Plumbing the depths

I have not had a shower today.

Apologies for this confession, but at the moment I do not really fancy a freezing cold torrent of water, which is what a shower looks like at the moment in our house and has for a week or so following a tap related saga.

That is not important really for us as we have the advantage of relatives nearby with working bathrooms and I have showers at work if need be. I recall spending two years of college with the same situation, using the facilities – oddly that I remember them being deep underground, although I am sure that was not the case – to avoid chipping the ice off the bath in the house I shared. The house was owned and minimally maintained by a generic Eastern European chap in a camel hair coat who almost certainly had been separated from Arthur Daley at birth.

Of course I did not mind then. It was cheap, I had no money and at least it had running water and usually had a power supply. So channelling the moment I just keeping checking to see if the Lovely Wife looks faint from any smells that might be resulting and so far things look OK. Although she does have a bit of cold, it is true.

Now many years later on, I have however realised my tolerance is now minimal for anything not being perfect. Whether it is working plumbing, power or internet/phone signal, if I am deprived for more than a few hours I can feel the twitching start. Last week, out in the wilds of Herefordshire, the butcher two doors down declared to me – while selling me some of the best rump I’ve had in ages – which he was proud to live in a county devoid of any motorways (and therefore an island of peace trapped between the M5 and Offa’s Dyke). It is also a county where power cuts are still common place – largely treated with laughter and cheers in the local pub (although those hoping to eat food cooked on electric perhaps had a slightly muted reaction) and the freak storm that took out a Vodafone phone mast (as mentioned last week) and eliminated signal for about 48 hours was still the talk of the town when we left (already shifting details in terms of day it happened, length and the size of possible fantasy hailstones in the process depending on who you talked to).

But I have felt a bit ashamed at how much I react to such a pathetic and temporary removal of a minor comfort when – and you know what is coming here – so many people don’t have it. I do not feel guilty about the fact I am well off and living such a wonderful life; I prefer to be grateful rather than guilty. But it is a good time for me to remind myself that the situation is very fragile and needs to be appreciated, and that problems when they arrive should be tolerated with good humour rather than treated with panic. Meanwhile to also see what I can do to give back a bit even it is spending less time in the (eventually warm again) shower – that is incredibly power intensive and an easy way to reduce your personal environmental impact.

While thinking about the plumbing in trying to stem the flow from our taps to avoid waste it took me back to one of the most shocking books I’ve read for a long time – The Big Necessity by Rose George – which really brings home the importance of decent sanitation and the issue that it is not just finding a water supply but having the right set up in the right place to avoid contamination of supplies that do exist because that is just as, if not more important. Unfortunately it is easier to get money for schemes that dig new wells than those that build toilets… We’re too squeamish, even the supposed rational among us; we’re still people after all and we cannot stop how we react, although we can try and be aware of our natural repulsions and tackle the subject head on. Good sanitation is not something we view as a luxury so if we can help improve someone else’s situation and save lives, we should. And in the meantime, even if we cannot afford to help or have other causes (as we all do) that are close to our hearts then we can still be respectful of water and power use, where I know I have a long way to go in delivering on my words and intentions and actions.

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After cider, we wobble (but don’t fall down. Much.)

It is our tenth wedding anniversary this week and in keeping with tradition we have arranged it so that the Lovely Wife books where we go and celebrate – we take turns on doing it which is always fun, although for me it means that I cannot decide which of the huge pile of guidebooks and gazetteers to take with me.

This year because our anniversary falls mid week that means a week’s holiday (how terrible, I obviously despair from being away from work for a whole week) and this terrible ordeal is taking place in the Herefordshire village of Weobley.

That’s pronounced Webley, rather than Wibley which is probably historically more accurate (apparently) or Weebly, which to my inner child, who played with a people who wobbled but did not fall down, would be far funnier.

In the end it is a lovely, friendly village with good shops, a great pub and a magnificent medieval church. Everyone here is terribly friendly. That said, it is a retirement centre, clearly; apart from the handful of teenagers mainlining the local Tyrell’s crisps on the small central green (surmounted by a giant metal magpie, in honour of the black and white medieval houses that populate the area but making us feel ever so slightly nervous the thunder and lightning we have had this week in the evening – though the only actual casualty of that seems to have been a Vodafone mobile phone mast based on the sudden loss of signal) the predominant hair colour is certainly gray. The poor curate of the local ministry looks about twelve in comparison to his congregation, bless him.

This is cider country. Or at least apple tree country, not filled with square Hereford beef cattle as perhaps we should expect (though there are a few), but instead field after field of trees just coming into blossom. Sadly, most of these apples are going into Bulmers brands including the ubiquitous Strongbow, and it seems locally there is a bit of a backlash with most places stocking pretty much any other brand you can mention and shoving the bottles of Bulmers into a corner in embarrassment. I was personally amused to see that woodpecker cider still exists (as a Victim Of Advertising I recall it as being sold as ‘Hereford Lightning’ and then later advertised by a giant laughing hedgehog crushing cars, which gives you some inkling of what lodges in my brain, possibly under the influence of the alcoholic pop that is over sweet cider). Bulmers even had the cheek to slap a wooden woodpecker on the restored organ in Hereford cathedral; well I guess they paid for and it is better than having several arrows sticking out between the organ pipes that were probably the alternative.

Incidentally, if you happen to be in Hereford (unlikely, this is country that is bypassed by pretty much every major route, and most of the locals seem to like it that way, thank you very much) do pop into the cathedral for the Mappa Mundi – there is a charge to see it  but it is worth it to see this medieval map of the world painted on calf skin; it’s fascinating, covered in allegory and humorous beasts and one of those things that the more you look at it the more fun it becomes. Personal best bit is where the artist has pictured the flight of the Israelites from Egypt and their wanderings in the desert in Exodus by a thick line that loops and curls around like a child might scrawl on a piece of paper or a Monty Python skit with the animated line accompanied by a dry Michael Palin narration.

The world is a much funnier place in my head.

But I am not making up the thing about the hedgehog. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4WKjy76uhI

Easter Thoughts

A friend of mine challenged me to blog on Easter so here goes. Although I am now a Christian I grew up in an agnostic household. My parents sent me to church for reasons they have never let on about and I’m not interested to ask, but that did not lead me very far in terms of faith, although it probably taught me some good manners (well, certain Miss Wears, the fearsome and no nonsense head of Sunday school certainly did). It was later when I met the Lovely Wife that God and I renewed our relationship in a more meaningful way (and not just because we wanted to get married in church, we’re still going and it is ten years next week…)

Asked recently to think about what Easter means, I found myself looking at a blank screen (I wasn’t to say piece of paper as that’s far more dramatic, but let us start from a position of honesty here. Plus, if I were be honest, if I really was writing on a piece of paper I would not be able to read it anyway. God may have gifted me with many things but good – OK, at all legible – handwriting is not one of them). I was not getting very far. So I thought I would resolve the question with a list of things that just popped into my head in relation to the festival.

  1. Fish on Good Friday… For some reason my parents always insisted on this. Never really sure why, considering their positioning on the faith thing mentioned above, but fish it was too be. Possibly why this my least favourite day of the year, as my mother’s ability to cook fish did not match her other culinary skills, and it tended to be bland and dry. Of course the other problem with Good Friday is that in faith terms people treat it as being depressing. For me, that’s missing the point. If you are a believer, then it should be a day of contemplation of what is the ultimate sacrifice for our benefit. So serious thought and reflection, but that doesn’t mean doom and gloom.

And if you don’t believe, well it is still Friday. Everyone likes Fridays.

  1. Flowers… One of the joys of spring and Easter in particular are the flowers; and if you don’t like going into churches for any other reason the flowers are a good one at this time of the year. I particularly remember one year when we were staying on Guernsey where as far as I could tell all the churches were in a full scale competition to adorn every scrap of space with gorgeous Freesias and Daffodils. Each building seemed full on Easter Saturday with the local ladies of a certain age armed with their gardening gloves and flower stands. Nothing really says new life than the vibrant flowers of spring. I think even the richness of summer does not warm you quite as much as this explosion of colour.
  2. Soft Rock. When I was drifting around in agnosticism at uni my main exposure to Easter was Aylesbury rock band Marillion (in their post Fish days for those that care). There is a track on the 1989 album Seasons End called ‘Easter’ which is about the troubles in Northern Ireland. It calls for reconciliation at that particular time of year, a time when both Protestant and Catholic communities should be remembering that they should be loving each other not killing each other. Maybe the song itself is a bit corny (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3E2r_lUWlmo ), but it has stuck with me so I am settling on this for my prayer this year, as we are as divided as ever and sometimes it feels like the cracks are getting wider. And that is even from each other as in arrogance and fear we seek to browbeat others into our way of thinking rather than engaging in a decent discussion and realising that there are other opinions. In a lot of cases it doesn’t matter. In some cases it is vitally important. But we have to make that judgement as individuals.

I think that Easter, like Christmas or any other time of the year that people might just get over their own personal prejudices – come on, we all have them – and talk to each other. Probably over too much chocolate and/or alcoholic beverages but I’m not expecting much disagreement there. I would like it to be a time when we remember we do need each other. We do not have to agree with each other but that’s no excuse for violence or disrespect.

So that is my Easter this year. I do not care whether it is through faith, chocolate or a love of Doctor Who or just those lovely flowers, but let us be nice to each other for once this year and we might even like it.

I do like to be beside the seaside (and I don’t care if it is falling down)

Ah, the glory of the Golden Mile.

Well, it is not very golden any more in any sense of the word, and many of the hotel fronts are boarded up or look as though they should be (perhaps to stop them falling down), but there is still something special about Blackpool.

We were up in the first working class seaside resort (a serious and important claim to fame, and the reason it is a historically important place) for the half marathon. Thankfully for me, there was nothing of the debacle that apparently happened in Sheffield that day, and the race went off without any major hiccups, despite perhaps the usually inane mutterings of the local amateur commentator how seemed to be more interested in sending up the rival local road running teams then giving anyone useful information. Oh, and it was the first time I’ve heard the announcement ‘To anyone in the emergency services… Get the ambulance off the start line!’ hollered thirty seconds before the actual start.

I remember going to Blackpool as a small child and lying in the back of a car looking up at the illuminations, and I went there to a Babylon 5 Convention in a hot long weekend in 1997, but otherwise I had not fully explored the place, but, three day tram passes in hand, we fixed that this weekend, and came up with four reasons to come back again sometime.

  1. Nostalgic rides: OK, the Pleasure Beach has some impressive looking rides, and the massive indoor splash park opposite the hotel we were in looked fun (swimming costumes going next time) but I loved the old rides on the piers. There is something special about dodgems, Ferris wheels and the Waltzers for me that say teenage years (or possibly makes me think ‘sleep all day, party all night’ and it was cool to be a vampire before Twilight, thank you very much). The lovely Wife and I have not the greatest love of rides, but a few of them had to be done, and best of all, there are no queues. And the bloke still walks on the boards as you go round to give them an extra spin to do further damage to your neck muscles.
  2. The Comedy Carpet. Right up near the tower there is the five years in the making expanse of words on the promenade comprising pretty much any comedy catchphrase – or indeed comedy sketch – you can think of. It’s a wonderful way of wasting some time wandering around looking down and laughing hysterically. Especially if you are too early for your dinner reservation and did not fancy the pubs (incidentally we had a very good and friendly Chinese at Mandarin, recommended (www.michaelwansmandarin.co.uk )) The carpet is truly a classic piece of art (like the wonderful Eric Morecambe statue further up the coast) and deserves to be a reason to pop in its own right.
  3. From one of the newest attractions to one of the oldest – the Tower Ballroom. Forget about the rest of the tat and do what we did and have afternoon tea in a glorious setting. The architecture is stunning, but add the live Wurlitzer and the reasonably large number of people dancing (including poor teenage girls dancing their steps with an imaginary partner, teenage boys, take note, learn to dance) there is a unique surreal feel to the place that is quite endearing. Or maybe I was just low on sugar after 13.1 miles. Either way, a very special place. And worth staying for the Last Waltz at 4pm, of course.
  4. Most importantly, the kids love it. In the hotel we were staying, for Friday and Saturday it was Hen night city (and as far as we could tell, the same was true of the rest of town). On Sunday evening, it had turned into a Kindergarten as we tried to avoid the numerous over excited pre-teens in their PJs and pink onesies. Clearly for this lot, the fact that things are a bit dog-eared holds no problems; there are still plenty of things to do and they will no doubt finish up having been thrown around in every conceivable direction, fed candy floss, ice cream and fish and chips until they feel sick and will go home with Blackpool rock and clutching the dodgy rip off ‘Despicable Me’ minion that seems to be the ‘in’ amusement arcade prize this year (that Daddy probably spent a fortune in goes to win one for them) and thinking it was the best holiday. Ever.

And why on earth not… Now, where is my Bingo card?

Fooling Around

I have to say I am terribly hypocritical about April Fools’ Day (I am not sure where the apostrophe is supposed to be exactly but I assuming that there are a lot of fools in the world). I think like a lot of people it is quite fun to have a laugh at someone’s expense who is not you; if it is you who is the victim then there is a good chance of a sense of humour failure, unless the wheeze is spectacularly funny (a rare occasion).

There are a number of problems with playing jokes on people and I never bother. First, I make a fool out of myself enough times in the week that I do not need help. In fact my mother always used to describe me a magician and a fool. The former because if I try hard enough I can make anything happen but the former because I’m like the fool that walks along the edge of the cliff, never looking quite carefully enough where he is putting his feet, because he is too busy fixed on his destination (or chatting to his companions). Personally I also feel that the old saying that ‘a fool and his money are quickly parted’ also could well apply in my case.

So personally I find that the one on one jokes are usually a bit cruel and not at all funny, especially as the people most at risk are the people least likely to get any amusement out of it, and that strikes me a lot like abuse. You would feel uncomfortable making fun of someone who had learning difficulties, so why is it OK to make fun of people who have trouble ‘having a laugh’ in the same way as yow do.

That said; I am a sucker for a well worked spoof, especially when it comes from a major broadcaster or usually impeccable sort (see, I told you there was hypocrisy this week). Famously there was the BBC report on the Spaghetti harvest (which is still hilarious) but it is still getting harder to fool people in the internet age… Or rather to fool people in that special way that they are taken in for a few minutes and then get the joke. Unfortunately people have gotten so used to believing everything they believe online these days – when so much of it is wrong, out of date or just plain lies – that I am not sure you can really pull off anything quite as classy these days, as it is either going to have to patently absurd from the outset or you might have fears too many people will take it seriously.

The only one I have seen this year that made me laugh so far was in the April issue of BBC Countryfile magazine where in an article on 15 historical sites that turned out to be different than first though there is one interloper, the shocking new finding of remains at Stonehenge -including a stone inscribed ‘Salutator Centrum’ – suggesting it was in fact not as old as first thought but a tourist orientated Roman reconstruction of a prehistoric site.

But I was thinking about what fooled me as a kid and I think my favourite was the arrival at London zoo of that rare Himalayan beast, the Lirpa Loof. As covered on ‘That’s Life’ in 1984 it is still very funny today, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwDwRsfUj6Y but what I like about this one – and what clearly fooled my 13 year old self for a few minutes – was that it was relatively understated, there are clearly some people fooled by it (the teenage girls are priceless) and most important of all, they got someone authoritative to add gravitas to the spoof. David Bellamy is classic here – not only was he a hero of mine at the time and well known to the audience, but he even talks about the ‘red book’ and sounds pretty convincing. How he kept his face straight I’ll never know.

So be warned – watch for Prof. Brian Cox today – don’t trust anything he says for twenty four hours, or you’ll be his patsy as I was Bellamy’s back in the 80s.