Animal Turns For some time now I've thought it might be a good idea to put together a collection of my stories that feature ani...
Thursday, 31 October 2019
I'm rather fond of these two characters, Peregrine and Prudence. I wondered how they might approach Hallowe'en...
The owner of the house was eventually dragged from his cosy spot in front of the television by the insistent knocking on his front door. Opening it, he found two small figures, one a girl, dressed as a witch with chalk-white face and startling black make-up around the eyes. She was engrossed in her task of ferrying sweets from a bucket she was carrying, into her mouth. Next to her was what appeared to be a, slightly taller figure, resembling an Alsatian standing on its hind legs. The overall impression was somewhat startling but what made it odder still was that both figures were sharing a scarf*.
"Mmmf ur mmmf?" The Alsatian enquired.
"Pardon?" The householder responded.
The Alsatian muttered something, gripped itself under the chin and, after some pulling and tugging, removed a hairy mask to reveal a young boy underneath.
"I do beg your pardon" The lad politely responded, whilst attempting to flatten his hair down, "the mask does not lend itself to clear communication. My name is Peregrine, the small person next to me, currently attempting to break the world record for the consumption of cheap sweets, is my sister, Prudence. What I was trying to convey through my less than convincing Wolfman mask…"
"Oh, was that what it was?" The householder responded.
"Indeed, I must own to having doubts about it from the start. Anyway, as I was trying to enunciate…Trick or Treat?"
"Trick or Treat?"
"Yes, not my preferred tradition I must admit but needs must…our father, who is something of a traditionalist, urged us to try to resurrect 'Penny for the Guy' but, as I pointed out to him, even if Prudence and I were capable of constructing a Guy worthy of exhibition, at a penny a view it would take virtually the entire population of the town to finance a modest firework display, hence, Trick or Treat?"
"Ah, I see, so…" The householder began in an effort to staunch the flow of words from his verbose visitor.
"I must, on behalf of my sister, express a preference for cheap sweets in volume, if you have them" Peregrine smiled, winningly. Prudence attempted to do the same but was somewhat hampered by the number of sweets in her mouth and was reduced to a sickly grin.
"What if I opted for 'Trick'" asked the householder, who held the misguided belief that he could joke with children.
Peregrine sighed deeply, "I have to admit that I wish that were not an option but I suppose I have to remain true to the traditions of our transatlantic cousins. My father refers to the whole process as 'demanding benefits with menaces' but he's a policeman so I suppose that is the sort of thing he would say"
"What would it be then? Eggs and flour?" The householder chuckled.
"No, not at all. That would be crude and entirely unnecessary." Peregrine seemed a little distracted, He rummaged for a moment in a pocket before producing what appeared to be a reddish-orange tennis-ball sized piece of Plasticine. Rolling it around in his hand he seemed lost in thought. Then, eventually, "Have you heard of C4?" he asked, conversationally.
"C…C…C4? Isn't that some form of gelignite or something?"
"Ah no, a common misconception. gelignite is really a form of dynamite, quite an old-fashioned, albeit effective, explosive. No, C4 belongs to that more modern family of explosives known as plastic explosives, of which Semtex is also a member. C4, however, is off-white in colour, I understand, whereas Semtex is a sort of brick red orange" Peregrine looked, meaningfully, at the reddish orange ball in his hand.
"Are you…are you saying that's Semtex?" The householder backed a couple of yards into his hall.
"What, this?" Peregrine looked with astonishment at the ball in his hand, "Good heavens, no! Why, it would be the height of irresponsibility to wander the streets with a ball of Semtex in your pocket, would it not?" Peregrine chuckled and tossed the ball into the air, unfortunately he failed to catch it and it hit the driveway with a muffled thud "Oops, butterfingers" he exclaimed and bent to collect it.
The householder was, by now, crouched in a corner of the hall with his arms and hands covering his head.
"For God's sake!" He screamed, "You'll blow us all to kingdom come!"
"It's Plasticine!" Peregrine explained, "I'm in the habit of carrying a ball about my person. Don't ask me why, just one of the idiosyncrasies of youth, I suppose. I'm truly sorry if you connected my musings about explosives with the Plasticine. Father says that I have an enquiring mind and I do have a tendency to ponder about topics that interest me, don't I Pru?"
"Oh, yes" Prudence confirmed, "Father also says you're a complete liability and you'll be the death of someone, one of these days"
"Hah! Prudence will have her little joke" Peregrine smiled, indulgently but shot his sister a look. "No, this…" he threw the reddish-orange ball in the air and caught it expertly, this time, "this is Plasticine. This, on the other hand…" He produced a similar sized ball from his left-hand pocket. It was off-white in colour.
"Look!" The householder frantically searched in his pockets and finally produced a wallet, "I don't have any sweets but, here's a fiver…"
"A fiver?" Peregrine smiled weakly and raised an eyebrow.
"No, no, of course not, what was I thinking?" The householder rummaged further in his wallet, "Here's a tenner…no, here's twenty quid, you can buy as many sweets as you like with that" he grinned, nervously.
"I'm sure Prudence is enumerating them as we speak. Thank you so much for your very generous contribution, I'm…" but the door had been slammed shut, as had the living room door from the sound of it. "Well! That was a little rude, I must say!" Peregrine said with some feeling, adding the note to a roll of similar valued currency in his pocket.
"Not as rude as that man at 14b, he said you were a little c…" Prudence commented.
"I really don't think we need to revisit the obscenities spouted by the man at 14b, Pru." Peregrine interrupted as they walked down the drive, "now, here are the balls of Plasticine, you can do that bit at the next house and I'll eat the sweets"
"Ok Fido" Prudence chuckled as Peregrine donned his Wolfman mask, again, "I'll bet I can get £50 out of the next one" She giggled as she skipped down the road.
* See 'You'd Better Watch Out' for the explanation
Now take a look at our brand new collection of stories, with all profits going toward the winter feed requirements of the animals at TURN Education C.I.C.
Wednesday, 30 October 2019
Monday, 21 October 2019
For some time now I've thought it might be a good idea to put together a collection of my stories that feature animals. At the same time, I thought I would like to publish a book that helped a particular charity. This year, I've managed to combine the two ideas!
'Animal Turns' is a collection of 12 heart-warming, engaging but, most of all, amusing stories about animals, both real and imaginary. Some stories are from previous collections, others have never been published in book-form before. To quote from the blurb:
"Philip has gathered together a whole bunch of amusing stories about the animals in his life (with the help of Packham, the chocolate Labrador, of course). All of the profits from this book will go towards helping TURN Education C.I.C. to achieve their objectives of helping children and their families to Tackle Underachievement and Realise New beginnings."
In this book you'll listen in to the 'conversations' of Packham (a chocolate-brown labrador who delights in being called 'the face of TURN Education') and his friend, India. You'll hear, amongst other things, about my childhood indiscretions with dog biscuits, our dog's near-fatal fascination for railway workers, how a cat and her kittens unexpectedly came to stay, what the ox and the ass had to say in that stable on that night and what the camels that brought the wise men had to say about it all. If you like animals and enjoy a giggle, you can't fail to be amused.
As it says above, all of the profits from this book will be going to help TURN Education, a local Community Interest Company, continue their excellent animal-based therapy for children and their families. You can find out a lot more about TURN and its objectives by following this link.
The book is only available as a paperback edition at the moment, as we felt it would make an excellent stocking-filler in the forthcoming festivities. The price is just £4.99 and, although we would be delighted if you bought the book at all, if you buy it through Amazon we won't be able to maximise the amount that eventually gets to TURN because, understandably, Amazon takes its share. Therefore, if you could consider buying directly from me, that would ensure that a good chunk of the book price will go to TURN with no deductions for administration or anything - just a straightforward donation of the whole profit.
To order the book, just drop me an email at
and we'll put the wheels in motion for you.
We do hope you'll order the book, either through Amazon or ourselves, and we would like to thank you, in advance, for taking an interest. Packham has promised to wag his tail extra hard if you do :-)
Tuesday, 23 July 2019
I now had a couple of hours in which to do some last minute checking of my lessons for the next two days before heading out again. It was Friday night and Cliff, our local ‘fixer’ and licence-holder for the course, had arranged for my two male colleagues, whose programme this was, to accompany him to a local Sports Bar to watch an English football match of some import. They had, quite rightly, formed the opinion that this wouldn’t be quite my thing and, as it might involve the consumption of a number of beverages, might not be appropriate as I was to commence teaching in the morning. I had, therefore, been consigned to go with my female colleague, who had finished her teaching stint that day, and with Elena (Cliff’s right-hand woman) to a local restaurant.
I met my colleague and Elena in the hotel foyer and we set off into the deep chill and darkness. I had half-expected that Elena would have a car or, at least, the use of the driver who had brought me from the airport, but this didn’t appear to be the case. We set off over some wasteland and were presently climbing a grassy bank. Elena, being younger and fitter than either of us, made it to the top of the bank first. When we joined her, gasping and panting and somewhat nonplussed, we were amazed to find that we were now on the side of one of Moscow’s six-lane highways, teeming with rush-hour traffic. Elena was standing by the side of the highway with her thumb out and my spirits plummeted. I didn’t think she stood much chance but, within a matter of minutes, there was a queue of about 12 or 15 cars parked on the side, some private cars and some taxis. Elena worked her way along the queue, conversing with each driver in turn. Eventually she made her choice and beckoned us across. We climbed into a small, red Lada driven by a cheerful chap who was clearly on his way home from work. Elena and my colleague were in the back, I was sitting next to the driver. I immediately learned, from his disapproving looks, that wearing a seat belt was not considered the done thing. Elena later told me that it was seen as expressing a lack of confidence in the driver. Elena barked out a destination and we rejoined the traffic. It was apparent that the driver spoke no English, which was fair enough as I spoke no Russian. A few minutes later, he dropped us at our destination, Elena gave him a few roubles and he drove off happily.
Not unsurprisingly, we quizzed Elena about this arrangement and it transpired that this was a common way for people on their way home from work to earn a few roubles. She had worked her way along the cars that had stopped until she had obtained the best deal for the journey. We followed her to our venue, which was a fast-food restaurant chain called (if memory serves me correctly) ‘Moo-Moo’. This was a cafeteria-style place serving traditional Russian food. I can’t remember what we had as I didn’t recognise anything much but we finished up with a plateful of something and then returned to our hotel by the same system that we employed before. Overall, it was a pretty surreal experience.
The following morning, Cliff picked me up and drove me to the hotel where the classes were taking place. He introduced me to the students, who were a great bunch, and promised to return at lunch to take me for a bite to eat. The students were really bright and many occupied quite senior positions in their respective industries. In many cases they had travelled many hundreds of miles to attend this course and I had the greatest respect for their determination to succeed and for their ability to learn a complex subject in a foreign language.
At lunchtime, Cliff drove me to another hotel where I sampled caviar for the first time at a hotel snack bar. Afterwards, Cliff gave me a quick tour of some of the sights on our way back to class. I managed to take a couple of photos through the car window (see below) but the enduring image that hugely surprised me and made me laugh out loud was the sudden appearance of a giant golden statue of Charles de Gaulle, glimpsed down a side street. It just seemed so incongruous!
At the end of my first day of teaching, we all gathered together for the last time and Cliff took us to his favourite restaurant for a farewell meal. This turned out to be, somewhat surprisingly, a genuine American Diner in the city centre. This was the proper steel trailer type design with appropriately dressed waitresses (although the American customer service values were somewhat missing). I dithered over the extensive menu until Cliff said would I like to try his recommendation. Grateful not to have to make a choice, I agreed and, like him, ordered steak, fries and gravy. I have to say it was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had.
On Sunday, all of my colleagues were heading back to the U.K., I had one more day of teaching and then I, too, would be returning on the Monday. Cliff again took me to my class and also took me for lunch. This was another exercise in surreality. We had to wait for a table to become available in this gigantic hotel he had chosen. There seemed to be some sort of conference or something going on as there were hordes of people in attendance. Within a short while, it became obvious that we were in the middle of a body-building competition as hulking blokes, swathed in oil and very little else, made their way between the tables on their way to the arena, accompanied by their entourages. It was the weirdest lunch hour I think I’ve ever spent.
That afternoon, at tea break, I joined my students in the hotel bar for a cup of tea (with lemon, of course, not milk). There was an older chap, who was obviously English, sitting in the corner so I struck up a conversation with him. It tuned out that he was there teaching a different batch of students accountancy. He didn’t look like he was particularly enjoying the experience. I asked him if he would be going home soon and he sadly shook his head. Apparently he had another assignment to teach another class but this time in Sakhalin. If you don’t know, Sakhalin is an island in the North Pacific and is the furthermost western point of Russia, some 3,948 miles away and a 7 hour flight. I gave him my condolences and reflected happily on the fact that I would be going home tomorrow.
At the end of the day, Cliff picked me up and apologised that he wouldn’t be able to join me for dinner as he needed to spend some time with his family. This left me to fend for myself but I had spotted that there was a pizza place a short walk from my hotel, so I took myself off to there. It was a bit like the Bella Pasta range and I enjoyed a perfectly good pizza and a pint of Baltika. It seemed to be the place where all the bright young things went and I felt slightly out of it, sitting there on my, nursing my lager. Nevertheless, I had survived my two days of teaching and could now look forward to getting home and enjoying the build up to Christmas before I had to start the whole process again with the second part of my course, in January. I paid my bill, filched a drip mat as a souvenir, and headed back to my hotel.
Watch out for more from The Moscow Chronicles coming soon! You can find a lot more from Philip here
Wednesday, 17 July 2019
Being the fifth part of The Moscow Chronicles! Follow the links for Part 1 - Moscow Calling, Part 2 - Taksi! Part 3 - Night in the City and Part 4 - The Road to Red Square
Having singularly failed to get into Red Square and see the Kremlin, and having been frightened out of my skin by a young couple who just wanted me to take their picture, I decided it was time to head back to the relative safety of my hotel. To add a little variety to the journey (and hopefully find more reliable footpaths) I decided to head down the other side of the Moskva river and then cross the bridge before my hotel (see map below).
Tourist Map of Moscow - my hotel is circled in the bottom right corner
My journey back was relatively uneventful until I came to the bridge I had intended to cross to get back to the side on which my hotel stood. I climbed up the steps and was more than a little surprised to find that the bridge was under repair and had no roadway at all, just the girders of the bridge itself. If there were any signs warning about this, I didn’t see them. It was apparent that this wasn’t a big concern to the Muscovites as one or two of them were picking their way across the bridge along the girders. For a mad few moments I considered this option. I was getting tired and this bridge was my last opportunity to cross before I reached my hotel, the next bridge would require me to walk past my hotel to get to it. Then, I looked down into the blackness of the river far below and considered just how likely it would be that anyone would notice, or for that matter, care, if I fell to my doom? I decided that discretion was the better part of valour and headed back down the steps.
By and large I decided I had more than had my fill of hiking along the river and would be glad to get back to my room. My route took me past a small park with a lake (see map) and I thought it might be nice to sit for a while in the sunshine and contemplate the water. I found a nice spot and rested my weary feet. Despite the -5C temperature, there were quite a few people in the park, particularly mothers with children feeding the ducks (which goes to show that things are the same the whole world over). I particularly noticed a scruffy bloke standing a few yards away from me in the trees. He was standing with his dog (equally scruffy) which he had on a length of rope. He was staring intently at the water and kept rubbing his unshaven chin, as if deep in thought. I was a bit worried about what he might be contemplating and whether it would involve something deeply unsavoury happening to the dog (look, I’m British, we have our priorities, ok?)
Quite a few minutes elapsed with the scruffy man staring at the water, rubbing his chin, looking down at the dog and so on. I tried not to stare but it was difficult to avoid doing so. I don’t know why, but I became convinced that he was thinking about going in for a swim. This seemed an unlikely prospect as the lake was half-covered in pretty thick ice. I had just about decided I was seeing things that simply weren’t there, when he suddenly came to a conclusion. He tied his dog to the nearest tree and then methodically began to undress. First his flat cap and jacket were neatly hung on a tree branch, then his trousers and shirt and, finally, his vest and socks. Now clad in some rather grey-but-once-were-white underpants, he pottered down to the lake and waded in.
You have to say, he must have been made of rather stern stuff. No power on this Earth would have convinced me to part with as much as my overcoat, let alone strip down to my underpants and I dread to think what the water would have felt like at that temperature. What really amused me was that the ducks, most of whom were wandering about on the ice, pottered over to watch him breast-stroking his way across the lake from their frozen vantage point. I tried to capture the moment on camera but I don’t think I really got the best of it
Thursday, 27 June 2019
Being the fourth part of The Moscow Chronicles! Follow the links for Part 1 - Moscow Calling, Part 2 - Taksi! and Part 3 - Night in the City
I awoke bright and early the next morning. Well, it was relatively early for me and I’m never all that bright in the morning, but I did my best. I staggered down to the dining room which was somewhat gloomy, which rather matched my mood. The gloom was a consequence of the fact that it was below street level, with the only windows high up on the wall, looking out on the pavement above. This was exacerbated by low-level lighting and the relatively short Moscow day. I grubbed around in the gloom and managed to cobble together something vaguely approaching a Full English.
I wasn’t entirely surprised to find none of my colleagues in attendance. They all had their work to do whereas I had the day at leisure. The question was, what was I going to do with it?
On my way back to the room, I picked up a tourist map of the city and noted approvingly that the sun was attempting to shine. My original intention was to have a mooch around in the general area of the hotel so that I could have a better idea of my immediate surroundings. I hadn’t been able to see much when I arrived the previous night. Therefore, wrapped up well against the -5C prevailing outside, I ventured out into Moscow.
It was, by now, a bright and beautiful autumn day. I had a look at the Moskva River and then, gathering a little more courage, crossed the river by the nearby bridge and had a look at the exterior of the hotel before crossing back and then ruminating about what to do next.
My hotel from across the Moskva river
I decided, given that it was my only chance to sightsee, that I really should be adventurous and try and see some of the more famous sites. From the tourist map it seemed to me that I should be able to reach Red Square if I just kept the river to my right (see map below, hotel is circled in the bottom right hand section)
The only problem with this was that there was no scale on the map, so I had no idea of what distance was involved. The simpler option would have been to take the fabled underground, but I had little in the way of currency and even less in the way of courage. I decided to walk.
On reflection, I really should have read some of the advice printed on the back of the map. The very first thing it says is “Moscow drivers are quite aggressive. Please look for and use underground passes wherever possible and be extra careful when crossing streets” Well, fancy! I found this to be true in relatively short order.
The main problem with being a pedestrian (at least in 2005) was that Moscow seemed to have a rather lackadaisical attitude with regard to pavements. On many occasions I found that the pavement I was confidently striding along, just disappeared leaving me standing in the direct line of traffic, which seemed to see me as providing good target practice. This often happened when you were trying to work your way around the strut of a bridge or the sharp corner of a building, which meant that your appearance in the road was somewhat like the Demon King in pantomime. I rapidly learned to peer carefully around any such corner and be prepared to duck back very quickly if there was anything coming in the opposite direction. It was also quite usual for road works to suddenly make what little pavement there was completely impassable, with no alternative provided.
I had started the journey in a state of some wariness, largely connected to being a stranger in a strange land, but also because all of my impressions of Moscow to date had come from 1960s spy films and it was difficult to shake off the vague feeling of being a marked man, particularly when every car seemed to have my number on it. This odd feeling of being in a 1960s spy film was further enhanced when I noticed, on the opposite side of the river, a series of army trucks making their way along the road laden with armed soldiers. All of a sudden, this did not seem like any other city, anywhere in the world. I later discovered that the rationale for the troop movements was that the authorities were anticipating demonstrations objecting to the imposition of a new public holiday, in replacement for the traditional holiday normally held the following week.
The Road to Red Square
What with playing chicken with the Moscow traffic and the troop movements across the river, I was in a fine state of apprehension by the time that I finally reached the bridge leading to Red Square and the Kremlin. I was also conscious of the fact that I had walked considerably farther than I had originally intended. Nevertheless, before me were the impossibly colourful spires of St. Basil’s, looking like something Walt Disney might have dreamed up in one of his wilder moments.
I wasn’t sure whether I was disappointed, or not, to discover that access to Red Square had been shut off for the same reason as the troop movements I had previously observed. I leant against the railings of the bridge and contemplated the Moskva. At that moment, there was a tap on my shoulder and I leapt about six feet in the air. This rather amused the young Russian couple behind me who simply wanted me to take their picture with St. Basil’s in the background.
By the way, if you think the quality of my ‘holiday snaps’ in this article isn’t up to much (and I would agree) that’s because all of the pictures I saved from my trip have inexplicably disappeared from my hard drive (cue the theme tune to ‘The Twilight Zone’) and I’ve had to rely on my one and only print of the thumbnails of those pictures. Curiouser and curiouser!
The bridge on which I jumped a mile (with Red Square in the background)
Now read Part 5 of The Moscow Chronicles - A Bridge Too Far? You can find a lot more from Philip here
Thursday, 13 June 2019
Being the third part of The Moscow Chronicles! Follow the links for Part 1 - Moscow Calling and Part 2 - Taksi!
Stepping out from the Arrivals Hall of Moscows Domodedovo Airport into the Russian night was more of a surprise than I expected. It was, of course, cold, this being November. However, at an average of -5C it was, apparently, relatively spring-like by Muscovite standards. The real shock to the system was stepping out of a relatively modern airport building, which could have been anywhere in the world really, onto what appeared to be a building site. There was a makeshift tarmac path which petered out after a few yards into rough ground, which we clambered over to reach the car, parked, with loads of others, on the side of a sort of road designated by wire fencing. To be fair, I have since learned (thank you Wikipedia) that Domodedovo was upgraded substantially in 2005 and I must have arrived there in the middle of all of this. Nevertheless, the sudden switch from modern building to rough and ready ground was unexpected.
We set off for the City Centre, with me trying to find something to say that might be internationally comprehensible, and largely failing. The relative silence did give me chance to observe the road and traffic in more detail than I perhaps would have done. I was surprised to find we were on a busy six lane highway which did not appear to have any central reservation or safety barriers, just three lanes of traffic going hell-for-leather one way and three lanes doing the same in the opposite direction. The other surprise was that there was no hard shoulder, or rather, if there was it wasn’t used in the way we would expect. Cars that had broken down or stopped, for whatever reason, just stopped right where they were, in the lane in which they were travelling. This made for an interesting journey when you suddenly realise you were approaching a parked car at some speed and had to switch lanes in a marked manner.
Moscow itself seemed, reassuringly, much like any other city, with the same advertising hoardings, neon lights and traffic jams. We parked at the front of my hotel and I walked into the lobby, which apparently doubled as the hotel bar, to find a table full of my colleagues from university. I pulled up a chair and gratefully accepted a Baltika beer. Around the table were the two senior lecturers whose programme this was, a colleague of mine who was part of the teaching team and who had just completed her first day of teaching the students in Moscow, and Cliff. Cliff (not his real name) was the local ‘fixer’ whose company held the licence for the course and with whom our university was partnered for the course delivery. Cliff was an amiable and charming English chap in his 30s who lived and worked in Moscow and had done for several years. He knew his way around the city and its bureaucracy and was, therefore, the ideal link for us. My ‘taxi driver’ was, in fact, Cliff’s right-hand man here in Russia and was rumoured to be ex Special Forces.
I recounted my travails at the hands of British Airways, Domodedovo Airport and putative taxi drivers, which they found amusing. After a couple more Baltikas, I was more amenable to seeing the funny side too. I collected my key and set off for the lift to go up to my room. Beside the lift was an English version of the local Moscow paper, the headline warned of possible trouble ahead. Apparently, the following day, Friday 4th November, 2005, had been announced as a Public Holiday at relatively short notice (Unity Day, I think) and there were concerns that there might be some demonstrations as the public were expecting to be celebrating a different event on a different date. This did not bode well for me as I had Friday at leisure, was due to teach on Saturday and Sunday, then returning to the U.K. on Monday.
I repaired to my room, which was not unlike a student’s bedroom in the Halls of Residence at home - bed, desk, T.V., small en-suite shower room, wardrobe. I knew, from discussions before at the university, that the cost per night for this room was eye-wateringly expensive and had only been reduced to this exorbitant level by virtue of one of the two course leaders staying on for a few days to deliver some free management training to the hotel staff. To find that all we were getting for this amount was this tiny room, was a bit of a surprise! Still, I would be able to review my teaching materials here in my spare time tomorrow. Now it was time to call my wife and let her know I was safely installed and then to collapse in a heap at the end of a long and stressful day. Tomorrow, I could explore my new surroundings.
Watch out for Part 4 of The Moscow Chronicles coming soon. You can find a lot more from Philip here