Funny old world
What a wacky world we inhabit! 'For why?' says you. Well...
A coroner in Ireland has ruled that the death of a pensioner was caused by 'spontaneous human combustion', on the grounds that he can't think of any other possibility. This specious conclusion is therefore based on incredulity or ignorance (or both) in place of argument... People do not just burst into flame, even if the body's heat regulation system goes on the blink.
The State of Alabama in the USA (where else?) is instituting a system whereby someone convicted of a misdemeanor can choose between jail and a fine, or a year's regular church attendance! "If offenders elect church, they're allowed to pick the place of worship, but must check in weekly with the pastor and the police department. If the one-year church attendance program is completed successfully, the offender's case will be dismissed."
So if you are honest about your beliefs or non-beliefs, be you Muslim, Jew, Hindu, atheist, whatever, you are for the slammer. If you lie in order to take the soft option you may get away scot free. But you'll be in for a hideously uncomfortable year. Which should make the ordinary church members wonder if their attendance has become a form of punishment, for some unspecified heinous sin…
25th September, 2011
I can't remember when I bought my first breadmaker, but it would have been sometime in the early 90s I suppose. I know I was delighted with it, and have made my own bread ever since, usually a 70% wholemeal loaf that tastes good as well as being of known quality—after all, I know what I put into it.
Owners of these machines seem to fall into two distinct groups: those who never buy shop bread, and those who have one in the garage somewhere—hmmm, I think it was a gift from someone—never got on with it. Kitchen gadgets are like that, aren't they? Another of my precious items is the slow cooker—the same dichotomy prevails among owners, and I have to admit that my current one sat in a cupboard for several years before I got to grips with it. Now I use it a lot.
Anyway, the breadmaker was showing signs of age—I had already replaced the breadpan and kneader assembly several years ago, so I decided it was time to retire it, and buy a new one. Any excuse for a new toy… It cost less than £100 delivered, which goes to show that not everything gets more expensive—it replaced one that cost £120 well over ten years ago, and that took the place of one that had cost me around £180! All three machines have been Panasonic: I remember seeing a TV show in which Women's Instute members had a bake-off—half of them confirmed hand bakers, and the others using different bread machines. In the blind tasting that followed, even the hand bakers chose the Panasonic product, somewhat to their surprise, not to mention chagrin…
As is often the case, the new model embodies improvements. For a start, the whole shebang has been rotated 90 degrees, so that the front of the machine is the narrow side, taking up less space on the worktop. Clever. The breadpan and kneading blade seem to be coated in something better than was used in earlier models, so there is much less chance of the loaf sticking, and being difficult to turn out. And there are twenty programmes available, counting those used for making dough to be baked in a conventional oven, and such oddities as jam-making. The recipes are simpler—none of the ones I use call for dried milk, which the old ones did. And quantities of yeast and sugar seem to be smaller than in the old one. And the results? Excellent!
In the early days I used to have it wake me with the scent of freshly baked bread wafting up the stairs, as per the marketing blurb, but I don't do that any more, because it is almost impossible to slice properly until it has cooled for a time—I like to give it at least twelve hours before cutting it.
So… if you have one in the cupboard under the stairs, hoick it out and have a go—you might just be delighted! Simple ingredients—strong flour, dried yeast, sugar, salt, butter (or oil) and water make for a small miracle right there in your kitchen.
7th September, 2011
Today's news story about the raid at Tring Museum emphasised that the rhinoceros horns that were stolen were expected to fetch large sums of money, presumabiy in the Far East where the horn is prized in the naive belief that it can cure cancer, that it is an aphrodisiac... you get the picture.
Since it can't do any of those things, surely the fact that the stolen rhino horns were merely replicas made of resin shouldn't make too much difference to the price that they can realise - after all, it'll be no less effective than the real stuff...
27th August, 2011
In case you missed it, a midwife, Hannah Adewole, took Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust, to an employment tribunal, Why? Well, because they wouldn't allow her to wear a skirt in the operating theatre. The strict uniform policy is that people in the sterile environment of theatre are obliged to wear standard “scrubs”—which, in this hospital, consist of trousers and top.
Hannah Adewole claimed that it is against her Christian religion to wear trousers because the Bible forbids it. “A woman must not wear men's clothing, nor a man wear women's clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does.” (Deuteronomy 22:5, New International Version). So Hannah, knowing what a mmiserable git her god can be when he detests someone, which he does rather a lot, was miffed to be told to get out of the HDU theatre when showing up in a skirt and top. People like Hannah tend to spend a fair amount of their time miffed.
So where, exactly, does the Babble define “men's clothing”? I don't think the word 'trousers' crops up in there at all, does it?
The tribunal, rightly I believe, threw the claim out: Hannah still has her job, but her lawyers are considering stoking up an appeal, which will, of course, result in the dispensing of more NHS funds.
Just another christian 'victim'.
7th August, 2011
At the school I graced with my grubby presence we all lived with that motto for several years of our young lives, and yet, when the subject came up at our table at a recent Reunion Lunch, the awful truth was made manifest: not one of us really knew what it meant!
Several guessed, in a slightly shame-faced manner, that it might have something to do with – er – virtue? And perhaps labour? Well, OK, granted, but did that actually make sense as a motto? No, of course it didn't.
Although I had always enthusiastically supported the
French master's opinion that Latin was
a dead language
that won't lie down, I had retained sufficient
memories of the horror of the seemingly myriad
Declensions of Nouns, to hazard a guess that they might
be germane to our lack of understanding. I mean, there
are scads of the wretched things. It's a wonder
the Roman Empire lasted so long, really—they must
have argued about grammar interminably.
The French bloke's sally had been received by the Latin
bloke with a snort and a waffled
French is just Latin
with the endings chewed off!, before returning to the
infliction of pain on whichever of us was closest, or had
committed the crime of, say, dropping a pencil. Those
wretched endings! All those cases! Genitive, Dative,
Accusative, Ablative… that last always sounded
vaguely anatomical to me, redolent of something squashy.
Somewhat to my surprise, it turns out that 'ablative' is
a real word, with a real meaning:
to be removed or
vaporized at very high temperature, although how that
relates to Latin nouns is a mystery to me. At least it
shows that that those sons of fun, the Latin Grammarians,
hadn't just hoisted a moistened finger into the breeze
and invented something impressive-sounding for the hell
of it. A quick root around in the recondite depths of
Google enlightened me that the ablative case applied to
situations where we would append 'by', 'with' or 'from'
in English, and that '-te 'is the ablative ending in one
of the declensions. I also discovered that the most
popular translation of our motto is:
By valour and
By struggle and courage
running a poor second.
So, that's what we should have been told it meant all those years ago—be brave and give it your best shot, in so many words. And as my valour and my exertion have now expired for the day, not for the first time, the rest is silence… although I must confess to having been diverted by the discovery that one Latin term for 'virtue' turned out to be 'rectum'…
1st August, 2011
"There's something fascinating to the male of the species, about a steam locomotive. We are drawn to the great metal beast, as it stands breathing gouts of steam and smoke and smelling of sulphur and oil and—oh, whatever that wonderful aroma consists of. It's magic! An express, in a hurry, with the 'motion' whirling about... Incidentally, the most common form of valve gear used on British locos was invented by a Mr Walschaert, a foreman in a Belgian goods yard, I think. So there's another famous Belgian for the list. It was a clever design, allowing for variation in the valve timings, and, of course, for putting the engine in reverse. A few other designs were tried, among them the mysteriously named 'rotary cam poppet valves', and one LMS loco was driven by turbines, but it wasn't much use in war time when spares couldn't be obtained, and 'Turbomotive' stood idle for a long time. After the war it was rebuilt as a conventional loco, named Princess Anne, and soon after it was wrecked in the 1952 Harrow & Wealdstone rail disaster.
It may be, of course that steam takes us back to our childhood, and to a part we enjoyed. The many summer days we spent beside the main line, lolling on the grassy embankment keeping an eye on the signal gantries for warning of approaching trains were wonderful. In between trains, we caught grasshoppers, and generally enjoyed the ambiance. We were collecting engine numbers—to no real purpose, other than to say "I've seen that one and that one..." I've never like the term 'train spotting'. For one thing, we weren't that interested in the trains, but our attention was fixed on the locomotives, the engines. I remember the day I underlined the last of the Gresley A4 Pacifics in my Ian Allen ABC of the LNER book - a happy day indeed. We called them 'streaks', and I believe people still do. Mallard was one of them, and it still holds the speed record for a steam-hauled train, hitting 126mph for a short distance, although Sir Nigel Gresley never claimed more than 125mph.
The speed record attempts were part of the 1930s rivalry between the East Coast line to Edinburgh (LNER) and the LMS West Coast line to Glasgow. William Stanier was the Chief Mechanical Engineer of the LMS, and he too had streamlined engines, although they took the casings off them after a couple of years, to reveal very handsome conventional engines once they had been given new smokeboxes to replace the odd shaped ones that had been made to fit under the streamlining. It's thought that he didn't much care for the streamline craze.
Each of the big four railways had its own 'look': Stanier's designs for the LMS were dead butch, all tapered boilers and belpaire fireboxes, and they looked and were massively powerful beasts. Gresley's locos were graceful, almost pretty, with superbly balanced lines. The later express ones had a V-shaped cab front faired into the round-topped firebox, and there was always a little pill-box like item just aft of the chimney. This was a 'snifter' valve, that opened when the engine was free-wheeling. For some reason none of the other British railways went in for those.
Of course they weren't all racing thoroughbreds -there were the slower goods engines, often with eight or even ten smaller driving wheels. It was as if they had been built in a lower gear, for maximum pulling power. Then there were the tank engines, built on a single chassis, self-contained with a coal bunker and water tanks, slab tanks, saddle tanks or pannier tanks. They were used to haul suburban services, for example. Once, just once, an engine crew asked me if I would like a ride through the tunnel that ran behind my home. Would I! For the record it was a Gresley 0-6-2T Class N2, an engine that carried on in service into the 1960s until replaced by diesels. The only N2 that has been preserved featured in the film The Railway Children, as the engine hauling the Scottish Express. I clambered up into the cab—quite a climb for a small boy— and once aboard I was allowed to pull the whistle chain, and we were off—it was wonderful! The noise, the heat, the excitement. Once in the tunnel, the fireman opened the firehole, and it was like something out of Dante's Inferno... thrilling and frightening at the same time. Once through the tunnel we stopped at a signal and I was able to step onto the ladder and thence onto the embankment. It had been all too short a ride, but it was one I was never to forget!
18th July, 2011
28th May this year, 2011, marks sixty glorious (?) years since the very first broadcast programme under the title Crazy People, which was the title the BBC insisted on for what we came to know, and many of us to love, as The Goon Show (Orch: Tattyrah chord and cymbal snap).
I was thirteen years old when first exposed to this phenomenon, ready and oh, so willing to be transported to Spike's alternate universe. It took a while to catch on, and for a time I achieved some cheap popularity among my peers, by periodically lapsing into an impersonation of Spike's alter ego, the universal idiot we later came to know as 'Mad Dan' Eccles. I believe that the Goons were the very vanguard of the spirit of social change that characterised the Sixties and continues to this day, albeit in a muted and somewhat bedraggled form. For me, the onset of Crazy People was a demarcation of the generation gap that yawned between my fellow pupils and me and our schoolmasters, who lived in a world fashioned in the twenties and thirties.
But it was in those decades that a favourite of mine flourished, and having just completed a transcription of one of his comic talks I suddenly spot early manifestations of the looniness we came to aspire to. Nonsense had been popular for generations, but Mr Gillie Potter gave it a gentle shove in the general direction of Goonery. His modus operandi was a parody of The Talk, that mainstay of the BBC's earlier wireless programming. As a wireless fanatic child, I loved to hear him begin: "Good evening England, this is Gillie Potter speaking to you in English." He did, too—the use of language was flawless and precise. He displayed the same love of English as WC Fields and our own Les Dawson were later to demonstrate.
Describing the workings of the BBC, his talk takes us to the BBC Drawing Room, where:
"…two distinguished personages already occupy certain cubic space within this lordly hall. The taller one, with a head two sizes too big and an overcoat several sizes too small, is Colonel Dogscocking, who has just treated the universe to his views on the present state of affairs in Sciatica. The other worthy, with pink eyes and a bag of peanuts, is the Honourable Bertram Buttonhook, son and heir of Lord Elastic-Sides. In ten minutes, he is due to deliver his daily discourse, today's dose being designated 'Fun With Fleas'."
Could Spike not have written that "with pink eyes and a bag of peanuts"? Elsewhere Mr Potter describes "a tall youth wearing alpaca boots and a martingale", not a million leagues removed from Spike's cardboard wigs and plasticene trilbies!
See what you think: learn the Truth about the BBC—as it was, I hasten to add, in 1932. It's probably a lot worse these days. Read on.
17th May, 2011
Sunday morning: waking at around 6, I decide that I shall knock out a few more 'z's before abandoning the duvet for the dressing gown and the coffee mug. Waking again at 7.45 I discover that the blasted electricity has now gone off.
It occurs to me that, power-less, I am indeed powerless to do the simplest things. I heat coffee on the gas-stove, glad that I have at least one appliance that is not dependent on electricity—that's OK. Now, have to plan things… draw a small amount of precious hot water for various hygiene-related activities. Retrieve all the various dairy products needed for breakfast in one quick access to the fridge. Breakfast on cereal, then toast (gas-stove again) and Patum Peperium. Another hob-heated coffee. Now what?
Telephone? They are dead, being linked to the land-line by wireless. Computer? The laptop is charged, but the router is dead, so no access to the Internet. All right. Read a book. Dip into The Portable Atheist, snippets of Spinoza, Hume, Penn Jillette. Retain nothing, because I keep wondering if it is a general failure, or is it just my hovel? Is it a bad thing that without electricity my life comes to a pathetic standstill? Yes, I rather think it is. Never mind.
It's about three hours now. I discover an emergency number in a Thompson's directory that happens to be lying around. Call the number on my mobile phone. Wish I had charged the battery more recently. Nice bloke answers, and tells me the engineers are on their way to our sub-station, and should be there in five to ten minutes. Relief—I'm not the only one suffering. This isn't Schadenfreude, I'm just happy that I haven't been singled out by some malignant electro-pixie for this ordeal. He says that if it is going to be a protracted repair job he will send me an email. I'm rather impressed.
Fifteen minutes later, everything comes back to life, and in a surprisingly short time I am back in comfortable touch with civilization. Good morning, world!
24th April, 2011
News this weekend of the death of Jet Harris. I've been reading various obituaries, and it seems there was a lot I didn't know about him—I didn't even recall that he had been married at the time I was working with him, or that Cliff Richard had been involved with the first Mrs Harris, for which Jet blamed his bouts with the bottle. Not that I remember him drinking much, as he seemed to have little tolerance for alcohol, and became quite merry on a couple of beers.
It was Jet who was responsible for my first marriage... well it wouldn't have happened without him. We were together on a train to London, from the West Country, somewhere. I often used to travel wth him, at Tony Meehan's request, to keep an eye on him—for one thing he was a very nervous flyer, whereas I had spent time zooming around the Middle East in piston-engined kites of varying types and was a bit blasé about it. We had a First Class compartment, all very cosy. Taking a stroll along to a buffet car we met a lady with two children in tow, and fell to chatting. She seemed very nice, and was attractive and obviously of high intelligence.
Once we were back in our compartment, Jet vanished down the corridor, and eventually came back with lady and children! "It's a cattle-truck back there," he explained, and he didn't want to leave them there. He was obviously attracted to her, and when we arrived at Paddington I tried to make my escape—only the lady appeared not to want to be left with him, so I said I would see them home.. A year or two later, we married, and one of those two children became the step-daughter, whose whereabouts I discovered five or six years ago via the Internet, and contacted. We are good friends.
Life didn't seem to do Jet too many favours, from what I read. For a short while I had a working e-mail address for him, but it stopped working and I lost contact with him again. I've seen him described as cantankerous, but I never saw that side of him. I felt he was being exploited somewhat, as he wasn't really comfortable as the 'star', and he had a habit of edging back towards the band as though he wanted to just be the bass player again. Oh, and Diamonds and those other tunes were not played, as is often asserted, on a bass guitar. Instead, he used a Fender guitar, with the strings tuned a tone below the normal pitch (D-G-C-F-A-D). My best memory of Jet is of riding down Regent Street in his convertible on a beautiful day, with his recording of The Man With The Golden Arm as the sound-track (he had a car-player that played 45rpm disks: real luxury stuff), all very 'cool', dramatic and hip!
19th March, 2011
Did you, like me, believe that having music, often of questionable quality, thrust at you wherever you go, in pubs, shops, malls, restaurants, bistros and the like, is a development of the 90s and the noughties? Oh, and yes, this is a repeat of something I wrote five or six years ago. There is, or was, an organization called 'Pipe Down', (there still is: at Pipe Down you can read all about it) attempted to combat the menace, but I have no idea how successful or otherwise they are or were. Not very I would think. Our ears are assaulted from every angle, with bash-trash. Fleetingly, one envies Beethoven his deafness...
"Music with dinner is an insult both to the cook and the violinist." said G K Chesterton. If only it could be limited to a solitary fiddler! There is just too much music, de-valued by being supplied by the metre. And, as my picture shows this is nowhere near as modern a sentiment as we might have thought.
We are in Piccadilly on a sunny day, in early spring or late autumn to judge by the heavy coats people are wearing, in 1923. And there from the Bluebird Restaurant flies a banner, proclaiming the perfection of their grub, and the promise of NO MUSIC. It's a selling point! A menu of gastronomic delights and PEACE and QUIET to eat it in - doesn't that sound enticing?
By the way - where does the expression 'put a sock in it' come from? Why, from the days of the phonograph or gramophone with large acoustic horn. Some sprauncey models came equipped with louvres that surrounded the horn, allowing the user to muffle or vent the sound at will - most had no control over volume at all, short of shoving something soft down the horn to mute it - a kitten, say - and a wadded sock would have done the job nicely! There are times when I could wish the loudspeaker had never been invented... but only sometimes.