Trouble at t’feeder

14/07/2016 § Leave a comment

The bird feeders in our garden have turned into a battleground.

Our efforts to quell the onslaught of ring-necked parakeets have come to nought. We’d hoped they might be too heavy for the new spring-loaded feeders we bought to deter the squirrels.

No such luck.

One parakeet is a delight. Two are acceptable. Three are a gang. Four are reason to buy an air rifle.

Strangely, I don’t feel the same way about blue tits. I’ll tolerate as many of those as Mother Blue Tit can throw at me. Within reason.

I read the other day that if all a blue tit’s chicks (usually between ten and fifteen of them) survived till adulthood, and all of them bred successfully, and so on, then within five years we’d be literally knee-deep in blue tits.

Knee. Deep.

Let that image sink in.

With that in mind, I give you two photos today. The first is of an individual who, like it or not, performs a vital service to ensure the secure future of our world and to preserve the delicate ecological equilibrium that is so vital to us all.

P1020071

His name is Winter. He’s a good cat. Not quick, but eager. His failures outweigh his successes, although when he does manage to pull off one of the latter, he’s quick to let us know.

The second is of Billy.P1010969

Billy is the name I gave to this very recently-fledged blue tit chick a few weeks ago. Enjoy this photograph. There won’t be any more.

I’ll spare you the gory details. All you need to know is that a couple of days after this hoto was taken I found feathers on the kitchen floor.

RIP Billy. You were a lovely blue tit. While you lasted. But not quite so lovely that I wanted to be knee-deep in you.

[This post is not entirely unrelated to this project, which is going well, but could, with your help, be going yet better. End of shameless plug.]

Birds Unbound

01/06/2016 § Leave a comment

A couple of weeks ago I wrote, with irritating coyness, a teasing post in which I promised news of a thing that had made me smile.

And then I did nothing. Nothing!

Irritation upon irritation.

So here, for those of you who haven’t already heard about it, is the thing itself. I am very excited. And still smiling.

I’m absolutely thrilled to be launching my book Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? with award-winning crowdfunding publishers Unbound. It’s about my attempt, as a lapsed and incompetent birdwatcher, to see 200 species of British bird in a year, and you can find out more about here.

I approached Unbound because their pioneering publishing model means I can write exactly the book I want to write. If it gets funded, this book will sit alongside the work of, among others, Raymond Briggs, Jonathan Meades, Kate Mosse, Terry Jones, Nick Danziger, Andy Hamilton, Christian Wolmar and Malcolm Gluck.

No pressure then.

But of course first the book needs to be funded.

With Unbound, readers choose which books get written and published by pledging support. If we reach the funding target, then production can begin and the book will appear a few months later.

We’re already at 19%, which is pretty good going in a week.

I won’t insult you by asking you to add to that total and help propel us towards the magical 100%.

But…well…

Ok, so it turns out that I WILL insult you by asking you to add to that total and help propel us towards the magical 100%.

It’s all very undignified.

If you pledge your support using the above link, all I can offer in return is this:

1. You will get your name in the back of the book

2. I will do my best to make the book as entertaining as possible.

3. I will be happy

If not, then of course that’s fine. All that will happen is:

1. You will not get your name in the back of the book

2. I will still do my best to make the book as entertaining as possible, IF IT EXISTS.

3. I will be sad

4. The streets will run with the blood of the innocent.

The choice is yours.

No pressure.

Tease

19/05/2016 § 1 Comment

Isn’t it annoying when people go on social media with sub-announcements like “Best day ever!” or “Someone’s going to regret what they did today” or “Goldfish are the worst!” without then going on to explain exactly what it is about the day or someone or goldfish that has got them in a state of excitement/anger/cypriniforme-related frustration?

Yes. Yes it is.

Bearing that in mind, I’d just like to say, annoyingly, that a couple of weeks ago I had some news that made me smile for two days. In fact I’ve just checked and I’m still smiling.

Don’t worry. You’ll hear about it. Trust me.

But until then, by way of a teaser, (and not entirely related to said news) here’s a photo of me feeding some pigeons in 1975.

This photo immediately raises questions.
For example, “Oh my God, WHAT is he wearing?”

I told you, it was 1975.

And “Did he always travel with a small red suitcase? And, more importantly, what was in it?”

To which the answers are: “Yes” and “Bird seed, obviously”.

I’ll be back soon with more on the news that made me smile.

Annoying, I know. Sorry.

The Wisden of Solomon

22/04/2016 § 1 Comment

Ambitions. We all had them, didn’t we? Mine was for my name to appear in Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.

I know.

To achieve this, until a couple of years ago, I would have had to do one of three things: qualify as a first-class cricketer (really very unlikely); invent a time machine (slightly more plausible) and make sure I appeared for my school or university (and indeed to have gone to a university); or change my name by deed poll to David Ivon Gower.

Then a wonderful thing happened. They started a writing competition. All I had to do was enter it and I’d get my name in print in the hallowed tome as one of the plucky losers. Never mind thoughts of winning the thing – just send in 500 words of cricket-based crap and immortality would be mine.

So I did.

Needless to say, neither last year nor this did I win. But if you look very carefully through the 1600 pages or so of the Great Book you will find irrefutable proof that I have finally made it as ‘someone who has something vaguely to do with cricket.’

I share below my two losing efforts – first the 2015 one, then this year’s vintage. Someone’s got to read them, after all. (Don’t worry – it needn’t actually be you)

Slog™

Amidst the hullabaloo surrounding the impending 150th Slog™ Globe-O-Champ, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when the world’s most popular sport was just a twinkle in its inventor’s eye. So what did bat-and-ball fans do for entertainment in those dark and distant days?

Once, there was another game. Now a footnote in sporting history, it was by today’s standards preposterously cumbersome, and its popular appeal was limited. But without it Slog™ wouldn’t exist. Let us give thanks to Cricket.

Nowadays Cricket would be proscribed as an Anti-Sport. Played outdoors, lasting up to five days, adjudicated by humans, and involving two teams of eleven – half of whom spent long periods completely inactive – it seems now, a century after the last international match, like the invention of a drug-crazed madman. Hardly anybody played it; the regulations took impenetrability to extremes usually reserved for near-earth planning regulations; entire matches were played without a winner. If you approached SportFed with such a proposal today, you’d be arrested.

“Compared to Slog™,” explains Tallulah Badminton, Sport Archivist at Beaconsfield University, “Cricket was complex, arcane and bewildering. For example, Hurlage™ duties were delegated to people called ‘bowlers’. These poor creatures ran to a predetermined point, delivered the ball, then trudged back to their mark. Run, deliver, trudge, repeat. Each process took at least thirty seconds. Compare that with the Hurlatron 5000™ with its delivery of fifty balls a minute, and the mind boggles at Cricket’s inefficiency. Then there were ‘fielders’, who emulated the lowliest FetchDrone™, yet were nonetheless part of the team and also participated as ‘batsmen’ (the Cricket term for Sloggers™). Furthermore, the scoring system was archaic. There were no AutoHitZones™ – instead, the ‘batsmen’ sprinted twenty yards to register a ‘run’. Four hundred was considered a high score. And as well as impenetrable GamePlay, Cricket boasted a ridiculous vocabulary – how do you decipher expressions like ‘she murdled a groogly to smiley mid-out’?”

Despite its many faults, Cricket enjoyed the devotion of a significant, if localised, pocket of followers. But the rapid rise and global domination of Slog™ left its sister sport gasping for breath. So where did it all go wrong?

“Politics, partly,” says Badminton. “Cricket ate itself in an orgy of greed and power struggles. But it was also a victim of its own complexity. People just didn’t understand it. The short form, T20, fell between two stools – too banal for Cricket fans, too complex for Sloggists™. And in the great Slog™ nations – America, China, Belgium – there was no cricket culture, so Slog™, pleasingly simple and addictive, spread like wildfire, and Cricket died a quiet death. The last international game was between Slog™ minnows England and Australia.” (England won by an innings and 498 runs, whatever that means.)

Today, with Cricket long dead, only the committed historian knows of its existence and the link between the two games. But they are based on a shared attribute: hitting the bejeezus out of a ball with a wooden stick. With recent signs of unrest in the Slog™ community, perhaps cricket is due a revival. Groogly, anyone?

******

The Best (and Worst) Cricket Films of 2015

Dot Ball

This forgotten masterpiece languished in the archives for decades, and might have been lost forever but for the tireless work of cricket historian Lysander Trenchfoot, who found it, remastered it, and persuaded the BBC to release it on DVD. Originally broadcast as part of the Play for Today series, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter, it tells the enthralling story behind a single dot ball in a run-of-the-mill County Championship match between Derbyshire and Somerset at Burton-on-Trent in May 1978. Richard Beckinsale is on superb form as Mike Hendrick – his performance reminds us of what a loss he was to British acting (and, if the glimpses of him in action are any guide, seam bowling) – while Leonard Rossiter as Colin ‘The Demon of Frome’ Dredge is never anything less than avidly watchable. Bristling with tension, dry wit and Pinter’s trademark pauses, Dot Ball is a reminder of one of the eternal truths of cricket, and indeed life: that lurking behind seemingly unremarkable events can lie hidden stories of friendship, bravery and yeomanlike fast-medium seam bowling.

The Greatest Game

When stand-up comedian, journalist and film-maker Jasper Quench found a pile of his old cricket scorebooks in the attic, he had what he describes as ‘a low-voltage halogen bulb moment’. The result is this film, a charming oddity that has ‘cult hit’ written all over it. Quench, like so many children of the 1970s, was an avid player of Owzthat!, and has recreated, in stop motion animation, a hypothetical match in which he scored an undefeated triple hundred and took fourteen wickets for ‘My Freinds’ (sic) against ‘1976 West Indies’. The animation is beautifully realised, and Quench has added his own commentary, delivered tongue firmly in cheek and with alarmingly realistic impersonations of the commentators of the day. His Peter West, in particular, is so accurate you can almost smell the pipe smoke. By turns hilarious, bathetic and preposterous (there is a sequence in which he takes Michael Holding for 24 off an over), this strangely touching film will resonate with anyone who has ever indulged in sporting fantasy.

Caught Behind

The first example of that rare genre ‘comedy cricket caper’ since the ghastly 1970s flop ‘Fingers Up!’, this might on the face of it seem to be a step too far in the wrong direction. But stick with it. At its heart is a gem of a performance from Maggie Smith as put-upon cricket widow Felicity Strange, who embarks on a ‘Thelma & Louise’-style adventure with neighbour Glenda Nosworthy (Brenda Blethyn), leading to a tense showdown at a Royal London One-Day Cup Quarter Final at Chelmsford. Watch out for a telling cameo from Graham Gooch as a jobsworth car park attendant.

You Miss, I Hit

Set at the height of the Cold War, this implausible thriller tries to find links between the nearly contemporaneous events of the Cuban Missile Crisis and England’s Ashes tour of 1962-3.

It fails.

Mitch

Johnny Depp plays Mitchell Johnson. Five words to make your blood run cold. Predictably awful.

The Big Yin

24/01/2016 § 2 Comments

Thank you for attending the Billy Connolly event at Hammersmith Apollo. Please take a few minutes to complete the following questionnaire:

How satisfied were you with the booking experience?
A. Very satisfied.
B. Somewhat satisfied.
C. Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied.
D. We’re beginning to think we should have used an easier word to say repeatedly than ‘satisfied’.
E. Far from gruntled.
F. Actively disgruntled.

How happy were you with the venue experience?
A. Very happy.
B. Quite happy.
C. Happy happy happy.
D. Clap your hands if you feel like a room without a roof.

In your opinion, paying four pounds for the privilege of collecting your tickets from the Box Office is:
A. I can’t…even…
B. Wait what HOW MUCH?
C. Larceny, pure and simple.
D. All of the above.

Billy Connolly is:
A. Extremely funny.
B. A 73-year-old man with the mind of an 8-year-old-boy.
C. Absolutely irresistible.
D. A master storyteller.
E. All of the above.

Two hours without an interval is:
A. A long time.
B. A really long time.
C. A really really long time, especially if you’re a 73-year-old with Parkinson’s who’s holding an audience of 3000 in the palm of your hand.

When you were eleven, what did you think ‘The Big Yin’ meant?
A. The big one.
B. The Deranged Bearded Scot Wearing Banana Boots.
C. NEXT QUESTION PLEASE.

People who rustle crisp packets for the duration of a two-hour comedy show should be:
A. Shot.

People who hold conversations with their neighbour for the duration of a two-hour comedy show should be:
A. Shot.

People who do both of the above should be:
A. Given the severest punishment available.

Which is?
A. The occasional hard stare.

You’re English, aren’t you?
A. How did you know?

Did it make any difference?
A. What do you think?

Bloody hell.
A. Yeah, I know, right?

Mate…
A. Hold on, wasn’t this supposed to be a questionnaire?

Oh, right. Erm… Ok, now I remember. After leaving the venue, full of laughter and memories, and realising that this was almost certainly the last time you would see this comedy legend perform, did you have a little cry?
A. No.
B. Definitely not.
C. Stop looking at me.
D. Who’s slicing onions?
E. STOP IT.

Do you have any further comments?
A. No, I’m good.

You mean ‘fine’, don’t you?
A. Yes.
B. Yes.
C. Yes sorry I’ll never do it again, and I’ll never say ‘can I get’ when I mean ‘please may I have’.

Ok. We’ll say no more about it, then.
A. Thanks.

Dabbling

24/12/2015 § 4 Comments

There are those who are born to dabble, and those who are not.

Firmly in the latter category sat my father, who died 28 years ago today. (28 years – bloody hell. 28 years before that the shower scene in Psycho was filmed; 28 years before that, give or take, Al Capone was sent to prison; and 28 years before that the Wright brothers made the first powered flight. Mortality maths is a mug’s game.)

My dad, quite simply, devoted his life to playing the violin extremely well, an endeavour in which he was, to cut a long story short, successful. Here he is playing Mozart.

It takes a lot of time and effort (as well as natural talent, of course, but that’s another, and lengthy story) to do anything that well. It leaves little time for dabbling, and while my father took an interest in many, many things, music and the violin were firmly front and centre from a very early age. And they stayed there.

My own approach has been much more dabblesome. My lack of concentration was a byword among my long-suffering teachers, who often ooh look a blue tit.

Sorry, where was I?

Oh yes. Concentration.

Mr Guilford, charged with cramming Ancient Greek into my terminally unreceptive head, summed it up in one of his reports on my ‘progress’: “I must confess I am baffled. Regardless of cajoling or threats, he refuses to do any work whatsoever.”

He may have understated his case a little.

Mr Guilford died a few years ago, his life no doubt shortened by the stress induced by memories of my inability to understand the aorist tense.

Despite this five-year period of academic inertia, I eventually found something I could do (music – well duh) and made my stuttering way forwards in that world, first at the back of the orchestra and then at the front. If all continues to go well I’ll be in the dress circle by the time I reach retirement age.

It’s at this point that I hijack my own blogpost to blow a tiny toot on a miniature trumpet.

One of my main areas of dabblage has been the threading together of words on screen and page for the entertainment of myself and occasionally others. There have been times when I think “Ooh this is fun. Perhaps I should have made a go of it”, but then I read articles about how little writers earn (even less than musicians, if you can imagine such a thing) and am, on the whole, glad to remain a dabbler.

My problem is that I’m a serial project-starter. I have an idea, write a chunk of it, then get distracted or get to a difficult bit or realise that the project is utter drivel from beginning to end, and it gets abandoned.

But this doesn’t stop me from imagining that one day I will produce That Difficult Second Book. (That Easy First Book remains available here.)

Luckily comedy sketches and short stories are brief enough to break free of this Escher-like process of continually unfulfilled expectations and emerge blinking into the sunlight more or less fully formed. They mostly don’t travel any further than my hard drive, but I derive satisfaction from having completed a job to the best of my ability, like when you do the washing-up and put everything away in cupboards on the same day.

Occasionally my confidence builds up a bit of momentum and impels me to submit something to the scrutiny of others – competitions and such like. My approach to these is not so much one of hope vs expectation – it’s more like certainty vs certainty. I send it off and move on. But just this once something I wrote has got through all the obstacles and has emerged more or less victorious. It’s a sketch, it’s called Meeting God, and it will be presented to an unsuspecting and insomniac public in the last episode of The Show What You Wrote on Radio 4 on December 29th at 11pm.

Have a listen. Or don’t. Up to you.

My dad liked comedy. I remember seeing him laugh so much that he fell, QUITE LITERALLY, off his chair and into the aisle when we went to see Billy Connolly a move, incidentally, replicated almost step-by-step by my son at John Finnemore’s Souvenir Cabin earlier this year – and not surprisingly, for JF is the master of sketch comedy.

My dad, sadly, didn’t live long enough to know about my penchant for writerly dabblage. There are myriad reasons for wishing one’s departed loved ones could return for just a day or so. That sketch is reason enough for today – and, given the chance, I’d make Mr Guilford listen to it and all.

Happy Christmas one and all.

Clive James – still not dead

12/12/2015 § 3 Comments

About fifteen months ago The New Yorker published a poem by Clive James called ‘Japanese Maple’. It was, and is, a beautiful farewell to the world from a fine writer.

We were sad.

We waited for the inevitable news of his death.

And waited.

And waited.

After a while it occurred to me that “When is Clive James actually going to die?” might be an apposite, if not entirely tactful, question.

The same thought obviously struck James himself. He resurfaced this autumn (in my purview, at least – closer followers will no doubt have been tracking his every move), talking, in his admirably droll and self-deprecating way, about “the embarrassment of still being alive.”

Terminal illness hasn’t rendered him idle. The last couple of years have seen the publication of two volumes of verse, a translation of The Divine Comedy (the epic poem, not the band, who sound fine in the original language), a book of notes on poetry, and a volume of short essays.

More, then, than some people manage in a lifetime.

And now a weekly Guardian column, pithy, witty, wise and touching, more so for the underlying knowledge that each one might be the last.

Obviously the shadow of death affects people in different ways.

I remember first reading James. My parents thought he was the funniest writer around. In this, as in so much, they were right on the money.

I was fifteen or so. Disaffected. Lazy. The cause of parental perturbation and despair. But if anything redeemed me in their eyes it was that I read Clive James. A teenager capable of emerging from apparently permanent torpor to laugh himself sick at James’s thoughts on Mrs Thatcher’s tone (“she sounded like a cat sliding down a blackboard”), George Melly (“gave his usual impersonation of a man whose body, while he talks, is being slowly devoured by tiny fish”), and Billie Whitelaw (“plays Josephine with the effortless desperation of Arthur Rubinstein playing Chopsticks”) might not be so irredeemable as they’d thought.

Then Unreliable Memoirs, his first volume of autobiography, which had me retching with laughter almost throughout. And another volume, Falling Towards England.

And so on.

I don’t think I got the serious points he was making in amongst the funny, or even that he was making serious points. I just loved the funny. And I recognised, even then, that he seemed to need fewer words than other people to say what he wanted.

He’s a poet, see. They’re good at that.

Clive James – Reports of my Death can be found here.

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