Monday, 27 September 2010

The ode less travelled

I'm not entirely sure what to do about this.

A week or so ago I was approached by someone and asked if I had any plans for a particular evening toward the end of October.

Don't worry.  It wasn't that sort of request.

A friend of a friend is taking a year off to good things (working with the street kids of Honduras, if you're interested) and so needs to raise some funds for this to happen.  For starters, I don't think a Travel West Midlands bus pass is going to get him there.

So a night of blues and poetry at a city centre pub is being arranged as a fundraiser.  "You'd like me to buy a ticket?" I asked.  No.  She wants me to take part.  I'm assuming that I'm not contributing to the 'blues' element of the evening - although my alter ego Dyspeptic Willy Madison might have something to say about that omission. 

"But I don't write poetry," I protested.  This is at least partly true.  Despite my pretensions to culture, I'm not a complete Renaissance man.  In my forty years, the grand total of two poems have flowed from my quill.  One, when I was 12, about my hair.  ("Look at my hair/It's my despair/It goes everywhere/But I don't care/Oh yeah").  And another about the contents of my fridge.

Not exactly the sort of thing to have them awarding me a Laureateship.  Is that a word?  It is now.

"Don't worry," my tormentor said.  "There will be other people there.  And some of the other stuff you've written will work, I'm sure."

I could have done without the "I'm sure".

Are the good people of Birmingham  ready for an entreaty on the qualities of Marmite, I wonder?  My proprosals to generate electricity from hamsters?  My re-imagining of the Titanic disaster as a customer service experience?  I don't think so.  I'm already giving this stuff away for free on the Internet and still hardly any takers.

"You'll be fine," she said.  "Look, it's over a month away.  Plenty of time to write something."

Now I'm torn.  Let's weigh up the pros and cons:

Pro: I am actually a bit of an attention-seeking tart.
Con: People will might throw things.

Pro: It's for charity.
Con: Having parted with real money, the audience may actually expect quality.

Pro: It might be a good way to get my writing 'out there'.
Con: Do I really want my writing 'out' anywhere?  (Well, yes I do, but I couldn't think of a 'Con' for this one).

Pro: It might be a challenge to actually write something meaningful.  You know, poetry.
Con: Poetry, schmoetry.  I have difficulty writing awkward prose about things I actually do.  You want me to be creative, and get it to rhyme?

Ok, gentle reader, so what do I do now?

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Man v. Burger

I'm not normally a huge fan of TV shows about food.  OK, scratch that.  I'm not normally a fan of TV shows about preparing food.  I have the culinary skills of a toddler, mixed with the sophisticated palate of your common-or-garden wildebeest.

In short, I don't think I'm going to be earning a Michelin star any day soon, unless they're looking for food that genuinely does taste like a set of part-worn tyres.

For these reasons, I find cookery shows a little frustrating.  Sure, it all looks great, but I just know if I tried any of the recipes it would just look like a bunch of random smoking organic matter on a plate.  So as far as the shows go, there's not much that I can relate to on-screen.  Unless Nigella Lawson's involved, of course, but that's a subject for another post completely.

However, there is a food show I can get into.  Man v. Food charts the progress of a chap called Adam as he travels around the States, attempting various eating challenges.  A 72-ounce steak here, a six-pound burrito there, perhaps some ribs smothered in the world's hottest chili sauce for good measure.  How he's not the size of a house is anyone's guess.  We should probably draw a modest veil over what Adam has to go through in the morning after each challenge, and be thankful cameras aren't involved.

It's really just a show about eating.  This is my area of expertise, I'm on home territory here.  Normally I just gaze in wonder as, python like, he devours another meal bigger than his head.  The word 'behemoth' gets used an awful lot.  But when they had him eating a stacked burger, I looked at it and said, "You know, I reckon I could manage that one."  Katie doubted me.  We may have had words. 

Several days later it was announced that home-made burger was on the menu for dinner.  I really should have seen the warning signs. 

They were half-pounders, she said, made with lean beef mince together with a little blue Stilton crumbled into the mix.  But if the burger that came to me, laden with onions, mushrooms and, yes, more cheese, was a mere half-a-pound, then I'm Slimmer of the Year.  If this had been 1983, Charles and Diana would have been skiing down its southern face.  It was sandwiched between two floury buns, each roughly the size of a scatter cushion.  There was a side of fries, some coleslaw and a couple of pickles.  All we needed was some scarily-attentive customer service to make the whole thing authentically American.  The challenge was clear.

I set about the food in front of me.  The burger looked impressive, although I had to cut it in half to get any purchase on it.  It was delicious, the melted cheese and meat juices combining in a way that would strike horror into the heart of any passing dietitian, whilst forever condemning yet another of my t-shirts to the second division.  I have previous form in this respect.

I made good progress at first, even diverting to have a couple of fries and a bite of pickle.  Looking back on this now, I can see that was a schoolboy error.  Eventually my stomach began to signal some distress as it noted the simultaneous arrival of a herd of steer.

The meat sweats were upon me.

"You don't have to eat it all, you know," Katie said, peering at me over the remains of her suspiciously-smaller-looking burger.  "But it's sooo good..." I whined, my voice trailing off as another crumb of Stilton hit the spot.  You have to remember, I was brought up by parents who'd gone through post-War rationing.  These messages were rammed into me as a child.  Always clear your plate.  Even if you're no longer hungry.  Don't leave anything behind, or else you might as well surrender to that nasty Mr Hitler.  I never quite understood that reference in 1976.

Marathon runners talk about 'the wall', a mythical barrier that drains all energy and motivation.  I faced my meaty wall and dug deep.  Each mouthful was a personal challenge.  No mere burger was going to be my nemesis!

Eventually I cleared my plate, whimpering softly.  "I've done it," I croaked.  "In this battle of Man v. Burger, Man won!"

Katie smiled sweetly.  "You do realise that the one you saw on telly the other night consisted of six of those?"

Oh bugger.  Excuse me while I go and digest somewhere.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Tree in a box

This morning I was sitting at my desk at work and someone sent me a tree in the post.

Which was a little odd. 

I should make it clear that we're not talking fully-grown oak tree here.  The postage would have been a little much, for starters.  It was a rather cute bonsai something-or-other, in a pot, with a pot stand.

As I took it from its box and threw away the polystyrene packaging, I wondered whether I'd angered some horticultural mafiosi.  Perhaps this was an elaborate message of warning and by the weekend I'd be sleeping with the tubers.  But no.

It had come from a direct marketing company, touting for business.  This was that most elusive of things - a corporate freebie.

I generally don't get much in the way of freebies in my line of work.  Brother number 2, he gets the lot.  I'm happy with a branded biro, he gets to go to a barbecue with Beyonce.  This is a bit of an imbalance.

So I set my tree down on my desk.

I looked at my tree.  It looked back at me, inscrutably.  I regarded the tag, which had a web address.  This took me to a personalised website (well, it had my details and my employer's name on it) which told me about all the wonderful things this direct marketing company could do for me.

At that moment, my phone rang.  It was the MD of the direct marketing company, checking that I'd received my tree.  This was all very impressive.  Apart from one tiny detail.  I hardly like to mention it.

I have no idea what direct marketing is.  I don't do it.  I have no responsibility for it.  I couldn't really tell you how it works.  I assume it has something to do with pushing trees on innocent bystanders.  Although the 'direct' bit probably means actually sending your stuff to the right people.

I was almost embarrassed to mention it to the MD during our conversation, but I thought I'd better.  Otherwise, who knows where it would end?  I might end up with a forest on my desk at this rate.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The library and me

I must have been quite young at the time of my first visit to a library; maybe five or six years old. And, as is the case with matters book-related, my father would have been involved.

Dad would disappear every Saturday morning for a couple of hours, only to return laden with books. There seemed to be little pattern to his choices. Fiction, non-fiction, hardback, paperback. Every week, without fail, there would be eight new books for him to devour, settled down in his chair under a cloud of pipe smoke.

Naturally, I was fascinated by this at the time. What was this magical place with the books? What were they doing, letting people just walk in and take them away? Did they actually make the books there?

And so, after a small amount of cajoling, I was on my way to the library with Dad. I remember being a little uncertain, but excited nevertheless. This was a big step for me. I couldn’t wait to enter that portal of print, gaze upon that Lyceum of literature.

I probably didn’t use those words at the time, to be honest, being six.

The Maypole Public Lending Library has probably never been described as a Lyceum, before or since. Resembling at first and subsequent glance a selection of Nissen huts huddling together for safety, it didn’t exactly instil confidence. But once inside, it was a sight to behold. The shelves groaned under the weight of books.

Quietly, of course.

Weighty tomes, slim volumes, books with pictures, large-print sagas for readers in the slightly-myopic autumn of their years. I’d never seen so many. And for the first time I realised the attraction of lots of information being gathered in one place. Everything I will ever need to know, I thought to myself, is all here under this slightly leaky municipal roof.

The beaming lady behind the counter issued me with my very own library membership card. This was a rite of passage. I had arrived. I didn’t look back from that moment and from then on I was a regular visitor. I got to learn the layout, finding my way among the shelves. Like Dad, I realised the freedom that a borrowing library gives you. Not sure if you’ll like a book? Take it out anyway; you can always bring it back next week.

I can point to this as being the time when I swerved away from the football-playing, bike-riding, TV-watching path trodden by many of my peers, and became the nerdy kid with his nose permanently buried in a book. How I managed to avoid needing glasses by the age of 12 I’ll never know.

The time came when even the delights of Maypole Library became a little jaded to me. I was beginning to run out of books to read. I needed to move up a division. And there was only one place I could go.

Birmingham’s Central Library squats brutally over the centre of town, an upended ziggurat of grey concrete, looking for all the world as if an alien spaceship crashed into Victoria Square in the Seventies. Three miles of shelves, spread over eight public floors. As I climbed the escalator to the main entrance, something told me we weren’t in Maypole any more.

Over time I learnt my way around and it became a regular weekend haunt in my early teens. Becoming an expert on the microfiche meant I could find individual volumes with ease. I researched history, read the great writers, found out about science, nature and culture. When they started lending out music tapes I scared myself to death listening to Frank Zappa. It never cost me a penny.

As I hit my mid-teens I became normal, I suppose. There were other attractions, greater even than the Dewey Decimal System. I drifted away. My library card was lost and I never replaced it.

But recently I’ve been wondering. In this post-Google age, it’s tempting to think all information is at our fingertips. But it’s not the same. There’s a lot to be said for taking the analogue approach. I recently applied for a new library card, and I’m like that six-year-old again, full of curiosity and wonder, waiting to go and borrow books again.

Dad would understand, I think.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

With all due respect

Dear Pope Benedict

Hello, and welcome to Britain. Today you're visiting my hometown, which I'm sure is a source of delight to many. Although it has meant that some of my friends living near your route have needed to carry identification with them whenever they've needed to leave the house, even on the smallest of errands.

I'm led to believe that God moves in mysterious ways, but even he doesn't need his driving licence if he wants to pop into Tescos.

I should perhaps state an interest here. I am a baptised Catholic, although I never had the Confirmation thing when I was seven. Not having taken first Communion is a little like filling out the application form but not returning it, I suppose.

But I suspect you have many other things to think about right now. I mean, there was that thing that cropped up with one of your aides, who described Britain as being like a Third World country just before your visit. That was indeed unfortunate.

However, I suppose if anyone was going to be an expert on the Third World, it would be someone senior in the Roman Catholic Church, wouldn't it? I mean, after all, the Catholic Church has been pretty active in the Third World for some time. It's your main growth market sector, I would think.

Of course, a lot of that growth has been caused by rampant over-population in many of these Third World countries. It's a serious problem, putting already scant resources under immense strain.

And it makes me wonder. If only the accepted authority figures in these communities were to positively promote methods by which people could control their fertility. Sensible and realistic advice on contraception - that might help.

But instead, it seems that there is an army of people in many of these Third World countries who are doing their level best to actually discourage these measures. These people are your people, Pope Benedict. They report to you, ultimately. And they're not exactly stopping these unsustainable birthrates, are they? Someone more cynical than me might even think this was some form of recruitment programme. After all, market share is where it's at.

Mind you, I suppose the worrying spread of HIV/AIDS in some of those same countries, partly because condoms are a no-no, helps to keep the numbers down, doesn't it?

That would be worrying enough, Benedict. But there are some other inconsistencies that trouble me. On Friday you spoke at Westminster Hall. Amongst other things, you talked about those who have criticised organised religion. I'm not here to enter the debate about the existence of God - I don't want to go there - but you did accuse those who favoured, for instance, a scientific approach, of taking too narrow a view.

That's an interesting choice of words, isn't it? You do know that the Vatican only formally acknowledged that the Earth goes round the sun about 20 years ago, don't you? But there's more to it than that. You're head of an organisation seeks to deny the rights of homosexuals to live their lives as they wish. An organisation that, for no logical reason, refuses to allow women to be ordained. That promotes segregated education. You know, I think these are views that fall quite easily into the 'narrow' category.

On Friday you spoke about the cult of celebrity and its associated dangers. Wise words indeed, and I'm sure they were well-meant. But coming as they did from the mouth of a man in shimmering white robes and a big hat, who is driven around in a glass box on an elevated platform, they didn't quite ring true.

You talked about the scourge of 'aggressive secularism'. You even drew a not-too-subtle parallel between it and the rise of Nazism. But you left out any mention of the people across the planet who've been on the receiving end of some good old-fashioned tough loving, courtesy of the Catholic Church. And I'm not just talking about the pederasts in your clergy who you have protected from justice. I'm talking about the Jews that had 1,500 years of shocking treatment from the Catholic church. I'm talking about young mothers ripped from their families in Ireland and elsewhere. I'm talking about divorced people struck out of their communities. I'm talking about people becoming targets if they have lifestyles of which your Church disapproves.

It seems pretty aggressive to me. And while we're on the subject of aggression, a quick quiz for you. What did Mussolini's Italy, Franco's Spain, Pinochet's Chile and Peron's Argentina have in common? Brutal dictatorships, strongly Catholic, not one of whom ever received a squeak of protest from the Vatican. Bonus points if you mentioned the Reichskonkordat, the treaty between Pope Pius XI and Nazi Germany in 1933. Which, by the way, has never been revoked.

Say what you will about secular folks - but they don't have the same back-story as some of those who went to Mass regularly.

Benedict, I'm sure you mean well. And I'm sure that for many people, my own mother included, the Catholic Church does good works. Since we lost Dad I know she's taken comfort from her faith. I wouldn't begin to question her on it; that would be arrogant and unhelpful. It works for her. I still wish she wouldn't take the Daily Mail, but I guess that's out of even your hands.

I hope you enjoy your visit to Britain, and that your congregation gets some degree of fulfilment from it. But I remember there being something in the Bible about removing splinters from eyes. I think there's a plank in yours that needs to go first.

So please don't be surprised if some of us in this apparent 'Third World Country,' with its hard-won freedoms and tolerance, hear your words and want to take you up on them, to question and challenge you and the organisation you lead.

With all due respect, of course.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Did you miss me?

Most blogs (for this is what you have on your screen in front of you) go through several phases over time.

I've seen many that start in a fervour of excitement. The owner spends hours finely crafting the look and feel of the site, then gives birth to his first post, mewling and puking, onto the web.

If we're very lucky, some days later we might see a second post. But often we don't; the blogger decides not to carry on blogging. It's hard work. He needs to think of something to write. He is generally not getting paid for it. There's bound to be something fascinating involving crab fishermen on the telly instead.

And when I use the words 'his' and 'he' in those previous paragraphs, I'm being deliberate. Us male bloggers seem to be the worst at keeping our blogs going. There's always something else happening. Female bloggers seem to have more longevity. As in most things in life. Ahem.

So if you've been blogging for more than say, six months, you're doing well. Especially nowadays, as Facebook and Twitter allow anyone with a keyboard to share their innermost feelings with strangers without the heavy lifting that comes with slapping together 300 or 400 words.

I've been going for over three years now, which makes me a bit of a greybeard, relatively speaking. But that doesn't make it any easier. In fact, that's why there's been a bit of a hiatus with posts recently. I've been spending too much time thinking about writing, worrying about whether something is deserving of being written. I've had hours when I've been considering the direction of the blog. "Should I go for laughs all the time?", I've asked myself. "Is there a brand?", I considered. I know. Seriously. But in all that time I didn't just sit down and write something.

I am a colossal pillock.

So I'm sorry, to both of my readers (time was when that would be a joke, now I'm not so sure). Make Lard History is back in business. I'm not going to be so precious about what qualifies for inclusion and what doesn't. You might not like everything you read - tomorrow is going to be a bit of a doozy, for instance - but hopefully we'll all get something out of it.

Monday, 6 September 2010

The Ballad of Howard and Hilda

Picture the scene. It is a Saturday evening. The Saturday just gone, in fact. We were preparing ourselves for a night out.

We were actually going just next door. These people share a party wall with us. We went to their wedding earlier this year. Surely we could remain a little casual?

Well, yes and no. Yes, because we were only travelling twenty feet and no-one else was involved. No, because I generally spend my weekends looking like the aftermath of a road traffic accident. So apparently I needed to go upstairs and do something called Tidying Oneself Up For God's Sake.

I may have huffed.

So I pulled on the quite nice dark blue jeans. Selected the blue checked short-sleeve shirt. Dug out my Dunlop retro trainers. All I needed was a dab of Chanel behind the ears and I would be knocking 'em dead.

I went into our bedroom where Katie was independently getting ready. She had put on her dark jeans, a blue checked short sleeve shirt and was rummaging around to find her pair of retro trainers.

"Are you serious?" I said.

"Bloody hell, look at us. Peas in a pod. Not a good look."

"Sod it, I'm not changing. I've ironed a shirt and it's not even a weekday."

That's what 12 years does to you, folks. That whole 'pets looking like their owners' thing? It happens in most marriages, too. Consider us a warning to you all.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Fatboyfat answers your questions

In the first of what will hopefully be a long and award-winning series, I've agreed to help out my loyal readers with their problems. I've been around, I've seen a lot of things, I've done a few of them, too.

Think of it as the gift that keeps on giving.

Our first question comes from Muriel from Pigeon-under-Mimsy in Gloucestershire. And, joy of joys, it's gardening-related.

Muriel: My neighbours' cats all use my back garden as a huge open-air litter tray. Any idea how I can keep the furry blighters at bay?

It's a common issue for many homeowners, Muriel. The thing is, cats are notoriously territorial. They like to mark out their own acre of turf, so to speak, and will shy away if they think they're encroaching on another cat's space.

This is why (a) I have a cat and (b) I've trained him to crap next door.

However, this isn't an option for everyone. So what you need to do is to make your garden as unwelcome as possible for the local feline population. You need to be putting something out there that they're not going to want to go near. And the answer?

Tiger manure.

Now, I know what you're thinking. This might seem a little odd. Counter-productive, even. But think of it as fighting fire with fire. Or perhaps fighting poo with Really Big Poo. No cats are going to come anywhere near your herbaceous border if they think they're going to come snout to snout with Shere Khan, are they?

Now, I'm not going to pretend that this is an issue-free solution. The scent of tiger manure is quite alluring to other tigers. If you're unlucky, you might find all the local tigers making a bee-line for your garden. Which will make those impromptu barbecues a little unpredictable, to say the least. So you would need something that would scare off tigers.

At this point you might need to fall back on elephant dung. Not literally "fall back on", of course; that would be a mistake. They don't do Stain Devils for it, for one thing. But out there on the veldt, there's only one creature that tigers respect, and that's the common or garden elephant. Well, African or Asian elephant, if we're being picky, but you get the point.

Now your garden is well and truly Jumboed, there is the slight chance that the odour will attract any other passing elephants. This won't do your lawn many favours. But you must be very careful at this point as you're now entering a scatological arms race. What is there in the animal kingdom that is above elephants, poo-wise?

No, not blue whale. That would be quite tricky to implement if you're more than a few miles from the Pacific. Get yourself to the other end of the animal kingdom. Think smaller.

Mouse droppings. That's what you'll need. Scatter them around, mice will soon be attracted. Before you know it, the elephants will be history. Of course, you could argue that having a garden overrun by mice is not exactly an optimal situation.

Easy answer. Get some cats in.

Fatboyfat is open to new questions. If yours doesn't involve "Sir, where were you on the night of 17th July?" please leave it in the comments below.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

It's good to share

I don't think we talk about aircraft carriers enough these days. I think it must be, oh I don't know, something like three or four months since the last time I seriously mentioned aircraft carriers.

Which is a shame, because the subject does give us an opportunity to dust off an old joke:
Doctor: I'm sorry, Mr Smith, but you have hermes.
Man: Don't you mean herpes?
Doctor: No. You're the carrier.
Thank you. I'm here all week. Don't forget to tip your waitresses, folks.

Anyway, the news this week that Britain and France are not going to share their aircraft carriers has made me revisit the subject. Seriously? Sharing with the neighbours was a serious option? I mean, it's not as if you can compare an aircraft carrier with a lawnmower, is it?

Mind you, the last time I used a lawnmower I did in fact lay waste to a considerable portion of the Earth's surface. Maybe there's a lesson there for all of us.

But could you have imagined the negotiations had the sharing plan come to pass?

Britain: Right then, we'd like the carrier for six months in 2014, please.

France: Can we still have it in September?

Britain: September? Why...oh, hang on, you're not going to Biarritz in it again, are you?

France: (sheepishly) Might be.

Britain: Oh, come on, this is a £4 billion integrated weapons system for power projection. You can't just use it to pose around the harbour.

France: Well, you brought it back dirty last time.

Britain: We'd been patrolling the Gulf of Aden, for God's sake! It's a little difficult to keep things shiny when you're dodging Stinger missiles...

France: You know why we keep close to home. Just in case. You know. The Germans?

Britain: We know what you mean. It's all Dr. Oetker and his natural yoghurt these days, but you never know, they might be going for 'best of five'.

France: You know, we're not so sure that sharing an aircraft carrier is all that it's cracked up to be.

Britain: What's the problem?

France: Well, first it was the Americans laughing at us. They have aircraft carriers coming out of every orifice, or so it seems. But that's not the main issue. It's the whole name thing.

Britain: Look, we won the international Scissor-Paper-Stones competition with you guys, so we got naming rights, fair and square.

France: We know, it's just...

Britain: Well, I'm sorry, but what's wrong with HMS Trafalgar anyway?


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