Oy Dave! Down here!

Oy, Dave! Down here!
By now we’ve probably all heard of the phrase The Big Society being used by David Cameron and his coalition government. At best we might have a warm fuzzy feeling about what it means, at worst we haven’t got a clue either what it is or how it can be achieved. Somewhere in the middle is a suspicion that, if we say ‘yes’ (without really knowing what we’re saying ‘yes’ to) we are about to be programmed by an Orwellian bunch of ex-public school kids and a sprinkling of American academics.
Scepticism aside, I’m going to look at one or two achievable factors that mean we don’t have to wait to be told by the grown-ups in parliament how to create a Big (little) Society nearer home.

Firstly we need to assess who we are and where we’re coming from. Clearly this is a job for sociologists, psychologists, and Mr and Mrs Poinsettia who lives at number 43 and have very twitchy curtains. So let’s keep it simple.
A cat food manufacturer came up with one of the most enduring tag lines of the 20th Century. ‘Eight out of ten owners say their cats prefer it’. Eighty/twenty is also a broad enduring economic (Wilfredo Pareto) balance in the sense that eighty percent of the profit of your average company is earned by twenty percent of the customers, eighty percent of the land is owned by twenty percent of the people etc. There are, of course, exception to these big brush strokes, but funnily enough they usually come in at twenty percent!

How is this relevant to us as a micro or macro society? Because I believe cats number one to eight are fundamentally good hearted, instinctively generous and polite people who understand that a team is greater than the sum of its parts. Cats nine and ten are included but are the exception that prove the rule. Cat number nine will never entertain an idea of unfounded origin (NIH or ‘not invented here’, as my old dad would say). Cat number ten understands precisely what the other cats are on about, but for their own reason, choose to remain outside the broader philosophy of good community. It gets a bit complicated should somebody ‘corner’ cat number three or their kittens. They may temporarily appear like cat number ten.

Secondly, we all need a song sheet to sing from. I can already hear cat number nine getting suspicious, but at this stage I’m only offering to lend them my car, I’m not telling them where they have to go with it.
Whether negotiating a deal with a driver at a zebra crossing, a business transaction, across the dinner table with the family, or planning a military campaign, if we all knew where we, and all the other b****** were coming from, we could actually rub along quite well together. If this all sounds either a bit vague or a bit pink and fluffy, just bear with me because it can and does get very specific, and even road kill is pink and fluffy for a while.

The wheel has already been invented. Try as we might to improve it, we keep coming back to the round type that’s secured in the centre.
I’m suggesting that there are six spokes of our song sheet/wheel. These six basic tenets are not a just a philosophy, process or system, they are a ‘way’. For ease of reference I’m going to call it The Milland way. They are Observation, Intervention, Communication, Immunisation, The Cathartic Experience, and finally, ‘What’s the best or worst that can happen’? With a little further explanation it quickly becomes apparent that we do these things already. We’ve already taken ownership of the things in our cupboard. Entertaining the idea of the song sheet and a further metaphor, we can, if we so wish, empty it out, look at things again, discard what we don’t need, and put it all back in a way we can get at them when we need to. Before I get down to some specific examples I’d just like to point out two things. Firstly, our national economy seems to be dictated by both our individual and collective mood. If we’re worried, we don’t buy, invest or invent. If the financial markets are worried they turn their backs on us and the institutions we rely on. We know this, and so we obviously need to start thinking outside the box.

Here’s a ridiculous idea for you.
Thanking somebody when they have stopped for you at a Zebra Crossing is one of myriad routes to economic success. A ludicrous thought at first. But let’s assume I’m the driver of the car who’s just pulled up at the Zebra crossing to stop for somebody. They walk across and don’t bother acknowledging my self-imposed delay. Should they thank me by law? No, by law I should have stopped. Is it polite to thank the driver? Yes, it’s how I was brung up. Does it get to me. Yes, a tiny weeny bit. How do I feel if they do thank me? It lifts me a little. If a youngster thanks me, it lifts me a lot. In other words, if my numerous other daily interactions with my fellow citizens lifts me a little, I am going to be happier. And if I’m happier etc…..extrapolate. Multiply this tiny example by a billion and I hope you’re beginning to see where I’m going. If the pedestrian was familiar with The Milland Way and the six tenets, they would acknowledge that the driver is fulfilling their part of the drivers code (Observation). They don’t normally thank the driver because they’re exercising their legal right, but this time they’re going to (Intervention). They thank the driver (Communication). They’ve heard that even the smallest of actions can have an accumulative effect on the big picture (Immunisation). They are going to be absolutely honest with themselves about what they want society to be and their part in it (The Cathartic Experience). They move on. Maybe nothing has happened, but there again, maybe it has (What’s the best or worst that can happen?). At the very least there may have been an acknowledgement by all concerned that ‘we’re all in this together’. With a little bit of practice one can map the six tenets onto a thousand different scenarios.

Let’s stay with the ludicrous. You’ve had your pint of beer in the pub and you’re up to the legal limit to drive. You pop to the loo before you go but when you get back to bid your farewells, your friend has bought you another pint of beer. Go through the six tenets re the life changes brought about by losing your driving licence, killing somebody, getting killed etc.

A child could be inspired to use the six tenets to become the managing director of their own lives, stop a bully, save a friends’ life by the roadside etc.

Secondly, from A & E departments, coroner’s reports and public enquiries through to lost time at work, a small reduction in domestic or industrial accidents would save us billions and billions of pounds.

A young fit labourer on a building site may rightly be pleased with their ability to whizz up and down ladders at high speed or carry heavier loads, defend their friends or family from violent intervention. The problem is, if they continue operating like that, they’re heading for a wheelchair, where any ability to aid their weaker brethren or children is more or less nullified. It can be suggested to them, but more importantly, they can come to the same conclusion themselves.

Our society is comprised of a glorious eclectic mix of people. The critics of using a similar song sheet would suggest that the task would be like herding cats. I agree. At this level The Milland Way stops being a method of me not cutting myself with a sharp knife, and one of herding cats in the back of a truck going up the M1 i.e a philosophy. Most cats are included and travelling in the same direction, with only twenty percent either trying to get off or are left behind waiting for a truck with their name on it.

I believe that the ultimate selfish act is to do something unselfish. A baby is totally egocentric. A toddler starts to bring us little presents because they enjoy our reactions. Driving is the largest daily participation activity in modern society. One extra act of courtesy (Observation, Intervention, Communication), however irksome, benefits us on three levels. One, we know that our act is a demonstration of a ‘we’re all in this together’. Two, we know we will benefit from eight out of ten people allowing us to go first, eight times out of ten. Three, liken our traffic system to a blood circulation system and it doesn’t take much to work out that the ‘body’ would operate faster and more efficiently leading to directly to better economic health (Immunisation, The Cathartic Experience, What the best or worst that can happen?).

Any one six of the tenets can be the dominant factor in different situations. One of my favourites is that of the Cathartic Experience. If one of a gang of youths on a sink estate were to realise that they were bored with their life of parochial thuggery, The Milland Way suggests that they keep quiet about it. Don’t say a word. Just decide where you think you might want to be (or where you want your kids to be), quietly seek out a possible source of inspiration, and privately take the first step. It’s a cinch by the inch and hard by the yard. We so often don’t do things because we don’t want to be publically ‘dug out’ and possibly ridiculed or excluded.

From road signs to advertising, I’m ‘nudged’ on a daily basis by a not so liberal paternalist society. I accept responsibility for this by not kicking up a fuss about paying my taxes, buying a shiny new bauble which will make my life complete or not phoning up Radio Five Live to vent my spleen. I accept that if I let David Thaler and Cass Sunstein into my head then I also have to take full personal responsibility. But while all this ‘top down’ psycho wizardry is going on I find myself contemplating a huge social void. That people like me (blue collar, family man, wouldn’t normally say boo to a goose) have to start singing (or meowing) from the same song sheet, so that, if the kind of big (and economically successful) society I would want my kids to live in starts to emerge, it can only come from the ground up, not the other way around, and when all is said and done, eight out of ten isn’t a bad pass mark. I was invited up to meet David Camerons’ Behavioural Insight Team in Whitehall. They were very nice to me, but talk about rabbit and headlights…….

There’s good and bad news when examining the origins of The Milland Way. The good news is that it’s been sourced by a real live ‘blue collar’ Lock keeper (on the River Avon just outside Bristol). It doesn’t get much more ground floor than that. The bad news is that it’s been sourced by a real live ‘blue collar’ Lock keeper with no letters after his name and who hates long words.
G.Milland
The Milland Way – Copyright G.Milland – All rights reserved

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British Pint Of Beer

Funny how things turn out#2

Chap brings his boat to my lock
‘Don’t you know who I am?’ says he,
‘No’, says I, ‘Do you know who I am? says I.
‘You’re the lock keeper’
1/nil to the lock keeper
‘I’m on the telly’ says he.
‘Well you’ll have to ask my six year old, cos she’s the only one that can work the telly’ says I.
‘Can I talk to her? says He.
‘ She’s busy fixing my outboard engine’ says I.
‘Oh’, says he, a bit crestfallen.’I’ll wait’.
‘Can you hold a tune’? says I.
‘Of course, I’m on the……’
‘….telly, I know. Sing this then’ and I hand him a mangled bit of paper.
‘Mmmmm. Can I sing it and make a video of it at your local pub’?
‘Spose’
‘If you wrote it, you must want to be in it!’
‘No’
‘What about your six year old daughter?’
‘She’s busy fixing my outboard’
‘Mmmm. Click on this link in about four weeks time’
‘Ok. You need to drop the bottom paddles’

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YThag4MuSAk

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Behavioural Safety Update

Just in case anybody’s interested there’s some info on the book ‘Ouch! – Behavioural Safety Between The Sheets (Of Paper) on

www.behaviouralsafety.org.uk

 

Cheers all,

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A Book On Behavioural Safety (Thanks Salty Splash)

A few months ago I wrote a jaunty little number about my introduction to Behavioural Safety.

It seemed to have attracted some attention and BW published it in our in-house newspaper. One reader (Salty Splash) who kindly commented on this site, said “can’t wait for the book”. Their comment sparked a bit of thinking, and three months later I gave birth to a baby book entitled ‘OUCH! – Behavioural Safety between the sheets (of paper)’. It’s now finished and will be available in a couple of weeks time on Amazon.

Thanks Salty!!

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Behavioural Safety

1.0 Introduction

 

From pen pushers to puddle pushers the work of a British Waterways employee has been punctuated by risk assessments, method statements, acronyms, mnemonics, and training courses et al. Increasingly over the years there has been enough bits of paper entitled ‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Thou shalt not’ to give Moses heartburn. But there again a media tycoon once lamented that half the money he spent on advertising was wasted. He just wished he knew which half. But from fatality to mild irritation, nobody can deny the decreasing number of accidents. But it’s not all just due to a large portion of rain forest that’s been regurgitated and scribbled on. It’s much, much more subtle than that. It has required a change in thinking at both macro and micro levels. 

 

My fellow attendees of a course entitled ‘Behavioural Safety’ have agreed that what we learned, and how overnight our working approach shifted, is every bit as important as anything that could ever be written objectively about Health and Safety.

 

2.0  Behavioural Safety.

 

Let’s face it, health and safety has been put at the very top of everybody’s agenda using threats and morbid stories. It takes an unusual character to arrive home like an exuberant fly half just because they’re still breathing or not about to do a bit of porridge. And most importantly, whether we like it or not, we’re all responsible for ourselves and our fellows, whether work colleagues or customers. But how does a green employee tell a wrinkly coffin dodging crane driver that he’s operating in an unsafe way? How does a main board director, who generally only ever smells fresh paint (Sir Bernard’s words, not mine!), stop somebody doing a bit of Chinese grinding (i.e no goggles)? There isn’t time to write anything down, dob someone in or grass somebody up. There are, however, years and years to say “If only I’d said the right thing, and in the right sort of way, they might still have had a finger/eye/ spleen/job/life….”.

 

2.1 What is it?

 

Someone, somewhere, sees something that they think is dangerous. In this example, they are not empowered with rank, relevant knowledge, or experience, whereby if they were, they could cease the operation immediately (shotguns have been largely discouraged because of a general fear of paper work and a natural awareness of the ability to sometimes miss the point).

 

But what everyone has is the ability to communicate effectively. They might not know it, but they have. Maybe this skill is mostly unused and rusty. It can range from theatrical verbosity to Rooneyesque txt mssg spk. But everybody has it.

This is behavioural safety. The ability to apply effective communication, using tact and imagery, to stop a potential accident.

  The HSE say that 95% of accidents are caused by a lack of behavioural Safety.     

2.2 What it’s not!

 

The attempt to introduce Behavioural Safety by British Waterway as a concept to the work force was an inspired idea. But once the go kart has been built, pulled to the top of the hill and loaded with kids, it then has to be let go. A manager cannot apply behavioural safety without first divesting themselves of all pips, badges, gold braid and authority. This would be missing the point entirely. A manager has other well tested means for accident prevention. But how many times has an employee left the scene of a potential drowning, knowing full well, that while the sound of his departing van fades, the kids will be straight back in the lock. But if another kid came along and told a story about how his friend drowned, the panic, the bulging oxygen starved eyes, the screaming, the devastated family, then there’s a chance, with all honour intact, the other kids just might get bored and find something else to do.

 

3.0 The course

 

Within a cash rich organisation, every employee from top to bottom, should attend a course on the subject. This, we know, isn’t going to happen. It’s also a bit like learning how to handle a loaded motor and butty or a spoke shave. Five minutes to learn, but a lifetime to master. Roughly speaking the course was split into three separate areas..

 

3.1 Idiots guide to psychology

 

The instructor (call me Dave) established his credentials. He was an ex para with a bloodied knife, degree in psychology and great sense of humour. He had our full attention. He discussed body language. By the end of this section the girls were sitting demurely as only a pot of honey can, the chaps were sitting as confident as Arnie and gene pools to the wind, and everybody was secretly recording how to come across as a model citizen at the next police interview.

 

He touched on Transaction Analysis, the study of how conversations can be dissected by observing three states of interactivity. Parent, adult and child.

 

We discussed, a lot. Fear of embarrassment, pride, inarticulacy, brain to mouth coordination etc.

 

And then came the whammy. How would we, the green employee, tell the wrinkly coffin dodging crane driver that he was operating like a bit of a pillock? He, to counter of course, would inform us that he’d been a Professor of Pillockology for thirty four years and inquired as to whether our parents were a) as inquisitive and b) indeed, married.

 

Oh dear

 

3.2 Scary videos and stories

 

Dave didn’t muck about. We got both barrels of yuck and gore. If we’d had the temerity to fall asleep, we’d of had nightmares. But there was a different moral to these stories. Yes, written procedures had been put in place, but they lay neatly stacked, largely read but undigested in the metaphorical cab of a waterways van.

The point was, in each case, there was a fellow employee who could of prevented the accident if only they’d been introduced to the concept of behavioural safety.

 

Gulp

 

3.3 Role play

 

“Here’s the scenario, now over to you” Oh thanks, Dave. It’s alright for you, you charming knife wielding academic who can charismatically run up and down Everest before settling down to a breakfast of six inch nails on unsalted buttered plate washers, confident in the knowledge that, by the end of the day, half the Glaswegian Constabulary would be confessing to a murder that never happened, and the other half thirsting to perform in Swan Lake.

Needless to say, Andrew Lloyd Webber would have paid us to keep the day job.

 

Cringe

 

4.0 Application – The easy bit

 

So, how can British Waterways allow behavioural safety to become as natural as breathing to it’s everyday operation? Here’s the gobsmackingly simple truth about it. Once one understands what it is, they’re well on the way to being able to practice it.

“I knew that”, we all said by the end of the course. Yes, but so did the lemming say that to the parachute salesman.

 

4.1 The difficult bit

 

We’re all different, and communicate in different ways. There are also myriad combinations of any given circumstance.

 

The task, however, is identical.

 

To stop, using a conversation, a potential accident, but also to change somebody’s thinking so they modify their ways for the future occasions when you’re not there.

  

Some of the elements that can inhibit the facilitator can be as follows:

Fear or looking like an idiot

Fear of confrontation

Fear of looking like a goody two shoes

Fear of appearing to not behave like a team member

Fear of a clumsy approach or entrée to the subject

 

These very real fears cannot be ‘trained’ out of somebody on a course. They can ,however, be taught to mull over or discuss scenarios (whether fabricated or historic) and imagine how they would deal with it.

   

5.0 Conclusion

  

What is ‘behavioural safety’ again?

 

To stop, using a conversation, a potential accident, but also to change somebody’s thinking so they modify their ways for the future occasions when you’re not there.

 

It’s worth reiterating. 95% of accidents are caused by a lack of good safe behavioural practice.

  

Trevor The Lockeeper

Two years later I feel I know a lot more about the subject. Snd so I wrote a book!

Behaviouralsafety.org.uk

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Somebody Has To Do It – Chapter 10 (Incomplete)

 Seven weeks before the arrival of the new little lockeeper Mrs Lockeeper insisted I attend the last parent craft evening. I’d managed to miss all the others but had finally been outflanked. Mrs Lockeeper had walked the dog, hidden my chainsaw, popped to the pub to see if it was still there, finished a letter to the bank manager, changed the oil in the car and generally pre-empted any excuse I might possibly come up with.  

We arrived at the clinic for the evening meeting and six other couples appeared. They were all familiar to each other and I was the only one who nobody knew. I got the searching eye as they tried to work out what the complete opposite to an immaculate conception was. They all waddled in. Even the men. The meeting was led by a health visitor. I tried to keep a low profile as it was obvious I was far too old for all this. They watched a video nasty about babies and had a discussion. Then I got poked in the ribs and was very rudely woken up. The thing that had been preoccupying my mind was the fact that we again going into flood. The drive would soon be under water, and the cattle on the hill behind the lock house had ensured that the field was uncross able except by a medium to large size tank. How was I going to get Mrs Lockeeper out to the maternity unit. The Fire brigade with their fast rescue inflatable owed me a few favours as did the police diving unit.   

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 That’s all for now folks. I haven’t written any more since  pre Emma (Bunny Smunchkin Pie) Lockeepers birth. All went well, and she’s five next month (26/02/08). Hope you’ve enjoyed, and I’ve got loads more to write, it’s just finding the time!! 

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Somebody Has To Do It – Chapter 9

Soon after I’d retired to the water I was skippering a plastic trip boat running a scheduled waterbus service and also doing day trips for the London Waterbus Company. This particular plastic boat (Water Buffalo) was moored in the pool of Little Venice behind an old working narrow boat butty called Nebulae. I’d never met the owner but was getting concerned that her hull was rubbing away on the coping stones. I installed a tyre fender. After a storm I had to rearrange her canvasses. One day I pulled in on the plastic boat  and  saw a rather large man pacing up and down by Nebulae. He was looking worriedly at the boat. I went to introduce myself. His name was Michael. He shook my hand, but after the regulation two up and three downs, wouldn’t then let my hand go. I told him about the fender. He said he’d noticed. I told him about the canvasses. He said he’d noticed. He wanted to buy me a pint. I said I’d noticed, but asked if we could not walk in to the pub looking like senior and junior jewellery designers from Putney that were very much in love. He let my hand go. We went to the Bridge House and we were soon with ale.

Nebulae had been converted inside and was a marvel. From the outside she looked much as she would have done in her working days. But under the canvass covered hard shell, she was a tribute to oak, brass and ingenious design. Not only could she comfortably sleep eight strangers or fourteen friends, she had a ten seater solid oak dining table and every conceivable gadget and accoutrement for a serious dinner party. Her traditional boatman’s cabin had been restored to the last detail and she was truly a one off. There was no escaping the fact that the restoration and conversion of Nebulae had cost industrial quantities of money. Michael was in the film business and money wasn’t an issue.

That meeting marked the start of several years of friendship and countless wonderful hilarious times. Michaels first love was for his four children. His second love was for Nebulae. That day I’d first seen him pacing up and down, he’d very nearly reached a decision to sell his beloved boat. She was simply too much to handle, both from a boating point of view and the setting up for a dinner party. And Michael loved to (dinner) party. Now I was to be his boatman. This involved basic maintenance, cleaning, setting up ready for a dinner party, steering the boat down into Regents Park, moor up under Michaels favourite tree, join dinner party (if Michael hadn’t over booked, in which case I ate in the cosy back cabin) and then back to the mooring in the wee small hours. There was also the added bonus of his complete blessing to use his boat as my own.

To my shame I have to admit that she never got the attention she truly deserved, Michael lost a few bottles of wine and I was sometimes perilously close to being rude to his guests (I once suggested to a son of the Queen that they were talking rather a lot of Bravo Oscar Lemur Lemur Oscar X-ray), but I was always made to feel that I had ‘given Michael his boat back’. The combination of the business he was in, coupled with his considerable charity works, meant that he knew everybody. From the Royal family, down through all the knobs in between, to me. I welcomed the guests on board, steered the boat down to the park while Michael did his warm up routine. This entailed an interesting chat about canals, boatmen, history etc, and by the time I joined the table everybody would hush reverently until I’d sat down and been handed a humungous glass of wine. Typically Michael had built me up to a position I could never live up to, one of the gnarled old working boatman I simply never was. But, hey, this was showbiz.  Hollywood superstars, politicians, rock stars etc, had all been levelled to the extent whereby if he’d suggested they do the washing up they would have felt honoured.

We then ate. The food was always simple in a posh sort of way, and was presided over by the real boss, Beatrice. Beatrice was Michael’s Portuguese housekeeper and sabre toothed guardian over his life, from clean socks to potential assassination attempt. There was more ‘beavering away behind the scenes’ in Beatrice than a girl’s public school trip to the ski slopes of Andorra.   I learned a great truth about showbiz, stardom, and celebrity status. With one or two exceptions, the bigger they were, the more they understood about Michaels inverted snobbery, and enjoyed the relief of enforced humility, subsequently having a great time. The smaller they were, well, they just didn’t get it, and if I couldn’t get there with the deflating one line-er, then Michael would. With one set of Royals, we actually had so much more of a laugh with the body guards, we (meaning Michael) invited them and some of their colleagues and wives for dinner and had a wail of a time. In 1996 we took Nebulae down to Bristol for something called the Festival of the Sea. We were moored up amongst seven hundred boats and ships in Bristol harbour. Our berth was opposite a Royal Navy minesweeper (Cottishall?) Modestly, Michael happened to mention that the last time he’d seen that ship was when he’d dined on it with Lord Louis Mountbatten. Bloody typical.  

And then there were the extended trips. We would take the boat all over the country, Michael coming and going as his business allowed. I always had to periodically return to work on the trip boats in order to keep the wolf from the door. Guests great and small joined us for sumptuous meals cooked by Michael. Sometimes we would cruise into the evening after everybody had gone home. We’d bring all the leftovers out and have a candle lit binge on the roof of the back cabin. 

Michael died of a brain tumour in 1998. His coffin was put onto Nebulae and carried up to Kensal Rise Cemetery. His memorial service was held in The Odeon, Leicester Square. I remember having a hug with Michael shortly before he died. He already had two first class sons and two first class daughters, making me the son he never needed. I already had a first class father making him the father I never needed. We laughed about that, a lot.  A few days later Ben (Michael’s son) was delivering Michaels ashes back to the boat in order for us to set up a little shrine in the boatman’s cabin. He phoned me to say that he was on his way, but that the box he was carrying didn’t feel like his father. Before I could stop myself I suggested that Michael had lost weight. At first I thought I’d really blown it. Then, typically as one would expect from a son of Michael, the long silence became punctuated by guffaws of laughter.

We created a little shrine in the boatman’s cabin and let it be known that anybody could come and spend a while reflecting with him. When this happened, I would greet the guests, pace up and down the towpath, and see them off afterwards. Very soon afterwards I honoured a previous engagement and hosted a dinner party for one of our friends, Rhod. After all the guests had gone home, Rhod and I were chatting. Caroline (Rhods other half) had gone off to the rear toilet for a wee. The washing up was waiting patiently to be turned back into to neat piles of cleanliness. Suddenly, a lot of plates, cups, cutlery etc, flew across the cabin, strangely nothing was broken. Caroline came rushing back from the little room, expecting to find Rhod and I with knives drawn, only to actually find us sitting a few yards away and looking a bit non plussed. Michael was making his presence felt. On another occasion my lovely New Zealand friend, Katie Jane, was washing up after another meal, when all the kitchen bits (spatulas, wooden spoons etc) flew out of their wooden containers above her head. She nonchalantly told Michael to stop mucking about and calmly put them all back again. One night, my friend and I, Charlie (Charlotte), were telling Michael stories over a bottle of whisky. We cried a bit, but laughed a lot. Brass decorations started flying about. Something wasn’t quite right. A few days later, the final guest was having a bit of a reflect with Michael in the back cabin, and did what I never could or would ever have done. She opened the box. Inside was a piece of paper with a name on it. It should have said Michael E W Samuelson. Instead, it said, Herbert L Miles. They’d given Ben the wrong box. That’s what Michael was trying to tell us. Two tearful employees from the crematorium met me to do the swap. I promised never to tell the family, a bit of a porky as it turned out. 

Nebulae is moored up at Hanham Lock as I write. 

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Somebody Has To Do It – Chapter 8

 Oscar Wilde once said that whisky mixed with water is the ruination of two drinks. Worse than that, whisky and canal or river water can be the ruination of a healthy pair of lungs. My worst ‘falling in’ story involves a bike, a friend, a ninety degree bend in the Regents Canal, and a few pints of beer. The friend, James O‘Regan, and I had been trying to buy shares in a beverage company by attempting to impress the shareholders and board of directors with an aggressive and significant increase on their turnover. By the end of our strategy meeting, as much as we tried to search for it, we’d completely lost the plot. James, whilst being ‘two up’ on my bicycle, realised we were about to get very wet unless I remembered the ninety degree bend in the canal. He got off. I carried on pedalling. I think I was six foot over the water before I remembered that bicycles don’t have a reverse gear. I was back pedalling faster than a bumblebee in a vacuum cleaner, but still got very wet.  Apart from that occasion, I have remained remarkably lucky. There was of course the time the yeti and I were rescuing a boat in one of the minor floods. It was dark, the gunwhales of the boat were narrow, I slipped and fell in up to my waist. Not that the water wasn’t deep, it was just that I managed to hold onto one of the ‘riser’ poles as I slid in.“Wooga, wooga, bang, bang”. Well of course nobody was going to know I’d fallen in unless he split on me. We went for a beer at the Lock & Weir. Our friends might well have believed my story about Mrs Lockeeper not having time to dry the washing properly which was why I had to go outside three times to empty my wellies, if there was such a thing as a discreet wookie. 

What does give me great pleasure to relate is the time that Mrs Lockeeper fell in.Mrs Lockeeper doesn’t like pubs. The only reason she ever goes into one is to make me come out of one. How can a Lockeeper enjoy a pint of beer when their wife is either staring at them malevolently or theatrically taking a notebook and pencil out of their handbag and scribbling down houskeeping numbers with a great big minus in front of them? Unless Alan invited her for a drink. Alan is from up North. He is a jolly good looking earth moving machine operator type chappie with a full head of hair and a full wallet. He was the machine operator on a contract to dredge parts of the river, and I stupidly said he could park his caravan in our garden for the duration. One evening I was looking forward to putting my feet up after having cooked the supper, washed up, helped the kids with their homework, washed the kids, washed up again, walked the border collie pup, and looked up ‘self rightous’ in the theasaurus. Mrs  Lockeeper and ‘poor lonely’ Alan were at the pub. Across the river at around midnight I heard the sound of an outboard engine being revved to within an inch of another trip to an outboard engine shop. Mrs Lockeeper and Mr ‘my other car is a 360 degree twenty ton pose mobile earth mover’ were leaving the Lock & Weir pub. When they’d finally tacked and slalomed over to my side of the river, Alan got out, unfortunately about five feet from the bank. It must of finally hit home to him what Mrs Lockeeper had been saying to him all night. But she was proven wrong. He couldn’t after all, walk on water. Mrs Lockeeper got out as well. She stood in eighteen inches of water and clambered on to the jetty. She suggested that the lock cut needed dredging, and wondered out loud where one could find a dredger driver at that time of night. The ‘sorry you haven’t got a gorgeous full thatch of chestnut hair, you bald London git’ dredger driver eventually surfaced and swam to shore. She’d been standing on his shoulders. The lock cut was one dredger driver plus Mrs Lockeeper’s two shins deep.  

One winter Saturday afternoon Megan the border collie pup on heat, Alan the ‘I can teach you how to appear at a backdoor looking desperately undernourished three times a day anywhere in the country’ macho machine operator and I were having a quiet beer at the Lock & Weir. In walked a fisherman. He asked if anybody had a piece of rope. We said we had several, but thanked him for asking anyway. He said somebody had fallen in up river. Being a bald git makes me more aerodynamic and faster than the ‘I could be a hairdressers model anytime I wanted to’ merchant, and while Alan was still putting his comb back in his back pocket, Megan the border collie pup on heat and I had the dinghy fired up and were planing upstream. After half a mile, three nesting coots who must of come to the conclusion that it would be quicker to start from scratch, a pair of shagging water voles who’d got an unexpected gobfull of water and five swans who thought they might have taken a wrong turn at Avonmouth later, we found one man and his dog in the water. The bank was very steep but his dog had found a little ledge at the waters edge to sit on. I tried to be tactful. I suggested it was a spooky coincidence that his skin colour was the same shade of blue as my newly decorated bathroom. He said he’d simply been walking straight down the towpath and just slipped in. I suggested that in future he allowed for the fact that the towpath was a bit bent in places. He said he’d be writing to his MP. I hauled him and his dog into the boat. His dog was interested in Megan the border collie pup on heat. Megan was interested in the dog and started reversing a lot. The man said he was cold. I suggested that he might like to keep warm by trying to get his dog out of mine. I set off for civilisation. By the time we arrived we were met by two fire engines and an ambulance. My first thought was that Alan must have broken a nail and called the emergency services. Then I realised that the fisherman had dialled 999. I handed the now sweating man over to our phosphorescent friends. They said they couldn’t take the dog and so I had to look after it until the man’s daughter arrived. I went for a swift pint. What seemed like hours later the two dogs had lost several pints of pheromones and I, several pints of patience. Alan reappeared from some small room with a mirror. He had indeed broken a nail by hastily putting his comb back in his back pocket, but was told that all emergency services were busy looking for a wet die hard roman towpath walker. The dog was by this time so worked up he had lost all sense or care about pretty border collie bitch recognition. As any leg would do I handed him to Alan and took the dinghy home. That must of ruffled his hair a bit.  

Probably the most dangerous incident involved a hire boat at Hanham. Two families were on  this particular boat, and all concerned seemed quite sensible. But nevertheless they’d been drinking a little wine. They were just pulling up to the Lock & Weir pub when they started a bit of horsing about. The result was one man in the water at the back of the boat being tickled by a propellor that had been ordered to go full astern, being held round the waist by another man who couldn’t let go in order to take the engine out of gear. They were reversing straight towards the weir. The man in the water was not only in danger of going through the propellor, he would also have prevented any scratches on the underside of the boat that might be caused by the weir ledge, due to the fact that he was the twain that would ensure the two would never meet. With twenty feet to spare, one of the wives came out on deck and was told how to put the gear lever in neutral. Two of my quick thinking friends had shot across in a dinghy and got an anchor down. Whilst the emergency services were on their way they put me on board and I checked the chap over. He had got away with a sliced shin. We then moved the boat onto the pub moorings.  

I know three stories about people going through a propellor.  One involved a trip boat company (The Jenny Wren) I had occasionally worked for in London, one family that were friends of my sister in law lost a nine year old son, and one friend of mine, Captain Rick, had a son who was a sub officer in the firebrigade. They had been called to an incident where a women had gone through a propellor and the whole watch had needed counselling for weeks afterwards. 

One time I nearly had a chat with the angels was in London and involved a trip boat called Perseus, (operated by the London Waterbus Co.)  I was to skipper her first trip of the season and had the job of ‘de-wintering’ the engine before taking sixty old ladies on a tour.I did all the engine checks and fired it up, letting it warm through nice and slowly. After about ten minutes I started to move two adjacent trip boats (Milton and Gardenia) so I could manoevre Perseus out. Then the engine revs started to increase. And then they increased a bit more. I left the boats drifting about on long lines and clambered back down into the engine ‘hole’. The revs still increased and very soon the engine was screaming. The engine stop wouldn’t work and smoke was billowing out from places where it shouldn’t have. Desperately trying to remember where the pulley belts and nasty high speed spinning things were, I tried to feel my way towards the injector pump. I found it but it ignored my attempts to disable it. The noise was incredible and visibility was long gone. I decided to retreat as I was sure something was about to give, and I didn’t want something giving through me. Out on the back deck I could see that the whole pool of Little Venice was covered in a pall of smoke. Two boats were drifting aimlessly about and two people were running down the towpath armed with fire extinguishers. The only thing I had control over was the engine throttle, and thanks to my good old dad and his lateral thinking, the only way I could change any of these horrific conditions was to give the engine full throttle. Quite quickly the revs died away and the engine ground to a halt. I think I said ‘gosh ‘ a lot. My friend, Ray Farrow (our British Waterways policeman), was very out of breath when he finally got to me and couldn’t speak, which was a shame, because everytime he did speak, he said something terribly funny.

It turns out that the world and his wife had either experienced or had heard about an engine ‘running away’. After a couple of days I wouldn’t have been surprised if a baby in a passing pushchair hadn’t leaned towards me and told me that if only I’d put a rag over the air intake, I could have stopped the engine quite quickly. When I’d ckecked the oil, the level was fine. What I hadn’t noticed in the gloom of the engine room, was that there was about two inches of diesel on top of the oil. The lift pump had been leaking fuel into the oil sump all winter, and when the engine had warmed up enough, it started burning fuel from the bottom of the cylinders. Woops. The mechanic who came to look at it said that this paticular type of engine could develop seventeen and a half thousand revs once it had run away, which compared quite unfavourably with the two and a half thousand it was deigned to achieve at maximum.My giving it full throttle had drowned the process.Everybody then proceeded to tell me all their ‘con rods though the eye ball’ stories. Every now and again I wonder what I would have done if the engine had run away after the old ladies had got on board. They probably would have mentioned the war.  

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Somebody Has To Do It – Chapter 7

Christmas. Now there’s a funny thing. While I was living in London and before I joined British Waterways, I was a freelance waterman, which basically meant you found work wherever you could. Every winter I had to work in a dry dock of some kind praying for the phone to ring about a bit of sporadic tug work, trip boat steering, salvage etc. One year I had finally had enough. After one particularly cold day, I climbed out of a dry dock and vowed to never get back in one again. I was cold, filthy dirty and thoroughly miffed off. My local pub was in Little Venice in London where I lived. After a bit of a clean up I went for some sympathy and a pint. The Bridgehouse was being run by Dennis and Jenny who were, and still are, dear friends of mine.  Dennis suggested I work behind the bar for a couple of months. I would be warm, well fed, and amongst friends. I accepted.

Within two weeks they said they were moving. Was it something I said? No, and would I like to go with them? Again I accepted. The next thing I knew I was working in a pub near Hampton Court called The Albion. After a few days I found myself at five pm in the evening with the place all to myself. It was the day before Christmas Eve. In walked two suited gents who had obviously just got off the train. They had also just as obviously come from an office party and were feeling no pain. I got the finger clicking ‘I say, my man’ treatment, but managed to serve the gin and tonics without saying words like snobby, git or anal retention. I couldn’t help but overhear the banter. They were lamenting the fact that Aunt Agnus was coming to stay over Christmas, the amount they had spent on the regulation vogue presents, the endless round of drinks parties and the bladder control problem during the sermon at midnight mass. Commercialisation, that was the problem. Nobody understood the essential message behind Christmas anymore. The moaning went on and on as the gents swayed, sipped and tried to out stare the optics.

Then one of them delivered the funniest line I have ever heard. “Whoever invented Christmas should be crucified”.

With that I was on the floor. What a corker!! I  wouldn’t be seeing the chaps for a good few minutes. They would be writhing on their backs in the same way I was. Then there would be a bit of back slapping and wiping away of tears before a congratulatory drink and the occasional mirthful outburst as the line got repeated like a wanted hiccup. I dragged myself up off the floor with a new appreciation of original wit. Perhaps I’d written these two off too quickly. Maybe I’d even buy them a gin and tonic. But when I did finally get up I was faced with two stony expressions which exuded a great distaste for the decline in standards amongst suburban bar staff. Had the landlord panicked and employed an Australian? How could this happen in Hampton Court? Well this was too much for me. Back down on the floor I went. I’m still not sure which was the funnier. The line itself or the fact that after all that lamenting the pillocks hadn’t realised what they’d said. Shortly after they left. I think I said ‘Gidday’.

(I’ve told this story over the last few years to anybody that would listen. One day I was recounting it again, when somebody said they’d heard it before. I’m not surprised it’s out there in Burb Myth land, but, like peeing in a wet suit, I have this warm comfy feeling in the knowledge that this really happened to me)  

Some years later the boot was on the other foot. I was born on Gatwick airport runway. Or to be a bit more precise, I was born in a little bungalow in a village called Lowfield Heath which was subsequently levelled to make way for the Gatwick Airport runway extension. When I was six months old we moved to a place called East Grinstead. My father chose this place for no reason other than it was West of where he worked. This meant he had the sun behind him on the drive to work in the morning, and again, behind him on the way home. He was clever like that, my dad. The only reason I mention this is because East Grinstead was not known for anything outstanding at all. If a house burnt down the local priest would hold a thanksgiving service for the break in the monotony. In East Grinstead people have no accent. Or rather it’s an accent devoid of any regional, cultural or class bias whatsoever. That is, unless you were born in the East end of London, in which case you were a posh git. 

My tug and I, Olton, were assigned to a dredging contract in Limehouse Dock on the River Thames. This entailed several months of towing long trains of mud barges to and from Bow Locks (try not to say this too fast when relating the story to a Presbyterian minister or any commitee member of the Womens Institute) where they would be emptied and could be hauled back to the dredger for the process to be repeated. For this contract I was given four Thames  Lighterman as crew. I was quite nervous of these gentleman at first. They were all four foot eleven inches tall, as skinny as rakes excepting very respectable beer bellies, and all a hundred and fourteen years old. They were also as strong as oxen and had been trained since birth to work dumb barges on the Thames (i.e row, pull, push, strap, etc) These craft would more usually be called ‘lighters’ or ‘hoppers’. When I was first introduced to these bionic gnomes I fully expected them to call the shots. But no. They had been brought up to do everything the tug driver said. How on earth was I going to tow a hundred yards of barges and a thousand years of knowledge with credibility. I could turn a train of lighters on a ninety foot line in their own length on still water, getting it right most of the time as long as nobody was looking, but this was different and our first team brief involved a lot of feet shuffling and few words. 

Eventually and largely silently we got on with what we thought might work. Luckily for me it generally did. In short we all quickly became firm friends and on the return journey’s with the emptied hoppers I let them steer the tug in exchange for stories. One day, fairly early on, I was getting ready to pull six abreast hoppers off a wharf. This involved me holding the tug against the incoming tide while the gnomes ran up and down the gunwhales of the hoppers strapping bows to sterns as I slowly pulled away. I was composing a piece of music (a hobby of mine I haven’t yet mentioned) and was just berating the cello section for coming in half a beat too late, when I realised I was losing the nose of the tug. We had to go, and right then. I gave the signal and nearly got away with it. Three lighters jerked their way reluctantly behind the tug before the tow line parted between lighters three and four. This was unfortunately after the gnomes had let go number six. I  watched the flooding tide spiral them upstream on the remaining three lighters with little to do except unclog blocked nasal orifices. I did a bit of long legged leapery and managed to tie off the lead lighter on a pierhead leaving the three of them to flap about on the tide. I then span Olton round on her stern and chased after the errant lighters and the stranded Lightermen. After I’d caught them up I was profusely apologetic as we reined the hoppers in. They looked at me with curious expressions. A tug driver had never apologised to a Lighterman in several hundred years and besides, as they generously explained later, there was nothing they hadn’t seen, nothing they hadn’t done.

It was a Friday and they took me for a swift beer after work. To a Lighterman, a swift beer means drinking a quantity similar to a small incoming tide. At one point in the evening the gnomes went into a huddle for a couple of minutes. They were debating something important. Many loud whispers and a few punches later they emerged. Tony, the lead hand, drew himself up to his full height and inflated his chest heralding a great burden of responsibility. They had decided to invite me to a real pub. The last Lighterman’s Pub in London. I felt the wash of a great compliment and accepted the offer after a ceremonial pause and a grave smile.

The five of us jumped into a taxi and drove for about fifteen minutes, and after crossing the river, were set down at the entrance to a dimly lit street. From the looks of our surroundings this was either where we’d asked to go, or the driver had refused to go any further. Whichever way, a pair of double yellow lines were the only things Charles Dickens would have found unfamiliar. Fifty yards later and a hundred and thirty eight years previous, there was a pub. It was called the Kings Arms. I was quite glad about this, because the nickname my gnomes friends had given it was surely illegal and physically impossible.

Raucous male laughter mingled with agonised ‘it hurts so good’ female screams to rattle the grubby but ornate etched glass windows. We entered. Well, I was pushed in, like a little steam engine going in full reverse having seen something on the line ahead but with the heavily laden goods wagons behind it fancying a decent rail disaster just for a laugh. The goods wagons split up with waves to various familiar faces leaving me to shoulder tap, side step, cough loudly and ‘so sorry to bother you’ to the bar. A girl with dumplings that oh so wanted to boil over came to serve me. With her opening line she informed me I was her darling followed by a question which suggested she’d never seen me before in her life. I shrugged my shoulders, smiled meekily and quickly recognised my Lighterman friend’s brand of ale. I ordered five pints. Then I went completely deaf. Or so it seemed.

Oddly I could still hear my gnomes across the crowded bar. But one by one, like the last child to realise the teacher has walked back into the classroom, they too fell silent. If it had been a Hollywood film there would have been the sound of a stylus scraped to the end of a playing record. I had committed a cardinal sin. I had said something along the lines of ‘please may I have five pints of your finest ‘Old Kidney Nemesis’, please. What I should have done is taken a particularly coarse metal file and a pepper pot full of very explicit words relating to the various parts and processes required for making baby rabbits, and set about filing the beginnings and ends off the words followed by a comprehensive and liberal sprinkle.

A rather large elderly gentleman in a very clean white singlet was next to me at the bar. He turned his benippled badminton court sized chest towards me, keeping his head pointing slightly downwards and towards the mirrored back wall of the bar. A spider would have had a problem holding on to his forearms as his tendons raised and lowered the ten fingers that now fell in and fell out with military precision. In short, the badminton court with a pink bubble on top suggested  I’d walked into the wrong establishment, and would I require any help choosing which window I would like to use for my imminent and much aided exit.

I turned to my new friends, the dumplings. They wobbled under shrugging shoulders. No help there then, but it was briefly nice looking for an answer. I turned for the door. The last time I’d been in a fight I’d stupidly taken on the inside of a wet paper bag and been left meekly calling for help. One of the gnomes (George) appeared just as I turned. He buried his head in the badminton court’s midriff and had a muffled one way conversation. The pink bubble paled a bit, held up ten fat fingers, and smiled at me in a conciliatory way. Everything was suddenly all right.

Somebody approached me from behind. Things were suddenly not all right. I was asked menacingly by  a somebody that resembled a large barrel and the evil Sheriff of Nottingham why I hadn’t taken the trouble to treat my completely neutral accent to the parts, processes needed to make little bunny rabbits and the filing treatment. Had I no respect for where I was?  I replied that, conversely,  I’d usually found that honesty was the best policy and all my life I’d resolutely refused to change my accent for anybody, anywhere,  as a mark of respect. A silence ensued. The high ranking barrel looked down at his midriff. It had a ‘Danny’ gnome in it. Another one way muffled conversation happened indicating that my answer would have to be accepted or the barrel would be opened and the pristine white badminton court would end up a funny colour. The pub relaxed and to cut a long story short, I wasn’t allowed to buy a drink all night, I was forced to say ‘accountant’ to the point of ill health and was invited to several baptisms, funerals and Christmas dinners which would have given even a halitosis burdened tax inspectors’ diary log jam.  

Leaping ahead to the codicil at the end of a whole bunch of stories with the gnomes, due to mechanical failure, I had to pick up another dredger and invited George and Tony along as crew. I’d offered George the wheel at some point but soon afterwards he suddenly remembered the date. The second ‘Marchioness Disaster’ enquiry was only days away and he became so upset by this I had to take the wheel back from him. For the next couple of hours I got the whole story as to what allegedly had actually happened on that fateful night where so many young party goers lost their lives on a party boat called the Marchioness, it having been rolled by a coaster called the Bow Belle on the River Thames in central London. George was actually steering a party boat behind the Bow Belle and actually saw the whole thing. Tony was actually steering another trip boat coming down stream minutes afterwards and together with their crews, actually rescued thirty or forty people.

 #########  I have deleted the details of  what I was told  #######

This, coupled with witnessing the event itself, got to George. He spent two weeks in Guys hospital after a suicide attempt. At various points of my scribings, I’ve been phoning old friends and checking that my memories are as scribed. I spoke to the Tony gnome and he confirmed things were as I’d said, but also told me that George died (peacefully) in early 2002. Bless ‘im.  

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Somebody Has To Do It – Chapter 6

Being a sole Lockeeper has its advantages. There are lots of opportunities for delaying some of the most unpleaseant tasks until a future date and there’s generally nobody around to contradict whatever slightly fluffy answer you’ve just delivered to a puzzled boater. The disadvantages do, however, out way the former. That future date always comes around and there really is lots and lots of grass to mow.

So I wrote a pleading letter to my MP and received a sweet reply suggesting I talk to my boss. This was an interesting concept and well worth consideration. After several days I took the plunge and phoned up the office in Devizes, introduced myself to the chap who vageuly remembered interviewing me, and put across a well crafted and succinct case for an assistant. After two years, a maiden speech in the house by my MP, a threat of grass blade 3861/s being left to grow over the regulation 50 cm and evidence sent to Devizes of a stress induced nosebleed, the boss finally agreed.

The great day came and he duly arrived at Hanham Lock in his jolly modern and pristine company car. Sitting next to him was a yeti. This I took in my stride and got on with the business of looking responsibly worn out but in control. The boss mouthed something terribly managerial through the tinted car window, pushed out the yeti and sped off back up the lane.

And then it dawned on me. Could this possibly be?…no they wouldn’t do this to me….oh, goodness, they had.

So I did what any full blooded and fearless Lockeeper would do. I screwed my eyes shut and proffered a non flea bitten hand.

 “Wooga, bang, bang,” it said, shaking my hand. I winced and swiftly put my bent hand under my armpit for some natural first aid and realignment.“Wooga?” It enquired. I answered. Lockeeper, mowing, strimmimg, customer relations, painting, crisis management whilst avoiding most flying objects and small children.“Bang, wooga, bang”. Nathan, machine operator for an earth moving contractor, ex-rock starry type drummer, keen fisherman, plagerised Shakespeare sonnets for a hobby, natural talent for scaring small children and returning flying objects to whence they came.I was impressed. Stig then dropped a black dustbin liner on the ground and rummaged through what I recognised to be various items of uniform. He pulled out a shirt and trousers.

“Bang, bang, wooga?” No, there was no one around. Knock me down with a feather if he didn’t completely de cack down to his birthday fur coat and pulled on the uniform. In my shocked state I blessed my luck for two reasons. Firstly there was nobody using the lock, and secondly, the hair on his head started at the top, and through 360 degrees, when straight to his toes, therefore protecting the finer chords of my delicate upbringing.

 “Wooga?” I duly went off to get some petrol only to find on my return the wookie dancing delightly on his former attire. He set light to the clothes and did a regulation cave dance around the fire as the resident wildlife leapt for their lives. Megan the border collie pup appeared from the other end of the garden. She stopped, inclined her head endearingly to the side, and then charged.“Wooga, bang, bang, wooga!!” Again I was impressed. Quoting Shakespeare and running at full pelt down a rutted lane with a merciless pup snapping at your hairy heels can’t be easy.I let Megan have a bit more excercise before calling her back. I’ll swear she can look smug sometimes.

“Bang, bang?” Megan, me, fireworks, pretty looking pekenese, tuna sandwiches and fifty quid in bloomin’ court costs, I replied. “Wooga” it said resignedly. I agreed, but the relationship with the border collie pup was going to have to be a success if he wanted a flourishing career as a Lockeeper.“Wooga”  I said, and set about obtaining details on how a wookie takes his tea. 

One day the most amazing thing happened. After two years with nothing but a bent screw driver I was told to take the van to a big tool shop and get some tools. All the things I’d so desperately wanted, and all in one afternoon. Spanners, generator, drills, grinders, chain saw on a long stick and other assorted goodies. It was like a Lockeepers Christmas without the wrapping of presents on Christmas dawn just before the kids get up. So the yeti and I decided to do a lot of nut and bolt replacements on the locks. After a morning of grinding, winding and bolting at Weston Lock, I loaded up the wookie and pointed at the van. I told him I’d be along in a minute as I needed an overdue pee. One has to be discreet about these things as I was constantly having to remind the wookie who had already traumatised two old ladies, one priest and an Alsatian.

Into the bushes go I and enjoy the relief. About a quarter of the way through what had been a successful operation I felt a scratch on my arm. And then another one on my leg, followed by two on my head. I’d never really had a problem with wasps. If one appeared around my sunny summer lunch I’d sit quietly, tutting smugly and nicking other peoples beetroot until the screaming died down. Another thing I wouldn’t of thought I would have a problem with, is if a giant came along and relieved itself all over the roof of my lock cottage. I might give my hands an extra wash after next dead heading the flower baskets, but would more likely look on the bright side of clean gutters and not telling Mrs Lockeeper why the washing hummed a bit. But my world was about to change, mainly because wasps don’t share my sunny philosophical disposition.

Once I realised what was going on I went into a bit of a panic. Obviously I had a few things to weigh up which included pain, modesty, getting far away and quickly etc. I ran down the towpath trying to flick off a thousand damp wasps with one hand whilst reneging on a deal I’d done with my bladder with the other. I think I remember saying ‘Aaaaaaaagh’ a lot. I reached the van where the wookie was just finishing loading the tools. It took one look at me and froze. As I approached at high speed its expression changed from one of perplexity to ‘The Scream’.

A boat went by. Normally I would have smiled  a greeting and the yeti would have waved a stick and wooga bang banged politely. As it was they were met with the sight of a very earnest Lockeeper desperately holding on to his gene pool while chasing a very panicked hairy rug who obviously didn’t like that sort of thing. If wasps had been bigger they might of seen what was really happening and maybe even had a little sympathy. Eventually the wasps decided to go home for a bit of a towel down and I cautiously checked out another bush.

The last time I’d been stung by a wasp it was while I was on a motorbike. The wasp on this occasion took a bit of an exception to being accelerated from very nearly nought to sixty in an instant and quite understandably dumped a load of bee poo into my wrist which in turn took exception and did a great impression of an long thin snake settling down to digest a big fat monkey. This time I knew I had been stung over twenty times and going by my previous reaction I imagined I was going to end up looking like an enormous bunch of grapes. A sheepish wookie appeared from behind a tree.

“Bang, bang Wooga?” What a silly question! Of course I was in great pain. Of course I couldn’t deprive medical science of monitoring the anaphalactic shock of the decade. Of course I’d let him drive the van on this one special occasion.

 One hot engine and four bald tyres later we arrived at the Royal United  Hospital in Bath. Within minutes I’d been stripped down to the waist and plugged into a spaghetti making machine. As luck would have it, the wasps were largely firing blanks and except for three or four large swellings in embarrassing places I was going to be fine. Later on that night, after a successful response to a burst of affection, I discovered Mrs Lockeeper researching Bee husbandry on the Internet

The wookie found it couldn’t take the strain and moved back to the Himalayas.

A few weeks after it was absolutely confirmed by somebody who apparently knew about such things that Mrs Lockeeper was brewing another little Lockeeper, I was told to take one of my rare and precious days off. I fought hard and argued for days, but eventually gave in. We were to go and get the lump scanned. I was nervous but managed to drive to the little cottage hospital in the middle of nowhere without scaring too many other drivers. We were a trifle early, and so I hit out in the name of my diminishing freedom by rebelliously rolling and smoking a cigarette. I made sure I was several yards away in a force five gale to the lee of the car, but I still had the assorted daggers treatment through the almost hermatically sealed car window. Then we went in through some double doors and I found a desk that had a ‘Reception’ sign hanging over it. What ‘Reception’ actually meant in this case was that the desk was a focal point for incoming gossip and while Mrs Lockeeper rested her weary bones I was made privvy to much more information than a certain Celia Ponsonby-Smythe would have liked via a nail file toting lady who resented the aging process with  vengence and a builders trowel. I coughed politely a few times which only succeeded in making the lady rifle through her hand bag and retrieve a half eaten packet of cough sweets. She slid them to me with a smile that might easily have been a nervous twitch.

A swinging door burst open like an overdue boil and another lady covered in lots of hospital bits bustled out with great importance. She called out a name. Mrs Lockeeper raised her hand. She got told she was a ‘poor dear’. I got a cold stare that exuded accusations of fault, blame, assault, selfish gratification and a few other crimes against womankind. What had I done wrong? Since when has having a nightmare about being attacked by a big marsh mallow in a tight fitting plastic bag been a crime?

The sterile Bodicea took Mrs Lockeeper through the swinging doors and all became calm. I sat down, picked up a magazine that seemed to be about how to get, keep and then torture a husband, while still making sure I was in earshot of the ongoing saga of Celia Ponsonby-Smythe, a particularly well put together dairyman and some assorted veg. The doors again opened a little bit and a summoning finger I knew so well told me to put down that magazine and follow. I followed. We then went down several corridors and passed lots of women on the way. Was I the only bloke in this place? Couldn’t there have been another chap around to soak up some of the vitriolic stares I was getting? Apparently not.

We entered this little room that had a desk, a bed and a photocopier with a television on it. Mrs Lockeeper got to partially disrobe and lie on the comfortable bed, while I was made to stand in the corner. The photocopier got turned on with one sterile hand and a fistful of wallpaper paste got splattered over Mrs Lockeepers middle with another. Then a computer mouse got splurged in with the wallpaper paste and bingo, there it was. On the screen was a picture of deep space. Lots of little white bits surrounded by total blackness. I suggested we changed channels. Bodicea ignored me. And then I saw something. It was an alien. Bent backbone bits, razor sharp teeth and a head the shape of a marrow that would have made the judges gasp at a village fete. For the first time I began to feel sorry for Mrs Lockeeper. What if it thought she was John Hurt and fancied a bit of fresh air? Mrs Lockeeper and Bodicea cooed and chuckled about what this supposedly perfectly formed alien was up to. It was doing somersaults, forward rolls and using Mrs Lockeepers bladder as a trampoline. It was due to invade planet earth after Christmas. I don’t think I said a lot on the way home.

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