Saturday, 31 January 2009

On living with predators.

One of the features of life with predators in your house, is that they occasionally bring in prey. Normally small mammals, occasionally a small bird, once a pigeon!
Sometimes I intercept the victim and set it free again, but generally the prey is in various states of being dead: "soon to be", "freshly deceased but intact", "disembowelled".

Every morning, I go down and perform what I call the forensic sweep. I check for dead animals and dispose of them or their organs before the rest of the family awake, then I clean up.
Today was special. I found one dead mouse and the face and entrails belonging to a second mouse. The evidence was eliminated before anyone noticed.

I didn't spot the third live mouse; my wife did.... when she put her foot into her boot and it didn't fit properly and something wriggled inside.

I heard her screaming from my office 6 miles away; the subsequent phone call was entirely unnecessary.

Insect Deaths

Insects, when we are in their presence, are mostly either alive or dead, and only occasionally in the process of dying. And this usually happens for them with abrupt violence. They meet with either a predator, poison or rolled-up magazines. In fact I challenge anyone to think of insect death and not conjure up some image of sudden and irreversible flattening.

I was sitting on the couch the other evening when I noticed a wasp buzzing in the window. I fixed my gaze on the hymenopterous intruder wondering whether it had come from outside or worse from a wasps' nest somewhere in the house.

The wasp then changed direction and flew into the room tracing large elegant circles in the air above me, and then something unusual happened: the wasp swooped down, banked left, climbed again and then died in mid-flight. Continuing on its trajectory it traced a lazy parabola and landed with an audible tick and a single bounce on the living room floor where it lay motionless. I got up to check. Yes, dead!

I had witnessed my first insect death that wasn't of a violent nature. I like to think it died of old age while doing what it enjoyed best.


Death of a Wasp Queen, by Stijn Coppens.

On Coaching

Over the weekend I was working on my son's future nostalgia again (and so, vicariously revisiting my own childhood). This most recent project has moved away from the smokey and uproarious mayhem of capguns, and advanced to the more stealthy art of shooting catapults.

I was in the garden with my boy taking shots at a bucket we had placed as target some distance away, after having admonished him not to point the catapult at his sister, windows or animals.

We were (that is to say I was) having fun, and naturally being the stronger and more experienced catapultist I was hitting the bucked consistently with a satisfying clang.

He, on the other hand, was not so successful and grew increasingly frustrated by his inability to hit the target. Eventually he asked: How do you do that daddy, can you show me?

Keen to mentor him in the fine art, and eager to appear heroic, I spoke authoritatively (I improvised wildly) about arm position, shape of projectile, balanced elastic tension, being in the zone etc. and then, to make the whole inevitable experience of missing your target more lighthearted and bearable for him, I added, jokingly:

If you do that you can hit anything. See that bee over there?

I pointed at a bee some 15ft away, buzzing erratically over some flowers.

Anticipating wild laughter from my son at my imminent failure, I fired my catapult.

To my horror and his amazement I shot the bee right out of the air.

There was silence, but in my head I was going: shit shit shit shit now what.

Poker-faced I looked at my boy who stood open mouthed, his expression changing from astounded incredulity to revulsion, then back to amazement then .... well, I don't know what, disappointment perhaps. At this point I couldn't read him any more, and there was no way I could coach him through his frustration and disappointment.

You killed a bee, dad!


(time to learn to cope with disappointment by yourself, son) I walked (strutted) away.

When life gives you lemons...

Because it is character building I sent my kids to spend half their summer holidays with my parents in Italy.

My parents live in a tiny landlocked village where nothing much happens apart from the odd murder or blood feud. Since the beach is an inaccessible 50 miles away, it can, understandably, get somewhat boring for little children. Naturally they will make their own entertainment.

The house my parents live in is the penultimate house in a narrow cul-de-sac not 8 meters wide. Outside the front door is small area with a table & chairs and a lemon tree, all enclosed and separated from the pavement beyond by a tiny wall perhaps 2ft tall.

Because life is boring even for adults, one kind of taedium is often replaced by another and so boredom gets averted by such fanciful means as walking back and forth. Endlessly. It is the Mediterranean way.

There is this 80-year-old man who lives on our street who does just that: he walks to the end of the road, turns round, walks back and then repeats the process many, many times a day, giving a cheery hello if you see him for the first time, or a simple nod of the head if you've seen him for the 9th time already.

My 6-year-old boy has noticed this, so he thought it would be fun to play a little prank on this man. He and a friend shook some lemons off the tree in front of the house, stockpiled their yellow arsenal and crouched in ambush behind the 2 ft wall.

Bearing in mind that ours is the only lemon tree on the street, that ours is the last inhabited house at the end of the road (the one with loud children playing outside climbing on a lemon tree) and that it is the house just after which the man executes his turn, and bearing also in mind that a 2 ft wall hardly affords any cover to two giggling six-year-olds who had just been seen (many times), it strikes me as an odd plan to carry out.

But small children aren't noted for their ability to plan complex military ambushes or foresee the consequences of their actions (he really is a chip off the old block).

No sooner had the man walked past (on our side of the street) they pelted him with lemons and quickly dropped down again, giggling, to hide behind the 2 ft wall.

The astonishment (and then the terror) on their faces when the man turned round and walked straight towards them, is something I would have loved to have seen. They fled inside the house.

It's true when they say that it takes a village to raise a child.

The man knocked on the door and informed my mum of the behaviour of these little tearaways. Hollow threats of involving the fruit-police, and a swift tails-between-their-legs apology ensured that the matter went no further.

I can imagine the de-brief: both kids looking at each other confused and wondering just where their brilliant plan went wrong.

I think the character building lesson here is that if life gives you lemons you don't hurl them at old men unless you have adequate cover and an escape plan that doesn't involve running to grandma (who is unlikely to side with you on this).

On Ugly Blankets

Living in Britain has taught me that when the sun shines you make hay; this is to say that I have learned to take full advantage of sunny days. Unlike in Italy where we have one weather-forecast in about April / May which says something like: "Sunny outlook till October. See you again in about five or six months for the autumn forecast", here even the merest hint of warmth and sunshine is met with ludicrous levels of enthusiasm.
Out comes the paddling pool for the kids, off come their clothes; toys and hats and sun cream (SPF 50 because the sun is fierce at 53° N) and blankets all find their way onto the lawn. You always have to have a blanket out so that the kids can take it, put some soft fruit or yoghurt in it (often both) then crumple it up and stuff it into a bush or a corner of the garden where the contents can ferment away.

On Sunday my in-laws came round for an obligatory barbecue. After the meal I sat with my 70 year old father-in-law in the shade drinking a couple of beers when he spotted the crumpled up blanket. The blanket, I should add, is the horrid synthetic fleecy thing shown in the picture above: beige with brown rhinos on one side, and brown with beige rhinos on the other side. I've wanted to throw it away many times, but for some reason hadn't.

"My goodness, that blanket has done the rounds" announced my father-in-law.

"Tell me" I replied.

"We bought the blanket in '67 when we moved to Africa. We got off one of the last passenger liners that went from Southampton to Cape Town and boarded the slowest train in the world to Zambia. It took five days to get to Lusaka and it went through South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and up to Zambia. The train was so slow that local people in Botswana could at times walk besides the train and sell things. It was a poverty stricken area and these people were selling all sorts of stuff. We bought two blankets, a toy gun for David and a wooden carving of a dug-out canoe with a bird on the front. I don't know where the other things are. I think David has got the canoe. The toy gun has long gone. I remember David dropped it out of the window, so I had to jump out, get the toy and then run back and hop onto the moving train. The locals cheered me on as I caught up with it."

"And the blanket?"

"Oh, that came with us to Zambia. It has covered all the kids at one time or another. David at first, then John, and when Paula was born it passed to her. It was even Badger's blanket for a while.
After a few years in Lusaka we moved to Kitwe. We sent all our stuff ahead but took a few things with us, including the blanket. Packing it all into a Fiat 500, all five of us then drove north. On the way we acquired a small deer and a chicken. And then we got into a swarm of insects which caked the windscreen so much that I couldn't see out. Because we wanted to save water we used Coca Cola to wash the insects away from the windscreen. It works a treat."

I was tempted to let him go off on tangents typical of someone who has a life's worth of stories to tell, letting him recount his African memoirs, but I wanted to know about the blanket

"You obviously brought it back to England..."

"Yes, when we came back from Africa the blanket came with us, we came back via Kenya, Pakistan and Lebanon. What a marvelous country Lebanon was; full of cedars..."

"And the blanket moved with you every time?"

"Yes, once back in England we lived with my sister for a bit, then moved into Whitehouse Lane, then Holmwood, then Lone Stack. You probably ended up with the blanket when we sold Lone Stack. How long have you been in this house now?"

I replied "Nine years" and mused that now the blanket was at the mercy of my kids. My 6 year old boy first, then my 3 year old daughter, too, stoically, if that can be said of a blanket, enduring further use and abuse. In what obviously has become a bit of a tradition, it even provided some comfort for our cat. I think the ugly blanket will continue to stay with us for a long time.

And to think I was going to throw it away.


I went away on business today. My transportation included two train journeys and four taxis. Taxi driver number one told me about his motorbike accidents. Taxi drivers two and three didn't say much. In fairness to them I read the newspaper in taxi two and slept in taxi three. Taxi driver number four though....

I stood outside the station and waited for my car to pick me up. Eventually I spotted a middle-aged man smoking a roll-up; he was holding a clip-board but I couldn't see what was written on it. I walked round him and saw that it bore my company's name so I asked him if he was waiting for me.

"ohhh, soaree you xav to vait. I vas toald your train vould com at 16:20"

I hopped in the car and sat in the front (I do that when I get a good feeling about the driver),

"So, where are you from?"

His reply came with a smile: "Sout-eest Seeberya", and I knew this was going to be an enjoyable ride home.

I asked him how he got from south-eastern Siberia to the north-west of England. He chuckled and told me: "Oh, it's a story very much long. But I vill tell you the short."

The short took nearly 35 minutes to tell and it was as fascinating a story as I have heard in a very long time. Secretly I was hoping for red lights and traffic-jams and all manner of delays.

Naturally I won't be able to report here half an hour's worth of conversation peppered with interesting detail and seemingly irrelevant excursions, and besides I would not do it justice in these few paragraphs, but here is the short short nonetheless.

Like many life-changing events, this one too could be traced back to a single banal episode. How we react to certain events around us can have a significant effect on the life that follows.

A retired army colonel, Vuva had remained in the militara doing an administrative job in Ukraine.
His journey to England began with a decision to have a cup of tea in a cafe in Sevastopol. He told me that another man was having a coffee on a different table, when suddenly two police men came in, grabbed the man and dragged him out into the street where they started interrogating him. After a while Vuva followed and stood outside not too far away from the police men shouting in Russian at a man who did not seem to understand what was going on. The England man apparently had trespassed onto military ground and the policemen wanted to know why? They spoke no English, the man spoke no Russian. It was hopeless (for the foreigner). Vuva intervened. As the superior officer he told the two police men to "check the stripes" and that he would handle the situation from then on.

The man was in Ukraine on business intent on buying mining equipment from someone but these guys hadn't shown up, so the man walked about and unable to read the Cyrillic 'do not trespass or we'll bust your arse' signs did just that.

Vuva took the man to his Hotel, made some checks and phone calls to the supposed vendors of the mining equipment and then told the silly man to stay put and not go trespassing again. The vendors were going to be late, so Vuva sat down with the man for a little while and told him that, as Vuva saw it, he had some problems of which the trespassing and the Ukrainian police were only a minor one.

'The equipment you want to buy belongs to a mining firm. They have been bankrupt for 10 years. How will you know that the sale is genuine and that you aren't dealing with the mafia?'

'Oh, I don't know.'

'OK. The documentation has to bear the stamps from Moscow and from Kiev, it should be counter-signed by such-and-such.

Your other problems are that you do not speak Russian, and the vendors speak no English. How will you do business?'

Eventually silly man manages to convince Vuva to act as the interpreter and as someone who can check that the relevant documentation is in order.

They met the vendors, Vuva negotiated a good deal for the silly man and everything turned out right. Silly man was allowed to get back home without any more trouble from the Ukrainian police, he got his machine through a genuine state-authorised deal, at a good price.

Many weeks late Vuva received a telephone call from the silly england man.

"Thank you for all your help. I want to repay your kindness. Will you come and work for me?"

"No" was the initial reply, but silly man proved to be insistent, tenacious and persuasive. After many, many months Vuva agreed to fly to Manchester to meet silly man David again and hear him out.

And so Vuva got a job with David who turned out to be a remarkably wealthy industrialist with many business interests (including mining). He got an office next to David's. In the three years and three months he stayed at the firm, not-so-silly man David and Vuva travelled to Russia 23 times and secured deals worth many, many millions of pounds.

Then, in the space of 6 weeks, David died of cancer. Vuva's expression became serious; with rheumy eyes he said softly: "he was like my brother".

He tried to stay at the firm for a while longer, "but my heart was not good any more" so he left and took a job as a chauffeur.

He finished the last few minutes of the short story while parked outside my house.

When he had finished I shook his hand and told him that I had enjoyed listening to him and that I would love to travel with him again.

He laughed "you tell this to my company, yes?"

"Of course, what is your full name?"

"Oh my full name is Vladimir ... ... ... ... (and he told me about five or six Russian names) but everyone calls me Rick."


"Da, da, Russian Rick"

Fabian's mistake

My brother in law (D.) is not an evil person, but he is a vengeful man. He has in the past shown extraordinary ingenuity in his vindictiveness. This is a story which, every time I think of it, makes me laugh and marvel at his capacity for planning and executing mischief when he feels that retribution (usually out of all proportion to the offence incurred) is called for.

On a very hot summer’s day a few years ago, a friend - Fabian - called him on the phone and asked D., under some pretext, to go to his house. When he arrived at Fabian’s house he stood by the door and rang the bell. Fabian, from the balcony immediately above the entrance, did him the courtesy of showering him with the icy contents of a large bucket of water, leaving my brother in law surprised and dripping wet.

Normally this sort of stuff is ok, especially when you have nothing to do and it is a supremely hot day.

But Fabian then made a crucial mistake which sealed his fate.

Had he let D. into the house and offered him a beer and a towel the whole incident would have ended there, for my brother in law is not entirely devoid of a sense of humour. Instead Fabian refused to open the door and chose to point and laugh at D., who in turn momentarily accepted the prank in good humour and, I expect through gritted teeth, made light play of the situation. He then went home to formulate his revenge.

In characteristic fashion he let several days pass, continuing relations with Fabian as normal. The whole incident was forgotten, surely.


On another unbearably sweltering day not long after the original prank my brother in law learned that Fabian had some business in a nearby city about an hour’s drive away. He was going there with some clients. Time execute the plan.

As expected, a short while into Fabian’s business trip, D. received a distress call from an agitated Fabian.
“What is this smell? What have you done to my car?”

asked the panicking voice, by now half-way to his destination and carrying his complement of business men.

My brother in law just laughed and told him to ring back, after he had served his penance, in a few minutes time when he would reveal the origins of the vile smell.

A little while later an angry Fabian rang again,
“Have a look under the driver’s seat” said D.
To Fabian’s dismay, and I imagine eternal embarrassment, he found a dog-turd placed inside a plastic carrier bag underneath the driver’s seat. You see, my brother in law had at that time a few dogs that produced copious amounts of shit. He chose the pungent produce of his Yorkshire Terrier.

With the source of the stench identified, Fabian threw out the bag, apologised profusely to his guests and drove on.

This is, I'm sure, in most people’s books, a disproportionate response to a little prank. Personally I would have been quite angry at him for pulling this stunt in retaliation for a mere splashing of water.

I am sure that in Fabian's mind this was the end of the matter.

It turned out that this was in fact, only the prelude to the gag (for want of a better word) proper.

The smell persisted. Fabian rang again.

“The smell won’t go away” he growled.
Really?” feigning concern, D instructed: “Look, I’m sorry. Put the fan on, open all the vents and fully turn up the aircon. That ought to get rid of it in a few minutes.”

Partly out of desperation and partly for lack of a better plan Fabian turned the fans in the dashboard on maximum, as instructed.

And this is where the real revenge took place. Unbeknown to Fabian, D. had removed the vents on the dashboard and placed an additional large turd, this one produced by his Great Dane, inside the air ducts. Turning the fans on was the premeditated means for delivering the full blast of his particular brand of revenge.

My brother in law did not answer the subsequent, numerous, phone calls. Fabian didn't learn about the second turd until he got home later in the evening.

Revenge, it seems, is a dish best served through the vents of the air-conditioning system.

The Story of Protection Bear

Cosmos 20

Marcos Grigorian (Iranian, born 1925)
Mixed media; 30 x 30 in., 1971
Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art

It says mixed media, but I like to imagine that
this is clay from when when I was one year old.

In fact, the de-hydrated and wrinkled surface somehow mirrored my own appearance in 1971. In the very weird way that is typical of some of the things I do, here is a little story that I tell my son nearly every night, and have told him on most nights since he was able to understand me (he asks for it, by the way, I don't coerce him into this repetitive ritual).

All throughout my childhood I had a little teddy bear, which now belongs to my son. He calls it Protection Bear. The origin of that teddy bear, and the story of my de-hydrated complexion can be found in the following anecdote. The night-time ritual typically ends like this:
"Daddy, tell me the story of Protection Bear"

"OK, when I was a little baby, smaller than you and even smaller than your sister, I got very ill. I was sick out of my mouth and out of my bottom, and my skin was all dry, and wrinkled like that of a 100 year old man.

My mum and dad got very worried so they drove me to a nearby hospital. My mummy said to the nurse: 'My boy is very ill, he needs to see a doctor' , but the nurse didn't want to let us in. She said that without an appointment we weren't allowed.

My dad got very angry then and he got close to the nurse's face and shouted:


A doctor who was passing wanted to know what all the noise was about:

'What's going on here, what's all this shouting?'


'Let's see the child'

(letting out a theatrically exaggerated) GHASP!!!!

'This boy needs to stay here all night'

And so they gave me some medicine in my mouth and some medicine in my arm and I had to stay in hospital for a whole month. But after a month my skin was all re-hydrated and rosy like yours and I was well again. When my mummy and daddy came to take me home again they brought me THIS teddy bear, and now that I am all grown up this belongs to you."

"Do it again daddy, but say it really fast like in cartoons now."


(this has been going on for years now)

Not 28.349 grams of malice


(Photo by Ellie. W, who likes to sign her name across her pics)

I just chopped some pistachios for a dish that I am cooking. My daughter came up to me and asked whether she could eat one. "Of course, baby. Here, have all of these"

I suddenly remembered one occasion when I found myself in a similar situation as a child. I sat cross-legged opposite my mum peeling roasted pistachios, happily chatting and munching away.

My mum had a strange sense of humour when it came to interacting with me and my sister (more on this in a future post). On this occasion she suddenly said to me:
"If you see one that's kind of green, it's off; don't eat it. Give it to me."
Of course they were all kind of green and so I peeled them, examined each one, and, finding them kind of green, duly passed them on to my mum who in turn would look me in the eye, grinningly put the pistachios in her mouth and brazenly eat them.

I simply marvelled at the particularly bad batch of pistachios we acquired. How could it be that they were all off? Every one was one shade of green or another; I even wondered whether a particular hue of dark green was really a strange form of brown and whether it'd be safe to eat this one at least. I'd show my mum and make the appropriate enquiry.
"Nope, bad one!"
she would say. And I'd hand over the dangerous nut and she would dispose of it. This continued until we finished the bag.

I was a very bright child (all by myself I invented the times tables, infinity and atoms) but I was not very astute when it came to deception.

It never occurred to me that she might not be telling me the truth. It also never occurred to me to ask why, if they were bad, she was eating them, or what was going to happen to me since I had already eaten a few.

There was not an ounce of malice in me. My mum on the other hand....

I could have been rich

I don't play the lottery.

Statistically it makes no sense at all to expect odds of 14,000,000 : 1 to work out in your favour. However, this is not to say that I haven't on occasion humoured myself with picking 6 numbers and paying £1 for the privilege of being told that I am a loser, or rather, not a winner; which is different.

When I was working in a restaurant many years ago, I was, on this particular day, on opening duty. It meant opening the restaurant (what did you think?) and preparing for the lunch service. I went about setting all the tables with armloads of napkins, trays of glasses, cutlery, etc. I took a handful of knives and was amused to find that I had, by chance, picked the exact number of knives that were needed to set the entire (small) restaurant in one go. I went back to the cutlery draw and grabbed a handful of forks. Again I had picked the correct amount.

The thought occurred to me then that luck might exist in quantized, but fading, packages, the magnitude of which is unknowable in advance (or retrospectively, for that matter).
I thought that I might be experiencing one such transient slug of luck and, certain that a significant portion of it had traversed me already, I grabbed pen and paper and wrote down 6 random number between 1 and 49, uncertain whether by then it had all passed me by or whether there was some luck left.

There was still a little luck left; I picked three correct numbers and won £10.

Of course, the two events are unrelated and it was simply a coincidence, and yet...

And yet I will forever wonder what would have happened if I had chosen the numbers before having picked the forks, or even before having picked the knives.

For one thing I might have been able to blog a more interesting anecdote from some tropical island retreat.

On professionalism and maturity

This picture illustrates the very reason why the finer points of ellipsometry have so far eluded me.

During the final period of my university life I attended a seminar on ellipsometry by a guest speaker from another British university. Given that my work was increasingly moving away from pure synthesis and into physical chemistry I felt that this lecture would be very useful. We all sat quietly waiting for the speaker to introduce his favourite analytical tool. He switched on the projector and began talking.

Unfortunately, while this was indeed the very beginning of his talk, it was also the precise instant where my attention to the science faltered, so I am forced to extrapolate. I believe he almost certainly must have started with an opening paragraph that went like this:
Linearly polarised light is reflected from the surface of a material. The reflected light becomes elliptically polarised, the degree of ellipticity being determined by the optical properties of the solid being probed... (since I cannot actually remember what he said, i copied this from somewhere else)

What I heard was this:
Linearly polarised light [AAHHH-TCHOOO] is reflected from the surface of a material. The reflected light becomes elliptically polarised......................................

The speaker sneezed and immediately stepped into the beam of light. He had a sizable drop of snot dangling from the tip of his nose, and this was now magnified many times over and visible in its full glory in the guy's projected profile.

Transfixed I, and the rest of my colleagues, struggled not to laugh and, mesmerized by the shadow of the dangling filament of mucus on the screen, missed pretty much whatever pearls of wisdom he had for us.

He might as well have been saying to us:
Learn this now and your future will be assured. You will be able to dictate with whom you'll work and you will command astronomical salaries. Other, lesser, scientist will regard you with a mixture of reverence and invidiousness.

Whereas what was going on in my head was this:
You've got snot, you've got snot. Oh my God you are gross, you've got snot.

Eventually, the slime impacted on the side of his face when the lecturer made a brisk movement of the head, and that, sadly, marked the end of the projected fun.

However, when you have missed the beginning of a lecture on ellipsometry, there really is no catching up. So, while I remain woefully ignorant of the fine details of elliptically polarised light, Dr. J.K. will forever be remembered for his prodigious filament of snot.

I believe I win.

A peculiar compulsion

P. Toledano

I have a ritual when it comes to opening a jar of Nutella.

It goes like this:
I grab hold of the lid really tightly and twist it slowly so that the foil inside creaks and cracks. The slower this is done the more satisfying it is; each crackle a mechanical sigh, an audible release of built up tension. When the foil no longer creaks I can take the lid off and contemplate the next step.

This involves taking a very sharp and pointy knife and, grabbing it close to the tip, stabbing the tightly stretched foil sharply and as close as possible to the glass rim BUT without touching the chocolate beneath.
If the maneuvre is carried out perfectly this involves a single short stab which grazes the glass without hitting the top of the rim. The characteristic pop of the suddenly pierced foil is a further reward for my having carried out each step precisely as prescribed by my compulsion.

The knife is then used to cut the foil following the perimeter of the rim closely, ideally the sharp knife does not rip the foil but cuts through it. As the circular incision is completed, the initial high frequency pitch of the vibrating foil becomes gradually deeper; the sliding scale of frequencies is another recompense for my attention to the ritual. When completely excised the foil must NOT touch the chocolate.

I grant myself a short rest and I behold the smooth perfection.

The jar must at this point be oriented correctly, with the label facing me squarely on.
Now I take a different knife, one for spreading, and trace a vertical line along the circle's diameter through the surface.

I then proceed to scoop out chocolate only from the left hand side until I either reach the bottom of the jar or the whole thing collapses under its own weight. At that point I can take Nutella from anywhere.
If the right hand side has not collapsed by the time I reach the bottom of the jar, I attempt to scoop out Nutella from the base and work my way up.

If someone gets to the jar and scoops out from the intact side the whole thing is ruined! And so is my mood! On those occasions when I manage to keep scooping from one side only until I reached the bottom of the jar, it becomes one of the most satisfying and fulfilling events of the day and I exist in a special state of serenity.

Having eaten half a jar of Nutella probably helps, too.

Friday, 30 January 2009

On being a good neighbour

The phone rang last night. My wife picked up the receiver and, after a short and friendly exchange which I didn't entirely hear, she ended the call and announced:
Frannyy, Edna is coming round in a minute.
Edna (not her real name) is our delightful old neighbour. She is a very elegant and posh lady, always dressed up and courteous, who often pops round to our house for some company, never unannounced of course; sometimes for a chat, other times for a cup of tea, occasionally for something stronger.

A few minutes after the telephone call announcing Edna's imminent arrival, the door bell rang. I opened it and Edna nearly fell into the house. She stumbled past me and into the hall with a few hasty steps, then stopped as if to get her bearings, vacillated briefly then turned round to face me and give me a kiss on the cheek, handed me a bottle of red wine and slurred:
Hello dear, so kind of you to have me this late in the day. I hope I am not a burden.
"You're not a burden, Edna, you're drunk" is what I wanted to say, but naturally I didn't and uttered some other pleasantry instead designed to make her feel welcome. This was the second time she had stumbled on the threshold to my home, and never before on the way in.

I made her a strong coffee and saved the wine for another occasion instead. You may think this is rude, but, you see, while we often sit down and have a tipple or two in each other's company I had to exercise some caution in administering more drink, given how events unfolded for her one new-year's eve not long ago.

We had some friends staying for new years eve. And so did Edna. Her friends were some equally posh and sombre people from Ludlow. They wore cardigans and pearls and were looking forward to their delicious meal and to midnight. The friends staying with us were gay extroverts with a predilection for mischief.

Mrs Frannyy invited Edna and her friends over for an early aperitif. Edna happily gushed to her friends her praise and admiration for us, and what reliable and trustworthy neighbours and friends we have become to her since Albert's death (also not the husband's real name).

They came at around 5 p.m. The Ludlow guest and I chatted and made small talk over a drink. Kevin, on the other hand, sat with Edna, poured her a large glass of wine and started an intense and involved conversation. I could tell because they were leaning towards each other with evident and keen interest in what the other had to say. I occasionally caught fragments of the conversation and it appeared to be about life as a flight attendant and part time cabaret artist.

A little later I noticed Kevin had opened the third bottle of wine and that Edna was beginning to slur her words. A glint of mischief sparked in Kevin's face, we locked eyes and my tacit smile was interpreted as encouragement. He continued to top up Edna's glass. In for a penny, in for a pound; I brought out more bottles and the wine flowed freely. Now the conversation between them had graduated into something altogether more interesting and included detailed description of gay sex.

Three hours later our guests, who had come in for a quick how d' you do, were in no fit state. They were as drunk as lords and Edna was the worst of the lot. Kevin offered to walk her back home. As they stepped out of the front door Edna briefly lost her footing and steadied herself by placing a hand against Kevin's chest. Never one to lose an opportunity for exploring human behaviour in awkward situations, he grabbed the eighty-year-old's hand and shifting it slightly onto his nipple piercing acted all surprised and, theatrically but believably, whispered:
Oh, Edna! I never suspected....
He then used the fingers of her hand (still on his chest) to rub his nipple.

I believe her semi-comatose response was to rub his nipple piercing of her own volition for a while with the occasional Oh Kevin! thrown in, and then said words to the effect of: oh take me home you salacious devil. Which he did.

He returned a few minutes later and we continued our party; we laughed, we drank some more, we had fun, but crucially we ate a great meal and saw the old year out and the new year in. Which is more than can be said for Edna and her guests. Apparently they were so sozzled that they barely managed to prepare a frugal meal of baked beans on toast and then go to sleep, hopelessly drunk, at about 9 p.m. No big dinner, no party, no countdown till midnight. Their evening ruined, they missed the lot.

Edna didn't speak to us for the entire week, which is why last night I kept the bottle of wine and gave her strong coffee instead. She'll thank me for it today.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

University Professors and Petrol Station Attendants

What do petrol station attendants and university professors have in common? I don't know, it's a daft question that defies generalisation. However, there are two men, one a university professor and one a petrol station attendant, who have something in common.

I drove back from a nearby city and stopped for fuel on the way home. The guy behind the till, a man in his late 40s with a soup-bowl hair cut, had clean fingernails and was cleanly shaven except for half of his mustache. It was the kind of growth that is more than four or five days long and less than an intentionally grown facial adornment. The rest of his face had seen some blades, as recently as this morning. Somehow, over successive days, I estimate about 10 days, he managed to miss the same patch of facial hair every time he shaved. The result was half a moustache growing from his left lip. No herpes or any other obvious impediment to shaving was visible.

This immediately reminded me of a professor at my alma mater. This gentleman, I figured, dry-shaved. The trouble with dry shaving is that if you don't do it in the mirror you are likely to miss a bit, and if you miss a bit, and then miss it again, it gets too long for the electric razor to pick up.

The result for him was a hirsute fence, up to half an inch long, that delineated the lower perimeter of his face. Around his neck, past his ears, under his cheekbones, under his nose and round again.

Presumably these two men either don't give a shit or they never look in the mirror. The alternative, that it is deliberate, is too weird to contemplate.

Here is a superb Mustache link

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Daddy Cool

I read yesterday in a less than mediocre autobiography: " sometimes life is stranger than fiction".

The trite cliché has, I suppose, its true moments. My wife, our little girl and I went shopping into a nearby city. Our son needed to catch a train with his granddad to go and see a big ship. Because he is typically uncooperative when we are running late, getting ready and out the house was hurried and stressful.

In my haste I had put on an odd pair of shoes.
Not just similar shoes, no, I put on a shoe from two radically different pairs: my right shoe was a light tan, very long and pointy shoe; the kind that makes ladies stare at your feet and then smile at you. My left shoe was a short, dark brown, textured classic shoe, decorated by layers of leather with serrated edges and intricately patterned perforations. The kind that makes ladies stare at your feet and then give you a look typically reserved for tax-collectors. Both were slip-ons, hence my mistake.

Thinking on my feet, my strategy was to carry my unspeakably gorgeous and loquacious daughter on my shoulders. People would look UP at her and not down at my feet. The strategy worked. No one noticed my unorthodox footwear.

I relaxed a bit too much and later made a cardinal mistake. We entered a department store and took the escalator to the first floor, where I was instructed by my wife to wait for her while she tried on some clothes. I stood motionless near some mannequins right by the escalator. A silly place to stand; people coming up would be staring straight at my feet; I didn't think of that. Fortunately my left shoe was being occulted by my much larger right shoe, but if you took a second look you'd notice.

To my horror a man with his daughter came up to me. I could not believe my ears when he said:
"I noticed your shoes and I like them very much.
I thought you were a mannequin but then you moved".

Picture my face paralysed into a panicking smile, unsure whether he was mocking me or whether he was being genuine. Something about his voice and behaviour told me he liked my shoe (yes singular) but was then surprised to see me move and came to tell me of his surprise instead. Not once while he was complimenting me on my stylish footwear did he look down at my feet (which at this stage I felt disappearing back into my ankles, my toes literally curling inside my shoes).

His daughter on the other hand, while her dad was complimenting me, kept looking alternately at my feet then at her dad then back at my feet then at her dad again, was quite confused by the contrast between her father's statement and the reality of what she was looking at.

I just laughed nervously and must have looked like one of those people for whom any form of social contact with strangers elicits a cold clammy sweat and palpitations. Eventually the man, apologising for the intrusion, walked off.

What are the chances, I ask you, of having worn an odd pair of shoes, someone complimenting you on them and not noticing that they were from different pairs?

"sometimes life is stranger than fiction".

I wonder if the girl told him afterwards and how the man felt. He probably felt as mortified as I did, and this being Britain I wager that he felt even worse.

I, on the other hand, needed to get home. Fast!

PV = nRT

I was complaining recently about someone who sits in my office and has the reproachable habit of venting. No, not spleen, heaven knows how much we all need to do that in the presence of a sympathetic audience, no, this person vents gas; from both ends. If they're not evacuating their colon and cloaking the surrounding environs in a thick miasma of impenetrable density, they are generally venting from atop. I'm treated to the periodic sound of hhhppp-fff, hhhpp-ffff as they suppress sonorous belches and hiss out the built-up pressure through their lips. I can tune-out of most noises when I'm concentrating hard, but this I find rather distracting and also annoying as I am constantly worrying that I might get a whiff of their breakfast.

I picture their insides gurgling and bubbling away, in the manner of an industrial fermentation tank, ready to blow spectacularly at any moment.

Someone not entirely averse to the concept of mindless violence suggested that I stick a red hot poker in their belly. I declined, naturally. Not just because of the legal ramifications, nor because this person doesn't inspire acts of unrestrained barbarity, they do, but because I have once before experienced the consequences of doing something like that.

I was maybe ten or eleven years old at the time. We were on our summer holiday in the Mediterranean and I, bored in our landlocked rural abode, went out into the midday sun to explore the parched countryside. Rummaging around with my spear amid the wild oats and dried grasses I chanced upon a dead dog. The fur was white, the stretched skin tightened by the expanding gases of decomposition. Flies were buzzing around the taut canine. I touched it with the tip of my shoe and was met with surprising pneumatic resistance.

Ten-year old boys, though inquisitive, aren't generally noted for their ability to foresee the consequences of their actions and in that respect I was no exception. I wondered what would happen if I stabbed the decomposing dog with my spear. Never the theoretical scientist I did not wait to ponder the answer, and without losing another moment I grabbed the stick with both hands, stood right above the dog, lifted my weapon high over my head, and with all my might thrust it into the dead dog.

Two things I was, excusably, ignorant of at that age were the Ideal Gas Law and the Venturi effect. Had I know about the effects of temperature on the pressure of a growing amount of gas in a confined space and the effects of releasing the pressure through a narrow orifice I would of course still have done the experiment (for one is born a geek) but I would have stood elsewhere.

The dog went pop, ejecting from its grotesquely distended abdomen the foul products of putrefaction. I was hit in the face by some dark fluid and was for the first time exposed to the unforgettable pong of the aptly named putrescine and cadaverine.

My recollection of the aftermath is still crystal clear. I did not scream. I stood there dripping silently and somewhat perplexed. All that I could hear was the delirious buzzing of the flies, my heavy breathing, the crickets in the midday sun and the mocking croak of a solitary crow.

Much as the burping and farting vexes me, I will not jab a red hot poker in this person's belly.

The Emperor's new clothes

Some time ago I commented on an achievement of mine: baking biscuits.

The big deal is that, while I am reasonably good at cooking savoury dishes, I seem to be entirely incapable of baking anything, much to my mother's puzzled dismay (now a semi-retired baker).

The other big deal is that these biscuits are fiendishly difficult to make.

Thirdly: the recipe was a secret known to very few people, passed on from generation to generation, and only to a worthy few. Families have fallen out over it. There are, we estimate, no more than fifty people in the world who know how to make them.

These biscuits are coveted by those who know them, and command some really rather silly prices. There always has been some mystique associated with them. Their defining feature is that they are wholly insubstantial. They are the lightest bakery goods you have ever lifted, consisting mostly of air. The texture is supremely delicate and they all but vanish almost instantly on your tongue when you collapse them in your mouth.

Needless to say, we weren't part of the baking elite entrusted with the recipe. But, my mum is something of a genius in the kitchen and I know a thing or two about experimental design, colloid science and biopoymers. So we had a go.
Armed with tiny bits of anecdotal evidence, some folklore and a couple of intelligent guesses we quite literally locked ourselves in the house (heaven forfend people should know that you are attempting to bake those biscuits, there would be rumours, feuds even -I kid you not-), and set about unlocking the secret. I am pleased to say that we cracked the recipe, and most importantly, the method. Unusual to say the least. Certainly difficult; you're on a processing knife-edge the whole time. We solved the puzzle in a mere four days!

Now we are both making the legendary biscuits as and when we please, pointing at the expensive ones and laughing defiantly. I can knock up a few in as little as an hour of meticulously delicate work.
Given the (g)astronomical prices this delicacy commands, I thought I could sell a few, but wondered who else might want to buy them. You see, unless you are aware of the mystique associated with these biscuits you won't appreciate them. So, with the scientific detachment and objective judgement I am trained -and poorly paid- to exercise, I examined the biscuits further. I tasted them as disinterestedly as I could. Then I had an epiphany. An epiphany which, unlike most epiphanies, resulted in that sinking feeling of deflated disappointment, flat, like a failed chocolate soufflé.

These biscuits are not particularly special. They are identical to the bought ones in every aspect, but they aren't actually all that great. They are simply just ..well.. sweet. That's it. The allure is due to the secrecy, the texture and the reputedly difficult process, but taste-wise, they are rather underwhelming.

I pondered this for a few days, then plucked up the courage to speak to my mum. I picked up the phone and, cautiously, told her my conclusions. I was expecting some sort of gourmand-critic-style lecture on how I am missing the faint nuances of this and that. To my surprise she agreed: "There is nothing special to the taste", she confirmed.


Then she added: "Promise me you won't reveal the recipe to anyone". Of course I promised.

Now I am in that weird situation that, I suppose, not many people experience very often. I feel elation at having solved a difficult problem, I am in possession of privileged information, I have learned a new and difficult skill, I am possibly the only male in the world who knows how to make these biscuits, and yet I think they are mostly hot air. The biscuits aren't special in any gustatory sense.
The emperor appears to be naked.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

On Corridors

The night corridor...


Photo by grantthai

The building I work in has some very long corridors. (not shown in the pic). They are about 60m long and every time I walk down them I always like to imagine that they are flooded with warm and clear water and that it is normal, in my company, to swim to the various meeting rooms and labs.

The other thing I am always tempted to do when walking down these corridors, and no one is about, is to cartwheel. I once gave-in to this temptation. I looked behind me: no one there; ahead of me the coast was clear, too. One last look behind me and then take a little run, turn sideways, arms up and hop to complete a perfectly executed cartwheel. My legs were entirely straight and I was aligned parallel to the walls. Even while I was completing the rotation I heard the commentary in my head announcing the judges' score:

"Oh it was perfect, surely the judges will award him maximum points. And they do: 10.0-10.0-10.0-10.0. What a sensation! This guarantees him a gold medal."

Imagine then my surprise when upon returning to a more orthodox upright position I find a small crowd of people coming towards me. Not one of them said a word. Not a comment, not a smile, nothing. Everyone behaved as thought cartwheeling was a normal mode of locomotion.

This is why I love living in England.

On Self-respect


"The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect to their elders. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and are tyrants over their teachers."

Thus, apparently, complained Aristotle and evidently things haven't changed in the intervening millennia. But this isn't a post about my children, though they are involved, it is a post about dignity.

Like all loving parents who can, my wife and I provide freshly cooked nutritious meals for our children, and they in turn look at the food before them and, before the plate even touches the table, utter through their wrinkled noses the predictable:

"Eew, what is this? I don't like it!"

which in turn is met with the traditional: "You haven't even tasted it. How can you say that?"

to which: "It looks disgusting, I won't eat it"

and my: "That's all there is for dinner. You'll eat your stew"

and a battle of wills ensues which I sometimes lose and sometimes win.

I had cycled home through the rain and was utterly soaked down to my underwear when all this was happening and I was not best predisposed to engage in positive parenting psychology. I was aware of this and so I tried to approach this with the positive presence of mind of someone who nevertheless knows deep in their heart that this won't work and I've had it up to here with this nonsense.

As I am standing dripping in the kitchen I begin to undress all the while trying to convince my kids to at least try the stew. I even went over and had a spoonful myself, theatrically espousing the virtues of the dish:

"Yummy, this is delicious and so good for you. Can I have some, Paula?"

The kids don't buy this and start getting up. "No, I hate stew"

I take off my soaking pants and put them in the washing machine. "OK, you don't have to eat your dinner if you don't want to, but there is nothing else for you. Not even a banana"

I take off my wet underpants and socks and stuff them in the washing machine, too. The kids walk over to the fruit bowl and take some bananas. I sense that the situation is deteriorating rapidly.

"Put that back, I said. You'll eat your dinner first"

I walk towards my boy who makes a run for it. Instinctively I chase him round the house, he's running up the stairs. I follow yelling "GIVE ME THE BANANA, YOUNG MAN".

It was then that the absurdity of the situation hit me.

To a casual onlooker this would have been a very odd sight indeed: Imagine you're looking through the window, you would see a deranged and dishevelled man, wearing only a t-shirt, completely naked from the waist down chasing a small child and yelling something about a banana.

This caused me to roll about on the floor in fits of laughter, at the thought and the insanity of it all.

My son re-appeared in front of me eating his banana and pointing at my exposed arse and laughing hysterically. Then my little girl joins in and finally my wife, too.

And I wonder why my kids have no respect for me, it's because I have no self-respect.

Monday, 26 January 2009

The Sambuca Comet(h)

When you are from a certain cultural background, it is obligatory to work in an Italian restaurant for a period of your life. It's the law. It is also the law that you serve to non-Italian customers things which they believe to be authentic and which in the trade lingo are affectionately known as Americanate.

Setting shots of Sambuca alight is a typical Americanata.
In the following order, place a shot glass on a tray, fill it to nearly its capacity, add the customary* three coffee beans, then ignite and take it carefully to the proud customer who sometimes tries to impress his guests with his knowledge of Italian culinary customs by attempting to drink the fire. I haven't always been an upstanding citizen (as this story attests) and as much as some customers deserved, in my view, to be burned alive, I have on these occasions always exercised enough self control and compassion to save them from a painful demise (or a trip to A&E). There is also the problem that charred customers seldomly leave generous gratuities.

Enter the rookie.

His heart was in the right place but he was a whingeing and whining moaning Minnie. Always ranting about consumerism, food waste, frequently mentioning the starving children of the world when faced with half-eaten dishes. You know the type: good intentions, flawed execution. Within a couple of days he got on everybody's tits.

When one day a table ordered two Sambucas, (notice the order) the shot glasses were placed on the bar, filled to capacity, beans added from up high, the fuel was lit and the rookie instructed to take them to the impatient customers who 'have been waiting for ages'.

Predictably, he took the glasses, lifted them up, and turned round to attempt to locate the table, spilling some on both his hands. He noticed his mistake, but instead of putting down the shots -'Quickly, customers are waiting'- he went on his mission determined to deliver his payload and so he accelerated, like a comet, through the dining room.

Imagine for a moment you are the customer, and picture a wide-eyed, bewildered young man running in your direction, burning arms outstretched completely ablaze and engulfed in blue flames making a beeline for you.

What we saw was a wide-eyed, bewildered young man, burning arms outstretched completely ablaze and engulfed in blue flames, making a beeline for some concerned looking customers who were receding in their seats with every rapid step taken towards them.

The kid slammed the drinks on the table, spilling some more fire, then stood in front of the customers and performed a sort of flapping Haka for the startled punters, in an attempt to extinguish himself.

When he eventually succeeded, a collective oohh emerged from the entire dining room. Some guests even clapped, though not the ones he was standing by.

The restaurant manager, an elegant older man with many decades experience, stared furiously at us, but then, unable to control himself, began laughing hysterically.

Fortunately for the rookie, this was the early nineties. Had this scene taken place in more recent times he would have no doubt been shot on the spot by some under-cover anti-terror agents.

No tips for us that night.

*not customary

A story in three clichés

This picture reminds me of a small story which I will tell in three clichés.

(photo by Lorenzodom)

Cliché number one

When I was a little boy I was obsessed with "survival" stuff. Like many boys my age I had manuals on making fire, knots, improvising shelter, catching food etc. I was geeky in the extreme about it. I had hand-drawn charts of survival expectations (in days) as a function of ambient temperature and availability of drinking water. I also had a little box that contained survival gear: compass, fishing line and hooks, matches encased in wax, plastic sheeting, a knife, the manual. In the eventuality that I should need to survive, I would be well prepared.

The opportunity to test my skills came sooner than I had thought.

Cliché number two:

As the son of Italian immigrants who had had no formal education it was very important, no, it was imperative, that my sister and I do well at school.

One day I got the worst grade in a maths exam that I had ever received. I got the bottom mark. Not only had this never happened before, but I was certain that my life was worthless and I would probably be exposed to fallout akin to that present some milliseconds after the big bang, just as soon as I got home and told my parents about it. I was toast.

There was only one thing for it. I could not go home, so I quickly consulted with my best friend and we agreed that the best option would be to run away from home. We knew the theory of survival in the wilderness off by heart. Trouble was, our knowledge pertained to survival in the widerness and I lived in a large city. I had also left my trusted survival box at home (where else). Never mind. After school we would start our new life.

We started, as runaways do, by sheltering under a bridge, and discussed how our knowledge of survival theory should best be translated into practice. Fire, Shelter, Food.

We gathered some feathers, twigs and paper and made a fire underneath the bridge. We didn't need to catch any food as we had an apple! So we roasted the apple, but that took too long so we ate it raw, just a little bit warm on the outside. Still hungry we were a bit at a loss as to what to do next and after several hours in the cold and the prospect of sleeping under a windy bridge I thought that I'd better let my parents know that I had run away, lest they worry about me.

I found a telephone box, called home and announced to a very very worried mother:

"Hi, It's me. I've run away!"

(Relieved to hear my voice, and feigning calm ) "Why, sweetie?"

"I got the bottom grade in maths. You'll be mad at me."

"Where are you living?"

"Under the bridge by the river. I've made a fire and cooked an apple."

"Are you still hungry?"


Cliché number three:

"Come home to your Mamma. I've made Pizza!"

On false eyelashes and gumshields

Kevin, a friend of ours, got us some tickets to go to Duckie, so the three of us, Mrs Franny, Kevin and I, went out to hit the town determined to have a good time.

We knew it would be fun because we had attended before: Duckie consists of a series of stage performances by drag acts and that is generally a guarantee for fun.

The venue, a large but infamous local hotel, was sparkling with the effervescence typical only of the gay scene: there were people in the most flamboyant costumes, some looking like human chandeliers, others more outrageous still.

Some men had legs and bums that were the envy of every woman in the house. They stood 7ft tall on stratospherically high heels, undulated like elegant giraffes amongst mere mortals and briefly made you question your own sexuality.

Women with exquisite sleeve-work tattoos walking their rubber-clad pets on a lead did not look out of place among those who had chosen to dress more modestly as eastern orthodox priests, mother Theresa or catholic nuns ["That's a very accurate costume you have there". "It's not an costume, dear"].

It was truly fabulous, a veritable fruit salad of eccentricity reminiscent of the burning man crowd. We danced, drank and watched the shows.

Then the interval came.

Audience and drag acts spilled chatting and laughing into the foyer where the bar was, and here I witnessed the funniest social contrast I have seen in a long time.

Coincidentally, staying at the hotel were various sporting teams from many European nations. The shell-suit on one contused guy read: Macedonian Boxing Federation. Most of the national teams partaking in the European Boxing Championship were staying in this hotel.

Take a moment to consider this: here was, during the same night, a gathering of effeminate extroverts and one of testosterone fueled machos.

They looked on. To say that these people didn't get it would require redefining the word understatement.

By the look on their faces, I think it is fair to surmise that the guys from Macedonia had never seen anyone in drag. They looked on in confounded astonishment at men in tights, their eyes out of the orbits with sheer incredulity.

I thought I would see bloodshed when one guy wearing 8" heels and a 6ft span of butterfly wings on his back minced past a brute and tickled him on the back of his head. I thought that deliberately taunting someone whose profession is to punch seven shades of shit out of people would be suicidal. And normally it would be, except that the guy being taunted was at a loss as to whether he'd be hitting a woman or a man. You could tell that this was totally outside his gender parameters. The contempt on his face was evident.

As I watched on I pondered the meeting of these anthropological antitheses and wondered how anyone could consider having their face punched repeatedly a suitable form of fun and dismiss dressing up as abnormal.

As for me, I walked back into the show certain that I would prefer wearing false eyelashes rather than a gum shield, any day of the week.

You decide: