Friday, 13 February 2009




There are cats that will be reincarnated as hearth rugs and we need not detain ourselves with them.  There are cats that shrink at the sight of you and then bolt in a fear, it is reasonable to suspect, is assumed.  Then there is another kind of cat.


This kind of cat is usually ginger and always a Tom.  This kind of cat leaps out at you from behind sofas and sideboards and anywhere he can lay in wait.  When you go for a walk he accompanies you until he is distracted by a passing dandelion clock or the prospect of a mouse.  He bullies your dogs and leaps onto your morning paper when you spread it on the breakfast table.  He hears your car in the drive and rushes to meet you and welcome you home.


He kills birds and scatters their feathers over your best carpet; leaves the indigestible organs of mice just where you are about to put your bare feet.  This is the kind of cat T.S. Elliot wrote about.  It is the cat called Jeoffrey that the drunken and mad poet Christopher Smart recalled in his 18th century Bedlam:


“For he keeps the lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.

“For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.“


He is the cat who swam the Thames and crawled down a chimney of the Tower of London in the reign of Elizabeth I to console his master Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton, the boyfriend of Shakespeare, who was imprisoned there.


He is the cat who, according to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, is the Sun God Ra himself.  He is Bast, the cat-headed god of Bubastis.  He is Pangur Ban, the pet of an anonymous eighth century monk who wrote in the margin of his illuminated manuscript:


“’Gainst the wall he sets his eye,

“Full and fierce and sharp and sly;

“’Gainst the wall of knowledge I

“All my little wisdom try.”


He is the cat that, with “Memory“, made a musician out of Andrew Lloyd Webber.. He is the cat of whom the 16th century essayist Montaigne asked: “When my cat and I entertain each other with mutual apish tricks, as playing with a garter, who knows but that I make my cat more sport than she makes me.”


He is one of several ginger cats we had.  Pudding, who died after being run over by a car and  left a hole in our lives many times larger than the tiny space he occupied in life.







Twenty years ago, climate research became politicised in favour of one particular hypothesis which redefined the subject as the study of the effect of greenhouse gases.  As a result, the rebellious spirits essential for innovative and trustworthy science are greeted with impediments to their research careers.  And while the media usually find mavericks at least entertaining, in this case they often imagine that anyone who doubts the hypothesis of man-made global warming must be in the pay of the oil companies. As a result, some key discoveries in climate research go almost unreported.

Enthusiasm for the global-warming scare also ensures that heat waves make headlines, while contrary symptoms, such as one winter’s billion-dollar loss of Californian crops to unusual frost, are relegated to the business pages.  The early arrival of migrant birds in spring provides colourful evidence for a recent warming of the northern lands.  But did anyone tell you that in east Antarctica the Adélie penguins and Cape petrels are turning up at their spring nesting sites around nine days later than they did 50 years ago?  While sea-ice has diminished in the Arctic since 1978, it has grown by 8% in the Southern Ocean.

So one awkward question you can ask when you’re forking out those extra taxes for climate change is: “Why is east Antarctica getting colder?”  It makes no sense at all if carbon dioxide is driving global warming.  While you’re at it, you might inquire whether Gordon Brown will give you a refund if it’s confirmed that global warming has stopped.  The best measurements of global air temperatures come from American weather satellites, and they show wobbles but no overall change since 1999.

That leveling off is just what is expected by the chief rival hypothesis, which says that the sun drives climate changes more emphatically than greenhouse gases do.  After becoming much more active during the 20th century, the sun now stands at a high, but roughly level, state of activity. Solar physicists warn of possible global cooling, should the sun become hyper-active again.




I see where the Home Secretary is entitled to charge £116,000 for a second home in London, although she lodges in her sister’s house.


It is perfectly legal, she insists.


Of course it is.  She is one of the law makers.  How much trouble would have been saved if the Great Train Robbers had sat in Parliament and defended their right to pillage mail trains.


Bankers are allowed to increase their bonuses by taking unnecessary risks in the certain knowledge, that if the risks come unstuck, the losses will be made up by the tax payer.  Off hand I cannot remember how many MPs take profitable directorships with banks when they leave office.


Sunday, 8 February 2009


A distressed friend seeks my advice.


“Flown with wine and impertinence, I behaved very badly at a recent party.  How can I extricate myself and regain social goodwill?”

Lie, little friend.  Whatever you say, your hosts are not going to alter their opinion, because people try to think badly of each other if they possibly can.  Personally, I favour lies so totally improbable they might just be true.

I once behaved so badly at the 100th birthday party of a very aristocratic lady that my attempt to kiss a lady governor of the BBC went largely unremarked.  The next day I wrote to my host:

“I understand that a person posing as me attended your mother’s birthday party yesterday and behaved badly.

“It is not the first time this has happened and the police are on the look out for him. Unfortunately, the likeness between us is so exact I have myself been cautioned by them for behaviour of his.

“He is a cunning fellow and I still cannot think how he managed to sneak into my home and borrow my suit, returning it in the early hours in a disgusting condition.  But that will give you some idea what the police are up against.

“I will of course make good any damage done by him.”

Now that I am virtually bone dry, I can look back on these follies with indulgence, though I am still not to be entirely trusted with whisky-flavoured ice cream.  Of course, there is always that delicious moment when you fall off the wagon and then anything can happen.

The most embarrassing moment of all was not really my fault.  A delicious girl I met in Bad Hartsburg at the end of the war invited me to meet her father, a Junker Baron, warning me he hated the English.


She did not warn me that he hated Scots.  Otherwise I would not have dressed in full fig - kilt, white spats, belt, and hair sporran.

He was waiting for me in the entrance hall of his apartment, seated at a table on which was a decanter of colourless fluid and two glasses.

He poured drinks, barked “Prosit” and downed his in one.  I swear it was rocket fuel. Mine would not go past my epiglottis.  The next one lay on top of it and the merciless third, on which he insisted with mounting malevolence, stirred the others into action.

I rushed to the bathroom.  No time to reach the lavatory.  My pink tribute flowed into the bath.  Reaching for the tap to ease its passage down the drain, I mistakenly turned on the shower and was drenched.

At the frosty dinner which followed no one mentioned my soaking condition, though steam rose from me in billowing clouds, rivers of white Blanco ran down my kilt and small pools of water from the sporran that looked like a drowned  badger formed at my feet.

But you could see the Baron felt some consolation for losing the war.



As spring approaches it takes all my native cunning to talk the Head Ferret out of going abroad for a holiday.  The exceptions are Vienna and Bruges.  But my favourite is Bruges.


The cuisine in Bruges beats Paris; its canals are more romantic - and a good deal more sanitary - than those of Venice; its fiacres are cheaper than Viennese ones; its bier houses as good as Amsterdam.  Its “primitives” are preferable to Italian religious paintings or the overworked Impressionists of France.


On our holidays there I have never had better service.  A notice in our room claimed the hotel would put any problem right in fifteen minutes.  When I mentioned the breakfast bar had run out of croissants, a porter rushed to a baker and returned with bags full of the delicious items, piping hot.


Romantics arriving at the railway station, or ‘t Zand, where the coaches stop, will be disappointed.  Savour the moment.  It is the only disappointment you will experience.


Walk up the Zuidzandstraat which runs off ‘t Zand.  You soon reach the medieval heart, overshadowed by the 13th century, 250-foot bell tower.  The True Love could not wait to bound up the 366 steps to be bats in the belfry.  I did not join her.  The tower has a three-foot lean.


Opposite are 16th century guild houses, now restaurants.  We chose Pannier d’Or (the golden bread basket), lunched on mussels in its heated pavement café and later dined superbly on game by a roaring fire in a panelled dining room.


On our first visit we were so charmed by this square, the shops, canals and cafes, that we did not discover the Burg, without question the loveliest square in Europe.  Burg is dominated by the 14th century Town Hall, a Gothic masterpiece where the Great Hall glows with murals and the Aldermen’s Room is dominated by a massive 15th century fireplace.  Next door is the Chapel of the Holy Blood.  Its reliquary, containing The Blood, has been paraded round the city every Ascension Day since the second Crusade.


An unmissable bistro is the chic canalside ‘t Traptje in the Wollestraat.  Glamorous, fashionably dressed. Carla has sat at the bar for twenty years.  Could not take my eyes off her, even when I was told she was wax.


For less expensive mussel mountains, rib steaks, stewed eel in chervil sauce eaten to the sound of classical music, try the candlelit Chagall in St Amandsstraat.


There are three ways to discover Old Bruges.  Walk round it, drive through it in horse-drawn fiacre or float on the romantic canals which encircle it.  We chose all three.  In the Walplaats, seeking lace workers, we saw, outside a cafe, a tiny dog bar with a drinking bowl and a tariff which read “dogs free. Photos 5 francs.“


Another walk brought us to the Church of Our Lady with its 400 ft tower, a lighthouse when Bruges was a port.  The port itself has been transformed into a great lake, the Minnewater (the lake of love).  Emperor Maximilian ordered swans must always be kept there in memory of the murder of one of his courtiers.


The glory of the church is Michelangelo’s incomparable Mother and Child, the only one of his sculptures to leave Italy in his lifetime.


Nearby, the Groeninge Museum shows van Eyck’s breath-taking Madonna, one of the world’s great paintings, and Bosch’s nightmare Last Judgement.  The Memling Museum is devoted to the six surviving masterpieces of the Flemish master Hans Memling.


One of Bruges’s pubs has a hundred varieties of beer.  Need I say more?