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.

Thursday, 31 December 2009

Krak des Chevaliers

This morning the episode of Great Railway Journeys that was shown was the one where Alexei Sayle travels from Aleppo to Aqaba. In his opening remarks, when he showed a map, he mentioned Krak des Chevaliers and, as it's a very impressive place, I waited for that section keenly. It came and went so briefly that I almost missed it, being barely mentioned in passing. So I thought that I would redress the balance.
For anyone who doesn't know, Krak des Chevaliers is a crusader fortress in Syria. I visited it and slept in the grounds when I was travelling around Northern Africa in 2001. Here a few representative pictures. Sorry that the scans aren't great. My scanner is on its last legs.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Great Railway Journeys

While I've been on my Christmas Break, I've been scouring the TV channels for anything worth watching. It hasn't been an easy task but tucked away at nine o'clock each morning on BBC2 they have been showing various episodes of Great Railway Journeys of the World, and a true gem of a program it is. True some of the presenters are better than others but the travel and the trains are the important things and they have been marvellous.
A fair bit of my travelling has been done by train, in Mexico, in China, in Peru, in North Korea and it can be a lot of fun. I particularly recall a journey back in 1994, from Puno to Cuzco in Peru.

As a daily commuter I have little love for trains but as a traveller I realise that you have to learn to enjoy the journey as much as the destination. Therefore the news that we were to travel from Puno to Cuzco by an eleven hour train journey filled me with mixed emotions. The trip so far had hardly been uneventful. There had been problems from the outset. In spite of paranoia induced by dire warnings from all our local guides we had had the theft of a camera from a bag in Lima, the theft of a whole rucksack from a pile of guarded luggage outside a hotel in Puno and a slick mugging which thankfully had not resulted in anyone getting hurt. And we'd only been in the country for five days. The one person telling us, in the face of all the evidence, that there was no problem was our holiday company tour leader. Perhaps it was this that undermined our confidence in her glowing and optimistic descriptions of the train journey when we gathered in the bar the night before for a briefing.

All of our luggage, she said would travel with us and could safely be left unattended on the train at the various stops while we got off to look around the towns. No-one felt any confidence in this pronouncement and it was noticeable that when we actually made the journey there were always members of the group sitting around watching their own and other peoples luggage. It may have been, as she insisted, an unnecessary precaution but better safe than sorry is sometimes true.

The train was a creaky old fashioned thing although it was pulled not, as I had hoped, by an elegant old steam engine but rather by a dirty ugly old diesel. Inside, the compartments in our Pullman class coach were relative clean and comfortable even if it was a tight squeeze with all of the passengers and their luggage. The cases and rucksacks were forced under the seats, piled onto the overhead racks, hung from hooks in front of the windows or simply left on the tables. On the other hand as the Pullman class was all in numbered and ticketed seats at least all of the passengers could sit down which is more than I ever managed on my British Rail journeys to and from work.
As the journey began the realisation of just how long a span eleven hours might be started to register on us and it was with a mixture of anticipation and concern that we contemplated the day ahead. How would we pass the time? Some people had brought books with them, others packs of playing cards. I had neither. What would I do? Well, first of all there was food to be had. Attractive waitresses in very short red mini-skirts came from table to table taking orders for breakfast and lunch. The quality of my breakfast cheese sandwich was such that I instantly regretted my rash decision to order lunch at the same time. It was two pieces of bread so dry that they had the texture and taste of polystyrene with a slice of something yellow and very sweaty between them. I threw it out of the window, which seemed a far better option than eating it. While we were dining on this too humble fare a man came round selling maps of the route printed in five languages - one of which was English - with a printed guide to Machu Picchu. I bought one, as much to get some small change as to get something to read.
Outside we were heading through a mainly flat and dull landscape on the way to our first stop in Juliaca.

As the train rolled to a halt in Juliaca dozens of street vendors, mainly women and children, appeared running alongside the coaches and throwing their wares in through the open windows. They were selling all sorts of things - carpets, hats, jumpers, fruit, sandwiches, souvenirs. One of them tossed a white alpaca wool hat in the old cossack style in through the window and the women passed it around trying it on before one of them began to barter for it. Eventually she achieved a price that she was happy with and bought it.
We were scheduled for a forty minute stop at Juliaca, time enough to see the town around the station. Descending from the train we found the platform crowded with all sorts of people. Some of them were selling. Some were waiting. Some, like us, were looking around. Others were ostentatiously and self-importantly standing in their uniforms waving big guns around. I walked, a little nervously, past some of these military types and out of the station into the square, another Plaza de Armas. Like the similar squares in the other cities it was laid out around a central park where street vendors sold everything they thought that you might want to buy. I bought some delicious hot vegetable pasties from a woman keeping them hot in a metal tub packed with hot towels and bottles of unidentifiable purple fruit juice from a wheelbarrow.

After Juliaca the train wound first of all through some depressingly bleak urban sprawl. Dirty hovels lined the track while some of the poorest looking people that I have ever seen sat in the dirt selling bits of scrap metal and inedible looking food and torn ragged pieces of old clothing. No-one seemed to be buying. The train didn't stop here. This was a side of Peru reserved for the Peruvians and it was a very sobering experience. After a few miles we rolled clear of it and out into more green plains with the mountains visible only as a dark ribbon along the horizon.
Somewhere along the line we were served with lunch. My misgivings at breakfast proved to be well-founded. My plate consisted of bone-dry chicken, dryer rice and even dryer vegetables. After a few mouthfuls I gave up and ordered a bottle of beer. Then I made it two. They would, after all have to keep me nourished for several hours.

At Chuquibambilla while the engine refuled we walked around the station stretching our legs. A traditional Peruvian trio of pipes, drums and a kind of guitar played for our entertainment and their enrichment. After a while the certainty started to grow in my mind that I knew the tune they were playing. I listened carefully, following the melody. I turned to one of my fellow travellers.
"Isn't this 'Imagine' ?"
He started to scoff but then, as he paused to pay attention and hum along, he nodded. As we listened it moved smoothly into 'Michele', then on into 'The Long and Winding Road'. For twenty minutes we were treated to a medley of Beatles hits. Then, with a few Sol tossed into the basket to show our appreciation we were off again.

Now the scenery had changed. It was lush and green and we had passed the highest point of the journey and begun to wind down towards Cuzco. The mountains had marched briskly in from the horizon and were crowding the track. We stopped at a dozen tiny stations, always too briefly to descend from the train. We ordered and drank several more beers. We walked around the coach to stretch. We played cards. We slept. We talked. Eventually we ran out of things to do and sat around in silence.
At about eight O'clock in the evening, already two hours past our E.T.A. and thirteen hours after starting our journey we pulled into the outskirts of Cuzco. It was at least an hour later we reached the station. The line the whole way was crowded with people trying to sell things at the windows of the moving coaches. The train proceeded at the slowest of snails' paces. The closer we got to the station the more bogged down it became until it eventually halted in what seemed to be a siding where we had to fight our way through the crowd of locals to reach our minibus. The luggage was piled precariously on the roof and we climbed inside for the twenty minute drive to the Hotel Carlos V where I dumped my luggage, splashed two drops of water on my face and headed for a local Pizzeria to fill the gaping hole in my stomach.

Always new depths

I had thought that Deal or No Deal, a show where people become insanely excited about picking random numbers, was about as moronic as it was possible to get. I had thought that there were no further depths available.
As ever, I was wrong.
Now we have a show called Heads or Tails. I saw a few minutes of it yesterday and although it's been given a few twiddles and tweaks it is fundamentally half an hour of someone tossing a coin and someone else saying "heads or tails". The more they get right, the more they win.

Where can we possibly go that is lower than this? I wait with bated breath to find out.

Ongoing 12

The next page shows a drawing a decidedly heavy-metal-looking drummer.

capturing the thunder

some would capture the lightning
hold it in a globe
bring it into the darkness
and free it to illuminate the world
from light comes peace

but i would capture the thunder
hold it in a box
bring it into the silence
and free it to create chaos and confusion
from sound comes change

Monday, 28 December 2009

Ongoing 11

The next picture in the book shows a number of people, clearly archaeologists, standing around looking into a hole. I got no real inspiration from it until by chance I saw a TV program that my father was watching, something called "A Victorian Farm". In this program a group of people have been living as their Victorian forebears would have lived. It set me wondering whether in a hundred years they will be making programs about how we live now, and that in turn set me on the track that led me to this free verse poem.

These were the ways of the ancients

These were the ways of the ancients
-----they built cities to gather the people
-----and walls and fences to separate them;
-----they lived all together and all alone

These were the ways of the ancients
-----they accumulated tokens of wealth
-----mistaking them for tokens of worth;
-----consumed by their consumerism

These were the ways of the ancients
-----some chose their dictators by ballot
-----some allowed their dictators to choose them;
-----all followed their dictators dictats

These were the ways of the ancients
-----they worshipped strange disparate gods
-----and mocked each others' stranger pieties;
-----all would be saved and all damned

These were the ways of the ancients
-----they filled their lives with sound and light
-----their bodies with alcohol and drugs;
-----they were stimulated and stupefied

These were the ways of the ancients
-----they reached for peace by waging war
-----measured success by counting corpses;
-----their passions were primitive, they were not us

These were the ways of the ancients

Friday, 25 December 2009

So here it is...

Not sure what this selection of Christmas gifts says about me.

Four bottles of assorted ales.
A Jack Daniels gift pack (glass, playing cards, beer mat, JD miniature)
Money towards a new pair of shoes
A Neil Gaiman poster
A paper-chain making kit (who says no one listens to me?)

It must say something though.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

A disappointing result

Although the newspapers report it as I very large sum, I feel that Alice Liddell's own copy of Through The Looking Glass went for a knock down bargain price. It fetched only $115,000 or, in money I'm familiar with £72,000. I'd been expecting double that.
Still there is a recession.
I haven't unwrapped my Christmas presents yet so I'm still living in hope.

Ongoing 10

The next picture in the book shows two doctors dissecting an alien. I got the poem idea immediately but struggled with it. Then it occurred to me that it was ideally suited to a Haiku.

The Chinese Village

I was alien,
a pale specimen skewered;
silent winter eyes.

Anybody who has ever visited rural China will understand this verse perfectly.

Lest anyone should forget that I'm the Grinch

Last night I watched "The Grumpy Guide To Christmas" in which a collection of splenetic figures railed against the season. They covered a lot of bases. Christmas shopping, Christmas food, Christmas television, Christmas cards; all things Christmas were demolished with an almost joyful glumness. They did, however, miss a few things that I think ought to be mentioned.

First off there are radio stations. For me this problem usually starts about a month before Christmas when they start playing nothing but Christmas songs; mixing all the old ones you've hated for years with all the new ones you'll hate for years to come. Last year I thought I'd found the solution with Classic FM but they switched over three weeks before the day to playing carol concerts, the Hallelujah chorus and generally jolly christmassy classical stuff. This year I tried BBC Radio 3 and got to almost a week before Christmas before needing to switch off altogether. I now have almost a year to choose next year's station. Suggestions will be appreciated.

Another thing they missed was Christmas cards at work. I'm annoyed enough by people who write cards and leave them on everyone's desks but more annoying still are the emails that say "This year I have decided not send any cards. I will instead be making a donation to charity." This year I've had half a dozen of them and always from people I have never actually heard of. I want to email back and say "I don't believe you. You just sent that to all 2000 people in the college. At ten pence each that's two hundred quid. Show me the receipt!"
Next year, I'll send my own. "This year I'm not sending cards. I'll be spending the money on booze."

The Grumpies also failed to grump about the excessive, pointless waste of time, effort and money that goes into decorating the outside of houses with illuminated Santas and such like - the more excessive the decorations, the more working class the district - though it must be said that there have been far fewer this year than ever before.

They also missed mentioning people who think it the height of seasonal wit to sit in pubs wearing ties with Santa Clauses, Christmas Trees and Reindeer that light up with flashing red bulbs or play "We wish you a Merry Christmas" or "Jingle Bells" every few minutes.

One of them did touch briefly on the ludicrous concept of cranberry sauce, but it bears repeating here. You wouldn't put marmalade on your roast beef. Don't put jam on your poultry.

Nobody mentioned Charles Dickens and that book. This year we have only a modest half dozen or so versions of A Christmas Carol (though one of them is Catherine Tate) but some years there seem to be versions of it on at least once a day, every day for a couple of weeks around Christmas.

I'm sure there were other things but the last word now, as then, must go to Ozzy Osbourne who finished the program with the accurate and pithy observation, "What a load of b******s Christmas is."

(And just in case this post may seem at odds with previous ones, may I refer you to Ralph Waldo Emerson.)

And a merry bah humbug to all my loyal readers. :)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Ongoing 9

The next picture in my doodles picture book shows a hand reaching into a box. I have filled the box with slips of paper on which are written my poem

Lucky Dip

policeman, politician, programmer or pilot
divorced or married, widowed, all alone
playboy millionaire or a shy and shrinking violet
philanthropist or heart as cold as stone

morose or happy, sorrowful or overcome with joy
famous or forgotten, a sinner or a saint
a good life or a bad life; build, maintain, destroy

take your ticket from the lucky dip and live without complaint

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Ongoing 8

The next picture is of chefs. It put me in mind of the Harrow Summer School menu again.
So, with apologies to Doctor Seuss...

I cannot eat a mushroom.
Do not put them on my plate,
For if I should eat a mushroom
I would meet a gruesome fate.
I cannot eat a mushroom.
Do not put them in my soup,
For if I should eat a mushroom
You would see me wilt and droop.
I cannot eat a mushroom.
Do not put them in the rice
For if I should eat a mushroom
The effects would not be nice.
I cannot eat a mushroom.
Do not put them in the curry
For if I should eat a mushroom
It would be a cause for worry.
I cannot eat a mushroom.
Do not put them in the stew,
For if I should eat a mushroom
My face would soon turn blue.
I cannot eat a mushroom.
Do not bake them in a cake,
For if I should eat a mushroom
I would get a belly ache.
I cannot eat a mushroom.
Do not put them in my pie,
For if I should eat a mushroom
It's possible I'd die.

To Put Away Childish Things #5

I have a confession to make.
I still have a Viewmaster.

Actually that's not quite true. What I really mean is that I have a Viewmaster again. I bought it about a year ago to look at a set of Alice in Wonderland Viewmaster slides that I had acquired.
Now there surely can't be anybody who isn't familiar with this particular item. It's a slightly more recent equivalent of a toy that's been around for a long time, a stereoscopic viewer.

They may look a little different (personally I think the Victorian wooden one is far more elegant) but they are essentially exactly the same thing. Separate views, though very similar views are presented to each eye and the brain does the rest, extrapolating a 3D effect from two 2D pictures.
There were, and there still are, all sorts of Viewmaster slides, from pictures of deep under the sea to pictures of panoramic mountain scenes, from Biblical Scenes to Mickey Mouse, from historical recreations to wildlife photography.
I remember that not only did I have piles and piles of the slides and a viewer I had a projector and when we were little we would set it up in the living room and pin a sheet to the wall, focus with the moveable lens at the front and show our slides for hours on end. It didn't matter that we'd seen them all a thousand times, we were always happy to see them again.
Where they all went to is one of life's mysteries. Where does anything go to? Where are all the lost things of our childhoods?

Of course I remember some specific reels. There was a great one that showed some of the weirder and more mysterious creatures of the deep. Brightly coloured, marvellously shaped spiny-finned monsters that I had never seen and never hoped to see. In 3D it was incredible, well it was to someone of that age and at that time, and blown up to a 2D five-foot across by the projector it was marvellous for different reasons. You could go up close and examine details that were never really visible on the smaller 3D viewer.
I remember having some pictures of the Himalayas and the Alps, places that I couldn't dream of seeing. Perhaps they were in part the root of my love of travel.
Bizarrely the one I remember most was a set of photographs of Paris. They were so dated. The clothes of the people and the styles of the vehicles were old-fashioned even then. Projected they were more mysterious than ever. They were pictures of the city in which people had been frozen in a single moment, held fast for eternity halfway to their destinations. I would make up stories about who these people were and what they were doing. A man in a blue suit and a hat stood on the left with his back to me. A smartly dressed woman was walking into the frame from the right. Less distinct figures were in the shadows of the buildings in the background. I studied the pictures for so long that some of them are indelibly stamped in my memory.

It was one of my favourite toys. As with all these other nostalgia trips of mine I may now seek out, perhaps on ebay, some random piles of reels to view again. Who knows, I may come across that set of Paris or those fish.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Just a link

I don't normally do posts with the sole purpose of linking to something else, but that's what this one is all about.
I've been following the case of mumbo-jumbo vs science, er... Chiropractors vs Simon Singh with a lot of interest. Now there comes a very very funny summary of the whole thing.

Read and enjoy.

How many?

An advert I saw for Reeboks on a sports shop window yesterday.

Sale: Reeboks. Half-price. Maximum two per customer.

There are so many people out there who buy them in threes, aren't there?

(And yes, I do know that they meant two pairs, it's the wording that amuses me.)

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Never a truer word...

It's exam marking time again and as ever it is throwing up its fair share of amusing moments. The exam topic is "getting a job" and includes a mock interview. My favourite line so far is
Teacher (as the interviewer): So, tell me about your personal qualities.
Student (as the applicant): I am hard work.
Never a truer word lad, never a truer word.

Monday, 14 December 2009

And the winner is...

... Eugenie is it? Well, not much of a surprise after my anonymous correspondent posted the link to the gallery pictures last week but still a bit of a mystery, for me at least, as to how she managed to win. Actually though, there was a larger mystery to be solved in this week's final School of Saatchi. The mystery of the missing Ben. He was seen early on cutting up bits of cardboard for his collage but then disappeared from the screen completely until the final judging. All the others were seen preparing their works for the exhibition where the judging would take place but Ben was noticeable only by his absence. One of the two works he was exhibiting wasn't even mentioned until the judges showed up, being glimpsed only briefly in the background as the camera panned around.
At the end of the program I was left with the idea, which I may check out by watching it again, that the order of elimination corresponded exactly to the amount of screen time the artists received. So the invisible Ben went out first. His main piece had been the aforementioned collage in which he had meticulously slotted together tiny pieces of cut up cardboard representing his journey through the ten week process of the competition.
Suki and Samuel followed him out of the running. Suki's piece had been a white wooden tower that you entered via a ladder and in which you could hear a recording of a buzzing insect. Samuel had been forced to a rethink on safety grounds when his original concept of a Van der Graaf Generator with a wig was vetoed by the gallery and Charles Saatchi. He re-presented it as a performance piece, running for only a few minutes and surrounded by a safety cage.
My favourite, Saad, was the next to go. His works were a recreation of a makeshift asian sun-shade and a couple of elaborately constructed discs with some grafitti on them. They were OK but not as interesting as any of his previous pieces.
That left Matt - who had presented a wooden caravan with a strange narrative interior about a sad caravan dwelling prophet called Professor T. Elphas - and, of course, Eugenie.
As the winner, Eugenie deserves dwelling on a little more. She presented two pieces. One was a foam grappling hook on a high shelf with a rope hanging from it. The other, which was the piece that won it for her, was a length of fallen tree impaled on the bars of blue fence. It was certainly striking but there seemed to be an element of falsity about the whole process. Her works in the series have included a whistle hanging from a bathroom towel rail, a tassel on a wire and the aforementioned foam grappling hook. These are a little too close to being the work of a confidence trickster for comfort. The tree on the fence was interesting, the most interesting piece in this exhibition, but can she really take any credit for it? She had spotted it as she walked along a street and got permission from the property owners to cut down the fence and remount it in the gallery. I suppose that Tracey Emin had a point when she said that there was art in realising that it was an artistic object and in the cheek required to persuade the owners to give it up but I remain unconvinced.
All in all this last program was a bit of a disappointment with none of the concepts showing the imagination of previous episodes and none of the executions being very remarkable. Still all the contestants have shown flashes of greatness through the series and I shall look forward to seeing them in the future.
And I hope we get a few more programs like this.

The Best Christmas Ever

Our trek began with a jolting and uncomfortable bus ride to Nagdanda. The views from the bus, as we alternately climbed and descended on the twisting roads were magnificent. In several places enormous boulders, looking as if the had been sliced from the mountain with a sharp knife, blocked the road. They proved no impediment to our driver who swerved around them without slowing down, even when this left the coach with wheels dangling over the edge of sheer drops.
Nagdanda is just one of the many rather similar villages in the region, albeit a little larger because of its position on a relatively major road. It was also our first exposure to the amazing 'children from nowhere' phenomenon that we would witness every time we stopped anywhere over the next few days. We descended from the bus and watched as it pulled away. We stood in the village, buying water and orange juice at the tiny store. The place had seemed to be quiet as we pulled in but almost as soon as the bus had gone we were surrounded by children. It seemed that the local greeting was "Hello, gimme pen". Dozens of children milled around us all echoing the same hopeful greeting. Naturally no-one had any pens to give. When packing for a trek two gross of biros doesn't spring immediately to mind as an essential choice.
Someone did have a large box of sweets and as soon as she took them from her rucksack all of the children deserted the rest of us goodie-less travellers and clustered around her with their hands stretched out. It was a good ten minutes before, exhausted by the ordeal, she could extricate herself from this crowd. We started the walk along a track that led off at right angles from the main road between some of the buildings but were soon out of the village and climbing a very gentle slope about halfway up the mountain on one side of a lush green valley. On the horizon we could see many more impressive and forbidding peaks but we seemed to be heading away from them.
We had been walking for barely an hour when we were told that it was time to stop for lunch. The Sherpas had set up he kitchen on one plateau and spread a ground sheet on another slightly lower one. The kitchen was a marvel. Fires were lit, food unloaded from baskets and poured into large tin cooking vessels, enormous pots of tea brewed and even two large bowls of hot water placed out with towels and soap for us to wash. In fifteen minutes we were eating. It was a lot less than fifteen minutes though to another explosion in the native child population. As we walked I would have sworn that there was not another soul nearer to us than Nagdanda but literally within half a minute of resting we were hailed with dozens of tiny voices crying "Hello, gimme pen !" as their diminutive owners came running up, down and along the hillside. They seemed to have materialised from nowhere.
Lunch consisted of a bizarre mix of rice, crisps, cheese lettuce and jam sandwiches (that is to say sandwiches consisting simultaneously of all cheese lettuce and jam !), various cooked vegetables, cartons of mango juice and pots of very hot and surprisingly delicate tea.
After lunch we carried on along the trail, sometimes climbing, sometimes descending, but never very strenuously until at about five O'clock we found ourselves following the Andhi Khola river bed towards our first camp. We watched in amazement as the camp took shape. Tents were pitched at lightning speed. Latrines dug and flimsy tents pitched above them in a nearby field. Then, to our astonishment a table and chairs appeared and an enormous orange dining tent was erected around them for our evening meal.
Preparations for dinner went on by the fierce light of kerosene lamps. Dinner was a cramped and friendly and above all noisy affair as we tucked into our meal of rice and dhal and a sort of chicken stew with the appetites of true adventurers, a delusion that we were all happy to share. Outside we could hear the Sherpas singing and dancing and when we had finished we invited them to join us. Even more people crowded into the tent. We shuffled down to make room for them and they sat at the open end on the floor singing while some of them danced in the tiny remaining space. When it all broke up I was amazed to look at my watch and find that it was not yet nine O'clock.
At six the following morning we were woken with cups of tea and half an hour later presented with a bowl of warmish water each for washing. While we ate breakfast the camp was dismantled with similar speed to its erection and the porters and Sherpas loaded it into baskets on their backs and set off ahead of us. Our morning route continued along the Andhi Khola, climbing only gently but occasionally involving some slippery or muddy sections.
We passed through many small villages set in verdant rice fields with occasional brilliant flashes of yellow rape, grown for the oil. In every village laughing children followed us with the now familiar greeting. Not once did anyone seem disappointed that we had no pens to give them.
The sharpness of the contrast between the barren looking sandy soil and then only yards away trees and bushes and green fields was breathtaking. After a brief break for an early lunch at about eleven, we crossed a stream back to the path and walked on through another village. A hundred yards further on the path suddenly started to climb very steeply indeed. I was almost at the front of the party and started confidently up. After ten minutes of continuous hard slog I was beginning to suspect that my confidence was misplaced. After twenty minutes with not the slightest respite those of us who were leading stopped climbing and sat down on a wall to wait for the others to catch up. The one big advantage of pace setting is that you get longer rests. It was nearly half an hour before the majority of our party had arrived. Even then there were some at the back who were finding the going tough. Then it was off again, onward and upward.
Finally the path levelled out and wound into a village at the far side of which we came to a series of what looked like barrack rooms. One of the local children told us that this was the largest school in the district with eight hundred pupils and eighteen teachers. We looked in through the windows at the tiny desks and cramped conditions. He told us proudly that he went to this school and that children came from many miles to attend it. The previous afternoon we had made friends with a young Nepalese boy, aged about ten, and he had written down the address of his school so that she could write a letter to him from England. When our new friend told us the name of this school we discovered that it was the same one. It had taken a day and a half of hard walking to reach it from the point where the other boy had met us. Past the school we climbed a short steep hill to the plateau where camp was already taking shape. I turned around at the top and ahead of me were Annapurna South, Machapuchare and Annapurna IV. It was quite a sight. The sun was low in the sky behind me and the peaks seemed to glow with fire on the snow.
Over the next couple of hours the rest of the party came in. Men from the village brought up bottles of beer, water and orange in baskets to sell to us to replenish our dwindling supplies. Once more we had the children running around us. Occasionally the Sherpas shouted at them or gestured angrily and they would run away for a few minutes but they always came back.
As we stood there gazing at the magnificent view someone said
"This is the best Christmas Eve ever."
Until that moment it hadn't occurred to me that today was Christmas Eve.
Later, in the dining tent, the Sherpas had put bottles of cheap Nepalese rum on the tables for us to enjoy with our meal. Enjoy is possibly the wrong word when faced with something that can strip paint from a hundred yards just by opening the bottle but we gave it our best shot. Most people gave up after a sip or two but some of us are made of sterner stuff and drank rather a lot of this fiere spirit. Combined with the beer we were fairly well on the way to being extremely drunk. Everyone sat around the tent after dinner telling jokes and funny stories. After everyone had taken a turn it was still only nine O'clock. Some people went to bed. I dived into my rucksack and extracted a bottle of brandy and a bottle of an evil Austrian rum that I had anticipated needing. One of the others had liberated some more of the local fire water, another had a bottle of Red Label. We all sat on the edge of the precipice getting legless. When all the booze had gone I crawled into me tent which was fortuitously only a few feet away and went to sleep.


Whatever it felt like it certainly didn't feel like Christmas Day. All that Santa had left me was a hangover and a tingling in the extremities that was only just short of frostbite. I crawled from my pit, dipped a finger into the bowl of water that had already gone cold in the two minutes since it was delivered and decided to forego the pleasure of shaving. Washing was ordeal enough. Most people were the worse for wear and we picked a breakfast without enthusiasm before setting off.
Initially we went back towards the village but soon veered off into new territory. The village was larger than I had suspected and looking back toward it as we climbed revealed itself to be a sizeable town by local standards. Today I had made a conscious decision to walk near the back.
Of course you do have to pay attention on the trail. We had, as did every group, a couple of Sherpas walking with us but it only takes a momentary loss of attention and
"Where's our Sherpa gone?" asked Michelle, who I had been chatting to as we walked. I looked around for the young chap in the Dennis the Menace red and black shirt. He was nowhere in sight. Come to that neither was anyone else. It didn't matter we were on a single track that had had no turnings or junctions and there were people behind us so we couldn't be lost. We decided to carry on and only stop if there came a point where we had to choose between two routes. We continued walking and talking and suddenly found ourselves standing in the entrance to some poor Nepalese farmer's barn, complete with a couple of mangy looking water buffalo and a chicken.
We turned around and tried to find where we had gone wrong. A few yards back along the path there was a near invisible fork to the right. In the absence of a better plan we took it. A little while later we came to our lunch stop.
Lunch was taken on a school football field. Some of the others had already enquired about getting a ball but it was a Saturday and the school was closed so that a quick kick about wasn't an option. Probably just as well. It would have just been something else for the Sherpas to be better at.
The next section was long and steep and hard work. We trudged along with the silence broken only by our panting and wheezing. Occasionally one of the porters would trot lightly by carrying on his back a load that I couldn't have lifted.
We walked on through the trees for a couple more hours and eventually came clear of them. Ahead of us up a gentle slope was the village of Panchase. Some of the local people had come out to meet us and now walked up with us. I walked between the relatively prosperous looking houses, past a small hut selling drinks where I bought a Sprite and then turned a corner and stopped dead. Ahead of me was a gentle downward grass covered slope that dropped away almost vertically about a hundred yards down, into a beautiful valley beyond which rose the Himalayas, with the twin peaks of Machapuchare in the centre. I have never seen any sight so magnificent in my life. Everyone who had been ahead of me was standing gazing toward it awe-struck. Some of them had been there for almost an hour already but were still looking.
That evening, as the Sherpas prepared our meal we saw a brand new cooking technique. As it was Christmas they were going to bake us a cake. First they dug a pit in which they lit a fire. A large metal tin was placed on this and the base packed with earth which was allowed to get very hot from the flames. The smaller tin with the cake in it was placed onto this earth with a lid and more earth packed around it and over it. A lid was added and another fire set on top of it to form a makeshift oven. While all this was going on other Sherpas were negotiating with the locals for a goat and some chickens. When the purchases were complete the goat was tethered and the chickens placed under a basket. Unfortunately the chickens knew exactly what was coming so at the first chance, an accidental brush against the basket by someone, they were out and running. One of the Sherpas chased them all over the hillside. It was like a scene from a Buster Keaton film as he leapt and ran and dived at the errant fowl. Finally they were caught and placed under the basket again, this time held firmly in place with stones. From this display I surmised that Dinner was Goat and Chicken curry followed by Christmas cake. Afterwards we all drank a great deal, on a par with the previous night and attempted to remember the words to some Christmas carols. Somehow we got all the way through "The Twelve Days of Christmas" with a trivial number of mistakes although the whole ensemble was a lot less melodic than the Sherpas' sing-songs. Afterwards there was a celebration by some of the die hard party-goers with the Sherpas that lasted hours, as indeed did that Sherpa song. I had tried to go to my sleeping bag a little earlier and get some sleep but my tent mate had consumed half a bottle of Jameson's, fallen asleep on his back and was snoring like a train. He was still going when the party broke up and everyone else went to bed. I heard laughter from the next tent and the comment,
"Poor Bob, he'll never sleep through that."
And they were right, but somehow it didn't seem to matter.

What a load of Stinking Bishop*

I've just heard on the television that a British Cheese Board survey indicates that eating cheddar cheese makes you dream, but not just dream about anything, specifically it makes you dream about celebrities. Mickey Mouse, presumably.

(*Stinking Bishop)

Ongoing 7

Note Posts in this series are now numbered after one of my very small number of readers mentioned that he was missing them because he didn't realise that new ones were being posted.

Better, John?

A slightly more serious and sensible poem for the next one, only partly inspired by the next picture in the book. It's a double page picture of hot air balloons which reminded me of my visit to Oludeniz in Turkey.

How easily they have broken the chains
That tied them to the shattered ground;
Slipped free of grasping gravity;
Left the yellow Earth
To skim the tops of scrubby trees.
Each takes its brighter shade
Away to the hills.
They diminish until nothing remains
But the memory of them all around.
Silence pours now into the cavity
Into the void, into the dearth
Where they vanished by degrees.
As I watched their airy presence fade,
I felt the morning chills.

Sunday, 13 December 2009


The next picture is of a bungee jumper.

And the next poem is "Bounce"

I thought I heard a screaming sound,
As I fell towards the ground.
A bungee rope was fastened to my feet.
What, I wondered, could it be,
Then I thought, "Oh God, it's me!"
What a bloody stupid kind of birthday treat.

Saturday, 12 December 2009


While I'm playing catch-up with these ongoing poems, which, as you'll recall are being inspired by the pictures in "The Telephone Doodle Book", here's the next. The picture shows a keyhole shape.

Through The Keyhole

Am I the only one who really doesn't care
What kind of tiger Woods turned out to be?
It isn't that a man's affairs are his affair,
It's that they're of no interest to me.
And Jordan and her lovers, who is it this week?
It's a matter that I'd rather pay no mind.
When I buy a paper, the news is what I seek.
What a pity it should be so hard to find.
Some MP I never heard of used to like a drink,
And the papers think there's some way it should matter.
They never print a thing to encourage us to think;
Between this gossip and some news, I'll take the latter.
It's all actors, politicians, sportsmen and their wives,
Comics, singers, dancers, those whose fame
Is founded upon nothing, though we use their private lives
To entertain the public. What a game!

Ongoing: But not very happy

I'm not really very impressed with my poem based on the picture, in the Doodles book, of two old women outside an empty shop window. Here it is anyway.

Window Dresssing

In the shop window
There is only my face.
Of the things I would buy
There, there isn't a trace.
The shelving's still there
But it's covered in dust
And the lock on the door
Has now started to rust.
It's one more day passed
And it's one more shop gone;
At the rate they are closing
Soon there'll be none.
No Woolies, no Zavvi
No Winerack, no Threshers
I can't buy a bottle
When I'm feeling the pressure.
There's not even a Whittards
For a nice cup of tea.
I look in the window,
But I see only me.

Dear Santa

Dear Santa,
isn't it about time we let bygones be bygones? I mean really, it's been over forty years now. Don't you think this silly business about not speaking to each other has gone on for quite long enough? I realise that it was mostly my fault. You must have been offended when I said I didn't believe in you but, as I told you shortly afterwards, I didn't mean it the way you interpreted it. Of course I didn't mean that I didn't believe in your existence. That would be silly. It would be like saying that I don't believe in bankers' bonuses. Of course you exist, just as they do.
Actually I've just realised that you might misinterpret that too. You might take it to mean that even though I acknowledge that you, like bankers' bonuses, exist, I am saying that you, like them, shouldn't. That's not what I mean at all. Even if you didn't exist, you should. What I meant when I said that I didn't believe in you was that I'd lost a bit of faith in your ability to deliver, after all it's a big job that you do. It's pretty much the same thing that I mean when I say I don't believe in the current Government. (In their case not only don't I believe in them, I also don't believe them, but that's a whole different kettle of fish.)
Anyway, to get back to the matter in hand. I'm sorry that I didn't leave you any mince pies that year either. The sherry you'll have to blame on my Dad. I was too young to be allowed to leave that for you.
You haven't stopped off at my place for such a long time now that you've probably forgotten where it is but why don't you forget about the past and call in this year? I promise I'll leave you a mince pie or two and these days I have a well stocked drinks cabinet - please feel free to help yourself. If you'd prefer a beer there's some in the cupboard in the kitchen - quite a decent selection of real ale, actually.

Don't worry about finding the house, the neighbours have kids and they've put up those little signs in the garden saying "Santa Please Stop Here". While you are round delivering little Zak and Lucy's presents it should be easy enough to pop next door to me.

I suppose I ought to say what I want, though that seems a bit like it's the reason I'm trying to make amends. You might have seen on this blog that I'm getting all nostalgic lately for things like Spirograph and Etch-A-Sketch and it would be nice to get them. If you can see your way to something like that it would be nice, but mostly what I'd like is more readers for this blog. And of course for my other blog - the one with all the photographs. I know it's a bit of a long shot asking for something like this , but it's worth a try. You don't even have to gift wrap them.

Anyway, whether you can manage or not it would be grate to see you again so if you want to pop in on Christmas Eve, there will be a warm welcome for you.

All the best.


Tuesday, 8 December 2009


I'm working on, but haven't finished, the poem that goes with the cartoon of the two women outside the shop. I have, however, finished the next one. The cartoon in the book here is of a number of blank-winged butterflies ready for colouring in. This has inspired the following work.

Untrue Colours

I'm sorry if I'm not who you thought I should be;
If I've not done the things you expected of me;
Expressed the opinions you believed I should hold;
Been perfectly formed by the stamp of your mould,
But it's all still as true when you turn it around.
I expected of you many things I've not found.
Misled by the colours that were shown but untrue,
You misjudged me as surely as I misjudged you.

Monday, 7 December 2009

And the winner is... chapattis?

School of Saatchi time again. This week I can imagine people sitting and swearing at the TV. I was tempted myself. A couple of the pieces had something about them but for the most part they were the kind of modern art that makes the newspapers scoff, the Colonel Blimps have fits of apoplexy, and the Turner Prize judges wet their pants with joy.
Each of the six contestants had to remove a piece of existing art (though the definition appeared to be wide) from a room in Sudeley Castle and replace it with a contemporary take on the theme. So Suki removed the books from a bookshelf in the library and replaced them with mirrors. To enhance her work she spray painted a lot of books black and spread them around the shelves and floor of the room. In the same room Saad placed a carpet on the floor where a table had previously been and covered it with piles of chapattis, nearly 2000 in all we were solemnly informed.
Over in the chapel Matt took down a candelabra and replaced it with a sphere full of red wine that had been solidified with gelatine. Sadly it had also gone opaque but the judges seemed not to realise that this wasn't his original concept. It reflected the stained glass windows rather prettily and was quite pleasant which is more than can be said of Sam's installation a few yards away. This was a copper plate and frame which issued a constant annoying hum and changed to a slightly different annoying hum if anyone touched it.
Back in the main castle Eugenie and Ben were at work transforming a bedroom. Ben took town a classical painting (which seemed to be of Queen Elizabeth I) and replaced it with a stark painting of grotesque figures and large blocks of white and black done on what looked like a piece of scrap wood. Eugenie started off by having a tassel pulled back and forth on a piece of wire attached to an electric drill but then contrived some nonsensical explanation of why it was better to have it hanging stationary and leave the motion in the mind of the viewer.
I'm pretty open-minded about art but to me these all looked like conceits looking for an expression rather than anything genuinely creative. One of the judges, speaking specifically of Eugenie but accidentally describing all of them, said that there is a fine line between something you would order from the BBC props department when you wanted a piece of joke modern art and an actual piece of modern art. Most of these particular pieces seemed to be on the wrong side of the line. For the record the public seemed almost completely underwhelmed by all of it but Charles Saatchi heaped lavish praise on the chapattis and the glass sphere. Incidentally the chapattis provided the humorous moment of the night when Saad had a hissy fit because he thought Suki's black books clashed with the concept of his piece.
Next week is the last of the four programs when they get to mount a joint exhibition at the Saatchi gallery. My money is on Saad as the winner. He deserves it just for sheer entertainment value.
Warning: Spoiler Alert. Don't read the comments if you want to maintain the mystery until after the final. They contain what may well be the result.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

To Put Away Childish Things: Christmas Special

Around the streets as I walk home from work there are houses decorated with all manner of flashing Christmas lights. There are giant inflatable snowmen and polar bears, flashing lights in the form of a Santa on a helicopter, a Santa parachuting from a flying sleigh, a Santa climbing a ladder up the side of a building. There are reindeer and elves, there are snowdrops and bells, there are twinkling cascades of faux snow in blue and red and green and white and gold.

We've never been a family for ostentatious displays but we used to celebrate Christmas. Nowadays we don't. At least not in any way you'd notice. There's only my father and me in the house and it seems rather a pointless exercise to get the decorations down from the loft, spend time putting them up, sit and look at them for a couple of weeks, spend time taking them down, and then put them back into the loft. The limit of our Christmas celebration is to buy each other a couple of cheap gifts, stand any Christmas cards we get on the shelf and, on Christmas day, eat the smallest piece of turkey we can possibly find. If we actually bought a real Turkey, no matter how small, with just the two of us eating it for breakfast, dinner and supper every day, we might be finished in time to buy one for next year.
It wasn't always thus.

I remember all kinds of things that make me nostalgic for the old Christmases. Different things from different Christmases. The first thing that springs to mind is the annual ritual of paper-chains, strips of coloured paper glued into linked loops by pudgy infant fingers and hung across the room proudly, no matter how inept the execution might be.
I remember back when my Granddad was still alive and my brother and I were young enough to share the box room at the back of the house. We never hung up stockings, we always placed baskets at the foot of the bed and tried to keep each other awake to catch Dad and Mom putting the presents in. We never succeeded.
I remember that back in those days Dad, as dads did, always went out on Christmas morning to have a couple of drinks with his friends and that we moved all the furniture round and laid the table properly with the best crockery and cutlery and a new crisply white table cloth (the only time in the year when we actually did so). And he'd come home and we would (also for the only time in the year) sit down around the table and eat a meal with three actual courses. Then we'd clear away one lot of food and load the table with Christmas cake, mince pies and trifle ready for the next meal.
I remember the feeling of excitement at opening Christmas presents which were always something I wanted (including the toys mentioned in previous entries) and never something I needed - apart from my aunt's present: a new pair of gloves every year.
I remember the crepe paper streamers that we had for years before they were eventually thrown out to be replace by glossier, shinier, foil streamers that inspite of being glossier shinier and foil were somehow just not as "real" as the old ones.
I remember the Christmas when I wasn't supposed to be in the Nativity play. I was a helper, gluing little sweets onto circles of gold card to make crowns for the three kings. And how I got to wear one after all when one of those kings came down with Chicken Pox.
I remember when I was in the Christmas play - not a nativity that year, but the Trial Scene from Alice In Wonderland. I was the Knave of Hearts. I remember my two lines: "It wasn't me" and "Do I look like it?"

And there is, of course, nostalgia of more recent vintage: Goat Curry for Christmas dinner in the Himalayas, the Sherpas decorating a branch with tinsel and a cake with jam; the noise, bustle and chaos of the Santuranticuy Christmas Market in Cuzco, threading my way through the stalls with their rows of plaster saints; kids singing Christmas Carols outside in the rain as we ate dinner in Banaue in the Philippines; the scariest Santa in the world at the kids Christmas party in Zomba, with his sinister white face mask and bare feet.

I can't imagine that I'll ever be especially nostalgic about these last few Christmases or that this Christmas will generate any great feelings of comfort and joy. Not that I expect gloom and misery but nowadays it's chiefly remarkable for being a couple of weeks when I don't have to go to work. Oh, I'll do the drive round to relatives and drop off the cards. I'll give gifts to the chosen few. I'll watch Christmas TV and go out for beer a few times but these are not substantially different from the rest of the year. No nostalgia to be had.

Of course that's what nostalgia is: the recollection of how things always used to be better, or as Ambrose Bierce had it - "fond remembrance of imaginary times past".

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Mixed Messages

It's not a film I am likely to see but I was confused by a review I read of the DVD for Transformers 2:Revenge of the Fallen.
It starts by saying that it's a "turbo-charged, special-effects saturated" film that "surpasses its predecessor in every way" and finishes by saying that it's a "tedious rehash of the first film that overstays its welcome by about 90 minutes."
Did they like it or not?

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

To Put Away Childish Things #4

Da da dee da deeee daa, da da da dee da da da da deee

Ah I can see it now, waves breaking in glorious monochrome on an empty and decidedly untropical beach*, not unlike the one at Rhyl where we spent so many childhood holidays; captions appearing on the screen - "The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe", "starring Robert Hoffman"; the swelling strings sounding for all the world like a stretched and slipping audio tape as the notes wowed and fluttered their way through the opening credits and under the voiced-over narrative. Yes it was summer holiday time and the apparently interminable Robinson Crusoe was on daily throughout the whole six weeks. Though it seems from my brief researching that there were only thirteen episodes, my memory is that not only was it on every summer, and every day of every summer it lasted so long that I had always gone back to school before managing to see the end of it. There must have been, my memory tells me, falsely , dozens and dozens of episodes. And I really never did see the final one. For all I know poor old Robinson is probably still on the island now, patiently waiting for me to buy the DVD and watch the end.
Children's television in those days was very different to now and the summer holiday schedules were repeated year after year. I'd outgrown the childishness of Watch With Mother (Andy Pandy, The Woodentops**, Tales of the Riverbank et al) and moved on to the altogether more sophisticated continental fare of Robinson Crusoe, The Singing Ringing Tree, White Horses. They were all bought in from overseas (usually Germany, but in the case of Robinson Crusoe it was France), all very badly dubbed into English, all filling the endless rainy days of my early holidays.
But it's that musical score that sticks most in the memory***. It was hypnotic and the frequency of the episodes and the fact that it played throught most of the running time in the background drilled it so solidly into my brain that if I live to be a thousand it will never be forgotten. More than anyhting else it is the soundtrack of my early years. Even now writing about it, I find I am uncontrollably humming "da da da da deeeee daa". I'll probably be unable to sleep tonight as it rattles around in my head.

* though the beach itself was, apparently, in Gran Canaria

** and I still remember the "biggest spottiest dog you ever did see" with a great deal of fondness.

*** and it seems I'm not the only one, Art of Noise covered one of the other "popular" sections of the soundtrack.