Sunday, 22 January 2017

And another coat

Valerie and myself were in Hurstpierpoint again, and we just happened to go into a shop called Tina Bucknall, where a sale was going on. It's a boutique with the clothes and accessories coming from Italy.

I've long noticed that small towns (and even villages) in the countryside often have a boutique or two, catering for clothes-conscious people with cars and an extra bob or two to spend, who don't want to traipse into the county town or city. Sussex has a big out-of-town population, and therefore little country towns with smart shops can flourish. They will offer goods that are that little bit more individual than you will see on the big town High Street or in the city Shopping Mall. And there are likely to be allied retailers, such as cookshops. Plus plenty of traditional shops like ironmongers and butchers, the kind that have been forced out elsewhere. And a plethora of places to get coffee and a snack.

I'm not saying that I won't ever visit a city for serious shopping. Of course I will, if that's the right place to go. But I prefer the smaller places.

I least like vast multi-level Retail Centres like Bluewater in Kent, which may have all the big-name shops but are bland and impersonal and completely lacking in character, and anything but relaxing to go to. They seem like machines to make you spend. And indeed, they make you feel that you have no proper business to be there unless you buy something. If you merely browse, and don't quickly acquire a couple of bags with 'Next' or 'Hobbs' emblazoned on them, it's possible to feel like a trespasser. Certainly, the high-profile security people give you a piercing stare, as if you are a vagrant or time-waster, there just to mooch around and get out of the cold. Or (as they hope) a terrorist, looking for likely places to set off a bomb. I'm sure they yearn for an excuse to make an 'arrest' - or even use their tasers. You need to be very careful, and watch how you move - what you look at, and who you look at. You are on camera and being tracked. These places are as friendly as a war zone.

But Hurstpierpoint is serene and civilised. As is Petworth and Midhurst.

Anyway, we were in Tina Bucknall, trying on this and that. And I saw a woollen coat. I liked it at once. Valerie endorsed what I liked about it. It was on the sale rack for £40. It would do nicely for the spring - my West Country Tour - when it would still be cool (though no longer really chilly) and I'd need an eye-catching casual outer garment that would keep me comfortable. So I bought it. Back at Valerie's, she took this picture of me in it:


It's not a thick, heavy garment. It's woven rather than knitted, with more than one kind of wool, so that there are several kinds of texture and pattern, primarily in grey, black, white, blue and brown. Its colour varies according to the light falling onto it. Warm bright afternoon sunlight tends to make it look more brown, as in these shots, taken later that day at home:


Jo drooled over it when we popped in to see her. Fortunately it's not a one-off. There are still several similar coats back at Tina Bucknall's. But once they are sold, that's it. So she had better get down there fast!

Friday, 20 January 2017

My new sheepskin coat

If you ever look at my Flickr site, you may have spotted this picture of me taken near Cuckmere Haven on 11th December - a very cold day:


And if you examined that shot, you might have wondered, 'Now what is she wearing? That's surely a new sheepskin coat?' And you would have been right.

Actually, not a brand-new coat. It used to belong to another lady. But then she went to this shop in Hurstpierpoint:


She mentioned that she had a nice sheepskin coat that she never wore nowadays because frankly it was too warm, and made her feel hot wearing it. A deal was struck. It would be offered in the window for £40, and if it sold - and surely a coat of this style and quality was bound to go quickly - the shop would keep £20 and she'd get £20 too. Worth the effort of asking and taking it in, then. And it did sell. I passed by on 9th December, admired it in the window, went inside, tried it on, liked it, got positive comments from fellow-customers, tentatively asked the price (because it surely must have cost £300 or so when new), and snapped it up on the spot when I heard I could have it for only £40.

I hadn't owned a sheepskin coat since the 1990s. That last one was pre-worn too, and very obviously not new. It was also that rather ghastly, yellowish, 'second-hand car dealer' colour. It didn't look right. It might have looked right in the proper situation - on a used car forecourt, with one's minder hovering nearby - but it wasn't smart nor impressive, and I wasn't sorry to let it go back to a charity shop.

This new coat was a quite different proposition. It was love at first sight. I couldn't wait to wear it on a bitterly cold day. And that day came on the 11th, two days afterwards. I can report that I remained warm and very comfortable. I didn't wear too much underneath. I'm guessing that the lady who took it to Audrey's and told the owner (Audrey) why she was selling it had either become menopausal (my sympathies to her then) or wore cardigans unnecessarily beneath her coats. Well, I was the proud new and caring owner!

Let's have a closer look at this coat. Here it is hung up in my bedroom at home:


Those strips of brown leather are quite a feature. I don't know why the shoulder parts have a slightly pinkish hue in the picture just above: it might just be colouration projected by the daylight from my curtains. It could however suggest - applying the methods of Sherlock Holmes - that the lady who used to own this coat had long hair, which she coloured red or auburn. That's not inconsistent with middle-age and the reported hot flushes. I also deduce that she had a build similar to mine, and weighed not less than twelve and a half stone. And she had good teeth, for there were no sweet wrappings in the pockets. Nor did she smoke, for there was no horrible stale smell. And we must take it for granted that either she (or her husband) had enough money and style to buy such a coat. And that neither she nor he sold second-hand cars. Nor employed a minder. And to have occasion to wear this coat, she lived in the countryside like I do, and almost certainly had a dog, which may have been - yes, by Jove, was - a curly-haired spaniel! Look for such a woman, Watson, and we will unite the previous owner with her coat! (Except that she has it back over my dead body)


Some people would prefer a bigger collar. Jo said so when she saw it, though otherwise liking my purchase very much. But I was happy to avoid a big, wide collar that would remind me of my previous sheepskin coat, the one I could sell cars with.

The fleece is dark, another thing that might not appeal to some. But again, on my previous rather flashy yellow sheepskin coat, the fleece had been white (well, to be honest, off-white), something that had simply encouraged me to say things like, 'Nice little runner, guv'nor - it's yours for a monkey.'

All is explained by looking at the labels.


There you are: 'Finest Icelandic Mountain Lamb'. 'A quality product from Samband of Iceland'. No doubt Icelandic sheep all have brown fleece. It's the volcanic soil, you know. The grass that grows from it is highly nutritious, but turns the sheeps' fleece brown.

The other label recorded the UK retailer, a local shop in Brighton which I can't remember seeing in recent times - perhaps it has closed. But it proves that the lady who owned it lived in mid-Sussex.


Looking at other detailing, such as the press-studs used instead of buttons or a zip, reveals some Italian influence:


It says 'Fiocchi - Italy' on those studs.

The coat goes beautifully with my Italian orange leather bag and my tan-and-brown Dubarry boots:


I've been wearing this new coat nearly every day, as much of December and January has been keenly chilly. I bought it just in time! How lucky I was to be passing by, and able to snap it up before anybody else made up their mind to.

Data limits

Gosh, nearly a week since my last post. People will be thinking that I've been ill, or snatched by a Security Organisation - CIA, MI6, take your pick - and whisked away to a Secret Location for interrogation. Perhaps on account of what I might have said somewhere in these annals about Donald Trump. Who knows.

But it's not so. I'm alive and well. Mundane issues have curbed my urge to go online and start typing posts. Among them the Terrible Fact that I've reached my monthly data limit with BT, which is 25GB. Indeed BT's phone app tells me that at the very moment of typing these words I have only 571MB remaining. I shall certainly use that up on this post or the next, both of which I intend to publish tonight.

BT keep tabs on my usage and say that normally I consume only 13.5 GB a month, so that a 25GB allowance is usually more than adequate. The 'normal' 13.5GB mostly represents BBC TV programmes watched on iPlayer. Data consumed by (a) composing and publishing blog posts and (b) uploading pictures to Flickr accounts for nearly all the rest.

Streaming an hour's worth of TV programming gobbles up about 600MB. So if we say that 20GB of this month's allowance has been iPlayer-watching, then that must represent 33 hours of TV. Which seems broadly correct. During my bad cold (that started soon after Christmas Day and extended into January) I got into the habit of watching an hour or half and hour of catch-up TV mid-evening or late at night. I can easily believe that, taken as a whole, it might come to as much as 33 hours' viewing. Hence the present 'crisis' with exceeding the limit.

To be fair, BT did give me timely warning by email at the 18GB point, and then more than once after that. It's only in the last week that I've begun to ration my Internet use at all seriously. I now of course regret some of my more casual and 'unnecessary' viewing earlier in January. I should have planned it all better, to stay within that 25GB allowance. Now BT will start charging £1.80 for each part-GB over my limit. It doesn't sound much, but I've still got twelve days to go before the meter is reset, and I don't see how I can avoid going at least 5GB over my limit in that time. That will earn me a 'fine' of 5 x £1.80 = £9.00. That's enough to be annoying!

BT will of course urge me to upgrade to Unlimited Broadband. An unlimited allowance would let me download stuff, or stream catch-up TV, to my heart's content - and not worry about limits. And it would only be another £5.00 a month.

Just another £5.00... It sounds like a very reasonable deal. But that would be £5.00 extra a month for evermore. And I'm trying to save money, not increase my outgoings.

There's more. An upgrade means a fresh contract, and I'd have to pay my annual landline rental (which is £205.08 for 2017/18) when the new contract starts - now - and not when it would otherwise have been up for payment in April. Paying it sooner than planned would create a cash-flow problem. Not insurmountable, but awkward.

Besides, I come back to the fact that, normally, I don't use a large amount of data each month. And certainly not from March to November, when I'm away from home for two or three weeks at a time and simply can't use up data at home. The winter months are the heavy-usage months, when there might be lots of things on TV that I want to watch, and l'lI need to see some of them on the iPlayer.

This January has been exceptional. It's not how things have become.

So I am going to ignore BT's warnings, and their 'advice' to upgrade. I'll pay that extra £9.00 with a smile on my face. And then resume data consumption at my normal rate from 1st February, staying with my current deal.

I dare say they will bombard me with upgrade-or-die messages. Let 'em. I don't care.      

Friday, 13 January 2017

The next achievement I wanted


There! At last! The Slimming World certificate to prove that I'd lost one stone - fourteen pounds - since joining on 3rd November. Of course, my ultimate aim is to lose two and a half stone, so I'm not yet even halfway through my personal weight-loss endeavour. But the next stage - one and a half stones lost - looks within reach now.

I got my little glow of success yesterday evening. I would never have thought that I would be so keen - so excited - to get this certificate. A flavour perhaps of what drives professional sportsmen and sportswomen to get their gold medals.

In fact I didn't merely get my weight down to the 13 stones 12 pounds needed to secure this award. I burst through the one-stone barrier with a convincing 13 stones 10 pounds recorded by the electronic scales, two pounds more than necessary. And two pounds now in hand for the next goal, the one-and-a-half-stones certificate.

The nicest thing is not however accumulating documents that evidence my adoption of better eating habits. It's the very real change in my body shape, and the kind of clothes that are once again going to be wearable. Also the sensation of being lighter, quicker on my feet, more lissom than I was. And, who knows, possibly more attractive. (Though to what end is open to question: whom might I want to attract? Like anybody, I appreciate mild attention, but I don't want to outshine my friends. I'd be content to know that I don't frighten the horses)

A reality check. I'm still pretty hefty, still overweight for my height. And as regards achievement, most other people at the Slimming World group are doing just as well, if not better. If you are a reasonable person, and not a self-centred obsessive, you don't mind other people's success. It actually becomes inspirational. If they can, so can you. The essential things are to keep your targets in mind, follow SW's advice, don't cheat, get the results, and increasingly revel in one's new-found confidence and self-esteem - and what having these things might make possible. When I do get down to 12 stones 5 pounds I intend to celebrate. And reward myself.

A new and better wok!

Men love their gadgets don't they? Things for their cars, woodworking and gardening tools, and leisure items like snooker cues. Indeed any item of equipment you can think of, from photo stuff to fishing.

And yet surely women are equipment-minded too - though the thing must have a definite practical use, such as a mobile phone has, or a sewing machine has. And of course the things we use in the kitchen. Would I really be exaggerating if I asserted that women who cook have a symbiotic relationship with their fridge and freezer, oven and hob, their favourite blender, and even their nicest-to-use knives, spoons and spatulas? Who doesn't get pleasure when the need arises to bring a certain saucepan, frying pan or serving dish into play?

And you don't need an especially large set of cooking pots and pans: only those you use most. A comprehensive set does look impressive, of course, but it isn't necessary to buy the whole kit unless it's essential for display. Which, considering how 'perfect' the modern kitchen needs to be, might be important. Fortunately my own kitchen is just as Mum and Dad had it back in the year 2000. I can get away with a period twentieth-century look, because the rest of the house is also stuck in the last century so far as decor and style-pretensions are concerned. Which saves me a lot of money, not having to buy the latest trendy things.

Of course, I do replace my kitchen equipment from time to time. But I do it because the item in question has broken, or has become too tatty through wear and tear. Not because the brand is wrong, or the colour isn't right for 2017.

Occasionally a new need arises. Since the autumn of 2016 I've started to have local friends around a little more than usual, so that I'm cooking for three or four more often than I used to. And joining Slimming World last November has made me experiment with home-made soups. With soup, it seems easiest to make a larger quantity than a smaller. If creating a vegetable soup, then a 500ml jug of stock, and a single large tin of chopped tomatoes, will form the basis for three servings - one to be had straight away, and the other two to go in the freezer, to be consumed later.

All of this - cooking for other people, not just myself, and making enough soup for three servings - exposed before Christmas a need for a suitably large multi-purpose cooking pan, in which I could fry and toss things, and then (in the case of soup) add fluid and simmer the part-cooked food on the hob until fully done.

A wok is the ideal kind of pan for this. I already had one, of course. Here it is, in action in the caravan last summer:


As you can see, the three-burner hob in the caravan isn't all that big, and this medium-sized wok (from John Lewis, by the way) is as large as will fit and still allow me to use the other burners. Back home, it seems a lot smaller:


In that shot above I was starting to make my second batch of home-made, Slimming-World-compliant soup. I was still experimenting with the ingredients. It went well, but I noticed how full the John Lewis wok became after adding stock and a tin of tomatoes. Although it coped with the volume, the wok had become rather heavy and could have done with two handles, not just one, just in case my grip weakened and wobbled. Nevertheless, it produced three reasonably-sized portions of soup:


As you can see, I like my soup chunky - as if it were halfway to a stew.

This second batch of home-made soup had lots of extra stuff in it, compared to the first batch, such as shredded cabbage. It had really required 750ml of stock, not just 500ml, and in fact when consuming it later on I did add some water. But 750ml of fluid would have made the wok too brimful for easy and secure handling. I really needed a bigger wok, and one with two handles! A bigger wok would also be much more suitable when cooking for meal guests.

Just before Christmas, I was out for the afternoon with friend Jo. We'd popped into a cookshop in Henfield, opposite my favourite butchers, and I'd noticed that they had an excellent range of woks. A large one with two handles, 14-inches (34cm) wide, caught my eye. And those handles weren't all-metal. All-metal - stainless steel for that 'professional chef' look - is the smart thing just now; but metal just gets terribly hot, and that leads to kitchen accidents if you have heat-sensitive fingers and are somewhat forgetful. You want bakelite, silicone rubber or wooden handles. This particular wok had wooden handles. Excellent.

Hmm, I thought: it definitely reminds me of the 'traditional' Chinese woks you can buy in Chinese grocers (if you can find one, that is - my nearest is in Worthing, some distance away). I say 'traditional', but the extra-large iron woks you see in far-eastern street-market cookeries generally have no handles at all, or mere iron loops, and need to be grasped with a thick rag to avoid burns. They are also the 'proper' wok shape, with a rounded bottom - and not the flattened bottom used on modern Western hobs. The Western wok you see in shops is meant for ceramic and electric hobs, and the hotplates of agas, and not intended for an open charcoal fire, or a fierce gas flame.

Be that as it may, this particular wok in the shop looked the business.

I didn't buy it just then, but a couple of days ago I went back, took a second look, and made up my mind.

Back home, it seemed huge!


But the larger size meant that the aluminium lid I had fitted almost perfectly:


After careful washing, I christened it with a new batch of soup-making:


It was a dream to use. I could do what I liked without anything bouncing out of the wok, or fluid splashing here and there. And the end result was surely better than ever before. Here's a bowl of that very batch of vegetable soup:


Very hearty indeed.

Next day it was put to another test: a veggie stir-fry for four, to go with wholemeal fusili. No problemo.


And of course, cards to follow. I didn't play well. I was still much too thrilled with my new wok to concentrate. And besides, I'd just won an award that had eluded me for three weeks: next post. (Clue: surely that dress is slipping off me?)

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Blue is the colour

I have some 1,500 favourite songs stored on my phone. These represent the musical background to my life so far, from age twelve onward. With very, very few exceptions, they were the pop chart successes of their day, the only music I was ever exposed to, and some people have been rather sniffy about the fact that these songs were so popular, as if this damns them. But I don't care. My songs all stir a memory, or conjure up a state of excitement, or recreate an atmosphere, or in some way are personally important. And that's all that really matters. They are the soundtrack to my life, not anyone else's. So if anyone is disdainful about any of these 1,500 songs, and dismisses them as commercial fodder for the uncritical and easily-satisfied, it's not going to bother me.

My collection is not complete; I occasionally hear songs that I've long forgotten, and want to add them. I also hear the odd contemporary song that I want too. And one of the joys of living in 2017 is the ease with which you can buy the mp3 track from Amazon, and download it onto the phone, and then copy it to the laptop. I do prefer to buy and 'own' my music, in the form of files, rather than subscribe to a music-streaming service.

To be frank, I am not interested in most of the new music now available on subscription. I find a lot of it unappealing, lacking in originality, and (given lyrics that are audible and comprehensible) the 'message' or 'meaning' is often irrelevant to my developed personal view on what really matters in life. And I'm certainly not prepared to pay for a zillion songs, most of them mediocre.

There's no dross in my modest collection of 1,500-odd songs. They come mostly from the 1960s and 1970s; but the collection actually spans over a hundred years, from Scott Joplin's ragtime of around 1900 to the likes of Paloma Faith in 2015. Plus some classical and operatic.

It's very unfashionable to say so, but I need to emphasise that music isn't central to my life, not at all. It's only on the edge. I admire musicality in friends, and their skill if they can play a musical instrument well. I enjoy set-piece things like the Last Night of the Proms. But I'd never voluntarily go to a gig to hear some live rock band. So please don't ever ask me to.

I do listen to my own music collection every day - while I'm in the bathroom, say, or ironing - but on my phone. I don't do 'serious listening' with a full set of hi-tech equipment. Buying expensive audio equipment would be pointless, anyway: my hearing isn't the best. A phone with earbuds will do, or just the sound that comes out of the phone's little speaker.

Most of the time I prefer silence. I live in a quiet house. The sound meter installed on my phone sometimes registers only 15db in my lounge. That's pretty quiet. Bliss.

I was fortunate enough to begin taking an interest in popular music from age ten, from 1962. That was too late to know Rock and Roll, but Easy Listening was in full swing, and I was in time to catch the rise of the Beatles and the entire 1960s music explosion in the UK and the USA. What a privilege to live through all that, and not this present age of banality and endless remakes. I was, despite being deaf to anything cool, an avid follower of the charts right through to the early 1980s. After then, only whatever accidentally came to my attention.

The song lyrics of decades ago were not the same as they are now. For one thing, you could generally hear them very distinctly: they were properly sung. And they included words and concepts that you won't hear nowadays.

Consider the lyrics of The Teddy Bears' 1958 hit To Know Him Is To Love Him:

To know, know, know him is to love, love, love him
Just to see him smile, makes my life worthwhile
To know, know, know him is to love, love, love him
And I do (and I do, and I do...)

I'll be good to him, I'll bring love to him
Everyone says there'll come a day when I'll walk alongside of him
Yes, just to know him is to love, love, love him
And I do...

Why can't he see, how blind can he be
Someday he'll see that he was meant for me, oh yes...

To know, know, know him is to love, love, love him
Just to see him smile, makes my life worthwhile
To know, know, know him is to love, love, love him
And I do (and I do, and I) yes I do (and I do, and I) yes I do...

Hmm. Rather narrow ambitions here! To be fair, the late Amy Winehouse's 2007 version kept to the same lyrics. Although surely her prime concern was to re-create the sound of the song, rather than promote its 1958 attitude.

Another example. Susan Maugham's 1962 hit Bobby's Girl, which had lyrics that went like this:

I wanna be Bobby's girl 
I wanna be Bobby's girl 
That's the most important thing to me-ee
And if I was Bobby's girl 
If I was Bobby's girl 
What a faithful, thankful girl I'd be 

When people ask of me
What would you like to be 
Now that your not a kid anymore-ore
(You're not a kid any more)
I know just what to say
I answer right away 
There's just one thing I've been wishin' for-or

I wanna be Bobby's girl 
I wanna be Bobby's girl 
That's the most important thing to me-ee
And if I was Bobby's girl 
If I was Bobby's girl 
What a faithful, thankful girl I'd be 

Each day I stay at home
Hopin' that he will phone 
But I think Bobby has someone e-else 
(You're not a kid any more)
Still in my heart I pray
There soon will come a day 
When I will have him all to myse-elf 

I wanna be Bobby's girl 
I wanna be Bobby's girl 
That's the most important thing to me-ee
And if I was Bobby's girl 
If I was Bobby's girl 
What a faithful, thankful girl I'd be 
What a faithful, thankful girl I'd be-ee

Staying at home? By the telephone? And this boy is all she wants from life? Really?

Perhaps I am missing something - something called Being Young. But it remains my impression that girls have much more choice nowadays, and although securing a man may be among their ambitions, it's not the only or overriding one, and certainly not being his eternal devoted emotional slave.

Songs featuring 'girl wants boy' or 'boy wants girl' lyrics took a long time to shuffle off the stage. Many of these songs included a word that I have never heard anyone say in real life: 'blue'. Meaning 'sad' or 'despondent' or 'heart-broken'. Perhaps it was always too much of a cliché to say to someone 'I'm feeling blue' when feeling unloved or rejected. So, face-to-face, lovers suffering emotional shipwreck said something else.

Why 'blue' anyway? It's true that colours are often used to describe emotional states, as in:

Black with thunderous bad temper
White with anger
Purple with rage
Red with embarrassment
Green with envy

So why is blue the colour for lovelorn sadness? Why not yellow? Or orange? Or grey? Somehow an irrational convention must have got established. Songwriters would of course be pleased to use 'blue' in lyrics, as it rhymed with 'do', 'who', 'new', 'too', 'two', 'woo', and of course 'you'. But it was an easy, empty formula word, acceptable in 1960 but not so by 1980. I was surprised that the lyrics of many ABBA songs of the 1970s continued to use it. And it seems a very dated word now. If I asked an upset friend nowadays, 'Are you feeling blue?' they would surely give me a strange look, and wonder whether I was really making a serious attempt to empathise and comfort them, or just taking the mickey.

I don't want this post to become a general discussion of long-abandoned words and expressions, but there have been many words used in songs that will puzzle future generations, not just 'blue'. Take, for instance, 'gas', as in the phrase 'it's a gas'. This was current slang around the late 1960s, just as 'sock it to me' was, and by the time 'it's a gas' had been taken up for general use (by my generation, not my parents') it was already dead among its originators. I came across it the other day, when listening to The Rolling Stones singing these words from their 1969 hit Jumpin' Jack Flash:

I was born in a cross-fire hurricane
And I howled at my ma in the driving rain,
But it's all right now, in fact, it's a gas!
But it's all right. I'm jumpin jack flash,
Its a gas! Gas! Gas!

I was raised by a toothless, bearded hag,
I was schooled with a strap right across my back,
But it's all right now, in fact, it's a gas!
But it's all right, I'm jumpin jack flash,
Its a gas! Gas! Gas!

I was drowned, I was washed up and left for dead.
I fell down to my feet and I saw they bled.
I frowned at the crumbs of a crust of bread.
Yeah, yeah, yeah
I was crowned with a spike right thru my head.
But it's all right now, in fact, it's a gas!
But it's all right, I'm jumpin jack flash,
Its a gas! Gas! Gas!

Jumping jack flash, it's a gas
Jumping jack flash, it's a gas
Jumping jack flash, it's a gas
Jumping jack flash, it's a gas
Jumping jack flash

Something being a 'gas' sounds as if it might be a Good Thing, but at this remove it's hard to know what that goodness actually consisted of. I'm guessing it was 'good' in the druggy 'good trip' sense, but I'm probably wrong. Future historians may have no idea at all. I hope they won't feel blue about it.

Monday, 9 January 2017

That hourglass figure

Oh ho! Another very encouraging result when I hopped onto the electronic scales at home this morning. They said 13 stones 10 pounds, or 87.1 kilograms. And my home weight on 31st October had been exactly 15 stones, or 95.1 kilograms. So I'm back on track after Christmas! The gradient of the line on the graph in my spreadsheet has steepened again.

Of course the 'official' Slimming World weigh-in in three days' time won't be quite so good, because the home weigh is done in the nude, and first thing in the morning before breakfast. The SW weigh-in is with clothes on, and in the evening after some unavoidable noshing during the day. Still, I might finally get down to an official 13 stones 12 pounds - which has eluded me for two weeks now - representing an official one-stone weight loss. I yearn for that metaphoric fanfare of trumpets!

But figures aside, what matters is a glorious feeling of lightness, nimbleness and well-being. There's no doubt about it: you feel better (and younger) when slimmer.

Do you look better?

Now that's a more difficult question. I have to admit that when I was carrying more weight it did seem to suit me. A fuller figure, with plenty of curves, made a volupt Restoration beauty out of me - albeit in a well-past-it, sadly-deluded, poor-old-dear sort of way, you understand - but nevertheless I wouldn't have looked completely out of place in a bare-chested group painting of Charles II's best mistresses. He didn't mind how old they were, just so long as they were fleshy and fanciable and their clothes came off at a touch. He didn't do skinny.

Fast-forward to 2017, and fashion standards are different. The chubby look is out. Slender is good, bingo wings bad. These are social norms, but only that.

However, there is also an awareness that low weight can be healthy and assist longevity. So my very serious bid to lose excess pounds is not, I assure you, a sign of rampant Stick Insect Syndrome, but a quest for good health and a long life. If I fit the current fashions, so much the better, but I am not aiming for a fresh career as a skeleton.

In fact, I shall stop the show, and cease to slim down, as soon as I am thin enough. The weight at that time won't matter. I will want to stabilise at whatever weight makes me look nicest. On the evidence of old photos, that should be 12 stones 5 pounds, or 78.5 kilograms. But if it's actually 80 kilograms, then that's where I will blow the whistle and jump off the Slimming World bus.

I'm sixty-five this year, and my fear is looking scrawny and haggard, as I would if I went beyond that optimum shapely covering of fat that smooths out arms and legs and neck, and pads out the face in a flattering way. I will accept a bit of a tummy in order to retain a slimmed-down but smoothly feminine look. Fat isn't all bad: it's natural, after all, and has a physical purpose. It plumps you out, and insulates you from the cold. You don't want too much, but you can look ill and unattractive if you lose too much of it.

I'm not counting on ever having a perfect 'hourglass figure', with a pronounced waist. I'm not large-breasted or wide-hipped enough for that.

This morning my 'vital statistics' were 43-36-42. When I was last at my target weight of 12 stones 5 pounds, I was 40-35-40. That was in early July 2009. It won't necessarily be the case that a return to that July 2009 weight will turn back the clock, and reproduce the symmetrical result I had then. And to be honest I won't worry about it. Any kind of waist will do, so long as I do indeed have one.

I don't do perfection. Ballpark is enough.

Friday, 6 January 2017

The Good Daughter: Fly Fishing by J R Hartley

Readers of a Certain Age - meaning anyone who had a well-loved elderly parent alive in 1983, and was themselves then old enough to empathise, in an adult way, with such a parent - will hardly need to read what follows. They will remember, and won't need my words. I'm about to write about one one my favourite TV ads ever.

In 1983, BT were promoting the usefulness of their Yellow Pages - already very, very familiar from the catchy 'Let Your Fingers Do The Walking' ads of the 1970s. Unlike the slender volume popped annually through your front door nowadays, the 1983 Yellow Pages was a substantial tome, at least an inch thick. There was of course no Internet. If you needed the services of a tradesman or supplier, and didn't already know of someone through personal recommendation, a directory was really the only place to look. And Yellow Pages was the directory of choice. So much so, that I was always puzzled as to why BT needed to devise expensive TV advertisements for it. For it had no effective competition. There was something called Thomson's Local Directory (still available, I think, though I haven't got a copy) but I never found it much use. Yellow Pages was the thing to consult.

I suppose that if you weren't (as I had become) a householder with jobs needing done, and tradespeople to find, then you wouldn't normally bother with a classified directory. However, BT wanted us all to be aware that Yellow Pages wasn't only for looking up plumbers. It could help with other things.

Such as finding rare books. And that's what the J R Hartley ad is about. There must have been more than one version of it, because the still pictures out there on the Internet show some variation in the actors' clothing, but this is the main thrust.

A dear old gentleman, who is clearly keen on angling, is asking about a book called Fly Fishing at various bookshops. The author is a certain J R Hartley. But he meets with no success...


He comes home, tired and dejected, clearly despairing of ever finding a copy of this obscure treatise on fishing. His home is comfortably old-fashioned. He must be a widower of some years, and has kept it as it was when his wife was alive. His daughter lives with him. She looks up from her sewing as he comes into the parlour.


She says, 'No luck, Dad?' and he sadly shakes his head. She clearly feels for him. They have a wonderful father-daughter bond - so close it makes you cry. But then she has an inspiration, and picks up Yellow Pages. In a voice meant to instill fresh hope in her father, she tells him that Yellow Pages might just have the answer. He looks at the list of specialist bookshops.


Yes! There's a shop he's not heard of before. He puts his jacket back on to make the call. (He's of the generation that treated telephone calls as unusual and very formal occasions)


Do they have Fly Fishing by J R Hartley? Oh joy! They have a copy!


Wonderful! Can he reserve it, and drop in later to pay for it? Yes! They'll put it aside for him. The name? (He tells them his name slowly and carefully, so that there can be no mistake) 'J...R...Hartley...'


Afterwards he reflects on the happy outcome with profound satisfaction.


So this lovely old man was not only a keen angler, he had actually written the book he was looking for. That's the unexpected twist in the ad. He was hunting for his own life's work, a labour of great love and distilled personal experience, published long ago and out of print for many, many years. His failure to locate even a single copy had been a dreadful disappointment. But now he will see a copy of his cherished book once more. And if you haven't yourself got a bursting heart by the end of the ad, and eyes brimming with tears, then you have no soul at all. It got to me like that.

It got to me because it was so easy to identify with the characters. True, at the time (1983) my younger brother was still around and would be for another twelve years; and I had just got married at thirty-one; and Dad was still only sixty-three and very active, with no signs whatever of imminent mortality. But it was nevertheless easy to imagine a different world in which there would be only Dad and myself, both of us rather older. If it ever worked out that Mum died first, then, who knows, I might end up looking after him - just like that Good Daughter in the ad. And perhaps we would have a similar bond. I ached to be like her.

Actually, I would do more. I wouldn't just point my father towards Yellow Pages, I'd do some detective work myself, find a copy of the book, and present it to him.

Although this ad touched my heart, I ought to make it clear that (a) Dad wasn't the slightest bit interested in fishing; and (b) he never wrote a book for me to track down. Sigh.

The ad was justly famous and highly-regarded. There was a curious spin-off. Someone wrote a book called Fly Fishing under the pseudonym of J R Hartley, and I saw it in bookshops. So far as I could judge, it was about angling - but I couldn't of course tell whether it was written with genuine knowledge or was merely a spoof.


I haven't seen it on sale for a very long time, and ironically it may now be as rare and hard to procure as the 'real' Fly Fishing by the 'real' J R Hartley!

A final footnote. Looking back, don't the eighties seem like foreign territory? I know it was thirty years ago, but that's not really a huge span of time. And yet it seems that the only 'modern' device in the TV home of the Hartley father and daughter was the landline telephone. Who nowadays would 'phone around', assisted by Yellow Pages or not? Well, I wouldn't. I'd just go straight onto the Internet and see what AbeBooks or Amazon or eBay might have. Or Google 'Fly Fishing' and/or 'J R Hartley' and contemplate the search results.

If you do that now, you're going to get up this post in your list of search results. Sorry.

But at least you will find this:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._R._Hartley.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Drif Field, Raymond Carver, and the infamous Guide


I have in my possession a little pocket-sized guidebook published in 1991 that I bought in Bromley on 16th July 1992. I know that, because by then it was my habit to note such things in my own fair hand just inside the front cover (holding the Guide open are the ultra-modern 2017 Melford fingertips, not those I had in 1992). Click on the photo to enlarge it. Same for the rest.


I called the book 'an amazing find'. It was. It was rarely seen on sale, even when new. The likes of W H Smith were unlikely to stock it. A small independent seller of new books might - but then on which shelf? Because it was a book about second-hand and antiquarian bookshops and their owners, and the stocking and selling policies of those owners. So into which category would you place it, if, say, you as the shop proprietor had ordered two or three copies from the indie print works? General reference? Hardly. And what kind of customer was actually going to buy it - if they came across it - assuming they were immersed sufficiently in the book world to know about Drif Field and his infamous Guide?

Well, I came along at the right moment and snapped it up. I had heard about it from a friend who had all his life taken a deep interest in old books - loved them completely - and he had told me about this Guide. By then it had run into several editions, and two more were to come. For although the Guide does contain a list of bookshops, with dry commentaries and directions, it is the little essays that Drif writes in between those lists that are the real meat in the sandwich.

It is, by the way, a proper book, with all the usual publishing and ISBN information. The choice of page layout and Courier typeface combine to suggest that the author painstakingly hammered out the Guide at home on an old mechanical typewriter he found in his attic, and that the book is a basically a reduced-sized photocopy of that typescript. Which gives it a certain charm.


The author's personality is up front from the start, with no concessions to the readership nor the victims of his smouldering impatience with the bookselling world. Just inside the front cover was this four-liner:

THIS BOOK IS NEITHER FICT NOR FACTION
IT IS BOTH FRICTION AND FRACTION
IT IS SHORTER BECAUSE I HAD LONGER
IT IS WORSE BECAUSE I AM BETTER

Which suggests to me that the earlier editions back to 1984 were an even more controversial read. Although 'Drif Field' may not necessarily have been his real name, the author was a real person, and actually gets an entry in Wikipedia - see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Driff_Field.

Back to his style. It's a take-no-prisoners look at booksellers and what they are doing wrong - or in a very few cases, who are the heroes who stand out. The Dis-Contents page really says it all:


DIRE TRIBES                                                                               1 - 241

MINOR INSULTS                                                                         1 - 241

GROSS INSULTS                                                                         1 - 241

GRATUITOUS REMARKS                                                          1 - 241

REMARKS IN POOR TASTE                                                      1 - 241

REMARKS IN NO TASTE                                                           1 - 241

RACIALIST OR RACIST REMARKS*                                       1 - 241

ANTI-FEMINIST, ANTI-GAY, ANTI-LIBERAL REMARKS    1 - 241

REMARKS DESIGNED TO ATTRACT ATTENTION               1 - 241

PIECES WRITTEN TO TRY TO PERSUADE                                        
YOU TO BUY THIS BOOK WHEN YOU ARE                                      
STANDING IN A BOOKSHOP READING IT                             1 - 241

PYCHIATRISTS REPORT                                                             1 - 241

AFTERWORD                                                                     See addendum

*I have never worked out which one I am supposed to be.                        


And yet, in the background, it clearly wasn't an entirely solo effort:


Note the name Raymond Carver. Carver was an American writer and poet, born in 1938, who had moderate acclaim - despite alcoholism - during the 1970s and 1980s. He is supposed to have died in 1988, aged 50, and here is his Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Carver. But Drif claims this death was faked, and that the man began a new life, still alcoholic, in the UK as his personal chauffeur - Drif needing somebody to drive him around the country in his quest on behalf of clients for rare and probably arcane books. The back cover of the Guide pays tribute to Carver:


That's him, all right, although I don't know why he is crouching down in a white suit, as if he were a Hawaiian detective at the crime scene. There is at least one written contribution from him in Drif's Guide, in the section on Sussex bookshops, and a description of how acute his alcoholic addiction was in the same section, when no pub could be found after a long dry day touring bookshops, latterly in Worthing. Of which more anon.

Of course, at this remove, it hardly matters whether or not Raymond Carver was really alive and well, and living in Paris, at the time of putting together the 1991 edition of the Guide. Perhaps he really did die in 1988. In the immortal words of Erich von Däniken, who knows. Drif might have had reasons for concealing the death of his chauffeur in 1988 - good reasons - and I suspect that something very strange was going on. It's the sort of thing that makes you want to put on your Girl Detective raincoat and get out there, sleuthing and asking questions.

There is obviously (and genuinely) a full story to be unravelled. The professionals ought to take it on. Considering the twaddle that the TV channels regularly cover as 'major documentaries' in prime time, I think they should get a reporter on this and find out the truth. I especially want to know what eventually became of Drif himself, for nobody seems to know for sure. Back in 2001, when a member of the Charles Close Society (to which I contributed two articles - see https://charlesclosesociety.org/) I somehow brought the name of Drif Field into the discussion forum, and was told he had retired to Poland. That seemed an unlikely place for him to end up, but I've lately discovered this two-part article about him which repeats the rumour: https://web.archive.org/web/20140223211357/http://homepage.ntlworld.com/kathleen.gilligan/bob/RevewsDRIF.htm. This is where the newspaper photo of him (the one that heads this post) comes from. And I suppose he does have a vaguely un-English, Eastern-European look to him, so the Poland notion may be true. But then there's this: http://www.urbanrealm.com/blogs/index.php/2010/09/19/drif-and-the-death-of-scotland-s-bookshops?blog=16. This writer seems to know a lot about him.

He looks unexpectedly young in the 1991 photo - well under forty. He's actually holding the very edition of the Guide that I have. He must surely be still alive and well, still only in his mid sixties, and presumably - discounting the other rumours about his mental health - still active. But not in books.

Back to the Guide itself. I can do no better than let it speak for itself, and select a couple of passages. This is the opening essay on the state of the bookselling business. Click on the picture to enlarge it:


And here are the pages that deal with Sussex, arranged as if the reader mainly travelled by train:


The left-hand page above is allegedly written by Raymond Carver, and relates what happened when Drif bought a book but didn't pay up promptly, and his subsequent huge disappointment that the bookseller, who specialised in books on the supernatural, didn't use occult powers to punish him. (The snide abbreviation NETGOW means 'not easy to get on with')


This passage about a visit to Badgers Books in Worthing - still trading in 2017 - resulted in a desperate early-evening dash up the the A24, looking for a pub. Raymond Carver had been deprived of a drink all day, on the basis that if he stayed sober - and capable of being chauffeur - Drif would stand the first drink of the day. In his desperation, Carver's driving was ragged to say the least, and they ended up at a posh hotel (which, I do not know) at which Drif was stripped of cash, such were the outrageous bar prices in the Cocktail Lounge. I dare say they never again returned to West Sussex.   


I highlighted the shops in yellow and orange, but I don't remember what this colour-coding meant. I'd say that two-thirds or more of the bookshops mentioned in the 1991 edition of the Guide have now gone. Even the mighty Kim's, which blossomed around 2000, has shrunk back to two shops in Arundel and Chichester only, abandoning their vast Worthing HQ. Such is the unequal battle with business rates.

On 28th August 1995, in Winchester, I managed to track down a later, larger, red-covered edition of the Guide, published that same year. I think it might be the final edition. Here it is.


There's an 'urban guerilla' element there now!


A signature! I added my own footprint (handprint?):


I won't deal with it in the same detail. This later edition wasn't much like the 1991 edition, and seemed bitter and exasperated in tone, as if Drif were tired of making no measurable impact on the bookselling scene, which indeed he hadn't. The dire shops he had always railed against were still there unchanged. Customers were still having to put up with inconvenient opening hours, condescending proprietors, mis-priced books, and poor shelf arrangement. The hurricane winds of the Internet - and changing tastes and reading habits - were around the corner, but hardly discernible even to the far-sighted. His Guide was now in larger, easier-to-read print, and glovebox-sized, and it did list a large number of bookshops, but that was no longer its point. It was now a platform for venting Drif's frustrated point of view. It was shorn of the lengthy and imaginative (sorry, true) anecdotes that made the 1991 edition so fascinating. No mention of Raymond Carver, either - presumably he had really died, and Drif had somehow managed to dispose of the body.

Here is a flavour. The entire opening essay, the end of another, and the first page of his A-Z of terminology:


It all has the tone of a man about to bow out, and leave the blinkered inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah to their well-deserved ruin. And his prophesy has largely come to pass. The ranks of second-hand booksellers have thinned drastically. There are still some left in Sussex, but like antiques in general it's a dying trade in which a very few discreet high-class niche dealers (without the overheads of a shop) might still do well, but most bookshop-owners won't. The times are against them. Reading hasn't gone out of fashion, but second-hand books have, and rising rents and other costs make a good living, or any reasonable living, impossible. I also suspect that the supply of saleable books that ordinary mortals might want to buy is beginning to run out. It's much easier for families to dump Grandad's old books on Fly Fishing or whatever in a skip, than to hawk them around whatever bookshops there still are, endure the proprietor's disdainful manner, and make zilch in the process.

It was my October 2016 visit to Hay-on-Wye that probably germinated this post. Drif scorned the place as a graveyard for books. Well, I visited several bookshops there. They looked the part, and in general they were welcoming, but I saw nothing I wanted and I bought nothing. Which must prove something.