Monday, May 08, 2006

The Dales Diary Part 1

I spent the week-end walking the Yorkshire Dales. But as always my spontaneity has to be planned, and the choice of the village of Malham was no coincidence. The accommodation booked was a shrine to all things modest, a creaky guest house with a room set aside for us which resembled a starving poet's garret, and a breakfast room probably reclaimed for business from the family's off- season use. Photos of the kids and battered board games strewn around were obvious reminders of a recent end to a long, lean winter. But the setting was ideal, right in the middle of Malhamdale's two must see locations.

On arrival I hardly had the time or inclination to consider how beautiful the setting was. I was too busy making a hash of parking the car in the narrowest of gaps set aside for residents, allowing my pristine rear bumper to make a sickening thud on to the jagged protrusions from the Yorkshire building's walls. And sweat-hefting bags, bottles of wine, back packs, and about half a ton of clothes, delicately draped over spindly hangars, up a succession of staircases so narrow anyone wider than a snooker cue ran the risk of fat man's wedge and so steep I thought I was ascending the sheer face of Malham Cove.

There I go, name dropping already. Our first walk was indeed to Malham Cove. On one of the hottest days of this year we set off to find the cove. Uphill all the way, this was to be one walk that was more challenging than the guest house stairs. The cove at 80 metres high and 300 metres wide resembles a cliff face. Mere mortals are generally happy to have got there and to stand beneath it making cooing noises at its height and majesty, and admire the peregrine falcons wheeling around as if magnetized by the whiteness of the face. Others cling to it with sucker hands and feet and invisible lines which may or may not save their lives should they lose their grips or footings.

Sooty markings seem to scour the grey-whiteness which apparently prompted Charles Kingsley to suggest that a chimney sweep might have thrown himself off the top whilst fully blacked and brushed leaving behind a sooty trail as he tumbled downwards. Kingsley was a fan of this area, hanging out around the cove and Malham Tarn dreaming up the early drafts of The Water Babies. I found myself wishing that he'd flung himself from the cove - chimney sweep style - before writing the book, which would have saved me from reading this near unreadable book to my children.

Leaving the human flys to their sport, or fate, dangling like puppets but obviously in robust spirits cracking climbing-themed jokes to each other which echoed for miles, we took the track to the top. Giving the drop a healthy berth, we picked our way along the limestone pavement as if playing an exaggerated game of mind the cracks, carefully avoiding the deep clints and grykes in the surface which looked like a giant's concrete path that had been smashed, with teeth gritting vigour, with a huge sledge hammer.

We circled around clipping bits of the Pennine Way here and there - carefully avoiding all signs to the Gordale Scar which was to be our next walk.

I was beginning to wonder how author Bill Bryson stayed a tub of lard all the time he lived around here, after all, he did like a walk, did Bill. But then, if like me he repaired to any one of the two delightful pubs in the village at the end of each climb or ramble, and re-hydrated with pints of Old Peculiar and re-energised with huge plates of wholesome Yorkshire food, he's forgiven.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

No Tulips For Alan's Plan

I came to The Apprentice late. But I've been watching it for long enough. Long enough to feel great pleasure watching that plump chump, red coat, Paul Tulip get nailed last night after his first boardroom face to face with Sir Alan Sugar.

When I first saw this guy - during the flight advertisement episode - I thought he was in his mid thirties. He then seemed to get progressively younger as the episodes rolled on, late twenties, mid twenties, early twenties. If he had stayed any longer - you have might have been excused for thinking he'd have been Buntering around with a school cap on his head and a catapult hanging from his shorts by the last task, before demonstrating a bandy-legged, milky stained romper suit totter and a face full of mashy rusks for the interview stages.

Week after week he escaped the mauling he so deserved, by either sneaking through on the winning team, or drawing on his blokish, cheeky chap chipperese to win over undiscerning punters and steal yet another dubious win and the shield it gave him from scrutiny. The chinks were there, but the format bailed him out again and again. Full of pompous nonsense about being the best candidate in the programme, the house, the world, it was quite plain to me that he was seriously deluded, but all those 'wins' fuelled that delusion and somehow actually made him favourite to be hired.

By the time our Paul had been structure interviewed by Sir A's trusted henchmen he was exposed - not before time - as a shallow chancer. Once these facts were reported back to the straight talking no-nonsene Sir A, he could hardly wait to send him packing. And he went with barely a whimper.

I am deeply satisfied.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Brief Encounter

Reading this made me remember my first I account with cockroaches whilst living abroad. Arebella has tried to fool us that the troublesome bugs of Florida aren't cockroaches, but I know better. I've seen these things.

Arranged in multiple shades of brown, from something reminiscent of 1970s Ford tawny metallic, much beloved of granddad's old Granada and a trendy dad's capricious Capri (both with yuckity yuck vinyl roofs) to shit brown, and all its turdy hue variations; these things are brutes.

Living in downtown Limassol in Cyprus as opposed to seeking little-England sanctuary within one of the Sovereign Base Areas, meant hanging out with the locals. It meant speaking fractured Greek with exaggerated gesticulations, staring at the funny tourists, firing up kebab trays on your veranda for every meal, drinking gallons of liver wrecking cheap dreggy red wine with your goaty-meat meal and making yourself ill with pints of sweet commandaria. And living side by side with plagues of cockroaches. It came with the deal, you just went along with it.

The first time I saw one - one of these cockroaches - I was convinced it was a strange exotic animal, or reptile at least. I watched it climb my white-washed wall - picking its way with precise deliberation on spindly legs and scanning feelers which were so long they doubled its size.

I considered my killing options. A lifetime of ant and wasp squashing hadn't prepared me for any less lethal options, any of that stunning, jam jars and considerate relocation nonsense. The murder of anything with a frighteningly complex arrangement of eyes and legs was pretty much all I knew.

Almost before I had selected my weapon of choice - probably something with a firm but yielding rigidity like a rolled up copy of the Cyprus Times or one of those scatter cushions Mediterranean men languish about on the floor with in a tumble of ash, moustaches and sneer-leers - it stopped walking, turned its head and looked right at me. I'd never seen an insect with a face before. A real face, not just a hairy, nobbled affair but proper eyes, mouth, nose, nasal hairs . . . teeth, the whole damn shebang. And not just a face, but an expression. An expression that said to me: 'I lived here before you did fuckhead, piss me off and you die!'

And while I was considering for a moment a moments re-consideration about giving this thing the swipe of its wretched life it took to the air, beating its - until then unseen and unknown about wings - in a clumsy hover before circling my fear-frozen head and whirring out of the open doors into the stifling, terrible night.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

More Lord Carrington Than Jonah Barrington

I played my first game of squash in years yesterday. At my age and in my physical condition doctors the world over will be cradling their heads in tut-tut disapproval at the mere thought. And I was suckered into playing someone half my age who was something of a university champion and a mild celebrity to boot due to his sporting prowess and mind boggling success. What the hell was I thinking?

In truth I considered myself a bit handy when I was playing regularly during the early to mid nineties. A bit whippy with the forehand, a brutal firecracker of a serve, brave in the face of wild swinging racquets and impervious to the odd clout across the ear or head clatter into the back wall. But that was a long time ago. A long time before spidery bones in my foot that I'd never heard of had been broken and fussily fused with great fragility. Years before a ghostly fairground blubber-hoop thrower had encircled me around the waist. Aeons before a million heart attack terrors jolted from every hunger pang and muscle twitch-ache from the chest and the fearful worry that 'the end,' that we all heard about when we were young but either disbelieved, distrusted or didn't care about, had arrived.

I'm older now. Less flexible. Slower. More vulnerable. Crap. Well not really crap, just not very good. From fleet of foot, to clumping. From scampering to the wall to retrieve nearly dead balls, to theatrical sighs and depressed realisations that it would be me who was dead if I chased down too many seeming lost causes. From digging out inert balls from the corners and skittering to the 'T,' to becoming inert myself, exhausted, fagged out by a life time of fags, every little one paying me back, cashing in on half a lifetime of careless, couldn't give a shit lung ruination.

Don't play squash to get fit. Get fit to play squash. Or so they say. I'll write an account of the game, or games should I ever recover.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Meanwhile Back In Normal Life

A walk, around the hills and plains of the Cheshire and Shropshire border and through the village of Marbury which sits, like a rustic stow-away several twists and turns off the A41, proved a bit of an Easter delight.

Marbury has a rather fetching 15th Century church which can be seen from way up on the Cheshire plains. This ruddy coloured, rather grand church with its subsidence-caused leaning tower has acted as a reliable reference point for centuries of walkers and farmers wending their foggy-glimpse way from the hills and fields back towards the ancient village.

There sits in its grounds amid tombs and gravestones the exhausted, gnarled and splitting remains of an elm tree, dated from the 11th century. It looks like a great stump which has received glancing blows from a giant woodcutter's axe, forever. I caressed it with the hands of a sensitive lover, feelings its knots and whirls and shredded bark, searching its hollow bole for evidence of a thousand years of casual attention.

The litchgate which you must pass through to get to the church and its grounds, has an inscription carved upon it: 'To the Glory of GOD and in honoured memory of those from this Parish who gave their lives for their Country and whose names are recorded on the Tablet in the Church 1914 -1919, which, based on the comparative temporal system of time placement around these parts, was carved about five minutes ago, and the old oak tree that has been rising up from the village green since 1814, where dancing bears, illusionists and puppeteers entertained the villagers during endless spring and summer village fayres, was planted a week ago last Wednesday.

Walking up the hill towards the 'stiles' and 'kissing gates' which would direct us towards Llangollen Canal, used to transport local produce such as cheese, (a cooler journey in more ways than one), the village detective in me attempted to plot which buildings were once part of Marbury's G5 their group of five (such was the importance of alehouses and gossip) pubs. The Wheelwright's and Smithy's workshops were more easily identifiable. And so was the Swan Inn, which has either seen off the opposition through location and real ale and food quality, or got lucky in the great pub shake up a hundred years ago when homes became more important.

The two meres known as rather prosaically but unambiguously as 'Big' and 'Little' look like a couple of sad melted snowmen on the map, but 'Little' shines serenely through the windows of the pub and the church and 'Big' - hidden behind reeds and fronds - has a million adventure stories behind it, and a million more to come.

Ahh. A little slice of real England.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

More Incredibly Interesting Search Requests

There is a rubbish tip in Enderby, Leicestershire, though rubbish tips don't really exist any more, now replaced by fastidiously managed Recycling Centres. Unlike the old rubbish tips where tangles of garbage - tube-blown tellys, burst mattresses, Christmas tree skeletons, potato peelings, stinking nappies and empty beer bottles - could be hoiked into seagull swarm-infested muddy pits before being buried by skinny, woodbine sucking, ginger haired men tearing around expertly in tractors, these Recycle Centres require the fussy sifting and near forensic categorising of rubbish.

If you need to use these places and you get it wrong, you risk the exaggerated wrath of the soiled yellow coated attendants. If you drop a piece of cardboard into the plastics receptacle as you try, unsuccessfully, to switch-dispatch left and right into the side by side skips, you'll elicit ' are you stupid' like theatrical sighs and head shake tut-tut frustration from these new lords of the mucky and the brassy.

Break the rules flagrantly however, like abandoning a hated washing machine that's flooded your kitchen and wrecked your flooring yet again, nearer the 'garden waste' than the 'old electrics' these guys - only one step up from our ginger tractor scrambler look as if they're capable of giving you an ass clout whether it's May or not.

I know all about the fragility of the planet and the ruination of it through pollution, but for a scrap the junk session give me the old dumping grounds any day, when the dispatcher was king - get it all in there, who cares what it is, you've defined it as crap, that's all that matters: grab, drag, yank, throw.

So... if I resemble a bit of a dumping ground, I think I'd prefer to be known as the 'enderby rubbish tip' rather than anything too green and prissy. So, I guess at least one person has found it.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Bedknobs And Room Picks

Just back from a short business trip which involved a short stay at the Manor Hotel, Crickhowell. This hotel is snuggled into the side of the Black Mountains and overlooks the dramatic Usk Valley in the heart of the Brecon Beacons.

These regular work-away breaks have to be one of the best things about the job I'm doing. The hotels I stay in are invariably booked for me by a central booking agency and are selected on the basis of the proximity of the relevant business I'm attending, but through this random process it does seem to reveal some true nuggets.

The Manor Hotel dates back to the early 1700 s . It can be seen from the main road jutting out of the hill and looking as if a giant child had pushed a miniature house into a green mound of Plasticine. It sits, all white-washy and glassy at the top of a winding road, the route of which dates back to the 10th century, laid for horse drawn carriages to clip-clop rattle-snort their way up to during the last few centuries.

Typical of old manorial homes that have been turned into hotel and country clubs, there are space adding building bolt-ons all over it, making it into a bit of a mish-mash of dates and styles; odd juxtapositions of dowdy looking Eighteenth Century drawing rooms, connecting to modern conservatory like breakfast rooms, and balustered staircases. The stairs lead, in one direction to grand, creaky floored bedrooms, and in another direction to rooms which could easily have been snatched and grabbed from the an Ikea bedroom display and dropped in by chopper.

Previous owners and occupants of this pile could fill a couple of pages of Debrett's Peerage but the main contender and most likely to be profiled in Hello Magazine today, surrounded by his family, pets, all the in-house finery, was Sir George (Mount) Everest. Sir George who preferred Eve-rest to Everest apparently but the pronunciation never caught on, was the former Surveyor General of India and height calculator and namer of the famous mountain, was born in the house in 1790 and consequently his name features heavily around the the place - the dining room is Everest ( Eve-Rest) Dining Room and so on.

And I have a feeling there are other legacies. I wouldn't mind betting that the bed in my room - one of the grand old rooms, not one of the MFI mock ups - was his.

This bed is so big it had to have been built in the room. Carved out of mahogany and shaped like Santa Clause's Sleigh, it was immense. Whole forests must have been left weeping and bereft once George's wood order had been made known. Lumberjacks must have died, Suez canal style, during the cutting and gathering process. Battalions of Sherpa's unbreakable backs, broken. I tried to lift it at its end, I have no idea why, perhaps it was its challenging sturdiness. I couldn't move it an inch, couldn't even disturb it by a courteous, acknowledging creak.

I have since learnt that these beds are known as, surprise surprise, Sleigh Beds though whether any modern floor could possibly support their weight - roughly similar to a couple of old fashioned lead filled upright pianos or professional snooker tables, is anyone's guess.

But the setting of this hotel and the scenery surrounding it makes it worth a visit.

I hope this doesn't sound too much like a review or an advertisement. Then again, it's a break from going on about stats and weird search requests though they'll be back soon enough.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Shiny Asses

'Shine my botty away.'

I've stared at this strange line for twenty minutes. It made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. I had to do a little search of my own. And voila! It's a quote from Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's alter egos, Derek and Clive from their 'Sir' sketch off their "Ad Nauseam" comedy album.

Rather strangely the sketch featured at the top of the search finds which makes me wonder why there was a need for the searcher to scrutinise the thread any further.

I remember being introduced to D and C after a school chum brought Derek and Clive's "Come Again" to our youth club and the feelings of weirdness in hearing the words "You Stupid Cunt" being said by adults. I had thought until then that sweary words were the preserve of rapscallion little oiks like us.

Anyway, back to the botty shine thing:

Extract from 'Sir' by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore

..... and he said, "Oh, look," he said, "erm, all the Brasso has come out and got onto your, onto your botty," he said, "and I'm going to have to take some-, take a-, take a cloth and wipe your botty clean because it's got all this white Brasso on it."

Di-, di-, di- .....

And then Sir took this handkerchief out, 'cause he didn't have a cloth, and wiped my botty all the time, he was wiping and wiping and wiping it.

He was probably trying to shine it.

Yes, he was .....

Di-, b-, bu- .....

..... trying to get my botty very shiny, that's what he said afterwards.

Did it look like this?

No, it didn't look quite as shiny as that, but at the end after about ten minutes .....

No, but the sticky stuff.

The sticky stuff looked just like that, yes, he said it was Brasso. And he shined my botty away and then he said, "Don't ever do that again."

Full script here

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Surgers

Somebody, somewhere, thinks I may be an authority on 'knickers serge type.' That is, knickers, serge. Or, serge knickers. Sadly I'm no expert in this little sartorial homage to practicality over appearance, but I'm game to give it a go should he or she stray into these parts again.

And it's in games that I find some answers. Or more properly, PE, Physical Education for children. Children, circa 1964, including yours truly. The boys turning out in voluminous shorts, before they became fashionable by way of the kind of shorts-minimalism that made Glen Hoddle look, on reflection, like he was playing football in his jockeys, and the girls, stripped down into heavy duty, industrial strength, boy-stiffy preventative, navy blue serge knickers.

What was the deal? Why were they made to do it? Even the slim girls looked horrid - though I suppose this was intended - boys get weird palpitations and uncomfortable stirrings from an alarmingly young age and I guess the old serges were the best defence against any of that twitching in the 'Y' fronts and embarrassing bulges nonsense. But all the same, I would have thought the outlining of these female backsides in the company of dozens of mini priapics an unnecessary distraction and unhelpful to the cause of good health through innocent physical jerkery and honest endeavour.

Putting myself back into the arena through the power of memory and imagination, I do recall that one 'serge wearer' during these regular outings was slightly larger than the rest. So large in fact that I can only guess that she would have been a serge wearer because she was permanently excused all physical activities and instead sat out most of these bracing sessions, fatly, on the sidelines.

Extremely fat and even more unpopular. And, if God hadn't been cruel enough already, ensured that her eyesight was such that she would permanently need the assistance of National Health Specs to see, and that her vast body would be impervious to the cleansing and scenting properties of soap and water.

There was a time also, when I was less than popular. At just about this time as it happens. One of those short periods that probably lasted a few months but felt like a lifetime. I wasn't quite ready to engage in any side by side empathy out on the fringes of school child society, out in the frozen wastes of the benches with fat . . 'Olive' (close enough), but, as I too was stricken with less-than-perfect-eyesight, was also forced to wear National Health little round speccies, and therefore considered an anyone-different type oddity. Bit like Olive, but without the buzzing lies and usually hidden, serge knickers. And I suppose it was this that brought us, momentarily, together. On one school games day.

The usual ramshackle of events - lots of hopping and things involving buckets. But sandwiched between the egg and spoon and the sack race was the wheel barrow race. The Wheel Barrow Race. Girls pushing boys. Girls choosing boys to push. Boys legs tucked under girls arms and pushed along, wheelbarrow like. Prizes for winners.

I guess the rationale behind the gender chosen roles was that boys had stronger arms to propel themselves along, and boys legs scrawny bits at the best of times aren't that heavy and well within the strength zone of the average girl. And my legs were going to be held, I was going to be involved in the wheel barrow race.

Once the pairing off was well on the way feelings of dejection came over me in waves as pretty soon only one girl and two boys remained. The slightly more confident, slightly more popular girl made her move selecting the none specs wearer. There was to be no wheelbarrow race for me. No more pushers left. The pushers had left the building.

But wait. There was a rousing of a commotion. A swirling of school marms, all flouncy dresses and good natured chivying; pulling, patting and fussing over what appeared to be at first glance, a baby calf being dragged, reluctantly, into the open. This turned out to be Olive, sprung from the safety and anonymity of the spectators seating and ordered (this was the 1960s) to strip down to her mighty serge knickers and plug the gap. I was going to be a barrowed after all - but I was going to be wheeled by a mini homunculus.

On the sound of the starting whistle the surge of the serges and their hand crawlers began. Boy's legs were being dropped by weedy, ringletted and ribboned girly whirlies. Tears and tantrums quickly followed. I was being pushed by a pile driver, my bony legs clamped tight by ham-like arms and the pent up emotions of a friendless soul making a desperate pitch for a win and instant popularity.

My twiggy arms and hands were a blur of desperate skittering. They had to be. If I hadn't kept them going I would have fell, painfully onto my face - an accidental wreck of bloody nose, grass-stained teeth and comically twisted specs. My chest - what there was of one - heaved, fear of worse pain drove me on. And on. And on. This great lump, this fat nightmare in serge knickers was pushing too hard, too hard. I'm bound to fall, I will fall.

But not before the winning line was crossed.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Taint Of Paint

Time's short. I have more search requests from which tease out meanings, and tease generally.

"i wont to no all about body wock on cars"

So grammatically incorrect, hordes of expired English Language teachers should rise from their graves - Thriller style - and converge like pantomime ghouls towards a ghastly old school teacher's convention and chant a lamentation for the passing of correct, or even half decent, usage.

Around about the time some of these teachers were alive, I worked on the 'body wock' of cars as a paint sprayer. Thankfully at the time, I had an intuitive understanding - based on being a natural fuss-pot, of the poisoning properties of cellulose paint. Nobody else working there seemed to care, getting the job done was all that mattered. If the extractor fans were clogged and refused to fulfill their role in life - extraction - it was a minor inconvenience. It was bit harder to see, your cough might be a little more hack-violent when you clambered out of the painty hell-hole after carrying out a respray, but hey!

All this was prior to anything recognisable today as health and safety and duty of care legislation. Your good or bad health was based on how you dealt with the risks present and was pretty much a matter of personal choice. The only form of breathing mask to provide some form of protection from the deadly fug you worked in was a thin sponge and charcoal grit affair stuck on the end of a stinking rubber nose extension that when worn sucked your face in so tightly it boggled your eyes into Marty Feldman's during his Igor period, turned your ears as red as the Chinese flag and pinched your mouth against your teeth with such venom the inside of your bottom lip played host to a clutch of marble sized mouth ulcers for weeks.

There was only one of these masks and four of us working, but there was no fight for its use. No dispute, no turn-taking routine. No-one was ever occupied in searching out that rubber face reshaping clinker. It became mine. Only I used it. Only I would stop my lungs from ending up with a multi-coloured scrounge coating.

Curiously, the others were quite happy drinking in great breathy draughts of poisonous air, swirls of coloured mist - the colours and flavours of the day; the tasteful ermine whites of the Simcas, the gaudy harvest golds of Hillmans, Ford Capri and Granada tawny metallics and that awful Vauxhall wedgewood blue. I wasn't

They had me down as a strange one.

The masked one.

The Mask.

The masked survivor.

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