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.

Sunday, 31 October 2010


We don't normally celebrate Halloween here in the UK but it is becoming more popular thanks to transatlantic influence and the desire of shops to flog more and more cheap tacky merchandise at every possible opportunity. I have had about half a dozen bunches of trick-or-treaters around tonight and a whole bunch of bemused reactions when I've offered them apples*.

Anyway, I won't be a spoilsport even though I don't really like the festival very much. Instead, I'll do something I don't normally do here and post a story I wrote at a writers' group a few years ago.

I'll even wish you a happy Halloween.

 Pumpkin Thoughts
Not really sure why but I feel a bit odd today, a bit empty.
I don't know what I think about that. Actually I don't even know how I think about that.
How I think at all, now that I come to think of it. I never did much thinking before.
I think.
I think that there should be more to it than that. Something more important.
I think therefore I think? That doesn't have much of a ring to it. Something like that though.
I think therefore I...

JEEZUS... what the hell was that ? I never felt anything like it before. Pain. That's what it must have been. Pain.
What's this though? Sort of not darkness. Sort of well... brightness for want of a better word though to tell the truth I'm a bit vague about what I meant by 'darkness' as well.
Bright. Light. Funny thing. I suppose I'll get used to it. Now what's that I can... can... what's the word?
See. That's it.
What's that I can see?
Someone moving about, carrying a long thin shiny pointy thing. Knife. Yes, a...
Hey, she's waving it this way. Careful with that you'll have someone's...

Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!
Damn that smarts, but it's certainly made a difference. It seems even brighter now. Oh, off hand I'd say about twice as bright.
She's put the knife down at least. That's a blessing. Who knows what damage she could have done with it? Oh, here she comes again. What's she up to this time? Picking me up looking at me. I'd wink if I could but I just can't seem to manage the trick for some reason. She's turning me round now.
Stop, stop. Whoops, too late. That looked like me though. Must have been a wossname. A thing that reflects. I know, a mirror. Shame she's put me down again. I'd have liked a better look. I wonder why she ignored me. Maybe she wasn't listening.
Uh-oh. She's picked up the knife again. What's she doing with it this time ?
A bloody great gash right across my... er... face - sort of long and thin and curved.
That explains it then,. No wonder she couldn't hear me. I didn't have a mouth. I was just talking to myself.
Hey you out there !
You with the knife!
No reaction. She must be deaf after all.
Wa-hey. She's picking me up again, turning me towards the mirror. Now I can have a good look at myself.
Devilishly handsome chap.
I've overdone the orange tan a bit but I love the big soulful eyes and that's quite a rakish grin if I do say so myself. Quite the charmer, not much room for improvement there.

Where's she going now ?
Oh well I'm sure I'll find out soon enough. For now I'll just sit here and have a bit of a think. Everything is happening so fast today. I ought to take a few minutes to let it all sink in.
Oops. No time for that. She's back. What's she carrying. Is it a knife ? Well it's long and thin but it doesn't look sharp and it's white and waxy. Now she's setting fire to the end of it. It's a candle. One candle? It must be my birthday.
Hey! What are you doing with that? It's supposed to go on a cake.
Get off! Get off you bloody maniac. I don't want that inside my head I'm bright enough already.
Ow! That's really, really hot. Take it out. Turn it off. Put it out.
She's picking me up again. Not to look in the mirror this time. She's putting me by the window to look outside. Nothing much to see.  It's pretty dark out there. There are a couple of kids in fancy dress in the street but that's about it.

There's this word rattling around in the back of my head. It's a funny word and I couldn't say what it means but it sort of fills my mind with pictures. Halloween. If this is Halloween I don't really mind it although I could do without the bits with the knife and I don't like the idea of a naked flame inside my head but I suppose it might be worse. Another few days and she might have set me on fire.

(* Hey, I have so many apples from my tree that I have to get rid of them somehow.)

Saturday, 30 October 2010

To Put Away Childish Things #19

I was involved in judging a writing competition recently.
One of the things that surprised me was the number of entries that came in that had clearly been done on old-fashioned mechanical typewriters. I didn't think anyone used them any more and kudos to those who managed to submit some quite long entries that way. 
I used to have a mechanical typewriter and it isn't easy to write anything of any length on them because of the rigmarole you have to go through when you make a mistake. Type a letter wrong and spot it straight away and you have a chance - you can use a dab of correction fluid and type over it, but if, on proofreading a whole page, you find you missed out a word in line two you are buggered. You have to do the whole thing again.

I went up into the loft to look for my old typewriter but it isn't there. I expect it was long ago thrown away. The red box that it used to be in is there but it's full of 78 rpm records (and the fact that anyone under thirty has no idea what I am talking about tells you how long it is since I used a typewriter!). I remember it clearly though. My mother returned from Bilston market with it one day. It was a bulky cast iron red and black thing. It had the normal kind of typewriter mechanism where angled levers carry the letters up to strike the ribbon and print the ink onto the page but it could hardly be described as a delicate instrument. The muscular strength required to hit the keys hard enough to make an impression was quite considerable, for children's fingers anyway. I recall having a typing speed that was measured in letters, rather than words, per minute and sometimes in single digits at that. Now, as I sit here writing this, making on the fly adjustments as I think of a marginally better turn of phrase, popping off to find a picture of a typewriter to illustrate with, having the word  processor tell me when (it thinks) I have made a spelling mistake, I can't help thinking how easy we have it nowadays. And how impressed I am by people still using equipment that most of us now only see in museums.

Anyway. Must dash for now. I have a box of 78 rpm records to look through.

I'm in the wrong game

For the last three days I've had a skip parked outside my house which I have gradually filled with all kinds of rubbish. In three days fifteen scrap dealers have pulled up and clambered over it looking for the tiniest pieces of metal. I know that in this recession lots of people are out of work and have become part of the black economy and I'd be astonished if any of those dealers are running proper businesses and paying proper taxes but fifteen?

Can there really be enough money in collecting scrap metal from other people's skips?
If there is, I think I'm in the wrong line of work.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Disgusting, now I come to think of it

QI tonight, in a series devoted to the letter H, focussed on all things horrible. One of the things included was the Sourtoe Cocktail. It reminded me that I have actually drunk one. Here is the relevant bit from my other blog.

... rather than end up completely broke in the Casino a few of us strolled down Queen Street to the Downtown Hotel in search of another of those quaint ten minute old traditions - the ‘Sourtoe’ cocktail. Now without being unduly cynical an easier quicker scam for making money was never dreamed up by anyone. The ‘legend’ has it that a group of riverboat captains played a joke on another who was something of a braggart by convincing him that it was traditional to drink down a shot of spirits containing the pickled remains of a human toe lost by a prospector due to frostbite. In the Downtown Hotel not only do they pull the same stunt on dozens of tourists every night they charge them for the privilege AND make them buy their own shot. Strange how knowing you are being conned doesn’t stop you though. At least half of our group, me included, swelled their coffers and from the queue behind us they were clearly going to have a profitable night’s toe sucking.
There must have been something wrong with either the tequila or the toe though because by the time I’d added it to the dozen or so beers I’d consumed already and the extra couple of shots I had afterwards I was feeling quite unsteady on my feet. Nevertheless the advanced state of inebriation that were all in as we re-crossed the river and walked to camp through the trees did have some advantages. To begin with we were making enough noise to scare away a hundred bears and anyway we were at the stage where we didn’t really care if they ate us although someone did remark that the joke about the bells sounded even less amusing now than it had before.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Bilston Voices

I go to quite a lot of poetry events and, in my experience, the people I'm watching fall into two broad groups - readers and performers. Nothing wrong with either of those things, of course. Tonight's Bilston Voices was mostly filled with the latter and, in an event that is always excellent, it was one of the best yet. Jane James started the evening with a thoughtful and perceptive set of poems that were mostly performed in a monologue style. The poems had a reality and depth to them, concluding with a piece about the death of an uncle which, because of recent circumstances resonated very strongly with me. 
Following Jane was Richard Bruce Clay reading a section from his novel Both. I have previously heard him read another section of the same novel and on both occasions have been impressed both by the quality of the writing and the power of the performance. The range and passion of his vocal delivery greatly enhances what is already an engrossing tale. I bought the book and will review it here when I have read it.
Iris Rhodes had a hard act to follow and did so with a more subtle and measured performance. One interesting thing was that she brought a whole new depth to the phrase "a local writer". She writes mostly about the local area but tonight rather than focussing on Bilston or even on the smaller area of Bradley she announced that she was going to read to us about the extremely narrow area of "the corner of Baldwin Street and Salop Street". To that end we had a brace of pieces - a poem and a story. The poem was OK but I enjoyed the story, a tale about the "biggest pig in Bradley", much more. A slight tale but very well constructed and very well told.

After the break we had an unbilled treat as the new Birmingham Poet Laureate, Roy McFarlane, told us a little about his plans for poetry in the region and read a poem about a Hurricane which showed, if proof was needed, just how good poetry can be when done by someone who really understands his craft.
Returning to the billed artists the next one up was the regional coordinator for Apples and Snakes, Bohdran Piasecki. If there is a performer with more energy I have yet to see him. He bounced around the tiny performance area like a demented Tigger and delivered a set of genuinely passionate and serious poems that had the audience riveted, linked by witty and intelligent banter about the Polish people and life. For me he was the best turn in a night full of excellent turns. The first poem, Memories, was my favourite but all of them, even the one in Polish, were very well done indeed.
The evening was rounded out with an old favourite of Bilston and City Voices, Win Saha. She is a quieter performer than the others there tonight and writes in a much more traditional style. Her poems - on subjects as diverse as MPs, grumpy grannies, Christmas and Bilston Market - are all light and humorous and well crafted but by now she must be getting rather tired of performing Omelette, a poem that appears to be de rigueur  every time she appears. It was a quiet finish but a very good one.

Childish Things #18: Redux

Immediately after the recent post about how an episode of M*A*S*H prompted nostalgia for school dinners I watched the very next episode which starts with this dialogue.

Cook: Peas or carrots?
Hawkeye: Oh, a little of each will be fine.
Cook: Good, because I don't know which is which.
Hawkeye: And some mashed potato.
Cook: Those aren't mashed potato. It's congealed grease.

Yep. That about sums it up.

The Apprentice

The fired candidate in last night's Apprentice had her own unique approach to language - peppering her conversation with such words as "comfortability", "conversate", "manoeuvrement", "professionality" and "teamly".

My favourite, though, was after she was fired. She clearly felt that the others had been ganging up against her when she said, "Karmically they'll be retributed."

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Ongoing #70

Still in a melancholic mood today.

The illustration in the book shows a distant stately home with completely empty gardens in front of it. This haiku is partly inspired by that and partly inspired by the view of my back garden from the kitchen window on this gloomy and miserable morning.

Mourning Haiku

The grass overgrown,
Apples lying where they fell:
Untended garden.

Mission: Untranslatable

I've been greatly enjoying watching season one of the old Mission: Impossible  TV series. One aspect of it that I had forgotten is the eccentric approach to foreign languages. Many of the adventures take place in made-up foreign countries and those made-up foreign countries have made-up foreign languages. The very first episode ever took place in the "country" of Santa Costa. 
In general, the foreign countries fall into two groups - the ones which are approximately Spanish and the ones which are approximately Eastern European. The approximately Spanish ones use signage in a language that is a mixture of English, Spanish and Portuguese but with the added twist that almost all words end in vowels. 
One episode contained signs that read "Material Radiocativo: No entrar", "Usar Anteojos Protectores" and "Escaleria de Salvamento".
Another had "Jardin Zoológico", "Estacion de Cuarentina" and, in consecutive scenes, both "No entrar" and "No entre".

I'm rather more partial to their unspecified Eastern European countries though which use a mix of English, German and a kind of Hollywood Bulgarian: featuring things like "Zöna Restrik: Entre Ferbaten". Another episode had both "Restrik Fumen Prohob" and "Varnung: Gaz Hydrocyanide - No Intreten" while the action of the one I watched last night took place mostly in a "Mortuari".

What I find most interesting about it though is that these made-up, mix'n'match languages that they use are all more or less instantly intelligible. They are clearly designed that way but it is interesting to me that in all the examples quoted above only "anteojos" wasn't clear to me. I don't know if this means I have an above average understanding of languages or if their executive in charge of making stuff up was especially good at his job. I suspect the latter.

Why Joss Whedon is so good

I have a friend. Let's call him, because it isn't his name, Chris. Chris is a nice guy. It would be hard to find a nicer one, and he scares me. He scares me because he is the me from an alternate universe where my life went horribly wrong. Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that Chris's life is horribly wrong, just that it would be if it were mine.
Though it pains me to admit it, we have much in common, Chris and I. We share, for example, an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of geeky TV programmes. I could go head to head with him in a quiz about Doctor Who or Star Trek and while I'd lose I wouldn't be disgraced.
I mention all of this by way of a preface to explaining why Joss Whedon has a true genius for dialogue. Yesterday I was watching an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer which had an exchange between Andrew and Xander. For those few of you who have never seen it the essential information is this. Andrew, who was evil but is now reformed, is a socially inept geek. Xander, by contrast has, by this point in the series, spent six and a half seasons battling evil at Buffy's side but is, nevertheless also a geek - though not quite such a socially inept one.

The scene plays out like this.

All the potential future vampire slayers are gathered together and Andrew and Xander are trying to give them a rallying pep talk. Buffy isn't present. One of these potential slayers remarks that she is fed up of training and doesn't care if they have to fight Godzilla as long as they get to fight something.

Andrew: Godzilla? Mostly Tokyo based so he's probably a no-show.
Potential #2: Besides, Matthew Broderick can kill Godzilla. How tough is he?

Andrew looks despairingly at Xander who looks at his shoes in embarrassment.

Andrew: Xander?

Xander looks up, apparently reluctant to be identified with Andrew but unable to contain his own inner geek.

Xander: Matthew Broderick did not kill Godzilla. He killed a big dumb lizard. That was not the real Godzilla.

The potential slayers all look at them both as if they have gone mad. Xander looks embarrassed again but Andrew looks satisfied. Xander realises that he's showing himself up, Andrew doesn't even register the reaction they have caused.

And that's how it is when I'm in the same room as Chris. My own inner geek can't resist joining in with his conversations. It's exactly the same as the Andrew and Xander dialogue. I understand these people completely. And that's why Joss Whedon is the best writer of fantasy TV today. He also understands these characters so well that we can see ourselves reflected in them.

(And my own inner geek feels compelled to tell you that the episode in question, Dirty Girls, was actually written by Drew Goddard but it doesn't matter. Joss was in charge and he created the characters and had the ultimate say on what did or didn't get into the scripts.)

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Ongoing #69

Well, circumstances notwithstanding, I think it's important to get back to normality.
The next picture in the book is a partially completed mosaic pattern. The poem, though a little sombre, should, I hope, speak for itself.


Each moment a coloured stone
Drawn randomly from the jar,
Placed carefully to the ground
Insignificant viewed alone
A fragment of who you are
Unremarked and unrenowned.
When death comes to claim its own,
 In the pattern viewed afar
The portrait, at last, is found.

Not sure what it means, but certain it's not good news

So, we've had the spending review from the Government. All sorts of nasty things have happened to education but, like everybody else in the country, I'm selfish and want to know how my own job is affected. Here's what they propose

Reductions to key BIS activities include the ending of Train to Gain and replacing it with an SME focused training programme, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) funding for people not in settled communities, and the Regional Development Agencies will also be abolished in 2012.

That, of course, rather begs the question of what, precisely, a "settled community" is. I'm pretty sure it would rule out asylum seekers and there is every chance that it might also rule out those who have only limited leave to remain in the country. Although it would have little impact on us, it also appears, against anti-discrimination laws, to rule out lessons to Gypsies and travellers who are recognised by Race Relations law as minorities. Or it could mean something else that I haven't though of. Either way it seems to mean that our student body will be drastically reduced next year and fewer students means fewer teachers. At the moment ours is a very unsettled community.

Monday, 25 October 2010

How to undermine your arguement

One of my students came to me the other day with an impassioned plea to transfer her to a higher level class. She was, she told me, not happy to be with such low level students. I resisted the entreaties. I know my job and my class and she isn't, by quite a long way, the strongest in the group. Before she went away, still unhappy with the situation, she handed me last week's homework.
When I marked it I found, among other interesting sentences

"Somalia has own camel but England don't had got."

Pity, I'll bet a camel would come in handy.

To Put Away Childish Things #18

I found myself the other day getting all nostalgic about the most unlikely thing - school dinners. Back in my day we had no Jamie Oliver to get all righteous about nutrition and vocal about the evil turkey twizzlers, so we were spared the sight of overweight mums feeding salt and sugar laden snacks through the railings to their equally overweight children. As another plus we were also spared the endless bleating on about UK obesity rates by the Daily Mail.
We didn't have a cafeteria style system where we could choose from a wide variety of healthy, nutritious, balanced foods. We couldn't opt for any one of a dozen different meals and snacks. We had what was cooked and we ate it. Never mind that it was often unidentified, and unidentifiable,  brown goo or green goo accompanying a piece of something that might or might not have been meat. Never mind that the dining room always smelled of sprouts - whether they were on the menu or not. Never mind that the gravy for the main course and the custard for the dessert* were served in metal water jugs and were largely indistinguishable except by colour. Never mind any of those things. We queued up with trays and plates and the kitchen staff dolloped it onto the plates and we sat down at tables of eight and ate it. Or possibly left it. That was what passed for a choice back then. 
Ah, how fondly I remember the spotted dick - a suet and currents concoction that made everyone glad that swimming lessons were before lunch. After lunch, with that sitting like so much ballast in the stomach could have proven fatal. 
And who could ever forget the mashed potato with its wallpaper paste consistency - and a taste to match or the peas that came in two varieties - pellets resembling green lead shot or a processed paste of a neon shade unknown in nature.
It was probably passably nutritious - after all we all ate it with no long-lasting ill effects - but by no stretch of the imagination could it ever have been called appetising. And by and large I feel a warm glow of pride that somehow I managed to go through seven years of school dinners without ever once being sick.
What prompted this particular recollection was watch an episode of M*A*S*H where the medics of the 4077 regularly queue up in a very similar fashion to eat what appears to be very similar food. The difference is only in the quality of the scornful sarcasm they heap upon it. And the fact that they are eating it in a battlefield, though, now I come to think of it, school wasn't that unlike a war zone.
Today's kids, with their plethora of healthy options and their tasty wholesome menus don't know they're born. I wonder if anyone has ever thought of appealing to the nostalgia market and opening a restaurant that serves the kind of food my generation grew up on. Probably not. And probably just as well. Nostalgia would be unlikely to survive the reality.

Sunday, 17 October 2010


I don't know if men's toilets in the US have condom vending machines in them but most of the ones in the UK do and most of them sell the kind of condom that come with the warning "Caution: For novelty use only. Not a prophylactic."
Flavoured, coloured, oddly-shaped and so on.

I did a double take last night, though, when I spotted one labelled "McCondom". What could it be? Cheesburger flavoured, perhaps? Closer examination of the machine revealed it to be Highland Whisky flavoured, which I'm not convinced is any better.

Slip? Or a joke that I didn't get?

Rob Brydon interviewing Ronnie Corbett last night.

"You have been noted for your sartorial eloquence."

Saturday, 16 October 2010


Last night I saw a trailer for the new Channel Four series, The Pillars of the Earth, a drama about the building of a cathedral in 12th century England. Now it's convention for trailers that you put your best bits in so that you attract viewers. If the dialogue on offer here represented the best bits heaven help us when we get to see the worst bits. 
"England has been steeped in blood for sixteen years" pronounced one character sententiously.
"You have been consorting with a married woman." thundered another.
"God's work does not blend with anarchy!" declared a third.

There was even a "why hast thou forsaken me" and a "God is on our side".

If these bits of clichéd nonsense are typical I shall be very happy not to watch the rest.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Normal Service

It's been a difficult couple of weeks.
I had no idea that there was so much to do when someone dies. From important stuff like applying for probate to release anything left in a will to the utterly inane trivial stuff like getting a TV license now that there is no one in the household eligible for a free pensioner's license. There are banks to be dealt with and insurance companies to be notified. There are pensions organisations and public registries. There are funeral directors and ministers to talk to.
It seems endless.
But eventually you get it done. It's done now. The funeral service was yesterday and I think we managed to send my father off in a style that would have made him proud. So many people turned up that the church, admittedly a small one, needed to put out extra seating. We had chosen some music for his service - the March of the Highland Light Infantry - his old regiment - to play him into the service and one of his old favourites, the Yellow Rose of Texas, to play him out. It left slightly bemused smiles on the faces of the congregation but I'd rather they remember him with a happy song than a sad one.

Anyway it all went as well as these occasions possibly can. And, as I think I've completed all the other needful tasks, it is now effectively over, leaving me all alone in the house to just reflect.

For the service we included a short poem that I had written for the occasion. It's rather more conventional and sentimental that I usually write and, if I'm honest, reads a bit like a verse from a sympathy card, but I'd like to share it anyway.

There is never enough time
For all the things we want to say,
And always people ask,
"Another hour. Another Day."
But when all the days are gone 
We should not live in regret
For those who have departed
Survive within us yet
And the words that went unspoken
Are written in each heart
Where those we loved can see the
For we never are apart.

And those are the last words I intend to commit to this blog regarding my late father except to add that I shall miss arguing with him about everything. It's going to be far too quiet around here from now on but I think it would be better not to spend too much time dwelling on it.

And I intend to return to my  more usual postings very very soon now. As soon as I have something to say.

Friday, 1 October 2010


There haven't been many posts recently and won't be for a while because of a family bereavement.
Sorting out the arrangements is a long and difficult process and is occupying most of my time.
However, just to keep things ticking over a bit, I'd like to mention two items that, though perhaps a touch macabre, raised a smile at a difficult time.

First of all there is the sign outside the doors at the Hospital, in an area where people congregate to smoke.

"Please do not smoke in this area. This is a hospital for treating sick people."

That presumably is as opposed to the other kind of hospital that treats healthy people.

The second was in the brochure at the funeral directors. There are of course many kinds of coffin (or casket as they prefer to call them) including, to my surprise, metal ones. The description of the metal ones included "unsuitable for cremations". No kidding! Apparently, and I know because I asked, there are some customers who don't realise that metal doesn't burn as easily as wood.

A third thing, which I've just thought of, and which would certainly have amused my Dad happened when I was returning from a walk around the street informing some of the neighbours. There are two kids, aged about six, who are always riding their bikes about. One of the rode up to me and very solemnly ask "Is that right, Bob's died?"

Be assured I will be back later.