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


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


'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?'


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....

Can Bass 1
Laugh Now, Cry Later
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.