Thursday, 27 March 2008

Think of a Number Between 2 and 3

I've just asked my printer to print one page of a letter. It refused, informing me; "2 is too large or too small. Try again using a number between 3 and 2."


I'm going to feed it cheap paper from Poundland for a week, to teach it a lesson. If you let them get away with it, next thing you know they're inserting typo's and trying to get off games with a paper jam.

Now the dog's been sick. What's going on?

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Moules Chocolat

This is not a culinary blog, but I have to share with you James Hamilton-Paterson's exquisite recipe for Moules Chocolat, from his book 'Cooking with Fernet Branca'. We had this on Easter Day, sitting in shirt-sleeves on the terrace watching the lambs play in the Spring sunshine, and it was in a class of its own.

2 dozen fresh mussels, shelled and cleaned
Good quantity olive oil
Soy sauce
100 gm finely grated Valrhona dark chocolate

Heat the olive oil until small bubbles appear. Toss in a handful of fresh rosemary. Meanwhile, dunk each mussel in soy sauce and roll it in the bitter chocolate. Put the mussels in the deep-fryer basket and plunge them into the oil for one minute and fifty seconds. Lift them out, drain on kitchen paper, and shake them into a bowl of pale porcelain 'to set off their rich mahogany colour'.

As J H-P suggests, the result rustles like 'dead leaves in a gutter' - a consequence of the action of soy sauce on chocolate at high temperatures. I would only take issue with his recommended glass of Nastro Azzuro beer as an accompaniment. We reckoned this to be a bit on the dark side. Instead I would suggest chilling one of the drier Madeiras, such as a Sercial or Verdelho - if possible from the central 'Valley of the Nuns', the Curral das Freiras, where the wines have an astringent, chestnut nose. The bitterness imparted by heating after the first fermentation, coupled with the addition of cane brandy, make this a perfect partner for this subtle dish.


Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Cat's Eyes, Roadkill and 101 Things to do with Crap CDs

I was looking up cat's eyes with the vague intention of writing something frightfully funny about them; how they originated in the Catskill Mountains where mountain men used to nail roadkill to trees as reflectors on sharp bends. Or something.

That idea stopped seeming funny when I realised the obvious; that the inventor had been inspired by cats' eyes in the first place. I also learned that they had not been invented by a brilliant Swede who never made a penny out of his idea, as somebody once assured me, but by a Yorkshireman named Percy Shaw who patented them in 1934 and started the company that still makes them. Percy had the idea whilst returning from his local pub in a fog. He became a multimillionaire but, rather endearingly, never moved from the house that had been his childhood home. He did, however, strip out the carpets, curtains and most of the furniture, and install three television sets which he kept permanently switched on, tuned to BBC1, BBC2 and ITV respectively. Today he'd have needed more TVs and a bigger sitting-room.

I have done a few bad things in my life, and one of them came over me when I was walking along a deserted road in some remote Shropshire hills with a geological hammer in one hand and a lump of barytes in the other. There were cat's eyes up the middle of the road and, suddenly overcome by curiosity, I accidently excavated one. It was a nicely made thing, consisting of copper encased glass cylinders with convex lenses at one end and reflectors at the other. When run over by wheels or jumped on by amoral geologists, the eyes retracted into their rainwater-filled shell, wiping their little faces clean on the rubber housing as they did so. I believe it was once voted most original invention ever, ahead of Concorde and Tony Blair's Iraq Dossier.

I later left the hammer where I'd parked my bicycle beside Trilobite Dingle, near Welshpool, which served me right.

In the course of my cat's eyes research I happened on a blog called 'Sunset Over Slawit' which included an excellent list of things to do with old CDs. A much better list than the tired old standards which circulate office e-mail inboxes. In fact, I might even add it to my list of favourite blogs for a bit. You can see the list here.

Like Percy Shaw, I've had good ideas whilst returning from pubs. His secret was still to remember it in the morning

Monday, 24 March 2008

Yael Naim

I suppose its uncool to discover music through ads, but it's better to discover music that way than not at all. Yael Naim is an Israeli born in France of Tunisian parents. Her album 'Yael Naim', produced in collaboration with drummer David Donatien, was released last October. Apple have used the track 'New Soul' for its current MacBook laptop ad. But I'm probably the last person on earth to find her...


Saturday, 22 March 2008

Chill Me Not

What with Angus and Julia Stone (see 10 March) and Gabriella Cilmi, the Australians seem to be having a second coming. Cilmi sang the cover version of 'Echo Beach', for the ITV's new soap of the same name. I'm not quite sure about her though. She's cute, photogenic; Amy Winehouse with the edges sanded down. And 'Sweet About Me' is catchy as a cold and getting gasometers of airtime. It just all feels a bit packaged. Hearing the words 'sweet about me' for the sixtieth time, I begin to crave a less repetitive lyric.

Something like, "Pictures hanging in a hallway, or the fragment of a song; half-remembered names and faces, but to whom do they belong? When you knew that it was over were you suddenly aware that the autumn leaves were turning to the colour of her hair?"

Or maybe, "Let us be lovers; we'll marry our fortunes together - I've got some real estate here in my bag.' So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner's pies, and we walked off to look for America."

Or, "Did it take long to find me?" I asked the faithful light; "Did it take long to find me? And are you gonna stay the night?"

Sweet about me. Sweet about me, nothing's sweet about me. Sweet about me. Yeah. Doobydooby do.

Obama Shock Horror Probe

So Barak Obama's passport application file has been accessed by one or two people who work for the passport service. And Hilary Clinton's. And John McCain's. Shock horror, conspiracy, sculduggery. Slap me with a wet lettuce.

If I was doing something as mind-numbingly boring as processing passport applications, I think I'd try looking up the file of someone famous now and again, just to break the monotony. I bet if they checked, they'd find that Jennifer Aniston's and Tiger Woods' and Pamela Anderson's and a few thousand others have been accessed too.

I've looked up the US passport application form. It contains your name, date of birth, social security number, address and a contact number; your parents' names and birth dates; your partner's name; and details of your height, hair colour, occupation and employer. That's it.

I should have thought that the kind of information you need to know to decide whether to issue a passport is about the minimum a nation has a right to know before it decides whether to elect someone president. So what exactly is Obama afraid of? Is he afraid of identity theft, perhaps? Has he lied on his personal details? Or is this just an attempt to smear the opposition?

If I were a voter, those are the sort of questions I'd be asking, not 'Who dunnit?'

Friday, 21 March 2008

Paul Scofield

In the late summer of 1967 I travelled from Woodstock to Stratford-on-Avon by stage coach. The trip had actually begun in London, taking three days for the journey, over-nighting at coaching inns along the way. At 50 guineas the whole three days was prohibitively expensive (the other passengers were wealthy Americans), but we somehow persuaded the organisers to let us do just the last - and prettiest - day of the trip.

Running through the sunny, lush Cotswold countryside, along the old coaching roads from Oxford through Chipping Norton, the Vale of Evesham and Moreton-in-Marsh, it was an unforgettable experience. The coach was the famous Tantivy (now in the Hinckley Carriage Museum). With her full complement of 18 passengers and crew she weighed in at over three tons.

Suitably cloaked, I chose to ride on top. Up there one is as high as a double-decker bus, able to see over hedges and look into upstairs windows. The owner and coachman was Peter Munt, Britain's best coach driver, who has driven for The Duke of Edinburgh and achieved a record ten years unbeaten at all UK coaching events.

Peter drove with the four split reins in his left hand. With his right he held a long coachman's whip (never used), and pulled the heavy brake lever that applied a wooden block to the rear wheel rims. Every hour we stopped to change the horses.

Approaching our halts John, our top-hatted, pink-coated postilion, blew a long blast on his coach horn, and pedestrians and drivers stopped and stared. Where necessary Ann, the attractive groom, backed up the four horses and coach with consummate skill.

I am reminded of all this because, when we arrived in Stratford, we went to see Peter Hall's Royal Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth, with the great Paul Scofield in the title rĂ´le, Vivienne Merchant as Lady Macbeth, and Ian Richardson (House of Cards) as Malcolm. Sebastian Shaw (Anakin Skywalker in 'Return of the Jedi') was Duncan. Others in the cast included Brewster Mason (The Dam Busters), Ian Hogg (Rockcliffe), Catherine Lacey (The Lady Vanishes, I Know Where I'm Going), Elizabeth Spriggs (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone), Clive Swift (Keeping up Appearances) and Colin McCormack (Hargreaves in Inspector Morse). Guy Woolfenden was musical director. It was an unforgettable production. As always Scofield, who never seemed particularly charismatic in real life, was mesmerising.

Before the play was due to start we wandered along the bank of the Avon beside the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. We were idly discussing a swan with a deformed leg when I became aware of a man standing very still close by, listening to our less than scintillating conversation. I turned and saw it was Paul Scofield, perhaps gathering himself for the performance.

He died yesterday.


Monday, 17 March 2008

"Have you said your thank-you's?"

Meg has posted a funny note about the knack parents have of embarrassing their children. I suspect this skill is universal, so maybe there is some Darwinian advantage in it. Perhaps making their young glow red with shame focusses predators' attention on them, allowing the parents to escape and breed again? Or perhaps it is a sublimated pecking order activity, helping to secure alpha male/female status for the ageing parent - a substitute for the sort of painful bite which other primates employ, but which we find awkward to accommodate in everyday social situations. ("Excuse me a moment, Vicar, while I bite my son on the leg").

On a sailing holiday on the Norfolk Broads once, we moored alongside the New Inn in Horning. Spotting the owner in the garden, my father instructed me to approach him and say, "My father's compliments. What time is dinner served, please?" Resentful, tongue-tied and pink, I caught up with this complete stranger and blurted out, "My father's complaints, and when's dinner?"

My mother had the gift too. In Grays, Princes Risborough's smartest (and only) gentlemen's outfitters, she once stated in ringing tones, "My son needs washable underpants."

And who hasn't experienced that moment when your mother arrives to collect you from a party. You are waiting for a pause in the conversation between her and the hostess for the perfect moment to say, "Thank you very much for having me," when she leans down and says in a stage whisper that can be heard forty feet away, "Have you said your thank-you's?" - thus robbing you of any initiative and leaving you feeling like a gauche ingrate.

On one horrible occasion I was taken to Trumpers in Curzon Street for a haircut. Operating from the same premises since 1875 and reportedly frequented by Prince Charles, it had mahogany-panelled private cubicles and was scarily sophisticated for a ten-year old country bumpkin like me. The staff wore stripey waistcoats and were better dressed than headmasters. Worse still, I had been given half-a-crown and instructed to give it to the barber as a tip. When it came to the crunch, I couldn't. The idea of slipping a coin to a grown-up seemed impossible. As I rejoined my father in the foyer the barber lingered expectantly. "Did you give..." my father began. "Yes," I replied, my face burning as I felt the weight of the coin in my pocket.

It's not as if I did it for the money. Although I think I spent it in the Army and Navy Store on Victoria Street, on a stuffed baby crocodile. Two crimes with one half-crown.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Village Cricket: Reasons to be Cheerful

As the village cricket team limbers up in the 'The Walnut Tree' for a new season, there are great hopes for their prospects this year. And with good reason. We have a team of consumate specialists.

For example, Clive 'Sweaty' Pitts is our fast bowler. His great gift is speed. Clive is a vacuum extrusion operator at the new Mid Kent Polyvinyls plant over at Clashing Green. His shift finishes at 9.30 pm, which is four minutes after the last bus from Monkley leaves. If he sprints like the wind and is lucky and the bus is late (which it often is), he can catch it, and so reach the pub an hour before last orders. When he misses it, determined not to lose drinking time, he runs the two miles to the village, flat out. He has been known to overtake the bus on the way. Clive's bowling action is purposeful and unvarying. He favours a long run-up, and the look in his eye as he thunders up to the crease says "You are standing between me and a pint; the choice is yours". Even experienced batsmen quail.

Middle-order batsman Stanley Pallet is ambidextrous. His batting is poor to agricultural, but by switching between left-handed and right-handed on alternate strokes, he quickly exhausts the outfield, who can cover as much as quarter of a mile per over just crossing sides. As a variation, Stan sometimes switches as the bowler starts his run-up, requiring him either to abort his run, or leave the fielders badly misplaced. As a bat Stan is particularly useful when playing for time. In the field, his ambidexterity makes him a demon catcher in the slips.

Then there is Ed Case, bouncer from 'Desdemona's' night-club on the London Road. Eddy's wicket-keeping benefits from his extreme size. Although barely 5'6", he weighs in at 19 stone and has hands like Sussex trugs. Very little gets past him, and when a rare ball does, neither batsman can see how far it has travelled, making the snatching of singles an act of faith. A look from Eddy often persuades visiting umpires that they were, on reflection, mistaken in not giving 'out'.

Rosie Legge's advantage is capitalising on the opposition's natural reluctance to launch their fastest deliveries at a woman. For Rosie is indisputably a woman. In fact, the prospect of sharing the changing room with Rosie is a significant factor in keeping recruitment up. There was some initial difficulty with the League, but they couldn't find anything in the Laws of Cricket which said that a woman should not play in an otherwise male team. In the end they gave way, saving face by insisting that she should wear some additional body armour at the crease. This exaggerates Rosie's already pulchritudinous figure. In the field, we place her at at mid-on in a loose shirt. Opposing batsmen are apt to roll gentle ground shots her way, just to watch her stoop to collect them, which sends their heart rates up and keeps their run rate down.

Even the scorer is a secret weapon. Darryl Wright became scorer by accident. Our Chairman, Brigadier 'Tommy' Gunne-Court, overheard him telling a friend at the Summer Fayre Dance in the village hall that he "would give anything to score, just once" and immediately instructed him to report for Saturday's match against Pratts Bottom, under the impression that he was doing the lad a favour. Darryl has never had the courage to wriggle out of it, and is now entering his third season. His mathematical illiteracy and short attention span have proved to be an unexpected advantage. He reacts so slowly, and puts the wrong numbers up so often, that opposition batsmen become seriously distracted by the erratic display on the scorebox, and play with only one eye on the ball. Darryl wears whites for away games, in the hope that girls will think he's one of the team. He hasn't worked out that, a) girls don't watch cricket and, b) he still looks like a knob.

Our first fixture is a pre-season warm-up against Boughton Valence, at home on the 29th. The tearaways from the estate drove all over the pitch in a stolen car after last week's rain, so the wicket is not at its best. Skipper Rob Staples tried to cut and roll the grass with the tractor at the weekend, but his wallet fell out of his back pocket and got shredded by the gang mower. It took him the rest of the day to sellotape £40 in notes back together, so the mowing never got finished.

What with one thing and another, Boughton don't stand a chance.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

A British Oath of Allegiance

According to today's news the government is to consider making schoolchildren swear an oath pledging allegiance to the Queen and respect for the law.

The suggestion comes from a review of citizenship ceremonies led by former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith. At last October's launch it was suggested that "people born and raised in this country are often far too cynical about being British and it seems to be a national pastime to put down British institutions and our way of life."

We are governed by half-wits. As a nation we don't do pledges of allegiance. And we have always laughed at our institutions. It's the way we express our affection for them.

I just can't see our children standing to attention, right hands on their hearts, singing 'We are the World'. But if it's inevitable - and stupidity in government usually is - Brother Tobias can at least offer his services by drafting the oath.

One based on the American model doesn't work too well:

"I pledge allegiance to the Flag of Great Britain (or to one of the several flags of its constituent countries, and also to the flag of the European Union) and to the Republic Kingdom State for which it they stand, one four Nations (or six if you include Geordies and the Cornish), under God (or gods, or not, as appropriate), indivisible, with liberty (at least when there is no room left in prisons) and justice (but not necessarily in equal measure) for all."

Here is my alternative paean to the British way of life:

I pledge allegiance to...

Binge-drinking on a Friday night,
Humbugs, Hovis and Marmite;
Train delay, Cadbury's Milk Tray,
Ann Widdecombe and Ronnie Kray;
HP sauce, repeats of Morse,
Spotted Dick for second course;
Private Eye, Beano and Eagle,
Triumph Norton, Reliant Regal;
Basil Brush, Winnie the Pooh,
Not jumping the Post Office queue;
Tabloid rags, banning fags,
Football players and their WAGS;
Jones's (Griff Rhys and Catherine Zeta),
Balamory and Blue Peter;
H and coke, (downers and uppers),
Takeaways and TV suppers;
David Beckam, Dickie Bird,
Being good at coming third;
Falling standards, nits in schools,
Government by deluded fools...

...But frankly, any oath's absurd
Except one short, four-letter word.

(It's a work in progress)

Monday, 10 March 2008

Stones Tour

'Mango Tree' from Angus and Julia Stone. Touring the UK April - May.


On Wenlock Edge the Wood's in Trouble

This morning the whole country is suffering from wind.

Skirls of seagulls are beating into it, scanning the fields forlornly for fish.

According to the morning news, incoming aircraft are arriving an hour early, catapulted across the Atlantic by a 220 mph jetstream.

Our dustbin bags are inching their way more sedately up the North Downs. If they reach the crest before the lorry comes, they'll take wing and come down in Deauville.

In my old Cornish stamping grounds, there is flooding at Tressillian and the Norway Inn. The path at St Clement will be under water, where folk walk dogs between the river and pennyworted walls.

The dog curled up beside me is all grump and body language. She says it's not a day for walking. No way.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Genetically Engineered Joke

This blog is getting way too serious.

According to multi-national studies led by Professor Richard Wiseman, jokes containing 103 words are the funniest. Jokes mentioning ducks are funnier than jokes about other animals. People from the Republic of Ireland, the UK, Australia and New Zealand most enjoy jokes involving word plays. Putting these principles into practice, here is Brother Tobias'
attempt at the world's first 103 word punning duck joke:

A duck walked into a club and injured its beak. It was a wooden club.

It hurried to a hardware shop.

'What can I do for you?' said the shopkeeper.

'Have you got any duck tape?' asked the duck.

'Certainly,' replied the shopkeeper. 'Do you want to pay cash?'

'Just put it on my bill.'

'No problem. But why do you keep looking at me from under your wing?'

'I'm a Peking duck.'

Just then another customer came in and accidentally sat on the duck. In pain, he rushed to the doctor's surgery.

'What's the matter?' asked the doctor.

'I've got a duck stuck up my bum.'

'That's fowl,' said the doctor.

Okay. I know. Stick to the day job.

We've Got Funny Genes

Following research into 5000 sets of twins by the University of Western Ontario, there is news today that the British tendency to sardonic humour and self-deprecation is down to a gene that most Americans don't possess.

Whether it is nature or nurture, the difference exists. I noticed yesterday that when a correspondent from this side of the pond used the spoof term 'interweb' in a posting to Garrison Keillor's 'A Prairie Home Companion' site, the host entirely failed to get the joke. Assuming the term was a quirky linguistic difference, he (or she) pay-tronisingly replied; "...the Interweb — what we call the Internet, but never mind..."

The Canadian researchers suggest that 'the British may have a greater tolerance for a wide range of expressions of humour, including those many Americans might consider aggressively sarcastic or denigrating, like Fawlty Towers and Blackadder. In the North American version of The Office the lead character is much less insensitive and intolerant than in the original UK version.' (I knew there was something wrong with that programme. David Brent was too insensitive. Lucky there were some good straight-talking American genes around to put that right).

This British fondness for taking the piss out of the good and the great, for challenging shibboleths and questioning accepted truths, often seems a bit grubby and ignoble, but it's a lot less scary than those clear-eyed, god-fearing, proselytizing nations or individuals which believe themselves to be infallibly right, and therefore justified in imposing their beliefs, faith, principles and bigotry on others.

It occurs to me, perhaps credulity is the root of all evil? Discuss.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Strange Bird on the Loose

The Social Secretary's twin was walking the dog the other day when a car containing a man and a woman drew up beside her. The driver lowered his window and said, "We're looking for a golden eagle."

Aghast that such a rare bird had escaped, the Twin exclaimed, "Oh no! How awful!" She scanned the skies helpfully, shielding her eyes against the sun.

The couple looked at her oddly and then at each other. The man unobtrusively raised his window a bit. "It does Thai food," he explained nervously.

The Twin turned a fetching shade of pink. "Oh! You mean the pub! It's straight down the hill, then first left in the village."