Sunday, 30 December 2012

It’s Quiz Time!

Everybody’s doing it, so here’s my 2012 Quiz of the Year.

1.      Who didn’t skyfall?

2.      Which tower of strength may have been dug up in a car park?

3.      Is there life on Mars?

4.      Where did water start just after it was stopped?

5.      Of what water-related asset was it said, in June: “Prices have bottomed out and investors feel this is a good time to buy.”?

6.      Who is ending the year even more pasty-faced?

7.      Two events proved that the world won’t end just because someone says it will.  Identify them both.

8.      How did someone earn £8,000 a day for knowing nothing?

9.      What illumination has finally gone out?

And lastly, an easy one:

10.  Who threw the best blog party of the year?

Friday, 28 December 2012

Odd numbers

I know I said I wouldn’t bore you with detailed accounts of the festivities, or not much, and I probably won’t any more, but this is pretty strange.

Every year Mine Host, as a final little present, buys each of the other six of us a five line lottery ticket for whatever the latest pre-Christmas draw is.  (The rules being that anything significant gets shared out, whilst minor wins are kept by the winner.  The details of this have never yet had to be negotiated; I won a tenner a few years ago and kept it.)

So at breakfast on Thursday, the tickets were issued and everyone got a pen and waited for the results.  That’s 180 randomly selected numbers, waiting for six randomly selected numbers to be read out.

So, how many tickets, out of the six, contained any winning numbers?  Two.  How many winning numbers did each of those two tickets contain?  One.  And guess what those numbers were?  In both cases, 39.

What are the odds against that?

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Babies Rule the World!

This is, I suppose, the essence of the Christmas message, which you can subscribe to regardless of your belief or affiliation.  (Unless you’re insane, of course.)  I hold no particular beliefs or affiliations, but the last few days have been a source of focus on this particular point.

I spend most Christmasses with fairly near, close, family, and the sleeping arrangements have therefore been fairly well established.  But this has been Boybaby’s first Christmas.  He’s eight months old, and knows what he likes.  So when I arrived on Tuesday at fizz o’clock (noon),  I had to do a rapid expectation adjustment on being told that I’d be sleeping on a put-up bed in the dining room. 

My brain flipped at light speed between anger, offence, and discombobulation, and settled on amusement.

“Well, you see,” it was explained, “B isn’t used to sleeping in with his parents, so he decides not to sleep.  So he’s got the bathroom.  And that means –”

And so it came to pass.  I won’t go through the musical bedroom convolutions which led to this inexorable outcome, but actually I got a good deal, because Boybaby apparently wasn’t too satisfied with the bathroom either (at eight months you’re entitled to insist on consistency in your lifestyle, aren’t you?) and let this be known; I was several floors, walls and doors away and heard nothing of that.

He’s got a baby walker, and has learnt to do three-point turns, frowning at the nearest adult when a doorway or a chair or something gets in the way, complaining in the language he’s rapidly inventing, and smiling thanks when you sort out the problem for him.  I’d thought he was going to skip the crawling bit and go straight to walking, but I subsequently revised this to ‘straight to driving’.


 So Boybaby was my Christmas joy.  Oh, there was a lot of other stuff, of course – drink, food, presents, games, silliness, drink, food, silliness, songs, all as usual but different – I won’t bore you with even the bits I can remember.  For now.



Sunday, 23 December 2012

Christmas Story

It’s Saturday morning, the fifth of January, and the doorbell has just rung.  I’m in no hurry to answer it –  I have an ineluctable sense that I know most of what’s coming – but I look out of the window anyway.  Sure enough, an enormous UPS lorry is parked in the road, and a team of men are unloading what looks like, although it can’t be, an even bigger packing case.  I open the door.

“Delivery for you, squire,” says the man.

“I know,” I reply submissively.


It had all started so promisingly.  “I’m going to send you lots of lovely presents when I’m away,” my True Love had said.  “More and more, every day, till I get back.”

“That will be wonderful, darling,” I said, meaning it.

And Christmas Day, sure enough, brought a delightful surprise.  A tree, with a bird in it.  How nice, I thought, stuck it on the patio, and carried on the festivities with my family guests.

Next day, Boxing Day, there was another delivery, this time of a pair of doves.  And another tree.  With a bird in it.  Ah, I thought, I’m starting an orchard.  But what’s with all the birds?  Ah well; she is an unusual girl, my True Love.

Over the next couple of  days, though, after I’d acquired two more pear trees, complete with partridges (as we’d worked out they were by a bit of googling), four more doves, six hens and four peculiar creatures that the label informed me were something called ‘colly birds’, I began to wonder if something might have gone slightly wrong.  But the arrival of five lovely gold rings (along with the by now accustomed avian life, and tree) soothed me a little.  Not even the addition of six geese, shedding eggs, by special delivery on Sunday threw me, although the garden was becoming a bit crowded by now.

Then the first batch of swans arrived.

I logged on the suppliers’ website.  “Howdy!” said the message on the help page.  “We’re having a teeny problem with our delivery systems at the moment.  Please try later.  Our best people are working to sort this out.”

When the milkmaids arrived next day and started trying to milk everything (I directed them to the colly birds), my guests decided it was time to leave.  They were wise – by yesterday evening, when I’d accumulated a population of twenty-four milkmaids, twenty-seven dancing girls, twenty lords, and a band of pipers, in addition to all the birds (though some of them had flown away, I think), it was getting a little close in here.  We did have a good party last night, though.


I look at the ominous packing case in the drive.  I know I’ll have to face it soon, but in a weak feint at procrastination I go and check the wine cupboard.  It’s nearly empty.  My True Love returns tomorrow, and she’s going to need a drink.  I have an idea.  Those thirty-five rings must be worth a bob or two down the scrap gold shop, and the wine warehouse is still open.  I beckon to some of the lords, and they come leaping over.

“Little job for you, sires,” I tell them.

Then I go out and crack open the massive packing case.  And the drummers start a-drumming.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Hi! Wet Christmas

"Frosty the Rainman", anyone?

Or "Let it Pour, Let it Pour, Let it Pour".

Will children listen to hear windscreen wipers in the storm?

And is it true that Santa's sleigh is being drawn by cats and dogs this year?

I don't really care, I'll be getting wet inside ...

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Ineluctable Modality, or something (or nothing)

Trying to be clever once again, in my last post I used the phrase "ineffable modality of the tangible" to reference my attitude towards a physical rather than electronic system of diary-keeping.  This was a misquotation, half deliberate and half sloppy, of James Joyce.  Let me explain.

Joyce’s original, in ‘Ulysses’, is “the ineluctable modality of the visible”.  I misremembered ‘ineluctable’ as ‘ineffable’; and I purposely substituted ‘tangible’ for ‘visible’ (that’s the ‘trying to be clever’ bit’).  But what did he, or I, mean?

‘Ineffable’ means, more or less, ‘not expressible’; so you could conclude that I got that bit right…  But the proper phrase (which sits at the core of the novel) stuck in my mind from my very first reading (albeit with rather obviously sub-standard glue).

‘Ineluctable’, though, is a much deeper word.  ‘Not able to be escaped from or avoided.’  The visible (or the tangible, or the audible) can’t be escaped or avoided.  This is a banal thought.  But Joyce isn’t talking about that.  He’s talking about the ‘modality’ of these things.  And that takes us even deeper.

The dictionary entry for ‘mode’, and hence ‘modality’, covers an unexpectedly wide expanse of meanings, from music through computing, fashion and petrology (!) to philosophy.  I’d always taken it to denote a kind of granularity – after all, a musical mode is a selection of notes to the exclusion of others – and I stand by that.  But in my mind the definition that comes closest to Joyce’s intention is this: “openwork between the solid parts of lace”.

What he’s saying, I think, is that we can’t escape the fact that we see the lace, not the holes. What we perceive is no more than a tiny part of what’s really there.  We completely miss the totality, in which the holes are as real as the threads.  A physicist, as well as a philosopher or a genius, will affirm the truth of this.  Dark matter, in every sense.


Don’t worry, I’ll lighten up next time.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

The Diary Has Landed

Through the letterbox this morning, in an envelope marked ‘FRAGILE’.  So I’m now available for bookings throughout 2013. 

Seeing Z's post just now has made me wonder whether I should reconsider my hidebound prejudice – I’ll probably have to next year, if the decline in SHOPS continues to outpace that of online services – but for now I’m comfortable with the solution that’s served me well for decades.  (It also keeps my memory agile, at least to the extent of having to remember where I left the damned thing.)  (And to be fair I don’t have that many appointments, unlike some people.)

It’s not ideal, I have to say – the weekend is scrunched up again, and there isn’t a weekly ‘notes’ – but it does have that ineffable modality of the tangible.  When I’m gone, these physical plastic- if not hide-bound volumes will continue to exist for scholars to pore over: as opposed to mere wisps in a cloud of electrons, to which nobody knows the password.

The other thing I used to enjoy about Collins diaries is that every day contained a kind of aphorism or quotation.  But this year, these seem to take the form of excruciatingly weak, failed, unfunny puns - pound shop cracker jokes -  for which you’d put a three year old into special needs.  ‘Dig down to find water and you’re doing well.’  I mean, honestly!  And that’s my birthday’s thought for the day, and one of the better efforts.  I may have to go through with a black felt tip.




Wednesday, 12 December 2012

How much time do I have?

Every autumn I need a new diary.  I still prefer the old-style book-shaped ones, made of paper and cardboard, because – well, I just do.  My life isn’t complicated enough to warrant electronic management.

So sometime in November, on my various excursions to that increasingly alien world called SHOPS (Slim Hope Of Purchasing Something), I started to check out what was available.  I knew exactly what I wanted: the same that has served me well for at least fifteen years.  A5, Week to View, preferably in black; and if Saturday and Sunday get the same amount of space as the other five days, that’s a bonus.  (They rarely do – why do diary designers assume that we’re less busy at weekends?)

Zero.  Ziltch.  The nearest match was in WhS, who have a ‘week to view’ format with the seven days scrunched up on the lefthand page and an empty opposite page headed ‘Notes’.  Eh?

So last Thursday, irritated, I woke up the computer and visited Azamon.  (Yes, I know.  But I really don’t have time to do all that tax research.)  A quick search and sure enough, there it was: as far as I can tell (it hasn’t arrived yet) a pretty close match.  So I swallowed and held my nose and ordered it.

The fact that they haven’t actually managed to deliver my humble request doesn’t in the least demoralise those nice computers at Amonza, because this morning they scratched their heads then emailed me with a list of stuff that, based on my previous purchases, they were pretty sure I needed.
Here are just three*:

An A4 Week to View Desk Diary for 2013, in black;

An A5 Day to a Page Diary for 2013, in black;

And the best one:

An A5 Week to View Diary for 2012.  In black.

To be fair, the last was quite cheap.


*(There was also a Jerry Lee Lewis CD, identical to the one I bought from them six years ago, which they presumably thought I must have lost by now.)

Monday, 10 December 2012


The next few nights are going to be a perfect opportunity to see this spectacular cosmic lightshow, apparently, because it's a new moon, and clear skies are likely.   I'll be out there looking, wrapped up warm, cricking my neck and trying not to fall over backwards.  And maybe mouthing a wish or two.
By the way, I've always wondered why meteorites, which sound small, are the big ones, whilst meteors, which sound big, are the little shooting stars.  It seems the wrong way round.

Friday, 7 December 2012


The first two dropped through the letterbox this morning.  I’m so admiring of these people who are organised enough to get their Christmas cards sent a whole four weeks in advance (the smug pillocks), but it does give me issues. 

After some soul-searching last year, and the year before, I chose to continue sending them.  There is sound reasoning behind this not-lightly-taken decision.  For a start, it’s a way of telling them I’m not dead.  (They wouldn’t know otherwise, mostly.)   More importantly, I don’t put up decorations (unless I’m having a party, which I’m not this year (again)), and cards do furnish a room; and you don’t get them if you don’t send them.  Plus it saves on dusting.  But two’s no good, is it?  You need at least a spread-out shelf’s worth.  Maybe a few more’ll drop in tomorrow.

I did some heavy pruning last year.  I chopped people I’d never met and didn’t expect ever to.  I carefully considered those I might have met years ago but who hadn’t personalised theirs (they’re just going through* the motions); and, going to the wire, I suspended those who might or might not send to me but are probably playing the same kind of brinkmanship that I am.  That’s an interesting game, in which you can only tell when you’ve lost, never when you’ve won.  (I lost two last year, by the way.)

Anyway, I went through and updated the address labels this afternoon, and it came to thirty-seven.  Then I opened the bottom drawer in the bureau and found a John Lewis bag with at least forty over-purchased cards from one, two or maybe even three years ago.

So there’s the dilemma.  Do I send those surplus cards, rather than buying a batch of new ones, thereby helping to save the planet but risking ridicule and embarrassment?  Or do I bin them and buy a batch of new ones, thereby impressing my friends and helping to save the economy?

I know my answer, but what do you think?



*This word typed itself as ‘torhough’, who must mean something in gaelic and anyway is too good to throw away.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012


You know when I said I was forswearing rants here?  It wasn’t for lack of rantable material, I assure you: if anything, it was the impossibility of choice from a surfeit.  But there’s a difference between a rant and a whinge, and the last week has supplied plenty of whinge fuel.  But I don’t really like whinging.  But on the other hand I haven’t blogged for a week, because nothing blogworthy has happened except the rantable and whingeworthy.  But I have managed to distil one morsel of cheer from the bleak mire.  But you’ll have to wade through some of the mire to get to it.  But I won’t bog you down too deeply.

Last weekend was one of those rare occasions when many separate strands of my life decide to intersect and construct a beautiful, intricate knot, with me at its centre.  In other words, a lot of things were meant to happen; and they required precise, accurately timed two-way communication, which in my case is invariably via my BT landline.  Which decided, on Thursday, to take a holiday.

I have a mobile, not used a lot, so I phoned the fault reporting number.  After twenty minutes of  excruciatingly awful classical music and reassurances of how important my call was to BT (I’d be more convinced if they evinced any recognition of the fact that it might be important to me, too), a charming lady picked up, and I started to explain the problem.  This was the point at which the mobile ran out of ‘pay as you go’ credit.

Ah.  Now I’ll have to get the phone topped up, somehow, and start again.  Or do it online, which I should have done anyway (the broadband was still working), and and and –

Here’s the good bit.  At that moment, the mobile rang.  It can still receive calls.  I answered, and it was the lady from BT.  “Sorry, we got cut off,” she said.  She’d called me back.  BT had called me back!  I can’t tell you how that made me feel.

I won’t tell you about the mobile top-up part, and how that resulted in my credit card being cancelled, and the afternoon’s worth of failing to sort that out, because that would be whinging, wouldn’t it?  Mustn’t grumble.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Washing Machine Repair Kit

Tired of seeing your washing machine waltzing around the scullery whenever it reaches the spin cycle?  Can’t find that special little spanner thingie to adjust its feet?

Don’t despair.  With this easily constructed DIY Stabilisation Kit, peaceful laundry is guaranteed.


You will need the following equipment and materials (beer optional):

Health and safety warning: hammers can damage enamelled surfaces and thumbs.  Do not use when drunk.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Leeds (3)

 This one’s being a bit troublesome.  Through the eyes of anyone who wasn’t there, my three years at Leeds might seem pretty mundane, not to say dull.  Should I try to make them interesting, or would I then be writing fiction?  Or should I simply record the mundanity, hoping that this somehow generates its own interest?  I don’t know.  I’ll just have to write and see.

You have to remember that being at university in 1960 wasn’t what it became a few years later.   The linkage between the words ‘student’ and ‘rebellion’ may just about have started to be forged, but it was still a delicate filigree and hardly cast a shadow.  Nor  did the more formal side of varsity social life appeal much, once I’d tried a few things out.  I’d have loved to get involved with some kind of music scene, but ‘popular’ music, let alone the idea of making it, was considered impossibly vulgar .  The only acceptable form was jazz, which I couldn’t and still can’t play.  The one time I turned up for a ‘jam session’ at the Union organised by the third-year jazzo clique to spot talent, I was unceremoniously rejected for playing an unashamedly rock’n’roll solo, on a borrowed guitar, to ‘Scrapple to the Apple’, a Charlie Parker tune which, I was solemnly advised, was “just like 'Honeysuckle Rose', but much faster”. 

I went to the pictures a lot, two or three times some weeks.  The Clock cinema, which showed current second-time-around releases and the occasional obscure art film, was conveniently located just across the road from the digs, and cost, I think, the equivalent of a half-pint at the Gipton, the nearest pub, where we drank Tetley’s and played darts. 

There were a few girlfriends, naturally, drawn mostly from the local catchment rather than the student body.  I discovered that Northern girls seemed on the whole to be ahead of their Bournemouth counterparts, at least in terms of speed and distance; but by the same token they tended to move, or be moved, on more quickly.

There was an intellectual side, though, it was just that it had very little to do with what I was meant to be there for (Economics, in case you’d forgotten).    Under the tutelage of my roommate Marcel, who was a year ahead of me, I developed an interest in philosophy and literature.  Even here, though, it wasn’t what it would become over the next ten years, when genuinely original thinkers and writers (McLuhan, RD Laing, Pynchon and the like) appeared.  We had to settle for Sartre, Camus, Bergson, Kierkegaard, and a few Russians.  Most Anglo-Saxon writers talked bollocks, we agreed.  Which didn’t stop us from talking our own bollocks, of course.  But it was newly minted Leeds-born bollocks; and more importantly, it emerged from this freshly discovered process called ‘thinking’.

And what of the Economics, you might be asking.  Well, Economics and I were never going to fall in love.  I’d decided, even back in school, that dismal though it certainly was, a science it certainly wasn’t.   The more I learnt of it, the more I found this to be true, and I hold to that to this day.  The constant plaint of economists was, is, and forever will be “Don’t blame us if the real world fails to conform to our theories!”  (I see a rant lurking here, and I’ve sworn off those for now, so nuff said.)

So how the heck did he manage to get that illustrious Third Class Honours BA, I hear you wonder.  It must have been the system’s grudging recognition of talent unmatched by hard graft.  Later, I learned that it was mainly due to my Essay paper (on the heavily trailed topic of ‘Union’, it being the time of one of Britain’s numerous failed attempts to join the Common Market), which Professor Maurice Beresford told me was apparently used as an exemplar for future generations of students.  (He wouldn’t give me a copy though.)  I just remember cramming in as much as I could of all the stuff I had discovered over the three years.  So all that mugging up on everything but my subject came good in the end.  I think I even managed to work a bit of Economics in there too.

Andy Jenkinson and I had entered into a pact whereby if we both failed we'd backpack around the world.  As it was, he got a First.  So it was back to Southbourne.


Saturday, 24 November 2012

Leeds (2)

  One of my more thoughtful schoolmasters, ‘Reg’ Dixon (a Yorkshireman as it happens), imparted some pearls of wisdom in our final chat at the end of the summer term.  I promptly forgot nearly all of them, of course, but one stuck.  “It’s not going to be like school, Tim.”  Once I’d got over the shock of a teacher calling me by my Christian name, he explained that I would be expected to take responsibility for my own behaviour.  “You won’t get put in detention or sent on a cross country or anything.  You’re a grown-up now.  Or at least –” there may have been a wry grin at this point “– you’ll be treated as if you were.  Good luck.”

What Reg was saying, of course, was that I needed to acquire a quality called ‘self-discipline’.  What he didn’t know was that my mother had been drumming this into me since I was twelve, without explaining it except in terms of obedience.  So when I landed in Leeds, I was a mix: obvious but undirected intelligence; deeply implanted, barely grasped but already resented moral precepts; entire absence of any framework of experience to convert all these notions into behaviour; and an intuitive curiosity, about pretty much anything, that nobody, least of all me, had yet spotted.

This isn’t a cliffhanger, so I’ll tell you now that after three academic years I ended up with a third class honours BA in Economics.  I’ll tell you a few things about how I got to that, and the unexpected moss I gathered on the roll there, next time I visit this subject.

Meanwhile, it was Freshers’ Week.  I managed to find the University and sign on to my course.  I discovered a walking route, through Chapeltown, which was as quick as the bus and saved the tuppence fare.  A system was set up whereby I could mail major washing home, in a suitcase, and get it back, ironed and folded, three days later.  (This was cheaper and more reliable than the local laundry – my mother imposed it, without complaint; indeed, it became my duty.)  Brian and I immediately discovered the Union bar – Fred’s – where a pint of Tetley’s mild was 1/2d as opposed to 1/10d for the bitter (which was, we were told, what was wrung out from the sawdust when Tets’d finished making the mild).  I joined one or two clubs – chess, film – which I never subsequently attended.  There was a Freshers’ Ball on the Saturday, at which we predictably failed to pull.  As did most of the girls.  All of a sudden, home seemed an excitingly long way away.
Given that until then I probably hadn’t spent more than a couple of dozen days and nights away from the protective presence of my parents, it’s remarkable how quickly I got the hang of it. Isn’t it? After all, I’d only just turned eighteen.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Leeds (1)

Leeds 8, actually.  Harehills. 

In October 1960, I was sent to Leeds University to study Economics.  I say ‘sent’, because I don’t remember being given any choice in the matter, not least that of whether I had to go to University at all.  At school, once it had been decided that I was bright enough to be granted further education, I’d been slotted into the ‘Economics’ stream for A levels, because I didn’t seem to fit into the other two: ‘Science’ or ‘Arts’.  I was consulted, of course, but the idea of fitting in hadn’t really lodged yet – you can shift the tense there if you like: ‘hasn’t’.

They would have preferred me to be at LSE or Bristol, I’m sure – closer, less Northern – but I was turned down, so Leeds it was.  I remember the sense of danger.  Somebody once said something like ‘if you don’t feel fear, you can’t be brave’.  I was certainly afraid of Leeds.  The place looked, sounded, felt and smelled different.  Temples and monuments of  industry and commerce, built on century-old foundations of presumption.  Cramped houses surrounded by empty swathes of bomb rubble.  A language it took me weeks to broach.  Soot-stink air.  Bournemouth it wasn’t.

The digs, at the end of the terrace rather grandly called Brookfield Avenue, were run by Mrs Banks, her invisible husband, and their sassy, plump fourteen-year-old daughter Sheila.  The first evening, Sheila asked me how many potatoes I wanted.  I had no idea.  At home, we’d always helped ourselves, or at least been able to see the dish so that we could say ‘when’.  Here, the food was out back in the kitchen: I had no idea what the meal was going to consist of.  I must have made some kind of ‘dunno’ noise, because she said “well, I’ll put plenty on, leave what you don’t want then I’ll know how much to give you tomorrow, all right?”, with a sideways glance.  I hadn’t come across this kind of thing before.

I and my new-found digmates and buddies, Brian and Keith, went out on the prowl.  They were both from Northern cities, so less culture shocked than me, but none of us really knew what to do.  We found a coffee bar, had a coffee or two, managed to find our way back to Brookfield Avenue.  Mrs B gave us an unwanted cup of tea and sent us off to our shared bedroom at the top of the house.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

THINK! to end all THINK!s

I collect THINK!s, those bits of mind-numbingly patronising advice that appear occasionally on information signs along the roads I frequent (yesterday I was asked to consider whether I could have gone to fill the car with petrol on my bike), but the following, spotted just now in Shinfield Road, Reading, has spoilt the game for me.  Are you ready?


You can't surpass perfection, can you?

Wednesday, 14 November 2012


As Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinator, this morning I received this from the local police:

"Sometime on either the 1st or 2nd of November 2012 during daylight hours a 76 year old local man was taken ill whilst transporting his Norton Motorcycle, through Tilehurst.

"He stopped at a house on what he believes to be either the Tilehurst Road or The Meadway, and asked a lady if he could leave the motorcycle in her garage temporarily which she agreed to.

"The garage was attached to the side of the house.

"Since then he has been unable to recognise which house he left the motorcycle at.

"The motorcycle is of great sentimental value to the gentleman and anyone with knowledge of its whereabouts is asked to contact Thames Valley Police Enquiry Centre on 101."

My thoughts and feelings are spinning around this story, and I can't think of a title for the post.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Two Minutes

I don’t know why I seem to spend the Armistice Day two minute silence in my local Waitrose.  (Actually, that’s nonsense: it’s because I often go to Waitrose on Sunday mornings.)  But it seems to work.  If I were sitting at home, sure, I’d observe the silence – that’s easy around here – but doing it in a public place, especially one that incongruous, amongst an entirely randomly drawn bunch of people who’ve momentarily been transformed into a strangely unified community, can somehow focus my thoughts.

What would those thoughts be?  This morning, they were a bit scattered.  I’d heard on the radio that consideration was being given to the circumstances in which British forces might be sent into Syria.  Appropriate or not?  I fleetingly remembered church parades as a shivering ten-year-old Sea Scout – irrelevant, I had no idea what was going on, not really, I was just being dutiful.  The notes of the Last Post and Reveille dropped into my mind, as they always do, and echoed back.  I hadn’t noticed before the extraordinary range of gin brands Waitrose sell, fifteen at least … 

Twenty yards away, in front of the packaged fish, a woman was yammering into a mobile whilst her four-year-old son dashed between cakes and snacks.  Poor thing, she obviously hadn’t heard the announcement, didn’t realise what time it was or what was going on around her.  She wasn’t being loud, but she was audible.  I could see silent people getting embarrassed; what do you do?  You can’t say anything, can you, because …

Her boy got it.  I saw him suddenly stop hyper-acting, look around; possibly catch someone’s eye, and give his mother’s sleeve a little tug.  She bent down and he whispered something.  Obviously I couldn’t hear it, but it must have been “Mum?  Shut up.”   

The announcement came: “Thank you for observing the two minute silence.”

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Cold diary (2)

Yes, better, thank you.  Working my way towards the perfect linctus cocktail, and I haven’t seen any of my meals over the last 48 hours more than once.  It’s been suggested I have something called ‘man flu’, which I must admit I’d never heard of, but it sounds pretty butch, something to drop into a macho pub conversation alongside par five birdies and twin turbos.

Anyway, it does free up even more time for reading, which is how I’ve just finished, at a single interrupted three day sitting, ‘Black Swan Green’, by David Mitchell.  This is one of those novels that enfolds you in a world that’s always been there waiting for you, new and surprising even though you’ve known it for years; and then, when it ends, leaves you there, looking for the way out.  In this case, the world of a bullied thirteen year old boy, suffering from an affliction in a small community, and how he deals with it.  Well, I’ve been there.    

I suppose I was a sickly child.  Certainly I had a few serious babyhood ailments, like whooping cough, and I was always getting colds.  So was everyone, of course, but mine were somehow given credibility by my chilblains.  A cold and an outbreak of chilblains, in the winter, would suffice to get me off CCF drill days; I’m not sure what I used in the summer.  Stomach aches, probably.  Of course, whilst adults – parents, teachers – were easily fooled by these tactics, my peers saw through it, so I was, for a year or more, setting myself up as a natural victim, allowing this blanket of identity to be woven and wrapped round me by other people. 
You don’t realise this sort of thing is happening, until something jolts you into suddenly feeling the weight of the blanket.  I clearly remember being ordered by a master, with an expression of disgust, to go and wash my hands; a nudge from the boy next to me (“Tell him!”); and explaining that I wasn’t allowed to.  And the strange feeling of empowerment the teacher’s embarrassed apology gave me.

Lonnie Donegan rescued me.  Learning to play the guitar cured the chilblains; performing in a skiffle group, which you can’t do under a blanket, took care of the rest.  (Except the colds.)

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Cold Diary (1)

Oh hello, is that you out there, world?  Still there then?  Anything important happened while I’ve been asleep?

I don’t get colds.  I mean, I do understand them, but I don’t catch them.  This started more than twenty years ago, when I had a flu jab.  It was followed by something horrible which I’d have called ‘flu’ if I hadn’t been told, twenty years earlier, by my mother that “if you can walk, it’s not flu.”  Since then, nothing, until now. 

Fair enough, I’ve been able to walk for the last five days, so it’s not flu.  I can even do stairs, and this morning, optimistically imagining that it was tailing off, drying out, losing interest –  surely even viruses must get bored eventually – I drove up to the supermarket, mainly to haul in a bootload of tissues and catering packs of Ibuprofen, Covonia and Strepsils, these being the least ineffectual drugs I’ve discovered so far.  (I’d go for codeine if I could, but they don’t seem to do that off the shelf at Waitrose.)

One thing I’ve found is that I feel best in the few hours after I wake up, so I’ve been sleeping as much as possible.  I’m aware, though, that this isn’t a habit to get into.  Although it can be very nice, and even interesting, sleep is not, as things stand, our natural state as humans.  Oh, I’ve been sitting here too long, because I find myself arguing with that, thinking about babies and old people; and wanting to ask cats and dogs and lions for their opinions.

I’d better stop now.  I must be feeling better, because it’s nearly eleven o’clock.  Friday night, I was in bed by nine-thirty and slept twelve hours.  I expect I’ll be up by eight tomorrow.   There’s more.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

What's in a number?

Nothing really.  So I'll say nothing about the fact that this is my 500th blog post since I started back in 2008.

In other news:  I have a stinking cold.  I'm not used to this, and I DON'T LIKE IT!

Friday, 2 November 2012

Coffee Cluedo??

A well-known department store chain has announced that it is to trial a rebranding of the coffee in their in-store cafeterias, to make life easier for purchasers to work out what they want.  I have some sympathy with this; some of those beverages can be quite daunting.  I was proud of myself a few weeks ago when, in a C0sta at Southampton airport, I ordered an Americano and got what I expected – a black coffee with milk on the side.  And I’ve never dared to enter a St@rbucks.

But I do think Dbenha∑s – for it is they – are perhaps at risk of obfuscation by over-simplification (and if there’s a word for that, please do let me know what it is).  Apparently, 70% of their customers struggle with terms such as ‘cappuccino’ and ‘espresso’, which are to be renamed ‘frothy coffee’ and ‘a shot of strong coffee’.  Really?  If this is true, then it does seem to suggest something about the majority of their clientele, or their opinion of them, which I’m sure Dbenha∑s didn’t quite intend.

But fair do’s to them, if they think it’s going to help.  I rarely enter the store by choice (sometimes you have to go through it to get to the car park), and never their café.  What does bother me slightly, though, is the ‘director of food services’ (and there’s a job title for you – what happened to ‘catering’?) claiming, as he does, that this will enable shoppers to “spend less time playing coffee Cluedo.”  Now, I don’t know whether this guy has ever played Cluedo, but a moment’s research would have revealed the inappropriateness of this metaphor in every single respect beyond smart-ass alliteration.  ‘St@rbucks Scrabble’ would have been marginally better.  Nothing would have been better still.


Tuesday, 30 October 2012

First Meeting of the ‘Committee for Putting Time Back in Joint’

Scene: a meeting room in the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.  Two politicians, a civil servant and a scientist are gathered.

Politician #1: Welcome, gentlemen.  And madam, of course.

Politician #2: Don’t patronise me, you little sewer rat.

Scientist: Can we just establish what we’re here for, first?  As I understand it –

Civil Servant: If I may summarise the situation?  (Blank stares all round.  He presses on.)  An overwhelming majority – thirteen to none – seems to be in favour of changing the current regime whereby, twice a year, everybody in the country is obliged to alter all their timepieces by one hour, forward in the spring and backward in the autumn –

P #1: Oh for mercy’s sake –

C S: - and therefore that something needs to be done.

S: The answer’s obvious.  Move the Greenwich meridian west by seventy miles.

P #2: And how exactly does that help my constituents in the Orkneys?  Not to mention hard-working mothers on the school run who risk having their babies ploughed down by drunken drivers because it’s just too bloody dark?  Eh?

P #1: Very good point, my dear.  Of course, most people don’t live in the Orkneys, do they?  They live in Buckinghamshire, and frankly those I talk to don’t seem to think there’s a problem.  Most of them can’t go out in daylight anyway.

S: Of course, we could solve the north-south divide by rotating the Earth on a horizontal axis so that everyone gets their fair share of daylight …  (Scratches head.)  Hmm.  This would have to be done gradually, of course …  Perhaps on a weekly basis –

P #1:  I like that.  Could be a vote-winner.  (Frowns.)  Or a referendum-loser …  (Cheers up.) Good for employment though.  Plenty of intern jobs reprogramming satnavs …

S:  Not to mention online maps -

C S:  On a point of order, can I point out that we haven’t yet agreed on a name for this committee?  Or terms of reference?

P #2:  Can we discuss that over a pint?

P #1:  First sensible thing you’ve said, my love.  I believe they do a very acceptable Côte-Rôtie by the bottle down at the Snout and Sundial.

S:  (Looks at watch.)  Gosh, is that the time?

C S:  So, next meeting?  Same place and time, say April the first next year?

S:  We’d better synchronise our watches.  (Fiddles with watch.)  Right, mine’s synchronised.


Exeunt, to the sound of Big Ben tolling noon.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Whirligig of Tim

Well, having dreamt up that clever-clogs strapline, with the idea of writing something even cleverer about the great biannual clock-shifting fiasco, I find I don’t really have much to add to my rant of three years ago.  So just a point or three:
I’ve realised that the microwave’s clock doesn’t actually have anything to do with anything, including the microwave.  One down.  There are quite a few other clocks around here which don’t seem to serve any purpose either, so are not going to get reset.  In fact, I’ve only done two – the central heating, and my old-fashioned watch. 

Mostly, my life is not governed by clock time.  Sometimes, it is by other people’s, but that’s to be expected and is manageable.  I do need a source of other people’s time, but the watch does that.  So why do I get slightly anxious if I haven’t arranged my lunch by one o’clock? 

Adjusting body clocks (which I’ve just said I don’t need to do) is more difficult – I forced myself not to be hungry for an extra hour – but manageable.  Except for gintime.

Finally, what about that canard about ‘an extra hour’s sleep?’  Bollocks.  If it happened on a Wednesday, fair do’s.  But on Sunday morning, everyone just sleeps till they’re ready to get up, don’t they?   

Tuesday, 23 October 2012


It’s a fundamental word, isn’t it?  Spielberg proved that in ‘ET’, and I was reminded at Waitrose checkout this morning, when a mum ahead of me picked her little boy out of the trolley seat and dropped him, perhaps a bit too brusquely, into the body of the trolley, amongst the shopping bags.  He must have been accidentally bumped into something on the way, because he said “ouch!”; she did the right soothing sounds and motions, and he decided not to cry.  He was probably about two.  The checkout lady said something about not being able to find the barcode for one of those, and he broke into a grin. 

What I really wanted to tell you about was a serendipitous, if excruciating, pun I came up with later.  I’d been looking for H#ston Bl^menth@l’s excellent range of ready meals (not a sponsored post, honest!), in particular the fish pie.  They’d been relocated, so I consulted a charming lady called Kerry who pointed me in the right direction.  It was only on the way home that I thought “Pie?  Ask where.”

I’m awful, is it not so?

Friday, 19 October 2012

Invariant tags – we need one, innit?

Say I say “you like that, don’t you?”, or “we could go to Mauritius, couldn’t we?”, or “I already said so, didn’t I?”  These are all ‘statement tags’, which fulfil an important function in conversation: to request confirmation whilst not demanding it.

In English, being proper and rule-bound, we do this grammatically, as the few examples above show.  Hence our sentence tags are variant, being entirely dependent on the structure of the preceding statement.

Others manage it differently.  “n’est ce pas?”  “non é vero?”  ¿verdad?”, “nicht war?” and so on.  They’re all invariant, independent of what they’re asking us to confirm.  I could compare them to a shrug, a quizzical smile, a raised eyebrow.  Perhaps we British are not so good at body language either.

So welcome ‘innit’.  Let’s de-yobbify it, make it respectable and draw it into the language.  You can always pronounce it “isn’t it?” if it makes you feel safer.


Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Content and Form

There’s been a certain amount of recent debate, in the blogs I frequent, about literature, to use the word in its broadest, loosest sense.  On my last visit to W@terstone’s (where I must admit that, unless I’m after something specific, I tend to select the books that are displayed horizontally rather than vertically) I picked up ‘On the Road’, which had somehow evaded me for fifty years.

It’s a rattling good read, and I can understand how it was viewed as experimental, even revolutionary, when it came out in 1957.  Today, of course, it’s tame in those terms; and judged against the two criteria in the heading to this post, I thought it was failing on both counts.  But then, on page 64 (the well-known test of an unknown book), the following sprang out at me:

“I suddenly began to realise that everyone in America is a natural-born thief.”

Form-wise, even within the subset called ‘style’, it’s a pretty bad sentence.  You can’t ‘suddenly begin to realise’ anything, can you?  And ‘natural-born’ is a sloppy cliché.  But for its content, it’s a humdinger of a metaphor.  Is that what the Dream boils down to?

I wonder if Kerouac meant it that way.  I suspect he did, and that under the yarns, japes and badinage he had a deeper intent.  I’ll finish the book, keeping an eye out for more evidence.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Gujerati(ish) cabbage curry

(Requested by Blue Witch.  The most appealing cabbage ever?)

For two with other dishes:

Half a savoy cabbage**
Half a medium onion
1 teasp. each black mustard seeds, fennel seeds, kalonji*
1-2 small dried red chillis.
Vegetable oil
Garam masala

* You can leave this out, but don’t omit the mustard or fennel. 
** Save the other half as cow bait.

·         Finely shred the cabbage and slice the onion.

·         Heat some oil in a heavy flameproof pan and chuck in all the spices.

·         Cook until the seeds start jumping and the chillis turn blackish.

·         Add the onion and cook until it starts to brown.

·         Add the cabbage and a little water and salt.  Stir and cook until the cabbage wilts, then add 1 teasp. garam masala.

·         Cover and cook in a slow oven (gas 3) for half an hour or so.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Aubergine Pepper and Tomato “Moroccan” Braise

Viv was an instinctive cook, with creative flair, who rarely followed a recipe to the letter, never mind wrote one down.  So it’s not surprising that when I looked more closely at this I could see that you might have some difficulties recreating it.  As indeed she probably would’ve too; it was only at my insistence that she recorded her successes in this book, and then, as I remember her telling me, just as aides memoires.  I don’t think she ever made the same thing twice, except when she intended to.

I toyed with trying to convert it into a proper recipe, with quantities, temperatures, times, and so forth; but then I thought ‘don’t destroy its spirit.’  So here’s the original: make of it what you will.


I’d like to think the dried ginger and the sultanas made their way in there at some stage.

Anchovy stuffed mushrooms

(Requested by Z and Lo.)

This is a Viv* recipe, which I’ve never tried, but it looks pretty tasty, and very easy.  I do remember the richness – at a dinner party, I seem to recall.  I suspect the size of the mushrooms is important, so as to provide enough stalk for the filling.

6 anchovy fillets (in oil, drained, not the dry salted ones)
6 medium cup mushrooms
Olive oil
Small bunch parsley

  • Heat the overhead grill (preferably over a solid griddle plate).
  • Pull out the stalks of the mushrooms and mince, or whizz in a blender, with the anchovies and parsley.  Season with pepper to taste.
  • Brush the mushrooms all over with oil and grill bottom up until slightly brown.
  • Turn and fill with the mixture, and grill for a further few minutes until beginning to sizzle.
Good as part of pre-dinner canapés.  Very rich so allow 1 – 2 each only.

*For those who don’t know, Viv is my much-missed late wife.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Recipes – the rethink

Well, this afternoon I looked through that book of homegrown recipes I mentioned a few posts ago, and, er, can I back off a tad from my rashly offered proposition, please?  The broccoli soup was the best of the bunch.

I remember them, more or less.  Some were one-offs; others get revisited occasionally; others still have become trustworthy staples.  Don’t get me wrong; they’re all good dishes.  I know they are, they wouldn’t have been written down otherwise, would they? 

And therein lies the problem.  The writing down was often done in a state of post-prandial “that was delicious”-ness, and so was not necessarily as complete, accurate, or indeed legible as it could have been.  I’ll say no more, but my fledgling reputation as a ‘cook’ would be trashed if I were to publish some of this stuff in its raw state.

I don’t do failure, so instead here’s a plan B.  Select the dish you fancy best from the list below, and I will do my best to write it down proper-like and post it:

Anchovy stuffed mushrooms

Aubergine, pepper and tomato ‘Moroccan’ braise

Lamb-stuffed aubergine

Gujerati cabbage curry

Carrot and lettuce soup

Duck with apple

Gwyn’s cheese straws

Kidneys in mushroom and onion sauce

Lamb with clementines

Meatballs in Med veg sauce

Mushroom soup

Prawn stuffed peppers

Thai prawn curry

Belly pork with peppers

Quick pea and leek soup

Rich squid sauce for pasta

Roast squash and tomato soup




Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Measured out my life with Beatles songs

It was fifty years ago today.  Well, last Friday to be exact. 

Love Me Do came out on 5 October 1962, and briefly charted.  If I heard it at all, I probably wrote it off as a discountable Bruce Channell copy (which it was).  The closing down of my life in Leeds, the closing down of my university career, of tenuous or endurable friendships and red-hot or chilly loves, the strange sense of loss – music had to wait in the queue once again, for a while.  But a head was building up, not just in me but everywhere.

I Saw Her Standing There.  When I got back to Southbourne in June, Beatles were everywhere, and so was a music explosion, which gleefully grabbed me, shook me up, spun me till I was dizzy, and tipped me out.   I just bummed around.  It was great.  I went to the beach – sometimes the far end of Southbourne towards Hengistbury Head; occasionally on car trips (having passed my test and annexed my mother’s side-valve 850cc red leather seated Morris Minor for my own use) to Shell Bay, across the Sandbanks ferry, where whole days could be easily, indolently wasted on beach life.  June and July and a bit of August 1963 slipped away.  Eventually, I got a job on the buses.

If I Fell.  My first band, the Trackmarks, wanted to be the Beatles.  Well, everybody did.  ‘Mania’ says it: every so often, something takes over.  I remember us leaping around on Sandbanks beach one evening as if we were in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, bothered that there were five of us because four was the only right family size.  And me feeling jealous – I wanted to have invented those chords!

Tomorrow Never Knows.  I think ‘Revolver’ coincided with my first joint, but I don’t remember this track as any kind of psychedelic experience.  In fact I remember it only for two reasons: being intrigued at the time as to how they’d managed to expend so much effort on this boring dirge; and wondering now how I managed to play it to my girlfriend in the back seat of the Morris Minor in Bedford’s Beach car park.

Strawberry Fields Forever.  Now here I did succumb to druggedness.  It had both of the elements of music I was looking for at the time, melody and sound.  And words.  That’s three.  Well, who's counting?   Right at the end of the fade, John says something.  ‘Them freaks’, as he later called them, claimed that it was ‘I buried Paul’, which was obviously nonsense.  The authorities insist that he says ‘cranberry sauce.’  I persist in my belief that what he says is ‘I’m very bored’, which he was.

Penny Lane.  1967: a long argument in the street outside the Piper club in Milan with Maurizio, the lead singer of Italy’s top group L’Equipe 84, about whether it was a piccolo trumpet or a speeded-up normal one.  I was right.  Happy days!

Let It Be.  The only Beatles song I actively hated when I heard it.
I have more ...!