Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Usual Nonsense

After a lovely, child-free weekend in Frome last week, the karmic balance is now being restored by the ordeal of a half term holiday. As much as I love my sons, I am getting rather tired of repeating this particular conversation twice a day:

"Dad, can I have something to eat?"

"Okay, what would you like?"

"I don't know."

"Well that doesn't really get me anywhere. What about some toast?"

"No thanks."

"A croissant?"

"No, I don't like them any more."

"Carrot sticks?"

"No." (said with a weary sigh).

"Well, let's go into the kitchen and see what there is, shall we?" (said through gritted teeth).

We go into the kitchen and despite being presented with a full cupboard of cakes, crisps, biscuits, fresh bread, stale bread, cereal, nuts and various bars, I feel as if I have somehow failed. Eventually, a packet of crisps is begrudgingly accepted and I feel as if I'm the one who is being done a favour.

I think my younger son's still cross with me for tumble drying one of our cats (I did stop the machine as soon as I heard a strange bumping noise, I hasten to add).

Written down here, it all sounds incredibly petty, but one should never underestimate the power of a dripping tap.

Perhaps this was why I found myself being infuriated by almost everything I saw this morning, during a brief shopping trip to Brighton.

The chief offenders were as follows:

1. Jeans with holes in the knees:

I am neither a genuphobe nor a knee fetishist. Indeed, I am completely indifferent on the subject of knees, but these jeans offend me. The ripped jeans of the 80s were pretty daft, but at least the tear appeared vaguely natural. These just look stupid and I feel irrationally annoyed by everyone I see who wears them.

2. Hipster beards:

Long beards are fine in the 1892 England cricket team, or at an Iranian theological conference, but on the streets of Brighton they are just irritating. Why are so many young men slavishly following this trend? It's no longer just poncy, middle class men, sitting outside a chi chi cafe, pretending that it's perfectly normal to have a typewriter; I've also seen builders who look like Brahms.

I suppose that the one plus side of this trend is that it makes it harder for Islamist gunmen to distinguish between believers and infidels.

3. Mad eyebrows:

Feeling compelled to pluck one's eyebrows to the point of oblivion is wrong, but the pedulum seems to have swung too far in the other direction, hasn't it?

4. Man-buns:
I suppose this hairsyle can be useful if you have a bald patch that you want to cover - it's certainly more windproof than the traditional comb-over, but I'm not a fan. It reminds me of those gormless-looking backpackers who use to congregate in Traflagar Square and have a strand of their hair threaded with beads, to show how deep they were.

I know I'm being grumpy and petty. I think it's probably a dental absess that's exacerbated my mildly misanthropic tendancies. I've been taking antibiotics for over a week and nothing has changed. Perhaps I've entered the post-antibiotic age.

On a more upbeat note, my weekend in Somerset was a pleasure from start to finish. Frome is one of the most interesting and visually appealing towns I've visited, full of eccentric delights. I was also introduced to a beautiful village I'd never heard of, which turned out to be the setting for one of the most notorious murders in Victorian England.

The house below features in Kate Summerscale's marvellous book, The Suspicion of Mr Whicher, which I read as soon as I got back from Somerset. It's extraordinary how little both the house and the village appear to have changed, physically, at least.

A weekend of good company and interesting discoveries lifted the spirits. There was a time when I wanted to walk the Machu Picchu trail, or go on the Trans-Siberian Railway, but these days a mere two days in Somerset is all I need to clear away the cobwebs.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Mea Cuppa - The Decline of Tea Drinking in Britain

On Twitter last week, Peter Sipe asked me what I thought about a Washington Post article about the decline of tea drinking in Britain (apparently, it's dropped from 68 grams per week in 1974 to 25 grams per week 40 years later). I read it and shuddered with horror. Without a single shot being fired, the British have become a nation of coffee drinkers. It's as if the ravens have left the Tower of London.

The Washington Post claims that tea drinking is the most British thing there is, so what has gone wrong? I think there are several possible answers:

1. We've gone to the dogs

Tea was a quintessentially British beverage because it offered a mild, barely perceptible stimulation, as restrained as the twitching upper lip of a dying Spitfire pilot. It was a drink that vicars and maiden aunts could consume it by the gallon without unleashing repressed passions. Labourers cherished it because the act of drinking a cuppa offered a brief, elysian respite from the drudgery of their working day.

In recent years, we've turned our backs on moderation and self-control, placing more value on self-expression and cheap sentiment. We began to let it all hang out around the same time that city gents stopped wearing bowler hats (if I had the time, I'm sure that I could plot out a causal relationship) and this was accompanied by a growing preference for stimulants. The 'nice cup of tea' and the traditional pint of warm, weak beer became replaced by amphetamine-like coffees and ever-stronger alcoholic beverages.

We went from becoming a nation that kept calm and carried on through the Blitz to one that wept like infants when Princess Diana died. We've gone to the dogs.

2. Travel has broadened the mind

Around the same time that gentlemen were abandoning their bowler hats, British people were discovering the delights of having a summer holiday in a place where it didn't rain half the time. They loved the climate, but weren't so keen on the cuisine - "Ooh Joan, you can't get a decent cuppa anywhere and the food's so garlicky". After a life of eating bland, overcooked food and weak tea, Mediterrnean cuisine must have been as overstimulating as LSD.

But after a while, people got a taste for 'foreign muck' and the supermarkets saw a growing demand for more exotic dishes, while old favourites like suet puddings, faggots and fish paste sandwiches saw a steady, inexorable decline. Our changing tastebuds, once shaped by a national cuisine of flavourless food and drink, now sought something a little stronger than tea.

3. Tea has got worse while coffee has become nicer

Half a century ago, a cup of tea would have usually been made in the traditional way, with loose leaves in a warmed pot, brewed for at least two minutes before being served in decent china. On the other hand, a cup of coffee would usually look and taste like washing-up water.

Then two things happened: some bastard invented the teabag and coffee began to become drinkable.

The big coffee revolution took place in the mid-80s, coinciding with the advent of yuppies. I'm pretty sure of this because when I went to university in Wales in the early 80s, coffee in cafes was usually undrinkable, but when I returned to London in 1987, everyone seemed to be drinking cappuccinos. I felt as if I'd been away for 20 years.

Coffee became seen as the drink of the cosmopolitan, go-getting white collar worker, while tea was the choice of builders and old people (there isn't time to venture into the dark world of herbal tea here, but it was the drink of choice of some of the worst people I've ever worked with - individuals who'd perfected passive aggressive behaviour into a martial art).

Those are my three main theories. I'm not sure which one is the nearest to the truth.

I don't have strong feelings about the relative merits of drinking tea versus coffee. I like both, but I dislike the coffee culture that has sprung up during the last 20 years. I'm annoyed by seeing people walk around clutching cardboard cups; perhaps because it represents that whole '24/7' culture of being permanently on the go. Good people fought for their right to have a tea break. Everyone should stop and sit down for 15 minutes.

I also hate the wanky 'barista' nonsense, as if operating a coffee making machine is a specialist occupation, like tree surgery and stonemasonry. And why is there so much choice? Maybe we did need something more imaginative than black/white/with/without sugar, but if I offer to buy someone a coffee, I don't expect to have to remember some nonsense about a double skinny mocha decaf latte while I approach the counter. It's symptomatic of a spoilt brat consumer culture, in which all needs and inclinations must be catered for.

On the other hand, tea is the drink of a civilised nation. Like coffee it has caffeine, but at a level where it feels like a relaxant rather than a stimulant. Having a cup of tea isn't just about drinking; it's about stopping and gathering's one's thoughts. Unless you have a cast iron esophagus, a cup of tea cannot be drunk quickly and that is one of its greatest virtues.

The future looks grim, but the tide may turn and the new generation of young people may turn their backs on skinny mochas, tattoos and long beards. I live in hope. In the meantime, my household will continue to drink tea in the afternoon, accompanied by a slice of something nice.

I will finish with this homage to tea by Chap Hop artist Professor Elemental:

Sunday, April 10, 2016

And the Beat Goes On

The school holidays seem to have lasted for at least six weeks, but the calendar says otherwise. Determined to get my money's worth from our National Trust and English Heritage membership cards, I've subjected my younger son to a gruelling tour of castles, stately homes and parks. His older brother has remained in his room, mostly sleeping, like someone in cryogenic suspension on an interstellar voyage.

I find the planning and recollection of days out much better than the thing itself. The reality is usually either slight disappointment, or an awareness of being detached from the thing I am looking at and wondering why. But occasionally, something serendipitous happens that negates the angst.

My last moment of serendipity happened recently, on a mild, end of March day. I was sitting on a bench, by the ramparts of an 11th century castle and could hear birdsong, a cock crowing and the sound of people singing in the nearby parish church - it was Good Friday. At one point, a brimstone butterfly fluttered past and I remembered why I love this time of year so much.

On the way home, I picked up my mother and brought her to have lunch with us. As she struggled to get into the car, she suddenly said "I'm running out of books. Can you get me some more on your thing?"

I've ordered so many books for my mother, Amazon now thinks that my literary tastes revolve solely around tales of working class girls who become impregnated by the local squire's son. When I open the Amazon home page, a long list of titles is waiting for me.

I found one novel that looked like my mother's cup of tea, but the customer review was one of the oddest things I've ever read, straggling the line between madness and a haunting, epic beat poem.

To quote it in full (and scroll down if you lose the will to live):

Wow this Book was absolutely Great. or shall I say Fantastic
Yeah. Kay Brelland knows how to write a Book.. Thought the
Windmill Girls was good. But she's gone one better with this
One. It's been good to begin with . Got more exciting as it
Got to Rosie joining the Ambulance service. And her father's
Old Associate.I will call him Frank Purves was a bad man
Wanted to cause trouble and make him start his old business
Up. And Rosie s father said no he wanted no part in the deal
He'd made with someone down at the docks.
But he said to this man he got five hundred pounds to start
Up. A whisky brewing set up. Illegal. But John said no.
And sent a man to see him called Connor Flint. John told
Him no way was he going to do this. He'd given it up years
Ago. And .Connor said but you got five hundred pounds for
This. He said. No Frank Purves got that . He hasn't seen any
Money at all. Come his way. Frank has it all stashed away
Somewhere. Connor believed John. Cause he didn't trust
Purses and didn't like him either. So he went after him
Rosie had a child. And she'd been attacked by purves son
And had his child. Lots of hair Raising episodes happened.
From Kidnapping of Rosie s Daughter. And John and Frank
Having a bad fight. And Rosie ending up falling in love
With Connor Flint. Who was in his thirties. Rosie was twenty one
And her dramatic life in her Ambulance job. She was once a
Windmill girl. And settled down .eventually. but will not
Spoil to much by giving away too. Much. But. This book is
A must to read. Lots of war. Happening V1 Rocketts falling.
And causing disasters. keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Well this was truly great .enjoyed it very much . Worth waiting
For. To read. So I give this
Five stars truly worth it and more."

I like the seventh line from the bottom "but will not Spoil to (sic) much by giving away too."

I've been taking lots of photographs, trying to improve. I now have a cheap but cheerful zoom lense, which makes it easier to take shots of people. I'm particularly pleased with the touching scene below. It may not be a great photograph, technically, but it warms the cockles of my heart:

And further along the beach, another heartwarming sight - someone reading a book:

I used to wait for good weather before taking photos, but Gothic style buildings like this look far better on dark, stormy days. 

This is Pevensey Castle. It used to be by the coast, before the sea disappeared.  

This doorway appears to be the only surviving remnant of a much older building than the one behind it, but I can't find any information on the internet. It's just outside a village with the memorable name of Blackboys. 

This is part of Battle Abbey, built on the sight of the Battle of Hastings. Unless you visit at the height of the tourist season, it's usually mercifully empty.

Hove Station, where a footbridge offers this striking perspective.

This medieval ruin reminds me of a Caspar David Friedrich painting. I'd love to come back here at dusk and take some pictures, but I expect the staff might have something to say about it as they close at 5.00. I wonder how tall the walls are.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Table Talk

Yesterday evening, my wife arrived home with a new tablecloth.

"I expect you won't like it," she said. "I just wanted something cheery. It reminds me of a French cafe."

I looked at the garish colours and tried to imagine eating over it. "I'm sorry, but it's utterly hideous."

"Well, I think it's lovely." The door opened and my younger son entered the room. "Dad doesn't like this new tablecloth. What do you think?" A loaded question.

My son scrutinised it for a few seconds and I hoped that sanity would prevail. "Oh yes, it's beautiful."

I was outvoted and looked at the vile object, mocking me with its faux illustrations of food labels. Another nail in the coffin.

But during the night, one of our cats was sick on it. They have never vomitted on the table before, so I felt vindicated. Later I noticed that the tablecloth had been folded up and put away.

I felt sorry for my wife (but not sorry enough to take it out again) and resolved to think of something that might cheer her up. We all need treats, however small.

It was my birthday recently and I treated myself to two Jasper Conran shirts and eight novels. If that sounds self-indulgent, I should add that I still had change from a £20 note, as they'd all been bought in charity shops.

I love buying paperbacks in charity shops because the selection is completely unpredicatble. During the last month, I've read an ecclectic range of novels including Dead Man Leading by V.S. Pritchett, London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins and The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. I particularly enjoyed the latter, as it seemed so chillingly apposite in light of the Donald Trump candidacy, showing how quickly democracy can be debased.

There seem to be certain types of people who work in charity shops and I keep seeing their doppelgängers wherever I go:
  • a gay man in his 60s, usually wearing a bright, lambswool sweater
  • a woman in her 50s who likes to talk
  • a rough-looking man who is probably serving a community sentence
  • a silent, terrified-looking girl in her late teens/early 20s
  • a young man with learning difficulties
  • an elderly woman who can't work the till 
They are a strange coalition of the retired, the marginalised and the disenfranchised. Uncelebrated and undervalued. When I saw a customer being rude to a charity shop worker, I wanted to remind her that she was talking to a volunteer.

I'm still selling books, in between domestic duties and childcare. I have around 7,000 books on sale, which generates a few dozen orders a week. Sadly, the gap between the overheads - postage and rent - and the total sales is narrowing, leaving me with a dilemma. Should I keep going in the hope that I can find a new supplier, or give up the ghost once the profits reach double figures?

Like Mr Micawber (surely one of the most annoying characters in literature) I'm sure that something will turn up.

In the meantime, here are a few photos from the last few weeks:

Lewes had a few misty mornings (as did most places, I believe). Somehow, black and white seemed right for this picture.

I took my sons to the Bluebell Railway the other day. In a masterstroke of frugality, I discovered that platform tickets were only £3 for adults and £1.50 for children, as opposed to £45.40 for a ride on a train. My younger son said he'd happily forgo the ride for a lolly. My older son said that steam trains were 'gay'.

While I was admiring the ingenuity of the Victorian engineering, my wife turned to me and said "I hope you're not turning into one of those odd men."

I must stop now and feed the cats. I've bought them two tins of Lily's Kitchen as a reward for bad behaviour.