But let it whistle as it will

Another poet describing the wind, but from here Sir Walter Scott goes on to strike a festive note – well, it’s never too early to start thinking about Yuletide, especially with the days starting to shorten next week.  However, as I’m sure all but the very slowest of students will have guessed by now, I digress.

On my way into Cambridge this very e’en, my bicycle (one of the four – hereineafter referred to as the workhorse) decided to start whistling – much as butcher’s boys did in days of yore.  The note varies with speed, but is very far from tuneful – tunempty, if you will.  Yes, whilst the workhorse carries me in a degree of comfort and style – and with its rack and suitable panniers can carry a surprising amount of cargo – it cannot carry a tune.

Fortunately, upon arriving in Cambridge, I found that CUMS I and the CUMS Chorus were very much able to carry a tune (several in fact) at the May Week (yes, I know – in Cambridge May Week is in June, but with weather from April) concert in King’s College Chapel.

Prior to the gig, I partook of a couple of flutes of champagne with some of the local glitterati – oh, it’s a gay social whirl as a patron of the arts!  I don’t like to name drop, but I was chatting with the opera correspondent of the Daily Express (yes, I didn’t know they had one either) who looked the very spit of the man who taught me how to play chess as a boy (via the media of TV and print).  A little research upon my return showed it was indeed the very same man, William Hartston, who looked barely older than when I was a boy – the combination of opera and chess must be better than a painting in the attic!  As the moisturiser is proving of rather limited benefit in holding back the ravages of time (think King Knut and the incoming tide), I think I should go fetch my chess set down from the loft and pop the Ring cycle into the hi-fi…

Travelling Light

I am known for a number of things – some of which readers of GofaDM may been starting to work out for themselves by now.  One of my rather feeble claims to fame is my tendency to travel light when I leave Fish Towers – and as previously established, much of what I do carry is nourishment for the journey.

The most obvious reason for travelling light is that I have to carry any stuff I wish to take with me – and as a chap who tends to use public transport, this can involve portage over some distance including the ascending of manual (pedal?) staircases.  Being rather lazy, I prefer to limit the amount of luggage I have to lug – and frequently find myself astonished by the volume and weight of baggage other people are both willing and able to carry when they travel.  I don’t know how they do it – I fear it would be beyond me, despite the weight-training.

I am aided in my desire to travel light by my relative resilience in the face of cooler weather deriving from my time living among the Geordies, by the wearing of dark, often drab colours and by the use of layering in the clothes I do choose to take.

When travelling by air, I am even more keen to travel light as I do not trust airlines not to lose any luggage I commit to their care and the hold.  I’m also quite keen on missing the wait and the scrum surrounding the luggage carousel – which is much less entertaining than its cousins at the fairground.  As a result, I have been around the world in 4 weeks (80 days is so 19th century) using only carry-on hand luggage on more than one occasion.

Probably as a result of my nervousness about flight, I tend to be somewhat paranoid to ensure that my hand luggage lies well within the quoted size and weight limits issued by the airlines.  As a result, I usually have the smallest, lightest bag being taken onto the aircraft – I also only have one bag as required (but as never enforced or obeyed by other passengers).  As a result, I am extremely irritated when, on busy flights, I am not allowed to put my very modest valise into the overhead locker, but forced to place it under the seat in front which further reduces the already limited leg room (and I am quite generously provided for in the leg department – well, in terms of length anyway).  Why do I have to do this?  So that other passengers carrying multiple, vast, time-dilating (i.e. high mass) cases can place them in the overhead locker.  Why am I punished for travelling light?  I’d force the oversize luggage brigade to put their bags in the hold – but I suppose I may be biased here.

The final straw came yesterday when an officious orange polyester-clad discount (may not actually be very cheap) airline employee also wanted me to put my suit jacket on the floor under my feet – the airline being so cheap, that the seats lacked the coat hooks provided on more traditional (theoretically, higher cost) airlines.  This I refused point blank to do, on the grounds that Easyjet were highly unlikely to offer to pay to have it dry-cleaned at the end of the journey.  No, I made her put it in the overhead locker in a rare act of defiance in the face of authority.

The worm may, finally, have turned – at least a little bit.  (And a good rant always helps!)

Locker Room Tales

As I have mentioned in the past, I spend a certain chunk of my time at the gymnasium. Before entering the business end of the gym, the visitor must navigate reception and then the locker room to change from my cycling gear (probably much lighter on the lycra front than the more fevered imaginings of some readers would suppose) into my work-out kit.

On one rare occasion in the distant past, the male and female changing rooms in the gym I was then using were swapped for a short period of time (due to maintenance).  As a result, we mere men were able to survey the palatial surroundings in which the ladies change – while it is dangerous to generalise from a single example, I must admit I continue to imagine that the distaff changing facilities put those of the weaker sex to shame.

However, that was very much the exception and my normal experience is of the male locker room, an experience which has always been shared with my fellow Y-chromosome carriers.  One does see some extraordinary sights in the mens’ locker room, but normally I am able to recover from the trauma with only relatively modest psychiatric intervention.  I would perhaps suggest to my fellow lads that if your keks were black when new, and are now off-white and more hole than fabric, then perhaps its time to consider replacement?  I would cautiously extend the same advice to other articles of clothing – even if it is your favourite T-shirt, sometimes you just have to let it go to the great laundry basket in the sky (assuming it’s been good – otherwise, send it to the fires below).

I have belonged to several gymnasia in my time in Cambridge and the locker rooms of all have exhibited the same slightly mysterious behaviour.  There are many scores of lockers, and at the times I tend to visit barely a dozen men in the gymnasium.  We could perhaps add another dozen using the pool or showers – but there should be a huge number of free lockers available when I arrive to change.  However, I often struggle to find a single free locker – though I must admit that I do spurn the floor-level lockers as I am now of an age where I try and avoid unnecessary bending down.  Who is using the all the lockers?  Have people confused the gym with Big Yellow Storage?  What is a Big Yellow and why does it need storing?  Or do the apparently used lockers conceal entrances to Narnia or other fairy-tale realms?  The gym claims it empties the lockers every night, so are the denizens of Cambridge getting up at the crack of dawn to store something in the lockers during the day and then retrieving it every evening?  What could it possibly be?  I know I’m intrigued.

The other thing which often puzzles me is the clothing people choose to wear in the gym. I find that a work-out is quite warming and so tend to wear a vest and shorts – and even then, I tend to get rather too hot on most occasions but modesty forbids any further reduction in my habilement.  However, I have seen others wearing thick, fleecy tracksuit bottoms and matching top and even a woolly hat whilst training.  How do they cope?  I know my years in the north-east may have thickened my blood, but how thin would your blood have to be – or dilatory your workout – to need clothing that warm in a well- (to my taste, over-) heated gym?  Still, I suppose I prefer those needlessly warmly covered up to those choosing to wear little more than a Y-shaped piece of string over their torso coupled with shorts that could only be described as minuscule – and I’m just talking about the fellas.  For my money, almost everyone looks better covered up (even those generally accepted to be beautiful) and in most cases, the more that’s covered the better. I like to think this is one cover-up we can all agree on!

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…