Munro bagging

In many ways, I wish this post was about ascending Scottish peaks in the steps of Sir High Munro – but it isn’t.  I do have an ambition to bag a Munro or two, but something has always put me off – not the distance nor the hard-work, but the hideous ubiquity of small biting insects which (I fear) would be all too keen to taste of my virgin blood.  So, sadly, my plans to ascend the Scottish heights is on hold until science (or religion – I’m not fussy) comes up with an effective, idiot-proof defence against the midge.

No, over the past couple of weeks I have been “bagging” the works of Saki, aka H H Munro.  Some months ago, I heard an extended snatch of his short story The Stalled Ox on Radio 4 (where else?) and rather enjoyed it.  Since then, I have been rather ineffectually seeking out more of his work – but recently Southampton library delivered his Complete Short Stories into my hands (well, to be completely honest, I did have to take it off the shelf and carry it home myself).  The stories are from the Edwardian era – Saki himself was killed in 1916 sheltering in a shell crater – and I believe he was a tad reactionary.  Nevertheless, the stories are a joy – somewhat like Wodehouse, but with the brakes off and the bounds of taste and decency run roughshod over.  Many are extremely funny and some very dark and a lot of the themes remain surprisingly current a century (and more) after they were written.  Like PG he has a marvellous turn of phrase – and many of the stories feature an aunt.  I do feel that aunts had a much more pivotal role in the first quarter of the 20th century than they do in the present one, and I suspect this may not be a positive development (for comedy, if nothing else).  There was also a lot more bridge played – another negative effect of our soi-disant progress.

Sadly, I have only a very few short stories remaining and tomorrow the book must return to the welcoming bosom of the city’s central library.  Still, I’ve had more than a fortnight of fun and the next time I am in London I shall hold a mini-pilgrimage to Mortimer Street to check out H H’s blue plaque.  Via this post, I can (perhaps) share the joy of Munro bagging with a small (but select, even “amazing” [sic]) new audience.  Slightly concerned that this may lead to a decline in the morals of the GofaDM readership, but Clovis Sangrail is my new hero…


Jazz, hands

This last weekend, I returned to Cambridge once more – staying at Sidney Sussex college, which is very central.  It did bring back memories of my own first year in college, which was similarly situated albeit in the dreaming spire adorned arch-enemy of my weekend destination.  Ostensibly, I had returned to enjoy a few of the delights of the Cambridge Summer Music Festival – but did manage to tack on some additional fun.

The jazz component of our title was delivered by Ms Jacqui Dankworth and “her musicians”.  Not perhaps my usual cup of tea, but really quite entertaining.  Ms D may not have had a great relationship with her mother but does seem, nonetheless, to be turning into her (a state of affairs which, I seem to recall, Algernon Moncrieff described as the tragedy of her sex).  She also has a condign mastery of the breathing required to sing – something which I rather lack.  Despite somewhat more than 48 years on this planet, my breathing is still surprisingly poor – and this may be exacerbated by my gymnastic ambitions.  Having abs (and, indeed, a core) of steel is vital when hanging from the rings, but is less useful when trying to provide the oxygen supply needed for a decent vocal performance.  This may explain why so few opera singers have been gymnasts (and vice versa).  Despite this obstacle, I did have great fun with the groupetto and Handel’s O sleep, why dost thou leave me? during the singing lesson I managed to slot into the weekend.  I did, however, begin to suspect that my singing teacher’s choice of breathing exercise was more designed to use the student as a human fan than prepare my body for the rigours that were to follow.

Hands were delivered from many places over the weekend.  There was some fine piano playing with Debussy in the mercifully air-conditioned Howard theatre and a rather toastier concert in Gallery 3 at the Fitzwilliam Museum over Sunday lunchtime.  There was also the laying on of hands as my massage therapist once again attempted to return my ageing body to some semblance of its lissome prime.  Once again, my actions – in this case the content of post 500 – generated some surprise: despite being clearly telegraphed (née promised).  The session also generated some rather fruitful ideas to work into my pursuit of dating excellence – of which more will follow in later posts – and a further challenge for me to take on: of which more in the paragraph which will shortly be arriving into platform 3A.

In the narrow vestibule where a chap awaits audience with his therapist is a modest range of reading material.  This comprises a sizeable joke book, a thinner volume on cycle maintenance (this is Cambridge, after all) and a very small selection of (now) rather aged magazines.  I felt that the magazine selection could usefully do with a refresh and it seems it is down to we, the clientele, to take this project in hand.  Ancient copies of Punch or Countrylife would be, frankly, too dull – so I have taken it upon myself to bring a more interesting offering each time I visit.  I am looking for the most obscure, limited readership, magazines possible.  These should have nothing at all to do with Cambridge or massage, but should be suitable for a family audience – I shall need my first example by early(ish) September, so a helping hand by way of a suggestion or two would be terribly useful…

All-in-all, a very enjoyable weekend – though one experiment should not be considered a success.  The weekend, as the week before it, was really rather hot.  As a result, I thought I would attempt a currently popular fad in an attempt to maintain my feet at a comfortable temperature.  I have noticed that many folk eschew the sock with their summer footwear – and I talk here not of the undeniably wise choice to ensure that sock and sandal are never seen dancing cheek-to-cheek.  No, I refer to the sock-less foot being ensconced in deck shoe, plimsoll or trainer.  So, despite my advanced age, I decided to attempt this myself and chose a canvas shoe (a pair, in fact) as my weapon of choice – feeling that the canvas would be more forgiving to my tender pedal extremities and would also allow them to breathe.  How wrong I was, terrible damage to the edges of my little toes and many a toe-knuckle quickly followed this brief flirtation with fashion.  I am left chastened, with a mild limp, and a new found respect for the humble sock and its important role in my life.  I’m not saying I will rush out and buy a darning mushroom, but never again will a mock a sock.  Huzzah for hosiery!

Repeating history

Famously, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  Despite the fame of this statement, in the lists of famous quotations it seems that nobody quite said it – though Edmund Burke was probably the first I could find to express a similar sentiment. 

Based on John Kay’s contributions to a Point of View, even those who do learn from history are still doomed to repeat it.  He always strikes me as a very wise chap, though his pronouncements are rarely cheery for those of us trying to hold on to the last vestiges of hope for the future.  Nonetheless, I strongly suspect that he is right in all the essentials of his argument – belief that human nature will change any time soon is bound to lead to disappointment.  Even from my own more limited reading of history, the problems facing the world today are surprisingly similar in their fundamentals to those of 100, 200, 300 or even 400 years ago.  We have more technological toys and our mastery of the physical world is greater, but the people using them are pretty much the same as their ancestors – despite what we might like to think.  I suppose this may let our current political masters somewhat off-the-hook for their singular ineptitude, but they could at least attempt to learn some lessons from the past.

However, it was listening to Aamer Rachman on the Comedian’s Comedian podcast which led to the the genesis of this post.  He was a very interesting chap and I have been inspired to try and catch him live when next he visits these shores, however, his key observation (at least in relation to the subject in hand) was to note the rather strong racism that pervades Game of Thrones – the current TV and “literary” hit.

I have watched GoT (well, the first three series so far) and do find it quite entertaining (as does Mr Rachman) but cannot deny that he has a very good point.  Before continuing, I should warn readers that there may be ** SPOILERS ** coming which you may wish to avoid if you are even further behind the GoT curve than I.  

I would not want to accuse the author or producers of GoT of being actively racist in their choices, but merely suffering from the lack of imagination that afflicts so much fantasy (and, for that matter, science fiction).  So much speculative fiction (as I described it on my early CVs to conceal its exact nature from potential employers) basically rehashes the recent history of this planet (5000 years or so) in a more magical or technologically advanced realm.

Thus in Star Trek, the klingons seem to be the vikings slightly rebranded – and the citizens of the north of Westeros fit into a similar mould (perhaps with a hint of Angle or Saxon about them).  The Romulans are even named after Rome and borrow many of its conventions, and the southern Westerosi also seem to have many features of Rome or Byzantium about them – even down to the use of a clear analogue of Byzantine Greek fire in the battle of Blackwater Bay.  Westeros also has clear parallels with medieval Europe in its political shenanigans, while fear of ice giants and endless winter is lifted straight from Norse mythology.

If we head over the Shining Sea, we come to a fantasy take on Asia.  The Dothraki are channelling the Mongols and we have Barbary slavers and rich, advanced cities as once lined the Silk Road on the Earth Mk 1.  No sign, yet, of China – nor any indication of a Westerosi equivalent of the myth of Prester John – but I fully expect its equivalent to appear in the fullness of time.  As in the history of Western Europe during the medieval period, GoT shows little sign of any influence from its version of Africa – indeed what lies south of the seven kingdoms remains a complete mystery.

I think I’ve made my point and so will just say that it would be nice to have more fantasy worlds which do not so slavish follow the path-dependencies of our own, where those of Western European descent can still imagine they are in the ascendent.  Some do avoid repeating history, even choosing to have an Africa in the ascendent – far from an unlikely outcome given the tendency of humans to cling to continuity and, as a result, prove unable to leap-frog the legacy of past mistakes – or choose worlds and histories which diverge wildly from our own.  However, I fear these have a greater struggle penetrating the popular consciousness in the West – as a species, we are (perhaps) over-fond of the familiar.

Anyway, while I’m sticking the boot (fairly gently, I hope) into GoT, there is another matter I’d like to remove from its current resting place atop my sternum.  I have the strong feeling that George RR Martin’s writing has something of my way of playing chess about it.  He knows how to start the game and, like me, can probably manage the end game given a couple of rooks – but does rather flail around in the middle hoping that inspiration will strike.  There are times when it strikes me that he has run out of things for a character to do, and so manoeuvres them to their death – much like I might use an exchange of pieces to try and create some direction to my mid-game doldrums. Unlike in chess, he can create whole new pieces as a method to invigorate proceedings, but this just makes the clutter on the “board” worse – hence the need for occasional massacres to clear out some of the dead wood.  I feel that somewhere in the sprawling saga that makes up GoT, there is a trilogy (or perhaps a novel) trying to break free – if only they could find a decent editor.  Then again, history is even less well-structured or focused (especially to those of us living through it) – so perhaps GRRM is repeating history in more ways than I had originally been hypothesising.  And, it is great fun trying to deduce which characters have run out of “plot” and are about to be knocked-off!

That D Day Ting

Look at me, going pretty street (or is it urban or fly?) for a middle-aged white guy.  You might wonder why I have adopted seriously out-dated youth patois in today’s title – or you might already be dreading the weak pun which will later rely on this obvious set-up.

I would also like to dispel any concerns you may have that I shall shortly be starting a European holiday in Normandy as part of a plan to purge much of the continent of Ms Merkel’s compatriots.

No, the title goes back much further than either of these red herrings – all the way to ancient Rome.  In those far off days, D referred to the number 500 – and this is GofaDM post number 500!  Feel free to imagine some sort of fanfare and/or firework extravaganza to celebrate this meaningless milestone.  Instead of these more traditional markers of a major event, I decided it was time to make good on a promise made way back in I did it!  Back then I promised a whole new direction for GofaDM, and there is some (implicit) pressure to make good on this promise before the latter half of tomorrow afternoon.

After my now famous striptease (though, teasing implies the audience wanted more and I was holding back – an implication which I think the audience would vehemently deny), conversation with my massage therapist went in interesting directions (it usually does).  Regular readers will know my lack of interest in gland games and, indeed, the rigmarole that tends to surround the quest to participate in gland games with a vaguely willing (or at least safely drunk) third party.  Somehow, during my massage session, the suggestion was mooted that I should start dating… other people (we’ll steer clear of the legal issues around other potential targets: animal, vegetable or mineral).  Perhaps my therapist felt that others should share in the suffering – a trouble shared and all that (though I believe, a trouble shared is a trouble doubled) – by inflicting my pseudo-amarous advances on other folk.

At this point, I should perhaps make clear that I have never really dated – it has always struck me as a somewhat arduous journey to an undesirable destination.  I believe that others have tried to date me, but I have always remained entirely oblivious to their apparent advances and have only discovered from a mutual acquaintance long after the event.  So, you might expect me to continue in similar vein and reject the proposal.  Normally, I would have done so but during conversation the idea of me dating did gain a certain, dare I say it, “irresistible” momentum.  This was not because the excellent debating skills of my therapist convinced me of the value of a “relationship” or of exchanging bodily fluids with another in a more intimate setting than that provided by the Royal Mail.  No, the conversation convinced me of the entertainment (neé comedy) value of inflicting me upon the world of romance – and, equally importantly, the excellent stream of potential content for GofaDM that my new career as a gigolo would be bound to generate.  I owe it to you, my readership, to hurl myself body-and-soul into the world of dating – based on my rather limited knowledge, it could do with someone vaguely competent to take it in hand: and I could be that chap.

There are some issues surrounding the launch of this process – which the fact that it has taken more than five months since the teaser trailer to this my robust commitment – not least of which is the time commitment required from your truly – but, I am determined to make it work (eventually).

My understanding of the process is that as a first step, one needs to choose the gender which one is going to pursue.  Lacking an interest in gland games, I don’t really have a natural preference – I have friends in both camps – but feel that it would probably be bad form to date people of both genders in parallel (I’m sure such activities should be pursued serially – if at all).  In theory, I know slightly more about men (being one) which might make them an easier option in the first instance – though this would involve a somewhat smaller pool of potential victims (which could be a downside).  If readers would care to suggest the better gender to tackle first, I am open to suggestions while feeling completely free to ignore them.

Having selected an initial target gender, I should perhaps prepare a dating “profile” which can serve to advertise my many (assumed) merits to my victims and interest them in encountering them (my merits) live: “in the flesh” as ’twere.  Whilst, I can clearly be somewhat economical with the truth in this profile (as I believe is entirely normal), this blog will somewhat limit my room to be too fantastical.  Still, I feel the drafting of my profile can usefully provide the meat of a future blog post (or series thereof) – with potential opportunities for audience participation!

Ultimately, I will have to manage the physical process of “the date” – but there is a plenty of time to prepare that later.  Well, unless readers of GofaDm suddenly start throwing themselves at me – in which case, I may have to re-prioritise and work on (or “create”) my dating skills rather sooner.

Exciting times for planet earth, I think we can all agree – though readers should feel free to lock up their sons or daughters (or parents) as a precaution, if they are concerned about this late arrival to the dating ball. 

Using my IQ

I suppose readers may feel I already make rather too free with my somewhat modest IQ in the over-writing of this blog.  I, on the other hand, like to view my work as part of “lifelong learning”, a cause which our politicians like to give lip-service to when there looks like an unattached vote might be there for the taking.  However, in this case I refer not to any measurement of my soi-disant intellect but to my car – a red Toyota IQ.

My car has had a good, or perhaps a terrible, life (all depends on how you measure quality of life for a motor vehicle).  It is very seldom used, so that at three years of age it has yet to reach mile two thousand.  However, it is occasionally useful – when the combination of Shanks’s pony, an array of bicycles and public transport cannot meet my trans-locational needs.

There is a slight issue with its resting location, in that given where I live and the unique way in which Southampton City Council distributes residents’ parking (based on a snapshot of the city taken back in July 2002, I believe), it whiles away its many idle hours just almost a mile from my garret.  On the other hand, and as recently established, it has value not just as a mode of (infrequent) personal transportation but also provides a vital curative element for distressed vertebrae – a function that might be compromised if it could rest closer to home.

However, given the less than unique way in which its “purchase” was funded, as it approached three years of age I had to decide whether the two of us had a future together or if divorce would be the kindest choice.  For the longest time, I thought that we would follow the wise words of Tammy Wynette (actually, the words may not be hers, but she famously brought them to a wide public) and we would go our separate ways.  However, life is uncertain and it may come to pass that I will need to use a car on a more regular basis in the next few years.  To acquire a car of similar age and pedigree (just look at the low mileage and FSH!) would be really quite expensive, while the carrying-cost of retaining the IQ is relatively modest – so I decided to continue our long (if infrequent) association.  I also decided that I ought to use the poor thing a little more often, I do seem to go to extreme (some might say insane) lengths not to use my vehicular asset and this is frankly ridiculous – so I am committed to change for the sake of the relationship.

Reaching the age of three in the UK, a car is required to be tested to ensure that it is, at least nominally, roadworthy.  On the basis of Hollywood’s output, I can only assume that such a requirement does not exist in the US – or is very weakly enforced.  Here in dear old Blighty, this test is still named after the long defunct Ministry of Transport – the MOT (well, we do love a bit of heritage) – and is an annual ritual from the age of three (so, not unlike the testing of children in this post Govean world).  So, earlier this week, the car and I had a “date” somewhere down in deepest Millbrook at my local Toyota garage for both an MOT and its annual service (not a euphemism).  Thanks to some last minute cramming (or perhaps its innate ability), the car passed its test with flying colours and is legally free to be driven for another year.  

The car was “seen to” while I waited – and this led me to reflect on how technology has made waiting a much more pleasant experience.  For a start, Snows (the garage – presumably born out of wedlock to the north of Westeros) was air-conditioned – so a much more comfortable place to be in the current heatwave than home – I was tempted to stay after the service was done, but thought this might be considered a little odd.  I was plied with free tea (I brought my own sandwiches – well, a chap has needs!) and via my mini iPad could catch up on a rather fun BBC4 documentary.  I could then use the free wifi to get on with a little work for “the man” before I was reunited with my three-cylinder friend.  Never a dull moment!

For those who had not brought their own fun, there were a selection of newspapers and a television flickering away in the background.  This mostly seemed to be showing a programme about crime and/or benefit recipients (well, I think it was after the estate agents and before the antiques traders are let loose on our daytime schedules) to draw in the key demographic of the reactionary unemployed.  At one stage, this programme appeared to provide a reconstruction of a group of youths (presumably feral) dropping some litter.  I realise that TV schedulers believe that those watching during the daytime have room temperature IQs (and I think we’re talking celsius here rather than fahrenheit), but surely even they can’t truly believe the audience would be unable to imagine someone dropping a Mars bar wrapper without the aid of a reconstruction?  Sometimes, I despair!  Still, I suppose no-one is forcing me to watch this tripe – though one way or another, I am probably partly funding its production.

So, technology (and the fine folk at Snows) make having the car serviced a painless, even enjoyable experience – but whatever you do, bring your own fun or you may be treated to television which would fail to engage even the lobotomised.  Now, I must make good on my resolution and take my IQ out on some more regular (and distant) play dates…

Worry not

Some of you may be concerned about the future of GofaDM after the front page of the Guardian’s website today declared that “The blog is over”.  Let me put your mind at rest, despite the continued lack of demand for it, the supply of GofaDM will in no way be reduced.  A little like Kevin Costner in A Field of Dreams, or perhaps Wayne in WW2, I work on the principle that if I write it, they will come.

Other worrying news recently came from the corridors or power, where there was apparently a purge of middle-aged white men.  Despite all my best attempts, rubbing lamps and the like, I remain trapped in the body of a middle-aged white man – and so worried I might soon disappear or be sent off to some government-sponsored gulag (actually, with this government, it would probably be sponsored by ATOS or G4S – which would make my escape a mere formality).  In fact, the headlines were rather over-stating matters and it seems to have been a purge of a very small number of MAWM (some of whom were immediately replaced by other, rather similar MAWMs) – possibly, it was a purge of Michael Gove and a few others so it didn’t make it too obvious.

Anyway, this purge – or re-shuffle as I believe the PM would prefer it described – revealed the surprising number of complete unknowns who had been hiding out in government for the past four years.  Are the lower ranks of the UK government some sort of witness-protections scheme, designed to enable those who have testified against organised crime to disappear (whilst surrounded by the trappings of hopelessly disorganised crime)?  Still, if I thought the outgoing ministers were unknown, they were A-list celebrities compared to their replacements.  Once again, well paid positions for which no related qualification or experience is needed and for which the complete lack of a public profile is a positive boon were on offer, and no-one asked me.

I have to say the re-shuffle reminded me of A-level selection back in the early 80s.  Economics and psychology were popular choices: not as a result of any intrinsic fascination with the subject matter or anticipated utility, but because their absence at O-level meant that even the weakest of students had yet to fail in the subject area.  I presume that any minister who has presided over the last four years of soi-disant rule, will presumably have attracted a significant volume of public animosity and so will be a liability come election-time.  Best to go with complete unknowns, to whom no baggage at all currently attaches, and hope they don’t make any dreadful faux-pas in the next few months.  A high risk strategy, I suspect- and one which should further detach the voters from the political process – but perhaps the new ministers will just be expected to bring in “games” while the civil servants run the country, blocked only by inexperienced political interference the only (which I think means the Treasury is now, formally in charge).

Actually, I had my own brush with the world of politics a couple of weeks back.  Me and 159 of my closest industry chums (well, OK, other people from the energy industry) spent a morning with the energy team of one of our major political parties.  The party fielded three MPs, a baroness and a bunch of SPADs (special advisers).  I came late to The Thick of It, but I’m afraid at least part of me was trying to decide if anyone present had been written by Armando Iannucci (though they were disappointing light on the swearing front).  Very pleasingly “my” SPAD was called Oli – and he looked even younger than Chris Addison.  I can’t prove he (or his colleagues) studied PPE at Oxbridge – but I would certainly be willing to place a small wager to that effect.  Very bright I have no doubt, but perhaps a little weak on the details that would separate a successful energy policy from “business as usual” – only time will tell.  Still, my contribution was well-received, so come next May I may finally be called to high office.

This may be just as well given that another bastion of the MAWM has just been opened up to competition from the stronger sex.  With my O-level in Religious Studies, I was relying on a well-paid bishopric to tide me over to retirement – but now it seems the competition for positions has become a whole lot tougher.  And, as readers will know, my legs look rather good in purple.  Another disappointment to add to the list – maybe it is time that I hie myself to a nunnery (à la Sister Josephine) or just forget my “vocation” altogether.

Back to normal

I am, it must be admitted, knocking on a bit.  For most of human pre-history, my current age would seem freakishly old (much as it probably still does to anyone very far under 20).  As a consequence, it is only to be expected that parts of me will start functioning slightly less efficiently than they did in the glory days of my (comparative) youth.  Presbyopia has already claimed my eyes – which for the moment means I can use a screen or read a book without the aid of my glasses, but in the longer term the lack of accommodation and my myopia will no longer balance quite so conveniently.

I am also quite tall – certainly if I had my time again (and the necessary control) I would have stopped growing several inches sooner. Trust me, height is over-rated – I can see further in crowds and reach high-shelves, but the rest is discomfort, concussion, broken crockery and trouble finding clothes with long enough legs and arms.  For the sake of economy (or profit), our world seems (mostly) designed for those a good few inches shorter than me (I suspect sardines feel much the same way).  In addition to the previous list, being tall has at least contributed (I’d like to claim it as the sole cause, but others may take a more sceptical stance) to the poor posture I’ve used for most of my life.

As a result, I really should have had more trouble with my back – but my vertebrae have generally given me very little trouble despite their rather poor treatment at my hands (or cerebellum perhaps?).  Still, luck eventually runs out and reasonably early on my second day in Wales I “did” something to my back.  I have no idea what, it might have been a pulled muscle (so much less zeitgeist-y than pulled pork) or trapped a nerve or something else entirely.  As revealed before, I dropped biology in the third form – long before study of the spine and its environs enters the curriculum.

This (whatever it was) was intermittently painful and occasionally very painful.  Mostly it hurt when doing the most anodyne of activities – so gymnastic training hanging from rings: fine, leaning over to point at a colleague’s laptop: excruciating.  It did tend to make walking uncomfortable, especially if I placed my foot carelessly, but did not stop me hiking up several mountains.  I seem to recall that the worst thing to do for a bad back is to lie around, moaning softly while a lackey feeds you peeled grapes – and so I continued with normal life, wincing as required.  After I while, with the issue not going away, I tried out the foam rollers you see at gymnasia (and which I’d always previously ignored).  These are wonderfully pleasurable in use – but sadly did not fix my spine – nevertheless I shall continue to use them in a non-therapeutic role.

Am I still in pain i hear you ask?  Well, yes – but that is down to this bout of the man ‘flu, my spine is fully recovered.  “Share with us, oh wise one, how this miracle was brought about?” I almost hear you cry.  Well, as you asked so nicely, I shall.

As previously noted, I don’t use my car very often.  In fact, until very recently I hadn’t used it since January – and as a result, its battery was very flat.  I do own a battery charger, so this was not a problem – except that due to the parking restrictions in my street, my car is parked almost a mile from home.  Sadly, even if it were safe to use, I do not have an extension lead of anything like that length – and so the battery had to be moved, by hand, to my home and then back again.  Car batteries are mostly made of lead (and acid) and this is quite heavy – so it was quite hard work lugging my battery from the car, and then back again now full of charge (which, luckily, weighs very little!).

“He’s gone off at a complete tangent.  His mind has finally snapped”, I fear you are thinking.  Worry not, this apparent digression is entirely to the mustard.  After the first battery portage, my back was much improved.  After the second, it was entirely cured!  Forget your osteopaths and your chiropractors!  All you need to deal with a bad back is to walk roughly a mile-and-a-half carrying a car battery (I used one from a 2011 Toyota IQ, but I don’t think the model is key to the cure).  This insight could save the NHS millions!  Most patients will have access to a car battery, but for those that don’t, I’m sure a small pool could be maintained at taxpayer’s expense – they don’t need to be charged, so dead, second-hand batteries would be fine.  Quick, someone find my Jeremy Hunt’s phone number (or has he been reshuffled by now to something better fitting his talents, assuming some have been found?).


Neglected gnashers

I, via the random lottery of genetic inheritance, have very good teeth.  I’ll admit that to any North American readers my dentition will place me firmly in the third world and only the most strongly photo-sensitive would require dark glasses to view my smile, but my teeth work day-in and day-out without complaint despite spending their whole lives stuck in my mouth (which, let’s face it, is a somewhat hostile environment).

I suppose that I should admit that nurture (and not just nature) may have had a part to play in my good dental health.  I have (almost) always brushed them in the evening before going to my straw palliasse and I have never been especially fond of sweets – though credit (or blame) should probably go to my parents who made me brush my teeth and ensured that sweets were rarely available (except to suck on long car journeys) during my childhood.  Despite these relatively good habits, I can count the number of times I’ve flossed or used an inter-dental brush on the fingers of one hand – and have quite a few digits in reserve – so I am no saint when it comes to oral hygiene.

I’m fairly sure I visited the dentist at the prescribed intervals as a child, but have few recollections beyond a sequence of Antipodeans calling out the standard mantra of numbers and occlusions that is the lot of the dentist.  I do remember spending quite some time with a brightly coloured liquid flowing round my teeth, I believe to infuse them with fluoride ions, which may have done some good.  I also wore a brace for a while as my teeth where extremely wayward in their growth – as above, anyone from the US would view them as being pretty wayward still but they do mostly meet in the middle (sufficient to eat, which is all that worries me).  The brace is also to blame for my general failure to eat crisps – when it was first removed, the roof of my mouth was very sensitive to sharp objects, having been so long protected, and eating crisps was painful.  I have never fully re-acquired the habit – good habits are always so much more satisfying if acquired by accident rather than intent.

I also remember my final childhood dentist, Mr Holmes, as he was a heavy smoker and ever since I have associated smoker’s breath with the dentist – which might be considered to have affected my dating choices.  It is quite hard to feel romantic when your mind is drawn ineluctably to fillings and the scraping off of tartar (though I’m sure there will be a few people out there that could manage it).

As an adult, I have been to the dentist very rarely – though I do try and put in an appearance once a decade for form’s sake.  This is not due to any fear of the dentist’s chair (or what might occur therein) but because I begrudge the cost, given that I am always told how excellent my teeth are – this compliment is a long way from complimentary (nearer £70 as I recall).  The last time, I suppose she did grind down my incisors to remove the very clear impression of a fork which I had left in them when my hunger had caused me to bite down more rapidly than anticipated on a tasty morsel (which made for slightly better value-for-money from the visit).

Today, I wandered into town in search of drugs – not to feed my unfortunate habit, but palliatives to manage my incipient cold or bout of man ‘flu.  In the centre of Southampton was parked a van, offering free dental check-ups (while-you-wait!) – and passing this started me thinking about my last visit to the dentist.  This would seem to have been in 1999 which means I have not allowed a professional to look at my teeth this millennium, so I decided to wander up to the van and sample their “wares”.  In barely more than five minutes, I had popped my dental cherry for this millennium and was once again re-assured that I have excellent teeth – the best seen today (though I wasn’t given the opportunity to check out the competition).  I also now know that I am missing at least one wisdom tooth (8) and one is only half erupted – which may suggest that greater wisdom is my destiny (or might merely explain my current lack of sagacity).  There is also a small build up of tartar at the base of my front incisors – so I could go to the dentist and pay for some ultrasound, or just use my fingernail as usual.

Not only have I managed to have a free check-up without appointment and using up a mere five minutes of my day, but I was also given a free “goody” bag.  What a marvel the NHS is!  I think the goody bag may be aimed at a slightly younger clientele, as whilst it does contain a folding toothbrush the remaining contents were a bottle of water, a squeezy star and two (2!) balloons.  If anyone fancies a very low budget party with dentistry as its theme, then I’m your man!  I’ll try and lay on some pink cocktails – or a bottle of rosé – to keep the theme going.  I even have a reclining chair we could use.  Rinse and spit!

If anyone else is tempted back to the dentist’s chair after a long break (and lives in the UK), then do check-out the Toothbus (not a real bus) for details (well, it’s the least I could do).  

Comparing your mandate

There is a well-known saying that “all comparisons are odious”.  The internet does not seem entirely sure who said it first, though it may go back at least as far as the 14th century.  I’ve never been entirely convinced by the universality of application of this particular pithy remark, if nothing else its adoption would sound the death knell for the simile (and man cannot live by metaphor alone).

I was reminded of this when I had the mis-fortune to catch a small snatch of this morning’s news on BBC 6Music.  This include a quote from one Frances Maude (a man with two girls’ first names, which seems either greedy or American) commenting on today’s public sector strike.  I have no desire to express a view on the sense of otherwise of this activity (or lack thereof), merely to remark on the idiocy of Mr Maude.

He claimed that the unions involved did not have a proper mandate from their members.  I feel that any government in Europe or North America should be very careful before claiming anyone else lacks a mandate.  Our own government has, in many ways, no mandate whatsoever as no-one at all  voted for it.  Even if we consider the constituent part to which Mr Maude belongs, I would estimate that substantially less than a third of the electorate voted for it and presumably only some of these did so because they were in favour of its policies in relation to public sector pay and conditions.  As a result, it seems a virtual certainty that the unions have a much stronger mandate for their actions than those against which they are protesting.

Going further, it is widely reported that today will see one million workers united in action (or inaction).  I doubt our government could unite one million people to do much of anything, even if they were to hand out free money in the streets (which I believe will be a major plank of their forthcoming manifesto – or if not, I’m sure Mr MIlliband will be glad to claim it for the Opposition).  I strongly suggest that members of a government with very limited popular support (as measured at the ballot box) should refer to mandates if (and only if) they have been out for dinner and a movie (and maybe more?) with the proud possessor of a Y-chromosome – and even then, should perhaps refrain from comparisons.

Avoiding the news

I never watch the news on television, rarely read the”news” content of even the broadsheet newspapers and use BBC Radio 4 wholly for its non-current affairs content.  I do catch the brief bulletins on 6Music, though even those I will use to do something noisy or away from my radio.

I will not deny that I do this to ensure that I can live a happier life, though not perhaps for the reason you might first imagine.  I avoid the news not to escape the many horrors which blight this planet, so many caused by members of my own species, but in an attempt to keep my blood pressure within reasonable limits.

Almost all soi-disant news falls into one of the following categories:

  • pointless speculation about future events
  • pointless speculation about past events
  • regurgitated press releases or other marketing/PR material
  • gossip about people I don’t know and in whom I have very little interest
  • other people’s holiday snaps
  • mis-leading or downright false statistics or other numbers
  • asking random members of the public for their uninformed opinion
  • finding two people with almost infeasibly extreme and diametrically opposite views to argue,  coupled to the belief that such an argument somehow creates balance.

I could go on – and I’m sure you will have your own favourites that I have missed from the list – but I won’t.  You may think I exaggerate, but sadly I don’t.  For example, a very recent headline in a broadsheet newspaper was a quotation from the head of Sky News (sadly, not an information service about clouds) boasting that his organisation produced “more imaginative” news than the BBC.  I’m really not looking for imagination in the news – I look for that in the world of fiction (and great fun it is too) – I am looking to be informed about current events.

Given my long-term avoidance of the news, I might have supposed that matters may have improved – in defiance of cultural entropy.  However, whilst in Wales recently I shared the cottage with a news watcher – so I can assure that it has, if anything, become even more banal than I remembered.

How, you might ask, do I keep myself informed?  OK, I’ll admit you didn’t ask (you just can’t get the readers) but don’t imagine that means I won’t be telling you!

I have to inform myself, slowly over time – new knowledge, as it is acquired, has to be patched into the existing picture.  Some of my sources include:

  • Reading books (a lot of books), both fiction and non-fiction.  For example knowing a little history (not just the dates) and little about the human condition seems to place me streets ahead of most of the political class (who, based on many of their policies, must never have met another human being). 
  • Memory of my O-levels is useful – I still seem to know more about flooding than most, including those with responsibilities for planning.  
  • The Edinburgh Science Festival provided lunchtime lectures which appear to have left me strangely well-informed about some of the key issues affecting the planet, and which regularly appear in the news
  • Podcasts: particularly The Life Scientific, More or Less, A Point of View and Inside Science – but honourable mentions must also go to Thinking Aloud, the Nature Podcast and In Our Time.
  • BBC4 and Radio 4 documentaries. As just one example, Adam Rutherford’s recent series on intelligence (Born Smart, Born Equal, Born Different) was probably the most intelligent thing on genetics and education I’ve ever heard (or read). 

My way is a much slower process, and one’s knowledge and understanding grows at least partially by the operation of serendipity – but that is, if I’m honest, a lot of the fun.  It also does wonders for my systolic and diastolic – as I don’t have to shout incoherent obscenities at the haunted goldfish bowl for its latest news-based solecism.  Using my method, I find I can come to a much more nuanced (and less knee-jerk) understanding of the issues.  It also reminds me that to any given problem there is always a simple, obvious solution (often two, in violent opposition) and it (or they) will be utterly wrong.

So join me!  Give up on “the news”!  Leave the polarised world of black and white and join me in the grey of greater understanding.