March 31, 2009

I have an unhealthy relationship with parody, and have done since I started entering parody competitions in 1978. Sometimes I wonder if the voices I imitate have taken me over, but mimicking other writers has in the end taught me more about writing than it’s detracted from it.

There is a certain frustration about nearly winning a competition, but in the spirit of waste not, want not, here’s a saucy version (that was the instruction) of a poem which was commended but not published – a version in this case of an A.A.Milne poem, which I can remember from childhood, and which I suspect I had to learn (I certainly had to learn the one about the king who had to have marmalade and butter with his bread). The original is called Disobedience, and is a lot longer, but the limit here was sixteen lines. I would like to apologise to my reader called Carruthers. No slur was intended, as I am sure she will understand, and no animals were harmed in the making of this spoof.

James James Morrison Morrison

Weatherby George Dupree
Liked to run bare with Carruthers
When he was forty-three.
James James said to Carruthers,
“Carruthers,” he said, said he;

“I can show you a peach at the end of the beach
If you ever go down by the sea.”


Town Hall put out an order:









Tea and other perils

March 30, 2009

I think I would be wise to go out and throw myself under a bus. As I have previously explained, there is – it is still going on – a bus war in this village, with two rivals firms still slugging it out for phantom passengers. There is no sign of it abating. So there are plenty of buses going past my front door, any one of which might do the trick.

The reason for this sudden suicidal impulse can be found here. It is a grizzly analysis of the tea-drinking habits of northern Iranians in the province of Golestan. It concludes that drinking hot tea is the cause of cancer of the oesophagus, or rather, increases the risk of such a cancer at a truly alarming rate. The cancer has the hilariously unlovely full name of oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma. I think it is squamous that is the bothersome word here (it means ‘covered with scales’).

Now I don’t want to give the impression that I read the British Medical Journal from cover to cover. That would be like the famous incident in Three Men In A Boat (full title, Three Men In A Boat (To Say Nothing Of The Dog), in which the narrator reads a medical dictionary and decides that he has the lot. I just spot articles provided by my internet provider, AOL, and read them, to stop myself working so hard. And AOL has gone to town on the Golestan research.

And what AOL says is ‘Let your tea stand for longer than two minutes’ – or, in effect, you are on the high road to a horribly squamous end. This is very bad news. One of the ways I keep warm is by drinking hot tea, with almost no milk in it all, and – look away now, this will offend almost any purists – I generally drink Earl Grey with one aspartame tab. The aspartame, of course, could also cause me some cancer problems. There was a report a few years ago that rats died when fed aspartame and that the sweetener was “a multipotential carcinogenic compound whose carcinogenic effects are also evident at a daily dose of 20 milligrams per kilogram of body weight (mg/kg), notably less than the current acceptable daily intake for humans”. Leukemia was one projected outcome, although this was sweetly and hotly denied by the makers of aspartame. I have yet to discover whether bergamot oil, which gives Earl Grey its flavour, causes cancer. (All right, I have just looked, and a) bergamot oil is used as a defence against malaria, and b) Twinings, which is the brand I drink, don’t use bergamot oil but an artificial flavouring. I am beginning to panic.)

A bergamot - whose oil I don't apparently drink

A bergamot - whose oil I don't apparently drink

One of the few treats in life is to drink hot tea, unstewed, and quietly sweetened. I break up my day with the stuff. I’ve given up coffee, more or less, and now I have to be threatened by AOL with info that, because they like it hot in Iran, my oesophagus could go scaly. So I may end it, and the bus is easiest. There will be another one along in a minute.

Cane Toads

March 29, 2009

I am no great fan of toads (it’s interesting how Kenneth Grahame nevertheless got away with making Mr. Toad a sort of loveable Jeffrey Archer), but I feel for the cane toad, just a little. In Australia, they are the scourge of wildlife, since being imported from South America to get rid of some beetles, which they couldn’t manage to eat (too high to jump). According to the papers, a politician called Shane Knuth in Queensland said a cane toad was “probably the most disgusting creature and the most destructive creature. They’re killing our native wildlife, they’re taking over our habitat and they’re hopping all through this country.” He has come up with a plan called ‘Toad Day Out’, which will involve a family fun day exterminating them. The RSPCA does not object, as long as the method is “humane”.

I don’t know if Mr. Knuth has noticed this, and I accept he is not personally responsible, but his own country, like every ‘civilised’ country, has a poor record when it comes to despatching “native  wildlife”. The cane toads, being animals, cannot – well, I suspect they can’t – fight back. Nor could the Tasmanians, who were extinguished in a systematic “Tasmanian Day Out” in the nineteenth century. It is a bit of an irony to be one of an invading species – possibly frogmarched or even toadmarched over by the British penal system – having a pop at another species which has been “introduced”. We are also in this country having a go, in some parts of the country, at “sorting out” the grey squirrel, which has been here a lot longer (c. 1800) than the cane toad has been in Australia (1935).

And yet, paradoxically, there are scientists who are working at the same time to preserve, or do I mean un-preserve, extinct animals. By the end of this century, I expect there will be a mammoth or two in bewildered existence again, possibly looking at a couple of raptors, and thinking, ‘What happened to that Ice Age?” There will also be wolves in Scotland (“native wolves”, of course) and beavers, too, who are scheduled to make a comeback in this country, which will be a dam nuisance (ho ho). Why not also bluebirds. which have never been here? At least that way, we could let them loose in a certain port in Kent where there are cliffs of a chalky complexion, and make the nonsensical song come true.

The fact is, we are forever fiddling with nature, from the micro-level to the macro-level. I suspect that the cane toad is in for some brutal treatment, simply because it is (for some reason, genetically programmed, and unfathomable) unattractive to humans. It seems unfair. But then that’s what meddling like this is. Unfair.

And dishonest, low-down, dirty, mean, and, as Shakespeare had it, ‘most toad-spotted’. Oh dear.


March 28, 2009

I may get the wrong sort of readership with a headline like that, but I am afraid I am not about to confess to my student drug habits, like a Cabinet minister, or Pres. Obama. Not until I have really run out of things to write. (Nor are they anything to wait up for.)

On my way to the computer, I tripped and fell. I find I am doing this more and more these days, as if I have lost my balance. That was a lie. I have always been a tripper, scuffer, stumbler, and general prat-faller. Were it not that my father and mother would have disapproved, I would have run away with a circus and joined the clowns. (Clowns now strike me as desperately unfunny. Yet some of the big name clowns, like Coco, who wore an upturned cone on his head of some style and distinction, and whom I saw, I think at Bertram Mills’ circus, as well as on television, had real star status in their day. I am a bit stuck here. Coco did work for Mills, and was a Latvian-born entertainer who received an OBE, but I may be mixing him up with another clown.)

Anyway. Why is that two things – tripping over, and stubbing your toe – cause such disproportionate pain, and also hilarity if anyone happens to be watching? Stubbing a toe (and it is possible of course to do this as part of a really elaborate trip, like the one I’ve just recovered from)  feels when it happens as if it might just be worse than being dropped won a lift-shaft, in the same way that cutting one’s finger (e.g. with a piece of paper) seems excruciatingly worse than the idea of losing a leg. I suppose that the shock level is not high enough to blot out the pain.

I hate stubbing my toe. I hate falling over after tripping over some unseen object.

You can probably tell from this that I have led a safe and quiet life. I have not broken a bone in my body (yet), although my son cracked this trick – literally cracked it – when he was two, and each of my wives has separately, independently and coincidentally broken their wrists. I was in the vicinity (no more than that) on both occasions. Make of that what you will. If they dished out plaster for stubbing toes and tripping over objects which should not be where they are (like, my feet), I would have many jolly stories about what people graffitoed on my feet, but the only time I have had plaster applied was when a friend made a cast of my head. (It was very gruesome, very life-like, and a cleaner threw it away, thinking, doubtless, what are they up to here? It was for a play in which my character had his head ripped off by some women.)

What a quiet life I have led. This is because I have climbed no peaks (why do people do that?), never tried ski-ing (have you ever met a ski-ing party where they all came back in one piece?), and never been involved in a traffic accident which was more than a shunt. In other words, I stubbed my car. But I have fallen over more times than I care to remember, especially now, in the aftermath of yet another Mr. Clumsy-style stumble.

Ow. Ow. Ow.

More coats

March 27, 2009

It occurred to me yesterday, while writing about formal coats, how essential an item of clothing a coat was to a teenage boy in the 1960s: not just any old coat, not a formal overcoat, but, very specifically, an army or navy greatcoat, obtained for a cheap price from either a Salvation Army store, or an army and navy surplus store (I cannot tell you if these are still going, but it would have been interesting to see the profit graphs of such shops in 1969-1970. Someone somewhere must have been scratching their head).

I cannot be sure who started this, but I associate it very strongly with the four-piece band Free, who were at the height of their popularity at that time (the hit song “All Right Now” was everywhere – nobody disliked it. In fact, Tony Blair frequently admitted that, if he hadn’t been born into his own body, he’d have liked most of all to have been Paul Rodgers, their singer). Their bass-player, Andy Fraser – and it was his loud and clear bass-lines, quite unlike the more common, modestly background rhythm-section bass-lines, which made their sound distinctive – wore an army greatcoat. Free were very popular in Sunderland, where, beneath the bowling alley in which I had worked as a cleaner, there was a ‘nightclub’ called, very preposterously, the Fillmore North. (If this means nothing to you, The Fillmores East and West were the New York and San Francisco venues most famous at the time for any electric music. Sunderland’s Fillmore had some plastic palm trees, and was very small.)

In fact, Free even recorded a live album (or most of it) in Sunderland. I remember being unable to go, but seeing the long lines of navy-blue, greatcoated young men, very occasionally with a girl in tow, stretching a long way back from the entrance. It may be that they were dressed this way because they all owned the very cheap Island record sampler ‘You Can All Join In”, which made a large number of reputations. It was 13/11, as I remember, or even 13/6 – i.e. 70p. Here’s the cover:

The cover of 'You Can All Join In'

The cover of 'You Can All Join In'

At the front are Andy Fraser (second from right) and Paul Rodgers (second from left). Theirs was the look we aspired to. I wonder if the ‘surplus’ shops actually had to put in orders for more surplus, as it were.

There was only one other coat you had to have, and that was an Afghan. Whether the Afghan coats had actually been made in Afghanistan, I have my doubts, but there were always vans selling them at open-air events. The only requirement for an Afghan was that it (a) looked a bit tatty, and (b) smelled as if the goat was still going off.

I am not sure what became of either my greatcoat or my Afghan, which is odd, because I am very, very poor at getting rid of any articles at all, and the greatcoat was made to last at least two hundred years. I doubt I gave them away. Most probably they were surgically removed by a partner, from a wardrobe or a hook, and, just to show that a hoarding instinct is not necessary, I don’t think I’ve noticed that I haven’t got them till now (which raises the awful thought that they might still be stashed in my loft).

The Afghan probably made its own unapologetic exit – it certainly gave the impression that it was still capable of some movement.

Formal overcoats, frozen chickens, and rosé

March 26, 2009

Apparently we are drinking more rosé, instead of buying wine-boxes – there was a long article in The Guardian about what kinds of corners people are cutting because of the recession and because of deflation (I understand the perils of deflation, I think, but it is quite odd to be in a situation in which the enemy is not inflation, which is the spectre which was used to terrorise us by successive oppositions in the seventies and eighties – surely the upside is that prices stay the same and our pay doesn’t go up? I know that’s simplistic, but when inflation spirals upwards, prices go up and our pay doesn’t keep up with the prices – no wonder I couldn’t cope with Economics A level).

But why rosé? Are we saying that rosé is less costly, and that we prefer bottles? Are we admitting that a wine-box is a clever way of drinking too much without actually letting other people see it? And what is happening to the sale of wine-boxes which contain rosé? Hmmm.

The other thing that isn’t selling is frozen chickens. I don’t get that, either. People are apparently going to the supermarket rotisserie and buying the hot ones. But a frozen chicken is surely cheaper (I’m not bothering about the ethics of what kind of chicken it is acceptable to eat here, that’s a different debate), isn’t it? And you cook it yourself, preferably after defrosting. Are we saying that people are not using their ovens, to save electricity? It all seems a bit weird to me.

But the oddest item on the list is ‘formal overcoats’. What a great phrase that is. Imagine a household in which the family inspects the bills, and says, ‘You know what, we could cut back a bit on the formal overcoats.’ I suppose by this, they mean, ‘overcoats’. What an ‘informal overcoat’ is, is a bit of a teaser. ‘I am wearing a casual overcoat today.’ Eh? Or is the thing that we’re prepared to shiver a bit, or that we already have a coat, and we are going to leave it a little bit longer before lashing out on another? Or is that we are all wearing anoraks instead?

Having a coat – a ‘formal overcoat’, I suppose – was one of life’s tedious essentials when I was little, and wearing a coat is still a sort of routine (the most common line in ‘Coronation Street’ is ‘I’ll get my coat’, and I assume it’s a ‘formal’ one that’s being referred to). The big trend in the late sixties was to wear a short coat (Joe Kagan got rich on the Gannex and Dannimac), and perhaps that caused the makers of coats a bit of hardship then, since the demand for fabric presumably went down. A coat wasn’t a purchase you could be entrusted to make by yourself, of course. In fact, when it came to the business of Buying A Coat, my mother refused to take part, and delegated the buisness to my father. So when I was about fourteen – of coat-wearing age, but not coat-purchasing age – he rather grimly took me to the centre of Sunderland to a department store called Blackett’s.

My father’s idea of shopping (I know I am drifting from the point, but I can’t actually understand all these changes in shopping habits, pun not intended) was a bit like mine – go in, get the thing, pay, come out. He wasn’t, however, necessarily to be trusted on the style front. I remember being frog-marched into the shop and shown a rack. My father said, ‘That one, that one, or that one.’ Even a choice of three was a bit surprising, given that my father was involved. I chose something that bore a dangerous resemblance to a milkman’s coat, and he sighed, and paid.

I even remember getting home and his looking at my mother and at me and at the coat with a sort of strange disdain, as if to say ‘I have been shopping. The job is done. I wash my hands of the affair.’

I am afraid you are going to hear more from me on the subject of coats.

Letters I have taken against

March 25, 2009

It’s no good, I am sick of them: the letters C and V. They offend me. They upset me. I wish them to be struck from the alphabet, to be cashiered, to be decommissioned, to be replaced (we don’t need C anyway, and as for V, well, we could always go back to that ‘w’ pronunciation which some Latin teachers insisted upon, as in Weni, Widi, Wici). I would like to see them drummed out of dictionaries, and thrown out of thesauruses (thesauri, if you must, and you mustn’t). If you are asked to produce a CV, well, to hell with it, it can be an SW from now on, and if you attack a machine-gun nest without thought for life or limb, in a display of gallantry, you can damn well win the WS, posthumously or otherwise.

I’m sorry about this. It’s the on-line Scrabble (and Lexulous, formerly Scrabulous, but not after the court case brought by Hambro). They keep me sane, they pass away those minutes when I would otherwise be in uffish or indeed oafish thought, and I can’t pretend I haven’t learned a whole lot of new words – platinas, syen and taconite, for instance, and that’s just in the last 48 hours, and I can tell you, it wasn’t me who lighted upon them. The frustration of these word-games is that they depend upon your use of a very limited number of two-letter words – which of us does not use za, qi and jo in everyday conversation, eh? – and the thing about V and C is that there are NO two-letter words beginning with either. Stick a V or a C down on a Scrabble board or its variant, and you both scupper and are scuppered, at the same time. They sit there, looking smarmy and smug and also downright obstructive. You may have been hoarding up your blanks, your every s or i, n and g for a real crack at a seven-letter word (eight in Lexulous) and you are blown out of the water.

I have a friend who is a bit of a purist, to whom I explained my current addiction to word games. Unfortunately, I let slip that, in online Scrabble, you can look words up before you put them down (you can even give them a punt, on the off chance that they exist, especially when they are going to give you a colossal score), and he was completely horrified. I tried to steer the conversation on to safer topics, like the profusion of nuclear weapons, or animal testing, but it was too late. He was at me. ‘The whole point,’ he said, perturbed and distressed beyond any normal measure, ‘is to put down words that you know.‘ He was quite assertive about it. He knows a lot of words, too, many more than me, or should I say, he knows the meanings of many words more than me.

But I am afraid that I play for the pleasure of winning (and indeed, losing, which is just as well, as my three opponents are giving me a right going-over at present), not for any educational reason. I like the tactical business of games, and, if I were consigned to a rest-home (as surely some day, I shall be) I will be quite happy if there is a deck of cards and the occasional plate of mince and mash. I have no major plans for retirement.

I knew I’d lost the moral high ground with my friend who objected to online Scrabble’s quirks (‘cheating’, as he put it). I could have flashed him a V-sign, but that letter is right off my Christmas list.