Saturday, 26 February 2011

English Eccentrics, Part 1: Gazing at the stars

One of the things I am most proud of about being British is our love of our own peculiar brand of eccentrics. But it’s only recently that I have realised that anyone reading who doesn’t hail from the UK probably hasn’t got the foggiest idea what I’m talking about.

There have been many of note over the years – and it could be argued that some simply played up their personal oddities to grow into the expected foibles of eccentricity. But there are a few who simply are what they are, and don’t give a monkey’s about what anyone else thinks. They just are who and what they are.

One of the things that often sets these “true eccentrics” apart is their consuming passion for their particular area of expertise, and an almost child-like innocence of the fact that the rest of the world does not see things like them.

Perhaps one of the best-known (and best-loved) examples is the man who is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the presenter of the longest-running TV programme - Sir Patrick Moore.

Though he has had no formal training, Sir Patrick has attained legendary status in British astronomy as an expert on the subject and is credited as having done more than any other to raise the profile of astronomy among the British general public. He is a former president of the British Astronomical Association, co-founder and former president of the Society for Popular Astronomy, author of over 70 books on astronomy and a number of science fictions novels (all bashed out on a 1908 Woodstock typewriter), and presenter of “The Sky at Night” for more than half a century. And he has had no formal training whatsoever.

He is well known for his rapid mode of speech, trademark monocle, poorly fitting blazers and a surprising virtuoso talent on the xylophone. Sir Patrick is also an accomplished composer – again entirely self-taught.

He was born in March 1923 in Pinner in Middlesex and moved to Selsey in Sussex as a child, where he has lived ever since. A sickly lad, he was educated at home by private tutors and developed a passion for astronomy by the age of six. At the tender age of 11, he was elected to the British Astronomical Association.

With the coming of the WW2 Moore lied about his age in order to join the RAF and served as a navigator in Bomber Command. His only known romance ended during the war when his fiancée, a nurse, was killed when a bomb fell on her ambulance. He later said he never married because "There was no one else for me... second best is no good for me...I would have liked a wife and family, but it was not to be."

After the war, Moore returned to Selsey and constructed a home-made reflecting telescope in his garden. He began to observe the moon and soon earned a reputation as an expert. Indeed, when the Russians wanted accurate information on the Moon over a number of years, after an extensive worldwide search, they got what they needed from a pile of exercise books filled with Moore’s notes and observations.

Late at night on 26 April 1957, Moore presented the first episode of "The Sky at Night", a BBC television programme for astronomy enthusiasts. Since then, he presented every episode each month - excepting July 2004 thanks to a near-fatal bout of food poisoning caused by eating a bad goose egg. Early editions were transmitted live, and on one occasion he swallowed a fly live on air. During the Apollo programme, he was one of the presenters of BBC television's coverage of the moon landing missions.

In 1968, he was appointed OBE and was promoted to CBE in 1988. In 2001, he was knighted "for services to the popularisation of science and to broadcasting". In the same year, he was appointed an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society. In June 2002, he was appointed as Hon. Vice President of the Society for the History of Astronomy. He has also won a BAFTA for services to television.

On 1 April 2007, a 50th anniversary semi-spoof edition of the programme was broadcast on BBC1, with Moore played a Time Lord (mirroring the special role Dr Who plays in the British consciousness - hiding behind the sofa for fear of the Daleks is an experience shared by entire generations).

Despite believing that there may well be life in other parts of the universe, he has stated that he believes that there has not been any real contact with space aliens and he dismisses theories of the extra-terrestrial origin of UFOs.

Along with many other celebrities, Patrick Moore has been the subject of crank-calls by comedian Jon Culshaw, as part of the show "Dead Ringers". But Moore got his revenge when Culshaw called him under the guise of Tom Baker’s version of Dr Who, supposedly seeking Moore’s advice on astronomy-related matters. Moore twigged that it was a prank and proceeded to out-play the prankster by launching into a stream of techno-babble which resulted in a rare pause from Culshaw as he tried to think of a response.

His sense of humour came to the fore again in 1976, when he played on his status as Britain’s favourite boffin for an April Fool's spoof on BBC Radion 2. Moore announced that at 9.47am, a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event would occur: Pluto would pass behind Jupiter, temporarily causing a gravitational alignment that would reduce the Earth's own gravity. He told listeners that if they could jump at the exact moment that this event occurred, they would experience a temporary floating sensation. The BBC received many telephone calls from listeners alleging that they actually experienced the sensation.

Moore also joined the Flat Earth Society as a joke (though some in dire need of an irony implant have taken this seriously).

Not bad for a sickly young lad from Selsey with his head in the clouds, eh?

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Not such a poker face

No-one has ever accused me of having a poker face. Inscrutable is definitely not the word.

That makes me the world's worst liar - and a pretty lousy diplomat to boot.

If I'm talking to - or tolerating - someone I don't think much of, I'm told that contempt can be seen glaring laser-like from my eyes. And if I find something ridiculous, the guffaw I'm fighting to suppress is lurking in the wrinkles at the corners of my mouth.

On the plus said, what I lack in beauty, elegance and general poise is made up for by a pretty expressive face (my body language virtually screams too - often resulting in breakages, bruises and blushes).

It's also proof-positive that, despite the march of the years, I have not yet resorted to a visit to the Botox Fairy.
Maybe I should? You tell me:

"Oooh - freebies!"
"Me? Tired? What makes you think that?"

"Aaargghh! Handy tip of the day: Never confuse super-glue with hair gel."

A considered and mature response to life is the secret of my success.

"Am I fed-up, you say? Ya think?"

"What? ANOTHER bill/deadline/bus strike!"

"Now, you didn't really mean that - did you?"

Danger UXB!
"Deep down, I'm nice. Really I am. Please like me!"

This post was inspired by the lovely Tara over at and her weekly Gallery. I have been conspicuously absent from the Gallery over the past couple of months - I'm trying to make amends with this week's theme: Expressions.

There are bound to be lots more expressions, outragous and otherwise, at this week's Gallery. Check it out.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Educating Zenia

Words, words, words... I love ‘em.

Ask anyone who even vaguely knows me and they’ll tell you that I can waffle for my nation at the drop of a hat (and frequently do).

But I've been venturing into virgin territory over the past few months. New strange and intimidating phrases have entered my vocabulary – simple past perfect, imperative pronouns, the rather too Teutonic sounding gerund – as I try to get my head around the sometimes clumsy building blocks that make up the language that seems so natural and obvious to me.

No, I haven’t been sent to the bottom of the class for a misplaced apostrophe (heaven forbid!). I have been asked to act as an English tutor to my 11-year-old dyslexic Greek niece.

‘So what?’ I hear you cry. ‘How hard can it be?’

And the answer is: Much, MUCH harder than you might imagine.

I grew up back in Blighty at a time when the Old School teaching of grammar had been consigned to the back of a dusty cupboard in the staff room. We were taught the structure of the language in a touchy-feely, hands-on, label-free way.

A sort of education by osmosis, if you will.

It’s not my place to say whether this was a good thing or not. It didn’t seem to do too much harm to my own use of the language - possibly because I spent most of my childhood with my nose buried in a book, allowing the correct prose of the published ones to seep unnoticed into my consciousness. But the truth is, I managed to pass my exams (even some with flying colours) and dive into the world of work (with words as my tools, no less) without knowing one end of a past participle from the other of a reflexive pronoun.

As it turns out, that’s a bit of a problem when teaching English to non-native speakers.

And when you add the joys of dyslexia to the mix, it makes for quite a ride.

It could be much worse. Zenia is only mildly dyslexic and she loves stories, so we're not up against the classic fear and aversion of the written word that some dyslexic kids have.

…she is what used to call a Little Minx, with a good dash of laziness added to the mix. She’s cute and funny and affectionate - and more likely to take a wild guess at what we’re reading, or bat her eyelids and crack a joke, than get down to nuts and bolts of adverbs.

She’s my niece, and I love her. But my twice weekly sessions with her have me veering wildly from the bi-polar extremes of triumphant joy (“By George, she’s got it!”) and utter despair that makes me want to bang my head repeatedly against the desk for a bit of light relief.

It’s not the classic word blindness or confusing letters that present the biggest challenge. In fact, we have a good laugh at the mental images summed up by confusing ‘babysitting’ with ‘daddysitting’ or Zenia’s strangulated attempts to pronounce illogically spelled gems like ‘laughter’, 'eight' or ‘cough’. Nor is it her habit of reading sentences backwards when I ask her to translate them back to Greek.

It’s the little tricks that her mind has devised over the years to cover up her uncertainty, insecurity or sheer simple fact that she’d much rather be watching TV, playing computer games or cleaning her toenails than sitting at a desk with Auntie Mandi in strict school ma’am mode.

For the first year or so in Greece, about half of my grasp of the language was based on semi-educated guesses, so I’m pretty adept at spotting when my young pupil is taking a wild stab based on recognition of a single word rather than making the effort of reading the whole sentence.

And I’ve getting better at deflecting her attempts to go off on a tangent that has as much to do with the past continuous as Telly Tubbies have to do with Chaucer.

I’ve even managed to use Zenia’s taste for the theatrical to my advantage by acting out with her extracts from the glorious writings of Roald Dahl, before going through to spot the adjectives, propositions, a collection of tenses and participles, and the occasional gerund.

It’s hard work, and sometimes I wonder if we're achieving anything at all.

Then, when I'm least expecting it, she floors me by accurately identifying the difference between the gerund and the past continuous, explaining it with a logic that makes so much more sense than the academic defintion in the musty, dusty text books I’ve had to consult in preparation to teach her.

As native English-speakers we tend to think our language is a doddle.

But just try deconstructing it and analysing it to explain how it works to someone who didn’t take it in with their mother’s milk, Blue Peter, Enid Blyton and Dr Who, and you’ll soon realise what a cussed tongue it is to learn (and teach).

So, next time you're tempted to mock a foreigner’s accent or sentence construction - don’t.

There’s a good chance that they’re more grammatically correct than you...

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Love in the deep freeze

My relationship with my freezer is a complex one. You could call it a love-hate relationship, for it is underlined by fear.

Like all deep-seated terrors, it goes back years. Almost a quarter of a century, in this case.

Back in those days I had a second-hand fridge/freezer, one that pre-dated today's fancy self-defrosting appliances, which meant the freezer constantly froze up. And being a young flippertygibbet at the time, I never got round to a regular precautionary defrost every few months.

So, of course, it iced up - big time.

It got to the stage where I was scared to open it the freezer section and face the ice ogre that lurked inside. In the end I stopped using it completely.

The frozen Yuppy treats (this was the late '80s, remember) so lovingly selected at Marks & Sparks were trapped in a state of permanent suspended animation. Zipper bags filled with blackberries gathered from the hedgerows near my Nana's house were held captive by clenched fists of frost. And an anonymous lump of meat lurked like an unfortunate yeti that had been caught in an avalanche.

As I was on the second floor of an old Victorian house with wooden floors, I didn’t dare defrost for fear of flooding the loopy old dear downstairs (Rita - she of the ochre-stained net curtains and flower pot hats). If I did, she would probably have thought that Judgement Day had finally arrived and broken out her tambourine in a last-ditch attempt at Salvation.

In the end, I had to chuck the entire thing away - CFCs and all - with the ice monster intact. Now, many years later, I suspect it may have taken flesh and still be lurking somewhere around a Brighton landfill.

Fortunately, as I grew (and my disposal income shrunk), I overcame that fear and learned to love my deep freeze.

I now love it for the convenience it offers; for the way it preserves the glory of (certain) fresh vegetables well beyond their season; for its ability to offer up surprise (sometimes mystery, if not labelled properly) ingredients to challenge my culinary creativity; and the fact that it always holds something I can serve up to the hungry carnivores I share my life with. But perhaps its greatest blessing is the way in which is allows me to pursue my so-called 'eccentricity' of cutting meat out of my diet, whilst still catering for those beloved flesh-devouring men.

A quick glimpse at our family deep freeze will reveal the usual pork chops, chicken breasts, minced beef and perhaps a leg of lamb - as well as some deep chilled bottles of Limoncello and Masticha liquors - but I suspect that the lion's share is devoted to feeding my veggy preferences. Its drawers open up to reveal countless tupperware pots filled with vegetable mixture just right for meatless lasagnes or my flesh-free version of Shepherd's Pie (Gardener's Pie, I suppose), slices of vegatable & nut loaf, and a selection of soups whizzed up from the neglected carrots et al that graze at the bottom of my fridge.

But perhaps my favourite - and fastest - soup is one I make fresh, from the freezer.

Frozen pea and mint soup is simplicity personified - if a rather shocking shade of green. It takes a maximum of 15 minutes from freezer to ladle, and is ideal for any time of the year.

It also has the advantage of being mine, all mine. The carnivores take one look at it and wrinkle up their noses in disgust (philistines!).

Take 3-4 good handfuls of frozen peas, and a few sprigs of fresh mint (which you may also have preserved and ready for use in the deep freeze), and chuck them in a small saucepan with a peeled garlic glove and enough vegetable stock to cover them well. Add a teaspoon of sugar and a little salt & pepper, and bring to the boil. Simmer for 5-10 minutes, then whizz it all up in your blender with a couple more good sprigs of mint and a good glug of olive oil. Then serve with a hunk of fresh crusty bread.

No matter what time of year you make it, it tastes like your Mum's vegetable garden in early summer (minus the slugs, snails and dirt) in a bowl.

Who'd have thought it would be the humble pea that could banish my ice demons and make me love my deep freeze again?


This post was inspired by Oui Chef at, where the theme for February was "Frozen with love".
Check out Oui Chef for other frozen delights to tickle your tonsils.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Urban Safari: The ten-toed sloth

The undergrowth is dense.
The light is dim.
A musty smell hangs in the air.
There is a faint rustling of something moving - veeeerrrrrryyyyy slowly - unseen in the depths of the flora before us.

Carefully and quietly, we make our way towards the sound. Unsure exactly what awaits us, we're hoping for a glimpse of a shy, slovenly animal with no known sense of urgency (until the need to eat strikes).

But patience is the naturalist's ally, and our hours of waiting at the entrance to its lair (interspersed by distant bird-like cries of "Get up NOW!") are finally rewarded by the sight of our prey.

There it is, blinking bemusedly in the half-light, and languidly looking around at its habitat with the question "Wha-aaa?" in its semi-opened eyes.

It's the legendary giant ten-toed sloth (scientific name: adolescentius lethargious). Magnificent, isn't he?

We've all heard tales of this mythical creature, but some never quite believed it existed outside of the horror stories of parents of teenage boys.

But there it is, in all its glory, looking amiably at us through its matted fringe, confident in the knowledge that we mean it no harm.

Inch-by-inch it painstakingly makes its way out from beneath its bedding undergrowth, lethargically rubbing the tangled pelt that serves so well as camouflage in the 18 hours a day it spends stock-still.

An hour later, it has moved from its supine position to sitting on the edge of its nesting site. And then it stops and stares into a space on the forest floor about two feet in front of it....

Then, a mere two hours later, it makes its move - labouriously making its way to the water hole for its morning ablutions.

It's an epic journey, against all odds, but the ten-toed sloth is spurred on by threats of disappearing PlayStations and possible lifetime captivity enforced by its keepers.

All the ten-toed teenage sloth's daily endeavours are focused on feeding. Despite its langourous demeanour, it has a fearsomely fast metabolism. Its economy of exertion requires collosal amount of fuel to feed it.

Much of the day is spent foraging its territory for tasty morsels to keep them going and prevent their usual speed of very slow dropping a notch to..... stop.

It's omnivorous, hoovering up almost everything it finds with surprising vigour before returning to its usual laid-back hanging around.

Some observers find the ten-toed sloth a frustrating animal, lacking motivation or direction.

But it's hard to resent them their admirable angst-free stance, especially when they turn and give you a lazy but well-meaning smile.

After all, who can stay mad at their 14-year-old son for long?

Monday, 14 February 2011

Bowled over by brass

It was a typical Monday morning as I emerged from the train station and started my 10-minute walk to the office.

The start of another working week in Athens: "another day, another drachma", as I used to say in the days before the Euro swept away one of the world's longest-lasting currencies and brought a tsunami of price increases with it.

The Monday Morning Blues were threatening to bite. Despite the mild weather and blue skies, these days most folk in Greece are walking around with a little black cloud of anxiety floating above their heads - money's too tight to mention, and all the signs are that it is just going to get tighter.

But moments after stomping out of Piraeus station, my worry cloud was blown away by a blast of high-energy music from street corner that usually only plays host to abandoned store fronts and the occasional beggar waving their misery in your face in the hope of a handful of spare change.

I heard them before I saw them. But the Balkan brass version of Bizet's Carmen made me look up to see where the up-beat blast through the morning commute was coming from.

Then I spotted them - five musicians giving it their all on a hand drum, saxophone, accordion (normally a pet hate of mine) and two cornets, to the delight of the morning crowd of shoppers and wage-slaves.

They were almost certainly immigrants - a favourite group for many Greeks to revile in these days of unprecendented illegal migration into a country that is barely equipped to care for its own growing army of the needy.
But where their Greek may have been limited, at best, they were fluent in the international language of music.

They made my day, and I told them so as they cheerfully posed for a photo.

I gave them what loose change I had, but I felt it was mean and stingy compared to the lift they gave me on a gloomy Monday morning.

Hopefully, my big grin (and inner resolution to find some bigger value coins next time I see them) will encourage them to make a repeat performance later in the week.