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The motives of a diarist may be unclear, but the single motive of a blogger is to be read. Therefore, until such time as a celebrated broadsheet begs me to become their best paid columnist, this blog will be my outlet for a series of carefully constructed articles exploring life, the universe and related subjects, such as the application of game theory in Trivial Pursuits, what behaviours trees can learn from human beings and why I sit in a blanket when I work.

My aim is to make you laugh, or think (gently), or both. I pledge that I will only tell you about what I did in my veg patch at the weekend if I found some fundamental truth in amongst the manure.



Dry tome walling

Friday, 16th October 2015

We’re all at it: decaying. It’s so this season, darling. Autumn revels in it and Hadrian’s Wall’s is expert in it, with a CV of decay spanning more than 1,600 years.

                Until the start of this month, though, I’d never thought of building anything specifically to watch it decay. Until the start of this month, I hadn’t met artist Dawn Felicia-Knox.

                Why build a milecastle made from unwanted books? Why at Walltown on Hadrian’s Wall? Why for 28 days? Why to watch it decay?

                Why is a common theme on Hadrian’s Wall: we have exponentially more questions than answers about this enigmatic ancient monument. Still, it helps no end when you have people alive who can tell you the answers.

                “The idea is to celebrate the introduction of literacy to Britain by the Romans,” explained Lindsay-Allason Jones, Chair of Hadrian Arts Trust (“HAT”), which commissioned the piece, and one of our most treasured authorities on Hadrian’s Wall.

                It’s also about drawing attention to the decay of the monument, explained the artist, Dawn, who is visiting most days in October to record the ruination: “The sculpture will begin to decay almost immediately – rain will permeate the books, the sun will crack the book covers and plants will begin to take root. This will mirror the act of ruination of the stones itself, albeit at an accelerated pace,” Dawn explained.

                “We do at least one unexpected art event a year on Hadrian’s Wall,” said Penny Grennan, artist, Trustee of HAT and laughter aficionado.

                More than one reason, then, as with most things we do in life.

 

Day 1 in the new milecastle - with artist Dawn, trustees of Hadrian Arts Trust and volunteers

Day 1 in the new milecastle – with artist Dawn, trustees of Hadrian Arts Trust and volunteers

               

 

 

The loneliness of the long distance book-sorter

The loneliness of the long distance book-sorter

 

For those of us helping to build the newest Milecastle on Hadrian’s Wall, the main question wasn’t ‘why are we doing this?’ but ‘will we have enough books?’

                About 8,000 is the answer to the question of how many books we used. About 10,000 was the answer to the question of how many books the artist’s father-in-law thought we’d need. I couldn’t help thinking: this kind of conversation was probably happening a lot here in AD122 and several years thereafter.

                Our new milecastle was also not without controversy, just like Hadrian’s Wall. Were the books really of no use for anything else? Couldn’t they have been sent to Africa, for instance? Critics wanted to know.

                Much of what passed through our hands as we puzzled over exactly which book would fit where (this was the perfect exercise in learning just how wildly varied are book dimensions) comprised old government report publications, law journals, accounting manuals, tax tables and the like. Really rather fitting for the Romans. Books already mouldy were also rather fitting for the Wall.

                A small number might still have been readable, but I’m deeply glad that we aren’t inflicting the values of 1970s ‘Jackie’ manuals into twenty-first-century Africa, or anywhere else for that matter. Most of the builders of this milecastle were female; one of the male volunteers was completely taken with a book about making cushions; the 1970s editorial board of female teen mag ‘Jackie’ would have found this all very – shall we say – ‘futuristic’ indeed.

                Of the tiny number of potentially still readable tomes that held no mould – neither in plant life nor values – some constructive pilfering took place. I came away with an old map of the Solway Firth and a 1960 Official Government Handbook to Chesters Roman Fort; the book about cushions kept reappearing in the crates rather than in the milecastle walls and I strongly suspect it’s now on a certain man’s shelves in Newcastle.

 

Why was all this going on at Walltown?

Hadrian’s Wall originally had 81 milecastles – at least in theory; a small number haven’t been found – so why build this new one at Walltown quarry, near the site of one of the original turrets built into the Wall between the milecastles? (This turret being just under 35 Roman miles from the western end of the Wall and just over 45 Roman miles from the eastern end – Turret 45B as we now call it.)

                “Because we could,” answered Jane Brantom, another HAT Trustee labouring happily in the sunshine. “Northumberland National Park gave us permission.”

                The particular location within the quarry provides great views of the artwork from Hadrian’s Wall Path. Moreover, the new milecastle sits atop a shelf of hard dolerite rock, simulating the much taller Whin Sill along which the central section of Hadrian’s Wall dramatically runs and yet at a conveniently small height to allow artist, Trustees and volunteers to climb up carrying books without major risk to life or limb.

 

Looking down on a new milecastle from the Wall above

Looking down on a new milecastle from the Wall above

The view from the barbarian north

The view from the barbarian north

 

Why for 28 days?

Is it because the Romans invented February, the only 28-day month? Is it because the Romans invented concrete better than modern concrete, which takes 28 days to cure?

                Was it related to the supermoon total lunar eclipse three days earlier? Is it something to do with the female menstrual cycle (wince away, if you like, but I was bleeding as I was building)?

                “Any longer and we would have needed planning permission,” explained Dawn.

                Ah. Not unlike archaeology, then. For I’m convinced we find things ‘of ritual significance’ in archaeology that probably had more prosaic purpose.

 

The author faking aggression while the artist adjusts another tome

The author faking aggression while the artist adjusts another tome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why watch it decay?

As I type, the glorious Indian summer of late September 2015 has ceded to rain, mist and chill, doing wonders to fulfil the artistic purpose of the new milecastle.

                We’ll find out on 29 October the significance of watching this milecastle decay.

                On the evening of 29 October there will be an evening performance featuring artist Dawn and the Noize choir [link], which will celebrate the decay and there will even – amazing wonder – be some public transport laid on to help people get there. Yes – public transport to Hadrian’s Wall so late in the season! Coo!

                So – for another 22 days only – come and join the artist in watching Hadrian’s Wall’s newest milecastle decay. We’re all doing it, don’tcha know.

 

(And for those, like me, who worry and enquire, Northumberland County Council will take the books away after 29 October and either pulped or incinerated into energy. So that’s at least two lots of recycling for each of our building books.)

31a - 20151002_152916

 

Postscript for those who like to know these things

How the milecastle of books (appropriately titled ‘Simulacrum’) mirrors the archaeology:

 

How the milecastle of books doesn’t mirror the archaeology:



A startling result, with mixed emotions

Friday, 29th May 2015

70 days ago I could not have told you a conceptual systems architecture from a logical systems architecture from a physical systems architecture. ‘Data Ingestion’ might have been a euphemism for a medical condition brought on by excessive indoor gaming; ‘Deep Data’ the code phrase for an undercover money laundering sting; ‘Data Lakes’ and ‘Data Reservoirs’ places robots go on holiday.

                Today I have an entirely new section to my CV. Many would see this as the result of the IBM Corporate Service Corps (“CSC”) successfully delivering on its aim to develop the IBMers who serve in it.

So why am I bemused instead of delighted by my newly earned Mini-SME status of Data Architect? Why am I writing this blog with mixed emotions instead of gleefully updating my CV?

Because the CSC pursues a tricky triple benefit…

(1)    Provision of pro bono consulting work to a worthy client in a developing country;

(2)    Growing IBM’s brand and reputation, not least for Corporate Social Responsibility; and

(3)    Developing high-performing IBMers’ skills, knowledge and cultural awareness…

… and I didn’t apply to join the CSC because of (3) or – with apologies to IBM leadership –  because of (2) either.

I applied to serve in the CSC entirely because of (1).

I am a lucky westerner of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. I am exceedingly rich by every global standard, except the ones by which most lucky westerners choose to measure themselves.

Thus, when my CSC client was identified as the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality, serving the East Rand area of Greater Johannesburg, my focus became doing the best I could for the 3.2 million people who are its residents, approx..2.5 million of whom live in Informal Settlements .

I didn’t care if the work I did was exactly the same as my day job and didn’t ‘develop’ me professionally. I just wanted to help. The best I could. For which I assumed the professional skills knowledge I’ve been stacking up for 20 years would be helpful.

My recent blogs have described the huge challenge my team faced when we realised that the central topic of our assigned Statement Of Work was a mystery to all four of us. Now, I love challenges and I love new experiences, so a new experience that is also incredibly challenging is just about as good as it gets for me personally. My problem was: this wasn’t supposed to be about me. This was supposed to be about Ekurhuleni.

It didn’t help that we had a second CSC team working alongside us for the same client delivering to a different Statement Of Work that matched my skills and experience extremely well. I suggested a couple of times that I might be of more value delivering that SOW, but for various reasons we stuck with the original setup.

All the way to the end of our first week at the client I worried that the chance of us feeling proud of our end deliverable was close to zero.

But… you will have seen from previous blogs how we turned this situation around, pursuing a lot of help from others, maintaining a sense of humour at all times, making a specific appeal to at least one Buddhist deity and using sheer bl**dy determination.

It turns out that a Data Reservoir is not a top vacation destination for robots but a fantastic, detailed conceptual architecture for managing data, which has been developed by an IBM Distinguished Engineer in the UK and is now used the world over.

It turns out that developing an entirely new area of my CV was simply what I needed to do in order to deliver value to Ekurhuleni. I couldn’t do one without the other.

It turns out that nothing turned out as I thought it should, and yet …

… when we presented our deliverables …

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… people said amazing things…

…and we finally confessed to our main client contact how we had enlisted a Buddhist deity in our wish for “Great deliverables that will add value to the client and the client (and us!) happy.”

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… and this is what our client did…

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… drawing in the second eye for us…

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… because our wish had come true.

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And so I was left – shattered – with mixed emotions:

(1)    Utter delight and enormous pride in Team Data Architecture. How – with a lot of help from Debbie Botha and other IBMers – we pulled off the practically impossible and, by doing so, renewed my faith and imagination in the things of which I am capable;

(2)    A wistful sense of what might have been, if we’d been playing to our strengths; and

(3)    An enduring sense of how great is the need in Ekurhuleni (more coming on this), coupled with immense gladness that we helped. A little.

#ibmcsc



The importance of growing (Part 2)

Wednesday, 6th May 2015

Before I reveal what happened at the end of my IBM Corporate Service Corps (“CSC”) work in South Africa (next blog, coming) let me first divulge how badly my 20-something-self would have handled the last 7 weeks.

If I had been presented with my CSC project 15-20 years ago my response would have been thus:

PANIC –> immediate purchase of The Dummy’s Guide To Data Architecture and similar titles –> furious cramming –> pending sense of doom –> greater panic –> more cramming –> actual doom.

My 40-something self knows how to do well one simple, powerful thing that my 20-something self rarely did with aplomb:

Ask for help.

–> Continue asking for help until it comes.

Thus, when our first three days with the client in Boksburg, Johannesburg, revealed that the content of our Statement Of Work was indeed a subject on which none of the four of us had any prior expertise, I raised my game.

I asked my CSC team, I asked my IBM network, I asked my CSC team to ask their IBM networks, I asked IBMers with whom I had never previously interacted but whose roles made them ideal candidates to help. I asked Professor Google and her many recommendations. I asked Undergrad Twitter. I stopped short of asking taxi drivers but I would have done so if I thought any of them would have had a working view on the topic.

I asked the client for their help to help us to help them. Question after question getting at what they really needed, why they needed it and who else could I put my questions to?

For 3 intense weeks I was a Translation Machine powered by questions. It was like translating Serbo-Croat (the client’s view of the world) into Siamese (the Data & System Architects’ view of the world) and vice-versa, with no prior knowledge of either alphabet, never mind any grammar or vocab.

If I didn’t understand an answer I kept asking questions until I did. My 20-something-self would rather have written down the answers and attempted to make sense of them on her own, late into the evenings, feeling small and embarrassed that she hadn’t understood the first time and assuming that others would be bright enough or good enough so to do.

My 40-something-self knows that she is bright, she is good enough and that the best shot anyone ever gets at understanding what someone is trying to tell you is when they are still trying to tell it to you. This older me also knows that sometimes people aren’t sure themselves, or don’t know how to articulate the answer, or both, and the only way out of this situation is to keep talking, until you articulate back what you think they’re really saying and they respond ‘Yes! Yes, that’s right!’ and you sit grinning at each other as if you’ve just discovered that e=mc2.

Then one big magic moment happened: half-way through the project I got an email from an IBMer in South Africa who was offering not only to answer all our questions on Siamese declensions but also to come and work with us to do it. The Translation Machine finally had a Ferrari engine. This Unbelievably Marvelous 5th member of our team was Debbie Botha .

Debbie first worked with us through a Thursday evening after she’d already put in a day’s graft at her own client. Then she worked with us the whole of Saturday morning. Both times she came to our hotel, even though this was a drive across ‘town’ – and in Jo’burg traffic is a major and almost constant problem, with commute times unpredictable and issues abounding, from rush-hour jams to sudden road closures because of gang shoot-outs.

The results from all this asking? 5 wonderful positives, even before we put together our full deliverable for the client:

(1)    Asking good questions, listening hard to the answers and asking good follow-up questions earned us respect, not impatience or contempt. The responses we received from everyone we questioned demonstrated this daily;

(2)    Mid-project our key client contact told us: You ask a lot of very good questions and this is really helping my thinking;

(3)    We got help and insight from >20 IBMers around the world, without whom we would not have delivered what we ultimately delivered for our CSC client (next blog coming);

(4)    One of our most expert IBMers turned our project team into an all-powerful Big Five. If I hadn’t asked for help and then pressed to get it, the Unbelievably Marvelous Debbie Botha would not have arrived with her gift hamper of answers to every remaining question we had; and

(5)    My 20-something-self (still alive and well inside me) marveled at the amount of strength my 40-something-self created from vulnerability and uncertainty. Asking for help, eh? Over and over again, eh? Genius.

Through the IBM Corporate Service Corps I found myself in a situation where I had no alternative but to ask for help and to keep asking questions until we knew the answers for our client. I am so immensely glad and relieved for the sake of my client that it was my 40-something self who rocked up to help them.

So, my friends, never be afraid to ask a question, or several hundred. Well, why would you be?

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The Unbelievably Marvelous Debbie Botha (centre) helping us in our hotel

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#ibmcsc



Technology. In Gauteng province, South Africa

Monday, 6th April 2015

You know by now that I work for one of the world’s largest technology companies. What you don’t know is that during the three months of pre-work we completed before the in-country part of our IBM Corporate Service Corps assignment we were told repeatedly and with great emphasis that we could not expect the same levels of basic technology in South Africa as in our home countries. Nothing to do with IBM itself; everything to do with the infrastructure in South Africa.

                “It’s all part of the CSC experience” was the mantra of those preparing us for CSC (and, the cynic might add, the ongoing tag line of those to whom potential complaint might be directed).

                The reality is… well, here’s how it’s panning out so far:

Safe (Or not)

On my arrival, the safe in my hotel room did not work. “It will be fixed tomorrow,” promised the hotel manager

Day two: no working safe. “It will be fixed tomorrow,” promised the hotel manager.

Day three: no working safe. “It will be fixed tomorrow,” promised the hotel manager.

I gave him a long look that said ‘Whilst I am finding this amusing, we both know that I don’t believe you and since I am required by IBM to keep my laptop either with me or in a locked safe, we both know that the situation needs to change.’ He scurried off to his office and returned with the maintenance schedule showing my room number on the list for the next day. He apologised and promised me a bottle of red wine for all the inconvenience.

Day four: no working safe and no bottle of wine. No energy left at the end of that particular working day to pay another trip to the hotel manager’s office.

Day five: no working safe. At reception I applied my stare to Sydney, the perfectly nice man on duty. “I’m in room 226…” I began. He said nothing, just handed me a key. Back in my room, someone had unscrewed the nameplate on the safe, revealing a hole for this master key. (Take note, IBM, a screwdriver and a master key are all anyone needs.)

Day eight: on return from another long day’s work I found the nameplate screwed back down and my safe locked. Back to reception… “I’m in room 226…”… “Your safe combination is 0000.”

I’m hanging on to the master key for now.

The mobile phone

All the other IBMers are struggling with the local mobile phones with which we were issued. The most desperate acquired some sharp scissors, cut the sim out and put it in his iphone 6.

Watching someone swipe the screen on an unsmartphone is like watching someone trying to open a can of beans with a laser. Me? I have a can opener. Finally, I have the most appropriate mobile phone skills! As the proud owner of a £20 Nokia unsmartphone in the UK, I am in my element. People are literally handing me their phones and dictating while I text, or getting me to change their settings.

My personal challenge is that all twelve phones came pre-set with all the team’s numbers and mine was incorrect in every phone.

Landlines

Our hotel doesn’t have these for guests. Not even in the conference room facility. No, really.

                At the client offices there is one in the room we’re borrowing from a lady on maternity leave. Until the end of last week it was ‘locked’ in some way that meant we couldn’t dial an outside line. Apparently that has now been fixed. If true, it could be a turning point because our team’s biggest need for technology after wifi is:

Conference calling

If you’ve read any of my other South African posts you’ll know that my team is calling in favours from colleagues and strangers throughout IBM to help deliver our project. Calling in, that is, when we can find a way to do it.

                We have an AT&T conference call facility but it has only one dial-in number in South Africa and although it’s toll-free that doesn’t apply to our unsmartphones.

                Apple to our rescue: Facetime Audio and Skype Audio are just about good enough on local wifi to get through to our colleagues in the US, UK and elsewhere. That is, when they have the right device and a good signal…

                Honourable mention goes here to Brett Gow, IBM’s Information Governance method leader based in the US, who spent around forty minutes trying various combinations of technology just to get to the point where we could hear him and he could hear us sufficiently for us to start talking.

                Second honourable mention goes to Bruce Tyler, Brett’s erstwhile boss. One evening last week, Todd and I crouched over Todd’s unsmartphone with hardly any volume on its loudspeaker, yelling answers to Brett’s questions and yelling questions to him, as a result of which Bruce sent us some startlingly useful material.

The office wifi

We’re working for and in an IT department. They have yet to be able to give us access to a working wifi network in their offices.

The hotel wifi

The hotel has two wifi networks. Neither of them work in the conference room.

                The first works only in reception, except when it also works in your room. The second works only in the rooms, except when it doesn’t.

The alternative fi of wi

Our logistics provider, rather brilliantly, equipped us unexpectedly with dongles for use in a real wifi emergency. Emergency has been every day.

                Alas, the size credits on these dongles is now starting to run out and no-one knows the master password to use our own money to restock them. Sooner or later we’ll find a fix to this.

This blog

It transpired that if my internet connection drops while I’m mid-blog, my website publishes the draft and locks the item with no further editing possible. Wee hee.

The IBM Corporate Service Corps is designed to be a learning experience for all. It’s just that sometimes what you learn are things you never wanted or should have needed to know. Sigh.

#ibmcsc



Maintaining A Sense of Humour At All Times

My IBM Corporate Service Corps experience is proving to be tougher than most. Our immediate benchmarks are the two other project teams working alongside us, one for the same client, the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality, and one for the Gauteng Provincial Department of Health. We three teams chat to each other daily and last week one of the group decided she knew me well enough to say: “We’re so glad we didn’t get your SOW.”

                SOW stands for Statement Of Work (notwithstanding the other versions of this mnemonic I have considered) and all three SOWs were written and sent to us two weeks before we arrived here in South Africa. We got them by email and when I read them, my immediate thought was ‘I know absolutely nothing about this, but Todd’s in my team and this matches his CV really well, thank goodness.”

                Across the Atlantic, Todd was reading our SOW and deciding he knew nothing about the subject matter either. Todd’s particular brand of ‘IT Architect’ing had nothing to do with the ‘data architecting’ that lay before us. We began reading.

                We spent our first days with the client asking lots and lots of intelligent questions (and no doubt some less-than-intelligent ones too) and listening intently to their answers.

                Before the end of the first week, we knew a lot more about the client’s challenges and the type of help they were asking for from us and we knew for certain that we couldn’t provide it on our own.

                Thus began our three-step strategy for Maintaining Momentum:

1.       Ask a lot of people for a lot of help

2.       Manage everyone’s expectations constantly

3.       Maintain a sense of humour at all times

I’m pleased to say that #3 has been very successful thus far. Here are three examples of how we’ve been putting it into practice:

The stre-e-tch assignment

“The IBM Corporate Service Corps is designed to be a stretch assignment,” they say.

It’s a jolly good job I’ve done so much yoga, I say.

I found the following postcard on our first weekend and last Monday morning I pinned it to the white board in our office, which we re-fill every day with our latest diagrams and lists for making sense of the universe. It’s now the only thing we keep permanently on the board:

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The wave machine

In one of our more disheartened moments at the end of our first week at the client site, I jumped up and drew one of my very badly drawn diagrams on our heavily used whiteboard. It was this:

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“You see, this is how we feel,” I said to the team, and not least to myself. “We have moments when we feel like we might be making real progress, and then we have another conversation and we crash back down again… BUT… each time we fall we don’t fall back quite so far as our previous low… so you see, overall, no matter how low we feel now that we’re in one of our lows, really we’re going up!”

And it made us feel better!

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Enlisting Buddha Daruma

In one of our ‘day-setting’ meetings last week, Masako, our team member from Japan, produced a daruma doll – a papier mache doll modelled after the Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidarma, who founded Zen Buddhism. He sat meditating on a rock facing a stone wall for nine years. His arms and legs became paralysed when he reached enlightment, so the doll has no arms and legs.

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                “The doll has no eyes, or no pupils,” explained Masako. “We make a wish now and paint one of the pupils. Then, when the wish comes true, we paint the other pupil.”

                “Fantastic!” we all agreed. “We can use all the help we can get.”

                “Do any of our cultures have any rules or superstitions about left or right?” I asked

                “In Brazil it is unlucky if you step first on your left foot,” replied Lucas.

                So Lucas painted our Daruma’s right eye, as we look at him:

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While we made a great big wish:

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If a man can sit on a rock facing a stone wall meditating for nine years then my team of four wonderful IBMers with our common sense of purpose and sense of humour spanning the USA, Brazil, UK and Japan – and, perhaps crucially, our networks of IBMers around the world – surely has a chance of making our wish come true.

#ibmcsc



The importance of growing (Part 1)

Sunday, 29th March 2015

“We must still take the long walk”, Peter explained, in the wise, patient and intelligent way that he explained many things to me yesterday morning.

                He was talking about the time they must yet wait before his and the other farming co-operatives in Diepsloot, Johannesburg, will know if they are successful in obtaining land from the government … and, if they are successful, before they sell the first food they have grown … and, once they begin producing and selling food, before they have established the businesses that they hope and plan to leave as a legacy to their children.

                Again this phrase: the long walk. Again this long view. Again this sense that it is worth setting out even if the journey is long. Perhaps especially if the journey is long.

                Peter is the intelligent-eyed, softly-spoken, highly articulate, 56-year-old black South African with whom it was my privilege to work yesterday morning, along with his co-operative partner Steven and members of one of the other co-operatives, Jacquoline and Jonathan. They had come to the community building in Diepsloot with around 30 others, all members of farming co-operatives who are working together to bid for farmland from the government.

    If they are successful, each co-operative will get 1-2 hectares of land and they will farm next to each other, sharing knowledge and resources to produce spinach, chomolia, cabbage, aloo, herbs, onions, tomatoes and much more besides.

                We, the IBMers, spent the morning each working with representatives from 2 co-operatives, going through a business model form and helping them brainstorm the different aspects of their plans – from costs and revenue to customers and channels. The outputs, we were told, would be used in the formal submission to the government.

                No doubt every conversation was different, because every co-operative was different. There were youngsters and ‘grandmas’, people with excellent English and people able to translate for us. Just as every IBMer was different – coming from different countries and backgrounds, with different ages and skills.

                Two wonderful things seemed to come out of the morning: first, there was a genuine sense that the conversations had prompted new thoughts and ideas about challenges and opportunities for the co-operatives… everything from working out how to turn ‘tomatoes going soft’ into a saleable product, to thinking about advertising on the radio, to which apparently everyone in the neighbourhood listens. Second, there was value in bringing everyone together; another step on the walk to being a community of successful farming cooperatives.

                “This is the best industry ever,” said one of the South Africans. “We need more famas.” [aka farmers, to my briefly confused ears.]

And that’s when the KFC arrived. Cue horror in my eyes, though I tried to mask it. I mean, really? We spend the morning talking about local food production and we bring KFC for lunch? We hear people speak eloquently on the importance of their local community and we bring KFC for lunch? I don’t know what they made of that, but I was incredulous. We spoke to the organiser afterwards and he explained that he had made more than one attempt to have a local organisation cater the event, but with no luck. In this country I am finding it hard to know what to believe, but I do know when I can’t believe my eyes.

“You are strong together,” said Abi, our ‘tribal father’ for the IBM group, during the summing-up speeches. “I hope you keep working together, because you are strong when you work together.”

He’s right, of course. Regular readers of my blog know that I will never stop loving a long walk on my own, but even I know that a truly long walk – a really, really long walk – can only be walked with others.

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Peter, Steven, me, Lucas (my IBM buddy, from Brazil), Jacquoline & Jonathan
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Jacquoline and I near the green peppers she had grown

 

#ibmcsc



Long walk to solutions

Wednesday, 25th March 2015

I feel really, really lucky.

I feel lucky to have just experienced one of my longest and most challenging working days in my time at IBM.

I feel lucky to have spent this day in South Africa.

I feel lucky to be working for a client that is delivering vital public services to more than 3 million citizens of South Africa.

I feel lucky to be working with client staff who are welcoming, encouraging, intelligent, already a long way down the road to improving their organisation, open about sharing their challenges with us and actively inviting us to give them all the insights, information and recommendations we can muster.

I feel lucky to have around me a team of IBMers who take a challenge positively, no matter how big it may feel right now.

I feel lucky to know that whilst my best may never truly be good enough for my own high self-imposed standards, it may yet exceed the expectations of others.

I feel lucky that I only spent a few minutes feeling dejected after reading a difficult email this evening and chose instead to go for a run that literally jogged my memory about how lucky I am.

I feel lucky to know that I have a bed to sleep in tonight and I will get a shower and food in the morning.

I feel lucky to have spent Saturday afternoon at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and learned not only a great deal of humbling information about the history of this country and its peoples, but also many inspirational quotes from Madiba (Nelson Mandela).

I feel lucky to have used this as my gift for today from Madiba:

There are few misfortunes in the world that you cannot turn into a personal triumph if you have the iron will and the necessary skill.

I’m working on the skill part 😉

#ibmcsc



When worlds collide

Friday, 20th March 2015

Three big collisions are about to occur. None of them, I trust, will involve the gigantic airplane in which I am thinking these thoughts.

                The first two began slowly a few weeks ago and have the potential to explode with force at any point in the next six weeks.

                The third will be created by this very blog post. Powerful things, words. So, with a deep breath of cabin air, here we go:

Collision #1

A few weeks ago I heard some words on a work conference call that were entirely intended to reassure me about the security situation in the country to which I am travelling but instead had the opposite effect:

                “Don’t worry too much,” said the local adviser. “Mainly you just need to take all the normal precautions you would do anyway in your own countries, like not going out on your own at night.”

                His words were intended to offset the impact of the daily travel alert emails that have filled my inbox since November with warnings of lootings, robbings, stabbings and other nasty and seemingly daily occurrences at my destination. Sadly, this could be true of many countries in the world, but for me, for now, it is South Africa that awaits.

                I cannot think of a single place I have lived – rural and urban, UK, Germany, New Zealand, America – where I have not wandered happily and routinely on my own at night. I am potentially on a cultural collision course not just with the security situation in South Africa but with modern expectations in the human world at large.

 

Collision #2

Collision #2 could actually be Collisions #2 through #200* because twelve of us are travelling to meet and work together in South Africa and we have been deliberately picked for our differences.
(*I know the mathematically correct figure is not 200, but it’s been years since I did permutation and combination calculations and, besides, I’m on a long haul flight and my brain is tired.)

                We are doing professional voluntary service work and one of our employer’s aims is to expose us to the widest possible range of cultural backgrounds, ages, skills, areas of expertise and, let’s face it (although goodness knows this is not overtly stated), our areas of ignorance. We are from the US, Mexico, Brazil, the UK, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, the Philipinnes, Japan and Australia and we have had just 12 conference calls and some social networking to get to know each other alongside our day jobs and lives.

                Not only will working in South Africa come as a shock to most of us, but we will all come as a shock to each other.

                Add to this mix that we all want to make a big positive difference within a hugely limited timeframe and really we have a mini Milky Way of potential collisions.

                The point is for us to rise to the occasion – to reach across our differences and use them as strengths not conflagrations. If I can change my world-view so comprehensively that I don’t go out on my own at night, there’s a fair chance I can master this too. Although watch this space… which brings me to the big bang…

Collision #3

Collision #3 I am creating right now, with these words:

I am an IBMer.

Phew.

This may not seem like such a dramatic statement but until now I have carefully silo’d my social media outlets for different parts of my life and this website has been a strictly IBM-free zone.

Well, should I really be openly “an IBMer” within screens on which I have blogged about ‘Dogging-in’, Joining the Roman Creche’, ‘On goats and condoms’, ‘Cows called Colin’, ‘The full buttock’ and many other diverse topics not-remotely-related-to-being-a-professional-management-consultant??!

And should I really be reaching into my IBM work for the kind of funny, strange and interesting stories I usually tap onto these screens? There are already some aspects of this programme I would be unwise to share with you lovely readers (however much they might make you squeak with laughter or wheesh with shock) and there will be more. We quite rightly have to protect our client’s confidentiality and our host culture and so I may feel more bloggedly restricted than I have in the past.

Hopefully this collision will be the type that produces water rather than whiplash, because the next few weeks are going to be interesting and this is my chosen outlet for them. This and probably quite a lot of chocolate, some alcohol and a lot of running… just as long as I can find people who are still speaking to me and willing to accompany me outside…



Happy? Black Eye Friday

Friday, 19th December 2014

Just before I step out into it, let me introduce you to Black Eye Friday.

Forget shopping and fighting over microwaves. Tonight there will very likely be fighting over nothing whatsoever at all. Too many people + alcohol + confined spaces + excitement + too many calories + alcohol… the Friday before Christmas is considered ‘Black Friday’ by the emergency services across the UK. Everyone has (barring computer glitches/fraud/really bad employers) been paid and many of us will spend some of that dosh on a tad alcohol and celebrating.

I am, however, almost proud of the humour in our Geordie version: Black Eye Friday.

So long as no-one gets seriously hurt and barely any taxpayer money is wasted on policing the mayhem… Happy Black Eye Friday everyone!

 

Twas the Friday night before Christmas, when all ‘cross the Toon

Everyone was stirring, from wise man to loon.

The stockings were hung on the men and the girls

In hopes that ….

 

… well, we’ll see how it ends later tonight.

 



Schrödinger’s Scotland and Open Heritage

Wednesday, 17th September 2014

Last weekend was both ‘Open Heritage’ weekend in England and the last weekend before Scotland votes to be an independent country from the spring of 2016. Or doesn’t.

            Neck-and-neck polling for this Thursday’s Scottish Referendum makes me giddy with excitement. This is Schrödinger’s Cat on a territorial scale: >5 million people and a territory twice the size of the Netherlands simultaneously about to break its 307-year-old union with its same-sea-locked neighbours, and not.

            How deliciously appropriate it is that the final countdown to the answer to The Scottish Question coincides with the time of the year that we fling open otherwise locked doors for our Heritage Open Days, united across Europe in pursuing the ultimate purpose “to bring citizens together in harmony even though there are differences in cultures and languages ”.

            Our ‘Open Heritage’ schemes (5 different ones in the UK) are part of the European Heritage Days, an initiative of the Council of Europe and the European Commission. Even better, the original idea came from France. If you’re familiar with the current patois of the common UK xenophobe, you will understand what a delicious confluence of targets this represents to the less tolerant – shall we say less ‘open’ – people in Britain.

            I determined to honour both Open Heritage and The Scottish Question by visiting special events at two churches that now lie directly on Hadrian’s Wall (which isn’t visible there now, but once was). I would get as close as I could to modern Scotland whilst still on Hadrian’s Wall and check out the view from there.

            I could not have foreseen just how appropriate, entertaining and delightful this would be.

            I began at St Mary’s, perched atop the tiny hill-village of Beaumont, above the River Eden and under five miles as the oystercatcher flies from the Scottish border and the Gretna wedding anvil. I ended at St Michael’s, in the ever-so-slightly-bigger-village of Burgh-by-Sands, a tremblingly short walk from the Scottish border, albeit the border here is in the middle of the Solway Estuary. Still, the estuary was fordable in the past at these points and, arguably, thus began the stories of the current buildings and inhabitants.

            St Mary inherited this red-standstoned, 16-pewed church from, amongst others, medieval motte and castle-owners and the inhabitants of what we now call, oh-so-imaginatively, ‘Turret 70A’, one of 160 turrets the Romans built into the line of their Wall. St Michael, warrior archangel and leader of Heaven’s Army against Satan [who knew Heaven needed an army? Surely somewhere between an oxymoron and an impossibility, but I digress…St Michael…] has inherited not one but two churches built in and from substantial forts the Romans also built into the line of their Wall, at Bowness-on-Solway and Burgh-by-Sands.

            Contrast, then, the warmest possible welcome I received from the locals here on 13 September 2014.

            “I feel as though we should curtsy! Woo hoo!!” was my greeting from one of the four wonderful local guides who had turned out in the brilliant sunshine at St Mary’s.

            I was their first visitor to their one-day-only special heritage event. By lunchtime there had been three visitors. Meanwhile, at least ten people walked straight past the church that morning, striding along the Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail, unable somehow to find the time to stop for even two minutes for this unique event. There was even bunting to make it really obvious.

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            Before the end of the morning I had been offered coffee (several times), home-made biscuits, lunch, toilet facilities (in private homes), I had been given the home phone number of two residents and welcomed to call ahead if I want to bring anyone another time for a guided tour, I had been given a rare copy of a wonderful booklet about the area sadly now out of print and on finding I didn’t have the right change to pay the tiny cost-only sum in recompense I was invited to ‘drop it in next time I’m passing’, which I will now certainly do and which will no doubt in turn lead to more offers of coffee, biscuits, stories…

            They were there for one day only. A handful of local volunteers in this small church in this tiny village in this now sparsely populated northernmost edge of England completely made the entire European Heritage Days experience for me. Brilliant sunshine, warmth, freedom and the companionship of my bicycle played a part, for sure, but Margaret, Eve, Jim and Linda, you really made it.

            Linda’s direction for a great alternative route to Burgh-by-Sands then took me to the monument to Edward I, which requires a special trip, standing as it does at a remote spot on the shores of the Solway Estuary where Edward I died of dysentery – and, I suspect also of frustration, since he wanted to be heading north again to kill Scots rather than dying of diarrhoea.

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            Edward I’s nickname ‘Hammer of the Scots’ was not meant in a good way: the hammer was not theirs to wield; Scots were the unfortunate nails. Yet that was 707 years ago. The present monument, erected in 1803, is marvellously incongruous, tiny in the enormous space of the Solway estuary, ignored by the cows who graze the marsh grasses and so off the beaten track that nary e’en a Hadrian’s Wall walker e’er alights here. It must be visible most of the time from the corner of Scotland across the estuary and some day I will head across the border myself, to Gretna and Annan, to see the pin-prick monument from the other side and ask the present-day locals what, if anything, it means to them.

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            Whatever answer is given to The Scottish Question this Thursday, next year the challenge to ‘bring citizens together in harmony’ in the UK could be extremely hard, because of That Other Question: funding. In England in particular, funding for Open Heritage events is currently secure only until March 2015. So who knows if next September quite so many doors will be flung open so welcomingly?

            Like so many things in England, however, I anticipate events will play out a little differently up here in the far north compared with the rest of the country. St Mary’s and the St Michaelses have already invested their money in signage and infrastructure that will last for many years to come (and, brilliantly, have no value at all to raiders) and so their future cost is really only the ‘cost’ of the time of their marvellous volunteers. Invaluable, of course. Yet my experiences last weekend leave me in no doubt that this latter will continue to be freely and warmly given.

            So I’ll see you next year for more bunting, biscuits and bravura. Whether or not Braveheart has come to pass…

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One Direction on Hadrian’s Wall

Friday, 11th July 2014

Before you come over all excited thinking that popular beat combo One Direction are going to follow in the footsteps of Jedward trying to be Roman (YouTube vid <– just don’t believe all the ‘facts’ presented in this programme!)…

… this blog is not about them. It’s about the first question that must be answered by anyone attempting the Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail, which officially runs for 84 miles (135kms) right across northern England, mostly along the line of its eponymous enigma. The first question is:

             Do we go east to west, or west to east?

 

Guide books almost unanimously answer: East to West. However, after many years of walking Hadrian’s Wall in both directions, I am firmly in the West -> East camp. Here’s why:

 

  1. The prevailing wind is at your back not your eyeballs. This counts double when it is raining, hailing, sleeting, snowing, or a combination of these.

 

 

 

The main downside of walking West -> East is that you don’t get to finish your long-distance journey by walking into the sunset at Bowness-on-Solway. However, Bowness-on-Solway is a wonderful place to start a long-distance walk as well as a wonderful place to end one.

 

So why is there such a powerful bias towards walking east to west? My top theory is that powerful mantra:
We’ve always done it this way –

 

·         In AD122 Emperor Hadrian is thought to have arrived here either shortly before or shortly after construction of the Wall began and he is portrayed as having arrived by boat on the River Tyne (in the east) and travelled westwards;

 

·         In the eighth century, the (now) anonymous author of the Ravenna cosmography listed the forts on Hadrian’s Wall moving from east to west;

 

·         In 1930, when R.G. Collingwood developed the numbering system we still use today for the milecastles and turrets along Hadrian’s Wall, he began with zero in the east and counted upwards moving west;

 

·         In the 20th and 21st centuries the epicentres of Wall academia (Newcastle and Durham) have been in the east, perhaps inclining people further towards east first; there is a natural movement of ‘setting out to see the Wall’ from the east;

 

·         At the start of the 21st century, the National Trail guidebooks all described the trail from east to west; and

 

·         For hundreds of years now the larger human populations have been in the east. More people means more focus and funding.

 

I suspect things were rather different back when the Romans roamed these parts, but then their route is a whole other discussion for another time…

 

(i)                   This is a curious part of Hadrian’s Wall history: 3 small cups have been found (in Wiltshire, Staffordshire and at Amiens, France) all of which bear the names of forts on Hadrian’s Wall and are thought to date to… yet they only bear the names of forts on the western third (approx.) of Hadrian’s Wall.

Before you come over all excited thinking that popular beat combo One Direction are going to follow in the footsteps of Jedward trying to be Roman (YouTube vid <– just don’t believe all the ‘facts’ presented in this programme!)…



Let all women be Kings!

Monday, 6th January 2014

Today, 6 January, is ‘Little Christmas’ – a day when women get to do what they please and men have to do all the domestic duties.

            Seriously. It’s official. The only snag is that it’s official only in Ireland and isn’t necessarily observed everywhere even there.

            (And no, I don’t know how this is handled if you happen to be a woman who loves doing domestic duties. But hey, you don’t really exist, do you?)

 

Today is also:

 

My epiphany is this: 6 January should be a day set aside every year for all women everywhere to be Kings for the day. Who’s with me?

 

Merry Nollaig na mBan!



Free Thinking

Friday, 1st November 2013

I’m back! Hurrah! Humblest apologies for such prolonged and unexplained absence. An explanation will be provided but permit me to tackle the Serious Stuff another time. For now, I’m launching back into public opinioning on a lighter note… 

Free Thinking.  

Last weekend was the BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival at the Sage, Gateshead and the seven sessions I attended prompted me to think a great deal about power, control, sexism, space travel and the special inability of Conservative politicians to engage effectively with so many different communities of opinion in the Great North. 

Was anyone ever charged for thinking? Repressive regimes charge so-called subversive folk only when they communicate their ideas to others. The act of thinking remains free. (Of course, Apple or Google or the US Army may be working as I type on ways to express in bytes the innate techniques used by parents to estimate reasonably accurately when their child is lying, but let’s not worry about that here.) 

Plenty of professionals charge others for thinking on their behalf, but the Thinker is not normally the payee. ‘Here’s £50, now please may I think?’ It works the other way round for me: I pay yoga teachers, masseuses and bar staff to help me to stop thinking. 

So what IS free thinking? Perhaps a wild jumble stream of consciousness, which is far from permissible at a Festival whose output is a series of structured, scheduled radio programmes.  

The free-est expression of thought was left to the passing public, who were invited to write on post-it-notes any answer to any one or more of six questions:

  1. Should We Trust Public Opinion?
  2. Should Art Be Difficult?
  3. Who’s in Control?
  4. Whose Countryside Is It?
  5. What Feeds Our Childhood Imagination?
  6. Is Having Less Ever a Good Thing?

My favourite answer in each case came in different hand-writing:

Should We Trust Public Opinion?  Why not? Private opinion isn’t going to change the world. 

Should Art Be Difficult?    Not if you want a GCSE in it. 

Who’s in Control?  Radio 3 editing. 

Whose Countryside Is It? Mostly, unfortunately, those who acquired it many years ago. 

What Feeds Our Childhood Imagination? Sugar. 

Is Having Less Ever a Good Thing? Less of what?  

A careful observer, however, would have seen that in amongst the many sensible and not-so-sensible answers, post-it-notes featuring the same two-word answer had been placed against each question, perhaps by the same person or perhaps in a crescendo’ing act of collectivist humour: 

What Feeds Our Childhood Imagination? One Direction

Should Art Be Difficult? One Direction

Should We Trust Public Opinion? One Direction

Whose Countryside Is It? One Direction

Is Having Less Ever a Good Thing? One Direction

Who’s in Control? One Direction  

I wasn’t sure which to feel most:-  disturbed by how appropriate this answer seems, or amused at the ridiculousness of it.  

More thought needed. 

[For those interested in some more serious debate around these topics, podcasts from the Radio Three Free Thinking Festival are available here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/r3arts 

The two Thinkers – aka Speakers – who stood out most for me were Sarah Dillon and David Aaronovitch. If you have a chance to hear either of them talk or debate, I recommend it.] 



The beneficiary of a crime

Friday, 29th June 2012

Two weeks ago my bike was stolen. The bike, which carried me thousands of miles over 20 years and became one of the few inanimate objects I address verbally when no-one else is around. I patted its saddle goodbye every time I locked it in the garage.

I thought at first that it had been taken by The Traffic Wardens, because I had left it overnight chained to a traffic light on a pedestrian crossing in town. Each of the last eight editions of my local weekly newspaper, The Hexham Courant, has contained a hyperbolic horror story about Hexham’s new fleet of Traffic Wardens, as if we are living the postscript to Shaun of The Dead with all the life being sucked from the town by inexplicably multiplying zombie wardens and their eagerness to touch everything they see.

The reality was explained to me gently in a police interview room late the following night:

A man arrived in Hexham by taxi around 3:30am. He spent some minutes in the doorway of the Oxfam shop (taking overnight donations? taking a leak?) before taking my bike from its mooring and cycling in what appeared to be inebriated fashion along the main street and then off up one of the seven hills on which Hexham, like Rome, was built. CCTV was not of sufficient quality to make out his face, nor the numberplate, make or name of the taxi. Local police did not recognise him.
I had not twizzled the numbers on my combination lock sufficiently and it had been easy for the man to pull it apart. I rejoined my choir in our post-rehearsal pub, in which we had also been drinking the night before (The Fateful Night I Accepted A Lift Home And Left My Bike In Town). I received four offers of bikes to borrow, cried quietly into my drink and was persuaded (just) against going for a midnight walk around the fringes of Hexham looking for my bike in the dark.

Over the next 48 hours I posted the story on Facebook, put up posters in the streets where the bike had last been seen, took out an ad in the aforementioned Courant (£100 Reward: Bike Taken, Zombies Absolved,) and spent my lunchtimes pedalling on borrowed bikes around the streets of the estate where the bike was last seen, looking in the overgrown fringes and stopping to talk to everyone out in their gardens. I now had twelve offers of bikes to borrow.
“It’ll be in Newcastle by now,” said one man, not unsympathetically.
“It won’t be the same colour now,” said another after I had described it to him.
“When are you going to accept that your bike is gone,?” asked Master John the Bike Shop owner as I returned the bike he’d loaned me free of charge one lunchtime.

Two things then happened in quick succession that if I were religious I would ascribe to Rick Shaw, god of bicycles.
First, a new bike entered my life. It appeared outside the aforementioned Oxfam shop with a price tag of £39.99, when in seven years of living here I have never seen a bike for sale in a charity shop in Hexham. I tried it out and it fitted me, so I bought it.
Second, I attended a webinar for women in business that focused on fear of failure. A group of successful women defined failure only as either (i) not having tried, or (ii) not having learned something in the process. It was a great webinar and while it was supposed to spur me on to generating more business opportunities, making more money, developing my career and so on, its most immediate impact was to justify another trip round Hexham on a bike…    … and four days later I received a phone call from a true gentleman:
“You don’t know me, but I think I may have found your bike.”

Not only had George found my bike but he refused any reward money, was really pleased to be able to help and gave me a box of eggs from his grandsons’ highly productive hens.
George’s wife, Margaret, had been one of the friendly and sympathetic ladies I’d spoken to as I cycled the streets looking for my bike… and I’d told her that my phone number would be in the Courant with an ad about the bike… and a series of other coincidences had taken George into the woods at the back of their house to do some work just a few days later… where he found my bike dumped in some bushes.
Bizarrely, the bike’s handlebar grips and one of its two back light brackets have been taken but the pannier frame and water bottle holders are still there. Was it being stripped until someone saw all the publicity? Was it dumped because suddenly a large number of people were looking out for it?

Probably I will never know what happened. I don’t mind: I’ve got my baby back; I’ve met some wonderful people; I’ve been helped by strangers and by friends; I have a new back-up bike that I will never worry about leaving outside the pub for the night; I failed to fail, despite the cynics; and if you are out on the footpaths of Hexham over this summer and see a middle-aged woman fly past on a rusty bike you will hear her crooning to her bike as if no-one else in the world could hear.

When I phoned the police to let them know my bike had come home the lady who was taking down the details over the phone asked me “Are you the victim of the crime?”. I am, yes, I answered. I don’t feel like a victim now, though, I thought. Much more like a beneficiary.



Joining the Roman Creche

Sunday, 3rd June 2012

“Ladies and gentlemen… put your hands together for the soldiers of the world famous Ermine Street Guard!”
The clank of armour amidst clapping.
“Uh oh,” said the toddler to my left as she set eyes on 23 Roman soldiers marching towards her.
The majority of children at Chesters Roman Fort ran towards the soldiers, not away from them, eager to join the ranks for Authorised Violence.
Summer comes each year on Hadrian’s Wall with the arrival not of swallows or warm weather but with hordes of barbarians – sorry, I mean children – brandishing plastic and wooden swords and waging their private battles in the public spaces on the Wall. They are heavily encouraged by English Heritage staff, to whom the clink of sword sales through the tills is like the joyous minting of new coins to a Roman Emperor.
However, it’s not every weekend, or even every year, that we Romans on the northern frontier in Britain get to see the Ermine Street Guard. Based at Caerleon, South Wales, they have been re-enacting Roman military formations and the use of Roman artillery for forty years and are in demand across Europe for demonstrating genuine Roman violence in a safe and controlled way.
They are amateurs, of course, but then it’s not like the Roman army has been hiring into its professional ranks for, ooh, about 1,500 years now.
Alongside swords, spears and bows they bring a ballista, onager and catapulta i.e. large, free-standing wooden artillery designed to fling weapons hundreds of metres, with levels of accuracy dependent on operator skill.
But first must come the Children’s Roman Drill. This is a hugely successful tactic of English Heritage in its own battles for footfall and funding.
“Go on,” said one Mother impatiently to her child. “Go, go on. You’ve got to be trained. Do as you’re told.” I appreciated the irony.
“If you would like your children to join up to fight to the death,” boomed the master of ceremonies, “please take them and line up to be equipped at the big white tent. Of course, the minimum term of service is 25 years, so you’ll have to come back in 2037 to pick them up.”
So popular did this prove that English Heritage and the Ermine Street Guard had to double the number of children’s drills on the programme to accommodate more than 100 children each day.
Kitted out in tunics that were either too big or too small, the clumsy soldiers brandished their swords and spears in ways more likely to harm themselves than anyone else. Marching through high grass with tunics trailing isn’t easy for height-challenged soldiers, but I doubt the Guard leaders expect their modern recruits to be very well disciplined in any case.
“The army’s not ready yet!” complained one young girl when the Guard leader gave the order to attack.
Behind her, one of the larger boys prepared to throw his spear at another child.
“Don’t kill yer Mother!” shouted a woman near me as her children ran at her with swords.
The standard of discipline in the grown-up demonstration was considerably higher, as was the risk of injury. First the various roles and armour of the different types of soldier were demonstrated. Then battle tactics and formations for hand-to-hand combat, followed by artillery demonstrations. Only the closing salute to the Standard and the Emperor carried no risk of groin injuries, pulled hamstrings or stray missiles being fired at deadly speeds..
As the onager and ballista hurled their missiles over 300 metres at high speed, I probably wasn’t the only one wondering what would happen if you loaded a child on to the launch mechanism.
Chris Haines, the centurion of the Ermine Street Guard, has been awarded an MBE for services to Roman history. With 40 years’ service, he’s done 15 years more than real Roman military service required and I wonder whether his MBE shouldn’t be jointly for services to Roman History and Extreme Childcare.

 

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The Romans are coming (back)

 

Image

Are they here yet?

 

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Don’t worry, the Romans couldn’t see either

 

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Attack the parents! What? where?

 

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The testudo, effective against chariots, rain and children


‘The woman who jumped in the sea’

Sunday, 11th December 2011

Is there ever a good week for seeing a large picture of yourself in a bikini on the front page of your local newspaper? How about when the picture is in close-up, in colour and centred in the top half of the front page, such that every news stand within a thirty mile radius emits the image to every passer-by whether or not they actually buy the paper and take it home?

The Hexham Courant proudly advertises itself as “read by 44,100 adults in Tynedale – That’s 87.81% of the population”. So that’s probably how many people have, by now, seen me in my bikini in a shot that wasn’t taken by a professional photographer and wasn’t anywhere near as well thought-through as it would have been if I had realised what the world was about to do with it.

I had made no effort to look good in the photo. Think winter belly in summer bikini. No make-up. No diet. I had slung on the only bikini I possess, which was purchased a good few years ago when fashion and my figure were quite different from today. The thirty minutes’ preparation I had made for the photoshoot were focused on putting as many layers of clothes over the top of the bikini as possible, making a flask of hot blackcurrant to drink afterwards and putting together signs that said ‘vote now’, ‘Hexham River Hydro’ and the like.

You see, I chose to go swimming in the River Tyne in December in my bikini entirely as a publicity stunt. It was done in the last fifty-six hours of an eight-month campaign to win £100,000 of funding from energyshare for our community hydro scheme, Hexham River Hydro. It was done to get regional publicity to raise awareness about the online vote far beyond our immediate rural community and into the city of Newcastle and the other towns and villages of Northumberland. It was done so that we would have the best chance of beating the schemes from Sheffield and Manchester against which we were competing for online votes. It was done in the hour between breakfast and starting work.

I was aiming for an article in the The Journal (a Newcastle newspaper) and ideally also a brief spot on the local TV news. I didn’t remotely anticipate the press interest that would be generated by a 38 year old woman with a far from model figure going for a quick morning swim in the river.

As I write today, the coverage has been on TV five times, in four newspaper articles, in at least two different online magazines and even on my local MP’s blog page.

My local weekly paper, the Hexham Courant, chose not to print the photo in the week we wanted them to print the photo. They chose to wait until the online vote was over and print it the following week with the headline that we had won.

Now, if there is a good week for appearing in a bikini on the front page of my local newspaper, it probably is not the second week in December, the week of Hexham’s hugely popular Christmas market and the week I was conducting fifty members of Tynedale Community Choir on Hexham Abbey flags in front of the assembled market throng.

‘Where’s your bikini?’
‘A bit overdressed today aren’t you?’
‘Can I get your autograph?’

‘Mum – it’s the woman who jumped in the sea!’
‘That’s Gillian. Hello Gillian!’
‘Hi Louise. How are you?’….

Thus began some of the many amusing conversations I had this weekend.
The Hexham Courant comes out every Thursday evening (dated Friday). Today is Monday and it’s remarkable how quickly I have become used to sidelong glances, double-takes, laughing stares and wise-cracks from friends, neighbours, colleagues, members of my choir and complete strangers. Complete strangers to me, that is; I suspect nobody who has seen the Courant this week thinks of me as a complete stranger to them.

I went for a run yesterday, Sunday, when the streets of Hexham were finally deserted. In two hours I passed a handful of people. Two of them stopped me to say ‘Well done! It’s fantastic!’ Because we did win the energyshare funding. In these uncertain economic times we think we can make £100,000 of funding go a very long way.

So, however many times I replay the ITV Tyne Tees coverage and groan at the bit that shows the bulge of my abdomen in glorious profile, or wonder why I didn’t think to apply so much as a wave of mascara … I shall never be sorry for wading into the river in a bikini at the age of thirty-eight and letting people record it on film.  Because I had to do everything I could to help Hexham River Hydro win the energyshare money. And because it’s not every day you get to make thousands of people laugh.

By the time the local press have calmed down it will have been about ten days of making people laugh. Myself most of all.

On balance, winning the energyshare money has been more heart-warming than making people laugh. But it’s a very close run thing.

So let’s spread the amusement:

Here’s the fabulous and vote-winning piece by ITV Tyne Tees reporter Derek Proud, which aired on Thursday 1 December:
http://www.itv.com/tynetees/hexham-hydro-power32105/

Here’s the tasteful, professional shot – the one that actually makes me look ok – printed in The Journal (Page Three!) on Friday 2 December:

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Here’s the fun professional shot on The Journal’s online coverage (which my local MP, Guy Opperman, hilariously copied onto his blog – deep joy!):
http://www.journallive.co.uk/north-east-news/todays-news//tm_headline=hexham-hydro-team-brave-the-cold-in-bid-for-163-100-000-grant%26method=full%26objectid=29881158%26siteid=61634-name_page.html

Here’s the warts-and-all, no-blushes-spared shot of every lump and bump gracing the front page of The Hexham Courant this week:
http://www.hexhamcourant.co.uk/news

(next week the picture will be front centre of the online version of the paper, which runs a week behind the print version)

And finally here’s a frankly nuts picture from another of The Journal’s days of covering us:
http://www.journallive.co.uk/northumberland-sites/hexham-northumberland/hexham-news/2011/12/03/gillian-s-dip-has-brought-a-warm-glow-61634-29888906/

 



Return to the garden of Eden

Sunday, 23rd October 2011

[Tip: You’ll probably need to read my last blog to understand this one]

WOO HOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I was right: it was very, very tense.
Now, there a LOT of rules to the game of rugby. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for when I said I would learn the rules this weekend. Even sports that entail immediate risk of death [motor racing, boxing, synchronised swimming] or take five days to play [cricket, tennis at Wimbledon] have fewer rules than rugby.

Not only has there been a whole Kindle-full of rules to for me to learn, but also new vocabulary: ruck, maul, line-out, drop out, scrum etc. They sound like characters from a banned children’s TV show.
Then there are words I recognise, but with whole new meanings: touch, tap, drop, mark etc. Apparently I’ve lived my whole life in a place called ‘touch’ without even knowing it.
And that’s just for starters. Then there are the tackles (I confess I’m still not quite sure how many different types of tackles there are – the easy way of distinguishing between them seems to be ‘tackles that work’ and ‘tackles that don’t work’).
Then each player has their own title, as well as number and name. ‘Tighthead prop’, indeed. I thought those were only on aircraft.
Then there are at least 12 different referee signals. (I failed to learn these. I’m sorry, I just couldn’t focus on the referee with 15 strapping Kiwis to observe.)
And finally, there are several other activities with ever more intriguing names. These include ‘turnover’ (no money or apples involved), ‘blood replacement’ (apparently not a transfusion), and ‘killing the ball’ (which doesn’t even end the game).

My plan worked for the first 60 minutes of play: I took all my newly acquired rule knowledge to engage intellectually with the game and avoid too much emotional engagement. After that, it was all anguish, disbelief, terror and reverting back to primal instincts, with cushions.
But finally, finally, by one tiny point and in a manner from which all English sportsmen would do well to learn, the All Blacks failed to lose.

Eden Park in Auckland hosted the first Rugby World Cup Final Final (I believe that’s the correct term) and now it has hosted its second. Both times New Zealand has won.
The result closer to home is… if you’ll pardon the terrible pun…
I am converted.



Rugby World Cup Final

Friday, 21st October 2011

When I was at university I was head-hunted for the college rugby team. I politely declined the offer because the invitation to have 15 women hunt not only my head, but my ears and nose in particular, followed by every intact bone in my body, seemed to me to be a speedy route to hospitalisation, which in turn would prevent me doing the twenty other things I had signed up for in Fresher’s Week.

    I had never played rugby before. The main thing I knew about the sport was how appropriately the phrase ‘cauliflower ear’ described the good looks of the men my Father would occasionally watch on TV at the weekend.
    I wasn’t inherently sporty either, although I would become so within the year. 

    I was approached because I had already signed up for rowing, hockey and football and had thereby demonstrated that I was willing to rise before dawn in the name of sport, willing to get wet, cold and muddy in the name of the college and perfectly willing to learn a sport that had in all my previous schooling been the sole prerogative of Boys.
    I was what Barry Crump would have called A Good Keen Woman.
    Besides, our women’s sports selectors didn’t have many options. If our college was going to be able to field a women’s rugby team at all, then nearly half of the female undergraduates would have to be in it, particularly once due allowance was made for injuries.

Twenty years on, almost to the day, the game of rugby is (temporarily) one of the most important things in my life. The All Blacks are the sporting representatives of the nation I have adopted as my spiritual home and are finally, finally, in a World Cup Final. Yet still I know more about haka than I do about the rules of rugby.
     My focus on keeping my 18-year-old limbs intact meant that I didn’t learn how to play the game. Until relatively recently, I didn’t even know that the spectators in a rugby ground are not segregated (how civilised!), all players don’t automatically grow cauliflower ears (interesting!), that rugby players are far more likely to be gentlemen than thugs (attractive!) or that the rules of rugby create a far more nuanced game than you could ever watch Manchester United play (intellectual stimulation too!). Why didn’t someone mention any of this earlier?
    I’m not totally ignorant. I have seen a few matches over the years and can broadly follow the game ok. You should have seen me following last weekend’s semi-final between New Zealand and Australia.
    But I now have 36 hours to educate myself properly. Because this Sunday, I don’t just want to be able to follow the game, I need to be able to engage intellectually with the decisions being taken by players, captains, managers and officials.
    And why do I need to do this? Because it is so very, very important to me that the All Blacks win; and engaging intellectually with the game is the only chance I have of being able to watch it properly, without peeking out from behind a cushion.

The ultimate irony of my decision, twenty years ago, was that I was hospitalised anyway, from a game of football. With utter disregard for physical reality, I enthusiastically tackled an opposing centre forward, dubbed by my team The Brick S***house. Neither of us came away with the ball. The tackle concluded with my jaw underneath both our bodies. I jumped up and pretended all was fine for a few minutes, before swooning woozily off the pitch, grabbing an ice pack, being taken to hospital and ultimately having to drink my meals through a straw for a couple of days.

 

 



Twelve year old promise to myself – Part II

Sunday, 5th June 2011

Rude of me to leave you on a cliff-hanger, I know [see previous blog], but my Edinburgh Marathon story is definitely a story of two parts. The first part was getting to the start. This was no mean feat. Whether my mean feet could then carry me 26.2 miles is what you’re about to find out…

My first Race Surprise is the band of massed pipers who pipe us off (if that’s the correct term) from the Start. If you run a marathon, I highly recommend a fully uniformed brigade of bagpipers to pipe you away. It makes me feel like a cross between an Olympic athlete and a member of the Royal family as I cross The Start. Duchess of Radcliffe, or Prince of Bolt, or somesuch.
The pipers become the last thing I see other than tarmac until I reach the coast five miles later. I am totally focused. Like a stag in the rutting season, there are beautiful views all around me, but I have eyes for only one thing. Just to be clear, in my case, this is tarmac.

My second Race Surprise arrives at Mile 6. It is a shooting pain in my left foot.
Interesting. At no point in a year of training and many hundreds of miles of running have I ever had any pains in either of my feet. Hmmm.
I listen to the pain for a mile and do triage in my head. Five possible causes, of which: two can be fixed immediately, but I would need to stop to do so; two can’t be fixed at all; and one can only be fixed if I keep running.
Permutations are possible too. What is statistically the best course of action? Can’t think. Gut instinct says keep running. Run for as long and as far as I can. And if this isn’t 26.2 miles then I will just have to run some other marathon before I die.
Keep focused. Don’t write the headline now. Keep running.

Mile 8 and my third Race Surprise. Lots of people get to finish here. Good grief, people are running this as a relay. At 8.1 miles lots of fresh legs start running, with the words ‘Team Relay’ flapping cheerfully from the backs they carry.
Mile 9 and my foot pain is significantly worse, but I can still run. I keep running. No stopping, no walking, no giving up.
On my left is the seafront, with headlands and islands beaming in sunshine. I look for one second, then back to the tarmac. It’s all about the next bit of tarmac.
Mile 13.5. Another relay changeover. Even fresher legs appear. Groan.
Mile 15 is the first milepost I see after Mile 1. Oh God, no. Mile 15 only? I have run longer in training and I know it shouldn’t feel like this by Mile 15. This is bad. This is very bad. Ok. Don’t think about it. Have a jelly baby. Drink more. Just keep running.

Mile 18 – Gosford House . I don’t notice until the runner in front of me stops, takes a camera from his bum bag and starts taking photos of the house. I look briefly, then eyes back to the dirt track.
In my Race Plan A (designed weeks ago, before events overtook it), I was supposed to look at my watch at the half way point. If I was sub two hours then (which I was supposed to be) I would be pushing to finish in four hours.
In my Race Plan B (the only one I’d talked about publicly, and even then only to a few people) I was supposed to finish in four and a half hours, which is a steady 10 minute mile pace with a few spare minutes for contingency.
I look at my watch for the first time around this point. 1pm exactly. I’ve been running for three hours.
Cold wash of reality, to countenance this annoying sunshine: I am way off where I wanted to be. I may not even make four and a half hours.
Followed by a moment of joy: all I have to do now is run to Corbridge and back. My standard one circuit between Hexham and Corbridge, 9-10 miles. And this time there won’t be a hill at the end of it! Hurray! That’s all. Corbridge in 45 minutes, just like normal. Yes, yes, yes! I can do this!

Then the wind hits. You may have heard of the gales in Scotland and northern England that recently swept lorries off roads and killed at least one person in my home community. Well, those winds began that Sunday afternoon. Directly into our faces.
I am told afterwards it was gale force six. All I know as I run is that it is strong enough to be lifting the contact lenses off my eyeballs if I open my eyes too wide. Too wide means the normal amount.
Most people around me are walking now, staggering in the wind. My race becomes a slalom.
I can no longer feel the pain in my foot. I know it’s still there. It’s just being drowned out by so many other unfamiliar physical stresses.
Somewhere between Mile 23 and Mile 24, a man steps off the kerb to my front left. I don’t look directly at him, but my mind registers that he is tall and broad. As I pass him he speaks. What he says is aimed directly at me:
“Go on. Finish this now.”
It is one of those moments: exactly the right person saying exactly the right thing at exactly the right time. His deep voice and hard Scottish accent are the perfect growl in my head.
I joked with Susie this morning that if I make it to the finish I might raise my hand and cry ‘Freedom!’ in a fake Scottish accent as I cross the threshold. This is much better than that.
Yes. Let’s finish this. Yes. Thank you.
I am going to make it. With eyes nearly shut to keep my eyeballs in place and with people walking all around me, being knocked left and right by gusts of wind, I just keep running.

I know from my watch that I won’t hit 4hrs:30. It doesn’t matter now. I am still running. I have run continuously for over four hours and now I know for certain that nothing will stop me from running until I pass that finish line.
I trained for this marathon and I am running it. I am fulfilling my promise to myself and, if nothing else, this means that I never have to run a marathon again. I don’t care what my time is. I have honoured my promise to myself.
And when that final corner comes and I see the finish line I smile like no-one is expecting. Hundreds of runners in pain, many walking, faces screwed up against the wind and the sun and amongst them a grinning idiot who can’t stop grinning.
When to sprint my finish? Don’t go too early. Big risk of puke now.
Thirty metres to go and I fling both arms in the air, as if I am winning an Olympic title For Lifetime Achievement in Track and Field.
I’ve done it. I’m over the finish line and I have to find a way to stop my legs from running.
And then I cry. I cry with the biggest grin on my face and with no tears, just great sobs of happiness that turn into chuckles. I’ve done it! I’ve run a marathon. Run all the way. Start to finish.
I retrieve a medal, a finisher’s T-shirt and my bag and as soon as I switch on my mobile I get a text with my finishing time: 4 hrs, 45 mins, 7 secs.
The fact that I took longer than I thought now makes it more of an achievement. I have run continuously for four hours and forty-five minutes! Wow. I have run continuously for 26.2 miles. I have never done that before. There’s a good chance I will never do it again.
And this is all I can think, as I stand in the debris of 15,000 runners collecting their bags and meeting their friends and families:
Three rules: no stopping; no walking; sprint the finish. A whole marathon. In one. A promise kept. Freedom indeed.

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Epilogue

The next morning, on my train home, I see a man who is, just like me, wearing trainers and walking a little stiffly. For most of the hour of the journey he is out of his seat and away somewhere else in the train. He returns to his seat just before I have to alight, but before I leave I have to know:
“Excuse me, did you run the marathon yesterday?”
He looks up and smiles. “Yes. That’s why I’m trying to keep myself moving. Stop from seizing up. Did you run it too?”
“Yes. I know the feeling.”
“What time did you do?”
Ha, I think. Straight to the punchline.
“Four hours forty-five. I was aiming for four and a half hours but I’m not going to beat myself up about it. I ran all the way. No stopping, no walking. Just kept running.”
“That’s terrific! I walked six miles. I did it in four hours twenty-three.”
“That’s fantastic!”
“Well, I was aiming for four hours. But hey, there’s always next time.”

And so the flame passes. The Olympic event of Continual Marathon Running Until One Is Pleased With Oneself…

I’m not entirely out of the woods yet either. The problem, you see, is that I am now the proud owner of two photographs of myself crossing marathon finishing lines, the first showing a time of 5hrs 46, the second showing a time of 4hrs 45. Which, if you know me at all, means you know that I have already thought how nice it would be to have a photo of myself crossing a marathon finishing line with a time of 3hrs 44….

I must hone my photoshop skills.

Postscript

The cause of my foot pain? Analysis of the size and shape of the bruise on my left ankle suggests it was because I had tied my left trainer a little too tightly or too near my ankle, causing the tongue to press ever so slightly against my ankle (my Superior Extensor Retinaculum), causing pain to be felt in a completely different part of my foot (my Inferior Extensor Retinaculum). This was one of the five possible causes I triaged at Mile 6. If I had stopped, I could have fixed it. But then, if I had stopped I would not just have run a marathon without stopping. I made the right decision.



Twelve year old promise to myself

Monday, 30th May 2011

Twelve years ago I made a promise to myself. I made it just after I ran the 1999 London Marathon. I made the promise because I didn’t entirely run the London Marathon. I hadn’t trained properly.
I had had three objectives for that race:

  1. No stopping
  2. No walking
  3. Sprint the finish

I was a mess from at least half way. I walked for maybe four, maybe five, maybe six miles. At Buckingham Palace I valiantly attempted to sprint to the end. If you’d been watching you wouldn’t necessarily have noticed I was sprinting.
Yet, crossing the finishing line I felt a massive wave of euphoria the like of which I had never felt before. It was completely out of proportion with what I had just done.
I was no longer plump or asthmatic. In that moment I became a Marathon Runner. No matter that the time above my head said 5 hours 46 minutes. No matter that I hadn’t actually run a marathon.
That’s how the promise came about.
“I’m going to do this again,” I pledged to myself. “And next time I’m going to do it properly.”

Fast forward to 2010. I try to enter the London Marathon 2011 but miss the closing deadline. I look at the Edinburgh Marathon website and within minutes I have made an easy online payment and have a confirmed place. Already this is much easier than last time.
Now all that’s left it do is to train ‘properly’. I work on speed as well as stamina. I lose at least half a stone, gain a lot of freckles and begin to get the kind of stomach definition that I’ve only otherwise seen yoga teachers and… (dare I even think it?)… athletes.
I run on work trips, pounding the treadmills and pavements of Amsterdam, Paris, New York and London. I buy a reflective vest and run the country lanes of Northumberland, annoying  a large number of rural drivers, I’m sure. I add a fleece in winter and run over frost, ice and snow.
Yes, when Northumberland had snow on the ground for weeks last winter, I was out running in it. My nostrils froze, my thighs complained, my feet got wet and there was no point even thinking about timing anything, but I was running.
Yet, with just a few weeks to go, if anyone asked me how far I’ve run or my average mileage per hour, I couldn’t tell them.
I was running five-six hours every week, with a couple of long runs of up to three hours at a time. Would this be enough?
Hmm. I never did define very well what I meant by training “properly”.
So, with a couple of weeks to go, I measured a route on a map that was roughly 18 miles and ran it. Just over three hours. That will do, won’t it? I’m utterly exhausted, but I can push another 8 miles on from that on the big day. Can’t I?
My objective publicly became 4 hours 30 minutes. That’s a nice 10 minute mile pace with a few minutes to spare. Privately my objective became 4 hours. Without any concrete proof that I could do 4 hours I became convinced I had it in me. Confidence founded on little or no evidence… Hmm, now where have I done this before?

With one week to go, I started to feel ill. Was this nerves? After all, the better you train, the more you really know what you’re in for. 26.2 miles is a long way to run.
Have I really trained properly? Have I spent too much time on the physical training and dumbly ignored the mental side of things? Have I built up this twelve year old promise and put too much pressure on myself?
The good and bad news was that this turned out to be no panic attack. I was properly poorly.
With three days to go I took to my bed. I made multiple lemon drinks, kept warm, slept and – best of all – ate 1½ bulbs of garlic. Raw. Yes, bulbs, not cloves. If I made it to Edinburgh I would be sweating garlic.
This was the first time in about a year that I’d been properly poorly. It’s all the running, see? It really does boost the immune system.
Two days to go, I packed my bag. It took all day, with many rests, but I packed.
One day to go, I felt well enough to catch the train. So I did.
Race day morning, and with very welcome support from my wonderful friend Susie, I got to the start. And there, amongst 30,000 people, in the rain, and with music blaring from the public address system, I looked at Arthur’s Seat and I looked at Susie and I felt that surge of euphoria again. It works even better than Vick’s vapour rub.

“I’m up for this,” I said to Susie grinning. “I’m well up for this.”

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This time the euphoria arrived at the start

 

[Concluding part to follow, this week.]



My heart goes out to you Christchurch

Tuesday, 22nd February 2011

I woke up this morning to the awful news from New Zealand. Deaths, injuries, terror. Buildings felled, bending of streets, liquefaction of the earth itself beneath your feet.

To the people of Christchurch and all New Zealanders, my thoughts are with you and will be for a long time to come.



Baby you’re a firework

Monday, 21st February 2011

My assimilation into life this far north made another step forward recently. It was a wobbly step because I was in high heels and the wind was gusting at around 50mph. Yes, finally, after much anticipation on my part, I have been ‘clubbing in the Toon’.

It is important to go clubbing in Newcastle in mid-winter, you understand, because this is when one can arm oneself appropriately against the sub-zero temperatures with high heels and a tiny dress.

Stilettos and small scraps of fabric are the official winter dress of the True Geordie. They are the official summer dress too. For the lassies, that is. The laddies generally have much less scope for imagination in their dress and much more scope for avoiding hypothermia.

I cheated outrageously by taking a jacket.
In my defense, it was a night when the wind was so strong that just a few miles away trees were taking out bridges and overhead power lines and the roofs of sheds and small animals were being tossed helplessly through the air.

Apt then, that my friend took me first to ‘a warm-up bar’. It is some years since I went properly clubbing and I had forgotten that no respectable clubber arrives in a club on the same day as they leave the house to go clubbing. You must at least pass midnight before thinking of ‘moving on’ to the main reason you went out for the evening.

As anticipated, I was around two decades older than the mass of bodies in the warm-up bar. Also as anticipated, this mattered nought. Nowhere else I have lived has had such a relaxed attitude to age. Are you out to have a good time? Yes? Well, that’s all that matters hinny. Now get the drinks in.

The rules of the warm-up bar were: dance if you want to; don’t dance if you don’t want to; enjoy yourself whatever you do. So we did. Until after midnight when we went to the main club and enjoyed ourselves there too.

I showed my age in only two respects. First, by finding the toilets the most fascinating aspect of the whole club. The central mirrored area took up a vast amount of space, like a lobby in a seedy hotel, and the wash basins were water features from some over-designed marble garden.

Whole groups of girls were settled in inside this space, gossiping about boys (and perhaps also babies, I tried hard not to listen too closely) and sharing lipsticks (and perhaps also other things, I tried extra hard not to observe too closely).

My second failure was to book a cab for 1.30am. The night was just getting going and I hadn’t worked up a single blister or fallen arch. Or, for that matter, had so much to drink that I could fall into the pavement.

I’m going back. Particularly if it snows again soon.



Dinner For One

Wednesday, 29th December 2010

I have never looked forward to writing a blog entry as much as this one. I have been waiting three weeks for the right time to reveal an amazing truth to you.

The revelation came to me three weeks ago, when I was privileged to have dinner with a bunch of intelligent people from across central Europe.

It being December, the conversation naturally turned towards plans for the Christmas holidays and from there to national traditions.
“Of course, on New Year’s Eve we have this programme called… I think you call it ‘Dinner For One’?”
The Swiss lady looked at me expecting immediate recognition from the Brit in their midst.
“I haven’t heard of it,” I replied. “Perhaps we call it by another name.”

Five people – representing between them Germany, Switzerland, Holland and Denmark – immediately and keenly described the programme to me:
“There is a woman with her butler. A big dinner table is laid but only she is there.”
“Yes, and the butler has to travel from one side of the room to the other to bring her food and clear her plates-“
“She is a member of the English aristocracy-“
“She is all dressed up for dinner-“
“Both her and the butler are old-“
“On the floor is a tiger rug, with the head of the tiger still on-“
“And as the butler goes to and from the table-“
“He trips over the tiger’s head.“
“But sometimes he doesn’t!”
“Yes, sometimes he doesn’t. You always wait to see if he trips up or not.”
“Yes, because the butler doesn’t fall every time and you forget which times he trips over the tiger’s head. So every time you wait to see. This way it is funny.”

Five pairs of eyes looked at me expectantly.
“In Germany this programme is shown every New Year’s Eve at 11pm, on every channel.”
“In Denmark it is shown on the 24th of December.”
“In Switzerland it is New Year’s Eve, but at 10 o’clock.”
I interject:
“When you say on all channels, do you mean on every single TV channel at the same time? So, on TV channels that are supposed to be competing with each other?”
“Yes, yes. It is tradition.”

At this point my Swiss colleague handed me her iphone. She had pulled the programme up on You Tube.
I watched the first few minutes.
“You must know this.”
“This is how we think of the British.”
Five pairs of eyes were watching for my reaction.
I break it to them as gently as I can that I have never before seen this programme and that, to the best of my knowledge, not a single person in Britain would recognise it either.

I don’t know who was more amazed: me or them. I do know who was more amused: me, absolutely me.

I have since established, via some friendly Norwegians on a train between Newcastle and York, that this programme is also shown in Norway on New Year’s Eve.

And so, people of Britain, I implore you: watch this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1v4BYV-YvA

Watch this crazy, black-and-white, single-sketch comedy show from the 1960s and know, for the first time in your lives, that on New Year’s Eve (this year as every year) millions of people across Europe (except in Britain) will be watching this programme and laughing at us.

One of my colleagues at that dinner table three weeks ago finally confessed:
“It is not so funny the first time. But the more you see it the funnier it becomes.”
And boy, do they see it a lot.

 



Merry Christmas

Friday, 24th December 2010

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Chilling out

Saturday, 4th December 2010

It is raining inside the woods of Northumberland.

It is not raining outside the woods.

Like their human neighbours, trees that did not previously touch one another are now joined together, weighed down by snow.

Branches have doubled in size, now two-striped white and brown. Some have broken under the weight of the white.

Those trees still standing are shaking themselves today, like dogs climbing out of a river.

Loud rustling sounds punctuate the silence as if a thousand deer and squirrels have taken to the woods, but there are only birds flying startled between avalanches.

Rain percussions down as drips of thaw between the thumps.

Outside of the woods I stand at the top my hill and look north along twenty miles of the route of Hadrian’s Wall Path as it begins its glorious central section.

It strikes me suddenly that this is what chilling out means, probably whence the phrase originates. Hilling out. Calm, cold, glorious horizons of snow. Still, hardly any traffic. No sense of rush.

A runner slithers diligently on towards me. Two grinning runners as we pass.

White light. More light from the ground than the sky.

Northumberland, just chilling out.



The Sele, The Snottery and Being Switzerland

Sunday, 28th November 2010

“How old are you?” he asked.

“37,” I replied, giggling. “Now either you get on that sledge on your own, or you get on it with me. It’s your choice.”

“It won’t hold both of us,” he laughed as he submitted.

This grown man had been trying to convince me that aged 31 he is too old for sledging. Nonsense. In our thirties we can stay out as late as we like, we know how to dress to keep warm, body mass means we shoot down hills far faster than small children and alcoholic drinks are both warming and legal.

You may have heard by now that Northumberland (where I live) is currently lost under snow, is colder than the North Pole and tomorrow will set an unprecedented example for climate change campaigning when all five local supermarkets in my home town of Hexham turn off their freezers and stack their frozen food stocks along and up their outside walls. (Only one of these ‘facts’ has not been broadcast by the BBC in the last twenty-four hours.)

Northumberland is the New Narnia. Sledges are the new cars and Hexham has the best place in the world for sledging. This latter fact has not been broadcast by the BBC but it is true.

The Sele is the physical heart and spiritual lung of Hexham. Literally in the centre of the town, it is a big expanse of grass ringed by mature trees, including many lime trees that haven’t yet finished shedding their 2010 leaves and I’m told celebrated their 100th birthdays last year.  (Well, I was told their age and I like to think that they celebrated.)

The southern half of the Sele is anything from about five to twenty metres higher than the northern half. The central grassy slope when covered by snow becomes a helpful nursery slope at one end, rising to ‘adults and teenagers only’ at the other.

The flat run-off to the north is so long that it is impossible to descend too fast.

It is communally sledged, so that each fresh snowfall is quickly and thoroughly tamped down to a smooth, speedy slope.

Sooner or later a decent ramp is constructed at the ‘black run’ end, from which you may observe eight or so fearless teenagers with a large rubber inner tyre launch all together from the ramp in a moment of extreme collective skill … and land all apart.

At night (which is now any time after 4.30pm and before 8am) the slope is lit only by the glow from the snow below. Often you can be sledging alone, watching the stars above or looking right to enjoy the Christmas lights that hang in the horizon of trees on the adjoining grounds of Hexham Abbey.

Although the snow hits everyone at the same time and equally, it alights on a very unequal world.

People balance precariously on our pre-existing slopes: tip-top healthy to terminally ill; celebrating a new relationship, to grieving significant loss; naturally cheerful or naturally fearful; fit to unfit; possessing of skis, sledges and snow-chains, or reliant on two-wheel drive lumps of steel resting on four strips of slippery rubber; and on we go, up and down.

Where you are on these slopes when the snow sinks in is a lottery. A snow lottery. Or snottery, if you like.

I should be somewhere near the top: I’m fit (although the long-distance running may have to go on hold unless I can find some particularly well designed snow shoes); I have a good selection of waterproofs; I work from home; I normally walk or cycle to the shops anyway, so shopping by sledge is only mildly more time-consuming than my regular routine; and the first thing I think when thick snow falls is ‘Fab – sledging!’

Yet, this time, I too have had challenges. My parents thought they were having a nice weekend away and (quite understandably) turned stir crazy at the thought of being trapped for weeks in their daughter’s lifestyle.

On Sunday I felt guilty and fearful as they slithered downhill into town for the third day running on my behalf. We set out at 2pm in order for them to hear me sing in an advent carol service at 5pm, four miles away in Corbridge.

This morning Dad dug through the latest foot of snow, along twenty metres of sharply inclined road just to see if he could find the back of that wardrobe and get the car out of New Narnia and back on the road to normality.

I, meanwhile, have been out sledging again. On the side of the hill near my house I found a group of lads lying on their sledges in the snow, seemingly resting and strangely silent. Clearly a snowball fight either about to start, or broken off because they saw the strange woman arriving.

“You can’t hit me,” I said into the silence and one of the older boys laughed his acknowledgement.

I pushed off.

“I’m neutral. Think of me as Switzerland.”



Cows called Colin

Monday, 30th August 2010

For those who already suspect I’m one cat short of a coven, this blog should confirm it.

The story ends with simultaneous joy and sadness at the loss of the second cow called Colin from my life, just after I took him out to lunch.

It begins two weeks ago when I found an exceedingly cheerful toy cow in a charity shop.
He was all zingy beans inside silky, stretchy skin. His smile said there’s nothing in the world to worry about, or at least nothing to worry about that a cow like me can’t make better.
I was already looking for elements of a cowgirl costume for a local Cowboys and Indians themed local event and what cowgirl doesn’t need a cow in her life?

The thing is, I had already had a cow in my life and I knew the danger as soon as I named him Colin.
I used to be the proud owner of another cow called Colin. Thirteen years ago, when I was 24, I bought a toy cow for my then boyfriend on the occasion of his 30th Birthday. We were young and in love and had discovered mutual adoration for the cute animals in a toy shop in Richmond, London. (I know, I know… pause for vomiting.) We had recently even talked through the window to the cow that became our surrogate child (I’m sorry, it’s just that I need to build an accurate picture for you).
Over the next six years Colin had brothers and sisters, also of the genus bean-bag. His human parents hoped and assumed we might have children of our own species together some day, although we didn’t share those hopes with each other at the time, good grief no. We played at being children together instead.
Six and a half years later, when eventually and agonizingly I left Colin’s Father for good, I gave him custody of the kids. It seemed the least I could do.

Jump forward nine years and I receive an email from Colin’s Father, now long since my ex-boyfriend and someone else’s husband but, I am very pleased to say, still my friend.
They are having a clear-out. Would I like to resume custody of Colin and Terry (yes, you guessed it – a tiger)?
I pause for thought. No, I answer. My life is lived out of boxes and that’s no good for wild animals, or farm ones.
I didn’t make the decision lightly and I still think about Colin the First. So, you see, when I immediately called the new cow Colin, I knew I was in trouble.

Our time together was short but wonderful. He did a brilliant job of drawing children to the Eco Lucky Dip we ran at the Cowboys and Indians event and I took him to see Toy Story 3 afterwards. Well, I was still dressed as a cowgirl, it was dark in the cinema and the genuine human friend who accompanied me didn’t mind at all because she’s as mad as I am.
He got oil from my bike chain on his face, to accompany children’s muddy finger marks, so I gave him a good bath and he came out better than new.
He moved into my lounge and I started talking to him.
He moved into my bedroom and I kept talking to him.
He made me happy, I couldn’t help it.
But I knew it had to end. I have too much stuff already. I waste too much precious time in this life hoarding objects, sorting through boxes to find lost objects or trying to recycle objects out of my life. I do not need more objects in my life. I had to make a clean break before he got in too deep.

So I took him for a farewell lunch on Friday. It was a gloriously sunny day and, as as I free-wheeled down the hill into the centre of Hexham, Colin rode with me, tucked between my bag and my back, deliberately facing out and grinning at passing cars.
Much to my colleague’s amusement, I sat Colin on his own chair, explaining that he was on his way back to the charity shop after lunch.

And then Lucy arrived. Not much taller than the seat of Colin’s chair she spread her arms and hugged Colin to her in such a way that he ducked backwards through a gap at the bottom of his chair’s back-rest and although he could barely see me properly from within her hug, we looked at each other and quickly said farewell.
I explained the situation to Lucy’s Mum. Please, I said, he is a gift.
Colin and Lucy were already an item, smiling at each other in their own little world.
Lucy’s Mum pledged to give some money to Cancer Research, the charity shop to which Colin will now hopefully never return. And I got on with my very adult meeting about serious grown-up things, pondering in the back of my mind how the universe turns well, and wondering if I will ever own another cow called Colin and, if so, just how that story will begin and end.



The American Way

Monday, 28th June 2010

The in-flight magazine American Way contains a dizzying array of advertisements for dating agencies and plastic surgery. No single organisation seems to offer both, though surely it is only a matter of time. The advertisements seem to be placed deliberately near each other.

The most entertaining advert in the latest edition is titled EXECUTIVE RECRUITING MEETS PERSONAL MATCHMAKING. The single picture in this large advertisement comprises the head and shoulders of a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman, labelled ‘Founder & President’, who drools out of the page in a manner that even this heterosexual female finds alluring.

The rest of the advertisement is dense text. One column is ‘for Selectively Single Men’ and the other ‘for Selectively Single Women’.

I’m reproducing them both here, below, with only one change: where the original text says ‘men’, ‘women’, ‘man’, ‘females’ etc, I am substituting the words ‘people’ or ‘person’.
See if you can guess which column was written for which gender:

 

Column one – ‘for Selectively Single […]’

 

Column two – ‘for Selectively Single […]’

 

And the answer is…:

  1. a) hilarious
  2. b) worryingly obvious
  3. c) stereotyping gone made
  4. d) designed to attract their target audience
  5. e) all of the aboveAnd your reactions are…?  My amused observations included the following:

–     the top criterion for men is judged to be ‘ethnicity’, followed by ‘religion’ (!)
–     more than one of my male friends would absolutely have ‘emotional stability’ on their list, but then so would my female friends. Possibly even more of the latter
–     men are deemed to have an awful long list of requirements, with ‘beauty’ placed mid-list
–     women are deemed either to be plain stupid or so obsessed with the strangely hyphenated term ‘commitment-minded’ that they need it repeating within an eight bullet summary
–     men are considered to need a statistical measure of performance
–     they think men are willing to pay to meet good women but women aren’t willing to pay to meet good men
–     of the two columns, the one that would attract me to sign up with the agency is the one aimed at men. If it weren’t aimed at men, that is.

 

Meanwhile, opposite one of the many full page advertisements is an advertisement for a plastic injection molding company. The magazine editor clearly has a sense of humour too. Or was it ironic? You know: – irony – the trait for which Americans are famous.



On goats and condoms

Friday, 14th May 2010

Something happened last weekend that provides a special kind of insight into the ‘fairly safe’ Conservative constituency in which I live.

(Apologies to overseas readers. I promise I won’t make any further comment about the UK election here, though I can barely be swayed from the subject in conversation at the moment.)
The setting for the revelation was seemingly innocuous. I was at a weekend of singing workshops with my community choir.
On Saturday evening we played a warm-up game that I introduced to the choir a few years ago. So I have only myself to blame.
Here’s how the game works:

Everyone sits in a circle, with one person standing in the middle, so there is one fewer seat available than people playing the game. The person in the middle says a criterion, beginning “Anyone Who…”… and anyone to whom that criterion applies must leave their chair and move to another one. The person in the middle, along with everyone else, aims to get a seat. One person is left in the middle, and so it goes on.

I have, in my time, seen some particularly frisky games of “Anyone Who…”.   Some groups instinctively grasp that anything goes and criteria become increasingly debauched.
On this particular occasion, after a slow start (“Anyone Who … has blue eyes”, “Anyone Who… is wearing red”, and so on) the game proceeded thus:

Man in the middle: “Anyone Who… is over 50”
[almost everyone moves seats, apart from me]

Seated man to woman who hasn’t moved: “Oi! You’re over 50. You should have moved”
Woman blushes. Admits she was lying about her age. Sheepishly moves to become the new person in the middle.

A few minutes later:
Man in the middle: “Anyone Who… has a prophylactic”
General cries: “What’s a prophylactic?”
General responses: “He means a condom”
Me: “Do you mean with us here, or just generally?”
Man in the middle: “Generally”
[I get up. The man in the middle takes my seat. No-one else moves.]
Me: “I cannot believe I’m the only one. You’re all being coy. Ok then, Anyone Who… has ever used a condom”
[7-8 people move, out of around 25 playing]

Woman in the middle: “Anyone Who… has ever milked a goat”
[Around half the group change seats]

Me, in absolute disbelief: “You mean to tell me that more of us have milked goats than ever used a condom?!”

A split second of stunned silence was followed by roars of laughter as the group realised that, yes, their responses genuinely indicate that more choir members have milked a goat than have ever used a condom.

 


Important footnote #1: I was a highly impressionable young child during the 1980s, when a high profile AIDS advertising campaign ran on UK TV. Dutifully, I retain the instruction indelibly in my brain that a condom is the very minimum uniform required to do anything with a member of the opposite sex from holding hands onwards. I’ve never before seen such a powerful demonstration of how different generations ‘do sex differently’.

Important footnote #2: It would, I suppose, be preferable not to have a condom, but rather to have had occasion to use it by now.



Easter egg metaphor

Tuesday, 6th April 2010

Have you ever noticed that the foil on an Easter egg covers it entirely when it is new, but when half eaten the same foil won’t cover even the remaining half adequately?

I should not have eaten half an egg all in one sitting. 90g of dark chocolate consumed in the confines of a railway carriage, two hours into a long journey home and with three and a half hours yet to endure.

I needed both the calories and the moment of extreme selfishness. At 4.30am that morning I was standing in the corridor of the Premier Inn hotel in Norwich wearing a T-shirt and backing up the heroic night-shift manager as he evicted eleven young women who had been screaming drunkenly in and around their rooms for the last six hours.

I then negotiated a full room rebate, to be paid to the mother of my newest godson, who had promised and paid for my hotel room so that I might have a good night’s sleep before a christening at which I was the single godparent on only a couple of week’s notice and on an Easter bank holiday weekend with a round trip of at least twelve hours, most of which on trains which might or might not be running.

The christening involved rather more of a religious spotlight on yours truly than I had been led to believe and included me being left holding the ‘candle that represents the light of the life of our new babe’, carefully not dribbling hot wax anywhere or setting fire to family heirloom christening gown, orders of service etc.

I could hardly blow out the light that represents my newest godson’s life, could I? I was rescued eventually by the vicar, who seamlessly added new words to the printed baptism ceremony:
To godparent, sotto voce, “You may now blow out the candle.”

She then handed me a lovely card ‘For a godparent’, that contained three long paragraphs about my duties. It includes the instruction: “Godparents must pray for their Godchildren continually.” Continually?! For ever?!

If I can achieve all this on three hours sleep, why, oh why, can’t I persuade the foil from a whole Easter egg to fit around the remaining half?

Because, despite 36 years of trying, I am still neither perfect nor capable of the near-perfection achieved by the machine that wrapped my egg. And because I’m very, very tired. Even godparenting, it seems, brings sleep deprivation.

The godbabe, near perfect as he is now, will likewise be ever more crumpled by those of us flawed ones who handle him. He looked cute and behaved perfectly the whole day. He was slobbered over by everyone like the best chocolate of the day.

In an ironic expression of perfect symmetry, I shared the final leg of my rail journey home, in the dark, with around 20 drunken and ‘highly exuberant’ young men and women.

So, as Boozy Broken Britain limps its way to our next political election, I wonder if I’m entitled to any state benefits as a single godparent? I’m off to check the manifestos of the main political parties to see what they can offer. A regular supply of earplugs and eye masks would seem appropriate. Or perhaps a simple monetary allowance with which to buy some alcohol…



Charge of the Light Volunteers

Sunday, 21st March 2010

“At the training they told us ‘if you find yourself on fire, roll on the ground.’ They didn’t say what to do next if that didn’t work. And we didn’t like to ask!”

David and Michael were the father and son team on Light Duties on Saturday 13 March 2010 at Planetrees, which is the section of Hadrian’s Wall closest to my house.

They were two of around 1,500 volunteers armed and ready to create a line of light along the line of Hadrian’s Wall, subject to weather conditions enabling anyone actually to see it.

The event was planned ‘to mark the 1,600th anniversary of the Romans leaving Britain.’ So they left in the spring then. How we ‘know’ this I have yet to discover. Perhaps 409-410 was a particularly hard winter in Britain. Much like 2009-2010.

Now, would you like to guess the chances of staging an 84 mile trail of light in the British countryside, in the far North, in March, at dusk, without snow, rain, fog or even just your basic cold mist? Virtually zero, I would have guessed. Yet 13 March 2010 turned out to be the clearest, crispest day of weather I’ve yet to see in this part of the world. Moreover, it didn’t blur at dusk. There were clouds, but they stayed high and added to the dramatic effect.

David’s and Michael’s duties were Light in every sense: illuminating; portable; and executed light-heartedly.

“It’s not the size of your light, it’s what you do with it that counts,” explained David. “We could have had a burner, but we chose flares.”

‘Flares’ and ‘burners’ were the lingo of the event. A ‘burner’ comprised a gas bottle hooked up to a mini brazier atop a pole. Each burner had a team of three, though only person was needed to light it, using a basic spark lighter such as may be found in millions of kitchen gadget drawers. Of flaming Roman torches there was none.

Once lit the burner would burn for around an hour. The hand-held flares, on the other hand, would each burn for only a few minutes, but intensively. Better still, the two people at a flare station would each have their own flare. Much more fun, our guys had decided.

Like the Roman soldiers posted along this Wall, the Light Volunteers came from all over the Empire, though I include in this the later British Empire, because there were also New Zealanders, Canadians and Americans.

My parents and I traversed five light stations, looking for a good spot. The stations were only around 250 metres apart, but anyone who knows Hadrian’s Wall knows that its line is riddled with dips, pockets, ridges and hills. It doesn’t matter how clear the atmosphere is, you may stand at one light station and see no other.

We intended to decide where to stand on the basis of best viewpoint. We ended up deciding on the basis of which Light Volunteers were the most fun.

We passed:
• a group of American teenage girls doing handstands and cartwheels around their unlit burner;
• two men with flares who were talking neither to walkers nor to each other;
• three people sitting on the ground near a burner looking very bored;
• three at a burner who said a cheery hello but were in a huge dip and clearly were only going to have their own burner to watch for the next couple of hours; and
• Michael and David from Newcastle, who had already attracted two tourists with their flare and their flares and had a wisecrack for every occasion, including rare ones such as this.

Michael wore a large, luminous orange badge on his chest, on which were printed the words ‘Illuminating Hadrian’s Wall’ and scribbled the time ’17:55’.
“Is that to remind you to light your flare?” my Dad enquired mischievously.
“I’ve had weeks of training for this you know,” said Michael. Well, at least a day.

17:55, it turned out, was the time when all the burners on this section were to be lit. So it wasn’t to be quite the line of light travelling from one coast to another in sequence, which was what most of the pre-publicity had indicated.

“The burners all go on together. After they’re lit, we watch for the TV helicopter. When it comes over that hill, that’s our cue to light our flares.”

Given the proximity of the next hill, when the helicopter zoomed into view it was already nearly overhead.

“My fingers are so cold I can’t get the top off!” yelled one of our team, before – WHOOSH!!! Two flares fizzing together. Michael standing on top of the Wall like a Valkyrie, David holding his flames towards his father like the Statue of Liberty. Everyone waving at the helicopter as if the Queen were on board.

We whooped. We yelled. The flares flicked. Smoke billowed. Flames across the land joined in as the helicopter swung onwards. I shouldn’t have liked to be the cameraman. One take only. No dress rehearsal. No second chance.

All this week across Northumberland (and I presume also Cumbria, the other county through which the Wall passes) the talk has been of Illuminating Hadrian’s Wall. I have had conversations that have started with seemingly unrelated and serious topics, such as a local wind turbine scheme and the Hexham Book Festival, and all have ended in enthusiastic story-swapping about where everyone was on Saturday 13 March 2010, at dusk. Did you see the lights? What was it like where you were?

In the days before the event many of my local friends were incensed that the event had not been advertised better locally and my local paper was running stories about tickets to the event being given only to VIPs and farmers afraid of being sued by visiting walkers if they were attacked by cattle.

In the end we were all children in spring, whooping together and seeing the light.

 

Postscript:
There is talk of the event being staged again, and not just in another 1,600 years’ time. Here’s an idea from me:

How about, next time, we form a line of people, each holding a flare, a torch or even just a match and create a true line of light from coast to coast?

The unpredicted scale of popularity of this year’s event makes me think we could pull that off. Everyone would be a VIP. And that really would be something.

 

Image

Burner team near Planetrees, passing time

 

Image

Flare team at Planetrees. Like a coiled spring.

 

Image

Planetrees alight

 

Image

Planetrees father and son team

 

 

Image

Light spotting from the Vallum

 

Image

And the burner teams waited to go home…


A line of light along Hadrian’s Wall

Tuesday, 16th March 2010

Image

Official advice was to avoid driving along the Wall

 

 

The event held along the line of Hadrian’s Wall last Saturday was advertised as creating a line of light along Hadrian’s Wall for the first time since the Romans left 1600 years ago.

In the end, two lines of light were created: one from gas burners and hand-held flares, which represented how the Roman beacons may have burned; the second from car headlights, which was a true first for Hadrian’s Wall.

More on the event to come from me. I’ll blog again later this week.



Dark matter does not exist

Friday, 12th March 2010

This week I watched a TV programme that explained how dark matter has come into existence. I choose these words carefully.

Here’s how the documentary makers explained it:

  1. Cosmologists began studying spiral galaxies in the universe. These are the ones that look like Catherine Wheels in slow motion.
  2. They predicted that bodies on the outer edge of the spiral move more slowly than those towards the centre of the spiral because, being further away, less gravitational pull acts upon them.
  3. Observation and measurement then revealed that bodies on the outer edge move at the same speed as those towards the centre.
  4. So…. (and here’s the bit that raised my eyebrows): they concluded that an invisible force is causing an extra gravitational pull to be exerted on the outer edges of the galaxy. It is a force invisible and currently undetectable through any empirical evidence. But it must exist because it’s existence explains the behaviour of the spiral galaxies within the framework of the rules of the physical universe known to us. They called this force Dark Matter.
    (They may not have used capitals, but I suspect they did.)

Here’s my analogy from closer to home:

So, you see, I now consider Dark Matter to be a label given to something that we currently have no means to detect other than positing that it must exist in order to reassure us that the rest of what we think we know must be correct.

The documentary, by the way, proceeded to explain Dark Energy and Dark Flow in much the same way.

I can’t now decide if this is:

  1. A complete desecration of the principle that science is about explaining the universe through empirical evidence; OR
  2. genius; OR
  3. neither; OR
  4. both.

Of course, I mustn’t fall into the same trap as the ‘scientists’. I  must remain open to the possibility that my confusion is down to sloppy programme-making, or my own misinterpretation of what was being said.

I hope the explanation is one of these two, rather than a fundamental flaw in the thinking of the global cosmologist community.

I can but hope. After all, hope seems to be science these days.



What is this life

Thursday, 4th March 2010

What is this life if, full of pie

We have no time to wonder why?

What is this life if, full of pi

We have no time to wonder why?



V Day

Sunday, 14th February 2010

Five years ago today I did something rather silly on the London Underground.

It wasn’t supposed to look silly. It was supposed to be a grand, romantic gesture that would make many single people very happy. Or, at least, send them home with a smile on their face.

I had first had the idea some years previously, but for many years I was too chicken actually to carry it out. Five years ago today, I knew it was the last Valentine’s Day when I would still be living in London. After nine years in the capital, I was leaving within a matter of days. It was now or never.

So, when I ascended from my home tube station, Tooting Broadway, I went to its flower stall intent on buying a large number of single stem flowers. They didn’t have to be red roses. In fact, I didn’t want them to be red roses. But something beautiful, that would look lovely in a single stem vase on someone’s coffee table or mantelpiece.

Unfortunately, this was V Day and I was not willing to put more than £30 into my scheme. So, in order to get the 30-40 individual flower heads I needed, I had to settle for a bouquet of what looked like purple daisies, in which multiple flowers stemmed from a few main stalks.

I took the flowers home, changed out of my suit into something more comfortable (literally, i.e. not lingerie), and cut the flowers so that each head was on a single stem. Given the nature of my tight-fisted bouquet, each flower’s stem was only 3-4 inches long. They did not cut quite the dash I had had in mind.

Undeterred, I walked my flowers back to the tube, descended to the platform and waited to board a train.

The first train was still too commuter-crowded for my plan. The second train was not, but I was terrified. If this were a fictional tale or a joke, the third train would have been the one I boarded. It was not: I was still too terrified.

The fourth train arrived and by now the commuters had thinned out such that soon the moment would be gone. So I jumped on.

“Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen!”

The carriage was the usual librarian quiet ‘neath transport rattle. I had their full attention.

“Please don’t be alarmed. I am not mad and I am not asking for money. Today is Valentine’s Day and I would simply like to give you a flower, particularly if you are single.  So in a moment, I’m going to walk down the carriage and offer you each a flower. If you don’t want to take one, you don’t have to. But I’ll be very happy if you do take one. Also, you don’t have to be single to take one.”

And with that, I stopped waffling and walked through the carriage, offering my floppy, short-stemmed purple daisies to complete strangers and wishing them Happy Valentine’s Day.

I got the full range of reactions I might have anticipated if I had stopped in advance to think through what I was doing. Some people neither took the flower offered, nor even looked up. Others declined a flower but apologised with a look of pure pity. Yet many others accepted a flower and smiled back at me. One or two even wished me Happy Valentine’s Day in return.

If this were a fictional tale, there would be a happy ending or some kind of epiphany as I stepped back off the train further down the line. There was not, unless you count a flood of pure relief seething through my veins. But neither was it a joke. I had carried through the mad idea and would have no regrets on leaving London.

If you were on that train and took a flower, I hope it made you smile. And if a complete stranger has never handed you a flower and wished you a Happy Valentine’s Day, please forgive them; it is a remarkably hard thing to do.



Jingle Fells

Thursday, 24th December 2009

Jingle fells, jingle fells, jingle all the way
Sledging down the lakeland fells with a map case for a sleigh
Oh! Jingle fells, jingle fells, jingle all the way
Snow falls and deserted hills has fully made my day

Dashing through the snow, which in drifts is three feet high
George and Richard go; to keep up I try
‘Hobbit, come,’ they laugh, as High Seat we ascend
In a drift I faff, as upwards we three wend

Jingle fells, jingle fells, jingle all the way
Sledging down the lakeland fells with a map case for a sleigh
Oh! Jingle fells, jingle fells, jingle all the way
Snow falls and deserted hills has fully made my day

Coming down I win, with powder snow to ride
Whizzing past I grin, still with dry backside
Strap breaks half way down, but I improvise a grip
Icy mountains all aound makes a ‘perfect flawless’ trip

Jingle fells, jingle fells, jingle all the way
Sledging down the lakeland fells with a map case for a sleigh
Oh! Jingle fells, jingle fells, jingle all the way
Oh what fun it is to ride with a map case for a sleigh!



Joy to the world

Joy to the world; I’ve made it home
The trains were late, but ran
I even got a seat
By car I would be beat
By car I would be beat
By ca-a-a-a-a-ar I would be beat



We wish you a merry Christmas

We wish you a merry Christmas, We wish you a merry Christmas,
We wish you a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Great calories we bring, to you and your kin
We wish you a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Now bring us a chocolate orange, Now bring us a chocolate orange
Now bring us a chocolate orange and bring it right now

For we all like a chocolate orange, we all like a chocolate orange
Yes we all like a chocolate orange, so bring it right now

Great calories we bring, to you and your kin
We wish you a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

We won’t go until we’ve got one, We won’t go until we’ve got one
No we won’t go until we’ve got one, so bring it right now

Great calories we bring, to you and your kin
We wish you a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year



I saw my stocking

(To the tune of ‘I Saw Three Ships’)

I saw my stocking hanging full, On Christmas Day, On Christmas Day
I saw my stocking hanging full, On Christmas Day in the morning

And what was in that stocking fat? On Christmas Day, On Christmas Day
And what was in that stocking fat? On Christmas Day in the morning

An Oxfam goat and chocolate coins, On Christmas Day, On Christmas Day
An Oxfam goat and chocolate coins, On Christmas Day in the morning

And where’s that goat a-going to? On Christmas Day, On Christmas Day
And where’s that goat a-going to? On Christmas Day in the morning

The same place as the Oxfam loo, On Christmas Day, On Christmas Day
The same place as the Oxfam loo, On Christmas Day in the morning

So let’s rejoice for food and poo, On Christmas Day, On Christmas Day
So let’s rejoice for food and poo, On Christmas Day in the morning

United all around the world, On Christmas Day, On Christmas Day
United all around the world, On Christmas Day in the morning



It came upon a midnight here

It came upon a midnight here, that glorious fall of snow
It melted slightly in the day then iced into a flo
Thus entered we the season of hot toddy, mulled wine, rum
And other things that numb the pain of falling upon your bum

O half-way up a steep old hill I live with those around
When it snows we slither everywhere, whether trying to go up or down
And children stare as up I go with sledge, an adult clear
Yet squeeling down like an 8 year old, because I cannot steer

My gloves are wet, my hands they freeze, yet stay (out) all night I can
There is no adult to call me in as I work on my best snowman
As long as I don’t break a leg, or elbow, hand or toe
I always will be an 8 year old whenever I see the snow



Oh Mum, I am faithful

Oh Mum, I am faithful to your Christmas dinners
Oh Mum, I have had one every year of my life
Glorious turkey, sprouts and roast potatoes

Oh Mum, your cooking’s brilliant
Oh Mum, yourcooking’s brilliant
Oh Mum, your cooking’s brilliant ev-ery year

Now comes a big shock: this year we’re invited
To my sister’s table, two hours away
So we  must thither bend our humble footsteps

Oh Mum, you won’t be cooking
Oh Mum, you won’t be cooking
Oh Mum, you won’t be cooking on Chri-istmas Day

But you’ve a turkey, purchased for the table
We’ll have your Christmas dinner yet and hurray!
Carrots and sausage wrapped in bacon dufflecoats

Oh Mum, your cooking’s brilliant
Oh Mum, your cooking’s brilliant
Oh Mum, your cooking’s brilliant ev-ery year



O little town of snot and phlegm

Friday, 18th December 2009

O little town of snot and phlegm, how still I here must lie
For I am now full up with cold as Christmas passes by
I blame the girl upon the train who coughed into the air
So I’m in bed, protecting you, I hope you’ll think that fair

O I’m not really very sad, so spare your tears, your sigh
To be laid up is not so bad with Christmas shopping nigh
I leave it late and so can I the whole thing now elude
And settle down with handkerchiefs and Christmas films and food



Unto us the office party

Tuesday, 15th December 2009

(To the tune of: Unto Us is Born a Son)

Office parties now are here; Carols we are hummming
Corridors of Christmas cheer; Our Secret Santa’s coming
Our Secret Santa’s coming

Dress and make-up in the loo; Mistletoe’s the danger
Avoid bosses, colleagues too; Better kiss a stranger
You’d better kiss a stranger

Evening’s get naughtier; Come the Christmas party dare
Things on photocopiers, that normally are not seen there
That normally aren’t seen there

Try to find a taxi home; Try to stop the yawning
Lose your wallet, mobile phone; Leave worry till the morning
Leave worry till the morning

My work party’s virtual; All done at the pc
Wishing Merry Christmas All has never been so easy
Has never been so easy

Should I sit in party dress, with a paper hat on?
Or look just the usual mess? Oh smiley wink emoticon
Oh smiley wink emoticon

From my broadband isthmus, sensing colleagues still near
Wish you Merry Christmas; And a happy, happy New Year
And a happy, happy New Year!



Silent Night

Monday, 14th December 2009

Climate change, rhetoric change
Media help arrange
Round yon scientists governments wait
Do we trust them to read our fate?
Why do these questions still come?
Why do these questions still come?

 Climate change, rhetoric change
Here’s what I find so strange
We’re now ‘climate believers’ or not
Someone invented this term and forgot
Science requires no faith
Science requires no faith

Climate change, rhetoric change
Funny how we rearrange
Everyone can believe what they like
Global temperatures may take a hike
Science is now religion
Science is now religion



Twelve Stockouts of Christmas

On the twelth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:
12 Tamagotchis
11 Star Wars Fighters
10 Telly Tubbies
9 Rubik’s Cubes
8 Transformers
7 Laughing Elmos
6 Scalextrics
5 Stockout hells
4 High School dance mats
3 Furbies
2 Buzz Lightyears
And a home fitness Nintendo Wii



Ping pong! merrily on high

Ping pong! merrily on high
The ‘lympics here are coming
Ping pong! shot and jumping high
And lots and lots of running

Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ri-a
There’s lots and lots of running

Costs a lot to stage the show
Thank goodness we’re not corrupt
No point, we already know
We’re virtually bankrupt

Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ri-a
We’re virtually bankrupt

We can elevate a sport
‘Cos we are the host nation
Our choice only so it ought
To bring us celebration

Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ri-a
Something for celebration

Something slow plus drinking beer
Slow finishes, slow starts
Bellies ready we’ll all cheer
As we win gold at darts

Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ri-a
We’ll beat the rest at darts

Shame this is an urban myth
The same old sports are going
Back to taking the pyth
And cycling and rowing

Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-(gasp)-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ri-a (phew!)
For cycling and rowing



Latest news from Royal David’s City

Friday, 11th December 2009

Once in Royal David’s City
Stood a lowly cattle shed
Out of town, you know what happens
Retail park now constructed.
Parking zones are coloured, so
[that] Laden, we know where to go

Prices down from cheap to cheaper
All indoors and heat controlled
Jungle Bunny’s for the children
Seats and bingo for the old
For the poor and mean and lowly
Shopping the solution solely

And through all our wondrous childhood
We must honour and obey
Advertising, latest gadgets
We work hard so we can pay
And when we have all things bought
We spend more at their food court

For this is our childhood pattern
Day by day we breathe stale air
We are little, weak and helpless
We are trapped in retail’s snare
Christmas stockout, feel our sadness
Impulse buying, feel our gladness

And our eyes at last shall see it
Perfect gift, reduced to clear
We’ve spent up, but we have credit
But now, pay not till ‘next year’
So they lead us children on
Till our money is all gone

Not in that poor lowly stable
With the oxen standing by
But in concrete we shall worship
January sales are nigh
When again we will surround
Shop assistants wait around

Author’s note: More than a third of the above words are taken straight from the original. Scary, huh?



The Army & the Navy

(to the tune of: The Holly & The Ivy, in case that’s not already obvious)

Afghani and Iraq wars
Though they are still full-blown
Most Westerners this Christmas time
Thinking only of their own

The rising of the East
And the waning of the West
All the guns and bullets, bombs and blasts
Try to prove which one is best

The navy has a weapon
It’s not like any flower
Our ageing Trident submarines
We hope never comes the hour

The rising of the East
And the waning of the West
The men of both would have better tasks
If they were at my behest

The army bears a berry
The redness of its blood
The more they die on my behalf
The less it does me good

The rising of the East
And the waning of the West
If they didn’t fight would I be worse off?
It’s impossible to test

Every war us prickles
As sharp as any thorn
Good v Evil, Black v White
But it’s always grey when torn

The rising of the East
And the waning of the West
Global freedom, democracy
Is that really here the quest?

The rivalry of nations
As bitt’r as any gall
A ‘just war’ or an invasion
Now can either save us all?

The rising of the East
And the waning of the West
And where does that leave North v South?
Please let’s give it all a rest



Hark! The X Contestants Sing

Hark! The X Contestants Sing

Hark! the herald angels sing
Tonight we are X-Factor-ing
Churn out popstars every year
Very soon they disappear
Joyful the contestants try
Sing, look humble, maybe cry
Try to move us in our chairs
Cameras pan to judges’ stares
Hark! the herald angels sing
Tonight we are X-Factor-ing

Cowell, by high-est heav’n adored
Real musicians’ darkest lord
On the stage behold him come
Everybody bang his drum
Fireworks burst for all to see
Hail th’incarnate deity
Least that’s what he seems to think
We reach for another drink
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn king

Hail the ancient popstar dears
Resurrecting their careers
Joining in, like Christmas elves
Really there to sell themselves
We all vote, once for the best
Bored of that, now for the rest
One by one contestants culled
Christmas telly round the world
Hark! the herald angels sing
Tonight we are X-Factor-ing

Author’s note: These lyrics are dedicated to a great friend and a proper musician with whom I have watched many hours of the UK’s X Factor competition this year, entertained more by her reactions than by anything happening on the show itself.



Hoody King Wenceslas

Wednesday, 9th December 2009

All across the country now
Schools are going crazy
Kids as shepherd, king and cow
Angels looking hazy
Christmas is upon us all
Parents sewing madly
Hoping Gabriel won’t fall
Off the stage too badly.

‘Hither, Paige, and stand by me.
‘Leave that, it’s illegal.
‘You are wise man number three,
‘Try to look more regal.’
‘Sir, a dress?!’ small boy opines
‘I hope no-one sees us.
‘I don’t want to learn these lines.
‘I want to be Jesus.’

‘Bring me Mary, Joseph too
‘Bring me Little Donkey.
‘Dress rehearsal starts at two,
‘Scenery is wonky.’
Sir and pupils forth they went
Forth they went together
Shepherds’ staffs are now all bent
End of teacher’s tether.

Class 4’s painting is still wet
Scenery needs drying
Cow looks like it needs a vet
Little Donkey’s crying
Baby Jesus is a doll
Wrapped up in the manger
Dressed as Hannah Montana
Couldn’t look much stranger.

Costume envy in the cast
Angels’ wings are missing
Peace and goodwill won’t long last
Two wise men are kissing
Shepherds start another fight
Whole thing’s looking shonky
Mary cries, exits stage right
Pursued by a donkey.



In the bleak mid-winter

Tuesday, 8th December 2009

In the bleak mid-winter
Departed us, our friend
Lucy, loved and wanted
Now at journey's end

 



Away from that manger

Sunday, 6th December 2009

“Away from that manger, you’re allergic to hay
Don’t you stroke that old donkey, they’re too loud when they bray
The stars in the bright sky don’t provide enought light
I’m shocked they allow children to come here at night.

“The cattle are lowing, you should always steer clear
They will trample you under if you wander too near
And away from that frankincense, and myrrh; those are drugs
And those men with the sheep, you can’t be sure they’re not thugs.

“Stay near me, my darling, it’s so dirty and bare
You’d have thought they’d do better with a baby right there.”
Bless all the dear children, in our tender snare
And pity their lives, that are so burdened by care.



While shepherds washed

Saturday, 5th December 2009

While shepherds washed their socks one night
The kitchen was fair full
Their error was forgetting that
Their clothes are made from wool

Not just their socks but trousers too
Were loaded in the tub
And jumpers, coats and underwear
That never failed to rub

The cycle finished and forthwith
The shepherds saw the prob
Their clothes were half the size and now
Would never do the job

They crept around the neighbourhood
And stole things off the line
Compared they then what each had robbed
All sheets and dresses fine

And ladies underwear they’d found
Though failed they each to tell
They’d all ignored the men’s clothing
That hung out there as well

They clothed themselves in sheets and dress
With lace around their heads
Quite Biblical they looked at last
When took they to their beds

Under their sheets each one had hid
Some items out of sight
With lace and silk and frills, they thought
It won’t be Silent Night

The ladies of the neighbourhood
Awoke and saw quite clear
The annual stealing of their smalls
Meant shepherds were quite near

So to the shepherds house they went
And crept up to their men
And under freshly laundered sheets
They found their smalls again

All glory be to socks on high
And to the earth be peace
Goodwill henceforth from wom’n to men
Begin and never cease



Wreck the Hall

Friday, 4th December 2009

Deck the hall with fireproof plastic   Fa-la-la-la-lah, la-la-la-lah
Glitter reindeer on elastic   Fa-la-la-la-lah, la-la-la-lah
Neon Santas on each rooftop   Fa-la-lah, Fa-la-lah, Lah-lah-lah
Glitter spraying with each hoof-plop   Fa-la-la-la-lah, la-la-la-lah

If the neighbour’s has more things on   Ra-ra-ra-ra-rah, ra-ra-ra-rah
Get a glowing Homer Simpson   Ra-ra-ra-ra-rah, ra-ra-ra-rah
Smother all in lights and then   Ra-ra-rah, Ra-ra-rah, Rah-rah-rah
Don’t pay bills till 2010   Ra-ra-ra-ra-rah, ra-ra-ra-rah

Lay more lights round chair recliners   Ah-la-la-la-lah, ah-la-la-aargh
Aim to damage all retinas   Ah-la-la-la-lah, ah-la-la-aargh
Tree so tall it hits the ceiling   Ah-la-lah, Ah-la-lah, Ah-lah-aargh
Baubles teeter, Fairy’s reeling   Ah-la-la-la-lah, ah-la-la-aargh

Pile the food upon the table   Fa-la-la-la-lah, la-la-la-lah
Eat until you are not able   Fa-la-la-la-lah, la-la-la-lah
Fill the fridge until it’s heaving    Fa-la-lah, Fa-la-lah, Lah-lah-lah
Or your guests are, when they’re leaving   Fa-la-la-la-lah, la-la-la-urgh

Polystyrene snowmen: plenty   Blah-bla-bla-bla-blah, bla-bla-bla-blah
Parachuting Santas: twenty   Blah-bla-bla-bla-blah, bla-bla-bla-blah
If there’s still more room for stuff   Blah-bla-blah, Blah-bla-blah, Blah-blah-blah
You’re not trying hard enough   Blah-bla-bla-bla-BLAH, blah-BLA-BLA-BLAH



We Three Queens

Thursday, 3rd December 2009

We three queens of Celebrity
Stars of TV reality
Now this Christmas
We’ve a hit, must
Surely be all about me

Oh-oh –
Stars of ego, stars of fame
Superficial is our name
No deep meaning, always preening
Makeover Mary is the game.

(Melchior)
Gold I bring, to make her less plain
I won last time, crown me again
Heaps of bling, my favourite thing
Vote for me, my refrain
Dah-ling –

Stars of ego, stars of fame
Superficial is our name
No deep meaning, always preening
Makeover Mary is the game.

(Caspar)
Frankincense to offer I bring
Pregnancy is gorgeously ‘in’
She’s the size of a bus, but it’s all about us
Vote for Caspar to win!
Dah-ling –

Stars of ego, stars of fame
Superficial is our name
No deep meaning, always preening
Makeover Mary is the game.

(Balthazar)
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Announces her in every room
Make her smelly
Cover that belly
Ignore the baby’s doom.
Dah-ling –

(All)
Stars of ego, stars of fame
Superficial is our name
No deep meaning, always preening
Makeover Mary is the game.



God rest ye jerry mental-men

God rest ye jerry mental-men
Let nothing you dismay
For governments around the world
Are sanctioning your pay
Though you’re already rich enough
And brought us disarray

Our tithings, your comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
Our tithings, your comfort and joy.

A tithing is a church’s tax
On earnings: ten per cent
But your gods need much more than that
Because of what you lent
Much more than half my earnings
To the taxman I have sent

Our tithings, your comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
Our tithings, your comfort and joy.

I don’t mind raising up the poor
Or paying for the schools
I mind sending my money
To the pockets of rich fools
Especially when their problems are
Because they broke the rules

Our tithings, your comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
Our tithings, your comfort and joy.

Where is it gone, this hope that we
Would this year see great change?
A new kind of society
The chance to rearrange
We end the year as we began
And this I find quite strange

Our tithings, your comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
Our tithings, your comfort and joy.

Now to the Lord sing praises
All you within this place
We all of us are contributors
To national disgrace
This holy tide of financing
All others doth deface

Our tithings, your comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
Our tithings, your comfort and joy.



The First “Oh L!”

Tuesday, 1st December 2009

The first “No L” the Ange did say
So the certain poor shepherds in fields couldn’t lay
Nor laugh, nor like, nor light up, nor leer
It’s just them and their sheep, and one hopes they had beer

No L, no L
No L, no L
For the rest of this song we’re in trouble as well

They heard her wrong, the shepherds, these three.
They had thought of the state beyond purgatory.
They guessed that crimes might begin now to pay
And they asked of the Ange: “Just what did you say?

“No hell? No hell?
No hell? No hell!
What will we invent
If there can be no hell?”  *

The Ange sighed and shook her head.
She had known this would happen this morning in bed
There had been no tea, to add to no L
Ever harder this is, as I’m sure you can tell.

No L, No L
No L, No L
The Ange shouted: “I said there’s NO ‘L’!”  **

Oh no. Oh dear. The shepherds saw through
They wood have massive issues: they come from Cymru
The name of each different town they came from
And the biggest of station names, soon to be gone.

Oh L, Oh L
Oh L, Oh L
Naming is tricky when there is no L.

The shepherds thunk, you could hear their brains tick
Now this L was a habit they just cood-n’t kick
Do you think, said one, that we might appeal?
Don’t be daft, said another, we could only appear.

Oh L, Oh L
Oh L, Oh L
Rhyming is tricky when there is no L.

Then have us too with one accord
Sing praises to our Heaveny Ord
If there’s no L, there can be no hell
No fallen or killing. Or Legoland as well.
No L, No L
No L, No L
Born is the kingdom of having no L.

 *  If you believe these to be the shepherds who watched over flocks while Jesus was being born, then a key theme of this song falls on its face, because the strongest historical evidence suggests that the concept of hell was only invented after Jesus died. But, hey, since when has historical analysis ever been allowed to ruin a good Christmas story?

**  Alt. version: And the Ange said: “Hell is a pseudo-religions concept designed by human beings as an attempt at enforcing certain codes of conduct. I personally wouldn’t be seen dead there.”



It Came Upon a Thursday Drear

Thursday, 12th November 2009

Aged 36 it has finally happened.

It happened very quickly in the end. It was instinctive, no time to think.

I was walking through the centre of Newcastle early last Thursday. The Christmas windows were being installed at Fenwick’s, the Selfridge’s of the North East. Already. On Guy Fawkes’ Day.

Two men were on ladders, rigging up the tanoy system.

I looked up at him standing on high. Hark The Herald Angel…

Boom – it hit me:
I’m bored of Christmas.

It was the music that did it.

As a species we find comfort in the familiar. We repeat things. Tradition is just repetition. And repetition can be boring.

After 20 years of serious amateur singing I know all the tunes and all the descant parts to all the same old carols. I shall have to start learning the alto parts now, just to find something new. That could take three years, maybe four. Whence then? Tenor parts in my 40’s? Hope that my older lady voice drops so far that I can sing the bass parts later on?

Tradition is repetition.

Let’s have a break with tradition. Every day in December I shall write here some alternative lyrics to all those same old Christmas carols. Until 25 December, when I shall put down my pen and glory in the tradition of my wonderful Mum doing all the cooking.

 



To make you smile

Friday, 30th October 2009

Two signs spotted within a mile of my house. And yes, I do skip…

 

Image  Image



The full buttock

Tuesday, 1st September 2009

Can you imagine a single event that encompasses a world champion wrestler, mounted fancy dress, fell racing, ‘dressed walking sticks’, show jumping, classic cars and tractors, jewellery, quad bike assault courses and “Sandwich Cake with jam, no icing and backed in 1 tin”? All in one day.

71 stewards, 36 judges and more than 400 classes of competitions over seven hours in field and tent. Bellingham is a small town (pop. c.1,500) in north Northumberland and the annual Bellingham Show is more than just a decider of best sheep, best horses, and so on. It is a highlight of the local social year, a celebration of rural skills and the giver of conversation topics for weeks and months to come.

I’ll declare now – in public so there’s no wimping out – that if I make it to the next Bellingham Show, on 28 August 2010, then I shall enter the Ladies Open wrestling event.

The prize money may be only half that of the men’s open wrestling event, but it is 30 times greater than the highest Arts & Crafts prize and, having now seen it in action, ‘Cumberland & Westmorland Wrestling’ (named after two English counties that no longer exist) is intriguing stuff.

Before this year’s wrestling competition began it was anyone’s guess as to whether it would turn into mud wrestling. This show is not renowned for its clement weather conditions.

The 2009 Show wind was gale force and so strong that it rent the fabric of the ‘Churches for All’ tent, leaving the pegs in the ground and sending 20 helpful onlookers running to retrieve the large canvas before it hit competing show jumpers. The holy pensioners manning the tent were left sheltering behind straw bales, smiling peacefully.

“We’re blessed with good weather this year,” said the commentator, sincerely.

Unlike in previous years, the show was not cancelled, the ground was firm and, on our Transition Tynedale stall, we simply taped everything down with firm black, webbed tape and leaned into the wind blasts.

Some of the wrestlers might like the ground to be a little soft, given that the aim is to bring your opponent to the ground, seemingly in any way possible. There are rules, though.

The main rules are about ‘the hold’. Opponents place their arms around each other, each with one arm over their opponent’s shoulder and one arm under their opponent’s armpit.

Fingers must be interlocked behind the opponent’s back in a way that uses fingers only, no palms or backs of the hand. Wrestlers must maintain this fingerlock hold throughout each round, or forfeit that round.

At the start of a round, the wrestlers try to keep their legs as far away from each other as possible. With their heads nesting on each other’s shoulder, this starting position is quite unlike that of any other sport. A David Attenborough commentary on the mating habits of this endangered species would not seem out of place.

The winner of each duel is the first person to win two rounds. Winning a round means bringing your opponent to the ground. Being World Champion means winning the world championship for Cumberland & Westmorland wrestling. I’m not sure where that is held, but I’m guessing there aren’t huge numbers of overseas competitors. Or, for that matter, competitors from other parts of Great Britain.

What I hadn’t appreciated until I watched several bouts of this wrestling is that there are more technical skills and named manoeuvres that one first suspects.

Inside click, outside hipe, full buttock and cross buttock – these are just some of the official ways of trying to unbalance your opponent.

Falls can be dull or dramatic. One bout I witnessed was won when the wrestler heaved his opponent into the air, his legs doing a scissor kick over everyone’s heads before being landed (and winded) on the ground. I believe this is known as a full buttock

Image    Image

Yet, to the uninitiated the whole thing looks like playground antics (though I must be careful here who I offend).

I watched the 2009 ladies open final with the words ‘I could take her’ whispering in my head. I have thought such things before and been proven wildly wrong, but the proof is in the pudding.

I may also be able to win the 2010 Show pudding competition. This year there was one entrant. I was pleased to see she was awarded First Prize.

“Are these just the winners, Mum?” asked one girl as she traversed the ‘Industrial’ tent after the judges had done their thing behind closed canvas, then left to get their free food.

“These are all the entries,” Mum replied.

Yet, some categories were hotly contested. It seems that local honour in Bellingham is vested in dropped scones, cheese scones, sultana scones, rock buns, marmalade, chutney and jam (more precisely: Blackcurrant Jam, Raspberry Jam and “Jar of Jam – not already specified”).

I adore this detail. Competition categories included:

• Embroidered Article, framed or made up, cross stitch excluded
• A floral arrangement that incorporates a lucky horse shoe
• A Supermarket Arrangement
[of flowers] – something made from a bunch you buy at your local supermarket or garage. Receipt to be provided.
• Best Lambing Stick, Horn Head, plain

And, in the children’s section:
• Jam Sandwich Cake – No icing or dusting with icing sugar (so no dusting over any mistakes)
• Decorated Egg (10 to 15 years old) (presumably the age of the entrant, not the egg)
• Handwriting, set piece, paper to be size A5

Image

First among no-one

 

Image

The worst case scenario is coming third of only three entries —->

 

 

Who decides the official quantities of items for competition purposes? Who, for example, determines that the appropriate number of dyed eggs is 2, but regular hens eggs 4? Why 6 home-made sweets, but 4 Queen Cakes (whatever they are)?

It’s easier with the lambs, horses and dogs. Only one of these in each category can win a prize. Yet the categories are no less detailed: Blackface sheep – Scotch type – Ewe that has reared lambs this season; Show hunter ponies – Ponies, not exceeding 13hh suitable for and ridden by a rider 14 years and under; and, one of my absolute favourites, Dog and Handler Most Alike (In Looks). The bracket is crucial.

The main objective seems to be to get as many people to take part as possible. In fact, there were several classes of ‘craft’ competition that seemed to involve little more effort than rooting round at home for something to bring. Class 358 – A Tea Pot. Class 360 – An Old Kitchen Implement or Utensil. Class 361 – A Door Stop.

Who would be a judge of such weighty matters? Particularly when the main objective for spectators is to judge the judges’ awards.

Much easier to judge the wrestling. Whoever thuds to the ground first loses the round.

What have I just pledged to do?



Things that say hello in the middle of the night

Wednesday, 15th April 2009

Two nights ago I was woken at 1am when a stranger entered my bedroom and turned on the light.

I am staying in a B&B because my house is currently more building site than home. I thought I had locked the room door that evening, though I had not done so on previous evenings. I didn’t feel strongly about it. This is an attic room, tucked away from the main guest rooms in a very friendly B&B in the safe and friendly town of Hexham.

“Hello?” I said gently to the sound of footsteps.
I couldn’t yet see their owner because the stairs that give access to this room rise up from almost directly below the bed where I was lying.
“Hello?” I repeated as a man came into view.
“Hello,” he said.
He had white hair and was wearing pale blue pyjamas, one hand holding the waistband. Thank goodness I too was wearing pyjamas.
Quick, Gillian – judge. Threat?
“This isn’t my room,” he said.
“No,” I responded, unable to think of anything to add.
He became a little agitated and moved further into my room, towards the door that leads to the bathroom. I was out of bed now and stepped forward to block his progress.
Threat? No, I think this is something else.
“That’s not your room either,” I said gently. “That’s just a bathroom.”
“Where’s my wife?”
“I don’t know,” I responded truthfully. “Maybe we should go and find her?”
“I went to the toilet. I can’t find my way back.”
“I’m sure we can get you back.”
“The name’s Samson*.”
He made this last statement as if introducing himself at an army function, rather than standing in his pyjamas, shaking slightly, having invaded a strange woman’s room. It was a flash of another man, genial and confident.

I take him back down to the main house, deeply grateful that he is following my direction placidly. Think, Gillian, think. Adrenalin flying. Odds are that his room is in the other side of the guesthouse, which is the main part for guests. (I’m virtually family, I’ve been here so long.)
I don’t know if Anne, our wonderful landlady, keeps a log I might be able to find showing who is in which room. I realise now that I don’t actually know where Anne sleeps, though she’s here somewhere. It is dark and quiet and I am essentially on my own.

I take him through to the other side of the guesthouse. He’s travelled a long way. We go down two long flights of stairs from my room, along a corridor, through the door that connects the two houses at this level and then up two more flights of stairs. I’m guessing that if he felt he needed to go up lots of stairs to reach his room, then that’s what we should do now.
I see a light and head for it, but it turns out to be just a bathroom. I look at the three bedroom doors nearby and just as I’m about to turn back, I notice that one of them, number 4, is resting on the door frame a little, rather than fully shut.
“Does this look familiar?” I ask him.
“I don’t know,” he says, glumly.
“Let’s push the door open very gently,” I suggest, “and maybe you’ll recognise it inside.” Or maybe we’ll shock a few more people awake.
He pushes the door open, looks inside, then turns back to me.

“I think that’s my wife,” he says.
I think this is the moment when my heart finally breaks. Poor, gentle man. His wife stirs at the light coming in from the corridor.
“Yes, that’s my wife.”
She doesn’t say hello.
“Shut that door!” she exclaims from her bed.
I can see her head clearly, but don’t know if she can see me behind her husband.
“Shut the door!” she repeats to her husband.
“You’re ok now,” I say as we both let the door close behind him.
I don’t hear anything else either of them might have said.

In the morning, Anne explains that the man has Alzheimer’s. I see the couple briefly at breakfast but neither of them says anything to me. Probably he doesn’t remember the adventure at all. Possibly she doesn’t remember either, or didn’t see the woman in the corridor who was returning her husband.
Anne and I agree between ourselves that if we’re going to go senile we’d like to go his way, the gentle way.
Last night Anne took care to switch on the shaver light in the couple’s en suite bathroom, so that if he needed the toilet in the middle of the night again he would hopefully see that he didn’t need to leave their rooms. Meanwhile, I took care to lock my door properly, but a little part of me felt guilty for doing so, as if I were shutting him out from my help.

 

* Name changed to protect the innocent, though I shan’t forget his real name in a hurry.



Away with words

Wednesday, 25th March 2009

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There are two official languages of the Maltese islands. The first is Malti, or Maltese, which is written in the Latin alphabet, drawn from Arabic and blended with Italian, Sicilian and English, with a pinch of French.

The second official language is English, but not quite as I know it:

1. [outside a building site]

ON CONSTRUCTION

Why do we in England say ‘under construction’? On top or underneath? Now that I’ve seen both, neither makes sense.

2. [also outside a building site, where in England we might say ‘Refurbishment’ or ‘Renovations’]

 EMBELLISHMENTS

Well, ok, this is a very Catholic country. Probably the structure itself was fine but they were adding a few more rococo twists and twiddles to their cornices.

3. [explanatory sign next to model in the Mdina Cathedral museum]

A 19th Century model misinterpretation of the Old Siculo-Normal Cathedral as it was before the earthquake of the 11th January 1693

I think they mean ‘interpretation’, rather than misinterpretation, but perhaps these archivists have a more self-aware view of the limits of human knowledge than their counterparts in England would concede.

 

4. [on most street corners on Gozo and quite a few on Malta]

No lorries, EXCEPT TO RENDER A SERVICE IN THIS STREET

Will they be rendering a quick Catholic mass? Distributing tea sets to the local ladies? The mind boggles.

 



States of Transport

Wednesday, 4th March 2009

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Just back from a week of yoga on a Mediterranean island. Am now able to stand on my head literally as well as metaphorically.

However, the journey home has depleted the yogic calm. Easyjet lived up to their name, but National Express (current operators of the UK’s east coast mainline) were training for pain. Standard class seats were all full and standing room extremely limited. I deposited myself between two first class carriages, sitting on my rucksack on the floor near the toilet, having paid more than £100 for this privilege.

I figured no-one could complain, since (a) I wasn’t sitting in first class, simply using the floor outside one of their compartments; (b) I wasn’t in anyone’s way; (c) I had paid more for my ticket than many people in the first class compartments would have paid for theirs; and (d) there was nothing ‘first class’ about the floors on the train. I wasn’t sitting on marble, just the same dusty carpet as was being covered by other people in the standard class carriages.

The ticket inspector had other ideas. She almost literally shoo’d me up the train after berating me for daring to sit so close to first class seats that their occupants might breathe the same air as me when their compartment door opened. She was intransigent, rude and bordering on insulting. My yogic breath was taken away.

Fifteen minutes later, having finally reached a standard class carriage where I could ram my rucksack up against someone else’s luggage and balance myself on top of it, I found myself two feet away from a fresh argument between another passenger and a second ticket inspector. She was travelling on the wrong ticket but on the advice of railway staff at another station and at a cost of £90 for a relatively short journey. He was insistent she pay for a fresh ticket or provide her details for follow-up action. She provided details that turned out to be false. He gently pointed out that this was a foolish thing to have done. Her voice rose ever higher. His voice became ever calmer. My inner yoga voice finally fled south and left me to journey north in a less peaceful state of transport.

More soon about the glorious Mediterranean carnival in which we participated and the Maltese and Gozitans’ whacky use of the English language.

For now, deep breathing, Gillian. Focus on the breath. In. And out. In. And out…



May you be covered with camels

Tuesday, 6th January 2009

“Two million people will decide on the basis of this first song whether to switch off or keep listening.”

So spake the Radio 4 producer as he loomed between microphone stands and wires in Hexham Abbey on Saturday afternoon. This was Tactic #1 for getting the choir to sing our opening number of the Epiphany service consistently in tune.

I knew he didn’t necessarily speaketh the whole truth. Occasionally I am one of those two million listeners. When I have woken too early on a Sunday morning, on comes Radio 4. Whatever the programme, I’ll be lulled back to sleep. The radio stays on however well or badly the choir sings.

If you’re an intellectual, politically aware person living on your own in the UK you need no introduction to the BBC’s Radio 4. If you’re also an insomniac and/or a Christian you need no introduction to the Sunday Service programme.

For those who do need an introduction, Radio 4 is a speech radio station in the UK with programmes about politics, history, science, politics, comedy, politics, drama, religion, and politics. It is the younger, more home-loving sister of the BBC World Service. The sisters are old enough to be in a nursing home, but will be scooting around on their broomsticks for decades to come.

Radio 4 makes me a better person. Partly because it educates me. Partly because it helps me sleep. Last Sunday, however, it made me get up two and a half hours before dawn, cycle down an icy hill and start singing before 7am.

I am not religious and I can only hope this public confession won’t get me kicked out of Hexham Abbey Chamber Choir.

I go to the Abbey mainly to sing, but also because I regularly discover things there that I wouldn’t discover elsewhere. This weekend was no exception.

We were recording the Epiphany service and the title was appropriate – epiphany being a sudden understanding or awareness of something important, at least something important to the person having the epiphany.

Here are my epiphanies from the broadcast:

1 Isaiah’s prophesy of the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the magi states that “A multitude of camels shall cover you”. At the time of writing, around 700 B.C., this must have been considered a good thing.

2 Everything that is broadcast is rehearsed. This includes saying “Amen” at the end of a prayer. The producer was less than impressed with the choir on our first attempt.

3 Epiphany (with a capital ‘E’) is the celebration of the arrival of the magi at Jesus’ birth, but only in the Western Church and only from around the 4th century. In the East, where it originated, Epiphany celebrates Jesus’ birth and his baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan.

4 The Western Epiphany service means it’s perfectly ok to sing Christmas carols after 25th December. (I used to think this would incur the wrath of some greater Being in whom I don’t officially believe.)

5 Although light is generally portrayed as a good thing in religious texts, lights with particular meanings can induce terror.

The radio crew placed a red light bulb on a stand at the top of the nave.

“When it flashes, that means that people in London are talking about us,” explained the producer at the Saturday rehearsal. “Next, it will go out. That means they are about to come to us. Finally, it will come on continuously. That means we are On Air.”

40 pairs of eyes swivelled nervously in the direction of the flashing bulb just after 8am on Sunday morning. I’m not sure the congregation had any idea what it meant, but the choir and speakers were duly wired.

6 The Sunday Service may sound like a normal church service on air, but it does not necessarily look like one. The many adaptations made in Hexham Abbey included:

o Canon Graham Usher and Dr Frances Dower delivered their meditations and prayers not from the pulpit, but from a DJ’s table with microphones, headsets and flashing lights

 

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The panic button in front of DJ’s table in front of nativity crib

 

o The opening tenor soloist had to sing whilst standing in the nave with his back to most of the congregation, because this was the only place the crew could find to achieve the right sound balance between his microphone and the supporting choir and organ parts

o The choir sat not in the old, ornate choir stalls (one of my favourite parts of a very beautiful building), nor in the modern choir stalls, but in chairs arranged around microphone stands just in front of the congregation, where the acoustic would be best and normally where the Canon sits.

o After the red On Air light went out, the producer came to the pulpit and delivered a lovely list of thank you’s, just like after the final performance in a theatre run, darling.

Epiphany is actually today, January 6th.

And so, in a world where few things are exactly as they first seem to be, I wish you many camels in your year to come. May you be covered with them.

(And if you want to hear for yourself about the camels, plus also SatNav, stars and the dulcet tones of Hexham Abbey Chamber Choir as we rose to the challenge of not singing flat at Early O’Clock on a dark, sub-freezing January morning, you can do so until the end of Saturday 10th January at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/programmes/sunday_worship/ )



The unwritten Santa Clause in the contract of life

Tuesday, 9th December 2008

Once upon a time there was a young girl called Gillian.

When Gillian was twelve, her wise Headmaster asked his pupils to design and run stalls at their Christmas Fair.

Not many of the pupils designed a stall and fewer still ran one.

The wise Headmaster knew that this would happen. That is why he asked the whole school.

Gillian obeyed the wise Headmaster. She overheard teachers saying that people like to buy things that have been handmade by others, and she dreamed.

The night before the fair, Gillian rushed to finish and decorate thirty snowmen and thirty Santa Clauses. She wasn’t sure they were very good, but she took comfort that she was doing the right thing and that everything would therefore be well.

On the night of the fair, Gillian and her Mummy set up her stall. The little snowmen and Clauses looked small in the large hall. Gillian lined them all up and stood behind them, waiting for buyers to come.

Lots of people came to Gillian’s stall, for next to it was one of the few other stalls being run by children and it was magnificent. Two young boys had fixed a piece of drainpipe to a tall board, which they propped up so that it was nearly vertical. They took money from each customer and loaned them a hockey stick in return. Then they dropped a stuffed toy rat through the drainpipe and each customer tried to Whack The Rat as it shot out of the bottom. If a customer was successful their money was returned. Very few customers were successful, but many tried over and over again to whack that rat, and everyone had a splendid time.

Gillian watched the customers at other stalls, particularly those buying proper, factory-made Christmas tree decorations. But most of all she watched people trying to whack that rat, laughing and thumping the board.

Parents passed and eventually bought most of Gillian’s snowmen and Clauses. She smiled at the parents, but at the end of the evening she frowned at the snowmen and Clauses who remained.

Gillian grew up, but each Christmas she grew down again when she saw the snowmen and Clauses on her parents’ Christmas tree. Don’t try to be perfect, she reminded herself. Minimum effort for maximum return. Whack The Rat.

And so, good people, if this Christmas you don’t have a factory filled with magic and elves to craft and deliver presents for all your friends and family, remember Gillian’s Clauses:

A rat, a drainpipe and a piece of wood are generally free.

Shortcuts can be the best cuts.



Hello Obama, Farewell Helen

Monday, 24th November 2008

I’m worried that I might be sexist. It’s because of my reactions to two recent elections. The first you will know. The second, you might not.

First was the clamour for Obama. While the world erupted with euphoria for change, I scribbled down some calculations to show that sexual equality is at least 38 years away in the US. An elephant born today might just live to see it. I probably won’t.

My logic runs thus:
–> The world is openly saying “wow – America has its first black president”
–> This will be the same when America has its first female president
–> Equality is only achieved when gender (race etc) is no longer noticed – this doesn’t mean talked about, this means thought about
–> President is the highest profile job and a barometer for all others
–> Gender goes unnoticed only when there have been lots of different women who have done the same job as men for a reasonably long period of time
–> Lots of female presidents means at least 5
–> There’s only one president at a time
–> New presidents are elected infrequently
–> In the short-term, women are less likely to run for president than men (note from Hilary – this is not necessarily through their own choice)
–> Even after the first female president is elected, the next one after her may not be a woman
–> Given Barack’s huge support, he’s likely to be president for the next 8 years (heck, if Bush can manage it, Barack should be a shoe-in)
–> So the first female president is at least 8 years away
–> Allowing an even 50% chance that a woman will be elected president thereafter (unlikely, but let’s go with it), and allowing an average 6 years between changes in president (because some will retain power for 4 years, others 8), it will be at least 30 years after Barack’s presidency until America has had 5 female presidents
–> So 38 years is a conservative estimate of the time required
–> A more realistic figure is 50+

Four days after the US presidential election, Helen Clark lost her bid to win her fourth election in New Zealand.

One of the many things I have liked about New Zealand since I first stepped boot on its shore was that the Prime Minister happened to be a woman and no big deal was made about this.

Why am I upset that Helen Clark has gone after nine years? Is it because her successor has very little practical experience and seems to have campaigned on that most vacuous of words – “change”? Is it because I supported strongly her party’s manifesto? Did I even know much about this manifesto? Not really.

No, I’m upset that Clark lost the election because New Zealand no longer has a woman at the top. An intelligent, competent, articulate leader who just happens to be a woman.

And these reactions, I fear, make me a sexist lamb.

(Apologies to regular readers. I’ll be funny again next time.)



Dogging-in

Sunday, 28th September 2008

Permit me to recommend to you one of my favourite whims. Which is, when confronted with a rack of free magazines and newspapers, to select the one with which I am least familiar, read it and see if the world changes.

Today I gained grand results:-  a great deal of hilarity; fresh insight into my country; and the chance of losing my job.

This particular rack of free reading material is in one of the four pubs in England’s best village. A village with barely more than 800 inhabitants that sustains four pubs and its own brewery is certainly doing well, and it seems entirely appropriate that the sponsors of the award are intimately connected with gas. Unfortunately, today, I was not drinking alcohol. It may have helped.

Today my magazine of choice was Shooting Times. Or, rather, Shooting Times & Country Magazine. The publishers seem not to like the full title of their magazine. The words Shooting Times appear in great big letters, but ‘& Country Magazine’ is hidden beneath, in small font, as if it is not sexy enough to encourage circulation, if you’ll pardon the double (if not triple) link between ‘shooting’ and ‘circulation’.

I have come over all double-entendrish because of one passage in particular, which I found in an article entitled ‘Late harvest halts shooting’:

‘Dave Pick runs three shoots in the Cotswolds. He said that the late harvest has made dogging-in near to impossible: “In a normal year we would spend two hours in the morning and two hours at midday dogging-in.” ‘

Now, every occupation has its own jargon and there were other words in the article that I did not understand on first reading. However, nothing else in the whole magazine (and I read it cover to cover) shed any light on the term ‘dogging-in’.

It has taken some careful googling for me to discover what ‘dogging-in’ means. Shooting Times’ own website could not help. Neither could its sister publications, the British Association for Shooting & Conservation or even Google itself. Eventually, from DEFRA (the UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), I have discovered that dogging-in is the practice of patrolling an area of land with a dog to encourage the game birds in that area to stay within its perimeter.

As you may imagine, internet searching for the term ‘dogging-in’ is not without its risks. Most of the websites that were returned were not appropriate to my needs, shall we say. And I could conceivably lose my day job for googling a term so intimately connected with another term about intimate connections.

Yet my internet quest has led me to discover that the Shooting Times website is equally full of fun. For example, there is an ‘Advice’ section, in which current entries include:

What’s the best way to call deer?
Why is the front trigger of my dad’s shotgun spring loaded?

The latest edition of Shooting Times (and, ahem, Country Magazine) has also taught me about the Blaser (not an item of clothing, but a rifle), someone’s late spaniel (to which a whole page article was devoted) and the ‘rare Italian Lagotto Romagnolo’ (not a pizza, but a gundog). Marvelously, this month’s content was under the control of the Deputy Editor, Alastair Balmain, whose picture reveals a man of around 14 years old.

I must also congratulate the magazine on its eight page clothing special. These are the only eight pages of clothes catalogue I have ever seen where the female models reveal no more flesh than their hands and parts of their faces (the other parts being discreetly shielded by hats). Bring on the up-market gum boots and woolly jumpers. It would seem I have more in common with ‘the hunting set’ than I could have imagined. By the time I got to the free welly bag offer with a Shooting Times subsription, it was all I could do to close the magazine with a happy sigh and return it to its perch.

So, dear reader, the next time you are confronted with a rack of magazines or newspapers free for your entertainment – be it in a café, pub, library, friend’s home, or wherever – don’t do what most people do. Don’t reach for the title you already know to be your favourite, or the subject in which you are already interested. Reach for the one you would never dream of buying and have certainly never read before. Who knows where this could end?



A Traditional English Uprising at a Traditional English B&B (Battered & Befuddling)

Friday, 25th July 2008

There is a Bed & Breakfast establishment in a Cambridgeshire village that deserves to be singled out. Not for praise.
Let’s call the village Little Barmy and the accommodation The Bargeman’s Bottom. (Excuse me a mo while I just Google-check that no such place exists. You never know with English names. Not that I am trying to avoid being sued… I write only of the truth as I found it.)

I recently spent two nights under the cracked roof of The Bargeman’s Bottom.
The building is a classic English construction of medieval-cum-Tudor-cum-Victorian-cum-modern. In other words, it has more corners than a Top Gear Christmas Special, doors  where no sensible human being could possibly have planned to put them, indoor slopes, a wiring system like the supplejack vines in undisturbed New Zealand bush and sketches on the walls of Oliver Cromwell as if he were a contemporary.
(Yes, this is the Oliver Cromwell who is, to the best of my knowledge, the only person to have succeeded in having a serving British monarch beheaded. He was born near The Bargeman’s Bottom and this part of the country was a stronghold for him in the English Civil War. Now, the English Civil War placed a little more emphasis on the ‘civil’ part than on the ‘war’ part, compared with what certain other countries have achieved and continue to achieve. However, Cromwell did succeed in having an awful lot of people killed – before, during and after the bit we now refer to as the war. He was to become a minor inspiration to me during my stay in Little Barmy.)

I required ten minutes to find my room, despite the apparently simple instructions to ‘go through that door, turn left and Room 2 is at the top on the right’.
En route I found five doors and three sets of stairs. One of the doors took me outside, to a courtyard enclosed by yet more doors.
Eventually, I found Room 2 by doubling back up a staircase I could have sworn I’d just come down, going through another two doors and walking uphill along a dark corridor.
Room 2 was also dark. I flicked what promised to be the main light switch. All remained dark.

The overhead lights didn’t work, but there were seven switches on the walls so it took me some time to reach this conclusion.
(Later, under torchlight, I discovered three deep, long cracks emanating from the light fitting in the ceiling of the en suite, which bulged downwards in the centre as if holding a pond feature in the room above.)
Of the seven switches on the wall, two presumably operated the lights that didn’t work, one was ominously marked ISOLATOR, one worked a heated towel rail in the other room and the rest remained a mystery.
One of the two small windows had been freshly boarded up across 80% of its width. The misshapen board had been cut to fit – which is to say, badly – and jammed to the tiny window with no fewer than 16 screws. Yes, screws. Through thin plyboard.
The window-sill and part of the table below were scattered with a pot pourri of sawdust, regular dust and ash.
The bathroom contained no soap, no sink plug, four mini bottles of shampoo that looked as if they’d been stolen from a hotel, a wisp of toilet paper and a shower with two settings: drip, or drill.
Drawers in the bedroom contained a bible, a single AA battery, four empty fizzy drinks bottles, scraps of paper and an empty bag.
When I found my way back to the bar to report the problem with the lights, I was offered an alternative room. Further long-distance travel revealed that Room 6 was worse than Room 2, smelling of smoke and with only one window, which did not open.

Guests of The Bargeman’s Bottom must choose either to be locked in or to be locked out. (No guest is issued with a key to the outside door.)
Returning from a wedding at 2am, my party had to call the key-keeper and wait for him to come round from his house nearby to let us in.
In mid-July, in southern England (as Cambridgeshire now seems to this Northerner), we shivered on the doorstep as we waited.
For this, fellow travellers, I paid £90 for two nights. Wisely, they charged me in advance.
Following the long-established English tradition, of which Mr Cromwell was a shocking blip, I did not complain.
When asked on the second day whether I wished for my room to be cleaned I said there was no need, but enquired politely if I might have a little more toilet paper. I was assured that I could. It never arrived.
Instead, some time while I was out on the Saturday, they switched on the bedside lamp (located at the foot of the bed, hence able to be called a “bedside lamp” whilst not providing the usual convenience of such) and left this to burn for goodness knows how many hours before I arrived back at 2am on Sunday morning. Quietly, I added blatant waste of energy and serious risk of fire to their customer catalogue.

I shall, of course, write a stiff letter of complaint about The Bargeman’s Bottom. I may address it to Mr Oliver Cromwell. He seems to have been the only person to have taken any action around there for the last 350 years.



Curious Incident of The Dog

Friday, 4th July 2008

I recently had a disturbing experience with a hound. It was trying to tell me something.

I was sitting at the foot of one of the Giant Redwoods that are hidden inside the woods on one of Hexham’s southern hills.

These trees are well named. A wall of spongy, rust-coloured bark stood behind me, around three metres wide.

I had just eaten an apple and had the Sunday papers on my knees. Wind was jumping all over the trees, but I had a firm hold on the papers, I was warm from walking and I was sitting still, enjoying my first day off in months. The first day in which I was going to do no money work, no charity work, no community work, no house work and nothing at all for anyone other than myself.

I heard its bark first. It wasn’t a friendly bark. I looked up to see it running at me from within the undergrowth, still quite a distance away.

“Come back,” shouted a voice behind it. Two pairs of human legs appeared. “Come away!”

The dog stopped momentarily. In full view now, its front legs were splayed. It seemed very angry to me.

It growled and lunged forward, directly at me

“Come away!” shouted the owner, a middle-aged woman with a teenage boy in tow.

The dog stopped again, a few metres away from me. Snarling, it sat on its haunches as if about to pounce.

I stood up, watching it closely but taking care not to look directly into its eyes in case it saw my fear or interpreted eye contact as a challenge. I’m not good with dogs so couldn’t identify its breed, but it was taller than me as I sat and I wasn’t about to make its hunt any easier.

“He’s harmless,” the woman called.

Dear me, he doesn’t seem it.

“He’s never done this before,” she added.

Well he’s doing it now.

“Would you mind fetching him away?” I called. “I’m not very good with dogs,” I added, lamely, as if the whole incident were my fault.

She didn’t move. The dog did. It ran at me, howling, flicking over the rucksack where I’d been sitting and jumping at my right hand side.

“NO!” I shouted, at the same time as the woman, who still hadn’t come forward.

I kicked out, not aiming to make contact, but to show that I could if I wanted to. Thank goodness for the comfortingly thick soles of my walking boots.

I looked the mutt in the eye now all right. If it wanted a fight then my adrenalin was ready.

The lad had moved towards us. He was still several feet away, as if he wasn’t sure he wanted to get any closer.

Then the dog suddenly backed away a few steps, still looking only at me. It stopped, appeared to be thinking hard and then turned and ran off, no longer snarling.

The owners followed the dog away without another word.

Maybe they thought I had some weird substance on me that had attracted and incensed their best friend. I didn’t. Other than the Sunday papers and a half-eaten apple, I was carrying the wrappers from out-of-date chocolates already consumed, a bottle of water, a camera and my waterproofs.

I sat back down, adrenalin still pumping.

Was there some other animal near me and I misinterpreted the object of the dog’s aggression? No.

Was this some Lassie moment, whereby the overhead branches were about to fall in the wind and injure me? I considered this for some time, wondering if I should move away, before accepting that Lassie would have dealt with the situation somewhat differently.

Was the dog freaked out because I was sitting so still in a moving wood? Maybe.

Or was the dog attacking what it perceived to be an alien species? A woman who lives very happily without a man, grows her own herbs and doesn’t have a particular need for someone else to be present in order to have an intellectual conversation. In short, a witch.

I am an oddity in these parts. I have borne no children. I am not married, or divorced. I am not even dating or aspiring to be so. A recent speed dater who was kind enough to want to be in a relationship with me found that I would rather spend an evening walking, rowing, running, singing, reading or writing than spend time getting to know him. That could have been personal, but I’m not convinced.

Whatever its reasons, the dog, thankfully, did not reappear. Neither did a tree fall on my head. Instead I finished the apple and the paper and walked for hours, gathering the ingredients for a dog calming spell as I cackled happily to myself.



All at sea

Wednesday, 28th May 2008

I’ve gone away to sea. (Apparently headed for the same French ports as are about to be blockaded.) Back next month, I hope.



Deep Peat? Pass the Deep Heat

Wednesday, 9th April 2008

Tread lightly on this earth, for you tread upon a sodden great peat bog.

 Image

This could be the motto of the Allendale Challenge, a 25 mile / 40 km walk (or, amazingly, run) across what the organisers call “some of the finest peat bogs in the North Pennines”.
These are my kind of people. They speak of peat bogs as others speak of wine or watercolours. They’re right too. For about eight miles across the central section of the Challenge route the peat bogs grow ever darker, soggier and deeper. Tread carefully, or you’ll become one those who find themselves up to their waist in black peat and unable to escape unaided.
Although the course is officially 25 miles long, I’d be willing to bet that many Challengers walk closer to 30 miles from trying to wind around the worst bits. That is, those Challengers who finish the course might walk 30 miles. Each year a good number ‘retire’ on the aptly named Black Hill, which is roughly the half way point.
This year there are around 620 Challengers. I know this because I am # 618 and I registered at the very last minute, turning up at Allendale Village Hall at 7.30am in already muddy boots and having been for a three mile stroll the previous evening. I failed to submit my application before the closing date and had sent a begging email to the organisers, receiving no response until the afternoon before the Challenge date. Turn up early tomorrow morning, it said, “If the weather forecast hasn’t put you off”.
The forecast didn’t put me off. It encouraged me. It said snow and cold and rain, following on from a week of steady rain, which is exactly how the fells should be in early April.
Last year’s Challenge took place in freakishly good weather that quite disturbed me – one hot, sunny day following a week of hot and dry days. It was the first time I had walked the Allendale Challenge and I found myself bouncing off the bottoms of peat hags, landing almost on the far lip in one bound. It was particularly alarming because two weeks earlier I had finished the Pennine Way, a 284-mile winding highway of soggy peat along these very same Pennines. That had been anything but dry. Dense, sucking, cloying peat. That’s what the Challenge is all about.

“Whatever you do, wherever you finish and however you are feeling when you go, you must please let the organising team know that you have left the course.”
The Challenge Starter makes this plea, wishes us well, thanks the supporters and volunteers and then makes the plea again for good measure. He is a down-to-earth looking man and he stands on a bench seat to address the assembled walkers, no loud hailer necessary.
Apparently, the team at the last checkpoint will stay there until 10pm unless everyone is accounted for before then. It is now 8am.

After an initial tarmac bashing, the route winds up the East Allen Dale valley side, following the line of the mill flue, which was apparently built to carry away the pollution created by a mill at the bottom of the valley. They went to some considerable effort – the flue is around two metres wide and at least a mile length of enclosed stone tunnel built into the hillside. At the top lie the Allendale Chimneys, remnants from lead mining that was once an English equivalent of the gold rush.
I’m walking with four other members of Hexham Rowing Club, although ‘walking with’ is a slight exaggeration. In a tradition established last year, when we first competed together, everyone walks at their own pace. This means that our Captain (who, at 59, is one of the fittest people I’ve ever met) is already long gone. Adele has also disappeared. Adele stands around 5’ tall and could disappear to her eyebrows in a peat bog if she wasn’t too quick for them.
I’ve also spotted the Revd Graham Usher, Rector at Hexham Abbey. He is one of many people taking the dog for a walk. Keen, happy dogs strain at their leads and drag their owners uphill.
The line of Challengers stretches ever thinner up to the Chimneys (the first checkpoint) and beyond, down into the next valley, to the second checkpoint at Ninebanks.
Here lie a number of buildings. The number is less than ten. Ninebanks YHA is one of the few to have escaped the recent and highly annoying cull of remote YHAs. Its publicity offers attractions that include “peace and quiet”, “secluded countryside” and “wild moorland”. You get the picture.
After just a mile or so more of uphill warm-up from Ninebanks begins the great central sog of the Challenge. We’re back beyond the snowline, so in places the sog is quite crispy.

On the squelch up to the third checkpoint, the tail of a now very long line of walkers starts to hear the pitter patter of the even hardier Allendale Challengers – the runners.
Runners start two hours after the walkers, at 10am. Well, they’re obviously not very hardy, so they probably need the lie-in.
For the next few miles, every few minutes someone will splatter past with mud up the back of their thighs, not an ounce of spare fat anywhere on their body and with a mental focus so extreme that it pours like vapour from every bone in their body.
I count maybe thirty runners in total, women as well as men. One of them shouts suddenly “Come on John. Come on!” when he is just a few metres away from me and it takes me a couple of seconds to realise that he is talking to himself.
The checkpoint names on the central section provide clues about the terrain: Hard Rigg; Black Hill and Killhope Law.
At Black Hill, people don’t so much retire from the course as stumble weak-kneed towards the cheerful, ruddy-cheeked helpers in the rescue ambulance and beg to be driven back to Northumberland. For we have crossed momentarily into Cumbria, via a series of false summits, each of which promised to be Black Hill before delivering up peaty farts and giggles as the next false summit rears into view.
The main consolation on this section is the view to the south east, where Great Dunn Fell, with its golfball weather station atop, Little Dunn Fell and the might sweep of Cross Fell are visible on a clear (or clear-ish) day. Cross Fell is the highest point on the Pennine Way and I swear it is so named because it is the point where weather systems from the west and east cross. Every few seconds, if my experiences there are anything to go by.
“Enjoy this next bit,” I say at the Black Hill Checkpoint to a friend who is walking the Challenge for the first time. “The distance to the next checkpoint is one of the shortest, but the terrain is something else. This bit is the true Allendale Challenge.”
Here is where finally it pays to be small. Although when I stand at the bottom of a peat hag I have no chance of seeing over the top, I can skip with enough momentum and sufficient lightness so as not to be sucked down too far into its depths. I even overtake others, quite disgracefully smug when those others are strapping men prodding delicately at the ground with high-tech walking sticks.
Days, weeks and, yes, now even months, of experience with bog walking seems to have made me a fairly reliable predictor of which slice of blackness will hold my weight and which will not. Hold my CV. This needs to be added. Surely future employers will be impressed.
A very smiley snowman and his three very smiley creators greet the Challengers who make it across to Killhope Law.
“I can’t feel my toes,” grins one of the rescue volunteers, whilst noting down the walkers’ numbers, which are read out in over-exaggerated country-Geordie accent by his friend. (There is no widely known reference term for the Northumberland accent that to many strangers’ ears sounds like Geordie, but to locals is nothing like ‘that city accent’.) They are hunched under a small tarpaulin, fixed goodness knows how to the rock cairn that is in turn fixed to the only piece of unmoving ground in the vicinity.

From this point onwards, the ground begins to remember that it is officially classed as a solid and the next long descent and subsequent long ascent are mostly firm. Hail and snow storms continue to sweep by. We can watch them coming, feel them land and then watch them sweep eastwards.
I am writing this bit roughly 22 miles in. I haven’t stopped. I can write as I walk because the ground, finally, is firm. This section is a long ascent along a private track opened to walkers just this one day of the year. It’s name? The Drag. This place feels more like New Zealand every day.
I am in rhythm and quite disgracefully happy as I stride single blister, sore, ache or pain. This is a rhythm I know and love, but somehow had forgotten to play very loudly for the last year.
The Allendale Challenge starts and finishes in the eponymous village, population currently around 800, down from around 6,500 in the mid nineteenth century.
It has its own brewery, producing three bitters and one stout that I adore, plus a fourth bitter that is just a little too… well, bitter, for me. It holds an ancient New Years Eve ceremony in which a procession of local ‘guisers’ in fancy dress carry blazing tar barrels on their heads, circling the village centre before tossing the tar and barrels onto a midnight bonfire in the market square. I went this year for the first time and was promptly and warmly welcomed into strangers’ homes for ‘first footing’, where guisers dressed as monks, medieval jesters and women were hanging around in the kitchen.
Allendale also has an old-fashioned bumpy slide built into the small hill of the playground behind the Village hall, two stores, a café-cum-art-gallery, four pubs and two dress-makers dolls standing in the side windows of the gift shop, dressed in garish clothes and not to be first encountered in the dark.
It is cunningly disguised as ‘Mallendale’ in Catherine Cookson novels and when, last year, Allendale won the title ‘Calor Village of the Year for England’, I was not in the least surprised.
In 2007 I made the mistake of thinking that the Challenge finished in the Golden Lion Hotel in the market square. Well, it is a little cruel that you arrive directly opposite the pub that always serves Allendale Ales and gives a free ‘pie and peas’ to all Challengers, but in order officially to complete the Challenge you have to turn right, away from the nice pub, and walk the remaining 30 metres or so to the Village Hall.
My time last year was 9 hours, 54 minutes. I saved a whole nine minutes this year by not buying my first pint before finishing.
I am a very average and very happy mid-lister. In reasonable conditions, the quickest walker can complete the Challenge in under five hours and the quickest runner in three and a half. The longest times stretch beyond thirteen and nine hours, respectively.
I don’t know how all the dogs did, but there were a lot of tongues hanging out in the Golden Lion when I arrived and very few of them belonged to pets.

 

See photos from the 2008 Allendale Challenge in my Gallery here:

For those interested in next year’s Challenge (contact me!), check out the official site:
http://www.northoftynesearchandrescue.org.uk/pages/allendale.html



Speed Mating

Wednesday, 19th March 2008

“Will you turn off the TV showing soft porn before we start dating?”
I addressed my question cheerfully to one of the two ladies organising last week’s speed dating session in Newcastle. My two friends and I had arrived at the venue to find a 48” screen above the bar broadcasting images of models massaging each others’ thighs with oil and attractive women exercising in a gymn in a way that I have never thought of doing.

This was ‘Fashion TV’ and apparently these were images of what ‘real models’ (sic) do in their spare time. The male speed daters who had already arrived were, I think, trying hard to pretend they weren’t watching the TV. I couldn’t tear my eyes from it. Beneath the writhing women, the straight-faced barman seemed either not to know what was going on above his head, or not to care.

The male and female daters were avoiding talking to each other before the formal dating part of the evening began. All these people had come to this place on this night for the explicit purpose of talking to members of the opposite sex, yet, for the first part of the evening, everyone was avoiding doing exactly that.

After all, this game has clear rules. At a speed-dating event, everyone is given a number and the women take a seat in pre-allotted spaces around the room. The men move between the women, in a slowly spinning roulette of hope.

I don’t know why this tradition has arisen whereby the women remain stationary and the men move around. Are we pandering to a clichéd male hunter instinct to be on the move whilst tracking prey? Are men somehow less at risk of falling over whilst moving between dates? Or do women need a static post on which to drape their handbags and accessories, while men are assumed to be travelling lighter?

At this particular event each date was to last four minutes. When the clock starts ticking, each man and woman record on their separate sheets of paper the name and number of the other person. At the end of the date they each tick a box (ideally in a discrete fashion) to indicate whether they would like to see that person again or not. The event organisers collect the paperwork at the end and presumably have a hilarious time going through it all. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

One of my friends and I were stationed at the bar itself. The TV was switched off (part joy, part sorrow). We purchased a bottle of wine (warm), filled our glasses with ice and pulled up our senses of humour.

Within the space of two hours, I had met, amongst others, an electrical engineer, a lorry driver, a politician, a teacher, a man studying for his PhD, a stonemason and a house renovator.

I didn’t quite grasp all that I was being told. One fellow said that he was a chauffeur, but a combination of his accent, my advancing state of inebriety and a general sense of chaos all around, meant that what I actually heard was “I’m a sofa.”  This same man was supposedly an avid car-racer. I heard that as ‘”cow-raiser”.

Some of what happened was uncannily the same as what took place the only other time I have been speed dating, in London in 2004:

– More women showed up than men
(I had sufficient break times last week to peruse the rack of free postcards outside the toilets, write a postcard to a friend, chat with the other women who were free and – fatally – buy a second bottle of wine.)

– My score sheets reveal quite precisely the point at which the wine kicks in
(The first seven men I met last week were almost all marked ‘ditch’. The last six men I met were almost all marked ‘date’ or ‘maybe’. Around the same half way point my friend missed one of the men off her score sheet entirely and we still don’t know if her subsequent ticks and crosses were one date out of synch or not.)

– I came away with the phone number of one of the other daters – but not one of the men

– Many of the women talked and laughed with each other, even comparing score sheets after the formal dating was over. The men mostly fled.

 

In sober reflection on a highly entertaining evening, I have realised that I am fundamentally poor at speed dating because I am fascinated by other people’s thoughts and the ways in which they choose to spend their time on this Earth. I forget that I’m there to sift for a date and instead become the other person’s new best mate.

After all, where else other than a speed dating event can you find out so much strange and interesting information in just one evening? Last Wednesday I learned:
 how to defraud measures of spirits from an air force officers’ mess;
 what a glow-in-the-dark scorpion looks like in the dark (yes, it glows);
 the location of all the good curry houses in the Tyne Valley;
 how to raise a six-foot green iguana;
 how to source and thaw frozen mice for a constrictor snake; and
 which person in the room had recently purchased a chainsaw.
I ticked seven men in total – three dates and four maybes. Six of them have already contacted me and here is where it falls down: I’m not sure I have the time to see any of them again. My life is already filled with the things I need to do to ensure my own physical survival and the things I want to do in order to change the world (not necessarily in this order).

If only I could establish a new order of Speed Mating…

Speed Mating (1): becoming one half of a successful couple in considerably less time than is normally required in order to establish whether two people have complementary life objectives, shared values, compatible physiques and sexual appetites, attuned personalities, and so on.

Speed Mating (2): the act of becoming a stranger’s friend within the space of four minutes, by sharing confidential personal information and amusing anecdotes over a unit or two of alcohol (soft porn optional).



No Tax Before the Fifth Date

Wednesday, 27th February 2008

For the first time in my adult life, all my belongings have assembled themselves in one place. I use the passive form because I have played a minor part in this re-enactment of an entire township resettlement in the Wild West of America. 17 members of my rowing club took the first impressive shift. My two parents then did roughly the equivalent again by themselves.

I am not alone in having generated this volume of ‘stuff’ by living the first half of my life in a western society. However, I am in a minority for still having it with me. The wartime spirit of ‘waste not, want not’ is alive in this member of Generation X.

The first thing I have picked up with every intention to recycle in a meaningful way to the betterment of my life and someone else’s is a book. This book is surely a prime candidate for being cast out from my house.

It was published in 1974, a year of my life for which I can recall nothing whatsoever. I was in nappies, not rehab, and as I gazed at the world with goo-ridden fingers in my mouth and a blank, trusting grin squidged between fat-filled cheeks, Sweet & Maxwell of New Fetter Lane London published Tax Planning with Precedents; Seventh Edition.

What possible content could there be in such a book that would make me want to keep it?

I find the answer on the first page. The first page, that is, of the densely worded Preface, which precedes the seven pages of eye-wateringly small font that is the Contents list.

The Preface lists the large numbers of recent and “immense changes” in fiscal law, including the following:

married women may now be taxed upon their earned income as if they were no longer chattels of their husbands but were single individuals

I feel for authors D.A. Shirley and A.R. Thornhill (I think we can assume they were both male). The taxation of women as if they were individuals seems to have come as a shock to them.

“Within my lifetime,” I keep thinking. “Within my lifetime.”

Ok, so the longer my lifetime becomes, the more that events taking place in its early period are becoming matters of history rather than current affairs. Even so, it is shocking to realise that the core principle of sexual equality before the law, which I have taken for granted as long as I can remember, is only a recent phenomenon even in the UK.

In modern Britain it is acceptable for me, a woman who is very much a single individual, to own a house, garden, furniture, and more than 60 boxes of books, crockery, photos, music and general detritus. This is progress. Further progress would be for me to exercise my right in a far more modest and sustainable fashion.

I must hurry to explain at this point that Tax Planning with Precedents is not representative of my book collection. By rough count there are more than 750 books around me and most of them are, of course, volumes of sexy, meaningful, classy literature. Volumes such as…
… I rush to the bookshelf to note the neighbouring book titles…
… Unfortunately, they include:

– Teach Yourself Ballroom Dancing;
– The Refrigerator and the Universe;
– Die Scheibenwelt (Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, in German);
– A Handbook for Visitors from Outer Space;
– Origins of the Sexual Impulse;
– Into The Abyss; and
– Error of Judgement.

I’m going to file Tax Planning with Precedents on a shelf for history books. Between England in the Later Middle Ages and Prostitution and Victorian Society should do nicely.

It’s going to take a while before my house is clutter-free. As a distraction, I’m going speed-dating in Newcastle next month. Perhaps I won’t mention the book. Tax before the fifth date is still not the done thing for a single woman.



New Zealand in old England

Monday, 14th January 2008

“If you don’t mind me asking, what are you doing with that ladder?”

I didn’t mind him asking. He was a policeman. It was close to midnight and I was walking alone near a country lane in my new home town, wearing a black jacket, black leggings, black gloves and trainers, with a small rucksack on my back, a black woolly hat pulled firmly down around my eyes and a ladder balanced remarkably comfortably over my right shoulder.

“I’ve been cleaning,” I explained, waving my arm and therefore the ladder in the direction from which I’d come. “I’ve bought a house up on the hill.”

He looked at me, silently. I talked some more.

“I haven’t moved in yet. I’ve been renting a flat in town. That’s where I’m going now. I’m moving house at the weekend so I’ve just been trying to do some cleaning while the place is empty. Does that sound like a plausible explanation?” I laughed.

I concede that not much about my present situation is entirely plausible. Who else moves home based on a quick scan of the Lonely Planet guide to their own country, an Ordinance Survey map and a one-page summary of the national rail network?

I haven’t moved about 300 miles for any of the usual reasons: my work, someone else’s work, family, change in finances, returning to roots, school catchment games, boredom or fashion.

I have moved to the far north of England on a quest to find New Zealand in old England. I fell wildly in love with certain aspects of life in New Zealand when I was there and my return to glorious, sooty, angry England was less than successful. The problem, I reasoned, was that I was returning to London and it was unfair to compare New Zealand bush and townships with the city that never weeps.

So here I am, in Northumberland. This is England’s least densely populated county. Indeed, if you exclude the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and its Siamese twin Gateshead then by volume Northumberland is ruled by sheep, grouse or softwood trees, not people. This is more like it.

There is space here for walking – proper walking, that is, where you can think for days without bumping into anybody else. The prevailing winds bring fresh air from the Pennines. There are hills and trees and small settlements where the natives are welcoming.

The peoples of the north-east of England have a reputation similar to the Kiwis for friendliness, practicality and being down-to-earth, according to the kinds of books that specialise in summarising vast complexity and variety into one broadly accurate sentence. The natives are indeed friendly.

They’ve had to be. I didn’t know anyone in Northumberland when I arrived and I am not a typical demographic here. Moreover, I have strange habits, like wandering down country lanes with a ladder in the dark.

The patient policeman didn’t even require me to explain why I choose not to own a car. He looked at me some more, before pronouncing:
“Aye. Al reet hinny. Take care then now.”
Or something like that.