Monday, 31 January 2011

The Angel of the Date Stamp

And the Angel of the Date Stamp sayeth to the library assistant:

"Yeay and the day cometh - and thou shalt know the day for even as thy cup of tea runneth over, so shalt thy tank run dry.

"And upon this day thou shalt press 'send' on the Important Message without checking it and a Great Wailing shall arise from all the other branches under the Heavens crying: 'What hast thou done?'

"And it will come to pass that He Who Designeth the poster and misseth off the date, hath finished his Placement and vanished off the Face of the Earth along with the programme and fonts he useth. And all will turn unto thee and say: 'Thou knowest of such things - thou shalt make reparations.'

"And things which Need To Be Done, turneth out to have already been done - but only after thou hast done them again. And all manner of Trouble and Difficulty shall present themselves unto thee, and thou shalt be beset on all sides by Confusion, Interruption and Frustration. For it is written: even as you juggle Many Things, so shall you drop them.

"And the very Air shall freeze and the Sky darken, and there shall be no more Mince Pies in the staff room and so thou shalt go hungry unto the Counter. And there, the Borrowers shall tug at thy Cardigan saying: 'I gaveth it to the Charity Shop by accident.' And: 'Yeay, I have renewed this many times online and oweth you nothing.' And 'Bring forth that book by that woman whose name I knoweth not who hath written that book, the name of which I also knoweth not?'

"And yeay thou shalt walk through many corridors in the wilderness, and from thence to the children's library, they shall Speaketh in Tongues saying: 'Une pomme de terre, tra la la!' with great volume until the Skies rend and thy ears bleed.

"And when thy Work is finished, and thy Struggles have brought forth ill-formed and brutish Conclusions, thou shalt think of many other ways to have better completed thy tasks.

"And thou shalt cover thine head with thine hands... like this."

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Feghoots and Shaggy Dogs

I know what you're thinking: 'What the feg is a feghoot?'

A lengthy comment appeared on my Burns Night post which I (erroneously) described as a 'shaggy dog story'. But it turns out is was a feghoot. In fact, the vast majority of tales I've attributed to shaggy dogs turn out to be nothing of the sort.

shaggy dog story

"an extremely long-winded tale featuring extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents, usually resulting in a pointless or absurd punchline". The classic example would be a tale going on at length about how shaggy a dog's coat is, but when it is eventually being judged at Crufts the judge says: 'It isn't very shaggy.' Not funny? Nope - doesn't do anything for me either.


"a humorous short story or vignette ending in an atrocious pun (typically a play on a well-known phrase) where the story contains sufficient context to recognize the punning humor".

An example: A young boy called Gervaise starts work as a waiter in a Paris fish restaurant. He's doing quite well, and makes friends with the other staff - especially the Swedish dish-washer, Hans. The only part of the job he doesn't like is when customers pick living seafood from the tank and he has to take it away to be cooked.

One day a wealthy banker, to impress his friends, points to the most expensive item in the tank - the very rare Hairy-lip Squid. Gervaise wrestles the luminous beast out of the tank and takes it through to the kitchen. The chef is very busy and tells Gervaise to kill it and chop all the legs off. He's about to do this when he makes eye contact with the creature. There's an almost-human look of pleading in its eyes, a sort of gentleness. 'Don't kill me!' it seems to implore.

Gervaise throws the knife down. He can't do it! He goes to the back kitchen where Hans is up to his elbows in dirty plates. 'You've been around a bit. You're tough,' he says. 'Can you kill this squid for me?'

'Of course!' says Hans, who follows him into the kitchen. But just as he's about to bring the sharpened knife down onto the animal, he, too sees the kind expression, the quivering of the squid's little hairy lip. He can't kill it either.

So the chef comes in and says: 'I can't believe it! Hans who does dishes is as soft as Gervaise with a mild, green hairy-lip squid.'**

* Named after a series of short science fiction pieces: "Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot", published in various magazines over several decades, which always ended with a deliberately terrible pun based on a well-known title or catch-phrase.

** You probably need to be British and over 30 to get this, but it relates to this advert. I'm told this joke features in one of Ian Rankin's Rebus books: Mortal Causes

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Scottish jokes for Burns Night

Tonight is Burns Night, and it's my tradition (see this post) to post in honour Robbie Burns - the Bard of Ayrshire.*
He's still the only poet** with his own feast day. I mean you don't have Yeats Year, Wordsworth Week, or even a Plath Afternoon... and lord knows what you would get up to in Motion Month. I am considering a Broken Biro Breakfast, but the details are still a little scrambled.
I'm not at a proper Burns Night this year (although obviously I'll be celebrating in my own way - perhaps the tartan pyjamas and a wee dram) but here are my favourite Scottish jokes that I would otherwise be spouting in my dodgy faux Scottish accent:
A woman goes into a butcher in Scotland and the butcher is standing with his back to the fire. The woman examines his meat and asks: 'Is that your Ayrshire Bacon?' 'No!' he replies. 'It's just my hands I'm warmin'.

- What's the difference between Bing Crosby and Walt Disney?
- Bing sings - and Walt disnae
Did you hear about the Scottish trumpeter who found a weed in his garden?
He had to root it oot.

- How many Scotsmen does it take to change a light bulb?
- Och! It's no that dark!

Did you hear about the Scotsman who washed his kilt? He couldn't do a fling with it.

A woman goes into a bakers. She says to the assistant: 'Is that a donut, or a meringue?' The assistant says: 'No, you're right - it's a donut.'
(Did I mention you have to say some of these in a faux Scottish accent? I'm sure I did.)
- How do you tell what clan a Scotsman's from?
- Stick your hand up his kilt and if it's a quarter pounder, he's a MacDonald

As you will have noticed, I've avoided jokes which imply the Scots are mean. You should be careful about stereotyping. There was a recent letter to a newspaper from an Aberdonian which said "If you print any more jokes about mean Scotsmen I shall stop borrowing your paper."

Many more Scottish Jokes in the excellently-titled:  Tartan Titters!: The Ultimate Scottish Joke Book

* for some reason the spell check objects to Ayrshire and wants me to change it to Yorkshire, Hampshire, Lancashire or Derbyshire. That's how wars start.
** unless YOU know differently

Saturday, 22 January 2011

What dreams may come..?

Poor old young Dave has been suffering disturbed nights over at Dave - The Blog and I sympathise.

Anyone who says to me: 'In your dreams' hasn't been there when the molten sky is falling and we few survivors are sheltering in caves, or when I come out of primary school one afternoon and it is years later and my family moved away a long time ago, or when everyone in the room is about to turn into a monster - but no-one knows which kind so you have to watch for snake tongues, claws...

As a child I lay awake in the fear of having nightmares. More recently I learned to quite enjoy them, their imagination. But they're still odd. My friend's husband is a clinical psychologist. He says it isn't what happens in your dreams, it's how you feel in them. And he says that everyone in the dream is really another projection of yourself.

But it could be worse...

I was in my 30's before I had even heard of sleep paralysis or 'night terrors'. It occurs when the consciousness is still awake while the body is shutting down for sleep and the symptoms are the inability to move, pressure on the chest, an acute sense of danger and terrifying hallucinations.

It's believed that the old idea of an incubus sitting on your chest comes from this and potentially a good number of 'ghost' sightings and 'alien abductions' - with the symptoms being so very realistically physical and so little heard about it.

Oddly, my first experience of sleep paralysis (that I remember) was not long after first reading about it. I had just moved house - one of the triggers can be a change in environment or lifestyle (and I've certainly had a brilliant flying dream after another house move.)

I 'saw' a malevolent, shadowy figure in the corner, 'heard' indiscriminate, but evil voices and felt a heavy pressure rolling over my body from head to toe. Throughout all this I knew I was wide awake. It was genuinely very frightening and would have been so much more so if I didn't have a clue what was going on. It's happened to me a couple of times since then and, whilst scary at the time, is fascinating.

After this, I started asking people whether they had heard of it or experienced it. And although most were blissfully unaware of it, I was shocked how many people had had it without it being common knowledge. At least three people I know have suffered from it on a regular basis all their lives - one even thought she could never marry because who would want to share the bed of someone who spent their nights in terror?

Around the world there are different beliefs about it and word for it. And guess what? The word nightmare is derived from the old Norse word 'mara' or... a goblin that rides on your chest.

So - how many of you have had this or heard of it? And -really - what is your worst nightmare?

Further Reading:
DARK INTRUSIONS: An Investigation into the Paranormal Nature of Sleep Paralysis Experiences
Sleep Disorders for Dummies (For Dummies (Lifestyles Paperback))

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Gandhi...and the Friends of Stony Stratford Library

I love the idea of many people taking small actions to effect change.

Alright, so my 'A Penny for Them' campaign might not work - I have been roundly told on Twitter that I clearly know nothing about banking.

But I still love the Gandhi approach - where he encouraged India's poor to wear home-spun cloth instead of British-made textiles and led a massive march - the Salt Satyagraha - to make salt from the sea in protest against the British salt tax (and possibly peppercorn rents).

And, I know it's probably BAD and WRONG to compare some little old ladies* in Buckinghamshire with an idealogical leader of the developing world, but stay with me...

I wanted to share this story with you from last Saturday's Independent - basically the Friends group of a threatened library of Stony Stratford, Bucks, sparked off an online campaign which rallied together all the registered library-users in their town. Between them they managed to withdraw ALL the books over the space of few days. I LOVE the idea of this. It wasn't violent, it was threatening to any innocent bystanders, but it MUST have shown the local decision-makers the strength of feeling in the town.

Some comments after the article sneer that as libraries are a free service, it doesn't matter how many books are withdrawn " still costs the same to run them". This misses the point: as a local service paid for by council tax, the number of borrowers is of vital significance. Whatever additional services provided and whoever they're a life-line to, the value of libraries is still measured almost solely by the number of books withdrawn.

I'm doing my bit. I've got 22 books out at the moment. I'm not even sure that's legal.

So when did YOU last visit YOUR library?

*(other genders, ages and sizes are also available)

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Zombie Wombles and the Keywords of Destiny

Just to COMPLETELY change the subject: Do you ever look up in Blogger stats or Statcounter to see what search keywords brought visitors to your blog?

Zombie Womble. That's what brought someone to mine*.

Now I've posted about Wombles and I've posted about Zombies, but not in the same breath... until today.

Over at Cultural Snow, the erudite Tim Footman was saying just the other day (in this post: Jammy Helen Mirren) how many people stumble across his blog when searching for semi-clad ladies, just because he may have mentioned them in passing. Similarly, Army of Dave is struggling to cope with being associated with a contemptible racist politician following the runaway success of his Nick Griffin Question Time Drinking Game.

It's a sobering lesson in being careful what you post about - these things can come back and bite you... A bit like Tobermory here.

... but on the other hand (and I wonder what Tobe did with the other hand?) it could point the way to a GAP in the market. Maybe, I thought, there ought to be somewhere people can go for a zombie womble if they want one?

By the way - what do you think at my first attempts at image manipulation? It was done with a free programme GIMP 2.6 which I am told has much of the functionality of Photoshop without the price tag.

So, who would like a poem then?..

Zombie Womble

Underground, overground, back from their tomb
The Wombles are Zombies and lurk in the gloom
Munching the brains of the people they find
Great Uncle Bulgaria’s eating mankind!

Underground, overground, up from their graves
Nothing is wasted, everything saved
Matted with black and malodorous mud
Lumbering Wombles are hungry for blood!

And in their foul burrow there’s always a store
Of bits of old bodies all covered in gore
Where Madame Cholet, her apron streaked red
Is cooking up something to feed the Undead

Bumbling, stumbling, Wombling free
They want to recycle the best bits of ME!
Oh no! Orinico is coming to get me!
The Wombles of Wimbledon Common all ATE ME!!

Monday, 17 January 2011

20 years later - a Desert Storm diary

Diary excerpt:

Thursday 17 January 1991, Israel

At 3.30 a van drew up outside, the lights shining into my room. There was a hammering at Rachel’s door first. It took a few minutes to wake her and I lay there collecting my thoughts. I clutched Mosheleh’s hand very tightly: “I think something’s happened.”


“Did you hear all those airplanes?” For hours I'd lain awake listening to waves and waves of them flying overhead. I thought he'd been asleep.

“Yes. I heard them.” He said heard like 'hear' with a 'd' on the end.

Outside was Danny with a gun and a gas mask. Rachel stood behind him in green elephant pajamas, with a large grin: “America started bombing Iraq at 1.30. It’s started.”
Danny said: “Here’s your gas mask, open it, keep it with you." And was gone.

We all went back to Moshe's with our ominous cardboard boxes and instructions in four languages on how to save our own lives - which mainly involves stabbing yourself in the leg with a syringe. They'd said weeks ago that they'd only give them to volunteers if things got really serious. We saw no-one else as we crossed the kibbutz - it was strangely calm.

Mosheleh made us tea, translated the news anchorman’s jokes, helped us check the contents of our boxes, and stroked my hair when I snuggled up to him. He went off to work at 6.30 but was back soon - a Saturday had been declared. We watched TV for hours, until we knew Bush’s speech word for word, had seen dozens of repeats of footage of the first plane to return, interviews with Kuwaiti refugees, civil defense reminders of emergency procedures, and CNN bulletins which frustratingly started in English and drowned out by the Hebrew interpreter.

At breakfast there was a curious atmosphere of camaraderie; jokes were cracked across the room, people who hadn’t spoken for years shared a word. Now I understood the blitz spirit they talk about - the shared fears breaking down the usual barriers.

And what a fine thing to do on this sunny pseudo-Saturday - while we waited to know if we were going to be spared - than to bake cookies? He didn’t need to look up the recipe and talked about his country, kneeding and rubbling as he spoke.

Mosheleh said: “You want to be with me, this is where I am. You want to know Israel. This is how we live.”

I watched and listened in rapture. I felt so much love for him, his philosophy, his gentle shrug at the enormity of the problem. I was still glad to be there, despite everything. My heart lurched when I thought about how much I would miss him if I went away. Was I already caught?

Lunch was crap – as though the cooks had not expected us to live to see it. Afterwards we locked the door and made love. On TV it said the worst of the danger was past, Iraq's airforce destroyed. Rachel confessed vague disappointment not to have seen just one bomb (at a reasonable distance and one that didn’t harm anyone). It was the best kind of adventure – one that felt dangerous but was really safe.

Friday 18th January 1991

The first air-raid...

17 January 1991 was the date of the first air strikes of the Gulf War began - an operation called Desert Storm.

I was a kibbutz volunteer for the majority of the time between September 1990 - December 1993. A Ladybird book changed my life tells why I went there, and Kibbutz Volunteer gives a brief history of my time in both kibbutzim.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

A Penny for Them

Okay, people. I'm feeling a rising swell of righteous indignation about bankers!

I've been thinking about the bonuses* bankers are getting whilst the rest of the country worries about rising costs, job losses and the other austerities to come. But how can we make our voices heard? Aren't we powerless in giving our pennyworth?

Yes, I've been thinking about the humble penny.

What if thousands and thousands of people went into their local bank on the same day and each paid in a cheque (or several) for a penny?

Think of the paperwork it would generate as each cheque had to go through clearing! People could go online and make 1p transfers, 1p payments. If enough people did it, and did it for a reason (ie a clear link to an online campaign that explained our disgust at banker's bonuses) it could make the ordinary person's view heard more strongly.

...I'm thinking on my feet here, but there are other ideas around this: everyone could pay their 1p to the same person or organisation, or charity (do organisations/charities get charged for cheques?). Or we could all hoard our pennies and then pay them all in on the same day...

I know there'd be queues and lowest-paid bank staff would suffer**, but it might make a point, eh?

What do you think? Are you with me? Shall I attempt to 'go viral' on this?

And what should it be called? I'm thinking:

  • A Penny for Them... which is APT
  • Watching The Pennies
  • Spend a Penny
  • Bad Penny
  • Every Penny Counts
  • Until The Penny Drops...

Meanwhile, if you are against the Bankers' Bonuses, there are two campaigns that I've found on Facebook:

Give Up The Bonus - founded my pugnacious North-west MP, John Prescott

NoBonus4RBS - founded by maverick songwriter Billy Bragg

.... except that... just a minute... these may have been campaigns from previous years... *sigh*

* See (see The Poet Laura-eate)

** I used to be a bank clerk so I know. 1980 - 1990. I call them my 'wilderness years.'

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

I know it's a cliché but...

I am girding my loins

This year I will really put my shoulder to the wheel, both feet forward and 'my back into it'. I'll slather myself in elbow grease, knuckle down, take the future in both hands, keep my finger on the pulse, my eye on the main chance (and the ball) my ear to the ground, nose to the grindstone, both hands on the wheel (I may need more hands).

No - I'm not taking a course in contortion. I'm simply going to try harder to be a better writer. But there's something about trying harder that brings all the clichés home to roost - and 'better writers' should avoid them like the plague.

Wikipedia - which has clearly become this recumbent Earthling's 'Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy' - defines cliché as a phrase 'over-used to the point of losing it's original meaning or effect', but I would argue with that. More that it is so over-used it loses its original impact.

When I say 'If it ain't broken, don't fix it' that's exactly what I mean. It's just annoying that - especially as a writer - you're not supposed to reel out the same old tired phrases, but think of new ways of saying what you mean.

The word cliché is from the French printing term for a phrase so regularly-used that it is cast in its entirety rather than composing it from individual letters or words each time it is rolled out. This is also called a stereotype. (I used to think this meant 'typing with both hands'.)

'Cliché' is meant to emulate the sound of the metal being dropped into the matrix - a mold for casting letters or phrases. Oh, sorry - I shouldn't have told you that. I forgot..."no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself." Thanks, Morpheus.

Anyway - at the end of the day, when all's said and done...

Cliché Heaven

In cliché heaven
everything’s as right as rain,
they had a good innings,
and we’ll never see their like again.

In cliché heaven
death is not the end
and when you find Jesus,
you’ve found a friend.

In cliché heaven
saints and angels with Percil-white wings
are singing of millions of beautiful things,
and God in his wisdom,
God with his beard,
is moving in ways that are frankly weird,
dear God, his cherubs like elves,
is helping those who help themselves.

In cliché hell
after the candlestick, book and bell
we’ve come in a handcart
we’ve come with our cat
(who’s got no chance, we’re sure of that)
and the devil’s busy making plans
for all those lovely idle hands.

But in cliché heaven,
everything’s all right on the night,
everything’s coming up roses
and all’s well that ends well.

There's a nice slide show of where clichés come from on Life magazine's website

Saturday, 8 January 2011

King Kenny with the comedy ears

So Kenny Dalglish is the new manager of Liverpool FC... (and they say I know nothing about football ...hah!).

Well I may know nothing about football but I've had my mitts on Sir Kenny! Here's myself and the plucky Scottish footie star at the auction for superlambananas towards the end of Liverpool's year as European Capital of Culture in 2008.

Obviously it was not me who took the picture - though I'm sure I could hardly have improved on the positioning of Kenny's head exactly between the ears of the Everton Superlambanana!

In fact, I believe I may have stumbled upon the Mayor of Liverpool (I was quite intoxicated and more than a little emotional that night - for reasons I won't go into here) and demanded he take the snap. So all credit to him.

... erm... there's also this picture of me and Jimmy Corkhill from Brookside, and Craig from the very first Big Brother.

The event was very swish, with bubbly and canapes and a series of trendy little tiny mini-meals -fish 'n' 3 chips, titchy burger, more bubby... I forget after that.... And it all took place in Liverpool's prestigious St George's Hall - which has a very famous floor (which I may have ended up on!).

And no, I didn't end up with a Superlambanana for Wirral.

But at least I tried.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Birdsong Tinnitus

The lovely Christine (aka Inwardly Digesting) mentioned recently that she suffered from tinnitus. This permanent presence of sound must be maddening, and I almost hesitate to append my Birdsong Tinnitus poem here lest it cause offense. Almost.
This was the first poem I ever performed at Liverpool's Dead Good Poets Society back in 2003 (in the days before Twitter - which gives the poem a whole new subtext now). I'm sure the first few words will have alarmed them.
Incidentally, it turns out that recordings of birdsong are supposed to alleviate tinnitus - you can buy devices that play relaxing nature sounds including bird song, ocean waves, brook and summer night from the British Tinnitus Association.

Birdsong Tinnitus
Tweet, tweet, tweet.
All the bloody time.
She was lucky, they said, to have
birdsong tinnitus. It was quite rare.
(Others had bombs and guns –
the artillery kind). So everywhere
was like a summer meadow, her head
rang with twittering which no-one else could hear
- except her cat, which perked a psychic ear
towards that invisible chirping, tweeting, peeping,
keeping two inscrutable eyes on her,
waiting for feathers.
She’d always hated birds – nasty
little heads and beady eyes, always
watching and pecking and crapping.
In all weathers and seasons each dawn
welcomed her with a cheerful chorus
that went on all day and all night
until the next dawn and the next one
repeating an endless anthem of joy and hope,
a fresh and innocent soundtrack to accompany
all the bad things that happened to her.
As her life grew bleak the birds still sang
their dainty cage inside her head,
immune from all her rage
- right up until she pulled the trigger
on some kind of hunting rifle
to silence those damned birds.

(c) Clare Kirwan 2003

First Published in Ragged Raven's 2004 Anthology: Dress of nettles

Added 7 Jan 2011: If you enjoyed this on any level, you would doubtless be delighted by Happiness Concluded from the whacky pen of Will Type for Food... I know I was!

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Softback, Hard Shoulder - The Mobile Library

What will the coming year bring for libraries? I've always had a tingly feel about mobile libraries so I'm quite prepared, in these austere times, if we can't afford buildings any more, to take to a life on the open road - a sort of Loan Ranger.

The mobile library, or Bookmobile, has been around for a long time and there were still 656 in Britain at last count.

Pictured is America's first mobile library in 1905 in the hands of one 'Mr. Thomas the janitor both holding the reins and dispensing the books.

No better method has ever been devised for reaching the dweller in the country. The book goes to the man, not waiting for the man to come to the book. Psychologically too the wagon is the thing. As well try to resist the pack of a peddler from the Orient as the shelf full of books when the doors of the wagon are opened by Miss Chrissinger at one’s gateway.'

The UK's first was in Warrington, 1859 (pictured).

But all of this is rather tame considering how books get around in other countries. Why stop at a van after all?

There's the Epos library ship plying the coast of Norway, Ethiopia's Donkey Mobile Library, Kenya's Camel Bookmobile and... with simply the best name for this kind - or any kind - of enterprise, Colombia's Biblioburro

Related posts:

To buy:

The Mobile Library - The Case of the Missing Books - By Ian Sansom

Main picture source: Moormann