● Lady Percy moves me - might she move you? CLICK TO FIND OUT
● Plus my novels, stories, verse, vulgar interests, apologies, and singing.
● Most posts are 300 words. I respond to all comments/re-comments.
● See Tone Deaf in New blogger.

Monday 29 December 2014

Speak not of problems,
only of successes

VR's GREATEST culinary skill is improvisation. As on Boxing Day when we dined à deux.

This Christmas British supermarkets competed suicidally over cut-price luxury consumables. I've mentioned champagne at a tenner (the dozen I bought is now down to three). But how about lobsters at £6? Not big, of course. A pair boiled and eviscerated made a disappointingly small pile of meat. VR contemplated the pile for - oh, fully four seconds - then out came the ramekins.

To the lobster were added breadcrumbs, butter, garlic, parsley, a squeeze of lemon and a "tiny" pinch of chilli. Into the ramekins, the grill and then our gastro-intestinal tracts went yet another unnamed fishy calypso.

About the ramekins (pictured). Possibly that isn't their technical name but it'll do, for goodness sake. They were bought in the Brittany town of Perros Guirec where we holidayed with Joe and family in the mid-seventies. They have a sweet elegance and have been used endlessly.

THIS MORNING the woman working one of the Tesco checkouts asked me if it was cold outside. I said it was but given I was her only customer I felt emboldened to go further. The previous midnight I'd put out the garbage and no doubt it was damn frosty. But there was compensation in the pin-point clarity of stars in the night sky. "I've just had a cataract op and things like that are a treat," I said.

She nodded. "I had mine done a year or so ago and it was wonderful. I was fearful but there's less in it than going to the dentist." We smiled at each in the esoteric complicity that has enveloped me since November 19.

Friday 26 December 2014

He didn't take long, thank goodness

To the opening of more bottles of champagne than I can recall we played Masks on Christmas Day. For once I was properly prepared for a form of competition, since Masks turned out be a condensed version of my professional life - the posing of logical sets of questions.

The victim holds up a card, unable to identify what's on the other side. The aim is to identify who or what the image is with the minimum number of questions. Only yes/no answers are given.

In my case the smirking Welsh windbag, Huw Edwards, who reads the BBC's News At Ten on telly. Quite soon the atmosphere of conspiracy became apparent from those supplying the answers and I got Fat Huw in fairly quick time.

But I can't say I'm proud.

Wednesday 24 December 2014

Posted in Hereford

Hubris stands for extreme pride or self-confidence. Today I stood myself down and employed real writers. Robinson


A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool. Shakespeare

Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest. Twain

Come, gentlemen, I hope we shall drink down all unkindness. (And, of course, ladies). WS

All emotion is involuntary when genuine. MT

And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. WS

Substitute "damn" every time you're inclined to write "very"; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. MT


Post scriptum. Not a good year, 2014. But eased by cheerful, encouraging and articulate voices. Thanks to you all, it's a privilege to share the world with you.

Pic: Hogarth's The Shrimp Girl

Monday 22 December 2014

A few lines of admin

OUT OF AMERICA Now also available as a Kindle download at a quarter the price. I flick through my paperback, re-living the love affairs I had,  especially with dear, determined Jana. The fun of creation. And now there's the hawking and a deep depression enters my scruffy atelier.

NEW HOME PAGE PIC The outdoors pic was never me, certainly not these days. I needed an image that caught the sordid, unsociable privacy of what I do, day in day out.

Ironically, I'm not untidy, obsessionally the reverse - tidying away sections of the weekend newspapers as I read them. But I'm different here. I'm comforted by the rag-tag-and-bobbletail of half-formed ideas and half-forgotten memories.

Vanity too must be served. Black chinos, black fleece and a triangle of chemise de matelot beneath my scrawny neck emphasise the newly svelte figure. Plus the gaunt cheeks. The smiling pic at Stuttgart Christmas market wasn't me either.

Zach with friend - yesterday

Saturday 20 December 2014

Talk or baulk

Yesterday was the art group's Christmas lunch.

I chauffeured VR to the Bridge Inn, Kentchurch, beautifully located amid whaleback hills so typical of the Welsh Marches. Despite my reputation for unsociability I stayed for lunch as in past years. These are VR's friends and I've got to know them a little.

I sat opposite J, one of the members, and D, like me, husband of another. I knew J had lived in South America but she'd also done aqua-lung diving round the world. D had competed in Britain's premier rifle-shooting competition at Bisley. Subjects which provided me with a conversational foothold during the potentially awkward first few minutes.

The chat went well, lasting out the meal. Leaving me to reflect on the occasions when chat stumbles. How conversation gets going; how it is maintained. Facial expressions are important. I rely on asking questions, a journalistic habit. A mulish, dead look says this isn’t going to work. Short, dismissive answers are another bad sign. Worst of all, when the person opposite looks away.

VR says the old standby is: What do you do? I’m not so sure. Some women marry early and are coy about admitting to mother or housewife. A surprisingly large proportion of  people have jobs they regard as dull and are unable to call on self-mockery or whimsy to get over this barrier. As an ex-journalist I’m lucky; professing this can trigger a stunned look, as if I’d been public hangman. Shyness is often hard to distinguish from surliness.

A good tactic for keeping momentum going is via quotation: “You said you are a teacher. What’s your opinion about Ofsted?” Not that teachers need much encouragement. Journalists neither.

Flattery, even when gross, works well. “I’ve always admired teachers. So much commitment.”

Après moi, le déluge.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Body-and-soul glue

I eat no breakfast and my brunch has evolved over decades. I am not (repeat not) attempting to proselytise. This meal is too eclectic to please all. I do not talk during brunch for this is Guardian time; if VR has the main section of the newspaper I sing Harvest Festival hymns quietly, to myself.

Starter. Quaker Oats Oh-so-Simple original porridge oats in sachets. Preparation/Variation: Paper sachet acts as measure for added fluid; water for me, warm milk makes me vomit. Ribena sweetens/adds taste. Rationale: Possibly healthy.

Main: Two slices of medium white farmhouse loaf cut on my own slicer; Lurpak Spreadable, slightly salted (ie, semi-fake butter); Patum Peperium The Gentleman’s Relish anchovy paste; Haywards piccalilli (“deliciously chunky vegetables”). Preparation/Variation: Anchovy paste, standing in for humous, has been in fridge for ages and needs using up; unbearably piquant – only slightest smear needed. Rationale: Slightly pretentious, proves I’m capable of culinary improvisation.

Dessert 1: Braeburn apple, satsuma. Preparation/variation: Braeburn is both firm (v. important) and flavoury. Both segmented to allow me to read newspaper unhindered. Rationale: (1) I like fruit. (2) Compensates in an alimentary way for sedentary life. (3) Satsuma has fewest pips.

Dessert 2: Two Tesco custard cream sandwich biscuits, three rich tea finger biscuits. Preparation/variation: Put on plate. Immediately replaced when slice of VR’s cake is available. Rationale: Man cannot live without junk food. Accompanies coffee.

Beverage: Two mugs of black coffee (Colombian Freetrade) based on four heaped teaspoons. Preparation/Variation: Aluminium vacuum jug (goes with Krup percolator) retains heat, can be carried anywhere. Rationale: Unlike tea percolated coffee (esp. black) is an assertion of adulthood.     

Tuesday 16 December 2014

A communal time

 Just ruined the spirit of Christmas on another blog which I trampled on with hob-nailed boots. Causing me to reflect on just what constitutes the spirit of Christmas.

It can be a broad spectrum.

Christmas One, 1959. Earlier in the year I'd met VR (then VT), a State Registered Nurse in a London hospital (see pic) and she was working through Christmas. I chose not to travel north to my family and instead had afternoon tea on the ward with VT and the Ward Sister. There were no patients as such in the beds; just saddos from the streets. brought in, cleaned up, given somewhere warm. I should add I'm a very infrequent candidate for afternoon tea.

Christmas Two, 1971. Mount Lebanon, a Pittsburgh suburb. Two days before Christmas brother Nick called from the UK to say our mother was in intensive care. He tried, but failed, to be upbeat. Said he'd ring with any more news. Heavy transatlantic phone traffic delayed the call which told me I was, to all intents and purposes, an orphan.

Two hospitals, one presaging a wedding, the other a funeral. I'm an atheist which means, I hope, I'm also a realist. No doubt about it Christmas is a time of intense communion. Where self-dependence sometimes isn't enough.

Christmas also seems linked to disasters. On one occasion preceded by a car crash, on another I was delirious with (I think) pleurisy, on yet another a marriage broke up.

Once I spent Christmas away from home, ostensibly rock-climbing, more often drinking beer. Slept in a barn and ate a large steak which should have been my Christmas dinner cooked by my mother. An event that was unsatisfactory in all senses.

This year will be a family thing. Part family, anyway, but a wider communion. The dead will I hope be accommodated and honoured.

Sunday 14 December 2014

Giggle and stay warm

Yesterday the central heating made an ominous noise. We switched it off, phoned emergency numbers, drew the curtains, closed the doors, and resorted to chat (assisted by a Wither Hills sauv. blanc and a pinot noir from South Africa).

What, I asked VR, were the funniest movies? Funny-talkies not funny-slapsticks. Forget Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy; the former sentimental, the latter repetitive.

Some Like It Hot, said VR. Of course. Equally, Kind Hearts And Coronets. But how about slightly less famous treasures? Me thinking of A New Leaf (above), where penniless Walter Matthau marries Elaine May and tries to kill her for her money. Where Walter diagnoses his Ferrari's engine problem: "Carbon on the valves."

VR was strong for Alastair Sim, even in movies which weren't meant to be comic. Green For Danger, a hospital whodunnit, sags badly when whimsical police detective Sim is off the screen.

I favour laconic James Garner. When I cited Support Your Local Sheriff, VR (who normally hates Westerns) immediately recalled Garner sticking his finger up the barrel of Walter Brennan's menacing Colt 45. And Brennan's sense of outrage.

The French laugh too. In Just Visiting (Les Visiteurs) a medieval knight is transported to the twentieth century. Coming upon a postman's tiny van with its radio playing, the knight slays it with his sword. You're made to realise this is a genuinely fearless act.

Left-wingers aren't supposed to like I'm All Right Jack where Peter Sellers mercilessly lampoons a trade union shop steward. But for me politics went out of the window when Terry Thomas, a personnel manager, is told to call on Sellers at home. "Him! Why the feller probably sleeps in his vest."

By then the Wither Hills was dead and we were halfway through the pinot.

Friday 12 December 2014

The Passchendaele of gift buying

In some stories the situation is king, the characters dried seeds in a dried senna pod.

VR (my wife) feels indebted to X and must buy her a present. Knowing X prefers presents that are unmistakably “gifts”, decoratively wrapped, hinting at wealth. In a word: toiletries. On a raw day the trail leads through a specialist perfume shop, a chain department store to a chain pharmacy.

RR is merely the chauffeur but is increasingly aware of VR’s impatience. Initially RR looks for items more modestly priced but is drawn into this meretricious, finally fraudulent sub-world. Fifty quid buys two plastic tubes and an ingeniously faceted bottle, all three vaguely labelled with terms like Body Wash. The outer box has a volume four times that of the contents. The brand names are dimly familiar from adverts in “lifestyle” magazines.

Soon VR is close to snarling with frustration. RR, new to the game, is wrestling with abstractions like cynicism, manipulation and brand hypnosis. VR has had enough. Says “Let’s go to Boots.” Boots is a chain pharmacy, the downmarket end to the shopping trail.

Outside the wind is bitter. Defeated, VR says, “I’m coming down (to the city) on Wednesday. I’ll go to Boots then.”

Although they are unaware of it at the nuptials it is for such moments that people get married. “Let’s do it now,” says RR. The couple slog back up the main street to Boots where a branded box (more tubes, more bottles) is available half price. Later, at home, VR thanks RR for that final push. RR reckons his gesture was born out of self-interest, but is warmed anyway. No celebrations because Thursday’s a diet day. But a bottle of champagne goes into the fridge for today, Friday, the best evening of the week.

Tuesday 9 December 2014

Keeping my hand in

I'm associated with projects other than writing fiction. Here's part of my busy world.

"GO OUT and prune the alder and the fancy willow," said VR. "Winter's the best time."

I took advice from Hermann Goering’s monumental Scorched Earth Gardening and you see the result.

VR inspected my work (top of page) and said, "You can never over-prune a tree. But in any case what does a new sapling cost?” 

LOOKS like a remote control, doesn't it?  What makes it different is it handles Region 1 DVDs  (ie, America only). I haven't tried it yet, I'm still waiting for my first Region 1 disc.

This Christmas we thought we'd investigate Stephen Sondheim musicals, typically Follies, A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods. They're said to have to have egghead appeal. Trouble is most aren't sold in Europe (Region 2) and our expensive DVD player won't play Region 1 discs. I'm dubious but the remote only cost a tenner. Let you know.

CRAFT has a special meaning applied to decorative items made in wood: imperfect. To elaborate: inappropriate raw materials, crude design, inexpert execution, garish finish.

VR bought our house number in ceramic tiles a year or two ago while in Leiden, Holland. The tiles languished since we had brass numbers on the front door. But the door disappeared when the double-glazing was upgraded. We needed identity.

The tiles are mounted on a wooden plaque which should be rectangular but isn't. It is badly finished, the tiles aren't centred (in fact can't be), paint was applied via the car-crash method. Typical RR DIY. How Sir Hugh will moan.

Saturday 6 December 2014

Stuttgart - The reason why

German Christmas markets are fun - see, even I'm smiling. What wasn't fun was the apartment we hired, eighty-plus steps up, the same going down - unless you fell, of course.

Although not as large as the market at Cologne (Köln, to be nigglingly precise) Stuttgart's was huge, taking in two of the city squares plus the interconnecting streets. On the advice of a Stuttgart resident we sought a change of pace by taking the train out to Esslingen where the Weihnachtsmarkt was cosier, jostling among buildings which seemed original, seemed to have survived WW2. Note the church with its twin towers linked by a strangely rackety bridge. Note too the characteristic town structures as we got nearer.

OS (Occasional Speeder) was masterly. Found a restaurant with comforting worn woodwork, the door opening on a shabby interior which was just what we wanted. Alas it was full of Germans aware that Mittagessen starts earlier than we had expected. Quickly we found another but our hearts still dwelt among the shabbiness.

Never mind, there was adjacent entertainment. Two German businessmen, hosting two youngish Japanese functionaries, had cruelly ordered them gigantic pork knuckles. How gamely the young men chewed on food that couldn't have been further from sushi.

Outside men in medieval costumes re-enacted history, a juggler tossed flaming torches, a blacksmith hammered red-hot iron. We wandered among stalls offering sausages, wheat beer, eternal Glühwein, strangely dull lollipops with a bread roll replacing the sweetie bit, carved wood, and a piano-accordion player rendering an impossibly rapid version of the William Tell overture (or was that in Stuttgart?)

The best time is when the offices disgorge men in suits, carrying brief cases, to mingle among us commoners. Worth the trip, even a flight from Quebec.  

Stuttgart - Men only, alas

Designed to win at Le Mans; born in a butcher's shop
 Porsches – echt Porsches – are high-speed two-seat cars which sell in tens of thousands, cost a lot and are stuffed with high-tech. Most are bought by middle-aged, self-indulgent, wealthy men who are peer-driven, wear foulards on Saturdays, are socially most comfortable with other males who haven’t read Mansfield Park.

Such men are also romantics. Why else would they yearn for a potentially unbalanced car design where the engine hangs out behind the back axle? Why else would Porsche continue to sell it? In uncertain and uncaring hands – especially in the wet – these cars can pendulum you straight into the brambles. Porsche have tried other designs but only the 911 and its many iterations has le pur sang circulating through its heart.

And why should I – not given to foulards – visit Porsche’s over-egged museum at Zuffenhausen, west of Stuttgart? For one thing I like Germans, for another I dislike national stereotypes. Germans are said to be steady and reliable; if so why didn’t Porsche long ago stop trying to design out the handling characteristics of a rear engine chassis and force something conventional on their customers? Guess they’re stubborn. Guess that’s why they make and sell an automotive legend. Or is it a myth?

Zuffenhausen also tackles another canard about Germans. There’s a model 917 that won at Le Mans. Generous dimensions led to a nickname, The Pig. Racing colour was pink, hence Pink Pig (above). But look closely at the words within the dotted lines: Haxen, Rippe, Schulter, Kotlett. Translating into: knuckle, ribs, shoulder, cutlet.

The door on another Le Mans winner fits so snugly, the gap between door and body is almost imperceptible. How can I be stirred by something that almost doesn’t exist?
OS and VR came to Stuttgart for Christmas markets (see next post) but indulged me with visit to Porsche museum

Thursday 4 December 2014

Stuttgart - Die Leute (people)

Strength not vivacity was this waitress's forte.
Daughter OS's pink scarf knitted by VR
In foreign parts people outperform scenery, architecture and things.

We entered a department store cafe, looking for a loo, chatting about this among ourselves. An elderly man, seated in the cafe, got up, took two steps and pointed: "The toilet is there," he said, inevitably in English.

... which led VR to reminisce about another visit to Stuttgart. "Where is the XX hotel," she asked. The questionee said, "I cannot say but I can walk you there." Which he did.

Airport security involves intimate inspection these days - with finger-tips and with an electronic gizmo. When VR's inspection at Stuttgart was complete the official said, smiling, "Well done."

I decided to be puckish with the receptionist at the Porsche Museum (of which more later).  I said,"Coming in here and looking at your cars is like looking at your advertisements. You should be paying us." She laughed pleasantly, said, "Indeed." then asked more questions which led to our not-so-expensive €6 ticket being reduced.

Hot Glühwein (mulled wine) is the drink of preference at German Christmas markets. But those in the know ask for Glühwein mit Rhum. The rum is poured unmeasured, with a glad hand from the bottle. A fragment of German surfaced in my mind; I said, "Nicht genug." (Not enough.) The cheerful, well-anoraked pourer doubled the dose.

More airport security. At Heathrow (London) I was asked to identify a strange object x-rayed in my shoulder-bag. It was my spring-loaded coin dispenser. At Stuttgart the same thing. I explained, adding "It impresses the French." The German security official said, "It is very practical."