Thursday, 31 December 2009

A hundredweight of drivel

I think it was one of my now long-departed grandparents who said, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." Were they alive today, that same grandparent might also advise that "If you can't think of anything to blog about, then don't blog at all." Were I to follow this latter piece of advice, it's likely that this blog would be either very sparse, or (which is more likely) non-existent. The truth of the matter is that, over the last year and a bit, I've managed to say very little of consequence, but have said it a hundred times. This is indeed my hundredth post.

We've had to batten down the hatches here in Sussex over the last few weeks. The weather has been terrible, giving me an excuse to have a proper open fire in the grate, something that, coming from smoke-free London, still fills me with childish delight. The recent stormy weather has also resulted in a rather curious phenomenon. We inhabitants of Seaford found ourselves with a sandy beach. Seaford beach is usually resolutely pebbled, its mile or so of flint being marshalled and kept in place by an army of heavy bulldozers that fight to prevent longshore drift from scouring away the beach completely. But over the last couple of weeks, the storms washed away the shingle and left behind a beach that, although it didn't rival those of Thailand or the South Seas, would nevertheless have allowed the building of sandcastles. If anyone had been there to build them, that is.

It's been a funny couple of weeks. In one of my (thankfully) exceptionally rare visits to Tesco's, I saw a raincoated sixty-something man get increasingly frustrated with the self-service till. He'd bought a couple of small items, and, sensible man that he was, had decided to pay with some of those vouchers that the supermarket sometimes sends one through the post. Upon the appropriate prompt, he put the aforesaid voucher into the appointed slot. Nothing happened. Our friend then decided that the voucher must have become lodged in the machine. So, he grabbed a handful of leaflets from the counter (Clubcard application forms, I fancy they were), tore them into strips, and started to insert them into the voucher slot. Nothing happened. Then something happened; the machine disgorged the voucher. He put the voucher back in. Nothing happened. He inserted further bits of Clubcard leaflet. Out came the voucher again. By this point, I was both wearied and fascinated at the same time, so I had a discreet word with a nearby sales assistant, suggesting that the gentleman might need a little help. He was only about three feet from the assistant, but at no time did he ask for anything in the way of aid. Perhaps he was at a loose end that day and the whole thing afforded him with a little diversion. I'm not keen on those self-service machines. They always tell me there's an "unexpected item in the bagging area." That unexpected item always turns out to be my shopping. If shopping is unexpected, what would be an "expected" item? A set of false teeth, perhaps? A copy of Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy? Or maybe a sense of ennui? Whatever that is.

A few days after this, I saw Mr. Toad of Toad Hall fame, outside the station. Of course, it wasn't actually a toad; it was a man. But he was sporting the kind of garb Mr. Toad would have worn to drive his car - bright yellow corduroy trousers, lovat green jacket with a red check, peaked motoring cap of a similar material. It was with great difficulty I resisted the urge to say "poop poop!" before running away. Just thought you'd like to know.

This post is in danger of turning into stream of consciousness drivel, if it hasn't already. My initial purpose was to wish you all a very happy new year. I don't make new year resolutions, and the closest Mrs. H has come to one so far this year is when she said, "I think I'm drinking too much. I think I'll just have a couple of gin and tonics." (She doesn't drink too much, dear reader!) No; I think if you resolve to make some change to your life, any time is a good time. Why wait until January the first? However, if I were to make a resolution, it would be to get something written other than this humble blog. The pilot episode of Pardon my Jaguar, perhaps? Or some more of the perpetually unpublished Middenshire Chronicles.

I think I've already taken up far too much of your time. A very happy new year to all of you, my bloggy friends. I'll see you in 2010. Perhaps then I'll have something useful and/or interesting to say. It would make a change, wouldn't it?

Friday, 25 December 2009

A Christmas message (or Yule Blog, if you prefer)

Happy Christmas to one and all, and especially to you, my dear bloggy friends. I realise I'm probably not the first to wish you the compliments of the season, but this does not diminish the sincerity of my wishes.

Each nation has its own peculiar customs. By 'peculiar' I do not, of course, mean weird, odd, strange, call it what you will; but rather, 'singular'. It may be a particular mode of dress, a type of dance, a sport, or even a national characteristic. Most of our national customs seem to be crammed into a single day of the year - Christmas Day. It is, of course, customary for us to eat turkey (with 'all the trimmings', whatever they might be), Christmas pudding and mince pies. But there are so many other little bits and pieces associated with Christmas, and particularly Christmas dinner, that change what could be a simple meal at home with the family into a nightmare of complexity. You've got the turkey; now, what about stuffing? And those little chipolatas wrapped in bacon? Oh, and the cranberry and bread sauce that hardly anyone likes? And not forgetting the brandy butter for the pudding...

It fell to me to make the brandy butter. How hard could it be, I thought. Get some butter and mix it with brandy. But no, it isn't that simple. You have to stick sugar in it as well, and beat it until it attains a smooth consistency. So, I took equal amounts of butter and sugar, and combined them (the chefs love the expression 'combined', don't they?) in a bowl until, it seemed to me, they were of the smooth consistency aforesaid. At this point I tipped in some South African brandy (there was no expense spared in the Hale household, I can tell you!) and then whisked the agglomeration as if my life depended upon it. As indeed it might have. The resultant mixture very closely resembled the substance called brandy butter, that I had seen on sale in the various food emporia in the run-up to Christmas.

I tasted it. It tasted buttery and brandyfied, I grant you. But there was something curious in its consistency. It was not the smooth paste I had anticipated. It seemed...well...gritty. It reminded me somewhat of the sensation you get when you bite into a bit of seafood from which not all of the sand has been eradicated. This wasn't brandy butter. It was Sandy Brandy. Or possibly Sandy Butter. Of course, Mrs. H was supportive as always, saying that it didn't matter, but that next time I might try using icing sugar to reduce the...grittiness. Anyway, there being no time to experiment with alternative ingredients, the Seaford Shingle Butter, or Brandy Gravel, or whatever the heck it was, had a cooling session in the fridge and then was duly placed upon the Christmas table as the tradional accompaniment to the (sensibly) shop-bought pudding.

I noted that its spell in the cooler had changed my Sussex Brandy Pebble-dash. It had started to separate, and now looked suspiciously like a tub of value range humous, or that lumpy mix that forms in the cheese vat just after the rennet has been added. An hour in the kitchen's answer to the naughty step had only served to make it even more unpleasant than when it started out. I gave it a quick twirl with a fork, hoping to force the ingredients into some kind of homogeneity, but it was no good. There had clearly been a falling-out in that particular marriage.

As we ate our pudding, no. 1 daughter had pushed a spoon into the centre of the admixture, leaving a little depression. The brandy started to exude from the solids to form a little pool in this concavity. The thing now looked like some terrible medical emergency; a huge, suppurating wen, perhaps; or a long untreated bedsore. At daughter's behest I scooped out a tiny amount of the glistening, purulent liquid and tasted it. It was clearly a mixture of brandy and sugar that somehow managed to combine the worst characteristics of each ingredient, whilst eschewing anything good that might otherwise have been present. I couldn't bear to be it the same room as this creature any longer.

I was all for chucking it down the sink, but Mrs. H quite rightly pointed out that our drains are over a century old. So it went into a bin bag. It's been very quiet since.

The rest of the meal was fine, by the way.

Happy Christmas.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Imprecations on the A120

I have always loved the poems of John Betjeman. Even as a child, the Englishness of his work and the underlying humour in many of his poems captivated me. I remember seeing Sir John at Oxford Circus back in the late sixties or early seventies. I was wandering aimlessly round the west end shops (as was my wont), when I happened to notice the great man, wearing his trademark trilby and a rather shabby raincoat, making his way through the crowds with an other-worldy expression on his face. I like to think that I was the only one who noticed him.

I speculated here on the type of poem dear Sir John, were he alive today, might have written about our reliance on computers. But there are huge swathes of 21st century life -"reality" TV, recession, fears of global warming - that might well prompt him to put pen to paper. However, as I recently bought my first "satnav", I thought that ought to be the poet's next topic. It is loosely based upon Meditation on the A30, and I have attempted, as far as possible, to keep the original rhyme scheme. It is entitled Imprecations on the A120. I hope it will amuse!

A man on his own in a car
Is creating a terrible stink
His effing and blinding’s a product of finding
His satnav has gone on the blink

“She’s stopped telling me where to go,
She should have said ‘left’ at that fork!
This journey is going too slow,
I think I’ll just get out and walk

“Why can’t you just give me directions?
It is your damned job, after all.
My wife said today she’s been playing away
With Derek from near Coggeshall.

“If I had a Garmin, let’s say
Or Tom Tom ‘Go’ with Lane Assist
I’d find Derek’s lair straight away
And introduce him to my fist.

“This satnav is trash, and a waste of my cash, and
I will bin you, God knows I will!”
As he pokes at the screen, he hasn’t yet seen
The DAF truck closing in for the kill.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Cloth encounters

It's now three weeks until Christmas Day, and the tills are ringing with all the gusto of yuletide bells. Except that tills don't ring any more; they kind of spit and splutter and refuse point blank to do anything without a barcode. And it seems that I always manage to choose the one item on the shelf that doesn't have a barcode. But it was fine. John Prescott, the former deputy Prime Minister, was on the till at B and Q in Eastbourne, and he seemed more than equal to the task of keying in the product information manually, thus enabling me to take home, and install, a brush-type internal letterbox flap to keep the sea breezes at bay. Strange how these celebrities keep appearing in the shops of East Sussex.

Eastbourne was rather crowded on Wednesday. I'm not sure why, but I always feel somewhat resentful about this. What are all these people doing, taking my parking spaces and filling the shops? I enquired aloud. Haven't they got jobs to go to? Why are they there during the day? But I was quickly reminded by Mrs. H that I was, of course, part of the problem. In an attempt to engage my interest in something other than the crowdedness of the shops, she took me to a linen emporium.

In truth, it was a linen shop, rather than an emporium. And it wasn't crowded. I very quickly discovered why. There are very few shops (other than those selling commodes or surgical supports) that are as stultifyingly dull as linen shops. The shop window display indicated that it was, indeed, Christmas by displaying novelty yuletide tea towels featuring the Jolly Old Gent, snowmen, reindeer, and all manner of other seasonal motifs. There was also a smattering of Christmas stockings, ready to be filled with oranges, nuts and...aww, who am I kidding! But the best bits were inside the shop...

The place was full of curtain poles and blinds, tie-backs, tea cosies, bedding, net curtains; in fact, just about everything linen-y. But tea towels seem to be the staple of this particular shop. There were large metal cages full of them, all at extraordinarily low prices. Perhaps tea towels will have some sort of role to play if ever nuclear war threatens, and the government advises us to wet them and use them to cover our heads. If so, I'll be there to avail myself of their three for a pound offer. Further cages were dotted about the shop, containing towels, duvet covers, and something called a 'Jane Rug'. Jane Rug seemed to me like a marvellous name. Stick another 'g' on the end and it becomes a Dickens character! Persuade the Americans to use Jane Rugg instead of Jane Doe in their cop programmes! I told Mrs. H as much, but she was preoccupied with an orangey-red throw that she'd taken a fancy to. Not for herself, you understand, but for a friend's Christmas gift. Now, I'd always thought of 'throw' as a verb, and here they were, this linen shop, using it as a noun. But this use of nouns as verbs and vice versa seems to rear its head quite a bit at this time of year. Which of us hasn't heard someone say, 'I'm going to marzipan the cake tomorrow', quite oblivious to the fact that marzipan is a noun? I decided to keep these particular thoughts to myself. Until now, that is.

Boredom does strange things to a man. So, in the listlessness of despair (this phrase copyright Jerome K Jerome) I started to use the objects in this shop as puns in song titles...

Duvet know it's Christmas?
A Question of Valance (alright, so it's an album title - but this is my game!)
Nice day for a white bedding
I'm linen on an lampost
Long Towel Sally
Sheet Child of Mine
The Throw must go on
Anything by Curtains Mayfield

Probably just as well I didn't start on film titles. After all, who could forget The Towelling Inferno? Or The Counterpane of Monte Christo? Or GI Jane Rugg? Or even Who Shot Liberty Valance? Sorry; the last one was just too far-fetched.

My frankly rather pointless reveries were brought to a close when Mrs. H decided that The Throw wasn't quite the thing, and determined to take us off to Debenhams where, I believe, these items are called bedspreads.

An encounter with a retired politician; twenty minutes of punning; a look at some of Eastbourne's finest bedding. I can't remember when I had a better day...

Saturday, 21 November 2009

One man's morris

On the 26th December 1899, Cecil Sharp, a forty year old composer, was dining with his wife at the home of his mother-in-law, Mrs Dora Priestley Birch, in Headington, Oxford. At some point during the day, a rag-tag group of men betook themselves Mrs. Birch's home to perform a traditional dance. The leader of this group, William "Merry" Kimber, a bricklayer by trade, was hoping to make a bit of extra cash during a slack period in the building trade. Kimber and his men were morris dancers. Sharp had never seen anything like them before, so he asked Kimber and his fellow dancers to return and perform the following day so that he could make a proper record of the tunes to which they had danced. This event marked the start of Sharp's interest in, and his attempts to, keep the tradition of morris dancing alive; a tradition that would almost certainly have died without his intervention.

So, why am I telling you this? Because I have recently decided to do my bit to ensure that morris dancing doesn't fade forever into the mists of history...I've joined a morris dancing side. Long Man Morris, to be precise.

Long Man Morris were formed in 1978 to perpetuate the traditions of Cotswold morris. Most of the dances they perform were collected by Cecil Sharp from Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire. Warwickshire and Northamptonshire in the early years of the 20th century. Within those counties, village morris sides had their own traditions and styles of dancing; thus, the morris dancers of Adderbury would have performed different dances to those in Bampton, Brackley or Upton upon Severn. Long Man have also started their own form of dance (which they call the Wilmington tradition), some of which I'm currently attempting to learn!

To the uninitiated, morris dancing looks like a load of old men waving hankies or sticks around. But to dismiss it as such is to do it a grave disservice. Each morris "side" has a repertoire of dances, each dance having its own accompanying tune, its particular footwork, its pattern of dance (heading up, heading down, back to back, hay), and any number of peculiarities to confuse or confound the novice dancer (ie me!) A dancer of many years standing recently told me, "You wait till your first dance in public. There'll be lots of people watching you. Most will be watching you wave your hankies; they're the public. A few will be watching your feet; they're the off-duty morris dancers." And it's getting the feet right that's currently occupying my efforts at our Friday night practice sessions, a two-hour workout that leaves me exhausted, with aching knees and a terrible thirst that can only be slaked by a pint of Harveys best bitter.

Although I'm not yet proficient enough to "dance out" with the side, I trundled off to Hailsham last night to watch Long Man dance. They were accompanied by a couple of "Border" style sides; Hunter's Moon and Old Star Morris. Take a look at Hunter's Moon here. They are an extraordinary bunch of people, with blacked up faces, tattered coats, and an exuberant dance style that is quite fascinating. Towards the end of the evening, Mrs. H made a rather interesting observation. She said, "Just about all of the audience have gone home. They're just dancing for themselves." And she was right. Morris dancing isn't about putting on a display for the public (although this does help to raise a fair bit of cash for local charities), but it's rather about a bunch of like-minded people getting together to keep a tradition alive. At least, that's how it appears to this particular novice.

In his novel Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy introduces his readers to a group of mummers; purveyors of simple, traditional plays acted out on village greens from time immemorial. He notes that genuine mummers can be distinguished from modern revivalists in that the former perform their plays with a sense of gloomy obligation, whereas the latter will appear to be enthusiastic. Under Hardy's rule (if it can be applied to morris dancers), I'm afraid you'd have to mark us down as revivalists!

It isn't a speedy process, becoming a morris dancer. One of the most recent recruits took around three years to become a "full" member of the side, and he probably didn't have two left feet like me. It seems to be a matter of constant practice and repetition, until the moves become second nature and you suddenly realise that you're keeping up with everyone else. When this is going to happen to me is anyone's guess!

At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, traditional Chinese folk dances were much in evidence, both during the opening and at presentation and award ceremonies. There are, apparently, no plans to feature morris dancing, or any other traditional form of English, Scottish or Welsh dance into the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics in London. Cecil Sharp, where art thou?

Saturday, 7 November 2009

A flaming good time

Question. Where can you see, all in one place, Vikings, smugglers, Siamese dancers, a samba band, and a bunch of Zulu warriors? Disneyland? Wrong, I’m afraid. What if you add a torchlit procession complete with fiery crosses, the burning of a Pope, some blazing tar barrels and a dyslexic pirate? The set of some British low-budget cult film? Wrong again. In italics. All these curious characters and props can be seen every year at the bonfire night celebrations in Lewes, the county town of East Sussex. And it was to Lewes, despite the exhortations of the local law enforcement agencies that ‘outsiders’ should stay away, that my family and I, and several thousand other curious visitors betook ourselves on November the fifth.

When, on the 5th November 1605, the ‘Popish Plot’ to kill King James and his parliament was discovered, the day was declared to be ‘a holiday for ever in thankfulness to God for the deliverance and detestation of the Papists’. Officially, the day was celebrated with a church service of thanksgiving, but in the seventeenth century and earlier it was traditional to mark significant events with the lighting of bonfires, so it is quite likely that an ad-hoc bonfire party was held in Lewes, as well as many other towns and villages, on the 5th of November 1606. Now, you have to bear in mind that, in the absence of councils, police, health and safety officers and a whole host of EU regulations, these celebrations were nothing like the well-ordered, all-ticket affairs we have now, and were probably more like drunken riots. Little wonder, then, that Oliver Cromwell sought to ban these and all other similar ‘celebrations’ when he came to power.

When Charles the Second ascended the throne, Cromwell’s ban was rescinded, and bonfire celebrations in Lewes resumed and continued haphazardly until the 1820s, when semi-organised groups of ‘Bonfire Boys’ lit fires and set off fireworks, but these were still riotous affairs. In 1838 a magistrate who remonstrated with the boys was unceremoniously chucked into the River Ouse, and in 1847 a contingent of a hundred Metropolitan Police officers were drafted in to prevent disorder, the riot act was read and a good number of police officers were injured in the ensuing fight with the ‘boys’.

It was clear that this sort of thing couldn’t carry on. And so it was that, in 1853, the Cliffe and Town (now Lewes Borough) Bonfire Societies were established. Other societies were established later, and the night took on a rather more orderly air. On the night of the fifth, these societies, whose members wear amazing and elaborate costumes, march through the town carrying flaming torches (and fiery crosses in memory of Lewes’ Protestant martyrs), throwing firecrackers around, and throwing blazing tar barrels into the Ouse. The Cliffe Society displays flaming banners, proclaiming ‘No Popery’ (I’m amazed some over-zealous individual hasn’t tried to ban this!) and ‘We Wunt be Druv’, reflecting the determination of Sussex people not to be pushed around by the self-appointed or over-zealous individuals aforesaid. According to one very nice lady to whom I spoke, there is intense rivalry between the societies. I’m afraid I put my ‘London head’ on at this point, suspecting all manner of incidents such as drive-by shootings, kidnaps and knee-cappings. I suspect, however, that a little good-natured ribbing about the merits of their respective societies is as far as it goes! And here's a small aside...I managed to spot, and greet, a fellow Twitter user (@_Flik_) who was part of the South Street procession. Who says social networking is a waste of time?

One of the high points of the evening is the burning of effigies. Of course, Guido Fawkes and Pope Paul the Fifth are regulars. But each year the societies also choose a number of ’hate’ figures who are also consigned to the flames. This year, they torched a very realistic effigy of former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and some other politician, sailing in a gravy boat with a pig for company. The banking fraternity, symbolised by a massive Fat Cat, was given similar treatment.

I have to say that Bonfire was a most amazing night out. It’s the type of festival I thought had been legislated out of existence years ago, but, thankfully, it has survived. Despite the presence of all those flaming torches, bonfires and fireworks, there were (as far as I’m aware) no major incidents or injuries. I saw no violence, no disorder, and the police were at their unobtrusive best in letting everyone get on with enjoying themselves. I’m pretty sure the worst casualties were (like me) just a little over-zealous with the local brew.

What I’m going to say now is likely to upset both police and council…don’t listen to their pleas for you to stay away! If you find yourself anywhere near Lewes on the next November the fifth, do yourself a favour and trundle along to the Bonfire celebrations. I guarantee you an amazing experience. I’ll be there, so tap me on the shoulder and I’ll buy you a pint of Harvey’s Bonfire Boy. Maybe even two pints.

Oh, I nearly forgot about the dyslexic pirate. He had a carrot on his shoulder...

Thursday, 29 October 2009

The minimum wages of sin

Having now been officially 'retired' for over a year, and looking to fill my waking hours with something other than decorating, I have recently turned my attention to the thought of work. This isn't just a whim, dear reader. Having been fully employed for the last thirty plus years, and now getting to the stage where I have started looking over Mrs. H's shoulder at Dulux colour charts and thinking, 'hmm...Dusted Damson looks nice...', I find that, contrary to my pre-retirement expectations, being 'work-free' is not all it's cracked up to be. I have decided that I need to get some kind of job.

I always fancied a career to do with books and, as if by magic, a number of local library jobs appeared, both full and part time. Undaunted, I applied for one of them, and, wonder of wonders, I was called in for interview. At a local library, three very nice ladies quizzed me for around twenty minutes as to what skills I possessed, whether I was IT literate, whether I was confident handling money, and how I would deal with difficult customers. Now, the police service, although it doesn't take money over the counter in the same way as ASDA, likes to think of itself as having 'customers' (by which it means arrested people, victims of crime, casual callers to the station, etc.), so I had no problem in explaining how I dealt with 'difficult' customers, since I had encountered more of these than the average librarian could shake a stick at. Imagine my surprise when, a week or so later, I was notified that the job had gone to someone else. I was advised that I was 'a very good interviewee', but that I had not demonstrated my skills with sufficient vehemence to justify entrusting the job to me. I felt rather peeved at this. Had I not spent the last thirty years honing my inter-personal skills, organisational abilities and leadership qualities? Had I not dealt with incidents that the average library assistant might only have read about between the covers of a racy detective novel? Was I really not good enough to stamp library books and collect fines? You see, this is what being 'management' for nigh on twenty five years does to you; it gives you an exaggerated sense of your own importance. How could there possibly be a better candidate than me?

A few weeks later, another library job hove into view, and off went my application. Back came the invite to the interview, and this week saw me, hair combed and beard trimmed, in front of the same three ladies. Now, I had learnt from the first interview (you see - another skill!) and spent far more time talking about my all-round qualities that would make me an ideal assistant in the busy world of the public library. The ladies were very kind. They nodded. They smiled. And one of them even said, 'very interesting' after I had regaled them with a police-related example of my ability to multi-task. But, a few hours later, I received the familiar phone call. This time, apparently, I had been pipped by someone with 'a background in retail' - someone who had worked in a pub, it appeared. Perhaps working in a library has more in common with pulling pints and retailing bags of pork scratchings than I had thought.

So, dear reader, what am I to do? Would I be correct in thinking that spending thirty years in a responsible job is not what the modern employer is looking for? Would I have been better to flit, butterfly-like, from job to job? Does my three-decade career simply demonstrate that I am unable to embrace change? Should I get a job as a part-time barman to make myself more attractive? In an employment kind of way, I mean.

This afternoon I was flicking idly though lists of jobs on the internet. A few things struck me about the way these job ads are written. A job isn't just a job, it's 'an exciting opportunity,' or even 'an exceptional opportunity'. And a company isn't just a company, it's an 'exciting and innovative company', or a 'cutting edge organisation'. And what about the ideal candidate? He or she should, it appears, be 'dynamic', 'possess excellent communication skills and the drive, determination and resilience to succeed', or, in one notable instance, have the ability to 'make a good time great.' Now, I may have been unlucky in my choice of shopping venues over the years, but just where are all these dynamic communicators whose sole purpose in life would seem to be to enhance my Retail Experience? I haven't met them yet. Or perhaps I have. The liveliest, most dynamic people on the High Street are the charity muggers who are constantly attempting to separate me from my bank sort code. But maybe they've been sacked from their retail jobs for being just too dynamic; for 'high-five'-ing each other after every sale of family-sized washing powder, or imprisoning elderly customers in clothing stores for hours until they give in and buy a comfy cardigan in taupe. The ones that are left to man the tills look at me with heavy-lidded eyes as the pass my groceries over the scanner, barely acknowledging my presence...except in Morrisons. They're OK in Morrisons. Oh, I almost forgot. The other interesting point about these jobs that are looking for a candidate who is a cross between Lord Sugar and the Messiah? Almost all of them are offering the minimum wage.

It's Friday tomorrow. On Fridays I go morris dancing. They don't expect me to be dynamic. Just good with a stick...

Friday, 9 October 2009

Are you Smellie?

I’ve been rather preoccupied with the house just lately. I won’t bore you with the details, dear reader. Suffice it to say that there has been an orgy of stripping (oooer missus!), wallpapering and painting, which is likely to continue for some time to come. Yesterday we finished removing the old paper from the living room walls a day earlier than anticipated. So, I have some downtime, and a chance to exercise my mind with something other than decorating.

I’m not the world’s best handyman or decorator. I like to think my skills lie elsewhere. But Mrs. H is convinced that I’ll get better if I do more, and in relation to some jobs she’s being proved right. In those areas where my skills are lacking, I find swearing helps to get the job done. So, if I’m struggling with a roll of wet wallpaper, the wiring up of some lights, or some other technical task, I find it helps to call the job every name under the sun…

And speaking of names, we all have one. In fact, most of us have two or more. Having just one name seems rather pretentious, or even downright egotistical; look at Jordan, Prince, Squiggle (Prince’s now not-so-new name), Superman…see what I mean? The Queen shies away from being called just Queen, for fear she should be confused with the eponymous rock band. And even Dr. No had the decency to prefix his name with his medical qualification; otherwise, could you imagine the confusion? ‘What’s your name?’ ‘No.’ ‘Sorry, I just need your name.’ ‘No.’ ‘Why do you have a problem with telling me your name?’ And so on…you’d be there all day.

How did names evolve? Those who study such things suggest that names fell into five categories; whom you served, whose son you were, your occupation, where you lived…but these are all pretty dull stuff. The most interesting category is the nickname. Now, there’s a great tradition in this country of giving nicknames which probably confuses the heck out of The Rest Of The World. A short man is called ‘Lofty’; a chap who’s not terribly bright is deemed ‘Einstein’; another who wears glasses is landed with the name ‘four-eyes’. As you can see, some of these are rather insulting, and, within the last few years, there have been attempts within the police service and other public bodies to ban nicknames altogether. One former colleague who hailed from Wales was taken to task by ‘the management’ because he called himself, and was happy for others to call him, ‘Taff’. Many people rejoice in their nicknames; within an organisation like the army or the police, it gives an individual a sense of having ‘arrived’. If your colleagues like you, they’ll come up with a nickname for you, and you’ll be happy to answer to it, albeit some would say you were being ‘complicit in your own oppression’. Hmm…

However, be they pleasant or offensive, our nicknames are just that - nicknames. They are not our surnames, and we don’t have to declare them in our passports, admit to them in job applications, or have them engraved forever on our driving licences. But things were a bit different in the middle ages, where a nickname effectively became an individual’s surname. Although the peasantry of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries have long since closed their eyes upon this world, and left no mark upon it to speak of, their names live on - in manor court rolls, deeds, military muster lists and taxation records - and all of those I am about to impart are genuine. There were some innocuous, and even pleasant names, of course. Agnes Singalday might well have delighted everyone with her ballads; Gilbert Wysdom seemed like the sort of chap you would go to if you had a problem; and the man or woman who rejoiced in the name of Smalbyhind would no doubt have been as happy about the fact as s/he would be in our present century. But the medieval English were possessed of a wonderful sense of humour; so it is equally possible that Agnes’ caterwauling was sufficient to wake the dead, Gilbert was in reality renowned for his utter stupidity, and he or she of the small behind might have had a rump that would put an elephant to shame.

Ironic or not, the above pale into insignificance as we uncover a somewhat less pleasant group of names, and I start with poor Alicia Shitte. How on earth did she come by such a name? Does the surname denote that her character? Or her smell, perhaps? Or did she suffer from (as our ancestors would have it) The Flux? Sadly, we will probably never know. Whereas we have a fair idea what William Aydrunken (always drunk) must have been like. Perhaps, after a particularly heavy session with Messrs. Drinkalup and Potfulofale, he would have picked a fight with William Milksop? Or woken from a boozy night in a pigsty belonging to Reyner Piggesflesshe? He might even have propositioned Letice Uggele. And, with any luck, she would have declined his no doubt tender blandishments and booted him into the aforementioned pigsty…

Sex was not a taboo subject in the middle ages. So it is, perhaps, no surprise that a few…how shall we say…’racy’ names make an appearance. Those of you who have a delicate constitution might want to look away now. To the rest of you who clearly have a stronger constitution, I have to say that I would blush to comment upon the attributes of the owners of the following names; I merely present to you John Fillecunt, whose name appears in written records in 1246, Bele Wydecunthe, who puts in an appearance in 1327, her contemporary, Matilda Strokelady, and the relatively fortunate Alice Strumpet. Hmm.

We live in enlightened times. We no longer think a person’s name is likely to denote his or her character. We don’t expect Mr. Wagstaff or Mr. Shakespeare to be belligerent (incidentally, ‘Shakespeare‘ was also a name given to a gentlemen who enjoyed the act of, how should I say it delicately, ‘self-ravishment'), any more than we expect Mr. Bastard (yep, there is such a surname!) to be the product of an unmarried couple. Oh, I dunno, though…but wouldn’t it be fun if we still received our surnames in the old-fashioned way? What would we have now? An inveterate social networker might be called Gilbert Facebook or Alice Twitter. What about those who use ‘recreational substances’ when clubbing? John Offhisface or Laura Snortpowder, maybe. And how about some names for the financial fraternity? William Bonus or Anna Reckless. And we can’t forget politicians, can we? Gordon Pinchpension, David Emptywords, Nick Notahope…you’ll notice that, like the BBC, I’ve been balanced and fair in this last category, and this is probably the closest you’ll ever see me get to a political comment!

Not quite sure what I’d be called in this new medieval age. Chris Beard? Chris Workfree? Chris Notsotall? Whatever it might be, judging by my current standard of DIY, it certainly wouldn’t be Chris Handyman

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

I am one of the noticeable ones - notice me

I met Simon Cowell in Brighton the other day. He was serving at the checkout of a shop where I had bought some kitchen roll (extra absorbent) and bin bags (extra large, for my next trip to Cradle Hill Recycling Centre). Alright, so he had the words ‘alley rats’ tattooed on his neck, and he was wearing a badge bearing the name ‘Kevin’. But these contra-indications didn’t fool me for a moment. I had noticed that it was Mr. Cowell, and Mr. Cowell, in turn, noticed that I had noticed. Neither of us said anything, unless you count his saying ‘That’ll be two pounds, please’, and my saying, ‘There you are. Thank you.’

I suppose it’s only to be expected that I cracked Mr. Cowell’s little game. After all, thirty years in law enforcement does help you notice things. Things like the dirty great boot mark in the centre of the flower bed at a burglary scene; the fridge lobbed over the balcony of a block of flats, intended to cause a few minor scratches to the ‘company car’; the look on someone’s face when you catch them in the act of doing something illegal. But these skills pale into insignificance when you compare them with the observational skills of Mrs. H.

Mrs. H would have made an excellent police officer. Or, if not a police officer, the Head of Surveillance for MI6. She has this almost supernatural ability to ‘notice’ things. I’ve recently been painting the boy’s bedroom. I was pretty proud of the fact that I’d made a reasonable job of it. But then Mrs. H ‘noticed’ that I’d missed some bits, so I gave the room a second coat of paint. And guess what? Yep. Mrs. H ‘noticed’ that a couple of the walls still looked patchy. Coat number three here we come…

If I wash up, she notices the glass I’ve missed; if I hoover or dust, it’s the minute specks I have totally failed to see. When watering the garden, I generally manage to miss at least one pot plant completely. But even this does not escape Mrs H’s notice and I’m soon back out with the watering can.

At first, these incidents were the source of mild amusement.’ Silly me,’ I would exclaim as I once more reached for the duster or dish mop. But after a while I grew concerned. What if my failure to notice things is but the first symptom on a rocky road to forgetfulness, absent-mindedness, or something worse? Did I really not notice that bit of fluff under the sideboard, or did my subconscious urge me simply to ignore it in order to provide Mrs. H with some more target practice because, deep down, I am a masochist? Or conversely, does Mrs. H simply have too much time on her hands, and has decided to become a professional Noticer of Things by way of diversion? I worry that one morning I will find her in the breakfast room, white gloves on and clipboard on standby, ready to carry out the sort of inspection that would make a barrack-room sergeant major look positively idle and sloppy. Heaven help me if she found dust on top of the mirror. The kind of dreadful punishment she might mete out to me doesn't bear thinking about. Whitewashing our supply of firewood, perhaps? Or maybe I'd have to run up Seaford Head with a fifty pound pack? I'd better quieten down. She might read this and I've already given her a couple of ideas...

I’ve started to wonder whether I should attempt to boost my own ‘noticing’ skills. I could start with simple stuff. I could, for example, notice whether a light is on or off, whether we need a fresh carton of milk, whether I’m wearing the grey socks or the black ones. But I fear my efforts would be doomed to failure, and that I would soon be back to my old self - the one who doesn’t know what day it is half the time; the one you, dear bloggy friends, are familiar with. Part of the problem lies in my gender. As a man, my head is constantly full of stuff that has absolutely no bearing on everyday life. Whilst Mrs. H scans the brochures for paint colours for the living room, I imagine what it would be like to be a Red Bull Air Race pilot. Whilst she sensibly tries to choose bedroom furniture, I concoct puns and comedy haikus. Here's one I prepared earlier:

Mum went to Brighton
And all she brought me back was
This lousy T-shirt

So, dear reader, I shall be content to be a bumbling Watson to Mrs H’s Holmes, constantly astonished by her visual acuity; or perhaps a fifty-something Mr. Magoo to her Hawkeye. And I shall, like the frog footman in Alice in Wonderland, 'sit here on and off, for days and days' until I hear those immortal words once more: ‘Chris…I’ve just noticed…’

Sunday, 6 September 2009

You'd laugh to see a pudding roll...apparently

Are you a Lollard? Of course, I don’t mean, ‘Are you a follower of John Wycliffe, a critic of traditional religious beliefs in the 14th century?’ I mean ‘do you LOL when you Tweet, or Face Book (if I’m allowed to use FaceBook as a verb) or whatever it is you do?’ Because it seems to me that LOL (or Laughing Out Loud to the uninitiated) is fast becoming one of the most overused expressions in cyberspace. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a miserable old git. I probably find at least one thing every day that makes me laugh out loud. Why, only last week I saw a gentleman in London whose greying hair resembled nothing less than a Davy Crockett hat. This would have caused me to laugh out loud, had I not been sitting in a restaurant, surrounded by other diners who would undoubtedly have thought I was a couple of clicks away from full sanity. But I’d be worried if I was tempted to laugh out loud at some of the things I read on the internet.

My preferred social networking site is Twitter. I find its 140 character limit per message (or ‘Tweet’) encourages me to marshal my thoughts more carefully before I commit them to the screen. It’s no place for a rambler, which is curious, when you look at the way I tend to ramble within the environs of this Humble Blog. I’m beginning to wonder if I suffer from some kind of computational bipolarity, wittering on one minute and being succinct the next…but I digress. I have begun to worry about the things my fellow Twitterati find is worthy of a LOL. And fear not; I haven't had a punctuation bypass; I reproduce these Tweets exactly as they appear on Twitter:

Busy day ahead. Need an extra strong cup of coffee LOL.

Manchester. Yay. LOL.

Waiting for my Avon delivery. Fun stuff, its like christmas every 2 weeks! LOL

Having my hair done. LOL.

LOL what day is it?

There’s a whole lot of LOL-ing going on. Perhaps some of these individuals would, to coin the phrase oft used by my grandmother, laugh to see a pudding roll. In the space of the two minutes it took me to type a couple of sentences, LOL was used on Twitter no less than 1004 times. And the above examples are a fairly good indication of the things folks are LOL-ing about. Now, read them aloud, then laugh out loud at the designated time. Does it make you feel slightly unhinged? It does me. This is why I have never used LOL, either in my blog, or on Twitter. If I read something I think is amusing, I will send a message to its writer saying, ‘I think what you have just said is very amusing.’ Which probably makes me sound like some ludicrous caricature of an Englishman as featured in the Anglo-American sitcom, Pardon My Jaguar. Oh well…

I’d like to propose that we kick LOL into the long grass where it belongs or, if there isn‘t any long grass, into that gravelly area up against the house wall adjacent to the outside water tap. But some folk are so devoted to it that I fear the absence of a LOL-fix is likely to drive them half mad. So I have come up with a few new acronyms that might be used to more accurately reflect the writer’s feelings at the time. You will note that they follow a progression of intensity of emotion:

BRAS - Barely Raises A Smile
SQUITS - Smiles Quietly To Self
MALT - Mildly Amused - Little Titter
GLAG - Giggling Like A Girl (with thanks to Cordy Williams for this one!)
SIDOS - Sides In Danger Of Splitting
BLOIP - Big Laugh Occasioning Incontinence Pad
SOFISM - So Funny I Shat Myself

Of course, these new expressions will take a bit of time to get used to. I can’t expect LOL-ers to break their pernicious habit immediately. It’d probably be as dangerous as alcohol withdrawal. Each culprit (sorry, I mean victim; we live in a society where the idea of someone being guilty of something is anathema) will be allowed one LOL a week, its appropriateness to be determined by a new Quango, the ICOTOCAA - the International Council To Combat Acronym Abuse. If any ‘victim’ is found to have LOL-ed inappropriately, they will be issued with a LOLBO - a Laugh Out Loud Banning Order - and taken for re-training to ensure they have a proper sense of what is, or isn’t, funny. The first session will involve a slide show of criminally bad hairstyles (including aforesaid gent with Davy Crockett hair), selected highlights from You've Been Maimed, and the pilot episode of Pardon My Jaguar.

I hope you’ll not take my comments amiss. I’m sure there are no Lollards amongst my undoubtedly intelligent fellow-bloggers. But if there are, there is hope for you. Call my LOL helpline now on 0898 244 8487 for confidential help and advice. Calls charged at £1 per minute; minimum call length thirty seven minutes. And I guarantee you'll find nothing to LOL about when the phone bill arrives...

Stop press. If you find LOL a serious irritation then you can join BLOT - Ban LOL On Twitter. You know it makes sense!

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Where have all the brand new combine harvesters gone?

Isn't it funny. You live somewhere for years and your life assumes a regular pattern. You get up, you go to work, you do the shopping on the same day and at the same place every week. You swear to yourself, when I retire I'm going to break all of my routines. So, here I am, one year and six days after retirement...and blessed if I haven't got into a new kind of routine!

Sunday has become Dump Day. There's barely a week goes by when I don't have a car full of stuff to take to the Cradle Hill Recycling Centre - AKA The Dump. This week it was carpets. I must, of course, praise the generosity of the former occupants of this house in leaving the carpets for us. Sadly, however, those carpets were, shall we say, a little less than perfect, covered as they were in interesting single celled organisms, and languishing in the loft. They were also possessed of an interesting aroma; you could probably use them as an air freshener if you lived at the centre of a sewage farm. I'm hoping that the leaving of the carpets was not an oversight on their part, and that I'm not going to get a visit from the previous owners, asking for them back. I'd have to come clean - something that the carpets would never do, even with a generous dose of napalm - and I would also have to admit to disposing of their interesting collection of damaged house bricks.

That was the dull bit of the Sunday routine. After that was the bit I like best - wandering into town to get the papers. I always go via the beach to see what interesting stuff the tide has thrown up. There wasn't much this morning; some seaweed, a few bits of old rope, some driftwood that wasn't worth taking home to use on the fire...but on the positive side, the sky was a brilliant blue, the sea was sparkling, and I had the place almost to myself. I could quite happily have stayed there all day but, as we have a couple of friends popping in this afternoon, this would have seemed churlish. So, home I went.

As I turned into the road in which I live, I noticed an elderly gentleman, sitting on a low window sill opposite the baker's shop. Nothing remarkable about that, of course. Seaford is full of elderly ladies and gentlemen having A Nice Sit Down; they've got it down to a fine art. But, as I passed this particular elderly gent, he started to sing Where have all the flowers gone? And he sang it in tune with a strongish voice; not in that curious, quavering way that many elderly folk have. He would probably have been around twenty one years old when the song was released. This led me to speculate on what tune, should I be fortunate enough to reach the age of seventy-odd, I myself could sing whilst having A Nice Sit Down on that rather commodious window sill. Mamma Mia, by Abba? Perhaps. Save All Your Kisses For Me, by Brotherhood of Man? Maybe. But, on balance, I think the winner by a short straw has to be Combine Harvester, by the Wurzels.

I love these Old Classics.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Warning No. 2 - Contains nudity, sex and swearing

So if you are easily offended, please look away now.

'Brighton is still very gay and full of balls', it's been said. And it was to Brighton that I betook myself the other day, intending to have a mouch round the shops. And mouch I did, in a very slow and idle manner, rather characteristic of Brighton itself. The short walk from Brighton Station to the North Laine area (one of the more interesting bits of the city) is rather dull, characterised by employment bureaux specialising in the hiring of medical staff, second-hand shops dealing in old banknotes, stamps and model railway bric-a-brac, and rather seedy-looking newsagents selling unpronouncable Polish beers, but the traveller is ultimately rewarded, of which more later.

Just before you arrive at North Laine, and almost opposite the Cuttlefish Organic Hairdressers, you encounter a rather dour-looking building on the way there called The Galeed Strict Baptist Chapel. In what way is it strict, I wonder? Does the minister with his carefully-tonsured chin beard and black stove-pipe hat look daggers at any latecomers as they sneak into the back of the chapel? Or do they take a fierce delight in having the temperature of the baptismal pool close to freezing point? Or does the congregation indulge in an orgy of tutting every time a gaily (without connotation) dressed individual saunters past? In any event, I wasn't about to find out, so I toddled on to the shops.

I suppose North Laine would describe itself as 'trendy'; possibly 'off-beat'. It's certainly that. It contains a myriad of small shops that provide more quirky goods, services and foodstuffs than you can shake a shamanic fortune-telling stick at. Do you want to buy a 'Bananaman' t-shirt? Have yourself tattooed? Get a tarot reading? Toast the fine weather in a glass of wheatgrass with added guarana (I thought that was the stuff seagulls are always depositing on my car...or is that guano)? Or even buy some vegetarian shoes? Then North Laine's your spiritual home. And if you should get the urge to dress as a pirate, a parlour maid, a burlesque starlet, complete with tassels, or even a bumble bee, the necessary items can be found in this small area of Brighton.

At this point, I'm afraid I have to express a rather childish delight in the variety of greetings cards to be found in North Laine. Clearly at some point, a group of tanked up students got together round a table littered with lager cans and empty KFC boxes and said, 'Now, what can we do to offend the maximum number of people?' and came up with a variety of ideas: a doctor, white coated and stethoscoped, exclaims, 'Here's my diagnosis - you're a wanker.'; another card notes, 'You're a genius! Pity you're such an arsehole...'. There were many other cards of an equally diverting nature, but I would blush to repeat them here...

Having had my fill of North Laine, I took a walk across Old Steine, past the Victoria Fountain and War Memorial with its sadly green and stagnant pool of water, and into St. James' Street, Kemp Town. Now, Kemp Town, the brochures will tell you, is home to Brighton's gay 'community'. I'm afraid I have always felt rather uncomfortable with the notion of splitting the population into separate 'communities' - The Bengali Community, The Chinese Community, and so on - it's something the media does all the time, and creates the assumption that every member of that 'community' thinks/feels/acts in the same way. Clearly not so. Within the 'gay community' (which makes up around a quarter of Brighton's population) there must be Conservative and labour gays, lesbians who like a drink or who have chosen to be teetotal, gay men who collect stamps, spot trains, hate Judy Garland. Anyway, be that as it may...

Kemp Town has a village feel. Most of the shops are small independents; the cafe, the barber, the Bona Foodie grocers. I wasn't sure whether this latter shop was Italian owned, or whether this 'Bona' was Polari for 'good'; Polari was a kind of slang devised and used by gay people in the 1960s, when homosexual acts in private were still a criminal offence and gay people needed a means of communication that excluded 'outsiders' - rather like cockney rhyming slang. A good example of Polari can be heard on Round the Horne, a 1960s radio programme in which comedian Kenneth Horne would converse with two gay men - Julian and Sandy - who dusted their conversation liberally with Polari. In my naivety (be fair...I was only ten years old!) I just though Julian and Sandy were two men who spoke funny. Sadly, I didn't meet either Julian or Sandy in Kemp Town; but I did encounter some curious incidents. I saw a woman carrying an English bull terrier. Then, moments later, I saw another woman carrying an English bull terrier. At this point, I thought 'perhaps it's some kind of fashion statement. Either that or there's a ban on dog leads'. But my latter thought was confounded moments later when I saw a gentleman out for a constitutional with another gentleman...on a lead. I saw a newspaper bill-board with a headline one could only find by the coast: 'Body found near crazy golf course'. And, in a gay greeting card shop, another of those cards that Brighton seems to specialise in: 'It's not homophobia - everyone hates you'. Many of the shops were flying rainbow flags; and this, coupled with the area's quietness after the roaring traffic in Old Steine, meant I felt as if I was in some small independent country; a kind of gay Vatican City within the City of Brighton. But without the Swiss Guard or the nuns.

Nor were there any nuns in Brighton Museum. But there was a pair of breeches (fifty two inch waist) belonging to the Prince Regent (later George the Fourth), worn during his sojourn at the palace better known as the Royal Pavilion. Apparently, 'Prinny' had a hatred of the new-fangled trousers that were becoming fashionable around 1810; so much so that he banned trousers from Court until 1815. It's believed that Prince George's dalliances with sundry ladies was emulated by his hangers-on at the Brighton Court, which led to Brighton becoming a magnet for those intent on affairs, sexual encounters and 'dirty weekends'.

The dirty weekend has become a bit of a standing joke; all rather Max Miller or Carry On. In less enlightened times teenagers would turn up at Brighton B and Bs on a Friday night, claiming to be 'Mr and Mrs Smith', but very rarely fooled the Dragon in the shape of the Seaside Landlady. Back in the 1930s, men who wanted to divorce their wives would rent a room in a Brighton boarding house, and pay a chambermaid to 'discover' them in bed with a prostitute. These days, the dirty weekend is all but defunct. One academic noted that 'people no longer come to Brighton for a dirty weekend; they move to Brighton to have a dirty life'. Interestingly, Brighton Museum also has a small glass case that details the Dirty Weekend. Amongst the treasures it contains are a couple of telephone box 'flyers'. The first features a buxom young woman exhorting us to 'lick my melon's'; clearly a crime against punctuation. The second exclaims, 'Transexual - tits and tackle - twice the fun all in one,' which I'm afraid rather left me lost for words. Not a common occurence.

I was still deep in thought when I arrived at the entrance to The Lanes, Brighton's jewellery and antique corner. But all this changed when I saw an elderly, bearded gent, sitting on the pavement, surrounded by little bits of origami that he was trying to sell for a few pence. I was both pleased and surprised to see him. I thought his business had folded.

Oh, and the chap who said, 'Brighton is still very gay and full of balls'? It was poet Samuel Rogers, speaking in 1829.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Warning - Reading this may produce eye strain

The scaffolders turned up out of the blue yesterday to take down the superstructure that has covered the house for the last three months. Mrs. H and I were just returning from a trip round the shops and a sneaky lunchtime drink, when we noticed scaffolders swarming all over the front of the house. Sadly, they didn't take it all down; there was insufficient room on the lorry to carry it all away. But they've promised to come back later this week and remove the rest of it. I won't hold my breath...

Despite the recession, I would imagine that scaffolding companies probably don't do too badly. Our burgeoning Health and Safety culture means that most traders will refuse to do anything above first floor level without scaffolding. Time was when roofers would scramble up a ricketty ladder, run up the tiles and onto the apex of the roof, whilst eating a cheese sandwich and smoking a roll-up. But all that's changed. Perhaps we should start advertising for native Americans (or, more specifically, Mohawks from the Kahnawake reservation) to do the high stuff. It's said they were employed in the USA to build skyscrapers as they had no fear of heights, although it's more likely that hopping around steel girders hundreds of feet up was just an opportunity to display the same sort of bravery they exhibited at ground level.

In the UK, Health and Safety legislation has more or less put paid to the old-time tradesman's ability to take calculated risks. Way back then, workers like the common or garden roofer knew instinctively what was safe and what wasn't. He wore the right gear for the job; knew how slippery or otherwise the slates or tiles were; and had a good enough notion of his ability to climb or balance. But now, the law decides what is or isn't safe, and ensures that you or I have to stump up huge amounts of money for scaffolding whenever we want so much as a tile replaced. But I'm not complaining.

So, how did Health and Safety take over the world? How have we wound up with a world where bags of nuts display the legend 'contains nuts'? Where a teacher is forbidden from putting an Elastoplast on a child's grazed knee in case the little treasure is allergic to it? And where a police force that shall not be named (oh, alright, Northumbria Police!) is planning to dispose of its £200,000 fleet of motorbikes because the police officers riding them are "particularly vulnerable to collision"? I'm really not sure, but the Health and Safety gurus would probably say that 'It's all about protecting the public'. So, if we are only now living in a world where we are well-protected from hazardous chemicals, poisonous foods and unguarded machinery, how the hell am I still here? Let's look at the evidence...I'm 54 years old. When I was born in 1955, polio and whooping cough were still common. At school I rubbed shoulders with kids who had measles and chickenpox (and managed to catch both simultaneously), and took part in rough playground games. I ate and drank things that were far less strictly quality controlled than foodstuffs are now, and totally failed to wash my hands. I travelled on buses and trains, literally surrounded by 'strangers' who hadn't been checked out by the police. And I'm still alive.

But I'm only joking. I'm grateful for Health and Safety legislation. It means that the water I drink is unpolluted, that my food is mercifully free from rat droppings, that my gas boiler won't gas me. But, watching Seaside Rescue last night, it struck me that we are still unprotected from the biggest danger of all - ourselves. Seaside Rescue regularly shows RNLI lifeboat crews, lifeguards and Royal Navy Air Sea Rescue risking their lives to save members of the public who have put themselves in danger through their own stupidity, be it climbing crumbly cliffs, surfing in dangerous conditions, or putting to sea in imposibly small boats with no lifejackets, navigation equipment or skill in sailing. What amazes me is the professionalism and good humour exhibited by the crews as they rescue the umpteenth moron from a situation in which he has placed himself (or, indeed, herself). Don't they ever get irritated by it, like I do? Do they ever think, 'Oh no. Not another dopey townie who thinks he's Bear Grylls!'?

And another thing...the RNLI is funded entirely by voluntary subscription. Its lifeboat crews are all volunteers, who will put out to sea in all weathers. To the best of my knowledge, they have never refused to turn out, no matter how dangerous the conditions are. So why is it that paid members of the emergency services on land failed to prevent a man from drowning in 18 inches of water? Because the 15 foot embankment he had tumbled down after being hit by a car was deemed 'unsafe'...So, if you witness an incident at your local pond or stream, don't call the fire brigade or police; ask for a lifeboat.

So, what the hell am I on about? Not for the first time, I'm unsure. Perhaps I'm trying to say that I do not subscribe whole-heartedly to Health and Safety culture. After all, I've managed to live through six decades, most of them health and safety free. I've taken (and survived) calculated risks, both at home and at work, and maybe a couple of times I've done things that were stupidly dangerous. But I've never done anything daft enough to warrant a trip on an air sea rescue helicopter. So, how do we promote safety for all without burdening society with yet more laws? It's simple. It's my belief that every child, as soon as it is old enough to read, should be handed a laminated card bearing a single word - 'THINK'.

But I'd make sure the corners were rounded. After all, those laminated cards can be awfully sharp. They'd take your eye out...

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

If you like a lot of brassware on your coffin, Join Our Club!

Today was a momentous day at Hale Villas (albeit the sign next to the door reads, rather more appropriately, Wits End). I had the nod from Andy the builder that the work on the front of the house is now complete and the scaffolding can come down. Within a day or so, I shall take tea on my newly-refurbished balcony, but for now I contented myself with a small sherry by way of celebration.

A very good friend (you know who you are!) told me the other day that sherry is an old person's drink, which seems appropriate, because there is a lot of chatter about the cost of caring for the elderly at the moment. The government is looking at ways of funding care for an increasingly ageing population, whether it be by taxation, lump sum payments out of retirement gratutities, or some other method. Most old people (those who own property, and can still afford sherry) fear that the home they intended to leave to their nearest and dearest will be sold to fund the cost of their nursing care which, in some cases, seems to run at about a thousand pounds a week. And what happens when the cash runs out? Do they get thrown onto the streets?

None of this is new. The elderly have always had a fear of being alone and destitute. Back in the days before the advent of the nursing or care home, the next stop for a poor old widow or widower was the Parish Workhouse. This doleful place features in the novels of Charles Dickens (especially Oliver Twist), and it is hard for us to understand the abject terror that struck the Victorian elderly at the thought of being uprooted and placed in the workhouse. As a charitable businessman told Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, 'Many would rather die' than be subjected to the tender mercies of the Parish.

Going hand in hand with the fear of the workhouse was a great horror of the thought of a pauper's funeral. Victorians excelled in the celebration (if that's the right word) of death, with plumed horses, mutes (professional mourners) swathed in black, and elaborate and expensive coffins. The pauper's funeral was generally marked by a cheap, re-usable coffin, trundled to church on a handcart, mourners in ordinary clothes, and burial in an unmarked grave. And it was these fears that prompted the rise in popularity of so-called Burial Clubs amongst the working classes.

Burial clubs were often operated from public houses by pub landlords. This wasn't an altruistic public service on their part; they knew that money would be spent on beer for the 'wake' when the death benefit was eventually paid out. The working man would toddle off to the pub, pay his dues (often only a few pence) into the club, and his subscription would be marked up in a register. He could contribute for himself, and for his wife and children, if he could afford it. And, when the sad day came (provided it was more than two years after the start of subscriptions) the family would collect the money, which would help to defray the cost of a decent funeral. Having a respectable send-off was so important to the Victorians that, according to historian Audrey Collins, they were prepared to go without in life so as to be well provided for in death.

Of course, things didn't always go smoothly. Some collectors embezzled the money, so that there was nothing left when a grieving family member went to collect the benefit. Some companies (echoes of modern day here!) tried to wriggle out of paying the money over - in 1836 the Globe Public House Burial Club in Covent Garden refused to pay Sarah Forrest the £5 she was due, because (they said) her husband had died 24 hours before two years had elapsed. She did eventually get her money, but had to go to law to do so. But, most chillingly, husbands and wives were murdering their spouses and, in some cases, their children, to claim the burial money. In 1854 'a prosperous town' which is not named had a working class infant mortality rate of 56%; this is set against the 18% for children of the better sort in the same town, and was four times higher than the child mortality rate in rural Dorset. And the reason - parents were killing their children for the burial money. A few years earlier, in 1851, Essex girl Sarah Chesham was convicted of murdering her husband, her two children and another unnamed party, and all for the cash from the burial club.

In these more prosperous days, there is less likelihood of any one of us being on the receiving end of a pauper's funeral, and as a result burial clubs have pretty well died the death, if you'll pardon the pun. But not quite. Watch any satellite or cable station for more than ten minutes, and you'll be exhorted by some ageing celebrity to buy 'peace of mind' insurance in exchange for a cheap DVD player or some Marks and Sparks vouchers. For 'peace of mind', read 'save your kids from having to stump up the cost of your funeral.' And speaking of ageing celebrities, I've heard of a couple of bizarre variations on the burial club theme, courtesy of a former colleague. One is the Celebrity Death Club, where you nominate a well-known personality whom you believe to be on his (or her) last legs, and pay a couple of pounds a month into a 'kitty'. When your favoured celebrity finally bites the dust, you claim the money that has accrued since the last fatality. The other involves a group of ageing friends in a Buckinghamshire pub, who place informal bets upon which of their number will be the next to die...

You will, I hope, be pleased to hear that I haven't seen fit to buy my own 'peace of mind' insurance yet. I have absolutely no intention of dying, I don't need a DVD player and I've got a full bottle of sherry in the sideboard.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

I need to get out more

Ask me if I'm a soap fan and the likelihood is I'll say 'Of course not! What? Watch that rubbish? I've got better things to do with my time!' However, take me to the pub, buy me a couple of pints of Harvey's Best Bitter (brewed nearby in Lewes) and then ask the same question, and you may get a very different answer. Because soaps are not only very popular and successful, but also (in my opinion) extremely well written. My own favourite, were I to have one, would be Coronation Street.

The Street, or Corrie, if you prefer, has been on our screens since the 9th December 1960. Some of the earlier episodes were broadcast live; something that many present day actors would probably baulk at. I remember Corrie in the sixties as a grim, gritty, black and white piece, populated by women in snoods and hairnets, and men wearing cloth caps and waistcoats; a bit like Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar, but without the humour. Back in the sixties the dark satanic mills were still milling away like crazy; this was long before most northern industries closed down, unable to compete with imported goods, and the factories were sold off as stylish apartment blocks.

Of course, there have been a good many changes to The Street over the years; most of the old 'well I'll go to the foot of our stairs' characters have gone, replaced by brash underwear manufacturers, corner shop magnates and serial adulterers/adulteresses. But the scripts remain strong and, moreover, take themselves far less seriously than in the early years. But I can't help feeling that, despite the humour, The Street is more akin to a Greek tragedy than anything else. Sophocles couldn't have written anything better. Back in the old days, Corrie had a proper chorus - Ena Sharples, Minnie Caldwell and Martha Longhurst, three old ladies, holed up with their milk stout in the snug of the Rovers, commenting upon the things taking place in their narrow world. Then there's the way the characters are constantly punished by the gods...sorry, I mean scriptwriters. Eileen finds herself a boyfriend (again); won't be long before she discovers he's an escaped lunatic, a fraudster, or he gets murdered. Jack Duckworth wins a fortune on the horses; his betting slip is bound to go missing, get eaten by a pigeon, or used as loo paper by an elf. And don't even get me started on the misery, mayhem and bloodshed that inevitably accompanies every soap wedding...

I understand that scriptwiters prefer their soaps to be called 'serial dramas' now. I suppose it makes them sound more like serious pieces of work. And some of them are serious. Take Casualty, for example. You can't get any more serious than that. But Casualty is unintentionally funny, because it is filled with (in my opinion) stereotypical medical drama characters, bizarre coincidences that wouldn't be out of place in a Dickens novel, and patients/others who effect such swift about turns in their attitudes and relationships with others it's a wonder their heads don't spin. Set in a hospital in Holby (because the writers couldn't spell 'Bristol') it deals with the lives of the doctors, nurses and patients who are unfortunate enough to either work there, or wind up on a trolley (at which point they invariably go into 'VF', whatever that is, even if they only popped in to ask about an ingrowing toenail). All the stereotypes are there; overbearing consultants, senior administrators banging on about finances and waiting times, loopy doctors, cheery, empty-headed porters, stroppy patients, demanding relatives...

I'd quite like to write a Casualty script. There needs to be a sub-plot running, which later impacts on the main action. There have to be a couple of new characters, introduced early on, who either get killed or maimed and have to visit aforesaid hospital as a result. And someone's life/views/attitude has to be changed beyond all belief by the end of the show. Here goes...

1. A group of hooded teenagers are hanging around Holby town centre, drinking cheap cider and swearing at passers-by. One elderly man (war hero, with medals) remonstrates with them and is floored by a cider bottle slung by one of these ne'er-do-wells. A young and openly gay man challenges the youths and then runs to render first aid to the elderly man, who says, 'Get off me. I won't be touched by your sort!'

2. An ambulance is called to deal with the above and loads up the casualty. As it drives off, it is pelted with bottles and windscreen is broken, putting it out of action. The paramedic's hands are badly cut by flying glass. Another ambulance attends and the crew of the first waits for a breakdown truck.

3. Meanwhile, across town, a plate glass salesman is saying goodbye to his wife: 'Won't be long, dear, I've just got to walk this huge sheet of glass across town. The pond's frozen, so I think I'll use it as a shortcut. It should be fine.'

4. Back at the hospital, loopy doctor has been invited to deliver a lecture on pulmonary embolisms to a group of visiting GPs. She agonises about said lecture to at least six colleagues, all of whom say, 'you'll be fine'. Loopy doctor eventually takes a copy of something she has found on the internet.

5. On the other side of town, a tanker driver is receiving his day's orders. He has been told to take a tankerfull of nitric acid to Holby Docks. He punches the details into a brand new satnav, and is given a route which is set to take him past the Holby Glycerine Works.

6. Back in the town centre, the police spot the youths who assaulted the old man. The youths run off and one of them is knocked down by a car, right in front of the disabled ambulance. The paramedics, being heavily bandaged, are unable to save his life and he dies at the scene.

7. Back to our plate glass salesman. Whilst crossing the frozen pond, he accidentally drops the glass and it breaks the ice, tipping him into the freezing water. He apparently drowns.

8. At the Hospital, loopy doctor is delivering her lecture. Unfortunately, in the audience is the writer of the article she has stolen from the internet. He challenges her and she becomes distraught and hysterical, running out of the hospital, intending to kill herself.

9. Whilst driving past the Glycerine works, the tanker driver has a heart attack. His vehicle crashes through the gate and into the factory. The resulting fireball and huge loss of life sets the scene for next week's episode.

10. Loopy doctor decides to drown herself and runs down to Holby pond. But she sees the plate glass man under water, forgets about her own miserable life, and saves his.

11. Gay man tries to visit the elderly gent in hospital, but the latter tells him to go away, citing his lifelong hatred of homosexuals.

12. Nurse overhears elderly man and engages him in conversation for a few minutes, seeking to explain the error of his ways.

13. Elderly man's eyes are opened for the first time in ninety years. He embraces the gay man as if he were a long lost grandson and invites him to tea.

14. The dead youth is brought into casualty. As he is taken through to the mortuary the heavily bandaged paramedic realises that it is, in fact, her brother's son. She tries to phone her brother on his mobile.

15. We cut to a mobile phone, ringing in the cab of a blazing lorry outside the glycerine factory...

Well? What do you think? Is there a career for me in the heady world of serial drama? Or should I just stick to blogging...?

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Everything but the oink

In common with most towns, my new adoptive home has a few charity shops. A couple of them are really rather good; the Oxfam shop in particular has a rather splendid selection of books, whilst the Cancer Research establishment has a superior line in Bric a Brac. And it was in this latter shop that No.1 daughter purchased a piggy bank.

Said piggy bank has a kind of charm about it that can generally be found in china objects made in...erm...China. It has a rather smug, self satisfied look, and eyelashes that wouldn't look out of place on a L'Oreal TV ad. It is also pink and fat, which is the least you expect from a piggy bank. And it only cost her two pounds, which to my mind is something of a bargain. However, one thing does seem a little curious to me. Given that the purchase of a piggy bank generally heralds an intention to start saving money, then why begin your savings regime by splashing out cash on a china receptacle? Cash that you could have put in a drawer, a pocket, an empty jam jar, or even (heaven forfend) a bank? I recently saw a painted earthenware pot called a Terramundi (which is Latin for, I believe 'Land of the World'). It costs twenty quid, comes in several different colours and designs, and, like the piggy bank, you put your spare change in it. However, unlike the piggy bank, you have to smash it to pieces to retrieve your money when it's full. Now, let's look at the logic of this. You waste twenty pounds you could have saved buying a pot that you will ultimately destroy and will not be able to reuse. Then, you use twenty pounds that you have retrieved from the shattered Terramundi to buy another one, and the whole sad business continues, either until the company that makes the Terramundi goes bust, or you come to your senses and stick the money in a drawer as I first suggested.

It's uncertain as to why pigs became favoured as money boxes. There's a suggestion that, in the middle ages, people placed whatever spare money they had (and I doubt there was much) in a receptacle called a pygg jar. In case you're wondering, pygg was a type of orange-coloured clay. Our modern day salt pig is a living reminder of these original pyggs. It's also mooted that the piggy bank was a kind of china representation of the real animal; in earlier times, families kept a pig that was fattened on scraps until it achieved sufficient weight to be slaughtered. The piggy bank likewise hoovered up bits of spare change until it, too, was 'fat' enough to be broken open.

The pig finds its way into quite a few sayings. We use the expression 'pigs might fly' to denote something that's unlikely to happen; we call a stubborn individual 'pig-headed'; and describe someone as 'happy as a pig in muck' when they are in a particularly cheerful mood. And we mustn't forget 'bringing home the bacon', which denotes the act of working to put food on the table. Did I say bacon? Dear bloggy friends, have you any idea how many bacon-related products are out there? Apart from bacon itself, of course. You can buy bacon flavoured dental floss, toothpicks, and even mints, marketed under the Uncle Oinker name. If you should be unlucky enough to stab yourself on a toothpick, then there are plasters amusingly shaped like mini rashers. Time to go to work? Put on your bacon tie, wrap a bacon scarf around your neck and pick up your bacon briefcase. Ah! Lunchtime! I think I'll have a bacon doughnut, washed down with a nice cup of Java coffee, flavoured with bacon and maple syrup...

I seem to have become a little carried away with the bacon motif. I do apologise. But they all exist, I swear. And don't even get me started on bacon undergarments...

Have you ever wondered what sound pigs make in other countries? Well, not the sound they actually make, of course; that probably doesn't vary that much across the globe (unless, of course, you know differently!) No, I'm talking about the (supposedly) onomatopoeic word we ascribe to their grunting. For some obscure reason, oink oink has become the phrase of choice in this country. But what of the Great Abroad? Croatians would have it that pigs exclaim rok rok. In Japan, pigs go buu; or more properly, buu buu. In Thailand your average prime porker ood oods away to his heart's content, whilst his Vietnamese counterpart goes for ut it. The prize, however, goes to the French for the rather racy groin groin. (Stop press! Late entry from my good friend Punk in Writing in Sweden, where the pigs say nöff nöff).

I think the final word has to go to Sir Francis Bacon. 'Acorns were good until bread was found'. Try telling that to pigs. They love acorns.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Help! I'm turning into a pensioner!

Some years ago, that most ubiquitous of facial preparations, Oil of Ulay, unaccountably changed its name to Oil of Olay. What made this even stranger was the fact that, in Germany, its name remained Oil of Olaz. This change occupied my waking thoughts for at least an hour. Why did they do it? Did they realise how expensive the change would be, reprinting all the packaging and re-shooting the TV ads? I don't think they thought it through properly. What they needed was someone like me. Someone who could step back from the problem, mull it over, look at the pros and cons, and then announce: 'No. Leave it as it is'. Just think of the money I'd have saved them.

I naturally assumed that the change wasn't just some whim. It had to be because Olay turned out to be some filthy word in Farsi, or Esperanto, or somesuch. After all, that's why you'll never see a Foden lorry in Portugal, and why Ford went for 'Capri' rather than 'Caprino' when launching their sporty car in the 196os. Sadly, the best I could come up with was that Ulay was the stage name of a German performance artist of the 1960s and 70s. So, Ulay wasn't the Icelandic word for 'arse'. I was quite disappointed. I rather liked the idea of a beauty product being called 'Oil of Arse'. But a point occurs to me. If (as it appears) that Ulay was called Olaz in Germany due to the difficulties experienced by the Teutonic tongue in pronouncing the former, why on earth would a German artiste give himself a name that was unpronouncable in his own language?

If you look at the blurb produced by the Olay people, you'll see that they make a big thing about The Seven Signs of Ageing. So I looked them up on my ever-helpful computer, and this is what they are:

1. Lines and wrinkles

2. Uneven skin texture

3. Uneven skin tone

4. Appearance of pores

5. Blotches and age spots

6. Dry skin

7. Dullness

Having reached my grand old age, I think I can say without doubt that I have the lot. Especially the dullness. Because there's something about ageing, nay, about retiring, that changes you in subtle ways. You don't notice it at first. You think you're the same person you were when you were working, plying your useful trade and having (in my case) cups of tea made for you without even having to ask for them. So, yesterday, as I sat on my comfy sofa, listening to my hair (especially the hair in my ears) grow whilst I polished off yet another sudoku, it suddenly occured to me that the Olay people had got it all wrong. Yes, I do have their seven signs, but no, they're not really important. It's not just my skin that's changing; it's my personality as well. I'm not the same person I was a year ago. I am undergoing a Kafka-esque metamorphosis, a change which involves seven signs of ageing of a rather different flavour. Listen in...

1. Heightened Fiscal Awareness. As a shift worker of many years, shopping was something usually done at the gallop. This was generally because (i) we needed to do it before I went off to work; or (ii) we needed to do it after I returned from work when the last thing I wanted to do was go shopping. So (as Mrs. H would tell you) I tended to walk a few paces behind her, muttering and mumbling, willing her to fill the trolley and get to the checkout with all due speed. I didn't particularly care about the cost; notes were proffered and change accepted and I couldn't get out fast enough. Now, things are different. No work, so I have no excuse to rush Mrs. H round the shops. The effect of this is that I can now tell you the price of bottled water in all the local shops (36p), the date when Morrisons' discount on chilled Chicken Jalfrezi ends (14th June) and the fact that a very useful cleaning product called The Bar Keeper's Friend is marginally cheaper in Sainsbury's than elsewhere. I have a serious case of this, but it's probably reversible. I need to adopt a trance-like state when shopping and feign indifference to the special offers.

2. A Need for Semi-Recumbency. You know they say that, when cows lie down, it's going to rain? Round here you know that, when pensioners sit down, it isn't. Age seems to bring with it this overwhelming desire for 'a nice sit down'. If it's 'a nice sit down with a cup of tea', that's even better. The other day, in an uncharacteristic fit of fiscal abandon I paid a nice Kosovan gentleman to wash my car. Did I go for a walk whilst he was doing it? Did I survey the wondrous hills, the clouds heaped up on high like ragged battlements, or the nearby stream as it chuckled its course over glistening flints? No. I went for a cup of tea and a nice sit down.

3. Consummate Procrastination. Remember the old adage: 'Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today'? This phrase might have been the watchwords for my former trade or calling. Policing demands immediacy. We've all heard stories about the cops turning up two days after the burglar was disturbed, but generally speaking things that demanded my immediate action were acted upon immediately. But now it's more like 'Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow, or preferably next week'. I have (as you can imagine) a whole housful of jobs that need doing. None of them are urgent, so I think they can probably wait until I've finished this post. In fact, next week might be a better time to start. I need to stop procrastinating, but not yet.

4. Stranger Engagement. When I was a child, off to school or about to run some errand to the corner shop, my Mum would say, 'Don't talk to any strange men'. Of course, I always agreed not to, not really knowing what she meant. I do now. They are the strange men (and women, let's have a bit of equality here!) who insist upon engaging you in conversation, having not been properly introduced to you; in fact, having not been introduced to you at all. Their favourite haunts tend to be the checkout queue, the bus stop, the post office; in fact, in any place where it is impossible for you to escape without abandoning your trolley, missing your bus, or not posting your parcel. The conversation will generally tend to feature the weather, the length of time s/he has been waiting, and sundry other topics of a most diverting nature. I was recently stopped by an elderly gent outside the bank, who proceeded to try to recruit me into a retired business peoples' luncheon club. I am as yet undecided as to whether I should accept his no doubt well-meant invitation. I am in the early stages of this sign of ageing, indulging in light banter with shop assistants. No doubt the full horror of Total Stranger Engagement will follow soon.

5. Monomaniac Tendencies. If you get a chance, visit a steam railway. There the retired will be. They'll be wearing little engine drivers' caps, waving flags, selling fudge in the station shop... Why? because of Late Onset Monomania. When you're a child, you develop all-consuming obsessions. It might be about cranes, lorries, particular types of mobile phone; but whatever it is you manage to jabber on about it unceasingly, until your friends' eyes glaze over and your parents threaten to thump or disown you. Then you grow up and put aside your obsessions in favour of leading a balanced life. But what happens when you retire? The obsessive gene switches on again and you devote a sizeable portion of your time (and sometimes money) to train spotting, stamp collecting or genealogy. My current obsession is writing, where I have managed to combine the maximum of effort with the minimum of financial recompense. Would that my obsession were decorating. I have so much of that to do.

6. Professional Purposelessness. Have you ever gone to the corner shop to buy a newspaper, and then, on a whim, just decided to wander about for no particular reason? In fact, for no reason other than that you can? Have you ever gone into a charity shop just to browse the books, or sat down in a library to skim through Practical Woodworker magazine? You have? Then, oh dear, you, like me, have become Professionally Purposeless. When I worked in London there were whole tribes of these PPs. They would meet in Macdonalds for an early morning coffee, and then betake themselves to Uxbridge Magistrates Court, where they would listen to the litany of drunkenness, shoplifting and casual violence that went before The Bench. Their afternoons were generally spent snoozing in the library, and then they would toddle off to their respective homes when it closed, only to repeat the whole dire routine the following day. I have this sign of ageing in a mild form. I sometimes take the long route home from the paper shop via the seafront, but only on a Sunday. I think I need to work at avoiding becoming fully PP.

7. Forgetfulness. I can't remember what I was going to say about forgetfulness.

So there you have it, dear bloggy friends. The Real Seven Signs of Ageing. The Seven New Geriatric Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Now that you know your enemy, you can work at avoiding them, just as I am attempting to do. If you should happen to see me in the street, reading the 'for sale' ads in the newsagents' window (you know - the ones that look like they've been written by kidnappers - upper and lower case letters in the wrong places), or attempting to strike up a conversation with some unsuspecting soul in a bus queue, do me a favour; strike me about the head until I stop.

Mrs. H has just brought me in a cup of tea, so, now that I've finished, I'm off for a nice sit down on the sofa.

Monday, 1 June 2009

The Spies Who Snubbed Me

Way back in the fifties and sixties, when I was smaller than I am now and you could buy individual Hovis loaves for around sixpence, it was fashionable for the Security Services to recruit their staff from public schools and universities. I often wondered how the selection process worked. Did a member of HMG just sidle up to some floppy-haired undergrad, hand him a prospectus that had been produced using an ancient 'Roneo' copier, and say, 'If you're interested, old son, give us a ring.'? Was that how it worked? No glossy brochure, no website with interactive content, no email address to contact? The student probably didn't even have access to his own personal phone; you can imagine him in the lobby of Jesus College, two old pennies in hand, waiting for the public phone to become free. ' that MI5? It's about the spying job...'

I was both a public schoolboy and a government servant, but, sad to report, no-one ever tried to recruit me into the probably terribly bureaucratic world of spying. Now that I have my Open University degree, I suppose I could be in the frame. But the OU, despite the high regard in which it is held, is unlikely to attract the attention of MI5's upper echelons ('Get Hale at any cost...yes, the one who wrote the dissertation on Roman dinner etiquette!) I'm probably more likely to be recruited by some charity wanting a late middle-aged Chugger who is marginally less irritating than the young, failed-TGI Friday wannabees who currently accost one in the street. But I digress. As per usual.

How did spying work way back when? We're so used to having the internet, mobile communications, video and audio surveillance that it's a wonder how spies were able to cope with their job. How could you tail a target vehicle if you didn't have a vehicle yourself and no tracker to slip unobtrusively under the car? What if you needed to phone in a sighting of a terrorist and there wasn't a phone box handy? It must have been hell. In modern spying a suspect can be tracked by satellites with cameras powerful enough to read his number plate from space; then, you just hoped that your binoculars were good enough to clock the index. If you could get any binoculars out of stores, that is. In my juvenile mind I like to think that modern spying is as sophisticated as it appears in 24, where Jack Bauer is able somehow to tap into the schematics of an apartment block, and activate the security cameras to see the baddies holed up in some washroom. And then call in a helicopter gunship to 'take them out' by being all shouty down his cellphone.

Taking someone out by calling for a helicopter gunship wasn't something that ever came to mind when I worked for HMG back in the mid 70s. On my desk I had a blotter, a mug with a couple of pens in it, and an old sit-up-and-beg phone, that actually made a ringing sound when My desk had two drawers; that's because I was an Executive Officer and was only entitled to a desk with two drawers. A Higher Executive Officer was in receipt of a desk with four drawers - two each side - and the next rank up got something nice in polished wood. Our desks were uncluttered by computers. Everything had to be written out longhand and then forwarded to the typing pool in a brown folder. It would come back a couple of days later, riddled with errors that could easily have been spotted if the typist had actually bothered to read over what she (and it was always a she) had just typed. I once visited the typing pool. You couldn't actually go in; you just handed your work through a little hatch in the wall and then went away. I like to think that the ladies in the typing pool were a kind of 70s equivalent of galley slaves, tapping away to the drum beat of the Hortator or Pausarius. Either that, or the poor girls were so dangerous that they were kept under lock and key for our safety. But there was a little light relief. On the wall outside the room was a much photocopied picture of lots of little cartoon men falling about laughing, bearing the legend, 'You want it when?'

I spent three and a half years with HMG, each day more exciting than the last, especially when a new consignment of paperclips was due. But my work colleagues were a quirky and marvellous bunch and, were I gifted with the power to write a sitcom, I'm sure I could do something with Arthritic Near-Pensioner, Welsh Lady with Glass Eye, Cheeky Barrow-Boy Type, Snooty Colonel's Daughter, and Glamour Puss with Sulty Voice and Loads of Make Up...

Which reminds me. I asked Mrs. H if she had any ideas what I could write about in my next post. She thought for a moment, and then said, 'make up'.

So I got there in the end.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

World domination...if the carbon paper lasts

Those of you who know me will be aware of my most recent trade or calling. What is less widely known is that I was previously a civil servant (paper-shuffler supremo) and, before that, an ironmongery assistant (pumping pink paraffin for the people). But, even less widely known, was my first career in creative writing. Sadly, enjoyable though it was, I fear that I peaked too early with that particular line of work. I think I was eight years old at the time.

It was 1963. Doctor Who was on the telly. And then along came the Daleks. The Daleks caught our youthful imagination in a way that nothing had done before. We were seized with Dalekmania, which was a bit like Beatlemania, except that Daleks didn't have pudding basin haircuts or nasal Liverpudlian accents. The marketing people caught on very quickly to this developing phenomenon. Within a short space of time, we had Dalek Books, comics, sweets, Dalek toys that sparked when you pushed them along the floor, badges (I recently saw one in a Brighton antique shop for twenty pounds), soft toys and soaps. And I started the Dalek Club at the Kensal Rise Junior Boys' School.

The Dalek Club was a very simple concept. Anyone could join. The only requirement was an all-consuming obsession with Daleks, and an inclination to talk about them to other club members at every available opportunity. Very soon, however, even my partially formed eight year old brain determined that this Skaro-related chit-chat wasn't going anywhere, so I started writing my own Dalek stories for other club members to read at sixpence a time. Sadly, I can't remember any of the stories, and the copies I kept have long since vanished, but what quickly became clear is that there was a great demand for them. The difficulty, in those days before computers, laser printers and photocopies, was producing them in sufficient quantities for my adoring readership. All I had was an old sit-up-and-beg typewriter (I think it was called a Corona), and my one finger at a time typing skills. Using carbon paper, I discovered I could produce a maximum of three copies at a time. So, I'd line up the paper and carbon...tap tap tap...three copies. And then the next three copies. And the next. Eventually (you've probably already guessed it!) I got tired of this, and the task of typing was taken over my dear long-suffering dad, from whom I don't remember a single word of complaint! There was a happy ending to all this, however. Dad became an amazingly quick typist, I made a few bob, and the money went to buy some new books for the school library.

So, dear bloggy friends, why am I telling you all this? Not for the first time, I'm unsure. But perhaps it does indicate the huge changes over the last forty-odd years in the way we handle and disseminate information. What dad and I were doing then was akin to the labours of medieval monks, slavishly copying manuscripts borrowed from some other religious establishment in a freezing scriptorium. Equally, it shows that some things don't change that much. I'm thinking of the keyboard I'm currently tapping, that hasn't altered significantly since Christopher Sholes came up with the QWERTY keyboard in the 1870s, in an attempt to stop 'typebar clashes', when the little metal rods containing the letters got stuck and had to be manually disentangled. The keyboard layout also enabled typewriter salsmen to amuse potential clients by tapping out the word typewriter using only the top row of letters. Incidentally, you can also type trout query. And terrier poo.

Apart from the standard letters and numbers on the keyboard, there is a positive gallimaufry of weird and wonderful characters lurking on the right hand side near the number pad. Take the @ symbol, for example. What on earth is that about? It's called, rather boringly, the at sign, and was originally used by merchants to show the unit price of a number of items, thus: ten whatsnames @ 17/6d. In renaissance Italy, an @ was shorthand for an amphora of wine; and in 15th century Spain, a unit of weight. More recently, however, the @ sign appears as the middle bit of your standard email address, and is employed as part of one's user name by Tweeters. Apparently, in the most recent recording of the Museum of Curiosity, author Philip Pullman attempted to promote the usage of the word 'Astatine' as a name for the @ symbol (astatine being a chemical element). This sounds like a characteristically apt and astute idea from Mr. P. I, on the other hand, see it more as shorthand for a bit of cockney headgear, as in, 'Blimey, guv'nor, where did you get that @?'

Another rather arcane symbol is #. This looks for all the world like the little grid we use for noughts and crosses (or tic tac toe), and is generally referred to as a hash. In the US, the # is used to replace the word 'number', and is also employed as shorthand for the pound weight. The humble # has, unlike the undervalued @, acquired a good many slang names, including crosshatch, gridlet, crunch, and, bizarrely, octothorpe, which sounds like a small village in Suffolk. I don't think Mr. Pullman has ventured to suggest a new name for the #, but if he did, it would probably be something like Neodymium. I quite like Casement, because it looks a bit like the glazing bars on a Georgian window. Or Baden-Powell, seeing it resembles the crossed twigs of a boy scouts' camp fire. We could also use the # in the same way as the @, as a word or part of a word, but it would be somewhat limited; #ish, # brown potatoes, corned beef #. See what I mean?

Your humble keyboard has so much more to offer than mere letters and numbers. Look carefully and you will find a tilde, a caret, a vertical, and a backslash. And, if it were not already past my bedtime, I would venture to suggest some rather more interesting names for these curious little beggars. But, to tell you the truth, I'm *~@#¬%!