Monday, June 27, 2011


Is this the funniest cartoon ever?

I’ve often thought that Cartoonists should run the world.

The day after Michael Jackson's Death
They seem so sensible, so clear about the problems we face, and about the stupidity which we all seem to get into as an inherent part of our daily lives. They can see so simply the continual juxtaposition of illogicalities which seem to by-pass all of our politicians and leaders completely. And, if they were in control, anyone with a sense of humour must be a decent bet to take it all in their stride.

A lot of people, when talking about Americans trot out the same old thought that they have no sense of humour. Now, I’ve me a fair few about whom that accusation is spot on. But, America is a big place, and within its 300 odd million people are some seriously funny and witty people. Just look at their TV series. The Simpsons, MASH, Sex and the City, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Cheers. Need I go on? This sharp humour also makes its way into their individual cartoon output. On the comic strip front, think Peanuts and Dilbert, two classics.

The New Yorker magazine has been home to some of the better American cartoonists for a good few years, and when, at work, we became involved with a Venture Capitalist Group named 3i, one of the benefits of this arrangement was their annual calendar which they sent out to all their companies. It contained a range of cartoons from the New Yorker, and looking through these when next year’s calendar arrived, converted me totally into the belief that a fair number of them had a very witty, sharp and truly funny sense of humour.

I have a theory that judging cartoons would be a novel alternative to the Psychometric testing which we all used to love so much at work, particularly when we were in the throes of interviewing someone for a job. Choose 100 varied cartoons and get the interviewee to select his Top 10, and I’ll bet that a psychologist could pinpoint the man’s personality almost to an inch. I bet it would turn out to be really accurate over the long term. And anyway, in a business where you get into any number of difficult situations, what better than to have someone near you, when the Muck and Bullets are flying around, who sees the same funny side of it all as you do.

So, I’ve rummaged around in various drawers and books I own, and picked out 10 of my all time favourites. The one of Einstein's Cat at the foot of this piece spent ten years on my wall at work, and every morning it made me chuckle at just how clever and funny it was. To my way of thinking, Gary Larsen, Matt, Barsotti and all the others here are simply geniuses at their trade. All of these made me howl with laughter when I first saw them. As I say, I would guess that any shrink worth his salt could have me sussed in a few minutes by just looking at this collection. Thank goodness I don’t work anymore, so their opinion is no longer of any consequence.

For forty years now, the last page of the Sunday Times Colour Supplement has been a write up by someone, famous or unknown, under the title A Life in the Day of ... , where, in their own words they simply describe an average day in their lives. I have read this for decades, and each time I wonder what sort of impression the person writing it thinks he or she is giving the reader. Some are unbelievably pompous, some are utter control freaks, while others are so self absorbed, it's almost untrue. Very few of the famous people come across as someone you'd really like to go out for a beer with, let alone want to meet. But one of the handful who I've thought sounded utterly together, and a smashing sounding person was Gary Larsen. If you like the "Bummer of a Birthmark" cartoon or the "I'll get him for this ..." one of the Snakecharmer, get hold of his book The Pre-History of the Far Side. It's quite amazing, and you can only wonder how one man could possibly have thought up such a torrent of humour.

Click on any of the images to enlarge them in a separate window

Sunday, June 26, 2011


Click to enlarge

46 years ago, I had just begun studying Aeronautical Engineering at Imperial College in London. Presumably as an attempt to expand the minds of the students and ensure that at least some of them ceased to be complete Philistines, they offered a set of lunchtime lectures on a range of subjects far removed from Engineering.

I soon found myself immersed in a series of talks on Wagner’s Ring Cycle. I learnt about leitmotivs together with a smattering about the German and Scandinavian legends which form the basis of the vast story. The main thing the lecturer wanted to explain however was the music, and the way Wagner moved the tonality of music on over the 25 years or so it took him to write it. Listen to music before him, and after him, and there is no doubt that Wagner changed the sound of music for ever.

Although I dutifully went to all the lectures, I’m afraid, at the age of 19, the lure of other student activities, mainly those involving the many pubs which littered Knightsbridge and Chelsea, took over my social life, and, as a result, the next stage in my exposure to Wagner’s Operas lay dormant for several decades.

Until, that is, last night.

I had booked to see the first of the four Ring Cycle Operas, Das Rheingold, which was being performed in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. Opera North, based in Leeds was taking on the enormous undertaking of performing the four works, one a year ending in 2014. It was described as a Concert performance, and I confess I didn’t quite understand how it was all going to work.

I had chosen a ticket up in the circle where the whole stage was laid out in front of me. The orchestra, which being Wagner, was definitely of the Full Fat variety and  completely covered the stage. He wrote his music for huge forces, and here laid out in readiness, as well as the normal complement of instruments, were six Harps, a hugely augmented Brass section and a range of anvils and other percussion which would be brought into play during the evening. In front of the players there was a narrow strip, maybe 8 feet wide which, I presumed, was going to be the “stage” for the singers.

Das Rheingold was the shortest of the four operas, although it lasts for about 160 minutes - Without a break.

The music is continuous for the best part of two and three quarter hours. It starts with one of those spine tingling moments when you’re not sure if the first bass sounds are actually there or not. One minute the Hall is in total silence, and the next there is a sound of almost "somethingness" which, Oh so gradually, emerges and becomes the orchestral Introduction and Prelude.

From that moment, I was swept away, only coming back to earth nearly three hours later. The orchestra played beautifully under its conductor Richard Farnes. The Opera company clearly faced a dilemma over how to stage it, without any scenery or any costumes. They solved it by dressing the cast up in varying forms of evening dress or lounge suits for the men and long, dark dresses for the female singers. Above the stage were three vast projection screens, onto which were fed various image sequences, suggesting the mood or location of the current action. We had water, clouds, high mountain peaks and underground caverns, as well as molten metal bubbling away. Also appearing from time to time was the odd caption imparting a bit of story telling information.

The singers were uniformly excellent, although I thought Fasolt (James Creswell), one of the two giants, who, to me at least showed a startling resemblance in both dress and manner to the Kray Twins, was exceptional. He had a voice which was both beautiful and strong and he came across as extremely “Giant-like”. The German Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke who played Loge as a devious character with more than a hint of Graham Norton about him on occasions, was also terrific to watch and listen to.

The Hall itself added greatly to the enjoyment of the evening. Every time I go there, I am astounded at the acoustics of the place. From the quietest, almost soundless passages to the enormous climaxes, where you hoped someone was holding the roof of the Hall on, the clarity and subtlety of the music was perfect. Every instrument could be placed individually, from the gentle harps to the “calico ripping” brass.

I thought Richard Farnes paced the music excellently. To my ears, it had an open feel to it, and it all flowed in an uncoloured way which allowed the textures to breathe and develop naturally. The climaxes were quite breathtaking and hit me almost physically.

I was worried that the sight of such a huge orchestra in front of me would impose itself and always be in your mind, but in truth, it just disappeared from your thoughts as you concentrated on the singers.

It’s a small gripe but I don’t think the large screens worked as well as they might. To me, the images were neither Fish nor Fowl, and when, sporadically, a piece of information appeared and disappeared, I found it all a bit distracting, in a Powerpointy sort of way. With the whole work being sung in German, there were half a dozen or so large LCD TVs littered around the Hall, displaying the English translation. Unfortunately, they were all mounted at the front of the auditorium, so the poor souls up in the Gods (ie me) were just unable to read them. There was clearly room for a couple of additional screens closer to the back of the Hall, and this would have been much more helpful. Personally, I would have been quite happy if they’d projected the words directly onto the centre of the three screens, and everyone (ie me again) could then have read them without difficulty.

However, that is a minor point. The time simply rushed past, and I was completely carried with it all away into another world for the evening. Beautifully played, beautifully sung, it was an absolute and utter triumph. Very powerful and quite overwhelming. 

I caught the last train home to Shrewsbury, after walking to the station in the pouring rain, with the music still driving its way around my brain. I’m writing this a day later, and it’s still there. I’m already onto the website to book early for next year. By the time the story is finished, it will be 50 years from the time I took my first steps at University to learn about this glorious music, so - Roll on 2014.



Friday, June 24, 2011


I’m reading an enjoyable but dreadfully depressing book at the moment called “It’s your time you’re wasting”. Written by a teacher who calls himself Frank Chalk, it’s an exposé of the way an inner city school actually runs these days. Ghastly simply isn’t the word for it.

I strongly suspect “Frank Chalk” is a pseudonym, as details about the gentleman seem to be extremely thin on the ground, to the point of being non-existent. This is probably his way of keeping his job and its attendant luxuriant Final Salary Pension Scheme, while remaining alive as he plots his way towards retirement age. The book is one of those rarities – very wittily written, but about a very serious subject. All I can say is Thank God my education was not like the one described in Mr Chalk’s book.

In retrospect, I think my schooling took place during the Golden period for Education in this country. In 1957, the 11-Plus was in full flight. When I was 11, and being passably bright, I gained one of the six places available in Bedfordshire each year which sent me, at the total expense of the taxpayer, as a Day Boy to one of the country’s great Public Schools. It was Bedford School, founded in 1558. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, this was one of those happenings which was to change the course of my life completely.

My mother had raised me as a One Parent family, and, in the late 50s she had to work all hours God sent, scrimping and saving just to put bread on the table. And yet, the education system worked and I was awarded a free education that today would cost around £20,000 per year.

Reading this book, my mind has been casting back to the years at Bedford, and the comparison with school life then and now is simply staggering. So, a few random thoughts on how it was then. Anyone from my era choosing to read Mr Chalk’s book would simply not recognise what he describes as being an education at all.

We had a very formal uniform, which was insisted upon very rigidly. In term-time, it was to be worn whenever I was outside my house. One Sunday evening I was caught out cycling around the town wearing a sweater and non-school trousers by a School Monitor, and subsequently beaten by a Master for the crime.

The uniform included a White shirt, with a separate starched collar and collar-studs. The first day I wore it my mother hadn’t realised you had to polish the collar with an iron, and I came home with a fabulously luminescent bright red ring around my neck where the sandpaper like surface of the unpolished collar had worn an angry groove. In Summer, I also wore a rather snazzy Straw Boater which met a sad and untimely end under the wheels of a lorry which was following me on my bike. I looked up to see where I was going, and the hat, reaching a critical Angle of Attack in the wind, launched itself beautifully upwards off my head and the “Crump” as the lorry flattened it was really rather satisfying.

In order to ensure that homework was done, and that the dangers of the night were not visited upon us, we had “Lock-Up”. This meant that I had to be indoors at home no later than 6.30pm in Winter, and 7.00pm in Summer – without fail. My father had to sign a formal register each night to confirm that I was safely ensconced inside the house before the witching hour. I was once spotted in town after the time of the curfew by some nerdy Monitor, and had the Riot Act read to me in no uncertain terms. Transgress again, and a beating (“Six” was mentioned) would be the result.

In the late 50s, corporal punishment was a perfectly acceptable arrow in a school’s quiver of punishments. If a boy was ever made up to be a School Monitor (something which happened in the Sixth Form), he was given a cane, and he could use it on the other boys. In the School’s Morning Assembly which was attended by every boy (none of this Sectarianism that exists today), the great unwashed of the School were kept in order by the School Monitors strutting importantly around, and swishing miscreants on the top of the head with their canes, if they felt they were  misbehaving. Those of my readers who have seen the film “If” by Lindsay Anderson, need to know that the sadistic scenes of masters beating pupils are not a figment of Mr Anderson’s imagination.

Compared to my previous Primary education, the attitude in the classroom was utterly alien. The masters wafted around wearing Gowns and Mortar Boards. One of them used to cycle into the classroom on an old bike which he parked against one of the walls, which may not sound very impressive, but the classroom was on the First Floor. Whenever one of the Masters asked the class a question, there was a great degree of “Me Sir, Me Sir” competition  among the brighter of the inmates, of whom I have to say, I was one. In Maths, the electronic calculator was a thing of the Future, so the Slide Rule was king. In my hands, one of these became a blur as I set out to beat the other swots in the class by a millisecond. What a creep!

But, who says competition doesn’t sharpen the mind? Knowledge of Naperian and Base 10 Logarithms was mandatory, and the concept of Near Enough accuracy rather than the completely inappropriate Eight Significant figures provided by modern computers and calculators was very much the way to go. After all, every aeroplane built up to that date had all its calculations completed using a slide rule, and most of them were still flying.

You had to pick which teachers you offended by giving a wrong answer to a question. This, remember, was the age of the Blackboard, rather than the White Board. With the Blackboard came the wooden Blackboard Rubber. And with that came the well-directed Flying Blackboard Rubber aimed, often not too accurately, at the offending miscreant who had provided the wrong answer to a question. It flew unerringly across the classroom. Unfortunately, it often hit the wrong pupil, and the Schoolmaster’s rationalisation to this early form of “Friendly Fire” ran something along the lines of “Well, if I hit you incorrectly this time, it probably missed you previously when you had committed a sin, so on the balance of probabilities it all evens out.”

The only language I could speak when I entered the school was English. Along with the other 11-Plus entrants, I was immediately thrown into a series of language classes with boys who had already been learning French and Latin for 4 years. They had been doing this in the Preparatory school, called, in Bedford, the “Inky” (short for Incubator). The concept of allowing time for the new boys to catch up was not one even remotely visited upon the masters in charge of those subjects. I have to say that, for the first 6 months or so, both French and Latin were Double Dutch to me. And to demonstrate one’s shortcomings, each term we were resolutely marked in each subject as to our position in the form, and equally in Latin and French, I sat resolutely at the bottom of the class in 24th or possibly 23rd place.

And then, in what to me was almost a Damascus moment, over a period of no more than a fortnight, the fog lifted and the structure of Latin suddenly became clear. It really did have a bit of a religious feel to it. Previously, I had been the form “idiot” in the language, with the master shouting out metronomically to me “Cable, Gerund or Gerundive?”, knowing full well that I hadn’t a clue. The issue of whether a sharply square edged Board Rubber winged its way towards me depended on the 50% chance that a random guess would provide. In the fortnight during which the “Lourdes” moment overwhelmed me, I twigged the rules for Gerunds and Gerundives, and at the end of that term, I found to my utter delight I had rocketed up the Latin rankings to 8th position in the class. Nowadays, along with I suspect 99.9% of the population, I can’t even recall what a Gerund or a Gerundive is, let alone do I have the ability to differentiate one from the other.

I say “Cable” above, because that was how I was referred to all through my days there. No-one used one’s Christian name, even one’s friends. It happened that, although Cable was a very uncommon name, there were three of us in the school, the other two being brothers. Via some form of logic which I will go to my grave not understanding, the authorities differentiated between us by giving each of us a different initial. Given that my Christian name was Roger, the initial with which I was bestowed was “L”. Throughout my days there, my official name was L Cable.

And yet, the other side of the coin was the quality and inspiration which some of the masters exhibited and passed on to me in their chosen subjects. A couple of them, by their own passion and teaching skill turned me from an 11 year old Philistine, into someone with a life-long love of the Arts. Ted Amos, the Music Master, and Ron Dalzell, the Art Master, are two men to whom I owe an unrepayable debt. One of the things I regret having failed to do is to have written to them in subsequent years just to tell them how much their own individual efforts changed my way of life. They both went to their graves not knowing the effect they had had on me, and I regret that immensely.

In those days, teaching was much more hands on and experimental, particularly in Physics and Chemistry, which along with Maths were my chosen Specialist subjects. Take the way we were taught something like the Conservation of Angular Momentum in Physics. We had a stool with a seat which was mounted on a bearing which allowed it to rotate very freely. We chose the most obnoxious boy in the class, sat him on it and asked him to hold his arms stretched out as far as he could, holding a weight in each hand. We then all spun him up on the seat so he was rotating as fast as we could make him, and the Form Master (he must have disliked him as well) told him to pull his arms in quickly into his sides.

In the blinking of an eye, he became a total blur, a human Gyroscope, before he fell off in a crumpled heap. The benefit to the rest of us was that for the rest of our lives, we had imprinted in our minds the Concept of the Conservation of Angular Momentum. 50 years on, I can see this in front of me as if it was yesterday.

Another Physics favourite was the Van de Graaf generator, with its deliciously effective 500,000 volt charge which made your hair look like Ken Dodd as you stood on the thick insulating plastic pad. The real pleasure was the immensely satisfying crack it gave off as you folded your knuckle into a point and held it surreptitiously against the unsuspecting earlobe of one of the class Thickos. Survival of the Fittest, I think.

In Chemistry, most of the time the facts we absorbed were taught by experiment. We made Soap, we played around with Phosphorus, burnt Magnesium and dripped Sulphuric Acid onto the socks of those boys who we didn’t like that much. We removed the Aluminium Oxide on saucepans to get at the unstable aluminium underneath, and held the resultant hot metal against each other to demonstrate its properties. I blew the fume cupboard up by making Di-Methyl Hydrazine and mixing it with Red Fuming Nitric Acid creating remarkably explosive results. Mind you I had just read that these two compounds were what the Americans were using to power their latest Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. One boy, who shall be nameless demonstrated in practical terms that Acetylene gas could be produced using Calcium Carbide interacting with water. Unfortunately, it resulted in the pigeon to which he had fed it, exploding.

Anyone who thinks that the best way to learn is by watching such things on a Video, or reading about them in a book, simply doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

And I haven’t even mentioned the Cadet Force, with its distinctly Dad’s Army overtones, or the School’s manic obsession with sports, mainly Rugby, Cricket and Rowing. Neither have I written about the totally different exam structure in those days. Perhaps I’ll write a follow up to this when more such thoughts have collected in my mind. It’s odd really. I haven’t thought about any of these things for an age, but the appalling things I have read in Frank Chalk’s book have immediately set me off musing about it all.

The one over-riding benefit I feel I ended up with at Bedford was an insatiable sense of Curiousity, which I’ve had all my life, and which I hope has led to whatever I’ve achieved along the way. Indeed the Inscription above the entrance to the Science Block, under which I passed every day was from Ecclesiasticus 43:32. It says it all.

There are yet hid greater things than these be, for we have seen but a few of his works.

 How very true.

Not everyone there ended up like me, and others left with a very different set of benefits, which was, I suppose one of the aims of such an education. As an example from around my time there, I note that one class member (almost my “Best Friend”), is now the Member of the European Parliament for the West Midlands, whereas another became a Trotskyite MP. Of the others who were there around my time, one wrote “The French Lieutenants Woman”, another became the England Rugby Union Captain, and another the Leader of the Lib-Dems (name of Ashdown). Of those who followed later in my footsteps (although they probably haven’t heard of me!) one is currently England’s Ashes Hero Opening Batsman, one has twice won the Indianapolis 500 race, and one is a comedian named Al Murray. So, to produce such a diverse mix of individuals, the system which operated in such a school must have been doing something right.

The depressing thing is that if I, and presumably they, had ended up with the sort of education dished out in Frank Chalk’s school, none of us would have ended up where we are now.

I, for one, feel so lucky and grateful.



Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Just read this if you think that everything printed in a newspaper these days is "Gloom and Doom".

To read the story, click on each of the images above 
to enlarge them in a separate window

The two pages are from The Times yesterday (21 June), and tell the story of a family's efforts to bring a stray dog from Afghanistan back to their home in the West Midlands. The dog had befriended (and/or been befriended by) a 22 year old soldier, Conrad Lewis, in Helmund. Earlier this year, Conrad was killed whilst on patrol out there, helping to make sure all of us in this country could sleep a little more safely at night.

I worked alongside Conrad's father for the best part of 10 years. He was Sales Director and I was Finance Director, and (apart from periods during Annual Budget times!) we worked together to help run a large vehicle manufacturing plant in Birmingham. The fact that our next smallest competitor was probably 100 times larger than we were meant that we had to punch way above our weight just to be in with a chance. Hence my particular interest in this story.

Conrad's funeral, in the main church in Warwick was the most memorable church service I've ever been to. It was attended by many hundreds of people, and you could be forgiven for thinking that it would have been a good day to invade this country, given the number of Army personnel of all ranks who were there. And if anyone ever says to me now that the young people of today are not what they were "in my day", I simply tell them that they should have been alongside me on that Friday. 

That was three months ago, and yesterday the lovely story above appeared in the newspaper. Conrad's family had managed, by means only hinted at, to recover the 3 year old pooch, whose name was Peg, from the depths of Afghanistan, and it is now in quarantine in Nuneaton until December. We are a Grade 1 Dog family, and understand only too well the unique power of the bond which exists between dogs and humans. One can only imagine what Conrad's family must feel in these special circumstances. It must be almost like having a small piece of their son back with them. 

I have to say that I can't remember reading a newspaper article which gave me as much pleasure, and which gave me such an uplifting feeling.

If when you read this, you feel the same, you can record your appreciation by giving a small donation to

If you're in any doubt, just think what Conrad Lewis gave.


Saturday, June 18, 2011



More Music I’m afraid.

Until last night, my knowledge of Indian music could have been written on a very small piece of paper. In the background of my mind,it has always intrigued me, although clearly never quite enough ever to get me off my backside to do anything about it. In 2011, as part of my “Get your Arse in Gear” Year, I had booked to see Ravi Shankar in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. He was playing a 90th Birthday Celebration concert last night, and along with the faithful, I presented myself in the fabulous auditorium for the 7.30pm start.

I thought the evening was fantastic, a real breath of fresh air. He’d written a really decent and understandable synopsis of the structure and history of Indian Music for the programme, and, for once, three pages of explanation seemed to cover the basics really well. I am a firm believer in a little knowledge being a great help in such things.

His group was made up of six players including himself. Two percussionists, two additional Sitar players and a flautist. They were all brilliant instrumentalists, the percussionists especially so. They could make the drums talk and seem as if they were almost alive.

The first thing which strikes me about Indian music is that it is driven by rhythm and a gradually unfolding melody. No chords or harmonising occurs, which is very different from the way Classical music in the West is structured. Given that the Sitar is a multi-stringed instrument, I find that a bit strange, but that’s the way they do it, so there.

The music uses a different tuning from the Western eight note octave, and it all seems to move along a bit like a complex version of Tubular Bells with a phrase being repeated and then being very gradually modified with one note changing at a time. There is considerable use of what he calls microtones which send shivers up my spine. The dissonance which this causes, and the subsequent transition and resolution back to a more comfortable harmonic base is something I don’t experience often in conventional Western music.

The Raga, which is the central core of Indian music is quite a rigid structure. They all seem to start with a contemplative, almost introspective, slow section played by the soloist. It then develops into a section where there is much more rhythmic freedom, and a series of variations is worked out by the sitar. On a nod or a pointer from Ravi Shankar, the “rhythm section” joins in, with a marvellous ever changing support to the lead instruments. Sometimes they are in opposition and sometimes in beautiful synchronicity with the sitar, and the transitions from one to the other are really pleasurable.

It develops almost in a jazz style, with Ravi Shankar pointing to the various other players to take what sound like their own improvisational solos. The musicians interact and play off each other, leaving it all with an odd balance of individual freedom and collective togetherness.

His programme notes explain that none of these Ragas are written down, and the players learn them directly from the Guru, with no musical notation involved. Presumably this means that each performance although based on a base “melody”, is unique and depending upon how the leader wants to lead the variations, it can go off into one of many directions.

As the piece develops, the tempo continues to increase almost imperceptibly until, at the end it has built up to a brilliant and frenetic climax.

Symphony Hall is a wonderful venue for such music. I don’t know anywhere with better acoustics, and a combination of newly acquired Hearing Aids, a beautiful sound from the instruments, and the Hall’s razor like clarity of sound made for a perfect acoustic experience. Within the group, the sharp edged Sitars, with their mesmerising and slightly soporific bagpipe-like drones were complemented by the lovely breathy flute playing, it all being underpinned by a gorgeous range of percussion. Sonic perfection, to my ears at least.

I came away quite exhilarated. His group of players clearly revered him, and they had been obviously playing with him for many years, the whole ensemble being very tight. You could feel an almost religious respect towards him from the others which was rather beautiful and touching to watch. When he walked very slowly onto the stage, you could see and feel his obvious frailty, and quite frankly you wondered how he was going to cope with it all. But when the Sitar was placed into his hands he was almost electrified into action, and if you closed your eyes, there was no way you’d ever have thought the person playing it was in his tenth Decade. Quite remarkable.

I feel a bit as if a door, which I had left shut for all my life, has been opened just a bit. The music is literally a different world from what I’m used to and know, and its freshness, beauty and different tone structure is really exciting.

I can feel an ominous click onto the Amazon website coming on.