Monday, 31 March 2014

Birdhouse for the soul...

Des res for rent…

Ah British Summer Time, we lose sixty minutes of precious sleep but it’s worth it for the lighter evenings. I awoke early in Wales to the sound of birds, sheep, and no pitter patter of raindrops. What a lovely sunny spring morning. It was almost as if somebody had turned off winter, flicked the spring button, and with the flick of that switch butterflies and pairing birds seemed to appear from nowhere.

The first butterfly of the summer flittered past as I stood in the drive in my shirtsleeves. Up in the holly tree the new nesting box that I put last autumn was being viewed by a pair of blue tits. They each popped in through the tiny entrance to the new box, then popped out again, flying off to probably have a bit of a chat about their prospective new home.

Within a few minutes of them leaving a pair of sparrows turned up for a viewing. After a quick inspection of the general area and the property itself they began moving in bits of dried grass and strands of sheep’s wool. Maybe they were deciding potential colour schemes, perhaps they were deciding where to put the television, and then, after a quick chirpy chat, they too flew off.

A few minutes later the tits returned for a second viewing, had another quick look around then left again as the sparrows reappeared with more nest building material.

Back and forth, back and forth - so it went on all morning, sparrows following blue tits, blue tits following sparrows. It was almost as if both couples were trying the house out without either of them quite deciding to make a firm offer.

As we reluctantly left for home, in the early afternoon, the sparrows were back.

Which couple will make the nesting box their home I wonder? Will either of them decide to nest inside my detached bijou residence? We’re back at the cottage in a couple of weeks and I’ll let you know.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Hidden messages…

I guess that most of us, at some time another, wonder what it is all about. For my part I seem to spend more time than most pondering that question and often it comes out in my blog.

As many of you know, I annoyingly announce my posts via Facebook, trying to capture your attention for a second or two. I hope to impart to you whatever latest piece of nonsense is running through the disjointed thinking of my disordered mind.

I hope anyway.

The wordcloud application weights words by frequency of use. Oddly, in my case, some of the individual words seem to be clinging together like men in a sinking boat.

I thought the words I used were random, but on closer examination it seems that within all that chaos is a pattern. Is it a hidden message from the divine, an online Ouija board, maybe it’s a way of Casting the runes without sparrow guts or stones? Prediction reinvented for the modern age? Who knows?

Whichever it may be, it seems that the messages are coming through loudish and clearish, hidden within the order of frequency, whether I want them to or not. Perhaps I should use the random phrases as a guide for my life, a way to answer that big question.

Here they are for your delectation. After all, they seem to make some sort of sense -  God truly does lump; thank dog, and I did find that button under a slice of toast. Of course it's mainly pancake, but what do they say? There's no change without cheese?

Please think again.
Should keep looking.
Change without cheese.
Bloody friends.
Drinking through years.
God really lumps.
Dead taking wrong tax.
Thank dog.
Mainly pancake.
Why end.
Best friend wine.
Button under toast.
Also Listen.
Bit pissed.

Please, Think, Again, Any, Okay, Great, Should, Keep, Looking, Spring, World, Water, Change, Without, Cheese, People, Bloody, Friends, Drinking, Though, Years, Happy, Always, God, Really, Lumps, Dead, Taking, Wrong, Tax, Thank, Dog, Doctor, Stop, Comments, Thing, Sentimental, Almost, Hope, Time, Lent, Mainly, Pancake, Whilst, Aldi, Birthday, Facebook, Idea, Ideas, Long, Gardening, Need, Why, End, Done, Bread, Best, Friend, Wine, Choose, Decent, Unequipped, Many, Press, Entertainment, Live, Coffee, Criteria, Morning, Button, Under, Toast, List, United, Owner, Potting, Also, Listen, Bench, Proud, Overly, Stopping, Shop, Excuses, Progress, Bit, Pissed, True, Options, Keeping.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Backyard update – a new plan...

It was sunny, but chilly in my backyard this morning. There isn’t much happening yet, a light mist hanging above the cobbles as I decided just where to position my grape vines when the warmer, wetter weather, we are being told to expect, hits. This is the chance I’ve been dreaming of. Hotter summers, no frosts, and plenty of water; it should suit a backyard vineyard very well. Yes, I can see it now: ‘Chateau Merveilleuse Vie’… What a corker!

The Met Office is backing my vineyard aspirations, saying that we can look forward to wetter winters and sultrier summers. Apparently the vagaries of climate change, the Jet Stream, the Gulf Stream, and whatever other bloody stream you like, are changing our weather dramatically. Winters will be warmer, wetter, with less snow and frosts. It’s ‘likely’ that there will be a 17% minimum increase in rainfall, with the ‘extreme’ scenario as high as 45% in some parts of the country. All perfect for growing the grape and for making the very finest wine.

In a couple of years from now I’ll be sitting down at my backyard table, enjoying a glass of my very own plonk at practically zero cost; and if I drink it all myself I won’t even have to pay any tax!

Of course just where I’m going to put the grape treading bath, the fermentation vats, and the bottling plant is still to be worked out. But if worse comes to worse there’s always indoors. After all, with all this hot weather on the way who needs a house at all? Not when there’s all that wine to be had.

Yes, if it’s good enough for Sir Cliff, it’s good enough for me. Here’s to climate change and backyard vinification.

Anyway, time to stop dreaming. Cheers!

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The naughty table…

Billy Deasey was the classroom dunce. These days I guess he’d be called dyslexic, because he really couldn’t get the hang of reading. Back then he was just plain slow, a little bit stupid, thick, retarded, a dullard. ‘He’s a little slow.’ The teacher would say, explaining his blank expression to the school inspectors.

Kevin Bowler, who sat opposite Billy, was the classroom bad boy. He was always getting into trouble, fighting in the playground and pushing people over. I guess he may have had ADHD. But back then it hadn’t been invented and naughty badly behaved children were just naughty badly behaved children.

On the same table as Billy and Kevin sat Hilary Payne. Hillary just couldn’t sit still and was constantly touching things and moving them about, putting them in to order by length or colour or size. As she fiddled with things she’d move her head from one side to the other, counting beneath her breath, reaching fourteen then starting all over again. She was the girl who left the classroom three times each night, coming back to make sure that she’d shut her drawer properly. A creature of habit you might say.

I can’t quite remember the names of the other kids on the ‘naughty table’, there would have been five others with varying degrees of nonconformity. I seem to remember that there was a boy in callipers called Vincent who ate cat food and another boy who wore thick lens National Health specs and two pink hearing aids strapped to his shirt. The shy girl who lived in a railway carriage, and was always crying, might have sat at that table too, and the girl who fainted a lot, although I can’t be sure.

We didn’t quite have a dunce’s cap, that had been dropped a few years before, but if you fluffed your four times tables you were made to feel very stupid, very stupid indeed. The teacher would tell you that you weren't trying, and the other children would looked pleased at your discomfort then tease you in the playground later.

Kids eh? Always poking fun and blaming somebody else.

Anyway, it always seemed to be the naughty table that got the rest of us into trouble.

When they made too much noise we were all told to put our fingers on lips. When they fidgeted too much we were all made to sit with our hands behind our backs, or sometimes told to sit on them. If they ran around when they should have been acting ‘normally’ we were all made to it quietly with our hands on our heads.

Yes, the naughty table had a lot to answer for. How us normal children hated them, particularly the shiny teacher’s pet favourites on the good table.

Of course it wasn’t just the naughty table, most of us kids did something wrong or got too excited on occasion - well, apart from Caroline Jones who was always perfect.  When we did something very bad we were made to stand in the corner on our own or, even worse, stand on our chairs until the teacher decided that we could get down. I once stood on my chair for forty minutes, and all I’d done was pretend to spit at Nigel Edwards in the playground when we were playing cops and robbers.

Generally though, we were a very quiet and well behaved class. But then how would we dare to be anything else? After all nobody wanted to be moved to the naughty table. It was the ultimate badge of shame.

Conditioning is a wonderful thing.

Monday, 24 March 2014

The quest for cheese on toast...

The quest for cheese on toast is an honourable one. Golden, bubbly, melted, and hot - sometimes, when life isn't quite the way you want it to be, only cheese on toast will do. 

Cheese on toast, it’s one of the great comfort foods and so easy to cook - in theory. We live in a world where we can have any entertainment we choose at the press of a button, but cheese on toast? If only cheese on toast were that simple.

It seems that I'm not properly equipped to make a decent slice of cheese on toast. Oh, I know how to make it – lightly toast and butter the bread, cover in cheese, sprinkle with pepper, grill until bubbling, splash with Worcestershire sauce, eat. But I haven’t quite got the right cheese on toast making equipment it seems.

It’s all the fault of our cooker. When we bought the bloody thing we were taken in by the seven ring gas hob (including wok burner), two ovens (one fan assisted) and integral glass hob cover. We convinced ourselves that the under hob grill would be okay despite it not being at eye level, anyway eye level gills are unsightly we agreed. But of course it wasn’t okay at all.

Oh, the grill works after a fashion. But it’s a lot of faffing attaching and unattaching the grill handle, so that it can be used and stored, and it’s completely impossible to see the cheese on toast whilst it’s cooking. On the few occasions I’ve used the grill to make some COT (as I call it) I’ve either burnt the toast or undercooked the cheese. I’ve never quite got it right.

It’s such a kafuffle to use that I’ve tried making cheese on toast in the oven, the microwave, toaster bags, grilled sandwich makers, I even found myself late last night trying to melt the cheese with a chef’s blowtorch. No matter what I try nothing matches the gloriously bubbly, soft in the centre, crisp at the outside, cheese on toast that I remember cooking on the old, chipped enamel, eye level grill of my childhood. Pull out the grill, light the gas, plonk on the toast and cheese, slide it under, and watch and wait for the bubbles to rise. Mmmmmm – I can smell its deliciousness even now.

It’s so frustrating especially when Scientists at the British Royal Society of Chemistry have revealed the scientific formula for creating the perfect grilled cheese on toast.

According to the BRSOC the perfect slice can be made by melting 50 grams of two millimetres thick, sliced, hard cheese, such as cheddar, on a slice of white bread, 10 millimetres thick, under the pre-heated grill. The cheese on toast should sit at a distance of exactly 18 centimetres from the heat source above and needs to cook for four minutes and nine seconds to achieve the perfect consistency and taste. Cheese on toast science, whatever next? Maybe Helmet Blunderitall will make a cheese on toast foam.

I prefer to grate my cheese, but even so my mouth waters just thinking about it. Our under hob grill won’t allow the correct clearance and it’s electric, not gas powered naked flame, and I never could get on with electric grills. I really want great cheese on toast though. Perhaps I should adjust the formula a little, persevere and master the mysteries of our electric under hob grill. After all they do say that practice makes perfect and surely cheese on toast is worth fighting for.

Either that or I’m going to have to replace the cooker.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Man with jam and cucumber slap…

This image unsettles me, scares me even. I look like a character from Frankie’s banned Relax video. Why would I do such a thing to myself? Why indeed.

I’ve been intrigued by all those selfies of women without their makeup that have been inundating my Facebook page. Apparently they’ve raised £2m so far for Cancer Awareness which is mental, as the young people say. I’ve looked into it (well Googled actually) and the movement was probably initiated by author Laura Lippman, who uploaded a picture of her face sans makeup in solidarity with actress Kim Novak who was ridiculed for the way she looked at the Oscars.

If you ask me most of the women at the Oscars look slightly odd, but it seems to have grown organically from there, and very quickly as these online phenomena do. I’m not entirely sure how the link to cancer came about. It wasn’t put out there by Macmillan or any other cancer charity as a campaign, so I guess it just happened like spontaneous combustion.

Women everywhere stripped off their make up and uploaded pictures of themselves in often very unflattering light. Knowing the way women feel about their appearance (well, I have known a few girls), I have to say I think them all very brave.

Of course there has been criticism of the whole shenanigans with some commentators claiming that it is more about ego and vanity than charity and does nothing for raising cancer awareness at all. They say that it’s dangerous groupthink driven by not wanting to be left out and needing to be part of the herd.

Ego and vanity? Shmego and scmanity. The cash result speaks for each and every one of them.

Of course, not to be left out through gender, many men have jumped on the bandwagon, posting pics of themselves on Facebook in makeup.

Well, I’ve never been one not to jump up on the bandwagon as it passes, so when I was ‘nominated’ by a ‘friend’ I produced this quite disturbing image. I didn’t have any makeup to hand, so I used strawberry jam for my lippy and blusher, with cucumber slices for eye decoration. I think it’s an interesting look, very Grayson Perry, and I’m sure that Lucian Freud would have approved of my shirtless, lumpy, body and face.

Of course I made this image for my own egotistical ends, vanity, and the jam - I really like jam. The worrying thing is though, the more I look at it, the more I see myself as I really am. It obviously helps me being bonkers, but under all that jam I think there may be somebody trying to tell me something quite disturbing.

The upside of all of this, like all those makeup free women, that after I’d done this I felt the need to donate; and that has to be a good thing. Anyway, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Is the Pope a...

So the Pope, with the help of the big ‘G’, is going to make them an offer they can’t refuse. About bloody time too. Only Frank Sinatra had better relationships with the mob than the Catholic Church and he very nearly ended up in concrete galoshes.

According to the Pope, who knows his bible, Mafia gangsters will go to hell unless they repent and stop doing evil. Now that’s a big ask of a group of families who make their living out of wrong doing and, due to their strict upbringing, have no choice but to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors. It’s an honour thing; they’re a kind of religious society without the praying and doing the ‘right’ thing. In fact, in many ways they are just like the Catholic Church. Both have rigorous codes of conduct, are insular and protective of their own, have a single ‘all powerful’ leader of the flock, and have been extorting money through fear for hundreds of years.

The Pope has said to the Mafiosi that "Blood-stained money, blood-stained power, you can't bring it with you to your next life. Repent." It’s almost like something he might say to his own people in the Vatican who have historically always dealt in blood, money, and power – to say nothing of sexual activities that would rival the excesses of any Mafia run brothel.

His comments near Rome on Friday - organised by a citizens' group called Libera - were aimed at showing that the Roman Catholic Church is opposed to organised crime and rejecting historic ties with Mafia bosses claiming to be good Catholics.

Now I thought that weekly confession was there to deal with all of this. I thought that you could repent all your sins on your deathbed and go off to heaven with a clean Catholic conscience, even if you were a Mafia assassin. Surely God forgives all of our sins regardless of how late we repent? Surely hoodlums aren’t exempt and their souls will be saved, won’t they? Well apparently not according to the Pope, who has told members of the Cosa Nostra that: "There's still time to not end up in hell, which is what awaits you if you continue on this path."

Somehow I can’t see the Don Corleone’s of this world paying much attention to Benedict XVI. Rosary beads and Hail Mary’s just ain’t their style, besides he’s an Argentinean and not from the home country. Still, it’s a brave man who stands up to the Mafia, particularly when his only weapon is the threat of Hell, particularly when his own organisation is full of greedy, ambitious men with connections and the odd horse’s head hidden in the closet that they’d love to come out of.

I wish the Pope well with his crusade against corruption of all kinds, it’s long overdue. He seems to me to be genuinely trying to change things in an organisation that is corrupt to its very core – and I don’t mean the Mafia. I only hope that he isn’t made an offer he can’t refuse before his time is due. We don’t need any new white smoke at the Vatican just yet. Cement Wellingtons are really no substitute for red slippers.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Coffee and omelette…

Looks like Eostre, the ancient Saxon goddess of new beginnings and fertility who lent her name to Easter, decided to turn up a day late this year. But that didn’t bother me as I sipped my coffee and tucked into my spring onion and cheese omelette this morning. It was a bit chilly in my backyard, but there was sunshine enough and, although I didn’t have any traditional hares or dandelion and burdock, the eggs and spring onions in my omelette seemed a fitting tribute to the maiden of spring, the egg queen.

Some days I feel more real than others and today was one of those days. There was a touch of the insubstantial about me when I awoke and I’m not at all sure that I was totally solid in the mirror as I shaved. I was half invisible as I stepped outside. The coffee helped though, the sunshine too, and I soon began to feel as if I belonged in this world. Well, it is the time of the vernal equinox or thereabouts, a time of change and transition from one state to the next.

Yesterday the sun rose exactly in the east travelling through the sky for twelve hours before setting precisely in the west, Mexicans gathered at the Temple of the Seven Dolls, Druids flocked to Stonehenge, in the southern hemisphere people began their winter, just as we are about to come out of ours, and I celebrated the feast of Eostre with eggs and coffee in the sunshine.   

In a few days the clocks will change, the evenings will become longer and lighter, and winter will be gone as spring arrives.

Bring it on.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Beer and bingo...

God bless the chancellor and all who sail in him. Those public school toffs really now how to give the working class a treat. A penny off beer, a whole penny? Why thanks very much guv’nor (doffs cap and backs away).

It’s such a relief knowing that bingo tax has been halved in the budget, not that I knew that there was a bingo tax. Thanks to the largesse of our government, old ladies everywhere will still be able to visit long abandoned cinemas, a renewed spring in their step, secure in the knowledge that when there’s no Coronation Street on the telly that there will always be the sanctuary of the bingo hall and that the online gaming revolution has been held at bingo hall bay, at least for the time being.

Who doesn’t like a game of Bingo? Or Housey-Housey as the toffs call it, God bless ‘em again. Back in my boyhood years, a seaside holiday wouldn’t have been a seaside holiday without a game or two of bingo? Village Halls, Church Halls, and Town Halls all over the land would have fallen into total disrepair without the local vicar’s weekly foray into small-time gambling.

Housey, mine, bingo, over ‘ere, yes, whichever shout you made your own it all meant the same thing, you’d tracked down each of one of those elusive, pesky numbers with your pen, flicked the tile across, and the prize was yours. And what prizes they were - teddy bears, cheap watches, a voucher for the local butchers, even a basket of fruit with black grapes!

One to ninety, - Kelly’s eye, two fat ladies, legs eleven, top of the shop. Who could resist the magical call of the numbers, the hypnotic chant of the caller’s mysterious lingo; eyes down for a full house, a single line, all four corners. Some of the callers slang was pretty obscure: Doctors orders number 9 was a laxative given out by doctors in WWII, number six Tom Mix is named after the star of silent era Westerns, and 27 duck and crutch… well, work it out for yourself.

Anyway, thanks Bingo George for making it all 62, you’ve saved the country yet again. Just make sure that you don’t backtrack on that pasty tax.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Sixty words…

According to some people the focused attention span of an average adult is just 15 seconds. Not much more than a goldfish who can manage 9. Of course goldfish can’t read, whilst the average adult reads at between 250-300 words per minute, that’s about 4 words per second. It started me wondering if I could sketch out a little scenario in less than 15 seconds, the length of an adult’s attention span. This short story is only sixty words long and should take you less than 15 seconds to read. Let me know how you do and if you know what happens next please tell me, because I don’t.

The Reader.

Of course it wasn't true, but then the truth seldom is. His job was to sort the truth from the chaff; although unfortunately truth was on holiday and chaff was just the name of a bar where he always seemed to get blindingly drunk. As he reached for yet another book he wondered just where he’d left that whisky bottle. 

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Sympathy for the devil…

I was listening to a best of the Stones album a couple of days ago (well, when I say listening to it was there in the background) and began wondering who Mick was seeing these days now that Bianca and Jerry are history - which just goes to show what a huge Jagger fan I’m not. I was going to Google it, and then out of nowhere the answer was presented to me in LARGE BOLD CAPS.

I’d never heard of L’Wren Scott until I saw the pictures of a grief stricken man leaving a restaurant in Perth in the papers.

L’Wren had business problems, in debt for the tune of around £5 million, but she was beautiful, talented and had a boyfriend worth hundreds of millions. Why would she hang herself? For a moment my vanity caused me to think that maybe my wondering about her was the trigger. Obviously it wasn’t, people don’t drop dead simply because they cross my mind, so what could it be then?

Of course I don’t have the answer any more than I know why Tony Hancock, Ruslana Korshunova, Dana Plato, Michael Hutchence, Amscel Rothschild or any of the hundreds of other celebrity suicides took their own lives. It seems that even the rich, beautiful, and famous are as vulnerable as any of us ordinary folk. Sometimes I wonder if we all have that particular darkness inside us.

So the Australian tour is rightly off and we are all left wondering why. Death will know, but he's not telling and why should we expect to know anyway? It isn't our business. Not anything to do with us at all. It's between Death and L'Wren, even Mick is just a spectator in this particular dance.

That devil Death, it would seem, has many guises; but suicide has to be his blackest suit of all

Monday, 17 March 2014

Consulting the oracle…

Shhhhh… children. I want to tell you about a time when there was no internet. A time when if you wanted to know something you had to walk to the library or ask someone who might know the answer – a teacher or an uncle or someone. Of course sometimes they were wrong or simply didn’t know, but they did their best and they were probably almost as good as Wikipedia on a good day.

These days all of the knowledge in the world is to be found on the internet. If you need to know something you simply key your question and within moments the answer comes back. There’s no need to wonder, no need to consult another wiser person, no need to look in books. We can all know everything all of the time and perhaps that’s why these days we expect to know the answers to all of our questions.

Before the internet we didn’t have all the answers. Sometimes we had to work it out for ourselves, sometimes we had to guess, and sometimes we were simply left wondering. These days everyone has the oracle in their pocket. There’s no need to stare at birds entrails, shout down a well, or undertake an arduous voyage to a temple in Greece. The internet has all the answers to all of our questions.

With the answers to everything literally at our fingertips the wonder has gone. We expect (need) to know all of the answers all of the time and when we can’t find one it confuses us. Silly really, expecting to know everything, without having to work it out for ourselves through experiencing and question.

Ask the internet why you feel sad and it presents you with a depression test, from sad to depression at the click of a button. If you feel ill, give the internet a list of your symptoms and it’ll return any number of illnesses you are suffering from. It’ll tell you how to destroy the world, tell you how and when the world will end, wish you a happy birthday when you are trying to forget yet another one, it can even tell you what the big question is.

The internet seems to be all knowing and is becoming omnipresent. With more and more people turning to it for solutions, I wonder how long it will be before the internet has its own religion?

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Mystery object...

Anyone know what this is and why I've just installed one in my greenhouse?

What would you say if I told you that it's a...

No, I'll tell you tomorrow.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

The wrath of God…

Dear God, 

just why did you clean up your act? You’re certainly aren’t the deity that you used to be. How did the wrathful, terrorising God we all knew and loved from the Old Testament turn into a namby-pamby God of forgiveness and love in the New? Forget all that turning the other cheek, forgive and forget twaddle. I want an eye for and eye, a tooth for a tooth, a bucket of blood for a bucket of blood. I want the bush to burn, locusts to plague, seas to part, cities to fall, chickens to sacrifice, lightning to bolt. I want good old fashioned retribution that only God in old mode can offer. I want disaster movie God with all those floods, plagues, and no second chances.

Did you turn over a new leaf with the birth of Jesus? Did fatherhood do the trick? If not that, then maybe you came out of a negative bi-polar episode and swung way too far across to the positive. Perhaps you were kidnapped by some celestial kidnappers and replaced by an impostor, or perhaps you’re just playing bad cop, good cop, and at some point the old bad cop God is going to give us all another kicking. Tell me; just what is the word on the street? Oh, I forgot. You are the word aren’t you? There on every street corner in your omnipresence.

The thing is God, I think that you’ve gone a bit soft these days - soft or not there at all. Send me a bloody sign will you? Any sign will do. A few frogs raining down, a vision of Mary hanging it the air, even a quick visit from the Archangel Gabriel would do the trick.

You know what God? I’m really not at all sure that you exist. I think that you may have been made up by some ancient religious freaks who hung around the Dead Sea, then made over by another bunch of equally religious nuts in Rome who fancied a change more in keeping with the lovey stuff that Jesus had trotted out. That would explain your massive personality shift. Let’s face it religion is pretty much made-up by the religious and made-up characters often change their spots. It happens all the time in the soaps.

But then you know that don’t you? After all you are all-knowing, even if your ways are so mysterious that they seem to be totally random. Yes, you know; after all the oldest soap opera of all is about you. You are a story; just another soap and not a very good one at that. At least Dirty Den coming back from the dead was a teensy bit plausible, even Bobby Ewing stepping out of the shower made more sense that you do.

God if you really do exist then you are just too clean these days; another soap washing whiter than white, paler than pale. You might as well not be there at all.

Maybe I should wash my mouth out.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Tony Benn...

So that’s it, British socialism is dead.  Of course as a force for change it’s been dead some time; Thatcher, Scargill, and Blair all saw to that in their own ways. Look, I’m no politician and I’m no historian either, all I can do is look at my lifetime from my own perspective and comment on what I have felt and seen. I wouldn’t usually comment on the death of a politician. But I was a child in the sixties, a teenager in the seventies, a young man in the eighties and Tony Benn was always there, spouting his own very sensible and intelligent brand of political debate, so on this occasion I feel that I can.

In 1950, seven years before I was born, Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn won the by-election as Labour candidate for Bristol South at the tender age of 25. In 1960 he became a peer on the death of his father which would have prevented him sitting in the House of Commons. He didn’t want that, so he resigned his peerage and became plain old Tony Benn. In 1988 he lost the Labour Party leadership election against Neil Kinnock, depriving us of a truly great Prime Minister who would have driven at least a little social justice and equality. In 2001 he refused to stand in the general election, disappointed by what was happening in the Labour Party and politics generally, and instead became president of the Stop the War coalition.

Tony Benn was born of a time when each political party not only had different agendas and manifestos, but were different in ideology, heart, and thinking, a time when politicians were allowed to look like Doctor Who and didn’t employ image consultants, hair stylists, and acting coaches. He was a man that supported causes because he believed in them, not because they were fashionable, a man who spoke his mind and believed every word he said, a man that simply didn’t do the new politics of blandness where everyone sits saying almost nothing in a pretty narrow middle of a collective-think road.

Whether you agreed or disagreed with him, he spoke his mind and spoke up for his values. People knew where he stood and what he stood for and you can’t say that about most politicians these days.

Tony Benn, the last true British socialist. We’ll not see his like again, more’s the pity.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

A proper chef…

To be honest with you, today could have been about anything. The weather, the strange disappearance of airliners, I even thought about a rant at the Old Testament God. Talk about tipping my lance at pepper mills. Anyway, after looking at all the options, my new cook’s apron won the day.

Well, when I say new, it’s new to me. Gaynor gave it to me and she was given it by one of her colleagues who used to work as a chef at the college where Gaynor teaches restaurant cookery students. I guess you might call it pre-worn, pre-loved if you really have to, but either way it’s a good strong cotton chef’s apron and just the thing.

I’ve had a hankering for a proper apron for a while now. Oh, I’ve had apron’s before, but there comes a time when wearing an apron decorated with a woman’s body dressed in scanty underwear, or covered in brightly coloured parrots, simply won’t do - at least not if you want to be taken seriously in the kitchen.

And I do.

By the way, did I mention the Sabatier knife incident?

Another reason I wanted an apron is because I dropped Gaynor’s best Sabatier knife the other evening and, whilst it was a flexible blade, it wasn’t as flexible as I’d hoped and the point snapped off when it landed. Of course I immediately went online and ordered two replacements. Yes two. Well, that seemed the only way of making amends given Gaynor’s vitriolic response to my knife dropping incident. Anyway, the knives arrived and Gaynor forgave me and I sheepishly asked if I could have the old one. ‘You’ll be wanting a chef’s apron next,’ she lovingly sneered, to which I replied: ‘Yes, I really would,’ and that’s when she gave me the pre-loved apron plus a nice white chef’s tunic. It even fitted, well almost.

‘Where is this going?’ You may ask.

Listen I consider myself a bit of a chef. I’ve had no training, as I’m constantly reminded, but years of cooking at least a couple of times a week has given me some insight into the culinary arts. There’s nothing I like better than to go to the fridge, take out a few things, and prepare a ‘nice’ meal. No recipes for me; I’m a chef, not a recipe following cook, slavishly weighing out ingredients and step-by-stepping his or her way to a mediocre dinner.

Of course sometimes my dishes aren’t quite what I may have expected; sometimes they are what can only be described as ‘interesting’. But that’s what chefing is all about – experimentation. You can’t make a good shepherd’s pie without losing a shepherd or two in the sheep-pens, and I wonder how many eggs were cracked before the first blue cheese, cherry, and spring onion omelette was created?

Anyway, the point of all this is to say that now I have my cast-off chef’s outfit and my blunted Sabatier knife, I’m a little like a kitchen Don Quixote. Perhaps Gaynor will now give me the respect I deserve in the kitchen. Perhaps, at long last, she’ll start answering me with ‘Yes chef’ when I tell her to blanch my asparagus tips.

What do you think?

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Luna Lou is two...

Today is Luna’s second birthday, which makes her twenty-five if you calculate cat years properly and don’t use that silly seven years to one rule. It’s hard to imagine her as the little ball of fluff we brought home all that time ago. These days she’s all grown up, hardly surprising given the amount that she eats.

Mealtimes at our house have changed since Luna has arrived. There’s an extra chair at the dinner table because Luna has decided that she likes to eat dinner with us.

As soon as she hears the dinner being served she appears from nowhere, jumps up onto her chair, then sits waiting patiently until we’ve finished our meal just in case there are any titbits left for her – which of course there always are. She likes roast meat, pies, fish; she even likes curry and spaghetti Bolognese. She never eats her vegetables though.

She’s very well behaved at the table and never tries to steal from our plates. When we offer her a piece of beef or a morsel of chicken she carefully takes it from our flat outstretched hand so as not to nip, blinking her mismatched eyes to say thank you. She really does have lovely table manners. Oddly, she never offers to do the washing up though.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Under the dome...

They’re alive!

Deep in the recess beneath my kitchen cabinets they sit like a small Quatermass experiment encouraged by the heat of the radiator beneath.

What creatures lurk inside those breast-like domes? Pod inhabitants from some far-flung galaxy fatally fallen to Earth, or the capsule-bound twisted result of some dastardly government funded project?

Neither. Actually they are simply carrots, pumpkins, peas, and courgettes growing in some of my marvelous pound shop propagating pots. Two for a pound, fifty pence each – what a bargain! Just look at all of that lovely moisture collecting on their plastic lids, the soil warming nicely. Soon tiny seedlings will begin to appear.

Even without monsters, this is without doubt the most exciting time of the year. Everything is springing to life with the promise of long summer evenings to come with beer and barbecues and gardening. All you have to do is drop a seed into the soil and, before you know it, a plant appears. The tomato seeds that I planted just a week ago are already an inch high and thickening nicely in my new greenhouse. The seeds in my Quatermass pots are only a couple of days in and I’m sure that I’ll growth by the end of the week.

I’m even trying to grow my own pumpkin for Halloween and, fingers crossed, it’ll be a monster – or at least it will be when I’ve finished carving it in October.

Oh the joys to come!

Monday, 10 March 2014

Random thoughts at fifty-seven…

Today I am mainly being fifty-seven. I won’t go on about it. It’s just another birthday, not my 21st or my 40th, but a birthday nevertheless. I planned to retire at fifty-five (as I didn’t croak at forty as I thought I would for a while) and two years on I think I'm almost there. It takes a while to readjust, to realise that your day has come and gone and from hereon it’s all about learning to coast.

Yes, I’m still working my way through my life in my head, getting used to being semi-retired, still telling myself that I have something left to offer. I don’t know what that something is and I can’t jump across boulders these days, but there must be some of that boulder jumper somewhere. Yes, sometimes, it’s hard to see the seventeen year old me leaping from rock to rock to rescue a young girl who’d been cut off by the tide. Where were her parents anyway?

Fifty-seven, like the Heinz varieties. I can even remember Telstar. See, no memory problems here.

What was I saying? No, it’s gone. Well I am fifty-seven; aren’t I entitled to a few senior moments?
Oh well who gives a shit, just what am I going on about anyway?

Oh that was it. My day has come and gone.

Sometimes I think that if I could find a well of self-pity I'd drown myself in it. Not today though, today is my birthday.

Keep beating heart.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Pirate plot...

Today I have been mainly gardening. Well, when I say gardening I mean hurting my back and making my arms and legs ache. It's not even as if I'm going through all this pain to benefit myself. It isn't my garden. It's my mother in laws. Mind you, I have managed to secrete a large plastic greenhouse on her property, one of those ones with plastic joiners and green metal tubes. I thought it was going to be a nightmare to erect, but it was actually easy. Even the instructions made sense.

I also installed a small raised bed to grow salad crops, dug out a trench in the lawn for beans, and brought along two large black dustbins to grow pumpkins and sweetcorn. Well, who needs lawn anyway? All you do is cut it continually. My mother in laws garden, but my gardening. I'm already thinking of it as my pirate plot and have planned exactly what I'm going to grow there.

It was going dark when I finished; my back screaming, but a sense of real sat satisfaction in my grinding bones. Of course my mother in law will benefit too. I'm happy for her to eat some of the vegetables I grow - just as long as she does some of the watering. Here's to a long vegetable growing summer and pirate plot gardening. I'll keep you informed.

Ibuprofen time I think.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Frankie, Dick, and Benny…

It seems that the blue cheese, or whatever it is that makes my dreams, wasn’t content with a single comedy actor starring in my sleeping fantasies. Last night that cheeky Somnus decided to present me with a trio of fine funny fellows. Frankie Howard was there again, this time dressed in his toga from Up Pompeii, and alongside him was not also Dick Emery but also Benny Hill.

Serial dreaming - whatever next? Yes, Frankie, Benny AND Dick - that sounds like a meal at a juicy burger joint followed by a big fat sausage. And yes, I am awful, but I like me.

Of course, Benny as always spent most of his time rushing around in that speeded up stop-start motion way he has. Obviously he was dressed as a milkman, hat all askew, alternately chasing or being chased by a posse of rather scantily clad young ladies. Dick kept appearing in different costumes; a toothy vicar, a buxom blonde, a flamboyantly dressed chap with a floppy hat who insisted on calling me Honky-Tonk. So just another day at the office really.

At first it was all rather jolly, but then it took on a more sombre tone. Benny exited a sharp left running into a spooky graveyard followed by Frankie, who meandered across with that famous hound dog look on his face. Dick glanced my way, flicked his feather boa, tilting his hat to shade his eyes, and minced across to stand next to the pair of them. It was like something out of the ghost of Christmas yet to come scene in ‘A Christmas Carol’ with me as Alistair Sim. A cloud passed across the moon leaving the trio in semi-darkness, an owl hooted, the church clock struck one.

Frankie beckoned me across with a bent finger. ‘Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it infamy’ he spluttered. Benny blew a raspberry; ‘ Ppzzz’, and Dick just smiled and fluttered his eyelashes.

They turned as one, as Frankie pointed to a single gravestone illuminated in the moonlight. The three comedians, who didn’t seem that funny at that moment, shook their heads in grave sadness. I looked at the gravestone. It bore the legend ‘What a palaver!’ and underneath my name, followed by (1957 - ?) They turned and then all joined hands, and skipped away into the distance.

It was not quite three o’clock when I sleepily glanced at the clock. Knowing that I’d never remember it in the morning, I grabbed my pen and scribbled down the outline of my dream. As I drifted off a few minutes later, I distinctly heard someone say ‘If you need another thespian- I’m Free!’

Whoever next?

Friday, 7 March 2014

Early morning palaver…

I awoke this morning just as Frankie Howard declared ‘Ooooo, what a palaver!’ He was sucking in his cheeks, turning himself into a curly haired aging cherub as he winked at me and then popped like a bubble. Just why he said this and why he was at the edge of my consciousness as I awoke, I have no idea. But he left this world, as I re-entered it, with his voice still ringing in my ears like a bell.

Frankie Howard - a palaver indeed. Ding-dong!

Anyway, it’s stuck with me all day and, as I do, I found myself Googling this and Googling that, trying to track down the meaning of the word and whether or not Mr Howard ever used it. After a lot of surfing, I’d found no hard evidence that he was a palaver user; but he must have been mustn’t he? After all, it is such a Frankie Howard type of word. I can just imagine him taking his time and drawing it out with that distinctive throaty croak at the end: ‘Ooooooo, what a PALAAAVERRR!’

I’ve heard this word used regularly and I use it myself sometimes. But I tend to use it to mean something like ‘kerfuffle’, a hasty happening or scuffle leading nowhere but stand-off, with lots of bluffing and blowing along the way. In fact, according to and the OE dictionary, the word palaver is defined as ‘a conference or discussion’. I didn’t know this, and in my 30 years of sitting in pointless, boring, far too long meetings with basically stupid people discussing basically stupid things (me being one of them on both counts), I never heard anyone refer to a meeting by using this word.

So it’s a confab, a pow-pow, a colloquy, a parley, a conference, a stakeholder meeting, a roundtable, a brainstorm, a thought-shower, and not an Elizabethan skirmish with doublets and rapiers as I’d imagined. It isn’t even English. It derives from the Portuguese ‘palavra’ meaning ‘speech’, specifically between Portuguese traders and West African natives in the 18th century. Even so, the built-in Word thesaurus gives palaver’s alternatives as: irritation, pain, annoyance, pest, bother, trouble, and irritant. So perhaps it was one of those bloody meetings after all.

By the way, did you realise that the only half-decent rhyme for palaver is cadaver?

Thanks Frankie. Your few words this morning have sent me on yet another wild goose-chase that’s soaked up most of my day. Ooooo, what a………. nuisance

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Staying away from tripe…

Two days into Lent and I'm still managing to stay off the tripe. Yes, I've been observing lent my whole life and it's made me a better person - even though it’s been a real struggle. This year I almost gave up Lent for Lent, but then I remembered all those other Lents, the sacrifices I’ve made over the years, and thought better of it. Hang-gliding, One man and his Dog, Eastenders, The Bay City Rollers, Hair shirts, and now tripe, have all been, at one time or another, sacrificed for forty long days and forty even longer nights in the pursuit of purity.

Mind you, these days there is so little left for me to give up. Most of my ‘vices’ have fizzled out of their own accord or been confiscated by my wife. It gets harder and harder each year to find a worthy ‘Lent-ill’ as I call them.

My life seems to be a constant struggle between abstinence and excess, a little like ‘The Fight Between Carnival and Lent’ by my old mate Pieter Bruegel the younger.

As many of you may know, I never miss an opportunity to show off young Pieter’s work, regardless of how tenuous the link. Back in 1559 he depicted the Lent festival, as celebrated in the Southern Netherlands, when he painted the contrast between two sides of contemporary life at the time. It’s all about balance you see: the appearance of the inn on the left side - for fun and a jolly good time, and a church on the right side - for enforced obedience and guilt. Well-behaved children near the church, a riotous beerfest at the pub.

I’m clearly at the Inn guzzling down a pint or two, although it’s not easy to see the pious guilt on my face. Yes, I’m crying all down my underwear as I drink myself into another drunken haze. Woe is me!

As James Blunt sings: ‘My life is brilliant.’ Yes, my tongue IS firmly in my cheek. But, like the figure of King Carnival in the painting (he of the pork pie head, bulging red pants, and big sausage on a stick) bidding a left-handed farewell as he raises his eyes to the sky, Lent will eventually triumph. All praise the Holy Jesus!

Sausage anyone?

Oh well, after reading this back it seems like I didn’t manage to stay off the tripe after all - perhaps I should give up blogging for Lent.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

My own cute puppy…

Well, it was worth a try. Sometimes writing the words keeps him away and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes hiding behind pancakes and quizzes, gardening, even poetry, can keep his bark at bay. But if he’s coming he’s coming; even though I never call him. I don’t know why he comes when he does. It’s almost as though he lets me think he’s gone just so he can come running out of the undergrowth when I least expect it. Of course I’m used to him turning up. I can see the warning signs. My mood changes, I get snappy, I tire; and I’m sure that knowing helps me to manage him.

But it doesn’t scare him off.

Sometimes he’s big, sometimes he’s small. But whatever his size he’s always black and he never greets me with a lick. This time he seems to be around medium size. He’ll stay as long as he wants, feeding and growing if I let him. I don’t want to let him, but there’s only so much self-management a body can do, the rest, the outside influences, are random chance and opportunist kickings. Water off a ducks back? If only that was how I worked. Maybe I can throw a stick and make him back off for a while. If I throw it hard enough who knows?

He’s outside the door now, barking to come in. I’m not going to open it.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Aldi pancakes…

Today is Pancake Day so where better to go for your pancake ingredients and toppings than Britain’s favourite supermarket? Yes I know that I sound like an ad, but then that is my background. Anyway, is there anyone remaining who hasn’t been touched by the magic of Aldi?

Just a few years ago Aldi stores were dismissed as being cheap shops selling low-quality goods, whose customers couldn’t afford to shop in proper supermarkets. Back then anyone shopping at Aldi would go in disguise or at the very least claim that they shopped at Aldi for the novelty value, a laugh. Gradually though, things have changed and now, given the ridiculously long queues for the checkouts, the number of Range Rovers in the always packed car park and the fact that my next door neighbour but one shops there, it seems that that the poor reputation of Aldi's products is long gone.

And the two German brothers, Karl and Theo, who originally owned Aldi are the first and second richest men in Germany and are laughing all the way to the Bundesbank.

The big supermarkets have been taken by surprise and, as the posters say, Aldi has won the Which? Supermarket of the Year for two (or is it three?) years, and in 2013 Aldi won The Grocer Grocer of the Year Award. Not bad for a supermarket that charges for carrier bags, is German (don’t mention the war), sells mainly ‘own’ brands and until quite recently only took cash payment.

They also sell what I can only describe as random stuff. The centre aisles are packed with all manner of strange things that none of us need, but can’t resist. I have yet to use my extending window sponge, chocolate moulds, reversible umbrella rain hat and musical candles, but I guess that they’ll come in handy one day and probably all at the same time. Picture me in my hat, cleaning my windows whilst scoffing home made chocolates and whistling along to my candle.

And with that image firmly implanted in your mind this post is officially closed.

Enjoy your pancakes.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Iguanas, Jean Paul, Falstaff, world dictators…

It seems that my latest silly addiction is to find out about myself from oddly constructed questionnaires which keep popping up on Facebook. I can’t let one pass without setting out on a path of self-discovery that seemingly can lead me anywhere. So far I have found out that I should really be living in Devon, that if I were an animal I would be an iguana, and that if I were a classic car I would be a Ford Consul.

I don’t know how these things work, I guess it’ll be some sort of algorithm or something, but the questions they ask seem to be pretty random. I really can’t see how picking my favourite BeyoncĂ© should lead me to be defined as St Peter in the ‘which Jesus follower are you?’ questionnaire. Or how picking which desperate housewife I would like to have dinner with should lead to me becoming an almost unknown English philosopher, whose name I can’t even remember, in the ‘Which philosopher are you?’ teaser. Besides, I am clearly Jean Paul Sartre; after all, three o’clock is too late or too early for anything you want to do and words are loaded pistols – comprenez-vous?

Strangely though, when I feel that the results truly reflect my persona I get a little golden glow of pride, smugness even. When I heard that I was Vincent Van Gogh merely by picking my favourite holiday destination (Provence), flower (sunflower), carrion bird (crow), and facial feature (ear) I was pretty chuffed and a little surprised (not). I felt positively relieved when the ‘Where in the UK should you be from?’ correctly distinguished me as being an Oxonian and not from some working class place like Merseyside or The Black Country. In terms of what my profession should be I was pleased as the proverbial punch to find that I should be a writer, and then there was the ‘Which Shakespearian character are you?’ quiz.

‘Just which Shakespearian character will I be?’ I wondered as I began answering the questions. I thought it pretty unlikely that I would be Cleopatra, Othello, or Oberon. But Bottom, Prospero, Shylock, maybe even Lear, seemed a possibility. Working my way through the questions and answers I pretty soon realised who I would become, and, odds bodkins Sirrah, that’s just who I turned out to be!

It would appear that I am the living embodiment of Sir John Falstaff from Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. At first glance he seems to be a fat, boastful, disingenuous, and cowardly knight, but beneath this thin veneer is a complex character of many layers. He’s funny, often loyal, very aware of his own mortality and able to change his views dependent on the situation. He’s a survivor, happy to run when he knows that he can’t win; he knows his own strengths and weaknesses. At times he wallows in self-pity, but a few glasses of wine soon put that right. Yes, Falstaff is a legend of his own pomposity-filled making and above all he doesn’t give a flying fart what other people think of him.

Yes, Falstaff seems to suit me, I fit into his skin in so many ways.

I wonder which world dictator I will be?

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Getting my act together...

Time to get my act together; March is here and it's time to plant seeds. Suddenly I feel the need to cover my kitchen work surfaces with various black plastic trays covered in cling film. It’s as if I awake this morning with a bag of compost and a seed dibber in my hand ready to make my world a bit more colourful. This year I am mainly doing sweet peas. I don’t know why, but they seem to be my new flower of choice. I’m sure they’ll be other things as well, but I really do want a fragrant back yard this year.

For weeks last year we were unable to prepare anything too complicated to eat as I’d pretty much taken over the kitchen with my seedlings. This year though is going to be a little different as I’m taking over my mother in laws garden and will be planting the vegetables, which I usually squeeze into my yard, in the palace where she has a lawn currently. I won’t dig it all up, but enough to keep me interested; some peas, beans, peppers, courgettes, cucumbers, carrots, lettuce, strawberries, and tomatoes. I’ve even bought a big walk in plastic greenhouse so it looks like I’m in for some fun.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

A message from Dark Town...

Ah, St David’s Day once more. I don’t write much poetry these days, some might say that I never did or should have, but there are some days that deserve special recognition, when nothing but a poem will do, and today is one of them. So to celebrate this day, for one reason and not another, here’s a poem. Best read it out loud.

Unfinished In Dark Town

I’ve seen you around in Dark Town
Kicking and thrashing things held dear
Marking your ground like a bombardier
Rubbing away at your gonorrhoea
Faking a smile or crocodile tear
Spitting out blood and trembling in fear
At a whispered word in your old man ear
As you piss down on another’s beer
All spittle lipped and dirty leer
At some young kid or passing queer
Offering chips when they pass near
They know you well in Dark Town
They know your stench, can tell your mood
As you fuck suck up your favourite food
Claiming that you’re misunderstood
Badly damaged in childhood
That all your sad is really good
And though it shouldn’t you make it should
Not changing couldn’t into could
And doing all this in thick cold blood
You turn clear water into mud
And all for the cross of womanhood
You can hide where you want in Dark Town
You can call the police or change your number
Sneer at girls out on a bender
Breathe in their smell and make ‘em shudder
Even play the great pretender
But keep on looking over your shoulder
As you lie and cheat and steal and moulder
Cos one day when you’re not much older
I’ll tell her the things I never told her
Spoil the shine of her tin-pot soldier
And leave her world a great deal colder
I’ll be there like a blowtorch
And I’m gonna burn ya
In Dark Town.