Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Piccadilly High Life

Your author looking casually uncomfortable

First night in London got off to an exciting start, with something of an unexpected taste of city extravagance. Just before setting off on the train I discovered that for one night only two friends of mine would be in London, on the way from Kampala to Calgary (a journey many people have undergone over the years). So plans were hatched and schemes proposed for a single night in the city to see them off for their new chapter in the frozen slopes of the Rockies. After some blue sky 'outside the box' thinking - not to mention a bit of frantic Googling by the erstwhile Mr. Braeburn - we secured ourselves a slot at a staggeringly exclusive-sounding eatery in the heart of St James's. Normally totally out of our league (and we out of theirs), a TimeOut deal meant three courses plus Champers for £22. I say!

So we arrived at the appointed hour and found - admittedly unsurprisingly - every single man inside the restaurant wearing a suit. The girls in our party were looking the part, but Mr AG, GA, and myself were dressed in our normal jeans and shirts. The epitome of urban relaxed style we may be, but this place was literally around the corner from the Ritz. Afterwards I found the place's website and it listed their 'regular clientele' as - "the courtiers of the two Royal palaces nearby, the art dealers and money men of St James's, and the ladies who lunch after a morning's shopping in the fashionable shops of Bond Street." But clutching our printout of cheap deals to be had, we timidly introduced ourselves and were shown to our table.

To be fair, nobody batted an eyelid - even if I was half-expecting a moustachioed MaƮtre d' to sidle up to us and enquire if we would be more comfortable in the jacket and tie he would be holding. He did actually come over (and he didn't have a moustache), but only to wish us good eating. The restaurant was all entirely stark white, with dim lights and odd-looking large paintings on the otherwise bare walls. High glass ceilings rose overhead, and we joked that an unseen camera would be watching to propel us out of an ejector seat if we used the wrong spoon for our soup. I think we got away without any glaring errors of etiquette, although sharing half-eaten courses around is probably frowned on in those circles, it meant we could all sample what was on offer.

For the record, I had 'Pear and Escarole Salad', primarily because I'd never heard of Escarole and wondered what it was. The salad consisted of a few random leaves, walnuts, pears and thick gooey cubes of salty Stilton, so we assumed it was a type of cheese - but after checking the internet later I found Escarole was one of the leaves (it's an Endive, apparently, a member of the Chicory family). It was nice though - and preceeded my main course of Lamb and Purple Broccoli with seasonal vegetables, after which I had a rather tasty Ginger Pudding in Lime Custard. I was attracted by the innovative nature of the custard, and it was very good. So all in all, initial misgivings aside, it was a very pleasant meal, and I was pleased that the Sydney Swans top I was wearing attracted few stares amongst the city types tucking into their expense account-funded dinners. (I bet they knew what Escarole was)

After the meal we strolled along Jermyn Street, which has an amusing selection of incredibly posh shops for elderly well-to-do London gents. Many tailors and makers of silk shirts and ties, window displays of satin dressing gowns and scarves (I felt a subtle twinge of aspiration considering the success of my lounging trousers) [see below]. There were at least three smoking shops, with racks of Sherlock Holmes-esque pipes, tobacco pouches and thick cigars. One even had a display of smoking wear - jackets and fez-like hats - "to keep the hair free from the smells of smoke". A shaving shop next door contained a huge selection of old-fashioned badger hair shaving brushes, in every conceivable size, along with a Titanium shaving kit, and fake-ivory handled Mach 3 attachments, for the Gentleman who finds ordinary Mach 3's beneath him. 'Better than the best a man can get' should be their slogan - indeed it could apply to the whole of Jermyn Street, which I recommend a stroll down, as it was hilarious.

Anyway, our evening ended at Leicester Square after a walk through Piccadilly Circus, which I'd never seen at night before despite all my previous trips to London. It was pretty impressive, although it paled into comparison with the acreage of Neon I saw in Osaka (I have to keep mentioning it to remind myself I was actually there). As to the rest of my stay, tomorrow I'm off to the British Museum, I'll be taking lots of photos, so check back then for plenty of facts. Everybody likes facts. My Grandad's currently downstairs rattling around in the kitchen cooking up his Moussaka special - tonight's meal will be in far more relaxed conditions that last night's...

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Place at the Bridge

Clifton Suspension Bridge

In 1497 John Cabot (otherwise known as Giovanni Caboto) set out from Bristol on a journey to the new world in a remarkably small ship, called the Matthew. This afternoon I followed his path for a couple of minutes as my flight back to Edinburgh lifted off along the Bristol Channel, before turning right and looping over Wales. Yesterday I'd been standing next to the Matthew at it's new home on the docks, alongside (and dwarfed by) the other famous Bristolian vessel, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's SS Great Britain - 322ft long, and the first propellor-driven ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The city has a proud voyaging history, and recent grants and improvements have been ploughed into attractions like these, indeed the Great Britain is the newly-crowned 'Museum of the Year' for 2006. But it was £8.95 to get in, so we didn't bother.

It was a flying visit, but I think I got the most out of it. I kept telling my friends there, Chris and Vic, that I'd never been to Bristol before, but I remember my brother buying an SS Great Britain ornamental spoon for his collection (it was a tough upbringing), and after I discovered that the ship had been in the city since 1970, it meant I must have been to Bristol before (turns out I was 8 and we visited on a day trip from rainy Wales). But as my brother's cutlery obsession was the high point, it was effectively all new. The major tourist landmark in the city is the Clifton Suspension Bridge (photo above), completed in 1864 from a modified design by that man again, Mr Brunel. It's very impressive - it's anchored by huge off-white cables that hang in loose arcs between the brick towers. The muddy-brown Avon flows out to sea underneath, a couple of hundred feet below. Fittingly, the city takes it's name from Brycgstow - 'the place at the bridge' in Old English.

We also went to have a look at John Cabot's Tower, set in the middle of a large hilltop park. A dark stone staircase winds to the top (with some hilarious filthy graffitti on the way up), and there are great views over the city, which is surprisingly undulating. The weather forecast had said it was going to pour down, but the sky was clear and sunny, so we were out with a lot of other people surprised by the opportunity to do something outdoorsy. So to compensate, we had a pint of local South Western Ale in a converted dock warehouse bar, and hot-footed it back to their house for an evening of top quality sport. After the Man Utd v Chelsea game, a live NFL double-header, several beers, a takeaway curry, and one over of the Ashes test (it was all we could take), it was the end of a pretty good day.

So the next stage of my mini-holiday sees me off to London tomorrow morning, with eight days there - although of course I have been before many times (see here for one of them), but it's always great to visit the other capital. Hopefully my recent luck with getting wet will stop - I got drenched again today, as the forecasted heavy downpours arrived 24hrs late and gave me a good walloping as I tried to find the airport bus from the centre of Bristol. Sheltering at a bus stop, I had to hop backwards to avoid a mini tidal wave that was funnelled down the sloping road by the bus. A line of old ladies weren't so lucky, and a couple of them overbalanced and got very wet shoes. "Oh, O'im alroight dearie" they said as I tried to help them up.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

An Unfortunate Occurrence

Arte et labore indeed

I had a long 10hr day at work today, at the hospital, and with a taxing Lung cancer workshop for most of the day. The weather here has been terrible over the last few days - hard, blustery wind, cold, and with driving rain. Classic Scottish Autumnal conditions (and Winter, Spring and Summer conditions come to think of it). I've been drenched twice this week on my way home. Tonight saw Blackburn's third UEFA Cup match against the Dutch side Feyenoord, so my plan was to go up to the Murrayfield Bar - one of the few pubs showing the game, and the home of the sparse band of Edinburgh-based Rovers fans.

So I braved the horrendous conditions, with the twin delights of football and beer pulling me onwards, in the kind of blasting wind that pierces your clothes and gives you a dull throbbing pain in the temples. Hunched over, I got as far as Haymarket when I had the misfortune of walking past a Lothian bus as it thumped past on the way to Princes Street. It ploughed through a large unseen puddle, and with a sudden WHA-SPLUNSH noise, soaked me from head to foot. I was dripping, completely drenched. The driver can't have avoided the water, but knowing Edinburgh bus drivers I bet he had a smile as he lined me up.

So I immediately turned around and shivered my way home. I'm writing this with the central heating full on, in my Rovers hat and scarf (and Gentlemen's Lounging Trousers, of course), with a pint of Guinness and the Rovers game on the digital radio (current live score update 0-0). I've more or less warmed up, and it's all good. Also all good is my upcoming schedule - as of tomorrow I've got two weeks off work. I'm flying to Bristol on Saturday for a long weekend with friends (I've never been there before), then I'm off to London for 8 days to catch up with friends and family. After that, I've got less than a fortnight at work until Christmas, and then I'm off to Canada for two weeks. Rest assured, I'll be taking the camera and Macbook and filling you all in. But I won't be watching the Ashes after yesterday's performace by England...

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Gentlemen's Game

I was never as fast as this...

It's a special time of year for cricket fans, as this Thursday at the Gabba in Brisbane sees the start of the 2006/7 winter Ashes series. If you've just read that sentence and have no idea what I'm talking about (other than it mentions a day of the week and an Australian city), then you obviously know little to nothing about cricket, and that needs rectifying immediately.* I can't have DUaB readers out there uneducated to the pleasures of the great game, especially as your author has an (extremely tenuous) link to the upcoming Ashes series (yes Mum, I'm finally telling my Flintoff story).

My love of cricket started as a small lad growing up amid the hard-edged terraces of Northern England (we drove past them sometimes, that is). It's been estimated that half of all England's weekend cricket games take place in Lancashire and Yorkshire - young boys growing up there play cricket in summer and football in winter (in theory). So with a few friends I joined a local club side, BAe Preston. In keeping with the cloth-cap image, each team was sponsored by a nearby business - British Aerospace were then a major employer in the town (no longer). Other teams in our league had names like Dutton Forshaw (a garage), BTR (British Tyre and Rubber), Vernon Carus (a bandage factory), and Whittingham (Whittingham Mental Hospital) - I clearly remember matches at their pitch, which was within the grounds of what was a Victorian asylum, with odd-looking men in pyjamas walking around the boundary (true story).

Our side was split into under-15's and under-17's, and when I joined the youngest age group was run by two old salts called Dennis and Frank. They both worked for nothing, as far as I knew, and had a classic 'Good Coach/Bad Coach' vibe going, Frank being the cheerfully upbeat one, and Dennis being the git. Actually, he wasn't that bad, but he bumped me from the bowling attack once for a game against BTR and I've never forgiven him - my replacement John got a hat-trick in his second over, and that was that for my burgeoning career. Admittedly, I had never taken a wicket, but I was the reliable containing bowler, able to lock down one end while the other bowler got the wickets. At least, that was what I used to tell myself. I did also hit our captain on the head with a beamer in practice, splitting his ear open. Maybe that contributed, who can say?

So our parents drove us around on a bi-weekly basis to various wind-swept parts of West Lancashire, half of which were called off because of rain. We couldn't leave in case conditions improved, so everyone sat in the leaky dressing rooms and pissed around - it wasn't all bad. I was also decidedly average with the bat - in fact I really hated it, I was a tail-ender all the way. I used to volunteer to bat first in the nets at our practices because the good bowlers were always late and I only had to face my mates Alex and Phil, who were both spinners. I was OK at fielding though, and did make one catch in my career, against the farm kids of Longridge. We used to practice with a creaky wooden slip cradle, that fired balls out at neck height, or sometimes Dennis would thump the ball at us and expect us to catch it - how hard or high it went depended on what kind of a week he'd had. Alex once ran timidly over to catch one only for it to hit him square in the knackers. Oh, how we laughed.

Anyway, in matches I used to get pretty nervous and take wild swipes at the ball, and as a result was dismissed without scoring nine times in one season. I was going for the even ten when I managed to get 5 not out against Vernons - the rest of the team cheered me from the boundary (which still brings a smile to my face). The very next game, the one in Longridge where I got my catch, we bowled them out for 26. Our captain decided that I could open, and I scored 11 not out - my highest ever score, in my final game. I hit the winning runs (a four through my legs) much to everybody's surprise - not least my own. My fellow opener John got 16, and in researching this article, I found that he still plays for BAe to this day. But despite our victory, our team was so terrible we finished bottom of the 'Croft Roplasto Palace Shield' with only that single win. However, in a 'you couldn't make it up' twist, our year was about to change.

After each season there was a special one-day competition for the Tony Poxon Trophy (a local cricketer who had died suddenly), played in the cowfields of Longridge - which had become our lucky ground, in that we had never won anywhere else. It was a 7-aside tournament, and alas I was 8th on the team sheet, so I was confined to the bench (Frank couldn't go, so Dennis picked the team). It was a knock-out system, so we were expected to lose our first game and be home before lunchtime. By 9pm we still hadn't returned, so our anxious parents were wondering what was going on (this was before mobile phones had made it to Lancashire. They probably still haven't made it to Longridge). Well, in a Hollywood-esque twist, we had managed to get to the final, against the heavy favourites South Shore - a mix of players from various Blackpool-area clubs. Playing for them was a gangly youth called Andrew Flintoff, who was a lethally fast bowler. But even with him, we continued our stunning run, and beat them to lift the trophy. I got a medal (which I still have), and we got in the paper - for the photo, which was taken in semi-darkness after the game, I nipped onto the front row, so it looked like I'd taken part.

That was as good as it got, really. On the strength of that, we improved the next year, but were still pretty poor. My brother joined the club, so our parents had to make twice the car trips, Flintoff joined Dutton Forshaw for a brief spell, we enjoyed the hotpot supper at BAe's awards dinner (where our sole trophy was paraded). Frank managed to wangle it for a few of us to attend a 'Cricketing Centre of Excellence' held by Lancashire County Cricket Club at a leisure centre on the other side of Preston (that's why parents learn to drive, of course). I went with Phil as our bowlers, but sadly for me everyone had to bat in the practice nets as well. So I got padded up, and the very best young fast bowlers in Lancashire took turns to fire down at me. I think even Phil bowled quickly (and he was a spinner). The top junior there was, of course, Andrew Flintoff, who got me out with every ball he bowled at me. Most of them I couldn't even see, I just stepped forward and held the bat out before the stumps clattered behind me.

So my fledgling cricket career ended there. I enjoyed the games and practices, and the Centre of Excellence was a good experience, but I was never good enough to progress. Phil went on a couple of levels but broke his wrist playing rugby and couldn't continue. Andrew Flintoff went on through the levels, to the Lancashire Academy Side. Then he was called up to the full county team, and a couple of years later he was picked for England. Two years ago he was the 'Man of the Series' as England beat Australia to claim the coveted Ashes, and last month he was named England captain. This Thursday he'll lead England out against the Aussies at Brisbane as we try and retain the trophy. I'll be cheering him on, with no hard feelings...

* Cricket, from Wikipedia
Andrew Flintoff's biography

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Dedication's what you need...

Only 210ft short...

It may have passed you by, but last Thursday was the second annual 'Guinness World Records Day' - sponsored of course by the Guinness Book of Records, which as the 'fastest selling copyrighted book of all time' actually features inside itself (and presumably continues to infinity). Since the late Roy Castle first pumped his trumpet on telly in the 80's, breaking records has always seemed plausible to the average person in the street - there have been 2244 new World Records broken so far this year, up 173% on the previous 12 months. Indeed, the custodians receive a staggering 65,000 submissions annually. As a result the older country-specific 'Guinness Books' have given way to one all-encompassing Global Edition of 'World Records'.

So they may have moved on from charmingly humble things like 'Britain's Largest Brussel Sprout' towards the 'World's Longest Windsurfing Journey' (5045 miles along Brazil's coast in 2005), or the 'World's Smallest Bottle of Wine' (3cm, containing 0.75ml of wine, yours for $90). But maybe this means it's now easier to have a crack at getting yourself into the hallowed tome. Although I'm narrowing in on the World Record for the most tshirts (I don't know exactly what this is, but the record for the most worn at once is 155), I figure there has to be something I can do to 'be a recoooord breaker' - and thankfully the Official GWR website can help.

Under the 'Do try this at home' section they have a list of 19 categories for would be world-beaters like your author to attempt - and using 'everyday items found around the house', so no need for me to dig out the windsurfer and the Brazilian OS maps. A Saturday afternoon presented perfect conditions for the attempt(s) - pouring rain and galeforce winds outside, beer in the fridge, and only rugby on the telly. First off, culling the list down to manageable size - Tallest Sugar Cube Tower (57 inches) is a no-go as a quick rummage in the cupboards reveals only four Oxo cubes. I pile them up, and reach a paltry 2 inches. Most Clothes Pegs Clipped to the Face (159) and Most Grains of Rice Eaten with Chopsticks in Three Minutes (64 - set in Peterborough) look far too painful (doesn't raw rice explode in your stomach if you eat it?). So it's on with the rest...

First up is the Fastest Duvet Dressing, completed in May 2006 in 1m 3sec in Barcelona. I ignore the fact that I'm not really sure what 'Duvet Dressing' is, and guess it's just putting the duvet into the duvet cover as fast as possible. I give it a game effort, but finish almost 4 minutes off the Spanish record amidst a crackle of static electricity and a freshly lumpen bedspread. I think I could probably do it quicker the next time, but changing duvet covers has to be one of the least appealing prospects on Earth, so I give up and move on to the next thing - Most spoons balanced on the face, currently held by a 12yr old Californian with 15. I figure I can give an American schoolboy a run for his money, but my attempt quickly breaks down after I open a kitchen draw and find only 4. I award myself a moral World Record as obviously I'd have breezed it with the right equipment.

This quickly becomes a theme, as despite GWR's claims, I don't have many of these handy household things to hand in my house. Most Eggs Held at Once (11) fails as we don't have any - although as they don't specify the type of eggs I consider a cheeky submission involving a handful of caviar, but then discount that also as I can't afford it. Longest Distance Flown by a Paper Aeroplane (207ft) I would love to attempt, but it's raining outside, so I resort to the Farthest Throw of a Playing Card (216ft). Our hall is about 15ft long, so I calculate if I throw one to the other end fifteen times, I get the record collectively. Unfortunately it turns out I'm rubbish at this as well, and after ten long minutes I've managed to reach about halfway down the hall. I comfort myself by finding out the 216ft record was achieved by a magician, so he probably used mirrors or something - another one to me.

Longest Time to Spin a Frying Pan on the Finger (14min) I don't even bother trying, as I'm certain I can't even balance one on my finger, let alone spin it for the time it would take me to change four duvets. So I have a go at the Largest M&M Mosaic, which contained 5040 of them (a picture of Eminem (hoho) - which you can see here). I buy a couple of large packets and tip them out. But what to make? I have Green, Brown, Red, Yellow, Orange and Blue to work with, and decide on a nice seaside cottage scene. I very much doubt there are over 5000 M&M's in there, but it looks quite good. I get even more creative with another go - a stirring rendition of a 19th Century tea clipper arriving in the New World, complete with red seagull (M&M's don't come in white).

Very pretty, I'm sure you'll agree, but not close to challenging the incumbent and getting my name into the hallowed pages of the GWR. My final chance is with a couple of eating records - Most Jelly Eaten with Chopsticks in One Minute and Most Smarties Eaten with Chopsticks in Three Minutes. I'm pretty good with the woody implements, and have a huge pile of M&M's left over from my recent art project (they're similar enough to Smarties, I figure). I start with the jelly, and come nowhere near the 45g record in a minute, and just end up making a mess of the kitchen. The M&M's is more promising though. After a few practice runs, I come up with the right technique, quickly pinching them and preventing them pinging off across the carpet. After several queasy minutes, I get up to a personal best of 64, and look up the website to see how I did. The record is 170, and I snap the chopsticks in frustration, unwittingly achieving a new World Record - Most Number of Splinters Obtained During an Accident Suffered Whilst Attempting to Set a World Record.

Guinness World Records

Friday, November 10, 2006

The other Man in the Iron Mask

Harry and his minder

In 1907 at the opulent confines of a Gentlemen's Club in London, two raffish chaps started the type of 'What if?' conversation men always seem to come up with when alcohol is involved. John Pierpont Morgan and Hugh Cecil Lowther, 5th Earl of Lonsdale (he of the boxing belt) were probably mulling over the issues of the day - the fallout from the Russian Revolution, the first appearance of metered taxis in London, what Morgan could get named after himself, when they somehow stumbled onto a much more important topic. Would it be possible for someone to walk around the world, without being identified? Victorian England had slightly fewer CCTV cameras than the present day, but even then surely it wouldn't be possible to circumnavigate the globe without someone, somewhere, seeing your face.

It was the American banker Morgan (he did get the financial empire named after him, as it happens) who decided that it couldn't be done, and bet $100,000 to anyone who could successfully complete the task. It was at this point that Harry Bensley enters the story. A rakish City playboy, Bensley decided to accept the challenge on behalf of Lonsdale. There are various possible reasons for this, with the likely explanation being he bet his fortune in a card game with the two fat cats and lost, then pleaded with them to give him the chance to complete the wager and avoid insolvency. This could explain the amazingly harsh stipulations and clauses placed on the bet, and the rather novel method they came up with to ensure Bensley avoided being identified on his marathon trek.

As if the prospect of walking around the world was a minor thing, Morgan and Lonsdale insisted he follow a route through 169 British towns in a specific order, and then 18 countries as far afield as New Zealand and China still in keeping with their pre-determined route. Boston, Bremen, and Buenos Aires would be just some of the places Bensley would have to avoid being glanced at. He was to do all this with only a single change of underwear as luggage, and starting off with £1 in funds (to finance himself en route he would have to sell postcards). To ensure nobody would recognise him, he had to complete all this wearing a 2kg iron helmet from a suit of armour whilst pushing a pram (probably best he had the helmet on). Another man would accompany Bensley for the duration, making sure these stipulations were followed. Oh, and he also had to meet and marry a woman on his journey, despite her not knowing what he looked like.

Bensley and his minder set off on the 1st of January, 1908 from Trafalgar Square, pushing the pram containing his undies and a stack of postcards for sale. Understandably, a sizeable crowd turned up - or more likely wandered over to see why there was a half-dressed knight walking around - and the bet was on. What happened next is sadly the stuff of legend, and largely unknown. Six years later he turned up in Genoa claiming to have completed 30,000 miles of his journey and having only seven countries still to visit. Unfortunately this was August 1914 and Europe had suddenly been thrown into turmoil by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand three weeks earlier. Harry had to abandon his walk and return to the UK, where he joined the Army and was critically injured within a year in the fighting. After recovery, he lost all his Russian investments in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and became destitute. He died in a Brighton bedsit in 1956 with almost all traces of the bet lost - today nobody even knows where his pram and helmet are.

But some traces of the journey do survive, amidst the rumours and myths. Bensley managed to travel extensively around the Southern part of England, even if the legend has it he got as far as Japan. He met King Edward VII at Newmarket races and sold him a postcard for £5 (the story has it the King asked Harry to autograph it for him, but as this would identify him, he refused). He was actually arrested once for selling these cards without a permit, in Bexleyheath, Kent. Appearing before the local magistrate in his helmet (he of course would not remove it), an explanation of the bet so tickled the offical that Harry was actually tried as 'the man in the iron mask'. He was fined 2s. and released.

It's not known if Bensley managed to remain anonymous the entire time (wherever it was he got to in those intervening years) - a hotel chambermaid was once found hiding under his bed, no doubt tempted by the £1,000 reward a British newspaper had offered for the first person to successfully identify him. One part of the bet he did manage to meet, however, and it was probably the most implausible of the pre-departure clauses dreamed up by Morgan and Lonsdale - Bensley managed to find himself a wife. He claimed to have received over 200 proposals during his quest (although he was a renowned playboy, so there may be a touch of embellishment there). He married a Manchester pianist called Kate, albeit possibly before he left so it might not have counted, and ended up living with her in coastal Essex town working as a cinema doorman and a local Labour Councillor.

As to the bet, Morgan rewarded Bensley with £4,000 when he abortively returned to London following the outbreak of WWI. Bensley gave it to charity.

This article was written with the kind permission of Ken McNaught (Harry's great-grandson), and the photograph reproduced from his website (linked below), which has full details of the bet, the list of destinations, and more pictures - including Harry unmasked. Ken is very keen to fill in the considerable gaps to the story - so if you can help, he asks that you get in touch

Harry Bensley

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The wrong kind of fungus

This mysterious-looking rectangular polystyrene box was a present from my brother for my birthday, and it's not something I've been given before. It's a DIY home mushroom growing kit, of all things. I've never grown anything in my life, and as a fan of mushrooms (and food in general), I was keen to give it a go. I mean, how hard can it be?

This is what the insides look like - a bag of soil and a grey spongey layer of 'mycelium', a musty-smelling mixture of mulch and the all-important spores. Apparently this mycelium congregates beneath the surface of the earth and occasionally sends up an above-ground spore-producing structure consisting of a shaft and a cap, or Mushroom, as we call it. Wrongly, as it turns out, as according to Wikipedia - "The technical term for the spore-producing structure of "true" mushrooms is the basidiocarp." But then nobody likes a smartarse.

On opening the instructions, I quickly realised this wasn't going to be as simple as mixing the two bits together and waiting in the kitchen with the frying pan ready. After breaking up the grey layer and leaving it for a week to breathe, the next step was to mix the soil with half a pint of water and carefully placing it onto the mycelium. Then the box needed to be kept warm and moist for '5 to 8 days'. After which - and the key bit was marked in bold text "It is important that the mycelium does not grow on the surface" - the top of the box comes off and the budding fungi can be carefully misted with water from a plant sprayer (not supplied), and then it's omelettes all round.

So here I am all ready to go. The mycelium has been left for a week, the soil combined with the water to give the consistency of lightly sticky mud, and carefully placed on the soon-to-be-seething mass. Reading the small print on the instructions again, I was disheartened to see that the box has to be 'incubated' at at least 24C for the '5 to 8 day' period where the mushies start to prosper. Well, I live in an airy (i.e. cold) tenement flat in chilly Jocko-land, without an airing cupboard or similarly warm place. I decide to wrap the box in a couple of towels and hope for the best.

...and this is what I get. I'm no mycologist, but I reckon the mycelium might be growing on the surface here - what do you think? If not, these are some pretty wierd looking button mushrooms. Throughout the process I was checking under the soil to see how they were getting on, mindful of the depth issue with regard to the topsoil, but at every step there was nothing happening. It must have been too cold for the mycelium to germinate properly, I reckon. After the '5 to 8 days' had become '10 days with naff all mushrooms' I put the top back on and left it for another week, undisturbed. This was the scene when I re-opened the lid, which had me jumping out of the way in case my creations decided to turn on their master.

Apparently there are at least 1.5 million species of fungi in the world - although now there might be 1,500,001.