The answer lies in the soil…

… as dear old Arthur Fallowfield used to say before moving on to some appalling innuendo or double-entendre.  Where are the characters on today’s Any Questions? who could be parodied to such comic effect.

After the drought afflicting my garden was finally recognised by the relevant official body (DEFRA?), more normal levels of rainfall have magically been restored.  It is often said that you should never believe anything until it has been officially denied – but I think the converse may also be true, that as soon as something is admitted by officialdom it ceases to be so (if, indeed, it ever was).  Perhaps a trawl of government archives will find the state owning to the presence of the unicorn and the sidhe living among us, thus explaining their absence from the modern world.

The combination of returning precipitation and intermittently warm temperatures has led to a surge in growth for many of the plants in my garden (both those I want, and the many unwanted walnut trees planted by my friendly neighbourhood squirrels).  Sadly, a number of plants did not make it through the snowy winter and following drought – and so a moment’s silence please for the pittosporum, the echinacea and the last of the lavendula stoechas.  It seems particularly galling that the echinacea, so long touted as a cure for the cold, was unable to survive a few weeks of the cold itself.  On the other hand, the pittosporum, it must be said, is not entirely gone despite its unfortunate death – its corpse was cut up and is now acting as support for my 2011 pea crop (and very fine pea sticks it made too).

It sometimes strikes me as curious that were I reporting these facts about an animal I’d be in serious trouble, but with a plant there is no vegetative equivalent of the RSPCA to rescue our chlorophylled friends from my depraved clutches.  Nor (yet) are hours of daytime television devoted to those that rescue and/or heal the mis-treated or merely unwell members of the plant kingdom – but I will be pitching Vegetable Hospital to TV execs very soon where the poorly petunia or spavined sprout will be the star (I’m also thinking that both Location, Location, Location and A Place in the Sun could be transplanted to the world of vegetation without the need for a title change – though a little sprinkle of blood, fish and bonemeal might be good idea).

The loss of old favourites allows new players to enter the garden stage to strut their stuff (while I fret away the hours).  The general trend has been to introduce things I can eat to the garden over time (as my mind rarely strays far from the next meal).  I started with herbs (though I struggle to keep basil alive, perhaps I should shout at it?  It seemed to work for Sybil), but now aim to produce a range of vegetables and fruits – assuming I can keep the molluscs, wood pigeons, blackbirds and cats at bay.  This year I have gooseberries and white currants to harvest in the very near future, and it looks like a beyond-bumper (chassis?) year for my grape vine.  It would seem that my attempts to control it, only seem to have encouraged it to grow with even greater vigour – I fear the first bottles of Chateau Sawston may be closer than we think, it’s either that or I risk expiring of a grape overdose come the autumn.

Our government seems very keen on making cuts, so I have decided that pruning will be my contribution to the effort.  I fear I have much to learn about this particular arcane art – if only it related to dried plums (as the name suggests), it would be a doddle given my fondness for that particular sweetmeat.  However, it is a talent that must be mastered if my secateurs and I are to keep the soft fruit producing – and soon we will have a new responsibility: to continue the training of my latest charge – an espaliered apple tree (which will be coming soon to the grounds here at Fish Towers).  Initially, I shall try and train it to produce apples and to continue to grow in a piece-wise linear fashion  – but if that goes well, I might try and train it for a wider range of skills.  But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself…

Barry who?

Not a new time-travel TV show set on a peninsular in South Wales, but an allusion to my trip to the cinema yesterday afternoon.

Cambridge is fortunate to have three cinemas (and three theatres – more, under some definitions) as well as venues for classical and more allegedly popular music – and this flowering of the arts was one of the reasons I chose to make it my home.

My film-going preference is for the art house cinema, primarily because it offers a better quality of food and drink to consume around or during the film itself but also, as previously discussed, I do like to think of myself as a bit “arty” despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  The Arts Picturehouse also offers a much more “Waitrose” audience than the big chains: we cinema-goers are free, but everywhere in chains (to paraphrase Rousseau).  Indeed, on my previous visit, upon emerging from the auditorium I found the public areas of the cinema full of elderly, rather well-dressed patrons which did cause me to wonder if I had inadvertently strayed into a parallel universe (as such folk are rarely seen at the cinema, and never en masse).  A modest degree of reflection provided a more prosaic explanation for the audience than one involving the many-universes interpretation of quantum theory: the cinema shows live broadcasts of opera from the Met in New York de temps en temps, and so I was seeing an opera crowd.

Yesterday, I saw a flick called Kaboom: the reason for whose title does ultimately become apparent.  This was quite enjoyable and decidedly odd (but I like an odd film – I think it’s how I recognise that it was “art”) and did involve its young participants exchanging frequent dry and witty barbs.  I always feel real life needs greater use of witty rejoinders – but I fear most of us are unable to afford the teams of scriptwriters this would entail, nonetheless it is a source of continuing disappointment (that and the lack of proper romance).  However, the film will probably be most remembered by me for the quite extraordinary amount of sex (involving almost every combination of 3 or fewer human participants) that was portrayed.  It also included proper swearing, but was still only a 15 despite being a huge step-up from the PG animation I watched last weekend (which had no sex and only mild language) – this is clearly a very quantised (perhaps even logarithmic) scale of measurement.

I think the only film I had previously seen which attempted to get close to this volume of on-screen sex was Caligula (starring Malcolm McDowell, as I recall) which I was subjected to in the mid-eighties.  I think this was supposed to be shocking and/or erotic (certainly I think it had garnered an X certificate – though would now probably be PG) but I’m afraid I found it to be exceedingly tedious with short interludes where it achieved the dizzying heights of merely laughable.  Having recently read Suetonius’ “Twelve Caesers” (in translation once again I’m afraid) and so now knowing something about Caligula, I am amazed anyone could produce such an uninteresting film from his life.

However, perhaps it’s me – I am fairly sure that my interest in sex is significantly more modest than that shared by most of the rest of humanity (which I suppose is a good thing when it comes to continuing the species as I am currently – and fully plan on remaining – an evolutionary dead-end).  I fear my interest in the procreative arts falls below my level of interest in ironing – something which I assume that most people do, but which I have no interest in watching or reading about.  Talking of which, all my recent business travel means I have a stack of shirts awaiting my attention, so it’s time to get hot and steamy with something hard in the bedroom…

Hold the Mayo

After an efflorescence of posts over the weekend, there has been rather a dearth of new content this week.    The author has  suffered a lot of early mornings and late nights, coupled with the horrors of air travel, during the week – all in the name of work.  Yes, hard though it is to believe, this blog does not yet provide sufficient (or, to be brutally frank, any) income to allow me to give up working for “the man”.

I am not a big fan of air travel – especially when it involves me.  This is partly because I am not keen on either heights or enclosed spaces – which are delivered in a rather unhappy conjunction by the modern aeroplane – but also because airlines and airports seem to have gone to some trouble to deliver a deeply unpleasant travelling experience.  I firmly believe that if the Good Lord had meant us to fly, he wouldn’t have given us the railways.

My travel was in the hands of the OneWorld Alliance which is not, as it might sound, a fascist military faction from a science-fiction novel but is a group of airlines including British Airways and Finnair among numerous others.  My tour took in Terminal 3 of London Heathrow (LHR), where they seem to have removed most of the chairs from the terminal (for reasons unknown) and replaced then with what looks like a private roller rink, Vienna (also, rather short on terminal chairs – but with particularly good systems surrounding the issuance and checking of boarding passes) and Helsinki.

Several years ago, when I moved to South Cambridgeshire, I thought that one of the potential benefits of living in the area was its proximity to Stansted Airport and the consequent easing of the pain of international business travel.  However, whenever a business trip abroad comes around it inevitably seems to involve a destination which cannot be reached directly from Stansted (or even the wonderful London City Airport) but only from LHR (my least favourite of London’s airports, with the possible exception of Luton).  From home, it is around three hours on various rail-based transport systems to LHR (which usually exceeds the airborne component of the journey by some margin).

One thing I learnt from this most recent trip is that there seems to have been a major diplomatic incident between the UK and Finland.  At both ends of my journey (and indeed on my previous trip to Finland), we passengers were not delivered to (or from) our transport from (or to) the terminal by a short walk along a pier but had to walk to the far end of the terminal building where a bus gave us a tour of the airport tarmac on our way to find our plane.  I have flown with both “flag” carriers – but this seems to make no difference, I still get the bus ride at each end of the journey.  What has William Hague said to (or about) the Finns?  I am forced to wonder if a Yorkshireman is perhaps a little too blunt to be foreign secretary?

One of the many mysteries of air travel is the terrible food on offer both on the ground and in the air.  At most UK airports, one is offered the choice of seafood washed down with champagne (why?) or Starbucks (or some clone thereof) – and other European airports seem little better (and some even worse).   Contrast this with St Pancras International railway station where Le Pain Quotidien offers the traveller delicious French (or perhaps Wallonian – but still Francophone) bakery, patisserie and salads.

In the air, you often get little more than a packet of mini-pretzels (possible the least edible of all the snack foods) or a filled roll if the airline is pushing the boat out.  On my return journey I was furnished with a prawn mayo and rocket roll – which I imagine BA thought was a luxury offering, but which I worried represented a dangerous risk of food poisoning.  As this was a UK-sourced item, it provided details of its nutritional content – including the somewhat shocking fact that it provided nearly half of my RDA of salt for the day.  This was not a huge roll, and as a bread-maker myself I know bread requires only very modest amounts of salt – added to which I’m pretty sure that rocket is also salt-free.  I will admit that prawns, whilst alive, do prefer a somewhat saline environment (well some do, including those which end up in commercially-produced rolls) – but, once dead and imprisoned within a bakery product, there seems no obvious requirement to maintain this habitat.  I am forced to assume that the mayonnaise was comprised almost exclusively of salt (though, as the sandwich also contained an alarming proportion of my saturated fat allowance for the day, I assume this salt was blended with neat lard).  Y-O-Y-O-Y?

Expanding on this rant, why do so many sandwich makers feel the urge to place mayonnaise in almost every sandwich or roll anyway?  I have made bread-based meals at home for decades, and have yet to feel the need to put mayo in any of them.  Does this explain my relatively sylph-like figure, modest blood pressure and the fact that a packet of salt lasts me from one decade to the next (I ignore the use-by date as salt is a preservative)?  If this country is serious about tackling the obesity epidemic and rising rates of hypertension, surely the easiest option would be to ban mayonnaise in pre-made sandwiches?  It would also help reduce the incidence of post-consumption greasy fingers and so, perhaps, reduce serviette usage with a consequent saving in trees.  It should also make for cheaper sandwiches (fewer ingredients) which would be much appreciated in these times of rapidly rising food prices and shrinking incomes.

I think I may have found the single-issue party I need to launch my political ambitions onto the national stage.  Remember, cast your vote for “Hold the Mayo” the next time you find yourself in a hardboard booth with a pencil in hand!  Fish for PM!  (And no, I’m not looking to replace Eddie Mair).

Panto Morality

I am trying to write a pantomime – though it must be admitted that I have been making little progress.  I’m going to have to get my skates on to get it written, cast, rehearsed and staged in time for Christmas.

My panto will be a chimera composed of elements of Dick Whittington and Puss in Boots (double the scope for double-entendre: quadruple-entendre!) fused to some good solid humanist values.  This is in response to the very poor message being transmitted to our children by the current crop of pantomime stories.

In most pantomimes, you must be beautiful and/or possessed of very flexible morals if you want a positive outcome. The less attractive members of the cast get a very poor deal – consider the ugly sisters for just two examples.  It is also rather unwise to be a step-parent, particularly if you have a more attractive step-child – one has only to look at the step-mothers of Cinderella and Snow White (admittedly neither were paragons of virtue – though perhaps we should remember that history is written by the victors before judging them too harshly).

One way to wealth and happiness is to snag yourself a member of royalty for your spouse. Sadly, this only works if you are beautiful.  If you have a face with character or a non-standard body shape you can forget this route, as whilst royalty will sometimes marry a commoner they will only marry a good-looking one.

  • Cinderella with a little magical help gatecrashes a party, gives a false identity, and gains Prince Charming – leaving poor (in both senses) Buttons behind.
  • For some reason, Snow White can only be awakened from her slumber by a prince, not by the seven hard-working miners with whom she had been shacked-up.
  • Aladdin, again with magical aid, makes himself sufficiently wealth to marry the Sultan’s daughter – though at least he didn’t abandon a previous relationship to do so.

I can’t think of any republican pantos where the heroine marries the prime minister or a leading trade unionist (or any form of elected official) – perhaps the age gap is considered an issue?  Or does magic only thrive under an absolute monarchy?

If you can’t find an available scion of the local feudal overlord, then the only way to panto success is to become immensely wealthy.

  • Dick Whittington uses this route, and unusually does so honestly (if improbably) after receiving a very large pay-off when his cat rids a foreign state of its rat infestation (not sure what reward the cat receives). He also marries into wealth – but into the bourgeoisie rather than royalty.
  • In Puss-in-Boots, our human hero impersonates a member of the nobility and then gains an ogre’s castle and fortune – in both cases, through the deceit and trickery of his cat which murders the beautiful-only-to-his-mother ogre.  In this case, the hero is merely complicit in extreme moral turpitude.
  • However, the real villain in the world of pantomime is Jack.  Having shown himself to be a feckless youth by exchanging the family cow for ‘magic’ beans, he has a stroke of magical good fortune when the beans produce a substantial crop. Rather than going into the legume business, he instead climbs the bean stalk – an activity with no obvious practical benefit.  Having ascended to a new realm in the sky, he moves on to petty larceny – stealing poultry and a musical instrument from the local home-owner.  Understandably, this upsets the giant who pursues the thief who flees down the beanstalk.  Jack then chops it down, murdering the pursuing giant in cold blood to conceal his crimes.  Is there any come-uppance?  Any sign of repentence?  No, he gets to live happily ever after.

What sort of lessons are we teaching our young people?  Theft and murder are acceptable routes to wealth?  And more, that only wealth can make you happy?

My panto will have a very different moral compass – as well as very dodgy puns and quite a lot of rhyming couplets.  I suppose I better get on and write it now…

Game old bird!

Listening to 6Music, I just heard “Queen gets 3rd in Derby” as a news headline.  Not bad for a woman in her eighties!  Particularly impressive when you consider the rest of the competitors were on horseback.

Or perhaps she was taking part in a look-a-like competition in the East Midlands?  If so, I wonder who she came as?  Disappointing result if she came as herself…

Later in the same bulletin, I heard someone being interviewed say that there were anti-aircraft batteries in the theatre.  Sadly, I didn’t catch which theatre (I should probably be paying more attention) – I hope it’s not the Globe as they will distract from the performance and certainly don’t fit with the Elizabethan vibe for which the Globe seems to be aiming (though I suppose they could be fired without damaging the roof).  I do wonder if I should have allowed that last sentence (prior to its parenthetic extension) to end with “for”, but old habits die hard and at least, with the construction I chose, Fowler will have been appeased.

Language, Timothy!

I am a member of – which is now a tributary of Amazon – and they send me movies or TV shows on shiny silvery disks through the miracle of the Royal Mail in return for a modest monthly stipend.  These are not sent at random, they pressure me into pre-selecting entertainments (post-selection would be more effective, but requires some major breakthroughs in temporal mechanics) which I think I might enjoy. They suggest I maintain a list of twenty such, but I struggle to maintain a total much above ten – which results in further bullying, but in this instance I hold firm (I learnt my lesson with Firefox).

Last night my chosen entertainment was an animated movie, rated PG (though, rashly I did not check with my parents before viewing).  This provided a list of all the risks to which I was subjecting myself prior to the film starting – I recall peril, intense action and, most worryingly for one of my delicate sensibilities, one use of mild language.  My mind was a-whirl, what could mild language be?  Would I cope or be forced to flee the lounge in shock?

The flick, “How to Train Your Dragon,” really was extremely good and I fear my involvement with the plot and characters may have distracted me (Barry Norman continues to have nothing to fear from the direction of Fish Towers) – as a result, I failed to spot the incident of mild language.  Did someone say bother?  Sod it? (Well, it was enough to get the Clangers into trouble – and their voices were played by a swanee whistle) Or my personal favourite, Fiddlesticks?

Has anyone else seen this film and managed to spot the imprecation?  Or do I need to watch it again to decide where I should have been offended?  It looks like my career as the new Mary Whitehouse is going to have to wait…

In vaguely related news, few can now remember Gordon Bennett, but his name is still often invoked in extremis.  I feel a new name is needed for the 21st century which will be more relevant to today’s youth – and after a little brainstorming with my masseur, whilst he indulged his taste for mild torture upon my resisting body, the name of the former baby Spice, Emma Bunton, was identified as being a rather attractive option.  Unless, of course, you can do better…?

Knitting up the ravelled sleeve

When I was but a callow youth, I found it all to easy to enter, and remain girdled within, the arms of Morpheus.  On one occasion, I managed to sleep through a cast-iron bath being broken up just a short hall from my bedroom.

Somewhere in my twenties, I started to find the leader of the Oneiroi rather more elusive – though luckily have never really fallen into the embrace of his brother Icelus.  Periodic bouts of insomnia have plagued me ever since – and it is in one of these I now find myself.

As a result, I have read very widely on sleep – often when I should have been sleeping – and like to think myself somewhat of an expert on the theory (if not the practice).  Sadly, theoretical knowledge only takes you so far when your sleeve of care is ravelled (to rather mangle the words of the Thane of Cawdor) – then again, I never could get the hang of knitting: I could never maintain the tension and my rows tended to have rather variable numbers of stitches.

One partial cure for my insomnia (surely another great, unused name for a hatchback), I have found, is blood letting – which is rather at variance with the ideas of Galen who would suggest purging myself of black bile (were he still with us).  However, whilst the National Blood Service are all too willing to divest me of some blood and offer me lemon squash and bikkies in recompense, I have yet to find any organisation willing to take surplus black bile off my hands (or liver to be more anatomically accurate and which makes me wonder if the process might be rather more invasive and painful.  Though, apparently it can also be reduced by the application of hot cups – if only I had a brassière to hand).

After giving of my life blood, I find I’m a very cheap date (or at least, a little alcohol goes a surprisingly long way), I sleep rather well but, and this is the only downside, I find myself afflicted with terrible gas.

I rather enjoy giving blood – it is an excellent, guilt-free excuse for a lie-down in the middle of the day, provides very quick (if modest) weight loss and is really the only time I eat biscuits (today, a couple of mint Clubs – but, usually, bourbons).  On one golden occasion in Jesmond, I was the last donor to leave and was given a brown bag with ALL the left-over biscuits from the day!  It is also a good opportunity to flirt with the nursing staff – an opportunity I tend to exploit shamelessly.

I have given blood in one form or another a little over 60 times now – which is the contents of enough arms to make up a rugby (union?) match, if Anthony Aloysius Hancock is to be believed (well, as long as the rest of the players turned up attached to the arms – lone arms, even in pairs, would struggle in the modern game I fear).  For a while I was able to give platelets, before my count dropped too low for it to be worthwhile.  This was a truly regal experience – and especially welcome during a hot summer – as the process takes a good 90 minutes whilst you recline like a king, waited on by the staff of the NBS.  They provide food, drink and even a personal DVD player – basically, it was like flying business class without all the nasty airport and aeroplane nonsense.  To extract the platelets, they take your blood out, whizz it round in a centrifuge (why, no centripete I wonder?) and then return it to you (less the platelets, which are a rather nasty shade of yellow).  To keep it fresh while it is out for a spin, they chill it and so you get your blood back nicely cooled – a sort of internal, sanguine version of aircon.

Sadly, I’m back to whole blood donation which is barely 5 minutes of lie-down these days – when I first started way back in the eighties, I’m sure it was a good half-hour.  I suppose it just shows how the pace of life has accelerated, or that my blood is very keen to be shot of me and to strike out for pastures new (or something in that vein): maybe I was better company in the 80s?

So, dear readers, I can thoroughly recommend the donation of blood:  pay no heed to Galen, I find it boosts my happiness – which is surely the best of all the humours!

The play’s the thing

Regular readers will know that our hero sees himself as some sort of renaissance man and counts an evening wasted if not spent at some event of high culture.  However, it strikes me I may have rather focused on those arts associated with Euterpe and Thalia (though, some might think that enjoying a bit of stand-up is pushing the definition of high art somewhat) to the exception of the other muses.  My reading does encompass Clio and Urania (not yet used as the name of a small family hatchback for some reason) and I do occasionally glance at a poem (not sure whether they are epic or lyric though).

So, I decided it was time to give Melpomene her time in the spotlight and see some serious theatre.  As a result I’ve booked a trip to Shakespeare’s Globe (well, more Wanamaker’s Globe) to see Dr Faustus (the play by Christopher Marlowe, rather than my GP – who has not, to my knowledge, made a pact with the Devil) which is generally considered to be a tragedy (though I guess that depends on your point of view).

Talking of Marlowe, I notice that conspiracy theorists rarely suggest his plays were written by old Will – whereas, the reverse hypothesis is all too frequently entertained.  I wonder if the Bard of Avon would have faked his own death (allegedly) had his agent been a bit more savvy – or perhaps he was just too sensible to hang around Deptford drinking dens, as this would have been well before that area of south-east London was gentrified (as indeed was the 1990s when I last visited and, as indeed, may well still be the case today).

I’ve been fascinated in the story of Dr Faustus since a lad – not quite sure why, as I’m not really looking for 24 years of power on earth, but I think it is probably the wonderful feel of the name Mephistophiles on the tongue (though it wouldn’t really work with my surname – too many F sounds – so I’ll stick with the Stuart for now).  This production will feature renaissance costume (not I hope for the audience, as I’m far from convinced I have the legs for tights) and apparently will also provide poetry and comedy – thus covering three muses in a single sitting (perhaps “muse-bagging” could become a new cultural phenomenon).  Talking of sitting, whilst being a groundling might well be the more authentic experience, I’ve gone for a seat – and having visited the Globe before – invested in the hire of a cushion (as discussed before, I like to sit down for culture – and many other things!).  The hiring of cushions in hard-seated venues is something I’d like to see become much more common – that and high quality ice creams in the interval – and ought to be a good money-spinner in these days of declining grants. Perhaps a career in arts management beckons – though if so, it is being awfully discrete about it.