Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Monday, 30 November 2009

High concept, low tide

And so to episode two of School of Saatchi, the reality show featuring up-and-coming conceptual artists. This week the brief was to create pieces of public at to be exhibited in Hastings, a town that could hardly be called famous for its avant garde artistic vision. To facilitate the process the six contestants were placed into three pairs and given a ludicrously small budget and time frame to work with.
Each group came up with a different idea and, while the reality of the executions never matched the ideal of the concept, I liked all of them. Suki and Sam produced a two part instalation based on the geometric form of a radar reflector, built on a much larger scale and placed into a crumbling and rotting beached boat. It was quite beautiful and it worked as a symbolic merging of the old and new. If the other part of the sculpture - a smaller rotating version of the same form - didn't work as well, they were at least partially successful.
Matt and Eugenie had a series of concrete islands in a boating lake to work with and came up with the playful idea of set-dressing them as animal enclosures, as if in a zoo, but without the animals. This was the one that Charles Saatchi liked best but, to me, it seemed more like an elaborate joke than a successful work.
My favourite was Ben and Saad's "Ghost Huts". They had been given a site where there were a number of eerie tall wooden huts and initially struggled with finding an idea until Saad discovered that there had originally been two more huts but these had burned down in a fire. Using black scaffolding and netting they recreated the ghosts of the huts in their original spaces and it was really very effective. It reminded me a little of Do Ho Su's work in the Psycho Buildings exhibition at the Hayward a couple of years ago.

There were two parts of the program that I found especially amusing. The first was when they rolled in Martin Creed to give his opinions of the works in progress. I always find it amusing that Martin Creed is so highly rated given that his works include a crumpled up sheet of A4 note paper, an empty gallery with a bit of blutac stuck to the wall and - my favourite - another empty gallery with the lights going on and off. This guy has minimalism nailed!

The other amusing thing was a single comment and it was amusing because some years ago there was an episode of Doctor Who in which the Doctor had parked the TARDIS in the Louvre and two art lovers (John Cleese and Eleanor Bron, if memory serves) started to discuss how the art of the piece was in the separation of its form from its functionality - a remark echoed almost word for word by one of the judges tonight, underlining both the accuracy of the original satire and the essential vacuity of art criticism.

Next week they have to create works that will sit well alongside the old masters in a stately home. That should be fun!

Sunday, 29 November 2009


Let's see if I can manage at least one poem a day, shall we?

The next picture in the book is of a caveman, drawing pictures on the walls of the cave.
And my poem to go with this picture is...

Cave Art

It’s all only art on the walls of a cave,
Messages sent from a cold ancient grave.
Down through the ages in primitive shapes
Histories passed on from apes unto apes.
These words that I write, they are more of the same
I am one of the ones who is passing the flame
By drawing my art on the walls of the cave
And sending it forth, beyond life, beyond grave.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

That Market

Image taken from Bilston In Old Photographs, collected by Elizabeth A. Rees, Alan Sutton Publishing, 1988

Iris Rhodes reading at last night's Bilston Voices put me in a nostalgic mood again but not really about anything that fits very easily into my "Childish Things" theme. I've been thinking all day about that market. Of course I cannot be sure how accurately I remember anything about it. It was a long time ago, the old market was pulled down in the early 1970s.
I remember the imposing exterior on the High Street, a high brick front more like a grand church or perhaps a town hall than a place of trade. Two sets of doors led into the long interior with its unbroken brick and high roof with twin rows of windows that ran the length of it. Wooden stalls filled it in a double row with more secure lockable stalls at the sides.
The aisles were wide and the stalls narrow. Inside, on the right and a few stalls down was the stall I always dashed to as soon as we were through the door and even at that age, maybe seven or eight, the stall that drew me was a bookseller. When I was a little older it was where I spent most of my pocket money on cheap science fiction with lurid covers.
As I said in a previous post, nobody would now build anything so wasteful of space or so impossible to heat but it had character which is a good deal more than can be said for the shoebox building that replaced it.
One of my earliest memories is of the outside market that surrounded the side and back of this late Victorian building (built in 1892). The outside market was every bit as fascinating as the inside one. It was a chaotic and random collection of stalls selling everything that could be imagined: cloth, crockery, fruit and vegetables, bric-a-brac, clothes. There was noise and colour and life there. It was a place where a loosed hand took seconds to be converted into a lost child, and that's how, aged four I came to be lost. It's one of my earliest memories.
A moment earlier I had been with my mother and my aunt and suddenly I wasn't. At first it didn't seem so bad, climbing over the wooden carts on which the traders brought their goods into the market, dashing hither and thither among the tree trunk legs of the adults who ignored me totally.
It didn't take long to realise that it wasn't all fun. I quickly found myself missing my mom and when I couldn't find her I started to cry.
And then I was running. Without realising how I found myself on a road that I knew, Dudley Street, and I ran along it. Our house was only a short distance from the end of it and I managed to find it. I dashed inside, past my grandfather and through the living room to sit sobbing on the stairs. I don't know whose relief was greater when my frantic mother finally arrived home, hers to see me or mine to see her.

The 1970s were a grim time for Bilston, with the demolition of some of its finest buildings and their replacement by the squat ugly monstrosities of the day. Now it's all being redeveloped again into something called the "Bilston Urban Village" although the recession seems to have slowed that development almost to a halt. Should the development continue the plans look good, but I doubt it will ever be as good as the town I remember.

Another day, another ongoing project

I do keep on starting new poetry projects. This one is a project using a book I just bought called "The Telephone Doodle Book". It's a book full of half-completed doodles that is supposed to be used to doodle your time away while listening to music on hold on the phone.
That's the intention. I, on the other hand, intend to use it as a springboard for writing poems. The one I posted in the last post was inspired by the first doodle in the book, two diners looking down at a plate being held by a waiter.
The second doodle has a small, scruffy dog all alone in a dog pound.

It should not be considered autobiographical. :)

Last Dog In The Pound

All his friends have gone,
He's the last dog in the pound.
It seems that there is nobody
Wanting him around.
He's a scruffy little thing
With hair like curly wire.
His legs are short, his ears are long
He's no object of desire.
He wags his tail in hope
But no one's there to see.
He is waiting in the pound
For someone to set him free.
Perhaps like every dog
He too will have his day
But for now he can't help thinking
That this is where he'll stay.
He's all alone and so forlorn,
He's the last dog in the pound.
It seems that there is nobody
Wanting him around.

A new poem, an old theme

This poem is based on a true story.
Back when I was travelling, much of it was done with various groups of people an much of it involved camping. When you are travelling and camping in groups it's customary to take turns with the chores, including cooking. One thing that can present difficulties is vegetarians.
Don't get me wrong. I have nothing at all against vegetarians. They are splendid people. Salt of the Earth. Some of my best friends... and so on and so forth.
But they do make life a little harder at camp when you have a stove with one burner and need to cook separate meals for them. Still, that's life.
What I did object to were part-time vegetarians. Vegetarians who scorned all meat unless, for reasons known only to themselves, they suddenly thought that the sausages looked too tasty to ignore and then felt that this temporary change of heart meant it was OK for them to take the meat and leave the vegetable option for the chef to eat.
It's happened pretty much every time I've ever camped in a large group. I recall a particularly galling occasion in Bariloche, in Argentina - a country that could certainly not be called vegetarian friendly. Those of us due to do the cooking had found it very difficult to buy some food for our group's brace of alleged vegetarians but the pleasant, almost Alpine-looking, town, we set about cooking the requisite two sets of different meals only to have both of the non-meat-eaters come in and help themselves to the meat dishes leaving us with the rice and vegetable concoction.
We weren't best pleased.
This poem is dedicated to them.

Part-Time Vegetarians

At camp, when you’re cooking a meal
Of sausages, bacon and beans
There will always be some there who feel
That people should only eat greens.
So for them in a separate pan
You cook vegeburgers with rice
Then they stroll up and scupper your plan
By saying, “That sausage looks nice.”

Then they pick up a fork and a plate
And say, “Well perhaps just tonight!”
And, before there is time to debate,
Have grabbed one and taken a bite.
But of course now there isn’t enough
For everyone else to have meat.
Vegeburgers are unpleasant stuff,
If not what you’re expecting to eat.

With a great deal of mumbling and cursing,
You serve up the meal to the rest
And, when you have finished disbursing,
Stand there just feeling depressed.
Because someone who says he shuns meat
Has tonight let his principles fall,
And decided it’s OK to cheat,
You have the worst meal of them all

Vegetarians can’t be part time.
As a concept it doesn’t make sense.
It’s quite without reason or rhyme.
You simply can’t sit on the fence.
Either you is or you ain’t
There are only two sides to the deal
It’s too late to make a complaint
When the chef’s started cooking the meal.

Friday, 27 November 2009

To Put Away Childish Things #3

Of course the Etch-A-Sketch wasn't the only drawing toy that I had. There was also the Spirograph. This was a set of plastic wheels of varying sizes with varying numbers of cogs around the rim and a number of holes just big enough to poke the point of a pen through. You pinned one or more of them to your paper and rotated others around them by pushing with a coloured pen. They produced a dazzling array - or, as it said on the box "a million marvellous patterns" - of designs and by combining them and using a variety of colours you could make...
...well you could make a lot of essentially very similar patterns.

Like many things from our childhoods it's quite hard to see why they had such appeal but it's unquestionable that they did. I filled books with them - not to mention bits of the wall, white tablecloths and assorted bed linen. Felt tip pens were best. They were just the right size to go through the holes, came in a gazillion different colours, required no pressure , would write on anything and, unlike pencils, didn't go blunt or break.
The Spirograph lacked Etch-A-Sketch's ability to produce a proper picture that was actually of something but it more than made up for it in so many other ways. First of all it always produced something that was appealing to the eye, something that wasn't a rubbishy sketch but rather a fully formed, brightly coloured, pretty pattern. Of course the patterns were permanent - or at least, in the case of the sheets and table cloths, permanent until the next weekly wash. They could be stuck to the wall and kept. Best of all it required no ability beyond the ability to stick a pin through a hole and then rotate one bit of plastic around another bit of plastic.

It was marvellous, it was wondrous, it was endlessly fascinating. But why? Probably because everything is when you're six.

Another Mystery Solved

I think I have the answer to my increase in traffic.
It seems that the people over at blogger have changed the way that the Next Blog button works. Previously you got a random blog which might have been relevant but could just as easily have been a blog written in Icelandic about the joys of collecting used tongue depressors. Now, it seems they try to present you with blogs with content and language similar to your blog browsing history. I don't know what exactly their algorithm takes into account but it seems to mean that more of the people who might like your blog are likely to see it. And, so far it seems to work.
And of course it also explains why I see a lot more photography and poetry blogs now which is also a good thing.
Unless you were after an Icelandic tongue depressor blog, of course.


In the news in the last couple of days has been an item about hospitals which received good reports in their last inspections which have nevertheless drawn complaints from patients and patients' groups for being dirty and blood-splattered.
This morning on television Baroness Young of the Care Quality Commission said

"We're disappointed that the Patients' Association won't tell us which hospitals and which patients [have complained] so that we can take action on them."

I'm sure it wasn't meant to sound as sinister as it did.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Bilston Voices

I have just returned from the monthly Bilston Voices performance. For those who haven't extensively scanned the back entries in this blog, this is a gathering where local writers are invited to perform their work to an enthusiastic, if small, audience. I've sometimes read there myself.
Tonight, as is customary, there was a wide range of material on offer.
They opened with Michael Hill. His was an unusual piece. It was a memoir of his childhood but created with almost no narrative structure. This didn't, in the end, actually matter for what we heard was a broad brush impressionistic description of an unpleasant and brutal childhood. The lack of structure in some ways made it more personal and more affecting, as if we were hearing the raw and ragged recollections of a painful time in his life.
He was followed by lighter fare. Sylvia Millward I already know. More than that I already know the set she performed this evening having heard an almost identical version at the sister venue at City Voices in Wolverhampton. These performances are the first two times that Sylvia has ever read in public and tonight's was the more polished. It seemed a little slower and the better pacing let us focus more on the individual poems. The first collection in the set was a group of poems about the sea and they left me a little cold - I'm never a great fan of lyrical descriptions - but the industrial poems that made up the final section were very good indeed.
Iris Rhodes finished off the first half with a long description of Bilston and Bradley when she was growing up in the forties and fifties. This is a little before my time but many of the things she described were still there in my childhood in the sixties. I was particularly taken with her descriptions of the old market. I remember it fondly. It was the kind of old fashioned enormous building with a high arched roof and two long, wide aisles that separated the wooden stalls on either side of them. No one would ever construct such a market hall nowadays. It was incredibly wasteful of space and almost impossible to heat but it had character. The modern replacement is a squat square box with aisles too narrow for two people to pass easily while two others buy at the stalls. It's a dull, functional (barely), characterless block.
Iris evoked the difference between then and now perfectly.
After the break it was due to be Raj Lal but instead we were treated to a stand-in set by the MC, Emma Pursehouse, and treat is the appropriate word. Emma's poetry is always excellent and her theatrical and dramatic performances are terrific. Unlike most of us, she recites all of her work from memory, which frees her up to perform rather than to read. To go with her poets flair for words she has an actor's grasp of motion and a comedian's grasp of timing. It really is a treat to watch and listen.
It was a difficult act to follow but author Jeff Phelps gave it a solid try. He read a section of his new novel, "Box of Tricks", and a selection of poems. The section of the novel worked very nicely as a self-contained vignette, promising good things for those who read the whole thing. The poems flowed nicely and were perfectly read but lacked the drama of Emma's spirited efforts. One of the poems, Public Dreaming, reminded me very strongly of some of Bob Calvert's old work both as a poet in his own right and as a lyricist for Hawkwind.

So, overall another splendid night out with the only disappointment being that the next Bilston Voices will not be until the end of January. In December there won't be one because it would fall on Christmas Eve. They seem to think people might have other arrangements. Oh well, good things are worth waiting for.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Another Blogger Question

It seems a number of readers found their way here by hitting the "Next Blog" button, something I often do myself. Does anyone know how blogger decides which blogs to present on this button? Sometimes I get an endless stream of foreign language blogs, sometimes I get mainly personal journals. Last night I hit five poetry blogs in a row (and very good they were too, I subscribed to all of them).
Obviously what's happened is that for a time my blog has been coming up on the next blog button and some of the people who have stumbled across it have found it worth bookmarking but why did it suddenly start showing up there.

The ways of blogger are an eternal mystery to me.

(Incidenatally, I'd love it if blogger introduced a way to restrict the next blogs to one language.)

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Anybody feeling generous?

Apparently Pat McInally is selling his collection of children's literature. Among the items for sale is Alice Liddell's own copy of Through The Looking Glass. Sale estimate is $150,000 (£90,000).

I'd just like to point out that Christmas is just around the corner. :)

What's going on here then?

My blog has been around for a couple of years now. Apart from the occasional inexplicable spike it's chugged along with half a dozen hits a day, all, I suspect, from my friends. But since November 6th the trend has been inexorably upwards. Yesterday I had 76 distinct hits. That can't be my friends; I don't have 76 friends. If you are one of the new visitors I'd appreciate knowing how you got here and why you've stuck around. If I've suddenly started doing something right I'd like to know what it is so that I can do more of it.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Once more, but is it art?

There is a new reality show - of sorts - on TV, and it's one that I intend to watch. In School of Saatchi, a group of artistic hopefuls are competing to produce a series of artworks with a major exhibition sponsored by Charles Saatchi and a studio for three years as the prize. Tonight's first episode whittled down the very large number of applicants first to twelve and then to six in an X-Factor style process that includes a panel of art experts, including Tracey Emin, Matthew Collings, Frank Cohen and Kate Bush (not the pop singer, the Head of Art at the Barbican).
The style is a little bit X-Factor, a little bit Dragon's Den and a little bit The Apprentice.
Of course it's the art that matters.
Artworks exhibited in the first episode were a mixed bag. Of the three video artists I liked Suki Chen's video of starlings the best. She, along with Saad Qureshi, another video artist with an out of focus film of someone on a swing, made it through to the final six. I didn't really get Eugenie Scrase's whistle hanging from a bathroom towel rail though she was another finalist. The fourth was Samuel Zealey, a man whose sculptures included two strong magnets held apart by cables and a large tractor wheel on a treadmill - clever but not, to me very interesting. Matt Clark's installation was a plywood constructed room filled with models and Ben Lowe was a self-taught commercial artist working mostly in abstracts who wants now to move towards a more surreal style.
One thing they all had in common was that in the life art drawing task they proved that they couldn't draw at all. Even the panel agreed on that.
It was, for an open minded art lover, an interesting program and I look forward to seeing more. Of course anyone who thinks that art means "paintings of something" (my father, who was also watching and tutting loudly, being one) should probably be watching I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here on the other side.


I've just finished creating an off-line archive of this blog.
Apparently so far I've written 195,225 words.

Wow! That's the equivalent of about three paperbacks.


What does Susan Boyle have in common with the Uros Indians of Lake Titicaca?

No it isn't a joke, it's a precursor to a serious point that I want to make about travel. Bear with me, I'll get to the point eventually. Susan Boyle is, if there is anyone in the world who doesn't already know this, a former contestant on the X-Factor. She has a pretty good voice but she got to the final, and boy does everyone skirt around saying this, because she was really rather ugly. The idea that someone so plain could have a good voice seemed to catch the public imagination. I've never seen the program but for a few weeks you couldn't avoid her. She was on the news, she was on the front page of every newspaper, she was talked about on discussion programs. She was everywhere. When she was on the verge of a breakdown from all the attention even Gordon Brown got in on the act, sending her a message of sympathy.
Today she was on another discussion program because, apparently, she was a guest on last night's X-Factor. They showed a clip. She's still no beauty but she was styled well, dressed in nice clothes and she certainly didn't cut the exceptionally unattractive figure she cut before. So what were the panellists of the discussion saying about her?
They were saying that she shouldn't have used her new-found fame to smarten up, that she should have stayed ugly, badly-dressed and unappealing. They said that she was much more interesting when she was a good voice in a not so good body and that now she was an indifferent voice in an indifferent body. This seemed to me to be a very harsh judgement. Surely there's nothing at all wrong with her making herself presentable for a TV show watched by millions. She has a new CD out with a flattering picture on the cover. What's wrong with that?
This suggestion that people should look and behave in the way that we want them to, in the way that we expect them to, in the way that does not disappoint our beliefs about them, is what she has in common with the Uros Indians. And with native peoples around the world.
When I saw the Uros Indians I knew a number of things about them. And most of the things I knew, culled from travel guides, were wrong. They live on floating reed islands in Lake Titicaca. Relatively true although a lot of them actually live on the shore and go out to the islands for the tourists. They are traditionally dressed barefoot natives. Not true at all. I saw them changing from jeans and T-shirts and throwing their training shoes into the reed huts as we approached. They lead a traditional lifestyle. Only true if the traditional lifestyle includes satellite television - most of the huts have aerials. They live in huts made of reeds. Well actually in huts made of wood and corrugated metal but given a "Traditional" veneer to suit the tourists photographs.
The question is why shouldn't they make use of the modern world? And why should they have to try to hide it, to pretend to be something they patently are not, just so that the tourists can marvel at the traditional life and take their pictures of the amusing primitives?
I've encountered it time after time. In an Amazon village people were shocked when in answer to how he had achieved such spectacular colours in his clothing a village elder told them that he'd bought the dye in the city, hadn't they seen such things themselves.
In a Karen village in northern Thailand there was grumbling that electric wires and light bulbs were "out of place" as were the plastic bowls and metal pots and pans.

Why do we do this? Why do we believe that people in villages from The Amazon to Africa to Asia are somehow betraying us if they seek to take advantage of even a fraction of the things that form the everyday backdrops to our own lives? They aren't, any more than Susan Boyle is. They are entitled to live their lives as they please and without worrying about what we think. If that spoils a couple of "quaint" photographs then I for one don't actually care.

Post edited to correct an error. Susan Boyle came second not first.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

A painful pleasure

Tonight I've been watching a couple of episodes of one of the Michael Palin travel series. It was Himalaya but it could have been any of them. I love his series, truly I do. There isn't an episode of any of them that I haven't seen over and again. For me they are quite simply the very definition of what travel is all about - seeing the world through other eyes, experiencing it as the people that live in it experience it. Michael Palin visits famous resorts and obscure unheard of corners with equal regard for them. He introduces us as readily to ploughmen as to princes. He shows the shining and the seedy, side by side. Above all he, or rather his expert crew, allows the pictures to tell the story, to show the true diversity of the world's places and peoples.

Wonderful though they are, they are no substitute for the real thing. Watching him on a train journey through the mountains cannot compare with the feel of the hard seat beneath you, the cold of the glass as you wipe steam from the window with your hand, the flickering of your eyes from distant peak to distant peak.
The colours of a spice market may be bright and vibrant on the screen but the heady overpowering smell that is the real heart of the experience is missing.
Seeing the streets of multi-coloured buildings through the combined veils of the camera lens and the heavy rain is a different experience to standing in waterproofs with that same rain streaming down your face; tasting it in the corners of your mouth; smelling the freshness as the dust is washed from the air.

I love the programmes but they are a painful pleasure. I would so much rather be there than here that the feeling is physical, almost visceral. The episode I have just watched was mainly set in India and, as I haven't been there, that isn't so bad. The feeling is at its strongest when he visits somewhere that I have been; sees things that I have seen; does things that I have done. In the previous episode he was in Darra, one of the scariest places that I have been. It is a town devoted entirely to making, by hand, copies of the world's guns, mostly for sale to the local warlords. He went down the narrow alleys where people construct the stocks and barrels in tiny poorly equipped workshops. He saw the Kalashnikovs and the M-16s and even the single-shot fountain pen pistols that have been meticulously copied from the real things.
I did all those things and more when I was there and watching him brought back every second of the day.

Still, if I'm not travelling then watching someone else do it will have to do. And if I have nothing planned at the moment then I can always dream of the trips I've made in the past and hope for the trips I'll make in the future.
And Michael Palin's programmes are as close to the dream as you can get on television.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

I have to ask

I seem to have a new follower called SBCHRISG.
I can't help noticing that this name contains SBC and Chris. So are you a Chris who works with me a South Birmingham College or is the name merely an unlikely coincidence?

If you are then does that mean I have to mind my "p"s and "q"s in future to make sure I say nothing too contentious? I have previously had only one regular SBC reader and he doesn't work for us any more. (He may still be reading though. Hi Pete. You seem to have stopped sneezing.)

To put away childish things #2

Altogether I had three Etch-A-Sketches. I see that they are still currently available but I find it hard to believe that they have exactly the same construction. What happened to mine indicates what would surely now be considered series safety flaws.
Just in case there is anyone out there who hasn't heard of this toy, here's how it works. There is a flat screen which is covered on the inside with aluminium powder. Inside, on a system of wires, there is a pointer that moves to scrape off the powder, leaving a thin grey line. The pointer is controlled by two knobs on the front of the toy. One moves the pointer left and right, the other moves it forward and backwards. Using these knobs you can draw a picture on the screen. Turn it over and shake it, the picture is erased and you can start again.
Simple and effective. I used to play with it for hours when I was a kid. As I said before though, that should be "play with them" because none of them survived. What happened to them was family. What happened to the first one was my Granddad.
Before we remodelled our living room there used to be a set of wooden cupboards that separated it from the kitchen. They were an odd design with one cupboard that opened into the living room and one into the kitchen. The one that opened into the living room was always full of junk. My mother used to use it as a kind of hold-all for anything we had left lying around. One day she put my Etch-A-Sketch in there, on the bottom shelf. On the same day my Granddad, for reasons best known to himself, put a matchbox full of coins onto the top shelf. Later I opened the cupboard, the coins fell, the Etch-a-Sketch smashed. Specifically it smashed into rather a lot of razor sharp pieces of glass. Hence my suspicion that that the modern version must have a better design, or at least a more robust construction.
What happened to my second one was that I left it on the floor and one of us, I forget now it was me or my brother, trod on it. Lucky that whoever it was, was wearing shoes, though I can tell you that aluminium powder is a bugger to clean off the carpet.
I must have kicked up a fuss because I was bought a third one. I'm not at all sure what happened to that one but I suspect it was my mother. I think that she must have given it away to one of my younger cousins.

Anyway, the mysterious fate of Etch-A-Sketch number three notwithstanding, I remember it being one of my favourite toys which is peculiar because when you think about it, it's pretty naff. It's next to impossible to draw a curve and extremely difficult to draw a reliable diagonal. I have seen pictures drawn on them that were very good indeed but for the average kid, or even the average adult, getting anything that resembles something other than a series of square boxes is nigh on impossible. And in what way is it superior to, oh say for example, a pencil and a piece of paper?
I used to love it though and I see that should I want one I could still get it for under fifteen quid. It's tempting, very tempting.

Er... run that past me again

Just heard on the news, in a report about two patients who have a Tamiflu resistant strain of Swine Flu:

"It is believed they caught the virus from each other."

How is that possible?

An odd thing to say

John Moffat has brought to my attention an odd phrasing in the Guardian's reporting of the tragic death of PC Barker in the recent flooding in Cumbria. The police officer was swept away as he tried to direct traffic away from a dangerous bridge. According to the Guardian, "The policeman's body, still in uniform, was found washed up on a beach ."
Does the use of "still in uniform" strike anyone apart from us as being a little odd. Why would the body be anything but "still in uniform"? Would we expect the uniform to have washed away? Would we have expected an on duty officer to be not in uniform? Why mention the uniform at all?

It seems to me, as it did to John, to be a strange thing to say.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Signs of the times

I noticed two signs in Birmingham as I was walking to the station tonight which amused me for different reasons. The first was a large advert for Ozzy Osborne's autobiography. The title of the book is "I am Ozzy". The sign was a large picture of Ozzy with the text, reproduced exactly below, punctuated as shown.

I am Ozzy. This is his story. Read it now.

This seems to be a rather schizophrenic phrasing with the "I" in the first sentence and the "his" in the second. Had the first sentence been enclosed in quotes to make it a title, I'd have accepted it, but as it is the sense is very confused.

The second sign was a small poster in the newsagents, near the chocolate shelf. It was an advert for Terry's chocolate orange. The only problem was that the apostrophe in "Terry's" had been replaced with one of those squares that display on your computer when the font you are using doesn't include that symbol. Most likely, what has happened is that the designer has used an unusual font and when the advert has gone to its computerised print that font wasn't available and it's substituted the square. What baffles me is how it ever went to print that way. Did nobody at all notice this odd character appearing? Did they notice and not care? Did they notice and care but think, "Oh bugger, nobody will notice"?

Monday, 16 November 2009

Hell in a handbsket time again

Over at the Mail it's that time of year again when we discover that education is being fundamentally eroded, standards dumbed down, English destroyed and that the end of society as we know it is nigh.
Yep, they're on the warpath again about English exams. It's nothing new for them, it's the dreary old topic of texting. Apparently there is a "new English exam*" that includes "sections on texting". It isn't an exam about texting, it isn't an English exam that consists solely of texting, it's an exam that includes a section on texting.
According to the Mail on Sunday they have to "write an essay on the etiquette and grammar of texting, using their own messages as examples". Why is this any different to writing an essay on any other topic? There is no suggestion that they should write it using txt abbreviations (though I'll bet some of the students try) and it seems to me to be a perfectly proper essay question.

I do have a quibble about it in that they will, apparently (you can't trust everything that you read in the papers), be required to use their own texts as examples. Although most teenagers use texting abbreviations not all of them do. Some of them text in whole sentences. With punctuation. They will be at a disadvantage. That's my only slight doubt about it. Otherwise I will say again what I have said before. A text is a text is a text. The skill of reading means the skill of applying appropriate strategies to a text. It would, as I have pointed out in response to one of their previous hell-in-a-handbasket scares, be as ludicrous to read a train timetable from start to finish as it would to read a novel by taking random sentences from it. And it would be just as ludicrous to apply the same standards of creative writing to a text message saying "CU L8R" as to a sonnet or a letter to the bank manager or a diary entry.

The world isn't going to be destroyed because someone writes an essay about the etiquette of texting.

(*It's also not a new exam. It's a GCSE from the AQA - one of the largest exam boards in the country. It just happens to have included an extra bit in the syllabus.)

To put away childish things #1

...Enid Blyton.

I've talked before about how I remember the library that used to be at the end of my road so well that I could still draw a map of it showing where every different kind of book was located. The Enid Blyton books were in two places. Noddy was at the back of the children's section where the books for very young children were kept in a more open section where the kiddies could play while their parents chose their books but the books for (slightly) older children were almost immediately behind the door through which the children's section was entered. The only things closer to the door were the authors whose names began with "A".
At one time or another I must have read most of the Famous Five books and most of the Secret Seven books and probably some of the others. They were enjoyable enough but even then I was aware that this wasn't the real world, wasn't any real world that had ever existed anywhere. It was a world of impossibly polite children who had holidays in the country with dotty old aunties who gave them ginger beer and cake; who said things like "I think that's jolly hard luck, old fellow" to each other; who occupied a perfect world; who battled with criminals and smugglers and spies; who romped through an eternal summer of blue skies and fluffy clouds. Even the names give the game away. Julian, George (a tomboyish girl), Dick and Anne and, of course, Timmy the dog. (Not to mention Aunt Fanny and Uncle Quentin!)
Frankly Hogwarts is far more realistic for all its wizardry and witchery.

Back then it didn't matter though. I would read anything. Anything at all. I was a fairly solitary child. I prefered the company of perfect fictional characters to the company of imperfect real playmates. The stories were short and pacy and utterly unrealistic in every possible way.

There is only one scene that I actually remember now from any of those books and that serves to show the values and attitudes that pervade the books. The children have, in one of the twenty or so summer holidays in which the books are set (during which they hardly age at all) a new friend. He is a scruffy urchin, possibly a gypsy* though it's a very long time since I read the books, who has a runny nose that he wipes on his sleeve. The children are insufferably patronising to him - insisting on giving him a handkerchief, and, if memory serves (which it may well not - it is over forty years ago) instructions on how to use it.

In hindsight it's difficult to explain the popularity of the books although the fact that the Famous Five began publication in 1942 may have some bearing. The war was still on and even later in the post war years it was a time of austerity and the sunny skies and optimistic adventures may have appealed to children of the time. By the time I came to them the series was reaching an end (the last was published in 1963) and the bad times were (or so everyone believed) behind us. For children of my generation the unbelievability was starting to win out over the escapist optimism.

Still, I remember them fondly and if I see any cheap reprint editions may well get some just for the nostalgia. Who wouldn't like to be six years old again?

(*Reprint editions may also be scarce because of this kind of thing. There are casual streams of racism, sexism and class distinction throughout the books that would sit very uneasily on the bookshelf today. There would need to be substantial editing, though it was a reflection of the times in which they were written.)

To put away childish things #0

There is a question that has been asked at wordcraft about whether Enid Blyton has ever been a popular author in the United States. The answer appears to be "Enid who?", and, bearing in mind that we have children's librarians among the membership, this is quite interesting. It doesn't actually surprise me all that much as even many of the British find them unrealistically twee, portraying, as they do, a life of upper-middle class jolliness, ginger beer and cake, and impossibly polite children. They are not popular nowadays because they are almost impossible for children to relate to. It's easier to believe in Hogwarts than it is to believe in the eternal summer of Enid Blyton.

That's not the point of this post though. The point of this post is to introduce a new series of posts in which I want to wallow unashamedly in nostalgia. I want to recall some of the childish things that have long since been put away - Enid Blyton, the Doctor Syn novels of Richard Thorndyke, Etch-a-sketch, the Rubiks Cube, Airfix, the John Bull printing set : all of the hundreds of things that were important when I was five, or six, or nine but that I haven't considered much for years. The things locked in the attic of my mind.

And we''' start with...

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Hi, whoever you are.

According to Google Analytics I've had a bit of a surge in readership in the last couple of days. I never know how they calculate these things so I don't want to put too much trust in it but if you are a new reader then can I just say thank you and please stick around. And feel free to leave comments, even if they are only to say "Hi".
If photography interests you there is also my photoblog and for a longer travel piece my unpublished book. Both are linked at the side of the page.

You might also like to take a look at some of the older posts. There is rather a lot about travel, quite a bit of poetry and lots and lots of pictures by different artists who have illustrated ALice in Wonderland.

Thanks again for stopping by.


Once again I am sitting working at my computer on a Sunday morning while the BBC discussion program "The Big Questions" is on. The question that they are discussing is whether violent video games are harming society. They are talking specifically about the game Modern Warfare and creating more hot air than the Montgolfier brothers. There are so many things wrong about the debate that it's tough to know where to begin, so let's begin with the way that so many of the anti-gamers seem not to know the difference between evidence and hearsay. They talk over and over about the amount of evidence there is showing that violent games make people violent but never cite anything that actually IS evidence. Their evidence is always that "people know" that it's true, that they have "heard of" people who have commited violent acts, that they have "seen" children acting out violent scenes.
None of this is evidence. This is speculation and hearsay. It's claiming that opinion is fact to support your own viewpoint. In the whole debate no one has actually referenced any kind of study into the issue.
I am no wiser now that the debate is coming to an end than I was at the start of it as to whether studies support or contradict their viewpoint.

One other aspect of this that has been mentioned by one panellist but subsequently ignored by host Nicky Campbell (who has a habit of only pursuing the points that will generate heat rather than light) is the historic aspect. One of the panelists pointed out that when he was a boy the same charges were being levelled at horror comics. This is part of an important wider point. There is always something that is "destroying the values of society". I'm a little younger than the panelist and when I grew up it was violent horror films. I remember the fuss that surrounded films such as "Driller Killer" or "Texas Chainsaw Massacre". The Sunday papers were filled week in and week out with stories about how those movies were making people violent and how they should be banned for the good of society.
In the case of comics it led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority and the censoring of comics for many years.

The fact is that the game in question is designed for adults not children. If children are playing it then that isn't a reason to ban it, it's a reason for exercising better control over how easy it is to get hold of. The logical conclusion of going the other route is that everything should be made child-friendly - books, theatre, magazines, films and TV as well as video games. The historic fact that all of these things have been blamed at one time or another for an increase in violence makes computer games just the latest scapegoat.
I, for one, have read a few horror comics and seen an occasional horror movie - though I can't claim to be a fan - but never played a violent video game. I don't want to live in a world where everything that I am exposed to would be suitable for a ten-year-old.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Green Unpleasant Land

When I was in Mexico some years ago I wrote the essay reproduced below as a column for my local paper. It was, as you can see, a description of a problem that pervades the region. litter. Today I took a stroll across the fields to the supermarket. Usually I take the car but I only needed a couple of things and fancied a walk. When I last did this the fields were covered with snow and looked pristine and beautiful. Without the snow it's a different story. There is litter everywhere - empty crisp packets, crushed beer cans, plastic bags, chocolate bar wrappers, cigarette packets... even a shopping trolley. It's a depressing sight. I am constantly baffled as to why people seem to take so little care about the world that they live in.
Only this week, as I walked home from the station, I noticed a half eaten bag of chips (that's fries to the US readers) on the pavement and a half drunk can of extra strong lager in the grass next to it. It's all rather depressing really.
Mexico may have the problem, but we have it too. There is detritus everywhere, in the streets, in the fields, even in people's front gardens where drunkards on the way home have carelessly tossed it, unwilling to wait five minutes and stick it in their own bins.

By way of cross-threading, the next few days on my photoblog will take a break from documenting my travels and illustrate today's walk.


We entered Mexico at Nogales and immediately found ourselves trapped in the ten kilometre limbo between the United States and Mexico border posts. We sat for several hours on the flyblown litter strewn car park thinking up increasingly desperate ways to pass the time. Some tried reading. Others bet on which would be the next car alarm to go off. A few of us in a more competitive spirit vied to outdo each other in the number of beer cans we could crush with a single swipe of the foot.
Every passing vehicle slowed to allow its occupants to observe the antics of the loco gringos clinging to their diminishing patch of shade.
The problem was both simple and apparently insoluble and it came in two halves. Our half had begun when we sailed unchallenged past the US border post and drove to the Mexican one. There we had had our passports stamped and bought our tourist cards. To leave Mexico you have to go to a bank, pay a fee and get this card stamped. That was where the other half of the problem lay. Before the truck was allowed into Mexico we needed documentation that we didn't have. Charlie had gone on ahead to obtain it but had never returned. Without him we couldn't get in but unless we got in we couldn't get out. So we sat on a filthy car park that stank inexplicably of drains thinking up ways to divert ourselves.
The car park was our first exposure to one of the biggest problems that Mexico has :- rubbish. The whole country is rapidly being buried under a mountain of it. Eventually Charlie, who had been searching for us at the US border post, arrived and we crossed into Mexico but by then it was too late to hunt for a proper campsite so we pitched camp at the side of the road, watched over by the illuminated statue of a saint high on a nearby hill.
Next morning, seeing it for the first time in daylight we discovered a wilderness of broken bottles, empty cartons, rusty cans, cigarette packets, human and animal faeces and every other conceivable form of detritus. It wasn't a rubbish dump but it might as well have been. It would be facile to suggest that poverty is to blame for though it certainly plays a part it isn't really the cause. It's more that people don't seem to care. They have too many other priorities to worry about the rate at which the tidal wave of waste is destroying their ecology.
There is overpopulation - Mexico City alone has 22 million people - and over-industrialisation. There is the iniquity with which the indigenous Indian peoples are treated and the corresponding problems when they - in the form of the Zapatista movement - strike back. Mexico has too many other problems to get concerned about what is seen as 'litter'.
On the other hand the extent of the problem shouldn't be underestimated, a point made pointedly and poignantly two weeks later when we visited the Canon el Sumidero. This is tourist country, the kind of place where you show your best face to the world. Boatmen take visitors along the river and through the canyon. It is a spectacular and beautiful place with dramatic waterfalls plunging down from precipitous cliffs watched by the crocodiles as immobile as sand sculptures on the bank. At one point water cascades down for hundreds of feet over the trees washing the leaves and branches down as if the foliage were dark green blankets draped in layers across the hillside. The force of the water fills the air for dozens of yards with a fine cooling mist, like a gentle balm against your sun scorched skin. It is a gorgeous and magical sight.
Until you look down at the river.
It isn't the greasy unhealthy sheen that stops you dead, nor the sickly vivid green of the clogging algae. It is the sheer volume of the flotsam. there are plastic bottles and bags, pieces of broken furniture, rusty cans - all drifting slowly towards an ecological catastrophe. Where the eddies and currents wash it into the caves and crevices of the shoreline it is worse still. In places the water is scarcely visible at all such is the density of this grim tide.
For one night I thought we had avoided it. We made camp on one of the beaches somewhere on the gulf where there is a small turtle sanctuary. The water and the sand were clean. In the early evening we watched as a large bucketful of day old turtles were released at the water's edge to swim away into the ocean.
I wandered away up the slope of the beach to where the dunes were covered in grass, where they started to turn into swampland. There, just out of site from our encampment were more plastic bottles and more discarded food wrappers. Who I wondered could have come all the way out here to dump this stuff ?
I went to bed feeling depressed by the inevitability of it all.

The following morning there was a more optimistic coda as I watched a group of men clearing some of it away in black sacks. I only hope they weren't taking it to dump in the river.

Beware hubris

The Sun, a newspaper that made such a big issue out of a few trivial spelling mistakes in Gordon Brown's letter of condolence to the mother of a soldier killed in Afghanistan, managed to spell the family name wrong themselves on their web-site.

Of course, in their view, a correction and a brief apology is sufficient when they do it but the PM must be dragged over hot coals when he does it.

Still, could happen to anyone, couldn't it lads? Quite.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Powerful man has poor handwriting, shock!

There is a great deal of fuss being made over Gordon Brown's letter of condolence to the family of a soldier killed in Afghanistan. So the Prime Minister has poor handwriting, what a shock. He is also blind in one eye and partially blind in the other which probably has an effect on his neatness. He has now apologised but just how bad, in reality, was that letter?

Let's look at the errors that the newspaper is making such a big thing of.

First of all he has written "Dear Mrs James" rather than "Dear Mrs Janes". OK, it's a good idea to get somebody else to proofread, especially when writing something this sensitive but the truth is that "James" is a far more common name than "Janes". I'm sure that he was aware of the correct spelling but the mistaken substitution of a common spelling for an uncommon one is surely understandable? It's a mistake that anyone could make.

The second problem is that there is an obvious correction that has been made to the dead soldiers first name "Jamie" where the last letter has been written incorrectly and then gone over to correct it. Perhaps it would have been better to start the whole thing again, on the other hand I think most people would probably do the same.

There are several spelling errors. Or are there? Condolences is written as condolencs, greatest as greatst and colleagues as colleagus. This is actually the same error three times- the omission of an "e". I'm perfectly sure that the Prime Minister can spell all of these words correctly, this is an error of haste rather than of spelling. I have similar problems sometimes when I'm typing - mistakes that I only notice when I read it back (or more commonly half a second after hitting send). I also have a regular failing where I am too slow in taking my finger from the caps key so that I have two initial capitals on sentences. I pick these things up (sometimes) in proofreading but the Prime Minister may well find that harder to do because of his eyesight. I'd find it impossible without my glasses.

What else is there? There's a you instead of your and, allegedly a securiity instead of security. I've looked at the letter and I'm not so sure it isn't just his handwriting again in the latter case, and the former is again a fairly common error of haste.

The final thing is perhaps the silliest criticism of all. He has signed off with "My sincere condolences, Yours sincerely, Gordon Brown". The complaint is the repetition of "sincere". What's so terrible about that?

As I said, Gordon Brown has apologised. He is said to be mortified that he has given offence. But does he really have any great cause for such feelings? I'd say not. He's written a letter that has a few mistakes in it. Maybe it does look as if it was overly hasty but I don't know, and nor does anyone else, where he was and what else was happening when he wrote it. The errors are the sort that anyone might make. I'm no fan of Gordon Brown but frankly I think he should be criticised when he deserves it, not when he doesn't. This elaborate nit-picking of his letter looks to me to be targeted solely because it's him.

And I can't believe I'm defending Gordon Brown!

Saturday, 7 November 2009

A traveller's guide to eating out

I ought to apologise for the recent dearth of entries in this blog. I could claim that it's pressure of work but I'd be lying. The truth is that I just haven't had anything very much worth saying. I shouldn't let that stop me though,should I? After all I know that the more I post the better the chances that someone may stumble on the blog and like it.

So, I'll try to post more this week. If I can think of anything to post.

Over on my photoblog, I've started a series of entries that just illustrate, without comment but in order, the places that I visited during the year and a half I spent travelling around the world. So far I've posted pictures from New York to Niagara, a tiny fraction of what is to come. You might disagree but I think it's worth a look.

Anyway, I shall begin with recourse to the old trick of reposting something I wrote years ago but which I don't think I've ever posted in this blog. Here then is an old essay about food.

A few years ago I had a week in Catalonia.
It wasn't one of my more adventurous trips, just a humble package tour but as package tours go it was a pretty good one. I visited the Picasso Museum - which by sheer good luck had, in addition to its regular collection, a splendid exhibition of Picasso caricatures. I pottered around Barcelona looking at the weird and wonderful architecture of Anton Gaudi, a man whom many consider to be a true architectural genius but others regard as a raving lunatic. I went to the house of another barking mad genius, Salvador Dali, in Figueras and spent half a day studying the great man's work. I went hiking around Olot, taking in some incredible views and relaxing on the terrace of a marvellous little bar in the picturesque village of Besalu. In short I had a terrific time. I don't want to talk about any of that though. What really stood out though, what was remarked on more than anything else was the Catalonian attitude to food. It's not that the food is bad - far from it, I had uniformly excellent meals - it's just that the menus tend to an obsessive literal-mindedness that is quite startlingly unexpected.

As package groups do we ate together most of the time in a variety of restaurants from the plain but adequate dining room of our hotel in Olot to the hole-in-the-corner cosiness of one of the many restaurants in Girona's old Jewish Quarter to the baroque chic of a restaurant a little way off Las Ramblas in Barcelona. All of them exhibited one trait in common - to steal a phrase, "it does exactly what it says on the label".

That first restaurant in Barcelona had been quite an upmarket place, the sort of place where you can easily imagine celebrities might just drop in, if any of them ever visit the city. While I waited for my meal I scrutinised my fellow diners very carefully in the hope of seeing someone famous but to no avail. I had ordered duck with apple more or less at random from the extensive choice available. And duck with apple is what I got. I'd expected to get a few slices of pinkish meat in some kind of apple sauce with some side helpings of vegetables, perhaps a few potatoes, perhaps a little salad. What I got though was half a roast duck and an apple, unpeeled and cut into quarters. There were no side dishes, no salad, no chips just the duck and the apple. I got quite a good deal out of it though by comparison to others. Those sampling the peas and ham got a ten inch plate of peas with bits of sliced ham scattered throughout, as for the spinach eaters... well two pounds of unaccompanied spinach would probably be more than Popeye could polish off comfortably.

It rapidly became a theme for mealtimes. In Girona my roast lamb was a piece of meat that represented a fair percentage of the animal's total body weight. It was of course served entirely untainted by contact with vegetables. Steak was steak - admittedly in a rather nice Roquefort sauce but otherwise rather lost and lonely on its oversize plate. Turbot was turbot. The crowning glory of this obsessiveness came for those who ordered the "fruit salad" in Olot. It was an apple, an orange and a banana - whole, unpeeled, virgin fruit.

But if there is one lesson I have learned when travelling it's that it doesn't do to be too picky when eating abroad. With the exception of scrutinising absolutely everything for mushrooms which make me violently ill I have one simple rule which has served me well around the world even when the waiters haven't.

"Eat what comes when it comes."

It doesn't matter if it's what you ordered, it doesn't matter if it's what you expected, it doesn't matter if the dessert comes before the starter or everything arrives on your table simultaneously. Just keep quiet and eat.

I recall sitting in a restaurant in a small town in Mexico. At another table was an elderly man, also clearly a tourist, who had ordered whitebait for a starter followed by fajitas for his main course. The sequence of events was really quite comical to watch.

The fajitas arrived. He sent them back as the starter hadn't come.
Fifteen minutes passed.
The whitebait arrived. He took one small forkful, spat it out, said they were overcooked and sent it back.
The fajitas were bought out.
He sent them back and demanded properly cooked whitebait.
The same whitebait arrived. He sent it back and said he would do without a starter.
The fajitas - by now stone cold - arrived. He sent them back because they were cold.
The manager arrived and demanded payment. He refused.
The manager threatened to fetch the police.
Almost apoplectic with rage the man paid up and left.
Meanwhile by simply being prepared to eat my main course before my starter I had not only had a very nice meal but also forty five minutes of priceless entertainment.

Back in Catalonia though there is another quirk of the cuisine. In a word, "pig". Basically, every part of the pig seems to appear somewhere on the menu from the commonplace cuts of pork and pork sausage through to pigs' trotters, pigs' snouts and pigs' cheeks. This combined with the lack of vegetables means that if you are a Moslem or a Vegetarian it probably shouldn't be top of your holiday destinations list unless you are really determined to lose weight. Even for a dedicated carnivore like me the preponderance of meat - especially pork, which I rarely eat at home - gets a little much. By the time I was ready to leave I estimated that if I had kept the food uneaten I'd have had almost enough to assemble a Frankenstein porker, possibly with enough left over for a couple of BLT sandwiches.

There was a short coda to this anti-vegetarian dietary experience. When I got home I called my father from the airport. He promised to have something waiting for me when I reached home. I'd have settled happily for a nice bit of cheddar but he'd cooked me a fry up of sausage and bacon. It would have seemed churlish not to eat it after he'd cooked it but the next day in the supermarket when he placed a shoulder of pork in the basket I waited until he wasn't looking I put it back on the shelf and replaced it with a chicken.
There's only so much that a man can take.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

A note from an old curmudgeon.

Following an internal link in Lynne Murphy's excellent Separated By A Common Language blog I found the post from November 2007 about the differences between British and American autumnal traditions. I read it with interest because I am one of those who consider Halloween to be a "nuisance or menacing form of begging". It's a good, well written article in a recommended blog, but I'm not sure that she isn't missing something important.
Halloween isn't celebrated here the way it seems to be in the US. (I've never been in the US at this time of year and can base my view only on things I've read or seen on TV.) If it were celebrated here like that, with groups of supervised children in colourful costumes going from house to house trick-or-treating, I don't think anyone would have a problem with it. I certainly wouldn't. The trouble is not with perception it's with experience. What we have where I live (near to Wolverhampton) is quite different to these benign festivities. This year has been very peaceful. A couple of times we had kids at the door. Both times it was a pair of unsupervised older teenagers whose costumes consisted of a pair of plastic fangs (in one case being held in his hand rather than his mouth) whose mumbled "trick-or-treat" definitely sounded menacing. It was also clear that what they wanted was money not sweets or chocolate.
In previous years it's been similar though more prolonged. They have sometimes started more than a week early and come to the same houses with the same attitude several times. Personally I just tell them "No" and apart from the odd bit of rubbish on the front lawn not been bothered by "tricks". On the other hand, my Dad is almost ninety and he feels very menaced by anyone coming to the door, people demanding money are especially worrying for people like him.

The attitude of the adults here towards Halloween isn't driven by some kind of general antipathy, it's driven by their experience. Maybe if schools or youth clubs organised and supervised larger groups of children with better costumes* we might take to it more kindly.
Maybe not, but it's probably worth a try.

(*and no, I don't think anyone would mind a Spiderman, Gypsy or whatever costume.)