Friday, September 30, 2005

More from the Court Files

If you read the previous post "Get your facts right before you racially abuse someone..." then you will know that I enjoy reading the Court Files section of the freebie paper we get through our door each week - the Dumfries Courier.

Most of the time it contains entries that reflect the seriously sad and empty lives of those appearing in it. For example, this week there is mention of Charles Rogerson, a 32 year old man who was charged at Dumfries Sheriff Court for stealing 2 bottles of Vodka.

Every now and then a wee gem of attempted creativity threatens to break through. I loved this one:

A 22 year-old motorist was reminded in custody by the Sheriff [local magistrate] at Dumfries on Friday accused of driving while unfit through use of drink or drugs, driving carelessly and colliding with a fence, a car and then a cycle.

Thomas McClure of Summerville Crescent, Dumfries, pleaded not guilty to committing the offence on Thursday at Margaret Walk in the town.

He also denied driving while disqualified, failing to provide a breath test, using a car without insurance and attempting to pervert the course of justice by leaving the site, changing the top he was wearing and telling the police he had been in bed.

I can only guess that as he was in court to answer these charges, that his cunning plan of changing his shirt wasn't enough to fool our local constabulary

Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Anonymous Blog

Most people out there in Blogland have opted to go anonymous. It gives them the chance to say things without worry about the fallout, so long as no one ever finds out who they really are. Freedom from consequence has a powerful attraction.

There are of course drawbacks. For the most part, blogging is an activity that involves commenting on things that happen in our everyday lives, and it doesn’t take long before we have written about enough different aspects of our existence that it wouldn’t be too difficult for someone who does know us to decode our secret identity. At that point all hell could break loose – relationships fall apart, jobs are lost and regrets are huge.

So in order to keep your anonymity you might have to start creating a fictitious background to throw people off the scent, but this is much harder than you’d imagine: as well needing to be extremely creative, you have to have a damned good memory. I had this thought partly in mind when I made that first crucial decision in setting up this blog: whether to chose a nom de plume like “The Purple Slug” or “The Time Thief”, for example, or to be upfront about the fact that it was me, Kim Ayres, and no one else. I don’t really believe that honesty is always the best policy, but with a memory like mine it does tend to be much easier.

I am assured by many of the friends and relatives that I am in regular e-mail contact with, that they keenly read, and even enjoy, my blog. However, none of the buggers ever leave a comment so I guess I’ll have to take their word for it.

I am happy for my writings to be read, commented on and even criticised. But over the past couple of days there have been times when I really wish I could pour out my soul and rant and rage against people and circumstances, and it is here that I realise the restriction of the open blog. There are some things that my wife would not be happy about becoming public knowledge, and there are some things that even I know would not be appropriate to reveal. But for the drawbacks outlined above, there is little point in setting up another, anonymous blog.

So, some of it gets written and then left on my laptop, unpublished, and some is never written down at all. And the nearest I get to revealing anything, is writing about anonymous blogs.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Bramble Crumble Recipe...

Following my last entry, Bstrong ( wondered if I’d publish my wife’s bramble crumble recipe. I thought it would be pretty straightforward until, while we were eating breakfast this morning, I casually asked Maggie how it was made. This turned out to be far more challenging than I could have guessed.

The problem is not that my wife is secretive with ancient family recipes, only handed down between mother and daughter since the time before the Romans invaded Britain. No, the problem lies in the fact that she is one of these cooks who rarely measures anything – nearly everything is done by eye and instinct.

When I try to follow recipes from books, I get fed up with the lack of complete information in them. It’s not just a case of wondering how to convert Fahrenheit into Celcius, but things like ‘how to turn the oven on’ that are missing from these texts.

Maggie, on the other hand, sees recipes as a rough guide only. When asking her about quantities it tends to be “some of this, a bit of that, sprinkle that on the top, mix in a blob of this…” and so on. So trying to pin her down to get enough information to write something that might be of any use to anyone reading this blog has been quite an adventure.

With that in mind, I apologise if you need more to go on, and would suggest that you hand this recipe over to someone who knows what they are doing and you can do your own metric conversions. I’m also unsure if American ounces or pounds are the same as British ones…

  • Rub 4 ounces of butter into 8 ounces of self-raising flour (or a mix of flour and oats), then mix in about 4 ounces of sugar (brown or white – it’s up to you).

  • Place 1 pound of blackberries (or any fruit you want) into an oven-proof dish and sprinkle on sugar (how much sugar gets very vague at this point – “to taste” is my wife’s phrase – as it depends on how sweet or sharp the fruit is – but it could be up to a couple of ounces). Mix it together.

  • Pour the flour/butter/sugar mix onto the top and place into an oven for about 40 minutes (or “until it looks ready…”) at Gas Mark 4 or 5

Serves one to six people, depending on your lifestyle.

Serve with thick fresh cream, or good quality vanilla ice cream. Eat until nearly sick and have gained several pounds in weight.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Bramble Crumble

Tonight my wife made that greatest of great desserts, bramble crumble. Packed with the hard won blackberries from our annual hunt (See The Great Bramble Hunt), covered with a topping that was so full of flour, butter and sugar that it ought to carry an “instant coronary” health warning, and accompanied by a large dollop of Cream O’ Galloway’s finest Luxury Vanilla Ice-Cream, I was truly in a state of ecstasy.

Over the past several months we have been extremely good with our healthy eating regime. And I have come to love eating large quantities of fresh fruit and vegetables. Of course we have had the occasional sweet treat and sporadic excess, but nothing comes close to the utter over-indulgence of the dark fruity, creamy, buttery, sweetness that is Maggie’s bramble crumble.

And it was soooooooooooo damned good.

I am stuffed, feel slightly sick, but thoroughly satisfied. Maybe in another 12 months I can have another one…

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Student Regrets

I’ve heard it said that it’s better to regret the things you’ve done than the things you haven’t done, and I can’t help but feel that there’s a large dose of truth in it. When we’re young, we regret stupid things we’ve done, but as we get older we realise that a lot of these acts have actually shaped the way we are now, so we regret missed opportunities more.

Having left school at 16, I returned to education a few years later. At the age of nearly 25 I went to Dundee University to study philosophy. Obviously across the period of 4 years I can think of various incidences that I’d have like to have changed, but for the most part I can’t complain. There are only 2 incidences where I really wish I’d taken the other option.

The first was an essay I was doing on a course called Philosophy of Buddhism. From the list of options I chose “What is Nirvana?” (and no, I couldn’t just write an essay about Kurt Cobain and his grunge band) and then spent many days in the library trying to figure out the best angle to approach it from. You see the main problem when it comes to describing Nirvana is that Nirvana is a state that is beyond description. The minute you try to put it into words you lose the essence of what it is.

Almost every book I read began with a statement along the lines of “Well, you can’t really describe Nirvana…” and then went on for 3,000 pages talking about why not.

Then it dawned on me – I should hand in a blank piece of paper. How simple, how clean, how beautiful! A cover sheet (with my name and the essay title), a blank piece of paper, and a bibliography – fantastic! Absolutely inspired!

But then the doubts started creeping in – surely I couldn’t get away with that one. I’d get a zero for being a smart ass. I talked to a few friends who agreed it was a brilliant idea but insisted that there was no way I should do it.

So as the doubts grew and my self-confidence sagged, I took the safe option and wrote an essay based around the difficulty in describing a state beyond description. It wasn’t the greatest of essays and I think I got a B- or C+ for it. But when I’d handed it over, I said to the professor that I’d seriously toyed with the idea of submitting a blank sheet of paper. He turned and looked me straight in the eye and said, “Well, I’d have had to have given a very high mark for that” and he looked genuinely quite impressed. Bollocks! I’d let my insecurities rule.

My second regret at university was backing down from standing for President of the Student Union on a platform of “Vote for me and I’ll resign!”

One of the things that has always pissed me off about politics is that you cannot vote for “none of the above”. If you don’t like any of the candidates what are you supposed to do? If you don’t vote, or you spoil your ballot paper in protest, your vote is discounted. So when the elections for the Student Union came up in my final year at Dundee University, I thought that I would stand under the banner of “Vote for me and I’ll resign”, which would effectively be the none-of-the-above candidate. If I won, I would immediately resign and cause a re-election. I would keep standing until finally the student population chose someone worth voting for. Apathy was always a huge problem with student elections, and the highest turnout was usually less than 10%. The size of Dundee Uni at the time meant therefore, that if you could garner in the region of 300 votes you would trounce the opposition and be guaranteed victory. I was convinced I could win it. And even if I didn’t it would be a hell of a laugh and probably go down in student folklore history.

But then a few people started telling me that it was a stupid idea, that it cost money every time these elections were held and the student union was always strapped for cash etc. I still liked the idea, but I was talked out of it. In the end the couple of people who did stand were both wankers and I can’t remember which pathetic political animal won.

Both these regrets are there because I feel that I was not being true to myself. I let myself be talked out of it, thinking that I should follow the safer route. I might have saved myself a little bit of humiliation, but compared with the chance to feel that I’d really gone out and done something out of the ordinary, something that no one else had done, it would have been a cheap price to pay.

To finish using another quote that I don’t know where it originated – “The person who risks nothing, may lose nothing, but gains nothing either.”

Thursday, September 22, 2005

9 Naked Men

This is sooo funny

It would probably help if you have some kind of broadband connection, but it is worth the wait.

Although on a wet, cold and windy day in Scotland, like today, the temptation to join in is somewhat lessened.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Tin Wedding Anniversary

Maggie and I celebrate ten years of marriage today, making it our “tin” wedding anniversary apparently.

We met at the local college where we’d both returned to education as mature students as a way of doing something more with our lives. I was almost 24 at the time. By rights, our relationship should never have lasted. She was 9 years older than me and had 3 children already. During our 2nd, 4th and 5th years together, I was studying at Dundee University, some 50 miles away. During our 3rd year together, I was at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada, on a student exchange programme. Nope, there was no way this relationship could last.

And yet it did. We loved being together when we could be and we just got closer and closer.

At the beginning of my 4th year at Uni, Maggie became pregnant with Rogan. Up until then we had deliberately not thought about the future because it seemed obvious that it couldn’t last, but we were both enjoying the “now” and didn’t want to end the relationship. But when Maggie became pregnant, I suddenly realised that I wasn’t frightened of the future any more. This was the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with and there was no point in fearing otherwise. Rogan was born 2 weeks after my final exams and we were a proper family.

We didn’t originally plan to get married. When we’d met nearly 5 years previously, Maggie was in the process of getting a divorce and I wasn’t overly convinced by the need for it either. We both always felt that if it was in your heart, then a bit of paper wouldn’t make any difference; and if it wasn’t in your heart, then a bit of paper wouldn’t make any difference.

A couple of months later I found myself dwelling on quite morbid thoughts: what if one of us was to die? This made me reflect on the intensity of our relationship. We were not just boyfriend and girlfriend, or partners. There was something very deep and powerful in the connection between us and I found myself somehow wanting to have some kind of public acknowledgement of it. I talked to Maggie, fully expecting her to tell me not to be so silly, but she started thinking about it too. So a few weeks later we got married.

The wedding was a low-key affair, attended by immediate family only. We did the bit at the registrar’s office then went out to a local woodland park where Maggie and I conducted our own wee ceremony under a large, old beech tree. Then it was back to the house for food and drink.

During the past decade we have been through some extreme events – several experiences that would have torn a lesser relationship wide apart. Some of the days and years have been hard fought for – we have experienced loss, trauma and a whole roller coaster ride of extreme emotions Yet whatever shit the gods throw at us, it has only ever made our bond stronger and more powerful.

What helps is that we are both obsessive and passionate about each other – probably to the point that it would be considered unhealthy if it were one-sided.

So today we celebrate 10 years of marriage. There was a time, early in our relationship that I was frightened of using the word “love” because it seemed like such a big word. Now it seems like such a tiny and insignificant word that is incapable of beginning to describe how I feel about Maggie.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Hoping my internal organs will settle back into place

Returning from the fairground with my children, it was all I could do to keep the contents of my stomach where they belong. I’m too old for this.

Like most small towns in the UK, the fairground comes once a year to Castle Douglas. It is one of the smallest I have seen for a long time – it doesn’t even have the dodgems - but I was a little relieved about that. For the last couple of years we’ve been living in a village that didn’t get an annual visit so I’ve been able to avoid fairgrounds. Before that, Rogan and Meg were too small, and the older stepchildren used to go on their own. Consequently it’s been many years since I last had to endure the lights, noise and nausea that accompanies all the fun of the fair. But now, being barely 30 yards from our house, I could no longer use any kind of distance excuse.

In addition, Rogan is now 10, and the idea that he had never really been on a fairground ride scarier than a circling bunch of large plastic ladybirds, when he was 4, did seem to point to the fact that he was missing out on a particular childhood experience. So despite my grumblings that it’s a place to pay large amounts of money just to feel queasy, while enjoying a higher than average chance of getting your pockets picked, not to mention food poisoning if you eat anything, we were soon crossing over to the car park where the fairground had set up. Funfairs are great when you’re a kid, a good place to go with your mates and try and chat up the girls when you’re a teenager, but as an adult I could happily do without them

I took Rogan on the Waltzers. Last time I had been on one of these was in my early twenties, in either a drug or drink fuelled haze, and it had all seemed out of this world and amazing. But these days feeling dizzy to the point of using every available railing, lamp-post or passing person to avoid falling over, seems to have lost its enjoyment. We staggered from the ride and Maggie dutifully took me by the arm and allowed me to stay upright while we wandered over to a set of large revolving teacups that was a ride ideal for Meg.

Although I wasn’t going to let them anywhere near the rat-burgers being fried in axle-grease over at the food trailer, we did think that the children ought to have the experience of candyfloss (or cotton candy, I think it’s known as in the States). For something that is only sugar, colourings that are probably illegal in some countries, and lots of air, it is quite incredible just how much it seems to coat the teeth with a sticky, chemical veneer.

I cannot remember the name of the only other thrill-ride at the fairground – Maggie thinks it’s called the Cyclone - but I had more or less recovered from the Waltzers so I decided to take Rogan on it. This particular ride specialises in throwing your compartment violently from one side of the area to the other, while spinning at the same time. Being on the outside edge meant that I had Rogan slamming into me every 2 seconds as we were hurled back in the opposite direction. I don’t know what the g-forces were, but my internal organs were not designed for that amount of compression while the spinning ensured that I was dizzy beyond belief.

Nauseous doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. Even after Meg had been round in a circle on a kiddies train, and had won an inflatable clown-fish I was still feeling considerably the worse for wear. And I really don’t think the couple of mouthfuls of candyfloss did anything to help settle my stomach.

So here I am, feeling tired, grumpy, a bit sick… and very old. Next year when the fair comes to town, Rogan will be 11, which is quite old enough to go with his friends. It’s a strange thing to feel that I have somehow crossed another age barrier: I am now too old to go on the swirly-spinning rides at the fairground and enjoy it. And yet after today, it is something of a relief to think that I’ve been on these rides for the last time.

Friday, September 16, 2005

We are cavemen living in a sci-fi world

We live in the future.

Despite the fact that we are not all driving around in hover cars and wearing silver suits, there are times when it suddenly hits me that we are living in a sci-fi world.

On occasion, usually when driving on the motorway for some reason, I’ve been struck by the fact that we are still basically cavemen. Assuming that the Creationists aren’t right, then human beings have been in their current form for a little over 100,000 years. So if you were to go back in time and pluck a baby from, say 75 thousand years ago, and raise them in today’s environment, then they would be like every other child; you would not be able to tell the difference.

And yet here we are, physically and mentally the same as our stone-age ancestors, only we are often moving about in vehicles that are larger than a rhinoceros and faster than a cheetah.

Today I was at Carphone Warehouse, updating my mobile phone, when I was suddenly hit by the weirdness of the fact that I can be almost anywhere in the world, and through this little metal box in my hand, talk to someone else who could be almost anywhere else in the world. Even a hundred years ago, if I had wanted to talk to someone only 20 miles away, it would have taken me half a day on horseback to be able to. Barely two decades back we would both have needed to be standing by a box attached to the wall to communicate by voice. Yet now, I can be walking along the street, climbing up a hill, or driving at 70mph in my rhinoceros (using a hands free kit, of course) and be able to chat merrily away to someone else involved in an equally unlikely activity.

I am even able to write this post on a wee lap-top box that has access to the knowledge of the world within seconds, and by putting it up on my blog-site, can be accessed by anyone else who cares to look for it, within seconds.

Because this technology is all around us, being used every day, we fail to see the utter incredibleness of it all.

It is magic.

It is science fiction.

And we are still cavemen.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Torturers Devices

If I ever found myself employed as a state torturer, I would do away with the rack, the iron maiden, red-hot pokers and truth drugs. I have discovered the perfect instruments of cruelty that could reduce the most hardened man to a blubbering wreck. And, as far as I’m aware, these are not even covered by the Geneva convention.

For starters I would introduce paper cuts – thin little slices with the edge of a sheet of paper, right in to the soft side of the knuckles.

If that didn’t get a response I would move on to rapidly force-feeding the victim ice cream until he got a blinding headache just behind the eyes.

But if all else failed, I would bring in the most feared of all machines – the gas-powered, pneumatic toe-stubber.


(No prizes for guessing what happened to me this morning)

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The Great Bramble Hunt

Before I get complaints that it looks like I dragged my daughter face down along a gravel path, I should explain that she’s covered in blackberry juice as today she, her brother and I went on the traditional Autumn Bramble Hunt.

In England, the juicy black berry is called a blackberry (quite obvious really), and the thorny bush it grows on is called a bramble. However, up here in Scotland, the fruit is known as the bramble and the thorny bushes are briars. But, it is the fruit that we went in search of.

It can sometimes take several seasons to find the ideal bramble patch. Obviously you want somewhere you will secure a good crop without having to trail for miles. You can’t pick them too near the road or other areas of pollution, for example, and of course you need to find somewhere that other people haven’t already raided.

Once you have located your spot, harvesting wild brambles is no mean feat in itself. Quite apart from the thorny defences of the briars themselves, they love to grow among spiky gorse bushes, and stinging nettles frequently congregate in the same area, catching out the unwary picker.

Too ripe and the berry explodes in your hand before it reaches the container; not ripe enough and it will taste too bitter; too low down and it may well be coated in the urine of passing dogs; and too far out of reach and you risk falling face first into the thorns. Having bypassed all these hazards, you still have to do a quick check for maggots.

By the time you have filled a one-litre, plastic, ice cream tub, you will be covered in wee scratches, splinters and stings. Is it worth it? Too right it is!

My wife’s bramble crumble is the greatest desert in the entire universe, and it only gets made once a year if we have hunted down and reaped the wild harvest ourselves. You can buy tasteless blackberries out of a tin in the supermarket and add large quantities of sugar to try and raise them beyond the description of bland, but they will never match the luscious flavour of the uncultivated bramble.

And if we manage to gather a second tub, then we are assured of Maggie’s to-die-for homemade bramble ice cream at Christmas.

Whatever I can amass beyond the two tubs can be put in the freezer to be dropped, a few at a time, into my morning smoothies.

I have been taking Rogan on the Bramble Hunt for several years, but this is the first time Meg has joined us. More berries ended up squished over her face and clothing that made it into the tub, but she was beaming with pride at being able to show her mother the squelchy mess in the bottom of her container. Fortunately Rogan and I between us managed to fill almost three tubs, so the rewards will be great this year.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Get your facts right before you racially abuse someone...

Local papers often give away more about the nature of their area than they intend.

The freebie that we get through the door every Friday is the Dumfries Courier. If you want a laugh, the “Court File” section is always the most entertaining.

This week, for example, there’s a wee piece about a banned driver who passed a police car on the wrong side of the road, mounted a pavement, crossed a playing field and demolished a post and wire fence. I mean, of all the places to lose control of a car – right in front of the police!

However, the best entry by far was this – and I quote it word for word:

Sixty-year-old Thomas Gemmill made one big blunder when he decided to racially abuse a man by calling him an English name.

For the Sheriff at Dumfries was told the other man, who had lived in England for a number of years, was in fact Scottish.

And Gemmill, of Goldie Crescent, Dumfries, was told by the Sheriff: “Racially aggravated behaviour will not be tolerated. Particularly when you get it wrong.”

(For readers not from Scotland - the Sheriff is the local Magistrate or Judge, not a policeman with a six-shooter)

Now Gemmill was fined £250 (about $400 US), so I guess that if the guy he insulted had actually been English, then he wouldn’t have been fined as much.

As an Englishman who’s lived in Scotland for 17 years, I have often damn near sprayed a mouthful of coffee over my partner when I’ve heard Scots saying how tolerant and non-racist they are. They always seem to miss out the next part of that sentence which is “unless, of course you’re English

In fact, the most commonly associated word with “English”, up here north of the border, is “Bastard” as in either “Bastard English” (referring to the nation), or “English Bastard” (referring to the individual). Though some Scottish friends have assured me that this is an affectionate term…

To be fair, most Scots don’t tend to be personal in their racism – they dislike the English, but as an individual, I’m ok – what they really hate is a London-centric bias by the government and media where Scotland is often viewed as an insignificant rural province. This, however, was quite unlike my experience in Wales where I was bullied as a child because I was English, making it very personal.

For the most part, I’ve not had much of a problem, mainly because I avoid drinking in certain pubs where an English accent would be a liability. What’s worse in these circumstances is that I have a Southern English accent (inherited from my parents as I have spent more of my life away from the South than in it), which is considered to be the voice of the oppressors.

However, while my day-to-day life is not blighted by overt racism, when the local Sheriff betrays his prejudices like that it can leave me feeling just a little disconcerted.

Weight Loss Blogs

Needless to say, having set up Losing a Hundredweight, I thought I’d see if I could find other like-minded sites out there in blogworld.

Too many hours wasted.

What I’d hoped, nay, expected, to find were plenty of blogs by people who were out there losing weight, getting fitter and sharing what works and what doesn’t.

What I actually found was hideously depressing. There appears to be only three kinds of blogs to do with weight loss:

1. Non-starters.
I lost count of how many sites have one, or maybe two entries that start along the line of “My plan is to lose 40 lbs before Christmas and this blog is going to detail my highs and lows, record my experiences and help me along with my quest. By writing this down, I know it will help to keep me motivated over the coming weeks.” Dated October 2003 and there are no further entries. So many people starting with great enthusiasm that has vanished within a week.

2. Lipophobes
There are just too many sites out there of people (primarily, but not exclusively, young women) who are clearly suffering delusional self-images and are obsessed with the culture of thin. Not health, you must understand, but thin. People for whom the term ‘ideal weight’ would place them somewhere between a baked bean and a helium balloon.

3. Money Makers
The only other sites I could find of people who had lost weight wanted to charge me a minimum of $24.99 to discover their secrets.

I mean, yes, I know the multi-billion $$$ world of dieting is screwing up millions of people’s metabolisms, mental health and bank balances, but I really thought that there must be some people out there who have a reasonably sensible attitude to the whole thing. But I gave up looking after several wasted hours.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Losing a Hundredweight

For those following my ramblings, you will know that as well as turning the rest of my life upside down, I have changed my eating habits too. The upshot of this is that I've lost over 50 lbs in the last 6 months or so.

I've had various people asking me about what I'm doing, why I'm doing it, how I'm doing it and how long do I think it's going to last. When I started thinking about it I realised that I had a lot of info I wanted to write down to try and make sense of it all, so I've created another blog to put it all in.

There's a link in the sidebar, but for those too lazy to look, you can get there by clicking on this:

I'd welcome comments, thoughts, and debates there.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Rites of Manhood

Across cultures and across time, men have had the need to prove their manhood. The most powerful of rituals have traditionally been kept for boys crossing this threshold and finally leaving their childhood behind. However, even grown men will need to periodically show that they still have what it takes to be considered a virile member of the tribe. A middle-aged man in the midst of a midlife crisis, for example, will probably feel this primal urge stronger than most.

In times past, the single-handed slaying of a lion, or even a wild boar, might have exhibited this. Perhaps the butchering of an enemy from a neighbouring clan would also have displayed the requisite potency.

These days however, contemporary Western culture doesn’t allow for the brutal killing of wild animals or neighbours in an everyday environment; and there are few modern equivalents. So I couldn’t help but feel a primal surge of triumph when I successfully managed to rig up the DVD Recorder I bought earlier today, so that it interacts perfectly with both the television and the VCR.

And the speed with which my 10-year-old son was able to conquer the timer function shows that his journey to manhood is progressing well.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Moniaive Comics Festival

For a rural county in Scotland that is mostly made up of remote villages separated by lots of hills and countryside, there are plenty of cultural events going on. A few weeks back comedian extraordinaire, Ross Noble, did a performance at Dalry Village Hall, to an audience of about 150 (see Ross Noble posting). Last week the Tour of Britain Cycle Race completed its first stage a few metres from our front door here in Castle Douglas (see Plum Chutney posting). And on Saturday, my son and I went to the Moniaive Comics Festival.

Comics Festivals are usually held in big cities, not remote rural villages like Moniaive (pron: mon-ee-ive). The reason this one is, however, is due to the presence of comic book writer Alan Grant, who has many Judge Dredd and other 2000AD stories in his portfolio along with Batman, Lobo, and the deeply funny Bogie Man.

Following the devastation of the local rural community after the Foot and Mouth epidemic a few years back, Alan and his wife Sue, called upon their comic book industry connections of writers, artists and publishers, to create the festival and help boost the local economy. Despite Sue’s protestations every year that it really is the last one, Rogan and I visited the 5th Annual Moniaive Comics Festival this weekend (visit for more details).

We met writers and artists, attended drawing workshops, bought old copies of 2000AD, entered the raffle, and obtained autographs and even signed artwork. A great day out, apart from one disturbing aspect.

Nearly every adult male visitor to the festival was sporting at least two chins and a large belly, barely contained in an over tight t-shirt, that was flopping over their belt, (strangely, however, nearly all the artists and writers were unnaturally skinny), and many of them had beards. It is scary just how accurate the Comic Book Guy character from The Simpsons really is. In addition, I noticed that more than a few had their kids with them, in a poor attempt to disguise their geekiness with the idea that it wasn’t them, but their sons who were interested in this sort of thing.

Given my rantings in the last post against being pigeonholed as any kind of “type”, it’s perhaps not difficult to understand the devastation I felt when I realised just how utterly and completely I appear to fit this profile.

Our clothes, our hairstyles, how we choose to arrange our facial hair (goatees, moustaches, sideburns, clean shaven, waxed etc), all say something about us because they are things we have choice over – unlike our nationality, or the colour of our skin for example (unless you are very determined). But is it necessarily saying what we want it to? As a sulky teenager I remember snapping at my mother’s question about why I wore a leather jacket, stating that I wanted to be different. I was extremely annoyed by her response, “Oh, just like every one else who wears a leather jacket?” Mothers can have the most intensely irritating perceptiveness sometimes.

A few months after I started up my first business I ended up cutting my hair, which at that point was usually kept in a ponytail and almost long enough to sit on. At the time I just felt that it took too long to look after and life would be easier if it was short, which indeed it is. However, I have often wondered since whether the subconscious desire to be taken more seriously as a businessman was the greater motivation for such a drastic change in my appearance.

I kept the beard because I absolutely hate shaving, although it was kept much shorter while I ran my own business. Since selling the business and changing our lives completely, my beard has been getting longer and I’ve become increasingly frustrated with the contents of my wardrobe.

Quite apart from the fact that due to the weight loss everything is too big for me, it is also very drab. I have no idea what kind of clothes I’d feel more comfortable in now, even if they did fit.

And just to add final insult to injury, this weekend I discovered a comment on my last post from El Jacek, who thinks I look remarkably like David Brent from the TV comedy series The Office.Unfortunately, I fear he may just have a point…

Kim Ayres
(which is which?)

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Lada Owner’s Club

For those who don’t know, a Lada is a car made in the old Soviet Block and for a while was relatively popular in the UK because it was so cheap. Based on old Fiat designs, even brand new it was half the price of any other car of its size on the road. Built like a Russian tank, you needed arms like Arnold Schwarzenegger to be able to steer the thing, and there weren’t many mod cons like ABS, power steering, or even a radio. They weren’t the most reliable of cars and back in the 80s and 90s were the butt end of many jokes:

Q: What do you call a Lada with a sunroof and twin exhausts?
A: A wheelbarrow!

Q: Why does a Lada have a heated rear screen?
A: To warm your hands while you're pushing it!

I’m sure you’re beginning to get the idea.

Towards the end of the millennium the European Union tightened their laws on exhaust emissions from cars and so they ceased being imported. Before long Ladas had all but disappeared from the UK.

In the mid 90s, the Lada Riva 1300 Estate that we drove had been taken off my brother’s hands. It was due for an MOT and he couldn’t afford it. We didn’t have the funds for a 2nd hand car, but could just about raise the money to cover the MOT, so it was duly handed over to us.

It really wasn’t much of a car. It had a great big dent running down the left side where my brother had once wrapped a fence around it after leaving the road, when his cat had escaped its box and dug its claws into his leg; I was constantly having to apply rust remover to various parts of the bodywork; and if it hadn’t been for my friend Euan, who knew a bit about engines, then we would never have been able to drive it for the three years we did. I’m not going to get all misty eyed and say we loved the car, but it did do the job and I’m thankful we had it.

During this period of time, Rogan was just a baby and so didn’t have much of an opinion about the car. In fact, he was usually asleep within 2 minutes of me starting the engine. However, the stepchildren did have strong opinions about it, and would duck down whenever we drove past anyone they knew in case they were recognised.

One day, as I returned to the car from the supermarket, I saw a guy moving away from it, having just placed a flyer under the windscreen wiper. As he saw me reading about “The Lada Owner’s Club”, he came back over to try and encourage me to come along to a gathering they were having the following weekend (a fun day out for the whole family – oh yes, the stepchildren would love that). I smiled awkwardly, brushed him off as politely as possible and sped away. Well, I say sped away… (0 to 60 in about 18 seconds, if I didn’t have any extra weight in the car, like a tin of beans for example).

A Lada Owner’s Club! The very idea sent a shudder down my spine. For a long time afterwards I feared I was just being a snob, but after Meg was born I realised where my discomfort lay - I may have driven a Lada, I may have felt the occasional bit of fondness for the car, but I didn’t want to be defined by the damned thing.

Why after Meg was born? Well it’s here that perhaps I get a little bit controversial.

Meg is my beautiful, wonderful daughter and I am full of fatherly and parental pride, and she happens to have Down’s Syndrome. But take a look at any blog or speak to any parent of a child who has DS, and what you very quickly realise is that the DS is just one aspect of their child, not the defining aspect. Indeed, start referring to their son or daughter as a “Down’s Child” and you are very likely to have an extremely annoyed parent to deal with.

When Meg was born it sometimes felt as though we had joined a Down’s Club and we were expected to go out and join Down’s groups. We found this idea more than a little uncomfortable.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not having a go at support networks and organisations. Having somewhere you can turn to for advice in times of doubt and need is fantastic. Having organisations that are helping to raise issues and concerns to a wider audience is a wonderful thing. But just because my child has DS, doesn’t mean I am automatically going to get on with every other parent of a child with DS. It’s like belonging to a group because you have blonde hair or green eyes, or are good at solving IQ puzzles (sorry – a quick swipe at Mensa there because I feel exactly the same way about them). Having a beard might be one of the characteristics that people can recognise me by, but that doesn’t mean that I necessarily have anything in common with David Blunkett or Grizzly Adams.

The same attitude makes me curl my lip at overt nationalism too, not to mention walking the streets with a football shirt on. I guess I am not tribal by nature. First and foremost we are individuals, and when someone thinks they can know who we are by the car we drive, or our genetic traits, it is so superficial it makes me want to weep for them.

To quote Patrick McGoohan,

I am not a number. I am a free man.”

P.S. – An afterthought:
Here is a quote about Ladas on the homepage of the Owner’s Club website

For the DIY motorist, they are a pure pleasure”.

I kid you not – visit if you don’t believe me.