Monday, 27 October 2008

I scream for...

Ice cream. I also, for some unaccountable reason, quite like Pepto-Bismol. But I would never have thought of doing what some enterprising chap has done. He has come up with what he thinks is the perfect marriage; Pepto-Bismol Ice Cream!

Read all about it here, and, if you have time, take in the 150-odd comments that follow. Who knows, you might decide there's a use for that almost out of date packet of Ex-Lax or half-drunk bottle of Robitussin cough linctus after all. Don't thank me. Just consider it a public service; a way of combatting waste during this credit crunch.

Sussex by the sea!

I thought it about time I livened this blog up a bit by sticking in a few pictures. Acres of print can be deadly dull. For anyone who doesn't know, this is a series of cliffs called the Seven Sisters. They lie on the East Sussex coast to the west of Eastbourne. I took the photo a few months back when summer was still with us. You may have noticed them briefly in the film Atonement, or in any one of the many calendars available extolling the beauty of Britain.

Travel a little further west and you come to Hope Gap. A ricketty set of steps takes you down to a shingle beach full of rockpools and seaweed. We took a few photos whilst we were there, but it wasn't until we downloaded them onto the computer that we saw something rather strange about this one:

Look at the rocky outcrop in the centre of the photograph. It looks for all the world as if there's someone standing there. He is facing out to sea, and has his left arm raised. He might almost be holding a pistol. In fact, the whole thing is a trick of the eye, brought about by the shapes and colours of the rocks.

In a more recent visit to Sussex, whilst atop Seaford Head, I came across something even stranger:

I thought it might make a useful addition to Stevyn Colgan's I see faces theme. I wonder who he is. Someone called Rocky, perhaps? Or one of The Stones?

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Something useful for a change

You'll have to excuse the previous post. I had just returned from the Hadrian exhibition at the British Museum, which featured some of the aforesaid tablets, and matters Roman were much on my mind.

All that aside, something equally Roman that will perhaps be a little more useful. A recipe for fish sauce. Now, it's not nuoc nam or nam pla, or even our own Worcestershire Sauce. I'm talking about the Emperor of all fish sauces - garum (also sometimes known as liquamen).

Garum was a very popular condiment in the Roman Empire. You know the way some kids slosh tomato sauce on just about everything? Well, the Romans did that with garum, not only on most of their savoury dishes, but also the sweet ones. You might like to try pears poached in wine and honey...with a dash of fish sauce. Mmm!

Anyway, the following recipe will probably give you a lifetime supply of the stuff.

Get yourself a big stone trough with a drain hole near the bottom and drag it out into your garden. An old enamel bath would probably work just as well. Now sprinkle a good layer of aromatic herbs in the bottom; coriander, fennel and oregano are fine. Next, pour in a decent selection of fish (dead ones, of course). You can use tuna, sprats, anchovies or anything else that comes to hand. If you have some fish guts and blood, tip that in too. Now cover with a liberal sprinkling of salt, about the depth of two fingers' width. Add another layer of fish, guts and blood, then more salt, and carry on like this until the trough is almost full.

Next, pray to the gods for some decent weather, because you need to leave your fish sauce in waiting exposed to the sun for about twenty days, or longer if you want extra piquancy. I suggest you stir it thoroughly every day; a broom handle would make an excellent stirrer.

After around three weeks the stuff should be ready to bottle. Acquire some clean bottles or earthenware jars and tap the liquid that runs from the trough into them. Seal up your containers and keep them in a cool, dark place until you need to use them. The residue needn't be wasted, either. This can be squeezed and pounded into a popular fishy paste called allec.

Finally, some words of advice and of warning. First, the advice: I can't in all honesty tell you how long your garum will keep, because it smells and tastes exactly the same, whether it is fresh or "off". And the warning: if you intend making a career out of garum, you might want to consider moving to an unpopulated area.

Enjoy, and do let me know how you get on.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Postcards from the Edge

Read the two short paragraphs below. The first one is an invitation to a birthday party; the second looks like a note from a concerned mum to her son serving with the military somewhere in the Middle East:

On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present.

I have sent you socks from Sattua, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants, two pairs of sandals...

Nothing particularly surprising about either of them, is there? Until you realise that they were written around 1900 years ago. These are just two of the many letters and other documents that form part of the remarkable hoard that is the Vindolanda Tablets.

Vindolanda was a Roman fort, built to control the passage of people and goods across the border marked by Hadrian's Wall. It was a few miles from Newcastle and about a mile south of the Wall, the northernmost outpost of the empire in Britain. The garrison consisted mainly of non-Italian auxiliary troops; Gauls, Germans, Dacians (present day Moldova and Romania) and possibly even some Greeks. What the latter thought about being transported from their sunny lands to some cold, wet and barbaric bit of north Britannia can only be guessed at! The officers were Romans from Italy, and were often accompanied by their wives and families, so one can imagine them trying to make the best of a bad situation by carrying on as if they were in Rome. This explains the birthday party invitation from Claudia Severa, wife of a local commander, to Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of the commander at Vindolanda.

The auxiliary troops were not Roman citizens. However, they were generally granted citizenship when their military service came to an end. And although Vindolanda came to be almost self-sufficient in terms of the necessaries of life (probably obtaining from the local Britons those things they were unable to produce or make for themselves), one could never have too many socks or underpants; hence the second letter.

The Vindolanda Tablets themselves are not tablets at all, but very thin slices of wood, on which the occupants of the garrison wrote in ink in a style called 'Old Roman Cursive', a form of handwriting that is incredibly difficult to read. There are apparently over a thousand of them, and they survived due to a happy accident. When, almost two millennia ago, some tidy Roman administrator had a clear-out of his paperwork and dumped the tablets in the open air, they were soon afterwards covered by a thick layer of clay from building works. This clay blocked out the oxygen that would have allowed bacteria to thrive and destroy the tablets, leaving them, if not perfect, at least good enough to be conserved and translated by the Vindolanda archaeological team.

I don't think the Romans were that keen on the local population, despite the fact they probably relied upon them fairly heavily for goods and services. One tablet contains the expression Brittunculi. This has been translated as Little Britons. I leave it to your imagination as to what the Britons may have called the Romans in return.

The 'Little Britons' letter. 'Brittunculi' is the first word on the penultimate line. See? I told you it was hard to read.

The last extract I have decided to copy in full. It shows two things. Firstly, that cash flow in the second century AD was just as much of a problem as it is now; and secondly, that Roman roads weren't all they were cracked up to be!

Octavius to his brother Candidus, greetings. The hundred pounds of sinew from Marinus - I will settle up. From the time when you wrote about this matter, he has not even mentioned it to me. I have several times written to you that I have bought about five thousand modii of ears of grain, on account of which I need cash. Unless you send me some cash, at least five hundred denarii, the result will be that I shall lose what I have laid out as a deposit, about three hundred denarii, and I shall be embarrassed. So, I ask you, send me some cash as soon as possible. The hides which you write are at Cataractonium - write that they be given to me and the wagon about which you write. And write to me what is with that wagon. I would have already been to collect them except that I did not care to injure the animals while the roads are bad.

The Vindolanda Tablets are on display at the British Museum. Do go and see them if you are able. They bring the past to life in a way that no dusty old history book can. Or you can find out more about the tablets and the fort here.

Image copyright © Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents, The British Museum and other copyright holders.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Keepe Deathe off the Roades

The University of the West of England has carried out a comparative study of deaths on the UK's roads across the centuries. Coroners' records from Sussex covering the years 1485 to 1688 reveal that thirty percent of deaths as a result of injury were attributable to road travel. This compares with World Health Organisation figures for the year 2000, where the percentage was closer to twenty five.

In Tudor times, it seems that being knocked down by galloping horses, crushed by runaway carts or falling off the back of farm wagons was something of an occupational hazard for travellers. Roads weren't brilliant (dusty in summer, thick with mud in winter) and no-one took responsibility for their maintenance. In fact, it wasn't unusual for the peasantry to dig up bits of a nearby road to repair their houses. There are recorded instances of people falling into such holes and either breaking their necks, or drowning. Equally, horses could blunder into these "pot holes", throwing and killing their riders. There was also danger from overhanging tree branches, the carcases of butchered animals simply dumped in the road and, of course, murderous footpads, outlaws or sturdy beggars, ever-ready to bump off the unsuspecting traveller for a few coins and leave his bleeding body for the wolves to devour (well, up until 1486 anyway, when the last English wolf is said to have been killed).

What would it have been like if strict traffic regulations were in force in the days of Good Queen Bess? Would we, perhaps, be privy to the following originall notes of some zealous constable?

Constable Thuck doth reporte that, on the Sabbath past, one John Thatcher, carter of Easte-Chepe, was seene to drive his carte in a wantoun and furiouse manner in the streete called Fleete-Bridge Streete, to the common daunger of the inhabitants or passengers. The same constable doth reporte that the saide Jon did at the first faile to stoppe when soe required by the constable, and furthermore dyd calle the sayd constable Whore-Monger, Blinde-Sinke and Crinkum-Crankum and dyd aske, hast thou nought better to doe with thy office when London is fulle of bellie-dauncers, doxies, punchable nunnes and priggers of prancers. And the sayd John dyd then offer to strike the saide constable with a bille-hooke valued at fourpence. And John Thatcher is even now lying at the common Bridewell untill his matter doth come to triall, whereby he shall have leisure to contemplate the fate that doth awaite him. Constable Thuck hath an engraving, marvelously delineated by himself, of the sayde John Thatcher falyling to observe his signall for to stoppe, the near-bye Gadzooks Camera Obscura being for that tyme utterly broken-downe.

I know what you're thinking. I should get out more.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Heave-ho me hearties!

I know. You thought it was Captain Pugwash, didn't you? But I'm pretty sure it's Captain Pugdog.

Now, this is a terrible example of what can happen when the urge to celebrate Hallowe'en gets out of hand. Not content with dressing themselves as Freddy Kruger or Hannibal Lecter (did Thomas Harris christen his homophagic anti-hero thus, simply so that he could rhyme it with cannibal?), dog owners in the US have now taken to inflicting all manner of vile costumes upon their poor canines.

Thanks to no.1 daughter for providing me with a link to more of the same.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Mounting of the Hood

Our cooker hood went bang on Saturday.

Today I became the owner of a shiny new one with a useful little booklet explaining its fitting, use and maintenance. Here are some excerpts from the booklet:

Mounting of the hood in the lower part on an hanging cupboard...(using an drill and an Rawlplug, presumably).

Changing from exhausting hood to the filtering one - In order to make this change...demand a set of carbon filters to your deales. (Just bang on the shop counter until they hand them over).

The filter (c) has to be applied to the aspirating group, which is inside the hood hitin the centre of the group with it and turning it of 90 degrees until the stop click is heard to lock it. (What ? What?)

Warning!! Under certain circumstances domestic appliances may be dangerous. (Thanks for the tip; I'll try to avoid banging my head on it once it's attached to an hanging cupboard).

English as she is spoke. Don't you just love it!

Not such a happy anniversary

Today is the 942nd anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. It wasn't a terribly good day for Harold Godwinson, or his house-carls because, as every schoolchild knows, the army of William the Bastard defeated the Saxon army, ushering in a long period of Norman rule.

Here are a few little facts concerning the day, the combatants, and surrounding events.

  • The battle did not, in fact, take place at Hastings, but at Senlac Hill, around six miles to the north-west of the present town. It lasted from around 9am until dusk, with a break for lunch.

  • Harold's wife, Edith Swan-Neck, was called to identify his body after the battle, and was able to do so by some intimate mark on his body, known only to her (and him, presumably).

  • It is traditionally thought that Harold was killed when he was struck in the eye by an arrow. However, the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio (Song of the Battle of Hastings), composed by Bishop Guy of Amiens around 1068, suggests he was merely wounded by the arrow and was then hacked to pieces by Norman soldiers. Other scholars believe that the figure on the Bayeux Tapestry reputed to be Harold has an arrow lodged in his helmet, and not in his eye. Elsewhere in the Tapestry, soldiers with arrows in the face are depicted as either being in agony or apparently falling down dead. The "Harold" figure is neither of these.

  • Norman hairstyles were nothing if not unusual, as can be seen here. Saxons tended to go for the "long hair and moustache" look.

Guillaume couldn't remember much about his stag night

  • The Bayeux Tapestry is, in fact, an embroidery. As you might expect, the French have laid claim to its creation, but it appears more likely to have been produced in England by Saxon embroiderers because of the style of execution and the natural dyes employed. It was very nearly lost for good when it was decided to use it as a tarpaulin to cover an ammunition cart during the French Revolution, but fortunately some quick-thinking soul retrieved it.

Harold couldn't decide between the Kumfilux Divan or the Nite-Nite Deluxe. Decisions, decisions!

  • The Normans were not native French; they had their origins in Scandinavia. At the start of the tenth century, the French King, Charles the Simple, had given some land in the North of France to Rollo, a Viking chieftain, in the hope that this would bring to an end the Viking raids on France. The region we now call Normandy was originally Northmannia, the land of the Northmen. The Normans who conquered England in 1066 had little or nothing in common with their Viking forebears.

  • Unlike Elvis Presley, there has never been a suggestion that Harold is still alive.

If you should happen to have a horn of mead about your person as you read this, perhaps it would be appropriate for you to make a silent toast to poor old Harold.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Mum's gone to Iceland

I suspect she's looking for the rest of her housekeeping money. It seems that Iceland are having a few cash flow problems at present. I'm not surprised. On checking their website today, I note that they are offering a Big Value Pack of lasagne for just £1, and profiteroles (sixteen large ones, mind) are a snip at £2. No wonder they're struggling as a country with unsustainably low prices like that.

The Face of Iceland is not Björk, as most people seem to think, but rather Kerry Katona. Has the singer of It's so quiet ever demonstrated how to feed five thousand people for a tenner? I don't recall her ever having done so, all though she may have done, in amongst all that wailing. Ms Katona, however, is the much more acceptable face of a country that now needs to reduce its shopping bills in order to give our councils back their pension funds.

I've visited Ms Katona's own website, and feel more than vindicated in my opinion of her. Remember Njal's Saga? Do you recall Hrafnkel's Saga? Perhaps not, but I feel Ms Katona would be more than equal to writing a modern Icelandic saga in a similar vein. Then perhaps we could thrill to the songs of Thorgeir Einarsson the bard as he extols the virtue of the 350g Seafood Medley; or listen to the chatter of Vigdis Magnusdottir as she explains to her friends how quick and easy it is to create a Birthday Tea with the Hassle-Free Party Range of wraps, tartlets and goujons. I could even suggest a tagline: Just the thing after a day at the Althing. (Or AlÞing, if you want to be authentic).

Why do I think Ms Katona is capable of such things? It is this simple statement, taken from her website, and reproduced using the original Icelandic spelling:

Kerry mentains ardent intrest in books, writing and litrature.

I look forward to reading the Islandfaeðisaga in due course.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

It's National Poetry Day!

Yep, it's that special day again. And I thought I'd add my humble offering to the day's proceedings. This little poem has the distinction (if I may use the word) of having been read out on the wireless by Ms. Sandi Toksvig some time ago.

Here goes...

There was a young lady called Janet
Who used to support Queen's Park Rangers.
At a match in the rain
She caught a bad cold
And had a stiff neck for a fortnight.

I'd like to think that the late Sir John Betjeman would have been suitably amused. After all, I enjoyed all of his stuff; the least he could do (were he able) would be to return the compliment.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

The schools are alive...

...with the sound of music. Or so it would appear. I've been listening to the radio on and off for most of the day, and the biggest topic of conversation (apart from the credit crunch, that is) seems to be Disney's High School Musical. Now, you'll have to forgive my ignorance, as I have never seen the TV movies, never bought the exercise books or other tie-in gew-gaws, nor have I spent hours in the pouring rain in central London hoping to catch a glimpse of the stars of the latest HSM offering. I think it's probably something to do with my being in the wrong age group. I have resisted the temptation to paste any picture in here that might even be remotely connected with the film. Disney (TM) have eyes everywhere, and if they can threaten to sue educational establishments for daring to use the original Disney names for the seven dwarfs in school pantos, then I'd probably be fair game.

So, why all this interest in high school musicals? No, what I really want to know is, why all this interest in high schools, full stop? Over the years I have watched a good many films, most of them American. A huge proportion of them seem to be about, to refer to, or are set in, a high school. We all know what American high schools look like, don't we? A big, well-maintained building (maybe ultra-modern, maybe faux Victorian); wide, spacious corridors with floors buffed so hard you could eat dinner off them; row after row of pristine lockers; and classrooms that look clean and well-ordered.

Then there's the cast. There's usually at least one of the following; super-cool guy who knows exactly what to wear and what to say; lunkhead football/baseball player; uncool, geeky boy who gets pushed around by aforesaid lunkhead; cool girl fancied by all the boys and worshipped by the girls; and Valley Girl.

Valley Girl is a strange phenomenon. She is incapable of using the word "said". Instead, she uses similes. "I was like 'wow!' and he was like, 'what do ya say?' and my dad was like 'no way!'" You get the picture. In the same way she cannot use a short sentence when a long one will do. "It was hot today" becomes "It was kind of like hot today". And this mode of speech is spreading to the UK. I blame all the high school movies.

In an effort to find out just how many high school movies there have been, I trawled the internet. The first site I found was "Fifty Best High School Movies". So there must be a few more than that. But astonishingly, there were three British films in the list; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Gregory's Girl, and To Sir with Love. The thing is, none of these have that "best days of your lives", feel good, anything's possible attitude that seems to pervade most American high school movies. Let's look at what we've got, apart from the three aforementioned:

Tom Brown's Schooldays - small defenceless boy brutalised by school bully.
If - psychopathic scholars go on a shooting spree and slaughter the staff.
Billy Elliot - northern boy gets a hard time for daring to enjoy dancing.
St. Trinians - vicious and/or sexually provocative girls presided over by criminal staff and a spiv.
Grange Hill - drugs, knives, violence and aggression in an inner city school (okay, so it's not a film!)

It doesn't make very good reading, does it? Perhaps the high school genre never took off here because there is no distinct and recognisable image of a UK secondary school. I suppose that's why our home-grown directors have left schools alone and instead stuck to what they know; gangster movies set in the East End or Essex, tales of drug-dealing and benefit fraud on some sink estate, and middle-class people living in easily recognisable English places (usually overlooking Tower Bridge) having relationships with other middle-class people, with a couple of random American stars thrown in so it may just about appeal to the US market.

Oh, to hell with it. I'm off to see High School Musical.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Pickwick Papers II - Return to Dingley Dell

My dear friends (I trust I may call you thus, since we are now fully acquainted), you will excuse me for addressing you in so direct a manner, but I beg leave to point out that the Festive Season is approaching with alacrity. I am mindful of the fact that it is but October; however only last Friday I noticed that the shelves of Mr. Sainsbury's Emporium were positively groaning with nuts and oranges, and I even thought I saw a turkey-cock, dissected into his component parts, placed within a capacious cooling device. These I have taken to be signs and portents of the imminent arrival of Dear Old Christmas.

This being the case, I trust you will indulge an ageing gentleman's fancy in presenting to you a newly penned chapter in the adventures of Mr. Pickwick. This chapter, which I believe would be referred to as a "posting" by our younger readers, is given below. I must warn you that it is rather long, and you may need to pause at some convenient time to refresh yourself with a glass of something - brandy and warm water is my particular favourite.

Dear friends, read on. I hope this affords you some little amusement.

Chapter Four - In which the Pickwickians journey to Dingley Dell to spend the festive season with old Wardle, Mr. Pickwick is introduced to the mysteries of the plum trade, and is re-acquainted with the repentant Mr. Jingle.

On the twenty-fourth day of December of the year in which these perambulations are faithfully recorded, Mr. Pickwick, well wrapped against the cold in woollen comforter, great-coat and fur lined gaiters, stood at the coach-stand at Golden Cross, stamping his feet upon the ground to warm them. The ever-faithful Sam Weller stood a respectful distance from his master, keeping watch over his leathern portmanteau. The pale sun bathed Mr. Pickwick in her wintry light, struggling to raise her head above the smoky clouds which hung gloomily about the lofty spires and dirty offices. The shops were dressed with Christmas cheer; the poulterers’ windows were replete with recently-deceased turkeys and geese, and the green-grocers likewise were overflowing with the bounty of the harvest. Surveying this seasonal panorama with the illustrious man were his steadfast companions. First, there was Mr. Nathaniel Winkle, dressed in a dog-toothed jacket and closely-fitted indescribables, and carrying a loaded firearm in a somewhat futile attempt to instil in those few passengers in the streets that he was an all-round sportsman. Next, the poetic and sensitive Mr. Augustus Snodgrass, who, even now, was composing in his mind a eulogy of gratitude to Mr. Wardle and family, at whose house they were to spend the festive season. Last, there was Mr. Tracy Tupman. Mr. Tupman, the incurable romantic, the eternal optimist, the abject failure in all matters amatorial, stood in not inconsiderable discomfort as his rather large frame essayed to escape from a rather small whale-bone corset. He tried to divert himself from his strictures by counting the plump women who sold flowers in the neighbourhood of the coach-stand, and he sighed.

“Sam,” Mr. Pickwick said, “I have a wish for a glass of brandy and water warm, to take away the chill. Will you get me one, Sam? And a bumper of the same, for our friends here.”

“Vy, sir, I’ll be back in two shakes, as the incontinent gen’l’m’n said to his cohorts, ven he vas taken short,” said Sam. He took Mr. Pickwick’s proffered florin and betook himself to a nearby tavern of his particular acquaintance.

“Now then, gen’l’m’n,” said a very corpulent being in a rusty black cloak and leather boots, who was none other than the coachman, “vich of you is for Rochester?”

“Why, all of us, my good fellow,” said Mr. Pickwick, beaming benignly from behind his round spectacles.

“Vell then, my good fellow,” said the being, adopting a sarcastic tone, “this ‘ere’s your coach, and I hope you may surwive the journey!”

“Thank you, my man,” said Mr. Pickwick, that trusting and unsuspecting soul upon whom sarcasm was wasted. “Pray accept this token with our seasonal felicitations.” So saying, he pressed a coin into the huge hand of the derisive coachman.

“You vasn’t joking, vas you, sir, ven you said it vas a toking! Werry vell, sirs, mount up and don’t a-come down again until I tells you, as the young ‘ooman said to the young gent as she was partial to!” With this rejoinder, the coachman glared horribly at the minuscule denomination of Mr. Pickwick’s coin, spat upon it with great vehemence, and consigned it to the inmost depths of a capacious leathern wallet, from whence it could not escape.

“I cannot help noticing,” said Mr. Pickwick to the coachman, “that you are a transposer of consonants. W becomes V, and V becomes W, a most interesting phenomenon. My young manservant has an identical impediment to his speech. So, why does this occur with such regularity among the lower classes in London?” Mr. Pickwick asked innocently.

“Vell, I can tell you vun thing, my slap-headed friend,” said the coachman, “I find your questions werry insulting, and vill have satisfaction of you!” And so saying, the portly coachman introduced his clenched fist first to Mr. Pickwick’s face, then to his waistcoat, and finally, by way of variety, to a portion of the anatomy more proximate to the ground. Mr. Pickwick, minus his spectacles and his beaver hat, with his cravat somewhat ruffled, regained his feet with as much composure as the situation would allow. With a calmness befitting the dignity of that great man, Mr. Pickwick lost no time in taking his notebook and pencil from a pocket.

“I am presently preparing a paper, for presentation to my fellow Pickwickians, on the uncontrollability of animal spirits among the working peoples of the metropolis, and their propensity for violence,” Mr. Pickwick informed the coachman. “Will you allow me to note down this occasion as an example of this singular subject?”

The coachman stared at Mr. Pickwick in disbelief, cocking his head to one side like an ancient bull-dog. “You’ll pardon my asking, sir, but are you still set upon taking the viddle from me?” he said, but noting that Mr. Pickwick’s countenance betrayed no such purpose, he softened. “Werry vell then, sir, note avay. I hope you’ll not take my wiolence amiss. Us vorking people alvays resorts to such methods ven lost for vords, vich is most of the time.
D--n my lungs and liver if it isn’t so!”

“I pray you von’t mention it,” said Mr. Pickwick, rejoindered Mr. Pickwick, unconsciously lapsing into the transpositional vernacular with which the coachman had so recently regaled him. No sooner had the words escaped his lips than the coachman, his face suffused with such a violent hue that it seemed likely he would burst a blood-vessel at any moment, spoke out at this seeming (but unintentional) insult.

“Does you have any idea vot a vanker is, sir?” said the coachman, belligerently, “because if not, I vould be werry glad, not only to explain that ‘ere term, but also to show you vot we does to the species in my profession!” He adopted that position much beloved by the amateur pugilist, and stepped forward in a threatening attitude. Mr. Winkle turned very pale, the loaded firearm shaking rather dangerously in his hands. Mr. Snodgrass fled in search of a constable. Poor Mr. Tupman, his movements curtailed by the mortal remains of the great sea mammal that had perished to provide his corset, could do nothing but look on and feebly cry “murder!” as the coachman announced his intention to use Mr. Pickwick’s august head as a foot-ball. This martial tableau suddenly froze as Sam Weller, bearing the Pickwickians’ refreshments, returned to the coach-stand and, seeing his master’s situation, regaled the pugnacious coachman in filial terms.

“Vy, my dear old father, as ever vos!” said Sam. “How are you, you irritable old barrel of veasels? And vy are you a-treating my master Mr. Pickvick to such a display of wiolence?”

“Samivel, my boy!” said the coachman, who was none other than Tony Weller, Sam’s father, coachman, and landlord of the Marquis of Granby, Dorking. He lowered his fists, and his face returned to its accustomed colour. “Mr. Pickvick! It ha’ been so long that I didn’t recognise you, sir. And my old eyes isn’t vot they vos. I pray you’ll not see reason to discharge my Samivel from your serwice, on account of his old father’s wicious propensities?”

“Certainly not, Mr. Weller,” said Mr. Pickwick, “no master ever had a better servant. A little unorthodox sometimes, perhaps, but I would not part with him for worlds!” He thought for a moment. “By the bye, Mr. Weller,” he said, “you mentioned your failing eyesight. And yet you are still driving the Rochester coach. Does it not make the journey a little dangerous?”

“Vy, bless your dear old heart, sir, no!” laughed Weller senior. I could make the journey blindfold. And vill today, if you have a sense of adwenture.”

“The offer is tempting, sir, but I will forego that undoubted pleasure on this occasion,” replied Mr. Pickwick, as images of a spilt coach and dying Pickwickians forced themselves upon his mind.

“Father, how’s mother-in-law?” enquired Mr. Weller, junior.

“She’s in the werry best of health, Sammy,” said Mr. Weller senior, “and that’s the trouble. Vould any man ha’ thought that an old widder, as is closer to three score and ten than vun-and-tventy, vould vork a poor old coachman so hard at night? I tell you, Samivel, driwin this ‘ere coach is a pic-nic, ven you looks at vot she makes me do ven ve retires.”

Mr. Pickwick, that unsuspecting soul, had not the slightest idea of the multifarious tasks set by the third Mrs. Tony Weller to her husband at the close of the day. Sam, however, was a great deal more worldly than his master.

“Aged parent, you don’t mean...”

“Oh, but I do, Sammy,” said the illustrious Tony Weller. “But ven a man ties the knot vith a super-annuated circus tumbler, vot does he expect? I can live vith the juggling and tightrope valking, but ven she vants me to sing comic songs into the bargain...vell, Sammy, it’s more than flesh and blood can stand.” So saying, he brushed away a small tear and assisted Mr. Pickwick and his party into the Rochester coach. Mr. Snodgrass, having just returned from his expedition to find a constable (and having failed to do so, as is generally the case when one is needed), was in a highly emotional state, and wept copious tears to see his beloved Mr. Pickwick safe and sound, and apparently now upon friendly terms with the driver.

As Mr. Pickwick entered the coach, he saw that he and his companions were not the only passengers. Seated in one corner was an exceptionally hirsute man, dressed in garb that betokened his recent return from some tropical region. His face was as red as a berry; and his one remaining eye directed its steady gaze at Mr. Pickwick.

“Good day to you, sir,” said the hairy one-eyed gentleman.

“Good day to you, sir,” Mr. Pickwick replied. “Are you going to Rochester, sir?”

“I am, sir, I am,” said the stranger.

“What an extraordinary circumstance,” said Mr. Pickwick, “I too am going to Rochester, as are my companions here.” He indicated the rest of his party to the stranger.

“There is nothing extraordinary about it, sir, since this is the Rochester coach,” said the stranger, in a peremptory tone. “But, as we are to be companions on the journey, sir, I will forgive your astonishment at so pedestrian a coincidence. My card, sir, my card.”

Mr. Pickwick took the proffered piece of pasteboard, which read:

Bunchworth Nubbles
Plum Importer
Mincing Lane

“The importation of plums must be a singularly gratifying employment, sir,” ventured Mr. Pickwick.

“You don’t know the least part of it, sir,” said Mr. Nubbles. “Dashed fine things, plums.”
“I have not the slightest doubt of it,” said Mr. Pickwick

“Forty-six varieties of plum grow in the Cape Colony alone,” said Mr. Nubbles, warming to his subject, “forty-seven, if you consider the Boola Boola Monster Purple. Some men say the Purple is nothing but a damson, sir, but to those men I say, ‘stuff and nonsense.’ Stuff and nonsense, sir.”

“Indeed, sir?” said Mr. Pickwick who, although a little confused by his new companion’s conversation, decided that it must be worth noting down, for later transmission to the Club.

“Indeed, sir,” said Mr. Nubbles. “I see you are noting this down, sir. Well, sir, I could tell you stories about my plums that would make your blood run cold, sir, but I can also relate many which would afford you no little amusement. It is a curious thing, sir, that there is both great tragedy and great drollery in the plum trade.”

“Is it a remunerative business, sir” enquired Mr. Pickwick.

“Exceedingly remunerative, sir,” said Mr. Nubbles. “There are green-grocers in London who will pay in gold to get their hands upon my plums. By the bye, sir, I have just returned from Van Diemen’s Land. Did you know that only seven varieties of plum can survive in its inordinately harsh climate?”

“I was not aware of that fact, sir,” said Mr. Pickwick, “but it is most gratifying to be in receipt of such fascinating information.”

During the course of the next twenty seven and a half miles, Mr. Pickwick became intimately acquainted with the Plum Trade, and, according to Mr. Snodgrass, he must have found it a matter of no little fascination. For (as Mr. Snodgrass observed in his own journal) Mr. Pickwick’s eyes took on a far-away look, and his mouth, the smallest vestige of a smile, as if he were contemplating the Boola Boola Monster Purple in its tropic habitat.

Many were the little villages, wreathed all about in winter mists and hung with icicles, that the coach rattled through; and many were the old men and women, either deaf or blind, who were obliged to jump for their very lives as Tony Weller skilfully drove his four-in-hand between the narrow hedges and ditches of that dear old county of Kent. The sight of these ancients endeavouring to preserve the existence that the iron-shod wheels of the coach were equally intent on snuffing out, afforded the senior Mr. Weller much amusement, and enabled him to make the fullest use of his peculiar sense of humour.

“Vy don’t you look vere you’re a-goin, you sightless willain!” he ejaculated, as a frail centenarian was summarily precipitated into an icy pond, “You must ha’ put your legs on all wrong this mornin’!”

“Your parent is in an extremely jocular frame of mind, Sam,” said Mr. Pickwick to his faithful servitor.

“That ‘ere’s the werry truth on it, sir, and no lie votsoever, as the gen’l’m’n said, ven someone telled him something as vos correct,” said Sam. “It does my heart good to see an old ‘un at his time o’ life, rewiling others as his less fortunate than himself!”

“Indeed so, Sam, indeed so,” said Mr. Pickwick.

Mr. Pickwick and Sam ended their discourse as the guard blew his key-bugle and the coach turned in from the High-Street and under the low arch which led to the yard of the Bull Inn, Rochester. Mr. Weller senior descended from the box with an agility astonishing for one of such corpulent aspect and, with the air of a man who was used to such behaviour, assisted his passengers into the parlour with many festive oaths.

“Last vun into the parler is a Christmas pudden!” He said, jovially, and slapped Mr. Tupman heartily upon the back. Tracy Tupman, still in extreme discomfort, endeavoured in the spirit of the season to raise a smile in answer to this practical demonstration of good will, but there was no disguising the look of murder in his eye. To Mr. Winkle, who was endeavouring to negotiate the cobbled yard with his firearm, Mr. Weller said, “You looks as comfortable vith that veapon as a sturgeon vould vith a microscope. Make haste, sir, afore I finds a vunderful new use for a branch of holly!”

“I am making haste, coachman, but the yard is slippery and my gun is loaded,” said Mr. Winkle.
“The votch you don’t go bang too soon, as the ‘ooman said to her spouse as vos prone to doing such things,” said Mr. Weller junior.

The good host of the Bull Inn, a jovial man in black top-boots and a mulberry waist-coat, was well acquainted with Mr. Pickwick and his friends, and he welcomed that gentleman and his party as honoured guests. As they made themselves comfortable, the maids bustled in and out with hot towels, buttered toast, brandy-and-water-warm, and all manner of other blandishments. The sight of a plump Kentish girl, carrying before her a basket of live eels, produced a curious effect on the still corseted Mr. Tupman. He was heard to moan very loudly, as he loosened his neckerchief with alacrity and began to fan himself with the force of a hurricane. These exertions performed, he attempted to cram his entire left hand into his quivering mouth, and was only saved from further discomforts by the host’s administration of smelling-salts to his nose and a cool cloth to his forehead.

Mr. Tupman having been thus relieved, Mr. Pickwick’s countenance, which during the incident had been etched with concern at his old friend’s predicament, resumed its usual benign appearance , until he chanced to glance in the direction of his new companion, Mr. Nubbles. That hirsute gentleman was busy examining the contents of a fruit bowl, and appeared less than pleased.

“Why, whatever’s the matter, Mr. Nubbles, sir?” said Mr. Pickwick. “I am alarmed to see you so ill at ease.”

“Indeed I am, sir,” said Mr. Nubbles. “I have just spent the last few minutes perusing the contents of this fruit bowl. Not a single plum can I find, sir! Just these apples!”

“But surely, Mr. Nubbles, the plum tree is not fructiferous in December,” reasoned Mr. Pickwick, who seemed to have gained some little knowledge of the life-cycle of that fruit upon the journey to Rochester.

“The Tangyanikan Small Blusher travels very well by sea at this time of year, sir!” said Mr. Nubbles. “Any inn worth its salt would have a hoard of them in anticipation of the festive season! Or failing that, the South Sea Royal Juicy.”

“I vish you vos in the South Seas now, sir,” said the elder Mr. Weller. “P’r’aps ve should all be spared from a-hearing about your plums!”

“Sir, you are nothing but a coachman, and should remember your place!” ejaculated Mr. Nubbles. “I have made many firm acquaintances as a consequence of my plums, sir! Ladies of delicate constitution have swooned at the size and colour of my Mauve Edibles!”

“It’s a poor vorld as judges a man by the size of his plums,” retorted Mr. Weller. “Vere I lives in Dorking, ve judges a man by the size of his vallet, and his appertite for oysters and stout!”

Mr. Nubbles was at a loss for words. He contented himself with modifying his face until it closely resembled the colour of the Mauve Edible aforesaid, then turned upon his heel and ventured forth into the High-Street to seek accommodation elsewhere.

“Vell, sir, ve should be glad to see the back on him, as the gent said to another gent ven a third gent as they didn’t like vent avay,” said Sam to Mr. Pickwick.

“I reluctantly echo your sentiments, Sam,” said Mr. Pickwick. “It is fortunate that one seldom meets fruit importers with such affectations.”

“Ho! Pickwick - Winkle - Tuppy - Weller - What’s-his-name!” said a familiar voice. Mr. Pickwick and his friends turned in the direction from which it emanated, and to their great astonishment saw that the person who had thus hailed them was none other than Mr. Alfred Jingle, former strolling actor and perfidious trifler with the affections of ladies both young and old. Mr. Jingle’s former transgressions had been forgiven, at Mr. Pickwick’s insistence, but the Pickwick Club had heard nothing of that gentleman since he had encountered Mr. Pickwick himself in the Fleet. On that occasion, Mr. Pickwick had been much moved by Mr. Jingle’s pitiable situation. It was only an act of selfless generosity by that excellent old gentleman that had preserved Mr. Jingle’s life, since he would otherwise have gone to a pauper’s grave within the walls of that debtors’ prison.

“Why, Mr. Jingle, this is indeed a happy meeting!” said Mr. Pickwick, shaking Mr. Jingle by the hand.

“Pickwick - excellent fellow - saved life - grateful -very - words can’t convey!” said Mr. Jingle, in the curious manner of speech he was wont to use, his eyes moistening.

Mr. Pickwick observed Mr. Jingle closely. The cheeks that were once hollow were now well filled, bespeaking a more adequate diet. The face was browned, probably by some tropical sun, and the now much rounder body was encased in clothes of a superior quality.

“It seems you are now a man of substance, sir,” observed Mr. Pickwick.

“Fat, sir - fat - Say the words - Don’t be shy - Plump - Just like Tuppy - Droll - Very!” Mr. Jingle laughed heartily and clapped his hand upon the shoulder of that very Mr. Tupman, who stumbled under this manual greeting. He tried for Mr. Pickwick’s sake to feel magnanimous towards Mr. Jingle, but could not forget his former enemy’s description of him as “Bacchus dismounted from the tub”, and his very ungentlemanly behaviour in respect of Miss Wardle. And how he hated the cognomen “Tuppy.”

“Where have you been, Mr. Jingle?” enquired Mr. Tupman, attempting unsuccessfully to form his mouth into a smile.

“Jamaica - Plantations - Sugar - Tobacco - Profitable - Very!” Mr. Jingle replied. “Ambition fulfilled - Pine-apple rum - Gallons - Ladies - Thousands! One thing - Missed Old England - Back for good - Glad - Very!”

“Are you a married man, sir?” asked Mr. Tupman, hopefully.

“Never, sir - Never! Free spirit - Never tie knot - Love ‘em and leave ‘em - One eye on woman and one on door - Keep boots on - Casanova - Naught like it!” said Mr. Jingle.

Mr. Tupman sighed heavily. Aside from the alteration in his outward appearance, Mr. Jingle’s inward amorous propensities remained unaltered. He ventured a final question.
“Where are you bound, Mr. Jingle?”

“Bound, sir? Why - Dingley Dell - Invitation - Old Wardle - Animosities forgotten - Family Christmas - Looking forward - Festive - Very!”

Mr. Tupman ground his teeth secretly. He resolved to keep watch on Mr. Jingle, and to do anything which lay within his power to prevent that gentleman from trifling with the affections of Miss Rachel Wardle, her nieces, or any other creature of the feminine gender.

And there you have it, dear reader. It is my earnest hope that you gather your family about you, put another coal upon the fire, fill your glasses with punch, and raise a toast to the season. And may this Humble Author be the first to wish you A Merry Christmas.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Mon Oncle

I have always been an avid reader. I couldn’t think of anything worse than to be stranded somewhere without reading material. There is a very good reason why I have a large, stuffed to the gunwales set of bookshelves in the hallway opposite the bathroom. I usually have a number of books on the go at any one time. At the time of writing these are Joined-Up Thinking (by my long-time friend and former work colleague Stevyn Colgan - well done old chap!); Thames - Sacred River, by Peter Ackroyd; Trains and Buttered Toast, an anthology of the radio broadcasts of Sir John Betjeman; and a tome on the restoration of Victorian and Edwardian houses.

When I was at school way back in the 60s, we were encouraged to order books through the medium of an organisation called Scoop. Aimed mainly at schools, it was a kind of Amazon before the internet. Every couple of months we’d be given a newsletter detailing the latest publications, and, having filled in the order form and paid our few shillings, the books would be duly delivered to us at school a few weeks later.

One set of books I remember with great affection were the Uncle books, written by the Reverend J.P.Martin and illustrated by Quentin Blake. Uncle is an elephant who, in the words of the book, is immensely rich, and has a BA from Oxford University. He is generally to be found attired in a purple dressing gown, and his preferred mode of transport is a traction engine; probably something to do with the weight/space issues in his using a car. Uncle’s dwelling place is Homeward:

Homeward is hard to describe, but try to think of about a hundred skyscrapers all joined together and surrounded by a moat with a drawbridge over it, and you'll get some idea. The towers are of many colours, and there are bathing pools and gardens amongst them, also switchback railways running from tower to tower, and water-chutes from top to bottom.

Uncle has a number of companions including the Old Monkey, Cloutman, Gubbins, Goodman the cat, the One-Armed Badger and Butterskin Mute (fabulous names!) who join him in his adventures. These frequently bring them into conflict with the inhabitants of a place that is the very antithesis of Homeward - Badfort.

Badfort is a ramshackle castle with sacking stuffed into its broken windows and strewn with the accumulated rubbish of years. If Gustav Dore had executed an engraving of a 1960s sink estate, infested with feral dogs and littered with burnt-out cars, it would have looked something like Badfort. Its inhabitants are untermensch to a man, and include the Hateman family (Beaver, Nailrod, Filljug et al), Oily Joe, Isidore Hitmouse (a tiny, skewer-throwing creature), Jelly tussle (a quivering mound of…um…jelly), and a ghost called Hootman. The inhabitants of Badfort seem to spend much of their time hating Uncle and plotting his downfall (they have special Hating Books for the purpose), getting drunk, and devising pathetic schemes to raise money. Selling themselves into slavery a number of times was a favourite, I seem to recall.

Sadly I no longer have any of the books, but they live on in my memory. But imagine my surprise when I found out that Uncle is not only alive and well, but has his own blog! It seems he is presently enjoying a well-earned break by the sea and you can read his continuing adventures here.

Image copyright (c) the Estate of J.P.Martin and Quentin Blake