Thursday, 31 October 2013

Pumpkin soup...

 I opened the door and (hey presto!) there was he, large as life and twice as… well not exactly ugly, but if he’d been a picture I’m not sure he’d have been described as pretty. His orange pumpkin head was definitely vibrant though, and his white cotton shirt - all buttoned to the neck like some country boy parson - a fine contrast. I could see that his dust-me-down suit had seen better days (what sort of dust was that exactly?) and as for the holy-roller bible - well let’s just say it didn’t look very holy with all that char around the edges. Yes, he sure was a sight for eyes as sore as mine.

“Trick or treat!” I asked, holding out the dish of candy and taking in the crosses and hearts, the veil of tears that were etched across his purdy Pumpkin face.

“You decide.” He said as he fiddled with his shirt buttons and opened his shirt on emptiness. No heart, no lungs or ribs, no gizzards, just thin air inside his clothes. “Call me Jack,” he grinned, “It’s as good a name as any… can I come in?”

I nodded in dumb acquiescence. Well, he’d invited himself.

Stepping over the threshold he closed the door behind him and turned. His smile became impossibly wide as he stepped towards me. I smiled back as I picked up the cleaver, running over my recipe for spicy pumpkin soup. Garlic, coriander, cumin, chilli, a pumpkin head - it almost sounded like a spell. I loved soup.

I swung my cleaver. The treat was going to be mine. I guess he’d pulled the trick card after all.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

A storm and two bits of news...

I’ve been away for a few days in Wales waiting for the storm to hit. It didn’t, but I heard some news that might have once concerned me but found, when I heard it, that I had no concern at all. My stomach didn’t drop, I didn’t feel I had to contact anyone; I was, at best, mildly interested and just a little annoyed.

Then, still waiting for the storm and listening to the wind and rain outside I heard that Lou had gone. It was my wife who told me. She isn’t into music and Lou Reed was never part of her world, she’s too young and from a different place. But she told me gently. So nice that she understood how I’d feel.

Lou Reed. How could he be gone? I wasn’t a number one fan but Jesus…

When I heard it struck me suddenly that if Lou could go then there was no hope for any of us. Shit it was true, we were all going to die. So to try and hold that truth back I started singing Perfect Day, but I couldn’t remember the words.

I thought: some deserve to go and don’t, and other’s don’t and do. I thought the storm’s coming tonight. I thought the wind will blow and the trees will fall, but nothing will bring Lou back and nothing can take him away so let it all crash. And then it didn’t.

And then
those black girls sang…

Friday, 25 October 2013

Call me Clogs…

Now, about my surname. For those of you that don’t already know, my surname is Height. Not the most common of names, but a lot more common than you might think. There are half-a-dozen Andrew Heights on Facebook alone, a black murderer Andrew Height in Alabama State prison, and of course yours truly – Andrew Kevin Height.

There are Heights scattered all over the country like bad pennies waiting to come up as change. Many years ago, when I had a Saturday job in the china department at Birmigham’s Lewis’s Department Store, it came to my attention that there was another Height working on the payroll. I always meant to pop up to see her in the underwear department she managed and have a ‘chat’, but you know how these things are and I never quite managed to get to her underwear.

‘Are you free?’ Well let’s put it like this, I don’t charge.

My ancestors originated in Holland and came over as émigrés in the mid-1700’s, setting up home in Lincolnshire. They were Blacksmiths and field engineers by trade, so probably came to the fens to drain the land, building the dykes and living in windmills surrounded by tulips and wearing wooden clogs. Cloggs are lucky I believe.

Did you zien a muis?
Er on de stair.
Warr on de stair?
Just er.
Een little muis with klompen on?
Well I verklarr.

Lucky klompen. Now there’s a thought.

Back then we were the Van der Hoogtes (pronounced fon dare Hocht), a family of metaalwerkers and Smids (pronounced metaalwerkers and Smids).

I’ve Googled the name and my most famous Dutch relative seems to be Aleida van der Hoogte who was born in Amsterdam. Cousin Aleida’s an artist who paints flowers and fairground scenes in a fusion of bold composition, vibrant colour and detail. Her work displays the Dutch Floral Masters influences and she’s a big fan of Pieter Bruegel the Elder which comes across in her figurative work.

I love Bruegel and I can paint flowers a bit, although I don’t… and there the similarity between myself and Aleida probably ends.

Anyway, at some point, probably because Dutch immigrants weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms, an ancestor of mine dropped the ‘van de’ and changed the spelling of Hoogte to the English word of the same meaning – Height.

So that’s me; a badly named Dutchman - Andrew Kevin Height.

Perhaps, as a friend of mine suggested, I should change my first name to Anders, revert to my Dutch surname and chuck in the clogs for good luck.

Anders Klompen van der Hoogtes… I like that.

Just call me Clogs… Clogs van der Hoogtes. Maybe I should move to Amsterdam.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Kevin in the middle...

My middle name is Kevin. Please accept my apologies.

Was it some sort of cruel trick? Not content with getting an inscrutable Chinese midwife to name me 'Andrew' they then decided that my middle name should be Kevin! It gives me nightmares to this day. How they arrived at this choice I’ve no idea, there were no Kevin’s in the family. Maybe there was a Kevin passing the house just as my dad opened the bedroom window and shouted:

“Middle name anyone?”

‘Hoopla!’ The decision was made. Again I fear that they gave my middle name as much thought as my first - and subsequently anything else to do with me.

If only they had picked William.

William was a family name and was generally included somewhere in the male child naming process. My great-great-grandfather, great-grandfather, grandfather and father all had the William name; there had been Williams in our family for generations. Not me though. It seems I wasn’t family enough to bear the family name. A pity really as you can do a lot with William. With William I could have been Bill or Billy, Will or Willy, or even Wills if the mood had taken me. I doubt that I would have made myself known as and i.didn’t.get.the.f’ing.chance.

And so I became Andrew Kevin instead.

I sometimes dream about how my parents came up with my middle name…

Mother: “How about William? There are lots of Williams in your family.”
Father: “Let’s name him after the milkman.”
Mother: “Kevin? Kevin’s a sheep’s name!”
Father: “Exactly!”

So I’m named after a sheep… baaaa!

For years I went by 'Andy' and then one day I dropped the ‘y’ and replaced it with an ‘i’. Unfortunately it stuck, and for many years that 'i' became my life’s bane. There was this assumption by many that I was a girl and I regularly received mail to Ms Andi Height. How stupid and poncey was I?

Well, at least I never became a Drew. Except for an interesting fortnight one summer (but that’s another story).

Most people trying to turn their backs on their first name would have turned to their middle name:
“Call me Bill.”
“My Name? It’s Willy. Like the Willy of trouser snake fame.”
Yes, I really am a dick charmer. But somehow the middle name thing didn’t work for me, “Call me Kev,” didn’t have quite the same ring.

Did I mention that I sometimes dream about how my parents came up with my middle name?...

Father: Is that boy normal?
Doctor: Your child is perfectly normal
Father: No abnormalities?
Doctor: None whatsoever.
Father: Not even ADHD?
Doctor: That hasn’t been invented yet.
Father: Then I guess we’re just going to have to name him Kevin and wait.

Maybe, I wasn’t perfect like my cousin. But I don’t think I deserved Kevin.

That’s it... of course there was always my surname to fall back on…

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Being Andrew…

My name is Andrew and I’m a…well, I’ll leave you to fill in the missing word for yourself.

What’s in a name I wonder? Well, quite a lot in my case, I really don’t like mine. It galls me to tell you that I had no part in choosing my name and therefore its awful blandness and mediocrity isn’t really anything to do with me. I’m not really an Andrew at all, I’m far more exotic: a Zane, a Rhys, a Salvador, a Faust, anything but an Andrew.

According to the tale told by my mother, who sometimes struggles with truth I fear, it was the midwife’s Chinese assistant who named me Andrew. The midwife herself, Nurse Gubbins, was a Dickensian character of exceeding plumpness and bustle and I occasionally wonder if her assistant was also stereotypical, sporting immensely long pointed nails and a mandarin moustache.

Anyway, it would seem that neither of my parents could be bothered to name me themselves. So they asked a complete stranger to stand in for them in the naming process. Most parents think long and hard about their all important babies’ name, making lists, discussing it with friends. Not mine; they brought in a surrogate namer (lucky me) - typical really.

Why Andrew should have popped into the Chinese midwifery assistant’s head puzzles me to this day. Andrew isn’t exactly a Chinese name. But then maybe she had some Scottish connections, perhaps she was a MacWong or McChen.

Just why Miss MacWong couldn’t have picked a Chinese name like Changpu (forever simple), or Dong (winter), or even Lonwei (dragon greatness) as my Christian name leaves me pondering something that Confucius might have said at a time when he was in an extremely bad mood. I’d have been happy with Tèbié chǎofàn (special fried rice) if she’d picked it. But no, out of her inscrutable mind came Andrew and that was it; the deal was done and I was doomed to wander through life with one of the most ordinary of names.

Andrew? Why Andrew? There were four other bloody Andrews in my class at infant school. They followed me all through my school years only to be replaced by a different set of five Andrews at university and another seven (not all magnificent) Andrews when I went off to work.

Andrew is such an ordinary and common name; so common that they burdened Prince Andrew Duke of York with it - to make him more accessible to ordinary commoners - only a few years after I was given that label. Mind you he did have ‘Duke of York’ to fall back on whilst I didn’t. Maybe the Queen and Phillip named him after me. I wonder if they had a Chinese midwife who they casually asked to name their son.

“Would one care to suggest a name for my husband and I’s offspring Miss McChen?”

The list of names available to monarchy is probably shorter than the norm – I can’t imagine a Prince Zach or Justin – so maybe, for them, Andrew was just the best of a bad bunch with Charles already taken.

Mind you, even with all the names in the world to choose from (which my parents had) I can’t imagine either of my parents breaking away from the expected. So it’s unlikely they’d have ever come up with a Troy, a Sven, or an Ilya - even a Bertie would have probably been stretching them to their limits.

So Andrew it was. Boring, dull, commonplace, and hardly likely to encourage me to make a name for myself.

A less than inspired choice, but not as bad as the name they dared to choose for my middle name…

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Parachutes, pumpkins, Leonardo…

I was going to write about parachutes today. Did you know that it’s the 216th anniversary of the first recorded parachute jump? I’m sure that there will have been jumps prior to this, but these others go unrecorded; perhaps the jumpers didn’t live to record them. Damn Leonardo da Vinci with his parachute designs. It’s thanks to him that I’ve always regretted not signing up for that charity jump when I had the chance. Yes, his fault, not mine. Sometimes I wish he had just stuck to painting plain, sallow, enigmatic ladies who seem to be sitting on a feather.

I also considered posting on pumpkins. Well, I bought my Halloween pumpkin at the weekend. Yes, just the one, anything more would be too showy. I didn’t carve one last year and received a complaint from one trick-or-treater who said that she’d been looking forward to seeing my pumpkin in the porch and felt cheated. The last one I made was a Dali cat, the year previous the Ju-Ju Jesus Peanut (all hail the Holy Peanut). God knows what I’m going to carve this year, but it better be good. I don’t want any more complaints from eight year old pumpkin art critics.

Anyway between parachutes, pumpkins and a glass or two of red wine, I Googled ‘Leonardo da Vinci pumpkin’ and to my surprise up came ‘DaVinci Pumpkin Pie Sauce – Gourmet’. So not just any old pumpkin pie sauce; Da Vinci and gourmet no less! I’d never heard of it, but apparently it’s a blend of pumpkin, cinnamon, allspice and ginger and tastes just like pumpkin pie which, like my parachuting non-opportunity, I’ve never experienced.

Bloody Leonardo da Vinci. As if anatomy, painting, philosophy, arms design and engineering weren’t enough.

He really was into everything wasn’t he? Parachute pie anyone?

Monday, 21 October 2013

Banksy, rugby league and stuff...

Not really much to say today. I woke up to rain and the rain has continued; it’s a wet time of year. Out of the rain and indoors, I spent the day writing about the Rugby League World Cup and why Banksy has become so successful, trying hard to forget the nightmare I had the night before last. Home towns are such creepy places.

The Rugby League World Cup 2013 has 14 nations competing, giving you plenty of choice when it comes to all those bookie offers. Just take your pick from around the globe and get in on the free bet action. This year that action is taking place in EnglandFranceIreland and Wales and it’ll be the first time for the United States and Italy, who successfully qualified in 2011. But that wasn't it. I played union, not league.

So, I’m standing on the boundary bridge. ‘Be I Bucks? Be I buggery.’ He says. Ha ha. 

There are some things that grab our attention, compelling us to participate despite having little or no understanding of what we are participating in. New Yorkers are currently going wild for the work of underground graffiti artist Banksy. The majority of them will have no interest in art, most of them will be oblivious or tired of the graffiti littered streets of the city in which they live. Even so, for some reason Banksy has grabbed the usually ‘ungrabbable’ attention of New Yorkers, whipping even the coolest of them into art appreciation frenzy. But that wasn't it either, he didn't see the point of art... be I bucks, be I buggery?

Yeah, another New Yorker, the worst kind. The kind that sold DVD's of nine-eleven to Japanese tourists at ground zero. Insensitive, money bucks driven.

At the Oxford Arms I stood at the bar drinking a pint. It wasn’t the Oxford Arms though. He sat at a table wondering how and if to eat his spaghetti. Foreign muck. I left. Never wanting to go through his shit again. Well, who would?

Anyway, it’s still raining and I can’t seem to find an umbrella.

It'll stop soon.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Setting the elephant free…

Sometimes I wish I could put a sock in it, cease putting my foot in my mouth, zip it, keep my tongue quiet, put my brain into gear before engaging my voice, button it and remain silent.

I don’t mean to come out with the things I do, but there are times when I just can’t help myself. Sometimes, it’s like a pressure builds in me until that sentence or thought that I know everybody is going to be angered/shocked/hurt by has to come out. Of course there’s usually a reason for it – an injustice, stupidity, bigotry – on the part of some idiot or other and sometimes even this idiot.

In days gone by I’d sit quietly in meetings, listening to some corporate crap and nonsense, telling myself to stay calm, keep schtum and carry on. But of course I never could and then the bloody elephant would come running out of the corner of the room, thrashing and trumpeting and dropping his thumping great dollops off elephant shit everywhere, as I dropped my verbal bombshell.

Other times I know what I want to say and it just comes out wrong. I once told a young woman who’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer not to die over the weekend. I was thinking it and meant it wholeheartedly. But I knew as the words came tumbling out that I really shouldn’t have said that and should just have told her to have a nice weekend.

Sometimes I wish I had Laliophobia. Being scared of my own voice might shut me up. We all want to be understood. We want others to be able to identify with us, and we use words to communicate our sameness and talk through differences. But sometimes it all goes to hell and you end up wishing that the earth would swallow you up for what just came out of your mouth.

Often the things I say are quite shocking, usually quite funny, but not the sort of thing your maiden aunt or a Baptist minister would approve of. I don’t think we should be scared of saying what we think and feel though. Fear of speaking usually comes about when a person has been ignored, shouted down, or ridiculed and laughed at too often. If no one listens you can sometimes come to the conclusion that it is in your best interests to simply remain silent because you are obviously stupid, wrong, or just opposed to the more powerful person you are not speaking to.

And when it becomes the norm to keep quiet, you can become fearful of actually speaking.

In the worse cases people who have this fear may actually grow to fear what their own voice sounds like, obsessing about it for so long that when they do say something it sounds strange. It may even sound like it isn't their own voice, which may further heighten the fear as they may think that the voices in their head are speaking to them.

Yes, it’s better to let the elephant out than to keep him penned up.

Nuff said?

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Peanut butter in the high street...

For one reason and another, today my mind kept returning to the town I was born and, as I made myself a peanut butter sandwich this morning, my old friend Peter Wright.

Peter's dad was the local sign-writer and I daresay he painted most, if not all, of the shop signs in this picture. Peter's mum kept a couple of demijohn's bubbling away on top her fridge - elderflower or parsnip, I don't know which - and Peter was the first boy I knew to eat peanut butter.

Peanuts and butter? Urgh! That didn't sound right.

For years I avoided eating peanut butter. As a child, growing up in a world of corner shops and grocers, peanut butter seemed very exotic, something that Americans ate on TV shows like My Three Sons, and 77 Sunset Strip. Of course there weren’t any supermarkets in our town, they were years away, and we bought our bread from the bakers, meat from the butchers, beer from the off-license, vegetables from the greengrocers, clothes from the haberdashers and you couldn’t buy peanut butter anywhere. How different things were back then, specific shops selling specific goods, when going shopping meant walking along the high street and entering half a dozen buildings simply to get the ingredients for the Sunday roast.

Food Town the grocers, Newitts the butchers, I can't remember the bakers name or that of the greengrocer who displayed his cabbages on North Street. Back then vegetables and fruit were seasonal, spaghetti came in tins, and bean sprouts were… well, just what were bean sprouts? Supermarkets changed all that.

With supermarkets came the one stop shop, a huge variety of food from all over the world, seasonality became a thing of the past and of course they were cheaper because of their buying power. Suddenly the wine merchants in Butter Market were struggling, the greengrocer and the haberdasher too. One by one the bakers, boutiques and butchers closed their doors, locked up shop and left along with a way of life that had existed for hundreds of years.

I guess Peter's dad was put out of business too, but I did get my peanut butter and, despite what I'd imagined as a boy, it wasn't made out of milk after all.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Off at a tangent…

It’s no good crying over spilt milk, that’s what they say isn’t it? Not that I would know, I’ve rarely spilt milk as I don’t drink it and if I did I doubt that it would make me cry anyway. There’s something about milk that I don’t really like. It’s partly the taste, but more importantly I think it’s the texture. It’s too smooth, like drinking beige liquid velvet - and then there’s that warm, cloying, ‘I will turn soon’ smell.

No, I don’t cry over spilt milk, but I did find myself almost crying at Coronation Street the other evening and a few nights earlier at the Pride of Britain Awards. I know, I’m a sentimental fool and I shouldn’t really be watching such rubbish. But life can’t be all highbrow intellectual twaddle can it? Besides, I could put a pretty good argument together that Coronation Street is as relevant as Shakespeare was in its day. After all, it portrays life at its most intense with everything happening all of the time and at the same time, comedy and tragedy intertwined and overlaid and let’s not forget the three witches – Gayle, Rita and Audrey.

There I go, off at one tangent and headlong into another again. I hated maths at school. In infant’s school we were forced to learn our tables by rote and, try as I might, I could never remember them – eight times eight is…blank. And it wasn’t just my eight times, other than the twos, fives, tens and possibly the elevens they were all pretty much a blank in my mind. Later trigonometry, with its sines, cosines and tangents, left me drowning in a sea of numbers which I never did learn to properly swim in.

Funny, I’m not sure what tangents are even to this day; although I’m constantly off on them. Which brings me back to the spilt milk; because my maths was so poor I focussed totally on the more arty subjects - writing, drawing and painting my way through school and dreading maths lessons with a black gloom that hung over my head like black clouds of a very wet day.

It’s an approach that I’ve learnt to live with and I’ve prospered; making my way in life without milk or times tables and seeing pictures and hearing Shakespeare at every turn of my road. As a consequence I found myself this morning taking a hand-painted vase covered in tiny butterflies out of my kiln only to find that it had cracked - and when I picked it up it shattered into pieces.

Damn and bugger!

Well, it’s no use crying over spilt milk… or broken glass. I could have this morning though.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Balaclava time...

Forget hoodies. As the year prepares to close, getting colder and darker, I find myself thinking about balaclavas.

Ah, the good old balaclava. Knitted by hand on clickety-click needles by nans up-and-down the country with variants including built-in scarves, cap peaks, ear holes, ear flaps, bobbles, cape-like collars, and of course the full face which left only holes for your eyes, nose and mouth.

Yes, forget hoodies. If you really want to appear threatening on the streets the balaclava could be the fashion item for you.

Of course back in my boyhood everyone wore balaclavas as the weather got colder and colder. Each year my nan would knit me yet another, and I remember looking forward to the first really cold day so that I could drag on my new balaclava. Up and over, then down around the neck, I felt like a knight in chain-mail walking along in a fierce force-something gale. It kept my face snug, if a little itchy, as I pretended to be a North Pole explorer, trudging my way through the fallen leaves to school.

Of course Polar explorers were still all the rage back then. Well, we still had a reasonable Empire, Edward Hillary had just recently climbed Everest and Roald Amundson had only disappeared without trace a mere thirty years earlier. At school our world map was still half pink, homes burnt coal, and wool was wool and not synthetics.

I favoured the half-face, a headpiece both practical and stylish with a band of wool which fully covered the mouth to just below the nose, leaving both it and your eyes exposed. Balaclavas were warm, even on the coldest days a thin film of sweat would cover your face underneath the scratchy wool - perhaps that’s why I was so prone to cold sores.

Interestingly, despite my mini-terrorist look, not once did a little old lady cross the road to avoid me. Nor was I watched suspiciously in shops and even when there was a group of balaclava clad boys - larking about under the street lamps as the light faded - the police never came to move us on. Perhaps it was the short trousers and knee socks.

Of course, since then the balaclava has become a favourite headgear of terrorists, bank robbers and sexual deviants. It’s no longer the cold weather garb of small boys and arctic explorers,

I wonder what would happen today if a group of teenage boys wandered into a modern day equivalent of Woolworths with their faces covered by woollen face masks?

Different times.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Rear window...

 It’s probably just a shirt someone left hanging from the window frame. Or a tailor’s dummy wearing a dress, full of pins and half made by some dressmaker who’s been unexpectedly called away. It has to be doesn’t it? It can’t be a headless figure standing in the house at the back of mine, late at night, in the dark. Despite what it looks like.

For a minute I feel like Jimmy Stewart in that Hitchcock film as I stare at my neighbour’s rear window.

Jimmy Stewart: “Why should a man leave his house three times on a rainy night with a suitcase and come back three times?”
Grace Kelly: “He likes the way his wife welcomes him home?”

There’s no such thing as ghosts, right? So, if it’s not a shirt or a dummy and it isn’t a ghost then the headless figure theory is pretty much all that’s left.

Just why did that dressmaker leave the house in such haste? Did she welcome her husband home only to decide that he wasn’t welcome at all? Was it her husband? What did she have in her suitcase when she left?

Grace Kelly: A woman never goes anywhere but the hospital without packing makeup, clothes, and jewellery.”

Which is it? A headless man or a headless woman standing in that window? It’s too darn dark to tell and that light behind makes a silhouette out of him or her.

Grace Kelly: What’s he doing? Cleaning house?
Jimmy Stewart: “He’s washing and scrubbing down the bathroom walls.”

It’s probably just a shirt someone left hanging from the window frame… right?

Tuesday, 15 October 2013


Sometimes it’s a rant, other times a bit of my life, good and bad, past or present. Often it’s the weather or some meaningless something I’ve seen or heard. But today it is soup.

I suppose you could call me a bit of a soup dragon. I’m a big fan of soup, it’s great. Maybe that’s why I can’t quite understand why it seems to have dropped off people’s culinary radar, particularly in these austere times, particularly as soup is healthy, filling, comforting, warming, easy to make, and cheap.

You can make soup out of almost nothing and very nearly everything, and there are lots of different soups to make – traditional soups, exotic soups, posh soups, single or multi-flavour soups. I love minestrone, spring vegetable, carrot and coriander, chicken and sweetcorn and my all time favourite… paprika spiced goulash soup.

Here’s yesterday’s Chunky Farmhouse Chicken and Vegetable – carrot, swede, parsnip, peas, onion, leeks, sweetcorn, home-made stock and chicken - which I served with hot crusty French bread.

Mmmm... soup.

I think I might start doing a soup of the week spot. Anyone interested?

Monday, 14 October 2013

A bit of bodgery…

Solid Fuel Kettle - Jason Lane
I have to admit to being a bit of a bodger - not, of course, that this is a wholly negative thing. The original bodgers were very fine wood turners who made furniture from the green woods around High Wycombe. Unfortunately, I’m not writing about them today, I’m writing about that other sort of bodger, the ones that are often confused with ‘botchers’ but aren’t and who are nothing to do with butchers by the way.

Butchers prepare and sell meat, whilst bodgers (who may have been named after badgers as they tended to live in rough shelters in the woods) mend stuff in unexpected and imaginative ways.

Are you following this? I don’t want to botch it up.

Bodging, at its purest, is an art form. It’s almost Heath Robinson - not quite, but it does require the same thought processes and the same kind of inventive, imaginative approach.

Anyone can repair anything if they have the right tools, skills, knowledge, the right parts, an instruction manual and patience. But bodging is more difficult, more cerebral by necessity. After all, it isn’t easy to get a job done using whatever tools and materials come to hand and which, whilst not necessarily elegant, is nevertheless successful in being more than serviceable.

Raw plugs, who needs them? I once fixed a heavy mirror to a wall using some kindling, a penknife, two rusty screws I found in the road, and a large stone. It’s still hanging today without a wobble. I have a door frame that’s kept together with superglue and dressmaking pins, a stool upholstered with an old scarf and thumb tacks, a kitchen cabinet cornice held in place with Wrigley’s chewing gum, a curtain rail made from a bamboo garden cane, I once splinted a broken arm with two wooden spoons and some parcel tape... the list goes on and on.

String, coat-hangers, candle wax, clothes pegs, those useful bits and pieces of no apparent use that you find at the back of drawers. This is the stuff of bodging. Why fetch the saw when you have a bread knife to hand? So we’ve lost that allan key but we do have a spoon! I’m not paying for that when I can make it from a bit of old rubber from a Wellington boot. Yeah, who needs a bloody screwdriver when you’ve got a brick?

Of course, a bodged job should never be confused with a ‘botched’ job. A botched job is a poor, incompetent, shoddy, unworkable, incomplete example of work at its very worst. The word ‘botch’ itself is derived from the mediaeval word for a bruise or carbuncle – as in ‘that am a nastye botch youst haffe on thou heade Baldric’.

There’s something very, very, worthy of merit in a ‘bodge’, like its close kin the ‘fudge’, it’s serviceable, it works and it’s worthy of self-congratulation. Well done me! A ‘botched’ job, on the other hand, most certainly isn’t – a botch is a total failure and only worth a boo… BOOOOOOOOOOO!

Of course a ‘bodge’ can become a ‘botch’ when it doesn’t work, and a botch can be a bitch. I’ve had my fair share of those (botches and bitches), like the time I tried to fix a leak in the bathroom with electrical tape (don’t ask). Yes, I’ve had my ‘bodging’ experiences and it’s not that I don’t have the tools to do the job, I do. Of course finding them is a different matter and even bothering to look a little bit too much trouble as I know that I’m not going to find them anyway. Besides, there’s something so satisfying in taking a few random bits that shouldn’t do the job and making them do it anyway. It’s a challenge, a test of intellect, invention at its very best… it’s what made the British Empire great

Well, that and cricket.

Two words: 'survival skills'. Ray Mears is an expert bodger, as are monkeys and Kevin McCloud.

So, vive la ‘bodge’, up to the art of ‘bodgery’ and long live ‘bodgers’ everywhere!

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Spooky Stones ...

I spend a lot of time looking at stones; smooth ones, round ones, gnarled and knobbly ones. There’s always something hiding inside them if you know how to look. All you have to do is find it and let it out of it’s hiding place. It could be an owl, it might be a cat. This time it was faces, scary hoodoo voodoo faces; the sort of faces that the Ju-Ju Jesus Peanut’s congregation might have.

If I was a small boy I'd probably like to carry one of these around in my pocket. A Ju-Ju hoodoo voodoo hex to keep the bullies away, a talisman, a fetish stone.

I could hear them screaming from inside the stones, screaming for me to let them out; so I picked up my pen and paint and set them free.

Maybe it was the right thing to do and maybe it wasn’t – I’ll let you be the judge of that. But they’re out now, out and abroad and still screaming.

Listen... can you hear them?

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Doctor’s orders…

I don’t really write about my health much. Well, there are plenty of people around who seem only too keen to tell you how they feel and how regular their bowel movements are without me joining in. When asked if I’m okay I generally say ‘yes’, although my other half would probably disagree. But if you can’t moan to your partner then who else can you winge to? Not your doctor that’s for sure.

This morning I had yet another letter demanding that I make an appointment at my local health centre. Apparently I missed my three month appointment and now, almost a year on, not only does the nurse want to take my blood pressure and discuss the results of the exercise questionnaire I haven’t filled in, but the doctor wants to see me for a… chat.

Maybe I should take an apple.

My last chat with the doctor over a year ago revolved around the question as to why I hadn’t been to see him in two years. ‘I’ve been ill,’ I dryly responded at which point he told me I’d put on weight. I explained that if he ate and drank as much as I did then he too might gain a few pounds, but this only led into a soliloquy concerning the state of his pension and how, even though he can retire at 55, he won’t be able to unless he gives up the villa in the Algarve and how a Mediterranean diet is far healthier. I tried to tell him that the Algarve wasn’t actually in the Mediterranean, but by then he was asking if I eat much oily fish? I explained how I adored battered cod and chips, but had difficulty buying whale at the fishmongers these days.

My ten minutes flew by…did you know that doctors pay huge percentages of their salaries into pension funds and are lucky if they realise a mere 50k a year… as he advised me to take more exercise (apparently swimming is good for fat, lazy people), cut down on red meat, cut out salt altogether, reduce my alcohol intake ( declared at a fraction of the reality), walk more, make an appointment to see the nurse and to come back and see him in 3 months without fail.

I failed. Well, I’ve been ill.

I wonder when they’ll send the next letter?

Friday, 11 October 2013

The dream thief…

Here it is; the scene of the crime on one of those cold stormy afternoons when the clouds moved, the wind blew and the customers never came. I didn’t mind, I wasn’t really there to sell; I was there to dream.

I often think of Bangor Pier. Of course I try to remember it before it turned so sour, at that time when it was just another silly adventure, a bit of a lark, a dream and my dream at that. A time before the slowly encroaching tacky toys and the constant rubbing away of the shine made me give it up altogether.

I’d sit, the boy who sees nothing, and make my silly things, listening to the wind crashing in the windchimes above my head. Sometimes I would sit for hours without seeing a single soul, the rain drumming on the lead roof, lashing the tall windows and turning them to wet frosted glass. My own little kingdom; the kingdom of the blind?

Of course I should have known. It was all my own fault. Only a fool lets the dream thief into his world, turning it to grey with his lack of wonder and his understanding of nothing outside the everyday. The real world he calls it. Turning the world to nothing – there’s nothing real about that, except disappointment.

When the dream thief offers help he always lies. He doesn’t do anything without there being something in it for him, a silver coin here, a drop of blood or two there, children's tears, a slap on the back from some slack, sad, Shylock. Eventually he always takes, and takes, and takes everything - until there is nothing left.

I haven’t been to Bangor Pier for a long, long time now. Maybe one day when the clouds rush across the sky and the dark has taken him away, I will again.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Dear John...

"I love you dearly,"
He quietly said.
She couldn’t hear him
She was dead.
Dear John her letter had began,
He’d never been a Dear John fan.

"Till death to us part."
He’d vowed to his wife.
And he’d truly meant it,
Hence the knife.
His heart bunny hopped
As her heart stopped,

Perhaps it would have been better
If she'd never sent that letter.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Bad magic and the curse of the zombie cheese…

I've been thinking about my dream and I think that the zombies have something to do with the Ju-Ju. I don't know why they're connected, the cheese and the peanut, but in some way they are and in some way I'm beginning to think that it's Bad Magic...

Having avoided the zombie goats that were placed strategically on small wooden fruit crates all along the flaming bridge I thought I was safe. Then, as I sped ever faster onwards in the beat up VW campervan I’d stolen, I saw yet another zombie tent city across all three lanes of the motorway in the distance. 'Nooooo!' I screamed as I ploughed into the tents, scattering dazed zombies to left, right, even high into the air. Emerging from the stinking shambles of the zombie shanty town, my face wet with tears of terror, I stared at the trail of destruction I’d left behind me in my mirror. I'd made it! It was then I heard the patter of tiny feet on the roof of the bus and noticed that I had no reflection in the mirror… Bad Magic! 

No more cheese or praying before bedtime for me.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

A touch of the Van Gough's...

Today I offer you a picture of a sunflower. The one and only sunflower that came to fruition in my garden this year despite me planting a packet of seeds which, I am reliably informed, contained 25 seeds on average.

I sometimes wonder what it is that makes the difference between a strong plant and a weaker one, particularly when both have been grown in much the same conditions. Could it be that one plant was positioned within range of just a fraction more sunshine, or grew in that inch or two of soil made fertile by a rich vein of something or other? Might it be that one of the plants was attractive to slugs whilst, for some reason best known to the slugs, they abhorred the other? Was one seed bursting with life and ambition whilst the other was too fainthearted and awkward to push it’s way towards the sun?

It seems to me that flowers are like people. Some thrive and get on, become famous, rich, happy and successful as they push their way towards the sun. Others, sometimes from the same family, wilt and fade without really blooming.

It’s hard to know what makes the difference, it’s just another of life’s mysteries I guess.

Anyway, I’m glad this one made it. It’s beautiful.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Positively negative...

Regardless of how it might appear, these days I tend to be a positive type of person. Things around me have changed and, although it’s scary at times, I quite like being independent – not that I have any choice. It gives me a freedom to pick and choose, and most of the time I choose only to do things I feel optimistic about - thus reducing the risk of not succeeding.

Now, don’t misunderstand. I’m no blind fool thinking that ‘anything’ can be achieved if only you try and want it hard enough. I’ve met plenty of those guys and they really are full of shit – worse still they usually know it. They are pretending that things will go well when they absolutely know that they aren’t going to. Sometimes I used to wonder what it was that drove them – arrogance, stupidity, fear, a need to be loved?

These are the same guys that take good things and break them; the mealy-mouthers who (despite history proving otherwise) think that they will make it work because, this time around, it’s them making it happen and not those incompetents that went before.

I call them the Emperor’s New Clothes people, and of course I’m one of the incompetents.

Oh well, I guess that I must come across as a pessimist to them at times. But the way I see it there’s quite a lot of innocence-lost in pessimism and I’ve always enjoyed naivety and cultivated it where I can. Not in fools though; I can’t suffer fools I’m afraid.

I think of myself as a realistic optimist, always cautiously positive. If you listen hard to what I’m saying you’ll hear that I’m full of silver linings, taking lemons and making lemonade in a glass that’s half-full and not half-empty. You’ll find that I agree that “positive thinking will let you do everything better than negative thinking will”; and that “few things in the world are more powerful than a positive push”.  

Yes, “positive anything is better than negative nothing”. But let’s be clear… I’m no happy-clappy, slack-mouthed, ra-ra fool, going down the road to nowhere to somewhere that’s really bad. I keep a can-do attitude only when I believe it can be done, not when it can’t and I say so.

I try to tell it like it is, not like I’d like it to be.

Here’s the truth: some things simply aren’t going to work no matter how positive you are about it, some things are simply not going to happen or shine no matter how much you polish that turd.

We seem to live in a world where YOU MUST BE POSITIVE AT ALL TIMES ABOUT EVERYTHING or take the consequences. I’ve seen plenty of yay-saying, hand-shaking, empty-headed, can-do idiots over the years, far too many to mention by name (SC), and most of them were well-thought-of idiots who won awards for doing things that didn’t work but were hyped as if they did.

I’ve never been the sort of chap who worked just enough to keep that job, saying, “I’ll do more when they pay me more.” I’ve always worked really hard; did more than what I got paid to do – and over the years it’s paid off. Along the way though, maybe because I spoke up and didn’t simply smile, I picked up a reputation for being negative.

At the end of the day, it’s really easy to trot out those wonderfully written quotes, to appear to live them and in doing so stop being objective and realistic. Remember, if the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes then he really is naked – no matter how much you claim to love his new suit.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Pimping the snails…

Yes, those snails again. This time though - as an experiment - I decided to embellish them a little using a permanent maker pen so that they could be easily recognised if they slimed their way back into my garden. They didn’t seem to mind being made-over into small works-of-doodle-art and I did keep them monochromic so that they didn’t draw the attention of the birds. Actually I had no choice as I could only find a black Staedler and I was in a bit of a rush, so bird risk consideration wasn’t really a factor. Besides, bird hazard is all part of the rich tapestry that is the life of a snail; that and getting pimped by a middle-aged loony doodler of course.

Now, it isn’t easy drawing on a snail. Firstly, the shell is pretty shiny and the pen tends to slip. Secondly, there isn’t much of an ‘image area’ (as we call it in the trade) so all I managed on this first attempt was some dots, squiggles and lines. Thirdly, snail shells must be treated with some natural form of anti-vandalism paint as even my permanent, waterproof, Lumocolour F struggled to make a mark. Lastly, they keep sliming up - which is a bit euch! Well, it’s what snails do isn’t it.

Anyway, I’ve been keeping my eye out for them (well not literally obviously) but so far I haven’t seen any sign. Perhaps they are moving too fast for me or maybe my pimping isn’t obvious enough to be seen in the undergrowth. Hmmm…I might take a shot at making some more colourful ones to make them more easily visible - bird risk or not.

Yes, I know… I really do know.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Frank's funeral...

Yesterday I went to Scarborough for the day, not for a donkey ride or fish and chips (although both make an appearance), instead I made the pilgrimage to attend an old friend’s funeral. My first time back in Scarborough since my final day in my old job; it all seems so long ago now. In many ways it was a trip back in time, a trip back to a different version of me; one that’s not around any more.

I don’t hate funerals like so many people seem to. They’re just a necessary part of having been alive, an inevitable end; maybe that’s why they call it a passing. I don’t like them though, and whenever I can I try hard to avoid them. I have a long list of excuses to get me out of attending – ‘I’m in an important meeting’, ‘I’m out of the country’, ‘I’m on a training course’. These days though, none of them really apply, and in Frank’s case I wouldn’t want them to anyway.

I shared a car with two old colleagues, both friends, and as we drove along the M60 I wondered who we were these days – were we Athos, Porthos, and Aramis… or Moe, Larry and Curly… how about Huey, Dewey and Louis? Maybe not; in our dark suits and ties were more like Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras. Well, I’m almost the size of Pavarotti although I guess I’m more stooge than musketeer these days. Anyway, with the weather and all, maybe we were better off being ducks than tenors.

Scarborough in the drizzle, and as we drove past the buildings where we used to work it wasn’t quite the same. One was empty; the other owned by strangers despite the logo. At a glance, and as we drove past, it seemed that nothing had changed - at a glance, and as we drove past, it seemed that everything had changed. I almost expected to park up, step out of the car, and walk into yet another meeting (three page presentation and all) - only there aren’t any meetings for me any more.

Short of time, we drove through the town and up the hill to Scarborough Crematorium and a thousand memories. So many faces that I’d spent half a life time getting to know; glimpsing them across a black suited room with sombre nods here, a hand gesture there. So much in common with these people, so much less in common these days. No projects, no pipeline, no pagination coats, no white knock out, no Eric, no Clipper, no Freehand 5.5… just a smiling Frank watching us all from his easel; Frank, the reason that we were all there together again.

Death’s a great leveller. All rank and position wiped away, just a group of people gathered on a wet Friday afternoon to say goodbye to a friend.

Back at the cricket club how easily I slipped into the old skin, and for a moment I was almost that other version of me for an hour or two. So this was where Frank came on a Sunday afternoon for a pint. My Sunday afternoon memories of Frank were of the Valley Forge Hilton bar, drinking beer and exchanging tall tales.

We exchanged Frank tales as we drank this beer, no tall ones, there wasn’t any need. Tales about Frank were tall enough without embellishment: “Frank broke the mould”, “Frank loved black shirts so much that he bought three”, “Frank loved to sing.”, “Frank liked a pint”, “Frank loved his family”, “Frank was always talking about ‘our lass”, “Frank loved his cricket”.

Tall tales in the truest  of ways... I didn’t know about the cricket. 

Frank, what a beautiful muddle you were.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

An escargatoire of snails...

It rained in the night, not a torrential rain but that steady fine wetness that you sometimes get on warm early autumn evenings. When I got up this morning I noticed that, out in the backyard, the snails had come out to play… a lot of snails. Picking up an empty flower pot I started to collect them – first one, then two, then three, sometimes two or three together, once six in the same planter. They were everywhere; up in the ivy, down in the geraniums, crawling all over the nasturtiums - the rain and warmth had brought out a veritable escargatoire of snails.

Within about half an hour I must have picked up a hundred or so and that didn’t include the ones that I unavoidably stepped on as I gathered my collection of terrestrial pulmonate gastropod molluscs.

Now, I quite like snails. As a boy I used to collect them and keep them in a jar, but these days I see them more as a nuisance than anything else; they eat the plants and leave slimy trails everywhere. But looking at them this morning in bulk, I noticed once again just how beautiful in shape and colour they are. If it wasn’t for those slimy trails and their plant munching tendency I think that they’d make great house pets; they aren’t noisy, can’t run away, will happily eat vegetable leftovers and are calming to watch. Yes, I quite fancy a house snail or two.

My intention had been to put some slug pellets in with the snails, cover it with a slate, and leave them to slowly expire, but as I watched them casually climbing all over themselves I realised that I couldn’t do it. They were too beautiful to mass murder. Instead I took my flower pot down the road and released my snail circus into the grounds of the local Presbyterian Church. Oh, I know that they’ll be back but I can always collect them and move them on again.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

My tattoo...

My head is full of slow boats to china, inscrutable mandarins, biplanes landing at night in the fog just missing the tops of the swaying palm trees  – it’s like an old black and white movie playing in my mind, a world of far flung smoky fan-cooled bars, long midnight trains, beautiful gals and rum drinking sailors ashore for a darned good time. Lighthouses, mermaids, swallows, Chinese junks, monkeys, the Sargasso Sea, octopuses, oriental dragons, desert islands, anchors away - well, a boy can dream can’t he?

I hadn’t heard of Sailor Jerry until a customer of mine brought in four of his tattoos and asked me to paint them on four spirits tumblers. Well, one thing led to another and, with the sniff of a blog post in the air, I researched his work and was immediately smitten. I don’t have a tat, but if I do stop ever umming and arring I’d probably pick a Sailor Jerry. Which one, I’m not sure, maybe an ‘Aloha Monkey’ or a ‘Sailor Beware’ - something striking, there’s plenty to choose from.

Norman ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins, to give him his full name, revolutionised tattooing and became the first western tattooist to be recognised as an artistic genius. At the tender age of 19, Sailor Jerry enlisted in the US Navy and travelled the world. It was during these salty voyages that he began to notice the art and imagery of Southeast Asia, using it as inspiration for his spicy tattoos. Blending the rough and ready swagger of the American sailor with the mysticism of the Far East he invented a new form of tattoo - a jokey, slightly risqué blend of eroticism and humour with just a touch of death.

He was born on January 14, 1911 in Reno but grew up in Northern California. As a child he ran away from home, hopping freight trains across the country and learned tattooing from a man named ‘Big Mike’ in Alaska. Originally he used the hand-pricking method, later in the ‘20s he teamed up with Tatts Thomas from Chicago who taught him how to use a tattoo machine, practicing on drunks dragged in off skid row.

Sailor Jerry’s first studio was in Honolulu’s Chinatown and his work was so widely copied that he had to print “The Original Sailor Jerry” on his business cards. “There’s a guy up in Canada that goes by the same name, but don’t be fooled – although he’s good in his own right, he ain’t the original Sailor Jerry.” He remained a sailor his entire life and, even during his career as a tattoo artist, he worked as the licensed skipper of a large three-masted schooner. Along with arranging sailing tours of the Hawaiian Islands he played saxophone in his own dance band and hosted his own show on US radio station KTRG.

Simple lines, strong colours, dramatic shading; there’s something of Max Fleischer and Harmon-Ising’s cartoons about his work – Betty Boop and Popeye meet Zen with a good dose of burlesque thrown in for good measure. He was prolific and his tattoos – more illustration than design – remain some of the best (many - including me - would say the best) of the tattooist’s art. From his 20s to his late 50s he stopped tattooing due to a disagreement with the IRS and unbelievably Sailor Jerry only tattooed for about 12 years. He died in 1973 aged 62 and has a 92% rum named after him.

Guys and dames, I give you Sailor Jerry - he must have been one hell of a guy. Cheers!

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Norristown PA, a scary tale...

How well I remember Norristown from my time in America. Norristown was just along the way from King of Prussia and the first time I drove through it I was frightened by its stillness and the emptiness of the place. I don’t just mean the lack of people; it was empty like a cupboard drawer that contains nothing but dust and maybe, just maybe, one large spider hiding right at the back.  

Norristown seemed to me to be just a little to the left of the twilight zone, the kind of place that Stephen King might write about. Empty rocking chairs on empty porches on empty streets, screened doors that looked as if something not quite human might slip through them out onto the street and disappear down the storm drain, and dirty windows with dirty curtains hiding even dirtier secrets.

In short, Norristown struck me as not quite wholesome and I was always happier once I’d passed through it.

Of course, the impressions of a stranger in a strange place are often wrong. But read the article below, it’s a report about a Norristown woman who was hospitalised after being badly mauled by a rabid skunk. Not only did the skunk calmly walk over to the woman - no doubt tipping his hat before beginning to devour her - but it seems that his friend the fox was involved and created a diversion. The Norristown police, whose best advice seems to be don’t trust the birds and squirrels, seem wholly disinterested in the attack (scared maybe) and the town skunk expert talks about a condition that is quite like rabies but isn’t…just what is it then? Then there’s that mysterious bite form. Do Norristown folk suffer so many bites that the town needs a form to record them? 

All very unsettling, disconcerting even.

If I were Stephen King I might think that something was out of sync in Norristown. If I were he I might think that some dark force was at large, a force that could make Norristown an even more unpleasant place to live…

Article from the Norristown Patch - 

"An elderly woman was taken to the hospital Sept. 19 after being bitten several times by a skunk that is suspected of having rabies, say authorities.

Soon after Norristown police heard a dispatch call about a fox on 1600 the block of New Hope Street in Norristown in the late afternoon of Sept. 19, they heard a more serious call—this one about an animal biting someone on the same block, say police.

Norristown police arrived at New Hope Street and spoke with a woman who had called in a complaint, according to a police report. The woman told police that she had seen a skunk in her yard earlier but was more worried about a fox that she said she had seen near her patio, say police. The woman was told that if she stops feeding the birds and squirrels, then the fox should stop coming around, according to the report. 

During that time, the county dispatch reported that a 90-year-old woman who had been in the same block of New Hope Street had been taken to a hospital by Plymouth EMS after she received several skunk bites, say police. 

Norristown police spoke with the woman’s son, who said that his mother had been in her yard when a skunk walked over to her, and attacked her, according to the report. The skunk had bitten one of the woman’s hands to the point that one of the woman’s fingertips had almost been bitten off, say police. The skunk also bit the toes and heels of the woman’s right foot, say police.

The hospital staff filled out a bite form that was to be given to the Montgomery County Health Department, according to the report.

The story reached Chris Heil, a Pennsylvania Game Commission wildlife conservation officer in the county.

“Every year we have numerous animal-human conflicts,” said Heil to “Sometimes these animals do have rabies, and sometimes they have conditions that are like rabies.” 

Heil cautions people to stay away from wildlife.”

Yes, stay away from the wildlife in Norristown, don’t feed the birds and if you see a fox smoking a pipe on a porch swing don’t approach him… run like hell!