Problems dressing women

I’ve spent a lot of time recently dressing female models. It’s not quite the thrilling task you might have thought. In fact, it has driven me to distraction.

To keep my mind ticking over during the Covid-19 crisis, I’ve been trying to learn Blender 3D software. It’s not easy, but you learn so much, not least, all about women’s bodies. I created a number of male manikins. Their bodies are more or less logical, and putting clothes on them is straightforward. The practice I’ve had over the last 70 (rather) odd years has helped. But since starting on women (I was tempted to use womankins, but I guessed that would have been sexist. I’ll use the gender-neutral models from now on), I’ve got all confused.

I’ve experienced a lot of problems putting frocks, tops and trousers on them. They have any number of different lumps and bumps. They must view them the same way as they do shoes. They have many more of both than any reasonable woman could possibly need. Why do they want so many? Ignore a bit just because you have no idea what its function is, and the models end up looking all wrong, although it’s difficult to work out why. It’s bewildering. What does a particular bit do is not a question that answered satisfactorily on Wikipedia.

Carol got me some dress patterns that I followed, and they helped, but were far from perfect. You would not believe the different criteria you need to take into account. Just waist and inside leg for jeans is not in the same area of complexity. Then there’s frills, cuffs, shoulders, taper for blouses.

I’ve been looking at women in more or less the way I used to do when I was a lot younger, but sort of grew out of it when I was 65. Now I do it for other reasons (although it gets my memory working, so is good for the brain). Like most kids of a somewhat more youthful age, I undress them, except I do it to see how the clothes fit. It’s because I study the clothes, and as that’d hit their self-image, I don’t do it for real.

I’ve always been thoughtful.

When I helped my dad strip motorcycle and car engines, I could point to a part and ask, ‘What’s that for?’ and could depend on a short, accurate answer. The only time I asked him about women, particularly the differences between them and us, he said that women danced backwards. That’s not a lot of help when trying to create a dress to fit a model.

One word of warning to anyone struggling with the same problem; take great care when searching for women’s clothing on Google. Adverts that are, frankly, embarrassing pop up for weeks later, and explaining that you searched for 3D software doesn’t seem to have much mileage.

I have an asset library for clothes in my Blender file. The one for males takes up a few MB. For the females, it’s over a GB. Take shoes. For men there are boots, with two heights. One with laces, one without. Then a leather pair of shoes, a smart casual pair, trainers, a pair of which is nondescript, and flip-flops. With that basic range, I can make anything that men put on their feet.

For women, there is a set of heel heights (4) and thicknesses (4) which means 16 different factors before I’ve even started on the uppers. I forgot wedges and flats. There’s ballet (and ballerina – there’s a difference) shoes, court shoes, mules, loafers, gladiators, sandals, slip-flops, most with the option of laces, bows, buckles/straps and sprinkles and more. That’s not even mentioning boots; there’s more of them than there are signs of aging.

One positive side is that I will never become impatient waiting for my wife to get ready again (if we are ever allowed to go somewhere). It’s a wonder women make it on the right day.

Now for the oddest thing. I struggle with faces. So, it seems, looking at some of the creations of others, do many people. No problem, though, as I can download heads to use either as a help in making my own or to use without embarrassment. Most conform to women in general and come with body attached but I tend to discard them in the main as they seem disproportionate.

The first image shows a well-created face. There’s excellent detailing with everything in its place. The eyes are particularly impressive. The hair just, literally, tops everything off. But once you get down to the body, it all gets rather less praiseworthy. I’m all for positive body images to encourage those who want to be fitter and healthier, but this one misses the point I think. 

The second image is mine. I’ll accept the head suffers a bit (maybe more) in comparison, but I prefer the body shape.

The assumption, mine at least, was that the first image was created by some young lad, in his bedroom, who has sourced most of his images of women on rather strange websites, at least when his mum wasn’t looking. Boy, I thought, is he going to be shocked, and somewhat confused, when he eventually staggers out into the light and actually approaches a woman. Mind you, it’ll be a pleasant surprise.

Despite being very pleased with the detailing and accuracy of the head and hair, when reviewing the model, I asked whether the modeller had considered a C-cup, or even a B-cup. I received a pleasant reply, and was surprised to find it was a woman. I was promised some basic clothes to fit the model.

If you look through the 3D magazines, you’ll be impressed by the skill and artistry of many of those who submit images. Odd, to me at least, was that a significant number of female models who are a bit on the big side are created by females. There’s nothing like research to challenge prejudice.

They say before criticising anyone, spend time in their shoes. I’m not going to dress in a, well, dress, so I can’t criticise women for being so confusing. But still, I mean.

Here’s my dancer. The shoes show heel 3, thickness 2, no embellishments. The dress is actually in two parts, skirt and top. The skirt is length A 3, A being on or above the knee, the number denoting height. A much simpler method than used by the fashion industry. The sleeveless top has a V-neck and high back. All variables.

In the top image, the bloke has a T-shirt, jacket leather zip, and jeans tight.

When CGI scares

I’ve got to go electric with my next car. That’s not quite right. It seems I’ve got to buy a car that does not use fossil fuels. My problem is I’ve got grandchildren and they are adamant that their grandparents should not strangle fish with plastic bags, stick straws down the throats of undersea creatures or leave out those plastic rings that secure half a dozen packs of beer

On the last point I’m in the clear. I’m teetotal, nor do I drink fluids out of cans, at least not those which you buy in six packs. While I’m in my dotage, I think I would still remember if I had ever strangled a fish with or without said plastic bags. It’s been some years since I used a plastic straw, or indeed, a straw made of any other material. I’ve cracked the use of cups and have been enjoying the extra quantity available in one gulp for some years now.

I accept that my generation has polluted the oceans to a considerable extent, and am of the opinion that it is inexcusable. However, if you go back a few years before I was born there was a considerable amount of pollution going on, and it was deliberate. There were ships being sunk all over most of the oceans of the world, and much of it is celebrated nowadays. Dirty great big aircraft carriers, and the biggest ever battleships, can be found at the bottom of these oceans. I doubt there are doing an awful lot of good to environments there.

When I was a youth there were nuclear explosions detonated underwater. Mind you, there are an awful lot more above water level. I personally had little to do this and, indeed, I was against it with a dedication at least equal to that of my grandkids hatred of various plastics.

What is remarkable is that the protests of the antipollution protesters seem to be having an effect, at least in this country. I’m not sure that my belief that bombs should be banned, particularly the ones of nuclear variety, made any difference. All it seemed to do was slow proliferation.

There were demonstrations outside an arms dealers’ convention in a town I policed and I thought it only right to pay a visit to the organisers and the companies displaying their wares, but only after having a chat with some demonstrators.

One group of demonstrators seemed only too pleased to discuss their views with me. There were around eight of them, five being a female, and all appearing to be lower-middle-class. They were drinking tea from Thermos flasks. I was offered a sample but it looked a bit weak and insipid to me and I offered to pass.

The leader of the group was quite clear in her objections to the convention. She reckoned that her council should not have accepted money from the organisers as it gave the impression of support from the locals. She could see the argument for the need of defence and actually brought it up herself. However, she saw the convention as nothing more than advertising to various states, some of which would be using their weapons to repress their own citizens or to invade other countries to repress theirs. I thought at the time that she made a good point. After visiting the organisers, I realised I had underestimated her argument.

The various displays inside the hall looked a wee bit tacky. This might have been a subjective view that these were high-tech creations in a situation that looked as if they were selling under the counter films. I was approached by a chap from one of the displays which featured a rather old-fashioned aircraft. It was a Hunting Percival Jet Provost, a two seat, side by side, single engined jet trainer. This was not something out of Star Wars.

The chap was asking what he should do in the event that any of his staff were threatened by the demonstrators. I said that from what I’d seen of them, this was unlikely, and so it proved. I walked back to his stand and ask him about the Provost.

He was thrilled to demonstrate that, as shown on the CGI film, the aircraft could, if it was equipped with the ordnance that they sold, fly along a road bordered by buildings, drop one set of ordnance, spectacularly bank at the end and then return along the road are dropping the rest. I was assured that all the people, people was not the word he used, but people it was, so let’s say again people, all of them, would have been killed or rendered nonthreatening.

I was, as you can imagine, quite shocked, not only by the death toll brought about by two passes of this simple and rather pretty little air plane. The dismembered bodies, the blood, the whimpering of those lucky or unlucky enough to be injured, were not shown in the CGI. They were merely shadows at the beginning and shadows at the end.

It was horrific and, oddly, seemingly worse than a nuclear bomb which knows days could be classed as tactical, but still bomb like. This seemed to be more personal and even though the demonstrators were not shown as people it was clear what the intent of the underwing ordinance was. It rejoiced in the term COIN, standing for counter insurgency.

I did nothing about this. I policed the premises, doing my bit to maintain law and order, despite having what I’d just seen going round in my head. So good on my grandchildren for actually doing something about it. My next car will probably be electric, or, at the very least, a hybrid. It’s too late to do something about the hundreds, probably thousands, of people killed by the products being sold at that convention.

How to look ridiculous and sinister at the same time

I’m feeling old. I suppose I am oldish, although I don’t feel it. Mind you, I can see why many men refuse to shave once they retire. Staring at the stranger’s face in a mirror every morning is a bit of a shock to the system.

One of the problems with being over 65 is that people treat you as if you are over 65. They ask you if you can make the stairs, as if you wouldn’t be off looking for the lift if you couldn’t. Your kids don’t ask your opinion, presumably because they remember all the previous times that you’ve been wrong.

One of the most depressing aspects with getting old is that your kids become depressingly middle-aged. It’s all too easy when listening to them to remember when they’d been more adventuresome and willing to take a risk. They shake their heads when I refuse to dance, but then, when talking of politics especially, opt for the same old same old.

It’s the little things that really get to me. I can’t lose weight. I’m not hypothyroid as my reading is low but not too low, according to the doctor. I’m told the limit was recently raised and he doesn’t agree with it. I used to be able to shed weight almost at a whim.

Some years ago I went to Weight Watchers as a friend was too embarrassed to go alone. I was a little overweight, about half a stone, as it was winter and I’d stopped cycling every day. I would have shed the extra fat easily enough come April, but was obliged to spend money to do it early.

I lost the half stone, and a few more pounds, in the first five weeks, much to the irritation of some of the women I was sitting with. I was warned that I was shedding it too fast by the woman in charge, I think just to tell me off for being too clever by half. I was smug, but smugness is not so common nowadays.

I now have to take diuretics. These limit my range as I have to work out where the nearest toilet is before going anywhere. I’ve seen the stance I now take up, where I stare around a pub or shopping centre gazing around, when coming to a new place in others of my age. It is depressing.

I was in a public loo earlier this week which was equipped with motion sensors for the lights. I’m all for saving power, but I think the needs of the retired gent have not been taken into consideration.

I’d just got out of my car. My wife had walked off and I made my way towards the public conveniences. I had no urgent need to relieve myself as I now go before leaving the house, and without fail, but the over 65 ‘just in case’ attitude I now have to follow ensured I gave it a good go.

On came the lights as I walked in. I did the necessary disrobing, and waited for nature to take its course. It took a while, so long in fact that the lights went out. I’m not scared of the dark, but being a man, half dressed, standing in the dark in a loo is not everyone’s idea of a comfortable situation. What to do?

I did what most men would, and waved my free hand in the air. It produced no result. I was probably out of range, I thought, so took a step away from the urinal. At that precise moment, another chap entered the room.

There was I, too far from the loo, but with everything exposed, with one hand waving in the air.

It was not a good look. It is what age has done to me.

Life’s lessons all in one go

I used to enjoy Tomorrow’s World, the BBC’s flagship science for the masses programme. There were the usual ‘in five years’ myths perpetuated and some non-functioning revolutionary inventions which I can say from personal experience were put into production.

I would encourage my eldest lad to watch TW in the hope that he would become enthused by sciency things but, given that much was either wordy or non-functioning, it didn’t really grab the attention of a 10-year-old. One time, though, he sat forward on the settee as there was a short video of a staged car crash. Car safety features were being discussed with dramatic visuals. So in one way at least, it did herald today’s world.

Cars, we were told, were capable of travelling at 70mph on motorways and such. This was true enough, but then they spoiled it a bit by discussing head-on collisions, not something that common on motorways at the time. There was a brief mention of energy increasing to the square of speed. Then we came to the statement which this little missive will concentrate on.

‘For the occupants of a car, a head-on collision at 70mph is equivalent to hitting a concrete bridge support at 140mph.’

At last. I had the feeling I used to experience when being able to answer a question on University Challenge, although normally the contestant would give it first. My, ‘I was about to say that’ was normally met with a disdainful look, which was exactly what I received from my son when I said, ‘They’re wrong. It’s equivalent to hitting a concrete bridge support, or any immoveable object, at 70mph.’

My son did not believe his father. I explained the details as best I could, which wasn’t very best, and my lad just nodded in the way that if I’d done it when my wife had said something, it would take flowers and chocolates before the matter was settled.

Once my lad went to bed, still contemptuous of his father’s knowledge ofPrincipia’sfundamentals, I broke out my pen, paper and envelope to write a strong letter to ‘The Producer, Tomorrow’s World’. In it I mentioned the difficulties in bringing up children were only made more pronounced when they believe an error on the TV trumped dad.

Honour satisfied, I put the whole matter out of my mind. A bit at least. A couple of weeks went past, all the time me believing that a son’s confidence in his father had been shattered, and then the letter arrived, complete with BBC logo. It was bulky so looked interesting.

Inside was a sheet of headed paper, the Tomorrow’s World logo proudly displayed, and a sealed envelope address to my son. Or rather, addressed to ‘The son of Mr . . .’ The letter was one of apology, although it started with a polite thank-you for pointing out the error. It said they would correct it the next programme, which they did, much to my excitement.

My son read his letter, took it to bed with him, but let me read it the following day. TW pointed out that you should never believe what someone says just because they are clever [a bit of self-aggrandisement there I thought] because they might be wrong. Accept nothing, my lad was told, without facts to support.

A number of life’s lessons were explained in that little play in two acts. Firstly, just because someone talked posh does not mean they are right. Secondly, looking right is not proof. Thirdly, if you doubt your father and he proves you were wrong, he will give you lots of knowing looks over the next few weeks.

Fourthly, and a lesson that I took away from it, if you make a mistake, owning up to it at once can allow you to keep your credibility. If you go one better and use your imagination to apologise, you will get people on your side despite being wrong in the first place.

Well done Tomorrow’s World.

Moss, Me and the Mille Miglia

It is hard to imagine one motor race having such a big impact on the public. The Jaguar victories at Le Mans were reported in all the papers and there were even comments in the Commons I’m told, but Moss’ record-breaking win in the 1955 Mille Miglia took the country’s attention for weeks.

I was eight at the time but can still remember an uncle of mine giving me a copy of Motor Sport magazine which carried Dennis Jenkinson’s fabulous report on it. He rode shotgun in Moss’ 300SLR, being the first, they said, person to use pace notes in a road race. It certainly was a factor in the winning time being a record for the race, one that stood unbeaten in the next two years, after which the race was cancelled.

Here is the Moss/Jenkinson 300SLR, resplendent with the start time of seven twenty-two am. It is just as easily identified by the twin fairings. The car, of course, had two occupants unlike others where the driver was on his own. Below is Fangio’s car, with just the one fairing. It would have had a cover over the passenger seat for better aerodynamics.

Moss became a hero, and a hero of mine. I followed his exploits, read up on his past glories with the help of an indefatigable librarian, whom I regret not thanking sufficiently. My family would supply me with press cuttings, taken from someone else’s papers as we were poor and could not afford such luxuries.

The Mille Miglia is no more but there is a 1000 Miglia Storica, an annual event for cars which have taken part in the real race. The video is a bit on the long side but is a bit on the good side as well.

One uncle, by marriage, was ‘rich’. He was a dentist and used to send me his old copies of Motor Sport, which I had to return when read for the entertainment of those awaiting his belt-driven drill.

I tore a picture of a 300SLR from one copy, which I stuck to my bedroom wall. It was the car I always promised myself that one day I would ride in.  I somehow knew I’d not drive it. I also had a picture of the car below, and for good reason.

I saw him race a few times, the most memorable instance being at Brands Hatch in the Redex Trophy. He was driving a blue Scagliatti-bodied short-wheelbase Ferrari 250 GT (#2119GT for us nerds), surely one of the most beautiful cars ever made. The picture doesn’t do it justice. It looks lovely stationary, but when on the move it is stunning. In the hands of Moss, going around Clearways in a drift, it is awe-inspiring. But the day of the race was so much more for me.

My father had a pre-unit 650 Triumph motorcycle onto which he had grafted a sidecar he had designed and built himself. It had sliding doors and could seat two adults in fair comfort, the cushions being garnered from old trams that were then being dismantled for scrap in Charlton. The charge of 1’6d was felt to be a bit over the top by my father.

I was riding pillion as my father accelerated along the A20, it being fairly clear of traffic after the perpetual traffic hold-up at Swanley. The road was downhill towards the junction with Death Hill as was. My father saw Stirling Moss exiting the Farningham public house so did no more than ride into the car park, then somewhat more extensive than it is now.

Moss was probably the most famous British sportsman of the time. That year he won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. I had conversations with teachers about him. He was as near to royalty as you could get without being German.

So it came as a surprise to me, and more so to my father, to find that Moss did not, as expected, walk towards his car – an Aston I think – in company with a man I think was Rob Walker. Moss, much to the obvious irritation of his companion, turned towards us and by the time my father had removed his crash helmet was by the bike and pointing to the chair. He asked:

“That looks very clever. Did you make it yourself?” For over five minutes he was taken around the chair, shown the sliding doors, the sunroof, the little boot, the clever little window at the side so the passenger could attract the attention of my father, and the rather useful milk bottle rack in the front passenger footwell.

Tour over, Moss turned to me and we had a chat. I told him we were en route to Brands to see him drive the Ferrari 250. Moss told my father to see the chap on the gate of the paddock and we would be shown around. Off Moss went, through the respectful crowd that had gathered by then, and got into a rather nice looking green car.

At Brands my father told me that for Moss it was a very important race and not to get too upset if he’d forgotten to arrange our tour. But when we got to the gate a very pleasant chap presented himself to us and showed us around the paddock, taking us behind the tents and such and pointing out famous drivers and others.

No wonder I’ve remained a fan of motor racing since.

When I told the lads at school that I’d met Moss, they didn’t believe me. It was that good.

My abiding memory is of Moss, the Ferrari leaning over to its left, exiting Clearways and giving us audio delight as he accelerated along the top straight.

I saw Moss some years later, around 1977, at the Elephant and Castle queuing for plumbing bits at a factors. Despite the fact that everyone else studiously ignored him, I felt I had to go up to him. I told him of our last meeting and how pleasant he’d been to us. He seemed pleased to be told. I said my father would be happy I’d been able to thank him.

He’s still famous of course, and everyone at the Silverstone Classic recognised him when he drove a Maserati through the paddock.

He drove the beautiful D-Type Jaguar, every boy’s dream car in those days.

Sir Stirling Moss

I was quite surprised that the report of Sir Stirling Moss’ death got to me. I should have known.

He was the reason I became thrilled with both writing and motor sport. Jenkinson’s report of their record breaking win in the Mille Miglia was a classic of thrilling factual reporting. When I met Moss, a few years later, he was at the height of his fame, yet he seemed happy to chat to a kid and his father on the morning of him entering the premier sports car race in this country. See the full story here. The image of him drifting the Scaglietti-bodied, short wheelbase 250GT Ferrari around Clearways is as clear now as it was at the time.

Magic memories. Thanks, Stirling, for your driving abilities on track and your approachability off track. 

Oh Lord Won't You Buy Me a . . .

Sometimes an advert changes a genre forever, and this certainly goes for Mercedes-Benz use of the classic Janis Joplin track: “Oh, Lord, won’t you buy me a . . .”

The song was the last that she recorded, the session being just three days before she died in 1970. It became something of a classic for her fans, not least because of the rather prophetic “that’s it” she says at the end. So it was quite a risk as a choice for an advertising campaign, even if it was some 25 years after here death. However, it proved inspired.

It was used in the 2011 Super Bowl mid match advertising slot, a minute long no less. Now that’s not cheap. And it appeared again, slightly modified, in the 2012 Super Bowl, this time to celebrate the 125th anniversary of M-B. The advert has run, on and off, for 20 years, about the run of a Mercedes-Benz model.

Graphic art in advertising had been transformed in the 50s and 60s. There was a series of now famous adverts for VW. ‘Think Small’, just one of a brilliant series, and many feel not even the best, has gone down in history and is recognisable as an advertising slogan the world over still. It was revolutionary.

I was at art college from 1961 and when a new VW ad came out we students would phone one another. We had lessons on the campaign. For me it was a revelation. It was a wonderful time to be in advertising.

It must be difficult to accept how revolutionary the Krone series of adverts was, see above. They proved to me that I was untalented when it came to graphic art. So much was different: before then cars were drawn so just the photograph was unusual. The text was ironic and instead of hype, we got something to read. And instead of the car dominating the page by its size, there is was, barely discernible, in the top left quadrant. We would have conversations about a new advert. Inspirational doesn’t do the series justice.

Mercedes still use Oh Lord in advertising, most notably for the Superbowl half time slot, reputably one of the most expensive minutes in the world. But repetition can become, well, repetitious and Mercedes-Benz have recently moved from singers to animals, and not sleek and endangered big cats that some agencies favour but in one a little domestic moggie. With a certain irony, in another they use its prey, a chicken.

The former is meant to highlight the aerodynamic nature of the CLA. It is one of those adverts that make you wonder how it is done. M-B spoilt it – although I won’t – by producing a video showing their method.

Sir Stirling Moss

I was quite surprised that the report of Sir Stirling Moss’ death got to me. I should have known.

He was the reason I became thrilled with both writing and motor sport. Jenkinson’s report of their record breaking win in the Mille Miglia was a classic of thrilling factual reporting. When I met Moss, a few years later, he was at the height of his fame, yet he seemed happy to chat to a kid and his father on the morning of him entering the premier sports car race in this country. See the full story here. The image of him drifting the Scaglietti-bodied, short wheelbase 250GT Ferrari around Clearways is as clear now as it was at the time.

Magic memories. Thanks, Stirling, for your driving abilities on track and your approachability off track. 

As for the chickens, anyone who has ever owned such birds will know how the way they hold their head and there can be few children who, if their parents had chickens for their eggs, hasn’t put a few off laying for a while by playing with them. But even for us, the advert is addictive.

Sir Stirling Moss

I was quite surprised that the report of Sir Stirling Moss’ death got to me. I should have known.

He was the reason I became thrilled with both writing and motor sport. Jenkinson’s report of their record breaking win in the Mille Miglia was a classic of thrilling factual reporting. When I met Moss, a few years later, he was at the height of his fame, yet he seemed happy to chat to a kid and his father on the morning of him entering the premier sports car race in this country. See the full story here. The image of him drifting the Scaglietti-bodied, short wheelbase 250GT Ferrari around Clearways is as clear now as it was at the time.

Magic memories. Thanks, Stirling, for your driving abilities on track and your approachability off track. 

This rather enjoyable creation harks back to the Think Small series as there was no car in the advert, just the, reputedly, most famous logo in the world. Humour often plays no small part in adverts, although you might think that manufacturers of premium cars might fight shy of being frivolous. Not only have Mercedes-Benz shown themselves willing to push boundaries, but have also used what many of their buyers in the USA might well be viewing in the near future. However, funny it is. The ex boss of VW, Piech, has a rather long cameo in the video. See if you can guess which one his is. I’ll give you a clue: he’s not the driver.

It’s a wonderful time to be in advertising.

Chalk and . . . chalk?

A shorter article similar to this was first published in the Mercedes-Benz Club magazine.

Sports cars are the great joy of motoring. I’ve owned an MGTC, an MGB, the vastly underrated Ginetta G32 and, until five years ago, an absolutely gorgeous TVR Chimera.

The picture shows my Chimaera. The grill was as supplied to the original owner but is unique. The colour was specific to the car, described by Gerbil, the paint shop boss at TVR, as ‘Subaru blue, some white and an extra couple of handfuls of sparkles.’ For four years I edited the TVR car club magazine and this allowed me to drive every type of TVR produced, from the S-Type onwards. I went to Spa to report on a race in a T350 demonstrator. The T440, the homologation special for the racing T400R, belonging to Lawrence Tomlinson, who later bought Ginetta, was a highlight.

When an old back injury meant that declutching became very painful I had to face the prospect of selling my Chimaera and having my next car choose which gear I should be in. This was a difficult decision for someone who had only just stopped regarding automatic advance and retard as a frippery.

I bought an automatic 2005 350 SLK.

On the face of it, there was quite a difference between the Chimaera and the SLK.

TVRs are not so much in your face as down your throat. Brilliant paintwork with lots of sparkles is the norm. Some of them change colour before your eyes, which must explain why Schrödinger never owned one. 

The interiors are stunning: bespoke shiny switches all over a startling dash and acres of cow wherever you look. Subtle they aren’t. The seats are extremely comfortable, almost sucking you in. Many owners felt the cars wanted you to drop your concentration so they could bite you.

My 350 is dull in comparison. Black is the dominant interior colour, something that is only allowed on tyres in TVRs, and then reluctantly. The seats, albeit equally comfortable, lack padding and if you dropped a chip on the floor the carpets are so thin that you would be able to see it.

Who would love to be behind a Cerbera dash? It is stunning the first time you see it and the feeling doesn’t wear off. Image courtesy of Andy Hills.

Once underway things change. The 350 is surprisingly chuckable.

You can place it to an inch. The same goes for the Chimaera. Both cars have slight initial understeer. 

I find the little slide, and the extra lock, reassuring and sensible. Once over the initial turn in, both are neutral, the Chimaera letting you know if the road surface is bumpy.

What is remarkable is how quickly the SLK goes without fuss. I am forever apologising for getting to meetings too early. The satnav is way off in its estimates of arrival time, yet I feel as if I am going much slower than in the TVR. The reading on the speedometer often comes as a surprise. I get the feeling that I will have to repeat this paragraph to a police officer sooner or later.

Few drivers seemed to resent being overtaken by the Chimaera, or any TVR come to that. Cars move over and drivers will wave. There were a number of occasions where I’ve been surprised by a sudden slowing of a car in front, their intent being to let me pass.

When in a Tuscan we were looking for a parking space in Le Mans one November when attending a LMES race. We stopped to consider a gap about a foot too short when a police van pulled up behind us. Two Gendarmes got out and directed us to park on the footway.

The fear that we would return to an empty space proved unfounded.

The SLK on the other had seems to bring out the worst in drivers. Rather than slow, they will often accelerate just to block me overtaking. I somehow doubt the French police would be so accommodating.

I was fed stories of the reliability of the R171, how Mercedes-Benz had solved the few teething problems of the earlier model. In my first two months of ownership I had a massive water leak into the passenger footwell, the noise from the heater fan drowned out the radio, the automatic gearbox required a new plate, something rather expensive I’m told, and after a dash warning light came on I was told, incorrectly and deceitfully, that two crankshaft sensors had given up the ghost. This turned out to be the disintegration of the balance shaft sprocket, a known fault, and the engine was broken. See later.

It is all the more ironic as in my seven years of ownership, apart from service items, all I bought for my TVR were a new boot strut and a rear calliper. So much for Clarkson.

One thing that I miss is the camaraderie of ownership. The vast majority of MG owners wave at one another. TVR owners remember you if you don’t wave back, and if you meet them later they will mention it, possibly with tears in their eyes.

On the occasions that I have waved at other SLK owners all I’ve received in return is a look of confusion. It is very disappointing. The police have these lists nowadays and I’m worried I might appear on one.

The gearbox has convinced me that an automatic change does not spoil a sports car. Whilst I have to say that I still miss the satisfaction of slotting into a gear at just the right revs, not to mention the little blip when changing down just to wake up those dozing, the auto box picks the most appropriate gear. At least most of the time.

It has one feature that irritates me. It persists in changing gear mid corner, just at the time when I am on neutral throttle, normally just before accelerating away. Despite the car remaining stable, it is disconcerting.

A simple way around the problem is to go manual from the beginning of the corner, keeping it in gear and then going into auto once things have straightened out.

I have tried driving in full manual mode but with the seven speeds it seems I am for ever pressing buttons at the back of the steering wheel. Now I leave it in auto unless I am enjoying myself or going around a testing corner. Further I’ve found the gearlever more convenient than the paddles. It is probably an age thing.

The 350 is used as an everyday car so ends up being driven in traffic fairly frequently. The automatic gearbox shines in such situations. I once got cramp in my left calf when in an M25 traffic jam in the TVR. Despite having to lie on the hard shoulder in front of my car to stretch my calf muscle, no one called the police. Too busy laughing I suppose.

The convertible top of the TVR had a solid centre section which stowed in the boot, with a double duck bit around the rear window. It almost, according to the testers, turned the car into a coupé. Now I know they are wrong. The ability of the SLK to go from an open two seater to the closed coupé is a tremendous feature. No wonder other manufacturers copied the design.

Despite my age, and free bus pass, I only consider myself reasonably mature, although before I went self-employed I had a responsible job. I have to say, though, putting the roof up or down has to be done when there are spectators. It really is cool.

After the Chimera’s two sets of golf clubs boot, my wife was a little shocked with the capacity of the SLK’s. I could not suddenly change to saying that size isn’t everything. My suggestion of squashy bags was met with disdain. It would appear that the roof stays up en route to a hotel.

She also felt the lack of interior storage required a comment or two. In the TVR our big fluffy dog, a Bouvier, could lay down behind the seats with luggage around it. In the SLK there’s no place for a Yorkshire Terrier or handbag.

As you can see, Peter Wheeler didn’t receive the accolades that his coachwork deserved.

Other big differences between the Chimaera and the SLK:

You feel a little yobbish when driving the Chimaera, so a massive tick there.

In the SLK I feel part of the establishment, and a successful part.

Every journey in a TVR is an event.

In addition to being the faster car, the SLK is easier to drive fast. The Chimaera has a torque curve, the 350 SLK a torque flat.

Pedestrians wave at you in a TVR. Petrol consumption increases at traffic lights at school turn-out time as the kids demand that you ‘rev it up, mister’. And on the subject of fuel costs, the SLK recently returned a remarkable 33mpg on a 200 mile journey on mixed roads. It was easy to get the Chimaera down to 17, although overall I managed 21.

The SLK exudes quality and does not smell of fibreglass.

Minor difference that needs mentioning:

The lack of instruments in the SLK. Oil pressure, in particular,and water temperature are not so much of an instant but how the readings change over a period of time. They can give early warning.

Similarities:

Both are sports cars, fun to drive, and give pleasure in ownership.

It is a never ending thrill to open the garage door to reveal the 350. Just like the Chimaera.

So, if I could declutch, would I go back to my TVR? Despite it being an absolutely superb car, cheap to own and buy, I have to say that the jury is out.

One year on

After 10 months or so ownership, just after I’d submitted the above article to a magazine, I found that the engine was broken. The camshaft fault was in fact a disintegrating balance gear, explained in theSLK Guide.I took my car to a Mercedes-Benz specialist and they said that the engine would have to be removed, and the fee would be around £3000 even if they found nothing else wrong.

There were problems with oil consumption and the oil pressure was low. They felt this might be due to damage from the bits of sintered metal as the gear was on the ‘wrong’ side of the filter.

Another garage, and £50, later I was told that it might be a rebore and a new oil pump.

“If it was me, I’d go for a replacement engine.” Like that would be affordable.

I couldn’t sell a damaged car privately so I found a garage with a spare 350 V6 which made me an offer.

I’ve now got a 2004 170 SLK with a 3.2 V6 engine. It is significantly less powerful than the 350, which is both surprising and a disappointment. But it is still a sports car and still fun to drive. I still like the car. Would I go back to an automatic Chimaera? Oh, yes. 

I can’t close without mentioning one point. It might seem a small one but to me, it was infuriating and unprofessional. I received no pay for the article. I knew I would not, but I asked the editor if he would run a link to this website for the SLK Guide. He agreed. Imagine my surprise to see, just under the link for ‘a book on the SLK’ a further note to say that members could find a guide to the SLK in the club’s online archive. There was a big difference between the few pages on the club site and my 60,000 words and over 100 pictures. That brief one line betrayal meant I would not write for the magazine again.

I’m still irritated by the trick. I pulled some moves I’m not proud of when I was an editor, but they were all for the good of the magazine. I’d have not stooped that low.

Special awareness

I mentioned in a previous blog post that I was inordinately proud of being eaten by a snake. I know of no one else, alive or dead, who can boast that. Eve had a tough time with a serpent, now accepted as a snake for reasons that escape me at the moment, but no one suggested she had to fight it off. Quite the reverse in fact; she formed a relationship of trust with it. So there I am, at the top of the human/snake interface pyramid.

I have two other claims to fame: I had to escape from an inverted helicopter that was underwater, and I earned the highest score for spacial awareness up till then at the RAF officers’ training centre at Cranwell. Compared to being attacked by a snake it might seem a little less exciting but I am well chuffed by these two accolades, despite not being 100% certain that I could pick spacial awareness out of a barrel of apples.

I put myself forward for the post of inspector in charge of the helicopter unit in my force, this despite knowing, as surely everyone did, who was going to win. Out of the number of those who applied for the post, there was just me and three other inspectors. Being put on a shortlist when those in authority have already picked their man (as in this case) is a bit of an insult. They don’t go for the ones who will put up a good case. But I’ve weathered worse insults.

There were various tests that we went through, none particularly arduous as they did not want to exclude any aspirants, especially their choice. I passed the fitness and medical tests. Then it was aptitude

We were going to the RAF Officer Training College at Cranwell for psychometric testing and to be inundated in a helicopter mock-up from which we would be required to escape when it was inverted. It seemed like good fun.

But first the testing.

There was a whole series of tests which were computer based. We were not told what each was testing, but in many cases it was more or less obvious. One, which included an unwrapped cube, was too obscure to me.

I’m competitive. It’s my ugliest trait and one I regret. At times I’ve managed to conquer it but if I’m tested in a group, it becomes difficult. I end up concentrating on the task with no brain capacity left to be nice.

I’ve heard it suggested that being competitive is a positive character trait, but all it means is that one does enough to beat those around, and not one’s best. Being part of a team, working for others, is so much more useful. I, on the other hand, wanted to be faster and cleaner than everyone else.

We were given a time limit on all the tests but told that it was unlikely we would finish any. I found them fairly easy, although one confused me. I started again, reading the poorly written instructions with care, and managed to salvage a score. I wondered if it was a test to see if one could understand directions created by someone whose first language was not English.

Then onto the cube.

From memory there were 50 questions with a two minute bogey time. I felt relaxed as I’d not found anything particularly stressful. Off I went, clicking the answers as I went. Less than 50 seconds into the test I’d finished. No one else had.

My immediate assumption was that I’d misunderstood the question again, the story of my life, so I reread it and then checked my answers. 30 seconds before the buzzer, I put down my mouse. No one else finished before the signal.

I thought I made a right mess of it but if I was going to be taken to task over it, I was going to point out that I had followed the instructions. I was going to make the question-writer question their ability.

Exams finished, we were being briefed on the underwater helio bit when one of the airforce guys came into the room.

“Who’s Smith,” he demanded. I reckoned it was Fight Club time. I put up my hand and corrected him by saying I was inspector Smith. The chap said, “You got the highest score for spacial awareness we’ve ever had.”

He smiled at me, gave a sort of nod, and then went out.

I was over the Moon, as anyone would have been, even someone not as competitive as me. The fact I had no idea what spacial awareness was didn’t dull my enjoyment in any way, not then and not since. I put on my humble face.

A minute or so later another airforce chappie strode into the room. He was obviously of higher rank and pleased with it. He asked the same question and I gave the same reply. He said, “That’s the best of non aircrew.” He gave me a stare, then left the room.

Yeah, I bet.

(The upside down and sodden helicopter escape will be covered in a later blog.)

Hey, man. I’m cool

’ve never been cutting edge, even when my profile was less rounded. I’ve been a little bit different to the norm, but not excessively so. It’s not that I wanted to conform but my four children, spread over 16 years, and a mortgage tended to ensure I didn’t put my head above the parapet.

I was once being told off by my immediate and ineffectual boss for something another inspector had done. I tried to interrupt but, it seems, this showed I was unwilling to accept blame. In this case spot on for once. Full details are in myA Tour of Forces book so I won’t explain here but I was tempted to leave the room after telling him to talk to my chair. But responsibilities made me bottle out. Marriage and kids emasculate a man. I should have told him to STFU and sod my job.

Even when I was a kid I was conformity itself. There was this chap in our class at college, let’s call him Duncan. He came from a rich family and was thus the only student with a vehicle that had four wheels. The rest of us went by bicycle, motor bike or three-wheeler. Or, of course, like me, they went on foot.

He was a wild one, different in many other ways. For a start he dressed differently and his clothes were expensive. He wore a silk shirt on occasion. It was the first one I’d seen and could barely take my eyes from it. It looked exactly what it was; worth a small fortune.

This was in the middle to late 60s and fashion changed almost from day to day. It was a brilliant time to be poor as it didn’t matter what you wore as someone would consider it just the thing. However, he took it a stage further.

He didn’t care about fashion. He did his own thing. Sometimes it didn’t quite come off, like the time he wore white leather boots with green trousers. For some reason I can’t put my finger on, it sort of clashed. The red shirt was just the clincher.

A visit to the USA generated alligator boots with stainless steel toecaps, polished so that they gleamed. He wore linen trousers with it, a sort of cream. They stopped just short of the top of the boots.

Against such extravagance my second hand military style jacket didn’t stand a chance. Being 6’3” and just 12 stone (<80kg) didn’t help much though.

Money gave Duncan access to delights denied to us paupers. He threw parties and seemed happy to invite his classmates, as long as we brought bottles. That was a problem for some of us but I had a couple of uncles who had access to the London Docks where a type of naval rum was available. A plea to them generated an occasional bottle. But this was the hard stuff and almost, but not quite, a solid that you had to spoon out of the bottle and dilute with water. The bonus of this was that I often left the party with almost the same amount of alcohol as I took to it.

There were other means of intoxication. One room would be put by for the consumption of weed, as we called it then, cannabis nowadays. I visited it a few times in the hope that someone would sub me a drag but it turned out I didn’t need one. Secondary smoking provided a high.

So sober but just a little high on someone else’s cannabis, I was let loose on the female contingent. It was a good time despite having no money.

There was another room, one I blundered into once when looking for the loo. Why do posh houses hide the toilets? You’d think that with all the rooms, some sort of help would be necessary. It was obvious to the meanest intelligence that this room was not a place for evacuation, rather ingestion. I was once given a pill which I think was an amphetamine. It certainly made me feel a bit weird, and I ensured that was the last bit of hard stuff I ever had.

The same could not be said of Duncan. He liked amphets and was often high before the party started. Others brought white powder with them, but the runts of the litter were excluded from their tight group. He began experimenting.

LSD was just starting then and it was, I was told, expensive. This was before the mass production and distribution by the two rings that were broken by Operation Julie. In those days it was a cheap alternative to the poppy derivatives.

Duncan got hooked. His behaviour became erratic and he would occasionally fall asleep in class, at least when he bothered to attend. Sometimes he was so hyped up that I felt there might be an explosion from the back of the class where he habitually loitered.

He was at his most popular in those days. He was cool and acknowledged as such.

So dressing to suit himself and taking drugs on a regular basis made him cool. I mean, this is me now I get a free bus pass. I take a cocktail of various concoctions just to keep alive. I dress regardless of fashion.

So why ain’t I cool?

Women under the bed

Perish the thought that I should be considered old, but I’m convinced that there are differences between men and woman. This, it seems, is going against modern thinking. But for reasons I will explain, I remain convinced I am correct.

We’ve just bought a bed, one that is raised up so there is a gap underneath. The one we replaced was a divan, with drawers under. This struck me as useful extra storage, especially for bedding, but there was a problem. It was not apparent to me but, it seems, this is because I’m male. You see, you can’t get a vacuum cleaner under it. To my wife, and many women of my acquaintance, this renders it unsuitable for purpose. No man I know of would agree with the logic

It was pointed out with some aggression, as if I had designed these impossible to live with divans, or, perhaps, the too high vacuum cleaners, it’s impossible to say which is at fault, apart from me being in collusion with the blameworthy partner. However, if I’d been told ‘the cleaner won’t go under it’ in the sort of voice one would use in stating an obvious fact, I’d probably have acknowledged the impossibility of anything cleaner-wise being able to access the underside of the bed through this 1/2 inch gap between divan and floor. But that would have meant it wasn’t my fault.

It was the same with yellow. I don’t like yellow, not even in telephone books or big boxes. It’s too garish, and I’m partially colour blind. I feel sorry for those with access to the complete rainbow if yellow is anything to go by. Why should my wife use that tone when telling me that I don’t like yellow when we’ve both been aware of this apparent failing of mine since I was 22. The free access to this tone is an ability that, I’ve noticed, remains almost exclusively the preserve of women. However, I’ve also noticed it on occasion when I’ve given evidence, solicitors not being gender specific in this case.

‘So, officer, you then say you took hold of my client.’ Of course I said it. It was in the answer to the brief’s previous question. Everyone had heard me as I have a loud voice, and I tend to speak up in court. So why repeat it? It is as if doing what one is obliged to do when arresting someone, ie restricting their movement, is somehow wrong. Just like not liking yellow.

My mate Colin doesn’t like yellow. He’s not colour blind and he dislikes yellow with a degree of energy that is past my advanced years. I couldn’t mention him in defence of not liking yellow as he’d done the most dreadful of actions: forgetting his wife’s birthday.

I don’t want to sound too much like Henry Higgins, although I was understudy to HH in the school play and when the incumbent went sick, I took over with a verve that was mentioned with some favour in the local press. I’m bemused as to why forgetting a birthday makes one persona non grata with a bit over 50% of the world’s population when, quite logically, only one out of 365 would have had the same birthday?

I don’t forget Colin’s birthday because I don’t know it. Indeed, I don’t think I ever knew it. Asking him his birthday is a question he’d probably like some notice of, just to make sure he got the right date.

I bet Colin would not care what went on under his divan bed, if he has one that is. To paraphrase the old saying, out of sight is out of sight. Who cares?

Well, a lot of women do it seems.

The seven sighs of ageing

According to an advertising meme, there are seven signs of ageing. They name them as:

  Dark spots.

  Sagging skin.

  Dull, glow-less skin.

  Lines and wrinkles.

  Dry skin.

  Patchy skin.

  Open pores.

Although not stipulated, this appears to be targeted at women, despite age not being gender specific. So, like others before me no doubt, I decided to ask what the signs are for men. We’ve come up with the following:

1/ Sighing

It might be just that there is a lot more about life that is frustrating nowadays, but we all agreed that sighing is a big thing. However, we were all certain that there were many things worth sighing about when we were 35, but it did not give rise to strange sounds. I mean, waiting for buses. If that isn’t worth a sigh, even when one is 25, I don’t know what is. Yet all those without dark spots seem to do is tut with a degree of irritating resignation. It’s enough to make you sigh.

Also, when someone old bends down, they have to grunt. I could, perhaps, understand it on the way up, with knees to coax into action, but why on the way down? That’s the easy part.

2/ What’s the point

It used to be of utmost importance to me that the F1 team I supported, McLaren, won, or at the very least did well, in grands prix. Now I’m not that bothered as long as they turn up. Mind you, given their results of late, I think they are of the same mind.

I’m a keen rugby fan. To win the division and be promoted was the most important aspect for me. When my team got promoted to National League 2, I ran on the pitch and danced after a fashion with, amongst others, the hooker. Now, what’s the point? All teams go down after being promoted. At my present club the committee got all concerned, enough to have an emergency meeting, when the team was in second place in the table. Promotion was the one thing we did not want.

3/ Dancing

It is not all bad news. There is no need to make excuses. If you go to a party, there is no requirement to dance. The women get up, the men relax. One of the guys reckoned that there was another, probably even more exerting, activity that he no longer was obliged to indulge in. I didn’t like to ask, but we all knew.

4/ Passing a toilet

My prostrate seems happy the size it is but for my age this isn’t always the case. One chap said he had to plan journeys around toilet stops, with back ups (not to be taken literally) if there are hold ups. I have a daily diuretic. This defines my mornings and early afternoons, but beyond that I’m in the clear. I still can sleep all night, although . . .

5/ Sleeping, or rather not

Getting up to urinate before the full seven hours was the lot of a lot of the group. Some had enlarged prostrates, others just couldn’t seem to manage. For the rest of us, if rest isn’t an inappropriate word, we also had interrupted sleep. I have a chair at the foot of my bed and spend about 50% of my shuteye time in it. It seems that my problem, a bad back, is common. I go to sleep and wake up with pain in my, variously, legs, feet and hips. I take a pill but can’t get comfortable in bed so flop into the chair. Others have to go to the lounge and use a recliner. One had pains in the shoulders, others in the back.

6/ Discussions about illnesses

I never talked about being ill to friends before turning 60. Firstly, they didn’t want to know, and secondly, I didn’t want to tell them. It is now an icebreaker. If I haven’t seen someone for a few weeks or months the first question is ‘How’s your [add problems here]’. I’ve discovered the ins and outs of illnesses I’d not heard of a few years ago. If something new goes wrong with me – which is unusual and everything seems to have thrown a wobbly over time, and I mean everything – I’m almost pleased if no one else has experienced it. I like the look of jealousy when I tell them. I used to cycle, sometimes 250 miles a week. I was told I would reap the benefits when I was old. My physio told me that I had the back problems of a typical cyclist.

7/Going downhill

When I could cycle (see 6 above) I enjoyed going downhill. It was fun, especially after a long climb. It was what I looked forward to. Now, it seems, going downhill is all I’ve got to look forward to. To think people complain about TVRs going wrong all the time. I wish the various bits of me had the reliability of my old Chimaera. Unlike a car, I can’t just remove a bit and bolt another on. Mind you, it goes for knees and hips I suppose, but they have their drawbacks. One of our group had ‘bad’ knees and could not walk up stairs. His new knees have developed a problem, a symptom of which is clicking loudly, and he now can’t walk down stairs. ‘Out of the two routes barred to me at various times, I preferred the former. I could get in a lift without anyone giving me condescending looks. Now I get condescending looks when I descend.’

Women have it easy. Open pores, eh? I’d swap any of my signs for that.

The long and not quite so long of it

I’ve got one leg longer than the other. I’ve evidently been this way for years, since I stopped growing in fact, so I haven’t simply worn out the shorter one. I didn’t discover this until I went to a physio for help with a backache.

He told me repeatedly that it was very difficult to measure legs, although I think he meant compare them. He proved equal to the task and suggested that my left leg was 0.3″ shorter than the one next to it. I was told to wear a wedge in my shoe. He, luckily, had a selection of wedges and was able to supply one that was just right, which oddly enough was marked as 0.25.

It came in a pack of two. This bothered me, to an extent that now appears unreasonable but at the time seemed quite important. Why, I thought to myself, would anyone need two wedges? I could think of no circumstance where both legs would be shorter than the other.

I had a school friend who had a leg stop growing. The difference between his was obvious enough to be apparent to me. He’d had an illness, one which in those days was never mentioned, and as it was never mentioned, I have no idea what it was. The solution that was felt best for the lad was to stop his other leg growing until it was equal in length to the other.

This was effected by mystical means which included an operation. It left a massive scar around his knee but it did its job. Then came the difficult bit; at what stage would it be best to kick it into action again? They got it spot on and his legs were declared equal. They were, unfortunately, shorter than they would have been and so were a little out of proportion to his body length. Not by much, but enough for him to feel hard done by.

Even he would have rejected an increase in height of just 0.25″ or even 0.3 So why two wedges?

I used to be clumsy in my immediately pre teens years. It wasn’t a lack of hand/eye coordination, or at least not mainly. My family noted that I would fall when walking fast, hit people I wanted to pat and miss the vertical poll on the open bit of London buses when attempting to grab it, falling in a heap too often to be ignored. I was taken to hospital for doctors to peruse me.

This resulted in a contempt of the profession that lasted for some time. Not so much contempt I suppose as a distrust. I reckoned that they had no idea what they were talking about. Around that time, an aunt had died whom doctors were treating for an illness which was not the one which killed her. No one seemed surprised.

I was told my problem was probably due to growing ‘too fast’. This phrase was never explained to me and must forever remain obscure, but it might have had something to do with the fact that I was 6’1” when I was 12 years old. There was talk of strange concoctions to be ingested that would stop me becoming a giant, but these were, my parents were informed, far from trustworthy. I was told to exercise more.

Unable to run without each leg trying to occupy the space of the other, I took up cycling and it seemed to work as I topped out at 6’3” by the time I was 15 and there I stopped. In the meantime, however, my body was subjected to scrutiny.

I was put through a short and repetitive series of tests which included closing one eye and picking up a cup. Then I had to shut just the other eye and do the same. These exercises proved easy even for me. The final test was to hold the cup, which was still on the table, with both my eyes covered. Then, remaining blind, I had to let go of the cup, move my hand away and then try and take hold of the cup again.

I used to trip up stairs when my eyes were open so you can imagine my success rate at this test. The doctor nodded a few times. He seemed self satisfied, apparently correctly anticipating the outcome. Just like I did come to that. Then came the denouement.

“Mother,” the doctor said, obviously to my mother. “There’s nothing to worry about. The cause for the boy’s clumsiness is simply that he is growing too fast. It is manifest when he places the cup on the table.”

In case she, and presumably I, had not understood this, he put the cup on the table. Or rather, he just picked it up from the table where it had remained and moved it to a new spot adjacent to where he’d discovered it.

“So when he goes to pick it up again, he has grown so quickly that in his mind he has to reach further than he needs to. Hence he knocks it over.”

Being a bit of a drama queen, the doctor knocked the cup over.

He smiled, problem solved. We left.

On the way home I thought about what he’d said and realised the fail in logic. I refused to accept that my arm and hand had grown sufficiently in the few seconds between me letting go of the cup and then attempting to pick it up to be the cause of me knocking it over. I was firmly of the opinion that it had more to do with being blindfolded.

So you can see why I had, and nurtured, my healthy, and probably fairly reasonable, distrust of doctors.

I caused road rage

Road rage and me

It would seem that I started an episode of road rage. It developed into dangerous driving at speeds of over 70mph on a public road.

I came off the anti-clockwise M25 at junction 8A and was heading to the southbound M23. I say heading, but given the traffic, I think pointing towards is a more accurate description.

I can understand any driver feeling frustrated. My average speed from the A43 junction on the M40 to junction 8A was just on 28mph, and there were no holdups on the M40.

There are two lanes off the M25 for those wanting the M23, the inside one often going a little faster as cars turn off north, but there’s little to choose. Neither lane was moving any faster than a lame snail could manage. I was tired. I was irritated. I was hungry.

The two lanes merge into a single lane just before it meets the M23. Most drivers observed the ‘zip’ method of allowing one from one lane and the next from the other. I could see the occasional stroppy driver, but these were remarkable few.

I allowed a family in a crossover, a Qashqai I think, to go in front and received a wave from a kid in the rear seat as well as the flash of hazards. The car on my offside, a Land Rover Disco or Freelander, had dropped behind me, no doubt expecting to be let in, but no such luck. The car behind me, a 4×4 open truck, called an Outlaw (says it all about the driver), pulling a two axle trailer, was having none of it.

It was nothing to do with me and in normal circs I’d have allowed them to fight it out among themselves but the Outlaw driver brought me into it by driving just a few inches from my rear bumper. And it was a few inches, about 4-6 I’d say. It was intimidating enough when stationary but as soon as I moved forward, he did so too and tried to maintain the same distance.

If I’d had to stop suddenly I’d have suffered damage. I believe there was a call centre person just waiting to phone me to ask if I had whiplash.

I didn’t want this to carry on so I waved the Landy through. I accelerated, pulled to my right and entered the M23 slower than the Landy.

There was nothing coming from behind on the M23 so I accelerated into the outside lane and slotted in behind a slowish car. The centre lane was going faster but all I wanted to do was to get away from the Outlaw.

I was successful as he had crossed over the hatched area onto the slip from the clockwise M25 and had accelerated into the nearside lane. The Landy, in the middle lane, got alongside, slowed and boxed him in behind a slow van.

The two vehicles tried to block each other all along the M23, causing cars to brake or swerve. One pulled suddenly into the outside lane, now going at about 70mph but falling behind the two squabbling vehicles.

I lost sight of them just before the Gatwick turnoff.

Was it all my fault? I was irritated that an action of mine had seemingly generated this dangerous driving, but then I have a right to legally try and stop the car behind ramming me, even at low speed.

The driver of the Qashqai had the right idea. He stayed in the nearside lane, braked to allow the Outlaw to pull into the M23, then just cruised along.

Be nice to an editor week

I wrote for years as a hobby, getting the occasional article published and, somewhat less frequently, paid for as well. I wanted to keep my first cheque but, like most writers, the urge to celebrate a sale was too strong.

As I became more proficient the percentage of unsolicited manuscripts being accepted increased and I remember that when it hit 25% I felt I had it made. Not only that, I got the hang of rewriting rejected material and then submitting it elsewhere. It was a lot of work for little remuneration though.

I then tried something a little different. I submitted copy with images, then a little later with a selection of images. My rejection rate dropped to below 25%, and I went on to have 26 consecutive unsolicited manuscripts published without one rejection. I’d cracked it. Mind you, three out of the next five were thrown back in my face, but I still felt positive.

I met a magazine editor, one who’d accepted around 20 articles in three years so obviously felt my work was good. I asked him why he liked my copy, the idea being that if I could get him to articulate his reasons his appreciation of my quality would be increased.

“You meet deadlines, you write in English, you hit the wordage and you give me a choice of images. The perfect writer.”

There was nothing there about my clever use of words, the subtle puns and remarkable use of repetition. I was shattered but tried not to show it. When I became a magazine editor I realised the truth of what he said. He had defined a professional article writer.

There is nothing more comforting to an editor to know that there would be no need for rewrites, the copy would be delivered before the date and if a writer can hit wordage every time they are in the top 2%.

Since then I’ve become a little more sophisticated. I will identify a paragraph or two in the copy proper that could be removed without affecting the sense. In addition I’d include and additional paragraph, or if the the wordage is over a 1500 then two, for inclusion if they are needed. An editor has enough to worry about without the layout bod getting all stroppy.

It is not just a case of submitting the first 10 images on your folder; you need to give an option. For instance, have different viewpoints, ensure people don’t look the same way, or, to put it another way, give the picture editor a choice. My layout artist was inconsolable when I provided a dozen images of cars, all of them red, all facing from right to left.

It would be wrong to suggest that all editors are interested in is filling the white space between adverts. There has to be some qualative judgement. If you stick to what the magazine is about, write in English and pick a subject that hasn’t been covered in the last six months, you stand an excellent chance of being published. Include images and you should be home and dry most of the time.

What the books tell you about double spaced lines and an inch either side of page, with twice that at the top and an inch and a half below is of no consequence in the digital age.

Do an editor a favour. Send one some copy. They’ll thank your for it, but only by sending you money.

One last point: you will pitch an unsolicited manuscript in a covering letter or an email. Keep it short and to the point and check it just as carefully as the copy. Theirs nothing more off-putting than an obvious homophone.

Hell in all its fury

I don’t believe in hell. I’m not sure many people do. It is a good thing too as going by the various descriptions it is quite, well, hellish. I don’t want to go there. All that flame and pokers can’t be good for you and, of course, it goes on for so long.

Is it the worst that can happen? I’m not so sure.

I’ve made a few, maybe more, mistakes in my life. As I’ve aged I’ve been able to accept them in a way that I was unable to at the time. Immediately after I’d cocked up, I’d go over the circumstances time and time again to try and understand why I made such a disastrous choice.

Some decisions I made as part of my job. I became quite skilled as a PC in hiding my errors from others, although I didn’t manage to hide them from myself. Sometimes I could not get to sleep despite being certain no one would ever know what I had done.

Hiding errors was a skill that came in very useful as a sergeant. PCs would come to me when it had all gone ratshit and I was often able to make things better for them. Later, though, things changed.

I was Ops 1 for two years, in operational control of spontaneous major incidents in their initial stages, when information was sparse and I had to make decisions based on limited information. Despite it seeming the worst of jobs, It was one that gave a lot of job satisfaction

If the information wasn’t there, how could I be wrong? Everything was guesswork. That didn’t stop me being criticised by those with perfect 20:20 vision in hindsight, but only when in a comfortable office with no time constraints. I could ignore such comments, especially as most had never been in the front line.

There was a highjaking of an airplane in the 90s. It wasn’t publicised and hardly anyone noticed.

I was in operational control until I could get a senior officer to take over. Everything I said and typed, every conversation and phone call, every order and, most irritatingly, every question I was asked was recorded. Even as it started I realised that these things would be poured over, not only by other control room inspectors, but by those from other forces looking for learning points. Those who would dissect it in the minutest detail were senior officers looking for promotion points by way of pointing what went wrong in the tone of voice that suggested they would, of course, have done much better.

I made an early mistake. I was asked by my sergeant if he should call out press liaison to take pressure from the control room. I said not at that time and then promptly forgot all about it. 40 minutes later I asked my sergeant if the PR chap had given an ETA. Ah, well.

As I read through the printed log of the incident I was making notes of the decisions I made. My memory is a bit vague but I think I made 28 critical decisions in the first 90 seconds. Most were spot on and those that weren’t were not wrong.

None were errors as such as they were made with little information. After all, if you were asked what 30 x an unknown number was, any answer divisible by 30 could be wrong but as there were insufficient details, it was not a mistake.

That made the PR deferment an error as I had sufficient information at the time. So it was after midnight. It was always best to err on the side of caution and call them.

I was called to the debrief and I was asked about my decisions, all of which were more or less correct. Then the chief constable asked: why didn’t you call the PR chap out earlier. I said that it was an error on my behalf. I wanted to make sure, but when it was certain it was a highjacking, I had too much else to do.

The decision kept me awake though. I could not understand why I had put off the decision. There was no excuse so I could not fathom my thought processes. It was then that I realised what hell must be.

I’ve made some terrible decisions in my time, some that have affected my whole life, limiting my opportunities and missing opportunities. These have little effect on me as I’m quite happy with, and in, the life that I have. Few would argue I deserve such riches.

The worst errors are those that affect others, particularly my wife and children. They return to haunt at times when my defences are low. If I’m away from home, in a hotel for instance, all on my own I’ll be suddenly hit by a memory where I had failed to take a step and my kids were affected. I spoke harshly to them without reason; hardly uncommon I know, but that doesn’t make it right.

Worst of all, I have failed my wife at times. I have not considered her when making a decision, done things without thought.

My brain is a wee bit foggy. I get some memories mixed up. I forget what I did, whom I worked with, the build up to an event. For this I am grateful as I think hell would be seeing the consequences of one’s failings and what would have happened had I applied myself, given more thought to others, weighed consequences.

It’s good that hell does not exist. The shadow of it that comes at the most inopportune times is bad enough.

Shant

When I was a police officer, if I was asked a question by a senior officer I’d normally say exactly what they wanted me to say. It’s the safest way, although sometimes . . .

I once refused an order by a superintendent. It is not a thing any police officer should do without careful consideration, and even then almost always accept the order. A police officer must obey a lawful order. ‘Lawful’ here means not unlawful, i.e. the order did not amount to an offence.

Many officers have stuck to their guns when ordered to do something unlawful and I doubt it has ever been easy. Most would have been disciplined and as many punished due to the procedure in the service which requires any officer complained about by a command officer to be found guilty. I’d already found that out.

If an officer is complained of by a command officer, superintendent or above, then he or she will be found guilty. This goes doubly so if it was for something they didn’t do or, rather oddly, was not wrong in any case. When found guilty they must be punished in that case as being too clever by half is probably the most serious discipline offence.

I was complained about by an assistant chief constable, third from the top, whose actions had caused the problem he had complained of. I was in the shit. Following my normal MO, I decided to fight despite knowing full well it would make no difference. I produced my reply to the accusation and submitted it. I was found guilty but, because I was innocent, I was given the most minor punishment; advice.

I was told by the ACC that I had been lucky to ‘get away with it’ despite him knowing I was innocent but had been found guilty.

So I had to go to the deputy chief constable (one up from the complainant) to be given this advice. I attended five minutes before time at the location stipulated to find the DCC missing. I waited for ten minutes, or rather until a passing secretary told me where he was. ‘Setting up’ I was told; obviously something very important to take him away from discipline.

When I got to the room stipulated I found he was rehearsing a speech while his senior secretary and a gopher ‘set up’. He made no attempt to cover his frustration that I had turned up for a meeting he’d arranged. We moved to a table not quite out of earshot of the two women setting up to be given my ‘advice’, which amounted to don’t do whatever it was you did but was not important enough for me to look it up.

After that fiasco – being found guilty of being complained about by a senior officer – it was with some trepidation that I refused the order from the superintendent. I knew I’d be complained about.

I was Ops 1, the senior officer on operational duty, working in the control room. We had a serious incident and I’d informed the on-call super, as I was required to do, for him to take over. It was night time, in the wee smalls, and I expected the chap to go to a police station and do his job.

He was having none of it. He told me that I should put an officer at risk. That’s not an unlawful order as many officers have been put at risk over the years deliberately. It’s part of the job. But in this case the super should have, according to force orders, contacted a specially trained adviser for the type of operation in question. I knew he hadn’t, so I told him that I would not accept the order until he had liaised with the adviser.

I was threatened with dismissal. I could never deal with threats and as I had an incident to deal with I hung up. About 30 minutes later I got a call from the adviser – not even the super – to go ahead with the plan that I’d suggested to him. I still expected aggro.

A few days later the super phoned me when I was in control of a major incident that I could not pass to anyone else. I was busy.

“Yes, sir?” I asked in a voice of a chap who was busy.

“I’ve been told I must apologise to you,” he said. “You were correct about the adviser.”

Two things: 1/ I thought I’d be disciplined but I assume, by the ‘I’ve been told’ that he’d gone to a senior officer to complain about me and been told he’d been a bit of an arse, and 2/ he didn’t agree and the apology meant nothing.

I was relieved that there would be no discipline.

“I don’t want your apology,” I said. “I just don’t want anything similar to happen again. I was put in a really awkward position.”

It wasn’t meant in a nasty way. It was factual. An apology means nothing unless a change goes with it, and in that case, there’s no need for an apology. But I think my tone must have got to him. He started to shout at me. I hung up again and my sergeant, whom I’d asked to listen in, gave me a high five.

A little while later I applied for the post of helicopter inspector. Oddly enough, I didn’t want it. I’ll explain in another post the intricacies, but enough to say that I was doing someone a favour – as well as myself as it turned out. The final bit, and the most boring, was the interview.

The day before I’d vomited blood for no apparent reason. I’d seen my doctor and I was going to be investigated. I was not in the frame of mind to concentrate. Just as well that I didn’t want the role. But I had to go through with this interview, which was to be headed by the bloke in charge of the unit, the same super who wasn’t that friendly with me. Also there was an inspector I got on with well enough but didn’t rate. He was a yes man. I’m sure neither wanted me in the post and I’m damn sure I didn’t want either as my boss. So I was relaxed and carefree in the interview.

It went along the normal lines, and then they came to one of the questions that such interviews always contain. I’d produced an answer but had gone off playing along, so I decided to be totally honest.

They asked: “What changes would you make to the helicopter unit during your first three months in the post.”

“None,” I said. The shock on the interviewers’ faces dispelled my belief that they weren’t listening to me.

There was a sudden silence, then the super came in with; “But why should we have you in charge if you are going to do nothing?”

They’d kicked the previous inspector, a friend, off the unit for something that one of the pilots did. The fact that my friend had been on holiday abroad seemed to lower his culpability not one iota. In fact, it seemed to make him more guilty. Many thought it was because they didn’t like him. So time to support him, I thought.

“I’ve been Ops 1 for two years, so I’ve worked with inspector [let’s say] Brown [the chap whose job I was being interviewed about] very closely and in that time I’ve grown to respect him. He’s been in charge of the helicopter unit for some years and if there’s anything he’s not seen in that time then I’m unlikely to see it straight off.

“Even if I did see something I thought was wrong I’d be a fool to change it without a lot of research. No, I’ll just observe for three months or so and then seek the advice of my staff and those we work with to see if anything I’d like to change would be useful.”

It was probably one of the most sensible suggestions I ever made. It is a shame I didn’t have the good sense to follow it whenever I took over different departments. I didn’t get the job of course.

I’ve got queuing all wrong

I’ve been ill. That’s why there’s been a hiatus in posting.

I’ve been ill before of course, many times, and I think that’s part of the problem.

I’ve only been very ill four times in my life. I had a bad case of whooping cough, or pertussis, when I was nine years of age. I nearly died. I was too ill to take to hospital and had doctors calling on me every day, three times a day for more than two months. My father said he’d nearly broken down a few times at work, not expecting me to be alive when he returned. I fooled them.

Even then the doctors weren’t going to allow me to get one over on them. They told my parents I might be an invalid, or not able to walk very far, and certainly not run. In later life I cycled 20 miles a day to and from work and I was never overtaken by another bicycle. That showed them.

I had influenza as a 15 year old. I was off school for over a week and had a visit from a teacher to check I wasn’t faking it. When he arrived I was in one of my sweating/shivering periods and he refused to come into the room in case he caught it. It lasted from a Wednesday and I returned to school, much lighter, 12 days later, feeling quite energetic.

It was all downhill after that.

I got colds of course, and the fear that used to go through my parents, for obvious reasons, stuck with me and I would take pills. Two days later I’d be fine. Then I was in my 50s and things had somehow changed.

I caught influenza again. I stayed off work for a week and a half, went back to work for nearly two days, and then went sick again. It took me another two weeks to even be able to get out of bed unaided. I returned to work feeling shattered, with no energy. A month or so later I suddenly realised I didn’t feel perpetually tired. Why did it take so long to crack? I was old.

I then suffered the problem subject of another post on here.

Just before Christmas I had an upset stomach. No reason that I could find for my problems, but problems I had. But that’s all it was, and upset stomach. Yet it took me two weeks to get over it. I’m beginning to feel like an old car.

I had a Volvo 2-series that had led a fairly busy life. After a couple of years things started to go wrong. Items that had given no problem for its life suddenly stopped functioning for no apparent reason. I’d been there, I can tell you.

When investigating the cause of, say, a headlamp malfunction I’d discover that the battery was duff and I’d have to get another one. Or I’d fiddle with the starter motor only to see a hole in the exhaust.

I can’t, it seems, just have a simple problem. Everything escalates. I’ll tell you about my back in a later post, enough here to say that I went in with one problem and after investigation I was told I had four. So I came out after seeing the consultant more ill than when I went in.

The odd thing was that I didn’t find this unusual.

There was a woman who won a big payout on a lottery who was given a bit of stick on Facebook – OK, not the worst that can happen – for being honest. She said that as she was old the award had come too late in her life to get the full benefit. I almost, but not quite, sympathise with her.

One thing the doctor discovered was that I had an overactive gland. This came as a surprise to me and I hold no grudge against doctors in general for missing it all my life. Overactive is not how many people would describe me.

It seems that if I am quite active my blood sugar drops quite markedly and stays low for a while. It’s like Type 1 diabetes, but nowhere near that serious. It needs two things to remedy the situation: 1/ I need to take a bit of sugar, and 2/ I need to know about it.

I used to cycle everywhere. 250 miles a week was not unusual and I used to push on. I cycled to work across the Downs, on bridleways and the occasional road and if I wasn’t standing up on the pedals I was going down a steep hill. I’d leave home at 7.40 am, get to work about 8.25, shower, change and be at my desk at 8.45. I’d feel a buzz from the ride but before 10am I’d be overcome with lethargy. I once fell asleep, hitting my head on the computer on my desk. I sat up, hoping no one had noticed but the stream of blood, running into my right eye, was something of a giveaway that the bang had come from my direction.

I felt better after the morning break but would often play a sport during lunch and the afternoon would be a problem. I thought everyone had the same experiences but, it seems, no. The ride home would be on the back of a snack at the afternoon break and I’d have my evening meal within an hour of getting home. So I only had problems at work.

So I went to see my doctor for one thing and came out with a kit to monitor my blood sugar levels. They are highish but not dangerously so, except after exercise when they drop to the upper 3s. All I have to do to remedy the feeling of tiredness is to eat a sweet.

I have a packet of Starburst on me at all times, even in the gym. I can recognise the symptoms – they don’t come that often as I mustn’t let my heart-rate exceed 150bpm so it is not as if I’m pushing the envelope – and I can take one of the little squares. I don’t like the sweets so as soon as I feel the lift, which starts as I unwrap it, I spit half out into the wrapper and throw it away. Unfortunately, given that I often press the packet of sweets against items of equipment, it can be difficult to unwrap.

I was performing on the mats after 20mins on a treadmill when I got the dizziness. Next to me there was one of the muscle-bound weight merchants who stand looking at themselves in a mirror as they perform their pointless poses. As I fought to unwrap the sweet he stopped what he was doing and stared at me. I glanced up.

‘It’s one of my five a day,’ I said, and smiled at him.

The poor guy was confused. No doubt fearing contamination he wandered off, with an occasional glance over his shoulder to ensure I wasn’t following.

It’s great that I’ve finally discovered I have something easily remedied that is wrong with me but I can’t help wishing I’d known about it earlier in my life, and not only because I’d have one less scar on my head.

But I don’t feel at one with the woman upset at winning the lottery. She was honest and that is a positive, but it wasn’t something she’d just discovered. If she thought that there wasn’t much point, why did she continue to play?

Abu Dhabi – racer criticised

I became a Formula 1 fanatic after the first GP I went to, the 1966 British GP in 1966. I went with my father. He liked motor racing in general, but wandering around the Paddock, seeing the drivers I had only read about, actually talking with a couple it was a whole different level of enjoyment.

My father chatted to John Cooper, who was less than complimentary about the Maserati engine grafted, but only just, onto the back of his light chassis. I heard Rindt discussing matters with someone I presumed was his engineer. I saw Jim Clark leave his Lotus on the foot of a photographer who would not get out of the way.

There was noise, there was bustle, there was even a mock fire for the filming of Grand Prix. And then there was the racing. Cars going around Brands Hatch at speeds that were awesome in those days, as fast as they are now in all but outright speed, acceleration and braking.

Drivers would drift their cars through Clearways, a little opposite lock often being required. Flimsy cars, with high octane fuel around the cockpit, would battle wheel to wheel, how close they were to spinning off being apparent by the number of times they span off.

I’ve followed it closely since then, not missing one televised race unless I was there, right up until Senna and Ratzenburger died at the same event. Things changed a bit then for me. It lost a bit of its sparkle. But I still followed it, even up to last Sunday, for the final race of the 2016 season.

The forums were full of criticism of Hamilton for his, what they labelled, unsportsmanlike driving. It seems odd as not so long ago a British driver would have been supported against a German regardless of what he did. But Hamilton seems to have generated a faction that takes great pleasure in criticising him for his every action, both on and off the track.

Many referred to the ‘old days’ when drivers were courteous to one another and treated their competition with respect on the track. I wonder where I was when those races were taking place. I was certainly not at the circuits or watching the GP on the TV.

From what I saw of the Abu Dhabi race, it was business as usual, apart from Wolff and Paddy trying to stop their man, the one they pay an incredible amount of money to race a car for them, to race. What did they expect?

Hamilton is a racer, one of the best three on the grid, and in many people’s eyes, the best. If anything he drove with consideration for Rosberg, and certainly more restrained that many drivers would have in the ‘old days’.

I am bemused. It was racing. A race seems the best place for it.

The one who should be criticised is Vettel. He had the speed to overtake Rosberg, or at least try, but chose not to. It is the only explanation I can see for his lap times. We had a racer choosing not to race. But there are few mentions of that on the forums.

It was a motor race. Hamilton was racing for the World Drivers’ Championship. He did his best to win. He drove fairly, cleanly and ultimately failed to deliver, despite all but handing second place to Vettel.

It’s not so long ago that some WDCs would have been much firmer in their methods to ensure a victory.

A Man of a Letter

I’m not a mathematician. I got a GCE in the three disciplines and enjoyed the lessons, but my major love was English. I can be pedantic when people confuse pleonasm with tautology, but then, who would not? I watch technical programmes, hoping that something will seep through into my brain. One I was watching a while ago was a fair bit above basic level so it came as something of a surprise to be told by the scientist presenter that it was “Five times fewer”.

In essence the phrase means nothing, literally so. And don’t get me started on the improper use of literally. If we start with ten of whatever subject the phrase refers to, it gives us five times ten which is fifty, so the answer is minus 40, or rather nothing.

Just in case someone wants to start an argument, there are no degrees of nothing. Minus 40 is nothing in the same way infinity plus 50 is still infinity.

My assumption, based on context to a degree, is that the chap meant one fifth, or indeed 20%, of the original subject. But if so, why not use either of those two clear and unambiguous classifications?

It wasn’t long after that I heard “Two times less”. Let’s ignore, for the moment, that the person was referring to a number of items and instead reduce the phrase to its exact meaning. It is the same logical absurdity as above. I assumed the person meant half the total, but I might be wrong. What was needed was a precise and simple explanation of the total.

These are scientists. The programmes were aimed at the inquisitive. Further, one of them was quite advanced and I would assume that further education would have been the norm, either in school or under their own steam, for the majority of viewers. Just as well as what was said was gibberish.

One explanation that was raised when I discussed this with friends was that it was a method used to make it easier to understand. That can’t be right as it confused me and given that we had an argument over what was meant, the others as well. I sent a letter to the production company but I have yet to receive a reply.

Sally Ann Blues

I’m not religious. I don’t accept or agree with any organised religion that I’ve heard of. I don’t call myself an atheist because I don’t think I should be defined by degrees of beliefs in what other men have invented.

I resent the fact that my taxes go to support religions, and their attempts to indoctrinate youngsters but, given that I had a religious upbringing and it had an opposite effect on me, then I have a degree of resigned ‘knock yourself out’ in the schools, marriages and burials.

If you believe in something supernatural and find it beneficial to your lifestyle, then I’ve got no problem with that. Good on you. But I am irritated by concessions awarded to the religious groups when all they do is say the same as me, i.e. all the religions are nonsense, but unlike me, suggest that theirs is in some way different and true.

So it might come as a surprise to find that I support the Salvation Army regularly, at least financially. Not a lot given their costs I suppose, but it is a significant amount to me. So why should I pay money to the burgers of a religion which, even compared to other religions, is a bit on the weird side.

It’s not as off the wall as mormonism, but then very little else is. But its beliefs are rather odd. To me, though, all religions are bizarre, so the degree of nonsense they preach is of little account. It is rather like wondering who is the deadest person in a cemetery.

In the late 70s and early 80s when in the police I used to patrol dark and dingy places where vagrants and the homeless would congregate. These were sad areas where the derelicts of society ended up as there was nowhere else to fall. Chatting to one or two I found that each had a story, at that time it often revolved around the war. A number had left the army, which had defined their days for most of their lives, and then found that they had no idea how ‘normal’ people lived.

Marriages failed, often due to unreasonable expectations on both sides, or sometimes on revelations that one or the other could not cope with. There was a lot of common ground, the most startling of which was the speed of their plummet. One chap was wearing a suit, the last vestige of his old job, which would have cost me a month’s wages.

Prejudice made me think that it would be privates that would have all the problems, but there were officers, both commissioned and non. Some had led men into battle. Some couldn’t cope with the fact that they didn’t come out the other end with all of them.

These were virtually invisible. A sort of transparency came over them once they stopped having a place to live. People on their way to work would, one assumed, be just like I’d been, completely unaware of those who were sitting in shop doorways as I passed on my way to work. Once your eyes are opened, you see them everywhere.

In the evening, into the wee smalls, they would gather in certain locations, but not to socialise amongst themselves. They would wait until the Sally Ann van arrived, giving out food, hot drinks and ears to problems. Although I didn’t see one, I was told nurses and doctors would on occasion turn up.

One time I saw someone in an expensive overcoat, a man with a certain manner about him, chatting to one of the SA women in the van. He turned towards me as I approached and walked off. This seemed odd, not the walking off, many did that on the sight of a police officer, but the way he carried himself.

Questions to the Sally Ann woman were blocked, so crudely that it spoke volumes of her honesty, but did nothing to slate my curiosity. So I asked others. The chap was almost certainly John Profumo who had just been awarded a CBE for charity work. I looked him up.

He landed on Normandy on D-Day and was awarded both a CBE and a Bronze Star Medal, the latter from the USA, for services during the war. He retired a brigadier during WWII and then moved into politics, becoming an MP. He was Secretary of State for War when the scandal broke that bears his name. He deserves reading about. He’d married Valerie Hobson, a famous film actress. If you haven’t seen the filmKind Hearts and CoronetsI envy you the delight of seeing it for the first time. Hobson is one of the stars. She stayed with her husband throughout the scandal and its aftermath. My father knew her to an extent, he was a chauffeur to a film star, and said she always impressed him by her conduct.

He did the honourable thing; he resigned. This allowed the press to print all sort of comment about him. He was vilified, and without evidence, but that stops few papers nowadays as well as then.

His reaction to the disgrace was help out at the Sally Ann, and doing menial tasks. Hence, I assume, his visits at unearthly hours to others in difficult circumstances.

It wasn’t a case of ‘If it was good enough for an MP’, but that I’m sure that he did not believe the weird teachings of the bizarre sect, but saw it as the only help and hope for those no one else can be arsed to consider.

So next time you see the cold people in their weird clothing standing around asking for money, put a couple of quid in their tin. You don’t have to take a War Cry, and even if you do, there’s no obligation to read it. Remember that these people are so odd that they take care of those no one else gives a damn about.

Disappointing Children

I do granddaddy stuff now. I babysit and take a couple of grandchildren to school and pick them up. These two are quite young, six and four, so are at the age when they can be a bit dreamy.

My granddaughter is the elder and can make a simple task into the most time consuming ordeal you can imagine. We have great hopes for her to become a politician, or possibly one of those people who work out estimates for building work, although we can’t get her to suck in air through her teeth. Most irritatingly though, she is normally the last one out of the classroom.

The school takes each class to an exit and will release a child only when there is an adult to take possession of them. Inevitably, this means that some kids are pushed out of the queue and into a waiting area to stand there until a parent or other carer can be arsed to turn up.

The odd thing is that those with a collector who is normally late will be those at the head of the line. They look around, but without the expectation of seeing anyone. Despite this they have a certain hope in their eyes. Today, they seem to think, might be different. They take their disappointment with a certain resignation as they seem to know that no one really cares about their feelings. Their heads drop for a second, but they soon lift them, just in case. But it is a wasted effort.

The little sad scenario takes a minute or so to run its course and with class numbers the size they are – the government cares as little for the kids as these parents – then I’ve often thought there might be a way to speed things up.

I get fed up waiting. Nothing I say can get my granddaughter to the front half of the queue, let alone the front. I occasionally ask her what took her so long, trying to stifle a yawn, and she will say she was talking to one of her friends. I’m pleased she’s popular, but isn’t there enough time during the lunch break to reinforce such bonds?

I have come up with an idea. It is better than my initial one, which was rejected out of hand by the school without explanation. I can’t see what is wrong with making a little pen, with a big lock on it, marked ‘Unloved kids’, to dump those whose parents/carers don’t seem to give a damn. But if they want to go all PC then I know I’m beaten.

How about if the parents line up before the door opens to reveal all the children lined up? As the first child comes out, it is handed to the first parent, the second child to the second parent and so on. They are taken back to the adult’s home and returned to school the following morning. I mean, the kids all look more or less that same at that age.

This method has a number of advantages:

Waiting time is limited for both sides,

Those children who don’t normally get picked up will not have the disappointment of everyone talking about them,

A late parent has a bit of extra time to pick a child up at the back of the queue,

Parents get to know other children in their child’s class,

And finally, and most importantly, perhaps my granddaughter will put her coat on without having long conversations with other kids.

It’s got some downsides. First, those parent who seem currently reluctant to pick up their kids on time might be that way because their kids are a bit of a pain. Secondly, you might get stuck with a smelly one.

Other than that, what’s not to like?

Killing Nora

I did what most people do when breeding guinea pigs; I started with just one, Nora, a tufted or Abyssinian. To keep it company I bought another female, only to discover Nora was really a Norman. But I couldn’t do that to the poor thing, so Nora he remained. It didn’t seem to phase him. He seemed certain of his sexuality.

I decided to try a bit of planned breeding so separated males from females, well most of the time, and in the end I had around 30 or so. It varied when pups arrived.

I converted my shed with confinement cages and had an outdoor run for socialising. I approached the vet a couple of times for advice, but generally my guinea pigs were very healthy. I had one litter where the mother died late on in the process, but without apparent pain.

Nora had a bit of bottle. I had an inquisitive dog, a Standard Schnauzer. She was gentle and wanted to play with anything that moved. While my attention was diverted, she lifted the lid to the run and stuck her nose in, only for it to receive attention from Nora’s gnoras. The dog jumped up in the air and then proceeded to make the wound worse.

Well named, I thought.

I fed them supplements and out of the bag food but following advice I included grass cuttings for fresh fodder. Friends would bring their cuttings and the animals would smell it as it was brought up the side of the house. They’d squeak and chatter, getting all excited. The one last in the queue would sometimes scrape the door of its cage.

As Nora got older he got a little slower and seemed to be bullied a little by the younger ones. I tended to keep him separate in his own cage in one corner of the shed and, when it got cold, in the house. I got some special food which included fresh material, and it seemed to perk him up a little. He would still come to the front of the cage when I called, or he heard me, but it took longer.

I took one of the other guinea pigs when it was a bit poorly, and took Nora along, not for the ride but for a check-up. She was around seven at the time, a ripe old age for the breed. I was told that I should consider having him put down if he got slower as his quality of life was becoming poor. My wife and I kept an eye on him.

But then disaster struck. I was given grass cuttings contaminated with weed killer, a paraquat based one I think, despite me asking every time if anything had been done to the lawn. I’d fed it to all them bar Nora, even the couple of pregnant ones, and in the morning all were dead. I was, as you can imagine, devastated. Two days later I had to go on a course, duration ten weeks, returning home every two.

So my attention was taken up but my wife had to deal with the fall out. She brought Nora in to the house permanently.

On the first weekend back she told me that Nora had been very quiet, probably pining, we thought, for the other animals. She came to the door slowly but seemed to perk up a bit on handling. I felt a little lump just in front of her left back leg and thought I’d check it the next time I returned.

As soon as I got home my wife told me that Nora had been off her food – that was a first – and she was concerned. She didn’t come to the door and as I picked her up she seemed to flinch. I looked for the lump. It had grown to twice the size and was easily visible. I phoned my vet despite it being nearly 9pm.

He said that he was very busy and had two litters of dogs to put down due to parvo virus. He expected to be out until early morning. He asked me if I had any pills that I hadn’t used.

As luck would have it, I’d had a skin infection that had become really inflamed. I was prescribed pills that made me sick, leaving me with a tremendous headache. I’d been given something different and I assumed I was allergic to whatever it was. For some reason I had retained the pills.

“Break two of them up in your pestle and mortar,” said the vet, the kit being a requirement for every guinea pig owner. “Dissolve the powder in a bit of warm milk and feed it to the animal with a pipette.” Nice, simple, clear instructions; what could go wrong?

It worked a treat. Nora perked up almost instantly and I left her in her cage while I grabbed something to eat, having put it off to deal with her. I washed my hands thoroughly, was drying them when my wife called me.

Nora was dead.

I phoned the vet but he was out on a call. He was contacted and he phoned me. I told him the news and said I thought I’d killed him. There was a moment’s silence at the other end of the phone.

“Half a dozen of those pills would kill you. What did you think two would do to a guinea pig?”

I gave a feeble “Oh.” Thanked him and hung up. I realised then I hadn’t been thinking.

The vet phoned later that night to apologise, and he told me to take ‘those dangerous pills’ back to the pharmacy. He started to say they were lethal, but stopped himself. By then I was feeling a bit of a fool.

In effect, I’d killed all my guinea pigs.

From Amalfie to Miaori by boat and bus

Pompeii and brooding Vesuvius

The Amalfie Coast was everything it was advertised as. The scenery was dramatic, the villages picturesque, the people laid back and welcoming. The lifestyle seemed to transpose to foreigners as well, with the same laissez faire attitude soon being the preferred option.

My wife and I spent a couple of weeks in Miaori, encouraged by the staff of our hotel, the Reginna Palace Hotel, well recommended, to let it all go, and for me the highlight was a visit to Pompeii. I’d read a lot about it, seen films as a kid of its excavations, and it was always a destination I promised myself. I don’t know why it has taken so long but a return visit is likely, although in shorter time.

Vesuvius dominated the ruins and the term brooding was never more apt for a mountain. We went up to the crater but it was out.

Everything I read suggested that it would be hot in Pompeii and that we should take cool clothing and lots to drink. I’m glad we believed them, despite it being September and, every local told us, a lot cooler. June and July would have been a trial in the sun.

Amalfie was a bit of a disappointment, being a little on the bustling side. It was home to the main bus garage where all coastal and inland routes terminated, and this meant anyone from outside wanting to go to Napoli, Positano, Ravello or Salerno would probably have to go via Amalfie. Away from the coast it was crowded even in September.

Ravello was stunning, with a wedding going on seemingly all the time. Well worth a visit although you will leave wanting to return. We met a lovely couple, he Australian, she Irish, who had recently married, who brightened our day with their delightful conversation.

Whilst it is always invigorating to meet any young couple very much in love, it makes it so much more enjoyable when both are so personable. The very best of luck to you both.

You made our day.

The one bit of advice I hope every visitor follows is to journey from Miaori to Amalfie or back by public transport. In 2016 it was €1.30 by bus and €6.00 by boat.

I came away with a tremendous respect for the local bus drivers. The Italian stereotype of hooter sounding, aggressive driving doesn’t go for those manoeuvring buses along the coast road. My respect even remained after we drove into a mountain.

We have been held up for some time by a number of vehicles coming the other way which refused to give way to our bus. Eventually the inevitable happened and there was gridlock. For reasons which escaped me at the time, and still do, the vehicle chosen to get everyone out of the mess everyone else had created was our bus.

To assist our driver, two other drivers who had failed to use their good sense when coming towards us alighted from their vehicles and by a series of confusing, not to say contradictory, signals directed our driver to reverse into the mountain.

A side window cracked, but with an impressively loud bang. There were screams from the passengers sitting next to it, but it was double glazed so they were not at risk.

What was remarkable, at least to me at the time, although I can now appreciate it was the norm, the driver didn’t blame anyone, didn’t even shrug. He looked at the window from the inside, seeing nothing, drove off when the traffic eventually sorted itself out, and then examined it at the next stop. I had visions of having to await another bus, but he was laid back about it and we continued onto Sorrento.

There was no fuss, no bother, no great histrionics. We are told that the reason Italians live longer is because of their diet. Now much as I love Italian food – I had 13 different types of pasta on holiday, and two types of fish I’d never tried before – I reckon it is more to do with lifestyle. Shops closing at 2pm and not opening until 5pm, now that’s got to add a couple of years extra to any shop worker’s life. Not to mention, those who shop as well. 

And something else. Every now and again the bus driver would pull to one side, as far as he could, to let car drivers past along the narrow coast road. How come none of our bus drivers have thought of this?

The picture shows a bridal carriage for what appeared to be a rather upmarket wedding. Is that cool or is that ice cold? If your bride is enchanted by that as the vehicle to whisk her into your arms at your wedding, you’ve got a gem.

We went for a stroll along the promenade every evening and were greeted in any number of languages. It seems everyone is laid back.

We returned on the Sunday. At 1.30am on the following Tuesday, the mains water pipe into the cold water tank burst. So much good work gone.

I went slightly mad

I went slightly mad. It was a bewildering experience, lasting some four and a half years during which it was the major influence of my life, also for my wife and to an extent our children.

It started slowly, so much so that I can’t point to a moment when I’d lost the plot. I still functioned at work. Indeed, and rather ironically, I did some of my best work with a loose grip on reality. By the time it became obvious to me I was almost enjoying it all.

I used to be the identification officer for my force, running all ID parades, video IDs and other methods, for my force and on occasion for others. I organised six a day, five days a week, with the odd one or two of a weekend or evening. Although I was only able to run about 60%, the defence deciding to opt out in the main, I still had to study each and every case.

So with a bit over 2.7 rape and serious sexual offences a week there was hardly a time when the effects of victims weren’t in my face. Indeed, on a few occasions I ran three such cases a day. It got to me, as you can imagine. Non-sexual offences were no walk in the park either.

I’d dealt with a number of nasty situations in my time (see The Forces books) but there had always been downtime in between when I could, I thought, work through my response and sort of accept them, although it seems that all I did was put them in a box hoping they’d go away.

I once dealt with the victim, a woman, of an attack with a bottle. She had been standing in a queue for a cab when a fight broke out between two young men. One smashed a bottle, she turned towards the sound just in time to get the bottle full in her face.

She came to the parade dressed perfectly for the occasion. Smart without being overly so, with minimum make up but enough. Her hair was immaculate. The only contrast was the injury, a great red slash starting a couple of inches above her left eyebrow then running down the side of her nose, into the corner of her eye and then going further down over the cheek bone.

The hospital had stitched it up with seemingly hundreds of stitches, I think to limit the scaring. But this meant the wound was sticking up, vivid against her pale skin. She had been told many times that she was lucky as a fraction of in inch to the left she would have lost her eye. I suppose it was said to make her feel better.

I found out later that the scarring was not as bad as it might have been and a little bit of make-up, cleverly applied, would hide it.

The thought that kept running through my mind for days was that she must get up every morning, look in the mirror and see what she would think of as they way she would look forever.

A little later an 18-year-old woman from the continent was subjected to a series of sexual assaults by a stranger who dragged her off the street. It was real horror, not like the antiseptic kind you see on film, but the real thing.

We had ample identification evidence but the defence demanded a parade, as they could in those days, in the hope that the woman, just 18 remember, would refuse to go on it and therefore give the defence a chance. But she proved stronger.

As she got to the offender she collapsed on the floor. She rolled into the foetal position and could not be roused for some minutes.

The offender pleaded not guilty, despite overwhelming evidence. The assumption is that the defence expected the victim, now 19, would follow medical advice and concentrate of getting better, being warned off the tremendous pressures of a court case. But again she confounded everyone by returning and giving evidence, although not those who had worked with her.

I was in the waiting room when there was an adjournment, the reason being that the prosecution had requested a screen between the victim and the sorry excuse for a human being. The defence objected. I just got up and walked out of the court building.

I returned to give evidence. I had asked for the video of the parade not to be shown but the prosecution, my ‘side’, didn’t even bother to ask the judge. I cried in court during my evidence, the first time I’d ever done that.

By this time I was having nightmares. Well, not really nightmares. In them I would grab the offender around the head and bash it against the side of the ID parade room, opening up the side of his face to the bone. I would wake up sweating. I would get up for half an hour, then go back to bed but in the hope that the same dream would occur.

It eventually became most nights and I just wasn’t sleeping. I’d lost the plot.

It took four and a half years for me to get back to some form of normality, but see later. Towards the end I had to see a psychiatrist where I’d corrected him when he said I was suffering from clinical depression. I pointed out that I’d been diagnosed by two others as a victim of PTSD. He said the symptoms were similar, almost indistinguishable, so why did I want the more serious sounding problem.

I smiled. Two days later I was whistling to myself on the way to my car. I’d cracked it.

The odd thing is that I feel I’m a better person for going mad, or rather coming out the other side.

I still get the occasional nasty dream but there are long gaps between. I occasionally get a bit ‘down’ but then, don’t we all.

Being mad is a horror story for most of us, and for good reason. There is hope, at least when the madness hasn’t physical causes, like Alzheimer’s. The guilt for the pain caused to loved ones in a problem but on the other hand, it shows who really loves you. What is love without a test?

One rather strange result was that I had to get a report from a psychiatrist that I was sane. If I mentioned that to anyone, they thought I was made mad.

Going a bit mad is not the end of the world. You can, and most, the overwhelming majority, do recover. My psychologist said, in answer to my question as to whether I would get back to normal, that everyone sees the world differently. If I, or anyone, could prove which is the correct one, then he’d be able to answer. In the meantime, it was probable that I’d get back to somewhere where I thought I was normal.

Typicaly bloody English

What makes people English

I was walking towards the rugby clubhouse along a narrow paved path which ran through a perpetually sodden, at least in winter, area of our grounds. The only time it wasn’t soaked was when it was frozen.

Coming towards me, presumably headed for the car park, was a chap I didn’t know, probably from the away team that had just narrowly beaten us. He could see the mud as the path was well lit, but he was looking down at the paving, concerned, no doubt, about slipping.

The path was wide enough for just one person. We were headed towards a difficult situation. However, I felt no fear.

As the distance between us narrowed the chap looked up briefly and then, a couple of seconds later, he took a step to his right into the mud. However, at precisely the same moment I took stepped to my right.

There was no signal, although I realised that we must have fallen in step otherwise the movement could not have been in unison.

We passed one another, he walking in the mud his side of the path and me walking in my particular mud. We got eye contact and we both said good evening. When I was just a pace past him I stepped onto the path and so did he.

What was spooky was that it didn’t feel spooky. It felt natural, to the extent that I probably would not have mentioned it had not a group of three friends of mine, who had been watching the little dance from the clubhouse, congratulate me on being stupid while I was brushing the mud from my trainers.

A little miffed, probably brought on by the unfortunate loss against a side that wasn’t very good so we should have beaten them, I asked the three what they would have done in similar circumstances. Two admitted they too would have stepped into the mud. The third, was a little less firm in his opinion. He asked us all:

“What would you have done if the other chap had stayed on the path?”

Replies varied between giving him a severe look, but only once he’d passed, to fiercely ignoring him. A long conversation ensued where the fact that I am deaf in one ear and have problems understanding conversation when two people are talking – it being just as well I wasn’t a woman according to my wife, but hopefully not only for reasons of general chit chat – meant I had difficulty keeping up.

I asked them if they would mind talking individually and then all three said “Of course not” in unison. It was a lot funnier when you were there of course.

I said: “It’s a bit cruel. I mean, would you take the [mickey] out of a blind club member?”

The senior chap in the group replied: “No we wouldn’t. But I might trip him up if he hadn’t paid for his round.” Without smiles the other two nodded.

I seemed to me to be a very English situation. I couldn’t imagine any other nationality where the choreography of the dance I’d had with a stranger would have been so precise, nor the conversation. It seemed the epitome of Englishness, and perhaps Britishness, given that I’m half Irish and one of the three is Welsh.

We wondered what made me behave that way? I’ve never been told to do it, I’d not seen my father, or anyone else I admired, do something similar, and I feel fairly confident the stranger hadn’t either. I doubt he even knew my father.

It was considered to be a considerate act from both of us. If he’d stepped to one side earlier then if I’d then stepped to the other side it would have looked churlish and a rejection of his generosity. I would have had to continue along the path, keeping my shoes dry. It would have put me under some form of obligations to him.

Then the question came as to what I would have done if someone considerably younger than me had been been the other person. We agreed that if it had been one of our players, with the possible exception of the second row who’d had a good game, then we’d have pushed them into the mud for not playing well. Other than that it got me confused. And the others and they were unable to say.

We were British so we just hoped we would not be placed in such a difficult situation.

You’ll never guess

You’ll never guess who I bumped into. Well, you might as you could well have bumped into them as well.

I walk quite fast. People will tell me this in, it seems, the expectation that I haven’t noticed. I used to be told I was tall. Well thanks for the info. I know I am all but 6’3″. I am also aware that I walk fast, mainly by the fact that I pass most people when I’m out walking.

I think the reason is that I have had dogs for most of my life and am the person who walked them in the main. Most dogs have a natural pace about half as fast again as the average bloke. As anyone who owns dogs will tell you, you tend to do things their way after a while, although most owners stop short at pissing against any vertical object.

I’ve had a delightful Schnauzer, then a Giant Schauzer, Old English Sheepdog, a Bouvier de Flandres and then another, my last dog so far. She died, or rather we got someone to kill her, early 2015 yet I still expect her to be at the door when I open it.

Having such big dogs with long strides has meant that I could either get them to walk to heel at my pace, and have a sulky animal by my side, or speed up a bit and have their ears pricked. I unconsciously chose the latter option.

Speed was not a problem at first. People saw me coming early – I’m not only tall but a bit plump, also proportionately. I’m a big chap. But something has changed over the last couple of years. People seem not to notice me.

They say that old people become transparent and it seems that ‘they’ are right.

Mind you, those old people in mobility scooters are noticed. Younger people complain about them, even to me. I think they are a great idea. Some of these people would have been isolated without them, their lives restricted to visitors and TV. Now they get out and about. They also keep town centres clear.

If a mobility scooter comes at you at speed you tend to get out of their way. Fair enough, people standing around will gradually expand the group until it all but blocks the pathway, but with any luck another scooter will be along to get them back to being unselfish.

I was walking through the town centre shopping area but at a reduced pace due to the fact that I had to change direction so often and there were few, if any, mobility scooters. There were the normal groups of people chatting, reducing the width to sometimes just enough for just one person.

My wife has refused to walk with me if I continue with my method of showing my irritation at this. I used to walk through the groups. I’d be polite and say excuse me, albeit in a sharp tone. Some of them have the cheek to tut as if it is me being selfish. So I’m reduced to walking around such groups. Which is what I was trying to do.

I know there are no rules or regulations to such problems but I think that if you are first to the gap, you have priority. Not difficult. I give way to women with children and children. But everyone else has to obey my right of way demands. And most do without any resentment. I will thank them if they’ve had to stop or even slow their pace for me and I normally get a smile in return.

So on this day with a scarcity of electric snow ploughs there was a group that had become elongated. It was by the Greggs coned-off area, so the way was already reduced. No one was coming so I speeded up to limit the time I spent in the narrowed area and then, when I emerged at the other end someone came from my left, up until then obscured by the group. I stopped and so did she. I was about to walk on with a casual acknowledgement when I noticed a woman of about 30 walking towards me at normal pace. I had nowhere to go so remained stationary.

She was fiddling with her phone, texting or updating her status on Facebook – off in a dream – and not looking where she was going. I know this because she walked right into me.

I was still. She was moving. I could see what was in front of me, she could not. I looked at her quizzically, she glared at me. She didn’t say a word, I said: “I could have been a wall or a cliff.” A little bit of a wish there I suppose. She shook her head and pushed past me.

Discrimination

I was trained as a police instructor to teach police recruits. The course was only of ten weeks duration, sufficient for a ‘by the points’ method where there was a review of what had been taught every 15 minutes and a summing up at the end. Each lesson would have points to prove. We were given instructions of which way to face, how to stand and to shave twice a day, although those with fair hair and females were excused, as long as their beard didn’t show before class end.

Years later, when I was told I was going on a ‘discrimination course’, presumably anti, I researched my instructor to discover that the chap had only a day’s instruction on how to teach. Given my failings after 50 days, I was sympathetic and decided to use my experience to assist the poor chap.

So when the opening question came: “Can discrimination ever be good?” I waited for any contribution from the others. After a couple of seconds, when no one else volunteered, I raised my hand. I was pointed to – bad move, always ask the person to contribute by name – and I regurgitated the dictionary definition I had looked up the previous day. I said:

“Yes it can. Discrimination is the ability to discern differences, such as in artistic matters. You can discriminate between a work of art and daubing.”

Job done I sat back in my chair to await the follow up question, which I assumed would be ‘when does discrimination become bad’, or something similar. The response surprised me.

“No. Discrimination is always bad.”

It was obviously fanciful, but it was said in a voice which brokered no argument.

“Oh, wait,” I said. “What about a discriminatory palate?  That’s got to be good, surely. And what about good an evil? Isn’t it essential to discriminate between them?”

“No,” came the reply. “It is always wrong.” It was obvious that the instructor had been told to make the ridiculous statement and had been given no defence to someone who had an O-Level in English literature. So, feeling sorry for him, I shrugged and said: “If you say so.”

He then made a silly mistake. Instead of accepting his little victory, he asked: “I’m telling you that discrimination is always bad. You have to accept it.”

I put up both my hands in mock surrender and said: “You can believe what you want. I will continue to go by the Oxford English Dictionary, Concise Edition. I’ll accept it for the purposes of this course if it makes you happy.”

I realised I had just made the course all but impossible for the young lad, directly opposite of my intention. Mind you, it is not as if it was an unknown occurrence for me.

As we went for our mid-morning break, I went up to the instructor, apologised for any trouble I caused him, but said that whoever had told him to deny the definition of a word needed to stay away from Lewis Carroll. Apart, that is, for believing six impossible things in the morning.

After coffee we had one of those exercises where circumstances are described and blame has to be apportioned. It was a simple enough exercise, indeed I had designed it when I had been an instructor, so I knew just about every possible contortion of logic it gave rise to. I was able to help the instructor by suggesting ways to go, etc.

During the morning the chap made the fundamental error of showing a distinct preference for the nicest looking woman in the class, not the sort of thing to do in an anti-discrimination lesson. I was wondering whether to mention it to him when we broke for lunch. I say we, but it didn’t include me. Outside the door stood a chief inspector from discipline and complaints. He told me to follow him.

We went to an empty classroom and I was told my attitude had been called into question and that I was in serious risk of being reported for disruption. I couldn’t help but laugh, which didn’t go down well. I asked him for particulars and the idiot mentioned sticking to an outdated definition of discrimination. Outdated definition, eh? A gift of a phrase to someone like me who knew his way around the English language.

I gave him the full OED definition, which included the prejudicial aspect. I said that if the OED felt that there were various meanings then who am I to disagree. And, I added, who is he.

He accepted my point of view but said it had been disruptive. I explained that I had intended to be helpful but that the response had thrown me. He said I should say no more about it. I said I’d just sat through two lessons where I hadn’t mentioned it and I saw no reason not to do the same.

After lunch, from which I returned five minutes late, my apology that I’d been detained being accepted, I ran along with the course. I was a good little boy.

Right up until the summing up that is.

The rather attractive woman, who’d been favoured by the instructor, had not been favoured when it came to giving out brains. She was a little on the slow side and the exercise had strained her abilities. Her immediate supervisor, a woman I knew and admired for her abilities, had been supportive of her but she was beginning to tire. When it came to summing up, it came as no surprise to discover that she hadn’t cracked the lesson.

She said: “I’ve got a lot from this course. I said Ms A was to blame at the start of the exercise, but now I realise that Mr C was in the wrong.”

This for a lesson to show that blame was many faceted and no one was innocent and nor was any one person totally to blame. In fact, evil can be done by the well meaning. In the embarrassed silence that followed I decided to take the sting out of her statement, if only for the sake of her boss.

“The same goes for me,” I said. There was an intake of breath from the attractive woman’s boss. She knew me and knew something was coming. “At the start of this course, I would have said, ‘Just like a woman to change her mind’. Now I know to keep my mouth shut.”

But I hadn’t learned. I was at a joint agency meeting and was the only male in the group of eight or so. I was being told about sexist language and how the police were to blame. I said the English language wasn’t much help with no non-gender specific pronoun to replace him and her.

One women, a high-up in social services, then complained, saying that most female words were modified male ones, such as the very word she’d used; female. I wasn’t thinking too sharply, which sometimes happened in meetings, and said: “I think you will find that male is from the French ‘homme’ and female is from ‘femelle’.” Factually correct but not, it seems, the proper time to mention it. I wasn’t addressed for the balance of the meeting. Job done, one might think.

I was in another joint meeting with social workers, this time with a varied team which included gays and lesbians. I knew one of the former, having worked with him. He was a genuinely funny guy and great company. A strong point of his was the barbed aside, so sitting next to him was a bit of a test for someone like me who has a sense of humour.

A rather boring social worker was telling us stuff that we all knew in the build up to concluding what we all had already concluded. She was pompous and more than a little deprecating towards men. My gay friend was vicious in his quiet put-downs.

One time the woman said: “You may know about the embryonic gay and lesbian liaison [social workers, outreach and police] group.”

Well, of course we had, for much longer than she, so to put off the expected long, drawn out, explanation, with details of the failure of the police side, I whispered to the chap next to me, but in a voice that carried to the woman in front: “Embryonic gay and lesbian? Can they tell at that age?”

There was a moment’s silence which was broken by the laughter of the two self-identified lesbians sitting in front of me, who had, up till then, been able to stifle their appreciation of the comments from the chap next to me.

Their laughter spread and a number of people turned around to smile at me, a couple giving me a thumbs up. The woman at the front was not amused. She was about to say something about my comment, I could tell, when the chap next to me turned and said: “My hero.” in about as gay a way as possible.

You’ve got to take a risk.

Spygategate

The sport of F1 has an urge to shoot itself in the foot although one might think that all that was required to protect it from self harm was a sensible and fair president of the governing body. We’ll never know of course.

One of the most bewildering circumstances where the whole of F1 was brought into disrepute was the so-called Spygate. There’s been much written in magazines and on the internet about the circumstances and if you wish to indulge yourself, feel free to read them. Here is an overview from the point of view of a self-confessed McLaren fan and F1 nerd.

Not in dispute:

Nigel Stepney, a senior engineer at Ferrari F1 and Mike Coughlan, in a similar position at McLaren were involved. Honda F1 said that they had been approached by the pair who were after positions in the team. The sweetener on their CV was technical details of the current Ferrari and, many suggest, the same for the current McLaren. There was an enquiry into the circumstances by the Mosley-led FIA where McLaren was found to have done so little that they were not punished. Nothing was said about Ferrari despite Stepney’s admission that there was flow of information from McLaren to his team, presumably, although not confirmed, via Coughlan.

The situation got complicated after that. Fernando Alonso (FA), the current WDC and a driver for McLaren, was upset that Lewis Hamilton (LA), the upstart beginner, was beating him on track. He wanted to be treated as undisputed #1, meaning that if LH was in front of him, he should move over. Ron Dennis (RD), was having none of it, his thoughts probably being that if FA was worth making #1, he should be able to beat a novice, even one in the same car.

What happened next is in dispute so let’s say what is reported.

During a ‘discussion’ between FA and RD regarding #1 status something was said which made RD call in the CEO of McLaren F1, Martin Whitmarsh (MW) and ask FA to repeat what he had said. FA did so. RD and MW then had a conversation and it was decided that the only option was to report the conversation to Mosley (no initials for him, he hasn’t earned them) then head of the FIA. FA then returned and said he withdrew the statement.

We obviously have no idea what was said.

Mosely then offered both FA and the spare driver, Pedro de la Rosa (PdlR) exemption from prosecution if they would report all they knew about the incident. LH was also given the offer but he told Mosley to stick it, but not in so many words. LH was an exciting driver to watch in those days, but I began to warm to the chap. Loyalty is undervalued, except by those who have benefited from it.

FA and PdlR then said that they were in receipt of set-up information from the Ferrari cars and they tried them out. This has led many to suggest that FA threatened RD to expose the, let’s say, experiments to Mosley. But who knows?

So the two people who actually committed offences were given Get Out Of Jail Free cards.

The enquiry into McLaren’s use of the information was exhaustive and there was no concrete evidence found. There was much supposition in the report, with words such as likely used.

McLaren were fined an unprecedented $100m on this singular lack of dependable evidence.

I was asked to write 2000 words on the matter. What follows is more or less as refused by the person commissioning the article. I included references, some of which have disappeared from the internet, so I’ve excluded them.

I was given no reason for the rejection other than a comment a while later to the effect that pit passes were hard to come by and easy to lose.

The Article

[There was a bit on the size of the fine. I quoted some comments by two lawyers commenting on the net. I can’t find the source.]

The fine of $100m is indecent. Allowing FA to keep his points whilst McLaren, which acted in ignorance, lost all theirs would be hilarious if it wasn’t so serious.

McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh, referred to variously as Chief Operating Officer and CEO, signed what was described by the Guardian thus:

“By any standards this was a grovelling apology from McLaren which demonstrates how anxious the British team are to draw a line under an acutely embarrassing episode which began when their disgraced chief designer, Mike Coughlan, was found to be in possession of more than 700 drawings allegedly supplied by the Ferrari engineer Nigel Stepney.”

By any standards this was wrong from the start.

The Guardian is not noted for its accuracy in spelling nor motor racing commentary. The only thing of special note is that the whole sentence has no spelling mistakes. So, one out of two isn’t bad.

Before examining the letter, it should be noted that an apology to the FIA would have been a requirement. In such discipline enquiries – and believe me, I know about them – the only stance a party found guilty of some breach of regulations can take is to accept the finding or appeal. If the party appeals then the norm is a harsher penalty, which in this case was generally touted to be exclusion from the championship for 2008. McLaren decided that it wasn’t worth the risk so their only course of action was an apology in which they must make it clear that they accept the findings of the court. Over and above that, there was a threat that the FIA would demand major modifications to the McLaren at a meeting on 14 February 2008. This would result in the car not being ready for the 2008 season.

However, McLaren (whilst the letter is signed by Whitmarsh, there can be little doubt it was written by lawyers) moved away from this norm. Sections of the letter will be quoted with observations in brackets[]. It is not the full text, which can be seen [the link has expired] here, as I have excluded guff.

The letter is addressed to Mosley and some other people of no particular note.

“In the light of this report and its conclusions we felt that it was appropriate to write directly to you to express our sincere regret in regard to some of the matters that had been brought to light.” [Note that it says, quite clearly and very early on in the letter, that they regret “some of the matters”. This is a big risk. In case the reader should miss such an obvious rejection of some of the points, the letter goes on:]

“. . . we do not agree with all of the conclusions that have been drawn following this most impressively thorough and daunting investigation into the engineering processes of McLaren Racing,” [Two points of note here. They are expressing their rejection of some of the conclusions and then go on to say that the examination of McLaren Racing has been “impressively thorough and daunting” which can be interpreted – and can only be interpreted – as ‘if you can’t find it after all that, it ain’t there’.]

“. . . we accept the central conclusion that some pieces of Ferrari information may have been disclosed via Nigel Stepney and Mike Coughlan, directly or indirectly to individuals within McLaren other than Pedro de la Rosa and Fernando Alonso.” [Who and how many is the crux of the matter.]

“It is a matter of deep regret for us that our understanding of the facts has improved as a result of the FIA inspection rather than our own prior investigations.” [Remember the ‘impressively thorough and daunting’ investigation? McLaren are saying that if they did miss stuff then they have an excuse.]

“We apologise unreservedly if our prior ignorance of some of these facts has misled the World Motor Sport Council and we can only assure you all that this was never our intention.” [Same again. This is a qualified apology. It also says that whatever information was there, McLaren International as a company were unaware of it.]

“. . . our investigations focused most strongly on satisfying ourselves that no Ferrari confidential information had been used directly or indirectly on the 2007 and 2008 cars.” [This is what they said to the original enquiry; that they gained no advantages from the dossier. They also had no reason to suspect that LA and dlR were cheating.]

“The FIA investigation was extremely exhaustive, comprehensive and we trust that it is apparent, as is acknowledged in the report, that McLaren co-operated fully and speedily with all requests made by the investigating team. We also believe that the investigators found no evidence of concealment or data cleansing as they reviewed the comprehensive materials supplied. To put this investigation into context, the investigating team interviewed 20 key engineers, accessed 22 personal computers belonging to key members of the organisation and retrieved by computer search 1.4 Tera Bytes of data stored on the central computer systems of McLaren Racing (this latter data is equivalent to approximately 75 million sheets of A4 typed information).” [A complex reply but in essence it is saying that Mosley went in heavily, McL cooperated fully, there was no evidence of concealment and so, if it was there it must be apparent and clear.]

“. . . the inspection has not reached any conclusion that McLaren used Ferrari confidential information on the 2007 or 2008 car (subject to issues as to the deployment of – edited out by McLaren but which relates to similarities of brake design – for 2008, in respect of which see below).” [Which is hardly grovelling.]

“We do, however, accept that the inspection provides some support for the conclusion that is set out in paragraph 8.11 of the WMSC’s decision of 13 September 2007. In particular that “a number of McLaren employees… were in unauthorised possession of … Ferrari technical information” for which we have been most severely punished. However, it does not establish that the information in question was used on the 2007 or 2008 cars.” [Again, the conditional acceptance of the main finding.]

[There followed a long an involved paragraph where the most significant phrase is left to the end. The para is worth reading for those deeply into the subject. There’s nice little digs at Ferrari if you look carefully.]

“. . . it may be appropriate and also incidentally in the interests of Formula One generally, to bring an urgent conclusion to this affair. Toward that end we would like to express our willingness, despite not agreeing with the findings, to enter into discussion with the FIA Technical Department as to a moratorium of an appropriate length in respect of the use of – edited out by McLaren.” [Again McL saying they did not agree with the findings.]

“We have reflected on these matters carefully and critically and in particular on the comments made by the FIA President, Max Mosley, to the effect that had we contacted Jean Todt as soon as we were aware of the “whistleblowing” information coming from Stepney these matters could all have been avoided.” [So Mosley is critical of McL for not telling Ferrari that one of their employees was corrupt. OK, it is a point of view, but not something that is, surely, worth a massive penalty.]

“McLaren would make every effort to try and improve its relationship with the FIA.” [You can read that whichever way you want.]

“We apologise wholeheartedly once more . .” [Ah! Is this the famed groveling apology? Mind you, the use of the phrase ‘once more’ is rather unsustainable.]

“. . . that it has taken the intervention of the FIA and a time consuming process to expose all of the facts emanating from this matter . . .” [In essence the apology is for McL not finding information that it took Mosley a whole team of people ages to discover something – the brakes – that was not directly attributable to the documentation from Stepney.]

“. . . but we hope that when the Council members have had time to consider the circumstances surrounding this case and the pressures that have been placed upon McLaren during our investigations, that our lapses in this respect are at least partially excusable.”

 

COMMENT

So, in conclusion, there is only partial acceptance of the findings in this matter. There is no real apology for any specific action on behalf of McLaren. This is remarkable as an unconditional apology is a requirement in such matters, although a grovelling one is not. However, the letter is in reality a list of conditional rejections.

This seemed to me at the time to be a very risky ploy. Whilst McLaren were in a strong position of being the foremost team in the pitlane, apart from the favoured Ferrari, their refusal to accept MRM’s finding was a challenge to his authority. Perhaps the Guardian’s – let’s be generous – ‘misreading’ of the tone of the letter went in McLaren’s favour, although I can’t see the paper being on MRM’s breakfast table. Everything in such matters is appearance.

It was admitted by Mosley at a later date that he (he being himself and the FIA) had since concluded that neither Ron Dennis nor McLaren Corporate had any knowledge, nor were aware of any use of, confidential information from Ferrari apart from the information on Ferrari’s use of an illegal floor.

Whether you think Ron Dennis is the devil incarnate or that Todt is just a little bloke with a lived-in face and a girly name, you’ve got to say that the whole matter was a shambles. The two main conspirators in the matter were hardly dealt with at all . . . and the two McLaren drivers who cheated repeatedly were not punished in any way, shape or form.

Remarkable.

 

– – End of article – –

I asked a lawyer friend to look over the article to see if there was anything I should be concerned about. The references were all good (then) although she red-lined four sentences, plus one short paragraph, which I binned. She commented on the Whitmarsh reply, asking for the full text. She said that it was ‘immaculate’ in the way it rejected the findings, but in a way that Mosely would find hard to justify further punishment. It was, she said, a ‘classic’.

PC and health and bloody safety

Health and bloody safety: what is the point? It permeates all sections of life. You can’t even put a light outside your own home without breaching some law or other. OK, so some of it is OK, like putting warnings on fireworks not to swallow them when alight – that’s you or the firework, but I bought a mouse for my computer from Sainsbury’s only to read:

It is dangerous as it never occurred to me to cook the damn thing, but now the idea is in my head  .  .  .

And I bet you’re wondering what might happen if I did.

There used to be an advert on TV where a person was injured through using the ‘wrong type of ladder’. So what was so different about the one he used? Was it to be used only for going sideways? Or did it only have an up, so meaning the user had to jump down? I mean, ladders must be serious stuff.

I am in some way guilty of being H&S mad. I was in civilian clothes and walking to police HQ for a meeting, deciding to go via a pleasant way through a little park. Near to a children’s play area, with swings and such, there were a few trees in a little copse. Standing behind the tree, so that he could not be seen by people in the play area, was a man dressed in dark clothing smoking a cigarette somewhat furtively.

There were young women with children in the area so it was well worth a stop, as the term was. I went up to the chap, identified myself as a police officer, and asked him what he was doing ‘loitering near a children’s play area’.

He was immediately embarrassed. He stumbled in reply, then dropped the cigarette to the ground and stubbed it out.

“It’s not what you think,” he said.

“What am I thinking,” I asked.

Just then from behind me a woman called out loudly. It frightened me and I took a step back.

“He’s my husband,” she said. “I sent him away because he’s smoking. I don’t want [child’s name] seeing him.”

I apologised for intruding, but both of them were very supportive of what I had done. “It’s a relief,” the woman said. “To know CID are looking around.” I was in communications, but the explanation of having swollen neck glands so I couldn’t do up my top button would have confused matters I felt.

The swollen neck glands used to be a fairly regular feature, a virus the doctors said. In other words, they hadn’t a clue. I had a little trick I used to use with a colleague if we were on a crowded train. He would ask what was up with my neck. I’d say I had mumps, and the crowding would ease.

One morning I woke in pain and my head turned to the left. Any attempt to move it meant excruciating agony. I was working away at a training centre and one of the other instructors ran me to the hospital. We were regulars at the A&E, taking students who had done something silly and broken various bits and were on nodding terms with the doctors, although that wasn’t an option for me that day.

He told me something (he gave me a name, but he didn’t seem certain as to what it was, just that it was) in my neck had gone over the gland when I was relaxed asleep and that it needed to be twisted back. I told him it was agony and he said not to worry, he’d use a local anaesthetic.

The needle gave no sensation. After a few seconds he held my head in his hand and twisted it. There was a sort of twang and everything felt better. That is until he let go of my head.

It all but fell off. I had no muscle on the right side. No matter how much I concentrated on leaning my head to the right, I’d soon forget and it would flop over to the left.

“I always have a laugh when I see people do that,” he said.

“Was there another way?” I asked.

“Not one that is as much fun.”

He’d treated me before. I’d dislocated two toes playing badminton. Another instructor and I used to challenge any two students to a match. If they won, we’d buy the class drinks. We were good and would always choose the cross country day for the match.

We hadn’t banked on an England under 21 player joining the job and we were pushed all around the court. Until my injury.

It was remarkable how quickly the toes swelled up. I was taken to casualty by ambulance and ‘my’ doctor looked amused as he studied them.

“We have two options,” he said. “The choice is yours. Firstly we can give three injections of local anaesthetic.” He pointed to the base of each dislocated toe and the place where there used to be a gap between them.

“It takes a while.”

In came a nurse who smiled at me. She was distracting.

“Or we could just snap them into place. I take hold of the two toes and just pull them.”

He then grabbed hold of both toes and pulled them, they snapping back into place with sweet agony.

“Thanks for choosing the quicker method,” he said as I laid back onto the bed after sitting blot upright when he’d mangled my toes.

I could sue the doctor now of course.

I took over a shift that had a black African chap on it, Tony. We had a chap called Fred for whom personal hygiene was not seen as much to bother about on an early turn. His nickname was black Fred. When the black chap, Tony, joined the shift his nickname gave everyone a bit of a quandary. He was a lovely bloke and washed so it was inevitable he was awarded Fred in order to differentiate him totally from black Fred. So we had two Freds on the shift, black Fred who was more or less white, and Fred who was always black.

Worried about my career  I asked Fred, the black one, not black Fred, if he minded the little joke. He was adamant that he enjoyed it. He was more worried about how black Fred, the white chap, would feel. So everyone was happy apart, possibly, for black Fred, the white one, whom nobody cared about as he was smelly.

But not our new superintendent. He dragged me into his pristine office, with no odd files about, always a warning sign, to say that calling black Fred black Fred was racist and unkind. It was apparent that he thought the one we called black Fred, the white one, was the black Fred, the black one. I didn’t feel the need to dissuade him and the conversation became surreal. In the end I put him out of his misery and told him that we called Fred, the white bloke, black Fred because of his nails and the black PC, Tony, Fred because he took care with his appearance and hygiene. I left him in his office, matter resolved. Or so I thought.

I was called back in and told that calling Tony Fred was racist because we called Fred black Fred. I told the super that if we stopped calling Fred, the black one, Fred because of fears of racism, Fred, the black one, would get very upset because it smacked of racism. In the end I was ordered to order the PCs not to call Fred, the black one, Fred, which I did. So the PCs would call Fred, the black one, Fred and black Fred black Fred but not in the super’s hearing.

H&S and being PC makes life very confusing.

Toilet protocol

When I was in my late teens, early 20s, I used to ‘knock around with’, as we used to say, a group of blokes. There were about a dozen or so, but we hardly, if ever, all got together at the same time. Most of us had sports cars and we would turn up at a pub, have a drink or two, and then drive home. Not the most exciting social life I know, but we all got on well. We were uncritical.

One of the blokes was gay. We all knew somehow, but none of us cared. Odd as it seems now, no one ever said anything, not even when he wasn’t there. Perhaps especially so then. It would have been bad form. I used to think it showed that we took him for what he was but now I regret we weren’t more open about it.

The only time it was even mentioned was when a small group of us were sitting outside a pub, and then it was only hinted at. We were relaxing after a day watching motor racing at Brands Hatch. We’d made it as far as South Darenth, at a pub we often stopped at.

One year, after an F1 GP at Brands Hatch, we’d adjourned there as normal. The pub was packed so we sat outside in the evening sun, so it was that year. We’d said all we could say about the race and things were quiet, so when the chap from the RAC parked his van in the only parking gap, and some way from a wooden telegraph pole (the relevance of this will be explained), he gained our interest.

The chap got out of his van with a little cloud of irritation, almost depression, about him. He slammed the van door so hard that it didn’t catch so he had to slam it again, but more gently, destroying any enjoyment he got out of the act. This increased his air of irritation.

As with any group of young men, this piqued our attention and all eyes were on him as he removed one of the two ladders on his roof rack, and dragged one edge along the road as he made his way to the wooden pole. There you are, I told you it would become relevant.

He put the ladder up against the pole, fixed something around it, then climbed up until his feet were on the top rung. It became apparent that his intent was to remove an RAC sign indicating the route to the rear entrance to the circuit. However, at first attempt he could only just touch the sign if he stood on tip toes.

Our attention was secured as it seemed precarious. One slip and down would come the RAC man without the sign. But no such luck. He descended to earth via the ladder and, believing no doubt that it had somehow deliberately shortened itself, he kicked it. His shoulders drooped as he returned to his van, making his way past us.

It became apparent that the ladder was part of a set, a pair in fact, and that he needed to get the other, slightly shorter bit, to fix to the other already at the pole to enable him to undo whatever did up the sign.

He struggled with the other ladder, one of the fixings refusing to cooperate. He stopped in his struggles, looked at the ground for a few seconds then, refreshed, he attacked the ladder again, finally releasing it but using so much energy that he struggled to keep his feet as it came free.

By now this little entertainment had encouraged those inside the pub to join us. We were all silent, just enjoying the drama, knowing, not only expecting, further revelations to come.

With one end of the ladder under his arm and the other again dragging along the road, he walked dejectedly back to the pole.

It was apparent that he was aware of the interest he’d awoken as he kept darting glances our way, always with a marked sneer.

Just as he was almost level with our little group the gay chap, pint in hand, said in a loud voice:

“Here, I say old chap, I think that ladder is too short as well.”

You had to be there as just reading it will not convey just how hilarious this was. The crowd, now some 20 strong, broke out into raucous laughter.

The chap with the ladder decided to remonstrate with us all, telling us that he was not getting any overtime, that the signs had been put too high and more, although after the first too complaints the cheering drowned him out.

He wandered off to the pole, connected the new top part of the ladder, placed it up against the pole, now comfortably exceeding the height necessary to reach the sign. He climbed up, undid the securing device, took possession of the sign to a round of applause and some cheering, climbed down and took the top ladder off the lower. All the time there were waves of laughter then, unaccountably, periods of silence while we all concentrated.

He came past with the ladders under his arms, bewilderingly neither dragging along the ground, in complete silence.

In the meantime, while we’d been concentrating on the removal process, the barmaid, more to come on her, had put a pint of cold beer on top of his van. This he drank in about three goes, then threw the glass over a low fence into a field, replaced the ladders under a torrent of laughter and cheers. He drove off. Cue applause.

Another time we were sitting outside the pub, again in lovely evening weather, when the barmaid, a fine figure of a young woman in the fashion of the time; short skirt and tight top, brought us our beers. All eyes were on her. She turned with a flounce of her skirt and went back inside the pub. The silence that her presence had forced on us was broken by our gay friend who said, in little more than a whisper: ‘She’s gorgeous.’

The sort of unofficial leader of our group, who’d gone to uni with him, said: ‘I didn’t think you liked that sort of thing.’

The rest of us must have looked embarrassed, the unmentionable had been broached. But he replied: ‘I know, but she’s got a gorgeous arse.’

We all laughed, any embarrassment  relieved. It was not mentioned again. Shame.

I’ve never had the problem of being nervous around gays or even in any way anti. My attitude might be due to lethargy, but I’ve never seen any problem. I policed Brighton where it wasn’t even a factor. If I dealt with a couple who happened to be blokes, or women, it was of no account. Who cared? But . . .

I went to Moat Park in Maidstone. Given that my bladder is about to be worked on because something’s got big – a pin stuck in it in fact to see if even more indignities are to be thrust upon me – I have to visit toilets more frequently than most. There were three urinals. The one of the left was occupied so, as any bloke would do, at least someone of my age, I went to the one on the right leaving an empty one between us. Then shock, horror! It was the one for little boys, the bowl being about 9” lower.

I was in a quandary. I didn’t want to stay there, but I could not take a step to the left and use the urinal next to the bloke after I had gone to the one on the right first of all. I could not, of course, point out to the bloke that it was there for boys as no man starts a conversation in a toilet. I should have gone into a cubicle.

Perhaps I’m not so much of a modern man as I thought.

Latte and breasts

Does anyone else remember those days, so long ago, when young women would look askance if you dared to talk to them without a proper introduction? If there was an older woman with her, one had to talk to her first. Back to the days of chaperons it seemed. But no more.

I’m nearly 70, so, it seems, my approaches are to be encouraged. Just a couple of weeks ago, when I was on my own in Neros enjoying a skinny latte, a woman, a young woman, a young attractive woman, a young attractive woman in a short skirt, in fact a woman who was fit in both the old and new bastardised meaning of the word, came to my table and asked if she could sit on the free seat. There was no other free table, but at least half a dozen unoccupied chairs, and out of this, albeit reduced, selection she had chosen to sit with me. At the very least I was the best of a bad lot.

I did the very British thing of stating the obvious: “It’s very crowded for a Wednesday.” She looked around, as if she hadn’t already stood for a minute or so, coffee and croissant in hands, doing the same thing.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” she said, a rather delightful North Country accent gracing her voice. “I can see you are working.” pointing towards my laptop.

I said I’d finished. She asked what I was doing, if I didn’t mind her asking. I said I was writing an article for a website and then, in little time, I was told she had broken with her boyfriend of nearly three years (“I’m dreadfully sorry.” “Oh, don’t be.” “It’s always a shame when any love affair comes to an end.” “But I feel positive about it. I’m free” “To do what?”)

I was then told her hopes, her ambitions, her dreams and her destination. Italy as it turned out, to live near her mother, who was divorced from her father after she ran off with a Frenchman, but everyone was friends, although there was a big argument one Christmas get-together. After this little trip around Europe, I apologised for having to go under the table to unplug my laptop and stated that I would not take the opportunity to stare at her legs. She laughed.

I could never had had such a conversation, where personal and intimate details were received, with a strange, and rather lovely, woman when I was 25. Or 35 or 45 come to that. I discovered I was seen as safe. The sad thing was, she was probably right.

I saw an odd thing play out in front of me one Wednesday – another signal of age, every Wednesday morning it is Neros in Haywards Heath day – whilst queuing for my latte. There were about five before me. Next but one in front was a rather slim young woman, perhaps 25, with expensively coiffured short hair, wearing a business suit: dark blue, with a fine light blue stripe. It was feminised by a tight waist and a frilly white blouse. She had a skirt just above the knees, nylon tights and 2″ high heels which, with her being above average height, made her stand out of the crowd not only through her attractiveness.

Pushing past from the back of the queue came another woman of around the same age. She was shorter, heavier but not fat, and dressed in a rather shapeless but low cut blouse, jeans and flat shoes. There were other differences: she looked a little rushed, her hair had seen a brush, but from a distance, and her make up amounted to just a few dabs of whatever women dab on their faces.

With a peremptory “Oh, you don’t mind, do you?” to those queuing she went up to the woman in the business suit and exclaimed, “Claire! It is you, isn’t it?” Claire, for she admitted who she was, seemed to recognise the women but to have trouble placing her. The bejeaned woman mentioned school, the fun they had, and how she always knew the other one would do well.

“Hello, Emily,” said Claire. “I haven’t seen you since . . . ” She struggled to pull the memory forward, then relieved when the jeans woman mentioned a post school party.

“You went off to university, didn’t you?” said Emily jeans. It was almost an accusation.

Arrangement were then made for buying the drinks, Claire opting for a small Americano and soya milk, the other not.

I ended up sitting near to where the two women were – not by design as this was another Wednesday that was busy – Emily facing me and the other just showing her back. They looked an odd couple. Claire (not the real name) sitting back in the chair rather elegantly with coffee in hand, and the other woman talking, leaving short gaps for Claire to nod. It was all domestic chatter. Then Claire was asked what she was ‘up to’.

Claire had graduated, what she had been reading was not disclosed, and she had got a job with a well known international company. She had toured a lot of the world, only just returning from some Middle Eastern place that she found too hot. She then mentioned that she was engaged, although she did not push her left hand towards her confidant as almost any other woman would do, but from where I was sitting I could see she had a ring on her left ring finger.

Her tone was conversational, giving facts quickly, barely and in a clear, well-modulated voice. Then something strange happened.

The bejeaned woman leaned over the table towards Claire and pushed her shoulders forward, exposing her breasts and much of her bra. Now I’m not that old. I can remember girls doing this to me either as a come-on (all too infrequently) or when teasing me. But why should the jeans woman do this to Claire. Then it came to me. Claire was slim. She was not particularly well endowed in the pectoral region. Jeans was getting one up, perhaps two, on her successful ex-school mate. A small victory but, probably, the only one she could hope for.

I left before they departed.

Participant to spectator

All of a sudden, I got old.

It wasn’t just that I no longer had a job where I was in charge of lots of people. For years I was the senior officer on duty in my force area when the light went out in the command suites of each individual police station, that’s from around 18.00 to 08.00 Monday to Thursday, with an early slide for the bosses on Fridays. I could arm police officers, tell others what to do in the expectation that they might follow instructions, and run emergency situations until someone important phoned me.

On retiring I discovered that a few lengths of welded metal tube on wheels is considered a deadly weapon in my hands. While my wife decides what I’m going to eat in the coming few days without reference to me, I’m allowed to push a trolley around Tesco. She, however, is so scared I might suddenly run amuck that she holds on to the front of it. All the clever twisting, suddenly coming to a stop or brushing her up against the tinned fruit, fails to break the hold.

I realised that other old blokes around me were being kept in check in the same way. We were all washed up together, like those dinosaur bones that were all found together. We are living fossils who should also be in a museum.

Even so, I felt up to the challenge of keeping oldness at bay simply by refusing to admit it. At first I was successful. Then fate intervened and confronted me with my loss of facilities.

I came out of WH Smith’s, a place I hide in now whenever trolley pushing is on the cards, behind a father and his circa seven-year-old son. The lad was looking at the magazine that had just been bought him and walked into one of those flapping signs. He stopped and studied the pretty blue poster. He turned to his dad, who’d had also stopped, forcing me to stop as well, and asked, “Dad, what’s a Health Lottery?”

The kid was obviously pleased that he’d been able to read it and wanted to impress his father.

Dad thought for no more than five seconds and replied, “Smoking, son. Smoking.”

Pretty cool, or what? I was impressed not only at the speed of response but its quality as well.

While enjoying a grande skinny latte with my wife I told her of my brief encounter. She said, “That’s just the sort of thing you’d have said.” The ‘in the old days, when you were younger’ was left noisily unsaid.

It encapsulates my life now I’m old. Instead of being a participant I’m a spectator. I report rather than generate, or even respond. I’m now happy if I see something unusual, or if I learn a bit about people.

I’m IT literate. I’ve built my own desktop computers for the last 20 years, adding state-of-the-art hardware, firmware and software. I’ve run a dozen or so websites and currently run two. I have just learned WordPress after years of WYSIWYG software. I have computer problems brought to me by my kids. ‘You couldn’t just . . . ’ is a common phrase used when relatives present me with a laptop. However, on one of my now frequent visits to WH Smith I was perusing the computer section of the magazines when I saw ‘Computing for Seniors’.

I picked it up and saw that for just £11.99 I could be patronised for about 100 pages. I tutted, something else that comes with age I’ve found, and tried to throw the magazine back onto its shelf. I missed, something else I would not have done a few years ago, and it fell to the floor.  A grey haired ‘senior’ woman, about my age, picked it up and handed it to me. I shook my head.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just that I’m more IT literate than any of my kids, and lots of their friends, but because I’m old, it is assumed I have no idea what bandwidth is.”

She nodded. “I run my own IT company and I always wanted to hand it over to my elder daughter. But she gets confused by her iPad. All I’m doing now is making it look a bit better for the sale.”

We chatted for a while, no doubt the epitome of two pensioners looking for a book to help them use their mobile phones.

As we are old they think we are somehow past anything technical.

Fighting off a man-eating snake

I have few claims to fame. If I mention that I’ve done something remarkable, someone else will always have done the same, but before me and with a far superior outcome, despite having one leg in plaster and being threatened by a terrorist with an AK47 and the flu. But how many of you have had a snake try and eat you?

Got you there, haven’t I.

I used to own a snake. We named it Charles as it was a Californian King Snake and as Prince Chas seemed unlikely to ascend the throne for some time, we thought it would be nice to give him a go. It was a non-venomous constrictor, although its saliva could cause a reaction in the skin of most people. It is difficult to measure a live snake, but Chas was around four and a half feet long.

It was all black with gold (yellow) dots. Whenever it had sloughed a skin it almost glowed. It looked stunning.

It was quite friendly, well for a snake. It would crawl (if that’s the word) up the sleeve of my shirt, get onto a shoulder, go around the back of my neck to the other shoulder then crawl down the other sleeve. If it was tired, it would curl up in a sleeve.

When cleaning out its vivarium I would put it in the pocket of the apron I wore and it would stick its head out and sniff around. I answered the door to two Jehovah Witnesses but the hoped for reaction never occurred as they didn’t see it.

We used to feed it dead baby mice, thawed to room temperature. I would hold one in front of Chas in order to hone its hunting skills. The reason is as obscure to me as it is, no doubt, to you. Its aim was often poor and it frequently took three or four lunges to get a good hold. It would then coil itself around the mouse and swallow the thing head first.

It once missed its target and bit my index finger. I tried to shake it off but it just bit harder. Before I could react it wrapped its body around my wrist and began to tighten. It was never going to break a bone, but it was unsettling.

The time honoured method of getting a snake to break its grip is to feed alcohol to it via a pipette. My wife poured a shot of whisky into a glass, filled the pipette and fed it to Chas. A reward, it seemed to me, for being so aggressive.

I waited and so did Chas. He got another pipette of single malt but didn’t change his grip. The same went for the third time.

Our vet was phoned. He had had the occasional interface with Chas but only when the animal was laid back, which might explain his lack of urgency. He told me to feed it alcohol. I told him he’d had three pipette fulls. He told me not to feed the animal any more as it might kill the thing. This alternative was beginning to increase its attraction as I’d had a snake around my wrist for an hour or more.

We phoned a chap who advertised snakes for sale in a herpetological magazine. While I phoned, Chas moved along my finger towards the tip, with the obvious intent to swallow me whole, finger first. Glad to be able to show him the benefits of evolution, I exercised my opposable thumb. He stopped where he was.

The chap expressed no surprise that I had been bitten, but he too told me not to feed any more alcohol to Chas as it might do untold damage.

With the air of someone who had done it many times before, he said I should fill a sink with warmish water and put my hand in so that the snake’s head was under water. I asked if it might drown, more in hope by that time than fear, but he assured me that no snake, even a drunk one, would kill itself.

So I followed the instructions and plunged my hand into the sink. I wondered who would blink first – which would have been me, of course, given that Chas had no eyelids, but you know what I mean.

It took Chas nearly four and a half minutes to realise it had met its match and let go. I took hold of its now flaccid tail, held I upside down for a minute or so following instructions and then put it back into its vivarium.

A rash appeared on my finger within a few hours, and it itched enough to stop me getting off to sleep. I went to a pharmacist to ask what I could put on it but she put on an act, making out I was the first person ever to ask her how to treat a snake bite.

After a period of reflection, Chas appeared from under his bit of bark, hopefully chastened by his experience.  

So who else has had to fight off a snake for over an hour? Got you there.

Of Women and Men

They are different to one another. Despite the problems the International Olympic Committee experiences, my father had a foolproof system to tell them apart. He reckoned women are the ones that dance backwards. Times have changed of course.

I’ve got four kids and when the first two were growing up we let them do what they wanted. However, we bought them gender specific toys and thought nothing of it, nor when grandparents and friends did the same. The grew up specific to our opinions of the roles of boys and girls and seem happy with them.

There was a gap until our third, a girl, and imposing roles on young children hit the instruction manuals and we allowed her her own preferences. She took to girly things with a vengeance. I wondered if this was peer pressure or schools, but there’s no way we could say.

Our last was a boy from the moment he emerged. He plays second row in rugby, the location of the big bruiser. Yet he is a gentle guy.

My eldest had any number of Action Man toys. A seemingly unending army of them. They are dolls, of that there can be little argument. It seemed odd to me first of all to see him playing with them, but I eventually realised that his toy soldiers were just much bigger than the little lead ones I played with. And, ironically given all the armaments you could buy for them, considerably less deadly.

I’ve been accused of actions that are ‘just like a man’ more since I’ve got my bus pass than I ever did before. I think, like gender, there is an expectation of how someone like me should behave, ie someone old. It is, I think, as pernicious as imposing gender roles.

I bought a book, ex stock, from my local library. Let’s ignore the logic of buying a book which, had I taken an interest when it was free to borrow, would probably have been retained by the library and available to borrow whenever I wanted it. I’ve done weirder things.

The process of buying it included a stamping and a record of ex libris on file. As I was given the book as my own the librarian said:

“I’m afraid we can’t switch off the alarm on the book. It will sound as you go out.”

I thanked the woman and walked towards the exit.

Coming towards me were three women around my age. They slowed so I was obliged to go through the sensors which, as promised, beeped loudly at me. The women looked concerned.

I did what I would have done all my life: I broke into a run and fled the building.

My wife brought it up at a dinner party and what was apparent was that there was a gender gap when the question of whether it was funny or not. The women were not to be placated. One said I should ‘know better by now’, meaning my age. She suggested that I would not like her to ‘wear a mini skirt’.

I said I didn’t mind, and it was taken as a joke. But I don’t care what anyone wears, as long as it is their choice. I pointed this out but they didn’t seem to think I meant it. It was my age.

When I was in charge of my force’s ID unit I was mentioned in an official document as an example of good planning. It meant little but my team was chuffed. The German police force was considering setting up an ID unit similar to English ones so they came to my unit. The nearness of Gatwick airport was not, of course, a factor.

My superintendent warned me not to say anything about the war, even as a joke. The ‘or else’ was left hanging in the air, despite it remaining unspoken. The Saturday preceding their Monday visit to me was a day we all remember: the 5:2 victory of our footballers over them. So I printed off a couple of A4 sheets which said: DON’T MENTION THE WAR.

I crossed out WAR and wrote above it FOOTBALL! I stuck them on a couple of walls in the office and awaited their visits.

There were three of them, two younger ones, about 45 years, and an older chap, obviously the boss. They all spoke understandable English. I showed them around the facility then took them into the office. At first my little posters went unnoticed, but one younger chap became bored with the technical matters and gazed around the room.

It was obvious when he saw the sign. His eyes opened and he started to grin. He looked to the floor. I was then talking to the boss and the other chap indicated the sign to his opposite number. They both smiled; big, broad ones.

I smiled and the boss realised something was going on. He looked to his underlings, one of whom indicated the sign with a nod. In the end all three were just short of laughing. But no one mentioned them.

As they left one of the younger blokes asked if he could take the sign.

When I told my wife she was aghast. It’s a gender thing.

It’s all my fault

I’m 71. I used to be younger. I have been younger for longer than I have been 71 so it is no wonder that when I look in the mirror of a morning and see an old, lined face, it comes as something of a surprise.

That would be bad enough but it seems that all of a sudden I’ve become a person of no account, solely because of my age. I am being blamed for the current recession because of the time in which I was born. I am, you see, a baby-boomer and therefore the sole cause of the lack of money around nowadays.

I was born into rationing. For the first years of my life bread and potatoes were rationed. I was nine when sweet rationing ended and a year later, meat came off ration, but that didn’t mean we could afford any more of course. I got engaged and for two years my wife’s wages went into savings. We ended up with enough for the deposit on a little bungalow.

For five years we struggled along, with a little in savings. I then joined the police, which meant a cut in income of about a third, and we got into a bit of debt, which meant getting rid of the car, the TV, holidays, evenings out (that freed up one a month) and my parents giving us food parcels.

Moving county meant that we took out a larger mortgage, which we paid off in 2005.

Yet, it would appear, I am the cause of all the economic ills of this country. It is, somehow, my fault bankers could not master the basics of their role. It is my fault that house-building did not keep pace with demand, it is my fault that kids today refuse to wait the two years I did before moving in with one another, having mobile phones – we did without a land line for two years – pads, satellite TV, films on demand and other items I would call luxuries.

I have a credit card. I use it so infrequently that I struggle to remember the pin. When I used it to pay the deposit on a second-hand car, the salesman was rather amused to discover that I didn’t know I should have warned my lender.

HM’s uncontactable and, in more ways than one, taxing service decided to fine me many thousands of pounds due to me not complying with an unpublished deadline. They said I didn’t owe it, but if I didn’t pay it within a few days I would be fined £100 a day.

Rather than lose interest on invested savings, I went to my bank and applied for a short term loan. The published interest rate was not available due, I was told, to my lowish credit rating. When I challenged this, saying I was completely out of debt and paid off my credit card on the infrequent occasions when I used it before the end of the month, the loans woman told me, with a rather amused tone, that that was why I had a low credit rating.

So I’m the idiot. I’m the untrustworthy one, because I manage my finances tightly. I fail to see how the present financial crisis is all down to me just because I do not waste money.

What happened to the world when I was busy providing support for my family? It would appear the idiots moved in.

Old Blugger

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