PC 223 Chips and Shoulders

The idea to write this postcard was prompted by Jon dropping in for a coffee, in the garden obviously as this has been permitted since 8th March, after getting his vaccination a week ago. Vaccinations and the fleshy part of the shoulder go hand in hand ……. and he had had a shoulder injury some years ago that had been operated on and it still wasn’t as good as it should’ve been …..

 …… and I thought he might have had a chip on his shoulder …… angry that the surgeon couldn’t do a better job …… and then the association with the madcap world in which we live kicked in.

A researcher having a microchip implanted

Chips? Ah! Yes! Microchips that Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, has paid for everyone to have injected into themselves when they get their Covid vaccination. I really do wonder about the creativity of people. Who thought this idea up? If I extrapolate the current technology way into the future, it’s possible that we will be able to have a microchip in our wrist that will monitor our health and alert us to something amiss; that would be real progress. But I have had my first dose of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine and didn’t feel a thing; Niente! Zilch! Nada!

No chip! The idea that ‘Big Brother’ could implant a chip into my arm at the same time, as if I could be distracted in some way, beggars belief ….. without me knowing about it? And for what purpose? To monitor my habits and alert agencies to changes perhaps? For instance, I go to the loo most mornings about the same time, as I am sure most people do; it is a daily necessary deposit. What if I was late? Do I really want a text or worse still my Amazon Echo to remind me I should have gone 30 minutes before?

Every country has parts which are more beautiful or plainer than others, more mountainous or flatter, more industrial, richer or poorer; inhabited by snootier, more religious, less couth, people than in other areas. It’s just the way our societies develop. For example, I got to know littoral Denmark from sailing around it when stationed in Germany; see PC 106 Sailing in the Baltic. I was delighted to return to Denmark when I started working for Short Brothers, travelling particularly to Copenhagen or up to Hjørring, right up in the north of mainland Jutland. If you get to know a foreign country well, you gain some insight into how a nation thinks. Dining out in expensive Copenhagen restaurants I was amazed at the exorbitant costs of ‘fine wines’ at the top end of the cellar list. I asked my agent who on earth bought these; Jørgen Brøndum, a delightful sagacious chap who was great company, replied: “Well, only those uncultured and rural folk from Jutland who think it’s the right thing to do when they come to the capital! Trying to show they are not country bumpkins!”

In the UK, the Forrest of Dean to the west of Cheltenham is thought of in a similar vein, so an extreme case of ‘chip on the shoulder’ might become ‘The Forrest of Dean on both’!


Across the pond, that large expanse of ocean called The North Atlantic, crisps are called chips and chips are called fries and it’s from the USA that the saying ‘a chip on his shoulder’ is thought to have originated; so nothing to do with food! Back in the 1800s when a boy was spoiling for a fight, he would put a twig or small chip on his shoulder and challenge another boy to knock it off. It became synonymous with someone always wanting to pick a fight, not standing criticism, always arguing with everyone, often about some perceived sleight.

Despite my early military service I am not by nature an aggressive individual, preferring to seek common ground rather that accentuating what divides us. So whilst I am prepared to accept that the explanation from 1800s America is the correct one, the more romantic me likes this other English one.

Just under two hundred years before, carpenters (Note 1) working in the Royal Naval Dockyards in England had an allowance of ‘spare’ wood chips they could take home at the end of their shift, useful for cooking and heating. These offcuts were normally carried on their shoulders out through the gate. By 1756 this privilege was being abused, costing the taxpayer too much, so a warrant was issued, restricting the carrying of surplus wood to under the arm, so lessening the quantity that could be carried. One carpenter, a John Miller, refused to take his chips off his shoulder and his workmates crowded around him and carried him with them out through the dockyard gates. I am not sure what happened to John Miller when he turned up for work the next day! (Note 2)

There was no chip on Jon’s shoulder or in his arm and he had no issue with accepting the efficacy of the vaccine but some are still unsure. They anxiously point out that previous research and development took years and years to produce an effective vaccine against this and against that; ergo these can’t be safe or as a graduate-level educated friend claims: “it’s an untested, experimental vaccine which has not been approved by any regulatory medical body” I wonder how we differ? In reality, if enough people are involved in anything and enough money is thrown at it, in parallel and not in series, everything is possible. On the Continent there was a huge kerfuffle about blood clots in those who had had the Oxford Astra Zeneca vaccine …. until the statisticians pointed out that 40 cases in 17 million was not statistically significant, less in fact than being struck by lightning (Note 3)! Mind you if you don’t want the vaccine because you think it’s not safe, then that is your prerogative.

As an afterthought on the topic of chips, the American Henry Channon (1897 – 1958) came to England in 1920 to study at Christ College Oxford. At university he shared a bachelor house with a friend colloquially known as ‘Fish’; from then on Channon was forever known as Chips Channon. Although never reaching ministerial rank, he represented Southend for 23 years and will be remembered as a social diarist of the first half of the 20th century.

Richard 26th March 2021


PS You may remember the ubiquitous wood chip lining paper that was pasted on every house wall in the 1970 and 1980s?

PPS And while talking about chips, you may not have heard this joke? “Why are there no good potato chips in Wiltshire? Because they have no Devizes for Chippenham!” (It helps if you have a Wiltshire accent!) (….. no devices for chipping ‘em!)

Note 1 A carpenter is often referred to as a chippy.

Note 2 If I know anything about British humour, he was probably called Dusty – the surname first used for those who milled corn and who were always covered in flour ‘dust’.

Note 3 Thirty six hours after I wrote this paragraph, an El Salvadorian surfer, 22 year old Katherine Diaz, was struck by lightning and was killed. I love coincidences but this is so sad.

PC 222 Meals – Institutional et al

It’s been in my ‘PC Topics’ file for some time, an idea to scribble something about institutional meals, as we have all eaten them at some stage in our lives, good or bad! The impetus to write now was triggered by something sad someone experienced last month. There is no doubt that coping with the current pandemic has created hardship for most of us, but more keenly felt by those at the bottom of the societal heap. I don’t think the UK is unique in the huge growth in Food Banks, where those out of luck and money go in order to survive. A veritable army of lovely individuals has stepped up to the plate, no pun intended here, and created places where food, drink and words of encouragement are available, using initiative in getting donations and support from a wide range of organisations.

But ……. and there is often a ‘but’ ….. some people picking up their bag of staples like bread, eggs and milk and a box of vegetables & fruit were obviously too embarrassed to admit not knowing how to cook the vegetables, as around the corner from this particular food bank were boxes of vegetables discarded on the street by the (un)grateful recipients. There are obvious cultural and educational issues involved here!

Fortunately I grew up in a privileged household, where there was enough food to satisfy two hungry teenagers, although school food will always bring back memories for everyone and most of the ‘yuk’ type! At my first boarding school we had to finish everything that was put in front of us; that included breakfast’s porridge and Macaroni Cheese. The former is difficult to cook in bulk and it’s inevitable that lumps proliferate; cold, dense, uncooked lumps of oats are hard to swallow. Not so good Macaroni Cheese, but at St Christopher’s the dense crust on top had tentacles stretching into the substrata – which when cold brought on an urge to vomit! I had been at this school for some three weeks when, in September 1955, my mother got remarried. My only concern was that I could get her to write a letter excusing me from having to eat these two foods; I was 8 years old.

The dining room at Dauntsey’s School, on the edge of Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire and at that time a single-sex boarding school, was traditional. Large refectory tables and benches filled the main floor, while up on a raised area at one end a table was reserved for members of staff, including the Duty Master. Despite a Food Committee, the quality of food was constantly criticised and this led eventually to a strike. One lunch time we all filed into the Dining Room but refused to eat the food handed out by the kitchen staff, much to their bafflement; we sat in silence, hoping this would be enough to encourage better standards. The Duty Master was a David Burgess; having said ‘Grace’ at the beginning of lunch, he sat and ate his alone as his fellow masters left, and at the end intoned in his strong Scottish brogue: “What I have received, may you all be truly grateful.”

The food protest was reported in the William Hickey column in the Daily Express for no other reason I suspect than the chairman of the Governors was a Lord Tedder (ex-Marshall of the Royal Air force) …… and his son was in charge of the Food Committee! Sadly I don’t remember the food getting much better! (Note 1)

At The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst formal dinners, where we had to wear Mess Uniform, were held once a month; less formal weekly ones only demanded Black Tie. There is a saying: “The army marches on its stomach.”; the food was of great quality and quantity, needed when 1000 cadets sat down to eat. 

The frequent formal dinners continued in commissioned service, a worthwhile tradition to maintain.

In the Officers’ Mess in the ex-Luftwaffe barracks in Lippstadt, Moritz, a grey-haired old chap with a bad back, shuffled backwards and forwards from the kitchen as a waiter. In the afternoon he was often to be found slicing sideways a piece of toast that could be then re-toasted and appear as Melba toast that evening.

In Dempsey Barracks in Sennelager, in Germany our regiment had a French exchange officer staying for a week. On his first evening we all dined in the Officers Mess. The starter was corn-on-the-cob, a wonderful opportunity to eat a single vegetable, with lashings of butter and S&P. Those who designed the menu hadn’t realised that in France corn from the cob is fed to pigs! Jean-Claude thought we were taking the Michael (and that’s pronounced Michael in English and not Michel in French)

Bored with what was on offer on the luncheon menu one day, I asked the waiter who was the duty cook. “Corporal Matthews, Sir.” “Well, would you ask Corporal Matthews to make me a large omelette please?” Corporal Matthews did as he was asked and the 12 egg omelette was delivered on a large platter. I met his challenge but it was a struggle!!

I have had my share of institutional food in our hospitals, the last here in Brighton in 2013 when I was asked what I wanted to eat and the chap made notes on his iPad, but the doctor was still using quill pen and dipping ink for her paper notes! Seemed a bit arse about face? Prior to my stay, I had had an Angiogram and was offered a healthy (?) lunch of white steamed-bread sandwiches and a bag of crisps.

In 2006 I stayed in a little barn overlooking the River Dart, just upstream from Dittisham in Devon. Unfortunately my appendix rumbled and I went off to Torquay Hospital. It was agreed to remove it, which was just as well as it ruptured during the operation and sepsis is a very real concern when this happens. My stay lasted two days, during which time I sampled the hospital fare. Green vegetables need careful handling otherwise they lose their vibrant colour. French beans do not like being transported from a central kitchen miles away so that by the time lunch reached my bed they are lukewarm and slightly brown!

Not sure much has really changed?

Richard 19th March 2021

Note 1 Simon, who had been educated at Lancing College, developed a hate for the school’s fish pie, particularly if it included an egg. At a dinner party some thirty plus years later, he vehemently refused a plate of gorgeous ‘fish pie’! Strange these memories that define us. 

Jamie Oliver’s Happy Fish Pie – yum! yum! (not for Simon!)

PC 221 Ephemera

I read that the average Joe, and this is no criticism of you particularly if your first name is Joe but rather like John Doe in the USA, a generalisation, has a daily vocabulary of about 5000 words and knows the meaning of about 20,000; if you are university-educated you might know the meaning of double that number. Given that the Oxford English Dictionary contains some 170,000 words in current use and some 45,000 obsolete ones, these are small proportions!

Here in the United Kingdom there has been a focus on a political spat between Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, one past and one present leader of the Scottish National party (SNP), the latter currently First Minister of Scotland. It’s odd that these two individuals’ surnames are almost the same as types of fish – maybe all politicians are slippery? In the greater scheme of things this story is, according to Mathew Syed writing in The Times, simply ephemera and there are more important things to worry about, for instance the state of our united kingdom.

Ephemera is one of those words not in my normal vocabulary yet over the past week I have seen it in print three times! You may recall PC 26 ‘This Language of Mine’ where I admitted to rarely using ‘mores’ and ‘milieu’ and not knowing the correct name for the grammatical construction ‘zeugma’ or even ‘syllepsis’?  Reaching for my dictionary I read ephemera is actually the name of the commonest of Mayflies that in their winged form live for a day.

Rising up as larva from the bottom of this African lake, the mayfly’s wings unfold and it takes flight, the swarm like black smoke from a fire.

So it is used for something short lived or transitory – little snippets of stuff. There are, incidentally, no more than ten words that start ‘eph…’ so quite special.

If you read my last posting about ‘souls’ and ‘sole’ and my made-up word ‘soleful’, I hope you will agree it was weird to find in a little word puzzle in the paper the following day that  ……. ‘soulful’ was one of the answers. Don’t you just love these coincidences?

On a different topic, a recent copy of our supermarket magazine had a piece on composting kitchen waste – complete with an advertisement for a HotBin Composter.

Having established a communal garden here at Amber House (see PC 212) the need for compost is constant, especially as the soil used by the company who did the conversion is not of good quality. Normally I buy it, but here was an idea; I decided we would catch up with those who regularly compost their kitchen waste and buy a bin.

Ordering on line (hotbincomposting.com), I selected the large one, about the size of a wheelie-bin, and went to pay …… chose a card ….. put in the long card number …….. and was informed a verification code was needed ….. clicked ‘send’ …… and got the ‘check your mobile’ message. The mobile reception in our apartment is very intermittent so when the code didn’t appear I asked for it to be resent  ……  and repeated that for the third time. Ten minutes passed, I changed the card (erroneously believing this might help) and started the verification process again. Then I got three codes for the first card; no good! Eventually I got a new verification code, which I typed into the box  ….. only to be told that the 10 minute time limit had expired!! Aaaaaggggghhhhhh! I reached for the telephone and dialled Hotbin’s number ……. 

Above the city of Brighton & Hove lie the glorious South Downs, which stretch from the Itchen Valley of Hampshire in the west to Beachy Head, just to the west of Eastbourne: they cover an area of some 260 square miles (670 square kilometres). Immediately above the city is Devil’s Dyke, a 100m deep V-shaped valley. The name ‘Dyke’ means a water-course or channel and legend has it the devil was furious at the conversion of people to Christianity and decided to dig a dyke through the South Downs so the sea could flow in and drown the village inhabitants. (Note 1)

Its popularity with Victorian walkers ensured the word Dyke is reflected in the local urban-scape – Dyke Road and Dyke Park for example. So it was a wonderful example of the stupid world in which we live, when we can’t disagree about anything for fear of causing offence, when Facebook banned a post which included the word ‘Dyke’ as an example of hate speech, when in fact it was an innocent mention of a local road!

Incidentally, the word dyke originated in the 1920s as a homophobic and misogynistic slur for a masculine, butch or androgynous woman (Sorry, not sure I can use the word ‘Woman’ – isn’t it “a person who …..”? )

In my last post I recounted the sorry tale of trying to send some slippers to my mother-in-law and rather light-heartedly suggested it would have been quicker to hand deliver them, even if I had walked the whole way. Forty-Five days, south down the western seaboard of France, diagonally across Spain and into Portugal; now that would be an adventure. However I sense I would be doing it alone!!

And this realisation reminded me of a chap I met in 1991, Nicholas Crane. Ever the adventurer, Nick decided to walk what has been called the European watershed (note 2), from Cape Finisterre in the west, to Istanbul in the East. Alone!

Starting in 1992, seventeen months and 10,000 kilometres later he completed his epic journey by dipping his toes into the Bosphorus. If you like reading about this sort of thing, Clear Waters Rising is his 1996 book.

Nothing in this postcard is going to move mountains or be remembered in twelve months – just ephemeral bits and pieces.

Richard 12th March 2021

Note 1 Actually the dyke is only on the north side, so doesn’t cleave the hills as legend would have it. That happens further east where the main A23 enters the city through a natural break in the downs.

Note 2. Called the watershed as the rain and melting snow water either ran to his left and northwards into the Bay of Biscay, English Channel, North Sea or Baltic, or to his right down towards the Mediterranean.

PC 220 Soleful Tales

On one of my many trips to Portugal I learned of Fado, the music genre that became popular in Lisbon in the 1820s. It’s characterised by mournful tunes and lyrics ….. “infused with a sentiment of resignation, fate and melancholia” ……… loosely captured by the Portuguese word saudade meaning ‘longing’ or ‘yearning’; barrel of laughs huh?

Moving to Hove in 2012, we invested in a Brennan JB7 music box on which to store, and play, our large collection of CDs. The aim was to get rid of some clutter; we failed, and simply stored the 300 odd CDs in a box! Fortuitously in retrospect! Easy for me to then search for the ‘Simply the Best Platinum Soul’ and ‘Sad Songs’ two-CD collections; the latter resonates with me more than the former.

The soulful songs of Canadian singer Leonard Cohen resonated across the ‘60s and ‘70s, but I became a greater fan of Neil Diamond and prefer his version of Suzanne, together with ‘Stones’ and ‘Love on the Rocks’. Of the classical genre, Sibelius’s Valse Triste, Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto and of course Edward Elgar’s Cello concerto raise the hairs on the back of my neck. I am of a generation that will forever link this last work to the virtuoso Jacqueline D Pré, an extremely gifted player who was diagnosed with MS aged 28, and died in 1987 aged 42.

The eagle-eyed among my readers, well, certainly Colin (!), might have noticed that these scribbles are entitled soleful – which if it had been spelt soulful would have meant expressing deep and often sorrowful feeling. It may be considered a cliché but I love the idea that you can see someone’s soul through their eyes, particularly when, with face coverings over the nose and mouth, we are all looking for other indicators to read another’s empathy.

But if you had simply said soleful most people would have understood. The English language has many words which sound the same but mean something completely different. PC 33, way back in January 2015, was titled Pause, Pours and Paws; three words which sound the same but whose meaning is very different. Like whether and weather, sow and sew, there and their, draft and draught, course and coarse, patience and patients, current and currant, two and too and to and many more; others depend on how clearly you annunciate your words, like weir and where, or pier and peer and pear!

In some parts of the world the throwing of shoes is considered a form of protest. In the Arab world they are considered unclean and it’s customary not to show the sole of your own shoe when sitting down. At the Royal Military Academy we learnt how to clean shoes to perfection, including of course the underneath of the instep, so if you inadvertently showed it it was highly polished!

My mother-in-law flew to Portugal from Rio de Janiero last August and would normally have returned home to miss the European winter. Nothing is normal at the moment and she is still there, in Estoril. Recognising how difficult it can be to live in a cold climate when used to a hot one, I sent her some sheepskin-lined slippers on 8th December, innocently imagining they would get there for Christmas .…….. and before the end of the Brexit Transition Period which would end on 31st December. I used our local post office and even paid a little extra for them to be ‘signed for’.

You can fly from London to Lisbon in one hour and 40 minutes (when we are allowed to!). Goggle Maps tells me I could drive it in just under 24 hours, without stops …… and they also suggest I could walk it in 15 ½ days. Personally I think this is a bit fanciful as it’s 1125 miles. Walking continually at 3mph you would cover 72 miles in a 24 hour period, so just over a fortnight would get you there – but one has to sleep!! Twenty five miles a day would be more sensible – so about six weeks (What an adventure that would be?)

By the end of the year, there was no sign of them, or for that matter any other Christmas gifts that Celina had sent to her mother, brother and sister. A form obtained from the post office says you can claim – but they only pay 50%! We tracked the slippers; they arrived in Lisbon and delivery was attempted (?) on 20 January 2021. No card was left, no second attempt (unlike our local postie Steve!) …….. and the parcel was returned here to Hove. Back to square one; bit like snakes and ladders! After a degree of umming and ahhing I decided to send them back, for who knows when we might physically meet. So on 9th February off they went again.

Now of course they are caught in the post-Brexit nightmare that seems to be inflicting everything from British shellfish to our Performing Arts industry to the just-in-time import/export systems that had become second-place – so so sad that the UK voted to leave the European Union. My sister-in-law Camilla makes gorgeous cakes in Estoril and while we were part of the EU imported ingredients from the UK. Last week the local customs wanted to charge over 100% duty on her most recent order; it was returned.

We know the slippers have arrived in Lisbon: “Fill out the customs form and you might have to pay this or that but we are not sure so we can’t release them yet”. The weather is warming up so soon the need will dissipate ….. until October or November. I will keep you posted!

On the topic of footwear and feet, I was reminded of Pooh’s little ditty when I found I have ‘Covid Toes’:

“The more it snows, (tiddely pom) the more it goes (tiddely pom), the more it goes (tiddely pom), on snowing.

And nobody knows (tiddely pom) How cold my toes (tiddely pom) How cold my toes (tiddely pom) are growing.”

Sure as eggs are eggs these cold toes make the second part of the yoga pose Utkatasana, or Awkward Pose, even more difficult, getting up on one’s points when they feel cold and tingly!!

This taken from a book – I am not this good!!

Rereading the above, if I had walked to Estoril I would have probably worn out some soles but I could have personally delivered the slippers, and been able to have some lovely hugs that would have lifted my soul (sole?).

Richard 5th March 2021

PS I note that high heels (for women) are back in fashion. So good for your feet – not!