The better half, Bella and I went for a week in Cornwall. We stayed in a cottage near Falmouth. It was on a farm with pigs, some of which we ate; it was all entirely satisfactory. I had not been to Cornwall for some forty-five years and the other two had not at all. Nevertheless the county was a large part of my upbringing. My mother’s maternal family were all Cornish and she herself was born in Millbrook, just in Cornwall on the banks of the Tamar, the river that divides Cornwall from the rest of the World. Her father was from Devon, but he was a mild man and his ancestry tended to be discounted.

We would drive down the A303 (motorways not yet having been invented) at Christmas and for our summer holidays. My parents decided that, traffic being what it was, they should drive through the night. We children slept in the back of the car but when it was the summer holidays we would be woken up at about five o’clock for breakfast at Stonehenge. We would lean with our backs to the great stones at dawn drinking my mother’s Everything Soup and eating cold sausages. The great stones, I am glad to report, survived all this, as presumably now they wouldn’t. We would visit venerable and sometimes terrifying relations in Fowey, Polruan, Falmouth and Mousehole, and, in the down time, rush with the family dog around the beaches in our Aertex shirts and discover caves.

We were never in any doubt that Cornwall was separate, one of the five great Celtic nations: not in England; not in the West Country.

In between being a child and becoming grown up I went back without my family. I discovered the folk clubs of the Sixties. I heard Ralph McTell when he was unknown, Clive Palmer after his first, and authentic, outing with the Incredible String Band, Barbara Wootton – so majestic live and so disappointing now on CD – Henry the Jug and John the Fish. I sat unfocused on St Ives beach, while ethereal girls drifted this way and that, dressed in Laura Ashley.

I found love, after a fashion, though not with a Laura Ashley girl. Then, having fallen out with my inamorata and with my best Cornish friend, who thought that she was his inamorata, I left and didn’t go back: until last week.

Cornwall is still separate. There are deep mysterious lanes, hedgerows with flowers unseen elsewhere in our island since the 1950s, and at the end, sticking out into the Atlantic beyond St Ives, is West Penwith, the ‘headland of slaughter’ as Daphne du Maurier translates it, possibly fancifully. The better half, who has a more practical approach to these things, noted that the sea was never far away and you could swim and kayak in the estuaries. Our local estuary was called Carrick Roads, which sounds like an American poet, and she did indeed kayak on it and then run home.

(By the way: what a waste of space Tate St Ives is. I had naively thought that it would show the work of the great St Ives artists of the 50s, Feiler, Lanyon, Hilton, Frost, Nicholson and so on, who challenged the abstract expressionists of New York gesture for gesture. But no. There is no permanent display. There was a paying show of dazzling vacuousness, the usual café and shop and a lot of unused space.)

When we had crossed the Tamar and left England behind, Bella, smelling the sea, took on her avatar as Swims Like Seals and prepared herself to surf. This turned out not to be straight forward. There were signs at the entrances to the beaches as follows:

No Dogs.
No Aertex.

The ban on Aertex could be coped with, as most cafés on the beaches sold PODLARK®-themed smocks and billowy shirts, which you could slip on over the top, but the ban on dogs was a real problem. Finally we found a bit of industrial waste abutting the sea in Penzance, where, to judge by the detritus as well as the absence of a sign, nothing was forbidden. The better half threw a strand of seaweed with a rock attached as far as she could throw it. Bella plunged in, disappeared for a minute or so, broke surface and swam to shore bearing the seaweed and rock, whose neck she proceeded to break. A small crowd built up on the esplanade, mainly guest-workers of the Cherokee diaspora. Word had spread. They muttered appreciatively, in their own language.

We also had problems with Bella at Rick Stein’s restaurant. The Rick Stein empire has spread out from Padstow and reached Falmouth. There are two entrances, the take-away and the restaurant. Dogs are admitted through neither. We had fish and chips from the take-away. The fish tasted so fresh that it can only have been frozen, and the chips were so-so, but the better half had conceived a desire to cover herself with chilli crab, so we went back the next night to the restaurant, having arranged a dog-sitter.

We both got food-poisoning. I don’t complain about that; any restaurant can serve fish that is off. What upset me was the shandy that they sell. This is branded as ‘Chalky’. Chalky was Rick Stein’s dog. In the early television series before he died, peacefully I hope, he could be seen gambolling on fishing boats, riverboats, in galleys, generally getting under the feet of the celebrity chef. I do not recall the line: ‘In the name of health and safety, Chalky, begone.’ This is rank hypocrisy. If I can’t have my dog by my feet don’t put yours on the soda bottles.

I don’t blame Stein. Like Stalin, he loves us and is unaware of what is done in his name. If the television is anything to go by, he is anyway on a beach in Australia cooking termites on hot rocks.

But I think he should be told.


Really Got Those No Sleep Blues

Bella has her own bed in the corner of our room. She is not encouraged to come onto ours although she likes to very much. This is because when she is relaxed she tends to leak; she has what Dale, her vet, has identified as an unexpectedly short urethra (I hope that she won’t mind my sharing that with you): USU for short. She sleeps on her grey blanket and under her white blanket. The rule is that when she wakes up I get out of bed and cover her all over with her white blanket. By this stage it is usually a little damp: not because of her USU, because the lower one is dry; I try not to think about this.

She likes being covered. It reminds her of one of her favourite snatches of poetry:

They tuck you up your mum and dad
They may not want to but they do

My understanding of the rule is that I will continue to cover her up when she wakes but that she will be allowed onto our bed only when it is light outside. Her understanding is that after two coverings she is allowed onto our bed: a sort of ‘Three Strikes and You’re In’.

Last night the difference between the two interpretations was exposed. By three in the morning she had had five coverings and was whimpering loudly. This is her trump card: let me in or I wake the better half: then we’re both in trouble. I took her downstairs to anticipate her morning offices in the back garden, turning off the alarm, and then on again. I covered her a sixth time, making soothing remarks between my teeth. Ten minutes later she was at my side whimpering, so I let her onto the bed.

She immediately embraced REM sleep, assuming the character of her alter ego, Swims Like Seals, surfing the Atlantic breakers: below the waterline her legs furiously pumping. Below the waterline, of course, approximated to my ribs.

All the excitement: I couldn’t sleep. I lay listening to the sounds of the Plaistow night. To my astonishment I heard sleigh bells in the sky; distant cries of jollity. In a moment I realised what it was. I have an iPhone, and I have downloaded an ‘app’ which yulifies your mise-en-scène. I thought it might be fun for Christmas and I hadn’t realised that, like Westfield, it would be operating gamely and festively in early November. There are five settings for degrees of yulification:

1 Not a bit
2 A bit
3 A bit more
4 Quite a bit
5 Really quite a bit

Some idiot, no doubt me, had left it on 5. I turned it off. The sounds of Santa and his merry elves faded and were replaced by sullen and heavy rain.

Ever since I was a child, terrors have come to haunt me when I can’t sleep. Then it was Jack the Ripper and the notional pike in The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher. Now it is Jack the Ripper and Mr Putin. Unbidden, images of both floated before me.

Sometimes an internal trade is possible. You offer the horrible to evade the truly dreadful. I deliberately called to mind Mary Kelly’s eviscerated belly, in that appalling photograph taken in Miller’s Court of the final Ripper victim; but even as it revealed itself the little dictator’s smug and botoxed features superimposed themselves on her butchered loins.

I tried another tactic: reflecting on books that I’ve read. I thought of In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile, by Dan Davies. This excellent account (originally intended to be titled Apocalypse Now Then) has many fascinating stories and insights, not least the unerring capacity of our police forces to get everything diametrically wrong, but in the last resort it seemed to me that Savile was not so unusual; he was a routine psychopath, and what was interesting was the determination of people to be taken in by him. I enumerated, like sheep, his psychopathic characteristics:

1 Lack of empathy for his victims, or indeed anyone else;
2 Lack of humour: boisterousness doesn’t count;
3 Steely determination to get what he wanted;
4 Brutal arrogance;
5 Charm. We may have been immune but others weren’t, even if, like Mrs Thatcher and Diana, Princess of Wales, they tended towards the swivel-eyed end of the human spectrum.

I was congratulating myself on successfully changing the subject when Mr Putin swam into my mind again – how he shaped up against Savile’s five criteria. I remembered the incident of the Kursk. A Russian submarine failed with a crew of sailors, thereupon faced with the prospect of a slow and agonising death. Various navies offered to rescue them, including ours, but until it was too late Mr Putin declined, on the grounds, presumably, that foreigners might discover some of his nasty secrets. The men died. Mr Putin was asked by a journalist for his thoughts on the Kursk.

‘It sank,’ he said.

Of course there is no suggestion that he has been forcing his member into the virgin orifices of twelve-year-old Komsomol girls, but his pronouncements on the subject of human relations have been chilling, and he is a close friend of Mr Berlusconi.

So there it is: Putin – Savile without the charm.

This wasn’t getting me anywhere as regards sleep. Then an even greater horror nudged at the edge of my mind: Mr Putin’s parting; I was going to visualise his parting, that brutally neat and un-Savile-like division of his hair, sparse and thin to the left, sparse and thinning to the right.

That couldn’t be tolerated. There was only one thing to be done. I seized my iPhone and turned it to 5, yulification-max. Mr Putin’s parting faded from my mind’s eye. Sleigh bells crashed in a Phil Spector-like wall of sound. Dirt from the chimney fell into the fireplace. Someone was up there – coming down. A foot emerged.

A foot in Cossack boots…

Usain Bolt v. Clive Palmer

As I was vaguely watching the Olympics ® on the television my mind wandered back to the Incredible String Band. Perhaps yours did too. It was Usain Bolt that did it.

I have not been to the Olympics ® in person, although the better half has. Her trainer is working as one of the volunteers and got her a pass. She ended the day drinking alcohol-free cocktails with a number of trainers. (Is there a collective noun for trainers? I must ask daughter two, who once gave me a t-shirt devoted to collective nouns; how well she knows me.) Presumably in the Olympic Park ® an alcohol-free cocktail necessarily comprises a tasty and health-giving melange of Coca-Cola ®, Coca-Cola ® and Coca-Cola ® – with ice. Maybe there’s a palm frond carved out of a Visa ® card which you have to take out first in case it cuts your mouth.

I on the other hand had been told to expect an invitation to a reception with the same Coca-Cola ® company, where in their official box we could expect to gorge ourselves on Coca-Cola ® with perhaps a McDonald’s ® Happy Meal ™ and maybe catch some of the action through a window or something. However the intermediary who told me to expect this invitation had overreached himself and it never came. I sadly put my blazer away for another four years and returned to the television.

I think the better half got the Gold ™ on that occasion.

Anyway, I had been watching the Men’s 100 Metres (or possibly 200 Metres) Final ™ with half an eye, and the Incredible String Band’s first album came to mind, and specifically the photograph on the cover. There is something notoriously strange about Clive Palmer, on the left. If you know about the Incredible String Band you will know what it is. The three band members had been left alone in the offices of their record company and Clive Palmer (banjo and vocals) had taken the opportunity to half-inch a number of LPs.

(LPs or long-playing records were the medium for the transmission of recorded music before CDs or downloads were invented. They were round, flat (if you were lucky), made of plastic not unlike a Visa Card ® and twelve inches in diameter, excluding the packaging. This was of course square, so that a packaged LP presented itself to the world with the shape and area, but not depth, of a modern pizza in its box.)

Suddenly record company executives burst upon the scene, announcing that the boys were to be photographed then and there for the cover of what was not then called the Incredible String Band’s first album; by that stage it wasn’t even their only album – it was just a collection of songs and some guy’s crazy idea.

Clive Palmer, so the story (which, incidentally, I believe has been denied) goes, not wanting to relinquish his ill-gotten gains, but wanting even less to be caught in flagrante delicto on (as we now know though he then didn’t) the CCTV of posterity, shoved them under his shirt, where, if the denials are to be disbelieved, they are clearly visible.

This, I should explain, in the English cover. You will look in vain for concealed LPs on the American version, which has been adopted on some CD reissues, even in this country.

Why on earth should I think of Clive Palmer at this moment of sporting history? Usain Bolt had won his race and was doing a sort of mime. Possibly this was because it had not yet been possible to dispatch a television reporter to him, located as he was on what I understand is called the “track and field”, so that he could deliver his message that he was the greatest athlete ever and a legend. This happened soon afterwards.

When he had done with his mime I realised what it was. Look carefully. Usain Bolt appeared to have just won his sprint while concealing a handful of LPs under his shirt!

Unlike with Clive Palmer they probably weren’t stolen LPs; they may have been provided by the athletics governing body in his country, which is Jamaica. Possibly the record company in question is an official Olympic ® sponsor, in which case they would have been provided at no cost.

Excitedly I considered the implications. My original working theory was that Usain Bolt and Clive Palmer were one and the same. Certainly they had never to my knowledge been seen together on the same photo opportunity. That theory had to be abandoned straight away, for one very obvious reason. Usain Bolt has two legs, both in fine fettle, but Clive Palmer has only one. The second is artificial and hollow. There is a story, also denied, that the hollow bit was at one stage used to smuggle drugs from North Africa to Europe. Whether it is true or not this second leg is clearly not up to the rigours of modern athletics.

I made two lists separated by a line of the characteristics of the two men.

Usain Bolt is often described as the fastest man on the planet. There seems to me to be a misconception here. Speed is a combination of distance and time. The distance can be lengthened or shortened and a different calculation of speed is then appropriate. Bolt didn’t even qualify for the 10,000 Metres ™, which the great Mo Farah won, and it is possible to imagine, Zeno-like, races for less than 100 Metres ™ which Bolt might not have won. His height might have been a fatal disadvantage in a 5 Metres dash. On the other hand he probably would have won the 150 Metres, had it existed, which it didn’t.

Non-existent races, in case you were wondering, do not qualify for trade mark protection, even with the special treatment that the Olympics ® gets.

Clive Palmer is by no means the fastest banjo player on the planet. That’ll be some American. On the other hand he does have a second string to his bow, as it were, his plangent vocal rendition of Edwardian music hall songs. Usain Bolt just runs short distances very fast and does not so far as I know have any such second string, unless it’s his mime.

Bolt is extraordinarily ambitious. I have read Palmer’s biography. Decades go past without much happening. I think that it’s fair to assume that he is not tormented by peaks unclimbed.

Palmer is a nice man. I met him briefly once. He greeted me warmly and we chatted. To be fair I think that he thought I was someone else. Bolt, again, has his mime.

I don’t know what conclusion to draw, unless it’s this. Let us salute our Olympians ®, but for God’s sake don’t let us forget Clive Palmer!