'Agree With Everything - Deny Nothing - Embellish All

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Thursday, April 28, 2005

A Brief Encounter

I spent the mid-part of yesterday over in the Canny Toon. Newcastle always confounds expectations: from my personal experience of Geordie workmanship I always arrive thinking the city will have spontaneously disintegrated into rubble and dust.
The trip was professional: to meet with an Oxford mathematician of fierce mental acuity to sort out the thornier issues surrounding the examination and achievement data schools collect and what it means. On a whim, we chose the station buffet for our rendez-vous. Our task was to review some complex IT-related material, the precise nature of which need not detain us. We spent a couple of hours talking animatedly before we agreed, sadly, that we couldn't make head or tail. At this point something extraordinary happened. A lady rose from the table opposite and approached us. "Excuse me," she began, "I couldn't help overhearing . . .". It turned out she was a senior member of a body intimately concerned with the matter under discussion and she could answer every one of our questions, elucidate all our mysteries and confirm what knowledge we had. This seemed to me to be an unexampled stroke of luck, and I can honestly say this was the best and most productive project meeting I've ever had in Newcastle.
The return journey was sheer delight as the train wound its way back to Carlisle and the border countryside shimmered in spring sunshine. The oil-seed, just beginning to show itself in the fields, turned the Northumbrian countryside into a sort of hallucinated Australian Battenberg cake. This part of the Tyne valley brings together four intertwined trunk-lines across the centre of Britain: the railway itself, the military road, Hadrian's Wall, and a RAF air corridor. As we trundled past Corbridge I noticed two attack helicopters out on manoeuvres, scudding low over the river, heading towards Newcastle. I permitted myself the harmless fantasy that, at that precise moment, their commander was reaching towards his in-flight entertainment system to crank up 'The Ride Of The Valkyrie'.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The Ren in Spain Trez? (3) -my spanish is kleine merdre

Yup .. they sure as hell can smoke. Santander is not Spain and much the better for it. If it wasn't for the fags the short celts would live forever. Olive oil, garlic, onions, fresh fish, red wine, roasted red peppers. List on Clement!

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Ren in Spain Part Dos: Somewhere there is a door to Britain - outside that door there be smokers

19:31 – 24 April 2005 – Where have all the Smokers Gone- The Bay of Biscay everyone.
Still not sure what this boat is called. Where have all the smokers gone? Well I can tell you – cross channel ferries. It seems to be compulsory to wear sports clothing and drag your way through 4 fags an hour from what I can see. That’s about £1/hour for say 12 hours a day equals near enough four and a half grand a year. I remember the departed brother explaining to me once (when he was in a smoke phase of his life) that fags in Spain were at least half the price of the UK. So he could spend five hundred quid on a holiday; buy his fags for the year and still be two kay better off.

I think I understand but it still didn’t make me take up the weed. Just seen what looks like schooner.

Monday, April 25, 2005

These Preterite Shoes

The reference to the Lithuanian fish-packers in the link in the last-post-but-one made me think of Cumbria's long history of welcoming workers from Central Europe - back to the German engineers who came here to mine lead and copper in the 16th Century. Another chapter of that history is recorded in Bata-ville a film made by Cumbrian artists Kathryn Guthrie & Nina Pope, the local premiere of which took place the other day down in Siddick.
Some background: Thomas Bata was a visionary Czech industrialist who employed a mostly female workforce to make good, cheap shoes in well-designed factories, promoted the notion of the workplace as a surrogate family, and in the process created an early example of the transnational company, capital detached from location, profits mobile as lightning strikes. In my youth my hometown proudly sported a Bata factory - my aunt worked there for a while - which employed the wives and daughters of the local miners, steelmen and foundry workers. When I was a child I wore Bata shoes, bought from their shop at the bottom of Senhouse Street.
The film's an odd mixture of home-movie and social critique: the directors had the good idea of taking a coachload of former Bata employees from Maryport and East Tilbury on a kind of pilgrimage to Bata's original Czech factory in search of what happened to his ideals. Unfortunately the directors are neither social historians nor journalists, so we're left with the random mushiness of the road-movie - even the Maryport ex-employees seem baffled by what's going on. The directors also decided to cast themselves as coach-party hostesses and dress up in pastiche '60s airline-stewardess outfits, which was a mistake. When they finally get to meet the current head of the Bata empire, celebrating his 90th birthday, they ask him the softest of questions ('Maryport? I don't understand what happened there: it was a good factory') and later their journalistic senses desert them completely when they & their camera manage to be absent from the scene when, quite by chance, the workers bump into Young Mr Bata on the street. What happened? We're left to guess.
But there are some fine moments: one of the former employees awakes from a nightmare in her hotel, convinced that Bata managers are searching her room for a forbidden kettle (Bata's view of the workforce 'family' was highly authoritarian, a fact borne out by my aunt's memories). Our hostesses ask each of the workers they meet 'Are you wearing Bata shoes?'; Bata's head of European Production, a smarmy Belgian MBA, practically chokes - 'Of course not, these are executive shoes!' The Czech keeper of the Thomas Bata Museum, who could clearly go on as Vaclav Havel without rehearsal, bristles with pride, 'Of course!' he says and the camera zooms in to a pair of seriously distressed brogues. Welcome to the new European community.
There's a good film still waiting to be made about the lives of workers on the long journey from benign paternalism to rapacious globalisation. You could always start with the experience of Cumbria.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

The Ren in Spain Part 1

Me and Ren Woman are off to Ethpanya for a few days with 'er mam&dad - Terry and June (we kid you not). We take the new cruise ferry from Plymouth to Santander. Overnight with T&J will be fun they have a certain reputation for old age dilinquency which merits a blog all of its own.
15:08 24 April: Now on board the ferry and installed in the 'commodore' cabin. Very nice. We've found the safe, the minibar, the TV, the bathroom and the complimentary chocs. The GPRS connection to the internet seems strong, so I should be able to post the blog without difficulty. Embarkation was a breeze. They seemed to be searching all the tatooed, adidas clad mob in steerage but me and RW were whisked through. Maybe the crumpled Rohan look and RW's red leather rock chick jacket is the reason. We're off to the shops for a continental to UK adaptor as I only have 1.45hrs left on laptop battery.
More later
Oh.. the Plymouth weather is a bit overcast.

Les Delices de Cumbria - Part IV

Call in the Style Police! It seems that half the nation's prawn cocktail supplies are manufactured in my hometown.
Clearly Cumbria's the epicentre of the '70s retro-kitsch revival sweeping the country.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Here There Be Wolves

The life of a temporary part-time rural IT consultant is not without its small pleasures. I spent this morning labouring on a data model of truly awful complexity, then found myself with three hours to spare before a review of said model in a nearby town. The afternoon was the Cumbrian spring at its most heavenly: bright sunshine, haze on the fells, the blackthorn in the hedgerows just beginning to shoot. You could almost live here, as Renaissance Man says.
So I loaded the boots into the car and drove off round the back of Skiddaw - a gorgeous area of rolling hills, heather moors and quiet streams where the tourists never go because it involves approaching the hills from the north, and they always come in from the south. The names hereabouts - Whelpo, Uldale, Ullock Pike, all tell one story: in the past, wolf-packs roamed these hills. I parked off a one-lane backroad and walked up to Whitewater Dash, a spectacular cascade enclosed by the ominously named Dead Crags. Then up above the Crags and along a grassy ridge to the top of Skiddaw. There were patches of snow and ice on the northern slopes and the wind, in contrast to the balmy breezes of the valley, blew sharp and cold. The summit was deserted, lashed with ferocious winds beneath a clear sky. All below me Cumbria was warming to spring.
The descent took less than an hour and then it was a dash to Cockermouth and data model reviews. Very successful, not many action points. The week-end starts here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Les Delices de Cumbria - Part III

This blog has a rule about not posting vicarious experience, but the story about the motorist who was attacked by a flying sausage is too good to pass over.
It's just as well this happened in Essex - here in Cumbria sausages are one of those things where size really does matter. The A66 has enough carnage to deal with already.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Only Gay In The Village?

The Wandering Minstrel was in town this weekend, playing flamenco at a Cockermouth tapas bar. The Management Consultant, a friend and former colleague, was visiting me so we went along to cheer the Minstrel on to his inevitable triumph. Now the Management Consultant is a chap of pronounced views & robust manner, somewhat uneasy in bohemian company, but in the course of the evening something quite unexpected happened. One of the hostesses of Cockermouth cafe society clearly decided that his presence betokened a hitherto unsuspected passion on my part, grasped the wrong end of a long and knotty stick, and let it be known she was delighted I had finally accepted my true nature.
My denials were in vain, and we found ourselves invited to grace her salon a deux the following evening.
Saturday night was great fun - we duly arrived and spent an enjoyable few hours in good company, the highlight being the piano playing of a flamboyant cross-dressing Dutchman who had spent some time in high security prisons (for professional purposes, we were assured).
Discreetly, I informed our hostess of her misunderstanding. The salonista refused to believe me. Each protestation only reinforced her disbelief. When the Management Consultant dozed off later in the evening her other guests took this as proof positive that we'd been at it like knives all weekend.
So I'm saddled with an unwanted reputation. What to do? I don't think there's an accepted social ritual for coming out as a straight man. Or should I just bask in my fraudulent exoticism? Etiquette mavens please advise.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Hang Out More Flags

Saturday morning in Aspatria I find myself behind a car with a union flag and not one but two St George's crosses on its back window. Is this a record?
The unsurpassed offensiveness of the vehicle (a huge SUV) was compounded by the crassness of flying the flag in the one part of modern England that was never incorporated into an Anglo-Saxon kingdom.
Some weeks ago in Seaton I passed a car with, of all things, a Cumbrian flag adorning its bumper - a navy blue ground, white cross & the word 'Cumberland' beneath. Unfortunately a search of the web has yielded no clues where the driver might have dreamt this one up (there's a disturbing number of vexillographic websites without, errmm, any graphics), but I'm sure it's spurious. Still, I rather like the idea of sporting one - if anybody knows where they can be obtained, let us know.

Friday, April 15, 2005

The Curse Of The Grahams

A 16th Century ASBO . . . Posted by Hello
Business took me to the Red City yesterday. Arriving early for a meeting, I spent an hour or so in Tullie House, the local museum. As part of the millenium celebrations they had the bright idea of refurbishing the galleries with a public walkway and underpass, embellished by a cursing stone. This beautifully inscribed granite sculpture reproduces the highlights of the 16th century Archbishop of Glasgow's curse upon the border reivers (a group of lawless thugs mostly made up of my ancestors). The idea of excommunicating the politically and socially undesirable probably seemed like a good idea in 1525, but even today Gavin Dunbar's prose strikes fear into the soul:
"I curse their heid and all the haris of their heid; I curse thair face, their ene, thair mouth, thair neise, thair tong, thair teith, thair crag, thair schulderis, thair breist, thair hert, thair stomok, thair bak, thair wame, thair armes, thair leggis, thair handis, thair feit, and everilk part of thair body, frae the top of thair heid to the soill of thair feit, befoir and behind, within and without."
This is still so resonant that when Carlisle was successively afflicted by Foot & Mouth Disease, disastrous floods and, errmm, relegation of the local football team to the Vauxhall Conference, the Lib Dem city councillors, showing a rather touching faith in the principles of sympathetic magic, decided that the sculpture needed to be destroyed and its pieces moved beyond the city boundary.
So far, so iconoclastic - though this is as nothing compared to what Archbishop Dunbar wanted done to the Grahams of 1525 -
"I condemn them to the deip pit of hell . . and thair bodies to the gallowis of the Burrow Mure, first to be hangit, syne revien and ruggit with doggis, swyne, and utheris wyld beists, abhominable to all the warlde"
No namby-pamby liberal anti-social behaviour orders for the Archbishop . . .
I have a better suggestion, based on the principle that, as with all fatwahs, the person lifting the curse should be the lineal succesor of he who pronounced it. I've asked the Northern Professor to have a word with his pal the current Archbishop to see what can be done in the way of un-cursing. Unfortunately Super Mario (as he's apparently known) is currently rather busy in Rome. But assuming he returns to Glasgow after the forthcoming election (no, not that one, the other one) I'm hoping he'll be able to sort it out. This brings the possibility that, being free of a 500-year-old curse, I may find myself owing a big favour to a respected member of the local Italian community . . . .

The Psychic Vet

I'm still not up to writing down the brother's death and funeral story yet so I'll ease in to it with the story of the water spaniel and the psychic vet.
Once upon a time we had an Irish Water Spaniel by the name of Molly. She was aggressive but seldom violent and had 'character'. Her devotion to her family was legend. When she was 8 she became epileptic. We had already had an epileptic dog a collie-lab called Sam (must tell you about his night in a Glasgow police pound) so knew a little. The normal vet treated the symptoms rather than the cause and Molly did not improve. After a fit which saw her missing from home for a week or so and some frantic searching (it must be double hell to lose a child 'cos the missing Molly was really stress making), she was eventually found and I embarked on a search of t'internet for 'epilepsy in dogs'. What took my eye was 'psychic vet'. Look- I'm a 50+ engineer with no soul (consult ex-wife), but I sent this french woman a note in desparation.
The reply was 'please send a recent photo and I will talk to her'. So I did. Within the day I had a response saying that Molly was riddled with arthritis and that this was slowing down the fluid flow through the brain and causing the epilepsy - tell your vet. So I did and he said ... ummm you could be right .. so he treated her arthritris and she improved. A few months later though she went downhill again so.... back to the PV. She said 'would you like me to talk to her' (me by email .. she by ????) Ok says me (email). 30 mins later PV says 'Molly loves you all very much but you have to let her go now, to the place where the physical pain will have no effect' . Molly was by this time unable to move and wet and thin and almost comatose ... so we rang the real Vet and he put her to sleep. Wife and children cry. I actually had sweat in my eyes through digging spaniel size grave. Onist.
Molly is buried under the iron cross in the garden with the other 3 dogs and 2 cats. .
She's still very much in our post-person's mind approaching the house each morning though. A psychic post-person maybe? Me - I remain unconvinced of course.
similar site (your risk)

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

You've Got Mail . . .

The Renaissance couple's garden gate is adorned by an American style post-box, an elaborate metal contraption with a perky little red rod that pops up to signal the arrival of news from the outside world . . . But sometimes we have trouble distinguishing the medium from the message. One recent morning we found within the box a brown paper bag, unaddressed, which contained: two long strips of velcro, a black suspender belt, and a sachet of laxative inscribed with what turned out to be the phone number of the West Lakes Renaissance Agency.
What did it mean? Perhaps the more sophisticated members of Cumbrian society were using it as a dead letter-box for bizarre love-calls? Perhaps it was all quite innocent? Suspicion fell upon the Wandering Minstrel, but he has departed to build a yurt (fn) in Lancaster, and have a prolonged jam session with his seven-piece all-girl bongo band.
We shall never know the truth.
FN: Yurt (noun), an eco-friendly portable construction used as a shelter or dwelling-place. Also, a sort of Geordie pleasure-boat.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Les Delices de Cumbria - Part II

It's been brought to my attention that the medieval German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach sets much of his great holy-grail romance 'Parzifal' in a part of north Britain he insists on calling 'Cucumberland'.
Well, Dan Brown's obviously missed a trick here . . .
Though it's good to know that the reputation of our vegetable produce had spread as far afield as Germany in the early 13th Century.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Names: The Name

Re-reading the title of the previous post made me wonder - is there a correct Francophone name for Cumbria? Neither 'Le Cumbria' nor 'Le Cumbrie' sound convincing. 'Cumberland' is literally 'the land of the Cymri' (the Brittonic word for 'fellow countrymen'), but 'Pays de Galles du Nord' is convoluted and ambiguous.
Would any of our growing band of scholarly commenters care to make suggestions?
Ren Man comment: There may be a link here between the marrers (marrows) and cucumbers. A marrer is a West Cumbrian word for mate/friend so howasabout Amisland. A bit contrived .. maybe look at Babelfish to see what the francais is for marrow.

Ren Man Goes Hopi

Early today, in an attempt to cure the tinitus problems, I resorted to native american remedies, namely Hopi ear candles. This involved some chap sticking in my ears, what looked like one of those wafer straws you get with posh icecream, and letting them smolder down in turn. It's obviously difficult to do both ears at the same time. The conjured image does nothing but add to my already much tolerated weird reputation.
Despite my natural cynicism for most things alternative (see impending psychic vet posting) my hearing is much improved though my tinitus seems louder. I have two more sessions booked and then I will be ready for sweat lodges.

Ben Comes Home or the odyssey of an erstewhile Trail Hound..

Ben loved his mam - and his sisters and brothers (nine in all). He especially loved the way his mam licked his face with her sticky warm tongue and the way he could sleep in a pile with his brothers and sisters feeling their warm breath and body movements - it was bliss. What really made it heaven was the way the top dogs - the ones who walked on two legs with removable coats - brought them all warm milky sweet tea in the morning with some lovely soggy toast and honey - oohhh - that was sheer contentment.
Then, one morning when the days were becoming longer, he was picked up and handed to a strange top-dog in a flat cap who rode inside a strange animal with four rolling legs. Poor old Ben had noticed that his brothers and sisters had slowly started to diminish in number but he felt safe as he muzzled into his mam's tummy for comfort. But now he knew he was alone. He cried and cried for his family but was put into a shed where he met other, older looking dogs who had strange accents that he couldn't understand at first. He had no idea where he was. His breakfast was now kibble (dry biscuits) - no warm tea or toast, and the other dogs didn't want to know about his moaning and crying. One of the other dogs took pity on him and told him he was there to train as a racing hound - one that could run for miles following a trail over the fells and that good hounds were well treated - like gladiators. Ben didn't know what a gladiator was. He also didn't like to leave his family too far, so decided to make his new owner love him as his family. Whenever he saw him he would go to him and stand on hind legs and roll over and try to endear himself. The flat-capped top dog kicked him and pushed him back into the shed calling him a 'bloody wuss' - whatever that is! Anyway, time passed and he picked up from the other dogs that things were bad in racing due to foot and mouth - Ben didn't understand 'foot and mouth' - I mean, he thought, how can you run without foot and mouth? So why should 'foot and mouth' be so bad?
After what seemed a long time of living in the overcrowded shed, futile endearment tactics with top-dog-flat-cap and being walked with six others on leads around a place he heard was called 'Cleator Moor' the other dogs got very excited. The top-dog-flat-cap came with a number one tool to shave their coat, they were fed porridge and tea and there was talk of a race.......... Ben was very confused.
The day came - Ben was with the others on the starting line - flat-cap was saying nice things to them all, but especially to Ben, calling him 'Beauty' and 'My Lad' and stroking him with a passion that Ben mistook for something more .... something lost in his puppyhood...
The whistle blew - the hounds took off - Ben made a start - then turned back - why should he leave this master? He wanted to show top-dog how good a dog he could be - and was surprised when he was yanked into the back of one of the four wheeled animals with flat-cap shouting at him about 'shooting..'
Then - a white haired two legged dog came over and started to growl at flat-cap - they growled at one another for a while then white-hair took Ben to another place with other hounds and Ben was very frightened and confused.
White-hair had some friends - RenMan and RenWoman as it happens - who had lost a hound (another story) so he asked them to come and look at Ben. They brought the fearsome ex-police dog Cass just in case she didn't like him, but she did like him and he got a good feeling from Cass who told him to hop in the back of the four wheeled animal an stop wussing - so he did.
Ben settled very well into the homestead and enjoyed the other animals - strange furry cat creatures - one with three legs and a bossy one that ruled the house. But the best thing was joining his new 'mum and dad' for a morning cup of tea (he showed them how he like it and they caught on eventually)
Two weeks later, RenMan and RenWoman were walking Cass and Ben along the road from their (very warm) house in the village of the North Wind when Danny the local Trail Hound breeder was seen to be walking towards them with two very racing-ready hounds. On seeing the Rencrew one of Danny's hounds became uncontrollable - howling and yelping and breaking away from Danny. The hound ran towards Ben who was also in a very inconsollable state - Danny came running after with lots of apologies and not knowing why this very uncharacteristic event had occured. Then, to Ren couple's amazment he said 'That dog isn't called Ben by any chance is it?' Totally mystified at such powers of psychic ability Rencouple answered - 'Why - yes'.
'You didn't get him from the rescue place did you?'
'Why - yes we did'
'Well' declared Danny 'That's his mam! He's one of our last pups!!!'
After many tears of delight and lots of licks (between the four legged dogs) RenMan said:
'Can you explain why he likes a cup of sweet tea and toast in the morning?'
Ben now sees his mam and his sister every day as they walk past - Danny says of Ben:
'Ay, he always was a mammy's boy - a bit of a wuss'

Pictures available on request.. or when we work out how to put them on here

Les Delices de Cumbria - Part I

Seen on sale in a Cockermouth butcher's shop this morning -

"Breakfast Pies - bacon, sausage, beans, egg"

A treat for which the world - or at least the part of it connected to my digestion - is not yet ready.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Follow That Car!

To Cockermouth for a funeral - the full story of which may be told by others at a different time. The first stage of the day required the Renaissance Man, Renaissance Woman & myself to form up in a three-car convoy and drive over to my hometown to gather up widow and orphans. Renaissance Man led the way in his stylish grey Audi. You'd think it would be possible to follow such a car a distance of six miles in light traffic. But somewhere beyond the Mealpot it all went horribly wrong & the Renaissance Woman embarked on a scenic tour of Victory Crescent, that boulevard of shattered illusions in downtown Netherton. Eventually the grey Audi of her attentions pulled into a driveway, stopped, and out stepped a driver who was clearly not the man she married. Who was, in turn, amazed when six mourners jumped out of two cars and approached him.
This made me think of a new technique for aleatory exploration. Intrepid psycho-geographers should assemble by the roadside with a couple of cars. Wait some time, and choose at random a passing vehicle. Follow it, breaking off at intervals to follow any vehicle of similar make and colour, to the end of its journey. Observe and record the sights, sounds, experiences, architecture and landscapes you encounter.
So if you want to try this at home, send us accounts of your voyages of discovery to the email address in the sidebar of this blog: News From Beyond . . . will excerpt the most unusual. Extra points will be awarded for journeys crossing bodies of water and national frontiers, or ending at railway stations, airport terminals and houses of ill-repute.

Monday, April 04, 2005

It's GRM Up North

No, I am not Mondeo Man, nor was meant to be. But I've narrowly avoided the solecism of acquiring a personalised number-plate - or at least one that could be mistaken for same.
A couple of months ago I managed to prang the car on a tight curve at the time of the Carlisle floods. No-one hurt, but the car was written off. In the course of searching for a replacement I soon realised that one of my unstated requirements was for a vehicle with a proper Cumbrian registration.
Three years ago the government re-organised the car registration system. Now all new local cars are registered to an office in Preston, with a 'PY' prefix. This meant the end of the old local Cumbrian registration codes 'AO' 'RM' and 'HH'. And like anything going out of fashion, they become desired. Call it evidence of unfinished business in respect of identity, but I'm not from Preston, and what does 'PY' mean anyway?
To me the old local suffixes are suffuse with associations of the imagination rather than just time or place. When I was a child the West Cumbrian suffix 'AO' on my parents' car always seemed open, round and enticing. It echoed the distant eeeeeyyhhoooohhh of the diesel trains rattling up to Carlisle on the line across from our house. The 'RM' suffix was quite different. It was full of the roar of rough engines, the power and excitement of my cousin's motorbike and wild trips to forbidden places. The Carlisle 'HH' on the other hand seemed far too polite, redolent of 'ahem ahem' and all the contrived gentility you associate with natives of the Red City.
In the end I went back to my roots, and found a car (on ebay of all unlikely places) being sold locally with a worryingly personal 'RM' suffix. So if you see a green Ford with a number plate ending in 'GRM' you'll know there's a bloggist inside.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Sheila Fell

Stop whatever you're doing, grab your coat and hat, put on some boots, smash the piggy-bank, sell the car, sell the house, sell the kids, chisel out your gold fillings and pawn your mother's piano, buy a plane ticket, steal a horse, commandeer a train, wherever you are and however you do it, run, walk, hobble, crawl to the Castlegate House Gallery in Cockermouth and see the Sheila Fell retrospective that opens on Sunday.
I've just come back from a viewing and it is absolutely sensational.