Monthly Archives: July 2013

Cannot see the woods for the trees

I was in Penrith on Saturday and had an hour or so to spare, so I walked up to the Beacon. It’s the hill that overlooks Penrith from the east, and promises fabulous views out over Penrith and the North Lakes.
It was hot, but the hill itself is well wooded and there is plenty of shade. It was Penrith Show Day, so there were no dog walkers and I never saw a soul.
Eventually I got to the top; now for the view. Except you couldn’t see anything for the chuffing trees; instead you stand on the top vaguely trying to peer through one spot where the trees are a bit lower and if you stand on tiptoe you might just catch a glimpse of the business park.
On the top of the Beacon is a building, constructed by our ancestors so those who made the walk could shelter if it got wet, and could get that bit of extra height. Except of course, it’s got bars on the windows and a heavy steel door of a thickness that submarine bulkheads aspire to. So Penrith has a view you cannot see and a monument that is quite literally, neither use nor ornament.
The problem is, people can get so caught up in the detail, they miss the point. At the moment trees are ‘a good thing’. This has become almost an article of faith with some. So obviously you cannot fell a few around the summit of the Beacon because the sudden outpouring of C02 will cause the oceans to boil and the atmosphere to stream off to space.
I’ve seen similar across in Yorkshire. When I was a kid I got to know some of the North York Moors pretty well; and there were some fabulous views. When I took my own children, the trees had grown up and the seats and picnic tables they’d put at the viewpoints were rotting in the long grass because there wasn’t a view any more. That forestry was commercial so it’s probably been clear felled and replanted and the view might be back by now.

This seems to be part of the human condition. We lose the plot. Someone asked me about ‘dinner parties’. Now that is part of polite society that I’ve entirely managed to avoid.
First you have to decide what you’re holding it for. Is it to impress and bedazzle folk with your sophistication and wealth, or is it supposed to be a chance for fellowship, fun and catching up with old friends. Decide which one it is and go for it, but don’t confuse them or expect to attempt the first and to simultaneously achieve the second.
We do it with homes as well. Is the home somewhere you live, a combination of den, office and sanctuary? Or is it the exquisite setting designed to set you off and display your talents to perfection? Again, make your mind up. Especially make sure that all the denizens agree, because the two aims are not mutually compatible.

I suppose life is like that as well. Every so often you have to look at your life and decide whether you are living the life you want; or the life you have just drifted into.
Because I’m like that, I’ll finish with a quote from ‘Dead Man Riding East’, available from all good electronic bookshops and even from

Alissa pointed to a chair and Benor obediently sat down in it.
“Where am I? What’s going on?”
“Introductions first. I am Alissa, a senior concubine of the Prince of Talan. You are in the Harem of the Prince of Talan. So, other than being a dead man, who are you?”
Benor concentrated on the important bit. “What do you mean, ‘dead man’?”
“You are a man in the Harem of Prince Cirramar, Prince of Talan. He is a cheerless individual, paranoid, capricious, although apparently occasionally whimsical. He has decreed that death is the penalty for any man who enters here, other than him. And whilst I don’t claim to know the Prince too well, I’m pretty sure you aren’t him.”
Benor stood up, “I am Benor Dorfinngil, also known as Benor the Cartographer, of Toelar.”
“I am Alissa, originally of Watersmeet.” She smiled, “I suspect Watersmeet means as little to you as Toelar does do me.”
Benor nodded. “But why have you brought me here?”
Alissa turned away from him, a gesture which allowed him to admire her figure. She turned back with two glasses and a decanter she had lifted from a small table behind her.
“I am thirty-five, I am the concubine of the current Prince of Talan, as I was concubine of the previous one, and have met neither of them. I have been trapped here long enough and have decided to leave. A lifetime of embroidery lacks appeal. But to leave I need a helper and a companion, ideally one who is as desperate as I am.
When I saw you arrive I realised you fitted the bill. You are, to put it bluntly, perhaps the only man in Talan who dare not betray me, as by being here you are automatically condemned to death.”
Benor took the wine glass she offered him and poured himself a drink from the decanter, he sniffed it carefully, sipped and smiled. He raised his glass to her.
“Madame, Benor Dorfinngil at your service.”


The dignity of manual labour.

Well a word from the wise, by the time you’re sixty, you’re knackered. Trust me in this one, I’ve seen it. I mean, it’s fine for bureaucrats and others to get early retirement due to stress, but what about early retirement because your body is knackered and you cannot do the job any more?
Looking back at the jobs I’ve done, I’ve dug ditches, emptied septic tanks (and unblocked the soil pipes), corrected the spelling and grammar of senior civil servants, got the welder out to fix something, and milked cows; sometimes all in the same day.
I know how to use a yard brush properly; I can use a muck fork and load a wheelbarrow. I’ve fixed ballcock valves, bled the air out of diesel engines. I’ve marked and dug out the foundation trenches when we were building, and I was only half an inch out in one hundred feet. They had to use a laser to spot that one; I’d just used the old method of doing right-angles.

Yet it always amuses me. You see, I am a redneck. I’m someone who works outside in the sun so the back of my neck gets sunburned. And to be called a redneck is an insult. Think about it. We live in a society where the people who feed you, the people who you couldn’t survive without, the people who grow your food, the people who clean your sewers; all get looked down on by the people who think they are the educated ones. I’ve even heard people sneer at the machinists who make their clothes. Indeed people use the phrase ‘only a machinist’ as a derogatory comment.
It’s been said that society is only three meals from anarchy. That’s how thin the line is. Watch the panic buying start when suddenly there’s a rumour that the tanker drivers might go on strike.
And yet, the people who actually do the things that keep us from barbarism are sneered at. I’ll tell you one thing. There are a lot of well paid people wouldn’t be missed. The BBC journalists go on strike and the quality of Radio Four broadcasting improves.

At times it genuinely frightens me, just how ignorant and out of touch a lot of reputedly educated people are. I keep getting asked to ‘like’ campaigns on facebook which say that the government is failing us because they aren’t just putting unemployed people to work build new roads, railways and the like. This is often followed by the phrase ‘Like we did in the ‘30s’.
Have the people who start these campaigns got a clue how the real world works. Are they harking back to such glorious victories of socialism as the building of the White Sea canal?

White Sea canal

I think they’ve missed one of the ironies of the modern world. Whilst in the office the introduction of the computer has increased the amount of data that has to be shuffled and the number of people who seem to exist solely to shuffle it; out in the real world the introduction of technology means that civil engineering now employs small numbers of seriously skilled people. In factories and workshops there are less people, but by and large they’re a lot more highly trained.

Perhaps we ought to shuffle things a bit. I do worry about all these people who suffer from stress after years of working in offices. So how about we bring in a law; you cannot go into admin, teaching or enter the civil service until you’ve had your forty-fifth birthday?
It strikes me that most of the stress in these jobs seems to be due to appallingly bad management and stupid ways of working. Therefore concentrating on an older workforce who’ve already had jobs and know how the world works will help. Imagine telling a group of trainee teachers, all in their mid forties, that children must be left to do what they want because eventually they’ll want to learn. The trainees would probably tell the lecturer off for going out in the sun too long without a hat. Or in a civil service setting, imagine telling people of that age group that any error on a form is to be regarded as an attempt to defraud the state until proven otherwise. Say that to people who’ve already had twenty five years struggling with government forms they’ve had to fill in.

We’ll take things further forward. Aged fifty, you’ll be allowed to stand for election to local government, and at fifty five, to parliament.
Obviously we’ll have to take salary structures and pensions into account. No one paid by the state, local government or out of a tax like the TV licence can earn more than the Prime Minister and his salary is fixed to four times the national average. MPs do not get a pension or golden handshake when they quit. It’s not a career, get over it. They don’t get expenses, that’s what they get paid a salary for.
But what do I know, I’m just a redneck. And anyway; the present system obviously works so well.

The answer is Prawns

Douglas Adams started it, producing the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything, without working out what the question actually was. So I suppose I’m in good company here.
But let’s go back a bit. Who remembers when the ‘must have’ starter was Prawn Cocktail; and Chicken Kiev was the staple of bar menus? Then there was the ‘chicken in a basket’ craze. I remember it as a kid, Mum and Dad would take us for a meal somewhere and your chicken and chips (and probably peas) would come in a faux wicker basket lined with glorified kitchen towel. I might be a victim of false memory syndrome here but I’m sure my Mother bought four of these plastic baskets and we even used them at home.
Who would ever have thought that eating out of fancy Tupperware would become fashionable? Are trenchers going to make a comeback next? Made fashionable by Virgil in his Aeneid they’re ‘plates’ made of a type of bread. The gravy soaked into them and you could eat them after if you wanted. See for a recipe.

But back to our Prawn Cocktail and Chicken Kiev; now they’re so unfashionable you can probably only buy them as supermarket ready-meals. And when was the last time you saw chicken in a basket?
But hang on a minute. What about the people who liked prawn cocktail? Now they’re officially ‘Naff’ are these folk reduced to eating them in the secrecy of their own homes with the blinds down? Eating in fear lest they be mocked unmercifully by their more stylish neighbours? Fashion is bad enough in clothing.
Admittedly I’ve managed to avoid that; my sole concession to the fashion industry was buying two Ben Sherman shirts when I was sixteen (with ties to match which may come as a surprise to some who know me). Since I abandoned the path of chic, I’ve tended to stick to white shirt with tie for the rare formal occasion. (The black tie for funerals, the other tie for a wedding)
For normal use I just wear what I now discover are called polo shirts. They’re good because the soft collar serves the true function of all collars; it stops the jacket or jumper worn over it chafing your neck.

But if fashion moves on, should I, like the lovers of Prawn Cocktail or chicken in the basket, abandon what I genuinely like? And why? To join a herd of people who are so lacking in self belief they have to dress or eat like everyone else to prove to themselves they matter. People who are so insecure in their own identity that they feel threatened if someone ‘breaks the rules’ and doesn’t seem to care.

There’s phrase of CS Lewis’s in the Screwtape Letters that always stuck with me.

“You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the “best” people, the “right” food, the “important” books. I have known a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.”

One thing I have learned over the years is that frankly, you might as well eat the food you like, wear the clothes you’re comfortable with, read the books you enjoy and listen to the music you want. Other people might not like your choice, but the only person you have to face in the shaving mirror (or whatever the female equivalent is) is you.

The Dock was the colour of green milk

Trust me in this, it was. Not only that but there were no reflections, just shadows cast on the water. And it’s hotter than hell and two lads walked past me wearing hoodies.
I mean, honestly lads, it’s 2:30pm, it’s 80 degrees in the shade and there isn’t any shade. It’s so hot Dante’s editor has been on the phone to him asking for the manuscript back because he’s a bit concerned about some of the imagery because it’s hotter than hell here. And you’re wearing hoodies.
But then as I got into town, there I saw the victim. Stripped to the waist, he hadn’t been tattooed, he’d been assaulted by a graffiti artist. The thing covering half his paunch wasn’t art, it was a doodle. If he’d paid for it, he’d not merely been assaulted, he’d been robbed.
And further down the street was a lad, stripped to the waist, with his trousers hanging not too far above his knees.
It was then that this picture came to mind.


I’m wondering about getting a thousand printed out as business cards then I can just hand them out to people. But what it really needs is an ‘app.’ When you walk past someone, your phone interrogates theirs and the sends them a text with the picture attached. If smart phones could do that, even I’d be tempted to buy one.
But I’m a big sort of chap really; with a little practice, perhaps eat a bit more, exercise a bit less, I could be about the same size as a bunch of eighteen year old girls I saw later.
But all this must pass. Out of town now, cresting the hill and I caught the breeze. There, in with the smell of the dust, diesel, dead grass and at least three different woods, was the smell of the rain.
Smell it, in another couple of hours I’ll be able to taste it. Yes, all this will pass. Tomorrow or the day afterwards we’ll become sensible people again, the mistakes gracefully concealed under more forgiving garments, and you never know, I might even be a bit less acerbic.
Could be a win-win for everyone that.

Life’s a beach.

Believe it or not, I have lounged on a Spanish beach, soaking up the sun and reading a book. I managed it for about two hours before the mind-numbing boredom got to me.
Hate to say it but it’s an awful long time ago now. Still you do daft things in your youth and I suppose my excuse is that it was part of a cycling trip round the south of Spain. Granada, the Sierra Nevada and the Coast in the height of summer, but hey we had fun. Eight of us, South Cumbria’s finest. None of us spoke Spanish, but one had had a week’s holiday in Portugal so that was assumed to be good enough.
It was, but what you never realise is that when you’re on a push bike you’re going into places that no tourist ever goes to. We went into a bar in a small and beautiful village to discover we were the first Englishmen seen since the days of the Black Prince and they bought £1 note off us to put up behind the bar so they could boast of how cosmopolitan they were.
We took push bikes as part of our weight allowance on the plane, because how many clothes do you need on a cycling holiday? But I did take a can of WD40 so you can see I had my priorities right.
First they flew us into the wrong airport, but it didn’t matter, we just did the trip in the other direction. Not only that but the lass from the airline was so pleased she didn’t have to get eight bikes to the right airport she gave us extra breakfast vouchers.
But it meant that the first night we slept on the floor (in the wrong airport) which was at least under budget. But when we got to Seville the next night we were that shattered we’d have slept anywhere. But we found a spot with somewhere safe to leave the bikes (The room next to ours) and the proprietor showed us a room with about eight beds in it, so that was good enough. It was next morning as we left we came to the conclusion we’d spent the night in a hotel normally used as a brothel, but foreign travel broadens the mind.
We also did a bus trip. (I’ve been pestered for this bus trip, someone must have a bus trip story, her life won’t be complete without it) which was exciting. There was a radio in the luggage rack that the driver was listening to. I’m sure it was wired direct to his accelerator; the faster the music, the faster the bus. Mind you, I can relate to that, a Suzi Quatro tape would get an extra 15 mph out of a Landrover.
The road was narrow, mountainous and the driver had obviously dreamed in his youth of being a rally driver. Now with the Spanish answer to Suzi singing, the bus was bouncing and the rest of the world just had to get out of his way.
But anyway back on the bikes and over the Sierra Nevada, staying overnight in the most bizarre hotel I’ve ever visited. It had been a big country house at one time and they had an open fire in the middle of the lounge with a copper hood to catch the smoke, which it sort of did. Then down to the coast. We’d had ten days cycling in the heat and we were going to get a day on the beach.
We hit the beach, we sprawled on sun beds; then after two hours the mindless tedium got to us. Two of us hired a pedalo and took it out and round the bay. Then the others swam out to us and we spent the afternoon diving off it into the Med.
Next day back on the bikes and on the road again.
And thanks to Suzi, for being there when we needed her

Chick lit Special

A heart tugging, tear jerking romance. Grab a box of tissues; open the chocolates and white wine. Except of course I’m male so you know it’ll end badly.
If it’s any consolation, it isn’t my story as such. It was told me by a lady of my acquaintance, rather more years ago than I care to remember. To prevent embarrassment I shall merely say it took place in a south coast town with port facilities and occasional US Navy presence.
My friend had just enrolled at a local higher educational establishment. (I told you I was being discrete here.) She, along with a bunch of other female students rented a house. It was an OK sort of house, the area wasn’t that salubrious but there again, more and more students were moving into it so it wasn’t about to improve much, whatever you did.
Anyway they got themselves settled in and started their courses. Life was a sharp learning curve. They soon learned that a lone female sitting along in the front room with the curtains opened was presumed to be advertising certain services of a ‘personal’ nature. This problem was easily solved, merely drawing the curtains seemed enough to change the signal sent out.
Still, they weren’t prepared for the next incident. At about 2am in the morning there is a hammering on the door, and before any of the girls occupying the house have time to do anything about it there is a crash as the front door in smashed down. This is followed by a male voice, bellowing (with authentic American accent) “US Shore patrol.”
Hastily this group of young ladies gathered at the top of the stairs and peered down at the group of US servicemen gathered at the bottom. Now here we have to have a technical digression. Had I been a witness to the scene or indeed had I invented the story; at this point a definitive statement would have been made. I would have made it my business to tell you whether these were US Marines, US Navy personnel or whatever. But alas the lady of my acquaintance was totally ‘lost at sea’ as we might say over these details. Purely for narrative ease I am going to assume the shore patrol was composed of marines. Anyway back to the story.
The Marine Sergeant in charge was looking for defaulters whose ship was sailing later that day and he was following the time honoured procedure of working his way through the brothels and similar dens of iniquity. The house whose door he had smashed down was on the list and the fact that the door hadn’t been thrown open immediately he knocked was a suspicious sign.
The fact that the only occupants appeared to be a group of young ‘ladies’ wearing night attire probably did nothing to convince him he was mistaken.
Eventually he allowed himself to be convinced. Whether it was the realisation that the night attire consisted predominantly of pyjamas and fluffy bunny slippers rather than baby doll nighties that swayed him I don’t know. Whether it was the vigour of the argument, or the simple fact that there were no young men present; but once proved wrong the Sergeant was not too proud to admit his mistake. He apologised and he and his shore patrol left. But he did leave a particularly burly marine standing in the doorway so that the girls weren’t bothered and could sleep secure until the door was replaced later that day.
Late that morning a young (and apparently charming) US Marine Lieutenant arrived bringing with him appropriate tradesmen. He apologised sincerely, drank coffee with them and the door was fixed to everybody’s satisfaction. A good job done and life reverted to its old tranquil routine.
Until three weeks later when there was a crash, the front door was smashed down and the bellow of “US Shore patrol” was once more heard.
Again there was the discussion with the initially sceptical sergeant; again there were the honest apologies, the leaving of a marine, and the arrival next morning of the charming Lieutenant with yet more apologies and suitable tradesmen to fix the damage.
Apparently the US navy had a list of brothels, bordellos and similar, and their house was still on it. As each ship sent out its own shore patrol with its own copy of the list, the problem was that the mistake kept getting made. But, as he drank coffee and soothed ruffled feathers he promised them that he was on their case and would do his best.
It has to be admitted that try he did, indeed it got to the stage where the Sergeant leading the shore patrol would be met by one bored female whose sole response was “Phone Lieutenant Rivera.”
It was only later that year, when the Lieutenant had been going out with one of the girls for over six months that he admitted he could have got the list changed after the first incident. But he hadn’t because he couldn’t think of any other way to keep on meeting her.
Isn’t young love beautiful?

Never knowingly under-dressed

As everyone who knows me will attest, I’ve always been careful about my clothes. Finding a style that suited me, I’ve stuck with it for at least forty years. Again as anyone who knows me will tell you, I dress appropriately for the conditions. Even when, as at the moment, the conditions verge on the extreme.
For the last few mornings, about 9am I’ve been down on the mosses. The sun isn’t at its hottest; there is a hint of a breeze, but just a hint. But frankly it’s too hot for man or beast.
The bullocks know this. You’ll see them in a huddle, a dozen of them trying to stand in the shade of the same hawthorn, their tails lashing out, seemingly a random.
Sheep find shade more easily. They snuggle into the dike bottom. Note that round here a dike isn’t a ditch, it’s a hedge set on a bank which is the old meaning.
So the only things moving are me and the dog and young Sal isn’t travelling as fast as she sometimes does.
And for this sort of weather, this sort of ground, you’ve got to be dressed appropriately. Trust me, wearing sandals, shorts and flaunting bare chest to a gratifyingly astounded world isn’t ever going to work.
Let’s take the shorts first. Fine if you don’t mind getting your legs shredded by briars, thistles and whatnot. Nettles aren’t a lot of fun either, although they can reach out and get you through denim.
So shorts are out. Sorry and all that.
Oh yes, the bronzed, muscled and lightly oiled bare chest. If you see someone walking in livestock country you’ll notice they often develop a routine. Brush the back of the left arm with the right hand, brush the back of the right arm with the left hand, then grab shirt collar at the back and jiggle your shirt about a bit.
The answer is clegs or horseflies.

Near hedges or rank vegetation they almost swarm. I can remember when mowing rough meadows, the first two passes around a field, you’d be swatting the damn things in twos and threes.
What with clegs, briars, and suchlike, your shirt is protective clothing. As kids we might play out round the yard with no shirt on, but it isn’t something I’ve done since I was a kid.
Finally the sandals; I’ve been told that you’re not supposed to wear socks with them. Well it was a lady who told me this, but frankly, and purely between ourselves; any gender willing to clamber onto a pair of high heels is suspect when it comes to recommending footwear.
I remember seeing a letter written by a Roman soldier to his mum. Pathetically he asked for
“Paria udonum ab Sattua solearum duo et subligariorum duo”;

this translates as, “socks, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants”.

Socks have an important function. At the very least they serve to protect your feet from your footwear.
Sandals are a bit like slippers really. OK round the house. Unlike slippers they’re fine for posing round the pool or on the beach where you’re not going to cover serious distances but if you’re actually going to wear them for more than the walk across the pub car park, a wise man would invest in socks.

And strangely enough I don’t wear them when working, even with socks. What with thistles, clegs, sharp stones and nettles, just slip Wellingtons or a pair of decent boots on.
Someone did comment about the possibility of getting sheep muck between the toes. No problem. Round here we wash whether we need it or not.