Hobs and Errors

I never had much time for people who went through life facing the past, not the future, constantly longing for something irrevocably lost – and here I am, full of nostalgia and regrets. Not for a lost love or a great missed opportunity, oh no, nothing so noble: the subject of my longing is my old cooker. I had to replace it  after a mere 40 years. “You won’t find it easy to get spare parts for this,” says the tactful gas engineer who can’t repair its faults, so I order a new model.

It arrives promptly. It looks good. But before  touching it, let me consult the User Manual. Its title is Double Cavity, which sounds  like a dental disaster, but then both cooker and booklet were produced in Turkey and some allowances must be made for nuances of meaning.  Also for attitudes. On my old cooker I simply switched on the gas and got on with the job; this one wants me to  keep pressing the switch for 5 to 10 seconds, as if to say “Yes, I mean it, please keep burning.”, and even so it sometimes goes out. In that case, I am told to wait “at least 1 minute before trying again. There is the risk of gas accumulation and explosion!” Well, I’ll just have to press the switch for 10 seconds or more, since clearly  the thing has a suspicious character; not sure I like it.

In the next few minutes it is I who becomes suspicious – of the designer who created my new cooker: did he ever try out his product? Do designers, those demi-gods of the hype world, ever use what they  create? This one certainly didn’t, otherwise he would have noticed that the arms of the trivets are far too short, so that small containers, like my Italian espresso machine, can’t be stood on them. Ouch – how shall I make my life-sustaining morning coffee? Fortunately I remember the ancient electric hotplate in the top part of a wardrobe and put it to work. It makes strange noises, like a volcano about to explode, but the coffee eventually emerges. The next annoyance is that the grill where I heat my croissant disperses the inevitable crumbs into inaccessible nooks and crannies. Make mental note to buy small hand-held vacuum cleaner to remove crumbs. But this is ridiculous! The grill on my old cooker had its own tray for crumbs, I didn’t need a new machine to clean  it! Indignation mounts. To cool down, I return to the Double Cavity booklet.

Not very cooling. There are five DANGER! warnings on one page. Move on. Ah, here’s some practical information. It says, “How to use the gas oven,” followed by Error! Bookmark not defined. Gee, thanks. Only three pages later do I find instructions on how to operate the oven, spiced with WARNING!, DANGER! and RISK! Is the purpose of this oven to cook food or to inflict on me a bad case of anxiety neurosis? A wave of nostalgia hits me. With my old cooker I simply turned on the oven and concentrated on the food, not on the risk of being blown up together with the butternut squash loaf.

The four hobs atop the cooker also need cautious handling. The rapid burner for big pots behaves like a flame-thrower when I light it; have to stand well back to avoid getting scorched. To make up for it, the tiny auxiliary burner comes up with the whisper of a flame, or not at all. To cook anything without getting burnt or exploding with frustration I am reduced to the two so-called normal burners, although by now I hardly know what “normal” means.

No, this isn’t just a domestic dirge. Its subject is the need to realize that innovation for its own sake can make things more complicated instead of easier, besides often using more energy, not less. For instance my new cooker must be connected to the mains electricity to make the ignition work; the old one used a small battery that lasted for a year, for the same purpose. No, I am not a Luddite, only an environmentalist and eco-warrior, longing for the simplification and sustainability of everyday life, and my experience with this new cooker clashes with my wishes. Little wonder nostalgia remains in the air.

Especially when I imagine my lovely simple old cooker slowly disintegrating in a pile of discarded kitchen antiques. RIP.

Some Thoughts on Health and Money

At a time when the gap between the super-rich and the poor is getting dangerously wide, it’s good to hear that Mark Zuckerberg, the billionaire founder of Facebook and his wife are giving $3bn  to medical research over the next ten years, to “cure, prevent or manage all diseases” in their children’s lifetime. It’s a nice gesture,  suggesting that perhaps capitalism has a more acceptable face, too, yet after a few moments of feeling nice about it,  I begin to experience some doubts.

It’s not just that $3bn sounds less impressive if set against, for instance,  the $6bn to be spent over five years by the British Wellcome Trust; it’s the grandiose aim of the donation that bothers me. All diseases? Is there anyone who can even begin to list them? Another generous billionaire, Bill Gates, has been spending billions over 15 years on trying – and failing – to wipe out nothing more than malaria or polio, never mind the whole blooming lot. Surely Mr Zuckerberg (German for Sugar Mountain) should think up a less ambitious project to support?

And while I am in the mood for cutting things down to manageable sizes, allow me to jump on my hobby-horse whose name is prevention, the poor relation of the cure and management of disease. “Prevention is not sexy,” says a disillusioned doctor friend of mine, “so no-one is taking it seriously.” And yet and yet the evidence is piling up to show that an alarming lot of our diseases are caused by ourselves out of sheer ignorance, or as a result of having poisoned the world which now, in turn, is poisoning us. There is nothing new about this: poor lifestyle, suicidal diets, obesity, too much alcohol, stress & co. add up to a litany piously recited by official voices, but there is no official action to rein in the misbehaviour of the food industry, to name only one major culprit. Cynics claim that Big Food is in cahoots with Big Pharma: if you consume enough processed stuff, you are bound to end up with a fistful of prescriptions for the rest of your life. Elementary, my dear Watson.

Maybe so. But what’s more alarming, because less obvious, is the piecemeal emergence of new health hazards. For instance we’ve just been told that dementia has overtaken heart disease as the biggest cause of death in England and Wales, a staggering development – how come, what has changed to cause this rise? The next day a newspaper report provided a possible answer. According to some researchers, particulate matter, typically released by diesel engines, can enter human brains, suggesting that there is a link between traffic pollution and dementia. Magnetite, a by-product of traffic pollution, has been found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, and there’s evidence that people living in areas with high levels of airborne pollution are more likely to get the disease. Ironically, diesel has been promoted for years now as being less harmful to health  than petrol…

Another example of the hidden link between innovation and health damage cropped up some years ago, when a Europe-wide research programme tried to establish the cause of poor sperm production by otherwise healthy males. In the end the men with the best sperm production, both in quantity and quality, turned out to be Danish organic farmers, namely men who never worked with herbicides, pesticides, fungicides or anything else ending with -cides; nor did they eat food treated with those same agri-poisons, which were hailed as the essential tools of modern farming, leading to bigger yields and healthier plants.  Since then the popularity of organic foods, guaranteed to be poison-free, has grown enormously, but it’s still a minority trend. As far as the manufacturers of agricultural chemicals are concerned, they keep producing ever stronger poisons, as  weeds and pests adapt sufficiently  to the current range to survive them. Never mind the humans who are the last link in the toxic food chain.

We’ve made a real mess of things, and surely trying to undo the damage and prevent further disasters should have absolute priority in medicine. But it hasn’t. Perhaps it never had. I recall a cartoon, used many years ago  by that great medical maverick Denis Burkitt, whenever he gave a talk on the need for prevention. The cartoon showed an overflowing hand basin with both taps full on, and two doctors in white coats busy mopping up the flooded floor, but not turning off the taps. “You get paid more for mopping up,” was Burkitt’s devastating comment.

Despite all this, I hope Mr Zuckerberg’s project will do some good in the hellishly difficult area of health in our not so brave new world.

 

 

 

 

Include Me Out

“Join the Rebellion!” is the eye-catching motto on the posters I’ve been noticing recently in London, but the message is weakened by the accompanying images of some obviously respectable  middle-class men and women who are supposed to be its intrepid heroes. Ah, but the aim of this rebellion is not to overthrow the Government or abolish the House of Lords overnight: it tells us to su2c, namely Stand Up to Cancer and “kick it off its perch”. Now that’s  a gem of a mixed metaphor; try as I may, I can’t picture that most dreaded disease in any shape that would enable it to sit on a perch, like a parakeet or, more appropriately, a vulture. Besides, has cancer become a global epidemic, which is how the WHO officially described it two years ago, because until now we haven’t stood up to it? We are not told.

However, we are told  how to become heroes of the rebellion. “Join us, pledge your support. Fundraise however the hell you want. As long as it’s raising money, you are one of us,” is the message on the new movement’s website, and its all-round permisssiveness stops me in my tracks, for stealing an old lady’s handbag  or emptying the collection box of my local church when nobody is looking would  certainly raise money, but would su2c approve of it? Luckily there are less problematic ways to produce cash: “You could get sponsored to wrestle a crocodile”, is one official suggestion. (Not kidding.)

Well,  it’s all about raising funds “for kickass ground breaking translational research”, whatever that means, and so we are directed to the Shop to buy t-shirts, various accessories and fundraising kits, all emblazoned with revolutionary mottoes. The general impression is that of an online razzmatazz, an over-the-top commercial promotion, which almost makes you forget what it is in aid of.

Of course fundraising for medical research is essential. Without the public’s willingness to donate, the £650 million cancer research unit of the Francis Crick Institute, the biggest medical research facility in Europe, wouldn’t have opened its doors in August this year. It’s just the methods of the cancer charities, mainly of the mighty  Cancer Research UK, that make me wonder. Do those in charge underestimate the intelligence of the public, or overestimate their own?

Take CRUK’s campaign, urging us to wear pink ribbons, in aid of “Against Breast Cancer”. Eh? Is there anyone in favour of it? Never mind, we are asked to go on sponsored walks, donate unwanted clothes, shoes, perfumes and CD’s,  run coffee mornings and do whatever else will bring in funds, “to beat cancer sooner”. Sooner than when? Every year 330,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in this country. Is there any research being done into the causes of this scourge which certainly doesn’t come from outer space but is produced much nearer home? For example, has anyone looked into the composition of the most popular antiperspirants, applied to an area full of lymph glands directly connected to the breasts? It is said that since more and more men have started using these products, the incidence of male breast cancers  has grown considerably, surely an indicator of toxic chemicals rubbed into a sensitive area of the body. As far as I know, this area is not explored. Altogether, prevention seems to be off the menu.

I should declare an interest. Thirty-three years ago, in 1983,  I recovered from Stage 4 metastasized malignant melanoma on the alternative nutrition-based Gerson therapy, after orthodox oncology could do nothing for me. That experience has taught me to ask the right questions about cancer, and to see how sadly we fail to hear and accept the right answers. Any doctor who tries to treat cancer by other than the  officially sanctioned trinity of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, risks getting into deep trouble, even though the accepted methods don’t perform particularly well. But that’s another story.

Fortunately  in a few medical centres researchers are already mooting the idea that perhaps instead of concentrating on the eradication or killing of the tumour it might be better to build up the patient’s depleted immune system, so that it can fight and, hopefully, defeat the malignant process. That’s the way my near-terminal cancer was cured, not just put into remission. That’s the way of the future.

But meanwhile I am not going to su2c, as the posters urge me to do. And when it comes to frantic fundraising in truly questionable taste (“Whip up boob-shaped cup cakes” is one suggestion for coffee-morning hostesses), I won’t  join in.  In Churchill’s memorable phrase, “include me out.” And, by the way, I am not going to wrestle a crocodile, either.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seeds of omission

At long last yesterday I got down to exploring a densely chaotic shelf in an all-purpose cupboard, the kind that starts out as a model of intelligent storage and then gradually fills up with objects of  infinite variety and questionable usefulness.  The ancient Egyptians believed that life was a constant struggle with the all-engulfing chaos, and I think they were spot on, even though my chaos was infinitely smaller than their cosmic one and could sometimes be – briefly – defeated. The time to start was now.

For starters, beneath a few layers of plastic bags and the instructions  for using a long  defunct kitchen gadget, I found a smallish  gold-coloured metal box which had once contained  expensive Belgian chocolates, but now, to my amazement, was full of something less sweet: a batch of unopened seed packets. I could hardly believe my eyes.  How did I manage to forget about this lot? And was it too late to sow them now?

Well yes, it was. According to the “Sow by…” instruction on each packet, these seeds were two to four years out of date, victims of the sense of timelessness that overcomes me each time I am confronted with a resistible task, a sense of surely-it-can-wait-another-week. Or more. “Tomorrow never comes”, sang Frank Sinatra, offering a glamorous excuse to procrastinators. What a waste of money and gardening potential, I thought, fingering the pristine seed packets, but then suddenly remembered reading somewhere that wheat found in the tomb of a pharaoh did sprout after being stored in a stone jar for thousands of years. Should I perhaps – but no, get real, lady, that was probably ultra-special pharaonic wheat, and besides mid-October was no time to sow seeds.

I laid out the small envelopes on the kitchen table. Why on earth did I have six lots of radish seeds, four of them of the “French breakfast” variety ?  I lived in France for years and never saw any French person eating radishes for breakfast, nor was I ever offered any. Could this be another of those cross-Channel love-hate Franglais misunderstandings which make the French believe that the Brits eat le biftek twice a day? “An old radish which has stood the test of time”, one packet states rather offputtingly, making me realize that I don’t really like radishes of any kind. But then why did I buy all those seeds? No idea.

More to my taste, I find three packs of lettuce seeds, including those of Tom Thumb, the smallest kind, “just right for small families” I read on the pack; does that mean one and a half  family  member , or a whole family of small stature? Never mind, here come carrot seeds – they like dry, sandy soil and would have done badly in my rich organic humus – and the seeds of chives, spring onions, runner beans, peas, dark purple beetroot and – wait for it – perpetual spinach; what a nightmare for a spinach-hating child, and to hell with Popeye. Finally a touch of romance: I must have been in a lyrical mood when I bought the seeds of Night Scented Stock, delicate white and pink flowers only  releasing their sweet perfume when the stars light up. At last something to make up for those prosaic vegetable seeds.

What next? I take the seed packets to the compost bin at the bottom of the garden, open them one by one and pour the contents onto the vegetable chaos inside.  From one chaos into another, amen. My volunteer employees, the omnivorous earthworms will recycle the lot. Unless – this thought strikes me several hours later and makes me anxious – what if the seeds decide to disprove their sow-by dates and begin to sprout in the moist, warm paradise of the compost bin? What if they go on growing and thriving, until one day my garden is taken over by huge French radishes, fully intent to stand the test of time?

Let me procrastinate and wait and see. And hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On a low couch to China

Once a week I swap the noise and frantic life of the Chiswick High Road for this quiet, warm treatment room at the far end of a corridor, to lie very still on a couch for forty minutes. Mustn’t move much or try to lie on my side, because there are fine acupuncture needles protruding from various parts of my body and while lying still I can’t feel them at all, a change in position would make them sharply noticeable.

Anyway, why should I move? This is the ultimate luxury, to do nothing in great comfort and indulge in random thoughts, daydreams and suchlike frivolities. The soft tinkling background music  sounds like a miniature piano played by a gifted toddler; it flows along without structure or rhythm in a soothing Oriental manner –  just right for the occasion. Sometimes I hear a snatch of Chinese conversation outside in the corridor, sounding mildly indignant and melodious; it adds to the general atmosphere of  a mysterious elsewhere.

The needles make  me feel like a hedgehog in reverse, with spines upside down, except that Nature would never allow such a useless arrangement. Then the image of St Sebastian floats  into my awareness, the  beautiful half-naked young man tied to a tree and shot full of lethal arrows, martyred for his Christian faith by the Emperor Diocletian. Of course there’s no parallel here: poor Sebastian was killed by the arrows, while I am being peppered by needles in order to get me well.  Anyway, I should have Chinese daydreams, not Roman ones, so how about The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine, AKA Huangdi Neijing (there – I knew this would impress you), the 2000-plus years old fundamental source for Chinese medicine?

Well no, let’s stick to the here and now. I first came here a few weeks ago to get rid of the severe pain in my left shoulder that has been tormenting me for three years, resisting several kinds of massage, physiotherapy and exercise, and also to increase my chi, the vital energy that drives and maintains life; mine being rather low right now. How does the needling  work?  Apparently my body contains a network of meridians, and the needles inserted into certain sensitive points along them are able to remove blockages and restore normal functioning. I have no problem with this theory, but some time ago it did  cause an eminent British consultant   to slice open a dead body in search of meridians. He didn’t find anything (what did he  expect? silk ribbons in pretty colours?), upon which he dismissed acupuncture as a load of rubbish and a con trick, in the touchingly confident manner of old-fashioned materialists who have firm views on what they don’t understand.

I wish he could meet Dr L., the Chinese woman doctor whose patient I am; given a good interpreter, they would have a truly interesting discussion.  Dr.L. is slender, middle-aged and imperturbable. We get on well.  Her English is somewhat rudimentary, a kind of Chinglish, so when it comes to finer points,  we call in the young receptionist to interpret. But a lot is done without words: Dr. L. checks my pulses and my tongue in her tiny office – look, no computer, no electronics, just a map of the human body and a small plastic skeleton, so that she looks at me, not at a screen, which is refreshing.  She is gentle and ultra-careful with the needles, but  when she massages me, despite being so petite  she has the strength of a sumo wrestler and I often have to beg her to hold back a bit.

Dr L. can also be strict; for instance, she makes me  drink twice a day a herb tea of unimaginable awfulness which I have to prepare myself according to strict rules. Complex tastes are notoriously difficult to describe, so let me just  say that this one is both cloying and dull and lingers on for a long time. The worst part of it is that it seems to do me good.

Besides, it could be worse, as I discover when the inveterate researcher in me takes over. I soon learn that the first Chinese herbal record dates from 2800 BC, which makes the practice nearly 5000 years old. Since then some 13,000 medicinals have been regularly used in China, consisting largely of plant elements, but containing animal, human and mineral products as well.  Some of these extras, such as cow’s gallstones, sound alarming, but happily the traditional products of the human body, which I refuse to list, are no longer used. (Phew.)

Another ten minutes and Dr L. will arrive, to remove her twenty-odd needles and work on muscles I didn’t know I had. So I drift into a final reverie about this mysterious medical system that works today as well as it did 5000 years ago, perhaps branching out into new areas – for instance discovering a way to roll back the years and produce enough dragon-power chi, zest, energy, vigour and vitality to rejuvenate the more or less decrepit patients, like myself, who come here in search of healing? Why not, even if it involves cow’s gallstones or worse? As far as I am concerned, it can’t be done fast enough –

Ah, Dr L. Yes, thank you, I am feeling better.

Beards and Birds

The other day I visited the National Portrait Gallery’s “Great Russians” exhibition, to see the portraits of the writers, artists, composers and their patrons who flourished from the late 19th century until 1914. “Flourished” is probably the wrong word – the pervading atmosphere of the collection was that of noble melancholy: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, depicted mostly against black backgrounds, seemed deep in troubled thought, perhaps oppressed by the pain of sheer existence and of having a soul. As I gazed at them, it suddenly struck me that all these great men sported beards of varying sizes,  ranging from Tolstoy’s impressive length to the alcoholic Mussorgsky’s short, untidy model; and that somehow those beards, making their owners look much older than their years, contributed to their mood of cultured depression.

Later in the Gallery’s shop  I noticed a bottle of Beard Shampoo cum special Brush. H’m.Of course, beards would need some maintenance,  I thought and bearded – sorry, boarded a bus driven by a majestic Sikh elder with a beard as huge and impressive as Tolstoy’s. Now I was hooked: as a passionate collector of useless information, in beards I have found an unfamiliar subject to explore, moreover with scientific detachment, as personally I prefer clean-shaven faces and don’t understand the current fashion for the three-day stubble, which is supposed to be sexy but to me only suggests a prisoner on the run. ( Stubbled readers, please accept my apologies.)

“The male beard communicates an heroic image of the independent, sturdy and resourceful pioneer, ready, willing and able to do many things,” I find for starters on the Internet. Another quote, however, deflates the heroics, calling a beard “a vestigial trait from a time when humans had hair on their face and entire body like the hair on gorillas.” Never mind gorillas, the online treasury of data is huge. Among many things it offers a dazzling variety of present-day beard models,  ranging from the Van Dyke goatee with or without mustache to the soul patch, the chin strip, the chin curtain and many more. All this is fully illustrated and accompanied with good advice to assist the would-be bearded man, vacillating  between several possible cheek and neck lines.

And oh, the grooming advice! And the equipment that’s needed! Beside the daily shampoo and conditioner no man can be well-groomed without a beard trimmer, a wide-toothed comb for the beard and a fine-toothed one for the mustache. A magnifying glass and a three-way mirror are also recommended, plus some baby oil and moisturizing lotion. No blow-dry, though – it would make a full beard look like a disheveled hedgehog. There is also the delicate matter of colouring a graying beard; because of rapid growth this needs to be done once a week.

It was at this stage that a feeling of familiarity overtook me. Heavens above, I was reading the male equivalent of the caring prose I used to write an eternity ago when I worked on a women’s magazine as a beauty writer; it was a downmarket weekly, known sarcastically as the “Knit your own Royal Family” special, but selling millions of copies a week; how moving and endearing it seemed that men, those independent, sturdy and resourceful guys could lavish as much time, attention and even money on their beards as any ex-reader of mine used to devote to her hairdo. The eternal chasm between the sexes seemed to have shrunk a tiny bit.

I was also moved by the story of  a man who had raised funds for his favourite charity by shaving off his cherished beard. Was he perhaps going to raise  more money by growing it back to an amazing length, collecting hundreds of pounds for every inch of shampooed, conditioned and trimmed beard?

What had started as a light-hearted quest was turning into a mild obsession. I realized it had to stop when, looking at a restaurant menu, I was about to order “bearded chicken with new potatoes” – except that the bird in question was, in fact, breaded. O.K., that’s it, I thought, subject deleted,  I really have  no right to inflict beards on birds; whatever next unless I stop now?

What happened next was that I opened the morning paper and saw this news item: “Spectacular bearded vulture spotted in Britain for first time.”

Serves me right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Misquotes and Mysteries

I was listening on the radio to a talk by Professor Stephen Hawking, or rather to the machine that enables him to speak, and I marvelled at the contrast between the even, flat robotic voice and the liveliness and subtle humour of the thoughts it uttered. And, not for the first time, I felt that the much-quoted adage beloved by English public schools and muscular Christians, namely “Mens sana in corpore sano”, (a healthy mind in a healthy body) was not invariably true. Professor Hawking’s brilliant mind happens to operate within a totally non-functional – never mind healthy – body, while I can recall listening on the radio to famous athletes, footballers and champions of all kinds who by definition were splendid specimens with rippling muscles and superb health – and who could barely utter a sentence without saying “you know” or “I mean” five times . Worse still, no doubt there were some dishy criminals and handsome mafiosi around with admirable physiques but distinctly unhealthy minds. It didn’t add up, somehow.

Where did that quote come from, anyway? (Next question: what is the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations for?) Mystery solved:  that quote was a misquote, or rather a mangled quote, because in its totality, as written by the poet Juvenal  (A.D.60-130), it ran “Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano”, i.e. let us pray that there should be a healthy mind in a healthy body. Now that was a completely different  proposition; a pious wish, not a statement of fact. And of course it was possible and even laudable  to pray for something, without any guarantee of getting it – and I had one puzzle fewer to worry about.

But soon another one came to the fore. “Money is the root of all evil”, claimed a leaflet in my letterbox the other day. It came from some obscure anti-capitalist group, and the mis-spelt and meandering text ended with an appeal – for money, to promote their world-saving campaign. I tore up the leaflet but later remembered having  heard that claim before (though not in banking circles); what no-one seemed to suggest was a workable alternative to money. Also, surely there were plenty of evils with non-monetary roots? Once again, it didn’t add up.

Of course not. (Thanks, ODQ.) I’d been bluffed with another mutilated quote, this time from the first Epistle of St Paul to Timothy (who he? never mind). “The love of money is the root of all evil”, wrote St Paul, and he was, and is, spot on: most things that are desperately wrong with the world here and now spring from the obscene greed of profit-centred corporations and a few well-placed individuals.   I shan’t say another word about that; certainly not in this blog. My aim from now on is to track down misquotes and their  mangled cousins and restore them to their full meaning, so they can’t go on lying in public and puzzling individuals like me.

As for the mysteries, they are modest. I even have tentative solutions to them. The first mystery concerns the ampersand, the symbol for etc. – & . We all know that it stands for et cetera, Latin for and other things. The mystery is why so many people pronounce it as exetera. They do, honest. Just listen to them. Can it be that they are fatally misled by the curly rising bit of the ET crossing its downward bit , which produces a kind of x? At any rate it’s puzzling and if I were braver, one day I would  stop an exeterist in mid-flow and request an explanation. (Yes, I do mean eXplanation.)

Then there is the mystery of the label that appears exclusively in pyjamas and dressing- gowns  and says KEEP AWAY FROM FIRE AND FLAMES. There are few flames in a modern house: in mine the only (gas) flames appear on the cooker  when I put the kettle on. I’ve been pondering this enigma for a while and now wonder whether the warning has survived from the pre-central heating era, when freshly scrubbed children in their nightwear were allowed to stand for a few minutes at the open fire, seen but not heard,  before being dispatched to bed. Can’t think of any other scenario; shall have to track down a pyjama manufacturer or a social historian to enlighten me.

The final mystery comes from the noticeboard outside a local church, advertising the times of Sunday services. Not being a churchgoer myself, I only glanced at it in passing, but that  was enough to stop me, for I saw the following list: “9.30 Traditional, 10.45 Contemporary, 12.15 Informal, 3.00 p.m. Soaking Prayer”.  My mind briefly boggled at the possible difference between the first two – pop songs instead of  hymns? – but what on earth, or rather in heaven, could “Informal” mean?  Surely, if someone took the time and trouble to go to church, the last thing he/she wanted was to get chummy with the Almighty? There was a telephone number on the board and, as a devoted collector of useless information, I was about to jot it down for future use,  but then resisted the urge. There was, I feared, a certain risk of being answered with a Soaking Prayer, and  that would have been too much to cope with.

Perhaps some mysteries are best left unsolved.