Thursday, 31 December 2009

The Benefits of Recession

One unanticipated side-effect of the recession here has been the virtual collapse of the commercial shoot that has been a bane of our lives for the last few years. Two or three times a week we were subjected to trailers of city folk, dolled up in pristine tweed, blasting birds out of the sky around the house. For our neurotic dog, it was like a perpetual Guy Fawke's Night.

This year even the obligatory Boxing Day convoy turned round and gave up as drizzle pelted down on the sodden fields. The once nightly 'lamping' activity, in which unlit 4x4s crept around the field edges, accompanied by the beam of red flood lamps and the crack of small bore rifles, also seems to be in abeyance.

We are often told that commercial shoots bring wider benefits to wildlife and the landscape, but these are hard to discern. The call of foxes in the woods was once a familiar sound at night. Since commercial shooting began foxes are no longer heard or seen, although the corpses of badgers appear from time to time, lying in fields where they fell, or slung over fences like refuse. Birds of prey are now rare too. Forlorn signs about lost dogs appear on gateposts for pets that have strayed off footpaths and not returned, and rumours of poisoned bait make owners wary. Conversely, the feed hoppers have brought a plague of rats.

Commercial shooting has meant changes to the landscape too. Rearing and release pens have appeared, together with feed hoppers made from day-glow blue plastic barrels. Rectangular stockades of straw bales and alien strips of maize are scattered across the downs like lego. Swathes of woodland have been cut down, whether to accommodate the birds or the guns isn't clear.

I suppose some jobs have been lost. I suppose I ought to mind.

I don't.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Parcelforce - 'Thinking Ahead for You'

From Parcelforce’s Conditions of Carriage:

12.6 If any provision of these Conditions is found by any court or administrative body of competent jurisdiction to be invalid or unenforceable, such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the provisions of these Conditions which shall remain in full force and effect.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Post Mortem

I became curiously caught up in the attempt to deny Cowell his automatic Christmas No.1, and the cheer that went up from this house that Sunday night echoed across the valley and sent the dog under the sofa. Childish really, but as it seemed increasingly unlikely that we could succeed, I began to feel that not failing was more important than succeeding. It would be absurd to place too much significance on what was essentially a light-hearted exercise, even if there was a serious underlying message about corporate manipulation of the music industry and its impact on original, independent artists. But I suspect that the success of a grassroots Internet campaign to overturn a £50 million media machine, against all expectation, may not have gone unnoticed in government circles here and overseas. Any failure might equally have been noted.

In what was the coldest week for years, one happy side effect of the campaign was the £100,000 odd which the Facebook group members donated to Shelter, to which 'Rage Against the Machine' have promised to add their unexpected windfall income. The band have also announced a free UK gig in 2010, and rumour has it that tickets will be allocated to the people who made a donation to the charity. This may be apocryphal, but there is logic in it, and it would be consistent with Rage Against the Machine's moral awareness. It became clear that only a minority of the million or so people who signed up to the Facebook group actually bought the track. On the other hand, while not everyone who bought donated, everyone who donated most certainly bought.

One odd thing became apparent in that interesting week; the average age of the Facebook campaigners was a lot older than you might think. Whilst the critical voices on the wall and on the rival Joe site spoke in SMS txtspk and looked pre-pubertal, the Rage site spanned every generation. In a bizarre rôle reversal an older generation was encouraging the young to stop listening to schmaltzy covers and turn on to some angry hard-core metal rap. Whatever is the world coming to?

Friday, 11 December 2009

Thea Gilmore, Rod Clements, Rage Against the Machine and Simon Cowell

This is not a music blog. I haven't got the qualifications for that. But we went to another Thea Gilmore gig on Sunday (if there's repetition in the bands I see, it's because not many of them come to Maidstone). The last local place Thea played closed down, no connection, and this one was in the strangely ambienced and faintly effete upstairs room of the local Pizza Express.

It's not an ideal venue. Waiters and waitresses clatter about between the audience and the stage, and the acts look down on people shovelling capricciosas and tiramisu into their mouths an arm's length away. More to the point, a glass of white wine costs £4.40 or £5.75 depending on size, and a beer is about £6. That's maybe fine with a meal, but if you're there for an entire evening, it's prohibitive. Add that to the cost of a meal and the tickets, and you're into House of Commons expenses territory. No wonder the clientele were not very rock and roll.

Last time, K's boyfriend and I whipped out for a pint at the pub next door. We got funny looks, Straw Dogs style, and had to act particularly macho (not normally a problem for either of us). This time, forewarned, I'm afraid I arrived with a flask in my pocket and spiked my soft drinks. Tacky, I know, but needs must. It involved lowering my empty glass into my lap at intervals and bringing it back up full. I hope I didn't put anyone off their meal. (They probably won't let me in again. Pizza Express, I'm the tall cross-dresser with the handlebar moustache).

The Social Secretary had her own difficulties. She went into the windowless Ladies and immediately recoiled because it was untenably...there is no other way of putting it...smelly. In a very SS kind of way she was standing in the corridor flapping the door open and shut in a vain attempt at ventilation (this is the sort of thing that comes naturally to her) when Thea herself came along. Like a-pong-in-a-lift scenario, there is no socially smooth escape from such situations.

But it was worth it. My American Hot was good, and the supporting act was Rod Clements (Lindisfarne), a legend from my Tyneside days, who played guitar like a dream. Thea herself was superb, She has a new album out, 'Strange Communion' (if you look at the sleeve notes through a magnifying glass you can spot my name amongst the sponsors), so it wasn't like a repeat performance. It's not a Christmas album (she calls that the C-word), but an alternative, more pagan take on the season. I think her voice has deepened, and she just gets better and better. The opening song on the album, 'Sol Invictus' has a full choral accompaniment. Not having a choir in tow she sang it a capello, and it was hauntingly beautiful.

Thea's album is sort of relevant to the current Facebook/X Factor battle. I abhor X factor. There is something unsavoury about a promoter with a self-evident financial interest manipulating the public through hours of prime-time TV. Christmas number ones haven't meant much to me since I was a teenager, but the dumbing down involved in the annual inevitability of Simon Cowell's latest karaoke protégé seizing the spot is destructive, and I've joyfully signed up to the Facebook group which is trying to steal it from him with Rage Against the Machine's 'Killing in the Name'. The idea is for everyone to download the track next week. A mere 79p to wobble Cowell's stranglehold on the music industry seems good value. At the time of writing the group had 592,684 members, and it is growing nearly as fast as Cowell's current account. They might just do it.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs

Local boys Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs travelled all the way to a big city recently, all on their own. Someone had suggested they visit 'Britain's Got Talent' and, always eager to try a new pub, they removed their tags and went for it. They never found the bar, but someone let them play a few numbers instead.

I hope they get through and you have the chance to see them on the programme. Hobo Jones is the nicest chap, who has gone out of his way to encourage K with her songwriting and performing. Hearing him singing his 'Tyburn Jig' in our kitchen was an unforgettably moving experience. We have redecorated it since.

'Britain's Got Talent' seems an obvious next step for a band that opened at Glastonbury this year (somewhere between the Main Stage and the cider wagon), and for whom development strategy probably consists of choosing between a new set of strings or another round.

Go see them if you can. They transcend greatness.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

You Can't Keep a Good Girl Down

I mentioned my enthusiasm for the Avro Vulcan before. Another member of Britain's Cold War 'V' force was the once futuristic looking Handley Page Victor bomber.

When an iconic aircraft is retired, there's not a lot you can do with it. At best, it is lovingly maintained by enthusiasts, so that it can occasionally be rolled out and taxied up the runway for the entertainment of the crowds.

Video footage has only just emerged of one such run in May this year. Through an accident of inappropriate throttle applied by an engineer, a Victor at Bruntingthorpe seized its chance to return to its natural element. The aircraft hadn't left the ground for two decades and was not airworthy in any technical or regulatory sense. As it veered towards a nearby housing estate in a strong cross-wind the driver, a surprised 70 year old former squadron commander named Bob Prothero, had to gain control whilst making a very rapid choice between attempting a go-round in an unmaintained aircraft, or attempt to put it down on the grass overrun at the end of the runway. He chose the latter and successfully landed it without damage, describing the incident as 'the worst nine seconds of my life'. Perhaps in recognition of his skill and quick-thinking, the Civil Aviation Authority has investigated and decided against any charges.

Friday, 11 September 2009


I stopped playing when I was ten;
A part of me was taken then.

I sold the bike when I grew soft;
Another bit of me was lost.

I quit smoking when my lungs grew tired;
A little more of me expired.

I gave up lust when I grew old;
Another part of me was sold.

I forsook drink when the doctor said;
One more piece of me had fled.

When anger goes, expelled by pain,
Then I'll be like a child again.

Come the day that I don't wake
There'll be nothing left for death to take

So if there's a God, pray God he's nice,
And leaves a little bit of vice.

(Or if the Devil takes my soul,
Pray he leaves me Rock and Roll.)


(Don't worry - I haven't even achieved line one yet)

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Done and Dusted

We've finished. We got reverse working today, which was the last problem, and we've all been tearing round the garden at 5 mph like Jenson Button. It sounds like a monster truck but starts first time and goes up a 1 in 2 slope. It's going to be wicked in snow with chains on. Bob says he wishes he'd had it when he was younger; me too.

I'm particularly proud of our home-made steering pinion. The original on the right only had three teeth left. The cog on the one on the left was made from a piece of scrap bronze using nothing but a hacksaw and files. We ground down a bit of iron bar, tapped a thread into it, and drilled three shear pins to stop it rotating.

Who needs engineers?

Friday, 4 September 2009

Seven Quirky Personality Traits About Myself

I've been tagged with this meme by the poetic Gadjo Dilo. Brought up in a house with lead pipes I'm told I have eccentricities, but some of these I've admitted before, and others...well, I don't have Gadjo's courage. But their side-effects show up around the house and garden, so I'm going to cheat and use those.

The Flyer

Some years ago I was throwing out an old ladder and the children's pram, when I had a silly idea. This was the result. It steers by a small handle between the driver's knees, and there is a rudimentary handbrake. It was intended for the children but was invariably appropriated by the grown ups. For a year or two, after a certain stage of inebriation, most of our barbecues migrated to the grassy hill behind the house, where we careered down the Downs in the gathering dark at terrifying speed, not always succeeding in making the necessary handbrake turn at the bottom. It's the best toy I've ever had.

Later my father-in-law gave me a windsurfer sail he'd picked up at a marine boot fair. This only works well in a full gale, which is hairy. We need to try it on a beach.

The Cannon

This is my version of a garden gnome. It needs a coat of paint. We had some timber left over from building work, and I was working in Chatham Historic Dockyard at the time. The barrel was moulded of papier mache around a stack of plastic flowerpots, together with chicken wire, a drainpipe, some washing machine hose, the tubes from two kitchen rolls and half a football. After drying the mould was covered with fibreglass. The cannon balls are ground-down boules. For a year or two, after a certain stage of inebriation at barbecues, we used it to launch fireworks towards the village below...

The Dog Window

Not very exciting this, but it brings the dog pleasure. It used to be a cat flap in the kitchen, but we didn't have a cat, so I double-glazed the hole and put a shutter on it. The pheasants have learned they are safe on the other side, and tease the dog mercilessly inches from her nose.

The Bookcase

I'd always wanted one of these. The catch is operated by a false book (I wanted it to be 'Tales from the House Behind' by Anne Frank, but that wasn't wide enough), via parts of a bicycle cable brake and bits of a Reliant three-wheeler door mechanism. It was intended to have a security function, but also provides useful extra book space. The Social Secretary once carried a tray of tea through it to some decorators who hadn't been warned, and they dropped a tin of paint.

The Graveyard

One of our predecessors was a landscape gardener who'd worked on churchyards, and I kept unearthing old gravestones in the garden. I set them up in a disused corner when the children were going through their goth phase. They used to hang out down there with their goth friends and think gothic thoughts. They're all real except the Adam Boddy one ('a damn body' geddit?), which I made from an old paving stone.

The Intercom

Bits of this house are hard to reach from other bits, so we use this rather retro communication system involving three wartime Fuller Phones. There is something satisfying in winding the handles to make the bells ring - one ring for this one, two rings for that, etc.


Being remote, we are slightly paranoid, and there are a number of quirky security measures, some of which I can't mention (or I'd have to kill you). This catch on a shed actually just raises a magnet past a magnetic switch, tripping the alarm. It's the obvious thing to try a door, and I care for the idea of a would-be thief setting the alarm off themselves, before they've even gained entry. I know it to have worked on at least one occasion. In the picture below, the green door is one we seldom use, because there is access from inside. If you look closely you'll see the handle and lock are on the hinge side. My theory was that someone working in the dark might try and jemmy the wrong side.

Another measure I enjoy is our prominently placed switch marked 'Burglar Alarm, On/Off'. It stays permanently at 'on', but is reverse-wired and if switched 'off', triggers the alarm.

Scarily there are a lot more quirkinesses, but that's quite enough. I maybe should see a doctor. Gadjo?

I'm not going to specifically tag anyone, but invite you to take this meme on, in either its original or modified form.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Festival Sanitation

I'm afraid this post isn't going to be in the best of taste. But to be true to themselves, bloggers sometimes have to go where others fear to tread.

Bob spent three days at Reading festival last weekend. He was particularly keen to go, not so much for the bands as to get away from the pervasive smell of muck-spreading in our neighbouring fields.

The day before he left I noticed he was eating abnormal amounts, even for him. In between meals he seemed to be forever stirring snackpots and rice or pasta ready meals. The microwave was pinging like a wind chime in a gale, delivering cheeseburgers and steam puddings. Eventually, noticing I was giving him funny looks, he explained that he had a cunning plan. Given the primitive and unsavoury nature of festival sanitation, he aimed to put away a vast amount of food the day before, thereby guaranteeing a tremendously successful final sitting in the comfort of his own bathroom before setting off, and avoiding the need to eat much and use the very basic facilities at Reading.

I got up at 5 am the next morning to drive him to the station, and found him standing in the darkness outside the back door with his backpack and handfuls of tent, sleeping-bag, gas cooker etc (the backpack was full of beer), looking slightly bloated. He seemed disconsolate; "My plan didn't work," he confided.

Ironically, we'd all had a disturbed night because his mother and the dog had eaten something which had violently disagreed with them (not necessarily the same thing), and had been suffering the opposite problem. There were scented candles burning in several rooms when we came down and, as the cowsh-fragrant wind wafted over from the Downs, Bob remarked "I can't decide whether it's worse indoors or out".

(Postscript: Bob has drawn my attention to the phenomenon of 'Poo Girl'. At Reading's simultaneous sister festival at Leeds, this poor girl dropped her handbag down the long-drop loo. She tried to reach down through the hole to retrieve it, and became stuck, head first and legs in the air. She had to be rescued by firemen, and has since become a facebook hit.)

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

In Bad Odour

I'm keeping a low profile, after finding myself unpopular in Havering, as reported in the Romford Recorder (with the passage of time, the link doesn't work any more). I suppose if someone is going to take out a fatwah on me, I'd rather it was Humanists.

But we have been busy. Faced with the long summer vacation, Bob was on the lookout for projects, and a kind friend donated a 36 year old ride-on mower which had been abandoned in a field for several years. We have spent many oily and abortive hours on it, me rather more than him (I'd like to think this showcases my qualities of patience and dogged determination, but really it is because he had better things to do).

Yesterday we were finally rewarded when the 8 hp rear-mounted engine burst into life, drowning out the sound of a passing muck-spreader and filling the garage with exhaust. We high-fived, after which he had to go and swarfega his hand.

Today we will test the gears and drive. There is no steering wheel as yet, and it has a steering problem which I don't want to go into because it's embarrassing. We don't know if the clutch will engage, or once engaged, disengage. The test is therefore fraught with danger. My idea is to set the thing up crossways on the garage forecourt, facing a hedge, and delegate Bob to sit on board and work the gear lever and pedals. I shall stand well to one side, possibly wearing a helmet. On the scale of domestic accidents, it has the potential to be an unusual one, although more predictable than most.

Speaking of domestic accidents, the neighbours recently took off for a relaxing few days in their delightful moulin in the Limousin. On arrival, unlocking the front door, they disturbed a nest of particularly vicious, French-speaking bees. Under intense attack, she took off across an expanse of uncut meadow and leapt into the river. Landing on a submerged rock she damaged her leg, whilst her arm flew up and the car keys shot out of her hand into the drink.

Spurred by her cries he gallantly galumphed down, flailing his arms against the swarm, and plunged in after her, losing his glasses in the process. Her leg was not fully functional, so after crawling around the river bed and retrieving both specs and keys, he braved the still angry bees to try and bring the four-track down to the river to rescue her. Unfortunately everything was a bit overgrown and he reversed the back end into the medieval millrace.

Still under attack he managed to get her into the relative safety of the car and, with a coat over his head, began trying to lever it out with a baulk of timber as she revved. After several attempts, with smoke now pouring from the wheels, she opened the driver's window a crack and asked, 'Should I take the handbrake off?'

Friday, 31 July 2009


I misspelt ‘aggrandizement’ the other day. I realised when I read it in a book this morning. Words are like buses. Or busses.

It got me thinking, by association, about pronunciation. Growing up as an avid reader I had trouble with words that I’d read rather than heard. ‘Awry’ was one. I said it to rhyme with ‘story’. Another was ‘cotoneaster’, which I thought was ‘cotton easter’, not ‘c’tony-aster’.

The family often challenges my pronunciations, although I’m lucky that my inherited ones, albeit dated, are usually correct.

My mother talked about ‘gazey-boes’, where the rest of us say ‘gaz-ee-boes’. I always imagined that she must have read that before hearing it, but I’ve just looked it up in my 1932 Webster’s, and it’s an alternative pronunciation, so she was right all along - as she usually was, having never been to school. (It doesn’t appear at all in my older Webster’s, which is undated but in which the most modern thing illustrated under ‘aeronautics’ is Lana’s aeronautical machine - a sort of boat-shaped picnic basket with a mast and sail, suspended by four or five large copper party balloons.)

No one is sure of the etymology of ‘gazebo’. Wikipedia says “the origin of the word is unknown, and it has no cognates in other European languages”. Suggestions include the French ‘que c'est beau’, the Latin ‘gazebo’ (‘I shall gaze’ - although there was no such verb when I did Latin), and the Hispano-Arabic ‘qushaybah’ (allegedly a viewing platform, but the source seems to be a single poem and scholars of Arabic say it’s pronounced differently).

I’d like to put forward my own suggestion, which doesn’t appear in any source I have come across; ‘case beau’, from the French for ‘beautiful hut’. In which event my mother’s pronunciation would have been closer to the root.

In contrast, my mother-in-law occupies the linguistic no man’s land of Mrs Malaprop. Last week she remarked that her friend’s son was so clever that he’d been hedge-hunted.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009


I sense my long leave of absence is sparking concerns about my health. No need chaps. Here's a quick clip of BT on one of the 'Go Ape' zipwires, to show that he is still hanging loose. And, in simultaneously closing his eyes and clenching his buttocks, proving that men can multi-task.

One reason for my neglect is the project Bob and I have been tackling for a friend.

This walled garden had been neglected for nearly 20 years, and the pool had been filled with rubbish, rubble and soil. Between us we have shifted and sorted tons of the stuff, and then put much of it back, stashing hardcore behind a wall built from some of the blocks we dug out. Not to mention machete-ing our way through briar and thorn, discovering terraces and even a forgotten hut. There is more to do before this becomes the elegant walled garden we envisage, but it's been a good father and son bonding exercise, and I've lost half a stone or so.

Add a little bit of Scottish walking here, a little kayaking there, and plenty of badminton between the Pimm's, and you'll appreciate that all is well. But I am missing you guys and expect to return soon, bronzed, muscled-up, and down to an A cup.

Monday, 8 June 2009

New Song

In haste, K's My Space link here. 'Say Goodbye' and 'Just a Boy' (You Tube link for the latter here.)

Thursday, 28 May 2009

The Gentle Art of Cheese Rolling

A short video for anyone who hasn't enjoyed footage of this two hundred year old tradition. Think flower-sprigged frocks and dancing round the Maypole...then think again.

I think I read that 34 were injured this year; thirty-three were chasing cheeses, one fell out of a tree.

Friday, 22 May 2009

An Open Letter to Nadine Dorries

I listened to you this morning on the Today programme. You defended free use of the Additional Cost Allowance as part of an MP’s pay, and likened the Telegraph’s revelations to a McCarthy witch hunt. You said, ‘People don’t understand what is happening’.

You just don’t get it, do you?

You argued that the allowance is justified because an MP’s salary is not commensurate with anyone else’s at that professional level. Do you view MPs as some sort of overclass, more deserving of rewards than the rest of us? What makes you think that election as an MP infers or confers instant professional qualification? There are dedicated, hard-working MPs, and there are under-performing, self-serving ones. Election is not a measure of ability. I was a professional in local government. Seven years of training enabled me to start at the lowest grades. I never earned more than £30,000, and survive on half that now. I could have earned more in the private sector, but I believed passionately in public service as a vocation. Being an MP is a vocation; it should never be a profession.

You say that everyone, other than the electorate, understood that the allowance was a discreet adjunct to salary, because no Prime Minister would dare stand up to the media and increase MPs’ pay. It was not simply that Prime Ministers lacked the courage to stand up to the media; it was that the electorate would not support such increases; electors like me who lived with years’ of cut-backs and below-inflation pay restraint. Did you see nothing wrong with that cosy, tacit acceptance? Did you believe that such a deception of the public was moral? If you did, maybe you are indeed a consummately professional MP, but perhaps you are not a vocational one.

I have read your response to the Telegraph’s query about your claims for a second home. You explain that you had misled your constituents for privacy reasons. I understand those, and recognise the difficult circumstances which underlay your claims. But many ordinary people share such difficulties. A nurse or a teacher may also need a second home in similar circumstances to enable them to do their job. They receive no subsidy. Most of us believed the provision for second homes allowances for MPs reflected their need to have a presence both in their constituencies and at Westminster, not to complement an additional home elsewhere to address the problems arising from a broken marriage. ‘Ordinary people’ get no such support, although it is they who funded yours.

In likening the Telegraph’s revelations to McCarthyism, you do a disservice to the many honest and committed individuals whose lives and careers were unjustly damaged in that time. The Telegraph has achieved a public service in exposing shameful abuses of the allowances system, which parliament, abetted by the Speaker, has assiduously sought to conceal. It may be unpleasant, but it is a predictable, self-inflicted and thoroughly deserved wound. To rail against the public exposure of these abuses is to misjudge the public mood. The electorate has at last found itself empowered to influence reform, and it is not going to be dissuaded.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

The Calming Influence of Flowerpots

The field is full of lambs and calves and courting pheasants. Everything's growing like crazy. Mowing takes twice as long because primroses, violets and cowslips have sprung up everywhere this year, and I haven't the heart to cut them. Blogging's had to take a back seat, and this is bad scenesville because I know I'm missing good stuff in all of yours. If it rains for days I'll have the consolation of catching up.

Yesterday some update from Microsoft or AVG fouled up my virus protection, making it impossible even to uninstall what I already had, and therefore to load a replacement. In spite of my antediluvian past I have the computer literacy of a gnat, and spent most of yesterday trying to resolve it. At one point I became so stressed out I had to go and buy flowerpots.

Even though I go cold turkey for days, internet access is like a far from superfluous extra limb. It dangles somewhere cerebrally prominent, possibly trailing like a pony tail from the back of the head (and as my brother-in-law is wont to remark, we all know what is found under a pony's tail).

I had to resort to searching for and deleting anything with 'avg' in the title. This probably means lots of vestigial orphans clogging up my memory and that I've deleted the pictures of Auntie Vera's Garden. But the joy of success was almost worth the angst. My prodigal PC and I are friends again.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Go Ape

This is K in her new office. Parents hope their children will go up in the world, but this isn't quite what we imagined.

Apart from scrambling about in tree tops, instructors at Go Ape have to pull themselves up the several zip wires to open the course each day, rain or shine. She's beginning to pack some serious muscles, and my days of bettering her at arm wrestling may be numbered.

When I was a kid we lived in a valley in the Chilterns, with a garden that fell steeply down from the beech woods of the Duke of Buckingham's estate. My father rigged up a steel zip wire from some left over rigging. We had to climb up a ladder, grasp a metal bar slung from a pulley, and launch ourselves off. It was fantastic fun - provided you remembered to lift yourself above the nettle patch halfway down, and let go before you slammed into the conker tree at the bottom. Health and Safety wouldn't have approved (but then they wouldn't have approved of much of what we got up to, like being towed up the lane on a sledge behind the Landrover when it snowed).

These zip wires are a different matter, and heights cause bits of my anatomy to try to retract in a manner they're not designed to, so I am plucking up courage before I have a go...

Thursday, 2 April 2009

My 25 Gun Salute

To Chatham yesterday, to attend the 25th anniversary celebrations of the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, including a 25 gun salute and a lunch in the Commissioner's House. The three big field guns rocked the town; 24 single shots and then the three together for the last. I think the gun captain's quivering closing salute might have been directed at Admiral Sir Ian Garnett and Margaret Beckett, but hell, I took it anyway.

In 1981, when I was a pre-pubertal strategic planner for the County Council, the Royal Navy announced it was going to pull out of Chatham Dockyard. I accidentally talked myself into doing an appraisal of the Georgian part of the yard - a historic and architectural gem. The timescale was just two weeks, and I worked into the nights - often in the local pub as the Social Secretary (then my girlfriend), fetched me pints from the bar. I met the deadline and in a very short space of time my report wound up on the desk of the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Heseltine. The report argued the case for gifting the historic dockyard to an independent trust or public authority as a living maritime museum.

The Government accepted this, and when the Navy finally pulled out in March 1984, the newly established Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, with a board of eminent trustees and what would prove a woefully inadequate endowment of £8 million, inherited the lot.

My employers offered the nascent Trust initial staffing and administrative support. The staffing support turned out to be me, and so the day after he returned from honeymoon a very nervous Brother Tobias found himself seconded as acting General Manager of a redundant dockyard - the same dockyard to which his father, at the outbreak of war, had reported for training as an engineer officer half a century earlier.

Our HQ was the Old Pay Office, where Charles Dickens' father had once worked. The two tall, Georgian windows of my office looked out past the flag mast of the Captain of the Dockyard's House along the elegant eighteenth century Officers' Terrace. To the left was the No. 2 dock where HMS Victory was built, and the vast structures of the covered slips.

Chairman of the newly formed Trust and my boss was the recently retired Commandant General of the Royal Marines, Lieutenant-General Sir Steuart Pringle. Also part of the team was Deb, a loyally protective former Wren; Ken, a draughtsman from the dockyard drawing office who became our visitor guide; and Joy, a lady cleaner who had been a dockyard employee. With her help I also secured the services of Ron as general handyman (there were uncharted and arcane services running around the yard, including AC and DC electrical supplies at different voltages, steam, sewerage, potable and non-potable water and gas; Ron's knowledge of these proved invaluable).

Between us, we had to look after 84 acres which included over 40 scheduled Ancient Monuments dating from 1697 onwards, dry docks, caissons, cranes, covered slips, pontoons, piers, a steam pumping station, a helicopter pad, mast ponds, stables; a church; a laundry; a working railway complete with a small shunting engine; and a variety of commercial tenants.

For a green local government officer used to the protective carapace of a multi-layered bureaucracy, it was a scary time. For the first time in my life I found myself empowered to take decisions on the hoof, without consultation. At any moment I might be negotiating rents, chasing round the yard after thieves, lying on a sinking pontoon in a three piece suit attaching markers, chugging around the yard driving a Lister diesel tug, or attending a Board meeting. The telephone seldom stopped ringing and it usually brought crises; Trinity House complaining that the lights on Thunderbolt Pier weren't working; a high tide threatening to float the caissons which sealed the dry docks (in 1954 one of these broke free, causing the submarine Talent to burst out into the river, killing several men); failure of a steam boiler bringing production to a halt; someone working on services in some underground chamber overcome by methane; the press demanding interviews...

In my few spare moments and armed with a set of master keys, I made it my business to explore every building, room, loft, tunnel and cavity, from Brunel's sawmill to the Dockyard Church; the Yarn and Tarring Houses; the Anchor Wharf Stores (the largest ever built by the Navy); the quarter mile long double Ropery; the Lead and Paint Mill; the Mast House and Mould Loft (where the lines of HMS Victory's timbers can still be seen marked on the floor); the Sail and Colour Loft; the Joiners' Shop, the Wheelwrights' Shop; the Galvanising Shop; the Smitheries where tools and forges rested amongst heaps of rusting cannons and ferns growing in the half-light; and the silent, secret, World War II and Cold War bunkers many feet underground, which housed eerily abandoned telephone exchanges and command centres. This had been a self-contained enclave capable of building, equipping and provisioning warships without external support. Day after day I trespassed amongst the ghosts and echoes of four centuries of maritime history.

The SS recalls me walking tense and silent around the garden each evening, clutching a glass of gin while I reviewed the events of the day and sorted out the priorities for the next. Aside from someone getting killed, my nightmare was waking to the news that the nation's last surviving timber-framed covered slip, like a vast, upturned ship, had burnt down - as its former neighbour had been. Every weekend I would return with a bunch of sweet-smelling roses for her, thoughtfully cut from the Admiral's Garden or the Officers' Terrace by our secretary and our cleaner.

A crisply courteous, near military culture quickly established itself (addressing the Chairman as 'Sir' came naturally from our respective naval or boarding school backgrounds). One day we were given a demonstration run in a paddle-steamer that wanted to operate from the yard. As I hovered as usual by the General's shoulder (no doubt irritatingly, but he was much too nice to say so), my hands clasped behind me like an obsequious aide-de-camp, the First Officer asked my background. When I told him I was on loan from the local council he raised his eyebrows and said, "Good Lord. I thought you were a naval officer'. I felt I had arrived.

After six fraught months I handed over to my permanent successor, a recently retired naval commander. A week later the Queen paid a formal visit to the Dockyard. Watching in the crowd as he was introduced to her, it crossed my mind that it might have been me standing there. But I wouldn't have known what to say. And after all, it will always be my dockyard.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Hannah Scott and John Carden

I mentioned Hannah Scott when her debut album came out last year . Her new CD - a collaboration with John Carden, arrived yesterday, signed by the two of them without me asking and with a wee handwritten thank-you note from Hannah enclosed again. I find that really sweet; it's that precious moment when a band is teetering on the cusp of greatness, but still have time to appreciate you and take nothing for granted. When each order matters and they're grateful for every supporter. This girl is destined for big things, and it's a mystery to me why she hasn't been signed yet. She is like a butterfly beating her wings against the glass; any moment someone's going to open the window and then you'll need a telescope to see her.

'Falling into Spring' is an EP with just five tracks, but they're all crackers. It's maybe her register or the east coast accent that reminds me of Beth Orton (I know, her's is west), but this is lighter and less plaintive. I've never met these two and have no axe to grind, but I reckon I'm putting a good tip your way in suggesting you visit this link and have a listen. And if you like what you hear you just click the button and for the price of a pint or two the thing arrives in the post, and you can shoot a line to your pals and you have the sound for this summer's braais and a collector's piece to boot.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Bean Beetles

A retiring little chap is
Platypus Cylindricus
Inclined to keep his head down,
Preferring not to mix with us.
He tidies up detritus
Avoiding any pain or fuss
Assisted by his mucker,
Agrilis Pannonicus.


Thursday, 12 March 2009


Nice Savannah has tagged me for a meme. The rules are to: put the link of the person who tagged you on your blog, include the rules, mention 6 things or habits of no real importance about you, tag six people adding their links directly and alert the tagged. I'm going to skip number six, but sincerely invite you to have a go anyway. And, so as to halve your boredom, I'm going to split my six into two; three today, three not.

1) John Peel (who like Darwin went to my school and didn't much enjoy it), collected bits of himself that fell off, like toenails and blisters, in a plastic container labelled 'Dad's Scrapings'. I'm not as bad as that, but I do hoard ephemera which is unlikely to have any interest or value unless my descendents go on saving them for another hundred years, which not being deranged they are unlikely to do. I'm talking train tickets and car tax disks and bad poetry and letters and instructions about how to cane chairs or discourage moles.

2) I doodle. After a phone conversation I find notes in front of me that I don't remember writing, but which weren't there before. They say things like, "Good morning ... some difficulty ... understand ... twat ... Marymarymarymary ... No", interspersed with flowers and strange, shaded shapes like erotic bricks. In my fifth and final degree year, suspecting correctly that I was 5% knowledge and 95% silver-tongued bullshit, my tutors asked to see my lecture notes. Since these all started off with a heading and a date, followed by about half a sentence that tailed off into a page of doodles, I had to pretend, suddenly not so convincing after all, that I'd left them on a bus. In fact, I came across some of my early literary efforts this week. The poems are rubbish, but the doodles must say something about the mental state of my 16 year old self. I'll paste a couple in and you can draw your own conclusions.

3) I have slight OCD leanings. For example, I find myself unnecessarily counting stairs, and it is not normal to know that there are 76 panes of glass in every window in Dunvegan Kirk (although the sermons were very dull). The Social Secretary and I are opposites, in that I like order; for example, the tools in my workshop each have their place and I could find them blindfold. In contrast, the SS hangs kitchen utensils in a different place every time, and seldom closes cupboards or drawers. It's a moot and much discussed point whether it is me that is obsessive, or she that is untidy. In looks and demeanour, however, she is Sinead O'Connor, and I am Shane MacGowan.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Avro Vulcan

Against all the odds it looks as if we might have the chance to see the mighty Vulcan fly again this summer. As of this afternoon and in the nick of time, a million pounds has been pledged to keep the aircraft flying this year. Over 90% of this has been promised by private individuals. In an economic 'perfect storm' which has made it almost impossible to attract commercial sponsors, this is the second time the public has come to the rescue. In 1993 the Vulcan seemed to have flown for the last time until, last year, XH558 took to the air again after donations helped to fund a refit.

I've blethered about this aeroplane before. It was designed by Roy Chadwick, designer of the Lancaster bomber, who began work on it in 1946. The first prototype flew in 1952, and 112 were built altogether. They were a mainstay of Britain's nuclear deterrent throughout the Cold War, although they were never used in anger until, already scheduled for retirement, they were hastily converted for conventional ordnance and used to bomb Port Stanley airfield in the Falklands War.

The three components of Britain's nuclear 'V' Force, The Avro Vulcan, the Vickers Valiant and the Handley Page Victor, sound like echoes of a past era, and it is hard to believe that the Victor, which first flew as a bomber in 1951, was still in use in the Gulf War. If, like Concorde - which emerged from the same era - the Vulcan does not look its age, the Victor looks like something out of Rupert and the Space Ship.

Carrying twenty-one 1,000 lb bombs per aircraft, the round trip of 8,000 miles in the Falklands' 'Black Buck' missions was the longest in history. To get a single Vulcan to the target and back required no less than twelve Victor tankers and a Nimrod, in a mind-numbingly complex pyramid of refuelling rendezvous, in which tankers refuelled tankers, that refuelled tankers that refuelled tankers. The Victor tanker which flew furthest itself required eight support aircraft.

It may seem profligate to spend money on this aircraft in the current recession, but once on the airshow circuit it could become self sustaining, and the cost of keeping it in the air compares favourably with Sir Fred Goodwin's annual pension. As an inspiration for young engineers the Vulcan is worth every penny. If you want to sign the petition seeking to persuade the Government to contribute something to keeping this aircraft flying, follow this link. To find out more about the last flying Vulcan and its display schedule, look here.

Amongst useless but jolly facts I learnt while writing this, are:

In 1956, when a pilot got its nose down too far, a type 1 Victor accidentally broke the sound barrier.

The Vulcan wowed the crowds in a display (which included a barrel roll) at the 1952 Farnborough Airshow, just 72 hours after its maiden flight.

The prototype Victor had to be transported by road to Boscombe Down for its test flight. Bulldozers were used to create alternative routes where the road was too narrow, and the aircraft sections were hidden under wooden framing and tarpaulins printed with 'Geleypandhy, Southampton' to make them look like a boat hull in transit. 'Geleypandhy' was meant to be an anagram of 'Handley Page', but the signwriter ballsed it up (I love it that, while we tried to hide the prototype from Soviet spies, we couldn't resist painting a darn great clue on the box).

Thursday, 5 March 2009

The Irresistible Glamour of the Average Town Planner

While his mother was away the neighbour's boy had a little problem with the wood-burning stove.

He was just leaving the house to drive his girlfriend - who is delightful - to the station, when he heard a noise like a Eurofighter cranking up for take-off at Saba. Looking up, he noticed that a turbojet on full afterburner appeared to have become embedded in the top of the chimney, casting an eerie glow into the night sky. Unlocking the house he entered the kitchen. Unopened mail, snackpots, decorative garlic plaits and smaller items of furniture were being sucked across the room into the stove door, which now resembled the mouth of a volcano on curry night. The cat had its front legs wrapped round the marble sculpture of two penguins that his mum did on a residential week in Tuscany. He quickly phoned the Fire Brigade, while his delightful girlfriend sat down with her laptop and began some coursework.

The Social Secretary and K happened to be driving nearby when they caught a glimpse of flashing blue lights, and stopped off to see the fun...the fun being firemen in rubber boots. (What is it with women and firemen? Why not women and town planners? What have firemen got that town planners haven't? Do firemen use Article 4 Directions and Section 106 Agreements? Do they have Rotring Rapidographs in all sizes from 0.1 to 0.8 and several seductive shades of black and burgundy? Can they quote the Use Classes Order or operate a Planimeter? Have they got felt tips? I don't think so).

When they arrived the neighbour's son was in the yard, adjusting his story. His girlfriend (who is delightful) was sitting in the car doing some course work on her laptop. Several of the firemen were 'well fit'. And they won't need to get their chimney swept this year, so there's always a silver lining (assuming it hasn't burned through).

(Incidentally the neighbour's boy's mum now knows about the cat poo on carpet tile frisbee incident, which someone accidentally let slip the other day. The passage of time and a bottle of South African shiraz softened the blow, and she forgave him).

Monday, 2 March 2009

From Zaftig to Aspie by DJ Kirkby

You cannot choose the moments in life which will become perfectly preserved in memory. They are accidents of mood and sensation. Each is a miraculous survival, a tiny treasure. From Zaftig to Aspie has many such moments. It is like opening a jewellery box and seeing the contents sparkle as they catch the light. The author has captured her childhood in Canada with a vivid freshness, giving it an immediacy which suggests that she has not forgotten how it feels to be young.

DJ Kirkby’s earliest memories read like scenes from a road movie, and her nomadic, unconventional home life might have today’s child welfare authorities blenching. There are shadows of poverty, of an unsettled family structure, cruelty from classmates and of sexual abuse, but all these are outweighed by the love of her free-spirited, hippie mother and the easy-going kindness of a loose circle of friends and relations. What emerges is a picture of a little girl who was different. Who preferred pickles to sweets. Who was trusting of animals and people, and unfazed by the weaknesses of human nature. For whom rock music and the scent of marijuana was more normal than playschool. A little girl who found riches in the woods and sea shore, and who grew into a creative, uninhibited, well-balanced woman. The author’s undiagnosed Asperger syndrome contributed to the trials of growing up, but also to her unique and colour-filled view of the world.

The anecdotal nature of the writing is complimented by the episodic structure of the book. No chapter is longer than ten pages; most are only two or three - but this in no way interrupts the flow of the narrative. D J Kirkby’s style is flowing and unfussy, and I was captivated from the outset. Sometimes the originality and aptness of a turn of phrase or choice of adjective stopped me in my tracks; this is practised writing, but it is not slick or formulaic. Her recollections are brought to life by their detail and precision – no dry account this, but a pointillist picture, a pietra dura mosaic in which shards of colour create a picture that is greater than the sum of its parts. Throughout, modesty and humour give the book an uplifting lightness. As D J Kirkby invites us, ‘Welcome to the story of my blunders.’

It is difficult to escape the feeling that all of us share some of the drives and constraints common to autism, and that diagnosis is a matter of degree. This is not to underestimate the difficulties that those on the autistic spectrum face, but it explains why we can relate to the author’s experience. This is not a book about autism; it is a book about childhood and adolescence in a richly unusual world in which, as we later discover, autism is both a hurdle and a gift.

Read it.

A Party to Remember

The last time I was at Penshurst was when my school performed Twelfth Night there, one wild and stormy January night, as the timbers creaked in the gale and a bat flapped around the minstrels gallery (the poet Sir Philip Sydney, whose home it once was, had been a pupil at the school, although we just missed each other by 400 years or so).

There was magic in the 14th century Great Hall last weekend. It was a clear, frosty night, so cold that each female guest was given a silk and cashmere pashmina on arrival, and a huge log fire was burning on the open hearth in the centre of the room. No new-fangled chimney nonsense, the smoke rose up into the church-like timbered roof, vying with the faint smell of mothballs lingering around Brother Tobias. The masqued guests, all dressed in black or white evening dress, drank champagne and mulled wine as jugglers and jesters wandered amongst them. At the appointed time our host's wife arrived, probably beginning to guess that some sort of birthday treat was in store, delivered to the door in a white coach pulled by two plumed shires.

We ate above the pantry and buttery in the West Solar, part of the medieval building and hung with elizabethan family portraits of gentlemen in doublet and hose and ladies sportingly exposing their left breasts in the interests of classical allegory.

The meal was to die for. I chose the beef - great slabs of filet mignon that melted in the mouth like meringue, washed down with the best of wines. And the waiting was the best I've ever seen; for each course and clearance the staff filed smartly in, their hands behind their backs. Each table was silently surrounded, a waiter or waitress to each guest. Then, at a hidden signal, every plate was placed or removed simultaneously.

At the end of the meal we were treated to this

It was a splendid surprise. The 'three waiters' really had been doing a bit of waiting, and for most of us unsophisticates it took some time to realise that it was an act at all. They were so good that they won a standing ovation.

And then on to a disco in a heated marquee, lined with black drapes and twinkly lights, to dance the night away to an Abba tribute band and a generous bar. I believe I may even have smoked...

This was the sort of party you never forget. In fact in our case it's the sort of party you never get invited to, and it was a joy to be there and forget the gloom and the recession for a few hours.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Ascendant Band, Astronomical Beer

To a gig last week; a guy named Paul Dunton from Tunbridge Wells has established a series of candlelit soirees featuring local artists. This was the first to be held in Maidstone, upstairs in the local Pizza Express. Most of the musicians came from Tunbridge Wells, and may be familiar to Justme and Completely Alienne

Any showcase for local talent is worthwhile, and this was potentially a good venue. Unfortunately the twin emphases on food and music clashed. It was a distraction having waitresses clattering to and fro with orders, and the restaurant prices for drinks were prohibitive. With beer at £6.50 a pint and entry at £7 per head, a party of four could be £50 out of pocket before they'd sipped the first drink. Order a meal as well, as was clearly expected by the staff (we didn't, and we weren't alone), and you were into serious money. When we'd seen the price list we whipped straight back out to the pub next door and sank a quick pint before the first set, and then nursed an expensive bottle of cheap wine for the remaining three hours.

The evening opened with a 16 year old pianist/singer/songwriter, Annabel Durnford, who performed with grace and maturity. She was followed by the event organiser Paul Dunton and friends. Piano, violins, flute and cello delivered an unusual fusion of pop/rock ballad and chamber music. I'm not sure the room did them justice.

Third act was singer/songwriter Joanne Louise Parker. Her spare guitar technique placed the focus on a voice of bewitching tone and clarity, and she showed an almost celtic ability to sing on pitch without accompaniment (or 'a cappella' as it's poncily known down here). Perhaps there is a Free Church enclave in her native fens. Folk/blues flavoured, she is very good.

Headliners Cyrano came from Tunbridge Wells. They produced a consistently tight, studio-quality sound which belted around the room in a sustained, plangent attack. When I looked at the audience they were tapping and twitching as if they were wired in series, and women were dancing on the steel stairs to the mezzanine floor. Joe Ackerley's voice soars with plaintive purity, Karl B hammered away on lead guitar like an onanistic gnome, and bass and drums were balanced, punchy and harmonious. Cyrano are currently putting together their first album. Watch this band, because I reckon it will become a household name.

Monday, 16 February 2009

What's in a Name?

The Sagittarian has speculated about the title of my blog. My readers have varied tastes; in an attempt to please both of them, I will offer several different explanations, any or none of which may be true.


A memorable event in my early life (in fact the only memorable event in my early life), was playing the part of the ferryman's son in Ingmar Bergman's 1961 film, 'Through a Glass Darkly'. I was offered it through an old family connection, and the location was the island of Fårö, which was closed to normal visitors at the time because it contained secret military installations. But Bergman lived there, and this was the first of many films he made on the island. I was only there for two days and have limited memories of it all. I do recall that Gunnar Björnstrand, who played the novelist, was always pleased to see me and taught me a traditional greeting which I still remember; 'Gå bort du otäck litten räka'. Sadly Ingmar Bergman was by then unrecognisable from his famous rôle as Ilsa Lund in 'Casablanca'.


Newcastle's Long Bar is on the Great North Road, almost opposite Central Station. In those days it was very much a men-only bar. In retrospect it was a bad idea to have agreed to meet Tim Darkly there for a pint of Fed Special on the way to a party. I'd have been all right. Cherry loons and an Afghan coat might have escaped comment in a student town. But Darkly was dressed as a nurse, complete with balloons. It wasn't a fancy dress party; he always dressed as a nurse, and I should have remembered that. Even then, we might have got away with it, if he hadn't misjudged his embonpoint (the balloons were over-inflated) and jogged the arm of the diminutive Geordie standing next to him, causing him to spill beer down his shirt. The man said something very brief that neither of us caught, and very deliberately poured a significant amount of brown ale down Darkly's cleavage before turning away. Darkly asked me how we should respond and I, thinking that the best thing would be to buy the man a drink, said, "Through a glass, Darkly". Unfortunately he thought I said, 'Throw a glass, Darkly'.

I can tell you, should you ever be in a similar position, that the care offered in the Royal Victoria Infirmary is second to none.


My choice of hymn for our wedding was number 240 from Hymns Ancient & Modern, which is adapted from the poem 'Elixir' by George Herbert (1593 - 1632). It includes the verse, 'A man that looks on glass on it may stay his eye; or if he pleases, through it pass, and then the heaven espy'. (It's a pretty line, although the following verse gave me an opportunity to glance significantly at the Social Secretary; 'A servant with this clause makes drudgery divine: who sweeps a room, as for your laws, makes that and th' action fine'). The glass line seems to echo Corinthians 1, 13,8. "For now we see through a glass, darkly" - a line I've always had affection for, since I am not unknown for seeing life slightly hazily through a glass.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

The Sun is Out, the Sky is Blue

It's been such a sairie, downing few weeks, and suddenly the sun is out and the sky is cerulean blue (shameless plug), so here's this, because I can.

Thursday, 12 February 2009


Roses are red,
Violets are blue;
Our leader is Brown
And we're in the poo.


Your turn...

Tuesday, 10 February 2009


I'm just trying you out to see what everyone's talking about.

Sorry. I was playing with Twitter, and it asked me what I was doing.

Ooo. I've got a tweet.

Brothertobias@ nudrig2 No, I'm not famous. Although I like to think I have a modest following in the world of scripophily.

Brothertobias@ nudrig2 Not at all. It was a pleasure talking to you.

Another tweet. That's two tweets already.

Brothertobias@heavenlytwinny Thank you. It's early days. What about you?

Brothertobias@heavenlytwinny I do find the 140 word limit a constraint when trying to address issues of any complexity, especially when there is a moral or ethical dimen


Brothertobias@heavenlytwinny dimension

Brothertobias@wedekindboy Isn't 0825 an odd time to be eating pesto?

Brothertobias@heavenlytwinny Ahaha :)

Brothertobias@wedekindboy Ah. Guadalajara. I understand. Wasn't thinking. No, I don't think I'm that Brother Tobias; I never taught at a mission school.

Brothertobias@wedekindboy No, really. I've never even been to Mexico.

Brothertobias@wedekindboy Well quite. That must have been very painful, and you have every right.

I have to go now.


I dunno. I guess it's like marmite. It has a strange fascination. Yes, I visited Stephen Fry's tweets, of course I did. And thence to Sandi Toksvig's sister's. It was a learning experience (I didn't know Sandi Toksvig had a sister). And snooped in on some familiar bloggers, whose one-sided chatter was witty and entertaining, like listening to shiny people at the next table, wishing they were your friends.

But it's a bit like Blogger with just the comments and no blogs. I don't want to start collecting celeb responses like tiny trophies. And just tweeting and being tweeted would become a full time occupation. It's as if networking has become the end, not a means.

I admire anyone who can blog and twitter. So many balls to keep up. Some of my favourite bloggers have taken to Twitter. You know who you are. But I hope we who are left sedately in the blogosphere don't lose you altogether.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Don't Pick Me, Pick Chesley

Listening to the recordings of the splendidly calm Chesley B Sullenberger's radio transmissions as he prepared to ditch his stricken airliner into the Hudson River impressed the hell out of me.

One afternoon in November 2001, I was locked in an unlikely embrace with a fridge/freezer as I manoeuvred it in a stiff-legged waltz across the drive behind the house, ready for the local council's collection service the next morning. There happened to be a thick fog, so I was surprised to hear a low aeroplane approaching. A very low aeroplane. Approaching. Very low.

I stopped and stared blankly into the mist, and at the last possible moment a light aircraft appeared an extendable ladder's height or so above the house and disappeared again into the whiteness.

There is a wooded hill behind us, and I had time to think, "Jeez, that's low. He'll be lucky to clear the trees," in a sort of 'but of course he will' tone of thought, when I heard the violent sound of breaking branches and the aircraft's engine appeared to stop abruptly.

I learned a lot about myself in the next few minutes. Principally, that I am not a Chesley B Sullenberger. I am not fashioned from the stuff of which cool-headed, laconic heroes are made. Headless and chicken spring to mind. My 999 call must have sounded excitable at best, and probably an octave too high. (When I reported an aircraft impacting trees, the operator remarked disbelievingly that they had not had any other reports to that effect. Sully's measured tones would have had them scrambling helicopters before he'd finished giving his name).

Conscious that any support would be some time to arrive and that I might be faced with people who were feeling not very well, I set off up to the wood in my gum boots carrying a fire extinguisher, some dressings and bandages, my mobile and my Boys Book of Light Aircraft. I was trying my best, but frankly, Mr Cool I was not.

When I got to the right part of the wood I clambered about in the misty undergrowth, looking down for wheels and bodies, and up for tail planes and the like. All I found was a few foil-wrapped packets of foreign coffee amongst the brambles. I began to wonder if I had imagined the whole thing, until I heard on the local news that an aircraft had made a forced landing at the Kent Show Ground, formerly the wartime Detling Airfield.

I found the report of the accident today. It is interesting that the Instructor stated that he had been flying at about 650 feet - significantly lower than the height of the treetops in this area. It also seems incredibly lucky that the place they came down happened to be a former airfield. Although the aeroplane was substantially damaged, with bits of tree around its nose and undercarriage, the two occupants were unhurt.

About a year later I recounted this story to a knowledgeable friend who told me that it was standard practice for smugglers to conceal drugs in packs of coffee. I was away up to the wood as soon as it was light, but disappointingly the packs I found (which I imagined had been torn out of some sort of hold or locker) appeared to contain nothing but ground coffee.

Saturday, 31 January 2009

Cerulean Blue

Big Brother

One of our friends is a detective. Well actually, two of them are, but that's an accident of geography, not habit. One day we ran into him and he turned to me with an evil grin and said, "Who were you kissing in town last Wednesday?"

Apparently they had been conducting some sort of street surveillance operation from the upstairs floor of a shop. As he watched the screen I appeared, accosted a woman, and gave her a hug and a kiss. "I know that man," he told his colleagues, and they watched on with interest.

The embarrassing thing was that, while I could remember running into someone, I couldn't for the life of me remember who. This didn't seem very plausible at the time. In fact it still doesn't. The Social Secretary started giving me funny looks and finding reasons to come shopping with me. So if by any chance you can remember being kissed by me in Earl Street on a Wednesday, would you very much mind contacting her?

It just shows the opportunity to misbehave (not that I was, you understand) is dwindling. It was bad enough in Essex in the 1960's. The Rodings (always pronounced 'Roothings') being terribly flat, I had to cycle miles to find a tree behind which I could drag on a discreet Consulate with a reasonable chance of not being spotted. Consulate of course, in the belief that the menthol would disguise the smell of tobacco (the innocence of youth; I also believed that we could end war and that I would become rich).

Because teenage drivers who should be wearing green Ps keep bumping into us in the lanes, my latest toy is a tiny camera which sits on the dashboard and continuously records the view ahead onto an SD memory card. The whole thing cost £25 from Hong Kong, which is less than the card alone would cost here. And it might just save me shed-loads in lost no-claims bonuses. Not to mention proving that the traffic light really did change too late to stop. Or that the police patrol car did indeed make an illegal U-turn on the dual carriageway.

The other fun thing about the recorder is that I can say things like, "You know when you drove down to the stables last Wednesday? Why did you stop under the bridge for several minutes, then turn round and park outside 22, Focaccia Avenue?"

Not that I would.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Things you can do with your toes

Completely Alienne has tagged me to list ten honest and interesting things about myself. The 'honest' suggests that these should be frank and a bit revelatory. Not sure about that. If I have few illusions about myself I like believing you might still have some. And I suppose I shouldn't recycle ones from previous memes, which rather implies dipping into the reserve list.

1) As a child I always went up stairs on all fours. I still do sometimes, but try not to in public places.

2) I have fitted my bath with a reading light, and have been known to read an entire book in one immersion (emerging like a literate prune).

3) I once inadvertently killed my landlord's cat. It got into my Cornish flat through an open window while I was out, ate the fat in an unwashed frying pan, went back downstairs and died. I never owned up. (Note, too much fat is bad for your health).

4) When I was about twelve I buried our own cat in a Swedish crispbread tin. It went missing and we assumed it had followed walkers in the wood and was enjoying a pampered new life. Then I found it in a wild part of the garden, mutilated by a dog or a fox. I conducted a secret burial to protect the rest of the family from the grim truth. I'm surprised nobody missed the biscuit tin, which was as big as a drum and rather useful.

5) I was a difficult adolescent. At school I became such a subversive influence that they created a bed-sit for me - the first in the school's 400 year history (a hatch in the ceiling gave access to a loft space, and I slung all my empties up there. I believe a later occupant got in trouble for that, after I'd left).

6) I can unscrew bottle tops, hold pencils and do other useful stuff with my toes.

7) Amongst houses once occupied by grander-than-me relations are this,
this (my earliest memory is living in the west wing one winter), this (my grandmother's home when she married, but it was only rented), this (I lived here for a little while too), and this (now a bijou health spa). Damn - where did it all go?

8) I have been mistaken for James Hewitt, but only by the sort of people one avoids on trains.

9) Things I have done in pursuit of girls include: joining a canoe club; being run away with on a horse; going through the entire electoral register for Truro and Falmouth constituency; and accidentally breaking a window whilst trying to get into someone else's house at midnight (it's a long story).

10) The blue plastic bucket at the bottom of Dover Harbour belongs to me.

I think I'm meant to tag other people here, but as always I feel diffident about that, because you've probably all done similar ones before. But I will tag Extra Virgin, who probably hasn't. And please feel free to have a go.

Friday, 23 January 2009


It's ages since I blogged. Don't know why; nothing to say, I suppose. Anyway, I like K's new song. She wouldn't be persuaded to appear on camera, so she's stuck it onto some footage of the Inverness-Kyle line I took years ago.

I suppose I must have travelled that line two or three hundred times, but I never tired of it. Skye-bound, my heart lifted with every mile that the island drew closer and my office desk receded. In summer, sun sparkled on absurdly blue water and the banks wore gold epaulettes of gorse. In winter the deer lifted their heads from foraging in the snow, to watch the carriages clatter by. Like a time-lapse film houses were spruced up, and faded. Generations of sheep and cattle trod the same braes. Oil rigs appeared in Loch Carron, and then were gone. Eagles soared.

Enjoy the song.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Bedroom View: Dawn

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Chilly, Chilly is the Evening Time

The snow lies hard as ice on the Downs, and the Social Secretary and I have been out sledging. Bob watched from his window and said we were behaving like big kids. Woohoo!

We don't much mind not having central heating as a rule. Visitors sometimes complain of the cold and sit in their coats looking like soft jessies. This last few days, though, has been something else.

The ice on the inside of the windows has been too tough to scrape with a fingernail, and the Arctic icy draught whistling up between the floorboards has made BT's usual TV watching position, prone on the sitting-room floor, untenable.

The Social Secretary started the rot by moving an old portable set into the kitchen. Then Bob and I, watching the repeat of 'Dead Set' in there last night, had a brainwave and silently carried the sofa in while the SS was having a bath. An occasional table for drinks and the old gimballed paraffin lamp on the wall beside the aga completed the ambience. Much to the dog's delight we are now all more or less living in the only warm room.

It's really rather cosy, and awfully handy for mulled wine.