Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Anything but Plain.

Utilising contacts and seizing opportunities I was able to able to spend a day in the company of the one of the wardens who oversee the Salisbury Plain military training area. Part privilege, part professional, fully pleasurable - I was allowed a box seat in a scruffy landrover to observe how they spend their days on this patchwork expanse of erstwhile interconnected private estates sold on to the Mod at the turn of the century by families devoted to the military cause.

The plain is a Time Team's plum pudding of tumulus, hill fort ramparts, and more tumps, humps and bumps than you'd find on a medieval witch's nose. And a list of barrows so long that Browning, should he have chosen to write about burial chambers instead of rats, would probably have rejoiced at the quantity he could choose from for repetitious poetic effect: "Barrows!" "long barrows, short barrows, around the mound, round barrows, flat old discers, ponderous ponders, bowls and bells and gallows barrows!" A lot of barrows.

Many are sites of official archeological digs; others are plotted and marked for future exploration. The badgers, no respecters of time schedules, forensic examiners and scrupulous categorization often get together and do a little impromptu grub-digging of their own, and one can only guess at their unfazed indifference as they scoop out priceless clusters of medieval beads, belts, buckles and battered sandals, enough to fill a hippie's shopping list, or inhabit his wettest of dreams. And enough skulls and bones to decorate a pirate's ship twice over.

There is more recent history to be found, as you traverse the scree-laden pot-holed lunar-landscaped terrain: A centuries old blogger's freeway of old signs still poke out of ditches on early metallic roads sides - once pootle territory of honk-honking, early motorcars their affluent, blanket-lapped owners chug-chugging their way to Pre-Betjamin tea shops in Marlborough for cake and scones with butter and jam. Or to Devizes market to buy pepper or tea from India. And even earlier jagged milestones looking like a giant dog's broken teeth stick out along tracks used by old stage coaches with their clacking, pant-snorting horses and rackety rolling wheels.

The plateau-like plain covers about 300 square miles, largely treeless, drained to the south by the River Avon and its tributaries. It rolls as far as the eye can see. It is, they say, roughly the size of the Isle of Wight. Bumping along in the four-wheeled truck makes me feel as if I'm on safari. Everything is covered in dust. It billows up behind us like yellow smoke, then hangs, suspended, as if it were a sneeze cloud of the Devil's sniffed, snuff. As it clears, buzzards wheel into view, and peregrine falcons dart about like huge swallows, and kestrels, as common here as sparrows, beating their wings like demented moths and dive bombing fieldmice with the precision of the heat-seeking missiles with which they share their days.

The contrast is everywhere. The endless fields are pock marked with the craters of modern warfare training, and tanks - a through the ages guide book of now broken and exhausted models no longer offensive, except to the eye, used as undefended target practice, like aging pugs taking shot after sickening shot, their only use, to be obliterated by an impressive, new strength.

And in the middle of the plain, this plain, there still remains the wrecked leftovers of the village of Imber. An isolated village requisitioned by the War Office a week before Christmas 1943. Its location an irritation to the sweep of the military training area. Now a dolorous island of empty buildings. It is said that villagers were given a month to leave, and, in a finger-snap, the area was evacuated and the village erased, literally, from the map. It's ghostly shape, with its 15th Century church and Old Bell pub with its sign still squeak-swinging in the wind, is still discernible as a village from a distance, despite stories of over enthusiastic gung-ho American servicemen back in the fifties who mistook its purpose as a target for obliteration and knocked walls, roofs and spires into undeserved oblivion. The village can sometimes be seen from the public road, though often its shrouded in mist as if all the souls of the dead villagers have been summoned by the rusty clappered cracked bells of St Giles and joined up in a vain attempt to protect it from view. And further harm.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Over the Hill


Until recently I'd never climbed a crag. My week-end in the Lake District which should have been all about gentle ramblings and thoughts of Wordsworth's wanderings and Wainwright's pipe smoking ruminations took a slightly more challenging turn. I intended to have a physical time of it: a bit of a yomp here, a little scree-scrabbling there. Enough to increase my heart rate, stretch my legs and lungs. Enough to induce a sheen of sweat on my back and the odd tear drop of sweat to runnell through the crags of my forehead and trickle-sting my newly tested eyes. But I had no plans to flirt with danger.

The crags on my forehead had been the only crags ever to give me concern. Along with a suggestion of crowsfeet and bags around the eyes, a rumour of greying around the brows and temples. The hurtful revelations and painful reminders from the exaggerated facial scrutiny of the morning shave. But mountain crags had never caused me anxiety. Why should they? They were the preserve of those sinewy, helmeted, mad-dog mountaineers and their baggage, their check list of harnesses, pulleys,clips and ropes. And I was there for a ramble. Nothing more.

Our guide had other ideas. Crags and bags and brows were to take on more meaning for me. More than the vanity routine at the vanity suite. They only greying concerns I was about to have was to do with the swirling mists that threatened to envelop the peak. The brow of the crag I was invited to bag.

Ambleside was to be the venue of no amble. The Langdale Pikes no sideshow for the idle. The Pavey Ark cliff face was not a pretty one and the sadistic climbing route known as 'Jack's Rake'was no garden implement.

The actual climb is a bit of a blur really: A team talk. A roll call last minute: "Anyone here wimp enough to suffer vertigo?" Anyone too frightened to go up?" "If anyone would like to sit around dangling their raw feet in the restorative waters of Stickle Tarn - an achingly beautiful, cool clear mountain lake - the very embodiment of 'the calm before the perilous perform,' whilst reading their Wordsworth biog and experiencing the awful thrill of imagining Captain John Wordsworth, brother of Will, clinging to the rigging of his ship, The Earl of Abergavenny as it sank off Portland Bill, and who was of course a brave man, you can. But don't expect to leave this place with any self respect." I made that last bit up, the mock-threat, not the Wordsworth story.

And the climb began. Some men cramponing, One Man Crapping!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Mask

Apparently, the S10 respirator is this year's 'must have.' And without going into too much detail as to why - I'm now the proud owner of one. The events of July have determined, it seems, that I - at least - must have one. I rather hope I'll never need to put it on in anger. Especially as I've just had to endure an eyesight test to determine the strength of the vision corrective lenses that will have to be inserted if I'm not to be rendered half blind when I'm wearing it. Thankfully things have moved on since the days when short sighted servicemen issued with them had to have little Gustav Mahler specs fitted which had to be fixed with a little clip on the internal nose hollow making otherwise tough, fit young men look like swottish, twittish pince-nez types.

My eyes are a nuisance these days. Teetering between short and long sight I have provided an optician's challenge to somehow prescribe a lens which will provide me with all round decent eyesight whilst my face is stuffed into this claustrophobic, steamed up, distorted rubber face clinker. Somehow I can't help but think that the finely graduated focal nuances of the lenses will join forces with the sweat and the grime and the tears and the sick to ensure that I am, in fact totally blind if and when I have to wear it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Just the Ticket

I really needed another brush with officialdom. It has, after all, been days since my impromptu 'meet the cops' session which resulted in cringe making tickings off, laborious form filling and time consuming follow ups in sweaty, heavy traffic in an effort to straighten things out.

At 2.40pm today I received my first ever parking ticket. I was a full five minutes late returning to the NCP multi storey so I should have expected it: spitefully yellow, like mustard; a square smudge of polythene vomit glooped onto my already sickly windscreen. Loudly admonitory, shouty-shout thick black letters spelling out angry, ugly legal declarations and cautionary threats - words like: 'warning,' 'offence to remove,' and 'only the driver or else;' words impossible to ignore as I briefly considered the merits of ripping the thing off in a fit of petulance and letting it flutter harmlessly over the concreted side. The same side from which some poor soul in a fit of gut low, wretched despair, bungee jumped several Saturdays ago without the requisite rubber band and harness ensemble. His meloncholia had reached tipping point apparently, and his only solution, to tip himself over and fall to his death. It occurred to me, briefly, that he too might had been a victim of this over zealous jobsworth, this Little Englander, this hero of petty bureaucracy, and I wondered what diabolical pact might have been made between pricket ticket man and his devilish master.

I resisted my twin urges to throw either the ticket or myself over the fourth storey edge and instead prepared to hunt down the small minded asshole who started all this, and throw him over instead. Gloweringly I re-locked my car to seek out my quarry, sticky bag sticking to my sticky mitt - the mitt I was intending to use to stick it - the sticky bag and contents, somewhere else.

I was checked by a young mother who had been busily fussing with a pushchair and her charges and who obviously had only just arrived at the car-park herself. As she passed she proferred a look, partly of sympathy, partly of collusion and, recognising my ire showed me an impish look of excited goading as if, temporarily, we were both back at school, she, tempting the playground tough, me, to go and batter the classroom snitch, who hangs out alone knowing that he's hated, and why.

She made a few references as to how warden No 18 clock-watched the time expiry and with what glee he seemed to write out the ticket and take evidential photographs, which further fuelled my sense of injustice. I ran a little vignette in my head of me marching purposefully up to this little bundle of self-importance and giving him the verbal tongue lash of his life. But once I'd revived myself from my reverie, I didn't. I knew I'd make a mess of it. My imagined angry eloquence would give way to real-time waffling incoherence, handing him all the winning cards. These people - they're pastmasters (and mistresses) at this business. They're well briefed in the art of: "I'm only doing my job sir" and "If sir wishes to appeal he is perfectly at liberty to do so through the appropriate channels," and all have plenty of "The sign over there is quite specific, if you remain parked after the time stated on the ticket purchased you are liable to be issued a penalty parking ticket, sir can read I presume" like statements. And all I would do is puff and blow with indignation. Knowing that I'm bang to rights.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Fit to Drop.

Shamed into physical exercise by over indulgence I blew the cobwebs off my bike and took to the road. Cycling. Nothing quite like it for pumping the blood and stretching the muscles. A nut cracking, finger cramping, vital organ exploder of an exercise. And there is nothing in life quite as hard as cycling uphill. Nothing. Sitting through endless repeats of 'Birds of a Feather' with your eyes sticky-taped open and electric shocks administered to your testicles each time you fail to find Pauline Quirke funny, might run it close - but even that doesn't induce a hot spicy chest of bile sick and a throat-scarifying cough-hackle that feels like you're shredding your lungs with a fork. Only cycling does that. Cycling uphill.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Vocabularians Part 2

Another bunch of new words has just been printed in the latest issue of the Oxford Dictionary of English - but I have seen few examples capable of bailing me out of one of my creative tundras when I keyboard-headbut and ceiling-gaze my hopeful way towards the clincher word. The one that does it.

The list seems to be a dictionary corner load of compounds drawn from lazy street slang corruptions and portmanteaus the likes of which far from being useful are virtually unusable (though smog started off as one of those so what do I know?) 'Hinglish' is, unsuprisingly - a language blend of English and Hindu. 'Chugger', a pairing of charity and mugger. This is a new word to describe those irritants who accost you in the street despite your world class endeavours at eye contact avoidance and tactical walk-swerve, hide-dash, manouvres. On reflection I quite like that one - chugger is like bugger as well as mugger, and sounds a bit like fugger which in turn sounds not unlike fucker, all of which makes them, - chuggers, sound unpleasant.

'Sing-jay'. A DJ who sings as well as, I don't know, plays, mixes, or scratches. A hopeless addition, destined to fall into non-use due to it sounding uncool. 'Lush' has been around so long now that it would be anything but lush to use it as it is newly defined, as something 'good.' Lush though was coined, well, about a minute ago compared with at least one of the entries so old it might have appeared in DrJohnson's Dictionary: Rosy Lee :" A preferred term Beftowed by Coftermongers and others of low fortune found within our noble city to defcribe through the device of rhyme the popular beverage Tea might have been its first definition. Or in the case of 'Ruby Murray' the singer and 'Quite Contrary' TV star whose name became synonymous with curry and could easily have been found between the covers of a 1958 edition of the Daily Sketch newspaper.

And all those other nouns, handy for some perhaps but not me. The 'Lollywoods' (films made in Lahore) - yep I know, who cares? 'Labrapoodle' a word to describe a purposefully crossed breed of dog, bred to enable blind people who suffer from hair allergies to have guide dogs that are both obedient and woolly (and snappy-yappy-biters as well, though I doubt this was considered as a desirable by product.

And so it goes on. There are some coinages that I do like though, and will use. Soon.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Tyred But Now Tired.

I am sleep deprived. And I am suffering the symptoms of sleep deprivation. Four times last week I was rude-serenaded by my Rumanian junk-retro, junk-shop, socially- deranged junk clock radio's buzzer at sparrow-fart-cough:"is it worth it just for that blind-slimy poor excuse for a breakfast?" time. Once at 4.00, twice at 3.00 and a barely believable 2.00 early on last week kicked off proceedings. It's been a hard week. And this morning was another whinge-worthy 3.00, though this one should be the last for a while.

My employers must believe that I'm at my best when I have to brain-strain to think cogent thoughts, or when I have to steel myself to get to the end of my spoken sentences without tripping over my tongue - which, when I'm tired, adopts a form of stubborn muscle stasis at crucial points. The twists, turns, gyrations, tip-elevations, groovings, and protrusions normally extracted from the kit-bag of my tongue, are packaged up with all their fricking fricatives and fallen pharyngeals and sent away on holiday until I'm alert enough to fly them back and return them to normal service. When I'm less tired.

My paymasters obviously don't mind it when I'm like this. Which I suppose is just as well.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Final Destination

Front tyres duly changed, their rolling leitmotif once again more 'get into the groove' than 'smooth operator' and all lights legally luminous. Very cleverly I tracked down and chose a repair outlet that isn't MOT registered which meant I had to then take the car and tout it to another repair outlet that is registered and grovelingly request a free inspection and ticket validation. Getting your ticket stamped for onward transmission as proof of work carried out is of course much easier if the ticket stamper has done the work and reaps the benefit of payment. Another lesson learnt there.

Next stop, the local police station and the production of all specified documents. This should have been straightforward. One of the great advantages of civilian workers at police front desks replacing the old desk sergeants, now inhabiters of the darker recesses of the building - eerie modern day Dr Frankenstein body part workshops of fingerprinters, mouth swabbers, breath testers and cells - is that they are efficient, business-like form checkers and fillers. Chances are you'll be in and out as if you've popped to the post office to do your car tax - without the disadvantage of having to queue behind half the local towns pensioner population who tend to see to it that pension day happens on the same day.

If, however, our civilian specialist - fully up to date with insurance policy documents and how the dating systems work and cognisant through weary practice and honed muscle memory what it is they need to look at and how to record the information presented, has popped to lunch, you may well find yourself back dealing with the police again. As I did...

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