Thursday, 29 March 2012

Contrary To Popular Complaint

Londoners unanimously seem to complain about the underground and often not without good reason. Having been back in the North for some time now, London's pioneering labyrinth of tunnels is something I sorely miss.

Without a driving license, travelling around West Yorkshire is challenging at times. Recently going to York for the day, I was disgusted and perplexed by hiked-up ticket prices. A return ticket to Bradford at peak times costs a mere £4.30 for a twenty minute journey, while a similar length train ride to York sets you back £11.80. This disparity in pricing is all the more bizarre if compared to a peak hour round-trip to Sheffield at £12.60, considering the most direct train takes 40 minutes and the average round-all-the-houses train can take up to an hour and twenty minutes.

In the past, I've been equally frustrated by similarly illogical southern ticket pricing. An hour journey to Oxford can cost as little as £4 if booked in advance but a journey of equal length travelling the other side of London to Staplehurst in Kent is somewhat more wallet-damaging at £18.80 and reductions for pre-booking aren't available.

Although outraged by the price of the train to York, I handed over my hard-earned cash but couldn't resist questioning the ticket operator. He sympathetically recounted tales of regular commuters complaining and with glee told me about a letter one particularly disgusted commuter had sent to a York MP. It seems as the population is less dense in York, taxes are higher and directly correlate with painful train fares. But worse still, unlike West Yorkshire's Metro Card and London's Oysters, train and bus prices remain completely separate so it is not possible to buy discounted day, weekly, monthly or annual tickets that include both forms of transport.

To add salt to the wound, private travel operators in West Yorkshire do not offer combined “Day Riders”. I learned this frustrating lesson, having already purchased a day ticket, when a series of buses owned by another company pulled up and told me my ticket was invalid. Years ago, First Group took over Black Prince buses and it seemed like they had the monopoly but now companies like Transdev are cropping up.

The cost of transport in London is often criticised but it's not until you leave the capital, you realise travelling outside London is actually often more expensive. Especially if, like me, you are working by the day, never able to plan commutes in advance – without Metro Cards each segment of a journey requires a separate ticket, there are no Oyster style discounts and there's no underground connecting far-flung destinations. Londoners rightly moan about the stifling heat and crowds in the underground but rarely celebrate the convenience of avoiding rush hour traffic or the joys of price-slashing Oysters. While others despair about George Osborne's pasty tax, I eagerly anticipate the introduction of nation-wide Oyster cards and the day I can drive. Perhaps both distant dreams?

Thursday, 22 March 2012

One Fell Swoop Ago

They attacked in the day and only had a small window of time. I arrived home from work and absent-mindedly bent forward to put my key in the lock. Something was wrong. Where was the lock? Having spent the last few weeks experiencing a series of malfunctions in the flat, my first assumption was our lock had broken and was being fixed. A few yells to The Boy suggested otherwise. Aside from enthusiastically meowed greetings from The Major, the flat was quiet but at first glance appeared quite normal.

It wasn't until I rung The Boy and started to look for signs of disturbance, the fact we'd been burgled became a reality. Our neighbour's lock had also disappeared but all the flats down the other corridor were in tact. Little seemed to be missing and by some miracle my grubby mac remained where I'd left it. The biggest tell-tale sign was the disappearance of the £85 in cash we'd left on the side, having only just painstakingly changed a large tub of coins a week before. Of course, if we'd not bothered to convert our loose change to notes, we'd still have the money.

Our cat-loving policeman arrived within half an hour of us logging our three stolen cameras and Android Tablet, to disturbingly tell us it would have taken our burglars a mere 16 seconds to remove the lock, possibly even simultaneously tackling the flat opposite. Despite security cameras existing in the building, the police are only allowed to check footage fifteen minutes either side of the crime. This bizarre ruling made it impossible for them to wade through the two and a half hour window the thieves had to grab what they could between The Boy returning to work after lunch and me arriving home.

It seems thieves are creatures of character and habit but ours left no evidence of their personal idiosyncrasies. Our milk was left un-drunk (apparently a favourite with some) and the broken lock discarded, rather than taken as a trophy to add to a collection of memorabilia from previous robberies. Our neighbour suffered the worst and was given the added blow of the thieves taking half the screws to his PS2, making it impossible to reassemble it.

Within three hours of initially discovering this invasion, finger prints had been taken and a new super lock fitted. As the weeks have passed, we are of course still discovering missing items. It seems our thieves knew exactly what they were doing - stealing a bag to transport their goodies, wearing gloves and avoiding easily traceable items. Theirs was the one-fell-swoop approach. In and out, causing little damage but taking high-value easily sell-able items.

Reflecting on the whole experience, I'd advise anyone moving into a new build to check where security cameras are placed and how secure locks actually are. Stemming from this unsavoury experience, I've since made a linguistic discovery and thankfully found the address book I suspected they'd taken merely to irritate me. In saying "one-fell-swoop", I had a "donkey's ears" moment and realised the phrase wasn't "fowl swoop" or "foul swoop" as is often mistakenly believed.

In Macbeth, in Act 4, Scene 3 after Macduff learns his whole family has been murdered, Shakespeare has him say: "Oh Hell-Kite! All? What, all my pretty chickens, and their damme at one fell swoope?" Years later, in 1922 James Joyce used the phrase in Ulysses: "They might be hanging about there or simply marauders ready to decamp with whatever boodle they could in one fell swoop at a moment's notice - your money or your life."

It seems one of the original meanings of “fell” comes from the Old English “fellan/ fyllan” and is related to the words “felon” and “felony”. The use of “fell” to mean “savage,” “cruel,” or “ruthless” has pretty much died out which is why so many people incorrectly believe the phrase to be “foul” or “fowl”, creating an image of a quick unpleasant act or bird swooping down to take its prey.

While I'm far from happy to have been robbed, I have at least learnt something about security from my experience and the etymology of yet another interesting phrase that is often unthinkingly used. When they come back for our insurance goodies, our villains will find us at the ready and perhaps The Maj with a discreet camera strapped to his collar.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Donkeys Waiting At The Doctors

I'm at the doctors and we're trying to work out the last time I remember being weighed. “Must have been donkey's years then?” the doctor jokingly says as I prepare to be shocked and appalled by the reading on the scales. As I'm removing my clunky shoes, she pauses me in my tracks, asking where I think the phrase “donkey's years” comes from. Like her, I have no idea – it is simply a phrase, I too, have unthinkingly used in the past. We both guess it either has something to do with the duration of the average donkey's life or that like cats, donkeys have their own “years” ( and leave it at that.

At home and slightly traumatised by my weigh-in, I decide to distract myself by finding the collectively agreed etymology of the phrase. Almost every link I click on unanimously agrees the phrase originally began as “donkey's ears”, rather than “years”, stemming from rhyming slang that alludes to the length of the animal's ears. It seems “donkey's ears” was shortened to “donkeys” as is characteristic of rhyming slang – consider “trouble and strife” (meaning “wife”) which is normally abbreviated to “trouble”. The rhyming of “ears” with “years” in “donkey's ears” is in keeping with the conventions of rhyming slang, whereas “years” instead of “ears” clearly isn't.

The phrase “donkey's ears” was apparently first recorded in 1916: "Now for my first bath for what the men call 'Donkey's ears', meaning years and years", while “donkey's years” is first documented in use several years later in the 1920s: "With a heavy make-up, you'll be the cutest vamp I've seen in donkey's years." The transition from “donkey's ears” to “donkey's years” most probably came from pronunciation and was also aided by the misguided belief donkeys have a particularly long life expectancy. The reality is working donkeys in poorer countries are likely to live between 12-15 years and those living the life of decadence in richer areas can have a lifespan of between 30 to 50 years. A Blackpool Pleasure Beach regular called Lively Laddie apparently made it until 62 and was a serious contender for the 'oldest living donkey' title (

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Alan Carr Isn't Playing It Straight

As wrong as the concept for "reality" TV show, Playing It Straight may be, there's no pretending it wasn't entertaining in a terrible trashy sort of way. Anyone who loves a good bit of word-play, can appreciate the show's appeal, whether you're an Alan Carr fan or not.

Now Season Two has ended, there's a gap left in my weekly TV schedule and I need to find another escapist show that requires equally low concentration levels to follow. To mark the end of the series, below I include some of my favourite Alan Carr voice-over moments. To give you an idea of just how much tacky word play is stuffed into each episode, all of the following can be heard in episode six:

She's already at the bar”, Alan innocently comments before snidely adding: “Might be the only stiff drink she gets”. As the boys try and navigate themselves through the Spanish wilderness towards their prize (Cara), Carr observes “Dean seems to have got distracted by some local ass”, of course, referring to a donkey. Concluding the scene, Carr reflects the boys have to find their “inner Ray Mears” before correcting himself with “inner gay rears”.

It's camping week and naturally the guys are working on a “massive erection” - putting up the tent. Moments later Carr joyously exclaims: “Now the boys have finally got it up….”

Meanwhile, Cara sadly reflects “I only like the arseholes” and Carr characteristically twists her words to refer to one of her potential suitors: “Let's hope, Levi's not the same.”

As the boys try to prove their manliness by abseiling down a giant cliff face, Carr's narration continues to be tastelessly in keeping with the show's tone: “Are [the boys] more keen to go down on another type of Cliff?”

Season Two may be over but both Season One and Two are available on 4OD. The empty Monday night slot the series finale left has already been filled. Back-tracking to Season One to see where it all began, I'm disappointed to discover Alan's missing. As I suspected, without Carr's voice-over, Playing It Straight, lacks. I guess there's always the melodrama of the original American show to fill the void.