Idle Eye 97 : The Census

One of the more unexpected items jammed through my letterbox this Christmas, in amongst a flurry of festive flyers inviting me to dial a ‘pizza hotline’ or vote in some hairless Herbert at Croydon Council as the next brown bin czar, was a windowed envelope from the Welsh Government, redirected from my father’s country seat. It looked too bland to be ignored so I opened it, not without some trepidation, and steeled myself for the worst. But instead of the usual bureaucratic rhetoric demanding its pound of flesh (Dear Sir/Madam, To the Executor of the Estate of Blah, To whom it may concern), this one flashed its knickers with Dear sheep and/or goat keeper. All of a sudden I’m listening.

To be honest, my knowledge of Welsh livestock rostering is at best rudimentary, so the timing of this particular bulletin could not have been more fortuitous. With its handy factsheet, Q&As and helpful bilingual tips I was up to speed in no time, implicitly understanding the subtle difference between Single Payment and Rural Development Scheme claims and the concessions available to double-tagged older animals. But then came the crunch: My father had a holding number, which meant I had to fill out a form. As an executor this has now become familiar territory, but I was stumped at question three and indeed, beyond:

3. What is your main occupation?

A) Farmer (full time)
B) Farmer (part time)

No C), just a green chasm suggesting that if you can’t answer this one, you really shouldn’t be raising sheep and/or goats. I decided to leave this one blank.

4. Please indicate the purpose(s) for keeping the animals.

A) Meat
B) Dairy
C) Breeding
D) Wool
E) Other (please explain)

Quite scary. I knew he had three lady sheep (all named after the Beverley Sisters) that just loafed about in the field above his house, taking up space. He was fond of them and never had them clipped as he thought it was cruel. A) to D) out then, which left me with E). So, how to explain other to the Welsh authorities. Peccadillo? Or worse still, matrimonial? I decided to leave this one blank.

Then there was the minor matter of electronic tagging, introduced in 2010 and no doubt useful for ovine identification. Unfortunately for the suits at Rural Affairs, each and every sister resembles Gnasher off of the Beano (their halcyon hairdays now a distant memory) and no amount of government-funded electrickery would help tell them apart. I decided to postpone the whole shooting match and found something creative to drink instead.

And so we wind up the year. I’ll probably dribble out something next week in between the pies and the port (and who knows, I might even go as far as a post), but in the meantime, thank you for reading thus far and I wish you all appropriate seasonal greetings. And here’s to an outstanding 2014.

Idle Eye 96 : The Gentle Art of Papiracy

Regrettable though it may be to be the harbinger of bad news, I must bring it to your attention that the ancient craft of Egyptian Papyrus Art is on its last legs. Having survived over four thousand years as the medium of choice for all of your literary, documentary and home furnishing needs, it has inevitably fallen victim to the tides of fashion, modern technology and lately, the Muslim Brotherhood. Here in Luxor, the venerable institutes that litter the highways and byways of the West Bank now lie neglected, forlorn and on the verge of extinction. But, like the Spartan 300, there still remain a plucky few that will not lie down.

Now, being English and of good character, I am happy to lend a hand to any beleaguered cottage industry I stumble across on my travels. Within reason. I do, however, expect something of inherent value in return, however menial. Trouble is, the product is utter pants, and I do not say this lightly: We’re talking Bridget Jones pants here. Imagine an irate Torremolinos donkey stamping on your straw hat until it is as flat as a pancake. As a substrate, it is then passed on to a team of artworkers with a nascent knowledge of tomb paintings, coupled with a selection of brightly-coloured pens and a honed understanding of exactly how much shit tourists can handle before bailing. And, in case there is any element of doubt, the 20% discount for my good friend should be enough to have you to reaching for the Amex before you’ve had time to do the math.

It takes a very special skill to sell something this garish to a market that really doesn’t want it. But, let us not forget, there is also a long line of Grand Tour idiots that came before us. Any visit to the Valley of the Kings or Queens is invariably preceded by a gauntlet run of young men in galabiyas attempting to sell concertinaed postcards, alabaster scarabs or offers of marriage, rejection of which does not seem to deter them one iota. But here you will not discover your purveyor of reedy goods, oh no. He is by far the sharpest knife in the drawer and sets his ceiling way higher than the vulgar smash and grab brigade. The potential punter is lured into his lair willingly, and after a brief history of the process (scythe down/hit with hammer/lay out in strips), the cut and thrust of African business acumen kicks in.

A naked realisation that you’ve been had is counterbalanced with a keen desire not to offend. This enables the vendor to sit back and relax as the hapless patron wrestles with his/her conscience, before opting for the second cheapest in the least available colours (plain, sadly, is not an option). A second, slightly smaller offering is added gratis at point of sale to show willing, much to the escalating distress of the client. But, inshallah, you’re nearly done. Only a few more backslaps and handshakes to go before you can retire to the comfort of your hotel and work out the most efficient method of disposal. I recommend Christmas, or failing that, it must be said that it adds a riot of colour to the small room. And due to its Herculean strength, it is indeed the gift that keeps on giving.

Idle Eye 95 : The Belly of the Ancients

In my limited experience, there is nothing more irritating than reading about someone having a better time than you in a hot country. Every cocktail captured on a smartphone through which the raking light of sunset passes is enough to have you strapping on a kalashnikov, running amok through the streets of your town and spewing bullets about until no man is left standing. Of course it is. And the pay-off should legitimately come from the flipside, when errant travellers cheques, unbuilt hotels and appalling Germans beating everyone to the towels enable the reader to bask in the warm glow of Schadenfreude. Sadly, in these unapologetically self-aggrandising times, this rarely happens and so in the interests of international relations, responsible journalism and the underdog, I must do my bit. Yesterday, I got the squits.

At first, a distant rumble. The anaemic beating of gastric drums and of no great consequence. Livingstone and Carter surely suffered so, and without the luxury of efficient modern plumbing. I shall ride this one out and emerge triumphant in my stoicism, I smugly noted to self. But then the stomach cramps, violently pneumatic and ever-increasing, hinted urgently at a broad spectrum cure which I resisted with every fibre of my Britishness, only to be vanquished on the sands of need as the brevity of my stay demanded something suitably robust.

Enter Antinal. This Egyptian überpill has been doing the rounds since the time of the ancients, nuking European intestinal complaints into oblivion from the stronghold of his little yellow box. He is the Winston Wolfe of antibiotics: When the contract is made, you just take a back seat and let him get on with it. No introductions, no idle chit-chat, no nonsense. And you certainly do not question his methodology, not that you can as it’s all in Arabic. Endearingly, when he’s done (approx 48 hours later), he tidies up after himself and leaves without a trace. My superhero.

Marvel Comics, you are so missing a trick here. Now that you’ve used up pretty much every insect, heavy metal and superlative on your stable of lifesavers, why not think outside the box a little? Imagine the illicit thrill following a timely rescue from a half Anubis, half suppository-esque creature, whisking you away from untold embarrassment to the sublime comfort of the en-suite in less time than it takes to apologise for the grumbling. You can have that one…

Anyway, I’m through it now and back on terra firma. Thanks for asking. And yes, I know I’ve spent more than enough time on terra lavitoria but you have my word – Enough is enough. I was briefly considering a post about the birds of the Nile Valley, which would have been informative, illuminating and, no doubt, slightly amusing. But it went the way of all things that dare to challenge the might of the small room and the general tone of this blog: Down the pan.

Idle Eye 94 : The Foreign Office

A week ago, as you may remember, I thrilled my minuscule readership with tales from the water closet. They were, for the most part, true and there is nothing that whets the winkle of the Great British Public more than the topic of bottoms and associated hardware thereof. This was, of course, reflected in the statistics and I thank you all for joining me in the virtual small room. My business is your business, as someone I can’t remember once succinctly put it.

I am happy to report that things have moved on a bit since then. These days you find me on the West Bank of Luxor, Egypt, thrashing it out on a laptop in the gaps between conserving the tomb of the last great Geordie pharaoh Neferrenpet. I know, I know. But, as you gear up back home for the onslaught of Daily Express reportage of the forthcoming worst winter since the last Daily Express reportage of the forthcoming worst winter ever, spare a thought for one more fortunate than yourselves: Being an Englishman abroad does present an alternate set of tribulations (as my risible grasp of Arabic will testify), none more telling than the not inconsiderable matter of appropriate attire in a climate as foreign as the language.

For example, this morning saw me down to my last clean t-shirt, the Bolongaro Trevor beauty so eloquently eulogised in IE47. A little too smart for workwear, but on reflection preferable to the lamentable series of insect-infested horrors currently residing inside my laundry bag. What’s more, it has a sepia-toned Union Jack on one side and an Ottoman effort with three crescent moons on the other, a stalwart example of hands across the water if ever I saw one. I did, however, fail to spot the Lancaster bomber shedding its toxic cargo over the pyramids and almost certainly extending a rather skewed message to the host nation.

On the subject of insects, the biting ones are another personal assault one must handle with the kind of decorum expected of the adequately-educated Westerner. Fortunately, my gargantuan quinine intake keeps all but the most hardy at bay, although last night I discovered a dormant mosquito buried deep inside the two-ply of my bathroom roll. What it was doing in there is anyone’s guess, and I was torn between saving the poor creature from a death more humiliating than I know how to put into words, or protecting my own tender cheeks from an equally heinous fate. The vegetarian in me prevailed and the little bastard flew off to lodgings elsewhere. Naturally, I made no mention of it at breakfast today because…well, you just don’t. There are rules.

I’ll put some work stuff in another time. It’s too huge to summarise in a 500 word bulletin built almost exclusively from the rocky foundations of lavatorial humour and self-deprication. So for now, I shall continue to do what you have come to know and love, from the gutter to the pavement. With no apologies…