The Race for Life

I didn’t go and cheer on the runners in the Race for Life this year. I’m sorry. Last year I did, and the year before, and the year before that, and so on. I only managed to find one woman to sponsor this year, but that wasn’t the reason I didn’t turn out. The Race for Life in Penzance is run along the promenade in the evening, and even in early summer, it can get a little chilly, waiting for the women one has sponsored to run, walk, or jog the five kilometres. This year, it was a sunny evening, but there was a cold northerly wind, and that was the reason I didn’t turn out. I stayed at home in the warm and drank wine instead. As I said, I’m sorry.
raceforlifebitsThe Race for Life and I have a history. Back in 2001 I ran the Exeter half marathon with my friend Lou and her friends Paula and Clare. The following day, Lou and I went into a running shop in Exeter (Ironbridge Runner), picking up leaflets, including one for the Exeter Race for Life. “This looks good,” I said. “5K in July.”
Lou laughed. “No good for you, Fran. It’s for women only.”
“Nah! A bit of strapping, a bit of padding, a bit of lippy, and no one’ll be able to tell.”
So I applied, as did Paula and Clare. Lou was going to run it too, but she left it too late, and all the places had gone. No one noticed that Frances was spelt Francis on the credit card, I was assigned a running number (74), and I set about sorting out the strapping and the padding, not in precisely that order. The lippy could wait till last. Various friends offered to lend me joke plastic breasts with tassels. I tried socks, which looked distinctly unnatural, and finally found some hemispherical sponges in Superdrug, which coincidentally came in packets of two. However, when I tried them in the sports bra I’d borrowed, they were alarming huge, and since they didn’t weigh much, not entirely convincing. I cut them in half, which looked better, and their lack of bounce would be less apparent. Provided it didn’t rain, they’d be fine.
When it came to the strapping, I could have worn baggy shorts, but given that I’m six feet tall with a 42 inch chest, I thought that figure hugging shorts with no bulge would be a better idea. If you’re squeamish, look away now. I tucked everything inside a panty liner, which was held in place with copious amounts of surgical tape. It lowered my crotch slightly, but I achieved the bulge-free line.
Meanwhile, sponsorship money was rolling in (and offers of joke breasts), as people whom I knew learnt of it. At the time I was doing an Indian Head Massage course, on which I was the only man. Useful practice, I suppose. Besides sponsoring me, my fellow students (beauticians) offered to wax my legs, underarms, etc. I shaved instead. They also advised me on moustache bleaching, which didn’t work, and I had to resort to foundation, leaving me looking a little like Fred Flintstone.
Gill did my hair in a suitably girlie style, and I headed for Exeter. As I didn’t know how easy it would be to redo the hair, I drove the 120 miles with my pink ribbon in, hoping I wouldn’t need to stop at the services for a pee. Lou assured me that she could reproduce the hairstyle in the morning, so I was able to revert to my normal ponytail.
raceforlifeOn the morning of the race Lou redid my hair, I shaved scrupulously, sorted out the padding and the strapping, applied my foundation and my lippy, and Lou drove me down to the start. The plan was for me to hook up with Paula and Clare, but there were so many women there that I couldn’t find them. 2000 women, according to the organisers. More like 1999, by my reckoning. With thoughts of the funeral scene from The World According to Garp haunting me, I tried to look inconspicuous. I did get some funny looks from my fellow runners, and when a woman fell over I didn’t stop to help, in case the others who’d stopped got too close a look at me, but it all went off well. It didn’t rain, so my sponge boobs didn’t suddenly quadruple in weight, and the strapping stayed in place. As I came in to the finish, I heard someone say, “Is that a man or what?” and the woman who handed me my medal gave me a funny look, but that was the closest I came to being caught. I found Lou, and made good my getaway.
A woman called Michele (who was collecting for Cancer Research outside Tesco’s a few weeks ago) wanted me to reprise my role in the Penzance Race for Life, but I said no. Very few people in Exeter would know me, but in Penzance there are plenty of people who’d recognise me straightaway, and some of them might feel offended at my taking part, for whatever reason. I did my bit, raised some money, had some fun, and I hope I didn’t offend anyone.

Carol and me

Carol

Carol

isn’t the sort of person to make mistakes, you’d have thought. Author of the delightful Jigsaw Pieces (I gave it five stars) and the Spy Girl series, tattooed scourge of the council, protectrice d’escargots, and driver of an ageing 2CV, you’d have expected her to have life pretty much wrapped up. However, in an unguarded moment some months ago she followed me on Twitter.
Needless to say, I was flattered. One of the literary twitterati following me. Blimey. Her familiar, the almost as delightful , also followed me, for someone’s sins, almost certainly not hers. It isn’t that she is without sin, more that she likes to keep her sins in an aquarium on the mantelpiece where she can admire her artfulness. If you ever want to lose weight, check out her Facebook page before meals. Between the two of them they set about ribbing me mercilessly, and in one case (I won’t mention which) licking my lip or ear. I no longer precisely recall the details, but at some point Carol suggested that if I were passing through London with an hour to spare, we could meet up at St Pancras.

Carol's tattoo

Carol’s tattoo

Fair enough, I assume she was so amused by Grumbling’s antics with my earlobe that she forgot herself, or else she was taking her tattoo seriously. Secondly, St Pancras sounds like the patron saint of the things that Grumbling keeps in a jar in case she gets peckish. Thirdly, if I pass through London I’m usually in a hurry because First Great Western have failed yet again to learn the lessons from Mussolini (see Thursday’s trains).
No matter. Not content with following me on Twitter, Carol invited me to sit on her pink sofa. Well, the sofa that was pink before I started, though to be fair, Gargoyle spit was the cause of some of the stains. Much of what I had to say didn’t make it past the censorette, but never mind, I was on the vaguely still pink and only a bit stained sofa for an entire week, where proper writers had sat, and said interesting things, and had made witty ripostes to comments. My being involved in a top secret computer competition effectively prevented my making witty ripostes on the Saturday, because I wasn’t allowed Internet access, and First Great Western saw to it that all of Sunday was spent on trains and rail replacement buses, so all the slightly witty-ish ripostes had to wait until Sunday night, and I wasn’t at all sure that what I’d said in the first place was all that interesting to begin with. Not to worry. Lots of people stopped by, presumably to shake their heads and see how low Carol had been forced to stoop. When it was all over, and Grumbling and I had mopped the worst of the yuck off the sofa, I was able to return to quiet obscurity, while more august bottoms graced the pink(ish) cushions.
Meanwhile, winter gave way to… more winter, really. But I was heading for a weekend in Sussex, so I tentatively suggested that Carol and I might be able to meet up for a coffee, First Great Western and Super Off Peak Returns permitting. I assumed the answer would be something along the lines of #gawdhethoughtimeantit, but bizarrely, she seemed enthusiastic. By my calculations (generally wrong by a factor of thousands), my train from Cornwall should arrive at Paddington at 1.45, and the last train I could catch from Victoria on a Super Off Peak ticket left at 3.45. That looked like a two hour window for a half hour tube ride. Carol assured me that a Hammersmith and City train would take me to St Pancras, and a Victoria Line train would carry me south to Victoria. We liaised by text message, and everything almost worked. The train into Paddington was only about ten minutes late, and in spite of the Hammersmith and City line being the one ‘experiencing minor delays’, I walked straight onto a train, which moved, albeit haltingly. Carol was on a moving bus, and we converged on St Pancras.
Carol’s text message said, “I’m here.”
Bear in mind that I live in West Cornwall, where ‘busy’ means that there’s someone in front of you at the checkout. I surveyed the throng of people who knew what they were doing and texted back. “Which one are you?”
Her reply, “Red hair orange scarf,” was largely superfluous, since she’d spotted the one person in St Pancras who hadn’t a clue, and who (coincidentally) was trying to compose a text message. And wearing a pink pullover.

Carol and me

Carol and me

After a quick kiss on the cheek (Moi? Kissed by Carol. Blimey!), she led me to Le Pain Quotidien. I’d have settled for Grumbling’s larder if Carol were coming too. I suppose I should have guessed from the name that bread would figure largely on the menu, so we had bread. And coffee, into which I dunked my bread. Or toast, as the French call it. It was the circuses that were the best part.
I’d brought Carol a copy of Tilly Lake’s Road Trip along as a prezzie. I issued all the usual warnings about nudity, strong language, and the like, while Carol was looking for her special book signing pen. I briefly suggested that I wouldn’t sign it unless I could kiss her tattoo (she said no, possibly thrice), but I signed it anyway. In pink. We talked about Twitter, books, publishers, editors, snails (obviously), stuff (on which I couldn’t possibly comment), Grumbling, being tattooed live on Radio Four while being interviewed by Robert Peston, and so on. Just a normal hour in two people’s lives. I resisted the temptation to lick her ear, a la Grumbling, while the waiter was taking the photo, but I did manage to stroke her tattoo, if not to kiss it. I don’t know if she noticed. I’d have happily spent days talking to her, but in true tragic fashion, we had to go, though it meant I got to kiss her cheek again.
There are people I know on Twitter whom I’ve also met, but that was because I knew them before we connected on Twitter, and with Carol was the other way round. It makes me want to meet other people whom I’ve hitherto only known through Twitter (offers on a , please), though perhaps not the scantily clad young women who frequently follow me but who don’t appear to have proper tweets. Even Carol seemed keen(ish) to repeat the experience. However, now she’s started reading Tilly Lake’s Road Trip, I probably ought to hide under something with my paws over my ears for the next four hundred pages, lest I get a slap.

The new dishwasher

Our Bosch dishwasher died a couple of weeks ago. Or, as Dylan Thomas said, to begin at the beginning… My wife’s digital radio died about a month ago. It was her second ever digital radio, having been bought to replace the first, which was bought to replace the analogue radio which is still gathering dust on the sitting room windowsill. The demise of all three may have been hastened by her applying percussive maintenance to them, in much the way that bashing the telly sometimes worked when I was a child. However, electronics has moved on, and the chips that power radios today don’t take kindly to being bashed on the nearest solid object. Never mind. For seventy quid I bought a posh Sony digital radio from Tesco’s. My first car cost me a tenner. Time passes, as Dylan Thomas also said.

The week after the death of the digital radio, the toaster exploded. It didn’t send shrapnel flying across the kitchen, as such, but the loud bang did put all the lights out. Fortunately, besides making radios that you can’t bash any more, progress has also given us fuse boxes that you don’t have to rewire in the dark when the toaster explodes. These days you just unplug the smoking carcass of the toaster and fiddle with the ‘trips’, as the little switches are apparently called. I bought a toaster from Tesco’s for a mere fifteen pounds.

Needless to say, it’s the wrong kind of toaster, being the only kind that Tesco’s in Penzance sells. The Sony digital radio is also wrong, as Sony are ‘useless when it comes to digital radios’, it seems. That’s married life. One gets used to it.

And then the dishwasher died. Not with the bang of the toaster, but with a whimper. Or more accurately, with a strange graunching noise that upset the cats.

We have three cats. Elvis, our elderly and sensible cat, Huw, an ungrateful little thug who was rescued wandering around on the A30 at midnight as a kitten, and Maisie, who isn’t really our cat at all, but my daughter’s ex boyfriend’s sister’s morbidly obese cat, who has been living with us for a couple of years now. Next door’s cat also prefers our house to theirs.

Elvis looking puzzled

Elvis looking puzzled

Elvis was puzzled by the sounds from the dishwasher, but he may have
Catzheimer’s, as he’s increasingly puzzled by all sorts of things. Huw skittered sideways away from the noise and dealt with his angst by jumping on Elvis and rolling him across the floor in a squawling bundle of fur, and Maisie hid under the television with her paws over her ears. Next door’s cat ignored the dishwasher and mopped up all the unconsidered cat food left behind by the other three.

I would have been happy to put up with the increased noise from the dishwasher, except that it was accompanied by a lackadaisical attitude to the business of washing the dishes. It would hiss and graunch and whirr for an hour and a half, and when one opened it at the end, steam would issue forth, but the dishes were generally about as dirty as they had been when they went in. More homogeneously dirty, in that the coffee grounds ended up stuck to the plates, and there were greasy smears on the wine glasses, but still less than sparkling. At my wife’s suggestion, I had ‘a look’, which consisted of removing all the removable bits from inside the dishwasher, and throwing away a couple of pieces of yellow plastic that looked as if they’d broken off something. “Try that,” I suggested.

When my wife ‘tried that’, the dishwasher went through its cycle with the reassuring murmur that it had made all through the ten years of its life, and the dishes came out homogeneously filthy.

That was a Thursday. During the rest of Thursday evening, we discussed whether we should get ‘a man’ to fix it, or buy another dishwasher. There was a little more discussion on Friday lunchtime, and on Friday evening we went out to buy a new dishwasher. Tesco’s in Penzance doesn’t sell dishwashers, but there’s a Currys just down the road, which had a dozen different models, ranging from a Bloggs Special at about £170, up to a German made something for £500. My wife eventually decided on a Bosch for £300, which the saleswoman told us wasn’t as reliable as the ten year old Bosch that had just packed up, and it wasn’t made in Germany, but in ‘Europe’. There were two Bosch models, both at £300, but they only had one in stock. I’d seen a ‘free delivery’ sticker, but for that one has to wait two weeks. If we paid £25, we could have it delivered on Monday or Tuesday. Or Darren could load it into our car and we could take it away there and then. It didn’t take us long to make up our minds. “I’ll just get him,” said the saleswoman.

If I’d realized that I was going to try to put a dishwasher into the boot of my car, I’d have taken the portable massage couch out first, but no matter, Lady Marmalade has plenty of room in the back. With the back seat down, there was room for both the couch and the new dishwasher. Getting the dishwasher out of the car and into the house was a struggle, even with my dinky little trolley, and I left it, in its packaging, in the middle of the kitchen floor, instead of trying to plumb it in at eight o’clock on a Friday night. The presence of the dishwasher in the kitchen, however, obviously upset the balance of cats, and in the morning, Maisie was lurking on the landing, next to a pile of cat shit. I muttered a word that rhymes with ‘mastered’, and cleared it up.

On Saturday afternoon, I plumbed in the new dishwasher. It was a beautiful afternoon, possibly the nicest of the year so far, and I spent it kneeling in a puddle, muttering words that rhyme with ‘luck’ and ‘mugger’, trying to stop the pipe from leaking. It did eventually stop dripping, and when my wife tried the new dishwasher, the dishes came out clean. Result, I thought, and I loaded the old one into the car to take to Currys for recycling, along with a dead toaster and two digital radios. If I’d known about the analogue radio on the windowsill, I’d have taken that as well.

On Sunday morning, I found Huw peering behind the new dishwasher, and when I looked, the pipe was dripping. I muttered the word that rhymes with ‘mugger’, but I didn’t do anything straightaway, deciding that muesli and coffee and a bath were more exciting. However, the cats were fascinated, and every time I passed, there was a cat peering at the drips. Eventually, I hauled the dishwasher away from the wall, and I did manage to sort out the leak. I left the dishwasher pulled away from the pipe, so that I could continue to check, and when I did check, I found next door’s cat staring at the pipe, and Huw lodged in behind the washing machine, staring back. I checked on the pipe, which was still dry, but while I was doing so, I noticed the baby rabbit hiding among the plumbing.

Cats aren’t the brightest when it comes to creatures great and small, beautiful as they sometimes are, so I was able to palm the rabbit like a conjuror and whisk it away. I left it in the garden across the road, and when I came back, Huw was still eyeballing next door’s cat. As Dylan Thomas said, “O please to keep Thy lovely eye On all poor creatures born to die.” Not today, cats. Unlike the dishwasher and the toaster and the digital radios, the rabbit lives.

Now we are sixty

I remember being six. Not my sixth birthday, which has disappeared into the general memory of childhood birthdays, but because we moved to Eastbourne when I was five and a half, and my father left just after my seventh birthday, so a lot of the memories I have of being at home when my father was there have to have been from when I was six. Statistically speaking, about two thirds of them.

I remember A A Milne, too, particularly the books of poems, When We Were Very Young, and Now We Are Six. I doubt that he’d get away with “Christopher Robin went down with Alice” these days. His agent would have said something. However, I don’t remember Winnie the Pooh, in spite of my godmother’s nickname being Pooh (my mother went to school with her, and was called Rab, after Rabbit, and their friend Elizabeth was known as Pig until the day she died).

When I was in my thirties, I went to Pooh Bridge in Ashdown Forest with my friend Helen, and we wanted to play Pooh sticks, just like everyone else, but the forest floor around was remarkable for its complete absence of sticks. Maybe local councils should invent the game of Pooh litter, to be played in car parks and beauty spots. Helen didn’t even make sixty, dying of a brain tumour in her fifties, so she missed out on all of the goodies that come with being sixty. The bus pass is no longer on the list, and according to the officious woman in the public library, I shall have to wait until I’m sixty-three for mine. I don’t mind, since the last bus to Skimmel Bridge left when I was fifty-five, and the nearest bus stop is now the best part of a mile away. However, I do qualify for free prescriptions, so I’ve already ordered some Temazepam, and I have a Senior Citizen’s rail card.

The rail card is brilliant, getting me a third off train fares. It cost £28.00, but by using a Tesco Clubcard Deal, I got it for fourteen quids’ worth of vouchers. Since the ticket I bought last week would have been £111.00, and I got it for £73.00, I feel smug. Old, but smug. driving licenceThe rail card has no picture on it, and nor does the crumbling pink driving licence (complete with three points from an SP30 in 1996) which I used to prove to the online site that I was sixty, so presumably I could lend both to my daughter, and she could pretend to be me and get cheap rail fares, too.

At sixty, one also receives an ‘invitation’ to take part in the bowel cancer screening programme. Not as much fun as a garden party (or any kind of party, really), but the invitation is probably worth taking up nevertheless. Within a couple of weeks of the ‘invitation’ I received the ‘kit’, which consisted mainly of cardboard and a waterproof looking envelope. If you’re squeamish, look away now. The business end of the kit is a cardboard object with three flaps, like the Devil’s Advent calendar, and six cardboard ‘sticks’ to press out, for sampling a ‘bowel motion’. The ‘bowel motion’ isn’t allowed to touch the ‘toilet bowl’, so there are some useful hints as to how you can prepare for sampling. I went along with the ‘folded pieces of toilet paper’, especially as ‘your hand covered in a small plastic bag’ assumes the plastic bag lacks the ubiquitous health-and-safety holes, presumably introduced because we all suffocated ourselves when we were six. You use two of the ‘sticks’ to take samples from two different parts of the ‘bowel motion’, and smear the little windows under one of the flaps of the Advent calendar. Long before you get to the smearing-the-little-windows stage, however, you realize that you’ve run out of hands, knees, and any other convenient surface on which to place the many things which are now liberally covered with ‘bowel motion’.

Day one is the worst. After you’ve cleaned the smears of ‘bowel motion’ from everything except the little windows in the Advent calendar, you plan ahead, with lots of ‘folded pieces of toilet paper’ around the place, and by day three you’re a dab hand (yuck) at it. With the flaps dated and tucked in, you slip the Advent calendar into the waterproof looking envelope and breathe a sigh of relief. Sending shit through the post was never more straightforward.

We live in the country, and the air sometimes smells of shit. It’s one of the things that come out of farm animals besides milk. When my daughter was at primary school, there was a particularly strong smell one morning, and on the way in, the children in the car were discussing it, using assorted euphemisms supplied by their parents. My daughter announced firmly, “Shit’s shit.” You win a few and you lose a few. At least I didn’t have to explain why the bear was called Winnie the Shit.

A (brief) history of pants and socks

When I was a child, boys wore white pants and grey socks. Girls wore white socks, and either white knickers (sometimes with a bit of lace around the tops of the legs) or navy blue knickers (without lace). Girls at posh schools sometimes wore dark green or mauve knickers (also never with lace) to match their uniforms. We used to call the navy knickers ‘gym knickers’, and girls generally did PE in the summer in gym knickers and white vests.

However, if your mother washed your white pants with your sisters’ navy knickers (or didn’t use Persil), your pants headed away from white, aiming for sock grey, and generally ending up somewhere on the dull side of beige. Boys’ vests were mostly aertex, but girls’ vests were modelled along the lines of their white knickers (without the lace). Boys’ pants also had an opening in the front (which had a tendency to gape), presumably so that we could pee. Since my corduroy shorts didn’t have a fly, it was superfluous. I just hoiked up the leg of my shorts and pants, like everyone else.

At the age of eleven, I went to the Grammar School, and my pants and socks had to have name tapes sewn in, and my grey shorts had a fly (which I didn’t use, hoiking up etc). In the second year, however, I graduated to long trousers, and it was suddenly no longer practicable to hoik up a leg, and I had to start using the fly. Somewhere around this time, my mother bought me some Y fronts, which solved the problem with the gaping.

Old school hairbrush

Old school hairbrush

When I was thirteen, the grammar school decided that my place would be better suited to someone who actually turned up for classes, and I was sent away to boarding school at Mayfield College. A laundry number was added to the name tapes in my pants and socks, MC 143. None of my clothes from those days survive, but I still have my hairbrush, with the number that my mother wrote on the back in Indian ink just about legible.

I was about to start the fifth form when my mother decided that some of my pants were looking the worse for wear, and she rather unwisely gave me some money to buy three new pairs. To my delight, Marks and Spencer sold brightly coloured underpants for the same price as boring white ones, so I returned home with two pairs of turquoise and one pair of scarlet, all with white detailing. Ever philosophical, my mother said that they wouldn’t show the dirt, and sewed in the name tapes. I believe I was the only boy at Mayfield with coloured underpants, and surprisingly, I didn’t get into any trouble.

In the sixth form, we were occasionally taken out to a theatre, generally to see something educational, like The Wife of Bath’s Tale, and we’d be allowed to wear civilian clothes, which my English teacher (Mr Field) described as ‘a cross between Carnaby Street and Worzel Gummidge’. Instead of wearing grey socks on such outings, I would wear my white PE socks, which the flapping of my flared trousers would show off when I walked.

Pants and socks

Pants and socks

After I’d left school, I experimented with different styles of underpants, never white, and coloured socks, but by the time I was in my thirties I’d settled on boxer shorts and white socks. A friend gave me a beautiful pair of scarlet silk boxers for Christmas once, which I still own, but most of my boxer shorts were consigned to history when I went to massage school. My teacher (Betty Williams) told me that boxer shorts were too revealing for practice sessions and that I was frightening the ladies, so I bought myself some slips of various colours.

Lady Marmalade's dashboard

Lady Marmalade’s dashboard

Not being one to waste boxer shorts, however, I put a pair on the dashboard of my car. That way, if the windscreen should mist over on the motorway I don’t have to take my pants off to wipe it clear, since there’s a pair already there. I also have a pair of women’s pants (black with white detailing) on the dashboard of my car, which a friend gave me. I put them on the passenger seat to remind me of things, much like a knot in the corner of a handkerchief. There are pants on the dashboard in Tilly Lake’s Road Trip too, along with a somewhat different explanation.

Now that slips are unfashionable, the range of available colours has largely dwindled to blue. But I persist in wearing a slip and white socks, and most of the slips are navy, not unlike girls’ gym knickers from my distant childhood, enabling me to derive some satisfaction from the knowledge that under my clothes I look a little like a schoolgirl with no vest on.

 

Dangerous bathrooms

bathroomsmallA few weeks ago, I attended the postponed Sophos Malware Challenge, in Abingdon, and I stayed at the Four Pillars Hotel, which was fine, and better than a Premier Inn. However, the bathroom was apparently a minefield of hidden hazards, judging from the notice on the wall. Or notices. There were two identical copies, on different walls, I suppose in case I failed to notice the first one.

 

1. Wet surface of the bath very well before use.

Or during. That would presumably work. And unless you’re using the bath for something unusual, probably a bit of a sine qua non.

2. Place mat in bath. Ensure the suckers are in contact with the bath. Press down fully WITH YOUR HANDS. Test that the mat is secured firmly.

Possibly an instruction for perverts, who might try to press down with something else. And possibly DEAF PERVERTS who can’t hear lower case.

3. Before using the bath or shower, ensure the cotton bath mat provided, or something similar, is on the floor.

Okay. If a cotton bath mat is provided, why would you go looking for something similar? And how many of us have something similar to a cotton bath mat in our luggage?

4. Step into the bath SLOWLY AND CAREFULLY, into the centre of the mat.

With your hands above your head, I expect. THROW YOUR WEAPON TO THE GROUND, too.

5. Avoid the use of bathing oils.

A bit vague. Does that include shower gel and shampoo (provided), and soap (not provided)? Or does the Four Pillars assume that guests turn up with a slave bearing an amphora full of something slimy, and a strigil, just like the Roman baths (where there were probably at least four pillars)?

6. Step out of the bath slowly and carefully.

Reasonable enough, and no upper case necessary, since the weapon has been thrown on the ground during stage four.

7. If you have any difficulties please do not hesitate to contact a member of staff for assistance.

So. Any or all of the above has failed, and you’ve used something other than YOUR HANDS to press the suckers down, or you’ve tripped over your slave, possibly in the dry bath, or you’ve fallen on the floor where you carelessly neglected to place something similar to the cotton bath mat provided. You’re naked and broken (and possibly wet, or covered in illicit bath oils). Shout for help.

Epilogue.

Needless to say, I didn’t obey all of the instructions. I threw the rubber mat on the floor next to the loo, climbed in quickly, realised that the cotton bath mat was still hanging over the heated towel rail, and I used shower gel. Improbably enough, however, no harm befell me.

The Liebster Blog Award

liebster-blog-award1

Once again, I have allowed the glamorous Bev Spicer to rope me into a blogging chain. Her blog can be found here.

The purpose of the Liebster Blog Award is apparently to recognize blogs with fewer than 200 followers that deserve a look. I don’t actually know how many followers my blog has, but it should qualify admirably in the numbers stakes, but whether it deserves a look is more questionable.
My job is to list eleven random facts about me, answer the eleven questions Bev has set me, then to nominate eleven new bloggers, who should bask in the Liebster glow – which means doing the same as I am doing here! ie, post a blog linking back here, with eleven random facts about you, answer my eleven questions and nominate eleven new bloggers (and think of eleven questions to ask them – can be anything!). I don’t think I know eleven bloggers, but otherwise I’ll give it a go…

The eleven random facts.

One.

I have been pictured on the front page of the local paper (The Cornishman) three times. Once naked, once mooning, and once fully clothed and wearing a linen jacket. In that order.

Two.

When the Sound of Music came out, I fell in love with Julie Andrews. I was probably about thirteen at the time.

Three.

I once ended up in the cross country team at school. As usual, I trotted off down the field with all the other boys, and as soon as I was out of sight of the school buildings, I took a left into the wooded gully that led down to the bottom of the valley. From there, another wooded gully led up to Lakestreet, about half a mile from the finish. I’d wait there, smoking a cigarette, until I judged that lots of boys had run past, and then I’d slip out of the bushes and join in. Unfortunately, on this particular occasion, I either hurried up the gully, or smoked my cigarette too quickly, and I ended up as first reserve for the team. However, no one dropped out, so my subterfuge (and lack of running ability) remained undiscovered.

Four.

I did finish the London Marathon in 1994. I didn’t win, but I wasn’t last, either.

Five.

I learnt to ride horses so that I could sit next to girls. When I was about fourteen, there was a stables near where we lived, and for a small sum of money, you could spend all Saturday there, riding, brushing, mucking out, sitting around chatting, and so on. I was the only boy. We were picked up from the station in a minibus and taken out there, but the minibus was so cramped I always ended up with girls’ thighs pressed against mine from either side. As a bonus, I also learnt to ride. And talk to girls.

Six.

I love pastis. And olives. And dry Martini. Is that one random fact, or three? Arithmetic was never my strong point, though I did manage to pass O level maths.

Seven (or nine, see ‘six’ above).

‘Flexible cystoscopy’ is doctorspeak for a tube up your willie. I have had two, but fortunately not both at once. The first was under general anaesthetic, and didn’t hurt until they took the catheter out. After that it was agony (details are in the blog archive, ‘The Surgical Admissions Lounge’, and ‘Dusky maidens, or what happened next’). The second was under local anaesthetic, as it was laughingly called. It stung when they applied it, and it didn’t numb the pain of the tube. On the plus side, I was allowed to keep the bit of plastic they hauled out with the ‘stent grabber’, provided I promised not to lick it.

Foot long stent

Foot long stent

Eight.

I know the German for ‘red squirrel’. But I’m not telling what it is.

Nine.

For one afternoon only, I acted as a tour guide in Aix en Provence. It was the real guide’s day off, and none of the other people on the tour knew enough French to understand the scheduled visit to the museum. I knew nothing about the contents of the museum, so the whole thing was like a surreal game of charades, where I understood what the curator was saying, but not what he was talking about, and everyone else knew what he was talking about, and tried to guess it from my translations. All I remember is Good King Rennie’s Book of Hours, whatever that was.

Ten.

The police stopped me for speeding once. In my defence, I thought the limit was forty, and not thirty, though in fairness, since I was doing forty-six, it’s a bit academic. They fined me, and I got three points on my licence.

Eleven.

When I lie awake at night, I wonder what a Vermeer nude would look like, and where the light would fall.

 

And now the eleven questions.

1. What’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever visited and why?

The ‘why’ is easy, because it’s beautiful. Though a ‘when’ might be involved too. St Jean Pied de Port in spring? Collioure on a summer morning?

2. Do you ever read (or write) poetry. Why/Why not?

Occasionally (and occasionally). I sometimes read it because it’s like putting a literary stock cube on your tongue. Instead of diluting the words, everything is concentrated into a small space. I occasionally write poetry for the reason I write most things, to entertain.

3. Who would be the perfect dinner date and why?

If I say ‘Bev Spicer’, I’m likely to get a slap, really, whatever reason I give.

4. If you could be someone else for a day, who would it be and why?

I can’t imagine wanting to be someone else, especially not for a day. Supposing I liked it? However, if I were Bev Spicer for a day, I could set up the dinner date (in question three above), while the real Bev Spicer wasn’t looking.

5. Would you prefer to go into space or explore the ocean floor (safely) and why?

No. What’s wrong with the bit we live in?

6. Describe the view from one of the windows in your house/apartment.

It’s winter. The sky’s bright, rather than blue, but there’s enough sun for there to be shadows. Granite steps, granite gateposts, a concrete path. Trees, a camellia, a scruffy daisy that shouldn’t be in flower until Easter, daffodils, some with their flowers eaten by slugs, last autumn’s cyclamen still flowering, and a clump of rather pretty saxifrage. Mud.

7. Can you remember your first kiss? Keep it clean!

When I was five I kissed a girl called Caroline. I think because I was told to. She was very pretty, and we used to hold hands.

8. Do you do anything to keep fit? What or why not?

Not recently. I used to run (see random fact number four), but my heart rate started to rise alarmingly, so I gave it up some years ago. I used to walk a lot, too, but the recurrent kidney infections through the second half of last year took a lot out of me. However, I’m hopeful that when the weather warms up I’ll get back to walking again.

9. Describe yourself when you were around eighteen.

Tall. Thin. Living in France.

10. Where do you stand on football? (Try not to be silly, now)

Moi? Silly? Where did that idea come from? Okay. Football. Not especially interested. My dad was a lifelong Newcastle United fan, not in any wearing-stripey-shirts way, more in a sad-shaking-of-head way, so I vaguely keep an eye on what they’re doing. And I did go to a football match once, when I was five, in Trowbridge.

11. What kind of music do you listen to?

Pop music in the car. That’s about it these days.

A Very British Blog!

blogtour

Very British writer Clive Eaton has invited some writers to answer some Very British questions! I have been roped in by the lovely Bev Spicer whose fascinating answers you can find here.

And here are mine:

Q. Where were you born and where do you live at the moment?

I was born while my parents were away. They lived in Cornwall, but I was born in Eastbourne, in Sussex, where my maternal grandparents lived. As I like to think of it, my mother left Cornwall with a bump, and came back with a baby. We didn’t stay in Cornwall for long, and although my earliest fragmentary memories are of Portreath, by the time I was two we were living in Frome, in Somerset. I came back to Cornwall twenty-five years ago, and I now live in Sancreed, a rural parish west of Penzance, a few miles from Land’s End.

 

Q. Have you always lived and worked in Britain or are you based elsewhere at the moment?

When I left school I spent a year in France, working on a farm, in what these days would be called a ‘gap year’. Back then it was just called ‘failing your A levels’. I currently work part time for a company in Atlanta, Georgia, and I’ve been going over there on and off over the past ten years, but mostly I work from home.

 

Q. Which is your favourite part of Britain?

Aha. An easy question. Cornwall. Failing that, the South of France.

 

Q. Have you ‘highlighted’ or ‘showcased’ any particular part of Britain in your books? For example, a town or city; a county, a monument or some well-known place or event?

The narrator of Flying Lessons is borderline autistic, and nothing is named, only described. The short story, Kissing the Abyss, doesn’t name the location, but it’s loosely based on Cornwall. Tilly Lake’s Road Trip, on the contrary, uses very real places, like Brighton, Lindisfarne, and the Lake District. Even a couple of the pubs are real, and in the background there are real news stories, such as an Italian Earthquake, and the choice of Carol Ann Duffy as poet laureate, which fix the story in time as well as place.

 

Q. There is an illusion – or myth if you wish – about British people that I would like you to discuss. Many see the ‘Brits’ as having a ‘stiff upper lip’. Is that correct?

We may not be as outgoing as some nationalities, but Swinging London was one of ours, round about the time the French were doing Paris Riots. I thought we were famous for our eccentricity as well. Just because I went to a public school, it doesn’t mean I actually liked washing in cold water, or freezing on a muddy rugby pitch. I’d have preferred to sit and smoke in a comfortable armchair indoors in the warm, and the reason I shivered behind the fourth form common room had nothing to do with my stiff upper lip, and everything to do with it being against the rules for fourth formers to smoke.

 

Q. Do any of the characters in your books carry the ‘stiff upper lip’? Or are they all ‘British Bulldog’ and unique in their own way?

My characters are mostly eccentric, and mostly British. Anka (in Tilly Lake’s Road Trip) is Russian, but she’s still eccentric, verging on completely mad. When I write, it’s the characters who forge the story. I create a couple of characters, put them in a situation, and see where they go and who they pick up along the way. Getting them to come to a satisfactory conclusion is the hard part. Tilly Lake’s Road Trip ran to 100,000 words before I realised where it was going, and it took another 40,000 words to get it there.

 

Q. Tell us about one of your recent books

roadtripsmallTilly Lake’s Road Trip came out in December. It follows fifty-eight year old Tilly Lake for a period of six weeks, starting with the death of her husband John on April Fools’ Day. As a child, Tilly had dreamt of being chauffeured around Britain by Prince Charming, and she uses the life insurance money to fulfil her childhood dream. She buys a big American car, hires a short, dark, and handsome Welshman as a driver, and sets off, leaving Anka (the young woman her husband was in bed with when he died) to look after the house. There’s also a female bodybuilder, a talking dog, a phone full of topless profile pictures, and a pile of knickers on the dashboard, just like in any other well constructed novel.

Q. What are you currently working on?

I’m currently coauthoring a novel with Rebecca Scarberry ( on Twitter). It involves two divorced English men, two American widows, and a pair of white pigeons. The pigeons and the widows are the characters from her delightful young adult novella, Messages from Henry, and although the story follows on, it couldn’t really be described as a sequel, since it’s aimed at an adult audience. Rather like Mrs Tiggywinkle getting done for tax fraud, or Five Go to Stalingrad. Besides that, there’s a sequel to Tilly Lake’s Road Trip that’s about half done, and A Series of Surprises, another novel, also about half done. Ernestine and Walter is a collection of half a dozen short stories about a young woman and a cat, nearly finished, which I’d describe as children’s stories for grownups.

 

Q. How do you spend your leisure time?

Writing, mostly. And a certain amount of sitting around drinking.

 

Q. Do you write for a local audience or a global audience?

For anyone who’ll read what I write. My Amazon UK sales are much bigger than my Amazon US sales, so my suspicion is that my books appeal to a British audience more than they do to an American audience.

 

Q. Can you provide links to your work?

Yes.

Tilly Lake’s Road Trip    amazon.co.uk   amazon.com

Flying Lessons   amazon.co.uk   amazon.com

Kissing the Abyss  amazon.co.uk   amazon.com

 

Je voudrais aussi remercier Clive Eaton, qui a eu l’idée de ce blog tour, et aussi la très jolie Bev Spicer, qui a pensé à moi.

 

Room with sticks

Ikea sell sticks. I have seen them. Admittedly, the sticks I saw for sale in Ikea in Nottingham were half price, but I still don’t really understand why anyone would pay more than four quid for a bunch of sticks. outdoor sticksHere, sticks grow wild, like weeds. It seems hard to imagine someone forking out for a bag of thistles, or a sachet of fresh groundsel. My daughter actually bought some black sticks from Ikea in Bristol. They’re still in the upstairs midden that was her bedroom. They’re straightish black sticks (probably dyed, like her hair), with no side twigs, but they’re still sticks. The ones that were half price in Nottingham were just brown sticks, twigs and all, not dissimilar to the sticks that grow wild on the edges of car parks and the like.

However, I am obviously out of touch. Last weekend I went to Eastbourne, to see family, and on Sunday afternoon my sisters and I visited the Towner Art Gallery, and there was a room with sticks. Big sticks, but just sticks, with side twigs. sticksThe exhibition was called ‘Bon Hiver’, and to enter, one had to walk through the room with sticks. There were sensible warnings about ‘branches’ (or ‘twigs’, as we like to call them) coming out at all angles, and mentions of ‘trees’ (or ‘sticks’ – if I’d had a pair of secateurs I could have come away with some bean sticks), but it was really just a roomful of sticks. It wasn’t even realistic. There was no mud underfoot.

When I was a child, the Towner Art Gallery was housed in a delightful building in the corner of Manor Gardens, now listed. There was a splendid collection of modern British art, with Edward Burra’s watercolour of Soldiers’ Backs clambering up an end wall, a bird by Elizabeth Frink, and a Henry Moore sculpture big enough that you could sit on the laps of the King and Queen. The last was probably not something that every child could get away with, but one of the curators was a long time friend of my mother’s, so provided we didn’t actually damage anything, we were fairly well tolerated. Add to that somewhere dry and warm, leather chairs, and a table with art magazines containing pictures of naked women, and it was every twelve year old boy’s ideal way to spend a damp winter’s afternoon.

The new Towner Art Gallery is purpose built, adjoining the Congress Theatre, the old listed building having been sold for conversion into flats, and now languishing in disrepair with the roof leaking and the windows boarded up. I’m no longer twelve, but the new tasteful concrete Towner has no table with art magazines, though it does have a shop and a cafe, both of which the old one sorely lacked. And it’s over three floors, where the old one had to make do with two. The ground floor houses the shop (in the spacious high ceilinged foyer), and a large gallery, which was closed last Sunday. The top floor houses a gallery, which was closed last Sunday, and the café, which was busy. The middle floor houses a gallery, which on Sunday was devoted to the ‘Bon Hiver’ exhibition. The paintings from the old Towner Art Gallery are in a giant cupboard, where the public are allowed in on guided tours on selected days, and where the guide will slide out some of the tall panels hung with paintings on request. I went on one of the guided tours (not last Sunday, that wasn’t a selected day), I didn’t notice the Elizabeth Frink, and the Henry Moore would have been hard to hide. I asked, but the guide didn’t know where the King and Queen had gone.

I may be judging the gallery harshly, since the ‘Bon Hiver’ exhibition did have a small Gaudier Brzeska sculpture of a sleeping faun among the paintings, and a few good mid twentieth century English watercolours, but my overriding impression was that of a room with sticks. So perhaps Ikea are more in touch than I am, and are just selling the equivalent of the picture of the Green Chinese Lady that one could buy from Woolworth’s when I was twelve.

The Sophos Malware Challenge

For the second year in a row I have been invited to take part in the Sophos Malware Challenge. It’s more of a challenge for me than it is for most of the other participants, since I know almost nothing about malware. I know it isn’t good for my computer, and that when McAfee crashed before Christmas it meant that I shouldn’t Google anything remotely dodgy, in case I should end up with malware on my system. Beyond that, I haven’t a clue. Nevertheless, for the third year in a row, I have performed well enough in the DC3 Digital Forensics Challenge to qualify me for the next round. The first time, I put in a lunchtime’s effort and finished third in the UK and thirty-sixth in the world, all of which earned me a place at the Masterclass in Bristol, where I ended up being a member of the winning team. CertificateAs part of my prize, I won a place on a three day course in Cambridge, learning about hacking. I scored zero out of sixty in the end of course test (the pass mark was forty), but I still ended up with a certificate stating that I had ‘achieved the Certified Application Security Tester Qualification’. I just wish A levels had been so easy. Last year, I tried harder, and spent several weekends on the DC3 challenge, resulting in my scoring five times as much as the year before, and coming third in the UK and thirty-seventh in the world. Clearly everyone else was trying harder, too. And instead of a place at the Masterclass, I won a place at the Sophos Malware Challenge. I didn’t ask what my score was at the Sophos gig, but it was probably about the same as it was on the course in Cambridge, and it certainly wasn’t enough to qualify me for the Masterclass.

Me and my fellow geeks

Me and my fellow geeks

I didn’t mind. I had a fun trip to icy Abingdon, met some interesting fellow geeks, got my expenses paid, and because my train home was delayed, I got a voucher for money off my next train trip. Result. But I did decide that I wouldn’t bother with the DC3 challenge for the third year. However, I am easily swayed, and a fellow participant suggested that I should just do the easy exercises, and that would be good enough to qualify me again, since the top ten would go through. Accordingly, I registered, downloaded the Challenge files, and did the easy exercises. Arithmetic isn’t my strong point, but I think I finished eleventh. Fortunately, it would appear that someone (whose arithmetic is undoubtedly better than mine) didn’t read the small print, and so neglected to register with the Cyber Security Challenge, so I have once again been invited to Abingdon. The Cyber Security Challenge people have sent me some useful hints this year. They suggest I mug up on ‘Strings’, ‘Autoruns’, and something called a ‘Rootkit Revealer’. Strings I know about. We had Christmas cards hanging on them until ten days ago. Tilly Lake’s Road Trip probably comes under the heading of ‘Autoruns’, or maybe Swann’s driving the stolen car through the wall in Flying Lessons. As for a ‘Rootkit Revealer’, it sounds like something off Gardener’s World. Never mind. I shan’t burden my tiny brain with such complexities. I’ve booked myself into a hotel in Abingdon on Friday night, so that I don’t have to get up at stupid o’clock for the Challenge on Saturday, and I’m treating the whole thing as a holiday. Life is sweet.