dubiously true stories and cartoons

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


My wife saw them first. They were huddled together in a shed and I knew from the look on her face that she wanted to take them home with us. I stupidly made some enquiries about whether they were available for adoption and then wrote my name, address and telephone number on a list that consisted of one name – mine! It was a spur of the moment decision made solely on the fact that we knew absolutely nothing about goats.

That’s not strictly true. In 1980 I was serving in the Royal Air Force and was based at Akrotiri on the southern tip of Cyprus where I worked in a Petroleum Supply Depot. The PSD covered a vast area and within its wire-fenced perimeter a goat called Thomas roamed freely around the place, terrorising any civilian employees who were misfortunate enough to have been contracted to work there. Having been hand-reared by the staff he was regarded as something of a mascot and was therefore fiercely protected and pandered to despite his bad temper.

At one point a female goat was introduced into his domain with the idea of breeding, but Thomas would have none of it and showed no interest in her whatsoever. We thought at first he might be gay, but when the sergeant’s wife paid a visit to the PSD Thomas tried to mate with her, proving that the last thing on his mind was batting for the other side, although he did show some confusion over what species he was.

He was a determined, stubborn animal who enjoyed the company of humans so much that he thought he was one, and although he may have thought he was human some of his more annoying antics were most definitely goatish.

The PSD was capable of storing over a million gallons of fuel in its vast underground tanks and about once every three or four months a Shell tanker would weigh anchor about half a mile out to sea in order to carry out a ship-to-shore refuelling operation. It was the sergeant’s job to complete the rather difficult paperwork that was required after every delivery, a task that could take up to three days because it involved a lot of complicated calculations. We had recently had a new sergeant posted in and, after hiding all the calculators, we told him that if he were ever to leave the office unattended he must make absolutely sure that the door was firmly shut.

Two days into completing the paperwork the sergeant stepped outside to stretch his legs and when he returned he found that Thomas had eaten all the paperwork that he had sweated over for the past forty-eight hours.

As he grew older Thomas became more aggressive and he began to spit if he was angry, which was most of the time. It was amusing at first when he would quietly sneak up behind us and butt us to the ground – but as his confidence and his horns grew his attacks became more frequent and more ferocious. Eventually he became too much for us to handle and we had to make the rather sad decision to give him away to a Greek family who lived in a village halfway up Troudos Mountain.

A short time before Easter, in March 1982, we said a tearful farewell to Thomas as Stavros (his real name – honestly), his new owner took him away to his new home.

It wasn’t the last we would see of Thomas as two weeks later we were invited by Stavros and his family to join them in their Easter celebrations. We accepted their kind offer and travelled up the mountain by minibus. It was a weekend of traditional Greek dancing, plate smashing, eating and drinking.

We were supplied with a limitless amount of Kokkinelli, a local fortified red wine that was (and probably still is) made from the dregs of all the other wines made in Cyprus. It had a taste not dissimilar to Ribena and, drank in sufficient quantities, could wake you up the next morning with a hangover so bad that that you felt like someone had spent the night rhythmically pounding your head with a large wooden mallet. In fact just about all the alcoholic beverages in Cyprus at that time were capable of giving you massive, unrelenting hangovers that went on for days and closely resembled near-death experiences. The worst of these was Keo, a local beer that was known to inflict you with a hangover while you were actually drinking it. I saw some graffiti scrawled on a toilet wall that read: 


A procession through the village followed by a great feast was planned for Easter Sunday, at which Stavros promised there would be a big surprise for us. As the procession passed by we kept an eye out for Thomas, as we felt sure that he would be included, probably disguised as a donkey, but we were disappointed. Thomas was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps, we thought, Stavros was saving him for later.

When he had promised us a big surprise Stavros really hadn’t stressed the word big enough. It wasn’t a big surprise – it was a jaw dropping, ball clanging, gargantuan monster of a surprise.

“We would all like to welcome you, our honoured guests to our humble village to celebrate the life of our Lord Jesus,” declared Stavros joyfully. “Your gift to us was most welcome and we would now like to share that gift with you.”

And that’s when we saw Thomas. He looked different to the last time we saw him as he was now in the form of cubes pressed firmly onto wooden skewers that were slowly barbecuing over an open fire.

He was delicious.

“What do you want to get goats for?” a friend asked me after I had told him about my decision to adopt three Angora goats.

“Why not,” I said. “They’re more interesting than dogs.”

“I used to keep goats,” my friend informed me. “They were always escaping and they could jump four feet from a standing start!”

“What sort of goats were they?” I asked.

“Ones that jump,” he replied.

Oddly enough, my wife and I weren’t looking for goats when we paid a visit to the Animal Shelter. What we actually wanted was a greyhound, but our children were too young to comply with the Animal Shelter’s strict rules on canine adoption, so we wandered off the beaten track and eventually found ourselves in the large animal area, and that’s where we came across the three young Angora goats.

Although the children were too young to adopt a greyhound there were no such restrictions on the adoption of goats and as they both began with the letter G that somehow made everything OK.

To tell the truth I was quite relieved to find that we couldn’t adopt a dog. A few years earlier, when I was living in Stafford, a neighbour of mine owned a Rottweiler called Derek, an immensely stupid and ferocious animal the size of a Shetland pony, which used to eat its own faeces. It lived outside in a kennel where it would bark incessantly all night and every night.

The residents committee were useless and did nothing about it; probably because whenever they approached the house Derek would charge at the wrought iron gate like a demon from hell. As it turned out the problem was solved without the intervention of the residents committee, when Derek escaped from his garden, after ramming the gate with such force that it broke off its hinges, and ran off. He was eventually found outside the local post office, having been squashed flat under the ironic wheels of a Pets At Home articulated lorry.

The members of the residents committee were filled with a sense of relief when they heard the news, but when I made the comment that “I could have sorted out the problem months ago with a high powered rifle and a telescopic sight,” I was met with a stony wall of silence and from that moment on if anyone from the residents committee saw me they would cast a disdainful look of disgust that they only ever reserved for child molesters and estate agents. 

Despite over a year of sleepless nights for everyone concerned it seemed that the residents committee all loved dogs – even ones that ate their own shit.

I paid someone to build a goat house in the garden and erect a wooden fence around it but when the big day came around I was informed by the Animal Shelter that they did not deliver and so I had to find a way of transporting the Angora kids to their new home.

The only transport I had available to me at the time was my battered old Ford Fiesta which, amazingly, was working that day, probably due to the fact that we’d had an unusually dry period over the past couple of weeks. My Fiesta had an intense hatred of wet weather; if I’d lived in the Sahara desert it would have run forever, but owing to our wonderful temperate climate it wouldn’t even think about starting if there was even a whiff of rain approaching. Over time I became convinced that it had become possessed by a demon that had somehow managed to escape from an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, as it would produce clouds of thick ugly smoke from it its exhaust whenever it was unhappy, and if Sky TV ever got Derek Acora, the mildly effeminate Liverpuldian so-called medium to present a series called Most Haunted Cars it would automatically get a starring role.

The three goats fitted into the back of my Fiesta and I drove them to their newly built premises. It turned out that they were already TV stars, having featured in Channel 4s Pet Rescue when the Animal Shelter put out an appeal to have them re-housed, and a few days after they were settled in I was contacted by someone from the Animal Shelter who enquired if we wouldn’t mind a Channel 4 production team turning up to our house for a day to film a follow-up programme. The plan was to produce a ten minute segment for the anxious Pet Rescue viewers who were eager to find out how the goats were getting on in their new home.

I’d wanted to be a TV star ever since I’d stopped wanting to be a rock star. My dreams of rock stardom had ended rather abruptly the day I joined the school band. My music teacher observed that I had no sense whatsoever of rhythm or timing and absolutely no aptitude at all for playing even the simplest of instruments. After just one session I was thrown out of the band and told to take my triangle with and to never ever, under any circumstances, darken the band practice room door ever again.

A Channel 4 documentary, however, was my opportunity to shine. I could become, in the words of Andy Warhol, famous for five minutes.

The goats seemed to like their new environment and they appeared to be happy, apart from the time when our two small boys thought it was a good idea to chase them around the yard with sticks.

Jack (one of our goats) in his yard

The boys often had good ideas; like the one they had at about 6am on the morning of Shrove Tuesday, mere hours before our planned pancake party, when they decided that the sound of an egg smashing onto a linoleum floor was hilarious. It was so funny that the sound of one egg smashing onto a lino floor just couldn’t satisfy their mirth and that a really good idea would be to smash the remaining 59 that were in the fridge. By the time we got downstairs only one egg was left in the fridge and the whole floor was awash with egg white and yolks.

All their good ideas seemed to occur very early in the morning before my wife and I had woken up. There was the time when they made themselves breakfast with a whole packet of Cheerios and entire four-pint carton of milk – on the dining room table; or when they thought that sword fighting with the new kitchen knives we’d bought the day before just wasn’t as much fun as stabbing holes into the new lounge sofa.

The goats soon began to associate small boys with unbridled evil and they seized upon any opportunity to charge at them and butt them to the ground until the boys were too scared to go into the goat yard.

The Channel 4 film crew pitched up early one Thursday morning. There were three of them – the director, the cameraman and the soundman and a whole truck load of equipment.

“We want you to be as natural as possible,” the young female director told us.
Asking a man to act natural after someone has told him to act natural is much harder than it sounds, especially when each and every one us has an actor inside of us. The camera starts to roll and you immediately see a misguided opportunity of getting your own TV series on the back of the brilliant performance you’re about to give. You try to look and sound debonair and witty in the vain hope that you’ll be discovered like that Jeremy bloke from the Airport series.

The film crew were with us all day, interviewing us and recording us cavorting with the goats. I think I said something like, “Before you get goats you can’t imagine life with them, but once you’ve got goats you can’t imagine life without them,” which, at the time, I thought was terribly witty.

When I found out the date the programme was going to be shown on television I invited my close friends around and told everyone where I worked and in the street where I lived the time it was going to be on.

And then the big day arrived and I sat on the sofa squirming with embarrassment throughout the whole time I was on screen. Questions like ‘Did I really say that?” and “Why did I wear that shirt?” and “Is that what I actually sound like?” ran through my mind the whole time I was watching, and all the hopes I had of getting my own series and becoming a TV star evaporated in those ten terrible minutes of screen time.

At the end of the programme our close friends offered their congratulations to us but I knew what they were really thinking, because I was thinking the same thing. Instead of looking and sounding debonair and witty I came across as a complete and utter tosser. I swore that I would never again appear on television but, unlike the animals the Channel 4 crew had come to film, I am a vain and fickle male member of the human species and therefore I constantly crave disappointment. Would I in all reality actually turn down another opportunity to appear on television? Of course I bloody wouldn’t!

The thing is, I say ‘yes’ too often. I agree to do things I don’t agree with rather than creating waves and making life more difficult for myself. I do this in the sure knowledge that agreeing to the things I don’t agree with will make life difficult for me anyway. I said ‘yes’ to my wife’s next suggestion even though I didn’t want the responsibility of looking after any more animals.

“You want what?” I asked.

“Indian Runner Ducks” she repeated.

I thought about her suggestion for a couple of moments as I was taking down the sign on the front door that read:


“OK,” I said.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


Before my son started boarding school life was a constant round of hassling him to do his homework, shouting at him to pick the clothes up from the floordrobe in his room or trying to beat him downstairs on a Saturday morning so that, for a change, I could watch what I wanted to watch on the telly.

I had this misguided impression that things would improve when he got to boarding school, that life would be somehow calmer and stress-free. I imagined myself waking up to the soft, peaceful strains of New-Age music and greeting my wife with a hearty ‘good morning’ as she chanted soothing mantras whilst assuming the lotus position on the yoga mat in the corner of the room, but the only thing that changed really was that I could watch what my wife wanted to watch on the telly.

Life has very rarely turned out the way I wanted it to, and with my son ensconced in boarding school my perspective on how I live my life has altered a little, but although the stressful pre-boarding school situations have disappeared they have just been replaced with different stressful situations that, given that he is 3000 miles away from my present location, are even more stressful.

Conversations with my son on the mobile phone or Skype usually begin in two ways:
1. "Dad, can I have a (insert your choice of very expensive electronic gadget here),     
2. "Dad, I’ve lost my (insert your choice of very expensive electronic gadget here).

Sometimes, when he wants something but doesn’t really want to talk to me, he sends me a text. The last one I received from him went something like this: “dad can i have a ifone4 plees.” 

My reply was: See if you can work out the answer to your question by solving the following riddle – What word starts with N and ends with O and has only two letters?

I can imagine the scene in the boy’s dorm as they all plot and scheme together to see whose parents are gullible enough to give in to their ludicrous pleas of electronic poverty.

“I’ll ask my dad,” says the first boy, “he likes buying me very expensive electronic gadgets.”

“No, I’ll ask mine,” says the second, “he bought me a very expensive electronic gadget when I lost my other very expense electronic gadget last week. I’ve already been through four PSPs and I’ve only been back a month.”

The third says, “Hang on, I’ll ask mine. He’s brilliant. He buys me loads of very expensive electronic gadgets – even when I forget about them and leave them in my trouser pockets on laundry day.”

“No my dad works in the oil industry,” says the fourth boy. “He’s got loads of money. He’s bound to buy me an expensive electronic gadget that I’m in all likelihood going to leave on the bus or the train or the back seat of a taxi and never see again.”

Of course, there is inevitably the boy whose father drives a Ford Cortina and never buys him any of the latest very expensive electronic gadgets and who sits morosely on the end of his bed, sulking because his mobile isn’t the latest model with the App that allows the user to gain access to the United States Department of Defense Database and start World War Three.

When my son is not phoning to ask for something he is just not phoning. Days and weeks go by without a single word from him and when I try to phone him I get a voicemail politely telling me that he is not available because his phone is switched off. After several attempts to contact him the worry and frustration started to get the better of me and I began to sleep fitfully at night dreaming up all kinds of ridiculous scenarios, mostly involving clowns.

Someone once told me that it was the job of all parents to worry about their children, even if they don’t worry back, and so, in order to put my mind at rest, I decided to take direct action and call his housemaster. “He’s absolutely fine,” I was told. “You’re the fifteenth parent to call this week. If you don’t hear from him it generally means he’s enjoying himself too much. If I was you I wouldn’t worry, but I’ll get him to call you anyway.”

Like UK based parents, I can also look forward to the entertaining prospect of discovering the many strange and unusual delights contained in my son’s luggage when he returns home for the holidays. A friend of mine, whose son attended a boarding school in France, opened his suitcase when he arrived home only to find that all he had packed for his two-month-long stay was three pairs of underpants, a pair of white socks, a pair of black trousers, a long-sleeved black-and-white striped T-shirt, a set of braces and a black beret. As she gazed incredulously at what her son obviously regarded as the ideal wardrobe for eight weeks of blazing hot summer in the Middle East she, quite understandably, asked him if he was planning to become a mime artiste.

What more does a young boy need for a holiday in the Middle East . . .

On his first trip home my son’s case had very little room left in it for clothing of any kind as he had filled it with his bedding (including his quilt and pillow). “What have you brought all this for?” I asked him, despairingly. “I sent you a list that told you the things to bring with you.” His answer was simple and, in an odd kind of way, quite logical: “But you didn’t tell me not to bring it.”

On more than one occasion he has turned up with an odd quantity of mismatched socks, a bewildering array of unsuitable clothing, one shoe and a number of school ties in various stages of disrepair, all of which were crammed unceremoniously into his suitcase. It was as if he’d hired a blind alcoholic with two broken arms to pack for him, so he could spend his time more productively playing Minecraft on his computer.

Worse still is the end of school year when, after the Speech Day presentation, I have to repack all his things, separating them into three distinct categories:

1.   Items that are going to be stored at the school over the summer,

2.   Items he will be taking with him on holiday, and

3.   Items requiring immediate incineration. 

I am filled with a truly terrifying sense of dread when I place my hand into one of his bags, knowing that my fingers are likely to close around a mug that once contained the residue from a Batchelor’s Chicken Cup-A-Soup but has since become home to a thousand unknown bacteria, any one of which could wipe out all life on this planet. The most frightening thing, however, is the stray sock – the one that was worn a few times before it was lost down the side of the bed, where it would lie there for months on end, forlorn and forgotten but biding its time, becoming dusty and crusty as each day passed until, through the miracle of evolution, it would develop into a sentient being, slow moving and capable of rudimentary thought processes, thus requiring it to be classified as an entirely new species. 

The Sock Creature from the Black Bedspace

It’s not all bad news though – since attending boarding school my son has received the best education any parent could wish for, delivered by some of the best teachers in the country. Not only that, the outdoor activities available to him and the support he receives from the bursar and his housemaster are outstanding. He will, in short, leave the school a much wiser and more rounded young man than when he started.

All in all then, despite all the stress and strain of him living 3000 miles away, sending him to boarding school was the right decision.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, my wife has just told me that she wants to watch The Great British Bake-Off.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Discipline! Discipline! Discipline!

That was Mr Geoffrey Bates’ motto.  He was a former Guards officer and he ran Highfield Secondary Modern School in Blackpool like army training camp, barking orders at everyone who came within his radar. No walking on the grass! No hanging around the quadrangle! No running down the corridors! No standing around with hands in pockets! No talking! No whispering! No breathing!

All the kids in the school called him Master Bates, behind his back, of course.

The British Army had been his life and he therefore actively encouraged all school leavers to make it theirs. “Think of it, son,” he would tell them, “The travel, the adventure, the camaraderie . . . the discipline!”

The school covered an area of about a quarter of a mile and consisted of several older buildings connected to each other by a series of more modern glass and steel structures. If the whole complex were to be viewed from above it would probably have resembled a monstrous, badly constructed spider’s web. At its centre was the assembly hall, where each morning Mr Bates would conduct assembly in his usual brusque manner.

He was mid-way through his morning oration when he was interrupted by a shrill, moaning wail that emanated from the back of the assembly hall. This was closely followed by what sounded like a large sack of potatoes being dropped from a great height onto the highly polished parquet floor.

Mr Bates ran his fingers down his regimental tie, straightened his jacket, placed his hands on his hips and said, in a slow and deliberate voice, "Will someone please pick Patterson up, take him outside and give him some air.” Then, as an afterthought, he added, “And bring a mop back with you"

Four of us picked Martin up by his arms and legs and carried him out of the assembly hall, where we dumped him unceremoniously by the double doors, like a victim of the bubonic plague.

“Bloody softy,” said John Etherington.

Martin Patterson was the school fainter  - he found it difficult to stand up for long periods at a time, at which point his mind would go blank, he’d fall asleep on his feet, have a nightmare and then faint.
There was always a fight to decide who would carry him outside as it meant missing the rest of assembly and the hymn that followed, which was invariably Onward Christian Soldiers or Jerusalem, two of Mr Bates’ favourites. The rest of the staff, seated behind the Mr Bates on the raised platform would only pretend to sing, mumbling their way through the words whilst attempting to keep time with the tinkling, out-of-tune piano. Mr Bates, on the other hand, sang with gusto, his chest moving in and out like a huge set of bellows, his mouth opening and closing like a giant fish starved of oxygen. The assembled children in the large hall would stand and snigger at him, or sing the wrong words (usually rude), watching with embarrassment as the he bellowed out the hymn like a demented amateur opera singer on speed.    

With almost radar-like precision Mr Bates always seemed able to pinpoint the boys who changed even one syllable of his beloved hymns, and the guilty parties would be instructed to wait outside his office after assembly. Once there they would be marched in one by one and given five strokes of the cane across their left palms (or right palms if they happened to be left handed).
Mr Bates
"Say thank you, boy," Mr Bates would say, after administering his punishment.
"Thank you," the boy would reply.
"Thank you what?"
"Thank you, sir."
Martin Patterson never got the cane on account of his delicate constitution (and the intervention of his mother) and so consequently he only ever got a tepid telling off if he ever stepped out of line.
After assembly, one morning our form teacher, Mr Crane, strode into the classroom, narrowed his eyes and placed his hands on the red leatherette of his desk. "Mr Bates," he said, "wants one of you lot to look after Patterson while everyone else is in assembly."
"I'll look after him, sir!" I cried, thrusting my hand high up into the air. "I'm his best friend."      
I was lying, of course. Martin Patterson wasn’t my best friend at all. I didn't even like him and, as Mr Crane graciously accepted my gallant and apparently unselfish offer, I could see Martin visibly shaking.
I could have handled the enormously responsible job of looking after Martin in two ways. The first way would have been to actively and diligently monitor him and make mental notes of anything unusual about his behaviour so that I could report them to Mr Crane upon his return from the assembly hall. Alternatively, I could have utilised my position of power over Martin by spending my assembly-free time constructively and mercilessly abusing him.  

I unhesitatingly opted for the second of my two choices.

I called him names like Mong and Spaz-brain and did flamboyant impressions of his regular and embarrassing fainting fits. "Hey, Spaz-brain,” I’d say, "who's this?" Then I would moan loudly and crash to the floor, and all Martin could do was sit at his desk in abject misery, trying unconvincingly to make it look like he was laughing along with me and my cruel antics.

All good things eventually come to an end, and my reign of mental torture ended abruptly one morning when I misjudged one of my falls and cracked my head open on the corner of a desk, knocking myself out into the bargain. Until this point Martin hadn’t breathed a single word to any of the teachers about how I’d been treating him while they were mumbling to the words of Onward Christian Soldiers. But, as I was being rushed to Victoria hospital to have the back of my head shaved and stitched, Martin spilled the beans. 
My reign of terror comes to an end . . .

He told the Mr Bates everything.
I was kept in hospital overnight for observation and when I returned to school the following day I was expecting to receive a good deal of sympathy for my unfortunate accident.

But instead, I had to say, "Thank you, sir," to Mr Bates.