Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Stately homes of England (a very occasional series)

We had agreed to meet up at midday at Buscot Park, with a view to proceeding up the road to Kelmscott Manor for our picnic, as Buscot didn't open until two.  In the event, although Buscot House and gardens themselves (the bits you pay for if not a NT member) were not yet open, the car park and picnic area were; so, as we were both starving, events were reversed.  We scoffed the picnic, luxuriously seated on sets rather than camp chairs or the ground (and invaded by only two wasps), then drove the long way round to Kelmscott to kill a little time until two o'clock. 

I had no expectations at all.  My experience of so-called stately homes resides mostly in the North and West of England.    We parked ten minutes' walk away, opposite the church, and strolled up to the Manor, past an enticing pub (I don't know my friend well enough yet to suggest stopping off for a swift half).  But the walk up through the village was delightful.  Dry-stone walls are an art form created by craftsmen. (Hey, there's a buzzword -  Arts and Crafts.)  I could have stood and stared at them for tens of minutes. 

Kelmscott is not National Trust, so can charge what it likes: £9 in this case.  We didn't intend to visit there anyway - "I've had enough of Pre-Raphaelites", said my companion - so we made our way back to Buscot.  (Mind you, Buscot charges £8 to non-NT-members, but I think you get a bit more for your money.)  But what a fantastic place!  I use that adjective carefully - there's a lot of fantasy in there.  You wander into the next room and are confronted by a Gainsborough or a Rembrandt juxtaposed (in your mind) against an intimate Faringdon family portrait.  Futuristic glass sculptures sit next to genuine Egyptian godesses and Rossetti houris.  Eclecticism was possibly the crowning glory of the Victorian age; I was reminded of the Burrell collection.

So, having achieved cultural saturation, we wandered around the gardens and the park.  The water garden with its wide lake reminded me of Stour Head; mock temples around the edges.  The Swinging Garden (which I had been informed was for adults) was a disappointment; I'd expected it to be full of swingers behaving badly.  But I think I was too tired for that by then.

And I haven't even mentioned the terracotta warriors.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

There's a kind of hush

I live within earshot of Rivermead, the location of the Reading Festival at this time every year.  Usually, I flee the country (to Wales), but for a couple of reasons (wind, rain) that hasn't been possible this year.   So I was rather dreading it.  I love music of nearly every kind (except finger-in-the-ear yokel-folk and massed bagpipes), but I'd rather select it for myself than have it, so to speak, thrust down my lugholes. 

But, so far, something's wrong.  I can hardly hear it.  Admittedly the wind direction is variable, which makes a difference - so maybe Caversham is getting the best of it.  But even allowing for the wind, it's just not loud enough!  Time was, here half a mile away, windows would be trembling, chimneypots wobbling.  What's wrong with the kids of today?  Don't they know how to make a proper noise any more?  I didn't even notice much loud music during the riots.

As I write, I'm ducking between BBC3 and the garden.   Jarvis is giving the performance of his life on the telly, but all I can hear outside is the twiddly synth bits.  I've turned the TV up to 11 (38 actually), and it still sounds tinny.  Crank up the bass, guys, FFS.  I should be down Notting Hill, where they used to know how to do loud.  Still, Elbow are headlining tomorrow; I might wander down Cow Lane, G&T in hand, at about eight.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Is That All There Is?

I wanted to show the actual YouTube video, but for some reason they won't let me embed videos in my blog anymore.  So here's the link, in honour of Jerry Leiber, undoubtedly the greatest lyricist of the last fifty years, who died this week.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Urgent enquiry

Are these still valid?

And if so, what's their current market value?

Sunday, 21 August 2011


A man walks into a bar.  He says "Ouch!"
(Apologies for the misprint in earlier editions of this post.)


I dreamed this one:
I bought a tin of rat poison.  In the small print it said "Rat Not Included."


Q: Why did Madam Blavatsky cross the road?
A: To get to The Other Side.

Come on, you can do better than that ...

Friday, 19 August 2011


This is seriously loopy.  To put it simplistically, the Volatility Index is a measure of the levels of  'fear' in financial markets, using data drawn from the renowned and reliable, not to say infallible, ratings agency Standard and Poor's.  It's been around in Chicago for years.  So far, so pointless.  But the fun starts here: not only do they measure today's fear, they also calculate predicted fear levels in thirty, sixty and ninety days' time.  Fear futures, in other words.  And best of all, you can trade these futures in the marketplace.  You can buy and sell bets on how afraid market traders might feel by Christmas.  A quick search will put you in touch with people eager to help (at a price of course).

I'll shut up about that now, because my virtual pet snake has just started to eat its own tail again.

In other news, I understand that the markets are seriously jittery at the moment because they don't believe that governments are doing enough to regulate the markets.

And more importantly, have they found Yvonne the Bavarian cow yet?

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Reading List

In the absence of anything better to do with my leisure time (apart of course from consulting all your lovely blogs and firing the occasional inane comment at them), I read a lot.  Every fortnight or so, I tramp down to Waterstones and buy whatever of the latest '3 for 2' offers catch my eye.  [Should that be 'B3G1F?]  Failing that, I trawl my shelves for rereadables.  All that may change soon.  In the meantime, here are my twitteresque reviews of the latest half-dozen:

Gods Without Men, Hari Kunzru: Sub-early-Pynchon without the jokes.  Can the peyote, Coyote.
The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, Jonathan Coe: I did laugh a lot.  Good vignettes, and an outrageously outrageous ending.
Killshot, Elmore Leonard: Anyone wanna write a thriller with real people on both sides?  Bring it on.   (Actually, 'both' is misleading.  There as many sides as there are characters.)
The Free World, David Bezmozgis: Beautifully written sub-Tolstoyian epic of Russian emigres to Italy in the late seventies.  Easily the best new thing I've read in months.  [Spoiler alert: some of the endings are happy (I think).]
At Home, Bill Bryson: A miracle!  Bryson has managed to write a bloated, humourless, really boring book.
Life, Keith Richards: You had to be there.  And understand open five-string tunings.  I was, and I do.

And your off-the-shelf bonus ball: The Regeneration trilogy by Pat Barker.

Monday, 15 August 2011

The wee beasties will win

In a neat pull-together of several recent threads, I can report that this tiny spider

builds its web, as often as is necessary, between my two grey bins.  This has been going on for some weeks now.    Whenever I go to wheel the bin out, or sometimes even just open a lid, spider seems to see me coming and whizzes off to the nearest bin, quite happy to sacrifice its finely wrought habitat to a greater power in the interest of survival.  Just after I'd taken the photo, a feral wasp stumbled into the web.  I was hoping to capture a battle royal, but the wasp escaped.  The web was trashed though.

There's a lesson in there somewhere, but I have absolutely no idea what it is. 

Friday, 12 August 2011

The Cost of Nothing

My local council collects what they call green waste.  You get given a special green wheelie-bin, and once a fortnight a Vulture comes round and empties it.  They take the waste away, process it and compost it, and you can go up to the depot and buy nice bags of good organic peat-free compost at a very reasonable price.

Last March, everybody received a letter informing us that, from April, the council could no longer provide the free green bin service, and felt obliged to make an annual collection charge of £21.50.  Invoices for this amount would be issued during April.  We could, of course, opt out, but would have to make our own arrangements for disposal of our green waste.  Amazingly, some people chose that course, evidently calculating that the cost of the petrol needed to take it up to the tip for a year, plus the plastic bags and their own time, would amount to less than £21.50.  But most of us shook our heads in wry amusement and took the hit.

I personally thought this was an admirable scheme, fully in accordance with the spirit of modern economics.  It was rather like a sub-prime mortgage - in which you sell somebody something and then take it away from them, charging them for the privilege - in reverse.

Anyway, April came and went, and no invoices appeared.  For some reason, nobody seemed particularly surprised, and indeed most of us had more or less forgotten about it.  The bins continued to get emptied.  And then, early in May, there were some local elections, and the balance of power in my council changed.  'Ah-ha', we thought.  The first duty of a new government is of course to do its best to undo everything the previous one did. 

Sure enough, this morning the green bin collection team came down the road as usual, emptied the bins and delivered a letter, from the Interim Director of Environment Culture and Sport no less, to each house.  The Interim Director apologised for the delay in updating us, but was pleased to announce that it had been decided to 'abandon' this charge.  To quote:

'This means garden waste collections will remain free ...  If you told us at the time that you were not willing to pay the new charges you can still place your bin out for collection.'  And anyone who was nutty enough (there were some, apparently) to pay the £21.50 in advance will get a refund, in due course.

Without wishing to labour the point, I can't help wondering what the full cost was of this exercise in doing precisely nothing.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011


It's the word of the week, and for once the journalists, and some members of the public, have nailed it.  It means wild, or even better, reverted to the wild, and that's exactly what's happening.  For the people  in question, there wasn't far to go.  I'll come back to that.  First, four frontline suggestions:

1.  Be like the Turks.  I'm not particularly proposing vigilantism, but those Turkish shopkeepers who just stood up in front of their property and said 'bring it on', and got a result, had the right approach.
2.  Parental responsibility.  Any child, that is someone under eighteen living at home, who intends to go out without a very good reason has to be grounded.  If they refuse, then the parents must tell them that the locks will be changed and they will not be allowed back in the house, ever.  If the child calls the bluff, follow through.
3.  Car boot sales or equivalent.  We all know that there's a vibrant hidden economy built upon stolen or dodgy goods.  (It's not as bad here as it is in Greece or Spain or Italy, but it's rife.)  So downgrade all that.  All that looted stuff is going somewhere.  There's a limit to how many HDTVs or Imodium capsules you can steal for your own use.  The police should be prowling those places over the next few weeks. 
4.  Arrests.  Two people were openly interviewed on BBC TV this evening, effectively defending the violence and looting.  They must be arrested and charged with incitement.

But of course none of that cuts to the quick.  The trouble is that looting is the cultural norm.  A letter to today's Guardian expressed it better than I can, but just consider: bankers, MPs, media slags, police, kids ... they're all looters.  The more that moral decline persists and blooms, the less chance there is of us getting back to decency and compassion and fairness. 

We're all going feral.  'Agenbite of inwit'.  That's what we're losing.  Remorse of conscience.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

The Ben Cotta-Al Bergo AllStars

Nobody today remembers this legendary Italian band which, for a brief scintillating moment, encapsulated the zeitgeist of the world-changing musical revolution that swept the southern European avant garde in 1967.  Drawing on sources as diversely esoteric as The Flowerpot Men and The New Vaudeville Band, whilst unafraid to flirt with ‘popular culture’ (Brian Poole and the Tremoloes were a particular influence), the AllStars won a cult following in locales such as downtown Piacenza, the dockland areas of Portofino and the secret fleshpots of San Gimignano. 

The band’s personnel is hard to nail down, shifting as it did in response to physical and mental circumstances, casual invitations to ‘sit in’, and of course the match or otherwise between the availability of musical instruments and people capable of playing them.  But the core membership seems to have been: Ben Cotta, woodwind and air guitar; Al Bergo, cornetto; Sty Zitter, banjo, angklung; Con Limony, bass; Franco Bollo, banging things; Terry Motta, banging other things or sometimes the same ones as Bollo, including each other; Frank Cooler, very high-pitched calming noises; and of course the delightfully clad Bella Feager on occasional vocals.

Quite what contributed to the AllStars’ eventual demise, and the ongoing lawsuits, is difficult to discern.  It has been suggested that ‘lack of musical differences, or similarities’ may have been a contributory factor, but it seems equally likely that the members’ growing amaretto habit, sometimes involving post-gig binge sessions until one or two in the morning, would have tipped the balance between success and ignominious collapse. 

Sadly, no recordings of the AllStars have survived.  Nor, apart from an undated entry in a mouldy old exercise book of mine, does there appear to be any documentary evidence that they ever actually existed.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Do The Default

I have solved the world's financial problems several times here since I started blogging, but my proposals - abolish the financial markets, everybody join the euro, and so on - have been totally ignored.  I can only assume that this is because they are not radical enough.  So it's time to take the velvet glove off.

Somebody recently asked (in the Guardian, of course): if practically everyone is in debt, who do they owe it all to?  Nobody came up with the obvious answer, which is 'each other'.  And nobody has yet explained to my satisfaction how the inverted pyramid of piss which seems to be causing all this trouble came about, or why anyone puts up with it.  On the radio only this morning, I heard an apparently important person, from a position of some authority, explaining in all seriousness that the problem was that governments were not doing enough to convince the markets that governments were doing enough to constrain the activities of the markets.  I simplify, but not by much.

So, let's all default on our debts.  Let's all - countries, corporations, families, people - say 'nope, sorry, can't repay you.'  What would happen then?  Susan from over the road would ask me to lend her £350 to buy a new iBrow or something.  I'd say 'fine, I'll just nip next door and borrow it from Crispian.'  Crispian would gladly say yes, because he knew that Kimberley two doors up would be good for it ...  We'd all be happy, because we'd know that we'd be welcome round Susan's place any time to play with her iBrow.  And the people who make iBrows would be perfectly happy.

Pretty soon everyone would get fed up with wasting all their energy whizzing money faster and faster around the planet, and hunker down to making and doing things that are actually useful to each other. 

Meanwhile, I can't even buy a decent cheese grater.  The company that used to make them has gone bust.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Things to do with the Moon

How about this?  I know you're all Grauniadistas so have probably read all about it already, but here's my take on it:

About a squazzillion years ago, a Mars-sized planet crashed into the raw embryonic thing that was to become the Earth.  It left a huge hole, which much later became the Pacific Ocean.  But the debris flew off into space and became two moons.

After a while, the laws of physics caused the smaller moon to collide gently with the bigger one, so that they merged into one.  They agreed that we would struggle with this truth, once we came along - we needed a bit of time to work out the details.  So they came to a deal, an orbit whereby we would only ever see one side of their marriage.  The two sides were of course very different.

But we have outfoxed them.  We can see the dark side, which is very different.  Craggy and mountainous, rather than smooth and lightly pitted.  I can't see the moons as I write, because they're new.  But it comforts me, in some odd way, to imagine that I came from the same place and will go back there.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Logic vs. emotion

Some situations are born out of emotion, and one way of dealing with them is by applying logic.  You write down all the emotional triggers that led you to where you are, and you demolish them, one by one, with cold, ruthless logic.  "Was that true?"  "The evidence indicates that it wasn't."   "Why did that happen?"  "Because someone was acting on signals which may not have been intended."  "How come somebody said what they did?"  "They felt it was true at the time."  "Would that really have happened?"  "No."  And so on.

It doesn't work very well.  But at least you know that whilst the emotions will fade away, given time, the cold ruthless logic will endure.

Some of you know what I'm talking about.  Others will just have to guess.