Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Forgotten National Treasures: Welsh Roadsigns (a guest article by Sam Ray)

Currently only second to the Severn Bridge, road signs have always enjoyed an illustrious standing in Wales’ tourist attraction rankings. But what is the history behind these timeless national treasures, long shrouded in mystery of Stonehenge proportions?

It all dates back to many billions of years ago, when a cluster of folk residing in what is now Wales spoke an ancient language. Natural selection was not kind to its speakers and the language died out.

More recently, it became apparent to the Welsh that they were in danger of only having the Severn Bridge Services to distinguish them from neighbouring England. A cunning plan was needed – and fast – to preserve an excuse for national pride.

It was then that the idea of reviving the old dynasty’s language was born. But it had to be done in a way that would alienate the outsider and not the Welsh folk this time. Dual language road signs were cunningly devised. Down came the small signs and up went double-sized ones to accommodate both English and New Welsh. Several tractors were ‘clothes-lined’ before the signs to Aberystwyth were moved back far enough from the roads.

This much is common knowledge to most historians. What is often overlooked, however, is the formidable process leading up to the language’s reincarnation. Indeed a certain Professor Jones has compared the monumentality of the whole operation to that of the time Emperor Qin Shi Huang built himself a wall to keep the neighbours out.

The greatest challenge that had to be overcome by the Welsh was writing the language down. For in times of old it was only transmitted orally. If a script had to be developed, how could it be made sufficiently different from English? The English signs, after all, did spell out the names that the Welsh had always given their towns.

One possibility was to invent a new alphabet. But this would not do. How could the foreigner then KNOW that the Welsh language was so very different and be prevented from dismissing the new alphabet as redundant? No: the tourist had to be shown how very different New Welsh was from English. The reverse approach was adopted: keep the latin script, but change all the sounds attached to each letter.

So it was that Aberystwyth (pronounced ‘A-ber-yst-wyth’) became Fiddlb Widdlb (pronounced ‘A-ber-yst-wyth’ or any other way you fancy). Now the Welsh could squeal up-and-downishly with smug delight ‘Oh, you pronounce ‘th’ like we pronounce a ‘b’! We Welsh really are very, very different.’

In the end everyone got what they wanted – the visiting English tourists motored from one road sign to the next with the childish glee of one who has just stepped into the nonsense world of Dr. Zeuss.

And the Welsh got a touch of the exoticism they craved. None of them except the powers that masterminded the language exploit ever fully understood the new nonsense poems that decorated their signposts (ARAF! SLOW! – was it a warning bark?), but the English bits still helped them navigate. And whatever the Fiddlb Widdlb joke meant, they could rest happy in the knowledge that the English didn’t get it either.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Hamsters Have Remarkable Potential : A Case Study

This is a short account of my hamster's personal journey. After reading C.B. Jones' article "Squeak: Help Your Hamster Reach It's Full Potential", I decided to put his guide into practice. What intrigued me most was a hamster's potential to advance mentally. What was that potential? I went straight down the local pet shop and bought myself a little black Siberian hamster. I called him Plato.

While I was eager to see my hamster tackle calculus, Fermat's Last Theorem, and even "The Seven Greatest Unsolved Mathematical Puzzles Of Our Time", I knew that pushing the little fella was not the right approach. The last thing I wanted was for him to have a nervous breakdown.

I longed to see little Plato develop musically, mastering a range of instruments from the flute, the violin to the grand piano. Oh to see him playing Rachmaninov on a Steinway, or playing lead violin for the Royal Philharmonic. But I knew I would have to wait. For starters, the little chap couldn't even speak English.

I found a great old book in a charity shop titled "Teaching your hamster the Queen's English", by Dr H. Furry - a pseudonym I presume. As we worked through the exercises, Plato made rapid progress. Dr Furry also provides excellent explanations as to why hamsters struggle with certain aspects of the English language. Due to their tight, circular jaw bones, hamsters tend to struggle with long vowel sounds. For example long "a" sounds tend to come out as long "o" sounds.

This caught me out a few times. "Where does my name come from?", Plato asked me. "Your Gnome? What Gnome?", I replied. I had thought about getting him a gnome, but had opted against it deciding that a huge gnome in his cage may have freaked him out.

In addition, due to their long front teeth hamsters tend to struggle with the "th". Statistically, hamsters that have "chew toys" are more likely to overcome this impediment. Dr Furry provided all sorts of graphs, charts and diagrams, but I won't bore you with those. I gave Plato some chew sticks but they didn't make much difference. For the rest of his short life he pronounced "the" as "twer", "thingumabob" as "twingumabob".

In Chapter 12, titled "Who needs angels?", Dr Furry introduced me to the relatively unknown world of hamster song. He explained that while hamsters tend to sing several octaves above soprano, the sound is actually very beautiful, angelic in fact. He warns about allowing your hamster to sing when dogs are nearby, as this has been known to drive the barmy. I got Plato singing "Jerusalem", which not only gave me a terrible headache - his shrill, squeaky voice was awfully piercing - but the sound made our neighbor's dog violently sick.

Plato developed a rapid mastery of English, and quickly moved on to the classical languages, koine Greek in particular. He started strong, but struggled with the notorious Third Declension. I think it was just too complex for his little hamster mind. He tried to explain this to me but, hell, what do I know about that?

I paid for him to have a few piano lessons but, much to my dismay, he gave up after several weeks. He started strong, and picked up some scales very quickly, but it was such effort for him to force down the ivories that he would tire very quickly. He persevered for a while, but it was Scot Joplin that finally did it. The fast ragtime beat meant he was charging up and down the piano like crazy, huffing, puffing, and getting extremely hot and bothered. That was the first time I heard him curse.

In the end I bought him a tiny accordion, and a little green felt hat with a red feather. This was pretty funny to start with, but after a few weeks of constant Gypsy Folk music played on a tiny accordion I was feeling exhausted. I'll tell you what, there is nothing worse than a small rodent playing shrill gypsy jigs on a tiny little accordion. Fortunately he quickly grew out of that.

I decided that newspapers would be helpful in introducing him to the human world. I gave him some tabloids to start with because their target mental age is about five years and I didn't want to chuck him in the deep end. He didn't like the Page 3 girls. "Why are twere naked girls?", he asked. "Um, it is, um, it is for the builders", I said, struggling to know how to explain all this to his little hamster mind. "They like that kind of thing." Builders? What was I on about?

"But twats immoral", he replied. I scolded him for using the word "twat", and then realised he was saying "that", and his goofy hamster teeth were in the way as usual. I changed the subject, and got him the Daily Mail instead. He liked the big, bold font, but said the "shock factor" really irritated him. I thought that was pretty observant for a young hamster.

As he matured he began to read more widely. I gave him a list of renown books and told him to get to work. He enjoyed the Bible, though he complained about all the genealogies. He appreciated the stories with animals in the most, but was a little disappointed that no hamsters were mentioned in Genesis.

He found "Das Kapital" very dull. It was "illuminating", he told me, but had made him vow never to join the communist party. Phew, I thought. I couldn't imagine much worse than a communist hamster. Incredibly, he read it in a week.

It was around this point that he began suffering from eye strain. He was reading an awful lot, and his close proximity to the text (he had to clamber onto the book to read it) was straining his eyes. I took him down to Spec savers to see if they could provide him with some glasses. We went away empty handed, the assistant mumbling something about it all being quite "non-standard". This is complete tosh. I know plenty of hamsters that wear glasses.

He was particularly interested in his namesake, so I got him a little copy of The Republic. He didn't like the class systems described, nor did he like the attitudes towards the "disabled". In fact, he moaned about a whole lot. The advocation of censorship. The twisted involvement of the state in family life. "Wasn't Hitler heavily influenced by Plato?", he asked. "Um, I don't know", I stammered. "And isn't Plato generally respected and revered as a great philosopher, despite his freaky totalitarian views?", he questioned. This was getting a bit deep for me so I changed the subject. Secretly though, I was pleased that he was using his little brain. Maybe he would develop a political career, even becoming Prime Minister one day.

And then he told me he wanted to be a "philosopher-king". In retrospect, I think this was roughly when his delusions of grandeur began. It was around about this point that he started acting strange. He had been drinking wine for a while, out of his plastic bottle of course, but then he asked for a silver goblet.

"You what?!", I exclaimed. "Where the hell am I going to get a miniature silver goblet from?!"

"EBay?", he asked. Smart answer. It took me a while to find what I wanted. A search for "tiny silver goblets" revealed nothing. Neither did "hamster quaffing". Then I had a brainwave. A quick search for "unusual doll's house accessories" and I had exactly what I wanted.

C.B. Jones warned about "delusions of grandeur", but I had no idea that achieving the right balance between encouragement and discipline would be so difficult.

For a few days he dabbled in cartography, drawing little charts and maps of his cage. They were remarkably accurate, and I was impressed that he knew which direction North was - I mean, he didn't have a direct view of any windows, so he must have been using a special hamster sense.

But then they became more detailed, adorned with globes, beasts, angels and crowns. Oh yeah, and hamster "philosopher-kings", with flowing robes and silver goblets.

In retrospect I should have acted earlier. I should have confiscated his William Blake book and his goblet. I should have rationed his wine. Instead, I fueled his literary cravings by providing literature on the ancient Greeks, the gods, King Arthur, and a copy of "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines". I even let him out on the windowsill.

He would sit there for hours watching the birds. On that fatal day I arrived home to find him by the open window, standing next to an open tub of beeswax, a wax wing fixed to each of his four little limbs. On his head was a tiny golden crown.

He flew out the window and I never saw him again. I just hope that he didn't fly too close to the sun.

Antenatal Classes (it is the Gags that Make Them Great)

We sat in a big circle. The midwife handed each of us a small laminated card. She asked me to go first, which taught me a valuable lesson. If you're in a group setting, don't ever sit directly opposite the chairperson unless you don't mind going first.

A little embarrassed, I read out my card.

"I constantly feel I need to urinate. And it hurts."

I should have calmly followed this with an

"Oh, did you want me to read out my card?"

Unfortunately the surprise of having to go first, the general embarrassment, and the awkwardness of sitting in a circle of strangers all took their toll. The moment passed with my usual razor sharp wit nowhere to be found. What a shame. I was disappointed with myself.

A lady read out another question.

"Can my partner get into the birthing pool with me?"

The midwife said that was absolutely fine, as long as the man is wearing clothes or swim trunks.

"Damn" one guy muttered from across the room. That was funny, but it should have been my line. Dagnammit. I pulled myself together and determined that the next gag opportunity would be mine. Another card was read.

"I keep wetting my pants when I sneeze."

"Right then", said the midwife. "Who will admit to this." A few hands were raised, and the guy next to me comes out with

"Happens to me all the time."

A bit cliche, but funny nonetheless and I was beaten yet again. There is another session next week, and I WILL be ready. I will be the funny guy. There was one last card to be read out by the guy next to me. I focused my mind and pulled myself together, ready to take the floor, seize the moment, steal his thunder, and be the funny man of the antenatal class. The guy read out his card.

"I constantly need to go to the toilet during the night. Is there anything I can do about that?"

"Now is not the time.", I said, "You need to read out your card."

No-one laughed. What a bunch of uncultured humourless nitwits, I've got no time for them.

On the bus home we passed one of the rear exits of the hospital. We could see one couple from the session standing there behind sliding glass doors. The guy was frantically pushing a button but the doors were not opening. They must have followed signs to one of the exits, but it wasn't open at that time of evening. Now that was really funny.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Jimmy and the Hoover: A short illustrative story

This short story illustrates exactly what I hate about hoovering. The story is about a young man named Jimmy. Jimmy is totally made up, and is basically me but featuring in a slightly fiticious story that is firmly rooted in fact a friend of mine.

On this particular Sunday Jimmy's heavily pregnant wife, Helen, asked him to do the hoovering. Jimmy has always hated hoovering. There is something about hoovering that upsets his neat little systematic mind.

He simply hates it, the dust, the chaos, the stupid power cable. It is not as though Jimmy doesn't help around the house - he does - but Helen usually avoids giving him the hoovering to do.

Jimmy doesn't mind neat self-contained tasks, like taking out the rubbish, carrying things up into the loft, or even cooking (Jimmy is a fine cook), but Jimmy despises hoovering more than anything in the world. Apart from being disrupted by elderly gangsters queues.

He hates the way the power cable is never long enough. He hates the way the brush-head always falls with a clatter. He hates the way dust gathers in such hard-to-reach places. He hates the fact that a lot of it is probably his own skin.

One of Jimmy's chief complaints about hoovering is the noise. He can't listen to the radio or music. All you can hear is that stupid whirring, and it is always SOOO loud.

Jimmy spent the morning preparing himself psychologically for the hoovering later. This time, he told himself, he would only scream with frustration once remain calm and calculated. This time, he would complete the task quietly and gently. This time, he would be ready. This time, he would be the model husband.

The idea was that by preparing his mind for the stress to come, and by reminding himself that while he hated hoovering it had to be done, he would be in the right state of mind. Jimmy should have known better. Jimmy did NOT know better.

One thing Jimmy hates is the awkwardness of sofas and beds. Hoovering under the bed is always an absolute nightmare. As it happened, this Sunday he started with the bedroom.

Firstly, it involved taking the boxes out from under the bed, and then getting on all fours and hoovering away all the dust, which was frustrating because reaching the middle is always tricky. Then he had to hoover the underside of the boxes, which meant lifting them up and getting dust all over himself. Jimmy always hates that.

He was already sweating like a badger, and now the dust was sticking to him. Jimmy roared with despair and vowed to spend the rest of his life diligently searching for a way to elimate dust from the world for ever just about held himself together.

He glanced at the football scores on the computer. If this wasn't bad enough already, it was going to be a rotten week for fantasy football. Jimmy almost cried told himself it was only fantasy football.

Reaching the far corner of the bedroom is always a nightmare. With the power cable full stretched, Jimmy was stumbling and grumbling. Why are the power cables always just too short? Who designed these things? He made a mental note to actually find the guy who authorised the production of this thing and to "let him know".

The end of the hoover fell onto the floor with a clutter. "Dagnammit!", Jimmy exclaimed. He hates it when that happens. How the Hellman's Mayonnaise can anyone hoover if the hoover keeps falling apart?

The living room nearly drove Jimmy insane. His systematic mind demanded that the job be done completely. He hates the way dust gathers at the foot of the table and chair legs. To do the job properly he has to lift up the legs and hoover under them.

As he scrambles around on the floor round the table he cannot belief how many crumbs there are. "Aaarrrgh", he cries, and in that moment vows under his breath to live off milkshakes for the rest of his life.

Jimmy swings the sofa round so that he can hoover behind it. He pulls the hoover behind him but it doesn't budge. The stupid thing is all caught up at the dinner table. He kicks it out and pulls again. This time it gets its wheels caught up in the cable. "Aarrrgh", he cries, stomping back to the dumb, inanimate, scumbag of a hoover. He carries it behind the sofa.

Then the brush-head fell down with a clatter. Jimmy retained his cool, just, and snatched it back up, scraping the paintwork. "NOOOOOOOOOOOOO", he screamed. And then looking skyward "WHYYYYYYYYYYY?".

"Full manoeuvrability" and "great cleaning results"? Yeah right. For some reason in such moments Jimmy often finds himself wanting to be cruel to insects.

Jimmy took the hoover outside to empty the dust bag, the worst part. He always seethes when he sees how much dust gathers in just a few days. Emptying the bag always makes a mess, which is why he takes it outside. A few weeks back Jimmy spilt the dust bag all over the newly hoovered floor learnt that lesson the hard way, and does not want to talk about it.

And that is why I hate Jimmy hates hoovering so much.

Jimmy wound down by spending an illustrious hour in the park stamping on insects going out for a cheeky beer.

Later he asked his wife to go online and buy a new hoover, the best she can find, money no object.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Setanta (continued)

Actually, what really infuriated me was the Setanta ads during the Spurs game last night, which I watched in a bar. They kept ranting on about a "new era", and raving about 24 England games to come, and lots of FA Cup games, and UEFA games. A "new era"? What, when everyone has to be a Setanta subscriber to see their own nation play?

Sunday, 14 September 2008

When I was a little boy I wanted to grow up and become a diabolical "scum of the earth" landlord.

Having suffered at the hands of a diabolical landlord, and knowing others that have done so too, I'd like to use my experience to write a guide to becoming one. As a form of disclaimer, and to cover my back in case someone misinterprets this, I don't actually condone being an evil landlord. And if you're looking for some of my usual observational humour you're looking in the wrong place. However if you are looking for an incoherent rant then read on.

My wife and I suffered under one terrible landlord, and I really struggled with this guy. He really was a nasty, lying, thieving piece of work. I'm picking my words very carefully here. I found it very difficult to comprehend how someone could make our lives so difficult, and somehow get away with it. At times I felt so angry, so wired, so at the mercy of this guy and so helpless that it was messing with my sleep.

The question that my mind kept asking was this. How does someone become a despicable landlord?

"And what about you, Billy?", the teacher asked. "What would you like to be when you grow up?"

"I'd like to be a big bad wolf Miss" he replied.

"Don't be silly darling, you know that isn't a realistic answer. Have another try." "OK then", said Billy, pausing for a moment. "I'd like to be a diabolical "scum of the earth" landlord when I grow up and make lots of money."

"Now that's a lovely idea Billy, well done!"

Anyone who is contemplating a career change may find this article helpful. Perhaps you would like to become a diabolical "scum of the earth" landlord?

This is not going to be a list of ways to be nasty to tenants, so if you are an evil landlord looking for tips I would look elsewhere. I've heard that www.evillandlords.com/resources has some excellent material.

This is more of a psychological guide, which will hopefully help you sear your conscience and destroy your soul, which is necessary to be an evil warlord. Sorry, I meant landlord.

You need to understand that it is not easy to achieve the true diabolical lows I'm speaking of. For starters, you need stop thinking of tenants as human beings. Human beings have rights, needs, and all sorts of tiresome requirements such as hot water, heating and ventilation. By distancing yourself from the whole human being thing, and seeing tenants as nothing more than dirt then you are on the right track.

Never, for one moment, think about what you would like if you were renting the place. That will confuse matters, and provide an angle of reality that will not be helpful. The last thing you need is to kindle the fires of empathy. To become a really nasty, filthy landlord you must think of what you would least like if you were living in the property, and then make it happen.

You must always treat the law, tenancy agreements, and tenancy regulations with a pinch of salt. They're all open to interpretation - rather than being there to ensure health, safety, welfare, fairness and all that guff.

Take the requirement that all rented accommodation must have running hot and cold water. The key words are "must" and "running". One man's "must" is another man's "may". One man's "running" is another man's "trickling".

There is one point of view that encourages landlords to invest in their property, as this will lead to happier tenants who will stay for longer terms, guaranteeing rent payments, and will also lead to lower maintenance on the property in the long run.

This point of view should not be entertained by anyone aspiring to be a diabolical "scum of the earth" landlord. No landlord who has achieved true diabolical feats has ever held this point of view for long.

Withholding tenants' deposits for unfair and arbitrary reasons is a step in the right direction. First of all, you must never provide a breakdown of costs, invoice or receipt, as this can lead tenants to challenge the costs. For example, if you state that carpet cleaning cost 100 pounds, then they could legitimately point out that the carpets were stained and threadbare when they moved in. However if you just withhold an arbitrary amount - 90% is a good guideline - under the guise of "cleaning", then they may just grin and bear it.

As far as arbitrary amounts go, always set them high, as this allows room for manoeuvre. The 90% you withhold may be challenged, but the tenants may be appeased if it is reduced to 70%, which is still a tidy sum for yourself.

If you are planning to develop a property then there are some ingenious ways to raise funds for it. For example, if you were converting a large student house with 13 tenants into 4 flats, then a neat trick would be to withhold their deposits for "carpet cleaning" and "decorating", even though you are planning to rip up the floors and knock down the walls. The students won't know because they will have left by the time this happens. Dishonesty is the key to your success, but not, may I add, your salvation.

As far as building maintenance goes, a do-it-yourself policy is best. This will help you achieve the admirable goals of doing a shoddy job, saving money, and ripping the tenants off. By doing a shoddy job this will guarantee more problems, which will give you more reasons to rip them off. I will provide a few examples to get you started.

Never replace water or waste pipes, even if three independent plumbers all confirm that they are beyond repair and that any repairs will fail within a month, leading to more leaking and damage. If a water or waste pipe needs replacing, just patch it with resin or blue tack. This will hold for a few weeks, before causing more flooding, damp and mould, and providing you with reasons to charge the tenants for carpet cleaning when they leave.

The same applies for leaking toilets, cisterns, or bathroom taps. Don't fix them, bathrooms are wet places anyway, and mouldy, soggy, wee-drenched carpet never hurt anyone, right?

Letting through an agent can provide an excellent safety buffer. It protects you from the angry ripped-off tenants, and also introduces helpful delays in correspondence. And contrary to the popular belief that letting agencies are an irritation, preventing you from ripping tenants off freely and unhindered, they actually can make things better.

Remember that the letting agencies are in it for the money too, and their French-Manicured agents are driven by commission and "letting agent of the week" incentives. While they should (in theory) be checking that your property meets regulations, the reality is that they "can't be bovered".

Take this hypothetical scenario. You buy up an old Victorian terrace house and convert it into three flats. You've done the conversion so badly that the door to the top flat is actually too narrow to fit any standard appliance through, let alone to be valid fire escape.

Never mind the fact that anyone living there will not be able to get a cooker, fridge, washing machine or sofa up there. It will probably only end up being an immigrant who lives there, and the letting agent is unlikely to notice. The fact that it breaks all sorts of fire and tenancy regulations is inconsequential.

You haven't bothered to clean or replace the carpets, so these 40-year-old carpets are thread-bare, stained, and are black in parts with mould. Not to mention the sticky patches of goo, a gross combination of cat hair and Coke.

The letting agency finds new tenants to move in. Probably because available flats are so scarce in the city that they had no other option. Remember, if all you landlords collectively lower the standards then there isn't much drive for quality anyway.

Soon after this the waste water pipes from the top flat burst causing extensive flooding. The ceilings of the middle flat are covered with brown droplets, the walls have streams of dirty water down them, and the carpet is soggy with upstairs' waste water.

At this point it is clear what you should do. Under the pretence of sending out a plumber, patch the pipes yourself with a bit of resin or blue tack. Mind you, you shouldn't act immediately. The tenants of the middle flat are perfectly capable of waiting several days in this state. Meanwhile the tenants of the top flat are unable to use their sink or bath.

This beautiful scenario should put a smile on your face, as tenants of your flats are locked into a waste-water death match Eventually the top flat will give in to the need to wash, or simply forget, and flood the middle flat. Give them a week of this, then patch the pipes with resin.

This will ensure that the pipes leak again within a month. Don't concern yourself with the tenants' plight, remember that you are in it for the money (and to earn your pass to Hell).

The tenants terminate their residency and move out. Due to early termination, start to demand the rent that you have lost, via the letting agency of course. Claim that the flooding was caused by their negligence.

Negligence is a powerful word in this context, it implies that the tenants are careless, selfish, incompetent imbeciles, whereas you are the responsible, down-trodden landlord. You're the one who is suffering. You're the victim. In addition, withhold 90% of their deposits with the justification of cleaning - I mean, they soaked the floor with dirty waste water and smeared the walls with filth, the scum.

The "buffer zone" provided by the letting agency means that every letter of complaint from the tenants will be delayed by a week. To start with, just ignore the letters. Well, burn them actually, they are an excellent alternative fuel.

The moment a letter seriously threatens legal action, don't panic. Most tenants can be placated if you return another 10%-20% of their deposit. If this still doesn't work, threatening them with legal action is a good trick. Of course, the law is the last thing you want involvement with, and it should give you nightmares given your daily display of gross negligence and exploitation, but hey it should scare them, and will hopefully put an end to their tiresome, pitiful complaining.

I hope this will have aided you in your quest to become a diabolical "scum of the earth" landlord.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

'Big Bang' experiment starts well. I'm not so sure.

Apparently the so-called 'Big Bang' experiment started well. The Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss-French border was switched on yesterday, and several circuits were completed.

Despite all the doom mongering about black holes, the end of time as we know it, and all that, we're all still here. However I'm a little uneasy. Call me paranoid, but I have noticed some strange things today.

Professor Virdee is quoted as telling BBC News "Nature can surprise us... we have to be ready to detect anything it throws at us."

A few things happened today that have aroused my suspicions.

1) When I got up this morning there were lots of dead flies on the windowsill. When I looked closely, they were arranged in the shape of a crow.

2) The train this morning was only half full. Normally Thursday is the worst day. I mean, of course it is. Thursday it is the worst day for transport, banks, post offices, we all know that. But today the train was strangely empty.

Not just that. Normally people go out of their way to sit next to me, ignoring any free seats elsewhere and driving me mad, but today it was the opposite. I had three spare seats round me the entire journey, and people would ignore them to take seats in crowded areas of the carriage.

This kind of dramatic change in human behaviour must be significant. It was just completely unnatural.

3) When I flushed the toilet the water spiralled in both directions, in interlocking counter-spirals. Very disconcerting to say the least.

4) My Cheerios sunk straight to the bottom of the bowl. I had to dig deep with a spoon to eat them.

5) As I made my coffee I noticed a procession of coffee grounds moving slowly across the worktop.

6) Looking out of the window I saw a flock of birds soaring distinctly in the shape of a house fly. t was strangely familiar.

But then again, maybe I was just imagining things.

"We hate Setanta", England fans cry. And we do.

Last night England thrashed Croatia 4-1 in their World Cup qualifier, ending Croatia's undefeated home run of 35 games. The perfect result for Capello at a point when our patience with the national team has been wearing thin. Am I happy? Not one bit.

I am pleased with the result, of course, but something is stealing my joy. Actually it is not just stealing my joy. It is taking my joy, then slowly disemboweling it with a blunt instrument before my very eyes. And it is doing this wearing an England shirt, just to rub it in.

And who is doing this? The ugly giant of Setanta of course. Because of Setanta I couldn't watch the game, the highlights, or the goals.

Somehow Setanta has got all the rights. The game was not on terrestrial TV. There were no highlights on terrestrial TV. And there were not even any clips of the goals on the BBC sport website. There were a few photos from the game, but yeah, right, I'm really going to be satisfied by a handful of static shots of the game.

I don't have Sky, and I don't have Setanta, and I'm not going to get them. That's because on the whole I don't watch TV. The only TV I care about is football, news, a bit of comedy perhaps, and the odd program or series every now and then.

In this case, I was busy last night. I couldn't record the game, because I don't have Setanta. And I couldn't even watch any highlights, because through a disgusting display of selfish and greedy rights ownership there were not even any highlights on terrestrial. For a similar reason, there were not even any clips on the BBC sport website. Just seeing clips of the goals would probably have appeased me.

Of course, if England had lost I wouldn't have been bothered about this, which shows how shallow I am, but nevermind about that...

I now find out that they did show highlights on free view, but as they only announced it at 6pm yesterday nobody knew about it.

If I had been free, I could have gone and found a pub that had Setanta. That would have been nice, but it wasn't an option. But even then, there are further twists to this nightmare.

In a bullish and dog-ugly display of greed Setanta have apparently upped the pub license fee so much that some pubs can not afford it. A colleague tells me this fee is now as much as 15K a year, and his local pub can now longer show the football.

People at work are fed up. Friends are fed up. My colleague's pub's owner is fed up. And, I'll bet, the boy that walks the dog of the pub owner's mother is also fed up. And I'm fed up. In fact, a lot of the public are fed up to. Something needs to be done. During the Andorra game last week the fans sung "We hate Setanta", and we do.

Basically, if we want to watch our country play we have to be a Setanta subscriber. This is stupid. Our country's international games should be on our national television. Full stop.

I would suggest a simple solution. All international football should be shown on terrestrial, with highlights. Highlights and clips should also be available online. The rights situation should allow Setanta to also show the international games. And for the love of all things football, English, and sensible, this should be sorted out immediately.

Frustratingly though, there are two sides to the argument. Perhaps it is capitalism, but the general rule is that people will pay what they think something is worth. There are a lot of unhappy people because of this, but then, it is argued, Setanta have the right to buy rights.

Maybe there needs to be some sort of compromise - pay-per-view - so I could fork out a few quid to get the game, but wouldn't need to be a Setanta subscriber.

But NO I say, NO NO NO, it is one thing to pay for a movie, but completely different to have to pay for an international game, a "public" game, a game that should be broadcast on the public networks.

Monday, 8 September 2008

How to irritate me on the train.

The guy next to me on the train is really, really irritating me. Firstly, he's too big for the seat, so I am perched right on the edge of mine, twisted, uncomfortable and with an aching back. Sticking out into the aisle, I keep getting knocked by traipsers (more on them later).

Asking him to "move up" is out of the question because he can't. Moving is also out of the question because the train is full. I could stand, I suppose, but I'm not quite ready to make that sacrifice. Besides, what would I write about if I did that?

Secondly, he's playing his music so loud that I can hear it over my own. Before anyone suggests that it could be because my music is so loud, it isn't. My music is very quiet. For me to be able to hear his music through my music, my headphones and his headphones, it has to be pretty damn loud. If I played mine at that volume my ears would bleed over my nice white shirt.

Thirdly, he keeps yawning so loudly that I can hear it over my music, his music, and the sound of the train.

Fourthly, he's reading The Times, which irritates me. To be fair on him, that's not really his fault. The main reason for my (irrational?) irritation is Salman Rushdie, who sometimes writes in The Times and drives me crazy. I'll stop being harsh on The Times, it's not that bad, and Hugo Rifkind is a genius.

I guess it could be worse, he could be reading the Daily Mail ("that sulphurous organ of Satan", as Rod Liddle put it), or even The Guardian. If that was the case, I would have to pull out a pair of scissors...

I have a recurring dream when I go round all the newsagents with a pair of scissors, cutting out articles from The Guardian, removing them before they can be read. Ha, I tease you, I don't really have that dream.

But gosh it would be a nice dream to have. Actually, it is mainly Polly Toynbee and George Monbiot that I have issues with, but more of that another time.

I'm clearly a pleasant, patient type of chap, and certainly not easily irritated. But here are a few ways you can irritate me on the train, should you wish to.

1. Cut right through vast swathes of empty seats to sit next to me. Do this with an air of deliberation, making it clear to me that you were genuinely trying to decide whether to take one of the many thousands of free seats, or the one next to me.

Then, make it clear that you have decided on the one next to me, and that what follows is no mistake. Single me out as if you were an assassin. If you are really determined, do this every single day. Wait at the same point on your platform, get straight on my carriage, and head directly towards me. Plonk yourself down next to me and make sure you are wearing a smug-as-can-be expression.

2. Eat stinky cheese and onion crisps at the unholy hour of 7am. I can't begin to imagine why you would get any pleasure out of those crisps at that hour, but it is an excellent way to drive me mad.

3. Faff. Come charging in like a flustered bull. Hot, bothered, and clutching a bundle of papers, a coat, a coffee and some half-eaten pastries. Faff around with all your gear, smothering the table and grunting.

4. Wear a massive rucksack, and crash around in the aisle, knocking other commuters around. To achieve maximum effect do not take the rucksack off, and do not display any sense of coordination or spacial awareness.

5. Slurp your coffee. Enough said. It's simple to do, and it won't just irritate me either, it will drive every one of us balmy.

6. Speak on your phone the entire journey. Every time the signal cuts out as we go through every one of the ten tunnels on route say, ring them back yet again and say "Sorry I lost you, it was another tunnel". Speak very, very loudly. It is important that everyone in the carriage can hear you. Let them know that you don't care.

7. Smooch in front of the other commuters. Don't worry about us, we like the sound of kissing and cooing on the way to work. It distracts us from the stink of cheese and onion crisps.

8. Whip out a humongous "laptop", one of those Macs that doesn't just cover your lap, but infringes on the people either side of you. Tap away at the keyboard the whole journey. Tapity-tap-tap.

9. Watch my free paper like a vulture. Let me know you want it, and want it bad. Read over my shoulder and ignore any glares that I fire back. It's a free paper and a free country after all.

10. Don't bring a paper, magazine, book or music. Come completely unprepared for the journey so that you sit there restless and fidgety. Tap your fingers, watch the rest of us, and if possible, imitate the body language of an impatient child. There's nothing worse than a restless commuter.

11. If you are listening to music, treat the rest of us to some hearty humming and tapping.

12. Get on the wrong carriage, and then traipse up the train. Or better still, just traipse up and down. Bang the doors and knock any elbows next to the aisle.

13. Cut your nails on the train. Sit there in your own little world, totally oblivious to the rest of us. Clip, clip, clip. If you like, pick at the skin around your nails with a tiny little pen knife. Disgusting? I've seen one guy do this for the entire journey.

That will do for now. If I think of any more I will let you know.

Friday, 5 September 2008

It's just SO Milky, and forget sleep walking, sleep "crisp eating" is much more fun

Last night I went to the loo, and when I returned S turned over in her sleep and said

"It's just SO milky".

Intrigued, I asked

"Really? What is?"

"Milky", she said, and then went quiet.

She must have been dreaming of my ear lobes...

The other night I also provided some funny sleeping antics. S caught me munching through a pack of imaginary crisps.

I was lying on my back with an imaginary crisp packet in one hand, while the other hand was transporting imaginary crisps from the imaginary crisp packet into my mouth. I was then proceeding to munch the imaginary crisps.

That is funny enough, but I've actually been caught doing it before.

The bizarre thing is I don't really like crisps, and hardly ever have them!

Monday, 1 September 2008

The Pregnant Card Is Always Trumps

We deliberately sat at the end of the back row of seats, as close to the exit as possible. This is because FastCat ferries employ what can only be described as a reckless luggage system.

Any bags that are not "hand luggage" get left in a pile out on the deck close to the gangway. On the first crossing four days ago there was a bit of a scandal with the bags.

Basically, some twits ran off with the wrong bags, which annoys me because it is not that hard to take your own bag. Everyone knows that half the bags are medium-sized black wheelies that look pretty similar, I mean, c'mon, just look at the pile.

Having the luggage in this free-for-all mound by the gangway made us feel quite vulnerable, so we picked these seats to make sure we got there first.

As the ferry pulled in we got out of our seats early and waited by the exit. We were at the front of the queue and feeling pretty pleased with ourselves. An elderly couple started bustling about behind us.

"We have a train to catch at ten past," the old dear said, "and last time the ferry was late and we missed it." The statement was as loaded as you can get. They wanted to be at the front.

"So have we", my wife said.

"But you're not eighty years old", the lady replied.

"But you're not eight months pregnant", my wife retorted.

Everyone laughed in good humour, although, I think we laughed a bit more genuinely than they did. The doors opened and we safely retrieved our bag.

Then we let them past, after all, they were eighty years old.

Funnily enough, there had been a similar incident the day before. We had got on to a bus that was very full and there were no seats.

We had to stand in the aisle, and the pregnant missus had to lean against the luggage rack. There was a sort of awkward murmuring amongst the masses.

On each bus there are a selection of "disability" or "elderly" seats. (I'm desperately looking for a more politically correct description but it is alluding me.)

When the bus is full, the following get first priority on these seats:

Injured (e.g. wheelchair, broken leg)

But when there is a stand-off between two of the above, no-one seems to know the pecking order. Maybe there isn't one.

This was the cause of the awkward murmuring. The bus was mainly full of elderly. A young women gave up her seat for my wife. (I, of course, remained standing, not falling into the priority bracket).

As the bus pulled away my wife could hear two old dears behind her muttering. "I'm glad she gave up her seat" one said to the other, "because I certainly wasn't going to". "Me neither", said the other, shaking her head.
As I have quite a few new readers since I became a "Jelly Biter" I've put this up here again. To understand the context you must read this post!