The gang...
The wonderful Mr Whaler...
Andrews House station...

A special guest loco...
The Visitors' Book...

In this blogposting...
*Newcastle Speedway
Now - once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more...

A hugely successful AGM XVIII took place at the Tanfield Railway on 25 August - as you’ll have gathered from the lovely comments, and even lovelier photos signposted in the Comments box of 214. For ease of reference, I’m posting a melange (as we francophones say) of photos here to give an overall flavour of an event which was very special indeed for at least one of those who attended!

It was a truly splendid occasion for Serge and I’d like to say, right here and right now, a big BIG thankyou to everyone who attended and thus helped to make it so; Vivienne, Linda (whose birthday I failed to commemorate last Friday) and Hildie, who brought along her sister Mary and brother-in-law Tony. A particularly warm welcome to them, too.

The weather was kind enough for us to enjoy coffee and scrummy cakes in the station garden before we embarked on what will, I hope, become an annual truckshunter tradition - our ride on the railway itself. That Serge was asked into the signal-box to change the points and signals beforehand was thrill enough but, as you can probably deduce from the pictures, Serge was beside himself with joy at then being invited to ride on the footplate and toot the whistle as the train made its stately way along the gorge of the Causey Burn.

Experiences such as these are indeed a privilege. Serge now has the unforgettable memory of taking part in the operation of the world’s oldest working railway - and catching sight along the way of the world’s oldest purpose-built railway bridge (the Causey Arch).

And almost none of this would have been possible without the affectionate attentions of Neville Whaler and his colleagues at the Tanfield Railway. He, and they, deserve medals the size of several frying pans - not just for hosting AGM XVIII but also for preserving the Railway and keeping its heritage alive.

All I can give them, though, is a very very VERY big thankyou from Serge and myself, and from all the other truckshunters who were there.

It was unforgettable.

...will probably take place on Wednesday or Thursday, 15 or 16 September. If you have any venue preferences, please get in touch.

A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Lawrence is in there somewhere...
The team at work...

Yet more thanks are due now - this time, to the great and wonderful Lawrence Heppell.

Everyone knows (or ought to know) that Lawrence - with whom I am privileged to enjoy breakfast once a month or so - is a speedway enthusiast of some standing (or, more usually, sitting).

I have to admit that speedway is a pastime the alluring magic of which has generally passed me by over the years, despite my long association with Lawrence.

Serge, though, is keen on motorbikes and the redoubtable Mr Heppell was thoughtfully able to arrange for us to visit Brough Park in Newcastle for a clash-of-the-titans meeting between Newcastle and Sheffield.

It was awesome. The atmosphere was friendly but palpably intense. A goodly crowd - Serge and I included - watched and cheered as the speedway riders, all of whom I consider to be terminally insane, roared around the track time after time. Up in their little glass box (see the photo), Lawrence and his colleagues kept their records of times and winners, as well as making all the announcements.

I’m not kidding; it was positively exhilarating. Yet another thrilling memory for Serge to bring back with him here to France.

Thanks very, very much, Lawrence. I promise it won’t be my last visit to Brough Park. Perhaps there should be a special AGM there....

Post comments on this blog or email me:
The runner (third from the left, obviously)...
In this blogposting…
*Another dangerous substance

Now, let the Devil take the hindmost...

...will take place at 1100 tomorrow, Wednesday 25 August at the Tanfield Railway. There’ll be cups of tea and a train ride and some scrummy cakes all round, I shouldn’t wonder. And, all other things being equal, there’ll be a very special guest.

A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Two days ago, and for reasons too deeply unsettling to go into here, I found myself 2,000 feet above sea-level - parked at the Hartside Summit cafe on the road between Alston and Penrith. I'd stopped there for a coffee and toasted tea-cake, and also to admire one of my favourite of all views. On a clear day, you can almost see over the top of the lakeland fells to the Irish Sea and to Scotland, as you'll know if you've ever been there on a clear day.

Clear days, though, are a thing of great rarity at Hartside, and last Monday was no exception. It was virtually enveloped in cloud to such an abysmal extent that it was practically impossible to see the viewpoint display board, let alone the view it explains.

An unlikely place and time, then, to hear someone say 'You're Ian Robinson, aren't you?'

The lady in question was called Jenny and, in what now seems to me like another lifetime, we had met one another at the Big Blue Bus at Chillingham Road in Heaton.

Nostalgia for the 'good old days' quickly became irrelevant, however, when she told me that, at any moment, she was expecting her future son-in-law to appear through the mist. He was running the C2C route from Workington to Tynemouth, a route normally (and sensibly) followed only by cyclists. To run it verges on the insane.

Jenny's future son-in-law, though, was doing it for charity - in this case, one devoted to the investigation and prevention of suicides amongst young people - so his temporary loss of reason is to be excused; welcomed, even.

As she was telling me this, he did indeed appear at the top of the path from Melmerby. He was soaked to the skin and exhausted (although he's so fit that that doesn't really show in the photograph).

So...Jenny...if you're reading this blogposting, please get in touch (via the comments box or via email, address below) and tell us his name, the names of his fellow-travellers on bikes, and how much he managed to raise by the time he got to Tynemouth.

It would also be useful to know where truckshunters can send any contributions they want to make.

If you have any further pictures of his run...well, they would be nice, too.


A big truckshunter-style hug to Michael, in Houghton-le-Spring, from whom I haven’t heard in ages and ages. He has emailed me to say that he was so petrified by the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide in the last blog that he has sensibly vowed never to go near it again ‘unless’, he says, ‘it’s been adulterated in some way; perhaps in the form of beer, wine or - in extremis - whiskey.’

Sound thinking, Michael.

Almost as an afterthought, he has also turned his attention to that other staple of the ‘poorest man’s diet’: bread.

After extensive research, he’s come up with de facto proof that bread, too, is one of the most lethal substances known to humankind.

I quote:
*more than 98 percent of convicted criminals are bread users
*fully HALF of all children who grow up in bread-consuming households score below average on standardised tests
*in the 18th century, when virtually all bread was baked in the home, the average life expectancy was less than 50 years; infant mortality rates were unacceptably high; many women died in childbirth; and diseases such as typhoid, yellow fever and influenza ravaged whole nations
*more than 90 percent of violent crimes are committed within 24 hours of eating bread.
*bread is made from a substance called dough. It has been proved that as little as one pound of dough can be used to suffocate a mouse. The average European eats more bread than that in one month!
*primitive tribal societies that have no bread exhibit a low incidence of cancer, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and osteoporosis
*bread has been proven to be addictive. Subjects deprived of bread, and given only water, begged for bread after as little as two days
*bread is often a "gateway" food item, leading the user to "harder" items such as butter, jam, cheese, eggs and sausages
*bread has been proven to absorb water. Since the human body is more than 90% water, it follows that eating bread could lead to your body being taken over by this absorptive food product, turning you into a soggy, gooey bread-pudding person
*newborn babies can choke on bread.
*bread is baked at temperatures as high as 240 degrees Celsius. That kind of heat can kill an adult in less than one minute.
*some bread eaters are utterly unable to distinguish between significant scientific fact and meaningless statistical babbling.

I’d be interested to hear from any other truckshunters whose researches into hitherto ‘blameless’ substances have led them to surprising conclusions.

Post comments on this blog or email me:


In this blogposting…


*The dangers of dihydrogen monoxide

*Edinburgh one-liners

*the Bible according to children

*Breaking records - slowly
Now, cry ‘Havoc’ and let slip the dogs of war…

...will take place at 1100 on Wednesday 25 August at the Tanfield Railway. Nev has promised us a train ride (like last year). And I’ll be bringing along a special guest. So…

A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

(Please get in touch if you’d like a lift to the Railway.)

Now then...I thought we all deserved a break from the Grand Tour and Life in France. So here is a small collection of bagatelles that have been sent to me one way or another. Some of them were sent a very long time ago. My apologies to the senders!

An Idaho high-school student wanted to show how conditioned we have all become to alarmists practising junk science and spreading fear of everything in our environment.

In his project he urged people to sign a petition demanding strict control - or preferably total elimination - of the chemical ‘dihydrogen monoxide’.

And for plenty of good reasons...
*it can cause excessive sweating and vomiting
*it is a major component in acid rain
*it can cause severe burns in its gaseous state
*accidental inhalation can kill you
*it contributes to erosion
*it decreases effectiveness of car brakes
*it has been found in tumors of terminal cancer patients

He asked 50 people if they supported a ban of the chemical.
*Forty-three said yes,
*Six were undecided,
Only one person realised that 'dihydrogen monoxide' is a posh name for water.

The title of his prize-winning project was How Gullible Are We?
He feels the conclusion is obvious.

According to a poll at the Edniburgh Festival, these are the most popular one-liners this year…
*I realised I was dyslexic when I went to a toga party dressed as a goat
*Cats have nine lives. Which makes them ideal for experimentation.
*The right to bear arms is slightly less ludicrous than the right to arm bears.
*My dad is Irish and my mum is Iranian, which meant that we spent most of our family holidays in Customs.
*I saw that show 50 Things To Do Before You Die. I would have thought the obvious one was "Shout For Help".

Some schoolkids were asked questions about the Old and New Testaments. Amongst their replies were...
*In the first book of the bible, Guinessis, God got tired of creating the world, so he took the Sabbath off.
*Adam and Eve were created from an apple tree.

*Noah’s wife was called Joan of Ark.

*Noah built an ark, which the animals come on to in pears.

*Lot’s wife was a pillar of salt by day, but a ball of fire by night.

*The Jews were a proud people and throughout history they had trouble with the unsympathetic Genitals.

*Samson was a strong man who let himself be led astray by a Jezebel like Delilah.

*Samson slayed the Philistines with the axe of the Apostles.

*Moses led the Hebrews to the Red Sea, where they made unleavened bread which is bread without any ingredients.

*The Egyptians were all drowned in the dessert. Afterwards, Moses went up on Mount Cyanide to get the ten amendments.

*The first commandment was when Eve told Adam to eat the apple.

*The seventh commandment is thou shalt not admit adultery.

*The greatest miracle in the Bible is when Joshua told his son to stand still and he obeyed him.

*David was a Hebrew king skilled at playing the liar.
*Solomon, one of David’s sons, had 300 wives and 700 porcupines.

*When the three wise guys from the East side arrived, they found Jesus in the manager.

*Jesus was born because Mary had an immaculate contraption.

*It was a miracle when Jesus rose from the dead and managed to get the tombstone off the entrance.

*The epistles were the wives of the apostles.

*One of the oppossums was St. Matthew who was also a taximan.

*St. Paul cavorted to Christianity. He preached holy acrimony, which is another name for marriage.

*Christians have only one spouse. This is called monotony.

Jackie Cobell, a 56-year-old lady from Tonbridge in Kent, has broken a very interesting record, and without even trying. She took longer to swim the Channel than anyone else who's ever been daft enough to try. Her time of 28 hours and 44 minutes broke the previous record (set by Henry Sullivan in 1923) by over two hours.

Some people, though, actually set out to be 'the slowest on record'. In 2002, Lloyd Scott (whom we once interviewed on the Blue Bus programme) ran the world's slowest marathon - twice. The first was in London and the second, a few weeks later, was in Edinburgh. Wearing a 110-lb deep-sea diving suit, the Edinburgh Marathon took him 6 days, 4 hours, 30 minutes and 56 seconds.

Earlier this year, a man called David Sheath took four days to paint a Fiat 500 car pink, using 131 bottles of nail varnish.

In 2005, James Belshaw and Sophia Severin made a kiss last 31 hours, 30 minutes and 30 seconds.

An Australian gentleman called Les Stewart holds the world record for typing every number from one to a million in words. Typing for 20 minutes every hour, and using only one finger, he began in April 1982 and finished in November 1998.

In 1893, Andy Bowen and Jack Burke fought the longest boxing match in the sport's history: 7 hours and 19 minutes.

In April this year, Surrey batsman Arun Harinath took 233 balls to pass 50 - almost certainly the slowest County Championship half-century ever.

And last but not December 1987, Kively Papajohn (for it is she) was stuck in the lift of her apartment block for six days.

Post comments on this blog or email me:


In this blogposting…
*Robinson’s Grand Tour: Ninth Day

...will take place at 1100 on Wednesday 25 August at the Tanfield Railway. Nev has promised us a train ride (like last year). And I’ll be bringing along a special guest. So…

A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

(Please get in touch if you’d like a lift to the Railway.)


Some day my true genius will be recognised. Decades after my ashes have been scattered unceremoniously onto a landfill somewhere, someone making the 2,000th edition of Who Do You Think You Are? will stumble upon this blog, or a scratchy old MP3 of The Nightshift and realise that, way back in 2010, there lived an unsung hero of cyberliterature and local light entertainment.

They will start campaigns to have blue plaques fixed to the walls of all 17 of the places I’ve lived. Statues of me in interesting and declamatory poses will appear in places I was most associated with: Peterlee town centre, Ilford Magistrates’ Court, Willesden Bus Garage…

Scurrilous biographies will be written and serialised in The Daily Star. Documentaries about my life and times will appear on BBC3 and be repeated endlessly on Dave and Blighty. I’ll become a deceased icon of my cultural environment, like Mata Hari, Lord Haw Haw or Dale Winton. Well, perhaps not Dale Winton.

And eventually, they’ll make a biopic about me. I can see it now. An innocent, doe-eyed young child actor - like that blond twerp in Oliver! - will play me in my salad days, growing up in the shadow of Blackhall pit heap, throwing rocks at passing trains and wolf-whistling Catholic priests in the undergrowth.

My gloriously creative life will be recreated in 3D, or even 4D (except for those Catholic priests). Future versions of, say, Johnny Depp or Kevin Spacey (or, most flattering of all, Sam Elliott) will dig deep into their cinematic souls and portray me as the sensitive, imaginative and pioneering spirit that I was.

This may sound to you like vainglorious claptrap being spouted by a fame-hungry tosspot who has considerably less talent than a baked potato. And you have a fair point.

In mitigation, though, all I can say it was these thoughts - or thoughts not dissimilar to them - that wandered idly and smilingly through my mind as I slowly woke up on that first morning in Florence. I opened my eyes and looked around my beautiful room in my splendid B&B. The pictures on the wall, of many different types and times and styles. The small sculptures and statuettes. The theatre and film posters. The huge, 17th century mirror. The asparagus ferns.

I sat on my bed, looked around and smiled again.

I walked over to the window and opened it. Five floors up, I was looking out over the jumbled rooftops of one of the world’s most celebrated cities. Some buildings rose higher than others and thus dominated what is, in fact, a fairly modest skyline; churches, palazzi and civic buildings, many with attached towers rising a little higher.

It was lovely to look at and over and beyond. Its peaceful lack of pretension means that the tree-draped Tuscan hills which surround Florence are visible in all directions and give the smiling onlooker - me - a sense of scale and space.

And, because the hills outside the city are so visible and so restful to gaze on, the view also gave me a sense of timelessness which actually took my breath away. It genuinely looked as if Florence had always been there. Or perhaps that the hills were ‘designed’ with Florence in mind.

Massimo brought me a cup of audacious Italian breakfast coffee and joined me at the window.

He told me that the view was, indeed, no accident; that the hand of ‘design’ was laying itself out in front of me, but hidden in the tangle of streets, alleyways and rooflines. And furthermore, that there was only one main criterion by which anything built in Florence had been measured since the late Middle Ages.

It must rise no higher than the Duomo, the Cathedral.

As we both looked west from our wonderful window, we were reaping the rewards of this far-sighted policy. There, about a mile away, rose the stupendous russet-red dome of the cathedral. The vista, which cannot have changed much in centuries, of this fabled, ancient city lent a definite air of unreality about the simple experience of looking out of one of its windows.

And that’s when the playful biopic idea occurred to me. If they ever make a film of my Grand Tour, this, I decided, would be the one scene I would like to be featured exactly as it happened.

I couldn’t wait to be out and amongst it all. I wanted to do some serious exploring. But M&S had a second musical card up their collective sleeve. As I was preparing to leave, they asked if I might be interested in a concert that was taking place that afternoon at the Teatro della Pergola.

‘Perhaps’, I replied, wary of over-organising my day. It is after all possible, I thought, to over-indulge the old musical passions. Why not give it a rest tonight? Why not ask them to recommend me a local restaurant instead?

‘The concert is entirely the music of Saint-Saens’, they added, nonchalantly.

Part of our wine-laden conversation the previous night had been about our favourite composers and I had been gesticulating wildly, and asserting rather drunkenly, that no-one had ever written anything to match the subtlety, beauty and intimacy of the music of my beloved Saint-Saens.

At first, I simply didn’t believe them. I thought that a Saint-Saens concert in beautiful Florence - while I was actually there to attend - was far too much of a coincidence.

But it was true. I rapidly re-prioritised my To Do list. Whatever else I did - and wherever else lay in wait to be explored and enjoyed - I had to get a ticket!


It should have been a simple matter. I should have made my way to the city’s central ticket office, bought my ticket for the concert and then - finally - I should have begun my exploration of the many sights and sounds with which Florence entices and beguiles its visitors.

It didn’t quite go according to that plan though. I caught a number 6B bus back to the station - the ticket office lay on the street right next to it. So far, so good. But as I turned the corner at the side of the station, my To Do list suddenly had to be re-organised yet again. For there, in all its pristine glory, glinting in the morning sunlight and beckoning to me to take a closer look, was the city’s latest pride and joy. A tram.

Trams are, of course, commonplace in Europe (and thankfully becoming commoner here, too) but this one was different. This one was virtually brand new. Florentines had been battling for years to have it built and there it was. And even though all modern trams have a graceful and elegant quality about them, I could tell immediately that this silver-and-red beauty was special. It had the stylish air of Versace or Galliano about it - sleek, unignorable and designed to within an inch of its life - as you can see.

At this moment, I realised that Florence had ‘infected’ my thought processes as it had already done to millions of others. I was comparing a tram to a catwalk model’s frock.

I’m not proud of this next bit. However, these scribblings have pretensions to be an honest account of my Grand Tour, so in the interests of historical accuracy, I feel I ought to lay bare the intellectual battle that raged within me at that moment. One one side, the Duomo, the Baptistry, the Campanile, Michelangelo, Brunellescchi, the Ponte Vecchio, sculpture, art and music lined up - better armed than they could be anywhere else in the world - against, on the other side, a tram.

The tram won hands down. I dashed into the theatre box office and bought my ticket for the concert (to ease my philistine conscience, I suppose). Then dashed back equally quickly, boarded the tram and rode it contentedly to its terminus at Villa Costanza, on the outskirts of the city, and back again.

People who make errors of cultural judgment of that magnitude are, as a rule, deserving only of pity, and perhaps some kind of mild, mind-altering medication. In mitigation, I can only say that, whatever city I visit, I try to find time to jump on a bus or a tram just to see where it goes. It’s a good way of getting out of tourist-crowded city centres, it gets you out into the ‘real’ city where people actually live out their lives - and you get to meet some of them into the bargain. There are some fascinating, if everyday, parts of Amsterdam, Seville, Paris and even Istanbul that I wouldn’t have seen were it not for my peremptory tram rides.

It was on this little jaunt, for example, that I got my first glimpse of the Tuscan countryside so beloved of the English chattering middle-classes. It looked lovely. Admittedly, if you looked out of the other side of the tram, all you saw was a shopping mall, but you can’t have everything.

By the time the tram had dropped me back at the station, and I’d had a bite to eat and a glass of wine, it was time to make for the Teatro della Pergola.

And that’s why, even after a full 24 hours in Florence, I remained untainted by its celebrated cultural delights as the lights went down and the curtain went up…
The lady sitting next to me was an 81-year-old Welsh expat pensioner called Alice. I realise how unlikely that sounds, but it’s true. I know it’s true because, when the performance finished, I tripped up on her handbag strap as I got up from my seat.
As we shuffled out of the theatre, she touched my arm and said something in Italian. The only reply I could think of, and which I rendered in a version of Italian which amounted to juvenile burblings, was to apologise for being English and for not understanding her. Her reply of ‘Never! I would never have taken you for English! Has anyone ever told you how German you look?’ in the rich, round tones of South Wales put the delicacies and gentle nuances of Saint-Saens clean out of my mind.

We continued talking back out on the street, in Florence’s gentle, late-afternoon sunshine. I couldn’t take my eyes off Alice. She was, without any doubt at all, one of the most beautiful older women I have ever seen. Her smile was broad and warm and her eyes twinkled. The lines on her face looked as if they were specially designed to enhance, rather than detract from, her beauty. Her outfit was a close-cut two-piece in various shades of brown, set off with a necklace and bracelet of wooden beads.

And so far, she’s the only person I’ve ever met who wears a ring made of wood. She looked stunning, and I told her so. When she accepted the compliment gracefully, I began to think that I was falling in love.

We walked slowly back towards the Piazza del Duomo, stopping often to laugh or be amazed. Alice was keen to hear about my Grand Tour and I was just as keen to tell her about it. I’m relieved to say that, for example, she agreed with me about Venice. ‘Venice’, she said, ‘is Woolworth’s. Florence is Fortnum and Mason’s’.

She seemed to have a vast store of aphorisms like that. ‘If love turns and smiles at you, smile back. Take his hand if he offers it. Walk beside him, not behind him’.

‘For Heaven’s sake, do not live every day as if it was your last. Live every day as if it was your first!’

‘Your friends are your table and your hearth; you go to them for nourishment and warmth’.

‘If you are doing something to kill time, that time is better off dead. Stop and do something else’.

Alice had married a waiter who worked in an Italian restaurant in Cardiff and had moved back with him to his native Florence. That was 49 years ago. ‘Why’, she asked, ‘would I ever want to go anywhere else?’

We sat on a stone bench at the foot of the Campanile. It was the first time I’d been this close to it, and I listened intently as Alice told me its colourful and flamboyant story. Designed in 1344 by ‘the wonderful Giotto’, 82m (270ft) high, with 414 steps to the top. ‘I’m besotted with it’, she told me. ‘Unfortunately, it’s closed at this hour. Otherwise, we could have climbed to the top and looked out over the city….’

I imagined myself struggling up 414 steps, gradually falling further and further behind this sprightly octogenarian as she once again indulged her love affair. I thanked the Fates for the lateness of the hour.

Eventually, Alice fell silent and just sat there next to me, looking up at the Campanile in sheer adoration. As I followed her gaze, I realised that she was right. It’s a wonderful building, fully deserving of her affection. And mine, too.

So there I was. Yet another dose of unconditional love to add to the day’s tally. Florence. Trams. Saint-Saens. The Campanile.

And Alice. After almost 50 years living her love-dream in this most Italian of Italian cities, her Welsh accent was as fresh and as pure as ever.

And, once in a while, I still wonder what it is about me that makes me look German.


But the day was not quite over yet. M&S had invited two French friends - Noam and Michel - to stay for the weekend. They’d arrived that day from Paris and I was invited to the dinner party, which took place in the cramped, cluttered and utterly delightful kitchen of M&S’s flat.

To be honest, I can’t really remember what we had to eat, except for Stefano’s positively stupendous tiramisu, the like of which I had never tasted in my life. It ought to be proscribed, with severe penalties for transgression, for its cream and chocolate content alone. Like so much else that day, it was unforgettable.

The conversation took a few remarkable turns, too. I found myself in the uncommon position of being envied for being English. I was in the company of two people who lived in Florence and two from Paris, all of whom were telling me how lucky I was to be English.

Much though I love England, this would have seemed rather perverse to me had the topic under discussion not been gay rights and the lives of gay people in Italy, France and elsewhere.

Although civil partnership, and even gay marriage, are now almost a commonplace in western Europe, Italy and France remain steadfastly opposed to any liberalisation of their laws. All four of my fellow-diners berated the insidious, and often quite blatant, influence of the Catholic church - although, as I pointed out, this does not seem to have affected Spain or Ireland.

It’s always sobering for gay people to remember, as we all did that Saturday evening, that, although our sexuality has long since ceased to be an obstructive issue for most of us in western Europe, being gay can still be fraught with almost unbelievable dangers elsewhere. In most African countries, gay people can expect long prison sentences at the very least. There are still 12 countries in the world, including Saudi Arabia, where the death penalty is routinely applied.

Back in my room, I opened the window once again and looked out over the city and to the starry sky.

It does no-one any harm to be reminded, once in a while, of how lucky they are; that they live in a country which has quietly (though belatedly) decided to accept them for who they are; and that there are countless millions of men and women who are forced to make a choice between ruinous self-repression or imprisonment, persecution and death.

Not all those who wander are lost...

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In this blogposting…
*AGM XVIII: The Wandering AGM
*Life in France: The Case of the Nonsensical Numbers

In order to accommodate the preferences and predilections of various truckshunters, and (more importantly) to accept a generous invitation from Nev, I’ve changed the date (again) and venue of AGM XVIII. It will now take place at 1100 on Wednesday 25 August at the Tanfield Railway. Nev has promised us a train ride (like last year). And, as I said in the last blogposting, I’ll be bringing along a special guest. So…

A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

(Please get in touch if you’d like a lift to the Railway.)


‘Your Honour, I come before you today to plead a very special case.’

‘I can see that, Mr Robinson, from the peculiar garb with which you have seen fit to adorn your not inconsiderable frame. Why the rat’s nest peruke, vermilion frock-coat and purple velvet pantaloons, if I may be so bold as to ask?’

‘You did not mention my crimson sparkling Dorothy shoes, Your Honour’.

‘No, Mr Robinson, I didn’t. Believe me - it was not a deliberate mistake.’

‘Your Honour does not approve?’

‘It’s like looking at a pantomime poster, Mr Robinson. I’ve a good mind to have you for contempt - except that your ruse has worked and I am now desperately curious to ascertain what kind of case necessitates an outfit that makes you look like a cross between Sgt Pepper and Danny la Rue.’

(Cough) ‘Indeed, Your Honour’.

(Wistful sigh) ‘Enough of this frippery, Mr Robinson. I don’t have all day. Please make your submission before we all die of levity. What’s this case all about?’

‘It’s about numbers, Your Honour.’

‘So far, so good. Continue.’

‘Your Honour, the whole world knows how blessed the English are. Shakespeare, the White Cliffs, the Queen, lawn tennis, Tesco...’

‘Yes, yes, yes - get on with it.’

‘...and the world’s most sensible language, Your Honour.’

‘Sensible, Mr Robinson? You call a language where aisle, isle and I’ll all rhyme, and where who rhymes with shoe which doesn’t rhyme with woe, sensible?’

‘I most certainly do, Your Honour - notwithstanding Your Honour’s brilliantly erudite examples of occasional waywardness in our native tongue. Indeed I would go so far as to suggest that there exists a language wherein such vagaries are very much the rule rather than the exception.’

(Gasps from the public gallery) ‘I need not remind you, Mr Robinson, that this is the Court of Common Sense and that your case would have to be a strong one indeed to top the noisome, though charming, gintraps into which the sacred language of the Bard, the Book of Common Prayer and Harry Potter lures the unwary foreigner.’

‘I believe, Your Honour, that I have a very strong case indeed. I speak, after all, of a language in which sensible means sensitive, occasion means second-hand, where one is not merely pleased to meet someone but ‘enchanted’, where one is never merely ‘sorry‘ but 'desolate' - a language, moreover, which has no words for moth, breakfast or love.’

(More gasps) ‘Do you mean Welsh, Mr Robinson?’

(Laughter) ‘No, Your Honour. I have in mind a language even more lacking in Common Sense than Welsh or even (cough)...Dutch.’

(Howls of incredulity) ‘Surely, Mr Robinson, you don’t mean...(cough cough) hesitate to say even the word...’

‘Yes, Your Honour. French.’

(Noisy commotion in the Public Gallery) ‘Are you seriously suggesting, Mr Robinson, that that grotesque combination of nasal mumbling, bestial grunts and grossly impolite shoulder-shrugging actually constitutes a language?’

‘I’m afraid so, Your Honour’.

‘Silence in Court! You mean a real language, Mr Robinson. With words? And punctuation?’

‘Yes, Your Honour’.

‘Mr is only my macabre curiosity which prevents me from having you ejected from this Court at once - or at least having you restrained in the manacles and strait-jacket I noticed you wearing at the club we both attend on Thursday nights.’

‘Er...yes, Your Honour. But please bear with me.’

‘That’s what you said to me on Thursday night.’
(Murmurs of approval from the Gallery) ‘Your Honour, I believe I can prove beyond any conceivable doubt at all that the so-called language of our Gallic neighbours (may Heaven preserve the English Channel) raises the level of total linguistic illogicality to previously unknown, let alone unscaled, heights!!’

(Cries of ‘No! Never!’) ‘Silence in Court! Mr Robinson, I have no doubts about your sincerity, your competence or your intellectual ability. You are, after all, English. However - and along with several members of the Public Gallery - I feel the need for a glass or two of some fortifying liquor. Beaujolais, perhaps. (Laughter) Burgundy. (More laughter) Cognac. (Guffaws) I think a ten-minute recess in order...’


‘I trust you feel suitably fortified, Your Honour.’

‘I most certainly do, young feller-me-lad. It’s amazing what a snifter of fine Armagnac, accompanied by a macaron de chocolat or two, does for the old grey cells, as Miss Marple would say.’

(Cough) ‘Er, yes Your Honour. May I then proceed with my case?’

‘Yes you young whippersnapper. That’s how fortified I am.’

(Polite cough) ‘The case centres around numbers, Your Honour.’
‘You mean one, two, three and so on?’

‘I do Your Honour. All languages have numbers and must therefore decide what to call them. As Your Honour so astutely cites, our beloved language here in the sceptr’d isle counts logically in tens - presumably because that’s how many fingers we have.’

‘If you include thumbs, surely, Mr Robertson.’

‘Indeed yes, Your Honour - if you include thumbs.’

‘We don’t really count in tens though, do we, Mr Robbins? What about eleven and twelve?’

‘Again, Your Honour’s prodigious perspicacity tries to catch me out. (Laughter) It’s true, Your Honour, that we have separate numbers for ten plus one and ten plus two. But these are, after all, the exception that proves the rule. After twelve, we name the next few numbers as simple variations of three-ten, four-ten, five-ten and so on.’

‘Ah yes I see that. Thirteen, fourteen. Hmmm.’

‘Yes, Your Honour. Up to twenty, which is a variation of two-tens - just as thirty is three-tens, forty is four-tens - and so on up to ninety.’

Nine-tens. Indeed, Mr Robson, perfectly logical. Awash with Common Sense and easy learnability.’

‘Absolutely, Your Honour. And the numbers in-between are easily constructed, even if the speaker does not already know them. Thirty-seven, fifty-one, seventy-six, ninety-four.’

‘Linguistic perfection, Mr Roberts.’

‘Linguistic perfection for which we should be much more grateful than we are, Your Honour. Especially when one considers how our benighted - not to say innumerate - neighbours across the Channel choose to express themselves.’

‘Come, come, Mr Robot. It can’t be that bad. Judging from the way my au pair talks - that is to say, endlessly and without any apparent need to draw breath - the French have their language (if nothing else) worked out. Everything runs together or disappears up the nose - or even, in moments of extreme mental agitation, both. Amelie makes every sentence sound like one continuous word.’

‘That, Your Honour, is a symptom of terminal semantic confusion rather than the sensible and rather humbling neatness to which we have become accustomed.’

‘Hmmm. To be honest, I have often wondered what the way the French talk is a symptom of. I’ve always assumed it’s because they lost the 2012 Olympic bid. Or that their president is shorter - and more vindictive and avaricious - than even Napoleon was. Or perhaps that the deplorable Oscar Wilde is buried in Paris.’

‘No, Your Honour. It is none of those things, understandable though they all are. It is rather an outward sign of confusion and long-winded indecision.’


‘As I said earlier, Your Honour, we are blessed with a language that has separate names for the numbers up to twelve. After that, everything runs smoothly and predictably.’

(Applause) ‘Yes…’

‘The French, on the other hand, have separate names for numbers up to sixteen.’

‘Sixteen? Why sixteen?’

‘I don’t know, Your Honour. And, I suspect, neither do they. After sixteen, the next three numbers are what you would expect. Ten-seven, ten-eight and ten-nine.’

‘They finally come to their senses, then?’

‘No, Your Honour. Their word for twenty comes as a bolt from the blue. It is wholly unrelated to their words for two or ten.’

‘What is it?’

(Writes it down) ‘This is it, Your Honour.’


Vah, Your Honour’

Vah??? But that means that almost every letter in this word is silent or mispronounced!’

‘Yes, Your Honour. It has that in common with most other French words, though. They may have lost the Olympic bid because their word for a hurdle is….(writes this down too and passes it to the Judge) ‘h-a-i-e’’


Eh, Your Honour’.

‘I said ‘Hay’.’

‘No, Your Honour. The word is pronounced ‘eh’.

‘So the h, the a and the i are all silent???’

‘Yes, Your Honour’.

‘Good Heavens, Mr Robeson. This is indeed serious. So what happens after twenty?’

‘They say ‘twenty and one’.’

‘How very English!’

(Laughter) ‘Insofar as it goes, yes Your Honour. After that, though, they miss out the ‘and’.’


‘Nobody knows, Your Honour. The numbers then continue in a gratifyingly Anglo-Saxon way, Your Honour. Like us, they have separate words for thirty, forty, fifty and sixty.’

‘And seventy?’

‘No, Your Honour. Seventy is sixty-ten.’

(Murmurs from the Gallery) ‘Which presumably makes seventy-one something like sixty-eleven!!!’

(Laughter) ‘Yes, Your Honour.’

‘Are you being entirely serious, Mr Robertsfield? A country which aspires to possess railways and contraceptive machines, the country that built the Eiffel Tower and the guillotine, has to say sixty-seventeen for seventy-seven??’

‘Indeed it does, Your Honour.’

‘Perhaps another reason for their Olympic bid failure.’

‘Indeed, Your Honour. And after sixty-nineteen it gets even more bizarre.’

‘Is that possible?’

‘Yes, Your Honour. They have no word for eighty, either!’

‘Perhaps, being French, they rarely need to count that far, Mr Robocop.’

(Laughter) ‘For whatever reason, Your Honour, they have to use four-twenties for eighty.’

(Guffaws) ‘So what is, say, eighty-six?’

Four-twenties six.’

(Loud guffaws) ‘And ninety?’

Four-twenties ten, Your Honour.’

‘Silence in Court!!! And ninety-eight?’

Four twenties ten eight.’

‘So almost every time a French person says a number, the conversation has to stop to give everyone time to work out what it is!!’

‘Precisely, Your Honour. If I said that my beloved parents were aged four-twenties three and sixty sixteen, even you would need a short recess to ascertain their ages, Your Honour.’

‘How old are they, Mr Robroy?’

‘Eighty-three and seventy-six, Your Honour.’


‘You’re welcome, Your Honour. Er...I’m afraid to say that there are further complicating factors, though.’

Further complicating factors is not a phrase I am particularly anxious to hear at the moment, Mr Ribbentrop. I think you have already made a watertight case that the French language’s system of number-names lacks the Common Sense of a boiled parsnip. However, I believe that the Court would rather enjoy hearing any evidence you may have that the language of Maurice Chevalier and Joan of Arc can get any more ludicrous than that which you have described.’

‘It’s a simple matter, Your Honour. To the French, any sequence of numbers is itself a number.’

‘I don’t follow you.’

‘For example, Your Honour, we say, in English, that Louis XVI was (alas) executed in seventeen ninety-two. We divide the year-name into easily quoted chunks. Seventeen and ninety-two.’


‘The French do not. To them, the year was one thousand seven hundred four-twenties twelve.’

‘It was?’

‘Yes, Your Honour.’

'I’m not surprised that the revolution was so bloody.’

‘Indeed, Your Honour. And George Orwell’s seminal work Ninteeen Eighty Four becomes One Thousand Nine Hundred Four Twenties Four - which is a rather less catchy title.’

‘Much less catchy! So the sainted Mrs Thatcher came to power in…?’

One thousand nine hundred sixty ten nine, Your Honour.’

‘I’m getting a headache, Mr Rattenburg…’

‘When telephones became popular, Your Honour, the French were presented with a real quandary. Whereas we would quote the number of London Transport’s Enquiry service as simply two two two one two three four, the French would have to say two million two hundred twenty and one thousand two hundred thirty four.’

(Gales of laughter) ‘And is that what they say, Mr Richardson???’

‘Fortunately no, Your Honour. The French Post Office saved the day by rendering telephone numbers as a set of double-digits. This means that, in France, the number I just quoted is actually spoken as two twenty-two twelve thirty-four.’

(Judge collapses in tears of laughter) ‘Yes, I can see how that makes it so much simpler!!!!’

‘I rest my case, Your Honour.’ (Hardly audible above the commotion of laughter)

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