Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Rubber Gloves

It has been spring-like, and I have been out in the garden, with the hens for company. They have been laying eggs and I have been laying bricks. You can tell when one of them has laid, because they are mightily pleased with themselves and start doing a very particular, triumphant squawk. In hen language, this must say 'Hooray, I've laid an egg'. Or possibly just, 'Phew, that's better'. I don't squawk when I lay a brick, although, as the chickens are out of sight, any passers-by might think I do. When I fetch water from the tank, though, I do a hen impression to let them know I'm coming. Otherwise they take fright.

I have taken to wearing medical rubber-gloves when bricklaying. Prolonged contact with mortar (or 'pug' in the local vernacular) transmogrifies one's fingers into something resembling 80 grade emery paper. I know you're not supposed to use your hands, but I am laying these bricks in holes in the ground, as foundation piers, and it's hard to avoid.

Unexpectedly encountering someone wearing latex gloves, brandishing a bricklayer's trowel and doing a hen impression might be disconcerting. Come to think of it, there don't seem to have been any passing ramblers lately.

Saturday, 24 March 2007

The Corrugated Iron Club

I am rescuing a tin shed in the garden. It clearly has military origins. Visitors have commented that it looks like an Anderson Shelter, but the curve of its roof is gentler, more like part of a Nissen Hut. The corrugated iron, which has iron cleats riveted to it, is of such a heavy gauge that it has survived years of neglect and weighs a ton. Wire-brushed and freshly coated with bituminous paint, it looks as good as new.

One of the problems was the redundant holes punched by nails for some previous existence. Then I remembered the stories about pilots repairing bullet holes in their petrol tanks with chewing gum, so I have been standing behind my shed, masticating. The cows chewing ruminatively on the other side of the fence seemed untroubled by this, and I wondered briefly if there weren't some way I could get them to do my gum chewing for me. Anyway, the gum trick works a treat; it moulds to shape, sets like concrete and paints over nicely.

I also had to rebuild the back, because that had the rear end of a WWII ambulance embedded in it, which had mostly rusted away.

One of our other sheds is also corrugated iron. Last summer a pair of elderly ramblers stopped to chat. He was a Welshman, and remarked that it put him in mind of a tin tabernacle or mission hall, and suddenly I knew what it had always reminded me of.

I could become an enthusiast for tin sheds, and I would not be alone. I've just found an old web site belonging to the endearingly named Corrugated Iron Club. Only they wittily write it like this:

Friday, 23 March 2007

Racing Crabs

The British used to be rather fĂȘted for their eccentrics. It might have been something to do with lead pipes. But we mistrust eccentricity now. It has been banished to the margins, the province of winos and the maladjusted, and I sense the government would ban it if it could.

Many years ago my father was travelling on a train from Khartoum to Port Sudan. There was only one other occupant in his compartment. During the course of the journey he became increasingly intrigued as at intervals the man took some shreds of lettuce from a bag and slipped them under the lid of a large cardboard box on the luggage rack.

Eventually my father, overcome by curiosity, asked what he was doing. The man, who introduced himself as Gerald Millward, explained that the box contained Red Sea hermit crabs which had provided entertainment at dinner the previous night. The crabs had run races, backed by his guests. He was now undertaking the 1,000 mile round trip to return them to the spot from which they had come.

I met this kind-hearted man two decades later. He was then living in an isolated house by a river in Wales. We were talking in the kitchen when he paused and looked at his watch. Jumping up he took a four foot long post horn from the wall and said, 'Follow me'. On the high, wooded bank on the other side of the river appeared a narrow-gauge steam locomotive, pulling a train of carriages filled with tourists. Gerald put the horn to his lips and blew a long note. The train replied with a blast of its steam whistle.

I suppose today he would have been stopped under a raft of legislation: wildlife conservation regulations; animal cruelty; unnecessary travel contributing to global warming; breach of public hygiene; noise nuisance; distracting the driver of a public service vehicle.

A pity; the world was the richer for him.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Cloud Drifts...

The sun is shining, lighting up the wood and the field. Sitting here at my desk, I can see successive bar codes of cloud shadow, like waves, racing down the hill towards me. They are doing about 60 miles an hour. The window darkens as they reach the house, and I can swing round and watch each one career on down towards the village over neapolitan ice cream slabs of field; mint grass and chocolate plough. When they meet the trees in the valley they should pile up into a great, soft shadow drift, where you'd need a torch and a hat that came down over your ears...

Monday, 12 March 2007

Revenge of the B and C Listers

Blair, Cameron, Campbell. Do you notice anything odd here? Brown, Beckett, Armstrong, Amos, Benn, Browne, Alexander, Blears....I've just worked out that 40% of Blair's Cabinet have names beginning with the first three letters of the alphabet. Not to mention former members - Blunkett, Cook, Clarke. Something is going on, wouldn't you say?

Since the late 1990's studies led by Jon Krosnick, professor of psychology and political science at Ohio State University, have shown that the order names appear in on a ballot form affects the number of votes candidates receive. In the 2000 presidential race, George Bush (another B lister) won 9% more votes when he was listed first on the ballot, than when he was listed later.

It's bad enough for those of us who come lower down the alphabet. We went through school sitting near the back of the class. We got everything later than our less alphabetically challenged peers, from exercise books to meals. Our papers were marked by tired examiners, and the best further education places had been filled before they reached us. Now we're even being governed by the lucky people who sat at the front, and a by a PM who apparently has difficulty getting beyond ABC in the alphabet.

Sooner or later we're going to wind up with a prime minister named Aardvark, and a deputy who's a Burke.

And, just for once, may I go to the front of the class for noticing this, please?

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Different Ways of Being Dead

I suppose it's something that comes with age. I mean the urge to pass on wisdom and advice against the day you're not here. Or there. Whatever. We leaven it with humour, as far as we can. My father used to preface his advice with, 'When I shuffle off this mortal coil.' I increasingly find myself introducing remarks with, 'If I should go under a bus...' As in, 'If I should go under a bus, the spare key to the garage is behind the out-of-date beers in the pantry' (one of the prerequisites of such if statements is that they should seem to matter dreadfully to the speaker, but actually, in the grand scheme of things, be completely unimportant. Incidentally, if you are letting your beers get out of date, start worrying.)

I'm not mad on the idea of being 'late'. I've always made rather a point of not going there - being the kind of person who arrives so early that they catch the train before the one they were trying not to miss. Equally, even though I always caught the train and therefore was, I don't much fancy being 'departed', I shall be a 'snuffit' (you heard the term, here first, and I hereby claim copyright.)

I like the idea of being a 'snuffit'. Snuffits are small and hairy and have no visible genitalia. (I invented them, so I can define the breed, okay?) I'm not sure why this condition should attract me (it's quite worrying in most respects). Except, I suppose, 'all passion spent' would be hellish convenient, and frankly I can't wait. All that fancying of people, who are unavailable in both moral and practical terms, just leads to a lot of angst and misspent energy, and I'd be much better off collecting stamps.

I'm not quite sure where this is leading, and besides, I'm feeling rather tired. If I should require them, my hospital pyjamas are in the black tin trunk in the Number 2 attic - if the moths haven't had them. And remember that the key to the trunk is in the box on the hall table....

Breaking out of the Box

As the daily news report notched more deaths in Iraq, I was reminded of that other, more morally confident conflict in the South Atlantic. I started worrying back then that TV wasn't bringing us closer to reality, but insulating us from it....that it was we who were inside the box, not the news. Feeling that - however peripherally - we should grasp some sense of having 'been there' at a moment in history, I dragged my long-suffering and reluctant girlfriend out at dawn one Sunday morning, and drove the 120 or so miles to Southampton to see the Canberra come home.

When we reached the town we parked and started walking towards Mayflower Park, picked out from a map in a tourist guide. A few people were walking quietly in the same direction, and as we grew closer trickles from other streets merged to become streams, until we were part of a flowing tide of humanity. "Why are all these people here?", my girlfriend asked.

And Mayflower Park was a good choice. It was already filling up. Vendors were selling Union Flags and souvenir supplements from the local paper. We sat on the stone-faced embankment above the water, and soon the crowd had swelled until the park was packed and people were clambering onto the roofs of shelters and clinging to lampposts.

There was morning mist over the water, hiding the approaches to Southampton Sound. But a palpable air of excitement animated the crowd, as helicopters buzzed to and fro overhead.

And then two great, sonorous blasts from the horn of a great ship sounded, deep and long, and you could feel the expectant crowd quicken. Out of the fog appeared two fire ships, their water cannon firing plumes into the air. And then huge and majestic, emerged the Great White Whale. Rust-streaked and hung with handmade banners, her decks lined with crew and soldiers. Overhead helicopters hovered; all around little boats swarmed and scurried. The last of the liners built for the passenger trade to Australia, sleek and graceful, back from her 18,000 mile round trip to the South Atlantic and from San Carlos Water's bomb alley. The crowd began to cheer, and the cheering spread along the shore towards the docks. In acknowledgement, three brisk cheers came echoing back from the ship. I glanced at my girlfriend and her eyes had filled with tears.

The Canberra was scrapped in 1997, and the Falklands War may already be an insignificant footnote to loss of empire, but I reckon I was right about the TV, because for once we were briefly outside it, and I can still hear the note of that foghorn echoing out of the mist....