Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Season's Greetings

Having dug the car out of the snow I am met with some redundant information

You may need to click on the picture to read the message my car is giving me.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

A Book Review - Rupert Bear

In these stories a much loved character that is known as Rupert Bear is featured in a continuous series of adventures. What most people should realise from his name is that he is not in fact a fictional character at all, but a real person. All fictional bear characters invariably have a name starting with B, Bruno, Barney etc. As his name is Rupert we can see immediately that like Winnie the Pooh, it is a real name. No one could make up a name like that.
Describing him as a bear is rather unkind because there is nothing ursine about him apart from the shape of his head. Unknown to most people, he is completely human but suffers from an inherited genetic deformity analogous to the Elephant man, but more symmetrical in effect. His deformity is an inherited condition that both his parents and many of his relations suffer from too, and may in fact be a mutation. Other symptoms of this condition are that he is completely hairless and his body chemistry causes his skin to be paper white most of the time. His complexion sometimes takes on a brownish yellow hue, something like a sun tan, but which is actually the reverse and is caused by a lack of sunlight since this colouration is most predominant in midwinter, particularly around Christmas time.

Rupert is brown in midwinter

Rupert is otherwise completely human, having correctly proportioned limbs and five fingers and five toes on his hands and feet. However, he rarely takes his shoes off, even when playing at the seaside, and appears rather reticent to expose his feet. I can only assume that whilst not deformed visibly they need his special supportive boots that he wears constantly.

This poor child has been brought up in a kind of reservation which is shared by other similarly afflicted people, including an entire family of ‘Elephant Man syndrome’ people who are much more elephantine than Rupert is Ursine, having very deformed bodies giving rise to thickened skin, a trunk like appendage on the face and deformed hands and feet. Most of the other unfortunates living in the same location have the same white pigmentation and as with Rupert’s friend Bill, a black banding which gives rise to his nickname Bill Badger. The white areas on most of these victims, turns a slightly different colour around mid winter too, ranging from the brown Rupert shows to a grey colour for the Elephant family.

Amongst the deformed people living in Nutwood you will run across a few healthy people who are employed by the institute. The ‘Professor’ and the scientist, known only as the ‘Chinese Conjurer’, are medical professionals who are working on possible cures, but the main aim of Nutwood is integration with the outside world.

These two men have dedicated their lives to helping people like Rupert

To this end carefully selected staff are encouraged to live in along with their own families and mix with the afflicted and are slowly integrating them into a modern society.

Occasionally Rupert and his family travel outside this area, often to a particular destination, a small seaside town referred to as Sandy Bay and the nearby Rocky Bay, where they mingle with many normal people who are unusually kind to them, obviously aware of the project and ‘that there but for the grace of God etc.’ The names of these places given in the stories are obvious disguises for the real locations.

Mixing with normal people can be quite traumatic for poor Rupert and sometimes after a long visit away from Nutwood he requires counselling.

I felt everyone really hated me
As well as dedicated professionals, occassionally this is done by voluntary groups often recruited from the Girl Guides, since they are able to retain a child’s perspective.

Sometimes being accepted by these children is important therapy

To pay for this vast and very long term project, apart from the yearly Rupert annuals on sale around Christmas, a great deal of merchandising is done based around fantasy versions of their life, which whilst a steady mans of funding for the institute, is also a subtle means of preparing the outside world for the sight of these unfortunate, hideously deformed, people when they are finally integrated fully into the outside world.
This project has been running for several decades and needs to be staged very carefully to avoid trauma on the part of the victims and encourage acceptance on the part of the outside world. One very interesting side effect of the complaint which causes these ghastly deformities is that almost all of the victims have incredible longevity and they age so slowly that over the entire length of the project few have shown any signs of ageing. This too is being researched very closely since it is obviously of great interest to the outside world and seems to have been passed on to some of the social workers and medical teams that have had long term contact with these victims. This is not advertised widely since it is little understood and the team would be overwhelmed with volunteers whose only motive would be to gain longevity.

It is difficult to imagine what it must be like for the children to remain immature for such a long time, but with only one or two exceptions, notably the Foxoid brothers and the porcine girl, they seem well adjusted and remain perpetually cheerful and in good spirits.

Because of the longevity of many of the long term people working there you will see a number of different styles of clothing being worn from many different eras, which suggests some have been working there a very long time indeed. Amongst the inmates of this institution, symptoms can be limited to just his skin pigmentation and the longevity.

The two characters shown below, the Regency gentleman and the Pike man, who has been in the area a very long time, have no visible mutations at all other than longevity and a greater or lesser degree of skin pigmentation disorder.

Normality in appearance is not always a sign of dedication to the project, because certain unfortunate cases have been unable to cope with the longevity and have lost touch with reality. In their minds they believe themselves to be genuine pirates or bandits and so on and before discovery are often able to hide in the vast Nutwood grounds with fellow delusionists, living the life of an outlaw and so reinforcing their delusion.

The published stories that have come out of this amazing institute, as opposed to the unpublished details of certain case studies which remain too disturbing to reveal, whilst more often are fantasy, not all are entirely fictious since delusional patents believing themselves to be real bandits or pirates have needed the authorities to flush them out of hiding so that they can be restrained and given therapy.

Because Rupert and other children are free to roam the Nutwood grounds, they have occasionally stumbled across these unfortunate victim’s hideouts and become involved in their recapture. On these occasions, the marketing department quick to realise the potential as a narrative, have used some of these real life situations as the basis of various published adventure stories.
Long before I discovered the truth behind them, Rupert stories were an important part of my childhood literature and I read and re-read any Rupert Annuals I was given for Christmas. Now I am aware of the wonderful charity that is behind these I am overwhelmed with admiration and hope that modern science can improve the lot of thes remarkably cheerful individuals.
All the stories are very entertaining and I give them 9.9 out of ten for readability and despite the tragic truth behind these stories I would recommend them for any child.
Because the Nutwood institute is entirely self funding, they have a registered charity which can be found at www.nuttwood.org where donations may be given via Play Pal.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Are we being ripped off?

The answer is YES WE ARE!

Manufacturers are slowly, sometimes oh so slowly shrinking their products whilst retaining the same price. I have noticed this shrinkage on several products recently, particularly tubs of yoghurt, sandwich fillers and the like, where once opened you can see that there is a distinct drop in the level of identically priced foods.
We stocked up on Cheese strings for The Granddaughter and Grandson this autumn and I rediscovered that I like these too, so we bought a few recently for me. Guess what? Exactly the same package but a much shorter cheese string! No doubt we will soon be seeing a new packaging with NEW IMPROVED cheese strings and inside cheese string in a package resized to disguises the loss of cheese in this new pack.

They are not the only ones.
I sometimes buy Kleenex balsam tissues, if I have a heavy cold, they really work and keep my nose from getting sore. I had a cold not long ago and needed to stock up again and found that Kleenex have changed the name and called it Soothes.

Apart from the new name, the box is the same but the contents are now less. I have not had a cold since buying the new packs, so I have not yet been able to test these still keep my nose pain free. Maybe that has not changed but the label does say 'with a touch of basalm'. So maybe that is reduced too.

Above the Kleenex box unopened

The Soothes box unopened

It is not just the tussues that are soft, as far as these cynical manufacturers are concerned, we are not their loyal customers, but a soft touch to be cheated. Disguising the changes to their product is sneaky and I don’t like sneaky. I would not be too incensed if the price went up a little, I would grumble but resign myself to the change because it seems to be inevitable, but sneaking a cost cut into a box which is otherwise assumed to be the same is a real rip off and really annoys me! I am more upset by someone trying to sneak a change past me than by an open up front price increase.
So do they think we are all stupid? – of course they do!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

A Book Review - The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

In this book we are taken back to the 1940s and introduced to four children, two girls and two boys, brothers and sisters who are ‘Evacuated’ to the countryside during WWII. This was common practice during that conflict, when children were taken out of the towns and sent to the country in order to make them relatively safe from the regular bombing raids that were causing huge destruction to all the major cities.
These particular evacuees are taken in by a rather eccentric professor who largely ignores them, leaving their care to his housekeeper. They are free to explore his house and soon discover what appears to be a perfectly ordinary, but fairly old model MK XXII Quantum Interdimensional Portal (QIP ) of the kind that transports you to another parallel world but which has been mistaken by the housekeeper and the children for a wardrobe.

It looks just like a wardrobe

Lucy, the youngest child, accidentally passes through the QIP and encounters a lampost in the middle of some trees although we are never told how it is powered so far from any road or urban area. I can only assume it is a quantum flux source indicator and signals when the QIP is operational.
The Quantum Flux Source Indicator

In this particular adjacent world, known by its inhabitants as Narnia, Lucy meets a fawn carrying a number of parcels. This should have forewarned her that he was not all that he seemed since there is no shopping district or post office within walking distance of the lampost. On meeting this creature Lucy, despite all warnings about small girls going off with strangers, is tempted by the offer of a tea of toast, sardines and cake. In war time the offer of sardines would have tempted most people, since they were stringently rationed and saved for very special occasions. She accompanies this half man, half goat, half dressed - (he has no trousers, just a scarf and an umbrella!) - creature, back to his home.

Lucy goes off with a complete stranger

After a while the confused creature confesses that he has been acting on behalf of the Secret Police and through genuine remorse and tears, explains why.
It turns out that there has been a recent change of government and the country is now under strict economic freeze with very tight restrictions. The new leader of the country is known as the White Queen, someone who is rather on the harsh side of severe in her policies and who emerged onto the political scene after a power vacuum was created by the unexplained loss of the monarchy.
This new ruler seems to come from a land that must be much like Alaska, because a part of her policies also imposes a literal freeze on all her dominion creating a permanent winter. Possibly because she uses a sleigh for transport and they do not run well in warm weather. She also has the wildest collection of garden ornaments you have ever seen in her castle yard and in accordance with the rules of being an evil ruler, is served by only the ugliest of hench-creatures. No doubt the castle, in compliance with the standard evil rulers' charter, has a self-destruct button somewhere too, but this is unconfirmed and not used.

Cool garden ornaments

The token ugly hench-creatures

After discovering the fawn’s deviousness, Lucy hastily returns home and finds she has been away with no objective time lapse on the part of her original universe, but when she attempts to show the other children the portal, the QIP is on the blink and will not work for her, so they think she is mistaken and still believe it is just an ordinary wardrobe. I expect being one of the older models it required about twenty four hours to recharge after each use. Edmund, the younger of the two boys, later manages to blunder through it and meets the White Queen herself, who happens to be out for a sleigh ride with her vertically challenged companion, usually rudely referred to as the dwarf.

Edmund encounters the White Queen's sleigh driven by 'The Dwarf'

By means of bribery, involving a hot drink and Turkish Delight, another rationed item, she manages to convince Edmund that she is a soft touch and good for much more Turkish Delight if he gets the others to come and see her. Completely taken in by her good looks and smooth talk he returns home in order to hoodwink the others into returning with him. Unknown to Edmund, for some reason the White Queen believes the presence of children is a threat to her position and plans to kill them all.

Eventually, the QIP operates long enough for all the children to enter the portal and they soon find out that they are expected to take charge and wrest the land of Narnia from the grasp of the White Queen and allow the weather to improve. This comes as something of a surprise to them and they are rather hesitant but when introduced to a huge talking lion, they realise, quite sensibly, that they would rather attempt to overthrow an evil and extremely powerful ruler, rather than get on the bad side of this enormous carnivore.

A large talking lion

Meanwhile Edmund has inadvisedly gone off to look for the White Queen hoping for more Turkish Delight, but things do not work out for him since he is alone and she is not too pleased with his lack of success in getting the rest of his family to visit.
Meanwhile the other three are still with the lion who, although obviously capable and feared by the White Queen, puzzlingly is not actually in charge. He does however, seem to have some sort of executive power and negotiates a deal to save Edmund, who has by a very obscure piece of ancient Narnian legislation, become the property of the White Queen, and this has happened to him even though he has never actually signed any contract.
This must work something like changing your energy supplier or phone service provider when they do cold-calling and let you agree to a change of supplier without you realising that is what the conversation was leading to.

Such is the nature of the Narnian universe, that if this contract is not fulfilled, the whole place will suffer a major tectonic collapse and immense earthquakes and the subsequent tsunamis would eradicate all life. Not a very sensible structure for a world, when by hiring a bad lawyer you could cause the world to end.

The talking lion, unlike his counterpart in the parallel dimension of Oz, is no coward and to prevent this disaster agrees to be ritually killed by the White Queen, who is less well briefed by her barrister on Narnian law and believes that this course of action will get shot of the Lion and she will regain control.
Boy is she wrong!
After the seeming demise of the lion and all the evil crew have run off exulting over their easy victory, a rather smaller earthquake occurs and the lion is restored to health with a new hairdo too.
Only a small earthquake

Before the lion can get back to stop it, a big fight starts up between the evil minions of the White Queen and his friends but on his way back from the dead, he manages to steal all the White Queens’s garden gnomes and such and returns with them and so wins the day.

A huge fight

Shortly after this all the bad ones run off and the children are crowned to become a quadumviate and rule Narnia as King and King and Queen and Queen. A very unusual governmental structure.
The lion meanwhile, job done, wanders off and the two kings and two queens start to live the life of riley in Narnia with everyone left fawning over them as the right and proper rulers of Narnia. This carries on long enough for them to grow into adults and eventually forget who they really are.
The story ends with them rediscovering the lampost whilst on a hunting trip, returning home and reverting to their original children’s forms, again with no objective time passing in their original universe.
Home again with no elapsed time

I find this bit hard to swallow and believe it is a fabrication because the amount of energy released by the transmutation of their adult Narnian forms into children would have caused enough of an energy surge in the local quantum flux to totally destabilise the already fragile structure of Narnia. So that part is probably an exaggeration of the time difference between the two universes, because the sequels find Narnia still unscathed by tectonic events.

A fascinating story and I give it a 9.8 out of ten and read it and re read it as a child. This book was followed by several sequels and one prequel but I did not find any of the later stories about Narnia anything like as magical as this first book and would probably give them between five and six out of ten should I review any of them.

A Disney movie was made of this book a few years ago, which is probably a lot closer to the original story than many other movie versions of books I have seen and very nicely done, but they did not do all their research properly. The movie adds a bit by unnecessarily starting with an air raid over London during the blitz. The book starts with the four children on the train leaving London, but in the movie the whole family are still in London and for some incredible reason are taken completely by surprise by an air raid! Bombers did not sneak up on you, they were slow and noisy and you heard them coming and anyway Britain had long range radar. So it is not very likely that a mother would risk her own children’s lives by ignoring all the warnings. Before a raid arrived deafeningly loud Air Raid Sirens were started several minutes before any bombers could get to you and besides the local sirens, you could hear the sirens starting up in the far distance and closer sirens joining in as the raiders approached long before this. In those days you listened out all the time so I am sure that they would have been inside their bomb shelter well before any bombs started falling. Apart from that the movie is quite well done.

Finally a Health and Safety warning!

It is important to stress that should young children be attacked by a lion or other large predator, a garland of flowers is no real defense. Please do not attempt to control any wild animal in this way.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Book review – Beatrix Potter

I was never big on Beatrix Potter, my sister had a few of these books and my Mother would read to me the Peter Rabbit stories which I liked because I shared a name with him – oops! What a giveaway - yes my first name is Rabbit.

I found them only mildly interesting and so did not retain their memory and never bothered to re-read them until I had The Granddaughter (TG) to read to. Now I have become a little more familiar with them and find that they are not quite as cosy as I once remembered. Being a rabbit is no fun because they seem to be at the bottom of the food chain and are constantly under threat from hungry animals and people. Seriously, I do not quite understand the popularity of these books, unlike the previous two books I have reviewed, which are two of my childhood favourites, I feel B P’s books are rather more of a leftover from a forgotten era and seem to have many real points against them. The characters are often sly, wicked or thoughtless. Stories do not always have a happy ending and some endings are not very clear cut. I found reading some of them to my Granddaughter difficult, having to explain a lot of the phrasing. The only good thing I found are the pictures and these make up for a lot in the difficult stories.

I have done the tourist thing and visited one of Beatrix Potter’s houses, Hill Top in Far Sawrey, near Lake Windermere and to my surprise found the whole village crawling with Japanese tourists. Beatrix Potter is really big in Japan. There is a Beatrix Potter museum in Bowness, the small town half way up Lake Windermere and you can buy sets of her books in any language including Japanese. Looking on Google Earth, I have even found some pictures posted that are labelled in Japanese, which shows the numbers of tourists from that country that regularly travel there.
Many years ago, whilst staying in Far Sawrey on holiday, I inadvertently interrupted a Japanese film unit who were working on something in the village. I did not at first realise who they were and annoyed them by popping into their camera’s field of view every now and again whilst taking picnic stuff and other things needed for a day out in the Lakes to the car. This required about four trips and I had started to notice that there was a degree of hostility emanating from a group of people who were partially out of sight around the corner, doing something I had not recognised as filming. Eventually I realised they were trying to film a model of Peter Rabbit they had standing in the road I was parked in. They did not come and tell me that they were filming but just stood and glared at me. I would not have been so much of a problem to them if they had spoken to me instead of just assuming I was aware of what they were doing. Later we found they had added boards to all the signposts and local shop with Japanese translations of them for their film.

The only visable member of the Japanese Film crew on the left
with Peter Rabbit propped up on a box

The rest of the crew and the camera were all here just out of view.
My car was just beyond the bush on the right.

Since TG’s mother’s family originate in Gloucestershire (for those born outside the UK, this is pronounced 'Gloster shire' for some unknowable reason) and we live close by. We have also visited the Little Tailor’s Shop which still exists near Hogwarts – sorry, Gloucester cathedral – and shown it to her and The Grandson (TGS). It is highly commercialised and they were unimpressed. TGS was much more interested in being photographed in ‘Hogwarts’ cloisters, since he is older and much more of a fan of the Harry Potter books.

The Tailor's shop in Gloucester

The cloisters in Gloucester cathederal used for filming certain
parts of Hogwarts school in the Harry Potter movies.

B P’s books are often regarded as suitable for very young children, but I found the language difficult to explain to a small child and the Victorian morals are sometimes inappropriate in today’s more tolerant world. The only good thing children get from them is an extended vocabulary, I recall learning the word ‘soporific’ from the rabbit stories, which is not such a bad thing, but perhaps you get the idea I do not like them. This is true I am sorry to say, they are not my thing at all.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

A book review -The Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the Willows was written by Kenneth Grahame in 1908, so it reflects a very different era with different social attitudes to the present day, having been written before both world wars took place. It is wondefully illustrated by E. H. Shepard.
In this book we meet a number of interesting characters who have some exciting adventures and like many other really good books it has a map showing the main character’s homes and most of the locations where different events chronicled in the book take place.
The first character we meet is the Mole, who is living alone, when one day whilst redecorating his bachelor pad he flips and abandoning everything just leaves his home and wanders off into the wider world.
He soon meets the Water Rat, whom now we should, in this modern world, refer to as a water Vole, since he is not actually of the genus Rattus. However, in the days when two bachelors could move in together and not be suspected of being gay, Ratty is a Rat.
Rat introduces Mole to the delights of boating and cholesterol rich picnics and famously remarks on the fact that ducks stick their posteriors in the air whilst feeding.
Soon Rat takes his new friend to meet the amoral Toad. Rich and idle this character is constantly seeking something to relieve the boredom of his futile life by being a thrill seeker in an age before extreme sports.
When our friends Mole and Rat go to visit him, he has just discovered caravanning and persuades Mole and Ratty to accompany him on a caravanning trip, thus setting a precedent for British holidaymakers to clog up the roads every summer with their mobile holiday homes. Toad rightly comes to his senses when they are buzzed by a justifiably outraged motorist and decides on the spot that fast cars are actually much more fun than slow caravans.
He then embarks on a campaign of terror when he becomes a toad racer, (something like a boy racer but of a different species.)
Meanwhile we leave Toad to return to Ratty and Mole, now in a comfortable all male relationship when one afternoon whilst Rat is dozing, Mole decides to go for a walk alone. Having been warned against it by Rat, he nonetheless heads for the Wild Wood a rundown inner woodland area that the police would have advised against entering without protection. Soon his middle class appearance is drawing attention of the animals living in this run down district and they are watching him from within their tenement burrows and flop bushes.
Hearing an ominous sound, he realises he is being followed and in a panic flees. His luck holds and narrowly evading the hedge gangs following him, he finds an unoccupied hollow tree squat and hides.
Rat eventually wakes and notices Mole is missing. By a clever series of deductions, notably seeing a set of footprints leading away from the house, he realises Mole must have gone to the Wild Wood. Stopping only to slip a pair of pistols into his belt and picking up a handy blackjack he hurries after the Mole, looking dangerous enough to intimidate the wood wise inhabitants of the Wild Wood district.
By means of the subtle method of calling out ‘Mole – Mole, where are you?’ He eventually locates the mole, but by this time the mole is suffering near collapse from sustained terror, so he decides Mole should rest a while. When Rat thinks Mole has rested enough and it is safe to leave they discover it has been snowing hard and Rat becomes disoriented because all the landmarks are changed, so they get lost. By a fluke, they end up by Badger’s back door and Mole gets to meet the legendary Badger.
Badger is one of the more powerful dons of the area and is feared by all the small time weasels and stoats. He knows Rat and welcomes the Mole as a friend of the Rat and over breakfast they discuss the antics of Toad and his latest expensive fad with cars. Badger expresses the opinion that Toad needs to be dissuaded from his current activities before he uses up the hedge fund his father had left in trust for him. Although it is never actually overstated, it is obvious that Badger had a close financial connection with Toad’s late father and probably has a personal interest in this fund and may even be a director for the trust. After the meal he allows them to use one of his many safe routes to get out of the Wild Wood district and they get home unhindered.

Meanwhile Toad is still creating a problem with his new love of cars. Because the cars are built for humans, not Toads, Toad is unable to operate the controls properly and so is in less than perfect control of the various cars he tries out. Because of this and his reckless attitude to driving, he regularly ends up having an accident whenever he goes out driving. Of course being in the middle of rural England the roads are unsuitable for toad racers or any other kind of racer and they soon will become known as ‘dangerous roads’. A status unfairly given to roads that by their nature are merely a flat surface that lies unmoving on the ground doing nothing, but when cars are driven too fast on them by the incompetent, the danger posed by the speeding car somehow becomes the road’s fault.
However I digress. As a result of the unusual nature of a toad driven car and the laws of physics, Toad is working his way through his fortune by needing a new car every few weeks or so, and his friends become certain he will end up bankrupt and so be unable to give the lavish parties they are used to, or as explained before, Badger will become impoverished too. So they decide to ‘unlawfully imprison’ Toad for his own good and try to persuade him he must stop wrecking cars.

A prisoner in his own home, after some weeks, he seems to be reformed but he lulls Mole into a false sense of security and on Mole’s watch he escapes and sets off on a life of crime, by stealing cars and becoming an even more serious danger to the public.
Eventually he is arrested, tried and ends up in jail.

With the connivance of a misguided local girl who works in the jail, he manages to escape dressed as a washerwoman and a chase ensues when he hijacks a train.

By a fluke he escapes and then hoodwinks a bargee into giving him a lift but they fall out and she sends him overboard into the canal. In revenge he steals her horse, leaving her without any means to make a living.
Feeling no remorse for this callous act, he then sells her horse to a gypsy in exchange for a meal and few shillings. Still struggling to get home, he cannot resist stealing yet one more car when the opportunity presents itself and of course he crashes it. His true identity revealed he is pursued once more, but makes it to Ratty’s house having shaken off his pursuers by accidentally falling in the river.
Once there he is told that his stately home, Toad Hall, has been invaded by armed squatters. Only with the help of Badger, Mole and Rat is he able to evict them by sheer force. This is only possible because Rat seems to be a closet Survivalist and has a very comprehensive unlicensed armoury equipped with enough ordinance to provide everyone with several weapons each.

Once peace is returned and Toad is reinstated in his home, a lavish party is thrown and the story ends with them all receiving due ‘respect’ from the cowed wild wooders.

Quite exciting in parts but all the characters have very little regard for the law and between them, add up an impressive list of criminal offences throughout the book which go entirely unpunished. No one sues anybody and Toad is persuaded to compensate those who helped him, even the Bargee woman gets the price of her horse, so there is some moral behaviour but the forces of law and order do not seem to make the connection between the notorious Mr Toad the car thief, and Toad of Toad Hall.

Another 9 out of 10 for readability but it teaches children that ruthlessness and a lot of weapons, wealth and influential friends will get you out of trouble so long as the law turns a blind eye.