Thursday, 24 December 2009


As we hurtle, plummeting headlong towards the festive season like a badly-affixed bauble, it is time to consider the true meaning of Christmas. After all, wouldn’t we otherwise wish it could be Christmas every day? Aren’t we simply having a wonderful Christmas-time? Is it not the done thing to ding-dong? Preferably from on high. And merrily, according to the instruction.

As a child Christmas was one of the Holy Trinity to me – up there with Halloween and Bonfire Night on the calendar. For the ten-year-old me, it was all about the same experiences, year after year. Going to a frosty forest for the tree, picking presents out of the Great Universal catalogue, pinching a nip of Babycham, avoiding sprouts and thanking aged relatives for extravagantly-wrapped packs of socks.

But now? Surely Christmas is just expense, hassle, queues and acid indigestion? Perhaps. But look. It's Christmas Eve. I've finished work and I'm not doing any more running around. The house groans under the weight of festive fare. I'm using phrases like 'festive fare'.

Perhaps, if we wish very hard, the jaded old curmudgeon will remember what it's like to be a ten-year-old again. It’s Christmas. Time for miracles.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Now that I have your attention

Things might have to change around here. But it might just be worth it.

I first thought this a few months ago, back in July in fact, when I was sitting at the foot of a mountain. My colleagues had all gone off to climb Ben Nevis, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

I hadn't been able to join them. Although we don't have mountains that your average Sherpa would recognise, Ben Nevis is no pushover, taking 5-7 hours for a reasonably fit person to climb and return. And there's no way I could fit into the 'reasonably fit' category. Not unless we were comparing me with those people who we see on TV being winched into ambulances after the local fire department has removed a wall from their houses.

I knew that trying to climb the mountain would have put me and other people at risk. I was still seeing lights in front of my eyes and breathing heavily, some 20 minutes after having ridden a bike a few hundred yards up a gradual incline. So while everyone was keen to reassure me that I'd contributed to the effort by driving one of the teams around, I felt a bit deflated.

"Here I am," I said to myself, "same old fat bloke who can't do everything normal people do. Hopeless." And to reinforce the effect I pulled out a bag of McCoys crisps and dug in. Base camp comfort eating.

But it was at that point I had the germ of an idea. And now I'd like to tell you about it.

Almost 12 months ago I lost my father. It's knocked me sideways, quite frankly, and if it's all the same to you I'd like to stop feeling like this. I want and need something to focus on. So I'm setting myself a challenge. Well, actually, two challenges.

At some point in 2010 I am going to go for a walk. I'm going to start at one side of England and finish on the other. In particular, I intend to walk the Hadrian's Wall Path. OK, it's no Pennine Way, but we're still talking about six or seven days walking over rough terrain, by someone who currently struggles if he parks too far from the office in the morning.

I want to do this for Dad and, to be honest, for me. I poke fun at myself all the time. But I actually don't like being the bloke who gets left behind. Who sits in the car. Who minds the coats. Who never gets picked. And there's more to it than that.

I will at some point be asking people to dip into their pockets to support my walk, with funds raised going to Diabetes UK. Dad coped with the condition for about 25 years, but according to the coroner it was probably diabetes that masked the heart disease that finally claimed him last December.

I've told my mom what I'm doing. You could say I'm committed.

I mentioned above that there were two challenges. The walk actually comes second. My first challenge is to get myself into a position, health-wise, where I can manage this walk safely. I currently weigh 18 stone - that's over 250 pounds. I need to lose a chunk of this, because I'm not hauling all of it over 90 miles of Roman wall and pathway. Once again, I need to make lard history.

So I'll spend the rest of December doing what normal people do at this time of year, then in January I'll need to knuckle down. I'll try not to clog this place up with healthy recipes and exercise routines, though, OK?

Saturday, 19 December 2009

"No Way, I Won't Follow Your Instructions!"

It's been quite a lively week in what I believe is called the Hit Parade. I'm not entirely sure if that's the right name, but given that the last time I listened to the singles chart it sounded like a collection of mobile phone ringtones, perhaps I'm not the best judge.

For some years, the Christmas no. 1 position has been most highly prized for some reason. Apparently this is a peculiarly British obsession - in other countries they couldn't care less who's topping the charts on the 25th day of the 12th month. This seems eminently sensible to me, but as we've seen, I'm the sort of person who refers to it as the Hit Parade, so what do I know about such things?

For the last couple of years the Christmas no. 1 has been occupied by various acts that have spewed forth from the Simon Cowell-run machine that is X-Factor. Last year we had the unedifying spectacle of a young innocent RnB singer crooning a Leonard Cohen number about the pain and agony of ecstatic love, all while we munched away at our mince pies.

And so the stage was set once again this year for a similar coronation - this time of a pleasant-enough chap who appeared to be rocking that whole rabbit-in-the-headlights look while delivering a range of granny pleasing ballads with all the character and passion of a photocopier.

Nothing wrong with it, if that's your thing. I'd rather light bamboo shoots and put them in my eyes than listen to it, but perhaps I'm funny that way.

A lot of people got very worked up about this and decided to try and get an alternative song to top the charts instead. And the one they chose? Those jolly funsters Rage Against the Machine's 1992 track 'Killing In The Name'. As is the case with all mass movements these days, there's even a Facebook group - this one with some 600,000 members.

Surely I would be a prime candidate to support this sort of thing? After all, I'm no fan of the sickly sweet saccharine balladeer cabaret-fodder shows like the X-Factor churn out week after week. And it does indeed give me a warm glow to think of a nation's grandmothers collectively spitting out their Brussels sprouts when Zack de la whatsisface delivers 'that' line.

However, for much of this week I've been ambivalent. First, I really couldn't give a tinker's cuss about the singles chart. Last time I checked, neither Peter Gabriel nor The Decemberists featured heavily. Hardly any of the songs feature a Mellotron. And second, it seemed a little like the music snobs ganging up on the poor innocent Joe. Bless him, he's in Cowell's clutches - unless he's massively successful he'll be an empty husk in six months, performing to the chicken in a basket crowd on a Scandinavian cruise ship somewhere. Let him have his fifteen minutes, I thought.

Then I saw this interview with him today:
"They can't be serious! I had no idea what it sounded like. It's dreadful and I hate it. How could anyone enjoy this? Can you imagine the grandmas hearing this over Christmas lunch?"
Sod him. I'm off to right now.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Not quite identical

Quick quiz for you - what do Chicago, Frankfurt Am Main, Johannesburg, Leipzig, Lyon, Milan and Nanjing have in common?

a) They are all names of 1970's soft-rock groups.
b) They were all originally considered as alternative first names for the character of Indiana Jones.
c) They're all twinned with my hometown.

While the thought of the seminal No Sleep to Jiangsu Province album is a tempting one, the right answer is c.

I've never really completely understood this town-twinning malarkey, but until recently I accepted it potentially had some merit. After all, it's better for the worthies from each town to be visiting each other's civic centres and having cups of tea instead of bombing the living bejeebus out of each other.

Hmmm. Maybe that's why we have two German ones in the list. I see now.

I don't have a massive problem with the whole twin towns concept. But the news of Swindon's latest twinning exercise has thrown me somewhat. (Note for Americans: for Swindon, think Fresno). Anyway, Swindon has become twinned with the Disney Corporation.

I spent a week in Swindon once. The town itself was OK, but I did not at any time feel it was necessary to burst into a rendition of 'It's a Small World'. I didn't see any six-feet mice, even though I was staying in a rather grim Hotel Ibis which was staffed exclusively by Albanians with personal space issues.

In short, it was not a Magical Kingdom. Although I did get some very nice trousers from the Great Western Outlet Centre, if that helps.

Strictly speaking, Swindon is now twinned with an entity that is not really a town. But if we're allowing 'things-that-are-not-towns' in on the whole twinning thing, that opens up a whole world of opportunities. And so, dear reader, I am allowing progressive-thinking civic leaders across the globe the chance to be the first town to be twinned with a blog. Yes, your town could be an official twin of Make Lard History.

Think of the possibilities! There's the cultural exchange, for starters. I can come to your town to further cement our twinning relationship in a meaningful way, while your mayor could come here, sit on my sofa and watch me typing into a laptop. If they could put the kettle on while they were here, that would be peachy.

So then. It's up to you. Have you got any sway in your local authority? Can you suggest a municipality that wants a new twin? Suggestions in the comments, please. It could be the start of something beautiful.

After all, I need the Airmiles.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Getting things in perspective

I was not a happy person yesterday. The wireless router that has, for several years provided top-notch quality broadband Internet to a number of devices dotted around chez Fatboyfat decided to go on the blink.

No amount of resetting, twiddling with settings or uttered oaths would get the thing to work. The laptop could see the router. The two would communicate at one level, the electronic equivalent of that raised eyebrows thing you do when you pass someone you think you know in the corridor at work. But actually providing any Internet feed was a no-no.

My router would no longer route. Wirelessly or otherwise.

And so last night found me doing any number of things I understand people are prone to do when they don't have unlimited mobile access to the most extensive collection of human thought and emotion ever gathered together. I read a book. I watched some TV.

Nice, but I can't see them catching on as pastimes. I was, in Katie's words, a "grumpy bugger".

Not being at work today I fired up my wired cable connection. A static desktop computer connected to a box on the wall. I believe this is how Shakespeare accessed his Yahoo account. I did a bit of searching around and then hurried out to PC World to get a new router.

On my way back I popped into Solihull to get a couple of things. It was when I was returning to the car park that it happened.

A young chap, I'd say in his early twenties, was sitting on the floor, propped up against the wall. And he was asking passers-by for spare change. Nothing too unusual in that, I suppose. It's a sad fact that we see this situation playing out in cities and towns all the time. I muttered "No thanks" and hurried on, avoiding eye contact.

Whatever might happen to someone that leads them having to sit on a street, begging for change? And to do this in full view of the most conspicuous capital consumption, too. XBox 360s selling like hot cakes. People rushing around buying daft secret Santa presents - for work colleagues they don't really know - that'll be in the bin on December 26th. The German beer stand selling wheatbeer at £3.50 per pint.

But then it occurred to me. I've spent the previous 24 hours feeling hard-done-by simply because one electronic gadget in my house wasn't talking to another one. But I'm warm, well-fed and have a (mainly) loving wife to go home to that night. I do things that I enjoy for people I trust, and get paid to do them. I have friends that make me laugh and don't judge me.

I don't know if he was genuine or not, our gentleman beggar. And in any case, define 'genuine'? What events must unfold to lead you to be needing to ask strangers for change on the street?

So I went back. I didn't have much. But I shared it with him. And when I got home I looked at the overflowing wardrobe in the spare room. Those things I bought and haven't worn in ages. I filled a bag and took it to the charity shop. And then I came home again and got the various bits of electronics to talk to each other. Which is, I think, where we came in.

I know I can do grumpy cynicism with the best of them. But a bit of blessings-counting, once in a while, can do a soul the world of good.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Either it's Christmas or it's the New Forest in here

There's a tree in my living room. This is not normal. Given that I haven't taken up the life of a forester, the most obvious answer must be that we're hurtling carelessly towards the festive season and Katie has decided to mark this headlong dash by erecting the Christmas tree.

In previous years I have had a degree of creative input to the whole process. In previous years I have joined her beside the tree to hang decorations. In previous years we've worked on this together - I might even have pompompommed a Bing Crosby number in a pleasing baritone while she handed me the tinsel.

In previous years the tree has ended up looking like someone had dipped it in glue and then ramraided their local Homebase.

So this year my involvement was not even supervisory. I went into another room and sat there, doing various non-seasonal things and while I was in my self-appointed purdah the tree sprouted in a tastefully themed way.

The other break from the traditional in recent years was our purchase of an artificial tree. We used to have a real one every year so we could have the undiluted pleasure of the car smelling like toilet cleaner for a week. All was well. But every year we'd forget one thing.

Our cat would hump the tree.

We'd be sitting there, slowly relaxing after a difficult December day. Perhaps we'd have friends round and would be gently discussing the matters of the day. Then there'd be a frantic rustling noise and the tree would start vibrating, like a really specific mini-earthquake had been triggered next to the TV cabinet. The less secure decorations would start to fall off and bounce across the floor.

"Oh for God's sake!" one of us would shout in exasperation. As if on cue the cat, either embarrassed or simply satiated, would emerge from beneath the foliage, blinking in the sudden light. The tree's honour would be protected for a brief few minutes before its feline paramour started circling it once more, a glint in its eyes. The cycle would continue.

After several weeks of this onslaught the tree was beginning to lose grip of its needles. This didn't make it any less attractive to the cat, unfortunately, and the room started to resembe a forest floor. You've not lived until you've tried to hold a struggling moggy suffering from emotional frustration while attempting to extract a pine needle from its eye.

I've had better nights.

And so we reverted to an artificial tree. It's very nice, but not quite the same. We don't have the look and feel. But at least the cat gets a Silent Night.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

What is this, some sort of interview? Oh, it is. (Part 1).

A couple of years ago a chap called Neil Kramer had a stroke of genius. He would get people with blogs from all over the world to interview each other. They'd each throw their names into a virtual hat, with blogger number 2 putting questions to blogger number 1, whilst themselves being interviewed by blogger number 3. Bloggers 4, 5, 6 would join in, et cetera.

And so the Great Interview Experiment was born. A chain formed, with dozens of complete strangers finding new friends and putting their deepest thoughts online.

As is customary with all good ideas, Neil has decided to repeat it. This year, I've been interviewed by Natalie. Natalie has had to plough through two and a half years of Make Lard History in a matter of days, so we must all make sympathetic noises. But it's been worth it, as she asked me some very good questions and I was a little more open than I am here. Go and read her blog, folks, she's one of the Good People.

You can read her interview of me here.

There is a second part to the Experiment, where the random person I'm interviewing gives me their answers and I post them here. The person in question has been hellishly busy but I'm hoping to get her replies soon. Watch this space.

Friday, 4 December 2009

...and I for one welcome our new alien overlords

Well, that's torn it then. We might as well just keep the door unlocked. Clearly we'll just let anyone in, these days.

Don't worry, I've not gone all Daily Mail on you. I'm talking about the Ministry of Defence's announcement that they were shutting down their UFO unit. Which sounds dramatic, although to be fair it was probably some bloke sitting at a desk in a broom cupboard in an office in the Ministry building. He must have been sick and tired of all the guys referring to him as 'Fox' at the watercooler, so it was probably a merciful release.

The MoD have explained their decision, saying:
The Ministry has no opinion on the existence or otherwise of extra-terrestrial life. In over 50 years, no UFO report has revealed any evidence of a potential threat to the United Kingdom.
That's easy for them to say. Have they never seen Independence Day? First it starts with big saucers floating over the cities, then before you know it there's laser beams, force fields and destruction everywhere. If it happens in a town centre on a Saturday evening we'll not notice the difference for a while, but you get the idea.

Before we know it we'll be overrun. Assuming there are legs involved. I mean, our latest visitors may have eschewed legs in favour of some other form of locomotion. Maybe we'll be overbounced. Or overslimed. Who's to say?

Mind you, who's to say the aliens would even want to come to Britain? They're used to their own environment, surely? Living under leaden grey skies, at extremes of temperature. Consuming weird food and using unintelligible methods of communication.

I can't even be bothered with the punchline. Make it up for yourselves.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

In the chiller

Yesterday the great big thermostat in the sky got turned down a few notches. December in Britain and it's chilly - who'd have thought it?

But it was the suddenness that struck everyone. On Monday it was a bit grim but manageable. A bit like having to do algebra back at school. But yesterday was the equivalent of triple geography. In a dangerously unheated classroom. There's only so much terminal moraine you can deal with.

I don't believe it. I've actually crossed the line and I'm now making glacial deposit references. Look out for an oxbow lake soon, folks.

Anyway. Yesterday was that first day of the year when you leave your house to find a layer of ice on your windscreen. That is of course assuming you actually have a windscreen. Or, indeed, a car. Thinking about it, just having a windscreen on its own propped up in your driveway would be a little bit 'out there', but each to his own, that's what I say.

Along with the vehicular difficulties, there's the sheer bloody coldness to deal with. We'd left it until last night to bring out the winter duvet. This is a serious bit of kit, approximately three feet thick and capable of withstanding the worst the climate can throw at us. Katie, having been visited by the Can't Be Arsed Fairy, decided to throw this on top of the summer duvet, rather than replacing it. It was like trying to sleep while a farmyard animal lies on your chest.

And I thought those days were over, quite frankly.

I was reminded that duvets have tog ratings - a measure of how good they are at keeping the heat in. But what is one tog? Where did it come from? The internet is here to help - apparently one tog is the measure of heat retention from a set of standard army battledress. So essentially I was going to bed with the equivalent of 15 soldiers last night.

I mean, I support our armed forces, but even I have to draw the line somewhere.


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