Wednesday, 31 December 2008

A Year End Economic Alphabet

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

New Year's Eve

Monday, 29 December 2008

Does Nobody Else Do This?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 22 December 2008

John Logie Baird / Aeolian Harp

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something for the Weekend

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

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

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

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

Friday, 19 December 2008


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

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

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

Hope it doesn't eat the dog.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Pain and Hair

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 12 December 2008

The Girl Done Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Bronco, Izal, Andrex and Jeffrey Archer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Thea Gilmore

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

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

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

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

Oh, what's the point?

Monday, 1 December 2008

Overheard at Dinner

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