Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ding dong!

If you had presented the following list to me, I could not have told you what they refer to. 
I hope you are better informed than I.


If you are still puzzled (no googling, mind), maybe the following additions will help you:


 A Happy New Year to you. May the best thing that happened to you in 2013 be the worst thing that happens to you in 2014.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Here's a seasonal poem that even Stephen Fry would approve of (I hope!)

That Christmas
God treated himself to a new coat.
Till then he’d not really been dressed for visiting.
He’d nothing dull enough to wear.

Quite early he had come to realise
his appearance didn't put people at ease.
Even the very first ones were nervous—
when he took an afternoon stroll round the garden
they would run and hide.

And when he showed someone around,
he had to admit their reactions were hardly reassuring.
He saw it was a little difficult
to be wholly relaxed in the presence of a host
with dazzling white hair, emerald eyes
and a tongue like a sword,
seated on a blazing throne
guarded by four six-winged living creatures
and two dozen elders chanting incessantly.
Polite, yes, but probably not relaxed.
Likely to slop tea on to the chocolate digestives.

So he took to meeting just a trusted few
in places carefully arranged—
a mountain or a desert
away from crowds.
He made them build a tent for conferences,
with heavily-restricted access.
When he spoke, he found that quiet voices worked best.
Eventually it became easier just to send a messenger.

Of course people were still startled
when a shining creature several metres high
materialised in their living rooms
like something from the Starship Enterprise,
but they did their job.
And angels don’t have feelings you can hurt.

He learned that people
were more comfortable with their own kind.
Pleased when you showed an interest, of course,
but when the boss from the top floor drops by
the conversation’s always stilted,
and both sides are relieved after he’s gone.

So when the time came
for the business that had to be done,
he went incognito.
Dressing down for the occasion,
he chose skin.
Not suede or leather, only skin.
Close-fitting, durable, anonymous, adaptable.
No special style or colour.
Skin was his lifetime companion.

He nursed the scabs of childhood games on his knees and elbows.
He felt the muscles grow inside it,
the ligaments stretch when he extended himself.
He fingered the callouses made by a workman’s tools on his palms.
He came to know skin from the inside.
He knew the pleasant shock of cold water
splashed across his face in the midday heat.
He knew the touch of cool parchment
unrolling beneath his fingertips,
the dryness in his mouth as he prepared
to read what was written there about him.

He noticed skin harden
under feet that walk long distances.
After sleepless nights
he felt it hang in folds beneath his eyes.
When he was most tired
it felt almost detached from him,
a loose sack keeping him warm.

when he thought he had their confidence enough,
he gave three of them a glimpse of his real appearance.
They were terrified, and he never risked it again.

He saw skin made repulsive by disease, and healed it.
He saw Lazarus walking,
and felt a ripple of gooseflesh on his spine.
He knew the feel of an animal’s rough back beneath his thighs,
and breezes from waving branches.
When anger sluiced blood to the surface of the skin
he felt his face flush red.
He watched how liquids trickled over it.
He could tell the different tensions of tears and ointment
as they ran down his cheeks and beard.

He washed skin carefully,
not just his own but others’.
He saw how it protected them,
the tiny beads of water dripping
from their feet into his bowl.
He knelt on dew-drenched grass
and felt his cloak cling round his legs.
His burning forehead prickled with cold drops of fear.

He felt how,
when whipped repeatedly,
skin disintegrates and the soft flesh underneath
is ploughed up like a bright red field.
He knew then how necessary it had been.
Skin had dulled the pain of being a man,
and kept the parts together long enough.
Now it was time to shed it.

It was torn in strips from his back,
gouged out of the palms of his hands,
and pierced so that fluids would spill out more easily.
At the end he saw it was no more
than a ripped bag bursting with offal,
cut down and wrapped
like meat to put into cold storage.

It was finished.
What would happen next,
even he did not exactly know,
but he had watched creatures discard their coats
in preparation for something.
He was ready
for a new and different skin.

Godfrey Rust
Written for the carol service at St John’s, West Ealing in 1995

Friday, December 20, 2013

Old? Who? Not me!

If you are within hailing distance of the Apocalypse, I recommend that you read a piece by Penelope Lively, from which I offer a few extracts (below). When I was a young dad, or an apprentice grandpa, I used to croon a mantra to my puling infant offspring: “It's not so bad” “It's not so bad” “It's not so bad”, and it generally calmed them down (sometimes a nappy-change and a feed was also needed). The effect on me of reading Penelope Lively's piece (found in the Guardian) has been to accept of old age that: “It's not so bad” “It's not so bad”..

Years ago, I heard Anthony Burgess speak at the Edinburgh book festival. He was impressive in that he spoke for an hour without a single note, and was fluent and coherent. But of the content of his talk all I remember are his opening words: "For me, death is already sounding its high C." This was around 1980, I think, so he was in his early 60s at the time, and died in 1993. I was in my late 40s, and he seemed to me – not old, exactly, but getting on a bit.
Today, people in their 60s seem – not young, just nicely mature. Old age is in the eye of the beholder. I am 80, so I am old, no question. The high C is audible, I suppose, but I don't pay it much attention. I don't think much about death. I am not exactly afraid of it, though after reading, with admiration, Julian Barnes's book Nothing to Be Frightened of, I felt that I had not sufficiently explored my own position on the matter. But perhaps I have arrived at the state of death-consciousness that he identifies – we cannot truly savour life without a regular awareness of extinction. Yes, I recognise that, along with the natural human taste for a conclusion: there has been a beginning, which proposes an end. I am afraid of the run-up to death, because I have had to watch it. But I think that many of us who are on the last lap are too busy with the baggage of old age to waste much time anticipating the finishing line. We have to get used to being the person we are, the person we have always been, but encumbered now with various indignities and disabilities, shoved as it were into some new incarnation. We feel much the same, but clearly are not. We have entered an unexpected dimension; dealing with this is the new challenge.....
You aren't going to get old, of course, when you are young. We won't ever be old, partly because we can't imagine what it is like to be old, but also because we don't want to, and – crucially – are not particularly interested. When I was a teenager, I spent much time with my Somerset grandmother, then around 70. She was a brisk and applied grandmother who was acting effectively as a mother-substitute; I was devoted to her, but I don't remember ever considering what it could be like to be her. She simply was; unchangeable, unchanging, in her tweed skirt, her blouse, her Shetland cardigan, her suit for Sunday church, worn with chenille turban, her felt hat for shopping in Minehead. Her opinions that had been honed in the early part of the century; her horror of colours that "clashed"; her love of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Berlioz. I never thought about how it must be to be her; equally, I couldn't imagine her other than she was, as though she had sprung thus into life, had never been young.…...
Am I envious of the young? Would I want to be young again? On the first count – not really, which surprises me. On the second – certainly not, if it meant a repeat performance. I would like to have back vigour and robust health, but that is not exactly envy. And, having known youth, I'm well aware that it has its own traumas, that it is no Elysian progress, that it can be a time of distress and disappointment, that it is exuberant and exciting, but it is no picnic. I don't particularly want to go back there.…...
And in any case, I am someone else now. There are things I no longer want, things I no longer do, things that are now important. This someone else, this alter ego who has arrived, is less adventurous, more risk-averse, costive with her time. Well – there is the matter of the spirit and the flesh, and that is the crux of it: the spirit is still game for experience, anything on offer, but the body most definitely is not, and unfortunately calls the shots. My mind seems to be holding out – so far, so far.…...
I have sometimes wondered if an experience like that has some salutary value for any of us: it puts into perspective subsequent distresses. As for the rest of my continuing ailments, they seem more or less par for the course for an 80 year old; of those I know in my age group, most can chalk up a few, or more, with only one or two that I can think of maddeningly unscathed.…...
You get used to it. And that surprises me. You get used to diminishment, to a body that is stalled, an impediment. An alter ego is amazed, aghast perhaps – myself in the roaring 40s, when robust health was an assumption, a given, something you barely noticed because it was always there. Acceptance has set in, somehow, has crept up on you, which is just as well, because the alternative – perpetual rage and resentment – would not help matters.....

There's a lot more: you can read it here. Me, I'm off for my morning prune juice and a long overdue scratch.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Open for business

It's mid-December, relatively mild in this fen-edge village, though there can be a sharp wind round your ankles some days. I have lots of feeders up: sunflower hearts, mixed finch seed, red millet, peanuts, fatballs, and an occasional spread of porridge oatflakes on the two bird tables.
So far feeding has been quiet, with birds appearing in quantity only on the colder mornings. Usually a couple of Great Tits, three-four Blue Tits, an occasional flurry of Longtailed Tits, but rarely more than four. Regular too, but in two and threes mostly: Dunnock, Chaffinch, Starling, Blackbird, Woodpigeon. There is a small flock of a dozen or so House Sparrows regular on the feeders nearest the hedge, where clearly they feel safe from the marauding Sparrowhawk. Goldfinches, usually no more than six-eight are regular too. Real splashes of colour are provided by regular single Green Woodpeckers and Great-spotted Woodpecker, the latter coming in both male and female guise.
Everything else is still out there in the hedgerows or on the fen, presumably because there's still plenty of food about. I like to watch the passing flocks of Black-headed Gulls over the field below mine, and sometimes a flurry of a dozen or so Common Gulls. It's fun too to watch and listen to the Jackdaws, which always manage to look like scraps of charred black paper scattering from a bonfire as they tumble past.
I guess it will be a few weeks before I can lure the more unusual species back into my garden: Tree Sparrow, Reed Bunting, Yellowhammer and, more remotely, Lesser Redpoll, Siskin and Brambling. If we get snow, I will clear a nice green area on the lawn (usually by putting a huge tarpaulin out the night when the snow is forecast and then removing it after snowfall) and strew it with apples. That's sure to bring the thrushes in: Blackbirds mostly, with a Fieldfare and a Redwing or two and, increasingly rare these days, a Song Thrush.
One species I miss is the Wren: hardly ever see one these days, must have had a poor breeding season. Or it's had a better offer....

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Leaping women

A quote from a recent issue of the Economist:
unmarried women are one of America’s fastest-growing groups, leaping from 45m in 2000 to around 53m today
Apparently this favours the Democrats, though the reasons are obscure. What perplexes me is why there are so many leaping unmarried women in America. Any offers?


Prototype wind turbine
Worth reading the article from which this photo was taken. If the present design is based on the propeller-driven engine, this new one is modelled on the jet-engine, and is superior in a number of ways (cheaper, more efficient, easier to install, less intrusive), not least that it is less likely to kill thousands of birds and other flying objects, thought neither it nor any other design so far dreamt up is completely safe.
PS The elk is optional.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


In general, I like flash mobs, even when they are covert advertising gimmicks, but this one took my breath away. If this isn't beauty, then my hat's for dinner.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Mrs T on grammar etc

Another challenging missive from my North Wales correspondent.

 Dear Boris Johnson, she writes, I was intriguated by your little piece about grammar. Mr Trellis, my late husband, was always most particulous about where he put his prepositions. I remember him struggling with the sentence: What are you up to? He changed it to:To what are you up?
And then he tried: Up to what are you? before giving up in desparity and going back to his shed.
I am sure you don't have such problems, you being a pubic school toff and all. By the way, I like your hair all wild and unkept: you could almost be Welsh.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Jake Thackray - Leopold Alcocks


Many years ago I wrote an English Grammar for foreign learners. It made me a few bob and did nothing to harm my reputation as a chap who knew a bit. But after listening recently to a discussion programme on BBC Radio 4 in which the great British public was invited to take part, I don't know why I bothered. There seems little mileage in having Johnny Foreigner speaking our language more correctly that we do ourselves. I am also dismayed by the inarticulacy of so many adolescents these days. Their speech is like you know really like bad, dyknowhatImean?, never mind like the bad grammar, innit?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

From yan to jigget

I recently posted a clip of Jake Thackray's song “Sophie”. I am told by an American friend that it was blocked in the States, goodness knows why, as it's naughty but not obscene, unless you have a mind like a sewer.
Anyway, I am in love with another of Jake's songs, the one called “Mad Molly Metcalfe”, a poor girl who looked after sheep on a Yorkshire moorland above Swayledale, and who was found frozen to death. She was only in her early twenties. I won't post it here, as you can easily track it down on You Tube. One thing that bowled me over was the counting system she used for counting her sheep. You count to twenty, then transfer a pebble from your hand to a pocket, then start again to the next twenty, transfer a second pebble, and so on. Here are the numbers one to twenty:
yan tan tether mether pip
azer sezar akker conter dick
yanadick tanadick tetheradick metheradick bumfit
yanabum tanabum tetherabum metherabum jigget
Read them aloud. Such rhythms, such euphony! Apparently they derive from a Brythonic Celtic language long lost. I like old things, don't you? I just hope the US grundies don't find something to object to here, though dick and bumfit might be a bit near the knuckle for them.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Good on ya, Jasper!

A recent article in the Economist reported a move to outlaw the old Dutch tradition of ZwartePiet (Black Peter), a celebration connected with Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus) and the giving of presents to children. As you would expect, the move originates from the usual pc people, to describe whom I have run out of scathing adjectives.
I like this response in the Letters column of the Economist in the following week:

As attempts are now being made to purge politically incorrect fantasy figures like Zwarte Piet, I would like to blow the whistle on another case of unacceptable exploitation. Each December, a certain chubby children's figure from the Arctic has the habit of exclusively selecting horned cervids for the slave labour of pulling his obese posture around the globe.
As any biologist knows, only female reindeer and some of their infant sons keep their antlers in winter. A thorough UN review into gender and age discrimination seems in order.
Jasper van Soest

Sauce for the gander?

The following is taken from an article on the BBC website.

Almost half (49%) of state-funded mixed schools in England are "reinforcing gender stereotypes" in terms of the subjects students study at A-level. This is according to a report published on Monday by the Institute of Physics. It says these schools are failing to counter the idea that certain subjects are for girls and others are for boys.The institute is calling on schools to address the issue to avoid inadvertently limiting pupils' options.
The study looked at six A-level subjects - three that have a very female-biased student base and three that are studied by many more boys than girls.They assigned schools a score based on how well they were doing compared to the national average. The analysis involved looking at what proportion of girls and boys from each school went on to study physics, maths and economics, which are traditionally male-biased, and what proportion went of to study the female-biased subjects - English, biology and psychology.

 Key findings
  • Four out of five state-funded co-educational schools do no better than the national gender ratios for A-level subject choice. These average ratios are already very imbalanced
  • Single sex schools are significantly better at countering these gender imbalances
  • Schools with a sixth form have smaller gender imbalances
  • Independent co-educational schools perform better than state-funded schools, but there are far fewer of them
  • There are differences between regions and local authorities that experts say will require further research to explain.
What I like about this article is that it gives me an opportunity to air two of my most cherished prejudices: [1]single sex schools are better; [2]secondary schools wirh an inegral sixth form are better. You can tell I went to a boys' grammar school!

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Look out, there's a snake about!

I recently published a silly piece about crow's calls, A couple of days later I come across this (serious) piece, adapted from an article in Animal Behaviour. How's that for serendipity? Or is it synchronicity?
Great tits use different alarm calls for different predators, according to a scientist in Japan. The researcher analysed the birds’ calls and found they made “jar” sounds for snakes and “chicka” sounds for crows and martens. From his previous observations, the researcher, Dr Toshitaka Suzuki, from the Graduate University for Advanced Studies in Kanagawa, found great tits appeared to be able to discriminate between different predators.To test whether they could also communicate this information, he placed models of three different animals that prey on nestlings – snakes, crows and martens – close to the birds’ nest boxes. He then recorded and analysed the birds’ responses.
“Parents usually make alarm calls when they approach and mob the nest predators,” said Dr Suzuki. “They produced specific ‘jar’ alarm calls for the snakes and the same ‘chicka’ alarm call in response to both the crows and martens.” But a closer analysis of the sounds showed the birds had used different “note combinations” in their crow alarm calls from those they had used for the martens. Dr Suzuki thinks the birds might have evolved what he called a “combinatorial communication system” – combining different notes to produce calls with different meanings.
Since snakes are able to slither into nest boxes, they pose a much greater threat to great tit nestlings than other birds or mammals, so Dr Suzuki says it makes sense that the birds would have a specific snake alarm call. He added: “Human language is based on a combinatorial rule, which allows us to generate an infinite number of expressions (ie words) from a finite set of elements (ie alphabets). Similarly, the tits can make a word ‘crow’ or ‘marten’ by combining different types of notes into an alarm call.”

The article does not specify whether they have calls for CAR and TRUCK.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Jake Thackray - Sophie

A hero of mine as I have said many times. I listened recently to his wonderful song "Last Will and Testament": it will go nicely at my funeral in place of any eulogy.
This song, Sophie, has been running in my head for years. I apologise to any Sophie I have known: it doesn't apply to you, dear. Necessarily.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Doctor Trellis...

Sound advice from my North Wales correspondent:

Dear Nick Clogg, she writes, I don't know how you can eat garlick, nasty foreign stuff. I think you're just pandering to your EU buddies.
Anyway, what's wrong with a good honest Welsh leek I want to know? Wash, peel, chop, boil, wrap in a linen cloth and sleep with it on your pillow and you'll be right as ninepence in no time.
By the way, BLOW, not SNIFF. Or, as Mr Trellis, my late husband, used to say: “Get it out, boyo!”, a lusty cry that would raise a few eyebrows in the village, I can tell you.
Yours medicinally
Blodwen Trellis, Mrs, widow, retd.

Atishoo dammit

Hack, hack, sniff, sniff, splutter splutter. I have a persistent cold with runny nose and ticklish cough. I used to dose myself with Benelyn, but it's rubbish since the Health Gestapo Nannies banned morphine as an ingredient.
 A friend told me to eat lots of organic garlic: chop it up, spoon it on your tongue, swallow with lots of water, chew a slice of bread after. Repeat twice or three times a day. Avoid snogging people you really like.
 So far, no effect, apart from a dead fly lying on its back on the kitchen floor and holding its nose.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013


It's started: the annual mystification when Christmas cards arrive and you have no idea who they're from.

Fondest love, Megan”, this one says. Megan? I don't know any Megan! Wait a minute, there WAS that funny creature with the bad teeth... No, can't be her, why would she me send a card after the way I stared at her mouth. More likely to send me a letter-bomb... Oh yes, and there was that other Megan, the inexplicably fat, can't be her, she's most likely gaga by now, given her drink habit. Postmark? No help. The bloody stamp isn't even franked (Note to self: I wonder if I could steam it off and re-use it..).

Oh bugger, here's another one: “All the best, mate. Darrell.” Mate? I've never mated with anyone called Darrell. Maybe he's sent the card to the wrong Old Scrote. Postmark? Same again, looks like I might have TWO free stamps this year.

You see, darlings, what really bothers me is the realisation that somewhere this Christmas, somebody is going to stare at the card I sent them and say “Who the frack is Jake??” Unlike Megan and Darrell, though, I am unforgettable and take it very badly when I'm fracked.