Sunday, 31 May 2009

Strasbourg asparagus and Susan

Back in Strasbourg, where the temperatures are even pleasanter than they were in England where we left. We got here just in time, too: the asparagus season is just about to end so it was not just a pleasure but a relief to be invited to an asparagus-fest by friends here. They served us mountains of the things washed down by excellent Alsatian wine, in the courtyard of their converted farmhouse home: an idyllic way to recover from thirteen hours by car yesterday.

Incidentally, the asparagus over here doesn’t usually look anything like what we’re used to England: you don’t often see the green ones. Mostly it’s much fatter and white. Farmers pile up earth over the plants as they grow, which is why they get thicker and don’t turn green. Nothing wrong with the green ones, of course, which are also produced over here, but you need to try the white ones if you don't already know them.

Green and white asparagus: both worth knowing

The other relief about being in France again is that the radio isn’t dominated by continuous talk of MPs’ expenses. It’s clear that British MPs have been fiddling the system pretty generally. On the other hand, if we simply took the full amount they could claim and added it to their salary, they would still be earning only £9000 a year more than the basic salary of a French MP and £3000 a year more than a German MP. They’d also be earning two-thirds of what we pay a judge at the Central Criminal Court, and surely there has to be some argument for valuing about as highly the people who make the laws as those who apply them? Then we could simply drop the whole expenses system – they wouldn’t be able to claim anything extra – and they’d be free to spend their money as they liked, on cleaning moats or building floating duck houses or refurbishing houses hundreds of miles from their constituency or parliament. And no-one would complain.

Which would be a great relief to any radio listener.

Though French radio wasn’t talking about British MPs, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t talking about Britain. It just preferred to talk about Susan Boyle and the chances of her singing her way to victory in the ‘Britain’s got talent’ show. They described her as having an angelic voice but looks that are less so.

A slightly cruel way of describing the eventual runner up. But not entirely false…

Looks less angelic than the voice

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Antidote to a game less beautiful

To our neighbours’, David and Becky, last night for a barbecue.

We don’t eat much meat generally, which made a barbecue all the more fun. I felt as though I was indulging in a near-forbidden pleasure.

The best bit was that Becky mixes a mean cocktail. It comes in layers, one red, one yellow. I can’t remember which is on top: once I’d started the second glass, I could no longer tell and didn’t care anyway. I think of it as a girly drink – you know, multi-coloured, with a stick of some kind in it: it looks like a straw, though it’s too short for a straw, and it might be a stirrer, but who’d want to disturb the balance of the layers? But effeminate or not, no-one’s going to stop me enjoying a drink that good.

The occasion for our visit next door was a sporting encounter of some kind. As well as those of us around the barbecue, there were fourteen guys – yes, all guys – stuck firmly in front of the TV inside. They were there to cheer on some team from Manchester, whose leading star is the great Mancunian Cristiano Ronaldo (born Funchal, Portugal) playing another team from Barcelona, whose outstanding player is the great Catalan Lionel Messi (born Rosario, Argentina).

The stars of the Manchester United side are paid nearly three times more in a week than someone on median earnings in England takes in a year. Note that I don’t say that they ‘earn’ that money: you have to deserve something to be said to earn it. Call me picky, but I feel that for that level of pay, it’s not unreasonable to demand something in the way of a performance from the players.

Football is often called ‘the beautiful’ game. Well, there are types of beauty that I have to admit just pass me by: the flavour of oysters, the sounds of heavy metal, the humanity of Lars von Trier’s films. With rare exceptions, football to me belongs in that category. Yesterday there were no exceptions.

Much more interesting was the reaction of the audience in front of the telly. It was great watching them giving advice to the players. I checked but there really wasn’t a two-way communication device on the TV. Presumably they were relying on telepathy to get the message to the players, or as I like to think of them, perpetrators.

The messages themselves were not without their charm. A key feature of football is called the ‘pass’. Now I’ve watched carefully on numerous occasions and it seems to me that what this means is booting the ball in the general direction of a team mate but with a pretty much evens chance that it will actually fall at the feet of an opponent. This happened with monotonous frequency yesterday, and one of my fellow guests seemed keen to suggest that the culprit, from the great city of Liverpool, might perhaps not be in possession of enviable intellectual faculties. You understand that I paraphrase. The actual expression involved the words ‘Scouser’ and ‘twit’. Delicacy forbids me repeating the qualifier that preceded the other two words: let me just say that it suggested that Wayne Rooney had been engaging in sexual intercourse.

To be honest, had he actually been engaging in sexual intercourse it might have enlivened an otherwise tedious spectacle. Though, on second thoughts, that might not have been much of an improvement for those of us of a heterosexual bent, there being only 23 men on the field, including the referee.

In any case, I had a glass of Becky’s extra special in my hand. With that to fall back on, little could be wrong with the world. So 2-0 to Barça or not, I had a good evening, even if few around me did.

And there’s always next year.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Sex and the man of honour

I always cringe when people address any group of which I’m a member with the word ‘gentlemen’.

‘Me? A gentleman?’ I want to reply. ‘I’m no gentleman. I work for a living.’

‘Gentleman’ was traditionally synonymous with ‘nobleman’. So a gentleman is someone who owes his disproportionate wealth to no merit of his own, but to the prowess in battle – or skill in meting out deadly violence – of some forebear. ‘For he to-day that sheds his blood with me,’ Shakespeare has Henry V say before the battle of Agincourt, ‘shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition.’

English cricket used to be split between ‘players’ and ‘gentlemen’. The former were the professionals who could actually do skilful things with a bat or ball. The others were the amateurs who thought themselves gifted and looked down on the others, though they counted on them to win matches.

‘Gentlemen’ isn’t necessarily a badge of honour. It appears on toilet doors which seems pretty appropriate.

The same can be said of the word ‘honourable’. Its most biting use has to be in the mouth of Mark Anthony, again as imagined by Shakespeare, in his oration to the murdered Caesar:

The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest –
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men –
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.

By the end of the speech, you’re hoping no-one will ever call you ‘honourable’.

There are times when ‘honourable’ seems to mean much the same today as for Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony. Our Members of Parliament are all ‘honourable’: the honourable member for Gosport claimed £1600 expenses to be reimbursed from the public purse, for a floating duck house on his pond. Sadly, it turned out that not even the ducks liked it. The honourable member for Bromsgrove claimed ‘second home allowance’ on one of the houses she jointly owns with her husband, the honourable member for Bracknell who claimed ‘second home allowance’ on the other.

Italian MPs are also ‘onorevoli’. We have the honourable Mara Carfagna who in a previous existence made a profession of removing her clothes for appreciative audiences, but is now a cabinet minister thanks to the appreciation of her talents by the honourable Silvio Berlusconi. He is most notably appreciative of young female charms, providing the joy of his 72-year old’s company to Noemi Letizia at her recent eighteenth birthday party.

Berlusconi is often referred to as ‘Il Cavaliere’, which means ‘the Knight’ or ‘the horseman’ though I don’t think it’s ever a horse he’s been accused of wanting to ride.

Knights, of course, were also gentlemen.

I have great memories from my childhood in Rome, of going to the flea market with my father and brother. We’d have our pockets stuffed with roast chestnuts so that, in between eating them, we could keep our hands warm in the sometimes biting cold of early Sunday mornings. All the stallholders would call my father ‘Cavaliere’ or ‘Ingeniere’, though he was neither a knight nor a qualified engineer. These were words denoting insincere respect and a sincere desire to part the target from some of his money. I can’t help feeling that Berlusconi is a ‘knight’ in precisely that sense.

In any case, the word is used of him with glee by La Repubblica, the only Italian national newspaper that regularly denounces his aberrations – sorry, viciously libels him by imputing base motives to his generous impulses.

But let’s return to the concept of honour. As well as politicians, soldiers are great exponents of honour. In Britain, our armed services are led by ‘officers and gentlemen’ (there’s that word again). As a teenager I enjoyed the radio programme ‘I’m sorry I’ll read that again’. One character announced ‘I’m glad to say my daughter is married to an officer and a gentleman, and all three are very happy together’.

The Royal Air Force is a fine institution. There are times, however, when its security procedures leave a little to be desired. In 1990, Wing Commander David Farquhar and his driver stopped at a car showroom to gawp at the no doubt splendid vehicles on display. Sadly, they failed to lock their car and a laptop, with the plans for Allied Operations in the Gulf War, was stolen from the back seat. It was returned a few days later with a note denouncing the lapse of security and the cavalier attitude towards the lives of British military personnel that it revealed.

Being lectured to by a thief strikes me as very much part of the kind of inversion of values that I associate with terms such ‘gentleman’, ‘knight’ or ‘honourable’.

The RAF have done it again. They kept it quiet for eight months but they’ve now admitted that they lost three computer hard disks back in September. They contain vetting information about individuals being considered for sensitive positions. A memo from the Ministry of Defence, quoted in today’s Guardian – our equivalent of La Repubblica – points out ‘This information included details of criminal convictions, investigations, precise details of debt, medical conditions, drug abuse, use of prostitutes, extramarital affairs including the names of third parties.’

Oh dear, oh dear. How awkward. The memo also mentions that ‘This data provides an excellent target list for foreign intelligence services, investigative journalists and blackmailers. Moreover, if the information relating to the private lives of RAF personnel, especially of some very senior officers, enters the public domain, the reputation of the service will be tarnished.’

Tarnished? I’ll say. Some people might even question the organisation’s ability to look after secure information.

And what was that secure information about? Criminal activity. Drug abuse. Debt. And sex, sex, sex.

It’s always the same. Money and crime can bring a gentleman low. But the greatest threat of all to honour is sex. Sex and honour: they remind me of the old song:

She offered her honour
He honoured her offer
And all the night through
He was on ’er and off ’er.

And as for being called a gentleman: in my book, that's not a compliment.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Silvio, with all due respect

It has come as a shock to see some of the outrageous reporting in the press recently about a sister European nation, Italy. My native land, as it happens. Some commentators seem to be suggesting that the elected Prime Minister of that great country, with its decades-old tradition of adherence to democratic principle, may have been guilty of inappropriate behaviour.

They reach this conclusion on the flimsiest of evidence: David Mills, estranged or apparently estranged husband of our own fine Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell, has been found guilty of accepting bribes from Mr Berlusconi. In a breathtaking non sequitur, they deduce that Mr Berlusconi must be guilty of paying bribes to Mr Mills.

It is precisely to avoid this kind of preposterous accusation against innocent victims that Berlusconi’s government passed an impunity – sorry, immunity – law last year which will protect him from malicious prosecution during the rest of his reign – sorry, term.

It has to be said that these vicious allegations have been fairly common amongst irresponsible elements such as journalists, opposition politicians or judges. Poor Mr Berlusconi is something of a martyr to them.

Vile insinuations have been made about his visit to the eighteenth birthday party of Noemi Letizia, when he presented her with a 6000 euro piece of jewellery. His wife, Veronica Lario, pointed out that he had not attended the eighteenth birthdays of any of his other children – sorry, any of his children – and announced that she would be seeking divorce as she did not wish to remain associated with a man who frequented minors. And yet it is clear that his interest had nothing improper about it, but only expressed his quasi parental – sorry, avuncular – desire to extend some protection to a vulnerable young woman.

Noemi Letizia: object of nothing but the most disinterested protective instincts

Similarly, vicious rumours have suggested that Mara Carfagna owes her appointment as Minister for Equal Opportunity by Berlusconi – who introduced her to his entourage as the woman he would make his wife had the position not already been occupied – to something other than her supreme qualifications for the job.

Mara Carfagna: eminently qualified to be Italy’s Minister for Equal Opportunity

As a regular and, I hope, highly responsible blogger myself I would like to see an end to this kind of gutter allegations.

Let’s call a halt to this discourtesy towards the leader of another nation and endeavour to treat Mr Berlusconi from now on with all the respect he deserves.

I know that I always do.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The Lakes and a memorable but baleful thought from Thomas More

The Lake District has to be one of the most spectacularly beautiful areas of Britain.

Worth the climb: view of Lake Windermere from one of the hilltops.
The weather’s true to form, too

Of course, it contains a lot of lakes, and lakes contain a lot of water, and that water has to come from somewhere. If you go there expecting constant sun and high temperatures, you’re likely to be disappointed. Fortunately, when Danielle and I went there last weekend, we had no such foolhardy expectations, so we weren’t downhearted when some of the fresh supplies for the lakes got dumped on our heads while we were being enchanted by the countryside.

Janka and I being enchanted by the bluebells in the Lakeland woods

As it happened, we got only a few showers, and no sustained rain until we were actually in the car heading home, a stroke of luck we don’t usually enjoy on this kind of outing. That was particularly satisfying for me since the weathermen had forecast an uninterrupted downpour for pretty much the whole weekend. I’m always delighted to confirm my belief that these guys can be relied on for only one thing, which is that they’ll be wrong nine times out of ten.

As well as the lakes themselves, the region is also well populated by animals, above all by sheep. In fact it reminds me of the only bit of that great book, Thomas More’s Utopia, that I can actually remember forty years on. Classics are supposed to improve the mind and I read it as a teenager full of reverence and looking forward to the lasting wisdom it would give me, so it’s a little disappointing that the only thing that’s left a trace is his remark about ferocious sheep. In Gilbert Burnet’s English it reads:

‘The increase of pasture,’ said I, ‘by which your sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men and unpeople, not only villages, but towns.’

Of course, it’s a pretty striking image, sheep devouring people. In fact, if you read the sentence carelessly and get thrown by one of the commas, it looks as though they’re devouring unpeople too, which is an interesting idea. I’ve had colleagues I’d like to think of as ‘unpeople’, and they wouldn’t be missed if sheep devoured them.
I suppose it’s the image of voracious sheep that’s kept that passage alive in my mind, when the far greater points of wisdom and insight Utopia no doubt contains have faded completely from it.

Lakeland certainly seems well devoured by sheep. They’re everywhere.

Fortunately, Danielle really likes them. I do too, although to be honest I’m quite partial to them in the form of mutton or lamb – devouring them back, as it were, trying to get revenge on their species for mine (and for the unpeople too, of course).

Danielle’s a talented photographer. Her flair shines through the visual record of the weekend she kept. Here are some samples. See if you can spot what I like to think of as the Thomas More theme.

Devourers of men and unpeople at bay

A well earned rest from all that devouring

The voracious beasts are everywhere, there's no escape

Ferocious devourers rounding on us

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

The East gave us nothing, and we ought to show more gratitude

At a crucial point in the high middle ages, the Islamic world, through its presence in Moorish Spain, provided an essential spur to the development of Western culture as we know it. Christendom had lost its access to the great works of classical antiquity; Arab scholars provided translations that would launch a major intellectual reawakening in the West. As important was the intellectual debate around leading figures in Cordoba such as Averroes, that gave rise to the idea that rational thought could be separated from faith, a vital step in the development of science.

But Islam also brought us another and vital gift: nothingness. Absence of presence. Or, more prosaically, zero.

One of the great difficulties in Roman mathematics is the symbols they used: how do you multiply LXII by XVIII? With positional notation, using a limited set of digits, where the column in which a figure appears determines whether it counts units, tens, hundreds or more, it becomes literally child’s play. Or at least elementary school work.

The problem is how to write a number like ninety or one hundred and two. You need a symbol to say ‘nothing in this column’. This is the first use of zero, in numbers such as 90 or 102. Several centuries before Christ, the Sumerians had this concept, using a double-wedge symbol to represent a null value in their positional notation for numbers.

A thousand years later, another great step was taken. The Jain and Hindu religions in India had stressed the need to empty oneself, in order to open oneself to the divine. Emptiness became not a negative but a positive quality, a potential, a readiness to receive and take the form of something provided from outside. Indian mathematicians applied the same thinking to numbers, treating zero not simply as an empty placeholder, but as a number in its own right, of the same status as the others but with its own properties.

Intuitively, that’s not an easy idea. After all, 5 is the number representing how many rotten apples make five. Say in a group of parliamentarians. 1 is the number of one rotten apple. But what on earth is zero? No rotten apples? In parliament? What sense is there in that?

When Islam came in contact with Indian mathematics, it absorbed the new notation turning it into the system that Christendom later modified to give us our existing ‘Arab’ numerals. Western Europe however resisted the devilish ‘Arab’ number for nothingness for some centuries. Treating nothing as a positive might be OK for Islam, but Christians wouldn’t fall into that trap.

The breakthrough came in Renaissance Italy, where banking was born. Florence developed double-entry book-keeping. In that system it is essential that all the values ultimately add up to nothing: when they do, your books balance (which means that they’re either accurate or you’ve cooked them really well). So zero was vital: it represented the crucial point of balance in accounting.

I appreciate that in today’s climate we might have mixed feelings about an invention that helped modern banking develop. Fortunately, zero had other applications.

In the sixteenth century, the Scotsman John Napier realised that certain equations were easier to solve if instead of showing them as something = something else, you showed them as something – something else = 0. Remembers those ghastly quadratic equations at school? They were never easy but at least there was a way of solving them written that way.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Newton and Leibniz working separately, even in rather demeaning rivalry, both came up with what we now call calculus. To work out how fast we’re travelling, we can measure the distance we cover in an hour and calculate an average, but that doesn’t tell us our speed right now. So let’s measure the distance we do over a minute. That’s more accurate but it’s still only an average. So let’s take the distance we cover in a second. Much more accurate – but still an average. We could go on, measuring a smaller and smaller distance and dividing it by a smaller and smaller time and getting more accurate at each stage. Newton and Leibniz’s extraordinary insight was that you could take this process to its end point, when the distance reaches zero and the time reaches zero. You can’t divide zero by zero – but the two thinkers showed you could work out its value without doing the actual division.

Now we’ve reached somewhere really vital. Because what we’re measuring when we use this approach is a rate of change (a speed is just a rate of change of distance over time). These thinkers had opened up a field of scientific study concerned with change – with what things are becoming, not with what things are. In other words, they provided the mathematical tools to underlie a view of the world that is dynamic, rather than the static outlook of earlier cultures, concerned above all with keeping things as they were. Our society, where the only constant is change, perturbing but also exciting, is one where the kind of understanding Newton and Leibniz developed is more needed than ever.

And that requires that gift of zero, of nothing, that we received from the East.

Useful gift, wasn’t it?

And a postscript

For a last word about absence as a positive, who better to call on but that great logician Charles Dodgson, also known as Lewis Carroll? In Through the Looking Glass the White King asks Alice to look out on the road to see whether either of his messengers is on it.

‘I see nobody on the road,’ said Alice.

‘I only wish I had such eyes,’ the King remarked in a fretful tone. ‘To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance, too! Why, it's as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!’

A little later, one of the messengers arrives. The King asks him who he met on the road.

‘Nobody,’ said the Messenger.

‘Quite right,’ said the King: ‘this young lady saw him too. So of course Nobody walks slower than you.’

‘I do my best,’ the Messenger said in a sulky tone. ‘I'm sure nobody walks much faster than I do!’

‘He can't do that,’ said the King, ‘or else he'd have been here first.’

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Expenses we can all enjoy

Here in England, we've been having a lot of fun over the last week or so.

The Daily Telegraph has been publishing, day by day, more and more details of the expenses claimed by various Members of Parliament. Of course, since the Daily Telegraph is close to the Conservative Party – we like to think of it as the Daily Torygraph – it started with revelations about Ministers (in the Labour Government) and then Junior Ministers and then Labour MPs and only latterly started spilling the beans on the Conservatives.

The Conservative revelations were worth waiting for, though. Douglas Hogg MP seems to have claimed a couple of grand for cleaning out his moat. It’s nice, isn’t it, in this nation steeped in tradition (or do I mean ‘mired’?) that among our leaders there is still one who has a moat around his property.

David Willetts, whose intellectual power is such that his nickname is ‘Two Brains’, doesn’t apparently have two hands to replace light bulbs: he claimed £115 from the taxpayer to pay workmen to change 25 light bulbs on one of his properties.

Q: How many Tory MPs does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None – it takes a few million taxpayers to make a small contribution

Anyway, all this stuff has been the talk of the airwaves and the press for days. There may be civilians dying in ‘safe’ zones in Sri Lanka, or Gazans still looking for a way to put a roof over their heads and a meal on their tables, but we’re concentrating on which MPs claimed how much for household furnishings or for gardeners.

Even in this country, we heard last week that the Bank of England was getting ready to do a bit more ‘quantitative easing’ – i.e. printing money – as they didn’t feel they’d done enough before. This week we learned that unemployment had jumped quarter of a million.

It's not hard to believe that unemployment number, by the way: the worst hit part of the country is the West Midlands, where we live, and it’s striking how much easier it is to drive around here at commuting times than it was a few months ago. It would be nice to enjoy the improved traffic conditions, but in the circumstances they make me feel uneasy.

People losing their jobs. It’s a painful idea to have to deal with. And quantitative easing: it was for a further £50 billion, making it not just a hard concept but also a big number. It’s so much easier to concentrate instead on the £16 million of MPs’ expenses. To say nothing about the opportunity to get all righteously puritanical, which makes us feel so good about ourselves.

Isn't it wonderful to have the parliamentary expenses issue to take our minds off other things?

Friday, 8 May 2009

A woman's touch: what British democracy needs

England seems to be exploring a new approach to democracy. Instead of the old principle of ‘one man, one vote’, we seem to be moving to ‘one woman, one vote’.

The woman in question is Joanna Lumley.

She was born 63 years ago in Srinagar, Kashmir, the daughter of a major in the Gurkha rifles. The Gurkhas are a Nepalese people who have a tradition of supplying soldiers to foreign armed forces, including the British army, one of whose most effective units is the single Gurkha regiment that lives on in these straitened post-imperial days.

There’s been much noise about the Gurkhas in Britain recently, since to our shame the government has been trying to deny them the right to settle in this country, even though many of them have put their lives on the line for it. This contrasts with France which guarantees those who complete their service in the Foreign Legion not simply residence rights but full French citizenship.

Enter Joanna Lumley. Have you seen the series Absolutely Fabulous? If not, you need to find some episodes: it lives up to its name. Joanna Lumley plays the chain-smoking, substance-abusing Patsy, who speaks English with the most wonderful upper-class accent. Lumley actually sounds like Patsy herself, rather like Woody Allen who speaks just like the characters he plays. Fortunately, Lumley is a great deal brighter than Patsy.

Her latest role is as champion of the Gurkhas. She has led a major campaign to win them justice, one that has won widespread support and turned her into what a good friend of mine described recently as ‘a national treasure’.

The best aspect of this is that she has won complete moral ascendancy over the government.

Poor old Gordon Brown, who is not far away from becoming our ex-Prime Minister, does a pretty good job of actual government – his handling of the economic crisis has been masterly – but he suffers from a terrible tendency to score own goals as a politician. Everyone loves the Gurkhas, everyone loves Joanna Lumley. All he had to do was say ‘hey, yes, what a good idea: let’s treat these guys generously’ and he would have won countless brownie points with the electorate. Instead he’s fought a long, grim, hopeless battle to defend a mean and petty position, which he’s going to lose anyway.

He even managed to be defeated in a vote in the House of Commons on the subject. Since until the next election he has a massive majority there, that’s some achievement.

The final act was yesterday. The immigration minister, Phil Woolas, was trying to explain to the BBC how the government, by lurching from contradiction to retreat, was finally going to do the right thing about the Gurkhas, when Lumley simply commandeered him. Like a sweeping assault force of the Gurkhas themselves, she overcame all resistance and marched him off to an impromptu press conference where she told the press what was going to happen. Every time she came up with a new pronouncement, she would turn to Woolas and say ‘isn’t that right?’ He would nod with a smile that became thinner and more strained each time.

Joanna Lumley was dictating government policy to the responsible minister.

And since what she was getting was exactly what the government should have decided by itself, all I can say is good luck to her.

One woman, one vote: if it’s as good as this, it works for me.

Lumley keeps Immigration Minister Phil Woolas under close scrutiny to make sure he sticks to the script she's writing for him

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

When getting serious is a laughing matter

The only up-side to being an object of derision to your wife is that you’re also a source of entertainment to her.

This became clear to me the other day when I was brushing my teeth, an activity I regard as essentially private for reasons that will become clear as you read on, and she came into the bathroom to brush her own.

‘Why do you keep glancing at your watch?’ she asked me, when she saw me doing so for the second or third time.

‘Timing myself,’ I spluttered back.

‘You’re what?’

‘TIMING myself,’ I replied, a little less indistinctly.

‘You time yourself brushing your teeth?’ She laughed as though she’d just heard a wonderful new joke. She kept laughing at regular intervals for the next few minutes.

I deferred any further comment until I had finished, preferring not to splutter my way through what was obviously going to be a long explanation.

Frankly, I don’t see what there is to laugh about. My behaviour is perfectly rational. I read some time ago that you should brush your teeth for two minutes. Now two minutes is a short time if you’re chatting with friends or watching a film, but it feels like ages when you’re brushing your teeth. I don’t know about you, but brushing my teeth that long just strikes me as a massively boring experience, and I’ve spent decades avoiding boredom.

On the other hand, brushing your teeth for 15 seconds is dead easy. Child’s play.
Within a set of teeth, there are various areas that need brushing: upper and lower, inside and out, left and right. That’s eight possible combinations. One eighth of two minutes is 15 seconds.

So there’s my system. I work my way through tooth surfaces from upper, outer, left to lower, inner, right, giving each 15 seconds. Since that short time is easy to handle, I can get through this process without dying of boredom. But I do have to check my watch from time to time to make sure everything is getting its fair share of attention.

As it happens, my new electric tooth brush has a ‘timer’ built in. What this means is that after two minutes it stutters, stopping momentarily two or three times in rapid succession. I loathe this ‘enhancement’. I can’t get used to it. Every time it happens, I think the brush has stopped working, before I realise it’s the ‘timer’ kicking in. My method seems much pleasanter.

There may be people out there who regard my apparent obsessive-compulsive behaviour as anally retentive. I can’t help thinking that something like that lay behind Danielle’s hilarity. But she and they are wrong.

It’s dentally retentive.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Easy living in the summer time

Last year the British summer occupied three or four days in May. So when this May started with two days of fine weather, Danielle and I decided to make sure that we didn’t inadvertently miss out on what might turn out to the summer of 2009.

We spent Sunday visiting the famed bluebell woods at Tettenhall College, an independent school in Wolverhampton. There were a few bluebells but hardly the carpets the term ‘bluebell woods’ might lead you to expect. All the same, the woods were worth a visit: they blanket a steep slope down from the main buildings of the school, themselves set in heavy vegetation crossed by nature trails, to the playing fields at the bottom, for cricket, football, rugby, athletics and so on.

Janka, our dog, found a discarded rugby ball and forced us to kick it for her, until she was exhausted and panting in the heat, and then some more. As we went back up through the woods, we discovered an old stone trough full of brackish water and pointed it out to her so that she could have a drink. In her enthusiasm she slipped on the edge and fell straight in, which refreshed her considerably but left her with an odour that made a bath essential when we got back.
George and Janka look on as Jenny demonstrates the use of the athletics facilities at Tettenhall College

She doesn’t enjoy baths, but fortunately our neighbours Jenny and George had come on the visit with us – and behaved impeccably despite being fifteen and eleven respectively: when people tell me that today’s young people aren’t like we were, I have to agree for my part at least, since I know I never behaved that well – and they volunteered to help Danielle with the bathing process and seemed to get a kick out of it.

Tettenhall’s playing fields, the woods, the pets’ corner, the delightful school hall, all bathed in sun, made for a memorable visit. It shows that school education can be a fabulous experience in England – if you can spare £26,000 a year per child, at a time when the British median salary is £25,000 (the school charges £3,700 a term for day pupils; state expenditure on education is about £3800 per student per year).

Misty, our cat, didn’t come with us but he’s been taking advantage of the summer too. Like the US army, he feels free to wander in anywhere he chooses, though I’m glad to say he causes slightly less damage. He goes to the neighbours’ houses to eat their cats’ foods. When Jenny and George’s mother Melanie was unwell and in bed recently, she found him curled up next to her, making it impossible to move her legs. What’s anybody’s is Misty’s. After we got back from Tettenhall, George had some energy left and decided to dig over a patch of our front garden (yes, our front garden. What most amazes me is that when I was eleven, it took threats of dire consequences to get me to do so much as mow a lawn let alone dig anything. Come to think of it, mowing a lawn isn’t something I easily work up enthusiasm for even now).

It was fun watching George work (it’s always fun watching someone else work), particularly as Misty had decided that George exists for his amusement and kept darting at him, sitting in the middle of the patch he was trying to turn over or launching daring and unprovoked attacks on recently turned clods of earth. It was a great spectacle as the sun went down on a good day.

Misty makes himself comfortable and gives budding photographer Jenny subject matter to play with.

The biter bit: Jenny photographs Danielle photographing her

Today’s cold and rainy. The summer’s probably over. But we enjoyed it while it lasted.