Funny shaped vegetables

Potato Harvest

Remember those quieter times, when the highlight of a Sunday TV schedule would be a humourous* selection of misshapen brassicas and root vegetables vaguely resembling – in a certain light and to a certain schoolboy mind – dangley body parts?

I worried – even at an age when a dog farting was absolutely the funniest thing in the world – about the people growing such penile specimens. Did they do it on purpose? Was there some kind of special seed? Maybe a funny shaped tube mirroring something normally kept well holstered inside the trouser?

I worry no more. Because after exercising scavenging rights in the field adjacent to our house and unearthing the remains of the vegetables beds, it has become absolutely clear that nature has a wicked sense of humour.

Firstly the humble spud. Now grown on an industrial process unrecognisable to even a post war farming generation, they’re planted in dense rows, sprayed with all sorts of shit**, everything above ground killed with sulphuric acid, and then harvested with a machine first recorded during the Spanish Inquisition.

Only not all of them. It’s uneconomical to hand pick the stragglers. Well it is for the farmer, far less of an issue to a family hurdling the fence in the hunt for a season of free chips. Armed with nothing more advanced than a wheelbarrow and a furtive expression, we’ve recycled enough to make me wonder if “potatobix” has a future as a breakfast cereal.

No idea what they are. “Potato” I hear you say? Ah well you’ve not plumbed the fascinating depths of tuber identification oncethe Internet is brought into play. Really there is no finer family fun that holding a humble muddy spud to the light while pointing excitedly at the screen: “It’s that one, I’m sure of it, mottled edges, responds well to squidging, looks as if it may have been secreted by a sick bear… yes it’s definitely ‘Farmer’s delight-the muddy bugger‘”

The carrots however are something else. Everything we grew above the surface of the beds has been nibbled/shit on/carried off into the night by an insect population which turns up with cutlery. What is left has taken the most amazing shapes from the chronically deformed to the point-and-laugh.

It’s great to see my own kids have taken on the mantle of indicating that an orange vegetable with a point at the end may very well be a spitter for a willy. Makes me proud.

Still they’re free and they taste pretty good***, and one day I’ll feel strong enough to tackle the difficult potato Random dug out that has the size/weight/general shape of the dog’s head. Send that one into Esther and she’d not know where to put herself.

I’d almost welcome a reboot of the That’s Life franchise, were it not for “Gardener’s World” being a worthy successor. Ashamed as I am of admitting it, I could not tear myself away from Friday’s gem of an episode where lots of retired folks were terribly serious on the topic of “Exhibition Vegetables”. I might have to have a go – there is at least one carrot the judges would find hard to ignore.

* Only, not very.

** Chicken shit generally. Ask me how I know.

*** The Veg not the kids, but I like the way you’re thinking.

Welcome back winter, we’ve missed you.

The road outside our house has been resolutely un-gritted by Herefordshire Council for the previous two weeks. So when I saw a snowplough bundling plumes of head high snow into the verges, it became clear that travelling to London on a Six AM train was something I could contemplate from the warmth of my bed.

Snow Business! Snow Business!

The snow started yesterday afternoon and never really stopped. Last night, there was more than adequate for building a rather emaciated looking snowman with the traditional nose-y carrot and more contemporary Kiwi fruit eyes. This scary looking ice effigy stood guard for only a couple of hours before the sheer volume of snow tumbled it horizontal and entombed the remains under a fresh covering of the white stuff.

Snow Business! Snow Business!

Obviously the kids are out there right now building version 2 which has major structural improvements and a new carrot since some enterprising ground mammal made off with a free breakfast this morning. And while many animals must find all this snow a bit trying, our dog isn’t one of them. Never happier than chasing snowballs, eating ice or exploding in a spray of snowy rooster tails from fresh powder.

Snow Business! Snow Business!

Of which we have much in the local fields although a good portion of it now is in the kids’ hair/jackets/wellies after a snowball fight so violent, I thought we were going to have to call in the UN.

Snow Business! Snow Business!

It is snowing again now, and although the forecast calls for it to stop this evening, that same meteorological doom mongering predicts sub zero temperatures for at least another week. Which – I feel – is likely to transform this winter wonderland into something bloody annoying for anyone, say, wanting to go and ride their bike. Or, and significantly less important, getting to their official place of work. Or buying food, but hey we’ve been fattening up the kids all Christmas.

Snow Business! Snow Business!

Tonight, I’m dusting down the old Kona and taking it for an old school ride in the local woods. I expect this to end in a litany of sequential disasters involving trees, dug in tyres, comedy endos and concussion. Other than that, hard to see what can go wrong.

The Menace Sledge

Before we start, let’s stop for a second so I can get my excuses in early. Firstly – after the flurry of activity some time ago – there have been some problems in the actual build due to exploding drill bits, lost wood and last minute design changes. This is what happens if you put a ten year old in charge. The only possible way things could have got any worse is if I’d be installed in the post of engineering director.

But I was happy in my role of “insane driller” and “frenzied hammerer” – as I’ve said to you before, to a man who only understands the hammer, all the word is a nail Anyway what’s built isn’t finished because I couldn’t find the right powertool to inflict more injury on the mutation that squats before you. Secondly, the lost wood I obliquely referred to earlier may have been accidentally set on fire.

Because the “to be painted” pile was left perilously close to the “to be burned pile“. And as I trudged down to the shed for the sledgehammer*, I couldn’t help noticing some brightly coloured wood being licked by hot flames. I did offer “something from the woodpile, Madam?” to bring the beast back to height, but Verbal has even less patience that me and wanted it finished today.

Which it isn’t. Too cold for rattle can paint, not enough snow to see whether it’ll maim my firstborn in a) ten yards b) five yards or c) no yards at all as it splinters on first impact with the snow. But what’s there – as you can see – has all the skill, craft and care that an artisan such as myself can lavish upon it. For example, how many sledges do you know that have “go faster holes” in the runners plugged by modellers’ clay? Or a cunningly installed 3/4 drill bit that could – at any time – dislodge itself to become an unwanted brake.

She likes it. God only knows why. Maybe it was the lovely job I did with the rifling bit** to countersink the seat screws. I mean it’s clearly dangerous enough already without subjecting Verbal to metal chafing. She thinks it’s a triumph, I’m not so sure but I am reasonably confident what anyone else who sees it may classify it as. Already have my strategy for that “no, no nothing to do with me, it’s something that made in school, bless ’em

Verbal is hoping for snow. I’m hoping for a some queue jumping allowances at Hereford A&E.

* I had some fine and neat work to complete.

** Probably not the proper term, but that’s what it looks like to me

“I will vacumn for food”

My eldest daughter holds two esteemed positions. Firstly she is officially the laziest child in the world, a tiring enough job apparently without having the additional burden of ensuring that “the UK’s second messiest bedroom”* has a million toys dumped all over the floor.

Still she soldiers on, sustained only by two hourly feeds and the odd inter-meal snack. As with all parents, we’ve run the full gamut of techniques to extract the tiniest bit of help from our offspring. Guilt (doesn’t work, they don’t have any), emotional blackmail (pointless, they just flip it back doubled), and – predictably – cash incentives.

Even fiscal stimulation has its’ limits. Pocket money is halved if dishwasher’s aren’t emptied and pets go unfed. Yet this sanction is met with a thought process far beyond their tender years which goes something like “50p for doing bugger all, a quid for getting off my arse. 50p it is then”.

So withVerbal, I’ve decided the route to her head is through her stomach. Apparently we’re not allowed to introduce WorkHouse rules without risking embarrassing visits from social services, so instead I offered up the delight of a chocolate moose** in return for a quick mow of the ground floor with the hoover.

This daily task is more than necessary when your dog moults all year round. Amazing the mutt isn’t bald considering the mohair shirt our oak floor wears after he’s rubbed himself down with a handy floorboard.

She wasn’t keen. First tactic was a straight no, and I countered with a fulsome description of the illicit delights of the fridge’s top shelf. She moved onto negotiation and offered some desultory sweeping, for which I offered not chocolate but fruit. Then – because this is a girl who can look at a donkey and thinks it lacks the ability to be properly stubborn – she sulked and went without.

Eventually she grumped outside and helped plant a million bulbs that will either create a riot of colour come spring, or – and with our horticultural history I’m going with this – everything will die, and the weeds will create a replica Day of the Triffids set. I still withheld the chocolate, because – when all is said and done – I intend to wield the small amount of power I still hold with extreme cruelty.

I see us at a crossroads here. Two options present; firstly accept that her teenage years are only just over two years away and we might was well get use to it, or make up a sign “I WILL WORK FOR FOOD” and break out the starvation diet.

Being a caring, sharing parent, in touch with a generation of kids who were never ritually beaten for such transgressions as speaking out of turn, I’m thinking she’d look good with a sign 🙂

* The holder and undisputed title holder being her sister.

** Not the whole animal, she’s only 10.

Sunshine and Showers.

Not a terribly adventurous weather forecast for this time of year is it? A squillion pounds worth of powerful supercomputers running multi-threaded modelling software all expertly analysed by blokes with beards and yet this is the best they can come up with? So I’ve challenged myself to do better, and in no way felt hampered by having nothing more than a window, a rainfall measuring device* and many years of weather lore ingrained by being continually pissed on while commuting.

But I thought it was important to start small** and look for a niche opportunity to sell this fresh new meteorological service. So I bring to you “The Indoor Forecast” – now I accept the market is potentially only two children with no money of their own, a woman who has none of my obsession for stuff I can’t change and a dog, who while looking interested and keen, views weather as something that aids running, eating sheep shit and rolling in fox poo.

On the upside, it does give me an ideal opportunity to stop the kids’ pocket money and raid their bank accounts. The next obvious question would be “Exactly how hard is it to forecast indoor weather“. Well quite bloody hard actually Mr. Clever Trousers, especially when your heating system is essentially a NASA space shuttle only with more complexity and potential for catastrophic explosions.

We had great plans for our utility room, all scuppered by the installation of a Scud Missile masquerading as two hot water cylinders and a Swedish Heat Pump that has more than the odd blond moment. There is no room for anything other than shock and awe with the sheer quantity of stuff connecting the two. We have the output of 400 metres of under garden pipe at one end, multiple snakes of hot and cold water conduits disappearing through various apertures, electrical systems strung between the two and pumps, so many pumps pushing liquid this way and that. It is exactly like a 70s film set where the cat-stroking bad guy cackles”Ah Mr. Bond, marvel at my Destroy The World machine and see now that I cannot be beaten mwaaaahhhh”

So the bottom of the house is heated by underfloor heating, the top by big radiators, the bathrooms by huge steel towel rails all working off different circuits and powered by different, er, stuff. The hot water is another physics lesson in itself, and I’ve taken to wondering aloud if it is all really just magic, with careful examination of the darker spaces bringing elves and other magic creatures into the light.

What has all this to do with indoor weather?” you demand. Well just this; on Monday evening, the local forecast at 21:45 hours was for a cool front passing through the kitchen (dog outside, door open), a warm channel of air being forced between two channels of high pressure (sure you can work that out), cloudy upstairs (steaming bath) and extremely wet on two walls where once there had been just dry plaster and fresh paintwork.

The outlook was not good at all. The threat of localised flooding was a real possibility, as were lighting strikes from frying electrics and definite impediments to travel unless one was packing an inflatable. At times like this, it’s important your first response gets right to the heart of the problem. Knowing this, and not much else I shouted to Carol “Probably worth knowing someting has exploded upstairs and we’ve Vietnamese boat people docking at our TV“. She instantly diagnosed the problem and dispatched me to Mission Control to shut down all systems.

Again, not as easy as it sounds. It goes like this; run into utility room and be faced with a barrage of flanges, wheels and valves, flashing me back to WWII films where the plucky brit single handedly attempts to put out a massive fire in a submarine engine room. In such films, rarely does the hero dash back into the kitchen for a chair much needed to ascend the North Face of the Scud. A riot of grunting, flipping and punching eventually created a tense quiet on the Western Front. The cascade was reduced to a dribble, which descrives well my soggy mental conditon as well.

The advent of a proper plumber brought guiltily forth a faulty “sealed for life“*** component that had decided it would rather be a hose than a pipe. We’re still awash in the sea of damp carpet, mouldering plaster and soggy floor, but had it happened an hour later, the forecast would have told of the kind of disaster that unstoppable hot water at mains pressure would create.

I am considering though a return to wood fires and tin baths. Or getting some new elves in. Elf and Safety you see – they just don’t go together. The forecast for the rest of the week is turning increasingly grumpy, with large clouds of depression and some internal wine showers at regular intervals.

* Bucket
* And work down.
*** Maybe of a mayfly. Lasted a total of four days.

The menace sledge

A few points of order before we start. The sledge in question is not finished, so descriptive language and a few choice lies shall paint the pictures that this post is so sorely lacking. And before you ask, with understandable incredulation, why I am sweating over a hot powertool on a beautiful, warm blue sky day entirely lacking in snow, let me shunt your line of questioning onto the branch marked “Children”.

I’m not sure I’ve ever owned a proper sledge. Even back in the middle ages when I was a lad and six foot snowdrifts mocked global warming for at least three months a year, winter sliding was done on old tyres, black bags and other random stuff nailed together*

Although my dad made us a sledge once. Being both a proper Yorkshireman and half decent engineer, he acquired a pair of two inch thick metal runners and grafted on top a downhill tank with no time for that sissy-Santa look of graceful arcs and elegant lines. No, this long slung snow shark combined ship thick steel with no nonsense 4×4 hardwood, topped off with Boadicea tribute outrunners that’d reduce a shop sled to splinters without any discernible loss of velocity.

It was properly mental. Obviously we called it “Killer” and it became the terror of the local slopes, with at least five confirmed kills and a number of additional blood injuries to be taken into consideration. In our defence, even with three kids on board, steering was all but impossible, and once it had ruddered onto the hill’s fall line nothing could stop it. We should have renamed it “The Lumberjack“.

I know it outlasted our childhood, and can only assume it was finally destroyed in a controlled explosion after it ate through a log cabin or something. Anyway these are the kind of design cues that stay with a boy, so when Verbal announced she’d like a “Menace Sledge“, I was soon on the hunt for a couple of bridge supports to get us started.

Two things went wrong immediately. Firstly I left Verbal responsible for the design process which eventually spat out two paint cans, a not very scale drawing on the back of an envelope and a hopeful smile**. Secondly I’m not half the engineer my old man was, and the only thing I’ve built of note in the last twenty years is a wobbly workshop table. And I’d not be keen to race that downhill.

Did this deter us? It did not. We did, however, lose the envelope so dropped back to the standard “rapid prototyping” model which sees me manically powersaw random lengths of wood, which Verbal attempts to create something sledge like with the offcuts. It’ll not be a surprise to you, that this has led to some compromises.

Firstly the track is too narrow, the ski(wheel?)base too short and the seat too high. It’s built from project off cuts which are neither square nor light. It’s also been hand finished by a girl who’s never had a spray can in her hand before. Being a “Dennis The Menace” tribute, the colours are red and black, and the best I can say of the brooding carcus before me is it resembles the cleaning up operation after a pretty heavy crucifixion.

Assuming it ever hits the slopes, I’m fairly sure things shall not improve. Although I’ll chamfer*** the skis so it doesn’t pitch our first born head first into a nearby snowbank, I’m don’t feel this is necessarily a good thing. Because if it ever does reach a fast slither, there will be no way to steer it, or – and some would say this is even more important – to stop it. I expect it to be both insanely fast and desperately twitchy based on the weight/materials/geometry.

In fact, it may well be the first equipment in the entire history of winter sports to be fitted with an airbag. Still three months to refine the design before the ignominy of the inevitable rubbishness of its’ first run.

Tell you one thing though, I’ll not be testing it.

* for about as long as it took to say “no, you have the first go, I know exactly how it was built”. Generally five seconds was reckoned to be the median time for such creations to return to their component parts. Funny for us builders, relatively terrifying and occasionally limb breaking for the maiden pilots.

** In our family, this passes as a pretty qualified design brief.

*** A fine woodworking term, someone demeaned when it is being performed with a jigsaw.

Nice Colours

September Equinox 2009, originally uploaded by Alex Leigh.

Shame that’s 7:15 in the evening. My last commute started in darkness and ended in dusk. So that’s six months of cold, black and miserable to look forward to then.

While I was taking this picture from my dumbphone, I forgot that I was also walking the dog. The dog walked himself some way away. Let me tell you how easy it is to locate a black dog in the dark with nothing other than the light from a phone.

Not very easy, that’s how.

Cows Stop Play

That’s the kind of nonsense you would expect at Cardiff for the first Ashes test. In fact, I might send this lot down to put the wind up the Aussies. They’ve certainly had that effect on me. It is quite difficult to navigate your way to the car when about 8 cows are giving you ten tons of moo-attitude at 7:30am in the morning.

We know now where they came from. We don’t know when they’re going. As of right now, they appear to be enjoying an early breakfast of my wing mirrors. The dog – brave, stout fellow that he is – has gone into hiding under a chair, and every time Carol or I move they stampede in the direction of something expensive.

I fear for the fence.

And the windows. Short of borrowing a shotgun and setting up an impromptu burger bar, I’m short of ideas. They’ve sorrounded my workshop here and every time I look up from the keyboard, mad cow eyes look back at me.

I can feel a difficult sitution developing here.

UPDATE: We tried the local farmers who denied they’d lost any cows, and anyway it’d be quicker to claim them back from the EEC farm subsidy. We even called the police which was amusing “Are any of the cows comitting an offence Sir?” / “Breach of the Peace? They’re pissing all over the place and I’d like aggrevated looming to be taken into account”. Sadly it seems these are not sufficient grounds for ungulate arrest.

It lives.

As opposed to Michael Jackson whose unexpected croak-age has completely upset the celebrity dead pool. It also knocked Farrah Fawcett off the front pages – a major disappointment for those of a certain age who had THAT PHOTO on their wall, and in their minds during periods of lonely sexual activity.

Or so I’ve been told. Anyway, not old did Jacko supplant other dead celebs, he also managed to subvert the entire news agenda for more than twenty four hours. Watching the Sky rolling news, I saw the same grainy picture of an ambulance informed by voxpop scrolling messages “I still have the paper cups from the 1984 Bad Tour, and they are my greatest treature. Michael, you were my life and you’ll live forever”.

No he won’t. Let’s face facts here:

He was a kiddie fiddler. He was such a proper nutter I’d grudgingly award him Hedgehog Loony Status. His best work was some twenty years behind him. He’s dead and/or working in a chip shop with Elvis. Okay I accept he made the odd decent record*.

But now he’s dead from an overdose of painkillers or chimp jism or who gives a fuck. He’ll live long in the memories of those people who have no life of their own to cherish, and the rest of us will remember the “Thriller” Vid being pretty cool and not much else.

So get over it 🙂

Anyway I’ve had a day of fixing things. Bicycles, children’s toys, gliders, lawns, etc. My first foray into soldering for twenty years proves – once again – how completely clueless I am with any tool other than a big hammer. Still the glider flew, didn’t catch fire even once and even came to land somewhere close to the house.

A bit too close really, Carol was starting to panic a bit as I began to hum the Dam Busters theme tune, when the big yellow winged incendiary was locked onto the perfect flight path to smash through a window. I was never really worried, but then I did have a beer in one hand.

Flying the Electric Glider. And it not catching fire. Again. Flying the Electric Glider. And it not catching fire. Again.

Important to relax I’ve found during times of stress I’ve found. And on that note, I have many half written, half baked, quarter arsed things to say about lists, London and loving the summer. I shall committ them to the unwary readership as soon as the next batch of beer is appropriately cool.

Until then, have you noticed the nights drawing in? 🙁

* Don’t push me on this. I’m struggling to think of one, but 65 million people can’t be wrong, can they?


Right, for the uninitiated – and noticeably unwashed from those of you who I’ve met – in all things silly modelling, this is the business end of a glider than thinks it’s a proper aeroplane. With the sort of low cunning we’ve come to expect from marketing types, they offer up a flighty solution to days when you’re short of time/wind/appropriate hillage.

Fire it up, chuck it, make it a speck up in the sky somewhere, shut the engine off and glide for a bit. Run out of height, lean on the noisy stick and start again. Great idea, and absolutely necessary for me to add such a niche to the ever expanding mass of winged foam in my workshop.

But this one is special because it has been on fire. A late night chuck should have brought twenty minutes relaxing stick twirling, followed by a cushioned landing in the field of wheat a nice farmer has provided as my makeshift runway.

What actually happened was a perfect launch, a fast climb and then… well… nothing. The motor turned off, the transmitter was no longer talking to the receiver, and my frantic twiddling had all the effect of asking a ten year old to finish their homework. Unlike recalcitrant children, the glider was blissfully serene at this point – merely heading off downwind from a height of 100+ feet, and destined to crash into some poor innocent minding their own business in a spot of cow tipping. About four miles away.

A gust of wind changed that and gravity rapidly brought on terminal velocity, which thumped the model hard into the crop and cartwheeled previously attached parts to all corners of the field. This crashing been happening rather a lot lately, but in this case it wasn’t my fault.

Not that I was much cheered by such thoughts, as I trudged through waist height wheat heading for the scene of the accident. After some searching I found that the model mostly undamaged due entirely to the springy, vigorous crop cushioning the impact. Honestly we’re taking a vertical dive at high speed followed by significant deceleration trauma, and most of the bits were still the same shape.

They should make airbags out of this stuff. Anyway things were not so good up the front with the small, yet eye wateringly expensive, motor controller on fire and – until I took swift action – in danger of setting alight thirty acres of uncut crop. The smell was terrible, and that was just from my shorts after they’d be on the arse end of a thought process that ran something like “How the fuck am I going to explain setting fire to a field?”

Anyway it’s easily fixed. When I get time. Which I have none of, and even should some magically be presented, it’ll be eaten up by pond dredging*, removing broken forks, hammering the transmission straight on the cross bike, peeking inside the budget spreadsheet and fixing myself. With a large G&T.

It’s nice to know my “skills crossover ” from MTB to models is so seamless. Crap building? Check. Excuses? Lots. Rubbish ability? Oh yes. Crashing? Big sodding tick.

That’s a comfort of sorts.

* This weekend I’ve been up to my armpits in smelly, rank and sticky mud. I’ve had terrible flashbacks to riding in the Chilterns.