The Welsh Connection

A friend of mine on Twitter () asked me what the Welsh connection was. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what she meant. I don’t recall ever reading of an undercover cop getting shot dead in Llandudno. I’ve been to Llandudno. While there might be some low level drug dealing, it didn’t strike me as the kind of place that went in for major league narcotics. The slightly lavatorial WCUK doesn’t have the same ring as FCUK, either. My best guess is that it was my casual fondness for Wales and Welsh that Sue was talking about, though because I generally get it wrong when it comes to understanding women, I still wouldn’t put a money bet on it.
I’m not Welsh. To the best of my knowledge, none of my ancestors are Welsh, though my Uncle Joe married a woman from Merthyr Tydfil, and my cousin was born there. My Dad was a Bevin boy in the war, too. However, neither my Auntie Maverill or my Dad’s experiences underground in northeast England really makes me convincingly Welsh.
Aberystwyth is a wonderful name for a place, especially when pronounced slowly and solemnly in a Welsh accent like Dylan Thomas’s, or Cerys Matthews’s. When I was in my twenties I thought how nice it would be to go there, and when I was in my thirties Aberystwyth University was a customer of the company I worked for. One of my managers even vaguely planned a business trip for me, but it never happened.
Time passes, as the reader in Under Milk Wood says. I was in my late fifties, and I still hadn’t ventured further into Wales than Cardiff and Bryn Mawr. I don’t now recall what made me think of Aberystwyth, but I do remember that it was a wet Sunday afternoon, and I realised that unless I went to Aberystwyth, I never would, fairly obviously. I turned the computer on, and booked myself two nights in an old fashioned hotel on Aberystwyth sea front. Job done. After some more thoughts, I decided that if I was going to go to Wales, I might as well spend a bit longer than two nights there, and see some of the country, so I booked two nights in a Travelodge in Caernarvon, and two nights in a pub at a place called Talgarth, near Brecon, making an Aberystwyth sandwich. Job properly done.

David Wyn Jones is fab, I expect.

David Wyn Jones is fab, I expect.

I set off from home on a September morning, I had lunch in Ross on Wye, and Mrs Garmin led me through the Llanberis pass to Caernarvon. That evening, I walked along beside the Victoria Dock (or Doc Fictoria, which sounds like someone from the delightful Diamonds & Dust) and into Caernarvon itself. Or Caernarfon. At first, I assumed that the town was full of Eastern Europeans, because nowhere did I hear any English spoken. There was a fish and chip restaurant, and two women chatting as they rearranged the chairs. “Are you open?” I asked slowly, in case they had trouble understanding.
“Sorry, love,” said the older of the women, in a beautiful Welsh accent. “We’re just closing.” That was when it dawned on me. They weren’t foreigners. They were Welsh, all speaking Welsh, and I was the foreigner.
I found a pizza restaurant, where the waiter and the cook were leaning on the bar chatting in Welsh. There weren’t any customers, but they weren’t closed, so I ordered the ‘special’, which was a pizza and a beer. Because they weren’t busy, the waiter seemed happy to chat, so I asked him about the people speaking Welsh. He said that Caernarfon was a Welsh speaking town, and that the children learnt English when they went to school. That made sense. I’d seen a young woman with a pushchair talking to her baby in Welsh, and the schoolgirls joshing one another in the street had been joshing one another in Welsh. The waiter said that his father was French and his mother was Welsh, so he’d learnt his English from watching Mickey Mouse videos. He didn’t speak with an American accent, though, so he might have been lying. He also said that Bangor was an English speaking town, but when I went there, it didn’t sound very English.
Amgueddfa yn Aberystwyth.

Amgueddfa yn Aberystwyth.

Aberystwyth was a strange place, and not as pretty as Caernarfon, but I liked it when I finally got there. I have to admit that its weather wasn’t especially likeable, with wind and rain, so I spent quite a lot of my time there indoors. However, I heard quite a lot of Welsh spoken, and there was a bookshop with Welsh books and the prices of the postcards in ‘c’ instead of ‘p’. The woman behind the counter glared at me when I didn’t understand what she said. I apologised. “Sori.” The exhibits in the museum had labels in both Welsh and English. I bought a novel in Welsh from a charity shop, and tried to work out what some of it might mean, not to any great effect. On the other hand, I did think that Dripping In Aberystwyth would be a great title for an erotic novel.
I didn’t hear any Welsh spoken in Talgarth. A young man in the pub said he came from Caernarfon, and he could speak it, but he didn’t know anyone else to speak it to. I found it rather sad. There is a Welsh language TV channel, but mostly they show programmes about old people on farms, or fat blokes singing. There’s a soap opera, called Pobl Y Cwm, filmed in a world built almost entirely of brown melamine. There are lots of children’s programmes, but as far as I could tell, nothing for teenagers. English speakers learn Welsh at school, but once they leave, there’s no need for them to use it. Everyone over the age of five also speaks English.
Cnau, yn Saesneg.

Cnau, yn Saesneg.

If it were down to me, I wouldn’t spend the money on making programmes about old people on farms. I’d spend the money on stuff for teenagers. A Welsh language version of Shout, and a Welsh language version of Nuts, probably called Cri and Cnau. Subsidise them, so that they’re cheaper than the English equivalent, and suddenly there’s an incentive to remember the Welsh you learnt at school. Welsh isn’t up against some struggling tribal language, it’s up against the most widely spoken language on the planet. It needs all the help it can get if it’s going to survive.
Llyfrau.

Llyfrau.

I’m doing my bit, and I’m learning Welsh in a fairly desultory fashion. It serves no really useful purpose, since everyone whom I’ll speak to will also speak English, and I’m not especially interested in fat blokes singing, or old people on farms. On the other hand, it’s fun, and it gives me an excuse to return to Caernarfon, and Aberystwyth, so that I can practise. Gwneud yn dda.

Lake Skimmel

Just down the road from us is Skimmel Bridge, from which the hamlet of Skimmel Bridge takes its name. It’s where the Newlyn stream passes under the road from Tremethick Cross to Sancreed. In dry summers (remember those?) the Newlyn stream isn’t much more than a babble over the stones, with a couple of sandbanks just below the bridge, but after heavy rain it becomes swollen with brown peaty water pouring down from the Penwith moors around the Men an Tol. Penwith is small, however, and the Men an Tol isn’t far away, so the torrent subsides fairly quickly. Or it used to.
There have always been occasions when it’s rained hard for a long period, flooding the woods, but until a year ago, whenever the rain stopped, the woods drained, and the stream reverted to its normal winter volume. In November last year, it rained hard everywhere (see Thursday’s trains), scouring the rocks at the foundations of the bridge. The wood flooded, but it didn’t drain away.

Lake Skimmel

Lake Skimmel

The stream above the bridge is actually two streams, with an island in between. The larger western stream passes under the two main culverts of the bridge, while the smaller eastern stream has its own little culvert, and it’s the eastern stream’s little culvert that became partially blocked last November, leading to the formation of the scummy brown pond that is Lake Skimmel. Last winter was wet. The summer that preceded it was also wet, but not as wet as the winter. The autumn between the wet summer and the wet winter was also pretty damned wet. For months the northern end of the small culvert was submerged, so it was impossible to see what was blocking it. In March it rained hard again, and the stream poured across the road, scouring the foundations some more, and the following morning there were logs and branches strewn in the roadway. There’s now also a long crack in the tarmac where the bridge was ‘repaired’ some years ago.
It did finally stop raining, Lake Skimmel finally drained away, and we were able to see the logs and branches that had been blocking the culvert. Finally. My next door neighbour, a farmer, put on his waterproofs and waded in, removing all the branches and logs he could reach, but it seems that there are more branches and logs deep inside the culvert. There’s also a lot of gravel. In the past, our ancestors would have been panning the gravel for tin, I expect, but now all it does is clog up the spaces between the logs and branches.
My wife rang the council, and the highways, and the other council, and another farmer, who came and shook his head. His wife rang the local councillor, who said he’d look into it. Meanwhile, the highways (or possibly the council) told my neighbour to leave it alone, because it could be dangerous. Summer came, and green plants grew in the silt. Someone from the highways turned up, looked at the bridge, and said it would be all right.
As summer gave way to autumn, it started raining again, and a few weeks ago Lake Skimmel made its reappearance. My wife rang the council again, and the highways, and a couple of men wearing high-vis suits came, in a van. They even arrived on a day when the water level was reasonably low, so that they were able to hoik out a few of the branches from the mouth of the culvert and leave them on the bank. They said that there was some more ‘stuff’ deep in the culvert that they couldn’t reach (which everyone knew), and they went off. Needless to say, when it rained, the branches they’d left on the bank washed right back where they’d come from, and lodged against the ‘stuff’ that’s blocking the culvert.
Skimmel Falls

Skimmel Falls

Lake Skimmel is full, and will probably remain so now until the spring, pouring into the larger western stream over the picturesque Skimmel Falls. However, geologically speaking, lakes are short lived features of the landscape, either draining away or silting up. Admittedly, geological time runs on a very slow clock, and Lake Erie isn’t about to disappear overnight, but eventually Skimmel Falls will presumably erode a channel deep enough to cope with the water in Lake Skimmel, and the wood will settle down to being a wood again. Either that, or the bridge will just wash away completely.

Going postal

Americans have an easier relationship with things that go bang than we do. At a UK airport, you have to carry dangerous things like Anusol and Vagisil in a little clear plastic bag so that everyone can see them. At US airports, you can have a gun in your luggage, just as long as it isn’t loaded. I suppose it’s just the way we are. One thing we have in common is that (by and large) you aren’t allowed to carry guns in the Post Office. However, it is now legal to carry a firearm, open or concealed, in the parking lot of US Postal Service property (or the car park, as we like to call it in Britain). You probably wouldn’t get away with that in the UK, but since most Post Offices in the UK don’t have car parks, it doesn’t really arise.
uspostofficeThe restriction on carrying explosives and weapons (concealed or otherwise) on US Postal Property dates from 1972. Very prescient, since the first episodes of employees ‘going postal’ didn’t occur until the 1980s, but (with hindsight) not entirely effective.
According to Wikipedia, Americans are more likely to be the victim of a ‘workplace homicide’ in retail than they are in the Postal Service, but it puts that down to exposure to robberies. Wikipedia doesn’t mention disgruntled customers, complaining that the Beretta Cheetah they just bought isn’t accurate beyond about fifty yards. On the other hand, (also according to Wikipedia) ‘13% of workplace homicides were committed at postal facilities by current or former employees’. Blimey. Is the Post Office such a terrible place to work? I did the Christmas post as a student, years ago, and it didn’t seem too bad. I’ve worked in worse places, and for less money. I think we got free tea, too.
postofficeWe Brits tend to be somewhat more restrained when it comes to workplace rage. Maybe spitting in the boss’s coffee, or something, rather than gunning down everyone in customer support with an Uzi. Since I’ve never really experienced workplace rage (or spat in anyone’s coffee), I’m guessing a bit. Our strict gun laws probably help. In the UK, only criminals are allowed to carry guns, whereas in the US, pretty much anyone can. While most Americans don’t go around shooting people, if you haven’t got a gun, it does make it harder if you should be tempted to do so.
We aren’t even allowed to carry knives in most places, and on that score the Americans are catching up. I had a penknife (with a useful corkscrew) confiscated from me at Hartsfield Jackson, when I tried to leave the airport with it. I also had to hand in my (different) penknife at the Atlanta aquarium, presumably in case I tried to stab a fish. My friend had to hand in his cigarette lighter in the same aquarium incident. Otherwise, we’d have had the beginnings of a beach barbecue between us. Unlike the airport authorities, the aquarium people did give us back our things when we left. I didn’t ask whether I’d have been allowed in with a gun. Like joking about drugs with the security guards at airports, it’s probably a bad idea.
postalThe ban on firearms on US Post Office property (other than the car park), doesn’t just apply to employees. In America, if you turn up at the post office to post a letter, there’s a sign on the door, telling you that you can’t carry a firearm inside (I don’t remember the sign telling me I couldn’t carry a bomb, but it might have done). To an unarmed Brit like me, toting no more than a penknife with a corkscrew, that isn’t a problem. However, if you hurry down to the Post Office in Dodge City to send your Aunty Martha’s birthday present off before they close, what happens when you arrive outside with your trusty Colt 45 tucked into the waistband of your trousers? Do you just leave it on the pavement (or sidewalk) while you go inside? Or are there special employees, who’ll look after your gun for you while you go in and sort out the stamps for Aunty Martha’s parcel? In a country that values enterprise, you could probably set up a little business, ‘Al’s firearm minding service’, or something. It might make money.

The current crop of cats

Maisie looking fetching

Maisie looking fetching

Depending on how you look at it, we probably have three cats, Elvis, Huw and Maisie. And Felix.
Felix isn’t actually our cat, she lives next door. That’s the theory, anyway. Next door don’t have a cat flap, but they do have two small children and a labrador puppy. And a bowl in the garage with some cat biscuits in it. We have a cat flap, a Rayburn, no children or dogs, and three cats who rarely manage to finish all of their sachets of posh cat food. Should our cats polish off all their cat food, however, we also have my wife, who will ‘take pity’ on ‘poor Felix’, and put a sachet of posh cat food (and maybe some biscuits) down for her. It wouldn’t be quite so bad, except that Felix hisses and spits at any of our cats who might deign to walk past.
Maisie hiding

Maisie hiding

Maisie isn’t strictly speaking our cat, either. Maisie’s my daughter’s ex boyfriend’s sister’s cat, whom we’re looking after. We’ve been looking after Maisie for several years now, and Fenny has moved out, and acquired cats of her own. Where Felix is fat, Maisie verges on the morbidly obese. If she didn’t have a head and a tail she’d be like a tortoiseshell ball with paws on the corners. She’s also the archetypal scaredy cat. She likes to hide under things, or behind things, or (impossible for a fat cat) in plain sight. She also tends to crap on the landing if there’s a cat on the stairs. She was the one we took to the vet when they brought in regulations as to how many doses of Frontline you could have on spec (is there a black market in Frontline?). It was a miserable November morning, we caught Maisie (picked up, really), and stuffed her into the ancient wicker cat basket. All well and good. We arrived at the vet’s a couple of minutes before eleven, found somewhere to park, and lugged the cat basket out. Maisie had clearly been watching too many Rambo films. She hurled her full (and not inconsiderable) weight at the grating, snapped the (ancient) leather straps, and legged it. The vet’s receptionists saw what happened and came out to help. Maisie had disappeared into someone’s garden. We climbed over the gate (which was locked) and began trying to find the cat. Meanwhile, some bells began tolling, and everyone else stood still. We spent the two minutes’ silence (and some) climbing into strangers’ gardens in the rain, calling, “Maisie.” If I had added, “Come here, you morbidly obese little bugger,” it wouldn’t have improved the shining hour. We did eventually manage to corner her, and we came away with the Frontline, and the grating tied shut with bandages.
Huw

Huw

Huw is our cat, named (by Fenny) after Huw Edwards, the newsreader. We got him after Mask died. Mask wasn’t really our cat, either. Mask was originally the neighbour’s cat, called Sooty, when the neighbour lived in East Cornwall. However, after a few years in the warm with the neighbour’s granny, a life of biscuits in the garage seemed less appealing than the cat flap, Rayburn, etc. We did our best to return ‘Sooty’ to the neighbours (once we realised that she hadn’t been dumped here by unscrupulous owners), but ‘Sooty’ had other ideas, and eventually we all gave up, and she became Mask. Mask liked butter (as does Maisie). Huw doesn’t like butter, he likes coffee. Not milky coffee. Ground coffee. It was something we discovered quite by accident. We assumed he was trashing the bin because he’s a little thug. While he is a little thug, it turned out that he only trashed the bin when there was a coffee packet in it. I’ve also found him with his head in my coffee mug, slurping the black sludge from the bottom. His favourite food is cat biscuits that have been shaken in a coffee packet, and even then, he licks the ground coffee before he gets around to the biscuits. Where did we go wrong? Our cat is a drug addict and a thug. His favourite game is jumping other cats. Everyone except Felix, in fact. If there are no other cats available, he’s happy enough to jump the hand that feeds him.
Elvis studying

Elvis studying

Elvis is the elder statescat. At thirteen he isn’t especially old, but he does seem to have Catzheimer’s, and compared with the others, he’s positively responsible. He doesn’t do drugs or crap on the landing, for a start. He does like butter, though, and meat, and wildlife. We got him from Sennen, originally, when Thompson died, and he grew up surrounded by grannies. There was Charlie, a long haired farm cat, of whom Elvis was in awe, and Mask (as above), who was a cantankerous old scrote among scrotes in the halls of scrotedom. Given the way a boy from Sennen could have gone in the circumstances, his predilection for shagging the loo brush (and my wife’s elbow) could be put down to youthful folly. He grew out of both after (or possibly because of) the snip. Sometimes Huw or Maisie will bring something dead indoors. Huw will even occasionally bring something alive indoors and let it go. Elvis turns up outside the front door on a regular basis, miaowing with his mouth full. Depending on the season, he might have a mouse, or a vole, or a bird. Sometimes he catches rabbits, but he can’t eat a whole one, so unless we see him and shoo him out he’ll leave a semi-rabbit around the house somewhere. If Felix finds it, she eats the second half.
Charlie once managed to get a live woodcock through two cat flaps, a feat that Elvis has also managed. Charlie’s woodcock hid among Fenny’s colouring books. Elvis’s made do with the top of the washing machine, where it was almost as well-concealed as Maisie in plain sight. Elvis has also eaten all the usual avian fauna; wrens, robins, chaffinches, dunnocks, tits, etc. He’s shied away from some of the bigger birds, like jackdaws, crows, magpies, buzzards and herons. Not all of the bigger birds, though. Along with the woodcock, he’s brought in several moorhens and some water rails. Most people have never seen a water rail. They’re moorhen sized birds, grey and brown, with speckles and stripes, and long legs. Some of them have heads and some of them don’t. That’s cats for you.

NaNoWriMo 2013

It’s about two years since I first heard of National Novel Writing Month. It was on BBC Breakfast, sometime during October 2011, probably presented by Nick Higham. The idea was simple. Start writing a novel at the beginning of November, and have fifty thousand words in the can by the end of the month, fifty thousand words being the minimum size for a ‘novel’, apparently. That’s it. You register on the website, write your fifty thousand words, upload your ‘novel’, and you’re declared a winner.
BricksIt’s easy to cheat. You can start in August, or copy and paste something you’ve already written (or stolen). You can type the word ‘word’ fifty thousand times. If you belong to the pile-of-bricks-in-the-Tate school of literature, that might be a satisfying solution. You could even be really subversive, and type the word ‘word’ once, copy it, and paste it forty-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine times, pretend that you’ve typed it fifty thousand times, and only own up in your memoirs. However, since there’s no Turner-Prize-type monetary reward, it hardly seems worth it.
The name is also a bit awkward. National Novel Writing Month is a bit of a mouthful, so it’s often referred to as NaNoWriMo, or even just NaNo (or even Nano). The odd use of uppercase in NaNoWriMo is reminiscent of the naming convention in software called ‘camel back’, and NaNoWriMo sounds like the kind of thing Brian Cox uses to measure the number of novelists in Messier Objects. The ‘National’ (it started in America) is also something of a misnomer, since it’s now international, but InNoWriMo sounds like some sort of Japanese lustreware, so it probably isn’t important.
Nevertheless, when I first heard of it, two years ago, the idea appealed to me immediately. My first novel, Flying Lessons, had taken more than twenty years to write. I was in my late fifties. Maths was never my strong point, and actuarial tables strike me as the work of Satan, but I still reckoned that at the current rate I had at most two more novels in me, if I went to the gym and gave up bacon sandwiches and drinking. I needed the need for speed to get me going. If I could write fifty thousand words in a month, I could be the new Barbara Cartland (though less pink). Seventeen hundred words a day will do it. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite that straightforward. The fifty thousand words aren’t necessarily matchless prose (even if they aren’t all ‘word), and that’s still a very short novel (Flying Lessons runs to nearly seventy thousand), but I resolved to give it a go.
roadtripsmallLike Tolkien, I set my characters out on a journey, because that way you can go on for as long as you want. Unlike Tolkien, I conceived a middle aged woman whose philandering husband is found dead in a hotel room (on April Fools’ Day) wearing nothing but a condom, the Russian student he’d paid for sex, the road trip, the car, and the gay driver, and I started thinking. By the start of November, I’d fleshed out the ideas, I’d come up with some (hopefully good) jokes, and I had the first couple of lines in my head. I was at a disadvantage, though, since I was in America for the start of November, and in the UK for the end, making my month shorter than everyone else’s by five hours.
I went to the kick-off meeting in a theatre (or theater) in Atlanta, where I met my mentor, the delightful , with whom I’m still in touch. Georgia is the Peach State (and most of the roads in Atlanta are called Peachtree something), and that was where Johnny acquired his peach coloured tee shirt (though the Bush Theater came later). I don’t remember where the name of Tilly Lake came from, but Anka started out as Anna, for no very good reason. On November 1st, I wrote down my first paragraph in the office, headed for the airport, and caught the plane home. By the end of day one, my word count was less than a hundred. Staggering around my sister’s house with jetlag on November 2nd didn’t do much to boost it. Sitting on a train all day coming home to Cornwall on November 3rd was the best strategy. By the time I got to Penzance I was over nine thousand. If someone I knew hadn’t got on in Truro, I might have reached ten.
The rest of the month was a blur. I recall the line that ticked over the fifty thousand, “Tilly, you are as mad as a halibut, and if I did fancy women, you’d be top of my list.” That was around the 20th. By the end of the month, I had seventy thousand words, and Tilly Lake was still in Carlisle, cavorting with characters who had conjured themselves out of chance conversations somewhere along the way. I finally came up with an ending some time after Christmas, and the complete first draft of 140000 words was finished around Easter. I did the 2012 NaNo before Tilly Lake’s Road Trip finally ended up on Amazon.
For 2012 I’d planned ahead. I managed to crank out seventy thousand words, but it wasn’t as much fun as writing ‘by the seat of my pants’ had been, and I still haven’t finished my 2012 novel, so for 2013, it’s back to the suck-it-and-see approach. I have half a dozen characters, a situation, a few jokes, but no real plot. It may or may not produce a novel, but I no longer care. The 2011 NaNo did its job, and I’m writing. I’ve co-authored a couple of novels, and I have the beginnings (and even the middles) of some more, just waiting for inspiration and time.
I’ve been told that the fifty thousand words you can write in a month are crap. It’s possibly true (even if they aren’t all ‘word’), but most first drafts (or half drafts) are probably crap. That’s why we rewrite and edit. There’s December (and so on) for that. Okay, what we write might not appeal to everyone (Tilly Lake’s Road Trip has been roundly despised by a few of the reviewers), but we’ve done it. It’s like running the London Marathon. You don’t have to come first to feel you’ve achieved something. If it was fun, and you finished on your feet, then well done. Result. Hats off.

Discreet male catheters

For some reason, Facebook is recommending Birmingham City FC to a friend of mine who lives in Cardiff, and who supports Brighton and Hove Albion. Slightly random, but at least he watches football. I wish that the adverts they put on my pages were as well targeted. At the moment I have an advert for a Greek taverna in Birkenhead. Don’t get me wrong, Greek food’s okay, but not special, and I like to keep my crockery for tomorrow, with just a sojourn in the dishwasher in between, instead of smashing it against the wall and having to sweep it up. Not to mention the trip to whatever-has-replaced-Habitat to buy a new lot. Birkenhead isn’t really what you’d call just round the corner, either. I only know where it is because it was where a boy I was at school with came from (I’ve never been there).

Taverna

Taverna

However, compared with some of the adverts, a Greek taverna in Birkenhead for someone who lives in Cornwall is bang on the money. As is the advert for Cornish Cottage Holidays. It’s just possible that I might fancy a bit of a getaway, and not be bothered to pack, so that I could pop home for some clean clothes every day. Or the very tasteful Sun Life Direct ‘Looking for a no fuss way to pay for your funeral’. I’m definitely still breathing, and unless Sun Life Direct and Facebook know something I don’t, that disqualifies me from having a funeral.

I could win a year’s supply of Twinings English Breakfast Tea, which I dislike, or I could pay £38 a month for a new boiler with full cover. My (perfectly okay and functioning) boiler has a little sticker which (very sensibly) reads ‘Do not cover’. I can buy a curry from Marks and Spencer, which would be ‘Perfect for celebrating National Curry Week’. I’ve never heard of National Curry Week, and if I wanted to celebrate it I’d go to Little India in Penzance, instead of trailing all the way to Hayle to find that Marks and Spencer was closed at that time of night. I suspect that the curry from Little India is probably slightly more authentic than Marks’s, too, but maybe I’m just being an elderly stick-in-the-mud. Hence the need for a life insurance quote (also from the very solicitous Sun Life Direct) in less than 60 seconds, before I have time to shuffle off this mortal coil, leaving my heirs and assigns the fuss of paying for my funeral.

Then there are the colostomy bags. If I had a colostomy, I might appreciate adverts for colostomy bags, but as I haven’t, I can’t say that I do. I do know a woman who has a colostomy, so perhaps they’re for her. However, she isn’t someone I buy Christmas presents for, and even if she were, I doubt she’d be pleased to unwrap a nice shiny new colostomy bag on Christmas morning. “Ooh, Francis. You do know how to make a girl feel special.” She is special, but that isn’t why.

Picture of a cock

Picture of a cock, and a catheter

Facebook did get a little warmer with the discreet male catheter, though the catheter I had stuck up my willie after my kidney op was anything but discreet, trailing down to a bucket of blood on the floor beside my bed (see The Surgical Admissions Lounge for details). Maybe that was because I hadn’t heeded the Facebook ads and paid for my own, cheapskate that I am. I reckon I could probably fashion some sort of bagpipe from a colostomy bag and some discreet male catheters, so perhaps the next batch of promotions will be for books telling me how to make my own musical instruments.

There have been a few interesting adverts, however. For example, local women over fifty who are keen to meet me. There have even been adverts for hotels (Ibis, Accor, etc) where I could go for trysts with these women over fifty (though if they’re really local, perhaps we’d do better with a cottage from Cornish Cottage Holidays). I don’t know if there’s an Ibis hotel in Birkenhead, and the woman in the picture didn’t look to be anything like fifty, but hey, it has to be more fun than making musical instruments out of colostomy bags and catheters, and more exciting than Birmingham City FC.

G’night, Lady M

Lady Marmalade

Lady Marmalade

Lady Marmalade, my faithfullish Nissan Primera, was sixteen a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t buy her new, and she wasn’t even my first Lady Marmalade, but I had her for longer than any other car, and I drove her further than any other car.
I was a latecomer to driving, not passing my test until I was in my early thirties. It wasn’t entirely my fault. I just kept failing driving tests, and then I had to find the money for some more lessons, and wait for a test date, and so on. I don’t remember all the tests I failed, but I recall where they were, in Eastbourne, Brighton, Crawley, and Hove, and I do remember that it was in Hove where I finally passed, to my (and my long suffering instructor’s) surprise. I didn’t immediately rush out and buy a car. I just breathed a sigh of enormous relief, and decided that I’d never drive again.
It didn’t last. I came down to Cornwall with my Dad, in his vomit coloured Lada, and he sent me off for the day with my wife. I’d have just driven into Newquay and spent the day in a café, but my wife had other ideas, so we ended up travelling all over, and getting lost in the fog on Bodmin Moor, doing three point turns in narrow lanes that proved to be dead ends with horribly spiky looking rocks along the sides, and so on.
I didn’t dent my Dad’s car, but it was the start of the slippery slope, like an alcoholic trying his first shandy. A woman at work (called Alison) offered to sell me her old car for a tenner. It was a Hillman Imp, and unlike most of my susequent cars, it didn’t have a name. Since the Hillman Imp, I have had four Fifis, three Lady Marmalades, a Madame Butterfly, and a sodding Maestro, not in that order.
The Hillman Imp had a bust water pump, no heater, a dent in the front where Alison had driven it into a tree, and the clutch was seized. However, another woman at work (called Debbie) said that her brother could sort it all out for about sixty quid. Bargain. As if. I could probably have had taxis take me everywhere more cheaply, even with added call girl.
When our daughter was on the way, my wife refused a lift to the hospital, opting instead for the ambulance, though the Hillman Imp didn’t actually break down that day, nor on the day when I brought them home from the hospital. It did break down most other days. The furthest it ever went was from Lewes (where we lived) to Bignor Roman Villa (where my daughter tested the echo in the room with the mosaics, much to the amusement of the two German bikers in leathers). On the way back to Lewes, second and fourth gears vanished, and I had what was effectively an automatic, with start, drive (slowly), and reverse. Goodbye Hillman Imp.
After that we had a red Mk II Ford Escort (died gracefully), a grey Mk III Escort (my wife nerfed a concrete pillar in the multistorey in Truro) and the navy blue Maestro. My Dad liked Maestros, so I replaced grey Fifi with the Maestro. It was a horrible car, even compared to the Hillman Imp, which was at least fun. It used to start (unlike the Hillman Imp), but then it would die when I reached Mount Misery roundabout on the edge of Penzance, and to restart it, I would have to take the top off the air filter, and then put it back on once the engine was running, all while the traffic from St Just was queuing up behind me. When the demister failed, a friend offered to replace it for me, and he ended up with the dashboard and steering column on his kitchen table. I sold the Maestro to him for half what I’d paid for it, and bought white Fifi. Her rusting carcass is still in the ruin of the garage, and her registration number (B816 CNY) is the one I used for Tilly Lake’s Pontiac. When she died, I used her for spares to keep the last of the Fifis alive.
After the Fifis came Madame Butterfly. A six year old Nissan Sunny, and the newest car I’ve ever owned. Her boot was big enough for my massage couch, but there wasn’t much leg room in the back. When she skidded on a slick of sump oil, and I ended up sliding backwards towards St Just at fifty miles an hour, I thought I was going to die. I didn’t, but Madame Butterfly did.
Hello Lady Marmalade. A wine coloured Nissan Primera, with a bigger boot, and leg room in the back. I delivered her the fatal blow, sideswiping a crash barrier in a storm. It wasn’t immediately terminal, but the steering rack was cracked, and I had to put almost as much power steering fluid in as I did petrol. The second Lady Marmalade was dark green, even more comfortable, but a little underpowered. A Mitsubishi Shogun killed her, swerving across the road and taking her front end off. If I hadn’t seen what was happening, and braked, the Shogun would have come in through my driver’s door, and I might well have joined green Lady M in the great hereafter. As it was, I survived, and bought white Lady M. She had a bigger engine (but no spoiler), and she went like a Brixham whore when the fish were in. She was mine for nearly seven years, in which time we did a hundred thousand miles together. It wasn’t my idea to get rid of her, it was on the advice of the garage, who said she was costing me money (what’s new?), and who suggested it was time for me to get another car.

Kitty Cat

Kitty Cat

I looked around. For nine thousand pounds I could have a Kia Picanto. I suppose that with the back seat down I might be able to fit a massage couch in it, and it would do nought to sixty eventually. Alternatively, I could buy a Jaguar for a little under two grand. I’m not greedy, so instead of buying four and a half Jaguars for my nine grand, I just bought the one. A blue-grey three litre V6 S-type. It’s pretty. I’ll spend the seven grand change on petrol and repairs.
G’night, Lady M. Hello Kitty.

Thompson and Martinet

Thompson and Martinet

Thompson and Martinet

We acquired our first cat over thirty years ago. I bought it from the pet shop in Cliffe High Street, and it was one of two black and white kittens in a big cage in the window, eyeing up the hamsters with more than just passing curiosity. Twin sisters, apparently. I chose the smarter looking one, paid my £5.50, and left with the kitten in a cardboard box. Needless to say, when I got home, I was in trouble. Not for buying a kitten, which was what I was supposed to have done, but for leaving the other one all on its own in the shop. It was too late to go back and get it, so we returned the next day. If we’d thought they’d be delighted at the reunion, we couldn’t have been more wrong. From the moment the cardboard box was opened on the second day, the two little kittens became a squawling bundle of black and white fur rolling across the carpet as they attacked each other. After a lot of discussion, during which Grant and Cutler and Brighton and Hove were rejected as names, we called them Thompson and Martinet, after A J Thomson and A V Martinet, the authors of A Practical English Grammar. Like the kittens, they were both female (The As stand for Audrey and Agnes). As far as I know, Audrey and Agnes didn’t spend their entire lives fighting. They probably didn’t have tapeworms or huge fleas, either.
When our daughter was born, the cats were aged four and a half, and compared with the baby, they suddenly appeared old and wise. They were also appalled at the tiny crying thing that we brought home from the hospital. However, the tiny crying thing learnt to crawl, a talent which we only discovered when we found her eating cat food with her fingers. It’s possibly understandable. I’ve never sampled cat food, but a boy I once met told me it tasted like fish pâté, after he’d come home from the pub and found what he thought was a plate of fish pâté in his mother’s fridge. In the spirit of scientific enquiry, I did try baby food. I’ve never tried eating dishcloth, but the spoonful of baby food I tried tasted exactly as I’d imagine dishcloth to taste, if you could be bothered to put a dishcloth through a blender and turn it into brown sludge. In the interests of giving our daughter something better to eat, I mashed up some rice in the remains of a chicken vindaloo. She golloped it down. Unfortunately, my wife caught me feeding it to her (she was about five months old – my daughter, not my wife, obviously), so I got into more trouble. It’s no wonder people grow up with problems when they have mothers who’d prefer them to eat dishcloth instead of curry. How many dishcloth houses do you see on the average High Street (Cliffe or otherwise)?
By the time we moved back to Cornwall the cats were five and a half, and my daughter was able to toddle after them, which they found terrifying. On the plus side, she’d lost her taste for cat food, though I still regularly found myself in trouble for feeding her real food. “It’s got salt in it.” That’s why it tastes nice. “She might choke.” Cat food wouldn’t do that, then. As far as I could tell from Marti (which was what Martinet had become shortened to), cat food made you throw up on the landing, or just inside the front door when guests were arriving.
On the journey here, one of the cats crapped in the back of the cat basket, and my daughter was sick, though I suspect it was the chicken tikka sandwich that my wife bought her for lunch in Salisbury that was to blame, and not cat food. Moving may be stressful, but once they were here, the cats loved it, running around in the garden and chasing birds. Marti continued to throw up, on one occasion in one of my slippers. I saw it as I was getting into bed, and I congratulated myself on noticing it then, rather than putting my foot in the slipper in the morning. Unfortunately, when I went to throw the slipper full of cat sick in the bin, I stepped in the hitherto unnoticed pile of cat sick on the carpet, in my bare feet. Such is life.
Some books

Some books

My daughter is now twenty-six, with two cats of her own, and Thompson and Marti are buried in the garden. However, among my many books I still have a copy of A Practical English Grammar. Thank you Audrey and Agnes.

What’s in a name?

I was christened Francis Xavier Potts, after a saint who went to Japan as a missionary, converting heathens to Christianity, so that they could subsequently suffer cruel martyrdom at the hands of those whom he’d failed to convince. Like St Bernadette, his body is on show in a glass coffin. For me, the best thing about him is the X his name has bestowed on me as a middle initial. People ask me what it stands for, which makes for the opening of a bit of conversation. The FX together, which is what my mother abbreviates my name to, makes me feel special, too. Everyone in the film industry has heard of Special FX.

If I had been called Clint, or Butch, I might have turned out differently. I’m much more of a Francis than either of those. I will admit to having tried to be a Frank when I was a teenager, but I wasn’t very good at it, and I suspect that as a Clint or a Butch I’d have been an abject failure. I just don’t have the muscles. See the previous post, Nudity (warning: contains nudity), if you don’t believe me.

Frank and FX aren’t the only nicknames that people have used, and indeed still use. My mother calls me Francie, which was one of the names she used for me as a child, the other being Dangey. Dangey was apparently my best attempt at saying Francis (or possibly Francie) when I was learning to speak. I have to admit that I’m glad she’s more or less stopped using it, though I don’t mind her calling me Francie. I’m much more of a Francie than I am a Frank. A friend of mine on Twitter () once mistyped Francis as Franci, which makes me sound a little like a Swiss prostitute, hawking my pearly in a miniskirt along the banks of the Limmat in Zurich. My guess is that Franci is pronounced the same as Francie, so maybe my mother is trying to tell me something.

Twitter has brought other nicknames with it. Pottsy seems particularly popular, being used by and , among others. Becky pointed out that Pottsy was a lovable cartoon character, but I don’t think that’s where Grumbling got it from, and besides, Jay Irving’s cartoon cop bears no resemblance to me that I can see. Like my teachers at school, generally just goes for my surname, Potts. Since my teachers were brothers of the order of St Francis Xavier, I did occasionally get called Francis Xavier, though if I was in trouble, I just got called Potts. Mostly I just got called Potts.

Fran is the name that most Americans (and some Brits) know me by, and it’s a nickname from work, of almost thirty years’ standing. When I started working with computers, the maximum length of an access code on the system we used was six letters, and rather than sounding like a Swiss prostitute (see above), I lost the entire last syllable. It’s stuck, and has been independently adopted by a number of people since. I’m happy being Fran. In the way of things, it also got lengthened to Franny, which I don’t mind either. Many years ago, when I was suffering a bad bout of depression, I attended an outpatients’ clinic, and when I gave my name as Francis Potts, the receptionist asked me if I had another name. It struck me as a silly question, but after some thought I replied, “At work they call me Franny.” For some reason, she gave me a funny look.

I like Franny. It’s about as far from Clint and Butch as you can get. In John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire, Franny is a girl. I don’t have a problem with that, though when I was at primary school, there was a girl called Frances in my class, and I didn’t like being teased about having a girl’s name. I grew out of it, and used the name Frances to register for the Race For Life. No one noticed that it was spelt differently on the credit card. One of the most touching nicknames I’ve ever had was Francine. A (mostly) gay friend of mine used to call me that. She’s sadly dead, now, but I rather liked the idea that she’d make me into a woman so that she’d feel better about our friendship. We fought like cat and dog sometimes, but I miss her.

Nudity (warning: contains nudity)

What is it with nudity? Aside from people with no mirror in the bathroom, we’re all familiar with it. God allegedly didn’t have a problem with it, and none of us was born with clothes on. But somewhere along the line, it seems to have become an issue.
Don’t get me wrong. I like clothes. They’re decorative (if you’re careful about what you pick out of the wardrobe in the morning and you don’t do too much of your shopping in Lidl), they keep you warm in the winter, and they keep you from getting sunburn if the sun ever bothers to put his hat on. SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAEqually, taking them off isn’t a big deal. In the absence of alarming tattoos and piercings, there aren’t many frights and surprises under people’s clothes. Okay, one might be embarrassed by what God, genetics, a fondness for buns, and a repressive education have left one with, but if other people aren’t, what’s wrong with letting them get on with it? If someone started suggesting loudly that they were uncomfortable looking at big ears, or nasal hair, they’d be locked up faster than you could say ‘all mouth and no trousers’. Instead, the ‘naked rambler’ got jailed for eleven months for wearing only boots and socks (and a hat, to judge from the news photos). I enjoy walking, and the nearest I’ve seen to a naked rambler was a woman in a black bikini (and no hard hat) riding a horse on the South Downs. I doubt that letting the naked rambler get away with it would have changed things enormously, given the British weather. And even if he were to start hanging about in Morrison’s (or Waitrose), I can’t see that it would catch on. Clothes are fun and practical.
There’s even a hierarchy of what sort of nudity is acceptable. From the bottom up, we have a live nude (such as the naked rambler) as the most upsetting. Above that is a video, then a still photograph, and least despicable, a painting. Of course, it’s possible to upset people with a painting, and for a live nude not to upset anyone (much), but by and large, that’s how it goes. And if nudity’s so terrible, why are there so many paintings? I’m not an art historian (or any sort of historian), but I have in my time been both painter and model. As a model, I earned a crust, got to meet people (most of whom kept their clothes on), and learnt what it was like to be on the other side of the easel (uncomfortable, because you have to sit still for so long). As a painter, I learnt how hard it is to get it right. Classical nudes were mainly impersonal and remote, but modern nudes from Manet’s Olympia onwards are generally much more human (think Egon Schiele or Lucian Freud). It’s harder to hide when you’re naked, and it’s hard for the painter to get the right balance of honesty and exposure, but I always felt I owed it to my model to make him or her look beautiful, even when he or she wasn’t, especially.

Someone who was beautiful anyway.

Someone who was beautiful anyway.


Some of them were people I knew, and some of them were people I’d never met before, but I did my best for all of them, and quite a few asked me if they could have the paintings I’d done. I gave them away, with the rider that if I ever got a retrospective at the Hayward, I could borrow them back. The Hayward looks less and less likely to be staging my retrospective, but never mind. I hope the paintings have brought pleasure to the people to whom I gave them.
Somewhere above the painted nude in the harmlessness chart, you might expect to find the nude in prose. However, it seems that even the nude in prose (with bared flesh only in the reader’s head) can upset people. Mrs Strange taking her clothes off in Flying Lessons to go swimming, for example. There aren’t any descriptions of her nakedness, except that her face and hands are the only parts of her body that are tanned, and that she has an appendix scar. What appears to have been the issue is that she took her clothes off in front of Swann. He wasn’t even particularly interested.
Front page. The story is on page three.

Front page. The story is on page three.

Nudity has nevertheless contrived to pinch the bottom of the mainstream. The Women’s Institute calendar, and the stream of similar naked charity calendars that followed it. Naked bike rides, Spencer Tunick, and the delightful Naked Vegan Cooking blog. I took my clothes off to protest against the threatened closure of the casualty department at West Cornwall Hospital. That’s me at the back on the right, next to the woman with red hair. It really isn’t a big deal. Wrap yourself in your burka if you wish. Wear a wimple or a veil. But if the naked rambler wants to be cold and wet, just let him get on with it. If I ever meet him, I’ll smile, and if he’s not too shy, I’ll shake his hand. Maybe he’ll admire my linen jacket.