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All part of life’s rich pattern

Life always seems to be looking at me and thinking: “What J.Michael could do with right now is a new learning experience.”

It’s probably my own fault. I’ve always admired Merlin’s advice to Wart when he was feeling down. (“The thing for you to do is to learn something…”) I quoted it at my mother’s funeral: I’d like it spoken at mine.

But there’s learning and there’s learning and there are a lot of things that over the years I’ve learned and rather wish I hadn’t had to.

There’s learning the unpleasant sensation of having a sample sucked from your marrow: it’s rather disturbing. That was when they were trying to find out why the platelet count in my blood is low, I think. And I am just going to have to accept that in most such cases they say, as they said to me ‘It’s ideopathic’, which is doctor for ‘search me, guv’. I understand that there are a number of really alarming things they eliminated by that test so I should be grateful. The same could be said of a number of alarming tests and even more alarming symptoms I’ve had over the years. I should have learned this when the first Big Alarm sounded back when I was still a fair bit shy of forty and one Christmas Eve I got an intense pain right in the middle of my chest at the back and being the bright, sunny individual I was came to the conclusion that this was it. My heart was going to give out on me before I’d even properly got out of life’s starting blocks. (Query: did I ever manage to do that?)

I should have learned my lesson then when the doctor I finally got to see said: “That’s just a back pain. Yes, they are unpleasant. Here have some pills to help with the pain.” (If I had known about the bunging up effects of opiods I might have thought twice about taking them just before a Christmas feast.)

The lesson I probably should have learned was not to be such a gloomy type but I maintain to this day an assumption that the worst will happen. That’s probably what this week’s drama was about: Life trying to teach me to hope, again.

Briefly, on Tuesday night about 10:40 I leaned back in my chair, heard a slight sound to my right and looked over to see a rat in the door from the kitchen. He’s chased a bit of dryer fluff out of there and was just chewing it to see if it tasted good when he became aware of me. No expression on the ‘face’ of a rodent at all but his body language conveyed alarm and his movement was then retrograde back the way he came. When I got up and went and searched the kitchen he was nowhere to be found.

Now I’d had rats in the place once before and then my late cat Monty caught one, slaughtered it and laid it at the side of my bed as tribute, looking me with an glance that said: “And what are you going to do about this, eh?” So I knew what to do and contacted the Council’s extermination contractors via their website and booked an appointment, the earliest available, for today. (My landlords are handing over the property to new owners on Monday which is bound to complicate matters but when I called them with my tail of… I’m sorry my tale of woe they agreed to send someone round next week to see if maybe, perhaps, they could justify the expense of bunging the hole the rat got in by.)

The day after the rodent apparition I gave the kitchen a good clean up, both to get any food out of the way of possible returning visitors and to make it decent enough to show a visitor and when I had finished doing so I became aware of a very disturbing stench arising from beneath the sink, the area where the rats got in last time.

It only got worse over Thursday and Friday morning. You may imagine what my nights were like, if you know me. I lay awake for hours imagining what the problem might be. I settled on ‘There has been a breach in the sewers’ pretty early on and from then it was all downhill in the Imagined World of Michael. I had extrapolated from my kitchen fittings having to be ripped out to my walls having to be rebuilt to the whole block of flats being condemned as unacceptable for human habitation. I kept going through the very short list of ‘Family and Friends Who Can Be Imposed On’ and bewailing the necessity.

Yes, there’s a lot going on under the placid surface of Lake Cule. You don’t normally see half of it.

So when I say that I am now actually grateful that I now know what the smell of a dead and decaying rat is like you must understand that I’m being very philosophical about the whole sensory experience. The young man from the extermination company who came along and left some rat-poison (New and Improved, he assured me and something they had only just been allowed to put down) said it must have died there because it couldn’t figure out how to get back into the sewer system from this side. It had probably eaten poison somewhere else and then dropped dead soon after I saw it. He also was unimpressed about the job the landlord’s contractor had done bunging up the hole last time.

I said a brief word of thanks to the guardian spirit of the late Monty for continuing to keep an eye on me and reflected that the next time I panic over something I won’t have learned any lessons from this time either.

Yes, I really do need to get a new cat. No, I’ve not had any luck there either.

Guinea-Pigs All!

Today I got jabbed!

Astra-Zenica (since you were going to ask) and no, so far I’ve not had any side-effects but it’s only been an hour and a half.

I got called at an ungodly hour yesterday (08:36) by my GPs’ surgery. They could offer me a vaccine shot the next day and after I intimated that five past nine in the morning was a little early for me they shifted it to two fifteen in the afternoon.

And it was only a totter down the road in the freezing bloody cold to the town hall and wait outdoors for a few minutes before the line moved forwards at a rate of knots. Inside, got told to take my gloves off and use the hand sanitizer provided. Check the temperature of my forehead and then in to give my name and get given a card with that and my date of birth which I give to the young lady I’m guided to. Off with my jacket and jumper (I wore the t-shirt in the illustration but no-one noticed. Sigh. The life of an entertainer is hard. You can order your own via Redbubble.) Then they gave me a card with the details of the treatment and a piece of paper describing the vaccine and I was off.

The nurse asked if I was happy to have the vaccine and when I said something like: “Well, I’m here, aren’t I?” she explained that some people change their minds at the last moment.

She said I’d be called again in twelve weeks. Probably. If the government doesn’t decide something else.

And then it was out and back into the cold pulling my gloves on again, over my nrewly sanitized hands. A little light shopping and then staggering back to my flat.

Oddly enough, the night before at the Monday GURPS game we’d chatted about getting innoculated. At that moment only our oldest member, Hartley Patterson, (he admitted to being seventy-harumph) had been innoculated. Astra-Zenica too and only slight throbbing in his arm. And having noted that all of us were getting on and therefore vulnerable we wondered when we would get our jabs.

The very next morning… It’s the sort of thing you really hope is just a co-incidence and not a sign of us being under constant if benevolent monitoring.

And one thing Chris Southern said Monday night sticks with me. He said we can’t know, no-body can know how all this will work out. Which vaccine, how long between the doses, whether you can combine the different vaccines (that”s bound to happen): all of that is being subjected to experimental use on everybody. Results and certainty comes later. People need reassuring, especially the people suspicious enough of the state to balk at the last minute with their arms already bared for the needle.

We are all Guinea-Pigs now, the whole nation. Hopefully, we will learn a lot. And it’s not as risky as getting up in the sky in a Spitfire or a Hurricane and getting near burned to death, the way the original Guinea Pig Club did. So be glad about that as you serve Science and the Nation. Even the refuseniks will have their place in the great statistical analysis.

EDITED TO ADD: It’s odd after my writing that but during Wednesday night’s game (BLADES IN THE DARK) my friend Graham Arnold (a legend in his own lunchtime!) said that he’d managed to get innoculated already despite being notably younger than me by being a) in his fifties and b) willing to have two different vaccines in the two different doses so they could see what happens. So he is doubly a member of the Guinea Pig Club. If he (or indeed I) develop super-powers as the result of experimental treatment I’ll let you know. Happened to Deadpool: there’s no reason but science why it shouldn’t happen to us!


One of my father’s favourite books was THE HAPPY HYPOCRITE, a short moral fable and fantasy by Max Beerbohm. It’s all about a Regency Rake who falls in love with a good woman who will only marry a man with the face of a saint which his isn’t.

So he finds a mask of the face of a saint and wearing it goes and proposes marriage to the good woman. He turns his life around and starts living the life of the man she expects him to be. His old lover comes to challenge this fraud, rips off the mask and that reveals the face underneath has become as angelic as the mask and the loving couple get on with happily ever aftering.

Sort of the inverse of THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY. Beware what you pretend to be because that’s what you’ll become sort of thing. I think Dad saw himself somewhere in there. I may still have his copy somewhere in the disorganised mess that is my flat.

Anyway, I find myself recalling the moral of the story as I get older and as I find myself more and more adopting the persona that the world finds acceptable to a gentleman of my age. I find myself doing the ‘slightly-batty-but-ever-so-polite’ aged gentleman a lot on those occasions when the world requires me to go out and do things: shop once a week, go to the pharmacy for prescriptions, visit the dentist, the doctor and what have you.

I’m a terrible old ham and I go too far sometimes: I fear I will turn myself into that parody of an English gentleman (retired and living off a pension) and not be a human being at all, just a series of mannerisms. I hear my father’s verbal habits in the mix as well. His manner was paternalistic while mine is (perforce) avuncular. I wonder if my brother David with his numerous brood finds himself doing Dad as well.

It’s better that, I reflect, than the moments when the pain and discomfort of being old gets to me and I snap. The mask of virtue and beneficence comes off and I’m rude, quite distincly and crabbily rude to people. I was downright harsh to a young woman calling from the dentists about three weeks back. I apologised before the end of the call which was to nag me into filling in an on-line form of immense pointlessness before my appointment the next day. But I felt it best to beg off the next morning by pleading my nose being a little bunged up and got the appointment delayed two weeks. I think that was wise: they might have decided that having me on the books wasn’t worth the wear and tear on their receptionists. Two weeks later all was smiles, which it might not have been if I’d turned up the next morning.

In a way though I’m quite glad that I can still lose my rag unreasonably. I have for years worn the mask of that good, wise and virtuous (in many ways, not in temperance or lack of gluttony obviously) man Cardinal Archbishop Theophilus of the Far Isles. If the idea behind THE HAPPY HYPOCRITE were true then he would long ago have wiped out the Old Adam, the Lord George Hell, the base and vile sinner beneath and that would create a real monster. It is somewhat comforting to know that Original Sin still applies its stain, creating an interesting patina on my soul that I hope will appeal to that great collector of knick-knacks God Almighty.

(Nothing in this essay should be taken as proof or even assertion of the real existence of a divine omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent being. Consult your professional theologian before believing. Terms and Conditions apply.)

Speaking of the pains of age and illness, I have two grounds to be happy. The first is that I’ve discovered that bunging the hot water bottle underneath my left thigh and my wonky left knee at night not only keeps the pain from bothering me in bed but also seems to reduce the discomfort I feel from it during the day. The other is that I finally gave in and went and found a chiropodist to take a look at my right big toe. I won’t give you details (because I do try to be kindly) but (touch wood) the things she did and the things she recommended have abated the problems I was having if not finally solved them. Let us hope. Maybe I will be able to wear fewer masks in the future.

One of the problems with trying to be virtuous. It teaches you patience and that means it can take months for me to think: ‘I’d probably best do something about that’. You think I’d know better by now but I overcompensate for my known and acknowledged hypochondria. Virtue is often its own punishment.

New/old traditions

Just because I listen to the excellent podcast THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY WITHOUT ANY GAPS which provides an introduction to the full breadth of the topic in bursts of twenty to forty minutes at a time, I know about a thing the nice chap who does it calls ‘the commentary tradition’. That is to say books produced in the medieval period which were commentaries on the Greek and Latin texts inherited from the past. Explaining the little difficulties or the huge great controversies. Sometimes the commentaries were in the forms of seperate books but sometimes they were annotations in the corner of the manuscripts, in the wide and generous margins that had been left, often for just this purpose.

And then, because books were expensive and people are people you got people write more commentary further out. Commentary on the commentary. There were some iterations that got beyond even that level of recursion but margins are limited and you have to stop somewhere. Perhaps the commentaries on Biblical texts had the most time to get complex and deepen.

Not that there was just one ‘commentary tradition’: there were lots and lots, in different countries, in different languages, on different texts. And then there was a wave of technological change and you got printing and eventually you got philosophical journals in which people could scribble instead and have it count to advance their career.

Also you got librarians who imposed things like the oath which I swore in my youth to discourage people from scrawling things in margins.

Which is interesting if you have specialised interests but it occurred to me yesterday that we are living in a new age of commentary traditions. It may be that this should have occurred to me before because I’ve been seeing the way first newsgroup and then web forums produce reams and reams of chat and people quoting the things further up the thread have said as the basis of their comments. And getting them wrongly attributed and monsterously misinterpretting them too.

Most of this is as epheral as the wind and won’t last. Occsionally you get something kept for posterity by a friend or admirer such as my friend Phil Masters preserving the widely famed (in my tiny circle of acquaintance anyway) argument by the late Alison Brooks about why Hitler could never have invaded Britain. And so fame can last a little longer on the Internet. But I suspect never forever and almost certainly not for centuries.

The parallels should have been obvious to me, as I say but it never really struck me until yesterday I came across a YouTube posting which was a commentary on another YouTube posting! I don’t know why I’m so astonished but I came across an American who was reposting someone else’s material and pausing it every so often commenting. He did just about nothing to improve the content other than to overlay the original with his own inane babble (“Wow, I didn’t know that…”) and then restarting the orginal which while not wonderful had not been improved by more or less random pauses to break up the flow.

The commentator had the nerve to ask people to ‘like’ what he had done. I think he also mentioned a Patreon…

We do have a tip jar over at me and Roger’s wonderful podcast but we are not, as far as I can tell, pure parasites on other people’s creativity. We may often serve as critics but we’re trying to be helpful. Mostly. (New episode every first of the month!)

I could get very depressed about the incestuous nature of the vast majority of all this ‘commentary’ except that I remember that ought of all those impoverished bachelors and masters of arts, in their cold rooms lit by candlelight, desperately trying to make some sense of what Plato or Aristotle or Augustine were saying eventually we got the Renaissance.

Maybe this time it will come faster. Certainly I sometimes think the early 21st Century is a Dark Age. We’ve got a long way to go before we get the moonbases and expeditions to Mars Gerry Anderson promised us. Though as Dr Bob pointed out to me today at our monthly game of the WEREWOLF rpg, at least we avoid the Fireflash atomic powered airliner which absolutely had to land on time or its reactor would devastate everything in sight. In the first epipisode of THUNDERBIRDS they were trying to get it to land at Heathrow. Health and Safety and environmental concerns were not a thing in Gerry Anderson’s bright future.


I’ve been binging on YouTube videos in the last week. Mostly cookery and especially historical cookery shows (TASTING HISTORY with Max Miller has given me several ideas for Far Isles events: I wonder if anyone has yet shown him the famous Max Miller?) but Binging/Basics with Babish is fun too.

One of the non-catering based bits of the Internet that is the content provided by a chap called Tom Scott. He is big on doing silly amateur game and quiz shows. I think he perhaps hopes to produces the next MASTERMIND or WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE? Good luck Tom. I think your LATERAL is the nearest thing you’ve got to something people might want to buy: you need slightly more time elastic rounds and slightly better curating of the questions. CITATION NEEDED relies on having contributors who are on the fine edge of being well educated and being excellently educated. And they need also to be very funny people and young. I think it’s too much in the space of QI to succeed on it’s own. Some of the stuff in GAME GARAGE is interesting but none of it quite jumps out at me. (Criticism, which is fair use…)

But he also does a thing called THINGS YOU MAY NOT KNOW, some lectures on ‘the Basics’ in computing and a lot of rants. Here’s one of them in which told me more about the topic of my main post. I hope he’s all right with me putting this link in place…

I don’t agree with his conclusions though. But then I still get the occasional bit of money from copyright fees on my ancient acting career which wouldn’t be there if his proposals went through. (I think, Tom, if you ever read this, that you should have asked Equity and the Performing Rights Society how many of their members are still making money at the end of their lives from work done at the start of their careers.)

Pontificate no more

I’ve decided to give up on Quora. Those of you who’ve been watching me for a while (you vast seething horde you) will be aware that I had fun re-posting some of the better responses I’d given there. I was immensely flattered at first by people ‘upvoting’ me and ‘following’ me. I liked the practice I got to keep my research skills excercised. I liked telling Americans they were wrong.

But enough is enough. I was falling into the pit of Quora early in the day and not crawling out until the evening. There were endless lists of questions that people thought I was (for some reason) immensely qualified to answer. There was a daily digest of questions of a sort some computer somewhere thought I might be interested in and it was depressing how often I found they were right. And then there was just troling through my ‘feed’ to see what people were going on about. A lot of my time and the majority of my limited remaining creativity was going up in smoke trying to clear out the Augean Stables of the world’s ignorance.

And some of the questions were very dumb. Leaving aside the ones about ‘which comic book character would win’, (I didn’t mind answering questions about comics that weren’t dumb) there were a mass of questions whose primary purpose was to bang the writer’s favourite drum.

There were ‘aren’t people who disagree with me dumb’ questions. There were ‘aren’t the people who don’t support my political cause evil’ questions. There were ‘how do people who support [INSERT CAUSE HERE] live with themselves’ questions. There were ‘doesn’t the Bible clearly teach’ questions. There were ‘wouldn’t the British have been more sensible to side with the Germans’ questions. (I have the horrid feeling that a fair number of those were from UK authors.) There were the ever present anonymous trolls.

There were also a lot of named trolls mostly with Chinese or Russian names who were busy pushing the party lines of their governments.

There were a lot of questions so incoherent that they were incapable of being answered. A lot of them were clearly written by people who hadn’t English as their native language. Sometimes it was clear that they had something clear in their minds but no way could you make out what it was.

Some of the questions were worse than that and caused me to form the opinion Quora was being used by secret agents to pass messages in plain sight.

There were a lot of questions which were clearly students or pupils trying to find inspiration for their homework tasks. I tried to avoid these but sometimes the sheer pleasure of being asked to ‘say what you know about’ overwhelmed me. It was being asked to ‘say what you believe’ that got me down.

So, enough. I’ll go back to and keep my on line whittering on short and to the point and just accept as part of the price of enlightening people the fact that I’ll occasionally be banned for a day or two either because I have been actually curt and offensive (and by gum I have to be aware of my tendency to grump nowaday!) or because the people monitoring the postings have failed to understand what I’m saying again. Ah young people today!

And I’ll keep posting here of course. The management hasn’t chosen to kick me out yet.

Seasonal Self Indulgence

Tonight is time for a bit of reminisence plus a bit of over emotional poetry reading. Do forgive the indulgence.

As a technical question does anyone know why the iMovie App on my iPad chose to take the full length still photograph of John Betjeman’s statue I had found to act as a title, zoomed in on it and then tracked up the body. I honestly didn’t ask it to do that.

And it decided to name the posting with the last of the labels at the front of it which isn’t how I labelled it…

Cha! Computers are getting more intrusive than technicians and casting directors. My genius is not being well served here….


Another notorious bit of vanity

An appropriate piece for the precise day and time.

Poetry, again. Not mine

But rather Will’s.

(I wonder if I’ll ever have the nerve to do 135: I am horribly aware I am not Ron Jeremy or LBJ.)

Feelingly speaking about lies and age.
One of the famouser ones.
A plea for listening to the subtext.
About age. Again.

Seasons’ Greetings and an unsolicited obscene recommendation.

My friend Lindy sent me a Christmas card (it is my sad duty as an old curmudgeon not to send her one in return so this will have to do) which said “Joy to the World” on the front with a nice picture of a dangling decorative ball. “Bit of a tough request, given the state of it,” she added inside.

And I think I have to disagree: joy can be had very easily if you accept it’s always going to be transient. Bill Bryson in NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND (1) observes that the British have a knack for finding the small pleasures and making the most of them. You may see them out on a Bank Holiday, having trudged along the desolate sands of some alleged resort, drenched in the freezing cold rain and trouping as a family, mother, father and much put upon children, into a cafe. They have tea or maybe cocoa and some poorly toasted teacakes, served with butter in individual catering wrapped-in-paper pats that has come fresh from the deep freeze and cannot be spread for at least half an hour.

“Well,” father will say “this is nice, isn’t it?” Joy is his, all for having the right attitude.

What is hard I think, is faith and hope and I sometimes wonder which is harder to manage.

My usage of faith and hope is perhaps eccentric and I should explain. (2)

By ‘faith’ I don’t mean trust in any particular dogma or message, nor in any particular person, divine or otherwise. I mean a trust that the universe, the big picture, the overall thing is benevolent and right. Being human, mortal and limited we don’t get to see or grasp the big picture but if faith is with us we believe that things are right whatever the local state of things may be.

By ‘hope’ I mean the ability to apply that to yourself and to yours and to the particular situation you and yours find yourself in. That things are working out, not for the universe, but for the tiny bit you can see and care about.

Both are clearly irrational and probably have more to do with the state of neurochemicals than anything metaphysical but nonetheless they feel real and my distinction between them feels about right.

I wonder if you can have hope without faith. Are there people who think on that sort of level that the universe may be screwed but they’re all right, Jack. I don’t think so, not really but that may be more about my desire for intellectual consistency than my compassion for the rest of the cosmos.

And since our mortal nature is not going to allow us perfect faith can we have perfect hope? Which is another question which may have more to do with my own personal neurochemical balance than metaphysics. Never mind.

My neurochemical balance was briefly tilted towards Joy today when I got the download of the Oglaf books which I have ordered in printed form and may yet receive before Christmas.

OGLAF is a weekly web comic of filth and humour on a fantasy theme that I’ve been reading since my friend Drak pointed it out to me some years back. Every week on a Sunday I get a little jolt of filthy fantasy fun and I wanted a permanent souvenier of the story so far. I especially wanted a copy of the Early Years because like all humour providers it seemed funnier and filthier then. There was a particular comic I wanted to find and for some reason I could see for looking on the web site. I found it in the pdf though and here I provide a link to the strip that again made me laugh like a drain.

Not in the least bit safe for work or for your heirs to find on your computer when you pass away.

Take a look. You’ll thank me.

(1) I think I may have quoted this sentiment before but what the heck.

(2) And this too is something I have the feeling I’ve written before.

Mystery wrapped inside an enigma: the Kampanaphobes

I think I have discovered a new religion.

I don’t mean I’ve received a visitation from an angel: I’ve always been spared that sort of thing for which I hope I’m duly grateful. If I ever am commanded by a divine messanger to write down a revelation I’ll post it here you may be sure.

I mean I found a phenomenon that can only be explained by some people having strange religious beliefs and practices that I am not familiar with.

I was just sitting down yesterday evening to play me Monday night game which is currently on-line as all my games are. I flicked through my e-mail queue to find the link to Zoom and noticed that the top message said that a parcel I had been expecting had been delivered ‘to a safe place’ because I hadn’t been in and a card had been posted.

No card by the door. No sign that anyone had tried to contact me in the hours they had said the parcel would be delivered. So I apologised to my players, got up and grabbed the keys, my walking stick and an umbrella and prepared to go out to search the environs of the block for where it had been left. It was pouring with rain outside and I was working myself up into a fine rant.

And I open my front door and it’s there in the corridor right in front of me. Plain as a pikestaff or rather as a cardboard box, which is probably even plainer than a pikestaff.

Now it hadn’t been there when I returned from my shopping at three-thirty. And (this is the mysterious bit) I hadn’t heard any sign of a bell ringing or a door being knocked on.

Why not? It wouldn’t have taken any longer to put the thing down and ring the bell. That’s what happened today when I got another parcel.

The only logical explanation I can come up with is: religion. There must be a religion in the world which regards knocking on doors or ringing doorbells as unclean.

I would love to know their doctrines that have led them to such a conclusion. I don’t recall any divine ordinance that applies, not even in Leviticus and they forbid everything under the sun in Leviticus. Does the prohibition apply only to certain times of the day? Or only certain days of the week?

And why do so many members of this cult end up in the delivery trade.

There’s a PhD in Anthropology or maybe Theology for the person who finds out.

According to the Phobia Wiki (and you thought I had too much time on my hands) Kampanaphobia is the unreasoning fear of bells. Do the cult members all have it? Or do they think all their customers do?