Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Pedant's Revolt

Thank you all for your excellent and very entertaining suggestions. I have opted (initially at least!) to send the letter back to the Marketing Manager, cunningly reserving other options if necessary:

Dear Nick Boaden

Thank you for sending me the letter about To Kill a Mockingbird, which is an excellent novel: I hope the stage production will be excellent too.

However, I’m not sure how the two spelling mistakes in the middle slipped through the net: Ian McKellan and Judy Dench don’t exist – or if they do they’re not actors – whereas Ian McKellen and Judi Dench are two of the best-known actors in the country.

So famous are they, in fact, that almost everyone who has received your letter knows how to spell their names: so it was a bit of a shock that the West Yorkshire Playhouse doesn’t.

Best wishes (etc)
We shall see whether he replies.

Meanwhile, I notice that my own husband Stephen is taking me to task for use of the word none in the following sentence in my recent post about fungi:

"Unfortunately my grandmother dug them out every year - she no doubt thought they were rude - and now there are none left."

Of course, for grammatical correctness, it should read "now there is none left" because "none" is a shortening of "not one". But even I have to confess that "now there is none left" sounds a bit clumsy: has "now there are none left" slipped into the language for good? How far back do we go with the meanings of words? Should atheists stop saying goodbye because it means "God be with ye"?

And, by the way, who taught Stephen that "none" means "not one"? - - Er, me. Talk about hoist by your own flaming petard.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Ian and Judy

The West Yorkshire Playhouse is doing a stage version of Harper Lee's excellent novel To Kill a Mockingbird and their Marketing Manager thoughtfully sent me a flyer to tell me all about it.

The production stars Duncan Preston, perhaps best known as a television comedy actor. Apparently, however, according to this flyer he

"learnt his craft with the Royal Shakespeare Company, working alongside Ian McKellan and Judy Dench amongst others."

Unfortunately, there are no actors called Ian McKellan and Judy Dench. Ian McKellan is a Glasgow painter and decorator. Judy Dench is a lawyer from Thanet. Or they might be, anyway, but they're certainly not actors. There are, however, a couple of really rather well known actors called Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, with an e and with an i.

Ian McKellen, the actor, used to write to me when I was a stage-struck teenager telling me where his then company, The Actors' Company, would be performing next. He was great: and I bet he still is. He once sent me a very risque card from Japan, which I much enjoyed.

I have never had any acquaintance with Judi Dench, the actress, but when The Communist was a pharmacist in York her father was one of the doctors he worked with. I first saw her as a very young and excellent Viola at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the very early nineteen seventies. Duncan Preston was probably carrying a spear in the same production.

It might seem trivial that their names are spelled wrongly on this flyer, but actors' names are really important: Equity won't let there be two of the same name because of the likelihood of confusion. Also, it seems extremely discourteous not to check the spelling. Further, I think it's a bit naff that that a theatre of the status of the West Yorkshire Playhouse is employing a Marketing Manager who can't spell either of them.

So I am considering several options:

1) Mark the mistakes and send the flyer back to the Marketing Manager with a little note (the kind option)

2) Mark the mistakes and send the flyer back to the Artistic Director, Ian Brown, with a little note (the cruel option)

3) Do nothing (the unlikely option)

4) Fold the flyer into a paper dart and throw it out of the window (the carefree option)

If you have opinions, or further suggestions, please let me have them, but if you wish to tell me that such things don't matter and I am an old pedant, please desist, because I know I am an old pedant and such things matter TO ME.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Last of the Summer whine

In Roundhay Park early this morning, it still looked like summer:

But it's not. We're just fooling ourselves.

Look at this, on the ground:

and these, by a fence:

and this great big one on a tree:

Fungi. I'm pretty sure the last one is Laetiporus sulphureus, also known as Chicken of the Woods, since you ask. The others are a mystery to me - as, indeed are all fungi. They pop up very quickly and disappear just as fast. Some you can eat, some will kill you if you eat them.

When I was a child the garden often grew the Stinkhorn (Phallus impudicus) which smells like rotting meat and looks like, well, a Phallus Impudicus though sadly I never noticed. Unfortunately my grandmother dug them out every year - she no doubt thought they were rude - and now there are none left.

But all these kinds of fungi mean one thing. Goodbye to the lazy hazy crazy days of summer and hello to the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.

It's autumn. But wait, I grumble every year, I haven't had enough summer yet. Not enough walking on hot sand, not enough wandering through honeysuckle lanes, not enough lying on lush grass.

Too bad. It'll be the spiders' webs next.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Now Your a Pedant

There was a letter in the Sunday Times yesterday from a Mr Andrew Perry, of Morecambe, complaining that his son had received a card headed Now Your Eighteen outlining the benefits of reaching that age.

Mr Perry was also complaining, quite rightly, that none of his son’s friends, who were all going on to university, could identify what was wrong with it (which, I quickly point out, is that “your” should be “you’re”, which is short for “you are”.)

It wouldn’t happen in this house. If anyone sends Emily such a card in a year’s time, she will tear it into small pieces, rant about it for half an hour and then we will ceremonially burn it.

She’s as much of a spelling-and-punctuation freak as I am. I would blame the parents, but I think she was born that way.

Sometimes spelling and punctuation really doesn’t matter: it’s the communication that’s important. Everyone makes the occasional mistake in emails – whether typo or spelling mistake – and if it doesn’t hamper communication, that’s fine.

Sometimes, however, it matters a lot. One of the local secondary schools sent out a letter to all the parents in the area, trying to persuade us to send our children there. It was riddled with spelling and punctuation mistakes, so I marked it in red ink and sent it back (yes, I know, I know, I’ll be reading the Daily Express next).

Just slightly related to this topic: this weekend, tired of the twelve invisible people who seem to be having a permanent eight-course dinner in this house, I bought a washing-up machine.

Except it isn’t, apparently: it’s called a dishwasher and everyone laughs at me because I call it a washing-up machine.

I’m expect they’re right. I’ll go and put some jeans in the clotheswasher now.

Sunday, August 27, 2006


There's been some lovely sunshine in Leeds this weekend in spite of it being August Bank Holiday. Roundhay Park looked beautiful yesterday:

All it takes is a bit of open water and some sunshine and I long to be in the water.

Not this water, though, for this is Waterloo Lake, cold and very deep and many people have drowned there, most recently two boys last summer, one of whom died trying to help the other.

No need to swim in the lake, though, because just at the end of the lake is Leeds Lido, a lovely open-air pool built in 1907, rebuilt in the 1930s and always very popular throughout the summer. About a hundred and twenty thousand visitors a year! So let's have a look:

Can you see? Mum and Dad in the big pool, splashing about with their older children: some grown-ups swimming lengths: the toddlers in the little pool with Grandma: Grandad asleep on a deckchair at the side of the pool with a hanky on his head: children skipping on the grass to warm up after their swim. Can you smell that heady mixture of of chlorine, ice-cream and newly-mown grass?

No, neither can I, because the planning morons filled the pool in during nineteen-seventy-something and, having been a nasty piece of waste ground for years, during redevelopment and restoration of the park (HAH!) it's now the sodding Lido Car Park. LIDO CAR PARK for heaven's sake! Mum, Dad, Grandad, Grandma and the kids are all at home playing computer games, eating junk food and creating the epidemic of obesity the media are always going on about.

Those In Charge disapprove of us swimming in rivers now because they say we're all going to DIE if we do: and yet they won't provide facilities for safe open-air swimming. Perhaps if the Lido had still been there those two boys who drowned in Waterloo Lake last summer would have been safely swimming in the pool instead.

For your nearest open-air pool look here. I've just learned that our nearest is Ilkley, which was closed for a while but has now reopened. It's another wonderful childhood memory and still looks just the same: I'll be going there soon.

Meanwhile, a bit of imaginative thinking would get rid of the car park and bring back the pool.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

When Dreams Come True

In C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (one of my favourites of the Narnia series) they find themselves sailing towards the island where dreams come true.

They are all delighted: though one of the crew is trying to point something out to them, they are too excited to listen.

Only when they get near the island and see its grey horror do they listen to what their crewmate is saying, and it is this:

“It’s the island where dreams come true! Not daydreams. Dreams!”

They all start sailing away from the island as fast as possible, and escape just in time.

I’ve don’t remember dreams very often but I’ve had a few really bad ones in my time. All my earliest bad dreams were of the men in big boots who came to take you away in the night – I would wake up as they came up the stairs. Strange, since this must have happened to most of my Eastern European relatives.

The scariest dream of my childhood, however, was meeting an old lady, dressed all in black, on a long road.
“Who are you?” I asked
“The Dead of the Dead,” she replied. It still scares me.

The worst dream of my early adulthood was about my cousin, who had recently been killed in an horrific cave-diving accident. Dreaming, I forgot she had died and I rang her up and started talking to her. I chatted for ages, telling her in detail everything I had been doing and that had been going on since we had last met. Finally, I realised that I’d been doing all the talking.

“And how are you?” I asked.


I still remember the horrible, sinking feeling of realisation.

Dreams sum things up, put things together. Last night’s neatly drew together two of the huge things in my life: losing my first baby, and not being listened to.

In my dream my baby boy had died and he was being brought to me in an open coffin so I could say goodbye before the funeral. A crowd of people – none of them people I knew – were all around the coffin, waiting for me to finish.

As I looked at the baby, he turned pink and started breathing and frantically waving his arms.

“Look!” I said, “he’s alive!”

“So you say, dear,” they said, “but we’re going to bury him anyway.”

Friday, August 25, 2006


It’s results time again. That time of the year when the GCSE, AS-level and A-level results come out.

Then we get the media assessment and it is as follows:

Lots of people have got A* at GCSE level or A at A-level.

So the exams must have got easier.

Those teenagers who have worked really hard for these exams, and the teachers who have worked very hard to teach them, get nearly five minutes of glory before being told that all their results are worthless because these exams are really easy. Even our gecko could get at least a B.

When I am In Charge I will get every journalist who has written an article along these lines into a very big hall and keep them there until they have done exams in every single GCSE subject. Then we’ll count the A* grades.

I have seen the work that my daughter Emily has done for GCSE and then for AS-levels and they are NOT easy. In fact I think that the maths, in particular, is harder than when I did “O”- level in, er, 1972. In French there seems to me to be plenty of grammar still going on, in spite of people telling me at regular intervals that “they don’t bother with grammar nowadays.” History requires rather more analysis and rather less regurgitation of the notes that the teacher prepared in 1962 (which is how I was taught). I could go on, but I won’t.

There is a huge jump in difficulty from GCSE to AS-level, too, and the newish subject English Language, which Emily has studied, seems to me to be both very difficult and extremely exacting. The English Literature essays that she has written have seemed to me to be very demanding – and that was my degree subject so I think I am a bit qualified to say.

And, of course, when I was in the sixth form we didn’t have external exams in what was then the Lower Sixth. I think three lots of external exams in three years is ridiculous. Shouldn’t young people just entering adulthood have time for some sort of a life outside work?

I can’t give you Emily’s results, because she will kill me, but I’m not saying all this because she did badly – she did brilliantly. And after all the hard work and the stress I think she deserves congratulations, and not to be told - by people who know nothing at all about it - that all the exams were easy.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

This is Illyria, Lady

Illyria , as well as being the country where Viola is shipwrecked in Twelfth Night, is also the name of one of the very best open-air touring theatre companies.

One of the actors I work with is currently touring as Toad in their production of The Wind in the Willows. It's part of my job to see our actors at work so I am always pleased when they tour to lovely places, and there can surely be none better than the grounds of Brantwood, the house at Coniston in the Lake District where the excellent John Ruskin lived.

Illyria must have one of the most punishing schedules of any touring company - it's all one-nighters with very few days off. Since we saw them in Coniston on Tuesday they have performed in Shrewsbury last night: tonight they're in Droitwich. When they finish they have, of course, to pack up all their set, props and costumes in the dark.

This company always, to me, seems to have just the right amount of set - just enough to be interesting and yet not so much that it dominates the play. Their actors are superb - dozens of costume changes, songs, musical instruments and many different characters without ever losing sight of the play and turning into "Look at us? Aren't we clever?" An excellent adaptation of the book, and very well directed too by Oliver Gray.

Of course, Coniston Water and the fells provided a beautiful backdrop for Toad, Ratty, Mole and the rest.The actress who played Mole (in red hat) also played Cinderella for Illyria: the production played, in total, to seventeen thousand people, one of whom was so impressed by her performance that he felt compelled to approach the actress afterwards to suggest that she should take up acting professionally - - -

That kind of thing happens because they make it look so easy.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Travelling Light

You should travel through life with only a rucksack, I was told recently, and it’s an idea that appeals. Materialist? Me? Oh no. If the house were on fire, what would I grab?

Well, after all the people were out, and the cat and the snake and the gecko - oh, I can hear some of you calling “Let those reptiles roast!”, but I’m not going to in this imaginary version, though I suspect I might in real life – well, then it would be the photograph albums and the pictures, because I’d feel really lost without some of those.

After that a few books, but hardly any really since most books can be replaced – I might just seize The Sleepy Water Vole, the first book I really loved, with its wonderful illustrations of summer countryside - - and that’s it I think. The rest will just have to burn.

Which is interesting, since I am currently in a bed and breakfast near Coniston, just staying for the one night. Just one night - - and in the room are three holdalls (one is quite small, honest), my handbag, one rucksack (aha! that’s the one I’m travelling through life with) three carrier bags, one cloth bag and my laptop. Plus a couple of coats, because we have been to see an outdoor play, and it might have been cold, though it wasn’t. And some waterproofs, because it might have been wet, though it wasn’t. Oh yes, and the walking boots, of course.

I think I’ll have to work at this travelling light thing. In my defence, I was sorting things out in the office until just before we left, so just slung in anything I might possibly need. Not a very stylish approach, perhaps, but it does work when time matters more than space does. This one-rucksack approach will take rather more planning, I can tell.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Rabbits' Revenge

We were all worrying about the wrong type of flu, it turns out.

There we were all worrying about bird flu and now someone's just died from rabbit flu, which none of us had heard of, let alone worried about.

John Freedman, a 29-year-old farmer, died from septicaemia after being infected with the bacterium Pasteurella multocida: the first time the bacterium had been fatally transmitted from rabbit to human.

Sad story.

Then I learned that Mr Freedman caught the virus after carrying a rabbit he had shot.

My total sympathy continued: I'm not vegetarian and I do appreciate, just about, that sometimes it might be necessary to shoot animals when their numbers are too great.

But then I read this, from his mother, summing up her son's character:

"John had a ready smile and a quick wit. He gave up rugby so he could spend more time shooting. He simply loved getting out in the countryside with his gun."

I'm not saying anything more on the subject.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Front Page News

They are expanding the Sainsbury's near where I live. Lots of big signs everywhere apologising for the inconvenience and tempting me with a bigger, better store "for you to try". Wouldn't it be good if it said, in huge letters, "We hope we'll make a LOT more profit!"

All over the car park there are these signs:

Two things:

1) the very interesting spelling of "vehicular"
2) what on earth does the sign mean?

Some of the car park is paved but you can't get your car onto the paved bits, should you want to, because they are blocked off with cones.

So there we have it. A dozen identical misspelled meaningless signs, all over the car park, and nobody at Sainsbury's seems to have noticed. Okay, it's not in the teensiest bit important in the greater scheme of things. I know that: it's just that I found it intriguing that they had gone to all the trouble of commissioning these signs, unpacking them ("Ooh, great signs eh, I bet the customers will love these") and putting them up all over the car park without anyone apparently asking WHAT THE HELL DOES THIS MEAN?

Yesterday half the front page of The Times yesterday was taken up with a colour photo of Pete Doherty's mother looking rather upset, because young Pete, who is a singer who takes drugs, is taking drugs again. In the greater scheme of things, that wasn't important either, unless you're him, or his mum, or Kate Moss maybe, and I'm not, and neither are you. I know it's the middle of August but really - I would guess if any of us thought for nearly ten seconds we could come up with something a bit more worthy of the front page of The Times.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Driving Mum and Dad Mad

Driving Mum and Dad Mad is the title of a series of programmes which have been shown over the past few weeks. It focused on several families who have had problems controlling their children, and who have undergone a Positive Parenting Programme to try to help with this.

I found it fascinating. But the title was wrong. Instead of Driving Mum and Dad Mad , a more appropriate choice would have been Destroying the Next Generation.

How did the children get like that? A three-year-old constantly shouting “Shut up! Shut up! Go away for ever!” to his parents. A seven-year-old who attacked his mother with a corkscrew, trying to stab her. Two little boys who didn’t seem to do anything except fight.

Heartbreaking to see – but the title of the programme implies that the children were somehow to blame. None of the parents seemed to know that praising a child is a good idea: none of them seemed to think that taking something for the child to play with when you go out is a good idea: and they all shouted meaningless commands at their children, all the time. “Be good!” – What on earth does that mean to a three-year-old? Their parenting consisted almost completely of negative input – never suggesting anything positive or interesting for the children to do, merely shouting at them when they fought with each other or were “naughty” (a word I really hate).

“I can’t discipline ‘em, I’m too soft,” said one mother. Soft? Letting the children watch ten hours of television today isn’t soft, it’s cruel.

Single mothers generally come in for a lot of stick but the ones on this programme did brilliantly – they were determined to learn a different way of doing things. The mother of Corkscrew Boy had let him spend much of his time watching violent action films and once she stopped that, he transformed into a remarkably pleasant child.

The real problems seemed to me to lie with the couples who constantly argued with each other over how to implement the programme of praise, time out and positive reinforcement – the fact that one was strict and the other wasn’t; one stuck to the strategies they’d been taught and the other didn’t.

By the end of the series the programme was trying to show the changes that had been made – and indeed several of the families did seem to have turned their lives around for the better. But I felt the programme didn’t want to open the dreadful can of worms which was the slobbish thugs Lee and Amanda from Stevenage – they didn’t really try with the strategies they had been given at all and continued to shout, swear and hit their children right until the end and I was longing to take the children away from them and keep them safe - - - - but of course, that’s no good. The children love their parents, no matter how inadequate or – in the case of these two – just plain horrible they are.

What can be done? In less than twenty years Lee and Amanda’s children will, unless something drastic happens, have some children of their own and will no doubt give them a terrible childhood too. And, of course, I very much doubt that Lee and Amanda themselves had a childhood of cuddles and bedtime stories and security and trips out and treats and unconditional love.

All over the country it’s a pattern that’s being repeated. Why are there all these thugs and yobs and hooligans and vandals? Whatever you care to call them, bad parenting is the major reason why.

I would make basic parenting courses compulsory in all schools for all students – the academic high-flyers as well as the less academic, because any course that’s just for the “less able” isn’t taken seriously. Then we might be in with a chance.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Sick and Tasteless

Humour is, of course, subjective. I've always liked satire: I'm quite into black humour and I like humour that's a bit surreal.

I found this really funny. But you may not. You may say "How COULD she?"

In Tenby, some years ago, as a fund-raising project, someone built a scale model of a home for blind people and it was placed by the seafront under a perspex cover.

Little model blind people roamed its grounds.

The project finished: the funds were raised. Nobody ever removed the model of the home for blind people.

The years passed by. The perspex cover was battered by winter storms. The little model blind people got a bit bored with standing in their allotted positions.

Finally, one of them tried to escape. But, because he was - - er - - blind - - he fell off the raised lawn.

Okay, you'll all hate me now.

"Don't worry," says Gareth, "no blind people are going to read it."

If I'm going down into Tasteless Joke Jail, I'm making damned sure he's going down with me.

Me and my Black Belt

I admit it: I have been known, very, very occasionally, and certainly not more than seven or eight times a day, to bluff like mad, pretending I know more than I do about something in the hope that all will become clear. I worked out pretty quickly in our office that if someone rings and says,
“Hello. This is Cynthia Boggins,” and then STOPS, then that is because they expect you to know who they are. Nowadays I generally do, but in my early days I just continued the conversation, hoping for the best, so it went:
“Hello. This is Cynthia Boggins.” PAUSE.
“Oh, hello, Cynthia, this is Daphne. How are you?”
“I’m fine, but it’s really busy at the moment.”
“Oh, I’m sure.”
“Because there are a lot of new characters to cast in the third series of Int It Grim Up North.”
(Aha! You’re a CASTING DIRECTOR. So now I know.)

Only once did I come clean.
“Hello. This is Silas Boggins.” (It wasn’t really. It was a very very well-known theatre director.)
“Oh hello, Silas, this is Daphne.”
“Ah, you sound as though you know me. Have we met?”
“No, but you’re very very famous and I’m dead chuffed you’ve rung me.”
(He laughed, and rather liked it, I think, and gave one of our actors a job).

I've (fingers crossed) never got myself into trouble, as in that old story where someone meets Princess Margaret at a party and can’t quite place her, but remembers she had a sister.

“So - - er - - what’s your sister doing now?”
“Still Queen.”

The time my bluff worked best, though, I wasn’t even bluffing, I was just making a rather bad joke. I was teaching in a tough, rough inner-city school and was walking along the corridor with a huge, teetering pile of books.

“Oy, Miss!” said some overgrown gangly youth behind me, “I could push you in t’back and all them books would fall on t’floor.”

I certainly didn’t think he was going to: I didn’t feel threatened. So I just looked at him really seriously and said in solemn tones,

“No, please don’t ever do that to me, for your sake as well as mine. It’s just that I’m a black belt in judo and my reactions are so quick that I wouldn’t be able to stop myself.”

“What, really, Miss?”

“Oh yes, haven’t you heard? You’d be on the floor and then I’d be done for assault. So I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t ever push into me.”

I thought no more of it. But it whizzed round the school at lightning speed.

“Is it true, Miss? Are you really a black belt in Judo?”

“Ah well, that’s for me to know and you to find out, but I do hope you won’t try.”

Nobody ever did try: they all believed it. Astonishing. I think after a while even some of the teachers believed it. If I’d taught there any longer I would have started to believe it myself.

It was not a strategy I would have deliberately opted for at all, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it, but I have to say it made my life at that school a lot easier.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

My Weekend With Mrs Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher spent the weekend with us.

Oh, all right, you guessed, she didn’t, I’m just trying out the sentence for size having found it in Jeffrey Archer’s blog entry for June 12. (No, no, I’m not giving you the link again, just look at my blog for a couple of days ago if you must. Just because I’ve got a teensy bit obsessive about Jeffrey’s blog doesn’t mean I want you to go the same way).

A shame Mrs Thatcher didn’t pop round here last weekend, though, I’d have had her straight down to the worst bit of run-down inner-city housing estate that I could find and explained that this was where she was going to spend the rest of her days, living on the state pension - - Or perhaps one of those nursing homes where everyone sits round in chairs all day and everything smells of pee.

A couple of years back I met some blonde floppy-haired young Tory candidate at the local shopping parade. He tried to give me a leaflet while reminding me loudly of what a great leader Mrs Thatcher had been.

“Mrs Thatcher Stole My Youth!” I declaimed - rather over-dramatically, I thought afterwards - and followed it up enjoyably with “Now look, sonny, you’re too young to remember, aren’t you? Oh you poor thing, I expect you’ll grow out of it when you get a bit older and read a few books about what the Eighties were really like - - “

Some comedian, and I can’t remember who it was, said
“Ah, but shouldn’t we feel sorry for Mrs Thatcher now she’s just a confused, fragile old lady? - - - Nah, let’s just enjoy it.”

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Amazing Art of Camouflage

What was it about Jeffrey Archer that reminded me of this? - - Anyway, it's a chameleon.

Of course, you can hardly see it, what with chameleons being masters of camouflage and all. If you peer really closely at your screen you might just be able to spot it, balancing on a piece of wood in the middle of the picture. The way it's changed colour to match that twig - astonishing!

This one is a baby that lives in Silent World aquarium, in a well-appointed vivarium. We are told not to stare at it too hard, as this gives the poor thing the impression that its camouflage isn't working (yes, I know, I know) and makes it feel threatened.

As well as their totally amazing ability to change colour to match their surroundings (please don't tell him. It would break his heart), baby chameleons have another method of escaping detection. Because the terrain where they live is windy, and hence the branches blow about, the baby chameleon constantly rocks backwards and forwards to simulate the branch's movement.

Only problem: this chameleon is in a tank. The branch is as still as only a branch in a very still tank can be.

So there we have this bright green lizard on a dark brown twig, rocking backwards and forwards in the hope of not being seen, and yet only succeeding in being the most visible lizard in the whole of Silent World. Whole groups of people enter the room and the first thing they say is "HEY! LOOK AT THAT BABY CHAMELEON!"

Which, for a chameleon, is a bit of a bummer.

After about three years, apparently - for chameleons are not at the Mensa end of reptile intelligence - the baby chameleon wakes up one morning with a blinding revelation. "Hey up, just a minute," it thinks, "I've worked something out. THERE'S NO WIND!" (Ignore previous post about anthropomorphism. I take it all back).

And from then on, the chameleon stops rocking, relying only on its superb ability to blend in with absolutely anything that happens to be bright green with beige splodges. It could hide for years on our dining-room carpet, but otherwise, it's got no chance.

If by any chance you were wondering why the world isn't knee-deep in chameleons, I think you now know the answer.

How to Be Topp by Jeffrey Archer

Oh well, it had to happen. Jeffrey Archer's got a blog. Now far be it from me to give this great writer and pillar of society any publicity, but I was interested to note that much of the recent entries are devoted to plugging his forthcoming book (no, I'm not giving you another link, there are limits).

What's worse, his book is illustrated by Ronald Searle, whose work I've always loved, especially the wonderful Nigel Molesworth books, which Geoffrey Willans wrote and Ronald Searle illustrated.

At the moment I'm reading Surviving the Sword, by Brian MacArthur, about prisoners of the Japanese in the Second World War. Ronald Searle was himself a prisoner of the Japanese and there are several of his drawings in the book, such as one of Hellfire Pass in Thailand.

Now he's illustrating Jeffrey Archer's latest: it's a bit of a shame if you ask me (and, let's face it, nobody is asking me).

One of those people who always bounces back, our Jeffrey, no matter what. If the things that have happened to him - I'm not accusing him of actually doing anything at all, we note, since he does tend to sue rather - had happened to me, I would be hiding under a stone quivering with embarrassment and muttering "Oh noooooooooooooooooooooo!" at thirty-second intervals. But not Jeffrey, oh no, his bounce remains unsquished.

I wonder what are my chances of getting him to link to this site?

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Here's a Cute Little Fellow

In general I try not to be taken in by anthropomorphism . We do tend to give animals human characteristics in our minds - we tend to assume that animals that look like us feel things as we do too: but it ain't necessarily so. We are also suckers for animals that have any of the characteristics of human babies - so a campaign to Save the Giant Panda (flattish face, appears to have arms and legs, eyes that look huge, general air of vulnerability) will always do better than Save the Boa Constrictor.

These feelings are reflected in the commentaries of some of the less-well-made nature programmes on television. "The mother's agony is too much to bear" said one recently of a doe whose fawn had been eaten. Hmm - the mother looked a bit bewildered for a bit and then carried on as normal. I'm going to anthropomorphise for a bit now. Judging from the doe's behaviour I think her thought sequences went thus, at intervals of only a few minutes:

Oh no! That lion has eaten my fawn! Horror!

Where's my fawn gone?

I've lost something but I can't remember what it is.

I feel vaguely uneasy but I don't know why.

Oh good, there's some grass. Lunchtime.

But there are some animals whose lives are so tough that we can't help but imagine what it would be like for us to be in that situation. Wildebeest, whose lives seem to consist entirely of roaming the African plains waiting to be eaten by big cats, with the occasional interlude of crossing rivers and being eaten by crocodiles. Emperor penguins, which spend days trekking across Antarctic ice and then months sitting motionless with an egg on their feet in temperatures too cold to think about.

And then there's the marabou stork.

He might be whistling a happy little tune to himself. "I'm so lucky! My life is great!" he might be thinking. But he won't be, because that's anthropomorphism too - let's face it, we have no idea what birds think.

To us, though, he looks bloody miserable. Why? Because he's all hunched up like we are when we're sad. He has a bald head and neck and we don't like that in birds: it takes them away from "cute little bird" and into "sneaky little reptile" territory. We like the baldness even less when we find out it's because he eats a lot of carrion: it's so the head and neck feathers don't get covered in blood which might lead to infection.

We need to get it clear in our heads, when looking after any animals, which are the animal's actual needs and when we're just imposing our own emotions on them. Because that's not fair to the animals.

Saturday, August 12, 2006


One of the television programmes I remember best was The Flight of the Condor - a view of the stunning landscape of the Andes seen from the perspective of the condor, the largest bird of prey in the world, soaring above.

The musical accompaniment was Andean pan pipes and although I was astonished to find out that the programme was first shown in 1985 it has stayed in my mind ever since. The glorious scenery and the huge, majestic condors took me into another world.

Here's the Andean condor I saw this week at Lotherton Hall Bird Garden:

For some reason it decided to feed us on grass: it kept picking up chunks of grass and poking it through the bars at us, in a strange parody of what human beings usually do in such situations.

The aviary where the condor and its partner live is, at first sight, huge. But when you see the condor you can see that the aviary may be huge by aviary standards, but it's tiny by Andean mountain standards. Because the condor is so big, it could fly from one end to the other in two flaps of its wings.

The condor is endangered in the wild for a variety of reasons - habitat loss, less dead meat about, killing a condor being a sign of manhood - and Lotherton Hall Bird Garden hopes that they will be able to breed them and hence increase the bird's numbers. Though I have seen condors in that cage for years and there is no information as to whether the birds have ever actually bred.

All right, it's mankind that's causing the condor to decrease in numbers, so we ought to do something about it. But to see a condor kept in those conditions, with people - adults as well as children - pointing "Ooh, look at that funny bird" - I don't like to see it, it's like seeing elephants in a circus.

If Lotherton Hall is regularly returning birds to the Andes and setting them free in a protected area so they have some chance of survival, then fair enough, it might just be worth it. Otherwise, I think the pretence of helping the wild population is just an excuse to have a whopping great bird on display for the public to goggle at, and I think that's wrong.

Friday, August 11, 2006

The Importance of Being Passionate

During the last few weeks I have visited two different aquariums: Silent World in Tenby and Tropical World which is very near where we live in Leeds.

Silent World was created in an old chapel sixteen years ago by a family with a passion. It’s not very big: a floor of tanks downstairs, with fish and amphibians: recreations of pond and sea.

Upstairs there is good coffee, and a parrot, and lots of reptiles. The owners are always on hand and are happy to talk about any of their creatures. The animals are well-looked after and the owners seem to know about all of them, from tiny baby starfish to really very big snakes. My favourites are the seahorses which twine their tails around each other and float gracefully round the tank.

Because the owners are full of enthusiasm, they are keen to impart as much knowledge as possible and share their interest with the visitors. Hence the labels, which are well-written, informative, often funny and tell you where to look for each creature. “This frog is not dead. He likes to hang in the water like this.”

Every time I visit Silent World I notice families clustered round the labels, reading them, looking at the fish, referring back to the label, discussing it all. Although the aquarium is small, it takes a long time to look at it all properly, and we always visit twice in the week to see the things we’ve missed.

Tropical World in Leeds is much bigger, with fewer, larger creatures. They do seem to be well-looked-after. Nobody, however, seems to be interested in telling the public much about them. The labels are commercially-produced, badly-written and dull.

It tells us nothing about these particular zebra finches, and has a curiously distancing effect. People just point and go “Aren’t they cute?” or “Ooh, there’s a funny-looking fish!” There’s never anyone around to talk about the creatures with the visitors. Every time I visit I long to find the Person in Charge and feed them to the piranhas.

Then I would replace the Person in Charge with someone who’s passionately interested in it all and wants to communicate that interest to the public.

Small-scale, individual passion wins out over municipal grandeur every time.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Art of Interior Design

I am going to tell you everything I know about interior design which, granted, isn’t much, but here are my Handy Hints and Tips.

The first, and key rule is this:
We once lived in a house in Splott, Cardiff where the previous tenant had done this. It was neither stylish nor cheery. It was dark, depressing and a hell of a job to turn white.

Carpets should be either green-based (restful and soothing) or terracotta-based (warm and welcoming). If you have a particularly sunny room you can get away with a soft blue but otherwise don’t go down the blue route or you will always feel cold.
Wooden floors look great but are only good if you have very quiet people in the house.

Walls should be white. Or some kind of creamish kind of colour. That way you can put lots of interesting pictures on the walls.
If you go for any kind of bold colour or any kind of boldly-patterned wallpaper you will then find you are choosing pictures to match the walls and although a lot of people do just that, I think it’s deeply wrong.

There is no Rule Four. I have told you everything there is. How that Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and his ilk make a living I really don’t know.

Here are two pictorial examples:

The sitting-room at Fron Dderw, which is the place where we stayed recently in Bala. They have gone for the Restful Country-House look (note the dominant colour is green) and it’s all a bit posher than I’d go for, but that’s because my house is full of people who are active importers of mud and clutter. Fron Dderw is delightful and I like the Gustav Klimt print too.

Here's the foyer at Park Hotel in Tenby, a lovely, friendly hotel where I have stayed very, very many times.

The décor follows none of my rules, nor anyone else’s as far as I know.
“Ah,”, said a coach driver once, “here’s a seaside hotel which looks like a seaside hotel.” The paint is fresh, the wallpaper new, the carpets clean. All I think when I look at it is Hurrah! Park Hotel! Couldn’t be anywhere else.

All rules were made to be broken.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


When I was a child I wanted to be a zoo-keeper when I grew up (and actually, I still do). My favourite television programme was Animal Magic, where the presenter Johnny Morris had a weekly slot as a zoo-keeper at Bristol Zoo. Another favourite was Look, presented by Peter Scott. To me, Peter Scott was King and David Attenborough was a young up-and-coming whippersnapper and there’s still something in my head that thinks “Ah, David Attenborough, that new chap, he’s very good, isn’t he?”

I read all Gerald Durrell’s well-written and very entertaining books about his expeditions to collect animals, and followed with tremendous interest the growth of Jersey Zoo, which he founded. I was a member of Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust. I was a member of the Panda Club, which was the junior branch of the World Wildlife Fund. I went to hear Peter Scott give a fascinating talk about his work.

I filled the house with animals. And the garden. And the garage. I liked all animals, even the creepy crawlies with lots of legs which nobody else liked. If my friend up the road found a daddy-long-legs the first thing she did was scream and the second thing she did was to ring me to come and take it away.

Our current rather small menagerie consists of a cat, a corn snake and a leopard gecko – that’s if you don’t count the crickets which are there as gecko food and are lovingly fed by me on bits of apple right until the moment when they are lovingly fed to the gecko.

I find all animals interesting: vertebrates and invertebrates, furry and smooth, cuddly and slithery. I am happy with spiders, big or small and with any other creatures with lots of legs. I love moths, though both my father and my daughter can’t bear the way they flutter about. I will happily hold any snake, as long as it’s not poisonous. I’ll go in the sea if there are jellyfish about and just try to dodge them.

But there is one thing that I really, really don’t like and it makes me shudder just to think about it. Here’s a picture of the scary creature: (this one lives at Silent World aquarium in Tenby)

Yes, it’s a plaice. I do like them on a plate with chips and I’m very happy for them to swim about in the sea minding their own business. I think they’re really very pretty with all those spots and I think it’s very interesting the way they start off round and then turn gradually so they end up flat and lying on one side.

But what I don’t like about them is that they lurk invisibly in the sand, in the shallows, waiting for me to come in for a swim. Then I wade into the sea and TREAD ON THEM. EEEEEEEEEEERGGGGHHHHHHHHHH!

So, if you want any spiders, snakes, frogs or other small creatures removing, I’m your woman. But if you have any fish you want trodden on, you’re just going to have to get someone else.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Up the Cut

Last Saturday was the Big Birthday Boat Trip which my friends had very kindly organised for me from Aspley Wharf Marina in Huddersfield.

For a number of years I wore a badge that said "Up the Cut" - which, of course means "along the canal" but also sounds pleasingly rude. We used have a half share in a narrowboat and we loved it dearly but sadly had to sell it for various reasons about fourteen years ago.

I used to enjoy being on the boat so much that after we had to sell it I blotted it out completely and just didn't think about it. So before this boat trip I was wondering whether I would enjoy it as much as I remembered and whether the inside of a lock would be as much fun and full of promise as it was before.

Oh yes, it was indeed. From the moment I took the tiller to take the Lady Aspley out of the marina, it felt like coming home. The trip, I was told, was called


We were quite keen on the idea of painting the boat black once we were round the bend away from the marina, and just keeping on going - - - for ever - - -

What is it about canals? Travelling all afternoon to cover the same distance that you can do in twenty minutes in a car - what is the appeal?

A lot of it is the slow pace, I think. I remember once travelling by narrowboat under Spaghetti Junction in Birmingham in a light drizzle, watching all the cars speeding by above us. I realised as I looked at them whizzing along that I was totally happy and there was nowhere else I would rather be.

There's always something interesting round the next bend, too - fields, woodland, mills - and, on Saturday, a big international football tournament being played by ten-year-olds all looking very smart in their uniforms. They were all very interested to watch us progressing through a lock, particularly when, on our way back, the lock gates jammed on a tyre caught underneath and Martin had to work very hard to free them with a pole. I've never seen anything like that happen before.

I love the sudden changes from rural to industrial landscape and back again. The industrial landscape is often a Victorian one, too, giving an insight into how towns and cities looked then and I find it all fascinating. And all those old locks that still work just as well as when they were made. The mysterious, long, twisting tunnels, all dark except for your boat's light - steer by keeping the square of the front of your boat central in the arch of the tunnel and you'll be all right until finally you see a tiny circle of daylight appear and you know you're nearly through.

There's lots of wildlife to see - always ducks, sometimes herons, and on Saturday lots of giant dragonflies swooping about to give that authentic summer feel.

Of course, on Saturday I was with a lovely group of people and here are some of them on the boat:

During lunch we had a Quiz which had a number of tricky questions about pirates and some slightly less tricky ones too: On which geological feature was the treasure to be found in "Treasure Island"? Astonishingly, given the entirely random mix of easy and difficult questions, the result was a dead heat, so there was no fighting and nobody was thrown overboard.

Carry said I had a smile on my face all day: well, that's because nobody has ever enjoyed a birthday party more than I did this one, so a huge THANK YOU to all involved. Here's to looking ahead to more views like this one.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

the natural evolution of language

So what's the natural evolution of language and what is just Getting it Wrong, then?

I suppose a couple of hundred years ago I'd have been one of the ones going "No, it's THOU when it's the subject of the sentence and THEE when it's the object and thou shoulds't jolly well forget all this new-fangled YOU nonsense."

Okay, the language evolves constantly. People chatting in the 1930s, say, would sound very different from how people sound now. My mother still uses some of the slang of that period "she's got a pash on raspberries at the moment".

But many people would say "would sound very different TO how people sound now". Has the language evolved so that is now acceptable? Well, I don't think so. Different - - from, with a sense of moving away. Different - - to would have a sense of moving towards, so doesn't make sense.

Russell Hoban's excellent novel Riddley Walker is set a couple of thousand years in the future near Canterbury and the speech of his characters is compressed and distorted so that "Canterbury", for example, has become "Cambry".

It's sometimes hard to tell which is evolution of language and which is just careless or lazy speech: which are changes that will last and which are just groovy passing-through slang which won't last. Only time will tell which is which. Meanwhile I'm off to have a yogurt or some other dairy. Wicked.

Saturday, August 05, 2006


I've always had a camera, as long as I can remember. I've always enjoyed taking photographs. When I was very little I think I had a Brownie but the first camera that meant anything to me really was my Instamatic which served me well from about the ages nine to fourteen. The case proved useful, too: I once carried a lost toad home in it and the toad lived in a tank in our house for a number of years.

When I was eleven and on holiday with the school in the Dales the school made a film of the trip - quite unusual in those days. A comic highlight was of me staring endlessly at a waterfall, just staring, moving slightly, staring again - - the commentary went "Here's Daphne, looking for fairies" and everyone fell about. But of course I wasn't looking for fairies - I was looking for the best place to take a photograph. Not many children had cameras in those days and I think I just had one because the Communist was a pharmacist and hence I could get cheaper film processing. After the holiday I entered my photographs in a competition for the best diary of the holiday and won a prize, so the mockery in the film was well worth it, I thought.

Over the years I've had many cameras and my favourite was my Olympus OM10 which had a zoom lens and all sorts of fiddly bits. But all the time I was conscious of the cost of the film and the processing: my family would probably deny this since I used to get through quite a few films in the course of a holiday.

I've never taken my photography very seriously - it's more that I go "Wow, look at that!" and take a photo, like I did on an evening walk near Tenby recently:

And I've always loved taking photos of the sea - here's a seagull enjoying some evening sunshine:

But the digital camera has been wonderful for me - no film! no processing! So I feel that at last I can play around and see what happens.

Here, again in the evening, is a bramble branch that I liked the look of:

with flash:

and without flash:

I begin to realise that there's quite a lot to this photography lark and I'm going to try to find out what some of it is.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Milk and Dairy

There's a big sign on the outside of a Tesco Express near where I live and it says


So I marched in and asked for the manager and then said "Dairy WHAT?"

- Oh, all right, I didn't, because I knew I would be met with a blank stare swiftly followed by a lot of sirens and clanging doors.

But I wish I had. Because Dairy in that context is not a noun. It's not a thing. It is an adjective, a describing word. You can have A Dairy which is a place where things are done to milk. And the things that have things done to them are called DAIRY PRODUCE. What kind of produce? Yes, that's right, DAIRY produce. ADJECTIVE MODIFYING THE WORD PRODUCE.

(We had the Daily Telegraph delivered by mistake today. Perhaps that's what's done this to me.)

But about once a week, someone says to me in the hushed tones of the Very Very Worthy, "I'm giving up dairy."

Well, you can feign interest only so far, but I generally tread the polite road of "Oh, really, why?" and then they tell you that most of the world doesn't eat dairy or drink dairy and cow's milk is not good for people and dairy is full of unnecessary fat and - - -

Look, from now on I'm not going to go there. Tell me you're giving up dairy and I'm going to give you a Hard Stare and then say "Dairy WHAT? And while you're thinking about it, could you pass the Stilton, please?"

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Explaining to David Attenborough about Gorillas

I've seen it happen to other people and I've maybe even done it myself: though oh, I so hope not.

The best way to explain it is to give an example. It's when you see someone telling David Attenborough how to make a natural history programme and they don't know he's David Attenborough or even who David Attenborough is.

My question is: what should David Attenborough do in those circumstances?
Should he say:

a) Actually, my name is David Attenborough and you may not have heard of me but I am probably Britain's foremost natural history programme maker, so I think I probably know everything you're telling me


b) That's really interesting and I will bear all your handy tips in mind


c) Look, you ignorant fool, if you don't know who I am you shouldn't be expressing any sort of opinion about natural history, so clear off now and never come near me again

From what I know of the Attenborough family and their general politeness (look, she name-dropped, I did used to know Richard's son Michael and he was lovely) I guess David would tend somewhat towards b.

But, in a very, very minor way, something along these lines sometimes happens to me and I never know what to do.

When I was working as an office temp years ago I had just done a degree in English. Although I had not hidden this fact when I applied to the temping agency, they had not told my employers.

My boss in the office was a forceful woman in her forties who was in the process of doing what was then O-level English. Thinking to impress the office temp, she insisted on bringing in every essay she wrote to thrill me with.

They were terrible. So was her spelling. So was her grammar. But she didn’t want my opinion, or my help – she just wanted me to go “Wow, that’s really interesting.” So I did, and felt a totally hypocrite and hoped she would never find out about my degree (and she didn’t, hurrah). Should I have told her and offered to help? I still don’t know.

More recently, someone I encounter on a fairly regular basis keeps telling me her daughter is going to do English Literature for GCSE. She once asked me what I did before I did my present job and I told her I was an English teacher. But she is one of those people who only ever half-listens to anything and she has forgotten I was ever an English teacher and now every time I see her she explains what English Literature is, and according to her it’s a special kind of English which only a few people speak, and her daughter is going to study it.

I just keep quiet and hope that she never, ever remembers that I was an English teacher and I keep saying “Oh, how lovely” and wanting the ground to open up.

But is this fair? Is it the best thing to do? I don’t know, and I feel embarrassed even thinking about it.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Storming St Catherine's Fort

Gareth and Emily saw a band called Turisas at the Bloodstock open-air festival a couple of weeks ago, and very much enjoyed them.

You may recall that last week I wrote that I am keen to take possession of St Catherine's Fort, built to keep out Napoleon on an island accessible from Tenby at low tide. It's currently for sale for about three million, apparently. But if nobody will give us three million we have a Secret Plan to storm it.

Do you think I should ask this band Turisas for help?

Women of Fishguard by Harri Webb

A few days ago I wrote about the Last Invasion of Britain, knowing it's a little-known story from history. However, to my surprise, Val remembered a poem about it and what's more managed to find the whole poem in a book called Rampage and Revel by Welsh poet, journalist and nationalist Harri Webb . Here's the poem:

The Emperor Naploeon
He sent his ships of war
With spreading sails
To conquer Wales
And land on Fishguard shore
But Jemima, she was waiting
With her broomstick in her hand
And all the other women, too,
To guard their native land.
For the Russians and the Prussians
He did not give a damn
But he took on more than he bargained for
When he tried it on with Mam.

Their cloaks were good red flannel
Their hats were black and tall
They looked just like brave soldiers
And were braver than them all.
The Frenchmen took one look at them
And in panic they did flee,
Cried oo-la-la, and then ta-ta
And jumped into the sea,
And said to one another
As back to France they swam
We’d have stayed at home if we’d only known
That we’d have to take on Mam.

The Emperor Napoleon
He was a man of note,
His hat was sideways on his head,
His hand inside his coat,
When he heard the news from Fishguard
His sorrow was complete,
Oh Josephine, What can it mean?
My soldiers all are beat!
I’ll make this proclamation,
Though a conqueror I am
You can conquer all creation
But you’ll never conquer Mam!

The poem, though delightful, doesn't quite accord with the facts (as I know them, anyway) - the version I read in the museum in Tenby says that Napoleon was offered the command of this invasion force, but turned it down, which is why they ended up with Tate, who didn't speak French and was slightly past his prime at seventy-something. But, as Sellar and Yeatman say in 1066 and All That, history is what we can remember, and Webb's version makes a much better poem.

Harri Webb was born in 1920, died in 1994, and this poem is from a collection published in 1977, though it reads like something written rather earlier. Apparently Harri Webb chose this style deliberately to gain a wider audience. It's in traditional ballad metre, I notice (dragging up my Eng Lit past) which means it goes

de dum de dum de dum de dum
de dum de dum de dum
de dum de dum de dum de dum
de dum de dum de dum

and this is a rhythm which the English language fits into very easily. Though I'm not underestimating the skill needed to write good, simple verse, believe me - this metre so easily lapses into dull doggerel in unskilled hands. I love the energy of Harri Webb's poem and its very satisfying rhymes "With spreading sails/To conquer Wales/And land on Fishguard's shore".

Grateful thanks to Val for sending me the poem: I shall learn it and then I'll always have it.