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In praise of… our armed forces

I don’t know if you heard, but there is a campaign this week which is encouraging us to show our appreciation for all the hard work that our armed forces have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are being asked by one of the campaign organisers to create a logo for a t-shirt, anything that takes our fancy, and send it to them. The intention is to improve our soldiers’ morale and fill their hearts with warm and loving feelings towards humanity when they realise how appreciated they really are. We should then post the t-shirts to them at the same time, thereby creating one of those Hollywood moments at the end of the film when the poignant music plays while the weary soldiers, having witnessed every kind of atrocity known to mankind, open their packages at the same time. For that extra touch of emotion, they could drape one of the guys who didn’t make it with one of these t-shirts.

An admirable idea, I’m sure you’ll agree. But that was yesterday and since I missed the deadline for sending the t-shirt, I decided to write this post instead because I just couldn’t pass this opportunity to express my feelings of gratitude.

It must be a source of great distress to our brave boys and girls that the latte-swigging, Guardian-reading lefties scoff and roll their eyes whenever an idea as noble as this is suggested. What our soldiers would like is for a bit of appreciation from the British public; you know, perhaps nothing quite as OTT as what the American soldiers get back home; the red carpet treatment would suffice. They do, after all, lay their lives on the line for us, and as Demi Moore once famously said: “They stand on that wall and say ‘nothing will happen to you, not on my watch’” (assuming there are no friendly fire incidents). Stirring stuff indeed. Mr Kipling, as well as making exceedingly good cakes, wrote a bit of kaki-nosed poetry in his spare time too. He called this phenomenon “mocking those who guard you while you sleep”.

Oh and how they mock. What those tree-hugging, sandal-wearing beardy-weirdies don’t realise is that when those impressionable young people joined up, it had nothing to do with the recruitment ads on TV which implied that joining the army is a lot of fun really; all that climbing up and skiing down mountains, “playing” with a lot of hi-tech kit, or even learning to drive through an unlit wooded area instead of joy-riding around the backstreets of Southshields. Nor, as they point out between gulps of fruit tea and mouthfuls of muesli, did they join because of later ads which suggested that being in the army would make them a lot more attractive to the opposite sex. You know the sort of thing: in them, female officers could expect leering men in bars to become completely incapacitated, and sometimes even soil themselves, in anticipation of the kinky sex that lay ahead, after introducing themselves as Captain Dimwit and Lieutenant Spongebrains. Equally, male officers could expect women to become so up-for-it once they listened to the two bragging pilots discussing who was better at landing helicopters in a storm, that a simple tap on the shoulder would automatically cause their knickers to fall down around their ankles.

Nope. They are too bright and perceptive to fall for that kind of trickery. They joined because they wanted to make a difference. Like the gallant Great War soldier, guided by the romantic image of charging at an enemy machinegun turret armed only with a single-shot rifle and bayonet, they wanted to combat the forces of evil. They are also intelligent enough to understand that their superiors know best, and it is not up to them to question orders, however amoral or irrational they may appear. They comprehend at once that their commanding officers are acting on behalf of Queen and Country, and Her Majesty is, after all, the Head of the Church and as such instinctively knows God’s will.

It’s all about courage, you see – a concept which the vegetable protein-munching, raspberry frappuccino-guzzling liberals cannot grasp. It takes courage to press that red button knowing that innocent people are going to die, just like it takes balls the size of watermelons to invade a country to depose a tyrannical regime which we helped implement and supported in the first place. All that, and their faces still manage to retain their usual pallor.

It is about time that we recognised that sort of bravery in this country. For my part, I would like to say a huge thank you to those brave boys and girls out there doing their bit. Thank you for making our country richer with the extra oil. For me personally it has been a huge bonus. Being a curvaceous 25-stone person, I can now afford to fill my two-ton 4×4 with petrol and drive to McDonald’s for my daily extra large big mac, instead of having to walk the twenty-minute round trip. And for all that, I shall be eternally grateful.

Now, since I missed the chance to send the t-shirt that I designed, I thought I might post what I came up with here. I hope you like it:

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A ‘V’ for Victory, of course.

Oh and I do hope that you will forgive the placard-carrying, pink champagne-sipping socialists for their unpatriotic dissent. Forgive them for they know not what they say. It says so in the Bible. You understand, I’m sure, that the main reason for wreaking such havoc around the world is so that we can all express our opinions freely without fear of persecution.

Now praise the lord and go kill them all. And remember, it’s not rape if they’re dead.


Under the Copper Beech

I approach the garden with a certain amount of trepidation. The grass, which is usually trim, hasn’t been cut in a while. At the bottom of the garden there is a copper beech tree whose branches droop almost as far as the ground, creating a secluded canopied area underneath. 

“Through there”, she says pointing to the tree. I make my way in gingerly, pushing the branches aside with one hand and holding the spade with the other. The earth here is dry, unaffected it would seem by the recent diluvial weather. I examine the body: in surprisingly good condition considering it has probably been here for a week, when he was first reported missing. 

I half-heartedly begin to dig but this is not the kind of work that accommodates half-heartedness, and the arid ground refuses to yield. Why now, I think aggrieved by recent events. His stubbornness and refusal to respond to reason is quite exasperating. For someone who spent his entire life regularly exercising and eating healthily, why would he give up so easily? 

“I am my own doctor”, he had said, clearly irritated by our concerned badgering. People in their sixties, even their seventies, are not considered old anymore, and yet at the first sign of trouble he expects the worst. Confronted with the headlights of a potential death sentence delivered by a doctor decades his junior, he becomes paralysed by fear. 

“Doctors are young and would have no interest in treating someone my age. If I went into hospital, I probably wouldn’t come out alive”, he had said looking emaciated like a prisoner of war. His distrust of doctors seems to stem from his belief that they are directly responsible for his wife’s death nearly fourteen years ago, when she had slipped into a hepatic coma. The doctors, having given up on her, withheld food and water, which, although counterintuitive since the liver is an organ capable of regeneration, is apparently standard practice in England. 

I look up at her through the leaves. She is standing on the concrete path that surrounds the house, arms anxiously folded across her chest. I didn’t know her when her mother died. Despite her unflagging cheerfulness, I have often noticed a well concealed sadness in her eyes and an almost imperceptible quiver of the lips, disguised by a solemn look of remembrance, particularly whilst relating a recurring dream: in it her mother is still alive, having made a full recovery from her coma, and life has once again returned to normal. But her narrative ends there. She doesn’t speak of the pain that each time she awakes to realise it was only a dream must cause her. Now expecting her first child, our first child, this. I stab at the soil with renewed vigour, bitten again by the untimeliness of events. 

The hole looks deep enough (how deep is deep enough?) and I gently scoop the animal up. He is lying on his side in a languid stretch and disconcertingly has his eyes open, staring unseeingly ahead. It must have been one of those cases often told in cat-lore in which the poor animal, sensing his time was up, decided to make his way to a secluded spot to accept his fate. Apparently he was around fifteen years old. Had he shown signs of illness, I wonder? Even if he had, it is unlikely his owner would have taken him to a vet, no doubt worried that they might put the animal to sleep. 

My job here is done and I walk back across the long grass to where she is standing. In the distance the accusing whirr of a lawnmower is cranked into life as we leave the garden in a silent embrace.

Wimbledon, rain and other interruptions

I am watching a Wimbledon tennis match on television, grateful that for once the rain has stayed away, when she walks in, her usual energetic self, an English jumping bean caught in a hurricane, and, as usual, still buzzing from quotidian office events. She is one of the few people I’ve ever come across who appears physically reinvigorated through work. 

“Good day?” I ask. 

She gives me a cheerful “Uhu” before embarking on her habitual meticulous description of it, who said what to whom, jokes told, problems remedied – including, sadly, dull technical detail. I have become an expert at filtering out the unnecessary bits, switching off then on again at appropriate moments, responding accordingly.  

Engrossed with the tennis, I make polite listening noises while keeping my eyes on the television. Roger Federer is in imperious form, the epitome of elegance, dishing out a master class to his wretched opponent. Sometimes he gives the impression of superhuman invulnerability, a messiah with a tennis racquet in his hand. One can’t help but feel that if Jesus himself had opted for a career on the ATP tour instead of saving the ungrateful bastards, he would play exactly like Federer. 

“… but you know I didn’t think anything of it…”, she is saying. 


“Well, I thought I’d run a check, just in case…” 

Federer now makes an impossible cross-court shot look like the most natural thing in the world. He appears to be operating in a different space-time continuum from us mere mortals, finding time to ensure his shots are not only perfectly timed and placed, but that they are executed with casual elegance. 

“… It was actually the first time I used the kit…”, she is saying. 

It’s the change-over break, and the camera hovers, then settles on a shot of Virginia Wade in the crowd prodding a top molar with her little finger then eating whatever she managed to dig out. 

“Ughh”, I groan. 

She stops talking mid-sentence, then says coldly, “You don’t seem interested in what I’m telling you”. 

“I am! Please continue”, I say, without looking away from the TV, then back at her when no further sound is emitted. Clearly sulking now. But it will have to wait, Federer is in the middle of a fantastic rally, this time seemingly incapable of finding a clean winner or forcing an error from his opponent, who looks like a man rescued from a drowning accident, his hair plastered to his face with sweat. Federer’s headband, on the other hand, looks obsolete, an affectation. 

Still silence. I glance back at her. An accusatory stare now. 

“What’s wrong?”, I ask. 

“Nothing, I hope. I just thought you’d be a little more thrilled at the prospect of becoming a father for the first time”, she says in a husky monotone. 

I look back at the TV slack-jawed, now barely able to take in what I’m looking at: the rally has finally come to an end, and the big champion, the man seemingly able to predict where his opponent’s shots are going to land before they are even played, looks stunned too as a clean winner fizzes past his nose.

Flight of the Bumblebee

The van cabin is overrun with insects. The yellow Dayglo jacket I wear while working on my cameras attracts all sorts of bugs, who seem to think they’ve discovered a giant flower. Bees, wasps, daddy-long-legs, arachnids and assorted minor bugs cling to the jacket, and when I go back inside the van, they come with me.

A spider has been living in the top right corner of the windscreen for the good part of a year now. Self-satisfied and sadistic (it knows I don’t kill spiders), it grows fatter every day, quickly rushing out of its mysterious hiding place to expertly wrap yet another hapless victim in its sticky thread. I roll my eyes disapprovingly and grimace in disgust. The spider winks at me conspiratorially, in acknowledgement of our unspoken agreement of mutual interest, before disappearing again.


That’s what I’ve become: a bug cultivator and spider accomplice. I take care not to kill anything while setting up my cameras, delicately avoiding the orb-weavers, waiting for a passing ant before setting the equipment down on the ground, coaxing greenflies out of harm’s way. The other day, I was horrified to discover I accidentally trod on a butterfly, damaging its wings while its useless body twitched helplessly. Last week I was almost grief-stricken when I inadvertently squashed my van’s resident ladybird after winding the window shut.


But it wasn’t always so. As all boys worth their salt, and reassuringly displaying the cruelty that uniquely characterises our species, my brother and I took great pride in the sophistication and inventiveness of our methods for killing insects. A favourite was to set fire to saúva ants (large black ants with a hard bulbous body and a very painful bite) using only a magnifying glass and the hot Brazilian midday sun. We marvelled at the spectacular way in which they burst into flames with a fizzing rasp, like the striking of a match. There may have been countless victims before we were spotted by our father, who wasn’t impressed.

“If you haven’t given it life, what gives you the right to take it away?”, he asked, quite reasonably but with fire in his eyes.The remark hit home, and from then on we resolved to make amends by providing crickets with helicopter rides: a maximum of two crickets (for extra leg room and comfort) would be placed in the see-through cockpit of the toy helicopter followed by a swift tug of the fishing line wrapped around the base on which the helicopter sat, rotating the propellers and sending it skyward. It’s the least we could do.


Last night, arriving home late, I noticed a dead bumblebee on the otherwise bare dining table. It lay on its back motionless with its satin black and Dayglo furriness and powerful short legs facing the ceiling. I tentatively give it a tap to ascertain it is dead. Nothing, completely stiff. Tired, I leave the room and forget about it.This morning I sit down to eat breakfast and as I place the cereal bowl on the table I notice with distaste the bumblebee is still there, now under a patch of sunlight. I resolve to deal with it after breakfast.I put some yoghurt on the cereal and then drizzle it with honey, and since it is impossible to transfer honey from its jar onto another utensil without dripping it, some of it ends up on the table, a good six inches away from the dead bumblebee. Right on cue, it begins to twitch. I flip it onto its legs but all it can do is raise them pathetically without going anywhere. I push it closer to the honey and it locks its sucker onto it. Its wings vibrate, suddenly kicked into life again, like Popeye after eating a can of spinach. Fascinated, I watch it for a few seconds, then go into the bedroom and fumble around the drawers. When I return brandishing a magnifying glass I am just in time to watch it fly out of the window.