Monday, 15 October 2012

The non-temporary disbelief in suspension

My friend Addie co-authors my sister blog about beer (without meaning to deliberately plug it -- see here). I don't usually write about him, but it so happens that he has just watched the recently released Prometheus on 3D Blu-Ray. He is currently the only person I know with a 3D television, and with only one UK channel regularly broadcasting in 3D ("Sky 3D"), I have sometimes wondered why he acquired this expensive gadget. He's not even a Sky customer. This means that he only watches 3D Blu-Rays and the occasional other 3D transmissions. For example, the BBC recently transmitted some of the Olympics in 3D on its main HD service, as well as the final of the last series of (the horribly named) Strictly Come Dancing. (This programme is currently the world's most successful TV franchise, and makes the BBC lots of cash. It has the different but equally awful name "Dancing with the Stars" in other English-speaking parts of the world. Happily the Spanish American version has the much better "Mira Quien Baila".) Addie is neither a regular sports fan, nor a regular watcher of televised ballroom competition, meaning that he is watching programmes simply because they are available in 3D, rather than due to the merits or otherwise of the broadcasts themselves. In other words, he is obsessed by the gadgety gimmickry, and he must go out without delay, get himself an instance of whatever the thing happens to be, and own it immediately.

So, Prometheus. If you haven't seen this film then beware; I don't think I'm about to write any genuine spoilers, but you may not want to chance it; stop reading now, come back another day, and thanks for visiting. As Amazon and eBay like to say, why not bookmark this page? (Microsoft persist in being the only people to call these things "Favorites" -- sic, since us Brits even have that spelling imposed on us, not just the different word, in Internet Explorer. Grr. I suggest using Firefox's bookmarks, everyone. And just to reiterate a previously blogged point and not offend my US readership, I have zero objection to American English, but as a Brit I still expect to be able to write and use British English as my natural idiom, unconstrained by Microsoft's nonsense.)

Basically, Prometheus is a clear member of the Alien franchise of films begun back in the late seventies by Ridley Scott with his super scary and brilliantly conceived space horror masterpiece. With Mr Scott back at the helm, Prometheus marks a return to form, with many of the original themes back in place and intelligently reimagined. But away from the film's obvious qualities, some issues have got Addie and I wondering, while we've been enjoying a pint. Perhaps this is what beer is for.

One such problem is the issue of travel to distant planets. The movie's protagonists all endure a period (clearly alluded to as being about two years) in a sci-fi frozen sleep. But this makes no real sense; the space ships can reach distant solar systems in just a few hundred days, even though the closest theoretically possible solar system to Earth could be at Proxima Centauri, four light years away. If the majestic real-life exploratory spacecraft Voyager 2 were heading for Proxima Centauri (it isn't), it would take another eighty one thousand four hundred and forty ish years to get there at current speeds (see Wikipedia if you don't believe me). In fact, the commercial ships in Alien films seem to be going elsewhere, but even if they weren't the clear implication is that the ships can travel at least twice as fast as the speed of light (which Einstein says can't be done). If that's not how the ships reach their destinations, then perhaps it can be assumed that they have instead exploited hyperspace or wormholes or something? But if that's the case, what is the need for the temporary suspended animation freezerinos at all? Why don't they just arrive straight there?

Curiouser and curioser. Then there is also the issue of the motivation of the Alien species itself. Sometimes, they just kill mercilessly, but on other occasions they capture their victims and restrain them for exploitation by the face huggers and ultimately to play host to more baby alien chest bursters (charming creatures). But there's no rhyme or reason to it. In the James Cameron directed Aliens, Ripley even shouts in desperation that "you can't help him!" to prevent Corporal Hicks from attempting a futile rescue of Apone and the gang, yet later declares that "they don't kill you" and successfully embarks on a perilous rescue of Newt.

Of course, because beer makes for entertainingly argumentative and trivial bloke-talk, it's all good stuff for one of our pub excursions. Addie and I are actually both very aware of the principle of the temporary suspension of disbelief. Just in case you're not, this is the way in which things that would be actually total nonsense can be enjoyed in film, television, drama and literature simply for what they are. This has applied throughout the ages. I've always struggled a bit with Viola and Sebastian, Shakespeare's twins in Twelfth Night, for example, but this hasn't prevented new versions of this play from appearing periodically for hundreds of years. In his lifetime, Dickens (a writer who is to novels what Shakespeare is to drama and verse) was criticised for having someone spontaneously combust in Bleak House. Even (arguably) the finest writers ever to have put pen to paper in the English language have stretched the boundaries, so don't get me started on The Da Vinci Code. Really. Don't.

In the end, we like to debate the nature of these dramas or books or plays or movies because we have enjoyed them. Ultimately that's what matters. Have we been made to laugh or cry? Have we felt excited, or terrified? Have we rooted for the hero? If so, it's worked and we can all talk about it over a cheerful beer, happy that all is well in the world.

Especially Addie. As I've mentioned, in order to make things as believable as possible when he's enjoying them, he has undoubtedly decided that difficult plot details cannot be endured without the latest technical wizardry. And he has to have it in his hands at the first possible opportunity. As I've already said, he's an early adopter of 3D television (to my mind a fad -- the jury's deinitely still out currently). And, on the same day that iPhone 5 was released in the UK, Addie was there collecting one (even though it took him a more than a week to get it to work). He has an iPad, a straight-from-the-factory new car, and he aspires to be first at the pub to sample the latest ales. He doesn't believe in waiting for things, despite the fact that "version two" of any given consumer item generally has the wrinkles much better ironed out. He even pre-ordered Prometheus (in 3D Blu-Ray, as I've mentioned) so that his copy was ready for viewing on the release date (I saw it on the big IMAX screen some months back -- the way it was meant to be seen).

And what was the final, ultimate piece of wisdom Addie imparted as a consequence of his diligent efforts? He said, "I thought there'd be more aliens in it." He hasn't made it to the board of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts yet, but when he does, I'll let you know. In the meantime, gadget freaks everywhere: I salute you.

STOP PRESS: Addie just gave me a card offering a promotional download for iPad, iPhone etc of a well known children's novel. I pointed out that I already had a copy of this book for my own kids to enjoy. "Ah yes, but how much did YOU pay to download it?" No, Addie. No!

** This blog post was first published at **


Monday, 1 October 2012

Birthdays and comfy trousers

I come into this week feeling increasingly aware of my age. In a few days time I hit the milestone of being 45 years old; and I can't really say I'm ready.

When I was in my twenties, I was a partying night owl and a clothes horse. I liked to have the proper garments which any in-vogue twenty something should adorn himself in (though looking back at some of the photos now makes me wonder what the hell I was thinking -- that's fashion for you). I could worm my way into any sort of trouser, by virtue of my trim little twenty eight inch waist. Twenty eight inches! I will never get back there again, and actually now find that my shopping choices are much different.

These days, with two cheeky nippers and the lovely Mrs Nam to provide for, less of my income (ie none) is disposable. This means that, when coupled with my relentlessly expanding belly, my choices of garment are often more practical. Sad isn't it? Practical. These days when I purchase some work trousers, they need to be comfortable and relatively hardwearing. And this is what it is to be me at 45.

There are friends of mine who remember me when I hit thirty, an experience which might as well have been a million years ago. My Canadian Friend told me that I'd spent several days being the most miserable and self centred so-and-so one could possibly imagine (except she didn't say so-and-so; she used a very naughty word one probably wouldn't adopt in front of one's five year old). Now, because she is a person I have a great deal of respect and affection for, it means that, when (less than) gently chastised for such behaviour, I ought to sit up and take note. Will I heed her warnings and not let being forty five take me into a pit of despair when I complete this particular lap round the sun? No. I very much doubt it.

There's a raft of age related things about me that the twenty something me looking forward would have despaired of. For one thing, I am obsessed with the weather. No matter what, I can be found at some point every single day perusing internet-based weather maps and waiting patiently for the BBC forecast which happens just before the top of every hour on the BBC News Channel. I know that it's quite British to be weather-mad, but in my twenties I would have gone out without a coat anyway and to hell with the consequences. Now I look on with smug satisfaction if I have my brolly with me while other people endure an unexpected shower.

As well, my feet start to ache if I've been out and about for any length of time, and the moment I step through the front door, I have to kick my shoes off and settle down in just my socks on the sofa, feeling very glad that I have such a nice house and such a nice sofa where I can sit and put my feet up. I can imagine the twenty something year old me looking forward through time and shaking his head in disgust.

Of course, it would be ridiculous to yearn again for one's twenties. As I've said, my life is complete and I have a family who I think the world of. But, in terms of my outlook on life, I would just like to be a young and groovy dad rather than the hopeless old fart I have been determined not to become, but which seems to be creeping up on me anyway. I mean, who in their twenties listens to Radio 4? My daughter has just started to take an interest in who's currently number one; I'm sorry, I haven't a clue.

But it wasn't really any of the above that made a recent difference to me. As I said, it is naturally British and an essential requirement of London residence to be wary of random rain, sun, hot and cold on any given day. I'm bound to get a bit achey at my age. And I am actually the one often blasting my kids with groovy dance and drum and bass from my iPhone. So perhaps it's not that so much that's made me feel my age. They're just symptoms.

What has pushed me over the edge is the trouser purchase previously referred to. Since a suit is just too much hassle on those days when I'm only going to be driving my desk, I decided last weekend to pop into venerable supplier of clothes and victuals to the slightly fusty middle classes of Britain, Marks and Spencer. For my non-British readership, this is a major UK brand with outlets in every mall in every corner of the country. It does a wide range of boringly conservative office wear in a variety of wool, wool-mix, or out and out man-made fibre.

I explored the smartly pressed regular fit section, and emerged (to Mrs Nam's apparent approval) with two pairs of relatively fashionable workwear, trying to shake off the recurring memories of the size twenty eight waist I once had. I tried my new strides on, and satisfied with the fit I deployed my MasterCard and treated myself.

You might think nothing more of this, but when I put a pair on the following morning before attending the office, I discovered that the waist had elastic in it. Elastic! They look like the type of trousers you might give a toddler, just starting on his walking adventures and expecting to grow a bit. Were Marks and Spencer expecting a bit of post-pub furniture cruising, echoing the life we all once had as a pre-school child? Perhaps worse than this, M & S give these "special" trousers their very own badge of honour. "Active Waist", they call them. Active Waist? I'm sure it's not quite as firm and solid as it once was; but "Active"? All I wanted was something to tuck my shirt into.

By this point, it was too late to turn back. I was wearing my new trousers, and I was off to work. I mean, you couldn't really tell these weren't just some nicely pressed tailored trousers. So I decided to keep the secret of my stretchy trousers to myself. It was all going well until a cheeky female colleague of mine caught up with me as I took my morning cup of tea down the office stairs to my desk on my way back from the canteen. "Siddie, do you know you've still got a label hanging off those trousers?" Dear God, please no. I pulled it off as casually and discretely as I could. "Marks and Sparks -- very trendy," she continued. "My other half needs new trousers -- let's have a look then. I might get him some."

I tried to protest, but she insisted on viewing the label and took it from my hand before I could really do anything. "Active Waist? What's an Active Waist then? Are these fat-boy trousers? They are aren't they? Ha ha ha! They really are! Ha ha ha ha ha..."

It kind of went on like this in much the same vein throughout the day. I enjoyed a great many visitors to my desk, many of who were delighted at my now-exposed trousery tale. And so, since my secret's out anyway, I have decided to share my tale of fashionable menswear with you. Are you sitting comfortably? No? You want to get yourself a pair of these, then...

** This blog post was first published at **


Thursday, 13 September 2012

Traveller's Tales: Train People

From time to time I am sent on an arduous work mission away from my native London, and last Friday was just such an event. I was off to Halifax in Yorkshire, a hellish journey to manage as a round trip in one day. I live in the wrong bit of London to easily reach Kings Cross Station, but had a 06:30 train to catch from there nonetheless. Up early, the ordeal proceeds as follows:

  • Overground to South London terminus.
  • On the Tube for the Northern Line to Kings Cross.
  • Train from Kings Cross to Leeds
  • Change at Leeds for train to Halifax.
  • Short taxi ride from Halifax station to the target destination.

The whole thing takes around four and a half hours, and if you add in the equivalent return journey starting at around 16:00, it results in abject exhaustion coupled with very little time in Halifax itself. Don't let anyone ever tell you business travel is glamorous. It would be easier to fly to New York for a long weekend.

Having made it back from Halifax to Leeds for the return journey by about 17:15, I was delighted to discover there was train disruption on the East Coast Main Line to London. Seat reservations had fallen entirely by the wayside as the result of a previous Leeds - London cancellation, resulting in an undignified jockeying for position. I played this circumstance to my advantage, the dog-eat-dog methodology of my London commuter training kicked in, and I deftly located myself at a comfy looking window seat with a table.

Circumstance being what it is, I was joined at my table on this busy train by an eclectic mix of people. First up was a smart-suited businessman. Unlike my cheap and cheerful off the peg trouser-and-jacket affair, this had the look of a proper made-to-measure number, well cut and sharp. Gold cuff links glinted at me, and he had an expensive looking leather bag which concealed his laptop. He asked me politely if it was OK to sit, (it was), and immediately ensnared me in some humorous conversation about the perils of distance travel and train disruption. It took seconds for me to feel slightly ashamed that I had expected a pompous twit to be joining me. In fact, this chap was witty and likeable, revealing the utter folly of judging a book by its cover.

Next to arrive was a serious but friendly Muslim gentlemen. He also politely requested if he could sit next to me, since he was concerned he would feel unwell if he were not facing the direction of travel. Suity Man I were at that moment doing battle with the power cable to his laptop, and I didn't immediately hear this soft spoken and gentle voice making its request. It fell to my generous spirited business friend to up sticks and decamp to the other side of the table, diagonally opposite me, the whole time making sure he kept up his charismatic repartee, constantly checking that everyone was OK and comfortable while I sat there with his power cable dangling from my left hand. By now, I was feeling secondary and tertiary waves of shame that I'd personally done nothing to help our new travel sick friend and had also left my own laptop firmly in the luggage rack, ignoring a large pile of emails in favour of a snooze.

As we began to settle once again, the remaining gap at our table was filled by an attractive thirty something lady with what appeared to be a baby bump. To accommodate her, Suity Man jumped up dashingly yet again, while she fitted herself carefully into the window seat. Then the equipment emerged from a bottomless rucksack; a laptop, a mobile phone, another mobile phone, a large ring-binder, and what appeared to be a portable electric fridge which we later learnt carried two bottles of fresh mummy milk destined for her brand new infant (waiting at home with daddy). This influx of kit caused further power issues, with much untangling of cables, juggling of plugs in sockets, and required yet more of Suity Man's good-humoured and unrelenting courtesy. Soon we were all experiencing strong waves of brotherly protectiveness as we learnt her story. She'd had to return to work less than a month after the birth of her child. It didn't seem right somehow.

The train began to move, and we were dismayed to discover our packed carriage had malfunctioning air conditioning. New Mum commented cheerily that the train staff must enjoy the "just out of the shower" look as she perspired as gracefully as possible, Suity Man smiled winningly, and Forward Facing Man stroked his long beard wistfully. I offered up some cola flavoured Colin Caterpillars from Marks and Spencer (I know it's mad, but I'm obsessed by these), and while they were politely declined by Forward Facing Man on the basis of religious beliefs, New Mum tucked in like she'd never eaten before, at one point sitting with Colin's head jauntily poking from her mouth while she considered whether it would be better to call or email a troublesome client. Suity Man suggested a call, because you can't beat the personal touch. Then he assertively removed the tail from a fellow Colin with a single bite.

After a sweaty eternity, we reached London Kings Cross station. By this point, we knew that Forward Facing Man had been accompanying his oldest son to Boarding School, and had missed his outbound train earlier in the day causing him to have to pay an additional seventy pounds in fares. We knew that New Mum was inclined to get teary about being away from her new-born child for so long. And we knew that Suity Man was going to drink a really good bottle of Chianti with his wife when he got home (I secretly feared for my liver and its possible future consumption with some fava beans).

And then, everyone went on their separate ways. I was glad to have met these three interesting individuals, all friendly and with a tale to tell. Apart from livening what would have been a dull and uncomfortable journey at the end of a long and tiring day, it caused me to reflect a little that there are many people in the world with buzzing existences, starring roles in the epic stories of their own lives. Just looking at people is not enough; happily today I encountered humans with places to go and things to do. It's also a near certainty that none of us will ever cross paths again. But life goes on. I wonder who I will come across next time?

** This blog post was first published at **

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Bald chins and beardy weirdies

Summer is just about over, and the last few days of Paralympic competition in London are coming to an end. My highlight so far has been David Weir's epic victory for GB in the 5000 metres T54 wheelchair event, followed later by his similarly impressive 1500 metres victory. But soon, this second chapter in London's glorious Olympic and Paralympic adventure will be complete, and already an inevitable normality seems to be returning to this big and bustling town.

This was exemplified by conditions on my train into the office on Monday this week, which felt genuinely busy for the first time in months. There were people everywhere, presumably all gloomily returning to the office with their sunny poolside adventure disappointingly over for another year. No more sandcastles 'til 2013. But something's happened. Something is different about the returning throng. They've all grown beards.

Not just the odd bit of stubble here and there. There are so many beards. Everywhere I look I seem to be greeted by a jungle of face furniture. I am struggling to imagine what might have provoked this phenomenon. Are razors a casualty of the current economic gloom? Has there been a big foamy explosion at the shave gel factory?

I first saw a significant collection of face fuzz when I attended the Great British Beer Festival in my alter ego as mild mannered roving beer reporter, documented in my other hugely entertaining beer blog (not that I'm biased, but you are either reading it or you're a sherry drinker). At the festival, you always expect to see a few choice specimens; this year I noticed a finely waxed moustache on a big round ruddy face sat atop a cheery mountain of a man. But at the beer festival you know you will see a few of these and I thought little of it at the time, instead indulging myself in the liquid treasures on offer.

But the sproutings have spread. On the train around me, right now, let me describe what I can see. Opposite, a mainly bald chap, probably in his early fifties, has a finely trimmed neat and tidy affair. It's basically grey, and surrounds his mouth carefully. Next to him, a guy who looks like he works in a physical role for a living (my bet is electrician, as he seems to be fiddling with what look like some specialist pliers) sports a general and scruffy growth dating back to the end of last week. To my right, there's a red headed guy, looking like a hairy scary biker bloke, and he's generally unkempt and seems to have allowed his mane to grow unchecked since 1982.

Amazing manes, a jungle of them. A new guy in the office has a wiry black number over a swarthy face which makes him look like a bank robber in a balaclava. A guy I know in his early fifties from the Caribbean has decided to "try out" a new chin carpet, and he has previously been a smooth cut and well presented Lothario, dark eyed and smouldering.

Of course, it's likely that Don Quixote's seducer would have been a bearded gentlemen, although I'm unsure if Cervantes ever helps us discover this in his entertaining but rambling discourse. But everyone was facially hirsute in those days. This suggests perhaps the point I've been fearing to reach while I've been creating this blog post. It's not them -- it's me. While fashion, in its cyclic way, has decided it's high time that we sorted the men from the boys and furried their faces, I am stuck with a boyishly charming but otherwise bald chin (well, these days, chins). Can I emulate Bradley Wiggins' awesome Olympic sideburns? No. I can just about manage  a fluffly tash and a bit just underneath my bottom lip, approximately in the middle, which if left unchecked would make me look a little like a second rate B movie d'Artagnan.

This is all deeply frustrating, but we all are who we all are, and when Mo-Vember (the annual autumn fund-raiser for men's health issues) comes around, I shall once again observe wistfully, wishing I could play my part. Maybe I should start growing now.

As I finish this blog post, a tad behind schedule due to laptop problems, I can report that the PC Support chap appeared at my desk and set to work on my dead machine. Happily he breathed life into the ailing (and frankly ancient) device once again, and as he sat there, warming my chair up and basking in the glory of another job well done (I imagine he'd like to have his underpants outside his trousers and a big "S" on his chest), I managed to observe his face full of unkempt whiskers. There were clearly unidentified deposits of who-knows-what in his beard, and its strands looked so long around his mouth that it would be impossible to avoid the ends getting in as he ingested beer, pizza, or other nerd-sustenance. Really, not nice. Perhaps I should take heart from this. Not all beards are desirable or cool. This one is a disgusting mess. My chin at least remains relatively unstained after a meal. On the other hand, at least he won't be hungry later.

Urgh! Now that I've observed that, nor will I. Gag! 

** This blog post was first published at **

Friday, 31 August 2012

Snuggly and The Goldfish

My children, bright and bouncy little souls that they are, have discovered that they love the world and everything in it. Both are doing very well, and at the tender ages of five and seven have begun writing little stories to entertain themselves, as well as entertaining Mummy Nam and me. They write about the things that interest them; space and mermaids, dinosaurs and Ancient Egyptians. The stories are lively and wonderful, and the action is constant.

Encouraging such positive creativity seems the right thing to do as far as Mrs Nam and I are concerned, so I mentioned to them that I wrote a blog. "What's a blog, daddy?" I explained that I tried to write stories for grown-ups to read on their phones and iPads and computers. "Write one for us, daddy!" they said. Over and over again. Worn down by my little lovelies, and with no apology to my normal readership who I hope will enjoy this too, here is a blog for them.

I asked them to name two objects. My daughter chose her goldfish, and my son chose a much loved cuddly bit of felt called Snuggly.


Ruby and Max, two goldfish who share a tank together, were happy in their watery home. They had plastic seaweed, their very own Easter Island head, and a filter which hummed reassuringly day and night. Their tank was placed on a bright red table top, and they were as content as any goldfish had ever been.

Their favourite part of every day was the visit by The Hand. Every morning, The Hand opened their roof, and long slender fingers sprinkled in their breakfast. They loved their breakfast. Gorgeous flakey yumminess, all different colours; red, beige and green. De-licious! When The Hand came they splashed and darted, sometimes trying to give The Hand's fingertips a little nibble, and sometimes flicking their tail fins in beautiful little waves. The Hand was their friend, and their lives were complete.

One day, The Hand opened the tank’s roof. There was something different about The Hand; for some reason it had short little fingers, and it was holding a bit of orange cloth. The fingers were wriggling strangely, and Ruby and Max felt a bit surprised. As well, there was none of the lovely yummy red, beige and green food that normally appeared. “What’s going on?” asked Ruby, but before Max had a chance to answer, a large orange object came into the tank and floated to the gravelly floor. It settled gently on the tank’s bottom, and it said, “Hello. I’m Snuggly.”

Ruby and Max were bit surprised by what had happened. At first they didn’t know what to say, but, being polite goldfish, they decided to be nice and welcome Snuggly into their home. “Hello,” said Max, “I’m Max. It’s ever so nice to meet you. Are you lost?”

“Yes, I think I must be,” said Snuggly. “Usually I get to cuddle that nice little boy, but for some reason I now feel a bit cold and wet. I think they put me in here to hide – that nice little girl said it was hide-and-seek. Do you happen to know where I am?”

“Well," said Ruby, “this is our home. We call it The Tank. It’s lovely isn’t it?”

Snuggly didn’t seem too convinced. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I feel a bit cold and wet," he said. "Is there somewhere I could dry off?"

Ruby and Max were so lost for words that Ruby blew a bubble as big as a pea, and Max had to swim round the Easter Island head three times before he could speak. Cold and wet? But wasn’t that the best feeling in the whole world? Cold and wet were what Ruby and Max lived for. That was the best -- their little cold wet tank was their perfect place, and who could ask for more?

“I’m sorry,” said Ruby, who was always very polite and determined to make any guest feel welcome, “but cold and wet is how we like it. Where do you live, then?”

“Well,” said Snuggly, wriggling himself up as best he could in his waterlogged state, “I like to cuddle up with that little boy. He’s lovely and warm and dry, and he gives me snuggles and cuddles and kisses and hugs. It’s yummy scrummy warm, and I feel very happy when we fall asleep together. But now I’m very soggy – I don’t think I could be very cuddly like this. I don’t even know why I’m here.”

“How strange,” said Max. “Still, at least you’re a lovely orange colour, just like me. I would always want to help anything as orangey as you. Come on Ruby – let’s make some noise!”

And with that, the two goldfish began splashing and flicking their tails. They bobbed and weaved and somersaulted, and poor Ruby even bumped her head on the tank roof. They pulled on the plastic seaweed, and spilled the tank water onto the bright red table top in the outside world.

Suddenly, The Hand was back. This time, it was like the old hand they knew and loved. The long slender fingers reached in, grabbed Snuggly, who smiled and waved, and was gone. Ruby and Max briefly saw him above their heads. He twisted himself round and round, and a mini torrent of a waterfall landed back in the tank. After he finished being wrung out, he was gone.

“Well,” said Ruby, “He was nice. If only he could have stayed for breakfast.”

“I wonder what a cuddle is?” said Max. “No idea,” said Ruby, and she swam off to nibble the seaweed.

The next day, Snuggly was there outside the tank, gently swaying as he hung from the clothes line. Ruby waved a fin at him through the glass. “Hi Snuggly,” she bubbled, “did you get your cuddle yesterday in the end?”

But Snuggly couldn’t answer. He smiled back with his friendliest, cuddliest smile, adjusted the clothes peg that was holding him up, and waited patiently to be taken down. “What nice fish,” he thought. “But it’s so cold and wet in there. I’m glad I’m not a fish.”

Ruby and Max looked at their new friend through the glass for a while. “What a funny thing he is, wanting to be all warm and dry,” said Max. I’m glad I’m not a cuddly toy."

Creative Commons Licence
Snuggly and the Goldfish by Siddie Nam is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at

Friday, 24 August 2012

Inexplicable Tuesdays

I know it's Friday. Yes, look, I may write some total piffle on this blog, but I am not entirely brain-dead. Despite what the calendar says, I want to talk about Tuesday.

What is it that's got me thinking about Tuesday? Well, what started was thinking about the slow commute home from the office, catching the train with the other Tuesday-dwellers. There are the familiar faces; Sou'wester man is usually to be found somewhere, telescope scanning the horizon (ok, I made up the bit about the telescope). Also there's the poor put-upon mother with the buggy and the large collection of cheery but unruly children (kids are never really very rush-hour friendly, but if you have to travel, what can you do?). But on Tuesdays, for some reason, my train is always much busier and I never get a seat. Wednesdays, no problem. Fridays, well the rush is spread out as people stagger home from pubs. (That's clever isn't it; they stagger because they offset the timings of their journey home, and they stagger because of the beer. I'm well good at this blogging malarkey, aren't I?) But Tuesdays? No chance.

Why is everyone on my train home at the same time as me on a Tuesday? What's special about Tuesdays then? As a weekday, it's one of a set of seven, a practice in Europe that seems to be attributable to the ancient Greeks, who felt that it would be good to have the gods for the five known planets, plus sun and moon, watching over a day each. The Romans adopted this idea (they had an eight-day week prior to this), and as a consequence the scheme has spread around the world.

Mars, red planet and god-of-war, was adopted for Tuesday. This can be seen in the weekday names from most of Europe's Latin languages, such as Mardi from French. But although the Britons adopted the weekday scheme from the Romans, our names are derived from Anglo-Saxon words imparted on Britain from the various post-Roman invasions that occurred. "Day" is a modern transliteration of "dæg", and we get the "Tue..." part as a transliteration of Norse god name Tywr, a war god, comparable to the Roman Mars.

The history lesson is all very well, but it tells us very little about twentieth century Tuesdays, except perhaps that having my face pressed against train window glass as a direct consequence of mass under-capacity (a term I prefer to overcrowding, since it implicitly blames the authorities rather than the long-suffering populace) can make me feel pretty war-like. What coping strategy might be employed?

I discussed this phenomenon with the lovely Mrs Nam, long suffering and enduringly patient listener when I'm philosophising. She suggested I offset my journey home and try a different train. Good idea. So off I went to catch the service scheduled for twenty minutes later. Amazing! She was dead right, that train was completely calm, relaxed and civilised, and I discovered that I no longer needed to care about what was causing the Tuesday chaos. Super. Mrs Nam to the rescue; wife and superhero.

So impressed was I with this change that I decided to try this lovely new quieter Tuesday service at the equivalent times on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The whole thing could be an utterly life-changing experience. What could go wrong? So, on Wednesday (Wōdnesdæg) there I was, waiting happily for my new train, and when it turned up it was jammed to the rafters. No explanation, no rhyme or reason. A proper old fashioned sardine special; I couldn't even get near the door.

Mars, or Tywr, is obviously toying with me. It seems I am destined to do this weekly battle, bound to have my Tuesday torment by the muses of ancient deities. Perhaps my only hope is to stagger home myself. Hic! Let's hope I don't end up saturnine by Saturday.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Random London

As a hardcore Londoner, I have always felt at home in the city. There's a strange and hard to understand part of me that sees London as if it belongs to me. My city... mine!

What this really is, of course, is a sense of belonging, the place we call home. It's punctuated too by more pubs, bars, clubs, restaurants, parks, history, galleries, museums, arts and culture than you can shake a stick at. Combined with the enthralling and ethnically diverse nature of London (the whole world is here; there's a language you don't recognise spoken on every tube train), it makes for a continuously absorbing and fascinating place to be. If you don't believe me, buy a travel guide, read my pal Natasha's excellent travel blog (she's a Kiwi who lived here for a good while, so you know she'll tell you it how it really is -- see here
for an example), get a visa (and an Oyster card) and come and see for yourself.

Did you notice that big sporting event called the Olympics recently? That took place here. It went well, as a result of which us Londoners are even prouder of our city. Don't you think it'd be fun to visit the city where all that happened?

Leafing idly through my photos (I have thousands because I'm obsessed with my Canon DSLR) I realise I have a few decent random London shots. I thought I'd share a few favourites here. There's no real rhyme or reason to them. Just for fun.

My photo of Tower Bridge with Olympic Rings is published below, but see here for the full set on Flickr.

Monday, 13 August 2012

The day after -- a Londoner's view.

Two weeks of Olympics have elapsed, and after moment upon moment of inspirational action and drama from both Team GB athletes and talented human beings from across the globe, we can stop holding our breath. We pulled it off. Hurrah London!

It's certainly been wonderful. Despite a dearth of tickets for real people (shame on you corporates who left empty seats; some of us would very much have liked to have been there), there has been a real and genuine buzz about my home town. Many of us had some initial reservations; one of my favourite places on Planet Earth is The Home of Time, Greenwich Park, which has been sealed off and somewhat altered by the Equestrian and Modern Pentathlon events. I was worried about this, but now, with the park finally reopening for mere mortals yesterday, I begin to think that Greenwich will have a new and historic chapter to add to its long, intriguing history. And it was certainly more inspirational than Johnny Depp's Greenwich visit, sparrowing about in the Naval College when they filmed Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

Meanwhile, I was in London's West End on Sunday, about the time the men's marathon was finishing and a brave Ugandan called Stephen Kiprotich made his much-troubled nation proud. I couldn't get anywhere near the finish, but it was a buzzing Sunday afternoon in the capital, and the area around Trafalgar Square, just a few hundred yards from the marathon's end and Buckingham Palace, was heaving with smiling and excitable people. There were many Canadians and South Africans (perhaps unsurprisingly; stately High Commission buildings for both nations face onto the square). I also saw some Japanese fans, some Kenyans waving their nation's flag enthusiastically (they came second in the marathon; a fine performance by any measure), and numerous others in numbers too great to count. Some Brazilians were having a little samba, some Spaniards were all talking at the same time, and many Brits had shed their usual reserve and were friendly and chatty. Road closures helped, and I was even able to take a family snap of my children giving a life-size statue of Olympic mascot Wenlock a cuddle. It was a fun a lively place to be.

Further onwards, along Charing Cross Road, we made it to Leicester Square, in search of a yard or two of grass on which to plant our weary backsides for a few minutes. The trees over the central gardens had all been draped with giant-sized replica medals, and the new fountains bubbling little streams of water made a cooling diversion for my young children on a hot day. The Olympic buzz pervaded, and more people with flags and souvenirs and cameras were visible in every direction, cheerfully doing their thing.

This was just one afternoon on a sunny day in the life of a city's Olympic experience, but I've been in town most days during this adventure, and have experienced happy people constantly as I've gone about my life. It's been wonderful, and I'm delighted that my home city has felt the way it's felt. And I find myself suddenly quite saddened that this brilliant adventure has come to an end.

I hope the mood on our city pervades. I think that it's been wonderful for us, and as a fairly hardcore cynic under more usual circumstances myself, I defy my fellow cynics to disagree. You'd have to have a heart of stone not to have been entertained by Usain, moved by double distance Gold winner Mo, or fallen in love with talented and likeable heptathlete and Olay model (as I discovered on opening today's London Evening Standard), Jessica Ennis, whose gold was amongst Team GB's first athletics achievements. You could blog every day with a different tale from a different athlete from around the world, and everyone's personal story of triumph and commitment would be endlessly compelling. And the people of London, if you speak to them, have their own Olympic stories to tell. Where they were when... How they overcame the transport disruption, how they watched the rowing on the big screen in Hyde Park. Everyone wants to know, to join in the fun with other Londoners.

But it's at its end for now. We eagerly await Rio and the Maracanã Stadium in four years time (perhaps I'll get luckier in that ticket lottery, and perhaps by then I will have convinced my mother that it's NOT the Macarena Stadium). London, though, has a new community spirit which I would love to see continue. It's the end of the affair, but let's hope we can still be friends.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Tennis and the tragic gnome

The All England Lawn Tennis Club has just completed a very successful Wimbledon tournament on some thick and healthy looking (but gnome-free) grass this season. And as a valiant Andy Murray is just edged out of being the first Brit to win the title for a thousand years by a majestic Roger Federer, one wonders again at how much of a factor the weather was. The Wimbledon organisers closed the roof, Federer could perform better as indoor conditions suit him, and Murray was seen off by the best player on the day.

Of course, Federer is perhaps the finest tennis player ever to have lived, so Murray's task was always an uphill struggle. But the point is that, once again, our mad 2012 weather here in London has had a major influence, in Murray's case necessitating the closure of the roof.

I am wondering if this all risks becoming a weather blog. I had no intention of that being my theme when I started out, but being a Brit, I am genetically predisposed to it. And us Brits have had much to discuss. There have been multiple hundreds of flood warnings around the UK. But, being the middle of summer, when the sun pops its face out from behind the clouds for any length of time, the air temperature in London rockets. This means you can quickly be too cold or too warm on an almost minute by minute basis. Also, as I previously described, Britain's wild plants are having a merry old time of it with the continuous rain and random sunny moments causing any untended green space to become thickly lush and verdant. It can be suddenly humid and I have been reminded of steaming tropical forest places simply by walking to work. The effect is compounded by the numerous parrots which now inhabit every corner of the capital. Olympic visitors from tropical nations are going to feel right at home here.

Wimbledon is not too far from Chez Siddie, and is enjoying a similar climate. The difference is, I suppose, a professional ground staff. Elsewhere, the overgrown gardens are this year's truly spectacular sight. I was slightly concerned it was just me, but clearly hardworking families everywhere are struggling to find time to fit in a spot of lawn mowing during the rain-sodden weekends. The front of our house is like a jungle exercise area used for military training, fully equipped with some genuine hazards such as bumblebees the size of barrage balloons. I saw a monster moth called a Red Underwing land in my garden like a Harrier Jump Jet, and even the occasional frog which turns up in my back yard is starting to look menacingly large. Has it eaten one of the neighbour's cats?

My lawn is also lush and green like that at Wimbledon, but that's where the similarities end. A tennis ball in my grass would simply be lost, with only the dandelions and daisies knowing its secret location. Things couldn't go on like this, so I bit the bullet, climbed into my gardening trousers, and launched into the undergrowth with my electric trimmer thingy (which I found after hacking my way to the garden shed with a machete).

It wasn't easy. Sweat oozed from every pore and my rippling musculature (moobs, if you prefer) with its glossy sheen must have been a sight to behold. Eventually I chanced upon the corner where one solitary garden gnome sits, waiting patiently for that big sweaty bloke to occasionally cut the grass. Of course, I couldn't see him through the undergrowth, and WHACK! I caught him squarely across the head with a burst-the-strings backhand that I'm sure would have sat agreeably with either Mr Federer or Mr Murray.

But where had the top of his hat gone? Smashed to smithereens, beyond repair. And thus, albeit indirectly, the bad weather claimed another innocent victim. There are only losers in this rain game. If Murray can blame the rain (and I don't recall reading anywhere that he did, but let's just imagine he thought it for a while), so can I.

How am I going to explain this to my lovely wife? I'm in a bit of trouble now, so would you mind keeping this just between us? Thanks. Let's hope she doesn't notice otherwise I fear being on the wrong end of a forehand smash. Ouch. New balls, please.

Gnome, by Siddie Nam
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

See the gnome in full size on Flickr, along with more of Siddie's images.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Leaf slapper in the unrelenting rain

Now I wouldn't want you to think there was a dark stain on my otherwise emerald green credentials, but I have to tell you that I am about to to pick a fight with something you might regard as a pure and innocent living thing. Maybe it's the persistent bad weather, the relentless precipitation. It's pushing all of us to the limit, and my personal bugbear, my own axe to grind, is with trees. Yes, there it is. Out in the open. Trees are getting to me.

There's a tree on my commute-route that blocks my path daily. I dare say that, when it was planted as a sapling perhaps eighty or more years ago, the locals must have thought, "Oh, that's nice." These days it's a towering monster of a London Plane tree, which, unsatisfied with simply spreading its canopy across the road, has decided to sprout leafy tendrils from its base. These seem to be a protest at the local authority periodically cutting its mature upper limbs off in an effort to minimise the threat it poses to the surrounding properties and passing cars. Several iterations of this cycle have resulted in what looks like a chunky trunky frame almost entirely covered in leaves.

This years "wettest April, May and June since records began" (the dear old BBC loves a "since records began" story) may well be further contributing to this tree's verdant leafiness. There's no doubt that the torrential downpours of late, punctuated with the (tragically infrequent) sunny spells we have occasionally enjoyed, have made the south of England a lusher, more densely vegetated place.

One of the consequences of this is the random assaults that trees and bushes everywhere delight in making. Since it's currently always raining, the trees are often hoarding what must be countless gallons of water. They stealthily conceal it in their leaves, waiting for an unsuspecting commuter to walk beneath thinking, "that's nice; the sun's come out," before dumping a torrent of drippiness on his head. It's the arboreal equivalent of the old bucket-on-top-of-the-door trick. But the trees have two or three other anti-personnel weapons.

Another such device is the leafy wet face-slap. You may have experienced this one yourself, perhaps when following another pedestrian. I'm wondering if certain trees and plants have formed strange pacts with selected human beings. When the world is as lush as it currently is, it is sometimes necessary to use an arm to temporarily bend a tree frond out of your way. But if you happen to be following someone who has made an arboreal deal with his local forest, you may find out too late. This tree-sprite in commuter form releases a twisted branch bent away from his own path, then it pings back and, SMACK! Right in the chops. You emerge from the undergrowth with a streaming wet visage and a diminishing temper. It's always especially nice when you've made a particular effort with your hair or attire.

If you add in the constant threat from the variety of spiders hammocked between the plants, and the fact that even one abandoned soggy leaf can be enough to have your feet slip from right under you, it's surprising that we don't have more of a love/hate relationship with these large and intimidating wild things.

Or perhaps it's just me. Maybe just a little sunshine. Just a bit. A few simple rays to warm me, brown my translucent skin, pull me back from the brink. Then I can learn to love the leaves, branches and stems once again. Until then, they're sending me barking mad. Barking. Bark. Aargh!

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Excuse me, do you happen to speak squirrel?

One of the controversial pleasures of modern London living is undoubtedly the sight of grey squirrels everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. These days, my suburban garden can be seen hosting them on any given day, and I usually encounter them on my route to work at some point.

Now the thing is, my children love them. They are basically attractive creatures, with a huge bushy tale and, in London's parks and open spaces at least, they are endearingly tame. They will even take food directly from your hands if you are still and patient. Of course, this makes them beloved of little people everywhere, who feed them, and thus perpetuate the rise of grey squirreldom.

The Eastern Grey Squirrel is in fact an American introduction into Britain, and it has been so hugely successful that it has led to the near extinction of Britain's smaller, native, and genuinely beautiful red squirrel, especially in the south. There are no certainties about exactly why the red has suffered so badly since the grey was introduced deliberately as a curiosity during the 19th century, but it may simply be that the grey is basically made of stern stuff, and competes with the native breed for food and habitat.

Red Squirrel By Tomi Tapio K; image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

The Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) in the UK actually deals specifically with grey squirrels, stating that if one should be captured it must not be released but humanely destroyed. Such is the threat level the greys are perceived to possess. It seems a shame, and one of the many difficult things we must overcome on a path to proper conservation.

On a lighter note, I remember some time back discussing the issue of grey squirrels with a Spanish friend, not a native English speaker, but someone who's English was certainly very much superior to my Spanish. The intention had very much been to consider the prevalence of grey squirrels in English parks, but unfortunately the conversation was unable to proceed very far. It was broadly as follows:

Siddie Nam: So you see, the grey squirrels aren't native to this park, but they're very common indeed.
Spanish Friend: ¿Qué? "Skwiwwels"?
SN: Squirrels.
SF: Sorry, I no understand? 
SN: The fluffy grey creatures in the trees?

At this point, a Canadian friend who was also in the park with us, joined in in an attempt to clarify: 

Canadian Friend: It's his accent. Siddie, you have to remember that your London accent sounds to Spanish ears as if you're saying a "W" when you are in fact saying an "R".
SN: Oh. And there's me thinking I was the perfect example of fine diction and elocution.
CF: Don't be cheeky. (Turning to Spanish Friend) What Siddie is trying to say is "grey squirrel".
SF: "Grey squirl?" What's a squirl? 
SN: It's a squirrel.
SF: But you are talking about a "squirl". I don't know what a skwiwwel or a squirl is? What are their names in Spanish?
SN: (Blank look)
CF: "Ardilla".
SF: Is that a skwiwwel or a squirl? What would you call the other one in Spanish?
CF: No, there's only one word I know for a squirrel in Spanish. "Ardilla".
SF: Yes, I understand. And what about a "skwiwwel"?

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Peppa Pig and the Life Changing Experience

We're out and about waiting for my daughter's gymnastics class to begin, and Mrs Nam is putting our daughter through her maths paces. Having had an extended half term break, us proud parents have decided not to let our kids off the hook, and my seven year old is grappling with challenges like "if I divided a cake into ten pieces and then gave seven of those pieces to my friends, how many pieces would I have left?"

School or no school, Mrs Nam is a firm believer that the kids need a little something academic every day. And sitting watching, I can see why. The mid term break has played havoc with my daughter's concentration. The schoolwork is not interesting her at all, she is instead distracted by a nearby toddler with a Peppa Pig book. It's electronic and wonderful. Every fifteen seconds or so it echoes the cheery "Peeeeeeeeeppa Pig" refrain, beloved of children everywhere. It's not the slightest bit annoying, but if it happens again, I am going to toast myself a three year old. Well, maybe not because I actually quite like children, but you know what I mean. Grr!

I'm not even usually here. Usually I am in various places in central London, working hard to earn some cash to pay for classes like these. And I'm wondering what I'd be doing if I wasn't sitting here listening to Ms Pig's cheery kiddie refrain.

I didn't really try as hard as I could have when I was at school, and having left with a bunch of high expectations but mediocre results, I do sometimes consider what might have been. For example, I love to write. I have spent my entire existence absorbing books and literature at a huge rate, as if someone were suddenly about to abolish them. This has filled me with words and I think a few are now being pushed back out again. The consequence of this has been a loose collection of short stories and articles, some children's poems, and no less than two half finished novels. Since unfinished novels don't pay the rent, I do actually have a real job, which means that I never have any time to finish my novels. It's Catch 22 (except it isn't, because that's a finished novel by Joseph Heller).

Like Yossarian, I too feel the constraints of cleverly worked and bureaucratic rules, surely designed to ensure that the commuter trap is well placed to snare hard working but naive victims like me. For example, I often don't have enough time to really complete my tasks during the day, and thus frequently resort to dealing with emails and desk-based trivialities from my laptop on several evenings a week. I don't get anything extra for this, but since many of my colleagues behave similarly (and moan about it), it has led to a situation where, if I didn't do it, and the work didn't get done, I would be exposed as the one with poor values and behaviours. Naturally, all my colleagues feel the same way, with the obvious consequence that our employer gets an awful lot for free.

This is one of many traps laid for the unsuspecting, and I imagine this type of thing has become more typical in a world of constrained finances. It's also the consequence of a mediocre job. The self employed at least stand or fall by their own efforts. And the high fliers get to enjoy the thrill of the completed endeavour. Us normal people...? Well, we commute.

But there is hope. My children do get to see their daddy. Regularly. Every day Mrs Nam and I play with our kids. We read with them. Do sums. Take them to zoos, galleries and museums, and exciting places at home and abroad. They do football, swimming, gymnastics, drama and dance. They're both doing well at learning the piano. And they do it with mummy and daddy there, encouraging them on.

Why am I telling you this? It's certainly not to gloat; there are many excellent parents I know who work and play hard and have amazing, delightful children. No; I'm telling you this as a cautionary tale. I also know far too many mums and dads who, sadly, will have "I missed my kids grow up" as a possible inscription on their tombstones.

My point is simple. These straitened times we live in have shifted the balance, and I urge parents everywhere to be wise to this trap. Your kids need you too, to prepare them for their lives ahead. And your reward is seeing it happen. That will be amazing.

Recently, I made an important personal decision. Mostly my work laptop now stays switched off at home (not always; it's not about being unreasonable or inflexible -- just mostly). This has had a major positive influence on my life. Now I usually get to see my kids. And you know what? I found time to start this blog, just a few months back. And I found time to take photos. And, just yesterday, the reason for this post: I dusted down my novel, and started work on it again. Wow! It may never be published, but it WILL be finished!

This time has made my life immeasurably better. I'm so glad I took such a positive, assertive step. Think about it. What could you do if you made yourself and your kids some time? Who knows. Now if Peppa Pig would just be quiet, I will continue to concentrate on changing my life for the better. Oink.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Grubby Monkeys and the Air Biscuit

As a parent of two little terrors aged five and seven, I have much sympathy with hardworking mums and dads everywhere who spend a great deal of effort managing their little ones from one place to another in as timely and orderly a fashion as realistically possible. One of the many fun experiences a mum or dad can especially enjoy is the delight of managing your little darling when forced by circumstance to join the commuting throng on public transport in the rush hour.

Now, as one of these commuters, I am aware of the harsh truth that commuting, in common with rush hour driving, is inevitably a survival of the fittest dog eat dog affair. There's something about the daily trudge that turns otherwise normal, decent and reasonable people into elbow wielding, instantly angered psychopaths set on securing the best seat on the tube and to hell with the consequences. People can be sardined into a space the size of a single bed, squashing against their travelling comrades in sometimes deeply inappropriate ways, yet still completely ignore each other except when there's a need to shove someone when alighting. It's a tough and undignified existence, but it is what it is and your seasoned commuter accepts it with a dour inevitability.

Then, into the fray comes Mum. Mum has a buggy. There's a wriggling two year old in it. She is accompanied by another grubby faced little urchin, perhaps about five. As she steps on board, Mum immediately breaks rule number one: she speaks to you. "Excuse me, excuse me, buggy coming through..." This type of unsolicited conversation is always likely to provoke a raised eyebrow and disapproving grumble from the hardcore commuter, who will also take a dim view of having a buggy roll over his foot (even though there is nothing Mum can do about it due to the overcrowding). Then, the little urchin, excited by the adventure but bundled about because he's too little to hang on to anything, delivers the killer blow. "Mum, have you parped (sic)?"

Another of the dubious pleasures of the crowded morning commute are the abdominal exhalations which occasionally waft around. Let's not pretend this doesn't happen; I'm sure we've all been trapped on a train desperate to escape some unpleasant selfish oaf's noxious emissions and yet been powerless to move (or breathe). But the commuter gives out a disapproving glare, or just pretends to blow his nose while breathing through a handkerchief.

"No!" blurts Mum. But five year old urchin is the author of his mother's undoing. Playground lore dictates that "you denied it -- you supplied it," and, thus condemned to guilt by association, Mum is hung out to dry.

I expect some unpleasant character in a gaudy shirt and tie combo was the real perpetrator, and no doubt he had a good laugh about this with his mates when he got to the office (as I am probably doing with this blog if you think about it -- we're all damned!). But it made me think about situations when little kids have unintentionally embarrassed their parents.

My own five year old entertained my wife's friends at the bus stop one morning. The littl'uns were all being taken to school by my wife, but they were not their usual prompt selves. They arrived at the stop, panting and flustered, just as the bus came round the corner. As Mrs Nam got her breath back, her friend said to my five year old in that slightly patronising talking-to-kids voice that grown-ups adopt, "you only just made it today didn't you?" My son said, "We're a bit late because mummy had to have a poo."

I recall attending a wedding many years ago, a big lavish affair in the north of England where it felt like the whole of a hotel had been booked out by the bride's family, and the guests numbered in their hundreds. A colleague of mine was attending with his wife and kids. They were casually chatting in a small group with others while their children were pulling up flowers, one by one, from the hotel's carefully tended flower beds (I won't deny it, I was standing nearby with a group of my twenty something friends, and we may have been slightly encouraging the little cheeky monkeys -- pity about the mud on their lovely clothes...). Their father suddenly realised what was going on and screamed a pained "No!" before running over, admonishing them, and attempting to replant a row of around twelve doomed tulips. My group of co-conspirators didn't help at all, but were certainly delighted to witness the spectacle of Daddy now muddying his own smart suit.

Ah, the little darlings. Listen, it's hard work ferrying kids around, so if you're on the tube and a parent arrives, cut them some slack, OK? And if you're a parent -- well, you know what it's like, right? The kids will love you and humiliate you in equal measure. Goes with the territory.

Are you a parent whose little darlings have made you wish the ground would open and swallow you? Let me know your story. Leave me a comment, here or on the Facebook or Twitter links. Thanks!

Monday, 11 June 2012

Adrian Chiles and the Shin Pad

I'm an anxious England fan today. In common with my countrymen everywhere, I don't have any real hope that England are going to accomplish anything meaningful in this year's UEFA Euro 2012 tournament, but also in common with patriotic fans from every country, we live in hope that our disarrayed team may yet pull something out of the bag.

In the UK, the two main terrestrial TV broadcasters are the holy and revered BBC, and also commercial upstart ITV. They are sharing the Euro games according to a formula I don't really understand. Today it's ITV's turn to show the crucial opening encounter between England and France, the game of the group and a tie which will inevitably set the tone for England's campaign.

Now, this isn't a footy blog and I won't be writing a daily rant about all things soccer. But I must draw your attention to the competing footy programmes' respective anchor men. On the Beeb, we have England hero, potato crisp advertiser and all round nice guy Gary Lineker. For those readers unfamiliar with Association Football (my American readers should be aware that, with the greatest respect for your fine nation and my many friends there, I am probably looking in your direction at this point), Mr Lineker is an England hero. A talented goal poacher, he played in probably the best England international team of the modern era under the late great Bobby Robson, where the guys were pipped in the semi final of the World Cup but came away from the tournament with a great deal of kudos and respect. The same Gary Lineker was on the pitch playing with a fractured arm in a previous World Cup in Mexico, when Argentina's Diego Maradona broke English hearts with a handballed goal. As you may recall, the referee didn't see this illegal move, and Maradona later described his effort as "un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios" ("a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God").

Video evidence suggests that neither Maradona's head nor God's hand were involved. To rub salt into the wounds, Maradona followed this illegitimate goal with perhaps the finest legitimate goal ever seen in international football. Lineker also popped a good goal in for England near the end of the game, but could not get another to level the score. He shook Maradona's hand afterwards. Many years later he interviewed Maradona for a BBC football magazine programme. He said to Diego cheerfully, "Personally I blame the referee and the linesman, if that counts". Then he told him that the second Maradona strike was the only time in his career when he felt like applauding an opponent's goal. Maradona laughed stupidly and shook Lineker's hand. Lineker was gracious and unbowed. Unbooked in his professional career, this is an English superstar and a man with lucid dignity who can hold his head high.

Meanwhile, ITV have Adrian Chiles. Good old Ade used to be a BBC reporter on Radio 5 Live, and has covered the world's most prestigious sporting events as a co-anchor to Gary Lineker, before apparently having some kind of falling out with the BBC and defecting to a relatively unsuccessful ITV morning programme with Christine Bleakley. (I have no insider knowledge of what went on here -- but one day Chiles seemed simply to have left the BBC. Who knows what goes on in these contractual discussions.) Unabashed, Chiles is now ITV's leading sport's presenter and apparently commands a salary worth millions over several years. Chiles is a man-of-the-people midlander, an iconic West Bromwich Albion supporter, and is clearly positioned as such when taking the lead in ITV's footy coverage.

Unfortunately, Chiles and his team of pundits (tonight featuring Patrick Vieira for the French point of view, and England also-ran Gareth Southgate) are sitting in an apparently un-soundproofed studio which seems to wobble slightly in the breeze. And that's just the breeze coming from the pundits' mouths. Watching the Ireland game the other night with Roy Keane, one prayed for the long-awaited Keane-Vieira punch-up to enliven proceedings (Keane and Vieira have had a fractious relationship over the years -- when they were both playing in an Arsenal v Manchester United game in 2006, trouble broke out in the Highbury tunnel and there have been a variety of feuds at other times, notably including Keane's public criticism of Vieira for choosing to play internationally for France instead of his birthplace, Senegal).

But Adrian kept it all in check in both the Ireland and England games, perhaps hypnotising his panel of experts with some top notch inane Brummie drivel (" inconvenient of the French to go and equalise...", "...good to see England players with their peckers up" etc). This rainy Monday evening, excited by the prospect of some proper competitive football, on free-to-air TV and involving England, I rushed home to discover Chiles in action. Fortunately England held a skilled and troublesome French side at bay resulting in a sporting and well-contested one-one draw. Just as well. Can you imagine having to listen to this stuff while your side are losing?

Now, it's not personal. One suspects Mr Chiles would be an entertaining companion if watching this on the big screen at your local hostelry. As it happens, what I read about Mr Chiles suggests that he's a committed charity fund raiser, has a high quality university degree, and plays several musical instruments to a very good standard. So let's not judge a book by its cover, OK?

But do you really want your Everyman mate on the telly? I have my doubts. Come on BBC -- bid for all the games next time, for all our sakes. In the meantime Mr Chiles, with the greatest respect, can you put a football sock in it please? And maybe the shin protector, too.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

London's Moody Jubilee Hangover

When looking around London this week, it's a bit like being inside someone else's hangover. In the suburbs, there are still a few Union Jack flags adorning people's houses, but now the Jubilee is over, they seem a bit bedraggled in the rain that has followed our recent mini heat wave.

In town, the banks of the Thames are still showing evidence that a heaving monster of a crowd has been there. There are occasional piles of stacked crowd barriers presumably awaiting collection. There seems to be more litter than usual. And somehow it's strangely quiet.

Post-Jubilee Rubbish

It's not really quiet, of course. London doesn't really do "quiet". But perhaps you'll know what I mean. There are noticeably fewer people around. The trains have spare seats. I suppose some of this is due to the half term holiday currently being enjoyed by the capital's children. But even my eccentric travelling companion in the yellow sou'wester is absent, perhaps off chasing humpbacks in the north Atlantic rather than wave his red white and blue any more.

If music were playing now, it'd be slow, and slightly overdriven. There'd be a church hall reverb, like that when they're going to switch the lights on at the end of a wedding party. It wouldn't be hard to find a broken bottle, and perhaps in the corner a girl with tear-streaked makeup would be mournfully smoking a cigarette and wondering why it came to this.

But life goes on, and so does London. I still see a delivery happening as I walk to my desk. The recently finished hotel just along the street (unashamedly completed in good time to exploit Olympic visitors) is now serving breakfasts to its guests. There's always a tomorrow, and that tomorrow has come now. The Shard is still Shardy; The Wobbly Bridge still doesn't wobble any more, Nelson continues to observe proceedings from the top of his column. There has been rain today and sunshine after it, and when the half term is over, the people will return. It's London, it's alive, it does events and gatherings and festivities perhaps better than anywhere in the world. And then it wakes up, moves on, and takes us all with it in a perpetual journey through its ever changing moods.

The Post-Jubilee Shard

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Label fable

The Thames, in London near the Wobbly Bridge, is a tourist Mecca. Rightly so. As I've explained before, on the south side you have the Tate Modern, with Shakespeare's Globe just nearby, and looking north you see an immense view of Wren's masterpiece, St Paul's Cathedral. These days, the place is absolutely heaving with visitors from around the world. Welcome as they are (and I am always hopeful that our many visitors all have a positive London experience and leave with fond memories and a desire to return), it can be awkward moving around in such a crowded place. Invariably, those of us who live and work here can be caught trying to walk upstream into a tourist tide. Not easy.

Just yesterday, I was nearby trying to get to Southwark Tube station (Olympic Games visitors might want to note that this is pronounced "Suth-erk", with a soft "th", as in "the", and the stress on the first syllable), but picked my moment badly. I came up against an overwhelming mass of apparently German youths, presumably heading for the Tate, and given that I'm not that enormous and some of them were, I felt it better to move to one side and let the thronging horde pass unimpeded. Who cares if I was late? At least my delay gave me the chance to observe them as they wandered on.

As they streamed by, one thing that struck me was the labels in their clothes. Summer has landed abruptly on London and it's currently swelteringly hot, leading most people (except my eccentric commuting friend perpetually attired in whaler-friendly yellow sou'wester) to don lighter clothing. The swarm of Germans were no exception, and as they herded past I observed a myriad of t-shirt labels, all poking up jauntily from the backs of collars. A young blond lady was wearing a pink, sleeveless vest-top type thingy (I'm an obvious expert in describing clothing; perhaps I should write for fashion journals). At the back, I could clearly discern washing instructions on a small tab of white nylon.

One of her bulky Teutonic fellows was also attired in a vest-top thingy (sigh), although his was green and tight, showing off fine, toned and muscular phsyique, similar to how my own isn't. But he shared his friend's stuck out label, which was jigging gently as he walked. Why weren't any of their fellow group members helping these people?

As I walked in the crowd, a fluid thing hefty in number and anxious to tour as tourists do, I became increasingly aware that people everywhere were similarly afflicted. Labels, present in great quantities in all directions, sticking out of the backs of vest-tops, t-shirts, jumpers (because this person hadn't spotted that London was a sweltering twenty eight degrees celsius and felt that an item of fashionable and snug knitwear was just the thing). At least sou'wester-man knew how to keep his labels neatly tucked away. It wasn't just tourists either. London's army of workers were similarly afflicted in many instances, my favourite example of which was an attractive twenty something woman not only helpfully informing me that her blouse should be hand-washed only, but also that her shoes, retaining their newly purchased sole-sticker, had leather uppers and man-made heels (which I believed because those heels were not natural).

Perhaps I'm no fashion expert, as I've mentioned, but please, London! Let's all try to get dressed nicely shall we? We've got an Olympics to host, and people will see.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Trafalgar Square -- a beautiful grey colour

It's my view that London has an intense beauty in the sunshine. It's not necessarily a beauty that everyone would recognise; not all people are enamoured with high rise buildings or overwhelming crowds or long angry queues of traffic. But somehow the sunshine adds vibrancy and life to this sometimes grey and foreboding metropolis. In the warm glow of an early summer's day, I watched London today, and I can't deny it. I love it.

In the centre of London, virtually smack where you'd stick the needle if you were an overseas visitor deciding to hit London and see the sights, is Trafalgar Square. Its unmistakeable landmark column, with Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson standing atop, commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar, and Nelson's other campaigns. This battle was fought in 1805 and was a decisive naval victory for the British fleet in the ongoing Napoleonic wars. Nelson himself, serving aboard the HMS Victory, was mortally wounded in the battle, and thus lives large in the British psyche in that way that gallant dead people do.

Trafalgar Square is itself a grey place, with impressively grand buildings surrounding it, notably the National Gallery (housing as fine a collection as you will see in any gallery anywhere on the planet), as well as Canada House. Also, there is South Africa House, once the subject of many anti-apartheid protests, but happily these days a less controversial tenant of London's West End. Meanwhile, the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields is near one corner of the gallery, at the southern end of Charing Cross Road. Here can be heard rousing classical concerts if you time your visit right, but buy a cushion if you're planning to sit through Wagner's Ring cycle as the wooden seats can numb one's behind.

The grey of Trafalgar Square first began appearing in London in the 1820s, when John Nash was commissioned by King George IV to redevelop the area then housing the Kings Mews and Green Mews (where the National Gallery now stands). The square itself opened in 1845, designed by Sir Charles Barry, although modifications to plinths and fountains found their way into the square as you stand in it today.

File:Trafalgar Square, London 2 - Jun 2009.jpg
Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
In 1843, the William Railton designed memorial to Nelson was completed. It was topped off by E H Bailey's statue, made of Craigleith sandstone. The whole thing is 169 feet 3 inches (or just about 51.6 metres) tall, to the tip of Nelson's hat. Some time later, in 1867, Sir Edwin Landseer's lions were added to the base of the column.
File:Trafalgar Square-2.jpg
Picture by David Castor

Perhaps the most important thing about Trafalgar Square, though, is what it has in common with other squares in many of the world's great cities. It is a place of the people; it is where people go when they need to go somewhere, and today, in London's sunshine, it was like that. It was a riot of colour, and the grey is simply a backdrop, or a frame. It bustled with tourists and Londoners alike, just busy, doing their thing. But I have seen it when there were real riots and protests. I have seen movies made there, with casts of strangely horrific injured people, perhaps reenacting a scene from the Battle of Trafalgar itself. I have been there when there have been concerts and political speakers, all of which bring the square alive and straight up to date. Every year, Norway sends us a gift of a Christmas Tree, which is annually sited in Trafalgar Square for everyone to enjoy. It's a place where people go to do things, to get involved.

Perhaps you're coming to London soon, maybe for a business trip, maybe for a holiday, or perhaps you are going to join us for the Olympics. When you're here, you should pay Trafalgar Square a visit. It's not just simply about being a tourist. It's about visiting a major cultural centre. It's an important place.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

JFDIY. Or Maybe Not

With car fixed and mobile again (see here for details), it's back to the important business of getting on with my life. It wasn't too painful. After having a go at dismantling the car myself and (after three or four hours of fruitless tinkering and colourful use of English) discovering I couldn't, I called a chap recommended by a neighbour. He turned up to collect the car the following day exactly when he said he would. He charged me a reasonable, sensible amount, which also concurred with his original quote. He called me with an update twice during the next three hours, then brought the car back on the same day, fully fixed up, and exactly when he said he would. What a man! If only it were always like this.

Sadly, it's not always like this, which is one of the reasons why people like me (tight-fisted and cynical) attempt Do-It-Yourself as an option in the first place. I was once charged an £86 (+ VAT) call out fee by a plumber who came into the bathroom only to say "sorry mate -- there's nothing I can do about your busted toilet". He was there for at least two minutes. I'd booked through a UK-wide web-based plumbing service and in the small print I was condemned -- he'd turned up, so I had to pay. There was nothing I could legally do about it, although I have kept my vow that I would never use this website's services ever again. It's one of the largest of such services in the country and, if you're UK-based, you will have heard of them. Be afraid.

I don't know; perhaps it's toilets. I haven't had much luck with faulty cisterns. For example, I had a problem in a previous, and more downmarket residence (London's pricey when you're young and just starting on life's journey). There, I had just one bathroom above my kitchen, and one day I noticed that the overflow was constantly... erm, overflowing. Suspecting a faulty washer in the siphon (I had all the talk, didn't I?), I opened the lid simply to size the job up before proceeding downstairs to fetch tools and turn off the mains supply. All I did was touch the top of the siphon before the end of it shot off and mains pressure water started spraying my bathroom. Oh dear! I stuck my finger in the end of the exposed and squirting pipe, much like the little lad with the dyke. The flow stopped, and my finger began to gradually cool down and ache.

I suppose the plumbing fixture had gradually been working itself looser and looser over a period of some weeks, and it now dawned on me, unhelpfully at this stage, that the washer was probably OK. I was stuck, alone in my little home, with no prospect of my flatmate returning any time soon, wondering how to refit the ejected component without starting a new staircase Niagara. Especially since said widget was nestled neatly out of reach on the carpet, some distance away.

After a while considering my options, it occurred to me I was faced with a stark and binary choice. As I think back now, I hear John Kramer in my head saying "I wanna play a game... make your choice". My choice was:
  • Try to reach the far flung pipey valvey screw-on thingy (I no longer had all the talk) that had been hosed to the other side of the room under pressure, then refit it.
  • Try to run downstairs as fast as I could, and close off the mains inlet valve.
Neither seemed much of a choice. If I opted for the first plan, this would result in water sprayed around the room while I fumbled for the part, then the ordeal of trying to refit the rogue doodah while high pressure water fought right back against me. There was no guarantee that the part would go back on. It may even be faulty. Plan B contained two certainties, although one was very unpalatable. I would certainly be able to staunch the flow, and I would certainly create a big splashy watery mess while on my way to the valve to turn it off.

It had to be the second choice. It had definition, a visible end-game. I mentally planned my route, imagining every possible twist and turn, visualising all the known obstacles. I readied myself, took a deep breath, then ran for it.

The torrent was immense and powerful, as I knew it would be. I felt like it was chasing me down the stairs, visceral and alive. As I made it to the bottom, I could hear the water roaring as it sprayed its way into the bathroom carpet and through the floorboards. I turned through the lounge and on into the kitchen, the aqua-monster now screaming its watery scream directly above my head. I threw the kitchen bin out of the way (this was always the plan -- it only contained empty beer bottles anyway, nothing too messy) and dived under the worktop to get to the tap. It was stiff, but thankfully it turned, encouraged by some of my more ripe and fruity rhetoric (the first known Middle English usage of which was published in The Proverbs of Hendyng, not later than 1325 CE). Then, the rushing sound stopped almost immediately, and the deluge had ended.

But what trouble would follow in its wake? Hopefully it wouldn't be too serious. I could see some soggy looking patches emerging on the ceiling above me. How bad could it be? I allowed myself to feel a sense of relief that it was all over, and as I mused, the kitchen ceiling collapsed. It dumped plaster and dirty water everywhere, and I stood sorrowfully in the middle of it all, newly coated in a damp patina made from my house.

I called in a plumber and a plasterer to oversee the repairs, while I mopped, vacuumed, shed a little tear, and said a little prayer -- "please God make that didn't happen." God had left His voicemail to field calls that day, and never got back to me.

If you're someone like me, you're faced with a non-choice every time a fault develops or some little job requires jobbing. Do It Yourself and risk a gigantic (and potentially soggy) cockup, or call in someone and risk paying a charlatan for nothing. Where there's a job, there's a scary looking toolbox or a bloke with a BlueTooth-attached chip-and-pin card reader ready to take your money and (perhaps) put it right. It's how the world goes round.