Till-side temptation

For many years, supermarkets kept confectionary by the tills so the queuing shopper (or more likely any associated children) could be tempted into unplanned purchases.  In recent years, this practise has reduced – or so we are told.

When I am required to visit Woking for “the man”, I tend to acquire the elements of my lunch at a small branch of Marks and Spencer which is handily sited adjacent to Woking station.  There is a strange selection of random items on the way to the tills, mostly of a snackable nature – some healthy, some less so.  However, the most prominent display, as I wait for a till to become available, is a wide selection of gins (and no tonic).  For the slightly shorter shopper, Scottish whisky is there to tempt – whilst the giant (or stilt-user) is offered brandy.

I presume these spirits are not there to tempt small children, who would be faced with a selection of sweet sherries, as the licensing laws would mean M&S were swiftly hauled up before the beak.  So, they must be there to tempt their older clientele into impulse dipsomania.  Given the store’s location, welcoming recent arrivals to the dubious delights of Woking, M&S must assume that any visitors will require access to a stiff drink (or several) before they are able to cope with the horrors that lie ahead.  Or is gin – rather than a chocolate bar – a typical last-minute, till-side purchase for the Woking shopper?  I’ve never thought of the town as particularly Hogarthian – but perhaps I have underestimated how louche its denizens are behind closed doors.

You (and my employers) will be pleased to know that I have (so far) managed to resist temptation.  I make no guarantees as to my future conduct…

Football boots

It is a long time since I last wore studded football boots – we’re probably talking 1982, as by taking the Oxford Entrance Exam I managed to avoid games during my 6th form years (which was most of my motivation, if I’m honest).  For the small portion of the eighties where I was still required to chase a ball around a field, I didn’t even play football but rather hockey (or field hockey as those from colder climes might call it) which I much preferred.  This had the major advantage – from my perspective – that I was issued with a weapon (I believe it was technically called a stick) and no-one (sane) expected you to control the ball using your head.   The stick somewhat levelled the (literal) playing field between myself and my more skilled classmates (which would be most of them).  The school-issued plastic sticks were also rather more durable in a tackle than the posher, wooden sticks used by those with some technical mastery – which was occasionally beneficial.

What I most remember about those winter Wednesday afternoons playing hockey in north Kent was the school’s perennial shortage of bibs.  This meant that to distinguish one team from another, when both would otherwise be wearing identical uniforms, one team had to play in “skins” – i.e. naked from the waist up.  I don’t recall this practise ceasing in rain or however low the temperature fell.  I suspect the children of today are not battle-hardened in the same way – but I guess I should thank my games masters, as I can now get through many a winter without recourse to the central heating.

Why, I hear you cry, is the old fool banging on about sports footwear of the 1970s?  Let me assure you that there is a reason – I’m not claiming it’s a good reason, merely that it exists.

Whilst I have almost entirely managed to avoid watching the World Cup, I have caught a few glimpses of play as a videoed BBC4 documentary came to an end (or some such).  On each occasion I was forcibly struck by the footwear on display.  This seems largely to borrow from the colour palette of the highlighter pen.  As I recall, in my youth boots were generally black – well, briefly black and then caked in thick Kentish mud for the remainder of their life.  Now fluorescent yellow or orange seems to be the first choice – perhaps in case of failure of the stadium floodlighting?  However, a small minority of players have gone further with different coloured boots for each foot – generally fluorescent pink and blue.  I know the modern footballer is often not considered the sharpest tool in the box, but do they really need this much help to match the correct boot to each foot?  In my day, a simple L and R (or local language equivalent) was enough for even the most intellectually bereft of students – have literacy standards really fallen so low?

Not a cruiser

Not even a minesweeper in my case – that being the lowliest rank of naval vessel known to yours truly.

I know cruising (the type involving a large boat) is very popular these days, but it holds no appeal for me at all.  I dislike the idea of being trapped in a relatively small space where everything comes from the same supplier or their chosen concessionaires.  I know that the boat will dock from time-to-time and realise that in real life I seldom travel more than a couple of miles from home, but still the whole experience smacks of corporate claustrophobia.

However, many do seek just such a source of holiday fun and I now live in (or at least very near) what I assume to be the UK’s premier port for cruise liners.  I regularly see them when I’m near the docks and the modern ships are truly vast.  They tower over all of the more land-bound buildings of Southampton like sea-borne Gullivers in a south coast Lilliput.  They also dwarf the container ships and other cargo vessels that also use the docks – presumably bringing the geejaws and knick-knacks from China without which modern society would soon collapse.

I wondered why the ships were quite so vast and did not have to wait long to find my answer.  I often see the liners when I visit a hotel gym near the docks for my gymnastic training.  If no ship is in, the hotel lobby is quiet – even deserted.  However, when a liner calls the lobby is full of soon-to-be cruisers and their luggage.  And what luggage it is!  Many’s the couple carrying more “stuff” for their fortnight away than I own.  I used to have no idea that wheeled luggage was available in such enormous sizes – like a cloth covered shipping container with plastic wheels – and people can’t survive with merely one, a whole gaggle is needed.  Such is the size of the baggage that I suspect people smuggling on an industrial scale is taking place in the guise of cruising.

I am forced to conclude that 90% of these new super-liners is just cargo hold to store all of this luggage.  It would also seem that the standard ship’s cabin is significantly larger than I had imagined – certainly larger than my flat (or two bed house before it).

I, myself, travel light – I have been around the world over the course of a month using only carry-on, hand luggage.  And, this is in the days when they were rather stricter with bag sizes and weights than is true today: it would seem that you can now place a lead ingot the size of a small horse in the overhead locker without the flight crew batting an eyelid.  I dislike being burdened with a heavy bag while away, and modern technology has made this so much easier.  In days of yore, I have been forced to post books back to myself while away to provide room to buy new reading material – but no more.  I also object to wheeled suitcases as they are a menace to society – so bear the full weight of any luggage I choose to take with me.  When my long planned coup d’état finally reaches fruition and I am installed as a (mostly) benign despot, wheeled luggage will be banned – or at the very least all users will be required to have a licence to prove their ability to operate one safely and courteously.  Penalty points and fines will be issued for mis-use of such luggage and the licence revoked for repeat offenders.  I think we can all agree that this is an outcome devoutly to be wished and look forward to your unquestioning support come my glorious revolution!

As I walked out

A recent conjunction of news stories started me thinking, and this post is the result of that process.  Given the subject matter, it may be slightly less comic than usual (then again, perhaps I over-estimate the usual degree of comic content).

Sections of the media, and broader establishment, spend much of their time trying to find new things with which to terrify us.  The ongoing Manichean project to take every word in the language and decide whether its subject either does or does not cause cancer continues unabated as does the important work to prevent woman from acquiring an excess of self-esteem.  However, much of their important work is to ensure that those over the age of 30 (say) remain terrified of the young.  (I would like to point out to my fellow over-30s, that it will be the young who will be funding our pensions and/or putting us into a home, so perhaps we could think about treating them a little better).  Much of this fear-mongering urges us to see them as “feral” creatures who indulge in every depravity – so unlike our own tender years when even hardened criminals would swoon at the sight of an uncovered table leg.  As a result, we must be constantly protected from them and they must be protected from the real world, while the system prepares them for life in the 1870s (or maybe that is only Mr Gove’s plan).  I have met a few young people (though not a properly randomised sample) and they generally strike me as rather impressive and far more adult than I was at their age (or am now for that matter).  As noted before, I have rather more faith in their ability to run the country than the current incumbents – though admittedly, they are setting the bar pretty low (as did their predecessors).

The latest scare is that our young people will become “radicalised” – though if the young don’t become radical I’m not sure who will.  I recognise that there are concerns here, the young will sometimes lack the life experience to recognise that the information they are being fed is very partisan, mis-leading or untrue – though, I would note that this is true for the rest of us as well (if you are in any doubt, can I recommend Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre as a useful corrective).  The current worry is about young people (mostly Muslim I assume) going off to Syria to help one of the groups fighting against the totalitarian regime there.

As this news story has been rumbling on, we have also been celebrating the centenary of the birth of Laurie Lee.  He was a big noise with English teachers when I was at school, though may be rather frowned upon now in the Govian state (not sure he is entirely sound on how great war is).  This reminded me (via As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning) of the young men who left the country in the mid-1930s to go and support the forces fighting against the fascist regime of General Franco in Spain.  I suppose these men had the “advantage” of white skin and being (at least nominally) Christian, but I do wonder how the newspapers of the day reported their behaviour.  Given its enthusiastic support for Fascism and the Nazis, I assume the Daily Mail’s editorial stance was much as now.  I may be drawing an inappropriate parallel between two very different sets of circumstances – and I’m not sure if any great writing or poetry has emerged from Syria yet – but idealistic young men going to support a cause in which the believe and oppose tyranny does suggest at least some parallels exist.  (BTW, I freely admit to being an authority on neither the current situation in Syria nor the Spanish Civil War).

Our leaders seem very keen on educating the young, to the extent of making them pay for it and denying them benefits if they don’t keep it up.  At the same time, it seems to care very little what happens to these educated young people once they leave the system – well, as long as they don’t cost the tax-payer any money.  The educated, idealistic young are an enormously powerful resource – if society is unable or unwilling to find an outlet for their energies, then someone or something else will (even if that is a life of crime or hedonistic nihilism).  Civil society is a fragile construct – very hard to build and very easy to break and we seem to be doing a worryingly good job of disenfranchising the young (who, let’s face it, could take the rest of us in a fight – though our low animal cunning and willingness to cheat would partly counteract their youth and vitality) – even without the help of multi-millionaires with back-combed hair.

The young need a stake in society – and hopefully not one driven through its heart at midnight.  They are (inevitably) a product of society rather than its cause.  So, when looking for scapegoats to shoulder the blame for society’s ills, I think we need to look rather further up the age curve to those creating the conditions under which they young have grown up.

And here endeth the sermon.  Normal, more frivolous service will (probably) be restored.

Leaving the rat race

As I come to write, I am struck with the rather strange nature of the phrase “rat race”. The human race has forced a fair variety of animals to race against each other for our entertainment (and, more often, as a basis for a wager or three) over the years – but never so far as I know the rat. Then again, as previously established I am no great authority in the field of sport, so perhaps one of Sky’s more obscure sports channels does offer aficionados the chance to see members of genus Rattus going head-to-head on the track.

I should also make clear that despite the title, I have never knowingly participated in competitive sporting endeavour with any creature claiming allegiance to Order Rodentia.  In fact, I try to avoid running under any circumstances – competitive or not – as I can move quite swiftly walking and where that is insufficient would prefer to use my bike.

OK, title successfully deconstructed we can move on…

I recently spent a week on holiday not far from Barmouth (Abermaw) in west Wales.  This was a week of hiking, cake consumption and generally eating well (even if I says so as shouldn’t as I did most of the cooking) and (mostly) avoiding the responsibilities and stresses for my “normal” life.  For the most part as I did this, I was surrounded by beautiful scenery and the sun shone on my upturned apple cheeks (for the avoidance of doubt, this is not evidence of my desire for an “all-over” tan – my skin is ageing fast enough without encouragement from the sun’s ultry-violet rays).  Even my base was set in stunning grounds with views down to the Mawddach estuary and across to the Cader range.

In such circumstances, a chap’s mind quite naturally started to wonder if it was really necessary to return to the real world.  I’m not that materialistic (am I?) and surely I could survive on the salary I could draw working in a cake shop – and with all those mountains, I should be able to ameliorate the worst of the side effects of my eating any (or all) of the surplus stock (well, I do hate to see good food go to waste – much better that it go to waist!).  The desire to leave the rat race was particularly strong on my last day, the Sunday.  I was dropped off in Dolgellau and went for a walk around the town – a walk taken from the excellent range of guides produced by Kittiwake (I have yet to find a bad one in any of their walks in this part of Wales – and most have been excellent with very good directions).  Unlike previous years, T H Roberts is now open on a Sunday so I could have a pre-exertion slice of cake.  The walk was good with nice views of the town and it environs.  After the walk I had a little time to kill until my bus would take me back home, and so wandered over to the village cricket pitch.  I think this may have the most beautiful setting of any cricket ground in the world – and I suspect is unique in boasting a stone circle in the outfield.  As I sat there, with the River Wnion behind me and the sound of willow on leather before, it was very tempting to never leave.  With luck a photo should illustrate my point, but WordPress has made major changes to its interface so rather than permitting simple attachment it is now part of a “gallery” (presumably, they will be unable to return my pictures, but I may win a prize).

Eventually I did leave, if only to consume some post-exercise cake from the TH Cafe (you can never be too careful) and catch my bus.  There are some things I’d miss if I lived somewhere quite so remote – a viable mobile phone signal and decent broadband for sure.  I’d also miss the cultural activities that are possible living in and near more major conurbations – though saying that, I did have a lot of fun at Theatr Fach in Dolgellau with a two-man performance of Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime.  The other downside is that it is a long way from anywhere and I probably would have to run a car, as public transport is somewhat limited (though there was a later bus home from Dolgellau to my lodgings than Stagecoach offered the Sawston resident on a night out in Cambridge!).  On the plus side, I would note that the roads around Barmouth are the best (in terms of surface quality and traffic) of any I have seen in the UK – not much dual carriageway, but then who needs to hurry?

Still, on balance, I shall continue giving the other “rats” a run for their money – but I was (and remain) sorely tempted.  If “the man” pushes me too far or the stresses of life in the over-populated south grow too much, I could easily return to the land of my fathers – and I have always meant to learn Welsh to honour my roots.  Watch this space…