GCSE Equivalent?

I have had enough of the cold weather, and so have decided to head somewhere warmer.  Unlike most people (and creatures) from the Northern Hemisphere, I am not heading south to more traditional sources of winter warmth.  Oh no.  The path less travelled is taking me to Scotland, which is basking in much warmer temperatures than are available in arctic Cambridgeshire.

In fact, I planned this a couple of weeks ago, and today find I am planning to travel by train first thing in the morning after a full night of blizzard conditions.  I suspected that this journey may not have a happy ending, so decided to change my travel plans to beat the snow (I know it is more traditional to beat eggs, or a carpet, but how else do you think it ends up so lovely and fluffy?  Perhaps we should try “gritting” with icing sugar, as I’m sure snow meringue would offer excellent traction).

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, and the risk of this blog being called as a hostile witness, I like to think that I am fairly intelligent.  I try and pass myself as somewhat of an expert in arranging train travel, and in particular, how to travel in comfort without first obtaining a second mortgage on Fish Towers.  With low animal cunning I am able to break journeys into multiple tickets, alter travel times and routings, bounce between single and return tickets and first and standard class options to avoid single-handedly funding the rail network.  I have even spent more than an hour delving into the darkest recesses of the ATOC website to test valid routings, and the ability to leave the rail network part-way through my journey, to enable a weekend round trip encompassing both Lewes and Battle.  So, despite my original ticket being an Advance one, I was confident in my ability to easily alter the date of travel.  How wrong I was…

East Coast do allow you to alter your ticket on line, for a fairly modest £10 fee, as I discovered from a quick call to their web support.  This process works fine, you can rebook the ticket and make your reservations.  However, you are then told that there are no possible delivery options but that you must select a delivery option.  There seemed no escape from this paradox.

A further call to web support revealed that whilst a new ticket can be picked up from the station, an amended ticket has to be sent through the post.  I didn’t have the courage to ask why, I fear the answer would have been deeply depressing.  What a man (or woman or hyper-intelligent shade of the colour blue, for that matter) has to do is to book a brand new ticket and then call web support (again) to get the old ticket refunded (which involves mailing the old ticket to Wolverhampton for its sins).  I should imagine most punters never discover this fact, and so have to just write off the cost of the old ticket: but, luckily our hero is made of sterner (or more bloody-minded) stuff and so I have high hopes of a refund winging its way to me from the West Midlands in the coming weeks.

This week the government has decided to downgrade a number of qualifications (horse care and fish husbandry stick in the mind for some reason – I blame The News Quiz) so that they are no longer equivalent to a GCSE: good to see they are tackling the key issues affecting the country with such alacrity!  To partially counteract these losses, I would like to suggest that arranging rail travel (whilst avoiding excessive cost) should be considered at least the equivalent of a Higher National (do they still exist? or is it all NVQs now?) or even a first degree (certainly, Pure Mathematics at Oxford offered a substantially less challenging syllabus).

I’d also like to offer a shout-out to the brilliant staff at Whittlesford Parkway (which I had to visit twice this morning to try and re-arrange my travel, in addition to the three phone calls and heavy web access already mentioned).  There is only ever the one, and then only in the mornings, but they are always a joy to deal with.  I do hope they are still there (and properly treated) next week when our local trains have been taken over by the Dutch…

Snow laughing matter

On Friday morning I found myself riding through the snow, but whilst my vehicle was open it lacked a horse (relying on one Fish-power) and was a bicycle rather than a sleigh.  It did possess a bell, but not one I’ve ever really thought of as jingling.

The snow was very wet, and followed on from heavy rain (which was even wetter), and so did not lay.  Nonetheless, a friend, who manages a small retail emporium, did report a surge in sales of sledges, shovels and hats with ear-flaps (very important if you want your ears to take-off and land successfully).

Last night I was at a carol concert in Lewes, and as a member of the audience was required to “join-in” a rendition of Jingle Bells (among other festive numbers).  As is common, we sang only a subset of the verses which were handed down to us by James Lord Pierpoint (uncle to J P Morgan, but Lord in name only), who wrote the song back in 1857 to celebrate Thanksgiving.  Even these more popular verses (and their associated refrains) sound rather sinister to the innocent listener, referring as they do to laughing while singing a “slaying song”.  The generally omitted verses seem to refer to the attempted se- (and ab-) duction of one Fanny Bright, which appears to end in a crash.  Certainly, our “hero” and Ms Bright are described as upsot – thought whether this refers to a state of advanced inebriation or is merely a rather fanciful past participle of the verb “to upset”, I know not.  Our hero is then sighted after the crash by a fellow sleigher, who laughs but fails to stop.  No further reference is made to Ms Bright, but frankly I fear the worst as in the final verse we are inveigled to “go it while you’re young, take the girls tonight”.  Even if we ignore the marginal grammar, the message is truly chilling.

Sadly, Jingle Bells is far from the only “Christmas” song with disturbing lyrics.  The singers of We Wish You A Merry Christmas are openly threatening if they do not get some “figgy pudding” – which sounds like a euphemism to me.  Hark the Herald Angels Sing contains the line “veiled in flesh the Godhead see” which is pure filth, and would surely require an 18 certificate?

But, I have saved the worst for last.  How the traditional English translation of Adeste Fideles is allowed, I will never know; Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood was banned by the BBC for far less.  Whilst I can understand the need to bring the faithful to climax if the Christian faith is to continue, is it really appropriate to sing so lustily about it when children are present?

Summer Snow

Not a reference to freak weather conditions on this occasion, though I have seen snow in London in May (like an exhausted hen, it didn’t lay) and know of a June cricket match in Yorkshire, back in the days before colour, which was called off as a result of the descent of the self-same fluffy flakes, but to a more zoological happening.

When considering large numbers of animals congregating together, wildlife documentaries seem to resort to the traditional, rather tired tropes of herds of wildebeest, flocks of roosting starlings, shoals of silvery fish and the like (sadly, I couldn’t think of an example to cover the element of fire – covered earth, air and water rather nicely though).  However, at this time of year, the English cyclist wending his way in the early evening encounters a volume of biota to challenge any of these more clichéd gatherings.

Cycling home from Cambridge a little earlier, it felt like I was travelling through a blizzard – though a blizzard not of snow but instead comprised of members of Phylum Arthropoda, mostly, I think, the airborne members of Class Insecta.  Unlike a motor vehicle which tends to kill such critters on impact, the lower velocity, or softer bodywork, of the cyclist leaves them alive – though the impact can stun heavier insects (and, indeed, for more serious ‘strikes’, the cyclist!).

As a result of this living ‘snow’, breathing can be a challenge – if you make the mistake of parting your lips you are either picking the little wretches out of your teeth or, if they evade your incisors, “enjoying” an early supper (or a good choking).  Glasses – and preferably largish ones with some wrap-round – are de rigueur unless you wish to ride with tightly closed eyes which given the difficulty of using clicking sounds made with the tongue (when the mouth is also tightly closed) to facilitate sonar-style navigation is asking for (née demanding) trouble.

In addition to the insect facial, the rider also acquires large numbers of the darlings on all forward facing clothing, exposed limbs and in the hair (for all I know, they may also come to rest on backward facing clothing, but I am unable to inspect this without the aid of an arrangement of mirrors, prisms and/or video equipment which I find it impractical to carry on most journeys).  These pests appear to view the cyclist as a taxi service delivering them to exciting new locations and, on arrival, vigorous patting down of the entire body is needed to evict the squatters.  Despite this, I usually find a number that manage to escape my attentions for several hours after arrival at my destination and who are, by then, enjoying the film, concert or other (normally indoor) event I happen to be attending.  Whilst many species are involved, the largest number always seem to be aphids – which I assume would find rather thin commons in most arts venues (unlike our hero, they are probably incapable of gorging themselves on high-priced tubs of ice cream).  I do wonder how many years of cycling I will need to complete before hitch-hiking is eliminated from the aphid genome?  (At least locally).

What I find particularly distressing is that with this abundance of prey there is not a sign of swallow, swift or martin to munch their way through the bounty.  Where have they all gone?  Surely it’s too early to head back to Africa yet?  Or do they know something about the rest of the summer which the Met Office is keeping from we mere humans?