Monday, 25 August 2008


Sitting in an English garden
waiting for the sun
If the sun don't come
you get a tan
from standing in the English rain
I am the eggman
They are the eggmen
I am the walrus
Goo goo g' joob
John Lennon (I am the Walrus)

I am watching the sky above Warkworth Castle: it is as dark and grim as a thundery sky over Bermuda at this time of year. The rain in those clouds, when moving my way, could arrive very quickly, and will beat on my kitchen windows obliterating the view. As I have a week's worth of laundry out on the lines, I am looking for the last moment to run outside and haul down clothes, towels and linen.

Why even try? I don't have a clothes dryer, though I can dry things in the flat in two or three days on the airing racks; but that is an inconvenience as Cailean likes to nick things from the rack and hide them away. I can turn the heating on, but our gas rates just increased by 35%. On a very windy day such as this one, outdoors in the courtyard I can get my laundry completely dry, ready to fold and put away, in two hours.

Will I get the two hours? I am watching!

According to the Evening Chronicle out of Newcastle, August has already had more than twice the normal rainfall for this month in the North than it did in 2007, which had been a very wet summer.

Noted: 1,500 cricket matches have been called off this summer of 2008, so far. In 2007, 1,600 were postponed or cancelled during the entire year. God help us!

Farmers are trying to get their crops harvested. Driers must be used once the wet grain is gathered in, and driers use high-priced fuel, and that is crippling farmers. I imagine that handicap will be passed along to us as far higher prices for things as simple as a small wholemeal loaf. The 68P loaf I bought last Christmas cost me 85P yesterday. Up 25%.

The Chronicle gives rainfall figures in millimetres, which means little to me. I still think in old money. I shall attempt to convert these figures here as I know there must be a few people like me who still feel at home with inches.

In Northumberland, in the first two weeks of August this summer, we've had 108.3 mm of rain. That is over 4.5 inches. We had a little over two inches in 2007 for the entire month of August. It's still raining in 2008.

The Alnwick International Music Festival, staged every August for a week in the town's old, cobbled Market Square, during the daylight hours, had to be moved indoors this year. No punters in sunglasses, shorts and pale hairy legs (and their husbands) soaking up the sun and arts and history in 2008. Rather, uncomfortable seats in the cramped Alnwick Playhouse, with its inadequate stage, lighting and gloomy atmosphere.

My summer's potted plants were washed out by mid-month, and I ripped out the annuals, cut back the plants I'm hoping will survive, and toted the lot indoors. Too cold for them outside in Amble's winter weather. The flat is full of clay pots. Despite the pruning, a number of garden dwellers came in with the geraniums, impatiens, hydrangeas, palms and many mystery plants that I bought simply because they looked nice, not by name or reputation. Many times over the past fortnight, Cailean has nudged me and directed me to some corner of the flat, where he then pointed out a large snail, slug or many-legged bug making its way across a room. These visitors have been carefully carried outside and placed in overgrown areas. Even the slugs, they are amazing creatures.

The radio reported trouble at Hadrian's Wall, which starts its way west in Wallsend, some forty miles south of here. I live in the part of the world that Hadrian considered beyond Civilization. On a Saturday night, at least, that reputation stands. Apparently, all the rain has made the ground near the Wall more than a little soggy, well-worn footpaths alongside it are puddled and all that is undermining the Wall in places, making it liable to tumble down. Visitors and hikers are advised to walk at a distance from the Wall, and not in single file, on firmer ground.

If the Scots have their wits about them, they might burst through the Wall about now, take some territory back from the Sassenachs, and get their revenge for Mel Gibson's Braveheart. Should be a walkover!

One day last week, we woke to not only the rain, but to temperatures in the low 40's. In fact, the radio presenter said that it was "six degrees", but he was talking Celsius. Looking outside, people were wearing overcoats, hats and gloves!

Yesterday, 24 August, was not only Sunday Market Day in Amble, but a cycle meet for this part of England (and cyclists from all over Europe it seemed), as well as a fair for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution on the Amble waterfront. Why should the rain ease after three weeks? But, ease it did, about mid-morning, and, while cool, it was gloriously sunny and dry. I fossicked for my sunglasses and Panama hat, trimmed my moustache, hitched Cailean to his leash, and walked out among the poodles instead of weeks of puddles.

By last night, of course, the rain had returned. And it only paused a few hours ago. Gathering strength, I imagine.

Warkworth Castle has the look of Al Capp's Joe Btfsplk about it.

I am watching the sky carefully. Goo goo g'joob.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

The Most Important Meal

I do invite you to-morrow morning
to my house to breakfast …
Shall it be so?
William Shakespeare (Merry Wives of Windsor, III, iii)

"Breakfast," my mother used to say, "is the most important meal of the day."

Of course, all mothers say that. And I don't suppose my own mother had made any study of nutrition as it applied to young children; she probably heard it from her mother.

As my grandmother, and then my mother, were totally inept in the kitchen, hardly able to make toast, our most important meal was cold cereal. I can actually travel back that far and recall liking Rice Krispies, which we always had with cold, fresh milk—delivered in glass bottles every other day by a milkman called Butch—and to which we applied several heaping spoonfuls of sugar. My mother left the sugar bowl out, and in the damp Bermuda climate the contents soon became as hard as a rock. We used our spoons as chisels.

One of my earliest memories of breakfast is of tasting my glass of orange juice one morning and discovering that the usual, sweet, fresh beverage tasted absolutely vile. We were told to drink it anyway. My mother had heard that cod liver oil was good for little children, and reckoned that spooning it into us was not going to be easy, so she mixed it with our orange juice. I simply stopped drinking it, and—my perceptions horribly altered—didn't let it pass my lips for over ten years. I was delighted to find, in my late teens, that OJ was delicious. I'd been programmed to think it was ghastly.

I outgrew Rice Krispies and took to Special K. I always added sugar, never fruit. That was in Bermuda.

At school in England, along with cereal—Weetabix—I started eating toast. English style: made the night before and served cold. And drinking tea.

Breakfasts always seemed to be hurried. School to rush off to until I was 18. Then an office.

As I progressed at my first major employer, American International Group, I discovered that I could do my best work at around seven in the morning. I'd leave home with nothing but a little toothpaste in my system, stop by The Buckaroo, or another greasy spoon, and get coffee, something fried and dripping with grease, and a sticky bun. That bag of goodies would be consumed at my desk, and I'd dribble on financial reports from Venezuela and the Philippines and think about Incurred but Not Reported Loss Reserves. It's a wonder AIG made any money out of me.

Those were the days, and nights. Now and then I'd be out clubbing until nearly sunrise, and arrive home quite the worse for wear. I'd have time to shower, shave if I didn't have a beard at the time, and, still off my face, get back on my moped to go to the office. Early mornings like that might call for hamburgers and French fries from The Spot. I allocated IBNR reserves, and I gained weight.

After too many years of reinsurance accounting, I worked for a supermarket. I had a staff discount. I discovered that, on a cold morning, a bowl of Frankenberry or Count Chocula cereal would become incredibly wonderful if hot milk was added to it, rather than cold. It had another desirable effect, the cereal would melt down and more could be added. In fact, I could eat the best part—okay, all—of a box some mornings. I gained more weight.

In the late 1980s I became uncomfortably aware that I was getting too heavy, and stopped eating most solid food and, instead, for over a year, consumed Ultra Slim-Fast diet milkshakes. Nasty. But I lost over 50 lbs, and kept it off.

Diet Coke suited my mornings in the 1990s. In fact, I drank about ten cans of it daily, most in the wee hours of the morning while watching the QVC shopping channel on TV. As a good Mormon, I didn't drink tea or coffee. I usually skipped lunch as well as breakfast. My weight was about right.

There was a time, about four or five years ago, when I was technically homeless. One morning, after eating nothing but some soup late the night before from a Salvation Army wagon, I was feeling terribly hungry. I recall with great clarity sitting on a bench outside the Bermuda National Library with my gut rumbling. Suddenly, a voice: "Ross! Ross!" A friend of mine, Sonny, homeless—you'd call him a tramp, he looked, and was, filthy—appeared and was carrying a couple of very small boxes. "Have you eaten yet this morning, Ross?"

The boxes were the individual packs of Corn Flakes. He'd got them at the kitchen door of a restaurant; they were being chucked out for having passed their expiry dates. Sonny had one pack, I the other. No milk. One of the best breakfasts I ever had, and most appreciated. What ever happened to Sonny?

I lost 35 lbs during my homeless period. I was getting emaciated!

On the wing again, and staying in a baronial mansion being converted into a country hotel—Eaves Hall, in the Ribble Valley, Lancashire—I rediscovered the Full English Breakfast. A week of that, followed by a few weeks on the road in hotels in England, Scotland and Wales while doing a rather nice tour, and I'd recaptured my lost 35 lbs. I was looking better.

I cannot afford to eat huge, cooked breakfasts now. In fact, I have cold cereal—Cheerios or Weetabix—with skim milk, no sugar, strawberries in season, and tea or coffee. Six days a week. One morning, usually a Friday at about eleven o'clock, I walk over to Jasper's Café on the other side of town (a few hundred yards) and have an omelette (mushroom, ham and cheese) with a small salad. I have a cappuccino. I also have a glass of orange juice; they squeeze it as you watch. I read the newspapers and chat with anybody I know.

Cailean does better. I cook him a little meat each morning, which is mixed with a dry dog food, and he gets a bit of ground cheese on the top. Cold water.

Clear mornings, we eat out in the courtyard if it is warm enough. The jackdaws get some bread this time year. I make my tea or coffee last, reheating it a few times in the microwave.

Less pleasant mornings, we stay in my kitchen-office. I have a good-sized desk, and Cailean bunks under it.

We get a good deal of exercise, Cailean and I, and we are both nice and trim. And in good physical health, apparently. My blood pressure is steady and normal after nearly fifteen years of running dangerously high.

When Cailean gets fussy, which he does from time to time, like most puppies, and turns his nose up at some freshly-prepared lamb's liver, kibble and cheddar, I shake a finger at him and say:
"Kid, you know, breakfast is the most important meal of the day!"

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

LUCUBRATIONS (For the Men Only)

As most of my family and all of my friends are aware, I'm a man of the world. I've been around. I'm not shy.

You might want to be just like me, and, knowing that, I thought I might give you some insight into the secrets of my success so that you might better your lives. Every great man should have his disciples, and I'm looking for a select few. However, if your name is Judas, you need not apply. I don't need anyone kissing up to me.

I'm afraid this first lesson is only directed at the male members of my readership, for it concerns what some call "chat-up lines" for men to use when they are on the pull. If you are female, I suppose you should leave now. Goodbye.

Here's what I have found in my years of experience and two hours of research: If you are going to make an impression in one or two brief sentences, you have to make the other person (I almost wrote victim) feel intelligent, and offer them something that will truly appeal. Without putting cash on the bar. That comes later.

Above all, you must not be too offensive. You might get a rude look if you say: "You look like you need a pick-me-up." to a quadruple amputee.

If you ask someone in The Old Bull & Bush: "Do you come here often?" you will get a yawn at best. But, try: "You know, you look like you come here often." That cries out for a response. By saying "you know" you challenge the person. Is it known? They must not let you think they haven't a clue.

The chat-up lines used by some of the great men (and Margaret Thatcher, same thing) of history all, as far as I can tell, without exception, begin with "You know…" Let's have a look:

"You know, I can set this thing to karaoke."
"You know, I'm guessing you'd like a bite of my Big Crunch bar."

"You know, I've got this thorn in my flesh. Would you like to pluck it out of me?" [2 Corinthians 12:7]
"You know, I'm referred to as a tent-maker. Would you like to know why?" [Acts 18:3]

"You know, you look like you're into necrophilia."

"You know who's your great-grand-daddy, Bi'ch."

"Eureka! You know, I just found it! Would you like to try now?"

"You know, I'm called Prince Albert. Would you like to see why?"

"You know, this is no ordinary diaper. It has wings!"

"You know, I don't want to rush you. I really don't want to rush you."

"You know, Piggy, I wonder if the hearth matches the mantle-piece."
""You know, when it comes to some things, I'm not really green at all."

"You know, Miss Fairfax, if you want some time away from your younger brother, I'll take him back to my flat for an hour."
"You know, in marriage three is company, and two is none. But I just want a quick shag."

"You know, that's not a corn-cob in my pants."

"You know, I'd be putty in your hands."

"You know, you really turn me Om! And Om! And Om!"

"You know, I could whisper sweet nothings in your ear."

"You know, if you come back to my bunker you could have a ball. Just one."

"You know, you've got great big boobies. Naturally, I selected you."

"You know, I've got a pennis, Denis."

"You know, if you want to ride on my Ferris wheel with me, I won't toss you off. Unless you wanted me to."

"You know, my name's Bond. James Bond. Would you like to know about Oh! Oh! Seven!?"

"You know, Juliet, I hear the Verona Deep Dish Pizza is to die for."

"You know, Calpurnia, Brutus might do a threesome. He'll take a stab at anything."

"You know, Gμν = 8πTμν, and mine is infinite and to the right."

"You know, hang-ups don't bother me at all."

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

See Number 27 in the Questionnaire

Truth be told, the truth is rarely told. However, I quite enjoy receiving questionnaires and responses on what people are about.

Suz, bless that wacky wiccan, has this one on her blog. I report it here, with my responses.


1) Are you currently in a serious relationship? [Define 'currently', 'serious' and 'relationship'.]

2) What was your dream growing up? [Catching a fish big enough to eat.]

3) What talent do you wish you had? [Sword-swallowing.]

4) If I bought you a drink what would it be? [A miracle?]

5) Favourite vegetable? [Broccoli with a good sense of humour.]

6) What was the last book you read? [The phone book ... so many Polish people turned up at the end!]

7) What zodiac sign are you? [The one on the door to the "Gents".]

8) Any Tattoos and/or Piercings? Explain where. [Not on this body! But I bet somebody in this great wide world has one!]

9) Worst Habit? [The Exorassa & Epanokamelavkion combination.]

10) If you saw me walking down the street, would you offer me a ride? [Are you a hooker after all?]

11) What is your favourite sport? [Oh, you are awful ... but I like you!]

12) Do you have a pessimistic or optimistic attitude? [Just a 'tude, Dude.]

13) What would you do if you were stuck in an elevator with me? [Try not to fart.]

14) Worst thing to ever happen to you? [Passing "Go".]

15) Tell me one weird fact about you. [That I'm not at all "weird". Amazing, eh?]

16) Do you have any pets? [Yes, I have a cage full of furry peeves.]

17) What if I showed up at your house unexpectedly? [Would you be bringing wine in a cardboard carton?]

18) What was your first impression of me? [A brass-rubbing, wasn't it? On brown paper.]

19) Do you think clowns are cute or scary? [Send them in ... I'll double check. Two cannibals are eating a clown and one says to the other: "Does this taste funny to you?"]

20) If you could change one thing about how you look, what would it be? [To the left, not the right.]

21) Would you be my crime partner or my conscience? [Is chocolate willy spread involved?]

22) What colour eyes do you have? [From the back ... kind of clear.]

23) Ever been arrested? [Developmentally, sure. By the coppers ... I'm expecting it any day!]

24) White or red wine? [Another boring wedding feast at Cana ... I'll stick with Diet Coke, punters.]

25) If you won $10,000 today, what would you do with it? [Buy Zimbabwe!]

27) What's your favourite place to hang at? [The Hanging Gardens of Amble ... a window box by the Town Square. See the picture above.]

28) Do you believe in ghosts? [Only when they believe in me.]

29) Favourite thing to do in your spare time? [Count my spare change.]

30) Do you swear a lot? [Fuckin' 'ell ... you know I'm pure as the driven slush!]

31) Biggest pet peeve? [Of my 17 pet peeves, "Murugan" is the biggest at 4.28 Kg.]

32) In one word, how would you describe yourself? [Madasaboxoffrogs.]

33) Do you believe/appreciate romance? [As long as very little money changes hands in order to get it by the hour.]

35) Do you believe in God? [Yes, if he has a website.]

36) Will you repost this so I can fill it out and do the same for you? [God knows. See 35.]

Monday, 18 August 2008

Telly Like It Is

Cailean had his monthly flea and tick treatment earlier today - Advantix, a Bayer product - and is feeling poorly. This has happened each time for the last four months: a few hours after the dab on the back of his neck he becomes restless, then listless, and insists on getting as near to me as possible. Clearly, the poor boy is unwell. A day later, he's back to normal.

I managed to get some of the chemical on my fingertips. Nervous creature that I am, I chew my fingertips unconsciously. No telling if a residue of imidacloprid and permethrin gets into my system as well. If so, I'm coping better than Cailean does. I haven't had any fleas since May either!

Cailean is, in his misery, trying to coil himself on my lap. He's a very small dog, but just a tad too big to comfortably do that these days. Typing here is a circus act in early rehearsals.

As it is raining quite heavily outside (it rained inside once when the people upstairs replaced some plumbing pipes in their floor without benefit of someone from Poland), we are not going far today.

I spent most of yesterday reading. I finished off Julian Clary. At least his autobiography, A Young Man's Passage, which was rather a good read, and I actually was breathless from laughing out loud a number of times. If outrageous stories about buggery don't bother you, look for this book.

After that, I picked up The Lodger by Charles Nicholl, which is sub-titled Shakespeare on Silver Street. This is a study of William Shakespeare and his world when he was about forty and lodging with the Mountjoy family in Cripplegate. In 1612, Shakespeare gave evidence for a lawsuit, a family dispute, over an unpaid dowry that Christopher Mountjoy's son-in-law was claiming. There is a statement, dictated by the Bard, and signed by him: Shakespeare's personal words, not those of one of his many characters. That statement is not great art, quite perfunctory, he sounds to have been bored by the whole business. However, Charles Nicholl then uses his research to reconstruct post-Tudor England, London in particular, and to give us glimpses of the Great Man through the eyes of his contemporaries. Not a lot of buggery in this book, but still a very good history, and in easy language.

Rather than read today, I thought I might have a look at the television.

I will say upfront that I've been both annoyed and bamboozled by the BBC coverage of the Beijing Olympic Games which are being aired at this time. There seems very little enthusiasm here in Great Britain for these Olympics. I expected the media guides to have detailed information, but not even the magazine covers are mentioning the Games or showing pictures of our hopefuls (much less those from other countries!) and one wit said: "The only people who are watching these Olympics are those who are too fucking lazy to reach for the remote…"

Beggin' yer pardon, me luds, over the choice of words, which I have quoted exactly, but on our television we have no censorship.

Could I find the times that I might see some gymnastics (another wit: "Something to keep the paedophiles happy …") or diving events? Not a chance.

One magazine on the rack in the newsagents had a cover announcing that Jordan is having her "5th Boob Job". How many boobs does the woman have? Remember the opening sequence in Fellini's Satyricon? Jordan must be aiming for that, or better.

Another magazine has the story on Big Brother 9 contestants, Luke and Bex, who, now that they have been given the boot, are supposed to have consummated their relationship. On our version of Big Brother, the boys and girls are encouraged to bed down together, and stick-insect, retiring, virginal and whingeing Luke from Wigan wound up sharing a duvet with the awfully buxom and outgoing Rebecca from Coventry. Well, Bex's buxom bosoms were certainly outgoing: they were out for all to see every day, every night. Poor Luke, lost somewhere in Coventry! A euphemism.

I picked up the Radio Times with a non-Olympics cover featuring Sir Terry Wogan, a BBC Radio 2 presenter that I just cannot abide. He may be 70, he says, but he feels like 15 at heart. He's overpaid and getting crabby: qualities that do not endear him to me. He also complains that young people these days just wouldn't have the good fortune that he had in even getting into broadcasting. Sir Terry earns in excess of £800,000 as an aging rock DJ, and is actually paid by the BBC for hosting the Children in Need charity fundraiser each year (and has been since 1980). Perhaps, if he retired, all that money might go to raise up some new blood that the Beeb simply cannot afford to take on right now?

To watch some television this afternoon then?

It is still raining steadily. The postie just poured my post through the letterbox. Apparently, my Clifford James catalogue has spent the weekend in the River: ordinary rain could not have soaked it so thoroughly. It cannot be peeled open, which is a shame. I think there might be a Solar Cherub on page 5 for under £20. Its three fountain basins charge in the sun and glow at night, while a plump female cherub has her way with a smaller boy. Bex and Luke! How camp is that?

I could watch Gok's Fashion Fix on Channel 4, but could you watch a bloke with a name that sounds like a cat hawking up a hairball?

On Medical Investigation a man is spreading a flesh-eating virus through a hospital. Before my dinner? I think not.

There's a game show called Golden Balls, and that makes me blush to think on, knowing that just about anything goes on the telly here. Pass.

Flog It! From Windsor, it says, sounds promising. No doubt it's Prince Harry in Nazi gear. At the very least, it could be Princess Anne dealing with a dead horse. Maybe.

The CSI franchise has just about filled up an entire channel's schedule. I like the opening sequences with the theme music from The Who. I'd like to write a play, CSI: Amble by the Sea, and feature Pete Townsend's Rough Boys. I could skip the television this afternoon and fantasise about that.

Or, I could just gather up Cailean and settle back and watch the Olympics, it is Women's Trampolining. Bex from Big Brother could certainly bring a little zing to that event!

You know, aching eyes or not, I'm going back to Shakespeare in The Lodger.

Original of Species

I thought I might record just a little of my Cailean's history. That is Cailean in the picture, with the ginger beard. My whiskers, when I grew them for a few weeks to see how I'd look with my wattles hidden, came in quite white. Looking at the photograph, I suddenly appreciate that our noses are not unalike. I also look a day older than God. Cailean was five-months-old at the time.

I did not get the £50 family pedigree from the Kennel Club, and so I have in front of me only the £12 version, and that shows just Cailean's parents. His Sire is Mistymorns Choc N Cream, better known as Buttons. Mum is Ruby, the friendlier version of Sokel Save the Best for Last at Mistymorns.

As you can see, my little dog is a miniature, smooth-haired, black & tan dachshund. Buttons is also a black & tan, Ruby is a red dapple. If Cailean grows no bigger than his parents, he will weigh about 5 Kg when he is fully mature. He is very nearly there by length and height, but I imagine he'll gain another half a kilo. At 11 pounds, he will weigh the same as my last dachshund, the disagreeable chocolate dapple Aleks.

Cailean was born in Gateshead, some 40 miles south of Amble, on 8 March 2008. I heard about Ruby's pregnancy a month before she had her five puppies, and put my name (and a £50 deposit) down, and then waited (and worried like any expectant father) to see what I'd get. The deal was done online!

Jacqui Carver, the breeder, sent me photographs of the puppies weekly. I had chosen the black & tan male from his picture the day after he was born (and named him, he was called Cailean immediately). Cailean has a brother called Billy, and sisters Lucy, Delilah and Ruby-Roo. They are all different colours. Remember Fr. Gregor Mendel from your biology lessons?

Happens, I chose not to go to see Cailean until the day I was to bring him home: 28 April 2008. It was a rainy Monday. A very rainy Monday. My friend, Marion, had volunteered to drive me down to Gateshead, and a mate of mine, Gavin, came along too. We used the SatNav and were at Jacqui's home in less than an hour.

Jacqui, and husband Rob, made us cups of tea and fetched a freshly-made quiche from the oven, and unleashed the hounds.

It seemed proper to introduce myself to Cailean's mother first, and Ruby was quite charming. If she was aware that the first of her pups to leave home was going that morning, she seemed not to be bothered by it. Looking at her teats, I thought this might be a welcome relief!

I was handed Cailean, such a tiny lad at seven weeks, not much over a kilo. He licked my chin and my nose, and the deal was done.

Jacqui had, at that moment, 13 miniature dachshunds at home. She keeps her dogs inside the house, no kennel in the garden. They are well-socialised. As we sipped our tea, most of the dachshunds re-enacted the chariot race from Ben Hur around the coffee table in the living room, stopping only to widdle on the many Doggie Pads on the floor. I certainly recommend these absorbent training pads; I had Cailean house-broken in a fortnight.

It was time to leave his father and his mother. Bundled into a blanket, Cailean went out into the rain with me, Marion and Gavin, while a dozen dogs barked farewell.

Another hour through the storm, a little whine now and then, and, at my flat, now his, a few laps of water and straight into his new bed, where he slept for two hours. I checked on him several times. Should the child be so very content, so quiet? Had he died of fright? I heard him wake and walk on the kitchen floor, so I gathered him up and brought him into the front room.

Then, as I reclined on the sofa with a book, Cailean stretched out on my chest, his nose to my chin, and slept.

Ruth D~ said...
Such a nice record to share with Cailean when he's old enough to take it all. Loved this, Ross.
18 August 2008 01:09

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Sometime on a Lazy River

Amble is located at the mouth of the River Coquet, which does not so much pour as trickle into the North Sea.

This evening, the river's water was running gently over the weir, and out of the estuary, in response to the low tide outside. It was worth sitting to watch for a quarter-hour while Cailean glared at me (there are bunnies to hunt down near the woods, muddy water doesn't do much for him) and tugged, from time to time, on the leash.

On the other side of the Coquet there were many dozens of swans. They are mute swans, but that is moot, for they do make a fair bit of noise. They are kept company by many ducks, gulls and a few heron. Herons haven't much to say.

A mama duck, exact type unknown to me, I am no twitcher (except when I'm nervously awaiting something, and that's quite different), and her three ducklings walked along the muck in front of us. The ducklings whistled, their mother quacked, but, it seemed to me, they were each and all big enough to be pressed into a dinner appointment. I wondered if Jamie Oliver has a recipe. The estuary all the way up to Warkworth Castle (in the photograph) is actually a bird sanctuary, and, quietly flowing water this evening or not, chances are my duck-hunting would be noticed and frowned upon. I'm defrosting some tortellini I bought on special instead. If I have my beverage in a beaker, perhaps it will seem just a little like duck.

Then I saw the crocodile, slowly floating down from the weir (from left to right in the picture). About four feet from its snout down its back ... not-so-clearly visible. The light was going, but it might be a crocodile. I listened for a Tick-Tock! Tick-Tock! Silence. It was not to be an awfully big adventure.

Perhaps Nessie, down from that Loch in Scotland? Summer holidays? But how could she have got past all the American and Japanese tourists around Loch Ness? No, not the Monster.

A dead dog, then. The dead dog in Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat is a favourite moment in my reading history. But, in the movie, which I watched only recently, it seems to me that the dog was floating legs-up. Not a dog, no legs to be seen, and too long besides.

The shadow on the water was passing in front of me now, heading straight towards a sailboat. A sudden dull thump and the log, for it was just a log, lodged between the anchor chain and the bow of the boat. I watched the log struggle for freedom, but it was quite stuck. When the tide turns and the water flows from the sea to the weir, I imagine the log might come unhitched.

The sailboat has an odd name, it is called Sometime.

I walked Cailean home and logged on to the Internet. Sometime may or may not remain logged-on.

The Ghosts at The Gate


AUFIDIUS: Therefore, most absolute sir, if thou wilt have
The leading of thine own revenges, take
The one half of my commission; and set down -
As best thou art experienced, since thou know'st
Thy country's strength and weakness, - thine own ways;
Whether to knock against the gates of Rome,
Or rudely visit them in parts remote,
To fright them, ere destroy. But come in.
William Shakespeare (Coriolanus IV, v)

IN AUGUST 2008, Gloster Hill overlooks fields of still-green wheat, acres of brown stubble with rolls of golden hay left randomly by some clever harvester, pastures of overgrown grass and gorse and nettles where cattle and sheep graze, and tidal marshes leading down to the mouth of the River Coquet on the North Sea. Hemmed in by the hill, the fields, the river and the sea is Amble, and this has been the home of groups of people for over 1,600 years.

According to the pamphlets at our Tourist Information Office, Amble was an Anglo-Saxon settlement, which would take us back to about 400 AD. In recent years, local farmers ploughing their land, and people digging, for whatever reason, have unearthed Roman coins, some found on Gloster Hill properties. These relics would carry us very nearly 2,000 years into the past, for the Roman Emperor Hadrian visited Britain in 122 AD and he ordered a wall to be built across this part of the country to mark the distant limits of his Empire, the end of the civilized world. He also wanted to keep the Picts in present-day Scotland out of the Roman provinces.

Hadrian's Wall, which is 40 or so miles south of Amble (we are, therefore, that far beyond civilization, you might say) and runs the 74 miles from Wallsend on the River Tyne on this east coast to Solway Firth in Cumbria, was begun in AD 122. Obviously, Hadrian considered it a priority project as it was finished in six years.

The Wall included ditches, turf walls as much as twenty feet wide and about eleven feet high, and trimmed stone walls about eight feet thick and anything from ten to twenty feet high. There were fortlets every mile or so, and over a dozen major forts and encampments, and battlements on top of parts of the walls. The path of the Wall across Northumbria and Cumbria is a difficult walk, keeping to high, craggy, defensible ground. It is quite remarkable.

You can see a fair bit of Hadrian's Wall today, though it tends to be low enough now to clamber over with little effort. The stone has been pilfered during the many centuries since the garrisons were repatriated, and not a few grand and not-so-grand buildings have a bit of Roman Britain in them. The stone above the door may read "Erected in 1861", but in the basement is a stone with "Hadrian (heart) Antinous" scratched on it.

I recently visited an exhibition at the Segedunum Roman Fort in Wallsend that featured a large bronze sculpture of Emperor Hadrian's head, apparently made when he was in his prime. The bronze was discovered in the River Thames in 1834, recovered, and has remained in the British Museum except on this one special occasion. I examined the face carefully. Hadrian was, to my tastes, a most unattractive man. I can only think he was quite honest and ordered the piece to portray him as he was. I had to wonder if Antinous indeed jumped into the Nile, perhaps holding a bag full of bricks. Some say it was a benevolent suicide, but would you fancy waking up next to Hadrian when you are the most beautiful boy in the world?

The first time I saw a portion of Hadrian's Wall, I was on one of those coach trips the United Kingdom is famous for. Our driver pulled off the highway, rolled into a small town, and stopped the bus just outside a petrol station. There, at the edge of the forecourt, was a collection of dark stones, now well-worn and showing no right angles, some ten feet long and a few feet thick, one to three feet high.

"This," announced our guide, a Cockney bloke called Robert, "is Hadrian's Wall!"

My heart sank. The Americans on the tour poured down the steps with digital cameras clicking, and made a fuss of the incredible thing we had come to see, and posed sitting on it for pictures to pass out to their friends back in Arizona where they have only the Grand Canyon to impress them. I once, by the way, stood at the "Bright Angel Lookout" on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. At Hadrian's Service Station Forecourt Wall, my heart sank.


ON THE VERY top of Gloster Hill, in Amble, is "Gloster Hill Farmhouse". It must be, as there's a sign saying just that. The farmhouse is quite modern, red bricks with white trim, and has a nice gravel path, a neatly mowed lawn, flowerbeds and some mature trees. Lovely, but there is more.

Towards the east side of the level garden at the farmhouse is a gate. The gate is inside the property, not on the roadside, and in a somewhat overgrown area. And it is a Roman gate. Two columns, dirty grey stone, square, carved, with capitals, rising up at alarming angles to the ground, perhaps ten feet high.


STANDS A SENTRY outside a gate on a hilltop overlooking fields and forests and swampy meadows and the cold sea. An icy wind roars in from the northeast, clipping the tops of the near-black waves and arriving unbroken on the hill a half-mile inland. The wind goes straight up the fellow's leather skirt, raises goose-flesh on his arms, makes his eyes water. He's all of seventeen.

His mates call him Janus, for a lark, though his name is Gaius, and he comes from Gaul. He doesn't mind being called Janus. His mother called him Gai, and that's why he ran away from home. That, and to see the known world.

"Frankly," thought Gaius, as his genitals contracted a step further than he'd ever thought possible, and frankly is how he thinks, even though a Frenchman, "I'd give my left nut, if I could find it, to transfer to the Riviera right now. So much for August in Britain! It must be Global Warming. Those dolphin- and tree-hugging folks back in Rome say it's from burning so many Christians back in the day."

So as to take his mind off the extraordinary discomfort he was feeling from his neck down, Gaius got to thinking about his origins. He travelled back in time, and came up short.

The lad knew his parents well enough, and his two obnoxious sisters. He could just remember his grandparents, smelly people - for they were getting on when he was young and farted a good deal. The Romans introduced many people to cabbages and peas, and, of course, the Emperor Claudius had encouraged flatulence; Constantine tried to outlaw the practice, but he was just whistling in the wind trying to do it.

And that was that. Gaius had no books, no personal oral history, no brass plates or clay tablets, Papyrus Post-its had not been invented, not even a tattoo. His history began with passing wind, and his present involved standing out in a surpassing cold, stiff breeze. What would he tell his children? Look at my family nose and lips, and sniff the air. When I am grown old, there is our story.


TWO BOYS ARE chasing each other about a bramble-covered hilltop. They have come from the four farms on the east side of the River Coquet. With only 152 people living in Amble in 1801, a census year, it is remarkable that boys aged fifteen or sixteen should have the time off to run about and play, much less the desire. Perhaps it was a Sunday and God wasn't looking? At least they weren't wasting the day badger-baiting behind a hedgerow.

There are two monoliths near the boys, and the game revolves around them for a time. One of the posts, which towers overhead, is tilted somewhat, the other is upright; the ground is a bit spongy from the English rain. There are no trees about, though the rotting sawn-off stumps of some remain. There are wooden buildings down the hill a short way. Because the sun can shine directly onto the Roman gate in 1801, it has bleached white. It is not marble, but it is impressive none the less.

"Antony," said Adrian, stopping suddenly, "do you know anything about this gate we've been dodging around?"
"Not really. My father says that the Romans built it thousands of years ago. My mother thinks it was a decorative structure put up only fifty years ago."
"Do you think an imitation gate would have been built with one post looking as if it might topple over?"
"I believe that might be the hallmark of a good impostor: a flaw, some ugliness, a defect in character." Antony reads books, a dangerous hobby and a hindrance to obtaining basic knowledge.
"So real things would be beautiful and unblemished?"
"At least on the outside. Like actors."
"Aren't actors impostors, then, by their very calling?"
"Not at all. Not if they are playing men. If they are playing gods, of course they could not possibly be treated seriously."
"So, men are not gods?" Adrian is thinking of something that he once read, for he takes chances with books too.
"Neither are gods; not even kings and emperors…"
"And impostors, cracked and with chinks, seem most believable!"
"Adrian, you're catching on!"


I SPEND SEVERAL hours a week hunting down my ancestors. My father's people lived in and around London, at least as far back as 1740 when Thomas and Hannah Eldridge began married life together. Before that, we trace back to Battle in East Sussex. Battle is near Hastings, which is how it got its name. 1066 and all that. My mother's family are from Lancashire, and I've got some of those members of my family detailed going back about two hundred years.

At this time of my life my home is in the region of England where the remnants of my father's family now live. They moved north in the 1970s. On my luxury coach trip a few years ago, we drove through Northumberland, where I had not been before, and I was overwhelmed by the beauty of this northernmost English county. I had expected coalmines, slagheaps and dust. For good or evil, Mrs Thatcher fixed all that and the landscape has been greened over. Trees, absent for millennia, are coming back, surrounding castles, built by William and other conquerors, that have been gathering ghosts for up to nine hundred years. Flat land close to the sea, behind dykes for many years, is being allowed to flood at high tide in order to bring back wildlife that has had no easy place to live.

There are beaches ranging for dozens of miles to the north and south of Amble: soft, golden sand. The dunes are studded, in places, with tank barriers, pill-boxes and guard posts from World War Two.

The Germans were kept at bay, but Vikings invaded this part of the British Isles, starting in 789 AD and for the next 200 years, leaving traces of their language and their genes, and, unfortunately, the feeling that Viking invasions should be re-enacted yearly to amuse the tourists. Last month, when a Viking Horde came ashore at the Amble Sea Fayre Festival, a friend gave his critique, and it was brutal:

"Clearly they could find no decent actors, or people of passable Viking stock. Instead, they must have hired on a group of down-and-out old hippies and given them wooden swords to use on the locals. And the local defenders weren't local either. More poxy hippies. The actual Vikings would not have been so in need of a bath."

No matter the pitfalls, and, perhaps because there are no open-pit collieries, I love it here. While I trace my own direct family members to the south and west, I'm now looking for signs of intelligent death in the northeast.

Many of the ghosts I have heard about are quite routine. You'd expect this: people are routine in life, why not when they pop their clogs? As John Lennon could have said: Can a leper change his spots?


IT MAY BE that only truly good people look back. Dictators commission five-year plans and Führers dream of a thousand years. There may be something unavoidably evil in looking forward. "We will fight this war to the end, and win it, if it takes ten or twenty years!" is a way of not saying: "We will kill and kill and kill, even if we all must die!"

Jay's parents, more especially his mother, certainly looked back. It was not only fashionable in 1999 to delve into genealogy, but compelling and increasingly easy.

Jay, however, was not into fashion, and he cared nothing for the past. If he had known any of his personal history, he might still have ignored it.

"We have a great-great-great-many-times in the family called Adrian, lived right here in Amble two hundred years ago. Just found him on the 1801 Census." Jay's mother beamed and hoped to interest her sullen boy.
"Well, that's a naff name. Adrian."
"It's a version of Hadrian, you know. The Roman emperor."
"That's boring stuff. Did Hadrian even come here for real? Did he even exist? Does anything exist? Does anything really matter?"
"He left a wall…"
"Maybe if he'd left a ghost I could care. But I don't. I'm going out."

And Jay, in his grey sweats, grey trainers and grey baseball cap, walked across Amble and up Gloster Hill.

The country lane over Gloster Hill is narrow: an approaching vehicle would have to pull into the brush to allow your own small car to pass. The view is spectacular, there are few trees to block it, and Warkworth Castle is shining in the cold, spring sunlight, a mile or so away. The North Sea is sparkling over the low headland beyond the Coquet Estuary. There are a few geese on the river, and fewer boats. Although it is late April, the year is new.

Jay is not a stupid boy, but his attitude masks any appearance of innate wisdom. The grey baseball cap, pulled down, makes him unpleasant. No sixteen-years-old should be unpleasant, there is everything in the world to live for, isn't there?

Over the fence, through the long grass, and Jay slumps against one of the pillars of the old Roman gate. Standing by the other pillar, though Jay cannot see him, is another young man. A fellow who looks remarkably like Jay, especially his nose and mouth, and who is, as you know, dressed in odd Roman gear. Some sort of re-enactment? I see the ghost of Gaius, so do you, but Jay does not. Attitude, you know.

"I have to do something about those bastards at the high school," Jay is thinking. "They keep saying I'm gay. Teasing me. And I don't think I am."
"I don't much care for being called Gai myself," offers Gaius, but he's not heard this time. "Janus is kind of cool, though. God of the Gate."
"Dylan and Eric got it right."
"Bob and Clapton!" Gaius reads minds—ghosts can, you know—and is a pretty with-it ghost.
"Columbine! Da Bomb!" And Jay pulls his cap down a little further, and thinks of the future.

Not every ghost story need be creepy, but it does help to have a certain frisson.


GHOSTS CANNOT HURT us. Remember that Hamlet felt awfully sorry for his father's spirit: "Alas, poor ghost!" If there are ghosts, they may be busy haunting each other. Those risen from the gulags may be worrying Stalin, and millions might be bugging Hitler. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are ineffective ghosts now. On a simpler level, Catherine Howard's spectre is said to run screaming after Henry VIII in a corridor—quaintly renamed "The Haunted Gallery"—in Hampton Court Palace. In November 1541, Henry lost his rag; in February 1542, Catherine lost her head; in 2008, Catherine's ghost is a popular tourist draw at Hampton Court. Nothing more.

We cannot change the past, and I believe we cannot plan to change or create the distant future from the present. For the future, we can only do the immediate with any certainty, and we should get on with that.

Should we live, as a song goes, for absolute pleasure? According to the Bible: "There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour." (Ecclesiastes 2:24). This suggests that we should have some fun, get on with life, not dwell on death, and that it is the best thing we can do for ourselves.
Let go of the ghosts. Let ghosts be dead. Live!


I OWE HADRIAN a debt. It may be that I am descended from one of his legionaries: something about the nose, the mouth. I suppose that as DNA research gets deeper and deeper into who exactly we are, a computer somewhere might flag me, along with others in, perhaps, modern Europe, and place us all originally in a forest clearing outside the British Isles. We might have been quite happy somewhere long before Romulus and Remus bade farewell to the she-wolf and went on to fight to the death—the death of Remus, at least—over the founding of a city. Some considerable time after that, a direct ancestor of mine may have joined the Roman army—perhaps just for the uniform, shiny sword, and bubble-and-squeak—and ended up on a boat for Britain. The rest is history. I am history. And, perhaps I'm not.

If I am pure Anglo-Saxon or, gods forbid, a Pictish person, deep down, and not at all European, I still owe Hadrian and the Romans for glass and double-glazing, aqueducts, baths, flush-toilets, home heating, racecourses and concrete. And extraordinary war machines.

I also owe Hadrian for a walk that I enjoy, over Gloster Hill in Amble, made special because on the top of the hill there is a gate: a Roman gate. I don't suppose Hadrian personally ordered it to be built, and it may have been constructed centuries after that Emperor walked and rode in the Northumbrian countryside, but he set things in motion.

Hadrian, bless him, is responsible for this story.

Arrival! Late, perhaps, but very well-dressed!

I suppose it was bound to happen. Beginning a blog, I mean. However, until some ungodly hour (well, before my first cup of tea) this morning, I just couldn't be arsed to fill in the profile information and figure out the films I liked best, and stand on tip-toe to look out the window to see where, exactly, I was. Turned out, I was on my tip-toes, and I recalled rather liking Moby Dick when I saw it back in 1956. I like Moby today. Make up your own jokes about Dick.

If all goes to plan, this blog will be written while sleeping dogs lie. Well, sleeping dog, in his bed, at my feet. If the boy wakes, he'll most likely request a two-hour walk (which includes visiting all the shops he's welcomed in for chats and dog-treats, and saluting lamp-posts, so, PETA, he's not using those wee legs for a full 120 minutes) and the blog might be a few notes on scraps of paper. If I can, later, extract my Great Thoughts from my Emergency Shopping List Items, the blog will grow, despite the tired feet.

Something about me, then. In Amble, I am a tall person. I think that the people who have lived in Northumberland for generations have grown smaller and smaller, through Natural Selection, to be more comfortable in the coal mines. There are a very few, still living, pit donkeys left ... such diminutive things. There are low door-frames on houses with low ceilings. And there are miniature apples on the tree in a neighbour's garden. I've not figured that connection out yet. Still, for all my great height in Amble by the Sea, I am short. Do I love Amble for the countryside, the North Sea very nearly pounding at my door, the castles nearly a thousand years old, the dialect, the lovely people? Or is it just that I feel tall?

I have a dog, born 8 March 2008, so he is rather young as I write this, but house-trained, at least. He is from Gateshead, forty miles to the south, and I think he is a miniature (dachshund, in his case) because his ancestors were bred to look in rabbit warrens, not because they were fetching coal out of tunnels running under the North Sea with their teeth. The boy likes to track the bunnies. His name is Mistymorns Cailean. Cailean is a Gaelic name meaning "young pup" ... the Anglicized version would be Colin. Oh ... I know that name.

When I'm not reading, cooking, repotting plants or taking Cailean to the River or along country lanes, I try to write things. However, I have difficulty writing to order. What I write usually arrives late at night, but turns up looking quite nice, even overly proper at times. Quite! Rather! Don't you know? I say! For I "hear" my inner voice speaking in a posh accent, and I put it down that way. If you come across my words: "Bugger off, peasants ...!" you must read them just like HM Queen Elizabeth says them, to hear the real me. We don't have many peasants in Amble now, but we are up to our tits in pheasants. Another reason to like it here. Fair game!

Finally, I don't use after-shave or any sort of fragrance from a bottle. Cailean would not permit that. I could rub steak behind my ears for him, but the gravy would be hell on my shirt collars. One has to drawn the line.