Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Mushroom Growing Kit

What does it signify when your in-laws give you a mushroom-growing kit for your wedding anniversary? What are they trying to tell you? Because this is what mine gave us a few weeks ago. They were going to buy a climbing rose, which would have been great because the rose that covered the front of the house died the year before last. (It died of thirst, because it had infiltrated the kitchen drain and when we had the drain repaired it couldn't cope without it. I like the thought of those fragrant pink flowers nurtured on washing-up water and old rice and peas).

We need a new thing growing up the front. Without it the house looks like a diminutive barracks. But instead of an architectural fig leaf we've got an oversized polystyrene and cardboard compost container occupying the kitchen table. There is only room for two of us to eat alongside it, so we now have meals in shifts.

The instructions said it must be kept at a certain temperature, which is why it's in the kitchen. We don't have central heating, so everywhere else is too cold, unless one of us baths with it or takes it to bed. The instructions also said that it must be kept dark and moist. Erotic stuff, mushroom compost. A month of keeping the curtains drawn and the lights off in the kitchen has also led to some interesting culinary innovations. For example, did you know that instant coffee and gravy granules have identical containers and consistencies?

"But it'll be worth it in the end," the Social Secretary said. It's a moot point; mushrooms are only £1 a punnet at the market. Nevertheless, as the scheduled time approached I grew quite excited and got my little frying pan and spatula ready (or 'spitula' for the benefit of US readers who have not yet figured out a past tense for 'spit'). I'm as partial to an omelette as the next man. Lovely, fresh, home-grown mushrooms. Mmmm.


Not one mushroom has appeared. Not a nubbin. Ne'er a pinhead.

I don't understand it. We've kept them as dark and warm and moist as a ....dark and warm and moist thing. We've moderated our language near them in a thoroughly morel way, and played the sort of music mushrooms might like (Ravel's 'Boletus' and so on). The SS has been spraying the compost daily with the mist from a recycled Windolene bottle. (Did the bottles get switched? Have we have been spraying the windows with water and the mushrooms with Windolene?)

We raised our children in the same environment without any trouble. (Well, not in a box on the kitchen table, by and large, but you know...) Why should mushrooms be more difficult than children? What gives them the right? Ironically, I can't stop the fungal growths in the back porch, which often resembles a set from Dr. Who. (Note to self; check whether these are edible; we could make a fortune marketing bits of porch in a box).

The repeated spraying has started a damp patch on the wall behind the box, a dark stain is spreading on the table below it, and the SS is developing RSI from squeezing the trigger on the spray bottle. I don't think we can take much more. The instructions say we should expect three cycles of crops; that would mean we are stuck with the bloody thing right through the summer.

What should we do? Buy some mushrooms, plant them and invite the in-laws over to see what a success they've been? Dry the whole thing out, wrap it in festive paper, and give it back to them next Christmas saying we enjoyed it so much we bought them one? Move house?

Suggestions and horticultural advice most welcome.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Absent Blends

Nice, well-travelled and erudite Lucyfishwife has tagged me, which was initially exciting, and then raised some problems like:

a) I'm not sure I've yet got enough of the sort of blends I can pass it on to. (Blends = 'blog friends' - since people are throwing me with words like 'tag' and 'meme', I don't see why I shouldn't make up some they don't know.)

b) I can't think of six interesting things about myself. (This realisation is a bit of an ego-imploder)

c) It's fun, but one wouldn't want the blogosphere to drift into the prodding, poking, virtual drink and flower-gifting teen bollocksphere that Facebook has become (humbug)

The challenge was to post six random things about myself.

Jacky Charlton once greeted me on a train. (I thought he looked vaguely familiar, and nodded reservedly back).

My mother and aunt were best-selling authors. (It must be a recessive gene).

My children didn't know I smoked until I told them when the eldest was 13. They just thought I smelt funny.

I once managed a naval dockyard. (I got out before I sank it).

My first four vehicles had only ten wheels between them.

Brother Tobias, night-clubs, alcohol, pocketed hands and cobbles are not a good combination in Bruges.

In view of my diffidence about actually tagging anyone else, consider yourself invited if you would like to be...and I'll tag you retrospectively for merit.

Il Fait Pluie

Aujourd'hui il pleut lentement. Il fait pluie sur l'herbe, et dans les lits. Il pleut tout au travers de la maison, et il pleut dans mon coeur avec un humidité le plus sérieux. Il fait pluie dans mon coeur parce que je n'ai rien sujét pour ma plume écrire autour. Oh non.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Little Known Facts: The Engine that Ran on Baking Soda

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Zach Leigh-Wright, inventor of the Airey Engine.

Leigh-Wright, a nephew of Lancashire brewer Isiah Wright, invented the Airey - the name is derived from its full title, the Acid/Alkali Alternating Impulse Reaction Engine (AAAIRE) - in an inspired act of social philanthropy.

In the mid C19th the Crimean War required widespread requisition of horses for combat and to draw guns. One effect of this was a shortage of dray horses. This led in 1854 to the infamous 'Winter of the Mares', when women (and even children), mostly from brewery workers' families, were employed to pull the brewer's wagons in northern towns. Moved by their plight, Leigh-Wright realised that vinegar - a by-product of the brewing process - might be used to power the drays.

Leigh-Wright's invention bore some similarity to Hero's 1st century steam-powered 'Aeolipile', although there is no evidence that Zach was aware of the Aeolipile or influenced by it. At its simplest the Airey engine consisted of an oscillating drum internally divided into two 'tadpole-shaped' chambers, similar in cross-section to the Taoist 'Taijitu' or yin yang symbol. Pressurised aerosol sprays of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and atomised aqueous acetic acid (vinegar) were injected alternately into the two chambers through jets in a central axle. The result was chain of a rapid exothermic reactions producing CO2 gas and a massive expansion in volume (a reaction familiar to children who have made papier maché 'volcanoes' in their kitchens at home).

The expanding gases were ejected through nozzles at the narrow end of each chamber, causing the drum to rotate in alternate directions. The oscillation was governed by an escapement, and converted into rotational movement via a camshaft.

Airey-powered drays were a familiar sight, sound and scent around the streets of Preston, Leeds, and Bradford in the mid 1850s, but the engine had several drawbacks; it emitted large quantities of water, there were appalling corrosion problems, and the expansion chambers tended to become clogged with residue. Ironically, the mechanical drays were also unpopular with the brewer's men, who had found the employment of their wives to haul wagons a useful source of extra income.

In the following decade the increased availability of heavy horses and improvements to the steam engine gradually eclipsed the Airey engine, and by the 1870s the internal combustion engine was beginning its inexorable ascendency.

Although today it is all but forgotten, the non-polluting technology of the Airey engine may yet see its return, especially as new technologies now enable baking soda to be produced from carbon retrieved from furnace gases, making the operation of the engines carbon neutral.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Rock Art

Brother T is not recommended for decor tips ("Why not...nail little metal bottle tops upside down on the floor?") But for once I think I've had a good idea.

Still got all those old vinyls under the stairs? Never play them? Why not make yourself an 'Album of the Week' frame? Oh yes.

The idea came after I'd splashed out on a Joan Baez LP at a charity shop (K had become interested in her after watching the Woodstock DVD). It was sitting on the kitchen table when an enthusiastic dinner guest got all wistful and reminiscent about it, and I thought; "So it's not just me."

With a cunningly modified sick squid frame from Wilko's (it now has a hinged back) we've got ourselves this little rotating exhibitionlet. A different picture to enjoy every week. Lots of album designs are seriously stylish, and many are iconic. (The White Album is a bit of a decorative disappointment, though).

If you have a local charity shop and are into Mantovani, Jim Reeves and Englebert Humperdinck, you can do the whole house for about £18.


Humphrey Lyttleton
1921 - 2008

Friday, 25 April 2008

Patronising Poop for Pensioners

A tacky wad of advertising material plopped through the letterbox yesterday, promoting something called 'PC Knowledge for Seniors'. On the header is the picture of a strange-looking man named Rob Young (Rob Seniors would have been unfortunate), whom I took an immediate dislike to, even though he can't help the way he looks.

The text is arrogantly presumptive and patronising. "...using a computer is a LOT easier - and a LOT more fun - than many people think" (Stop shouting please, Mr Young). "'ll be given your own special password.." (Whoopee do). You'll be able to read the discussion forum - and even post messages or questions yourself" (What, me? On my own? I can't believe it!).

Perhaps there are people who will find what Mr Young offers useful, but the underlying assumption that anyone over 50 will find computers baffling is really, really tossy. I'm guessing the nearest Mr Young had got to a computer until a few years ago was using a typewriter to compose small ads in the Bradford Telegraph and Argos. And most of the software he is offering comes free with new computers anyway.

I don't suppose one should refer back to past rants, but if you have nothing better to do...

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Arthur says...

"I love those old vinyl LPs, don't you? There's something tactile about them. All those grooves. That's where 'Groovy' came from, you know.' Groovy Baby,' that's what we used to say. 'Feeling Groovy.' You get a better sound from them than CDs. More life to it, you see. All that digitising, it destroys the sound. Kills it dead, it does. You only have to compare, say...Oh, I don't know; Manfred Mann with...with Lily Allen. Much more bottom, Manfred Mann. Lily Allen's got no bottom. Well, she's got a bottom, naturally. You're not getting my point. I'm talking about depth, see. Hidden meanings. I am the walrus, goo goo g'joob. No, I haven't lost it, that was a song lyric. Well, I'm not sure what it meant. Perhaps it wasn't a good example...."

Wednesday, 23 April 2008


I've just shimmied out, glass in hand, to enjoy the setting sun, and bumped (literally) into Bob as he came in. As he remarked, what were the chances of that?

It reminds me of a story doing the rounds in Skye a while back, about the Isle of Raasey. There was only one road on the island, which is about 12 miles long. And at this time there were only two cars. Inevitably, in time, the two of them had a head on crash.

People said it only happened because one of them was on the correct side of the road.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008


County Councils attract some strange people. And either the strangest stay, or the ones who stay get stranger, I'm not sure which. When I left, rather early for their taste, they gave me a certificate.

I look at my certificate sometimes. I keep it in the gents, where a chap hangs such things. With the barometer to tap, and the tortoiseshell-backed brushes and bound editions of Punch, and the hunting alphabet, and a bar of soap with dark fissures like glacial crevasses.

When I breathe my last, I may think, "I would I'd stayed longer, serving." But then again, I might not.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Hot Cross Buns

On Good Friday the Social Secretary made hot cross buns.

Please don't get me wrong. The SS is a marvellous cook. Her lemon meringue pudding is mouth-watering, and only last Saturday she produced a memorable curry for eight. Every day the east wing fills with the smell of baking bread, and her round biscuits with bits in them seldom get a chance to cool.

But that day the devil was in the dough. The buns deserved their name only because she got so hot and cross making them. There was the picture on the recipe, a dozen buns, all round and shiny, sugar on the top. And here these guano-flecked moon rocks, hunched malevolently on the rack, muttering protestant imprecations.

The word 'bun' comes from the Old French, buigne, meaning a boil or swelling. Sadly these buigne went in the bin.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Charlotte Green

Just in case you missed nice Charlotte Green's difficulties whilst reading the news on 'Today' last month. Someone remarked in her earphone that the first recording of a human voice sounded like a bee in a bottle.

I gather the public response was entirely supportive, except for one ex-pat with troublesome piles who complained about a lack of professionalism.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Stranger in the Night

I was taking a break from the keyboard yesterday. Actually, I was having a pee. That particular loo is at the back of the house and looks out across a lawn towards the woods. As I peered (that's almost a dual-purpose verb in this context) a man in a beanie hat appeared. He was a complete stranger. We stared at each other in surprise. He waved. With my free hand I waved back. He exited, dexter, and I heard knocking at a door.

It turned out to be a confused person delivering a case from Virgin Wines, which happens to be doing one of those introductory deals that I find so irresistible.

We have a related problem in the bedroom. Its window overlooks the lane. Not a problem, usually, but walkers are on the increase, and they have a distressing tendency to pause and admire the primroses on the front bank. The Social Secretary and I have developed finely honed reflexes which allow us to duck down when this happens whilst dressing, like soldiers on the Western Front with a whizz-bang passing over. All the same, people must still think us a bit strange.

Talking of strange, I haven't lived down what happened a few summers ago. It started when someone stole a bunch of keys from a shed door while I was mowing. It was a master set, and I had to go round changing all the locks before nightfall. We fully expected whoever took them to pay us another visit, so when the Social Secretary shook me awake from a deep sleep that night, hissing "Quick, there's someone at the door," I assumed she meant that someone was trying to break in. She omitted to mention that they had knocked.

Half conscious I pulled on a pair of trousers and grabbed my big, go-away-please blank-cartridge pistol (living remotely one tends to have this sort of thing). Tearing downstairs I burst through the front door. In the moonlight by the gate stood a tall figure in some sort of helmet. I pointed the gun at him and cocked it. He flung up his hands and cried in broken English, "Don't shoot. Don't shoot. I am looking for the camping barn."

Our intruder turned out to be a harmless and now deeply traumatised Dutch cyclist. I only realised later that, half asleep as I was, I forgot to lower the gun while I gave him directions with the other hand. I don't believe he ever stopped at the barn; I think he cycled flat out all the way to the ferry terminal at Dover, the sound of duelling banjos echoing in his ear.

If you read this, Mijnheer cyclist, I'm sorry. You were a victim of circumstance.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Transvestites and Nasal Hair

I was thinking, apropos nothing much, wouldn't it be funny peculiar if you read someone's blog, and they read yours, and you commented and so on. And then it turned out you knew them all along. That they lived next door, or it was your ex boss finally exposed as a cross-dressing literary genius, or it was your partner, or something? There's a short story lurking there somewhere..."What a coincidence, your living in Catafalque Road, Ilford, with a partner that doesn't understand you. Just like me".

Or maybe an whodunnit (Did you notice the 'an' there, as in 'an hotel'? That's because I'm literary, that is). Murder by blog; "Oh no," he croaked, clutching his throat as he fell. "I'm allergic to plagiarism".

Now I come to think of it, the possibilities are legion. How about 'Blog with Mother'? "Once upon a time there was a grumpy old rant, who lived all alone because nobody loved his nasal hair..."

I'm sorry. I had to pause there for a while. It's the idea of my ex boss as a cross-dressing literary genius. (John, if you should read this, I know that image borders on insanity. The literary genius bit went too far, and I'm terribly sorry. And the reference to nasal hair was just a coincidence).

I don't suppose my old employer would ever take me back now anyway.

(That's another funny thing about blogging; I'll bet you within a couple of weeks someone will have opened this post whilst googling 'transvestites and nasal hair'. There's nowt so queer as folk...)

Funeral Reading

Clearing out rubbish from my Wordpro files yesterday I came across a funeral address I wrote a few years ago. Can't imagine what I was thinking of. It's a bit trite and Desiderata-ish, but hey, if you can't do schmaltz when you're gone, when can you? (I shall almost be sorry to miss it.)

"This is not farewell. I am with you still. I am with you in the memories that you hold. I endure in the small things that I have made or which bear my mark; in words on a page, a dovetail joint, a drystone wall. For as long as they shall last I am with you, as long as you shall last.

I am here today, glimpsed through a glass, in the natures of my children. I will be there tomorrow, like an echo, in the strengths and weaknesses of their children, and of their children's children. In their skills and frailties, in the turn of a head, the flash of a smile, the scatter of a freckle.

I will be there, as you will be there, for eternity, for by our presences we change the future. We are raindrops which start currents; butterflies that stir storms. Each of us are colours on a palette which paint the picture of what is yet to be, and so the future is ours too.

For you, my passing is not an ending, but a continuing. For better or for worse, I have seeded my words and my waves in our todays and tomorrows. The game is done, and it is time to rest. Rejoice in my resting and, if you are able, in my presence. It is not you that have lost me, but I that has lost you, and there is no pain in my loss, for I am not aware."

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Hard to Blog days

Does everyone get them? Perhaps I live too dull a life. In the exciting-things-happening sense, that is; the changing countryside outside the door is never dull.

Yesterday the dog had some teeth out. I mention that not as a recountable excitement, but because at twelve general anaesthetic can be dodgy, and I didn't feel very bloggy. I would miss her habit of creeping onto my chest when I am unconscious on the floor, and going to sleep with her nose against mine. I am unconscious on the floor because I have fallen asleep, you understand, not because I have passed out. I've not yet grown out of watching TV flat out on the floor. It may be because my family didn't get one until I was eighteen, so I am a late developer.

Also yesterday was a garden bench day. Slapping on raw linseed and spraying teak oil gave me a spacious headache reminiscent of the ones you got at school when a mate had nicked a conical flask of ether or chloroform from the lab and you tried it out in the three-year-olds' common room. I would imagine, because I never did that, oh no. And I followed that by inhaling a fair amount of apple green spray paint. It was a capricious breeze.

In the evening the women went to yoga. Uncle Buck brought Meg down, so I companionably had one of his little cigar things, even though I don't smoke anymore. Last time Helen McCookerybook visited she brought a splendid panetone. It was enormous, but difficult to light.

Yes, we have our own Uncle Buck. His naming predates the film one. As a small child K firmly renamed everyone we knew, and somehow the names have stuck. Does that happen to anyone else? There is Auntie Bidder, who is normally Debbie. And friend Debbie is still known as Bidden. Strange linguistic skills, my daughter. Her first word was 'picture,' which can't be normal.

It may be inherited. Unable to manage 'grandfather', I named my Highland grandfather 'Bucha.' He was a formidable gentleman known affectionately to his children as 'The Boss'. I'm told he was completely nonplussed when I met him on the back stairs and greeted him by name.

Nonplussed. That's what I was yesterday. Nonplussed. A body can't blog until they're at least a little plussed.

The dog is fine, thanks, and her breath is greatly improved.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Personalised Number Plates: How to be a Wazzer on the Cheap

I've never understood why people are prepared to pay shed loads of money for personalised number plates - most of which stretch credibility trying to make intelligible words out of a motley mixture of numbers and letters. They might just as well wear a bumper sticker reading 'I'm a Tosser'.

You know the sort of thing; ' D4N13L' for 'Daniel,' etc. Or the initials and low numbers ego trip, like 'AM 913'. Which just means that 910 people with the initials AM have got more prestigious ones than the man in front. (The other two are owned by someone's ex wife who won custody of the Porsche, and a Cornish broc grower in St Buryan named Janner Spargo, who's beggared if he's going to sell the AM 2 reg from his old Massey Fergusson to some emmet from across the Tamar who doesn't belong go messing about with other people's numbers in the first place; "By gar, mazed thickerd! Wozee goyn dowidden, boy?")

Now I've just had a brainwave. Instead of spending £20,000 on a registration number with your initials on, change your name by Deed Poll to suit your existing registration number. You can do that for just £7.99.

From next week Brother Tobias will be changing his name to Urquhart Vaughan Longbottom. How cool will I be! You may call me Urq for short. Ansom, me luvver.

Of course there is the slight downside that if stopped by the Police, I will not only be unable to recall my registration number, but also my name.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Cake Therapy

Like shopping, one shouldn't go blog-surfing when hungry.

I've listed Yochana as a favourite just because her creations look therapeutically attractive. When feeling low, visit her blog ("Aunty Yochana shows you her goodies") and treat yourself to a non-fattening virtual cake binge.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Ladybird, Ladybird, Fly Away Home

Last October I wittered on about an invasion of harlequin ladybirds crawling up our outside walls. For the last two or three months a steady trickle of them has found its way back down from the attics into the house. On average I destroy about half a dozen of the little bastards a day, but I am fighting a losing battle; there may be thousands up there (in one Kentish barn a mass of up to half a million was found). Before last autumn I had never noticed a Harlequin; now we are overwhelmed by them.

Introduced into the States in 1988, its numbers have been soaring in France, Belgium and Holland, where bio-control companies were still marketing it long after its invasive character was recognised. It is now spreading rapidly through the UK and may soon wipe out our 46 native species. There is currently no effective method of control specific to Harlequins.

When disturbed Harlequins release volatile, noxious compounds which smell like rotten potatoes. The redder the ladybird, the smellier. They have been known to destroy batches of wine and even entire vinyards.

Harlequins stain walls and furniture and have a penchant for nesting in computers, causing them to crash. In the US some people now tape up their doors and windows to stop ladybirds getting in during the autumn mating season (ladybirds can be very disturbing when you're mating). I can see us having to do that this year. I mean tape up doors and windows.

The Harlequin Ladybird Survey ( has pretty much given up on the South East, but is inviting reports of sightings from elsewhere. The chart shows what they look like.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

How I fired the last shot of WWII

Brother Tobias has done one or two silly things. Well, quite a number really.

One of them happened in 1996. It was a hot summer day and metal detectorists had been out in the field behind the house. Amongst the livery buttons, musket balls, milk bottle tops and smudgy roman coins they had discarded in a small pile at the end of the drive was a rusty cylinder with a pointy end that looked like an old weight from a grandfather clock.

Being the original recycling man with nothing better to do, I retrieved it and started cleaning off the rust with a hammer and a wire brush. After a while a fine brass line appeared around its middle, and a faint alarm bell sounded in my tiny, gin-befuddled mind.

Quite intelligently I reasoned, "This just might be unspent munition. Bashing it about might not be a good thing. Better make sure it's all right."

This was a clever, sensible thought.

Wiring it to a metal rod in the sunken garden and positioning a lighted gas torch to play on it probably wasn't.

After I'd walked away and made a cuppa, it dawned on me that it might be difficult to choose an appropriate moment to go back and turn the blow lamp off.

As I leant against the workshop supping tea and pondering the life-span of a gas cylinder, the pros and cons of waste against personal risk, and whether we had any chance in the current Test series, there was an almighty explosion.

I'm not talking 12 bore shotgun here. I'm talking Royal Tournament or a sizeable artillery piece on Salisbury Plain.

When the birds started singing again some time later I found myself in an involuntary crouch, with Earl Grey soaking into my trousers (I promise it was tea), and a schoolboy premonition that I was in trouble. I crouched on for a while, wondering if there was collateral damage, if anyone had been killed, whether they could see me if I could not see them, and how long I could stay huddled in a foetal position by the workshop in wet trousers pretending I wasn't there.

When I finally got up to inspect the damage, I found my blow torch was a mangled wreck. There were pockmarks in the limestone paving of the sunken garden, a bent metal rod, some shredded leaves and no sign whatsoever of the clock-weight.

After a prolonged search all I found, fifty feet away in the field, was a truncated, pointy thing that a friend later identified as the nose-cone of a WWII 50 mm anti-aircraft shell.

Moral: If you find a pointy thing, don't invite a town planner to sort it out.

Tibet and the Torch: China Wants IOC to intervene

By announcing that the Olympic torch will be paraded through Tibet, and that any attempt to impede it will be "severely punished," China has signalled that it wants the torch ceremonies to be curtailed. Because if the torch is carried through Tibet there will be demonstrations. If there are demonstrations there will be deaths. If there are deaths there will be international outrage and withdrawals of individuals and national teams, and the 2008 Games will not be the triumphant showcase China craves.

Whatever happens in San Francisco today, the IOC now has no choice but to intervene and scale down the remaining processional programme - leaving the Chinese protesting vigorously, without loss of face, whilst smiling with relief behind closed doors.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Fallen Heroes - The London Olympic Torch Parade

Watching the news coverage of the London Olympic torch-bearing ceremony yesterday made me feel immensely proud. What was intended to be a smooth publicity fest was hijacked, despite the efforts of the government and the metropolitan police, by protesters who placed human freedoms before entertainment.

The argument that sport is somehow sacrosanct and above politics is rubbish. Sport is entertainment. You could just as well argue that business was above politics - business at least creates livelihoods; sport is in the end just games.

The Olympic Games brings political kudos and financial reward to the host nation. China is an amoral and cruelly oppressive regime which is at this moment crushing a small, gentle and moral nation in Tibet.

The policing strategy of the Met, which corralled the pro-Tibet demonstrators and tried to prevent them waving flags and displaying slogans, whilst placing no such restrictions on the heavily mobilised Chinese community, was as biased and heavy-handed as one might expect (I witnessed at first hand the inexcusably brutal police behaviour in Parliament Square on 15 September 2004).

The smug, apologistic prevarication of Brown and his ministers was as pathetic as ever.

But the sportsmen and women and 'celebs' who carried the torch yesterday put their personal interests before the plight of the Tibetan people, and in my eyes they are spineless, egotistic and morally bankrupt. Or in one or two cases, possibly just very thick.

One of the torchbearers, Duncan Goodhew, afterwards condemned the protesters, saying that it showed "how extreme things can get in this country" and that it was "such a bad example for children."

No, Mr Goodhew; for extremes look to China and Tibet. For good examples, look to those who have the moral courage to speak out in defence of an oppressed people.

Other torch bearers included Sir Steve Redgrave, Tim Henman, Konnie Huq, Dame Kelly Holmes, Denise Lewis, Sir Trevor Macdonald, Sir Clive Woodward and Dame Ellen MacArthur.

Too many honours and not enough honour.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Little Known Facts: Lacustrine Spheres

When the invention of the aqualung first freed divers from the restrictions of fixed rope and airline, it introduced a communications problem between divers and their surface support teams. We now take radio comms for granted, but in 1944 a French diver, Jacques Lacustrine, came up with an ingenious system involving cork spheres. The spheres were attached to a special belt by metal studs.

The studs were weighted so as to exactly counterbalance the buoyancy of the cork spheres they secured. When a diver freed his balls the securing studs fell away, making the system buoyancy neutral. Watchers above 'read' the balls according to a prearranged code as they popped to the surface, and in turn communicated with the diver by dropping clay spheres which had trailing ribbons attached to make them more visible.

Lacustrine's system proved cumbersome and soon became redundant. In particular, the cork balls easily became accidentally dislodged, sending unintentional messages at inopportune moments. It did, however, give rise to the phrase, "I don't pop my cork for every manatee".

Saturday, 5 April 2008


I love this video of Mancunian John Cooper Clarke reciting his poem 'Chickentown', from the 1984 video '10 Years in an Open-Necked Shirt.' The hypnotic beat echoes Geoffrey Jones' 1963 film 'Snow'.

I think 'bloody' was substituted for the F word throughout, but I imagine the piece was inspired by Captain Hamish Blair's splendid wartime poem about being stationed in Scapa Flow:

The Bloody Orkneys

This bloody town's a bloody cuss
No bloody trains, no bloody bus,
And no one cares for bloody us
In bloody Orkney.

The bloody roads are bloody bad,
The bloody folks are bloody mad,
They'd make the brightest bloody sad,
In bloody Orkney.

All bloody clouds, and bloody rains,
No bloody kerbs, no bloody drains,
The Council's got no bloody brains,
In bloody Orkney.

Everything's so bloody dear,
A bloody bob, for bloody beer,
And is it good? - no bloody fear,
In bloody Orkney.

The bloody 'flicks' are bloody old,
The bloody seats are bloody cold,
You can't get in for bloody gold
In bloody Orkney.

The bloody dances make you smile,
The bloody band is bloody vile,
It only cramps your bloody style,
In bloody Orkney.

No bloody sport, no bloody games,
No bloody fun, the bloody dames
Won't even give their bloody names
In bloody Orkney.

Best bloody place is bloody bed,
With bloody ice on bloody head,
You might as well be bloody dead,
In bloody Orkney

Capt. Hamish Blair

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Brown Stuff

At the end of last month, pressurised by the Dept of Health, the NHS standards watchdog revised its previous advice and said that women should not drink any alcohol during the first three months of pregnancy. It was admitted that this advice was not based on any new scientific evidence, but it was felt that it 'sent a message' in the light of increased drinking levels amongst women and young people. This advice clashed with recommendations in the British Medical Journal, which argued that 'the autonomy of pregnant women' to decide for themselves should be respected.

Now Goddam Brown is set to override the advice of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs, which has concluded that there was no scientific case for reclassifying cannabis as a Class B drug. He feels the government needs to 'send out a signal that cannabis use is not just illegal but also unacceptable'.

In other words, yet again the government is hell bent on using the law to impose its moral prejudices (which are usually economic prejudices at root) to restrict individual freedom of choice. This smacks of hypocrisy on the one hand, and of the bigotry of the manse on the other.

It's not a very good idea to have government advice reflect political aspirations rather than medical objectivity; it encourages people to ignore the advice as partisan and the law as an ass.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Timberlake Piano After Poultry Picnic

An aquaintance in the village reports that her Jack Russell, Timberlake, who is inclined to go walkabout now and then, went AWOL yesterday and returned triumphantly carrying a dead chicken. Nothing too unusual about that, except that in this case the chicken was frozen.

Presumably some neighbour, momentarily distracted whilst unlocking their front door, is going to spend time searching kitchen appliances and wardrobes, trying to find where they could have absent-mindedly put their Sunday roast.

Timberlake evaded capture and took his shopping into a nearby field, where he wolfed the lot like a giant poultry-flavoured ice lolly - bones, polythene and all. Reports suggest that Timberlake is a wee bit subdued this morning.

No one has volunteered to extract the giblets.