A Kennedy Moment, with Simon Best.

The second part of a sporadically occurring series in which I open my blog to a special guest writer.  Last Friday night, youth-working Quaker and all-round good egg, Simon Best, boarded the Caledonian Sleeper at London Kings Cross.  This is his account of the experience.

Boarding the Caledonian sleeper is a bit like stepping back in time, even the name sounds like something from a 1930s Agatha Christie novel and it put me in mind of WH Auden’s poem, ‘The Night Mail.’  I personally haven’t received or written a cheque all year and I think the last postal order was sent in about 1973.

I travel a lot by train and usually platforms are announced just minutes before departure, I then find myself rushing to get on and scrabbling to get my bag stowed and to find a seat. With the sleeper it’s far more relaxed - you can board up to an hour before it leaves.  You’re greeted on the platform and shown to your cabin with plenty of time to get settled.

Although I’ve been on the sleeper before and my bunk was already made up, the first thing I did was to play around with the bed, open the little shelf next to the bunk, climb up to the top bunk and sit there, lift the cover to the wash basin, press the taps, turn the three different lights on and off several times and adjust the temperature slider about seventeen times to get it just right.

The sleeper seems to attract a variety of passengers: people travelling for work, retired couples, train enthusiasts (yes, in anoraks) and people heading north to walk in the Highlands. The only ones I couldn’t work out were the four guys stood topless in the corridor. My immediate neighbours were a father and his young son, clearly excited by his first experience of travelling by sleeper.  The cabin on the other side was occupied by a young lady whose eyes were red and cheeks streaked with tears having said goodbye to her boyfriend on the platform (and at the prospect of having to share her cabin with someone she didn’t know). The stewardess quickly found an empty cabin, settled her in and even took her a cup of tea.  This was just one of many examples of professionalism and kindness from the staff.

There is a sense of camaraderie on the sleeper – normally I don’t talk to strangers on trains, people are on their mobiles or laptops or plugged into their iPods – there is a different atmosphere on the sleeper. I had a great chat with a man and his son in the cabin next to me.  The son, who was about ten years old, was really excited about his first trip on the sleeper and couldn’t wait to explore the train.

The lounge car is probably my favourite part of the train, you walk past other cabins till you find a carriage that has been converted into a bar with comfy lounge chairs and mood lighting. It was staffed by one of the campest waiters I have ever encountered – imagine a Scottish Graham Norton, possibly the love child of Kenneth Williams and Rab C. Nesbitt.

I sat in the lounge car reading the paper, enjoying a gin and tonic and having a chat to the man seated opposite about our journeys (he was heading home after a week working in London, I was going to a wedding). The lounge car stays open all night but you can only get booze until 1am because, as my stewardess said, "this is a train, nae a nightclub". I love people-watching and the sleeper is a great place to do this - you get so much time to watch these people.  There was a young couple opposite me in the lounge car. They were heading for a weekend in Scotland, she hadn’t been before and he was trying to impress her with is knowledge of whisky. He let himself down by pronouncing the isle of Islay as ‘Is-lay’ rather than ‘I-la’ (not that the woman heard him or minded, she just continued staring into his eyes).

Back in my cabin, after a short deliberation, I decided to take the bottom bunk and settled down to sleep. It’s surprisingly comfortable and you are actually able to sleep, soothed by the movement of the train - which goes at about half daytime speed so you don’t arrive inconveniently at 4am. I woke briefly when the train was divided at Carstairs in the Borders, the back half destined for Edinburgh and the front for Glasgow.

About 20 minutes before we arrived in Glasgow I was woken with a gentle knock on my door and a cup of tea, which was very welcome (though I did pass on the early morning shortbread). We arrived bang on time, though I didn’t get off straight away (they let you stay on for about half an hour after the train gets in). I had a wash, packed my bag, said goodbye, thanked my stewardess and headed off to find breakfast and a shower.

For Marc’s benefit the engine number was 90021.
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A Box.

"It's very nice of you darling.  It's a lovely thought," she said, and kissed me on the top of my head.

No, I didn't know what those words meant when they were spoken to me at 7:20am either.  I grunted, to acknowledge receipt of the words, and buried my head under the duvet.  I heard the front door close as she left for work about a minute later.  I returned to sleep.

I stumbled down the stairs about an hour later, yawning and rubbing my eyes. On arrival at the bottom of the stairs I encountered this box standing in the hallway, just inside the front door.  The name and address on the label were mine.

I became tremendously excited, my new bike had arrived!  Well, new to me, it's actually quite an old bike.

No matter what age you are, I thought, there's nothing more exciting than receiving a new bicycle.  I considered this for a short while and realised that there was probably one thing more exciting than receiving a new bicycle -  receiving a new bicycle that you weren't expecting.

I sauntered off to the kitchen for coffee.  As I drank I puzzled over the enigmatic phrase that I'd half heard earlier.  "It's a lovely thought", "It's very nice of you".  What could those words refer to?  Had I dreamt them?  How could she know what I was thinking?

When I finished my coffee a few minutes later I was no wiser.  I returned to the exciting package.  Despite being an old bicycle, the sender had managed to find an almost new cycle box to pack it in.  Large and prominent logos were emblazoned over it.  It was clearly from the well known cycle manufacturer Trek.  I made my way round to the front of the box.  It was there that I found this label.

Suddenly it all became clear.  I may have some explaining to do this evening.
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Have you ever tried giving Marmite to an Australian?  The face they pull is priceless - imagine the face that you would make when dining on bicycle tyre washed down by a nice glass of tramp wee.  Marmite is what separates us from the Australians.

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I tried, I really tried.

A couple of weeks ago, while watching Atlantic Convoys on Channel Four, I found myself distracted by a beard and ended up thinking about Captain Haddock.  I have subsequently given this some thought and have come to realise that this wasn't entirely appropriate and that I needed to watch this fascinating series a  little more respectfully.  The heroism displayed - on both sides -  in the Atlantic during World War II is both unimaginable and inspirational; I was doing those brave men a disservice.

Having admonished myself I settled down to watch this week's episode more reverently, and dutifully.  Then this happened.

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Hide and Seek


The Future's Bright, The Future's Apple.

That's an advert for the Apple II, an early Mac.  There is another page of technical information that goes with it, boasting of the machine's 15 color (it's an American advert) video graphics, 4K of RAM and 8K of ROM.  I haven't posted that, it's very dull.

I'm really struck by the image.  Brilliant, isn't it?  A modern couple in their kitchen.  The wife, chopping tomatoes by the kitchen sink, coffee-pot at the ready, gazing lovingly at her husband.  The husband, a pioneering home computer user enjoying a cup of coffee and constructing a graph.  Perhaps she's glancing over to see if his coffee cup needs a refill.

I wonder what the graph's for.  Perhaps Mr Modern is observing Mrs Modern at work in the kitchen and is calculating how to make her more efficient.  What a nice thing to do.  I'm sure she'll be so grateful for his time and insight when, once she's finished the washing up, they sit down after dinner to go through his report.  Obviously he'll explain the findings of the report to her, he won't want to concern her pretty little head with the minutiae of his complex calculations.

I can hear him now, "Your chopping technique is quite inefficient.  I've calculated that if we can optimise the efficiency of your down-stroke, you'll be able to save 37.5 seconds per tomato -   that's five minutes for every eight tomatoes chopped."
"That's nice honey."
"Just think of how you could use those five saved minutes.  You could paint your nails, do some sewing, or clean the oven."
"Oh darling, you are wonderful.  I'm sorry that I was so sceptical when you suggested that we get an Apple II.  I can see now that having a computer will make our marriage so much better - we'll have so much more time to spend together."
"I knew you'd understand the benefits of a home computer if they were properly explained to you. How clever of you to grasp them so quickly."
"Why thank you.  More coffee, darling?

Don't you just love the future?
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My Enemy's Anenome is My Friend

(It gets big if you click on it.)


Nail Blog

I just uploaded this to one of my favourite sites, the excellent Failblog, a site that never fails (that was unintentional) to make me laugh. They don't use many of the pictures that they recieve. I hope that the wordplay isn't too subtle for them.

moar funny pictures


Another Day: Another Old Photo.

Here's another one of the pictures that Briony unearthed yesterday. It's me, in Jo and Ben's kitchen in Auckland. Perhaps I should explain it. I'll start by explaining The Fearns Rule of Airports, which is my handy rule that I always remind myself of when travelling.

The Fearns Rule of Airports: You are never funny at the airport. No matter how funny you think you are (or actually are), you are not funny at the airport. Nothing you say or do is funny at the airport and everything you say at the airport is taken entirely as an earnest declaration of the truth. At the check-in desk, when they ask if you've packed your bag yourself, there is no funny response. Stating that your cousin Osama helped you is not funny at the airport, and if you attempt to be funny at the airport, the airport will demonstrate how unfunny you are by searching your bottom for drugs or a bomb.

That's The Fearns Rule of Airports. Remember it well, it may keep you out of trouble. Here's the story behind the picture.

The people of New Zealand are rightly protective of their indigenous flora and fauna. As an island nation with many unique species it could be ecologically disastrous if foreign plants or animals were introduced. When you board a plane to New Zealand, this is made abundantly clear to you. When Briony and I checked in for our flight to Auckland at Kuala Lumpur airport we saw many signs telling us not to take fruit, vegetables, plants and animals with us. We were asked at the check-in desk if we were carrying such items. There were announcements over the P.A. system to further remind us. At one point, I turned to Briony and said "Do you get the impression they don't want us to take fruit and veg to New Zealand?" I said it quietly, of course; we were at the airport, after all. When I was changing from my shorts (it was boiling so I left it until the last possible moment) to my jeans, there was even an announcement in the bathroom. We boarded the plane, where they reminded us again. They also reminded us on descent - after spraying everyone in the plane with some sort of antiseptic spray - and on landing.

We entered the airport, there were notices everywhere to remind us that importing fruit, vegetables, plants and animals is illegal. We waited for what seemed an age for our luggage to appear on the carousel - I timed it, it took almost nine fruit, vegetables, plants and animals announcements for our luggage to arrive. Then we went through customs. Briony went through first. They checked her passport and asked her some questions about fruit, vegetables, plants and animals while sending her hand luggage through an x-ray machine. Once she had answered their questions, she was allowed through the customs barrier and into New Zealand where she was re-united with her hand luggage. Then it was my turn. They sent my hand luggage through the machine, checked my passport, gave me the fruit, vegetables, plants and animals quiz and let me through. I had arrived in New Zealand.

As I passed through the barrier, an enormous man in a uniform blocked my path (imagine a larger version of Joe Rokocoko). "Could you come with me, Sir?" he asked, in a tone that made it quite clear that this was not a request.
"Sure," I replied breezily. I pointed to Briony, who was several metres away, with her back to us, "could you let my wife know that I'm going with you."
"Oh", said Large Joe with a note of surprise in his voice, "you're travelling together?"
Remembering the Fearns rule of airports, here's what I didn't say. "No, my wife and I always travel separately, you can't imagine how surprised we were to bump into each other in an airport on the other side of the world."
Here's what I did say. "Yes."

He consented to have someone inform Briony that I was being taken away and he took me away, to a desk at one side of the main hall. Behind that desk was a stern-faced woman in the uniform of a customs officer and on the desk was my hand luggage, a medium sized messenger bag.
"Is this your bag Sir?" (You know things are going badly when you are addressed as Sir twice in a short space of time).
"Are you aware that it is illegal to bring fruit, vegetables, plants and animals into New Zealand?"
"(Fighting sarcasm) Yes."
"I believe that you may be attempting to bring such items into the country, do you mind if I search your bag?"

She opened my bag and methodically removed all of the contents, placing them on the desk. There was the usual sort of stuff - some cigarettes, a camera, a book, a rolled up pair of shorts, some tissues, an MP3 player, sunglasses, travel documents, Malaysian and English currency. She looked at all of the items and searched the bag again, it was definitely empty. She looked back at the items on the desk and examined them all individually, even unrolling the shorts. There was no contraband to be found. She checked the empty bag again, just to be sure, and turned to me. "When we x-rayed your bag, there was a long, curved item in there that looked like a banana. It must have been your shorts."

At this point, probably due to relief, I forgot the Fearns rule of airports. Stifling a smirk I asked "Did you believe that I was smuggling a banana?"
"Yes," she said, looking crestfallen.

I'm not sure that she was expecting the outburst of laughter that ensued. I couldn't contain it. Even Large Joe laughed. They allowed me to re-pack my bag and I was free to go. I soon found Briony, waiting anxiously for me. "What happened? What did they want?" she asked, with a hint of hysteria.
"They thought that I was smuggling a banana," I replied, matter-of-factly.
She glanced down at my gentleman's trouser area, and in a doubtful voice said, "Really?"

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Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow.

Briony has been getting some pictures of Malaysia and New Zealand out to take into school.  We haven't seen them for years.  Why don't I wear my hair like this any more?
Expect another extraordinary picture tomorrow, and a special guest banana.


Another Marc, not me.

I've been watching Atlantic Convoys on Channel 4 (Sundays, 8pm, available on 4OD).  It's a brilliant telling of the battle to keep Britain supplied during World War II, bringing home the dangers faced by merchant seamen in their struggle to bring essential supplies across the Atlantic, principally from packs of U-boats.  One of the great things about the programme's format is that they use lots of talking heads to recount their experiences and explain the history and naval strategy.

One of these talking heads is Dr Marc Milner, a Canadian Naval historian.  Now I'm sure what he was saying was very interesting and relevant but I couldn't help but be excited that he was called Marc (in England, there aren't that many of us).  I was also wholly distracted by his amazing beard. The luxuriance and shape of his grey naval beard is awe-inspiring.  I have seldom seen a richer, fuller beard.  It put me in mind of another abundant beard, possibly the most copious naval beard of all - that of Captain Haddock from the Tintin cartoons.  If Captain Haddock's beard were grey, he would look like Dr Marc Milner.
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He Strode Like A Colossus.

It would appear that I'm being annoyed by popular idioms this week.  I've just watched the first part of the BBC series, The Love of Money.  In it, the narrator describes Richard Fuld, the former CEO of Lehman Brothers, as having "strode like a colossus on Wall Street" before the collapse of his bank.  I know the origin of this phrase.  In  Julius Caesar, Shakespeare wrote:

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Shakespeare writes that The Colossus is bestride the narrow world.  That's logical, the picture on the right depicts The Colossus of Rhodes  (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) standing bestride the entrance to the harbour at Rhodes.

What the Colossus of Rhodes did not do, is stride.  The Colossus of Rhodes did not stride because it is a statue and cannot walk.  You can "stand as a still as a colossus"; you cannot "stride like a colossus".  You can have "stood, impassive, immobile as a colossus"; you cannot have "strode like a colossus".

Rant over, I'm going to go down the stairs like a dalek, and cook dinner like a hovercraft now.

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How Strong Is Emile Heskey?

In commentary on the England  - Croatia match this evening, Clive Tyldesley stated that the magnificent Emile Heskey "...is as strong as an ox".  That sounds strong, I thought, but it doesn't really quantify Emile Heskey's strength.  Obviously Clive Tyldesley knows how strong an ox is, which is lovely for him.  That didn't really help me though.  Am I, an urban-dwelling 21st Century sports fan, supposed to know what this means?  Is knowledge of the strength of an ox something that most of the audience possess?

In order to discover how strong Emile Heskey is, I consulted the 1958 Encyclopedia Britannica.  I got sidetracked by owls for quite a while but once I got back to the task in hand I learned that Ox is, when used correctly, the Saxon name for male domestic cattle.  It is often used, less correctly, to include all bovine animals including oxen, bison and buffaloes.  I don't know if Clive Tyldesley was using the word ox correctly or incorrectly, and I don't know how strong any of these animals are either, so this was not helpful.  

I decided to try a more contemporary approach and asked the internet how strong an ox is.  Yahoo Answers yielded these responses:

"id say weaker than an ox stronger than a turkey larger than a microwave lives in the ocean"

"cool question, dunno pretty strong i imagine."

"ermmmm about as strong as.......erm an ox? haha this is what u think about in ur spare time? just take it as its strong"

This was voted to be the best answer:

"Strong enough to kill you i hope"

I found this more entertaining than the 1958 Encyclopedia Britannica, though less informative.  Clearly researching the strength of an ox was going to get me nowhere.  I know as little about how strong Emile Heskey is than when I started.  What I have learned is that the soft plumage of the owl is the key to their hunting success (it makes their flight almost silent) and that people on the internet are really weird and can't punctuate.

If you know how strong an ox is, please let me know via the comments section.

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Don't Scare The Horses.

This is the Horsey Horseless. Powered by the then-new internal combustion engine, it's a striking design from the early days of motoring. You're probably wondering why it's called the Horsey Horseless, after all, it appears to have a horse attached to the front of it.

You may be surprised to learn that it is not a horse. It's a wooden representation of a horse and was placed there to render the vehicle less terrifying to real horses. The inventor (Uriah Smith of Battle Creek, Michigan) seems to have worked out something really fundamental here. Obviously a horse would be calmed by seeing the front half of one of its own species affixed to the front of a motor vehicle; Which of us - encountering the severed top half of a human on the bonnet of a Volkswagen Passat - wouldn't be soothed?

The horses head does not merely calm horses. It is hollow, and serves a dual purpose as the vehicle's petrol tank. An excellent use of available space and a great safety feature, drastically reducing the risk of explosions when reversing.

I can't imagine why it never caught on.
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Summer In York

Today was a fairly typical summer day. Here's some footage that I shot this afternoon.

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Things to do with empty bottles.

The recycling bin goes out again on Thursday. Or perhaps we should do something like this instead.