Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The Thought That Counts

A pal came back from a nice trip to Holland and presented me with a carrier bag full of stuff. She's too generous and wonderfully good at getting decent presents.

I snatched the bag gratefully. It's been a while since I got a prez.

“Ooooo. What's in here?” I plunged a hand in, feeling quite jolly excited. I hardly ever do cool, except with strangers.

I was hoping for cannabis cake. My fingers felt something round - a bit like a muffin but rather more solid. Maybe it had gone stale. I didn't mind if it was a week old.

It turned out to be cheese. Paprika gouda cheese. Oh well.

“Go on,” she urged. “There's something that'll make you laugh. Just your thing.”

My fingers found two little objects that clanked together.

A tiny pair of china clogs on strings. Kind of cute but not exactly hilarious and so far, no cannabis. I'm an ungrateful cow sometimes.

“It's probably in the bottom of the bag. Keep going” she said.

A tube of something.

“Oooh cannabis chocolate...???”

“It's just white chocolate, you noggin. You like white chocolate.”

Yes I do but sometimes I just crave an illegal substance. Never had one, but that doesn't stop me craving one. Chocolate is ok though. It contains nil calories as long as you don't pay for it personally.

I groped further in the bag. My fingers felt something knitted. A scarf. A scarf with a pom-pom?? Probably not a scarf, then.

Oh. A hat. A hat like the hat in the film “About a Boy.” A hat to engender sympathy from the soft-hearted but much more likely to attract raucous ridicule from those of sound mind.

You could have cut the anticlimax with a knife.

“See. It's funny isnt it? Do you like it?” she smiled.

“All the cyclists were wearing them in Amsterdam. They're really warm apparently.”

Subtext: “You're completely indiscriminate about what you wear so here's something to make grown men weep and small children roll in the gutter with mirth.” Bee-atch.

“Well, it looks warm,” I said. I pulled it on. From nowhere there were at least four phones produced so the owners could eagerly snap amusing pictures.

I did look completely ridiculous. The hat is grey and cream knitted woolly hat with a grey pom pom on top. It has ear flappy bits and woolly extensions like plaits dangling down past both ears.

I simply can't imagine what kind of woman would look good in it. I certainly don't. It makes me look like a Greenham Common woman with special needs or a Swiss weather clock girl who had been kept in a cupboard by her dad for so long that she lost all her fashion sense.

“Oh yes. It is warm. I'm glowing already. Thank you.” I doubt it sounded very convincing but at least I tried.

“You can wear it on your bike under your helmet or something.”

She means well and usually has impeccable taste but has revealed nakedly that she knows nothing about cycling or helmets or hats. Reminded me a bit of my Aunty Gerty who bought me a cap gun for Christmas when I was five. Dad thought she'd got the labels wrong and it was meant for my brother but he was incensed to find she had bought it for me. She worked at the toy factory and was ahead of her time, staunchly resisting sexist stereotypes. Dad gave it to my brother anyway.

I have accepted it in the spirit with which it was given – as a joke hat. I'll wear it on Bonfire Night, to a firework display at least thirty miles from home where no-one knows me. I'll wear a pair of dark glasses to make extra-sure I can't be identified.

Thereafter I will save it for my eccentric old age and wear it, along with a fur coat, while pedalling along on the Oxford bicycle I've promised myself with a big basket on the front carrying two Tibetan spaniels.

It will be clear where the hat originated. People will see the "Amster" knitted in large cream letters across the back of it (the dam is out of view over my right ear).

People might assume I've been at the tea and cannabis cakes. They might even be right.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Curlers talk.... costs lives

I'm going to visit Aunty Ivy soon in Wales. She's in her eighties now, still lives in the same council house she's lived in since she was married and you know what? If I get there before midday, I bet she'll be in her curlers.

She used to tie a nice flowery satin head scarf over them if she popped down the road to the shops in her housecoat and slippers for a pack of Capstan or whatever she's smoking these days.

It makes me feel a bit guilty actually. I don't smoke and I don't use curlers. I don't even have a housecoat.

I'm failing in my duty to keep alive these proud family traditions; traditions which were alive long before Hilda Ogden was even a twinkle in a scriptwriter's eye.

I'm at that age where, by rights, I should have been in curlers for at least a decade and in nylon housecoats for five years.

All my aunties used to wear curlers – overnight and definitely for the morning. They smelled of setting lotion. Some of my aunties used to enjoy going out on the town, ballroom dancing, so the hair was an important part of going out.

My life is infinitely more boring then theirs. I work and cycle and DT man is not cut out for tripping the light fantastic so there is no call for glamorous high-maintenance evening hairstyles.

Mumsie was of the old school – although perhaps with the advent of Strictly Come Dancing it's a school that has built itself a glitzy extension for the millions of extra enthusiasts – she was a ballroom dancer so there would be an early bath and hair wash and the rollers would be in from 4pm.

She kept them in an old Roses chocolates tin – yellow, pink and blue for different quantities of curly volume on different parts of the head. I used to do the back ones for her, marching down the head to the nape of her neck. It was a kind of privilege, bring allowed to help with mum's curlers; one of those peaceful, intimate little gestures that re-enforce the bond.

Come to think of it, I'm probably the first woman in my family not to use curlers. My favourite nan didn't go for curlers often – preferring an intricate system of metal hair clips and clamps like miniature man-traps to seize recalcitrant waves and force them into position. I have a hazy memory of using one to inflict minor bodily harm on my brother but I carry not guilt. Low-risk torture in the home is merely preparation for life and anyway, isn't that what big sisters are for? Nan's head was so heavy with metalwork that a half-decent magnet situated out in the back yard would have held her firmly against the wall. That and the metalwork in her substantial stays.

My posher nan did curlers too but she went in for perms and wash and sets for the big occasions like funerals or when her church choir did a gig in another church further up the valley.

Long, straight, unfeasibly shiny hair (yes the hair models in magazines have “shine” solution ironed on to it) still seems de rigeur these days. No-one much wants the shorter waves of the incomparable Sophia Loren, the soft longer style of Lauren Bacall or the ditzy blonde curls of Lucille Ball.

Except in Liverpool, that is. According to the Post earlier this year the trend which Aunty Ivy has been keeping alive for all these years is coming back big-time.

Girls are once again going out in their curlers.

“There’s no shame in going out into town shopping in rollers; in fact it’s almost a status thing. It announces the fact you’re going out that night and intend to have the biggest, most gorgeous hair possible,” said Andrea Daley, a stylist at Barbara Daley Hair and Beauty in Lime Street.

“Putting curlers in gives the hair body and bounce, rather than make it curly, and it will give your style longevity helping it last through the night.”

Maybe it's time for me to eschew the hair straighteners and do battle with the styling lotion and some big fat rollers.

Then I just need to get a housecoat. Cerise nylon, I think. With a big patch pocket full of pegs. Oh and probably a plastic rain bonnet – in case I get caught by a shower as I'm popping to the shops in my fluffy slippers.

I have a responsibility not to let these traditions die – besides, Aunty Ivy will be proud of me.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Dear Diary

Everyone has a book in them. I wrote my book when I was about thirteen. It was a chunky A5 size garishly-floral five year diary which I kept at the back of the bottom drawer.

I recorded my life. There were no statistics, no graphs, no pie charts. I don't do numbers. I do words and pictures. It was the roller-coaster of teenage emotions; as much a cliché and more so than that last phrase. Home life, school life, personal life, very personal life, meals, music, friends, enemies (there were none, actually but I was very afraid that psychotic first year Mandy Phillips who I saw every morning on the way to the school bus would one day catch my eye, take some mysterious offence and duff me up thoroughly).

I wrote in it every day and shared my innermost thoughts. It might have been a publishing sensation. I was a diarist of the Wilde school.

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensation to read in the train,” he said.

Mine was no-holds-barred. No point otherwise. I wouldn't have taken the risk of reading it in public, mainly because it was so obviously a diary with its yellow orange green and black padded flowery cover.

So it was with some interest that I noted the review of a new book out today – Cringe: Toe-Curlingly Embarrassing Teenage Diaries, Letters and Bad Poetry, edited by Sarah Brown – a brilliantly simple yet amusing collection of teenage diary extracts.

This, from Pip Hawkes(14) rang a few bells. "I’ve just decided —– well — not decided — but found out — I’m nihilistic! God – Dad’s just come in and told me to tidy my room — it is BLOODY TIDY!! He must have had a bad day at work — WANKER. "

Liz Banks, at 15, was a little old to have written this, but I completely sympathise about Rob Andrew. "Why am I unhappy?

Because mum and dad row Because I have school work to do

Because Rob Andrew [England rugby union fly half] and Graeme Hick [England and Worcestershire batsman] are married Because I have GCSEs next year

Because I am ugly

Because Adrian didn’t fancy me

Because I’ve done no art [I was referring to art homework, rather than art generally. I think.]

Because I have no friends I like

Because my room’s a mess

Because there’s a Conservative government."

I like a lot of the extracts from this book, which is odd because I don't tend to have much empathy with other people's diaries. I didn't recognise the Adrian Mole thing. Similarly I couldn't relate to Bridget Jones (although I did enjoy the film) and the singleton's obsession with control over cigarettes and chocolate.

But I did recognise some of my old self – or should have been young, only partially developed self? - in these extracts.

The blindly polarised black-and-white emotions of my teenage years are all there, albeit expressed differently.

This, from Jo Wickham is a perfect textual strop. “I hate Mum. She said I can’t have a coat as I still fit in my old one. I’m gonna feel like a prick if I wear a coat everyone was wearing last year. She’s such a bitch. It doesn’t cost that much and I need a coat. She’s such a slapper. She’s only doing it coz I get most things I want so she wants to say no, so I’m not spoilt. She’s such a bitch. And I’ve lost my keys and she’ll have an eppy if she finds out. Oh I hate her and I hate myself for losing them. God I’m pissed off — I know it’s only keys but if I’ve lost them I’ll go mad — I hate losing things but I do a lot. Oh I’m soo mad.”

I was too much of a bolshie control freak to ever smoke or try drugs but Claire Bateson (18) illustrates the breathtakingly self-obsessed dream-world of LSD: “I am writing this on acid, the tail-end of a trip. I need this time alone with pen and paper to express myself. I feel really happy to be me – more gorgeous and beautiful than ever before, me in all senses. Feminine – oh so feminine – and the prettiest, most beautiful girl that ever lived. I am so pretty tonight, in the red light and the flickering of the candle. I am a goddess, and only James has truly seen and appreciated this.”

My diary was much more likely to have read “I hate my dad. It's so stupid having to be home by 9pm. It's sooo unfair. My brother is an idiot. I keep telling mum I hate kidneys but she keeps making me eat them. I saw Alison being bullied today and didn't do anything about it. I hate them smoking on the bus. It makes me smell terrible. Roger P. looked at me today, I'm sure he did. He is still wonderful. I wonder what his voice sounds like. Mr Davis has never heard of Bigbury. Mr Cross leaned over me again in Eng Lit, too close. I could smell his breath. Wrote a love letter to Roger. Finished my portrait of Elton John..... Steve gave me Enigma Variations. We were on the phone later for 94 minutes. A new record. Just as well it was free.”

I don't keep a regular diary now but if I'm emotionally fragile, the first thing I do is reach for a pen or the keyboard and write great wodges of stuff. Seems to work and I leave these scrolls hanging in cyberspace like so many Serrano hams – tasty chunks of perfectly expressed consciousness never to be found.

Distance, instead of lending enchantment, lends a particular ludicrousness. Reading back a month later always reveals the pathetic cow. There are still lingering traces of the bolshie teenager but I argue more with myself these days.

I was fond of writing in code for a while - code as recommended by the I-Spy Book of Spycraft. It held up the writing though so I reverted to plain old English.

The raw undisguised, uncoded truth proved to be my undoing. My sainted mumsie did the one stinky, misguided – and subsequently regretted - thing she ever committed in her life; she read my diary.

I got home from school one day and she confronted me, white as a sheet, zombie-starey-eyed, shaken and ranting incoherently. I gathered she had found the diary but she was unspecific as to which bits had particularly shocked or offended her.

It could have been one of several things. She'd led a sheltered life up until then and had mistakenly presumed I was doing the same.

She hadn't told dad, which was just as well. I asked for it back but she announced “I've burned it.”

I believe she did. It was that good.

All for the best though, probably.

This was back in typewriter days when a computer would have taken up the entire first floor or the house.

If it had been now, I would have been spilling my guts all over the internet. Oh what a foolish and regrettable thing to do...

And lastly, his sweetly illustrates the tribulations of the romantic cyclist:

Andy Foster (15) Sunday, February 23 [after church youth club]
"There was no push away when I put my arm around her. But ahhhh I didn’t get a kiss off Gemma at the end because I was on bicycle and couldn’t get off in time before she’d disappeared"

Veggie trouble

Why bother to eat weeds then there are so many perfectly pleasant vegetables?

To stir-fry nettle tips, toss dandelion leaves in salads and munch fat hen from the woods (can't recall it's Latin name but it's definitely edible and salady) just seems unnecessarily esoteric when you can tuck into lovely pile of steaming runner beans and a jolly good King Edward-based champ, buttered swede and carrot or brilliant shredded Savoy cabbage.

And it must be said that sprouts are an absolute joy.

But who, in their right mind, would want to eat a thistle?

People around Roscoff love them. There are hectares of them growing in the fine sandy soil. Artichokes along with rose onions, are the local speciality vegetables.

Artichokes are outstanding architectural plants thrusting those proud green global heads skywards. The stems are enormous. They could have been designed to be Oberon's mace but Oberon would have to be a pretty beefy king of the fairies to hold one up without getting a bad back.

The leaves remind me a lot of acanthus, beloved of William Morris and used often in his designs.

So as I was taken out for a birthday supper in Roscoff, it seemed only fair to try the local produce and go for the artichoke starter before the seafood platter and (and I was hoping it would be good and it was) that gorgeously custardy Far Breton tart.

Of course I'd had previous artichoke experience. From memory, they were an inch or or long, a soft kind of leafy thing pickled in some kind of vinaigrette. I'd had them from various delicatessens. Tasty. I imagined they must be extracted from deep within the giant heads that we'd seen in the fields.

The artichoke the waiter placed in front of me was bigger than anything we'd seen growing outdoors. They must expand when they're cooked because this baby filled the entire plate; a substantial round of green bracts that looked like a half-closed water lily.

There was a small pot of mayo-type sauce alongside. DT man tucked into his “safe” choice of fish soup, much amused.

I cast a furtive look at the nearest diners. No-one else had a giant green vegetable in front of them. I would have to experiment. I gingerly picked at one of the bracts. It came away easily. It was far too tough to eat but there was a fatter bit at the base which was quite nice if dipped in the sauce first.

Mmm. Not unpleasant. I continued until there was a pile of greenery to one side and my diligent plucking had revealed a central boss that just looked odd - like I'd revealed a small alien craft which might fire up, lift vertically, laser me in the eye and shoot out of the window.

Think about it. If aliens are among us, vegetables would be a damn good place in which to hide. Especially if their craft can withstand boiling water.

By now, I'd lost interest in green things and was thinking about langoustine and another glass of fizz. I pushed the remains to one side.

I had sent a pic of the artichoke from my mobile to no 2 son in London. We send each other food pics to make each other envious. He was still at work. He was much impressed and even texted some advice on tackling it.

'S'ok.' I replied confidently. 'It is done. I have eaten it.'

I could have sworn that I had eaten it. The waiter had other ideas when he came to clear the plates.

“But madame...” he cried in consternation.

“...you 'ave left ze art!!”

Bloody drama queen, I thought. It might be art to you sunshine but seventeen leaves is enough for anyone. He was taking the Pissarro.

He shrugged and made one last desperate effort with me.

“But ze ART....ze art is ze best part!”

I waved it away and he took it, rolling his eyes (men have been doing that at me a lot lately but he was the first) and muttering Frenchisms under his breath.

“He's cursing you,” grinned DT man. He loves it when I upset other men. It helps him feel less victimised.

“E is saying 'ze bloody eeenglishwoman she knows nuzzink.'”

Wrong on both counts. I'm Welsh and I know when I've had enough thistle. Thistles are tricky.

Much easier to ask for a plate of onions next time I want to try the local veggie without getting into trouble...


There have been developments on the fffffridge fffront. That chap who was so contemptuous of my interest in his fridge has capitulated and revealed all.

That just demonstrates the power of a blog. The depth of curiousity about fridge contents and the solidarity shown by my brothers and sisters here persuaded him that it would be churlish to withhold access for a moment longer.

He still thinks it's quite sad of me to want to know but hell, I can live with that. I'm quite looking forward to a visit to the Johnny Onion Museum very soon so that will represent new depths of freakery, according to the friends who have vowed never to come on holiday with me. But that is their loss. They will never know the joy of diving for the purple sea urchin.

So the contents started normally enough with UHT milk (Yuch!!!) and eggs "Unidentifiable date" - pretty well guaranteed salmonella, then.

He fished out something solid of irregular shape in a plastic bag. He dropped to the floor. It didn't even crack. He had no idea what it was.

"Quite dense," he said. "A bit scared to try that."

Tellingly (though obviously I didn't say a word) he put it BACK in the fridge!

Course, if he was a serial killer, he would say something like "a bit scared to try that" wouldn't he? Ah-haaaa. It would be quite a convincing cover story if the object was in fact a body part that he'd air-dried like serrano ham. I could just imagine him hacking bits off and devouring them if he gets the munchines while watching a movie.

An empty bottle.

Sugar. Peanuts. Precisely. Who would want chilled sugar? Just imagine your builder "Oh four sugars for me darlin' - not too warm thanks."

The sugar thing completely fits in with my theory that people who aren't really interested in food fill their fridges with other things like boxes of matches, packets of screws or in this case, an empty bottle and sugar.

The freezer was no better. A weird lump of leaves in cling film. An opened ice lolly and a bag of what looked alarmingly like babys' testicles. Dozens of small, opalescent white orbs.

"They are for soup."

Yeah right. Serial baby killer. Definitely. That could be the only explanation. There was absolutely nothing in fridge or freezer, apart from the ingredients for a hideously smelly and possibly fatal omelette.

Fortunately I won't be invited for dinner. Especially now if he reads about the "serial killer" thing. My curiosity is satiated but when it comes to appetite satiation, I'll go elsewhere.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009


Is there such a phenomenon as Bank Holiday bloodlust?

There might be something in it. The Mods and Rockers always used to enjoy a nice Bank Holiday punch-up at Weston-super-Mare or Brighton.

Cheese rolling ('Cheesy' yesterday) is a Bank Holiday tradition involving the Roman-style spectacle of lemming-people risking limb and life hurling themselves down the steepest hill I've ever seen.

Admittedly, it's a bit tame for the Romans what with the "catchers" waiting at the bottom of the hill to stop uncontrolled contestants impaling themselves on the fencing. The Romans would have had hungry tigers and lions salivating at the foot of the hill and the chasers might have needed determined prodding to go down. But the whole massed chorus of baying cheering hoi polloi struck me as the kind of crowd you'd get in on a big night at the colosseum.

The other big Gloucestershire bloodlust tradition hasn't been seen for many years. It was a good one; firing a woman out of a cannon across a river.

It must be twenty five years ago at least that a guy called Joe Weston-Webb would rock up to Tewkesbury on Bank Holiday Monday with his human cannon. It was a big black home-made job about the size of a fire engine. The human was a girl called Mary, who was no more than 17 and looked 13. She probably lied about her age. A slight, slip of a thing with no glamour about her whatsoever. Not for her the Las Vegas showgirl glitz, the Madonna brassiere, the skimpy bikini or humungous improbable implants and Tangoed body. She dressed in jeans and an anonymous baggy T shirt. She looked as though she was taking a break from the milking parlour.

Her only protective clothing was a black helmet which could have been salvaged from the World War I.

Large crowds would gather alongside the River Avon after paying their groats or whatever was the currency in those days and Mary would climb on to the cannon and let herself gingerly down into the tube. The plan was to emerge head first.

There would be a significant delay of 45 minutes punctuated by announcements about delays for "important safety checks" while many hot dogs and beers were sold to the expectant masses.

Joe's henchmen had a net waiting somewhat optimistically on the other side of the River Avon.

Call it tension, call it boredom, but one or the other, or both would build until the crowd yelled along with the final countdown to blast off.

There was a minor explosion half as loud as a shotgun, wisps of smoke from the cannon and we would wait muttering "Oh my God. She's toast" until Mary's helmet appeared from the end of the muzzle. She would wave to assure everyone of her continuing health and disappear again for the cannon to be reloaded.

If we were really lucky, there would be another slightly louder explosion and Mary would be expelled, legs and arms flailing. Breaths would be held as everyone plotted her brief trajectory into the river. She generally popped up to the surface pretty quickly. Rescue personnel would heave her on boat their boat and take her to the bank where she'd clamber up to a heroine's welcome.

After at least two successive years of broken promises, there was a definite feeling that the crowds were calling out for more. Plopping into the river wasn't enough. After all, she was supposed to be shot clear across the river. That was the point. People don't like failure and lack of blood. It's tedious. No-one dared admit it but the ghouls had only turned up in order to see either a girl shot clear across the river or fodder briefly roasted inside the cannon.

I was told on the quiet that the stunt was quite safe as long as Mary landed in the river. The real risk was if by some quirk of nature, she actually did make the distance because, er, there was no direction-finder on the cannon, the net wasn't actually that big and it was much easier to miss the net than the river.

So imagine the brown trouser moment the Bank Holiday when there was really quite a large explosion (think a dozen boiled-dry eggs exploding in a saucepan in a small kitchen) and Mary flew in a perfect arc, (legs and arms aerodynamically trained by now) and cleared the Avon by an alarming margin.

It was one of those horrifying slo-mo sequences. It was looking as though, this time, this one time she was flying so far that she was also going to clear the net.

There was a choral "Ooooh..." then silence.

Some sensitive souls flinched and turned away. Mary ricocheted from the very edge of the net and bounced into the middle like a broken puppet.

The silence continued. She lay crumpled and still. Then she twitched, stretched and waved a cheerful arm with a fist clenched in victory.

She had done it. A roar of approval from the satisfied spectators. They hadn't seen blood but they had very nearly seen a tragedy. They seemed content. Jubilant, even. My knees were jelly and I felt a bit sick. For once, Joe had lived up to his promise. I vowed never to go again. Too traumatic.

I didn't need to worry. That was the last such event in Tewkesbury. I suspect that the fact that Joe had at last succeeded in his aim induced Health and Safety to step in and produce a thick raft of conditions which made a repeat performance impossible.

Joe went on with his shows elsewhere catapulting girls, wrestling crocodiles, racing goldfish.

I'm not sure he shot Mary ever again. It would be nice to think it was her swansong. She is fine, by all accounts because, dear reader, Joe married her.

I last heard of him on "Have I Got News for You" which reported a story about him using his cannon to fire chicken muck at unwelcome intruders. At least he's not firing the wife.... well, I don't think he is.. . maybe only on Bank Holidays.

Monday, 25 May 2009


“It was never like this. This is mad. Absolutely mad.”

Capt. Sensible shrugged and frowned. He hates crowds. So do I, usually.

“It's unbelieveable.” said the son no 2's girlfriend.

“Random,” said son no 2.

We were among several thousand people gathered at Cooper's Hill near Brockworth, Gloucestershire for the annual traditional blood sport of cheese rolling. An eight pound Double Gloucester cheese is sent rolling and bouncing wildly down the slope, which varies between 1-1 to 1 in 3. People are invited to run and bounce wildly after it. They always do. The first one down wins the cheese. Hurrah.

There are four races for the chaps and one for women. In between, there are uphill races for youngsters.

Moving to Gloucestershire from Wales as a child, it was an amazing spectacle. Where I came from, the only Whitsun event was the church parade which involved wearing a new dress, white ankle socks and new white kid-leather shoes. The only danger was that of one of the banner-bearers fainting and small children being asphyxiated under a ton of heavily embroidered material.

It's a bit odd taking children to an event where the contestants might well snap a thigh bone bloodily in front of their eyes or dislocate a shoulder or break a neck. But I suppose people used to take the nippers to bear-baiting and cock-fighting before television came along.

No-one really knows how it started or when. I like to think it was a Morris Men's picnic near the flagpole at the top that got a bit drunken and lairy. Someone nicked someone else's handkerchief and a quite-cross Morris man kicked the cheese course over the edge in a fit of pique causing several hungry Morris Men to attempt to rescue it.

Today the interest was unprecedented. The usual route to Brockworth was completely jammed – so congested that the police had to close a major road and display warning signs and diversions on the M5. Knowing the geography, our party took a little detour and walked the scenic route to Cooper's Hill from the local Roman villa.

The sight that greeted us was most definitely Roman seasoned with a few Mexican waves. We joined a cheering, jostling, baying crowd of several thousand people clustered closely at the top, sides and base of the famous hill. There was absolutely no chance of getting to the sweet spot at the side of the hill where I used to sit with friends; a spot where you really appreciate the speed at which people are tumbling, tripping and falling as they rush headlong after those cheeses.

The crowd thickened. Not that it wasn't quite thick already. Why, for instance, do people take the tiny and defenceless to such massively popular events? A woman with nose rings and tattoos pushed through with a startled-looking prem baby in a baby carrier, his nasal tubes still connected indicating a certain vulnerability. Another woman pushed by thrusting a lost, tear-stained little girl in front of her. A man carried a petrified Jack Russell puppy.

Soon it was nearly impossible to move. Interesting to observe people at close quarters. The smelly, the pissed, the only vaguely interested, the foreigners, the relentlessly loud but witty young Ozzies. I mentally checked those people nearby who I felt would, in emergency, walk on my head without a qualm. I was jostled quite violently by a St John Ambulanceman proving that even the angels of mercy are not without their mean streak. I felt, to be honest, a bit kettled - even in the absence of the Metropolitan Police.

The going was good. Yielding underfoot without being slippery. From the bottom of the hill we saw the cheeses and the competitors bouncing and tumbling and lurching and falling and looking dazed as the crowd cheered and applauded. We had a grandstand view of the St John Ambulance persons and the casualties.

The races are open to anyone who says they're over 18. There has never been drug-testing, in fact, it's the only sport where it's an unwritten rule to get rat-arsed before the race. Alcohol dissipates any unwelcome self-preservation instincts which might cause jarring of bones. It makes you bounce more softly. At least, that's what some have told me.

Suddenly someone yelled “NAKED MAN COMING THROUGH!” The crowd did a simultaneous “Eeeew” and parted like butter under a hot knife. He was indeed naked. He'd chased the cheese wearing only a jockstrap and now some wags had stolen his clothes. Some people just so ungrateful for entertainment.

The paramedics called 'Make way!” and stretchered an unlucky competitor through the crowd on a spinal board. A woman in front of me raised her camera above her head and snapped a picture; a photo of an injured person who she probably didn't know. Something to show the girls in the office.

It didn't feel much fun to be standing with ghouls hoping for a good shot of a snapped bone protruding or someone with a suspected C2 fracture.

We'd all had enough by then anyway. We'd done the traditional Bank Holiday thing of being in heavy traffic, standing in a massive crowd watching a Great British Tradition.

We had sometimes watched it through binoculars from my mother's back garden in Brockworth, sitting in deckchairs drinking iced lemonade. On reflection that was probably the most civilized way to do it.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Home movies

Films are one of the nearly-essentials of modern life. Books, music and art are the real thing but films run close because they just blitz the senses. Well, good ones do.

Even if you're not particularly enjoying it, there's no denying the powerful emotional impact of a movie. It can make you laugh, cry, or just plain nauseous. One film made me faint right off.

There's never sufficient time in life to take in everything you want to see at the cinema so we just joined one of those dvd club which send you a couple of films a month and you post them back, just to see how it goes.

I didn't think it would be much cop, to be honest. We Sky+ films and then delete them because there's no time to watch, lacking time partly because I feel you should see a film from beginning to end with no interruption to get the full flow and effect.

In the living room, no matter how comfy the sofa (and ours is lush) at the dramatic moments when you shriek, you shriek alone – not like the cinema.

In the cinema the absolute best moments are when the audience is more than the sum of its parts; the intakes of breath are positively choral, the squeaks of fear orchestrated to the split-second and the mass snufflings (I'm thinking final scene of Romeo and Juliet..and more recently Marley and Me) signal emotional upset on the grand scale. The Jaws moments, the Silence of the Lambs moments, the ET moments – all times when the experience transcended mere cinema and branded itself memorably on your soul.

But there are compensations when you watch at home. You don't have to be quiet or sit still. You can eat, drink and heckle. It's all very Shakespearean. We are like the groundlings, getting a bit lairy and raucous. Heckling and laughing and inserting lines which explain the action or which the characters should be saying in order to make it ridiculous.

We had a particularly good time with Van Helsing the other night. Hugh Jackman. Well, you would, wouldn't you?

Considering it's not my goblet of gore at all, it was astonishingly entertaining. Until his clothes all started to fall off, Jackman mostly wore big hat and a long dark coat and was accompanied by Kate Beckinsale looking demure and very like one of the great forties movie beauties.

I haven't watched that genre since Peter Cushing packed up so it came as a shock to realise that werewolves wear underpants before they go all furry. And when the fur comes off, the pants stay on. Decorous, I call it. Like the old days. Fangs for the memories.

The pyrotechnics in the hall of the Vampire in Chief were amazing – worthy of Merthyr Tydfil on bonfire night but without the blazing cars.

Then there was Kate Beckinsale shinning up a rope in a corset. Respect! I was always hopeless at shinning up anything. I have weak girly arms. But so has she. I can't help but think a special effects man was giving her a bunk up. Well he would, wouldn't he?

The monk made me laugh when he got an offer he couldn't refuse from a bawdy wench.

“But he can't! He's a monk!!!!” I exclaimed.

“He's just a friar” remarked DT man.

“And I think she's ready to sizzle.”

I lobbed a breadstick at the screen in disgust. You could never do that at the cinema.

Size isn't everything.

I went in spite of the warnings. I had been told in no uncertain terms “Beware, for you enter that portal and the devil will take your soul and file it under “odds and sods.”

It wouldn't be inappropriate, me being both a little odd and occasionally, a bit of a sod.

It looked like an anonymous Government building. There was a barrier which indicated you had to be in the know to get into the car park. High black railings, spiky wire at the top.

It was the kind of two storey red-brick building with temporary single-storey off-shoots which might be used in Spooks or 24 as a place where anonymous Eastern Europeans beat the living shit out of double-dealers. The empty room, the chair in the centre, a smelly, unshaven John Prescott bearing down on the suspect with a dental wrench, blood on the floor.

At any moment, Jack Bauer could grab me from behind, hand clamped over my mouth, hissing in my ear his trademark “Trust me. I won't let them hurt you.”

Yeah, Jack. He's the man but you can't believe anything he says. Approximately four minutes after that assurance the woman is being buried alive in a ditch and he's half an hour late to the rescue, having made three personal phone calls to the President, flown a helicopter to drop a small atomic bomb in some desert and despatched a couple of villains within a ten mile radius first.

The main door had no intercom but I had to fill in forms before they allowed me in. I was instructed to leave my bag and belongings in a locker. They didn't make me wear paper knickers but, frankly, it was a worry, I can tell you. The other worry was someone coming at me with rubber gloves on. It might be their idea of research but it's not mine. Logically, though, there was more of a risk of a frisk on the way out.

The next trauma was having to leave all my pens (I have at least fifteen lurking in the darkest recesses of my bag) behind too. Only pencils are allowed. Thank goodness for my Shakespearean 2Bornot2B even though the lead is poor. They went for wit over quality but that's usually a fair swap.

I proceeded to the room where you could order up old documents and papers from the Strong Room. They don't let you in there to mess about amid their priceless archives but the very name sounds as though the walls are bent like sheer tensed muscle.

I waited in an airy room full of tables and chairs where the walls were packed with shelves of old books. Big sets of them; directories, year books, you name it. I ordered up my Old Stuff and settled in with a couple of volumes of 19th century Hunt's Directory and Court Guides; wonderful, detailed, absorbing and accompanied by engravings and advertisements.

Cheltenham for example attracted “wealthy and influential personages.” They were “the titled, the opulent and invalids of the more affluent classes, who during the summer season arrive in throngs, not only to behold the fairest essay of Nature's skill and care but to partake of its health–restoring waters and inhale its pure and genial breezes, the extraordinary salubrity of which has long been proved by the longevity of its inhabitants...” etc

Those Victorians. Never used one word where a dozen would do but I rather like it. It would not be unpleasant, I fancy, to take a course in Victorian language. If there was, perchance, a Victorian chatroom on the internet, one might venture to pass the time of day with persons of similar 19th century persuasions. Either that or rent a boxed set of period drama DVDs.

I kept an eye on the whiteboard on the other side of the room. When your name goes up there you know your Old Stuff is ready and you can collect it from the desk.

It's not unlike Argos. You are at the desk, the archive person goes to the shelves. But instead of waiting for a troglodyte boy to lurch about for ten minutes, inspecting the tickets on every single thing except the huge lawnmower box you're waiting for, the archive staff know their stuff and they are quietly efficient.

The expectation was intense. There were three of us. The first woman collected an armful of documents – remember the size of the class homework pile when you were at school? Say 38 pupils, a couple of sheets each. Well it was twice the height of that, tied in five bundles with old ecru ribbon and they were all tea-coloured. Maybe it was the class of 1648.

I had no idea what mine would be like. This was the first batch of three different lots of Old Stuff. In my experience documents are either A4, A5 or a map. Anything different is awkward.

Then one of the archive ladies emerged from a back room lugging a cardboard tube about eight feet long and a foot wide. She offered it to the guy in front of me.

Jeez. I thought. He's got a Swiss horn!! It was the exact same size. He'd have a job on his hands to drag it to the alpine pastures, though. He'd never get it past the stern lady on the front desk who was, in all probability, fully trained in martial arts and you could never negotiate a package that size through the small window in the gents.

Whatever it was, I was impressed. They lied when they said size doesn't matter. It bloody does. It was all I could do to stay in the queue and not follow him like a puppy as he dragged his quarry into a side room. I was jealous and a tad wistful. It was probably a map. A ****-off big old map. I love maps.

I swallowed my disappointment. It caught in my throat like the Vitamin C tablet that almost killed me once. Sweet irony. I hadn't read the “soluble” bit on the pack and it turned out to be precisely the width of my oesophagus.

Then it was my turn. The archives lady approached the shelf. Would mine be that pile on the top, or that thickly folded bundle with the red ribbon beneath?

She returned with a slim piece of cardboard. It had plainly been cut by someone who wasn't very good at making cardboard folders and tied with a faded pink ribbon. It was the smallest, slimmest thing anyone had collected.

I took it to my table, thankfully still unoccupied by anyone else. I didnt want anyone looking at my stuff. I'd actually been tempted to take some of the old books and build a kind of wall around my pencil and paper to keep prying eyes out.

I pulled at the ribbon, gingerly lifted the folder and out slipped several pieces of folded paper. Letters. The first was to a lady in Birmingham with several gentle admonishments about looking after herself and getting out and seeing people. There was another in similar vein. Both 1920's letters from and to people I'd never heard of.

They've got it wrong, I thought. Given me the wrong bundle. Maybe I'd got a number wrong. Then I unfolded another piece of paper. Flowing, exquisite script written with the finest nib and a fabulous signature with many flourishes. I recognised the name. This was it. Tricky to read but breathtakingly old, original and somehow alive in my hand.

I already knew enough of this particular gentleman to see him sitting at a particular desk near a particular window with a particular view. I just don't hear his voice yet. But I think that will come.

Just one small letter – not even A5 - but saturated with significance. Wow, wow and thrice wow.

A bell went, sounding the end of the session. Just as well they throw you out. I could live in that place.

Meanwhile mapman was probably struggling to get it back into his Swiss horn tube. Who wants a map anyway? Pah. Size isn't everything.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009


You know how something seems a great idea and then life intervenes and the great idea relegates itself imperceptibly to the third division of not-great-enough ideas?

That's how it was with Krakow and Nigel Kennedy. The eldest boy had a Polish/American/French girlfriend whose mum had a flat going spare in Krakow, so he and the girlfriend used to go there for weekends.

And one day he mentioned, apropos of nothing “Oh we saw that Nigel Kennedy. In a bar. He was playing jazz when he happened to wander in...”

I wasn't sure the boy had got it right as I thought Nige lived at Malvern and was busy doing his viruoso violin thing in front of wealthy cultured folk in the world's largest concert halls.

He must have been doing that too, but unknown to most in those days, he was also escaping to the free and musically stimulating clubs of Krakow to enjoy jazzy jam sessions. It was mostly jazz in Krakow and mostly free, I was informed. You might spot Nige at the bar or Nige in his Villa shirt making music.

So I was dead keen to go to Krakow on the basis of good fortune enabling us to happen upon him in some anonymous, dingy dive. We never did make it. Eight or so years later, on Monday, however, the Nigel Kennedy Jazz Quintet made it to Cheltenham.

All eyes were on the band setting up on the Town Hall stage when long, low violin notes became evident and Kennedy walked slowly down the darkened aisle heralding the start of an unforgettable gig.

I've always admired Nige. He is a phenomenon. A true virtuoso and the world's best selling classical music violinist. The dynamic vivacity and the luscious sensitivity with which he plays classical pieces just knocks me out. The soul of Elgar inhabits him, no doubt at all. In Chelters on Monday Nigel provided further proof of an extraordinary assimilation of man and violin.

He plucked his electric fiddle, played it like a guitar, stroked it like a lover, abused it with vicious bowing. To me, he'd never looked more alive or released or relaxed or at home or at one with his fellow musicians.

We giggled as he sang his comical “shopping blues” and settled back for a set which sucked us into a mind-blowing maestrom – including a hint of Hendri, a smidge of Smoke on the Water – which displayed the exceptional talents of the keyboards guy, the saxophonist, the guitarist. Drummer Kryzychu Dziedzic was fabulously manic.

“We're keeping him out of prison” Nige joked. Dziedzic playing with such furious passion that he snapped three drumsticks and lost a fourth during the set.

Kennedy's bowing was sometimes blindingly fast too, the register ear-splittingly high at times but the magic was in the surprises; the tempo dropping to a pulsing whisper then giving way to a sudden sonorous, Vaughan-Williams style pastoral solo emerging pure and beautiful as sun piercing cloud.

There is always joy when Nigel Kennedy plays. Some might find him irritating and contrived but I like his obvious, childlike zest for music and life and most of all, the sharing of it. The enthusiasm was palpable at the Cheltenham. The crowd cried out for more (lyric, anyone?), there were two encores and the gig went on past 11pm.

We saw another side of Nigel Kennedy. It felt an intimate privilege, listening, watching his musical soul melting, fusing and fizzing with the brilliance of the others.

I found myself wondering whether any orgasm could improve on what Nigel was experiencing. Making out could only be second-best to what we'd just witnessed there on stage.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

In-tents excitement

Camping is going to be very big here in Britain this summer.

I can tell. It's still three times more expensive to stay in a British hotel than a similar one in Greece or Tenerife with virtually-guaranteed sun and heat. So credit-crunched families are bound to be fatally attracted by the lure of canvas and cosy sleeping bags.

You practically have to fight your way through an igloo tent (part of a 'get it all for £99' deal) to get into Halfords and this morning, a brochure for all manner of camping goods fell out of one of the newspapers on to my lap.

Oh look a tent for £45. OK you can't stand up in it but who's complaining about a bit of kneeling and wriggling when it's cheap as chips?

But further inside of course it was a different story. Who wants to wriggle and kneel when you can have a very stylish and rather beautiful modern version of a tepee for a snip (ok £699 but it has got a Bath-style portico entrance which native American indians didn't have, strangely enough).

Sunny green fields gently sloping to a sparkling lake surrounded by verdant hills. That's camping.

Or waking to an indigo pre-sunrise sky, tip-toeing across dew-fresh grass to the loo block and on the way back seeing the sun scorching the horizon in a blaze of morning glory.

Or unzipping the tent door to an uninterrupted view from a clifftop of a fishing boat put-putting across a flat-calm bay in an early morning haze where soft grey of sea and sky are as one.

Or sitting outside a tent on a beach in the afternoon sun, frying fresh-caught mackerel on a one-ring camping gas stove while the fishermen lounge about with cold lagers waiting to be fed. That's camping.

Course, its hardly ever like that is it? Those memories are preserved precisely because they are were so startlingly lovely and unusual.

The harsher truth, as anyone who has ever been camping knows, is that camping is about bumpy fields and sharing toilet facilities. Cleaning your teeth in a basin with people doing similar either side or stripping for a wash and exposing you to the less-than-attractive pale rolls of flab that you really didn't ask to see.

It's standing naked covered in Olympic-size goose-pimples in a draughty, breeze-blocked shower cubicle beneath a reluctant luke-warm dribble.

It's about queueing up to do your washing up in a big sink a quarter of a mile away from your tent.

It's about braving a lot of cloud, grey days, wind and rain. Lots and lots of wet and wellingtons for everyone and feeling constantly damp, then more wet.....a kind of sticky, salty damp if you're by the coast and fully immersed in sea mists.

If it gets very windy in the night, you have to put clothes on (if you're not already keeping them on) and fix storm guy-ropes, stay outside and hold the damn thing down or all retreat to the car with the valuables and watch your encampment roll wildly into the hedge.

I'm not saying wet and rain can't be joyous. Oh puddle splashing and mud and getting drippily saturated are great fun in small doses if you are within earshot of a hot running bath and a hot toddy (in that order or contemporaneously). But if you are forced to repose with the cold chilling your bones and your nan's warnings about wet clothes and rheumatism ringing in your head, then frankly, it's a bit shit.

For years – some of them formative – I went on family holidays in our blue canvas frame tent. We were learner campers. We learned things like it's not a great idea to pitch in that lovely spot next to the flowering rhododendrons which no-one else has bagged. It looked scenic but we got eaten alive by midges.

Avoid a sloping site even if it has got a good view of the sea. Every morning you will wake up in a heap at the bottom of the bed and have to untangle yourself from the person you were sleeping next to. There will be much hopping on one leg to relieve the pain of leg cramps.

On one camping trip when I was 14 there was lightning, storm and tumult. The morning light revealed a lively torrent of water flowing in under one side of the tent and out of the other. My prized green suede handbag was soaked and ruined. I yelled and stamped around and declared I would never go on a camping holiday again. And I didn't. Not with the family.

I went camping again on a whim with the shiny new husband to West Wales; full of youthful confidence that because it was a hot dry summer with fires breaking out everywhere, as long as we kept a fire-fighting bucket of water outside the tent, we'd be fine. Obviously, the weather broke and we were deluged. Plus we had trouble with our luxury blow-up mattress.

Seized by a macho need to get it rock-hard, Captain Sensible overdid the footpump and blew two of the dimples right out, creating a mound like a goitre about nine inches high and a slow puncture. At least four times a night, it would require more air.

So, in the hushed early hours of the morning at the Pembrokeshire coast camp site, the silence was broken by the rhythmic rasps “Pfffffff-uuuuuuuuhhh” “Pfffffffff-uuuuuuuuuhhhh” “Pfffffff-uuuuhhh“ of the pump as Capt Sensible refilled the bed.

It didn't go unnoticed.

“Disturbed night was it?” a fellow camper asked Capt Sensible at the communal sinks one morning.

“Four times, we counted...

“Duw boy, fair play, you're only young once.”

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Unexpected treat

Unexpected treats are always welcome. So when a jaunt on the bikes was proposed yesterday afternoon, I was stupidly happy.

The euphoria was short-lived though. A voice from the garage announced “Oh. You've got a flat.”

“Very flat?”

“Very flat. Back tyre.”


The sky was blue, the grass was riz; there was but a warm and gentle zephyr shifting the tops of the silver birches. This was no time for messing about with punctures.

I spied no 2 son's abandoned Kona. Knobby tyres, grip shifts, Manitous (seized but whatever). Just needed a couple of pedals, the saddle lowering, air in the tyres and I'd be away. He forsook it, still muddy from the last ride (from the colour of the mud, I'd say Queens Wood, Herefordshire and yes, he should be ashamed) when he took his road bike to Uni several years ago.

“Quicker to fit a new tube,” ventured Captain Sensible.

It fell on deaf ears. I was captivated by the thought of an interesting ride on the Kona. Gripshift gears, after all. Why hadn't I thought of this before?

Pedals were no problem but the seatpost wasn't going anywhere. Three lots of squirty stuff later, I was tempted to clout it with a mallet merely to vent my frustration but it has such a nice saddle that I didn't have the heart.

Captain Sensible shot me a look that said “Ahem” quite loudly.

Doh. So ok. Back to the tyre. I guessed blackthorn and found the demon spine well bedded in. But it was still going to be a pain to get that out and get a new tube on. Yawn.

I returned to the problem seatpost hoping the penetrating lubricant had done it's stuff. The seatpost was still unbudgeable but how hard could it be? Four broken fingernails later, quite hard.

But lo and hallelujah – in the meantime, Capt Sensible had sorted my back tyre! I just had to fit it. Another 10 minutes and my hands were covered in oil. I had oil on my downtube, oil on the handlebars, oil on my cycling jacket. The spiffy LX gear thingy kept getting in the way of the wheel going back in. Then my brakes jammed.

By now there were three bikes in various states of unrideability (did i mention that Capt Sensible's pannier clip had snapped and he'd discovered the wall of his back tyre was shredding with age?) littering the terrace.

This was the moment where, in another life, I might have said “fuckit” and abandoned the lot for a glass of chilled sauvignon blanc and a comfy chair in the last of the afternoon sun beneath the apple blossom. It would be have been pleasant to languish, watching the frogs in the pond and forgetting about oil and things which were stuck.

But in addition to leg muscles, cyclists develop bloody-minded perseverance. And I could never abandon my lovely Orange. It deserves respect and tlc. We've been together a long time.

So after another 20 minutes, the difficulties were resolved and the bike was raring to go. All that oil may be messy but there are few experiences quite as beautiful as riding a smooth, silent, silky-geared bike.

Immediately we set off, I knew it had all been worth it. Who wants to languish when you can have the sun and breeze against your face on a nice downhill?

There, rising above the fields in the distance, was Gloucester Cathedral; all bathed in the golden glow of late afternoon.

The ride wasn't ambitious. Capt Sensible wanted to ride to a pub and back. Fair enough. It involved some track, some fields and a lot of canal bank. There was a testing bit involving a narrow track, much churned-up mud and the possibility of a swim with the moorhens if you didn't pay attention to detail.

We tarried outside the pub watching the canal, people, narrowboats, letting the sun seep into our bones. There was warmth, a nice view and a large gin and tonic.

It didn't really matter that the Capt Sensible's pannier clip had to be repaired a second time or that the tricky mud had to be negotiated in gloom observed by curious, luminescent swans on the darkening canal.

In the waterside thickets, a chorus of birds sung out the end of the day. Scores of grazing rabbits fled as we pedalled across the fields.

We wound back through some Severnside wetland just as the fat setting sun was turning dark reedy pools into pans of roseate quicksilver. A brief, transient, magical time.
Worth all the effort, and more....

...even taking account Capt Sensible's back tyre blowing half a mile from home.

Monday, 6 April 2009


So there's this cyclist waiting at the lights ahead of me on the other side of a morning-rush dual carriageway in Cheltenham. Poised in the saddle, stationary, hand against the post, feet on the pedals, waiting for the green light to go.

I looked at him in the distance. I look at all cyclists. At them, their bikes, how they ride them, what they are wearing, at their shape, their speed, their whole attitude. I make guesses about their lives, what they do, how often they use the bike.

Anyway he was there, and there was something about him. His legs were very slim in the black cycling leggings. He sat with a relaxed stillness, yet his hands, legs, feet were arranged in optimal positions for an efficient take-off. I thought "Hmmm."

When the lights changed he moved off with such an ease that it seemed he was gliding on air. He wove silkily through the central lights/barriers. When he reached the path on the other side he instinctively rose out of the saddle, stood on the pedals to get some speed up again and pushed off in the direction of GCHQ.

And I thought 'Yeah. That boy can ride.' And I had a sudden frisson of pleasure appreciating the grace of his movement.

People ride bikes in all sorts of ways. Young kids pedal exceptionally fast; chins forward, elbows out and little knees like pistons. Some adolescents are languid, pedalling softly and slowly while they talk and trackstand. At least one of them might be doing an 'endo' or messing about bunny-hopping.

Women ride bikes in exactly the way they walk. There are those who hunch over the handlebars as though they are hurrying somewhere urgently, others are poised, prettily straight-backed and serious while there is a type of middle-aged woman who toils away with her shopping in a plastic carrier bag swinging on the handlebars.

Seeing a man in a suit on a Pashley-Moulton is always a treat. The economy of scale of the bike coupled with the smart dark clothes, shiny shoes and upright stance would be comic if it wasn't admirable and somehow terribly English. They never ride hard – wouldn't do to get a sweat on, after all. Not in that nice shirt.

A lot of men ride their bikes in a workmanlike way. The burly labourer often has a bike too small for him and a saddle too low so his legs are bent and his knees stick out on either side. He's in his work clothes and steel-toe-capped boots so the bike is merely a short-haul A – B device. It doesn't have to fit.

Some older men plod, making heavy weather of it on a bicycle with a dynamo that they've kept in the shed for 30 years to travel to and fro the factory where they've probably worked for 30 years. They look like they're pedalling through black treacle. Others let their bodies show the effort by dipping their heads and shoulders with every pedal-stroke. But their faces don't betray any sign of distress so the dipping is habitual; the cycling equivalent of overweight labradors puffing amiably on a walk.

Anyway, back to this guy at the lights. He was no labrador; he was a racing whippet among cyclists.

Very long toned legs and a slim-framed elegant racing bike adjusted precisely and correctly.

He was at one with his bicycle; an alchemy of grace, fluidity and power.

I didn't need to be closer, to see his face or how old he was or what, in detail, he was wearing. His form and the way he moved told me all I needed to know. He had style.

I suppose that frisson was not dissimilar to the kick I get from experiencing a great sculpture. You just wonder in amazement at the creation itself and the complete mastery of the artist. You can't stop greedily regarding it because you can't get enough of the loveliness of it.

It's not dissimilar from the unexpected wonder of some poetry; that moment when the rhythm and beauty of the words meld and conspire with your emotions to move your soul in ways the writer could never have anticipated.

So does it follow that cycling has parallels with great art?

It does for me.

Impenetrable Armadillo

I haven't got a problem with walkers. A nice stroll in the sunshine somewhere scenic is manna for the soul.

I like walks but prefer to cycle and when I'm out to play on my bike, I find that walkers are the most accommodating of folk.

They hear the terrible rasp of me struggling to breathe on a climb and stand aside briefly wearing pitying, mystified smiles as I wheeze “Thanks” and pedal ever upwards. I hate climbs. I can see them wondering why I bother to go marginally faster than their crippled old sheepdog.

Walkers descending might hear the squeal of my brakes as slam everything on in order to pedal softly behind them. That usually motivates them to make a gap so I can proceed and there might be a cheery exchange of greetings.

Only occasionally have some highly-strung women shrieked and thrown themselves into a track-side ditch because they didn't realise I was cycling behind them, waiting for an opportunity to pass. Those aside, walkers display all the outward signs of nice considerate people having a pleasant time outdoors.

It's ramblers that are the problem. It's not so bad when they're moving but there is something sinister about the way they assemble in large groups and just hang around. It's disturbing. They come over all glassy-eyed and oblivious to external stimuli.

It's as though they have surrendered themselves completely to their leader and all their brain cells have seeped down into their thick woolly rambler socks. Like an army of zombies, they stand, vacant, waiting for further instruction. Somewhere in the centre is the Leader Zombie, wearing a chunky sweater with a plastic mapcase dangling around his neck. He's staring at a compass and doing calculations concerning walking speeds, stopping allowances and time of arrival at designated pub garden.

There was just such a group in the Forest of Dean last weekend. We'd gone out to play for a few hours. The Forest was renewing itself and looking glorious with acid-green shoots and clouds of blackthorn blossom. Everyone was out, kids, families, cyclists, walkers, ramblers, people with dodgy hips and legs sitting admiring the Mandarin duck colony at Cannop Ponds. Stick a Buddhist temple at the bottom of Bixslade and a KFC where the stoneworks is and it would be the spitting image of Beihai Park, Beijing.

So we were bowling along on the flat heading for a half-time bacon and egg bap and a cuppa when we found them. I thought they'd notice our approach. My companion was in dark green so could have been mistaken for a moderately lively conifer but I was in red, on my purple Orange, so reasonable visible to even the partially-sighted.

I thought they might stir, or part to give us the chance to pass by but they were all standing around over-dressed in cagoules and hats, fixed and glazed, like an Antony Gormley sculpture.

For clarity, we're not talking about blocking a pathway. There were about forty of them, blocking a track wide enough for the widest Forestry juggernaut to drive down. In fact it would have been interesting to see their reaction if a juggernaut was bearing down on them belching fumes at 15mph, roughly the same speed as me - only I wasn't belching, although on reflection, maybe it would have helped.

Would they even see it? Doubt it. The carnage would have been quite something, though.

No movement. No instruction from leader. Maybe he'd nipped behind a bush for a quick slash and the group had been left temporarily devoid of independent thought.

It's not that I'm an unreasonable cyclist. Consideration comes with middle age. I slow down for the elderly, for little tots and dogs. On a narrow path I give way readily to let young whippety mountainbikers pass me. I even slow down a bit for panting, thick-legged, lard-arsed lads on expensive Cannondales to give them the temporary illusion that they are way fitter than me. I'm that big-hearted.

So when a posse of ramblers refuse to give way for me, I find it perplexing. I'm pedalling towards them. Will they move or are they inviting me to carve my way through, shredding their shins with my knobbly front tyre and handing them off like Tom Shanklin surging forward for a try?

They gave all the appearance of one of those Roman formations – The Impenetrable Armadillo. Or maybe it was a tortoise. Mebbe getting mixed up with one of the trickier positions from the Perfumed Garden. Not totally sure.

Anyway, all those thoughts were coursing through my head as we approached, then a chink appeared in their armour. A woman with a dog broke free from the nearside edge and yes, there was space to slide through. How very considerate! There is hope yet, I thought.

But no, the woman hadn't seen us at all. She'd just taken it into her head to do a bit of ad hoc dog training and began walking in a tight figure of eight pulling her substantial little dog repeatedly to heel. It was a Staffie. She was wasting her time.

She and the dog presented a very effective moving barrier that the Romans – skilled as they were in tactical warfare – might have copied and found quite effective.

What were we supposed to do? Stop? Dismount, tap one of the statues on the shoulder and say “Excuse me. Would you mind awfully if we beg your forbearance for a moment and ask you to move two feet to your left in order for us to pass without harm? Or would you like your legs macerated?” That last bit would have been sub-text.

Thankfully, I didn't need to. The Staffie caught the scent of something enticing - a wildboar chasing a squirrel carrying his nuts? - and shot into the undergrowth, yanking his startled owner tightly up against a wire fence.

We seized the opportunity to cycle through the gap. On the other side two families who had been similarly obstructed milled about discussing whether joining the Ramblers was obligatory at that particular location.

A frantic four-year-old pedalled his trike furiously in concentric circles, elbows out, chin over the handlebars, mentally damaged by the unexpected hold-up. I knew how he felt.

I told my companion man to shoot me if I ever mention joining the Ramblers. I suspect that child will feel exactly the same when he grows up.

Not many girls on bikes

I wasn't going to blog today. I'm supposed to be getting down to other urgent tasks.

(I wonder why “getting down to” something which implies a solid serious job but “getting up to” something is always mischievous, intruiging and spiced with naughtiness?)

Anyway, a Guardian writer (who has clearly never cycled in traffic and may never have even been on a bike) is asking why there aren't more women cyclists, so naturally there are points which must be made.

According to Sustrans (the charity in charge of the national cycleways network), 79% of British women don't cycle at all even though 43% of them have access to a bike.

I suspected the Grauniad was only highlighting the issue because A Celeb has been spotted wobbling about on a bike and sure enough, there was a pic of Duffy, the Welsh songstress pedalling an outsize version of a three-year-old's pink bike in Los Angeles.

She hasn't got a helmet on, which isn't much of an example, but she looks as though she's not going to ride at more than 4mph so we'll forgive her this time, especially as she is Welsh (positive racism, like) and because I'm kind of addicted to her track “Mercy.”

Why women don't ride bikes?

1 They are scared. They never got to grips with the dazzling-white two-wheeled thing with a bell in the shape of a pretty flower and daddy point-blank refused to put the stabilisers back on. So they wait a while until they meet a boy with a car... Apologies if that sounded a tad crabby but my parents never did buy me a new bike. I don't like it rankle.

2 You can't be dignified on a bicycle.

3 Cycling messes up your hair.

4 You can't carry much shopping. (Hmm. This should have been number 1)

5 Punctures.

Those reasons are good reasons but they are all reasons which, with a bit of practice and taking oneself a little less seriously, can be overcome.

More women should cycle.

It's the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

It energises you from head to toe and you rediscover the hidden child in you. The thrill of speeding downhill and zooming around corners. On a good day, with the wind behind you and the sun on your arms and your gears in tip-top condition, you feel like you're flying.

It gets you fit without too much effort and keeps you fit if you keep doing it.

It will lift your mood, flooding your brain with fabulous endorphins.

It might get you closer to nature. If you pedal quietly through silent forests you will see deer and birds and you can justifiably collapse into the long grass and lie in the sun for a while listening to bees.

It's rewarding, getting places without using any fuel other than that sticky jam doughnut you scoffed at your friend's house.

It's perfect for thinking and if you're distraught, you can cycle and sob and no-one will know because the wind takes away your tears.

I'll be the first to admit you can't cycle and be dignified. The very instant you attempt it, fate will bite you on the bum. Your gears will start jumping or the chain will come off or you'll get a puncture and need to remove a grubby wheel with delicate painted fingernails.

Attempting dignity is fraught with hazards in the same way as attempting to be cool. That cute little bunny hop up on to the kerb will have you splatting face first into the pavement. That stylish speeding cornering on damp grass will result in you sliding indelicately into the pub car park watching by curious al fresco diners. People generally feel cyclists are impervious to pain. Those guys in the Tour are always bleeding and getting back on their bikes, after all.

And the hair thing. Well, that's non-negotiable. Hair is very important for women. If it doesn't look right, one feels self-conscious all day – and that's no way to live life. It's one of the reasons I can't ride my bike to work when it's raining. There's no rest room where I can sort the hair out. I usually straighten it into total submission but when it's raining or the air is damp it gets its own back and goes all Kelly McGillis.

Punctures. Yes, well. They happen but we've all got mobile phones and if you really can't ruin your nails because it's two hours before the night out, call a bloke with a car. Any bloke will do. A chivalrous male cyclist might even come along and mend it for you. Or maybe I just got lucky.

The author of the Guardian article talked of the unattractiveness of wearing cycling kit that looks like you've been attacked with a highlighter gun. I'd wager she has never ridden in traffic. Until last summer I too swore I'd never be seen dead in dayglo. But in morning and evening rush-hour traffic, there is nothing better for being seen. So I embraced yellow day-glo and found that it is good. (It's also nicely fitting and nipped in at the waist)

It's probably possible to be girly and imaginative and wear violently psychedelic day-glo with flowers in your helmet. Vivienne Westwood would be up to the challenge just so long as she remembers it's impossible to pedal in a pencil skirt.

Topshop are bringing out a womens' cycling range, apparently. Not sure I like the sound of the Topshop range, although, naturally, one will cast an eye over it. There is talk of them selling retro-style cycling caps.

Hmm. Prefer a helmet myself. I doubt a cycling cap would save a fractured skull if you go over the handlebars - not that that happens very often, girls.

A few sensible precautions like taking care to avoid hidden tree stumps in tussocky grass on the flat and large tree roots on the gnarly downhills and you'll never know what it feels like to see stars just like they do in cartoons.