Every now and then a boring afternoon of manual drudgery is salvaged by an unexpected encounter. Languishing at the bottom of a box, or forgotten in a hidden drawer, you can sometimes come across a treasure that makes all the mundane effort of a house clearance a thing to be savoured. For me it’s books, the older the better. But not just any kind of books. These have to be little windows onto a long forgotten past; to a time before the words “political” and “correctness” ever made it together in the same sentence.

IMG_20160420_0002_NEWWhilst rooting through a barn last weekend I came across two such tomes. One was an illustrated dictionary that would seem to predate the formation of Pakistan, Palestine and, apparently, homosexuality! It did include the word “Lesbian” amongst its faded and age-spotted pages, but the definition had it as…“pertaining to the island of Lesbos, the birthplace of the lyric poets Alcaeus and Sappho.”

Its pages though were filled with tiny line illustrations of dugongs and pangolins and full colour plates emblazoned with the flags of Siam and Persia. At the back it even had a whole section on how to formally address royalty, baronets and archbishops. Yes, it lacked any sort of storyline, plot or characters, but I could have spent hours leafing through its musty smelling pages!

The other book I almost missed, so small and insignificant did it look. It was a handbook of expedition safety, filled with all manner of warnings and advice on how to survive travelling through an uncertain world. The author was a man well travelled and obviously used to the trials  of life on the road. And, whilst much of the advice was actually very sound, some of the language was obviously born of another era.

I knew I was in for an interesting read when I came across the following bit of advice on team selection. “Picking of the expedition members is an important factor…I would advise that Commonwealth Nationals do not share an expedition with Continental Nationals.” He then went on to suggest that you always check local jam for flies and insects, never tell the authorities in Nigeria when you find a body and not to eat fish in India (which had something to do with the local habit of disposing of bodies in the Ganges).IMG_20160420_0001_NEW

One of his most useful pearls of wisdom though came in the section relating to spending time amongst the villagers of western Africa where, apparently, “…you may be offered a woman as a welcoming gesture. Be cautious about this…” The problems apparently lie, not just in the possibility of contracting an embarrassing disease, but also from the fact that rejection or acceptance could result in an equally embarrassing, and potentially far more fatal, lynching by the local male population.

My favourite section was the preparation of native foods, which included recipes on how to cook Cow’s stomach and banana, toasted grubs and fungi and snail soup. The one dish that stood out above the rest though was the graphically effusive preparation of Jungle Rat. The size of a domestic cat, these jungle rodents are eaten in their entirety including heads, tails and skin.

And the good news is that the following recipe can also be used for monkeys, cats and porcupines…

Ingredients (for four persons)

1 large jungle rat

2 medium smoked fish

2 snail (if available)

1 1/2 teaspoons of salt

6 hot green peppers

4 small tomatoes

Mixture of herbs and spices to taste

Freshwater crabs (optional)

Banana Foutou (Cassava and smoked dried bananas)

The rat is placed on the fire whole and turned continuously to singe off the fur and whiskers. The fur is then scraped off with a knife, along with the foot pads. When all the fur has been completely scraped off, the bloated rat is then washed in cold water to remove any excess particles. It is then cut open from the throat to the tail, with the heart, liver, kidneys and testicles being taken by the children to eat.

The rat is then cut into sections and left in a bowl of water to soak for about an hour. A pot of water is then brought to the boil and, when ready, the sections of the rat are dropped in. The head is crushed open with a stone, to allow the juices from the brain to thicken the soup.

Salt is then added to taste. (I love that bit!!)

A mixture of herbs, spices, roots and hot peppers are then added to the stock, along with the odd snail if available. Fish and sometimes freshwater crabs are added towards the end of the cooking process and the finished dish is then served up with a side order of Banana Foutou and a lemon sorbet.

OK, I lied about the sorbet.

…Bon Appetit!

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“How do you defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorised”…Salman Rushdie

Barely had the dust settled on the carnage in Brussels, before media sources and governments around the world began to climb aboard the terror bandwagon; turning what had been an unforgivable attack on innocent people into a political football that is playing right into the hands of the terrorists themselves.

Islamic State sacrifice a couple of unimportant foot soldiers to the cause and then sit back and reap the rewards of government meddling and media hyperbole, watching in smug self-satisfaction as we ramp up the fear factor and elevate a brutal and unforgivable slaughter into a policy-changing event. They supply the carnage and we supply the column inches and TV coverage that they desire; as politicians and journalists queue up to get their soundbites in and nod their heads sagely, whilst liberty is thrown to the wolves and political grandstanding takes centre stage.

Theresa May, the British Home Secretary, claims that Britain is facing the biggest terrorism threat in its history. What about the IRA bombings and punishment killings of the 1970s and 1980s? Back then the Irish Republicans were quick to realise the political capital that a bomb in London would have over half a dozen in Londonderry. In 1973 alone there were 36 bombs exploded in the British capital. The British mainland, and London in particular, became the target of a concerted bombing campaign that lasted well over two decades. The big difference between then and now though is that both the Labour and Conservative governments treated the terrorism as criminal, rather than political. In spite of the fact that IRA active service units could move amongst the large Irish populations of the capital with impunity, little was done to curb civil liberties. It is true that mistakes were made and miscarriages of justice perpetrated, but on the whole the policy worked.

There is nothing new about terrorism, it has been with us for centuries. What has changed is the instant accessibility of it. Television and social media has become the newest and most potent weapon in the terrorist arsenal. Imagine the anti-Catholic rhetoric that could have been generated after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot if James I had been on Twitter. And what about the Sidney Street siege of 1911, when Latvian anarchists murdered a policeman during a bungled jewellery raid. At the time the then Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, tried to strengthen legislation against aliens, an action that was criticised as being tantamount to “…the death of ideas and the betrayal of English traditions”…The bill did not make it into law.

During the 1840s there was a widespread movement for change across Europe, with Italy, France and Poland on the brink of revolution. Thinkers, activists and anarchists were everywhere, and many of them ended up on the streets of liberal London. Back then, the British capital was a safe haven for other peoples ‘terrorists’. Even at a time when London itself was becoming a dangerous place for the elite of society. Queen Victoria survived no fewer than seven attempts on her life during her long reign and Irish nationalists tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament and the Tower of London in an event still referred to as “Dynamite Saturday”. And let’s not forget that forward thinking Suffragettes were considered by many in the establishment  back then to be harbingers of doom and destruction. These modern thinking women were imprisoned, force-fed and abused to the point that the government at the time had to vehemently defend its treatment of them.

What we face today is nothing new. It is just more scary, and potentially far more damaging on an economic and national level. Apparently, when he planned the 9/11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden was looking to undermine the very fabric of western ideals. He wanted to show that the outwardly liberal facade of our democratic foundations could be undermined by some determined and ruthless acts of terror. He wanted to prove that we could become as repressive as anyone if our very freedoms were being attacked. The attacks in Paris and Brussels, and before that in London and New York, have highlighted not only our inability to ultimately stop a determined attack, but have also shown that we are all ready to turn on ourselves to try to apportion blame. Attacks like the one that happened in Brussels occur daily in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, but they barely register on the media radar. Serve up a dead European or American though and you are front page news.

Richard English, a Belfast academic once defined terrorism’s threat to democracy not as the “limited danger’ of human and economic destruction, but more as the “…ill-judged, extravagant and counterproductive state responses” that it provokes. Isis wants us running scared. It wants to see the West restricting civil liberties and persecuting Muslims. What is doesn’t want to see is quiet dignity and restrained courage. Freedom comes at a price, it always has. It is how we preserve that freedom that matters.

What we should really fear is the fear itself…and how we deal with it…

The dictionary offers up a number of suitable definitions for procrastination…

delay, put off, postpone, defer, be dilatory, use delaying tactics, stall, temporise, play for time, hesitate, vacillate, dither, be indecisive, be undecided, waver

Simply put, procrastination is the avoidance of doing a task which needs to be accomplished. We’ve all been there. How often have we put off impending tasks in favour of a plethora of less urgent ones. I even found myself splicing rope this morning, just to delay the inevitable. I mean, splicing rope for Christ’s sake…that’s taking temporising to a whole new level!

3159417For some, procrastination can be persistent and tremendously disruptive and has been linked to depression, low self-esteem and anxiety. For others it is just an irritating deviation from life’s more worthy endeavours. For me, it is an excuse to do the ironing and splice some rope. However, it can be a troublesome vice, especially if deadlines are an all to regular feature of your daily life.

There’s nothing I hate more than an open-ended deadline…it just generates the urgent need to alphabetise the CD collection and sort out the sock drawer.

The good news is that we are not alone. It would seem that procrastination is something that has been embraced by some of history’s most able individuals. Far from it being the bane of the work-shy and the indecisive, it has in fact found favour with some notable figures from the world of art, politics and literature.

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Leonardo da Vinci was a serial procrastinator. The genius of the Italian Renaissance was renowned as a daydreamer by his contemporaries. The man who painted The Virgin in the Rocks and The Last Supper, and explored almost every field available to him in both the arts and sciences, never finished a single project on time. It took him 16 years to finally get around to finishing the enigmatic portrait of La Gioconda (Mona Lisa) and the Last Supper was only completed when his patron, Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, threatened to cut off his funding. In later years he is said to have regretted his lack of artistic fervour, even appealing to God at the end. He did leave us with a wealth of timeless masterpieces and sketches though, along with the all to apt words “It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end”.

Another of life’s great procrastinators was the author, Douglas Adams, who famously quipped, “I love deadlines…I like the whooshing sound they make as they go by”. It was said that he had managed raise the art of procrastination to a whole new level and, in spite of producing a number of iconic novels, apparently hated writing. It would seem that copious amounts of tea, long baths and days in bed were Mr Adams’ particular preference to avoiding putting pen to paper. Publishers and editors had to lock him in rooms and glower at him to elicit the finished manuscripts. He worked on his last novel, ‘The Salmon of Doubt’, for ten years and at the time of his fatal heart attack in 2001 he still hadn’t finished the first draft.

don__t_panic_by_lefrbApparently Samuel Johnson, probably one of the greatest writers of his age, once wrote a piece on procrastination that he took so long in getting around to starting that he finished it whilst the errand boy was waiting outside to take it to press. And Samuel Taylor Coleridge, creator of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan was, by all accounts, one of the most infamous procrastinators of all time. Addicted to Opium, his life was once described as “…a never-ending squalor of procrastination, excuses, lies, debts, degradation and failure”.

Suddenly I am feeling a whole lot better!

Even ex US President Bill Clinton was considered a chronic procrastinator and was once described by Vice President, Al Gore, as “punctually challenged”. The French poet and novelist, Victor Hugo meanwhile hit upon the unique idea of staving off procrastination by having his servant strip him naked and not return his clothes until he had laboured sufficiently to earn them back, whilst Herman Melville had his wife chain him to a desk as he struggled to finish ‘Moby Dick’.

And it goes on…

The great American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright designed his most famous house in two hours, when his client phoned him to say he was coming over to see the plans. Apparently Wright calmly finished his breakfast and, in the time that it took his client to drive from Pittsburgh, produced the plans for Fallingwater, a house that today is listed as a National Historic Monument and considered one of the top places in the United States to visit before you die. Even some of Hunter S. Thompson’s most famous work began as mere procrastination. The wild exuberance of his gonzo style of journalism actually came about because he hadn’t actually written up the article that he had been commissioned to do. In an act of sheer panic, or inspired genius, he began tearing out pages from his notebook and sent them off to press with the courier who was waiting at his hotel room door. The critics loved it.

And what of Hamlet, the procrastinating Prince of Denmark? Given the simple task of avenging his father’s murder, he then proceeds to spend the next four and a half hours dithering and wavering to the point of exasperation. By the time he finally does get around to slaying Claudius, his indecisive ramblings have led to the suicide of his beloved Ophelia, the unfortunate stabbing of Polonius, the death of his own mother and the demise of Ophelia’s brother…not to mention the poor saps, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. If ever a man gave procrastination a bad name, it is surely the dillydallying Dane.

hamlet2Anyway, I have procrastinated long enough. I have things to do.

…Now, where did I put that rope?…

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The year is barely a month old, but already the peace and goodwill of festive cheer has been replaced by anger, suspicion and fear. Across the globe, nations are closing ranks against the tide of economic, political and human misfortune heading their way. As the refugee crisis in Europe threatens to overwhelm the European Union, the once open door policies of member states are being firmly shut in the faces of the thousands fleeing the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Sweden is threatening to send some 80,000 back, whilst neighbouring Denmark has recently passed legislation to take valuables off asylum seekers, in a move that has been compared by some to the Nazi treatment of the Jews in the 1930s. In Germany meanwhile, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s previously applauded open stance on immigration is now coming under pressure from opponents and allies alike, following the disturbances in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. And in the United States, Donald Trump is leading the Republican Presidential race on a political platform of hate and ignorance.

And what of the English? Well, it has to said that there is an underlying sense of smug self-satisfaction amongst certain members of society. With Europe shutting up shop and America heading for a political meltdown in the electoral debates to come, the likes of Britain First and the EDL are clambering aboard the St. George bandwagon in their haste to fly the flag. These are people who steadfastly refuse to accept Syrian refugees, mainly on the grounds, it seems, that they will obviously come over here and abuse our women and blow up our babies. They proudly drape themselves in the flag of St George and expostulate the very Englishness of their origins.

This does of course beggar the question as to which antecedents they are holding up as English. Is it their Anglo-Saxon ancestry that they are so proud of, or their Viking blood? Or perhaps they are more favoured towards the gallic charms of the Normans, who defeated Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, in 1066. Truth be told, we Brits are a race of mongrels, as is much of Europe and America. The movement of peoples and labour has been central to our societies for millennia and I know Arabs, Indians, Jews and Gentiles who are just as English as you and I.

One person who I can categorically state isn’t English though is Saint George. Prepare yourselves Britain First, but the man whose virtues you so love to flaunt is in fact…Syrian! Yes, the patron saint of England was born in Syria Palaestina (Palestine) in AD280, when the region was part of the Roman Empire. So, in a delicious twist of irony, if St George rocked up at Calais today, having made the long and arduous journey from the Middle East to the shores of his adopted homeland, the chances are he would be refused entry!

As winter takes hold, the plight of the refugees will only get worse and with the arrival of spring, the influx of asylum seekers threatens to turn this into one of the worst human tragedies of recent times. I have no answer, I wish I did. I can understand the desperation of the refugees searching for a better life, as well as the fear and trepidation that their arrival is causing amongst member states. As a species we should help, it is what makes us human. But it seems that national priorities and an almost primal instinct for survival is starting to take control.

Hopefully compassion and compromise will prevail. If not, then the politics of hate will, tragically, win.

Rare-Exports-620x350The season is nearly upon us, when people everywhere cast their troubles aside and embrace the holy trinity of crass commercialism, wanton greed and an unfathomable urge to allow some beardy, work-shy pensioner into their homes. We may be about to bomb the shit out of Syria, in another vain attempt to justify a lack of empathy with our fellow humans, but that isn’t going to stand in the way of spending countless billions on an array of unnecessary crap that will be out of date by Easter…Yes, it’s nearly Christmas.

But before you get too carried away with the mince pies and brandy, you may want to reconsider the idea of letting the corpulent old gent down your chimney this year. Don’t be fooled by the fluffy white beard and jolly demeanour – Santa is not the jovial bringer of joy and Christmas cheer that we were brought up to believe…

Growing up on the mean streets of Birmingham, I was always led to believe that the worst that was likely to befall an errant child over Christmas was a possible substitution of coal for that shiny wrapped present under the tree. To the best of my knowledge, cannibalism, kidnapping and the harassment of livestock was never mentioned! It is little wonder that Santa spends his time holed up in some remote and frozen corner of legend…the man is a magnet for the dregs of medieval folklore!

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Take the Krampus for example, a bloodthirsty and slightly unhinged member of the entourage who, if you were lucky, would dish out medieval beatings with a birch rod. This was when he wasn’t kidnapping children in a burlap sack and throwing them in the river. This less than festive behaviour proved too much even for the Catholic Church – the people who brought you the Spanish Inquisition! – and the Krampus was outlawed in the 1800s. Undeterred, Santa turned to Belsnickel, who accompanied him across the Rhineland and the Dutch communities of Pennsylvania, ‘coercing’ naughty children into being good. Ragged and disheveled, the Belsnickel would roam the wilds of German-speaking Europe, handing out beatings, cakes and sweets. Now if that isn’t sending out mixed messages, I don’t know what is!…I mean, how much coercing did the children of southwestern Germany need?!

belgique-pc3a8re-fouettardNot to be outdone by their Teutonic neighbours, Santa’s French franchise turned up with their very own Gallic enforcer, in the form of La Pere Fouettard (The Whipping Father), a suitably gastronomic bully whose impressive resume included kidnapping, murder and cannibalism. Then there is Black Peter, a Moor of somewhat dubious antecedents, who apparently arrived by boat from Spain every year with Sinterklass, only to be sent down Dutch chimneys to leave presents and, in some cases, kidnap bad children and take them back to Spain for punishment. Slave, servant or demon, Peter’s somewhat cavalier attitude towards progressive childcare, along with the sensitive matter of his racial stereotyping, has seen him in more enlightened times transformed into a chimney sweep. Political correctness wouldn’t seem to have mellowed his penchant for child kidnapping though.

My personal favourites are the Yulemen from Iceland. Numbering thirteen in all, these mischievous creatures are relative newcomers to Santa’s malevolent horde, having worked their way up through the ranks of Icelandic medieval folklore. They first arrived on the scene back in the 1930s and over the intervening decades have been portrayed as everything from loveable rogues and annoying miscreants, to child-eating demons who hang around with a particularly large and obnoxious black cat. The offspring of a wizened old crone called Grýla, for the most part they seem to spend their time these days leaving gifts in children’s shoes, hassling sheep and peering in through windows to see what is worth stealing. A far cry from their glory days as the bogey men of Icelandic folklore, when tales of their deeds were even outlawed by Iceland’s usually less than sensitive Danish overlords.

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So, still want to leave Santa that mince pie? Personally I would be more inclined towards laying a few man traps around the house. And kids, when Santa asks whether you’ve been naughty or nice, you might want to give some serious consideration to your answer…

Granny Sutton - 2Just before she died, my mother told me the story of her great grandmother, a remarkable woman by all accounts who lived to the grand old age of 102. She lived in the small village of Shenstone, just outside Lichfield and, judging by the warmth with which she told the story, my mum obviously remembered her with a great deal of affection.

Granny Sutton, for that was her name, was tiny in stature, spent her days dressed entirely in black and lived in a small cottage next to the old church. Almost blind, she nonetheless managed to raise a disabled daughter on her own and kept the cottage and its garden immaculate.

…Oh yes, and she also succeeded in getting herself adopted by an entire U.S. Army base!

At the proud instigation of my young mother and her brother, an American soldier from the nearby camp turned up at her cottage one afternoon to pay a visit, to be greeted with the immortal words…”Ooo, got any gum chum?”. In spite of a serious deficit of teeth (by then she was in possession of a single, solitary tooth), Granny Sutton it seems had a liking for chewing gum and was not backwards in coming forwards to ask for it. The soldier went on his way, suitably charmed, soon to be followed by others…along with a regular supply of gum, chocolate and, seemingly, anything else the old lady required. At the time, my mum mentioned a photograph that she remembered seeing in a local paper, of her gran standing next to a tank. I think she really wanted to see that picture again one last time and I spent an age trying to track it down, but to no avail.

And there this story would have ended, but for a fortuitous meeting one day last summer. I found myself talking to a genial old chap from Lichfield and mentioned in passing Granny Sutton and the elusive photo. He was as intrigued as I had been and left promising to “…see what he could do”. About a month ago I received an envelope in the post. Inside it was an article copied from a local paper recounting the sad demise of Mrs Lucy Sutton of Ivy Cottage, Shenstone. The envelope also contained a very grainy photograph of my great great grandmother standing next to a Daimler Scout Car. At the time she was 102 years old, had never been to a cinema and was reported to say that she had “…never seen anything like it before in my life”.

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Sadly my mum never got to see the photo…after a lifetime of remembering it, she missed it by six months. As for Granny Sutton, well she died on the 15 April, 1945, just six weeks short of her 103 birthday. Apparently she still pottered in her garden right up to the end and used to pay regular visits to the local pub for her medicinal tot of whiskey, which according to my mum she never paid for. I’m sorry I never got to meet Granny Sutton…any woman who can scam free whiskey and a regular supply of blackmarket chocolate from the United States Army would have been a formidable weapon in any small child’s arsenal.

…I’m glad I got to see the photograph though.

FullSizeRenderLying in the heart of India’s snow-capped Garhwal Himalayas sits a doorway into another world. Here, along the western rim of the Nandi Devi Sanctuary, south of the Tibetan border, a high mountain pass offers us mere mortals a chance to gaze across a landscape crafted by the gods themselves…

…OK, maybe that was a bit excessive. Obviously the whole gods and other worlds bit was a touch flowery…but the doorway was true…well figuratively speaking anyway. The Kuari Pass sits amongst some of the most majestic scenery anywhere in the Indian Himalayas and from its lofty heights some of the region’s most breathtaking peaks are arrayed before you in a stupendous arc of snow and ice. From up here, the towering giants of Nandi Devi, Dunagiri and Trishul stand against a brooding sky in all their snow-capped glory.

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I had intended to write a whole piece about the journey…About how we had followed a trail first blazed in 1905 by Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of India..About how we had negotiated our way through urine soaked railway stations and along suicidal Indian roads…About how we had survived an almost biblical storm and ended up in a tented camp with full en suite facilities and an infinity pool of somewhat dubious content.

But to be honest, I can’t be bothered. So here’s some pretty pictures instead…

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