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.

Overheard at dinner

During a discussion of inherited characteristics:

"Of course, Phillippa's got large boobs on both sides."

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

It's Another World

Wife: "Alex's girlfriend is Glaswegian."
Wife's twin: "Does she speak good english?"
Wife: "Er...Yes. Why shouldn't she?"
Wife's twin: "Isn't it near Sweden?"

Latin, Swedish, Cornish

While I am on languages, I suppose I should cover these for the sake of completeness. There's not much to say about latin, except that I studied it and wrote it and translated it for more years than any Roman can ever have done. Poring over inky copies of Hillard & Botting's Elementary Latin Translation (never was the word 'elementary' less appropriately employed) and Kennedy's Shorter Latin Primer (always amended to 'Shorter Eating Primer). Caesar and Cicero and Pliny, the Punic Wars and the Conquest of Gaul. I hated every minute, and yet have a perverse fondness for it now, like rice pudding or matins.

A series of delightful au pairs left me with some useful phonetic swedish phrases. 'Gut nutt, sore got, vakna tot', for example, which meant 'Good night, sleep well, don't wet your bed'. The last bit must have been designed to wind me up, because I didn't have that problem. Honestly. And there was a satisfying sounding swear word, which sounded like 'Fy buskit!' I've no idea what it means, but I know I wasn't meant to hear it.

I met a Cornish Bard when I worked in Cornwall - one of a tiny handful of cornish speakers. He dressed up in druidic robes, but not in his day job with the council. His name was Dave.

The only cornish words I learnt were disparaging terms for tourists. People got so weary of the hordes of puddle-jumping cars clogging up the roads at Easter and in summer that residents wore stickers in the back windows of their cars which read, 'Non Emmet', which sounds more latin than cornish. An emmet is an ant, which is what tourists are called west of the Tamar. In Devon they are called 'grockles'.

Working in Cornwall was better than learning latin, but we worried about London and the rest of England, which seemed disadvantaged by being so out on a limb.


There's really nothing to be said for learning a second language that has been dead for a couple of thousand years. Let alone one that uses a different alphabet. I fell behind so quickly that I had to write tiny cribs which I copied out from North and Hillard's Greek Prose and stashed in the gap that ran up inside my tie. As time went by these strips of paper grew longer and longer, and the writing on them smaller and smaller. About the only phrase I can remember is 'kakos neanias', which means 'bad man'. Useful if one is ever propositioned in the Peloponnese, but the time would have been better spent learning something more relevant like origami or bell-ringing.

Monday, 8 October 2007


I think I probably started life bi-lingual. At any rate, reportedly I used to chatter away in some anglo-arabaic hybrid with Mabruk (the statuesque, turbanned Sudani who looked after me in Khartoum). Sadly nothing of the language has stuck apart from a few orphan phrases - 'men fadlak' (please), 'shukran' (thank you), 'hasan fikra' (better idea), and something remembered as 'cut a carrot', the meaning of which has faded (perhaps, 'a'ta katra' - 'give me lots' ?)

'Give me lots' is possible. The combination of formula milk and a hot climate (it was 110 degrees Fahrenheit on the day I was christened) played havoc with my metabolism, and I went from starveling to piglet and back again with alarming speed. On one occasion a group of Sudanese girl guides peered into my pram and remarked, 'Kabir ahmar tama tim', which meant, 'Big red tomato'. Thanks, girls. Nothing like a good deed.


My only proper brush with german was in Austria. When they meet someone out walking, the Austrians invariably call a greeting. It sounds as if they are politely commenting on the day in broken english. 'Iss goot' they say, 'Is good'.

This much language I can handle, and I spent a gregarious week calling 'Iss Goot' in my best Bavarian accent to everyone we passed. As it happened most of them were British, and just giggled feebly. The locals looked a bit surprised, which made me feel a big success - an ambassador for good manners - hands across the water, and all that. It wasn't until later that I discovered that what they had actually been saying was 'Grüß Gott' ('Greet God').

One of the great advantages of making a prat of yourself abroad is that nobody knows you personally. They just think all Brits are prats, and contemplate armed invasion, World Cup victories and the like.

Sunday, 7 October 2007


I got off to a bad start with afrikaans, when Carin told us about an english friend visiting a restaurant in Cape Town, who had wanted to compliment the waitress on the cuisine. Mischeviously they told him that 'jy het oulike boudjies' (prounounced something like 'yite oleker bokis') means 'the meal is delicious'. What it actually means is, 'You have a nice bum'.

Unfortunately this useful phrase has stuck in a way that all those years of Latin and Greek have not. Even more unfortunately, by my third pint I generally become convinced that it would be a witty and amusing thing to say to the inevitable SA girl behind the bar. Which generally it isn't.


Considering french was taught at me for seven years, it's remarkable how little I absorbed. Aside from the usual franglais road directions to lost foreigners -'Allez a droit, et a droite un plus temps, puis prenez la gauche apres les lumieres traffique' - and once allegedly nearly causing a diplomatic incident by wishing a flemish Belgian 'Bon soir' on the office telephone (well, how was I supposed to know about the cultural politics of Flanders and Wallonia?), the zenith of my french-speaking career was a long conversation with a hitch-hiker in Skye.

The apparent fluency of this impressed my wife no end. What she didn't know was that the exchange revolved mainly around my not remembering the word for 'bus'. The nearest I could get was 'camion', which I seemed to recall meant a 'light lorry'; one of those essential words once included in every school vocab list. The poor girl must have been puzzled by my persistent assertion that she could travel on to Uig in a light lorry fitted with chairs, and seemed highly relieved when we dropped her off at a handy light lorry stop.

Of course the best reason for learning french was putting an end to grown ups resorting to it when they didn't want their children to understand what they were saying. 'Pas devant les enfants', and all that. So annoying, and so disappointing when you finally acquired enough french to discover that you hadn't been missing anything interesting anyway.

Saturday, 6 October 2007


Anyone know the australian for '12-10'?


I prudently took a phrase book with me to Italy. On the day we arrived I found I had forgotten to pack toothpaste. Over wine and pasta that evening I learned from my book how to ask for toothpaste in a shop, and practised it until everyone agreed my accent sounded flawless; 'Mi scusi. Vorrei il dentifricio, per favore.'

The following morning we all walked into the village. Everyone wanted to hear me ask for toothpaste. All the way down, in the early morning sunshine, my lips were moving. 'Mi scusi. Vorrei il dentifricio, per favore. Mi scusi. Vorrei il dentifricio, per favore.'

We went into the shop. It was a supermarket. I picked some toothpaste off the shelf. I paid for it. When I was given my change I muttered 'grazie'. Everybody clapped.

My unused italian phrase is lodged immovably in my brain like a raspberry seed between the teeth, occupying space that I increasingly need for other, more important things. Like remembering why I have gone upstairs.


I do not have the gaelic, aside from the usual familiar greetings and toasts. When my grandfather first bought a house in the highlands (he had spent his early life in Glasgow), he walked into the village shop and introduced himself. It was something of a meeting place, and there were several local men gathered there. As he left one of them said something in gaelic, and the others laughed.

My grandfather went home, ordered a gaelic dictionary and grammar, and over the next few months taught himself to speak the language - or enough of it to hold a simple conversation. It was an impressive achievement, because it is a difficult tongue.

The next time he visited the shop much the same thing happened. He had crossed the threshold to leave when he turned back and, in gaelic, commented on the weather before wishing the assembled men good day.

He left to a stunned silence, and from that day on - he lived there for forty years - they always respectfully spoke english in his presence.