Tuesday, 24 February 2009

The Arclid Table-saw Massacre

The things you have to do to ensure you've got a full team for the monthly pub-quiz at "The Poachers". You'd think it would be simple enough; 'phone everyone during Sunday afternoon to check that they're available, loaf around for the rest of the day, have some tea, then stagger down to the pub. As the man in the banking advert says, "It doesn't work like that".

It started well enough. Blight-of-my-life and I had got the evening clear, so I 'phoned Chemical Al, and after the usual answering machine nonsense, he rang back to confirm he was up for it. Then I rang Reallyfatbloke.
"Sorry mate" he says, "I can't make it. I've bought a table-saw on ebay, and I'm collecting it this evening. It's in Holmes Chapel and I can't pick it up until six-thirty."
I thought about this, and reckoned that there should be sufficient time to get the saw and still get to the pub on time, so decided that if I offered to help fetch it, he'd have no excuse to duck out of the quiz.
I wasn't too sure how big this saw was likely to be, but I doubted whether it would fit in his car, and suggested that it might be easier to collect it in my vehicle. After giving it some thought , he agreed, and so shortly before six, we clambered into The Tractor and set off. 

Half an hour later, we were sitting in a lay-by in Holmes Chapel waiting for the seller to arrive.
"Why aren't we collecting it from his house? I asked. "It seems a bit dodgy."
"The saw's at his workshop, which is a couple of miles outside the town."
"Err... Right" I said, doubtfully.
After a while the chap rolled up in his van, and we tagged on behind him as he led us out of town. 
A couple of miles later, I was starting to wonder if I'd been over-optimistic in my estimate of how long the operation would take.
"How far out of town did he say it was?"
"He said it's in Arclid. We're nearly there now."
"Of course it could be a horrible scam. He's luring us out to some secluded clearing in the countryside. We'll be led into a shed, where his hideously deranged relatives are waiting. Their heartless laughter will greet us as he clubs us over the head."
"Hey, this isn't helpful... and look, he's indicating left; he's taking us down that lane"
"Hmm. I don't fancy regaining consciousness to hear 'Heh,Heh, Heh... the cabaret's arrived', and discovering that we're both wearing matching gimp masks."
"Look, this lane's getting even narrower... Where is he going?"
"I hope it's not to the Arclid table-saw massacre."
"Me neither. I don't fancy being remembered as a victim of the Arclid table-saw murderer"
"I guess not. Ah, I think we're here"

We'd reached a secluded farm.

After all the paranoia it was all perfectly benign. The guy was charming, and after a bit of a chat and a quick demonstration of the saw, we managed to fit it into the back of the vehicle. It was a bit of a squeeze, and I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have gone in RFB's car. Even given the sensible size and shape of the Land Rover Defender, we had to unscrew a couple of bits of the saw so it would fit through the door. 
Time was getting on, so we didn't hang about for too long. Soon we were back on the road , and threading our way through the lanes back to civilization. 

If getting the saw into The Tractor was tricky, getting it into RFB's shed was bloody nearly impossible. The shed is semi-subterranean, and the doorway is effectively in the roof. The door is also quite small; actually, the door is smaller than the table-saw. It was only brute force and advanced topology that enabled us to persuade it to fit through.
My suggestion to RFB is that the first thing he does with his new acquisition is make a bigger door for the shed.

Did we get to the pub-quiz?
Yes we did. Although it was touch and go.
Did we win?
No. We scraped fourth place.

But at least we didn't get murdered, so it was a pretty good day.

Friday, 20 February 2009


It's time to bring out the flags and dance in the streets; Yes, I've finished topping up the loft insulation. All the mucking about with building up joists and installing walkways to the various electrical fittings is over, and apart from removing a few bits of debris. . . IT'S FINISHED.
There's now a lovely fluffy sea of glass-fibre lagging, 270mm thick, completely covering the loft. Our house is now more well insulated than the top of Bruce Forsyth's head. 

Of course, now I'll have to start thinking about all the other stuff that needs doing. 
We had intended to refit the bathroom last year, but somehow that project got lost somewhere between replacing the front door and having a new central heating boiler installed. 
To be honest, not managing to re-do the bathroom was quite a relief. We spent ages trying to work out how to alter the layout to make better use of the space. 
Originally we'd hoped to fit in a separate shower, as well as a new bath. We faffed around with bits of squared paper and computer drawing packages for several days, trying to get everything to fit, but every plan we came up with always had something wrong with it. Radical ideas, like moving windows and/or the soil pipe outlet were considered, but even then we couldn't get everything shoe-horned in sensibly.

The final "New Improved Bathroom Plan" ended up looking suspiciously like the "Same Old Bathroom Plan". It was all a bit of a disappointment really.

Maybe this year we'll be miraculously inspired, and have one of those "Blimey, why didn't we see that before?" moments.

I'll let you know.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Superstitious? Not me! (touch wood)

Had a pretty good day yesterday, which may come as a surprise to anyone who lives in fear of "Friday the Thirteenth".  Such people would also be horrified to learn that I was booked in for my six-monthly check-up at the dentist.

Oddly enough, I quite enjoy going to the dentist. My parents were from the generation that hadn't fully grasped the concept of oral hygiene. My Dad had all of his teeth removed before he was fifty, and I have a dim recollection of going to a dental hospital in London with my Mum, when I was a toddler. She had to have her gums scraped to treat gingivitis. It sounds utterly barbaric. Luckily I wasn't allowed inside the treatment room, and spent the entire time, fascinated by the enormous 'metal-cage' style lifts, as they clanked their way up and down the building.
In spite of this apparent lack of care, my parents ensured that I went for regular dental checks, and by the end of my teens, I had accumulated a mouthful of mercury amalgam fillings and a couple of spaces where some wisdom teeth used to live. When I left home, my visits to the dentist got very sporadic. With all the moving about from place to place they sort of got lost, and there were a couple of five year gaps between check-ups. Eventually I wised up, and taking a deep breath nipped out from work one lunch-time, and walked into the nearest dental surgery.
It was a shambles. There was brick dust, wheelbarrows and bits of timber cluttering the reception area, and there were two cement- spattered builders, studying some structural detail in the ceiling.
I couldn't see any receptionist, so asked one of the builders when the place would be open for business.
"Oh, we should be finished this time next week."
"OK", I replied "I guess I can wait 'til then."
"Why, have you got a problem?"
"No... not really. I just need to register and have a check up"
"Oh. Well, that's alright. We can do that now. I'll get the appointment book"
"Errrr" I faltered, "No. I was, er... looking for a dentist..."
"We are dentists."

Strange, but true.
A couple of weeks later, I was seated in the big chair, and the guy that I'd last seen brandishing a pointing trowel was giving my teeth an MOT. 
Let's face it; after an introduction as absurd as that, I couldn't possibly have gone anywhere else, and in some subtle way, it has made the whole dentistry business less threatening.

I'm delighted to report that my teeth passed muster again, and to celebrate, I went for a wander around B&Q. 
The 200mm loft insulation is back in stock. (Wooo-Hooo!!) 
It's even cheaper than the last lot I used, so I immediately bought four triple-packs of the stuff.
(Buy now while stocks last, 'goodoldjac'. Reclaim the space previously filled with ice-skates and cardboard)   

When I got to the check-out there were three other blokes who had all clearly had the same idea, as you couldn't move for poorly loaded trolleys stacked with teetering rolls of rock-wool. I'd taken the precaution of buying some nylon rope to stop the whole lot rolling off my trolley, but my feeling of superiority was rudely punctured when I left the building, and started across the car-park. 
The car-park at B&Q is not flat, in fact it has a wicked gradient. I was just about half way back to The Tractor, when one of my rolls of rock-wool slipped out from under the rope. I lunged to stop it falling onto the tarmac, which set the trolley swivelling wildly, and the other three rolls tumbling off the other side.
It could have been worse. 
At least I didn't end up careering down the car park with the trolley, apparently in hot pursuit of four enormous swiss-rolls, as they ricocheted off the various parked cars and steam-rollered hapless shoppers.
But it was close.


Thursday, 12 February 2009

John Martyn: Another snapshot

Whilst trying to pin down the date of the John Martyn gig I went to in the 1970s, I phoned an old friend, J, to see if she had any idea of when it could have been.

The following day, she e-mailed back, to say that after an expedition into the dustier regions of 'diary-space', she still couldn't fix the date I was after, but that she'd definitely seen JM at Lancaster on two other occasions. (18 Jan 1975  and 30 April 1976)
To get to the earlier of these gigs, she'd been hitch-hiking from Malvern to Lancaster with a bloke from New Zealand, who had been sharing a flat with some other mates of ours. 
The 1960's and 70s may have been the 'Golden Age of Hitch-hiking', but it was still an extraordinarily hit-and-miss way to travel. Even so, a lift that dropped you off at a motorway service area was almost always worthwhile. There was usually a steady flow of potential lifts, including comparatively slow but reliable trucks, bored but determinedly quick sales reps and everything else in between. If you'd got plenty of time, or it was lashing it down with rain, you could go into the cafe for a cup of tea and a warm-up. 
On this particular journey, J and The Antipodean had made it well over half way to the gig, and had been dropped off at Knutsford Services, on the M6. When they went into the cafe, they spotted John Martyn himself.
"Nothing ventured, nothing gained" they thought. As he got up to leave, they went over.
"Er, hello... We're going to see you play at Lancaster tonight."
"Oh. Good. Cheers",
"Um. Any chance that you could give us a lift please?"
Now at this point, it would have been great to have written ' and he said "Yeah, sure. Hop in. Fancy a smoke?", or some such '

Sadly, sometimes life's not like that. 
He said "No".


(And yes, I know that the picture is of Forton Services, but it's more interesting than Knutsford)

Monday, 9 February 2009

I love this job!

Here's one of the things that make my job absolutely brilliant. It's the view from what you might call "my office window" at Jodrell Bank. It is, of course, the Lovell Telescope; this is what I drive for a living.

The picture was taken today, shortly after ten to four in the morning. I was coming up to the half-way point in my eight hour shift. I'd got a nice efficient set of pulsar observations scheduled, the wind was very light and although there was a reasonable amount of snow on the ground, none was falling, so everything was pretty much optimal. 

We don't normally run a lot of lights on the telescope because of the light pollution, but it's a good idea to occasionally test run the security floods. 
When I switched them on, I was so chuffed with how the structure looked, with the Moon peering over the shoulder of Red Tower, I just had to get a photo'.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Told you so...

I was driving to work tonight when I heard on the radio that over a hundred motorists are stuck in their vehicles, on snow-bound roads near Exeter in Devon. I'm ashamed to report that I smiled a smug little smile.

We've had a bit of snow here over the last few days, but either we have got off much more lightly than other parts of the country, or they've just over-reacted about how bad it is. In spite of this, I've taken the usual precautions of putting extra, cold-weather clothing, a sleeping bag, bottled water, food and my faithful Trangia camping stove in the back of 'The Tractor'.

When I was on the 'phone, chatting to one of my brothers a couple of days ago, I'd asked him if he'd put any emergency gear in his car. He admitted that he hadn't, but doubted whether it would be necessary, as he couldn't remember any serious snow falls in his neck of the woods since he moved to Devon. Yes, that's right, Devon. He lives within 30 miles of Exeter.
"What d'you mean? 'it doesn't really snow around here'. ", I said, " I spent three days stuck in the snow down there in 1980. It's not something I'd care to repeat."
"Oh yes,", he replied "so you did. That was on Dartmoor though.",
"Well, the edge of Dartmoor. But it's not so far away, and you never know when you're going to get caught out."

We had been royally caught out as it happens.
I was living in Devon at the end of 1978, and although Blight-of-my-life was living and working near Manchester at the time, she had driven down to stay for the New Year festivities. We'd been to a wedding reception with a couple of her old college friends during the afternoon of 30th December.
Quite why we decided to go to the pub, instead of heading straight home, I can't remember, but I do remember that it was already snowing a bit as we drove there.
When we all came out of the pub, it was obvious that we'd miscalculated. Several inches had fallen, and settled very convincingly. Snow was still falling, the temperature was way down and there was a biting wind too.
We piled into Blight's Datsun, and she set off. We probably got about halfway back to our friend's cottage before the conditions finally beat us. We were balked on a hill by another car, mired in more than a foot of drifting snow. We abandoned the car and finished the journey on foot. It was fearfully cold, and we had all the wrong clothes. We were all still dressed for a wedding reception, and apart from a couple of extra jackets that were in the car, we were hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with sub-zero temperatures and over a mile of knee-deep snow.
When we finally made it to the cottage, I had the full Ranulph Fiennes ice-beard and matching eye-brows. Just how close to hypothermia we were, I don't know, but it was certainly much too close for comfort.
We were stuck at the cottage for several days. The temperature dropped to minus 17 degrees; so cold that the central heating oil froze. We had to go out foraging for firewood, and the metal handle of the bow-saw froze to the skin of my hand.
We finally made it off the moor , and into the nearest town on about January 2nd.
I won't forget that New Year in a hurry.

So if my brother is unfortunate enough to have been one of the motorists stranded on Telegraph Hill. . .

Monday, 2 February 2009

John Martyn: 1948 - 2009

I was at work this afternoon when I learned from Stealthy Ninja, one of our security guards, that John Martyn had died last Friday.

He was 60 years old.

John Martyn was an extraordinary talent; singer, songwriter and guitar innovator.

He was also something of a hell-raiser, taking the time-worn path of drink, drugs and hotel room demolition.

There are many tales of excess, including one of a concert where he was so blotto that he fell off the stage.

After the gig, he remarked, “Yeah, I fell off the stage . . . but I still got three encores”

I only saw him play live once, and thinking about that gig takes me back to . . .


. . . the 1970s.

I was temporarily living back with my parents, having been evicted from a flat that I had shared with some friends, so when I’d heard from my mates at Lancaster University that John Martyn was playing there, I had leapt at the chance to get away for the weekend. There were a couple of problems however. I was living in Worcestershire, the gig was 170 miles away in Lancaster and I had no vehicle.

There was also the added complication that it was the day my nephew was being christened, and I was privileged enough to have been asked to be his godfather. (Don’t even think of doing a Marlon Brando impersonation.) Two unmissable events on the same day; how typical.

An unlikely solution was found when I learned that another friend of mine, who was attending a wedding on that day, needed someone sober to drive his car so that he could get to the gig after having a skin-full.

So we made it in time, even though there was detour to Solihull to collect another Martyn fan.

The car was a Ford Capri, and it was about the most uncomfortable thing I have ever driven; the roof was so low that I had to hunker down in the driver’s seat, and even though the original steering wheel had been replaced by one that was about the size of a shirt-button, I kept clouting my knees on it.

The gig, however, was brilliant. It was everything we had expected and more. The majority of the set was from the “Solid Air” and “Inside out” albums, with a bunch of older stuff too. I’m sure that John Martyn was far from sober at the start of the set, and by the end he must have been well stoned too. At one point, a bloke in the audience handed him an enormous joint, and having taken a hefty drag on it, he beamed out across the crowd, exhaled slowly and said “Ahhh. Lancaster . . . It’s great to be back”.

He didn’t fall off the stage either.