order with considerable diplomacy. More free coffee and biscuits. Snow is whipped up outside the snug of the lounge, and penetrates the carriage doors, piling up in small heaps in the corridor. Eventually our relief engine arrives, and we begin to move again. An attendant bursts in and grabs Crumpled Suit; someone is ill in Coach K. We stop at Pitlochry, where an ambulance is waiting on the snowy platform. We restart, but the replacement locomotive soon develops its own fault. Now passengers will have to be transferred to an Edinburgh-Kings Cross service, which will be held to wait our arrival. Crumpled Suit is glued to his mobile phone, arranging taxis and flights from Edinburgh for passengers with flight and ferry connections. Water has run out in the lavatories.

0700. We crawl at last into Edinburgh Waverley. It is dark and bitterly cold. Everyone piles out and humps their stuff across the station. A chain of station staff point the route. Crumpled Suit has arranged seats for us in the most luxurious of First Class dining cars. Assist an elderly woman who looks on the verge of collapse (she is an asthmatic, it transpires). We are served a splendid breakfast; piping coffee, fruit juice, egg, bacon, mushrooms, saute potatoes, rolls, marmalade. The stewards are shaken by serving a hundred breakfasts, and one drops a glass of orange juice on the couple opposite. Crumpled Suit has counted us (89) and discovered that several of his passengers failed to wake at Edinburgh, and have been left behind. Below, a rumpled quilt of mist hides the North Sea, but Lindisfarne pokes through. Things are looking up.

0840. Things are looking down. The tannoy requests the guard's attendance in the cab. The train seems to be slowing down. It is coasting. It stops. It is now daylight, and we can look out at snow in a field, somewhere in Northumberland. There is an announcement on the tannoy, "This is your senior conductor speaking. This train is a total failure". (I am so charmed by the phrasing of this that I write it down).

After a while the emergency power runs out. The automatic doors have to be prised open, and slam back shut on springs. One catches Crumpled Suit, catapulting coffee down his front. He admits that things are beginning not to go well, and remarks wistfully that he likes to go whale-watching to get away from it all. As time passes, it grows colder. Passengers begin to unpack and put on extra clothes. Nettie lends a coat to the orange-juiced girl opposite, who works at RAF Lossiemouth. She is shivering. Blitz spirit is setting in. Possibly destiny is at work. Trains do not go anywhere; they are where you live.

Crumpled-and-Stained Suit is telephoning relatives, companies, Eurostar, the Home Office (someone has a meeting there). His phone is dying, and cannot be recharged because there is no power. Crumpled Suit phones my mother-in-law, but the message is breaking up. (She mishears it, and hurries down to meet us at Maidstone). An engine is being sent out from Newcastle. Hot drinks are off, but Crumpled Suit organises a trolley from the bar for his sleeper passengers. Body clock awry, I have a free Bells to wash breakfast down and celebrate 24 hours on the move.

1035. The replacement engine arrives, a diesel which has seen better days and belches an evil trail of particulates as it trundles laboriously along. They once upgraded this line to take the high-speed tilting train.

1130. Three things happen in quick succession.

1. It is announced that hot snacks are being served in the buffet at the rear of the train. Nettie and the children prick their ears up, relieve me of a fiver, and take off.

2. Alarms sound. Crumpled Suit takes off to the restaurant car next door, and the intercom crackles in, "This is a medical emergency. Can any Doctor on the train please go to the restaurant car". Someone is having a heart attack.

3. The speaker suddenly announces that we will be arriving at Newcastle in three minutes, and that in view of its extreme lateness the train will terminate there. Passengers must transfer to other services. We all start having heart attacks.

As the train slows and passengers panic, I panic too, sweeping cuddly toys, crayons, glasses, lipsticks, books, coats, gloves, crisps, toy cars, etc into bags and backpacks. Heave all our luggage onto the platform in several trips. Hoping it will not be stolen, I return to the carriage to carry out the luggage of our adopted asthmatic. Nettie and the children arrive, breathless. Further down the platform, Big-mouth has finally gone critical. He is shouting and swearing and trying to get at Crumpled Suit. We wonder if we should help, but luckily the transport police arrive.

1200. South of the border, ScotRail's efforts to look after us have broken down. For want of anything better to do, we get on the 0930 Edinburgh-Kings Cross service. It is already full and late, and is now boarded by the entire contents of the 2030 Inverness Sleeper and the 0700 Edinburgh-Kings Cross service. Nettie and the children squeeze into a pair of seats. By the time I have found a seat for our asthmatic and loaded her luggage, it is standing room only. Some time later find a seat in the first class lounge (I am becoming an expert on these) at the other end of the train. Crumpled Suit is still at it. As the steward lays blue paper napkins for people wanting coffee, he follows laying white ones for the original sleeper passengers (he knows us all by now). White napkins get free coffee. Later he comes round with a tray bearing broken up bars of chocolate and divided up sandwiches. The feeding of the five hundred. Other belligerent passengers, late but not so late, demand to know why they can't have free food too. Eventually rejoin the family (who have missed out on the food and drink). Nettie has discovered her handbag got left under the seat on the last train. She finds Crumpled Suit, who has charged his phone, and calls Newcastle. The train has returned to Edinburgh, and the bag has not been handed in.

1525. The conductor announces that we are shortly to arrive at Kings Cross, and apologises for the lateness of the train. Then we hear Crumpled Suit, voice cracking, weary, a broken man; "I would just like to thank my passengers from the Inverness Sleeper for their patience and goodwill, and wish them well in the remainder of their journey". In the taxi queue at Kings Cross I recognise a party from the lounge car the night before. One is South African, but was brought up at Cobtree. We discuss Big-mouth.

1615. We board the Maidstone train at Victoria. There are no seats, and our cases fill the corridor. Unshaven, hollow-eyed and gumbooted, commuters give me a wide berth.

1745. We reach home, 32 hours after we set out. The house is freezing, the Aga needs lighting, there is no food, and a pipe has burst in the attic. It's nice to be home.

Footnote: I wrote to the Managing Director of ScotRail, praising Crumpled Suit's efforts. I met Crumpled Suit several times on the sleeper subsequently, and we reminisced over the odd beer. He was a customer relations officer for ScotRail, and had been off duty, travelling down on the sleeper by sheer chance. He was awarded a free holiday by ScotRail on the strength of my letter, and added that, against all the odds, ScotRail did not receive a single written complaint. He also ran into Bigmouth again, and had to have him removed from another train. He has subsequently left ScotRail and opened a B&B near Inverness, handy for whale-watching trips in the Moray Firth.

In the course of this journey, we travelled 600 miles at an average speed of 18 miles an hour. In the same time we could have flown from London to Sydney, and still have had time left over to fly from London to Cape Town. It occurs to me too, that not many children aged 5 and 7 would have put up with it without a word of complaint.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

One day. One family. Three worlds.

From a 12 year old Brother Tobias' diary (scary; I was writing angry letters even then):

"Sunday, 20 December 1964. Wrote an angry letter to Airfix about missing parts. Fairly sunny today. Christmas soon. Fairly windy, but not much."

From my 22 year old mother's diary (after driving an ambulance with the BEF in France, she was at home in Essex, driving her father who was Home Guard Zone Commander. Later she joined the WRENs.)

"Wednesday, 20 December 1940. This afternoon Mum and I went to Stortford and made half-hearted attempts to shop in a very crowded Stortford, full of troops and airmen on Christmas bound. I managed to get some vanishing cream but lipsticks are out for the present. I must go easy on the make-up in the home circle! A high easterly wind tonight but plenty of Boche over. The submarine war is rather grave. Today in Chelmsford there was a queue some fifty strong to buy oranges from the fruit cart. Invasion is in the air again, darn it - especially over Christmas. But those merchant seamen are brave men. Our wireless out of order - no news!"

And finally, from my 16 year old grandmother's diary:

"Tuesday, 20 December 1898. Cold again but nice and fine. Captain Clifton Brown and Mrs Calvert came to shoot. Harold went out with them in the morning and shot his first pheasant. I rode the cow in the morning and like him very much.In the afternoon we all went into Horsham to a dance which Miss Willis gave from 3 to 6 and enjoyed it very much."

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Bombay Duck - Big Rant

Invader Stu's stranger's impression of Brussels (here) made me wonder what was peculiar about Britain, and what made expatriate bloggers seem somehow less critical of their places of residence than UK bloggers are of theirs. And I realised that what is most peculiar about Britain is that we are all pissed off, almost all the time, about just about everything.

We are pissed off with the government, and we are pissed off with the opposition. We are pissed off with fighting other people's wars for brownie points from Bush, who also pisses us off. We are pissed off with our jobs. We are pissed off with the weather. We are pissed off with the education system, the examination system and most of the products of these. We are pissed off with the NHS; council tax; the BBC; reality TV; Simon Cowell; traffic; telephone masts; development; the cost of the Olympics; the police; depletion of fish stocks; the TV licence; refuse collections; foot and mouth; bird flu; blue tongue; chavs; dog poo; Celebrity Strictly Come Dancing X Factor Idol Academy; all television programmes involving house purchase, house decoration, antiques, cooking and child-rearing in any combination; boy bands; Simon Cowell; Ann Widdecombe; the nanny state; lying politicians; the flimsiness of bin bags; the postal service; mobiles on trains; mobiles in shops; foreigners with loud voices; baby buggies; hoodies; gangsta rap; the way Blair walks; anyone who says 'It's time to move on'; EC regulations banning Bombay duck; EC regulations full stop; all government ministers; George Galloway; Tony Banks; fly tipping; gum on pavements; in-car-deodorants; the ending of analogue TV; auditory bird scarers; 'Baby on Board' signs and each other.

We are one pissed-off nation. It's no wonder we have a reputation for whingeing. (Although if the Aussies were over here, I bet they'd be whingeing fit to bust before you could say 'toss us a tinny'). I think this overcrowded, overworked, underpaid country could be edging towards some kind of unstable, critical mass of pissed-offedness. And I don't think the government's obsession with taxing and banning our consoling vices in order to encourage us to live longer so that we have to work longer to pay for living longer and getting even more pissed off is going to help exactly.

We really need to rethink the aspirations by which we measure human progress and elect governments. A philosophy of perpetual economic growth isn't making us happier, and it isn't making this crowded island a better place to live. Who needs 150 inch, flat screen, 4x4, tumble drying iPhones anyway? We should start passionately protecting and enhancing our quality of our life instead, like our quality of life depended on it.

Wow. I feel better for that. Happy Christmas!

It's the Season to be Deadly

I hate killing wildlife, but sometimes there is no choice. Now that the cold weather has arrived we've put up the bird table, and a large rat hole appeared below it within days. I shot the first one yesterday, leaning out of an upstairs window. It's tricky as the window faces the lane and my reputation is probably bad enough without being considered a crazed gunman.

In the past few weeks we've trapped about a dozen mice. I also put down two rabbits which had myxomytosis. More heart-breakingly, I had to trap a mole which was wreaking havoc in the garden.

At least there was a reason for all of these, and the deeds quick and absolute. As I sat at my desk a few days ago the shoot was in action. I watched wounded pheasants tumble out of the sky, then leap and flutter, broken-winged on the ground, waiting for the dogs to arrive. One made it to the garden, and a ruddy-faced shooter asked to come in and get it. As he approached the bird managed to get airborne and escape into the nearby shaw so it was left there, presumably to die a slow and painful death.

I still don't understand what joy or entertainment there is in shooting birds. They should go off into the woods and shoot at each other. Now that would be sport.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

New Flan Dish

The Social Secretary discovers a logistical problem with her new push-out-bottom flan dish.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Christmas Song

Here is Brother T's classy cultural contribution to Christmas. (More verses to come if the muse wills it). You can make up your own tune.

I've bought the family presents, and ones from them to me
And a musical card for Nana that plays 'Deck the Halls' in C
I've sprayed the front room windows with cfc free snow
And dressed the front door knocker with a tasteful velvet bow
I've bought an advent calendar with a Disney 'Snow White' theme
(Inside every window is a dwarf-shaped chocolate cream)
And I've pasted a nativity outside the downstairs loo
'Cos I think we should remember what its all about, don't you?

I've found the wind-up Santa which plays 'Jingle Bells'
I've found the festive candles that give off festive smells
I've found the things for hanging seasonal greetings on the walls
But I can't, I can't, I can't find
My shiny silver balls

I've just been down to Asda for an amputated tree
And a pair of frozen turkeys (it was buy one, get one free).
I've remembered nuts and dates, and other xmas treats
Which decorate the sideboard, but which no one ever eats.
I've scattered pot pourris in little hand-carved wooden bowls
And fashioned home-made crackers using tubes from toilet rolls.
I've draped the new conservatory with flashing LEDs
And stocked up on instant stuffing, brussels sprouts and frozen peas.

I've found the wind-up Santa...etc

Friday, 14 December 2007

Death by Drowning

Putting some shopping away in the scullery yesterday I found a mouse had nibbled the corner off a carton of orange juice. On closer inspection, the carton contained a dead mouse, first drowned like the Duke of Clarence in a butt of Malmsey wine, and then preserved like Nelson in a vat of brandy. The juice had thickened to the consistency of jam.

As I marmalade the mouse to rest in the garden I felt I ought to have drawn some philosophical conclusion about its aspirations and extinction but, as Marx said, "Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana."

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Cutting Remark

Alison (hairdresser) to Brother Tobias, while cutting his hair by candle-light; "You're quite good-looking in the dark."

Frost Report

The power went out around lunchtime yesterday. After much trip and fuse checking (there are three switchboards in different parts of the house), I phoned the supply company, EDF Energy. They said they had no reports of problems elsewhere, but would send someone out. 'This is a free service, but charges may be made if there is no one at the house, or if the fault turns out to be within the premises, etc.'

In the shade the frost had remained all day, and when the sun went down it began to get very cold indeed. We rang again at about 6 pm.

EDF: 'We sorted out a problem at a nearby property and thought that this had put yours right. We'll re-enter your problem.'

The outside temperature fell to minus 4.5 F, in what must have been the coldest night of the winter so far. By now most of the house was uninhabitable. We spent a convivial evening round oil lamps in the kitchen, which (thanks to the coal-fired range) was the only warm place in the house, and went to bed hugging hot water bottles and watching our breath condense.

Sometime after midnight we were woken by the shrieking of sirens, as the power finally came on and the alarm systems woke up, and I blundered about sorting them out.

After a little investigation it turns out that everything EDF had told us varied between economical with the truth and complete bollocks. The neighbours, half a mile up the hill, had reported the problem some time before me; it had not yet been repaired by evening; and the problem had originated in the first place as a result of the company messing about with a substation. So much for customer care.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Saddle Stain

Went to get gumboots at a local equestrian suppliers. Good shop, but it had the phonetically unfortunate name of 'Saddlesdane'.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Baby on Bread

You know something that really irritates? Those yellow 'Baby on Board' signs people stick in the back window of their cars.

Meaning what?

"Please don't crash into the back of me as you obviously intended to before you read this notice"

"Beware, reading this sign may distract you and cause you to run into me."

"This sign obscures part of my back window, so I may not be aware of your presence."

"I am fertile."

"Danger: Sudden Projectile Vomiting."

"Warning, my driving may become erratic as I (a) Retrieve Wayne's dummy from the footwell; (b) Change a nappy; (c) Breast feed."

"I have had a baby. My ability to concentrate is permanently impaired."

I have an urge to make up my own, look-alike notices. Such as "Baby, I'm Bored," or "Baby on Bread".

Nearly as annoying are the ones that say, "If you can read this, you are too close". Well, I wasn't too close until I closed up to make out what you were trying to tell me.

And I'm sorry, I don't want to cause offence, but those fish stickers are very tiresome. Must evangelicals wear their hearts on their sleeves like that? We don't want to know your beliefs, although when we've seen the badge we do know we don't want to know you.

The whole car-to-car communication business began with 'I've seen the Lions of Longleat' stickers in the 1960s. The then Marquess of Bath has a lot to answer for.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Christmas Cards

"Edward and Catriona Grebby-Coxe will not be sending Christmas cards this year. Instead they will be making a donation to The British Independent Game Promotion and Organisation Thingy (BIGPOT) fund for injured shooters. They therefore wish to take this opportunity to extend seasons greetings to all their friends and associates."

Good point. You can't send greetings to friends and give to charity. Definitely either/or. And everyone who's sent them a card will now feel guilty and uncharitable. Plus there's none of that tiresome writing business. Just a quick cheque, and then it's down to packing for Christmas in Martinique.

Yes, it's that time of year again. New computer, new operating system. I struggled for a couple of hours to get my creaking Lotus 123 address database operating on Vista, at one point losing it altogether. And formatting it for my Poundland labels wasn't great, either. Nettie does the bulk of the writing, bless her, just leaving me to do my relations and a few former girlfriends. Which is fair enough.

This is the only time of year we have contact with a lot of people. So we do write some stuff inside. Lots of people can't be arsed. All you get is:

There's one couple (it's okay, I can say this; they only use the Internet for on-line betting and searches for menage and pool maintenance firms) who send an annual card in which even their names are printed. For all we know the cards are sent out by an office services firm in Sydenham. (And yes, I know it should be 'manege', which means 'riding school' in French. 'Menage' means a married couple, but the equestrian world is no longer noted for its educational achievement, and the people in question definitely school their horses on a married couple).

Then there are the round-robin lot. I mean, it's creditable to get the full-on newsletter, but it's not personal to you and includes a lot of guff about their intolerable grandchildren's SATs results which you don't want or need to know. And then you are left with the task of having to write back with your own in-depth news report.

So Brother Tobias would like to announce that he will not be sending merry festive seasonal yuletide greetings to his reader this year, but will instead be donating his kidneys to the St Wenceslas Incontinent Santas' Home (SWISH), and would like to take this opportunity etc.

Inhaling Lagavulin

It must be hard writing a regular column for a paper. Having to deliver pearls of wisdom or (what's the equivalent noun for humour?) mint imperials of humour on schedule, rain or shine, hung over or bushy-tailed.

Brother T has nothing to say. The bat that flits at close of eve has left the brain that won't achieve. A number of loyal reader will be disappointed.

Possibly I am not getting out enough. But there is a world in a grain of sand, allegedly (there you go; two quotes from Blake in three sentences must be a mark of desperation). So it may be my lifestyle. Too many late evenings, too much red wine. That must be it. And the 16 year old Lagavulin that Uncle Keith brought with him last night. From a distillery dating back to 1742, some claim it the aristocrat of Islays, and it is just preternaturally good. Add a little water, close your eyes and sniff. You are instantly in the Highlands, peat smoke and seaweed, and no need to be anywhere else. And yet, it is soft and sweet on the tongue, with no hint of acridity.

It isn't only me, though. The Social Secretary has her head under a towel, inhaling steam and eucalyptus oil from a bowl. She's still wearing her glasses.

Outside it is raining, but there is a rainbow and the tits are picking at a fat ball under the bird table (fat balls of humour?). Bob has gone off to his weekend job as a Santa's Little Helper, K to sell shoes to minors, and all is well with the world.

Except Keith took the Lagavulin home with him.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Wanted Man

According to my stat counter widget thing, Greater Manchester Police visited my profile yesterday morning. Not my blog; it was me they were interested in. I'm trying to think what I might have done. There was talk of doing a runner from a restaurant after a particularly bad curry in Bradford once, but that was years ago, and anyway good sense prevailed.

I have used the word 'bottom' in my blogs twice since September, but I'm not convinced this is an arrestable offence. Also 'Brother Tobias' does produce some rude anagrams, but that's purely accidental. Anyone's name does. Besides, I'm sure they've heard worse than 'I rot bathrobes,' 'hot rabbi store' and 'tit barer hobos' in Greater Manchester.

The car that was doing 74 on the M6 last April and which looked a bit like an invalid carriage was, in fact, an invalid carriage, and not our Peugeot Escapade. We were in Penzance at the time. I remember, because it was raining so we bought a serpentine model of a lighthouse with a thermometer inside. I can show you it, if you want.

My theory guys, if it's any help, is that there may be two Brother Tobias's who are completely unrelated. And the other one, who probably looks a little bit like me if you slit your eyes, has long toenails and is heading for Merseyside, where he is less likely to be noticed. Also I think the Greater Manchester Constabulary are a fine body of men and women who are doing a difficult and thankless job with dedication and perseverance, and I would like to thank them from the bottom of my heart.

Damn. I've just said 'bottom' again. Now I'm for it.

The Monty Hall Problem

I stumbled on this paradox by accident. If it's been doing the rounds in an annoying email, then apologies. But it was new to me and I love it. It is so counter-intuitive that it does my head in, and I think it will yours too.

Imagine you're on a game show. For a prize, you have to choose one of three doors. There is a car behind one door, and a goat behind each of the other two. The game show host knows what is behind each door.

You tell the game show host which door you have chosen. He opens one of the other two, revealing a goat. He then gives you the opportunity to change your mind and choose a different door. Should you change your mind?

You know there is a goat behind the opened door. You therefore have a choice between two doors, one with a car behind and the other with a goat. That looks like a fifty-fifty chance, with no particular advantage in swapping. Right?

Not right. Actually, you should always switch doors. There was a two in three chance that you picked a goat in your original choice. Whether you picked the car or a goat, there was always going to be a spare goat door, and when the host opened it, it did not change the 2/3 odds that you had picked a goat. But once a goat has been revealed, switching to the other door gives you a better than fifty-fifty chance of picking the car. Since the door you picked is most likely to contain a goat, and a goat has been revealed behind another door, the last door is odds on to contain the car. Statistically, switching doors brings a win two out of three times.

When Marilyn vos Savant (then listed in The Guiness Book of Records as possessor of the world's highest IQ), included the correct solution to this problem in her 'Parade' column, 10,000 readers, including maths academics, wrote to the magazine claiming she was wrong. Most subsequently conceded she was right.

Love You to Death

The daughter and her boyfriend were discussing the dangers of motorcycling the other day. I don't think this exchange came out quite as she intended.

Boyfriend: "I'd rather go in a way I'd chosen."

Daughter: "I'd prefer it if you just died."

Monday, 3 December 2007

Bathing with Wasps

Some people do yoga, some tai chi. I do baths. Baths are my therapy. If I were in Bagdad, I would be a lifelong member of the Bath Party. I turn on my approved-for-use-in-zone-one-areas reading light at one end, and the perfect dribble of hot and cold water at the other, and subside with an 'Aaah' like a Bisto ad. Close at hand on the bathroom chair is a book, and also a radio because reading is difficult when you're actually washing. On the windowsill is a cup of tea or a glass of gin, depending on the time of day.

So it is a Bad Thing if I get disturbed.

This morning, just as I got settled, a demented wasp woke up and started tearing about the room like a blender on steroids. It wasn't an ordinary wasp either; this one was about the size of a small courgette, and it was not happy with life.

I don't react well to stings at the best of times. Bits swell up and throb. But being starkers brought an unimagined sense of vulnerability. After ducking at two low passes, I spotted it making a 360 degree stall turn round the ceiling light and made a dash for my dressing gown, cascading water all over the carpet. A dressing gown might not offer much protection, but if I was going to be discovered swollen and throbbing on the floor, it seemed a good idea.

I never got there; the bastard came at me from three o'clock out of the sun, and it was only through a desperate, lucky reflex that I caught it a glancing blow with the Autumn/Winter Scotland in Trust magazine, sending it spinning against the model of a Polynesian proa.

It recovered before I could get to it, its engine revving up an octave, and homed in on its large, pink target with single-minded ferocity. The next few moments seem like a blur. I know my magazine arm was flailing like the paddles of a threshing machine, missing but stirring up the air enough to keep it at bay. Then it swung away to the far corner, roll-turned and came for me straight as a die, full throttle.

I had one chance, and I knew it. I held my fire until it was almost on me, and then unleashed an overarm swing that met it head-on. The wasp entered the bath like a bullet, just under the hot tap. I don't think it felt a thing. Unfortunately I took out a bottle of Badedas and the shaving gel on the follow through, and Scotland in Trust flew out of my hand into the water, but I'd pretty much read it anyway.

I'm sure Archimedes never had to put up with this sort of thing. I think I'm going to start bathing with my clothes on.


We went to Wagamama's in Canterbury on Saturday, to celebrate Megawega's birthday. Canterbury is Green. This means the City Council charges an arm and a leg through the nose for parking even at night, because it can. We travelled down in our two matching invalid cars (they're not invalid cars actually, but look like they might be), because there were a lot of us.

We arrived late, largely because we parked under the city walls and a grumpy nightwatchman in a booth refused to let us take a short cut across the cathedral precincts. Whose cathedral is it anyway? I've been baptised twice, remember. Pity he wasn't there in December 1170, or Thomas a Becket would still be with us.

Then we were grumpy too and guessed and turned left, which was the wrong guess and meant walking about half a mile unnecessarily. We looked out for cousin Alexander, but didn't spot him. (On the way back we turned left out of Wagamama's and reached the car in about a minute and a half. Our route took us through a lively night club quarter, which the men enjoyed more than the women. I've got nothing against drunk, skimpily dressed girls, whatever their IQ. Particularly whatever their IQ).

The verdict? The polyglot staff were cheerful and willing. The lighting was on the bright side, and the atmosphere a bit All Bar One on a Friday night - refectory tables and a slightly frenetic ambience. The food, though, was delicious, even if some of the side dishes looked like a bush-tucker trial. The choice of puddings was so tempting that you ordered them even when you knew you were stuffed. And didn't regret it. Until about 3.00 am.

Toenails in Archaeology

I've got one of those pairs of nail clippers that has a little plastic reservoir that catches the clippings. The sort of thing offered free with an order from Damart and which nobody expects to use. Except they're actually rather good, especially when you've reached the age when your toenails are so hard that the clippings ping off and become impaled in the curtains, to be found long after like needles from a Christmas tree. (There are rocks in the north of Scotland so compressed in the Ice Age that if you hit them with a hammer, the fragments embed themselves in your forehead in a sudden release of pent-up energy).

I've been wondering how our forebears cut their toenails. I mean before the age of effective scissors. They could have bitten their finger nails, but not their toenails. Did they bite each other's, like superstitious mothers once did for their children, believing that if an infant's nails were cut before it was a year old it would become a thief?

I can't find any helpful archaeological references. The evidence from bog people and mummies seems a bit inconclusive. Coastal erosion has recently revealed footprints of humans and animals preserved in late Holocene silt at Formby Point on Merseyside. Optically-stimulated luminescence dating (that sounds worth trying) indicates that they are late-Mesolithic to mid-Neolithic in origin. At least one set of prints - those of a young man - show the drag marks of long, uncut toenails.

But maybe that's just Merseyside for you.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

John and Mohammad

For centuries the most popular boy's name in Britain was John (Jack, as one form of it, still is). It is the name of a saint, a disciple, a gospel and an English king. John Bull is the personification of England.

With characteristic national irreverence, we also use John as a colloquial word for a lavatory and for a prostitute's client.

According to the Office for National Statistics, by the end of this year Mohammad (in all its spellings) will become Britain's commonest baby name.

I suppose we will all have to behave better in future.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Fish Tale

When it was proposed to convert Littlebrook Power Station on the Thames Estuary from oil to gas, environmentalists were anxious about the impact on fish species of conservation interest. In particular, it was argued that smelt, twaite and allis shad had declined substantially, and were now protected by European Habitat Regulations. Never one to duck a hot environmental issue, Brother Tobias was moved to compose the following classy verse:

When the Thames was young, what times were had
By Smelt, and Twaite and Allis shad.
From tip to fin Allis was svelte,
More lithe than Twaite, more sweet than Smelt.
She'd flutter her anadromous gills
Giving Twaite and Smelt wet piscine thrills.
For preference, I've heard it said,
She laid her roes by Maidenhead,
While poor old Smelt lacked taste and brains,
And was sadly apt to spawn near Staines.
Handsome Twaite, all blotch and rigid dorsal,
Thought Allis was a tasty morsel;
In thrall, he'd always burble "Hi Sis"
If he encountered her in Isis,
While Smelt (Osmerus Eperlanus)
Was envious from nose to ... tail.

Alas, this idyll was cruelly took
When they converted Littlebrook;
First poisoned, polluted, lightly oiled,
Now gas had left their eggs hard-boiled.
They heard heartbroken Allis cry,
"This hot, my eggs will never fry".
Now Smelt, and Twaite and Allis shad
Have left the Thames for good...So sad.

Friday, 30 November 2007

Wet Fish and Chamber Pots

Someone - I can't recall who - once told me that he had visited Attingham Park when it was an innovative adult education community led by Sir George Trevelyan. He was introduced to Trevelyan who, asserting enthusiastically that there was poetry in everything, seized a casually discarded railway timetable, opened it at random, and dramatically declaimed, "choice of chilled, fruit juices," emphasising the alliteration like a true thespian.

One suspects that the timetable was a strategic prop and the random extract far from random, and possibly not even an extract, but nevertheless the point about the ubiquity of poetry was well made. Slopping in the bilges of my mind ever since I read it in some book is a notice apparently once pinned up in Italian sleeping-cars. Something like, "Sotto il lavabo une trouve uno vaso,", which I think means, "there is a chamber pot under the wash basin." It sounds a lot better in Italian than it does in English.

I thought I'd test out the poetry everywhere thesis, and opened the phone book at random. Bad choice; "Carpenter S, Carpenter SA, Carpenter TJ, Carpenter V, Carptenter P, Carr Rev A" didn't seem too poetic.

Hang about. Carptenter? Is that a misprint? I can understand how the Carpenters acquired their name, but were there medieval tradesmen making tents for fish? Are there other forgotten fish trades? Dabhanders perhaps, or Turbotchargers? My attempts to research the issue drew a blank, but I did learn a lot. Did you know, for example, that the Ginger Carpet Shark is a relation of the Tasselled Wobbegong? I thought not. But then, as I waded through the species, the Oblique-Bar Monocle Bream, the Painted Sweet Lip, the Bass Groper, the Six Band Rock Cod, etc, it dawned on me that there was indeed poetry, and that it was good.

Which reminds me, Brother Tobias once wrote a pome about fish. I'll post it tomorrow, if I can find it. Bet you can't hardly wait.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Avro Vulcan

Back on 21 September I enthused like an apron nerd about the efforts to get this fifty year old aeroplane airborne again. On 18 October they achieved this. I may be missing a point here, but like a favourite band or the bagpipes, I can't believe that the feel good factor I get from it may not be shared by everyone else.

So test yourself. Wait until your boss has gone for lunch, put on the headphones, turn the volume up, then click the link below.

Crabbit Apple

The crab apple tree at the end of the garden.

From the scandinavian word, scrabba, which is the fruit of the wild apple. The Scots have scrab, a dialect word for a withered tree or stump. Craobh-ubhal fhiadhain in the gaelic.

The Tree of Love. So sour, not even the birds will take the fruit.

Friday, 23 November 2007

German Trousers

The social secretary has bought some German hiker's trousers. Some trousers for hiking made in Germany, that is, not the trousers belonging to some German hiker. It is not the time of year for selling your trousers when you are hiking, not on the North Downs.

Although they are German trousers, it is inconceivable that they are intended for indigenous use. Germany has, after all, one of the highest standards of living in the world in terms of per-capita income, and in Frankfurt, Munich and Stuttgart it has three of the top performing cities in Europe. Whatever a performing city is. London, on the other hand, is 34th.

The trousers are completely shapeless. They are like those swagged, ruched curtains you might see in personnel officers' houses in Ilford. I imagine they were designated as hikers' trousers because you wouldn't be seen dead in them in a built-up area. They shouldn't really be worn in public at all.

They are, I believe, a cruel joke perpetrated on the British as revenge. I can't think what for; we've always been jolly decent to the Germans. Mostly. By and large. (I know 5-1 was overdoing it a bit, and hacking into that Enigma code was unsporting, but we've atoned for all that since. I mean, 34th. What more do they want?)

Apart from being made out of surplus Soviet parachute rayon and cut to a generous, lifelong, one-size-fits-all pattern, the trousers have a very weird feature. There is a zip pocket at the back. Not a hip pocket, but one dangling internally in the middle of the wearer's bum. Why? What is it for? What do hikers need to keep so unreachably behind them that other people don't?

If the pocket was made of clear vinyl, I suppose it could be a useful map pocket. The hiker behind could navigate by peering at the bahookey of the person in front. The trousers' owner suggests it might be for money, but groping blindly down the back of one's trousers to pay for a pint or whatever seems less than ideal - the Scot's idea of storing money in a sporran and hanging it in the place every man instinctively protects seems far sounder. Natural selection wouldn't favour hikers who clutched their bums when faced by attacking dogs, or bulls, or bandits. (Well, it would depend on what the bandits had in mind, I suppose). For sandwiches? I wouldn't take one if offered. And supposing you sat on them? And they were egg mayonnaise?

Any suggestions would be welcome. I feel there may be something pocket-sized that we are not taking hiking that we ought to be, and we do want to be proper hikers, up with the best. Not 34th.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Presentation Scroll

When I was working in Cornwall many years ago, our chief draughtsman was asked to prepare a presentation scroll for an important person who had just been honoured in some way or other by the Royal Town Planning Institute.

The draughtsman was a fine artist, and he began meticulously to prepare a hand-lettered manuscript on calfskin vellum. In order to set the lettering out evenly, he started on a centre line with the middle of each word, and worked outwards.

The work was progressing nicely - fine romanesque capitals, shadowing and gilded highlights - then we heard a chuckle rumbling from the direction of his drawing board, followed by helpless laughter. We gathered round and viewed the presentation scroll in all its splendour. It said:

Saturday, 17 November 2007


According to an 'in brief' item in Thursday's Telegraph, a man in Ayr has been given three year's probation for trying to have sex with a bicycle.

Now that's what I call drunk.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Which Reminds Me...

A Bristolian friend of mine was getting ready to enter the operating theatre where his wife was about to have their baby delivered by caesarean. The surgeons and anaesthetists were busy scrubbing up, pulling on thigh-length latex gloves, turning taps on and off with their elbows and so on. As he approached the swing doors a nurse thrust a green gown at him and asked, 'Are you sterile?'

Taken aback, he replied, 'I wouldn't have thought so; would you?'

Battered Prawn Balls

According to a recent study, men who eat just half a serving of soya a day have drastically reduced sperm counts. The study's researchers say larger trials are needed to determine whether men hoping to conceive a child should try to avoid soya foods, such as tofu, tempeh and soya milk.

Although the idea of the chinese take away as a method of birth control is attractive, what I want to know is; if soy sauce is made of soya, why is China so populous?

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Bruges, 1918

After the Armistice (see 11 November) my grandfather drove to Bruges (where he had been at school as a boy) with two of his staff officers. It turned out that they were the first British Officers the inhabitants had seen for five years.

In their honour the townspeople asked to play 'God Save the King' on the carillon in the belfry, so at 12 noon the three soldiers stood at attention in the centre of the Grand Place in front of a crowd of dignatories and townspeople, feeling 'stupid and conspicuous', while the bells pealed out the national anthem.

Sombre Hombre

I have to go to a memorial service. I don't think people dress as sombrely as at funerals, but it's so long since I've been to one that I looked on the web.

"What to wear at a memorial service. Tips and warnings:

1 Only wear t-shirts as an undergarment.

2 A wide-brim hat is okay but not a trucker's hat. You can add a flower in it if you desire

3 Never wear flip-flops to a memorial service.

4 Avoid sundresses that are bright in colour or have patterns. They will look gaudy at a memorial service."

Flip flops with my orange sun dress and an Eddie Stobart cap are out then?

Lucky I checked.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Pregnant Elbow

Brother Tobias has bursitis, or student's elbow to you and me. It's the academic version of housemaid's knee. I don't know what I did to bring this on; it certainly wasn't time spent blogging.

One elbow is swollen, as if it has been bitten by a snake. Having a pregnant elbow is extremely painful. It makes me decidedly anti natal and relieved to have been born a bloke.

According to the valetudinarian's guide, bursitis can last for many months. Oh, goody. It affects my book-holding arm, but fortunately not my glass-holding one, so I can still take the amber medication, praise be.

Sunday, 11 November 2007


My grandfather served in the Royal Horse Artillery, and fought on the western front for the entire duration of the Great War. This is taken from his account of the cease fire on 11 November 1918.

"At 6pm on that day, I got a message which read as follows:


Next day I did a rather stupid thing. We had been fighting continuously for nearly four and a half years. I had been commanding troops in the front line for almost all that time, and we had all been living to a great extent on our nerves. I gave an order that every gun under my command on the 16th Division front was to be fired at 10.55 am.

There was a terrific din such as we had often heard before a battle. I doubt if many Germans were killed - they had nearly all retired to beyond gun range. Looking back after this lapse of years, I think perhaps it was rather a stupid order, but it was to some extent excusable and it made an impressive thunder.

Suddenly, dead silence came over the land. We had not experienced such a thing since the war began. We could hardly realize that the chance of being sent to eternity at any moment of the day or night was over."

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Overheard at the Forum, Tunbridge Wells

"I never had any sex education - I had to feel my way."

Monday, 5 November 2007

Breaking and Entering

Bobby has had a bit of a shock (and he doesn't shock easily). He was home from school early - it was a one lesson day (so that's how they keep class sizes down). On his way upstairs he passed his mother in the kitchen and his father in the study. It gave him a jolt, therefore, when he glanced from an upstairs window and saw a strange man bending over by the workshop.

It looked as if the man, who was wearing old jeans and a white shirt, was trying to break in. At this point Bob saw his father emerge from the house, carrying a stapler. He watched anxiously to see what would happen when his father came round the corner and saw the stranger.

Strangely, nothing happened. The stranger remained stooped by the door, and father did not seem surprised by his presence. Perhaps it's someone we know, he thought. At this point Bob saw his father bend down behind the man and fire a staple into his backside.

I really am too mature to be making guys for bonfires. But it's November the 5th and friends are coming over for some sausages and mulled wine, and I thought, as we aren't having fireworks because of the dog, and in the interests of tradition.....

In bed with Donna Tartt

There is something indecently intimate about reading a novel. A good one. One written from the heart and from the intellect, not for profit or plaudits, but because, welled up or dragged, the words were waiting to be spilled.

Such books are confessionals, and the reader inhabits the author's mind, vicariously sharing their weaknesses and their aspirations, the abcess of innocence eroded and the terror of loneliness.

It is delicious to be a voyeur in such a shameless context. Blameless, because the writer has invited you in. Tremblingly vulnerable or shamelessly wanton, they have danced without veils for strangers. Such an undeserved gift always enchants.

When an unexpected insight or a dart of mischief captures my admiration, I cannot help turning again to the author's biography and photograph. (The envious 'same age as me' has morphed now to 'younger than me', with an unspoken codicil, 'how can someone so young understand so much?')

It is Donna Tartt that absorbs me at the moment. I am reading 'The Little Friend', the book that followed 'The Secret History' after a ten year interval. When pressed about the gap, Donna Tartt composedly remarked, "I have my life to resort to".

The thoughts and events in her book are not remote invention; she must have lived them in her mind, inhabiting at times a parallel world in which the routines of shopping and laundry and celebrations were the stuff of dreams (the voices in the front seat blurring into unintelligibility as you doze in a moving car). I look at her face in the flyleaf photo, cool and remote; the hint of a line at the corner of her mouth denoting either humour or asperity, and understand how obsessives can imagine connections with people they do not know.

I am not sure anyone has really bottomed out why writers write. Perhaps for the same reason that painters paint, composers compose and poets poet. But I can't help wondering if it is not from some deep-seated insecurity. The child in us crying out for attention and approbation; 'Mummy, Daddy, look what I've done'.

Whatever drives Donna, thank the Lord for it, and may she long go on "moving a comma round very happily for hours".

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Comet Holmes and Dr Watson

There was a fine, clear view of Comet Holmes last night, which even Kent's rampant light pollution could not destroy. (Comet Holmes, in case you have been incommunicado somewhere very remote, like Crieff or Kugluktuk, is a normally mousy and retiring object which orbits the sun every seven years or so. In the last week, however, the comet has become about a million times brighter, and is now visible to the naked eye). It looks a bit like this:

Comet Holmes was first discovered by Sherlock Holmes in 1892. The events surrounding the discovery were reported in Dr John Watson's article in the Strand Magazine of December of that year.

About ten o' clock one evening, Holmes, who had slipped outside to ream his pipe, suddenly called to Watson in a tone of some distress. In Watson's words:

'I found Holmes standing on the seventeenth step, holding onto the railing and staring wild-eyed into the night sky.

"John," he cried, "For pity's sake, tell me that you see it too!"

Fearing that my friend had overindulged his habitual vice and damaged his eyesight, I replied, "I see nothing, Holmes, but if you say something is there, then something there must surely be."

Holmes clutched my arm and pointed above the trees in Regent's Park, in the general direction of Camden Town. And there, through the haze thrown up by the gas lights, I noticed a remarkable object in the constellation of Perseus. It was as bright as a star, but larger and hazy, like a carbide lamp seen through fog.

"I see it Holmes," I said.

"Thank Heavens," he breathed. "I could not bear it. The exactitude of my senses, Watson, the exactitude is what sets me apart."

Thus it was that Holmes, who professes disinterest in all things astronomical - who once, indeed, averred that the sun revolved around the earth, and that, even if it were not so, this was irrelevant to his deductive powers and therefore a matter of complete indifference to him - thus it was that Holmes discovered the comet that now bears his name.'

Saturday, 27 October 2007

The Silence of the Pasties

It's been a difficult week, gastronomically. With the full on arrival of autumn - leaves falling off trees, fireworks falling through letterboxes, the annual battle to delay lighting the stove - with autumn and the prospect of another lunch of lettuce and feta, a rebellious urge rose in me, like a late flowering rose challenging the dying of the year. In some atavistic race memory, a primordial neuron sparking deep in the brain stem cried, 'Pasty!'

The R-complex - seat of fight-or-flight responses, xenophobia, the territorial imperative - is a powerful master. It can be resisted but it cannot be ignored. My body needed pasty. Pasty it must have.

Accordingly I gathered my spear and pouch and went out to hunt.

I have to report abject failure. The true pasty, that magnificent, unbridled, steaming celtic creature, all milk-glazed crimped short crust and layered steak and swede, is extinct in South East England. Inbreeding and parsimony have left us with a limp and corrupted misnomer of a pasty, a sausage roll crossed with a TV supper. Flaky puff pastry containing a pre-digested slurry, runny playdough rolled in diced carrot and mushy peas, like something nasty stepped in behind the woodshed.

I thought I'd cracked it when I happened on a farmer's market with continental overtones. Between the stalls of garlic ginger slices and olive-drenched sun-dried tomato was a baker with a rack of pasties, big as wheel chocks.

Alas, no. Puff pastry and slurry. Slop on an industrial scale. Slop that ran to the bottom of the kitchen bin liner and sagged there like a filled nappy. Recycle that, if you dare.

I shall have to order them direct, my oggies. From Cornwall, beloved Oggieland, where seasoned potato, swede and onion bask in the gravy from chunks of best steak, where short crust pastry crumbles in the mouth. I shall eat them from a paper bag, as pasties should be eaten, straight from the range in the kitchen behind the bar in the Red Lion at Blackwater, washed down with a pint of 'Boys'.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Facebook, Loose Women and Havering Humanists

Somebody invited me to join Facebook today. I'd been putting it off but, ever eager to please, filled in the form that popped up from the link. I don't quite understand how, but all these names appeared as facebookers I know. I rashly clicked a box, and suspect I have now invited everyone I have ever corresponded with to be my friend...I mean, people like my bank manager and someone I once ordered a washing machine spare part from. On the other hand, there were lots of friendly and familiar faces, so that's okay. (I signed up for My Space ages ago to discover new bands, and Tom's been my only friend there ever since. It's embarrassing).

One of the Facebook profile questions was about religion. I thought I'd look up 'Humanist', because that's what I suspect I am, even though I was baptised twice, which apparently breaks all the rules but should make me twice as holy. There is a jolly useful list of humanist groups - Oxford Humanists, Croydon Humanists, etc. Then there is 'Humanists in Havering'. I can see why they put it that way round. Bit like the 'Loose Women's Institute' near here, which apparently isn't nearly as promising as it sounds. In Essex, the Ugley Women's Institute has similarly changed its name to the 'The Women's Institute of Ugley.'

At least we are becoming a tad more sophisticated. When the telephone book first appeared, it was thought wildly funny to look up people with surnames like 'Smelley', then ring them up just to say, " Hello. Are you smelly?"

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Big ambitions

Battle of the Bands

K's boyfriend's band was playing at the Forum in Tunbridge Wells last night, in a 'Battle of the Bands' gig. We took her and Bob over there and, faced with limited choices (drive home, then back again to collect; go for a meal and spin it out as long as possible; see a movie) we chose to do the gig.

Blending in was not going to be easy. At the British Superbikes meet at Brands Hatch the previous week it had been a doddle. All one had to do was affect a limp, neck the odd beer and remark 'uphill blind camber' or 'dual stage fuel injection' at intervals, and you were indistinguishable from the real thing.

At the Forum, though, there would be a bit of an age gap issue. The kind of stuff I wore to gigs last century might have been fine for Motorhead or whoever at the Leas Cliff Hall, but it was never going to wash here, where the average age would be about 16 ¾. Buggered if I was going to wear a hoodie either. Could I pull off aged rocker, mind-blown but unbowed? Talent scout? (astrakhan coat and cigar - or have I seen too many Ealing Comedies?) Shave my head and go as a bouncer? Stop washing, wear bum-crack jeans and make like a roadie? Or should we just be Darby and Joan, looking as if we'd got the wrong night for bingo? Whichever, I imagined the offspring were going to want to walk in several hundred paces ahead and then have nothing to do with us until slipping unobtrusively back to the car at close of play.

I may have overdone the parental wind up on the way - "Is it going to be a cool jig, then?" "Will there be a nosh pit, because I'm feeling a bit peckish" - but in the event it was fine. There was time for a preparatory jar in the Pantiles, and the Forum was not quite as I'd imagined. Once the largest public lavatory in Europe, it has the ambience of...the largest public lavatory in Europe. (There are lavatories attached to it, which must make it the only lavatory ever, big enough to have its own lavatories).

The audience was undeservedly small - there was one valiant attempt at crowd surfing but, as it involved a crush at the stage only one person deep, it came out more like a pole vault. The very competent sound man was squeezed into a space above the bar, which he reached by climbing a ladder, and the bands shared a drum set. I like the Forum. It reminds me of tatty folk clubs in back rooms in Falmouth, in the days before the likes of Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh turned talent into a commodity.

Cabaret Doll played a cracking set and deservedly won the contest. For a quality head bang, visit them here.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Coming Second

Football, rugby, motor racing. Three losses in a week is a bit rough. But it's gentlemanly to come second...

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Browsing the Web

It's an ill wind

A lot of agriculture has been happening this week. On Monday the farmer went to Italy, arranging for truckloads of slightly processed human poo to be delivered in his absence and jet-sprayed over the field just upwind of us. There is nothing quite so rural as the characteristic slapperslopper noise of a loaded muck spreader pebble-dashing the AONB. We were just too late shutting the windows and wedging towels into the letterbox, and the smell got in and started to peel the wallpaper.

On the other side of the lane they were cutting and baling something unidentified that they'd grown around the edge of a field, possibly as a comforter for game birds. The giant swiss roll bales were plonked onto a sort of outsize potter's wheel and rotated as they were wrapped in clingfilm. The polythene wrapping came in two shades subtly designed to blend in with the landscape; black and white. The field now looks like a chess board for orbiting astronauts. I suppose green polythene would be too much to ask. Too much risk of the odd car-sized bale being overlooked, or something.

On Wednesday the shooters were out, slaughtering partridges. They can't have got many, because most were trembling in our garden. The partridges, that is. I don't mind quite so much about pheasants. Not the cocks, anyway. They spend most of their time pointlessly sparring with their rivals, and creep under bedroom windows to screech at dawn. Partridges are different. They never quite grow up, scurrying about in fluffball bewilderment like castratos at a rodeo.

The same old shooters were there, tricked out in shiny green gumboots and this year's shade of tweed. They seemed shorter, if anything, but perhaps they'd just treated themselves to bigger guns. Or maybe they were further away. When they've banged a bit they gather together and do some group hearty laughter. K's friend said that they drink champagne and smoke weed, but I suspect he thinks weed means Benson and Hedges. Afterwards, pockets bulging with hand warmers, hip flasks, sachets of travel tissues and packets of Victory Vs, they clamber back into a box-like trailer and are towed away by a tractor, doubtless exchanging tales of 12 bore derring-do.

'Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness' I don't think.

Friday, 19 October 2007

100 Today!

The little counter thing tells me that this is my 100th blog. Hurrah. Here are some terribly interesting one hundredy facts:

The 100th most used english word is 'part'.

If you phone 100 in the UK, you get the operator. In Belgium, you get an ambulance. In South Africa you get a rugby helpline.

The 100th most popular baby name in Alaska is Xavier for boys, and Autumn for girls.

100 is the number of hours in a Venusian day.

Juan Undread was the Merovinian monarch who deposed the Mayor of Neustria in 846.

The jig '100 Pipers' is also known as 'The hair fell off my coconut'.

In Anglo-Saxon times a hundred was the area of land capable of supporting 100 families.

100 is the number of notes on a piano added to the number of keys.

100 mph is the terminal velocity of a lemming.

Some of these facts are truer than others.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

It's Another World

I got an urgent call from the Social Secretary at work one day. She said that she had been up by the compost heap when she came over all queer. Everything had gone blurry, and she had felt suddenly nauseous. She'd gone to bed and felt better there, but every time she got up the giddyness and nausea returned.

I was worried. I've got one of those books. The Reader's Digest Medical Adviser. It's crammed with aneurysms and clots and similar bad stuff. It's a scary book, because it makes you fear the worst.

As I cancelled meetings I rang her at intervals. She was no worse but no better, and I told her to stay in bed with the curtains drawn until I could get back.

Then she called me. She was suddenly better. "What happened?, I asked.

"I put on my glasses to try getting up again," she said, "and then I wiped them."

"That made you better?", I said.

"When I wiped them, my finger went through. The lens had fallen out. I've just found it up by the compost heap. I'm fine now"

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Dawn Primarolo wins Prim Loon Award

Research published yesterday claims that that the middle classes are drinking more than a glass of wine a day. Apparently the figures will be used by the Government to target middle-class wine drinkers.

Dawn Primarolo, the Public Health Minister, said: "Most of these are not young people, they are 'everyday' drinkers who have drunk too much for too long. This has to change."

More than a glass of wine is drunkenness? Middle class people didn't drink in the past? Upper and working class people don't drink?

This from the health ministry that allowed its hospitals to become rife with killer bacterial infections? This from a woman who as Paymaster General was held to have lost control of her department? From a woman who was in favour of the invasion of Iraq, identity cards and increased tuition fees?

It's enough to drive one to drink.

Seeing Double

My wife is an identical twin. She and her sister share all that telepathic empathy you read about. One is right-handed, the other left. When one broke a leg riding, the other, miles away, felt the pain. They text each other at the same time with the same message; cook the same food; send each other the same cards, buy the same bath cleaner...well, you get the picture.

On one occasion we all went off for a jolly weekend in Marlborough (it can be done, really). One of the twins spotted a pair of trousers in a shop window, went in and asked to try them on. A few minutes after she'd left the other spotted the trousers, went in and asked to try them on. The assistant gave her a very odd look. Later they both returned to buy them (at the same moment, naturally) and all was explained.

There are upsides. At school, they were never short of a friend. Fall out with them, and it was two against one. When their own children were small, each had an instant, almost indistinguishable substitute mother for baby sitting.

There are downsides, too. All those strangers who come up and greet the wrong twin like a long lost friend, or take umbrage when they think they have been cut dead. The impossibility of either husband ever separating the twins by moving away - you marry one, you take on both. Metaphorically speaking, that is; they never secretly swapped boyfriends. I don't think.

And here's a funny thing. Not only do the twins share a birthday (duh), but their husbands (who are not remotely related) share one too. What are the odds of that?

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Kentish Requiem

At the shaw's edge, side by side,
Oak, ash and thorn
Laid out like corpses on a battlefield;
Once shadow-dashed by dogfights
As men fell in their turn.
Their antecedents saw
The seasons and the Civil War
Ride by;
The herdsmen and the harvests,
A Saxon's hand on seed;
Betrothal bells and baptisms;
Pilgrims, pigeons' wings.
Moon on moon the hedgerow waxed and ebbed.
Watched the grandsons and the grandsires,
Man and ploughpair;
The wise yews bowing on the hill.

* * *

Heard the yews fall.
Reached out...
Fell themselves before the storm.

Brother Tobias
20 October 1987

The Great Storm - 20 Years On

The dog knew something was up. She woke me in the small hours, crossing her legs in a blue funk. I got up in my dressing gown to let her out. When I turned on the stairs light there was only a feeble glow from the bulb. The wind was roaring like the sea, and when I stepped outside the sound was deafening. Twigs and leaves struck me in the face like flung gravel. The dog was hunched aerodynamically on the lawn, nose to the wind, multi-tasking as she coped with an upset tummy and trying to keep all four feet on the ground. On the crest of the Downs the woods were in trouble. No lights showed in the valley below, but the horizon was lit up by the lightning flashes of arcing power lines. The dog's gastric explosions seemed a perfectly reasonable response to nature gone insane.

When she eventually came back in the dog had residual troubles. I started to try and clean her up with kitchen towel when the electricity finally failed. I did my best in torch light. Back upstairs, feeling the slight sense of martyrdom that comes from blundering about in the dark wiping a dog's bottom at 4.00 am while the world is being blown apart, I said to my wife, "I think this is hurricane force."

"Mmm" she mumbled, and went back to sleep. I watched the flickering landscape out of the window, debris drumming against the panes. When I placed my hands against the wall I could feel the house shake with each onslaught.

We woke, with awe and sadness, to a changed world. Without water for two days, and electricity for a week, life reverted to a simpler pattern; the soft glow of oil lamps; reading by candle light; enamel jugs of water heating on the aga; travelling across the fields because the roads were impassable with fallen trees.

Twenty years on, it's just an old tale. The scars have healed in the woods - only the lean of a tree here, a broken trunk there, provide an echo of the crash and thunder of the great storm.

Monday, 15 October 2007

It's 11.11 (again)

Funny thing. Over the last few years I've regularly woken at night, looked at my digital clock, and found it was exactly 11.11 (we increasingly keep farmers' hours in this house). Or I'm reading, put the book away and glance at the clock, and it's eleven-elevening at me again.

This happens uncannily often. Statistically way too often. I try not to be superstitious, but it was hard not to wonder whether something was trying to tell me something. I even started playing with different combinations of the numbers for a lottery entry. Sad, eh?

The other night I woke and this time the clock read 4.44. I haven't worked out the odds, but there are only a few of such number sequences in any 24 hour period, so I began to wonder if certain patterns on the read-out were waking me with a subliminal electronic buzz, or something.

It's a bit disturbing to look this up on the web, as I've just done, and find that I am not alone. A google search on 'Digital clock wake up 11.11' returns 18,000 hits, for pity's sake. Uri Geller says he's been catching clocks doing the 11.11 thing for years;

"at first I thought they were coincidences, I would stand with my back to a digital clock and something made me turn around and I would notice that the time would be 11:11. These incidents intensified I would be checked into hotel rooms on floor 11 room 1111. I started noticing these digits on computers, microwave ovens, cars, documents, etc. I decided to write about it on my website. I was immediately inundated by hundreds of emails from all around the world. Individuals were telling me their own 11:11 stories, almost always saying "I thought it only happened to me"

Another site assures us these are messages from a group of fun-loving Spirit Guardians or Angels. You can sign up for the "11.11 Email Mailing List to receive the beautiful uplifting messages from various types of Celestial Beings".

Bum. I've joined the legions of mad mystics and the alien-abducted. And all I was trying to do was get some sleep.

Funeral Songs

Currently the most requested funeral song is 'Goodbye My Lover' by James Blount. Also in the top ten are some old favourites, such as 'Wind beneath My Wings' and 'Candle in the Wind.' I'm not clear why wind is such a recurring theme.

Before the days when funeral anthems were de rigeur, My Great Uncle Geoff firmly insisted that 'D'ye ken John Peel' should be played as the final voluntary at his memorial service (as a keen steeplechaser who had ridden in the Military Gold Cup at Sandown and qualified to ride in the Grand National, he had every right to). It was a master stroke; the entire congregation left the church smiling broadly.

I don't know what I would want, if anything at all. 'It's my party'? 'Come on Baby, Light my Fire'? 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life'? As his funeral anthem (they choose them young now), Bob wants 'Wish You Were Here', by Incubus. Wish I'd thought of that.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

It's Another World

Social Secretary: "Where's my glass cleaner? You can't see out of this mirror at all."

Invasion of the Ladybirds

Every afternoon this week we have been plagued by ladybirds, For years, apart from the occasional two spot and yellow larva, we have only seen the familiar seven spotted variety. The newcomers have 18 spots, although some are predominantly black with red patches.

The invaders have landed on the walls of the house in their hundreds, before crawling upwards - presumably mainly into the roof space. They have infiltrated washing on the line, and mated brazenly across the front door.

Clusters have appeared in the corners of the bathroom. They appear to have hunkered down for the winter, but when one baths and the temperature rises, they begin to crawl around the ceiling and wing it across from one wall to another. It's disturbing; all those little bugs perceived from the corner of one's eye, as if one is suffering from DTs.

I am fond of ladybirds, and was happy to let them hibernate indoors, until I discovered that these are the Harlequin Ladybird. They were introduced to North America from Asia in the 1970s as an "environmentally friendly" aphid control. Within a few years they had driven out other ladybirds and aphid-eating insects. They were first spotted in Britain three years ago, and have been spreading from the south-east into the rest of the country. Numbers have also been rising in France, Belgium and Holland. Naturalists fear that they may drive our 46 native species into extinction.

I'm not so sure I want to share my bathroom with them now.

You'd think that, with increasing understanding of the frail balance of nature and the impact of global warming, Mankind in general and the Americans in particular would have learned to stop introducing species where they don't belong. Our continuing inability to predict the consequences of mucking about with ecosystems seems to support the case for a moratorium on genetic modification in agriculture.

Friday, 12 October 2007


Make a wish upon a hill,
There spirits dwell;
Touch wood at will.
Voices whisper in ripe corn
Ancient runes;
Touch thorn, touch thorn.
Fungus creeps on forest floor,
Enchantment's lair;
Touch wood once more.

Pilgrim's staff and shaman's wand,
Yew crouches round the sacred pond.
The tree of death pollutes the cup;
The bow wood and the bleeding sap.
Let them number ninety-nine,
Beneath take Lammas loaf, take wine.
Circle seven times the tree
For blessing and fertility,
Make Beltane fire within the bole,
Touch yew for moral and immortal soul.

On the moss wolves silent roam;
Always touch wood when you're alone.
Abroad upon a moonlit night,
Touch wood against the priests in white.
Or Herne the Hunter may be near,
Beware, beware.

Touch my sap on suckling's tongue,
St Fechin's tree that would not burn.
Yggdrasil, the eagle's nest;
The trysting place where coffins rest.
Bring your children, bring your lame,
Bring your cattle and your pain.
I am the healer and the healed,
The wise physician of the field,
The toolmaker, the last to leaf;
Touch ash for sickness and in grief.

When you feel eyes all around,
When no one's there
But footsteps sound;
When frail, confused, all courage flown,
When far from help
And far from home;
When you feel They're drawing near,
Touch wood, touch wood,
Touch wood in fear.

Here is Hawthorn, fancy free,
Fairy blessed, the fortune tree.
Dress the door from side to side,
Dress the maypole, dress the bride;
For she has beauty of the dawn,
Who bathes her limbs in dew of thorn.
Merchant's staff and martyr's crown,
From Calvary brought to Avalon.
The Mass tree and the Bile grove;
Touch thorn for laughter, and for love.

Brother Tobias

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Overheard at the bar

"Where are you on Saturday?"

"I'm up at Dawn's"

(pause) "That's early"

Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust

The UK Healthcare Commission has asked the Health and Safety Executive and Kent Police to investigate Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust, following the death of nearly 350 people infected with the Clostridium difficile bacterium in three hospitals between 2004 and 2006.

The Commission's report suggests poor hygiene, staff shortages and a preoccupation with government targets contributed to the Trust's failure to manage spread of the bacteria.

This will come as no surprise to anyone who visited the Accident and Emergency Unit at Maidstone Hospital (one of the three hospitals involved) during that period. I had cause to go there (not, fortunately as a patient) in December 2005, right in the middle of the C diff outbreak. No one then can have been unaware of the risks and the need for the highest standards of hygiene - MRSA and C diff were filling the local and national press and people were afraid to go into hospital in a way that they had not been since early victorian times.

It was therefore all the more incredible that, during the inevitable three or four hour delay between triage and treatment, patients and visitors found that the lavatories serving the unit were in a disgusting and unhygienic state. This, mark you, in an area where there were patients with open wounds, breathing difficulties and a variety of other conditions which may have made them more susceptible to infection.

Throughout the period that people waited, scared and unwell, for someone to arrive and offer treatment, there were half a dozen nurses seated at desks, chatting, drinking coffee and tapping at computer keyboards in an environment more like an office than a treatment centre. I am not implying blame here; no doubt they were filling in forms for monitoring government targets. But they did seem to illustrate in the most graphic way the shift from patient care to bureaucracy.

The Trust's chief executive, Rose Gibb, resigned last week. Kent Police and the HSE will now consider whether charges should be brought.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

How Big is Your Butt?

My largest, which is a box-like galvanised tank, holds around 500 gallons. Added to the other butts and tanks dotted about, I reckon we have a rainwater reserve of about 900 gallons. I'm not quite sure why this is considered virtuous by environmentalists. Presumably if I didn't save it the water would soak into the ground and recharge the underlying aquifer, and then if I wanted to use it I'd have to pay for it, so I might not bother, and so reduce consumption. As it is, what I don't use gradually evaporates anyway.

The evangelists mislead us into believing that reducing water use is somehow automatically morally virtuous, as if water were a fossil fuel or a polluting agent. But, contrary to what they tell us, water is a renewable resource, and it is not as scarce as we are led to believe. Enough water falls in the UK, even in individual regions, to supply any conceivable domestic needs. We simply don't store enough of it. Watch any river after heavy rain; every minute millions of gallons of fresh water go tearing past on their way to the sea. That's where the real waste of water occurs, dwarfing the effect of bricks in our cisterns, bathing with a friend, avoiding flushing and all the other sticking plasters that are rolled out whenever we have a drought.

The government is encouraging people to buy water butts. A 200 litre butt costs about £35. If each of the 25 million households in the UK bought one, it would cost about £875 million. That's equivalent to one and a half million Oxfam well-digging kits. It is also equivalent to the cost of constructing, say, about eight new reservoirs (if you count a reservoir as £100 million, which is what they say one near here would cost).

There is also a drive to limit water consumption by metering. Meters are installed in new houses, and the first water companies have adopted an all-metering strategy. Even ten years ago it was estimated that it would cost around £4 billion to install meters in the country's 21 million unmetered homes. That's equivalent to another 44 new reservoirs. In addition, a metered system of water charging would cost £500 million a year more to administrate. That's five new reservoirs every year.

Water companies are also coming under relentless pressure to cut leakage (even though in many cases leaking water is probably returning to recharge aquifers). There is a diminishing return on investment in leakage reduction. Thames Water alone is spending £500 million on it in a five year period. That's equivalent to five new reservoirs serving London.

I can't begin to estimate the cost of installing state-of-the-art domestic water conservation measures - grey water recycling, etc. Nor the cost and waste of global resources of prematurely replacing existing domestic fittings, cisterns, etc. with lower-consumption equivalents.

You get my point. We are spending and planning to spend far, far more on reducing our use of water than we would need to spend simply providing more. As population and household numbers grow and global warming bites, the demand for water will increase. Metering and other usage reduction measures can slow the rate of demand growth, but sooner or later we'll need to build more reservoirs anyway. So why not spend the money on doing that now? Then there won't be this short-term need to turn water into a scarce resource, and to invest billions in infrastructure which doesn't stop a single pint of useful rainwater from falling into the sea.

Funny things anyway, reservoirs. We object like mad to new ones, but once they exist they become treasured features of the landscape, wildlife assets and valued leisure facilities. Just try telling people you are going to get rid of an established local reservoir, and wait for the uproar. And we're not short of agricultural land, which is being set aside or being turned to leisure uses anyway.

There do at least seem to be a few ifs about butts.