30 June 2012

Red Letter Day

Thursday was one of those days one often hears of other people doing, and which one sometimes dreams about! One of those brilliant family days.

We'd better start with some background ... My late father was the eldest of four siblings in what we all now agree was a dysfunctional family. His next brother down (David) was severely handicapped and died at the age of about two. His second brother (Cyril) is now 85 and still going strong. Then there is his kid sister, Jessie (now 82). They were Baptists and brought up in Canterbury, although during the war Jessie and her mother were evacuated to Newbury. Then all the wheels came off.

Marshall Family
The dysfunctional family in late-1930/early-1931.
L to R: My Grandfather; my uncle Cyril (standing; aged 3-4); my Father (aged about 10),
my aunt Jessie (under a year old); my Grandmother.

My grandfather was in the RAF during the war as barrage balloon ground crew whereupon he absconded with some floosie WAAF by whom he had a daughter (Pam, born in 1944). Being of a good catholic family Pam was brought up by her maternal grandparents (I met Pam once when I was about 10 and she would have been about 18.) My grandmother wouldn't divorce my grandfather. And grandfather subsequently had another two daughters by the same floosie; they are both within a year of me in age; I'm told they were both brought up by Barnardos; I have never met them.

So my childhood was pervaded by the running saga of Jessie (by then a nurse) trying to support my grandmother; and my father trying to stop my grandfather going completely off the rails and get him to look after his second family, my grandmother and himself. Needless to say this became drawn battle lines: Jessie, Cyril and my grandmother thought my father was on grandfather's side against them and vice versa.

Then another twist. When I was in my mid-teens Jessie decided to marry her cousin Ray (some years older than her). My father deeply disapproved of this (although he knew children were out of the question) as he thought Ray was a "drip"; the feeling was mutual. The battle lines became entrenched and contact was infrequent and acrimonious; from that point I lost contact with my grandparents, my aunt Jessie and uncle Cyril and their families. The final and total severance came when my grandmother died in 1973.

And so it continued until my father died six years ago. At that point I decided that Jessie and Cyril, if they were still alive, should have the courtesy of knowing their eldest brother had died. I managed to trace them and write to them, not expecting any response. Within 24 hours I had both of them on the phone and we have all subsequently been reconciled after some 40 years. Lots of misunderstandings have been righted (mainly as Jessie and I have swapped family letters), especially that my father was actually all those years equally annoyed by his father's attitude and trying to ensure everyone got a fair deal, to the extent that my parents at one time seriously considered adopting my two youngest half-aunts (Pam being by then over 18). Anyway, as long-time readers will know, Jessie and I have re-established contact and been in regular touch.

Jessie with Portrait of her Mother
Jessie with a portrait of my Grandmother,
painted by my Mother in early-1960,
which we presented to her on her 80th birthday.

Some while ago Jessie expressed the wish to see my mother. This is quite a challenge: Jessie is in east Kent, my mother is in Norwich and Jessie is not very mobile having had a stroke which affected just her left arm and leg. We've considered various plans over the last few years but they haven't borne fruit. But Jessie has now found a good "driver" and commissioned him to take her on a day trip to Norwich! We figured we'd better go along — although Jessie and my mother have corresponded and talked on the phone you never know how these things are going to pan out. In fact I ended up facilitating the whole thing, arranging dates, rendezvous, maps etc.

Mother at Nearly 96
My Mother in August 2011

Thursday was the day! Noreen and I travelled up to Norwich as usual, popping in to the care home to see my mother briefly in the morning and then running errands for her. We had arranged to meet up with Jessie and her driver at a village pub (King's Head at Bawburgh; highly recommended) for lunch — great fish & chips! — before spending the afternoon with my mother.

We spent that afternoon, just my mother, Jessie, Noreen and I catching up, drinking tea and eating cake. It was fine. Everyone got on. Some tears were shed. Some healing was done. We swapped pots of jam and bottles of wine. And I breathed a sigh of relief. It was a long day; a tiring and stressful day. But a wonderfully successful day. It was one of those days you always dream can happen.

Now of only we could have done this for my father before he died! But I knew I daren't have even tried because with my father there was never any going back. So sad.

29 June 2012

Bred for Marketing

Yesterday we were in Norwich seeing my aged mother (more of which maybe later) and as is our wont we dropped into a branch of the small local supermarket, Roy's of Wroxham, for a loaf of bread. What we bought was a granary loaf, but with a difference as the wrapper declared it to be

Made from Scratch


27 June 2012

Linguistic Pet Hates

Item 1 of "a lot", judging by most of the written English I see.

Let's forget the much over-discussed greengrocers' apostrophe and look at a few of my bêtes noir of grammar and vocabulary.

of. Very few if any past participles in English take "of". So not "bored of" but "bored with". Not "sensitive of" but "sensitive to". And especially not "off of", just "off"!

Chef's "off". Why do chefs have to "do off" everything. "I'm just going to fry off these onions"! Argghhh! None of the verbs you guys use should have "off" added. At best it is affectation, at worst slovenliness. Just "fry" will do!

Decimate. Unless you really do mean a reduction by exactly 1 in 10 it is incorrect.

Different to. No. Something is "different from" something else. But it is "similar to" another. Likewise things are "compared with" each other not "compared to".

My school teachers also always used to deride the old exam favourite "compare and contrast" as being tautology: "compare" technically includes both similarities and differences, so "contrast" is unnecessary.

Impact on. Things do not "impact on" each other. They may "impact", "collide", "interact" or "impinge", none of which need "on".

Nude and Naked. The OED gives these as cognates, at least as far as human form is concerned, although I discern some variation. Used alone they are absolutes: both mean undressed; totally undressed; not wearing a bikini, or socks, or a hat. But gradations of nakedness (but not, I discern, nudity) can be indicated by the use of "almost", "nearly", "not quite" etc. Naked may also mean devoid of hair (where hair would generally be expected). Naked is much more readily and correctly applied to plants, animals, land, swords etc. etc.

Less and Fewer. The rule here is simple. Less of a quantity. Fewer of number. So we would get "less milk from fewer cows" and not any other variant.

OK, so language is a living thing and subject to change. But one had to have some standards, you know!

Gallery : Hands

OK, so here's another regular. Tara's Gallery this week is called Hands. Here's my contribution:

Click the image of larger views on Flickr

This was taken in June 2004 (when I was still experimenting with a digital camera) sitting outside the Royal Standard pub on Lyme Regis beach-front. This beauty was at the next table; I just casually put my camera down on our table, set at widest-angle zoom and pointing the right way, and "accidentally" clicked the shutter a couple of times. I've no idea whether she had seen what I was doing, or whether she really was in a dream of her own, but I remain surprised at how well it came out!

25 June 2012


Another ragbag selection of quotes which amused or interested me over the last week or so ...

Fiction is life with the dull bits left out.
[Clive James]

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.
[Philip K Dick]

The entrée wasn't tender enough to be a paving stone and the gravy couldn't have been primordial soup because morphogenesis was already taking place.
[Clive James]

No, you can't deny women their basic rights and pretend it's about your 'religious freedom'. If you don't like birth control, don't use it. Religious freedom doesn't mean you can force others to live by your own beliefs.
[Barak Obama]

[S]ome insect penises come equipped with hooks that enable the ensconced male to grab a previous suitor's sperm packet and remove it from the female. I suggest that these hooks be called cuckholders.
[Steve Mirsky; Scientific American, July 2012]

No man in this country is under the smallest obligation, moral or other, so to arrange his legal relations to his business or to his property as to enable the Inland Revenue to put the largest possible shovel into his stores. The Inland Revenue is not slow - and quite rightly - to take every advantage which is open to it under the taxing statutes for the purpose of depleting the taxpayer's pocket. And the taxpayer is, in like manner, entitled to be astute to prevent, so far as he honestly can, the depletion of his means by the Revenue.
[Lord Clyde in Ayrshire Pullman Motor Services & Ritchie v Commissioners of the Inland Revenue (1929) 14 TC 754]

For a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle.
[Winston Churchill]

Sunday went as Sunday's should, soporifically and full bellied into the evening.
[Katy Wheatley, http://katyboo1.wordpress.com]

You see, stand here long enough and all life will pass before you.

Hamlet of the Day

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. But come;
Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself,
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on,
That you, at such times seeing me, never shall,
With arms encumber'd thus, or this headshake,
Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase,
As 'Well, well, we know,' or 'We could, an if we would,'
Or 'If we list to speak,' or 'There be, an if they might,'
Or such ambiguous giving out, to note
That you know aught of me: this not to do.

[Hamlet, Act 1, scene 5]

24 June 2012

Reasons to be Grateful: 32

Experiment, week 32. Back on track this week with an on time report, although it will doubtless be coloured by the fact that I didn't start feeling really OK again until Wednesday. So here's the week's selection of five things which have made me happy or for which I'm grateful.
  1. Japanese Ceramics. Quite by chance the other week I came across a guy called Mark Smalley who makes ceramics in the Japanese style — very much after the tradition of Bernard Leech and his grandson John Leech, the latter of whose pottery we love and use almost daily. Mark showed a photo (below) of a pot he'd made; it is a yunomi, a Japanese tea cup, but the type used for everyday rather than the formal tea ceremony. It intrigued me, especially when I saw that it was carved. Yes, carved. Apparently this is done by making the pot, putting it aside to dry, then carving it before glazing and firing. Luckily for me Mark put the pot on this Folksy site and I snapped it up as an unbirthday present for Noreen, knowing she likes both green and this style of ceramic. It is only about 3-4" high and as delightful as it looks!

    Photo by Mark Smalley

  2. Nutty Seedy Bread. One of the great things about having a bread machine is that you can have an almost endless variety of loaves, at will, for no extra effort and at half the price you'd pay for something inferior in the shops. Noreen is master of the bread machine and a bread she does once or twice week is laden with pinenuts and sunflower seeds. If the nuts weren't so expensive we would doubtless eat this all the time!

  3. Broad Beans. Twice in the last week we've had broad beans; fresh broad beans. Firstly the other night in a chicken risotto and tonight in salad. Small tender and full of flavour — the best way to eat any vegetable.

  4. Orchids. Oh no! More orchids! (But not more orchid photos — yet!) I've decided that I shall only buy Phalaenopis orchids (they're the easy ones you most commonly see) if they are really unusual colours that I don't already have and which I like. So this week I bought three on our weekly trip to Waitrose. A miniature one in white and magenta, a large spotted one (in beige-y yellow with deep magenta spots) and a Chartreuse yellow one. And, oh dear, I've now run out of windowsill space!

  5. Saturday Dinner. I must say yesterday's evening meal was rather good. A week or two back Noreen bought a piece of lamb leg, opened out into a really thick steak. We didn't need it immediately so it was frozen. We thawed it and I cooked it for last night. Pan braised with some onion, garlic and wine; and served with English asparagus, samphire and steamed new potatoes. It was a lovely piece of lamb and I have to say I've paid a lot more for much worse in restaurants. Mmmmm...

Sleeping with Your Partner

Just a quick follow up to my post of the other day about the keys to a robust relationship and especially the one about sharing a bed.

Quite serendipitously the same day I happened across a reference to an article in The Wall Street Journal reporting on research which shows that there really are benefits to sharing a bed. For instance:
While the science is in the early stages, one hypothesis suggests that by promoting feelings of safety and security, shared sleep in healthy relationships may lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Sharing a bed may also reduce cytokines, involved in inflammation, and boost oxytocin, the so-called love hormone that is known to ease anxiety and is produced in the same part of the brain responsible for the sleep-wake cycle. So even though sharing a bed may make people move more, "the psychological benefits we get having closeness at night trump the objective costs of sleeping with a partner".
It's nice to have some scientific support for my thoughts.

23 June 2012

Buggered Britain 11

Another in my occasional series documenting some of the underbelly of Britain. Britain which we wouldn't like visitors to see and which we wish wasn't there. The trash, abused, decaying, destitute and otherwise buggered parts of our environment. Those parts which symbolise the current economic malaise; parts which, were the country flourishing, wouldn't be there, would be better cared for, or made less inconvenient.

Buggered Britain 11

This delight is in Kingly Street, London, W1 at the back of the shops in iconic Regent Street. I have no clue if it is used or if so what for. Is it some night-dive? Or the goods entrance to one of the Regent Street Shops (unlikely; the road is pedestrianised)? Or a staff entrance? Why the padded doors, and fancy gates? Oh and note the tuft of grass on the top of the gatepost!
[Further research reveals that this is the Studio Valbonne nightclub. The state of the entrance is a fairly good guide to the reviews it gets.]

Things What I Want To Do

No not another of those lists of 100 impossible things you're supposed to (want to) do before you die; there's one of them on my website already. No, this is an actual, real list!

I don't know how many years ago it was that I first made myself a list of things I wanted to do/achieve in this life, but it was well over 10 years ago although at that time I hadn't formalised it. Interestingly it doesn't seem to have changed a lot over the years although I do add odd things.

And I never called it "Things to do Before I Die" but "Sometime I'll Do ..." which somehow seemed less doom-laden and more aspirational.

I've achieved () quite a few (though not yet 50%) and I know I've failed () on a handful.

Out of interest I thought I would share my list. It probably says some highly significant and interesting things about me! So ...

Sometime I'll Do ...
  • Lead a funeral celebration (not my own!)
  • Celebrate my 80th birthday in good health
  • Celebrate my mother's 100th birthday with her
  • Fly on Concorde
  • Fly on flight-deck of a commercial airliner
  • Have acupuncture
  • Be honoured for something
  • Have hypnotherapy
  • Get a piercing
  • Get a tattoo
  • Go on London Eye
  • Have a nudist holiday
  • Heal my father and his rift with his family
  • Invest in penny shares (not that I need to; the value of what I do have is so low!)
  • Learn to dowse
  • Learn MS Access
  • Learn Photoshop properly
  • Try yoga
  • Practice dowsing properly
  • Publish a book on Anthony Powell
  • Retire
  • Retire in financial comfort
  • Reunite with my Aunt & Uncle (my father's siblings)
  • Travel on Eurostar
  • Travel across Europe on the Orient Express
  • Try zazen
  • Visit Bluebell Railway
  • Visit Iceland
  • Visit Japan
  • Visit Norway
  • Visit Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway
  • Visit Scilly Isles
  • Visit Sweden
  • Visit USA
  • Visit West Somerset Railway
  • Visit the London Aquarium
  • Win £1M+ on Lottery (or equivalent)
  • Write a book
  • Do past life regression under hypnotherapy
  • Prove my family history back to Tudor times and find an armigerous ancestor

Some things are dependent on others: like there is no way I'll be able to afford the Orient Express unless I win the Lottery first. And I won't visit Iceland, Norway or Japan until they change their stance on whaling. Some of the things are unlikely to ever happen and some are out of my control. But one can dream, and I guess at least some part of this is just about dreams!

Dare you share your list?

22 June 2012

Word : Armigerous

Well as we all like words so much here's another nice one following along hot on the heels of the last ...


Entitled to bear heraldic arms.

As de Quincy writes in 1858: "They belonged to the armigerous part of the population, and were entitled to write themselves Esquire".

For those interested the shield on the right is the arms of England, 1405-1603, consisting of France Moderne (Azure three fleur-de-lis Or) quartered with England (Gules three lions passant guardant in pale Or armed and langued azure). It is formally blazoned as: Quarterly, I and IV azure three fleur-de-lis Or; II and III gules three lions passant guardant in pale Or armed and langued azure.

Keys to a Robust Relationship

I've been thinking, idly, as one does, for some time about what it is that makes any relationship really robust. Not just one that will last, but one that will last through almost everything and get stronger.

First of all we need to be clear about what I mean by "relationship". In this instance I am talking of the long-term, bonded, probably sexual, live together partnership between two (or more) people — and regardless of the mix of genders of the partners.

So I've come up with ...

5 Keys to a Robust Relationship

1. Multi-level
It seems to me, as outlined on my website, that the best relationships operate at multiple levels with the partners dropping in and out of different roles at different times. Sometimes it will be lover-lover, sometimes parent-child (for instance when one partner is ill, or in fun), sometimes there will be child-child playtime. And so on.

Many things seem to spring from this. The more levels there are present the stronger the relationship is likely to be, although not all levels may be there all the time. Occasionally a level will go missing, and that may be when things feel out of kilter. That's fine as long as it returns after a while. And where a relationship is in trouble it is often because too many of the levels are absent for too long. Having a relationship which works only as lover-lover may be good for short-term lust but is unlikely to work long-term.

2. On-going Intimate Communication
There's an old adage I came across in business: Communicate, communicate, communicate. I wish more people would take it to heart, in business and in personal life.

Ongoing intimate communication between partners is essential for a healthy relationship. And by intimate I don't mean just about sex (though that is a highly important element) but communication about anything which is given in an open, honest, frank, straightforward and non-judgemental way — and is properly listened to, and considered, by the receiving partner. This builds respect and trust between the partners. Trust that the important things are being shared; trust that each partner can accept the other as they are; trust that any problem, great or small, can be discussed and worked through. Respect for the other person's opinion and values, even if you don't agree with them.

3. Mutual Trust and Respect
Trust and respect have to be built, preferably early on in the relationship. As we've seen above, communication is one key aspect of this. Openness and honesty are essential. It almost boils down to "do what you say and say what you do". Certainly keep your commitments (unless there is really good reason you can't in which case explain, honestly, as soon as possible beforehand why you can't).

Respect the other person's opinions and values, even if you yourself are unable to agree with them. We each hold our opinions and values for a reason (which we may not know) so they have an importance to us. So don't attack them or ridicule them. Discuss them by all means, in a civilised way, but accept that you may not come to mutual agreement, just mutual understanding of each others' views.

As that builds, early in the relationship, it should become apparent that you could trust your partner with your last shirt or your best mate. If you can't maybe you shouldn't be in the relationship?

4. Shared Bed
In my view sharing a bed is an equally key element of a relationship. You are going to spend 30%+ of your time in there so make sure it is a comfortable bed, which is big enough and soft (or hard) enough.

Physical intimacy is important. That doesn't mean it has to be sexual. A lot of the time it will not be sexual. Just the proximity of your partner should be something you cherish, something comforting. However miserable or depressed you feel, or however much you are out of sorts with each other, it is hard to fall asleep together without making up.

Even after many years together what better than to fall asleep embracing, to wake in the middle of the night to stroke your (sleeping) partner's body, to wake in the morning and cuddle into consciousness?

And if you can sleep in the nude, well it gets even better. Get a warm(-enough) duvet so you don't need pyjamas, knickers or socks and enjoy the delight of lying skin-to-skin.

5. Shared Meals
To me shared meals are also an important factor. If you are both working they may be the only time you get to sit and talk together, or as a family. For us evening meal is sacrosanct time. Time when we eat together, at the dining table, without the TV, book or computer game. Time to enjoy food and to talk. When we were both working it was often the only hour of the day when we could guarantee we were together, not pre-occupied and awake enough to be sentient. Thus it becomes important communication time and important decision-making time — we often sit for some while after finishing eating just talking, about whatever the subject at hand is: do we need to take the cat to the vet; shall I go to that conference next month; should we buy a new freezer; shall we have another bottle of wine.

Having said that, it is important to remember that meals are primarily about food, and enjoying food. What better way than to do this together, with a bottle of wine. And we often discuss food while we eat: ideas for recipes, what do we fancy eating at the weekend, does the wine rack need restocking. Most importantly of all, being together and enjoying food.

So there we have it. Five keys to a robust relationship, which boil down to communication, trust & respect and enjoyment.

Every relationship still has to be continually worked at. And each relationship will be different; working in its own peculiar way. Nonetheless I feel these principles will be the essence of any worthwhile, long-term successful relationship.

They certainly seem to be working for us!

21 June 2012

Word : Malkin

We've not had a good word for a while, and I do like a good word! So today I give you:

Malkin or Mawkin

1. A familiar diminutive of Matilda, Maud.
2. (Obsolete) Used as a female personal name; applied typically to a woman of the lower classes.
3. The proper name of a female spectre or demon.
4. An untidy female, especially a servant or country wench; a slut or slattern; a lewd woman. [See, inter alia, Shakespeare's Coriolanus]
5. (Obsolete) An effeminate man.
6. (Obsolete) A mop; a bundle of rags fastened to the end of a stick especially as used to clean out a baker's oven.
7. (Nautical) A sponge on a stick for cleaning out a piece of ordnance.
8. (Obsolete) A scarecrow; a ragged puppet or grotesque effigy.
9. The name for certain animals, especially a cat and (in Northern and Scots English) a hare.

Quotes : Philosophy

I seem to have accumulated a number of philosophical-type quotes recently. So here's today's selection of brain-fodder:

The third-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the majority. The second-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the minority. The first-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking.
[AA Milne]

Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience and rebellion that progress has been made.
[Oscar Wilde]

Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise.
[Bertrand Russell]

Experience is that marvellous thing that enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.
[Franklin P Jones]

Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.
[George Orwell]

The thing about smart people is that they seem like crazy people to dumb people.

Agree? Well maybe not with all of them? But one can see where the authors are coming from. And they're food for thought nonetheless.

20 June 2012

Gallery : Family

After what seems like a long break Tara's weekly Gallery is back and the theme is Family.

Hmm, this is quite difficult for me. I'd don't have a lot of very close family and while my parents and I have always taken photographs we aren't much ones of taking snaps of each other. Indeed my father hated being photographed so I have only one or two photos of him in his last 20 years! My mother isn't much better.

But anyway here are some photos of my mother.

I don't know who took this first shot (probably my father), but I would guess it must date from the late-40s (before I was born) or maybe as late as the late-50s; my mother can't remember either. It could be any bit of English seaside but is likely to be the Kent or Sussex coast, possibly Rye or the Whitstable/Herne Bay area.


The second shot would have been taken (again by my father) around 1960-61 when I would have been 9 or 10. Yes this shot really is over 50 years old! We were on a having a camping holiday at a nudist club — see I keep telling you I had a Bohemian upbringing! I recall it as a furiously hot fortnight, so my mother is watering me in an attempt to keep cool!

[And before anyone thinks to complain, there's nothing here you wouldn't see on the beach these days, or in the gym changing room! Or as Noreen's godfather would have said "If you seen anything God didn't make, heave a brick at it".]

Mother & Son

Oh for such carefree childhood days again!

The final; shot is one I took of my mother last summer, as she approached her 96th birthday!

[31/52] Mother at Nearly 96

We were sitting in the gardens of her care home, enjoying some rare English summer sunshine. Noreen is in the background.

19 June 2012

Greecing History

Well, well, well. This blog gets more and more like the 38 bus. Nothing for ages and then three come along at once. But to the point ...

There was a super article in the comment columns of the Daily Telegraph written by Mayor of London, Boris Johnson: Dithering Europe is heading for the democratic dark ages.

Whether you like the guy, or whether you think he's a dangerous buffoon, the article is extremely well written. He makes his case that "A Greek economy run by Brussels will ignore the lessons of history, leading to more misery".

But it also contains some lovely touches. Just his opening sentences are a masterpiece:
It is one of the tragic delusions of the human race that we believe in the inevitability of progress. We look around us, and we seem to see a glorious affirmation that our ruthless species of homo is getting ever more sapiens. We see ice cream Snickers bars and in vitro babies and beautiful electronic pads on which you can paint with your fingertip and – by heaven – suitcases with wheels! Think of it: we managed to put a man on the moon about 35 years before we came up with wheelie-suitcases; and yet here they are.
He goes on:
Aren’t they grand? [...] Isn’t that what history teaches us, that humanity is engaged in a remorseless ascent?

On the contrary: history teaches us that the tide can suddenly and inexplicably go out, and that things can lurch backwards into darkness and squalor and appalling violence. The Romans gave us roads and aqueducts and glass and sanitation and all the other benefits famously listed by Monty Python; indeed, they were probably on the verge of discovering the wheely-suitcase when they went into decline and fall in the fifth century AD.

History teaches us many things and we fail to learn most of its lessons.

Boris concludes:
If things go on as they are, we will see more misery, more resentment, and an ever greater chance that the whole damn kebab van will go up in flames. Greece will one day be free again [...] for this simple reason: that market confidence in Greek membership is like a burst paper bag of rice — hard to restore.

Without a resolution, without clarity, I am afraid the suffering will go on. The best way forward would be an orderly bisection into an old eurozone and a New Eurozone for the periphery. With every month of dither, we delay the prospect of a global recovery; while the approved solution — fiscal and political union — will consign the continent to a democratic dark ages.

As it happens I agree with him. But that's not the point. I was struck, first and foremost, by Boris's excellent and amusing prose. Silver spoon or not, he's well educated, intelligent, amusing and can look at the world from a fresh perspective. The world needs more like him, and in positions of power and influence, just without the party political agenda.

We don't need no Edukashun

My friend Katy had a couple of rants yesterday (here and here) about the current education system and the damage that politicians are doing. This is by way of a comment to those posts, so maybe you want to read them first?

Essentially I'm with Katy. Teaching kids has been f***ed up since Harold Wilson abolished Grammar Schools. (It's odd how so many things in this country which are buggered up go back to Harold Wilson as the root cause!)

I remain of the view that kids have to learn the basics to be able to go on and understand the next level. And with times tables the best way to do that is by rote — it has to be got into heads first. Yes, it's boring (but so is much of life; deal with it) and it doesn't mean you can't engage the kids along the way. Once the basic tables are being established the kids can start to understand the patterns in numbers etc. as well as have the ability to do mental arithmetic. The problem is that no-one ever explained why mental arithmetic was useful — like have you got the right change?

Phonics as a reading system sounds like an absolute load of horse shit to me. Just as phonetic alphabets and so on were before it. Why teach the kids one stupid language only to get them to learn something else when they want to read a book? Just do it properly the first time! They need the rudiments of punctuation and sentence structure as they get older, but early on (under 10?) they need to be able to express themselves with the right words — so vocabulary and spelling are important. Yes, to achieve that you have to engage them. Then as they are older they can start to understand the need for punctuation etc. But WTF does it matter about subjunctives and whether chairs have gender? It doesn't unless you're going to be a "professional linguist". This is where school lost me with French and Latin — I just did not see the point of all these arcane complications, nor the point of learning "something foreign".

I just wish that politicians would stop meddling in things they don't understand and listening to half-baked theories. If they spent half the time they spend on useless "initiatives" on sorting out the economy etc. etc. we wouldn't be in half the mess we are. Government keeps changing what is taught and the way it is taught. But industry tells us the kids coming out the other end aren't fit for purpose. Maybe there's a connection?! Because it's all "Emperor's new clothes". This is why I didn't go into teaching (I saw what my friends were doing and knew I'd fail because I'd tear it limb from limb) and it's why I won't be a school governor again.

The education I received in the 50s and 60s wasn't perfect by a long way. But even for the less able it was a damn sight better than most kids seem to get now. Schools then were far too good at finding our what you couldn't do and playing on it. They mostly still are. Try engaging with the kids, find out what they can do — and I don't care if it is maths or music or sport — and help them build on it. But at the same time you do have to give them the basic "3 Rs", otherwise (a) how do you find out if they're any good at them, (b) they have to be able to function, at least minimally, out in the world, and (c) it's no use having good ideas if you can't communicate them accurately to other people.

Let teachers teach. They know what they have to teach and they know how to adapt their methods to different types of child. They know what the kids should be achieving at various ages. It isn't an easy balancing act and the fewer wobbles (aka. politicians) the less likely you are to fall off the tightrope.

Reasons to be Grateful: 31

Experiment, week 31. A late report this week as I've been under the weather for the last few days; hopefully now on the up! Anyway here's last week's selection of five things which have made me happy or for which I'm grateful this week.
  1. Waitrose Cox's Apple Vintage Cider. Yummy! Memories of childhood: this is what cider should taste like.

  2. Pigeon Bones. See Pieces of Pigeon.

  3. Microwave Combi Oven. We decided last week to retire our old microwave oven. I use old advisedly: we bought it soon after we moved into the house, so it is over 30 years old! We replaced it with a Combi Microwave/Oven/Grill which promises to be very useful and save using the "big oven" a lot of the time.

  4. Sunshine. Don't faint! We had sunshine two days running last week.

  5. Cherries. Noreen bought some wonderful large, dark red cherries (from M&S, I think). They didn't last long.

14 June 2012


There are times, and there are places, but this is neither:

Japan Tsunami Debris on Pagan Island: Financial Problems May Lead to a Second Environmental Mess

Just what are these people on?

13 June 2012

Links What You May Have Missed

A pretty mixed bag of the curious and interesting which you may have missed in this instalment. Let's start with the historical ...

Archaeologists reckon they've located the exact site, and part of the structure of, the Curtain theatre in London's Shoreditch area, which was used by Shakespeare prior to The Globe.

Meanwhile on the south coast some other archaeologists have discovered wall paintings of a dozen or so medieval ships in a Winchelsea cellar. That has to be worth a visit!

Elsewhere historians are puzzling over the possibility that the ancients were also visited by UFOs and flying saucers.

From ancient history to natural history ... You always wanted to know about turtle sex, didn't you? Well here's a disquisition on the terrifying sex organs of male turtles. We're promised girlie turtle anatomy to follow.

While on the subject of sex (well you just knew there'd be more, didn't you!) back in 2006 an American Roman Catholic nun and theologian wrote a sensible book about sex and relationships. But now the Vatican has decided it doesn't like the content and has banned it. What price Galileo?

Now, what will the medics come up with next? Oh, I know, fungi. After investigating the bacteria and viruses which reside in our guts they've now started to investigate similarly located fungi.

Scientists have also been investigating whether whether human farts are germ-laden, or merely malodorous. Turns out they are germ-laden, but only if you're naked.

So now for something a little more appealing. Emily is getting married. (Well people will do it, y'know!) But what's this? The latest wedding accessory appears to be ... a birdcage! Her only question is "why?"!!

And finally while on the subject of nubiles, didn't you always want to know what was inside Kylie's knickers? Well now you can thanks to a surprisingly interesting collection of X-ray images of of everyday objects as art.

Toodle pip!

Voluminous Expletiveness

So there I was writing a long post about the (still proposed) third runway at Heathrow Airport and the also proposed HS2 rail link from London to Birmingham and beyond.

It had taken a long time. It was almost finished. I was tidying up the wording.

At that point my browser decides to corrupt it and save the corruption.

So my text is no more. It cannot be recovered. It is a dead parrot.

Somewhere on my hard drive it is laid to rest in it's lead coffin. Slowly decaying to electronic dust.

And I don't have the will to spend over an hour and do it all again. With quotes. From scratch.

[Exit, weeping, pursued by a long string of expletives.]

12 June 2012

Pieces of Pigeon

If you're overly squeamish, or don't like bits of things, then you might be advised to look away now.

A few weeks ago we discovered a decaying pigeon carcass hidden in a nook in the garden. When examined it was little but a collection of decaying feathers and bones; it had clearly been lying in it's last resting place for some months. We managed, without too much mess, to salvage the breastbone and the skull.

Pigeon Sternum & Skull
Click on any of the images for larger views on Flickr

Having soaked them overnight in mild detergent (aka. shampoo) and given them a careful scrub with an old toothbrush they were allowed to dry thoroughly. Then I bleached and disinfected them twice, again overnight, in hydrogen peroxide, allowing them to dry thoroughly in between. They have then been sitting drying thoroughly again in the bathroom for a week or more.

(Whether this is anything like an approved method for preparing such specimens, I have no idea. I more or less made it up as I went along, and it seems to have worked. Being a chemist helps!)

Pigeon Sternum & Skull

These are the resulting photographs. The structures are amazing. Some of the delicate structure of the brain case can be discerned. So can the wonderfully intricate fine structure which is actually within the bone of the sternum (birds have very light bones filled with air-sacs which is I think what we're seeing). The sternum especially is beautiful to handle: it weighs absolutely nothing, literally no more than a feather, and it feels like the most gorgeous and delicate waxed paper, something which isn't so obvious with the skull.

Pigeon Skull

Just for the record ...
The skull is 56mm from back to the tip of the bill, 20mm high, 20mm wide.
The sternum is 72mm long, 48mm high, 50mm wide.

Pigeon Sternum from Above

Next time you're destroying a roast chicken (or even your cat's next mouse) stop for a few minutes and look at the amazing structures before throwing the carcass in the bin. If you really want to see what the bones are like, boil them down in clean water (you can use the water for stock! — no maybe not the mouse!), clean them, then bleach them (domestic beach or hydrogen peroxide is fine; but not acid) and wash well in clean water; leave them to dry thoroughly. Finally be amazed.

This is why I love science and natural history.

10 June 2012

Reasons to be Grateful: 30

Experiment, week 30. Another week, another selection in my continuing experiment in documenting five things which have made me happy or for which I'm grateful this week.

But the whoe week has been very Meh, at best — grey, wet, windy, not very warm and generally crap. In fact it's been so Meh one wonders how to find 5 good things to highlight!
  1. The Experiment Continues. Yes, that is worth mentioning because we are now halfway through the 60 weeks I set out for this experiment to last. Overall over the last year I do seem to be less depressed -- I keep a very qualitative track of my mood (just on a scale of +3 to -3) and I'm definitely having more good days than I was. How much this experiment is the cause, or the hypnotherapy, or something else, I have no idea. I'm just glad things are better than they were; it'll be good if we can keep the upward trend.

  2. Waking up with a Pussy. Several mornings this week I've awoken with Harry the Cat sleeping by my head. And there's nothing like a warm furry pussy first thing in the morning. Maybe this should count as two ticks?

  3. Smoked Chicken. I'm sure I've said this one before, but Waitrose do smoked chicken breasts, and they aren't any more expensive that ordinary cold roast chicken. They usually have quite long "use by" dates so we often have a couple in the fridge as a stand-by so we can throw together a quick, and very yummy salad if ever we decide we don't want to cook. Especially good with an olive oil and lemon dressing.

    Peonies & Sunflowers
    Click the image for larger version

  4. Sunshine. There's been so little sunshine this week that the few odd spells of sun and blue sky we've had have been so very welcome.

  5. Peonies & Sunflowers (photo above, which sorry I also used yesterday!). We bought these from Waitrose on Friday. They're magnificent! They're in a handmade pottery jug by Dave Brown of Merriott, Somerset (which we bought from the man himself some 30-ish years ago). Don't they look very "Dutch flower painting"!

09 June 2012

Peonies & Sunflowers

Peonies & Sunflowers
Click the image for larger version

Bought from our local Waitrose supermarket yesterday. They're in a handmade pottery jug by Dave Brown of Merriott, Somerset (which we bought from the man himself some 30-ish years ago). Don't they look very "Dutch flower painting"!

08 June 2012

Being Grown-up

So according to the Daily Telegraph today the Skipton Building Society has come up with a list of the top 50 indicators that one is grown-up.

Here's the list:
  1. Having a mortgage
  2. Mum and dad no longer make your financial decisions
  3. Paying into a pension
  4. Conducting a weekly food shop
  5. Written a Will
  6. Having children
  7. Budgeting every month
  8. Being able to cook an evening meal from scratch
  9. Getting married
  10. Having life insurance
  11. Recycling
  12. Having a savings account
  13. Knowing what terms like 'ISA' and 'tracker' mean
  14. Watching the news
  15. Owning a lawn mower
  16. Doing your own washing
  17. Taking trips to the local tip
  18. Planting flowers
  19. Being able to bleed a radiator
  20. Having a joint bank account
  21. Having a view on politics
  22. Keeping track of interest rates
  23. Finding a messy house annoying
  24. Being able to change a light bulb
  25. Owning a vacuum cleaner
  26. Holding dinner parties
  27. Listening to Radio 2
  28. Enjoying gardening
  29. Spending weekend just 'pottering'
  30. Mum starts asking you for advice
  31. Carrying spare shopping bags just in case
  32. Like going round garden centres
  33. Wearing coats on a night out
  34. Going to bed before 11pm
  35. Making sure mum and dad are phoned at least once a week
  36. Classing work as a career rather than a job
  37. Repairing torn clothing rather than throwing it away
  38. You iron
  39. You wash up immediately after eating
  40. Enjoy cooking
  41. Buying a Sunday paper
  42. Always going out with a sensible pair of shoes
  43. You like receiving gift vouchers
  44. Work keeps you awake at night
  45. Filing post
  46. Having a 'best' crockery set
  47. Being able to change a car tyre
  48. Being sensible enough to remove make up off before bedtime
  49. Being able to follow a receipt
  50. Owning 'best towels' as well as 'everyday towels'
Well that's a big fail for me then! I scored just 33 out of 50.

So if we start at a base of zero at age 18, and we assume you score 6 months for every "yes", you would be fully grown up at age 43. Sounds about right?

On that basis I'm about 35. Which is at least more grown-up than the 25-ish my brain thinks I am.

Hmmm ... I wonder if I'll ever get to 43? No, can't do that, maybe I'll have to settle for 42.

Buggered Britain 10

Another in my occasional series documenting some of the underbelly of Britain. Britain which we wouldn't like visitors to see and which we wish wasn't there. The trash, abused, decaying, destitute and otherwise buggered parts of our environment. Those parts which symbolise the current economic malaise; parts which, were the country flourishing, wouldn't be there, would be better cared for, or made less inconvenient.

Buggered Britain 10
Click the image for larger view

This is the road junction near our house. They are replacing the old gas mains. The works were due to start on 2 April (they did) and last 8 weeks. They are still there digging holes today (8 June), that's already 10 weeks and there is probably at least 2 weeks work still to do. Oh and where are the workmen? At no time have I seen more than two men in attendance.

07 June 2012

The Mind of a Fruit-Loop

Yesterday I came across an interestingly odd — even loopy — article on Scientific American Blogs about the psychedelic guru Terence McKenna.

Apparently McKenna came up with the 21 December 2012 apocalypse long before anyone have delved into the intricacies of the Mayan calendar. The article is a report of an interview with him in 1999 not long before his death, and supposedly tries to uncover whether McKenna was serious in proposing the December 2012 apocalypse or whether he was just being outrageous for the fun of it.

Well you won't find an answer to that but reading the article, which contains more than a few grains of truth, will give you an insight into the mind of a genuine fruit-loop. Or was he loopy? Maybe he was just a far-sighted shaman.

Anyway I'll leave you to read the article but here are a few other quotes from McKenna. At first sight many seem crazy, but look deeper and they contains some surprisingly perception nuggets of wisdom and deep thought.
We have to create culture, don't watch TV, don't read magazines, don't even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow. The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe, and if you're worrying about Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton or somebody else, then you are disempowered, you're giving it all away to icons, icons which are maintained by an electronic media so that you want to dress like X or have lips like Y. This is shit-brained, this kind of thinking. That is all cultural diversion, and what is real is you and your friends and your associations, your highs, your orgasms, your hopes, your plans, your fears. And we are told 'no', we're unimportant, we're peripheral. 'Get a degree, get a job, get a this, get a that.' And then you're a player, you don't want to even play in that game. You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that's being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.”

You have to take seriously the notion that understanding the universe is your responsibility, because the only understanding of the universe that will be useful to you is your own understanding.

Culture, which we put on like an overcoat, is the collectivized consensus about what sort of neurotic behaviours are acceptable.

Television is by nature the dominator drug par excellence. Control of content, uniformity of content, repeatability of content make it inevitably a tool of coersion, brainwashing, and manipulation.

Nature is not our enemy, to be raped and conquered. Nature is ourselves, to be cherished and explored.

Nobody is smarter than you are. And what if they are? What good is their understanding doing you?

My technique is don’t believe anything. If you believe in something, you are automatically precluded from believing its opposite.

Ideology always paves the way toward atrocity.

Belief is a toxic and dangerous attitude toward reality. After all, if it's there it doesn't require your belief — and if it's not there why should you believe in it?
And last, but not least ...

Pay Attention.
And keep breathing.

On Tolerance, Diversity and Free Speech

The Heresy Corner yesterday was having a rant about "diversity" and tolerance. And quite rightly. In the pursuit of "diversity" we have thrown away the principle of free speech and tolerance.
Diversity of appearance, diversity defined as a number of officially-defined, externally-validated "characteristics" is to be tolerated, celebrated and legally enforced. Diversity of thought and opinion, on the other hand, attracts suspicion and censure, sometimes official, often moral, always self-righteous. Intolerance of dissent has become the hallmark of a "diverse" society.
What this amounts to is that if I'm a black, Estonian, homosexual, paraplegic I have to be provided with wheelchair access to every building, allowed a civil marriage and who knows what other "privileges". If I were to express an opinion that gay paraplegics should be castrated and have their state-funded wheelchairs and crutches taken away I would be banged up in HM Wormwood Scrubs hotel. Well maybe not quite that extreme, but most venues would refuse to give me a platform from which to speak.

That flies in the face of not just diversity and tolerance but free speech. It's as has been said many times before:
I may disagree with, even abhor, your opinion but I will defend to the death your right to publicly express that opinion.
That is free speech and tolerance. And by listening to all opinions (yes, including those we dislike) is how progress is made. As the writer at the Heresy Corner remarks:
Censors invariably begin their remarks with the pat phrase "I believe in free speech, but...". If you believe in "free speech, but", you don't believe in free speech.
It's the same as saying you don't agree with discrimination but you're happy to go along with positive discrimination or (say) female only short-lists for appointments. If the latter then you don't believe in non-discrimination.

Read the whole Heresy Corner article; it's important.

06 June 2012

In Case You Missed ...

Another selection of links to things yu may have missed and which interested/amused me. This episode is in random order.

First of all a satirical comment on the effects of gay marriage.

Why do some people hate raw tomatoes but others don't? Jennifer Ouellette investigates.

I am not alone. Someone else agrees with me about top freedom, if not about actual nudity.

Shit and other scatalogical verbiage.

The church of St Andrew, Greensted-juxta-Ongar is apparently the world’s oldest surviving wooden church. I went there half a lifetime ago and it is a delight.

There are new editions of two historical cookbooks: The Medieval Cookbook and The Classical Cookbook. One for culinary adventurers, I think.

And finally a recipe to live long and prosper: keep eating those nuts.


04 June 2012

More Kew

Here are a handful more photos from our visit to Kew Gardens on Saturday.

Click the images for larger versions
Not a water lily but the sacred Lotus flower
growing in the Water Lily House

<i>Echinocactus grusonii</i>
Echinocactus grusonii
in the Princess of Wales Conservatory

Indian Horse Chestnut
The last of the Indian Horse Chestnut flowers

Lily Pond
The Water Lily Pond:
what a delightful spot on a sunny day!

The Pagoda looking drab in the dreary weather

General Pershing
Finally another tropical water lily, this is Nymphaea cv. "General Pershing"
in the Water Lily House

Deja Vu

Click the image for a larger view

I think I can identify with this. :-)

03 June 2012

Reasons to be Grateful: 29

Experiment, week 29. Another week, another selection in my continuing experiment in documenting five things which have made me happy or for which I'm grateful during the week. So this week we have ...

1. Iris sibirica. These wonderful blue, delicate looking iris are out now in our garden. They're always a delight to me!

Iris Sibirica

2. Hypnotherapy. I always enjoy my 3-weekly-ish hypnotherapy sessions with Chris. We always find something interesting to mull over and I enjoy the experience of being hypnotised. And this week Chris reckons he got me hypnotised much deeper than ever before; I was certainly reluctant to emerge from hypnosis and it took me a fairly long time to come round.

3. Yummy Food. Yes we've had the usual good meal this week (as well as a few mundane ones; we don't eat royally all the time!). On Friday I did pasta and seafood (a variant on my Pasta with Bacon recipe) again, only this time with scallops. Much as I like scallops I think I actually prefer this dish with king prawns — well who wouldn't?! And tonight I did Pork Fillet with Pesto, but with a jar of commercial tomato pesto; served with steamed new potatoes and English asparagus — most yummy!

4 & 5. Meeting Friends. It's always great to meet up with friends as we did yesterday with Katy and her children at Kew Gardens: always another delight and which I've blogged about here.

Kew Gardens

Yesterday we went to Kew Gardens to meet our friend Katy and her three children who are in London for half-term holiday, and trying desperately to avoid all the Jubilee shenanigans.

We had a great day. We'd agreed to meet at 10 and provision lunch for ourselves (we've not been impressed with the catering at Kew in the past); although Noreen and I did agree to provide cake for all: no mean feat when you're meeting four cake eating fiends! We also provided a generous supply of home-made pizza.

Noreen and I left home too early. My fault as I was calculating on weekday rush hour traffic not that at dead of a grey wet Saturday morning. Even having stopped on the way to to acquire sandwiches and cake we arrived 30 minutes before the gates opened at 9.30. Boring!

Katy and troop eventually showed up just before 10.30 having (predictably) been stymied by the vagaries of London Underground. By this time Noreen and I had drunk coffee (some of which I spilled, scalding my hand — dozy git!), we'd had a wander round the shop and Kew's all too tiny garden centre, and I had bought two orchids to add to my collection (luckily the shop were happy to keep them aside for me until we left).

Cactus Flower

Although we go to Kew at least once a year, I've still never managed to see more than about 40% of the 300 odd acres. And Katy hasn't been there for half a lifetime! So we decided we'd take the motorised tour train round the gardens, to get a flavour of everything. It wasn't very warm and was trying to drizzle; I was glad I'd worn jeans rather than shorts and had a waterproof. Sadly the tour guide/train driver was dreadful and seemed to be telling us everything except what we wanted to know — but then it's probably designed to appeal most to Americans and Japanese (of whom there were plenty).

We managed 80% of the tour before jumping off and heading for (more) coffee and early lunch. Still, having now done the tour I now know that the parts of Kew I have seen are the parts which really do most interest me, with a couple of exceptions.

Kew Palace Panorama

After lunch, and allowing the kids to run around for a bit, we wandered off to see Kew Palace — yes, a small Royal Palace built late 17th century in the Dutch style and one of the last refuges of the madness of George III. It isn't large, but is well done and is quite interesting, especially as in restoring it they have left some of the walls of the upper floors in pieces to show how they were constructed. The formal gardens behind the palace are also rather lovely, although the Laburnum walk was clearly well past it's best. After this I had a little rest on a park bench (so decadent!) while the others availed themselves of a guided tour of the palace kitchens.

By this time it was nigh on 2pm and we were still cold; well the weather was unseasonably grey and breezy. So it was off in search of more coffee and share out some cake, with more time for the kids to run riot!

We then wandered off in search is the Princess of Wales Conservatory and the Palm House. There at least we would get warm! But by this time the sun was out and it turned into a rather nice afternoon.

I always like the PoW Conservatory. Like the rest of Kew there is always something to look at, whether it is flowering cacti, orchids, bougainvillea, water lilies ... and there are Amazonian fish in the pond including, this time, a huge puffer fish and an enormous Plecostomus catfish.

Water Lily House

Another short rest to allow the children to let off more steam — where do they get the energy?! — and off for a quick tour of the water lily house (instant sauna!), which is always gorgeous at this time of year, and the Palm House with more aquatics in the basement as well as bananas, neem, ylang-ylang and ginger plants.

Nymphaea Cultivar

By this time we adults were on our knees, and in fact the kids were beginning to tire too. So just after 4.30 we packed up our kit and decided to go our separate ways home (having collected my orchids). We didn't get to the roses, the Temperate House, the Japanese Garden or the Treetop Walk, all of which remain on the list for anther day. Nevertheless it was a grand day out; we got cold; we got hot; we saw lovely things, we drank coffee, we bought ourselves treats and we consumed a month's worth of sugar. And there are still things to go back for. What more could one want?

You can find Katy's account on her weblog.
And lots more of my photos of Kew (not just yesterday's) on my Flickr.

Word : Apophenia


The experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data.

In statistics, apophenia is a type I error (false positive, false alarm, caused by an excess in sensitivity). It is also used as an explanation of paranormal and religious claims, and a belief in pseudo-science.

The term was coined in 1958 by Klaus Conrad who originally described this phenomenon in relation to the distortion of reality present in psychosis, but it has become more widely used to describe this tendency in healthy individuals without necessarily implying the presence of mental illness.

(Thanks to Prof. Ian Young for the word!)

01 June 2012

Conundrum Confused

This is weird ...

Why do I keep thinking today is Saturday?

We've done all the things we've normally done on a Friday, but my brain has persisted throughout in telling me that today is Saturday.

I really don't understand time. Or should that be consciousness? But then does anyone understand either? However you look at them, both are just weird.

Quote: Brothels

Prisons are built with stones of Law. Brothels with the bricks of religion.

[William Blake ]