First the good news: after a wait of over five months, Mrs P has at last had a proper haircut. My wonderful missus likes to wear her hair short, in a simple elfin style. The closure of hair salons during lockdown therefore made her miserable, as her locks edged inexorably towards her shoulders. A state of emergency was duly declared, and the Platypus Man was called upon to wield a pair of scissors. I think it’s safe to say I have not found a new career.
The government finally allowed hair salons in England to re-open on 4 July, but when she contacted her hairdresser Mrs P was dismayed to learn that other members of the sisterhood had beaten her to it. It seems that women-folk right across our neighbourhood had been suffering similar torments, but they’d been quicker off the mark in booking appointments. Five anguished weeks followed before, at last, hairdresser Sue was able to fit her in.
Returning from her appointment, Mrs P bounced into the house like a new woman. The measures the salon had put in place to protect clients and customers from coronavirus had been thorough but not onerous, enabling my good lady to relax while Sue got down to business.
And down to business Sue did indeed get, snipping, clipping and primping merrily until order was restored to my wife’s rampant mane. Both literally and figuratively, a weight has been lifted from her shoulders: Mrs P’s got her mojo back. She looks great.
But now for the bad news: my good lady has declared that I too must have a haircut. I generally avoid male barbers like the plague, being pathologically incapable of holding up my end in random banal conversations about soccer, cars or superhero movies. Instead, I let Sue sort out my hair as and when necessary. However, it’s been more than six months since I last sat in her chair of shame, and I’m enjoying a new sense of freedom.
You see, male pattern baldness is embedded in my genes, and has been making its presence known for two or three decades. I’ve not got much hair left now, and I cherish every last strand that has remained faithful to me.
Moreover, I’m a child of the sixties and look back lovingly to my hippy past. OK, I wasn’t a real hippy, but I admired their hedonistic lifestyle and carefree attitude to the cultural norms of their parents. To celebrate their values, in my university years I allowed my hair to grow until it brushed my shoulders, long, thick and luxuriant.
Ah, those were the days!
It’s occurred to me in recent months that the haircutting hiatus initiated by Covid-19 offers the ideal opportunity for a new beginning. Or perhaps more accurately, the chance to relive my glory years.
I therefore boldly suggested to Mrs P that lockdown is just the beginning, that now is the perfect moment for me to grow what’s left of my hair down to my shoulders again, and maybe even to have a ponytail. Her reply was short and to the point: it’s not going to happen, and if I don’t get it cut voluntarily she’ll do it herself when I’m asleep.
So we’ve agreed on a compromise. Mrs P’s booked her next appointment with Sue for early November, and one for me 30 minutes later. Could be worse, I guess: at least I’ll have a couple more months to enjoy my rediscovered hirsute-ness.
And with any luck we’ll be in lockdown again by November, and hair salons will be closed until spring 2021. That should give me plenty of time to explore my inner hippy. Peace, man!
The UK media has been ablaze in recent days, ordinary folk – of whom I’m one – furious that people who should know better have apparently re-interpreted the lockdown rules to suit their own needs. Resentment at the cavalier behaviour of an individual in the Prime Minister’s inner circle, and the latter’s decision to condone that behaviour, are seen by many as proof positive that “there’s one rule for them, and another for us.”
For god’s sake, we deserve better than this.
But of course, there are those amongst us who have made no secret of the fact that it is their intention to defy the lockdown at every opportunity. Take Milky Bar, for example.
Milky Bar is a cat who lives on our estate, a cat who believes that our garden is in fact his garden, a place to hang out, booze and snooze whenever life gets on top of him – which is nearly always, it would appear. It’s also where he can hunt dragonflies, a distressing habit that I wrote about last year.
From the day that the UK’s lockdown was announced, Milky Bar has made it abundantly clear that as far as he’s concerned it’s business as usual. The Prime Minister limited citizens’ exercise outside the house to just 30 minutes per day, but in a brazen demonstration of contempt for those who claim the right to regulate our lives Milky Bar has opted to defy the lockdown. He continues to visit whenever he chooses and for as long as he pleases.
The perimeter of our garden is defined by a wooden fence on two sides and a brick wall on the third. Milky Bar’s arrival is invariably announced by an almighty clatter as he leaps up on to the wooden fence from Jim’s garden next door. From this vantage point he surveys his domain, checking out our garden for dragonflies, unwary birds or other opportunities for mischief.
He often drops by for a drink. We have two ponds, and he likes dipping his paw into the water, licking it dry, then repeating the sequence. Sometimes he does this for several minutes at a stretch. It’s not a very efficient way to drink, but it gives him – and us – ample satisfaction, as well as ensuring he has the cleanest paw in the neighbourhood.
But there are times when he prefers his drinking water flavoured with birds rather than fish, on which occasions the birdbath comes into play. Standing up on his back legs, with his front paws on the edge of the bowl, he can drink contentedly while at the same time keeping a beady eye on the birdtable, just in case…
One day, the local blackbird makes a near-fatal error of judgement. He can’t have missed Milky Bar, lapping water from the birdbath. Perhaps he’s calculated that the birdtable’s very high and no self-respecting cat would try climbing it. Whatever the reason, he decides to drop in to fill his face. Foolish blackbird!
As soon as the blackbird lands, Milky Bar’s on high alert. He immediately stops drinking and creeps stealthily towards his intended lunch. Suddenly he charges, launching himself at the birdtable, scaling it frantically like a furry Edmund Hillary. Feathers fly, avian curses shatter the suburban calm, but happily no blood is spilled.
It’s unclear who’s more embarrassed by this episode, the blackbird or the cat. However, Milky Bar is not one to dwell on a momentary loss of dignity and having conquered the summit he quickly decides that he should be rewarded for his endeavours. Shrugging off his mistake, he proceeds to eat bird food instead of blackbird … he’s a very, very strange cat, but cute as hell.
It’s been hot and dry here for several weeks – last month was the UK’s sunniest ever May since records began – and watering the plants has become a nightly ritual. Unfortunately the hosepipe is knackered and the lockdown has prevented us replacing it, so we’ve had to resort to watering cans.
But one person’s misfortune is another’s pleasure, and Milky Bar has just discovered the exquisite joy of drinking direct from a watering can. Maybe the water, fresh from the tap, tastes even better than the fish- and bird-flavoured alternatives? Whatever, since we started leaving the watering cans full overnight he’s been in heaven.
But of course, drinking, chasing birds and eating dragonflies are mere distractions. Milky Bar’s main reason to visit our garden is to snooze. He’s very good at snoozing. There are lots of places that are just right for forty winks, plenty of bushes offering shade from the midday sun while still giving good views of the birdtable…if he can be bothered with his feathered friends, that is.
He also enjoys laying out underneath the washing that we’ve hung out to dry, the sheets that waft in the breeze gently fanning him as he dreams of dragonflies. And recently he’s discovered that, behind the shed, I have an old dustbin (translated for my trans-Atlantic buddies, that’s a garbage can!) in which I store compost. Sleeping on top of the dustbin, hidden between the back of the shed and the fence, offers all the comfort and privacy that this idle cat covets.
So there we have it. The lockdown has brought misery to some, irritation to many, and inconvenience to just about everyone. But for a select few it’s simply an irrelevance. For those lucky souls life’s going on just as it always did…Milky Bar’s doing just fine.
Postscript: Milky Bar, blogger extraordinary. New followers of this blog won’t be aware that around six months ago, when I was busy preparing for Christmas, Milky Bar stepped in to write my weekly post. He had a lot to say for himself in his Guest Blog, and took great pleasure in hurling insults at me. However, I’m a generous soul and have forgiven his youthful indiscretions. You can read what he had to say by clicking here.
There’s no shortage of information currently circulating about the causes of, and cures for, Covid-19. Trouble is, much of it is just plain wrong, being based on ridiculous conspiracy theories – for example, that 5G phone networks are to blame for spreading the virus – or profound ignorance. The latter is exemplified by the recent speculation that ingesting or injecting household disinfectant could cure the infection. Bloody hell, words fail me!
The crisis has only been around a few months, yet already Wikipedia offers a 16,000 word piece on “Misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic.” So the burning question is, just who can you trust to point you in the right direction?
Personally, I would always trust a librarian to do just that. One way or another, I’ve spent most of my life in and around libraries. I always get a buzz of excitement in them. All human knowledge is available in, or accessible via, a properly run library. All you have to do is find it, and there’s no better way to do that than to ask the librarian.
Librarians are information professionals. It’s their job to help us find the information we need, accurate information from reliable sources. Many also have a wicked sense of humour. The image below was sent to Mrs P by one of her friends. Just read the book titles from top left to bottom right, and have a quiet chuckle at the creativity of one immensely knowledgeable librarian, albeit someone who maybe has too much time on his – or her – hands at the moment!
Libraries in the UK – and many other countries, I think – are struggling right now, so when the current crisis has passed why not pop into your local branch and check it out? You may be pleasantly surprised by what’s on offer. Meanwhile, you could try out the library’s digital offer. Various library services are available online these days, and could have been designed for lockdown living!
A few days ago, the media reported on a “massive party” held in contravention of the UK’s emergency rules on social distancing, rules that have been introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m saddened to say that the party went down in Derby, just ten or so miles from Platypus Towers, although to be fair I guess it could have happened anywhere. Shortly afterwards there were reports of a pub holding a “lock-in” for regular drinkers at Sutton-in-Ashfield, also just a few miles from where I’m writing this, in flagrant disregard of the restrictions currently in place.
While most of us are adapting to the current restrictions, a few of our fellows seem to feel that they’re being unfairly treated. They appear to believe that they’ve been singled out for what the Americans might call cruel and unusual punishment, and that they are therefore justified in continuing to do their own thing, regardless of the consequences for the rest of us. Their actions are making a clear statement: “these rules, these restrictions on personal liberty, don’t apply to us.”
When you’re in the midst of a crisis there’s a natural tendency to assume that your misery is unique, that no-one’s ever had it quite so bad before. But it ain’t necessarily so. COVID-19 isn’t the first pandemic in human history, nor, I’m certain, will it be the last. This should come as no surprise – after all, it is in the nature of bugs to mutate, just as it’s in the nature of our immune systems to adapt to those mutations. That battle is set to continue until the end of time.
The so-called “Spanish flu” of 1918/19 was by far the worst pandemic of the last century. It’s estimated that around 500 million people caught it, which amounted to about a third of the world’s population at that time. The death rate was huge:
The number of deaths [from Spanish flu] was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.
Meanwhile, at the time of writing (10am, 4 April 2020) Worldometer reports 1.1 million cases COVID-19 worldwide, and 59,247 deaths out of world population of 7.7 billion. Plainly, during an ongoing crisis any such numbers must be treated with a huge amount of caution; however the contrast between Spanish flu and COVID-19 is stark.
In quoting these figures I’m not seeking to minimise the current crisis, nor to underestimate the suffering of those affected, their families and wider communities. And it’s also plain that while Spanish flu is history, COVID-19 exists in the here and now: nobody knows when it will end, or just how the numbers will stack up when it does. However, the evidence is that humanity has been through something similar before, and had to find ways of coping. Maybe we can learn from history?
I’ve been vaguely aware of Spanish flu for as long as I can remember. As a student of history it’s one of those things I just picked up along the way. But not for its own sake: rather, it was merely a sad footnote to the history of World War 1, the ironically dubbed war to end all wars. It never occurred to me to look beyond the numbers, to question how society a century ago tried to cope with a rampant epidemic.
Trawling the Internet today I’m not surprised to learn that, here in the UK, we coped badly. Medical science was in its infancy and the disease was poorly understood. In any case the National Health Service did not exist, meaning that a co-ordinated strategy for dealing with the pandemic was impossible.
Moreover, the State had minimal ability to influence and control societal behaviour. A couple of weeks ago, before he himself went down with COVID-19, Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on television and ordered citizens to stay in their houses unless they had a reasonable excuse such as shopping for basic necessities, seeking or providing medical assistance, taking exercise (alone, or with other members of the household only), or travelling to or from work (but only when it is impossible to work from home).
It is inconceivable that, in 1918/19, Prime Minister Lloyd George could have envisaged such draconian measures – government’s willingness to reach into the day-to-day lives of its citizens was much more constrained a century ago. Communicating the need for “social distancing” would in any case have been fraught with difficulty without the broadcast media, Internet, and mobile phone technology that we take for granted today. And even had such restrictions been successfully communicated, enforcing them would have been all but impossible.
As the Spanish flu crisis deepened, responses to it were locally devised rather than nationally prescribed, and as a result were patchy. For example
In Rotherham, posters were displayed in prominent parts of the town, and health visitors and school nurses distributed leaflets from door to door, encouraging people to keep dirty handkerchiefs out of the reach of children. The Borough of Hackney recommended that victims stay isolated, go to bed the moment symptoms appeared, and gargle with potash and salt. In Keswick, Cumbria, the Medical Officer arranged for a free supply of “disinfectant mixture”. Every morning, formalin was sprinkled on the floor of Brighton’s public library and post office, and tramcars were fumigated in Doncaster.
Attempts at social distancing were at best half-hearted. At the height of the outbreak hundreds of elementary schools were closed, but only when staff absenteesim forced the issue. Secondary schools remained open throughout, and church services proceeded as usual. Factories continued to operate, and there was no ban on entertainments and public gatherings.
In short, there was no “lockdown,” as we now understand it, in the UK’s response to Spanish flu in 1918/19. Individuals, families and communities struggled on as best they could. The vast majority got through it, though it must have been a traumatic experience.
However, around 228,000 British citizens died as a result of the Spanish flu pandemic. And I’m sure that every last one of them would have put up with the temporary inconveniences caused by 2020-style social distancing, if they had believed doing so would give them – and their families, friends and neighbours – a better chance of survival.
If they’d been offered a simple trade, a lockdown or a life, they would have chosen life. Sadly they didn’t have that choice. We do.
Generally speaking I’ve been impressed by the way people have adapted to the COVID-19 crisis, supporting one another, putting differences aside and doing the right thing. But, as my opening paragraph illustrated, there are still some moaners, some selfish individuals who feel their right to party supersedes society’s short-term need for social distancing.
I get it, I really do. What we’re being asked to do is contrary to our custom and practice as citizens of a proud, free democracy. Moreover humans are primates, social animals. We’re hardwired for social interaction, not social distancing.
But now is not the time to stand on principle, to play at politics or to throw our toys out of the pram. Together, we need to hold our nerve, to do the right thing by our families, friends and neighbours, and to trust that our scientists and medical professionals will help us find a way through the crisis.
There will be time enough to party when all this is over.
Dateline:Tuesday 17 March, 2020. Scene: Mrs P and I are walking across the car park towards our local supermarket, hoping to buy flour. Fat chance, but you have to try, don’t you? A woman emerges from the store and approaches us, beaming from ear to ear. She has a spring in her step, and looks as triumphant as a pauper who’s just won a fortune on the lottery. The cause of her joy? She’s carrying a twelve-pack of toilet rolls under each arm, clutching them to her ample body lovingly, like a B-list actress who’s just won an unexpected Oscar.
Fast forward a few days. I phone Pat and Dave in London, and ask them how they’re coping as the COVID-19 crisis deepens. Dave replies, saying that a couple of days earlier at his local retail warehouse he’d been interrogated by the guy on the checkout. “Haven’t you forgotten something, mate?” was the mischievous question.
“No,” replies Dave, glancing down at a few random packs meat, fish and groceries in his shopping trolley, “I don’t think so.”
“What about toilet rolls then?” queries Checkout Man, giving Dave a conspiratorial wink.
Dave lifts his head, and looks around him. The warehouse is rammed with shoppers, and all the other buggers have filled their trolleys with toilet rolls. The word’s out: this place has had a delivery, and is creaking at the seams with toilet paper. But not for much longer, obviously.
Dave goes on to say that the next day, just 24 hours before the Prime Minister appeared on television and warned us all to behave responsibly or face the consequences, he and Pat attended a skittles evening at their local hostelry. He explains that they got knocked out early, but hung around until the end of the competition. The winner’s “mystery prize,” a bemused Dave observes, turned out to be a toilet roll tied up in a pretty silk bow.
So my question is this: how the hell have we managed to get here? It’s clear that, in the midst of a grave international crisis, vast numbers of our fellow citizens can think of nothing better to do than hoard toilet paper. Why, for god’s sake, are we so obsessed with the stuff?
Toilet paper is something we take for granted. Can’t imagine life without it, can we? But countless generations of our ancestors got by quite happily, doing the necessary with whatever else was to hand – shards of clay, a sponge on a stick, leaves, fur, stones, moss. Even corn cobs. The list goes on and on.
And as society developed, it wasn’t just natural alternatives that people turned to. When newspapers got going and started peddling fake news, their lies and deceits were given the treatment they deserved in privies throughout the developing world.
Yes, it’s true. You name it, we humans have used it in pursuit of enhanced personal hygiene. The 16th century French writer Rabelais even proposed “the neck of a goose, that is well downed, if you hold her head betwixt your legs.” Adds a whole new level of meaning to the practice of “goosing” someone, doesn’t it?
China is the source of all sorts of things. Pandas, for one. And COVID-19, of course. Paper is another of that nation’s gifts to the world. And given that they invented paper in the 2nd century BCE, it’s no surprise that the Chinese were also the first to come up with toilet paper.
By the 6th century CE the use of paper for the most intimate acts of bodily cleansing is said to have been common in China, but this wasn’t toilet paper as we know it. That first came along in 1391, made for the use of the Chinese Emperor, each sheet being perfumed to mask the noxious scents that inevitably result from consuming too many mung beans.
But it was a forward-thinking businessman in the Land of the Free who finally made toilet paper available to the masses. The game-changer was New Yorker Joseph Gayetty, who, in 1857, started selling commercially packaged toilet paper. He marketed his single, flat sheets – infused with aloe, and sold in packs of 500 – as “The greatest necessity of the age!” Promoted as a medical treatment to cure haemorrhoids, Gayetty is probably the first entrepreneur in history intent on making piles of money from piles.
Inexplicably, in perhaps the worst marketing initiative ever perpetrated by a profit-crazed American businessman, he insisted that his name be printed on every sheet of his “Medicated Paper.” Now, I know that many spirited entrepreneurs like to get down and dirty, but surely this was a step too far? Gayetty had hoped to be flushed with success, but his innovation turned out to be a commercial disaster. He and his product hit rock bottom.
However, Americans are a determined bunch, rarely shy when profits are at stake, and it should therefore come as no surprise that Gayetty’s vision was reworked into something that would sell. So it was that, in 1883, one Seth Wheeler of Albany patented rolled and perforated toilet paper. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Or is it? While some historians (Americans, probably) subscribe to the sequence of events described above, others (British, I imagine) maintain that it was a Brit who invented the toilet roll. According to this revisionist interpretation of the history of bathroom stationery it was Walter J Alcock who, in 1879, first created toilet paper on a roll as an alternative to the standard flat sheets.
But to avoid falling out with our American cousins – we Brits need all the international friends we can get right now – let’s be charitable and say that toilet rolls were invented simultaneously in the USA and the UK around 1880. Standards of personal hygiene on both sides of the Pond undoubtedly improved as a result, although the quality of the experience must have been very different back in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
As proof of this assertion, it was as late as 1935 that a claim was made by the British Northern Tissue company to have manufactured the first splinter-free toilet tissue. The clear implication is that, before then, using the stuff was fraught with hazards that we would all wish to avoid. Is this why photographs from the early part of the 20th century generally show their subjects wearing pained expressions?
And it was not until 1942 that the first two-ply toilet paper came off the production line, courtesy of St. Andrew’s Paper Mill in England.
Yes, that’s right. Some of my countrymen took time off from defeating Hitler to do something they evidently perceived to be even more important: to immeasurably improve – and soften – the British sanitary experience. Given this extraordinary demonstration of societal priorities perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that today, while the COVID-19 crisis rages all around them, so many people in the UK and across much of the wider world are fixated on the supply of toilet rolls.
Toilet paper is clearly useful, making an awkward but necessary human activity more comfortable. But also, and perhaps more importantly, it’s a symbol of civilisation, an indication of how far we’ve progressed from our cave-dwelling days.
If you believe some of the stories circulating in the media and on the Internet, our very civilisation is currently under threat from COVID-19. Given this context, is it really so astonishing that millions of ordinary folk are desperate to ensure uninterrupted access to a product that is both a symbol and an embodiment of the benefits civilisation confers on its citizens?
And also, as any half-decent farmer will confirm, there just ain’t enough corn cobs to go round.
Yesterday was Pancake Day. Mrs P and I share the cooking duties at Platypus Towers, but when it comes to pancakes I know my place: I’m a scoffer, not a tosser. Unsurprisingly Mrs P’s pancakes were faultless, and we made short work of them. But now the party’s over it will be months – and quite possibly a whole year – before we have pancakes again. And that’s the problem, isn’t it, with designating just one day per year as Pancake Day? It implies that on the following 364 days (or 365 in 2020, and other leap years) pancakes should be regarded as strictly off-limits.
For the uninitiated, in England a pancake is a thin, flat cake, made from batter and fried in a frying pan. When one side is cooked the pancake is tossed with a deft flick of the wrist. If the cook is lucky it will land back in the pan, uncooked side down; however if fortune is not smiling, the pancake will end up on the floor, or stuck to the ceiling. A traditional English pancake is very thin and is served coated with lemon or orange juice and caster sugar, or maybe golden syrup.
The origin of Pancake Day is religious. The day in question is Shrove Tuesday, immediately preceding the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. In the Christian calendar Lent is a 40 day period of abstinence, when believers are required to give up some of life’s pleasures. Eggs, butter and fat were all on the hit list, and turning them into mouth-watering pancakes on the day before Lent began ensured they did not go to waste.
There is also said to be religious significance in the key ingredients of pancakes. The white milk that loosens the pancake’s batter is seen by some to symbolise purity, while the eggs represent creation and salt stands for wholesomeness. According to this reading the flour symbolises the staff of life, the dietary staple upon which we all rely.
In the USA, France and Germany the day before the start of Lent is known as Mardi Gras. This translates as “Fat Tuesday”, an allusion to the excesses and festivities that are enjoyed on this particular day, before the deprivations of Lent take hold.
Today the connection between Christianity and Pancake Day is rarely acknowledged, and the practice of giving things up for Lent has largely disappeared. However the advance of secularism has done nothing to undermine the habit of bingeing on pancakes one Tuesday in either February or March, exactly 47 days before Easter Sunday.
In a few places in the UK, Pancake Day is celebrated by the holding of a pancake race, which involves herds of eccentrics dashing frantically through the streets, each of them clutching a frying pan in which they toss a cooked pancake. The tradition is said to date from 1445, and results in the lanes of some English villages briefly becoming clogged with more than the usual number of lycra-clad tossers. However the disruption is tolerated with good humour as everyone knows that afterwards pancakes will be off the menu for around 12 months.
In the USA, however, they do it differently. Pancakes are a big deal in the Big Apple, and everywhere else too. Every day is Pancake Day in the good old US of A.
In the same way that American and Brits are no more than distant cousins these days, their pancakes are also very different. The version from the other side of The Pond is fluffy rather than flat, using self-raising flour or baking power to get a rise from the batter. In the USA pancakes are traditionally served in a stack, accompanied by a little jug of maple syrup and, if it takes your fancy, with a few rashers of crispy bacon on the side.
And, joy of joys, Americans have pancakes for breakfast.
I remember vividly our first encounter with a “short stack” of American pancakes. The previous evening we’d flown into Rapid City via Minneapolis, and had spent the night in a grotty motel that numbered cockroaches amongst its other guests. The next morning we staggered into the adjacent diner, with expectations at an all time low.
It was a modest diner, as befitting its location on the outskirts of a memorably unmemorable city. And yet, to our amazement, they were serving pancakes. Now at the time I was just an innocent English guy, a first time visitor to the States, and the prospect of eating something so deliciously, decadently sweet that early in the day had me transfixed. America is amazing, I thought to myself. Americans are amazing. They play by different rules here. I love this country.
The menu sported a fabulous photo of a stack of pancakes, topped off with summer fruits and wallowing in an ocean of maple syrup. They looked irresistible, so I did the honourable thing and resolutely refused to resist them.
And thus began my love affair with pancakes for breakfast. In the years that followed I’ve visited the USA more than 20 times, and have rarely been tempted to try anything else. OK, I will confess that once or twice I’ve fallen under the spell of the sultry southern temptress that is biscuits and gravy, but pancakes are my first love, my only true love in the crazy world of American breakfasts.
So here’s my question, the big one, the puzzle that’s got me beat. If the USA can do it, why the hell can’t we? Here, in England, why can’t every day be Pancake Day?
“Well,” demands Mrs P testily, “am I getting flowers on Valentines Day or not?” Discomfited, I hastily review my options. Do I try schmoozing her, something like my darling, there aren’t enough flowers in the world to convey the depth of my love for you? Or should I try appealing to her environmental conscience, pointing out the horrendous carbon footprint that inevitably results from the sale of masses of fresh cut flowers in England in the middle of February? Or do I simply tell it as it is, that while I love her more than anything and am quite fond of roses too, the grossly inflated prices around Valentine’s Day are an affront to common decency and my sense of fair play?
I’m weighing up which response will give me the best chance of still being alive at Easter when my wonderful wife lets me off the hook. “If you are,” she says, “then don’t bother. I suggest we go out for Afternoon Tea instead. I’ve spotted a patisserie on King Street that looks promising.”
So there we have it: I get to live another day and to fill my face with delicious cakes. I’d like to put it on record here that Mrs P is a very special person.
Afternoon Tea is also very special. We Brits have invented all kinds of brilliant stuff over the years: the steam locomotive, television, stiff upper lips, penicillin and orderly queuing in line to name just a few. To this list I’m proud to add the quintessentially English tradition of Afternoon Tea, a plate stand of dainty sandwiches, pastries, scones with lashings of jam (preserves) and clotted cream, and assorted cakes, all served in the mid to late afternoon with a steaming pot of Indian or Sri Lankan tea.
All traditions have to begin at some point, and Afternoon Tea can be dated to around 1840. Wealthy English folk had been drinking tea since the 1660s when the habit was popularised by King Charles II, who probably needed regular caffeine hits to help him keep up with his numerous comely mistresses. However it wasn’t until early in Queen Victoria’s reign that the idea of Afternoon Tea reared its head.
Unsurprisingly the practice can be traced back to members of the aristocracy, who had plenty of time on their hands, money to burn and servants to do all the hard graft.
Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, lived in a household where the evening meal was traditionally served at 8pm. Finding herself feeling inconveniently peckish during the late afternoon our Anna instructed her staff to prepare a tray of tea, bread and butter, and cake, at around 4pm every day. The good Duchess was well pleased with her initiative, and invited her friends round so she could show off her new domestic routine.
Pretty soon Afternoon Tea was all the rage amongst the upper classes. Amazingly, in the days before Facebook, people networked by physically spending time in one another’s company (strange but true!), and what could be better than to combine meeting with eating?
Ordinary people, in other words the very men and women whose hard graft made, heated and maintained the scented bubble baths in which the likes of the Duchess and her cronies wallowed, were untouched by the new fad. In Victorian England everyone knew their place, and the common folk knew that Afternoon Tea wasn’t for the likes of them.
Fortunately times have changed, and the once sturdy walls of the British class system have begun to crumble. It therefore feels like poetic justice that while the Duke of Bedford finds it necessary to open up his stately mansion to tours by the Great Unwashed, anyone in England can now enjoy a fabulous Afternoon Tea regardless of their ancestry or social standing.
Indeed in recent years there’s been a noticeable revival in this quaint tradition. All manner of catering establishments and hostelries now offer Afternoon Tea to anyone with a few pounds and an hour or two to spare.
Of course the content of Afternoon Tea has evolved over time, but a reincarnated Duchess Anna would doubtless recognise and hopefully approve of most modern re-workings of her early Victorian innovation. Beaurepaire Patisserie has certainly taken the concept to the next level, and we opted for the full works, starting with a plate stand of savouries which comprised a tiny glass of delicious soup, a filled baby Yorkshire pud and some quiche as well as the inevitable sandwiches.
When the savouries had been demolished it was on to the sweetmeats, a plate stand groaning under the weight of cakes, scones and pastries. There was also a glass of Eton Mess, a glorious confection of strawberries, meringue, and whipped Chantilly cream. We were in heaven, but also in danger of exploding. So, stuffed to the gunnels and awash with countless cups of tea, we called for a box to take home the remainder of our fare, to be consumed later in the day once space became available.
Afternoon Tea proved to be a terrific way to celebrate Valentines Day. It may not last as long as flowers, but who needs daffodils and dahlias when you can instead spend a couple of hours being divinely decadent?
So, wherever you are now, step forward and take a bow Anna, seventh Duchess of Bedford. We, and other lovers of Afternoon Tea from up and down this sceptered isle, are forever in your debt.
A few days before setting off on our epic journey around New Zealand, Mrs P and I took a trip to the nearby city of Derby to take a look at the Knife Angel. Also known as the National Monument Against Violence and Aggression, the Knife Angel is a public art installation that is currently touring the country to draw attention to the issue of knife crime. The sculpture, which stands 8.2 metres (27 feet) high, has been created from around 100,000 blades surrendered to police during knife amnesties.
The Knife Angel is the brainchild of the British Ironwork Centre, working with sculptor Alfie Bradley. The Centre provided police forces with 200 secure knife banks, free of charge, to support and encourage them to run more knife amnesties.
The knives and other weapons that were surrendered during the amnesties prompted by the knife banks were sent to the Centre’s workshops, where they were disinfected and blunted. Bradley created a basic angel shape from steel, and then proceeded to weld knives to it. The wings were made from knife blades only, to produce a feathery appearance.
The Centre invited families who had lost loved ones due to knife crime and violence to engrave an everlasting message on a blade, which would then be integrated within the monument. Its website explains that “messages of love and remembrance feature on the angel’s wings, messages not only from families but also perpetrators who have seen the error of their ways and now fight knife crime and violence in a bid to stop it happening on our streets.”
We were surprised and pleased that so many people had turned out on a wet morning to view the Knife Angel. According to the Derby Telegraph, by the time the sculpture moved on to the next city on its itinerary more than 90,000 people had been to see it, from within and beyond the city’s boundaries.
It would be fanciful to expect that pieces of public art like this can have a material impact on the current high levels of knife crime in the UK. However, as a vehicle for community solidarity and a catalyst for reflection on what we have become as a society, the Knife Angel is very powerful indeed. It’s also a damned fine piece of public art, and deserves to be appreciated on those terms as well as for the positive messages it promotes.
Recently I’ve posted several pieces about birds and birding, and I guess the casual reader might have concluded I’m a twitcher. Nothing could be further from the truth. In day-to-day conversation most people use the words “twitcher” and “birdwatcher” interchangeably, but this is completely wrong. To be absolutely clear: I’m not, never have been, and never will be a twitcher. Neither is Mrs P. Capiche?
So just what is a twitcher?
Twitching is … “the pursuit of a previously located rare bird.” …. The term twitcher, sometimes misapplied as a synonym for birder, is reserved for those who travel long distances to see a rare bird that would then be ticked, or counted on a list. … The main goal of twitching is often to accumulate species on one’s lists.
SOURCE: Wikipedia, retrieved 25 August 2019
Twitching is anathema to me. It sounds like a sad and lonely activity undertaken primarily by sad and lonely men who really need to get their priorities in order.
Twitchers appear to care little for the bird itself, but are obsessed by the chase. For them it’s all about the quarry. Once a particular species has been seen and ticked off in the appropriate book or list they quickly lose interest and move on to the next challenge. It’s as if by seeing the bird it becomes their property, theirs to log and then ignore as they immediately consign it to history in favour of the next target.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see a rarity, to get the chance to study in the flesh a bird that most birders have only read about. But it gives me just as much pleasure to spend a quiet moment watching an everyday bird like a wood pigeon or a bullfinch as it does to glimpse a rarity.
Even if it’s as common as muck, a bird is still a masterpiece of nature. Birds are tangible evidence of evolution in action, sculpted from bones and flesh and feathers. I love nothing more than to marvel at their very existence, to learn about their lives and to enjoy their antics as they go about the everyday business of living.
Twitchers, it seems to me, are doomed to a life of unhappiness: they have never seen enough birds, or the right birds, to bring them the satisfaction they crave. Mrs P and I, however, live in the moment, enjoying the starling or the sea eagle or whatever else comes our way, taking simple pleasure in the wonder of nature. This to me is what birding should be about, not pursuing a quarry species to the ends of the Earth and then all but forgetting it once it is seen.
There’s a book in here somewhere, Zen and the Art of Birding Contentment perhaps? My next project, maybe?
Every few months I meet up with Ray and Sylvia for a coffee. The three of us have a shared history, the agony and the ecstasy of local government in a city just a few miles from here. To be fair, there was precious little ecstasy, but the surfeit of agony made sure our lives were never dull. Ours is a relationship forged in adversity, on the basis that the only alternative to standing together is falling apart.
I worked with Ray, on and off, over a period of around 35 years. He was the best boss I ever had, and it’s still a pleasure to chew the fat with him and with his former PA, Sylvia.
We’ve all retired now, but back in the day we used to laugh a lot, just to keep ourselves sane. The habit continues, and when he’s ordering his cappuccino Ray makes a point of apologising to the guy behind the counter for the disruption we’re likely to bring to his little coffee shop over the next couple of hours. Can you get an ASBO for excessively raucous laughter?
Inevitably, whenever we meet, the first topics of conversation are the developments and disasters at our former place of work, which often features in the media for all the wrong reasons. We observe with pleasure that some of our former colleagues have managed to get out, and shake our heads sadly at the fate of those who have no choice but to remain.
The conversation segues seamlessly into a rant about politics and religion, but it’s very amicable as all three of us agree that we’re opposed to both of them. And then it’s on to crime. Sylvia’s recently witnessed some bad stuff going down round her way, and like old fogeys the world over we reminisce fancifully about the good old days when everyone behaved themselves.
On the other hand, some things have definitely improved, and we note with satisfaction that our little town held its first Gay Pride celebration a few weeks ago. I was away that weekend, but Sylvia explains that everyone seemed to embrace the spirit of Pride, and the town was awash with colour and jollity.
And finally, inevitably, the talk turns to holidays. Places we’ve visited, places we’re planning to visit, places we’d love to visit if only our Lottery numbers come up. And this is when Ray drops his bombshell: he’s been elected President!
Ray and his missus have a holiday home on Minorca. It’s part of a housing complex that’s run as a co-operative, where decisions are made democratically at an AGM by the owners of the individual properties that make up the development.
However, World War 3 has been threatening to erupt for several months over the thorny issue of boundaries. The rules of the development forbid the erection of walls and fences in shared areas, but this hasn’t prevented two individuals enclosing “their” gardens, in one case with a fence and the other with a brick wall of which Hadrian himself would have been proud.
The sides have taken entrenched positions, and acrimony rules. Two elected Presidents of the co-operative have quit over the last few months, everyone’s talking but no-one’s listening. Passions are running high, and the presence of lawyers does little to help.
A peacemaker is desperately needed, so Ray magnanimously decides to fly out to Minorca to do his bit at the AGM. After all, he’s come up through the school of hard knocks – English local government – so he knows a thing or two about gently banging heads together and tactfully reconciling the irreconcilable.
The AGM is every bit a gruesome as he’d feared. Insults fly and there is no meeting of minds. The builder of the brick wall maintains that he had special permission to build it. And, he argues, it isn’t really a wall anyway!
That’s it, Ray’s heard enough. He stands and starts to speak, explaining in faltering Spanish that in England we have a saying: if something walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it’s almost certainly a duck. Against all reason and probability he gets a round of applause from the assembled AGM, most of whom are Spaniards who have never heard anything like this before.
The meeting drags on, and Ray intervenes several times more. The AGM is mesmerised: the Brits may have pinched Gibraltar from under their noses and screwed up over Brexit, but they still know a thing or two about diplomacy. So, when the time comes, they elect him as the new President of the co-operative, despite his best endeavours to kick the idea into touch.
And there we have it: my former boss is a President. But the Minorcan re-imagining of Hadrian’s Wall is still standing, and it’s Ray’s job over the next year to have it removed without any of the parties getting killed or maimed.
I take great pleasure in the fact that my pal President Ray, in stark contrast to a President on the other side of the pond, is to dedicate his life to taking a wall down rather than putting one up. It’s a rotten job, but someone’s got to do it.
Quoting the immortal words of a speech made in Berlin more than 30 years ago, a speech addressed to Mikhail Gorbachev by none other than Ronald Reagan – another American President who talked a lot of walls – I say only this to my good friend Ray: “Mr President, tear down this wall.”