Friday, September 29, 2006

Road Up!

The headline said “UK Road Works Voted Best in Europe.” I was so startled that I misread it as saying that UK roads were the best in Europe, a hypothesis that made the head spin.

The last time I drove in England I reckoned that I had spent fifty per cent of my time sitting in stationary traffic on motorways. But on reading it again, I spotted the word “works” which made all the difference to the sense of the piece.

It seems that the British were not claiming that theirs were the best roads in Europe, just that they were better at digging them up than were their European neighbours. It seemed an odd sort of achievement to claim.

The Automobile Association had spent a lot of time and effort on comparing the national skills of various nations at disrupting traffic and causing the maximum inconvenience to drivers. Their scouts had roamed Europe looking for dismantled roads and one can imagine the excitement at head office when they heard that the Germans were about to dig up an autobahn at Weiden in der Oberplatz. Hurriedly they would call their agent, who was busily counting how many traffic cones the authorities had deployed in Seehein-Jugenheim, and despatch him to the scene of the action to collect data on the number of lane closures and one way traffic signs.

The British have always been world leaders in many things and here they may have paved the way (if you’ll excuse the expression) for a whole new international competition. It cannot be long before the Transport Authorities of all the other nations will be sending their spies abroad to prepare their reports on the efficiency with which traffic snarls can be created.

Eventually it will become an Olympic Sport with nations vying for gold medals based upon the proportion of men leaning on shovels to those actually using them. Five to one is about par for the course from my own observation and this ratio seems to remain pretty steady worldwide. The Automobile Association have not published their data on this but I will be happy to help them out if necessary.

The possibilities are endless. Really bad ramps could come under a special category and temporary traffic signals would gain many points for being permanently stuck on red.

But it is so typical of the British to be crowing over their achievement thus far. They should bear in mind that they have long experience in the sport. I can remember when the only artery into the West Country of Devon and Cornwall was the A 38 road. At the start of each holiday season, the authorities would wisely dig this up, thereby preventing a great many holiday makers from reaching their destination and so avoiding any unsanitary overcrowding in those counties. It was an example of official forethought and planning that will take other nations years to emulate.

So for the immediate future, I foresee that the British will take “Le Jackhammer d’Or” at the international festival of road works for many years to come and there will be a steady procession of winners climbing the stage, still with clay on their boots, to accept the prize on behalf of Great Britain. Hopefully they will able to maintain their proud record of five watchers to one worker, making it a difficult target for any other upstart nation who wishes to join the elite company of traffic disrupters.

After all, it’s people like these who put the Great in Great Britain.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

No Strings Attached

Once in a while I get the distinct sensation that I’m the only sane person on this planet and I’m certain that many of you feel the same way from time to time. Then I draw a deep breath and realise that I am not alone and that there are plenty of others around me who are not stark, staring bonkers. And, of course, you are included in this elite group.

This momentary doubting of man’s intelligence was, on this occasion, prompted by my stumbling on a phenomenon connected, in a rather peripheral way, with music. My earliest ambition, other than that of being an engine driver on a train, was to be a musician. The only instrument that I attempted to master thoroughly was the piano but I was able to appreciate most others, with the possible exception of the guitar.

Now it seems to me that the guitar was designed especially for plucking on long languid nights by young men under balconies, primarily as a means of getting Spanish senoritas to loosen up their underwear and, as such, was probably a very effective instrument. I understand “Air on a G String” was written for this very purpose. The guitar never made much of a showing in serious music, unless played by Segovia or Django Reinhardt, and probably would have been relegated to the shadows, along with the sistrum, the aulos and the shofar if some bright spark had not hooked it up to an amplifier.

This has turned it into the instrument of choice for the more non-musical members of society, and I am reliably informed that sales of it regularly out perform those of the contra-bassoon, a truly remarkable achievement.

It must be an extremely simple instrument to play, since most of its better known virtuosos appear to be from some sub-species of hominoids and to have recently crept out from under a flat and rather damp stone.

But chaque au son goût and, if you like that sort of thing, who am I to complain? Just pass me my ear plugs. But then I run across the ultimate dottiness in human behaviour in Wikipedia, the on-line compendium of, usually, useful information.

I refer, of course, to the Air Guitar. If a day or two ago you had asked some of the world’s leading savants, such as myself, Professor Hawking, Kofi Annan and a few others, “What’s an Air Guitar?” I’m sure we would have been stumped. But now I have the answer:

“Air guitar is the act of pretending to play guitar, consisting of an exaggerated strumming motion and often coupled with loud singing or lip-synching. Air guitar is generally used in the imaginary simulation of loud electric guitar music, especially rock, heavy metal, and so on. Although it is acceptable to play air guitar to acoustic songs, it is an act traditionally left to rock. Headbanging is often used in conjunction with an air guitar. Real guitar players also often play air guitar quite accurately while listening to their favourite artists.”

About the only part of this weird behaviour I can relate to is the head banging bit. And how on earth can you play an imaginary guitar accurately?

I’m all in favour of using one’s imagination and, in musical terms, one of the most marvellous examples comes in “The Music Man” where Professor Harold Hill teaches the kids to “think Minuet in G.” The resultant cacophony produced from his orchestra brings tears of joy to the eyes of their proud listening parents and, in my opinion, compares very favourably with most of the music produced by modern exponents of the guitar. But pretending to play a guitar? They’ve got to be nuts!

But it seems there’s a substantial proportion of nutters in this world since the air guitarists actually have an annual get together in Finland, I suppose to compare their air headedness. It must be a truly cerebral gathering and I’m very glad not to have the opportunity to go.

And surely the guitar industry must be concerned. If so many are plonking away on non-existent instruments, who knows what will happen to the guitar makers of the world? Expecting them to switch to contra-bassoons is, I feel, out of the question and the lovers beneath the balconies probably won’t have as much success with the senoritas. The bassoon has a lovely sound but is more likely to seduce a cow than a Spanish bit of hot stuff.

But I suppose the air business has it advantages. My office is cluttered by having a grand piano sitting in it and if I started playing an Air Piano instead, there would be a lot of extra space available and I could trade the thing in.

However, the top of a grand piano is an excellent place for storing the books, papers, unmarked proofs, unpaid bills and other assorted bric a brac that they seem to accumulate (Well mine does anyway).

Now try putting that lot on top of your Air Piano!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Bard of Stratford on Avon

“Brush up your Shakespeare,

Start quoting him now.

Brush up your Shakespeare,

And the women, you will wow.”

From Cole Porter’s “Kiss me Kate.”

It was with some relief that I read in yesterday’s papers that there is a new book published by Frank Kermode that has the temerity to question some of Shakespeare’s efforts.

I say with relief, since for years I have struggled to understand just what on earth he was talking about sometimes. I always put it down to the fact that he was speaking in what I assumed to be the language of Merrie Olde Englande, but now it seems I may have got it wrong.

Now the theory is that he was merely hungover for much of the time and, as any carworker in a factory will tell you, a Monday car’s not worth having.

Sir Peter Hall, respected theatrical director of Shakespearean work that he is, suggests that, stuck out there in the country at Stratford on Avon, Will took to the bottle or jug in a pretty big way. Had the Bard been breathalysed on his way back from Anne Hathaway’s cottage of an evening, he might well have had his licensed confiscated, or at any rate had enough points added that would have sobered him up for a while. Presumably it would be during these periods of sobriety that he would have written his more understandable plays.

Ben Johnson, a contemporary rival and a pretty good toper himself, frequently having to be wheeled home in a barrow, once wrote:

“I remember, the Players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare, that in his writing, (whatsoever he penn'd) hee never blotted out line. My answer hath beene, would he had blotted a thousand. Which the Players thought a malevolent speech.”

And some of the lines might well have been blotted out for all the sense they make. However, it takes a courageous theatregoer to stand up in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford and ask if the cast could kindly repeat the line in English.

Having said that, I’ve usually enjoyed watching the plays when performed by talented actors, more often than not at the Royal Shakespeare, where they put a lot of vim and vigour into making even the most banal of lines sound dramatic, but amateur performances tend to be pretty dire. Even the best actors have a tough time getting past some of Will’s more risible efforts with a straight face. Macbeth, for one, is full of unintended laughs for the cynical amongst the audience and any actor who values his (or her) reputation would be well advised to give it a miss.

And sometimes, perhaps because he was English, there is a nonchalant understatement. Caesar, on being punctured by his best mate, only comes up with “Et tu, Brute?” Now I feel that’s taking cool a bit too far. I don’t know about you, but I feel I would have a few comments to make on Brutus’ ancestry under the circumstances. Or certainly an “Ouch!”

A more tolerant view is that Shakespeare was not suffering from a Grade A hangover when he penned some of his less memorable phrases, but was merely pressurised by an impending deadline looming over him.

No doubt they were restive down at the Globe Theatre, waiting for the country boy to come up with another smash hit and to stop fooling around with Anne.

However, I think the first option is more viable and so perhaps the best way to appreciate the Bard in his natural environment, so to speak, would be to tackle him whilst in a similar state of intoxication.

I’m going to try it. Rather in the same way that it took the researchers at Bletchley Park some time to decipher the German Enigma codes, it may take a while, but I’ll get back to you with the results eventually.

Just as soon as I’ve got over this hangover.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A Crying Need

Being in the writing business, I look around me to see if I can find a trade, profession or enterprise that might benefit from my attentions in the literary department.

And I find there is one particular area that cries out for help in this respect.

I refer to the business that is known as Real Estate in America and as Estate Agents in Britain. Neither title is especially appropriate. Real is defined as not imaginary and how one can apply that to the descriptions of the properties on offer, beats me, and estate is a large house with extensive grounds according to the Oxford English Dictionary. A semi-detached in Surbiton hardly seems to qualify. The French, more realistically I feel, refer to them as Immobilières.

But it’s the language they use to peddle their dubious wares that upsets me. The least they could do would be to provide a glossary to enable the unwary to decipher the true meaning. “Bijou,” for instance equals cramped, “full of character” probably means it’s in dire need of re-decoration and “conveniently located” means that it’s at the confluence of a couple of motorways, a railway junction and a branch of Tesco that operates for 24 hours a day.

How the Victorians sold their houses (I mean those of the lower and middle classes) I have no idea but Exchange and Mart, that cornucopia of multi-various offerings, contained the following in May 1868:

For Sale, A capital Family House and grounds near Chiswick, five minutes walk from a station. The house contains seven or eight bedrooms, bathroom, drawing room, 20ft. by 15ft., second ditto, dining room 17ft. by 14ft.6in., library and complete offices, two stall stables, coach house, two mans’s rooms, cow houses etc., conservatory, lawns, pleasure grounds, walled kitchen gardens, and small paddock of about one acre.

It sounds ideal for a deputy Prime Minister and I think the vendors were fully justified in referring to themselves as “Estate” agents. The paucity of their English composition was apparent, however, and this has continued until the present day – it’s just that the estates have become compressed into “delightful compact linked residence, full of charm,” etc. In other words “it’s a horrid, semi-detached without a scrap of character, just like the one next door.”

A friend of mine once bought one – he named it “Symla” – not because he had any thoughts of India. It was just symla to the one next door.

William Randolph Hearst, the megalomaniac newspaper proprietor and also owner of Marion Davies, once tried to buy a castle in Britain. His telegram read:

“Want buy castle in England. Please find which ones available.” Words were, of course, at a premium in telegrams, even for someone as wealthy as he.

His agent in England went to look at Leeds Castle:

“Needs expenditure large sum to make it habitable not a bath in place only lighting by oil lamps servants quarters down dungeons (as though Hearst would have cared!) and in steep battlemented towers stop could be made fit with expenditure of four thousand.”

He finally bought St. Donat’s in Wales as it had plumbing, and proceeded to fill it with bits and pieces from all over Britain, demolishing ancient monuments as necessary and provoking outrage from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Xanadu, in Welle’s Citizen Kane, was modelled on his San Simeon in California and gives a good idea as to his taste, which was execrable, apart from Miss Marion Davies.

Some years ago there was an estate agent in London whose advertisements, to borrow a phrase from P.G.Wodehouse, stood out like jewels in a pile of coke. Roy Brooks sold houses by the simple expedient of describing just how unbelievably awful the property was. Intrigued, people would go along to view the monstrosity – and, amazed to find that it was not half as bad as it was painted (or unpainted, as the case may be), would buy it. It was an outstanding exercise in manipulation of the foibles of human nature – but none seemed to have followed his lead.

And thus I find it difficult to believe that practitioners of the black art of selling property, will, unless they change their ways, ever find themselves a seat in Heaven. And it’s not only that they are untruthful and deceptive on a daily basis, it’s just that they’re so boringly obvious about it.

So if there are any latter day Roy Brooks out there, I’m available. And then, maybe, they’ll stand a chance of getting to Heaven.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Sorry, Wrong Number!

The dangers of instant messaging were something I chuntered on about only a few days ago and, lo and possibly behold as well, there’s another example popped up in yesterday’s papers.

It seems that a television company had made the egregious error of despatching not one, but two, female producers to shoot some material on African wild life. Now I would have thought that any tried-in-the-furnace male could have pointed out that this was going to be a recipe for disaster. And so it proved to be.

For one objected to the other’s choice of camera angles and, I must admit, that with giraffes, this is a knotty problem. The optimum angle is to turn the camera on its side in order to get the whole darn thing in the frame, otherwise you get a picture with miles of savannah on either side of the main event.

Whatever the reasons, one producer got her knickers in a twist over this choice of camera angles, as those women producers who still wear them are prone to do.

Instead of relieving her feelings by taking a swat at a passing rhinoceros, she elected to send a text message to her husband in London. Having composed this, using some fruity phrases more commonly found in the vocabulary of frustrated matelots, she hit the send button. And bingo, sent it to her colleague still trying to get the giraffe in her viewfinder. What happened subsequently is not clear, but there seems to have been a rumble in the jungle and the TV company now have only one producer sweating it out in Tarzan land.

With runners, cleft sticks and later mail services, unless one was a complete klutz and muddled up the envelopes, this sort of embarrassing confusion was unlikely to happen.

But now world leaders communicate very often on a piece of fruit, a raspberry or something, and the dangers of the system must be apparent.

Take, for instance, President Kennedy, if, having faced down Kruschev over the nuclear missile business had texted Marilyn Monroe “I cut his balls off” (as he actually did say) and then had inadvertently hit the wrong button and shot the message off to the Kremlin.

Now I’m not sure what the Russian for umbrage is but I am pretty sure that Kruschev, who was a hot-headed peasant even on his better days, would have taken it as an affront, in spades, as they say. And World War Three would have kicked off.

Fortunately I live in a part of the world with which technology has only a passing interest. My cell phone (the French call it a “Portable”) works only when Mars, Uranus and a couple of other planets are in alignment and when this coincides with a high tide at Cap Frehat, so, as a means of communication, as opposed to a fashion accessory, it’s a bit of a non-event.

And, the other day, when I turned it on it read “SIM Arrête,” which, as the erudite among you know, means it’s broke. It followed with instructions to consult my vendor. I did so, a charming girl, and she twiddled with it for a while before handing it back to me with a smile. “Ah, oui, SIM arrête,” she said, agreeably. So now I have to go to the big city to find the “SIM non arrête” shop to get the little chip replaced.

As for E-Mails, France Telecom, who now call themselves Orange for some unknown reason, confidently predict that I shall have ADSL in my little corner of the world before the next millennium comes around.

The advantage here is that, with my present speed of communication, if I should inadvertently send a message to the wrong address, I can chase after it and retrieve the thing before it has got much further than the next bend in the road.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

This Sporting Life

In my youth, which no doubt many will hasten to remind me, was a long time ago and thus probably no longer relevant, I naively assumed that “sports” meant playing the game or participating in the event. Today is a Saturday and the airwaves on such afternoons are flooded with the sounds and images of games being played, but I’m willing to bet that 99.9% recurring out of those watching and undoubtedly criticising, have never taken part in any of them.

In a way it’s a pity that television is a one way street since I feel that the Rugby teams (and Soccer teams) that perform on our set of an afternoon could do well to listen to the pithy advice offered by my wife during their exhibition.

I place the blame for this trend toward spectator sports, as opposed to participant sports, on the Romans.

The Greeks had a pretty good sporting image, which at one time even included a contest for virgins, but I suppose, as time went by, the supply of participants dried up, rather as has the supply of uninjured cricketers in England.

But it was the Romans who put the kybosh on joining in the fun. Being a gladiator was a job with poor career prospects. I mean, two or three great performances, cheered by the crowd, could so easily be overshadowed by one thumbs down. It’s not surprising that the Romans turned into a nation of spectators and their influence has lingered on through the ages.

The result is that sport has now come to equate with bribery, corruption, drug taking, general mayhem and obscene amounts of money – which seems to be the sole reason for playing.

One of the greatest oxymorons of all time must be to refer to soccer as “the wonderful game.” And I would really like an explanation of what’s so wonderful about it? And no head butts about it.

American universities, with the honourable exception of Chicago, are funded by their football teams and, if you are big enough, you stand a chance of entering these halls of academia on the strength of it. If it happens to be a university with a basketball team, it helps to be seven foot tall.

I once had an American girl friend whose divorce settlement had included two ringside seats to the Florida State University games (Honestly!).With ulterior motives in mind, I attended a few of these performances. The occasions were marred for me by the absence of any alcoholic refreshment and a total inability to understand the game, which ran a staccato course where the players, looking like Action Men on steroids, bumped into each other on a pretty regular basis. The upside of the whole affair was that, unlike European soccer matches, one could usually get home unscathed. No doubt the proximity of Rome to audiences there has led to the gladiatorial influence invading the spectators area.

So, on the whole, I suppose it’s not surprising that we are now largely spectators and not performers, in spite of the money that might come our way.

The advantages are becoming clearer as I write. This afternoon, I can sit in comfort in my own home, drink in hand, and view a game without being jostled and harassed by a load of people that I have never met. Nobody’s funny hat is going to impede my view which should be unmarred as long as France TV does its stuff. My chances of being duffed up after the game for supporting the wrong team are minimal and, if it turns out to be as boring as an American football match, I can just nod off.

You have to admit that it beats all that “We who are about to die, salute you” nonsense that you get involved with as a player.

The Romans, as so often, had a point.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Don't Ask me Again!

There should be some sort of law on the artistic statute books that forbids authors and film makers from producing sequels to their successful works. If there isn’t, it’s going to be one of the first things I do when I come to power. Peter Mayle wrote a hugely entertaining and popular book, “ A Year In Provence,” some time ago and it enthused him and his publishers to follow-up with more in the same vein. From thereon it escalated until there was a whole library (or bibliotheque) of books by others describing, in hilarious detail, the travails of the British in attempting to civilise the French by moving in with them. Almost to a man or woman, these ungrateful frogs failed to recognise the benefits that the British had brought to their Empire, and the books consist primarily of anecdotes concerning this obtuseness. Peter Mayle has a lot to answer for, I feel.

Fortunately statistics prove that, for once, the British suffer defeat – apparently two thirds of those that come to settle in France pack it in and return quietly to their Saxon shores, probably to write a book about their experiences.

And, in general, sequels prove to be disappointing, as music hall artists used to find when asked to follow Marie Lloyd or Chevalier – the audience were not in the mood for them.

Even Jerome K. Jerome came a bit unstuck when asked to follow his wonderful “Three Men in a Boat.” His agent would undoubtedly have had the bright idea:

“Hi there, Jerome. You don’t mind me calling you by your first name, Mr. Jerome? Or would you prefer Klapka? No, I wouldn’t either. Well, I know that Three Men in a Boat didn’t come out the way we ordered – remember it was supposed to be a travel book about the Thames? Your turning it into a book of jokes really upset us for a while until we saw the sales figures. Now we’ve talked it over and how about writing one on, say, a bicycle tour of Germany….?”

So J.K.J. did, and the result was “Three Men on a Bummel,” and if you don’t understand the title, neither did a great many of the public. It’s a funny book – but not a patch on its predecessor.

Conan Doyle wisely elected to rub out Sherlock Holmes by having Professor Moriarty kick him into the Reichenbach Falls. But in this case, it was the public that forced him to resuscitate him. Doyle would have been content to have let him stay dead, I feel. And he was never quite the same man afterwards.

Margaret Mitchell not only succeeded in resisting the temptation to write GWTW II but also the temptation to write anything else at all, thus preserving her reputation intact, a policy that many could follow to advantage.

So when you have written your best-seller and your agent or publisher is hounding you to do a sequel, I feel it is best to demur politely. Well, that’s what I shall do.

Our reputation’s bound to suffer.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Happy Days.

Modern readers and theatregoers seem obsessed with tales of unhappiness and poverty. Take Les Miserables, for instance, which is still packing them in at the Queens Theatre in London’s West End. My first thought was that the impresarios had forgotten to close it down, you know how these little things tend to slip one’s mind, but, no, apparently the public are still showing up in droves and the cash registers at the box office are alive with the sound of moolah.

If they’d named it Les Heureux, it would have closed within a week. Rather as George Bernard Shaw’s note of regret when offered tickets to the first night of someone else’s play. He apologised for not being able to attend but said he would love tickets for the second night, “if there is one.”

Autobiographers have been busily mining this unhappy seam of life just recently. It seems that the only work that will get a publisher to leap from behind his desk, chequebook in hand, is to dish him up a story of unremitting hardship and deprivation, coupled with a few other undesirable and unsavoury facts of life.

Ireland seems to be the locale of choice for these memoirs, which regale the reader with exciting tales of lack of shoes, clothes, beatings and a diet of potatoes. A picture of a runny nosed kid on the cover is mandatory.

Now I have spent a good deal of time in Ireland, both north and south, and I can’t recall ever meeting a truly miserable Irishman. I suppose, when I was visiting, they were all closeted away in their garrets penning their memoirs.

And this is the crux of my problem. My autobiography could only contain details of my very happy childhood. I always had shoes, as far as I can recall, my parents never argued and never struck me and, if not wealthy, we never had to survive on a diet of potatoes. My only unhappy experiences were when I was sent away to boarding school.

In other words, my autobiography would probably not even merit a rejection letter by today’s standards.

There is a solution. I could lie about my early days.

And this is, apparently, what a great many of these biographers have done when recounting their earliest days.

One particularly successful work in this style (you can pick it up at any airport bookstore), has found its way back to the village in Ireland that was the setting for the author’s sad and sorry tale. And the graphic description therein do not jibe with the memories of the locals, none of whom seem to be lacking in the appropriate brain cells to be able to recall the shoeless lad (allegedly) who now writes of his unhappy childhood.

This is not an isolated instance either. The falsifying of life stories seems to have become de rigeur if you want to get it published. And the proposed equation that poverty = misery is hardly accurate. Often quite the reverse is true.

I remember sitting in a café in Mexico City watching a kid playing in the gutter with an empty Coca Cola can. His eyes were alight with excitement, the excitement of imagination and he must have spent a very happy hour there (I know I had three beers whilst watching him). Compared with the zombie like expressions of the children in wealthy and developed societies as they play their mindless Nintendos, it was revelation. But perhaps the Japanese will soon be able to implant their microchips directly into the kid’s brains, thereby, so to speak, cutting out the middle man. As a bonus, perhaps they could programme them to do something useful.

Thus it was with great pleasure that I received a request from a gentleman to help him write his autobiography. He has had a difficult but interesting life for sure. But it was his last couple of lines that struck a chord with me. He wrote:

“I have been used and abused, faced prejudices but always kept faith and always kept smiling, even when confronted with situations which would be most people’s worst nightmares. But as every good story should have, there is a happy ending!”

As he says, that’s what every good story should have.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Sound Thinking

“What is this life,

If full of care,

We have no time

To stand and stare?”

…….wrote someone whose name I can’t recall. He was absolutely right and I’ve spent a good deal of my life standing and staring. Nowadays I tend to sit and stare as it’s easier on the feet, but the general principle is the same.

It’s during these early morning periods of what I prefer to refer to as contemplative thought, that the muse of inspiration usually smites me between the eyes, resulting in the sort of golden prose that I know you look forward to each day.

But not yesterday. For yesterday, due to a number of outside influences, the muse was notably absent.

It occurs to me that future historians may stumble upon this work and be wracked with anxiety over this strange omission. What, they may ask, can possibly have happened on the 19th. of September in 2006 that caused him not to pen even the skimpiest entry? Undoubtedly they would search the archives for an explanation and probably convene several international enquiries into the matter, but it would remain one of the world’s mysteries. So I feel that an explanation is due.

But, I hear you say, you often don’t write anything on Sunday, so what’s the difference? Well, the Good Book says that thou shalt knock off the work bit on that day and I’ve never been one to neglect sound advice. But weekdays are different.

Of course, diarists are under no legal obligation to fill in every day with their thoughts. Boswell and Pepys often left out days and, as far as I’m concerned, Bridget Jones need not have bothered in the first place.

Even the diligent monks who wrote the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles would take their eye off the ball occasionally. For instance, in 509 AD, they only made a single entry for the entire year: “St. Benedict, the abbot, father of all monks, fared to heaven.” I suppose they must have spent a lot of time standing and staring that year, especially with the abbot out of the way.

And that was my problem, for I find that on the 18th. I had spent far too much time in contemplative thought and the scheduled work had just not been completed. It was the same when I was at school and only clumps alongside the head would rouse me from my deeply contemplative state (they misdiagnosed it as “laziness,” medical science being less advanced in those days) . My position in the class seems to have been directly proportional to the frequency of these smacks on the head, and perhaps this is a measure that the government might think of bringing into play to improve the current academic performance in schools.

As a result of my Monday day-dreaming, Tuesday morning was frenetic as I had to rush to get the backlog cleared. By the time I had finished, the muse of inspiration had packed up and gone home. Hence no blog.

And without some quiet thinking time, no writer could ever accomplish anything worthwhile. And without some peaceful contemplation, where would there be any serenity in life?

My father used to quote the story of the old countryman, sitting on a bench outside the local pub, who was asked what he did all day. Figuratively taking the straw out of his mouth, he said:

“Well, some days I sits and thinks…………. but on other days, I just sits.”

Monday, September 18, 2006

No News Might be Good News

It seems to me that the speed of modern communications has a good deal to answer for when it comes to spreading misery around the world.

The other day the Pope made an unguarded statement that, in the good old days, would only have been noticed by someone with very acute hearing standing just outside the walls of The Vatican with a glass pressed against them.

When Pope Urban II started all this business of religious crusades, the Arab world would not have noticed it until there was a clanking of armour outside the gates of Constantinople. His rabble rousing speech in November 1095 to the Council of Clermont and hosted by the Bishop of le Puy, would not have made headlines in the Jerusalem Gazette that day and most of the inhabitants of the Holy Land would have gone on watching their flocks by night and pursuing other domestic matters, unaware of the impending tourists. Even when they arrived, many would have remained blissfully ignorant and thus blissfully happier.

And the time taken to prepare messages in the age before typewriters and computers gave one ample time to reconsider any hasty words and possibly do a quick rewrite. It’s probably sage advice to never mail a letter out in a fit of pique – by the next day, things may be seen in a different light.

King George III wrote in his diary on July 4th. 1776, “Nothing of significance happened this day.” And of course nothing had, as far as he was aware, so he probably spent a happy and carefree day. Why mess it up with an E-Mail from a bunch of rebels a few thousand miles away delivering instant bad news?

Winston Churchill, too, recognised the value of less than instant communication. At the start of World War II, he had been infuriated by Roosevelt sending a destroyer to collect Britain’s gold reserves from South Africa. He wrote, “it was like the aspect of a sheriff collecting the last aspects of a local debtor.” On thinking it over, and as he was busily courting the sheriff at the time, he deleted the line from his letter to Roosevelt.

A few days ago I wrote of the delay in communications that caused Claudius’ general to waste his time on the beach at Boulogne. I mentioned the name of the general as being Marcus Aurelius which was, of course, a deliberate mistake to see if you were all paying attention. (If you believe that, I’ve a bridge to sell you!) The name of the general was, in fact, Aulus Plautius and his messenger a freed slave by the name of Narcissus. As you all knew, Marcus Aurelius was a respected Roman emperor, a good deal more respectable than most. Those of you that wrote in with the correct answer will receive a 100 Dinar note bearing the image of President Hussein.

But while he was idling his time away at Boulogne (and those of you that have been there will appreciate his problem) Aulus would undoubtedly have put a few final touches to his invasion plans which were, ultimately, to prove successful. The time was well spent.

And had the leaders of the so-called free world taken a little more time to consider matters, perhaps as they awaited a courier to arrive by sailing ship from the Middle East, the present conflicts there might have been resolved more peaceably and sensibly.

So if communications weren’t so instant, we’d all probably still be enjoying ourselves a lot more.

Sometimes ignorance may be bliss.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

A Commercial Break

“Where’s the instructions for the TV,” asks my wife, “It’s gone all green.”

St. Patrick’s Day, perhaps?” I blurt out, and suddenly realise that I have committed a terrible domestic gaffe. You see, my wife is from Texas and as we all know, or jolly well should, Texan jokes are bigger and better than any other jokes. So my little sally was greeted with scorn and derision plus a few other things.

But we all make mistakes and even the good Lord was not immune, as otherwise how come those giant tortoises are in the Galapagos Islands and not in Texas where, by the natural order of things, they should be?

Anyway, I’m no great lover of television, green or otherwise. I feel that they should have patted John Logie Baird on the head and given him a medal or a knighthood (they seem to come pretty cheap) and told him to take his machine to the Science Museum (it wound up there anyway). But then, his was not the system that came into use, although I still believe he should shoulder most of the blame. His gadget used a spinning disc and, had it found favour, would have meant that everyone’s living room would have had a sort of spin dryer running in a corner.

But I, not for the first or last time, digress.

There’s a lot of good stuff on television, I agree, but they should award it ears and a tail and throw the rest of the bull away.

There is, however, a dark and dirty secret lurking within me, and my conscience will probably feel the better for it if I own up now. In my youth, clearly misspent, I was an advertising copywriter in a small agency. When commercial television came along, they needed someone to write the scripts for the new-fangled commercials and, as the cleaning lady was on her day off, I got the job.

The finest professionals of the Inquisition will not make me reveal which of these clunkers I was responsible for but I do wake up sometimes in a cold sweat at the memory.

Now I realise that this is an irremovable stain upon my family escutcheon, that even an application of the New Formula Extra Strength Whizzo Spray Cleaner (with added Oxygen) that I have just glimpsed on the TV would have a tough time getting rid of, but there it is. Undoubtedly there’s some special corner in Hell for the likes of myself and my fellow writers, where we will be condemned to watch detergent commercials for eternity.

And so from force of habit I find myself watching television mainly when the commercial breaks are on. It’s a sort of professional compulsion and often they are more entertaining than the programmes anyway.

So now my guilty secret is out and I trust you will regard me with compassion.

After all, everyone makes mistakes. Just think of those Galapagos tortoises.

And I notice that the television is still green. Rather an attractive shade, I feel.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Waxing Lyrical

Apparently the London theatre scene is shortly to be flooded, inundated or otherwise made awash with a surfeit of melodic euphoria. In other words, there’s going to be an awful lot of musical plays in competition with each other for the coming winter.

I can only assume that this lurch into the never never land of drama is a reaction to the generally miserable news from around the world, escapism by way of words and music.

And most of it would seem to be just that. The Sound of Music will have its all-singing, all dancing display of edelweiss (I may have got that a bit wrong, but you know what I mean) whilst the producers undoubtedly are aware that a large spoonful of sugar will make the most unpleasant of medicines go down, as Mary Poppins sails through the cardboard cut-out chimneys of a London backdrop.

About the only dissonant note to this happy cavalcade will be the arrival of Cabaret, and I really don’t know how they’re going to manage without Joel Grey. Personally I think doing without Liza Minelli can only be a plus but this wonderful musical with its sinister Nazi undertones is in sharp contrast to most of the rest on offer.

Of course, Les Miserables is still plugging away, as miserables as ever and I can’t remember a single tune from it – but many can it seems.

But spare a thought for the lyric writers and librettists, who always seem to get second billing after the geezer that wrote the music, most of which is acceptable, except in my case for Andrew Lloyd Webber, to name but three.

The Greeks appreciated them far more than present day audiences, perhaps because their efforts were not drowned out by the music. Aristophanes, for instance, had a great run and, in spite of poking fun at practically all of his contemporaries, was highly regarded even in the usually unduly sensitive political circles.

By the time we get to the Victorian era, the music was beginning to take over and W.S. Gilbert found himself in considerable competition with that reluctant tunesmith, Arthur Sullivan, who always felt that he should be writing for grand opera. I’m very glad he didn’t.

Gilbert’s lyrics are so elaborate that even with the advent of modern technology in the form of microphones (modern actors being born with delicate larynxes, it seems) audiences miss a great deal. He, or more probably d’Oyly Carte, solved the problem by handing out song sheets to the audience, a practice which I would urge the management of the Savoy to re-institute. A few years ago I took my daughter to a performance of H.M.S. Pinafore. Knowing the libretto, it was thoroughly enjoyable for me but I did feel that those who did not would have missed a great deal. However, she thoroughly enjoyed the show and, on returning to school in the United States, informed them that she had watched P.M.S. Pinafore during her vacation.

Few modern librettists and lyricists can match Gilbert’s skill, he was a latter day Aristophanes, and I suppose the words to most of the songs that will burst upon the London scene this winter will be eminently forgettable – as well as probably inaudible.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

It's Copyright!

This morning’s effort was seriously disrupted by the need to take some immediate legal action against an infringer of my copyright in an E-Book.

This book, “Just Numbers on a Screen,” has been available for over six months in Adobe format, for printing out or just viewing on the screen. Dealing as it does with a major fraudulent investment programme, it has generated a good deal of emotive response, especially from those who still believe that money grows on trees.

The book file is sold with no restriction on replication, since it is felt that sharing such a file with friends and family is much the equivalent of passing around the hard copy of the book and is to be encouraged. However, it is clearly subject to the laws of copyright.

The investment scheme at the heart of the book is a prominent feature on many Internet forums, and this morning I was a little surprised to see that one embittered investor had decided to take it upon himself to share the file, free and clear, with others, and was advertising that it was available as a free download on a website dedicated to the sharing of files,

Unfortunately for him, he had failed to read (or had ignored) the fine print in his agreement with that company who are obviously only too well aware of the dangers of copyright infringement. They provide a sort of pro-forma letter of complaint to resolve any such abuse and so it took little time for them to pull the file from their site.

Now the only problem facing the gentleman who infringed the copyright is that he may well be asked to pay for the illegally downloaded files.

Often in such cases it is difficult to pin down the perpetrator but in this case, by placing himself in the public eye with his postings, he has exposed himself to the full force of the copyright protection laws.

And, of course, Ultrashare are only to pleased to cooperate in order to stay on the right side of the law themselves.

But he did succeed in wasting a good deal of my time today – I hope he can afford it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


“Never can resist a challenge,” he said. I looked at him in amazement, goggle-eyed and mouth agape. What was the fool saying? Up until then I had regarded him as a pretty normal specimen of Homo Sapiens, showing no signs of incipient madness. Perhaps not quite up to my standard of intelligence but pretty close. (I do feel that false modesty is unbecoming, don’t you?)

And now here he was with something akin to the madness of King George, you know, the guy who gave Americans their independence.

For myself, I’ve always avoided challenges, rather like an adagio dancer crossing a minefield. There seems to be not much of a percentage in it.

In the middle ages, I understand it was quite the rage. In days of old when knights were bold, Knight A, for instance, would have his lustful eyes on Fair Lady C and would have to challenge her present courtier, Knight B, to a bit of tin-bashing to decide the winner. You will notice that I’m fond of allocating A’s, B’s and C’s etc. to characters. I feel it makes everything so much clearer, rather like in those school problems where A, B and C can dig a hole in 8 hours as long as that fool D doesn’t come along and start filling it in. I never could understand this and thus usually failed mathematics.

However, it seems that in those days Fair Ladies were a bit like stamps, you could swap them pretty easily, and so they could well wind up in the arms of T, D or H (Tom, Dick or Harry). In our case here, Knight A triumphed over Knight B who rode off into the sunset to get some metalworker to sort out his bent armour and A would carry off C only to find that B had gone off with the key to her chastity belt.

So challenges are fraught with difficulty.

When I was young, it was often suggested that I should look for a proper job. I would scour the sits. vac. adverts in the better newspapers, often finding just the job that would suit. I especially liked those where a car was part of the perks and preferred Jaguars. I would seem to be admirably suited for the post until, reading further, I would spot that the idiot employer had included the sentence: “This is a challenging position.”

Now what intelligent employer would want a man or woman who was looking for a challenge? It defies commonsense. What prospective employees are looking for is a post where they can drift in between 9 and 9.30, have coffee and a chat with the other employees and toddle off to an extended lunchtime around mid-day. Around fivish, it is important to leave a little early in order to avoid rush hour, always providing that you have had time to finish the Telegraph crossword during the day. And, of course, nothing in any way challenging during the day.

It’s no wonder to me that employers have a tough time filling vacancies.

But I suppose life itself is enough of a challenge for most of us.

That’s why I think anyone who goes out looking for challenges is in serious need of counselling. I recall that a mountain was climbed simply “because it was there.”

And all he got in return was a knighthood.

So for my part, I am going to restrict myself to the parameters of everyday challenges. Like getting up in the morning, for instance.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

If I Could Talk with the Animals..........

Dr. Doolittle always seemed to have a good time talking to his animal friends and I must say that so do I. Here I have a great many with whom I can conduct a morning’s chat, donkeys, goats, and sheep, and I find it all very rewarding.

The rapt attention which they pay me is most flattering although I must say that there is usually a lot of snuffling around to see if I’ve brought them any breakfast.

They all have slightly different interests, I find. A very large donkey by the name of Noisette is primarily interested in domestic and family affairs whilst Leo, by the semaphoring of his ears as I talk, shows a lively interest in foreign matters. Blair’s visit to Lebanon, for instance.

Thinking it over, I feel that, were they able to speak to me in my language, much of the magic of these early morning sessions would be dissipated. I would find that, just like people, they would have opinions that differed from mine, they would prove to be contentious, self-centred and down right argumentative. Our peaceful co-existence would be shattered.

As it is, it is a calm and placid start to my day and perhaps the human race should take a close look at the animal kingdom. I find it admirable, although I must confess that I have never faced a man-eating tiger or a charging African rhinocerous, events which might lead me to reconsider my position.

When I speak of differences of religion which lead to bloodshed, the donkeys laugh incredulously and even the sheep have to smile. Only the mountain goats have shown any tendency to extend their lebensraum by vaulting the fences, and they are soon persuaded that it’s not a great idea when they find that most of the food is back in their home territory.

And the sheep, apart from the rams who do indulge in a bit of friendly horseplay around mating time, are essentially a peace loving lot. All of them here are black but they seem to have no prejudice against lighter members of their breed.

And animals are grateful, not in a sending of flowers and hypocritical thank you notes kind of way. A couple of days ago, one of the mountain goats got herself inextricably enmeshed in some wire. She is a lovely animal with a superb pair of horns which were, of course, her undoing in this case. She was so tangled up that it took me a good fifteen minutes with the use of wire cutters to free her. Previously, she had been very shy but yesterday, as I was talking to a couple of donkeys and discussing world affairs, I felt a nudge and there she was. I think it was her way of saying thank you. It was better than a Hallmark card.

Not everyone sees things this way. When I pointed out that she had a lovely face, I was looked upon with scorn and derision. But she has, although I think male goats usually regard things from the other end when it comes to assessing beauty.

So when I go to a better world (surely it must be, not another one like this!) I hope that I get assigned to a position with animals for eternity. I quite fancy being a shepherd. Healthy, outdoor life, plenty of thinking time and, as an audience, I find sheep are without doubt, listeners par excellence. And, provided the flock is not too large, there are few mathematical problems to grapple with.

However, if the luck that a fickle fate has dished me up in this life so far is anything to go by, I’ll probably wind up as a meeter and greeter at Disneyworld!

Monday, September 11, 2006

I'm Trying to Connect You...........

Once upon a time, and you must agree with me that all the best stories start this way, to send your message to an old pal you stuck it into a cleft stick, summoned a fellow with a sturdy pair of legs, and sent him on his way to the prescribed address. It was a bit time consuming, of course. Marcus Aurelius had to loiter about the beach at Boulogne, waiting to invade England, for about six months waiting for a message to come back from Claudius in Rome.

In the middle ages, horse replaced runner and, providing it didn’t go lame or the rider ran across the odd highwayman, things speeded up dramatically. Steam brought in the railway and, in Britain, the Royal Mail enable one to buy a piece of coloured paper to stick on your letter. In return, they delivered it for you by rail, often overnight. This system attracted much attention from the authorities who fine tuned it so that now your piece of coloured paper costs a Royal fortune, delivery takes several days and, as an added bonus, a sizeable proportion of the mail is arranged to go missing. This creates employment for the staff who can now spend their days looking for it.

Thus, when the age of electronics ushered in E-Mail, free, fast and surely reliable, many of us embraced it eagerly.

Now if I wanted to correspond with my friend in Wickenburg, Arizona ( please note that this is purely for illustrative purposes, I have no friends in Wickenburg, Arizona) I E-Mail my message to him. According to these clever chappies who know all about this sort of thing, electricity travels at the same speed as light (how do they figure this stuff out?) which proceeds at a mind boggling 186,000 miles a second. This is even more boggling if you turn it into kilometres but I’m assured it amounts to much the same thing. So in theory, Mr. X, if I may call him that, in Wickenburg should get my missive, if not in the blink of an eye, pretty soon thereafter.

But for some reason it doesn’t. My message seems to have made a good many orbits of the earth plus a couple of trips into outer space before arriving in Wickenburg. Ah, they tell me, that’s because it does not go straight to Mr. X, it has to go through several points along the way, apparently to change trains or something. And the connections must rival trying to work out a journey on the British rail system.

They have even taken a leaf out of the Royal Mail book, for now they manage to lose a good proportion of the messages, which is what happened to me recently. My Internet service (?) provider elected to dump mail that it considered to be not worthy of my attention. This is the equivalent of my reliable mailman, Joseph, flicking through my letters on the way up the lane to my mailbox and tossing aside those he thought weren’t going to be of interest to me.

But personally I think that the delay in delivery of E-Mails recently is due to Uncle Sam (or whoever is deputising for him at the moment) sticking his nose into the communication business. I suspect my missing mail is hung up somewhere on Condoleeza’s desk in the White House while she tries to explain the long words to her boss.

It’s all a little strange. Even more so when you reflect that facsimile transmissions work almost exactly as predicted. I can send a fax to Mr.X, and provided he has his machine turned on, it will arrive more or less at 186,000 miles per second, little more than a blink of the eye (he does blink fairly slowly).

And the humble fax machine predates the Internet – I remember seeing one in action in the early 1970’s.

It’s the price of progress I suppose.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Thank you, Sir Henry.

The world is full of collectors. Some collect stamps and call themselves for some strange reason, philatelists, when stamp-collectors would be self explanatory. Some collect old china and others shrunken heads, although I understand that the latter group are discouraged by the authorities. It’s a human trait and I must confess that I am one of them. I collect eccentrics.

Over the years I have amassed a wide range of these, all of whom have given me much pleasure but are items which, I have to admit, are difficult to dispose of on E-Bay in times of financial hardship. Unlike stamps, old china or even shrunken heads.

Tonight, or last night, whenever you read this, is the last night of the Sir Henry Wood promenade concerts, and Sir Henry is one of the items in my collection. Eccentric is often misinterpreted to mean slightly dotty but it merely means unconventional.

And Sir Henry was that way inclined. Having got his orchestra thundering away on one occasion, out of the corner of his eye he glimpsed some late-comers fumbling their way to their seats. Stopping his crew in mid bar, he turned and viewed the latecomers with a beady eye. Once they were settled, he bowed slightly and resumed the concert from the beginning. I bet they weren’t late next time! He also remarked that personally he had nothing against the bagpipes but felt that they were best heard from the far side of a mountain. In view of the Royal Family’s predilection for those instruments of torture, (remember they were developed to frighten the enemy) it’s a wonder he ever got a knighthood.

But the wonderful thing about the Prom concerts is that Sir Henry promoted them to provide music students with a means of concert going that had previously been restricted to the tiara and evening dress crowd, few of whom could tell a Corelli from their coccyx – and who cared even less.

They were there to be seen, not to listen to some boring music.

As a teenager, my father would take me to one or two of the concerts each year. Sadly I was too late to see Sir Henry in action. My ambition had always been to be a composer but my father sagely counselled me that most composers starved. After a few diversions of career, having taken his advice, I am now able to starve as an author. But he meant well.

It is fashionable for the “gentlemen of the press,” a description which becomes less and less valid by the minute, to denigrate the last night of the Proms as being a jingoistic example of British imperialism. Perhaps they’ve never been themselves for nothing can be further from the truth. To me it is the only time I have seen English men and women thoroughly enjoying themselves in a civilised manner – and all without having recourse to ten pints of beer to release their inhibitions.

So tonight is the last night of this season’s performances and I just wish that I could be amongst the revellers. It would be, of course, all that much more enjoyable were my father to be there with me.

Friday, September 08, 2006

At the Hustings

It will come as a great relief to you, and to a good many others in this world, to hear that I harbour no political aspirations. Although with a pompous phrase like that I would be well equipped to make political speeches, my interest in politics is zip. Even though I attended a college of knowledge that had “political science” in it’s title, I have no idea what that means – and I still don’t see much science in the business.

Why, you may ask, is this old fool blathering on about politics when he knows nothing of the subject? Well, when I read the London newspapers, as it behoves anyone to do who has an interest in world affairs, and this morning find it difficult to establish just how many have been decimated in the Bush-Blair Iraqi “liberation” or how many have lost everything in Lebanon, together with news of other worldwide events, the reason being that some political kerfuffle over the British Prime Minister and his cohorts has overwhelmed the rest of the news, it sparks my interest.

Now my understanding of democracy as applied to Great Britain was that the government were appointed to oversee the well-being of the populace on a “pro bono publico” basis, not to indulge in verbal fisticuffs with each other. They seem to have missed the whole point of the exercise.

Not having had the experience of living in Britain for many years, I suppose I can look at it a bit objectively. After all, I’m not the one who’s going to get duffed up on the street on my way home from the pub at night nor am I likely to suffer at the hands of a suicide bomber. But surely the government should be taking care of business first?

And today’s politicians seem to have lost their wit along with their wits.

Disraeli once remarked that “It would be a tragedy if anybody were to push Mr. Gladstone into the river – and a disaster if anybody should pull him out.” He also commented that Gladstone “always acted as though he had an ace up his sleeve, and that, moreover, God had placed it there for him.”

Churchill’s repartee is well known and even stuffy old Harold Macmillan perceptively remarked of the Kennedy administration that it was though the Borgias had taken over a small Italian town.

But since then little has been heard from government spokesmen that was not just routine government spokesmenspeech. It’s just like Orwell’s 1984 only not quite so well phrased.

So my interest in politics is only aroused when forced upon me as by this morning’s headlines. I have never lusted power but I do have some small measure of sympathy for those that find themselves in the business of politics and at the head of a nation.

They remind me of that old adage concerning schoolteachers: “Them as can do, them as can’t teach.” One could paraphrase this to read “ Them as can’t boss themselves should go into government to boss everybody else.” Take poor old Blair for instance. he seems to have been a failed guitarist, not even up to the “Docherty, I like your music” get out of jail free card that this drug taking icon can obtain. When he was a barrister (Blair, not Docherty), his briefs seem to have been too brief, so what’s a guy to do? The answer’s obvious – go into politics. Charles Dickens had all this wrapped up in Pickwick Papers and Our Mutual Friend with his perceptive descriptions of the political process.

And having reached the top, all you’re going to wind up with is a load of grief, usually from those who helped you to get there in the first place. No, politics in a democracy is just not worth getting into – and I’m not.

But I’ve been thinking seriously that being a dictator has its attractions, so I’m shipping a letter off to Fidel tomorrow to see if he’s looking for a successor. To me it seems he’s been the most successful politician I can remember. Now that looks like my kind of politics.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Vikings are Coming!

As you may have gathered, our little cottage is in a pretty remote part of the French countryside. It’s not that it’s a long way from anywhere, the village is only 2kms away, but it is very well concealed down an unmarked, unpaved track and hidden behind a good many trees. This location has baffled Federal Express, DHL, the United Parcel Service and a number of local couriers over the years, and we have become used to going out on search and rescue missions to retrieve them. Global Positioning Units have been known to break down and sob when asked to guide the owner to our location. So you can gather that we’re hard to find.

Unfortunately, our mail man, Joseph, having lived in the village all his life, knows exactly where we are and so the bills arrive with depressing regularity.

Now for some time I have been working with a Swedish author on his book and, although we had agreed to meet at some point, nothing had been scheduled and, apart from having my address, I had sent him no instructions on how to reach me.

Imagine my surprise then to find a tall, bearded Scandinavian standing on my doorstep the other day. He’d found us, something that had defeated all the above mentioned delivery people! It was a pleasant surprise, I might add, and was enhanced by the fact that he had his charming wife with him.

The point of this little anecdote is that it illustrates the determination and the navigational abilities of a people who are descended from The Vikings.

You may recall, although probably not from personal experience I might add, that some thousand years ago these Norsemen would nip across the North Sea to England in their longships to do a bit of raping, pillaging and plundering before returning home. It was their equivalent of today’s overseas soccer matches, I suppose.

Their technique was to cruise along the coast line until they saw a likely church tower, when they would land, scoop up the offertory box and a some choice bits of silverware, rape some of the women and depart, presumably satisfied on all counts.

It got so bad that in the southwest corner of Wales, the inhabitants of St. Davids built their cathedral, not on high ground as convention dictated, but in a valley, discreetly hidden from offshore.

Eventually I think the womenfolk left behind got a little tired of their men going off to have fun and demanded that they produced a little more regular income to provide them back home with new helmets, furs and jewellery etc. Nothing much has changed over the years.

So the head of the Viking invaders (they were called “The Force” by the British) would come ashore and have a little tête à tête with his opposite number in the town. Delicately, he would propose that, if the townspeople would make a contribution to The Norseman’s Widows and Orphans Fund, he would restrict his men to the minimum of pillaging and plundering, allowing just enough rape to keep them quiet on the voyage back home. He suggested that they could refer to this cosy arrangement as “The Danegeld.”

Eventually, by these means, the Vikings bought up England.

But they are a restless people and one, Eirik the Red, sailed further west and came across a remarkably inhospitable looking land consisting of snow, ice and some high mountains. Anxious to make a name for himself, he decided to colonise this unprepossessing spot and, realising that a truthful description would not attract many, he named it Greenland. It was the first real estate fraud in history and set the precedent for realtors the world over.

And then later, disaster overtook humanity, for Eirik’s son, Leif, heading even further west, found America.

Even someone as patriotic as Mark Twain felt bound to comment that, “It was wonderful to have found America; it would have been more wonderful to have missed it.”

And, since then, as you can see, it’s been downhill all the way.

Nowadays the eyes of the world are fixed upon the Middle East but personally, I think we should be keeping at least one eye on the Scandinavians. They’ve been quiescent for a thousand years and must be just about ready to break out again.

So if, from your front room window, you should see a longship with a crowd of Vikings (they’re pretty easy to spot) coming down your street, lock up your daughters, hide your valuables and swallow the PIN number to your credit card. It can only be a matter of time.

P.S. For a slightly more academic look at the Viking invasions of Britain, my book, “Assaulting Britannia,” will be available shortly.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


There are some works in English literature that suffer from their own fame, inasmuch as their title is on everyone’s lips but not many have actually read the book.

In the early eighteenth century, Jonathan Swift wrote “Gulliver’s Travels,” a book which must be known by its title to a broad swathe of the public. Now I know that you, gentle reader, are fully aware of the details of this work which you have undoubtedly read, being clearly of an erudite turn of mind – after all, you’re reading this! But I suspect for many of the great unwashed out there, “Gulliver’s Travels” is a book for kids, all about those little people from Lilliput and usually presented in a pop-up cardboard cut-out book as cartoon characters.

There was even an animated movie made by the Fleischer Brothers that managed to ignore practically everything that Swift had put into the book and reduced it to the level of a Donald Duck show.

Swift would have been mortified. He wrote the book as a biting satire on mankind, and having it dumbed down to kindergarten level would hurt almost as much as the fact the he only got £200 for it. Even this was above par for the course, since he accepted money for none of his other voluminous writings, being a genuine literary philanthropist.

The worst part is that none of the “popular” versions go beyond Gulliver’s voyage to Lilliput, and it is in some of the subsequent adventures that much of the value of the work lies. Brobdingnag, Laputa, Balnibari, Luggnagg, Glubbdubrib and, rather oddly, Japan are all visited in turn and their morals and mores are looked at with a critical eye. Admittedly, some of the scenes depicted are not for the eyes of the kiddiwinkies, which is perhaps why the Bowdlerised versions stop short at Lilliput. In Brobdingnag, for instance, the land of the giants, Glumdalclitch takes a few immodest liberties with Gulliver, who describes her personal appearance in detail. As she is some forty feet tall, it’s not a pretty sight, apparently.

Lemuel Gulliver, who seems to have some rough luck with the weather on each of his voyages as he gets shipwrecked every time, finally visits the Country of the Houyhnhnms, where the rulers are horses. Apart from an understandably slight difficulty with the language and pronunciation here, Lemuel gets on pretty well with the highly intelligent gee gees but has little time for their servants, the Yahoos, who were in the shape of humans and were men and women of a particularly unattractive appearance.

“Upon the whole,” he writes, “I never beheld in all my travels so disagreeable an animal, or one against which I naturally conceived so strong an antipathy.”

The word Yahoo has entered the English language, and the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as being a rude, coarse or brutish person which makes one wonder why the designers of an Internet search engine picked it for a name.

But perhaps they haven’t read Swift’s book and were using the word in the other sense listed in the dictionary – expressing great joy or excitement, the mating cry of the American male.

Now I prefer to believe that they used the former definition as a cynical commentary on a society that believes everything can be learned from a computer screen and that books are redundant, turning us all into Yahoos eventually. And I think Swift would be pleased with that idea.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


This may come as a shock to you (it did to me) but some of my nearest and dearest friends are of the opinion that my character is not completely flawless. Rubbish, I hear you say, and I can relate to that. Clearly there is a fault in their thought processes to come up with such a bizarre idea.

Now I would be the first to admit that I do have some quirks and foibles, which would make a jolly good name for a firm of antique dealers, but I suspect this may be hereditary.

My father, who was one of the men voted least likely to upset a host, had an antipathy for pictures that were hung crookedly on a wall. On spotting one of these obscenities in his host’s house, he would shuffle nervously from one foot to the other until a break in the conversation allowed him to excuse himself. Then, having straightened the picture, he would return to his host and resume the discussion, now fully at his ease even if his host wasn’t.

My own problem lies with typography and layout of the printed word and yesterday I experienced one of those traumas that are likely to hang over me for the rest of the week.

My Monday’s efforts in this medium included a quotation. On uploading (technical stuff this) I found to my horror that everything was fine except that the quoted portion came out in a different typeface. Even worse, there was an inexplicable gap in the lines.

Naturally, I scrapped it and re-loaded it several times, with precisely the same result. It previewed perfectly correctly but some evil minded gremlin insisted that it placed the quote in another face – complete with the gap.

I re-typed it completely – with the same result.

As you know, the “Help” files on all computer programmes are carefully vetted to eliminate the sort of problem you are having and this one was no exception. There was no answer provided to my question of what to do when the bit you want in one typeface refuses to obey and insists of coming up in another, unspecified one. There were answers to a lot of problems that would never occur in my lifetime but not to my particular difficulty.

By four o’clock in the morning, I lost my nerve and let the thing go, complete with gap. I know. You probably wouldn’t even notice. But there it is, a stunning example of my imperfection. I suppose it's the sort of thing my friends were talking about.

But that’s the trouble when you’re so very nearly perfect. Little errors show up.

Now I have to rush off – got a couple of pictures to straighten...............

OK - got that done - and now looking at yesterday's posting, I see the thing has come out right after all. You see, I'm not as flawed as you thought.