Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Mission Incompleted

The red one today, I think

Last weekend I was on something of a mission - one that some people I know would love to have every weekend (and some certainly do), but others would avoid at every possible opportunity. It's one of the UK's favourite pastimes, something that some love and some hate (and it's not laughing at the simpletons on X-Factor). It's clothes shopping. I just can't get into it, it's the worst way to spend a weekend. But a quick glance at my 'wardrobe' the other day revealed this - I have one white shirt, one long sleeved shirt, one short sleeved shirt, and forty-eight t-shirts. I know, I'm one stylish dude. In my defence, I do kind of collect them - although that's more an excuse as to why I've got ridiculously more than what a normal amount would be (I'm guessing around ten at most).

Also in my defence, I do get some use out of them, at work we have a 'relaxed' dress code - a top hat, t-shirt, and a cheeky smile do the job for me. The other reason I like buying t-shirts is because I can get them online (I currently have 13 internet suppliers in my bookmarks), so I can shop for them when I like without leaving my flat/bed/toilet (the wonders of wi-fi, or as the French pronounce it - 'whiffy'). This is because I know my size, and I know what I like. Other kinds of clothes need more careful scrutiny, or to be tried on, and that's when I begin to lose interest. But of course, one has standards to keep, so with the Christmas party season upcoming I ventured out to buy some outfits - and for added effect, I went to another city.

A forty minute train ride West of Edinburgh is Glasgow, Scotland's largest city. Even Edinburgers like me (hold the onions) will admit that if you want to give the plastic an outing at the tills, it's better to head over there. Plus for me it meant I couldn't just wander about, wimp out, and go home, as I was over there especially. At least, that was the theory. It didn't quite work out like that, for a number of reasons. First was the weather - grey, drizzly and with a blustery wind - classic west-coast Scottish conditions. The hordes of people everywhere didn't help either, nor did the fact that (and I could have predicted this, had I given it more thought) I didn't know where anything was and ended up wandering around aimlessly.

I met up with an old friend for lunch, in theory to bask in the glow of my sartorial procurememts, but as it happened we had some beer and yakisoba and my thinly disguised lack of enthusiasm evaporated completely. In the afternoon we wandered to the bus stop and visited the newly refurbished Kelvingrove Museum, that recently opened up to the public again after a £27.9m refit. A surprising hodgepodge of all kinds of things, the first thing we saw was a troupe of Goths (I don't know the collective noun), some in full costume, arriving for an educational day out and finding a very bendy experimental dance collective thumping about in the main hall. I think it cheered up a few of the men, anyway.

Elsewhere the museum staples of dinosaurs, stuffed animals, and suits of armour were enlivened by a serious collection of art, including efforts by van Gogh, Monet and Rembrandt. We walked around the whole thing for a couple of hours, pausing at the rather odd effect of a Spitfire fighter plane dangling over the natural history section like a sinister metallic pterodactyl. They also had the pre-requisite leathery Tuatara, which along with the model of a Giant Spider Crab seems to be somewhere in every Natural History Museum in the world (they look like lizards but are actually a prehistoric snake). They are exactly the kind of cheap, nothing to look at, but fascinatingly interesting thing Museums love - and visitors who know look out for. (I get extra Geek points for having seen them alive in their only known habitat in New Zealand. Well, in a tank in a Museum in New Zealand).

The highlight of Kelvingrove for me though were the children's comments boards, no doubt included to give the little angels something to participate in, what with all the 'no touching' signs everywhere. The best comments were in the 'Arms and Armour' section, where alongside several spidery scrawls along the lines of "I think war and fighting is bad and stuff", there were a couple of crackers - "If it wasn't for women there would be no wars", which boggles the mind - as does the card that said simply "KILL KILL KILL". I think if little Johnny's parents saw him write that when prompted to give his opinion of warfare, he'd be straight home to bed with no tea and 'Child psychiatrists' would be quickly looked up in the Yellow Pages.

Kelvingrove Museum website
The Tuatara - it's not a lizard

Friday, October 27, 2006

The UK loves the CTM


I was in Waitrose the other day (I know, I know, but it's the nearest Supermarket to my flat) and happened to be wandering through the 'ready meal' aisle on my way to the wholesome organic food section (ahem). Needless to say there was a massive selection of Chinese, British, Mexican, Thai stuff - but the biggest geographical stodgepile on offer came from the Indian subcontinent, in the form of over a dozen different curries. Three of them were variations of chicken tikka masala - which I have heard on a few occasions being called 'Britain's favourite dish'. So I chucked one into my basket next to the organic tofu cutlets and dolphin friendly fair trade eggs, and headed home (after being deprived of a small fortune - come back Somerfield!!)

The dictionary definition of 'tikka' is "an Indian dish of small pieces of meat or vegetables marinated in a spice mixture. ORIGIN from Punjabi ṭikkā," whereas 'masala' comes from the "Urdu maṣālaḥ, based on Arabic maṣāliḥ ‘ingredients, materials'." So it seems Britain's most popular curry basically means 'bits of things marinated in a mixture of materials', hence the disdain foodies treat it with, and the reason the rest of us love it so much. Legend has it the dish originated over here, possibly in Glasgow around the late 1960's. The BBC E-cyclopedia has it that 'one obstinate diner demanded gravy on tandoori chicken. A bemused chef responded by adding a tin of Campbell's tomato soup and pinch of spices', unwittingly creating the culinary masterpiece.

Britian seems to have become entirely reliant on CTM (as us lazy abbreviating bloggers like to call it) - indeed I read somewhere once that British firms now export it to India, although that's probably a 'selling ice to eskimos' style urban myth. Or Inuit, as they have to be called, of course. In 2001, Sainsburys sold 1.8m CTM ready meals, and CTM sandwiches are the most popular chosen from Marks and Spencer's range, they shift a whopping 18 tonnes a week. Although that figure includes 8 tonnes of soggy lettuce. UK curry houses - we have more of those than fish and chip shops - shift 23million portions each year, which if stacked in a tower would be 2770 times taller than the Millenium Dome - probably my favourite curry fact. And don't call them 'Indian Restaurants' either - 85% of them in the UK are owned and operated by Bangladeshis.

As it's origins are lost in the mists of culinary time, the exact makeup of CTM is something of a controversy. The UK's 8000 curry houses (half of which are in Rusholme) will all have slight variations on the theme - although the majority start with a tomato base, rather than the onion base used for traditional Indian curries. But not all do, however - in 1998 the Real Curry Guide visited 48 CTM purveyors, and found the only common ingredient in all was chicken (somewhat thankfully, I'll bet). According to 'Is it or isn't it - the chicken tikka masala story' - "CTM can be yellow, red, brownish or even green and can be very creamy, a little creamy, chilli hot or quite mild".

The late Robin Cook, former British Foreign Secretary (who used to live around the corner from me) once famously said "...Chicken Tikka Massala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences. Chicken Tikka is an Indian dish. The Massala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy." In other words, the British had a noble effort to try and assimilate a foreign flavour into our national identity, but found it ultimately too alien for our unadventurous tastebuds and hybridised it into another creation by swamping it in gravy (the answer to most problems with British cooking). They aren't half nice though. Anyway, I'm off for a Chinese. Can I get you anything?

The Chicken Tikka Massala story
CTM recipe

Monday, October 23, 2006

Ending the festival drought

I'm at the back...

In the summer of 1993 I attended my first music festival, more or less by accident, the now defunct (as far as I know) Preston Festival. Not up there with Woodstock or Glastonbury maybe, but if you found yourself in West Lancashire in that particular year and had a growing passion for music and lager it was a decent day out. I mention this here because yesterday I attended my second music festival, the almost as unknown Spectrum Festival in Edinburgh. Now bona-fide musos out there must be tutting and reaching for their first-edition vinyl collection on reading that - a 13yr gap in between attending a festival, the life blood of live and new music, from someone who claims to like music. I bet he even paid to get in and all, and didn't pay a Scouser to saw a hole in the perimeter fence (as a certain relation of mine does - and it's not my Gran).

To make matters worse, Spectrum is an indoor festival, in the middle of the city, on a Sunday afternoon. Hosted by the Queen's Hall venue on South Clerk Street, a flying visit by a couple (literally) of extremely talented musicians I know gave me the excuse I needed to get out from in front of Michael Schumacher's last grand prix and into the Autumn sunshine, although only for as long as it took us to walk over to the Southside of the city and into the converted church venue. The main stage still had the old enclosed pews arranged in a semi-circle under a large balcony, but we were there for the more tuneful acts appearing in the 'acoustic attic' upstairs, behind the bar on the right.

It was all very different 13yrs ago. The Preston weekender took place in Avenham Park by the River Ribble, in a large grass bowl ideal for crowds, next to an ornate Japanese garden ideal for sneaking a few underage beers (maybe that's where my interest in all things Japanese originates from). As I remember, it was the day before my Chemistry A-Level exam, so I took a break from covalent bonds and suchlike to stand by the river and listen to some music. Anyhow, soundwaves travelling through the air is chemistry, isn't it? (Or physics, one of the numbery sciences at least).

Headlining - and award yourself several 'muso' points if these names ring a bell - were the Sultans of Ping FC, and the Boo Radleys, one-hit wonders apiece (Where's me Jumper, and Wake up Boo! respectively). Not that it really mattered to us, of course. I remember standing at the back of the tent when the former act were playing their knitwear-based anthem and wondering what the hell had happened to music, if this was as good as it got. The singer was leaping about shrieking, in only a pair of silver skintight trousers, avoiding various bottles and cans hurled at him. My friends had vanished, but re-appeared later saying they'd managed to meet some bloke in a support act who invited them backstage for a beer. At this point I'd had way too much, so went home (after eating a Trebor extra strong mint so my parents wouldn't suspect I'd been drinking all day) to try and revise for the exam.

Fast forward to the Spectrum festival and we're suddenly all frighteningly thirtysomething and wondering where the time has gone. But at least it involved some better music along the way than that day by the Ribble. Now we have iPods, MySpace, the internet, filesharing, and Girls Aloud. We each paid our £5, had a red monkey stamped on the back of the hand, and wandered upstairs with a pint of Kirin Japanese lager (oddly fitting, given the circumstances). My exceedingly good friends Andy and Grant were involved in the acoustic extravaganza that followed, and were as crisp and melodic as ever, as was Andy's girlfriend Jess - who performed her hauntingly unique folk melodies quite beautifully (there's a quote for your Italian tour CD Jess). Seeing as Grant is emigrating to Canada via Uganda tomorrow, it was to be the last time all of that was to happen, so I was really glad I managed to see it. I wonder what the pick of the festivals will be in 2019?

Just a final point, in case you were wondering. I managed to pass the Chemistry exam the next day, but all my friends who stayed on at the festival failed (there's a moral in there somewhere). I later found out that the bloke they got talking to was Noel Gallacher, and the obscure support act they ended up drinking with turned out to be Oasis, playing one of their last gigs as an unsigned act before they joined Creation Records and became megastars. Of course, my friends could have made that up, jealous that only I knew what the difference was between an aliphatic and alicyclic hydrocarbon. Or at least, I did then.

Andy Raeburn
Jess Bryant
Spectrum Festival

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Seeing from space 2

Or not, as I know today. The photos taken for the immersing Google Earth are not satellite photos from space (as I thought), but merely taken from high-flying aircraft. Either way, they are quite something. Here's another run down of landmarks I discovered using it, complete with my efforts taken at ground level underneath...

The Australian Parliament, Canberra

Ulva Island, New Zealand

Blackpool Tower

Tokyo cityscape

Ryoan-ji zen rock garden, Kyoto

Eastern Creek Raceway, Sydney

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The mouse that roars

One of Europe's smallest mammals - the pygmy shrew

Biologically, Europe is a much-scoured continent. New discoveries and exciting finds in the Natural World happen in far away, dank places, like the jungles of New Guinea or the forests of South America. Until last week however, when a new creature was discovered on our continent. Not a small insect or rare deep-sea fish, Europe has a new species of mammal - the Cypriot Mouse. Scientists had pretty much thought every mammal here had been found already, as naturalists had researched and catalogued every corner of the continent - so to find something new as large as a mouse was a remarkable discovery. Mus cypriacus has bigger eyes, ears and teeth that it's relatives - but at the end of the day it's still a small, grey mouse, albeit apparently goofy-looking. Telling them apart from regular small grey mice is somewhat difficult, but it's great that we've got another mammal in our extended family.

There's some discussion as to how many species of mammals we have in Europe - Wikipedia lists 120, I've read figures as high as 230. At any rate, we've got one more now - and all those 'Mammals of Great Britain and Europe' guidebooks are out of date again (unless you just write +1 next to a photo of a house mouse). The problem are introduced species, and whether they qualify or not. Is the Red-necked Wallaby a European Mammal? No, of course not - although if you visit the island of Inchconnachan in Loch Lomond you'll find a colony of them happily hopping around. In 1975 two breeding pairs were released there from Whipsnade Zoo, and their relatives were born in the wild on this continent. You'd certainly not expect to find wild Marsupials over here - but there are other visitors that get marooned here too.

The moth-eating Hoary Bat (Lasiurus cinereus) - is found mainly in Canada, where it migrates south as far as Bermuda, but is sometimes recorded in ports of the European Arctic Circle as it has the unfortunate habit of roosting in shipping crates. Most European bats (there are at least 33 species) are Evening - or Vesper - bats. Almost all are insect eaters, except for some that catch fish and the Nyctalus (Noctule Bats) which have been known to eat birds. The extremely rare Spanish Greater Noctule Bat (Nyctalus lasiopterus), is the largest bat in Europe with a wingspan of up to 46cm. It has been known to catch and eat birds on the wing. Studies in Spain indicated that during the nocturnal migration of birds over the Mediterranean, as much of 70% of Greater Noctule droppings contained their remains.

Slovenian etching of the Devil shepherding dormice

The Edible Dormouse (Glis glis) is notorious for being the snack of choice for Roman Legionnaires. They were kept and raised in large pits or terracotta containers to be fattened up (their other name is the Fat Dormouse). They were either glazed with honey or stuffed with mince, peppers and nuts. In Italy they are still known as Ghiro, as they sleep for 20hrs each day. Found all over continental Europe, they are still considered a delicacy in Slovenia. An old Slovenian myth from the 17th Century has the devil appearing in forests herding dormice, making an eerie whistling sound (later found to be Owls hooting), and apparently Dormouse hunting is still part of Slovenian national identity. The only UK Dormouse population is found just outside Luton.

Europe has seven native species of Seal - Common, Grey, Ringed, Harp, Bearded, Hooded, and Mediterrenean Monk. Most of these are found in Northern Scandinavia, where their territory overlaps with that of the Walrus - which has been known to eat seals when no other food can be found. The Common Seal is - as you'd expect - the most numerous seal in the Northern Hemisphere, with a population of half a million (it's also known as the Harbour Seal in North America). But another species of seal trumps it in the global populations stakes. The Crabeater Seal is the second most numerous large mammal on Earth, as there are over 25 million of them encircling the Antarctic. The population biomass of Crabeaters is over four times that of all other seals put together. And they don't actually eat crabs.

The European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) is one of the continent's most common mammals, with a population in the many millions. Often classed as vermin because of the damage they do, it's odd to think of a rabbit as being critically endangered. You have to go out of Europe to find them though, to two remote islands south of Japan called Amami Oshima and Toku-no-shima. Here is the only place on Earth you'll find the Amami Rabbit, a small, dark bunny with tiny ears, short legs and clawed feet. Living in forests, it is the only remnant of a pan-Asian group that was out-competed by other rodents, and is now confined to these two small islands near Okinawa. Sadly locals introduced and released Mongooses to help rid the island of poisonous snakes, but they developed a taste for these highly timid rabbits instead. Critically endangered, they are now protected. It's not just birds of paradise and Blue Whales that need our help, rabbits and mice can be threatened too...

New species of mouse found in Europe
List of European Mammals
The bat that eats birds
The Amami Rabbit
The Slovenian Cult of the Doormouse

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

We're all directors now

In February 2005 two friends met in a garage in California to discuss creating a new web community. The idea was for any web user to be able to upload videos, share them, comment on each other's clips and generally surf around for interesting stuff (and without any dodgy content). They called their site YouTube, and this week the internet behemoths Google bought it for US$1.65 billion. So to give them a bit more publicity - everybody loves it when geeks become billionaires, after all - I had a quick rummage in YouTube's vaults and uncovered the following gems. Just click on the play button in the centre, and enjoy...

What did we do without the internet? Before it we wouldn't have been able to see things like this - a clearly lunatic woman who posesses mythical powers of control over houseflies. I'm not sure how she's able to hypnotise her Dipteran captives, but instead of making them do her evil bidding, she gets them to do acrobatics. Watch the clip of the four of them juggling balls and try not to be amazed...

Still in Japan - as predictably many of the greatest nuggets found on YouTube hail from - we have someone playing Tetris. Invented in 1985 by a Russian, Alexey Pazhitnov, it was so-called because each falling piece in the puzzle is made up of four squares. Working for the Soviet Academy of Sciences Computer Centre, he made very little money from his creation. A Soviet government company called 'Elorg' sold the international rights to Atari and Nintendo and everyone else made a packet. This clip features somebody playing the game at a staggering speed. There are rumours that it's been speeded up, but it's still eyewatering.

This middle-aged man with a play button for a nose is a planespotter. He's at the famous airport at the Caribbean Island of St Martin. Well, famous within planespotter circles, anyway. Julianna Airport's runway finishes at the beach, and apparently you can stand there and watch fully-laden 747's blast overhead right at the point of landing. You might want to bring earplugs though, and not just because this clip has backing music (that annoying Dick Dale tune from Pulp Fiction). For you fact lovers out there, St Martin is half owned by France (St-Martin), and half by the Netherlands (St Maarten), making it the smallest divided country in the world (38sq miles). Thanks Wikipedia!

I'm something of a tshirt person, having a collection numbering 48 at the last count. I don't fold any of them, but if I did - I'd try and do it like this (and fail). It starts off methodically and slowly, then without warning, SNAP!!, it's exactly folded in front of her. I've watched this many times and still can't figure out the method - it's like instant origami.

We all know there's nothing more amazing than an octopus - and here's yet another reason why. A diver swims towards a rock in the middle of a tropical seabed, which suddenly becomes an annoyed octopus and bolts off. Watch the slow-mo reverse footage and see how stunningly well it mimics the background environment.

I just can't watch this without laughing. Penguins are brilliant.

Over the next few weeks I'll be YouTubing (it's predictably now a verb) various videos I took on my travels, and will pop them up on here when inspiration strikes. Or when I can't think of anything else to put up, whichever happens first.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Shots of the Cape

Ah, the great American Road Trip. Ever since weary trappers paddled inland searching for valuable rodents people have written about travelling in the USA. It's a bit easier these days of course. This is your author somewhere on Cape Cod with a typical New England wooden building in the background, as Lisa and I drove along the Massachusetts coastal highway from Boston. I was also closer than I appear, apparently.

Years ago I remember watching a series of documentaries recorded by someone who drove around the US filming out of his van window at various random things he passed. I can't remember anything about it, other than the jerky, off-coloured, cinefilm gave an interesting snapshot of countryside life and people going about their business. This is my version, and here we have a woodland glade with a man teaching his son how to fish. Or maybe shoving him in, who knows.

Churches are a big part of American lives, and this is a fairly typical New England example. It was another corking day, being near the sea kept the humidity down. We drove out to a beach on the inshore side of the cape - on a map the peninsula looks remarkably like a curled arm, so we made for the bicep and hit the coast. A long wooden boardwalk snaked out over a saltmarsh humming with insects and birds. Young kids clustered around a small bridge, taking turns to leap in to the salty water out of the heat.

In recent times, social commentators have mentioned the increasing remit of the law in the United States. Here we have a good example - in the NorthEastern states crack teams of policemen patrol the highways looking at drivers' lunches, mayonnaise cannons at the ready. Woe betide the casual motorist who gets caught mixing beef and salad cream. Relentlessly hunting down crimes against paninis, rolls, and baguettes, trained sniffer dogs stand rigid with attention if they detect two-day old lettuce in a bun, or cucumber situated next to the top slice of bread, causing unacceptable soggyness. These guys are so tough, they can believe it's not butter.

Here we have what looks like half an ancient Greek temple erected by the side of the road. This curious sight, and dozens of tourists, mean you have arrived in Plymouth (or Ye Olde Plimouth Plantation as I refuse to call it). This small coastal town is widely regarded as the point at which the original pilgrims landed in the New World, so of course is a major landmark in American history. However, as with a lot of things to do with history, the real story is slightly different to the oft-quoted one. The Pilgrims didn't step out onto a rock at Plymouth, but first landed at Provincetown at the end of the Cape (they might struggle to recognise it today). Also, when they landed at Plymouth, there was no rock - "On Munday they sounded ye harbor and found it fitt for shipping; and marched into ye land, & found diverse cornfields, & little running brooks, a place fitt for situation..." wrote Gov Bradford, who was in charge. Note there's no mention of any stone-based contact.

The first reference to the rock - and here it is - wasn't for 100 years after they arrived. The rock - described by some as the 'Most disappointing American landmark' (according to Wikipedia) has had a torrid history. In 1774 the townsfolk attempted to move it, under the leadership of the wonderfully named Colonel Theophilus Cotton. Sadly, the rock cracked in half - so they decided to move the top half and leave the rest where it was. The top was housed in an ornate monument at the top of the town. In 1880, the halves were reunited after a fancy backdrop was created by the water, and the date 1620 carved into the rock. Today less than 1/3 of the original sacred boulder survives, and the crack was repaired in 1989 (with cheap cement, by the look of it). For all the ceremonial pagentry, and historical importance, when you get there and lean over the ornate railing...well, it's a rock.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Gentlemen, look away now


Last week I found myself at a Urology seminar in a central Fife hospital. No glittering award dinners or swanky foreign conferences for yours truly - although I do get my £7.20 train ticket back as expenses, I think. I don't usually talk about what I do for a living on here - not because I'm modest or ashamed or anything, I just don't want to get into trouble. But recently I've slightly changed paths in the cancer field and need some more background in specific forms of the disease, to help with what I've been asked to do. So that's why I made the trip over to the Kingdom to attend a series of lectures on the ins and outs of Urological cancer. And as you'll shortly be aware, ins and outs feature heavily. If you're reading this whilst eating, probably best to put down the sandwich and continue, or maybe visit someother site this lunchbreak.

Urological cancer covers everything to do with your 'waterworks' - kidneys, bladder, prostate (for some of us), and all associated tubes and piping. Euphamisms seem to be relied upon quite a lot - 'plumbing', and 'south of the equator' were both mentioned during the day. It was all very interesting, and started off with a talk from a Urology nurse about her role at a busy hospital - she was refreshingly frank about subjects like DRE - digital rectal examination. And this was the first speaker. Next up was a kidney surgeon talking about what he gets up to during the course of a typical day. His elbows, apparently (surgical joke for you there). He was a classic 'Old Chap' doctor, cheerfully mumbling about enormous tumours, people conking out on his table, etc. His take-home message was that Kidney cancer is extremely difficult to diagnose. "For example, you could have it, and not even realise!" he said lightheartedly whilst pointing at a woman in the audience, who went extremely pale.

The day wasn't ghoulish at all, these diseases are very very rare - for example the cancer we discussed immediately after lunch affects fewer than 1 in 200,000 people. Unfortunately for us chaps in the audience, it was a real leg-crosser. I asked a colleague over a plateful of free sarnies (it's not all bad) what was up next, and mis-heard her. "Renal cancer?" I said. "I thought we'd just done that?". "No, not Renal. PENILE", she said in that slightly-too-loud voice that comes out at all the wrong moments. So I sat back down wondering exactly what could be in store, and within thirty seconds of the 'Knob Doctor' starting his talk, he flashed up a photograph the likes of which I've never seen before so soon after eating. Thankfully I've got a strong stomach - I've cut open all kinds of animals in the name of science, regularly see photos of the after-effects of smoking, and pathology photos of colonic tumours (they look like chops) - but this...well. It looked like what happens when you buy a punnet of strawberries and leave one in the fridge too long until it goes squishy.

There was more to come of course. Only three men in the audience of almost forty, but we were shrinking into our seats as the powerpoint presentation of pain continued, punctuated by a staccato voiceover from the (extremely pleasant) willy man. I took notes, of course - if anything to avoid looking at the screen - and here are some of the phrases I recorded. 'mutilating surgery'...'left with a useful stump'...'fluid leakage'...'this patient had to sit down to void'. And so it continued. I've never before seen a photograph entitled 'stump regressed into the pubic fat', and I think never was enough. I was briefly left wondering why the surgeons referred to any salvageable remains as a 'stump'.

Well, it's because they use this as a starting point for surgically recreating the penis, of course. That's something I never thought I'd see, let alone type - but I have to confess it was all strangely fascinating. In a nutshell (no pun intended), they mould a new one out of skin from near the navel. "As you can see - it looks like a penis, albeit slightly smaller" he said - something no man should have to hear. So after that the next speaker - a specialist in erectile dysfunction - was a walk in the park by comparison. It was like listening to stories about stroking kittens, and indeed that wasn't far from the truth. I was listening to what was being said, but watching the woman translating into sign language for a deaf doctor in the front row - funny how the hand gestures for certain things aren't what you'd expect...