Saturday, 28 July 2007

Swale Your Nidd

What do Sid, Allen, Jordan, Lee, Ray, Ant and Don have in common?

They are all english rivers.

When my sister had to learn the rivers of England at school, she liked the ring of Swale, Ure, Nidd, which sounded like invective. 'Oh, go swale your nidd, why don't you?'

Here are some more English rivers:

Yarty, Piddle, Gwash, Og, Quaggy, Erewash and Horsey Pill.

Make up your own river swear words.

Then reward yourself with a glass of Moselle (flows through Tottenham Cemetery).

Unless you have any of the following: Pyl, Itchen, Mole, Gipping, Soar, Ouse, Irt or Blackwater.

In which case, find a clinic.

Friday, 27 July 2007

An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman...

The way the women's menfolk have panned out, at the tail end of a sociable evening there is often an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman left at the table, like an old joke. And we are each loyal to our roots in our choice of nightcaps. Whisky for me. Irish whiskey for Mick. And Irish Whiskey for Keith, because the English don't have their own aqua vitae, unless you count French brandy. And it is about then that I most feel myself a minority, as the two of them pay effusive homage to Tullamore Dew, or Jameson, or Powers, or whatever Fenian brew is tickling their fancies at the time.

It makes me defensive. To my mind, although once a great tradition, the list of Irish whiskeys is now a bit like the list of famous Belgians. There are only three distilleries in Ireland; Bushmill in Northern Ireland; Midleton in Cork; and Cooley in Louth. Cooley, originating in the late 1980s, is the only independent one, and the only one that is Irish-owned. All other labels are produced by the Irish Distillers Group, mainly in its vast Midleton plant, which was built in the mid 1960s when Jameson, Powers and Cork distillers combined as IDG.

In contrast, there are around 125 distilleries in Scotland, spread throughout Speyside, the Highlands and Islands.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Whisky and Irish Whiskey is that the latter hardly ever uses peat in the malting process, so that the rich, earthy, smoky overtones evocative of peat smoke drifting across a Hebridean bay are almost always absent. Also, most Scottish whiskies are distilled just twice, because they are required to retain the taste of their original ingredients.

Here is a list of Irish single malt peated whiskeys:


Here is a list of Scottish single malt peated whiskies:

Aberfeldy, Aberlour, An Cnoc, Ardbeg, Ardmore, Arran, Auchentoshan, Aultmore, Balblair, Balmenach, Balvenie, Ben Nevis, Benriach, Benrinnes, Benromach, Bladnoch, Blair Athol, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Cardhu, Clynelish, Cragganmore, Craigellachie, Craigellachie, Dailuaine, Dalmore, Dalwhinnie, Deanston, Drumguish, Dufftown, Edradour, Fettercairn, Glenburgie, Glen Deveron, Glendronach, Glendullan, Glen Elgin, Glenfarclas, Glenfiddich, Glen Garioch, Glengoyne, Glen Grant, Glen Keith, Glenkinchie, The Glenlivet, Glenlossie, Glenmorangie, Glen Moray, Glen Ord, Glenrothes, Glentauchers, Glenturret, Glen Scotia, Highland Park, Imperial, Inchgower, Inchmurrin, Isle of Jura, Knockando, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Linkwood, Longmorn, The Macallan, Mannochmore, Miltonduff, Mortlach, Oban, Old Pulteney, Royal Brackla, Royal Lochnagar, Scapa, Singleton, Speyburn, The Speyside, Strathisla, Talisker, Tamdhu, Teaninich, Tobermory, Tomatin, Tomintoul, Tormore.

It is this variety - each from a different distillery with distinctive character drawn from the taste of the local water, the barley malting process, the peat used to dry the malt, the sources of the barrels for maturation (sherry, bourbon, port, cognac, calvados, rum), exposure to the salty air of the Hebrides - it is this variety that makes single malt whisky the subtle adventure that it is.

And another thing; I like to take my uisge-beatha with water. I find it draws out the flavour in a magical, almost homeopathic way. It lasts longer as well. I have had people chide me for this, suggesting that the water adulterates the spirit. They have invariably been English, because the Scots know better. So there.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

More Rules

Here are some more survival tips, gleaned from Brother Tobias' impetuous perambulations around life's treacherous cloisters.

Rule 6: Never sneeze with your tongue out.

Rule 7: The skirt you are clinging to in the shop is not necessarily being worn by your mother.

Rule 8: Growing breasts is not exclusively a woman's prerogative.

Rule 9: Do not rely on your friends to wake you at your station.

Rule 10: When making shandy, the volume of beer, mixer and ice combined is greater than the volume of their individual parts, and twice the capacity of the container you are using.

Rule 11: The last two sheets of lavatory paper on a roll always appear to be more.

Rule 12: You can't play croquet and stay friends.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

The Rules

I've got a blister like a gun turret.

Rule 1: Don't run polypropylene cord through your hands without wearing gloves.

It looks smooth as liquorice, but if you examined it through a microscope I bet it would be like an uncut hedge, all ragged and vindictive. You could probably use it for making musically functional prosthetic legs for grasshoppers.

While we are about it, here are - in no particular order - a few more hard-won tips from Uncle Toby:

Rule 2: Don't take your boots off to test if an electric fence is working.

Rule 3: When eating spaghetti, make sure the plate is fully on the table.

Rule 4: Do not drape a coat with velcro fastenings over a chair when there are women in stockings around.

Rule 5: The puddle-jumper ahead driving at a brain-numbing four miles an hour is going to the same party as you; do not hoot or gesticulate triumphantly as you finally overtake.

More anon probably, if they occur to me.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

The End

Professor Urey was a Noble prize-winning American scientist who more or less discovered heavy water in the 1930s and worked on the Manhattan Project to create the first atomic bomb. Asked in the late 1940s if the H bomb might start a chain reaction which could destroy the earth, he replied, "Possible, but not probable. But I see no cause for alarm. After all, the earth is only a tiny planet in a vast universe."

This chilling, if pragmatic, statement prompted Nathaniel Gubbins to write the following poem for his newspaper column 'Sitting on the Fence'. Strangely, it has reached me via the Sudan Star of 20 February 1950, to which the column was presumably syndicated.

The End

Only a tiny man you are in a forest of tiny trees;
Or a man on a tiny mountain top enclosed by tiny seas.
And nobody out in the hemisphere, if anyone lives so far,
Would turn a hair, or trouble to stare, if your miniature world so full of care
Turned into a flaming star.

Only a tiny man you are: in a tiny city dwell,
With millions of other tiny men,trapped in a tiny hell,
But those who dwell, if dwell they do, in worlds beyond the sun
Will shed no tear, if a flash and a smear tell all who watch in the hemisphere
Your tiny race is run.

Only a tiny man you are, you and your tiny wife,
In your tiny house in a tiny town, living your tiny life.
And none who live in the larger lands behind the Milky Way
Will feel a pang, or care a hang, or turn a head at the tiny bang
That ends your tiny day.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?

Just as there are doggy people and cat people, so there are bath people and shower people. I am a doggy and bath person (although I wouldn't want that quoted out of context).

A bath is one of life's greatest pleasures, both simple and sybaritic. Baths can be a deep heat treatment, soothing stress and aching muscles (who hasn't fallen asleep in a bath? Fall asleep in a shower and you'll end up in a tangled heap on the floor, probably in a croustade of broken glass). Add scented unguents or healing balms, and a bath is a marinade (you can't marinate in a shower, anymore than you can flavour food under a tap).

Above all, you can read in a bath. In fact, there is no better place to read, as long as you don't fall asleep. It's so important to me that I've fitted my bath with a reading light. I defy you to read in a shower without having someone stand outside, holding the book to the glass and turning the pages for you. You can't eat cake in a shower either, and it quite ruins champagne.

I can't seem to get on with showers anyway. Quite apart from all that jolly communal showering at school and in sports venues (maybe I'm weird, but my instinct when in male company is not, 'Let's get naked and wash our genitals together'). Nowadays my experience of showers tends to be in hotels. The cubicles are invariably too small, so that it's impossible to bend down to pick up the soap or wash your feet without cracking your head on the ceramic-tiled wall. There is either nowhere to put the soap, so one is forced to balance it on the lip of the shower stall (when by sod's law it invariably falls outwards), or there is a soap rack parsimoniously fashioned out of three strands of chromed wire, through which you post the soap straight to the shower tray (which has a partially blocked drain and has filled up with water to ankle depth).

And how are you supposed to wash your feet in a shower? Aside from the no-room-to-bend-over issue, balancing naked on one leg on a wet, slimy plastic tray, surrounded by sheet glass, is a recipe for disaster, and I think ROSPA should investigate. Not to mention the wisdom of sharing a waterfall with a 30 amp electric water heater. I asked a keen shower person about the foot washing problem the other day, genuinely interested in discovering what I was doing wrong. He replied that you don't have to actually wash your feet, as just standing around in the water did that for you. I've been next to people like that on buses.

Then there is the whole temperature control thing. Standing around with one arm stretched out through a jet of alternately ice-cold, then blisteringly hot water, adjusting temperature and flow variables until the temperature settles down. Then, when you're in there, someone in room 311 flushes a lavatory and the water suddenly becomes incandescent/freezing, and by the time your body has discerned which you have 60% burns. In my brother-in-law's house they have to put up a sign on the kitchen sink when someone is having a shower, so no one turns a tap on.

And don't come that one about showers using less water. Using my well-honed book-lover's technique of getting in when the bath is virtually empty, then dribbling hot in at just the right rate to keep a constant temperature, I can make a few gallons last a blissful hour. I've known showers that blasted out a gallon every 30 seconds, and people who spend ten minutes or more in them.

There are moves afoot to phase out baths, allegedly in the interests of the environment, but really to save space. Art will be the first casualty; think of the bath's iconic rĂ´le in the history of painting, from Degas and Ingres to Fernando Botero. Literature too. Dylan Thomas wrote, 'Poetry is not the most important thing in life...I'd much rather lie in a hot bath reading Agatha Christie and sucking sweets'. Or Tennyson; 'It is the height of luxury to sit in a hot bath and read about little birds' ('Little birds?' What was that about?).

Nobody's ever named a town after a shower, either.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Bertie and the Hydra

I am reading Julian Barnes' Metroland. The adolescent atmosphere of its early chapters reminded me of something that happened at school; a small event, but one that I recall with a sense of surprise, even pride.

It involved a biology master, 'Bertie' Fowler. Bertie was inclined to be aloof and intolerant of fools. One felt he was fonder of the exotic plants he raised in an anteroom behind his classroom than he was of adolescent boys, and perhaps we respected him rather more than we liked him.

One lazy summer afternoon, in the run up to exams, we were slumped in our seats, waiting for Bertie to emerge from his plant-filled eyrie. From the open windows came the drone of a tractor dragging a gang mower across a cricket pitch. On the blackboard behind the teachers' table was chalked an elaborate diagram of a hydra, presumably left over from a previous class - the hydra being the sort of simple organism taught to beginners. As we listlessly waited the classroom door opened and a stranger came in, wordlessly sat down at the back of the room, and drew a pad of paper and a pen from his briefcase. The school was undergoing a visit from the school inspectors, and we supposed that it was Bertie's turn to be assessed.

When Bertie emerged and saw the inspector he visibly blanched. To our growing horror he 'dried', totally and completely. He looked at us, looked away, leaned on the table for support. He wiped his face with his hands, stared at the floor, then the ceiling. It was as if he had completely lost his bearings, unable to remember which class we were or what he had planned to teach. As the silence lengthened our embarrassment increased, and our hearts went out to him.

I think it was Gardner who saved the day. He put his hand up and Bertie, in a reflex action born of decades of teaching, said 'Yes?'

'Would it be possible for you to run through the life cycle of the Hydra for us again, Sir?', Gardner asked. 'There were some things I didn't understand.'

We had 'done' the hydra long, long before. We knew hydras inside out. We could have recognised one in the dark, and probably known its Christian name. On a normal day Bertie would have given such a question short shrift. But a look of profound relief and gratitude swept across his face. 'Yes, it would', he replied. Turning to the diagram on the board, he launched seamlessly into an elegant and articulate exposition of the physiology of the fresh-water polyp.

One might not normally credit a class of 16 year old boys with much tact or sensitivity. But Gardner's inspired question, and the deceit that followed in which we were all complicit, came purely from kindness and loyalty. We knew that it was a ploy. Bertie knew it. The inspector must have known it. Nothing was ever said; it would have been impossible for Bertie ever to concede his moment of weakness. But I believe the school got a glowing report from the Inspectorate, which drew particular attention to a remarkable rapport between staff and boys.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

The Countess of Ayr and Sir William Herschel

According to family legend, one afternoon my Scottish grandfather announced that the County Surveyor would be calling in. My grandmother became quite excited, arranging for a cake and scones to be baked and the best china set out in the drawing room. She thought he'd said the Countess of Ayr.

I've come across a similar story since, so perhaps it was apocryphal. Such cases where something is misheard have been called 'Mondegreens', from a line in the old Scottish ballad 'The Bonnie Earl of Moray'. It runs, "They have slain the Earl of Moray and laid him on the green", but is misheard as "They have slain the Earl of Moray and Lady Mondegreen." Others call them 'Gladly's', after the line from the hymn, "Gladly, my cross-eyed bear".

The propensity for headlines to be misread is similar, although I'm not sure if there is a name for that. Favourites include the wartime, 'Eighth Army Push Bottles Up Germans' and 'Monty Flies Back to Front'. I like the one about the explorer, 'Vivian Fuchs off to Antarctica'. More recently there was, 'Never Withhold Herpes From Loved One', and 'Kids Make Nutritious Snacks'.

And there are the accurate but blindingly obvious - as in 'Plane Too Close to Ground, Crash Probe Told'.

Which all reminds me of Robin Waterfield's frequently-repeated claim (see June 15, 'Biting the Lager Queue') that his ancestor discovered Uranus.

Monday, 9 July 2007


The garden is so muddy you can see the prints of quails.

The Worst Christmas Ever?

In the run up to Christmas last year my wife glanced at the calendar in the kitchen and noticed that I had scrawled in two or three places, 'The worst Christmas ever'.

It gave her quite a jolt. Worried that I was so disillusioned, she was extra nice to me (which I'm ashamed to say I never noticed) and rushed out to buy me extra presents. It wasn't until the final week that she discovered that the calendar entries were not grouchy comments, but reminders to watch a TV comedy called 'the Worst Christmas Ever'.

The programme wasn't that good as it happened, but Christmas, with all those extra presents, was just fine.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Fragment, 1975

Laestrogeni Megotrovitch
Went daft as a rubber ball,
So they put him in a padded cell
And he bounced from wall to wall.
The miller's men and a gaunt old tree
Came bearing gifts of cups of tea,
And chocolate chunks and paper clips
And hazel nuts and leather whips.
'He was our friend in better times'
A miller's man explained,
'Down by the surge in Kennel Vale
Where the primroses once played.'
'I mind the time he made a joke,'
The bent old beech recalled,
'Close by the shade of the powder mill,
Where the water wheel once rolled.
'It set my leaves a-dancin then,
And I must confess I cried;
I'd never thought an old stick like me
Could feel a joke inside.'

Monday, 2 July 2007

777 - Live Earth or Evil Earth?

For the superstitious next Saturday - 07.07.07, the seventh day of the seventh month of the seventh year of the century - should be the luckiest of days. There is a record number of weddings planned for that day.

However, it is also the second anniversary of the London bombings, which took place on 7 July, 2005. With the finding of car bombs in London and Glasgow last weekend, it is difficult not to worry that every zealot and bigot with a problem may want to make it a date to remember. Let's hope from Wembley to the Aussie Stadium in Sydney, from Randburg in SA to Copacabana Beach, from Kyoto to the Rothera Research Station in Antarctica, Saturday is remembered for Live Earth, not Evil Earth.