Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Who killed cock robin?

For my mum and me, one of the particular thrills of visiting "The House", especially in the spring or autumn, is seeing what is growing. Over the years my mum has patiently worked away at our little bit of hillside, terracing, composting, and planting, so that we now have something which might actually be called a garden.* Admittedly, as with so much else, this is something of a three-steps-forward; two-steps-back undertaking, since anything planted in the spring is lucky to survive the heat of summer, and about 80% of what survives the summer gets trampled by builders over the winter.**

However, in spite of this, mum's efforts are finally beginning to bear fruit, in many cases literally. Alongside oleander and rosemary we now have quite well-established orange, lemon, apricot, peach, and plum trees. The plum in particular can be quite prolific. One year it was so heavily laden with fruit the branches were in danger of breaking, and my mum and sister spent virtually the whole of their visit making plum jam and a variety of plum-based dishes in a vain attempt not to let it go to waste. Unfortunately the all-plum diet gave everyone a raging case of the squirts the very day that the man came to knock down and rebuild the wall of the bathroom. Never has a builder been invited - nay implored - to take so many tea-breaks.

Anyway, since in the summer everything is so arid, it's lovely to have the chance to spot some of the bulbs and other plants that you would otherwise never know were there, and also to hear birdsong rather than the incessant scraping of cicadas. This year when we went everywhere was carpeted with cyclamen, autumn crocus, and arums. There were ferns sprouting out of hitherto barren corners, the rosemary in the garden seemed to be attracting an enormous number of butterflies and the trees were full of small birds, especially robins.

Unfortunately, however, autumn is also the time of the year when pretty much every able-bodied male on the island dons camouflage, grabs a gun, and heads for the hills to murder any unsuspecting wee birdie rash enough to call in for a bit of a sit down on its long journey south. So, every morning at sunrise the valley echoed to the sound of gunfire and we were repeatedly warned by friends and neighbours that, if we must persist in this peculiar habit of walking places for fun, we should be sure to wear bright clothing and talk loudly so as to avoid being mistaken for something which could be made into soup.

It came as little surprise then, when one day, walking along the road after having had lunch by the sea, my dad came across the sorry little corpse of one of the robins. It didn't appear to have been shot, but had quite possibly been startled by gunfire and died of fright. For reasons best known to himself he picked it up, wrapped it in a hanky, and gave it to my mum to put in her handbag.***

The same day we went to visit the local olive press. This is a long, low, concrete building by the side of the road. It has been there as long as I can remember and never seems to have changed in 30-odd years, but because I'd never been there at the right time of year I'd never seen it in action. This time there were sacks of olives piled up at the front and the place was a hive of activity as numerous men stood around chatting, sipping wine, and "supervising", and one small boy (someone's nephew apparently) ferried endless bags of olives up the ramp and tipped them into a hopper at one end of a long and complicated piece of machinery.

Having been shown around the machine itself we were invited to taste some of the freshly processed oil. A rather raffish-looking man with a huge handlebar mustache seized the top part of P's pram - only just giving me chance to detach it from the wheels - and lifted it up into the press, and we were all ushered inside to a table by the end of the machine on which was a bowl of bright green oil, and a loaf of brown bread. Having handed both mum and me a huge hunk of bread absolutely dripping with oil, mustache-man then turned back to the table and, with a flourish like a conjurer doing a magic trick, whisked aside a napkin to reveal a dead fish.

Quite what sort of fish it had once been was hard to tell - mackerel possibly. It was certainly oily and had apparently been salted and smoked whole, entrails and all. Mercifully, as he handed me
a slice the innards fell out onto the floor saving me from having to decide what to do with them. Although I am generally quite a fan of both salty things and oily fish, I have no hesitation in pronouncing it to be one of the most revolting things I've ever eaten. Fortunately my mum happened to have bag containing leftovers from lunch that we were taking home for the cat, so the fish surreptitiously disappeared into that.

However, at that point P - disconcerted by the noise of the machinery and the large number of strange shouty people - began to look a bit tearful. This gave me a bit of a dilemma as I had olive oil and fish oil running down both arms as far as the elbow and my hankies, muslins, etc. were all in the pram outside. Mum started rifling in her handbag in search of her handkerchief, but suddenly realized -thankfully before she produced it in public - that it contained a dead robin. This realization reduced both of us to fits of giggles, but at least that had the effect of distracting P from his woes. I was just beginning to think I would have to wipe my hands on the baby when someone kindly produced some napkins from somewhere and we were able to restore ourselves to some degree of cleanliness and make our excuses.

The robin was taken home and given a decent burial.

*Previously we had what was no doubt a wild flower meadow in the spring, but in the summer was a forest of hideous spikes. Three sorts always seemed to predominate: the tall ones with the 2-inch spikes that slashed at your legs as you passed; the ones with the little balls of spikes that get inside your clothing and can't be got out, so that even after you think you've extracted them some of the thorns are still left; and the round flat ones, with spikes all the way along the edge, especially adapted for getting into sandals.
**Of the eight stock plants my aunt gave us last spring, only one was still alive when we got there this autumn, the others having made the mistake of trying to grow in a flowerbed occupying a handy position for dumping bags of sand.
*** This habit of collecting dead animals seems to be a peculiarity of the men in our family. I fondly recall being stopped at customs on one occasion so that the official could investigate a suspicious-looking box, which on inspection proved to contain the discarded skins of a snake and a cicada, three sea-shells, an interesting pebble, and a flattened, desiccated frog that one of my brothers had scraped up off a road somewhere.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

A place in the sun.

A couple of months ago C announced that he was going to have to work away from home for a week at the end of October, so rather than staying at home on our own P and I decided to go and stay with my parents. However, as luck would have it, they were spending the week in question at our "place" in Greece, rather than in Manchester, so our week away turned out to be a bit more adventurous than originally envisaged.

"The House" as it is universally (and somewhat ironically) known amongst our family is essentially a shed with ideas above its station. It started life as a field that my parents bought when they were first married. In the early days, when I was very small, we used just to spend our summers camping there on the side of the hill, surrounded by thistles, drawing our drinking water from the well at the top of the hill, and washing our clothes in the river at the bottom. Then, some time in the early 80s, my dad decided to construct some permanent form of sunshade, and so began his 25+ year love-affair with cement.

Over the years walls and roofs have come and gone and "The House" has gradually evolved into something resembling a dwelling. But until recently all the work was done by us, and since no one in the family is a qualified builder, plumber, joiner, etc. this meant progress was slow to say the least. For one thing we only ever got to work on it in the summer holidays, and for another bits sometimes fell down again or got eaten by things in the intervening period. Most of my summer holidays as a child and young adult involved camping in a building site and taking part in entertaining holiday activities such as building walls, climbing on the roof in search of cracked tiles, or having competitions with my sister as to who could carry the most cement-blocks. On one notable occasion, the truck delivering the two tonnes of sand my dad had ordered failed to make it up the steep unmade road, and so, in the absence of a donkey, my mum and I spent the whole holiday taking it in turns to be harnessed to a wheelbarrow until we had finally hauled the whole lot up the hill.

Until relatively recently we had no electricity and no running water and even once the latter was acquired the only way to heat it was by boiling a kettle on the gas stove. Returning from swimming and trailing up the 1 in 3 hill in 35 degree heat to be rewarded by an ice-cold shower in freezing water which had spent the night in a concrete tank became something of a holiday ritual, and the locals must have known when we were in residence by the screams echoing across the valley.

So, previously the idea of taking a small baby there in late October would have worried me.* But mercifully, in recent years, with retirement beckoning, my dad has finally come round to the idea that he should get someone who knows what they're doing to help him and so, largely thanks to M., a German builder living in Greece, "The House" has suddenly become a great deal more habitable and is now beginning finally to live up to its name. M. is remarkable for his painstaking attention to detail (which drives my dad - who is of the ply-wood and gaffer tape school of DIY** - round the bend, but does mean that what he builds stays up) and also for the fact that, although he speaks both English and Greek well enough to run a business, whatever language he is speaking he remains steadfastly faithful to his mother tongue when it comes to conjunctions.***

Assisting M. has been a progression of incredibly hard working (mostly Albanian) odd-job men, the latest of whom (another M.) is a mild-mannered, barrel-chested chap, capable of strolling up the forty or so steps from the gate carrying a 50kg bag of cement on his shoulder as if it were just a large, rather dusty pillow. Progress has also been massively expedited by the invention of the mobile phone which allows us to ring up and order stuff without having to trek down to the local shop to borrow their telephone or pass messages with random people who happen to be passing the builders' merchant. It also allows people to ring us, which is both useful, and has the added bonus of providing us with entertainment as several times a day we are treated to the sight of my dad scampering about the place accompanied by a tinny rendition of "The Flight of the Bumblebee", frantically trying to find his mobile.

Anyway, the upshot is that we now have a roof which contains neither holes nor termites (no longer do we lie in bed at night listening to the faint but ominous sound of munching, neither do we have to leap out of bed at the first patter of raindrops to gather all our possessions together on a table in middle of the floor and then sit huddled together in the one dry patch surrounded by buckets). The bathroom finally has a wall and a door (for several years it had one or the other, but not both), and the fireplace and wood-burning stove send the heat into the house and the smoke out of it, and not the other way around. Add to this a proper solar water heater (installed in the nick of time the morning we arrived) to replace the ad hoc one built by my brother last year and it has finally become possible to be relatively comfortable there at other times of the year than the height of summer (provided there are at least a couple of hours of sunshine during the day). Ok, it still lacks a few of the finer luxuries, like floor tiles and furniture, but P and the rest of us were able to spend a thoroughly comfortable week (relatively speaking) enjoying a bit of late autumn sunshine.

to be continued (hopefully)...

* Although my parents would be quick to point out that it never did any of us any harm.
As witnessed by the fact that nearly 30 years after we started the project we're still concerned with minor details like flooring and plumbing.
*** For instance, "These are good rawl-plugs you bring from England, aber unfortunately it is a Greek wall".

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Playing ketchup.

Like the allotment, the knitting has taken a bit of a knock recently, at least where progress is concerned. However, I am still managing to get the odd few rows done of an evening, and I did finally get to the end of the Mitred Square blanket.

In fact, this has been finished for a while now but has been waiting to be blocked. It still isn't blocked, but I finally decided just to blog it anyway as who knows when I'll get round to it! I'm fairly pleased with it though I slightly regret my decision knit it as separate squares and sew it together rather than picking up stitches. Try as I might, I couldn't get the seaming neat enough on the back for me to be entirely happy with it so now I'm toying with the idea of backing it with some cotton. But that can't be done until after it's blocked so at the moment it's still in limbo.

The Tangled Yoke cardigan is still on its needles (though fast approaching its first birthday). It has made it as far as the tangle, but then stalled again as this requires rather more concentration than I can usually muster of an evening.

Instead I've been playing about making things for P now that the weather's getting cooler and he might actually get some use from his woolies. I managed to rustle up this little red raglan cardigan for him whilst on holiday in Norfolk. Top-down seamless raglans are just so satisfying I find, and when they're this size they progress with gratifying speed. Having been left with the best part of a ball of the cotton I was then overcome by a fit of silliness and couldn't resist making the hat to match. I was originally thinking red pepper, but I think it's definitely tomatoesque now it's done.

Monday, 21 September 2009

The fruit (and vegetable) of our labours.

All in all the allotment hasn't perhaps had quite the amount of care and attention it could have had this year. Early planting was somewhat hampered by the fact that I couldn't bend down, and P's arrival coincided pretty closely with the time we should have been thinning and planting out those crops we did manage to sow. Once here, he also swiftly put paid to my fond ideas of pottering over to the allotment with the pram on balmy summer afternoons to do a bit of weeding/watering, etc. For one thing, it is virtually impossible to get the pram onto our plot on your own without tipping the poor little blighter out of it and into nextdoor's raspberry canes. For another, P has a very limited amount of patience when it comes to lying in his pram and being ignored, and soon starts shouting if you try to go off and do things which don't involve him. For a while the sling seemed to be the answer, but he soon reached a weight which made my knees buckle even if I wasn't trying to haul watering-cans about at the same time, and the bigger he gets the more difficult it is to see/reach past him to do anything. These days too, small hands shoot out to grab anything that comes within reach and convey it inexorably towards his mouth, whether the thing in question is edible or not.

So, gone are the days of spending all Sunday morning working away together while listening to the Archers omnibus, and these days allotmenting tends to be the odd half hour here and there, as a result of which a few things have gone a bit awry. The carrots, for instance, tasted ok, but since I never got chance to thin them out, quite a few took on interesting corkscrew forms where they had been pressing against one another. For the same reason we ended up with one raised bed which was wall-to-wall lettuce, all of which bolted much faster than we could eat it. The greatest disappointment, however, has been the cabbages. Unfortunately our homemade protective nets rather had the opposite effect to that intended, since they seem to have trapped a butterfly on the inside. As a result we ended up with skeletal cabbages and a bumper crop of caterpillars.

But nevertheless, all things considered our first proper season hasn't been too bad. As well as the lettuce and carrots we've had spring onions, radishes, and strawberries. Admittedly some of the radishes got forgotten and ended up the size of small turnips, but what the heck. Our unintentionally patriotic potatoes (three sorts: red, white, and blue) produced a reasonable crop, though they would no doubt have done better if we'd been more conscientious about earthing them up, and we have three little bags* of shallots hanging in the garage - plenty for our purposes. A summer of "sunshine and showers" also meant we spent most of July and August knee-deep in courgettes and runner beans and this week we harvested most of the borlotti beans which are now drying and waiting for me to find out precisely what one does with them.

Not too bad all things considered. Time to start thinking about next year now.

*For "bags" read "fishnet pop-socks". Well, where are you supposed to get little string bags from?

Friday, 18 September 2009

A delightful week in the country.

Last week we had our first holiday "en famille" - a week in a rented cottage in Norfolk - and it was great.

Owing to the fact that we went to a wedding on the morning we left and drove to Norfolk after the wedding breakfast, stopping halfway for a brief visit to P's uncle, we arrived at "The Barn" rather late on the Sunday night. But in spite of the inconvenient timing of our arrival, we were greeted by a roaring fire left for us by the owners along with croissants, butter and milk for breakfast, not to mention fresh eggs and a note encouraging to help ourselves to any more that appeared in the hen house during the week and to apples from the trees in the garden.

Having contrived through sheer good fortune to hit upon one of the best periods of weather in the whole summer we spent a happy week pottering, exploring the countryside, and enjoying the peace and quiet. P saw his first Norman castle,

went on his first steam train

got sand between his toes and saw the sea for the first time, though it wasn't really warm enough to get any closer.

And the weather was perfect. Warm and sunny though not hot, but cool enough in the evenings for us to make good use of the wood burning stove. I even managed to do a bit of knitting. Bliss!

Tuesday, 16 June 2009


For one reason and another my crafting (and indeed blogging) activities have been somewhat curtailed recently. Obviously, the main reason is the arrival of our son. However, even before he was born the knitting took a bit of a knock. To begin with this was because of the urgent need to devote all spare time to getting the house into some sort of habitable shape for an infant. So my cheerful plans of spending my early maternity leave sitting in the rocking-chair knitting were replaced with seemingly interminable days spent frantically sanding and painting skirting-boards, window-ledges etc. Then, just when all the decorating was done, and I could finally settle down to some yarn-related nesting, I developed carpal tunnel syndrome and found I could no longer hold the needles.

This was a bit of a blow because up to this point, in my few spare moments, I had been concentrating on making presents for several friends and relations also expecting babies around the same time as me* and though projects these were all very enjoyable to knit, it would have been nice to have something for P. when he arrived. Unfortunately, however, the combination of the carpal tunnel, and my somewhat misplaced conviction that P. would be late, meant that the blanket I was making for him remains a sorry little pile of mitred-squares with no real prospect of completion any time soon.**

In spite of this, though, P. hasn't had to go without...

First we received a crocheted cotton blanket, originally made for me when I was born by my Yia yia and re-worked and re-edged for P. by his Yia yia - lovely and cool and perfect for the long promised "barbecue summer" should it materialize.

My mum also passed on to me this beautiful lace-knit shawl which was made for me by my Great Great Aunty Nell when I was a baby.

From P's other grandma we received a lovely pram blanket made to her own design from Debbie Bliss Cathay, which is just the right combination of warm and cool for going out and about in the slightly undecided English summer weather.

Katie presented us with a gorgeous Hemlock Ring Blanket which is light as a feather but still warm enough to cover up a little one when there's a chilly breeze.

And from the Bluestockings came a colourful and wonderfully smooshy Garter Squares blanket, perfect for lying on in the sunshine and watching the ceiling gnomes.***

So, in spite of my incompetence, P. now has the most wonderful array of blankets, all in different styles, weights, and yarns: something for every occasion and climatic possibility, and all much more lovely than anything I would have produced.

Not only that, but, thanks to Liz he has a very smart stripy cardi to wear, and a beautiful quilt and sampler brightening his nursery courtesy of Sara and his Great Aunt Alison respectively.

Isn't it great to have crafty friends!

* All girls, surprisingly. I mean all the babies were girls, not that all the people having them were girls, which is something of a biological inevitability. Projects Ravelled here, here, and here.
** Thus far my one successfully completed post-baby project is an ipod sock and that took me the best part of two weeks!
*** I am reliably informed that there is a species of gnome whose job it is to dance about on the ceiling and entertain small babies, which is why they always appear to be fascinated by something just behind your shoulder.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

We apologise for the break in transmission.

This is due to circumstances beyond our control. (Nearly) normal service will be resumed at the first possible opportunity (i.e. probably in about 16 years!).

Sunday, 8 February 2009


This week we've had what is, by my standards, quite a lot of snow. I say 'by my standards' since snow is not something I'm really very familiar with. I grew up in south-west Manchester where a combination of the Gulf Stream and the Pennines means that snow is relatively rare and any weather system of that sort has usually deposited most of its load on Yorkshire, Derbyshire, and higher-lying parts of Manchester* long before it reaches us. In fact, in the whole of my childhood I only really remember one substantial snowfall, which must have been some time in the early 80s.

That occasion was notable for two reasons. Firstly, there was enough snow for my dad, my sister and I to roll a snowball all the way down the hill from near the church to our house, a distance of several hundred yards. In my memory this snowball was the size of a small car, though since I was even shorter then than I am now, I suspect this is something of an exaggeration. It was certainly very heavy and we had to enlist the help of several passers-by to move it the last few yards. I think the original plan was to make a snowman, but by the time we'd got it home we'd all rather lost interest, so it just sat outside the house for a remarkably long time, slowly dwindling and (owing to the interest of passing dogs) taking on a disturbingly yellow tinge towards the bottom.

Secondly, it was the one occasion when we were permitted to break the embargo on playing on the nearby golf course. We spent the afternoon happily sliding down the slope at one end on our newly acquired (and soon to be abandoned) yellow plastic sledge, along with several other kids, the only one of whom I now remember was a lad called Colin, famous for having once addressed the most ferocious dinner-lady in the school using an interesting combination of four-letter words, the existence of which the rest of us had only heard vaguely hinted at.** Again, in my memory this slope included an immense drop worthy of an olympic ski-jump, though given the fact that the place is on the Mersey flood-plain, this can't really have been the case. What I do remember for certain, however, is that the fun came to an abrupt end for me when some sort of aerodynamic instability resulted in my reaching the bottom of said slope with me on the bottom and the sledge on the top, and a large quantity of what was by then very hard, compacted ice went up my jumper and severely grazed my back.

Anyway, this week I have for the first time in my life experienced being effectively snowed in, but not quite for the reasons I'd have expected. In my mind being "snowed in" has always conjured up the tales a Norwegian friend used to tell of only being able to get out of the bedroom windows, but in our case it wasn't getting out of the house that caused the problem so much as getting anywhere else once one was out.

On Monday despite the fact that there was only a relatively paltry inch or two here, London - if accounts on the radio were to be believed - was completely buried in a single 40-foot drift. As a result most of the trains to Oxford (at least all those originating in London) weren't running. A fairly short sojourn in the freezing cold at the station, where there was no information on when, or even if, a train might be expected, convinced both me and my manager that my time could be spent more productively working from home, so back I went. On Thursday by contrast we awoke to a fluffy white blanket 4 or 5 inches deep, but I made it into work with only a fairly mild amount of inconvenience and back with no trouble at all. Friday, however, was a different story.

Again we got up to find that in the night another few inches had been added to the not inconsiderable snow that remained from the day before, and again, with cries of 'Call that snow? That's not snow - I used to live in Chicago!' from C, we set off as normal. However, it soon became apparent that there are some significant differences between Chicago and Didcot when it comes to snow. First of all, Chicago has snowploughs. Secondly, people who live in Chicago know about driving in snow even on uncleared roads.

We made our way towards the station, C adeptly rescuing us from the slight skid that resulted from turning out on to the refrozen sheet-ice that was the ungritted main road and negotiating both the enormous potholes which seem to have opened up in the road surface where it had been mended with what was presumably snow-soluble tarmac, and the imbecile 4x4 drivers still smugly belting about the place at 40mph. On the slight incline which is the closest Didcot has to a hill people were frantically spinning their wheels and cursing and the roundabout at the end of the road resembled a curling rink. It was packed with cars gingerly inching forwards and the occasional impatient idiot sailing inexorably past their desired exit, sideways, at speed, with a look of slight bewilderment.

Having mercifully negotiated the roundabout without incident, however, we then discovered that the queue of traffic on the road to the station did not result, as it usually does, from some kid having pressed all the pelican-crossing buttons, but was in fact nose-to-tail as far as the eye could see with an ominous siren noise emanating from somewhere towards the A34. At this point it started snowing heavily again and we decided that a "snow day" might be in order after all and went back home.

Under other circumstances I would simply have walked to the station, but given that increasing bumpage means that I am considerably less steady on my feet than usual at the moment, this didn't seem like a particularly good idea. It's not that I have entirely lost my sense of balance or become incapable of normal exercise, but the unaccustomed weight/girth means that I am apt to over-compensate if I feel myself start to slide. The day before I only completed the walk from the station to work by a) walking in the road where it had been gritted or b) clinging to fences, railings, and the wall of Worcester college. And aside from the obvious disadvantages of falling on one's face when pregnant, the prospect of being plunged into the grey-brown semi-frozen slurry that was two inches deep on all the pavements - particularly when I only have two pairs of trousers that fit and the other ones were in the wash - was not an attractive one. Added to which there was the distinct possibility that once down on such a slippery surface I would be unable to get up again unassisted, and would be left flapping and floundering in the stuff like some small woolly cetacean.

So, I called in and opted to take the day as leave and we sat around the house doing the sort of thing that seemed appropriate to being snowbound, which in my case was mostly knitting and eating hot buttered crumpets. C worked from home on his laptop except for a brief interlude when in a fit of Chicago-inspired nostalgia he went out to "shovel the sidewalk". Since he is in fact British, however, he drew the line at doing any more than the bit immediately in line with our property, and since neither of our neighbours even cuts their grass or opens their curtains on a regular basis, this made very little difference. In fact the only effect was that periodically an unpleasant gritty sound accompanied by muttering emanated from outside the front door as a parent who was happily towing their small child on a sledge hit the snowless section and started spraying up sparks.

Nevertheless, it's secretly always good to have an excuse for an unexpected day of idleness, particularly when it's not accompanied by illness and is accompanied by tea and crumpets. And it meant that I finally reached the end of my bootee-knitting marathon and made some serious progress on the second Mingus sock which has been languishing since before Christmas. Today the temperature finally made it above zero, most of the roads are clear, and an increasing number of the pavements, and even in the garden the occasional thing is beginning to poke its head back up above the (now rock-hard) snow. Now there's just the small matter of the "severe winter storm" they're forecasting for tomorrow...

*Like Liz's house.
** As I recall there were extenuating circumstances: in a bizarre accident the dinner-lady in question had just inadvertently sliced off the tip of his finger while opening the gate onto the playing-field.

Friday, 6 February 2009

A Good Read?

One of the small perks of a job like mine is coming across books you'd never encounter otherwise, particularly those with weird and wonderful titles, and the last few weeks have been a particularly productive period in this respect. Usually I don't get to read enough of the book in question to establish what it's about, so, for instance, I never did get to find out what was so impossible about Babs the Impossible (1901) or who or what the "Nobbles" of Me and Nobbles (1908) was. Neither was I able to take the time to discover precisely what sort of climatic conditions the author might have had in mind when he entitled his 1944 book The Incredible Year: An Australian sees Europe in 'Adolf Hitler Weather'.

Sometimes, however, ignorance on the point of subject matter is to be preferred, as the book itself turns out to be nowhere near as interesting as the title might lead one to expected. Imagine my disappointment, for instance, when one of my all-time favourite eighteenth-century titles - The Coal-Heaver's Cousin Rescued from the Bats; and his Incomparable Cordials Recovered (1788) - turned out to be a rather dull religious tract and not a rollicking tale of derring-do at all. Likewise The Mental Accountant (also 1788) proved to be a self-help guide to doing long-division, rather than, as I'd hoped, an early novel about a young man driven to insanity by the exigencies of double-entry book-keeping.

One work which does sound as though it might be a good read, however is The Life and Adventures of Bampfylde-Moore Carew the noted Devonshire Stroller and Dog-Stealer (1745) which purports to be the autobiography of one 'Gypsie Carew'. Described by the Oxford DNB as 'Carew, Bampfylde-Moore (1693-1759), impostor', he was apparently the son of a Devonshire rector who ran away from home to take up a career in swindling and general blackguardry. At various times this included eloping with (and later abandoning) the daughter of a Newcastle apothecary (goodness knows how since his portrait suggests he was a remarkably ugly man with an even uglier dog - presumably stolen), being transported to Maryland as an 'idle vagrant', managing not to be press-ganged on the way back by pretending to have smallpox, being elected 'King or Chief of the Gypsies', and travelling the country with the Young Pretender.

Carew seems to have got away with quite a lot of his nefarious undertakings. Not so another unsavoury character I recently came across in Lloyd's Weekly London Newspaper for Sunday, February 27, 1848. W. Johnson, alias Montroe, alias 'Jim the Greek' and his accomplices J. Flower and J. Bunton were apparently involved in arranging and executing a number of burglaries in and around Woolwich. According to the newspaper, on this occasion they approached a Mr Duffill to see whether he would help them set up another job and the following (rather comical) exchange took place:

'Bunton said, "Would a thick one or two be convenient this cold weather?" Duffill said "I do not understand"- when Bunton rejoined, "Can you tumble?", meaning, understand, Duffill said no, and Bunton said, "Do you know of any one that has any dust?" Duffill said, "I know not what you mean."'

and who can blame him!

You'd have thought that this would have been enough to indicate to the gang that this Duffill chap wasn't perhaps a dyed-in-the-wool crook of their own caliber, but they apparently explained to him in words he could understand that they would "go regulars in" (i.e. give him a share in the proceeds from) any job he could put them up to. At which point Duffill agreed and then promptly went off and told the police, who arranged a set up and caught them in the act. When Flower's house was searched "skeleton keys and various burglarious instruments most ingeniously concealed, were found".
And that, as they say, was that.

Now why don't you get crime reports like that in the papers these days?