Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Dum spirat, hora gustat

Why are you sitting there?

According to some of the most popular book titles over the last couple of years the last thing you should be doing is sitting in front of a computer.

I think (though I stand to be corrected) that it is all the fault of Patricia Schultz travel writer and producer of an American Travel Channel’s reality show. In May 2003 her book “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” was published and became an instant best-seller. Not, I hasten to add, because it was treated as a travel guide and target by any of its purchasers. No, people who bought it simply wanted to dream about what they might do one day. A dream with pretty pictures, clever text and novel ideas. A dream which was also ideal at fuelling the great demand for that wonderful concept known only to the species homo sapiens – the Guilt Trip!

Since May 2003 it has been totally inadequate to sit quietly and enjoy the moment. One had to be up and doing things. How could you just sit there while you could be watching whirling dervishes in Turkey, visiting Japan's Sapporo Snow Festival, or having coffee in a former Hungarian brothel that's now a cute artisan’s bakery run by tiny singing lesbians. Now there are even “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” calendars with a daily picture. Each month features a dream journey with one large picture at the top of the spread, a map and list of highlights, plus dozens of smaller photographs in the grid below (all in full colour, of course). The castles and breathtaking scenery of Bavaria's Romantic Road, a tour of the Imperial Cities of Morocco, a ride on the Trans-Siberian Express, a nostalgic trip along Route 66. One review I saw said “Every destination is inspiration to stop dreaming and get going!” I assume that meant get off your backside and go there. (The alternative interpretation of leave as soon as you get there is an even more depressing concept!)

And, to round it off, there’s a “1,000 Places to See Before You Die: A Traveler's Life List” which is simply a blank notebook for you to insert your own travels in. I’m not sure that – “Pensby Post Office for Pension; Heswall to get light bulbs from Woolworths” really merit using it so I don’t think I’ll bother.

Even staid British nature programmes now keep urging one to stop watching the television and ‘get out there’... The programme might have been designed for you to watch in the comfort of your armchair with a glass of wine and the log fire crackling but unless you are actually freezing your reproductive parts off on some moorland plateau in the vague hope of seeing a Capercailzie at 2.5 miles you are, implicitly, a failure.

Life has become a check-list. What you want to do and the fact that you can get your kicks reading blogs is irrelevant. Instead you should be rushing round ticking off one of your lists. But, of course, your lists aren’t to be found on that old reporter’s notebook in the kitchen or even on some clever little computer program. They are to found in some of the copycat books... There’s “1001 Paintings you must see before you die” by Stephen Farthing; “1001 Albums you must hear before you die” by Robert Dimery, “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die” by Peter Ackroyd, “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” by Steven Jay Schneider, “1001 Foods: You Must Try Before You Die” by Frances Case and even “1001 Wines You Must Taste Before You Die” edited by Neil Beckett. To those you can also add “1001 Natural Wonders: You Must See Before You Die “ which became “1001 Natural Wonders: Places You Must See in Your Lifetime” by Michael Bright - a clever little tweak to the theme.

There’s also “1000 recipes to try before you die”. The fact that there’s no 1001st recipe suggest that perhaps that is the one that kills you. “I told you not to try the puffer fish”. By the time we get to shopping as an objective we come down to a mere “101 Things to Buy before you die”. Mind you, I suspect if your tried buying 1001 exotic things there would be a danger of your partner killing you for being such a spendthrift before you could make your target.

Best of all though – at least so far as the title is concerned - is undoubtedly the New Scientist’s “100 Things to do before you (plus a few to do afterwards).

On the web you can even have a go at "1001 Lists to Read before you die".

For me the whole “...to do before you die” phenomenon has two major flaws. Firstly, no matter how you view death, the concept of having to complete something before you die is a bit depressing. You might as well start a list of jobs to do about the house with “stay alive”. I want to get all my slides scanned into the computer before I die. I also want to take photos of all the resident butterflies and dragonflies in the UK. Whilst I’m not going to get worked up about it on my deathbed and lament my shortcomings I certainly don’t need the added pressure of not having drunk 1001 wines or played golf on 50 courses (especially as a non-alcoholic non golf-player). 'Take guilt trip' does not need to be the top of any of my lists.

My second objection is the idea that the moment we are in is never considered to be enough. You cannot be enjoying place 17 on your list because you’ve got to be on your way to place 18. It reminds me of how upset I got with some American tourists who had ‘done’ the Lake District’ on 12th August 1966 (by visiting Wordsworth’s grave) after ‘doing the Cotswolds’ the previous day by seeing Birdland in Bourton-on-the-Water. I felt that no matter how many months I spent walking the fells I would never have 'done the Lake District'.

This moment is really all that matters in the whole of your life – after all no matter how old you are there’s no way of knowing how long you’ve got ‘before you die’. So if you want to be sitting in front of the screen reading my blog and you are enjoying yourself just forget the pressure to be up and doing. Never mind carpe diem (seize the day) try dum spirat, hora gustat (enjoy the hour – as long as you breathe!)

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Smarties – The Truth!

After doing what I thought was quite a reasonable posting about the Smartie (below) I have found out three facts were incorrect. Three rather key facts.

Firstly. the Smarties in my hexatube are 14mm on their large axis. Not 15mm. Secondly, there were only 33 Smarties in my hexatube. There is no way a hexatube could contain’ an average of 48’. Thirdly, my tube cost 44p against a 2005 price of 33p. So much for not putting the price up! Inflation of 33% in three years. A bit above the target for the annual inflation rate of the Consumer Prices Index of 1.8% this year.

Friday, 14 November 2008


Shortly after doing my Blog posting on Gatorade I bought a ‘tube’ of Smarties and the question of ‘artificial colours’ raised it’s head again. I apologise to Gatorade if their blue one is not artificially coloured – after all, I discovered that the blue Smarties are naturally coloured.

Firstly, can I point out – for those who, like me, haven’t bought Smarties for years - that the tube is no longer a cylindrical cardboard one, capped with a colourful lid, which usually had a letter of the alphabet on it.
(Above photos by kind permission of Crispy Liz whose wonderful site about Smartie packaging includes some Smartie tube swaps for the real enthusiast).

I loved the old Smartie tube - when you were finished with the sweets you could give it a quick squeeze or karate-chop to fire the lid across the room at some speed. This usually resulted in one being told that it was "all very well until somebody loses an eye". No doubt if Nestle had continued with the old tube they would have had to put a health warning on it advising against doing that. They would also presumably have had to defend themselves against legal claims from parents of children who choked on the lids. I presume we never tried eating the lids because there wasn't any money in it in the old days.

In February 2005, the Smarties tube was replaced with a hexagonal design. The rationale behind changing the design was, according to Nestle, to make the brand "fresh and appealing" to youngsters; the new 'hexatube' is also lighter and more compact. Doubtless it is a lot cheaper to produce though the price did not drop - Nestle remarking simply that they were not putting the price up! I wouildn't quite agree with Helen from the UK who described it as "Quite simply the worst catastrophe to befall modern man". Nevertheless one does wonder where this trend will end - will Polos have their holes filled in? Are Marmite jars safe?

More importantly – though this wasn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article – their new packaging is recyclable. Nevertheless, Smarties are not quite Smarties without their round tubes and little plastic lids. Over the last 25 years, Nestlé has manufactured five billion Smarties lids. Some lids are very rare and are now regarded as collectors' items. The last 100 tubes to leave the factory in York had a certificate inside them.

Nestlé Smarties have been manufactured since at least 1882, originally by H.I. Rowntree & Co. The tube shaped packaging has been in use since 1937. Smarties are no longer manufactured in York; production has now moved to Germany, where a third of them were already made.

Like the Earth, Smarties are oblate spheroids! They are just a bit smaller, having a minor axis of about 5 mm (0.2 in) and a major axis of about 15 mm (0.6 in). They currently come in eight colours: red, orange, yellow, blue, green, mauve, pink and brown.

In one of the earlier ranges of colours, there was a light-brown Smartie. This was replaced in 1988 by the blue Smartie. Before 1958, the dark-brown Smarties had a plain-chocolate centre, while the light-brown one tasted of coffee. The orange Smarties contained, and still contain in the UK, orange-flavoured chocolate. I had never realised that the chocolate in the orange ones was different – had you?

In 2006 it was announced that Nestlé were removing all artificial colourings from Smarties in the UK, owing to consumer concerns over the effect of chemical dyes on children's health. Nestlé decided to replace all chemical dyes with natural ones, but as they were unable to source a natural blue dye, the blue Smarties were removed from circulation, and white Smarties were introduced in their place. White Smarties were later removed from the range but no reason was given.

Now blue Smarties have been re-introduced using a natural blue dye derived from cyanobacteria from the genus Arthrospira (popularly but inaccurately known as Spirulina). This seaweed extract is cultivated around the world, and is used as a human dietary supplement as well as a whole food and is available in tablet, flake, and powder form. It is also used as a feed supplement in the aquaculture, aquarium, and poultry industries.

Violet Smarties are dyed with cochineal, a derivative of the Cochineal insect which is listed in the ingredients as carminic acid. Its presence means that Smarties are neither kosher nor vegetarian.

One of the parental revolts was against E numbers. In casual language in the UK and Ireland, the term "E-number" is used as a pejorative term for artificial food additives, and products may promote themselves as "free of E-numbers" even though some of the ingredients (e.g. bicarbonate of soda) do have such a code. I noted on the packaging that one of the current ingredients of Smarties is Copper complexes of chlorophyllins. That has the E number E411 (which puts it in the emulsifier, thickener, or stabiliser range) but I see that Nestlé choose not to use it on the packaging....

Smarties are not distributed in the United States, except by specialist importers. For the last 60 years, the Ce De Candy company has manufactured a hard, tablet sweet under the name Smarties, which is unrelated to the Nestlé product. M&Ms are pretty much the US equivalent of Smarties and are now available over here as well.

And finally –

Around 570,000 Smarties are made each day.

According to a BBC website 307 tubes are eaten per minute in the UK. Perhaps that is why they have redesigned the tube - to make it easier to eat. Even so, I suspect it must lead to a lot of people arriving at A & E to be attended to for choking.....

There is a poll on the Nestlé website that allows one to vote for their favourite colour. I voted for mine - yellow - it then showed the current voting. Yellow, it sems is the least popular. I hope they don't get rid of it. Perhaps I should begin a "Campaign to Save the Yellow smartie" before it's too late.

On average approximately 16,000 Smarties are eaten every minute in the UK. (Does this take into account the odd one that slips away and hides down the side of the setee?).

There are an average of 48 Smarties in each tube.

If all the Smarties eaten in one year were laid end to end it would equal almost 63,380 miles, more than two-and-a-half times around the Earth's equator. They would also melt quite quickly at the Equator!

Question - for GB - do they sell Smarties in NZ and, if so, in what packaging?

Kathryn Ratcliffe holds the world record for eating Smarties in 3 mins using chopsticks - she managed 138....

Sunday, 2 November 2008

My Christmas List

I decided that I would, for once, begin my Christmas list on 1st November. This is something I have always planned to do in the past but which always gets put off until mid-December by which time it’s too late to do a newsletter to tell people what has happened to the family during the year; I’ve forgotten half the people to whom I should send cards; I have a last minute panic looking for addresses that have gone missing; and I miss the posting abroad dates. So far the list has three names on it but it’s a start!

The next job will be to go up in the loft and find all the boxes of left-over Christmas cards. Every year I mean to use up the old cards (both an economy gesture and an environmentally friendly one) but by the time I get them down from the loft I’ve bought new ones.

Marilyn, a friend of mine has taken the brave decision to stop sending cards and makes a donation to charity instead. The only concession I have made – and it’s one I have done for about twenty years – is to cut up the cards we get to make gift tags for the next year. Mind you, I now have enough gift tags to put ten on every present I’m likely to give this millennium.

What is believed to be one of the first mass-produced Christmas cards - dating back more than 160 years - can be found among the extensive special collections of Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology. The lithographed card caused a controversy in some quarters of Victorian English society when it was published in 1843 because it prominently featured a child taking a sip from a glass of wine.

Approximately 1,000 copies of the card were printed but only 10 have survived to modern times. Bridwell Library acquired its copy in 1982. The card was designed for Henry Cole by his friend, the English painter John Calcott Horsley (1808-1882). Cole wanted a ready-to-mail greeting card because he was too busy to engage in the traditional English custom of writing notes with Christmas and New Year's greetings to friends and family. The card pre-dated colour printing so it was hand-coloured. Cole printed more cards than he needed so he sold the extra ones for a shilling each. Bridwell Library's card was signed by Cole and addressed to the engraver of the card, John Thompson (1785-1866).

Widespread commercial printing of Christmas cards began in the 1860s, when a new process of colour printing lowered the manufacturing cost and the price. Consequently, the custom of sending printed Christmas greetings spread throughout England.

Perhaps one set of cards hardest to understand today were produced in the 1880s in a series by Raphael Tuck named "Silent Songster". They showed dead robins. At the time, the series was very popular and was imitated by several other firms in subsequent years. Even the accompanying inscriptions are strange. They read "Sweet messenger of calm decay and Peace Divine" or "But peaceful was the night wherein the Prince of Light His reign of peace upon the earth began". One can only surmise at their purpose. Perhaps it was a mixture of shame for the slaying of a robin or wren over Christmas (Hunt the Wren was a seasonal activity!) and a compassion for birds during the cold winter months.

Nowadays, by contrast with the late 19th century, cards are relatively expensive, postage is ridiculously so and we are now writing newsletters to go inside them - thereby returning to the traditional English custom of writing notes but with the added bonus of an expensive - often environmentally unfriendly - card.

To return to the subject of my preparations. By the end of the week my list of who I need to send cards to should be complete. Unlike my friend Liz, whose card will arrive on 1st or 2nd Decemeber, I shall no doubt then sit back and leave writing them and everything else to mid-December and curse myself for being late again...

Monday, 13 October 2008

Food of the Gods

A Brief History of Chocolate

Historically, the Cacao Tree or Cocoa Plant (Theobroma cacao) grows wild in the low foothills of the Andes at elevations of around 200–400 m (650-1300 ft) in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins. Cacao flowers are pollinated by tiny flies, midges in the order Diptera. The fruit, called a cacao pod, is ovoid, 15–30 cm (6-12 in) long and 8–10 cm (3-4 in) wide, ripening yellow to orange, and weighs about 500 g (1 lb) when ripe. The fruits grow directly from the tree trunk. Each pod contains 20 to 60 seeds, usually called "beans", embedded in a white pulp. Each seed contains a significant amount of fat (40–50% as cocoa butter). Their most noted active constituent is theobromine, a compound similar to caffeine. It takes about 400 beans to make 1lb of chocolate.

The scientific name Theobroma means "food of the gods". The word cacao itself derives from the Nahuatl (Aztec language) word cacahuatl or xocolatl, which means bitter water, learned at the time of the conquest when it was first encountered by the Spanish.

1502 - Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ chocolate on his fourth voyage to the New World in 1502 but not as the product we know today. It was only consumed as a drink. Allegedly, the Aztec emperor, Monteczuma (c1502) drank fifty golden goblets of chocolate a day to enhance his ardour. (A small goblet I hope or he'd have spent all his time going to the loo!) It was thick, dyed red and flavored with chili peppers. The few dark brown beans that Columbus is alleged to have brought back did not merit much attention at the time.

1513 - Hernando de Oviedo y Valdez, who went to America in 1513 as a member of Pedrarias Avila's expedition, reported that he bought a slave for 100 cocoa beans. According to Hernando de Oviedo y Valdez 10 cocoa beans bought the services of a prostitute, and 4 cocoa beans got you a rabbit for dinner. (Some 430 years later Americans were to return to Europe to buy women with chocolate and nylons!)

1528 - Chocolate arrived in Spain: Cortès presented the Spainish King, Charles V with cocoa beans from the New World and the necessary tools for its preparation. Cortez postulated that if this bitter beverage were blended with sugar, it could become quite a delicacy. The Spaniards mixed the beans with sugar, vanilla, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, and cinnamon.

1615 – After much skepticism, Anne of Austria ( Louis XIII's wife) declared chocolate as the drink of the French Court - previously it had been considered a "barbarous product and noxious drug".

1640s – Chocolate finds its way to England, among other European countries. In France, chocolate mania, was at its height. Chocolate’s reputation as an aphrodisiac flourished in the French courts. Art and literature was thick with erotic imagery inspired by chocolate. And the Marquis de Sade, became proficient in using chocolate to disguise poisons! Casanova was reputed for using chocolate with champagne to seduce the ladies. Madame de Pompadour was advised to use chocolate with ambergris to stimulate her desire for Louis XV… but to no avail. Madame du Barry, reputed to be a nymphomaniac, encouraged her lovers to drink chocolate in order to keep up with her.

- As London succumbed to chocolate mania, the drink beame a best seller in England and excessive taxes are imposed on chocolate. It takes almost 200 years before the duty is dropped. London's first chocolate shop is opened by a Frenchman. London Chocolate Houses became the trendy meeting places where the elite London society savored their new luxury. The first chocolate house opened in London advertising "this excellent West India drink."

1662 - As chocolate became exceptionally fashionable,The Church of Rome took a second look at this bewitching beverage. The judgment: "Liquidum non frangit jejunum," reiterated that a chocolate drink did not break the Lenten fast. But eating chocolate confections didn’t pass muster, until Easter. Is this where the Easter Bunny and Easter egg made their entrance?

1720 - Italian Chocolatiers from Florence and Venus (otherwise known as Venice - that's what happens when you borrow pieces of text from many sources!) , now well versed in the art of making chocolate, are welcomed to France, Germany and Switzerland.

1730 - Manufacture of chocolate by hand gave way to mass production. The transition was hastened by the advent of a perfected steam engine, which mechanized the cocoa grinding process. By 1730, in America, chocolate had dropped in price from three dollars or more per pound to within financial reach of almost all.

1744 - A Lady Pouring Chocolate - Jean-Étienne Liotard (Source NationalGallery.org.uk)

1819 – The first Swiss chocolate factory was opened.

1824 - John Cadbury, the son of Richard Cadbury, opens his shop at 93 Bull Street, then a fashionable part of Birmingham. Apart from selling tea and coffee, John Cadbury sells hops, mustard and a new sideline - cocoa and drinking chocolate, which he prepares himself using a mortar and pestle.

1828 - Dutch chocolate maker Conrad J. Van Houten created the hydraulic cocoa press. The press enabled chocolate makers to crush the "nibs," or centers, of roasted cacao beans into a paste (Chocolate Liquor). After crushing, some of the cocoa butter was extracted.

1848 - English chocolate maker Joseph Storrs Fry created the first eating chocolate by further refining the cocoa, adding sugar, and mixing the cocoa butter back in.

1866 - The Cadbury brothers introduce a new cocoa process to produce a much more palatable Cocoa Essence - the forerunner of the cocoa we know today. The plentiful supply of cocoa butter remaining after the cocoa was pressed makes it possible to produce a wide variety of new kinds of eating chocolate.

1875 - Swiss Daniel Peter added condensed milk to chocolate and marketed the first solid milk chocolate bar.

1897 - Cadbury manufactured its first milk chocolate.

1900 - Hershey's Chocolate was introduced in the USA.

1905 - Cadbury launched Dairy Milk onto the market - a new milk chocolate that contains far more milk than anything previously tasted.

1915 - Cadbury Milk Tray was introduced.

1920 - Cadbury Flake was introduced.

1923 - Cream filled eggs, the forerunner of Cadbury Creme Egg, were introduced.

Cadbury Dairy Milk gains its status as the brand leader in the UK, a position that it has enjoyed ever since.

- Fruit and Nut introduced as a variation of Dairy Milk and Cadbury introduce the "glass and a half" advertising slogan.

1930s - the chocolate chip cookie was invented by accident when Ruth Graves Wakefield of Massachusetts substitued semi-sweet chocolate for cooking cholate in her cookie recipe. The chocolate failed to melt into the dough as cooking chocolate did.

1938 - Cadbury Roses were launched.

1940s - The British and U.S. governments recognized chocolate's role in the nourishment and group spirit of the Allied Armed Forces, so much so that they allocated valuable shipping space for the importation of cocoa beans. Many soldiers were thankful for the pocket chocolate bars which gave them the strength to carry on until more food rations could be obtained. Today, the U.S. Army D-rations include three 4-ounce chocolate bars.

1960 - Chocolate syrup was used as 'blood' in Hitchcock's "Psycho" for the famous shower scene. The scene lasts for about 45 seconds in the movie, but took 7 days to film.

2001 - Americans consumed over 3.1 billion pounds of chocolate - almost half of the total world's production. There were 1,040 U.S. factories producing Chocolate and Cocoa Products in 2001. These establishments employed 45,913 people and shipped $12 billion worth of goods that year.

– The UK’s first Chocolate Week introduced.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008


Cryptozoology (from Greek meaning "study of hidden animals") is the study of and search for animals which fall outside contemporary zoological catalogues. It consists of two primary fields of research:

1) The search for living examples of animals taxonomically identified through fossil records, but which are believed to be extinct.
2) The search for animals that fall outside of taxonomic records due to a lack of empirical evidence, but for which anecdotal evidence exists in the form of myths, legends, or inadequately documented sightings.

Those involved in cryptozoological study are known as cryptozoologists; the animals that they study are often referred to as "cryptids", a term coined by John Wall in 1983. Cryptozoology has seen very little attention from the mainstream scientific community because it does not follow the scientific method in attempts to support its claims. Nevertheless, I find it fascinating.

Bernard Heuvelmans, the author of the first and most influential book of cryptozoology, On the Track of Unknown Animals, created cryptozoology as a "science" and separated it from other studies involving anomalies and the paranormal. Earlier writers in the field were more likely to include mythology and folkloric material, and they used the terms "exotic zoology" and "romantic zoology" to describe what they did. Today there are many organizations devoted to cryptozoology, and dozens of books, plus countless individual scientists. Despite this massive amount of interest, most cryptozoologists are underfunded and sink large amounts of their own money into their researches.

Cryptzoologists claim the Pongo was dismissed as folklore, due to lack of evidence and fossils, before being confirmed as the Mountain gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) in 1902. The coelacanth, a "living fossil" which represents an order of fish believed to have been extinct for 65 million years, was identified from a specimen found in a fishing net in 1938 off the coast of South Africa. The Coelacanth is a good case for paying close attention to natives' knowledge of animals: Although the fish's survival was a complete surprise to outsiders, it was so well known to locals that natives commonly used the fish's rough scales as a sort of sandpaper. The 1976 discovery of the previously unknown megamouth shark off Oahu, Hawaii, has been cited by cryptozoologists to support the existence of other purported marine cryptids.

The Vietnamese Hoan Kiem Turtle was previously thought to be a local legend and classified as a cryptid, before conclusive evidence for its existence was accepted around 1998–2002. Similarly, the 2003 discovery of the fossil remains of the Hobbit-like Homo floresiensis, thought to be a descendant of earlier Homo erectus, was cited by paleontologist Henry Gee of the journal Nature, as possible evidence that humanoid cryptids like the orang pendek and Yeti were "founded on grains of truth." Additionally, Gee declared, "cryptozoology, the study of such fabulous creatures, can come in from the cold."

There is a wonderful list of legendary creatures (some of which do not fall into the category cryptids - like Akaname, the Japanese Bathroom Spirit, and Akupara, the Pratchett-like Giant turtle that supports the world in Hindu legend) on Wikipedia.

A list of cryptids can be found at The Cryptid Zoo.

Classic examples of cryptids are the Loch Ness Monster, sea monsters, the Yeti, Big-foot, Pukwudgie, the Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui, the Beast of Bodmin Moor and other assorted big cat sightings from Britain.

So much has been written about the Loch Ness Monster since its alleged first sighting in 565 by St. Columba but it is since 1933 that it has really become popular. During one period of the Loch Ness monster sightings, a traveling circus of elephants passed the lake. Bertram Mills, the owner of the circus offered a sum of £20,000 to capture the monster for his circus. Neil Clark, curator of paleontology at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, says that he probably made the offer knowing that the Loch Ness monster would never be captured.

In fact, the similarity between the 'surgeon's' photo and the view of an elephant is totally irelevant since it fails to take into account the fact that the photo was shown to be a hoax in 1994 (see Wikipedia).

By contrast with the antiquity of the Loch Mess Monster, the first "official" report of a strange presence on Ben MacDhui was given in 1925 by Norman Collie, an experienced climber with all the credentials of a credible witness. He was a professor of chemistry at the University of London. Collie claimed that whilst climbing Ben MacDhui unaccompanied in 1891, he had become aware of another presence following him, although he knew there were no other climbers around. He estimated from the sound that his pursuer was taking steps three or four times the length of his own. Collie ran like buggery without stopping to look back, tumbling down the slope to the foot of the mountasin and never went on Ben MacDhui alone again. The sightings - such as they have been - suggest the Big Grey Man is anything from 10 to 20 feet tall and covered in hair with long arms and legs. Huge footprints in the snow, not apparently made by humans or any known animal were photographed in 1965. They measured 14 inches and the stride covered around 5 feet.

But my absolute favourite cryptid is the giant Inflatable Hedgehog. Reported from the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, this animal is called the zamba zaraa by locals. It is described as looking something like a hedgehog. When threatened, the animal strikes its tail against the ground (an alarm action that is used by many different types of animal) and then proceeds to inflate itself considerably. Reports differ on how big it is after inflation, and range up to the size of a yurt (a small Mongolian tent-like dwelling). There are other creatures who inflate themselves as a defense mechanism, most notably puffer fish. It would be weird, but not impossible, for a mammal to have evolved the same trick. Since the Gobi Desert is one of the least-explored areas on earth, it is plausible that it contains many new species that are just waiting to be discovered. Perhaps the inflatable hedgehog is one of these undiscovered animals, and someday we will be able to see it in zoos!

Thursday, 18 September 2008


Over the years I have had toothache and abscesses galore; I have smashed up my knees in a scooter accident; had gall stones; angina; kidney stones; and host of other things go wrong with my body. Of these, passing kidney stones is about the most painful. But even that doesn’t match up to a good old-fashioned migraine. And even a migraine does not match up to watching one’s son have a migraine and being unable to do anything about it. Fortunately Richard rarely gets them nowadays but when he did it was horrible to see.

Nowadays I am fortunate enough to be able to stave most of my migraines off with drugs. I take Pizotifen on a daily basis as a preventative and then Imigran – the biggest life-saving drug in my vocabulary – once a migraine commences. Nevertheless, Imigran takes half an hour to work – assuming it does – and if I awaken with a migraine that is half an hour that can be distinctly unpleasant.

Over the years I have tried many recipes for getting rid of migraines or lessening their impact; from Chinese massage to herbal teas but nowadays I rely heavily on gel masks. If you suffer from migraines or any sort of headache I most strongly recommend that you get a couple and keep them in the fridge. Make sure they are quite bulky (the thin ones warm up in no time), have a comfortable strap, and are made of soft plastic (the hard plastic digs into your face). The best ones I have found were given to me by Jo and came from a chemist – they have clear gel, not blue but unfortunately don’t have a manufacturer’s name on them. It is irrelevant whether they have eye holes on not since in all likelihood you’ll be lying down with your eyes closed!

You can either leave one in the fridge and swap them over as necessary or use both together - one over your eyes / forehead and the other on the back of the neck. For this reason I always have at least three in the fridge!

Gel masks also have the advantage that apart from staggering to the fridge and back you don’t have to DO anything. People who have never suffered from a migraine often fail to realise that action of any sort can be virtually impossible when a migraine has taken hold. I find, for example, that a cup of very sweet tea (Yes, Pat, even more sugar than normal) and a piece of toast can be helpful – but only if there’s someone there to make it for me.

Putting one’s feet in a bath of hot water while using the gel mask or putting cold wet flannels on one’s head is said be helpful but who, with a migraine, is going to be able run the bath and sit on the edge of it?

Similarly, freshly made ginger, chamomile and lindenflower tea is alleged to be good but it takes twenty minutes to prepare so that is out. Nevrtheless the recipe may be of interest -
8 fl oz of water
1 teaspoon fresh chopped ginger root
1 taspoon dried chamomile
1 teaspoon dried linden flower
Simmer the ginger in the water in a covered pot for ten minutes. Remove from the heat. Add Chamomile and Linden and steep for ten minutes. Strain and sweeten if necessary. Drink hot.

Quicker and more likely to be of help is a simple ginger tea. At the first sign of a migraine mix a third of a teaspoon of powdered ginger into a glass of warm water and drink it. Ginger contains anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving compounds that may be able to halt a migraine attack.

Massaging one’s temples with a couple of drops of lavender essential oil is more practical but even then I tend to take the easier option and just put a few drops on my pillow instead.

At the end of the day, the only two real solutions I have found are Imigran and gel masks. Imigran is available on prescription or, now, direct from the chemist but at some unGodly price per tablet and you have to fill in a form giving your shoe size to get them. But gel masks are well worth every penny spent on them so if you don’t have one and you suffer from migraines go out and buy a couple now!

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Olympics come and Olympics go

Olympics come and Olympics go. Some are memorable, some are not. Some are recalled for good reasons, some for bad. Here are some of my memories (and the odd little known fact) about past Olympics....

Rome 1960
Although I was born in time for the 1952 Helsinki Games and the 1956 Melbourne / Stockholm Games the first ones I recall were the Rome Games of 1960. This was only the second time that the athletes entered the stadium together for the closing ceremony. Prior to Melbourne they had come in by nation as they did for the opening. Of course, no Olympic event in the 1950s could match up to the 1954 Roger Bannister run which broke the four-minute mile.

In the marathon, Abebe Bikila, running barefoot, outlasted Rhadi Ben Abdesselem of Morocco to become the first black African Olympic champion. A little known fact about the Rome Games is that Yugoslavia got into the football final (which they won) on the toss of coin! No penalty shoot-outs in those days.

Tokyo 1964
The 1964 Tokyo Games were the first to be held in Asia. I don’t recall anything personally but the Japanese expressed their successful reconstruction after World War II by choosing as the final torchbearer Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima the day that that city was destroyed by an atomic bomb.

Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia became the first repeat winner of the marathon - less than six weeks after having his appendix removed. Australian Dawn Fraser won her third successive gold medal in the 100m freestyle. She was the first woman swimmer to win a total of eight medals (four gold and four silver) in three Olympics. For the first time a fibre-glass pole was used in the pole vault. By winning two medals of each kind, gymnast Larysa Latynina of the Ukraine brought her career medal total to an incredible 18. She is also one of only five athletes in any sport to win nine gold medals.

Lynn Davies won the men's long jump for GB and Mary Rand (later Twomey) won the long jump; Ann Packer won the 800m. Kenneth Mathews win in the 20k walk gave Britain a fourth athletics gold. Rand also got a silver in the pentathlon and a bronze as part of the relay team while Ann Packer got a silver in the 400m.

Mexico City 1968
The choice of Mexico City to host the 1968 Olympics was a controversial one because of the city's high altitude, 2,300m, which meant that the air contained 30% less oxygen than at sea level. Sure enough, the rarefied air proved disastrous to many athletes competing in endurance events. On the other hand, the high altitude led to world records in all of the men’s races that were 400m or shorter, including both relays, and in the 400m hurdles, in the long jump and triple jump as well.

Bob Beamon’s spectacular long jump of 8.90m would last as a world record for 22 years. The Mexico City Olympics were the first Summer Games to include sex testing for women. (since then, only one female compoetitor has not been sex-tested - HRH the Princess Royal). Al Oerter of the United States won the discus throw for the fourth time. The 1968 Games also saw the first drug disqualification, as a Swedish entrant in the modern pentathlon, Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall, tested positive…for excessive alcohol.

Britain's David Hemery won Gold in the 400m hurdles.

American athlete Dick Fosbury won the gold medal in the high jump having introduced the Fosbury Flop - the technique used today. Prior to that competitors had used the straddle jump, Eastern cut or scissors kick to clear the bar.

It wasn't just the medals that made these games memorable to me. At the age of 19 I was at my most vociferous in being concerned about racial issues and 1968 had the famous medal ceremony for the 200m. The black American athletes made names for themselves by an act of racial protest. During the medal presentation ceremony, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medal winners in the 200m, raised a black-gloved fist and hung their heads when their country’s national anthem was played. In doing this, they were protesting against racial segregation in the United States. Like many other people I was torn between the feeling that politics should be kept out of sport and feeling sympathy for the cause that they were espousing. The IOC had no such qualms and expelled them from the Olympic Village.

Munich 1972

Munich was the second Olympics in a row where it was events off the track that made the Games memorable. The 1972 Munich Games were the largest yet, setting records in all categories, with 195 events and 7,173 athletes from 121 nations. They were supposed to celebrate peace and, for the first ten days, all did indeed go well. But in the early morning of 5 September, eight Palestinian terrorists broke into the Olympic Village, killed two members of the Israeli team and took nine more hostage. In an ensuing battle, all nine Israeli hostages were killed, as were five of the terrorists and one policeman. The Olympics were suspended and a memorial service was held in the main stadium. In defiance of the terrorists, the International Olympic Committee ordered the competitions to resume after a pause of 34 hours. All other details about the Munich Games paled into in significance.

The 1972 Games were the first to have a named mascot: Waldi the dachshund. Waldi didn't do us much good - In 1972 Britain got no athletics golds.

Lasse Viren of Finland fell midway through the 10,000m final, but rose and set a world record to win the first of his four career gold medals. U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz won an incredible seven gold medals to go with the two he had earned in 1968.

The media star of the Munich Games was the tiny Soviet gymnast, Olga Korbut, whose dramatic cycle of success in the team competition, failure in the individual competition and renewed success in the apparatus finals captured the attention of fans worldwide.

The star of the games from a British point of view was Northern Ireland’s Mary Peters who won Gold in the pentathlon.

Montreal 1976
The 1976 Montreal Games were marred by an African boycott to protest the fact that the national rugby team of New Zealand had toured South Africa and New Zealand was scheduled to compete in the Olympics. Fourteen-year-old gymnast Nadia Comaneci of Romania caused a sensation when, for her performance on the uneven bars, she was awarded the first-ever perfect score of 10.0. She eventually earned seven 10.0s. Alberto Juantorena of Cuba put together the first 400m-800m double victory. To me this was not a particularly memorable Olympic Games but I remember Lasse Viren extended the line of great Finnish distance runners by winning the 5,000m and 10,000m events for the second time in a row. He also competed in the marathon, attempting to emulate Emil Zatopek's 1952 distance treble, and in his first attempt at this distance, finished fifth.

Princess Anne competed in the equestrian events.

Brendan Foster was the only British medallist in the athletics gaining the bronze in the 10,000m.

The Olympics were a financial disaster for Montreal, as the city faced debts for 30 years after the Games had finished.

Moscow 1980
The Olympics were disrupted by another, even larger boycott, this one led by U.S. president Jimmy Carter, part of a package of actions to protest the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This reduced the number of participating nations to 80, the lowest number since 1956.

The worst thing about the boycott from my point of view was that it denied Ed Moses the chance of a third Olympic gold in the 400m hurdles - n event he dominated for nine years, never losing a race.

In a dramatic confrontation, arch-rivals Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe faced each other in the 800 and 1,500m. The whole country stopped to watch these two races take place. Everyone had their favourite - mine was Coe. In the 800m, Ovett won the gold medal ahead of his compatriot. Six days later, a determined Coe redeemed himself in the 1,500m. He took the gold, while Ovett managed only a bronze. (Steve Cram – seen here between Coe and Ovett - finished well down the field but was to break the World record for this distance in a couple of years time.)

Daley Thompson took Gold in the Decathlon.

Allan Wells picked up the Gold Medal in the 100m in the absence of the US sprinters. He also got the silver in the 200m.

Los Angeles 1984
Although a revenge boycott led by the Soviet Union depleted the field in certain sports, a record 140 nations took part in an Olympics which was the first of the modern era to try for spectacle as well as sport.

Carl Lewis won both the 100m, 200m and the long jump and earned a fourth gold in the 4x100m relay.

Daley Thompson successfully defended his Olympic Decathlon title, beating off West Germany's Jurgen Hingsen. Sebastian Coe became the first repeat winner of the men's 1,500m with Steve Cram earning silver. Tessa Sanderson took the Gold medal for GB in the women's javelin and Fatima Whitbread got the bronze.

Seoul 1988
I'm the only person I know who watched the whole of the Seoul Olympics live - thanks to a few month old Richard who didn't sleep any better then than he does 20 years later.

In a coup for the Olympic Movement, Korea (South Korea) turned democratic in order to welcome the world to the Summer Games. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) boycotted, and was joined by Cuba, Ethiopia and Nicaragua. Still, records were set with 159 nations participating, 52 winning medals and 31 taking home gold medals.

Hodori - the friendly tiger - symbol of the 1988 Games.

These were the last Olympic Games in which live doves were released during the Opening Ceremonies as a symbol of peace, due to protests following an incident in which a number of the doves were burned alive by the lighting of the Olympic torch.

Florence Griffith-Joyner (FloJo) dominated the women's sprints taking Gold in the 100m, 200m and 4 x 100m relay. A colourful character, FloJo's fingernails had more colours than the rest of the Olympics put together. Sadly, she died in 1998 during a sever epileptic seizure. East German, Christa Luding-Rothenburger, who was also a speed skater, earned a silver medal in cycling to become the only person in history to win Winter and Summer medals in the same year. Steffi Graf concluded her Grand Slam tennis season by winning Olympic gold. Record holder and world champion, Russian Serguei Bubka dreamed of an Olympic title. He won the gold medal, but only just, vaulting 5.90m at the third attempt.

Sadly these Olympics are best remembered for the 'win' in the 100m Ben Johnson who beat Carl Lewis . Subsequently Johnson was disqualified for drug taking and his medal revoked, leaving a sour taste in everyone's mouth and casting a pall over athletics in general and sprinting in particular for years to come. Ben Johnson - one of the first superstar athletes to be caught using steroids - was eventually banned for life in 1993 for testing positive again. Britain's Linford Christie moved up to silver medal place as a result.

Meanwhile, in the 100m hurdles, Colin Jackson took silver.

In 1988 Britain got no gold medals in the athletics.

Barcelona 1992

South Africa was allowed to compete in the Olympics for the first time since the 1960 Games, after a long suspension for its apartheid policy. White South African runner Elana Meyer and black Ethiopian runner Derartu Tulu fought a close race in the 10,000 m (won by Tulu) and then ran a victory lap hand in hand.

Following its reunification in 1990, Germany sent a single, unified Olympic team for the first time since the 1964 Games. As the Soviet Union had been dissolved in 1991, the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania sent their own teams for the first time since 1936. The other Soviet republics competed under the name "Unified Team." The break-up of SFR Yugoslavia led to the Olympic debuts of Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Due to United Nations sanctions, SR Yugoslav athletes were not allowed to participate with their own team, but could compete under the Olympic flag as Independent Olympic Participants.

In the diving competitions, held in the view of the Sagrada Família, Fu Mingxia won the high dive event at the age of 13. The image of her diving from the springboard was one of the lasting ones of these games. In basketball, the admittance of professional players led to the formation of the "Dream Team" of the United States, featuring Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and other NBA stars.

Evelyn Ashford won her fourth Olympic gold medal in the 4x100 metre relay, making her one of only four female athletes to have achieved this in history. Gail Devers won the 100m.

Sally Gunnell won Gold in the 400m hurdles and bronze in 4 x 400m relay. Britain's Chris Boardman won the 4000M individual pursuit track cycling event for Great Britain. Sadly, Tony Jarrett could only manage fourth in the 100m hurdles.

Linford Christie finally won gold in the 100m, at 32 years old the oldest champion of the Olympic 100m.

Derek Redmond of Great Britain tore a hamstring during a 400m semi-final heat. As he struggled in agony to finish the race, his father entered the track without credentials and helped him complete the race, to a standing ovation from the crowd. Sergey Bubka had won gold in the men's pole vault in Seoul 1988, setting an Olympic record. He was favored to easily take the gold again, but he left Barcelona empty-handed, failing to make any height in the pole vault. He failed in all his attempts. A little over a month later, in Tokyo, Bubka would vault 20 feet 1 and 1/2 inches - his 32nd world record.

The Kenyan team took all three medals in the 3,000-metre steeplechase.

Atlanta 1996

The 1996 Games were given a dramatic start when the cauldron was lit by Muhammad Ali. On 27 July during a concert held in the Centennial Olympic Park, a terrorist bomb killed one person and injured a further 110 people, but the Atlanta Games are best remembered for their sporting achievements. A record-setting 79 nations won medals and 53 won gold.

American long jumper Carl Lewis became only the third person to win the same individual event four times and the fourth person to earn a ninth gold medal.

Michael Johnson in his golden shoes smashed the 200m world record to complete a 200m and 400m double. His 200m record lasted until Usain Bolt beat it in 2008.

Gigi and Mary Jo Fernandez of the USA beat the Czech pair of Jana Novotna and Helena Sukova in the women's tennis doubles with Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Conchita Martinez of Spain in the bronze medal place.

France's Marie-José Pérec won the 200m and then broke the 400m Olympic record, thus achieving the best performance for ten years. She became the most successful French female athlete of all time and the first sportswoman to win the Olympic title over 400m consecutively. Jamaican Merlene Ottey was second in the 200m. Australian Cathy Freeman won Silver in the 400m making her the hope of the Aussies for 2000.

1996 was another poor year for British athletes with Denise Lewis's bronze in the heptathlon being the only women's medal. Roger Black got a silver in the 400m and helped the relay team to silver. Jonathan Edwards got triple jump silver; and Stephen Backley did the same in the javelin.

Sydney 2000

The battle to hold the 2000 Olympics made all the events look as though they would pale into insignificance but eventually Sydney won the prize. The Sydney 2000 Games were the largest yet, with 10,651 athletes competing in 300 events. Despite their size, they were well organised. 199 nations and four individual IOC sponsored athletes took part.

Cathy Freeman had the honour to light the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony of the Games. (Like the doves a few years earlier she nearly got roasted in the process). She symbolized the desire to reconcile the white and Aboriginal populations of Australia and was the aborigine medal hopeful. Holding the nation's hopes on your shoulders is usually the death knell for Olympic athletes but Australia's Cathy Freeman won the 400m at the 2000 Sydney Olympics in a night of passion and drama.

Rower Steve Redgrave overcame diabetes and a hatred for training to win five consecutive Olympic golds from 1984 to 2000 and become Britain's greatest ever Olympian.

Triple jumper Johnathan Edwards got a Gold medal for GB. 2000 saw Britain's best medal total for eighty years with eleven Gold medals. Golds were also achieved by (inter alia) Stephanie Cook (modern pentathlon); Denise Lewis (heptathlon); Audley Harrison (boxing); Jason Queally (1km cycling time trial); Ben Ainslie (Laser dinghy).

Athens 2004

In 2004 the Olympic Games returned to Greece, the home of both the ancient Olympics and the first modern Olympics. For the first time ever a record 201 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) participated in the Olympic Games. The overall tally for events on the programme was 301 (one more than in Sydney 2000). Popularity in the Games reached soared to new highs as 3.9 billion people had access to the television coverage compared to 3.6 billion for Sydney 2000.

Swimmer Michael Phelps won 6 gold medals and set a single-Games record with 8 total medals. Runner Hicham El Guerrouj won both the 1,500m and the 5,000m, while on the women's side Britain's Kelly Holmes triumphed in both the 800m and the 1,500m.

I wonder what I shall remember about Bejing 2008...