28 October 2006

Bryson

Above - Bill Bryson born in Iowa,USA in 1951. Whilst in Venice, I finished his latest book, "The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid". Whereas Bryson is known first and foremost as a witty, unassuming and observant travel writer, this book was about growing up in and around Des Moines before America started to question itself, before nuclear nightmares and Vietnam when for many white midwesterners, it seemed as if they were living in a post war paradise of cars and consumer goods, unlocked doors, silver screens and absolute certainties under the star spangled banner. The book mourns the loss of innocence while still managing to make you chuckle, giggle or belly laugh.

I have read almost everything Bryson has ever written. The only book I just couldn't get into was "A Short History of Almost Everything" which has an excitable scientific focus. Not for me. After all, I was the grammar school kid who was asked to drop O level Physics and spent my time at the back of the Physics lab writing poetry for two years. I have loved all of Bryson's travel books and I especially liked "Made In America" which explores American uses of the English language and is both informative and entertaining.


Two real life, as opposed to virtual, Americans I know had both never heard of Bill Bryson till I let them in on his work. It seems he's a bigger literary star over in the UK than he is in his home country. If you like bookshops you surely couldn't have missed Bill Bryson these past ten years. I'm not saying he's a truly great writer but he has a lovely, intimate and self-deprecating style. He finds humour in odd nooks and crannies and through his travel writing allows you to see places in ways that Rough Guides or Lonely Planet Guides cannot mirror. If you're reading this Bill - thanks for so many engrossing hours.

24 October 2006

Venezia

Welcome to Waterworld. A siren bleats from the far distance and then a speedboat ambulance bounces by. Builders unload bricks and cement from miniature barges. The vapporetti ferry boats trundle from stop to stop like underground trains. Market traders unload brightly coloured baskets of fresh fruit and vegetables from bobbing boats as water taxis glide by, cutting the lagoon. The municipal garbage boat collects bags of refuse and gondoliers ply their trade, squeezing sackfuls of euros from gormless Japanese tourists.

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The Grand Canal 11.35am Oct 24th 2006
This is Venezia. Venice. Still a rather unique place. Round every corner there's a photo opportunity and round every corner there's a piece of history. It's there in the walls. It's there in the bends of the side canals and little alleyways that weave away from the Grand Canal like a spider's web of human enterprise and memory. Once Venice was home to over 200,000 people, long before the idea of a state called Italy was ever dreamt of. It was the new Byzantium. Where the East met Europe. Protected and threatened by the sea, it drew its wealth from the ships that arrived there from all over the known world. And there was wealth to spare. Riches to build fantastic churches, bell towers, hospitals and palaces and money to pay the finest artists, sculptors, architects and musicians. Venice was filthy commerce but it was also reaching out for something pure, something better.
Me and Shirley have just returned from three days there, partly celebrating twenty five years of marriage. That first night we walked in the back alleys of the Canareggio area and noticed how quiet it was. No cars. No thunderous trucks or motorbikes - not even any bicycles. Intense Italian conversations between neighbours resounded about the ancient walls and then faded away. Somewhere in the maze a dog barked. Strangely we never heard TV sets or loud music disturbing the night. It was so quiet and peaceful.
You can get visually punch drunk on art so we restricted ourselves to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Some amazing pieces of modern art there - Picasso, Paul Klee, Joan Miro, Henry Moore, Jackson Pollock, Dali and Gino Severin's "Sea=Dancer" (much beloved by Steve of "Occupied Country"). So that was a highlight of the trip and so was the visit to Burano, two miles north of Venice. The feel of this other lagoon island was very different.

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Burano above and gondolier below

There the houses were less grand but mostly brightly coloured. It seemed like a place where fisherfolk once eked out a simple living.
As we made our way homeward to the P. de Roma bus square at the end of the causeway that connects Venice with the mainland, some of the streets, shops and restaurants were awash as another high tide reached its peak. Stoical Venetians demonstrated why they possess rubber boots - wading through their flood waters and perhaps wondering how many flood tides their incredible little city can take before nature reclaims it - that would be a very sad loss. Venezia is a very special place and in those three days I found myself shaking my head very often and muttering "Amazing!" - not something I am prone to doing at all.
Below - down and out Venetian sleeping in the street

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Oh and for British readers of this blog, I'm going to really impress you by boasting that on our first night in Venice we went to a bank cash machine lobby and met (drum roll) no not Posh Spice and David Beckham, not Mick Jagger and his latest hoe but (wait for it!) John Stapleton and his lady Lynn Faulds Wood - long time TV consumers' rights campaigners. As Lynn couldn't get any cash out of the machine with her Allied Irish Bank card, I suggested they make a programme about plastic bank cards abroad - charges, communication problems, conversion rates etc.. Fortunately we had better luck with the cash machine but when John asked to borrow a hundred euros I declined in typically colourful Yorkshire patois. They slunk off into the night as famous people do.

18 October 2006

Storytime

H.G.Wells, he of the time machines and Martian invasions, wrote this story in 1909. It's called "A Moonlight Fable" but if a fable is a story with a moral message then this one seems to have been disguised so well that you just can't see it. Or am I missing something?

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There was once a little man whose mother made him a beautiful suit of clothes. It was green and gold and woven so that I cannot describe how delicate and fine it was, and there was a tie of orange fluffiness that tied up under his chin. And the buttons in their newness shone like stars. He was proud and pleased by his suit beyond measure, and stood before the long looking-glass when first he put it on, so astonished and delighted with it that he could hardly turn himself away.
He wanted to wear it everywhere and show it to all sorts of people. He thought over all the places he had ever visited and all the scenes he had ever heard described, and tried to imagine what the feel of it would be if he were to go now to those scenes and places wearing his shining suit, and he wanted to go out forthwith into the long grass and the hot sunshine of the meadow wearing it. Just to wear it! But his mother told him, "No." She told him he must take great care of his suit, for never would he have another nearly so fine; he must save it and save it and only wear it on rare and great occasions. It was his wedding suit, she said. And she took his buttons and twisted them up with tissue paper for fear their bright newness should be tarnished, and she tacked little guards over the cuffs and elbows and wherever the suit was most likely to come to harm.
He hated and resisted these things, but what could he do? And at last her warnings and persuasions had effect and he consented to take off his beautiful suit and fold it into its proper creases and put it away. It was almost as though he gave it up again. But he was always thinking of wearing it and of the supreme occasion when some day it might be worn without the guards, without the tissue paper on the buttons, utterly and delightfully, never caring, beautiful beyond measure.One night when he was dreaming of it, after his habit, he dreamed he took the tissue paper from one of the buttons and found its brightness a little faded, and that distressed him mightily in his dream. He polished the poor faded button and polished it, and if anything it grew duller.
He woke up and lay awake thinking of the brightness a little dulled and wondering how he would feel if perhaps when the great occasion (whatever it might be) should arrive, one button should chance to be ever so little short of its first glittering freshness, and for days and days that thought remained with him, distressingly. And when next his mother let him wear his suit, he was tempted and nearly gave way to the temptation just to fumble off one little bit of tissue paper and see if indeed the buttons were keeping as bright as ever.He went trimly along on his way to church full of this wild desire.
For you must know his mother did, with repeated and careful warnings, let him wear his suit at times, on Sundays, for example, to and fro from church, when there was no threatening of rain, no dust nor anything to injure it, with its buttons covered and its protections tacked upon it and a sunshade in his hand to shadow it if there seemed too strong a sunlight for its colours. And always, after such occasions, he brushed it over and folded it exquisitely as she had taught him, and put it away again.
Now all these restrictions his mother set to the wearing of his suit he obeyed, always he obeyed them, until one strange night he woke up and saw the moonlight shining outside his window. It seemed to him the moonlight was not common moonlight, nor the night a common night, and for a while he lay quite drowsily with this odd persuasion in his mind. Thought joined on to thought like things that whisper warmly in the shadows. Then he sat up in his little bed suddenly, very alert, with his heart beating very fast and a quiver in his body from top to toe.
He had made up his mind. He knew now that he was going to wear his suit as it should be worn. He had no doubt in the matter. He was afraid, terribly afraid, but glad, glad.He got out of his bed and stood a moment by the window looking at the moonshine-flooded garden and trembling at the thing he meant to do. The air was full of a minute clamor of crickets and murmurings, of the infinitesimal shouting of little living things. He went very gently across the creaking boards, for fear that he might wake the sleeping house, to the big dark clothes-press wherein his beautiful suit lay folded, and he took it out garment by garment and softly and very eagerly tore off its tissue-paper covering and its tacked protections, until there it was, perfect and delightful as he had seen it when first his mother had given it to him--a long time it seemed ago.
Not a button had tarnished, not a thread had faded on this dear suit of his; he was glad enough for weeping as in a noiseless hurry he put it on. And then back he went, soft and quick, to the window and looked out upon the garden and stood there for a minute, shining in the moonlight, with his buttons twinkling like stars, before he got out on the sill and, making as little of a rustling as he could, clambered down to the garden path below.
He stood before his mother's house, and it was white and nearly as plain as by day, with every window-blind but his own shut like an eye that sleeps. The trees cast still shadows like intricate black lace upon the wall.The garden in the moonlight was very different from the garden by day; moonshine was tangled in the hedges and stretched in phantom cobwebs from spray to spray. Every flower was gleaming white or crimson black, and the air was aquiver with the thridding of small crickets and nightingales singing unseen in the depths of the trees.There was no darkness in the world, but only warm, mysterious shadows; and all the leaves and spikes were edged and lined with iridescent jewels of dew.
The night was warmer than any night had ever been, the heavens by some miracle at once vaster and nearer, and spite of the great ivory-tinted moon that ruled the world, the sky was full of stars.The little man did not shout nor sing for all his infinite gladness. He stood for a time like one awe-stricken, and then, with a queer small cry and holding out his arms, he ran out as if he would embrace at once the whole warm round immensity of the world. He did not follow the neat set paths that cut the garden squarely, but thrust across the beds and through the wet, tall, scented herbs, through the night stock and the nicotine and the clusters of phantom white mallow flowers and through the thickets of southern-wood and lavender, and knee-deep across a wide space of mignonette.
He came to the great hedge and he thrust his way through it, and though the thorns of the brambles scored him deeply and tore threads from his wonderful suit, and though burs and goosegrass and havers caught and clung to him, he did not care. He did not care, for he knew it was all part of the wearing for which he had longed. "I am glad I put on my suit," he said; "I am glad I wore my suit."Beyond the hedge he came to the duck-pond, or at least to what was the duck-pond by day. But by night it was a great bowl of silver moonshine all noisy with singing frogs, of wonderful silver moonshine twisted and clotted with strange patternings, and the little man ran down into its waters between the thin black rushes, knee-deep and waist-deep and to his shoulders, smiting the water to black and shining wavelets with either hand, swaying and shivering wavelets, amid which the stars were netted in the tangled reflections of the brooding trees upon the bank.
He waded until he swam, and so he crossed the pond and came out upon the other side, trailing, as it seemed to him, not duckweed, but very silver in long, clinging, dripping masses. And up he went through the transfigured tangles of the willow-herb and the uncut seeding grass of the farther bank. And so he came glad and breathless into the highroad.
"I am glad," he said, "beyond measure, that I had clothes that fitted this occasion."The highroad ran straight as an arrow flies, straight into the deep blue pit of sky beneath the moon, a white and shining road between the singing nightingales, and along it he went, running now and leaping, and now walking and rejoicing, in the clothes his mother had made for him with tireless, loving hands.
The road was deep in dust, but that for him was only soft whiteness, and as he went a great dim moth came fluttering round his wet and shimmering and hastening figure. At first he did not heed the moth, and then he waved his hands at it and made a sort of dance with it as it circled round his head. "Soft moth!" he cried, "dear moth! And wonderful night, wonderful night of the world! Do you think my clothes are beautiful, dear moth? As beautiful as your scales and all this silver vesture of the earth and sky?" And the moth circled closer and closer until at last its velvet wings just brushed his lips . . . . .
And next morning they found him dead with his neck broken in the bottom of the stone pit, with his beautiful clothes a little bloody and foul and stained with the duckweed from the pond. But his face was a face of such happiness that, had you seen it, you would have understood indeed how that he had died happy, never knowing the cool and streaming silver for the duckweed in the pond.

14 October 2006

Composition

Well, if a technophobe like Sir Arthur Clewley of Clewley Towers, Richmond, North Yorkshire can put "YouTube" videos on his blog then so can I! The random one I have chosen is of a wee kitten's first musical compostion. Everyone say - Awwww! ...Then attempt the quiz below....please!

13 October 2006

Quiz

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How good is your general knowledge or perhaps how good is your ability to search the web for answers? Try my exciting quiz. Answers to be posted to my secretary Mr G.W.Bush, Tosspot Ranch, Crawford, Texas, USA or left in the Comments section. The first visitor to provide ten correct answers will win a special mystery prize.
1. The main Irish Republican party is called Sinn Fein. What does "Sinn Fein" mean?
2. What was the name of the animated film that won Nick Park an oscar in 1995?
3. In the world of cartoons why is Nancy Cartwright well known?
4. Name the capital of Western Samoa.
5. In which year and in which city was the film star Russell Crowe born?
6. Who was the second President of the USA?
7. In a supermarket where would you see these famous old words – “Out of the strong came forth sweetness”?
8. Which English football team has the nickname The Spireites?
9. Where will you find the navicular bone?
10. On which Bob Dylan album will you find these two tracks – “I Threw It All Away” and “Country Pie”?

10 October 2006

Blockage

Outside our house there's a storm drain. Two or three times a year I have to remember to lift the little grate, and with a plastic bag up to my elbow, scoop out the evil-smelling black gunge that has settled there. It's just nature's debris - rotting leaves and twigs and suchlike. Lord knows why it stinks so much but once or twice I have managed to get this sludge on my hands only to find that the pong remains even when I've washed up thoroughly. Yeuurghh!
If only it was so easy to cure "writer's block" or "blogger's block" - lift a little lid on top of your head and scoop out the blockage, allowing the ideas and the words to flow freely again. Some blogs I have enjoyed reading have occasionally ground to a halt, including some of those listed in my Planet Blog. I'm wondering if Kara, author of "Hanging Hope on a Heads Up 1973 Penny" has been kidnapped by aliens as she hasn't blogged since early July. My fellow atheist Krip ("Aaargh! Stop the World I Want to Get Off!") and even Vlad the Gorilla, Madame Friday and Arthur Clueless have all suffered from blogger's block.
So I came to this keyboard tonight after the latest episode of "EastEnders" - come on Jake! - and I'm ready to tap away at the keyboard but there's nothing to say. It's like there's a big doo-doo in my head and it won't flush away. So I'm left rambling on about blockages.
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I had part of a letter printed in the Sheffield "Star" this evening. It was in response to Saturday's front page story about a ten year old boy who "found" a workman's tools in his school. The mother was incensed - not bothering to consider her son's thievery but instead blaming the contractor who had left his tool box in a cordoned off part of the school. Apparently she was so mad that as she drove her sweet little darling home, she threw a knife he'd "found" out of the window.
I can't understand why they edited out my description of this lad as an "Artful Dodger" or why they missed out the bit about the bad example his mother was setting by throwing things out of her car window - especially knives dammit!
Ah well... those last two paragraphs helped to unblock the pipes. Maybe October in the northern hemisphere is to blame for blogger's block. Summer's gone and ahead are dark nights, frosts, clothes on the radiators, the cat miaowing to come in rather than to go out. It could make you feel a little depressed if you let it.

7 October 2006

Ornament

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It's just amazing what you can buy on "e-bay". I just purchased this skeleton of a mountain gorilla from a dealer in Burundi. I think it will make a great garden ornament and an interesting conversation piece. It will be erected under the apple trees where I am sure pigeons and sparrows will love to perch.

5 October 2006

Clunk!

I have always hated that social trick whereby people you have perhaps just met quickly pigeonhole you by finding out what you do for a living. I make a point of never asking anyone what they "do" and if anyone asks me I'll usually retort with - Well I cut the lawn in the summer, I play guitar, cook a mean stirfry, write poems.... You see I don't believe we should ever measure someone's worth or allow ourselves to hang stereotypical traits upon another simply because of what he/she does in the world of work.
That was my preamble. As regular visitors to this blog will know, I'm a secondary school teacher in a tough part of one of England's toughest cities. Most of our kids come from deprived council estates. I try not to touch on this part of my life very often because I'm me before you start sticking work-related labels on me.
You can guess that I meet some rather unpleasant teengagers. A particular sixteen year old girl I teach has been irritating me greatly of late. She isn't getting her GCSE coursework done. She lazes. She chatters. She wears her scruffy baseball cap. When challenged, she swears, lies, tries to place blame for her angry outbursts on others. She isn't stupid and perhaps she is as she is because of her family circumstances - one parent family, father long gone, little money in the home, no real constraints. But I didn't create that background so I don't accept that I should take any flak because of it. I have written home on four occasions this year detailing the girl's misdemeanours, bad language and failure to produce vital coursework.

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So we came to today. She arrived late for the lesson with her horrible hat on and reeking of stale cigarette smoke. Crazily, we have to tackle an assignment on pre-1914 prose so we were reading Thomas Hardy's short story, "Tony Kytes - The Arch Deceiver". Actually I was reading it aloud with the kids following, applying my best agricultural Dorset accent to the dialogue - "I love 'ee Milly" etc.. Just as we were getting near the end of the story, there was a sudden "clunk" at the back of the room. The nasty girl who frequently leans back dangerously on her chair, in spite of warnings, had fallen backwards and banged her head on the table behind her. She lay supine on the floor, nursing her bonce like Bluto after Popeye has just hit him with a heavy plank.
I asked Gay Shaun to take her down to the office for medical attention. In a malevolent way, I freely admit that I was chuckling inside. It seemed like poetic justice for all the crap that I have had to endure from this genuinely unpleasant girl. Later, I reminded myself that she didn't finish reading the Hardy story and I can already hear her victorious whining voice next week, "I aven't read it so I can't write about it can I? Doh!" Still for a moment it felt like there might be a God after all.... Clunk! Thank you Lord!

3 October 2006

Guns

Charles Carl Roberts IV - yet another mad American gunman, assassinating innocent children - this time from the peace-loving Amish community of Lanacaster County, Pennsylvania. When will it end? As The Police Commisioner for Pennsylvania said, “He came here prepared. It wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing. It appears he did a lot of time in planning and intended to harm these kids and intended to harm himself.”

This nutcase had a loving wife and children, parents who loved him, a steady job. Little girls from a harmless religious community didn't deserve this horror. America must, must, must re-examine its gun laws. It seems that any psychotic, grudge-bearing, fantasising mental defective can get hold of a gun and shoot down innocent people without good reason. It has to stop. There's fear about deranged Islamic terrorists but perhaps it's quiet gun-touting nutters like Roberts who should arouse most fear - the real enemy within. Rest in Peace Dear Children.