Wednesday, 30 March 2011


Recently completing the census form reminded my of the hours which I've spent looking at old census records to trace my ancestors.

Back in Victorian times there were only a few questions to answer which were basically your name, your age, your job and whether or not you were an imbecile.

Apparently in the last census, a number of people declared their religion as Jedi from the Star Wars series. They were joking of course but in Victorian times, declaring yourself to be Batman wouldn't have raised an eyebrow. It would simply mean that you were an aide to an army officer. Likewise, stating that you were Vulcan, (the Roman god of war), would inform the world that you were a blacksmith by trade.

There was a much wider range of occupations back in 1891 when the census was completed as listed here. Some of these sounded very strange. A Schrimpschonger for instance was someone who carved in bone or ivory. A Qwylwryghte was just a weird spelling for a wheelwright.

Some were not what they sounded like. A drummer for instance, was not an ancestor of Ringo Starr but was a travelling salesman. A streaker did not strip off and then do a runner but instead they stripped off a dead body to prepare them for burial. The bogie man didn't go around scaring small children but actually shoved wagons around by coal mines.

Then there were the just plain funny names. A knockknobbler was a dog catcher. What do you imagine a Badgy Fiddler was? I bet you didn't come up with him being a boy trumpeter in the military. How about a Slubber Doffer? I'l put you out of your misery. It was a person who removed bobbins from spindles on a loom.

I'll leave you with one to investigate. What was a Vaginarius? I can tell you that what he did had nothing to do with ladies bits.

Sunday, 27 March 2011


Perhaps foolishly, I pride myself on having a modicum of intelligence. I mean I can do a 'fiendish' Sudoku. I can speak a foreign language. I know which side my bread is buttered.

As a child, I started out well. I passed the '11 plus' exam at the age of 10 thus giving my mother bragging rights in our little corner of the world. "He takes after me you know" was a common phrase as she poured out the tea for our guests.

The truth is that I probably did. She was a clever woman with a lively mind and a quick turn of wit. I enjoyed her praise and loved to impress her. She was very proud of my intellect and was therefore very disappointed when it failed me as was the case one time when I had a very nasty cold and cough.

Our tried and tested remedy for a chesty cold and cough was 'Vicks vapour rub'. It came in a blue jar and had that menthol 'if this doesn't cure you nothing will' sort of smell. Mum taught me to rub it on my chest, especially before bedtime and this would usually mean that I would wake up with my sinuses as clear as a bell.

If my nose was especially bunged up there was another method of application. Mum told me to lightly dip the little finger of my right hand into the jar and then wipe the gel into my right nostril. Then she explained that I must now use the little finger on my left hand to perform the same function for my left nostril.

"Do you know why it is so important to use a different finger for the second nostril?" she asked. Here was my chance to shine, to prove that I was my Mother's son. The chance to show her that all her nurturing efforts had not been in vain. I thought hard and "Eureka" the penny dropped. "So that you don't carry the infection from one nostril to the other" I proudly replied.

She sighed heavily with obvious disappointment. "No, it's so that you don't put your snotty little finger back into the jar which we all use".

That was the day when I learned that common sense beats intelligence every time.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011


Let's face it, committees have had a very bad press. They are also the butt of a great many jokes. A couple of examples should suffice.

'A camel is a horse which was designed by a committee' (Sir Alec Issigonis).

'A committee is an animal with four back legs' (Anon).

I once found myself in the position of chairing a committee no doubt because I had done something very wicked in a previous incarnation. One of our tasks was to oversee the redecoration of our bridge club.

Having learned the word 'delegation' when I was about three years old, I immediately organised a sub-committee to handle the issue of choosing the colour to paint the walls. They reported back in due course to say that they had selected a shortlist of four colours but felt that this issue was of such import that the entire membership should vote on it.

The four colours were daubed side by side on a wall and voting forms were placed nearby. Everyone made their choice and at the next committee meeting, we counted the votes for the four shades. Two of the colours, received 5% of votes between them and the other two which were quite similar, at least in my eyes, received 48% and 47% respectively.

The voting was so close that the committee were reluctant to disappoint the 47% of members who had lost out so narrowly and so it was decided that the two colours, being so similar, would be mixed together and the resulting hue would then become our new wall colour.

You will not have failed to notice dear reader, that this meant that no-one at all had voted for the colour which soon surrounded the members as they sat playing bridge, seemingly unaware that their opinions had been (paint) brushed aside.

Saturday, 19 March 2011


I remember a time when I was small and the world was very big. I was feeling hungry and opened one of Mum's cupboards in search of something to fill the void. What I discovered was a huge hoard of tins. On closer inspection, they were revealed to be of just two types, spam and curried baked beans.

These were very familiar to me as the key ingredients of my mother's 'signature dish' which we commonly referred to as Letts' Lash-Up. This item was always cooked in a huge pan and contained a large quantity of the aforesaid spam and curried beans with the addition of an ever-changing list of other ingredients playing a supporting role.

My mother, bless her, had a great many endearing qualities and was skilled in multifarious tasks none of which included cooking. As we sat expectantly at the dinner table and she carried steaming plates of lash-up towards us this was always a time of great mirth. My father would offer something like "Oh I do enjoy these regular voyages of culinary discovery". During the meal my brother and I would, while chomping, come out with such gems as "So that's what happened to that cricket ball we lost".

My Mum always put up with it all with good humour and would often retort "Sometimes, I feel I'm casting my pearls before swine". The meaning of the phrase is self-evident but since my Mother didn't have a religious bone in her body, I was somewhat surprised to find it to be biblical (Matthew 7-6 "Nether caste ye youre pearles before swyne"). It is perhaps less surprising that Letts' Lash-up might have existed almost 2000 years ago.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011


It would be nice to think that just before meeting our maker, we could summon our last remnants of invention and utter a witty or whimsical remark by which we might be remembered. Sadly, the muse deserted Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary, for his dying remark was "Don't let it end like this. Tell them I said something." I think he was hoping for a little more than a verbatim reporting of these words.

In reality then, it might be best to follow in the Blue Peter tradition of 'Here's a deathbed speech which I prepared earlier'. However, a
word of warning is in order. Do not copy someone else's witty demise as Groucho Marx did when on expiring in 1977 he said "Die, my dear? Why that's the last thing I'll do!" which a little research has shown to be the actual deathbed words of Henry Palmerston over a hundred years before in 1856. Perhaps Groucho felt that the copyright must have expired by then.

Of course, the circumstances of your impending death may well have a bearing on your choice of phrase. Imagine if you will that you are standing in front of a firing squad and are given the floor for your final speech. A certain Joe Hill of Utah found himself thus situated back in 1915 and shouted "Fire!" which promptly brought down the final curtain. James Rodgers, also facing a firing squad was asked if he had any last requests. "Why yes, a bulletproof vest!" he exclaimed - a request which was denied him.

Staying with the execution theme, a convicted murderer named James French when about to take a seat in the electric chair shouted out to the assembled news reporters "Hey, fellas! How about this for a headline for tomorrow’s paper? ‘French Fries’!"

Of course there have been some sad souls who when about to die, seized the opportunity to make their last big mistake. For instance, you would be well advised not to copy Gaius Caligula who, critical of his own guards to the last, pointed out their shoddy workmanship when having attempted to assassinate him, the Emperor shouted "I am still alive!" The error was soon corrected.

Terry Kath, who co-founded the rock band Chicago, managed the immortal phrase "Don't worry, it's not loaded" as he 'pretended' to shoot himself in the head. General John Sedgwick, a Union commander during the Civil War made a similar error of judgement when sticking his head above the parapet as he said "They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist. . . ."

I certainly plan to have something memorable to say when I proceed to checkout. No sense in rushing things though. I intend to write it the day before I die.

Sunday, 13 March 2011


"Yes Jenny."
"Why is that shop empty?"
"Oh, it's probably because of the financial recession. Lots of shops are closing down".
"No, it's open and people are buying stuff but the shelves are all empty."
"Oh right, well then it's restricted sales. It's stuff which is put out of sight because the government says so - like pornography for instance".
"Daddy?...What's a 'tobacconist'?"
"It's a shop that sells cigarettes and tobacco."
"Well that's what that empty shop was."
"Oh yes, well smoking is very bad for you so the government want all tobacco products put out of sight of children. That's what I meant by 'restricted sales'."
"Daddy?...What's 'pornography'?"
"It's pictures of ladies boobies. Pornography magazines are put on the very top shelf in shops."
"Is that so you don't have to bend down to see them in case you hurt your back, Daddy?"
"No, it's so they are out of sight of little girls like you."
"Well when I grow up I don't want to ever smoke cigarettes."
"I'm very glad to hear that Jenny."
"...and I certainly shan't be growing any boobies."

Wednesday, 9 March 2011


I was in Sweden back in 1967 when they made the change from driving on the left of the road to driving on the right. It was very impressively handled. All the new road signs were already in place but covered over and at the appointed hour of 4 a.m. on September 15th, the covers were whipped off and after an initially massive traffic jam everyone just adjusted.

Such a huge shift in motoring rules carried many more implications than just the road signs of course. Over a period of years, the Swedes had to gradually change over to cars with the steering wheel on the left instead of the right. There was also a massive program of repainting needed to alter the white lines and arrows on their 70,000 miles of roads.

I believe that we Brits have decided that the whole task is just too daunting, not to say expensive and so it is very unlikely that we shall ever change sides here.

However, we proved that we were just as capable as the Swedes in making major changes just a few years later when we dispensed with the shillings and sixpences which were so familiar to everyone in favour of 'new pence'. After a few years the 'new' was dropped along with pennies. Indeed our natural laziness soon had us calling pence simply 'p'.

I soon adapted of course, as did everyone else, but I still have happy memories of those lovely old coins such as the farthing and the thrupenny-bit. There was no ninepenny coin of course, though a few centuries ago such a coin did exist.

This made it all the harder for me to understand what on earth my parents were talking about when they said that something (or somebody) was 'as right as ninepence' .

I now discover that the saying has nothing to do with coinage at all but everything to do with the game 'ninepins' or skittles. When the nine pins are set up in readiness, they have to be placed exactly right in terms of spacing just as the modern bowling pins are which is why those are set up by a machine. So the phrase is essentially a mis-hearing of 'as right as ninepins'.

Finally, after all these years, the penny has dropped.

Sunday, 6 March 2011


You may recall (but it's far more likely that you won't), a previous piece which went by the name of "To school, perchance to dream", in which I reported on the Glasgow school which was giving its pupils lessons in how to sleep. I was rather predictably bemoaning the fact that the schools which I attended were not so far-sighted and tended to teach the three 'R's rather than the 'zzz'.

I have thought further on this since and it occurs to me that the exams for those sleep lessons must surely be rather difficult to invigilate. "Wake up at the back there" presumably becomes "Go to sleep at the back there". Also, the invigilators must ask themselves 'Are they really asleep or are they faking it?'

The latest news item which comes close to this theme is the report of a course which was established in 2004. It has just been scrapped and you may understand why as you read further.

The subject matter of the course was to do with the preparation of students for life after school. I can well imagine that in many cases it sought to assist those students whose chosen career path was to simply follow in their parents' footsteps in that it taught the students how to determine which unemployment and other benefits they might be entitled to and how to apply for them.

Once again, my own education was very narrow-minded in that it tended to dwell on the whimsical notion that I might be interested in that unusual concept of 'work' when I finished at school.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011


We had decided to go off for a days shopping and after due consideration about the best destination it was a case of Wales here we Cymru. Since I seem to get a speeding ticket every time I drive over to Wales we booked the train and resolved to leave the Cardiff behind in the garage.

When I told my friend about the trip he was quick to point out that the day we had chosen to go was St. David's day. "Go shopping in Wales on one of their busiest days of the year? You must be daff"'.

However, it was too late to change the day now so off we went. Predictably, most people were wearing daffodils to trumpet their Welshness and why wouldn't they? Some street sellers were even dressed as daffodils.

First we made for a nice looking cafe for some breakfast. Nothing like a nice plate of Brecon and eggs to set you up for the day.

Then it was off to the shops where my wife wanted some new buttons for a Cardigan of hers. Unfortunately, none of the shops she went to seemed to Abergavenny buttons which she liked though.

We both fancied a stroll in the park next and enjoyed watching the children feed the Swansea. The exercise soon gave us an appetite so off we went to a nice pub where I had Fishguard and Chepstow with mushy peas and my wife had Bangor s and mash.

The main shops were on the other side of a busy street. Indeed there were so Menai cars that we had to cross very Caerphilly. Then the weather turned nasty and we found we were getting Snowdon but it wasn't long before we were safely Neath the roof of a handy bus shelter.

There was a worrying moment when my wife thought she'd lost her train ticket but I found it with mine and Prestatyn to her hand.

We'd had a lovely day out and after a safe journey back we got home about twenty past Tenby.