Monday, March 30, 2009

Dressing for rain

I'm happy to admit that I'm not one of the world's most practical people. Even so, I seem to have more sense than some. It's been a late winter's day in Manchester, with an icy wind blowing the rain into horizontal sheets.

Standing on the platform waiting for the train was me, in my suit and gaberdene raincoat; a huddle of people with heavy overcoats and bent umbrellas; and a bloke in his twenties in his shirtsleeves with a raincoat tucked under his arm. Why? I don't ask (we don't do that sort of thing round here), so I can only guess. Perhaps he's a Newcastle emigré who hasn't yet learned that in this parts it isn't always effeminate to feel the cold. More likely he's having the hot flushes, an uncomfortably early onset for the poor devil.

And then, sitting having a lunchtime coffee in Manchester, I noticed that there's a disproportionate number of Daniel Craig dress-alikes in town. Black suit, loosened tie, tousled hair, no coat. So many drowned rats trying to look cool.

I shall allow myself to be smug.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Regenerating the local economy

Time was, I could nip down the road, get a train to the next town, do the Saturday morning shop and get the next train back. Time was.

They've cut the timetable down so much that I have given up on it: I'd get the early train (the next train being nearly lunchtime); do the shop then wait a hour and a half for the next train.

There is a bus which takes me in, it goes down the road every half hour. So I got to using it. But I've had to give up on that, too, now: I can get into town to shop but I'm damned if I can find a way of getting back that doesn't involve walking home. Redevelopment you see. The town's new shopping complex is being built, which means that the bus stops on teh main road have all been placed out of use. "Go to the next stop" signs have been stuck on the bus shelters, so that I did. And waited for an hour until a friendly soul passed and told me that the buses don't run that way any more either. So I traced back and tried the previous stop, with no success. And taking the bus to the terminus and then back again, mapping the route we take as we travelled. I can't have been furtive enough, they twigged what I was doing: they never went that way again.

And in the end it's not worth it anyway. The council's strategy for building a new shopping complex involved running the old one down over a period of five years, closing each shop unit as the lease ran out. In the end only Farm Foods and the local butcher persisted, hanging on desperately until they were finally forced out. Once they went there was just a small parade of shops and the market left.

Unfortunately they've been running the market down for the past decade, presumably as part of the run-up to the new shopping complex. All that's left is a greengrocer's, a florist and a lady who sells cheap greeting cards. And twenty-seven empty concrete stall settings last painted in 1979.

And doubly unfortunate as the last shop left in the parade was Woolworths.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

One of those moments

I'm old. Officially. I heard myself saying one of those things that old people say.

I was round at my parents when my tiny niece pottered round to say hello and cadge a few biscuits. She decided she wanted to go to the loo so I accompanied her up the stairs to do the necessary. (My mum's knees aren't clever so they've got one of those raised loo seats with the side bars; small people without step ladders need a hand to get up and onto it.) Having done her business she pulled off a pile of toilet roll to wipe herself down. And then a bit more to be on the safe side. Having filled the bowl with paper she started to pull some more off the roll.

"You don't need all that toilet paper!" I protested.

"Yes, I do!" she retorted.

And that's when I said it.

"There are little babies starving in China..."

Monday, March 23, 2009


The past few weeks on my daily commute through Manchester I've been tripping over little suitcases being pulled along on sticks by people of both sexes and all.

Who are these people? They can't all be Avon ladies.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


My dad's gone back to the church. Which is to say that he never actually turned his back on it, he's just not been very often in the past forty years. When we moved up here in the sixties the two churches within half an hour's walking distance were a tad clique-y and unfriendly and not really warranting the walk.

He's found himself a nice church and the only problem now is getting a lift to it, happily provided by one or other of the in-laws. And he likes it just fine as the church has a pleasant congregation and a congenial vicar.

But he is having problems with the religion.

"They don't say the kyrie eleison," he tells me. "And it's all in English!"

My father, you see, was brought up High Church. And the High Church Anglicans of the thirties and forties make the Vatican look like a particularly Spartan offshoot of the Wee Frees. This was in the old Manchester before they knocked down the old terraces to build new slums, decanting the broken-up communities to diffused estates in the care of community centres and the occasional bus back to the homeland. Back then each street corner had a church, a pub, a tobacconists and a chip shop; all man's daily needs within reach of a harsh word. The churches were bought and paid for by Eminent Victorians. Each was magnificent and, frankly, vainglorious, straining spires poking their way through the yellow smog that paid for them. And, for reasons I no longer recollect, they were all High Church. (Back then you were either High Church or Chapel, anything in between was too wishy-washy for anyone to have any truck with). Even in those days of depression when Sunday best spent the rest of the week in the pop shop the priest's vestments were elaborate and splendid with very nearly a stole a week in complications of the liturgical colours. When I was little we'd be taken in Saint Gabriel's on the Saturday afternoon shopping trip down Alex Road. We'd have a look around the church, to be sure to bow to the lady as directed and then back to the shopping.

Well, they're all knocked down now. Or else turned into bijoux city apartments. So all we've got left now are nice little churches filled with pleasant people who don't do the Latin. But if that fills the need then that's all that really matters.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday singalong

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I'm on the train...

The problem with having an enquiring mind is that every so often you have to do things to stop the nagging.

Just in case anyone else was wondering: if you sit on the train with a Mars bar to your ear and utter a stream of banalities (hello? I'm just going past the shops now. Yes. Yes. Oh, I'm sure it was her, she still had the bandages on. Oh yes. No... Ah, right that would be it then, etc.) people assume that you've got a mobile 'phone.

Absent-mindedly eating the "'phone" after the call was probably a subconscious call for attention.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Cut 'n' mix

A friend is a lecturer in thingamybob at the University of Doodad. He's finding himself increasingly struggling with the modern political agenda which has it that universities aren't places where people go to learn things, they're shops which sell degrees to customers. If a customer doesn't obtain a degree it isn't because they haven't warranted it, it's because the course hasn't been taught properly for them to get it.

"I know I've been irritated by the 'customer' thing but I was still doing OK. I could still do the lectures and the tutorials and treat the students as if they were there to try and learn something, but this year's different. It's the first year I've felt that a lot of my students are there because they've 'got' to be there, just like at school."

I can well imagine this. I'm still bemused by the government's targets on higher education because they seem to be entirely focussed on throughput -- 50% of young people shall have gone to university -- than outcomes -- what will they get from the experience besides a huge student loan debt?

"Even the quality of plagiarism's gone downhill. I think this is the first intake of the generation that's never done anything but copy and paste their homework from the internet. I had one essay begin:

"As I have stated earlier in this chapter..."

"And another had as the first footnote:

"1: Ibid."

"He couldn't see why I didn't believe it was his own original work."

It doesn't fill one with confidence.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Cherryblossom time

Until a few years ago I used to wonder about the fuss about the planting up of Spring bulbs in the autumn. I love the plants and even now my garden is chock with crocus and daffodil, the snowdrops have gone over and the tulips and late narcissi are waiting in the wings, but I couldn't get into the big ritual of the planting. Then a few years ago my parents were both seriously unwell and if I'm honest so was I (all are modestly well now thanks for asking). And it finally dawned on me: the significance of the ritual is that we're hoping we will all survive the winter for to see the results.

When we first moved down here back in the sixties we lived in one of a group of not-awfully-brutal blocks of flats. They were spacious, if cold (concrete floors and no central heating) and in more fashionable areas would have been going for silly money before the crunch came. This not being a fashionable area they were knocked down a couple of years back, leaving some big open spaces we weren't used to. The first year in the areas were seeded by a local group and we had a glorious summer in the company of cornflowers, poppies, corn marigolds and ox-eye daisies. This offended the council and ever since they've been careful to mow everything down to shingle level at least once a month. A few seedlings gamely spring to life along the margins where the mower can't reach; some officious council twonk goes round spraying these with weedkiller to make sure that all sense of cheer is defeated.

The last remainders of the urban landscape I used to know are the trees that were planted in front of the flats. Two black sycamores bring a touch of the exotic, with dull dark leaves that suddenly smoulder into fire in the autumn. The rest are your standard "blossom trees" that you'd have seen in the catalogues of the sixties: the big. blowsy, pink unnamed Japanese cherry; the unnamed red mayflower; and the white plum cherry. They've been there for fifty-odd years now, providing climbing frames for generations of kids and an annual confection of scent and colour. And for a couple of weeks in early May the streets are painted nougat pink in petals.

The empty plots are to be built on this year and the boards are going up round the boundaries.

I do hope we're allowed one last flourish before they bash the trees down.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Friday afterword

I didn't include a caption to the Jimmy Durante/Mrs. Miller clip because I wanted it to stand on its own before I started pontificating. I loved the clip but felt guilty about it: was I just another of the clever Harries in the audience hooting with derision at the singing of Mrs. Miller? Yes, of course I was. That made me feel uncomfortable: I can't stand hypocrisy but I can usually make an exception in my own case.

So I went away for a while and came back for another luck. And this time I watched the clip, rather than just listened. And I was wrong: the laugh was on me and the rest of the audience. This is two old troupers having a ball.

Mrs. Miller's having a whale of a time, and why not? She's in the spotlight, doing what she loved to do: singing in her own special way. I can't believe that she did know just how bad a singer she was, she sings with such innocent gusto. Jimmy Durante, for all the usual mugging and pointed patter, is treating her with all the old world courtesies. For all intents and purposes this could be Peggy Lee he's dealing with. And she's enjoying to bits; the fit of giggles at the end tells it all.

And as for Mr. Durante, well it looks like he's hardly having to work here. But he's ruthlessly working the audience throughout the clip without breaking into a sweat. The muscle memory of his comedy experience is doing the business. The stumbles of the tongue when teasing patter is starting to take an edge that could spoil the mood. The knowing glances to the audience whenever it's going off the boil. I have a great admiration for people who know their craft.

And it is a hoot!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Thursday singalong

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Library thinks

The Major has given up on his library blog, which I think is a bit of a shame as I am interested in the goings-on at Sheboygan, especially now it's under new management (it's a Yin/Yang thing). He felt that it wasn't going anywhere. Me, I wouldn't be fussed: 'not going anywhere' is such a perfect description of so many facets of my life that I may insist on having it inscribed on my tombstone.

I can see the problem from his perspective, though. There are times when I weary of the prolonged whinge that is my other blog (just how often can you complain about the same damn-fool bit of mismanagement that happens in the same place at the same time every year?) but at least it's a way of my letting off steam. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the people blogging about neat things in libraries/librarianship (it will astonish some of you to know that my other self has done one of those in the past). That's easy enough if you're bumping into enough neat stuff (it's out there to be bumped into, even if it's bloody hard work to get libraries to use it).

The area in between is difficult ground to plough: if you're not fuelled by extremes of frustration or enthusiasm , where's the motive force to keep it going? If you have to generate the motive force yourself the danger is that it becomes a chore instead of a pleasure. And if it's a chore and you don't have to do it then why bother? Life's short and cluttered enough.

So I'll respect the Major's decision, of course, but I'll still regret its passing.

Friday, March 06, 2009


In the world of science one of the signal honours is to have a new species of something or other named after you. It's a bit like being mentioned in dispatches.

Coprolites are the petrified faeces of long-extinct animals. As they cannot be ascribed to a particular animal they're given a scientific name of their own for the purposes of description and study.

Back in the dark ages when I was a student there was an urban myth about the young research palaeontologist at one of our newer universities whose life had been made a misery by an overwheening boor of a departmental head. The story was that he got his revenge by describing a newly-discovered coprolite in an august periodical and naming the new species after the head of his department. The idea of this bloke having to accept the honour with all good grace while everyone and his dog knew that his subordinate had called him a fossilised shit in a peer-reviewed article tickled us no end.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Body talk

I popped into The Body Shop, where I was dealt with by some formidably friendly shop assistants.

"Are you buying something for yourself?"

I was asked repeatedly. Eventually I had to explain myself.

"I'm looking for something for my mother," I said, picking up some body butter. "Well actually, it's really for my father."

"Ah yes," one said knowingly, "you've been given the job to do."

She obviously thought I meant that I was buying on behalf of my father. I wasn't. My dad sees body butter as a licence for groping my mother but I wasn't going to tell the shop assistant that. The sexuality of the agèd is embarassing to the young.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Spring fever

There's a touch of Spring about the garden. The snowdrops are coming to their finale; drifts of crocus pepper the flowerbeds and a group of February Gold narcissi underneath the rowan tree are embracing the day. Me, two robins, a charm of goldfinches and a small herd of starlings have been rummaging around the garden trying to tidy things up a bit. I've pruned and chopped up and hacked about a bit and there's now a pile of composting material the size of the small bedroom. And still it looks like a small branch of the tropical rain forest. All afternoon I've had one eye open for Japanese snipers, just in case. Ah well, I can only hope that at least I've made some headway towards stopping things getting worse.

Spring is definitely in the air. Doves and pigeons are cooing their songs, the magpies are replenishing their nests and the hoodies are grunting at schoolgirls outside the Co-op supermarket.

A friend and I were chatting a while back and we decided that Nat King Cole's is the definitive knicker-dropping music. She also warned me that if I ever tried it she'd kick my teeth in (the very flower of modern British maidenhood). The larger proportion of my friends are female, which probably explains my lack of a love life: it's difficult to buy into the blind romantic ideal when your friends let you into all the grisly detail of feminine reality on a regular basis.

Somewhere in a universe of infinite time and space some poor beggar is listening to "Sing Something Simple."