Friday 24 April 2009

Put a fence in front of these men...and they'll climb it...

I remember once writing about one of our animal inhabitants as being a great escape artist and nicknaming him Capt. Hilts 'The Cooler King' in memory of the late great Steve McQueen’s character in The Great Escape. Well it seems that we have another pet to honour with that title. None other, of course, than Biggles.

With the glorious weather we have been having recently Graham has been out and about pottering in the garden. Biggles has been having great fun wandering around freely outside, and making the most of being able to run around letting off steam, and coming and going as he pleases as any dog should. Last week, however, he did manage to escape into our next door neighbour’s garden by jumping over a high grassy bank, but since then had not bothered and had been content to run around his patch. Unfortunately for our resident poultry, Lady Arabella and Lord Percy, he had also decided that to try and play with chickens was a good game so free access was blocked to the aviary area, but that did not stop our intrepid hero from jumping over the wall instead. Trellis was put up to prevent this, but it seems that he has found a way round that too.

All in all though, it seemed that the ample garden he has to romp in was enough to curtail any further thoughts of escape. That was until yesterday that is. It was one of those occasions when everyone thought someone else was where they weren’t. Graham had gone off to Barnstaple to drop off Richard Muirhead - who had been visiting for a couple of days - at the station, Jon had gone upstairs for a lie down, Oll was busy with some fish tanks - facilitating going to and fro from various parts of the house and garden - and I was working inside on my laptop. It suddenly dawned on me that not only was everyone else elsewhere, but that Biggles was also conspicuous by his absence. I had a look outside but no sign of him. Oll was under the impression that he had gone upstairs with Jon, so I checked but with no success. I went outside again, and called, and heard a slightly pathetic bark behind me. Turning around, there was the errant canine standing outside the garden gate asking to come back in.

He seemed a bit upset by his sudden freedom and appeared quite relieved to be allowed back home within the confines of familiar territory so we were hoping that a lesson had been taught. However, it seems that his intelligence is of the selective variety.

He has now been hoisted by his own petard and has, through his own actions, grounded himself. He can now no longer be let outside unless on the lead or under very strict supervision by someone. Hence he is now lying on the kitchen floor as I write this after several attempts to get me to take him outside on false pretences ie. going straight for his route into the neighbour’s garden.

Jon and Graham are presently out investigating the purchase of some more fencing to curtail his activities. Until then, complete with ball - but no baseball glove - the ‘King’ is back in the cooler.

Monday 13 April 2009

The 8th Commandment

I was awoken yesterday morning by Shosh telling me that her car had been stolen. She had parked it as usual in the car park situated in the grounds of the flat where she and her fiancé , Gavin, live. They spent all day yesterday driving around the area to see if they could find it abandoned in a car park or down a side street somewhere, but with no luck. This is so unfair.

Why do people think they can just take something that does not belong to them? OK most of the things that were in the car can be replaced – her wellies, boiler suit and parlour clothes that she uses when she is out on her veterinary studies, various cds and the toolset that Gav gave her for Christmas can be replaced. So can the pairs of glasses for ordinary and summer driving, but that is not the point. Over the years she has paid money to get her car through its MOTs, paid insurance, paid tax and petrol. She has kept it roadworthy and has looked after it. She has checked its oil, water, tyre pressures etc to keep it going for, what was hoped, the next couple of years until she needed to find a replacement when she gets settled in a job – a job for which, as a vet, she will need a car.

What has she done all that for? It seems so that someone can just take her property on a whim. She gets no recompense from the college for having to travel around the country to attend week or fortnight-long stints at veterinary surgeries in order for her to gain the experience needed for her to qualify. She has had to scrimp and save on her student income to keep a car going for the five years of her university life. And now it has gone. She may get it back, but if she does stand a small chance of this, it may well be in a sorry state. She cannot afford to buy a replacement. She is, basically, screwed by the vile actions of a thief or thieves, the lowest form of humanity on this earth.

Today, Olivia, has texted me to say that someone has smashed one of the lights on her car. Why? Do parents have no control over their spawn any more? Do they not know how to teach right from wrong? Or have they wiped their hands clean of any thoughts of disciplining their offspring ? It is, after all, mainly youngsters who take delight in causing this kind of damage or performing this kind of theft. The bully boys of organised crime do not usually lower themselves to such petty infringements of other people’s human rights. They have bigger fish to fry.

This is just not acceptable. Why do the scum of the earth think that they can do this kind of thing and get away with it? Hmm, probably because these days they do just that – get away with it. It was not that long ago in the grand scheme of things that children were hanged for stealing a loaf of bread. In some countries people still do get their hand cut off for theft. This country has gone to the dogs, it has degenerated – and is still degenerating – into a scum-filled land with no moral values.

OK, these two events have happened to my children, and, as their mother, I would, of course, defend them and their property. If I caught the perpetrators I would probably end up in prison for the damage I would do to their vile little bodies. I cannot describe the despair and anger I feel at this moment.

I know it happens to others all over the country. Only a month or so ago, Gavin had his car damaged by someone driving into it. It was parked in the car park where he works. They smashed the side front wing and just drove off and left it – no note of apology with insurance details. Just drove off - unbelievable.

Yes, some of you may say that my daughters are lucky to have cars of their own, but a £50 Escort from a cousin and a £150 Sierra from Ebay are not exactly huge luxuries to have, compared with the must-have yearly summer holidays abroad for hundreds of pounds and plasma TVs that a lot of families feel are an automatic right in their lives these days. Not forgetting the two new cars in the driveway of course.

Does he take sugar?

Last Tuesday I went to Hertfordshire to stay with Shosh for a couple of days as she had a bit of time off from her veterinary studies – a kind of calm before the storm as in a month or so she will find herself in the throes of revision for her finals in June.

I caught the earliest bus from Woolsery that I could (7.45 am) which would get me to Barnstaple just a bit too late to catch the 8.45 train to Exeter St. Davids. However, as was ever the case when I used to go back to Lincolnshire, the wait would be spent browsing the bookshelves of W H Smith and Waterstones – a pastime that I can easily immerse myself in. In fact, I was immersed so much that I nearly missed the 9.45 train! I had forgotten – well not really forgotten, that is not the right word, erm not fully appreciated would be a better phrase – that it was the school holidays. The two-carriage train from Barnstaple was absolutely heaving with families, or parts of families, off on a trip to Exeter for the day. I suppose also mingled in with the fact the 9.45 train was the first reasonably timed one of the day it should not have been too much of a surprise that it would be so packed.

However, I managed a seat and sat, with everyone else, rocking side to side as the train trundled along the track through the glorious Devon countryside. The fact that one of the seats facing me on the opposite side of the train was occupied by a large lady gorging on a greasy hamburger , which she had clearly purchased from the snack van at the station, upset my stomach slightly at that time in the morning, but I averted my eyes as much as possible from the slightly off-putting sight of the grease dripping down her chin.

I do, on the whole, like trips on public transport. I am a great people watcher, currently on the lookout for characters who I can mould into shape for the sequel of my book. Snippets of conversations carried on the wind or heard through the hubbub of chattering on a crowded train can become twisted and moulded into something else, and can be amusing to say the least.

The train to Paddington was slightly late, but not enough to make me concerned about later connections out of London. My journey planner had given me 45 minutes to travel 5 or 6 stations on the underground so I knew I had good leeway there. The sardine-effect of the Barnstaple train had me slightly concerned that the train to Paddington may be similarly packed, but - although it was quite busy - it was not too bad and I easily managed a seat – in the Quiet Zone carriage at the end of the train.

Across the aisle, in the seats next to me, sat a tall distinguished-looking elderly man whose wife seemed to be occupying a seat further back behind me. I am not sure why this was as there was a seat next to him and plenty more in front - if she wanted two seats to herself. However, occasionally he would turn and have a snippet of conversation with her. I went down to the buffet car to grab myself a coffee and a breakfast sandwich – a trip that meant a wobbly walk through about 4 carriages to reach it. On my return trip to my seat, I passed this chap who was also on his way to obtain refreshment.

As I mentioned above, I was seated in the Quiet Zone. A slightly ambiguous term that. OK it means no mobile phone use and headphones that don’t block out any sound of whatever it is that you are listening too. However, what about people talking loudly? And the young of the species running up and down the aisle screeching as they are oft prone to do? And , most pertinent to me at this time, what about eating a packet of crisps? I had decided to buy myself some of those Burt’s crisps – if any of you have eaten them you will know how crunchy they are and just how impossible it is to eat them quietly. As I ate each one slowly, I felt as if the crunch was resounding up and down the carriage!

However, whilst I was in the midst of deciding whether it was possible to suck a crisp into submission before chewing the soggy remnants, the chap next to me returned with a cup of tea. No advertising there, the cup emblazoned with the PG Tips logo. Sitting down, he proceeded to empty his pockets. Before him, on the little tray that descends from the back of the seat in front, emerged a veritable mountain of sugar sachets of each possible variety. Brown sugar, white sugar and sweetener, accompanied by a smaller mountain of those small milk cartons. Now I had to smirk. To see this elderly chap stashing his booty into his hand-luggage on the seat beside him just amused me. I would never imagine my similarly aged mother doing such a thing – in fact I know she wouldn’t. People of a certain era just don’t do that kind of thing....well, until now that is. I suppose in general terms, he was a thief. But then I guess, at these drink outlets you are paying over the odds for tea and coffee so that the cost of the milk and sugar is included. Therefore, if you do not take your drink with either, or one, of these additions, then you are quite within your rights to take them anyway - however, I am not so sure that the amount he had half-inched could be included in that explanation.

I continued to smirk into the pages of my book, and a few minutes later he asked his wife – who was still seated someway behind me – if she was ready for a cup of tea yet. I thought, well that is nice, he will make his way back down the wobbly carriages to get his other half a cup of tea. Erm... no...he got up and , picking up his own PG Tips paper cup, disappeared down the aisle, returning a minute or two later to his seat. You may be thinking here, that he had given her his cup of tea. Nope, she must have had a few sips of his, for he returned with his cup and proceeded to drink it as the journey progressed. Upon our arrival at Bristol I heard her call out ‘Peter’ to which he turned round and then acknowledged something, got up and left his seat, baggage and all. The seat was obviously booked from Bristol, but what a very strange relationship those two had. I have no idea whether they ended up sitting next to each other, because I became immersed in my book and decided to let the intriguing matter drop.

Just as the train was approaching Paddington, a message came over the tannoy that I thought only existed in movies. The message of ‘If there is a doctor or nurse on this train, could they please make their way to carriage E’, brought with it not only the passive concern that you hope the passenger is OK and that it is not something serious, but also the thoughts of ‘ah well, we will be delayed from the leaving the train until the emergency services have done their bit’. However, in the end, everything must have been OK as we all alighted at Paddington without any delays at all.

The rest of the journey proceeded according to plan – there were no problems with the underground and I reached Potter’s Bar at the scheduled time of 2.51pm. I descended upon London at a time of day that the underground was not heaving with workers or shoppers going home, so I did not encounter the claustrophobic ‘standing under someone else’s armpit' situation. As it turned out that joyful experience was to be reserved for the next day.

Shosh and I decided a visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum would be a nice way to spend Wednesday so, parking the car at Cockfosters, we travelled into London from there. I had not been to the V&A for years so had forgotten quite what was on display there. We visited the special Exhibition of Hats, which boasted an eclectic collection of headgear from an Egyptian mummy mask in the shape of Anubis, to Tudor knitted hats, and from Darth Vader’s mask to beautiful velvet bonnets worn by Queen Victoria, by way of one of the tricorn hats worn by the delicious Johnny Depp in his role as Capn Jack Sparrow and a wonderful fur and lace hat worn by Keira Knightley in The Duchess.

We had lunch in one of the restaurants, but it was really busy by the time we got there so Shosh was dispatched to locate a table while I queued for the drinks and till. The only flaw in this plan was that when it came to locate her it was a tricky business avoiding the crowds with a tray laden with a pot of tea, scones plus plates and cups and saucers. It was a big place with several areas that she could be. I eventually found her in the older part of the restaurant tucked in the corner. She had, apparently been waving frantically through the window as she saw me pass by, but couldn’t leave the table as several people had been searching for a space and feared it would be nabbed.

So, in true fine English style, whilst a pianist played classical music on a grand piano in the corner, we ate our scones and drank our tea and coffee. But not without amusing incident I must add. Shosh was pouring her tea into her cup when the lid of the pot fell off. It didn’t go clank on to the table but with a soft splash fell into her cup, facilitating a rescue with the aid of a teaspoon. In days gone by, such an incident would have probably caused a unified hush throughout the tearoom, with glances of disapproval from other patrons. However, this is the 21st Century and such atrocities are no longer deemed a sign of being ill-bred – the pianist continued to play and no-one took a blind bit of notice.

As an aside, I will add that a roast dinner there costs £10.95 for a weighed amount of meat (yes, weighed – they did it in front of you), a few roasted potato wedges and a small amount of veg. And not one Yorkshire pud in sight!

The train back to Cockfosters was packed to the hilt. At nearly every station more people got on than alighted and at several stops the doors couldn’t close properly due to the sheer volume of bodies. I marvel at the fortitude of people who travel like that five days a week. I am not sure whether there was a problem with one of the other ‘lines’, but Shosh did say that it was not usually as bad as it was that day. It was the complete opposite from the relaxed journey in that morning.

My journey back to Barnstaple on Thursday passed without hiccup, apart from the fact that it being the Thursday before the Easter break, the train from Paddington was full to the gills. As I walked down the platform, I could see through the windows of the carriages that all the seats had the white tickets in informing passengers that those seats were booked. I was beginning to despair, and resolved myself to the fact that I would be standing for the next two and a half hours. But, as luck would have it, the one carriage allotted for non-booked seats had a few spare in it by the time I had pushed and shoved with the best of them to reach it, so I managed to travel in relative comfort.

Saturday 11 April 2009

One a penny, two a penny

Well it is Easter, and with Easter - like Christmas - comes the traditional baking afternoon for simnel cake, hot cross buns and the like. It will be as that in this small patch of North Devon as it will in many other parts of the country. The kitchen will produce the delicious scents of spices drifting into the rooms all over the ground floor of the house and tease forth those childhood memories of my own mother doing exactly the same at this time of year. Smell is the strongest sense we possess for evoking memories – after eleven years, I can still take a sniff of a certain perfume and it instantly transports me back to the West Coast of the USA. That is beside the point, however, and has nothing whatsoever to do with activities in the realms of food.
Before I set about a bit of alchemy in the kitchen though I thought I would write about several food and drink items, the delights of which I found out about this morning.

Everyone has heard of bird’s nest soup, hundred-year eggs, black pudding and such culinary delights, but how about a new soft drink from India made from cow urine, mixed with herbs? What a delicious soft drink to serve with those heady summer picnics down by the river. Lashings and lashings of herbal cow pee, does not have quite the same evocative ring to it as ‘lashings and lashings of ginger beer’, but maybe my desire to live in the good old days of Enid Blyton stories is just getting the better of me. However, this drink is supposedly under development in India as a medicinal alternative to those dreadful Western soft drinks that are opposed by the Hindu nationalist organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

And still on the subject of foods to delight your, perhaps, Easter chocolate-jaded palate, do any of you out there want to try out the cheese from Sardinia, which packs a punch when you eat it? I certainly don’t want to have a taste of casu marzu, and not because it is a type of pecorino cheese that probably smells worse than hot parmesan, but because of that added ingredient which packs the punch. Cheese flies lay their eggs in the cheese, the maggots of which then hatch to help the cheese ferment and give it that special flavour. You are advised to eat it before the maggots die but at the same time it has been known for them to jump out of the cheese whilst you are eating it – packing that left hook to the unsuspecting eye. Unfortunately, I do have to advise that if you are still interested in trying out this Sardinian sensation you will have to search the black market as it has been deemed unhygienic by the powers that be.

Not so unhygienic perhaps as the drink known as chichi, which is drunk in countries across South America. The key ingredient here can be maize or yucca. What is so unhygienic about that? Well it is cooked, chewed, spat back out and then fermented to make the drink. Oh lovely.

I think I shall stick to traditional Easter fare.

Thursday 2 April 2009

A Tale of Two Imps

Although I was born and raised in Middlesex, I spent the years from 1985 to 2007 in Lincolnshire. I used to live in Stamford, an old picturesque town that boasts the location of the magnificent Burghley House which has been used in many a TV serial or film. I remember sitting in my car at a set of traffic lights, on my return to work one lunchtime, and - looking in my rearview mirror - was taken aback to see a coach and four pull up behind me as it did it's round-the-block route for a take while Middlemarch was being filmed in the town. Very surreal.

Just down the road from where I used to work lay the remains of Joan, Princess of Wales - also known as the Fair Maid of Kent due to her great beauty - wife of the Black Prince and mother of Richard II. She was laid to rest in January 1386 in the grounds of Friars Minors, according to her wishes that she be buried in her chapel, but has found herself now located in a garden, due to the building of houses on the land!

I love early English history and I know that the following may not stir the ancestral blood of a lot of those who may read this, but I do have a strong fascination about our country's past and thought I would write one of those little slices of history blogs that I do every so often. To think I used to work a two minute - if that - walk away from where the mother of one of our Kings is buried in a leafy garden in a small town in Lincolnshire is kind of odd to say the least. Then there are the Eleanor Crosses. King Edward I had these crosses erected in memory of his wife, Eleanor of Castile, to mark the nightly resting-places along the route taken by her body as it was transported to London. It took twelve stops and at each of these a cross was built, of which three amazingly survive today (Geddington, Hardington and Waltham). The twelve places were Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Hardingstone, Stoney Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St Albans, Waltham, Westcheap (now Cheapside) and Charing (Charing Cross).

In those harsh days there is something so touching about the fact that he thought so much of his wife that he marked her last journey in such a way. And that three of the crosses still stand today in her memory (with pieces of some of the others in museums near the towns they were erected) is nothing short of a miracle.

I am also a sucker for folklore, and Lincolnshire, as every other county, has its fair share. According to legend, way back in the 14th Century, Satan sent two imps to earth with the prime objective of doing mischief. In some versions of the story, they first went to Chesterfield where they set upon the spire of the Cathedral and twisted it – their handiwork still in evidence today. They were then sent to Lincoln Cathedral to cause mayhem there. As the story goes, they set about their work with obvious glee, smashing up tables and chairs and even tripping up the poor Bishop. However, when they started to interfere with the Angel Choir, one of the angels decided that enough was enough and told them to stop. One of the imps was brave and started throwing rocks at the angel, but the other imp cowered under the broken tables and chairs. The angel turned the first imp to stone and this gave the second imp a chance to escape.

There are a few different variations of the story, one telling that the second imp that escaped did so with the help of a witch, by jumping on to her broomstick. However, she became so fond of the imp that she turned him into a black cat. Not so good for him really then. However, in another version, this escapee was said to have travelled to Grimsby where it entered St James' Church and began repeating its destructive behaviour. The angel then reappeared and gave the imp's backside a good thrashing before turning it to stone like its friend. The Grimsby Imp can still be seen in St James' Church, clinging to its sore bottom. Another legend has the escaped imp turned to stone just outside the cathedral, and sharp-eyed visitors can spot it on a South outside wall.

Other stories tell how only one imp was blown around the country by the wind looking for places to cause mischief, and following his efforts in Lincoln Cathedral the angel turned him to stone after he had gone to the top of the nearest pillar to admire his handywork. Hence he is found there today with his legs crossed sporting an evil grin upon his face.

A more detailed version goes into how he was sent to plague the clergy in the cathedral and how he was blown through the great west door by the west wind and blew out the candles, scattered the hymn sheets and attacked the choristers. He then flew into the angel choir and it was when he threatened to pluck out the angels’ feathers, that the smallest angel turned him to stone.

Whether you believe there were two, or just the one, or - indeed - if you do not believe it at all, measuring 12” in height, he is definitely still sitting there now, grinning down, cross-legged at all who pass below. He has become the symbol of the City of Lincoln, has the local football team named after him and is used on many a company logo. He has become the symbol for good over evil. My late ex-mother-in-law had a tiny model of one in her kitchen – as, indeed, do I.

It is a shame that there are no records kept of who carved such gargoyles and effigies in our massive Cathedrals. It would make an interesting read indeed as to the background of their existence.

Anyway, if any of you find yourself in Lincolnshire at any time, a visit to the Cathedral in the county’s capital is a must – not just for the beauty of the architecture - but to see, also, if you can spot the miscreant for yourself. Apart from that, old Lincoln is a beautiful place to visit, perched on top of a hill, with cobbled stones up the narrow streets and still some old buildings in existence down the lane that leads to the less picturesque modern part of the city. Jousting events are held in the castle grounds each year and it is a marvel to see, and hear, the knights riding through the cobbled old part of Lincoln on their way to the tournament, kitted out in full armour and colours, with a lady’s favour fluttering in the breeze as it hangs from their lance.

As the Visit Lincolnshire website states “As you approach the City of Lincoln, from any direction, you are drawn to the magnificent silhouette of the Cathedral stretching to the skies, brooding over 2000 years of history”.