Monday, 1 November 2010

Black Country wisdom

Last week - being the half-term break - saw us returning home to the Dudley area for a brief holiday. While there, we took Guthlac to the slightly shabby but nonetheless enjoyable Dudley Zoo, one of his favourite places.

While trekking round the reptile and creepy-crawlies house, we overheard the following dialogue:

Small girl (standing nervously in front of the tarantulas): Mummay! Iss freakin' me owt!
Mother (from round corner): Well doe look arrit then.

Sound common sense, as so often found in this so down-to-earth part of the country.

And widely applicable, I believe. Make someone called Aynuk UN secretary-general, and many of the sources of global angst would disappear.

"We are deeply offended by the blasphemous cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)!"
"Well doe look at them then."

"We deeply oppose the idea of building a mosque in our beautiful, Christian city."
"Well doe look arrit then."

"This celebrity magazine has Katie Price on the cover."
"Doe look arrit then. In fact, bairn it. Bairn all celebrity magazines."

I'd vote for it.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Dungeons, Dragons and Ballpits

When I was a geeky teenager with bad hair, I and some similarly afflicted chums found solace from our socially disadvantaged state by retreating into the imaginary world of Dungeons and Dragons, where all fights could be sorted out by rolling several 20-sided dice and doing an immense amount of looking stuff up in tables, and all women were well-muscled, clad in skintight leather and entirely imaginary.

One of my pals in this undertaking - in fact the one who had introduced the rest of us to the pastime - was a particularly sadistic plump boy named Lucas. Lucas had a vicious streak and often acted as Dungeonmaster - nothing to do with naughty goings on in leather underwear (fortunately, as you'd agree if you'd seen him) - but rather the person who designed the virtual dungeon which the rest of us would explore in our alter-egos as Halfkutt the Barbarian Warrior, Thruthelthrolth the Wizard and Gimni the Dwarf or some such.

"There is a door on the right. What do you want to do?" Lucas would ask neutrally.
"We'll open it!"
[Consult tables, look at graph-paper, roll dice]
"A huge spiked steel ball on a chain has swung down out of the darkness."
[We throw dice against our dexterity scores]
"Your head has been smashed to pulp, splattering your brains 20 feet down the passageway and qualifying you for a job teaching classics at Wellington!" he would announce with an evil grin.

I often wonder what happened to him. Last Friday I found out - he's designing softplay areas for small kids. It was pouring with rain, so the usual Friday session at the park that Guthlac and I enjoy was off. A quick internet search revealed an appealing-looking softplay venue not too far away, so off we went.

For those without small kids, let me briefly outline what a softplay area is - it's basically a large industrial building (usually a converted warehouse) containing a few tables, a snackbar and a massive construction made of scaffolding covered in brightly coloured vinyl padding and containing a labyrinth of walkways, slides, rope ladders, tunnels and ball-pits. The basic idea is that parents take their kids along, post them into the labyrinth and then sit down for a cup of tea until the kids escape.

Except that Guthlac - a kindly and generous boy - wanted his hapless father to share the fun experience, having failed to register that all the tunnels, passageways etc were designed to small kid scale rather than overweight middle-aged man scale.

Worming my way uncomfortably after him, I suddenly heard in my mind's ear the sepulchral voice of Lucas saying "You have attempted to squeeze between two rollers and have become trapped halfway into the Death Ballpit of Nagoth-Rha. A bevy of evil goblins disguised as small children will now pelt your bald head with brightly-coloured plastic balls while you squeal like a pig, enhancing their enjoyment considerably."

I hope he goes bankrupt.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Surrealism at home

Scene: My home, this morning.
Dramatic personae: Gyppo Byard, Guthlac (aged two and a half), Djangolina (Aged 12)

Guthlac: Daddy?
GB: Yes?
G: A'am Spar'kus.
GB (blankly): You are sparkers?
G: No, a'am Spaaa'rkus.
GB: You are starkers?
G: No, a'am Spaaaaaaaaa'arkus"
GB: You are Spartacus?
G: Yes. I am Spartacus.
Djangolina: No, I am Spartacus!
G: No, I am Spartacus (launches spirited attack on sister's midriff)

I have to go through this every day. So do they...

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

An open letter to Pastor Terry Jones

"Gosh" both my readers must be thinking at this point "Just what the world needs - more comment on International Koran-burning Day!"

My initial response was to call for 12 September to be designated "INTERNATIONAL BURN ALL THE POINTLESS AND COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE MEDIA COVERAGE OF SOME OBSCURE FUNDAMENTALIST PILLOCK'S BURN A KORAN DAY DAY", but having thought again realised I could squeeze out a blog posting on the matter while it is fresh in everyone's minds.

So here goes:
To Pastor The Rev Terry Jones, Dove World Outreach Center, Gainsville.


You daft git.

What the hell were you thinking? Are you just trying to stir up trouble for perverse sadistic pleasure?

On balance, I think not. Were you attempting that, I'm sure you could have done better. Were I seeking to offend the Muslim Ummah, I would announce that I would shortly be hosting "International Bar-B-Q Some Pork Chops Over A Pile Of Burning Koran Briquettes And Then Force-Feed Them To Ms Yasmin Alibhai-Brown Day". But I'm not going to, because I'm not a nasty person by nature. Not that sort of nasty anyway. And even then not against Muslims, who despite having a tiny lunatic fringe are in my wide experience of having lived in a Muslim country for six years charming and lovely people.

No - this isn't about offence. Really. I find myself drawn to two key facts about your "church" - it has 50 worshippers and it doubles as a furniture factory. Those hardly propel it into the ranks of influential global spiritual centres no, do they?

There you are, doubtless with ideas well above your station, grinding your teeth about the insufferable injustice of feeling yourself a world-class religious figure and being confined to the rigours of preaching to (and more to the point receiving tithes from) some 50 people, a significant proportion of whom doubtless arrive for divine service in pickup trucks containing arsenals of illegally-held banjoes.

The tithes from such a flock are not even enough to afford crystal meth and gay masseurs like a real preacher, are they?

O for a truly major publicity stunt, eh? Preferably one that would bring in money from and influence over the South's extreme right. Even better, you don't actually have to risk setting fire to your cuffs by igniting anything. Make the threat, get the damn-fool media to splash it all over the world and then back out.

And you know what? You've succeeded. Gimp.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

The BBC - it's the new C of E

A thought long fermenting in what I am pleased to call my brain makes an interesting historical link between the curates of the Victorian era and the linen-suited denizens of Broadcasting House's corridors today.

Under the Great White Mother and Kaiser-i-Hind, Oxford and Cambridge produced a surfeit of vaguely posh and vaguely but pointlessly educated young chaps who lacked the drive and physical fitness to go off and join the army or indeed any discernable professional skills, but who nonetheless thought of themselves as part of a God-chosen elite destined to order others about. The only appropriate career thus open to them was the Church, in which they could stand in pulpits and lecture the population at large about the moral, aesthetic and intellectual deficiencies of their hard-labouring, poverty-haunted lives.

Oxford and Cambridge - never institutions to go charging ahead with radical reform - still manage to produce a worrying surfeit of vaguely posh and vaguely but pointlessly educated young chaps and similar young gels who share the desires, ambitions and lack of appropriate talents of their Victorian forebears. But nowadays, alas, the C of E provides very little in the way of full pews to harangue.

And in any case, the church today provides very little for anyone in the way of career benefits besides camping about in fancy tat and drinking free wine, qualities which have led the priesthood to become colonised by inverts to a degree that makes it impossible for the weak-kneed Silurian buffoon occupying the throne of St Augustine to avoid giving them pointy hats and crooks.

Where was I?

Oh yes - the decline of the church has led to ever decreasing cushy job opportunities for vaguely posh and vaguely but pointlessly educated young chaps to lecture the rest of us, which is where the BBC comes in - as an employer of first resort for vaguely posh and vaguely but pointlessly educated young chaps and a bully pulpit for telling everyone else how to live their lives in a patronising but uncomprehending manner. I rest m'case.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Things that occur to me at 3am

If - in furtherance of its attempt to join the EU - Istanbul offers to harmonise it national holidays to include those celebrated by current EU members, could we get away with using the headline "TURKEY VOTES FOR CHRISTMAS"?

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

World Cup games as they *should* be played: England vs Spain

Pre-kickoff: Spanish manager Philip II orders Italian designer boots for his team, unfortunately failing to realize that Italian boot sizes are different from Spanish ones and thus creating a problem that will get worse the longer the match continues.

English striker F. Drake - widely tipped by the English press as the man to watch - surprises everyone by making a sudden dash down the wing during the singing of the Spanish national anthem, which ends dramatically with him setting fire to the Spanish goal and stealing the goalkeeper's water bottle, gloves, shorts and head; and then disappearing into the dressing room.

Though somewhat caught off balance by this, the Spanish start strongly, moving into the English half in a crescent formation against which the English defence can do little. Comfort for the home fans comes in the form of English defender Frobisher luring the Spanish striker Galleas onto rocks. Queen Elizabeth leads Tilbury supporters' club in a rousing chant of "You're not rowing any more!"

Half-time: With the still score at nil-nil, Drake reappears to suggest setting fire to several of the more expendable English players and shoving them into the Spanish dressing-room, a plan enthusiastically adopted and carried out.

Second half: Disconcerted Spanish try to mount further attack at which a thunderstorm interrupts game, affecting the taller and more metallic Spanish disproportionately.

85th minute: A late run up the wing for Spain ends in disaster when captain Medina Sidonia is caught by an unexpected Gulf Stream and wrecked on the Irish Coast. If you can imagine such a thing. Queen Elizabeth leads Tilbury supporters' club in a rousing chant of "You only whinge when you're sinking!"

In the absence of the Spanish team the English claim victory by default, while Drake takes possession of the Spanish goalmouth and quickly bangs in a hat-trick, before stealing the man of the match trophy and leaving for Portugal.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Answering the eternal questions - 2

Gentlemen - having settled the previous matter - rightly - in favour of The 5678s, let us apply ourselves to a scientific matter taking in elements of ethology, palaeontology and ctyprozoology.

I would phrase this vital question thus: In a pub car-park fight, who would win - Godzilla, or the T-Rex out of Jurassic Park?


The T-Rex:

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Answering the eternal questions...

There are so many vital things for philosophy to determine, but which mainstream philosophers have simply ignored, preferring such pointless abstractions as defining synthetic and analytic statements or - even worse - getting hung up on jouissance and differance.


In an attempt to open up the truly important philosophical questions to the people, Last Django presents the first in a series of queries to establish truth by democracy once and for all.

Question Number 1 - Which was the better swampy surf-punk Japanese all-girl band of the 80s - Shonen Knife or The 5678s? By way of helping my students with their own research, allow me to present Option A:

And Option B:

[Footnote for No Good Boyo - neither of these bands contains twins. Sorry.]

Thursday, 24 June 2010

World Cup games as they *should* be played: North Korea vs South Korea

Alas for me, who cannot raise any level of enthusiasm about football on any level, let alone the World Cup. It doesn't even have the mildly entertaining residual political spite of Eurovision, the voting of which can be predicted quite accurately without hearing the songs (in fact that's preferable to hearing the songs, any of which are capable of melting a musically-trained brain).

And on thinking that, it all became clear to me: If we put international relations and football together, slack-trousered youths would take more of an interest and the games would be far more interesting to people like me who care not a jot for sport.

So in the usual helpful spirit of public enlightenment that regular readers of this blog (both of them!) have come to rely on, LastDjango offers a match summary of North Korea vs South Korea (aka "The Korean Match").

Pre-kickoff: The US assistant coach tells journalists that the South Korean penalty area "is not part of his defensive perimeter".

1 min - The North Koreans kick off (with encouragement from Russian consultant coach J. Stalin) and quickly put together a strong move into the South Korean half. South Korea claims it wasn't ready. North Korea score.

5 mins - The South Korean manager pulls nine of his players off and substitutes them with members of an international all-star XI, who quickly overwhelm the North Korean defence and equalise. International all-star XI celebrate by trying to introduce freedom, democracy and random death in the North Korean half. South Korean fans start singing "Inch-on, Inch-on, with hope in your heart..."

7 mins - As North Korea kick off, the pitch is invaded by 473 "Chinese volunteer players" who stabilise the situation in midfield.

10 mins - a US player is brought down by a Chinese opponent. The US player is evacuated by helicopter and handed over to the care of Maj. 'Hotlips' Houlihan and her magic sponge. The game is temporarily halted while several hundred 40-something geeks who watched MASH as sex-starved teenagers in the late 70s roll about on the pitch hoping vainly for similar treatment.

13-90 mins - The game degenerates into a pointless stalemate on the halfway line, which is eventually de-footballized and across which the two teams glare at each other impotently.

As of writing time several hours later, the game has yet to end officially.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Wifely compassion - an historical overview

The suburban foxes are back (see this blog, passim). Only now there are more of them - we saw a vixen and two cubs playing merrily in our garden at twilight the other evening (it was an elaborate game called "first one to dig up and savage a plant with an expensive-looking garden centre price tag gets to crap in Guthlac's sand-pit!"). They also started excavating a seven-room luxury earth under our decking.

It was therefore only a matter of time before Mrs Byard politely ordered me to "fox-proof" the decking by wedging bricks into gaps and adding an extra plank to cover the long gap at the front. While simultaneously "minding Guthlac". Trust me, the mixture of hammers, nails, planks and an inventive two-year-old is not what one, as a male, wishes to have imposed on him for multi-tasking after a hard day at work.

Anyway, I gamely set about the impossible task. Guthlac was surprisingly keen to help, and while I was lying prone on the decking trying to wrestle the plank into position, he picked up a hammer which shortly afterwards came into sharp contact with my head. For a moment, I was unable to restrain my natural eloquence, upon which Mrs Byard took his side, helpfully explaining that "He was just holding the hammer and you nudged it with your head!"

One wonders whether Marie Antoinette scolded Louis XVI for nudging le guillotine with his neck and thus spilling blood on his new shirt; or whether Alexandra's last words to Nicholas in the dank Yekaterinburg cellar were an admonition to stop nudging the unwashed Bolsheviks' bullets. Did Archduchess Sophie turn to Franz-Ferdinand as Gavrilo Princip stood and fired and say "That's what you get for nudging Serbia"?

Probably not. But then, they had servants to fox-proof their gardens. It's alright for some...

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Mechanical eptitude

Recent comments on Guthlac's misadventures with vintage engines have set me thinking about the critical part that "being practical" played in the lives of my father's and grandfather's generations, and how a mechanically able man still commands blokish respect. No man wishes to sound, for instance, clueless in front of his garage mechanic (partly lest they slap a 200% clueless twerp surcharge on your bill for 'adjusting the sparkplugs on your diesel' or similar, but partly out of desire not to lose face).

The male half of humanity, it seems, is divided into tattooed Morlocks who can tune an engine and linen-jacketed Willas who write supposedly hilarious and heartwarming columns in the broadsheet press advertising their cluelessness in terms which still produce a torrent of Black-Country eloquence from my father's aged lips.

The former is represented by my biker mate and sometime commenter on this blog Mr Wessex, a motorcycling gentleman of intimidating bulk who is capable not merely of stripping down and rebuilding vintage motorbikes, but of lifting them with one hand and eating them; or by my friend Hubert, an engineering graduate whose idea of helping to fix a car is (deliberately and expertly) to replace the gearbox back-to-front so that the car has one very slow forward gear and five reverse ones. The latter is - surprisingly - the realm of No Good Boyo, a man whose unfamiliarity with his own car led to him being unable to close the sunroof during a snowstorm.

And then there is me (and, I suspect, several million others) squatting nervously in the no-man's land of this particular cultural divide. I am not the man to turn to when you have broken down, taking painfully long periods to complete even relatively simple mechanical procedures and needing to "pop out to Halfords" twice in the middle to buy new tools that I need but don't have, only to return and find that I did have one after all lurking in the depths of the toolbox and now have two, which is twice as many as I will need for the one time in my life I shall be called upon to use them.

And yet I cannot raised myself to the lofty Mandarin magnificence of the resolutely unmechanical. I can change a wheel, do an oil change, rewind fuses and change tap washers. Most of the shelves I have put up are still in place. I can even explain what most of the bits under the bonnet of my car do, albeit with a large sprinkling of metasyntactic variables: "Yeah, that's the oil filler cap. And that's the cylinder head thingy. And then that doodad goes round and round so that the whatsit wobbles up and down on the oojamaflip..."

I put my state of partial confusion down to a traumatic experience in my teens. One Saturday morning when I was 14, my father sought me out in my foetid lair. "Son" he said in a kindly way, "You are now approaching manhood, and there are things you should know - " I prepared a teenage sneer and was just about to roll my eyes at his naivety "such as how to remove, strip down and replace the gearbox on a Ford Escort. Follow me." Gobsmacked, I complied.

His method of instruction took an unusual form. He donned a boilersuit and eye protection and then sat himself on a stool with the Haynes Manual open upon his knee while I grubbed around underneath the car, struggling to understand his instructions. The conversation was full of exchanges such as:

"Now pick up the radial torque wrench and fit the 3/4" Hackett ratchet sprocket."
"What's that look like?"
"It's the one we had to have surgically removed from Uncle Frank after the incident at Lutterworth."
"Ah. I'll just put rubber gloves on..."
"Now unlatch the self-tapping grommet plunkets."
"Where are those, Dad?"
"There boy - just behind the 4 1/2" pillion bush!"

And so it went on. The result of this form of mechanical education is that I ended up knowing with a fair degree of certainty what things were and how they worked, but not what they were called.

Furthermore, in my mind's eye all cars are now Ford Escorts. If I open the bonnet and see things that look like the equivalent on the Escort I have a fighting chance. Any other layout or form of engine and I'm sunk. Front-wheel drive is still an impenetrable mystery. But even that's better than everything being an impenetrable mystery.

Now if you will excuse me, Mr Wessex and I are just popping out to replace the sparkplugs on Boyo's diesel. And we're only charging him 50 quid...

Monday, 7 June 2010

Futurism - it's so last century...

As I may have noted in passing before, our two-year old offpsrog Guthlac is a pushover for anything mechanical and - preferably - noisy. The other night he was heard talking in his sleep, muttering in an agitated but intelligible voice "Mummy, no, Guthlac flyyyyy de plaaaaane..."

When Djangolina and her visiting friends from Germany opted for a trip into Birmingham, it quickly became apparent that the one place I knew Guthlac would adore was not on their agenda. So we agreed to split - the girls would go to the Sea-Life Centre to coo over cute turtles and seahorses, while Guthlac and I would head for the science museum at Millennium Point to coo over steam engines, old cars and Spitfires.

I was right - he did adore it. I let him have a run around first, richocheting from wonder to wonder in a state of chronic indecision as to which admire the most - the traction engine? The steam locomotive? The vintage cars? The vintage motorbikes? The Spitfire and Hurricane suspended tantalisingly out of reach from the ceiling? We then had a spot of lunch, after which I plonked him in the buggy for a more leisurely tour. This time, we headed for the other end of the hall, where the assorted industrial steam engines are kept.

There is something hypnotic about the workings of an old engine, and one very good thing the Birmingham musem does is keep as many of the machines turning over as possible. In addition, there is a series of enlightening hand-cranked exhibits showing how piston movement is tranferred into rotary motion, how a governor works, and the motion of planetary gears. Personally, I prefer that to Damien Hirst's sliced dead things any day - but then, I grew up in the Black Country where such things are considered the summit of our culture.

Much as I hate to agree on any level with tedious proto-fascist madman Dick Marinetti (purists may argue that his name was Filippo, but personally I've always thought of him as a Dick), there is beauty in the workings of machines. And particularly, the kind of machines that were around at the end of the 19th century.

It's not just the pleasing steam-punk elegance of turned brass handles and white-backed, glass-fronted dials; it's also the fact that so many modern machines are impenetrable 'black boxes' which do clever things but cannot be seen to be doing anything at all. And that had me wondering sincerely about when exactly the point was when futurism became retro. Was it when valves replaced cogs? Or when transistors replaced valves?

At this point, I became aware of a subtle change in the sound of the machine in front of me, and upon looking down realised that the noise was being caused by Guthlac's hat, which in an experimental turn of mind he had fed into a gear mechanism.

Condensing the entire experience, I have learnt two important things:
1) Form guided by function can be as aesthetically beautiful as pure art, possibly because the challenge of achieving a funtionally working form gives vital grist to the designer's mill, and
2) A two-year old in a museum requires absolute 100% attention at all times.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Are you really a urologist, or are you just taking the...

Different people have different ways of dealing with pain. Some grit their teeth and take it stoically. Some scream and thrash about. I usually lie there wondering how I can turn the experience into an inappropriate anecdote I can use to put other people off their food during a meal.

This morning's procedure was no exception. Friends and relatives who have gone through "stent removal" (the stent in question being a small flexible silicone tube put into the ureter from kidney to bladder to protect it while it heals from the damage done by a kidney stone ripping along it, and not a particular retired BBC journalist of such irritating mien that on three separate occasions he came within a gnat's wing of being picked up by the shirt collar by an enraged Gypsy and shaken until his fillings rattled) have cheerily told tales of doctors putting a foot against the patient's stomach and pulling with both hands. The consultant merrily told me that the doctor in question "will just brace his back against the door and yank it out with both hands".

While in the waiting area outside the alarmingly sound-proofed treatment room, I was buoyed up by the fact that several other people arrived prepared to go in after me, who would be a perfect captive audience for my well-embroidered narrative when I came out.

As it turns out, the procedure of getting the endoscope into the bladder in the first place is a lot more teeth-gritting than that of pulling the stent out - even then it's more stinging and discomfort than actual pain. When the doctor pulled the thing out with a flourish he held it up, writhing and twisting like a decapitated snake. Within minutes I walked out again with my stent in a jar to embark on the enjoyable process of winding up the waiting patients.

There was a nice-looking chap sitting there in his hospital gown with his wife next to him, looking very nervous. I put the stent jar down on the table, without announcement but clearly visible to all. The man flinched slightly.

"Oh god - is that what it looks like?" he said to nobody in particular.
"That's the stent, yes. Are you here to have yours out?"
"Yes" he says, looking somewhat pained. "What's it like?"
"Well" I went on jauntily "Once they've got the pliers in position and lined up the hospital's tug-o-war team..."

He blenched, and crossed his legs. His wife, however - clearly one whom, like most experienced wives, it is hard to fool with mere blokishness - took a more rational view.

"Well, he's standing up and smiling" she noted of me dryly, sending detectable waves of "I've had a baby, you pathetic worm" vibes in my direction, "So it can't be all that bad."
"You'll be fine, mate" I said, changing tack rapidly, and moved off towards the changing cubicle in an exagerratedly and utterly unnecessary bow-legged manner calculated to convey both extreme discomfort and immense, stiff-upper-lipped bravery.

Had I remembered to keep it up when I emerged shortly afterwards having clearly had no difficulty dressing or tying my shoe-laces, it might even have looked convincing.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Spotted on Indonesia's roads...

It is now something of a cliche that the humble motor-scooter is used as a cargo vehicle on Southeast Asia's roads; nonetheless the following are all pictures I've taken from the car in the last few days rather than being borrowed from existing websites.

Among the things we've seen have been a mobile restaurant:

A year's supply of snacks:

A delivery round's-worth of electrical appliances:

And an entire village's fuel supply:

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Misfortunes - the complete set of three...

Just when everyone had either assumed my demise or lost interest, here I am again after what seems to be turning into Last Django's customary spring break!

As I dolefully predicted in January, my much-loved mother-in-law steadily declined and messages urging us to go and see her "as soon as possible" piled up from the family. Mrs Byard duly went out ahead of us leaving me to trail in behind her (and stay on afterwards, to cover more possibilities). This meant I had all the fun of keeping the two-year old Guthlac happy during a 20-hour flight. Lucky me.

As it turned out we were too late - she passed away two days before my wife arrived, although at least Mrs Byard could attend the funeral (something she'd happily have passed up for five minutes with her mother, of course). Anyway, we duly trailed in and had to visit graves and carry out the ceremonies demanded by Chinese tradition, the highlight of which was Guthlac picking up a packet of cigarettes that had been acquired for offering on his grandfather's grave to be told forcefully "Just take one!"

Mrs Byard and Guthlac then trailed off back to blighty, leaving me and Djangolina to go round and do some things that can't really be done with toddlers in tow. The first day of this odyssey I had a few abdominal pains and took an immodium figuring it was just the normal travel bug-type thing. The next night the pain was getting worse and I took some painkillers. By noon the third day I couldn't stand up and could no longer urinate properly. At this point I was rushed to hospital, where an ultrasound scan revealed that my urethra was blocked by a kidney stone the size of a Glaswegian's liver and that my right kidney was swollen to double its proper size. After a day of extreme pain and discomfort, an x-ray revealed the bloody thing was stuck and refusing to come the normal way, so and endoscope was inserted, and the offending mass removed. (Lest anyone think this is a play for sympathy, let me assure you that a) I know my readers better than that, and b) kidney stones are eye-wateringly painful without being a serious health threat - they are the stuff of black comedy rather than tragedy).

This was followed by 72 hours on a hospital bed attached to assorted drips and catheters, at which point I found out misfortune number three - thanks to the Icelanders being as careless with their volcanoes as they were with their banks, I couldn't return home on time and was facing a further fortnight of enforced holiday in Indonesia. Frankly though, were I to choose any country to get stuck in through no fault of my own, it would be this one - so this stands as the tail-end sweetener to a catalogue of visits by the cock-up fairy. Onward and upward, eh?

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Oriental women - widely admired, widely misunderstood...

All things Chinese have been much on the mind recently, what with the dawning of a new Year of the Tiger and what-have-you. I brightly greeted Mrs Byard on Sunday morning with "Kong hee fat choi!", to which she responded by furrowing her brow and replying "Did you just call me fat?"

Djangolina - or Liem Kwee Lee as she is now styled in connection with all things Chinese - is quite fired up by this being the Year of the Tiger, which is her birth year. Having established my credentials as one cohabiting with 1.5 (ethnic) Chinese women, let me share a few intriguing observations for those watching from further afield.

The popular stereotype of a delicate, tottering, parasol-twirling "Lotus Blossom" character is utterly, utterly wrong. Chinese women are very, very tough in all kinds of unexpected ways.

I have already had cause to mention Mrs Byard's capacity for eating palate-scorchingly hot food and shaming "hard lads" in the process. Last year, we were served a platter of seafood at a restaurant in Indonesia which included whole crab. After a while, the following dialogue took place:
Her: "Aren't you going to eat your crab?"
Me: "Um, I've got nothing to open it with."
Her: "What are you on about?"
Me: "Well, in Europe you'd get crackers and a pick to open the shell up with so you can get the meat out."
Her: "Oh give it here, for goodness' sake..." (Picks up crab claw and cracks it open with teeth)

We have had similar conversations back at home - steered elegantly toward the conclusion that I am a useless wimp - over my pathetic attempts to find oven gloves rather than just pick up a roasting tray fresh from a prolonged stint in a hot oven with my bare hands.

I have encountered little old ladies - albeit in Indonesia, but I'm credibly informed by a Sinologist friend that China has an extensive supply too - capable of carrying loads on their backs you wouldn't believe. I once felt very proud of myself having scaled a relatively modest volcano in Java, to find at the top an entire drinks stall which had been carried to the peak, in its entirety, in a scarf wrapped around a 70-something lady shod in flip-flops.

I paid her an exhorbitant sum for a luke-warm bottle of jasmine tea (the legendary Tehbotol - Indonesia's finest soft drink....) and slunk back down the mountain feeling duly humbled. Which is no bad thing, after all...

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

New programme ideas for 2010

In the effort once more to catch the attention of the major channels, I shall offer up again some programme ideas that would be at least better than half the appalling drivel that graces my screen.

Britain's Got Talons - A show in which birds of prey from all over the UK compete in a series of falconry and singing challenges, the winner of each (species-based) round being decided by a combination of phone-vote and Simon Cowell's toupee being carried off by a Golden Eagle.

What's in that Rock? - Palaeontology quiz hosted by geomorphologists' crumpet Hermione Cockburn in which professionals (e.g. Shubin, Conway-Morris, Fortey) would be teamed with celebrity fossil enthusiasts (e.g. David Attenborough, Alex James, Mark Gattiss etc) to identify fossil-bearing rocks on camera. I'd watch it...

Police, Camera, Action-Man! - Teams of policemen compete to make stop-motion animated films featuring action men.

Cashews in the Attic - A camera follows Mrs Byard and myself for a fortnight as we struggle through our overcrowded loft to try to find a bag of nuts we were sure we'd left up there.

Hannah Monsanto - Miley Cyrus gets genetically modified.

The Top 100 Polkas - Three-hour countdown show mixing old footage intercut with amusing reminiscences and witless fan-speak from radio DJs and stand-up comics.

Serious offers from channel heads only, please.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Nude X-factor Big Brother drugs terrorist Avatar

Earlier this week, I attended a training event on the subject of Search Engine Optimization, which is basically the matter of spiking your interweb offerings with terms that you think enormous tits will be typing into their free viagra search engines, thus ensuring that a form of virtual guaranteed penis enlargement takes place in your page rankings and numbers of visitors.

I hoped the trainer would start by showing us the Robert Pattinson-Zac Efron gay sex tape, but apparently no such thing exists. The same could be said for the hardcore pics of Angelina Jolie which also failed to appear. We did talk a little about the uncensored Roswell/Area 51 film and the proof that 9/11 was a conspiracy engineered from a UFO powered by a perpetual motion device though. Actually we didn't; I just made that bit up...

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Americans - what the **** is wrong with them?

My generally positive view of our cousins in the rebellious colonies - which rose sharply a year ago with the election to the highest office in the land of a man whose intelligence placed him well above the cnidarians for a change - has taken a double whammy in the past 24 hours.

I mean, I'm not, deep down, anti-American. I love many things about the United States (in America), not least among them jazz; the optimistic, can-do attitude; Neil Shubin; the Marx Brothers and much else. But there are times when you have to wonder.

Whammy No 1: A firm supplying gunsights for US and UK troops in Afghanistan is putting Bible references on their products. I mean, Shrubya calling the war on terror "a Crusade" was bad enough; handing a propaganda victory to anyone who wants to see things in black-and-white 'clash of religions' terms is just downright stupid. Furthermore, do the fundamentalists at Trijicon realise how dangerous it is to hand such an obvious feedline to people like me? New Testament sniper sights? I mean, come on guys... "I am the night-vision goggles of the world"..."'WWJD?' 'Aim off a little to the right to allow for the wind'"...

I am not a Christian as such, although I do sing in church for the music. As such, I've heard quite a lot of the Bible and seem to remember JC being quoted saying things like 'turn the other cheek', 'blessed are the peacemakers' and 'put up your swords'. I've honestly never hear the bits from the Sermon on the Mount in which His followers are reminded to conceal themselves against a light background to make muzzle-flash less obvious or told "blessed are they who aim high at long distances to allow for gravity acting on the round".

And one final thing - if the founder of Trijicon was so devout a Christian, shouldn't he have found something other than weapons to make?

Whammy No 2: And then, the people of Massachusetts managed to go one better and elect a Republican senator, almost guaranteeing that health-care reform will be mired in an insanely complex and expensive legislative gridlock. How come - and I ask this in a spirit of affectionate puzzlement - when Bush brought forward major policy initiatives like "invade Iraq", "remove all environmental protection" and "let our Wall Street cronies smeg up much of the global economy", Congress sat supine and allowed them through on the nod; yet will fight tooth-and-nail to oppose Obama's big idea of "shouldn't it be possible for the world's richest nation to provide afforable medical care for all its citizens?"

Monday, 18 January 2010

Dark clouds on the horizon

Reviewing last year's posts on this blog thingummy, I notice a distinct trend of tales of international travel, flippancy and bad puns which turned a little darker at the end owing to the loss of a beloved aunt.

This year promises to be worse, and more serious overall, with the Byard vardo heading towards metaphorical bumpy roads and barricaded campsites. We recently had news that my mother-in-law has been bouncing off various doctors with contradictory diagnoses of her breathing difficulties, varying from "nothing at all to worry about" to "advanced lung cancer". Eventually my sister-in-law accompanied her to Singapore to see a more reliable doctor, who confirmed the worst case scenario of advanced lung cancer. We are now preparing to get out to Indonesia at Easter to see her for the last time. I know that looks melodramatic but it's the exact truth, unfortunately. We are still struggling to cope with the awful finality of knowing a loved one is going to die in the very near future.

Less awful but also not at all frivolous - Djangolina moves up to secondary school in September. Guthlac is in the midst of toilet training, I shall turn 45 and Mrs Byard 40. My Open University studies are moving onto a couple of courses which I don't particularly like the look of but which I have to get under my belt to move on to what I want to do, but on the bright side my own parents will be celebrating their golden wedding anniversary, with my sister and I united in an attempt to convince them to have a 'do' at a hotel *we* like.

Rather than dwell on the bad news and forthcoming grief, I shall conclude by sharing with you instead the worst yodelling ever committed to film (from 6'45" in this short film):

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

My mother - her part in WWII

We spent New Year happily up in the Midlands, at my parents' place. Djangolina is doing WWII next term as a history project and was keen to quiz her grandparents on their memories of the conflict. Much of this I had already heard quite a few times over, but my mother came out with a tale I'd quite honestly never heard before.

I knew about her role lighting a fake flarepath to encourage the Luftwaffe to bomb her aunt's village in Somerset, but her activities as a fifth-columnist guide to the last successful invasion of Birmingham had not been told before, at least not in my presence.

You have to bear in mind that my mother grew up in The Last House In Worcestershire - the bottom of their garden was the boundary with the City of Birmingham, which is traditionally Warwickshire. Our side - Black Country (Hooray!); over there - Brummies (Boo, hiss). Though outsiders are pressed to recognise a difference, the border is obvious and major to the peoples of Worcestershire and Staffordshire.

Anyway, some brass hat decided it would be a spiffing idea to give the Home Guard some useful practice at setting up road blocks by ordering the Worcestershire Home Guard to invade Birmingham. The Brummies thus set up positions on all the major roads leading into Birmingham, a fact obvous to anyone who had just walked past them up the end of their road on the way to school in Halesowen, such as my mother and her friend Ann. And just down the road they met a column of Worcestershire Home Guard advancing purposefully up Mucklow's Hill.

For reasons we had probably better not probe too deeply, the Worcestershire Home Guard fell into conversation with two gymslip-clad pubescent girls, who informed them brightly that "the Brummies had set up a road block just up ahead, and was that anything to do with you? Because we can show you a way round through the backstreets if you give us a ride..."

Birmingham was deemed by the umpires to have fallen before lunch.

In her defence, my mother was at pains to point out that she was helping her own side invade the cess-pit of evil and filth that was, and shall ever remain, Bromycham, rather than aiding and abetting an invader.