More thrush, really

As opposed to uncle, obviously.

Yesterday I met my nephew (and his mother) off the HS1 at St Pancras International.  A busy day in London ensued taking in double-decked bus travel (rather slower than his earlier rail journey), a carousel, a variety of famous London landmarks and the Science Museum.  We didn’t do all of the possible events I had planned: a day with a 5 year-old is slightly less time-efficient than one where I’m operating in my more traditional role of lone wolf.  Nonetheless, I believe the young master enjoyed himself – though I didn’t have the presence of mind to prepare a feedback form for him to complete to be absolutely certain.

I’m not sure in which circle of hell Dante Alighieri would place the Science Museum on Easter Tuesday – mostly because I’ve never read the Divine Comedy – but, if he had ever visited, I’m sure he would have wanted to include it in the Inferno.  I fear there were far too many visitors for much science to be learned and they seemed to have significant difficulty keeping either the lifts or the toilets operational – which did make for rather hard work for little legs (and, indeed, mine).

I learned a number of things during the day, primarily that I am not cut out to be a parent – though, to be honest, I had already suspected this and have worked hard over the years to minimise the risk of such a circumstance coming to pass.  Despite having to do very little myself, I was utterly exhausted after a mere six hours – how do real parents cope?  It seemed more tiring than my last experience as a temporary parent: not sure if this is down to the greater youth of the child or my greatly increased age (I’m now rather nearer Mr Waverly than Napoleon Solo).  I’d like to blame the former, but suspect it may be the latter.

After seeing the little treasure on to his bullet train and homeward bound, I headed to the peace and serenity of the British Library to peruse a few of its treasures.  My recovery later continued at the Wigmore Hall with the excellent Tokyo String Quartet.  Still, I would have to admit I slept a full eight hours last night without interruption – a very rare event in my life – though, on the downside, I also had to take to my bed again at the dentist’s favourite time (2:30, obviously) this afternoon for a nap as I was struggling to stay awake.

It would seem that I shall need to undertake some serious training if I am to uncle on a regular basis: it must use different muscles from my bike.

Late April Fools

A think tank (which I suspect has as little to do with thinking as it does tanks) has garnered significant press coverage (and a mention in GofaDM) after deciding that UK GDP would be significantly boosted if we did away with bank holidays.

If we temporarily accept the hypothesis that GDP is the best thing a nation can produce, and put to one side the fact that any gain is likely to benefit the very few at the expense of the many, I still fear that this “analysis” contains more schoolboy errors than the entire output of St Custard’s.

Off the top of my head, I could point to the following silly mistakes:

  • The huge loss of GDP recently caused by the Banks might have been slowed (or even reduced) had they taken a few more holidays.
  • The UK actually makes very little (trust me, I’ve tried buying stuff we make and it’s not easy), we are mostly a service economy.  I’m not sure how many more haircuts, insurance policies and the like it is actually possible to sell (legally) in the extra days provided.
  • Many people seem to do most of their consuming on bank holidays, without them I fear for the future of the DIY, sofa, travel and tourist businesses to name but a few.
  • It is a common fallacy that working more hours produces more “stuff” which I thought  Cyril Northcote Parkinson had de-bunked pretty successfully back in 1955.  Whilst it is dangerous to generalise from a sample of one (particularly if that sample is me), I find that not only does it take me longer to do anything when I am working longer hours with less time off, I also tend to make more of a hash of the thing being done.

So, I fear that this plan would result in a poorer, unhappier nation which produces less work of a lower standard from an even smaller number of sectors – and one in which our bankers have way too much office time on their hands to produce dangerous, marginally legal (from the wrong side of the margin) financial products.

But, none of these represents the main thrust of my argument to retain – and indeed increase – our bank holidays.  My argument is, in fact, hydrological.  Over this current bank holiday weekend, most of the UK has seen more rainfall than in the preceding three months put together.  If the government is serious about tackling drought – and the very severe (and real) economic impact thereof – it should be increasing our quota of bank holidays.  Given the well-established fact that Tlaloc is a big fan of the bank holiday, we need to appeal to him to offer us his beneficence (in the from of precipitation) by adding some extras: especially in that difficult and dry September-to-March period where there are so few (and those that do exist are dedicated to other deities who are frankly failing to deliver on the cold, warm or occluded fronts).

With child

No, I have not defied medical science and managed to fall pregnant (and to be honest, this is one boundary of science against which I have no intention of pushing), but I still have an exciting week ahead of me.

Talking of children (or at least their production), I do worry that my last post – encouraging the slaughter of rabbits as it did – might be considered inappropriate the day before the Easter Bunny is due to visit.  In my defense, I did suggest waiting until the shops open tomorrow – by which time he would have executed his chocolate ovoid delivery duties (and so be ready for execution of a different feather).

But let’s return to my week (hush your moaning, it has been clearly established that this blog is all about me).  I am planning to take my avuncular duties to a whole new level and entertain my nephew in London for a day (or die in the attempt).  Lest you fear for his safety, I have done this once before when a friend left his son in my custody for a whole day in London.  I feel this went rather well, and the object of my attentions escaped unscathed from the experience.  He has even subsequently managed to grow into a well-balanced adult (it was a few years ago, but I reckon parenting is like riding a bike).  That day taught me two important lessons about parenting: (i) don’t buy a long island iced tea for a 10 year old (luckily I realised the rather high alcohol content of this particular beverage just in time) and (ii) if you try and fill the child’s entire day with excitement you will end up very tired (as, it transpired, did he).  Let’s just say, I put the loco into in loco parentis (in its Spanish sense at least).

So, roll on round two!  I have a full day of entertainment planned and all the main activities have been vetted with real parents.  As a further safety precaution, my nephew will be bringing his mother with him.  So, that should limit my opportunities to corrupt the young (unless I’m quite subtle about it).  The Uncle of the Year Award must surely be within my grasp.  Well, what could possibly go wrong?

Watch this space…

It was bound to happen

I sighted the inevitable as I was cycling home from viewing plasticine pirates having an adventure with equally plasticine scientists (or misfits, if you are from North America where science is unacceptable to a significant portion of the population who seem to feel the neolithic was a step too far).  The film is a hoot – and do stick around for the credits which are as crammed with gags as the movie itself.

I saw one of the bounders (and I’m not talking pirates here) as I cycled past the railway station, twixt the busway, the Cambridge University Press and a number of near complete new blocks of flats.  There was little sign of nourishment for one of its kind in the area, so I assume that gangs of the little rotters attack green bins to service their habits (I fear we may have made things too easy for them, gathering together all those vegetable peelings and grass clippings in one place).

Yes, many years after foxes invaded our towns and cities I have now seen evidence for the urban rabbit.  It would seem that nowhere is now safe for the post-gloaming cyclist – one of these long-eared hooligans may try and hurl itself under your wheels anywhere: town or country.  I’m not worried about the bunnies, but I fear impact could cause the bicycle equivalent of a derailment with contusive consequences for yours truly.

Given the lapine plague the mild winter has unleashed, I strongly advise readers to eschew green clothing after dark.  I also worry that whole swathes of the country are being undermined by their tunnelling: the railway line south of Cambridge is looking decidedly iffy already.  So,  I have decided it is time that we fight back and retake our towns and countryside from the furry menace.  I am reclassifying the rabbit as a vegetable (they are, after all, made of vegetables in a very real sense) and will start eating them as soon as the shops reopen.  Can I urge my readers to do the same?  They are after all free range and seem “sustainable” – indeed, more than sustainable given how famously swiftly they reproduce.  In these days of rising food prices, the rabbit’s time has come – and if we start running short on coneys, might I suggest turning to the almost-as-plentiful wood pigeon?

Living in colour

For our North American readers, this post’s title comes with a free cut-out-and-keep letter “U”.  Collect two and make yourself a consonant: unless you share my Welsh ancestry, in which case make a new vowel.  But, enough of my feeble attempts at merchandising this blog, and on with the motley.

I am not very adventurous when it comes to having colour in my life – my walls, floors and ceilings are all beige.  I do have a number of artworks on the walls, but with one honourable exception they are also rather muted tonally.

My wardrobe (or to be strictly accurate, its contents) relies heavily on shades of grey (from white to black), more beige and navy blue.  When I’m feeling particularly mettlesome,  I can choose from a couple of (mostly) red T-shirts – but in the main I stick with black and navy (often together, despite clear advice that it’s a dreadful faux-pas).

I refuse to wear black shoes as I dislike dark shades on my feet (though I have no issue with them adorning the pedal extremities of others) and after I saw a documentary which suggested that the Italians only wear black shoes to a funeral, I decided that I could dispense with this particular convention in normal, formal dress.  So my footwear tends to range from light to mid tan – as measured on the Cherry Blossom scale – for more formal occasions and is generally white for sporting activities.

However, its probably in the trouser department but my colour choices have been most limited.  Black, grey and dark blue denim cover pretty much my whole collection of leg coverings – or they did until yesterday.  Given my antiquity, I have decided to heed the words of Jenny Joseph’s Warning.  Fair enough, her poem was about an old woman, but in these days of equal opportunities, I tend to assume that the female includes the male (and vice versa.  Though not, I hasten to add, in the case of changing rooms or public conveniences).

I type this with my legs looking resplendent, clad as they are in a pair of new plum trousers – no, not trousers made from fruit (genus Prunus, subgenus Prunus), but those of a rather attractive shade of purple.  They make me look really rather dishy, at least so far as that is possible given the rather unpromising raw material that my body provides.  Or so I think, but I am not an entirely disinterested party, so I am allowing you, the long-suffering reader, to judge for yourself.  Yes, this will be the first time that the Fish legs have been seen on GofaDM.  If I could ask you all to please imagine a drum roll as you scroll down (yes, I am now adding stage directions to this blog):

BTW: The white socks were chosen to provide contrast and as a callback to my dislike of dark feet.


I am rather fond of some organisations, including the BBC, the NHS and the Post Office.  I’m not saying that they are without faults or necessarily well managed but I do feel that their very existence makes this country a better place to live.  These are all (for now) at least nominally owned by the people, but this means that they are all liable to the “I don’t watch BBC3, have cancer or live in Thurso so why am I having to pay for those that do” school of argument.

If these organisations do something well, we are expected to feel sorry for the poor, defenseless private sector and let them take over.  If they do something badly, we bemoan the waste of public money: surely the private sector could do it better?  I’m amazed that they can still attract new people to run these organisations, as you can never win (though, given the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, I guess that’s true for everyone).

Given the title, you should be unsurprised to learn that I shall be focusing on the Post Office.  It is a much diminished organisation from my youth: with its best bits sold to some geezer called Sid or opened to competition, while the Royal Mail soldiers on with both arms tied behind its back by its political masters.  Nonetheless, I go to frankly ridiculous lengths to use a supplier who delivers using some part of the Royal Mail when ordering on-line.  As well as aligning with what might be called my political position (albeit for a party of one), it means that when I miss a delivery I can collect my package after a short stroll to Sawston Post Office – rather a contrast to its commercial rivals who cart my goods off to a shed in the middle of nowhere (but, no doubt the rent’s cheap!).

The Royal Mail has just been allowed to set the price for stamps – I can only speculate who has been doing it up until now (but, certainly no-one asked me).  This has precipitated a big jump in prices – which I assume has been done so that the mail no longer runs at a loss (or at least a smaller one).  As discussed above, this looks like a lose-lose situation – probably a precursor to some more of the Post Office being sold to anyone who still has money: Russian oligarchs, middle-eastern monarchies or the Chinese would seem to be the usual suspects (though, at the risk of being accused of xenophobia, I’m not convinced I’d chose any of them to be in charge of delivering my Christmas cards).  I have a feeling that “the man” has been softening us up for this sale for a while now…

I am an uncle (I know, I don’t seem old enough – at least by reference to my apparent mental age), and as a result have caught glimpses of the new, 21st century incarnation of Postman Pat and his black and white cat (as a public service employee, he probably couldn’t afford the licence for a colour one).  He no longer works for the Royal Mail but for a shadowy organisation called SDS.  I had been assuming this is a private company, but now I come to write I have started to wonder if SDS are the Royal Mail’s elite troops – the postal analogue of the SAS or SBS (SCS, of course, just sell sofas): it would certainly give new meaning to the phrase “Going Postal” (and Pat has clearly qualified as a chopper pilot – though, in the episode of which I saw a part, he did not mention whether he had any fondness for the pre-lunch aroma of napalm).  But, perhaps I’m letting my imagination run away with me…

Then, this last Sunday, I was watching a recording I had made of a BBC4 documentary (no surprise there) on Sir Flinders Petrie (any relation to Ed, I wonder?  Though I’ll admit there was no mention of Oucho), the father of the science of archaeology and mostly good egg (though did have a rather dodgy attachment to the then fashionable idea of eugenics).  When the programme finished playing, the TV dropped back to showing ITV1 HD and so I caught a brief glimpse of Midsummer Murders (which at least maintained the dodgy eugenics theme).  This was showing a scene in which a chap dressed as a postman walked from what looked like a post van to someone’s front door.  However, neither the man nor the van showed the much loved Royal Mail brand – no, instead, mail services in Midsummer had clearly been privatised and were now run by Express Mail.

It seems the under-5s, their parents and the readership of the Daily Mail (and Mein Kampf) have already been prepared for the great Post Office sale: who’s next?  And whose head appears on the stamps in Greendale and Midsummer?  If the mail is no longer royal, presumably the Queen will have been evicted and replaced by the CEO of the new owners. It won’t be the same – though given the much higher turnover at the top of most companies (at least compared to the recent monarchy) it may provide a boost to Philatelists, so I’m off to buy shares in Stanley Gibbons…

Feeling Smug

Foreign readers may be unaware of the fuel-based entertainment provided last week by the government here in the UK.  In response to a possible (not certain, mark you) strike by tanker drivers at the end of April, our sagacious leaders suggested that we all panic buy petrol and/or diesel now (at the end of March).  Fearing that this may cause insufficient chaos, they then went on to suggest that we should not stop at filling up our vehicles but should also stockpile fuel in jerry cans in our garages, outbuildings and – for all I know – houses.

Oh, what larks, Pip!  Long queues at every filling station (well, those that had not already run out of fuel) and huge amounts of unnecessary anxiety ahead of the holiday period.  By now, this whole country must be considered an explosion hazard, so can I suggest if any readers are planning to visit the UK that they take care with naked flames or sparks as the whole country could go up in flames if we’re not all very careful (you might consider packing a bucket of sand or fire extinguisher, just in case).  Personally, I’m worried about the forthcoming round-country trip by the Olympic torch: surely a major incident waiting to happen.

As the regular reader will know, my preferred forms of transport are the velocipede and train (depending on distance).  I do have a car, but as I only drive around 800 miles a year (as compared to the 4,000-5,000 miles covered on two wheels) I only have to fill-up two or three times per annum (depending on how much I’m willing to trust the fuel gauge).  Even then, I resent the whole process: driving is bad enough without the whole inconvenience of having to visit a filling station every six months (normally having forgotten where my car’s petrol cap is located) and worse still, they expect you to pay for the privilege!

Having bought some petrol in February, I should be set until September – and so have been able to watch all the recent excitement as a (rather smug) spectator.  If the banana boat drivers (or what ever the maritime equivalent might be) take industrial action, I will be in more trouble – but I’m sure I could find an alternative fruit to fuel my legs if I must.  However, I wouldn’t want you to think I am entirely heartless (even if I am) and I do recognise that many are dependent on more frequent visits to the purveyors of liquid alkanes through no fault of their own.  I was thus intrigued to see a survey carried out for the Independent which suggested that 4 out of 5 people blame the government for the crisis.  This led me to wonder (a) who was the fifth person (William Hague?) and (b) who do they blame?

The crisis also started me thinking about a route to a more sustainable transport system.  Given the huge importance of oil as an industrial feedstock, the strictly finite reserves in existence and the very long timescales for the planet to create any new stock it has struck me since I was a nipper as somewhat insane to just burn the stuff.  The massive increases in fuel costs in recent years seem to have had only a very modest impact on consumption – and none at all on the number of vehicles – so perhaps we need a new approach.  My wizard wheeze is to stop focusing on cost, and instead look at reliability of supply.  If the government can keep generating these crises on a random basis, I think the frequent and massive inconvenience caused could provide the push we all need to switch to electric cars (or back to steam!).

Morocco Bound

Today’s title could be a description of my thoughts (or at least one thread thereof) over the past week, as well as the mark of a well-presented book.  It is also a farcical musical from the 1890s by one Arthur Branscombe, in which the hero recruits the aid of a retired costermonger (and other English “characters”) in order to travel to Morocco.

The start of Spring can be a challenging time for the British vegetarian trying to satisfy his eating needs from locally sourced (or, at least UK-sourced) produce.  As I attempt to maintain interesting dining choices, within my self-imposed constraints on ingredients, I have turned to Morocco and, in particular, the tagine for inspiration.

I must admit that I haven’t watched Masterchef since the days of Loyd Grossman, but am still aware (through some form of cultural osmosis) that the current incarnation features a bald, shouty, retired costermonger (just feel that craft!) and an antipodean cook yclept, John Torode.  It is to the latter that I owe the very apogee of my recent tagine strategy with his self-styled “Moroccan Tagine“.  In what is becoming a tradition, I did not produce the dish in precise accordance with the instructions provided: mostly due to a quite disgraceful performance by the purchasing department here at Fish Towers.  As it was, I had to make two special trips into the village, first to acquire the prunes and then the leeks (I really should read the whole recipe before making these emergency ingredient dashes) and so the final product was a tad lighter (OK, 50% lighter) on red onion and lemon juice than in its original conception (I refused to countenance a third trip – no mere recipe is the boss of me).  Truly, “cooking doesn’t get any tougher than this!”  Even without the additional, enforced shopping expeditions, the tagine leaves a rather longer gap between inception and consumption than is my normal preference – and it makes for a rather unprepossessing sight when you do finally remove it from the oven.  The omens did not look good – though, so far as I’m aware, no culture has ever turned to the vegetable casserole for its glimpses into the future – but all was forgiven when it hit my tastebuds (will they never bloom?).  Not only does it use almost every fresh UK vegetable available at this time of year but it tastes divine: one of the very finest fruits of my mostly meat-free dining years.

But this was not the only reason for my thoughts being Morocco Bound this week.  On Monday evening, after a trip to the Wigmore Hall, I found myself standing on the northbound Victoria Line platform at Oxford Circus (pleasingly free of performing animals in this enlightened age, well, unless you count the more inebriated of the passengers).  Opposite me was a huge poster trying to tempt me to visit Morocco with the strapline that it is the “country you carry within you”.  I know I make my way through a pretty large volume of snap each day, but I think even I would notice had I ingested an entire country (and not even a particularly small one).  I did begin to wonder if Greggs (and their ilk) are entirely blameless: is the current obesity epidemic the fault of the Kingdom of Morocco hitching a lift in an increasing percentage of the UK population?