Saturday, July 31, 2010


It would be churlish to complain about the noise from the children's party down the road, so I won't.

I've pigged out on blackberries and apricots and strong Cheddar cheese laden with blackcurrant ketchup. Green tea with rose petals. A young Annie Lennox bopping away with the Tourists.

My life may be a hollow shambles but it's comfortably accessorised.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Pop idol

I remember my sister's first Radio One Annual. It was the year after the Summer Of Love.

There were feature articles on Joe "Mister Piano" Henderson, Bob Monkhouse and Ken Dodd.

On the plus side there were photos of Judy Driscoll and Nancy Sinatra that I can still dredge up from what remains of my memory at the blink of an eye.

Friday, July 23, 2010


The entrance to the station was decorated by a line of plastic flowers, a dead frog and a home-made notice depicting a photograph of a tortoise with the caption

Answers to the name MM
If found please ring...

The platform was dotted with bumblebees intoxicated on privet blossom and littered with the remains of many moths.

Mother Nature had had a bad morning.

Heroes and villains

The mark of a good hero, they say, is the quality of his villains. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. I'll grant you that the mark of a good villain is often the quality of his hero but I think the reverse is a largely modern phenomenon. There doesn't have to be a single mirror point of antagonism for the heroic ideal to be displayed against. More often than not, in both legend and literature, quantity not quality is the measure of the hero.

The rise of the arch-enemy is largely a post-Great War thing, amplified and simplified after the Second World War. In times of massive change and widespread uncertainty there is a primal need for simple explanations for conflict and the war against Hitler, and the horrors that came to light, could be presented as a straightforward fight against a single, coherent evil, whatever the messy realities. Ever since then, Western culture has sought to satisfy the same craving, whether in its politics, films or literature. And when no good-enough villains defined good-enough heroes we created and celebrated anti-heroes to fill the void.

But what of Holmes and Moriarty? They were Victorian, weren't they?

Indeed they were. How often does Moriarty actually appear in the works of Conan Doyle? Really? You'd be surprised if you didn't already know (and if you don't already know you'll just have to go and read them, won't you?) Professor Moriarty was created as the villain who would kill Sherlock Holmes; he was the author's instrument of murder. Conan Doyle, being no fool, knew that it would be beneath both author and character for Holmes to be bashed on the head by a passing cut-purse. Holmes could only be credibly destroyed by a creature of equal stature. And so it came to pass. When Conan Doyle finally, reluctantly, resurrected Holmes he did not also bring Moriarty back to life as well. He had served his purpose and would only be an infrequent back-reference in future stories. Only in later incarnations did the hero require the recurring villain.

In these modern times it seems more rational to pit man against man or monster than to have him battle unreasoning fate. Which doesn't mean it's right.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The evil of banality

The parade of human history is littered with the faces of people who have done horrible things. Accompanied, as always, by the songs of the Greek Chorus; "he was so ordinary..." "you'd never have thought to look at him..." "he was a model neighbour..." Unremarkable people do remarkable things and they may be for evil as easily as for good. Perhaps more easily: "you'd never have thought to look at him..." could cover a multitude of sins. When they are brought to justice, by court or by history, even the worst of them turn out to be ordinary human beings. Crumpled, grey and empty. Even the most charismatic of them are rendered mute by the camera's eye, entirely missing that vital spark that sometimes only the photograph will reveal. The emptinesses of their existence drives them mad and makes them think they are God. And if God's existence can mean so little, why would the lives of lesser mortals pass mention? And so, unremarkable people do remarkable things. The grey bureaucrats of Kafka and Orwell strike terror and the parlours and morning rooms of genteel England are littered with the corpses of the stabbed and poisoned.

But we love our bit of terror.

Those sensationalist shocks and those lashings of the Grand Guignol. Those delightful moments of terror that give us our adrenalin rush safe from accompanying danger. We like our demons dressed up in the costumes of pantomime, our villains bedecked in hi-vis personae. We can hiss and boo with childish delight because it is safe to do so. We are the magpies chafing a passing cat: we know the danger and we know we are outside its reach.

But every so often...

The baying crowd gathered at the execution of the latest monster.

"Have your moment!" cried the monster. "Have your thrill! You cannot kill me! I am you!"


On the intersection with Deansgate a crowd had gathered.

A man lay on the floor, moaning and rubbing his leg. A bicycle lay on its side. Another man stood by, concerned at the well-being of the injured. A pedestrian had been crossing the road by the green crossing light. A cyclist, ignoring the traffic lights, sailed through and collided with him.

The cyclist lay on the ground, moaning.

The pedestrian stood by, apologising for the accident.

I wondered if it was bad form to kick a fallen man.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Magpie 23

close-up of a brass fire extinguisher

The boss was in one of his snitty moods. Which is a bit like saying that snow is cold and wet and that dandelions are yellow. You can't blame the scorpion for its sting so I generally went with the flow, which always seemed to annoy him all the more, which made it all worthwhile. So today the boss was in one of his snitty moods.

He approached my desk brandishing the big, brass fire extinguisher I'd bought just that morning. He flourished it at me, which was no mean feat as it was all metal and he's no weightlifter.

"And what is this?" he asked. Dumb, really, but there you go.

"It's a fire extinguisher," I explained.

"No, sir, it is not!" he declaimed. I think it was declaimed, it was certainly something beginning with D whatever it was.

"No, honestly, it is. If you look, it even says so on the label. The lettering's very distinct."

"No, sir, it is not a fire extinguisher. It is an anachronism."

"I'm pretty OK with anachronisms," I pointed out.

"This is not just an anachronism. It is a dangerous anachronism."

I have to admit that this wrong-footed me a bit. We didn't do temporal mechanics at my school and the Doctor Who revival has rather passed me by. I had another look, to be on the safe side.

"No, it's definitely a fire extinguisher. It's got instructions on what to do in case of a fire and everything."

"It is a fire extinguisher that you fill with water," he spat. He could have filled the blessed thing with two sentences. "That makes it dangerous. It would be deadly in the case of an electrical fire."

"Would it help if I promised not to set fire to any electricity?"

"It would not. What is it doing here?"

"Well, actually, I'd bought it for decorative purposes rather than in case of fire.We've a perfectly serviceable fire extinguisher on the wall over there and I've been fully trained in the procedure for running screaming out of the building if anyone so much as lights a cigarette, so we didn't need another one except for decoration."


"Yes. An objet d'art. Or, more properly, an objet trouvé."

"Objet trouvé? And where did you find this thing?"

"In the window of an antique shop. They were having a sale."

"This is intolerable! What if some unsuspecting person thought that this was for real? There could be a disaster."

"There's only you and me who ever work here. I know not to use it and you wouldn't use it even if it were in full working order. So where's the problem?"

"And where would you have this abomination for safekeeping?"

"I rather thought it would do over there by the roll-top desk, along with the sit-up-and-beg Imperial typewriter, the Bakelite telephone and Mrs. Edna Putiss."

"Mrs. Edna Putiss?"

"Yes, she followed me here from the bus station. Can I keep her?"

Sunday singalong

Saturday, July 17, 2010


Day eight of the hosepipe ban; the ninth day of torrential rainfall. Still, it's good for the garden.

I nipped out between showers and pruned back a couple of roses that had been flattened by Thursday night's deluge. Much to my delight I found some more seedlings of long-lost friends -- Echiums and California poppies -- and was also quietly astonished to find that the bottlebrush bush that I had written off as a Winter loss may still not have any leaves on it but has managed a bunch of flowers. I was very pleased. Much to my chagrin, I find that the rambling rose that I spent two years chopping down and digging out has risen from the grave. I have to be firm: it's a heartrendingly beautiful rose but there just isn't room for anything, however lovely, that grows eighteen feet in a season. I may let the railway have it in return for all those brambles and sycamore seedlings.

There are the usual mutterings about the hosepipe ban. And the usual justifications, together with pictures of empty reservoirs and threats to bugger up the North-West tourist industry. I have to wonder about the quality of maintenance of our reservoirs if they're so very, very low after the two wet and windy summers we had in 2008 and 2009. And while I can understand why all of last Autumn's flood water didn't get saved -- it's in the nature of flood water to hit and run -- I can't understand why more of an effort wasn't made to trap the Winter's melt water. There is was: all that frozen water not going anywhere for a month, nice and handy by the roadside and ready for picking up and dumping into reservoirs.

Too much effort or not profitable enough.

Pfah! The problem with market economies is the compartmentalising of cost. So long as it can be kept off my particular balance sheet I don't have to worry about it. Remember all the bleating about the cost to the economy of all those blocked roads and accidents and stuff? In a command economy the cost of leaving the ice where it was would be weighed against the cost of shovelling it up and shipping it to somewhere useful. Clear roads, filled reservoirs and people in paid employment in a recession, job done. Or else we could have had derivatives specialists and directors of merchant banks doing the shovel work as part of their community service.

There are times when one can almost forget the stultifying idiocies and evils of the Soviet system.

Some days the news is too peculiar for words

I have to thank Daveyp for pointing this one out.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Old black magic

It's not been a bad year for fruit so far. I had an over-sufficiency of blackcurrants. I off-loaded some on my parents but as I'd already taken a few pounds off their bush they were getting a bit fruit-packed. Especially as they're not supposed to be eating a lot of sweet stuff. I don't have a sweet tooth myself (he says, hiding the evidence of a tube of fruit pastilles I accidentally scoffed in one while shouting at the television news), so I've not been making tarts and the like. Picking at the raw blackcurrants is fine but let's be honest, that faint whiff of cat is always a bit off-putting. Then I had an idea, which is why I've now a couple of jars of blackcurrant ketchup. As always with me, the recipe is very approximate.

  • A pound or so of blackcurrants
  • Two or three or four chopped cloves of garlic
  • A chopped shallot, or a couple of chopped silverskin onions, or you can cheat and cop up a couple of pickled onions, which is what I'd have done had I been planning this
  • Oil for cooking; I used extra-virgin olive oil because that's what was on the worktop
  • White wine vinegar
Wash the blackcurrants and remove all the bits of stick, leaves and spiders and stuff because this is a vegetarian recipe. Gently fry the blackcurrants until the juices start to run. Now add the garlic and onion and cook until the onion starts becoming translucent. Add enough vinegar to cover the mixture and bring to the boil. As soon as it reaches this stage, bring the heat right down and let it all simmer gently. Now decant the mixture into sterilised small jars. You'll be left with a very messy pan with bits of caramelised blackcurrant in it. Deglaze the pan with a big splash of vinegar and pour this into the jars. Warm another tablespoon of vinegar in the pan and use this to cover the mixtures in the jars. Seal them and put them somewhere darkish for a couple of days.

After a couple of days you'll have a thick, dark purple spreadable mass. The cooking and the vinegar both bring out the sweetness of the blackcurrants (but it still comes as a surprise to me that the result is as sweet as it turns out to be). Spread on some bread with a bit of iceberg lettuce and crispy bacon and the job's a good 'un. It works well with a well-flavoured cheese, too.

I was going to try this on a sausage butty but when I opened the packet they'd gone all furry. I had that bachelor moment where you reckon that a hot grill would burn all the fur off but then common sense took over. So the blackcurrant ketchup works quite well with a last-minute Co-op pork pie.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

When Diana Dors ruled the world

My dad was playing on the swings with my small niece.

"Dinosaurs were very, very big," she said.

"Yes they were," he agreed.

"They were HUGE. And very, very fierce. Dinosaurs were very, very big and really fierce."

"Ooh yes."

"I've seen a dinosaur's bones. I saw a dinosaur skeleton. We went to the museum and we saw a dinosaur skeleton. It was huge. And I touched its claw. But it was all right because it was only the skeleton."

"Very good. Did it have big teeth as well?"

"It had very big teeth. But I wasn't scared: there aren't any dinosaurs any more. They died out. They all died out a long, long time ago."

"Well, that's a relief, isn't it?"

"It must have been very scary when you were a little boy, with all those dinosaurs running around."

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Fantastic Farewell

Been here.

I'm knocking on fifty (but look years younger). I've spent the evening sitting in the rain on a park bench singing my heart out to a particularly cheesy rendition of "The Wonder of You" being sung by a Dead Elvis impersonator as the audience debates whether or not Frank Sidebottom's older kid brother should kill Little Frank (a cardboard puppet) so that he can go into a paper mâché sarcophagus and join Big Frank in the afterlife.

It doesn't get a lot better than that.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010



Crisps and mince.

However did the Scots not invent that first?

Friday, July 02, 2010