Saturday, 28 November 2009

If You Want To Get Ahead, Get A Hat...

This is a play on words. It was an advertising slogan in the UK in the 1940s, when most men still wore hats - caps, trilbies or bowlers - by Dunn & Co, hat makers. It implied that, in order to advance in life, you needed a hat to help you on your way.

So runs the explanation on that wonderful site The Phrase Finder, which can so often plug a gap in our knowledge, once we start exploring the world of the vernacular.

Now, Gentlemen have no difficulty when it comes to buying headgear. The have a huge range of styles to choose from - look at this long list from one online company, for example, which I found in the twinkling of an eye:-

* Men’s Flat Caps
* Men’s Fedora Hats
* Men’s Cowboy Hats
(did they think Cow Girls would have their own kind?)
* Men’s Beanies
(a male or female beanie? I ask you!)
* Men’s Trilby Hats
* Top Hats
(obviously women have been excluded out of hand with this one)
* Men’s Trapper Hats
(no lady trappers?)
* Crushable Wool Hats
(no lady would ever crush her hat)
* Indiana Jones Hats
(too sexist for words)
* Men’s Pork Pie Hats
* Men’s Rain Hats
* Men’s Wool & Fur Felt Hats
* Baseball Caps & Trucker Hats
(ladies presumably allowed by kind permission to share?)
* Fez Hats (ditto)
* Berets (ditto)
* Bucket Hats (ditto)
* Leather Hats (ditto)
* Outdoor Hats (ditto)
* Men’s Straw Hats
* Men’s Sun Hats
* Viking Helmets (ditto)
* Army Hats (ditto)
* Fisherman Caps (ditto)
* Panama Hats (ditto)
* Pith Helmets (ditto)
* Golf Hats & Caps (ditto)

Leaving aside their gender specific tendencies, all this headgear comes in a variety of sizes, from simple S, M, L, XL to the more complicated 'six and five eights', or 'seven and three quarters' type of sizing, but all giving a wide range to fit all kinds of heads. No 'One Size Fits All'; which sorry state of affairs seems to be the case as soon as we begin talking about Ladies hats.

Sadly, I don't come into the 'All' category. I admit, I have a big head - for a lady - size L, 7 3/8'' or 59 cm, according to which measuring system is used. So a Hat and I have never been the best of friends. In the sixties, I bought what may only be described as a bonnet (then fashionable !). Made from pitch black, Mongolian Lamb Skin (very short and curly fleece), lined and slightly padded, it covered all but the very front of my hair, and wrapped around to fasten under my chin with a large hook and eye contraption. It must have looked like I had a soft and silky Afro when viewed from the rear.

It had two draw backs. ONE, it instantly turned you deaf, and to hold a conversation, you had to hook one ear free of it, if you didn't want to keep saying 'Sorry, pardon?' every two seconds. and TWO, when it rained hard, it turned your neck and collar a delicate shade of purple-black.
I do still have it, but only wear it in the iciest of weather conditions.

Next in my hat wardrobe came a crocheted cap, in an orangey-red and brown wool, with a large pompom on top. Big, floppy and adaptable, it served me well for years, and was especially good for collecting conkers in, when they littered the pavement outside the kids school one blustery autumn. I still have this hat, too, but unfortunately, it's in one of those 'safe places' I can't quite put my finger on at present...

Eventually, I resorted to buying a large, pure wool felt, tan coloured, mans hat which looks like a cross between a fedora and an Indiana Jones. Its 23 1/4'' size fits perfectly, and it's much better than an umbrella in wet weather when the wind makes such items non-viable.

As my hair becomes ever more sparse, thanks to inherited genes from my Ma, I suspect, a hat or cap becomes a growing necessity, and I've been trawling the net for a likely addition to my hat-box. I was after a blue-grey colour, just so's I could ring the changes a little. For about ten pounds, I found a very jaunty check number ( I think they called it a fisherman's cap) which looks fine - until you notice it was made in China, and has an inner band which feels as though it was manufactured in one of their steel works. But I may use it to construct a pattern, since I gave up on the idea of unpicking it to remove the offending band, due to the tiny stitches and triple rows of machining with which it was sewn. The Chinese didn't mean for it to fall apart, that's for sure.

So my life long search for the ultimate hat goes on. I wonder how many other ladies out there have similar problems? Or am I the last of the Big Heads? Not that I'm bigheaded, of course...

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Late Nights Or Early Mornings?

No1 Daughter and family will be flying off to New Zealand on 5th December, to spend a month with far flung rellies. So I was not too surprised when, about a week ago, said daughter 'phoned with this rather odd suggestion:-
'Mum, I've promised to babysit for Hubby's eldest sister next Saturday evening. Could I drive down to deliver Christmas Prezzies as soon as the revellers get home? The roads will be much easier then - (think Daytime Roadworks Nightmare) - and they should get back around midnight. It'd only take me about an hour to get to you, and I could let myself in and crawl into bed without too much noise, if that's alright?'
Not your normal arrangements for visit, but who'd expect normalcy from either me or mine?
'No problem', says I.' I'll probably still be awake then, anyhow.'
'Okay, I'll text you when I set out, shall I?' replied daughter.
And that was how the matter was left.

Yesterday evening it was getting close to midnight anyway, before I climbed into bed and snuggled down to watch the X Factor show I'd missed earlier in the evening. The mobile sat hopefully beside my bed, awaiting the all important text message; X Factor would run from 11.55pm to 1.10pm.

The mobile remained silent.

Eventually, by a quarter to one, I decided to be the one to text, to see what the hold up had been. As I was squinting at the buttons, composing my message, Daughter got in first, and my phone rang! She was at last about to leave.
Hence it was closer to two in the morning, not one, that we finally settled down for the night. Well, daughter settled down, and I spent a further hour waiting to be lulled to dreamland by my radio's World Service.

Come the morning, eight o'clock saw me up and about, as I'm long past the days of extended lie-ins. Daughter, however excelled herself, and didn't surface for coffee until mid-day. She was delighted at the chance to sleep undisturbed for such a long time, as her kiddy-winks would have scuppered that if she'd been at home!

'It comes to something, Ma', said she,'when I have to babysit till after midnight, then drive an hour through the pouring rain just to catch up on a bit of beauty sleep!'
Bless her little cotton socks - er, correction - pink, leopard print, furry bootees!

Friday, 20 November 2009

How Long Is A Piece Of String?

I, and possibly many others, have a liking for this phrase. It is a great non-sequitur. When people ask 'How long will the job take?' and the one being questioned chooses not to be tied to an exact answer, it is guaranteed to bring the conversation to an abrupt halt when used as a reply.

But this week, BBC's Horizon decided to produce an entire programme on this very subject, and sent off Alan Davies to find a definitive answer. ( For those of you puzzled by the name - he is an actor, comedian and well loved panellist on Steven Fry's QI (Question of Intelligence) quiz.)

Alan went to an ironmonger's shop, and persuaded them to sell him a random length of string, which he cut from their enormous roll. It measured 32cm when stretched against their counter's inbuilt rule.

This could have been the shortest programme the BBC ever broadcast.

However, once the scientists got involved, the result was an hour's worth of fascinating television. It soon became clear, accuracy depends on the method being used - so therefore, does the answer! A Professor got Alan to measure a length of coastline on a map, first with a straight rule, then with his piece of string, finally with a map-measuring device. Three methods each giving a different answer. We were soon into the realm of fractals, as Alan and the Professor drew triangles, in ever decreasing size but ever increasing in number, on the damp sand of a Cornish beach.

From here on the programme took on a science fiction aura, as viewers were shown examples of various standard weights and measures. They started with ancient cubits, then moved all the way through the centuries to an extremely expensive, one metre bar of platinum and iridium. This is kept at a constant temperature to ensure its length remains stable, thus providing a perfect standard metre to use as a comparison.

But there are now far more sophisticated ways of measuring length - by using lasers. A metal marker was held in turn at each end of Alan's string, as a robotic sensor marked these points, before giving an extremely accurate reading. It was marginally short of the 32cm, as the string had by now begun to fray, and Alan had held the markers slightly in from the end as a result! Finally, we saw the most accurate and up to date equipment of all, which uses the speed of light to determine length. According to this, Alan's piece of string equalled three billionths of a second…

From speed of light, we were next embroiled in the mind blowing field of quantum mechanics, where objects are theoretically said to be in several places at once. The length of Alan's string was becoming ever more complex to ascertain. By the end of the programme, as far as my overloaded brain circuitry could understand, it ended in a black hole with a length which stretched to infinity. I think I'll stick with the thirty two centimetre version, thank you, or maybe simply keep to the original question, 'How long is a piece of string?'.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

No Skating OnThin Ice

It's that time of year again. What time? Why, time to get the recipe book out. Are we talking food today then? Nope. I'd say guess again, but it might take you a month of Sundays to arrive at the correct answer. Here, I'll give you the recipe, then you'll understand:-

Recipe for an Ice Rink.

1 team of ice rink people.

1 team of electrical people.

1 large space.

3 rented chillers.

2 weeks of rough weather, just to make it extra special!


Mark out site or rink.

Lay large electrical cable to chiller site.

Lay a false floor (so's not to kill the grass underneath it)

Roll out strips of tubing rather like the grill on the back of a fridge.

Connect all tubing to the main chiller pipes.

Turn on chillers and pump the very cold liquid through all pipes.

Spray whole ice rink (just tubes at this point) with a water hose once every hour for about a week!

When Ice is about 6-8 inches thick, drive the little tractor all over it, to smooth the surface to a glass like finish.

Top with happy skaters and Bob is very much your mother's brother!

Not what you were expecting? No. I thought not; let me explain.
Last year, No. 1 Son helped some of his buddies to set up an outdoor skating rink, and they co-opted him for a repeat performance this year. So when I emailed him yesterday, asking just exactly what the whole process entailed, he sent me the above recipe.

Now, I know many Bloggers live in parts of the world where ice regularly comes unasked at certain times of year, but dear old England is not so obliging. Hence the man-made variety being arranged as a special Christmas Holiday Season treat.

Sadly, it seems the gods had been keeping their weather eyes open for this action replay, too. Wind and rain besieged the workers last year, and blow me down, if the same elements haven't been gearing up to behave in exactly the same way during this year's assembly proceedings. Son did tell me they had rigged up some kind of marquee for shelter this year, and a good job too, if the latest BBC forecasts are anything to go by. For the next two weeks the teams will be working hard, no matter what the weather throws at them. Perhaps you could all beam calming thoughts towards the South of England for the next fortnight?!

And in case you were wondering, to take it out they just set the chillers on Heat and pump hot fluid through the pipes to melt the ice which, depending on the weather, takes about a week, too. Last year the cables had to be dug out from underneath a pile of 'snow' that was 7ft deep - this was created by the little tractor and its smoothing trips over the 4 weeks the Rink was in action. This year, the cables have been run well away from the tractor tipping point so there won't be need for any digging!

Monday, 9 November 2009

Is This The Past Coming To Haunt Me?

Picture this, people; at some time in its life, the door to my living room was converted to a sliding one. Fine, no problem. It saves space, for an ordinary opening door requires an arc through which it may swing, whereas a slider is contained in a narrow strip either to the left or right of the doorway.

Still with me? Now I need you to be a little more imaginative, as I attempt to explain the layout of my home a little further. Walk with me down my relatively narrow hallway, with living room facing us at the end. The door slides to the right, and this is where it becomes a little tricky, for at a ninety degree angle to its frame is another, narrower door which allows entry to my under-stairs cupboard. Admittedly, if I choose to open the cupboard door, access to the living room is temporarily impossible, but this isn't a major disadvantage, in the great scheme of things.

The problems begin once you understand just how much accumulated dross I have manged to stow away in this cupboard since I first moved in. Although I have occasionally taken almost everything out, almost everything has been hastily returned at once, theoretically until I have enough time to deal with it properly. You begin to get the picture? I have currently wedged an elephant sized drawing board across the entrance, to stop an avalanche of plastic bags and boxes spreading over my feet, as soon as I open the door. Please note, I am not implying the board is actually the size of a pachyderm, merely that it fits the paper size 'Elephant' by which it would have been known in the days before metrication.

It has provided a stirling service, since I first had the brainwave to use it in this unorthodox manner. The only snag is, there is no such Heath Robinson contraption in place to prevent sideways expansion of my 'stuff'. Unfortunately, this often means it slides like a slag heap, and permanently fixes my sliding, living room door in the open position.

During warm summer days, this is fine, but once winter chills begin creeping around the place, it is quite nice to be able to cocoon one's self in a room with a firmly closed door. At last, we have arrived at the nub of the matter which prompted this post. I removed several plastic bags and contents from the cupboard, in order to keep the heat in my living room by closing that dratted door.

Shall I let you into the secret of the bag contents I dealt with this morning? 99% consisted of paper-based letters awaiting shredding (security minded me!), but I hate to admit, the dates of the bank statements, official correspondence etc., were between 2000 - 2001. I hang my head in shame. In my defence, I only acquired a paper shredder about a year ago, but that is no excuse for having ignored the bag for over eight years. Can any of you admit to such disgraceful, useless hoarding? Probably not...

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Remember, Remember The Fifth Of November

Thanks to Google, here follows a potted version of a bit of English History to give you all another chance to add to your store of pretty useless facts, and to save me from writing a post myself! :-)

In 1605, thirteen young men planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Among them was Guy Fawkes, Britain's most notorious traitor.

After Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, English Catholics who had been persecuted under her rule had hoped that her successor, James I, would be more tolerant of their religion. James I had, after all, had a Catholic mother. Unfortunately, James did not turn out to be more tolerant than Elizabeth and a number of young men, 13 to be exact, decided that violent action was the answer.

A small group took shape, under the leadership of Robert Catesby. Catesby felt that violent action was warranted. Indeed, the thing to do was to blow up the Houses of Parliament. In doing so, they would kill the King, maybe even the Prince of Wales, and the Members of Parliament who were making life difficult for the Catholics. Today these conspirators would be known as extremists, or terrorists.

To carry out their plan, the conspirators got hold of 36 barrels of gunpowder - and stored them in a cellar, just under the House of Lords.

But as the group worked on the plot, it became clear that innocent people would be hurt or killed in the attack, including some people who even fought for more rights for Catholics. Some of the plotters started having second thoughts. One of the group members even sent an anonymous letter warning his friend, Lord Monteagle, to stay away from the Parliament on November 5th. Was the letter real?

The warning letter reached the King, and the King's forces made plans to stop the conspirators.

Guy Fawkes, who was in the cellar of the parliament with the 36 barrels of gunpowder when the authorities stormed it in the early hours of November 5th, was caught, tortured and executed.

It's unclear if the conspirators would ever have been able to pull off their plan to blow up the Parliament even if they had not been betrayed. Some have suggested that the gunpowder itself was so old as to be useless. Since Guy Fawkes and the other conspirators got caught before trying to ignite the powder, we'll never know for certain.

Even for the period which was notoriously unstable, the Gunpowder Plot struck a very profound chord for the people of England. In fact, even today, the reigning monarch only enters the Parliament once a year, on what is called "the State Opening of Parliament". Prior to the Opening, and according to custom, the Yeomen of the Guard search the cellars of the Palace of Westminster. Nowadays, the Queen and Parliament still observe this tradition.

On the very night that the Gunpowder Plot was foiled, on November 5th, 1605, bonfires were set alight to celebrate the safety of the King. Since then, November 5th has become known as Bonfire Night. The event is commemorated every year with fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes on a bonfire.

Some of the English have been known to wonder, in a tongue in cheek kind of way, whether they are celebrating Fawkes' execution or honoring his attempt to do away with the government.

For 400 years, bonfires have burned on November 5th to mark the failed Gunpowder Plot.

The tradition of Guy Fawkes-related bonfires actually began the very same year as the failed coup. The Plot was foiled in the night between the 4th and 5th of November 1605. Already on the 5th, agitated Londoners who knew little more than that their King had been saved, joyfully lit bonfires in thanksgiving. As years progressed, however, the ritual became more elaborate.

Soon, people began placing effigies onto bonfires, and fireworks were added to the celebrations. Effigies of Guy Fawkes, and sometimes those of the Pope, graced the pyres. Still today, some communities throw dummies of both Guy Fawkes and the Pope on the bonfire (and even those of a contemporary politician or two), although the gesture is seen by most as a quirky tradition, rather than an expression of hostility towards the Pope.

Preparations for Bonfire Night celebrations include making a dummy of Guy Fawkes, which is called "the Guy". Some children even keep up an old tradition of walking in the streets, carrying "the Guy" they have just made, and beg passersby for "a penny for the Guy." The kids use the money to buy fireworks for the evening festivities.

On the night itself, Guy is placed on top of the bonfire, which is then set alight; and fireworks displays fill the sky.

The extent of the celebrations and the size of the bonfire varies from one community to the next. Lewes, in the South East of England, is famous for its Bonfire Night festivities and consistently attracts thousands of people each year to participate.

Bonfire Night is not only celebrated in Britain. The tradition crossed the oceans and established itself in the British colonies during the centuries. It was actively celebrated in New England as "Pope Day" as late as the 18th century. Today, November 5th bonfires still light up in far out places like New Zealand and Newfoundland in Canada.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Sting And Soul Cake

On BBC TV this morning, Sting mentioned an old custom which sparked his latest 'Soul Cake' song. He said, way back, in the homes of wealthier peasants, so called 'Soul Cakes' were baked to honour the dead on the eve of All Saints' Day, and the poor of the neighbourhood would go round the village and volunteer to do the scary bit of passing these offerings over to the spirits - a perfect excuse to get a free feed while being 'good' - and so began the Halloween (All Hallows Eve) tradition of treats.

I'd never heard of these cakes before, so after lunch I did a bit of Googling and found this:-

Soul Cakes are an echo of the sacrificial foods of the Celtic festival of Samhain held in early autumn. These little cakes were traditionally set out with glasses of wine on All Hallows Eve (31st October) for the souls of the dead. On All Saints' Day (1st November) children would go "souling" calling out "Soul, Soul, for a Soul Cake: pray you good mistress, a soul cake".

It seems I was wrong in my supposition that Trick or Treat was a totally American idea. It now appears that all the Americans did, was to jazz up the proceedings somewhat. I suppose in a land as old as Britain, it's no surprise to discover there's nothing new under the sun, when it comes to ancient customs.

Shrinky had already told me as much in her comment, and in a behind-the-scenes-email, she gave me a link to explain more about the Hop-tu-naa poem she mentioned. I'm pretty sure this will send Weaver, RWP, Friko, Carolina, Suldog and goodness knows how many others of an inquisitive bent, rushing to expand their already considerable store of odd info. I wonder how many bloggers there are around, who can actually read the original Manx words?

I rather enjoyed discovering Mama Lisa's World She's from the Isle of Man, and wrote a post on her blog about The Day Of The Dead (1-2 November) in Mexico, which is just another variation of All Saints' Day here. One never knows where Blogging will lead, eh? Personally, I just follow my nose and hope for the best...

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Trick Or Treat?

Halloween this year would pass with no little monsters battering my front door and grabbing goodies as though their life depended on it; I would make sure of that, I decided. On my last trundle round the supermarket I eyed the shelves of pumpkins askance, and determined to ignore the whole thing, on the grounds that this totally American import of Trick or Treat was one we British could do without.

Having taken this grouchy decision, as darkness fell last night, I betook me to a secluded room, hunched over my cauldron, donned my pointy hat and prepared my potions. Drips and drops of gaudy liquids were added to my selection of gruesome, ground up ingredients. My marble pestle and mortar worked overtime and the toughest bone was reduced to the finest powder in the twinkling of a bat's eye.

Secret incantations left my lips, as one by one, the ingredients added their noxious elements to my witch's brew. By the time the moon began to light the dimmest corners of my hidey-hole, the work was complete. An eerie, luminous steam rose from the cauldron's mouth as I carried it to the open window and placed it on the sill. Slowly, slowly it drifted out and up, up over the neighbouring houses and gardens, billowing, ballooning, growing, until eventually it had infiltrated everywhere.

And what, you may ask, was the end result of this wizardry? I am exceedingly happy to report, not even the tiniest ghoul dared darken my doorstep with its outstretched hand begging for treats. None of the houses round about were bothered by begging bowls, either, so I climbed upon my broomstick for one last tour of inspection before bed, well pleased with my evenings work... I'd have to remember to use the same spell next October the thirty first.