Friday, March 30, 2007


I was catching up with the latest edition of the Best of Jazz from the BBC Radio website when I noticed an announcement to the effect that the programme will be taking a break and in future will consist of two 13 week series per year. After presenting the programme for 40 years, you might thin that Humphrey Lyttelton deserves a well-earned rest. But no, Humph - now in his 86th year - declares he wants to spend more time touring with his band!

Last year we were lucky enough to have Humph and his band as guests at the Marsden Jazz Festival. During a brief photo shoot before the concert I had the opportunity of meeting him. He is a lovely man : that phrase - so often overused - is the ideal description. Later, he gave the Marsden audience a night to remember. If having half a year without a regular weekly dose of Humph is the price we have to pay for more people being able to experience the joy of him and his band playing live, well so be it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Hills Are Alive With The Sound Of ....

"152", Mark said with professional distraction as his eyes swept the hazy detail of the Holme Valley, way below us. He didn't fool me, I knew he was desperately trying to locate the nearest Cottage Hospital. "Is that good or bad?", I panted. The words escaped amidst a spate of heavy breathing that would have done justice to the male lead in a pornographic film. "Well, good actually", he replied with just a tad less conviction than I would have liked. He went on to explain about the benefits of exercise which gets the pulse racing, the muscles aching, and the sweat dripping. Most of it passed me by : I was too busy fighting for my next breath.

Last week, my friend Mark had phoned to say that he had a few days off work and would I fancy going for a walk followed by a spot of lunch and a pint. I could choose the itinerary and the pub. I jumped at the chance of a day out walking the hills, breathing good Yorkshire air, drinking good Yorkshire beer. What was more, my wife couldn't veto the adventure on the basis of it placing too much strain on my frail, unfit, and overweight body : I was taking my own personal physician with me. The day dawned well : a morning mist gave way to a beautiful bright Spring day. We set out from the car park at Digley Reservoir and headed up a country lane. We were due to turn off the lane onto a footpath after a couple of hundred yards. By the time we got to the turn-off I had realised that I had made a dreadful mistake.

Mine is a body made for virtual exercise. I am a natural observer rather than a participant, and my preferred location for observing is the comfort of an armchair. But here I was facing the prospect of a five mile walk having just discovered that my lungs were no longer big enough to service my body. An hour later we were two-thirds of the way up what must be one of the still undiscovered mountains of the Western World. The guidebook told us to keep walking until we got to the top. Every time I thought we had eventually reached the peak, Mark would happily announce that there was only a few more yards to go. I became convinced that we had reached an altitude where oxygen starvation was a serious threat. I made a grab for the water bottle and collapsed on the ground. Mark took my pulse and declared me fit to continue.

We eventually reached the top. The views were magnificent. The colours would have done a Dulux Colour Chart proud. After a further hour we reached the pub and the pint tasted like the pint of your dreams : creamy, full-flavoured and marvellously refreshing. It was a very agreeable day. A day which will live long in the memory. The hills were alive with the sound of my racing heartbeat and, as Mark said, that's a good thing.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Rock Tavern Book Club

It was a Friday night a good few weeks ago. A fair amount of ale and red wine had been drunk and the conversation flitted from subject to subject like a bee in search of nectar. What we really enjoyed was a good book a few of us agreed. What we need is a Book Club some idiot suggested (mea culpa) and within a few alcohol soaked moments the Rock Tavern Book Club was born. By the time the conversation had moved on to some more suitable subject, three of us were left to survey the fruits of our creation and toss a coin to see who would have first pick of our book of the month.
I won the toss and chose Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky partly because I had read how the uncompleted manuscript had been hidden away only to be declared a masterpiece 60 years after it had been written, partly because it looked like the kind of book which might require the added impetus of peer pressure to get past the second chapter, and mainly because it was on offer in Tescos and I had foolishly agreed to buy all three copies.
So three weeks down the line and some 400 pages later what can I take from the exercise. If nothing else, a book that will live long in the memory. It is partly the epic story of its conception, writing and eventual publication. The idea of the manuscript being carried around by her children in a suitcase as they fled from one hiding place to another. The fact that to have saved it was enough and having survived the war they were not able to bring themselves to read it for a further sixty years. It is partly the construction of the story : the cast of characters who are woven together and driven apart like the strands in a course fabric. And it is partly the stark truth of a work of wartime fiction which has been unpolluted by any trace of hindsight. This is how it must have been then. This is truth.
I am not sure that the Rock Tavern Book Club will survive. I hope it does. Having imposed my choice on the two other members of this very exclusive club it seems only fair that they take their revenge. Whatever, we will always have Paris.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Important Announcement : Product Re-Launch

I have decided to re-launch myself. Regular readers of these postings will not be too surprised by this announcement as I have been heading in this direction for some time now. The old Alan Burnett was very much last-century and as a brand it was getting tired, even perhaps a little stuffy. The product range had also failed to keep up with both modern tastes and modern technology. A radical change was needed - a product re-branding and re-launch. Over the last few days I have - like some latter-day René Descartes - been challenging every belief and value-judgement, every aspect of the social, intellectual and biological super-structure upon which the very concept of Alan Burnett rests.

I gave considerable thought to a name change : after all such things can be achieved relatively easily. Indeed, it can now all be done on-line for just £34. But there were two serious arguments against such a change. First, it is much more difficult to decide on a new name rather than to merely accept the one fate has offered you. One is always in danger of falling under the spell of current fashion or whatever name might be in the news at a particular point of time. Arbuthnot Wilberforce sounds fine now but might be thought of as idiosyncratic in years to come. And anyway, some time ago I had forked out good money to buy and I have a Yorkshireman's aversion to wasting good money.

Having rejected a name change, the re-branding would have to be more subtle. I immediately activated from its long cyber-sleep and it now acts as the main portal for the new brand. So far it says "The Personal Website of Alan Burnett" which I think is a very good start. Like all strong brands, I needed a logo and I have spend some considerable time today designing one. I am not absolutely convinced it works. The idea was to be sufficiently blurred and impressionistic to cover up both my imperfections and my collection of double chins. It is supposed to stress the brand essentials : a quizzical questioning - light and heavy, deep and insightful. I felt quite pleased with it until Amy, the dog, pointed out that it makes me look as if I have dropsy. Consequently I am launching an open competition to design an alternative logo. The prize, needless to say, is substantial.
The more observant reader will have noticed another change which has accompanied the re-branding. After a fifty-odd year love affair with Arial (or Helvetica as she used to be known) I have abandoned her for a young, slightly more curvaceous model - Trebuchet. Trebuchet, designed by Vincent Connare in 1996, is a humanist sans serif designed for easy screen readability. According to the blurb, it takes its inspiration from the sans serifs of the 1930s which had large x heights and round features intended to promote readability on signs. The typeface name is credited to a puzzle heard at Microsoft, where the question was asked, "could you build a Trebuchet (a form of medieval catapult) to launch a person from the main campus to the consumer campus, and how?" The Trebuchet fonts are intended to be the vehicle that fires your messages across the Internet. "Launch your message with a Trebuchet page".
So here I stand, at the dawn of a new era. I have a new web-site. I have a new font. I am about to be re-launched. My message can be launched with a Trebuchet page. All I need now is a message.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Has My Dog A Carbon Footprint?

I decided to calculate my carbon footprint today. It's just that we have a lot of dinner parties coming up and I thought it might make an interesting conversational gambit. You know the kind of thing : "mine is so big, how big is yours?". Anyway it is a vital statistic that everyone should know in this new green world. Indeed it is the kind of information you will need to declare on everything from an application form for a passport to a claim form for a new pair of false teeth. Name, address, telephone number, date of birth, body mass index, carbon footprint.
It is good to know that there is no shortage of very useful websites you can go to which will help you calculate your footprint. They are all slightly different in their approach, but most of them involve calculating your primary footprint (your individual carbon dioxide output based upon your use of energy and transport) and then adding on your secondary footprint (your share of all the other things that go on in society). As gas and electricity consumption tends to be a household purchase, most of the calculators allow you to feed in total quantities of energy used and then divide that by the number of people living in the household.
And this brought me up against my first major problem. Can I count the dog? It is an important question as without Amy there are just three of us and with her there is four. She is statistically significant. Leaving her out would bump up the carbon footprints of the rest of us by .... err by .... em .... well by a lot anyway. I tried doing a search of the various websites looking for guidance on this issue but to no avail. It remains one of the great unanswered questions of the modern age. Does my dog have a carbon footprint? One could argue that she doesn't because she is merely a passive consumer of energy and has no say on questions such as whether the fire should be turned on or whether we should watch TV or sit around the piano and sing songs. But I have no say in such questions either so if she manages to escape a carbon footprint then so should I.
Wanting to achieve as low a footprint as possible I took the executive decision to count her in as a member of the household (I balanced this value-judgement by deciding not to count the rabbit on the basis that he is pretty stupid). This then brought me up against my second major problem. The result of your carbon footprint calculation differs depending on which website you use. The calculator at the website of the UK organisation "Carbon Footprint" decided that I had a footprint of getting on for 13 tonnes of CO2 per year - well above the UK national average. It is even worse if I use the Sky Carbon Footprint calculator, with that my footprint is 13.5 tonnes. I was feeling pretty low until I chanced on the BP Calculator and with that I came out with a footprint of just 8 tonnes per year, significantly below the national average.
So my top tips for reducing your carbon footprint are :
1. Shop around. Leave that computer switched on a little longer. Surf the web a little more carefully. There is a calculator out there which can help you save the planet.
2. Get a dog so that you can share your carbon footprint with a four-legged friend.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Boxer

My dear wife accused me of becoming eccentric today. I thought she might have spotted me writing down a lamp post number in my little black book whilst we were on our daily shopping expedition (she is still on holiday). But no, the source of her accusation was the fact that, during a two hour tour of the shops in Brighouse, I had managed to buy eight boxes. "But I like boxes", I patiently explained. "You're becoming eccentric", she replied as she made a bee-line for Wilkinson's.

I had in fact lied to her. I do not like boxes, I adore boxes. If given the opportunity of initiating my own religious cult, I would put boxes at the very centre of the act of worship. For me boxes have a mystical significance. They create order out of chaos : which is surely the rationale of any religious system of belief. You can take a diverse collection of disparate objects - pens, bull-dog clips, hearing-aid moulds, die-cast model cars, CD cases and spectacle frames - and enclose them within the systematised confines of cardboard or plastic squares and oblongs. That which can't be stacked can now be stacked. That which can't be found can now be found. Given the importance of boxes to my philosophy of life, buying eight today was not a sign of eccentricity - it was an extended act of worship.

Ever since being a poor boy I have liked boxes and now for the first time I can tell the story. Having squandered my resistance to the charms of boxes for nothing more than a pocketful of promises, I discovered that we were being told nothing but lies and jests..... But that is another song.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Smell Of Social History

My wife is on holiday this week and therefore I am first on-call for any shopping trips when a more serious shopper is not available to accompany her. Today we went to Redbrick Mill in Batley. Redbrick Mill is "a lifestyle shopping location" which means it's a converted mill full of posh furniture and French antiques. With their vast open floors, old textile mills are ideal for conversion into such emporiums and Batley has become something of a national centre : Redbrick Mill is just one of several recently converted outlets located on something called "Mill Mile" which boasts, and I quote, "an inspirational shopping experience". Now I am going to try very hard not to be diverted down the path which examines the strange concept of the words "inspirational" and "shopping" sharing the same sentence. That would be tantamount to moaning, and I am attempting to restrict my "moaning posts" to just three a week.

So, there we were exploring the four floors which are home to "some of the biggest names and cutting-edge brands in interior design" (in case it means anything to anyone, there is - amongst others - Habitat, Heal's, Tansu, Fiori Bacchanalia, New Heights, and Feather and Black). After two floors of distressed leather footstools and gourmet kitchen pasta-coolers my eyes were beginning to glaze over and I found myself entering that near-trance like state that is equally known by Tibetan monks and husbands forced to go shopping. And then we got to the third floor.

We both immediately caught the smell which seemed to permeate the whole floor, but it was Isobel who identified it first. It was the smell of wool : the lanolin aroma that had been soaked up over the decades by the wooden floors and beams and was now being returned to the inspired pilgrims to this lifestyle shopping location. The looms were long silent, the bales of wool just a memory captured on sepia photographs. The clanking belts that drove the thrusting, shafting frames were long gone. But the smell of the wool remained, fixed in the very fabric of the building. It was enough to spark a torrent of memories. Isobel was face to face with her father again, transported back to the mill where he used to work. I was back in the West Riding of my youth when the wool mills were still the driving industrial force of the region. Once again it reminded me that, of all the senses, smell has perhaps the greatest capacity for stirring memories back to life.

The day out at Redbrick Mill was an enjoyable one. It was a day which left an impression. We discovered a destination we can take visitors to which illustrates how Yorkshire has now come to terms with its post-industrial status. We can show them Bo Concept, Bollingbrook and Cole's, Le Boudoir and Ice Interiors. But I am going to take my son there. I am going to take him up to the third floor. I am going to say "take a deep breath and smell". I am going to say "that is the smell of your past".

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Kid In A Sweet Shop

It is weekend so I am going to avoid going on about life or work or lamp posts or any of the other big issues I normally focus on. I am going to take a leaf out of Edwin's book and open up a small trap-door into the battery drive of my psyche. Whatever turns you on and all that. In my case, it is music. There are deeply boring reasons why I care so much about music (if you have experienced tinnitus and deafness for 10 years, believe me you love music). But hang on a minute, I am preaching again. Stick to the music.
For some time I have been wrestling with the "kid in the sweetshop" syndrome which is almost a natural consequence of the digital age. When you can have access to almost everything anyone of note has ever thought, written, played, painted or sung - where do you start. Over the months my music collection has grown with almost algebraic momentum : I am so busy acquiring new music that I don't have the time to listen to it. So I have called a stop to acquisition for the time being and I have introduced a structured listening rotational schedule (or SLRS as I will refer to it).
I am limiting myself to just 10 CDs per week. These alone will populate my MP3 players and my Media Player "Now Playing" list. I am going in search of depth rather than coverage. It is the birth of a new me: a thinking, reflective, contemplative type of chap. For those remotely interested in such things my SLRS list for the first week of this unique experiment is as follows:
1. Songs of Love and Hate : Leonard Cohen (because, as I have said before, Leonard is a Saint)
2. Close Your Eyes : Stacey Kent (because I am in love with Stacey Kent and have been for years)
3. Compact Jazz : Chuck Mangione (because it is a nice sound)
4. Confluences : Jean-Louis Matinier (because I like the accordian)
5. Flirting With Twilight : Kurt Elling (because his voice goes places other voices can just dream of)
6. Waltz for Debby : Bill Evans (because he can make the silences between notes as mesmerising as the notes themselves)
7. The Bob Brookmeyer Quartet : Bob Brookmeyer (because the valve trombone is my favourite instrument)
8. Cello Concertos Vol 1 : Vivaldi (because it makes a change)
9. The Easy Way : Jimmy Giuffre (because its mathematics made into music)
10. Tal Farlows' Finest Hour : Tal Farlow (because this was chosen at random from my selection and, as you know, I am very fond of a bit of serendipity)

Friday, March 16, 2007

It Goes

It goes, it goes! The wake above is coming from our boat ("Worcester",) caused by the new electric motor drive - running at about a quarter-ahead.

The moment all the more poignant because when we tried yesterday, um, nothing happened. Lacking an instruction book we'd cavalierly removed a bit we shouldn've. (A flurry of emails and phone calls to the parts supplier eventually revealed our error.)

At full ahead, the boat leaps forward like a racehorse from its stall. Almost. Strangely enough there's a slight delay as the motor builds up speed and then the boat suddenly shoots forwards. In our case restrained by the mooring ropes.

And even at full power, you basically can't hear the motor except nearby and with the deckboards not in place. The noise of the water is greater than that of the motor.

What now? Well, some wiring for the generator and ancilliaries to be completed... but in a week or ten days, all should be ready for sea trials. On the canal (not even the river until that's stream subsides a bit!)

And a big launch party? Ah well, sadly one can only take ten people on board at a time... so several smaller ones, I guess!

Tonight Matthew, I'm Going To Be A Foreign Correspondent

Have you ever had one of those mornings when you wake up and you know you have the answer? As readers will know the question which has been dominating my life of late is "what can I do with myself" And this morning, as the flakes of sleep fell from my eyes, I discovered the answer. I will become a foreign correspondent.

I went straight to Google (I am giving Yahoo a rest pending the outcome of my job application with them) and typed in "I Want To Be A Foreign Correspondent". I was pointed towards a very useful Factsheet produced by the Overseas Press Club of America which provided a wealth of advice. It also brought the first potential problems. The essential requisites include a knowledge of foreign languages, copious quantities of energy, an adventurous spirit, and the ability to survive in hostile environments. Those who know me will already have spotted the potential flaw in the grand plan. I have no foreign languages (even my command of English can be iffy at times), I have as much energy as a drained Duracell, my spirit is so unadventurous that I once turned down the chance of training to be an accountant because it might be too much of a risk ...... and I am a natural-born coward. So another idea hits the dust?

Now just hold on a minute. I suddenly remembered what I had written down in my Yahoo application form. My special skill is finding innovative solutions to problems that have not yet been identified. If there was ever a time for an innovative solution, it was now. The innovative solution I eventually came up with was "if I can't go to become a foreign correspondent then the foreign correspondent role must come to me". After all foreign is a relative term. I could be a foreign correspondent based in Britain reporting for ... well for someone or other. All I needed to do now was to find the problem which hadn't yet been identified. Again, a flash of what can only be described as pure genius came my way.

The Bakersfield Californian does not have a foreign correspondent based in Britain. As far as I know it does not have a European correspondent or even a correspondent based outside the City limits. In an e-mail to the editor sent earlier today I identified their problem and provided them with my innovative solution. I would be their foreign correspondent. I even sent my first dispatch (I will not reprint it here for copyright reasons). What a scheme. What a man. As my mother used to say to me - "Alan, you are so sharp one day you will cut yourself".

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Application Error

This weekend, thousands of doctors will be taking to the streets in the UK to join protest marches in London and Glasgow. So what are they protesting against - low pay, long hours, the future of the National Health Service? No, the cause which has got their stethoscopes swinging to the beat of a pipe and drum band is a new on-line job application system called MTAS. The introduction of MTAS is a central part of the government-inspired reform of medical training in the UK, known as "Modernising Medical Careers". As a result of the new system all junior doctors are applying for their jobs - all of which will start on the same day - using the same newly-installed computerised system. The results are, of course, chaos.
It is not just the centralisation of a system that does not need to be centralised (although everyone would be well advised to avoid being ill on the 1st August 2007 - the date all the new appointments will take effect). It is not just that the new system is based on a largely untested software system which appears to have major flaws built into it. It is that the system has been designed in such a way as to compartmentalise the application process to allow "objective assessment" based on pre-determined criteria. Under the system application forms are broken down into sections and distributed to different sets of assessors who mark according to rigorous scoring regimes. CV's are not allowed during the shortlisting process and therefore everything rests on a series of unconnected value judgements. Even the interviews are undertaken by a revolving series of mini-panels. At no point in the process is anyone taking the responsibility of making an overall judgement based on all the information which may be available about a candidate.
The result of this process is that thousands of highly-qualified and eminently suitable junior doctors are going to be without work in August - or working in Brighton when they wanted to work in Bradford, or learning the skills of the heart surgeon when they wanted to become a GP. It is a story which is becoming too familiar - when untested software "solutions" team up with misdirected equality filters beware.
My interest in the case of the protesting doctors was occasioned by a more general thought process about job applications in the global age. Is the move to paperless, on-line applications a liberating or a constraining development? In the old days applying for a job entailed a number of built-in "effort-filters". You had to search through newspaper columns looking for a suitable post; write for an application form; complete the said application form; return it .... etc. Now you can do on-line searches and complete on-line application forms in minutes. In some cases you don't even need to find a specific job to apply for, you can go down the speculative application route. So are the results from the new system better than those of the old one? I feel an experiment coming on.
Now there is this chap I know (for the sake of argument let's call him Alan Burnett). Reasonably qualified and with experience in everything from tidal flood defence work to political campaigning, bus conducting to web-site designing. He's at a bit of a loose end at the moment, kicking his figurative heels, blogging even (always a sure sign). I have persuaded him to complete an on-line application form for Yahoo (I'm getting to like Yahoo more and more and they were so good about lamplitman). He used the "Can't find anything suitable" section which basically says "here I am, come and get me". The application process took about three minutes and involved responding to a few very general questions like "Why do you want to work for Yahoo?" He was honest throughout, listing his main abilities as thinking and finding innovative solutions to problems not yet identified. He has already received an acknowledgement - his application is currently being considered. No doubt he will keep us fully informed of developments.
In the meantime, spare a thought for those junior doctors on Saturday.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Seat of power

When the award-winning owner of this blog first kindly invited me to join, it was with the strict instruction (I lie) to post weekly news of our house development. In this case, no news isn't necessarily good news, but, just to update, I found out last night that the architect now hopes to have the plans ready on Sunday (it was supposed to be today)... and then they have to go off to the council for planning permission. So let me warn right now that there will (probably) be no significant news on this score for at least two months.

However, something is going on. Our narrowboat is very nearly converted to run electric. The engineer called me in just this morning to confirm that we've no idea if the boat will go forwards when you push the lever to forwards - it may go backwards. And vice versa. This had caused him to wake up with a start in the night. Madly enough, I happened to realise just last night that this would be true. Talk about coincidence!....

And so to the photo. The seat of power is visible top left. If it worries you, this has a cushion tied on it when in use - and is quite comfortable. Dead centre is the all-important control lever - at last in place (but not quite yet connected.) Just visible below is the over-ride cut-off manual switch to hit if everything goes pear-shaped.....

Hence the title. It's (going to be) the seat of power - power control or power shut-off, in emergency....

It's all very exciting. Because when it all works (electric drive is incredibly quiet) we can ambush anglers in the morning mist. Have people quizzically wondering why on earth the boat goes at all... (I bet the first comment is actually "So you're the boat that was converted to electric?" Or "So you've got electric drive, I thought about that but decided it was a waste of money. And wouldn't have the power in emergency.")

Ah, but we have twelve kilo-watts of searing power under the bonnet. Well, the deck. Never mind that if we actually ran it at that we'd probably just cause an alarming fountain at the stern (it's called turbulence and cavitation. Something propellors do if spun too fast.) Or that the battery pack would only last 20 minutes... at that power.....

Actually, it should just use a twenty-fourth of that power (on average)... and the batteries run for eight hours, therefore. Not that they have-to, if the whim takes one (or the meters reveal it's a good idea,) you can turn on the generator.

Which brings me neatly to the grey plastic bit on the right. No doubt you have all been wondering endlessly what it is. Ah, that's the siphon break. If you'd asked me three weeks ago I would have gone "uh?", also. I'd no idea how complicated the generator's exhaust system is to make it whisper-quiet. They say - I've not heard it yet! Now, actually, having at last read the generator's manual......

Firstly, I had to be wiped off the floor because it's translated from German and some of the errors of translation were so wonderful....

Secondly, I could write a thesis on how the exhaust system works. Fear not, I won't. Let me just explain that without that siphon break canal (or river) water can potentially be siphoned right into the generator's diesel cylinders causing about £6,000's-worth of damage, if not more.

I don't like money being a reason to do (or not-do) something... but I guess I'm glad the siphon break is fitted!

It may be as soon as Friday things actually "go".... pass me a tranquilliser... I've been wondering about this idea for at least eight years.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

An Important Discovery

I know this is my second posting in one day, but I think I have made an important discovery. For some time now I have been fascinated by the latest wave of spam messages (Yes, I know, what I want is a nice hobby). These are the ones which contain what appears to be a random collection of words and phrases as the wrapping paper around the pay-load which is an advert for Viagra or some similar universal panacea. The Viagra advert is in the form of an image - and thus cannot be detected by spam filters. But what of the random words? Who creates these, from where do they originate? Here is a sample from a messages which landed in my in-box this morning.
Ideas percolate Bedouins / Again we switch parts / Thrill gone, seeing my bedroom tricks mysterious / Wins prejudice, naivety and witty innuendo.
The solution came as I walked the dog this morning. They are all lyrics from Leonard Cohen songs. Granted, in some cases they are lyrics from songs the sainted Leonard hasn't written yet, but the phrases are surely destined for "Ten Sad Songs" who whatever his next CD might be called. Then a second thought strikes me. Maybe, just maybe, Len got his lyrics from a close reading of spam messages rather than the other way around. Could this create an opening for me. I have the lyrics all I need now is a tune. Now where is my father's old mouth organ.

A Nice Little Hobby

Informing people of my latest rejection by Corporate Britannia, I notice a startled, almost frightened, expression come over friends' faces. It is the look on a schoolchild's face when posed a question they cannot answer. It is the look of a Sunday batsman when bowled a googly. "What you need is a nice little hobby", someone returned the other day. A decent stroke if not the most elegant delivery in village cricket history.

Sat at home betwixt my second and third on-line jigsaw puzzle of the day (have you tried last Thursday's it was a stinker), I started to think about this well-meaning suggestion. A good sprinkling of my contemporaries have now hung up their quill pens and settled down to a life in the potting shed. Perhaps the time has come to abandon all thoughts of making a better, more fair, more logical world and concentrate on ..... soapmaking.

Now I know what you are saying... "He's going off on one of his silly rambled again - lamp post spotting Mark II". But I got here by following a very logical and grown-up route. On being told that he needs a nice little hobby, what will the child of the twenty-first century do? He will type "nice little hobby" into his nearest search engine and ..... well in my case he will be presented with a list of nice little hobbies by Yahoo. And what a list. There's Ham Radio, beachcombing, juggling and puppetry. For those who like their pleasures a little more on the exotic side, there's cloud watching, tombstone rubbing, pyrotechnics and lock picking. And of course, there is soap making. I am not sure why that one jumped out at me as the first one I wanted to seriously investigate: but it did. If I had the time and the inclination, and if I hadn't turned my back on Corporate Britannia in order to take up a nice little hobby, I could devise and market a psychological test designed for the commercial interview market which would be guaranteed to tell you which one of fifty applicants would be most suitable as a shop assistant in PC World based on his or her choice of potential hobby. But I digress.

"Soap-making is a fascinating and engrossing hobby which can also offer financial rewards" proclaims one of the hundreds of soap-making websites now available and on a computer screen near you. Just have a look at and marvel at what can be achieved by the skilled practitioner in this ancient art. Doesn't that Chocolate Pie Soap created by Julia Lollo from Brazil just get those gastric juices flowing? There are recipes for amethyst gem soaps, swirled scallop soaps and bath poof soaps. There are fizzy milk bombs, delectable lip butters, and elbow and knee lotions. I am hooked. So I am off to buy my soap kettle, my tallow graters, and my moulds. Will friends and family take note : this is what you will be getting for Christmas this year. I am about to start my first pressing .......... Just as soon as I finish this game of patience.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Noted For Fresh Air And Fun

After reading my series of postings "A Short Treatise on Lamp Posts", someone remarked to me the other day "You really do need to get out more" (don't knock it, you don't get much feedback in this business, almost anything that helps keep to long, lonely nights a little shorter is welcome). So yesterday I went to Blackpool.
As my brother reminded me in an e-mail last night (or this morning or whatever time it is in Dominica) the famous seaside place called Blackpool is "noted for fresh air and fun" (if you don't know the full monologue, check it out). There was fresh air aplenty yesterday - as you can see from the enclosed image it was a breathtakingly lovely spring day. The sky could match anything my brother wakes up to each day in Dominica and there was a Harry Ramsdens fish and chip shop. Mind you they probably have those in the West Indies by now. Fun was in plentiful supply as well - or at least the word was. There were numerous "Fun Palaces", slot machines called the "Fun Penny Falls", rock shops advertising "fun prices". Almost everywhere was guaranteeing a fun time for all the family. But if the international standard of measurement of fun is a smiling face, somehow all these fun-delivery facilities (or FDF's as they are known in the leisure management trade) were falling short of their potential.
Besides myself, only a handful of other trippers had made it to the coast and these were the usual assortment of lost souls (and I include myself in this description). Ask yourself the question : who, on a bracing Thursday in early March, would take off for the day just to see the Irish Sea make war on the concrete defences of Blackpool promenade? Had these twenty or thirty other people also been instructed to get out more?. Is travelling to where the land meets the sea and surrounding yourself by flickering lights advertising fun (or in some cases where the neon had faded fu) a suitable treatment for mid-life depression? Or a fitting punishment?
I don't want to give the impression that I didn't enjoy myself. I had a relatively pleasant day. Say what you want, but you can't argue that Blackpool isn't noted for fresh air. The jury is still out on the fun bit.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


If you are in search of a new identity (see my posting of 5th March) and have a profound belief in serendipity (see my posting of 6th March), you watch your e-mails very carefully. Each ping of the Outlook Inbox could herald the key to a new life. Earlier today a brand-new Yale latch-key came my way.

I received an exclusive invitation to a conference which will change my life – the “Own Your Life Weekend” event which will take place in Manchester in June. Now let’s just pause at this stage and consider those three magic words : “Own Your Life”. For months now I have been struggling in search of a meaning, desperate to identify a purpose, anxious to focus on a goal. I have found no answers. But someone has managed to take all the elements which constitute my mid-to-late-life crisis and distill them down into just three words. I want to own my life. According to the blurb, the “Own Your Life Weekend will be a unique, life changing opportunity to challenge the ground rules you’ve grown up with: how you earn your living, how you feel about money and how you feel about your life in general. Bringing 4 of the world’s greatest motivational speakers together for the first time outside of the US, Own Your Life Weekend will show you where you are, where you could be and, most importantly, how to get there”. Well Hallelujah brothers and sisters.

And for just £1,397 I can have privileged access to the weekend event . I can be “at platform level in the arena within feet of the action”. I could “receive the power and insight of these life-transforming wealth coaches full on, close up, for both days”. Oh my. I could even receive an invitation to network with speakers and other successful entrepreneurs at an after-event party. Praise Be.

One of the keynote speakers at the event is Phil Laut, the world's foremost teacher of Money Psychology who in 1979 brought to international attention the link between a person's thoughts, attitudes and feelings and his or her bank account. Read his biography, see what he has done, and marvel. He has written books on money psychology, re-birthing, vivation (the “science of enjoying all of your life” seemingly), and love, sex and communication. And I could be sitting within a few feet of this titan. Rejoice. If you Google his name you find hits in association with almost every school of human thought and activity. There is scarcely a cerebral pie he has not had his finger in. I did, however, discover one chink in his all-embracing armour. If you Google his name along with the word “bonkers” you come up with no direct links. The title of this posting has therefore been chosen carefully to remedy this gap in the cyber wallpaper.

Alas, after carefully consideration and a brief discussion with the wife, it was decided that I couldn’t afford to own my life. It will have to remain mortgaged. However, I was just heading back to the drawing board when I received an e-mail from a lady in Nigeria who would like my help to release the fortune her late husband had accumulated. Now that’s serendipity.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

A Nice Bit Of Serendipity

I like serendipity. To start with it's a smashing word (come to think of it "smashing" is a smashing word as well) : vaguely suggestive of African Game Reserves and 1960s pop groups. But not only is the word a pleasure to swirl around the tongue and roll off the lips : the very thing it describes is a pleasure as well: happy chance discoveries.

There is nothing I like to do more on a fine day than to buy a transport rover ticket - the type that allows you to go on any bus or train in the region - and leave my destination to chance. There are certain rules to this sport you must follow (most of which were formulated by my father and I when I was but a lad) such as always catching the first bus or train irrespective of destination and disembarking after a pre-determined number of stops. If you stick to the rules you discover some of the most delightful places : the park tucked away amongst urban sprawl, the wooded hillside which seems a century away from modern life, the village inn which is as welcoming as it is unpretentious.

And when the weather is not so good you can apply the same rules to the Internet. Perhaps there already is a "Serendipity Search Engine" : if not there should be. It would be a Google-like object which allowed you to type in your search string and would then be guaranteed to find you something which was completely unconnected to this. But what a delight. You are searching for the name of a local plumber and it points you to a site specialising in on-air recordings from 1930s American radio. You want information on biochemistry and it tells you about knitting patterns. What joys are there to be discovered.

Playing the game this evening I was lucky enough to discover the OAC (the Online Archive of California). What a treasure house of images and documents this is. It defies description. The only way to experience it is to jump in there and see where a nice bit of serendipity leads you. In my case it took me to the wonderful image from the 1940s which is at the top of this posting.

Monday, March 05, 2007

In Search Of A New Identity

"And what do you do?" asked the man sat next to me at the Chinese restaurant on Friday evening as we ate camels' eyeballs. I thought for a moment and replied truthfully, "I don't know". This wasn't me trying to be clever, or funny or erecting a smokescreen to disguise the fact that I was pushing my camel's eyeball into my serviette. As soon as I said it I realised - this was the stark truth.
Six months ago I had more identities than your average credit-card fraudster. I worked part-time helping to determine the strategic direction of the local health service and I worked full-time managing, writing and running a European information service. And then things began to change - some of it was self-induced and some of it was not. The result was the discovery on Friday evening that I didn't know what I did. If there appears to be an undercoat of self-pity about all this - this is not my intention. One of the great secrets of life, I believe, is recognising when one chapter has come to a natural conclusion and therefore it is time for another to open. Nor is it my intention to canvass suggestions as to what I should do with myself : I have more than enough ideas already floating around inside my head. I have always wanted to operate one of those machines that paints the white lines down the centre of roads - is it too late to retrain? As I have mentioned in this blog on several occasions : nobody has yet attempted a definitive history of Internet spam and if ever a job needed tackling that is it. I might expand my collection of man-hole cover images and there again I might devote my life to creating Internet icons.
The purpose of this posting is merely to announce to the world that I am now officially in search of a new identity. And to explain why there is so little hard information on my profile at the moment. In the new Internet age, the great transitions in life can be measured by changes in blog author profiles and e-mail signature files. The Alan Burnett of old has left the building, we must wait and see who comes back in.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

In Praise Of Erasmic

A chemist shop has perhaps the greatest potential for embarrassment of any retail location with the possible exception of a Marks and Spencer lingerie department. However, If you are unfortunate enough to find yourself in a lingerie department you can quickly make tracks for the nearest fire exit, but sometimes one is trapped in a chemist shop with nothing to do but examine the goods on all too open display. The shelves are full of things which would be much better hidden away or discretely placed within opaque brown paper bags. The Victorians had by far the healthiest attitude to what can best be described as "intimate items" : whilst a surgical truss or a sanitary towel might be an essential item - there is no need to advertise the fact.

The other day I found myself imprisoned in my local chemist shop waiting for a prescription to be dispensed. My eyes did their usual surreptitious circumnavigation - searching out potential hot-spots to be avoided - when they chanced on one of the finest sights and man can behold : a safe harbour amidst the stormy seas of nipple cream and expression pumps - a tube of Erasmic Shaving Cream.

Forget for a moment its ability to provide a safe parking lot for the cautious eyeball: in itself it is surely a thing of beauty. Examine the proportions of the box, drool over the typeface with its enlarged first and last letter, thrill at the courage of the designer who brought together the glorious conjunction of the black, the white and that particular shade of red. With Mormon-like certainty one knows that this product has never been within a thousand yards of a focus group.

I use an electric shaver and therefore have no need for shaving cream. But five minutes later I left the chemist shop gratefully clutching my bottle of pills ... and my tube of Erasmic shaving cream.

Black Friar

For a time, during the late 1970s, I had a job leading parties of foreign visitors on tours of historic London pubs. One of my favourite sto...