Sunday, 16 November 2008

Nearly 5k

His footfalls are regular

They echo mine

I hear his breathing

It echoes my own


not heavy

Our hearts pump in unison

Hot blood

Bodies pulsing

as they did so long ago

He's tall

seems taller;

his long-muscled legs


in time with mine

He glances at me,

a checking-out kind of smile

a gentle enquiry

You ok?

Nearly 5k.”


behind distant memories

a bell chimes

The same question


from the sweetest time

of wonder and surrender

when my body was his

and his

was mine

You ok?”

Knees drawn up,


Braced against

the unknown,

ready to exert, endure, expel


for the risky ride

imposed without consent

from within

You ok?”

The release of

a cord; thick,

tight around his neck;

the putty-grey baby,

unopening eyes

whisked away

confusion and whispers

What about him?”

Tell me.”

You ok?”



incalculable moments

accumulating eternities

of dread.

Silent pleadings

and desperate negotiations;

the alternative common prayer book

of the helpless

You ok?”

More than.

Ridiculously astonished;

profoundly grateful


Thirty years on,

our two hearts

are running in rhythm

beating as one

feeling the life.

Exhibitors at Stroud Subscription Rooms

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Turning point

So it all started on a go-kart track.

Six-year-old Lewis Hamilton climbed into the go-kart, put his foot down, sped off around the track and crashed, injuring his nose. Instead of stumbling away blubbing about the nasty kart and pleading to be taken home, mini-Hamilton merely wiped the blood away and carried on driving.

His dad Anthony says he was impressed by his son's exceptional driving skills and determination.

Anthony Hamilton is a role model for pushy parents everywhere. Because if it wasn't for him nurturing, supporting and financing his boy wonder, Lewis Hamilton would definitely not have become the World Champion Formula One racing driver that he is today.

I'm reluctant to boast but it's a tale which reminds me so much of my eldest son. He too first took the wheel of a go-kart and astonished us when he was very young – six years old - precisely the age that Lewis Hamilton displayed youthful brilliance.

I can't remember the name of the resort where we came upon the go-kart circuit but it was an English sea-front, off-season in drizzly rain with limp grey waves splishing over the shingle of a gently-sloping beach. The dog had been swimming and was dripping and smelling and looking miserable as only wet spaniels can. We'd played ducks and drakes and we were heading towards a distant pier when we saw the go-kart circuit – just an area of tarmac promenade encircled by tyres.

There was no-one else on the go-karts. A chalk board offered a cheap price. No 2 son legged it towards a parked, locked go-kart and managed to climb in. By the time I got to him, he was steering wildly and without a doubt, heading down the home straight to a glorious imagined victory.

He was far too young to drive. Not quite four years old and legs too short to reach the pedals. But he was desperate and quite difficult to extract as he gritted his teeth and clung on to the steering wheel like a limpet. I winkled him out on the promise that yes, he could have a go-kart ride but only on condition that big brother drove.

So big brother had to be persuaded to take him. Big bro had no natural inclination for go-karting so had to be bribed with the prospect of a new Transformer.

Much like Lewis Hamilton's dad, I was unprepared for what was to unfold. I knew, at least, that the boys would be safe. No1 son was a strong character with a naturally cautious disposition. He could read well from an early age and was scrupulously law-abiding to the point of inconvenience and tedium. Once, when we inexplicably went off-track on a long walk (Christmas cracker compasses; never trust them) and needed to take a nifty short-cut in order to avoid retracing our steps for three miles, he point-blank refused to climb a gate into woodland signed “Private.”

Anyway, as there was an excellent bribe on the table, the go-kart track was deserted and there was only a disinterested spotty youth looking on, good-guy son grudgingly agreed to have a go.

Both boys donned too-big helmets and climbed into one of the machines. The youth gave son no 1 instructions for the accelerator, the brake and the seatbelts. Wearing his NHS black plastic-framed specs beneath the shiny dome of his helmet, the junior driver was silent, solemn and concentrated. No 2 son's face was hardly visible below his helmet but I could tell that inside his puffy anorak he was wriggling with delight at the thought of the thrills which lay ahead.

So there they were, belted, helmeted and squeezed together in the go-kart.

The driver tentatively put his foot down and, inch by inch, the go-kart began to creep forward.

I thought perhaps the accelerator was stuck.

“Put your foot down a bit Clive!” (not his real name) I encouraged. “Get it going!”

He took no notice but continued his silky-smooth acceleration until the go-kart was processing in a stately circular manner around the track.

The first time they inexorably crept past us (the two-strong crowd of go-kart fans going wedgwood blue with cold) I had the strong impression that Clive was taking some time to become familiar with the feel of the steering and the handling of the vehicle.

After all, when you're almost sitting on the floor in a sports car, even quite modest speeds feel a lot faster. I looked forward to the acceleration curve sweeping in an upward direction. No1 son had other ideas. He'd hit his cruising speed of approximately two miles per hour and he was sticking to it.

By the third circuit he'd adopted a hunched stance, as though his specs were misting over with the excitement of it all and he needed to lean over the steering wheel a bit to see more clearly. Perhaps he was concerned about the prospect of skidding out of control due to the drizzle. There were certainly no obstacles but you can never be too careful. Dead seagulls could suddenly have plummetted from the skies creating a sudden hazard or a dodgy water-main could have at any time burst up through the track like Old Faithful.

I was hopeful that the initial “orientation” laps would leave no 1 son confident enough to have a crack at smashing the walking speed barrier.

So did no 2 son. By now the little blob under the big helmet was shifting about trying to get hold of the steering wheel. Animated conversation was going on. A fight was breaking out, only quashed by sustained defensive elbowing from the driver.

The steering wobbled alarmingly for a few moments before the speed was adjusted accordingly until a safe crawling pace was reached.

The sight of them bickering and circling the track with the reckless verve of a knackered roadsweeper about to splutter clean out of fuel was too much. I had to turn away. It doesn't do to laugh at your own kids. They never understand.

A claxon sounded to indicate that time was up and I have rarely been so grateful for an ordeal to be over. My stomach muscles were aching and I had to try to look serious.

They climbed out of the car, divested themselves of their comedy helmets and left the track.

“What did you think of it?” I enquired, only choking slightly.

“It was ok,” replied Clive, with due modesty.

No2 son's face was reddening and contorted with fury.

He turned to his brother.

“Stupid. STUPID!!!!” he yelled. He dealt Clive a fierce thump in the stomach and burst into tears of abject disappointment.

So you see now just how closely I could relate to Lewis Hamilton's dad's memories.

Just like Mr Hamilton's experience watching his boy, watching my eldest negotiating that go-kart track was a turning point in my life.

I realised with a rock-solid certainty that he would never, ever in a million years be a World Champion Formula One racing driver.


Smooth as an ocean,

gunmetal tarmac

stretches and slips beneath my wheels.

Traffic roars in frozen ears,

a winnowing wind wipes all the tears

and an aching heart is numbed

by circular rhythms


by the calm comfort

of concentration.

I'm sorry, I'll sing that again....

So there I was earlier, identifying fungi collected in the woods and singing along to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

I've always admired the Chili's for their nod towards paleontology.

I mean, how many rock bands famous for performing naked apart from socks would be interested in 500 million-year-old fossils?

Rock lyrics are not expected to make much sense but I've always joined in with that phrase on “Scar Tissue” “......with the Burgess Shale is the lonely view.”

I thought it was an inspired lyric.

Yes. No doubt it was lonely, not to say quite jolly exciting, up there in the Canadian Rockies, picking through bits of the Burgess Shale and finding evidence of what's now known as the Cambrian explosion – a bizarre array of marine organisms that bear little or no resemblance to any living thing on earth now.

So, having time on my hands (and difficulty identifying a particular toadstool with a slimy, almond-fragranced cap) I looked up the lyrics.

And I'm devastated to find that the Chilis aren't singing about the Burgess Shale at all. They are singing the hitherto unknown lyrics “with the birds, I'll share this lonely view.”

They are lyrics which, in comparison with the Burgess Shale reference, are prosaic and death-defyingly ordinary.

Listen to the track. It still sounds much more like the Burgess Shale to me and I prefer it. Anyhow, the Chilis have plummeted in my estimation and I may need to book an ear syringing.

At least I'm not the only one to mishear lyrics. Some favourite mishearings by others are documented here.

You have to know the tunes to get the most out of them, but the finest mishearing is possibly the late Robert Palmer's classic “Might as well face it, you're a dick with a glove.”

The Chilis again, “Can't Stop:” “Can't stop the ferrets when they need food..”

REM's Losing My Religion: “Let's pee in the corner. Let's pee in the spotlight....”

Madonna's “Like a virgin...touched for the thirty-first time.”

Nirvana's “Here we are containers.”

Pat Benatar (performing the well-known Wii rock guitar classic) “Hit me with with your pet shark.”

The Beatles “Michelle, ma belle, some say monkeys play piano well,
play piano well...”

Not forgetting Creedence Clearwater Revival's chorus which sound like instructions on arriving at the b&b...

“Don't go out tonight,
“ cos they're bound to take your light
“There's a bathroom on the right.”


Oh. If anyone's interested, here are the standard lyrics, in order:

Might as well face it, you're addicted to love

Can't stop the spirits when they need you

That's me in the corner, that's me in the spotlight

Like a virgin, touched for the very first time

Here we are now, entertain us

Hit me with your best shot

Michelle ma belle, sont des mots qui vont tres bien ensemble, tres bien ensemble

There's a bad moon on the rise

Recovery weekend

This is a recovery weekend. Yep, after years of hard drinking I've finally dried out for good.

I jest. Good grief, I have no wish to be tee-total. Grapes, in all their wondrous and varied forms are my second favourite fruit.

No. I'm recovering from the Cheltenham Festival of Literature. Actually recovery is the wrong word. Now I've caught up with sleep, I'm suffering withdrawal symptoms.

I'm staring wistfully at the bunch of used tickets littering my desk. There are more in my handbag.

I'd quite like to be looking forward to driving over there this evening, squeezing the car into half a space on the leafy Promenade and sprinting, late as usual, across Imperial Gardens, past the Holst fountain, skirting the book tent, jinking past the Garden Theatre and into the back of the Town Hall to land breathless and slightly dishevelled in my seat just as the lights are dimmed and the author is ushered on to the stage.

In addition to hob-nobbing with a couple of valued pals from this site, it was a hugely enjoyable and inspiring thing with very few disappointments. I was amused, entertained, I learned some things and had my mind opened to others, which is about as much as one can expect.

Not everyone likes Literature Festivals. The mother-in-law can't understand why anyone would be remotely interested in listening to an author and feels authors who go boasting about themselves on stage should be consigned to the fires of hell. She has a whole set of additional commandments waiting for ratification by the Almighty including thou shalt not wear nail varnish and make-up for such adornments are only for the vain and flighty etc etc.

She does have a point though. Why are we interested in the people behind the words? Why do the words not speak for themselves? Readers of discernment just like words, I'm assured. Nothing else. No images, no audio, just particular patterns of text which provoke, disturb and ignite the imagination. Yet the truth is the Festival is there to sell books therefore, like it or not, the author becomes part of the celebrity culture.

The MyT writers I met were just as warm, intelligent and full of interest as I expected yet writers can often be dull, weird or anonymous; the kind of people who blend into a crowd yet take in everything around them and mentally file it to be used later. Writing well doesn't bear any relation to being good to look at or being fascinating to listen to.

Yet I am intrigued by writers. Maybe there's an ancient conviction deep in my brain that if I get close to greatness, or touch the coat-tails of greatness, I too might be blessed with a fraction of their writing talents. I got pretty close up to the brilliant Richard Curtis but just stopped short of prostration. And I did make him smirk, even without the prostration, which was pleasing.

So many events. So many highlights. The outdoorsy afternoon at the Centaur Centre at the racecourse was excellent if short of practical tasks. Ray Mears and Bruce Parry both gave talks with a good hour between them – just in case there was jealousy in the car park with whittled pointy sticks.

I spent the interval sitting in the sun on the Tattersall terraces within sight of the finishing line staring at the splendid racecourse and the Cotswold escarpment and thinking up unlikely challenges for the two of them including the Greatest Survivor Contest subtitled Last One To Make Fire Using Only Wood and Newspaper Is A Sissy.

My money would have been on Ray. Some people think of him as a kind of Crocodile Dundee character. He recalled that one chap actually showed him how a revolving door works. The helper no doubt realised that in the wilderness, a revolving door is a redundant piece of tat whereas in the city they present very real hazards.

Bruce impressed less this time than last time I saw him shortly before he began filming his Amazon series.

This time his wholesome exhortations to grow our own food, consume less, save the rainforests blah, blah, sounded a tad lame in view of size of his own vast “green footprint” created while jetting thousands of miles with film crews and employing helicopters for local transport and aerial shots.

He talked of taking hallucinogens (which he insisted be kept in the programmes) vomiting copiously and tripping out in the expert company of friendly Amazonian villagers. It was a positive, mind-expanding and spiritual experience, said Bruce, and it was good to go to the “dark places” but obviously don't do it in your own homes, folks – only where the tribal shaman will hold your hand and keep you safe. Yeah right.

Being in the presence of at least some of the Blackadder creators was a joy. Richard Curtis, Tony Robinson and producer John Lloyd swapping memories of the making of the series, 25 years ago, originally titled “King Edmund and His Two Friends.”

The original scripts, Lloyd said, were the funniest things he had ever read. Then during the cast read-throughs, people would make them even more amusing, bejewelling and enriching them with extra wit from the likes of Stephen Fry and Rik Mayall. There was hot debate on the funniest vegetable – courgette or cucumber – but no arguments about halibut being the funniest fish.

I've always disliked Frank Skinner the comedian but being interviewed, he was much better than expected. He told stories too risque to repeat here with finesse and wonderful timing. I laughed so hard that it actually hurt.

The three-hour screenwriting workshop was excellent. Great shame that Carla Lane (Bread and Butterflies. TV series, not a sandwich) couldn't make it because the guy who took her place had a poor sense of humour.

He asked if there was anyone present who'd never read a screenplay. Feeling frank (who raised no objection), I raised my hand.Then he posed the question “You would hardly go to a novel-writing course if you'd never read a novel would you?”

Eeew. Was that a teensy weensy bit of a put-down? I might have retorted something about him being a disappointing replacement for Carla Lane anyway but I politely held my tongue. And in fact I did complete the screenplay for a short amusing film (really short....about ten minutes!) about two dogs. I am going to print it out, roll it very tightly into a scroll about two inches in diameter and send it to him with a suggestion as to where he might usefully put it.

Vesta Chicken Chow Mein enthusiast and neuroscientist Susan Greenfield was brilliant, as usual, propounding her theories with clarity but I'd really like to have seen her in debate with Rick Stein, who was not well liked by some of his audience who murmured “too commercial “ as they left. He and Susan could have a good spat over her assertion “Cooking. Why bother? It's all over in ten minutes.”

Ruth Rendell – I forget her Lords title, Baroness something - is a great writer but, as a person, a bit spooky. If I was an interviewer I'd feel nervous. She sits extremely still and straight, her hands resting on her thighs, concentrating on the floor of the stage just ahead of her, answering questions in an ascetic, economic, dry way.

She revealing that her latest Barbara Vine book features the latest craze for wealthy yet sexually jaded metropolitans. Called “adventure sex” it's a service offered by an agency where a guy pays £30k to have his girlfriend (who gives consent in advance, being of an adventurous nature) blindfolded, bound, gagged and taken to a mystery location where the boyfriend has wild sex with her.

Rendell – who's a well-preserved late seventies if she's a day - was gently probed as to how she dreamed up the details and replied:

“As you know, a writer of fiction doesn't need much to go on. Henry James said 'A young lady of talent has only to walk past the windows of the officers' mess in order to write a novel about the Army.'”

There was Richard Fortey talking about the little-explored backrooms at the Natural History Museum and the fake dodo which is made of cygnet feathers thanks to a member of staff who snaffled a swan from under Hammersmith Bridge one night. It didn't break his arm, either.

Edward de Bono tried to teach me some perceptual thinking using six hats. I usually enjoy trying on hats, especially big brimmed hats with ribbons or a snazzy flower but due to the lack of tangible hats, I must have succumbed to a long blink and so missed the significant of the triangle, the circle, the square, the lozenge and the heart that he was scribbling frantically on his projected whiteboard. I wrote the words 'Truth Paste' but I have no idea what they mean.

Dr Who producer and writer Russell T Davies, the man who made us hide behind the sofa cushions again, proved to be very Welsh and very gay displaying a hearty mirth that shook him from head to toe. He recalled the time he and a colleague auditioned the dazzlingly-toothed John Barrowman for the role of Captain Jack.

As Barrowman finished the audition, left the room and shut the door, they turned to each other and both went “PHWOARRRRR.” A sentiment echoed by the entire audience, male and female who seemed to adore him in equal measure. Jilly Cooper, Alan Carr and others..well I've droned on too long now so I'll spare you those.

I've written about the Miles Kington tribute already too but I've just remembered another idea he had which you could nick if you're finding a rainy Sunday a bit depressing....

"How Whingeing Can Work For You!” a self-help book about self-pity... ideal subject for a collaborative effort!

Miles Kington - a bit late.

There aren't many people you encounter in life that you feel you could relate to on almost any level; a friend, a sister, a hot date.

That's how I feel about Miles Kington.

Such a pity he is deceased.

I should have taken more notice of him during his lifetime.

A bit late, I know for general worship and reverence but not too late for a tribute now, that I have got something of the measure of the man.

An event at Cheltenham Festival of Literature had the extraordinarily well-kept Joanna Lumley, Terry Jones, Maureen Lipman and Miles' widow Caroline talking about their memories of him and reading extracts from a book of the letters he wrote to his friend and agent Gill Coleridge when he knew he was dying of pancreatic cancer. The letters are comic, quirky, witty and not in the least maudlin. The affection for Kington was almost palpable.

I knew Miles Kington was a witty writer and always enjoyed what I read of his but I didn't actively seek him out, which is a shame because I find I like him a lot for many reasons.

He was a cyclist for a start. Cycled from home to Fleet Street every day. Cycled at weekends down in the countryside near Bath.

Miles: “I have often found that the mind goes into free wheel more easily on a bike ride than anywhere else in the world and you get some really good thoughts up there in the saddle.”


He wrote with an easy, witty panache. He had an extremely messy study, he was a musician and he had a liver and white English Springer Spaniel. He was entirely my kind of bloke.

The more I read of Miles the more I like him. He penned his collection of letters, collected in the book “How Shall I Tell the Dog?” after the time when he realised he would probably not outlive his spaniel, Berry.

He never told the Independent, for whom he was writing a daily column, that he was ill. So even when he was admitted to hospital for chemotherapy, he'd hand-write his columns in the morning, gave them to his wife Caroline and she'd take them home to type them up and email them to the Indie as usual. She did say that he hated all those columns because he disliked not having the opportunity to “polish” them.

Reading the book in a corridor at Cheltenham Town Hall, I found that he pitched the idea of a book called “A Hundred Things To do Before you Die” rather than the “1,000 Places to Go Before You Die” (written by some American woman) which I've always considered unrealistic to achieve especially if, due to indecision over dates and suitcase size, you have lost time and find yourself wheeling along the oxygen, drip and catheter bag.

Like me, Miles dislikes the whole Yank thing of travelling the world ticking off the sites of interest as they are bagged. He extols the virtues of doing all the things you ever wanted to do but didn't without even leaving home which is v achievable in spite of credit crunches etc.

He cites the essentials that everyone ever wanted to try but didn't get around to it, like Learning to Give a Piercing Two-Fingered Whistle. My Sicilian sister-in-law was very good at that. She could whistle her children in from a crowded Cefalu beach in high season. She tried to teach me but I think my fingers were the wrong shape. I envied her ability though.

I was with her at a dog-training session on the edge of a vast recreation area full of people playing Sunday league soccer. It came in handy when her large Doberman puppy slipped his lead and careered off into the distance to join them.

She put her hand up, wedged a finger in each corner of her mouth and emitted a whistle of jet-engine pitch and volume that simultaneously brought all four soccer matches to a complete halt.

Like meerkats, the players gazed in the direction of the whistle. The dog stopped dead too, briefly acknowledging the call before seizing his chance to snatch the nearest football and flee.

Some other valuable learning strategies proposed by Miles included:

How To Pronounce 'Macho' and 'Chorizo' Properly – Unlike Mark Lawson

Get – and Keep – That Space By The Beach Or Pool

How To Make Children At Adjacent Tables Burst Into Tears For No Apparent Reason

It's Never Too Late To Learn How To Shoplift

Beating A Duvet At It's Own Game

How To Do A Cartwheel

Of the wider list, I could only mentally tick off four, which is extremely poor.

How To Swear in Other Languages (I've got a neat little phrase book), How to Fix a Ballcock (you bend the ballcock thingy until it almost snaps and mostly does so you have to purchase a whole new section) and as for How To Make A Noise With A Blade Of Grass, I perfected that when I was eight. It's rubbish. Only useful for alarming pheasants.

As for Tossing A Coin, I can already toss a coin really high – something I had to learn in order to avoid looking even more stupid playing league ping pong.

Anyway, like him, I think there is a market for the One Hundred Things book. I'd buy it, if only to master the two-fingered whistle.

Miles also planned his own memorial.

“If there is any money accruing from any of the books which may be written as a consequence of these letters to you between now and my death, I would like you to arrange for a bench to be bought and dedicated to me along the canal.” (The Kennet and Avon, near his home).

He liked benches. They were useful for pausing to do up shoelaces and for sitting and scribble thoughts that had occurred during his bike rides.

He wanted the Kington seat to bear a plaque with the following words:


'How Shall I Tell the Dog?' is a special book by a lovely bloke.

Maureen Lipman says it's a glorious feat of good nature, imagination and courage. I tend to agree. Worth a look. Definitely.

Sorry I'm not here to take your call....

......if you'd like to leave a message after the tone I'll ring you as soon as I can.”

This isn't a blog about answering machines. They are old technology now and besides, it's been done to death the way you can tell personality types or social status from the kind of greeting message people leave.

The standard BT message, after all, belongs to the traditional reserved middle-class person who takes themselves very seriously and wishes to avoid revealing anything remotely personal.

Not for them the kooky family messages “You have reached the Mad House!!! Rory and Steph must be out doing the taxi service for Adam and Sophie. Either that or the kids have finally left home and we are comatose on Tesco's Finest chardonnay.”

It's more about the messages people leave. Some are normal, businesslike and to-the-point. There are others, of course, where you hear nothing but the Click of Frustration or a long protracted sigh and a muttered “not there AGAIN....”

Best of all are the messages where people treat the answering machine as a mute friend. My machine would record for 30 minutes if necessary, which was just right for my late lamented mumsie.

Her messages were epic; easily as long as our conversation would have lasted had I been there – occasionally longer.

It wasn't that she enjoyed the sound of her own voice. She always began with vital information to impart and once in full spate, savoured the freedom of not being interrupted.

Her monologue would ebb and flow as she paused briefly to collect her thoughts, and she delivered those thoughts interspersed with real-time observations about her immediate environment.

Because the phone point was still in the hallway (in its original location from the mid-sixties) mater could answer the door, collect post from the postman and continue her voicemail thread in a seamless flow.

Being Welsh, she was effortlessly articulate and never lost for conversation, especially when no-one else was involved.

“Janie? Are you there? It's only me...” she'd start.

“Oh. (pause) Maybe you're in the garden. (pause) But hang on. Ah. It's only 9.30am. Maybe you're still out with the dog. Oh well. (sigh, pause..... longer sigh) I'll talk to you later. I've been up since 5.30am. Done everything. Seems like lunchtime already. Ray is picking me up at 11.30 and we're off to Moreton market. Let me know if there's anything you'd like me to get?

“Anyway, I only wanted to remind you about Aunty Joan's birthday. It's Saturday. We usually just send a card. She never buys anything so don't feel you have to. We don't want to start anything now. Anyway, I've got her a nice make-up bag. You needn't get anything though. The last present she bought for you was when you were seven before we left Llanfach.

“Aunty Glad's never forgotten your birthday. She's always spelled your name with an extra 'n' but I never had the heart to put her right and it's too late now, forty or so years on. Anyway, it's not as if you mind.

“I forgot to tell you a horrible black labrador attacked our Buster yesterday. Bloody owner let it off and it came after Buster like grease lightning. I lashed out at it but kicked a tree. My toe's in agony but Buster had him. I'm still shaking now...”

.........and so on and so on.

I especially enjoyed it when she switched into real-time commentary to describe a sudden on-going event.

“Oh! Hang on. (pause) I'm sure that's Ken's car. What's he doing here? Ken's car's just pulled up across the road. He must be back. I told you, didn't I, that I saw him leaving with his suitcases three weeks ago? Josie left them outside. She'd changed the locks by then.

“She hasn't mentioned she's expecting him back. Oh dear. I'd better go over later and make sure she's all right....” etc

Absolutely the best voicemails. They always made me smile. The prosaic and the funny alongside the drama, the reminders, veiled criticisms, veiled sadnesses, the uncertainties, the diary dates, the disappointments were all there. Mater's monologues could knock spots off anything Alan Bennett ever produced because hers were utterly heartfelt and authentic.

Just occasionally, there would be a gem. Like the day the milkman called.

Mumsie was leaving me a complex message about holiday arrangements (she was dog-sitting for me and needed to know precisely how many pigs' ears a day would be required for Rolls) when the doorbell rang.

“Hang on. Milkman,” she said, clunking the phone down on the hall table.

I knew she'd opened the front door because of the jangle of the security chain. I heard her trill to the milkman “Hello. Yes. Won't be a second. I'll just go and get my purse. I'm on the phone.”

Footsteps to kitchen and back to door followed by prolonged jangling of security chain.

“Oh no. Sorry about this. Can't get the chain off. It's tangled.”

I could hear the milkman's mumbled voice.

“S'ok. I'll wait.”

“How much do I owe you anyway?” More fevered jangling of metal.

“Thirty-six pounds forty-two pence.”


Noisy struggles continued.

“I'm so sorry about this.”

Mater began to giggle apologetically.

“I dont know what's going on here. I seem to be making it worse. The chain's getting tighter and the gap's getting narrower and narrower...”

“This is ridiculous!” She snorted with laughter.

“I'm so sorry. I can hardly see you now........I'll just have to post the money through the crack.

“Can you take it? Can you see the ten pound note yet?

Milkman, laughing now: “I thought it was a fiver but yes, I can see the edge. Shall I grab it and pull?”

Mother, giggling hopelessly : “It's this stupid chain. It's got a mind of its own.

“Here comes the second ten pound it?”

The milkman was choking with laughter. They both were.

“Got that? Here's the last one... Coming through. No, hold on, the edge keeps curling up. I'm trying my best to stuff it through....”

In a lull between hysterics, I just catch the milkman's voice. He sounds exhausted.

“Tell you what, Mrs R, let's call it quits at thirty quid.

“We'll leave the change until next time. I can't take any more of this. You've made my morning, though. See you.”

Mother finally regains her compusure and picks up the phone again.

“Oh my god, J. Did you hear that? That was embarrassing. He's usually a bit miserable but we were both doubled up. Oh dear.

“Right. I absolutely must go now (said in an accusing tone that indicated that I had been keeping her!!)

“I've got to get this damn security chain undone before anyone else comes to the door.”

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Homage to Liam Killeen

Oh dear. The Malvern Marvel Liam Killeen did it again; wiped out in the opening two minutes of the Olympic mens' mountainbike race.

In the frantic melee of riders trying to get a decent position before the track narrowed, his bike touched another wheel and he went over the handlebars. We've all done it (well, technically my over-the-handlebars-experience was due to a malevolent tree root and there wasn't a soul for at least fifty yards and it wasn't in a race but I was still well winded, I can assure you).

If Liam hadn't wiped and spent several minutes remembering who he was and getting the bent bike straightened, he might well have had a medal because, despite spending what seemed like an eternity before he got back on the circuit, he managed to zip through a field of internationally brilliant riders to finish seventh. Fourth place is first loser but his catch-up attempt was nothing short of heroic and we must look forward to success and stability for 2012 even if it means glueing his ass to the saddle.

As far as I'm concerned, his efforts were worth it because he inspired me to tempt DT man out for a lengthy mountainbike ride; an Olympic achievement in itself, especially as there was Very Important Lawn Mowing to do before The Rain.

In the true spirit of Olympic ideals – faster, longer, higher, wider, wetter, floppier etc – I devised a challenging route to test a whole range of mountainbike skills.

It included some busy road, some quiet road, plenty of off-road, a horrible hill, loads of lifting bike over gates and one ancient wooden gate, which when opened, disintegrated into pieces necessitating hasty, inadequate reassembling and sharp exit. Goodness knows how many miles we covered but it took more than three hours, what with refuelling and everything - much longer than the Olympic version.

There were additional, specially negotiated, obligatory elements of three pubs and a chinese restaurant. The pubs, as you can imagine, were especially gruelling, with their riverside views, g&ts, real ales and chips (not as scientific a diet as the Olympians, admittedly).

Interestingly, at the second pub, we were able to watch a proper tree pass by on the river which we'd noted from a picnic table vantage point at the first pub, upstream. Then the ex-swan floated past that we'd seen at the first pub too. There was some controversy about the swan. Without my specs, which were quite muddy, I thought it must just be head down and dabbling but remembered that swans don't dabble while heading downriver, upside down, at 4mph. The afternoon was turning into a giant version of Pooh sticks. I reflected that the Severn had undoubtedly taken a shorter, quicker route than we had, so we must have cycled quite fast – an achievement worth celebrating with a second round.

Then there were extra-hard elements which would have been too unreasonable to include in the Olympic course – impossibly steep uphill with the wrong sort of grass, long tricky sections of horsey-churned thick mud with lacerating brambles either side and then a further mud surprise at the top of the hill, just at the bit where one would normally pause to admire the 360 degree view of glorious Glos. Those geography teachers lied when they said that water percolates through rock and spurts out of little springs. It doesn't all do that. A lot of it falls from the sky and stays put. It reminded me of the Langdales where, on top of one of the mountains, my dear departed doggo went to an innocuous puddle for a refreshing slurp and promptly disappeared into a morass of evil black water. Moments later he struggled out and came to me for reassurance. Only a spaniel can look heart-rendingly upset before peppering you with bits of peat bog.

This time it wasn't a peatbog but wide, foetid green/brown puddles which are the unappealing consequence of farm vehicles carrying much animal excrement to nourish our wholesome organic crops.

As night follows day, this kind of terrain is always followed by a stony downhill which might be enjoyable if not for the hefty gobbets of mud flying into your face thanks to the self-cleaning action of the front wheel.

Faces and legs were liberally splattered. Being far too gruesome for dim sum, we decided to give the Chinese restaurant a miss.

And then it began to rain. DT man yelled something and put the hammer down, as they say in cycling circles. I didn't catch what he said but it could have been 'Last one home's a cissy' or “The mowing! The mowing!”

Anyway, as I watched his ass disappearing into the distance and a tropical storm ensued, I couldn't help thinking that final burst of speed had probably been inspired by Liam Killeen.

Like Liam, DT man didn't medal but he went one better. By the time I got in, he'd kettled and left me an Olympic-sized mug of tea.

Saturday, 9 August 2008


En guarde
Swords drawn,
they battle
those two young friends
dancing along a narrow seawall
in the bright yellow-blue afternoon

Fizzing, spitting energies erupt
lunging, clashing, parrying,
all burgeoning strength
and brimming aggression
until the loser falls
hard on to sand below

Time shifts.
Deeper voices ring out
Laughing across a midnight ocean
Long-muscled legs give chase,
tearing dark, closed water
to frothy shreds

A spluttering head caught,
plunged deep for silent drowning
until a hand signals release
Then the peace; the night swimming.
Beautiful reckless youth,
never to be reclaimed.

Toe curling

Why does no-one ever blog about embarrassing moments? No idea. Anyway, mine was yesterday.

I have this bag. It has work files in it, backup tapes and other work stuff. It also has Classic FM magazines and sunglasses and cycling gloves and packs of oatcakes and a carton of fresh eggs and cards and pens - lots and lots of pens - and half-filled notebooks, letters and small parcels for posting and elastic bands.

No-one touches my bag. It's pretty heavy and it's big so it gets dark early down there in the deepest recesses. Well anyway, i'd finished the oatcakes and I'd planned on having a banana half way through the afternoon.

So I reached into the bag and groped around, as you do, (no point in looking in there as there's far too much stuff) and ew, the banana had been replaced by something softly yielding and warmish. It was still banana-shaped but had the feel of a soft leather pouch filled with batter.

It wasn't a good sensation and I realised it shouldn't stay there a moment longer in case it suddenly splattered over the important stuff.

I withdrew it with the same care I might give to an unexploded incendiary device and was astonished to see that while my banana hadn't actually exploded, it had definitely gone off.

It had not gone off to the extent of being freckled. To me, freckles are indicators of banana perfection and they are quite attractive on some people too. It had not even gone off to the extent of being a bit freckled but frankly quite brown. It had gone off to the point of putrefaction. It was an ex-banana. Completely black.

My colleague, Ocean (not her real name but how do kids cope with names like that?) who is so seriously weird that she loathes and detests bananas, began to retch in a melodramatic way.

"Oh Jan that's so gross."

Honestly, you'd have thought I'd piled elephant dung all around her naked body.

I was hoping she wouldn't notice the blackness of the banana if I held it kind of close to my black trousers on the way to the waste bin. But she did. And I was embarrassed. My protests along the lines of "Well, it was all right yesterday" did little to stem the growing suspicion that all I carry around in that bag is a ton of rotting fruit.

It's a strange thing, embarrassment. I spent much of my young life in a semi-permanent state of embarrassment. My blush mechanism was set on a hair-trigger to go off at the slightest thing or even imagined thing.

I blushed for Wales. People - particularly boys - used to compete to see how deeply profusely crimson I would become. It was a psychological handicap as tangible as a wooden leg. My shyness was there for all to see - vulnerably and hotly displayed.

Fortunately, as I got older, began working and became more worldly-wise and at ease with people, the tendency to colour faded and now, thankfully, I don't blush unless someone says or does something which takes me completely by surprise.

It probably helps that I'm not embarrassed very often. There are lots of "Ooops" moments but those are low on the embarrassment index. I feel a compleat twit when people point out my careless spelling errors but that's bearable too.

They don't compare with the truly toe-curling incidents.... like the time I got a bracelet hopelessly tangled in the back of some lacy underwear in a ladies loo. I'm right-handed so the bracelet was on the right hand and caught in a position where the left hand couldn't do a lot to help.

After much tugging and fiddling and getting hot and bothered, I had to emerge to seek assistance - into the wider ladies area not into the restaurant itself, that would have been pure attention-seeking. Anyway, I'd have torn said underwear to bits rather than be compromised in public but would still have been wearing a bracelet unusually decorated with finely-shredded designer knicker.

Several ladies tried to help but it transpired that on a night out, not many women wear the spectacles they need to see clearly. That could be the feminine version of beer goggles. Same result anyway. Finally, one woman with 20/20 vision disentangled everything successfully, bless her.

There was another loo-related awkwardness in Stratford-upon-Avon when I became so desperate that I raced into the nearest pub toilet, gratefully sought a free cubicle and reflected, rather too late, that I'd rushed past several machines on the wall offering packets of condoms. It occurred to me that perhaps the girls of Stratford upon Avon ladies were particularly forward-thinking with their contraception, able to choose from an eye-watering variety of Durex.

It might have been convincing if the smell had been right but it wasn't. There was a distinct whiff and I'm not talking Domestos. Then the voices confirmed my fears that, like a fool, I'd rushed in where angels fear to tread.

It was about 45 minutes before it was clear to escape without being seen. My saving grace was the start of a televised football match. The boyfriend hadn't even noticed my unnaturally lengthy absence being entirely occupied with in-depth lager studies and then the soccer. It didn't last.


Not velvet

nor satin

or close-brushed silk

but fingertips


lightly as caressing feathers

of softest down,

tender as a baby's cheek

yielding as a fresh-sprung leaf



cool against the heat.

A shiver,


in the shimmering,

secret dark.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Hurry with a flurry

It was one of those rare afternoons at work when everything had gone to pot.

After endless arrangements and contingency plans because we'd lose the computer network for a couple of hours during an upgrade, it all went wrong.

It was all down to the cabling guys. They hadn't turned up on the day everyone had planned but we were assured that our bigger, better system would be up and running by close of play on Friday.

I guessed it might not be. But party-poopery is not supposed to be in my nature. Of course it was nowhere near finished. And being a Friday meant that at precisely 2.35pm - with three hours and twenty-five minutes worth of work left for the rest of us (plus an extra half hour for the couple on late) these guys were loading ladders back on to the vans and buggering off for the weekend.

So it was an anti-climactic afternoon. We had achieved not much for maximum disruption and it was hot, with only a slight whiff of humid air circulating through wide-open windows.

The conversation turned to muck flurries. I didn't like to say anything but they sounded far too much like the slurry flurry that the local farmer slings all over the fields near me. It leaves a lingering stench for two days or more.

My colleagues assured me that muck flurries are absolutely the thing to eat when one gets bothered and hot, which we all were in a strictly anti-climactic sort of way.

There are chocolate ones, strawberry ones and cornetto-style mint-choc chip ones. Several of the girls were openly drooling at the muck-memories.

Muck flurries were available at Muck Donalds, I was told. Never having been in a McDonalds (let's at least get the spelling right) and not having a clue, I got some directions and went on a small journey of discovery.

I expected the place to be empty at 4pm on a warm Friday. But there were families indulging in chips and burgers and all manner of fried things accompanied by quantities of very small, narrow, dry-looking chips. Where I come from (Wales) the chips are invariably much more substantial and smell gorgeously of copious quantities of vinegar-soaked salt.

There was a United Nations atmosphere behind the counter where the temperature felt as though it was nudging 35 degrees or more. The guy who served me was very pleasant with a strong Far Eastern accent, possibly Korean, so I ended up indicating what I wanted by pointing to the large bright images on display, pointing and nodding with many reciprocating smiles.

He took a while to squirt out and decorate ten assorted flurries giving me plenty of time to take in the ambience. I was gratified to see that one can get an entire day's meals in McDonalds right through from your morning porridge and orange juice, to a light salad lunch before tucking into the seriously deep-fried delicacies on offer for later.

It's also a place where kids need much discipline which is handed out at ear-splitting volume by harassed-sounding mothers who have vocabularies of profane and obscene language far superior to mine - and mine is quite good, even though I say so myself.

Having taken delivery of several trays of ice-cold flurries, the next task was to get back to the office pronto. You've got to hurry with a flurry - especially in the kind of temperatures when they are most needed.

“Hey. They serve porridge in MacDonalds! I thought you'd all like jam with them,” I announced when I got back.

Everyone had been to McDonalds before. Everyone was very familiar with the set-up. I'd been there for the first time ever and was the only one to notice the porridge. How weird is that?

Anyway, there was a mass groan. They know I'm keen on soluble fibre and honestly thought I'd got them porridge.

But how sweet was the surprise when I revealed the flurries, and how touching the delight as they all turned into little kids again taking the plastic tops from their flurry cartons and extracting their weird squared off plastic flurry spoons complete with the hanger attachment.

Mine was strawberry. I was initially suspicious, still having the slurry flurry image in mind, but it tasted just like real strawberry - the kind you get in that excellent French jam. And the Italian-style ice-cream was still cold in the middle yet yielding and creamy around the edges. Yum.

All very surprising as I'd always refused to take my sons to McDonalds or darken its doors for reasons I've actually forgotten now but were probably vaguely to do with corporate world domination and not having proper china plates.

I'd lost my McDonalds virginity and, I reflected, slurping the quite delicious ice-cream, it had actually been worth it.

The other girls were in raptures.

“Better than an orgasm,” gasped one.

Hers must have been one of the chocolate flurries. No contest.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Cycling With Vegetables

It's not to be recommended. Honestly. Take my word for it.

And I'm not talking about going for a Sunday run with the local cycling club. Today I mostly cycled with potatoes. Big Mistake.

I could have gone for the small bag of Charlotte spuds but I can never resist a King Edward and they only do them in 3lb bags so, dreaming of buttery, fluffy mash and golden roasties, I grabbed a bag.

I knew I should have considered more carefully when they plummeted to the bottom of the rucksack with a definitive thud.

The carrots didn't help either. Or the value pack of baby parsnips. Or the double pack of broccoli.

Then there was the work stuff it was essential to take home. (Note to self: Must take the 2006 and 2007 diaries out of the Filofax.)

We are told repeatedly that vegetables are good for us. But it was 26 degrees and I felt close to death on the draggy hill to home which is always the killer after a long ride.

The object lesson is don't cycle with vegetables.

There is nothing to be gained except exhaustion and fitness. Exhaustion isn't pleasant apart from the excuse to lie flat out on the bed like the Leonardo da Vinci's Vetruvian Woman and fall deeply asleep. (Yes I know it was Vetruvian Man but obviously I don't look remotely similar).

Fitness is over-rated.

The really unreasonable thing about fitness if that it hangs around for a bit just so long as you exert yourself almost every day. It'll let you have the odd day off for good behaviour as long as you promise to go straight back to some kind of exercise the following day.

But if fitness even gets the teeniest whiff that you have better things to do than get pink and every-so-slightly-glowing while exerting yourself, it does a runner, leaving you feeling like a person who's gained four stones overnight and has just recovered from 'flu.

So if you want to gain fleeting fitness by all means lug King Edwards about. Anyone who knows anything about Gloucester RFC will remember that was the preferred training method of England player (tight -head prop/hooker/ ?? can't remember) Phil Blakeway. He used to work out by carrying not only veg but fruit too, being a fruit and veg wholesaler.

For those of sensible dispositions who are not interested in scratching the back of fitness, here is my cut-out and keep guide to cycling with vegetables.

Say YES to cycling with Curly Kale, Salad Bags (but beware of the whole lettuces although Baby Gem lettuces don't weigh much), Cress, Parsley and sundry herbs but watch the weight of the root ginger, asparagus, teeny tomatoes, spring onions, those hopeless little beans from Africa which cost about £4 to feed two people, shredded cabbage (mostly air, anyway) ready-grated carrot (also mostly air, so fine but for maximum value for money remember to breath it in when you open the bag).

Say NO to cycling with potatoes, carrots, celeriac, kohl rabi, turnips, parsnips, onions (unless strung around the shoulders because that is a cycling tradition in France, I'm told), cauliflowers, cabbages, kings, and really massive tomatoes.

I wasn't going to mention melons because, strictly speaking they are fruit but everyone - men included - is advised to avoid cycling with melons. They can be unruly and you might overbalance. You know it makes sense. Your health is at stake.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Beau Brummel Rides Again

As far as mens' fashions go, the 21st century has proved to be tedious in the extreme.

What have we got? A well-cut suit if you're lucky, comfortable trousers, jackets, sweat shirts, polo shirts, cuff and collar shirts and sportswear and then you've got jeans which will do for almost every occasion....

oh, and T shirts.

Dull, dull-plus and bargain bucket supa-dull-with fries.

None of it sets the world alight. There are no extravagant wigs - except in the higher echelons of the legal profession - no pantaloons, no fetching Mr Darcy baggy shirts, no fabulously shiny knee boots.

Riding in Richmond Park recently, one couldn't help but notice the packs of dedicated, svelte, long-legged racing cyclists in training. It was a spectacle which called into question how anyone in their right mind could revile the wonders of Lycra but it also highlighted how tastes and fashions have changed.

Two hundred years ago when London and Bath were fashion capitals and the male form was celebrated and enhanced with more zeal than it is today, fellows like these would have been much feted and admired.

With enough cash and time on their hands, they could have been the Beau Brummells of their day.

Most of them , with a few exceptions, possess precisely the correct turn of ankle, calf and thigh which would have caused Regency ladies to swoon by the carriageload.

As the penny farthing didn't turn up for another sixty years to aid the requisite leg development, Regency gentlemen either had to put up with the leg and body shape determined by their genes or resort to artifice at considerable expense.

Where the upper body was concerned, gentlemen often wore whalebone corded lace-up corsets such as the Glasgow Stiffener for boxing, hunting and fencing. These corsets were not unlike weight-lifters' belts and designed to create the impression of strong, straight backs and deep chests.

If nature had failed to provide sufficient musculature in the leg department, the slim-calved gent would wear appropriately padded stockings.

For the desperate, a cheaper option was to buy a pair of false calves and strap them to their legs beneath the stockings. This was riskier , carrying with it the possibility of slippage and eye-catchingly swollen ankles.

Pantaloons were deliberately cut on the bias to emphasise the leg and thighs and had an outside seam to avoid chafing. They were tucked fetchingly into the boot at the calf or ankle.

The downside of all this splendour was the lashings of cash, time and downright cheating that it took to achieve.

Beau Brummell, the man credited with introducing the concept of the suit worn with necktie, sometimes took five hours to get ready to go out. If it started raining, he'd have to start all over again and change into a completely different set of clothes.

Not feasible these days and probably just as well.

After all, it just wouldn't seem right for a fellow to spend far longer on his appearance and grooming than his lady.

The sensible option in 2008 is to invest in modest racing bicycle and the right kind of lycra and join the beautiful people doing circuits of Richmond Park

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Scary Tools

When the nurse asked me to give her a hand to take some shelves and a cupboard down, I didn't foresee any problems.

The nurses' room at work was due for redecoration. I'm not DIY fiend but a screwdriver isn't beyond me. I even run to Allen keys.

But when she produced a huge box and took out a contraption that needed two hands to hold it, I suddenly had my doubts.

“That's a hammer drill,” I told her.

She's very good at dressings and loves nothing better than a nice deep wound but is undoubtedly woeful in the workshop.

“Yes, it is a hammer drill as well, I think.”

She sounded vague.

“It's a screwdriver too. It does lots of thing, apparently.”

It looked like a nuclear weapon masquerading as a screwdriver. It was heavy, you had to use both hands to lift it and the only part which looked remotely screwy was the phillips crosshead thingy at the front.

It didn't even have a power cable. Uranium-fuelled, almost certainly.

“It's battery-operated.”

Exactly the kind of thing Saddam Hussein used to tell the weapons inspectors.

There were several sets of dials bearing numbers and any amount of coloured tabs and switches which might or might not be “on” buttons. I wasn't touching it. It might go off in my hand.

She knew how to switch it on. It uttered a struggling throaty gurgle and undid three screws out of 16. We only removed one shelf and failed completely on the others and the cupboard. We left a note to the decorators “Please remove. Sorry, not very good at unscrewing. Thanks. The Nurse.”

I may be on the mailing list of our local specialist powertools shop - only because of buying a Dremel to file down my dog's nails - but power tools scare me witless. Walking into the shop made me feel like I was inhaling pure testosterone and everyone stared as though my skirt was tucked into my knickers by accident but it definitely was not (you always have to surreptitiously check though, don't you?)

Asking me to wield a hammer drill is like asking me to stand still while a moth crawls up my bare arm - only possible about five minutes after hell freezes over.

They are scary in every respect, the ear-piercing, teeth-tingling screaming noise, the weight, the potential for causing unwitting damage. They are undoubtedly a force for evil.

I wasn't scared of them when I was young. My father was the most capable and organised of handymen. The garage and shed were breath-takingly orderly. He even had little bureaux of different sized screws and nuts with the draws all labelled. Anything with a blade was oiled and sharp ready for use. He knew where everything was and he knew how to use it.

The little red hand drill felt nice and just purred when you turned the handle. The fretsaw was noisier but great fun for making my own crazy jigsaws.

It was later that the trauma set in. When DT man had to make his first forays into DIY, completely untrained and abandoned to his fate by his, in my view, frankly negligent, dad. They were the sort of forays where the instinct among bystanders was to take cover - not in the next room but preferably in a house two doors away.

Not that I was ever allowed to take cover because I was always required to hold something, measure something, mark something or clear the debris.

So I had to witness terrible things; the earsplitting noise and terrifying sight of a drill skittering clear across the surface of a newly painted wall at full belt; being covered with plaster and bits of ceiling when a foot exploded through the landing ceiling above me (the result of a small stumble on a joist in the attic) and a wall of recently hung wallpaper with so many trapped air bubbles that it looked like it had been pasted with giant-sized tapioca.

Then there was the way a humble plane - a benign, quiet well-behaved kind of tool with its sharp blade well hidden - wreaked havoc with a bedroom door which was a bit “sticky” over new carpet. In this case the door was transformed into a Western saloon-style door, having been planed with enthusiasm at BOTH ends ending up with ample ventilation and light at both the top and bottom of the door.

Left to my own devices, at least I'm methodical. I'm really careful when assembling flatpack furniture not to place spigot D into female member F3 and count out all my screws, flanges and cordwanglers with deft precision.

Polyfilling is easy, although Dad really wouldn't approve of my polyfilling method because I've had to use my finger since I mislaid his ancient putty knife. It's like cake icing only more boring and you must remember not to lick your fingers.

You are rarely required to pipe rosettes around the dado rail or write Happy Birthday in squirty letters on the ceiling, although it might be fun to have a go one day. The flattening bit is the same anyway.

You can even use royal icing if you are out of polyfiller, as I once did but you do run the risk of ants coming and eating your wall.

Increasingly, women are becoming more independent where DIY is concerned. A friend of mine and her daughter were delighted to have achieved a toilet seat fixing for the first time ever this week.

The new seat was comfortable, stable, straight - all the things it's reasonable to expect of a toilet seat.

The daughter's boyfriend visited and needed to use the bathroom.

“Who fitted that toilet seat for you?” he enquired afterwards.

“Us!” they chorused proudly.

“It's hopeless," he said.

"It needs to be fitted further forward. The lid won't stay up.”

Men eh? So quick to criticise. So hopeless at multi-tasking.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Cereal junk

Deprivation is a subjective thing.

One deprived child might think he's hard-done-by because mummy and daddy won't get him the latest Will Smith film for his back-seat in-car DVD player.

Another might feel deprived because he's been forbidden Kinder eggs.

One might argue that deprivation can only be a good thing when applied to Kinder eggs and similar junk-sweeties.

But I always felt that the quotient of anticipation and joy that the buying of the much-wanted Kinder eggs (containing, most importantly a tiny plastic toy which could rarely be constructed properly) could whip up made it them worthwhile for a very rare treat.

I was talking to a pal today about the first commercial free gift I ever got - an orange plastic Big Ears out of a pack of Ricicles. It was a big deal when I was very young. Second only in status to my Noddy clock, which was a birthday present.

I had to eat a whole box of Ricicles (not in one sitting although I was a tad piggy) to get the next gift, a little blue plastic model of Noddy. Sadly, though, after Big Ears, Noddy wasn't as good somehow. Big Ears had attitude and a fair amount of gnomish testosterone. He had a beard and a tall pointy hat and stood with legs akimbo. Noddy was merely amiable and his hat was floppy with a bell on it.

My pal wasn't impressed. He was a tad sniffy, actually. He was never allowed such rubbish.

“We were make to feel guilty if we ever asked for crap like that.”

The fact that I was thrilled with a small plastic Big Ears might indicate that I was the deprived one. We had few toys when I was small in Wales. We had to go and play with coal and fashion pieces of wood with blunt knives or pick bilberries and attempt to catch lambs.

But actually I was very happy with all that and I feel my pal , although I wouldn't dream of telling him so, was actually the deprived one.

He never experiencing the thrill and wonder of lifting a small new model of Tony the Tiger from a box of Frosties or wracked his brains to think what marvellous mystery free gift could be lurking within the new box of Shreddies.

Taking a commercial break from the cereals for a moment, some of my first freebies were the PG tips collector cards. Every time mumsie opened a new packet of tea there would be another card for my treasured collection of British Butterflies or Birds of the World cards.

It sounds dorky now but I learned a lot from those cards and swapped with other sad twits at school until, joy of joys, the entire albums got completed - then I discovered the Gerald Durrell books and suddenly I was a confirmed amateur naturalist.

By the time my sons were old enough to collect free stuff, the “must have” were Top Trumps which were a lot less educational but did introduce us to the possibilities of supercars and in particular the Renault 5 Alpine Turbo.

I doubt today's youngsters would be impressed by such free gifts. Many of them have phones, stereo systems, TVs and DVD players in their bedrooms by the age of eight can no longer be impressed with bits of plastic.

Attitude to freebie junk toys might be a good indicator of class though.

My parents didn't care. They just saw it as harmless stuff which would give transient pleasure and be chucked out in due course.

My pal's mater and pater, in contrast were concerned that their children might be somehow tarnished by contact with common dross. They were probably right. There kids turned out to be far cleverer and more successful but didn't have as much cheap fun at home.

He turned out quite-posh anyway - uses the royal “we” and everything.

Actually we could all be using the royal “Wii” if only Nintendo would consider bringing it out.

It would come complete with ermine robe, orb, sceptre and throne. Not as physical as the Wii Fit but ultimately satisfying to sit in state as crowned head of your own domain. I know a deprived quite-posh person who'd be first in line for the prototype.

Monday, 7 July 2008


Orange blossoms nod

beneath the first fat raindrops

from lilac thunderclouds.

Through wide-open windows,

languid trails of sweetness creep

and settle around her,

sprawled beneath a twisted sheet

a tangle of fair hair, a long pale thigh

opalescent in the gathering gloom.

A kind of paralysis, suspended

in the softness of sensations spent

Sweat on the pillow

birdsong seeping in,

the jarring squabbles of magpies

hasten the slow, thick return to being.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Happy Birthday Space Invaders!

Happy 30th birthday Space Invaders. I Ioved that game, but not with as much ardour as others of my acquaintance.

It was born in Japan in l978 and was immediately so popular that the Japanese had to mint extra 100-yen coins because so many were out of circulation in Space Invader game cash-boxes.

That's the trouble with games. When you start playing everyone's equally hopeless for a short while and then people start getting good. And those who are not so good have to wait such a long time for their turn that they grow beards and get shorter and eventually shrivel and wither away. Either that, or they go and find a cup of tea somewhere and something more interesting to do.

It was a problem with Trivial Pursuit. Some bright spark would hit a successful streak and everyone else would drift away from the board to the kitchen to raid the cupboard for further snacks and open another bottle of wine. The bright spark never noticed. He was too busy collecting cheeses.

And so it was with Space Invaders. Brilliant. I got very hooked - although nothing to compare with Tetris - but less and less interested as I had to wait increasingly long times for my turn as a consequence of DT man getting quite good, good, above average and then bloody invincible.

I blame the BBC. DT man was doing a spot of work for them at the time and they installed a Space Invaders machine in the bar. It was a sensation – so much so that once the local new bulletins was ever so slightly delayed because one of the presenters couldn't be torn away from the console as he was achieving a record score.

Another myth circulating at the time was that one member of staff actually clocked it. I don't know precisely how many levels that entailed but it enshrined him as the definitive Space Invaders superstar thereafter and it was the beginning of the Great Decline In Interest.

Holidays took a different turn if there was a Space Invaders machine in the vicinity. On one holiday in Cornwall there was one installed in a kind of large shed along with a couple of other games. Whatever time of day or night you walked by, the familiar bass “dum-dum-dum-dum” could be heard as Space Invaders continued their inexorable march down the screen to wipe out hapless players who foolishly had destroyed the very buildings which were meant to be their cover.

It was supposed to be for kids but there was often a forlorn little line of six to ten-year-olds queueing up along the path outside the shed as dads – who tended to be quite good and therefore one turn might take half an hour - ended up possessing it for most of the day while mums and the other kids were on the beach.

There's a new version of Space Invaders out at the moment, apparently, for something called PSP whatever that is and DS whatever that is.

I'm almost tempted to find out except that I know that if DT man ever hears that familiar “dum-dum-dum-dum” a maniacal gleam will appear in the eye and he'll be drawn to it once more like a moth to a flame. Civilisation as we know it will end.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Le tour - St Malo (Seafood and Eat It Stage)

.....not to be confused with the Tour de France St Malo Monday 7th July (Stage Three)

Le tour (note small 't') was a week early for obvious reasons.

We really didn't want to do the whole public thing. I'm quite shy really and the thought of the big massed start with multi-coloured bunting fluttering over the roads, the barriers, the definitive route and all the attention was quite off-putting.

Who, in her right mind on a pleasant toodle through St Malo wants that crazy Devil character sprinting alongside her brandishing a trident and yelling inarticulacies?

Those spectators who dash into the road to squirt water over riders in the midday heat - they're a bloody nuisance, not to mention Phil Liggett - there every year droning on in his slightly nasal, know-it-all-twang.

How tedious, if you've just stopped off at a nice seafood restaurant and the waiter's brought a bottle of chilled muscadet and you're cracking your first langoustine if Phil or Gary Imlach were to thrust a microphone under your nose and ask searching questions about your commitment to the Tour, why you appear to have gone off route and when you were last drug tested.

So we decided to avoid any unwelcome attention and walked the bikes off the 'Bretagne' ferry from Portsmouth a week before the circus was due to arrive.

The Brittany Ferries folk deem it unsafe for you to ride your bike off the ferry. The ramps are big enough and sturdy enough for juggernauts but not suitable to ride a bike over, apparently. There must be a good reason. Perhaps they have had experience of lemming-like cyclists who get half-way to dry land when they are compelled to take a sudden left and plunge into the sea.

It was good discovering a camaraderie among cyclists. Two guys were heading south with 65 miles ahead of them that day and had packed so economically they'd forgotten the map. A couple in their thirties were aiming for Avranches via Monte St Michel. We had about...well... fifteen to twenty miles, max. But ours was a pleasant relaxing kind of thing not some kind of endurance test; an opportunity to meander off course, wander along a beach or two, swim maybe, explore any interesting-looking places along the way.

A dead-easy mosey along thoughtfully-provided cycleways through St Malo continued east towards Cancale then turned north along a deserted lane to the coast and a couple of lovely deserted beaches before the Pointe de Grouin to watch cormorants fishing and listen to oystercatchers.

The views were good from our outside table at a restaurant close to the Pointe. During a couple of hours, the distant and mysterious blue cone of Mont St Michel way across the bay faded in and out of view in the deep blue haze over the Cote d'Emeraud.

You know how it is when you're not expecting anything special and suddenly everything conspires to produce a special moment?

So it was when, in search of the first destination, we freewheeled down a short, steep hill on the outskirts of Cancale, took a left and found ourselves by the sea at Port Mer, a perfect, pocket-sized French seaside village.

There was one hotel and a couple of bars on the front across a narrow road from the sea wall and then a clean, soft sandy beach, gently shelving beneath the clear waters of a sheltered bay where yachts and fishing boats bobbed at anchor.

I loved the hotel sign. I loved the hotel room even more with a tiny balcony complete with a table and a couple of chairs overlooking the bay. It was hot. We grabbed towels and books and joined the few families dotted about the beach. That first swim in Channel water which was impossibly clear, was just fabulous.

Sunday in Cancale, the oyster capital of Brittany, was a revelation. It was across a couple of headlands from Port Mer. Vast degustation platters of shellfish and seaweed were being served in dozens of restaurants strung out all along the seafront but the real afficionados weren't in restaurants at all. They were perched akimbo on the sea wall next to the oyster market where they'd bought lunch and were busy levering oysters open and slurping them as people have done for centuries.

Much, much later, there was the small matter of picking up the bags from Port Mer, discovering how steeper the hill had got in a couple of hours and returning to St Malo via the coast road, busier as it was a sunny Sunday and the French had come out to play.

Cycling was a breeze in France. The drivers were polite and gave cyclists a wide berth so it felt very safe. There were no real hills to worry about and where there's a bit of undulation at least you have the satisfaction of the swooping downhill, which, if enthusiastic enough, gets you at least a third of the way up the other side.

There were plenty of other cyclists too. One couple could not possibly have been less than seventy years old but there they were, pottering along on sit-up-and-beg bikes on Sunday nodding amiably as we passed.

The next stop was La Grande Plage, St Malo where an electic selection of French seaside architecture lines the promenade - a sought-after location for the summer residence - overlooking the wide beach and sea with the old fortifications of St Malo to the west a ten minute stroll away. A curious forest of thick tree trunks had been planted on the beach to protect the sea wall. Not a bad idea. They'd probably last hundreds of years.

We rode along roads which will be closed for Monday's Tour stage.

But in spite of our own tour of St Malo, I have to confess I'm still in denial about the whole cycle tour thing. I've never wanted to be a classic touring cyclist and still don't.

I'm a terrible apology of a cyclist; a real lightweight. I don't want to carry more than a rucksack and a pack on a rack. I loathe panniers and I feel sorry for those couples you occasionally see in faded waterproofs where the guy is grinding away the tarmac out front and the woman is a quarter of a mile back looking worn and miserable.

I really don't want to just bike from place to place in a determined fashion where achieving miles is more important than carefree exploration and exhilarating downhills generously peppered with stops to enquire, to observe and to loaf about a bit.

A French loaf is appealing on so many levels. Crumbs, you should try it.