Wednesday, 31 December 2008

A Year End Economic Alphabet



A's Armageddon, a smidgin upsetting,
B are the Bonuses Bankers are getting.
C is for Credit, and also for Crunch,
D is for Death to the city lunch.
E is the 'End of 2008',
F is for Falling (the Stock Market's fate).
G is for Government, and Gordon, our leader
H is for Happy New Year, dear reader.
I is for Interest, nearly at nought,
J is for Junk (the shares I once bought).
K is for Keynes (John Maynard, not Milton)
L is the Lending the economy was built on.
M is for Meltdown, losing the lot,
N is for Nothing, which is what we have got.
O is for zero, zilch, bugger all,
P is for Penury, backs to the wall.
Q is for Queen (otherwise 'Lizzie')
R's the Receiver, who's frightfully busy.
S is Stagflation, making analysts grieve,
T is for 'Turn out the lights as you leave'.
U is Unemployment and Unrepaid loan,
V are the Vultures repossessing your home.
W is Woolworth's sorry demise,
X is Expenditure, still set to rise.
Y is for Yearning for a better bank rate,
Z is the Zeitgeist of 2008.

BT
New Year's Eve

Monday, 29 December 2008

Does Nobody Else Do This?

I used to do a lot of long-distance rail journeys, travelling alone. One of the ways I amused myself was to imagine a motorcycle keeping pace with the train. It was entertaining looking for routes through trees and between fields. One had to allow the occasional Steve McQueen style leap across a fence or hedgerow, but only where the lie of the land made this remotely feasible. I was a biker at the time, and felt this excused such mild fantasising. Not long ago, though, I met someone who rode, who said they did the same thing with an imaginary horse and rider.

I mentioned this as we drove home on the M25 last night, and Bob remarked that he sometimes imagines himself grinding on the central reservation crash-barrier. There was a pregnant silence until he added that jumping the gaps was fun, and we realised he was talking about skateboarding. I see now that transport corridors are paralleled by a phantasmagorical revving, galloping, grinding horde of shadows. It is they, not the passing vehicles, that stir the daisies on the verge.

There is an equivalent to this in typography, which I became aware of when I had the job of editing a newsletter. It involves the gaps between printed words. Sometimes, like pointing in amateur brickwork, they join up in successive lines, so that the eye can trace a wandering white track down the page. If text was chocolate, these are the fault lines that it would break along. Typesetters call these 'rivers', and they become a particular problem if you are using narrow, fully justified columns, because bigger spaces have to be used to juggle the words into position.

It turns out, according to the Today Programme, that there is a bit of the brain (there usually is) devoted to this sort of pattern recognition. It is suggested that we need it to spot predators concealed amongst leaves and grasses.

Like looking at a cartoon of two faces and seeing a Grecian urn, once the eye becomes tuned to spotting rivers they can pounce out at you in an unwelcome way. If you don't see them, try slitting your eyes so the words blur. In boring meetings, as a change from doodling, I have been known to draw routes down through the text of reports and briefing notes, from top to bottom of the page. The more direct the route, the better.

So there you have it. A way to make even Jeffrey Archer novels entertaining. Look on them not as literature (I know, I know), but as puzzle books, every page a new challenge.

Is there anything you do which 'normal' people might find peculiar?

Monday, 22 December 2008

John Logie Baird / Aeolian Harp

My Scottish grandfather liked gadgets. Around 1935 he built a television set to pick up Baird's daily 10.00 - 10.30 am test transmissions from Alexandra Palace. It was only supposed to be possible to pick these up within 80 miles of London, and my grandfather's success in picking them up in Ayrshire interested Baird enough for him to visit and discuss it. The set comprised an aluminium disc with tiny square holes around the edge, each a tad nearer the centre than its predecessor. In one revolution of the disc the holes scanned the width of a (selenium?) cell which could vary in brightness very rapidly. In front of the disc was a magnifying glass through which the pictures could be viewed.

At five to ten a picture of a five bar gate was transmitted, for tuning. The spinning disc was mounted on an electric motor with a variable speed control, and at the correct RPM the gate would appear - usually in two pieces until it was fine-tuned.

Hung above a door in the hall of my grandfather's house, amongst the weapons and oars (Uncle Alastair was a Boat Race and Olympic oarsman), was another device that appealed to him; an Aeolian Harp.


Aeolian harps were popular in Georgian times. They were placed in open sash-windows, where the wind could play over them. For over seventy years this one was strung cosmetically with silk fly-fishing line because my grandfather feared that any tensioning of the strings would place too much strain on the supporting posts.

When it was eventually passed to me I noticed two holes in the carved, porpoise-shaped posts, as if something was missing. These allowed me to rig up a spring-loaded copper bar to compensate for any strain, without having to physically adapt the instrument. After some research (there are several schools of thought about how to tune aeolian harps) I strung it with twenty guitar 'E' strings, all tuned to the same pitch. We opened the front and back doors and held the thing in the ensuing draught with a microphone nearby. And, hauntingly, perhaps for the first time in 170 years, the harp began to play. It felt as if we were hearing a recording made around the time of Waterloo, an echo from the past.

I found the tape this week and digitised it. You should be able to hear a bit by clicking the title of this post.

Something for the Weekend

I've just been into town for a couple of last presenty things. While I was there I thought I'd pop into HMV and treat myself to one of the films Rol recommended.

I couldn't find it anywhere. Not under 'Feature Films', nor 'Charts', nor 'Recent Releases'.

It was only when people turned to look at me as I enquired at the busy counter, "Do you have 'A Complete History of My Sexual Failures'? that it occurred to me that he might have made it up.

Luckily he hadn't. But at £18.99 I'm going to try Amazon.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Ferret


The neighbour's boy just drove over to borrow some bread flour. As he walked up the path he saw a long furry thing on the lawn. It was a ferret. We watched it undulating exploratively round the garden, looking like a hairy U-bend.

I'm glad he saw it too, or I might have doubted my sobriety.

There was a stoat living under one of the sheds earlier this year, but this seemed a lot larger and a lot tamer. Judging by the tail colour, it may be a polecat crossbreed, which could help with the rats that are staking out the bird feeder, but won't please the gamekeeper much. I won't tell him; less birds means fewer fat men peppering the car with falling shot. The ermine could come in useful if they ever make me a lord, though.

Hope it doesn't eat the dog.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Pain and Hair



When threatened with something mildly hurtful, like an injection, my father often feigned fear and claimed that he felt pain more than other people (I know he was feigning, because he was given a DSC in the war, and you don't get those for good hand-writing).

I didn't inherit his valour gene, but I have borrowed his line about feeling pain more than other people from time to time.

Research at the University of Louisville in 2002 discovered that people with red hair are more sensitive to pain, and consequently need more anaesthetic during operations than other patients. In people with red hair, the cells that produce skin and hair pigment have a dysfunctional melanocortin-1 receptor. This dysfunction triggers the release of more of the hormone that stimulates these cells, but this hormone also stimulates a brain receptor related to pain sensitivity.

Research at the University of Edinburgh in 2005 discovered that redheaded women have a higher tolerance of pain and consequently require less anaesthetic. Normally the melanocortin-1 gene produces a protein that reduces the efficacy of opiate drugs, but without a functional gene, natural and artificial painkillers appear to induce a threefold stronger effect in redheaded women.

So there you are, it's official; redheaded people feel pain more than other people. Or less. This may explain my predilection for anaesthetic around 6pm. Or not.

Friday, 12 December 2008

The Girl Done Good


K did her first public performance the other night, at a local 'Open Mike' night.

It wasn't a full house, but it was still a major hurdle to cross. Knowing my aversion to public speaking, I was well impressed by how well she did.

She kicked off with 'Autumn Leaves'. Then reprieved with her own song, 'Devil in Your Hair'.

For a quiet house there was tons of applause, so she did Audioslave's 'Like a Stone' as an encore. That went down a storm, so she sat down but was dragged up again, to sing 'Billie Jean' with another guitarist (whom she'd never played with) doing backing guitar. Then the Beatles' 'Across the Universe' with the same guy. Finally, still not off the hook, she was called back to close the evening with 'I'm Going to Haunt You'.

She did really well and enjoyed herself a lot; professional as a cucumber, no one could believe it was her first gig, and she was implored to go to a bigger open mike night in Maidstone, and to another in a working men's club on the Isle of Sheppey.

I don't know where she got that kind of courage from (but it wasn't me). Proud parents we may be, but watch this space!

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Bronco, Izal, Andrex and Jeffrey Archer

I'm reading 'Atonement', which is an altogether excellent book. Sadly its excellence doesn't stop my tendency to be distracted by harmless anachronisms. In the book McEwan mentions a wad of toilet paper being used to soak up some spillage in a pre-war country house nursery, and later he refers to a pervasive smell of diesel from retreating British army lorries near Dunkirk.

Both of which sent this sad schmuck googling, ultimately satisfying himself that absorbent loo paper wasn't invented until 1942, and that most British army lorries at Dunkirk were Bedfords, which had petrol engines until the 1950s. I want to make clear that I don't search for mistakes in a mean spirited way. It's just that when they intrude on my consciousness they interrupt the reality the author has spun.

I can understand the diesel slip, but McEwan should have known that over here there has always been a deep snobbery about loo paper (it could only happen with the British) which meant that the soft stuff wasn't normally found in posh houses until after the mid 1960's. For some reason the hard variety was thought to be superior - as well as being frightfully useful for tracing or making makeshift kazoos with a comb. This prejudice might have had its roots in a bawdy rhyme which apparently circulated in pre-war schoolrooms and playrooms. It went something like, 'Poor little Johnny, the paper's too thin; he pressed too hard and his finger went in'.

Instead, grand people bought Bronco in rolls, or boxes of medicated Izal if they had those wall-mounted ceramic dispensers. (It's odd how the gentry were quick to run with some innovations, like cars and cocktails, but were pathologically resistant to change in others).

In the course of my ridiculous search for enlightenment I was amazed to learn of Mankind's epic quest for Andrex. I knew all about the Romans using sponges on sticks from visits to Housesteads Fort on Hadrian's Wall, but apparently at different times people have also used wood-shavings, grass, leaves, sand, seaweed, snow, corn cobs, sea shells, sticks and stone. Sand? Corn cobs? Sea shells? Time travel suddenly seems less attractive.

As so often the Chinese got there first. In 1393 during the Ming Dynasty, 720,000 sheets of toilet paper, two by three feet in size, were produced for the general use of the Imperial Court. Two feet by three feet? That's serious loo paper.

Returning to mistakes in books, I was once given a newly published Jeffrey Archer by my in-laws. I can't remember which one it was, because it quickly went to a jumble sale. In spite of being irritated by his style, I tried, I really did. But I couldn't take the chain of sloppy errors. It was obvious he'd churned the stuff out without even having the good manners to check it. For example, early on in the plot someone entered a room, locked the door and sat down. Shortly after a visitor knocked, the sitter called 'Come', and in they came. I mean, really. That's just disrespectful, and as an author you can't expect to retain any credibility.

Not that I'm a fan of the man himself. I went to two Trafalgar Night dinners in the Painted Hall at Greenwich in successive years, when it was still in the hands of the Royal Navy. At the first the speaker was Sir John Harvey-Jones, who talked modestly and entertainingly about the senior service (he had joined the navy as a midshipmen in 1942, when he was 16). At the second the speaker was Jeffrey Archer, who spoke at length in a high-pitched voice about himself.

Ah well. I suppose OCD makes my books last longer. Does anyone else find themselves distracted by mistakes in books? Discuss, giving examples where appropriate.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Thea Gilmore


To a gig at the Zebra Bar last night. I happened on Thea Gilmore in 2001 when 'Rules for Jokers' came out, and we haven't stopped playing her since, and K sings her spine-tingling ' 'I'm Gonna Haunt You'.

The audiences here are sedate, respectful and perhaps not the easiest to warm up. Joan Coffey had that job and did it well, ranging from sweet-voiced colleen to someone who could round up sheep. Her well-structured lyrics seize you with a strange sense of deja vu; 'Sometime' is still going round in my head.

Thea's own set was just....superb; the sort of gig you never forget. That makes you glad you've been standing for three and a half hours, because a chair would have been a shackle. Supported by husband/producer Nigel Stonier (vocals, guitar, harmonica), who has written for the likes of Fairport Convention, Lindisfarne and Sandi Thorn and sung with Martha Wainwright, and by the multi-talented Fluff (vocals, violin, guitar), who has played with the Incredible String Band, Nick Harper, Waking the Witch and others, she held us hostage from start to finish, here the plangency of Nick Drake, there the soaring, spine-tingling purity of Sharleen Spitiri. We didn't want it to end.

But one thing I don't understand. Average age of the audience? Probably over 50. What's that about? Was there something better going on in this two-bit town on a Monday night? Were they all racing each other in nicked motors on the ring road? Popping Es in some techno house? Brains addled by their iPods? Doing their homework? Glued in front of Celebrity Makeover Academy Factor on Ice? Eating burgers? I wouldn't have classed this gig as folk, but even if it was, when I were a lad folk clubs attracted all ages. Everyone is into Roots Blues now. Well, Folk is our Roots; it's raw and unmixed, unplasticised, undigitised, un-Walshed and Cowelled; un Ken Bruced and Woolworthed; it's soul-food red in tooth and claw, vegetables with muck on them; love, lust, honour, courage, sorrow, grief... God save the singer-songwriters.

Oh, what's the point?

Monday, 1 December 2008

Overheard at Dinner

"I have a good relationship with my dustmen. I always flash them."

Friday, 28 November 2008

The Arrest of Damien Green; Government Lies and Politicisation of the Met

The Mugabe-esque arrest and detention of shadow Immigration Minister Damien Green for exposing information embarrassing to the government should send shivers down our spines. Downing Street asserts that the neither the Prime Minister nor any other minister had prior knowledge of the arrest. This is laughable and patently a lie - especially as the leader of the opposition and the mayor of London were told.

It seems more than coincidence that the arrest, which included at least nine counter-terrorism officers, occurred on Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair's last day in office. It is also interesting that the raid took place after news of the Mumbai atrocity had emerged, effectively filling the headlines (remember September 11 and 'This would be a good day to bury news").

There has been mounting concern about the politicisation of the Metropolitan Police. While in his parting speech today Blair rants about the influence of the mayor, it is worth remembering that while the Chief Constables of every other force are local, not government appointments, it is the Home Secretary that appoints the Chief Commissioner. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith's concern at the Commissioner's resignation may well have reflected the impact on government influence over the Met.

In November 2005 Blair was involved in allegations of the police being politicised, when he and other senior police officers lobbied MPs to support Government proposals to hold terrorist suspects for 90 days' . He received further criticism when 78 police officers were involved in a £7,200 night operation to confiscate placards displayed by lone Parliament Square anti-war protester Brian Haw.

I had first hand experience of the politicisation of the Met on 15 September 2004, when I took a day's leave to visit Parliament Square with other country folk.

Usually friendly, it soon became clear that the 1,300 armed police attending the peaceful demonstration had 'zero tolerance' instructions and were in a mean mood. A 'Wapping Box' barrier system was erected around the Square, ranks of police vehicles were drawn up, and the Mounted Division were in reserve. We could see what we took to be police surveillance cameras on the roof of the Houses of Parliament, and a helicopter circled and filmed overhead. Some people had arrived at the rally on bicycles, and had left them chained to the railings. An early indication of the police mood was that they were removing these not by cutting the chains or padlocks, but by maliciously cutting through the bicycle frames.

The day began quietly enough, as we sat in the sunshine eating sandwiches and listening to the speakers. The subsequent farcical Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation noted blandly that, "at 3.23 pm a police officer was captured on CCTV using his baton to strike a demonstrator". What followed was an explosion of gratuitous violence against the most lawful of crowds, who were inevitably roused to anger and self-defence.

The IPCC report was an institutional cover-up in every sense, but the IPCC knew that the events had been seen live around the world, and it had to admit that police officers used their batons to strike demonstrators on the head, causing injuries; that there were examples of 'considerable force' being used from the police lines towards the demonstrators (one member of the public received a baton injury which required 12 stitches); that the police had injured demonstrators who had clearly not been involved in any disorder and had been unable to escape due to the volume of the crowd; and that an examination of the CCTV and still photographs showed that members of the press were caught up in the conflict and at least two photographers received head injuries.

Attempts to deploy the Mounted Division only served to inflame the crowd who didn't like to see horses used in that way, and failed because they did not fear close contact with horses. The IPCC admitted that 'a number' of police officers had removed the epaulettes bearing their identification numbers, and that police batons were cleaned up before forensic evidence could be taken.

The violence, which I have absolutely no doubt was an inevitable outcome of police aggression, lasted for two hours. Within a matter of days complaints ranging from common assault, to unlawful wounding, and assault occasioning actual bodily harm had been lodged by 54 people who attended the demonstration who claimed to have been injured by police officers and also from 119 people who attended the demonstration but were not injured. The Metropolitan Police alleged that there had been over 60 injuries to officers, but after they had examined the extensive video footage, no members of the public were charged with any assault offences.

The IPCC heard evidence from a range of police officers at various levels, who described how officers had been specifically instructed in prior briefings to be really awfully nice to the demonstrators, and particularly to be sure to wear their identification numbers. In a move unlikely to encourage witnesses, the Senior Investigator of the IPCC decided it would be appropriate to pass on details of anyone making complaints against the police to the 'Operation Ashcombe' investigation of assaults on police officers. The IPCC was also told not to investigate common assault complaints against the police because there would potentially be too many of them and they would be difficult to investigate because the victims would be unlikely to have forensic evidence of the assaults.

Even given the difficulty of identifying officers in riot gear who had removed their ID numbers, and after deciding not to investigate allegations of common assault, 31 officers were the subject of complaint. 17 files went to the Crown Prosecution Service. After a number of trials and disciplinary hearings, one officer was referred back to the Met for discipline, consisting of 'words of advice'. That's it. Two years of prevarication, hundreds of complaints, scores of injuries, and one officer received 'words of advice'.

Three months later Ian Blair, who was Deputy Commissioner at the time of the rally, was appointed Chief Commissioner. Eight months after that Parliament passed the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, banning unauthorised demonstrations within a one kilometre radius of Parliament Square, and placing the power to authorise demonstrations in the hands of the Chief Commissioner.

On the Today programme this morning Gordon Brown's immigration minister Liam Byrne repeatedly stressed that his shadow opposite number had been charged with conspiracy - something he seemed anxious to make political capital of, until it was pointed out to him that no charge had been made. Be nervous; this government is trying to stifle opposition and free speech, and truth and open government have been the first casualties.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Dream Lover

Dream Lover
I want to baste you and taste you,
Make a cocktail laced with you;
Trace the lips and the dips of you
The tips and the tricks of you;
Test the turns and the tapers
And the subtle twists of you:
The flanges and the rims,
The dimples and the whims;
The ins and the outs of you
The pleats and the pouts of you.

I’d like to tease you, please you,
Bring you to the knees of you;
The breath and the beat of you,
The sweat and the heat of you;
Bisect you, inspect you,
Parse you and dissect you
Conjugate the pieces,
The components and the creases,
The perfection and the puzzle,
The silence and the hustle.

I want to ream you, unseam you
Desiccate and wean you;
The please and the pardon
The secret scented garden
The nectar and the wine
The undulating line
The fruit that is forbidden
The thoroughbred that’s ridden
The incubus’s wedding
A twist of tangled bedding...

Dawn beyond the pane;
The waking and the shame,
The telltale dream-tossed quilt,
Oh, the wonder and the guilt.

BT
October 2008

Monday, 24 November 2008

P8RS0N4L1S3D N0 PL4TE8

Back in April I had a little rant about personalised number plates. Your comments at the time seemed to share my view about them. However, I've just had a contrary comment from Cinnamon Girl. This surprised me until I realised her business is selling personalised number plates. It's probably a lucrative occupation, or was before the credit crunch, bearing in mind the current record is £440,000 (for 'F1'), and that single numeral plates sell for upwards of £10,000.

In her promotional blog Cinnamon Girl conjectures that it is over-contrived registration plates which encourage criticism. But it isn't only that. It's the 'look at me' element which irritates. Nobody loves a show-off. And that image should matter so much to the owners that they are prepared to fork out thousands of pounds for such an ostentatious and not terribly classy statement.

However, to her great credit, besides linking to my less than supportive post, Cinnamon Girl linked to this clip from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's ' The Chaser's War on Everything'. I have subsequently wasted much too long on other clips from the same team.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Old Joy, Into the Wild and Vampire Weekend



I've watched two movies lately which share some lost, yearning, other worldly quality. Both of them stick in the mind long after the credits have rolled. Both are perfectly scored.

They are Into the Wild and Old Joy.

Old Joy in particular is an understated masterpiece; a one course meal of bread and water which becomes a thought-provoking, wine-rich banquet for the soul.

Finally, here's a band.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

How to Get Rid of Sparrows

The shooters were out again on Wednesday. My study looks out across the field to the release pen in the wood, where the captive bred birds are introduced to 'the wild'. The Dutch banned the rearing of birds so that they can be shot down for pleasure in 2002, regarding it as morally and environmentally insupportable. I have sympathy with their view.

A couple of years ago I found a sparrowhawk which used to perch on a drainpipe at the end of the house lying dead on the ground, and I have little doubt it ate poisoned bait (as probably did the pet dogs and cats which regularly go missing in the woods).

In 2006 The Times drew attention to the fact that 'Shooting Times' had published a list of the countryside's 'most wanted pests' - a list which included eagles, ospreys, red kite, buzzards, falcons, harriers and goshawks, together with otters and badgers.

I was reminded of this by the report about paving and decking being responsible for the fall in urban sparrow populations. It's not a new suggestion. Authoritative studies have also shown the fall to be due to aggressive magpies, cats, disease, climate change, pollution, unleaded fuel and mobile phone masts. I'm not convinced of the paving and decking argument, because numbers have also fallen massively in rural areas. Our sparrows all but disappeared some time in the 1990s. They reached a clamorous peak one year, in which we could barely hear ourselves think for the clamour of them in the eaves, then the following year, Bam! Not a sparrow to be seen. It was so sudden that I can only put it down to disease or a bird of prey.

Anyway, while we mourn the endangered sparrow and are urged to remove our decking and put up nesting boxes, a host of commercial pest companies are offering to rid our gardens of the pesky sparrow. For example Safeguard, 'The Pest Control People for London and the South East', advise that there are several methods available for controlling sparrow populations including use of pesticides. Countrywide Falconry And Pest Control Services Ltd offer "humane, fast, effective removal' of sparrows across London and the South East of England. The Pest Control UK Directory regards all birds as a source of disease, and says that keeping birds away from your lawns and gardens is not 'anti-environment'. They suggest use of spikes, nets, holographic and iridescent foil, sonic and ultrasonic devices, and
elimination of food sources for wild birds, such as spreading methyl anthranilate on the lawn to make it taste bad. These are the sort of people who don't like trees because leaves make the patio untidy.

Yesterday there was a quail with a damaged leg huddling by the garage, presumably injured the day before. But don't feel sad; fresh batches of fee-paying urban 'sportsmen' waddle out of the shoot trailer twice a week, so perhaps it'll provide gratification for one of them today.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Organ Donation: Opt In or Opt Out?

I wonder how you feel about the current transplant debate? Gordon Brown supports a change in the law to give the State the right to remove and reuse organs from deceased individuals, unless they have specifically opted out.

There are, of course, good arguments in favour of increasing the number of organs available for transplant. If availability of an organ might save my life or that of someone dear to me, I imagine that I might feel the gift of life outweighed any personal sensibilities.

But I find the idea of the State awarding itself ownership of our bodies altogether too reminiscent of 'Brave New World' and 'The Handmaid's Tale'. The conscious choice of an individual to gift his remains so as to give a chance of life or health to another is generous and altruistic, but I am not sure the 'right' to life is such that the State should be empowered to seize cadavers for dissection and the removal of body parts under the noses of grieving children, parents and partners.

I can see other difficulties too. Not so much the fear that hospitals, keen to get their hands on organs in best useable condition, would 'give up' on patients earlier than might otherwise be the case - although there would always be that risk. What I suspect would be inevitable though, would be strong institutional pressure against death at home, so that organs could be 'harvested' in the freshest possible condition - just as for years hospitals made it very difficult for mothers to choose a home birth. The prospect of a duty to report deaths of loved ones immediately to the local hospital, so that 'organ snatch squads' could tear up one's stairs to the master bedroom, scalpels twinkling, is equally unthinkable.

Deemed consent would inevitably bring a shift in attitudes. From the present position in which a donor's family are welcomed as benefactors by the medical establishment and organ recipients - bringing them pride and solace - there would be the sense that organs were taken by right, and perhaps vexation with the relatives of anyone who'd opted out. In any case the chances are that, with the burden of proof on next of kin, by the time they had discovered and were able to demonstrate that their loved one had opted out, any organs would have been long gone.

So I come down emphatically on the side of sticking with an 'opt in' approach, albeit with better publicity and encouragement.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

It's a Bloke Thing

In his mother's recent absence the neighbour's son experienced a domestic crisis; the cat shat on the mat. Or on his bedroom carpet, to be exact.

He cleaned up with male ingenuity. Using a craft knife he cut out a square patch of carpet around the offending offering, and then frisbee'd it out of the window.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

The Horror

I've been thinking about the way Great War veterans never talked about their experiences. It's puzzling. Like a conspiracy, except that with conspiracies there are always rebels. Then I remembered how at boarding school no one ever told their families about bad stuff that happened.

If this seems like a really crass comparison, it's not intended. The vicissitudes
of the boys' preparatory schools of those days bear no similarity to life in the trenches. Or very little, and not in the same degree. But the discipline, restrictions, discomfort, injustice and fear was so alien to our home lives that we seemed to inhabit two different worlds. Heaven and Hell, if you like. And some instinct made us want to protect our mothers and sisters from the unconscionable realities; from the loneliness, the bullying, the beatings, the perverted fumblings of damaged staff, the cold, the food. Our fathers had been through the same system and must have known; their silence was manly and complicit, like veterans of earlier wars.

Our weekly letters home were vetted and censored, but even if they had not been, we would not have told. Instead we wrote of the cheerful and mundane; of cricket matches and half-holidays, of the weather and...well, that was about it. At the end of term, in the car on the way home after twelve weeks away, they would ask, 'How was the term?', and we would reply, 'All right'. Locking it all away in a dark vault of our minds; looking forward instead to the sunlit uplands of the holidays.

We were fully aware of the parallels between boarding school and POW camps - German ones, anyway. In fact, any prisoners of war who had attended an English boarding school would have been well-prepared. From time to time unhappy boys even planned and executed escapes, although they were almost always caught, turned in by a stationmaster or picked up by police as they tramped along a road verge (we weren't allowed money, and our uniform of herringbone tweed shorts and jackets, besides giving us chapped legs, screamed 'escapee!'). If we could have, we'd have lined the drive and cheered as they were escorted back, except the drive was out of bounds. And we'd have been shot.

I was only 8 when I left home. Some were younger. I no longer feel resentment about being sent away, although I did at the time. It was just the way things were. Parents made sacrifices to do it and it hurt them too. No doubt the education was good; no doubt it made us self-reliant. And these things were the exception rather than the rule; I'm sure such schools are very different now. But we were unworldly children from sheltered homes, and the cold, curtainless, carpetless, draconian life of bells and rules and dormitories was not a comforting one. Even if we could have afforded the fees, I didn't need much persuasion to send our children to day schools. They've never complained.

Anyway, I believe the men who had experienced the horrors of that war concealed them not only from convention and because they wanted to forget them, but also because they felt that resurrecting those experiences would pollute and corrupt the sacred home life they had lost and then, against all odds, regained.


Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Daniel Takes A Train


Nice cousin-in-law Paul plays sax in the 80s band, 'Daniel Takes A Train'. The band, which in its day played venues such as the Astoria, Ronnie Scotts, the Empire Leicester Square, Hammersmith Palais and The Limelight Club and famously gate-crashed the 1987 Brit Awards, reformed this year. They are releasing a new single, 'One Last Dream,' in a couple of week's time, and will therefore challenge Simon Cowell's X factor finalist for this year's Christmas single.

If you love Simon Cowell, please don't visit the band's website here.

If you really love him, don't whatever you do explore the widget to the right, because you can listen to the various mixes and even order copies by clicking on its bottom. The song should carry a health warning, because it grows on you, and at just 77p it's perfect for those family stocking fillers...

Monday, 10 November 2008

Select Committee Calls for Ban

An influential Parliamentary Committee has called for introduction of a minimum price for books and other literary products. Citing research that showed that the real price of literature has fallen dramatically in the last 30 years, the Home Affairs Select Committee wants to ban special promotions and prohibit supermarkets and other outlets from selling books at a loss to attract customers. Chairman Keith Vase said that popular titles were 69% more affordable now than they had been in 1980. "Police are spending too much time dealing with reading-fuelled social unrest, and the easy availability of reading material is contributing to the problem. More working time is lost through reading than through accidents in the bath, and there is increasing evidence of older people stocking up and reading at home, often solitarily. They may be unaware of the dangers of excessive reading, which can damage eyesight and contribute to obesity and heart disease. We are asking for a ban.

"We are particularly concerned at products intended to entice younger people to read. Brands such as Harry Potter may seem innocuous, but they can quickly become habit-forming. Studies suggest that early reading increases the risk of developing a lifelong reading habit."

Besides seeking to legislate against the sale of cut-price literature, the committee wants to revoke the licences of some outlets currently authorised to sell reading matter; introduce prominent health warnings drawing attention to the physical and mental health consequences of reading; and outlaw reading in public places. When it was suggested to Mr Vaj that some people enjoyed reading and that moves to restrict it might be unpopular, he replied, "Happy readers lead to unhappy communities. The Government needs to act decisively in the public interest."

[For any non-UK readers, a Select Committee has today called for restrictions on the sale of alcohol]

Saturday, 8 November 2008

WWII in Colour

The Telegraph is doing a free DVD offer all this week of the extraordinarily good series 'The Second World War in Colour'. This was made in 1999 by Carlton Television. One of the diarists they drew on was my mother, so the Social Secretary and I got to represent her at the launch at BAFTA in Piccadilly. As simple country cousins we were rather excited about going, associating BAFTA with glitzy awards ceremonies. And as luck would have it, when we got to the front of the queue for taxis at Victoria, along came a head-turning reproduction vintage cab, all headlamps and mudguards and cream livery, so we felt appropriately important as we arrived at the doors.

Carlton followed this in 2000 with a second series, 'Britain at War in Colour', which also drew on her diaries. A small team travelled up to Skye and spent a long day interviewing and recording my mother at home, which she enjoyed, although she was far from well at the time.

The SS and I again went to the launch, this time in the main hall of the Imperial War Museum. While I chatted to a liveried Chelsea pensioner (who invited us to tea at his gaff at the Royal Hospital) and wolfed the delicious canapés and champagne being handed round by (it seemed) increasingly pretty girls, the SS got to meet Ian Lavender of 'Dad's Army' fame, who she said was charming. For the screening we sat behind Dame Vera Lynn (I would love to have told her that at school at the turn of the 1970s, as rock blared from out other studies, being too broke to buy a stereo it was her voice that crackled out from mine via old 78s and a wind-up gramophone). Next to us was a pleasant fellow named Bob Hanna, who very kindly gave me a copy of his father's memoir. Sam Hanna was a teacher from Burnley who spent his spare time recording local trades and tradesmen, making very early use of colour film.

Although the available wartime colour footage is limited, the immediacy it brings helps to shrink the years between and put us in closer contact with that world.

Friday, 7 November 2008

1,000 mph: Bloodhound SSC

I am unreasonably proud that in the limited edition of 'Thrust' by Richard Noble, my name appears in the appendix as a member of the supporters' club. In the absence of a dominant major sponsor, the club became the project's biggest single sponsor, providing 20% of the cost of the project. At times it was this support that kept the whole, mad scheme afloat - support from ordinary enthusiasts with ordinary incomes, who probably didn't even tell their friends for fear of being seen as nutcases.

Now a new British land speed record attempt is planned. Richard Noble, who took the record in Thrust 2 in 1983, and managed the Thrust SSC project which took it in 1997, will manage the project. The current land speed record holder, Andy Green, will drive the car. Weighing in at six and a half tons, Bloodhound SSC will be powered by a Typhoon Eurofighter jet engine and a rocket. Its fuel pump will be an 800 hp V12 racing car engine. It is designed to accelerate from 0-60 in one second and to reach 1000 mph within 40 seconds - a speed of 4 seconds a mile, faster than most jet fighters. The attempt is scheduled for 2011 (although, on past experience and any possible funding difficulties, I would be inclined to add at least a couple of years to that).

The Thrust SSC project was in progress as we emerged from a recession. Bloodhound SSC has been launched just as we enter one. People will say that it is grossly inappropriate to spend large amounts of money on such an apparently pointless project, when it could be better spent on health, or job creation, or foreign aid. Of course they will - and on the face of it they would be right. But I believe we need dreams. We need inspiration. We need to fire the imaginations of the children who could become the scientists and engineers of the next generation. We need role-models who are willing to risk all for an idea. It could be cheap at the price.

The Bloodhound SSC project's website is here.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Packed

The Social Secretary sent off for some free promotional glucosomine tablets. This label was on the Jiffy bag. Now there's an odd packing technique.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Manners and Insults

Alison Hairdesser arrived upset. On her way she had pulled over to let a Landrover through. They both had their windows open, and the driver had shouted "wanker" at her as he passed. It seemed undeserved, and I suggested that perhaps he had said, "Thank yer," or even that he might have been German and said "Danke," but she said he had a leering expression on his face that made his meaning unambiguous. As it happens many 4x4 drivers around here have a leering expression. It may be inbreeding or a side effect of squinting down gun-sights at barely flight-worthy corn-fed pheasants, so the jury is still out in my book.

I told her a friend of mine had been driving along a lane, minding his own business, when a driver coming the other way leaned out of his window and yelled "Pig" at him. Puzzling at what he had done to deserve the insult, he rounded the next bend and ran one over. (Alison said she didn't understand. Was I suggesting that her Landrover driver had been trying to warn her of an approaching hazard?)

Undeserved, gratuitous insults have a disproportionately unsettling effect. I've never forgotten an exchange in the entrance to the Victorian Shopping Arcade in Inverness. A stranger and I did that avoidance dance in which you each move in the same direction, and when we'd sorted ourselves out I said "Sorry" unnecessarily in the way that politeness dictates, and he replied, "You will be". If you read this, Inverness person, or even if you don't, may your cloutie dumplings shrivel.

Manners can be a burden. I seem to have spent a significant proportion of my life holding the door open at Woolworth's while an endless stream of people walk through without even looking at me, let alone thanking me. And elderly ladies, assuming me to be a shop employee, regularly ask where the rubber gloves are. I've given up explaining that I don't work there, because they don't believe me. It's easier just to show them. Unless they ask rudely, in which case I send them next door to Ann Summers.

Monday, 3 November 2008

I'm It

Can Bass 1 has tagged me for six random facts. He is too nice a chap for me to sense a hint of malice, but if it were anyone other than he, speculation might be my middle name. Here are mine - and I have been as honest as I can.

1 Standing on a biscuit tin.

2 Probably Sigourney Weaver, although Monty Don might be fun.

3 It depends on several things, including what I've eaten and the weather.

4 Only once - and we both wound up in hospital.

5 A petrol strimmer.

6 Alas yes. I put it down to single-sex schooling.

Since the tag has transmogrified into something altogether more profound, I tag Lucy back because she started it. And also Steve.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

The Joys of Life

The car has been playing up for the last couple of weeks, refusing to start in the cold mornings. We're a good couple of miles from the nearest bus route, shop or station, so it's kind of essential. Replaced the glow plugs (£40), then the battery (£60); still no good. So it's been bicycles, battery on charge every night, and faffing about in dressing gowns in the frost putting heaters under the block and ether up the air intake (which one really shouldn't do with a diesel, as it can blow the manifold off). Yesterday we finally sorted it with a new starter motor (£££s).

So what happens? To add to the bitter cold, it starts to rain like you've never seen. French rain, from France. And they've spread pig muck on the hill, directly upwind. And then - as we prepared dinner for eight - the loos start backing up, and I find that the lowest drain is overflowing over the terrace. So Bob and I were out in the freezing monsoon, in the gathering dark, inhaling pig poo, rodding the sodding drains, swathed in our oldest macs and hats in case of collateral splashback. When the blockage finally cleared with a great audible glop, the plunger nearly got dragged in by the suction, with the two of us on the end of it.

Talk about it never rains but what it pours. Sometimes I think there must be a divine hand in all this. With a warped sense of humour.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Magic Rattle Pooh

If the TV ad I overheard is any indication, the must-have toy for toddlers this Christmas is 'Magic Rattle Pooh'. Call me alarmist, but I shudder to think what confusion this may cause in tiny minds.

Friday, 31 October 2008

How Are You, Mr Tobias?


"How are you, Mr Tobias?" the booking clerk enquired yesterday (well, he used my other name, but you get the idea). I was buying a ticket in the county town's main station. He's greeted me like this for years, and it used to impress the hell out of work colleagues as we set off for a meeting with the Department of the Environment or the National Coal Board or whoever (yes, the Garden of England had coal mines too).

The reason the polite clerk remembers my name is that a few years ago I was his nemesis. When he saw me approach his window he knew it wasn't for a straightforward single to London Bridge or day return to Barming, but return tickets for the family to Kyle of Lochalsh.

Those bookings weren't straightforward. For a start he had to get the right combination of sleepers. Sleeping compartments come in pairs with a concealed communicating door between them. Usually these are locked, but if you book the right pair the door can be opened to create a roomy, four berth space.

Then there was the dog. They normally travel in the goods van, but the SS won't countenance this. Once upon a time you slipped the guard half-a-crown and he let you bring one into the sleeper. Now you have to pay an £80 excess for 'deep cleaning'. I don't suppose for a moment any deep cleaning ever actually takes place, but it presumably satisfies the objections of non-doggy people. (Anyway, the habits of most dogs are a lot cleaner than those of some passengers; I've never felt quite the same about the basins in sleepers since Rather Grand Aunt admitted she peed in them if taken short in the night. I mean, I know there will always be some people who pee in basins, but Rather Grand Aunt? If she did it then absolutely anyone might).

The Caledonian Sleeper is still impossibly romantic, and arguably the finest way to travel. After a nightcap in the lounge you fall asleep between crisply laundered sheets, lulled by the motion of the train, and wake in the morning to the steward's knock with a tray of tea or coffee, followed by a cooked breakfast as the sun rises over snow-capped hills. So civilised.

When everything goes to plan, that is.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Exposed

I ran into Mike in town the other day, in the queue in Smiths. We asked after each other, and he said he read my blog from time to time. "You're very brave, exposing yourself," he said.

"Have I been exposing myself?" I asked, taken aback.

"Well yes, you have really," he replied. Then a checkout became free and he left. I noticed everyone in the queue was giving me funny looks. Except for a middle-aged man in a brown mac, who winked.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Girl on a Roll

K 's latest song has a strange history. When she said she was short of ideas I fished out a song lyric I'd written in the 1970s and done nothing with. Neglected in a drawer for 33 years, she wrote a tune, guitar riffs and harmonies for it in about as many minutes. So here is a time-warping song-writing collaboration between a 21 year old girl and her 23 year old father.

And before you ask, I wasn't in love with a boy called Andy at the time; the song was originally for a girl named Angie.

Monday, 27 October 2008

You Tube

Either side of lunch with the parents-in-law I spent much of yesterday learning how to use Windows Movie Maker, so as to put K's latest song on You Tube. It was a slow process because I kept having to doctor photos - painting out other members of the family (cheerful family snaps didn't match the mood), power lines, etc. And I hadn't realised how often the irritating yellow date stamp kept switching itself on on my previous camera. Then I got distracted playing with psychedelic effects, which didn't suit the song at all but were irresistible, and also let me conceal less-soulful parts of twin sister-in-law's kitchen and garden.

It reminded me of the slide-tape presentations we used to prepare for public exhibitions in lower-tech days...for which I usually got roped in to do the voice-over. One year we bought a large trailer that had been a mobile dental surgery, and converted it into a touring exhibition which plugged into lamp posts in town centres all over Kent. It worked pretty well really, except in the East Kent mining village of Aylesham where it was stoned by a gang of youths. Also this was before the county logo had been emasculated into a limp-wristed 'my little pony'; in those days the rampant white 'Invicta' horse was unmistakably a stallion, and staff had to be provided with a special cleaning kit and replacement logo stickers, to address the outsize organs that were often graffitti-ed overnight.

Anyway, should you want to hear K's song, accompanied by an unlikely selection of family holiday pics, here's the link. K is the first to admit that it is not the most upbeat of numbers. She has just recorded (on our rather primitive home equipment) a well-balanced album which friends are bombarding us with requests for. Unfortunately I can't publicly post any of that because they are cover versions, but if any of my regular blog readers fancy her interpretation of songs usually sung by people named Nellie, Thea, Sheryl, Paulo, Christina etc, and would like a free copy (packaged horribly cheaply), then email me with your address at rod(at)budweiser.comremoveme and I'll post you one.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

The Manners Stone

Galtrigal

'Remember the two that stood here?' whispered the old wise stones.
'We recall,' said the tree and the bird that sung; 'They had no need of anyone.'
'Lovers,' mused the cave, 'from the way they sat with only the sound of the sea.'
'It was me; 'the Manners Stone replied, 'the magic that I have inside.'
'It was they,' the gulls cried back, 'their laughter and their fun;
Their eyes that met, the hearts that beat as one.'
'They never knew,' called the seal in the bay.
'Oh they knew,' said the waves, 'but they dared not say.'
'Remember the two that came,' said the stones, 'that loved, then went away?'

BT


The Manners Stone sits on the grazed turf near a crumbled field wall. It is unremarkable in a landscape dotted with boulders and outcrops, and you would never know it for what it is if you weren't shown. Once there was a sizeable village looking out across Loch Dunvegan, but now there is just a nearby croft, and a scatter of humps and brackened ruins.

The tourist brochures, if they mention it at all, say that the Manners Stone is reputed to give good manners to those who sit on it. This limp interpretation probably comes from a book 'Place Names of Skye', written by the Rev.W H Forbes in 1923. But it's not what I heard. Someone - I can't remember who, but it was someone local - told me that whoever sat on the stone would have good luck and fertility - but only if they sat on it bare-arsed.

The writer and recorder of legends Otta Swire, who was descended from generations of Skye folk, was told a different story, which came from a man of Galtrigal, where the stone lies. The Galtrigal man said:

"The Manners Stone's real name was the Bowing Stone, and it stood in 'the Field of Bowing'. At the proper season everyone came and walked round it three times and bowed. It was the stone of the ancient gods, and if you bowed to it you would bring good fortune to the harvest.

"Then came a minister who was angry and forbade the 'worship' of the stone, for he said it was a pagan practice and the stone an idol. So he had the stone moved into the churchyard as being sacred ground. But the people still visited it and bowed. Then the minister said that it was accursed and ordered it to be thrown out.

"Now, the man on whose land it was thrown had six strong sons, and when his crops were trampled down and ruined by people visiting and circling the stone he grew angry and told his sons to remove it. They did, and threw it into the ravine [there is a deep ravine close by] and it broke.

"Sheriff Nicholson came from Husabost and was angry and said, "Replace the stone as it was or on rent day you'll lose your croft." So the six sons tried to and it was then they found that the stone was broken. They collected the smaller pieces and laid them close together in the stone's old place and then laid the largest piece on top of them, and Sheriff Nicolson accepted that. There it still lies and people still bow to it. But I think there are other stories too."


In her introduction to Otta's book, Dame Flora Macleod noted that, "In olden days the Church did much to forbid and to destroy the ancient beliefs", and I am sure that is what has happened in this case. The good manners explanation, itself recorded by a minister of the church, seems to derive from association with the stone's name, and is a conveniently anodyne substitute for anything earthier or more challenging to the Church's authority. But the name of the Manners Stone must surely pre-date the arrival of english language, which completely undermines the theory.

I wondered whether perhaps the name had a biblical root, as 'Manna'; an association of good harvests with the 'divine sustenance' of the Israelites in the Book of Exodus. Then I looked in a Gaelic-English dictionary and found an obvious clue that seems to have been missed; 'Manadh' in gaelic (the 'dh' at the end isn't pronounced) means 'an omen', good luck'. What better name for a stone that could bring fortune to a harvest? The Manadh Stone.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Little Pricks

The Social Secretary and I are so pumped full of viruses - in the last few days we've had flu, tetanus, polio and diphtheria jabs - that it's hard to know whether we're well or not. K had the flu one too, and we've all had unexplained headaches, until it dawned on us why. I've been putting off the tetanus booster for years - I reckon I snag myself on sheepy barbed wire so often that I get boosters from the bacterium itself.

At the flu one, in the village hall, K got the giggles when the administering doctor confided, "Just a small prick." Mine said, "Let it hang," but I think he was referring to my arm and the slightly camp hand-on-hip pose that I'd helpfully adopted. Afterwards we had to fill in forms. Sex, age, no problem. Then came, "Ethnic Origin". Sounds straightforward, except I put 'White Caucasian' and the SS put 'C of E'. Then we spotted an advice sheet, and crossed those out and obediently wrote 'White British' as instructed. Probably Caucasia is now an independent former Soviet republic, but ethnicity to me is not equivalent to 'nationality'. Next time I'm going to write 'Sudanese Ginger' and see what they make of it.

Along with her second jab the SS also had a routine smear test (not in the village hall). This was made more awkward by the fact that she was meeting for the first time the nurse whose dog she would shortly be walking twice a week (times are hard). She probably now knows the SS more intimately than I do. I passed the time playing with the new do-it-yourself blood pressure machine in the waiting room, which prints you a read out like those fortune-telling machines in fairgrounds. (I'm 'optimal', which is a lifetime first for anything; I may frame it and hang it with my sub-optimal certificates in the downstairs gents).

My non-twin sister-in-law once importunately fell for a hot doctor at Guy's who was involved in administering and assessing the results of her barium meal test (she described it as like consuming and passing a bowl of plaster of paris). Although on the scale of barium meal test attraction I'm sure sister-in-law scored highly, she didn't get a date out of it. Sometimes the odds are just stacked against you.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

All Mimsy

I am indebted to Steve for tasking me with blogging six random facts about myself. Indebted, because I have neglected blogging and, worse, my fellow bloggers for a couple of weeks, for no good reason, and this gives me no option but to get to it. I think Lucy already tagged me with this a while back, although it has metamorphosed from the 'six interesting facts' it was then, which I found much harder.

1) I was baptised twice. This isn't actually allowed. The first time was into the Anglican Church, in Khartoum Cathedral. It happened to be Gordon Sunday, which was an important day in colonial Khartoum. This is how I acquired Gordon as a third forename. The second time was into the Church of Scotland. As the minister paid feu duty for the manse to my grandfather (as did the hotel, the garage, the shop, the doctor, Argyllshire Constabulary, the Post Office, the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board and Argyll County Council amongst others), he probably wasn't in a position to demur when my grandfather requested a second baptism, to be held at the family home. It hasn't made me devout (I think one may have cancelled the other out).

2) I was once hospitalised for two weeks by a beer can. The beer was Watneys, so I probably deserved it; the can was a party seven, which no normal can opener fitted. Students don't have access to proper tools, but trying to open it by stabbing it with a large kitchen knife was a mistake. I wrapped some loo paper round the ensuing wound, where the sticky-out part of the blade near the handle had ploughed into the base of my little finger creating the sensation of an elastic band shrivelling up inside my palm, and enjoyed the party. It was some days later that I realised that the finger was not working as it should. (If I made a fist, it projected out straight, like someone genteely drinking tea from their best china). After an operation involving insertion of a plastic drinking straw from wrist to finger tip, followed by another involving replacement of the straw by a tendon transplanted from my forearm and the sewing of a shirt button through the nail, the damage was more or less repaired. I took my third year exams with the help of an amanuensis, who presumably got the blame for not being able to spell words like 'Schumacher' (yes, I know we can all spell it now - this was the 'Small is Beautiful' economist, not the racing driver) and Ada, the computer language that I had a distressing tendency to spell 'Aida', like Verdi's opera. I was lucky to have had the great Fenton Braithwaite as my plastic surgeon - famed for his work on the 'Guinea Pig' burns victims of WW2.

3) I was once taught by Frank McEachran, the inspiration for Hector in Alan Bennett's 'The History Boys'. He had a more profound effect on me than I had on him.

4) I once celebrated New Year in a lunatic asylum. Although I guess it was called a psychiatric hospital by then. St Nicholas Hospital in Gosforth was formerly Newcastle upon Tyne City Asylum, and the African nurse who was a housemate must have broken every rule in the book inviting friends in for the night shift, to drink wine in an attendants' office between two wards. My main recollection was two patients shouting across at each other, "I'm Napoleon!" "No you're not, I am!" And spotting a rather fine Montague Dawson hanging vulnerably above a staircase, which I thought could have funded a lot of electro-convulsive therapy or vallium or something (I later learnt it had been on loan from the Hancock Gallery).

5) I may be the only surviving person to have vaulted an industrial-scale lighting column in a three wheeler. I was driving up the A1 at night, and a drunk driver had just run into it, felling it at right angles across both lanes of the northbound carriageway. I saw it too late to stop, and my tough little Reliant Regal hit it full on, became airborne and landed on the other side. A man who had stopped in time remarked that he thought I was a goner. The car seemed to have sustained no major damage, although the steering column never again sat quite right where it passed through the dashboard. A tribute to the durability of Tamworth engineering and the elasticity of fibreglass. Or possibly to being baptised twice.

6) Someone once tried to commit suicide in front of that same three-wheeler. She leapt out in front of me, again late at night, after quarrelling with her boyfriend at a dance at the local barracks. I sprinted quarter of a mile to the nearest telephone box to call the police and ambulance, looking for all the world like a manic hit-and-run driver, and leaving the ignition on (the coil burnt out the following day). Fortunately the boyfriend (a squaddy) stuck around to tell the police what had happened. After being breathalised (I passed), I was allowed to drive home with damage to the bonnet and one smashed headlight. I drove carefully round the next corner.....and ran over a cat. Conscious that the attending police were following not far behind, I didn't stop. Twice in two hundred yards might have looked careless. (Sorry cat). The girl, who had appeared terminal, turned out to be merely very drunk and badly bruised. A tribute to the elasticity of fibreglass and the durability of Maidstone girls.

That's six. Apparently I now have to tag six people. It would be rude not to (and more public than breaking a chain letter, which I habitually do), but I don't know how you feel about tagging, and it isn't unreasonable to find them tiresome, and anyway you've probably been blogging eight years longer than me and have more readers than you can cope with and therefore had it umpteen times before already, and you really don't have to, and I won't be hurt if you don't, and at least you get a gratuitous link here, and there's no need to apologise if you don't....

Hattiehattie
Can Bass 1
Laugh Now, Cry Later
Megablog
Extra Virgin
Fresh as a Daisy

The rules:

1. Link to the person who tagged you
2. Post the rules on your blog
3. Write six random things about yourself
4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them
5. Let each person know they've been tagged and leave a comment on their blog
6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Coming Out

I have a boyfriend.

We met at a barbecue the weekend before last, at the end of the Indian summer weather.

I'm not sure of his real name; people call him Dude.

He has had a hard life - rejected by his family, fostered and subsequently adopted in early childhood. Perhaps because of that early rejection he is hard to get to know...rough, self-sufficient, uncommunicative, somewhat remote.

I think affection comes hard to him, but I believe he has a noble spirit and an endearing vulnerability which tugs at the heartstrings.

Not everyone would find him handsome. But in love, it is the peculiarities that attract, not the perfections. His lower jaw is strangely malformed, as if it doesn't belong to him, so that his lips never close over a perpetual smile. This may be inherited or a product of early neglect, but he is self-conscious about it and I haven't asked. His hirsuteness is strange to me too, but he has all his own hair, his breath is sweet, and he runs like the wind. There is natural grace in his stride, and an irreverent gleam in his eye which is full of promise.

It may have been the wine, or the red glow of the sunset, or the music, but as we relaxed together on a bench in the embers of the evening our eyes met in mutual recognition, and he stretched out beside me and laid his head in my lap, and somehow I knew that it was right. That whatever people might think or say, whatever society's mores and expectations, there was a beauty in this relationship which dare not speak its name.


Nokia Waterloo (My my, I tried to hold you back ...)

Yesterday the Social Secretary had a difficult day. Her mobile kept shooting out of her jodhpurs pocket like a bar of soap (too small a pocket or jodhpurs too tight? I wasn't going to ask). So when, tacked up and ready to go, she popped into the stables loo ('Nothing serious', she insists), she held it in her mouth to be on the safe side. As she flushed she said to herself, "I mustn't let it fall in". At least, she started to say it to herself. Aloud.

Fishing it out can't have been fun.

When she got back an hour or so later the phone still wasn't working, so I scrubbed up, snapped on a mask and latex gloves (unnecessary, I know; it's a private, sartorial thing) and we set to work.

After a vigorous shake (water poured out like brine from a drowned man), we stripped it and I began passing organs for treatment...battery, subscriber identity module, plastic slidey bit. Then resuss with a hair dryer played on several tiny orifices.

After some charging (the battery had shorted out completely), the first vital signs returned. However, the patient was still deeply confused; WXYZ was swopping round with TUV, and GHI with MNO, causing predictive text to produced psychedelic interpretations. We repeated the process three times before a little colour returned to its cheeks and it was able to recall the date and remember its address.

It's more or less back to normal this morning, although callers sound like goldfish.

And we're all insisting the SS washes her hands after texting.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Loseley Park

Yesterday to the wedding of a friend and former work protégé who, far from seizing the opportunity to absorb my sober tutelage and carve out a sensible career in local government, had wound up teaching me so much (how to do considerably better in the private sector; how to get thrown out of a pub for staging a puppet show with your socks; the health and safety implications of teenage mutant ninja turtles in Danish discos; how crawling on all fours doesn't necessarily render you invisible in the dark.)

It was a generous and meticulously organised wedding, clearly planned by a tasteful romantic. I don't want to make a snap judgement here, but I'd say this may have been the influence of the charming and beautiful bride, rather than of friend-and-former-protégé.

The ceremony was in a relaxed secular format - no hymn singing (probably nobody knows the tunes anymore anyway), but tranquil music choices (Canon in D, Glasgow Love Theme), followed by various moving and thought-provoking readings ("I knew that I had been touched by love when I started thinking in terms of 'we'," provoked the thought that I shouldn't have snatched that last coffee before we left).

The Great Hall at Loseley House, with its panelling, stained-glass roundels and scent of wood smoke, was a timeless setting for the ceremony (it was already 130 years old when the Pachelbel processional was written). The reception and breakfast were held in a lofty timbered barn, the tables invitingly decorated in white and purple with a gift-boxed spirit shot at each place-setting (mine was a very thoughtfully-chosen miniature of Jura malt).

We were at a good table. On one side was Gareth Malone, the choirmaster in the BBC 2 documentary series about reviving school choirs. He swore he wasn't, and his name card said something different, although he admitted that we were not the first to remark on the likeness. Anyway, he was good company and probably sings beautifully. On our other side, best surprise of the day, was the girl with lovely eyes, whom I haven't seen for ages and much miss. With her was her partner, whom we hadn't met. Clearly a man of taste, he seemed very likeable, with a restrained dry humour that hinted at dineability.

I am easily provoked into a diatribe about wedding excess; the absurd amounts that people are expected to spend on weddings now, when a do in our day meant coronation chicken vol-au-vents and asparagus tips rolled in brown bread, washed down with a few glasses of Asti Spumanti; when you could count your friends by your cheese-boards, tin-trays and toast racks; and when at t' end, when all was said and done, there was still change out of' tenner for t' meter.

But it's awful nice being on the receiving end of a really good one, and I'm only sorry we had to leave before the band arrived and the evening celebrations began.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Boiled Eggs, Soldiers and Tummy Ticklers

A comment from the Saggittarian got me thinking about those peculiarities and sayings that families have. For instance, when it comes to boiled eggs I come from a family of spoon tappers. Apart from the atavistic satisfaction of bashing in it's skull, you don't waste any of the white, you don't cut your thumb and you don't get your knife eggy before the toast and marmalade stage. And we had soldiers with it. The Social Secretary, on the other hand, comes from a long line of egg-beheaders, and her soldiers were called dippies. Inevitably the children have grown up as dippy decapitators.

Then there are those sayings that are only understood within the family. If we wanted a bit of cheese without biscuits, we asked for 'cheese like a mouse' (do other people say that?). The SS's family calls those humpbacked bridges that leave your tummy floating for a moment, 'tummy ticklers'. My mother's family knew them as 'Thank you maams', after a past chauffeur who would warn his passengers one was coming with, 'Hold tight please', and then thank them afterwards. Caravans are 'Jo's' (don't ask), unnecessary urban four-wheeled drive vehicles are 'Ilfords', croutons are 'sippits' and chocolate digestives 'Daddy Bs'.

In one family we knew, if one of them was relating an anecdote that might put another down, someone would mutter 'Lith', and the speaker would immediately stop. Lith, we discovered, stood for 'loyalty in the home'.

One of the barns in my childhood home, in which the mowers and tools were kept, was known as 'the agricultural shed'. When my sister and I bought our own houses, out of habit we each called our garden sheds 'the agricultural shed'. This amused our father, who reminded us that the original barn had also been used as a second garage. Getting us to call it an agricultural shed was a ploy to stop us innocently giving away its garage use to any visiting council official, who might then have increased our rates. Probably our children in turn will have agricultural sheds.

There is also a stubborn inertia in the names we gave things. For example, there was a green, perforated steel food safe which was once used to store half stiltons. Over the years it moved house with us and was repainted white, but it was always known as 'the green thing'.

I'm guessing we all have these idiosyncratic quirks which help to define our membership of our individual clan, and set us apart from those unfortunates outside the magic circle.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Martin Stephenson and Helen McCookerybook

To Whitstable on Saturday night, to see Martin Stephenson and Helen McCookerybook.

It was a beautiful, mild evening. We parked on Middle Wall and crabbed through Squeeze Gut Alley to the Horsebridge. On the beach and the sea wall near the Pearson's and the Royal Oyster Stores there were clusters of people standing with drinks and cameras, watching the sunset over the estuary, as if it was the tropics. We bought a drink and it was almost perfect and to complete the moment, to the SS's chagrin, I blagged a rare cigarette off a couple standing nearby. They wouldn't take anything for it, but wound up next to us at the gig, our new best friends (thanks Michelle; here's to Limerick and original sin!).

Helen opened, quickly winning over the audience. For Freight Train she pulled the promoter/sound man on stage to accompany her; he looked thrilled and terrified in equal measure, clutching a guitar as if it was a fig leaf and singing rather well. Martin Stephenson joined her for several songs too. It was the first time we'd seen Helen perform, beyond parties and people's sitting-rooms; she was confident and relaxed, and her set was flawless.

In the break we visited the bar and looked down from the Horsebridge Centre's balcony at the fizz of laid-back provincial night-life below. (I once wrote a design brief for new development in Whitstable. It suggested weather-boarding, seaward-facing gables, balconies and external staircases, and maybe someone read it, because much of the newer stuff has these and the town has hung on to its quirky character).

Martin Stephenson gave a stunning performance and provided a masterclass in audience-connection. The stage had been erected between the two doors, so that any comings and goings couldn't easily be ignored. And there seemed to be many comings and goings, individual and group. No one escaped Martin's quick (but malice-free) wit. A smiley man with protruding teeth sitting near the front had a magic phone which leapt repeatedly out of his pocket and clattered on the floor like a spawning salmon (we saw him later on an ancient bicycle, wobbling home down the High Street on the wrong side of the road, shedding things). In the front row a small boy slept on his mother's lap. When he woke near the end, tired and disoriented, Martin turned whatever song he was doing into Postman Pat and sang it right through in a magical little concert for one, and no child has ever smiled more widely (there is something strangely endearing in a rock musician knowing all the words to Postman Pat).

You can't pay an audience a bigger compliment than to give the impression that you are enjoying yourself and don't want to stop, and that's the impression Helen and Martin gave us.

Thanks guys.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Across the Universe

I'd never heard of this movie (clearly don't get out enough) and only bought it on spec. We watched it last night and were completely blown away. Like Mamma Mia it is a love story woven round the music of one group, but it was in an altogether different league.

The cinematography, choreography, and sets were stunning, and the cast could actually sing. The plot and characterisation may be a spare - it is, after all, a musical - and the songs were sometimes crudely stitched in, but the political and cultural backdrop of the Sixties and the sensitively set Beatles' music gave it a gravitas which made MM look like a package holiday. This was 'Moulin Rouge' to Mamma Mia's 'Una Paloma Blanca'

Although the locations flit between Liverpool, Greenwich Village, Detroit and Vietnam, this was a British film through and through, from the Karl Ferris style false-colour palette, through the Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais screenplay, to the cameo roles of Joe Cocker, Eddie Izzard and Bono.

I wallowed nostalgically in the trippy, psychedelic sequences, and it's turned K onto Beatles' music in a way that fifteen years' of fogey parental promotion had naturally failed to do. This was simply a haunting, beautiful film. I only wish we'd seen it on the big screen.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Plug

Just in case you are in need of a lift, A Free Man in Preston's posts always work for me. If you haven't visited him for a while, read his latest post (see my blog roll).

An Imaginary Massacre and a Minor Miracle

There are many reasons for not blogging. This last week's was having a daughter in hospital with respiratory problems. Apart from our ordered daily schedule going to hell in a handcart, I kind of just lost the urge, choosing instead to tidy the workshop and a couple of sheds with an obsessive single-mindedness which suggests I may be pregnant.

K is back home now, having mentally machine-gunned a socially maladjusted male nurse; a patient with an amputated toe (or rather, without an amputated toe) who kept the mixed ward awake all night complaining of pain in his phantom digit; several senior hospital administrators prematurely promoted from the post room; and the limited linguistic skills of a Latvian drug nurse.

There were good things and bad things about her time there, although - this being Britain's leading C-Difficile hospital under Rose Gibb's appalling mismanagement (Ms Gibbs is now involved in a private consultancy with her partner, who also has a dubious hospital management history, seeking to provide advice on hospital management) - we'll count it a success if she doesn't come home with something she didn't go in with. The initial triage bit (if that's the right phrase) was excellent. Shutting down all systems for the weekend was not.

However, instead of muck raking, I've remembered a really heart-warming hospital story that happened earlier this year.

There is a delightful, diminutive lady near here, who lives alone in a little cottage. She was a nurse all her working life, never married and is now a cheerful and quick-witted 87. Earlier this year she caught a cold and it turned into pneumonia. Even as she recovered from that, her eyesight suddenly and rapidly deteriorated, threatening to steal away her ability to look after herself, let alone read or watch television.

A close friend and neighbour, herself 85, insisted on driving her to hospital, where for many hours they sat and waited to be seen. When, in the late afternoon as the place was pretty much closing up for the day, a consultant finally examined her, he said, "You have sudden onset cataracts. As you've waited so long, I'm going to operate on you right now".

And, in a little laser miracle, he did. Both eyes.

On the drive home, she said "I can read that road sign!"

And her friend behind the wheel replied, "Well I can't!"

I wish I could name the surgeon. But to have so disdained the bumph and procedure and procrastination of the NHS and restored this lady's sight and life on the spot seems a wonderful kindness.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Ryanair - The World's Worst Airline?

I was having to fly quite regularly a few years ago, not for pleasure. This was just after the al-Qaeda shoe bomber, Richard Reid, had tried to destroy a Boeing 767 with plastic explosives and a detonator. I never saw any passenger make a fuss about the increased security which followed; we were all quite reassured to be shuffling barefoot through those snaking scanner queues.

There have been other terrorism alerts and foiled plots since. In 2006 an alleged bomb plot to blow up passenger jets bound from Britain to the United States using explosives smuggled aboard in hand luggage was uncovered, and security at airports was again increased. On this occasion Ryanair's CEO Michael O'Leary's response was to throw a hissy fit condemning the inconvenience of security measures. Ryanair reportedly threatened to sue the Government for compensation if airport security measures were not relaxed. Here was a company that seemed to put profit before the safety of its passengers.

Around this time O'Leary also ruled out joining the EU carbon emissions trading scheme. He is quoted as saying, "I am far too busy doubling Ryanair over the next few years to be joining any carbon emissions trading scheme." Nice.

Last month, in part of a private war with travel booking web sites, Ryanair stated that it would refuse to honour any online bookings unless they had been made through its own website. A spokesman for the airline said that it was trawling through bookings, identifying passengers who would be prevented from boarding. The Air Transport Users Council suggested that the airline does not want the travel trade selling on its fares because it makes money from other things it sells through its own website. The consumer watchdog 'Which' accused Ryanair of treating passengers (who were to be summarily turned away at the checkout with ruined holiday arrangements) as ''pawns'.

According to an exposé by the Sunday Times last month, Ryanair are now curbing the discretionary rights of pilots to request extra fuel, by imposing a cap on fuel safety reserves for its aircraft. An internal Ryanair memo, sent to pilots earlier this year, reportedly reveals that the company have insisted that any request by a captain for extra fuel should be the "exception", and refers to the normal limit being 300kg maximum reserve, providing about five minutes of extra stacking time for a Boeing 737. Although CAA guidance advises that sufficient fuel should be carried to cope with the standard stacking time of 20 minutes over busy UK airports, the company memo states: "Ryanair can statistically prove that 20 minutes' fuel is not required in LTN [Luton] or STN [Stansted]. Therefore it is not Ryanair policy to carry this fuel." Pilots are also refused extra fuel for observing altitude restrictions imposed by air traffic controllers.

Civil Aviation figures reveal that the number of fuel shortage emergencies in British airspace has doubled in five years. Under European rules, every plane must carry a "contingency" load of about 5% of a trip's fuel, and enough to divert to an alternative airport. Captains have a duty to anticipate delays from head winds, storms and re-routeing, and to request extra fuel to cope with this. Evan Cullen, a pilot with 19 years' experience and president of the Irish Air Line Pilots' Association, is cited as saying that commercial pressure on pilots to pare down the fuel they carry was compromising safety.

In response to reports that Ryanair pilots are condemning this move to restrict fuel safety margins as 'insane', an airline spokesman apparently retaliated that, "No pilot is allowed to fly with minimum fuel as these clowns claim," whilst admitting that pilots were allowed extra fuel only in "exceptional cases", and acknowledging that Ryanair had suffered a Mayday caused by fuel shortage within the last three years.

In 2007 Ryanair was voted 'the world's worst airline' for the second year running. A third of respondents in Britain voted the airline their least favourite, giving delays, cancellations, unfriendly staff, uncomfortable seats and poor leg room as the reasons (in one incident, Ryanair charged a man with cerebral palsy £18 to use a wheelchair).

Me, I can put up with a bit of rudeness and discomfort (although the company's proposal to allow use of mobile phones in flight is pushing it; aeroplanes are one of the few public spaces left where one is not subjected to the one-sided ramblings of loudmouthed prats, and about the only place you would be unable to escape them by any means). Compromising safety is another matter. I know I won't be flying Ryanair so long as it remains under the control of the ruthless and bombastic Mr O'Lairy.

Friday, 12 September 2008

A Case of Mistaken Identity

To meet a rail passenger at Kyle you drive down a ramp from the main road and turn round between the platforms.

On one occasion, while my father was waiting there in his white Vauxhall to collect my mother who had been shopping in Inverness, an elderly stranger tapped on the window and asked whether he might be taken to Carbost. It was only a few miles out of the way and my father, ever polite, said, "Yes, of course". The man opened the rear door and got in, placing a number of bags on the seat next to him.

Shortly after, my mother arrived. He helped her put her shopping in the boot, and she climbed into the front passenger seat, politely greeting the stranger and asking whether he had had a successful day. The old Highlander explained that he had been shopping in the new Tesco's, and then lunched in the hotel. They discussed how handy the new store was, and the bewildering choice there was compared to the Co-op in Portree.

After they had passed through the toll and crossed onto the island, she told my father about her adventures in Inverness, and he reported on his progress servicing the boiler.

As they chattered away, a silence grew in the back of the car (insofar as a silence can grow) until at length, in a pause, the Highlander remarked hesitantly; "This isn't a taxi, is it?"

"No," my father agreed.

It was a very embarrassed Highland gentleman who disembarked in Carbost, trying to proffer notes and thanking repeatedly for the lift.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Three Bad Smells

Smoke in a Jar

When I was about eight, playing with matches one day, it struck me how attractive smoke was as it curled and twisted in the sunlight. Deciding to save some, so that it would spiral prettily for ever, I lit a match under an inverted screw top jar, then sealed it.

Next time I came home for the holidays the smoke seemed to have gone, but when I removed the lid an unimaginably revolting, claggy, sulphurous reek of stale smoke burst out like the horrors of Pandora's box. It is still with me, a premonition of hell.

Vomit

Nobody's favourite. Once, at that sensitive stage of adolescence when you think the world is a stage and that everyone is looking at you, I was standing at the starboard rail of the Harwich-Hook of Holland ferry, trying to look noble and intellectual. Unknown to me, a child had been seasick three hundred feet or so further for'ard, and its mother was attempting to clean it up with a paper hanky. As she tossed the vomit-sodden tissue overboard the wind snatched it and flung it aft like a guided missile. It must have been doing about 40 knots when it hit me, with the kind of resounding slap which only a soggy Kleenex connecting with a face at high speed can make.

Look noble after that, I defy you.

Abandoned Molluscs

Skye. We were strolling above the shore between Struan Beg and Rubha na h-Uamha one summer afternoon, making for a favourite bay. The sun was shining, the sky as blue as a jay's wing, and the light breeze bore the balm of heather and wild thyme.

We sensed the corruption before we happened on the source. First a hint of the fishmonger's slab, crab paste and kedgeree. Then something feistier, sea wrack and stale sex. As we descended the brae towards the beach it grew stronger, so that the very air stilled and darkened, and the oily swell recoiled from the black shore.

And there it was, perhaps the rankest smell on earth; an abandoned sack of whelks, suppurating in the August heat. Primordial juices ripened and fermented, metamorphosing and evolving. A mucilaginous grey precipitate seeped from the hessian; where it had pooled, the turf was dead.

Even in beauty there is corruption.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Roger Federer v Andy Murray

I suppose I ought to have been rooting for Murray last night. I went to bed instead, and woke to hear that Federer had won the US Open in style. I felt rather glad.

Federer seems like a pleasant, well-mannered, grounded sort of bloke. He has put time and money into being a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and into his own foundation for The Disadvantaged. He also likes cricket and football. Nice Roger Federer is like a lovely bun with icing on.

Murray, on the other hand, has the charm of a malignant malt loaf. His remark during the 2006 World Cup that he would be supporting 'anyone but England' did little to woo supporters south of the border (although it was a view shared by many Scots).

Like Murray, I am mainly Scottish and a quarter English. I feel most Scottish in England, and most English in Scotland, which may be the curse of all expatriates. My loyalty, though, goes to both.

Perhaps in a shrinking world it's okay to prefer the nice guy to the compatriate. What a difference that might have made to History.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Energy Saving Tips

There are an awful lot of holly berries on the bough this year, which is supposed to mean a bad winter (there is a saying in these parts, 'When hol'berries be rife, best cuddle a wife'.) And now that BT has stocked up on anthracite nuts, candles and paraffin before they run out, he can share his suspicion that when the Russians cut off our oil and gas supplies, we might experience the odd power cut over the coming months. These won't last long, because people will stop buying caviar and listening to Tatu, which should soon bring the Russian economy to its knees. In the meanwhile, BT has jotted down his top ten energy-saving tips which you may find useful.

Pop down to B&Q, buy a small pot of own brand Signal Red Gloss, and paint your radiators red. They will look so warm that you will be able to get away without turning the heating on.

Keep an empty hot water bottle under the bed. If taken short in the night, no need to turn on the lights and lose body-heat going to the bathroom; just use the bottle. It'll warm you for an hour or two afterwards as well.

Make your own organic, warming toothpaste; mix two tablespoons of bicarbonate of soda with an ounce of grated dried chilli peppers. Add a teaspoon of lime pickle and stir into a paste. Brush teeth and gums vigorously before bed. There's no need for a partner to snuggle up to with this hot number. Be careful to wash your hands afterwards.

Next time you go to the supermarket, ask for some empty boxes. Tell them that you are collecting for 'Warmer Homes for Wensleydale'. When you get back, move the furniture away from the walls and pile the boxes up from floor to ceiling. You'll be surprised at the difference this makes. The extra storage opportunities are a bonus.

On cold nights a cupful of table salt will stop the lavatory from freezing over. Antifreeze will also work, but be sure to flush well before use. (Always check that the pan is not frozen. If it is, a kettle of boiling water will usually resolve the problem).

Cling film is not an effective repair for cracked lavatory pans.

Marmite has unparalleled antifreeze properties. Squeeze some into your car door locks using the back of a teaspoon. It also makes a useful screen-wash.

In cold weather many foods require more energy to consume than they supply. Try to eat a high-energy, low mastication diet involving efficient calorific ingredients such as bananas, Yorkshire Pudding and Maltesers.

Anyone used to swimming in Britain will know that the water feels warmer on a normal, grey summer's day than when the sun is shining. This is because perceived body temperature is relative to ambient temperature. In winter ensure that you regularly lower your blood temperature with a generous intake of alcohol (you may not technically be warmer, but you won't care).

Dig out that old record turntable from the attic and attach a 3 volt bulb to the short pins on the power plug. Set the turntable to thirty-three and a third RPM and invite a friend to spin the turntable vigorously in an anticlockwise direction; this will provide sufficient light for you to top up your guests' glasses.