The Diggers at the Gate

I long ago resigned myself to the loss of view and seclusion.  I have fitted a blind in expectation of the day on which I first see not the setting sun through my office window, but my new neighbour’s bathroom.  I considered myself ready for everything the builders were to bring, but I was not.  I was not ready for the noise of diggers and bulldozers clanging away throughout the daylight hours, digging up soil and stacking it into long, low banks; digging it up again and stacking it into short, tall piles; digging it up once again and stacking it into a thousand giant molehills.  I have no idea why they are doing this, but the resultant dust storm ensures that the garden, for now, is a complete no-go zone.  The last two weeks have been about nothing other than muck and noise and shifting piles of soil presenting me with an ever-changing moonscape each time I open the curtains.

The dust is unbelievable – you will just have to believe me – covering every outdoors shiny surface we have.  Our black glass topped tables are now bright orange, home to a good half inch of prime topsoil.  The view through our garden mirrors is like a sepia photograph of years gone by.  The sun that shines through the windows into the house casts a strange ochre hue into the rooms that makes them somehow darker.  The greenhouse appears to have been at the centre of a volcanic eruption.  I am sure the airlines will have to guide aeroplanes out of our airspace.

And all the time the relentless ‘thrum’ of heavy, yellow machinery doing its almost balletic ‘thing’ just a few feet behind our low garden wall: digging and stacking, redigging and restacking, clanking and grinding and banging and banging and banging, whilst in the sky we have the incessant screech of the gulls (Why, I have no idea.  I don’t think they’re digging fish up out there.) that have replaced the kestrels and the buzzards now that the mice and rats and voles have gone who-knows-where to find somewhere quieter to hang out. (Toad Hall perhaps? – Or probably more likely, the now-redundant outside seat covers in my shed.)

I have no idea how long this will last before the scaffold and the bricks and the men in yellow hats move in.  Presumably some time after the men in suits with clipboards and yellow hats move out, when a new brick wall will begin to climb its way across my horizon, which it will all-too-soon dominate.

And I can’t pretend that I’m not fascinated by it all: watching the buildings slowly encroach from the left, the ground being prepared straight ahead and the lorries growling in from the right.  Watching the green become brown, the brown become stone: little boxes entwined within snaking black rivers of tarmac road; watching the trees and the grass and the hares and the deer and the mice and the rabbits pack their bags and leave for a none-too-distant silent landscape pricked only by the song of a steeply ascending skylark, the shriek of pheasant, the baby cry of a fox, the curse of an errant golfer…

A year or so from now it will all be over and we will soon grow used to looking out onto a brick wall.  We’ve started to wonder what colour it will be.  Will the new people love their garden?  Will they grow honeysuckle up the wall, or will they hang a basketball hoop?  Will we talk over the garden fence?  Will they ask us round to a welcome party in their garden?  Will we learn that all they want is a little taste of what we have had for over four decades?  Of course we will.

Those on the growing fringe of the oil-on-water spread of development will briefly have country views.  Their successors will have nets to stop the golf balls and (according to the plans) shimmering blue, reed-lined pools to control the flooding.  The golf club will have a massively increased clientele, as will the doctor’s, the school and the shop – when all this has finished, the village will have trebled in size – and the runoff rainwater from the acres of new concrete will go… somewhere where it is nobody’s responsibility, and somewhere, presumably, where it will meet the new school, the new health centre and the new shops which appear to have quietly disappeared from the plans.  It’s hard to believe that we could move from the edge of a village to the centre of a town without even the need for a removals van.  Never mind, we have a shiny new road which will ‘facilitate further growth’ apparently and the man from the council tells us that the massive development here will mean that other villages escape almost unscathed.  They’ll get our mice and rats and voles, our foxes and our birdsong, and maybe it serves them right…

The photo at the top of this page is the view I have had from my office window for over forty years.  The photo at the bottom is the view I have today.  Can you spot the difference?

Uneasy Sits the Passenger

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I am a very occasional taxi user.  The taxi journeys that I do take are largely limited to holiday transfers when my usual reserve has been left at home, and drunken solo journeys home when all constraint has been buried under a polystyrene tray filled with chips and gravy.  If I go anywhere beyond walking distance I will generally drive myself or be chauffeured by my wife.  We take ill-tempered turns at being teetotal for the evening.  There is no rancour between us on the silent, sighing journey home, just a latent brooding antipathy that lingers deep into the following day.

Unfamiliarity, though, always leads to uncertainty and, in this particular instance, a sea of taxi dilemmas.  From the start I am havering.  If I am en-taxi with my wife, I join her in the back of the cab, but if I am alone is it good form to join the driver in the front, or is it taboo?  I do not know.  I know that when you are alone in a taxi conversation must be made with the driver, and hollering over their shoulder is not always easy.  Realising that he/she is replying whilst staring fixedly into the rear-view mirror is a little discomforting.  And anyway, what should I say?  How do I stop myself from asking, ‘So, what time did you start?’  ‘Are you working all night?’  ‘What time do you finish?’  If I am drunk I struggle to sound sober, if I am sober I struggle to sound coherent.  I would like to have something that resembles, at least, an adult conversation with the person beside me; to not be the person that asks neither about health, family or enjoyment, but questions only the length of a working day.  ‘So, what did you do before you started driving taxis for a living?’ is usually what finds its way out of my gibbering mouth.  ‘What’s your favourite car?’  ‘Would you sooner be a polar bear or a penguin?’

I once travelled home from a boozy meal with two friends, both of whom left the taxi before me.  I was the most sober of the three of us – possibly of the four of us – and was in the front seat alongside what I quickly realised was a very odd lady driver indeed.  She patted my leg.  ‘I know a quick way to your village,’ she said making a sound, I swear, like someone drinking Chianti and eating fava beans.  ‘I know these country roads like the back of my hand.’   I noticed she was wearing gloves.  ‘I know all the shortcuts, I found them on a Top Secret Ministry of Defence map,’ she continued before speeding into what turned out to be the not-very-long drive to somebody’s front door.  ‘Ah,’ she said ‘I think this must be new.’  She reversed unsteadily, and I jumped out to help nurse her back onto the road.  It transpired that her maps were, in fact, a 1930’s pencil sketch of the nearby airfield made by her grandfather who ‘laid the runway’ and besides, she didn’t normally work in the evening, because her night vision was not what it used to be.  She generally stayed in town these days.  ‘It’s lighter.  Normally I just go from pub to pub.’  I guided her to my home, best I could, getting us onto lit main roads at the earliest possible opportunity.  When we arrived outside my house, she thanked me and I gave her the fare plus a tip, although I couldn’t help but think that she should have been tipping me.  I couldn’t help worrying whether she would find her own way back to town.  Perhaps I should have gone with her…

And the tip.  I always tip a taxi driver – even though it sometimes seems embarrassing to do so – but my daughters never do, arguing that nobody ever tips them for doing their jobs.  ‘Keep the change’ is such an easy option, but sometimes the change is just too much and you have to wait for the driver to carry out the over-elaborate hunt for seven pounds in five pence coins, before you can count fifty pence back into the still open palm whilst he/she sighs cheese and onion crisps into your face.

It is never until you get to your front door that you realise that your keys are in your coat pocket on the back seat of the cab along with your phone, the photograph of the driver’s ID and the name of the company you have used, and you wish that you’d come home two hours earlier whilst your wife was still awake enough to drive you, knowing that you would have no worries at all about whether you should speak to the driver or not.

Almost certainly not.

First Drafts

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N.B. I wrote this and then couldn’t work out quite where to fit it in, until it occured to me that as this is an exceptional week I could post it today and it wouldn’t have to fit in at all. So here it is…

My own first drafts are often clumsy and confused, and nothing like the finely-honed and incisive fare that is eventually laid before you dear reader.  (Ah yes, antiphrasis is not dead.)  First sentences of first drafts are often nothing more than the manifestation of a pen trying to work out where to go and, more often than not, bear no resemblance whatsoever to what results from and evolves over them.  Is it just me, or is it a stage that all great authors (Still not dead!), must work through?  I took a delve into some working drafts of great opening sentences and this is what I found:

“…It was pissing down and the clock in the Town Hall was buggered again. Winston Smith, his chin tucked down into his new hessian shirt, slipped quickly through the controlled access doors of Loveme Avenue flats as, unaware of his presence, the delivery man came out, but not quick enough to prevent the mechanised lever movement from snipping off the brim of his hat.
The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats, but mostly of his coat. Well, not his really if I’m honest, it was much too big for him as he’d borrowed it from his Big Brother [I wonder what I should call him? I can’t just keep calling him Big Brother, that would be mad.] who was twice his size and actually didn’t mind the cats sleeping on it because they kept the rats off. He hated the rats…”
George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty Four.

“…Call me Derek [Kevin?  Maybe something slightly more biblical.  Simon maybe.]  Some years ago – [Never mind how long precisely, it doesn’t matter until I’ve got some kind of idea where I’m going with this] – having little or no money in my purse and nothing much to interest me on shore [Irony: whatever it is, it must be preferable to tar up the crack of his arse and semi-digested weevils baked into his hard tack] I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world [Is ‘see the sea’ too nursery rhyme?  I think I’d like to be allegorical – although I’d better look it up first.  What should I call the whale?  A blubbery white thing.  Donald?]…”
Herman Melville – Moby Dick

“It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.  Of course, it did mean that Montag would almost certainly lose his job at the bakery but, hey ho, enjoy it while you can, he thought.  The worse that could happen is that the Fire Brigade would come along and put the fire out…”
Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times [depending on your viewpoint I suppose], it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness [although sometimes it is difficult to tell them apart, particularly when they both work for the council], it was the epoch of belief [Do I mean epoch?] it was the epoch of incredulity [Check the thesaurus.  Is there another word for epoch that isn’t age?  Incredulity?  What’s wrong with disbelief?], it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness [should I just say ‘Autumn’?], it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us [like a cheap Chinese buffet], we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way [except for those on the number 13 bus who were going via the shopping centre… Perhaps I should stop writing after I get back from the pub.  I have no idea of where I’m going with this.  Can I base a whole novel on antithesis?  I wonder what I did with that plot about the orphan…]”
Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities

“Here is Edward Bear, coming down the stairs now, bump, bump, bump on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. ‘Pick me up you little moron,’ he murmured under his breath. ‘Is there any wonder I am a bear of little brain. Look behind you, it’s scattered all over the shagpile. Most of my intellect winds up in the Hoover. Firm, my head used to be, firm, but now it’s got less stuffing than a British Rail Christmas sandwich. My stitching is less reliable than a politician in a crowded corridor…”
A. A. Milne – Winnie the Pooh

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun… [I’m not sure about this.  Is it all just a little bit glib for a GCSE astronomy text book?]”
Douglas Adams – The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Oh I do like to be Beside the Seaside (or Fractured Thoughts from a Holiday Beach)

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I have to own up here, I love the beach: I love looking at it, I love walking on it, I love finding unexpected treasures and shiny things on it, but I hate laying on it.  I hate sand sticking to my skin, I hate sand between my toes, I hate it in my sandwiches and I hate it in my shorts.  In fact, now I come to think about it, I love the beach, but I hate the sand.

What a day on the beach does allow me is the unfettered opportunity (thank you mirrored sunglasses) to people watch, and what the people being watched on the beach seem to lose is all inhibition: if they’re going to row, they do so at the top of their voices; if they’re OCD about sand on the towel, they will spend hours sweeping and wafting, never sitting, never laying, constantly ‘tutting’ at whoever walks by; if the first splash of briny against the nethers is unduly cold, they will let the whole world know. 

Women of all ages, shapes and sizes look great on the beach.  Men look fat, burned and confused: wondering how long they have to sit before they can reasonably wander off to the bar; wondering how long they have to keep playing with this stupid biff-bat before they can sit down again; wondering how long they’ve got in the sun before they look like a flame-grilled Manitou.  Scattered along the water’s edge there is always an uneven line of Speedo’d men adopting the pose never seen in any other circumstance: ankle-deep in salt water, legs astride, hands on hips, they stare vacantly out to sea wondering how much further they would have to go out before they could decently have a wee?

Children – surely the only valid reason for spending an entire day on the beach – are being yelled at, cajoled and bribed with ice creams that will be 90% sand before the second lick.  Put a child on the beach and they will head towards the sea.  Put an adult on the beach and their whole life becomes dedicated to preventing the little buggers from drowning themselves, and quietening them when they threaten a screaming fit having been prevented from doing so.  Mothers wearing ill-considered bikinis chasing children are faced with the single dilemma: catch the child or constrain the breast?

On the whole, swimming costumes are made in two varieties: those designed to accentuate and those designed to conceal.  It is the accentuators that are least adapted to the female form and the most likely to put you off your lunchtime hotdog when worn by men.  The concealers are loose and voluminous, giving the beach the appearance of being a sea of animated tents, all attempting (there is nothing on this earth – including sunburn – as uncomfortable as sand in the sun cream) to stop themselves from cooking.

The beach is also always full of couples who, although undoubtedly together, are not yet fully comfortable in one another’s company and for whom the intimacy of having their back creamed by their partner is simply a step too far.  They are easily spotted: they have either a red back or a dislocated shoulder.  They never turn their back to the sun.  The beach is a canvas of bronzed fronts and skinned-fish backs.

Those who do not want to be here – surprisingly small in number – become increasingly apparent as the day grinds on.  They sit whilst everybody else lays, they wear T-shirts and shorts and refuse to eat sun-warmed sand-infused cheese and pickle baguettes, they decline the bottled water on the grounds of it being tepid and full of bread after the children got there first.  They write whilst everybody else reads.

All in all, I have to admit that the beach would probably be a better place without me…

8 Miles High* (or Fractured Thoughts from an Aircraft Seat)

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Just how difficult is it when the check-in person asks ‘Did you pack the suitcase yourself?’ not to answer ‘No, actually I got the butler to do it.’?

Why are the first passengers onboard always blithely unaware that there is a planeload of others behind them waiting to board?  Why can they never find their seats?  Why can they never open the overhead locker?  Why can they never lift their bags into the overhead locker?  Why can they never close the overhead locker?  Why do they have to stand in the aisle and chat about the fact that they can never do any of the above while the rest of us queue in the rain outside?  (N.B. the opened overhead locker is not overhead.  If you don’t believe me, try walking under one.)

I understand that not a single life has ever been saved by the under seat lifebelt following a ‘forced landing’ at sea.  They are officially there for the passenger’s peace of mind.  Peace of mind?  Really?  All they do to my mind is to make it even more aware that no life has ever been saved by the lifebelt following a forced landing at sea.  (N.B. Forced landing at sea = crash.)

If an oxygen mask falls from the panel above my head the stewards can relax: there is no way I’m helping anybody else get theirs on before I have put on my own.

Why is the eight-year old with Tourette’s always seated directly behind me and who the hell has painted a target for him/her on the back of my seat?

If policeman are getting younger, how come flight attendants are getting older?

Why is my Kindle still on Flight Mode from my last holiday?

Remember, every word read on a flight is forgotten on landing.

Why do I have the passionate need to have aeronautics explained to me as soon as the plane begins to lumber its way to take-off? 

Can we actually trust the same people whose rules insist that a bumble bee cannot fly to design a functional aircraft? 

Why is it impossible to convince myself that the whole thing is not just one big joke – because nothing of this size could possibly get off the ground – and I am the only one not in on it? 

Why does the back not hit the floor when the front lifts off?

Why does every flight contain a single individual who thinks that everybody else on the plane needs to hear his Sonic the Hedgehog progress?

Why is the person I have just spent two weeks trying to avoid always allocated the seat beside me?

Why does the drinks trolley always reach me last?

Why have they always sold out of Jack Daniels?

Why do all on-board Pringles taste of cheese & onion?

What the hell is that noise?

Exactly who is responsible for that smell?

A typical in-flight meal provides approximately 10% of the nutritional requirements of the average gnat.

Why does the person on the seat between me and the aisle never need the toilet?

The Earth is our friend until we are above it, then it is definitely the enemy.

A mosquito on a plane is worth 10,000 in the bush (and, let’s face it, nobody wants a mozzie in the bush).

However many people are on a flight as it comes into land, not a single one of them actually believes that a plane can fly quite that slowly.

Why do I always believe that I just might possibly be an international terrorist as soon as the passport official looks at me?

Why do I never recognise a single person from my flight at the baggage carousel?

Why is the belt on my suitcase never the colour I remember?

Why does the wheel always start to squeak as I pass through ‘Nothing to Declare’?

*Actually, commercial airplanes generally fly at somewhere between 5.9 and 7.2 miles high.  What were the Byrds thinking about?

Frankie & Benny #4 – The Birthday

“It’s your birthday Frankie my friend, so you choose.  What should we do today?”
“Well now Benjamin, that’s a tricky one.  I mean the world is so full of opportunities, isn’t it?  We could take a cruise on our private yacht.  We could have lunch in our favourite restaurant in Paris, dip our toes in the water at St Tropez, perhaps fine wines and an evening with Barry Manilow in Las Vegas…   or we could perhaps walk a slow circuit of the park…”
“…Like we always do…”
“…drop in at the pub for a pie and a pint…
“…as ever…”
“…home for an afternoon snooze…”
“…the same as always…”
“…and then a film on the TV at yours or mine with a couple of cans of beer and a microwave chicken curry…”
“…just the same as every Saturday.”
“ Ay… we like it though, don’t we.”
“We do, but don’t you think that we should do something just a little bit different as it’s your birthday?
“Like what?”
“I don’t know, it’s your birthday, you choose.”
“Well ok.  We could… I can’t think of anything.”
“Oh come on.  Use your imagination.  We could go to the pictures.”
“The pictures, yes, that’s a grand idea.  The pictures.  We haven’t been to the pictures in years.  What’s on?”
“Erm, let’s see.  There’s ‘Nope’.”
“Nope?”
“Yes.”
“Is that the name of it?  Of the film?  What’s it about?”
“UFO’s I think.”
“Oh no.  I can’t be doing with all that pie-in-the-sky mularkey.  There are quite enough little green men in the pub of a Saturday night.  Isn’t there a Western on or something?”
“There’s ‘Where the Crawdads Sing.’”
“What’s a crawdad?”
“No idea?”
“Oh.  Well, who’s in it?”
“Erm, let me see here.  It says Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson and Garret Dillahunt…”
“How many people is that?”
“No idea.”
“Have you heard of any of them?”
“No.”
“There must be something else.”
“Well, there’s the new Top Gun.”
“Ah, I saw the first one of those.”
“And did you like it?”
“No.”
“Oh, we used to love the cinema though, didn’t we?  Back in the day.  You and me, two young ladies, a tanner each in the back row, a newsreel, a cartoon, a ‘B’ film and a main feature – a proper cowboy or cops and robbers…”
“A choc-ice at half time and ten minutes necking if you were lucky before the usherette turned her torch on you.”
“Necking?”
“Ay, canoodling, you know.”
“I remember the choc ices.  The chocolate always fell off in the dark.  You always came out of the pictures looking like you’d shit yourself.”
“I never could be trusted with chocolate, Benny.  I think that’s why they invented the Milky Bar, so it didn’t show up so much on my beige loons.”
“Oh, you loved those loons.”
“And my brown suede Hush Puppy boots.”
“It used to be great, didn’t it, to get dressed up for a night out I mean?”
“Part of the fun, my friend: the matching shirt and tie, the drape coat…”
“…the tank tops and the cork-heeled shoes.”
“Perhaps that’s what we could do today, for my birthday: we could get dressed up, hit the town.  Maybe we could have a more sophisticated lunch…”
“A ploughman’s, perhaps.”
“King prawns in our curry and perhaps hire a DVD instead of watching whatever old tosh is on the telly.”
“Do you have anything to play a DVD on?”
“No.”
“No, me neither.  It’s all Netflix isn’t it now.”
“Have you got that?”
“No.  I’ve got channel 4.”
“OK.  That’ll do.  We’ll watch ‘Bake Off’.”
“No, come on, let’s do it.  Let’s get dressed up and head out for town.  We might meet some ladies.”
“Oh, I’m not sure about that Benny.  I’m out of practice at all that.  I wouldn’t know what to say.”
“Let’s not worry about that for now.  Let’s just get our glad rags on and promenade.”
“Glad rags?”
“Sunday togs.  Let’s do it.”
“I’m not sure.  I think my best cardigan might be in the wash.”
“Come on, let’s just make the effort.  Trousers without an elasticated waist, shoes without a tartan Velcro strap, you could take your vest off for a start.”
“I always wear a vest.”
“Over your shirt?”
“Oh, I must have got a little out of synch this morning.  I woke up needing to… you know.  I had to rush into my clothes.  It’s freezing in that bathroom.  I’ll move my vest under my shirt, change my trousers, put some shoes on, will that suit you?”
“Maybe gel your hair a little bit.  So you don’t look quite so much like you’ve just got out of bed.”
“Gel?  I don’t think I’ve got any gel.  I’ve got some Vaseline from when I had that rash.”
“That’ll do.  Instead of walking round the park and back to the pub, we’ll go straight through, maybe to that wine bar on the other side, and we can feed the ducks on the way.”
“Do they do pies?”
“The ducks?”
“The wine bar.  Do they do pies?”
“Oh no.  Sophisticated dining there, Francis my friend, couscous I shouldn’t wonder.”
“Couscous?  What the hell is couscous?”
“No idea, but I’m sure they’ll do it with chips.”
“And beer?”
“Lager.  Fancy lager.  In bottles…”
“Ah what the hell.  It’s my birthday.  Let’s give it a go.  I’ll go and get ready.”
“You’ll need a coat, mind.”
“Really?”
“It bucketing it down.”
“Oh, I’m not sure about my best shoes in that park when it’s raining: it’s a quagmire at the best of times.  Full of dog shit as well if you’ve not got your wits about you.”
“Yes, you’re right.  Maybe not your best shoes.”
“And trousers?”
“Elasticated ankles might be wise.”
“Perhaps we could just go straight to the pub.”
“It’s much nearer.”
“I’m not really over keen on ducks, truth be told.”
“No.  Quacking little bastards.”
“Our age, it’s much more sensible to get out of the rain as quick as we can.  We could catch our deaths.”
“We’ll do that then, and after that we’ll come back here for a cup of tea – I’ve got a pack of those Breakaway biscuits…”
“…and maybe a bit of a nap by the fire…”
“…chicken curry for tea and a couple of cans with the film on the telly.”
“Sounds great… I can’t think of a better way to spend my birthday, old friend.”
“It’s always good to ring the changes.  Cup of tea and a Kit-Kat before we go?”
“Great.  Put the kettle on, I’ll go and change my vest and find a clean cardigan…”

These are my two favourite recurring characters, and a joy to write.  If you want to find more of them, you can catch them here: A Little Fiction – Frankie & Benny; A Little Fiction – Goodbyes – Frankie & Benny #2; A Little Fiction – The Night Before – Frankie & Benny #3





A Dog by Any Other Name

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Back in what we must now call ‘my day’ (and was, until quite recently called ‘my father’s day’), whenever your thoroughbred bitch found its way through the wire netting that surrounded the back garden and managed to fashion a tryst with a similarly footloose and collar-free dog, the resulting offspring were known as ‘Mongrels.  Free to good home.  Will be drowned if not taken’ and held in such disdain that the canine parents stood every chance of having their Kennel Club registrations summarily revoked and, as far as the male was concerned, being parted from all that he held most dear – not to mention licked most often – by the vet.  Mixed parentage was something that was definitely not encouraged by the guardians of the cropped tail, the snub nose and the viciously highly strung.  A certificate most certainly would not be granted to anything with a name home to anything less than four hyphens and a pedigree that could be traced back to one of the hounds that lay at King Arthur’s feet under the round table, waiting for cast offs of venison, grouse and wild boar; that had rooted for fleas at the side of Lancelot and attempted to mate with Merlin’s leg every time he settled down on the couch.  These days, if you take a £100 poodle and send it off on a ‘we’re all adults here’ singles weekend with a £150 Labrador, what you end up with is a litter of £2000 Labradoodles, three million ‘Likes’ on Facebook and a pied-à-terre in Tuscany.  How canine times have changed.

And I realise that there must be some sort of official formula erm… formulated for deciding the names of these Nouveau Hybrids (I’m pretty sure that the male comes before the female – oh come on, don’t make your own jokes up please – and I can’t apologise for it, because it is not my fault!) but, come on, somebody’s having fun aren’t they?  Why is a Cockerpoo never a Spandle?  Surely there are breeders all over the world racing towards the kind of breeds that the more laconic of dog owners would simply die for: a Jack Russell and a Shih Tzu – a Jack Shit; a Jack Russell and a Labrador – a Jackdor; a Great Dane and a Cocker Spaniel – a Greatcock; a Shih Tzu and a Pit Bull – a Shit Pit…

It would seem that whilst humans are deeply (and rightly) opposed to eugenics, we are very happy to tinker about in the gene pool of all other creatures.  I remember as a child reading about a Tigon (a tiger/lion cross – as opposed to a lion/tiger cross which is, apparently a Liger) being born at a zoo somewhere at much the same time as a Zedonk (zebra/donkey – as opposed, I assume to a Donbra) providing, presumably, something for the Tigon to chew on.  These sort of hybrids seldom appear in the natural world (I’ve a feeling – although I’m not to be trusted on such things – that tigers and lions actually exist on different continents, making the possibility of natural hybridization of this type somewhat remote without one of them being very lost indeed).  It is the nature of humankind (and let’s face it, whether you subscribe to the views of the scientists, in which scenario serious pre-history crossbreeding took place with Neanderthals, Denisovians and at least one other yet to be identified hominid species, or you subscribe to the view of Theologians, in which case, seeing as we are all descended from Adam and Eve, some serious inter-familial hanky panky must have occurred) to interfere with things that really ought not to be interfered with, simply because we can, and because we love making up new names for new things.

I am most definitely not against this sort of thing occurring – I’m sure that in almost all cases it is desirable, if not actually essential to evolution – I just feel as though it ought to happen naturally.  If your Chihuahua wants to cosy up to a Bull Mastiff (providing all proper consent protocols are observed) just let them get on with it.  Love will find a way and, let’s face it, the world has to be a better place for having Bullhuahuas in it.

Holiday Posts

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At some point in the recent past, present or near future, I am (have or will be) on holiday for two weeks with the certain conviction that I will not be following my usual writing routine whilst I am away.  Consequently, I have to approach (or have already done so) the two week gap with six posts up my sleeve which I can schedule to entertain you in my absence.  Some of you, I’m sure, will spot them (or you may already have done so) generally, I would guess, because of what they don’t say, what they don’t address, and although I will try (or possibly have already done so) through my lack of response to comments.  For that, I apologise in advance (or possibly retrospect).  OK, enough of this tense hopping nonsense.  Whenever I am writing this, it is ‘now’ to me.  Before, after or during, the more perceptive amongst you will probably have worked it out long ago anyway.

When I have the time and my mind is in the right place – e.g. not turning itself inside out over things upon which it can have absolutely no influence (everything) – I can write copious amounts.  It doesn’t make it good – for me passable is always a triumph – and editing out the bad bits and tarting-up the decent takes much longer.  Pieces that I like might hit the blog on the day of writing whilst more troublesome pieces can take many days and much ink before they pass muster (e.g. I’ve got nothing better).  Consequently, the pieces I have left to post whilst I am away are generally those that I have been fussing over for weeks: adding jokes, removing jokes, cutting, pasting, deleting, retrieving, unknotting Gordian Knots of syntax, trying again until I lose all sight of whether they have anything to offer or not.  Because I have rewritten the gags a thousand times, I see them coming (which is just as well as most people don’t see them even after they have long gone) and the whole thing becomes polished, but lifeless (like Donald Trump’s head).  You understand what you are looking for now?  Good luck with that.

The strange thing (for me at least) is in realising how different my tastes are to your own, because very often these holiday pieces are received very well, getting more likes and comments than the pieces that, in my excitement, I can’t wait to get out there.  I have tried sitting on everything whilst I work on it, but that generally means that by the time I post it in all its polished glory, time has completely passed it by.  I am seldom topical, never on-point and there would be no point in publishing a tract about, for instance, the insanity of a country having a complete buffoon for a leader, when the two biggest have already gone.  (You work it out.)   Topical gags, like a summer oyster, have a very short shelf life and can, in retrospect, have similarly distressing after-effects.  Things that are funny now, should remain funny for all time and that can be accomplished by avoiding topical gags, demeaning language and satire.  (Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Father Ted, Fawlty Towers and Dinnerladies*)  Sexism and racism are never going to win you friends (except, of course, the kind that nobody wants).  I try very hard to avoid satire as it has a troubling tendency to appear spiteful in print (and I’m not bright enough to fully understand the difference between satire and sarcasm anyway) and I am not: I am chilled, relaxed, laid back, happy and on holiday (or was, or will be…)  You decide.

*The Office, Dad’s Army, Extras, The Royle Family, Blackadder, One Foot in the Grave, the oft forgotten Rev and the truly wonderful Mum

Paper Tiger Burning Bright

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So, contrary to my normal routine and against what we must, for now, call ‘my better judgement’ I have just read through Wednesday’s itinerant whinge and I feel it incumbent upon me to publish this short clarification: I am not a climate change denier.  I totally accept that it is happening and that my generation is in no small part responsible for it – I was raised on tropical hardwoods and disposable plastic.  These days I compost, recycle, buy loose, check air-miles, grow my own veg and don’t eat anything with a face on (unless you count that very odd looking potato that I had last week) but I am no paragon: I eat cheese, I eat milk, I eat honey and, from time to time, I do emit a fair amount of methane.  And I use paper to write on.  I don’t think that makes me a bad person: maybe not ideal, but surely not bad.

I use both sides of my paper – don’t be silly now: I mean to write on – and it goes in the recycle bin when it is done, but I do know that recycling paper (like the bottles I insist on buying my beer in) uses a lot of energy – although not, I hope, as much as starting afresh.  I really want to do my bit, although I don’t expect to be carbon neutral until some time after the crematorium’s incinerator has done with me.

I am a man of my age: I grew up reading Fahrenheit 451 and I understood that book burnings were a regular feature in the history of authoritarianism: the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the French, the English, the Germans, the Chinese, the French (again), the English (again), the Germans (again), the Chinese (again), the Russians (who arrived late to the game but, never-the-less made a fair old fist of it), the Germans (who appear to have developed quite a taste for it), the Americans, the Christians, the Jews and the Muslims have all had a go at it and I think that, all in all, it is seldom seen as a good thing.  Books are burned to stop people learning, to stop people understanding, to diminish opportunities and impoverish the mind.  It is an act of mass, symbolic vandalism that cannot be matched by a government sponsored Kindle hack.

Even today there are societies where the inflow of information via the internet is so tightly controlled that dissenting voices are never heard, that those in whose name atrocities are almost daily committed, never know of them, but books, simple ink on paper, still find their way into lives and into minds and those whose minds they enter are forever changed, forever enriched.  (I’m presupposing here that it is a truth universally acknowledged that nobody objects to the mass torching of Jeffrey Archer tomes.)  As Montag learned in Bradbury’s dystopian masterpiece, the printed word holds a truth and a power that nothing else can replicate.  Books are too important to be reduced to a stream of ones and zeroes.  Read books, treasure books and when you’ve done it, swap them for other books, because if we all turn away from the printed word they won’t have to burn it to stop us reading, they will just have to turn them off, one by one, a click at a time…

…If I’m honest, I’m not quite sure of where that came from, it is not what I intended today, but it is what I scribbled onto my little pad of once-used paper scraps and something you can only read via the magic of the internet, so if it saves you lighting matches, then at least I feel as though I’ve done my bit…

Paper Tiger

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It has been quite a while since I have had to whine about my inability to identify anything suitable to whine about.  It takes me right back to the dark days of Lockdown, and my fixation with pens, CD’s, very old sit-coms, and ice cubes.  The certainty then, that except for the workers of Downing Street, nothing was happening for everyone, at least provided a starting point: there was no experience to write about except for the lack of it and that was universal.  I spent so long gazing at my own navel that I now have a stoop.  It was not even possible to watch the world passing by outside the windows as the world was banned from doing so.  We took our thirty minutes daily exercise on a circuit that began and ended at home and involved crossing the road every time we encountered anybody else doing the same thing, we banged our pans with everybody else as we enjoyed the two minutes of weekly ‘community’, applauding the NHS on our own doorsteps, and it was there to write about and everybody understood it.  My gift for the inconsequential was suddenly useful because the inconsequential was the only escape we had from the very consequential and, for once, we all needed it.

Tonight I have nothing and I am struggling to find a way in which to write about it.  Having spent the last few hours staring through the window at the slowly encroaching landscape of new-build where, for forty years, I have looked out onto fields and trees has taken my mind away from everything.  NIMBY it might be, but I cannot help but grieve over the loss of something which I have held dear for two-thirds of a lifetime.  I will get used to it, much like I get used to my inability to smile without revealing un-bridgeable gaps; to spend a day with the grandkids without needing gin; to read the dire warnings on my medication without needing a strong magnifying lens, a bright light and even more gin.  It is often easier to embrace change than to welcome it.  I don’t want to be old, but I do want to get old.

I have tried, for a bit of a change, to put my pen to one side, to stare at a blank laptop screen, hands poised above the keyboard like arthritic spiders, waiting to pounce upon any notion that might pass their way, but it doesn’t work for me.  I crave paper.  I can’t doodle on the laptop.  Deleting is nothing like as cathartic as ripping it up and starting again – although it is more sustainable.  Everybody, from the bank to the window cleaner tells me that I should go paperless, but I’m not quite fully on-board with the logic yet.  You see, I remember from my youth when huge forests of coniferous trees were planted to provide us with paper, and I am aware that scientists now believe that these are detrimental in our fight against climate change.  In short, they need to chop them down and replace them with broad-leafed trees.  Having chopped them down, I’m sure they can’t just leave them lying there can they, so they might as well make paper out of them.  At my best estimate, I don’t suppose I’ve got much more than a couple of trees left in me now and my oak planting record is a good one, so I’ll keep on jotting my whines to paper (as soon as I can find something to whine about) – even if it does mean that, for now, the world is just that little bit more full of hot air than it used to be…