Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt

Listening to BBC presenters reporting on the culture secretary is a bit like watching show-jumping.

Sarah Montague, for instance, had a tricky round earlier this morning. Approaching the fence that has caused many a fine rider sleepless nights, she at first appeared supremely confident.

I have to confess my heart was in my mouth, as I sensed she was taking it too quickly.

Hooves drumming:

the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt
the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt  
the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt

... she approached the jump head on.

But then - just as I feared - she seemed to lose impulse at the critical moment and almost faltered.

As it turned out, her back hooves barely cleared the top rail.

Well done Sarah !!

All the same - it was a heart-stopping moment.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Summer .. or what?

For my father, the thought of going on holiday any later than mid-July was out of the question. The way he saw it was that by August they'd be pulling the boats up and stacking away the deck chairs - or if not actually doing these things, they'd be starting to think about them - and that was just as bad.

No – the perfect fortnight for our Cornish seaside holiday was the last week in June, first week in July - the time of year when summer suddenly bursts out with exhilarating vitality. Mornings, cool and bright - light sparkling on crystal clear water; the evenings, balmy - the harbourside aglow with yellow lamplight against a peaceful, turquoise sky.

.... provided it wasn't raining, of course.

A rainy holiday was enough to plunge my father into bleak despair. Even the prediction of rain was enough to put the dampers on an otherwise perfect day.

"You enjoy it while you can", he would pronounce gloomily, as the rest of the family lolled in the warm sunshine. "I know what's coming."

So, all in all, I think it best he was spared our recent summers.

For my own part, I have developed a technique for coping with the despondency brought on by the daily sight of rain falling from a featureless, leaden sky and that is to play the there's always someone worse off than I am game.

I have tried thinking about what it must be like to be a farmer, a road-mender or one of those people inviting shoppers to fill in questionnaires; that was until I hit upon the perfect subject for these gloomy meditations:  namely the man selling donkey rides on the beach at Weston-Super-Mare.

Just picture the scene: a makeshift lean-to, hard against the sea wall. No floor, just bare sand, littered here and there with donkey-droppings. The donkey-man himself, slumped in a sagging picnic chair, leafs dejectedly through a dog-eared copy of Take-a-Break, long past bothering to peer out at the deserted, rain-lashed beach. And, all the while, a bunch of sodden donkeys, blunt heads buried in their feed bags, steam patiently in the gloom.

You have to be careful though; think about it too much and you can end up feeling even worse. 

(First published in Horsley's Over the Wall magazine

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Having noted that badgers appear to be embarking on major subterranean engineering works in our garden,  I decided to consult Google on what I might do to deter them.  First thing that popped up was:
"You should consider how fortunate you are to have these animals in your garden, despite any damage they may cause. There are a lot of people who would give anything to have their own garden Badger sett."  
All the same, the thought of a complex of dugouts, ditches and other military-style  earthworks just a few yards from our back door is just the sort of thing that keeps me  awake at night. Especially in view of the next piece of information I unearthed:
"The Badger Protection Act 1992 forbids interference with badgers or their setts until a licence is granted by the government body Natural England, with offenders risking a fine of up to £5,000 for each badger or sett affected."
But this is nothing, compared with the following seemingly innocuous advice:
"... if badgers start to excavate a sett in your garden you should seek immediate help." 
It's the ambiguity that is so alarming here. What sort of help are they talking about? Counselling, perhaps? Or is it something altogether darker that is being hinted at?

I find myself recalling a passage from Flann O'Brien's The Plain People of Ireland. Rummaging through the bookcase, I find it:
"... you'll find it's a badger you have in the house. Them lads would take the hand off you. Better go aisy now with them lads. Ate the face of you when you're asleep in the bed. Hump him out of the house before he has you destroyed man. Many's a good man had the neck off him by a badger. A good strong badger can break a man's arm with one blow of his hind  leg, don't make any mistake about that. Show that badger the door." 
But of course badgers are peaceful and shy creatures. What can I be thinking of?  And we don't have them in the house (just yet). I should try keeping things in proportion.

All the same ....

Friday, April 29, 2011

Royal Wedding

Extracts from my live commentary on Twitter:

Guests arriving at the Abbey and - oh dear - I've just spotted Mr Bean ... I hope he does something really funny.

A phalanx of liveried chimpanzees leads the convoy of armoured minibuses out the palace gates, followed by the Master of the Stool, bearing the huge, solid-gold chamber pot of state ...

... and meanwhile in Whitehall, as the magnificent jewel-encrusted Femmefatalatron is slowly wheeled into position, a chorus of coal miners, their dirty little faces beaming with characteristic welsh mischief ...

Every breath hushed as The Dress emerges from the car like a magnificent butterfly bursting forth from its chrysalis.

I'm with Simon Schama in considering the trees in the Abbey a touch of genius. Spring, renewal, earth-magic. There's something primitive and pagan about it.

... nave of Westminster Abbey where the eunuchs of the royal household, in full regalia, can always be relied upon to ...

Wife just asked if ceremony is being conducted by Rowen Atkinson. Now that would be something to see ....

The motet, Ubi Caritas et Amor - sung by a choir of Harry Potters.

Of course to be part of the team selected to pull the bridal coach is a great honour. And here it is at last, towed by a team of oiled and naked labour politicians.

Have to hand it to the organisers, carrying off an open-carriage procession in this day and age ....

Right .... that's done. Time to get back to the real world

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Monopoly Money

(Another piece from Horsley's 'Over the Wall' magazine - this one from the Winter 2009 issue) 

It has been clear to me for some time that the game of Monopoly should come with a health warning along the lines: 

“May give rise to sudden and uncontrollable acts of violence”. 

Certainly as a child, the closest I came to murdering anyone, was when playing Monopoly on the hearthrug with my little brother.

The following was a typical scenario. My brother would build up a massive sub-prime property portfolio based on the cheap streets on the first two edges of the board while I pursued an alternative strategy focusing on top-quality investments. Having secured both Park Lane and Mayfair and painstakingly built up to a hotel on each, I would patiently wait for my brother's token to land on one of the fateful squares. When it did, I would rub my hands together and start chuckling, in the confident knowledge his pathetic financial empire was doomed.

But then he would calmly reach beneath the edge of the hearthrug and pull out a thick bank-roll of red, £500 pound notes – which he'd been quietly squirrelling away since the beginning of the game – and coolly pay off the debt as if it was of no consequence to him whatsoever.

He had a trick or two up his sleeve when it came to real money too. For example, he would polish his pocket money. He'd work away at his pennies with Brasso until they shone like newly-minted gold sovereigns. At first, I considered this a faintly amusing, babyish aberration; but that was before he played his masterstroke. When the tinkling notes of Popeye the Sailor Man heralded the arrival of the ice-cream van, and we all rushed out with our pennies, my brother sat dejectedly on the doorstep in such a way as to catch the eye of our mother, who immediately asked him why he wasn't first in the queue for an ice-cream, whether he was feeling poorly etc.

No.” he said – lifting sorrowful eyes in which I could swear he had managed to cause real tears to glisten. “It's just that I don't want to spend all my shiny money.” At which point – and I found this scarcely credible in our mother, who was normally so canny – she gave him some extra money for an ice cream!

I can still remember the little smile he saved just for me, as he joined the queue.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The fluoroscope

In case anyone is inclined to dismiss my talk of shoe-shop x-ray machines as an extravagant fantasy, here's the beast itself (with one viewing tube for the parent, one for the shop-assistant and a slot for the child's feet)

For background check out: 

Monday, March 28, 2011

A dose of the hard stuff

News of the nuclear accident at Fukushima has awoken memories from my childhood.

In 1957, 8-years old and living near Manchester, I recall the time our daily school milk was suddenly stopped.  One morning we were all given milk tablets (white and around the size of a pound coin) and told that we had to chew them as there wouldn't be any fresh milk that day. They weren't very nice and some of us (not me, of course) used to drop them quietly behind the radiators. I can't remember clearly, but I think this went on for about two weeks.

Looking back on these events, the pieces slowly begin to fall into place.

In 1957 there was a serious nuclear accident at Windscale in Cumbria resulting from a desperate drive to produce plutonium for Britain's atomic bomb. The accident led to the accidental release of significant amounts of radioactive iodine, caesium and xenon.

I remember the strictness with which we were instructed we must eat the tablets and can recall, even after all these years, how it all seemed a little strange. After all, would it be all that serious if we missed our school milk for a week or two? But then recently, on recounting this story to a friend, he said: "They were probably iodine tablets."

On reflection, I think it's quite likely they were. Of course nothing was said; there were no letters home, no pronouncements from government. I doubt even our teachers knew what was going on.   The decision to distribute iodine tablets would have been made by some anonymous Whitehall civil-servant at the Home office or Ministry of Defence and enacted via the civil-defence, command and control procedures in place during the Cold War

Incidentally around the same time, I recall looking out of my classroom window to see the setting sun disfigured with huge sunspots.  And, as if that wasn't enough, we had atmospheric nuclear weapons tests, luminous watches and x-ray machines in shoe shops to check our feet had room to grow.

All in all, I reckon I must have got quite a dose.