Monday, August 29, 2005

The Isle of Dogs; August 29, 2005.


An ancient map of the Isle of Dogs, East London.


I was researching my film script today, the one about mice that I'm too embarrassed to describe. The final scenes of the screenplay take place in Canary Wharf Tube Station - so I headed East on the Jubilee Line to check out Norman Foster's famous cathedral-like station building.

But when I got to Canary Wharf it was such a beautiful day I started wandering around the neighbourhood, the ancient Isle of Dogs, that isolated loop in the tidal lower Thames that was once the haunt of pirates and jack tars, ropemakers and gangsters, dockworkers and Chinese opium-addicts - and is now an extraordinary and exhilarating mix of soaring modern architecture and aboriginal white trash estates, cocktailed by yuppie apartment blocks and bizarre Millennial monuments.

I think the Isle of Dogs must be one of the most intoxicatingly surreal cityscapes in the world right now.

See what you think from my rather crap cellphone photos.

The towers of Canary Wharf seen from a nearby apartment block.


Canary Wharf seen through some disused cranes near Poplar Docks.

Cage-like fencing; industrial wasteland across the river.

There was a definite and eerie bleakness in certain places, despite the affluence.

The Isle of Dogs (apparently named after Charles II's hunting dogs, which were kennelled in these swamps) is a cockpit of modern British racial tensions. The neo-fascist BNP won a council seat here in 1993, and promptly lost it six months later. The papers regularly report racist assaults - whites on Asians, Asians on whites. Etc.

I know this is terrible but I have some sympathy for the BNP-voting whites here. For centuries they were a close-knit community, isolated by economics and topography , happy in their marshy fastness. Then suddenly in the 60s, 70s and 80s they were inundated with immigrants. Did anyone ask their permission? Even their opinion? I doubt it.

That said, the indigenous, aboriginal, working class white culture seems to be doing OK - I saw lots of pasty white people sitting round guzzling lager in the sun while admiring each other's Millwall tattoos. Bless 'em. Salt of the earth. We'll need them in the next war.

And frankly, there is an irony to all this. As far as I could tell, both the poor whites and the poor Asians are more in danger, these days, of being swamped by rich Eurotrash bitches in yoga pants driving their SUVs to the Canary Wharf Waitrose.

The Millennium Dome between yuppie complexes.

Quintessential twentyfirst century London Docklandscape: container wharf, seen from posh private apartment complex, public housing towers beyond.

The Dome from the riverside walkway of a chavvy estate. There were feral white kids here, and Somalian refugee girls in headscarves, and black boxers in training doing those little rabbit punches as they bounce along like Rocky Balboa, living in council blocks scrawled with graffiti next to gleaming new posh flats worth £2m each. Like I said, the Isle of Dogs is Weird. And brilliant.

An ancient row of 18th century houses, amidst the weirdness.

The Wharf, sleek and smug above the converted docks.

Architect John Outram's bizarre, pharaohnic, post-modern, oddly uplifting Stewart Street Pumping Station. It regulates the outfall of storm-water into the Thames.

An early 19th century riverside pub, called The Gun. This is where Lord Nelson used to boff Lady Hamilton, and where lightermen used to brawl and booze through the Victorian heyday of the nearby West India Docks. It's now a lavishly refurbished and rather expensive gastropub.

Yet notice the 'gunwound' in the pubsign on right.

You see what I mean?

Friday, August 26, 2005

Chicks in Charge


Cushions. The kind of thing that gets women really excited. But should they be allowed to impose their values on the rest of us? (Er, women, I mean - not cushions. Do cushions have values?)

Anyway. Here's a long boring post on this subject, while I finish my mouse screenplay. Eek!


The Feminisation of the World?




Girls, girls, girls. They're everywhere these days, changing the furniture, demanding nice loos, imposing their softer, gentler, more 'intuitive' values. And not everyone is happy about it.

One of these unhappy voices belongs to Michaeul Buerk. He's the broadcasting veteran who presented BBC news back in the 90s. During a recent interview, Buerk was heard to complain that too many women had been appointed to senior positions within the corporation. He added that 'womens values' were taking over the world, and that men were increasingly regarded as 'mere sperm donors'.

This may seem like an old buffer's rant. But a quick glance at the TV schedules shows that there certainly is a lot of telly programming aimed at the girls. Here's a selection from one recent evening's viewing. On BBC1 you could have watched Bargain Hunt, Ground Force, and What Not To Wear. BBC2, at the same time, offered Fly to Let and Ready Steady Cook.

Meanwhile, over on the other terrestrial channels, the choice was between New Home of the Year, Grand Designs Abroad, the cosmetic surgery drama Nip/Tuck, back-to-back editions of Sex and the City, plus an hour long documentary about Victoria Wood the comedienne. Not exactly butch.

There were a couple of obviously masculine programmes broadcast that night - one about Brian Clough and the other about black British footballers. Both shows went out after 11pm.

No one, not even Michael Buerk - presumably - is saying that programmes aimed squarely at women are intrinsically a bad thing. And, yes, plenty of men like 'female' TV shows. And it is perfectly true that there are times when TV is dominated by 'male-oriented' viewing - during the World Cup for instance.

But the fact is, when male programmes do dominate the box, there are howls of protest from women viewers. Yet very few men are heard to complain about all those housecleaning shows, or the 374th broadcast of Friends, or the ghettoising of the few programmes still aimed wholly at chaps.

And here, I think, is the nub of the issue. Our passive reaction to this state of affairs shows how far the feminisation of British TV, of our whole society, has progressed. These days we simply presume everything should be organised around women, should cater for women's wants, should overtly favour female desires - because that‘s just how it is. And we neither notice, nor care, that masculine values in many spheres of life are often ignored or traduced.

This mindset is summed up by a conversation I had this week with a friend. When I asked him his opinion of all the female-oriented makeover shows on TV, he shrugged and said: 'well, television is for women anyway, isn't it?'

Duh, no. Television is for all of us.

As is education. Yet you wouldn't know it. Here are a few straws in the wind, to show which gender is now dominating British education.

Women have outperformed their male counterparts in GCSEs in every year that the exam has been set. In 1999, for the first time, girls gained more A-grade passes at A-Levels than boys. In 2000, also for the first time, women won more university degrees with First Class honours than men. It is expected that women will make up 60% of the undergraduate population in a few years.

Quite a list. It's even more remarkable when you consider that IQ tests prove that men are innately as smart as women, or slightly smarter; and that most true geniuses are male.

To be fair, this feminisation of education is causing some concern in high places. The government has instituted any number of studies and committees to find out 'the trouble with boys'. But some experts already think they know where the trouble is, and it's not 'in the boys' - it's in the feminised education system.

Madsen Pirie is president of The Adam Smith Institute. He also writes on education, and explains the growing educational gender-gap this way: ‘The old exams - O-levels, A-levels and degrees - tended to reward the qualities which boys are good at. That is, they favoured risk-taking, and grasp of the big picture, rather than the more thorough, systematic and diligent qualities which can be found amongst girls.’ He adds: ‘The new exams, with their modular elements, place much more emphasis on the kind of work women are good at. It’s therefore not surprising that girls have done better since the changes were made.’

Chris Woodhead, the government’s former chief inspector of schools, agrees with this analysis. ‘There is no doubt that elements have been incorporated into school examinations which girls find easier to do than boys.’ He also points to the troubling preponderance of women in teaching: there are now more women than men teaching in our secondary schools. And at primary school level women teachers outnumber the men by a whopping 5 to 1.

The result of all this is the advance of values and standards that 'favour' female achievement To the arguable detriment of men.

Divorce and parenting law is another arena where men seem to be the victims of a 'feminised' system. Many of us know about this: because of campaigners like Fathers4Justice, and Bob Geldof. But the startling facts still bear repetition.

75% of all divorces are called for by wives. Women are awarded custody in 91% of divorce cases involving children. In divorce cases more men have to quit the family home than women. Since the Ray Parlour case women have become entitled to a share of a man's future earnings, not just those accrued during a marriage. Lone mothers get more state benefit that lone fathers in the same situation. 55% of divorced fathers lose contact with their children three years after the split, with many of them saying this is because of 'obstructive' partners. If a 'father' suspects a child is not his, he cannot have it DNA tested without the permission of the mother. Likewise, an unmarried father cannot apply for a passport for his children, without the say-so of the mother.

Why don't men have the same parenting rights as women? According to the Newcastle Centre for Family Studies, the leading research body on family life in Britain, the problem is our paradoxical attitude to divorced fathers. We think men are not interested in being dads because they lose contact with their kids, yet the reason men lose contact with their kids is because we think they’re not interested, and thus award the woman custody. As the Newcastle Centre puts it: ‘the popular wisdom that men simply lose interest in their children and stop caring is not supported by research.’

Indeed so. The Newcastle Centre's study of 91 non-residential fathers, begun in 1991, showed that six years after divorce, only 34 men saw their children once a week and 21 didn't see them at all. But 60 per cent of the fathers who rarely saw their children were in dispute with their ex-wives about the frequency of contact. And most of the no-contact fathers had only given up in the face of ‘serious hostility and obstructiveness from their former partners.’

One sad affect of divorce, for many men, is declining health. What makes this worse is that when men do become ill, they suffer yet again in comparison to women: because of ostensibly 'feminised' health policies. Look at these stats.

In the UK, men die on average five years younger than women. Before the age of 65 men are three times as likely to suffer heart disease as women. The suicide rate for men is 3.7 times that for women. More men than women now suffer from mental health problems.

And how does the government react? It funnels money into female diseases, female needs. For instance, there at least a dozen ‘well-woman’ health centres in London; there are no ‘well-man’ centres. There are also screening programmes for female diseases like breast and cervical cancer, yet, despite government promises, still no equivalent for prostate or testicular cancer - even though deaths from prostate cancer are almost as high as deaths from breast cancer.

Likewise, in one year in the 1990s, the Government spent £5 million on breast cancer research - and just £76,000 on prostate cancer. And the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in 2000 spent £8m on breast cancer research, compared with £5.5m for colon cancer, even though the latter kills more people.

How is this happening? 'Breast cancer research has moved forward much faster than
the others because of the breast cancer lobby, which is very powerful,' says Ian Gibson MP, chairman of the House of Commons' all-party group on cancer. Professor Jonathan Waxman of the Prostate Cancer Charity, is more blunt. He says the Government had been swayed by a feminine agenda. 'The Government has responded to the huge emotional pull of breast cancer.’

So much for health, education and divorce law. There are plenty of other areas where men are losing out to a system that prioritises female needs. Here's a selection.

Men retire at 65, but women are entitled to a pension from sixty. There are special retraining courses aimed at women returning to work, but none for men. Women-only swimming pool sessions are illegal, yet councils continue to promote them. Women are less likely to go to prison than men - for identical offences. There is a ‘Minister for Women’, no ‘Minister for Men’. The government funds thousands of ‘women’s groups’ and feminist organisations - and not a single male equivalent.

And so on, and so forth. It's a stark imbalance. Yet the most important form of 'girlification' is not in our education policy, nor our health priorities; nor is it even in our divorce law, or pension law, or our attitudes to parenting. No. To my mind it's in the way this feminisation is affecting our culture and mores. Almost without our noticing, female 'aesthetics' and 'values' have taken over.

Here's a little experiment. See how you respond to these female buzzwords: bright, floral, cute, intuitive, friendly, handy, compact, harmonious, easy. Now assess your response to these masculine buzzwords: dark, powerful, logical, aggressive, tough, big, imposing, competitive, hard.

You see? It seems to me that, as a society, we are being conditioned to warm to the former values, and to avoid, even shun, the latter. And contemporary designers and architects are well aware of this. Notice the design of modern pubs. Lots of vases, blonde wood, and sofas. They look like breakfast TV sets - and that's not surprising, because breakfast TV is aimed squarely at women. Alternatively: compare the new, curvy, feminine Gherkin in London to the aggressive, phallic, very 1980s Canary Wharf.

The same feminisation can be found in the design and marketing of almost everything: from curvy cars to cute computers, from winsome iPods to shirtsleeved politicians. Particularly politicians. These days, for our top politicos, it's all polo necks and Jeremy Vine, rather than pinstripes and Jeremy Paxman.

You can even see this feminisation in our moral attitudes. Men differ from women in tending to cherish function over form - just look at the way many men dress.

Conversely, women often see form as being more important than function. And it's the female sensibility which is coming to dominate our sociopolitical debates. It's the obviously brutal form of foxhunting that offends many, not the function of killing foxes (which will still be killed, and brutally). Similarly, it's the form of public emoting over disasters and tragedies which now expect from our leaders, the function of actual grief, anger, and empathy is less important.

But does any of this matter? I think it does. Yes it is right that society should promote softer, kinder, more communicative, 'touchy-feely' female values. Heaven knows we need them - and they were often sorely neglected in the past. But perhaps the pendulum has swung too far. A healthy society will encourage both female and male values. Alongside intuition, niceness and pastel-coloured scatter cushions, we also require - sometimes desperately - the masculine virtues of toughness and daring, innovation and logic.

Madsen Pirie has this to say about British education, and I think it can be applied across the board. ‘Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves what sort of society we are producing if we feminise the education system. When we select the methodical over the risk-takers, and the systematic over those with insight, where will that leave us? While our country might be more peaceable, some may ask - will we still be as inventive and creative? Will we still produce penicillin and hovercraft?’

Put it another way: enough pastel, already.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Toffeewomble: on Sabbatical


I may not be blogging much in the next two or three weeks. Because I am writing a screenplay about MICE. Yes, that's right, mice. Not aliens, or terrorism or pirates or wartime betrayals or little-known British TV actresses like Zoe Telford. MICE.

Anyhoo, I can't say anymore because it is all too hush-hush, and I don't want anyone to steal my idea. Also it's very embarrassing - let's face it, I'm writing a film about MICE.

Squeak!

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Britain's Other Islands. At Last.


A yacht approaching the metropolitan hurly-burly of St Agnes island, in the Scillies. More pics below.


A few weeks ago my piece on the more obscure islands of Britain was finally published, in the Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Regular toffeewomblers will recall my banging on about this odyssey, ad nauseam, through the Spring. As I wearied you all with my thoughts for so long, I reckoned you might like to read the resulting article. Yertiz.



Britain's Other Islands



What are the six most beautiful and extraordinary islands off Britain and Ireland? It’s a harder question than it might seem: because there are 5,500 of them. Some are just mudflats, some just sandbanks, many are rocky outcrops and skerries known only to seals, albatrosses, and retired lighthouse-keepers.

Here, nonetheless is our stab at an answer. We’ve ignored the well-known ones - Lundy and Skye, Aran and Wight - because for an island to be truly seductive, it must surely have an air of mystery, an air - for the traveller - of discovery. Naturally, many people will disagree with this roster - will know of an island that is equally forgotten, and far more alluring. But whatever the argument, we think our choice proves a profound point: every year millions of us jet across the world seeking out the authentic and the exotic. Yet, as these following pages show, some of the strangest, loveliest, most unspoiled places on earth can be found just a few nautical miles from our very own shores.





St Agnes

Just one single parking offence has ever been recorded in the mild and balmy archipelago of the Scilly Isles, thirty miles west of Penzance. It happened a few years ago, when a traffic warden on holiday from the English mainland took a dislike to a slightly askew vehicle in Hugh Town, the capital of the main island, St Mary’s. The driver was duly ticketed, then the traffic warden flew home, presumably satisfied with his busman’s holiday.

This remarkable statistic gives a flavour of the placid and otherworldly atmosphere that obtains on the Scillies. Yet even within this mellow and affable scatter of islands there is one place that stands out for detachment. And that is St Agnes, the furthermost island of the entire chain.

A good place to reach out and touch St Agnes’s air of innocent mystery is Gugh, a lump of rock which is attached to Agnes by a sparkling causeway of creamy white sand (which overfloods at high tide, so watch out). There are only two houses on Gugh, both of which have oddly curved roofs, designed to withstand the winter gales. Apart from these humble and eccentric dwellings, the rest of Gugh is given over to the ancients. On the topmost hill is a fine standing stone, the Old Man of Gugh. This menhir is surrounded by a network of enigmatic cairns and chambered warrior tombs. Standing on the top of Gugh, looking out across the widowmaking reefs and the tourqouise shallows, and you can see why the Celts chose this spot for their very own Valhalla, an earthly heaven for the noble dead.

But Agnes isn't just venerable ruins. It has one solitary but splendid inn: the Turk's Head, situated with a landscape-artist’s eye right on the little quayside of Porth Conger. In the evening, just about everyone on Agnes comes to the Turk's, and most of them can fit in the Snug. Spend a few nights here, sampling the single malts and seafood curries, and you'll swiftly get to know these inhabitants, many of whom are inter-related in the most labyrinthine way. At least half of them share the same surname.

Beyond the Turk’s Head, the main 'road' into the island splits in two. Take the southern route and you'll cross the bouldered heath of Wingletang Down, until you reach a cute little beach: the sand here is allegedly sultana'd with beads once lost from a Spanish galleon. Take the other path from the pub and you come to fields full of trumpeting daffodils in winter, and scented by herbs and wildflowers in summer.

This same lane threads through the rugged heart of the island, which comprises a couple of guest houses and self catering cottages, some farms, a post office, a grove of gnarly tamarisk trees and perhaps a traffic jam of golf carts (the sole means of wheeled transport on the roadless island).

At the end of the oval isle the lanes rejoin. Here there is a strange and humble maze, known as Troytown, constructed out of soft white stones by a Georgian mariner driven mad by loneliness - or so the legend goes. Perhaps he was just feeling idle, relaxed and de-stressed - like everyone else who makes it to this most wistful and romantic of outliers.



Brownsea

I’m not quite sure I’m in the right place. Beery, noisy, bottle-strewn Poole Quay is enjoying a Mod Convention; standing amidst these parka-clad ex-hoodlums, reliving their Quadrophenia days, it’s very hard to believe that a chunk of English paradise lies just a mile or two across the rough grey waters of Poole Harbour. But that’s what the guidebooks are telling me.

Twenty minutes on the ferry shows me that I was wrong to doubt. Brownsea Island is an extroardinary survival, a dreamy-green museum piece, a 500-acre glimpse of a lost, Edenic England.

Mostly it consists of sandy woodland and pristine marshes, full of red squirrels and sika deer. But concealed in the very heart of this wilderness is an exquisite green meadow, surounding a perfect English churchyard. On the bright Spring day that greets me, dozens of iridescent peacocks are arrayed across this sward, pecking through the bluebells in a self-conscious way, like overdressed debutantes after a rave.

Brownsea’s remarkable state of preservation, on the congested south coast of England, is due as much to serendipity as to deliberate policy. Over the centuries, the various attempts at industrialisation (a pottery, a copperas mine) have all gone bankrupt in different ways. Meanwhile the island's various bizarre owners (diabolist baronets, hermetic spinsters) have not generally been the sort to encourage significant development. In the 20th century even the Nazis did their bit for Brownsea: bombing the only ugly buildings on the isle. Ever since then the National Trust has taken great care of the place, ably assisted by the global Scouting movement - who view the place as sacred territory, as it was the site of Lord Baden-Powell’s very first scout camp, in 1912.

This protected nature does have its downside: Brownsea lacks facilities. Yes there is a coffeeshop, but unless you want to live on organic flapjacks, you'll have to do your food-shopping in Poole. Equally disconcerting is the choice of accommodation. There isn’t one. The only rentable space is a small but lovable National Trust cottage, right on the quay.

But these minor clouds have a very silver lining. When the last ferry leaves at 5pm: I realise I am the last tourist left on the island. In fact, when the ferry departs I feel like I am the only person left on the island - of any kind. Yes, the other cottages and lodges are inhabited by National Trust wardens, yes the battlemented castle, owned by John Lewis Partnership, is full of shop-workers on a rest cure. But these people keep themselves to themselves. I’ve never felt such a sense of blissful and silent isolation on a moonlit walk. Except when I trip over a sleeping peacock.




Bardsey

The only way to Bardsey island, two miles from the Llyun Peninsula, in North Wales, is by ferry. At least that’s what they call it. In fact it’s a ten-man dinghy, biffed by waves, sprayed with sea, and crewed by daredevil Welsh-speaking seamen. As such it’s a suitable introduction to the feral, spiritual, lonesome, ultra-windy world of the 'island of the sea-currents'.

Bardsey is as wreathed in ancient history as it is swept by salty drizzle. Some say this is Arthur's Avalon, others that Merlin is buried here; what is certain is that this two-mile-long chunk of sheep-nibbled grassland has had its fair share of bearded Celtic holymen wandering its byways: Saints Tydecho, Cynllo, Dochdwy, Mael, Sulien, Tanwg, Eithras, Padarn, Trunio and Maelrys are all said to have done time here, along with, some claim, 20,000 other monks and hermits. Must have been rather noisy if they all greeted each other by name.

These days, saints are pretty rare on Bardsey. As are the ruins of their monasteries and hermitages (apart from a crumbling monastery tower, and a winsome Welsh chapel). But the ambience of Bardsey's holiness abides: stride to the end of the vividly green island, ducking the shearwaters and terns (the island is an internationally famous bird sanctuary) and Bardsey can feel as close to God as anywhere in Europe. Very close to the chilly wet clouds, too.

If you do go to Bardsey, be prepared to rough it. There isn't exactly a bus service to get you around - just a few asthmatic tractors, which will ferry your food from the basic shops. Moreover, the dozen or so cottages maintained for self-caterers are utterly devoid of mod cons - including electricity. And flushing lavatories. But then again, living by candelight and compost toilet has its own earthy, eccentric, Dark Age charms. Well, maybe not the toilets.

The other fascinating aspect of Bardsey, should you decide to book one of the incredibly cheap holiday lets, will likely be your neighbours. As it is so inaccessible, Bardsey plays host to the serious-minded: religious pilgrims and committed birdwatchers, and the occasional passing artist. Yet the sense of austere dedication these people inspire is somehow fitting for this very medieval sanctuary, this island of hermits, ghosts, and trembling Celtic saints.



Inishboffin


The poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were both known for the aggression, even the cruelty of their poetry. Perhaps that’s why they both fell in love with this seven-square mile chunk of wave-lashed, West Coast Irish limestone: even by the bloodspattered standards of Irish history, Inishboffin has a violent if romantic past.

Grace O'Malley, the famous Irish pirate queen, used Inishbofin as a base for her marauding escapades in the 16th century. In Cromwell's time the island was filled with mutinous prisoners: one Irish bishop was drowned in the harbour by the occupying English soldiery. Even the island's Gaelic name - 'white cow island' - bespeaks a bloody legend: it tells of a mysterious woman who emerged from an unholy mist driving a white heifer; when she was thrashed by the island's frightened fisherman, she turned to stone in despair.

Happily, my first stroll around the isle shows that its views and landscapes are as inspiring as the island’s stories. From the topmost cliff I can see the rotten-tooth-shaped isle of Inishturk to the north, and the grey-green moorlands of Connemara to the east. Around me is rolling grassland and Ribena-purple heather-beds, all chock-full of birdlife, from choughs to corn buntings to petrels. And dominating everything is the brutality of the besieging Atlantic - even on a calm day, the roiling waves of white and blue that surround Inishboffin look like a load of rioting Chelsea fans, eagerly jumping up and down.

Not that Inishbofin is all savagery and anger. A rollicking night in one of the island's hotels or pubs, like the Doonmore, or Day's, can give a new meaning to the phrase 'hospitality industry'. Just watch out for the swashbuckling local womenfolk drinking Bacardi Breezers; if my experience is anything to go by, Grace O’Malley has some living descendants in these parts.



Tanera Mhor


You have to work hard to get to tiny, violin-shaped Tanera Mhor, the only inhabited isle of the Summer Isles archipelago, in North West Scotland. Indeed you have to work so hard you might feel you’ve merited a Duke of Edinburgh Award before you get there. First you have to make it to Inverness. Then there's a two hour drive across the moors to pretty Ullapool, Queen Victoria's favourite herring port. Then you have to head north, avoiding the encroaching crags and sea-lochs, before driving along a spectacular but lengthy single track road to the dozy little port of Alchitibuie.

Here, unless you have booked a berth on one of the cruise boats that ply these waters in summer, you will have to ask Bill Wilder, the English owner of the island, to ferry you across the waters of Loch Broome. This can be quite exciting in a force eight gale, especially when you remember that until a few years ago Bill was a very landlocked farmer in Wiltshire.

Yet Tenara is worth a few scares. Two square miles in size, and entirely carless, it is demurely pretty, and surprisingly accommodating for its size and remoteness. There's a couple of well-appointed self-catering cottages, though you will have to do your shopping in Alchiltibuie, or even Ullapool. There's a Post Office which prints its own stamps (a government dispensation to the lonelier outposts of Scoland), there's even a tea-shop which does sandwiches, cakes, and basket-weaving classes (courtesy of Bill’s wife Jean). And there are dozens of curious paths that snake past Viking docks, and herring-boners' cottages, and a famously windswept garden, loved and cursed in equal measure by Frasier Darling, the pioneer ecologist who lived here, and started the garden, in the 1930s.

Most of all there are the views. These are sublime. Stand on the sun-drenched (or rain-lashed) terrace of the cafe. The mountains and headlands of Ross and Cromarty stretch south in an infinite, misty recession, as far as the hippy commune of Scoraig and the wild-cat haunted shores of Gruinard Bay.



Foula


Tanera Mhor and Bardsey might be wild, St Agnes and Inisboffin might be inspiring, but along with every other island in Britain and Ireland, they all yield in terms of savage beauty to infamous Foula, a six-square-mile outcrop of storm-mugged sandstone, twenty miles west of the Shetlands.

Foula (it’s pronounced Foo-lah) is arguably the most isolated inhabited island in the entire British Isles. Even if this claim is sometimes disputed with Fair Isle, a larger island north of the Orkneys, Foula is certainly a place of quite astonishing toughness, and a fitting place to end any British island odyssey.

For instance, the seas here are so furious (the Admiralty records an average of one calm day a year) the local ferry-boat, that voyages to the Shetland mainland, can sometimes be marooned on Foula for weeks. And when the little boat is in port they have haul it onto a high platform in case it gets crushed in a storm. Even the daily Loganair service to Foula, from Tingwalls airport in the Shetlands, is hair-raising: it lands on a home-made airstrip, which ends twenty yards short of the surging Atlantic.

But don't let that put you off. As long as you are prepared to rough it (in the only B&B on the island, or one of the spectacularly situated self-catering cottages) a few days on Foula is a grand and exhilarating insight into life on the precipice. People still cut their peats as they did two hundred years ago. The local crofters have to shelter their growing vegetables in stone corrals, so aggressive are the winds. These vegetables will likely fill your plate (if you dine at the B&B) as there are absolutely no shops or pubs: for any other supplies you'll need to rely on boat or plane. As for getting around, there are a few cars, but they are as battered and salt-chewed as their drivers - the concepts of driving licenses and MOTs are regarded as mainland affectations by many Foulans.

Away from the inhabited eastern coastal strip, it gets even wilder: puffins and petrels wheel beside Foula’s twelve hundred foot high cliffs, some of the most daunting drops on earth. A third of the world's arctic skuas, big fierce birds nicknamed Bonxies, nest on the great hills of the island. And right at the far westen edge of the isle is a daunting chasm called the Sneck o' da Smaalie, which slices through the sandstone in the most cardiac-arresting way. Beyond the Sneck the cold sea writhes and rages, like a madman in his straitjacket.

The very highest hill on Foula is called The Sneug. Climb this and look south. On a very clear day they say it is possible to see the snowy mountaintop of Ben Howe in north Scotland, sixty miles distant. This lofty vantage point is certainly a good place to consider the variety and beauty of all the British Isles: from Jethou to Coquet, from Scalpay to Mullion, from Steep Holm to Mingulay to Papa Stour. Happy island-hopping.

The demi-Eden that is Brownsea island.

Cottages on Inishboffin island, in unusually Satanic weather conditions.

Bardsey Island. Kingdom of unpronounceable saints.

Some shaggy Highland Cattle, studiously ignoring the beauty of Tenara Mhor and the Summerisles, beyond.

And finally, the mighty cliffs of Foula. People used to climb down these rockfaces, to catch baby puffins.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

All Must Have Prizes?


Some of the 15,000 people hearing they have all won the Fields Prize for Mathematics, yesterday.



Grade Inflation


Critics are attacking the Culture Minister, David Lammy, for 'literary dumbing down', following the announcement that 250,456 people have won the Booker Prize for Literature, this year.

Hitherto, the prize was restricted to just one novelist, in the British Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland; officially, the prize goes to the writer responsible for the most 'significant achievement in novel writing in the preceding year'.

Several years ago, however, the government tried to broaden the remit of the Man Booker prize, and make it more 'inclusive' and less 'elitist'. Since then, tens of thousands of people have won the Booker prize, a process which culminated in yesterday's extraordinary scenes at the Man Booker award ceremony, when a quarter of a million novelists turned up to collect their gongs, leading to unprecedented traffic jams around London's Guildhall.

David Lammy rejects the idea that the worth of the Man Booker prize has been diluted. 'People who say this are just literary snobs. The fact is, because of the government's investment in education, kids are being taught more, people are getting smarter, and therefore novelists are getting better. We should be celebrating the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are now writing the single best novel of the year, nor decrying it.'

However, government critics point to other signs of cultural 'dumbing down'. Last year the Turner Prize for the best young British artist of the year was awarded to forty seven hundred people, many of them handicapped, lame, halt and indeed blind. This followed intense discussion at the Culture Ministry, after which it was decreed that questions of taste, talent and artistic worth should loom less large in the Turner judges' minds, compared to factors like gender, race, sexual orientation and likelihood to vote New Labour.

In return, government sources say they are merely mirroring similar events across the world. Next year's Nobel prize for Chemistry has been won by 778,859 women, and a hamster, after the Swedish Nobel Committee was accused of sexism and speciesism, following the revelation that no women had won the prize for several decades, and even fewer pets. Meanwhile, over in Rome, the Catholic church has recently announced that one day it hopes everyone can be Pope, for ten minutes each. Even more curiously, the Office for National Statistics announced, just yesterday, that after an official revision of the relevant data, it now believes that everyone in the UK has an IQ of 367, and is a unique genius.

William Shakespeare was unavailable for comment.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Toffeewomble: From Strength to Strength


Here is the latest Sitemeter reading on my blog, Ye Olde Toffeewomble. As you can see, the 'womble is recording exponential growth, up from a frankly derisory zero hits a month in late winter, to a blogtastic 2600 hits a month so far this August (and we're only halfway through!). At this rate the Womble will be the best-read personal sex-and-drug-based semi-political blog in east Fitzrovia, by 2009.

We here on the Womble would like to thank all toffeewomblers for their loyalty, custom and percipient commentary. It's been emotional. We promise to maintain the high standards already established, and to use even more swearing.

One interesting note is that surge in readership back in May. Checking my records, I see that this happened when I wrote about my encounter with a Vietnamese hooker. And people say the Internet is driven by sex. Pah!

Next post: How I Once Had Sex With Seventeen Cambodian Whores In Two Minutes.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

How To Abuse Foreigners


You wanna punch this guy, right? But you're not sure why? Me neither. But there's no denying the fun to be had in insulting and abusing foreigners.



How To Get Beaten Up Abroad


I've just come back from Paris, where there was lots of Frenchmen. As always when I am surrounded by Frenchmen, I had a strange desire to biff many of them on the nose, or at least roundly diss them*.
But when you turn to your phrasebook, looking for a handy insult, what do you find? Ludicrously unuseful phrases, that's what. 'Where is the nearest nanometer please?', 'Is it true your godmother is a philologist?' Etc.
So I thought I'd compile my own phrase book of foreign insults. And here it is. I have graded the phrases by degree of insulting-ness.


+ Likely to raise an eyebrow or two

Italian: Cazzo - Prick

Greek: Malakas - Wanker

Spanish: Hijo de puta - Son of a whore

German: Arschloch - Arsehole

Vietnamese: Aat may nhin giong nuhur cai lon - Your face looks like a female sex organ

Japanese: Kono imo - Yokel (literally, 'you potato', as potatoes are grown in the country)

Dutch: Aidsleir - Aids carrier

Irish: Mallacht de ort - The curse of God on you

Thai: Ai sokabrok - Dirtbag




++ Likely to get you insulted in return

Spanish: Mierda de tio - Worthless shit

German: Trockenwischer - Dry wanker

Yiddish: Tsu kleyn tsu zayn a mentsh un tsu grys tsu zayn a shmok - Too small to be a man too big to be a prick

Flemish: Vulle klootzak - Dirty scrotum

Thai: Macam kor dio! - Shorty! (literally means that you are as big as a
tamarind seed pod with only one seed)

Finnish: Saatanan perkeelen vittu! - Satan's Devil's cunt!

Dutch: Kankerlier - Cancer carrier

Irish: Bas na bpisisn chagat - The death of kittens to you (i.e. drowning)




+++ Likely to get you slapped in pubs

Spanish: Oiga, pichi - Hey there tinydick

Romany: Ha miro kar - Suck my cock

Irish: Cigire tonach - Arse inspector

Italian: Un pidocchio rifatto - An unreconstructed louse (i.e. nouveau- riche)

French: Pisse vinaigre - Vinegar pisser (i.e. miser)

Corsican: Ha i zini in istacca - He's got sea-urchins in his pocket (i.e. tightwad)

Thai: Cheep chahlee - Skinflint (from wartime GI talk 'cheap-charlie')

Indonesian: Goblok lu! - You're ugly!

Greek: Yamo tin panayia sou - Fuck your mother of God



++++ Likely to get you bottled

Portuguese: Vai t'a por num porco - Go fuck a pig

Scots: Wan fukkit fundling - Ill conceived foundling

Dutch: Kankerhoer - Cancer-whore

Irish: Nar chasfaidh tu, a scliteach - May you not turn round, o castrated pig

German: Huhnerficker - Chickenfucker

Spanish: Que to folle un pez - May you be fucked by a fish

Vietnamese: Do di cho! - Bitch prostitute

Japanese: Buta! - Fat pig!

Thai: Bai chak wow, see - Go play with yourself, wanker

Indonesian: Pantat lu gede - You have a great big fat ass



+++++ Likely to get your mother stabbed. And your house burned down

Indonesian: Pegi sana, entot mak lu - Go away and fuck your mother

Irish: O muise, mustais frog ort, o bhitch - Oh indeed, a frog's moustache on you, o bitch

Spanish: Me cago en tus muertos - I shit on your dead

Vietnamese: Cai lon ma may - Suck your mother's cunt

Japanese: Busu - You're ugly (the worst possible insult for a girl)

Thai: Ee hia! - You asshole! (literally, and very dangerously, 'you monitor lizard')

Romany: Dav ti dakery minge - I take your mother's cunt, fuckhead

Finnish: Veda vittu paahas - Go pull a cunt over your head

French: J'nique ta soeur - I fuck your sister

Yiddish: Zol dir chapn a chalerye - May you catch cholera



*But I do rather like the French as well. I know, it's confusing. See my post 'My Referendum Rhapsody' for further thoughts...

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Naziphobia On The Rise, Says Report


Some of the vast majority of peaceful British Nazis, at a local village meeting, yesterday.


Naziphobia on the rise, says report



A report from the British Anti-Racist Federation (BARF) has revealed a frightening rise in Naziphobia, following the attacks on Britain by extreme Nazis.

Professor Tim Bimley, director of BARF, told us yesterday: 'Just because a few radicalised Nazis have attempted to attack Britain with large scale bombing atrocities, this in no way justifies any revenge against the vast, peaceable majority of Britain's Nazis, who simply want to live their quiet Jew-hating lives as they have always done.'

Heinrich Sturmer, is a British Nazi from Bradford, part of the growing minority of immigrant Nazis in Britain's industrial cities. 'Ever since these radical Nazis attacked London, life for us has become intolerable,' he says, in the lebensraum of his neat little bungalow. 'People stare at us differently. The other day I was goose-stepping down Bradford High Street, shouting in a hectoring manner and demanding that Jew-shops give me free food, and one small English boy shouted Hitler! at me. Luckily the British police jumped on the small boy, beat him up and carted him off to jail. He is now being charged with inciting ideological hatred. But it was a frightening incident.'

BARF has many such accounts on its records. The small British Nazi community in Leeds had their annual torchlit parade interrupted, before their local 'fuhrer', or community leader, could denounce Slavs and gypsies as vile thieving parasites, as is traditional. A hundred miles south, the significant British Nazi community of Luton claims that a local journalist has written columns questioning the British Nazis' use of eugenics, and forced sterilisation.

'These things are traditional to Nazis,' says one Luton Nazi, Hans Schlenk. 'We've always sterilised our mental deficients and stupid retards. And we only allow breeding between blue eyed Aryans. What's wrong with that? It's our way of life. Likewise,' he adds, his small moustache bristling, 'Nazis have a great tradition of gassing undesirable elements in our own community. Its just racism to say we should stop. We're just different. Why can't the British live with that?'

David Bloony, The Runnymede Trust, concurs. 'If multiculturalism is to mean anything, it means that we tolerate cultural differences. Nazis are genocidal sadists with a long tradition of anti-Semitic hatred, we should respect that.' And the attacks? 'If we let the Nazi bombings change our way of life, then we will have let them win. Because that's what all Nazis want. Er, uhm, I mean some Nazis. Er.. don't I?'

Monday, August 08, 2005

New Terrorist Threat


An artist's impression of the hideous new terrorist threat facing the UK.


New Warnings from Scotland Yard



Incredible as it may seem, Britain is facing a new wave of terror - even more heinous and appalling than the suicide bombs of July 7th and 21st.
'I'm afraid it's true,' says Detective Inspector Loic Rich, of the Organised Terror Unit at Cornwall Police. 'The recent arrests around Britain have unearthed some chilling documents, which indicate that al-Qaeda is planning a new form of assault.'
And the details? 'Somewhat sketchy at the moment' says the Detective, 'so we can't be wholly sure. But it would appear that the terrorists are hoping to start a tsunami, which they will then surf onto the British shore, using jet-propelled surfboards. And as they land on the battered shores of Britain, they will be squirting bird flu at people, from special sort of guns.'
It seems barely credible. A man-made tsunami, ridden by suicidal bird-flu squirting jet-powered surf-terrorists, yet that may well be the stark scenario facing the people of this country. So horrible is this potentiality, the authorities have yet to establish a means of defense. 'But we're working on it' says the Detective. 'Perhaps we can build a huge plastic dome to go over the country, with holes in it so people can breathe. Or we could float Britain away from danger with seventy billion small fairground balloons. But I'm afraid, until we've cracked it, the UK is, yes, at danger from tsunami-surfing avian-flu squirting jet-terrorists.'

Saturday, August 06, 2005

The Piffling Assurance Company



Have you ever woken up next to a lady who looked like this? Annoying, isn't it? Here's how to insure against such minor but appalling calamities...



Trivial Insurance Claims

It occurs to me, amidst these days of major disasters, of bombs and tsunamis and wars and, er, other stuff - that most people's lives aren't actually afflicted by this kind of catastrophe. Rather, the things that most people suffer and endure are the truly minor disasters, the utterly trivial cataclysms, the piffling little screw-ups that make us look up at the Heavens and say: thanks, asshole.
In that light, I suddenly thought - why can't you insure against this stuff? The titchy stuff? The picayune enormities?

So I rang up some insurance companies to check out the deal. And see how much it would cost.


Ten of Life's Little Annoyances - and the Cost of Insuring Against Them


1. You did it. You met this amazing bird. You persuaded her back to your place. Then she took off her kit and.... nothing. Nada. You couldn't get it up 'cause you were too drunk.
Insurer's quote. 'To offer insurance against brewer's droop we'd have to know if there was any history of impotence. Get a medical report. For an averagely healthy young man we'd charge a premium of about £20 a year, on a payout of, say, £500.'

2. What's worse then a bad pint? Apart from cancer? And genocide?
'For this we'd have to know what and how much you drink. Real ale is obviously more likely to go off than keg lager, for instance. I reckon £20 a year premium, putative payout: £30.'

3. We've all been there. The pounding headache. The ashtray mouth. The inexplicable bruises. And the nameless partner across the pillow who looks like a sea monster in a wig...
'Waking up with an ugly woman is a very subjective grievance to insure against. Who or what is ugly? And of course there's the fact that you did get laid, so the agony wouldn't be that bad. £150 a year premium. Payout about £200.'

4. It's new. It's by your favourite band. You've been waiting for weeks and when you rip off the plastic and slap it in the hi-fi every track sucks.
'What makes a bad movie, or a boring record? Again, very subjective. Say £80 a year premium, payout £200.'

5. The hair is gelled. The strides are ironed. Then you get to the party and it consists of three punchy prop-forwards and some mad bint with a 'tache.
'A boring party should be insurable. How much did you spend on preparations? The emotional distress might be mitigated by the fact that you got pissed anyway. I'd say a premium of about £20 a year, payout £50.'

6. You're tired and hungover and it's 3 am and it's raining. Hey, guess what? - no taxis.
'We'd need an actuarial report on the amount of taxis in your area. This is insurable, but expensive - it happens a lot. Annual premium £500, payout £600.'

7. Remember that time when the barber held the mirror up and you nodded and mumbled 'yes, that's great' and then you went home and stayed in for three months?
'We'd take this very seriously - there have been cases of people suing their hairdressers for incompetent haircuts. A really bad haircut can affect your social standing, your job, your overall confidence. Premium £3000 a year, payout £10,000?'

8. It was your favourite shirt. The white cotton one. Then your nan went and put it in the wash with a Man United sock.
'Ruined clothes are easily insured against. How much was the shirt worth? Say £5 a year premium, £100 payout for the shirt and the annoyance.'

9. Oh God, the horror. The terror. The utter ego-reducing awfulness of hearing the prettiest girl in the club say "piss off, grandad."
'Insuring against a "knockback" would depend on how attractive you are. How likely to be rejected. £300 a year premium, £2000 payout.'

10. You follow your team through the ups and downs, hells and high-waters of cup competition - then the useless tossers go and lose in the final.
'Emotional pain is very arguable. We'd want a big premium if you were a major fan: £400 a year, perhaps. With a possible payout of £2000.'


With thanks to Lloyds of London

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

International Seduction Techniques


I'm bored of blogging morbid guff about bombs. So here's something a little more light-hearted, verging on pointless.


How To Pull In Eleven Languages


French

Il y a du monde au balcon
You have wonderful breasts (literally: the world is on your balcony)

Oh, quelle cul t'as
God you've got a great arse


Indonesian

Kamu wongi sekali
You smell very nice

Aku tergila-gila olehmul
I'm crazy about you

Bukalah bajumu
Get your kit off


Italian

Ba-ba-bachami bambina sulla bo-bo-bocca piccolina
Kiss kiss kiss me little girl on my mouth mouth mouth little one

Fammi vedere tua cozza barbuta
I want to eat your bearded clam


Japanese

Nani iro-no shitagi-o tsuketeru-no?
What colour underwear are you wearing?

Kirei-na hada-dane
You have beautiful skin

Hokuru-o mitsukuketa
I found your birthmark

Shawa-o abinagara sekkusu-suru-no suki?
Do you like to make love in the shower?

Anata-no ai-nashi-ja ikirarenai
I can't live without your love


Spanish

Eh, guapa, que tal?
Hey, goodlooking, how's it hanging?

Querio chupar tu sexo
I want to suck your sex part


Korean

Chum chushileyo?
Would you like to dance?

Chum chai chushinunteyo
You dance well

Odi tandero kacho
Shall we go elsewhere?

Kunyang kopi mashiro kayo
Just for coffee

Sonda sonda!
I'm coming! I'm coming!

Sata
I came

Nui sarang-he, hachiman no-e nampyoni telsu opso
I love you, but I can't become your husband

Chokatunom! Shipalom! Chibena kaso taltal-cho! Duechi!
You look like a penis! Gigolo! Go home and masturbate, you pig!


Yiddish

Ikh bin dorshtik far dayn brust
I am hungry for your breasts

Firt mikh tsu ganeydn
Please take me to Heaven


Vietnamese

May co the nhay voi tao duoc khong?
You wanna dance with me?

Nhac rap cua nguoi Viet nam ngo quai!
Vietnamese rap music is cool!

May nung lon roi ha?
Is your vagina in heat?

Bu cac tao ne!
Suck my penis!

Goi tao nhe
Call me


Russian

U vas i est drug?
Have you got a boyfriend?

Maya Krasavitza
My beauty!


Chinese

Ni how shing-gan!
You are so sexy!

Ni duh yien ging hun may!
You have beautiful eyes!

Pah shem muh?
What are you afraid of?

Shi wo!
Blow me!

Shiau li i-dien...
Softer...

Ni dzua duh hun how! Ni hun li-hai!
You do it so well...

Ho bay sher
.. especially doggie style


Turkish

Gelinmi?
Do you want to come?

Cigerim!
My darling! (literally: my liver! - i.e. you are as valuable to me as my most important internal organ)