Category Archives: Abridged blog

Deceptively Haunted

socknersh3

You must understand, it was only the horror of renting which convinced us we must buy the stately house and garden. The price tag, £5 million, was somewhat aspirational given that we had neither part exchange, substantial deposit, large income, annuities, nor inheritance due save a rather nice reproduction Hogarth Chair from my wife’s side of the family that was only missing one leg, but we figured to use the government’s help-to-buy scheme and aspirational accounting to leverage ourselves onto the top rung of the property ladder.

We contacted the estate agent then drove out to view what we very much hoped would become our new home and hearth. Actually, 47 hearths, according to the birdlike Ms Heathcliff, “No relation!” as she chirped merrily from behind her clipboard upon meeting us at the end of a long and meandering driveway which we got lost on twice.

Our tour began in what appeared to be the Entrance Hall, which was large enough to echo but hung with ancient tapestries to muffle any yodeling. “They come with,” said Ms Heathcliff after consulting her clipboard. “Isn’t that nice?” Given that our last set of tapestries got caught in the hoovering and unravelled to the tune of a new beater bar for Henry, I rather thought not, but held my tongue in the interests of comity.

What we had taken to be the Entrance Hall was, in fact, the boot room; the cavernous space we were next led to was the Hall. “You could play a game of cricket in here,” I thought and indeed said. “Your house, your rules!” trilled the agent.

“What council tax band is this?” asked my wife, ever the Committee of Ways and Means. Ms Heathcliff consulted her notes. “It doesn’t say. However, a title is conferred with the property, along with the right to press gang locals to build follies, subject to planning permission of course.”

“Title?” my wife asked archly, entirely content with the honorific ‘Mrs’. As they chatted about correct forms of address, the agent quick to soothe any ruffled feathers in service to her commission, I wandered off to the games room. It took several minutes to walk around the aircraft carrier-sized snooker table, also apparently surplus to the owner’s requirements, to arrive at the windows and take in the garden. The topiary was splendid, though oddly, it consisted entirely of rabbits. Musing on the fecundity of the species, I headed back to find the ladies, though not before catching sight of a strange-looking fellow peering at me from between the ears of one of the gently rustling giants.bunnytopiary“Oh, that’s the gardener,” explained the agent. A look of displeasure momentarily flickered across her face then was gone. “He comes with, too. Lives in the coach house.”

Our tour continued. At one point we crossed paths with a rambler. “There is a right-of-way down this corridor,” explained Ms Heathcliff airily, quickly ushering us past the mezzanine level to the map room, spare ballroom, “George III Room” (where the monarch was rumoured to have stayed during that anxious period when he still thought he was a badger), servant’s quarters long since converted to media rooms categorised by genre, an entire suite leased by covenant to the BBC for period adaptations of Jane Austin novels, bedrooms and boudoirs and more WCs than one could flush in a lifetime, and finally, a locked door.

“What’s behind that?” I asked, thinking it to be a British Library-sized library, or perhaps a branch line closed by Beeching.

“That’s just a closet,” said the agent, looking anxiously at her watch. “I’m terribly sorry, but I’ve got another appointment just now. You two are of course welcome to see yourselves out.” Then she was off with a smile and a wave and a darting glance at the locked door.

We had a bit more of a mosey then used the GPS on my wife’s phone to find our way out. As we were approaching the car I heard an urgent Psssssst! coming from the ha-ha. It was the gardener.

“Did she take you to the haunted wing?” he asked without preamble. “You mustn’t buy this house. Terrible things have happened in that wing. That’s why it’s kept locked.”

“What terrible things?” I asked, always game for a bit of intrigue. “And what wing?”

“The one she probably told you was a closet,” he said. “You don’t notice it until you’re outside and start counting wings.”

We counted. He was right! How odd. “What terrible things?” I asked again.

“Unspeakable Feng shui,” he said with a shudder. “Spirits wailing to be let out of the box room. Rocking horses rocking themselves to a frenzy in the nursery. Unearthly groans from the loft, moaning for better insulation. Broadband like treacle. Total eclipses in the solarium. Entire busloads of tourists lost in the maze, never to be seen again, umbrellas spit out like pips. Oranges mysteriously squeezed dry of their juice in the orangery. Easter egg hunts with shocking breakage…

“Ramblers and retired lollipop ladies are regularly devoured by these beasts,” he shivered, shrinking away from the topiary. “Bunnies too are creatures of the night.”

He then quickly jumped back into the ha-ha and flattened himself as if in the trenches of the Somme, refusing to speak further.

Much amused by the encounter, and little believing the fantastical tales from a man who had obviously been sampling too much product from the vineyard, we repaired home and made our bid: the full asking price.

Reader, our dreams were dashed, or so we thought at first. In the end we were gazumped by a developer who turned the property into affordable housing for Russian oligarchs made homeless by Hackney oligarchs. Later we read they were devoured by a herd of meerkats last spotted leaping into the ha-ha and headed for the coach house. It seems we made a lucky escape after all.

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All creatures great and small

I’m originally from the US. In the States we have something called ‘window screens’. This technology may be new to those born and bred in the UK, so please allow me to explain it:

A window screen is a fine mesh of cross-hatched metal threads stretched taught onto a frame like a paint canvas. The effect is similar to a flattened tea strainer. It allows you to see outside with a mostly unhindered view, whilst keeping flying pests, or tea for that matter, from coming inside. There can be a mildly distracting moire effect at first, but the eye soon adapts. How often do you look outside anyway?

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Stephen King has written about some of the horrors ‘outside’

I understand that fine old historic houses may have window casements which preclude easy fitment of such exotica, but not all houses were built before 1600, so the lack of this miraculous feat of engineering is somewhat perplexing to me.

It’s not just a mental health issue; it threatens to tear at the very fabric of our ‘big society’.

Imagine a group of specially invited guests sitting down to dinner. It’s a delightful, warm day, so windows have been opened to partake of the fresh air. Suddenly an uninvited guest buzzes inside. It’s threatening, loud, not a little alarming. The host opens more windows so that the creature may make an unhindered exit, but it refuses to take the hint. It circles round dinner companions who until that moment had been warming to each other’s company despite the yawning social gaps (the host has been bravely egalitarian), causing generalised anxiety then pandemonium when it is realised that one of the party may be allergic to bee stings. Is it, indeed, a bee? Nobody knows, as the little beast is maddeningly elusive, even to the trained eye. One of the guests slices angrily at the air with his fork, hoping to spear it, to no avail. The buzzing circles round and round, the consternation grows greater, and at last the host asks that the room be vacated and the door shut so that the problem may correct itself.

The party thus decamps to less salubrious surroundings, defeated, the conversation derailed for good, social relations marred, plans of peaceful dinners in the future a permanent question mark. Some time later the host quietly opens the door to see if the room has been cleared of the threat. All is calm at first. But wait, no! The fly – for that’s all it is – a tiny, perhaps even prepubescent fly has taken to the air, a one man battle-of-Britain as it were. All windows are checked to see that they are open to their widest possible aperture, but it is no use; the fly seems quite happy to make figure 8s in the air until the end of time.

Eventually the house is sold at a loss despite the bouyant market, the children are uprooted from their excellent school catchment area, local ties are cut, the hope of a lasting legacy in the village abandoned; even the beloved family pet has his previously placid existence shattered as he is forced to say goodbye to his pooch playgroup pals. All for the want of a humble window screen.

Written for the Sounding Off section of a local magazine

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The early bird catches the lark

I’ve been giving Twitter a workout lately.

Although I’ve had an account since early 2013, the microblogging bug never really bit. The nomenclature alone kind of makes my skin crawl. I could appreciate its utility, and even consider the character limit to be a worthwhile challenge, but ‘following’ always gave me pause. I already follow people in the sense that if I like a blog, I’ll bookmark and revisit when the mood strikes. The Twitter way is to eyeball the ever-scrolling feed of tweets of your chosen ones. Surely when you amass a certain number of followees, this becomes not much more convenient as a filter (if a filter you seek) than googling randomly. It only really seemed to make sense for mass movements of people; following trends. I’m not so interested in that.

Anyway, about a month ago I tweeted thus:

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The implementation was clumsy as I hadn’t yet figured out how to slide text onto a curve using Sketch, which is my chosen canvas since Photoshop ascended into the Creative Cloud. (Can’t say you’re Sketching, people would just get confused. And the clumsiness would remain. When it comes to image manipulation, I’m what you call an enthusiastic amateur.) But it was an enjoyable exercise, so the next day I dipped into the past again, simply doing a search of July 10 and throwing a few events in this time.

The first history tweet I actually felt æsthetically pleased with came on the 12th when I got to do a group portrait of the Stones with Caesar. Next Nixon made his debut – he’s very photogenic. The 14th was another multi-event, which was becoming the new standard even if the illustration was quite basic. On the 16th I got more ambitious; at this point I was hooked.

I don’t think anybody actually follows my Days except Twitterbots, but that’s not why I post them (else I’d widen my library of pop culture references). They wake up my brain. The only downside is that ambition is an insomniac’s dream; they take too long, eating into time when my brain should really be asleep. Today’s, for example

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was accomplished in the peak REM hours early the morning of August 10th.

According to Wikipedia, which is good enough for me (as are some of the ‘Today in history’ sites, though I’m aware they’re not always strong on fact-checking), on this day word of the Declaration of Independence reached London. Also, “In 1793 The Musée du Louvre officially opened… In 1990 the Magellan space probe reached Venus… In 1519 Ferdinand Magellan’s five ships set sail from Seville to circumnavigate the globe… And in 2003 came the highest temperature ever recorded in the United Kingdom – 101.3 °F in Kent. It is the first time the United Kingdom has recorded a temperature over 100 °F.”

The temperature thing was a surprising fact, but I didn’t have room for it, so never mind that. Everything else got slotted in like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, which is surely one of the handier metaphors.

This one was particularly irksome as my grey matter kept getting impacted with ideas [mental note: Breaking Bad. Ignore.] The character limit had forced me into ‘Dec’ of Independence, so in came Dec, Ant’s buddy. The lightning bolt was a flashbulb moment which naturally needed to be incorporated. As for the louvres, homophones stopped by the other day, and I grab continuity where I can find it, so… you get the idea. Tick-tock, tick-tock.
tiltingclock30I had to find a useable globe stand, as cleaning stuff up is a chore I can do without; my kingdom for a .png or .gif with a transparent background!

Almost all of the history images are scooped up without apology in image searches, though I try not to use other people’s personal photography [see apologia]. Been to the Louvre, so that one’s mine.

Images are only half the fun. The rest comes with snapping the various elements together, where possible, and writing captions. Words and pictures, pictures and words: that’s my life.

Perhaps I should thank Twitter for limiting me to 140 characters. Make that 117 – or 99 with intro. I am constantly reminded of the importance of 23, which is the number of characters a picture(s) is worth in this brave new world.

important23

I’m not sure how long I’ll keep this up.* There’s the only-so-many-hours-in-the-night thing, which can be addressed by lowering the benchmark or redefining the mission. Over time it will become progressively more difficult for me anyway as history runs out. Ideally I will pass this sacred duty to the next generation, whose job it has always been to make new history.

* 3 months as it turns out. Now I just do them whenever the mood strikes.

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Green tongue

When V delicious came to Olympia, the gods decreed it a greens zone suitable for foraging.


The chatty confessions started almost immediately: “My name is Karen and I’m not a vegetarian. But I heard there was free food…”


No, food.


Sausages! That’s more like it. So, what’s the secret ingredient?


The secret ingredient is love? How sweet. Love and methyl cellulose.


The toothpicks were edible, too. And hygenic.


The helmet was for diving head first into the crowds.


Buskers were allowed as long as they were organic.


Workshops were available on how to make money from stretching.


There was brisk business from those who couldn’t afford myrrh.


Passive exercising is a real growth industry.


Admitting gluten intolerance proved joyfully cathartic for some, shaming for others.


Taking orders for personal hovercraft.


Research shows you can eat more in bed if you have a lap.


They have healing powers, but as a side effect they make you feel old.


What the vegan police wear when they walk their beat.


The Corrupt Sweet Potato, the stall across the way, was proving a bigger draw.


It was tacitly understood the judges could be swayed by a little extra frosting.


Too many burnt tongues.


Massage was available to those who could prove need.


VIPs got allotments.


More popular than the lima variety.


It’s not easy being green, as this once bountiful salad shriveled by an omnivorous public’s hostility shows.

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