Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Salute to the Rabbi

Much excitement during this past week, as anyone with even a remote Scottish connection marked the 250th anniversary of the birth of Scotland's bard, the great Robert "Rabbie" Burns.
Born 25th January 1759, the eldest of seven children in an Ayrshire farming family, Burns enjoyed no financial privilege, but did benefit from an extensive - though sporadic and unconventional - education.

They took their education and their language seriously in the Ayrshire of old. I remember, as a boy, going to the county to visit my Great Uncle Eddie, who had been the schoolteacher in the little village of Auchentiber and had been allowed to carry on living in the tumbledown old schoolhouse when he retired and the local authority closed all the village schools. My family didn't own a car, so the journey to visit Uncle Eddie was a long one, involving several changes of bus and a long walk to the village. This would be around 1970, when Eddie was in his 90s. At the end of our visit, he would insist on accompanying my mother and me on the trek back to the bus stop. The elegant formality of his language has always remained in my memory: "I shall walk with you to the village, where you may obtain a conveyance.". It was a lovely echo of a bygone world.

But I digress. (And old Uncle Eddie would have scolded me for starting a sentence with "But") (And "and", come to that!)

Back to Burns. What a writer. We celebrated Burns Night with a haggis, introduced with the traditional address: "Fair fa' yer honest, sonsie face, great Chieftain o' the puddin' race..." and musical accompaniment. By tradition, a piper should escort the haggis into the room. We couldn't rise to an actual piper, but we did have a Practice Chanter (that's the bit of the bagpipes on which you play the tune) played by Ken, my ex-Brother-in-Law. He did very well, considering he never fully learned to play, and whatever tuition he had was at least 20 years ago! I spent some time trying to learn the bagpipes back in the 70s, but my efforts were outlawed under the Geneva Convention. Undeterred, I would have accompanied Ken on my own Chanter, had it not been for the mysterious disappearance of the mouthpiece (I think the cat's pinched it. Or possibly a local music-lover.), so I was forced to contribute an unforgettable rendition of Scotland the Brave on the best substitute I could find: the Swannee Whistle.

Aside from the splendid Address to the Haggis, Burns penned many fine songs and poems, before departing this world at the age of just 37. In my view, there's none finer than his thoughts on having accidentally destroyed a mouse's nest, while ploughing a field. The emotion and kindness of To a Mouse always brings a tear to my eye.
The verse "I'm truly sorry man's dominion Has broken Nature's social union, And justifies that ill opinion, Which makes thee startle At me, thy poor, earth-born companion and fellow mortal!" is just a beauty of construction.
The same poem gave us a phrase that's still in common usage today. When something's gone wrong, people shake their heads and mutter about "the best laid plans of mice and men", but do they remember the source, or the complete line? It's from the penultimate verse of To a Mouse. "The best-laid schemes o mice an' men Gang aft agley", Burns writes (gang aft agley = often go awry). I suppose the modern equivalent might well be "Shit happens" but I'd vote for Burns' choice of vocabulary any time.
Rounding off this remarkable poem, he addresses the mouse thus: "Still thou art blest, compar'd wi me! The present only toucheth thee: But och! I backward cast my e'e, On prospects drear! And forward, tho I canna see, I guess an fear!". Burns wrote of his fears for uncertain, but probably bleak, future prospects more than 200 years ago. Here in 2009, I find he's still bang on the money.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

The Curse of the F in Fog Lamps

As I hit the road into London this morning, my heart sank.

Not the traffic, not the prospect of the workday ahead, but the sight of a few measly wisps of fog.

This means we're in for weeks of "delight" thanks to the muppets who seem to pride themselves on grabbing for the Rear Foglamps switch at the first hint of mist, yet seem mysteriously incapable of finding the self-same switch a few minutes later when the time comes to turn the blasted things off!The thing is, here in the UK, we hardly ever get the conditions that really warrant the use of rear foglamps, save for the occasional nasty bank of fog out on the motorway. These lamps are always inappropriate for use in town, as they cause serious glare irritation to the drivers behind and - crucially - mask the effect of the brake lights.
I'd really like to see something done about this. The vehicle construction regulations already require a warning lamp to show on the dashboard when the foglamps are on, but this doesn't seem to be enough for some people. Here's my free contribution to the thought-pool on this matter: make it a requirement that the foglamps reset to "Off" mode when the engine is stopped. At least that way drivers won't still be being blinded by the muppet-lights 3 weeks after the last hint of fog was seen in the land.

It's not a new irritation, of course. Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, here's a Public Information Film from the 1980s, reminding us to Beware of Rear Dazzle....

Tuesday, 6 January 2009


So, time to take those Christmas decs down and put them away safely where you won't be able to find them in eleven-and-a-half months' time.

The box is ready, you've got a suitably wobbly chair to stand on, so away you go, packing the tinsel and the baubles away, and having a good look round to make sure you've got everything.

Yep! All done and dusted. Close up the box and pack away. Feel suitably smug at being well organised and ahead-of-the-game.

Now give it a day or two and, out of the corner of your eye, what do you see, taunting you from some shady nook....?
Every time. Every blinking time! They're sneaky little bandits these baubles. I swear they hide, sniggering, just waiting for you to finish up and pack away. Then they slip out while your back's turned, and lurk there in the shadows, whistling innocently ..... Aaaargh! There's another one....

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Happy New Year!

May I wish you a very Happy New Year!

I've been a bit quiet on the seasonal blogging front. I'd like to say that this was because of the wild social whirl in which I've been swept up for the festive fortnight. However much I might like to say that, however, the truth is more mundane, and involves tissues, decongestants, inhalations, paracetamol, ibuprofen etc. I don't recommend a combination flu-like symptoms and sciatica. Short on laughs and big on feeling sorry for yourself.

By the 1st of January, things had improved enough for me to be able to get out behind the wheel of our big red Routemaster bus. This important morale booster came in the form of an appointment to be part of the big London New Year Parade. A huge procession of costumed people, American Marching Bands and vehicles of all types, shapes, sizes and ages made their way along the parade route, kicking off as Big Ben chimed 12 noon. A sizeable crowd braved the winter cold and lined the route to enjoy the spectacle and cheer the parade on its way.

Yep....things were looking up!

But then we came down to earth with a bump.

Behind us in the parade was this old beast, a 1916 Dennis Fire Engine.

If it had stayed a safe distance behind us, all would have been fine. Unfortunately, for reasons known only to old Dennis and his driver, when our bus came to a halt, the fire engine didn't. There was an almighty bang, with simultaneous gasps of horror from the crowd. Up front in the driver's cab, I was a bit shaken, but I couldn't quite bear to get out and go round for a look. I stayed put and awaited a damage report from my Conductor. The picture isn't great. The back of the bus looks every bit as if it's been rammed by a heftily built, 93 year-old fire engine! Suffice it to say that our 1966 aluminium panels were no match for their 1916 steel and tubular brass!

When I'm feeling stronger, I'll publish a picture of our "modified" rear end, but right now I can't face looking at the evidence. No injuries to humans, though, on the bus or the fire engine, which is the most important thing.

A Press agency report on the parade included the line: "At one point an antique fire engine crashed into an iconic London Routemaster bus, but organisers said that nobody was injured.". Thanks to the wonders of agency reporting and newspapers' hunger for content on quiet days, this line made it into UK papers including the Daily Telegraph and the Mail, and further afield in publications in South Africa, Australia, France and the US. It felt strange to see this line pop up in web searches and know that that wasn't just any iconic Routemaster bus ... it was ours!