Monday, 28 July 2008

Saturday 28 July 2012 - London Olympics Debacle

As yesterday's opening ceremony for the London Games finally got under way in an explosion of colour, pyrotechnics and torrential rain, the government and organisers might have been forgiven for breathing a long sigh of relief after an unprecedented catalogue of setbacks which threatened to dwarf the cost overruns.

Transport arrangements have never fully recovered from the strike-hit upgrading of Stratford Station. 2010's tidal flooding of the Lower Lea Valley, and subsequent subsidence problems in the Olympic Village, led to the extemporary accommodation arrangements which have drawn so much criticism from athletes and resulted in the withdrawal of both members of the Luxembourg squad. Failure of the much-heralded 'smart ticketing system' has left organisers struggling to distinguish eight million genuine tickets from an unknown number of counterfeits, believed to be as many as three times this number. Loss of the entire consignment of Olympic torches in BA's Terminal 5 baggage handling system was only resolved with days to spare when they were tracked down in Bucharest.

With hindsight, Britain's final withdrawal of troops from Iraq at the end of 2009 and from Afghanistan last year - timed to minimise political protest in the run-up to the Games - and the cuts to the armed services which immediately followed, should have rung alarm bells. Last night's invasion of the Falklands by Argentine forces might therefore have been predicted. The simultaneous 'civil secession' of Gibraltar by Spain could not have been, although the timing can scarcely have been coincidence.

In either case, the UK government is now hamstrung. As the Games are played out under the flame of peace over the next fortnight, any response beyond inchoate rebuke is unthinkable.

Not that we any longer have the military resources to shake a stick. Even our javelin throwers are otherwise occupied.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Raw Vegetables in a Social Context

The barbecue season has settled over the land in a chicken-scented cloud and, like engineers at the Campanile di San Marco, I am applying a belt in an attempt to prevent structural expansion.

I'm not sure how I'm managing to put on weight muscle with a diet consisting significantly of declined raw vegetables. All braais begin with bowls of kettle crisps/doritos, carrot sticks and celery sticks beside a quartered plastic dish containing runny sauces in pink, orange and two shades of cream. It's best to avoid the cream-coloured pair, because one of them is always garlic-flavoured puréed garlic. It's also wise to avoid the pink and orange ones, because they show up on your party shirt (at this stage many guests adopt a curious, bent-forward-from-the-waist pose, as they pebbledash the garden table like Jackson Pollock in his pastel phase).

I'm a simple guy who likes his umbelliferae cooked. Carrots and celery are related to cow parsley and hemlock (celery even tastes like them) and Socrates could tell you a thing or two about that. Cooking breaks down any toxins or allergenic proteins they contain, so there. I once knew a girl who turned yellow from eating raw carrots.

When the meat is burnt you put a sausage (which looks like something you wouldn't want to find on your lawn), and a burger (which looks similar, but stepped on) on your plate and contemplate fourteen different salads, involving different combinations of raw vegetable, drizzled with mayonnaise or geranium oil, and garnished with olives, chick peas, sunflower seeds, feta, nasturtium leaves/ flowers, primrose ditto, tossed on a lit de jour of teased rice, sun-dried potato, twice-pressed pasta, extra vierge couscouscous and small green things which move about in your peripheral vision.

Pudding is a burnt banana.

Preceding generations of my family did not do barbecues. I think they regarded them as humorous and a bit naff. I guess this was because global warming had not begun to bite, and in the tropics there were always servants to do the cooking for you.

Last night's at Dawne and Martyn's wasn't actually a BBQ, although it was outside and felt like one. We met Martyn last century when the SS and I sometimes sat in our local playing bezique over Snowballs and pints of Stella (I did wean her off the pints of Stella eventually). Martyn arrived as an underage apprentice electrician, along with his school sweetheart Dawne and a variety of friends...Gaz the carpet-layer, Tony the paint-sprayer, Merv the mechanic, Del the BT engineer, etc. I think this genial bunch adopted us as a novelty.

It was good to catch up. Martyn, still with his Dawne, now owns and runs two businesses. Gaz recently gave up his job as a carpet fitter and, with spectacular bad-timing, has bought a house to do up and sell on. Alan the plumber recently bought a reconditioned safe on eBay. Following the instructions he reset the combination, and stashed away his watch, a useful sum of cash and his passport. Now it won't open and is stuck in the hall, immovably heavy and impossible to force. He is about to go on holiday abroad. In another eBay cautionary tale, Tom bought an MG for £3,000. On his first outing he was stopped by the police, arrested and locked up. It turned out the car had been stolen, and Tom lost both the car and his money. Caveat emptor.

It struck me that almost every trade one could wish for was represented at the party. One could have applied for planning permission, built and fitted a decent house without seeking outside help. The only thing not available was a safe-breaker.

I dreamed of vegetables. Cooked to a Cow & Gate pulp, with lashings of gravy.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Kerrera Fire Station

And Craft Shop

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Campbeltown Man Urinated on Police

Just back from Argyll. A mixture of playing and good eating, interspersed with bursts of remedial gardening.

Attitudes are changing up there; when living in Skye we avoided using a lawn mower or hanging out washing (at least where it could be seen) on a Sunday, in deference to local sensibilities. And I once stayed in a B & B in Harris where a notice forbade guests from listening to the radio on Sundays. But the days of ministers lying down in the road to protest against Sunday ferries are over. I even heard a lawn mower this time, and someone along the bay working on a roof.

Or so I thought, until I read this week's Oban Times. Besides the usual, endearingly quirky local headlines ('Campbeltown man urinated on police') were two items which showed that old attitudes die hard. In a letter to the editor a Rev MacColl of Corpach wrote:

"Sir, I notice that we now have 'top-flight' shinty as well as women's shinty and other sports held on the Lord's Day. Such practices with the addition of all unnecessary work that day, are a flagrant breach of God's holy command to "remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy", and are an evidence of the spiritual darkness that increasingly prevails in our land.

No one has any right whatsoever to transgress God's moral law and let the organisers, players and spectators at such events be assured that one day - whether in this life or in eternity - they will bitterly regret their sin of Sabbath desecration."

So that's most of us in deep shit for a start. Probably why we broke a spring in Glen Orchy.

Elsewhere, in a feature article 'Thought for the week', Archie Elliot of Inverary wrote (for brevity I have cut out some guff, which is just more of the same):

Global Warming! Isn't it amazing how in very recent times, there has come about an almost universal concern about planet Earth....Any thinking person (with or without a science degree) knows that weather patterns change all the time and have always done so. This will continue to be so until God the creator and sustainer of it all decides in His wisdom, and according to His programme for the creation, brings about 'the change' which He has prophesied in His word...Anyone who has studied Bible prophesy knows that this change is not imminent and that all this present hype is really a political agenda (a ploy if you will) dreamt up by politicians, who are getting desperate about how to bring about some kind of improvement to the financial hole they have been digging themselves into....maybe it is time we all trusted in God's promises and forecasts, see psalm 118 vv8-9, rather than the unreliable estimates of men..."

So that's all right then. The penguins can stop worrying.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Swing, Swing Together

There's lots of redundant stuff clogging up one's mind. Amongst mine is coxing orders (like the rest of my genetic pool, I matured late, which meant I grew too late to be a useful oar, and therefore was earmarked as a cox). To be one of those, apart from passing a 'boat club test' which involved swimming several lengths fully dressed, shoes and all - no easy task from a water-phobic child who actually had to learn to swim twice - you were expected to learn a list of orders longer than Chesterton's epic 'Lepanto' (I learnt that too. Voluntarily. Because I liked it). Those orders, like Lepanto, are still paddling redundantly about in my tiny mind.

"A's. A's in. Hands on boat. Altogether, lift. Right out. Right up. Under bow side. Down. Walk her out, mind the riggers. Round in the bows. Right up. Under stroke side. Down. Onto the pontoons. Right out. Put her in, together. Fetch your oars."

The crew would then trot back and, pausing only to dip their hands in a mysterious, patent gunge in a tin can, consisting of something resembling sawdust and molasses, return with their oars.

Once on board, it was "Adjust your stretchers. Back her down her bow". And then, with a shove off from someone on the pontoon, "Come forward to paddle light; paddle light, together."

Being a cox was cool in many ways. You got to order around four or eight blokes who were bigger than you. You escaped all that circuit training (Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race crews do two hours training for every stroke they take during the Boat Race). And you avoided the risk of scrotal damage posed by short shorts and the brass wheel-and-track mechanism of sliding seats.

But there were downsides. Principal amongst these was that you were personally responsible for any damage to the boat. For instance, fours and eights had a yellow bobble, like a rubber ping pong ball, attached to the bow. If you broke a bobble, it was thirty bob - probably about £30 now. Returning smartly to the pontoon, usually down current, required fine judgement. You had to bring this sixty foot, pencil thin shell in obliquely at a reasonable speed (otherwise you stopped short and the current carried you embarrassingly past), but order the rowing to stop early enough to have the number two oar hold her, so that the boat came alongside neatly parallel. Through tradition, rather than malice, crews would judge when the last stroke was coming and then put in an extra strong one, so that the boat would suddenly surge toward the pontoon like a dart. Also, in the case of a sinking, you were expected to go down with your boat. (Okay, I made that last bit up).

One of the reasons I joined the Boat Club was to avoid the crashing boredom and scary, rock-hard balls of cricket. Another was because I suffered appallingly from hay fever. Bad choice - sculling along between nose-high Shropshire river banks of uncut summer hay was a disaster. (I suffered so badly, always worst around exam times, that I once cut off the top of my socks with a pair of folding scissors during an English 'A' Level, because my handkerchief was sodden. It wasn't a success; the socks were wool, and not absorbent).

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Big Cats and Body Odour

Last Friday's sighting of a panther or black leopard has taken on a more sinister significance since we learnt that an elderly West Highland terrier belonging to friends in a nearby hamlet was found mysteriously and fatally mauled on Monday evening. I chaperoned our own, also elderly, terrier out for her late run last night, and found myself wanting to hum a jolly tune and stomp about more noisily than usual, as one does when walking through thick bracken to drive away dozing adders.

Big cats mark their territory with urine, and the markings allegedly smell much like fox pee, which means that round here you can't now walk anywhere without wondering if you are about to be summarily dismembered.

Apropos similar smells, someone once told my parents that dope smelt like BO. It was an unkind piece of misinformation, because every time we had a party and the dancing grew heated, there would be my folks sniffing the air suspiciously and suggesting coffee and coats.

Friday, 4 July 2008

The Beast of Blue Bell Hill

The Social Secretary and her daughter have been having a strange morning. First they took the dog for a walk in the woods, and were taken aback when a large cat, 'about the size of a fox', with a thick tail, bounded across the path a few yards ahead of them. They have therefore now joined the lunatic fringe who have experienced sightings of large cats and UFOs (although it may also explain why the dog went ballistic on her late run up the garden last night, and why there is a chaos of feathers and a pair of pheasant's feet in the field by the fence).

There have been an increasing number of sightings of a puma or panther-like cat in this area over the last few years, known locally as 'The Beast of Blue Bell Hill', so maybe they didn't imagine it. But their credibility was subsequently undermined when, after duly reporting the sighting, they decided to celebrate by washing a couple of duvets. They drove to the village, parked up and walked into the laundrette with bulging black bin bags, packets of soap powder and a sandwich bag of loose change, only to find they were standing in an estate agency. Apparently the laundrette closed some time ago, which shows how often our duvets get the treatment.