Wednesday, 30 June 2010

How the World was Won.

If you want to take over large parts of the world and resettle them with people of your own colour and culture, take a leaf out of the white man’s book. This is our manual – simplified, maybe, but the main points are there.

1 Make an initial landing with a fairly small party and smile a lot at the natives. Tell them you come in peace and give them gifts to instil a false sense of security. At the same time, weigh up their weaponry and defensive systems.

2 Once you can be sure that their weapons are vastly inferior to yours and that they are defensively fragmented, return with a force of well armed soldiers and tell the natives that you’re taking their land whether they like it or not.

3 When the natives decide to fight you for it, use your superior weapons to blow them away. If that fails, as it sometimes will because the natives will often be stronger, braver and tougher than your own troops, move onto item four.

4 Make peace with them and promise to talk about the whole thing sensibly and without further bloodshed. This will lead them into a second false sense of security. Then you can manoeuvre them into a position of weakness and break your promises. They won’t be expecting this because they really are that naive – for now.

5 Once they are suitably subdued, get them to throw away their own religion and adopt yours. If you can persuade them that it isn’t only their mortal lives that are in peril, but even their very souls, it will be easier to terrify them into further subservience. This is best done using well-meaning people who actually believe that what they are doing is good and worthy. The natives are more likely to believe them than a bunch of politicians and soldiers who have already proved that they can’t be trusted.

6 This won’t always work because sometimes the natives won’t be quite that naive. In some cases they will rebel against the carriers of the good word and might even become highly aggressive. You can use this to your advantage, because you can depict the beleaguered missionaries as heroes and demonstrate to your support base back home that the natives are very substandard people who really need you to be there. You then have all the backing you need to visit fire and the sword on any members of the wayward and sub-human populace who still want to remain independent.

7 Once the locals are well under the thumb you can set about persuading your excess population at home that you have opened up a promised land for them. Not only is it flowing with milk and honey, it’s even relatively safe. You will, however, have to keep a well armed force of soldiers in the proximity of the settlers because it won’t be quite as safe as you want it to be yet. You’ve still got a few decades of slaughter to go before you’ll be fully in charge.

8 When the battle is finally won and most of the natives have been exterminated, set about isolating and marginalising the few that remain. This will convince the settlers, who now hold an unassailable power base, that the aboriginals are indeed different and sub-standard, and therefore not worth worrying about.

9 The final consolidation. The point will eventually be reached where the sad remnants of the original inhabitants will sink into a pit of despair. Being only human, most of them will become idle and seek solace in drugs and alcohol. Others will feel angry and dispossessed, and will turn to crime. This is so predictable that you can rely on it absolutely. You can then apply the coup de grace. You can hold them up to your own people and say ‘Look how lazy, drunk and irresponsible these people are. Did we not tell you all along that they were inferior to you? Do you not see how we did them a favour by deigning to rule them?’ Fait accompli.

Clever, isn’t it?

Junk.

As much as I find junk e-mails irritating, I have to say that the subject lines can be a constant source of amusement. I had three when I opened my Hotmail account this morning. The first said ‘Grow Your Member in Weeks.’ The second was ‘I Want God to be Merciful to me.’ The third was in Arabic. Is the universe trying to tell me something?

My favourite is the one that says something like ‘Breast enlargement at discount prices.’ Wouldn’t you think that modern software would be capable of recognising gender-specific names like Jeffrey?!

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Tails with Wagging Dogs.

I was going through my submissions record earlier, seeing what was out with whom and whether any of the recipients were due a chaser. I got irritated again when I re-read some of their submission guidelines.

Most small press publishers, and some agents it seems, use form rejections. Some of them even apologise for the fact that they don’t have the time to respond personally to every submission. There’s no need. I well understand that they get a lot of stuff sent to them, and I’m perfectly happy with a form rejection. At least I know that the work has been rejected and I’m free to send it somewhere else. What bugs me are the ones who say ‘We will only respond to those people with whom we want to work.’ In other words, they won’t bother to tell you that they’re not interested. What’s more, they won’t even tell you how long you have to wait before you can assume they’re not interested. This is lacking in both courtesy and respect, so let’s look at the balance of power in this situation.

It’s all on the side of the publishers and agents, because they know that writers are desperate to be published. And it appears that a lot of publishers and agents are content to exercise that power by adopting an offhand attitude to writers. So let’s recap.

People were telling stories long before publishers came on the scene. They will continue to do so even if every publisher and agent goes out of business tomorrow. And some of those storytellers will write their stories down. The fact is that writers don’t need publishers in order to write. The advantage of having a publisher is that it gets the work in front of a lot of people, but they aren’t necessary for the creative act to take place. The converse is not true, however. Publishers and agents do need writers. Without writers, there would be no reason for them to exist.

So is it so unreasonable to expect those in the publishing world to afford the proper level of respect to the writers who provide the very reason for their existence. As it stands at the moment, it’s rather like having a religion in which the gods worship the humans. Or, to put it another way, the tail seems to be wagging the dog here.

A Technical Question.

Is there a computer expert in the house?

I bought a new computer in January. It didn’t take long to discover that it has an odd habit: every night at midnight it boots itself up. I went back to the shop and asked them why it would do that, and whether there was any way to stop it.

‘Dunno, mate,’ said the ‘expert.’ ‘Must be something in the software. That’s Bill Gates for you.’

Helpful! So I asked my computer-buff friend, Rob. He told me my computer is definitely haunted. Right.

I can’t find anything in Windows settings that might explain it, so if anybody can enlighten me...

I'm currently listening to Sheila Chandra's album Roots and Wings. That woman has a voice to go mentally AWOL over. This has absolutely nothing to do with computers. Just thought I'd say it.

Monday, 28 June 2010

The Englishman, the Irishman, and the New Zealander.

Every four years the leading rugby players of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland form a team to tour one of the southern hemisphere countries. They’re called the British and Irish Lions, and have been in existence, in one form or another, since 1888.

Way back in the days when Empire was still a going concern (I think it was some time in the 1930s,) the Lions were touring New Zealand. This was at a time when the average Englishman considered himself a rare breed, superior to all others in dress, decorum, and the innate ability to lord it over the natives. They weren’t afraid to say so, either.

One such Englishman was playing in the front row of the scrum. For those who don’t know, a rugby scrum is a dark and mysterious place where anything goes as long as it isn’t spotted by the referee, and sneaky acts of violent intimidation are commonplace. And the first in line to receive such sneaky acts are the players in the front row.

This game was no exception. One of the New Zealand second rowers was having the usual bit of fun, stretching his arm between the members of his own front row and punching the English prop on the nose. The Englishman declined to either remonstrate or retaliate for a long time, since the former would have been less than phlegmatic, and the latter bad form. Eventually, however, even he felt the situation could go on no longer. He approached the offending New Zealander and shook his hand.

An Irish team mate ran over to him and angrily demanded to know what the hell he’d done that for.

‘Why d’ya shake his ****ing hand? I’d have torn his ****ing head off!’

The Englishman walked away with his nose in the air, and said

‘I wanted to make him feel a cad. You wouldn’t understand.’

Miss Mumbai.

Miss Mumbai,

Good morning.

Your interest flatters me.

Your presence intrigues.

I imagine that you flick a finger and a bell rings.

I hear a sitar sing, and see the burning eye of a tiger watching me from the shadows.

And then I hear the rhythm of the tabla.

I’m being fanciful, I know. But India, like Ireland, has a magic that remains elusive. The British knew it before they became tyrants. It’s why so many of them stayed there. Do I mind that these muses be made public? Why should I? Honesty is my ultimate defence.

I hope you have a good day, Miss India.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Writing to Form.

I read this tonight in the submission guidelines for a new, small press magazine publisher.

The bulk of our editorial staff and slush readers are products of writer workshops. We suggest it is a fundamental part of the process of producing great fiction.

Fundamental, eh? I don’t think there’s much need for me to comment, except to ask what I suppose is an unanswerable question:

How many of the writers of what is widely accepted to be ‘great fiction’ ever attended a writers’ workshop? Unanswerable maybe, but I think we could make a pretty good guess.

I considered revealing the name of this new publication, but decided against it. It’s pretty dire but I have no wish to mock. No doubt the editors mean well.

The Brits are Winning.

A little update on the flag statistics. The American team is visibly flagging. They’re now twenty points behind the Brits. Whether that is because the Americans are fading or because my blog is becoming insufferably tedious, I cannot tell.

‘But I am faint. My gashes cry for help.’ (Funny how three words can plunge you into Shakespeare...)

If the former: GO YANKS (note the careful avoidance of any potentially divisive reference to baseball.) If the latter, do feel free to say.

The big news from today is that I’ve had my first visit from Nigeria. That’s two countries from Africa now. Excellent. Cordial greetings and welcome, Nigeria.

And yes, I do realise that the point of blogging is neither to engage in a race nor indulge a collecting habit. I’m just idly musing. It’s what ‘asides’ are all about.

Beware: Yorkshire Lasses Running Free.

Fierce creatures have all but disappeared from Britain. The bears and wolves were hunted to extinction hundreds of years ago, and although we get the occasional sighting of a big cat, they remain solitary and avoid human contact. This cannot be said, however, of the one fierce and exotic creature we do still have in abundance. It is known affectionately as The Yorkshire Lass.

The Yorkshire Lass is proud, indomitable and tough as twelve-inch nails. She is strong of arm and sure of aim, but her greatest weapon is her eyes. Oh men of England, if you value your sense and sanity, never stare at a Yorkshire Lass. You’ll lose. The Gorgon was a mere pussy cat by comparison.

There are conflicting theories as to how the creature evolved. Some say it is the high octane Viking blood running through their veins. Some say the dark, satanic mills imbued them with the destroyer gene. Others claim it stems from the inclement weather on the wilder parts of Ilkley Moor. I favour the latter, for we all know what the moor engenders, don’t we? The Hound from Hell, that’s what! It is a little known fact that the Hound of the Baskervilles was not a dog at all, but a Yorkshire serving wench who was missing a week’s wages because Lord Baskerville had inadvertently fallen asleep in his office that Friday. Look what happened to him, poor chap, and see what heroic efforts were needed to rid Dartmoor of its curse.

So what do you do if you encounter the creature? Tread carefully, wear a flak jacket and be as nice as you can to her. But at all times remain honest. The Yorkshire Lass has an inbuilt radar that detects the dishonest and the disingenuous in a millisecond. Woe betide the flatterer; oh yes! Better to remain silent and avoid the sententious stare than utter a falsehood. You might at least survive with no injury other than that to your manly pride. And bear in mind that manly pride is an irresistible call to arms to the Yorkshire Lass.

But, of course, you first have to recognise the creature, and it is wise to become practised at an early age. I can offer only two pointers. First, there is the voice. If you doff your cap to an outwardly attractive young lady, smile nicely, and ask ‘Good day, fair miss, and how are you this fine morning?’ and she replies ‘Ey up, lad. Want ter cum up an’ see me scars?’ take care. You’ve almost certainly encountered one. Yorkshire Lasses don’t do etchings; scars are their art. The real giveaway, however, is the horns. It’s the Viking blood again. Yorkshire Lasses slip on their horns as easily as you or I would don a fresh pair of socks in the morning. They don’t know they’re doing it. It is their only weakness.

Use it to your advantage. Better still, stay in Surrey. It’s the one place Yorkshire Lasses never deign to enter. They say it’s a matter of standards.

You think I’m joking, don’t you?

An Apology to Myself.

I’m devastated. I haven’t put up a blog post today. Not that anybody but me will give a tuppeny toss, of course, but I’m still soundly ashamed of myself. I’ve just been very busy, and even though I worked out the next one in my head when I was engaged in all my busy-ness, it still didn’t give me the time to type it up and post it. I forgive myself.

I want the next one to be dedicated to a lovely woman who lives a little way north of here. Whether I will manage it tomorrow remains to be seen. Do come back and look in about twenty four hours.

No toothache today.

Ok, dismissed.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Tea Party Day.

A few weeks ago I undertook to add a post as a contribution to The Mad Tea Party on 26th June. To honour that promise, I’m posting one of my sillier stories at A Handful of Stories. Its relevance to the Mad Hatter’s tea party is tenuous, but my defence is that there are certain connections to the original. It’s a bizarre story with a little girl as the central character, it’s the child’s birthday so it might be considered to contain at least an implicit link to the party atmosphere, and then there is the Queen’s famous and oft-quoted command...

It’s a very short story that will take only about ten minutes to read. It will be going up at around midnight BST.

And the next ‘proper’ story, The Passenger, will be posted on schedule next Thursday.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

The Mean Sicilian with the Massive Knife.

I was twenty one and working for Mars Ltd, the chocolate manufacturers, as a sales merchandiser. It came with a decent salary and a company car, but I wasn’t enjoying it. Apart from being the worst salesman ever, I was getting pretty fed up with hearing ‘Hey, Doris. Come and see what’s in the shop. A man from Mars!’ I’d given up even pretending to smile after about the twelfth time of hearing it, but anyway...

My job was, according to the official line at least, ‘to increase displayed distribution.’ Among other things, this entailed persuading shopkeepers to accept one of our display stands on loan in return for using the said piece of equipment to display Mars products prominently. It was also part of the job to ensure that the agreement was honoured.

So, one morning my boss decided to spend the day with me. We were in Peterborough that day, and a lot of the small shops in Peterborough were owned by Italian immigrants. The first shop we went to was owned by probably the biggest Italian in the town, maybe even the country. He was huge, and had a very mean look about him. His English was none too good, and I’d already noticed that the floor-standing display unit wasn’t displaying Mars products prominently. It was full of fruit and vegetables. My boss had noticed it too, so there was no way I could exercise discretion and turn a blind eye to the problem.

I explained the situation to him very politely. He remained surly and said that nobody was going to come into his shop and tell him how to run his business. I countered that we weren’t trying to do that, but we did have rights over the use of the display equipment because it was ours and there was an agreement attached to the loan of it. It cut no ice. He became even more surly and refused to accede to our request to replace the fruit and vegetables with Mars products. And then he told us he came from Sicily, and Sicilians don’t take orders from anybody. He might have said that he was in the Mafia, but I can’t be certain. It’s possible I just made the connection, as one would of course. In either event, the intimidation factor was becoming an issue and my boss decided to put his foot down. If he wouldn’t keep to the agreement, we would remove the stand. There was no response from the shopkeeper, and so we set about removing the fresh produce so that we could take the display unit to the car.

It was located near the door, which was fortunate because I looked up to see 20-odd stone of manic Mafiosi striding towards us with a huge butcher’s knife. And he looked like he meant business. He really did! Now, however much I have revised my opinions in later years, I had been brought up in the old style of English male attitudes. The only animal more unpredictable than a woman was a foreigner, I’d been taught. Johnny Foreigner was a bit of a rum cove, don’t you know, and one expected him to behave in an upright and civilised manner at one’s peril. It seemed to me that the moment of peril had arrived.

I grabbed my boss and shoved him towards the door, and then we hurried to the safety of the car. The shopkeeper didn’t follow us. We discussed the matter for a few minutes, and my boss decided he was going to call the police. He was determined to take that stand out of the shop, and assumed the police would stand by to enable us to perform our legal function.

Two policemen arrived in a patrol car. They said that they couldn’t come into the shop with us, but they would remain close by to ensure there would be no breach of the peace. They didn’t say why they couldn’t come into the shop, and they didn’t exactly ‘remain close by’ either. They drove to the end of the street about fifty yards away and sat there. We plucked up our courage anyway and went back into the shop. Mr Mean wasn’t there; I assumed he’d decided to keep out of sight when the police turned up. We completed the job and carried the contraption out of the shop.

Mrs Mean was outside serving apples to a customer. We hadn’t seen her before, but she looked harmless enough – small, blonde and pretty innocuous. We walked past her carrying the metal frame and trays between us. Without warning, missiles began whizzing past our ears. Apples. Dozens of them. Mrs Mean, too, was obviously a woman of sprit. She had a strong arm, but fortunately a poor aim. None of them hit us. As we drove away, I wondered whether she would make the effort to retrieve the apples, but we had no intention of hanging around to find out, especially as the two policemen had mysteriously disappeared.

And Mr Mean got struck off my list of visits.

The Robin and Another Dream.

I had another disturbing dream about my robin last night. I was about to go somewhere in a car, but as a passenger. The driver was somebody I used to know and who worked for the RSPB, Britain’s big bird charity.

As we were about to drive off, the robin approached the car and seemed to want to come with us. I opened the window and called to him. As he flew towards the car, the driver accelerated and the bird crashed into the side of the vehicle. I told the driver to stop and the robin flew in and nestled into my hand. I saw with horror that he had lost both his eyes; only the sockets remained. I was faced with an agonising decision: whether to take care of him and feed him, or whether to accept that he could never be happy blind and have him put down. I woke up feeling a little distressed.

I’m going to be very careful when I drive off to town this afternoon, but I suspect there’s a less literal message here. In both dreams the robin came into my hand, and in both dreams he suffered as a result of getting too close. I think I need to learn the lesson that it’s OK to let the bird make whatever connection he wants with me, but I must never regard him or any other wild creature as a pet. They never will be and they’re not supposed to be.

So where does this message come from? The robin? Probably not. My higher mind, perhaps. Maybe, but then I’ve long thought that the higher mind is somehow more in touch with what we might call the universal consciousness. So perhaps it isn’t quite so clear cut. And it doesn’t matter. The message makes sense, wherever it comes from.

Change of Plan.

I was going to do the funny story tonight, but I have a problem. Now that I’ve downloaded and installed the latest version of my anti-virus software, I can’t upload attachments to my Hotmail e-mail account. I’ve been messing with it for ages. Don’t you just love modern technology?!

So, the Mad Sicilian with the Manic Eyes will have to wait. Oh dear, I just changed the title. Well, he was mean, mad, manic-eyed, and had a big knife, so take your pick. Feel free to drool while I put my toothache to bed. The toothache is a long story. You don’t want to know.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Flaggy Thing Brief.

Two little points about my flaggy thing:

The US and Canadian flags provide a flyout which gives a breakdown of visitors by state and province respectively. But now the same + symbol has appeared next to a load of other countries, so I had a look. They give a message which says, for example, ‘Collect 22 Brazilian flags when you upgrade to Flag Counter Pro!’ How can you ‘collect’ 22 flags? Does this mean that a bunch of black-suited employees of the said flaggy thing company will scour the streets of Rio and force twenty two unsuspecting innocents to read my blog? Or could it be the most pointless and pathetic attempt ever to persuade me to upgrade to something I have to pay for? And my vote is...

The third most prolific visitor is India. India fascinates me. It would be so nice if Mr, Mrs, Miss or Ms India would talk to me. But then, mysteries are nice too.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Manipulating the Distribution of Wealth.

During my time working for a certain revenue department, I learned a basic economic truism. If you increase direct taxation, it generally benefits the poor. If you increase indirect taxation, it generally benefits the rich. I realise that there are a few complexities involved, but the axiom is easily demonstrable.

The measures announced by the Chancellor today in the ‘emergency budget’ included an increase in Value Added Tax (Britain’s main form of indirect taxation) from 17½% to 20% with effect from early January.

Back in the 1970s the basic rate of Income Tax was 33%. VAT was, at its lowest, 8%. Those figures have changed dramatically. Basic rate Income Tax is now 20% and VAT will soon be 20%. So, over the last thirty five years, there has been a steady reduction in direct taxation and a steady increase in indirect taxation. The question I have is this:

Why do people still feign surprise when statistics repeatedly show a continuing growth in the gap between rich and poor?

---------------------------

I've been doing a lot of moaning this week. Maybe tomorrow I'll tell the story of The Very Mean Sicilian with the Very Big Knife.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Civilisation.

All the current axe-wielding by the government has caused me to think a lot lately about the issue of eviction. What a terrible thing it is to do to somebody, and how easily the courts, the landlords and the finance houses take the decision. I know somebody who was evicted once, even though the rent was fully paid, because the landlord had defaulted on the mortgage and the property was repossessed. A woman and six kids who had nothing wrong, kicked out of their home because the landlord had spent the rent on something else. And I walked across a mountain in the Western Highlands of Scotland one time, feeling absolutely desolate when I thought of those poor people who had been dispossessed in the Highland Clearances. The rich landlords wanted the land cleared for sheep, because sheep would make them even richer. They say it don’t count ’less it sells. More wealth, more power. More power, less heart. We call it civilisation.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Two Little Facts.

Two little facts that might or might not be related:

Fact number 1

It was announced today that the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan has cost at least £20bn so far. It was also said that certain direct costs haven’t been included yet, and the true figure will be substantially higher.

Fact number 2

As previously reported, the government has scrapped the plan to extend free school meals to children of poorer families because the country can’t afford it.

Related? You decide.

The Boys (and Girls) from Brazil.

Good heavens! Two visits from Brazil today. Thank you, Brazil. Since the England football team is such a load of old dingo’s kidneys at the moment, all I can say is: Go Brazil! I just gained an interest in the World Cup. I’ll be rooting for you. You know how to play football. I remember 1970.

Just don’t get me started on beach volleyball. That could be hazardous to my health.

And who is going to be the first to 200? At the moment, it's US198:UK198. Keep you posted. Such fun. Get a flaggy thing.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

The Blind Date.

I’ve been thinking on and off all day today about the question I touched on yesterday: ‘who am I?’ I was going to make an extended post about it, because it really is an interesting subject. As I deliberated, the question became ever deeper and more complex. Even if you ignore the more rarefied aspects presented by an interest in Vedic spirituality and keep the issue secular and grounded in a material context, it brings into question what we might call the sense of self. It got too deep, too complex, and I decided to leave it – for now.

Instead, let’s have another silly naval story.

We were in Halifax, Nova Scotia for two weeks. There was a big NATO review taking place and we were part of it. The weather wasn’t quite as hot and sunny as it had been in Quebec, but it was summery enough for me to feel good about life. I was exploring the town alone and wondering whether to go to the cinema that night, when a fellow cadet approached me excitedly. He said he’d been given a number to call for a blind date, and asked whether I was game.

A moment of indecision. My libido was perfectly healthy, but I was also rather fussy about whom I was inclined to share it with. I thought for a few seconds and decided that ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ should be the order of the day in this situation. ‘Yeah, OK.’ We found a public pay phone; he dialled the number and wrote an address down on a piece of paper.

‘We can go straight over now,’ he said, and so we hailed a taxi and soon found ourselves in a well heeled suburb of Halifax.

The houses were all detached, and quite big. We rang the doorbell feeling nervous. Well, I was nervous anyway; my colleague was a year older than me, and there was an unwritten rule of seniority among officer cadets that the older one is entitled to take charge. I was happy to let him. The door was opened by a slim, pretty, dark haired young woman. Our spirits rose. Well, mine did anyway...

‘Come in,’ she said, and showed us into a very large room which took us aback for a moment.

It was all but empty: no furniture, no carpet, no pictures, no curtains, just a juke box standing in one corner. Our hostess said that she would fetch the two ladies in question, and invited us to make ourselves at home. I’m sure we both wondered how one is supposed to make oneself at home in an empty room. One of us offered the opinion that they must be students or something – no money, but into big parties. That might just bode well, and we expressed the hope that the two ladies would be as attractive as ‘madam.’ The door opened and the ladies walked in.

Now, I have to explain here that we were only teenage boys. Neither of us had reached an age where mature, refined discernment replaces the simple tastes of youth. I have to admit that we were disappointed. No, they weren’t as attractive as madam. In fact... well, you get the picture. And it wasn’t just the fact that their facial features were... er... unprepossessing, or that one could have doubled for a beanpole while the other would have made an excellent stab at playing Nellie the Elephant in the student panto. No. We did have enough discernment to recognise that there was something essentially sour about them as well. They said very little, just gave us a time to return and pick them up that evening. What could we do? We were nothing if not men of honour. We agreed and left, and then returned at the appointed time.

‘What would you like to do?’ we asked.

‘Go for a meal.’

‘OK.’

We found a pleasant restaurant and paid for everything. Despite our best efforts to engage them in conversation, they said very little. They ate a lot, though. And burped rather a lot I seem to recall, but maybe I just imagined that bit. When the meal was over we asked them again

‘What would you like to do now?’

‘Watch the fireworks.’

‘OK.’

There was a fireworks display that night, as part of the review celebrations. We found a grassy bank overlooking the harbour and watched the fireworks. We tried again to engage them in conversation, but they remained reticent.

‘What would you like to do now?’ we asked when the fireworks were over.

‘Go home.’

And so they did. And so did we, feeling relieved.

I’ve wondered ever since whether we got it all wrong. We were, as I said, young and naïve. Maybe ‘madam’ really was a madam and we simply missed the point. I shall never know, of course. I’m comfortable with mysteries.

Weird!

According to my flaggy thing, people from twenty three countries have now visited my blog, and that includes twenty three US states. The latest is North Dakota. North Dakota! ‘Take me back to the Black Hills.’ Doris Day. The Deadwood Stage. And, irony of ironies, this is all due to modern technology. Life’s weird, ain’t it?

The Tibetan Chenrezig is smiling at me from my mouse mat. Her alter-ego, Kuan Yin, is blessing me from the top of one of my speakers. I think it’s time I went to bed – yet again. How many more times?

Couldn't Think of a Title for this One.

This is as self-indulgent as I get, so stop reading now if that’s a problem. But this is my blog, and I’ve never asked anybody to read it, so that’s OK.

I sometimes have difficulty knowing just who I am. It feels like the real me has nothing to do with JJ Beazley. He’s just a reflection of some manufactured persona, constantly being adjusted to accommodate the changing winds of fate. He doesn't really exist. Maybe that’s why I dislike egoists so much. Maybe it’s why nobody ever comes to tea. Still, at least I don’t feel a failure, whatever one of those is. But it does cause problems.

One of my favourite lines from a Bob Dylan song is:

For them that think death’s honesty won’t fall upon them naturally, life sometimes must get lonely.

Replace ‘death’s’ with ‘life’s’ and the line is surprisingly apposite.

That was tonight’s bathing muse. And entirely sober.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Taking the Wrong Road.

Over the last couple of decades the scope of technology has grown at a staggering rate. But I think it’s come at a price. Never have I heard as many complaints about things breaking down or not working correctly as I do now. And I’m no exception to that trend. It seems that all the development effort is being put into widening horizons, rather than into making those things we already have function better. So we have more gadgets, but they don’t work as well. This strikes me as yet another example of getting the balance wrong, and is another source of increasing stress in the modern world. The extension of technology doesn’t make people any happier. We don’t miss what hasn’t been invented yet, and we simply take for granted the things we have.

It goes without saying that this is largely the result of the modern world being driven by an aggressive, free market economy obsessed with economic growth. It doesn’t matter if things don’t work well because there’s a better version, or something new to replace it altogether, just about to come onto the market. The problem is that the ‘improved’ version probably won’t work any better than the old one did. In fact, it might well be worse. And we can take it as almost guaranteed that it won’t last as long. It isn’t supposed to. But it will have more buttons. There is no place for stability or durability in a world driven by naked profit.

And this, I think, is another reason why the bedrock of so-called civilised culture is slipping inexorably into quicksand.

I’m beginning to wonder whether the modern human is the stupidest creature that has ever lived on this earth. Or should we blame every generation that has come along since one strand of the human race felt they could do better than live in harmony with nature? Is that what Shakespeare meant when he said ‘and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death?’

Maybe I’m exaggerating. Maybe I'll post a funny story tomorrow.

I Think...

I think my blog is becoming tedious. I think I’m guilty of being something I don’t want to be. I think maybe I should switch the computer off and sew a button on a shirt, or something. I think self-doubt is healthy. I think the old maxim is sometimes very true: ‘better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than open it and remove all doubt.’ I think I’m in a funny mood.

But I’ve had a visit from Spain. Greetings, Espana.

Every time I say that, they don’t come back. C’est la vie.

So, tomorrow...

‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow...

‘...and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death.’

See what I mean?

So, tomorrow I might have something interesting to say. Or I might not.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Learning the Language of Birds.

One of the big revelations to me this spring and summer has been the birdsong. I used to think that this bird went cheep-cheep, whereas that bird went cheepity- cheep. No. There appears to be a hell of a lot more to it than that.

I was sitting at my garden table this evening at about nine o’clock when the most incredibly varied array of cacophonous birdsong suddenly filled the air. And both yesterday and today, I went out at dusk and stood enthralled by the ‘song’ of a female blackbird. I stood for several minutes tonight listening to her. The range of tonal qualities and complex patterns was breathtaking. It truly sounded like a vocal language. In other words, it didn’t sound like a ‘song’ at all, but as though she was talking to the other blackbirds in terms we would recognise as conscious and complex communication. I’ve also recently witnessed several birds making sounds that are almost inaudible. My friendly robin sometimes does it when he comes to me for a feed.

This has caused me to think that I have finally recognised that a language is being spoken, and that maybe one day I’ll learn to understand it. Wishful thinking maybe, but it’s a nice feeling.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The Life Force.

Trying to live life ethically can be tricky at times. You get tested. Like this afternoon when I was gardening and a fly kept on being a nuisance, buzzing around and landing on my face. However much I swept it away with my hand, it kept coming back. So what should I have done? Swatted it? It’s what most people would have done, but I’ve had a horror of killing things all my life.

I hear the voice of the collective consciousness raised in incredulity. ‘But it was only a fly,’ it says. Ah, but then I’ve never really subscribed to the ‘but it’s only’ school of thought. I tend to the view that, however compelling the arguments might be in favour of regarding the human being as the cleverest, most complex, and most spiritually evolved of creatures, the thing that drives us all – the life force, should we call it – is universal. And when you see things that way, it becomes apparent that every creature has as much right to its life force as I have. Separating the body of a fly from its life force isn’t so different from separating a human being from its life force. It’s still taking a life. And so I have to ask myself: can I justify doing that simply because the creature is being a nuisance? The answer where the fly was concerned was ‘most certainly not.’

Of course, I’m not perfect in this. I have my boundaries. I do admit to once having had an ants’ nest killed off because my kitchen and living room were being constantly invaded by them. The nest was, unusually, under the wall of the living room. Was it acceptable to do that? I don’t know; that’s why I’m not preaching. Sometimes the parameters get strained and push us into grey and uncertain areas. But at least I didn’t take the decision lightly, and I hope I never will.

‘Oh dear, now you’re just being sentimental,’ I hear the collective consciousness retort again. Maybe, so let’s consider the definition of sentimentality...

And an interesting fact: once I'd thought about the question and decided there was no way I was going to swat the fly, it stopped bothering me. Coincidence, or test over?

Has it Always Been Like This?

A couple of years ago a shocking revelation was made in the British media. King Arthur might have been a Welshman, it proclaimed. ‘Recent research indicates...’ etc, etc. It was clearly meant to be an astounding piece of news meant to shock people in England; that was the obvious tone of the piece.

Now, hang on a minute. Anybody with even a modicum of knowledge about the Arthurian story knows that the first references to him come from Welsh folk tales. He is, first and foremost, a Welsh hero. And all the evidence from the early sources indicates that, if Arthur actually existed, he would almost certainly have been the leader of British resistance to the incoming Angles and Saxons somewhere between the 5th and 7th centuries. (I should point out here that ‘British’ and ‘Welsh’ in this context effectively mean Cornish, Welsh or Scottish in modern parlance.) Nobody with any interest in the historical reality of Arthur has ever doubted that he was a Welshman - or Cornishman or Scotsman. Or he might have come from the Romano-British aristocracy. There’s certainly never been any question of him having been English. So why the shock-horror revelation? And what’s this reference to recent research all about?

In similar fashion, another news story broke today. An archaeologist working in Coventry has found a mediaeval artefact depicting the three lions badge of England. The BBC reports this as ‘featuring the England football team’s three lions logo,’ and a spokesman from the Football Association said the resemblance was ‘uncanny.’ More mind-blowing tosh! The three lions passant device has been, with a few interruptions, the royal standard of England since Richard I introduced it in 1198. The England football team uses it, as does the England cricket team, because it’s a long-established English emblem. How can there be anything ‘uncanny’ about the resemblance?

This kind of inanity in both media reports and the comments of people in positions of influence happens all the time, and when I read stuff like this I wonder just why these people are where they are. It serves to accentuate my complete lack of faith in the media and the people running the show at all levels.

So my question is this: is such a silly state of affairs something new, or has it always been like this and I’ve only started noticing it over the last few years? Answers on a postcard to this blog.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

A Trip to the Mall.

I went to Derby today and, having some time to kill, I decided to explore the new shopping mall that was opened two years ago to great public acclaim. People were unanimous in saying how wonderful it was, so I thought I’d take a look.

Did I say ‘explore?’ What is there to explore in a shopping mall? Every floor looked like every other floor in every other shopping mall I’ve ever been in. Shopping malls have alliteration written all over them. Cathedrals of crass commercialism. Monuments to mindless materialism. Everywhere you look there is a hideous, almost mind-numbing plethora of clashing colours, shapes and styles; and all of it plastic, ephemeral and inconsequential. The shopping mall claims to have everything. For me, there are three notable things missing: taste, heritage and soul.

But, you might argue, a mall is just a High Street conveniently situated under one roof. Well, no it isn’t, because a High Street isn’t just about shops. A High Street is also about architecture, history, uniqueness of style, cultural signposts. Even those that have been pedestrianised still show evidence of the route that people used to take while passing from one part of the realm to another. Many of them still have the old coaching inns to prove it. And when we walk down a High Street, we walk under the same sky they did. We walk up the same stone steps that our Edwardian and Victorian forbears did; we might even be able to sit by the old cross that was placed there in mediaeval times. The problem with the shopping mall is that it’s one-dimensional. It’s just distilled commerce, nothing more. It’s a sad and shallow icon of modern times, devoid of everything but the drive to part you from your money.

So, what did you say was ‘wonderful’ about it?

Another post is waiting to be born out of this one. Another time.

A Little Mystery.

According to my flaggy thing, somebody from the UK keeps accessing my blog post-midnight. It’s flattering and intriguing. I’m flattered and intrigued...

And now I’m going to bed.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Two Sides of Separatism.

Another little anecdote from my days before the mast.

During our three months spent cruising around the eastern seaboard of North America, we put into Quebec for four days. Times were tricky; Quebec Separatism was in the air. De Gaulle’s famous speech ‘Vive le Quebec, Vive le Quebec libre’ was apparently still ringing in the ears of the local populace. We knew that the Heights of Abraham had been the site of General Wolfe’s most famous victory over the French, and we were conscious of the fact that we were representing the British armed forces. We were warned to be careful, and told to be diplomatic.

It was June and the weather was glorious. Several of us took the easier way up the Heights of Abraham than our forebears had taken two hundred years earlier. The cable car was a little quicker and a lot easier on the legs. We made for the Old Town, and settled at an outdoor cafe table in the shadow of the Chateau Frontenac. The waitress remarked to me that she wondered how my diet of ice cream and beer didn’t make me sick. She said I must have an iron constitution. I remained diplomatic and resisted the urge to say ‘Well, we British do, you know.’

We sauntered down to the city centre, where I went into a large department store to check out the fishing tackle. I made an enquiry of a young male sales assistant. He looked at me coldly and said, in perfect English, ‘I’m sorry sir, I don’t speak English. Do you speak French?’

At that point I could have got really snotty and said ‘No I don’t, and neither do you. The French speak French. You speak Canadian French, which isn’t the same thing.’ It would have been churlish, wouldn’t it? And not diplomatic... and not entirely true... and I would have been hard pressed indeed to think of an example to justify my statement, had I been challenged. I restricted my reply to ‘No’ and walked out. I’m not sure who won that one.

The third test came late one night. We’d been told of a drinking den somewhere in the Old Town, and wanted to give it a try. The problem was that we’d been told it was necessary to speak French in order to be allowed in. We discussed our relative linguistic merits and it was decided – by the others – that, as bad as my schoolboy French was, it was probably the best we could manage. I was nominated to be spokesperson. I was nervous.

We arrived at a heavy wooden door in an ancient back alley of the old quarter. It was one of those solid, intractable sorts of doors that hurt your knuckles when you knock on them, and it had a small opening at the top with vertical iron bars set into it. Being in a dark back street of a hostile town was already a little intimidating; the door only served to emphasise the fact. We knocked anyway, and a panel behind the grill was slid across. The face of a pretty girl peered out. The others nudged me forward.

I should have been prepared, but I wasn’t. I should have consulted a dictionary in advance, so as to be ready with a translation of ‘May we come into your establishment please?’ I tried to do it off the top of my head, and failed miserably. The others were waiting anxiously for me to say something. There was one of those fevered, pregnant pauses like you get when somebody forgets their lines in a play. My brain stopped working. I went into instinct mode and murmured

‘La plume de ma tante est dans le jardin de mon oncle.’

Did everybody fall about laughing? No, they continued to wait anxiously. The young woman looked at me for a few seconds, and then smiled and said

‘OK. That’ll do. In you come.’

Being Pragmatic.

I think of this as classic Liverpool humour.

An elderly lady was standing naked in front of the floor-length mirror in her bedroom. Her equally elderly husband was sitting in bed, eating a jam butty. She sighed and said

‘Look at me. Hair falling out, bags under my eyes, loose flesh around my face, sagging breasts, a spare tyre around my waist, thighs riddled with cellulite, varicose veins, flat feet...’

She looked wistfully at her husband.

‘Can you think of anything at all good to say about me?’

Her husband looked up from the Daily Star and eyed her pale form.

‘Er... yeah,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘There’s nutt’n wrong with yer eyesight.’

And before anybody accuses me of being cruel, let me just say that I avoid my bathroom mirror when I’m preparing to take a bath. On the odd occasion that it’s unavoidable, I know just how she feels.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Mr Burns was Right.

When I was fifteen, my form teacher at school told me I should be deciding on a career path. The right ‘A’ levels needed to be selected so as to prepare for an appropriate degree course.

Life was different then. Apart from anything else, the jobs market was very labour-intensive – and I lived in an industrial area where the main choices were the factories, the mines and the steelworks. The arts were not encouraged. What nod was made towards them was peremptory at best, and nobody gave any thought at all to a career in fields like fine art, music, photography, drama, graphic design... The choice was simple: most kids left school and simply ‘got a job,’ a few of the more able ones went for an apprenticeship in one of the trades, and the tiny, select minority headed for university and entered a profession. It seemed I was one of the select minority, and so I considered the possibilities.

I thought back over my short life to date, asking what it was that had most held my interest. One thing stood out: I had always had a passion for landscape. So how could I turn that into a professional career? No sort of creative or artistic approach entered my head; I’d never been conditioned to think that way and nobody suggested it. All I could come up with was geology, so that was decided upon.

It would have been a bad choice, I think; geology is far too technical and has little relevance to my predilections. I wasn’t to realise that for a long time, but the problem was averted anyway when my step-father flatly refused to let me stay at school. I left, as ordered, at sixteen.

The penny dropped when I was thirty two. By then I’d made a succession of attempts at careers that had been wholly inappropriate. I’d tried them and let them all go. And then I re-discovered an interest that had simmered during my childhood: photography. I put the pieces together and realised that my interest in landscape wasn’t technical, it was aesthetic. More than that, it ventured into a vague area that you might call spiritual or mystical. I spent the next two years diligently training myself to a professional level in photography. At thirty five, a series of circumstances conspired to turn my life upside down, and one of the consequences was that it freed me to go into a photographic career. I took the opportunity with great enthusiasm.

I spent the first two years living decreasingly on my capital as the work built up. The next two years were the boom ones; I made enough money to start rebuilding that capital. The next two years saw a steady decline as the recession bit, until there was nothing left. No money, no work, and no prospects. I was living up in Northumberland at the time where I hardly knew anybody. I didn’t have the means to socialise, and so I was left a bit in limbo.

And then a friend from back home offered me the use of a small house he’d inherited. We could come to some agreement on the rent, he said, and I couldn’t see that I had any alternative but to accept. I moved back to the industrial town where I’d grown up, feeling a bit disappointed at the way things had turned out. Actually, I was quite depressed. I decided the solution lay in making contact with people again.

That was why I started doing voluntary work at a professional producing theatre only ten minutes walk away. I soon fell in love with the place. I felt at home among the actors and production staff, I became quite close to the Theatre Manager – a lovely lady called Judy Bowker who subsequently died of cancer aged forty four, I met the woman who was to become the most important person in my life, I eventually got a paid job there - which was the only ‘employed’ position I ever enjoyed - and I even did some photographic work for them. It was one of the richest and most fulfilling periods in my life.

And the reason for telling all this? ‘The best laid plans o’ mice ’n men gang aft a-gley.’ However much work and commitment you put into a project or career path, there is always something out there capable of knocking your feet from under you. Young people are so pressured these days to strive, work, plan, evaluate, and get obscenely laden with stress in the process.

I think the Confuscianist ethic of order, structure, ambition and control is given far too much weight now. Sometimes the very best things come from just going with the flow.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

A Thought from the Edge of the Room.

Blogging reminds me of Shakespeare’s lines from The Tempest:

...We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Here one minute, gone the next. How mind-bogglingly insignificant even the ‘greatest’ of human lives is in the general scheme of things. It’s only when you look beyond the general scheme of things that any notion of significance even begins to have meaning.

Announcement.

I said I’d have it up by the weekend, didn’t I? Does Jeffrey ever let you down?

Glenda is now up at the other place. It’s a later one and written in a more concise style. Aren’t you glad? It’s also one of my favourites. In fact, I probably feel closer to this than any of the others. Glenda means a lot to me.

Friday, 11 June 2010

200 Posts and Ishmael.

This is my two hundredth post. Doesn’t time fly? I gave careful consideration as to what it should be about, and I finally decided to quote a short passage from the novel “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn, which I’m currently reading. Respect to Zoe for putting me onto it.

The wise gorilla has just explained to his human pupil that civilised culture traps its population into a conditioned mindset based on manufactured myths, convenient interpretations, and lies. It does so subtly, engaging the mind in a myriad of ways and through every medium that can be used to achieve the desired beliefs. The process is so subtle that people are unaware of it happening, since it operates like a constant hum in the background that ceases to be noticed after a while.

“All this is just a preface to our work,” continues the master. “I wanted you to hear it because I wanted you to have at least a vague idea of what you’re getting into here. Once you learn to discern the voice of Mother Culture humming in the background, telling her story over and over again to the people of your culture, you’ll never stop being conscious of it. Wherever you go for the rest of your life, you’ll be tempted to say to the people around you ‘How can you listen to this stuff and not recognize it for what it is?’ And if you do this, people will look at you oddly and wonder what the devil you’re talking about. In other words, if you take this educational journey with me, you’re going to find yourself alienated from the people around you – friends, family, past associates, and so on.”

I can vouch for that.

A Little Update.

Some people might remember that I talked of a little female chaffinch with an injured leg a month or two ago. I was concerned about her. Her right leg seemed to be dangling and inoperable, which made it difficult for her to maintain a steady position while she fed.

I’m pleased to report that she’s still around. The leg is now working properly it seems, although she has lost her foot on that side. Only a swollen stump remains, but there doesn’t appear to be any inflammation and she is perfectly able to stand and hop on it. In fact, she appears to be in the best of health, fully alert and fit.

Estonia, Land of Frilly Frocks and Independent Means.

Whoo! I’ve had a visit from Estonia today. A Baltic State! If it’s you, Susannah, how excellent to see you here. If it’s somebody else, hello and welcome. I’ve penned an ode by way of thanks for your esteemed visit.

There was a young girl from Estonia
Who thought she would never be lonelier.
“Perhaps it’s this hat,
Or perhaps I’m too fat.
If only I was just bit bonier.”

Only kidding. Call me a monstink, if you like.

More later when I’ve done some gardening.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

A Lucky Day in St Pierre.

I’m on a roll now. I have the anecdote bug. I recommend you either give this one a miss or have a whole pot of tea on hand. Or coffee. Or... whatever keeps you awake. I promise that the following isn’t some raconteur’s bullshit. Every word is true.

I’ve mentioned that I had a brief spell in the navy once. I was an officer cadet at the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. Having spent three months being bullied and brainwashed in the hallowed halls of the college, we all went off to sea to start learning the practical stuff. ‘They put us then on board a ship, to cross the raging main.’ But we fought no bloody battles in the sunny land of Spain. Instead, we spent three months wandering around the eastern seaboard of North America.

One day we made landfall on the little island of St Pierre, a French dependency off the south coast of Newfoundland. I’d committed some minor misdemeanour a few days before, and had been awarded one day’s stoppage of leave as punishment. The navy’s rules were immutable: the punishment had to be served at the next port of call, so no going ashore for me on St Pierre. But there was a problem. Each cadet received an invitation from the local dignitaries to attend a cocktail party in honour of our visit. The navy’s rules are immutable on that one, too. Declining an official invitation is ill-mannered and not be countenanced.

I was called to an interview with the Bo’sun. He told me I was to go ashore with the rest of the cadets and take the chartered bus to the function, but I was to return to the ship as soon as the cocktail party was over.

‘No going to the disco afterwards, right?’

‘Right, Chief.’

Yippee! I was going to spend my punishment having a free booze-up. My lucky day! It got better.

When we arrived at what they rather optimistically called the ‘hotel,’ we found we’d got there early. The place was deserted apart from a lone barman. We were pleased to see, however, that they had prepared well for our arrival. The long reception room was laid out with lots of tables and chairs, and on every table there were lots and lots of glasses of scotch. Large measures, too. The barman invited us to help ourselves.

Strange as it may seem, I didn’t like scotch in those days. Gin was my drink. It made me giggle. But a free drink is a free drink, and so I helped myself to one. And another... and another. I began to feel empowered. At least, I think that’s the right word for it. I went over to the barman and asked whether I might have gin instead of whisky. It was hard going. He only spoke French, poor chap, but eventually he got the message.

‘Zheen!’ he exclaimed.

‘Oui, oui, zheen,’ I cried triumphantly.

He gave me a large one, which I drank quickly out of an honest sense of relief. He gave me another one, and he continued to accede to my request every time my glass was empty. Nice chap - so far.

By that time the other guests had arrived – a gaggle of attractive young women, which is usually the way of it when the navy’s in town (the story of me and Jeannie Brown in St John’s, Newfoundland stems from a similar set of circumstances, but is rather more soberly inclined.) I walked over to a table where two of the said ladies were sitting with a fellow cadet. How should I describe him? He was a perfect example of what we in Britain call ‘the English upper class twit.’ For those who don’t know what one of those is, all I can suggest is that you imagine the very silliest interpretation of Bertie Wooster you’ve ever seen, and multiply it by a factor of about ten.

He was trying to talk to the girls in French. His nose was in the air, what passed for a chin was following it, and he was speaking very poor French with an English public school accent. The result was hilarious. The girls evidently thought so, because they were in stitches. They were saying things back to him, but I’ve no idea what. Taking the piss with a good measure of Gallic gusto, I expect. I sat down next to him and listened, just for the entertainment you understand. I didn’t stay next to him very long. I remember finding myself under the table, doubled up with helpless laughter.

And then I woke up, sitting alone at the table. The place was empty except for the lone barman who was washing up. They’d obviously all gone off to the disco and left me to my own devices. Bastards! I went over to the barman, glass in hand.

‘Zheen?’ I implored. He waved me away with a scowl. I decided I should be heading back to the ship.

I returned to the table to collect my belongings, and was horrified to find that my cap was missing. The navy’s rules are immutable on that, too. Losing official equipment is bad form; losing your cap is a hanging offence. I staggered out of the ‘hotel’ in a state of dismay.

A fellow cadet was walking past when I got outside and I asked him, rather hopelessly I suppose in the circumstances, whether he’d seen my cap. But no, not hopeless.

‘Dave Pearce took it to the disco,’ he said.

Now, just why Dave Pearce should have taken it to the disco, I have no idea. Maybe he thought it prudent to keep it safe, me being in a somewhat less than responsible state. Or maybe it was because he came from Devon, I don’t know. I asked my colleague where the disco was.

‘Turn left there, and then follow the noise.’

Right. I followed the directions and opened the door to a large, wooden, shed-like structure in which the festivities were being held. What I beheld reminded me of a scene from Dante. Smoke, crashing music, heaving bodies, flashing lights, and the periphery of the room in almost total darkness. The chances of finding Dave Pearce were as remote as recovering a lost soul from Hades. There was nothing for it but to hope for the best. I headed back to the ship. Problem. I had no idea where I was, or where the ship lay in relation to it. I took a guess and headed off down the road that ran away from the ‘hotel.’

I soon spotted a group of youths coming in the opposite direction. I hailed them.

‘Scusez moi,’ I said. ‘Ou est le bateu Anglais?’

I woke up again, being carried along the road by the group of youths. We were approaching the towering form of a ship tied up to the quay. Even in that state, I recognised it as the Dutch merchantman that was the only other vessel visiting that day.

‘Non, non,’ I cried. ‘Le bateu Anglais.’

I woke up again to see dear old HMS Scarborough only yards ahead. I stood on my own feet and thanked the youths. I took a load of change out of my pocket and gave it to one of them. Then I began the long walk to the bottom of the gangway. It struck me that I didn’t remember paying them.

‘Scusez,’ I cried after them. ‘Est ce que... oh, bugger! Have I paid you?’

‘Oui,’ said the lad, holding out the hand that still carried the money.

‘Bon.’ The incident went clean out of my head.

‘Scusez,’ I cried after them again. ‘Have I paid you?’ Same result.

I came to again, getting undressed in the messdeck this time. I got as far as my underwear, and tried to climb into my hammock. Getting into a hammock is easy enough when you’re sober, but... I fell out the other side and landed on the table below. I should have been injured, but I didn’t feel a thing. I began running around the messdeck on my hands and knees, playing horses.

‘Shut the **** up and go to sleep,’ came many anguished and angry cries from the darkness.

I woke up again. It was morning. Several cadets told me what had happened when I arrived at the ship. There were normally three people in attendance when the ship was in harbour: an officer, a petty officer, and a cadet bo’sun’s mate. The officer had been in the wardroom carousing with the local girls who'd been invited back, and the petty officer had been doing his rounds. The lone cadet had summoned some of my shipmates and they had carried me aboard without being seen. Oh, lucky day again! Better still, I had no trace of a hangover, and Dave Pearce presented me with my cap. But then the tannoy rang out.

‘Cadet Beazley report to the Bo’sun immediately.’

Whoops.

The Bo’sun laid the charge before me. I had failed to return to the ship as instructed, immediately after the cocktail party. What did I have to say for myself?

I had plenty to say for myself. I explained how Dave Pearce had mistakenly taken my cap, and how – knowing the gravity of such a loss – I had diligently searched the dark streets and the disco in an attempt to find the revered article. I left him in no doubt that I had done everything that could be expected of any responsible cadet, and had returned to the ship at the earliest opportunity - which wasn’t entirely untrue, if you think about it. He appreciated the rightness of what I was saying and dismissed me. Phew!

On the way back to the messdeck I passed two other cadets en route to their ‘hearing.’ Their crime had been found out, too. They had been picked up by the patrol, sitting on a bench in an attempt to brush off a case of mild inebriation. Their punishment was two weeks stoppage of leave. Given the relative merits of our ‘crimes,’ on that basis I should have been keelhauled at the very least, if not strung up from the yard arm for the gulls to feed on. I offered my condolences. ‘No hard feelings,’ they said.

I think the gods must have been smiling on me that day in St Pierre. Or maybe the goddesses. Yes, I prefer that. Makes up for the officers getting the girls.

Well, What D'ya Know?

The government announced one of its cost-cutting-to-save-the-economy measures today. A plan to extend the provision of free school meals to children from poorer families is being scrapped.

What was I saying about the poor being the first against the wall?

Mr Cameron says we’re ‘all in it together.’ I’m waiting to see what measures they take to place our esteemed Members of Parliament on the breadline.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Searching Questions.

How many of us have been in situations that force us to confront searching and fundamental questions about ourselves? The following is one that happened to me when I was nineteen, going on twenty.

I was doing a temporary job labouring in a warehouse that stored and distributed camping equipment. It was sited on an old WWII bomber repair station that had been turned over to use as an industrial and trading estate. We had two buildings. The top shed was purpose-built and used to store dry goods like tents, chairs and camp beds. The bottom shed was an old bomber hangar built to accomodate the likes of Lancasters, which gives an idea of its size. That one was used to store butane gas. A mountain of boxes lined one side of the hangar, each containing thirty six 1lb cartridges. The bigger 4lb and 7lb containers were on the other side.

We were all working in the top shed one day, but I had some reason to go down to the bottom one. I saw a curious glow on the roof at the far end, and went to investigate. It was being caused by a large pile of waste material that had somehow caught alight, and the fire was spreading rapidly towards the stack of boxes. Bear in mind that this was a place where lighting a match was grounds for instant dismissal, so seeing a fire that size and that close to the butane was a bit of a shock. I set off the fire alarm immediately, and then considered what I should do next.

For reasons that I’ll come to later, I made for the hose reel, unwound the hose, and began playing the water onto the fire. I was soon joined by my pal Paddy Connolly, who muttered something indecipherable in his best Limerick accent. (I later learned that everybody else had raced off across the airfield upon hearing the fire alarm!) I gave him the hose and told him to carry on pushing the fire away from the butane. I rushed to collect every extinguisher I could find, and then used them to play water onto the sides of the boxes to keep them cool. I observed that they weren’t getting wet; it appeared they were hot enough for the water to evaporate on contact.

Eventually, the job was done. The fire was completely out, but we carried on soaking the ashes to be sure. At that point, three fire tenders arrived to deal with the incident... I looked at my watch and realised that the exercise had taken fifty minutes. It felt like five. How perceptions of time change when you’re having fun!

So then I reflected on two questions to which I wanted honest answers. The first was how I had truly felt about being in danger of imminent death. The second concerned whether what I had done was brave, stupid, or something else entirely.

I thought about how I’d felt when the fire was within six feet of the stack, and the water hitting them was evaporating. I genuinely believed at that moment that we must have been getting close to the critical point where the butane would blow. The prospect of imminent death was very real in my mind, and I remember feeling quite accepting of it. It was going to happen one day anyway, so what difference did it make whether it was today or another day. What terrified me was the prospect of having burning butane searing my face. I remember envying Paddy, because he was facing away from the stack; I was looking straight at it. I kept telling myself ‘It’s OK. If it blows, you’ll be killed instantly. This place will go up like the grandfather of all bombs.’ I felt better, and carried on.

The second question was a little more complex. I made myself re-live the moment when I’d first discovered the fire. Breaking the glass in the fire alarm was a natural instinctive reaction, but then I had to make a decision. A swift appraisal of the situation showed me I had four options. One was to leave the building by the nearest exit, but that was right next to the fire. Opening that door would probably have created a fire storm that would have projected the expanded flames onto the stack of butane almost instantaneously. The second option was to go to the other end of the hangar and get out that way. I saw how far it was to that end, and remembered that the sliding doors there were hardly ever opened. They were very stiff, and took two men to open them comfortably. There was a chance I wouldn’t have enough time to do that before the explosion happened. The third option was to return to the top shed and get out that way, but I knew that the two sheds were connected by a long, narrow corridor. If the gas blew, it would send a fireball through there that would burn me alive. The fourth option was to fight the fire without delay. I decided it was the one that offered me the best chance of survival. The decision was made in seconds, and I’m sure there was a big chunk of instinct involved.

So, neither bravery nor stupidity, just a pragmatic choice. No medals for Jeffrey this time. But, of course, the real medal was in learning something about myself – what I was really afraid of, and what capacity I had for dealing with a difficult moment. All good stuff, and greatly recommended.

The Answers.

For those who might be interested, the truth about the six statements:

The following five statements are mostly true, but contain one inaccuracy.

1 I made only two TV appearances, on a quiz show called 15to1.

2 The young woman in question was 17, not 18. Curiouser and curiouser!

3 It was the same finger that I broke twice, not a toe.

5 It wasn’t Harlem that I walked across, but the lower West Side - which I gather was just as hazardous in those days.

6 The warehouse wasn’t used to store dynamite, but butane gas containers. I’m making that incident the subject of my next post.

Number four was the wholly true one. She was somebody I knew during my time working at a theatre. She was an actress and stage director, as well as writing scripts for a popular Brit soap called Emmerdale.

Advance Notice.

Just a little heads up. Since poor old Mr Grimshaw is sailing along like the proverbial lead balloon (but with thanks to dear Della, who not only thought it mildly worth reading but actually bothered to say so! What a snotty little monstink I am tonight. ‘Monstink’ was my mother’s favourite word for me when I was being objectionable as a kid. Good word, eh – monstink? I got called it a lot,) I’ve decided to post the next one earlier. It’s going to be Glenda.

Apologies to those couple or so people who’ve already read it, but it is a favourite story – and it’s a later one, as promised. I have to format it yet and I’m likely to be busy tomorrow and Thursday, but it should be up by the weekend.

Another reason for posting it early is that I intend to put another one up on 26th in recognition of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party celebration. That one’s a bit weird.

Do forgive my late night attempt at petulance. Blame William Grant and Sons of Dufftown.

And hello to Sweden, my latest flag. I knew a Swedish man once, called Stephan Marling. He was short, dark haired and spoke terribly good English. Doesn’t quite fit the picture, does it? Nice bloke, though, and the girls loved him. I didn’t. I’m sure he was responsible for Sheona McCormack giving me the push. I got over it and forgave him.

This is getting silly. Go away.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The Challenge.

The ever-delightful Lucy from Aus has nominated me to take the five-lies-and-a-truth challenge. I’ve varied it slightly. Five of the following six statements are partly true; only one of them is wholly true. Just in case anybody should want time to make a guess, I’ll post the answer tomorrow. Am I being self-indulgent here?

1 I have appeared three times on British national TV.

2 When I was forty six, a very attractive 18-year-old woman propositioned me. She said that a fortune teller had told her that she would marry a much older man. I didn’t bite!

3 I broke a toe playing rugby at age fifteen. Nineteen years later I broke the same toe playing cricket. They’re the only two times I broke a bone.

4 A scriptwriter for a British TV soap once said to me ‘You have an interesting way of putting things. You should write.’

5 During my brief time in the navy, my ship put into New York for four days. One night I walked across Harlem at around midnight, having no idea where I was. I saw nobody, but a shipmate who did the same thing ended up in hospital after he was attacked.

6 I once spent nearly an hour putting out a large rubbish fire in a warehouse full of dynamite. The boss later implied that he considered me responsible for the fire. I wasn’t.

At the fear of offending my good chum Shayna, I thought I would nominate her to do the next one. She’s a lovely person, and far more interesting than me. You can always tell me to sling me ‘ook if you want to, Shay.

Apocalypse of Sorts.

I’m starting to get a gut feeling that worldwide economic collapse isn’t as far off as I thought it was. Selfishly, I suppose, I still hope to be gone before it happens. But I feel for the generations of people who are still young. I recommend that they gather about themselves things that are sustainable, and which will sustain them when the comfort zone is breached. Forget the frills, the gadgets and the ‘lifestyle accessories.’ Reliance on those things is what, in my opinion, has brought us to this state. And they will be worthless when the bad times come.

The world has ever been full of false prophets of doom. I truly hope I’m one of them.

Monday, 7 June 2010

A Curious and Mysterious Coincidence.

How about this for an example of life mirroring art, albeit in a rather mysterious way?

I wrote a story once called ‘A Wailing in the Wood.’ It was suggested by a fallen log that I saw lying in a wood close to where I used to live. It startled me for a second because, from that angle, it looked just like a wolverine staring at me. I could see the eyes, ears and legs quite clearly, even though I realised immediately that it was one of those situations where a random shape impresses itself upon our imagination and shows us pictures. So I wrote a variation on the shape-shifting theme, about a victim under a rare curse forced to shift from inanimate object during the day to a fearsome wolverine at night.

About a year later I went into the wood one day and found two fresh paw prints in the soft mud by the stream. They were big, and in direct line of the ‘stare’ of my imaginary creature. It was from that spot that I’d seen it originally. The paw prints were unquestionably made by a mustelid (weasel family) and the largest mustelid we have in Britain is the badger. I measured the prints and they were twice the size of a male badger’s paw. I know my mustelids, and I know that the only one bigger than a badger is a wolverine. So I posted my find on a BBC wildlife discussion forum and my opinion was confirmed – only a wolverine, I was told, could have made those prints. We don’t have wolverines in Britain. Or, at least, we’re not supposed to. We get regular sightings of big cats, but I’ve never heard of a sighting of a wolverine. So what made the prints, and why just there?

Mixed Day.

Today’s disturbing little scenario was the sight of David Cameron standing on a soap box yet again, telling us how awful life is about to become in Britain soon. And, as usual, he didn’t give any details as to just whose life is about to be turned upside down in the name of saving the economy. Call me cynical if you like, but what’s the betting the poor will be at the head of the queue? The rich and powerful have influence, so they probably won’t be affected. And Mr Cameron went to Eton. Old Etonians do have an unfortunate habit of regarding we lesser mortals as pawns to be utilised and sacrificed where necessary, whether on the battlefield or in the corridors of high finance. It was they and their ilk who oversaw the Irish potato famine and the Highland Clearances, and I think certain traditions don’t die easily. We’ll see.

On a brighter note, my little apple tree is growing apples. Not such a surprise you might think, but it is. I planted three small saplings – an apple, a pear, and a plum – three springs ago. The apple is still only about seven feet tall. As far as I know, there aren’t any other apple trees within at least four hundred yards, and I’m told that apples are never self-pollinating. Since I don’t have the space to plant further trees, I assumed I would forever have to be content with the sight of blossom only. But no, there are about twenty fruits growing on the little beauty. I suspect the intervention of some invisible little friends.

And I have yet another new flag. Belgium this time. Hello and welcome Belgium.

Serbia!

Guess what. I've now had a visit from Serbia. Serbia? This just gets better and better. Hello Serbia! I love the way blogging makes connections around the world.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Direct Action or Personal Growth?

I’ve made some silly posts recently (even if nobody seemed to get the flaccid flag joke!!) I think it’s time to knuckle down again and say something sensible, or at least a bit deeper.

I began reading Ishmael yesterday. I’m enjoying it greatly so far; Daniel Quinn’s style is easy yet eloquent, and so the message flows more transparently than it does in a lot of books. I had a problem, though, with the protagonist’s opening gambit. He rounded on the hippy movement of the 1960’s, proclaiming cynically that seeking personal growth was inherently selfish, and the only right way to change the world for the better was by direct action. I thought the view unnecessarily polarised, incomplete, and possibly even naïve. The problem is that to address the question fully would require the writing of a major tome, not a blog post; but I would like to make a point as briefly as I can.

I’m not against direct action. I have as much respect for the strength and courage of people like Nelson Mandela and other reformers as we all do. If something is causing innocent beings to suffer, of course it’s right to try and do something about it. The problem is that I believe the material world to be not only inherently flawed, but essentially so. Post-revolutionary environments are often as bad, and sometimes even worse, than they were before the revolution. It’s good that slavery was abolished in Europe and America, but slavery still exists in other places and in other forms. It seems that whatever wrong we right, something else pops up to take its place.

And there’s something else we need to consider: direct action is a two edged sword. The very same principle that can be used to destroy tyranny also produces war and terrorism. Everybody who takes direct action thinks they’re in the right, or at least justified in some way.

Personal growth, on the other hand, is about taking responsibility for raising our own consciousness. There’s nothing selfish about that. Ultimately, we can only be responsible for ourselves and our own part in the scheme of things. And maybe there is some justification for the belief that the more each of us raises our own state of being, the more some beneficent energy thus produced will spread out and raise the consciousness of humanity. Maybe it’s all a matter of reaching the point of critical mass. I like to think so, even if my hope proves to be misplaced.

There’s a lot more to be said on this issue, but I think I should leave it there for now.

Transatlantic.

Good day and welcome Canada. I’ve been waiting for you. I went to Quebec once (see, my flaggy thing tells me everything.) A Canadian once told me a Canadian joke.

Delegates from Britain, the USA, France and Canada were asked to write a paper on the subject of ‘The Elephant.’

The British paper was entitled ‘The Elephant as a Symbol of Empire.’ The Americans wrote one called ‘’The History of the Elephant in Warfare.’ The French contribution was ‘The Love Life of the Elephant.’ The Canadian delegation wrote ‘The Elephant: A National or Provincial Problem?’

Of course, I couldn’t possibly comment. I’m just glad we all get on these days.

All Blacks Rule.

Before I retire:

I'm so glad to have had a visit from New Zealand. I really like New Zealand. I really must post a funny story one of these days - about the Englishman, the Irishman, and the New Zealander. It's a rugby story.

Don't Question the Experts.

I used to have a problem in this house. Every time there was rain driven on a southerly wind, my bedroom wall got wet patches. Sometimes they were so bad that the water would run under the skirting board and wet the carpet. Since it’s a rented house, I called the landlord. He sent the builders in.

They came and looked, and decided some re-pointing work was necessary. The work was done, but the problem persisted. I called the landlord again and he sent the builders back.

They decided that the window frame needed a fresh injection of mastic. They did the work, but the problem still persisted. I called the landlord again, and he sent an architect over.

The architect turned up wearing the uniform of the professional person. (Have you noticed that professional persons are as immediately recognisable as Mormon missionaries?) Anyway, he looked the part, and I was immediately suspicious. He explained to me that the problem wasn’t as simple as it seemed. Such problems have three stages, he said. First there’s the point at which the water gets through the wall, then there’s the route the water takes through the wall, then there’s the type of plaster on the inside which affects the way the wall deals with the water.

All the time he was telling me this he was giving me a quizzical look, suggesting some degree of uncertainty on his part as to whether or not I was being taken in by it. I wasn’t. I suggested that if point number one was taken care of, points numbers two and three would surely have no relevance. He avoided the question. He was the expert and in command of the esoteric wisdom in such matters. I was merely an uninformed peasant who should take his exoteric ramblings as gospel.

A few weeks later he turned up again, with a different builder in tow. They looked knowingly at the wall.

‘Well, that’s got to come down,’ said the builder, pointing to an old TV aerial bolted to a wooden spar that juts out of the eave.

‘Oh, definitely,’ said the architect.

It was patently obvious that the aerial had no bearing whatsoever on the water problem.

‘It’ll need scaffolding,’ continued the builder. ‘We’ll have to re-point the whole wall.’

‘How long will the scaffolding be up?’ I asked.

‘About eight or nine days.’

The architect explained that a special type of mortar was needed. Ordinary stuff just wouldn’t do.

I didn’t fancy being inundated with builders and inconvenienced by scaffolding for eight or nine days, and so I did some investigations of my own. It took me a matter of minutes to discover that the bottom part of my bedroom window frame on the outside was rotten. There was a gap there that would easily let water in. I called the landlord and told him what I’d found. ‘Hold the builder,’ I said. ‘Get a joiner to replace the bottom of the window frame.’ And so he did. No more wet walls. No more experts.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

My Flag is Flagging.

Today is a Dead Blog Day. My flaggy thing is stagnating, and there are few moods worse than the one engendered by a flaccid flaggy thing. I had a comment from Della, but even she yelled at me for being horrid to poor old Steve. So, all I can say is:

Hello Bulgaria! New country. Made my day. Gave my flaggy thing a welcome lift. I remember collecting ‘Flags of the World’ cards in chewing gum packets when I was a kid, and I do remember being particularly fascinated by Bulgaria for some reason. My collection of US states increased by one as well. So, hello Oregon, too! Twenty now. 40%. If only some of them would talk to me. Oh well, some people do and some people don’t. That’s life.

I’ll end today’s lugubrious little post with a favourite line from a British music hall song.

‘She sits among the cabbages and peas.’

I’ve been gardening today.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Steve.

Many moons ago, when I worked for a civil service department which shall be nameless for fear of heaping embarrassment upon my head, I had a colleague called Steve. He was harmless enough, even quite likeable in a way, but he wasn’t the sort whose company people went out of their way to seek. Most of what he said was either blatantly obvious or a bit dull. He had a wife called Jenny, and Jenny was his favourite topic of conversation. Poor old Steve. Poor old us.

On one occasion he brought one of Jenny’s cakes into the office. It was a lurid sort of thing – coloured bright green and red, if I remember correctly. I commented on the startling appearance and he flew into a huff – turned and walked away without giving me a piece.

He sometimes played for the office cricket team. During the course of one match, an opposition batsman hit a high ball into the outfield. Steve and I both moved in for the catch, but he was in the better position so I pulled back to let him take it. He got underneath the ball and waited. Just as it was about to reach him, he stepped aside and let the ball fall to the ground. Then he picked it up and returned it to the bowler.

‘Steve, you’re supposed to catch the bloody thing!’

He walked away from me without a word. Everyone else shrugged. I was surprised we didn’t have to delay the game while the batsman stopped laughing.

And then, one Monday morning, he walked into my office and went to the window. He stood there for some time, looking deeply pensive. I was eventually moved to ask him whether he was OK.

‘Yes, fine,’ he said. ‘Jenny really enjoyed the weekend.’

I thought I was about to witness an unprecedented event. Steve was going to tell me something interesting.

‘Oh, yes?’ I said, genuinely enthused. ‘What did you do?’

‘Nothing, but Jenny really enjoyed the weekend.’

Back to work.

Oh, and by the way - Greetings Mexico! (Latest new visitor.)

An Interesting Discovery.

I did what I’m told you’re not supposed to do today – hosed the garden when the sun was still quite high. It was around four o’clock in the afternoon. I was glad I did, because I discovered something rather splendid.

I found that if I had the nozzle set just right for a certain density of spray, and if I turned the hose in the opposite direction to the sun, and if I held the stream of water at just the right elevation, I got my very own little rainbow. Better still, I could view the garden through a mist of water droplets and spectral colours.

Now, I’m quite sure I’m not the first gardener to discover this, but it just might lead to a new short story one of these days.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

The Robin, the Rat, and the Dream.

I had a strange and slightly disturbing dream last night. There was a bird flying around my living room, and I soon identified it as a robin. It was tame enough to let me catch it so that I could set it free outdoors. As I held it in my hand, I saw that it had changed from a robin to a tiny fat elephant. I was confused, wondering why something so fleet of flight would transform into something slow, lumbering and earthbound. I put it outside and it walked along the path, only to be grabbed and carried away by a rat that darted out of the undergrowth. There was nothing I could do to rescue it, and I woke up feeling sad at the fate of the little creature, but relieved that it had been only a dream.

My first job when I get up in the morning is to feed the birds. After filling the bird table at the top of the garden, I walked down to the bottom where I hang the peanut feeder. On the way I was approached by the friendly robin that’s been following me about for a year and a half now. He seemed to want his own private pile of oats, as he usually does, but I was surprised because he hadn’t approached me for some weeks. I assumed there was enough natural food about and he had no need of my offerings.

I put a pile down for him, but he became fretful and wouldn’t go near it. I remembered the dream, and realised that I had placed the food on a kerb by the side of the path. It was only an inch or two from dense, dark undergrowth. I put another pile down on more open ground in the middle of the path, and he fed happily there.

On my way back a couple of minutes later, I saw that the pile on the verge had gone. The only thing that could have eaten it in so short a time was a rat. I assumed the robin must have known of the rodent’s presence, whereas I needed the dream to fill in the picture.

Just a coincidence, I suppose.

And while I’m on, a big welcome to whoever visited from Italy. The UK beat the US to be the first to 100, by the way. The last time I looked, the score was UK 100: US 99. Well, that makes a change!

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Two Bird Stories (and a Connection.)

Yesterday’s great delight was the appearance of the first fledglings of the summer. Two little female sparrows, still with that characteristic softness about their new feathers, accompanied their mother to the bird table. There followed frenetic flappings of baby wings to command the mother’s attention, and she dutifully gave each one a beakfull of food. Then she flew away and the kids picked up some food for themselves before following her. Learning the ropes, of course.

On a similar theme, but of maybe deeper significance, I had an unusual experience this morning.

I’ve been watching the parent blue tits bringing food for the chicks in the nest box outside my kitchen window for a couple of weeks now. I glanced at it when I first got up, and it looked different somehow. It looked empty. I couldn’t understand how that could be, since it looks the same from the outside as it has done ever since I put a roof on it four years ago. I pondered the question for a while, and realised that it had nothing to do with the appearance of the box, but rather a feeling inside me. I sensed that it had been abandoned. I kept an eye on it all day, and there have been no birds anywhere near it. The chicks obviously fledged before I got up this morning, which is what they usually do. So where did this ‘sense’ come from? I’ve never felt it before, and yet it was sudden and quite powerful. It hit me the second I looked at the box. It made me feel slightly sad that something precious had gone. Am I becoming attuned, I wonder?

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Two Cow Stories.

I think I’ve mentioned before that there is a herd of heifers in the field opposite my house, and a herd of bullocks in the field that encloses the back and side of my garden. One of the heifers has been pouring her little heart out all day, bellowing fit to disturb the occupants of the churchyard a mile away. She’s been standing by the hedge, looking across my garden in the direction of the bullocks’ field. I concluded that she’s one lovelorn little lady.

What I found interesting is the fact that the lay of the land here, and the height of the hedgerows, ensures that the two groups of bovines can’t see each other. The light breeze was also in the wrong quarter to carry any scent from the males to the females, and the males weren’t making a sound. Better still, when the bullocks moved to another field further away, the heifer moved a hundred yards along the hedge to a point closest to their new position. The eyeline from there is even more obstructed, so how did she know where they were? Is this further evidence that animals have perceptive faculties that we don’t possess?

Story number two is gruesome.

Helen and I went to the Highlands of Scotland a few years ago, to a wild part of Wester Ross near the Isle of Skye. One day we took a drive into the mountains and stopped to ramble around a loch. We decided to have lunch sitting on a rock near the water’s edge. Just as we were about to eat, Helen looked severely alarmed.

‘There’s no way I’m eating here,’ she said, and pointed at the water.

There in the shallows were several disembodied cows’ heads looking up at us. We moved to another spot, but found more of them there. Several further attempts produced the same result. There were heads everywhere, and eventually we moved away from the water to eat.

I speculated on how they might have got there. A river runs into the loch and I wondered whether they might have been dumped by an abattoir somewhere upstream, and then carried down with the flow. As far as I could tell, however, the river flowed out of a landscape virtually devoid of settlement. I suppose I’ll never know. If anybody has knowledge of such things...