Thursday, 30 September 2010

But first, a message from our sponsors...

There's been concern in library circles since Minister Ed Vaizey published the Future Libraries Programme to "help the service during the challenging financial situation" by suggesting libraries be privatised, or run by voluntary groups or retailers.

Why stop there? Retailers could help spread the hideous cost of reading by more targeted sponsorship of books. 

I've already started approaching local stores and can announce that the following are now available on loan:

Tesco of d'Urbervilles

The Mayor of Asdabridge

Boots the Alchemist

Alice’s Adventures in Poundland

Animal Farmfoods

Bleak House of Fraser

Brave New World of Carpet

Abacan – His Dark Materials

La Senza and Sensibility

MorriSons and Lovers

Lidl House on the Prairie

Aldi Presidents Men

I'm sure you, dear readers, will have your own ideas of other retailers who may be encouraged to support our beleaguered libraries by sponsoring a book...? 

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Another Anniversary

Yesterday was (would have been) my Silver Wedding Anniversary.

I know, I know - I was a child bride.  I'd have put a better picture here, but this is all I have: he got custody of the wedding pics - which is particularly galling when it was my mum and dad who paid for them. Moral: if you're going to leave your house and husband, plan ahead, book a van, go when he's not around and take all your stuff with you. There's only so much you can fit into a carrier bag and you know he'll change the locks.

In my defence, I ought to mention that I left in a hurry. There was a broken down door involved, and a hammer raised (to 'fix' me, not the door). 

So anyway, here's my anniversary poem that I have been wheeling out about this time over the last few years,...


I was an end of season
bargain basement bride
and I thought you looked dashing
in your best suit – blue grey
(those were the days before
I knew I had the choice,
that some materials are sensual, soft
and others rough, always rubbing
you up the wrong way).

Who'd have thought it?
A quarter of a century
since you took this woman
to be your wife.
And where are you today
you bastard?

We tripped back to mum's 
for the hired-in buffet – too posh –
and everyone nervous of
the silverware and frills, none of us
knowing what things were:
I'd never had pavlova, never
even been to a wedding.
I'd do things differently 
with hindsight – a bigger party,
cheap and cheerful, everyone I knew –
oh, and I wouldn't 
have married you.

Wherever you are*, just be grateful
for the miserable years we were spared
and some things we think are 'forever'
turn out to be short-lived affairs.

*Actually, I know exactly where he is... to be continued

Monday, 27 September 2010

A bite of Madeira

I'm just back from two weeks in Madeira – a place I had never really known much about before.

I'd assumed it was in the Mediterranean, but it's actually off north Africa, just north of the Canary Islands. I'd assumed it was Spanish but it's actually Portugeuse. At least my third assumption – that there would be wine and cake – was not as unfounded.

Like the Canaries, the scenery is spectacular – as the peaks of an under-water mountain range formed by volcanoes they have extreme cliffs, peaks and caldera. The biggest difference is how much greener Madeira is than her neighbours. Every inch of vertiginous space is farmed in some parts (though sadly this is dying out as small farmers cannot compete with cheap imports) – lush terraced plantations of bananas, cherrys, vines, beans, mangoes, avocados, cabbages line the roads.

Funchal, the capital, is probably the steepest and most 'uppy-downy' (is there a real word for that?) city I've been to. San Francisco, Haifa, even Valparasio flatten in comparison and a journey across the city involves numerous tunnels which emerge onto bridges over plummeting chasms. The cable car (pictured) ride up to the outlying Monte district is a good way to grasp the stark peaks and troughs of the city (tourists who don't fancy the return journey are scooted down steeply winding streets in a wicker toboggan pushed by burly men with rubbery shoes for brakes - but that's what they were expecting us to do - so we didn't!)

Mass tourism is relatively new - since they built the new runway (on stilts out into the ocean!) about ten years ago, but it's always been a popular destination for the well-to-do, founded on fine weather all year round, the trade in Madeira wines and grand hotels like Reids – the place for afternoon tea on the terrace (or even, ahem, a Pimms with hand-carved grape garnish.) 

Unlike the Canary Islands, Madeira's beaches are few and far between. I stayed at the Orca Praia Hotel to the west of Funchal (see picture in previous blog). It's just beyond pebbly Formosa Beach (once the target of an attack by hundreds of pirates) but has a better beach with fine black sand... fine black sand I managed to get into every orifice after misjudging the strength of the waves and being dragged up and down the beach a few times arse over tit.

One of the main attractions of Madeira has to be its superlative walking opportunities thanks to a unique irrigation system which channels water around the island.  The 'levadas' are mini-canals which bring water from mountains to farms. Although often cut high up in the hills they offer a network of easy-to-follow, often mostly flat walks along the paths beside them which follow the contours.

There's a downside – it's often a long way down. Many, if not most, of the levadas are cut high up into sheer rock faces and the paths can run out so you can find yourself walking along a 30cm wide levada wall with water on one side and a sheer drop of hundreds of feet to the other. There are often – but not always – wire handrails at these points but many warnings for those who suffer from vertigo (my friend's husband took her walking there a few years ago. It was her idea of hell). But the views are stunning. 

My first levada walk was 13km round trip from Queimadas to Caldero Verde in the North of the island - our guide, said they 'rarely' lose walkers over the edge. Later we guided ourselves out to the easternmost point (San Lorenzo) - a fabulous romp over extinct calderas, now sea-cliffs - and the Riberio Frio to Portella levada.

And, yes, there was cake.  

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Two brothers, both called Miliband

You may remember in a recent blog I recommended that the pithy and poetic amongst you enter the weekly topical limerick contest at Limerick Central.

I followed my own advice and won a juicy £10 Amazon voucher the week before last with the entry below. 

Two brothers, both called Miliband
Neck and neck, face to face, hand in hand
Always shared as wee boys
All the sweeties and toys:
Can't they share, then, not running our land?

Even more topical today, as Ed squeaks in as Labour leader in a photo finish with brother David!

Friday, 24 September 2010

Travel Sick

I'm due back from Madeira round about now.

I'll give you an update when I sort out pictures etc, but meanwhile I have scheduled this in to 'celebrate'

This poem on the perils of Foreign Travel is more for performance than page so works better read aloud (possibly not in a public place). 

Travel Sick

In all my travels on the seven seas
I have suffered from every known disease.
In continents like Europe and Asia
I have had all kind of Malaysia.
It started as a child, with chicken pox
contracted in the wilds of the Scottish lochs
and something not dissimilar to Delhi belly
in a cheerless chalet in Abergele.

I’ve seen a range of distant nations
through a glaze of prescription medications
despite the precaution of inoculations
in the more exotic of my locations.

I’ve had all the illnesses known to man
from Zanzibar to Afghanistan.
I was eaten by bacteria when visiting Nigeria
and drinking something pinkish in a stinking cafeteria
I suffered from hysteria whilst surfing near Algeria
and was struck down by diphtheria in desolate Siberia,
I dribbled from her rear after a fortnight in Liberia
till doctors in the Congo put a prong up my posterior.

But what about the millions still living in that area
or dying every day of Aids and rabies and malaria
and cholera and typhoid, and the measles? – it’s deplorable
how vicious and pernicious to perish from something curable.
But enough about them – you’ve heard it all before
and there’s nothing we can do…is there? Let’s travel more:

I found myself suffering from lumbago
on the islands of Trinidad… and Tobago,
I had a horrible bout of Asian flu
somewhere to the south of Katmandu.
And there is no panacea for recurring gonorrea
or explosive diarrhoea in the foothills of Crimea
I had streptococcus, smallpox and a swelling of the ear
after trying out the canapés in kitchens of Korea
and I’ve never known such a case of piles
since coming home alone from the Virgin Isles.

Just when I thought I was feeling healthier
I found something cheesy out in Philadelphia.
I went to the doctor. He said: At a push
you’ve a little thrush in your Hindu Kush.
I returned ragged and tired and sore
From all my travels, but the final straw
was a mental disturbance which needed repeated treatment involving rubs with antiseptic and electric sho..o…ock
after a very brief visit to Llanfairpwthgyngerrachwyndrobwylliantisiliogogogoch.

But on coming home there's been no cessation
I'm under the doctor, I'm under sedation 
I got Tetanus on the Toxteth bus
and a pustule full of yellow puss
when bitten by a kitten on my gammy knee.
I caught an STD from my own settee
and salmonella from a supermarket Brie
but did you know, statistically…

wherever you live, from Rio to Rome
9 in 10 illnesses happen at home.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Two weeks in another place

Well, I'm going on holiday today for two weeks to an island known for wine, cake and flowers - it's like a hot date without some dodgy bloke to mess it up.

It has volcanoes. I like volcanoes - as long as they don't spew burning lava onto my freshly-roasted flesh. 

Can you tell where it is yet?

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Kibbutz Volunteer

This is a year of anniversaries for me, so forgive me being nostalgic

It's 20 years ago this week that I first went to Israel.  As explained in an earlier post, the idea was planted in my head by this early Ladbybird book. I had been working in a bank for ten years, and it seemed that it would take drastic action to whisk me from that particular warm bosom of security. About to be transferred from a lucrative secondment back to my branch, I decided to withdraw myself from the bank and See The World.

I resigned in August 1990 and signed up at Kibbutz Representatives in Manchester to volunteer in a kibbutz for 3 months.

Also during August, a little-known despot called Saddam Hussein from a hitherto unremarked country called Iraq decided to invade Kuwait. Not the best time to be embarking on a visit to the Middle East, perhaps, but everyone agreed that it would 'all blow over quickly'.

So early in September myself and five strangers turned up at Ben Gurion airport, Tel Aviv in the middle of the night, climbed willingly into the van of two swarthy, gun-toting chaps and allowed them to drive us into the semi-desert between Jerusalem and Hebron.

Over the course of the next three years (it's a long story!) I had many amazing experiences and met extraordinary people: I lived on two different kibbutzim, working in a kitchen, glue factory, baby house. I slept in the open in the desert, climbed Masada, stayed in a convent in the City of David. I fell off a mountain. I fell in love. I got drunk, stoned (real stones), bombed (real bombs).  I might mention these from time to time, but all I'm doing here is marking the occasion. 



Top is Kibbutz Beit Guvrin from a distance and me and Rachel with the gas masks we were issued.

Above is the kitchen in Kibbutz Alonim - we had the biggest pans of soup I've ever seen!

Left is the volunteers' compound at Beit Guvrin

Below left is the BG Bond glue factory - considerably different work to the orange picking that Ladybird book had lead me to expect!  And Below right is the pool at Alonim. 

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

12 African Proverbs

Monoko Mbele, makola ndunda.* 

People enjoyed Sunday's African proverb so I dug out some more and here they are. I have a list - not sure where I got it from.

There are dozens about animals you probably wouldn't encounter in Birkenhead Precinct, and many more involving trees.

There are also plenty that are identical to our own, and quite a few more that are so obvious as to veer away from the term 'proverb' into the territory of common bloody sense. 

So I've  savaged the list and whittled it down to a short-list of my favourites. I think we can all learn something here.

In no particular order:

'Every hill has its leopard.'
Bahaya proverb

'Who takes a hut, also takes the rats and cockroaches.
Ntomba proverb.

'Do not grab your heel until the ant has bitten you.'
Ekonda proverb.

'If you carry the egg basket do not dance.'
Ambede proverb

'The wind does not break a tree that can bend'.
(Sukuma proverb)

'The elephant dies, but his tusks remain'.
(Bamfinu proverb)

'The wind helps those without an axe to cut wood'.
(Bamileke proverb - Cameroon and parts of Nigeria)

'We rest our legs, but never our mouths'.
(Bahaya [Haya] proverb, Tanzania)

'A knife does not recognise its owner'.
(Mongo proverb, Democratic Republic of Congo - former Zaïre)

'Pretend you are dead and you will see who really loves you'.** 
(Bamoun proverb)

'Only when a tree has grown can you tie your cow to it".
Jabo proverb,Liberia)

How about making up some more for me?  They have to involve a wild animal (preferably a predator) and/or a tree...

* Just a a reminder to those who missed the previous post that the phrase is Lingala (Congo) for: 'Your tongue is a sword and your legs are vegetables'  which is certainly true of me, I don't know about you.

** Don't try this at home, children, it frightens your parents.

Monday, 6 September 2010

What's my missionary position?

I have a missionary uncle. They're quite rare.

I had him for lunch yesterday. Not 'had him for lunch' in the sense that indigenous people had missionaries for lunch in the past. I mean we went to Wetherspoons for a Sunday roast.

When he was a small child he met an elderly missionary with a tremendous beard and decided that he wanted a beard just like it. He joined a seminary at 14 and when he became a priest he went to Africa - Uganda, Kenya and, for the last 20? 30? years the Congo (formerly Zaire, and before that the Belgian Congo). He has never, to my knowledge, had a beard, that must be just how they 'hook' you.

I was brought up as a Catholic but... well, let's just say I have 'issues' re the anomalies, intolerance and bigotry of that institution*. Big issues. I have, however, a certain respect for a man who has spent his entire adult life working in impoverished, ailing, war-torn African countries, as often in the capacity of social worker as spiritual guide. 

In the early years he had virtually no contact with his family for years on end. More recently he has seen local children return as boy-soldiers to steal food. He once rescued a bishop by flinging him into a river. He's also heavily involved in work to protect the rights of local people and the natural environment they depend on, liaising between interested parties in several different languages. In short, he's a good guy.

The local language is Lingala. Years ago he taught me a Lingala saying:

'Monoko mbele, makola ndunda.'  

Translation: Your tongue is a sword but your legs are vegetables. 

I think this is about people who talk the talk but do not walk the walk - people who go to church on Sundays and 'amen' to everything but wouldn't lift a finger to help someone in need.

My uncle has followed his faith. He's 70 now and wants to continue. He struggles to cover his 'parish' (the size of Wales) on a motorbike because of arthritis in his hands so now he has an appeal out to raise money for a four wheel drive. 

Moral dilemma: I despise a religious institution which flaunts its riches while its most devout believers starve in the developing world. You'd think they would at least furnish their own clerics with the means to do their work. In principle I don't agree with donating money to his appeal, but he's my uncle, he's family, he's a good guy - and he says things aren't as clear-cut as that. 


* He is diplomatic enough not to ask about my own views on God - a sort of 'don't ask, don't tell' agreement between us.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Filthy limericks

Readers of a sensitive disposition should avert their eyes now.
It is time to acknowledge the place the limerick holds in impolite society. 
There is something about this poetic form that lends itself rather too well to the lewd, the crude and the downright scattalogical. It is, I like to think, a saucy postcard from Poetryland.
Yesterday I dabbled in its origins, early examples and some favourites. But now to the 'hard' stuff. First some lubrication, all from David Bateman's Curse of the Killer Hedge:
There was a young man from Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch*
With a trans-Menai-Strait-travelling cock
From his home he could screw with
A girl in Bontnewydd
That happy young man from Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch 

A singer who came from Milano
Had privates made out of Meccano.
He sang bass-tenor, but
By unscrewing one nut
He could also reach mezzo-soprano  (ibid)

A sensitive aardvark called Mingus
Found foreplay hard work with no fingers.
But his praises are sung
For his fourteen inch tongue
Gives his ladies a pleasure that lingers. 


Right, that got rid of them - you're not still reading are you? I did warn you. Now to the filth. 
I was told these (apart from the final one) by a respectable god-fearing lady dentist at the wedding of mutual friends. It has lead me to the conclusion that a significant number of the best limericks have an ecclesiastical bent, and indeed, a bent ecclesiastic.

There once was a woman from Crewe
Who said as the Bishop withdrew
The vicar was quicker
and slicker and thicker
and two inches longer than you

There was a girl from Aberystwyth
Used to kiss with the lips that she pissed with.
By way of adventure
She fitted a denture
Now she's got a front bum she eats crisps with

The once was a Bishop of Birmingham
Who rogered young boys while confirming 'em.
To comply with his wont
They'd bend over the font
As he pumped his episcopal sperm in 'em.

From deep in the crypt at St Giles
Came some screaming that carried for miles
The curate said: Gracious!
Has Father Ignatious
Forgotten the Bishop's got piles?

When the holy ghost came, say traditions,
Mary acted without inhibitions.
She had God on her side,
And then had him astride,
And in several other positions. (David Bateman, again)

I shall return to this form when you're least expecting it as I haven't shared any of my own with you. But meanwhile you can find more filthy limericks in The Mammoth Book of Filthy Limericks (Mammoth Books)  

Saturday, 4 September 2010

There was a young lady called...

Continuing in my series on small poems (I covered the smallest poems in the world and haiku in previous posts), I come with some trepidation to the limerick.

According to Wikipedia the limerick is: "a five-line poem in anapestic or amphibrachic meter with a strict rhyme scheme (aabba), which intends to be witty or humorous, and is sometimes obscene with humorous intent"
This is not a blog to go in for lengthy scholarly explanations for anything - I leave that to the links. Suffice to say that the name Limerick is thought to have come from a popular tune 'Won't you come up to Limerick' which presumably fitted the rhythm. The form was popularized by Edward Lear but I dislike most of his that I've seen because they are neither clever nor funny (an accusation he may respond to with a curt: 'Nonsense!') For example:

There was a Young Lady of Lucca
Whose lovers completely forsook her;
She ran up a tree
And said: ''Fiddle-de-dee!'
Which embarrassed the people of Lucca.

See what I mean? Yawn! And that was in my battered 1962 copy of the Penguin Book of Comic and Curious Verse, which at least had the good taste to include the anonymous:
There was an old loony of Lyme,
Whose candour was simply sublime;
When they asked: 'Are you there?'
'Yes,' he said, 'but take care,
For I'm never "all  there" at a time.'

I'll come back to the filthy ones in my next post, but my personal favourites are the ones which subvert the form. As with any strict rules in poetry, they are there to be flouted. Here's another anonymous one from the same volume:
There was an old man from Dunoon,
Who always ate soup with a fork,
For he said, 'As I eat
Neither fish, fowl nor flesh,
I should finish my dinner too quick.

And we all know this one, which also appears to be from an unknown author:
There was a young man from Japan
who's limericks never would scan.
When asked why this was,
He said: "It's because
I always try and put as many words in the last line as I possibly can."

You may think the limerick is old hat and poets don't do that anymore, but they are alive and flourishing (the limericks, not the poets... who are merely alive). I'm sure the incorrigible Liverpool (via Kent) poet David Bateman - who still flies the flag for nonsense -won't mind me slipping in a couple from his excellent 'Curse of the Killer Hedge' (Iron Press) collection, one here and a couple in tomorrow's - including probably the world's first rude aardvark poem:

My diction goes wrongly syntaxative
And my wordage is holy intraxative
I think that I fear
I have verbal dire-rear
But it may be I'm merely dyslaxative

And here's one I wrote just for him:
A poet of Liverpool 8
Loved dispute, pedantry and debate
But because he stuttered
Each word that he uttered
Came too low and too fast and too late.

I could go on (and on and on) but I'm going to finish with one from the curious and mercurial Will Type For Food blog:
There once was a woman called - what?
Do you know her name? I've forgot.
Nup. I can't recall
What she did at all,
Which screws this poem up quite a lot.

If you feel inspired to pen your own, please feel free to share a favourite in the comments or send your topical ones to Limerick Central to win prizes. And you can find many more general examples here and here
My intention is to continue with filthy ones tomorrow to protect the more sensitive reader, because as we all know:
The limerick is furtive and mean
You must keep her in close quarantine
Or she sneaks to the slums
And promptly becomes
Disorderly, drunk and obscene.

(From the excellent )

Loads more in:

Gird your loins.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Specialisation is for insects

My brother was a swot. I was not. 

He worked hard and, by focussing on his best subject won a place at Oxford - one of the first students from his school (a Merseyside comprehensive)  to achieve this. He often exhorted me to apply myself to something but I learned (probably from him) to reply: 'specialisation is for insects.'

It's brilliantly simple isn't it? A honey bee makes honey.  Not chicken soup, not ratatouille, not even hummus. A leaf-cutter ant cuts leaves. It doesn't fix watches, herd goats or run a successful carpet-cleaning business.  I, however, am a complex human being and I am able to do any number of things quite well - sometimes at the same time.* 

I use the expression to excuse many failings:

  • changing my mind all the time
  • not excelling at anything
  • not knowing what I wanted to do with my life
  • never having had 'a career'
  • not sticking at anything until I became good at it 
  • deriding other people (my brother mostly) when they get very good at something specific
  • giving up when things get too hard
  • not wanting to be confined to a particular genre

I shall add 'Specialisation is for insects' to my list of excuses.

Now if I was an insect, and I had the choice, I'd probably specialise in dreadful puns - despite the complete absence of them in this post. Workers in the pun factory in my brain must have gone out on strike. (But fortunately my double-entendre factory workers are still 'hard at it.')

What about you? What would you specialise in?

* Not me -obviously. I know that as a woman I'm supposed to be able to multi-task (e.g. recite passages from Mrs Beaton whilst giving birth, doing the ironing and weaving a small basket on the side). I, however, can barely uni-task.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Bringing Back the Dead

I've a terrible confession: I've started working on my novel again.

I'd always intended to be a best-selling novelist. That was always the plan. But life got in the way. You - of all people - understand that. 

I have several books on novel-writing. It's nice to have books about writing to browse through. It makes you feel like you're writing, when really you aren't. No, really - you aren't. 

The beauty of having several books on novel-writing is that you will generally find someone who agrees with the particular way you choose to plan, plot and manipulate (it all sounds so very scheming doesn't it?) the Best-seller. I have books (Novel Writing: 16 Steps to Success)that recommend planning everything in minute detail before even thinking of writing a word - hello spreadsheets! - and others (Creative Novel Writing)that recommend starting at page one with a vague feeling of what you want to write about and ploughing on to the end.

The one aspect they all agree on is one that does worry me. You have to know your genre. 

My First Novel (current location - under the bed, current status - dusty) would have been a redemptive tale in the saga/mystery/romance mold.

But this new beastie isn't so easy to categorise. It was planned out (on the spreadsheet) and begun as a public sector satire with an engaging thirty-something heroine bumbling her way through local skulduggery in a Beiderbecke Affair sort of way. File under: contemporary fiction, comedy. 

I can't put my finger on the precise moment I decided to bring back the dead.

It was going according to plan and I was about halfway through a first draft, but I was a bit bored to be honest. One (maybe all) of the books suggested that if you find yourself flagging you should introduce a new character or twist. When you're writing comedy the trick is to exaggerate the normal until it becomes funny, so maybe it was just a logical extreme I went to and never came back. I didn't intend to jump on a zombie bandwagon (and this was last year - it's all vampires now anyway) and they aren't really the point of the story.

The trouble is - publishers like genre (see a sensible answer to a similar question here) because genres have ready-made audience. But mine isn't a horror novel. It's a satirical comedy... with just a tiny few gruesome (yet amusing) scenes and undead characters. I think it's funny: How would local authorities react? There'd have to be a strategy, inclusion issues.

I like the idea of messing with genre, subverting the cliches. Tarantino did it to brilliant effect in From Dusk Til Dawn: I had seen no publicity about it and was gob-smacked when, half-way through the movie it changed genre (crime thriller to horror).

Is it OK to mess with genre? Do you think it might work?