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.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Ongoing #53/Harrow Daily Poem #10

The next poem only really connects to the doodle in the first few lines. It was intended to be rather more closely connected but as I was writing it, it went off all by itself in an unexpected direction, possibly because I was playing a YouTube playlist full of melancholic, reflective songs at the time.

The doodle shows a gondola on the water in Venice.
The poem, rather more serious than some of the previous ones, doesn't have a name.

Watching the diamonds
Dance in the water,
Remembering moments
Before your goodbye.
You said the sunlight
Was trapped by the water
And couldn't escape
To get back to the sky.

Watching the ghost dance
Of rippling leaves,
Remembering moments
When you were here.
You said the voices
Of whispering leaves
Were the souls of dead lovers
Trapped in this sphere.

Watching the cloudscapes
Built high in the blue,
Remembering moments
Before you were gone.
You said the unborn
Inhabit the blue
And the clouds were the islands
They built their homes on.

Watching the shadows
Creep through the gravestones,
Remembering moments
When I thought you'd stay.
You said the shadows
Cast on the gravestones
Were memories slowly,
But surely, draining away.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Ongoing #52/Harrow Daily Poem #9

Quick catch up for those who came in late...

I have two continuing poetry projects. One is my annual summer project (well I did it last year and I'm doing it this year, so I can call it annual if I want to.) This is to write a poem a day while I am away from home working at my Summer School job in Harrow. The other came about because I bought a book called "The telephone doodle book" which contains partially completed doodles which you are meant to complete while on the phone. I am ignoring that and using each doodle to prompt a poem.

This year I am combining the two projects. I don't want to commit to writing two projects a day.


the next doodle shows various vegetable, some with faces drawn on. It made me think of Mister Potatohead.

You Are Mister Potatohead

Rearrange the features to make another face.
Fix the plastic smile firmly in its place.
Choose the ears and eyes; choose the mouth and nose.
Choose the shape and size and where all of it goes,
And when the thing is done, join the others in the game,
Secure in the knowledge that they've all done the same.

The Person Who Isn't Me...

The previous post about the person on facebook who isn't me contained an error. The name of the facebook account of the person who isn't me is Harrowschoolteacher Bob, NOT Harrowteacherbob. Please note again that whatever he is called, he isn't me!

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Very Much Delicious: Part 14

Part 14 of my diaries from 1996 about my trip to Malawi and Zambia. And, by the way, the title of these posts was explained in Part 5.

Africa just kept defeating us. All our carefully laid plans constantly fell apart. We were up and ready on time but the Land Rover had yet another puncture. It was six O'clock before we set off and a string of further problems with the new wheel delayed us further. We stopped at a garage and ate a breakfast of cheese sandwiches and boiled eggs and watched a group of children playing 'whips and tops' with a corn cob and a piece of string while Geoff organised some repairs to the wheels. Running an hour and a half late already we arrived in Lilongwe. 
    Our bad luck continued unabated. The coffee shop that he had told us about had a large notice on the door saying that it would re-open on the 3rd January. After an hour of looking around we found a back street coffee shop and sat down to order. They had run out of coffee. By the time they had sent someone down to the shops and bought some, a freshly laundered and shaved Geoff was back and we had no time left to drink it.
    We were now on our way to Zambia and this close to the capital the roads were of a good quality so that we could make up some of the lost time. It seemed only a short time later that we approached the first of the two border posts which are separated by a bizarre half mile of what is technically still Malawi but which even the residents need a pass to enter or leave. Everyone had expected difficulties at the border and we had built a delay into our schedule to allow for them. In the event we were astonished at the speed and ease of our processing. We were through and moving again, passports stamped, in under five minutes. The Zambian border control at the other end of the half a mile limbo was equally brisk so that before we knew it we were in Zambia with almost all of our lost time made up.
It was now early afternoon and we were all hungry. Just over the border there was a petrol station with a snack bar where we bought hot pies and a kind of doughy bread with mince on top passing itself off as a 'pizza'. The quality was indifferent but we were hungry and it was hot and no-one was complaining.
    When we moved on it was onto a sandy road with an uneven surface that bounced and bruised us as Geoff made up the remaining time and even managed to pull ahead of schedule. The countryside here was very different from Malawi. Zambia has never had the slash and burn approach to ecology that the Malawian administration has so that first impressions of it are of a country that is much greener. Another difference is apparent on closer examination. Much of Malawi is forested with exotic imported plantations, Japanese Pine for example. The Zambian forests are almost entirely composed of indigenous hardwoods.
We were on the road for several more hours so that once again it was late afternoon when we arrived at our accommodation at the Wildlife Centre which is just outside the South Luanda National Park. This consisted of a group of sturdy bamboo chalets and a separate dining area. There was more to it than that of course. The camp is actually quite large and at the other end of it, separated from us by a camping area, were more chalets and a restaurant and bar. However the north section of it is self contained and we had it to ourselves. We quickly sorted ourselves out, leaving our bags without unpacking in our eagerness to get our first look at what had been promised would be the best game viewing in Southern Africa. In a matter of minutes we were on top of the Land Rover and approaching the main gate.
    Inside we stopped on the wide concrete bridge that spans the river and looked at the panorama that was spread out around us. In the distance the hippo were still laughing at that dirty joke, their booming voices echoing along the river. Fishermen poled fragile looking boats along it. Hundreds of starlings swifts and swallows swooped and dived in their aerial ballet. On the far side of the bridge the trees thickened quickly into a green wall. We drove over and immediately saw our first animal. It was Bambi. Standing at the side of the path completely unafraid and staring up at us with wide innocent eyes. We drove on, catching a glimpse of a family of warthogs as they scampered away from us with their tails comically pointing straight up like the antenna on a radio controlled car. It was beginning to get dark but we saw all of the usual antelope species again. For the thousandth time Geoff told David that they were not deer and could not be deer because there are no deer in Africa.
    "OK," David agreed, also for the thousandth time "Antelope they are."
At a bend in the road, less than ten feet away from us, there was an elephant - a young adult scraping itself against a tree as if it was trying to get rid of an itch. Or perhaps trying to get rid of the tree. We drove down to the river, past one of the enormous termite mounds that were still with us even now we were in Zambia. As the sun started to set we parked and stretched our legs and drank bottles of beer. Across the water the hippo were beginning their nocturnal perambulations. In the air two brightly coloured kingfisher flashed down repeatedly skimming the surface of the water. When it became too dark to remain we piled into the Land Rover and headed for home. It had been a short excursion after a long day but it was at least a taster of what was to come.

Ongoing #51/Harrow Daily Poem #8

The next doodle in The Telephone Doodle Book shows a chameleon.
Of course human beings are also chameleons: social chameleons. Our personalities alter subtlely as we move from one social situation to another. I am not quite the same person in a professionl work setting as I am in the pub. Neither of them are the same me as in conversation with my father.
That line of thinking prompted this.

All Things To All Men

He's the picture of the Everyman;
His talents know no end;
His popularity is limitless;
He's everybody's friend.

Nine to five, five days a week,
He teaches in a school.
His colleagues think him erudite,
His pupils say he's cool.

He often spends his evenings
Down in the pub with mates
Who've known him since their schooldays
And they all think he's great.

He's a font of funny stories -
Tales both coarse and clean.
Call him erudite or cool
And they won't know what you mean.

His parents and his siblings
Think of him as shy,
As reticent at best,
As a bird who'll never fly.

On the terraces on Saturdays
He's with a cruder crowd
But blends right in by being
Both partisan and loud.

When he goes on holiday,
He's a traveller and more,
With tales of all the countries
That he's visited before.

The neighbours in his street
All say, "A quiet chap -
Never causes any fuss,
Never gets into a flap."

A description that is chilling,
For therein lies the clue
To this chameleon's nature,
To the colours that are true.

The way that he is seen,
By the servants of the law,
Is formed by what was buried
Beneath his kitchen floor.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010


Sitting around in the staff room yesterday someone said to me, "Why haven't you accepted my friend request?"
It took me a moment to figure out what she meant before I replied, "Because I'm not on Facebook".
It seems that there is someone on Facebook with a name of Harrowteacherbob who has a profile which is clearly me.
Only it isn't.
I have no idea whether it's coincidentally very similar to me or a not very clever identity theft. (I'm here for a couple of weeks a year. I'd never choose that as an account name, I'd pick something relevent to my real life, the one I have all year round. It's an irrelevent point though as I have never had a facebook account and have no intention of ever having one.)

So, if you think you have "friended" me on facebook, you haven't. It's not me. I'm not on facebook.
There's an outside chance that you might run across a livejournal account in my name and that's real because I wanted to access a friend's livejournal blog. However you'd be wasting your time looking at it. I set it up for a one shot use a couple of years ago and haven't looked at it since.
Probably never will again.

Ongoing #50/Harrow Daily Poem #7

This poem is only loosely inspired by the accompanying doodle, which show a pirate ship on the surface of the ocean, far above the ocean bed. I've chosen to consider it metaphorically. Oh yes. I've also chosen to apply an odd system of rhyming. It is deliberate not accidental.

From out of the deep

She is old now but she remembers in new ways,
So her days are filled with the jumble of the past.
Nothing lasts. Nothing is in its proper place.
She sees faces she recognizes, and smiles,
In the supermarket aisles, but no one smiles back.
He history is packed into her head like a jigsaw;
But before it's taken from the box. Just pieces,
It ceases to have a shape for her, a form.
Instead a snowstorm of randomness blinds her
And little things remind her of days long past.
As she casts her eye upon the city's sweep,
From out of the deep she catches a summer day,
And, momentarily, she plays again in sunshine,
Aged nine. The depths give back their gold.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

It's been fun, Guy!

Every year I come down for my summer school in Harrow filled with optimism that this will be the year that the chef retires and is replaced by someone who has less of a  fondness for the dreaded mushroom. Every morning I walk into the dining room and find my skin prickling in allergic reaction to the steam from them. I suffer for as long as it takes to eat some breakfast and then depart. I scrutinise the lunch and dinner menus in detail to identify anything that might conceivably contain them. This year is harder than usual as my recently diagnosed gout means I am, by and large, also trying to eat a more vegetarian diet. Yesterday's menu contained, I thought, the ideal thing. I was looking forward to it but now I find I have another question.

What kind of maniac puts mushrooms in macaroni cheese?

Ongoing #49/Harrow Daily Poem #6

The next doodle in the book shows an office. One of the workers is missing arms legs and a body, having only head, hands (with briefcase) and feet. I worked in offices for many years. It chips away at your soul until there is nothing left.


Day by endless passing day,
We give portions of ourselves away,
Become old and sad and grey,
Day by endless passing day.

Day be endless passing day,
We forget the things we meant to say,
Move from predator to prey,
Day by endless passing day.

And day by endless passing day,
We allow our essence to decay,
Until, invisible, we pray
This is the final passing day.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Ongoing #48/Harrow Daily Poem #5

The next doodle shows a partially completed spider's web. Given my brother's hobby, the subject for this poem came very easily. In the interests of full disclosure, I have absolutely no idea whether or not he owns a Harlingen Chocolate Brown or, indeed, if it is ever kept as a pet. There are suspiciously few hits on Google to make me wonder if it has another, more common, name. However the name fit the required metre perfectly so it went in.

My Brother's Hobby

My brother is rather a nice chap;
Intelligent, cultured and smart.
He knows many things about all sorts of things,
But there's one thing that sets him apart.

His home's a conventional dwelling,
With a garden in which he takes pride,
But the thing that you'll find he is proudest about
You'll find when you venture inside.

He's ever so mad about spiders.
So tarantulas fill up his life,
Leaving just enough space round the edge of it all
To make way for two cats and a wife.

The spare bedroom has walls full of shelving.
The shelves hold glass boxes galore.
There are more on the tables and more on the cupboards
And more spread around on the floor.

And in every box there's a spider -
The best he exhibits at shows -
From obscure ones like Harlingen Chocolate Browns
To the commonplace Chilean Rose.

His home's an arachnophobe's nightmare.
Everywhere that you look, you will find
Some kind of creature with too high a leg count,
Driving you out of your mind.

You may wonder what kind of woman
Wouldn't count him among her mistakes
But he and his wife are just perfect together:
Her hobby? That's frogs, toads and snakes.

Very Much Delicious: Part 13

Part 13 of my diaries from 1996 about my trip to Malawi and Zambia. And, by the way, the title of these posts was explained in Part 5.

Sometime during the night I had been awakened by the unmistakable sound of vomiting in the bathroom and had been uncharitable enough to think that it served him right. Now, at six O'clock in the morning, I was not quite as amused. I had been intending to take a bath but one look at the congealing mess in the bottom of the tub decided me against the idea. I washed and shaved at the sink as quickly as I could, carefully avoiding breathing as far as possible, and went for a walk.  Peter was already loading things onto the roof of the Land Rover. There seemed to be no-one else around and after half an hour I went back and finished my packing. Barry was doing a fair impression of a corpse and still hadn't moved by the time I was ready to take my bags down for loading and head to the restaurant for breakfast. By the end of breakfast he still hadn't surfaced and I was sent to wake him.
    Our first stop was at a sort of craft market. Here a couple of dozen stalls were laid out selling every type of carving conceivable. There were of course the ubiquitous tables and traditional animal carvings side by side with salt shakers and chess sets. Several people were selling the wooden chairs that are as common as the tables and almost as ingenious in their construction. Carved from two interlocking pieces of wood they are surprisingly comfortable and come in a range of sizes from dolls house to gargantuan. One of the traders wanted to swap two for my jacket. Had I had any way to get them home I would probably have taken him up on the offer.
From the market we carried on along the route that we had originally come from Lilongwe and, after a detour to avoid a washed out road, eventually came to Salima where we were to stay at a house at the Wheelhouse Resort. This turned out to be a large former colonial residence built into the side of the mountain in such a way that some of the walls and floors were formed from the rocks themselves. It was a rambling building on several levels with large spacious rooms that looked as if Stewart Granger or Trevor Howard should be leaning on the cocktail bar in their immaculate Safari suits discussing the season's elephant hunting.
The resort was named for its bar, a circular thatched building raised on stilts looking out across the reed marshes towards the lake. We passed this on our afternoon ramble which led us down through the rushes and to an unusual fish farm. This consisted of a large warehouse like building filled with small tanks and two equally large open air areas filled with big tanks. The operation was set up a few years ago to breed tropical fish from the lake for resale abroad and is now the largest supplier of exotic aquatics in Africa. There are more than two hundred species bred there and supplied to collectors all over the world.
By the time we had been shown around it was almost sunset and we headed back for a few beers in the bar before taking an early dinner and an early night. Tomorrow was to be yet another travelling day and our longest yet taking us all the way to the South Luanda National Park in Zambia. We were to be up for five a.m. to make sure that we could get there at a reasonable hour.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Bilston Voices: A Remote Control Review

This month as I am working away I have been unable to attend Bilston Voices. Therefore the following review is a guest post and comes to you straight from the pen of Jill Tromans who, in addition to writing the review performed at the event and, on previous evidence, is far too modest about her own contribution.

Bilston Voices 22 July 2010
Bilston Writers
Jill Tromans
Bilston Writers


Stu Flavill
Heather Wastie

An enjoyable evening at Bilston Voices was launched by a series of fascinating performances featuring the many talents of Bilston Writers, as they cleverly depicted an interesting and informative reminisce of Wolverhampton's Sunbeam factory. They spoke about its history and significance in the town [now city]; as well as reminding us of the effects of its demise on the local community.
Silvia Millward introduced Stuart Haycox, Ramesh Gaat, Jackie Evans and Peter Hill as they recalled fond and sometimes personal memories of Sunbeam's impact through a medley of well-rehearsed and poignant pieces, beginning with Sunbeam - The Light of our Lives, read by Stuart Haycox and concluding with Silvia's soulful, yet hopeful, rendition, Factory On Hold.

Half way through the first half, I attempted to raise a laugh with a couple of  light-hearted poems and a humorous monologue about two elderly aunts.

The second half of the evening was kicked off by the very talented Stu Flavill, who entertained us with a varied and quirky selection of his poetry. I particularly enjoyed his piece about the demise of the Western on TV.

Finally, the multi-talented Heather Wastie brought the evening to a climax with her own special brand of humour. She began by informing us that she had declined an offer to perform at the Royal Albert Hall to appear at Bilston Voices, adding "Unfortunately my orchestra has accepted the other offer."
Her talents appear endless; singer, poet and all-round entertainer who manages to perform with skill and finesse I would travel far to see Heather and her many alter-egos.

Ongoing #47/Harrow Daily Poem #4

The next doodle in the book shows a section of partially graffitied wall. I don't have much time today so here is a short, and not very good limerick.

There once was a man of Tahiti
Who wrote just Egyptian graffiti
He said, "It's all clean,
I write nothing obscene
And so what if the queen's Nefertiti?"

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Ongoing #46/Harrow Daily Poem #3

The next doodle in the book shows the sphinx (albeit lacking a head) and a pyramid. It reminded me of my visit to the pyramids. We could see them easily from where we were camped but of course if you are in Egypt you simply have to visit them properly. The entry fee to the site, of about twenty Egyptian pounds (around four pounds sterling) was, we thought, very reasonable. That was before we realised just how much more there was to pay.

Milking the Cash Camel

The pyramids are something every tourist has to see
So it's natural that they'd charge a modest entry fee
And the museum on the site has a kiosk at the door
Where, if you wish to see the relics, you must pay a little more.
Each of the mighty pyramids charges separately of course
But you really want to see them so you pay without remorse.
They then point at your camera and tell you with a sigh
That, just for you to carry it, more charges will apply
And should you wish to use it, then that will be still more
And by now you start to notice how quickly costs can soar.
Outside in the desert, as you sit and mop your brow,
The less official salesmen sneak up on you, somehow,
Offering, for a price, their services as guides
Or for those a little wealthier, horse and camel rides.
As your cash supply diminishes, your  enthusiasm shrinks
And you think you see a smile on the features of the sphinx.
Well he might be smiling, for, though not exactly bilked,
The cash camel that is you has been well and truly milked.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Very Much Delicious: Part 12

Part 12 of my diaries from 1996 about my trip to Malawi and Zambia. And, by the way, the title of these posts was explained in Part 5.

Even before we were ready for breakfast the locals were setting out their wares to sell to us. As we ate they maintained a reasonable distance but almost as soon as we were finished they clustered around us. As we bartered the others started arriving from their mountain trip. They were tired and hot and dirty and not at all pleased to find that in addition to the power not having been restored the water supply had now also failed. However they soon realised that there was a river nearby and went off to bathe in its icy waters. By the time they had returned the buying and selling were in full swing. I had brought a CD rack and a table similar to the one we had seen at Zomba but, as Geoff had predicted, both nicer and cheaper. Sheila had bought what seemed like dozens of carved wooden boxes. Barry had also bought a table. Sometime during this market a group of local teenagers came running up with a chameleon on a stick. Sheila had particularly wanted to see one and they had gone and found one for her. It was a strange looking thing but harmless enough to allow it to walk on our bare hands. The Malawians though are very superstitious about them and would not handle it at all.
The salesmen were persistent and even when it was clear that no-one was going to buy anything else they were reluctant to give up. Fortunately a car arrived at one of the other houses further along the road and sensing better sales prospects they all hurried away after it.

Soon we were under way. Today was almost completely a travelling day. The journey was long and dull and covered much of the same route we had come by. It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at the Nkapola Lodge Hotel. This is a modern and well laid out up-market hotel owned by the same group that own the Ku Chawe Inn at Zomba. It is situated right on the shore of Lake Malawi. The rooms are well furnished with every bed having a permanent and spacious mosquito net and with a large fan lazily circulating the air to keep the temperature down.
I spent the rest of the afternoon having a long soak in a hot bath, wandering around the extensive grounds and having a drink on the terrace bar. Outside the hotel rooms, which opened directly onto a tree covered rocky hillside, a large group of rock hyrax were constantly keeping a watchful eye on us. These animals look like large chipmunks and are friendly and inquisitive. On the roofs and the ground vervet monkeys were a little shyer of human contact, scurrying around happily until anyone approached closer than about thirty feet when they would run and leap away with amazing speed and agility. It seemed a nice enough place for an interlude but, animals aside, the atmosphere was too much like any other beach resort with teenagers in swimming costumes playing volleyball on the sand and youngsters being entertained by a disc jockey playing loud disco music to them. While I was glad enough of the chance to use civilised facilities I was also glad that we would only be spending one night there, more than that would send me crazy.
We had arrived on a day when the hotel had organised a beach barbecue for the evening so that our meal was taken at a long table beneath the stars, The food was excellent with an enormous variety of vegetables, meat and fish as well as soups and salads for a first course and trifles, cakes, fruit salads, ice cream and such for dessert. I sat near the end talking to Geoff and Charlotte. Little Kenny was feigning sleep on a mattress behind them.
Barry was irritating me again. He had been spouting off rather pompously about wine and had ordered several bottles of quite expensive white - apparently to prove a point. So much had he ordered that there was a bottle and a half of it still in front of him when everyone else was ready for bed. I sat and finished my beer and listened to him complaining how he was buying all the wine and no-one else was paying for it. I pointed out rather too sharply that as I wasn't drinking the stuff I felt under no obligation to contribute towards it. He seemed a little put out at my brusque tone but I also felt no obligation to be polite.

I finished my beer and left him alone with his bottles.

Ongoing #45/Harrow Daily Poem #2

The next doodle shows a shopping trolley. Some of you may well say that it isn't a poem at all. All I can say to that is...

Ten items or less

One box of childhood memories in assorted flavours
One pair of school plays: a wise man and a knave
One tin of condensed education
One bottle of sweet and sour first love
One kilo of mathematics, left in the back of the fridge
One six pack of early jobs
One jar of pickled travel
One microwaveable life for one
One tube of regrets, squeezed out slowly
One disinfectant block of dissolving possibilities

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Ongoing #44/Harrow Daily Poem #1

This I year I am temporarily merging two of my poetry projects. I will be doing a poem a day from my room in Harrow but it will be doubling up as the next poem in my Ongoing sequence. If you have no idea what I am talking about (in either case) I suggest you waste an afternoon reading the other entries in this blog. The ones from around a year ago would be a good place to  start.

And first up therefore, by a curious serendipity, we have a poem relevant to a conversation last year when people flat out refused to believe that I have seen invisible fishes when swimming in the Philippines. The next doodle in the book for "Ongoing" shows an empty fish tank.

The Return of the Invisible Fish

Look, there in the tank.
Look, there by the bubbles.
If you look closely, then you will see
The hint of a spine
And a motionless hole,
Shaped like a fish, where a fish ought to be.
And there in that hole,
There in that space,
Look closer for traces of what's hiding there.
Could that be an eye?
Could that be a heart?
An invisible fish? Well, I declare!
There in the corner!
And there by the castle!
And under the rocks, in the shade of that hole!
Could that be another?
Another? Another?
The aquarium's full, an invisible shoal.
"But why," asks the child
"Have invisible fish?
Surely a goldfish is better to own.
What is the point
If no one can see them?"
"You'll understand better," I say, "When you're grown."

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Very Much Delicious: Part 11

Part 11 of my diaries from 1996 about my trip to Malawi and Zambia. And, by the way, the title of these posts was explained in Part 5.

After a breakfast of a little bread and fruit I waited outside the house for the guide who was to take Sheila and I on a walk to the waterfall. Peter and Barry were looking at the Land Rover which seemed to have developed yet another puncture. Rather than leave it and waste time when Geoff and the others returned we decided to put on the spare wheel and then for Barry and Peter to take the damaged one to town for repair. They were on their way by the time the guide, Anthony, arrived.

The first section of our walk followed the route taken yesterday by our more adventurous colleagues. We started off up the hill and I was surprised to discover that our houses were only the start of a fairly extensive village with some quite affluent looking buildings including a school and a community hall.

Anthony proved to be a chatty sort of a guide. He was, we discovered, in the final year of high school and worked as a guide in his holidays to earn money ready for University in Zomba. He wanted to go to Chancellor College to study medicine but after that he wanted to work in the villages not at the more lucrative city clinics. We talked as we walked. The views back down the hill and out across the valley were spectacular and while there were no animals and few birds to be seen there were lots of colourful flowers and occasional bright butterflies.
Anthony's school curriculum consisted of maths, English, biology, geography and bible knowledge - all of which were compulsory. I questioned him more closely. His courses seemed to be an eccentric blend. In biology he had learned basic anatomy and how to distil spirits. His history lessons, while largely restricted to Malawian history were often entirely contradictory on even such elementary facts as when Hastings Banda was born. In English the set books were Macbeth and The Diary of Anne Frank. This led us to another peculiar discrepancy - this time in his English which was really very good. While he knew words like 'pulmonary' and  'aorta' he had just come across the phrase 'Is this a dagger that I see before me ?' and had no idea at all of what a dagger might be. Having told him, I then found myself discussing the guilt that Macbeth felt and the way that it led to the visions of ghosts and phantom daggers. He seemed to be memorising every word I said.
    After about half an hour the route separated from the one to the mountain hut and levelled out. At the top of the rise we came to a logging camp. We went through it and started down the other side. At the bottom was the waterfall. This was hardly spectacular but was a pleasant place to stop made more pleasant by the flask of tea and packet of biscuits that we had brought with us.
    We returned by a different but no less scenic route. Anthony obligingly pointed out whatever animals and flowers he could find and while the animals were mainly lizards and frogs they were nevertheless interesting. One lizard, only feet away from us was almost invisible against the bark of a tree until it moved its head. On a moss covered rock face there were tiny green and yellow frogs, less than a centimetre long.  A large red and black insect buzzed around a group of purple flowers.
    We were off course still on the lookout for the absent birds. It was Sheila who spotted the large bird of prey in the distance. We watched for some time through binoculars, carefully noting down everything we could about it to help in later identification. When we got back to the houses Barry was sitting outside talking to two Malawi children, aged about six or seven who had been playing with Kenny. We quickly borrowed his books and soon had it worked identified as a Honey Buzzard.While we had been away the power had failed and the meat which Peter had transferred from the trailer to the refrigerator in the house had gone off. Not to be defeated by this he lit a fire on the back porch and cooked us a delicious concoction from tinned tuna fish and vegetables. I decided that if I wasn't cured by now I wasn't going to be and joined in the meal which we ate by candle light. As the power hadn't returned when we had finished we chose to have an early night.

Monday, 19 July 2010


Time is, as you may surmise from the title of this post, ticking away. It does that a lot just lately and a conversation in the pub garden last week, as we sat supping in the warm afternoon, made me realise just why it seems to tick by faster for some than others.
It's all down to the markers we use to measure the passage of time. I don't mean the seconds, minutes and hours. They are just the units. I mean the semesters, the annual contracts, the birthdays. They are the things we notice.
There goes another 3,153,600 seconds means nothing much to anybody. It's another year gone since my last Summer contract at Harrow School is far more telling. And one marker makes me think of  the others. I did my first Summer School in 2001. Good grief! That's a lot of time passed by.
As a teacher my time is marked as start of year, half term, Christmas, half term, Easter, half term, end of year, start of Summer contract, end of Summer contract and on and on in an endless march. The days, weeks and months don't actually matter. When I was travelling, I had no regular events to mark the passing time and it didn't feel as if it was passing quickly. Of course once it was over it felt as if it had passed quickly, but that's a different thing entirely.

It all makes me feel old. Not as old as that concert last night did of course, twenty eight years since that band played together, thirty since I last saw them. One of my friends brought his daughter with him. The band split up six years before she was born.

So another year has passed, has it?
Two more days and I'll be back on that Summer contract. I'll be slogging up and down the hills of Harrow, teaching English to teenagers and trying to fill the rest of the time with some kind of activity. The Hill isn't exactly brimming over with entertainment possibilities and this year that ticking clock has been taking its toll. I have developed gout and that has quite a number of implications. For a start it will make that slogging up and down the hills a lot more painful. Worse than that though is that my doctor has made three recommendations, none of which will make the filling of the hours any easier. I can, and have, cut down on the amount of meat I eat. Most of the vegetarian options (and most of the non-vegetarian ones, now I think of it) at Harrow involve mushrooms and I'm allergic to them. There's always the salad bar.
I also have to lose weight. That's a bit harder to do when people give you three very large meals a day. I know I don't HAVE to eat them but willpower is harder when it's all, quite literally, handed to you on a plate. Worst though is the cutting down on alcohol. When I said that the Hill isn't brimming with entertainment possibilities I was praising with faint damnation. What there is, is one pub. My habit of popping down for a quick beer on most evenings, just to pass the time and see who is about, will have to be curtailed. I suppose as I do only have one there would be no harm in having one fruit juice instead - just as well as it takes a stronger stomach than mine to drink orange juice in any quantity.

We shall see. Since I started this post another thirty minutes or so has ticked away. I'll be in Harrow before I know it. And then, just as quickly it will all be over and I'll be back at the start of the new year for my regular job.

tick... tick... tick...

28 Years Later... (A "To Put Away Childish Things" Special Edition)

Somewhere in a parallel Universe, it's 2010 and Jameson Raid have just played their farewell tour after thirty-five years as the most successful Heavy Metal band in the world. They have finished on a triumphant seven-night, sell-out run at the O2 in London. Rock magazines have produced detailed tribute issues. The twenty CD boxed set retrospective of their work has gone straight to the top of the charts.The Mojo cover disc has a lot of bands no one ever heard of doing their versions of Jameson Raid songs in inappropriate styles. The Classic Rock cover disc is "Bands influenced by Jameson Raid". Terry Dark has denied reports that he is the new judge on Britain's Got Talent.
But that's in the Universe next door.
Back here in this Universe it's 1982. Jameson Raid have just split up after a couple of years of struggling on with line up changes. They leave behind two EPs and a single track on a compilation album. Other tracks were recorded but never released. Their small but loyal following are disappointed that they will never make the big time.
Fast forward to our 2010 and after 28 years Jameson Raid are back. The missing recordings have been released on a CD, the classic line up are together on stage for the first time since they split up. They are playing three gigs, two in England and one in Germany. The Robin, venue for the first gig, is packed. Who would have thought that a band almost no one has ever heard of could fill the place? The band look old. We all look old. It's been a long time.
Then the music starts and they are as good as they ever were. They thunder through the tracks on the CD and more. Surprisingly I remember all of these songs from the first time round, so long ago. The audience love them. They are note perfect and harder and heavier than I remember them. They have even dug out the old costumes, Ian Smith in his waistcoat, John Ace in his military gear, Terry Dark more conventional in jeans and T-shirt. For two hours we have slipped over into that parallel Universe where they are the stars they should have been. 
And then it's all over. I can't get to the other gigs but I surely would if I could.
I'd thought the gig might have to fly powered solely by nostalgia. I was wrong. In their day these guys produced some of my favourite songs and performed some of my favourite gigs , gigs I recall vividly to this day, and older or not they can still do it. 

A glimpse of the greatness that might have been.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Very Much Delicious: Part 10

Part 10 of my diaries from 1996 about my trip to Malawi and Zambia. And, by the way, the title of these posts was explained in Part 5.

Still a little unsure of my stomach I chose not to eat breakfast before our next travelling day. We started with a short drive down to Zomba where Geoff went off to get our repaired wheel and the rest of us spent an hour exploring the densely packed stalls of Zomba Market. This is a large market with a number of brick halls in it as well as hundreds of wooden stalls. Two of the buildings are filled with fruit and vegetables while a third sells only grain and rice and a fourth sells fish that, judging by the smell, is already a long way past its edible date.
    We left Zomba on a very bad road which had once been tarmacked but had deteriorated to the point where it was very nearly undrivable. It was made worse by the standard of local driving and a use of signals so eccentric as to border on the surreal. Most drivers use their left signal to indicate to traffic behind them that there is traffic ahead of them, their right indicator to indicate that there is no traffic ahead of them and both indicators together to indicate that they are too drunk to be able to see whether there is traffic ahead or not. Nobody ever uses them to indicate an intention to turn. The result was a fraught and unpleasant couple of hours being rattled around like marbles in a tin can listening to Geoff blast the horn as time after time he was forced to lean on it to encourage people to get out of the way.
There were occasional distractions.
We drove for several miles through tea plantations where there were hundreds of pickers all dressed in yellow oilskins against the dreadful weather.
At a point where the road was being repaired we were diverted past on a sandy track and looking at the work being done it became obvious why the roads disintegrated so easily. It was being constructed by laying a paper thin layer of tarmac on top of an equally thin layer of coarse gravel which was laid directly on top of the sandy ground.
We were forced to stop to tighten the nuts on one of our wheels near a coffee plantation where we got out and stretched our legs for a few minutes and took a few pictures in the grey light of the rain soaked morning.
A funeral procession of dozens of slow moving mourners blocked the road. We tried to pass and an angry mourner, appalled at our disrespect banged on our windows and shouted abuse.

    At Mulanje town we turned off this highway onto a dirt track and once again I noticed that the quality of the dirt roads was actually much higher than the tarmac ones. We paused to let someone climb on board. He turned out to be the leader of the porters who would go up Mount Mulanje. A few minutes later we reached a group of single storey brick buildings. Before we had even come to a halt a group of locals were gathered trying to sell us things. Geoff was having none of it. He told them sharply that no-one would be buying anything today and that anyone who hung around wouldn't be welcome when we did buy things in two days time. Reluctantly they all packed up their selections of traditional carved animals, traditional carved tables, traditional carved boxes and traditional carved CD racks and left.
Geoff turned to us.
    "Now, " he said "I've decided that those of us going up the mountain will be going today. In about twenty minutes. The weather has cleared up for the moment and as we can't guarantee tomorrow we will go while we have the chance. Sheila, Barry and Bob have decided to stay behind so how do the rest of you feel ?"
There were some grumblings and misgivings but Louise, David and Sarah all agreed. An hour later, rather than the expected twenty minutes, they were on their way.
    Mount Mulanje is an isolated block of mountains covering about 245 square miles. It rises from a flat and featureless plain 2000 feet above sea level. The granite peak, Sapitwa4, is the highest in central Africa at almost 10000 feet. The whole mountain is covered by a variety of trees, brachystegia, imported exotic pines and eucalyptus and the endemic Mulanje Cedar from whose aromatic wood so many of the carvings are made. This tree is unique to the massif. Typically it reaches 140 feet with a clear trunk to about 60 feet and a base diameter of 5 or 6 feet. However over-felling and poaching of the wood is causing severe deforestation.
    The house where we were staying was two bedroomed with a small dining room, a kitchen and a toilet and shower room. The bedrooms each contained two primitive and uncomfortable beds, the dining rooms a couple of chairs and a table, the kitchen a sink with a single tap and a gas ring and the toilet a similar sink, a flush toilet and an unhygienic looking shower.
    It was because of my continuing stomach problems that I had decided not to do the optional ascent. At lunch I had foolishly decided to eat a few sandwiches, having not eaten for the previous twenty four hours. It had been a mistake and several more trips to the toilet convinced me that not climbing the mountain had been a good idea. It also convinced me not to eat in the evening. Nevertheless I did join the others while they ate and when the meal was over we sat around talking. Part of the conversation demonstrated exactly what was wrong with Barry. I had told the story of how when I was in Cuzco in Peru I had given a pen to a child begging in the main city square. The next day the same child had come up to me and proudly showed me that he still had the pen. Barry of course could do better. In his version of the story he had not given a beggar a pen because that would have been encouraging a dependency culture. Instead he had sat down and given the child an English lesson. Several other children had come until he was taking a whole class. The next day the child was back with one of his teachers from school who insisted that Barry should go with her to the school and teach a class of the teachers. He had ended up, or so he said, as a guest lecturer at the University.
    I have no idea whether story was entirely true, entirely fictional or somewhere in between, and I don't really care. It simply illustrates the kind of automatic self-satisfaction bordering on piety that made up almost all of his conversation.
When the conversation died, murdered by the tortuous nature of Barry's anecdotes, we all retired for the night.

I want a T-shirt!

And a poster.

Just brilliant!

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Now that's what I call pedantry!

One of the things I used to like about The Two Ronnies was that quite a few of their sketches were about language, or at the very least made use of peculiarities of English for their humour.
Last night I watched the first episode of the new season of Mitchell and Webb.* It finished with a sketch about a pedantic company manager gradually shooting all the people at a meeting. He shot the first one for pronouncing the name of the letter "H" as "Haitch" rather than "Aitch". He shot the second for saying "pacifically" when she meant "specifically". The third was despatched for saying "expresso" instead of "espresso".
He then responded to criticism by saying "I killed my own wife for ironically saying, 'mispronounciation'."
Subsequently the sole remaining member of the meeting took him to task for saying "ignorami" rather than "ignoramuses" and he shot himself, pausing only to shoot the other man for saying "whoever" rather than "whomever", before expiring in a pool of blood.

The sketch is here, though as it's probably been posted without permission, I can't say how long for.

Now that's what I call pedantry.

(*This example is nothing to do with the rest of the entry, but it's a personal favourite.)

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Tenth Circle

I am an atheist which means, of course, that in addition to not believing in Heaven, I don't believe in Hell. There are times however when I wish that I did believe. In Hell that is. It would be very nice, for example, to believe that Dante got it wrong and that there is a tenth circle, lower even than that reserved for traitors, into which telephone cold callers are sent to burn for eternity.

We receive anything up to half a dozen cold calls a day. I have caller ID and they usually show up as "INTERNATIONAL" or with a "00" international prefix. Lately however they have started showing up with spoofed numbers that look like UK numbers but aren't. 

Now I can recognize them for what they are most of the time and just not answer but my Dad is older, a bit slower to read the number and of a generation where you were always polite to people no matter what, so he answers them. They are usually auto-dialer hang-ups but I am concerned that one of these days he will sell the family silver* to one of these pests.

I have therefore been trying to find out what I can do about it and the answer, after a lot of frustrating calls to my phone company appears to be - "not a damned thing".

They first started by suggesting the Telephone Preference Service. I then pointed out that a) I am already registered and b) the TPS has no power and no sanction outside the UK, which is where 99% of these calls originate.

They then suggested changing my number. I pointed out that a) this would be extremely inconvenient and b) it would have no effect because these calls usually come from random or sequential auto-dialers which will find me anyway.

They then suggested caller ID. I repeated that I have caller ID already and that this is how I know who these calls are from.

I also pointed out that there are tens of thousands of complaints on the internet about these numbers. They agreed that they were aware of them but that they could only give the advice that they had given.

They suggested barring ananymous calls. I pointed out AGAIN that they calls are not anonymous. The ID displays so this would have no effect.

They suggested the TPS.

I told them that they were no help at all and hung up.

So, while I am an atheist, I can only hope that I am wrong and that the people who ring me from these numbers half a dozen times a day will burn in Hell for eternity. If I ever meet them I'll have to hope that I'm right though because I shall certainly be committing a sin that will get me condemned when I insert the telephone sideways into one of their orifices.

*We don't actually have any family silver, but the principle still holds.

Very Much Delicious: Part 9

Part 9 of my diaries from 1996 about my trip to Malawi and Zambia. And, by the way, the title of these posts was explained in Part 5.

Up until now we had been eating fresh food bought by Peter from the local markets and everything had been fine. Now, after our night in a 'good hotel' three of us had stomach problems in varying degrees of unpleasantness.
I ate a full English breakfast on the balcony of the restaurant but almost immediately knew that I was going to regret it. Sheila failed to show for breakfast at all, already suffering. David ate only toast and black tea, stoically ignoring his condition. Afterwards everyone apart from Sheila assembled for a walk. Immediately outside the hotel were a number of the local entrepreneurs selling carvings. Geoff picked up a table, the three legs of which were carved from a single piece of wood, the circular top being carved into a series of pictures of animals.
"This has been painted," he said "And it's spoiled it completely. You'll see the same sort of thing done much better and much cheaper later on." He put it back. The salesman seemed unperturbed by the criticism.
Further down the path two teenagers ran up and thrust a large piece of quartz into Geoff's hands. He turned it over.
"They get this from the quarry," he explained "But this piece is no good, the facets are cracked and scuffed and all of the points are blunted."
He dropped it into his pocket and went to walk away. The teenagers were outraged.
"You must pay," they cried "Three hundred kwatcha."
He feigned innocence.
"You gave it to me. A gift."
"No, no. Three hundred kwatcha."
He took it out again and frowned.
"But I didn't ask you to give it to me."
"Only to look. To see if you buy." they said.
"OK, I've looked."
He tossed it back to them and they went off in search of easier customers.
We strolled on down the hill leaving them behind. Soon we turned off the road onto a narrow path that ran alongside a river. The trees and plants hung out over the clear water in which we caught occasional glimpses of brown trout. A bright flash of scarlet darted between the trees.
"Livingstone's Lourie," said Geoff  "That bright red is only visible when they're in flight."
At a waterfall where the banks of the river opened out onto a broad expanse of flat white rocks we took a break before beginning to double back towards the hotel. A large bird of prey flashed down from the trees and skimmed the surface of the water with its talons before disappearing into the undergrowth on the far bank - but it was too fast for the bird watchers to identify. There was a palpable sense of frustration from them.
David spotted a Simonga Monkey, sitting in a tree watching us. We managed to get quite close before it was overcome with shyness and leapt from branch to branch deeper into the forest to escape our attention.
At a junction we took the opposite fork to the one we had approached by and headed past a derelict trout farm. The chain link fence had long since been appropriated by some needy farmer but a hand painted sign still proclaimed. "Trout Farm - Entrance 12 Tambala". Geoff told us that though the place had now been closed for years there was still a man employed to look after it.
Back on the main road we were approached by more teenagers with quartz. When Geoff had had the last piece in his pocket a tiny splinter had broken off. As they approached he fished it out and held it up to them.
"I sell you quartz" he said "Only one hundred and fifty kwatcha."
They looked baffled.
"No," they said "You buy quartz."
"No, no, no, no, no." he said, rolling his eyes theatrically "I already have quartz. I sell to you."
"But we already have quartz." they responded.
Geoff smiled.
"Good. Good. We all have quartz." He dropped his piece back in his pocket and walked away. The teenage salesmen stood where they were wondering what had just gone on.

Lunch was an enormous and varied open air buffet spread out on tables in the grounds of the hotel. There was turkey, chicken, beef, pork, fish, fifty different vegetables, stews, fricassees, cakes, trifles - everything that anyone could want - and I couldn't have any of it. During the morning I had been to the toilet six times. Eating anything at all was not a good idea. While the others went to the party I went to sit on the patio of my room and read a book. There seemed no sense in making myself unhappy by watching everyone else eat a good meal. When I judged that they would have finished eating I went to join them in watching the entertainment that the hotel had laid on for Christmas.
A dance troupe were there, entertaining an enormous crowd of guests, accompanied by half a dozen drummers pounding out hypnotically complex rhythms on traditional instruments. Afterwards there was a Santa Claus in the shape of a large black African in red robes with a white Ku Klux Klan style hood cut into strips at the bottom to represent a beard. He looked extremely sinister and evil and unsurprisingly the children for whom he had presents had to be dragged to him in terror.

In the late afternoon we rounded off the day by driving up to the Emperor's viewpoint and watching the sun set over the valley before returning to the hotel.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Very Much Delicious: Part 8

Part 8 of my diaries from 1996 about my trip to Malawi and Zambia. And, by the way, the title of these posts was explained in Part 5.

Christmas Eve began with a repeat of yesterday's walk and as then there were lots of colourful birds and insects and butterflies but, apart from various antelope, no large game. After we had returned and had breakfast we took the boat back across the river to depart.  Already getting ready on the far bank were the two South Africans. Geoff said that he wanted to be away before them because the Unimog would churn up the roads even more badly than they had already been. The back door of the Unimog was open and I looked inside. It looked like an explosion at a rubbish dump. Boxes and bags had been thrown in randomly with their contents spilling out onto the floor. They had managed to pack less into that enormous space than Peter could get onto our roof. The younger one walked round and closed the door.
    "Look," said someone. I turned around. David was pointing off into the trees. There in a clearing about twenty yards away were a family of elephants, three adults and two young. The South Africans showed no interest in our sighting. I wondered if perhaps they had a list of 'things to see in Africa' and had already ticked of 'elephant'. We approached the group slowly. elephants have very poor eyesight and, perhaps surprisingly, even poorer hearing. If you approach carefully and from downwind it's easy to get within yards of them and it's also easy to tell when you are downwind. We had been there for about fifteen minutes before one of them finally noticed our intrusion. He became visibly agitated and the whole group moved off into the bush. Pleased with such a close sighting we went back to where we were parked.
    While we had been engrossed the South Africans had departed. Now we climbed into the Land Rover and followed, trying to avoid the deeper ruts left by their tyres. About half a mile later two things happened. First it started to rain but not with anything resembling a British downpour. It was, Barry said with some satisfaction, a real African rain. The drops were the size of walnuts and coming down like bullets from the sky, hard enough to raise bruises on sensitive skin. Second, we came to a halt, stopped by the Unimog which had broken down in the road blocking it completely. Geoff got out to assess the situation. When he returned he told us that he thought he could get round on the treacherous mudbank that led down into the waterlogged field but it would be safer if we could all get out first. Reluctantly we did so, huddling for shelter at the side of the broken down truck. Ten minutes later Geoff had accomplished the tricky manoeuvre and we were back inside, soaked and steaming, while the South Africans were behind us attempting to fix their holed Vacuum box on the brakes after some advice from Ken.
    "The trouble is they've bought it but don't know how to drive it or look after it." Geoff said. "Those repairs will hold for a while but they will have to keep re-doing them every couple of miles until they can get a welder to patch it up properly."

    Today we were to drive to Zomba and were soon on our way. Zomba was the capital city of Malawi until 1975 and the seat of Parliament as recently as 1994. The Bradt Guide describes it as 'the most immediately appealing' of Malawi's larger towns and it certainly presents a more pleasing aspect than Lilongwe.
    The buildings have a kind of faded colonial grandeur and when we parked at the PTC the street was wide, clean and pleasant in spite of the salesmen hassling us to buy their souvenirs. After a brief detour to drop off our damaged tyre we drove out of the town and up the hill towards the Zomba Plateau and the Ku Chawe Inn where we would be staying for two nights.
    The hotel is right on the edge of the plateau and has stunning views of what seems to be the whole rift valley laid out before you. Architecturally the hotel is also quite stunning being both ultra modern and deeply African. It's arched corridors and reception lead into a small bar decorated with African carvings and then open out into a restaurant and balcony that overlooks first the tiers of the hotel's gardens and beyond them the valley.
    We sat in the bar for an hour having a leisurely drink while the rooms were being prepared and then we checked in. The rooms were in keeping with the general quality of the hotel. Large and well decorated they were all fully en suite with balconies with gorgeous views and even with television.
    "Can we make a deal ?" I asked. Barry looked up from unpacking.
    "I won't turn the TV on if you don't." I said
    "I never watch television." he said humourlessly.

    We all met up again in the bar before dinner and discovered that tonight there was a special Christmas Menu. Moving to the restaurant we found a table ready for us at the end of a large and festively decorated room with a band playing traditional music at the other end and lots of people already enjoying Christmas. Pretty soon the beer and wine were flowing freely and it was a slightly drunk group of people that eventually drifted off to their rooms. It was not, I reflected, what people back home expect of me at Christmas. There was proper food in a posh hotel and not a hole in the ground in sight.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Very Much Delicious: Part 7

Part 7 of my diaries from 1996 about my trip to Malawi and Zambia. And, by the way, the title of these posts was explained in Part 5.

We had entered the camp after dark so that we had little or no chance to assess it. In the pale early morning I took a stroll around. Mvuu Camp is managed by Central African Wilderness Safaris and even if all of their staff look to be in their teens it is nevertheless an attractive and professional operation. The main building which houses the bar and restaurant looks out dramatically over the river where hippo, crocodile and elephant can be watched while you sit and eat your meals or sip long cold drinks. Lizards and small mammals wander right up to the walls or climb the trees to watch you. The enclosed part of the camp has ten luxurious twin bedded tents each surrounded by sturdily constructed bamboo screens and roofs. There is a clean and modern shower and toilet block which serves both these tents and the adjacent camping site.
A map provided in the tent detailed every tree in the enclosure, describing their Latin and English names and main characteristics. The one standing immediately in front of our tent was a 'Toad Tree', presumably so named because of its warty and scabrous bark. Scraping against the trunk I discovered that it had a sticky white, unpleasant smelling sap.
I had spent much of yesterday coughing and sniffling and today it had developed into a nasty head cold with streaming eyes and a sore throat. All the same after a good breakfast I joined the others for a bush walk. Our guide was Sean who looked about seventeen and put you in mind of an Australian Lifeguard. He was accompanied by a uniformed and armed guard without whom we would not have been allowed out of the enclosure.
"Remember," said Sean, "This is not a zoo. The animals here are wild and that means that they can be dangerous. If we come across any lion or elephant there will be no danger to anyone providing you do as I tell you."
We set off. Although it was still early morning the sun was already very hot. I soon wished that I hadn't forgotten to bring my hat from the tent. At first all we found were tracks and droppings - impala, bushbuck, hippopotamus, elephant, baboon - but soon we entered a clearing to see a group of baboon running off into the trees. The ground was littered with broken shells and destroyed fruit. Sean indicated a number of holes which the baboons had clearly been digging at.
"These holes were where crocodile had laid their eggs," he told us. "The interesting thing about crocodile eggs is that the sex of the hatchling depends entirely on the temperature at which the egg was incubated. The deeper, colder eggs hatch into females and the shallower warmer ones into males. These won't be hatching into anything, the baboon have destroyed them all."
We went on. Everywhere there were brightly coloured birds, from tiny bee eaters to massive majestic fish eagles. There were also antelope of every type that we had seen so far. A fenced off enclosure had warning notices explaining that the fence carried lethal voltages and the park rangers operated a shoot to kill policy on poachers. This marked the boundary of a large area set aside for a pair of breeding black rhino which the park is keen to keep safe. They were nowhere to be seen and naturally we could not go in to look for them.
Poaching is one of the most serious problems in Malawi. Some of the reserves have been poached to the point where they no longer contain any large game at all. Liwonde has not yet reached such a sorry state but poaching is still thought of as the largest single threat to the animals. And it isn't just the animals. Around the country young trees are illegally felled by poachers who sell the wood which often ends up in the carvings sold to tourists. Technically a permit is required but few have them.
Arriving back at camp we were almost run over by a large armoured vehicle, a Unimog. This is a four wheel drive vehicle with a vengeance. It looked like it should be part of a military invasion force and was driven by two bullet headed, khaki clad men with army style crew cuts. The looked like Nazi storm troopers. The reality was more mundane. They were a South African father and son who had decided that this mode of transport was the best way to see more of Africa. At that moment they were driving round to the far side of the river, where we were parked, to allow them and early start tomorrow.
In the afternoon we took a boat ride down the river. This gave us a chance to observe more closely the hippopotamus and crocodile. Osman, our new guide, proved to be exceptional at identifying birds from a single glimpse of their plumage or a few seconds of their song. As we moved down the river he told us an African folk tale of 'Why The hippo Yawns'.
We continued downstream until the sun started to set and then Osman killed the engine and let us drift there in silence watching as the sky turned first red then a glorious gold as the afterglow lit up the clouds from below the horizon. Now that it was dark we sailed back up river with Osman picking out details on the banks with a powerful spotlight
hippo lumbered up the muddy shores, ungainly certainly but with an air of massive unstopability.
crocodile slithered from the beam as soon as it touched them to glide silently across the water, just below the surface.
A tree full of heron remained motionless while the light was upon them and took to the air as one when he flicked it away for a moment.
A malachite kingfisher with its spectacular plumage was pinned to a branch by the lamp, so hypnotised that we could get within feet of it for close up photographs.
The bright tunnel of the beam was filled with a million flying insects, their motion forming strange stroboscopic geometries as their wings flickered in the light.

All too soon it was over and we were back at camp. After another of Peter's excellent meals I decided that rather than go to the bar I would take an early night and try to sleep off the remainder of my cold.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Very Much Delicious: Part 6

Part 6 of my diaries from 1996 about my trip to Malawi and Zambia. And, by the way, the title of these posts was explained in Part 5.

In the bright early morning sunshine that had replaced yesterday's intermittently heavy rain we were all setting off for another day of travel that would hopefully end at the Liwonde Reserve.
We drove out through Chintheche. Geoff gave us a thirty second tour of the highlights
- the police station which because it had no phone and no car required you to drive there to report a crime then give the policeman a lift back to the scene
- the open walled courtroom where justice could not only be done but be seen to be done by anyone walking past in the street
- the street traders beginning to lay out their goods on the rickety wooden stalls.

And it was so small that, with no more description, we were through it. Chintheche was behind us and we were on the open road that parallels the lake shore. As we drove south a light rain started to fall which got progressively heavier as the weather reminded us that this was technically a few weeks into the start of the wet season. Suddenly the back of the Land Rover lurched sharply towards the ditch at the side of the road. Geoff pulled over and got out to take a look. The nearside trailer tyre was shredded. Fifteen minutes later we had changed it for the spare and were once more on the move even if we were a bit wetter than we had been. Geoff kept glancing nervously at the cloud laden sky that was ahead of us and even Peter seemed a touch apprehensive.
"With this rain we might not be able to get into Liwonde." Geoff explained "The main entrance was bad two weeks ago and they've probably closed it by now. We'll have to make for the other entrance at Mangochi."
We carried on driving, heading first towards Lilongwe. As we approached there was a hand painted sign by the side of the road.
"Peter ?" Geoff called over his shoulder. Peter, who had been deep in conversation with David and Louise, looked up.
"Where the hell is Penga Penga ?"
Peter didn't know so we carried on hoping to get more information at a garage further down the road.  The petrol station was laid out on a design we had already seen a dozen times but this one had something the others were missing. This one had 'Twong Twong'. While Geoff filled up and enquired about the roads 'Twong Twong' entertained us. He was a local man with a facial deformity of a type very common in much of Africa, caused by Noma, a horrible disease that could be treated relatively easy if caught early enough but is frequently left untreated in Africa.
No-one seemed to know Twong Twong's real name. He sat on a stool by the door plucking on a home made three stringed guitar and singing in a clear high pitched voice. He was into his third song by the time Geoff came back. It wasn't particularly good news.
"We were already heading for the Mangochi entrance, " he said but one of the bridges on the main road has been washed away. The Land Rover might get through but it might not and there is an alternate route we can take that might be better. All the same the roads into the Reserve might be washed out at that entrance too. Still it's better that than the other choice which is to press on to Zomba and try to get accommodation there, missing out Liwonde altogether. We'll try the alternate route and see how it goes.

We left the garage and drove on. By now the weather had deteriorated very badly. Rain was lashing down and visibility was down to a few yards. We turned off the tarmacced road onto a dirt track signposted 'Mua Mission' and a few hundred slippery uphill yards later stopped in the middle of a group of buildings seen only indistinctly through the wet windows.

The Mua Mission was founded in 1899. It lies just off the main Salima to Balaka road and was the first Roman Catholic Mission in Malawi. It is a large and impressive complex of buildings. Besides the mission itself there is a hospital and a school and a folklore museum. David Stuart describes it in 'A Guide to Malawi'.
'What makes it a special place of pilgrimage for tourists is the extraordinary size, quality and vitality of the woodcarvings that are produced by the trainees at the mission. Father Boucher, whose self-depracating genius is behind this enterprise, has succeeded in bringing out the natural, innate, talents of his students to produce products of unique fascination and beauty. There is little indication of any foreign values and design concepts introduced to his charges.'
The Mission is also a popular stopping off place for other reasons. There are a series of extraordinary tall circular structures which have built in circular tables and benches and high thatched conical roofs. These can be used to eat lunch when the weather is bad - and at that moment it was terrible. In the hundred yard dash from vehicle to shelter we had all got soaked, but once inside with bottles of beer and all the things necessary for a fine lunch of assorted sandwiches, fruit and vegetables we all felt that the rain didn't matter very much. Gradually, as we ate, there was a lightening of the sky and a thinning of the rain until it was only a heavy drizzle. We decided to take a look at the souvenir shop and those famous carvings. The shop was a single large circular room piled from floor to ceiling with carvings ranging from tiny intricate animals to enormous representations of the last supper and the crucifixion. All of them were of stunning quality and while pricey by Malawi standards dirt cheap by ours. I settled on two ebony daggers with hilts in the shape of a heron and an owl.
Back on the road we found ourselves driving along a cratered track and had gone only a few miles before another puncture forced us to stop again. The rain, with its usual impeccable timing chose that moment to start again in earnest and by the time we were underway again we were quite thoroughly soaked. The dirt road continued for what felt like forever before we turned back onto a properly surfaced one. From here the going was quite good almost right into Mangochi. It was however a false sense of security. At Mangochi the heavy rain had caused several small rivers to burst their banks and the whole town was under several inches of water.
This road led through several villages of thatched mud and brick huts. The fires inside them were causing the soaking wet roofs to steam vigorously and they looked strange and alien in the gathering twilight. By now the road was no more than mud and only Geoff's driving kept us moving in more or less the right direction. At one point the track disappeared altogether under a torrent of dirty water perhaps twenty yards wide.
"Somewhere under that lot there's a wooden bridge that we have to cross." said Geoff without optimism. Barry and Peter both got out and waded through the deluge to find it and, aided by a couple of locals, successfully led us across.
It was not much further to the Liwonde Camp gate and five minutes after that we were at the Shire River. Approaching the park from this side you arrive on the wrong bank. There is a red flag that you have to raise to attract the attention of the lodge on the opposite shore. When they notice it they send a boat to collect you. We raised the flag but it was quickly apparent that it was already too dark for them to see us. Geoff climbed back into the Land Rover and started to flash the lights out across the water. Briefly they illuminated the sign on the landing stage.

"Please Respect The Crocodiles."

Soon two dark shapes detached themselves from the far bank and came towards us. They were the boats and ten minutes later we were standing in the Mvuu Lodge ordering beer and asking about dinner.
It had been a long day.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Believers believe

Jack of Kent this week poses an interesting question about scepticism. It boils down to whether sceptics have an image problem, whether it is enough to be right.

Now, while my general outlook might be clear enough from previous posts, I'll nail my colours to the mast here again for those who have just tuned in.

I don't believe in "woo". And for me woo includes not just alternative medicines proven to have no clinical value (homoeopathy for example) but also unsupported political assertions (what we are doing will prevent a future global crisis), unsupported linguistic assertions (never split an infinitive),  religions in general or unsupported assertions about anything.

Now how I react depends on which particular bit of woo I am dealing with.
In the case of religions, for example, I'm a live and let live kind of a guy. I don't try to convert people to atheism or even discuss it unless someone tries to convert me. I'm not as forgiving on everything though and, in light of Jack of Kent's question, I am wondering if I should be.
I am prepared to argue politics, to an extent, though in many ways it's every much a no-win battle as religion. You can't convince people with evidence when their whole belief system is defined by believing things without evidence.
I do argue, and at length, about language because I'm a language teacher and a linguistics enthusiast. It's my field and I find that my annoyance at unsupported, nit-picking, pedantry outweighs my reluctance to get involved in verbal battles that I know I can't win.

The main area of debate on Jack of Kent though is alternative medicine and here I have sometimes been a bit over-enthusiastic in arguing. I've had the idea in my head, possibly mistakenly, that if people only understood the facts they would stop believing in the nonsense.
My previous post shows that I am, perhaps, mellowing a bit. When my colleague suggested that I try TCM or homoeopathy to cure my gout, I bit my tongue and refused to be baited into an argument. I know she believes in these things and I know that arguing with her won't change her opinion of them, just of me.
This is the very heart of the image problem that scepticism has. I genuinely believe that voodoo or sacrificing a goat would have as much chance of curing my gout as TCM or homoeopathy. I prefer to take seriously the advice of my doctor who suggested none of those things. But, however much I believe that, I have absolutely no way to demolish the faith of someone who says "It worked for me." There is literally nothing I can say or do that will convince them that whatever cured them it wasn't a magic sugar pill.
The trouble is, as I've observed before, the evidence is largely irrelevant to a genuine true believer. The more evidence you amass, the more you insist on presenting it, the more strident you become...the more they cry conspiracy. As with my colleague, they don't look at the evidence and modify their opinion of whichever bit of woo that is under discussion, they look at it and modify their opinions of you. Remember that you are not simply undermining their opinion you are undermining their faith. The few who come round to the rationalist point of view would probably have done so eventually anyway. The rest will either ignore or vilify you anyway.

Does this mean we should all just shut up and let people believe whatever they want to believe? It is, after all, the approach I take to religion. I am in two minds about it but on the whole I think not. While a lot of alternative therapies are in themselves harmless they may be passively harmful in that they prevent people taking effective action. Some, of course, as with February's TCM poisoning case, can be actively harmful.
What it all comes down to is whether you think that you have a moral duty to attempt to stop people harming themselves. 

So, in short, yes, scepticism does have an image problem and no, it isn't enough to be right.
There is also sadly nothing much we can do about it. Believers believe and believing that they are right means believing that the sceptics are wrong. No matter how we present our case, the very fact that we present it at all is so opposed to their views that we will always have an image problem.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Another limp anecdote

Today I didn't have an argument with the mad woman in the office. It was touch and go, though. She saw me limping and asked what was wrong. I don't really enjoy conversing with her (few people do) so I told her as briefly as possible why I was limping and sat down to do some work.
She tutted sympathetically and asked seriously, "Have you tried Traditional Chinese Medicine or homoeopathy?"
The words "No but I have tried voodoo and sacrificing a goat" were on the way to my lips almost instantaneously but I managed not to say them.
Instead I said "I'm not prepared to get into an argument with you about alternative medicine."
She countered with, "Don't knock it unless you've tried it."
This time I managed to not say "I haven't tried a lobotomy, but I don't think it would help." settling instead for repeating that I wasn't going to discuss it.
She kept on trying to so I eventually went to work in another office.

Don't you admire my restraint?

A limp anecdote

I have gout.
I realise this is of little or no interest to anyone and I only mention it because it explains the limp. Actually it also explains the pained expression which is not because of any pain per se but because nobody looks pleased when the doctor has just told them that the only thing to do is stop drinking and cut out meat from their diet. 
Mostly though it explains the limp.
I've had the limp for several weeks now while I've been impatiently awaiting a diagnosis and, sad to say, now I have both the limp and the diagnosis. I'm not actually any better off. Yesterday though I realised, in a situation that could have come straight out of Danny Wallace's Awkward Situations for Men, just how socially awkward a limp can be. I was hobbling through the city centre on my way home from work when I saw, coming towards me, a very large and aggressive looking man. He wasn't quite a gorilla with toothache but he was doing a very good impersonation of one. He must have had gorilla DNA in his genes somewhere. 
He was also limping. And he wasn't just limping he was limping on his left foot in a manner almost  identical to mine.
Two thoughts simultaneously crossed my mind.
"Oh, he must have gout too, poor bugger."
"Oh no, what if he thinks I'm only limping to take the piss?"
It was quite busy and I was still walking towards him. I considered the options. I could ignore the situation and limp on past him hoping that he'd realise that I was just a fellow sufferer. I could steel myself to stop limping and take the pain for the few yards involved. I could limp past and nod sympathetically.

Instead I stopped and pretended to be deeply engrossed in the display on the mobile phone shop window. I only went on my way when I was sure he was out of sight. Oddly today I've noticed for the first time just how many people seem to have a limp and I've given up worrying about it. There must be a heck of a lot more gout about than I thought though.

Ongoing #43

This poem is only loosely connected. The doodle shows dracula and a bat. I couldn't think of a poem about either so this one is about a slightly related topic.

The Monster

"There isn't a monster under the bed!"
That's what my mother always said.
"There isn't a monster under the bed!"
But what do mothers know?

"Of course there's a monster under the bed!"
That's what my brother always said.
"Of course there's a monster under the bed,
And he's nibbling on your toe."

"There might be a monster under the bed."
That's what my father always said.
"There might be a monster under the bed
Who wants to be your friend."

"It's a terrible monster under the bed."
That's what my brother always said.
"Such a terrible monster under the bed.
He'll eat you end to end."

"There isn't a monster under the bed!"
Lying awake, that's what I said.
"There isn't a monster under the bed."
But I knew I didn't believe.

"Of course there's a monster under the bed!"
From under the bed, the monster said.
"Of course there's a monster under the bed
And I have no plans to leave."

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Very Much Delicious: Part 5

Part 5 of my diaries from 1996 about my trip to Malawi and Zambia. And, by the way, the title of these posts is explained below.

Next day, after a breakfast of pancakes and honey, we set out for Nkata Bay. It was to be a day of travelling, albeit broken up with a number of stops. The first of these was half a mile down the road from the Reserve at a tiny village where, after asking the owners permission, we had a look around one of the small farms.
"Good Morning, how are you today ?" Sheila asked a man who appeared to be in charge. He thought about it for a minute and then smiled.
"Thank you." he said "I am very much delicious. How are you."
Sheila replied, as solemnly as she could manage.
"I am also very much delicious."
It became a catch-phrase for the trip. Everyone would always answer questions about how they liked things or how they felt with 'Very much delicious."
The farm was small but the family living on it was enormous. There were about half a dozen adults and twice as many children - a number rapidly supplemented by hordes from neighbouring farms. Soon we were surrounded by barefoot children in grubby T-shirts. It consisted of three buildings, one for living in, one for storage and for the animals and a ramshackle frame-like structure for drying the cassava crop. The house was small but quite sturdy with brick walls covered in baked mud, wooden framed and shuttered windows and a thatched roof. The family were friendly and mostly happy to let us look around and take photographs. One of the neighbours asked Barry to photograph his two children but as soon as the camera was pointed they ran away screaming.
Our second stop was in Mzuzu, where we had stopped for supplies a couple of days ago. I bought some tapes of Malawian Music from a market stall. The fact that they were all likely to be religious music was readily determined from the names of the bands and the sleeve illustrations.For example the Alleluya Band perform Exultet Konwerani on a tape with a cover showing five people with their arms raised to a haloed face in the sky. I questioned Peter about it as we sat in the back of the Land Rover. It seems that there is almost no tradition of secular music in Malawi with virtually all the popular music being of a religious nature. He translated the song titles for me and these more or less confirmed the observation. Perhaps more surprising was the difficulty of some of the translations. Either Peter was being over meticulous or Chichewa is the most concise language in the history of linguistics. For example I pointed to a single word title. This turned out to be one of the few that were not overtly religious. Peter thought about it for a long time before answering.
"Sometimes," he said "When the men of the village should be planting their crops they go instead into the town where they sit with their friends and drink Chibuka. They may stay away from home for a very long time. When they go home their wives are not pleased with them and this " - he pointed at the word - "Is what they would say."
Another title, two words this time, resulted in a lengthy description of the Crucifixion and finished with "this means the emotion felt by the onlookers at Calvary."
In between these language lessons I quizzed him about local politics. Things in Malawi are, he told me, pretty good nowadays. There is free (and theoretically universal) primary school education, although books and uniforms must be paid for. There is free state health care at the hospitals although there are still many private clinics - often run by religious orders - which charge fees. The country is predominantly Christian but with a substantial Moslem minority that is more prevalent in the south. He seemed surprised at my question as to whether this side by side existence caused any friction in the community, as if such a concept had never occurred to him.
Our next stop was Nkata Bay. This is a town with a bad reputation which is much frequented by back packers. As such the inhabitants have developed a different attitude. There is a lot of begging and a lot of people trying to rip-off the foreigners with over priced inferior souvenirs. I found the place to be unattractive although interesting for the brief time that we were actually there. We spent a few minutes in one of the many drinking houses that lined the main road. These are large unfurnished rooms with a bar selling cardboard cartons of Chibuka. They are filled to overflowing, even in the afternoon, with drunken Malawian men drinking, singing and dancing. We tasted the Chibuka which was like a thin brown sour alcoholic porridge. I cannot imagine that if I lived in Africa for a thousand years I could ever come to like it although the locals seemed to love the stuff.
A little further up the road we stopped again to look at a rubber plantation and stretch our legs. The rubber trees were tall and straight with almost no low level branches. They were planted in geometrically neat rows and each one had a small cup affixed below a V shaped cut in the bark into which the thick white sap was draining.
We finally reached our overnight stop in the late afternoon. This was the Katoto Beach Hotel at Chintheche. The hotel, right on the shore of the lake is in a prime position. The lake and lake shore are very beautiful and the water supposedly free of the Bilharzia which makes the southern section so dangerous to swim in. Unfortunately the place is being allowed to fall into disrepair with lights that do not work, bare wires hanging from ceilings, piles of rubble from abandoned building projects and a general air that no one cares any more about what must once have been a very good hotel. It would require so little work to return it to a good hotel that it seemed sad that no one could be bothered.