31 December 2012


Oh my aching head! Talk about the day after the night before. I haven't had so much to drink since the last Laughing Horse Awards ceremony. The final hour or two are a complete blur in my mind but various nightmarish images keep rising up from the cesspit of my memory. Mr Brague in nothing but a studded leather thong sliding down the hotel bannisters. Jenny and Libby standing on the bar to do a drunken medley of Cheeky Girls songs. Captain Gowans arm wrestling in the lobby with feisty Jan from California and losing! And Helen from "Helsie's Happenings" chasing me round the hotel fountain with my trousers in her hands yelling, "Come to mama ya pommy bastard!"

An ambulance was called to take Ian from "The Owl Wood" and Senor Brian el Cuttso to hospital because of their over-indulgent drinking. A grinning and sober Ian from "Shooting Parrots" played his ukelele on the staircase - old George Formby numbers which were much appreciated by starry-eyed Daphne, Elizabeth and Earl Gray who sat in awe on the carpeted steps beneath him. Steve - once of  "Occupied Country" and Arctic Fox - out briefly on parole from HMP Armley - fought in the car park with Olaf the Swedish barman and a couple of  Saudi Arabian bloggers before the outraged French hotel manager intervened.
Steve Bruce last night  - upset by acerbic comments from Cap'n Gowans
Oh my Lord - what a night! Anyway, let's backtrack to earlier in the evening when the awards were announced  - soon after the opening address was given by Hull City's manager Steve Bruce. It was all tuxedos, shimmery evening dresses and polite chortling at that point. And these were the winners...
African blogger of the year - Tom Gowans of "Hippo on the Lawn"
Welsh male blogger of the year - Earl John Gray - creative brains behind "Going Gently"
Paste me in
Wrexham blogger of the year and Welsh female blogger of the year - Jennyta from "Demob Happy Teacher"
Australia's best blogger award (Sponsored by Vegemite) - Helen from "Helsie's Happenings"
Best blogger in Aby Lincolnshire - Ian from "The Owl Wood"
Sexiest lady blogger - Libby from "D-Scribes"
Sexiest male blogger and best research blogger - Ian from "Shooting Parrots"
Top Animal Care Blogger and yet again top blogger in Sloughhouse, California - Jan from "Cosumne Gal"
Top Yorkshire blogger (female) - Elizabeth "Well this Int Gettin Ens Fed"
Top Yorkshire blogger (male), Nobel Peace Prize and United Nations Humanitarian Award - Yorkshire Pudding
Best communist theatrical agent blogger from north Leeds - Daphne "My Dad's a Communist"
Catalonia's Premier English Blogger - Brian Cutts of "Tannu Tuva"
Hamilton NZ's best blogger and Top Granddad Blogger - David from "Cimba7200"
Top Senior Blogger and once again Top American Blogger - Robert Brague "Rhymes With Plague"

Winners are entitled to copy and paste this year's designer widget into their own blogs or sidebars:-

But...drum roll. The Laughing Horse Blogger of the Year for 2012 is.....(pause for heartbeat drumming)...is none other than New Zealand-based blogger Katherine de Chevalle, creator of "The Last Visible Dog"! Hurrah! In their citation, the Awards Committee said, "Katherine's blog provides a healthy mixture of  personal topics, reflections on national and international news items and there is much exploration of wildlife issues, sometimes pausing to celebrate the creatures and the plants she sees around her. Her passion for Art recurs in the blog but her own creativity is never flaunted egotistically. The comments she leaves on other people's blogs are generally warm and encouraging with only occasional glints of her wicked sense of humour. She also makes exceedingly good muffins."  The committee chose to waive objections made by several  Brush-Tailed Possum Support Groups.

In fact, as Katherine weaved her way to the stage past cheering guests to receive her cheque from Steve Bruce, it was obvious that her fur coat was not mink after all but pure NZ brush tailed possum - approximately thirty pelts were used in its manufacture by an Otorohanga fashion house.
A stunned Katherine as the award was announced.
What a wonderful way to say goodbye to an old year and to welcome in a new one. 
Happy 2013 Everybody! Happy New Year!



30 December 2012


The 2012 award widget, specially
designed by Danny Boyle - architect
of the London Olympics' opening
and closing ceremonies.
The prestigious "Laughing Horse Blog Awards" are being held this very evening at the exclusive Whitley Hall Hotel in the northern outskirts of Sheffield. For those who are unaware of "Laughing Horse" and what it represents, let us just say that it is probably the most coveted award for anyone currently working in the blogging industry.

Previous overall winners have included:
My Dad's a Communist  by Daphne (2009)
Going Gently by Earl Gray(2010)
Shooting Parrots by Ian  (2011)
But every year there are subsidiary awards which are of course also gleefully treasured.

Bloggers have been arriving in Sheffield from every corner of the world, all eager to learn if their services to blogging willl be acknowledged by the Laughing Horse Awards Committee. Notable arrivals have included the eskimo blogger known as "Pole A Bear" and the Salt Lake City blogger "Baseball Mitt" who seems much greyer since he lost the US presidential election to the Chicago-based blogger "Don't Barrack Me Suckers!" 

Perhaps it was the jetlag that did it but after downing a couple of pints of Tetley's at the hotel bar Mitt found himself in a contretemps with Captain T. Gowans from Angola ("Hippo on the Lawn"). Gowans gripped the poor old bloke round the gullet and gruffly warned him - "Don't you EVER say that about Africans you ninny!" Naturally, Mr R.Henry Brague was the peacemaker and had to physically force himself between the warring pair.

Bathed in afternoon light, sitting in the alcove of the bar's bay window, several lady bloggers exchanged knitting patterns and cake recipes while simultaneously humming lullabies and darning their menfolk's holey socks. Multitasking as usual. But then brash Californian rancher Janice Blawat spoilt it all by passing round graphic roadkill pictures - squashed skunks, possums and endangered raccoons. Yet even she was trumped when New Zealander Katherine de Shovel arrived with a frightened brush tailed possum that had been squeezed into a plastic carry basket meant for cats or small dogs. She said its name was Art and when Helen from "Helsie's Happenings" and theatrical impressario Daphne Franks realised it was still alive, they screamed like hysterical schoolgirls. 

Elizabeth was on a bar stool sipping pina coladas while simultaneously admiring the cocktail shaking skills of Olaf the hotel's buff Swedish bartender. Then who should arrive but Colonel I. Hutson from "The Owl Wood". He shuffled up to Elizabeth with a military glint in his eye and ordered a small egg nog.

Impoverished Economically challenged bloggers have had to bunk up in the basement rooms of Whitley Hall Hotel. These are very basic airless rooms normally used by chambermaids and porters. Jenny from Wrexham (currently dressed in a silver body stocking) is with Shooting Parrots and Libby from "D-Scribes" is in with the lascivious and aforementioned Captain Gowans. Brian Cutts (currently dressed in a Spanish matador's outfit) and The Arctic Fox-Pimpernel are literally on bunkbeds. Meanwhile upstairs, the Regal Room with its Jacobean four poster bed is occupied by Earl John Gray and his professorial consort Sir Christopher Brainbox O.M.G.., author of  "A Brief History of The Trelawnyd Flower Show" in five volumes.

So the guests and nominees are gathered. In a few hours the results for 2012 will be known...


Dad behind the wheel. Mum in the front passenger seat. The kids in the back. "Are we nearly there yet?" Driving over to Hull between Xmas and New Year. It reminded me of all those other half-remembered drives. To France. To Italy. To the shops. To see Mum in the old folks' home. To cottage holidays in Shropshire. To London. To Las Vegas from L.A...

Will there ever be another day like today? Ian is twenty eight and Frances is twenty four. They're not at home any any more - just for Christmas. And we're going  to see Hull City at the K.C. Stadium against Yorkshire rivals - Leeds United. Murky spray on the motorway. We're later than we wanted to be. We park up on Great Thornton Street and march swiftly to our "theatre of dreams". 

The players are already out. Leeds in their virginal white strips and City in their black and amber - unhappily sponsored by despicable "Cash Converters". We take control of the game, We spurn chance after chance. Leeds look statuesque  We are Hull. "Take my hand, take my whole life too! For I can't help falling in love with you!" We are so much on top that our goalkeeper's left to visit the barbershop but incredibly, amazingly at half-time it's still 0-0.

Second half you wonder. Is it going to be one of those games where the best team doesn't win? But after fifty three minutes and finally, finally, Corry Evans sweeps the leather ball past Paddy Kenny's outstretched arms into the net. "Who are ya? Who are ya?" we chant at Leeds's army of travelling supporters. And four minutes later Meyler rises to a well-directed corner and like a cannonball heads the plastic-coated sphere  into the bulging net. Effectively, it's all over there and then. We have suppressed the mighty Leeds - doing the double over them for the first time in my life. As beautiful as a dew-sparkled cobweb on a summer's dawn.

Tea and Xmas cake at Tony and Fiona's mansion in Swanland before the 80 mph motorway run back to Sheffield. M62 to M18 to M1. My little family. The people I love the most. Contented that we gave Leeds a real footballing lesson. Maybe never to be repeated. Up The Tigers!

29 December 2012


Yesterday afternoon, Shirley, Frances and I went to see the 3D version of "Life of Pi" directed by Ang Lee and starring Suraj Sharma as "Pi" Patel. Shirley had read the novel  by Yann Martel  some time ago but Frances and I didn't know quite what to expect.

The middle hour of the film has "Pi" out at sea in the company of a Bengal tiger called, rather bizarrely,  Richard Parker. This hour was quite sublime - both visually and in terms of the surreal experience it created. The 3D effects did not enslave the director's intentions, as arguably happened with "Avatar", but instead served or enhanced the cinematographic fantasy. Some of it was quite stunning and I found myself lost in the spectacle.

Did Pi dream it all? Was it truth or illusion? In the end it doesn't really matter. There was something vaguely spiritual about it all but if there was a religious message it certainly wasn't shoved roughly down your throat. At times there's a lightness, a deliberate silliness about "Life of Pi" and it is very likely the best film I have seen this year. It was breaking boundaries and Shirley said it truly did justice to a novel she had very much enjoyed. All three of us walked out of the cinema feeling we had just watched something rather special and uplifting.

27 December 2012


I came across this old doodle the other day. It reminded me of past times - when I was a member of my old school's Senior Leadership Team. It was created - if that is the right word - on June 29th 2009 at yet another SLT meeting, less than a month before I was to take my leave of a place that had eaten up twenty two years of my life. Towards the end, I felt quite distant from those meetings in which the players made moves as if in some educational X Factor competition though the atmosphere was usually and rather oddly reverential. Missionary zeal and all that. 

Doodling is something I have almost always done. Like walking in the countryside, it can help some of us to focus and organise thoughts. Not everyone's brain is scientifically bullet-pointed into neat checklists and action plans. I'm very glad I took early retirement when I did, leaving those interminable meetings behind and the endless spreadsheets, the observation programmes, glossy government ring binders, the targets and all the other stuff that got in the way of the simple business of teaching kids. It's taken a while but three and a half years down the line I feel I have cleared away most of that psychological debris.

On the whole, the football supporters in my old doodle look rather glum don't you think? Hopefully Hull City fans won't look that way after the Leeds United game on Saturday! We'll be grinning from ear to ear, won't we?...And it's a little hard to believe that a week today I'll be high above the clouds, flying back to Thailand. 

26 December 2012


After Christmas comes Boxing Day. Yesterday's feasting had made me feel like a lethargic Mr Blobby so I drove a couple of miles south of Pudding Towers, past the Sheffield Tigers rugby ground on Dore Moor and then down Whitelow Lane, turning to the riding stables at the end of Shorts Lane. It's somewhere I have often parked in order to begin a familiar one hour circular walk - burn some calories, get the blood pumping and the lungs gasping fresh air.

I put on the walking gaiters that Shirley had bought me for Christmas. It's the first pair I have ever owned but many times in recent months  freshly laundered trews have been muddied by country walks so this seemed a good way to protect my trouser bottoms. It was a bit of a struggle getting them on because the straps that go under the boots were difficult to adjust. But finally I was able to set off.

As well as providing good physical exercise, I find that walking is also psychologically therapeutic. As you walk, you think. You're processing memories and the issues that life throws up. Sometimes you're solving problems or conceiving creative notions. In my humble opinion, many of the difficulties caused by modern living would be massively reduced if people would only get out walking. Depression? Forget the pills and the counselling and get out for a long walk. Obesity? Walk it off ounce by ounce. In mourning? Unemployed? Unhappy? Just get walking.

After the walk, I drove up to Dore Village where I snapped a few pictures as is my wont. Above you see two foraging hens on the verge by "The Hare and Hounds" and below a stone that commemorates the first unification of England which happened when King Ecgbert of Wessex accepted the submission of King Eanred of Northumbria at Dore in 829 A.D. to become, for a few shorts months, what The Anglo Saxon Chronicle called "The Ruler of Britain". He predated Aethelstan - often thought of as the first true King of England by a hundred years.


Early morning Christmas Day. Not sure why I couldn't sleep. Perhaps the takeaway curry from "Hamid's" or the drinks at John and Lorraine's house. More likely a phantasmagoria of Christmases past. Mum and Dad and my brothers. Or Ian and Frances as small  children - "He's been! He's been!" The eager anticipation of gifts. An annual marker in the continually running sands of time. Christmas Day.

I lay there willing myself to sleep again but it just wouldn't happen. So I am downstairs with a big mug of tea and a mince pie but as I lay there trying not to disturb my Shirley, I recalled a story I wrote a month ago. It was inspired by the London Underground and it tells the tale behind the name of  a certain tube station. And that station is...

Long ago, before motor cars and mobile phones, before aeroplanes and factories, before computers and microwave meals, a shepherd lived near the little town of London. His name was Humphrey and his humble home was  a little shepherd’s hut made from willow sticks and  the old bones of dead sheep. Instead of a carpet, he just scattered dry hay on his dirt floor.

Humphrey was employed by Lord Snotgrouse of Hammersmith who had a luxurious mansion by the River Thames – on the very site of what is now the Hammersmith Apollo Theatre. You might have seen it on the television -  the Apollo I mean – not Snotgrouse Mansion which was demolished early in the nineteenth century as London spread its urban tentacles into the surrounding countryside.

Lord Snotgrouse and his house guests loved to eat meat. He insisted on meat at every meal.  And because in those days there were no supermarkets or even any high street butchers, rich people had to raise their own animals. Lord Snotgrouse always had important things to do so had no time to look after his own animals. Instead, he employed a swineherd, a cowherd, a poulterer (keeper of chickens), a rabbit catcher and a shepherd. It was their job to make sure there was an endless supply of freshly slaughtered animals for the kitchens of Snotgrouse Mansion.

Humphrey shepherded a flock of around a hundred sheep. Every day he’d rise before dawn, put on his woolly jerkin and his sheepskin hat, grab his spindly shepherd’s crook and venture out to check the flock. He’d move them to new pastures or down to the River Thames to drink and all the time the stupid sheep say would  say “baa!” – all of them together, a hundred sheep going “Baa! Baa! Baa!”. They made a helluva racket and the noise often woke other residents on Lord Snotgrouse’s vast estate.

Day after day, Humphrey tended the flock. In summertime there were fleeces to shear and In springtime there would be new lambs to keep up the numbers as older sheep were swiftly dispatched with Humphrey’s sharp steel  knife. He kept it in a leather sheath that hung from his belt. It had been handed down to him by his father. When a sheep was dead, Humphrey would sling it over his shoulders and, grasping its dangling feet, carry it along the network of country paths that led to Snotgrouse Mansion.

Humphrey never had a day off. For forty years he worked without a single holiday. He didn’t even have time to go to church in the nearby village of Fulham. He tended Lord Snotgrouse’s sheep from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year and sometimes he’d even be up in the middle of the night, assisting ewes with their lambing or chasing away foxes that loved to feast on fresh mutton. Yes, Humphrey did his duty. He served his lord without complaint and maintained the supply of fresh sheep for his lordship’s kitchen.

In all this long time, Humphrey had never even spoken to his master though he had often seen Lord Snotgrouse riding Bombast - his big grey horse towards the little town of London or to nearby  Fulham village. The rutted track that led there went right past Humphrey’s humble hut.

When Humphrey was a young man of twenty five or so, he was guiding the flock along the bumpy track to fresh pasture when Lord Snotgrouse rode by on Bombast. It had been raining that morning and as his lordship trotted by, his horse’s hooves splashed in the muddy puddles along the way. Humphrey stood on the grass verge and bowed his head, close to a particularly large puddle. When Bombast’s front hooves hit it, Humphrey was splashed from head to foot with muddy brown lane water.

Lord Snotgrouse looked down from his saddle. He was a tubby man with fat cheeks and  thighs like hams. Seeing poor Humphrey standing there dripping with mud and chocolate-coloured water, his lordship roared with mirth – “Ha! Ha! Ha!” till there were tears of laughter running down his blubbery face. Then he whipped his grey horse’s rump with a leather riding crop and galloped through the baah-ing sheep still laughing with cruel delight at Humphrey’s misfortune. Meanwhile Humphrey, wiping away the muddy water, had to regather his now scattered flock as he watched the diminishing figure of his greatly amused master making his way along the old farmtrack  to Fulham and thence to London.

Years passed. Sheep came and went and Humphrey grew older. One dark November night, he lay shivering in his shepherd’s hut beneath an old sheepskin blanket he had stitched together when he was a young man. Wind and rain howled together outside and he was glad that he’d taken the flock to the old sheepfold that he and his late father had built over at Kensington. They were sheltered from the worst of the weather there.

Rain bucketed upon Humphrey’s roof and outside the thunder rumbled. Then he heard a horse on the nearby lane – its hooves pounding like coconut shells. Suddenly, there was an enormous crack of lightning that must have lit up the entire parish. He heard the frightened whinnying of a horse and then a man’s voice – “Steady Bombast!”. There was another explosion of light. The man yelled “Aaargh!” and there was a heavy thump as the horse galloped off down the lane at a hundred miles an hour.

Even though the rain was still lashing down, Humphrey got up to see what had happened. He put his sheepskin blanket over his head and ventured down to the lane.  There was something there – like a sack of turnips, just lying in the road – and then in another blinding flash of lightning, he realised that it was the crumpled body of his master – Lord Snotgrouse, just lying there as dead as a doorpost. He surely must have hit his head on a rock or tree root when the horse threw him.

But Humphrey didn’t know for sure that his master was dead so he dragged his lordship back to the little hut and laid him on his humble bed in his humble shepherd’s hut where he lit his only remaining candle stub. Then it became clear that the bloated nobleman’s life had ceased. Humphrey surveyed his flabby body, noting the fine silk pantaloons, the braided velvet jacket and the shiny shoes with golden buckles. And suddenly - there on his lordship’s belt he noticed a calfskin money bag. It appeared to be bulging with coins.

Humphrey knew it was wrong but he couldn’t help himself. He untied the money bag and poured out its contents. Good heavens! There must have been fifty guineas or even more – in gold and silver coins. Humphrey was astonished. As a shepherd, he earned a solitary threepenny bit a week with an extra sixpence at Yuletime and here on the floor of his hut was an absolute fortune. If it was his it would be like a modern day person winning the National Lottery with their six magic numbers!

Humphrey was tempted. A demon inside in him said “Take the money!” and he listened to that demon rather too hard as the little angel’s voice inside him was reduced to a tiny whisper – “No Humphrey! It’s wrong!”

The storm was passing by now. Hanging next to Humphrey’s door was an old spade that he had once used to dig the foundations of the sheepfold at Kensington and sometimes used to crack trapped foxes’  heads. He took it down and dug a hole a few yards away from his hut. It was a man-shaped hole. The soil was stodgy with rainwater but after three hours of digging and with dawn beginning to lighten the eastern horizon, the hole was done.

He went back inside the hut and grabbed his lordship’s feet – buckled shoes and all and he dragged the fat corpse outside to the hole which seemed to fit Lord Snotgrouse nicely. He landed at the bottom with a heavy wallop then huffing and puffing, Humphrey refilled the hole, stamping the earth down with his sheepskin boots. “Ug! Ug!” he grunted with the physical effort of the awful job he had just finished.

Then Humphrey went back into his humble hut and counted the coins from the leather moneybag. Sixty two guineas, four shillings and ninepence! He counted it again. Yes – he had been right first time! A flaming fortune! His eyes bulged with excitement. And then he boiled some thin sheep’s head gruel before beginning yet another day as a country shepherd - as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

He heard from Dave the swineherd that his lordship’s grey horse had been found down by the river. Rumour had it that his lordship must have been tossed into the Thames during last week’s thunderstorm. Perhaps Bombast had panicked and thrown him.  By now the tubby lord’s  body could easily have been washed out to sea.

A week or so  later, some redcoats passed along the lane, returning from Snotgrouse Mansion. They had been making enquiries about his lordship’s disappearance. As they reached the old shepherd’s hut, they saw an old man planting a Yuletide hollybush next to his humble home.

The captain yelled out, “I say old fellow, did you see Lord Snotgrouse on the night of the storm?”

“No sir. I were sound asleep in my bed. I heard nothing. Nothing at all,” lied Humphrey looking down humbly at the blade of his old spade.

After the redcoats had galloped away – back to their barracks in London – Humphrey tamped down the little hollybush with the heels of his boots. He had planted it directly over the place where Lord Snotgrouse was buried.

In the next few years, that hollybush thrived, growing to twenty feet or more and every Christmas its branches bulged with bloodred berries. Passers by sometimes stopped to admire what became such a fine bush – right next to the old shepherd’s shack. But Humphrey never saw  his shepherd’s bush flourish for just days after the redcoats had ridden by,  he put the calfskin moneybag inside his sheepskin jerkin and began what turned out to be a very long walk to the south coast.

He arrived in the seaside village of Brighton on Christmas Day where he took lodgings in “The Three Tuns Tavern” and ate a hearty meal of roast swan, boiled turnip and tender mutton. Then he bought “drinks all round” for the other Christmas revellers who, taking Humphrey’s lead, toasted “his lordship” before Tom the fiddler played Christmas carols on his violin deep into that frosty night.

And that, my friends, is how Shepherd’s Bush got its name.

24 December 2012


In idle moments I have been playing around with a free online photo-edting website at http://www.tuxpi.com. It's easy to use and there are various interesting effects you can apply to your own pictures. See my Christmas card above and below you can see a "pencil sketch" of  the Earl of Trelawnyd with one of his hunting hounds on a motivational poster:-

23 December 2012


The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

by Thomas Hardy (1915 - when he was 75)

The legend that cattle – descendants of the beasts that knelt in reverence at the stable in Bethlehem – would kneel each Christmas Eve at midnight was familiar to Hardy from childhood. This poem was written as the horror of World War One was really starting to be unveiled. One of his distant relatives was killed at Gallipoli that year.

The poem hints at Hardy's uncomfortable relationship with religion. The church had been important to him throughout his life. He wanted to believe and yet logic and a sense of our universe's great godless emptiness kept deepening his instinctive atheism. A "barton" was perhaps a barley enclosure and a "coomb" was a - short chalky valley - both familiar Wessex terms.

21 December 2012


So frequently you see them just sitting there next to the toilet bowl. They come in different designs and colours. There are posh ones and dirt cheap ones. Usually they rest in little plastic or ceramic containers to catch the drips. I am talking about toilet brushes folks! What a fascinating topic!

I want to let you into a little secret. For the first twenty five years of my life, I never once used a toilet brush. I would see them sitting there in "rest rooms" like ornaments but I hardly gave them a moment's thought. I guess I assumed they were put there ready for cleaners to use. It never occurred to me that when you despoiled the virgin whiteness of a lavatory bowl you were meant to clean up with the brush yourself! Nobody had told me.

They probably just assumed that the purpose of a toilet brush would be obvious but to me it wasn't. In my view, alongside sex education and drug awareness, schoolchildren should be taught about the humble toilet brush. There'd be practical sessions followed by careful scrutiny by judges. In Design Technology the kids would design their own toilet brushes and in Music toilet brushes (clean) would be used as pretend microphones.

To anyone who may have followed me into toilet cubicles from 1953 to 1978, may I hereby apologise wholeheartedly for any unpleasantness I may have left behind. To repeat myself, I simply didn't know - even though most unfortunately ignorance is no defence in the eyes of the law. Have you got a toilet brush tale to tell?

19 December 2012


I have in my possession a very battered old dictionary that smells of ancient tobacco smoke. Actually, that is not quite true because I have only the second volume (L to Z) of Samuel Johnson's famous "A Dictionary of the English Language" printed in 1778 (sixth edition). I can't make out the first owner's name. It was John something or other and he inscribed his name inside the front cover in 1789 along with a couple of pages of handwritten Ancient Greek.

I have just spent a happy hour flicking through the pages which as you might imagine, stealthily reveal differences between the world we live in now and the world as it appeared at the back end of the eighteenth century. Johnson's definition of "motor" is simply "mover" and there is only one word with the prefix "tele-" - and that is telescope. The words "penis" and "vagina" are not included and nor is "moron", "ski" or "lavatory". A "luncheon" is apparently "as much food as one's hand can hold" and the word was, it seems, derived from "clutch" or "clunch".

There are very many botanical words including "lustwort", "lungwort", "moschatel" and "scurvygrass". Another curious word I spotted was "swanskin" which was a kind of "soft flannel" - hopefully not actually made from swans!

We all know what the word "woman" means but did you ever use it as a verb? Johnson defines "womaning" as "making pliant like a woman". But a man who is accompanied by or united with a woman is "womaned". And we all know about the typical "womaniser" - Casanova, Errol Flynn or Eric Pickles - but in Johnson's dictionary to "womanise" simply means to emasculate, "to effeminate" or to soften - nothing concerning sexual debauchery.

A lovely word I had never heard before was the adjective "skimbleskamble" which meant "wandering" or "wild". I am not sure how it would have been used. Perhaps - "Earl Gray's skimbleskamble hens headed for the hedgerow" or "The skimbleskamble lane twisted its way across the moors."

"Reindeer" is spelt "raindeer" and rather lazily Johnson tells us it is a "deer with large horns which, in the northern regions draws sledges through the snow". No hint here of the close relationship between Lapps and the reindeer herds upon which their very survival depended.

To Johnson, "orgasm" meant "sudden vehemence" and a "thunderstone"  was "fabulously supposed to be emitted by thunder". "Tea" was a "Chinese plant of which the infusion has lately been much drank in Europe" and a "slabberer" was of course "one who slabbers - an idiot". "Slabbering" should not be confused with "slubbering" which is all about doing things lazily, imperfectly with "idle hurry" and a "slubberdegullion" was a "paltry, dirty, sorry wretch".

There - that's enough. I am sure if you're really interested in Johnson's dictionary you will be able to access it somewhere online.

18 December 2012


Three things motivated me to read "Black Diamonds" by Catherine Bailey. Firstly, fellow blogger Brian - exiled to Catalonia from his South Yorkshire homeland - had raved about it - mostly because it concerns the Wentworth Woodhouse estate close to his family's home in the former pit and railway village of Elsecar. Secondly, quite recently I went for a lovely country walk around Wentworth, taking in several of the locations mentioned in the book. Thirdly, my maternal grandfather and great grandfather were both coal miners at the New Stubbin colliery that was developed by the Earls of Fitwilliam - who for centuries inhabited the grand country estate where my mother had often rambled as a girl.

It's a book about changing times and the fall of one of the richest and most powerful aristocratic families in England. Though they had many more houses and estates, the mind-bogglingly wealthy Fitzwilliam family's proudest possession was Wentworth Woodhouse with its 365 rooms and the widest frontage of any private home in Europe. The house has never been open to the public and surprisingly, outside South Yorkshire few people have even heard of it.

The Fitwilliams' story is one of intrigue, the hiding of secrets, political and religious battles, blood lines and exploitation. Theirs was a world of foxhunting, race horses, debutantes, lavish dinners, the possession of "old masters" and they moved in the most privileged circles. Nonetheless, before the nationalisation of the country's coal industry they were unusual employers for they enjoyed the affection and respect of their "serfs" - the coal mining  and farming families that relied upon them for work even as they replenished the Fitzwilliams' bulging coffers. They looked after their people.
Kathleen Kennedy's grave at Chatsworth

American visitors to this humble blog may be interested to learn that in the late nineteen forties the married 8th Earl Fitzwilliam (Peter) had a passionate affair with Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy - sister to John F. Kennedy. Sadly, they died together in an eminently avoidable light plane crash in the South of France in 1948. "Kick" is buried at Chatsworth House - home to the Marquis of Hartington who had been her husband till his death on active duty  in World War II.

I liked "Black Diamonds", mostly because I was motivated to learn more about the subjects it covered . However, Catherine Bailey never seems entirely sure what she is writing. Is it history? Is it a romantic novel? It is a treatise on social injustice? Her attitude towards the aristocratic Fitzwilliam family often seems ambivalent. At times she is in awe of them and at other times she appears to deride their feudal extravagances. Even so the book was very well-researched - both in libraries and in conversations with old people who could recall those vanished times and I am pleased I read it. 


Dec 15.12 Howden etc 007
Howden Minster and the arch of the ruined abbey chancel.
It's nice to be able to share my England with overseas visitors to this blog. Our beautiful little country with its rich heritage and varied landscapes is much more than London or Stratford-upon-Avon or Oxford or York. Once I met a young American who thought that the words "England" and "London" were interchangeable. They meant the same thing. He's lucky I didn't biff him.

On Saturday I went over to Hull to see the mighty Tigers beat Huddersfield 2-0 in front of 17,000 supporters but before I reached that city of dreams, I made a little detour to the small East Yorkshire town of Howden which sits just north of the River Humber on a rich alluvial plain. Visually, the town is dominated by its medieval church's tower which rises from the ruins of a Norman Abbey and can easily trace its history back beyond a thousand two hundred years. 

The little town meant a lot to my parents because when they returned to England after World War II, my father gained his first primary school headship at the nearby village of Barmby-on-the-Marsh.  It was where my two older brothers were first raised and just three miles away, Howden was the closest place for shops and services. 

So I wandered around. There were children in the beautiful old Minster rehearsing a Christmas service and in  nearby Market Street, local people were doing their Saturday shopping. I saw several "accidental" meetings of friends and acquaintances  - for this is a town that very few outsiders would ever visit - especially in the wintertime. In one shop window I saw a fashion mannequin dressed as Mary with a plastic baby Jesus in her arms. It was a bit spooky.

Afterwards, I drove on to Hull via Eastrington and Gilberdyke, past the Humber Bridge and on to Clive Sullivan Way - parking half a mile away from the Kingston Communications Stadium - Hull City's home ground. Tony and Fiona had brought sandwiches and hot coffee for halftime. Returning home in the blackness of early evening, I noticed that the illuminated tower of Howden Minster was easily visible from the M62 motorway.
Dec 15.12 Howden etc 030
Mary and  Jesus in a gift shop window
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Fruit, vegetable and flower shop on Market Street, Howden
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Tomb of Sir Peter Saltmarsh (1280 - 1338) in Howden Minster

16 December 2012


My French brother recently sent me one of those humorous "round robin" emails. Perhaps you have also received it as these things often seem to "do the rounds". This particular one concerns Christmas photos that were apparently culled from the many thousands of pictures that American Wal-Mart stores still process at this time of year. As we say in Yorkshire, "there's nowt as queer as folk"

In this professional studio picture "mom" has chosen to dress in a tasteful skimpy pvc Santa outfit. The white garter on her left thigh adds a certain touch of elegance to the composition, don't you think?
Given what has just happened in Newtown, Connecticut, this Christmas composition in front of the tree is more than a little concerning. "Gee! Great mom, just what I wanted ! A Kalashnikov! Now I can be famous without even even auditioning for  America's Got Talent!" 
Below - what a wholesome family portrait to send to friends and relations! It's the pastor of the local Lutheran church with his wife and sons. By the grace of God, they look so happy together:-
And finally the kid on Santa's knee seems especially happy. Look closer folks:-
And just in case you were wondering, there is no truth in the rumour that that particular Santa was in fact Mr R.Brague of Canton, Georgia. He would never have applied for the Santa job at "Dick's Sporting Goods" - 1810 Cumming Highway, Canton.

15 December 2012


Winchelsea Beach - Sussex

Of Memory

Swirling mist 
Or steam rising. 
Images blinking incoherently. 
Snatches of lines once said - 
Chronological tombola - 
The fruits of growing older. 
I saw a face, 
I heard a voice... 

They well up 
From benighted depths 
Far below -
Swirling, spinning - 
People you used to know, 
Sights once seen, 
Places once been – 

Is all. 
What’s saved 
And what is lost - 
You never get to choose 
Or count the cost 
Of the life you’ve lived 
Defined by 
Memory’s markers - 
Like ancient groynes 
In the tide-washed sands 
Of time.

14 December 2012


Go east young man! Yes dear readers, as one or two sleuths had already figured out, I shall soon return to Thailand. In the picture above you can see Gordon and Penelope (not their real names). They have been working in Bangkok for three and a half years following their lavish society wedding in Birmingham. And the good news is folks that after some delay and uncertainty, they are to have a baby girl during the Christmas period. Shirley and I are delighted for them.

Unlike many babies in the animal world, human babies demand a lot of attention. Their plaintive cries mean. "Gimme food!", "I'm too hot you suckers!", "I have dumped in this nappy so change it! Now!",  "I demand a drink this instant!" or "I'm feeling lonely so cuddle me!" Unfortunately Miss Penelope could not contemplate responding to her new baby's needs while teaching classes of adolescents from northern Bangkok's wealthier homes. In short, she needed maternity leave. But who could cover her weeks away? Gordon contemplated this question for about five seconds before a brainwave hit him - "I know what I'll do, I'll call for SuperPudding!"

And even though SuperPudding's life was packed with important activity - such as shopping at "Lidl", going for country walks, presenting Lady Pudding with delicious and nutritious meals, emulsioning the kitchen, reading "Black Diamonds" by Catherine Bailey and regularly leaving erudite and witty comments on several blogs, he decided to answer Gordon's call in the affirmative. That is why I was in Hull on Wednesday, getting my £60 Thai work visa. I shall be leaving on a jet plane on January 3rd - assuming Manchester Airport isn't obscured by a snowstorm that day.

When last I was in Thailand and neighbouring countries, I saw such wonderful things and created many vivid memories. Teaching in the school was so delightful compared with the pressurised hurly burly of teaching in a tough north Sheffield secondary school. It felt like a therapy - reminding me of how fulfilling teaching can be and why I ever took up this challenging occupation in the first place. To be trusted. To be king of your own classroom. No jitters about the impending arrival of the bogeymen from OFSTED. No laboured hours preparing "evidence" in the form of spreadsheets, appraisals, professional development folders, observational logs, percentages to prove your worth.

I was more hesitant about going this time - a "Been there, done that" feeling but in the end I am glad to be  able to help Gordon and Penelope out and at my age - sixty next year - it is possible that I'll never have another temporary teaching opportunity like this one. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow. And who knows if Gordon's next job is in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia I may be required to cover a second maternity leave!

By the way, the photo shows the massive poster that was put up outside the school in June 2011 to advertise the musical show that Penelope directed and produced with a little bit of help from Gordon. It was based around the hits of Bon Jovi and was a storming success. She did a great job and I am sure she will do an equally great job as a first time mum...again with a little bit of help from Gordon.

13 December 2012


Dec 12.12 Caistor 049
Winter riders above Nettleton Grange
Sorry if you are getting fed up of my rambles with associated pictures. One day soon I'll post about something else I swear... Yesterday, I had to drive over to Hull for an appointment at the Thai Consulate but rather than drive there and come straight back, I thought I'd set off early and factor in a country walk from a Lincolnshire town I had never visited before - Caistor.

On the edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds, Caistor attracted a Roman settlement almost two thousand years ago. Militarily and commercially, it was strategically placed between Lincoln and York and enjoyed a sweet water supply from the chalky hills above. Its name comes from the Anglo-Saxon ceaster ("Roman camp" or "town") and was given in the Domesday Book as Castre.

Today it's a sleepy little market town with a population of just under three thousand. The ancient grammar school was founded in 1631 and there are several other listed buildings in the town - including the marvellous honey-coloured Church of St Peter and St Paul.

But I wasn't there to hang about. I parked (for free!) in the little market square and set off for the sewage works along Navigation Lane. Then onwards across fields coated by freezing fog towards Nettleton and another lovely old church - but it was locked. From there I headed for Nettleton Grange where a shivering Shetland pony in a rainbow coloured coat was munching frozen grass and then up onto Nettleton Wold where I held a gate open for two women on horseback. I took a picture of them overlooking the valley and of the hundred photos I snapped yesterday that is the one that really stood out for me but it was an interesting day for photography anyway. "Earth stood hard as iron" and the morning's freezing fog had been slow to lift as sunshine fought to pierce the milky cloud cover.

I headed for the undulating chalky curves of Cabourne Vale where a galloping hare flashed in front of me and then up to Whitegate Hill, frightening young pheasants from their cover. Then past an old mill and down the hill to Caistor again. It was two forty five and time to head north for Hull over the graceful nineteen seventies artwork known as The Humber Bridge. I reached the Thai Consulate bang on time and sat there in the waiting room for half an hour while they checked out my documentation beyond the closed Venetian blinds..."Is he a Muslim terrorist?"..."Did he ever meet Jimmy Savile?" Well, no and yes your honour.
Dec 12.12 Caistor 092
South Street, Caistor
Dec 12.12 Caistor 038
Frozen hawthorn berries at Nettleton Grange
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Parish church, Nettleton
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Gathered hay high on the wold
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Shetland pony at Nettleton Grange - you can see this scene from afar in the top picture.

11 December 2012


Dec 10.12 Ogston 012
Ogston Reservoir in December. It's a place I had never visited before. It sits in the Amber Valley a couple of miles south west of the former Derbyshire mining village of Clay Cross. Near the southern end of the reservoir is ancient Ogston Hall, hidden by trees and out-of-bounds to the general public. To the east a major railway line sweeps northwards from Derby towards Chesterfield and Sheffield.
I planned a six mile walking route that would encircle the reservoir even though there isn't a designated footpath hugging the shoreline. On Temperance Hill just south of Handley I took my trusty walking boots from the car's boot. After passing through Woolley, I came to the delightful hamlet of Brackenfield - just off the map. Its imposing church was extended by the "noble" families who have occupied Ogston Hall long before the little bowl of a valley was flooded back in 1957.

The peaceful and affluent atmosphere of the area was in stark contrast to the post-industrial deprivation of Clay Cross. Two ladies pranced by on chestnut mares as a pair of dimwitted peacocks squawked from a cottage garden.

In northern England in mid-December, evening arrives far too soon and by three o' clock the low sun was already threatening to disappear behind a bank of trees as, returning to my car, I snapped this picture. I'm rather proud of it - so eat your heart out Baxatron!
Dec 10.12 Ogston 054
Ogston Reservoir in mid-December

10 December 2012


Holy Trinity Church, Everton
Everton isn't just an area of Liverpool famous for mints and a blue and white football team, it's also a  lovely village in North Nottinghamshire. To me it's got everything: two pubs, a shop, a village school, a sports field, a variety of houses of different ages and an old church with history stretching back to Saxon  times. It's called Holy Trinity.

Whenever I find a church unlocked, I go inside to soak up the atmosphere and to admire the building's craftsmanship and masonry. It may also reveal many secrets about the community it has served - from the burials of noteworthy local residents to the names of those who died in wars. An old church is like a book you can read. Very rarely will you ever find an old English church that was never altered, improved or repaired. They seem to have evolved with time, warts and all. And I find it interesting that so many old churches were first erected upon sites that had pagan significance, before Christianity was harnessed by the gentry as a means of  subduing the peasantry.

Today I turned the big iron handle and pushed open the gnarled oak door of Holy Trinity. Inside, sunlight was streaming in and there were fresh flowers by the pulpit. The beautiful, rounded and simply carved chancel arch suggested a significant Norman input. How clever those people were - to create such a structure almost a thousand years ago - with dressed stone from faraway quarries. If you think about it, for just a little while, your mind tends to boggle. No electricity. No motor vehicles or power tools. No tubular steel scaffolding. No hard hats or DIY stores.

In the southern apse, I saw an open bible on a simple altar and beside it a turned wooden candlestick and a brass cross. Sunlight through imperfect medieval glass produced interesting shadows on the uneven lime-wash wall behind and that is why I took the picture at the top of this post. It seems to capture something of the serenity of that old church in Everton. May she still be standing another thousand years hereafter. Amen.
Holy Trinity, Everton

8 December 2012


Walter - The Baxatron
Strange, occasionally frightening and sometimes wonderful how the internet connects people. They may be lost friends or complete strangers and it doesn't only happen through blogging.

A hundred and fifty miles north of Sheffield and you are in a hilly, underpopulated region known as the Scottish Borders. Though I was at university in Scotland, it's an area I have hardly explored at all. My trains or many hitchhike rides used to pass along the east coast - from Newcastle to Alnwick, Berwick-upon-Tweed, then up to Dunbar, Musselburgh and along to Edinburgh. Borders towns like Kelso, Hawick and Peebles were always bypassed, languishing in their inland secrecy.

Walter's mum (93)
in  fashionable
fishing hat
As some of you may recall, I like to contribute photos to the "geograph" project. It was there that I first encountered a talented retired gentleman called Walter Baxter (aka The Baxatron). Born, I think, in the same year as me, he lives in Galashiels where he looks after his aged mother but in his spare time he roams the Scottish Borders, building a magnificent portfolio of pictures of his home area. It's quite amazing how many wonderful, keenly observed photographs The Baxatron has produced. To see his full geograph album, and to learn an immense amount about the Scottish Borders, go here.

I have been in email correspondence with Walter for a while and one day I hope to meet him so that he can show me how to take consistently great photos before retreating to "The Jolly Haggis" for a pint of heavy and a wee dram. We will exchange lurid tales of his many exciting years in architectural planning for his local health service and my years of chipping away at the old chalkface in dusty classrooms, serving our nation's grateful youth. For this post, I asked him if he'd pick four of his "best" photos - to show off his talent and his beloved Borders and these were his choices:-
Reflections on Loch of the Lowes
Salmon fishing on the River Tweed
Click on any of the pictures to enlarge them.
Bowden Moor from the B6359
Newark Castle
In addition to Walter's choices I thought I'd chip in with three of my own favourites - not easy I tell you when you see his "work" in its entirety:
Sunrise on Brotherstone Hill

A Hercules in the Selkirk to Moffat valley
Mist and trees at Brotherstone
Walter Raleigh? Walt Disney? Walter Cronkite - no way! For me, in this oddly sycophantic blogpost there's only one Walter worth mentioning. I guess it's because I'm often striving for the impossible - the perfect picture and it seems to me that The Baxatron regularly gets much closer than I do to that tantalising goal.

Finally, here's Walter in his own words: "Tourists from the south usually charge through the Borders on their way to Edinburgh and the Highlands but there is much to enjoy in an area of rounded hills and attractive market towns such as Melrose, Kelso and Jedburgh, all with old ruined abbeys. There are historic houses, keeps and peel towers to explore. Galashiels is not that attractive having been a tweed and woollen mill town – at one time 28 weaving mills were situated along by the Gala Water but there is only one active mill and tall chimney left. A local character called Jimmy ‘Piper’ Rae used to walk around the top of a mill chimney that was due for demolition playing the bagpipes as a farewell gesture to a town landmark, and all without a safety harness in the days before Health and Safety. As a boy I knew when I was late for school by the different sounds the mill whistles made."

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