Stinging Nettles – Who needs them?

Thursday 31st May

I can remember as a child growing up in Suffolk there were stinging nettles everywhere.  There seemed to be massed ranks of the monsters along all the roadsides, and in every bit of woodland and small copses the ground was covered with them.  You learnt pretty early to avoid them as the merest touch of those serrated leaves was like being bitten by a wasp, a sharp and nasty sting.  We also learnt that dock leaves were natures antidote, so would rub furiously with a dock leaf until it disintegrated and spread green gunk all over your ankles.  But sometimes stingers, as we called them, were unavoidable; why was it that the football always ended up in a clump of stingers, or the short cuts were overgrown with them.  We used to carry a switch, a short piece of whippy tree branch to bash them down and would carve out a pathway just wide enough to make our way through the giant triffid-like creatures, heads nodding in the breeze, but inevitably you would still get stung.   Often on returning home from hours of play we would be covered in white lumps surrounded by a red and itching patch of skin, almost displaying our war wounds with some sort of pride.   But apart from keeping small boys away from anything like having fun what use are stinging nettles; do they actually hold some important rank in the food chain, and without their vicious little barbs the whole ecology of Britain would come tumbling down and we would end up starving.  I doubt it.  But they are actually the most resilient of weeds; if you get some in your garden, (and you will) you can snip them back all you like but in a couple of weeks they will return.  You can don thick leather gloves and try to pull them out by the roots, but they are connected by subterraneous runners and simply pop up again a few feet away.

One of my very pet hates – stinging nettles, who needs them?  Manufacturers of nettle soup exempted.

The flowers of stinging nettle are inconspicuous.

The Great 2012 Pasty Tax Fiasco

Wednesday 30th May

In my early twenties I read quite a lot of Swift, that great 18th Century satirist.  Besides the famous Gullivers Travels he also lampooned the Government of the day with several seriously written proposals to solve problems, one of which was to eat young babies; perfectly argued and logical it was too.  A feeling of déjà vu has returned like a rush of blood to the head, which I am sure Mr. Osborne must have also suffered recently, upon living through the great 2012 pasty tax fiasco

It must have seemed such a cracking wheeze to raise a few millions more by taxing food kept warm for takeaway consumption.  It soon became known as the Pasty tax, and immediately started to present a few problems.  The tax would be levied if the product, and let us for convenience sake call it a pasty, were served at above ambient temperature.  But as so often the devil is in the detail; if it was a particularly cold day almost everything would be above ambient temperature; how long would a loaf of bread have to be left to cool down before serving as a ‘warm’ product; if it was a hot day it might be that the pasty would be below ambient temperature.  Greggs the baker mounted a campaign to get rid of the tax, and the press got behind it.  For weeks the Government suffered bad headlines and the words ‘Pasty Tax’ must have caused disturbed night’s sleep in Downing Street.

Then , out of the blue, just as the sun comes out and people have stopped eating, or caring about the price of, pasties, the Governments shoots itself in what is left of its feet by announcing a change, a u-turn of momentous proportions and the ‘Pasty Tax’ is no longer a ‘Nasty Tax’ but a ‘Kept Warm Tax’.

So, now if you buy a pasty, fresh from the oven, but still hot – no tax.  If you buy a pasty kept warm on a hot plate – tax at 20%, if you buy a pasty let go cold, congealed fat and all – no tax.  You couldn’t make it up, and even now it is sure to present inconsistencies, if for example the pasties are kept warm in Styrofoam containers but not heated by any source other than their own latent heat, or if the pasty is served cold but customers are invited to use a complimentary microwave to heat up their pasty.

But three cheers for George Osborne, I haven’t been this amused since Chris Huhne’s ex-wife shopped him for asking her to take the rap for a speeding fine.  Keep up the good work boys.

Cornish pasties

A New World Language – English, Mandarin or Ikea?

Tuesday 29th May

There have been many predictions of one language eventually surpassing all others and assuming the mantle of World Language.  Before the First World War many people thought German would prevail; thank goodness they were wrong.  A hundred years earlier it might have been Spanish and of course most of South America speaks Spanish (except for those annoying Brazilians chattering away in Portuguese).  With the huge cultural influence of America coupled with the once vast British Empire, English is certainly very dominant.  But watch out for the Chinese who have numbers on their side, though like in the joke about the man who worked as a Chinese typesetter; the job was boring but he certainly met a lot of interesting characters.

Surprisingly with globalization continuing at such a reckless pace, most languages, National ones at least, are surviving, though anthropologists will report the alarming almost daily loss of small community tribal languages all over the globe.  Maybe the drive towards homogeneity will be halted by all of those instant translation apps now available.  But if the world has to fear any language taking over and becoming ubiquitous watch out for Ikea, or Swedish as some people still call it.  You have to admire these canny Swedes who refuse to compromise and come up with different language friendly names of their products, so we all have to learn Ektorp and Vissa Skont (here I have to apologise, as I cannot be bothered to work out how to put all of those double dots and slashed vowels into these terms) and as this famous furniture store continues on its path of World domination it is obvious that very soon we will all be speaking Ikea.

Well. It beats Starbucks with its Grande, and Vente, which thankfully have not caught on.  How can you call the smallest size Tall and the medium Grande and not feel a total dick?

The whole country has a smile on it’s face

Monday 28th May

From one end of the country to the other the whole country has a smile on its face.  After weeks of bad news, and the constant revelations of sleaze at Leveson, the slow-motion car crash of the Euro and our Government’s very own omnishambles, at last some good news.  The Torch relay is visiting almost the whole country, and everywhere it goes it draws big crowds, with old and young alike getting excited.  And, of course, the weather has changed.  After weeks of pissy cold rain and wind, arriving almost unheralded and like a bolt out of the blue – Blazing Summer – as hot as I can remember England being in May, and so unexpected. Everywhere you go you see happy contented faces, and every open space in all the parks you see young lovers snuggling or family picnics, and even though I do not like them, disposable barbecues.  And they are probably right, all these sun-worshippers.  As well as being by far the earliest bit of good weather, it must be the hottest of the year so far.  There is also the possibility that at any moment we will revert back to those wet and grey-cloudy overcast days we have had too many of lately.  And who knows as well as being the best weekend of the year so far, it could well end up being actually the best, and perish the thought – the only one.  So out with the factor fifteen, drag yourself away from the telly, and get outside and join us all in one great big smile.

B is occasionally also for The Beautiful South

Sunday 27th May

I first heard this superb band when I was going out with Louise,( and I had a daughter, now 26, with her) so it just shows you how long they have been around, a few personnel changes agreed – but the constant factor has been the voice and songwriting of Paul Heaton.  And their first single and the lead off track from the first album still brings a smile to my face whenever I hear it – ‘Song for Whoever’, a real antidote to all the soppy songs with girls names in the title.  Jennifer, Annabel, Philipa-Sue – I forget your name.  Brilliant Lyric, as they all are, ‘A Little Time with that line ‘Funny how soon the milk turns sour, doesn’t it’, to Perfect 10 – a song about girls in different sizes, and a mention of men’s willy size too.  Or ‘Don’t marry Her – Fuck Me’; now how many times girls have you wanted to say that.  I have seen them two or three times and they end their shows with ‘Woman in the Wall’, a really jovial song about a murdered woman bricked up between two walls, which is surprisingly good fun to sing along to. As is often the case with my favourite bands their best days are probably behind them, but with the Beautiful South their songs always sound so fresh and are invariably upbeat and life-enhancing, as if they were written yesterday, so for originality and great lyrics – A Perfect 10.

Beautiful South-1

Never show an unfinished painting to Women or Children

Saturday 26th May

And very good advice it was too.  Given me by my only ever Art teacher Jack Trodd, way back in the mid-sixties, that wonderful decade ( if only we had known it at the time) when anything might be possible.  Jack Trodd wore tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows, smoked a rather fruity tobacco in his meerschaum pipe in class, was in his late fifties and was a bit of a peadophile.  Also a damn good art teacher, who let us lower sixth formers do what we wanted, including smoking cigarettes in the back of the Art room, where the seldom-used potters wheels and piles of drawing boards and easels were stacked.  He used to teach me how to do a watercolour wash, me standing next to him, watching as his sable brush drew a line just beneath the dark water line, drawing as if by magic the water margin a quarter inch down the page and leaving behind a residue of colour, the wash, as the base for the layers of watery paint to sit upon.  While concentrating fully on the task in hand Jack would also be adept at running his hand up the back of your knees, and under your grey flannel shorts, and right up to the peachy cheeks of your bum.  He never seemed to want to go any further, which was both a relief and a mystery; maybe he got off on just touching your arse, and didn’t need to actually touch your willy, who knows?   I didn’t really mind, as I was learning about Art at the same time, and nothing of any consequence actually happened.  Jack was quite high up in the Scouts, and it seemed from my experience that most of the Scoutmasters were closet boy-fanciers anyway.   To today’s generation, who know all about peadophiles, the internet and the dangers to young children it may seems strange that in fact there were loads of them around when we were growing up, the vast majority, as I suspect now, never really got up to anything that much, but a bit of touching up was quite normal behaviour.  We kids never told anyone, because it didn’t seem to be doing any harm, and anyway, we were only kids, so who was going to listen to us anyway.  But I did learn about perspective and how to draw the human body, and how to draw faces from Jack, and yes, the best advice of all – never show an unfinished painting to women or children, still holds true.   Happy days on the whole.


Your Sixties – the Decade of Lost Hopes

Friday 25th May

In one’s fifties the thought of being sixty fills one with dread; after all being fifty is hardly old, but the idea of reaching three score and more has a chastening and chilling effect.  One’s working life must surely be drawing to a close, and for so many of us, our work defines us.  The thought of the desert of retirement looms, and double edged sword as it might be, as much as one may hate working, the thought of nothing to do with one’s life is also oppressive.   And you finally realise that actually, you do not really matter that much anymore.  Oh, you may become a target for the advertisers of Tena-pads and mobility scooters and equity release, but is it only our money that has any value now.   But mostly one’s sixties is the decade of lost hopes.  All through those angst-filled teenage years, the relationship filled twenties and thirties, the family creating forties and the quietly confident fifties there was always a future, or a feeling that one still had the time to do things.  And that any changes would be positive, that was the thing, one felt positive about the future, mainly because there was one.  Now that one is well into one’s sixties one realizes that those hopes have faded, one is facing a future of more or less the same thing from now on.  Most of us by this time have found our niche, our little crack in the wall, into which we wedge our not-so-skinny arses, and can at least face the world with some sort of confidence.  But that niche is also a trap, one cannot dare to leave it, as, if we do, we may never find it and comfort again.  So we soldier on, plodding away the years, and telling everyone, at least everyone younger than ourselves, that we have never been happier.  By the time we are in our seventies, no-one expects much of us, and in our eighties we are marveled at for not actually dying.  But in our sixties we finally understand that this is more or less it, no more great achievements, no more to be achieved, just a question of trying to hang onto what you may have for as long as possible during the decade of lost hopes.

A change in the weather is known to be extreme

Thursday 24th May

But what’s the point of changing horses in mid-stream.  The wonderful words of Dylan keep swirling round in my head.  What are they trying to tell me, to keep on keeping on – not to give up, not to seek the easy option, though times may seem tough.  And what do we know about tough, here in the pampered twenty-first century.  Compared to even our grandparents growing up maybe a hundred years ago.  No television, no computers, no phones, no radio even; long, much longer hours of work, and hard manual labour, for men that was five and a half long days work, which was why the Saturday afternoon ritual of the football match evolved, a bit of drinking in the pub on Saturday night, then a day of rest on Sunday.  Two weeks holiday at a boarding house by the coast somewhere, retired at sixty-five and dead by seventy – that was about it for most of them.

But maybe tough is always relative; there is always somewhere worse off than oneself, and the respective quality of suffering cannot be compared anyway.  And just at the moment it seems as if a change in the weather may indeed be both extreme and permanent.  The ascendency of the West may be drawing to a close.  Just how slow and protracted that close may be is yet to be played out, but maybe the West, and by that I mean Europe and European thought, art and culture, may be heading for a long decline.  And should we therefore be thinking about changing horses, mid-stream as it is.  Should we leave this wonderful continent with all its history and variety or should we perhaps be thinking of ways to preserve the best of the past, and carry on into whatever uncertainty the future may hold with our European heads held high.  Hold on tight, it may be a rough ride.

The Moo-Cows of London

Wednesday 23rd May

You see them everywhere, and though some are undoubtedly male I still call them moo-cows.  I do not know, but strongly suspect that it is the case, if they inhabit other cities, but London is full of them, they are simply everywhere.  They wander around aimlessly chewing the cud, looking up from their grazing occasionally at all the busy people rushing around, as if these scurrying creatures were in fact from another planet altogether.  Despite it being the extended rush hour which London seems to need they seem not to be bothered by financial or in fact any other considerations at all.  You see them sitting in Starbucks staring into the middle distance, a hand occasionally mechanically raising the green-logoed cardboard cup to their lips, their gaze never faltering.  Or they may be spotted vaguely browsing their i-phones, an index finger occasionally brushing the screen as images flicker by; one wonders if they recognize any, as they never show any emotion on their moo-cow faces.   What sort of lives do they lead, these strange sedentary beasts who never hurry, but amble along, occasionally glancing at a Metro, but you suspect that they scorn any real news and content themselves with the celebrity fodder on offer.  And the female moo-cow faces are blank and all made up to look exactly the same, as if any sign of individuality would mark them out as being possibly interesting.  You never get a reaction from a moo-cow, or even a smile.  They are impassive and will not let slip the mask they have so carefully created.  Even when moo-cows meet each other, there is barely a whisper of recognition; after all who talks to a moo-cow.

But scorn them not, for they may in fact be the future of the human race – a new sub species that will eventually dominate and destroy all of us thinking busy people.  Maybe they are just watching and waiting, planning our eventual overthrow.  So beware – the day of the moo-cow may soon be upon us.

The Trouble with Belief

Tuesday 22nd May

When one looks at almost all the petty wars going on, and even the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, it seems that religion is at the core of the dispute.  Whether it is explicit as in Sunni versus Shia Muslims or implicit as in our involvement in Afghanistan, where, deny it as we might, the perception in the East is that we are there because we are Christians and they are Muslims.   And why should this be, when the leaders of every religion in the world are telling us that they are so peaceful, and believe in the goodness of whatever they call their God.  Why should such bitterness be in the hearts of these religious fanatics?  Why are young men and women prepared to lay down their lives, not even for political freedoms but for the belief that their brand of religion is superior to all others.  Is it down to the very nature of belief; in order to believe one has to in effect suspend disbelief.  One has to accept that things which cannot be seen and understood are true, because some holy book or a priest somewhere tells you they are so.  One has to positively trust an unseen deity in order to have faith to believe in that which is not provable.  Therefore one has already given away the rational part of one’s mind, and accepted that things we cannot understand have an irrational but unquestionable explanation.  Therefore the person who believes is already less understanding of the world as they see it for themselves, and sees the world through the prism of their religious belief.  Quite why this should mean that in some cases they are prepared to kill people who do not share the same ideology is beyond me.   And we in the West should not feel at all superior, our religious wars and slaughter make the current disputes in the Muslim world seem child’s play.  I cannot quite understand it – I am happy for anyone to believe whatever they want, God, Allah or Green Turtles, provided they do not attempt to make me believe it also – but maybe that is because I haven’t been corrupted by belief in the first place.