Sunday, 30 December 2007

Isn't it ironic?

Don't you think?

No, not rain on your wedding day. Actually, that's probably not all that ironic unless you happen to be a climatologist who's marrying a meteorologist.

No, consider the irony of someone living in the UK's second largest city, sharing space with over a million other living, breathing and (occasionally) noisy people. He needs some rest and relaxation, so goes to a small Welsh coastal village with a population of a few hundred souls.

He fails to get any sleep. At all. For three straight nights, including the one before he comes home. Making the 220-mile drive home something that will boost Red Bull share prices well into the New Year.

That someone was me, by the way. Everyone, repeat after me: "Welsh cottages at the end of a coastal rift valley may experience some considerable wind noise in December, more so than your double-glazed semi in the suburbs."

Despite that, we had a great time. Some highlights:

  • My predictions regarding Christmas Day were a little off the mark. Itunes issues meant that the Phil Spector backing track went awry - we had to have a Rat Pack Christmas instead. Katie came down with flu and although we had Christmas dinner out, she couldn't taste it at all. "But the goose felt nice as I was chewing it," she said later.
  • Activity levels, partly due to Katie's condition but mainly down to our laziness, were lower than a snake's belly. Here's an example:
That's our car, parked in front of "our" cottage. And that's where it stayed for almost a week. Apart from one trip out. To the bottle bank. Shocking, I know.
  • Winter skies like this:

  • Claire, who works at the Cambrian Inn, and her turn of phrase. On asking about the singer and band we'd heard playing old rock and roll standards the night before, she rolled her eyes and referred to him as Elvis Preseli. It's a Wales thing.
  • We didn't manage The Official 2007 Bad Taste Christmas Challenge. Sorry. But we did spend time perfecting our Catalogue Poses. I'm delighted, as I type this, to learn that we're not alone in enjoying this pastime. There's even a Flickr group. I see a theme emerging in the New Year, especially if I run out of subjects to write about.
  • By Thursday Katie had recovered enough to want to eat out again. So energetic was she at pulling off the head of her last crevette that I expected to see it go flying across the restaurant - a little like that sausage on the fork in the opening credits for Grange Hill in the eighties. (I suspect that might be a reference too far for some of you.)
  • If you're ever near Cardiff Gate services on the M4, visit the Burger King there to see the amazing ventriloquist trainee at work. He talks to all the customers, but never moves his mouth. Surely after the 200th time a customer says, "Sorry, didn't get that," he might just begin to get the hint. God knows how lip-readers cope.
  • Katie took over driving us home after Cardiff, as the Red Bull was wearing off. She is a fine and enthusiastic driver. And I should shut up about her one-handed lane changes. (Will that do, dear?)
Right. Off to get some sleep. I've got work tomorrow. To anyone looking in, have a great New Year. See you in the next one.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Just so you know

We must be getting old. Despite getting into bed at a (reasonably) decent hour, we're still well and truly knackered when we awake the following morning.

This is not good.

I haven't written anything truly daft in ages. Although I've had plenty of daft thoughts, I haven't been able to translate them here into anything truly worthy of adding to the Fatboyfat List of Odd Posts.

This, also, is not good. I enjoy writing them. And let's face it, people really don't want to be coming here to hear about Real Life (tm) when there are tales of swimming squirrels to be told.

We could do with a break and a change of scene. So here's how it's going to play out.

Tomorrow morning we are driving down to Wales. We will probably stop at Cardiff Services on the M4 to pay homage to the Burger King. That's a nice vignette for you all, isn't it?

On our arrival in Solva I might have a couple of pints.

The days will be spent wandering around this delightful corner of Pembrokeshire - the bracing air, the sea, the skies clear and blue.

In the evenings I might have a couple of pints.

On Christmas Day itself I shall arise, wraith-like from my slumbers. Putting the Phil Spector Christmas Album through the iPod speakers, we'll set to opening our presents whilst sipping chilled Bucks Fizz. Then to Christmas luncheon - the bird, hopefully with chestnut stuffing and all the traditional trimmings. All washed down by a cheeky young white Burgundy.

I will eat my annual sprout. (Yes, that's 'sprout', singular. One can overdo these things.)

Pudding, mince pies and assorted cheeses may follow, with port. We will scan the TV channels for The Guns of Navarone, or maybe go for a brisk stroll along the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path.

In the evening I may have a couple of pints. Maybe with Laphroaig chasers.

See you all on the 28th. And in the meantime, happy Christmas, Winter Solstice, Hanukkah, Saturnalia, Kwanzaa, Yuletide, etc. Hope it's as good for you as it's shaping up to be for us.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Our Christmas challenge

Did I mention we were going away over the Christmas period?

We haven't really indulged in the usual seasonal activities as a result. We haven't bothered with decorations or even a tree. After all, what's the point if we're not here to enjoy them? And if we have a tree up, Bodie the cat will only try and hump it in our absence. Matt and Kate next door are looking after him while we're away, but expecting them to deal with the aftermath of a cat/tree coupling is a bit too much to ask.

So when Katie asked me the other day if I'd bought her a card, I admitted that I hadn't. "That's OK," she replied, "neither have I. And to be honest, I'll struggle to get hold of a halfway decent one before we go away at the weekend."

This struck me as a little sad. Is this what nine years of marriage leads to?

So we've decided to make it a little interesting. We're going to have a challenge:

The Official 2007 Bad Taste Yuletide Challenge.

Snappy title, yes? The rules are quite simple. We have to find the cheapest, nastiest, godawful Christmas cards we can, and send them to each other. Extra points for any verse that induces the early onset of diabetes. I will be taking pictures if the quality is low enough.

(p.s. I know. It's my 100th post. I don't quite understand how I got here either. If I'd realised then what I realise now, etc.....)

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Stripping the willow

Last night I went to a party to celebrate my cousin's recent marriage. Because, quite frankly, we haven't had enough wedding-related celebration in the last twelve months.

Anyway, Steve has married Meg. They got married in October, on Long Beach Island in the States. This wasn't some extravagance, as that's where Meg is from (the States, not Long Beach Island). And as our funds weren't going to stretch to a second transatlantic trip this year, we waited for the UK leg of the party instead. So last night we had a barn dance and hog roast. I managed to participate in 50% of those activities. Care to hazard a guess?

It's not that I'm a particularly bad dancer. That would be a bit like stating I'm a bad skydiver. It's not something I do often enough to be able to judge. But the problem is, when surrounded by happy dancing partygoers, I'll typically stay welded to my seat and nervously avoid eye-contact. I blame my dad. He once told me that he considered dancing a "criminal waste of drinking time". Once you've got that in your head, it's difficult to overcome.

Which is a bit of a shame, I suppose. I've never been to a barn dance before; this one seemed to have all the traditional English dances, accompanied by a folk band and with a leader calling out the dance moves. Before you ask, there were no cable-knit jumpers involved. It actually looked like fun - people of all ages were up there and you could actually get, well, quite close to your dancing partner. It certainly harked back to a more innocent age, although I'm sure there are probably some deep anthropological meanings to more than a few of the dance moves.

I was delighted to learn from Meg that she'd wanted to have such a quintessentially traditional English evening.

Smashing. Or awesome. Depending on your viewpoint.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

The Santa Worshippers

I was once Santa Claus.

Obviously, not the Santa Claus, merely a Santa Claus. As we all know, the real Santa, Father Christmas, St. Nick, etc, is a kindly old Laplander with a booming laugh and a serious work ethic around this time of year.

It was this heavy diary commitment that meant the real chap was unavailable several Christmases ago, on the occasion of my employer's charitable foundation presentation evening. The foundation makes awards to the types of organisations that don't normally get recognised for funding, but for whom a few hundred pounds should make a real difference. Every so often, there's a presentation evening when the cheques get handed out, and in the event of this happening in December, Santa shows up to do some ho-ho-hoing and to dole out presents. Invariably, some of the charities will be for kids so it all goes down well with the audience.

Anyway, the real Santa was unable to make it in 2005, something to do with being a little behind with the performance reviews for the elves. Someone, however, donated a red suit, hat, false beard, etc. At this point in time, my body shape kind of fitted the template a little. And I've always been a little too keen to volunteer for things. So I got Santa'd up.

As it happens, it was great - I strode in, sack of goodies on my back and generally channelling Brian Blessed. This will sound a little schmaltzy, but the look on the young kids' faces was wonderful - delight, mixed with unshakeable belief. It was Miracle on 34th Street all over for me, and ever so slightly humbling.

Last year I was away on the night itself, so a colleague stepped in. Tom is a good few stones lighter than me and is quite possibly the poshest man in Christendom. But he stepped up to the mark, dressed in the (somewhat looser) costume and made his way into the room, sack of goodies over his shoulder.

Perhaps the organisers should have checked to see whether any kids were going to be there that year.

Tom found himself surrounded by somewhat bewildered 50- and 60-year olds, wondering quite why a skinny chap, with a cut-glass accent and wearing what looked like a red ridge tent, was trying to push boxes of chocolates on them.

Timing. That's the key.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Oh for crying out loud.

Inside I am crying. Crying hot, bitter tears. Tears of envy, tears of loss.

I was not, as you'll have guessed, at the O2 Arena in London last night. I did not see the revelation. I have not experienced the miracle first-hand.

I mean, will you just look at this review? The writer's even coined a new word - 'heaviosity'. And look at how he's described 'Kashmir'. If that doesn't put shivers up the back of your neck, check for a pulse. You might in fact be clinically dead.

Or a Depeche Mode fan. Which, come to think of it, may not be all that different from being dead, but only with slightly worse clothing.

I'm well aware that bands reuniting and going back on tour has been very much the thing this year. I've even experienced one of them myself when I saw Genesis in July. It was great - but then again I had seen them live several times before.

I'll make you all a promise. This relatively sophisticated, jaded and boring old bugger will immediately, and without notice, take on the appearance and demeanour of an excited schoolboy. I may even hop from foot to foot. All that has to happen is for Led Zep to announce tour dates.

Stranger things have happened.

Monday, 10 December 2007

It's in the woods, it's coming....

With just over two weeks to go, we can safely assume that the annual meat-and-drink-and-falling-asleep fest is on its way. It takes a while for me to get excited about the Christmas period these days. Christmas isn't quite the same when you're an old fart. But I think I'm finally achieving it. Excitement, that is - I think I passed the Old Fart Threshold some years back, just about the time I started to find furniture catalogues vaguely interesting.

I can remember when I was (a lot) younger that I'd get excited about Christmas from about October onwards. Even the shock realisation at about age 8 that Father Christmas was in fact my dad wearing a knitted bobble hat in Birmingham City colours did little to put me off.

There are certain things that signal the onset of Yule. The Christmas adverts used to be a giveaway. Even in my jaded old age, the screening of the first "Holidays are coming" Coke ads in November used to be a highpoint. But now they've replaced the Coke trucks with that travesty of an advert with a dodgy-looking Santa stalking the same woman over a 40 year period. It's just a little creepy, and definitely not the same.

So now I have to make do with this:

Nothing. And I mean, nothing, says "Birth of baby Jesus" better than a CGI gamebird flogging Scotch.

Anyway, we have in the last few days received our first Christmas cards and presents. Look at this!

We had this clock from our local Indian (OK, Bangladeshi) restaurant and a feng shui desk calendar and writing set from the Chinese takeaway. As we approach what is essentially a Christian festival, I'd like to say a quick hurrah to the Muslim and Buddhist purveyors of tasty delights.

I'm not 100% sure what this says about us - we don't get takeout food that often, surely? This may explain why I reached 18 stone earlier this year...

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Party like it's, erm, 2007

I'm not going to lie to you. No, really. You and me, we have this connection, you know. I couldn't look you in the virtual eyes and pass on a deliberate falsehood. I'd feel ashamed and a little dirty, you'd be let down by the experience.

Although on reflection, that wouldn't be the first time anything I've done has prompted that sort of outcome.

Anyway, I'm not going to make out that I looked forwards to yet another corporate Christmas party - with Katie's employer last night - with unbridled enthusiasm. In fact, the bridles were out in force, especially as I was getting ready, fussing with a bow-tie for only the third time this year. Other people cheat and have pre-tied ones. Other people are more sensible, I must conclude.

One of the big problems for me, as invited guest and partner to Katie is that I don't know about 99% of the people there. We see some of her colleagues socially, but that's a small proportion of the total. However, every year I'll meet a whole bunch of other people, many of whom I only see on this one occasion.

I'm great with faces - I have almost complete recall. But names are a bit of a weak point to me. So we traversed the reception last night, Pimm's in hand, with Katie shadowing me and gently whispering "Bernard and Pauline" in my ear like a ministerial aide as we walked up to yet another vaguely-familiar couple. I would then flash a winning smile and go in to greet B & P like lifetime friends, pumping hands and kissing cheeks like the genuine social butterfly.

False and insincere? Perhaps. But I was hugely gratified to see at least one other couple doing exactly the same as we approached them. Excellent.

Some other things I can remember from last night:

  • The organisers deciding to go for something a little more off-the-wall with the food choice. Katie and I liked the sirloin steak in ciabatta accompanied by curly fries, but you could almost detect a palpable "What the f...?" from several hundred diners expecting something more formal. I love reactions like that on a suitably big scale.
  • The bar staff who had no idea how much to charge. Katie bought several sizeable-ticket drinks and came back with a stunned look in her eyes and change from a fiver. This does not happen.
  • A DJ who knew his audience. Dance floor emptying? Lots of people in their 30s and 40s? Righto. Time to put "Welcome to the monkey house" on. Result. And then follow it with "One step beyond." Early eighties alt-ska always does the trick.
  • I actually broke my cummerbund dancing to Madness. Hmmm. How many social classes can I cross in one sentence?
A highpoint was meeting the lovely Verity and her equally lovely sister Melissa. Verity works with Katie. I've ever met anyone called Verity before. "I know all about you," she said. "I've been reading your blog." Oh blimey. I can handle people on other continents ploughing through this, but being up-close-and-personal with someone who's read it is a little...odd. But in a nice way. I was going to call her my blog groupie, but that conjures up all sorts of images of roadies and backstage passes, so I won't. Especially as she'll probably read this. Melissa hasn't experienced the blog, but promises to Facebook me instead. How 21st century am I?

I must have enjoyed proceedings despite myself, as we were still in their company at Oh My God o'clock this morning before I decanted Katie (by then officially 30% composed of Gordon's gin) into a waiting taxi for the journey home.

Rehab, anyone?

Thursday, 6 December 2007

On a steel horse, apparently

I am a sophisticated music fan. The 3,000- odd tunes on my iPod range from the sublime to the cor-blimey. It's therefore fair to say that I have catholic tastes. And that's "small-c catholic". It doesn't mean that I only like Gregorian chant, by the way.

So I'm only slightly ashamed to admit that I used to have the teensiest of soft spots for Bon Jovi. Now, don't get me wrong, here, I wouldn't seek their music out if I had a choice. But they were all over the place in the 80's. To be honest, I really preferred acts that didn't have such a hair product collateral - Led Zep, Motorhead and Deep Purple wouldn't know one end of a L'Oreal can from another. But in the pubs and clubs I went to at the time, you couldn't really get away from New Jersey's finest. I even got persuaded by a friend to see them at Milton Keynes Bowl about twenty years ago. They were actually rather good - a little polished, perhaps, but not offensive.

But I must admit to trying to stifle a little giggle when I saw a full-sized billboard promoting their latest tour. They're playing at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry next year. There's a picture of the band putting on their best mean-and-moody into the camera. There is a lot of leather and accessorising from International House of Horse Brass. At least one of them looks like he'd much rather be having a bit of a sit down with a digestive biscuit and a brew. The passing of time can indeed be a cruel thing.

But it wasn't the band shot that made me nearly steer off the road. It was the tagline, in words three feet high:

"The Lost Highway Leads to Coventry."

Now, I'm sorry. That sort of thing probably makes perfect sense in Montana, the Big Sky Country. Or in places like Nevada, Arizona, Texas, even. I can imagine a Lost Highway winding an epic route through breathtaking scenery. You're on a one-way ticket to Nowhere City. You just don't care. You're a man with a score to settle. The rules of society don't apply to you. It's just you and your ride. On the Lost Highway.

I'm afraid this sort of thing doesn't really translate very well over here. Mind you, I suppose its difficult to give the A444 from Nuneaton to Foleshill the same feel.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Paint your trolley


That's what I was shouting to myself as I drove home this evening. Actually, come to think of it, that's quite a scary image - someone chanting to themselves as they shoot along the A45 between Coventry and Birmingham. It's the sort of thing that would probably qualify you for a Turner Prize these days.

Anyway, the truth is a little more boring. Katie had called me as I pulled out of the car park at work, and asked me to add some fish to the shopping list for my weekly retail experience. Having a bit of a problem with driving whilst writing stuff down (and being too lazy to stop) I resorted to reminding myself verbally as I approached Tesco.

I parked up and played the usual "hunt the trolley" as I made my way through the other parked cars. Miracle of miracle, there was one, on the path, right between two rows of cars. So I pounced, like a cheetah getting on with an antelope. Then I noticed that there was a herd of similar trolleys right by the store, so I left the one little antelope on its own and headed for the entrance instead.


I turned to see my discarded trolley, moving under its own power as a result of my earlier touch, barely missing the front bumper of a parked Zafira, picking up speed and rolling on, about to clatter headlong into a nearby Fiesta.

Ah. Bugger bugger bugger bugger.

Springing back to stop it with a muffled cry of "Whoa!", I patted its handle reassuringly, left it and went to carry on. It was only then that I noticed a rather puzzled looking chap in the Fiesta's passenger seat. He hadn't seen the impending disaster - all he'd seen was a worried man jumping out of the shadows, seemingly to offer solace to a lonely Tesco shopping trolley. There are some things that you just can't explain to strangers. So I didn't bother.

I shouldn't be left out on my own.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Modems roasting on an open fire

Gather round, one and all, and listen to my tale. For I am very old. Not ancient, I'll give you that. There are people with way more summers under their belts than I. However I can remember when there was no such thing as an Internet.

The computer was something with an eery strange green screen that we eleven-year-olds would be banned from touching in Mr Drury's class. Odd, as we were doing Computer Studies at the time. Even when we graduated to individual BBC Micros a year or so later, the whole idea of an International Network of computers, through which you could communicate, share information, and, yes, view images of people with little or no clothing, was an alien concept.

As a result, for many years Christmas shopping meant actually having to go out to the shops. I know, it's an strange concept, a little hard to get your little heads around. You would have to go into crowded stores, with thousands of other desperate people. There would be the crush the disappointment, the tension, the queues.

And the music. Always the music. "I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day". "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time". "Merry Christmas Everybody". The horror.

Some of us still remember Christmas Eve 1989, New Street, Birmingham. We wear our shared experience like a badge of honour, and greet each other to this day like war veterans.

But now it's so different. This afternoon, Katie has performed pretty much all of our annual seasonal shop. She was sat on her sofa not four feet from me. Every few minutes she would call over as she'd crossed another one off the list. I was comfortable and composed, shoeless and relaxed. I was dressed in loose-fitting garments. I could, if I wished, read the latest edition of Top Gear magazine, or peruse from any number of high-quality daytime TV channels.

At one point I even drifted off to the kitchen to prepare some weapons-grade espresso on Kurt the coffee-maker. (You should know that we give names to inanimate objects in our house. For instance, our cars - Henry Honda and Milo the Mini. We fully intend to grow up at some point).

My only contribution to the Christmas shopping so far this year has been the entering of credit card details on several websites. Which, quite frankly, is no massive hardship.

You can keep your DNA mapping or interplanetary space travel - this truly is the pinnacle of civilised Society. Now, if we could just do something about the wrapping...

Friday, 30 November 2007

Demob happy

So. That's that, then. Here we are, at the end of November. Those of you who've been paying attention (you have been keeping up, haven't you?) will have noticed an unusual regularity in the posts on here. One per day, every day, for the whole month; that's how NaBloPoMo rolls.

I'll admit - the thought of adopting the discipline of writing something meaningful every day for a whole month was a bit daunting to me 30 days ago. There's the issue of thinking of things to write - I was convinced that was going to cause me a headache. However I've not needed to spend too much time staring blankly at a screen (I reserve the hours between 9 and 5, Monday to Friday for that). I actually wrote down about 20 topic ideas at the start of the month, and looking at my list now, I've still got half-a-dozen left.

That might be because they're crap, mind you.

I've enjoyed the process of coming up with ridiculous situations and riffing off these; skinny-dipping squirrels, striking bloggers and intergalactic political correctness, for instance. Well, they made me laugh, anyway. But it's been nice to be able to intersperse these with random stuff that I've seen and done in real life, too.

But this all still takes time and has to be planned around real life, and that's been quite a challenge. However, I'm humbled by some of the other NaBloPoMo participants, who've still posted every day despite such distractions as kids, organising family weddings, college work and serious back surgery. And, for the US-based bloggers there was Thanksgiving, which would appear to be the Mother Of All Celebrations with a high potential for collateral damage. I'm a wuss by comparison.

Will I continue? Yes I will. People are looking at this, whether that's more out of a morbid fascination I don't know. But you're there - a number of you are even commenting. Blimey. Quite frankly, it all blows my mind. I thank you.

Maybe I'll not post every day - certainly not for the next couple of days at least. But please stick around. Or subscribe, if you're that way inclined. Hopefully the madness can continue. Not having to post everyday might do something positive to the quality:quantity ratio.

But having spent too much time with my laptop, and not enough with my wife, we are off to Leamington, pretty much the moment I hit the "Publish Post" button. We're going to eat very nice food. There may be wine involved. And we'll communicate without the use of "Comment" buttons.

See you all in perhaps more than one day's time.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Your mission, should you choose to accept it...

It's the second day of our three-day break. Huzzah! The perfect opportunity to lounge around, kick back, chill out, and various other things that less-stressed people with wilfully interesting facial hair are telling us they do all the time.

But no. This was not to be the case.

This morning we went to Solihull. I like Solihull very much indeed. It is, in the main, a very nice place to be. But it seems to have a bit of an uneasy relationship with its much larger next-door neighbour, Birmingham. Silhillians - for that is the somewhat Tolkien-esque name given to residents of the borough - sometimes seem a little nervous at the thought of the country's second city being on their border. They get very hissy when outsiders suggest that they're from Birmingham. There is even a Facebook group called "Solihull is NOT in Birmingham". Those are their own capital letters, which I think is telling.

However, I am able to forgive Solihull this existential despair. It's nice to have aspirational neighbours. Because when given the following mission objectives by Katie this morning, I knew all was going to be well:

  1. Purchase Some Irish Soda Bread;
  2. Purchase Three Packs Of Blinis; and
  3. Don't Fart About. You Have Only One Hour.
The staff in Tesco in Sheldon (Birmingham, but only just) looked at me like an alien yesterday when I asked about blinis. And yes, I understand the irony in looking for vaguely specialist food at a supermarket on my way back from a national food show. Anyway, when you have to explain to someone what a blini is, and he's giving you the same look your cat does when you're discussing particle physics with him, you know you're on a hide into nothing.

But there was no such problem in the Borough of Solihull this morning. The first shop knew what I was after but told me, "We don't get the Christmas stock in until next week". I never knew blinis were seasonal. Perhaps we should tell the Russians? But Marks & Spencer came to my rescue. Bless them, and all who sail in them.

The blinis (topped with smoked salmon and swordfish) are there to provide some counterpoint to the foodfest that will be my in-laws visiting us on Saturday. They want some guidance on places to visit in Barcelona. As I've never been to Barcelona, I can see this being interesting.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Food, glorious food

My body is a temple. Well, actually it tends to fluctuate between small tabernacle chapel and Gothic cathedral, if you must know. And at this moment in time it's still in "flying buttress" mode. Regardless, I've always been very keen on the different fuels I use to keep this place of worship going.

I've got more keen on this in recent years, under the influence of Katie. She is a quite remarkable cook and enjoys putting together all sorts of ingredients to keep things varied. As the official washer-upper I sometimes remark upon the fact that she also likes using all sorts of utensils, pans and cooking wares even for the smallest meals. I'm then told to shut up. She makes a good point.

We're both off work for the rest of this week, so today we went to the BBC Good Food Show at the NEC. We've been doing this every year for some time now. At the time of our first visit I wasn't too sure - the whole idea of walking around an exhibition hall looking at things that didn't have shiny bodywork or flashing LEDs was not something that filled me with enthusiasm. But after a few minutes I'd realised that this was, in fact, an adventure for grown-ups.

Every year, Katie sees the show as yet another retail opportunity whilst I manfully take up the challenge to eat and drink from each of the continents, pretty much for free. There are people who want you to buy their stuff. And it's a food show. Do you see where this is going?

For the first half hour or so, I tend to politely decline many of the offers. "I've not long had my breakfast, " you say to stallholders. Then the "Sod it" circuit kicks in and I lose all semblance of inhibitions. Some of your lovely olives? Why, thank you. A hunk of Red Leicester cheese? You're too kind. Wild boar and apple sausages? It'd be churlish of me to refuse.

The thing is, this show is actually about food and drink. There's a sign asking visitors to drink responsibly. So I acted responsibly by agreeing with Katie that she would drive. As a signed up member of CAMRA (no, I'm not bearded), I'll never miss an opportunity to sample new and interesting ales. There were some great dark winter ales from the Isle of Man and from Wells & Young (the Satanic Mills was particularly spectacular) and I stocked up on these. And for the other end of the evening, a 17-year old single malt whisky from Bruichladdich on Islay. Haunting.

Katie was keeping up her end on the heavy-duty purchasing side of the deal. A flurry of products made their way into the coolbag/trolley affair that has now become a necessity. Stuff for us, stuff for presents - the items kept coming. Tonight, we dine like kings.

Just when I thought we'd made it through the day with only moderate financial damage, she caught sight of this and went all doe-eyed at me:

Although I've since had enough coffee to keep me awake until Armageddon, at least I've satisfied my cravings for shiny bodywork and flashing LEDs.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Man of letters

He was a true pioneer of the Internet. But he never had a research institute named after him. It was through his hard work that the World Wide Web managed to operate smoothly. But he never got to float on the Stock Market. His is the one untold story of the modern age.

His name is Kenneth Culvert. He was a writer. He wrote the words for the website word verification systems.

Word verification, you ask? What's that? Well, thank you for asking. Word verification is the seemingly random selection of letters you get on websites the world over, that you retype to prove you're a human, not a spam computer:

You look surprised. You thought the letters were all generated randomly by a computer, didn't you? But no. Word verification was one of the last few jobs to be still carried out by dedicated artisans. Culvert was the daddy of them all. The Hemingway of cyberspace. And I met him.

"Uvama! Heh - that was one of my favourites," said Culvert as he poured himself another Drambuie. "Y'see, in the early days, websites the world over were being spammed to death. This was stopping genuine overconfident 17-year-olds from posting comments like "UR GAY" and "l33t HaxXor" wherever they wanted to."

Clearly something needed to be done. And this is where Culvert could offer his skills. As an English graduate from Magdalen College, a glittering writing career awaited. He was all set. But he was persuaded to turn his hand to crafting those short yet vital pieces of copy.

"The hardest thing, when writing," he said, "is to keep it short but full of hidden meaning. Anyone can write Lord of the Rings. But those five or six letters? ggttfsdd? jkyvuvm? Now that's a true artform. Brin and Sergey employed me first, at Google. The food was great."

But wasn't he worried that other more established writers were continually getting more credit? "Hah! Douglas Coupland and Yann Martel? Oh, yeah, they got all the plaudits alright. But I was getting in touch with millions of readers every single day. gundthrip? dragbrekkg? All my own."

At first, Culvert worked in a partnership. After penning the words, legendary designer Bert Puttock would then apply fonts and colours. "Then he'd give the table a shove to send the letters doolally, and photograph the whole shebang on his Hasselblad. He'd develop each shot individually before we put them up on the websites. He was a true gentleman, was Bert."

Culvert and Puttocks were in demand. Everyone wanted their bespoke word verification on their sites. "We'd have a ball," said Culvert, a glint in his rheumy eye. "One day we got smashed on Absinthe and all the words for the next week were 'flange' in various European languages."

Eventually, they became victims of their own success. "We were putting in 20-hour days, but it wasn't enough. The rise of blogging and comment pages, all needing word verification, meant that we could barely keep up with the demand."

Puttock left the partnership, citing stress and going to live in a monastery near Droitwich. And it wasn't too long before Kenneth Culvert, too, was forced out, a victim of creeping efficiency drives. In a cruel world, it seemed, no-one wanted hand-crafted text for their verification systems any more.

Now he sits alone, a sad yet dignified figure, the Neverman of the Internet Age. Nursing his sweet-yet-deadly whisky based liqueur drinks until last orders, when he returns to his grubby flat to undergo the long night-time of the soul. The repeat fee royalties from Blogger - every time someone recognises his text he gets two pence - are the only thing keeping him in fish paste and Baileys.

Kenneth Culvert - pioneer or Internet burn-out? Maybe history should decide.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Spray it forwards

Dear Miss Manners:

I recently had a bit of a dilemma. It was a rather unnerving experience and I'd like some advice on whether I took the right path. Forgive me if I ramble on a bit.

I' can I put this...a well-upholstered man of 37. I hold down a responsible job. People sometimes look to me for advice. In short, I am the modicum of respectability.

Picture the scene: it is lunchtime and I'm walking my typical circuit. I'm listening to something typically dystopian on my iPod, but that's OK as I'm alone. I have successfully negotiated the Binley Mega Chippy without falling to its many crispy yet artery-hardening temptations.

Turning the corner, I step across the entrance to a cul-de-sac. An attractive young lady catches my eye - she beckons me to her. I take my earphones out and walk over.

Don't worry. It's not going to be one of those sort of stories.

She is at the wheel of a brand new Peugeot hatchback. The sun glints off the spotless metallic gold paintwork. She is very attractive - did I mention that? And she is hopelessly lost. She needs to find her way to the local branch of B&Q. And it hits me - I actually know where this is!

I smile. Avuncular. Reassuring. Helpful and non-threatening. I open my mouth and start to speak.

And at the same time, a small and previously undetected gob of moisture comes flying out of my avuncular mouth and lands messily on her gold paintwork. Actually, it's not that small. I've seen it. She's seen it. There is no denying it's there. There is a pause, shot through with meaning. I have, essentially, just spat at a stranger.

Do I laugh and wipe it off? Do I apologise profusely? Or was I right to do what I did?

Pretend it's not happened. Gabble out some directions whilst turning purple. Then scamper away, leaving her somewhat bemused at her spitting Samaritan.

There appears to be no guidance on this anywhere - can you help?

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Party politics

Last night was our annual staff party. Notice we don't call it a Christmas party. It's not. Not for any politically-correct reasons, you understand.

No, it's because it's still November, silly!

I will make no more comment about this, mainly because I got to bed at about five this morning and I'm seriously sleep-deprived. However, the makers of this advert clearly knew what they were talking about:

It was just like that. Really.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

I've got ham but I'm not a hamster

King Henry VIII was in fact an alien. Tudor coaching houses were actually cleverly disguised motherships. It's true - they play "Greensleeves" whilst abducting people.

Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative works best when set to music, and the theme tune to Match of the Day does the trick nicely, if you're interested.

In other news, the Man is spying on us all using miniature cameras. All of which are hidden in ham.

Hameras, if you will.

I learnt all this, and more, last night from Bill Bailey, playing in front of his biggest ever live audience on his Tinselworm tour. But the night hadn't started out looking so promising.

Katie was suffering from a rotten cold. Assuming (perhaps correctly) that a hacking cough wouldn't endear us to other audience members, she decided to duck out of the evening. So I was left on my own to wait at Brindley Place in Birmingham for Mike and Emma. Unfortunate traffic cock-ups meant that I was waiting in sub-zero temperatures for A Long Time Indeed. I was thankful for the smoking ban, as it meant that I could stand next to some of the patio heaters the bars have set up for their nicotine-dependent clientele. But the secondary smoke inhalation has probably shortened my life considerably.

Mike and Emma arrived, cursing the traffic on the Bristol Road. We had the "where shall we eat, what shall we eat?" conversation, then decided to grab a quick snack at the venue instead.

Big mistake. Eighteen hours later and my cheeseburger and fries is still grimly sticking to one of my ribs, making its presence felt. And they cost me the equivalent of the Haitian national debt.

I failed to dispose of Katie's ticket. No touts could be seen at all. There's never a tracksuited chainsmoking Liverpudlian when you need one, is there?

So I wasn't in the best of moods before the show. No matter, as I laughed my arse off anyway. He was relentlessly silly. If you've been reading this for any time you'll know that I have a fondness for the ridiculous. Multiply this by a million and you'll be getting there. And I'll never be able to listen to a certain Killers track in the same way again (the title of this post is a clue).

After the show, we met up with some of Emma's friends at the Malt House pub around the corner. Guinness was consumed. One of her friends does some work for Kerrang radio. Apparently, interviewing Dave Grohl and mentioning Nirvana isn't a wise move. Who would have guessed? Another friend has a client who has the real, if somewhat unfortunate psychological delusion that it is Christmas every day. "Have you checked whether he's Roy Wood?" I asked. I must remember to say things to myself first before repeating them out loud.

As I've said before, Birmingham has a good selection of restaurants from the Indian subcontinent - the world famous Balti Belt. However, finding one open after midnight is quite a skill. Unless, like us, you just ask a taxi driver to take you up Ladypool Road to find whatever's there.

Which saw the three of pitching up at Imrans, still bustling with customers despite the hour. I've been drawn to Sparkhill for about 15-20 years since my brother first introduced me to the world famous Adil Balti restaurant. I've been here dozens of times since, to Punjab Paradise, Balti Cottage, King of Baltis, etc. I don't know if I've been to Imrans before - I may well have been there before in a less-than-lucid moment - but the food was excellent. Slightly more spicy than I've had elsewhere, but that's fine with me. (Although, mixing with the Guinness from earlier meant, actually I'll leave that one to your imagination.)

I bought some Indian sweets to take home for Katie - various burfi in a range of lurid colours - then we then tumbled into a taxi and home. The driver, seeing our purchases, tutted, then told us where we might get far more fresh jalebi in Small Heath.

He has a point - if you're aiming to bring about the onset of diabetes, you must do these things properly.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Moving words

He had a Blackberry, on which he was tapping and scrolling away. Then he pulled out one of these fancy new Nokia N95 phones and started on that, too.

"Huh!" I thought to myself, "he'll be getting a laptop out next, at this rate."

Out came the Vaio. Tippetty, tappetty, tippetty.

I was on a Pendolino coming back home from another visit to London. We were only minutes out of Euston, picking up speed, with another hour and a half to go. Technoboy was next to me. But I was the smug one.

I was drafting this blog, actually, using a brand new system I've discovered which beats the pants off anything you can get from PC World. It's instantly on, with practically no delay for booting up. With no need for a back light the power consumption for my system is negligible. And I've yet to use a more intuitive interface than this one.

Without a traditional keyboard, you simply use a carbon graphite stylus and move it against an ultra-thin flexible panel to define letters, graphics, pretty much anything you want. It's very eco-friendly - the input panel is apparently made from recycled wood pulp. It's so lightweight you barely know it's there. And while its networking facilities aren't that hot, the memory is brilliant.

I think it might just catch on.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

You say tomato...

Now, I don't go in for blatant pandering. Not a bit. No panderer, me. Blatant or otherwise. The stuff you see up here is written either because it's the first thing that springs into my mind, or because (more rarely) I've given whatever I'm going to write some thought and yet it still pleases me.

So I'm not going to adapt the language or spelling I use to cater for a wider audience. For instance, should I be writing about lightweight metals, I would refer to aluminium. All five syllables. (Hmm. That's just thrown Mozilla's spellchecker into a whole world of red underlining.) And in the admittedly unlikely instance of my writing down any recipes, I'd be using coriander, rocket, spring onions and aubergine.

I have talked about the tyres on my car. And walking along the pavement. And I will admit to having some confusion over the whole suspenders/braces thing.

This may help you if you're getting confused.

So it's clear that I don't normally aim this blog towards certain specific members of the international community. However, I understand that for a significant number of you, today is a bit of a special day. Turkey will be consumed. Apparently this can be deep-fried whole. Ace. And mashed potatoes. Although not deep-fried, I assume.

I'm also impressed by the consistent commitment being displayed. None of this "I'm on a diet" lark - it does seem to be the general intention of everyone to get together with the family and gain another 10% of their previous body weight over the space of three days. I salute you.

So, this one goes to the people over the pond, who've been some of the most regular visitors on here. (What must you think, by the way - we gave the world Shakespeare and Douglas Adams, and now this?)

Happy Thanksgiving. And to everyone else - happy Thursday.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Reasons to be cheerful

If you're not too careful, you could end up being perturbed, disturbed, depressed, even, by things that are happening in the world today.

Everywhere you look, there are things that could bring you down, if you were to let them. Serious and scary things, both at a global and personal level.

Apparently, so the climate change people say, we're going to be living in conditions that mean our grandchildren may well be evolving gills and swim bladders. That's if they're not glowing in the dark from random levels of radiation being thrown out by anything with a plug. But that's OK, as we soon won't be able to generate enough energy anyway to operate all the air-conditioning units we need due to the climate change heating everything up.

Money isn't worth what it was 20 minutes ago. There's a global credit crunch, the stock market is acting like a four-year-old on the blue smarties, and we're not certain whether or not our multi-national corporations are trying to kill us or not. Which might be a blessing, as there are a significant number of other people floating around who'd quite like to have a pop, too.

The Spice Girls have re-formed.

And on a personal level, there's always too much month left at the end of the money, whilst my concerns about my pension are only mitigated by those about my limited lifespan. In other news, they haven't yet invented a 25-hour day. And I've got this nasty nagging pain between my shoulders.

So what can you do?

Call it counting your blessings, call it what you will. But sometimes, sitting down for a moment and listing the positives, or going out to find good news, can help. Apparently this all-new interweb thingy can help. Whilst not enough to dispatch the black dog, it might be enough to shoo away his less-effective friend, the dusky puppy. Let's have a go, shall we?

This time next month, I'm going to be limbering up for the drive to Solva, where we'll be spending a week at Christmas. One month and counting. And I am counting, trust me.

"I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue" is back on Radio 4 in the evenings. Excellent, I needed to brush up on my Mornington Crescent skills.

In an attempt to stem male suicides and depression, groups in Australia have come up with the Men's Shed Movement, where chaps of a certain age, perhaps post-retirement and with nothing else to look forwards to, can meet up, engage in carpentry, banter and whittling. I couldn't help smiling at this one.

According to recent research, there may in fact be up to twice the number of Giant Pandas in the wild than we previously thought.

On Friday I get to see Bill Bailey at the NIA. Anyone who can do a Kraftwerk version of the Hokey-Cokey with a straight face is alright by me.

Someone has finally brought out an invention for which we should all be thankful, a system that enables you to avoid the dreaded "bar invisibility syndrome".

The Proclaimers. Not by any stretch my favourite band, but I keep an emergency CD in the car for the occasional journey home when I've needed uplifting. Try it. You will agree.

The lyrics to the Ian Dury & The Blockheads song "Reasons to be cheerful" have pretty much the same effect, too. (You see, these titles don't make themselves up.)

All of the above were based on a quick web search and a bit of random thinking. Easy when you know how.

Now it's your turn.

An even greener world

Bless you, New Zealand. Since I begged shamelessly earlier this month, you have now rocketed up the league table of countries from where people have viewed this blog. So now I've confused a whole bunch of people 13,000 miles away.

It's a scary thought.

In with a bullet with 5 visits in recent days gives your land a nice green hue. Look!

For this we must thank the efforts of Jo at Chez le Laquet. She is my blog pimp. Bless.

(ps - this isn't my official daily post for NaBloPoMo. That would be cheating, I think. Stay where you are, a conventional one will be along for today, at some point. If I can think of something to write, that is. Otherwise I will drop any semblance of morality on this point.)

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Crouching tiger, swimming squirrel

This is what happens when I get to read the "In Other News" section of the BBC News website.

Montague Knee is a man of commitment. Very few have gone where he has been, still fewer will follow where he leads.

People would ask him, "Why?" and he'd answer, "Because I like the challenge." To Knee, there is no point in rationalising these things.

Montague Knee: official trainer of the British Red Squirrel Synchronised Swimming Team.

It was destiny for the young Montague. A lifelong fascination for animals and a childhood home next to a lake was all he needed to get started. An only child, he would spend days on end at the lakeside, putting his early troupe through its paces. "Although, of course, the technical term in synchronised swimming is 'sculls'," says Knee. "Paces tend to be less than successful in this game."

But can squirrels be made to swim in the first place? "Well. There can be issues. The trouble is, your average European Red tends to be a bit lazy. I'm afraid the attrition rate was a bit high in early days back in the seventies. Although my mother got some lovely coats out of it."

Early disappointments would have been enough to put off a lesser man, but not Knee. Others would have been tempted to try out Grey Squirrels, but not our Montague. "There would be no point. Whilst technically, they're pretty good, you just can't get them to keep their concentration levels up for the longer combination routines. It's rather soul destroying."

But what's the motivation? "You've got to remember, squirrels are naturally proud animals. There's nothing they like better than to execute a perfect Vertical Bent Knee then slide into a Ballet Leg. Excuse me for a sec......NUMBER SEVEN! WHAT HAVE I TOLD YOU ABOUT YOUR BODY POSITION! ARE YOU EVEN LISTENING TO THE BACKING TRACK?"

So what is his response to accusations that this is an ultimately pointless activity? That he's spent thirty years trying to perfect something that is completely futile, unviable and basically an advanced form of animal cruelty? What does he say to these points?

"Actually. You may have a point. Blimey.......I've wasted my life, haven't I?"


Monday, 19 November 2007

Your horoscope for the week

Well, I'm not convinced.

Apparently there is supposed to be something in this horoscope stuff. Millions of people all over the world rely on it to guide their daily lives, their careers, their business decisions and love lives. But I'm not so sure.

Mind you, I am an Aries. And we Arians are naturally sceptical, by all accounts.

Aries: (March 21—April 19)
With the moon in your third quarter and Jupiter rising from the East, that unexpected delegation of insurance salesmen will be the last thing you need.

Taurus: (April. 20—May 20)
Scientists say that the Great Barrier Reef is the only living thing visible from space. Then there's that strange growth on your neck.

Gemini: (May 21—June 21)
You'll experience a mild degree of consternation mid-week when you learn that Masons the world over have been secretly using your image for their recruitment posters.

Cancer: (June 22—July 22)
After an argument with an English professor about the correct usage of the words "rebut", "repudiate" and "reject", you will form a worrying but thankfully temporary aversion to most forms of blue cheese.

Leo: (July 23—Aug. 22)
It all comes to a head this week; Gordon Ramsay has been speaking to you in code all along. Throw off those shackles and blanch those greens!

Virgo: (Aug. 23—Sept. 22)
Your desire to run an Olympic-qualifying time for the marathon will be hampered by your simultaneous attempt at the record for receiving the World's longest lap-dance.

Libra: (Sept. 23—Oct. 23)
As Mars bisects your third house, you can only wonder at what might have been, if only you had been able to remember all the words to "Fat Sam's Grand Slam" at the audition.

Scorpio: (Oct. 24—Nov. 21)
This is a bad week for you if you're travelling, staying at home, relaxing or working hard. Let's face it - you're toast.

Sagittarius: (Nov. 22—Dec. 21)
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dogs. That's the last time you'll be allowed out on chicken hut security duty.

Capricorn: (Dec. 22—Jan. 19)
A pleasant surprise is to come this week, as you're chosen out of thousands to be the official face of the National Halitosis Awareness Campaign.

Aquarius: (Jan. 20—Feb. 18)
Your difficulty in distinguishing "cafe crema" from "crematorium" normally is a cause for zany japes a-plenty. However, the mourners fail to see it that way, later this week.

Pisces: (Feb. 19—March 20)
The entrance of Venus from the North ushers in a whirlwind romance that will fill your waking hours and dominate your nights for the foreseeable future. Given that you've just started a five-year prison sentence, you may see this as somewhat of a mixed blessing.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

A long time ago...

The Galactic Senate was still in uproar at its latest sitting today, following a recent revelation of species-ist language and behaviour by one of its most prominent members.

Just prior to last month's Battle of Yavin, it was reported, Princess Leia Organa from Alderaan was heard to utter the words "Will someone get this walking carpet out of my way?" - believed to be a deliberate and pointed reference to Chewbacca, noted Wookiee flight engineer and co-pilot.

"It's just not good enough," commented Bash Meringue, spokesbeing for the Galactic Committee for the Equality of Species. "And quite frankly, I'd expect better behaviour from a so-called Senator. I mean, are we back in the Dark Ages of the 257th century or what?"

Supporters of the Princess have stated that it was a throwaway comment and she was under considerable stress at the time, having not only just seen her adopted planet blown to cinders by the Death Star but also found herself coming under sporadic blaster fire from Imperial Stormtroopers.

"But it's not just Leia," retorted Meringue. "There's no doubt that Wookiees the galaxy over have suffered from negative stereotyping ever since they left their home planet of Kashyyyk. It's all 'Let the Wookiee win' and 'Where are you going with this - thing?' People don't realise that the Wookiee are a noble species, much taken with art and culture. They almost never pull off limbs these days, and only then when provoked - that's such an unfair accusation to level at them."

Meringue cites the Imperial fleet's decision to use mercenary bounty hunters of all species as an example of how to ensure equality and diversity were considered in all employment contracts. "You may not agree with their aims for galactic dominion and promotion of the Dark Side. But at least they're showing an inclusive attitude."

Attempts to reach the Princess herself were initially fruitless. However, reporters from the Coruscant Shopper managed to put in a call to her, at her stronghold on the ice-world of Hoth.

"This has all been blown up out of all proportion. Look, we've got a galaxy-wide civil war to fight, here. Can't we concentrate on the real issues? I've got Imperial probes sniffing around the base, battlecruisers coming out of warp right around the corner, and I'm freezing my earmuffs off."

Rumours that Leia's close personal friend, Commander Luke Skywalker, had escaped death were firmly rebutted. "He spent last night sheltering for warmth in the recently-dead body of a Taun-Taun. The smell's awful, and it's done his recurring complexion problem no favours, either."

Perhaps we should leave the last word to the Wookiee at the centre of this recent firestorm:


Saturday, 17 November 2007

Mal a la tete

We live at the sharp end of several thousand years of written history. Over the millennia, countless scrolls, documents books, pamphlets and circulars have demonstrated the written word's ability to inspire, confound, amuse and amaze. In recent years, the Internet has made it possible for everyone to read great examples of writing everyday.

This is not going to be one of them.

I am suffering. Oh, how I suffer. Watch me as I suffer! This is indeed the day after the night before. And the night before in question was the event of brother no. 1's wedding reception ceremony.

We had a great time. My brother and new sis-in-law looked radiantly happy at their newly arrived-at married status. I met a whole bunch of family members that I rarely see these days. We made vague commitments towards getting together with the Irish wing of the family at some point next year. And we got to eat a cake. That looked like a roulette wheel.

No, really:

In amongst it all, I may have had a cleansing ale or two. Katie also indulged. I suspect gin made an appearance, too. At 3am we decided to head back to our hotel room.

This morning at 8.30 I was in a whole world of pain. Thoughts moved very slowly through my addled mind. Fluids. Darkness. Quiet. Warmth. Those were my aims. The promise of a full English breakfast would normally be enough to bring me forth from the pit. But that was not the case this morning.

And, cruelly, the only coffee available in the hotel room was decaffeinated.

Later that morning, we'd showered and negotiated our way into clothing. I was still convinced that something had died in my mouth overnight. On our way to check out, we bumped into brother no. 1 and his new bride - who'd been with us during the witching hour the night before.

"You look exactly how we feel," he said. This was not meant as a compliment.

Is it a good thing, when settling up at the hotel reception, if more than 50% of the total cost is your bar bill from the previous night? That's not good, is it? Just checking.

As I sit here, Katie is attempting to sleep on the sofa. So far, the world is conspiring against her - first an RSPCA chugger going door-to-door, then a phone call from my blessed mother. "Just checking to see if you had a good time last night."

The evidence would suggest that we did.

Friday, 16 November 2007

A greener world

Help me out here, people.

I've been writing this blog for several months now. And it has surpassed my (admittedly low) expectations. What was supposed to be the journalling of a weight loss programme has turned into me rambling about any old crap that comes into my Roobois-addled mind every night.

And believe me, it very often is "any old crap."

But despite that, several hundred people seem to have looked at this blog since I started. And it's not just the next-door neighbour and people at work, either. I mean, look at this:

According to Google Analytics, in the last six weeks people from a whole bunch of places that aren't here, have been here. It's bloody marvellous. And somewhat humbling, too. People from the following countries have so far experienced the Make Lard History magic:

In order of the number of visits - UK, USA, Germany, Canada, India, Sweden, Turkey, Georgia, Kuwait, Australia, France, South Africa (it might be the Roobois), Thailand, Spain, Czech Republic, China, Singapore, Taiwan, Argentina, Ivory Coast (how this happened I'll never know), Israel, Malaysia, Egypt, Italy and Finland.

All these are coloured green on the map. But there are great swathes of the globe that are still pearly white. And quite a few that are very pale. Shame on you.

So here's what I'd like you good people to do. Do you know anyone who's not from one of the above countries? Or from anywhere, for that matter? Do they want a right rollicking good read? Never mind - get them to come here anyway. If they're from a "new" country, it'll show up a lovely green on my map. (And to those of you from the US - don't get too complacent - if it wasn't for Iowa and Montana you'd be way paler.)

We could, working together, make this a greener planet. Al Gore would be proud.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Five miles high and 40 inches around

The news that an Australian nutritionist was this week urging airlines to charge obese passengers more for their seats got me thinking. I will declare an interest here - any of you who've been reading this blog for any time will know that I'm not exactly waif-like. And I do fly on airliners from time to time.

I was going to write something along the lines of "First they came for the smokers, and I did nothing. Then they came for the drinkers, and I did nothing. Then they came for the lard arses...." but that would have been a little bit too obvious.

So I got to thinking. Who else deserves to get hit for an airliner tax? Right...

  • Letting your kids kick the back of my seat? That's going to cost you. And forgive me if I don't raise the tax level a little if they take to screaming the place down while you sit there with your headphones on, blissfully unaware.
  • Reclining your seatback in front of me while I'm struggling through my Chicken á la Plastique. That'll do nicely. It's hard enough to eat this crap, what with my elbows pinned to my sides, without having to balance it on what appears to be a ski slope.
  • Sitting next to me on a seven-hour flight after having eaten the EU garlic mountain. What an interesting odour, sir! No, I'm really interested in knowing what you had for dinner last night.
  • Taking a window seat on a daytime flight and then pulling down the blind. That's taking the piss. If I have a choice between watching Mr. Bean for the 'nth' time or idly gazing at the scarily wobbling engine mounts on the wing, it's a good view of Mr Boeing's finest for me. And you're denying me that simple pleasure.
  • Getting up twelve times to put stuff in the locker, get stuff out of the locker, put stuff in the locker, etc, etc. No, not annoying at all - why don't you see if you can get something to fall out of it onto me? Lovely.
  • Actually, those people who cram the locker with several thousand duty-free B&H and a litre of Canadian Club, leaving no-one any room for their carry-on bag - never mind a surcharge, we should make you lot sit on the wing.
  • Whilst we're on the subject, what about those people who find it necessary to stand up and get their stuff ready - seconds after the tyres hit the tarmac at the other end? You know you won't get there any more quickly, don't you? Are these the sorts of people who buy houses next to the cemetery, just to save time later?
  • Those of you wearing beachwear when we're flying back from some Mediterranean summer holiday, when we all know it's cloudy and three degrees above freezing back home. Actually, no I'll let you have that one for sheer entertainment value.
  • The delightful lady who sat next to us once, and then proceeded to enthusiastically and noisily empty her nostrils. For three thousand miles.
Finally, we must consider the gent who sat next to me in the aisle seat of a Continental plane coming back to England from New Jersey on an overnight flight several years ago. Ten minutes after take-off from Newark he pulled out an inflatable pillow and eye mask. He then slept soundly until exactly ten minutes before we landed at Birmingham, eight hours later. In part I was jealous as I can't sleep on planes. But mainly, as I was too bloody English to wake him during his trans-Atlantic slumber, the pint of Sam Adams I'd had nine hours ago was making its presence felt somewhat.

We could argue that it's partly my fault, but I'm sorry, I'm already being taxed for being fat. For him we must create a whole new tax bracket. He may as well have a few pies while he's at it.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Pet Hate No.2

From time to time people will say something like , “You know, life's too short.” I tend to disagree. Too short? Compared to what, exactly? Last time I checked, life was the longest-lasting thing most of us will ever do.

However, I am happy to admit that for some things, my time on this mortal coil is too precious to waste. Pairing socks. Thinking about what to order at Burger King. And the Redditch ring road.

To this list, I'm afraid we must now add Ikea.

I say I'm “afraid,” because deep down I hoped and believed that those friendly Scandinavian storage-pushers and I were going to be friends for life. Me and Anders, just like that. (I'm crossing my index and middle fingers together right now in an analogy of closeness. Trust me.)

I mean, looking at the catalogue, it's all so tempting, isn't it? All those perfectly staged rooms, all that blonde wood and sensibly-tasteful-yet-contemporary stuff? A coffee table called PLING? It just seems to good, so clean, so logical. They should throw in a couple of quotes from LeCorbusier and be done with it. "A house is a machine for living in." For those of us that break into a cold sweat whenever Colin and Justin start shouting at us all about interior design, Ikea must sound like manna from heaven.

There's enough design in the Ikea catalogue to make you feel like you're living in a hovel. You feel bad. Must. Have. PLING. And so the collective backsides of thousands of ashamed homeowners are raised aloft, parting company with sofas up and down the land. You go to the blue and yellow hangars, each dotted in the hinterland of a major city. And then, the horror.

You want your PLING. You've spent an hour getting there; your life won't be complete without it. More perfectly-staged mini-rooms. It's like Nirvana in pine with chrome insets. But no-one notices that they're all doing the St. Vitus' dance, all taking the anti-clockwise path. You can't go back. You only shuffle forwards. Table lamp called MEH? That will do nicely.

Where's my PLING? Hang on, aren't we slowly moving downwards? Is this place shaped like a giant corkscrew, or did they slip mescalin in the meatballs? Ah. Now we appear to be in Homewares. Look, it's all so...reasonable. Get a basket.

No, get a trolley.

Don't forget my PLING. I've now got a lamp called MEH, some table mats going under the name BARF, a KLEFT light fitting. But no PLING as yet. Eventually you're led down a canyon, to pull a dusty box with a line drawing on it, out from a cliff-side of other dusty boxes.

Home again at last. I'd like to say that I've reached that point in my life when self-assembly furniture is a thing of the past. I haven't, though - I'm merely cack-handed. And by all accounts the founders of Ikea formed a pact with the Allen Key Foundation back in the 1950s.

Anyone want a PLING with a pronounced lean to it?

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Five little words

I saw on Times Online yesterday that some bright spark is considering putting together a motto for Britain. As well as lacking a written constitution ("Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?"), we don't have some snappy phrase that talks about what this country is all about.

It is, apparently, a matter of some consternation in certain quarters that there is no "E Pluribus Unum" for the official letterheads, no "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" to go on the passports. There is a deeply-held desire to prove some sort of unity between the individual countries that make up Great Britain, despite the inalienable truth that we have, in fact, been giving each other a good shoeing for much of the past few hundred years.

I actually think it's quite nice that we don't have a motto. It's so terribly nouveau, isn't it? Although I am seriously fond of Luxembourg's quaintly existentialist, "We wish to remain what we are".

Before too long, the good readers of the Times were rising to the challenge of putting five words together that somehow denoted our national identity, captured several thousand years of history and talked about who the Britons are. You can perhaps guess at some of the attempts.

To be honest, after the first few I'd lost the will to live, although I did quite like "Britishness cannot be captured in....". Anyway, the Times website is so flaky it tends to crash whenever there's an "a" in the day, so I thought I'd give it a try here instead. Remember, it has to be five words, and say something meaningful.

Who knows, you could soon be reading one of these on the back of a ten pound note:

  • One Nation Under Some Pastry
  • Being Rather Uncertain Since 1066
  • Let's Not Make A Fuss
  • Please Form An Orderly Queue
  • Forgive Us For Simon Cowell
  • You Looking At My Pint?
  • Move On Down The Bus
  • He's Not Worth It, Darren
  • Not Everyone's Like Hugh Grant
  • Cod And Chips Twice, Please
  • Sorry, Was That Your Foot?

Monday, 12 November 2007

Blessed be the lawmakers

According to a recent story on Auntie Beeb, the following are still valid laws on Britain's statute books. Some of them date back to the 12th century, but, well, rules are rules. After all, there was a survey and everything, so it must be true. So I thought it was worth having a look-see:

"Every able-bodied man between the ages of 16 and 60 should practice archery at the local Butts every Sunday after church." Hmmm. I can see I'm going to have a bit of a problem with this one. I don't mind the archery - you never know when there's going to be Agincourt II (This Time It's Personal). And once someone explains to me what "Butts" means, I can stop sniggering. But the "after church" thing? C'mon....

"Being drunk in charge of a horse, cow or steam engine incurs a £200 fine and possibly jail for up to 51 weeks." What if the horse knew its own mind? Can any of us ever truly be said to be "in charge" when it comes to domestic animals? Or am I over-sharing here?

"It is illegal to die in the Houses of Parliament." OK. We're entering the outskirts of Weird County now. Anyway, I've seen Prime Minister's Questions on TV enough to know that some backbenchers have been flouting this law for years. Rimshot, cymbal, I thank you.

"It is illegal not to tell the tax man anything you do not want him to know, but legal not to tell him information you do not mind him knowing." I've re-read this a few times now. And I still don't understand it. Strange, because tax law has such a reputation for unassailable logic and clarity.

"Eating mince pies on Christmas Day is banned." I am so screwed.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

In memoriam

Eighty-nine years ago, on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, the Armistice was signed in a railway carriage in France. This piece of paper brought to an end the Great War - global hostilities that are believed to have claimed 9 million lives and injured 21 million.

It's almost impossible to imagine the impact this had on a generation at the time. But everything about this conflict should boggle the mind, even the best part of a century later.

I had some great teachers at school. And one of them, when talking about the war, asked us to visualise the local St Andrews stadium on a Saturday - say 20,000 people in total. Then he challenged us to think about all those people killed in battle. All those voices silent, all those hopes crushed, all those dreams ended, all those families affected.

Then he told us to imagine those 20,000 deaths happening in just one single day. Most of them in the first hour of battle.

That was the Battle of the Somme in 1916. It went on to claim up to 500,000 lives. Soldiers - just lads, really, many of them young enough to be my son - waded through knee-deep mud, clutching single-shot Lee Enfield rifles with bayonets affixed, towards the enemy machine gun posts.

To this litany of madness we must add other, no less deadly, battles - Marne, Arras, Ypres, Verdun.

After the war, it was noticed that poppies were the first things to grow in the disturbed soil of the wrecked and rutted fields of Northern France, Belgium and Flanders, lending them a red hue. And so it was that the poppy became a potent symbol of remembrance.

So why do we still wear poppies all these years later? After all, the last veteran of the Great War faded away some years back. However, we know now that this was not, in fact, the war to end all wars. World War 2, Korea, Malaysia, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan and any number of other conflicts all prove that man's ability to understand his neighbour didn't evolve following the Armistice.

People may say that in 2007 there is no place for Remembrance Sunday. That it harks back to a militaristic past, is outmoded and glorifies war.

But remembrance for the fallen is not the same as glorification. War, in and of itself, is not beautiful. It is the lack of reason, the failure of logic, the end of negotiation. But we can, and should, still honour those who, for better or worse, go to fight. After all, they didn't get the chance to choose where they ended up.

Dedicated men and women are on duty right now around the world. It doesn't matter whether or not we agree with the conflicts to which they've been posted. There are many who are battling to rebuild their lives after injury whilst on service. They deserve our support. Furthermore, there are families who, even today, are struggling to cope with the loss of a loved one. Remembrance, for them, is more than just one day per year.

That is why I wear my poppy. And that is why you're reading this today. On the 11th day of the 11th month.

(P.s. - whilst researching for this post I came across this blog, put together from the letters of a WW1 soldier, with each letter being posted exactly 90 years after it was first written. I can't recommend it enough.)

Saturday, 10 November 2007

You've missed a bit

Today we were making ourselves useful, which is unusual for a weekend. In fact, in truth, "useful" it's a little odd for us, even during the week itself.

Our friends Liz and Kevin bought their first house a couple of months ago. However, their headlong dash into home-ownership has been halted somewhat by the fact that their house needs a bit of work. Well, a lot of work, actually, they told us. In fact, the exact end date of the works is currently expressed as "some point in 2008."

We volunteered our services to help out, so this morning found us driving out to Chelmsley Wood to the address they'd given us. After all, we thought, it's only one house - how much work could there be to do?

Anyone here familiar with the concept of the TARDIS? That whole "small on the outside, huge on the inside" thing? As they showed us around what turned out to be a three-storey townhouse, we began to understand the magnitude of the work they'd undertaken. They will get it done - Liz is one of the most scarily-organised people going (she makes lists of all the lists she's drawn up) - but it's going to be quite a project.

We got the guided tour. And with every twist, every turn, every additional staircase, every spare room, every storage cupboard, there was another bit of work to do. By all accounts, the previous inhabitants hadn't really been "House & Gardens" subscribers.

"Hmm, are those ceilings really painted yellowy-gold?"
"No. We believe they may have been heavy smokers. And you're seeing them after a fair bit of cleaning."

They've done really well so far, but I did wonder what we could add. After all, I am to DIY what King Herod was to good parenting. There are sections of our own home (OK, complete rooms) that haven't seen paint since we moved in 11 years ago. If it's a choice between selecting paint colours or having a nice pie, the pastry comestible will win.

But the beauty of today's situation was that this house had been comprehensively gutted by Liz and Kev. There was no furniture in place, no carpets, no paper on the walls (well, at least not in the bits we were working). We were able to paint with gay abandon. Does that phrase still mean what it meant in the 1950's? Never mind.

And I actually enjoyed it because there was none of the fear that normally accompanies any of my DIY exploits. Whether that was because it was someone else's house, or whether the risk of dripping paint on a TV or passing cat was removed, I don't know.

But we've offered to help them again over the coming weeks and months. I don't know if it will inspire us to great things at Fatboyfat Towers. It might. But while there are pies uneaten....


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