Monday, 26 June 2017

TADS #12:The Greensand Way (or Hopping Down in Kent).

It had felt like quite a while since the TADS had enjoyed wonderful walks from Hastings to Winchelsea and around Blenheim Palace. Despite recently getting back from four pretty gruelling days of Welsh hill walking I, for one, was raring to go.

I hooked up with Pam, Kathy, Shep, Adam, and Teresa at Café Ritazza in Victoria and we all jumped on the train to Borough Green and Wrotham. Just outside the M25 it was a new station on me. We stocked up with some sandwiches and drinks in the Co-Op and headed off down Borough Green's pleasant main street. The wafts from the chip shops were very inviting but we continued downhill on to Thong Lane before the road curved round into the charming village of Basted.

We pondered the small lake for some time watching the ducks (with several ducklings) and coots go about their business. We passed a burnt out house and wondered what the story was there. As we reached the top of the first of many small hills on this route we spotted a pub, The Plough. It seemed too early to stop and the book had recommended another pub not much further on. Even the friendly customer outside who called us in didn't break our resolve to plough on past The Plough. It turned out to be a mistake but we couldn't have known how much of one then.

We passed through a wheat field and wondered if we could get up to anything as naughty as Theresa May. But instead of pissing away millions of pounds on a self-defeating election and then pissing away a billion more pounds paying off a bunch of climate change denying, anti-abortion, homophobes to prop up a minority government we just sang some songs to ourselves and chatted.
We passed several oast houses and were keen to sample some of the wares made in these places. The book had recommended The Harrow Inn on Ightham Common and described it as 'cosy' with 'hearty quantities of well presented food'. It was anything but.
It could've been a wonderful local pub, we've visited many on our travels, but it was all undone by one major flaw. The landlord was, not to put too fine a point on it, an absolute cunt. He seemed rude enough when we arrived and he told us it wasn't a pub but a restaurant (despite the fact that it clearly was a pub and there were both empty tables and tables with people not eating sat on them). The fact some of us were planning to eat didn't enter in to it. Shep, Pam, and I ordered a Loddon bitter. Adam tried to do the same but was told that he couldn't have one as he wanted to save the beer for more important customers that were due that evening. I regret not calling him a wanker loudly in front of the other patrons and walking out. It had started lightly raining and the tinpot dictator offered us one final indignity of telling us we'd have to sit outside in the rain. There we sat drinking our admittedly tasty pints (those of us fortunate enough to get served) and wondering what could've made a human being so small minded. When we took the glasses back to the counter, instead of smashing them into his ungrateful stuck up face, he seemed quite surprised. We won a moral victory but if you're ever in Ightham Common do not visit this shithole.

That's undoubtedly the worst pub experience we've ever had on any of our walks but we weren't going to let it ruin our day. We passed another pub, also called The Plough, and considered we'd have been better served than either Plough than the Harrow. Through the quaint village of Ivy Hatch and past the huge pile of Ightham Mote we went, more oast houses, more cattle, and more hills.

A long, slow ascent took us up on to Greensand Way proper. The Greensand Way is a 108 mile long path that leads from Haslemere in Surrey to Hamstreet in Kent. We clearly were only walking a small stretch of it today. Walking more than 100 miles would just be crazy.
From the top we could hear the sound of the music festival and I think some of us considered we'd rather be there with a cool beer than running out of breath walking up a hill in what was, now, turning out to be quite a warm day. The views across the lush Kentish countryside were spectacular and, after a couple of miles, the track brought us to Knole Park. The book had warned us that the resident fallow and sika deer may 'look adorable, but they shouldn't be approached as they can be dangerous'. 

They were no bother at all and, on occasion, even seemed to be posing for photographs. The large park (created for the archbishops of Canterbury to indulge their passion for bloodsport in) contained brilliant trees, a huge country house, and plenty of other walkers but the deer were sure winners of any beauty contest.
Knole Park pretty much emptied out into Sevenoaks town centre. An admirable mix of the ramshackle and the showy. A Lamborghini garage and some shops with fonts straight out of the 70s. Surprisingly hilly we took solace in the Crown and I had a pint of Pride of Kent IPA. Swiftly followed by another. The old 'two pint mistake'. The jukebox knocked out some good tunes, the chat was convivial, and the craic was good.
The service there was good but our final port of call Raj Bari more than made up for old grumpy bollocks earlier. They could not do enough for us. Want a starter as a main? Sure. Want a main as a starter? Sure. Fancy some extra poppadums? Sure. They didn't have Bangla but the Cobras kept flowing. Adam was so happy he sent compliments to the chef and, at one point, almost started dancing!
We'd turned it round. A walk that was in danger of being overshadowed by a rude over privileged nob will now instead be remembered as a fun day with tasty curry and, as ever, most importantly, good friends. We could all drink to that.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Only fools and mongeese.

Last week I was back with the London Fortean Society (and back at the Conway Hall). Their talk on Gef the Talking Mongoose had drawn an impressively large and appreciative crowd. The round of applause with which they/we greeted speakers Christopher Josiffe and Chris Hill was as warm as the beer I purchased from a trestle table set up at the back of the room.

It seemed right to be raising a bottle as the event was, at least partly, a celebration of Gef's 165th birthday. He'd claimed himself he'd been born on the 7th June 1852 near Delhi in India before travelling, via Egypt (stopping to admire the Sphinx, naturally) to, of all places, the Isle of Man where, during the 1930s, and already an octogenarian, he came into contact with the Irving family in their remote Manx farmhouse.

There he, in turns, haunted them, complained of various maladies, stalked their daughter, and stole things from their neighbours. At this point you're possibly raising your eyebrows incredulously and doubting the veracity of an 80 year old mongoose that could talk and travel the world and, of course, you'd be right. But the Fortean position is a different one to that of the Skeptics in the Pub, they celebrate the curious, the peculiar, and the downright strange, and don't seek to impose their own beliefs but simply listen, learn, and sometimes laugh.

Christopher and Chris began their story with a brief look at the life of James Irving. It was said that before moving out to the Isle of Man he'd run a successful business importing pianos from Canada to Liverpool. He lived in Wavertree, near Penny Lane. Not long after making the move to the Irish Sea, with his wife Margaret and daughter Voirrey, he heard scratching, rustling, and muffled speech from behind the wainscoting of their house. The house had no television, no wireless, and no electricity, and was lit solely by candles so it was a spooky enough place to begin with.
So when a weasel named Jack appeared and started talking things would've got even eerier. The boastful mammal claimed he was the eighth wonder of the world and that he was the fifth dimension. He also offered the Irvings a tip for the Grand National. A bad tip as it turned out as the horse did not win. He would cough, puke, gossip, moan, and, occasionally, even threaten the family. He did all this in a ludicrous high pitched whine that Christopher gamely, and amusingly, had a crack at.

After a while Jack the weasel decided he was actually Gef the mongoose. His spelling wasn't much better than his racing tips but let's not pick hairs. Estimates of Gef's size ranged from between 6 and 12 inches and mongeeses tend to be three to six times bigger than that so this seems like another example of Gef, or someone else (!), being economical with the truth.
In fact it seemed that what Gef actually was was up for quite regular debate. Was he a weasel? Was he a mongoose? Some said he might've been a stoat. Other opined that he was probably a cat. Out of the box thinkers suggested he was a shape shifter and could, therefore, be all of these things and more. Photographic evidence ranges from the vague to the virtually invisible. It's inconclusive to say the least.
Whatever he was he used to make a right pest of himself. A notorious sandwich theft from Peel bus garage was the least of his crimes. His obsession with Voirrey Irving bordered on the psychotic. When her bedroom was moved so he'd stop talking to her he said he'd find her wherever her parents hid her and flew into fits of rage.
He had a more mundane side too. His anecdotes were, quite frankly, utterly dull. He'd talk at length, over a saucer or two of milk, about finding a paintbrush in the fields or how he'd overheard a neighbour saying she was knitting a jumper for her husband.
He claimed to be fluent in Hindustani but experts considered his attempts at the Indo-Aryan language to be nothing short of gibberish. Gef was no doubt a bullshitter but were the Irvings? What of the handful of other people on the island who'd said they'd come into contact with Gef?


Gef was with the Irvings from 1931-1939 (it seems unclear what happened to him after that, perhaps the war took priority) but what was this peculiar story all about? Was it a hoax? If so, how many people were in on it? If it was a hoax nobody at all seemed to benefit financially, or in any other way, from it.

Was it a collective hallucination? Could Gef have been a poltergeist? If so, poltergeists don't normally eat sandwiches and drink saucers of milk. Fur and footprints were found and dismissed and Voirrey, speaking in later life after moving to the mainland, said she'd wish she'd never come into contact with Gef, that Gef had ruined her life and she'd been unable to form normal human relationships since her experiences with him. Voirrey also claimed that the Irving family had a sheepdog that hypnotised rabbits so either something very strange was happening on the Isle of Man in the 1930s or something very strange was happening in Voirrey's mind.

Either way this is the mystery that keeps giving. It's so different to other ghost stories or tales of talking animals. In places it's amusing, in places it's a little frightening, but, at all times, it is most definitely a tale for Forteans to ponder for many years to come. In that it was one of the best, and most appropriate, events that that I've yet had the pleasure to experience with the London Fortean Society. The way my fellow punters snapped up books about Gef suggested I wasn't alone in that.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The Wedding Present:It's What You Want That Matters.

"This is for you, you must know it's for you, what else can I think about?"

David Gedge has always run a pretty tight ship as leader, and sole original member, of The Wedding Present. He doesn't tolerate people shouting for songs, he gets aggrieved that Cinerama tunes aren't as well received as the earlier Wedding Present classics and he plays no encores. Ever.

So when he says that Saturday night's Roundhouse gig would be the last time the band would ever play the 1987 album George Best in its entirety it's probably best to take him at his word. I'd seen them at Reading's Sub 89 back in March and, great gig and great night though it was, I wasn't sure I needed to see them again quite so soon after.

The inclusion of Brix and the Extricated on the bill was very tempting, I'd seen them (and then written my most read blog so far) back in November at the Lexington and they were wonderful, but the final clincher was my very generous friend Gary getting me a free ticket. Hey, I'm not working. I ought to watch the pennies.

A pint in the sun with Shep and Pam in Chalk Farm's Enterprise set the scene nicely. A bit of faffing around at the door meant we arrived halfway through Brix and The Extricated's first song. They'd struggle to match the majesty of their Lexington gig in a, much shorter, support slot but they still pulled off a pretty impressive performance.

Brix, resplendent in leopard skin print, changing the lyrics to US 80s/90s to slag off Donald Trump and the damage he's doing to her home country, and her band didn't play as many Fall songs as last time. Only five with LA being the pick of the bunch, Steve Trafford providing the backing vocals originally sung by Brix in a neat piece of gender inversion.

Due to Brix's voice and her undoubted penchant for bubblegum pop some of their own material was very reminiscent of The Adult Net. Not least Moonrise Kingdom which substitutes the brooding menace of 1980s Fall with sixties influenced jangle. Pneumatic Violet and Damned for Eternity both introduce a harder pop-punk edge to their sound and they're both really rather wonderful.

David Gedge has clearly decided that if we're gonna be treated to a feast of nostalgia we're gonna have to earn it. The first half of The Wedding Present's set consists mainly of deep cuts and new material. There's nothing from their late 80s imperial phase and, in fact, the oldest thing they play is Crawl, essentially a b-side to 1990's Corduroy.

Opening with the slow, atmospheric, keyboard-led Scotland (from this year's Home Internationals EP), then changing up several gears to the grunge-lite Broken Bow before, eventually settling somewhere between those two extremes with tracks like the sad-eyed Model, Actress, Whatever, the moody Fifty-Six, and the Pixiesesque Love Slave.

It's all very good but most of the audience are waiting for them to get stuck into George Best which, after about half-an-hour, they do. Gedge, never one to hype something, explains how George Best is probably the third most personal Wedding Present album he's written while the crowd, considerably more enthused, create a moshpit that belies their age. As pints are lobbed in the air balding grey-haired men are escorted from the stage area by security guards who look like their granddaughters! These men may not get out so much these days but when they do they certainly make the most of it.

Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft, of course, and What Did Your Last Servant Die Of result in mass sing-alongs. The opening riff of the latter, and the camaraderie of the event, send a shiver down my spine. A sensation repeated during the heartbreaking refrain of My Favourite Dress.

Shep reminds me that when we were comparative nippers I'd accused The Wedding Present of basing a whole career on speeding up the guitar break from New Order's Love Vigilantes. If that seems reductive it's not entirely inaccurate and, so what, couple that with Gedge's conversational and heartfelt tales of love and lust and you've got a hugely winning formula. As Gedge shakes the pain out of his hands at the end of each song's guitar thrashing you feel his soul may need some exorcising too if he has to go over these tales of flawed romances too often.

Give My Love To Kevin is introduced with the information that Kevin was a real person that David Gedge knew from school. While it may seem strange to look back at friendships from more than three decades ago the awkward tale of first love that is A Million Miles and the borderline metal thrash of All This And More still sound as relevant as ever. These songs, this album, just has not dated.

Once George Best is over the band, clearly in a generous mood, finish off with the deathless indie disco classic Kennedy. The moshpit get to mosh some more and the crowd sing a long with more heart and gusto than anything else all night. The Wedding Present don't need to do encores because The Wedding Present provide the goods first time round.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017


Richard Firth-Godbehere was at London Skeptics in the Pub to deliver his talk That's Disgusting! How Disgust Rules The World. As the second part of his double-barrelled surname, so he informed us, came from a Viking word meaning 'God of beer' a pub was the right place to be doing it. He'd even brought along a few insects to munch on while he spoke, though most of them ended up spilt on the pub carpet. Seeing the barmaid hoover them up once the talk was done was a bathetic sight - for her, me, and, not least, the insects.

Would you eat insects? Would you eat them if they were still wriggling around? Would you eat them if they'd been crunched up and put into an energy bar? I wouldn't - but that's because I'm a vegetarian - but I don't think the squeamish factor would stop me. It would a lot of people. We all have different thresholds as to what we find disgusting. In many parts of the world (Mexico, Brazil, Thailand, China) insects are consumed regularly and with no great fanfare. They're supposed to be pretty good for you and they're far better for the environment than raising cattle is.

So there are cultural reasons for what we find disgusting as well. But are there things that globally we all find disgusting? Most people would be uncomfortable with having shit smeared in their face or accidentally swallowing someone else's vomit. Some not only don't like the idea of ingesting such matter but are repulsed by it coming OUT of their bodies too. It was Firth-Godbehere's wife emetophobia that set him off on a six year long analysis and dissection of the history, philosophy, and psychology of disgust which culminated in a PhD in the English understanding of that feeling.

He'd extrapolated his findings into a belief that disgust actually rules the world! From refusing certain foods to relationships to political leanings and religious beliefs. It was here he lost me. I'm not arguing that feelings of disgust don't have huge impact on what we do, how we behave, or even what we believe but I'd say you could equally make the case for any number of emotions. Does angst rule the world? What about fear? Happiness? Desire? Lust? Shame? I'd wager that an infinitely complex mix of all these emotions are what drives us to do what we do, be who we are, and to narrow it down to just one is an over-simplification.

Firth-Godbehere came across as a likeable, jocular, chap who, perhaps down to feeling a bit nervous, tended to let his talk wander off into cul-de-sacs of digression and peppered it with too many poor jokes. It felt at times he was auditioning, unsuccessfully, for a place at a comedy festival and I felt that detracted from his highly interesting, if somewhat flawed, premise.

There was some stuff about neuroscience that he didn't really build on, some pictures of things that people might find disgusting (turds, puke, an ice cream with onions on it, rats, Donald Trump), and a very brief overview of the history of disgust which began with the Romans and moved through to the present day. One slide contained a painting of a couple having sex. As the woman was on top this was, apparently, considered disgusting in Roman times as men, as the dominant sex, should always be in the dominant position.

This showed, if nothing else, how our notion of what's disgusting changes over time. In recent years studies of disgust have shown that as recently as the 1980s a huge amount of people considered homosexuality to be repulsive and disgusting. Now, thankfully, it's a tiny amount. We can learn, we can teach, and we can be taught about disgust.

Children grow up without much of a concept of it. Some of them will happily play with their pooh. Some won't. Most adults don't. A member of the audience piped up to propose the theory, based on observing his own and other's children, that the smell of farts doesn't really bother humans until they reach about 4 or 5 years old.

We learn from those around but we also evolve. I'd have liked it if Richard had gone further back into evolutionary theories regarding disgust. It seems to me quite likely that this emotion (or reaction) must've developed for a good reason and I can't help thinking it would be a way of helping prevent us ingesting, or coming into contact with, things that are bad for us. Feces makes us feel nauseous - therefore we don't eat it.

Where the speaker did hit on something was by looking at the way politicians and propagandists use disgust. The Nazis regularly compared Jews to rats thus making their wider audience associate the two with each other (you think about Jews, you think about rats, you feel disgusted, therefore Jews = disgusting). Dehumanisation of an enemy and comparing them with disgusting things is a cowardly trick that goes back as far as history itself and, as witnessed in the recent spate of radical Islam inspired attacks, continues to this day.

Katie Hopkins' regular streams of vile filth that pour out over the pages of the Daily Mail calling migrants 'vermin' and 'cockroaches' is exactly the same technique used by the Nazis and ISIS but before us liberal minded lefties pat ourselves on the back for being better than her it's worth noting that the mere mention of her name, or that of Donald Trump, caused a huge repulsed sigh to break out across the room. Whilst the Conservatives remain the nasty party and, along with their buddies UKIP, use these slanderous and untrue techniques the most it's worth noting that some Corbynites are equally guilty of demonising the enemy. Theresa May, for all her many faults, does not barbecue and eat children as I read on my Facebook feed this morning. She disgusts me for sure - but that's because of her policies. Not because of how she looks or lies made up by those to dehumanise her.

I didn't eat the insects. I didn't believe the premise. I don't think Theresa May eats children. I don't think homosexuality is disgusting and I positively like the idea of a woman on top. According to Firth-Godbehere, in a leap of logic so wild it had me shaking my head, the reason I'm less disgusted than others is because I'm a left wing person brought up in a left-wing family. He clearly hasn't met my dad.