Monday, June 30, 2008

Sometimes wears a hat

I've been wearing a hat today. It’s a straw Panama-type hat that I bought on holiday where it very sensibly shaded my eyes from the fierce sun. And now I’m home, and the weather's fine, I’m finding that I’ve got so used to it that I’m wearing it in my own garden. But not in public. I’m not quite ready for that yet.

We seem to be living in a small window of British history where the gentleman’s hat is not in favour. I see baseball caps quite regularly, and occasionally a flat cap, but rarely a proper hat. Except on older men of course who still regard themselves as undressed without necktie and headjoy.

Uniformed officials still wear them although it seems to be less often these days. I often see police officers without hats. And I can’t remember the last time I saw a bus driver in a hat.

I remember once reading a very old copy of the Police Gazette, an in-house Home Office publication that describes those people who are most wanted in any particular week. It was dated sometime in the 1930s and the description of one rough sort included the line ‘Sometimes wears no hat’. I laughed at the time, but thinking about all the photos I’ve seen from that era, I can’t remember seeing someone with a naked head. The bad guy must have stuck out like a sore thumb.

Fashions change and I’m sure that the hat will soon be back, just as flares, Ra-Ra skirts and tie-dye t-shirts have. I think it would be nice to see a few bowlers, deerstalkers, sola topees, straw boaters, porkpies and berets back on the street. The odd sombrero, stetson or fez would be nice too to add a bit of foreign glamour and colour. It would make a pleasant change from just seeing chavs in mock-Burberry gear and gangsta-wannabes in their shiny label-plastered designer pimp caps. And certainly classier.

And I could tip my hat to you. Good day all.

These just made me laugh

One last holiday post just to share these excellent signs. I'd suggest that you don't use this particular store because he'll dob you in to the police. Upon which, you'll find that your solicitors aren't quite as efficient as you'd hoped ...

I see faces - Canarian style

All right ... I admit that this photo is on its side. Is that cheating? The rest are genuine and unadulterated though. I particularly love the happy little bollard.

Next time, we pack mugs, fish slices and ear plugs

Despite the fact that I regarded this trip to Lanzarote as a working holiday (I needed to finish writing a couple of scripts and work on a new book), it’s actually been one of the most relaxing holidays I’ve ever had. Unlike our last visit, Dawn and I were under no pressure and had no inclination to visit any of the island’s attractions as we’ve seen them all. Therefore, free of all tourist obligations, we could afford to chill out. And we did just that to Ice Age proportions.

We were staying in Matagorda, about halfway between the capital Arrecife and the resort of Puerto del Carmen. To be strictly correct, Matagorda is a suburb of del Carmen but it does have an identity of its own. It’s off the main road – the busy Avenida de las playas (Beach Street) – and has bicycle and pedestrian tracks only. The beaches are less busy and there are fewer sports bars, restaurants and tacky shops. And I would say that it was quieter but, thanks to the large number of Irish tourists who shouted at each other almost continuously rather than stand within quarter of a mile of each other to hold a conversation, it wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, on the whole they were pleasant company and a great laugh. We met some grand people and there was no trouble. But loud isn’t the word.

While I’m mentioning the Irish, it was also immensely frustrating to watch their complete ease with the local currency. It was just us British types who fumbled our change as we desperately tried to figure out the difference between a 20c piece and a 10c. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again … give us the bloody Euro. We’re now isolated within Europe and are the only idiots who have to buy currency whenever we go on short haul holidays. Everyone else we met - the Irish, Germans, Spanish, French, Dutch, Italians, and the local Canarians – all just simply brought their own.

Our apartment was pleasantly air-conditioned and visited by tame collared doves and palm finches who gleefully stole any food we foolishly left on our balcony table. We didn’t have a great view due to an abundance of palm trees but we were sheltered from most of the Gaelic shouting and it was pretty tranquil most of the time. However, it was curiously poorly appointed for a place that advertised itself as a self-catering apartment. We had no kettle, no toaster and no oven. There were no cooking utensils except a frying pan, a single saucepan and a ladle (What can you do with a ladle?). There was a small microwave just large enough to cook a palm finch in, a hob with a pair of halogen cooker rings, a sink with no draining board and four place settings, minus one spoon and any bowls. And no mugs, just glasses. Despite this, we coped. We didn’t have a knife sharp enough to cut things so we sort-of rubbed grooves into meat and cheese until they split to create irregularly shaped slices. Then we used the saucepan as a kettle and bought the two tackiest souvenir mugs in the history of muggage. Nothing was going to keep me from having a cup of tea. And I did. I took a box of 100 and came back with a single bag.

Over the course of the fortnight the only trips we did were to the marina at Playa Blanca and the geological wonder that is El Golfo (just because they’re so photogenic). We spent the rest of the time swimming, walking – at least five miles a day – and snorkelling in the warm sea. Lanzarote is not famed for its exotic wildlife, which seems to consist mostly of dull grey-brown lizards that live in any crack in any wall they can find. We saw hundreds of them and sometimes had to avoid treading on them as they scuttled under our feet. There were surprisingly few gulls and a single pigeon that we reckoned had got lost but we did see a hoopoe once behind the perimeter fence surrounding the airport, which was very attractive. The bird, not the fence. Oh, and Lanzarote has the tiniest ants, about a fifth the size of our smallest garden ants back home. Our first forays with masks and snorkels revealed nothing more exciting than the plain sandy seabed and two varieties of rather drab looking fish. It was a whole week before we found anything really colourful. We decided we’d try snorkelling in a different spot near some semi-submerged rocks. And it was a good decision. We discovered a marvellous little reef full of live sponges, colourful anemones and corals and a huge variety of fish. Some were very striking indeed, from spiky yellow-green pufferfish and orange things like mullets to a large bass-like fish patterned in horizontal lines of bright yellow over silvery green. At one point we found ourselves floating above a school of around forty of these foot long fish as they tore at the rocks and the weed below. Most striking of all was a small jet black fish, something like a wrasse but with electric blue flashes on its head and flanks.

I mentioned the airport just now. It’s a place that became a regular haunt for us, which sounds a bit sad, but let me explain ...

Every evening, we took a constitutional stroll away from our apartment towards Arrecife. About a mile and half from where we were staying, there’s a curious blue metal structure growing out of the sea like half of a seaside pier and festooned with lights all along its upper span. We soon realised that this was an extension of the runway for the diminutive island airport and the lights act as a guide to pilots coming in to land. Once we discovered this, we’d often wait for a holiday jet to come screaming by, passing so low overhead that we could make out the passengers at the windows. We weren’t alone either. Dozens of people would be gathered there to experience feeling the heat from the engines and we’d all be drenched in the smell of aviation fuel. Which, at this present time, is probably more expensive per fluid ounce than Chanel No. 5 so that probably means that we all smelled pretty damned rich. The planes never got within a hundred feet of the ground but everyone still ducked as they went over. It must be an instinct thing.
The temperature didn’t drop below 35 degrees all the time we were there (the highest was 46) and we were grateful for the air-conditioning in our apartment. Yet, despite the intense African sun, nothing was going to stop the hordes of pasty white British and Irish tourists exposing themselves on the beaches and on the sun beds around the pool. Later, these same people could be seen furiously rubbing after-sun lotions or Aloe Vera – which grows everywhere like a weed on the island – into flesh the colour of a London fire engine. I wasn’t going to join them in their sufferings so I covered up … but the UV still got through my sunscreen and, because I’d been wearing dark sunglasses, I spent three days looking like a negative image of a beardy pink panda.

As is usual in such sunny climes, there were plenty of ladies going topless which always presents a quandary for the chap on holiday with his missus. Do you look? Or do you try not to look? Or does that make it too obvious that you’re not looking, which means that you would if she wasn’t around? It’s a difficult one that. Thankfully I was aided by the curious phenomenon that most of the people who were topless were precisely the sorts of people who shouldn’t be. All the pretty young things with pert bosoms kept them sensibly within their bikinis while the ‘tuck them in your belt’ brigade just let it all hang free. The same could be said for the men. We saw plenty of thongs and Speedos (mostly worn by Germans it seemed) but only ever pulled like cheesewires between sagging buttocks or under voluminous beer bellies. Not one beefcake in a thong, just tired old tripe. One beach near the airport seemed to be designated as ‘clothing optional’ but the only naturist was a well-endowed but withered old man who insisted on showing off his swinging tackle as he cleared the beach of litter. Shudder.
There were several larger hotel complexes nearby and they provided us with unintended but excellent entertainment. One evening there was a children’s entertainer who was dressed as the scariest clown imaginable – a bit like Pennywise from Stephen King’s IT but even more evil-looking – the heat had dried and cracked the white pancake on his face giving him a flaky-skinned zombie-like appearance. He was assisted by a pale, thin Goth girl in black crepe who sadistically forced children to sit on balloons until they popped. At another resort, the kiddies club was themed around the Flintstones with fibreglass dinosaurs and huge white thigh bones supporting the pool bar roof. Staff walked around in ragged orange Fred Flintstone tabards and one poor sod was even dressed up in a Fred outfit; it must have been sweltering in there. Capitalising on this theme, a chap was hiring bicycles nearby under the trading name of Flistons Bicycles. He was dressed as Fred too so I assume it was a misspelling rather than his name being Senor Fliston. Or maybe it was a cunning legal move? I saw no mention of the Hanna Barbera Corporation anywhere so I’m not entirely sure that the hotel wasn’t breaching all sorts of copyrights.
Food was good. We fed ourselves mostly – despite the limitations of our poorly appointed kitchenette – and dined well on locally produced cheeses, meats, fish and fruit. The dates in particular, were amazing. And there was a Supermercado nearby that baked fresh bread every day. Every so often we went out for a proper cooked meal. On one occasion, we walked six miles to the old port at Puerto del Carmen and watched as a local fishing boat brought in a catch of fresh tuna. Nearby was a restaurant called El Marinero that we really enjoyed on our last visit to the island for the quality of the seafood. Sadly it is now a pizzeria and the ‘Seafood – our speciality!’ signs had been painted over with the words ‘burgers, pizzas, kebabs’. That said, we stayed for lunch anyway and were delighted to be served the best seafood paella I’ve ever tasted, crammed with fresh mussels, clams, king prawns, tuna and squid. Fabulous. We didn’t get around to visiting Odin’s Restaurant in Matagorda as Viking food didn’t really appeal. Besides, scanning the menu, we couldn’t understand how garlic bread, steak and chips or pizza was in any way Scandinavian. Oh, I see that they had reindeer pate among the starters. That’s okay then. We also eschewed the delights of Rancho Texas, the Canary Islands’ ‘authentic’ Wild West restaurant replete with gunfights, rope shows and line dancing. Somehow it didn’t quite fit within our plans for this holiday.

Oddest brand name? I was going to go for a local brand of bread called Bimbo but it was pipped at the post by an ice cream made by the Kalise company. It looks like a Cornetto but is called Pivot. The strangely incongruous name reminded me of that old Monty Python sketch where Michael Palin is doing a voice-over for a bizarrely named lager called Treadmill’.

I can’t leave Lanzarote again without mentioning the art. As I have previously explained, the whole island is a shrine to one man – the late Cesare Manrique – a native Lanzarotean and contemporary of Picasso whose touch can be seen everywhere; even down to the logo for the local car hire company. And being in a part of Lanzarote that we hadn’t visited before meant that we found lots of new sculptures and ‘wind toys’; Manrique’s childishly delightful kinetic constructions that spin and twist and flip as the warm breezes come in off the sea. The very look of the island has been moulded by the man and every care has been taken to make the walls, the buildings, even the pavements look part of the natural environment. Everything is made from the local bubble-filled, honeycombed, volcanic rock slotted together like a giant 3D jigsaw puzzle. The island is one enormous mosaic of basalt and pumice.

So, two excellent weeks of sunshine and relaxation; two fantastic weeks’ worth of writing under my belt (while Dawn pampered herself in the pool, on the beach or by catching up on her reading) and a fortnight mercifully free of mosquitoes. This little volcanic island has no natural water supply (hence the lack of soil and grass – all water comes from desalination) so there’s nowhere for the little buggers to breed. Hoorah! It was also blissfully free of pollen as I don’t think that there’s a deciduous tree or a blade of grass on the island. But a little hay fever is a small price to pay for being home. You forget just how green a garden can be.

Footnote: Our flight home was delayed by two hours which meant that we were in Arricife airport during the final of the Euro2008 football tournament. No nation celebrates quite like Spain when they win. The atmosphere was electric throughout the match and absolutely ecstatic afterwards. You couldn't help but get swept up in the euphoria, even if, like me, football is meaningless. Free drinks? Of course I'll drink to your fine country's win ...

Friday, June 27, 2008

Queen WAG

This will probably be my last Canarian post as tomorrow we have a pretty full day planned and Sunday we're on our way home. So, come Monday I'll be back at my desk in my study as usual. We're at that stage in the holiday now where we're still having a great time ... but we're also looking forward to home. My courgettes, tomatoes and potatoes will be ripe and ready to eat and I'll also be able to read my emails again. I apologise to any of you who've mailed me this past fortnight and I haven't answered ... rest assured I will. Of course I'll also be able to read the 1300 spam messages asking me to update my penis.

I spotted Queen WAG* today. Well, not the Queen WAG. That would be Her Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria of Beckham, a lady so posh that they actually call her 'Posh'. And she got married on a throne. Sorry ... the sarcasm is just dripping off me like sweat today. Or is that actually sweat? It's 38 degrees here.

The WAG I saw was dressed in a white cheesecloth dress that complimented her orange perma-tan and was just transparent enough to show off her expensive and barely decent underthings. The jewellery was chunky, the heels high and her sunglasses, naturally, D et G. Every time she took them off she somehow managed to waggle her head and show off her Beckham Bob hairstyle as if she was starring in a shampoo commercial. While we ate cheese toasties (get me and my international playboy lifestyle), she sat in the shade doing her make up. It took her 20 minutes and her make up bag was the size of a briefcase. And she was already immaculate when she'd arrived. And all this effort just to impress a few beer bellied Brits on holiday with their families. It was just so ... misplaced. She needed to be putting on this performance outside the players' entrance at Man Utd. Watching her became hypnotic but also hilarious, her obvious vanity and airs and graces a joy to behold. She didn't sit. She posed. Every movement was a calculated decision. She pouted almost continuously as if she were sucking on an invisible straw.

The millionaire's playground of Playa Blanca. WAG hunting grounds.

Now then, I try normally not to be quite so bitchy. Really I do. But she was laying it on thick. About the only thing she didn't do was stand on a soapbox and howl, 'Look at me!' through a bullhorn. The many other diners at the snack bar were also finding her antics unmissably funny and there were a number of whispered conversations of which I caught just the occasional snippet ... 'Who does she imagine she is?' ... 'What does she look like!' ... 'Look! It's a WAG wannabe!'

But the best moment came when she opened her mouth. Her bloke, a perfectly normal, good-looking guy in unpretentious polo shirt, shorts and sandals was happily sipping a cold beer when she says, in perfectly clipped East London English ...

"Oy Gary, get us some champagne, babe."

Absolute, pure essence of WAG. If I could bottle it, I'd make a mint.

Thanks for dropping in while I've been away. Back Monday!


*WAG is an acronym used particularly (but by no means exclusively) by the British tabloid press to describe the Wives And Girlfriends of the England national football team. It came into common use during the 2006 World Cup, held in Germany, although it had been used occasionally before that. Sunday Times columnist India Knight was waiting in an airport queue when she spotted some WAG wannabes. She observed that ... "it's as if a low-level wannabe footballer's wife vibe that is neither aesthetically pleasing nor edifying has become the norm ... I saw this phenomenon en masse". Among other features, Knight identified "enough pink glitter to satisfy the girliest of five-year-olds", massive handbags and huge designer sunglasses. Reflecting on sunglasses as an accessory, Sunday Times Style's senior fashion writer Colin McDowell suggested that, whereas women had been sure that the poise of Jacqueline Kennedy (1929-94) and Audrey Hepburn (1929-93), style icons of the mid-20th century, had been due to their shading their eyes, "Wags ... far from using dark glasses to encourage others to leave them alone, treat them as a weapon to attract and excite the paparazzi". (Definition taken from Wikipedia).

So now you know.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Look at the idiots Mummy!

We watched a real-life rescue today. To be fair, it was a completely unnecessary rescue with a drama factor of nil, but it was magnetic viewing all the same.

The place where we go snorkelling is very shallow to start with. The beach has a very gentle slope into the sea and you have to wade a fair way out before you even start wetting your botty. It means that the water is nice and warm of course and that encourages plant growth and corals. Dawn and I usually swim out to a depth where we can just about stand on out until we were tippy-toes. That's where all the best fish are. By then we are about a quarter mile from the sunbathers on the beach.

So, we were sat on the beach today drying off when we spot a small white dinghy just a little farther offshore than we'd been snorkelling. There's a couple in it, a man and a woman, and he's tugging furiously on the starting cord of an outboard motor. And failing dismally to start it. So after about 20 or so tugs, the two of them grab the oars and start to row. Except they have absolutely no idea. They're facing the wrong way and rowing out of time so all they do is go in circles. So then he has another go on the outboard. And so on.

This went on for about half an hour and, meanwhile, they were drifting further and further away from where they probably wanted to be. The tide was coming in so there was little chance of them being swept out to sea, but the wind was pushing them further along the coast at a reasonable lick.

By now they'd attracted the interest of everyone on the beach, including the lifeguard who eventually decided that enough was enough. So, mounting his board, he swam out to them and, just a short while later, all three of them were wading back to shore, towing the boat. Yes, that's right. Wading. So why hadn't these budding seafarers done this before? Because apart from not knowing how to sail, not hiring any lifejackets, not knowing what depth of water they were in, not knowing how to start an outboard motor, nor even knowing how to row with oars ... this fabulous couple couldn't swim either.

The lifeguard summed it up in one word, spat with venom: "¡Turistas!"

Cartoon scanned from my notebook upon our return home. I have no idea where the couple's legs are.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Top Moments

Okay ... here are just a few highlights from the last few days. I'll elucidate further upon my return but, suffice to say, at 2 Euros for half an hour, I don't get much writing time on these internet cafe machines ... and I have to check my email. So, the highlights. Well, the bits that made me laugh anyway.

Top irony moment - Seeing a fat 11-12 year old Irish kid drinking a Bacardi Breezer and wearing a T-shirt that said 'If you're not fast you're last'.

Top bizarre moment - Watching The Running Man on a German satellite channel (N24), and Arnold Swarzenegger dubbed into German (?).

Top food moment - Visiting Playa Blanca and popping into a cafe for a snack. Almost everything was in a baguette but Dawn didn't fancy any bread, So she opted for a ham and mushroom omelette, which promptly arrived ... inside a baguette.

Top coincidence - Seeing a young woman of about 20 with DYLAN tattooed right across her lower back in 4 inch high letters. Dawn commented that she'd be sorry if Dylan ever dumped her. I replied, "Maybe she's a Bob Dylan fan?" "Here?" said Dawn. "And she's 20 if she's a day. Dylan is for old farts like you." Anyhow, half an hour later, we caught a bus to El Golfo (A curious geological area - not an uninspired name for a Pitch and Putt) and the old fart driver subjected us to 45 minutes of the Best of Bob Dylan at top volume.

You couldn't make it up.

Just three full days left before crashing back to reality.

"Whoaaaa the times they are a-changin' ...."


Monday, June 23, 2008

A fishy retraction

Okay ... I take it all back about the dull fish. We found a reef to dive yesterday and the colours were glorious. Not quite Great Barrier Reef quality but great all the same. I can honestly say now that I've freaked out a Pufferfish. Weather still unremittingly hot, seven more days to go and I've written an hour long pilot for a TV series.

Who says you can't combine business with pleasure?


Note: We didn't have an underwater camera so I've nicked these photos off the web. They are all species we saw though and include bream, damsels, wrasse and scorpion fish. Credit is due to Jenny Rosenfeld, Andres Colmen and Jamie Huskisson.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Phew! What a scorcher!

As you can see, I've found an internet terminal. No wireless at the hotel but there is a kind of internet cafe where two of the four machines work. And now having mastered the intricacies of a decidely different Spanish keyboard, here I am popping by for a quickie.

It's very hot. In fact, it's a real pleasure when it gets a bit cloudy. Have just been snorkelling and said hello to a variety of rather drab fish. Lots more to report and will do so upon my return to the wind and rain of the English Summer. I am, however, being very productive and have written half of a TV screenplay already.

Catch you all soon. Why not read some of my older posts while waiting? There's nearly three years' worth of waffle and drivel to absorb.

And now ... I feel a trip to the beach coming on. Let's hope Greenpeace don't wrap me in wet towels and roll me into the sea again.


Saturday, June 14, 2008

Even more Tripwire Shenanigans

One last signing event (before I go on holiday) today at Waterstones in Oxford Street. We were lucky enough to have Bryan Talbot of Luther Arkwright, Judge Dredd, Nemesis the Warlock, Alice in Sunderland and The Tale of One Bad Rat fame there, and Steve Dillon who is currently drawing Wolverine but is best known for his Judge Dredd work and his epic six year run on Preacher. Great guys, both of them.

Friday, June 13, 2008

My Sri Lankan Diary: Part 5

Welcome to the final part of my Sri Lankan travel diary.
Part Five: Pure Soap

You've doubtless heard the expression 'the bottom dropped out of my world'? Well, for three days it had felt like the world had dropped out of my bottom. I'd never felt so poorly and every possible exit point from my body ached with over-use.

But now I was feeling, if not entirely better, well enough to travel and I was anxious not to waste the last few days of our trip sitting around in bathrooms. First off, because it was fairly close by, we decided to visit the Mask Museum at Ambalangoda.

Masks are an important part of Sri Lankan tradition. Some are used in medicine, many are used in dances that tell the ancient stories of their island nation. The extraordinary affair above is a medicine mask and the sixteen smaller faces carved and painted beside the main face represent different illnesses. We also, while were in the area, visited a batik factory, a lace makers and a silk farm. All were very fascinating and we walked away with several presents for friends, family and ourselves. Even as I type this, two Sri Lankan masks are glowering at me from the wall to my right.

The next day, we were once again woken by being scared half to death by devil birds and the odd CHINK CHINK noise of palm squirrels. They're cute and cheeky little buggers - something like chipmunks - who'll steal your food and drink in an instant. When alarmed, they flick their tails like semaphore flags and make noise like glass bottles being knocked together and then fed through Ozzy Osborne's PA system. They're very loud.

We once again hired the redoubtable Linton de Silva as our guide and asked that we be taken to Yala National Park via a river safari. He obliged us and we travelled to our first port of call; the Maadu Ganga River. We arrived at the bridge where the safaris start and found that we were the only people there. Tourist people that is. There was a small gang of locals and the minute our feet hit the road, they began imploring us to use their boat services. We picked the boat that looked the least likely to fall to pieces. It was not as easy a choice as you'd think.
The river was broad and dotted with islands. Sometimes the islands were so large, I mistook them for the riverbank. It was only when I glimpsed open water and the white domes of Dagobah temples beyond in the distance that I realised how broad the river was. I hadn’t expected to find so much fresh water on an island the size of Sri Lanka.

Every so often we would see gloriously coloured kingfishers, green herons, little egrets, wild peacocks and other birds I couldn't identify. Large river monitor lizards lay sunning themselves on the banks and islands and, upon seeing us, would slip silently into the water and swim along side in anticipation of food. Sure enough, the boat boys threw them scraps of fruit and bread and the monitors gobbled it all up with lizardly glee.

We landed on one island and met a family of cinnamon farmers. The whole island smelled of Mom's apple pie and Dad was happy to sell us a big rolled piece of bark for just a few rupees. The same amount of spice at home would have cost me over £100 I reckon. We also met a pineapple farmer and he, again, was happy to oblige us by picking the sweetest juiciest pineapple I've ever tasted - straight from the plant - for just a few pennies.

I'd noticed that almost everywhere we'd been on the island, there were handpainted advertisements for products - one of the most common being 'Sunlight - Pure Soap'. We'd seen it everywhere. Linton explained that this particular product is cheap and easily available so everyone uses it to wash themselves, their clothes, their hair and their elephants. The reason that the adverts were painted was that paper posters would just fall to pieces in the humidity. Whoever paints these things is quite the artist. Every one we saw was identical - same colours, same font. Not all adverts were quite so clear however. There has been a peculiar Sri Lankan mangling of the English language in the past 100 years or so and we would often see signs and adverts for things like Short Eats, Fish Today and the delightfully obscure Rotty Stop or Wasp Xing. I still have absolutely no idea what they were promoting.

After our river safari, Linton took us along the South Coast towards Yala. We stopped at various little stalls and farms that Linton knew and ate fresh cashews, papaya, passion fruit and guavas. We drank coconut milk and lots and lots of tea. And we saw many kinds of lizards - mostly skinks and anoles. At last we arrived at Yala but it was already getting dark so Linton arranged a hotel for us and told us that we'd need to get up early to take the Land Rover safari into the national park.
An exceptionally long power cut meant that we ate in pitch darkness in the restaurant that evening, lit only by starlight and candles. It was very romantic but also a little scary. This part of Sri Lanka is remote and pretty inaccessible. There was no other building for miles and no form of street lighting or transport links. We felt like we were at the very ends of the Earth.

Morning came quickly enough and after a fine breakfast, we jumped into the back of a Land Rover driven by a man with several guns and we were whizzed around Yala. It was the most amazing experience but, sadly, I have very little to show for it except a shot of two crocodiles as my digital camera had run completely out of battery power and, stupidly, I'd not brought my charger along. I cursed and ranted and railed as we drove past electric blue bee-eaters, wild elephants, boars, mongooses, several types of monkey, painted cranes, jungle fowl, hornbills, Chital deer and peacocks. We weren't lucky enough to see a leopard but if we had, I wouldn't be able to share it with you. The best I can do is direct you here to David Behrens' site where he is better able to show off all the things we saw. Sigh.

On our way back to Beruwela, we stopped to watch a Sri Lankan wedding where the bride was promenaded through the village on a cart that was apparently on fire. It was a very happy occasion and we were delighted to be asked to join in with the hand-clapping and shouting. We then sampled something called buffalo curd - a kind of natural yoghurt - flavoured with dangerous honey; dangerous because we saw a chap shin up a tree and lop the bottom off a large paper bees' nest to get it, despite the huge crowd of angry insects that swarmed moodily around him.

At the end of a long and, thankfully toilet-trauma free day, we got back to the hotel to enjoy one final sunset on Beruwela Beach. And what a corker it was.

It was then that I realised that the plasterers who were working on the hotel's exterior were the DJ with the world's worst disco, the Waltons-loving crap magician and the snake charmer. It just goes to show that in a poor country, nothing is ever wasted. Everything is recycled - even the people.

Goodbye Sri Lanka. For two weeks it had felt like living in a different world. A world of extraordinary wildlife, magnificent temples, unimaginably beautiful scenery and the all-pervading smell of soap.
Sunlight - pure soap.

Chickens stuff Tesco

A quick update on the shoddy goings-on at Tesco HQ and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Chicken Out campaign. And it's all good news. Here's the clipping:

Hugh hits target on Tesco Checkout Challenge!

'On Tuesday 10th June, Hugh sent Tesco the full amount they requested in order for his resolution to be tabled at the Tesco AGM at the end of this month.

The resolution called on Britain’s biggest supermarket to upgrade their poultry welfare standards so that it is in line with their stated claim to endorse the ‘Five Freedoms’ as set down by the Farm Animal Welfare Council. In practice this would be achievable by a commitment to upgrading their poultry to at least the RSPCA Freedom Foods production system which, although indoor-reared, uses slower growing breeds, a lower stocking density and environmental enrichment to allow chickens to express natural behaviour.

The sum of £86,888 was requested by the retail giant in order to pay for the distribution of Hugh’s resolution, supporting statement and proxy voter forms to approximately 269,000 Tesco shareholders. The amount – which was challenged by Hugh but which Tesco refused to budge on – threatened to knock his resolution off course.

But following a deadline extension granted by Tesco last Friday, until Wednesday June 11th, Hugh launched a last minute appeal at the weekend to auction himself and his services in a bid to raise the full amount (current bids total over £20,000) through his campaign website Hugh also pledged £30,000 of his own money, and received a generous donation and technical and fundraising assistance from the charity Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) totalling, at latest count, £42,500.

If all the auction bids are honoured, this actually means that in little over 24 hours Hugh has raised more than the sum needed – and any surplus funds will go to CIWF and their ongoing campaigns to improve welfare for poultry.

“I’m really relieved and hugely grateful to everyone who has shown their support by donating through Compassion, and by bidding for my services,” says Hugh. “This is not just about animal welfare, it also raises the question of how huge public corporations communicate with and hold themselves accountable to, their shareholders and customers.”

Hugh added that there have been many additional pledges of support from people who have not been able to bid or donate cash but who have written to Tesco expressing their support for his resolution and taking the retailer to task for their apparent reluctance to engage openly with the issues raised.'

Good on you, Hugh.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Pubs, Pedigrees and Pornstars

I wasn't anticipating being back online 'til tomorrow but a bout of food poisoning for Steve (the friend I would have been out with tonight) has brought me back to my blog earlier than expected. And it's very nice to be back here with you all.

I've been in Hampshire doing some lecturing/teaching for a couple of days; in particular the Hamble Valley, near Southampton on the so-called 'Strawberry Coast'. And it's aptly named - there did seem to be hundreds of strawberry farms around there and the little red beauties turned up everywhere; in breakfasts, in salads and even sandwiches. If you've never had a strawberry and cracked black pepper sandwich, as bizarre as it sounds, you're missing out. Myself and my colleague Paul had planned to stay in a hotel. However, we'd left it to the last minute to book and, as the result, we couldn't find rooms anywhere. All of the hotels were stuffed to the gills with Neil Diamond and Bon Jovi fans and, if two major gigs weren't enough, the Isle of Wight Festival was imminent too and hundreds of visitors were staying in the city before venturing across the sea for their annual dose of hedonism. There was, quite literally, no room at the inn. Any inn. So, our only choice was to trawl the lists of local bed and breakfasts. Paul began working his way through the alphabetical lists and, many phonecalls later, he phoned me with some good news.
"I got up to 'H' but I've finally managed to find one that has two rooms free."
"Great!" I said, "I'll look it up on the internet and see what it's like. What's it called?"
"It's in a place called Bursledon", said Paul, "And it's called Heather Gables."
"Nice name", I said as I typed 'Heather Gables' into Google.

Oh dear. Oh dearie dearie me.

You see ... what I expected to find was this charming logo:

What I actually found was this:

She might well 'accommodate guests' but this Heather Gables wasn't the Heather Gables I was after. This is a photo (and, believe me, this is the cleanest photo - after cropping - that I could find) of a different Heather Gables. This is Heather Gables the US porn star. And she's very popular, judging by the many websites that feature her. And various parts of her.

Er ... so I understand.

Okay, I'll admit it. When Paul and I arrived at the B & B, I did fantasise about being greeted by a bosomy blonde with a $10,000 smile who was keen to show us the price list for 'extras'. But, in stark contrast (and probably just as well) we were welcomed by a lovely couple called Peter and Rita who own the place and who seemed very pleased to see us as they didn't get as many bookings via the internet as they'd expected. I didn't have the heart to tell them that their potential customers probably got distracted while searching ...

Anyway, it was a very nice B&B. We had two very pleasant days there. And two very pleasant days of work with a great crowd. We were using some classrooms in an old sanitorium once used to treat shellshocked servicemen and now used by the Hampshire Constabulary as a training venue. Not much difference there then. It was a curious mix of the old and the new with a lovely old red brick exterior and modern, light and airy fixtures and fittings inside. As usual when somewhere new, I wandered about the grounds in the lunch breaks, looking for interesting things. And funny things - I'm always on the lookout for the quirky or humorous. I found some soon enough. In a corridor, I found the police choir's trophy cabinet and my eye was drawn to a book on the bottom shelf. Just check out the title:

I couldn't help wondering whether The Years of Suffering was the personal reminiscence of one of the choristers. Or maybe of an audience member? Just how bad was this choir?

Then, a little further down the same corridor, I found a display about the history of police dogs. There were lots of photographs of the dogs and their handlers from the early 20th century up to the present. But one photo jumped out at me because of its caption:
I would have been surprised if Ajax and his handler were related, to be honest. I mean ... they don't even look that similar do they? Ajax is a lot shorter for a start. Okay ... to be fair, I've taken the photo out of context. The other photos had captions that demonstrated the long and illustrious pedigree of Hampshire police dogs by their relationships to each other (litter sibling, puppy, mother, father etc.). Ajax, apparently, was fresh blood being the only one not related to his doggy peers.

All joking aside, I do need to thank Steve for arranging our venue, the participants for being such a good audience (and for being so keen too) and Rita and Peter at Heather Gables who keep a very nice (porn-free) guest house with lovely rooms and fantastic cooked breakfasts. I'd recommend it to anyone. If you can find it. I'd also like to thank the staff at The Rising Sun pub in Warsash and The Fox and Hounds and Lone Barn Restaurant at Hungerford Bottom who kept us supplied with excellent food and more than a few pints of the local FortyNiner ale. Oh, and which has a ghost called George.


Note: If you're wondering why I've blanked the officer's face and name, rest assured that it isn't because of any suspected illegal liaison between his family and the dog's family. Rather it's because I don't have the permission of either the police service concerned or the officer's family to use the photo. On the other hand, I wasn't too concerned about using a photo of Ms. Gables. She seems pretty comfortable with her pictures being seen.