Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Mini-Miser Brightens Up A Dull Life

Do you think that the battle against global warming and trying to economise with all forms of power, particularly light bulbs is something new?

Think again.

I found this amazing piece of kit at the bottom of a drawer. I forgot it was there. I don't know what date it would be but probably just post-War or the 1950's. I put the bulb into the bedside lamp and soon remembered why it was languishing at the bottom of a drawer. It was absolutely useless. It gave out the equivalent light to a dim battery torch. It made reading or doing any activity difficult or impossible.

But that's not the point. The Mini-Miser (geddit?) is an early exercise in being green. It came at a price. 11/6d to be precise, but promised that' there would be 'fantastic savings on the Electricity Bill' and it  'quickly saves its own reasonable cost'.

'A boon to mothers needing a night light for young children or invalids..... ideal also for elderly people.'
The advert is more exciting than the product. But the Mini-Miser looks the part. It is possesses a certain 'je ne sais quoi, for a lightbulb'.

And, after 50-60 years, it still works. Amazing. Apple - you could take a leaf out of the Mini-Miser's book.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Bedroom Slippers Stop A Truck Driver's Funeral In Berlin

Truck or bus? That is the question.

When you see a half-demolished plaster scallop shell portico, the main suspect for  causing this sort of damage has to be either a bus driver or a truck driver in 99% of cases. Why? Let's just say it takes one to know one and as  I drive past in my car, I imagine the grinding and shrill squealing sounds of a large vehicle connecting with the door. I've done it on numerous occasions. A bus station roof, a loading bay, some supermarket gates, posts, bollards a wheelbarrow and my own front door.

A friend of mine once reversed a truck into  the side door of a Golf in the centre of Berlin. He was unfortunate as he was being guided back by a passer-by. As the Golf's door inverted, the do-gooding Berliner scarpered. The car's owner was unluckily eating his supper and watching the proceedings. he was down on the pavement in 30 seconds.

'I will now ring the Polizei,' said the Golf's owner calmly, firmly and in perfect English.

My friend took out his wallet: 'Now there's no need for that. I'm sure we can come to some arrangement,' he said, peeling off some Deutsch Mark notes (for it was before the Berlin Wall had come down and the Euro was still just an idea).

'Nein. The Polizei must come.'

And they did.

First two; then four; then eight. West German Police, West German Military Police,  British Military Police and even a man from Interpol showed up at one point. They took everything seriously. So seriously that the it resembled some major criminal scene from an episode of Starsky And Hutch. The road was cordoned off with yellow tape. Policeman began chalking the road, unwinding measuring tapes, searching every corner of the truck and then going through the log book with a toothcomb.

'What have I done to deserve this?' wailed my friend.

'It is very simple,' said the officer in charge. 'You have reversed into the door of a car which is owned by an off-duty German policeman.'

The fact that West Germany had helped to knock England out of the 1982 World Cup with a 0-0 draw, did nothing to improve the mood of the policemen. They were sour and intent on triyng to give my friend a hefty fine.

The accident took place ouside the hotel we were staying at. The hotel owner had permitted the truck could be parked overnight in the  hotel car park, directly behind the hotel. It was while trying to reverse into this narrow space that the Golf has crunched.

Half way through the Police investigation, the hotel owner appeared in the car park, gin and tonic in one hand, cigarette in the other and wearing his bedroom slippers. Whether it was his appearance or what he said in heavily accented Anglo-Deutsch, but the police packed up immediately and went back to the station without charging my friend.

President Obama once said: 'Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching boots...,' That doesn't seem to be the case in Berlin.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

What Do You Want To Do When You Grow Up?

Taking yet another trip down Memory Lane, I found some of my old drawings and some of my brother's too. Those were the days. When you were free to let your imagination run wild and believe that you can do any career you so desire. I regret I do not feel the same these days and corporateness, institutionalisation and having to 'tow the party line' tries to beat the individualism out of you. In many cases it sees to succeed and people meekly oblige their masters, for a multitude of reasons.

Imagine the disappointment, as a nine-year-old boy being told by your doctor that it was a physical impossibility that you were ever going to fulfill your chosen career.

'You're already taller than the average jockey,' he advised. 'Just you wait until you start putting on the weight. It is unlikely anyone is going to employ a 6' 6", 16 stone plus person to ride their horses.'

He was right, of course. More right than I thought at the time. I'll show him, I thought. But the only thing I showed was a copy of my Birth Certificate to the ticket inspector on the train, who refused to believe that I was young enough to be entitled to half price travel.

'C'mon sonny. Pull the other one,' they would always say.

'I'm only 10,' I'd sob.

In the bizarre twists of fate life offers up, my brother seemed to want to be a bus driver. Though quite what they were teaching him at school with his belief that moles can tell your fortune ... So it is ironic that I became a bus driver. An accidental bus driver, because I should have been the next Lester Piggott.

Did my brother become the famous rider? No. Perhaps life is not so ironic after all.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Schooldays Are The Best Days Of Your Lives - Not According To My Reports

'I would expect him to be near the bottom,' wrote my English teacher, 'but he need not despair.' It makes depressing reading. I've just found my old school reports.  They were hidden down the bottom of a drawer. Obviously they were hidden for a very good reason. Perhaps they should never see the light again. They are the sort of reports which make David Brent seem like a genius.

'We all know that he is not an academic genius,' wrote my tutor. 'He has been somewhat slow to grasp the critical approach to the texts I have been trying to introduce,' said the Divinity teacher. 'Prosaic and unimaginative' said the German teacher.

It got worse in French. 'He has very little flair for linguistic work or understanding in this field: nor has he any compensating talent in English or in literary perception.'

Music: 'the standard of his written English gives considerable grounds for concern.'

'Insufficient effort ... superficial, insufficient attention having been given to careful and precise analysis,' said another teacher.

Then there was a miracle. 'I think some light has dawned,' said the Architecture teacher. 'Luckily the interesting but disconnected English which he has always written, has begun to jell, and there are signs he'll one day write quite well,' wrote my relieved tutor.


'I'd feel easier in mind,' he continued, 'if Dick Francis, say, were one of the 'A' Level English authors; he may find Jane Austen or Dickens a little finicky.'

Cancel that last alleluia.

But my tutor ended on a surprisingly optimistic note. 'He's been the nicest of pupils, gentle and considerate at all times, never making a fuss, and fully aware of his own shortcomings. With such one can achieve something - it's the ones who think they know all the answers who are so difficult.'

Two years later with three 'A'Levels and six 'O' Levels - 'if anyone had told me this' said my house master, 'I should have doubted him.'

Then I was in the wide wide world.

My 'naive wroting style' was unleashed on a variety of things and people. Writing press releases for the Tote,    short scripts for Wogan's Winner on BBC Radio 2, reports for various charities, some pages in an English learning book for Poles and various Best Man's speeches, after dinner speeches and long winded rants to whoever had the misfortune to sit next to me.

Whatever will happen next. A book perhaps. That would show those who wrote those early reports. But I must not blame them for writing nothing but the truth. I was a nightmare pupil. I hated school. Not the fun side of school, but the boredom of sitting down and learning many things parrot fashion, stifling one's unique creative skill, or so I believed. It wouldn't make any difference which school I had been at - you either are an institutional sort of person, or you are not.

So school was lifelong friends and laughter. An amazing sense of history and in some subjects a good teacher would open your eyes to the wonders of the big wide world. I absorbed as much as I could about the places of the world. In 1979 I went on a school trip to China, not so long after Mao had died. But apart from that, I gravitated to the next door town - Windsor, which at that time, because there were three major barracks situated there,  had more pubs per head than any other town in Britain - 108 or something around that number. I knew quite a few of them.

I geravitated towards the racing world - the betting shops, the Evening Standard sellers. My grandmother was my telephone credit bookie. She took my bets and sent me a monthly update. I used to win in those days more than I lost.

Well I look back at my reports and I feel relieved. Relieved that they could have been worse. I had a friend who received his which read:

'At least Nero rolled in the dust to collect his laurels. Bloggins just rolled in the dust.'

Now that is bad.  

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Schadenfreude In The Freezing Rain

'Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating,' said John Ruskin, 'there is no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.' Over the past few weeks, it was impossible not to have agreed with him.

It has been spectacular. Ravishing sunsets, tundra like icy landscapes and a crispness and stillness which is rarely reached. Weather for dogs as the scents are strong and the rabbit trails easy to track.

The light dusting of snow hid the ugliness of the slag heaps. They took on their own beauty - the snow covered conical shapes glistened under the azure skies.

Even the love of officialdom and regulations were half hidden for a time.

But it was not to last. If you agree or disagree Oscar Wilde's assertion that 'conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative', the news channels and radio stations are back into full swing with debates about the strange phenomenon of frozen rain, which hit the North of England this morning and caused 97 accidents in relatively few hours. Some of the school buses were cancelled and the odd school was closed as the roads around it became like the arena for Dancing On Ice.

It is nasty. It is different from black ice which tends to only to lie in patches. This is everywhere and when you hit it there's nothing much you can do. I know. Several years ago I hit it early one morning on the Windsor By-pass. Having done two 360 o turns, I found myself facing the wrong way up a dual carriageway looking at the pale but determined face of another driver, who was also out of control. He slewed and stopped incesh from my car.

We got out and celebrated our good fortune at not ramming into each other. We watched two other drivers further down the road who were also talking to each other. Shouting would be a more apt description, as unlike us they had rammed into each other. We looked at each other and tried to suppress our grins, in a poor and thinly disguised attempt to disguise our schadenfreude.

Human nature is a funny thing. Two days later I am sure the situation was reversed when I crashed into the back of another car and a pasing motorist, I could have sworn was struggling with his shadenfreude, too. Less successfully than me as he was belly laughing as he drove by.

Yes, yes, I know what you are thinking........

Swedish Bus Driver Turns An Irishman Blue

Nothing which emanates from Sweden really surprises.

A country which likes Wife Carrying competitions tells a lot about itself, when the rest of the world have quite enough on their plates when it involves wives, without the extra burden of carrying them and yomping around an obstacle course.

No that's not really fair. Wife Carrying is reputed top be a Finnish sport. The World Championships are held in Sonkajarvi, Finland. The Swedes are just being neighbourly.

So you would think that an Irishman in Stockholm might be an equally interesting proposition. But not in the world of Swedish public transport, where everything runs like clockwork and is comfortable and efficient. But my Irish friend had problems.

In the -16 o cold, he missed the bus one morning. It was 4 minutes early. He spoke fluent Swedish and said, when he caught up with the driver later that his language was about the same colour as his fingers and toes. This was not the first time it had happened. It had happened to him a few weeks before, though he was within sprinting distance of making the bus stop, though being elderly, he got there and was 'ripe for a heart attack', in his words.

'You're early,' he said to the bus driver as he got on.

'Consider yourself bloody lucky that I stopped to pick you up,' was the driver's measured reply.

He must have been watching Bob Newhart's Bus Driver Training ......

.... or he had learnt his trade in England.


Australia -Land Of Painful Drowned Sorrows

'At the end of my trial, I was rather hoping  the Judge would send me to Australia for the rest of my life,' Jeffrey Archer is supposed to have said at the Old Bailey.

I can understand his sentiments. Australia is one of the greatest countries in the world. I've met only a handful who have thought otherwise.

So imagine the Accidental Bus Driver, rolling up at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne on a warm Spring evening in October 1979. He was a mere 17. Fresh from school and the constraints of a grey Britain. The Yorkshire Ripper had just killed his 12th victim, Lord Mountbatten had been assassinated by the IRA, Manchester City had splashed out a record transfer fee of £1.45 million for Steve daley from Wolverhampton Wanderers only to see Wolves in turn break the record by paying just under £1.5 million for Andy Gray from Aston Villa, British Leyland were to stop manufacturing the MG and the largest shopping centre in Britain at Milton Keynes was opened by Margaret Thatcher.

The TV was down to two channels, BBC1 and BBC2, as ITV was closed down for over two months by a technicians strike and really the most exciting event of the year seemed to be the BBC screening the last ever episode of To The Manor Born, with Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles attracted an audience of 23 million (though it did return for a Christmas Special in 2007).

Arriving in Australia, where the sun always seemed to shine and mostly the people smiled and were happy, often doing outdoor pursuits, was pure magic for a seventeen-year-old.  My first supper was yabbies, a huge hunk of beef with roast pumpkin and canteloupe melon - things I never saw at home. Breakfast was steak with a fried egg on top, followed by a trip to the Milk Bar for a Vanilla Malt milkshake. It must have been similar to the moment when Ali Baba saw the contents of the forty thieves' cave.

It was the get-on-with-things attitude which I liked the best. Drive 100 miles to go out to dinner? No worries. Go to a 48 hour party? No worries, so long as you bought along some wine boxes. Once you had finished drinking the contents, the box could be dismantled, the silver pouch blown up and, hey presto, you had your personal pillow. Drive 200 miles to have a punt on a trotter, laid out for a race. No worries. It won. And it was on a border town called Echuca with a bridge separating Victoria from New South Wales. Because the licensing laws were different in each state, the pub on one bank of the Murray River closed one hour earlier than the other. There would be a procession of people racing over the bridge for the extra hour's drinking.

Of course, it was only fifteen years ago that the famous 'Six O'Clock Swill' had been brought to an end. It was a time when men left work at 5pm and drunk as many glasses they could before the pub closed at 6pm. One friend, who had been a barman in Perth, said the pub was silent. Before five o'clock he would fill the counter with schooners of beer. The doors would open and there was a rush to the bar. The regulars made their way to their usual table which was also covered in glasses and begin downing them in silence. At 6 they would all stagger out.

I once went to a cattle sale with the boss. It was always a long day. If the sale went well, we would stop at five or six places on the way back to celebrate. If it was a bad sale we would do the same - but would drown our sorrows rather than celebrating. This particular day was the worst ever. The 29 Charolais heifers hardly raised a bid of AU$300. A disaster. The Boss was ultra-depressed. The drive home was slower than usual and we reached his kitchen in the early hours to round the night off. At 3am, he got up on the chair, stood to attention, sung the National Anthem and fell head first into the wastepaper bin, tearing all his ligaments and putting him on crutches for months.

'No worries,' he said. 'The next sale will be better. And sure it was.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

On A Slow Bus To China

A  dozen or so years ago, I went with four friends to some of the wilder and more remote parts of China. It was a trip with mixed success. The basics of Qinghai and Gansu Provinces were not to everyone's taste. Needless to say I was in my element. Anywhere or anything which is the antithesis to the traditional English holiday of sitting on a crowded beach turning the colour of a cooked lobster, or taking a villa and only being with your own countryfolk, speaking the same language, or the ubiquitous package tour and city mini-break has always meant I have been to varied places.

I love the writings of John Reed, Jan and Cora Gordon, Rebecca West, Norman Lewis and Thant Myint-U. They are pioneers, both past and present and bring places to life, unlike more well known books about Provence, Sicilian Lemons or backpacking in the Himalayas. But each unto their own. I would have liked to have met Marco Polo, T.E. Lawrence and Countess Waldeck who mixed with spies from all nations whilst staying in the Athenee Palace Hotel in Bucharest in 1941.

Back to Gansu Province. Some of the group were not overly thrilled with the spartan accomadation, sleeping on a wooden floor in a hut, somewhere in the hilly, grassy foothills of ther Himalays. We were huddled together, around one pathetic little stove, covered in animal furs in a bid to keep the cold out. And by gum it was cold. It rattled through the bones and it was impossible to control the chattering of teeth.

We were illegally there, having hired a dodgy tour operator who took us off-track to some off limits village. You knew, the previous afternoon that we were somewhere where Westerners hadn't been, when we were followed by a group of curious monks. So curious were they, that every few minutes I felt a shaft of pain in one or other arms, as an anonymous hand would reach out and help itself to a tuft of hair.

'Yes, we did say we wanted to go somewhere authentic and different,' said the group the next morning, confronting me, 'but we never thought you would take us to such a hell-hole as this.'

Besides the cold, the bad backs, the aching muscles, the lack of any hot water bathing facilities, the thing which had sent them over the top was breakfast. Our host, who had kindly given up his house, had slept in the stable next door. He came in at 7am and announced that it breakfast time, pointing to a drawer under the only wooden bed in the room.

'Yak butter tea,' he said with a broad grin. 'Verrrrryyyy gooooood. He opened the door, grabbed a spoon of yellow butter, put it in a cup, poured water over it and handed it to one of the group. She took one look, wretched and ran out the door into the frozen air. So I drank it. It wasn't bad and I can helped keep the cold out. That's the thing about the Chinese. They are very pragmatic people. Nearly everything is done for a good reason.

When we went on to other places, one of the group wanted to stay in another beautiful place we had been to called Ta'er Si. She wrote a letter to me several months later, about her experiences on the way home. They were hilarious. They still make me laugh today:

"I went back to Ta'er Si after you guys left. It SNOWED the whole bleeding time. Very cold. But I had a luxury room on the first floor with full view of the monastry. I ate at that little Muslim restaurant everyday (twice). In fact that was half the reason I went back there. I avoided other places for fear of bumping into any more skinned whippets (I was not in the group's high esteem, having spent days quelling their fears of eating dog or any other unusual meat. The first restaurant we walked into, they demanded to see the kitchen and there, hanging up on the wall were two skinned dogs. Ooops.)

It was a complete nightmare getting out of Xiahe on a bus. I was almost in tears. I had to get insurance first (never worked out why) but by the time I got on the minibus was full. The driver was trying to move people so I could sit down. But each time he managed to get somebody up, quick as a flash, someone else got into the seat. Musical chairs or what? Lots of long distance spitting went on noisily and we all looked like and smellt like an ash tray by the time I got out the bus. All the passengers must have developed cramped necks, as the whole trip they turned to the back of the bus, where I was sitting and stared at me mercilessly. There was a section in the Lonely Planet (the guidebook I'd lent her) about staring. It said 'THE MOVIE IS CALLED THE ALIEN ... AND YOU ARE THE STAR'. I really caved into the pressure."

But every story ussually has a silver lining and the trip had a happy ending:

"A bunch of very snotty and unfriendly backpacking tourists on an organised tour arrived on my last day. I beamed at them happily as not a word had passed my lips in 3 days. Well except for the odd 'HELLO' to the crowds of children. But the b******s completely ignored me and I was rather p****d off with them. Then I got my revenge. It turned out, in that part of the world, one needed a travel permit, and they did not have one. They got fined $3000! HEE HEE. I knew it was because they were unfriendly s***s, and must have upset the hotel people, who called in the Police. Consequently they kept them for an extra two days, which really upset them. I was smiling fiendishly. That's what you get for being unfriendly.

Back in Beijing, I had planned to see the Summer Palace and Mao Sleeping. But I am ashamed to say I was so exhausted with dog avoiding, spitting and being a Superstar that I did not leave my hotel room for the whole of 2 days, except to go for a swim and eat downstairs in the European restaurant.'

Now this to me is the truest form of travel writing. Witty - no outrageously funny but more importantly, regardless of whether you have been there or not, if you shut your eyes you can imagine everything vividly.

And what about Chinese buses?

If you are 6 foot 6 inches like me, you will find them cramped. But the drivers are good and you will no doubt have plenty to talk about.