Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Wednesday 31 December 2008

It's that time of year

The annual newspaper filler story (beg pardon, survey) of the year's most popular names for children is with us again.

Strange how these things come and go. There may never come a time again when "What did Horace say, Winnie?" might be a plausible catchphrase, but some - to my ears - old-fashioned names can make a startling reappearance. I shan't forget the slight froideur when my mother, on learning the name of her much-longed-for grand-daughter, burst into the old song "They call her Hard-hearted Hannah, the vamp from Savannah, GA" (she isn't, of course); and I'm wondering when (if ever) I can tell my great-niece that, though she's as cute as the winner of the Miss Cutest-Ever of the School of Cute could ever be, every time I hear her name, I can't help thinking of this:

Monday 29 December 2008

Wednesday 24 December 2008

How Christmas seems to have crept up on me this year. What with a cold (that'll teach me to congratulate myself on having avoided one so far) and being in charge of the incoming workflow at the office this last week (yes, I'm sure you're under pressure to publish before Christmas but so is everyone else and why couldn't you all have thought about it last week?), I've barely been in the mood to do at least some present-buying (my brother now has four grandchildren, would you believe). I've had absolutely no amusing observations or curious insights to offer, and managed to forget to take my camera into work so I can't show you, as I intended, a particularly crunch-defying set of Christmas lights on a house (maybe when I come back next week).

But at last I seem to be ready, and even have a spare moment to wish you all you wish yourself. Here's something to waken up that Christmas spirit (you'll need to allow a minute for all the opening credits):

Saturday 13 December 2008

I'm beginning to feel a lot like murder...

Three or four times in a single commercial break? Oh perleeese.

Tuesday 9 December 2008

It was a bright cold day

It wasn't April and the clocks weren't striking thirteen, but the Taking Liberties exhibition at the British Library was calling.

Starting with one of the few surviving copies of Magna Carta and similar mediaeval documents, the exhibition shows the visitor milestones in both our constitutional history and the development of the liberties and rights we tend to take for granted today, grouped around the themes Rule of law, Four nations, Parliament and people, Human rights and Freedom from want.

All the obvious and familiar events are reflected, some in more detail than others. The seventeenth century is a particular interest of mine, and seems to be particularly strongly represented. It's a real thrill to see the originals (even if the handwriting's a bit hard to decipher) of the Scottish Covenant, the contemporary notes of the Putney Debates, the Agreement of the People (the constitution we should have had but didn't), Charles I's death warrant, the Habeas Corpus Act, the Bill of Rights of 1689 (as near as we ever got to a written constitution) and the Act of Union.

The long slow process of extension of the ballot, the great Reform Act, the Chartists, the suffragettes, they're all there. There's rather more of a strain to document the development of labour and welfare rights and the barest nod to the slavery issue (though not without pointing out that both Locke and the founders of the USA both took slavery for granted, since their idea of liberty and rights tended to focus on property - come to think of it, there's no mention of how both royalists and republicans in seventeenth-century England sent some of those they had defeated in battle into slavery in the West Indies).

Apart from the star documents, a particularly thought-provoking feature of the exhibition is the interactive sampling of opinions on some current contentious debates in this general area, and the opportunity to compare one's own views with those of others. Interestingly, people tended to cluster into two fairly distinct groups on most topics; and I was surprised to find myself closer towards the "caution" and "control" axes than I would have imagined. You can join in online, if you like.

I came away with the thought that rights and liberties aren't necessarily the same thing, nor always (pace John Hancock and friends) self-evident truths.

Saturday 6 December 2008

How many cherries...

..does it take to make a Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte?

I was interested to learn from Rachel that the courts will be considering whether it's libellous to call someone "one cherry short" of one.

Clearly the profound legal implications - let alone the substantive merits - of such a case are well beyond my grasp, but if, as seems likely, it provides some gainful employment to libel lawyers (who in these times must be hard put to it to scratch a living), it will be well worth it.

This has nothing, of course, to do with any consideration (oh dear me no) of its potential entertainment value, as there is not the remotest possibility of this being the kind of case that seems to come along just at the right time to provide the kind of hilarity that enlivened a previous period of perceived gloom and doubt.

Friday 5 December 2008

Twas on a Monday morning....

It was only the quietest popping sound, hardly audible above the clanks and swearing at every bump, but by the time I got to work it was clear I had a puncture. By the time I left work there was no way the tube was going to hold any air at all; but though I had a spare tube and tyre levers, I didn't have a spanner. Fortunately, I could take the bike all the way home on a boat, and I cheerfully thought I could deal with it there.

Oh dear. My ancient adjustables couldn't shift the nut at all; all they did was start to round off the angles on it.

So it was back to the old routine till I could get to a shop, and 'twas on a Tuesday evening that I beheld a proper old-fashioned bike spanner, the miniature dumbell kind, and I tested it on a companion model of bike in the shop. But would it fit when I got it home? Would it bogroll.

Another day of mumbling announcements and enforced inspection of strangers' armpits (dear Santa, for the Jubilee Line, please, some signals that work all the time), and 'twas on a Wednesday evening that I went to another shop and checked the precise specifications of a fearsome tool that looked like the kind of thing you see labelled up on Crimewatch.

And it fitted! Only a few more swearwords and I had the wheel off.

Oh. It must be the best part of forty years since I mended a puncture. Getting the tyre off - no problem; but wasn't there something about making sure you didn't get the new tube caught underneath the edge of the tyre, and oh dear, how is it that it seems to be rather too loose and large? But no, all the printed labelling matches up, so somehow this wriggling snake has to be squeezed in; and at last it seems to be filling up, and lo and behold, it's fixed, it's pumped up and solid. I have done it.

Twas on a Thursday morning that I faced the day with a new skill mastered. I am man: hear me roar (oh, all right then, I am bloke: hear me drone on about spanners).

Then I opened the curtains: bucketing down.

So 'twas not until today that I actually rode the damn thing again.

I'll tell you what though. It goes so much better with its driving train scrubbed. And don't we all?