Paint stripper

Paint is wonderful. It’s true that without it our dwellings would more honestly reflect the materials from which they’re built, like concrete, or chipboard, or (in the case of my house) granite mortared with yellow soil. All very neo-brutalist, but not particularly pretty.

Early paint wasn’t white emulsion (or magnolia), it was more likely ground charcoal, ashes from the fire, ochre, plant pigments, and so on, nor was it strictly decorative. The cave paintings at Lascaux might appear attractive to our eyes, but they were probably more to do with the painters’ beliefs than an attempt at beautifying the family cave. Icons rather than wallpaper.

By the late BCs and early ADs, decoration was more established. The Etruscans and the Romans painted walls all over the place: tombs, bath houses, brothels, and villas. It was presumably just for the wealthy, with the slaves’ quarters given a lick of whitewash at the most. Today, however, painted walls are widely available, with paints in colours the people of Lascaux (or Rome) could never have imagined.

A nude painting

A nude painting

Unfortunately, paint carries a sting in its tail. If you get it on your clothes, and it dries before you notice it, it doesn’t come out. Lots of people keep a special set of decorating clothes, a pair of paint spattered trousers and an old shirt, stuffed in the bottom of the wardrobe until the utility room starts to look a bit mouldy. It’s possible the painters of Lascaux kept an old beaver pelt specifically for painting, but there’s a simpler solution. Just take your clothes off. Paint the wall, wipe the soles of your feet on a bit of kitchen paper, and head for the shower. Any wet emulsion will wash off, and any dried on paint will be shed with the skin, which (unlike clothes) renews itself continuously. Then the old clothes in the bottom of the wardrobe can be used as pipe lagging, or rags to wipe your dipstick. Job done.

Killer furniture

Apparently, close on thirty Americans are killed by furniture each year. I have no idea whether this figure is true, but it’s an entertaining idea, except for the twenty-something dead Americans, obviously. As far as I can tell, the figure has been quoted to put ‘things’ in perspective, in particular the number of Americans killed by ISIS (or ISIL, or IS – don’t you just hate it when the bad guys can’t even agree what they’re supposed to be called), the number of Americans killed by other Americans with guns, the number of Americans killed by their own children with their own guns, and so on. Furniture seems to be less dangerous than children, but more dangerous than ISIS (or ISIL, etc). An American friend of mine blames IKEA, for importing lethal European furniture into an otherwise safe country. It does make some kind of sense. He doesn’t have children, so he’s unlikely to be killed by them, pushing furniture (European or otherwise) up his own personal danger list.

Britain is famed for its dangerous bathrooms, but it’s also awash with IKEA products, like sticks. I have been unable to find the figures for Brits killed by furniture (or sticks), though almost none are killed by their own children with their own guns. Our gun laws mean that only criminals are allowed to carry guns, so unless you’re a crook, your child is unlikely to use your own gun to do you in.


A dangerous experiment

On the other hand, I do have personal experience of the dangers associated with IKEA products. Not furniture (or sticks), but a candle in a glass jar. The candle didn’t set fire to anything (the usual way in which candles kill people), but as it burnt down, the glass jar exploded, sending slabs of broken glass flying across the table (and scorching the kitchen table). I could have thrown away the other IKEA candle that I own, but I am a scientist at heart, so I’m repeating the experiment. The actual candle went out, and wouldn’t relight, so I’ve replaced it (after all, it was the glass that exploded, not the candle). I’m not expecting to be killed by my candle (or the jar), nor is it strictly speaking furniture. However, I do have a daughter, and it was she who gave me both the IKEA candles, so perhaps it’s just her way of getting around gun control.

The Police and Crime Commissioner

Today, I trolled up to the Mary Williams Memorial Hall in Sancreed to vote for a new Police and Crime Commissioner. Back in 2012, I didn’t bother, along with almost everyone else. Back then, the 15% turnout was blamed on various factors, such as the fact that the election was in November, and laziness (or fecklessness) on the part of the voters. Because today’s election wasn’t held in November, the two people manning the polling station were sitting out in the sunshine when I arrived. Sancreed isn’t especially busy, even for general elections, but it’s pleasantly rural, with the trees coming into leaf and the birds singing, though in November it can be a bit bleak.

If it had been a general election in November 2012, or a council election, I’d have gone to vote. My not going to vote wasn’t because it was in November, or because I was lazy, it was because I thought the whole thing was a farce. I have no idea what would qualify someone to be a good Police and Crime Commissioner, beyond the desire for a fat pay packet. However, a lot of the candidates stood wearing their political party connections on their sleeves. One thing that would definitely not qualify someone to be a good Police and Crime Commissioner is party affiliation. The police aren’t the military wing of a political party.

I hoped that by voting with my bottom in 2012, along with almost everyone else, I might prevent the charade being repeated, but that isn’t the case. So today, when it wasn’t November, and the weather was good, and I wasn’t lazy (or any more feckless than usual), I turned up at the Mary Williams Memorial Hall and put a blank ballot paper in the box. I apologise to the two whose sitting in the sun I disturbed, but I assume they were being paid, and by the looks of things, most of the rest if the 85% were doing the same as they had in 2012.



Can’t we get the police to sort out a Police and Crime Commissioner? They presumably know what qualifies someone to be a Police and Crime Commissioner, being involved in policing crime. Instead of wasting the money on a misguided election, the government could set up a table outside the Mary Williams Memorial Hall and hand out free Pimms. It would get people off their bottoms, and it’d probably be cheaper.

Film merchandise

I don’t know much about Star Wars, but it seems there’s a new film out. My daughter’s partner, who is vastly more knowledgeable about such things than I am, says that the weird thing about it is that the souvenir merchandise was released before the film. “Suppose it’s a crap film?” he said. “You’ll end up with a lot of crap stuff you don’t want and you can’t get rid of.”

Cynic that I am, I suspect that if the film does turn out to be crap, and the producers lose money, at least they might have made back a bit by flogging the (possibly crap) merchandise. I am not the first to suspect such a thing. Back in the late 1950s, when there wasn’t much in the way of merchandise, Tom Lehrer suggested that movie companies released title songs, in part so that they could make back what they lost on the motion picture by selling the record. His contention was that the film of Oedipus Rex flopped at the box office because it lacked a title song ‘that the people could hum’. Tom Lehrer went on to write the missing song (‘he loved his mother’).



It all made me think that the films that don’t have merchandise associated with them are missing a trick. Mattel could have produced a Kill Bill Barbie doll, in a yellow jumpsuit, complete with a spring loaded samurai sword sharp enough to take Ken’s arm off. How about B and Q bringing out a range of Fifty Shades cable ties, in grey? They’re all missing a trick. When I go to Tesco’s in the morning, I’ll see if they’ve got any Last Tango butter.

Death in Paradise

Sunset cocktails

Sunset cocktails

My wife died in hospital, with me at her side. From the day the oncologist said (in her best bad news voice), “It is likely to shorten your life,” we knew what was going to happen, and only the details were in doubt. Trish was very brave. Hospital wasn’t her first choice. She didn’t want to die at home, but she would have preferred the peace and quiet of the hospice to the hustle and bustle of the hospital. It didn’t happen. The ambulance that was to take her to the hospice was delayed, and by then she was unconscious in any case.

During the autumn, we discussed the alternatives, sometimes seriously, and sometimes less so. Trish talked of driving a car over a cliff, or ‘Switzerland’, by which she meant Dignitas. Apparently Dignitas accept Paypal (she Googled it), but since she didn’t have a Paypal account, I’d have had to put it on mine, which would probably have landed me in chokey the second I got off the plane home. Besides, she didn’t fancy the idea of clean Swiss efficiency. “Switzerland’s cold,” she said. “I don’t want to be in a clinic in Switzerland with some doctor in a white coat giving me an injection. I want to die on a beach in the Caribbean.”

That was where her best idea came from. Surely, if the Swiss can set up Dignitas, there’s a Caribbean island that could set up a beach version, to supplement the ordinary tourism, much as the Swiss have diversified out of skiing and selling cuckoo clocks. A smiling waiter could bring rum punch, and hers would contain strychnine, or cyanide, or something, instead of just the rum and bits of fruit. Someone could sing a calypso, and we’d watch the sun go down together.

It was she who suggested I should do a blog post, and she even came up with a name for it. “Forget Dignitas. I want Death in Paradise. Happitas, in a lovely West Indian accent.” Maybe they’d even take Paypal.

“Happitas, man.”

Two pens are mightier than one

What’s the problem with co-authoring? When I mentioned the idea at the Penzance Writers’ Café, it was received with something not far from ridicule, as if I’d suggested building a full size replica of Nelson’s Column out of cheese. Cheese is great. If you eat it at bedtime, you get vivid dreams, and it’s cheaper than cinema tickets. However, on its own, you couldn’t build a column 52 metres high out of cheese, let alone with an effigy of a one armed admiral on the top. That doesn’t matter. There might be a role for cheese in the project, even if it isn’t structural. The point about co-authoring is that it isn’t entirely down to one person (or just cheese).

In many fields, cooperation is the norm. Torvill and Dean, Gilbert and Sullivan (or Gilbert and George), Crick and Watson, Ant and Dec, or Goscinny and Uderzo. People bring different talents to the table, and the outcome is better than either would have produced alone. Admittedly, two writers working together could produce more conflicts than two figure skaters, or a librettist and a composer, but Gilbert and George managed to work things out, Ant and Dec don’t come to blows, and Crick and Watson (and Rosalind Franklin) unravelled the genetic code

The main argument I’ve heard is that there would inevitably be a conflict of egos. While there is sometimes a bit of a conflict (Becky and I fought like hell over the final edits for Where Love Takes You, but we’re still friends), most disagreements can be resolved by amicable discussion, and in general the best idea wins through. On the positive side, there are two sets of talents in the equation. Goscinny wrote the Astérix stories, Uderzo drew the pictures. Between them they created an icon, but I expect they occasionally disagreed about the details. After Goscinny died, in 1977, Uderzo carried on alone, but the rate at which he produced the stories was a lot slower than when they were working together (and he continued to credit Goscinny).

A joint effort

A joint effort

My latest collaboration was originally Nico’s brainchild, but her idea grew into something else as we talked about it, and the finished story is the product of our joint imaginations. Of course we argued about some things (maybe so did Torvill and Dean), but neither of us could have written Sex by Numbers without the other. We had some criticisms from our beta readers, but in the main, they liked it. One described it as ‘a corker of a book’, another said it was ‘enjoyable and very well written’, and a third said she ‘bloody loved it’ (and that she giggled all the way through), so presumably we did something right. More to the point, Nico and I are both pleased with the result, and we might well write together again in the future. Long live cooperation.

Killer initials

Like most people of my age, I had measles as a child. My mother closed the curtains and I played with my farm animals in the dark. Unlike most people of my age, I didn’t have mumps, though my mother did her best to ensure I caught it, by sending me to sit on the bed of my friend John Sloane, when he had it. She obviously saw it as a form of vaccination, reasoning that if I caught it as a child, I wouldn’t catch it as an adult, when it would be more serious. I didn’t mind. I got a day off school, playing with my friend’s toys. Because I’d never had mumps, I had an MMR jab when I was in my fifties and there was mumps going around, just to be on the safe side. The nurse said she couldn’t do just a mumps jab, though I’d probably had rubella as well as measles, even if it wasn’t memorable the way measles had been, and besides, we called it German measles back then.

German measles may not have been memorable, but chickenpox was. I itched. My two sisters and I had it at the same time, so every evening my mother stood the three of us in a row, naked in front of the fire in the sitting room, and daubed calomine on all the spots. I was particularly upset by the spot on the end of my willie.

Measles, mumps, German measles, and chickenpox were fairly typical of the things children caught. We were vaccinated against diphtheria, whooping cough, typhoid, smallpox, and polio, though there were plenty of children around in leg calipers, who’d caught polio anyway.

Bedside reading

Bedside reading

Further back in time, there were worse diseases, like consumption and leprosy, with no effective cure. Some of them came in colour, like yellow fever or the Black Death. There was the pox, often called the French pox, presumably to distinguish it from chicken and small. How about scrofula? It was notionally curable by the touch of a French or British monarch, earning it the nickname of the King’s Evil. I have never met anyone who’s suffered from scrofula, though in all fairness, it isn’t the kind of thing I’d ask.

Things have changed. Besides being largely preventable or curable, diseases have lost their names, and are now increasing known by their initials, like AIDS and NSU. Scrofula may not have been romantic, but at least it had a suitably unglamorous name, and Black Death gives a clue as to what happens if you catch it. The rot probably set in with TB, even if it isn’t strictly speaking the initials of tuberculosis, and it’s possible that VD beat TB to the line anyway.

The new diseases (or NDs) are better at resisting antibiotics than the old ones. VD mutates through STDs to STIs as gonorrhea learns to live with penicillin. Fortunately, not all of us will catch gonorrhea, and nor will all diseases end up as nothing more than initials. “I’m afraid you’ve got G” isn’t a particularly helpful diagnosis. The MMR protects against M and M and R (or GM), but not M, for which there is now a meningitis vaccine. I suppose scrofula could be called KE, to distinguish it from scurvy, and smallpox could go down the same road as tuberculosis and become SP. If the French pox ever makes a comeback, I expect it’ll be called FP. Where have I come across those initials before?

Carpe diem

I am old. I remember when schoolboys wore short trousers. I was twelve when my mother let me wear long trousers to school, but by then it was late spring and my knees weren’t freezing anyway. I remember when teachers (or ‘Xaverian brothers’, as they were called at my school) were allowed to use corporal punishment to make us remember our Latin. I remember the Latin for ‘enjoy the day’, but not the Latin for ‘bloody hell, that hurt’. There’s a lesson there somewhere. I remember when cars didn’t start (or go, and in some cases, stop), and I remember when central heating meant a paraffin fire in the hall. I used to be sent along the road to the garage with a can to buy the paraffin. The good old days.

However, the good old days weren’t all bad. I also remember being fifteen, drinking beer in a pub in a Cornish village, after hours, when there was a knock on the door.

“Who’s that?” asked the publican.

“The police.”

Oops. Or a word that rhymes with ‘lugger’. I did try to hide my half pint behind my back, but the policeman wasn’t interested in me. He was just popping in for a drink on his way home. We might have been breaking the law (technically), but we weren’t doing anything particularly harmful. Live and let live.

A year or so later, I was working at a summer camp in Bodiam, and a friend and I had missed the last bus from Hastings. Undaunted, as the young often are, we set out to walk the dozen or so miles back. We’d barely left Hastings when a police van stopped. A policeman climbed out, and my friend muttered a word that rhymes with ‘luck’.

“Hello boys,” said the policeman, in a broad Sussex accent. “Nice night for a walk. Where are you off to?”

My friend looked worried, but I said, “Bodiam.”

As it happened, ‘luck’ was about the size of it. He asked, “Do you want a lift?”


It turned out that he couldn’t take us all the way there, because the last half mile or so was beyond the limits of his beat, and the back of his van wasn’t very comfortable, but it was a lot easier (and quicker) than walking.

Those were the days when lots of people didn’t have watches (or mobile phones), and if you wanted to know the time (or the way), you’d ask a policeman. I suppose the PCSOs would tell you the time (and give directions), but you rarely see a policeman on the beat today.

There are still policemen around. I once caught a red-eye from Atlanta to Gatwick, and got on a train, only to be accosted by a policeman with a black dog and a machine gun. “Is that your bag?” he asked, nodding at the luggage rack.


“Get it down.”

When someone with a gun asks you nicely-ish, you do what you’re told. The dog had a sniff, and the policeman walked on.

“Can I put it back on the rack now?” I asked.

“Yeah. He isn’t interested.”

It reminded me of the time a friend took some English sausages to America for her son, who was studying there. For some reason, you’re not allowed to take sausages into America. When she landed, the spaniel in customs went crazy, slobbering at the bag, and a handgun-toting Homeland Security official drawled, “Whatcha got in the bag, lady?”

“It’s just sausages.”

He put his gun away. “That’s okay. The dawg thought it was drugs.” As if. She walked in with her contraband.

Somewhere in between, someone decided that Downing Street was no longer a public thoroughfare. Possibly because we might try to smuggle drugs (or sausages) in, or steal the spare wheel. The gates went up, and the policemen got their guns out.

Who's allowed in?

Who’s allowed in?

In the seventies, I taught English to foreigners, and on summer Saturdays, I’d sometimes take them on excursions to London, which might include Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, and Downing Street. You could just turn up with a gaggle of foreign teenagers, and they’d gawp at the Prime Minister’s house, and then we could all go down to the Embankment and eat ice creams. On one occasion, I lost a ten year old Italian boy somewhere between Horse Guards Parade and the ice creams. The policeman outside Number Ten suggested I try the police station ‘across the road’, which turned out to be the southern extension of Scotland Yard. I went with the boy’s distraught cousin, and we found him sitting on the counter, a policeman’s helmet covering the top half of his tearful face.

I can see that Prime Ministers might be on people’s hit lists, because mostly they’re a fairly shabby lot, but they’re probably no more at risk than the average small-time gangster. The only one actually to have been killed in office was Spencer Perceval, back in 1812. In the early nineties a couple of mortars were fired, and one landed in the back garden of Downing Street, but the perpetrators weren’t foreign students (or teachers) looking forward to their ice creams. The gates and the armed police in Downing Street look like aggressive posturing.

What happened? Teachers are no longer allowed to beat boys (which is good, even if I’m no longer a boy), but a whole lot of other stuff has been junked. I like the police, both as an idea, and (the ones I know) as people. Maybe we should blame everything on the demise of short trousers and paraffin fires. I bet ten-year-olds can’t even buy paraffin any more. Carpe diem, you never know what’s round the corner.

Losing a stone (or more)

I'm the short fat one

I’m the short fat one

No one has ever accused me of being fat, though as a toddler I was decidedly porky. However, by the time I was old enough to cotton on to what people were saying, I was so thin that the remarks were more to do with playing Three Blind Mice on my ribs rather than how many cannibals I’d feed. None of which stopped me gaining weight, obviously. As I grew taller, I grew broader, the way one does, but the change in longitude matched the change in fattitude, leaving my BMI in the very low twenties, like an English summer day, not spectacular, but all right-ish.

In such ignorant bliss, I didn’t bother weighing myself, or watching what I ate or drank. Why would I? I’m getting older, there is wine to drink, women to woo, and song to do songy things to. The only times I got weighed were the times when encroaching decrepitude required my attendance at the doctors’ surgery. I might just be gaining in cynicism even faster than my hair is going grey, but I suspect the surgery gets 50p for weighing every hitherto recently unweighed patient. Whenever they earned their 50p, I got told I weighed 70 kilos, or eleven stone in UKIP money (154 pounds if you’re American).

Two-and-a-bit years ago, when the doctors stuck a laser up my willie to blast a kidney stone that had descended into the ureter to block it, I weighed 70 kilos. No surprises. Earlier this year, I told my new GP that I had more of the kidney-stone-in-the-ureter symptoms, but she decided I might have prostate cancer, so they weighed me again. The good news was that I don’t have prostate cancer. The relatively-all-right news was that I had a stone (or stones) blocking the ureter again, which was what I thought. The bad news was that I weighed 77 kilos. Holy moley, that’s a ten percent increase. Working that out is close to the limit of my mathematical ability, but I’d gained more than a stone in two years, even leaving aside the efforts from the kidney. I’d assumed the little paunch was just an illusion, and my friends and family said it was nothing, but I did some more arithmetic. At the rate of a stone and a bit every two years, I’ll have more than doubled in weight by the time I’m eighty. Holy word-that-rhymes-with-duck-but-starts-with-an-F.

Desperate situations require desperate remedies. I submitted to fingers-and-worse-up-the-bum while the doctors worked out that they should have listened to me in the first place, instead of squandering scarce resources on box ticking in case I had prostate cancer, and I ate a bit less. I wouldn’t call it dieting. I skipped the little dish of delicious salted nuts with a glass of wine in the evening (though I didn’t skip the wine, obviously). I put a little bit less butter on my bread at lunchtime. I didn’t eat everything on my plate, just because it was there.

By the time I saw the consultant, I’d lost three of my seven extraneous kilos (though my blood pressure had gone up, possibly in anticipation of yet another finger up my bum). The nurse who weighed me (and took my blood pressure) complimented me on my stylish urine sample, delivered in a sundried-tomatoes-antipasto jar, and I said she could keep the Merry-Christmas-here’s-a-bottle-of-booze bag I put the jar in. A month later, when I was weighed for the pre op, I’d lost another kilo (and my blood pressure was back down), and yet another when I went back into hospital with a dose of pyelonephritis. Five down, two to go.

Even leaving aside the postoperative pyelonephritis, the original operation didn’t go quite according to plan, and the surgeon couldn’t get the stones out of my ureter, so seven weeks later, I went back in for him to go back in, as it were. Not only did he manage to get the stones at the second attempt, but when I was weighed, I was back down to my seventy kilos. The little paunch had gone. Result.

Okay, my weight fluctuates according to whether I’ve just drunk my recommended big glass of water or whether I’ve just been for a pee, but it doesn’t fluctuate to the tune of seven kilos, so I’m relatively pleased. I even allow myself the occasional dish of salted nuts with my wine. Now all I need is for my kidney to behave as well.

Ma mère

My mother didn’t speak much French (or Spanish, for that matter), though that never stopped her pretending that she did. When it came to Spanish, her main technique was to put an o or an a on the end of words, so the Spanish for map would be ‘mapo’, and the Spanish for Spaniard ‘Spaniardo’. Lisping also figured, so bean soup would be ‘beana thoupa’. There were a few words like ‘libro’ and ‘vino tinto’ which were genuinely Spanish, but not many. To cover any gaps in her knowledge, she would make little humming noises, and gesticulate.

The inhabitants of the countries bordering the Mediterranean are well known for their effusive gesticulation, whereas we British are more reserved, so my mother’s gesticulating was toned down, generally restricted to hand and finger movements, rather than the broad sweeps of the arms (and shrugs of the shoulders) characteristic of the Greeks or Italians.

Unlike Spanish, my mother did learn French when she was at school, so her French vocabulary was a little more authentic than her Spanish, though not extensive enough for full conversations. She was convinced that her French pronunciation was excellent, and she told people that she’d sailed through the oral exams at school, and only the written had given her any difficulty.

After the war, she and a friend went to Italy by train, but it wasn’t until I went to France after I left school that she really took on the idea of going abroad. I worked on a farm for a year. These days it would be called a gap year, but back then it was called failing your A levels. My mother decided that a trip to visit me would be a good idea, so she caught the boat to Bilbao, and I caught the train to Lourdes, where she was going to meet me at the station. In 1971 there were no mobile phones, so it could all have gone horribly wrong, but she arrived fifteen minutes later than she’d said she would, and off we went.

It was the start of her love affair with travelling. She did a similar trip the following year, when I was available as a translator. ‘No hay luz en el cuarto de baño de mi madre’ was a sentence of which I was particularly proud, and streets ahead of my mother’s ‘no lighto in el bathroomo’.

After that she went to Portugal with an old college friend, and when she retired she visited Egypt, China, India, Tashkent, and so on, though not all at once. She went on trips with the school where she’d worked, breaking her wrist on a skiing trip to Rumania, and she used to go to stay with her friend in the Dordogne.

Les Eyzies

Les Eyzies

My mother loved the Dordogne (which she pronounced ‘Dordoyne’). On her first trip (after she’d met me in Lourdes) and the second, we went to a place called Les Eyzies, where there were houses built into the cliffs, like twentieth century cave dwellings, with which she was particularly enamoured. On one of her visits to stay with her friend, she was invited to a dinner, where she got to sit next to the mayor of Les Eyzies. It was the high point of her trip, and she brought all her French skills to the fore, wiggling her index fingers in minimal gesticulation, making little humming noises, and telling him, “J’aime Les Eyzies.” All of which would have been fine, except that her supposedly flawless pronunciation made it sound like, “J’aime les zizis.” Even if she hadn’t been wiggling her fingers, saying ‘I like willies’ wouldn’t have sounded great.