Monday, 20 July 2009

Psychoville : Wonderfully unsettling

I just have to say something about "Psychoville", the pitch-black comedy drama that is on BBC2 at present. The end of the series is approaching fast, and each episode seems to head off into increasingly strange territory, so if you've not caught it and you fancy something a bit "off piste", try BBC iPlayer where all the episodes are available until the series concludes.
(Apologies to anybody reading this after the transmission dates, but I have no doubt that there will be re-runs and DVD releases, so you'll not be deprived of this malefic gem.)

This is the brainchild of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, who's "The League of Gentleman" gave us the citizens of Royston Vazey in all their repellent glory, so from the outset you know you are not going to be chortling away in the leafier suburbs of sit-com land; It's very definitely not "The Vicar of Dibley".

It is a grotesque and deeply uncomfortable show to watch but it works beautifully. All the major characters are uniquely monstrous and yet they could all exist in our cosy, normal world; they are all worryingly resonant.


Thursday, 9 July 2009

Potato fans rejoice!!

Strange as it may seem, there are people out there who have said to me, “why haven’t you told us anything about the potatoes recently?”

I had no idea of the responsibility that I had taken on when I started this blogging lark. I mentioned potatoes a couple of months ago and now I’ve got tuberophiles, or whatever you call potato lovers, demanding status reports.

The potatoes are actually doing pretty splendidly, as it happens, although their well-being hasn't been entirely threat-free. There are these rabbits, you see...

I'd better explain.
Those of you that have been paying attention have probably noticed that although our garden has sheds, lawn, ferns, greenhouses and the odd shrub and tree here and there, it doesn't have a vegetable plot.
"Where are the potatoes?", you cry.
Well they're not here, obviously

The vegetable plot is at a nearby farm, where Blight-of-my-life keeps a couple of horses. She decided to create an allotment ages ago, but only got round to preparing the corner of a paddock at the start of this year. It was pretty heavy going, as it has been grassland for years, but after stripping away the turf and some serious digging, the plot was ready for planting.
If that sounds like back-breaking hard graft, you'd be dead right... which is why I stayed well clear and left her to it.

Everything was fine, the plants were coming up nicely and then all the rabbits in the surrounding fields realized that there was this really nice patch of soil that someone had thoughtfully dug up for them, where they could make nice little burrows.
We could almost hear them.

"I say", said Hazel, "This is handy. We don't have to dig through all that wretched grass."
"Oh aye, it's brilliant", said Bigwig, shoving a potato plant out of the way.
"These spuds are a bit of a nuisance though"
"I think we should leave them alone,", said Fiver, with a worried twitch of his nose "There's something... 'funny' about this place."
"Oh give it a rest Fiver. Can't you just relax for once?", said Hazel
"Yeah.", said Bigwig. "Your Prophet-of-Doom routine's doin' my head in."

And so it went on.

Until last week, when we surrounded the entire vegetable patch with a sturdy fence covered with rabbit netting.

Hopefully now they'll sod off, back to Watership Down.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Send for The Nostalgia Police, now!!

Last Sunday's "Top Gear" included a challenge featuring the delights of buying and owning your first car.

Mssrs. Clarkson, Hammond & May were each given a budget of £2500 to buy and insure a car, as if they were seventeen year-olds.

I'd have thought that they needed no additional encouragement to behave like teenagers...

It did set me thinking though. It took me back to the first car that I owned...

I think it must have been 1973.
I had been working on a building site in Stratford upon Avon and living in nearby Alcester. A crisis had loomed, when the landlord of the place I was sharing discovered how many of us were living in his "single person's flat"; three of us were asked to move out.
Luckily, my parents were happy, or at least prepared, to let me move back to their place, but this meant that I would be living much further from work. At that time I hadn't learned to drive, so as there were no suitable trains or buses, my only practical option was cycling the thirty mile round trip each day.

A better solution had to be found.

Keef, one of the guys that I worked with, came up with the answer. He'd also been evicted from the flat in Alcester, and was now living at his Gran's house, three miles away from my parents.
"Look," he said, "I can drive, but I can't afford a car. You can't drive, but you can afford a car. You buy a car, learn to drive and while you're learning you get loads of practice driving us to and from work."

So I got a provisional driving license and bought a car.

It was a black, 1959 Austin A35 and I bought it from a little old lady in Stratford upon Avon for forty pounds. I have no photographs of the actual vehicle, but the wonderfully preserved example of the marque in the picture will give you the general idea.
"The Black Pig", as it became known was somewhat less well preserved.

Keef must have had nerves of steel, because he sat stoicly in the passenger seat every day that we trundled to work and back, with only an occasional sharp intake of breath or an understated, "You might want to give the next cyclist a bit more space...".
I'd like to take the opportunity to thank him here, for his encouragement and self-control.
He also managed not to look shocked or surprised when I subsequently passed my driving test.

Stuff I Learned With My First Car.
How to:-
  • clean a carburetter
  • cope with Birmingham rush-hour traffic on the M5.
  • decoke a cylinder head and grind valve seats.
  • replace a clutch.
  • smoke cigarettes.
  • use a starting handle without breaking my thumb.
  • work out which cylinder is misfiring by short-circuiting each spark-plug with a screwdriver.
  • install a set of windscreen washers. (They weren't fitted as standard in 1959)
  • replace a flat tyre in pitch darkness.
  • replace rusted bodywork with aluminium sheet and timber. (Don't try this at home kids)
  • negotiate with traffic police.
There was one more thing that I learned from my first car.

I never actually had any accidents in "The Black Pig", but during the time that I owned it, the bodywork became more and more decrepit. With one door-sill made of wood, the front wings held together by pop-rivetted plates of aluminium and the headlight mountings so rusted that if I stopped suddenly they were in danger of falling out like joke-shop eye-balls, it was never going to get through an MOT test.
At that time, no breakers yard would pay to take a vehicle that was in such poor shape, so I would have ended up paying them to take it. This seemed even more ridiculous, when my mate Brian told me that, if I were to take the equivalent weight of scrap metal to a breakers yard, they'd happily pay cash for it.

"Right-ho" I said, "Let's do that then."

I bought a 6lb felling-axe from an agricultural supplies store, and we set off to some nearby waste ground to dismantle the car. We simply hacked it apart with the axe. You'd be amazed at how easy it is to sever something as sturdy as a door pillar with a well placed axe blow. Door hinges, engine mountings, engine bulkhead, prop-shaft; you can cut all of them apart with very little difficulty.

In the course of an afternoon we chopped the car into bite-sized pieces, loaded them into Brian's van and then drove them to the scrap yard where they were weighed in as "light ferrous metal".
We didn't get a lot of cash for it, but we did make a (tiny) profit.
It was also good, brutal fun.
So what did it teach me?

Cars are very easy to break. A useful warning to any twenty year-old, I think you'll agree.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Downpour n. a heavy fall of rain

The weather has been rather unusual recently. It's summertime and we're having great dollops of lovely warm sunshine, blue skies and balmy breezes.

Just to compensate , however, we've also had quite a few enormous rain storms; fearsome deluges, occasionally with hailstones, accompanied by salvoes of thunder and lightning. This is much more like the summer weather I'm used to.

As I was driving to work on Saturday for a night shift, it became clear that there'd been some serious rain at Jodrell Bank, even though three miles earlier it had remained stubbornly dry. The driveway from the main entrance was completely flooded in two places so when I got to the Control Room I thought I'd better warn my colleague to take care when he left at midnight.
He wasn't at all surprised that the drive was awash,
"I've never seen so much rain fall in such a short space of time." he said
"Have a look at the rain chart..."

We take meteorology readings every day and although we no longer supply data to The Meteorological Office, the information is used by our astronomers.
We have a Rain Gauge to record the amount of rainfall every day and we also have a Rainfall Chart Recorder that shows when and how quickly the rain falls. That's the handsome, brass instrument in a glass box in the picture.

When I looked at the chart I could see what he meant.

When the Rain Gauge was read the following morning, the total rainfall for the day was 35mm and, as you can see from the picture of the chart, most of it fell in about fifteen minutes. Quite extraordinary.

It's a good job it didn't rain like that at Glastonbury...