Sunday, November 30, 2008

Wine pronounced success

I wish to apologise to Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth that I will henceforth not be doing quite so much to save the planet. The reason? Fewer. if any, of my empty wine bottles will be going to the Bottle Bank because I will need them.
Yes, mes chers potes, the Old Scrote has successfully bottled his first five bottles of home-made Cabernet Sauvignon! My neighbour Andy came round this morning to help me transfer the plonk from the demijohn into the bottles and thereafter to bung in the corks. We sampled it, of course, and found it good. There should have been six bottles, but you know how it is once you start sampling....So impressed was I with the quality of this Chateau Scrote 2008 that I immediately went online to order another batch of syrup.

A note for my son Jeremy
Your dad's plonk may have tasted like Ribena in 1975, but the 2008 variety is the dog's bollocks. Come home and taste it sometime, but hurry: wine doesn't hang around long du cote de chez Scrote.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Go forth and multiply, if you can

And the Lord gaveth he to Adam a todger and to Eve a nana that they might procreate, which they did. And on the seventh day the Lord rested, and when he got back to work, he perceivedeth that it had all gone pear-shaped. For, lo, the fruit of A and E's loins and the fruit of the fruit of their loins, yea, verily, unto the nth generation, all that begetting, remember?, were doing stuff with todgers and nanas that was never in the Original Plan, to wit, fornicating for the fun of it, doing the onan thing and even dancing tangos todger-to-todger and nana-to-nana. And the Lord did the thing with the wax and the wrath, and spake from a black cloud in a voice of thunder, saying:
"You pervs! It's all bloody nooky with you now, isn't it? Have fun today and sod'em gomorrah."
And then the Omnipotent One heaved a great sigh, regretting that he hadn't made it an eight-day week with TWO Sabbaths in it, and caused a great Flood to cover the earth. But, being soft-hearted, He got Noah to save two of everything, but with a strict injunction: no nooky on the Ark, keep them occupied with quoits and other deck games, bromide in the soup and get rid of that condom machine in the gents, etc.
And it came to pass that the waters receded, except in the Cambridgeshire fens, and the Earth was repopulated, but with the disappearance of quoits, bromide, etc, the lads and lasses fell back into their old wicked ways, doing it just because it was fun to do it, anywhere, anytime and with anyone.
It was then that God called to His Servant in the kitchen, saying "Mohammed, never mind the dishes, I've got a job for you on Earth............"

Thursday, November 27, 2008


I just received this email:
On 31 January 2009 the St John's College Choir will be singing Evensong at Sidney Sussex, our sister college in Cambridge. The Fellow for Alumni invites you and a guest to join him at the service and afterwards for a champagne reception and fork buffet supper in Sidney’s Old Library. Evensong will be at 6.00pm, with drinks following at 6.45pm and supper at 7.15pm. You are welcome to join in all or part of the evening’s activities. Regrettably, numbers for the supper have to be limited to 48, so we will be filling these spaces on a ‘first come first served’ basis. We do hope that you will be able to join us at our first ‘St John's in Cambridge’ event. With best wishes The Alumni Office
The things these people will do to lure an Old Scrote back into the fold....
..., erm, of course I will go.

Upper Left Five

Two nights ago - please don't tell my children, who do not know about my addiction to junk food - I was working on the second slice from a mini pepperoni pizza, when I thought: "Bugger, this pizza has pieces of bone in it! Last time I buy pizzas from Joe Tesco". ButI quickly realised that the bones were in fact fragments from the filling of UL5. So, for the THIRD time, the temporary fillings in UL5 had come adrift.
So, today, my dentist filed down the tooth to keep it free of contact with Lower Left 5, repacked it with antibiotic filling, and then put a temporary cap on it. It will take dynamite now to shift it.
The thing is this, amici miei: I only have the one life and the one set of teeth, so, crooked as they may be, and recalcitrant as Upper Left 5 may be, I am committed to throwing money at them till they settle down and agree to keep chomping.
And I pray that you never find bones in your pizza.

Trellis on Thanksgiving

Dear Rabbi Sachs, she writes, I so enjoyed your little piece on Thought for the Day about counting our blessings. It makes a change from moaning about problems all the time, the way that awful Scrote person does.
So I counted my blessings and found I had seventeen, which might seem a lot for an unpresumptive Welsh widow, but it does include such items as not suffering from varicose veins and having an unopened bottle of medicinal sloe gin in the cupboard.
You're a good man, even if you are Jewish, when you could easily have been a Primitive Methodist, and no snipping. The only other person of your faith that I know of is Rabbi Burns, who wrote incomprehensive poetry and lived off haggis.
If you are ever in Llanfairpg, do call in and we can have a nice theophysical chat over a plate of kosher Welsh Leek Soup.
Yours already
Blodwen Trellis, Mrs, Widow, retd.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A day on the fen

This morning, the weather forecast promised a mild day, possibly overcast but with the sun breaking through later, and a gentle southwesterly wind. To me, this suggested that a day on the fen could be very pleasant, so I made a thermos of coffee and some sandwiches, and set off in the Land Rover just before 9 o'clock (not earlier, because I had to visit my dentist in Histon first). What follows is an account of a wonderful day. No rarities, but just a series of really beautiful sightings. So, please, I am not boasting – I really have nothing to boast about! - but just hoping to give you vicariously the pleasure I had.

Starting at the back of Aldreth Hill, I again watched beaucoups of Redwings and Fieldfares busily feeding in the hedgerows and on the field, and periodically coming down to puddles on the track to drink and bathe. There were other species too: a pair of Bullfinches (they always seem to come in pairs, quite romantic really), Blue and Great Tits and Greenfinches and Chaffinches. Oh yes, and Robins, spunky little birds they are, too. Then I went on to Aldreth Fen, along Dam Bank, where I flushed Pied Wagtails from the concrete, and later watched a flock of about fifteen Corn Buntings on the wires, one of them giving little snatches of their distinctive tinkling song. Down to the Haddenham Engine, where I had good views of Water Rail, not a bird you see every day, for sure.

I paused for coffee and a snack, and began to wonder if I would ever find a Little Egret on the fen (two have been reported this year). More ambitiously, I thought Flat Bridge farm might finally yield a Great Grey Shrike. Never mind, I enjoyed visiting the reservoir there anyways, and clocked a pair of Gadwall and about sixty Wigeon, which took flight – wonderful sight! Back to the corner of Dam Bank and Long Drove, where I had my sandwiches while watching a pair of Stonechats together with about eight Reed Buntings. It always amazes me how much wildlife can be found in a scruffy patch of brambles in the middle of a tidy arable landscape. Birds demand so little....

Going along Long Drove, I decided on a detour up to Clayton's Bridge, where my attention was caught by a distand raptor being mobbed by corvids. It was falcon-like and it was bloody bulky. My guess is a juvenile Peregrine, but it was too distant for me to be sure. Coming back to Long Drove, I came upon a small flock of Goldfinches feeding on teasel, and a flock of about fifty Linnets feeding on the ground on goodness knows what, seeds of some kind presumably. Before leaving Long Drove, I spotted another male Stonechat, a bird that's always worth stopping to look at. As usual, a couple of Kestrels were hunting along the drove verges – I swear they hover because they know they look good when they do it.

Over Hillrow Causeway and straight into Fowlmere Drove, which at this time of year is a nightmare of viscous mud and deep ruts. I made it, but only just, to the firmer ground of Back Drove, which turned out to be very quiet, possibly because it was the siesta time of day. I decided to go along the track which parallels the New Cut Drain, in the direction of Ces Burton's old house, hoping for maybe an owl or two. In fact, I didn't find any owls, but I was rewarded with more flocks of Fieldfares and Redwings, a party of five or so Yellowhammers and a little flurry of Long-tailed Tits. After another walk in fruitless search of owls, I decided to call it a day.

But what a day! Nothing to cause a bishop to kick a hole in a stained-glass window, as my old colleague John Andrews used to say, but a memorable day all the same, and further confirmation that the fens are not the barren waste that people often think.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Ancor' una goccia, professore

In the Autumn of 1959, I was working in Naples (that's Naples, Italy, for my American readers), and today I tasted Naples again. Thanks to Tesco's, our giant superstore chain. Walking, as I always do, reverently, down the aisle where the booze is displayed, I came upon an offer for Martini Rosso. One bottle for £7.20, two bottles for £10. It was meant to be.
The first time I ever tasted Martini Rosso, a fortified wine if ever there was one, I was in Naples, a beardless youth of 22, eager for adventure, and all the etceteras that follow from that eagerness. With friends, I seemed to spend my non-teaching hours in my room in the Pensione dei Mille sipping Martini Rosso and trying to impress a Scottish girl who taught in another school in the city.
I left Naples and after that didn't drink Martini Rosso again until this evening, thanks, as I say, to Tesco's. I really believe Tesco's have my welfare at heart. Why else would they gorge me on nostalgia like this?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

My kitchen

You can learn SO much from this photograph. It is of my kitchen. You can see that the wallpaper is distressed, needs replacing. You can see that I keep a box of kleenex tissues handy - like most fen folk, I have a sinus problem. You can see, just, my microwave on the left, the slob's answer to haute cuisine. And you can see that my young neighbour, Clare, likes to sit in my chair and turn her back when the camera clicks. In fact it's a swivel chair, so she has a conflict between being grown up and dignified, and being a little girl still and spinning round on it like it was a carousel.
I am sure you appreciate that when a man starts writing about his kitchen, he is getting desperate...

What economic crisis?

Where on earth did all this gloom come from?
Misfortune, so far, seems to have passed me by. On the contrary, a few good things have happened: I just received several Premium Bond wins, a tax refund, a winter fuel allowance (you gotta be OLD to get that), and even British Telecom gave me £17 back when I left them for TalkTalk.
OK, so my house is worth maybe 20% less than it was a few months ago, but as I ain't selling it, it's just a paper value.
Unemployment? Hell, I have been practising unemployment for years now.
So, as far as the Old Scrote is concerned, God's in his Heaven and all's right with the World.
Yes, I accept that a lot of people are headed for difficulties, but we have this Gordon Brown person who is going to make everything ok again.
So, let's get the cork out of another bottle and celebrate the fact that we ain't dead yet! Not by a long chalk. I hope.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

La Trellis weighs in

Always ready to offer her the benefit of her insight:
Dear Hillary Clinton, she writes, I read in the papers that the darky fellow, whatsisname, you know, the foreigner, Origami or something, well, that he was going to give you a job in his new government. You know your own business best, dear, but if I was you I would precede with extreme caution. Mr Trellis, my late husband, did his National Service in Libya, where he learned to chainsmoke Woodbines, and he always reckoned that you couldn't trust them, you know, them bedwins: they were forever trying to sell you djellabiyahs and other dodgy underwear.
So, you be careful. I always liked you and the way you coped with your hubby's infelicities (the cross all we wives have to bear, dear!), and I wouldn't like to see you transgressed by this Origami person, even if he is President of the Untied States.
With respect
Blodwen Trellis, Mrs, Widow, retired.

Country girl

My good farming buddy, D, told me how he had taken out his brand new tractor and it had let him down on the first run, so he went back and got his old tractor, which performed perfectly. Listen, D, it's not about machinery, it's about having the right person in the driving seat......

I may know nothing about art but....

You know the type:- "I may know nothing about art, but I know what I like". Bloody philistine. Well, I may know nothing about wine, but I know what I don't like.
I told you how a grateful barnowl box erectee gave us a couple of bottles of wine each. Well, tonight I sampled the posh one. The label reads: Domaine du Sauvage LIRAC Appellation Controllee 2000.
My oenophile colleague will probably cross me off his Christmas card list for this, but I have to say that I found it flat, tasteless, unappealing, lifeless and forgettable. It's the kind of plonk I would pour on rusty bolts.
So, that's me relegated to the ranks of the bloody philistines.
Mind you, I still drank the whole fricking bottle - we were taught during the War never to waste anything........

Weird or what?

My DVD collection grows by leaps and bounds, and last night I watched my latest acquisition, a movie called Remains of the Day, with Antony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. If you haven't seen it, you have missed something really special.
But the main reason I am posting this is to ask a question. You know how before you play the movie, you are given options, such as Special Features, Scene Selection, etc? Well the first and most important option is Language. When I clicked on Language, the choice offered me was:
That's it. No other choices.
But why Islenska? Why have the good folk of Iceland been picked out for this special treat?
And why have so many much more populous nations, such as France, Spain or Germany, been excluded?
Weird or what?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Homage to the Imperial Gut

Today I wish to address you on the subject of my bowels. No, don't turn away, this will be done in the best possible taste, as Kenny Everett used to say. Many years ago, I drank some untreated water when I was in Namibe City (Angola), and paid the price. For the next two years or so, something nasty was going on in my viscera, but Addenbrookes Hospital's finest were unable to say what was causing it. They finally tracked down an alien organism called Limicola nana cysts. The consultant confessed that he had never heard of it before, that is was benign, and that, if there was one foreigner in my tubes there were undoubtedly more, but they had lost interest in trying to find them. Eventually the condition faded away, and has recurred twice since, the latest being, like, here and now, man.
At the time after I came back from Angola, I was writing for Penguin publishers, whose editor was a great and wonderful man called Van Milne. He had been a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain, was the ultimate Scottish gentleman, a great dinner companion and a wonderful editor. I knew that he had spent years in West Africa, so I steered the conversation round to a query about his intestines. No, he said, unlike most other white men on that foetid coast, he had never had any problems. And then he explained why.
"When I was a boy, my mother took me to a Temperance Meeting, where a fierce lady railed against the evils of the Demon Drink. To prove her point, she showed us a glass of water which she had taken from the local burn (stream). The water was alive with wriggly little things. She then poured a tot of whisky into the water, and every living thing in it died in seconds."
At this point, you, my brainy readers, know where this is going.
"So," said Van, "when I was posted to West Africa, I reasoned that all I had to do was to drink whisky every evening, and I would kill any nasty organisms that might get into my system. So I did, and I never got ill."

Listen, I wish I was clever enough to make up something like this. Now, where did I put that bottle of Glenfiddick....?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Countdown and out

Countdown has been running for 26 years now, but the star of the show, Carol Vorderman, is leaving. They asked her to take a 90% pay cut and she said no. Don't grieve for her, she's made a mint out of the programme and the fame it has brought her.
Anyway, apart from being very nice to look at and very nice to listen to - she has one of those velvet voices that soothe even the grumpiest old scrote - she has two wonderful assets:
1 She is a mathematical genius, she can do things with numbers that amaze you
2 She has the best bum I have seen on a woman in many a long year's ogling.
Two causes for ungrudging admiration. And not necessarily in that order.

Next stage in the plonk saga

When I told Jeremy that I had decided to have a go at wine-making, he reminded me of the Monty Python Australian Wine sketch, where the wine-spokesperson said (read this aloud in a slow Australian accent):
"This wine is not for drinking. This wine is for laying down and avoiding."
In fact it's not bad at all. Fermentation is complete, stabiliser added. According to the instructions, I need to shake the wine for 3-4 minutes 3 times a day for 4 days, that is 48 minutes. Then, after adding the finings, I must shake the wine for 20 minutes. That's over an hour of exercise, so I can now see that wine-making is also good for the cardio-vascular system.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Filles de joie

In the Spring of 1958, I was witness to an historic event. On the day when it happened, I spent a long time consoling my new-found Italian friend and mentor, Guiglielmo Recupero, for this was the day when the "casini" were declared illegal. No, nothing to do with gambling, the casini were the legal brothels which had flourished in Italy for decades.
On one memorable Sunday afternoon, shortly after I had arrived in Brescia, I was taken to two casini, and though - you have to trust me on this - I did not avail myself of the services on offer, I was mightily impressed by the civility, indeed the normality of it all. And then; suddenly, they were no more.
I was just watching Fellini's Amarcord for the nth time, and switched off after the moment in the film when the new consignment of "filles de joie" arrived in the town. I am neither for nor against legalised prostitution, I simply don't have a view, but remembering my friend Guiglielmo's angst, I couldn't watch any more.
Thank god for the joy I get from watching birds, and I am not talking about ladies of the night.

A penn'orth of snails

This morning, Lower Left 6 needed to be crowned, so there I was once again sdraiato on the dentist's chair wondering why the Almighty didn't think to make teeth out of titanium, when the conversation - you can chat while waiting for the anaesthetic to kick in - turned to wildlife, and in particular to the widely-held belief that there isn't as much of it around as there was when we were young.
At this point, the dentist's Dental Nurse, Penny, spoke about her childhood enthusiasm for beetles and other small creatures, and ended up boasting proudly about her collection of snails, each one with a number painted on its shell to give it an individual identity. By this time the dentist was back in my mouth, if you will pardon the expression, while Penny sucked the liquid out, if you will pardon the expression. When the dentist commented adversely on her practice of numbering her snails, Penny came back vociferously, saying how she looked after them, cared for them, fed them, housed them and made sure that they had plenty of fresh air and exercise. Exercise?!
It's not easy to laugh while you have a dentist and his assistant in your mouth, but I collapsed into hysterics at the mental image of Penny as a little girl taking her snails for a walk every morning. In no time, the three of us were helpless with laughter.
The dentist's chair is not a place where you expect to have fun, and to be honest, it was a painful session, but God bless Penny and her snails. I would have kissed her but the whole of the left side of my face was frozen. Also, she's unmarried, and I know better than to kiss unmarried women.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Wonky carrots at last!

You couldn't make up a story like this:-

EU to allow 'wonky' fruit and veg on supermarket shelves

EU nations on Wednesday gave the green light Monday for bent cucumbers and other 'wonky' fruit and vegetables to be sold in supermarkets and elsewhere, as part of a drive to cut red tape.

"This is a happy day indeed for the curvy cucumber and the knobbly carrot, and other amusingly shaped fruits and vegetables," said European Commission spokesman Michael Mann.

"Rules governing the size and shape of fruit and vegetables will be consigned to history", the commission said in a statement.

In all, marketing standards for 26 fruits and vegetables are being scrapped, paving the way for the return to shopping trolleys of forked carrots, onions that are less than two thirds covered with skin and the bent cucumbers among other deviant vegetables.

The rules had been derided as "bonkers" by the likes of major British supermarket chain Sainsbury's, while major agricultural nations such as France have argued that scrapping the restrictions will lead to a fall in prices and thereby hit farmers.

"This marks a new dawn for the curvy cucumber and the knobbly carrot," said EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel.

"It's a concrete example of our drive to cut unnecessary red tape. We simply don't need to regulate this sort of thing at EU level. It is far better to leave it to market operators."

She added that in the current climate of high food prices and economic woes "consumers should be able to choose from the widest range of products possible. It makes no sense to throw perfectly good products away, just because they are the 'wrong' shape."

Representatives of most EU countries voted against the rule change, but not by the overwhelming "qualified majority" required to stop it going through, a commission spokesman said.

The rules are to be scrapped for apricots, artichokes, asparagus, aubergines, avocados, beans, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cauliflowers, cherries, courgettes, cucumbers, cultivated mushrooms, garlic, hazelnuts in shell, headed cabbage, leeks, melons, onions, peas, plums, ribbed celery, spinach, walnuts in shell, water melons, and chicory.

Standards are kept in place for 10 others, including several of the most popular items in European kitchens; apples, citrus fruit, kiwi fruit, lettuces, peaches and nectarines, pears, strawberries, sweet peppers, table grapes and tomatoes.

Mann explained that these were being maintained as a compromise to opposed member states, while assuring that there was "practically no difference" between the two categories.

Vendors will be able to sell deviant versions of the still proscribed items as long as they are labelled as a "product intended for processing" or similar.

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, must formally adopt the changes which, "for practical reasons", will be implemented from next July.

Rules for straight bananas are not affected.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Mrs Trellis is concerned

Dear Michael Parkinson, she writes, have you taken leave of your senses? I have always admired the way you can mumble, bumble and stumble your way through interviews with the rich and famous, but your latest postings are unworthy of a man of your calibration.
I don't deny that you get those frissons in your you-know-where, after all you are a man, and therefore unable to control your baser nature, but I do think, as a public figure, you ought to curb these "urgencies". I am talking about Sarah Palin, Margaret Lockwood (whoever she may be, not a relative, I hope), Sandra Bollocks, and now four adolescent virgins - what ARE you thinking of?!
I do understand your weakness, believe me, I had the same struggle with the late Mr Trellis, God rest his soul, the bastard. He had an obsessive passion for Shirley Bassett, a nice enough Welsh girl, and used to eat KILOS of Liquorice Allsorts in her honour, poor man.
But, while, as you will appreciate, I don't give a shepherd's crook for your obsession, I do think that, as a public figure, you ought to set a good example, ie, act your age, stop lusting after young girls, and maybe settle for an elderly excommnicated nun. Just be careful, though, that you don't catch anything, like catholicism or other communicable diseases.

What IS your problem?

I would like to make a wax image and stick the pins into the "lovely" guy who sent me this pic. What is he telling me about today's teenagers? What is he telling me about myself?
There is something SO unfriendly, so uncompromising, about that gesture that it turns my blood to ice.
Hell, it's not even as if I cut them up at the traffic lights......


Yesterday morning, following my usual early morning ritual, to wit, sipping a cup of tea, scratching my itchy bits, adding to the destruction of the ozone layer in the bovine manner, and gazing out of the kitchen window, I became aware that my garden is now inhabited solely by aliens. First, two grey squirrels (imports from North America) were out there burying their nuts in my lawn. Then, a flurry of Collared Doves, interlopers from south-east Europe (the Germans call them Turkentaube) used the space for their disgusting courtship rituals (I am just jealous cos I'm not getting any...). Then a cock Pheasant (introduced from China) strutted into view and nibbled my droppings. Meanwhile, on the field below my garden, a Muntjac (an Asian deer that escaped from the collection at Woburn) appeared, nosed its way towards the top of the village. I was finally relieved when a squadron of marauding Starlings zoomed down to demolish everything on the feeders. Then I realised that they were probably winter visitors from Eastern Europe. More bloody foreigners!
And then I heard a Robin's plaintive autumn song. And felt better. Good old Robin Redbreast, Britain's National Bird. God's in His heaven, all's well with the world. I felt a real affection for Erithacus rubecula at that moment.
Till I realised it was singing in an Edith Piaf accent. Is nothing sacred?

"Fire burn, and cauldron bubble"

You all know me as a dedicated oenophile. Well, I think my passion slipped over into insanity when I decided to have a go at DIY.
But it's not just the mess on the kitchen floor, it's not just the constant glerp-glerp of carbon dioxide bubbling through the air filter, it's not even the weird taste of the stuff when I inadvertently swallowed a mouthful as I sucked a sample through the syphon.
No, it's the instructions that accompanies the kit. First off, written in insurance policy type so small you need to employ an ant to read it. And when your ant finally tells you what it says, you go gaga trying to conform to the rituals of sterilisation and measurement. Damn, it's so complicated, it's almost religious.
But, whatever the oenological outcome, there is one piece of added value - I have finally understood what "specific gravity" is. That is something that our nerdy physics teacher, Mr "Gobbler" Holmes, never managed to explain during all my years at Wellington Grammar School. To which, if you are so inclined, you could add Archimedes' Principle, Boyle's Law, Avagadro's Hypothesis, the moment of a couple, refraction, Ohm's Law, the Wheatstone Bridge (which didn't seem to span anything) and much much more.
But Specific Gravity I now got. Finally.
Like I got a hydrometer to measure it. Not that I understand the hydrometer.
Can't wait to pour this lot down the sink and get back to my regular supplier.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

I've got the pip. No, really.

It's no good, I've got to get it off my chest. I am reassured by the repetition of what is familiar, I am disconcerted by change, especially by change that is not necessary.
For example, I loved the old red public phoneboxes. Solid, dependable, a good place to get out of the rain or enjoy a quick knee-trembler, so why did British Telecom replace them with flimsy draughty see-thru cloches with a logo reminiscent of a ganymede trying to avoid the attentions of a randy satyr?
I loved the insignia of British Railways, but look at it now. Mind you, it's made no difference to the service, just as random as ever, but that's not the point.
I loved the insignia of British Airways, an honest Union Jack, not that psychodelic fruit macedoine they now have plastered on their tails. Mind you, it's made no difference to the service, just as random as ever, but that's not the point.
Oh, did I say that already? I won't go on, I am sure you can supply examples of your own, what they call re-branding, and what I would call acts of desperation to cover up the fact that they can't solve the REAL problems.
But, decades after the event, I am still irritated by the elongation of the last pip of the Greenwich time signal. Since the time of Alfred the Great, or thereabouts, it had been six equal pips: PIP-PIP-PIP-PIP-PIP-PIP, followed by Stuart Hibbert's baritone, reassuring the country that the end of rationing was in sight. Or whatever.
And then, some tight-arsed nebbish in Whitehall decided to elongate the sixth pip, so ever since, it goes: PIP-PIP-PIP-PIP-PIP-PEEEEP. I bet the bastard got an OBE for that stroke of pointless innovation.
I know what you're thinking: does it matter? The answer is: only if you are trying desperately to keep a grip on reality, which is Mein particular Kampf these days.

A new collective noun

I heard the other day that a new collective noun, or "noun of assembly", has been coined. It relates to bankers, and the word is "a wunch".

To sleep, perchance to bloody dream

I know He's busy, Gabriel, but I wonder if you would intercede for me, to ask Him a Favour? It's about my dreams, you see. I have always been grateful for the dreams involving Margaret Lockwood as the Wicked Lady, but I haven't had one of those for many a long barren year. Instead, I am plagued, PLAGUED, with anxiety dreams. The settings are few and stark:
- railway stations,
- the centres of foreign cities
- hotels.
(Oh yes, and loos, but that's indelicate, usually a signal from my bladder that it is time to point percy at the porcelain again, regardless of the hour)/
So, I am trying to catch a train, but I can't find the ticket office, and I don't know which train I need.
Or I am trying to find my way back to my hotel in a strange city, and can't find the way. In fact, I always end up in a rural area with lots of mud.
Or I am trying to find my room in a hotel, but I can't find the room, or indeed the key to the room.
Worst of all, I have recurring dreams about my years in Academe, mostly but not exclusively Eurocentres. I am late for class, or I don't know my timetable, or I am a teacher in a school but nobody recognises me.
I really don't want to bother Him, but if he can't fix me up with Margaret Lockwood, could He at least spare me all this Insecurity crap? And if you get the chance, tell Him I would settle for Sandra Bullock if ML, being seriously dead, is no longer available.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

He made it, didn't I?!

What really pleases me is that I predicted that Barack Obama would not win. It's a gift I have always to be wrong. I am left-handed and suffer from directional disorientation, so that, if I am not sure which way to go at a road junction and my instinct is to go left, I know from experience that my best bet is to go right. Perverse or what?
So, what I am saying is, Barack Obama almost certainly owes his victory to me. I don't really mind, although I shall miss the sight of Sarah Palin's mouth opening so wide, it is the spit of the entrance to the Mersey Tunnel that I used to scoot through every day on my way to Liverpool Uni to learn about teaching. I put her photo here because this is the last time you may see her until she is chosen as Republican presidential candidate in 2012.

Funnily enough, Barack Obama has not asked me for advice on how to proceed, and, let's face it, he's taking on a rotten job right now. I would perhaps suggest to him, though, that he avoids driving in an open-topped car anywhere where there are grassy knolls.

Yin and yang

Yesterday, November 5, was my grandson Joseph's birthday. It was also the day when the mother of my dearest Turkish friend died. I can derive no great philosophical insight from these simultaneous events, but there is a kind of symmetry there.
Today, November 6, out on Barn Owl business with my colleague Peter, we had a day when not only did everything go right, but we also had a couple of moments that were truly memorable.
The first was meeting a feisty lady who is now effectively the boss of a 1000-acre farm. She and her family have done amazing things to make the farm wildlife-friendly, a gorgeous mix of copses and hedgerows and ponds and beetle banks and field verges and headlands: without doubt, an ideal place for Barn Owls. We surveyed the area with her and found sites for three boxes. I have no doubt that within a mere lustrum, she will have twenty boxes up.
The second was a meeting with a man who wanted us to put up a Barn Owl box for him. We had not met him before, but were glad we did, because he has an enterprise to introduce some wonderful Cotes du Rhone wines to Britain, wines that are not available elsewhere. After inviting us to taste a couple, he then gave us two bottles each, plus a very interesting looking white wine for Peter's wife. Such a generous act.
The third was the beauty of the Autumn landscape as we drove through the fens, a riot of coloured leaves and rich red berries. We stood for a while after putting up a Kestrel box on a Poplar and watched the leaves raining down around us. Good karma.
I hope Joseph had a good birthday down there in Auckland NZ, and I know that my lovely Turkish friend will be happy that I had such a good day today despite her own personal sadness.
Not much else to say: every day of our lives is like this, good moments and bad moments, and we have to learn to expect neither and cope with both.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Which one's the rarity?

Every birder likes to see a rarity, specially a "lifer". And every birder dreams of the day when he finds one, rather than turning up at someone else's find along with an army of other "twitchers". But it is an activity that can sear your soul. Let me give you a couple of examples.
One: I went to Minsmere to meet up with my old Ringwood mates, Mike and Martin, partly because they had told me there was a "Semi-palmated Sandpiper" there, a real rarity. I arrived, sat next to them in the hide and followed their directions to the bird, a diminutive creature on a far sandbank. In fact there were a lot of "diminutive creatures" on the far sandbank. "Sorry, which one's the Semipalmated Sandpiper?" "The one that's limping," came the reply.
I located the limping bird, but as far as I am concerned, I have not seen a Semipalmated Sandpiper.
Two: I was at Radipole in Dorset with a young and excellent birder called Bruce Carswell. We approached a group training their scopes on a gull flock.
"Ring-billed Gull," says the senior guy in answer to our query. So we look, we follow the directions, we find the bird, us it looked like an immature Common Gull. Neither Bruce nor I disputed the senior guy's identification. It was just that we couldn't see what distinguished it. So, Bruce and I decided to go on our way into the reserve and look again later. When we looked again later, we couldn't find the bird in question, at least, nothing that was different from the several immature Common Gulls that were there. So, I have not seen a Ring-billed Gull.
In my early days of birding in Christchurch Harbour, I, one spring, found a WoodLark on Warren Hill. I submitted a written description (you always have to do that with rare or uncommon birds). And it was rejected. I was indignant. Some twelve years later, I agreed that I could not be sure it was a Woodlark.
The moral of this story is simple: if you want to avoid the searing of your soul, the first person you must be honest with is yourself. Kid yourself, and it will come back to haunt you. Mind you, I still think it was a Woodlark. I saw that black and white primary covert bar. Honestly I did .........

Added value

One of the bonuses of our work with Barn Owls is that we sometimes come across things of historical interest. For example, one of our farmers has a collection of really ancient farm machinery, including, praise be!, tractors. Another is adjacent to a medieval abbey, the ruins of which are still visible, and very romantic they are too.
But for me, the jewels in the crown are the old barns we come across. We visited one, for example, that had housed Italian POWs during WWII, and there were still graffiti on the walls from that time. Another, known locally as the Black Barn, has some fine timberwork. But the barn that took my breath away the other day is an Elizabethan Tithe Barn, huge, majestic, with internal timberwork that is just wonderful. The farmer told us that the barn would originally have been thatched, and also that if it had to be rebuilt (after a fire, say, god forbid), it would cost £4.5. Best of all was the information that the timbers were salvaged from ships taken during the failed Spanish Armada. I don't care if it's true, it's such a delicious notion that it's worth believing anyway.
And for your delight, and with thanks to my barnowling colleague, Peter, here are two more pics of the barn interior - note the partial old scrote on the left of the picture.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Life and lifers

Every birder/birdwatcher looks forward to the moment when s/he sees a new bird, a "lifer" as we call it. The longer you spend your time seeing birds, the harder it is to get a lifer, a bird you have never seen before. To give you a perspective, the first 100 aren't difficult, though it still requires a lot of effort. To reach 200 requires a lot more effort. After 250, it starts to get harder, and most people never get much beyond that figure. The stars maybe get somewhere in the 300s, but that means chasing every rarity to hit British shores.
Today I got a lifer: a Red-flanked Bluetail. And all thanks to my anonymous friend, D. I was, as you can imagine, very happy. And then, two things happened to make me even happier. First, as we were driving back towards one of our favourite birding spots, Titchwell (They also make an awesome sausage and onion baguette, and we were hungry), we came upon a field where beet had been lifted, leaving a mass of "tops". And on that field were, who knows?, maybe 8000 Pink-footed Geese, so close we could almost touch them, and so wonderfully noisy, a medley of the most musical notes that any geese can utter. Magic, unforgettable. Not a "lifer", but one of those birding moments that you never forget.
And then, somewhat later at Titchwell, we got into conversation with a lady who was SO excited because she had seen several new species that day, bringing her "life" total up to maybe 50 or 60. Oh my, that was a wonderful moment for her, but also a wonderful moment for me and for D, because we both relived our first days in birding. She has so many lifers still to come. Me, I bumped my total up today by one bird, but hell, that's not what matters. What matters is that every encounter with wildlife is an enrichment, a chance to realise that we are all part of something much bigger and more beautiful than ourselves.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Elementary my dear Sophie!

Sophie and Harry in London last August, doing the Baker Street Strut.

Two, four, six eight, Who do we appreciate?

Abraham Lincoln tops the list, George Washington comes second, Clinton and Reagan are respectably somewhere in the middle of the list, poor George W Bush comes near the bottom, while the worst Presidents are men I have scarcely or never heard of. All this is from a list compiled by The Times newspaper on the occasion of the current presidential elections.
Anyway, as my contribution to this worthy endeavour - listing the presidents in order of merit, not electing another one - I have decided to recall the anecdotes relating to each one, anecdotes which somehow encapsulate their character and achievements.

George Washington
Old Mr Washington looked out of his window and saw to his horror that his cherry tree had been chopped down. He grabbed his son by the collar and asked him if he had done it. Young George stayed calm "Sir, I cannot tell a lie. A big boy did it and ran away." His father gave him a good hiding anyway, on the grounds that all boys are wicked.