The magician’s box

Wee, sleekit, cowr'in, tim'rous beastie, 
O, what panic's in thy breastie! 
- Robert Burns

So, I thought more about my piano, that is irremovably stuck in the kitchen without the help of three men, and what I had Posted about it last night, which didn’t really make much sense. I mean, how would aerosols of cooking fat have jammed the keys?

It wasn’t my idea, someone else had suggested it as a possible cause of the sticking keys. It was one of those not very likely ideas that gets wedged in the crevices of your mind and pops out whenever you need something to say about your piano, but really, cooking fat! I don’t cook with fat, I use only the best olive oil I can afford. Mostly, though, I microwave.

After brooding on it for a while, some of that old investigative spirit began to come back, and I opened up the lid again and started to poke around a bit, to see what else might be causing the problem. I took off the top, then the front panel, took out the heavy plank with the lid attached, and the downstairs kick panel. There seemed to be a lot of dirt in the corners around the keys, and nestling in the dirt were the telltale little brown pellets of –


It was a eureka! moment, to be sure. Mice! My heart sank at the thought of having to replace all that felt. I have read that mice live on the felt in your piano. I felt around carefully (ha! puns, so early in the day) but all the felting on the hammers, the trippy things, the green strips underneath all seemed in not too bad shape. I exhaled softly.

The presence of brown lumps of dried dogfood suggested that the mice had all they needed by way of comestibles. They didn’t need to eat piano felt, which can’t be very nutritious. I unscrewed a wooden bar that was holding them in place and, one by one, not quite knowing how, but feeling my way gently, began removing the keys (luckily, they are numbered). Underneath, was all kinds of crud that was stopping them from returning. I got out the Henry, and sucked out the bits of nest material and the dried pellets of shit and accumulated dust, being careful not to suck up too many of the little green rings of felt under the keys. Luckily, the mice weren’t at home.

Soon, minor difficulties arose – the top D key would not go back, I had to make adjustments. I saw that the soft-pedal rod was out of place, and reset it. The tongue of wood that holds the kick-panel on the front was broken, I glued it back together with the glue I hadn’t been able to find before. It was all going well, the time was flying by and I allowed myself a quiet fantasy about how pleasant it would be, at my time of life, to become a piano restorer.

As I put each key back and tested it, and it functioned perfectly, a sense of pride rose in me at what I was achieving. Soon, I was trying out chords, and then with both hands, the familiar strains of Rachmaninov began to… well, okay, Three Blind Mice.

Cat. If it was Cat who had hunted down the missing piano mice and eviscerated them by night in the sitting-room on my expensive crimson rug (Handmade in India, 100% acrylic), then who was it who had introduced them in the first place? Was Cat storing mice in my piano, to torture them at leisure – the Abu Graib of Aberystwyth? Their pathetic possessions disappearing up the nozzle of the Henry took on new poignancy

But the thing that struck me most was a sense of wonder. For only £200, plus £70 for the useful heater the piano tuner sold me, I had become the owner of this large wooden box containing a complicated mechanism of iron, steel wire and coils, wood and felt, so precise and delicate, yet so resilient that, in the right hands, it could be made to sound like goblins hammering, or traffic in New York – the song of the skylark on a fine summer’s evening; that could conjure any mood, lift the darkest spirits to set you dancing, or plunge you into despair and introspection.

It was a magic box!

And the evidence was that each of the hundreds of tiny little interconnected strips and tongues and posts and hammers of wood had been individually carved, by someone’s hand.

I pictured generations of craftsmen called Hans and Volcker in some fairytale Bavarian town, leading their quiet, orderly lives; cycling to work every day in a factory smelling of piano glue, under a big sign innocently proclaiming the owners’ names, Herr Fuchs and Herr Mohr; where they sit quietly carving all day, the intricate, tiny pieces of my piano, drifts of wood shavings mounting up around them; handing boxes of completed parts over to other craftsmen to fit together, the whole thing slowly building up to the moment when the tester sits down to ripple-off a Beethoven sonata, and the magical voice of my piano is heard in the land.

There’s something about manufacturing pianos at which no-one can possibly take offence. It’s an ethical, almost a religious, undertaking to make a piano. I once created a sales brochure for a piano-maker in Gloucestershire, it had pride of place in my portfolio. Just the subject of making pianos alone made my copy sing.

But I’m told no-one much buys pianos nowadays, they’re too heavy and take up too much space and require tuning and maintenance, and don’t have exciting onboard digital effects, with 147 separate instrumental voices, sample tunes to play along to, and a programmable drum kit. They don’t fit-in with our freewheeling modern lifestyle, or with our seeming inability to concentrate on anything for more than thirty seconds.

No kid nowadays would wake up, thrilling with excitement on his or her birthday, breathlessly anticipating going down to the living room in their slippers and pyjamas, to find a gift of – a piano? WTF??? But Mum, Dad, it only has one ringtone and you can’t text your mates. I hate you!

But the worst thing about a piano, you can pay two thousand pounds and leave it in the sunshine with the lid up, and the next day it is worth only two hundred in some faraway charity shop, and then you can’t give it away free with your house, even with the keys working again.

No-one has bothered inventing the i-piano. The piano has no apps, no GPS – no SMS messaging or Skype. And you don’t get mice living lives of quiet desperation, eating dogfood in a digital keyboard.


Wanted to buy house: tone-deaf French-polisher

My piano

My piano, inside

Meet my piano. It doesn’t have a name, but it was made by a German company called Fuchs & Möhr. Their name is on the casing at the front, in inlaid brass letters, no escaping it – so my girlfriend gave it a pretty obvious jokey name. I don’t call it anything now, since she moved out.

You can see from the photo, the beautiful condition the action was in when we found it. It looked like no-one had ever played it. There was an obvious reason it was in the charity store for only £250, which was that the mahogany stain on the front panel had faded around where it had been left with the lid up in the sun. Behind the lid was a darker brown rectangle. Maybe even in the showroom in Swansea where it came from, perhaps they had had to offload it to the charity because it didn’t sell. People are like that, they won’t buy fruit in supermarkets, will they, or carrots that aren’t perfect-looking, even if they taste of nothing at all. They probably don’t buy pianos that don’t look so great when guests come to visit, however perfect they are on the inside, which is the part that really matters.

So it was going cheap (there were chickens living in it, haha) and my girlfriend liked it a lot, and she’s a piano teacher, so she should know about pianos, and I had just cashed in an old pension plan that was paid-up sometime in the 1980s, around the time she was born, so I couldn’t resist buying it, although I don’t play the piano. I hoped she would teach me during the long winter evenings.

The tuner came by and for £100 he fixed the odd growling sound it made in the bottom octave, and tuned it up for me, and for another £70 sold me a special piano heater I needed to keep the damp at bay, and there it sat in the imposing front hall of the empty mansion where I worked as the janitor, along with my guitars, my microphone and my drum kit, until I bought my own house and we moved. Me and the piano, I mean. My girlfriend was long gone, although we eventually became distant friends again.

Despite some rough handling – the piano movers had to turn it on end to get it in the front door – it stayed in good relative tune. But, annoyingly, he had not tuned it up all the way, and it was just a smidgen flat of concert C – not quite a semitone. I don’t play the piano, but I am musical and have a very keen ear. You get sopranos who have such a bright pitch, it’s like they’re singing always an eighth-tone sharp? It sets my teeth on edge, but most people can’t hear it. They think I’m weird, grinding my teeth and moaning at the soprano.

So there it sat, taking up valuable space in my sitting-room at the new house, mostly unplayed. I used it for odd things like tuning my guitars and working-through melodies, figuring-out chords and that sort of stuff. I just can’t do that thing where you play Rachmaninov with both hands at the same time.

Of course, you can’t work through anything sensibly when your piano is almost a semitone flat, but I’d run out of money to get in the tuner again and anyway, I had begun to wonder if maybe he wasn’t possibly a little tone-deaf? You get blind piano tuners, why not also tone-deaf ones? It is the era of equal opportunities, after all.

And then one day the carpet-fitter was due to arrive, so with a Herculean effort I moved the heavy piano all by myself into the kitchen. After he had gone there was this new, tufty carpet and I tried moving the piano back into the sitting-room but it wouldn’t budge. It takes three men normally to lift it, although I have a clever method involving two planks. Anyway, I had bought a chair and wanted now to be able to sit in my sitting-room, which I had redecorated in honour of the new carpet.

So the piano stayed in the kitchen, where lately I have found that the keys are sticking together, probably with cooking aerosols, chip-fat and so on, and the piano has become unplayable. You strike a key, and it stays struck.

I have been hoping to sell my piano with the house, as I don’t want to take it with me. Much as I like it, I’m planning to get a portable, handy keyboard with the money from the house. Now it is just an embarrassment, an unplayable piano in the kitchen, practically immovable other than by three men, with the name ‘Fuchs & Möhr’ inlaid indelibly in brass on the front…. I am wondering if a dab of oil – actually, maybe, a shot of WD-40? – might fix the problem with the keys, temporarily at least? It’s how you sell a car, you only need it to work once and always ask for cash.

But no-one is even coming to view my little house anymore. It has been on the market so long, people are probably wondering if there is something wrong with it, apart from the thunderous main road outside and no parking space? So how can I explain about the sticking piano, stuck in the kitchen? In addition to a solitary cash buyer with agoraphobia and no driving licence, I need them also to be an enthusiastic  French-polisher who expects a house always to come with a piano – no home is complete without one – but is tone-deaf and doesn’t play. This is asking a lot of the discarnate entities who normally arrange things for me.

Maybe I should call the tuning man again? If he can sell me a piano heater, I should be able to sell him a house?

118My sticky piano

In praise of… Liane Carroll

I was born in the metaphorical trunk. Both my parents were on the stage. My father understudied Ivor Novello. Mother was always a shoo-in for Lady MacB***. Their tastes, and those of their extravagant friends, many of whom were employed to babysit me, were Bohemian, theatrical – camp, even.

We acquired somehow, a radiogram with a Garrard autochange deck that stacked six LPs at a time. I imbibed with my mother’s milk (with a dash of vodka) and the smell of size coming off the flats in the grimy postwar repertory theatres, the music of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Dinah Washington, Judy Garland – Marlene Dietrich, to name just the female line of divas who, I was constantly assured, were ‘absolutely marvellous, darling’. (None compared, of course, in my mother’s fantasies, with Frank Sinatra…)

Later, although my parents had signally failed to raise their son as entirely gay, I discovered for myself and mentally added to the previous list, another line of female singers, that included the divine Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day, Annie Ross – Nina Simone. I hope I am not missing too many out, it’s been a long time. I noted too, my father’s weird attachment to Zarah Leander.

British late-evening television arts programmes and provocative satire shows in the 1960s followed the US habit of introducing a musical interlude, requiring just the right degree of louche sophistication that light jazz provided. Thus, I became aware of Blossom Dearie, Millicent Martin, Marion Montgomery – Cleo Laine, with her incredible, four-octave range – and later, Anita Wardell and Trudy Kerr. Later still, of course, came your Cassandra Wilsons and Esperanza Spaldings, Diana Krall, Norah Jones – with a brief flash of Amy Winehouse.

In 2009 I turned 60, and, madly deciding I might yet manage to embark on a late-flowering career, decided to turn myself from a mediocre chorister into a jazz singer; the problem being, there is no proper jazz in Aberystwyth, where I had found myself living; and no-one to accompany me, who understood about jazz phrasing and the tradition of reinterpreting ‘standards’ from Tin Pan Alley, blues, showtunes, ‘torch songs’ and ballads, exemplified by all the tremendous ladies I have listed here (and a few men – don’t get me started on Mark Murphy, Buddy Greco, Mel Tormé). Familiarity with the historic arrangements is all-important.

So, along with sixteen women and one other male singer (guys, just consider that ratio!), I signed-up on the interweb thing for a jazz singers’ workshop in southeast France; sent off all my money, battled for three days with trains and boats and planes (and taxis) to get to the venue (an agreeable chateau with two swimming pools), and found myself enjoying the best week, bar none, of my life, singing under the tuition of the unbelievable Ms Carroll.

Liane Carroll

This entire preamble is by way of confessing that I actually know Liane slightly, hence any possible bias; and for the purpose of stating, on the basis of some experience, that I consider her to be more than worthy of a place in the Pantheon of the top female jazz singers, ever.

Comparisons are odious. One cannot say this or that singer is ‘the best’, or even ‘better than…’, as they have all had to work within the constraints of the prevailing commercial ethos, the musical accompaniment and the fashions of their time. From their individually unique experiences, often guided by producers and arrangers, they developed their own individual styles, and built a new world of jazz ‘on the shoulders’ of their own giants. Now, today’s singers build on theirs.

But Liane is like switching-on colour television for the first time: she draws on such an astonishingly vibrant palette of sounds and emotions. A thoughtful and intelligent singer with enormous range, power, lyricism, an adventurous approach and natural phrasing, she is the synthesis of all the best of her musical heritage, who wastes not a single note, who takes no musical phrase at face value. Notes are not a commodity to be sprayed around in the generalised service of  ‘jazz feel’, or ‘chops’, but an infinite series of opportunities to find new expression and interpretation. Each phrase she sings is like an individual brushstroke: considered, explored, personal: a microcosmic musical world in its own right. In short, she has technique – and in spades. But she doesn’t let it get in the way of telling the story.

Her sheer musicality – she is an accomplished jazz pianist too, sensibly married to a virtuosic bass player – and breadth of technique, pay homage to so many fabulous singers of the past, yet are entirely her own. She is unbelievably versatile: there is no style of singing, short of operatic (I imagine!), that she will not attempt, often within the envelope of a single number; and bring her own quirky perspective and total, balls-out commitment to it.

Whether an overperformed standard like ‘My Funny Valentine’ or a romantic Michel Legrand tear-jerker, a rough-edged Tom Waites or Todd Rundgren ballad, a haunting version of Bill Evans’ ‘Turn Out the Stars’, a belting soul arrangement of Becaud’s perfervid ‘What Now My Love?’, the soft gospel feel of ‘Some Children See Him’ or an emotionally complicated song by Laura Nyro, on whatever budget she can afford she makes every recorded track and every live performance entirely unique. Her explosive rendition of ‘Witchcraft’ on the 2011 album Up and Down could be one of the most exciting jazz performances you will ever hear, though it lasts only a breathtaking 2’45”. Her collaboration with Gwylim Simcock on Noel Coward’s ‘Mad About the Boy’, on the 2012 Ballads album, points the way to a higher musical reality.  Her willingness to boldly go where no jazz singer has gone before has even extended to appearing on drum ‘n’ bass recordings with London Elektricity.

Is Liane a glamorous American star, from LA, then, or Hackensack, New Jersey? No, Liane is British, from a humdrum commuter town in Surrey, and a grandmother. You could not meet anyone more ordinary, less pretentious. In the crass and insensitive words of the hapless sports reporter John Inverdale, she is not really ‘a looker’. This possibly makes her more difficult to market: although she increasingly commands bigger arrangements, brass sections and strings, she has not got a contract with a major record label but records privately, in small studios; probably by choice.

Yet she commands the support of many of the best of the current talented crop of modern British jazz musicians. In addition to Simcock, arguably the nearest thing we have in this country to a musical genius, she works regularly with James MacMillan, Kirk Whalum, Kenny Wheeler, husband Roger Carey, John Paricelli, Mark James, Bobby Welling, Simon Purcell, Julian Siegel… Ian Shaw.

I honestly don’t know how well known Liane is in the wider world, it is not a place I go to very often. I suspect hardly at all. She has made perhaps nine or ten albums, toured extensively, played the clubs, been on the wireless, won awards (not enough!). But you seldom hear about her, unless you are in the inner circle of jazz aficionados. No media pack follows her every move, no secret heartbreaks are slavishly reported. She has never appeared on the cover of Hello! magazine, so far as I know.

It seems to me, regardless, that she is very probably the finest jazz singer of her generation and bids fair to belong in the company of the very best of all time. The public’s loss is our gain.

Visit her web site:

Driving me nuts

I hate traffic.

With approximately 30,000 miles of main roads and motorways, and 36 million registered vehicles, not including Polish lorries, there are well over a thousand vehicles to every mile of main road in Britain. A mile is 1,760 yards. A car is what, four yards long? an articulated lorry maybe 15 yards.

Work it out, there are five times as many vehicles as there is room for them on Britain’s main road network. If it were not for the 200 thousand miles of minor paved roads and city streets, we would be 30 feet deep in cars. Two million new cars are sold every year. Over half the 64 million people in the country have a car, although four fifths of us live in cities.

To put it another way, the land area of the British Isles is 94,000 sq miles, so there are about 380 cars parked on every square mile of beach, fen, town, hill, farm, factory, schoolyard, private garden, football pitch, corner-shop, housetop and river estuary at low tide.

If they all stayed parked, I’d be happy. But they don’t. Starting at 5.30 a.m., they drive past my little house. My watch is broken, I don’t have a clock in the bedroom, but I have learned to tell the time almost to the minute, by the frequency with which vehicles are passing my house in the mornings.

Worse than the incredible increasing volume of traffic pouring into and out of this formerly quiet  little seaside town in the middle of Wales, halfway up Cardigan Bay, at the end of some very long and winding supply routes from more populous parts of the country, is the frightening speed at which they travel through this residential zone, with its narrow Welsh pavements.

After 27 years of living in the countryside, always at least a mile from the nearest road, I moved here two years ago so our son could go to Sixth Form. Now I can’t get out again, no-one is buying my house. It has become a nightmare, from which I am frequently woken by the noise of gigantic supermarket lorries and superannuated Hells Angels on shiny Harley-Davidson motorbikes and tossers in Subarus with boom-boxes and articulated cattle trucks and rattling farm trailers and earth-moving equipment thundering past my window.

I have found myself standing in the road, screaming at drivers to slow down and respect the 30 mph limit. But they don’t, they just honk or give me the finger, and accelerate away.

There is nothing and no-one to stop them. The police are useless, I have never seen a marked patrol car in our road, deterring or stopping speeding cars and commercials – even fuel tankers, travelling at speeds dangerously in excess of 50 mph. The mobile Road Safety unit has a radar trap in the back. It’s always somewhere out there on the other main road through town, never on ours.

All there is, to remind motorists that people just like them are trying to live here, is one tiny 30 sign you could miss, at either end of the stretch of road; one obviously fake ‘speed camera’ icon, and a small 30 painted on the road coming in at the country end, that you could miss because you’ve just been under a narrow bridge.

The other main road in and out of town has:

  • Frequent, large 30 signs on lamp posts
  • Lights flashing to give you your speed over 30
  • Lights flashing to tell you, slow down to 30
  • Big areas of red tarmac, with big 30 signs written on them
  • Pedestrian refuges that narrow the roadway
  • Police patrols
  • Radar traps.

Our road has almost nothing.

Where my house is, is on a blind bend. Anyone heading out of town cannot see the oncoming traffic or the condition of the road, or me and my dog trying to cross to the other side. There are four vehicle entrances and exits on this bend alone. More housing is being built, which means more pedestrians, more dogs, cats and cars entering and exiting the main road.

The law says drivers must drive at under 30 mph. It is a criminal offence to exceed the limit. The police and the local authority have a responsibility to enforce the law. They don’t. As far as I am concerned, the failure to prevent a crime is itself an offence.

They don’t give a shit. No councillors live along this stretch of road, no MP, no senior policemen, no-one important. The houses aren’t big enough, the people aren’t rich enough for the authorities to want to disturb drivers who are naturally in a hurry to get into and out of town, along our most vital (but frustratingly winding and narrow) arterial route to the English Midlands and the distant motorway network.

Rules laid down by the commercial lobbying organisation ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers) regarding average traffic speeds are, according to the surveys, not being sufficiently bent or broken by enough lawbreakers to justify the expense of deterring or catching the irresponsible lunatics hurtling past my door day and night. They turn a blind eye to the obvious fact that the research data are skewed: the average speed is substantially reduced by the twice-daily traffic jams. Between jams (usually caused by expensive works to repair the road surface damaged by speeding 32-ton lorries) the average speed rises to well above 30 mph.

I find myself screaming too, at the committee of discarnate entities who run my life, to get me the hell out of here. It seems they cannot hear me, over the rising roar of the traffic. No-one has even been to view my house in more than a year (detail added 20 November, 2014).

I hate traffic. And here I am, in my car again, just to go to the supermarket, five minutes away…

I am the problem.

Single to Hendon

Listening to an amusing radio programme this morning, entitled ‘What’s the point of the Chief Rabbi?’, I learned something new. Which is good, for a man of my age.

It seems the office of Chief Rabbi has no actual religious significance: he is merely there as a cross between a PR flak – someone who can be dragged to a radio studio at half past six in the morning to give a broadly Jewish perspective on some relevant issue – and a Judas goat; an arbiter in frequent disputes, someone who can manage to express ecumenical solidarity both with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Imam at the same time, and a stalking-horse for the rival ambitions of the leaders of the many fractious communities that make up the surprisingly small British Jewry,  around 250,000 souls in all. At least he’s not expected to tell jokes.

Not surprisingly after 30-odd years of this torture, the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sachs, is retiring. His successor, Ephraim Mervis, prefers not to occupy the official residence in St John’s Wood (a sprauncy, tree-lined suburb just expensively north of central London), but wishes to live further out beyond the North Circular road, in Hendon. From here, he can walk to more synagogues on the Sabbath; Hendon being home to a large Jewish population.

I was thus mildly startled to learn that he needs to walk, because Jews are not allowed to travel on public transport on the Sabbath!

I once rented a holiday caravan to a strictly Orthodox family, who risked life and limb by covering every surface with highly conductive kitchen foil, in case it had ever come into contact with non-kosher foodstuffs; and then introduced their own electric cooking device, whose ancient cable was lethally frayed. So I knew, of course, about the strict dietary laws, which seem quaint and illogical to we non-Jews and as likely to lead to electrocution as to e-coli.

It has always been explained to me that Jews aren’t allowed to look a prawn cocktail in the eye, owing to the extreme heat in the Levant and the tendency of certain foods such as shellfish to go off quickly, risking ptomaine poisoning. This seems fair enough, although modern processing and refrigeration ought surely by now to have brought about some amelioration in the laws, as laid down millennia ago  in Leviticus, if food hygiene is indeed the only reason for them, which increasingly I doubt.

But I never understood why the law also applies to pork, but not to chicken or lamb? I like to think that old Levi had a soft spot for the pig, who (unlike many humans) is an intelligent, engaging creature. I have kept pigs, and they are clean animals, who, if not confined in their own shit, will create special dunging areas away from their habitation. The only other farm animal to do this is, surprisingly, the horse – who, kept in the open fields, will unerringly select the public footpath for use as a toilet.

And public transport? Was there any in third-millennium-BC Palestine? There is again a possible animal welfare issue. Not using transport on the Sabbath would have given the poor old donkeys a break from hard work, and the plough oxen. The ‘Boris Bike’ could possibly fall within this category. Surely, however, one cannot say the same for bendy buses and underground trains, whose operators positively welcome fare-paying passengers at all hours?

Taxis, though, are a grey area. Do they even count as public transport? In some countries it is the custom to share taxis, but in London the famous black cab is one of the few places where one is guaranteed some privacy. Gone are the days when the cheery Cockney cabbie would deliver over his left shoulder, a running diatribe against coloured immigrants, or a cogent (if one-sided) argument in favour of bringing back the death penalty, The modern passenger compartment is hermetically sealed, while the driver is more likely to be occupied on the phone to his brother-in-law, arranging their forthcoming weekend fishing trip to the Caribbean.

In the London cab, one can really be alone with one’s Creator. And it’s wearing black! What’s not to like?

The terrible twos

I feel enormously blessed to have had two children to help bring up, who were no trouble at all.

My neighbours are very sweet people, Jordanian. He’s something in IT, a contractor; she lives practically in purdah, except he is sweetly giving her driving lessons. Although I can’t possibly see in, they close the bathroom window whenever I am out in the garden. They are modest, very private people.

Not their youngest.

I’ve only seen two children, boys, very shy and giggly, with enormous brown eyes, playing in the front yard. One’s about four, the other maybe two. I’m assuming it’s this one who isn’t having any of it.

For a couple of months, I didn’t even realise they were living there. It’d been third-year students before, equally unobtrusive. Now, with the sunny summer weather, all that’s changed. The noise is indescribable, but I’ll try.

I feel really sorry for them. They don’t have a garden, just a tiny back yard. It’s so hot, they have to keep the back kitchen door open. Just a high fence between us. This kid… never have I heard anyone – or anything – so outraged, so furious with the world. It reminds me of me when I was his age. You hear him laughing along one minute, then suddenly he’s shouting and screaming and stamping with inchoate fury, howling at the top of his – anyone’s – lungs, no, no, NO! He DOESN’T WANT a bath, he DOESN’T WANT to go to bed… whatever it is, he just bloody ISN’T HAVING IT, OKAY??? (I don’t speak Arabic, I’m just extemporising.)

At other times, you hear his little voice, clear and insistent, growing louder and louder, adopting a fabulously demanding, imperious tone, as if he is the Caliph summoning the servants. On these occasions he wants something, and he is damned if he ain’t going to get it, whatever it is, and quick.

I don’t know how they stand him, the manipulative little sod. They never raise their voices to him. They seem endlessly calm and patient and good humoured. I’d have jumped off a cliff by now, or worse. I suppose the best thing to do is ignore it, take the punishment, love him for the good parts inbetween. He’ll grow out of it, eventually. Or join Hezbollah, or something.

I feel enormously blessed to have had two children to help bring up, who were never any trouble at all. But I’m beginning to think I can imagine what it might have been like for the ones who had to take care of me when I was his age.

I’m still doing it, inside.

The invisible hand (le main inconnu)

Somewhere in all this thicket of Posts is another labelled ‘So, what do you do?’. It gives you an idea of what I do. Basically, I look after other people’s property.

This Post, then, is a bat-squeak of protest, following the arrival of yet another seemingly arbitrary rejection note, to ask what more, in God’s name, could I possibly have done in my lifetime, to be granted a modest living now in exchange for all my proven skills, experience, carefulness, ability to add value, and my offer of hard work?

Towards the end of  that long Post is a description of the impossible job I had until lately, in which I was engaged to manage a rundown ‘stately home’ here in Wales for nearly seven years, largely singlehanded, while the owners jetted around the globe looking after their other business interests. My job description ran to eight pages of A4, and I more-than earned my keep.

And, when I realised that my job would inevitably become redundant as soon as the hotel conversion work was finished, I started looking again.

Registered with no fewer than fifteen central London agencies specialising in placing butlers, nannies and cooks to the Russian oligarchy, after more than three years of applying I succeeded in obtaining my first interview, with a lady landowner near Llangollen. I drove the 70 miles and, bursting for a pee and, not thinking I would have time to find the bathroom, went behind a large beech near the entrance to the driveway; only to realise, when confronted in the estate office with a battery of closed-circuit TV screens, that one of the cameras was also pointing at the tree….

I don’t suppose it made any difference. Not only did I not hear from the lady again, even the agent could not be bothered to let me know my application had been a complete waste of time and petrol. Rudeness is, of course, the modern fashion.

Then, last April, I was invited to London to meet an elderly Indian woman whose husband had died, leaving her with a rambling estate in deepest rural France, that she could not bring herself to sell but did not wish to live in. Fifty overgrown acres, maybe eighteen bedrooms, were too much responsibility for one person, even me; and from the photos the property looked like the proverbial can of worms, so I turned it down

Towards the end of June, however, she rang in a panic to say there had been a break-in and would I please, please go over for a few days to help? She had no-one else to turn to, who could speak French! Having quite recently gained an Intermediate-level certificate and – after seven years of learning French in school, fifty years ago – an O-level, I said I would try my best. I have never had a problem getting by in French-speaking countries. I bought a car, four road-legal tyres and the mandatory red warning triangle, checked my dog into a home, and set off on the 300-mile journey to the coast.

We could not stay in the house, the heating didn’t work. After two years of being tightly shuttered-up, all the upstairs rooms had gone mouldy. A procession of Keystone cops and security alarm men paraded through the rooms, marvelling at the period furniture, and I was immediately expected to interpret their rapid-fire colloquial French. The break-in turned out to be just minor vandalism, but the lady was insistently demanding the addition of more pointless security products, for which I did not know all the French words. She and her daughter could not agree on anything. Eventually, my head spinning, I went and sat in the conservatory.

Finally, it was arranged that I would stay on for three months, to help out until they found someone permanent, if that wasn’t to be me. She seemed delighted and relieved, and paid me a week’s wages. On our return, I prepared to mothball my house, had the dog inoculated against rabies, found a new home for the cat, packed-up my studio, said goodbye to my gardening clients and sat like an idiot for three weeks, waiting to hear when I could start. Eventually I twigged, she didn’t want to tell me she had readvertised the job.

And now this, a minor setback, but still another one, who – what? Doesn’t believe my CV? Thinks I will steal the family silver? Has found my Special Branch file from the 1970s? Loathes modern jazz? Honestly, I have absolutely no idea what to do. I’m at my wits’ end. I’ve had years of experience of caring for period homes and gardens, many of them my own. I have practical and administrative skills, creative vision… . What more can I possibly offer to an employer who will allow me to do the work again, that I am astonishingly, perhaps uniquely, qualified to do – apart from my obvious lack of fluency in modern languages?

It’s as if some invisible hand is preventing it from happening.

Mine, possibly?

Surveillance? It’s your call.

The current debate around surveillance focuses almost entirely on crime prevention and detection. Those who feel happy and secure that someone ‘up there’ is watching their every move – an interesting modern take on the religious belief in an all-seeing God – argue that only criminals need fear this technology, while the innocent have nothing to worry about.

What an utterly credulous assertion that is, based as it is on the hopeful presumptions that the State is, and always will be, a purely benign institution; that the data will never fall into the hands of unscrupulous corporations; and that criminals actively care whether they are deterred or not!

I have blogged previously on how a simple error in a national database selling advice to finance providers about people’s creditworthiness last year deprived me for a time of my ability to spend or invest my own money; which, for a change, I had plenty of. But it could not be challenged or investigated because the error had also deprived me of a verifiable identity, and thus my right to question the data.

So I have already discovered for myself that technology does not discriminate between guilt and innocence; the innocent have just as much to fear as the guilty – probably more, as the guilty have already chosen the path of crime and thus, renounced all fear. Data held on you can easily be corrupted, whether deliberately or accidentally. Anything you do or say (or reveal that you only think) will be recorded, stored in perpetuity regardless of your wishes to the contrary, and may be used against you in future. How thrilling, to think of someone reading out this blog at my future show trial! And increasingly, you have no choice in the matter: your personal data is all out in the cloud.

Protecting citizens against crime can easily become protecting citizens against the consequences of their own actions and decisions. People will become passive objects of protection, either by the State or by giant corporations.

This may start with, for instance, deterring street crime. Who could object? But open-access to your communications can not only provide security services with a means to prevent acts of terrorism; it provides prospective employers and insurers with an unquestionable means of evaluating your personality and attitudes, checking-up on your friends and associates. It enables advertisers to channel products to you, which may have benefits in more efficient use of resources, but also has the potential to ensure that you consume a smaller range of products from fewer manufacturers, limiting your life choices and, ultimately, your room for personal growth. The greater the protection that is supposedly provided by a higher authority, the greater the degree of infantilisation that will be experienced.

Can this be demonstrated?

A recently introduced technology called Hawkeye employs a computer to resolve disputed line-calls in tennis. As the game has got faster, it has become more difficult for human line judges to call a ball in or out. Players may now challenge up to three line-calls in each set of games, using Hawkeye as the arbiter. I observed while watching the recent Wimbledon tournament, that whereas in the past the umpires would habitually overrule incorrect line calls from their superior vantage-point, they are now much more reluctant to volunteer decisions unprompted by the players. Undermined by the technology, they have become less willing to trust their own judgement. I don’t see how this can possibly be a good thing.

To give a maybe fantastical idea of how the current technology is developing, you could be going about your normal, everyday business when an ambulance arrives at the door and a paramedic informs you that there is an 80 per cent probability that you are about to have an accident and you should immediately change your behaviour. Their intervention will have been prompted by realtime analysis of data obtained from photometric sensors attached to your clothing and personal equipment, and implanted everywhere in your immediate environment; analysis of your actions over time will have produced a behavioural profile resulting in a score for your accident-proneness in all situations.

And what if the label on your bottle of wine could measure and report to your health practitioner, the rate at which you were consuming it? There is a real danger that ‘Big Brother’ will instead become ‘Big Nanny’. The NHS will become the NPHS – the National Prevention of Harm Service. Is that what we really want?

Counter to this, is the belief that the technology actually empowers the individual. A development such as Google Glass enables the user to interface intuitively, through wearable media and head-up display, with not only their immediate environment, but also their personal data, the worldwide web and other useful information held in the cloud, creating a powerful tool for analysis and decision-making. Gone are the days when you would meet an acquaintance in a supermarket aisle and struggle to remember who the hell they were, and where on Earth you met them before? You will just re-run the movie!

On the other hand, does the technology not make you more, not less reliant on these external sources of memory and knowledge? I once shot 800 frames of 35mm film while on a ‘holiday of a lifetime’ cruise around the eastern Mediterranean, visiting sites of classical antiquity. A few years later, I could not remember a single thing about it – I had lost most of the slides, the ones I could find were meaningless. Was this pile of stones Ephesus or Aspendos? I had entrusted my entire visual experience to an ‘infallible’ external medium and when it failed, so did my memories.

The argument in the end is not about establishing guilt and innocence, but about choosing between the individual and the public good. I believe the public good will prevail, as the population continues to increase and the world shrinks; however, the increasing pervasiveness of security technology can only ensure that powerful vested interests come to the fore, imposing increasing control and conformity, robbing humans of free will and powers of self-determination; our key evolutionary drivers.

The flabby, well-protected society of the future will be vulnerable to as-yet undetermined threats from beyond the margin, as well as from power-seekers within.

It’s your call.

Hedge fun management explained

It’s time I introduced you to Horace Hedge.

Some people are hedge fund managers. They manage hedge funds, whatever those are. They make hundreds of thousands a year, have nice shoes, WAGs in stockbroker belts, join country clubs, own holiday villas in Antigua and order their yachts from Camper & Nicholson.

I just manage a hedge, for fun.


The really interesting thing about Horace Hedge (who is over eight feet tall!) is that he is not made in the usual way, by truncating some beech or Leylandii or laurel trees and then pruning them viciously. No, Horace is actually made from those taller trees you see on his left. He is the right-hand side of the trees as we look at them! The garden next door is lower, so the trees start growing well below the lowest part of the hedge. Carefully sculpted from the lateral branches over many years, Horace emerges as a solid shape, and I have been lucky enough to inherit him with the little house.

Now, isn’t managing Horace Hedge more interesting than owning fifty pairs of Loakes and a boring, servant-infested beach hut in some windswept tax-haven? Why, I don’t even have to count money all night!

I haven’t any.



The vertical bar towards the right of the picture is Young Bogler’s personal flagpole. The union flag is flown from it whenever he is in residence.

Boglitis interruptus? Go configure!

So, the cause of my computer freezing four times a day has turned out to be the approaching demise of its hard disk, and after it finally locked me out for ever on Wednesday, with a humorous last message in DOS advising me to key Ctrl-Alt-Del to restart, I have had to give it a heart transplant.

I say ‘give’, actually there is no National Health Service for computers and, as it was seemingly out of warranty by about 30 minutes, according to the smallest print, we start our new life £85 lighter. That’s £25 more than I can earn in a day from doing the little occasional gardening jobs – eight hours pulling weeds in the broiling sun – that keep me, Hualive.nzi and the Cat

Now, you noticed that? I went to type ‘me, Hunzi and the Cat alive’, but instead it came out all jumbled-up? I don’t think it’s my typing, which I have been practising for over half a century. In fact, when I first acquired my pretty little Asus U45V 14-in notebook a year and 30 minutes ago,  it had this habit, especially when composing emails, of just putting the words wherever the cursor felt like going, and the fun was having to go and look for them, like runaway . (I have just lost the word ‘teenagers’, can anybody see it?)

It seemed to cure itself after a while, but now it is doing it again, it is no longer fun, it is bloody annoying*.

More annoying still is that, while the laptop doctor did manage to recover most of my data – there are some odd holes, where you ask for a file and it tries to connect you to the Interweb thing to obtain a licence –  I lost all my installed programs and had to spend yesterday trying to remember what they were and how to install them again. This tedious activity was enlivened by frequent interruptions from the beanbag men at Microsoft closing my computer down unhelpfully without asking, to shove various nondescript updates at me, to expiate their past mistakes.

At one stage, having shut the machine down to allow it to digest some crap from AVG that it wouldn’t stop persuading me to try out free for a day**, I had to wait over an hour while they slowly configured 62 updates. It was like having to politely wait for a chronic stammerer to get out a sentence when you have already figured out the ending.

Is all this garbage worth it? I have just had a decent rebate of the tax I overpaid last year and am proposing to buy a used desktop machine with a proper keyboard and all, that I shan’t bother connecting to the Internet, so that I can get on uninterrupted with my life’s work of bogling to you, dear Spammers, Followers and Likers, without whom… But every time I go to the secondhand shop, I can’t bring myself to buy one. I can’t go through all those terrible setup routines again, it’s just soul destroying.

Do please write in if you would like to sign my petition calling for all computers to be melted down and turned into sculptures of sentience.

Thank you.

* ‘Young Bogler’ writes all the way from China to remind me that I need to ask the touchpad thing to disable itself when the mouse is engaged. I remember that is what we did before, but not how. Oh dear.***

** This refers to something called Tune-Up, where you are offered a means of speeding up your computer while slowing down your battery consumption, one of those impossible things software developers expect you to believe before breakfast. The one-off ‘Free trial’ turned out to be nothing more than a highly suspect diagnostic, whereafter you were requested to pay £25 to actually fix all the many worrying problems it had found. Refusal to do so results in an unclosable window opening on your desktop. Uninstalling the program produces another window with a pathetic message of grief and loss, reducing the price to £17.50. Too late, AVG, I had already made up my mind to kill you.

*** Many years later Uncle Bogler writes in, to say that it seems that it is no longer possible to disable the touchpad. Not only has the facility been designed out of Asus’ onboard operating program, certainly on this machine, but the download patch seems no longer to exist. Consequently, having lost the utility with the change of hard drive,  my keyboard is once again behaving like a performing flea. I despair.

– UB


Another century, and I feel the need to update you and all my Spammers on a technological breakthrough I have since made in respect of the Asus touchpad disconnection problem.

The simple but effective solution I have developed (my company is based in the Boglington Circus techno-hub thing and is available to purchase now for about 6 billion units of your favourite currency) is to Scotch-tape a piece of stout cardboard over the touchpad, so that it loses its touchy-feely qualities.

I would call it a ‘patch’, were it not for the fact that use of the word has been pre-empted by MS beanbags expiating their past errors.