Sunday, 19 February 2017


Do you remember a young person's book from the 1950s called, 'How Things Work'? Can you imagine a book with a title like that these days? Life used to be so simple.

Our family were not what you would call big readers. Father would read trashy cowboy books and Mother read bodice-rippers. We had no library in our large house and the closest thing to one was a small, glass fronted cabinet with a few hard-backs in it, chosen more for the appearance of the spines than the contents.

There was one heavy book in it called, 'The Home Doctor', and the nearest thing I got to a sex education was when one of my sisters suggested I should take a look at the part which covered reproduction. I did, and was none the wiser for it. I had to find out the hard way.

Another concept difficult to grasp in today's world is that of the travelling Encyclopedia Brittanica salesmen. They came to our house in the rich neighbourhood of Surrey on a regular basis and vainly attempted to pressure my father into believing that should he not sign up to collecting the volumes at a staggering cost of hundreds of pounds (paid in instalments over a period of years), he would be denying me a vital education and condemn me to failure in adult life. Maybe they had a point.

Aside from Oliver Cromwell's attitude toward the English literati, there is another reason why so few books remain from the 17th century. The fashion for shooting guns as a sport amongst the upper classes of the first quarter of the 18th century, coupled with the scarcity of plain paper, meant that the young men of the country houses which were grand enough to have a library would raid the books in them to tear out pages for use as wadding in the guns. You put the powder down the barrel, then some wadding, then the ball or shot, then some more wadding to stop the balls from rolling out of the end. One day's shooting party could get through quite a few books.

Samuel Pepys covertly admitted to ordering a copper-plate book of pornographic pictures which he burned in the fire out of guilt and shame after he had looked at it a few times. This book had to be ordered for printing and cost him a lot of money, but he was wealthy.

The next bit of desecration came in the 1960s, when dealers - and even anitquarian book-sellers - would carefully tear out the illustrative plates from 18th century books to mount and frame as pictures to be put onto walls. You still see them today, some hand-tinted with coloured ink, and they sell for next to nothing.

Years ago when Bath's public library was just over the road, I heard that an original first-edition of John Wood's 'History of Bath' was in the lending section there. Not the reference section where it should have been, but the lending one.

I went into the library and asked for it and to my amazement they went into a back room and returned with it. I signed for it and took it home in disbelief.

It is a wonderful and huge, leather-bound tome with great fold-out illustrations made by John Wood himself, and is of inestimable value. I spent a few days marvelling at it before putting it on the shelf with the rest of my books, then forgot about it for a couple of years.

One day it called to me from the dusty shelf and - saturated in guilt - I took it back to the library, fully expecting a massive fine along with a non-custodial sentence if I was lucky. I had to do the right thing.

"I'm sorry," I said as I placed the book onto the desk, "but I have had this book a very long time."

The librarian was speechless for a few moments, then she almost cried with joy, saying that I was exempt from all fines because they did not expect to ever see it again. I got the feeling that someone may have lost their job over my abuse of the system.

John Wood's original book is now under lock and key somewhere, and if you want to look at it they give you a pair of white gloves and lock you in the room with it. I have since bought a facsimile copy and it cost me about £150.

So my misdeed may have saved that book, and for that I feel strangely (and probably unjustifiably)  proud.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Cable-tie misery

I keep meaning to have a mini-rant about cable-ties.

They are such strong and useful things that they are over-used. The last time I used them was to attach H.I.'s banner to the railings outside her exhibition. They can withstand any wind and are also virtually vandal-proof against anyone who has not arrived armed with a stout pair of scissors.

They come in all lengths and thicknesses, and are now used by the police as emergency restraints to the wrists and ankles of violent felons.

As their name suggests, they were originally designed to securely bundle together lengths of cables in ducting or wherever, but - as with duct tape - were found to be very useful for all sorts of other applications, not least restraining elderly relatives. Duct tape can be used in conjunction with cable ties to prevent the elderly relatives from screaming for help. Another good use for duct tape is as a method of bikini-line waxing, but without the wax and at a fraction of the cost - so long as you forego local anaesthetic.

Local councils use them to attach notices of parking suspensions or planning applications to lamposts, but - and this is where the rant comes in - they NEVER cut off the spare 8 inches of plastic tie which sticks out from all four corners after the notice has been attached.

The person who takes the notices down when the event is over must be a different one to the person who puts them up, because he/she DOES have a pair of scissors or clippers to cut them off.

After he/she has cut them off - and this is where the rant gets heated - they are left on the pavement where they fell, probably because it is not in the person's remit to pick them up and dispose of them tidily. That is probably the job of the road-sweeper, or whatever they are called these days.

There. I have said it at last.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Jackson Pollock robot

There is an old, traditional paint shop here in Bath called Davies, where I think I might be able to buy some lime-fast pigment to colour some chalky white mortar which I will pipe into the joints of a tufa grotto with an icing bag. Yes, I really get paid to do this stuff.

If you don't use lime-fast pigments with natural lime, the colour can completely disappear overnight, and then I would not get paid for doing this stuff.

I was going into Bristol yesterday to get these pigments from a store which I have used for years, but because I was traveling in from the M4 side, I switched on my satnav to guide me through all the roads and roundabouts which have been built over the last few years.

It all went well until it told me to take a left to my destination when I was halfway over a section of M32 flyover which had been built after my satnav was programmed. That was when I gave up and carried on home to Bath on the A4.

My Garmin satnav is constantly telling me it needs an upgrade, and yesterday it made its point on the M32. An upgrade, they tell me, is simple. Just go to their website, plug in the device and download. The trouble is that it would cost £190 - more than a new satnav, and I always seem to have an alternative use for the £190.

The Davies paintshop is very Victorian in appearance, probably because - like the cobbler's boots - it hasn't been redecorated since 1890. Well not deliberately anyway. Some time in the late 1960s (I guess) it became fashionable to mix your own colours in-store, using a colour chart and various tints added to the can of blank paint.

The paint can is then bolted into the metallic jaws of a large machine which seems to be based on the 'bucking bronco' or bull-ride attractions that you sometimes find in Texan bars, because after the can has been bolted on, you stand well back and hit the switch. The jaws and can shake and shudder in an extremely violent, asymetrical, centrifugal paroxysm in order to mix the paint and tint thoroughly.

Over the years, it is obvious that there have been many occasions when the operator of Davies's machine has not made sure that the clamps have been properly and securely tightened, because the walls and floor within four feet of it are covered in thick layers of multi-coloured paint which has been spectacularly chucked around by the mixing robot before anyone could get near enough to switch it off.

You know that feeling of dread no-return as you start to enter an automated car-wash? I bet the paint mixing staff get the exact same twinge of fear when they turn it on.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

I blame the Queen

I have finished the hugely important (not to fuck up) job for the hugely important client at his hugely important house, and I am cautiously optimistic that it is a success. It is so huge that I cannot get far enough away from it to be 100% confident until the scaffold comes down, so I am staring at square yards of it from a distance of five feet maximum, whereas this will be the first thing anyone looks at when they arrive at the house, 80 feet down in the drive.

In the run-up to it, I have had two identical chest-colds, and during the execution of it I have had a third. I am still having it. I put this down to worry and stress, as well as getting frozen on the first week (whilst using water sprays) and soaking wet for the second, increasing my susceptibility.

I have a friend who I see in the pub, and if anyone shows the slightest sign of having an ordinary  cold, he almost runs away from them, turning his head and shielding his face as if confronted by the Gorgon or Dracula. For him, someone must be personally responsible for giving him a head-cold. One person must take the blame, and he spends a lot of time thinking about who that person must be before confidently blaming them for infecting him.

Last night he was in the pub, and when he noticed that my cold had returned, he moved his stool ten feet away from me and ostentatiously turned his head away. I have the same cold as everyone has had in Bath, if not the whole of the South of England - including the bar maid on duty last night. She did a lot of dramatic coughing to let everyone know she wasn't feeling too good but needed the money by working, and this because she too is of a somewhat juvenile disposition - sometimes childish rather than her usual child-like self.

This morning I had a text from my friend saying that he had spent the previous evening at a party with the barmaid and they had both stayed up all night, weakening their constitutions by having lots of fun, if you know what I mean.

As a result of his exposure to her, me and the other few hundred people in his daily life, he now has the chest-cold and blames us for the loss of income through taking time off work, plus he will not feel well enough to go to the pub for a beer for the next few days. He named, blamed and shamed the barmaid for this turn of events, with me coming a close second thanks to the fact that I do not kiss him.

I replied that if he wanted to be 80% sure of not catching a cold during the Winter, he should barricade himself in his flat from November to April, allowing no visitors in or out.

I pointed out that this infection is an epidemic of such great proportions in England, that even the Queen has had the very same chest cold.

I said that to blame me or the barmaid for his particular chest infection was about as pointless as blaming the Queen because he happened to pass through Windsor a couple of days before and picked it up from her.

We always want someone to blame for an epidemic, which is why 'Hong Kong Flu' was named as such. I am surprised that this infection has not been blamed on immigrants.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Week 3

So they were right when they warned that Putin had Trump in his pocket. Putin managed to get a mole into Trump's cabinet even before he was sworn in. That must be a first in the history of modern espionage.

It's a good job that he pissed off the CIA as much as he did, otherwise the alleged mole (what else could he have been? He was a security expert) may never have been discovered until it was too late.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

I admit it - I cannot fly

Just before I got up at 4.30 this morning, I dreamt that I had takem a large light aircraft from a garage or hangar, with the intention of taking off down a large and public grass strip in the middle of town.

The engine did not seem to be producing enough power, and I had to go under some trees rather than clearing them by going over.

I thought better of it and circled round to land back on the grass, realising that I did not know where I was going aside from the Swindon area, and thought I had better get the plane back into the owner's hangar before it was missed and I was prosecuted for a number of serious offences, not least endangering the lives of others.

I thought I had gone beyond fear of inadequacy and failure by now, but obviously not!

The benefit of foresight

An early photo of the shop floor of the Crockett and Jones shoe making factory in Northampton. C & J are indisputabley the best makers of hand-made shoes in England (forget Loake or Churches), and I'll fight anyone who says different. You may wince when you part with almost £500 for one pair of boots, but you will only wince once. Actually, there may be a little wince further down the line when you have to pay almost £200 to get them repaired. Repairing means rebuilding.

Changing the subject, have you read Thomas Mann's 'The Holy Sinner'? There are so many tragic events and unfortunate life-changing coincidences in the plot of this book that their accumulative effect is to make you (or me at least) laugh out loud. I won't spoil the main one by telling you about it, but it is amazing to what lengths schadenfreude can be taken to. 

When I first saw the film 'Pulp Fiction', it was very difficult to explain to others how or why  the whole cinema audience burst into spontaneous laughter when someone accidentally gets his brains blown out in the cramped confines of a moving car. You have to have seen it to find it funny. Same with The Holy Sinner.

In Pulp Fiction, the shooting event was sudden and unexpected, but in The Holy Sinner the innevitable tradgedy can be seen coming for miles, like a train on the horizon approaching a stationary one inexorably, watched by a group of helpless spectators.

I think this is what they mean when they say that God laughs at out plans.