28 February 2018

Capital

Boxes in Wood Green
When barbarians from The North descend upon London they are often amazed. They see where the lion's share of our nation's wealth is spent. There's Big Ben undergoing a lengthy refurbishment (estimated £61 million) and there's Buckingham Palace ready to undergo its own improvements (estimated £369 million) and there's the new Crossrail project (estimated £14.8 billion). There are many other costly projects, including of course The London Olympics of 2012. Yes - that's London for you. Plenty of capital in the capital.

Meanwhile, London's senior citizens enjoy free public transport use from the age of sixty and schools, the police and local councils receive preferential funding too. Folk from The North can only look on with mandibles sagging. We are poor cousins but we are used to it.  National politicians live and work in London so we guess  it's only natural that they'd want to look after number one first and scorn The North. It's what they have always done.

To people from The North, London is another country.

And here's a random parade of pictures of the place - snapped this very weekend gone by.
Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square
St Paul's seen from The Oxo Tower Pier
London Eye pod with gull above it
Cafe in the South London suburb of Morden
In Wood Green - photo in the style of Steve Reed
Statue of Jan Smuts in Parliament Square
The Walkie Talkie Bulding
seen from Tate Modern

27 February 2018

Underground

On The Northern Line
The London Underground - also known as The Tube - is an amazing phenomenon. It moves countless people around the city on a huge network of lines and stations. The organisation behind it all is quite phenomenal. Trains and track need maintenance. The correct people must be in position. There's security and cleaning to consider plus the collection and calculation of fares. It is an enormous operation that has taken a hundred and fifty years to evolve. I blogged about it last year - go here.

I have always been conscious of the subtle social dynamics that operate on tube journeys. You are surrounded by random strangers. They get on and they get off. Most people stay quiet, avoiding or ignoring any eye contact with other passengers. You are together but not together if you see what I mean. 

Some passengers wear earphones or fiddle around with their comforting mobile phones even though there is no connectivity in the tunnels. Some read books or newspapers.

You would never lean across to one of these total strangers and say things like - "I say, that's a jolly nice coat you are wearing!" or "Haven't I seen you somewhere before?" or "Excuse me could you help me out with this crossword clue?" No. You stay separate, protecting your own space, pretending to be oblivious to those around you.

Sometimes it is interesting to secretly observe them by cunningly referring to reflections in the glass .

On The Tube you find all manner of people from all over the world and in spite of the underground etiquette, every one of those passengers is different from the next. Their apparel will often reveal a lot about them and how they view themselves - from fashionistas to football fans, from city gents to bag ladies. We give so much away just by how we look.

On Saturday, Frances, Stewart, Shirley and I boarded yet another tube train. It wasn't crowded. I was last on with a newspaper in one hand and my camera in the other. 

The train lurched out of the station just as I was attempting to sit down. With no pole to hang onto I kind of lost my footing and sort of fell upon an attractive young woman who was sitting in the next seat reading a book in her personal space bubble. She was very nice about it and thankfully she wasn't totally squashed by the weight of my manly physique. Of course I apologised profusely. I mean, it probably wasn't what she was expecting - the infamous Yorkshire Pudding on top of her in full public view without so much as a "please" beforehand.

As we travelled south on The Northern Line, I realised that I missed a trick when I was a young man. Simply falling upon women in tube train carriages would have been a great way to hook up. No flowers, chocolates or nervous introductions. No dating apps or "Match.com" or romantic poems required. If I had only known I would have been faking tumbles all the time. It's a great way of breaking the ice - as long as she isn't knitting! The look on that young woman's face was priceless.

24 February 2018

London

We are down in London for a long weekend - seeing our sprogs - so normal blogging service may well be interrupted. Actually, this post is a bit of an experiment. For the first time I am "scheduling" a post so it should post itself while I'm away. We will see.

23 February 2018

Ending

After the journey, I woke to find myself on a grassy knoll, bathed in honey-coloured morning light. Albert was snuffling my chest. 

“We’re here. It is time to get up my friend.” 

“Where? Where am I? Where’s here?” I asked, still half-asleep. 

I sat up and surveyed the scene before me. We seemed to be on a ridge that overlooked a luxuriant green valley peppered with acacia trees. There was a river down there, glistening in the sunshine. And as I focussed in, I could see animals moving lazily about the landscape – grazing from the treetops or drinking water at the riverside. And what is more they were all giraffes, green ones like Albert. 

“It’s The Land of the Green Giraffes”, smiled Albert. “My home. Come – let’s go.” 

I clambered aboard and Albert began a careful descent to the valley below through aromatic foliage where butterflies shimmered and purposeful bees hummed amidst milky blossoms. The air was as still as stillness can be. 

At the bottom of the ridge, we came across a group of green giraffes dozing in the shade. There were perhaps fifteen of them of various sizes. Albert stopped to ask if they knew where Acrux and Gacrux might be. One or two looked up at me with only vague interest. We were directed westwards to the river. 

And that’s where we found them foraging. Acrux was Albert’s father – a mighty bull giraffe who stood some eighteen feet above the ground. Perched on his hind legs he seemed to be able to reach the topmost leaves by extending his long blue tongue. His mother, Gacrux, was of smaller stature with big brown eyes as shiny as polished garnet. 

They greeted Albert with tender affection and bent in to smell the unfamiliar traveller on Albert’s back. Acrux was so big he was quite intimidating at first with bony green horns protruding from his skull. 

“What is it?” asked Gacrux. 

“It’s a human being,” said Albert. 

The days I spent in The Land of the Green Giraffes were the most magical days of my life. 

I swam in the river, picked sweet fruits from the bushes and trees and drank creamy giraffe milk from an old coconut shell. At first I explored the territory with Albert and later I went alone. I was never afraid. I came to realise that the green giraffes would never hurt me. They lived gently and quietly, at peace with their world as no doubt they had been for century after century – each generation passing the baton of existence to the next. 

At night I slept with Albert’s family beneath the branches of an umbrella tree, watching the phases of a silvery moon drifting above and gradually learning to stop asking questions. It was enough to just lie there listening to the cicadas and the breathing of my gentle companions before sleep took me into unconsciousness. 

Apart from feeling a little like Gulliver in Brobdingnag, my overwhelming memory of The Land of Green Giraffes is of the quietness and the peace. Every day had a familiar rhythm and the majority of communications between the giraffes happened non-verbally. I found my own word count reducing day by day and noticed that Albert was also much quieter than he had been back in Sheffield. Or had I simply dreamed that other life? 

Consequently, I was rather taken aback when Albert came bounding down to the riverside on my penultimate afternoon, yelling that there was going to be a necking competition and I needed to get my proverbial skates on if I wanted to see it. He waited while I put my clothes back on. 

It seemed that every green giraffe was in attendance. All were gathered about a large and grassy open area that strangely reminded me of Whirlow Playingfields. The two combatants were Albert’s father Acrux and another mighty bull called Mimosa who only the day before had picked me some delicious masuku fruits from an impenetrable thorny grove. 

Of course I had never witnessed a necking competition before. The crowd were hushed as battle commenced. Acrux snorted and Mimosa mooed. They vaulted towards each other in lumbering strides and then their necks connected with a thump. They appeared to be trying to force each other to the left or right in a show of mighty strength that was greeted with murmurings of approval and accompanied by clouds of dust. 

But as the contest continued, it seemed more like a ritualistic dance – something like that. There was no real aggression. It was indeed just a show of strength. Mimosa and Acrux were in fact the best of friends. They had nothing to prove to each other and there was no kudos to be won. You might say that it was a demonstration for the younger giraffes – the demonstration of an ancient symbolic game designed to fortify green giraffe society. At least that is how it seemed to me. 

When it was over and the physical battle had been drawn, the two great bulls nuzzled each other in mutual respect as the spectators rose awkwardly up onto their legs in a show of mass approval. 

“Did you enjoy that?” asked Albert and without waiting for my reply added, “I’m taking you back home tomorrow.” 

My heart sank much more than a little. I had half-forgotten that I was human. 

I thought of that other world of constant chatter. Vehicles rumbling along motorways and politicians gabbling on television screens. Inflatable Mediterranean migrant craft and plastic bags hanging limply in hedgerows. An exhausted polar bear trying to swim to a distant ice floe he will never reach and an eighteenth century ink drawing of a dodo. A homeless woman huddled in a doorway as a stretch limo roars past with urban beat music blaring. And of broken lives and pills for depression and hypodermic needles dropped by park benches where children play. The guns and the bombs that maim. I saw it all and felt ashamed. 

One last night in The Land of Green Giraffes. One last morning. One last dip in the river and one last handful of succulent berries. 

Gacrux leant down to rub my cheek. Her tongue moving tenderly through my hair. Acrux followed suit and so did Albert’s brother Limahl and his sister Cheryl. They were saying goodbye as tears filled my eyes, threatening to overflow. 

I didn’t need to say “thank you”. They knew it already. 

Gripping Albert’s green neck once more, we rose above the verdant valley and as we did so, all the other green giraffes descended on the necking arena to witness my departure. There were hundreds of them all looking up and diminishing in size as we headed back up into the clouds. 

22 February 2018

Four

"Wanna come for another ride?" asked Albert.

I was back in the woodland clearing where I had first met him. Grey-white clouds scudded over  the canopy. My memory of that very first ride remained vivid. In the end, it had been a truly beautiful experience. The stuff of dreams.

"I would love to try another one Albert but please don't gallop as hard as you did on the playingfields! It hurt like hell!"

Albert grinned mischievously. "Okay I promise." And he stuck out his big blue tongue as if threatening to lick my face again.

Once more I clambered up on his back  and hugged his neck as Albert stood to his full height.

"We're going further this time. Much further!" he chortled.

He ambled along the woodland path and over the stream. Soon we were back at the sports ground.

"Are you ready?" Albert asked over his shoulder. It was a question that slightly perturbed me and with good reason.

Have you ever seen that children's fantasy film, "The NeverEnding Story"? There's a scene in that where the little protagonist Atreyu rides on the back of the dragon Falkor. His quest is to save Fantasia from the malevolent force that is "The Nothing". They ride high above the clouds for thousands of miles to The Southern Oracle.

I was reminded of that scene that second time Albert took me for a ride.

This time we weren't running on the earth or bounding through moorland heather. We were above the ground and then we were above the trees. We were flying and Albert was laughing like a maniac.

"Hold on!" he yelled back but that command was absolutely unnecessary. Not wishing to die like a parachutist without a parachute, I was desperate not to fall. 

Soon we were pushing up through the clouds that swirled around us like fog in a Sherlock Holmes story. And then we were up in the blue. Albert had no wings. He literally seemed to be running on air. There was no logic to it. It seemed impossible but it was really happening.

"Are you okay?" Albert asked.

"Yes. I'm fine Albert. But where are we going?"

"You will see my friend. You will see."

And he started to hum. At first I didn't recognise the tune. But then it dawned on me that Albert was humming "Homeward Bound" by Paul Simon. How the hell did he know that song and where indeed were we going?

21 February 2018

Three

How Albert knew where our house is located, I shall never know.

Shirley had left for work at seven thirty. As usual I rolled over and promptly went back to sleep with John Humphrys and Mishal Hussein still rabbiting away on Radio 4's "Today" programme - courtesy of the radio alarm clock at our bedside.

Some time after eight, I was disturbed by a rhythmical brushing sound on our bedroom window. I thought it might be a pigeon and tried to ignore it. But that became impossible. Wearily, I donned my dressing gown and edged back the curtains. 

And yes - you have already guessed it - staring right back at me was a big green giraffe's head. Albert had come to call. He was standing on our wooden decking below but with his long neck he was able to look in through our first floor window which I promptly unlatched.

"Good morning," said Albert. "I thought I would pay you a visit."

For some reason, I was panicking in case our neighbours spotted Albert. I ran downstairs to let him in, forgetting that at fourteen feet tall with long, gangly legs, just getting inside a suburban semi-detached house might prove very challenging.

I opened our French doors and Albert ducked as low as he could go but he still managed to smash the light fitting in our dining room as he skidded on the laminate flooring.

"I'm terribly sorry. It was an accident."

There was glass everywhere. 

I ushered him into our hallway. Such a tight squeeze through the dining room doorway with me pushing from behind but finally Albert could stand up comfortably with his feet at the bottom of our stairs and his head up on the first floor landing. 

I mounted the stairs to talk to him.

"This is the first time I have been in a human house," said Albert. "You have lots of things."

I asked him if he wanted a drink and something to eat.

"Yes please Neil but I only eat leaves and I only drink water."

I went back downstairs for a bucket of tap water and some branches from the bay tree that grows outside our back door. Albert was delighted.

"Mmm...delicious. Thank you."

He wanted to see photographs of my family, asking innumerable questions and he wanted to see my Times Atlas of the World - again asking so many questions that my brain was befuddled. Albert was especially interested in Africa, keen to know the names of all the countries which he repeated after me, all fifty four of them from Algeria to Zimbabwe.

"Oh-oh!" said Albert. "Can you get that bucket? I need to do a big doo-doo!"

I ran upstairs and got back just in time to catch an enormous steamy giraffe turd which emerged from  Albert's anus like a young crocodile slipping from the banks of  the Limpopo. The smell was quite noteworthy.

"So sorry," he said. "I normally just drop my doo-doo on the ground."

"No problem Albert," I grinned. "When you've got to go, you've got to go."

I was speaking from personal experience.

20 February 2018

Doubt

I was about to press the "Publish" button having written the third instalment of  the story of  "Albert The Green Giraffe". However, having sifted through the various comments the story has received so far I decided at the last minute to pull the blogpost.

You see, Albert's story is a true one. The events to which I referred really happened. 

I thought that I could trust visitors to this blog to accept the story at face value and yet the comments are imbued with disbelief and thinly-veiled mockery. I even had previously trusted blogging friends like Lee and Jennifer accusing me of smoking mind-bending drugs. Arizona immigrant Catalyst even suggested "waccy baccy".

Such remarks are extremely hurtful. As a former member of the teaching profession, I have lived a largely blameless life and have certainly never dabbled in any recreational drug activity. If discovered such behaviour would have been professionally disastrous so a long time ago I chose to avoid any contact whatsoever with illegal substances. In that direction, if I ever sinned at all it was through quaffing pints of foaming Tetley's bitter which I should point out, remains entirely legal in this island nation's pubs.

Other doubters made annoying quips that undermined my self-confidence and made me almost regret deciding to tell visitors about Albert in the first place. However, I am very aware that a handful of visitors were genuinely happy to accept the story at face value and to them I forward my respectful gratitude.

Now I have a quandary. Should I continue with the true story of "Albert The Green Giraffe" or simply store it in my memory bank where  nobody else will see it? No one likes to be the target of mockery and doubt. Some of the comments made me feel like a medieval peasant sitting in the village stocks. And yet through it all, I remembered Albert and smiled. They were such special days.

19 February 2018

Two

Have you ever ridden on a giraffe? If you have you will also know how invigorating such an experience can be. The second time I met Albert, I got to ride on his back, my arms wrapped round his neck, intent on survival.

It was two days after the initial meeting. I waited in the clearing where I had first met Albert. Grey American squirrels frolicked around as rooks cawed from the treetops. A jogger in a bright fluorescent vest ran by. Where the hell was Albert?

That's when I heard the chuckling. Albert had been watching me from the undergrowth all the time. I just hadn't seen him what with his green pelt and all.

Albert bent down and with his big blue tongue, he gave my face another rough lick.

"Nice to see you again Neil. Do you fancy a merry jaunt?"

Wiping the giraffe spittle from my face, I said, "What do you mean? A merry jaunt?"

"A romp. A canter. An outing or what did they call it in Africa? Yes! A safari!"

I was none the wiser but Albert splayed his legs and instructed me to "Get on board!"

It wasn't something I had been expecting but it would have been ungracious to say no. With some difficulty I shuffled up Albert's spine and following his advice embraced his neck.

Albert stood up and twisted his head back "Christ Neil! You weigh a ton! Are you ready?"

Not knowing what was about to happen, I said, "Yeah! I'm ready!"

And then we were off. At first the pace was gentle. We moved along the woodland path with Albert dodging overhanging branches. Then we reached a long slope that descends to Limb Brook. Instead of galloping down, Albert chose to slide down on his arse, yelling "Whee!" as I bounced up and down like an amateur jockey in a steeplechase.

Albert crossed Limb Brook with one mighty stride. Then like lightning we were up the opposite bank, through the trees and out into a big, green clearing which .I recognised as Whirlow Playingfields. He waited at the margins and scanned the open area but there was nobody else around.

"I love this place!" he laughed.

Then he went galloping around in the deceptively leisurely manner that is typical of giraffes in flight. Lord knows how fast he was going but I was hanging on for dear life with my buttocks bouncing painfully on his spine as I tried to press my feet into his furry green shoulders. Futile. It would have been better with a saddle and stirrups but bareback riding was scary. I was terrified of falling off.

Finally I had to cry out, "Stop Albert! Please! Stop!"

He pulled up in the middle of the sports ground - right in the centre of the cricket pitch.

"Did you enjoy that?" asked Albert breathlessly and I had to explain that he had frightened the bejesus out of me and that my sore bottom felt as if it had been kicked repeatedly by a donkey.

Albert sounded crestfallen and offered an apology before promising to cut out the crazy galloping from now on.

When there was a break in the traffic we crossed the A625 and lolloped through the entrance to Whirlowbrook Park, hiding in the trees at one point as a couple of joggers trotted by.

Past the duck ponds and the old hall then out through the back of the gardens.

"Keep your head down!" Albert advised as we dodged branches in the beech plantation. 

Then back over the bubbling Limb Brook and on to the long path that leads to the moors. I was starting to enjoy my vantage point and Albert's more leisurely pace. Soon we were out on the moors,  gambolling through the heather and the gorse. When grazing sheep looked up they did so with astonishment but there was hardly time for them to run away. No sooner had we appeared than we were gone. I have trudged across those moors so many times but that day, high on Albert's back, it felt as if I was flying. It was a huge privilege.

At Lady Canning's Plantation, Albert stopped for a snack of deciduous leaves from the topmost branches. His long blue tongue gripped entire bunches which he masticated briefly before gulping  them down his long neck. "God! I love sycamore!" Albert confessed.

To be continued

18 February 2018

Albert

Once upon a time there was a green giraffe called Albert. He lived in woodland not so far from here. When dog walkers or joggers passed by, he simply stood stock still and blended in with the woods like a chameleon. 

Not many people knew of his existence. In fact, the day that  I first met him, I could have easily walked on by but I stopped to take a photograph of a squirrel. That's when I saw the background move.

I scrunched up my eyes and did a double take. Yes. there was no doubt about it. Blending in with a swathe of unkempt holly bushes and giant rhododendrons  and the green moss on the tree trunks there was - no it could not be, could it? - a green giraffe.

With trepidation, I tiptoed over to him. I know this may sound stupid but when I was but a few feet away from his spindly green legs, I looked up and said, "Hello!"

To my astonishment and after a deep exhalation of aromatic giraffe breath, the lofty creature whispered, "Hello!"

"Do not be afraid," I said, for I could sense that he was equally nervous. "I won't harm you!"

Then with a self-concious and slightly mischievous chortle, he said, "And I won't harm you!"

We both tittered and this seemed to break the ice.

He bent his long neck downwards. He was snuffling my hair in the same way that a dog gets to know people. Then, much to my surprise, he suddenly licked my face. It was as if I had just been sandpapered. 

"Urgh!" he exclaimed. "You taste of soap!"

Again we both chuckled.

I told him my name was Neil and he told me his name was Albert. At that first meeting, I didn't wish to unnerve him by bombarding him with questions. Of course there were many things I  wished to ask. After all, it's not every day that you meet a fourteen foot giraffe in the woods - especially a green one. But I didn't wish to put him off through interrogation.

Just then we saw two dogwalkers approaching along the winding woodland path. Instinctively, Albert edged back into the undergrowth , bent his head down and stood like a statue - as if frozen.

A wire-haired Jack Russell bounded towards me, sniffing inquisitively at my boots.

"Stop it Nipper! Don't worry! He won't bite!" said the older dogwalker who had a powdery white face and favoured blood-red lipstick.

It was a surprise that the little terrier seemed oblivious to Albert, standing no more than three yards away.

"Got any good pictures?" asked the younger dogwalker, noticing my camera.

"Just squirrels," I replied. She seemed unimpressed.

After they had  moved off, Albert said, "Thanks for not giving me away Neil. I am sorry, I have got to go now but may I see you another day?"

"Yeah. No problem," I smiled.

We made an appointment and just before Albert lummocked deeper into the woods he allowed me to take his picture. The resulting image is at the bottom of this blogpost. See below.
Albert

17 February 2018

Progress

Anyway. I photographed a section of  my crowd scene then made three copies.  First of all I just painted in the black and amber scarves:-
 Then with version two  I applied some colours, including skin colours before adding the black and amber:-
Then I used a colour called Payne's Grey - as suggested by my surrogate sister Donna (Peace Thyme) who resides in Evergreen, Colorado. First I applied a very pale wash and then experimented with different strengths of the single colour. Next I painted in the black and amber scarves:-
These experiments have been very useful. Thanks to Steve Reed (Shadows and Light) for suggesting this approach. I have decided to go forward with the version three idea using Payne's Grey. The experiment has given me the confidence to advance. I spent so many hours on the crowd scene that I was nervous about spoiling it. Now I feel I can do a good job as I move towards the finished masterpiece.

To see it all you have to do is to watch this space and wait about seven years!

16 February 2018

Inspired

At my weekly choir sessions we have been learning a lovely song called "Come Hear The Call". It is a lilting warning song about the environment and the dangers of global warming. You won't find it on YouTube or indeed anywhere else on the internet. I know because I have already searched.

Here is the opening verse:-
Come hear the call, the groaning of the ocean.
Come hear the call, the crying of the wind.
Earth's very heart is breaking and my own soul it is aching
At the waste that we are making of our planetary home.

Anyway, before last evening's session the choir had been promised that we would have a special visitor - the composer of "Come Hear The Call" - a local fellow called Jerry Simon.

He came in halfway through the meeting - a dumpy middle-aged bloke in outdoorsy apparel. He sat near the front ready to listen to our rendition of his song. He appeared somewhat sad and uncomfortable with a faraway look in his eyes.

His presence lifted our performance and afterwards  in his quiet, matter-of-fact style he told us how the song had been born.

He was camping at Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast for he was attending the Whitby Folk Festival that is held in the late summer every year. He woke early and unzipped his tent door looking out on a calm North Sea but with "Come Hear The Call" already in his head.

He said he had never had an experience like it before or since and as he explained the song's birth he pressed his fists against his temples. It had been something he just had to get out though he didn't know where the song had come from. 

That morning he took his fiddle and a notebook down to the beach and sat there working on the song, trying to capture it before it went away. Then later in the day a fellow folk musician gave him some helpful support to truly nail the song. There had been something magical and mystical about the whole process.

I wish I could bring you a video clip of Jerry Simon or my choir singing "Come Hear The Call" but the best I can do is to give you this video of him singing another one of his songs - "I  Am Glad of All The Good Things In My Life":-
 

15 February 2018

News

John Gray is not the only blogger whose achievements have been recognised in the wider world beyond the blogosphere.

Take for example Graham Edwards, the brains behind "Eagleton Notes". When a used trailer company from just outside York were looking for a stolid, trustworthy name for their company, they remembered Graham's blog and plumped for this company logo:-
 A British contemporary gifts organisation also wished to be associated with quality and good taste so this is the name they came up with:-
Jennifer is of course the celebrity author of "Sparrow Tree Journal" which is created in an exclusive gated community in  Florence,South Carolina.

Back in northern England, in the murky back streets of Stockport, a dodgy motor engineer who follows "Shooting Parrots" online, decided to give his unscrupulous business a hint of quality. Hence:-

Meanwhile, blogging folk may wish to note that The Laughing Horse Blogger of the Year for 2017 has been appointed to the Senior Research Staff team at Oak Ridge National Lab where important work is currently being undertaken into the effects of global warming. One wonders if Keith (aka Red) will still find time to maintain his Albertan  blog, "Hiawatha House":-

14 February 2018

Named

Some people think that blogging is a waste of time. However, excellence in blogging can be very prestigious - attracting national or even international recognition. 

Here's just one example.

Over in The Cayman Islands, the governors of a new secondary school were mulling over possible names for their institution. They had already rejected "The Rod Hull and Emu Memorial School",  "Tax Haven Academy" and "Dreams Can Come True Grammar School" when the Chair of Governors looked over at Winston Brathwaite who was chuckling about something on his laptop.

"What ya doin' Winston?"

"Why? Me looking at a blog site from dat lil place dey call Wales."

"Not dat Goin' Gently one? Me lovin that too!"

Anyway, one thing led to another and the upshot is that by the end of the governors' special meeting they had agreed unanimously that the name of the new secondary should be "John Gray High School" in honour of the greatest Welsh contributor to the blogosphere. If you don't believe me please look at the accompanying pictures. The camera never lies.
John Gray High School - winners of the Cayman Islands
inter-school track and field competition

13 February 2018

Binturong

In Bangkok there's a zoo. I visited it one afternoon. As well as expected animals  like Asian elephants, seals and penguins there were animals that I had previously  never heard of. Most of these came from the jungles of South East Asia and of course the continuation of nearly all of these species is now threatened.

One of the animals I saw was a binturong, sometimes called a bearcat. Binturongs may be found throughout South East Asia, including Sumatra and Borneo. There are at least nine sub-species of this animal.

Though binturongs are not especially agile, they spend the majority of their time in the branches of trees. They enjoy long periods of inactivity. They are omnivores - foraging for whatever they can find to sustain life - including smaller mammals, insects and jungle fruits.
The adult creature's  strong, bushy tail is nearly as long as the head and body, which together can range from 28 to 33 in (71 to 84 cm) with the  the tail being 26 to 27 in (66 to 69 cm) long.

The binturong is normally quite shy, but aggressive when harassed. It will initially urinate or defecate on a threat and then, if teeth-baring and snarling does not deter the threat, it uses its powerful jaws and teeth in self-defence. When threatened, the binturong will usually flee up into a nearby tree, but as a defence mechanism the animal may sometimes balance on its tail and flash its claws to appear threatening to potential predators.

The creature's natural lifespan is around twenty years though some captive binturongs have lived longer than that.  They have very few predators. In fact, you will not be surprised to learn that the main threat to their existence is loss of habitat through deforestation.

I am happy to live on a planet that still hosts binturongs. I would be much less happy to learn that they have all gone the way of the dodo and the Tasmanian tiger. Frankly, there are too many people on this spinning sphere and not enough binturongs. Save the Tiger! Save the Rhino! Save The Blue Whale! Save the Binturong! For more information about the binturong please go here.

12 February 2018

Restaurants

High Bradfield yesterday - "The Old Horns Inn" is in the centre
North west of Sheffield, there are two scenic sister villages. Down in the valley there's Low Bradfield and up on the hill there's High Bradfield. Our friendly German blogger Meike has been there.

Each village has a pub. Low Bradfield's pub is called "The Plough" and High Bradfield's is called "The Old Horns Inn". Though I have often enjoyed  jolly bimbles in the area, I hadn't been into either of the pubs in twenty years or more - until yesterday.

Shirley and I were at loose ends until I suggested taking a leisurely country drive via Dungworth and down into The Loxley Valley.  We'd treat ourselves to glasses of beer in one of the Bradfield pubs.

As we motored along High Riggs Road west of Stannington, we saw the distant drama of  snow-ladened clouds beginning to sweep along the valley. Indeed, by the time we parked Clint in the car park behind "The Plough" snow was flurrying around - not big feathery flakes but tiny white bullets like fragments of polystyrene.

We went inside the pub which I remembered as being a place of horse brasses, dark furniture and the vague aroma of  English ale. A place where you could have a pint and a chat and warm your haunches by a log fire. But yesterday I found something else. Eating had taken over the place. A scrum of waiting diners were at the bar and every table in the place was  occupied by Sheffield folk munching their Sunday roasts from the pub's carvery.

The smell of food filled the air as waitresses hurried about and there was nowhere for drinkers to sit comfortably - enjoying a couple of beers. "The Plough" is now a restaurant disguised as a pub.

We left immediately and went up to "The Old Horns Inn", only to discover that the same transmogrification had occurred. What had once been a lovely country pub with magnificent views over The Loxley Valley had now sold its soul to the food trade. In short, it  is not really a pub any more. It's a restaurant.

We managed to find a vacant window table and consumed our drinks there. Shirley had a glass of "Farmer's Blonde"  - a nice, light beer that is in fact brewed at High Bradfield - about a hundred yards from where we were sitting. We were surrounded by hungry diners but a joint of beef was waiting in our refrigerator and as usual I made a nice roast Sunday dinner when we got home.

Many English pubs have disappeared in the past twenty years and so I guess it's better to have a pub-restaurant with a food-led focus that no pub at all. However, I can't help my nostalgic feelings as I recall the pub trade of yesteryear and how those lost pubs were community hubs where your status or bank balance didn't matter. They were homes away  from homes. Public houses where you could wile away the hours. A great social institution that is now very much in retreat.
St Nicholas's churchyard, High Bradfield
yesterday afternoon

11 February 2018

History

This northern city - Sheffield - was just a large village until the mid-eighteenth century. However, it had strategic importance. This was recognised by the Norman invaders of the eleventh century and it is the reason they built a castle here - on rising ground overlooking the confluence of the River Don and the River Sheaf.

As centuries passed the castle was developed, becoming a mighty stone fortress that survived up to the time of The English Civil War. Previously it was passed into the hands of the various Earls of Shrewsbury - one of the most noble, wealthy and influential families in the entire kingdom.

George Talbot, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury (1528-1590), was a close confidante of Queen Elizabeth I. When she was faced with the political crisis that surrounded Mary Queen of Scots, she called upon him for special support. It was his responsibility to oversee Mary's detention - a duty that he successfully fulfilled for fifteen years.

Much of this time Mary was held in Sheffield - in the castle and at Manor Lodge which was in the middle of Talbot's hunting grounds east of the town. There were vindictive rumours that his relationship with Mary was more intimate that that of a jailer and prisoner but Queen Elizabeth dismissed them. Besides, by this time he was married to Bess of Hardwick, the second most powerful woman in England during the Elizabethan era.
George Talbot, circled, at the execution of Mary Queen of Scots
When Mary was executed at Fortheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire in February 1587, George Talbot was the first witness of the crown and, according to a contemporary sketch,  sat in a prime position on the execution platform that was specially erected in that castle's great hall.

Afterwards, he entered his dotage and died three years later in Sheffield. It is said that there were 20,000 people at his funeral which is astonishing given the fact that at that time the population of Sheffield and surrounding villages and townships was less than twenty thousand. 

He was interred in a lavish tomb in the corner of Sheffield Parish Church - now Sheffield Cathedral - which is where, yesterday afternoon,  I took the two photographs that top and tail this post.  
The lengthy inscription is in Latin. It refers to George Talbot's achievements, the
esteem in which he was held and to the rumours that surrounded his relationship
with Mary Queen of Scots.

9 February 2018

Emlin

View west from Wet Slack Ridge
Today, Friday, sunshine illuminated the rolling moorland west of Sheffield.  In spite of the brightness, a bitter wind blustered down from the Arctic. I was sensibly attired with lined walking trousers, a thermal hat and gloves as I set off westwards from Mortimer Road.

My first destination was a triangulation pillar on Emlin Ridge. Like all of the other triangulation pillars that are dotted about the British landscape, it was erected to facilitate accurate surveying and mapping. The pillar is not visible from the road and there are no paths there. 

I strode through rough moorland vegetation over knolls and hidden rocks until the old concrete pillar came into view. Very few people have taken photographs of this one so I took several. Then I had to decide whether to carry on westwards across the rough terrain or return to the car. I decided to carry on.
After a mile of yomping, I reached the top of Wet Slack Ridge and surveyed Wet Slack with Hobson Moss beyond. Up there the moorland has a wild kind of beauty, devoid of trees. Today I was surprised by the relative dryness of my route. I had been expecting the going to  be so much tougher because usually at this time of year the hills are soaked with winter precipitation like a giant sponge and every footstep squelches.

I turned back towards Emlin Ridge. Just after passing the triangulation pillar once more, I had a lovely surprise. There was a flash of creamy whiteness. as a beautiful mountain hare left its rocky hiding place and wheeled in front of me, heading for safety.  Even though they are very rare in The Peak District, mountain hares are still occasionally shot by members of the grouse shooting fraternity.

It was a delight to be out in the wild in early February, alone in the moors with clouds scudding overhead and red grouse cackling in the heather. It is on days like this that I feel truly alive.
Mountain hare (Photo: Sheffield Telegraph)

8 February 2018

Teabags

Most British people drink a lot of tea. When I was a boy, our tea  brewed in the big brown family teapot. When pouring the tea from the pot we used a stainless steel strainer to catch the loose tea leaves. In those days teabags were not available in our shops. It was loose tea or nothing.

By the early sixties, teabags were taking over. Many people tried to resist the change but gradually teabags won out. They were easier to use and much less messy. By swirling a teabag around in boiling water you could make a single mug of tea. What a brilliant invention!

But there's a catch. Were you aware of this?

All teabags that are currently available in our supermarkets contain plastic! In general, the "paper" bags are indeed composed of around 80% biodegradable paper. However, manufacturers also include a significant amount of polypropylene which they say is necessary to "seal" the teabags. Needless to say, polypropylene is not biodegradable.

I checked out a recent purchase of teabags - a pack of 180 teabags. Studying all pieces of writing on the pack I found no reference to the fact that plastic is present in those teabags and no reference to any recycling or composting issues.

Over the years, I have put thousands of old teabags into our garden compost, naively believing that the bags were entirely made from biodegradable paper. It is shocking and concerning to at last discover that all teabags contain plastic. This truth should be emblazoned on all teabag packs and not cunningly kept secret from customers. I can only imagine with horror that through composting, small traces of teabag plastic have leached into our garden vegetables. In that sense, I have unwittingly become like one of those tiny sea creatures currently absorbing micro-plastics in every one of our oceans.

7 February 2018

Oops!

Every so often an old friend phones me up - usually at inconvenient moments - for a long chat. The subjects are repetitive and on every occasion we end up on his favourite topic - money. He thinks a lot about money - from various angles - personal, national and international. I guess that line from "Cabaret" is a true one - "Money makes the world go round" but I have always found money to be a deeply uninteresting subject.

Anyway, let's call the old friend Big Doug. Rather cruelly, some mutual acquaintances have described Doug as looking like an inflated version of Uncle Fester from "The Addams Family". He is socially awkward and intellectually he operates somewhere upon the autistic spectrum. That's why I have always tolerated his differences. He has been a good friend to me through the years and has only ever wished me well.

As well as being a little obsessed with money matters, his brain seems well-equipped for making big leaps of understanding that average folk never make. For Big Doug there are none of the usual  barriers. He collects tidbits of information and is then able to prognosticate or predict the future often with vivid certainty.

Big Doug and I have been out for many curry meals together. You might say that it has been a kind of culinary safari - seeking out the best or the most obscure curry houses in South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire.

A few years back, around this time of year, we arranged to go to a Bangla Deshi curry house in nearby Dronfield. First we had a pint in a Dronfield pub abd then drove up to the restaurant.

When we got inside, we were surprised to see that there were flowers and candles on every table. It looked very nice. Much better than the last time we had visited that place. The Bangla Deshi waiters seemed most attentive but I swore that a couple of them smirked at each other when we walked in.

The penny had not dropped with either myself or Big Doug but when it did drop, it dropped with an almighty resounding  clang. This wasn't just any mdweek night. It was Valentine's Night and already other couples were appearing at the curry house for romantic Valentines' meals! I found myself mumbling defensively to the smirking waiters that they had arrived at entirely the wrong conclusion.

The other diners looked across to see the most unlikely romantic  "couple" ever - Uncle Fester's doppelganger and Johnny Weissemuller's body double - your friendly blogging  correspondent Yorkshire Pudding. My laughing daughter reminded me of that Valentine's faux-pas when she phoned up yesterday evening. She knows how to press my buttons.

6 February 2018

Lullaby

"Golden Slumbers" first appeared on The Beatles' "Abbey Road" album back in 1969. It was resurrected by the band Elbow just before Christmas last year for another iconic  John Lewis T.V. commercial. By the way, John Lewis is the name of a chain of top quality British department stores. 

I don't know why but this morning I woke up with "Golden Slumbers" playing in my head. Sometimes modern artists can pick up old songs and breathe new life into them - arguably surpassing the original version. I think that that's how it is with Elbow's version of this lovely, simple song:-

5 February 2018

Cryotherapy

Not much to report today. Just two things.

Firstly, last Wednesday I visited the dermatology department at The Royal Hallamshire Hospital. The earlier biopsy had produced the unsurprising conclusion that the red thing on  my back is/was a basal cell skin cancer. There were two ways in which I could proceed. Either have special cream applied to the area every night for six weeks or go for something called cryotherapy. As I can't even reach the red thing, I couldn't have applied the cancer killing cream myself.
Logically, I picked the cryotherapy option whereupon the beautiful Asian doctor targeted my back with two long blasts of liquid nitrogen from a stainless steel canister. It was a little uncomfortable but not at all painful for a rough tough Yorkshireman like me. Did I have any questions? Yes. I wanted to know if the wound would bleed. She assured me it wouldn't.
Plenty of zoom to get this long distance view of the city centre
However, the wound has indeed leaked as I feared - a mixture of blood and clear plasma as my body attempts its natural healing process. Shirts and sheets have been sullied by the leakage but I think it's gradually getting better. Sorry there are no photographs of the staining to share! I have to return to the hospital in May to check that all is well.

Secondly, I managed to get out into the nearby countryside for a short walk yesterday afternoon before watching England thrash Italy in the Six Nations rugby international via our television set. Are you reading this post Maria in Verona? The pictures that accompany this post were all taken on the walk - just a five minute drive from this luxury mansion... castle, hovel.

4 February 2018

Influence

I was fourteen when I first heard "Both Sides Now" on an early evening TV chat show hosted by the late Simon Dee. The song was not sung by its brilliant composer - Joni Mitchell but by a folk singer from Seattle - Judy Collins. Before that Saturday night I had never heard of her.

I was awestruck. It wasn't just Judy's intimate and plaintive delivery but the song itself. In its simplicity it spoke to me about the private frustrations of individual human beings - just like me. It suggested that we may have aspirations and a hunger for understanding but when all is said and done perhaps we might all say "I really don't know clouds at all" or "I really don't know love at all" or "I really don't know life at all".
In my journey from adolescence to adulthood that song was very special to me. The following week I went into Sydney Scarborough's record shop under Hull City Hall and I bought the single which I played over and over till I knew every word by heart. Soon I learnt to play it on my guitar and it kind of freed me up to write my own songs that are now mostly buried in the mists of my memory and of course the song led me to discover the amazing genius of Joni Mitchell.

Fifty years later, I continue to look at life from "both sides now" but confess I really don't know life at all. Judy Collins in seventy eight years old and still performing while Joni Mitchell is seventy four and lives a largely reclusive life beset by health problems. Perhaps sometimes she still looks out of her  window in the Los Angeles hills and hums:-
I've looked at life from both sides now 
From win and lose and still somehow 
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all

3 February 2018

Conclusion

Concluding the account of our family holiday in 2005:-
Big Sur
We headed south to Salinas. There I gave myself an hour to explore the excellent John Steinbeck Museum with its various tableaux that represented different literary works. There was even the original camper van that the great author had driven across America in 1960 with his dog Charley - hence, "Travels With Charley".
John Steinbeck's house in Salinas
Picture of John Steinbeck and Charley in The Steinbeck Museum, Salinas
We crossed the rich black earth of The Salinas Valley on our way towards Monterey but sadly there was no time to tarry there. We had to press on. At Carmel we met Highway 1, the famous Big Sur road that clings to the Pacific coast as it weaves its way southwards. It was a lovely scenic drive, all the way down to San Simeon where we stopped to take in the elephant seal rookery. There they were grunting and basking on the shore like politicians in parliament or lugging themselves awkwardly into the ocean waves. 
Young seals at San Simeon
Then on to Morro Bay, turning inland to San Luis Obispo. By now it was perhaps 5pm and we needed somewhere to stay the night. I had been hoping we would find a motel in the town of Guadalupe but the woman in the petrol station said there were no hotel rooms there. Besides, it seemed a down-at-heel agricultural town with teams of exhausted Mexican farm workers in beaten up pick up trucks. They seemed such a long way from "The American Dream".

We headed a few miles inland to Santa Maria where something very newsworthy was happening - the ongoing trial of pop singer Michael Jackson for alleged child molestation. In spite of this, we were able to get a family room at what is now called The Colonial Motel though back then I think it was called The Rose Inn or something like that.

After an evening meal at Denny's we walked up to the court house where Jackson spent almost fourteen weeks on trial. It was dark and no one else was around when out of the shadows a torchlight beam appeared. It was being shone by a night security guard specially hired for the duration of the trial. He was very happy to have some regular work and didn't care a hoot about Michael Jackson or the adoring fans who gathered there in the daytime. Mischievously, I asked him if he was a Michael Jackson fan and he retorted, "No, I'm a Me fan!" It made me laugh.

The next morning we got up and packed the faithful black jeep one last time. It was our final day in California and I felt an enormous sense of frustration. There was so much more I would have loved to have seen and done. Nonetheless, when I look back I know I gave my family a super taste of west coast America. Every day was filled with interest and the plans I had made came to fruition without any significant hiccups. As we headed south on the highway bound for LAX, we played Frances's road trip CD:-
Driving down the 101
California here we come
Right back where we started from

But there was one final jewel in the crown of our holiday memories. When we disembarked our Virgin Transatlantic flight at Heathrow we heard the bleeping of a golf buggy behind us. as we walked along the link corridor. It was two lazy first class passengers. They left the annoying vehicle at some security bollards just as we also reached them and they had to walk down to the luggage carousel area shoulder to shoulder with us. It was Barbara Bach and her tiny husband - Ringo Starr. You might have heard of him.
The last morning - in Santa Maria