Thursday, November 30, 2006


Since I am often accused of flippancy, of writing trivia and in general being something of an academic lightweight when it comes to subjects being dealt with here, I thought that today I would attempt to redress the balance by writing on a subject that is of great importance to us all. It is a subject that is generally best avoided since it usually leads to acrimonious exchanges and, not infrequently, world wars. I refer to religion.

There’s an old saying that fools rush in where angels don’t usually hang about and that’s what I propose doing here – the rushing in bit, I mean.

Personally, I believe that religion should be a strictly private affair between the individual and whoever is running the show. It’s a subject with few, if any, facts but an awful lot of different opinions – which is where the acrimony comes in along with the world wars.

A new twist on the old theme has cropped up with the question of “intelligent design.” My question is, where’s the intelligent part come into it?

But that’s not the subject of my today’s lecture from the pulpit. This is about a far more insidious religious sect that has been making inroads into civilised society, virtually unchallenged, for many years. The power base now wielded by Scotland over their English serfs has made it a subject that should now be addressed.

The subject is, of course, golf.

This ancient Scottish religion has permeated society worldwide, bringing misery and suffering to those with a poor handicap, taking the bread out of the mouths of widows and orphans, as addicts plunder their savings for a new mashie or niblick and creating that most pathetic of creatures, the golf widow.

And a government, so keen on protecting its citizenry from all sorts of hazards, such as the National Health Service, has done nothing to check its rampant hold. Acres of perfectly good green space that could have been concreted over, providing accommodation for immigrants, legal and illegal, have been allocated to this cult. Purveyors of funny clothes, a requirement for its adherents, have benefited enormously, selling off stock that no normal human being would be found dead in. And, if that were not serious enough, women have also been inculcated into the sect, and encouraged to wear even more ridiculous clothing. Since this style is certainly not going to arouse any male’s libido, it does have the blessed effect of discouraging procreation of the species.

Worldwide, the religion has taken a hold, even supplanting that traditional American sport of watching paint dry, being even more sleep inducing.

When I first visited Tokyo, I supposed that the Japanese were keen bird lovers since the place was apparently full of huge aviaries. They weren’t. They were driving ranges, where Japanese, unable to afford the fees for a real club, could go and take their temper out by swatting golf balls. Paint drying would have been too much excitement for them, I suppose.

I used to tell what I thought was a funny story about the origins of golf, but it got me so disliked that I will refrain from mentioning it here. You can’t joke about religion.

The one redeeming feature of all this is that one of my favourite authors, P.G. Wodehouse, although sadly a devoted member of the religion, could also write entertainingly on the subject. Many of his stories concerning golf are well worth reading and, if viewed through the eyes of a disbeliever and a heathen such as myself, are extremely entertaining. I recommend highly his story, “The Coming of Gowf.”

Got to rush off now – my wife has a nine o’clock tee time.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Ho, Ho, Ho!

As the US dollar went into free-fall, as the financial pundits like to describe it, bringing gloom and despondency to those of us who glean some of their royalties from across the pond, there was a ray of hope, although it certainly wasn’t from reading the newspapers.

“Worst Christmas Ever” ran a headline in the Daily Telegraph. It seemed to be in the past tense. I was surprised and thought for a moment that I might have missed it altogether. I rather enjoy Christmas and worried that it might have passed me by this year. I looked around me but there was no sign of the usual festive stuff, tree and tinsel etc. My wife is usually on top of this sort of thing and I felt sure that she would have spotted the date in time to make the arrangements, and to have dragged the decorations from their resting place in the garden shed.

Reading a little further, I found that the headline had, as so often, misled me. It related not to the season of peace and goodwill to all men, but to the festival devoted to Mammon and the retailers in the High Street, which, as you know, has now replaced that stuffy old religious idea.

Apparently, sales are down but I fail to see how it could be the “worst ever” for the retail business. On the first celebration of the festival, my understanding was that only three showed up with presents, which can hardly have kept the tills ringing in Bethlehem.

But back to my personal ray of hope.

According to The Bookseller, the sort of official publication that monitors how we authors might be faring, the boom in so-called “celebrity” biographies and auto-biographies has gone bust. And a jolly good job too, in my opinion.

Mind you, there’s a touch of the old sour grapes there as far as I’m concerned, since I’ve never been asked to work on any of these masterpieces. And apart from the money, I can’t say I’m sorry.

Gordon Ramsay, Peter Kay, DJ Chris Moyles, Kerry Katona , Chantelle Houghton from Big Brother, Wayne Rooney, Ashley Cole, Julie Goodyear, Pete from Big Brother, Jade Goody, Billie Piper, and Peter Andre are among those whose books are piling up in stacks, unsold, at the bookstores. Don’t rush to buy a copy now, they’ll be on sale as “publisher’s remainders” right after Christmas.

The sour grapes part comes from not one of them having asked me for a hand with these, which is probably just as well, as I haven’t the faintest idea who most of them are.

In future, publishers may well be less inclined to reach for their chequebooks to pay ridiculous advances for books concerning these essentially uninteresting people. An advance of £4 million to someone called Wayne Rooney has so far resulted in sales of only 35,000 for the first of this four part edition, hardly the sort of return that is going to keep his publisher in cigars. Rooney is about twenty-one years old, I understand, and his ghost writer must be scratching his head over how to fill in the next three volumes on his “life.” And Ashley Cole, in a similar line of work, I believe, paid a trifling £250,000 for his efforts, has sold only 4000 copies, a figure which even my last book surpassed. To put this in perspective, it must be remembered, as you reach for your calculator, that the retailer gets a hefty 55% discount on these.

The good news is, of course, that publishers must now realise that the public are pretty bored with the inconsequential lives of virtual nonentities and will now be prepared to take a closer look at stories of what might best be referred to as “real people.” For me, as this is an area that I tend to work in, this is the good news and, of course, for those who would like to have their stories published.

It does mean that the writing might have to come up to a slightly higher standard than, for instance, the sort of anecdote that Chantelle, whoever she might be, quotes: “The thing that made the most difference was plucking my eyebrows when I was 16. I can't imagine why I didn't do it earlier.” And this is one of the more erudite passages.

So many have really interesting stories to tell, stories whose interest far exceeds blatherings concerning the trivial talents of a soccer player or a talent less TV performer (not even a performer – I suppose appearer would be more appropriate). And such tales contribute far more to our social history than these pathetic outpourings of personal and often spurious reminiscences.

The nadir of the publishing of such garbage was probably reached with the now infamous O.J. Simpson proposed book, bizarrely entitled “How I Might Have Done It.”

Perhaps he might have done us all a great favour and brought the publishing world to its senses.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Number, Please.

At some time or other, I suspect that we have all had the feeling. That sense of loss, of bereavement, of being all at sea with no sight of land upon the horizon. The sort of feeling that Alexander Selkirk must have had as his ship disappeared from view, unaware that his adventures would turn out to be a best-seller. I could go on but, you’ll be relieved to know, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. My mobile phone has quit again.

I remember the first telephone that graced our household. It was a marvel of technology. There was a hand piece thingy, one end of which you put to your ear and the other end which you put close to your mouth, the designers having cleverly figured out the median size of the average human head. From this there ran a piece of string stuff which tended to tie itself in knots. This connected to a small black box from which another piece of string stuff, less addicted to knotting itself, disappeared into a hole in the wall. It was magic. One put the hand piece to one’s ear and mouth and listened. A disembodied voice would say “number please,” at which you spoke the number required. It was voice technology at its finest. Simple, uncomplicated and delightfully efficient. The disembodied voice would perform the necessary and, voila, there you were, speaking to Tom, Dick or Harry or whomsoever’s number you had spake.

We had one of these devices for many years and, as far as I can recall, not once was it stolen or mislaid.

Then technology produced a telephone that did away with string A, the knotty one, you will recall. This enabled one to walk around the house whilst talking to Tom, Dick or Harry etc. It also allowed you to put the phone down anywhere on finishing your call, so that, when it rang again, the entire household would be in an uproar looking for the thing.

Finally, they got rid of both pieces of string. The mobile cellular phone was with us. Well, with us for most of the time, as the problem of locating it just mentioned still existed and was compounded by the fact that the device was delightfully easy to mislay or to get itself stolen.

In my case, it was that it simply failed to work.

As this was not the first time it had let me down, I consulted the oracle who knows all. I was lucky. The Greeks used to have to trudge all the way to Delphi for advice, I only had to go as far as the kitchen.

“Get a new one,” said the oracle. It was, of course, a stroke of genius, the sort of blinding flash of inspiration that comes to few of us in our lifetime.

As our local bar tabac was temporarily and inexplicably out of stock, I turned to the Internet and specifically to the website of France Telecom, Orange, who refer to their sales page as being a boutique, which my dictionary describes as being a small shop selling clothes. Very odd.

Now that I have your attention, might I explain what it was I was looking for? Thank you. I only ask since Orange failed to understand me, it seems. I wanted a device that, when I punched in the appropriate numbers, would allow me to contact the aforementioned T, D or H or others and have a conversation. It seemed so little to ask for and yet, browsing the Orange Boutique was a frustrating experience. For a start, there was what might be described as an embarrassment of riches, that is if you’re into the telephone thing. There were just too many different sizes and models. And all claimed to do far more than I would ever need. Even if I knew what it was, my chances of wanting SMS, MMS or wanting to play a video game whilst waiting for T, D, or H to answer were slim. The possibility that I might want to take a photograph, even slimmer. And there were an alarming array of technical details on display that would have deterred a nuclear physicist, I think, along with the terrifying possibility that I would have the capability of downloading umpteen “ring tones” should I so desire.

I could also have the latest weather just in case I hadn’t noticed it was raining, along with the sports news from around the world. I could receive and send text messages, retrieve the latest stock market reports, send E-mails or watch videos. It was cutting edge technology all right.

But they did not have in their boutique, the telephone I wanted.

This would be one that, when you turned it on, a voice would say, “Number Please,” and, in a trice, you would be speaking to Tom, Dick or Harry, et al.

Now that’s advanced voice technology. Perhaps someday it will be with us.

When Alexander Graham Bell called his assistant in from the other room, I bet he didn’t want to take his photo, play a video game or send him a text message. And he probably knew if it was raining or not.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Perfidious Albion

The British have a strong streak of the masochistic in them, I believe. For as if they didn’t have enough on their mind with street crime, speed cameras, drunkenness, a pathetic cricket team and a dodgy government, they have now added a new one to the mix. Now it’s been suggested that the United Kingdom should be broken up and each country given its independence. My wife has long preached the same gospel for Texas, but then you know what Texans are like.

And it’s not as though it’s a new idea. Hadrian, Antonine and Offa all felt much the same way, you will recall, and got their construction crews busy on the job, without a great deal of success, as you can see. The Welsh Nationalists used to spend their time painting out the English road signs and burning down English holiday homes, giving a new meaning to the old Coal Board advertisement, “Come Home to a Roaring Fire.” Buying a cottage in Wales practically guaranteed it.

I suppose there is a trace of commonsense about the idea. It’s always been something of a strained relationship, especially since Bonnie Prince Charlie lost in extra time at Culloden. And the Irish actually managed it to a certain extent, although not without a lot of religious aggravation that remains to this day.

The remarkable thing is that a poll of the English came out in favour of the idea. I’m a bit sceptical of such polls since I think a fair percentage of those polled were probably on their way home from the pub at the time and incapable of rational thought, but it seems 59% said, “Yeah, good idea.” I doubt that they understood the question and thought it had something to do with the licensing laws.

But if a true reflection of public opinion, this may be due to the Englishman’s fear of being ruled by the caber tossing cabal of Blair, Brown and Reid, and perhaps those interviewed might have found something positive to say about Prescott under the circumstances. When asked why he was supporting Stalin during the war, Churchill once replied that, “If Hitler had invaded Hell, he would have felt it necessary to make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”

It’s not even as though all the countries speak the same language, although I suppose on that basis, Newcastle has a pretty good case for independence. North of the border, unless you were weaned on a diet of haggis, porridge and Rabbie Burns, you may have some linguistic difficulties. Remarkably, Queen Victoria, who was a one-woman Highland Promotion Board, apparently could understand what on earth John Brown was talking about. Nobody else could. But then she had similar success with the Munshi, her Indian servant, who took Brown’s place after he had ascended to a highlander’s heaven. How their conversation went, no-one knows but, “goodness, gracious me!”

And then there’s Welsh, a language that would have died out years ago if it were not for the fact that the locals find it very handy when in the presence of the English. It saves them from having to whisper.

Devolution on this scale is such a bonkers scheme that almost certainly the government will go for it. After all, it would cost millions.

Putting the customs offices at the borders and the issuance of separate passports would be an ideal way to fritter away some taxpayer cash, and then there’s the re-branding of practically everything that has British in its title. Re-writing Rule Britannia, for instance, would be something of a chore, but no doubt Sir Elton John, master of the Royal musical rubbish, would feel up to it.

Why the Scots think that it’s such a great idea baffles me. After all, the power base in Westminster dances to the skirl of the bagpipes, or is it that they want an even greater representation that would demand the wearing of a kilt on all formal occasions? Especially if you happened to be a Muslim.

And once you give in to this sort of thing, there will be no end to it. The Cornish have always been a rebellious lot and independence for the Isle of Wight has been mooted before.

Some of us (the more elderly) may remember one of the wonderful Ealing Studios comedies, “Passport to Pimlico.”

In it, an ancient charter, found in the rubble of a bombed building, granted the town its independence. The problems that developed subsequently should be warning enough.

Then there’s the next question of what to do about all those British inventions that will now have to be re-classified. The telephone and television for instance. And literature‘s going to take a pounding also. Boswell’s Life of Johnson will have to have its boring self re-located as a Scottish masterpiece. Dylan Thomas can no longer be recognised as a slightly drunken British genius of verse.

No doubt it will all die down as another windmill appears on the scene for a nation of Don Quixotes.

Ah yes. I can see it now. The French elections will be the next obsession. Perfidious lot! They really need sorting out - and it will take the attention off of all the problems in the sceptred isle for the time being.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Positive Thinking

When I was a kid, I would often read, in my father’s papers and magazines, an advert from an outfit called The Pelman Institute. This worthy organisation was dedicated to curing those of us who suffered from what they referred to as “a grasshopper mind.” This, it seemed, was a propensity to lack concentration, to leap from topic to topic and thus fail to accomplish anything.

I was a worrying child, in many ways, I think, and this statement worried me no end. For I had taken a keen interest in grasshoppers and this seemed a slight upon them. In my experience, they would spend some considerable time pondering on whatever it is grasshoppers ponder on, before taking a leap, presumably to find another subject on which to ponder. Quite a thoughtful lot, I felt.

Then I got to thinking that perhaps the Pelman Institute was right. For my research had not concentrated on grasshoppers, but had included all sorts of insectivore life that flourished in our garden. Perhaps, to avoid having a grasshopper mind, I should have concentrated on earwigs, for instance. I envisaged the Pelman Building as a lofty edifice in Regent Street, crowded with dome headed professors, all striving to bring their students thoughts to the correct level of single-mindedness, and I wondered just what was the incidence of grasshopper minds. I looked around at my fellows in my class. There was Smith Minor, the little swot. He’d probably taken their course as he was always top of the form. And then there was young Irving, spending the day practising his Nazi salute, obviously another beneficiary of their efforts. My catholic approach to life was clearly all wrong, I thought.

But there seemed to be so many interesting things out there in the world that would be missed by such single-mindedness. Pelmanism, as they called it, was not for me.

Books and mind-bending courses such as these have been a fruitful source of revenue to their peddlers for many years. But, to me, they are snake-oil salesman in the market place. It was not until, later in life when I entered the advertising business, that I realised that there was no such thing as truth in advertising. And that the Pelman Institute building was merely a mailing address in Regent Street.

One highly successful exponent of the art of telling people how to run their life was Norman Vincent Peale whose “Power of Positive Thinking” is credited by many with their success. Quite why it was felt necessary to “think positively” I could never understand. You try telling your bank manager that you’re thinking positively about reducing your overdraft and watch the expression on his face. But I suppose he never read the book. An acquaintance of mine has achieved tremendous success in life after an extremely traumatic childhood. He attributes his success to Mr. Peale’s admonitions but I think he does himself an injustice. I believe he would have done equally as well by himself. And, looking at Mr. Peale’s own life, it seems most of his own success came from flogging his book and preaching about it.

Dale Carnegie wrote “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” which won a lot of readers, but which I can assure you is a complete untruth. My wife has read the book several times with absolutely no change in her attitude towards me.

These thoughts were all triggered by my inability to make up my mind what to write about this morning. There are so many affairs running through my mind and, grasshopper like, I keep leaping from one to the other.

Should it be the incidence of radiation in Sushi bars? Something that I have always suspected and thus avoided, who really enjoys eating bait? Or the fact that in British hospitals you are likely to be dumped, either on a trolley or, if you’re lucky, in a ward filled with the opposite sex or possibly a few transvestites.

Or should it be with concern for the direction Britain is taking as a nation? This was epitomised by Steve Harmison’s opening delivery in the Ashes test down under, which was fielded by second slip without the benefit of intervention by batsman, pad or glove, rather like most of the government's policies.(Readers in the United States can apply for an explanation of this by sending me a stamped, addressed envelope).

I can’t seem to make up my mind.

I wonder if The Pelman Institute is still in business?

Friday, November 24, 2006

"The Last Time I Saw Paris.......

....its trees were dressed for Spring" - so ran the song lamenting the fall of Paris in the 1940's. It continued that "lovers walked beneath the trees and birds found songs to sing."

If Paris in the Springtime is for lovers, I’m not too sure who the intended beneficiaries are of a Paris on a wet and windy day in November. The birds had sore throats and most certainly it was not the sans-culottes, not that there were many of them about, as a chilly breeze and a light drizzle whistled under the bridges of the Seine. Under these bridges there reside a substantial population of indigents who, unlike their contemporaries in other countries, seem to be able to equip themselves with all the usual amenities of life, with the exception of a roof over their heads.

The Gendarmerie and the Red Cross spend a good deal of time dishing out soup, sandwiches and even pizza to these residents, most of whom have equipped themselves with comfortable looking bivouacs of the latest in camping gear that would have been the envy of many a holidaymaker.

With a charming view of the river, no tax d’habitation and occasional free food, it was a carefree existence, one would have thought.

Authority, of course, always dislike seeing contented citizens as they tend to negate the purpose in life of such bureaucrats, and so spent a good deal of time recently, moving these happy campers on, quite where, I have no idea. But it was pretty miserable weather for camping, I suppose. The best thing to do on a day like this is to go to one of the many exhibitions that abound in Paris.

Menus in the sprauncier restaurants of the US often had, on the bottom of the page, “A day without wine is like a day without sunshine.” It did, of course, rather depend on the wine they were serving. Some of it could convert the most radiant day into gloom, but perhaps it was this saying that prompted Paris to hold its annual wine tasting festival in November. It certainly bucked up the weather for some, even though the idea is that you spit most of it out, although I bet a few had the odd illicit gargle. It does seem a pity to waste it.

But for those who can’t bear the site of all that good plonk being spat out into buckets, the Andre Malraux exhibition is a good bet for keeping warm, dry and enlightened.

Malraux was, apart from being an exceptional writer, a legend in himself, with a life of adventure and achievement that even he would have had difficulty in compressing into a book. And the exhibition, or museum, is a fine testimony to the life of a man, known to most for his writings, who survived against all odds to become the Minister of Culture for his nation.

But for myself, one of the interesting things that always strike me when I view the original manuscripts of famous writers is, how on earth did anyone manage to read them?

My handwriting has always bothered me, so much so that I gave up the unequal struggle years ago and went for the mechanical means of expression. At the time, I blamed it on the Biro but even with my ridiculously expensive Mont Blanc, kept only for show to prove how successful(?) I am, my writing looks as though an inebriated cockroach has strayed into the ink bottle. Even my signature has a charmingly artistic but variable quality, causing some problems to the occasional recipients of my cheques.

And it’s not only Malraux’s handwriting. Dickens was not much better, and pity his poor typesetters having to work by gaslight.

I believe J.K.Rowling handwrites all her stuff too, but I haven’t seen an example so maybe she does better.

But for most of us, even with the most masterful penmanship, if we turn in a hand crafted manuscript, I wonder how many agents, editors or publishers would take the trouble to read it, even if they could? Not too many, I venture to suggest.

Malraux certainly wrote in an age when typewriters were available but clearly preferred to write by hand. And there is a point. Many of his pages show crossings out, drastic revisions and amendments. And this is, perhaps, where those who still work this way may have the advantage over the rest of us. There is a sort of mindset about producing words by way of a typewriter or word processor, a feeling that these are now set in, if not stone, some medium that is impervious to change. Changing is extremely easy with the computer and its “cut and paste” ability, but the psychological barrier is there.

So I think I’ll go back over this and cross out a few bits.

Thank you, M. Malraux. And I see that it's stopped raining.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Trouble in Paradise

The islands of The Bahamas often portray themselves, in holiday brochures, as an earthly paradise. Those of us that have been to take a look could be excused for hoping that Paradise kept itself in rather better shape in terms of cleanliness, that its inhabitants would be rather more inclined to work for a living and that the percentage carrying handguns would be a trifle lower. A little more taste in architectural terms would not come amiss either, since Sol Kerzner’s Atlantis complex on Paradise Island (tactfully re-named – it used to be Hog island) makes Nero’s efforts seem tastefully restrained in comparison.

Once memorably described as “a pimple on the arse of the British Empire,” since gaining independence from that undoubtedly relieved body, the nation has done little to burnish its spotty image.

The first prime minister, reverting to the piratical roots of the country, spent a quarter of a century improving relations with the drug cartels of Colombia, recognising that, sitting athwart the main transit route, his country was ideally placed to benefit. The principal king pin, Carlos Lehder, was allowed to operate his own little fiefdom, virtually unhindered, from Norman’s Cay under this mutually beneficial arrangement.

There is an old saying that any publicity is good publicity, but the recent events concerning a one-time Playboy centrefold and her attempt to settle in these paradisiacal islands, can hardly be good news for the tourist board.

Anna Nicole Smith had achieved fame and fortune partly through her appearance as a sort of Barbie doll on steroids, but mainly from her achievement in marrying an octogenarian billionaire, who, predictably, did not last too long and left his fortune to his rather newer wife. Equally predictably, his family took exception to this, and the subsequent lawsuit made a good deal of copy for the less cerebral papers.

She wound up scooping a sizeable sum however, which she seems to have managed to spend remarkably quickly.

Playboy must have had an enlarged edition when they featured her as a centrefold, since she would have made the Guinness Book of Records as the heftiest one ever.

Bra size, and size in general, does not equate to brain size, for, as Winnie the Pooh once remarked, “I am a bear of very little brain and long words confuse me.” One of the long words that confused Ms. Smith seems to have been “contraception,” since she then allowed herself, in the argot of the times, to get “knocked up” and carelessly to fail to be able to identify the knocker.

There seems to have been some competition for this dubious honour and, to avoid all sorts of nasty legal recriminations, she elected to remove herself, voluptuous body and soul, to paradise, The Bahamas.

To reside in The Bahamas, it is necessary to prove that you have a substantial chunk of cash with you and the easiest way to do this is by buying an expensive house.

She moved into a million dollar establishment on the Eastern Road of New Providence and, using this as her bona fides, achieved her permanent residency in a matter of weeks, leapfrogging over many who had been waiting for years.

All might have gone smoothly but, entering the local hospital, she duly gave birth and her twenty-one year old son from a previous liaison, came to visit. Now hospitals are, by and large, pretty attuned to having the odd inmate hop off the twig. It goes with the territory, you might say. But eyebrows are raised when a visitor does the same thing. Which is what Ms. Smith’s son managed to do, in her private room, by taking a massive drug overdose.

Bearing her unexpected bereavement bravely, Ms. Smith, a few days later, elected to marry her attorney. The ceremony was carried out on a yacht just off Nassau and concluded with bride and groom jumping, fully clothed, into the ocean, something which has never happened at any of my weddings and a performance the object of which I am at a loss to explain to you. Even so, this might have gone unnoticed except that one of the witnesses to this aquatic performance happened to be the Minister for Immigration.

Worse was to follow. From Florida, one of the busty beauty’s former swains pops up to say, “Hey, that’s my house she’s living in. She’s never paid me for it.” And then, the law firm handling her application for residency chimes in to say that the cheque to the Ministry for the application was not sent to the government offices but was, in fact, handed personally to the Minister for Immigration, who just happened to be standing in Ms. Smith’s bedroom at the time.

It is fair to say that there is a degree of confusion over a good many matters relating to Ms. Smith, the unfortunate death of her son, the patrimony of her new infant, the ownership of the house on Eastern Road and just how she managed to achieve her residency in a matter of weeks.

Sometimes I look back over my own life and wonder if, in view of perhaps a degree of turpitude, I might be refused permission to enter through the Pearly Gates.

But then, if Paradise is anything like The Bahamas, I don’t think I’ll worry.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Connubial Bliss X 70

America can usually be counted on to enliven the world with its domestic happenings, and now a certain Mr. Warren Jeffs goes on trial there to contribute his mite to the entertainment business.

Europe, in its old fuddy-duddy way, has the odd mass wife murderer, but Mr. Jeffs is apparently on trial, among a few other accusations, for mass matrimony. As the leader of a breakaway branch of the Mormon Church, The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Mr. Jeffs has acquired for himself some seventy odd wives. The actual number is uncertain but, given a wife or two, is not disputed and he seems to have collected them much as some collect stamps, figuratively pasting them into his album in Hilldale, Utah.

The regular Mormon Church gave up on polygamy some years ago, realising that expecting man to handle more than one wife at a time would be cruel and inhuman punishment, a sort of matrimonial Guantanamo Bay.

Often, when I was lying in my Marriott Hotel room, having forgotten to buy a copy of Penthouse or Hustler, I would turn to the book in my bedside table for consolation and read of the adventures of Joseph Smith and the angel, Moroni.

Based upon my own personal experience, I found it difficult to believe that he had run into an angel in Upper New York State. The nearest I had come to such a meeting was with a girl I met at a bar in Poughkeepsie one night. And she had no gold plates with her. In fact, I got the distinct impression that she was looking for some.

I’m not sure of the details concerning Mr. Jeffs and his mis-demeanours, but it seems to me that any man who can handle seventy wives should be in line for the Congressional Medal of Honour or a seat in The Pentagon at the very least, for courage if for nothing else.

He did look rather emaciated in the pictures I saw of him but that was, I suppose, to be expected. No doubt some solitary time in a penitentiary will buck him up no end and put weight on him.

Here in Europe, we have some very sensible rules about this marriage thing. Wisely, it has been decided that one at a time is the way to go, although there is no stipulation on the supply of mistresses. Just as well, as they have been a perk of politicians throughout history and it does take their mind off the job, making the world turn rather more smoothly as a result. The British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, demonstrated his expertise in diplomacy by installing both his wife and mistress under the same roof, without any untoward ill effects. But not many of us can manage a trick like that

For most of us married men, more than one wife at a time would prove to be a broad too far, I think. And you need a bit of a breathing space in between, if you’re into the multiple wedding business.

Mistresses are generally an expensive ongoing luxury but, unless you have picked a vindictive one, can usually be dumped without too much ceremony. For wives, there are a few legal difficulties that might be encountered and a possible long term ongoing expense. How Mr. Jeffs and his followers dealt with that, I can’t imagine.

And then there’s the practical side of things. Buying a Christmas present for one is traumatic enough. Consider Mr. Jeff’s situation. He would have to practically live in Macys all year round to be able to get the job done. And did they all get the same? If not, who got what? And don’t tell me none of them bitched about it. Women are just not like that.

Even doing dishes would pose a serious logistical problem. You can’t get seventy women even into a decent sized kitchen to load the dishwasher.

The question of a possible rota system for the sleeping arrangements is equally mind boggling. With 365 days in the average year, this gave each of Mr. Jeff’s wives access to his connubial services for 5.214 days per year, plus a bit extra on Leap Years. Seems to me there might have been some dissatisfaction among the ranks, although his careworn look possibly indicates that he was trying to fulfill his obligations and satisfy the demand for his services.

Now it seems likely that Mr. Jeffs will be spending some time as a guest of the US Government, and that means that there will be some seventy plus wives surplus to requirements in Hilldale, Utah.

E-Bay would be a possible solution for them, I suppose, although I’m not sure which category they would be listed under. Unwanted used goods?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Banged Up!

It seems I was not the only one to find the publishing of O.J. Simpson’s memoirs reprehensible. The chorus of protest from the media would, unfortunately, probably only succeed in titillating the public’s fancy and ensure that Mr. Simpson and his wacky publisher had a totally undeserved hit on their hands.

Judith Regan, whose publishing house has a distinctly seedy air about it, judging from their previous output, has gone on record that this is Simpson’s “confession,” a statement that must be hardly good news to the LA Police Department to say nothing of the judge and prosecution in the case. And then there are the relatives of the victims, still awaiting their compensation awarded them in what must seem to the rest of the world, a very strange way to run a justice department.

Regan herself removed all doubts as to her sanity (other than in the matter of making money from sleaze) when she gave an interview on TV. It must be a worrying thought for any aspiring author that their manuscript might be assessed by a nut case such as she proved herself to be. Fortunately, I think publishers like that are in a minority. Were Simpson to be writing his book (if, indeed, he was writing it himself) from a prison cell, it would, I think, have been marginally more acceptable. Although perhaps, not much.

In the UK they have just introduced an embargo on prisoners making money from their memoirs whilst in the slammer. This does not make much sense to me. Some prison memoirs have been of genuine quality and to encourage an activity, other than watching television, whilst banged up, must surely be to everyone’s benefit. And perhaps any money they earned would enable them to go straight when released.

Daniel Defoe and Oscar Wilde are but two who might have been dissuaded from penning anything from their cell by this edict and, as they would not have had television to watch, one wonders how they would have filled in the time?

I must agree that there should be exceptions made if books from inside are allowed out into the public domain. One, J. Archer’s work, springs to mind, so perhaps there could be a committee formed to make sure that nothing of this nature is inflicted on the populace in future and a prize awarded, say the W. Scrubbs Award for Outstanding Literary Merit, for those that qualified. A small addition to their sentence for really bad stuff might be advantageous at keeping up the standard.

Strangely enough, Jeffery Archers first novel was written to pay off his debts. And at the time, I thought, what a jolly admirable effort and gave him ten out of ten for it. Mind you, I hadn’t read the book at the time, otherwise I might not have been so fulsome. But his later effort from inside was merely tiresome and self-serving.

So I suppose O.J. Simpson’s problem is that he got away with it. But to thumb your nose at law and order in a book which is a virtual confession in spite of the disclaimer in the title, is neither morally nor ethically acceptable. Miss Regan and Harper Collins should be ashamed of themselves. But somehow, I doubt that they are. However, ultimately they are answerable to Mr. Rupert Murdoch, a man not known for squeamishness in the publishing world. And the revulsion of the public and the media to the mere thought of this book, aroused him to make a remarkable apology – and, more to the point, scrap the deal. Three cheers for Murdoch and a thumbs down for Regan, Simpson and Harper Collins.

Now I wonder if, in a prison cell in Austria, David Irving is scribbling another dubiously accurate historical memoir. I don’t believe the authorities there have any objection to prisoners publishing their work, however dodgy from the point of view of accuracy. I suggest he try Harper Collins.

So stand by. It will probably be a denial that there are any prisons and prison cells in Austria. That should get him out early.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Just an Old Banger

The sausage is a ubiquitous food, every nation has its own breed. And very good too, most of them. For myself, I’ve always had a preference for the British Banger and, as they were my staple diet when a student, I am a living testimony to their being an invaluable source of brain food.

The sausage-making industry is, I suspect, a placid one. Grinding the meat, mixing the spices and shoving it all into casings is not the stuff of drama, and one can imagine your average sausage man being a quietly contented head of the family, just anxious to get home at night to his sausage, mash, wife and children.

Until last week, that is, when a crisis of unbelievable magnitude struck this peaceful industry. It could only be compared with the effects following the assassination of an Archduke in Sarajevo in 1914, although, perhaps, not quite so far-reaching in international terms.

But sleek black limousines with tinted windows were busily ferrying high ranking officials to an emergency meeting at a secret location in Whitehall, reportedly the kitchen of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. T. Blair and G. Brown were absent and the Foreign Minister’s caravan was somewhere stuck in a traffic jam on the M6, but there were enough of the top nobbies there to form a quorum or quango or whatever it is one needs for these sort of meetings.

The Committee for the Control of Sausagemakers (CCS) is not a widely known body but performs invaluable work behind the scenes in protecting the British public from the activities of rogue sausagemakers. It was originally the British Bangers Committee, BBC for short, but the name caused some confusion and had to be changed.

As the members assembled around the Brown’s kitchen table, the chairman delivered the awful news. No doubt you have all attended similar board meetings when the news that the company’s shares have just fallen over Beachy Head, or that the corporation has been taken over by the Itsu Mitsu Corporation, was announced. There is that sharp intake of breath from the members.

In this case the news was that a secret agent had been infiltrated into the sausage making industry and had reported that, in the hills, or possibly valleys, of Wales there was a company producing Welsh Dragon Sausages and, ominously, named the Black Mountain Smokery.

The chairman paused to let the import of this sink in. It took a while, since government members are not too slippy in the uptake, so he went on to draw a parallel. He reminded them of the case wherein they had successfully threatened prosecution of ToysferTots who were selling a product with a picture of a supposed Brontosaurus on the label, whereas every educated person knew that this was now the Apatosaurus.

This sausage crisis, he felt, was a case of similar gravity. Accordingly, he had engaged a Swedish researcher, a Mr. Hans Blix, to go to Wales to investigate the presence of dragons there. Unfortunately, he felt that he had possibly engaged the wrong man, since he now understood that he had been sadly unable to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and had been equally unsuccessful here in the dragon seeking business.

He pointed out that, according to his notes, St. George had taken care of this matter some time ago, at which one member roused himself to cry, “St. George for England” followed by another reminding him that it was St. Pancras for Scotland, if one wished to go by rail. A dreadful picture was painted of Tesco shoppers hurrying home with their Welsh Dragon sausages only to find that they had been duped and had purchased only a pork, leek and chilli banger. Sobbing children, anxious for their first taste of dragon meat, would need consoling in their mother’s arms and feel that the guardians of their welfare, the government, so solicitous in the matter of tree-climbing, conkering and similar hazardous activities, had deserted them. Short-sighted Muslims, unable to read the fine print, would be in serious trouble. Vegetarians would be at risk, it was felt, and a lively discussion then ensued as to whether a dragon was animal, vegetable or possibly, in view of the fire breathing tendency, coke or kerosene fuelled, and hence at least partly mineral.

As it was nearly tea-time and the Chancellor wanted his kitchen table back, the meeting was closed but not before one of the party, and there’s always an awkward one in any such gathering, had piped up to say, “But what about Cumberland Sausages?” Would not, he suggested, purchasers of these expect something similar, perhaps a bit of earth or rock to be found in them? As it was a logical question, the chairman, conscious of government protocol for such occasions, ignored him.

Subsequently an armed task force was sent to the sausage factory, equipped with flame retardant gear, and forced the management into submission. The sausages were relabelled “pork,” and the British public could once again relax. Just another fine example of your taxes at work for you.

I believe the Welsh Dragon Sausage labels will be a collector’s item in the future. Look out for them on E-Bay.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Juvenile Crime

“Don’t you get tired of writing other people’s stuff?”

“Not as long as they pay me.”

“I mean, why don’t you go and write your own books?”

“But I do.”

“Oh, I know. History and stuff, boring. No, I mean a REAL book, a novel like. Or how about a children’s book? All the celebrities do. Take Madonna…..”

“No, you take her…..”

And it does seem that celebrities, as their star wanes, turn to writing kiddy books. Fergie did and, as my interrogator pointed out, so has Madonna and a good few others. Now it is unfair to criticise a work that you haven’t read but I did read the publisher’s blurb on Madonna’s first effort which was quite enough for me, or, I might suggest, for any self-respecting kid:

“Madonna hangs up her material-girl cloak to teach children the importance of looking beyond a surface sheen. In The English Roses, the superstar's children's book debut, four little girls (the roses in question) "play the same games, read the same books, and like the same boys." Nicole, Amy, Charlotte, and Grace all love to dance the monkey and the tickety-boo… and they all are horribly jealous of Binah, the perfect, beautiful, smart, kind girl who lives nearby. Even though they know Binah is lonely, she makes them sick. They would say, "Let's pretend we don't see her when she walks by." And even, "Let's push her into the lake!" The pleasantly bossy narrator explains, "And that is what they did. No, silly, not the lake part, the pretending not to see her part." One night, however, the four girls all have the same dream that sets them straight. A fairy godmother sprinkles them with fairy dust and takes them to spy on Binah. When they see that she lives alone with her father, slaving away night and day at household chores, the four girly grumblers feel very sorry for her. The fairy scolds them, "… in the future, you might think twice before grumbling that someone else has a better life than you." And they do. This morality tale is nothing new under the sun, but it is cleverly told, with many teaspoonfuls of good humor.”

For me it would take a good many spoonfuls of good humour to make that medicine go down. And “Binah?” Well, Madonna comes from Bay City, Michigan, where I suppose they might name children that way.

My problem with writing anything in the fiction department is that I feel I’m up against some pretty hot stuff in the way of competition. Tolstoy and his mates, for instance. I’m fine at gently criticising other’s work and doing my best to put it right for them, but when it comes to my own unaided work, my critical faculties go into overdrive. The result is a filing cabinet full of unfinished MS.

And children’s books come in the same category. The story I wrote for my daughter some years ago has never been published or even offered other than on my website, where it is available for free download. I thoroughly enjoyed writing it, but will gladly admit that it’s not a patch on Wind in the Willows, a sort of standard set by my own personal standard.

With history or real life events, biographies for instance, it’s a different matter. Here I feel more like a re-packaging service, turning facts into a readable format and making history palatable, something academics are often very bad at. Here I have one up on them. I’m not academic.

The odd snippets I’ve read of celebrities kids books seem to contain revoltingly twee little characters with funny names or inanimate objects equipped with humanly endearing qualities. I hope the kiddiewinkies enjoy them.

But for examples of how it should be done, just take a look at the work of that masterly teller of fairy tales, Andrew Lang, a sort of latter day Hans Andersen. And for many years, the BBC broadcast a children’s serial, Toy Town, written by S.G. Hulme-Beaman, that kept children glued to the radio between five and six o’clock when they should have been having their tea. Nowadays, of course, they’ll probably be out terrorising little old ladies on the street. Larry the Lamb, Mr. Grouser, Mr. Mayor and Denis the Dachshund populated a wonderful fantasy town with not a hoodlum in sight in those days of innocence. Undoubtedly it would be banned today for having some sinister religious or ethnic overtones or, more likely, the Health and Safety people would have something to say about Larry’s adventures. It’s just as well they weren’t about when Richmal Crompton was writing her William stories.

“Ho, ho, ho, Madam, we can’t have you encouraging boys to climb trees and splash in ponds. And as for using a catapault – it clearly says in our manual that you can’t do that there ‘ere. This is 2006 you know – we have rules. Don’t you realise how dangerous conkers are? The sooner the council take that tree down the better, if you ask me. It’s just a temptation and lures them away from the telly where they’ll be safe. I’m afraid you’ll have to come along with us while we write you up an ASBO.”

And so we’re stuck with Mrs. Tiggywinkle and her mates who are unlikely to lead the young astray. But I’m not so sure about Binah and those other kids. Sounds like the Health and Safety people should get over to Madonna’s pad a bit smartish. Isn’t she encouraging the young to push people into lakes?

Friday, November 17, 2006


The publishing industry broke into a new and undoubtedly fertile seam of sleaze the other day with the publishing of a biography, or possible an autobiography, of O.J. Simpson.

I don’t know about you but, if I had got away with murder, my inclination would be to put as much distance between myself and the scene of the crime as possible, shave off my beard and wear dark glasses.

Former celebrities are made of sterner stuff it seems. Unable to forego the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd, they bounce back into the limelight at every opportunity. Simpson had performed one of my suggested ploys by removing himself from the West coast to the East coast of America, although personally I would have gone a bit further. Possibly he didn’t have the fare then but he now has a lucrative publishing deal for his book, in which he theorises how he might have perfumed the gruesome murders that put him in court some ten years ago. I think that now he should book an onward single ticket. He can’t do much about the beard other than to grow one, but I’m sure he has the dark glasses. All celebrities do.

His trial and acquittal held most of the world that had access to television, spellbound. As you will probably have guessed, I was not among their number, handicapped by not having the foggiest idea who O.J. Simpson was. My investigative skills led me to the conclusion that he was a one-time football player who had achieved fame by leaping over suitcases in an airport. A strange kind of talent to be celebrated, I felt. I was forced to watch a good deal of the court proceedings since they was displayed almost continuously on the television screens around my local bar (I was living in the West Indies at the time), and came to the conclusion that American justice was a funny thing, that the Los Angeles Police Department were a funny lot and that having a tag team of over-paid attorneys was a funny thing to do if one was innocent.

Colombo, Matlock or even Barney Fife would have had little difficulty in sorting things out, and the case of the missing glove would have been cleared up in a trice if they had just called upon 221b Baker Street. That sort of clue was meat and drink to Sherlock. Agatha Christie would have been able to contribute a few points but no, the prosecution failed to engage such experts and F. Lee Bailey, for once, emerged victorious from a courtroom, something that he was signally unable to accomplish in his private life.

Now the publishing of O.J. Simpson’s version of just how he might have done it, however questionable the ethics and morals of the matter might be, will undoubtedly reap him and his publisher (a subsidiary of Harper Collins – remind me to buy some shares!) a modest fortune and at the same time lower the bar for publishers to the standard of the “Penny Dreadful” peddlers of earlier days. These specialised in gruesome descriptions of the crimes and punishments of the time – but, as far as I can see, none ever printed a retrospective quasi confession. Once again, new ground has been broken by a major publishing house. No doubt, were they able to find him, they would have Jack the Ripper signed up tomorrow.

I believe that it is not possible to try someone twice for the same offence, but such a book must surely lead the police to take a closer look at the affair. And perhaps the publishers should take a closer look at their own standards – the only justification for such a book is that it will no doubt be read by a salacious public and therefore generate profits for them. But it will most certainly not be in the best interests of the victim’s families, even if Mr. Simpson manages to pay them the sums they were awarded, amounts that he pleads poverty over.

All a bit distasteful in my view. But if any of you reading this have a skeleton in your closet (preferably an unsolved murder) you’d like me to write about – hey, I’m your man.

We can always sell it to Harper Collins.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


Last week, my printer in the UK shipped me a copy of my latest book by way of a well-known overnight courier service. Standard stuff, bit boring this, I hear you say. And it would be, but for the fact that, so far, the courier service in question has been unable to decide just which night it will over the package to me (if you see what I mean).

By night number three, I checked with the printers who checked with the service. Delivered today, they reported, confidently. Four days, or nights later, I was getting concerned.

I realise that my works are “hot properties” and the idea haunted me that some desperate bibliophile, anxious to obtain what will undoubtedly be a valuable first edition, had hi-jacked the van, en route.

The courier company dismissed this theory rather brusquely, I felt. “No,” they said, “ we tried to deliver but the recipient would not accept the package.” This struck me as being a more absurd theory than mine about the hi-jack. I was the recipient on the package and, even with advancing years and the subsequent loss of some memory cells, I was pretty sure I would have remembered the incident. I asked Joe. He said he would most certainly have accepted it, although admitting that he would have had to sign for it with a muddy paw print. Joe, I should add, is a dog.

I am a bit miffed that whoever it was that rejected the chance of a lifetime by having such a valuable work in his hand, did not appreciate it. Perhaps he did not read English, which would account for it, I suppose.

Now the company involved is an internationally known one and I would hate to be the one to bring about their commercial demise, therefore I will refrain from mentioning their name. I can reveal, however, that it is not Federal Express, United Parcel Services nor, surprisingly, the UK Parcel Service. But one would have thought that, as they started their business running between San Francisco and Hawaii without getting lost on the way and have operated in the south Pacific as far as Australia, experience of delivering didgeridoos to jolly swagmen sitting under coolibar trees alongside billabongs in the outback would have made them pretty nifty at the business of getting the goods to out of the way destinations.

It seems that we are in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle of France as far as they are concerned.

Searching for clues to this mystery, one that would have baffled Hercule Poirot or even Lord Peter Wimsey on their better days, I think I may have stumbled on the answer. Those of you who are old enough will recollect that, in 330 B.C., Pytheas of Massilia circumnavigated the British Isles and produced a map. It was not especially accurate but was a precedent for later travellers who made use of this handy aid to navigation. Vasco de Gama, Christopher Columbus and Sebastian Cabot all made use of maps or charts in order to find their way. As did my father in the days when we would vacation in England, finding our way by courtesy of the Automobile Association’s handy route planners, complete with descriptions of the bucolic countryside you were traversing.

Here in France, the authorities have not neglected our premises either. They are clearly marked on the map and, in our town square, there is a large display showing exactly how to reach us.

But this is where technology has overtaken us. I suspect that courier companies have replaced maps and commonsense with Global Positioning Units. You know, those gadgets that send drivers into impassable fords and coaches into lanes too narrow for them. A recent survey showed that maps provided a far quicker and better solution than this gee-whiz technology, although it does presuppose that you know how to read them.

Commonsense might help, as well.

We have been at the same address for some ten years. Bills find me with unerring accuracy. All the trades people in the town know us and how to find us. An enquiry at the post office, boulangerie or minimarket would undoubtedly set them on the right track and Monsieur Baranger, the garage proprietor, most assuredly knows where I am, since I owe him some money.

So here I am, still awaiting my package. One possible solution is that I order a copy from Amazon. The mail has always been able to deliver to me without any problem.

If you should want a copy of the book, I suggest you do the same although you could always contact the courier company. They seem to have a copy I’m sure they’d like to dispose of. That’s if they can find you, of course.

Stop Press: A call from the courier company now confirms my suspicions – we are not on their GPS (the brain substitute) and therefore, in their technological eyes, do not exist.

Tomorrow we have a rendezvous in the town square by the church which, by the grace of God, is on their GPS, giving them a sporting chance of finding it, and they will hand over the package after its eight day saga. Overnight service? A boy on a bike could have got it here faster!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A Matter of Taste

Perceptive readers of the newspapers can usually spot what are known in the trade as “slow news days.” On these occasions, editors are more than usually twitchy, always fearful that their rivals might have come across some spectacularly newsworthy item that his lackeys have overlooked. It makes for restlessness and general unhappiness around the office and the panic is manifested in the articles that appear to fill in, what would otherwise be, the blanks.

It has been a slow news weekend. The mid-term election in the United States, which was responsible for filling columns by the yard, is now over. No more than a few hundred Iraqis have died in the last few days, genocide amongst the African nations has been maintained at its normal level and John Prescott has done nothing more than usually stupid. Editors are desperate. And desperate times call for desperate measures.

And so a good deal of space has been given to filling the void, in almost every respect, with the provenance of the Cornish Pasty, whose origins have now been called into question by an academic researching in the Plymouth Public Library. What this gentleman proposes to do with the results of his research is a bit of a mystery, as is why he was doing it in the first place, but Fleet Street are very pleased that he unearthed this epoch making bit of news for them since it has enabled them to fill in the blanks I mentioned previously.

Disgruntlement in Cornwall is running high, however, and this canard (in their view) will undoubtedly provoke a resurgence of demands for independence. No doubt the leading article in the next edition of “The Lostwithiel Gazette” will concentrate on this matter, together with a suggestion that the Cornish language be revived. As the last speaker of this died in 1800, finding teachers for the tongue might be difficult.

Perhaps I should explain the Cornish Pasty for those who are, luckily for them, unfamiliar with this delicacy.

According to Larousse Gastronomique, it consists of a pastry crust filled with meat, onions and potatoes. And that just about describes it, hardly the stuff of cordon bleu. However, tradition says that it was developed as a lunch for Cornish miners, and that the test of a good pasty was that it could be dropped down the mineshaft without coming unglued.

Now I don’t know how you feel about this, but assessing my lunch by having it survive a fall down a mineshaft seems a funny way to judge the gastronomic delight of the repast.

And, frankly, most of the pasties I’ve ever tasted might have been better for having been chucked down a mineshaft and left there. Pasty lovers the world over will be up in arms over this statement and perhaps I’ve been unlucky, but, apart from the convenience if you happen to be having lunch at the bottom of a mineshaft, there seems to be little else to recommend it over, say, a good steak and kidney pie which has much the same basic ingredients. And also gravy, tough to get into a pasty.

Cornish miners were recruited for the copper mines in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and took their pasties with them. Not literally, perhaps, presumably they cooked them fresh when they arrived, and they are still on sale up there (the fresh ones, I mean). If you wished to go and taste them in that part of the world, I recommend thermal underwear unless you go at mid-summer when hat, coat and gloves will probably suffice. But I suppose in that sort of climate, even a stodgy warm pasty tastes pretty good.

Devon’s claim to have developed this British speciality has already been questioned by a claim that they nicked the idea from the French, who have long had their pâté en croûte, a rather less robust delicacy that most certainly would not survive the acid test of a Cornish, or perhaps now, a Devonish pasty. By and large, the French disapprove of tossing their food into holes in the ground unless it’s not up to standard.

But I think that the whole idea stems from the medieval practice of packaging meat or fish in batter or pastry, making it easier to handle in the days when knives and forks were a luxury. The outer casing was discarded and only the contents were consumed. This would make much more sense of the legend that the casing of the pasty was designed to survive the mineshaft test. The miner was not obligated to eat the casing and, having tasted some, I don’t blame him. But the filling would be quite tasty.

Tomorrow is another day and world events will probably sweep this enthralling item from the pages of the nation’s newspapers.

But, if tasting a Cornish, or possibly Devonish, Pasty for the first time, take my advice and throw the pastry away.

It will rest a lot easier on your stomach.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

New Vistas on the Horizon

The spasm of euphoria I suffered from yesterday over the fate of humanity, took a turn for the worse as I was reading news of advances on the computer front. Shortly, Microsoft will be unleashing their latest and greatest operating system, Vista, on their unsuspecting Research and Development department, the public. No doubt we can look forward to a few years of essential and absolutely vital updates as their unpaid researchers sort out the bugs and scrabble frantically to get their computers up and running again.

It will be just another expensive exercise in futility for those of us who use computers as a business tool and not to run pretty mindless games or download pornography.

I can and do use Linux for many applications, it’s practically free and practically bug-free as well, but compatibility with others using the Gates hegemonic system means you have to run Windows as well.

But it got me to thinking about the promises made for computers and, indeed, for most of man’s earlier inventions.

You may recall that we were promised the paperless office. Well, the very daring might try it still – but they’d better have some hard copies to back it all up. The result is that computers now generate more paper than ever before in the office and several rain forests must be trashed daily as a result.

In Victorian times, railways were to bring travel to the masses but now, judging from my recent experience, you need a second mortgage to get from London to Glasgow and there aren’t too many guarantees that you’ll make it in one, or on time.

The Wright Brothers should have stuck to bicycles, they were hazardous enough.

Air travel promised to whisk passengers en masse from gloomy Britain and elsewhere to sunnier climes, but only brought misery to the Costa del Sol, Majorca and other Elysian spots that thought they were safe, although the sun tan lotion people and makers of stuffed animals did pretty well out of it.

And television was to be the medium for bringing culture and education to the masses – and so it might, except the masses prefer to watch Big Brother. Therefore, those that run the stations prefer to run Big Brother in preference to anything that might look to be slightly cerebral.

Alexander Graham Bell should have kept his idea firmly locked inside his laboratory and confined his conversations to his assistant in the next room. “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you!" would have been quite enough. Spreading the idea around was the death knell of letter writing, and even the telephone is under threat from texting, where the next generation will undoubtedly have fingers especially developed for the purpose. It also means that we older ones will be virtually incommunicado.

Esperanto, that universal language, seemed like a good idea at the time but now the chances of bumping into an Esperanto speaker on the street are remote. English is now the accepted standard for international communication and this is probably a good idea. Or will be, once the British start speaking it again.

It seems to me that man’s brightest ideas are always bedevilled with potential downsides. The wheel was a serious mistake in view of its later incarnation, the automobile.

And even fire was not without its problems. Man brought light to the world (Creationists claim it was someone else) and those who now clamour for a shorter working week should remember, that until then, man (and sometimes woman, if she was not having a lie in) got up with the sun and went to bed at night, leading to an admirably shorter working day in Murmansk and Skelleftea during the winter, although they paid for it during the summer.

But it saved all that business of putting the clocks back and forth, thereby confusing people.

And millions of schoolchildren would have had much happier childhoods if some fool had not invented Trigonometry. Well, I would have, and I don’t believe I am alone in this.

Yet, in spite of all these obvious mistakes, man still blunders on trying to achieve new and patently unsatisfying goals.

I can’t help contrasting the fretful pressures of human life with the placid acceptance of the sheep, goats and donkeys that live around me. Except at mating time, all is at peace. They seem to have no political views, or even much in the way of territorial ambition, and a conversation with them is pleasantly unstressful. World wars rarely break out amongst sheep, I have noticed, and they have few differences of opinion over religion. Fanaticism is just not their thing.

And, as far as I’m aware, not one is going to upgrade to Windows Vista in the New Year. Perhaps this is why they’re so contentedly chomping away.

Eat your heart out, Mr. Gates.

Monday, November 13, 2006


“’Twould ring the bells of Heaven,

The wildest peal for years,

If Parson lost his senses,

And people came to theirs.”

Ralph Hodgson’s little verse could have applied equally well to the recent US elections, where it might be said that the parson, George W. Bush, if not totally losing his senses, may have been checked by the good sense of the electorate. Whilst it may not be the end, it is, perhaps, in the words of Churchill, the end of the beginning. Or, rather less eloquently, as has been described a boatload of lawyers and politicians at the bottom of the ocean, a pretty good start (you can pick your own favourite group for this).

My relief was great, since I had been detecting a degree of misanthropy in myself recently. Not so much with my fellow men, but with those that now order the lives of mere chaff such as myself.

And then there comes news from Britain that will be welcomed probably more than would be the deposing of Tony Blair. The EU, so often berated in those islands and to which they normally only pay grudging lip service, are on the point of telling G. Brown and his Customs and Excise Gestapo that Brits can telephone their friendly wine man in Paris and have as many bottles as they liked of Beaujolais Nouveau shipped across, duty free, and sucks boo to you.

It does seem about time, although the innumerable booze outlets in Calais, along with the ferry companies, won’t see it that way, I suppose.

The pantomime that takes place daily at the port of Dover, where the officers argue with the citizens (who are paying their wages) just how much their personal consumption is, will now be ended, with any luck. But since the shortfall in revenue will have to come from somewhere, the rejoicing can only be of limited duration until the Chancellor thinks up another way to rape his flock. The wealthy will not be much affected, since they might possibly become donors to the party, although whether this will secure them much of an honour in the future seems doubtful. Perhaps the Freedom of Islington or an exemption from London’s congestion charge will be substituted.

The impact on the binge drinking culture is hard to determine. Whether the determined partygoer will be prepared to wait for his shipment to arrive or not seems debatable. He or she may well feel that the savings are not worth bothering about when you really want to embarrass yourself.

But for those who enjoy the better things in life, such as a good wine, it is cheering news indeed. Much of the wine sold in the UK is sold on price and therefore comes from areas where the production costs are low. This does not mean that all such wine is of poor quality, much of it is excellent, but it does tend to eliminate or discourage the sale of the better wines from other areas. For instance, the growers of Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley should benefit since their products, available at a sensible price here in France, will now be equally available in Britain except, of course, for the cost of delivery.

And, necessity being the mother of invention, it must be remembered that when the British, who had become addicted to what they referred to as Claret, were careless enough to lose control of the vineyards of Bordeaux during the Hundred Years War, they turned to the wine of Portugal for solace. Apparently this was pretty terrible stuff in those days but, in what has been described as somewhere between a brilliant invention and a desperate remedy, the addition of brandy to stop the fermentation not only made it drinkable but desirable. And port had been created.

Now, unless a frantic government find some way to stop it, you will be able to buy excellent port (I don’t mean the Ruby that Aunt Mabel drinks at Christmas) at a reasonable price and Britain’s opposition to full-fledged membership of Europe must look far less sensible in the eyes of any reasonable toper.

However, I’m sure they (and you all know who “they” are) will find a way to punish you. So while you are sitting, waiting for the blow to fall, I suggest you jump on the phone and get your order in fast – before there’s an embargo on phone calls to wine merchants on the continent.

Now if the parishioners of St. Albions would only come their senses, it could be like Christmas all the year round.

It gets better. The Christian Muslim Forum has roundly criticised the stupidity of the City of Birmingham (and it can only be called stupidity) for renaming the Christmas holiday, Winterval, in 1998! Let’s hope they don’t do it again.

So perhaps the world is coming to its senses. I’m cheered.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

In Flanders Fields

The carp has never appealed to me as a fish. They don’t do much for me. Equally, it’s fair to say that I’ve never done much for them. Anglers seem to like them, but I notice they usually throw them back, and I suppose fish take this sort of rejection in their stride (or swim). Just very gratefully.

Next down the page in my dictionary is the verb, to carp. And this is a popular sport today, probably more so than fishing. Critics say I’m good at it, but I think it’s just jealousy on their part.

The sort of carping that really gets my attention is now filling the newspapers – well, I suppose they’ve got to put something in. You can’t have a blank hole on the front page, people will notice, and the stuff about the failings of various agencies in Britain is a bit repetitious. They’re running out of government bodies, in any case, and now only finding one that was efficient would be newsworthy. But the blather about the colour of the Remembrance Day poppy is, well, it’s just a lot of old poppy-cock!

A very dear friend of mine had a narrow escape from being named Poppy as it was her birthday on that date, but November the 11th. has been remembered (that’s why it’s called Remembrance Day, you stupid carpers) for many years as a tribute to the generation that died so needlessly in the First World War. And the red poppy was not a religious icon, a sales marketing tool or a symbol of anything that any sane person would object to, it was the object that so many of those at the front recalled in later life, those that were lucky enough to have one. It was the poppies that still bloomed in the shell-torn landscape of Flanders.

I suppose those that now advocate white poppies have never been to Flanders, where they must be the equivalent of four leafed clovers.

Time has tended to reduce the horror of those years, and it was an even more horrendous slaughter than the second. Few British families remained unscathed. In my family there was a maiden aunt and, as a boy, I often wondered why she had never married, as she was undoubtedly very good-looking. It was many years before I discovered that her fiance had died in Flanders. She was just one of the thousands who would not need a poppy to remind them – but many do.

Although there are many fine books on the events of that time, nothing to my mind evokes the period as well as the writing of Vera Brittain in her diaries, Chronicle of Youth. She owed a debt to society later on in life, since she gave birth to Shirley Williams, but one can excuse the occasional slip-up. Those who carp about remembering the dead of that war would do well to read her books.

And the sale of poppies is, for once, for a genuine charity unlike a good many others.

The manager of Hainault London Underground station saw fit to turf an 85 year-old lady off his premises for trying to sell poppies there the day before yesterday. Her husband had died during that war and for many years she had done duty collecting at this station for the fund.

To their credit, London Transport (or whatever they call themselves now) apologised and so she will be back with her tray of poppies.

I hope the station manager gives generously. In fact, he should buy the whole tray from her.

The poem that caught the imagination and made the poppy such a potent symbol of the war, was written by a Canadian Medical Officer, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, whilst serving in Flanders. It was first published in the magazine Punch.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

So give generously today. Even if you think the poppies should be white. You’re only carping if you think that’s so important.