Photo by Max Andrey on

When you’re growing up and you’re small and you’re ginger, then you try to cope by being funny and you can always gauge the moment when you actually succeed for some, because someone else – normally much bigger than yourself – will be screaming in your face, tight and red and angry, “Yeh, you think you’re so fucking funny, don’t you?” and you have to try really hard to stop yourself from saying, “Well, now you come to mention it…” and that’s when you begin to associate laughter with pain.  As you get older, it stops to be such a problem: you stop trying so hard because nobody ever finds you even remotely funny anyway – at least not fully clothed – and all in all, you are slightly less likely to find yourself grappling around in the mud with somebody twice your size whilst a crowd has gathered around you chanting’ “Scrap, scrap, scrap…” hoping to see blood, hoping to see snot and tears, hoping not to get collared by the dinnerlady.  You may still, occasionally, seek to deliberately amuse, but mostly you just trip over your own feet…

Now, I thought about this whilst I was having a shower and I was adopting the pose that we must all assume, regardless of gender, while rinsing the soap from the undercarriage.  In the shower, there is no other way of achieving this short of standing on your head, and as there is no worse feeling than that of soap lingering around the nethers as the day drags on, it has to be properly rinsed away in the morning.  So, it occurred to me that we must all present this same twisted aspect to the falling water – the intended target being pretty well shaded from downward droplets by head, shoulder, belly and, for some (amongst whom I fear I must now include myself – muscled flesh having long-since morphed into pendulous manboob) – fleshy chest adornments.  It’s a ridiculous, hip thrusty kind of stance, that ensures the descending rivulets have an appropriate route that allows them to wash over the necessary areas, whilst you endeavour not to put your back out and – should you have an un-steamed-up mirror within view – not find yourself laughing at your own reflection.  It is an absurd stance in which, I envisage, we all find ourselves from time to time.  A truly egalitarian posture.  All life should be like it.

I don’t know what it is about a few minutes under the warming spray that brings this habit of maudlin reflection upon me: it’s like feeling sorry for myself, except that, of course, is something that only other people do.  Today I have been reading the latest bestseller by A. Veryfamousperson, thinking to myself “I could write that” and in that moment of indignation I believed that I really could, failing to realise that even if I did, it would make not the slightest difference because, frankly, I am not A. Veryfamousperson and nobody gives a twopenny fig what I have to say.  I could write the Bible and still not find a publisher… 

So, this is the point – wherever I find myself in the day’s downward arc – whether still striking the pose in the shower, sitting on the loo, or attempting to explain to a 6-year old why a laptop keyboard and honey are not compatible, when I realise that it is probably time for me to get a grip and review the current situation:

  • What’s so wrong with a sticky keyboard?  (Well, if you reaaaaaaaaaaally waaaaaaaaaaant to know, eaaaaaaaaaach time you press the letter AAAAAAAAAAA it just keeps on going on aaaaaaaaaaaaand the only thing you caaaaaaaaaaan do is to go through aaaaaaaaaaaaall you haaaaaaaaaave written aaaaaaaaaaaaat aaaaaaaaaaaa laaaaaaaaaaaater time aaaaaaaaaaaaaand baaaaaaaaackspaaaaaaaaaaaace it aaaaaaaaaaaall out.  Aaaaaaaaaaaaargh!)
  • I am alive and, to all intents and purposes, fit and well.
  • I actually quite like playing the clown.
  • Fame and money would only spoil me.
  • I have grown up relatively well-adjusted.  I am blessed with a loving family and far more friends than I actually deserve.

Too many of my best friends have died over the years.  I have lots now, but if I’m honest, few of my own age.  I’m a little scared of making new ones in case I kill them, but I know that I should make the effort.  The problem is, how?  I don’t do many of the things that people of my age are apt to do: I rarely catch the bus; I don’t have an ancient terrier to walk around the block and I don’t even own a cap.  I thought of taking up bowls, but I’m not to be trusted in white clothing.  The problem with almost all suitable hobbies is that they are so much more age appropriate than I am.  I would like to take up fishing, I think.  I would like every single thing about it, except for the catching of fish.  I would be perfectly happy sitting on a riverbank watching the world flow by: the birds, the bees, the fishermen – I often walk along the river banks and despite encountering fishermen all the time, I am not certain that I have ever seen a fisherwoman¹ – the bird-sized dragonflies, the occasional wary rodent, the ducks and the swans.  I would be quite happy eating foil-wrapped sandwiches and drinking over-stewed tea from a flask.  I can talk about the weather with the best of ‘em.  I have a cloth bush-hat that makes me look like one of the Flowerpot Men (I have no idea which one.  There is a link here – you must judge for yourselves).  I am fully qualified in all respects except that of owning a fishing rod: except that of wanting to haul a hapless Piscean from its natural habitat on the end of a nylon line and metal hook… 

I did go fishing quite a bit when I was small, but I never really took to it.  I got bored too easily back then: partly by the inordinate amount of time I had to spend doing so little and partly by having to go home so often to tell my mum that I had fallen in the river again so that she never knew that I had been thrown in by somebody much bigger than me, who clearly didn’t think that I was at all funny.  Fishing trips then, even those in which I managed to remain terrestrial, always seemed to end when the cold had seeped into my bones, and I went home to thaw myself in the few inches of lukewarm water I was allowed.  No showers back then – I don’t ever remember going anywhere with a shower.  Even the kind of hotels we visited on high days and holidays had only a single bath on each landing – so no fear of dislocating a hip whilst rinsing the soap off.  Mind you, being a boy of that age, I didn’t have a particularly close relationship with the soap bar, truth be told.  Infact, the more I think about it, the more I think that might be the real reason that people kept chucking me in the river…

I have developed a stupid habit of leaving things half finished and open on the laptop so that I can return to them when the mood takes me, and thus I have now managed to write and delete today’s post a total of three times.  I have absolutely no idea how this current incarnation compares with its mistakenly expunged counterparts: I remember the first couple of sentences, but I have absolutely no recollection whatsoever of what I found to prattle on about thereafter.  It was kind of the idea if I’m honest, but I could certainly have done without the repeats.  If you feel unfulfilled by what you have read above, then I can only seek to assure you that my first three attempts were almost certainly much, much better…

¹I have absolutely no idea why that might be.

100% Natural

Photo by Engin Akyurt on

It came along with Personal Trainers.  It came along with annual health checks, D.R.E and sending poo samples to government laboratories every other year.  It came along with nutritional traffic light labelling and a diet filled with fear: the fear of fat, the fear of sugar, the fear of salt, the fear of caffeine, the fear of not eating and drinking all the right things, the fear of eating and drinking all the wrong ones.  We must have all Natural Ingredients, like lard, like lead, like dog shit…  E-coli could not be more natural if it tried.  Let’s bring back the natural joy of a tapeworm.  What could be more natural than never washing your hands?  Where did this notion even come from: natural is per se good?  A huge, barely cooked slab of dead cow might be completely natural, but probably not entirely welcomed in a vegan household.  Try pork scratchings at a Bar Mitzvah, or cockles at Eid-al-Fitr…

I love to cook – and in that way I do at least monitor what goes into my food, but I find it increasingly difficult to follow recipes.  All that ‘weighing and measuring’ nonsense; all those ‘healthier alternative’ options…  I am what I believe is called an instinctive cook – which means that although I really cannot cook, I firmly believe that I can.  My cooking ‘journey’ invariably follows the same path and always takes place whilst my wife is out of the house, because I have been married for a very long time and I have learned that it is always best to avoid confrontation whenever I can:

  1. Rifle through the fridge and extricate anything that is wilting, but not yet dead.  Anything that does not actually smell offensive.  Anything that does not ooze when I pick it up.
  2. Lay it on the kitchen table.
  3. Chop it all up and throw it in a saucepan with a tin of tomatoes.
  4. Decide what shape of pasta to pour it on.

My one firm rule of cookery: never say what you are cooking until it is finished.  It might not be at all what you intended.

Like all men I have a signature dish and like all men it is called Spaghetti Bolognese.  Like every other non-cook, I believe that I make the very best Bolognese, and I start from scratch: no jars of ready-made sauce for me.  I mutilate all of the onions, tomatoes, basil, olives myself.  It never turns out the same twice, but it is always the best – although my wife, who is clearly completely devoid of taste, would disagree.  I make a decent curry and a great dhal, I scramble a mean egg and I can cobble together any type of cake as long as it is a sponge.  I can poach, and roast, and bake, and – with a following wind – coddle, but what I cannot do is follow instructions.  I try, but improvisation takes a hold of me.  Bits get added, bits get omitted, quantities may vary and when it does not turn out quite as expected, well, I’ll always eat it even if no-one else will.  As long as there is no meat, okra or beetroot I will eat just about anything – particularly if I have cooked it.  A 1960’s upbringing means that I very seldom turn my nose up at food.

My mum seldom cooked anything that would not fit in the chip pan.  My arteries were calcified long before I could walk.  My dad, who did most of the cooking, was an army chef, so he knew precisely how to fill a hungry soldier and exactly how to deal with the subsequent abuse.  Whatever we ate was accompanied by huge mounds of mashed potato and gravy – particularly disconcerting when it was a treacle sponge.  We ate the innards of so many animals that I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the rest of the animal.  Presumably it went to the gentry.  I assumed that they didn’t live on hodge and chitterlings.  Flesh did creep into our diets from time to time: an occasional rasher of streaky bacon (90% fat), a boiled ham hock (ditto) and a joint of beef for Sunday lunch that had been rejected by the cobbler as being both too tough and too small to successfully resole a working boot, but mostly what we ate were the kind of internal bits and pieces that wind up in the bucket after an autopsy.

I don’t recall ever turning down food.  I have seen photographs of toddler me: when the sun is behind me it shines right through.  Like every other boy I knew, my life was one of perpetual motion.  I was running, scooting, cycling, karting or one-footed skating¹, but seldom sitting.  Exercise was not something you paid for, but just something you did if you wanted to get somewhere.  Mostly you didn’t do it in lycra; you did it in a duffel coat and muffler.  Food was merely fuel and I used loads of it.  Whatever went in through my mouth went straight down to my knees.  These were times when whatever meat there was went to the men whilst the women and children had a slice of bread soaked in gravy instead.  There was a little logic to it.  Most households were funded solely by the working male.  My dad worked his forty-eight hours a week on building sites in all weathers and he earned his couple of slices of sinewy old flesh whilst the rest of us fuelled up on soggy Wonderloaf.  Not my dad’s choice, I should say, always my mum’s – although the influence of her own mother was strong.  As for the veg, well that could not have been more natural, as most of it was grown in our own back garden, although how much goodness it retained after having been boiled for several hours I am not certain.  Back then, veg was not considered cooked unless it had been boiled into dissolution.  Close your eyes and all vegetables were the same: soft and slimy.  Thank goodness that the cooking water was used for the gravy: whatever flavours and nutrients remained were surely floating around in there somewhere.

Now, don’t get me wrong here, I am not claiming that we were all healthier then: my class had children with polio; some had rickets; we all had measles, rubella, chickenpox, mumps and a thousand various rashes and parasites that, I would hope, are now vaccinated and, if I’m honest, just washed out of existence, but I think that is probably my point.  (Oh yes, there is one.)  Pretty much everything I ate was 100% natural back then, but it didn’t mean that it was actually any good for me (although it did save me from starving, which from my standpoint at least, is no bad thing).  And, if you’re at all interested, that’s also why I’ve never had a personal trainer…

¹Nobody ever had exclusive use of a pair of roller skates.  They were shared between two.  You strapped them to the sole of your shoe and ‘scooted’ around on them until the wheel fell off and you discovered how much blood you could get on your socks from a grazed knee and how much you needed to avoid your mum when you had taken the knees out of your trousers and the toe out of your shoe.

Ubi Sit Res*

Photo by Hobi industri on

Many years ago, my great friend Madge, left me in tears of laughter following a rant about the new Supermarket that had just opened in town.  It was ok, she said, but nothing was in the same place as it was in her local store.
“But, it’s a different shop,” I said.
“I know,” she pouted, “but I went in to look for a new pair of Marigolds yesterday and I went to exactly where they are when I go to Asda, and all I could find was cat food.  Who puts cat food next to the water filters?  Cat food goes next to the toilet rolls…”
I didn’t understand her bemusement and she didn’t understand my amusement and, as usual, it all ended up in helpless mirth.  Very sadly, Madge is no longer with us, but I think about her every time I walk into a Supermarket and, of late, I have started to understand her point of view.

Now, I know that there is a science to the layout of Supermarkets: that the floorplans are designed, based on the principles established by Daedalus** two and a half thousand years ago, whilst the shelves are stacked by bright young things with BSc’s in leading the sheep to chocolate.  But they do seem to have been taught in different schools: the school of putting the pasta next to the bread versus the school of putting it next to the cook-in sauces.  The school of putting the Pot Noodles with the convenience foods versus the school of putting them with the scratchcards, King-size Rizlas, Peperami and Carlsberg Special Brew.  Do you put together things that go together, or things that belong together?  Do you put custard with the puddings, or do you put it with the sauces?  Do you put pasta with the sauces, or do you put it with the garlic bread?  Do you put bread with the butter, or do you put it with the Marmite?  Where do you put toiletries?  Where do you put magazines?  Where do you put all of the cleverly designed, bright plastic gizmos that never quite manage to perform the task for which they were designed?  I know that in the closing days of 2021, this really should not be an issue, but does layout depend on location?  Do you, for instance, put the fresh organic pasta, next to the truffles and wild mushrooms in Kensington, on a shelf that would be occupied by Spaghetti Hoops in Burnley?  Do you even attempt to sell tinned pasta in Chelsea, unless you have a specifically labelled ‘Ironically Stocked’ shelf to put it on?  Do you put Vegan ready meals alongside the fresh fruit and veg, or alongside the herbal tea and artisan crafted toilet rolls in the ‘weirdo’ section?

I understand that the fresh fruit and veg always looks great and that it might lure people in because it is bright and colourful, but near the door?  Really?  Beautiful soft fruit, no matter how carefully placed in the basket, always ends up under the tins and bottles – ok, mostly bottles – accumulated through the rest of the shop.  Surely that can’t be right: unless, of course, it is all part of the plan.  Once bitten, twice shy?  Having arrived home with a terminally flattened punnet of now strawberry puree, or a half litre of raspberry coulis dripping through the holes in what was formerly a nice, neat box, do you thenceforth bypass the fruit on the first sweep and return to it later, so that you can lay it safely on the top of your basket?  Do you, in short, walk past everything twice?  Aah, you’re getting it now.  Walk around the maze in one direction (‘Always turn left’ my dad used to say, although, if I’m honest, I’m not certain that he ever really knew where he was.) reach the end and come back the other way, before picking up some berries and heading for the tills.  You wander past the cat food three times.  By that stage you will grab a tin even if it means buying a cat on the way home in order to justify it.

I understand why they always put the items they want you to buy at eye level – who wants the eye strain involved in moving the things – but I do not know why everything I want is always out of reach at the back of the top shelf.  Imagine you have a stand of five shelves: you put what you want the customer to buy where he/she does not have to look up, down, left or right to see it.  You put the things that you don’t want them to buy – the budget versions – at foot level, and the niche products – ‘We don’t get much call for those round here’ – at ladder height.  If you want to find a cheaper product, you don’t usually have to shop around, just stoop.

And then I start to think about Madge and I begin to understand what she was saying.  Why can’t things always be in the same place?  If nappies are by the formula milk powders in Tesco, why can’t they be in the same place at Asda?  If the vegan meals are with the bamboo utensils in Morrison’s, why not in Sainsbury’s?  If Aldi has the wonky carrots next-door to the cordless hammer-drills, why doesn’t Lidl?  If the chocolate is not alongside the whisky anywhere, then it bloody well should be.  As you get older, the only thing you want from a Supermarket is the ability to get out of it as quickly as possible.  How quickly could you do the shopping if you didn’t have to pass so much that you don’t want, in order to get to what you do?  How little would you buy if you didn’t have to pass so much other stuff to find it?

Ah, now I understand…

*Where things should be.

**Daedalus designed the Labyrinth in order to contain the Minotaur and so cunning was his plan, that he could barely escape it himself after it was built.  He was the same Daedalus who made wax and feather wings for himself and his son Icarus and managed, unlike his son, to survive as he did not succumb to the temptation to fly too close to the Sun.  He also murdered his nephew because he thought that he was a better inventor than himself – e.g. using a good epoxy resin to hold the wings together and affixing a ‘Do not operate this equipment in the proximity of a broiling celestial body’ to the flight feathers…

Christmas Past – ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas


(with abject apologies to Clement Clarke Moore)

Throughout this Christmas week, in addition to my normal seasonal posts (on Tuesday and Friday) and in the long-established TV tradition of festive repeats, I will re-post six of my very favourite Christmas offerings from Christmas Past.  The fifth of these reposts is from my very first WordPress Christmas in 2018 and is, I think, my very favourite Seasonal Special to date…

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
It should have been squeaking away at its wheel
Not laying face down and stiff in its meal.
There’ll be tears in the morn’ when she comes with his bread
And your dear little daughter discovers him dead,
But still, do not worry, she will not stay sad
When she spots, through the wrapping, that she’s got an i-pad.
The stockings we hung by the chimney with strings,
Were not for all the extravagant things:
For those they have hanging, at the end of their beds
Two giant sacks with their names on instead.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
Whilst visions of smart phones danced in their heads
And mummy and I, with an hour to kill,
Were fearfully reading the credit card bill.
When out in the street arose such a din,
‘Cos the people next door were trying to get in,
But the key they were trying was turning no more,
Which wasn’t surprising – it wasn’t their door.
‘If you hadn’t guzzled that last Famous Grouse,
You’d have known straight away that it wasn’t our house.’
Said the wobbling wife as she stumbled for home
And was sick down the back of a small plastic gnome.
‘It’s four in the morning,’ an angry voice cried.
‘Just shut up your racket or I’m coming outside.’
Then all became silent, except, from afar
The sound of a key down the side of their car.
As dry leaves start falling from autumnal trees,
So snow began drifting along on the breeze
And high in the sky at the reins of his sled,
A white bearded man with a hat on his head.
‘Now Dasher, now Dancer, now Prancer and Vixen.
On Comet, on Cupid, on Donner and Blitzen!’
He cried to the reindeer in tones slurred and merry,
Having just swallowed down his ten thousandth sherry.
And then, for a moment, I heard from the roof
An outburst of language that seemed most uncouth,
Then a flash by the window – a red and white blur
Of fat man and white beard; of red felt and fur.
He knocked on the door when he’d climbed to his feet
And adjusted his cloak ‘gainst the cold blinding sleet.
‘Just give me five minutes to sit by your fire
And I’ll see that your children get all they desire.’
We gave him some tea and both patiently sat
As he talked about this and he talked about that
And then, having eaten the last hot mince pie
He rose and he slapped on his red-trousered thigh.
He yawned – ‘I must return to my duty
My sled is still packed with a mountain of booty.’
And then, as he turned to the door with a wave
We reminded him of the promise he gave.
‘Of course, yes,’ he laughed, his jolly face beaming.
‘But quick now, while the kids are still dreaming.
Here, look at this dolly with glass-beaded eyes
And this wig and some glasses to make a disguise.’
‘A car made of tin and a train made of wood.
This big Snakes & Ladders is really quite good.
An orange, some nuts and a new, shiny penny.’
But electrical goods he hadn’t got any.
‘You conman,’ we cried. ‘You are not Santa Claus.
If we’d known it we would have left you outdoors.
The real Father Christmas would not carry such tat.
We want top class products – and brand names at that.’
‘Our kids will go mad if we give them this shite:
There are no soddin’ batteries and no gigabytes.
They don’t give a monkeys about innocence lost;
Just leave them a bill so they know what stuff costs.’
He turned to us now and his eyes filled with tears,
‘These presents have kept children happy for years.’
We looked at the list of the rubbish he’d got.
‘You silly old fool, you are losing the plot.’
He sprang to his sleigh crying ‘Sod this, I’m beat!’
And they all flew away to their Lapland retreat,
But I heard him exclaim ‘They are never content.
Now the thought doesn’t count – just the money you’ve spent.’
And so Christmas morning descended with gloom.
The children both rose and they looked round the room
At the i-phones, the i-pads, the Xbox and games
And they pulled at the labels and picked out their names.
Then at last they had finished, all presents unwrapped,
And we sat down for breakfast all energy sapped.
‘This is lame,’ they exclaimed.  ‘This day is a bore.’
‘We’ve only got what we asked Santa Claus for.’
Then they saw on the floor where the old man had stood
A doll made of cloth and a train made of wood
And happily, low-tech, they played all the day
Whilst we packed all of their i-stuff away.

Originally posted 22nd December 2018

Christmas Past – I Believe In Father Christmas

father christmas

Throughout this Christmas week, in addition to my normal seasonal posts (on Tuesday and Friday) and in the long-established TV tradition of festive repeats, I will re-post six of my very favourite Christmas offerings from Christmas Past.  The first of these reposts is from my very first WordPress Christmas in 2018 – I Believe in Father Christmas.

Come on, even in the short time that we have known one another, you and I, you must have realised that the very mention of Christmas was going to set me off on one. It is unfashionable, I think, to admit it but I still get excited by Christmas: the whole thing. The carol singers, the TV specials, the food, the drink, the panicky rush to the local petrol station for the last minute present, the never-ending trailers for this year’s Eastenders Christmas disaster… Well, perhaps not the TV trailers. I just can’t understand the desire to witness such unremitting melancholic disaster as the highlight of Christmas evening. The vicarious thrill of eavesdropping on an entire community of joyless and soulless characters as they plunge headlong into increasingly preposterous seasonal scenarios of calamity and bedlam is not, for me anyhow,  any way to let the sprouts go down. I’ll take Eric and Ernie making breakfast together anytime, thank you very much.

So many people seem to want to be depressed by Christmas: ‘I can’t wait until it’s all over,’ ‘It’s such a lot of fuss for one day,’ ‘I don’t even like Christmas pudding…’ What is this nonsense? For a start, Christmas pudding, Christmas cake and mince pies are the three kings of the epicurean calendar and the greatest consumable inventions of all time: fact. I would buy mincemeat flavoured toothpaste if it was available. Everyone’s happy* – especially the maker’s of eggnog – and even the dourest of aunties will agree to wear a paper crown for the duration of the meal. When it is all over, you have 364 days to wait until the next one. Enjoy the day, embrace the mayhem. I know it’s overhyped, unnecessarily expensive and endlessly protracted, but come on! It’s once a year. As far as I’m concerned, the best Christmas present is Christmas. A sense of benign serenity pervades the house and will last all day, as long as nobody gets the Monopoly out.

What’s not to love?
• Hungry Hippos? Tick.
• Whoopee cushion on Aunty Elsie’s chair? Tick.
• Hugely inappropriate joke from Great Uncle Derek? Tick.

As for mawkish sentimentality – well, why not? Twenty first century life is completely hidebound by startling and grimly held reality: dreaming is something we are only allowed to do when we’re asleep. What’s wrong with allowing a little fantasy into our lives from time to time?

So, does Father Christmas actually exist? Well, why would I choose not to believe in something that brings so much joy to so many? Father Christmas exists in spirit. That spirit itself may exist for just a few hours each year, but as long as it is here I will embrace it and yes, I do believe in Father Christmas.

I have actually, in the past, ‘played’ Father Christmas for the village children in my Father-in-Law’s pub on Christmas day. I have to tell you, it is not a job for those of weak disposition. I was prepared for all of the children who wanted to pull my beard. I was prepared for all of the children who wanted the opportunity to complain about what I had brought them that morning (or even what I’d brought them the previous year). I was even prepared for the sinisterly whispered, ‘I know who you are really…’ I was not prepared for all of the children who wanted to kick my shins.

We are asked to believe in so many things for which there is no proof. Most of them are intended to constrain or control us. God knows, millions have died for some of them. I believe that Jesus existed. I believe that he was a very great man whose life has impacted on millions for centuries. But a virgin birth? No, surely not. The whole Christmas story is a metaphor isn’t it: a fable become lore – either that or a very cynical ploy by the manufacturers of hand-made wooden cribs and personalised Christmas tree decorations. To be honest, after some of his frankly appallingly vengeful behaviour in the Old Testament, I think God had probably been spoken to by somebody from PR before setting off on the New Testament. A story of love and hope and peace and joy; just what we need at Christmas time.

Of course, as with all major undertakings, planning and preparation are the keys to a successful operation. Allow me to talk you through some of my own basic preparations for the big day:

  1. Miracle on 34th Street (the Richard Attenborough version). If you need proof that Father Christmas really does exist, it is right here. Settle down with a glass of something seasonal, a warm mince pie, a little stilton and watch this film. I defy you to leave it without feeling the spirit. (And by the way, just for the record, Christmas did exist before Prosecco.)
  2. Love Actually. I know, I know, and frankly I don’t care. I could watch this twice a week and it would still warm me cockles. A must for the pre-Christmas run-in. Christmas is not Christmas without an in-depth discussion of what’s the best bit of this film. (It’s the Colin Firth/Lucia Moniz bit, by the way.)
  3. A trip to the supermarket to purchase several hundred-weight of snack foods and any number of bottles of sweet alcoholic beverages that would not be allowed through the door at any other time of the year. Sweet British sherry is produced for this single occasion alone: along with Advocaat and those little marzipan fruits, it has no purpose other than to keep the (more) elderly relatives quiet during the afternoon session of Charades. Nothing grates quite like an over-lubricated Great Aunt yelling ‘Casablanca’ to every single mime, especially when nobody else is getting your superb rendition of ‘Oops… I Did It Again’ by Britney Spears.

Drinking the overlarge tot of whisky and eating the mince pie left out for Santa remains my final Christmas Eve task (Santa does not like sherry at our house). No carrot to nibble on behalf of Rudolph these days – he can fend for himself. Every year the startling realisation that, by a process I do not fully understand, somebody has bought and prepared everything for Christmas lunch and dinner. I’m not sure who. The Pixies I think… And then one last check of the night sky:
• Giant airborne sleds? No.
• The unmistakable glistening of snow in the air? No.
• Superbright star on the eastern horizon? No.
…and so to bed.

Christmas morning, I usually wake at about 5am. When they were at home I used to creep into the children’s rooms and try to make just enough noise to wake them. Oh the joy of seeing their little faces as they looked at the clock before burying their heads under the duvet. I am certain that both of my children learned to tell the time simply so that they could tell me to go back to bed on Christmas morning. But I’m up – no point in going back to bed now. Christmas jumper, Christmas shirt and Christmas socks: it’s the one time of the year when everybody else is just as badly dressed as me.

Christmas dinner is a big deal in our house. Crackers are cracked, paper hats are worn and terrible jokes are read. The lighting of the Christmas pudding is a ritual that cannot be missed. It usually comes directly after the mass panicky dash by the assembled adults towards one of this year’s high chair incumbents who, with some encouragement, manages to cough up half a sprout, two carrot sticks and a red Lego brick. A spirit of benevolent bonhomie pervades even in the midst of the communal clear-up and dishwashing that follows the meal. The dregs of the wine are consumed, perhaps a small coffee and Bailey’s, and then for many the mass, slack-jawed snooze of Christmas afternoon, whilst the rest of us (me and the kids) construct Lego housing estates or attempt to disentangle the new mini drone from the light fitting without fusing the rest of the street. Sometime later, everybody wakes for the afternoon ritual of ‘Oh look at the time. We’ve missed the Queen.’ And ‘who’s putting the kettle on?’

The rest of the day is filled with the welcome drifting in and out of various members of our joyfully expanding family. Every available chair, pouffe and footstool is utilised. As the afternoon draws into evening, people are routinely stepped on, sat on and, if certain members of the family are having a nap, dribbled on. Board games are begun and almost immediately dismantled by children who crawl through them, sit on them, fly a Lego rocket through them or otherwise decimate them because they are being ignored. Everyone, except grandad, who has just evaded a very large snake and reached the top of an equally long ladder, thinks that it’s funny. Come the evening and anything that is vaguely soft becomes a crib. All rooms are occupied by people sleeping on beds and mattresses, on inflatables and floors in a selection of duvets, blankets and sleeping bags, many of which have not seen the light of day since Glastonbury 2004.

Anyway, that’s Christmas for me, and a joyous occasion it always is, until, of course, I turn on the news on Boxing Day and discover that the world is still in exactly the same mess as we left it in on Christmas Eve – and a whole new year to look forward to…

Oh well, Merry Christmas One and All.

*Not totally true, I know. This is a very lonely time for lonely people. Nobody chooses to be lonely yet loneliness could be the future for any of us. It’s easy to ignore the future as you get older; there is a lot less of it and the end of it is quite a lot closer than it was. If you get the chance, then making somebody less lonely could be one of the best presents you could ever give yourself.

Originally posted 20th December 2018 when the world was sane.

The Value of Advice

Photo by Eileen Pan on Unsplash

If I could offer one single word of advice to any aspiring writer it would be not to come to me for advice.  Having got that out of the way, I would say, ‘Never write the same thing twice,’ because someone said that to me once and I always liked the ring of it.  Sound advice, I am sure you will agree, but advice, none-the-less, I find myself increasing unable to heed for the simple reason that I can never remember what I have written about before and, more to the point, I have decided that life is far too short to check.  I am sure that once-upon-a-gag, some wise man – Bernard Manning probably – postulated that there are only six jokes known to man and womankind: the trick is in finding a different way to tell them.  (Likewise, I think – I can’t be sure: the Magic Circle is a closed and locked cabinet to me – there are only six magic tricks: the one with the sleight of hand; the one with the distraction; the one with the stooge; the one with the smoke; the one with the mirrors, and the one where the magician discovers that the upstage trap-door doesn’t work properly.)  Anyway, who am I to argue?

I do not know what the six jokes are.  I know one of them, but I fear that political correctness being what it is, I dare not tell it for fear of being sued by every chicken between here and the other side of the road.  The problem with jokes, however you tell them, is that they tend to have a butt and being a butt is never comfortable.  To avoid causing offence, you make yourself the butt and that works even better when the joke doesn’t – work that is.  There’s no wonder that comedians are, by and large, such a morose bunch.  Except that they’re not you know.  I’ve met a number over the years – although not as often as I’ve been called one – and most of them have been quite jolly.  Not all of the time, of course – that would just be weird – but normally so.  I never met a comedian who didn’t want to laugh – which can’t be easy when you already know all six of the jokes that other people are telling you.  (I’ve never met a magician, although it stands to reason that they must know at least one gag per trick for when it all goes wrong.  I did watch a magician once whose tricks all went spectacularly wrong.  He had no ‘patter’ outside of his sweat as it fell to the stage, but the audience thought that the whole thing was hilarious.  He was decidedly unamused, and I was just relieved when he decided against sawing his assistant in half.)

It is the stock in trade of comedians to tell the same jokes night after night, for magicians to make the same stuff disappear and for singers to sing the same old songs – Greatest Hits tours are the most popular of all – but a writer is never really allowed to plunder his own back catalogue (much less somebody else’s) for reuse at a later date.  I cannot imagine that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, would have been allowed to reuse an old plot on the grounds that everybody liked it last time around.  Most people will read a treasured book repeatedly, but will put it down the moment it reminds them of something else (particularly if it is a Shake ‘n’ Vac advert).  I do wonder if there are only six novel plots: I once attempted to read a Jeffrey Archer novel in a hospital waiting room and I think that he must have had all six of them in there somewhere – God knows where – and I have attempted to read James Joyce so often that I am certain he manages perfectly well without any at all, thank you very much.)

Of course, repetition, in itself can be amusing, but it is never surprising.  Life is all about repetition, and most of it much closer to a failed illusion than a Billy Connolly rip-snorter, but every day we wake up ready for more of it.  There is something in the human spirit that says ‘OK, I’ve had ninety nine attempts without getting the rabbit out of the hat, but today’s the day.’  And we try again.  And if, by some fluke of fortune, we succeed, then we believe that we will always succeed. 

I am always intrigued by those who manage to keep – and even more puzzling – publish a diary.  Do they leave out everything that happens again and again, day after day or, do they just invent stuff?  Perhaps the successful diary is just a novel with the writer as the hero.  Or maybe interesting things do happen to other people.  Is it just me that goes around and around?  I have tried to keep diaries many times, but they are so tedious.  I very quickly start making things up.  Do you think that Samuel Pepys really buried his cheese whilst London burned?  Did Captain Oates really say ‘I might be gone for some time’ or is that just something that Scott put into his diary after giving him the wrong directions to the toilet in order to break the monotony of a whiteout?  Most of the time, life is only brightened by hindsight.

In written dialogue we always edit out the repeated phrases that litter real life conversations.  Any story that runs beyond twenty four hours in real life, will feature repetition.  We treasure routine: the same breakfast, the same parking spot, the same sandwich, the same journey home – so startlingly routine that it is normally impossible to recall getting there.  We are only happy that a day is complete when it is just the same as all the others – real life is not great for the telling.

Anyway, having given it due consideration, I believe I might have changed my mind.  If I could offer one word of advice to an aspiring author, it would be to never be tempted to dip into real life, in case you can’t find your way out again.

Mind you, it won’t be the same tomorrow…

Excused Trousers

I will begin by apologising to at least 50% of my readership who will, at best, have to read this post with their legs, if not their eyes, crossed and at worst will be on the phone to the doctor in the morning to cancel the appointment, because once again, the Devil has found work for my Idle Hands.  My twice weekly search for something new to say has once again led me into the past.  You will know, by now, that I often fill these pages with fond memories, but today’s slightly asymmetrical limp down memory lane is a rather more uncomfortable one for me.  On this occasion, a bit of an office clearout has unearthed a little poem (which I believe I may have used on these very pages once before) and a picture which I have not, and together they set the ghost of recollection whirring…

I will begin with the little poem…

A Small Deception in the Vasectomy Clinic.

He smiled at me, lain on the table
And said, “Now this won’t hurt at all.”
Then rammed over 6 foot of needle
Right down my wherewithal

…and the recollection of writing it – excused trousers – on the morning after my first vasectomy.  Yes, I did say first.  Allow me to fill you in…

It will have been thirty years ago now.  My youngest daughter was about eighteen months old and it was decided that it was up to me to ensure that we didn’t have to go through all that again.  I made an appointment with the doctor.  “Yes,” he said, he would refer me if I was sure.  I said “Sure?” and he said, “Yes, ‘Sure.’”  I said, “You sound doubtful.  Don’t you recommend it?” and he said, “It’s not up to me to recommend it, it’s up to me to ensure that you know what you’re getting yourself into.  Do you understand everything I’ve told you?”  “Yes,” I said.  “Not a word,” I thought.  “In my position,” I asked, “would you have it done?”  “No,” he said.  “I’ll refer you for counselling today and you’ll hear from us very soon.  There’s a new clinic just opened in town.  They’ll do it before you get the chance to change your mind…”  I left the doctor’s somewhat less than reassured about the operation, but assured that at least I would be counselled before it took place.

The counsellor said, “Right, are you sure?”  I said “Sure?” and she said, “Yes, ‘Sure,’ after everything I have told you, are you sure you still want to go ahead with this?”  and my wife said, “Yes, he is,” so I was referred to the clinic which would, she said, do the operation very soon.  I was slightly uneasy that she did not say they would do it very well.

Cometh the day, cometh the pallid man and I was led into a small operating theatre (ex-broom cupboard with a single new light fitting, one fresh coat of eau de nil emulsion and all shelves removed as per) at the back of the doctor’s surgery in my NHS rear-ventilated operation gown.  “Lay on there,” said the nurse, who looked almost old enough for her own paper round, “feet in the stirrups and pull the gown up to your chest.”  And there I lay, stranded walrus-like, when the doctor entered with his assistant (who was also his wife).  They both looked at me intently.  “I know you,” they said in unison.  And so they did.  We had known one another for years.  The area being doused with iodine was slowly dying of embarrassment.  “There’s a nice soothing photo on the ceiling,” said the assistant, “You might like to look at that.”  She had, I thought, the widest grin I have ever seen as she lifted the hypodermic needle out of the tray and I stared fixedly at the waves crashing on the shore…

I will honestly tell you that after the injection, there was no pain, but the unsettling discomfort of somebody rummaging about in the family treasury.  They chatted happily away as they worked and, when they had finished, I was surprised that they did not bring me a mirror so that I could admire their handiwork.

They fit you with a little hammock then, to keep everything secure whilst it settles down overnight.  It was, I remember thinking, more than adequately roomy.  Come the following morning, it was not quite so spacious.  There was no room to spin a cat, let alone the two over-large aubergines to which my little knotted pocket now provided sanctuary.  Surely this was not the way that things were meant to be.  So, a quickly arranged visit to the doctor who didn’t actually say, “Well, I did warn you,” contenting himself instead with a quiet ‘tut’ and a whispered “Oh dear.”  He advised me to take some Paracetamol and lie down.  As I could barely walk, I was happy to do so.

I arrived home to find this little gift from my great friend Crispin Underfelt:


…and I discovered that this was not a good time to laugh out loud.  (N.B. I feel it only fair to offer a little reassurance here: it is perfectly ok to read on; there are no actual photographs.)

Time passed, swelling subsided and eventually I was tested, only to find out that the doctor was obviously worse at knotting than I am: all had been in vain.  “Do you want to try again?” asked the doctor.  “I’m not doing it myself,” I said.  “I’ll book you in,” he said.  “Not the same butcher,” I said.  “No,” he said, “I think he’s taking a little time off.” (I hoped for everyone’s sake, particularly for those that might be tied below him, that he was not going on a mountaineering expedition.)  “It will be done at the hospital this time.”  And so it was. 

Thankfully on this occasion, I was unconscious throughout.  I awoke, already ensconced within my little hammock, which was feeling, I thought, rather more snug than it did the time before.  And so it was.

The doctor sucked his teeth.  “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear,” he muttered.  “Did you walk here?”
“Well I certainly didn’t come on my bike,” I said.
“Take some paracetamol and lie down,” he said.

Eventually things settled down and I was able to look an aubergine in the eye once again.  A first test was not clear, but second and third were.  “If you change your mind,” the doctor said, “we could always try to reverse it.”  I could not imagine ever being that desperate…

And today, hindsight being the wonderful gift it is, I ask myself, would I do it all again?  Well possibly, although I would certainly investigate the alternatives a little more assiduously, like neutering, or life as a monk – although, if I’m honest, I’ve always thought there must be some reason why they all appear to be permanently excused trousers…

Stopping the Trains

If Robert Helpmann had been alive today, he would be 112 years old and no less scary for it.  Readers of my age – and there are some, I’m sure, who battle through this twaddle sometime between morning porridge and evening Sanatogen – will nod in agreement when I say that if I can envisage a single person reaching that age in rude and menacing health, it would be he.  Mr Helpmann (actually Sir Robert Helpmann C.B.E.) played the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and, as such, was the man who terrified an entire generation.  Check it out, this is a children’s film, but there, in the company of Freddy Kruger, Chucky, the Alien, Hannibal Lecter, that bloody clown from ‘It’, Damien Thorn and Herbie the Love Bug (or perhaps that’s just me) in any list of Most Terrifying Film Characters of all time, there is the Child Catcher and, I feel confident in saying, he will not have been voted for by a single person of under sixty years of age: you had to be there.  You had to be the right age to be terrified to such a degree that each future whiff of Butterkist popcorn, Raisin Poppets and damp pants, each taste of Vanilla tub and wooden spoon, brings it all flooding back.  This is the power of early film encounters: to imprint on the brain like a duck to a newborn duckling, like a cuckoo to a clock…

Today, in the course of my work, I was introduced to a lady who said her name was Lydia and the song began playing so loudly in my head that I had to really concentrate on not letting it come out of my mouth.  The Marx Brothers films were made long before even my time, but I loved them.  They, along with Phil Silvers, were my introduction to a lifelong love of comedy.  I don’t know what age I was when I first saw At the Circus*, but I do know that ‘Lydia the Tattooed Lady’ had me howling with laughter.  Lydia, oh! Lydia, say have you met Lydia / Oh! Lydia, the tattooed lady / She has eyes that folks adore so / And a torso even more so…’ I’m pretty certain that I had no idea of what the ‘torso’ business was about, but I learned the words none-the-less and I knew then that I wanted to be Groucho.  Fifty years on and it took just the one mention of the seldom heard name to fill my head with so much of the past that it, fleetingly, ceased to operate in the present.

Another film that predated me by many years was Bob Hope’s ‘The Paleface’, but the bumbling attempts of his character to remember all the instructions he was getting for his gunfight: ‘He draws from the left, so lean to the right’ left me in helpless laughter at the ABC minors some twenty years after its release.  In my head I still hear that riff every time I try to write deliberately confused dialogue, but I know I will never match it.  Confused I’m ok with – I could probably claim to be a natural – but it’s the helpless laughter that eludes me.  So often, when I write, my mind is filled with these old films, not for the dialogue, but for the manner in which it was delivered.  Who could possibly write a carping couple without hearing Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen?  When I had a pond in the back garden, I was unable to stick my arm into it without worrying about leeches.  Thank goodness I have never owned a boat: I am far from convinced that I would be any good with improvised torpedoes.

In 1968 I was nine (work it out) and, as everybody told me, born to play The Artful Dodger1.  I didn’t, of course, Jack Wild did, and look where that got him.  A couple of years later I was sent to auditions for the role in some stage production or another, but I didn’t stay.  Most of the kids had their mum’s in attendance, wiping down their faces with a spit moistened corner of handkerchief.  I didn’t have anyone with me.  I went along because my then teacher asked me to do so and within five minutes I realised that I was at a serious disadvantage in that, although I could easily have been the Dodger, I certainly couldn’t act it.  I sneaked away and have never auditioned for anything in my life from that day.  But I still love the film and I could probably sing you every song from it here and now (although probably not in a key you would recognise).  Sadly, were I to audition today, it would be for the role of Fagin or, if I’m honest, having just looked in the mirror, Bumble.

And then came 1970.  I was eleven when The Railway Children2 was released, but I knew even then that, despite not being even remotely a child, the star of the show was Bernard Cribbens, who contributed both pathos and comedy to the character of Perks.  In ‘real life’, Cribbens was, of course, much too young to play Perks and Sally Thomsett, who played the younger sister, was actually two years older than Jenny Agutter who played the elder sister, but, you know, that’s the movie business: nothing’s really as it seems – I bet Julie Andrews doesn’t even own an umbrella.  I knew none of this at the time and even if I had, it wouldn’t have made any difference.  All that occupied my mind as I left the cinema was Jenny Agutter’s bright red bloomers.  If I concentrate, I can still hear the hormones buzzing in my ears today, an echo of youth, like the Big Bang with fewer connotations.  I have no idea what subsequently became of Ms Thomsett, but I do know that Ms Agutter went on to star in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout a year later, and the boy became a man – albeit one still terrified of the Childcatcher… 

*The Marx Brothers at the Circus was made in 1939, twenty years before I was born.  I suppose that during those twenty years, the once ‘racy’ quips of Groucho became innocent enough to be shown on daytime TV, much as ‘When Harry Met Sally’ is now.  Progress…

1Oliver! Was voted the 77th greatest British film of the twentieth century and is most notable – as far as I’m concerned – for introducing me to Shani Wallis and the notion that girls were something that I really wanted to find out about.

2The Railway Children is widely regarded as perhaps the best Children’s Film of all time.  It was voted the 66th greatest British film of the twentieth century.  The film voted as the best British film of the twentieth century, in case you’re interested, is The Third Man.  My own favourite ‘If…’ is 12th, but as neither feature either Jenny Agutter and her red drawers nor a middle-aged ballet dancer with a false nose, they do not figure greatly in my childhood recollections.  But that, I suppose, is show business…

A Rose by Any Other Name

Photo by Jovana Nesic on

I was watching next door’s fireworks through the bedroom window, when it suddenly occurred to me that it was forty years to the day since we moved into our current home…

Our first home was a tiny, two-bedroom, mid-terrace house that we lived in for just over a year before prematurely deciding that we needed a bigger house, hopefully out in the country, where we could raise a family.  As we were more than a little deficient in the monies department, what we actually ended up with was the kind of ‘project’ that meant we would be in no position to have children for some years after we moved in – we may well have had to eat them before then.  We liked what we felt the house could become, although forty years on, it is yet to become it, which tells you much about our ambitions and even more about our aptitudes.  We liked the village – small then, unlike the demi-town it has grown into over the last few years – and we were blind to the pitfalls of so much to do, no idea of how to do it and no money with which to employ anybody else to do it.  Even a bitingly cold winter, in which a large snow drift formed in the front room, facilitated by the gaping fissures in the windows (which should have been replaced under the terms of the mortgage) and our reluctance to turn the heating on – as we needed the money to replace the windows so that they did not repossess the house – could not stop us: we had our fourteen inch black and white TV set with its metal coat hanger where the aerial used to be, we had a quantity of crocheted blankets and an ancient two-bar electric fire in front of which we huddled for warmth and cooked toast whenever the electricity was working: we were living the dream.

Every house here had a garage and every garage had a car – in our case an ancient Vauxhall Viva with rather more rust than bodywork and a petrol tank that was almost entirely water-tight as long as it wasn’t filled above half way – we were on our way to the good life.  We knew that as soon as we had restored the house to its original ticky-tacky 1960’s glory, we would move onwards and upwards, to somewhere better and brighter, and we will, sooner or later, I am sure.  We had the asbestos central heating pipe removed before we needed specialists to do so and we swept the dust from the floor with brush and pan.  We fitted new windows ourselves – gluing two standard 4×4 units together because we couldn’t afford a bespoke 8×4 – and were thrilled to find that we could open them even after we had glazed them – as long as it wasn’t hot… or cold… or raining…  We fitted the front door which we still have today.  It is to insulation what a sieve is to water conservation.  When it opens, every other door in the house slams shut.  It is about to be replaced and I’m not sure how I will manage with the new one.  I have grown used to the draughts.  I know exactly where they are coming from.

We were so happy to be here: I am a council estate boy, born and bred and here I was living in a village with a stable* at its centre!  For the first time in my life I saw horses that were not attached to a totter’s cart.  People rode past our door on them.  They were dressed in tweed and spoke a language I barely understood.  I was so impressed by them: they were a symbol of true country living, so you can imagine my joy when, after being in the village for just a few days, one of these giant beasts deposited a very large pile of its doings right in front of my house.  This shit was indisputably mine!  I ran to my bucket and spade.  It was a happy man who strode into the kitchen a couple of minutes later to display my gently steaming bounty to my wife who, it must be said, was less than impressed.  After a short period spent screaming, she eventually calmed down sufficiently to instruct me – rather abruptly I felt – to remove it from the kitchen. 
“What the hell do you intend doing with it?” she asked.
“I’m going to put it on the roses,” I answered.
“We haven’t got any roses,” she said.
“…Can we get some,” I asked.
Her voice took on the quiet, tolerant tone that I have since come to dread.  “You have to rot it down,” she said.
“Rot it down?” I queried.
“Rot it down,” she nodded.
“But it’s shi…”
“Colin!” she warned.  (It was forty years ago and we barely ever swore back then.)
“Are you sure?” I asked.  “Perhaps we should look it up.”
Now, this was a time, many years pre-internet.  Google was something that the sink did when the drain needed rodding.  If you needed to know something, you went to the library and found a book that just might have the answer you sought – if only you could find the page it had it on.  We needed gardening advice and that was available only through a gardening compendium or a bona fide gardener.  I could have written to ‘Gardener’s Question Time’ on the radio, but it would have taken ages to get a reply.  I might as well just let the poo-poo rot.

“Maybe we could ask the lady at the village shop,” I said, suddenly blinded by the light bulb flashing over my head.  “If we bought a rose…”
We had a village shop back then.  It sold small amounts of absolutely everything.  You could probably buy a bucketful of horse shit there.  You could definitely buy a rose – she would dig you one out of her own garden if necessary.  She would know what to do.  These days we have only the Co-op and the punctured youth behind the checkout would be highly unlikely to be able to solve my excrement conundrum.

It transpired that the manure had to be ‘well-rotted’, that being one step on from common-or-garden rotted, and one step down from putrefied, and whilst that was happening we had our newly purchased rose to keep alive.  We didn’t really have the money to waist on a floribunda back then, so having bought it, the pressure to keep it alive was intense.  We manage to do so and even, over the years, bought it a few friends for company, but, my my, roses are hard work: greenfly, blackfly, mildew, black spot, Blind Pugh… there was so little to which a rose could not succumb and as our little garden established itself over the years, roses ceased to be a part of it.  Forty years on we have only one rose, a giant rambling specimen that forms part of the back hedge and is remarkably thorn-free. (I’m sure we bought it as a rose, but I have my doubts.)  The whole garden has evolved over the last forty years and, I think, has matured nicely, unlike the horse shit which, to the best of my knowledge, is still rotting down somewhere in the field behind us…

And that’s what set me off, the smell of manure.  We get it sometimes.  I think the farmer has a little ‘countryside machine’ – you know, like the supermarkets use to introduce the fragrance of freshly brewed coffee and newly baked bread to the aisles, but with the smells of the countryside – so that even as we become increasingly urban, we are still able to experience the authentic country odour of yesteryear: dung, pig and cow parsley.  I opened the door to the scent and saw there, bang in front of my house, glisteningly fresh, a giant pile of horse’s doofahs.  I strode to the rode.  “Can’t you control that bloody animal?” I shouted at the fast diminishing rump.  “Somebody will have to clean that up.”  But nobody did…

*The gloss soon went off when I found out that the horses were used by the local hunt.  However, the influx of townies, like ourselves, into the village soon put a stop to that barbaric palaver.  These days the horses just plod around with an assortment of helmeted children and Barbour-clad adults on board.  They still shit on the roads, but nobody ever picks it up…

As Man’s Ingratitude

Having cut along every conceivable dotted line on my body in the pursuit of the autumnal pruning regime: sticking plasters over every jolting puncture wound and binding each twingeing muscle in the aftermath of preparing the garden greenery for winter, the time has now come to pack and store away the various wood and metal gewgaws that litter my small square of England’s green and pleasant sward during the summer months.  I have alerted the relevant emergency authorities,  Elastoplast have gone on to twenty-four hour shifts in preparation and my wife is laying in a darkened room with a dampened cloth over her eyes.  Wrapped within sufficient thermal insulation to keep a dormouse snugly at the South Pole, I will venture out into the garden where the garden bench that has spent the entire summer gently divesting itself of various arms, legs and backrests will stoically resist all attempts at disassembly.  Muttered oaths and whispered threats will, on past evidence, prove wholly ineffective and the subsequent search for the axe will serve merely to unearth approximately sixteen new strains of fungi in the garden shed.  Global Warming and the consequent threat of flooding the streets of York precludes the possibility of burning it, so the bench will be left to complete the decomposition at which it has heretofore excelled.

Metal benches, chairs and tables are not, unfortunately, quite so accommodating.  They require careful deconstruction in order that they can be carefully packed away through the winter months allowing for easier disposal of the rusted remains in the spring.  The liberal application of WD40 to the nuts and bolts should allow easy removal.  Should, but does not.  The separate elements remain fused as one by a layer of binding oxidisation and the oily layer from the spray merely accentuates the fact that the spanner I have for the job just doesn’t quite fit.  It is imperial, whilst the bolts are metric.  Or the other way around.  I have no idea how you can tell.  One way or another I have removed more knuckles than I have fingers – that total not necessarily being the number I started with – and (if you will forgive me) completely rounded my nuts.  I would hacksaw them off, but the hacksaw is still conjoined to the garden bin where I left it last year.  I have an electric jigsaw that would effortlessly cut through them, if only it had not cut through its own cable with similar ease the last time I used it.  I will return to this particular problem once I have found my big hammer.

Having already removed most of the mirrors that are dotted around the garden I must now remove the shards that remain fixed – either too tightly or too loosely, I am never sure – to the walls.  I approach the problem forearmed with such a variety of Pozidrive, Phillips, SupaScrew and Flat Head screwdrivers that Wickes – should they be able to see them through the various layers of paint they have been used to stir – would probably throw in the towel.  Unfortunately, whatever screws I have used quite clearly require a completely different model.  My attempt at removal with a claw hammer, although unsuccessful at loosening the screw, does remove the mirror and the lower third of a finger that, truth be told, I use very rarely anyway.  I am relieved to find that the two mirrors I affixed to the fence are no longer my responsibility as they currently lay, still secured to the larch lap panels, in next door’s pond.

My previous attempt at mending the ailing garden gate ensures that no burglar can now enter our premises from that direction.  Unfortunately, as I appear to have fixed the new hinges to the latching side, it also means that I cannot put the bins out.  In order to facilitate the necessary revamp I conducted a careful search for my hammer which was subsequently found propping up the sagging rear corner of the shed.  Having carefully removed it, replacing it with a brick that, until that moment was blocking the bigger of two mouse holes, I set about trying to get the handle back in it.  What I needed was a hammer, but…  Having used the brick instead I was thrilled to find that the shed lurched no more than forty five degrees without it.  I will reset the clothes pole as soon as I have found some means of opening the shed door to get at the spade.  Having spent the entire evening reattaching the wobbling hammerhead to the hammerstick-thing with gaffer tape, I intend to tackle the ‘gate conundrum’ tomorrow.  Should I move the latch to the hinge side or vice versa?  If I leave the hinges where they are, I will have to move the little hook that holds the whole thing, when it is capable of being opened, back against the garage wall.  Without it, I recall, the gate does nothing but flail itself to death.  I am tired of hammering the gate post back into the wall.

The final pre-winter garden task is to move all pots, tubs and planters under cover for the duration.  The cover, in this instance, is the greenhouse.  It is also partial.  Such broken panes as do not have black plastic bin liners sellotaped over them have been replaced with variously assembled pieces of hardboard, cardboard and, in the door, a piece of mirror that gives me a terrible fright each time I open it.  None-the-less the greenhouse is a wonderful refuge for all the bulbs and rhizomes that, having survived and wilted through the summer, need somewhere to go and quietly die.  The smell of the greenhouse in Spring speaks volumes about the fragility of life.  The crackling sound under my feet speaks volumes about the fragility of glass.

And so, like the rest of nature, the garden is prepared for the travails of winter.  For months ahead there will be no tinkling of water-feature, no twinkling of solar lights and no inkling of why everything else, including the lawn, has turned to brown sludge.  Come the Spring, after a dark eternity, new green shoots will appear everywhere I don’t want them to and every plant that I treasure will snap when I go near it.  As soon as the clocks go forward, I will retrieve a large bag of six inch nails from the back of the garage and see if I can get another year out of the garden bench…

Blow, blow thou winter wind.  Thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude – William Shakespeare