How to run a railway

Yesterday, I came home by train, and since I didn’t want to stand up for five and a bit hours, I reserved a seat on the 12.03 from Paddington. Or not.

As 12.00 approached, the information boards said ‘Please wait’ for the Penzance train, along with warnings that the doors would be shut 30 seconds before the train was due to leave. There are very few seats at Paddington station, so I had to stand until my back ached. Fortunately, with a couple of minutes to go, the announcement came through that the train would be leaving from platform four, and the crowds surged towards the barrier. As it seemed unlikely that the train doors were about to be shut with half of Paddington station trying to get on, I let the herds go through first, secure in the knowledge that I had a reserved seat in coach H. Or not.

Closest to the barrier was coach A, followed by B, C, D, E, F, K, and so on. There was no coach H. However, a GWR employee on the platform announced that reservations for coach H would be found in coach F. Problem solved. Or not.

I worked my way through coach F, starting at seat 1, and when I finally reached the other end, I discovered that the last seat was number 70, which (like every other seat in coach F) was occupied. I checked. No seat 71. Fighting my way against the tide of passengers struggling (misguidedly) to get into coach F, I returned to the platform to ask the GWR employee what I should do. “See if you can find a seat somewhere else,” he suggested. Meanwhile, the announcements informed us that the train was about to leave, so I got on through the nearest door.

However, the door nearest me turned out to be in first class, and another GWR employee informed me that I couldn’t sit down because I had a second class ticket. I explained the absence of seat H 71, and suggested that in the circumstances I might be able to sit in first class, but I was told that I’d have to ask the train manager. When I enquired as to his whereabouts, I was told that he was in coach A. Problem solved. Or not.

By this time, my back was killing me, and the aisles were packed with passengers who hadn’t been able to find seats, so I had about as much chance of getting to coach A to ask the train manager if I could sit in first class as I had of finding seat H 71. Luckily, a third GWR employee came up with a solution. He moved someone from a seat just inside second class to another seat in second class, from where he moved a third passenger. Presumably, he continued to move passengers until the train reached Reading, where someone got off, and the last passenger to be moved could finally sit down for the rest of the journey.

After we’d left Exeter (where the crew changes), I asked why there was no seat H 71. It seems that it was the wrong kind of train. Apparently, it should have been ‘one of the new ones’. In the circumstances, we were only half an hour late arriving in Penzance, so things could have been worse.

Old friends

Here’s a bit of a school photograph from Mayfield College, when my friend Richard and I were both thirteen. We’re the two in the back row, behind the boys who are doing their best to look like the Kray twins. Richard is the taller of us, wearing the glasses. I’d been removed from the Grammar School on the grounds that my place there might better be used by someone who was actually interested in learning, so I’d only been at Mayfield for a month or two. I was the youngest in our form, and Richard the second youngest.

Like all the boarders at school, we were in the cadets. Another of my fellow pupils, who was the Company Sergeant Major, told me a few years ago that I was the worst cadet he’d ever seen, but that didn’t stop me making the rank of corporal. Richard (deservedly) made sergeant.

When we left school, we lost touch, but through a couple of coincidences, we managed to get back in contact a few years ago, and we’ve been to some school reunions. We live about three hundred miles apart, so we don’t see much of each other, but I (and my girlfriend) had a lovely lunch with him (and his wife) last week, when he was on holiday in Cornwall.

Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton sang a song called “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” but they’re wrong. All you have to do is make new friends, and then wait.

Fat kids

Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, wants to ban fast food adverts from the escalators on the Underground, because 40% of children in the capital are overweight or obese. Apparently, the proportion of overweight children is highest in deprived areas, and lower in more affluent areas. Presumably poorer children are less likely to travel in taxis, and more likely to use public transport, and so are being influenced by the adverts on the Tube.

Things have changed since I was a child. We were poor, but I was skinny. When I went with my father to the local boating lake, my boat was just a piece of wood with a couple of nails in it, to represent masts. My father pointed out that the children who had the best boats were the fat ones, because their parents bought them lots of sweets. I have no idea whether my father’s analysis was correct, but I spent an entire week trying to look fat, so that my parents would buy me lots of sweets, and maybe a better boat. It didn’t work.

The adverts on the escalators have also changed. When I was a child, they were mostly for women’s underwear. I looked at all of them, avidly, but I still wasn’t tempted to give cross dressing a try, which suggests that Sadiq Khan’s attempt to tackle childhood obesity by replacing the McDonald’s adverts with pictures of lettuces is about as likely to succeed as my attempts to look fat. Hey ho.

Saving the planet (again)

Light bulbs used to be simple. A bit of wire in a glass container, which got hot and glowed when you put electricity through it, like a miniature electric fire. They weren’t terribly reliable, and sometimes when they failed they plunged the house into darkness by taking a fuse with them, but they were a big improvement over oil lamps. They were also cheap, so their lack of longevity wasn’t much of a problem. You just threw the old one away and put in a new one. They weren’t even terribly polluting – just a bit of metal, a bit of ceramic, and some glass. Pretty much what the earth is made of.

However, progress is progress, so we had to move on, to the new energy saving light bulbs. Unlike the old tungsten filament bulbs, which you could see working, it was anyone’s guess how the new ones worked. They didn’t have a filament, and they didn’t get hot. They were also supposed to last much longer. Eleven years, according to the box from the one I changed yesterday. It replaced an identical energy saving light bulb, and I know for a fact that it hadn’t lasted eleven years, because that particular light fitting has only been over the kitchen table for the past three. I don’t even use it all that often, preferring to eat by candlelight. Never mind, the new bulbs are good for the rainforest, I expect, or giraffes, or Antarctica. They probably require more in the way of energy to make than the old ones did, and they do contain quite a lot of plastic besides the metal and glass, but that probably doesn’t matter. We can dispose of them in an environmentally friendly way.

Don't you dare

Don’t you dare

The box, being made of cardboard, can be put out with the rest of the cardboard for doorstep recycling. The bulb has a helpful little symbol on the plastic, telling me not to put it in the wheelie bin. Being a Goody Two Shoes, I drive the eight miles to the recycling centre in my environmentally friendly Jag, and I throw the light bulb into whichever of the big metal bins the bloke on the kerbside directs me to. One of the blokes there used to have a Jag like mine, manual gearbox and all, when they first came out, so we sometimes have a bit of a chat about cars before I drive the eight miles home again. If I’m feeling particularly in charity with the environment, I might even make a detour to Morrison’s, to buy a couple more low energy light bulbs. They’re a lot more expensive than the old ones, but who cares, we’re saving the planet.

Father Christmas

Ho ho ho

Ho ho ho

When my daughter was a child, there used to be a Christmas party in Sancreed Village Hall for the children of the parish, with cakes and sweets and fizzy drinks. Besides things to rot the children’s teeth, there was also entertainment, and a visit from Father Christmas. One year the entertainment was a Punch and Judy show, but the year that I agreed to be Father Christmas, the entertainer was a female magician in fishnets and heels, called Yvonne Mystique, who made Chihuahuas disappear.

I’m not built like Father Christmas. He is traditionally pictured as rotund and bewhiskered, and while I did once manage to grow a patchy beard to go to a fancy dress party as Che Guevara, ‘rotund’ doesn’t figure anywhere on my CV. However, I am public spirited, and in the absence of any more rotund and bewhiskered volunteers (or any volunteers at all), I agreed to do it. The previous two Father Christmases had also both been called Robin, but I saw that as less of an obstacle than the rotundity. Nor have I ever seen myself as an entertainer of children. Hey ho. Or maybe ho ho.

So, on the day of the party, I drove my daughter to the Village Hall, where she joined in with all the other children in the business of rotting her teeth. At the appointed time, I slipped out to the kitchen and donned the padded red suit, and with the addition of an extra pillow and some strap on whiskers, I set about being Father Christmas for half an hour. Sancreed Village Hall has no fireplace, but there is the remains of a metal flue that presumably once had a pot bellied stove under it. Even without the padded suit and the extra pillow I wouldn’t have stood a chance of getting down it, and I reckoned that it would have been a bit of a squeeze for one of Yvonne Mystique’s Chihuahuas. Undeterred, I shouldered my sack of toys, snuck round the outside of the hall, and banged on the door. Not the traditional way for Father Christmas to enter, but it would have to do.

“Ho ho ho,” I boomed, nursing my knuckles, which were sore from where I’d overdone the banging on the door. “Merry blooming Christmas.” My research into the role had consisted of reading Raymond Briggs’s excellent book, Father Christmas. A biography of sorts, I suppose. Doing my best to sound like Brian Blessed, I explained my unorthodox method of entry by pointing at the flue. “Call that a blooming chimney! I had to park my sleigh up on Sancreed Beacon and walk. Merry blooming Christmas.” To their credit, none of the children actually cried, though some of the younger ones looked a bit worried. On the other hand, a lot of the parents appeared to find the whole thing rather amusing, as did Yvonne Mystique. For some reason, Raymond Briggs is strangely silent on the subject of Father Christmas and yummy mummies (or female magicians in fishnets and heels), so without his expert guidance, I decided to busk it. “Ho ho ho! Lucky thing Rudolph could see where he was going in this fog. What would I have said to him if he were blind?” I paused and shook my head. “No eyed deer.” It got a laugh from some of the grownups, and the members of the Village Hall Committee who’d previously been so keen for me to volunteer looked at one another nervously.

I was on a roll. “You know, children,” I boomed. “The reindeer have a fancy dress party every Christmas. They’re rubbish. Every year they turn up with a couple of hats on their antlers, pretending to be blooming hatracks. Rubbish. Last year Rudolph came with a woman sitting on his back. ‘Hello, Rudolph,’ I said. ‘You don’t look like a hatrack. What are you supposed to be?’ He said he was a tortoise. When I looked puzzled, he nodded towards the woman. ‘This is Michelle.’ Ho ho ho. Merry blooming Christmas.”

By this stage, my audience was looking like a hung parliament, with the mummies (and Yvonne Mystique) enjoying themselves, the children looking bemused, and the committee undecided as to whether they should frown or go with the mummies. I decided it was a good time to call it a day, and I got on with the business of distributing ‘blooming presents’ to the children. When it was my daughter’s turn, she peered through the fake whiskers, as if she weren’t sure it was really me.

Another ho ho ho or two, a farewell ‘Merry blooming Christmas’, and the show was over. I boomed my way out of the front door and crept in the back, and divested myself of the padded suit. Once I’d straightened my pony tail, I strolled back into the room, where Yvonne Mystique was already running low on Chihuahuas.

The reviews were mixed, but by and large favourable. However, I have never been called upon to reprise the role. Merry blooming Christmas, though.

Pork scratchings

If you’re a vegetarian, you might want to look away now. As far as I know, Linda McCartney doesn’t do a vegetarian version of pork scratchings. For anyone who’s led a sheltered life and who doesn’t know what pork scratchings are, they’re bits of pig skin (complete with the layer of subcutaneous fat), deep fried with salt. I assume Satan invented them.
Fat and salt are high on the list of don’t eats, along with lots of other yummy things, like bratwurst and wine, but in comparison, bratwurst and wine are downright nutritious, having sustained generations of Germans and French people. To my knowledge, no culture on the planet has based its diet around pork scratchings. However, it’s possible that there have been many such cultures, each doomed to an early end because of the inherent unhealthiness of the staple food.
The big problem with pork scratchings is that they’re very tasty (if you like that sort of thing). There are lots of different kinds that you can buy in supermarkets, with names like ‘Mr Porky’ and ‘Hogbites’. When my wife was alive, we conducted a not entirely scientific tasting of pork scratchings. Hogbites don’t taste of anything much. Pork scratchings for sissies. Mr Porky gold aren’t bad, but MMs are better, as long as you eat them well before the ‘best before’ date, because they don’t have any preservatives (apart from the obvious fats and salt).
The Weigh Inn in Causewayhead (Penzance) sells loose pork scratchings, which are better than all the supermarket versions, but in best satanic tradition, they’re cursed. Crackling is hard, and it breaks your teeth (MMs come with a tooth warning on the packet). Very occasionally, I treat myself to a little bag of Weigh Inn pork scratchings, for old times’ sake, but I eat them very carefully.
For Paradise truly lost, a butcher at the top of Causewayhead used to sell pork scratchings. I once asked him what there was in the way of added ingredients. His reply was, “Pigs and salt.” I’d go in, and ask for a quarter of pork scratchings (a bit over a hundred grammes, for people who were brought up in the EU). He’d produce a giant pork scratching, effectively half a pig with the meat taken away, put it on the scales and say, “It’s a bit over, is that okay?”
I’d just nod. Once I got the pork scratching home, I’d break it up with a hammer into pieces I could get in my mouth. Truly delicious, though undoubtedly bad for the teeth, heart, etc.
Well done Satan. The shop at the top of Causewayhead is now a hairdresser’s or something, and Milton is a steriliser. Paradise Lost.


Thank you, Casualty

Thank you, Casualty

There was a time when every hospital had a Casualty Department. When my sister broke her arm playing fairies and witches, she was taken to Casualty. When I got a toy flying saucer stuck to my lower lip, my mother sent me to Casualty. After I’d fallen from a slide and hurt my shoulder, I went to Casualty, where there was a boy who had a fish hook stuck in his face. Casualty was where casualties went.

These days, Casualty only exists as a loose term (and as a Saturday evening soap). Hospitals have A and E Departments, Urgent Care Centres, Minor Injuries Units, or nothing at all. Furthermore, we’re exhorted not to go to A and E (which presumably includes Urgent Care and Minor Injuries), unless it’s serious. It seems that people who are unable to get an appointment to see a doctor are turning up at A and E for treatment, instead of just dying quietly.

Accordingly, when I took a piece of flesh the size and shape of a contact lens off the top of my finger while slicing salami, I didn’t go to A and E. Strictly speaking, I didn’t go to the Urgent Care Centre, because there’s no longer an A and E Department at West Cornwall Hospital, but the principle is the same. Instead, I put a plaster over the hole, which was about as effective as throwing a floor cloth into the Thames. A lint dressing and some micropore was a little better, turning the trickle into an ooze and a drip, but it was still far from ideal, so I reinforced it with kitchen paper held in place with a rubber band. That more or less worked as an interim measure, though while I was eating the salami (waste not, etc), the kitchen paper did start to look a bit red.

Top of the list of places to go instead of A and E is the pharmacy, so after lunch, that’s where I went. The assistant took off the kitchen paper, and put another dressing over my lint, but she told me to go to the doctors’ surgery, and to get a nurse to dress it properly. The receptionist at the surgery was most helpful, but she said that all the nurses were at a meeting, and wouldn’t be back until after half past two. “If I were you,” she said, “I’d go to Casualty.”

And so I ended up in Casualty (or the Urgent Care Centre) after all. I read a couple of old National Geographics before a doctor assessed me, a nurse sorted out my dressing, and I was sent home. I did apologise for turning up at Casualty, but none of them minded. “It’s what we’re here for.” The doctor even gave me a couple of surgical gloves to take away, in case it started leaking.


Last week, my sister and I went for a holiday in Northern France (and Belgium). I hadn’t been to France for about twenty years, and the last time I was in Belgium I was eleven, when I went to Blankenberge with the school.

Our gite was on the French side of the border, but not by much, and all the villages had Flemish names. We stayed in Rexpoede, but I still don’t how it’s pronounced. My guess is ‘rex po ed’, but I could be completely wrong. It’s a village on the evacuation route to Dunkirk (or Dunkerque), and in the graveyard there are about thirty war graves, all dating from the end of May and the beginning of June 1940.

The Dunkirk evacuation actually took place from the beach at Bray Dunes, where we went for lunch. My guess is that it’s changed a bit since 1940, though a few of the buildings are pre war. My sister ate moules (she doesn’t eat meat) and I ate merguez, a spicy sausage of North African origin. I don’t like to enquire too closely as to what merguez is made of (weasel, for all I know), but it’s delicious, if you like that sort of thing, so I don’t particularly care. After lunch, I walked to Belgium and back. It isn’t quite as impressive as it sounds. Bray Dunes is only a mile or so from the border. My sister has an even more impressive boast. She took her shoes off and paddled all the way to Belgium (and back).

We did also drive to Belgium, several times. Being that close, if you head off at random, you’re likely to end up in Belgium about 50% of the time. We went to Ypres (or Ieper – that’s a capital I, not a lower case L, the town and its inhabitants are perfectly healthy), where I drank beer and my sister (who was driving) drank diabolo, a drink made of lemonade and grenadine. We went to Veurne (or Furnes), where there was an exhibition in the museum to do with the First World War. The exhibition was interesting enough, but what impressed me most was the Delvaux painting, which wasn’t part of any obvious exhibition. It was just on a wall to the side, with no label. I could probably have stepped over the rope for a closer look, but given the level of the terrorist alert, I thought better of it.

Driving back from Belgium is a complicated business, because of the level of the terrorist alert. On the motorway, all the traffic is diverted off at the first exit in France, around a roundabout, where armed soldiers pull vehicles over at random. In the evening, the armed soldiers have all gone home, but drivers still have to leave at the exit, and go round the roundabout, before they rejoin the motorway. However, for the more adventurous terrorist, there are lots of back roads where the border isn’t even marked, let alone guarded.

When we went to Belgium as children, we took the boat to Ostende, and then went on to Blankenberge by tram. The tram (called the Kusttram) still runs, though it isn’t quite the rattly cream thing it was in the 1960s. My sister and I caught it from De Panne, near the amusement park called Plopsaland. The Belgians are good at giving things names. The tram takes two hours to get to Blankenberge from De Panne, all along the coast, but it’s quite interesting.

In Blankenberge, we walked around, looking for the hotel we stayed in as children, the Hotel Leopold II. We didn’t find it, even though I remembered the address, Onderwijsstraat 23, so we asked in the restaurant where we had lunch (my sister had moules, and I had ‘kip’, which turned out to be chicken). The waitress gave us a map and we found the street, though number 23 no longer exists. Number 21 is a big new hotel, and number 25 is a modern block of flats, but there’s no number 23.

What to eat when you're in Belgium

What to eat when you’re in Belgium

On the way back, we stopped off at Nieuwpoort, to look at the Albert Memorial (not the one in London), and to buy drinks from the supermarket. I had a can of beer, but I don’t remember what my sister had, because I was distracted by the other things you can buy at supermarkets in Belgium. Maybe ‘Cock’s fresh’ is the Flemish for ‘merguez’. I did say the Belgians were good at giving things names.

The missing lynx

Recently, the news was full of attempts to recapture a lynx called Flaviu, which had escaped from Dartmoor Zoo by chewing its way out of a wooden shed. Flaviu managed three weeks on the run, living wild, and avoiding the efforts of trackers to recapture him. The trackers apparently went so far as to smear their feet with cow pats, to make their task easier. If it were me, and someone came after me with their feet smeared with cow pats, I’d also do my best not to let them catch me.

The principal concern, it seems, was that Flaviu wouldn’t survive in the wild, with a secondary concern that he might eat the occasional lamb. A month or so earlier, a Dalmatian pelican was wandering around Devon and Cornwall, but no one tried to catch it, even though it might not survive in the wild, or take the occasional trout. As far as I know, the Dalmatian pelican has never been endemic to Britain, unlike the Eurasian lynx, which was wiped out in the eighth century. Flaviu belongs to the Carpathian subspecies of the Eurasian Lynx, but my guess is that winters in the Carpathians are tougher than on Dartmoor. A cynic might conclude that the difference in attitude was down to the fact that the lynx ‘belonged’ to the zoo, whereas the pelican was just lost.

Conservationists frequently talk about ‘reintroducing’ lost species, such as the beaver, the red kite, the wolf, the Cornish chough, smallpox, the osprey, and the aurochs. Wildlife parks then maintain populations, so that when the time comes, there will actually be some animals to reintroduce. In the 1990s, a wildlife park in Cornwall was breeding choughs in an aviary, with a ‘view’ to reintroducing them into the wild, but when a couple of them escaped (into the wild), every attempt was made to catch them again. My father was most amused, and thought the wildlife park should get an award for hypocrisy. Something similar happened with beavers on the river Otter in Devon. However, history has a tendency to get rewritten. There are now choughs breeding in Cornwall, and the population of beavers on the river Otter is hailed as a success story.

The friend I was with when I saw the Dalmatian pelican said that the only thing it lacked in life here was ‘rumpy pumpy’. Maybe, instead of trying to recapture Flaviu, we should just have brought in a Mrs Flaviu, released her on Dartmoor, and let them get on with it. I expect the foxes and buzzards could spare them the odd lamb. Live and let go.

The Magic Roundabout

When I was very young, children’s television was Watch with Mother, though my mother generally got on with more productive things while I watched. Monday was Patricia Driscoll with something called Picturebook. Tuesday was Andy Pandy, a dubious character in a stripey romper suit, who slept in a basket with a doll called Looby Loo and a bear. I expect he’s a retired banker these days, calling himself Andrew Pandrew. Wednesdays was the Flowerpot Men, Bill and Ben (with Weed), the first television programme I ever saw. Thursdays was Rag, Tag, and Bobtail, and the viewing week finished on Fridays with the Woodentops, a completely unmemorable set of characters with names like ‘Mummy Woodentop’ and ‘Daddy Woodentop’.

The Magic Roundabout came along later, when I was at boarding school, and we watched it between tea and evening prep. Compared with Watch with Mother (or even Popeye), the Magic Roundabout was magic (as it were). It had originally been made in French, but the English version, narrated by Emma Thompson’s dad, made little or no attempt to adhere to the original story lines, lending the whole series a slightly surreal tone. As schoolboys we loved it. It was like hallucinogenic drugs without getting expelled. For all I know, Camberwick Green and Hector’s House were the same for my younger brother, but I never watched them.

Whether it was Ernest Thompson or someone else who gave the characters their character (as it were), the end result was a success. The kindly Mr Rusty, Dylan the dozy rabbit who sounded as if he’d been trying rather more traditional hallucinogens (like Weed), Brian the Snail, and Dougal, the philosophical dog. Zebedee was a moustachioed Jack in the Box, who announced at the end of the episode that it was ‘time for bed’, or in our case, evening prep. My favourite, however, was Florence. Admittedly, at the time, I fancied girls, but Florence was a puppet, and if you fancied puppets, Lady Penelope probably had the edge. Most of my schoolmates favoured Dylan or Dougal, but I just liked Florence.

Thank you, Natasha.

Thank you, Natasha.

When my daughter was a baby, a friend gave me her old toys, including a Florence puppet. It’s one of my more treasured possessions. Some years later, New Look did a range of T shirts featuring Magic Roundabout characters, but only in young girls’ sizes. For a few moments, I tried to convince myself that I could wear an ‘age 10’ girl’s T shirt, but I didn’t even have to try one on to see that it wouldn’t fit (besides, I doubt they’d have let me into the fitting rooms to find out). It’s one of the great disappointments of my life. I so wanted a Florence T shirt bearing the slogan, ‘Go with the Flo’.