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a cure for horsefly bites

Horseflies, or cleggs, as they call them up north are right bastards. Being bitten once is an indignity, to be swarmed, as often happens, can result in bumps aplenty and in my case an allergic reaction. I was once bitten by a clegg in Scotland and my arm ballooned like something inflatable. The pus seeped for days. In the Pyrenees, walking the GR10 I was mobbed for what seemed like weeks by the nasty creatures. Multiple bites inflicted on bare legs started to get infected and finally I was bitten on the tongue- gasping for air on a steep ascent one flew in and got me. I had visions of my palate swelling and blocking all airways, my tongue expanding like the swollen licker of a hanged man- but no- nothing happened. Nothing. Saliva, as reported in 2008 in New Scientist, is a great natural anti-biotic. After this, as soon as I got bitten I now gobbed a big load of saliva onto the bite site (and killed the clegg if I could) and this stopped all further swelling. As long as I got the spit on the bite within 30 seconds I was fine. Not even a pimple. Later I found this works with all insect bites and is a great first treatment for any outdoor cut. Suck on it!

In the summer this post gets a lot of hits- presumably by people who have just been bitten. If that has happened, and you have an allergic reaction you may get a lot of swelling and it's too late to apply the 30 second-suck treatment. However you can keep rubbing saliva on the bite to stop it getting infected. You'll have redness, maybe some irritation and swelling but you'll be fine. If you do get an infection with painful lymph glands and a huge swelling go to the doctor for some antibiotics in the worst case. Moderate swelling will go down after a few days.


where is home for you?

I was walking from the stationers today clutching my new ream of A4 paper and feeling pretty happy when all of a sudden I thought 'it doesn't matter that this place Cairo doesn't seem like 'home'. This is the place where you are writing a novel. And it's a good place to write that novel. And I'm happy here.'

But where is this place home? My parents had a great house in the Oxfordshire countryside which they bought when I was 18 and sold when I was 32. I didn't even spend my childhood there and I never lived at home except during the holidays, but that place always feels like home to me. It was an old house with a good feeling about it, a welcoming cosy feeling. 

Kipling claimed 'to leave home is to be on the road forever.' My Aunt told me something similar- 'when you leave that place you think of as home you never get it back again.' But what about those people who never leave- do they know what they have?

My friend Paul Gordon Chandler told me he thinks of Cairo as home now he has decided to stay here for the foreseeable future. Is home a decision then?

Of course it's many things- people mainly I imagine- but for me it is what you do that is important. Home is where you do what you most want to do- and you make the best of it.


random thoughts on tickling

Intellectuals find the world a puzzling place because they think that all communication is effected through words. They are always missing about 60%. Despite the obvious superficiality of the hollywood hug, touch is a much underrated form of communication. Robert Graves used to like tickling people: recalcitrant smart alecs in their early 20s, old buffers standing on ceremony, friends who owed him money. Tickle someone today!


zenslacker #2

1. There is a way to be in a rush. If you sit in a coffee shop doing nothing you can observe the kind of rush other people are in when they pay their bill or buy things from the counter. What kind of rush are you in?

2. Trying to go with the flow sometimes works, but often doesn’t. To go with the flow you should try to resist it to the maximum. This may even make you laugh- when it does you’ll find it’s easy to go with the flow

3. When you try to chill out it’s more trying than chilling. You’ll find that things that are unexpected will still irritate you and then depress you because you realize your cool is skin deep. The trick is to change your perspective not your mood. Going for a long walk often helps. So does frequent travel to interesting places, if you can manage it. But really the only way to learn how to alter your perspective is to practise seeing things from as many different points of view as you can imagine. List the benefits of global warming. Examine the flaws in Mother Teresa’s character. Watch how your mood follows your perspective.

4. Most of us, at various stages in our lives, become involved with trying to achieve success at something we neither enjoy nor really value. We feel that without this ‘success’ we are nothing, ‘a failure’ in the eyes of the world. It’s a feeling that can engulf you for years, and then you emerge and wonder what all the fuss was about. The Zenslacker way out of feeling burdened by the need to be a success (and the momentary pomposity that comes with momentary success in the eyes of others) is to observe it, note it, and then do something you really enjoy. Maybe a jigsaw. Another technique is to just do nothing (really nothing, just keep sitting where you are without even moving) until the feeling passes, or the feeling's importance. It usually does, but if it doesn't: observe it, note it and go and find that jigsaw. Lego is good too.

5. If people did less there would be less. Of everything.






a few small mysteries

1.   Why do fingernails grow more slowly on camping holidays?

2.   Why did HG Wells, who rarely washed smell reputedly of honey?

3.   Why does mixing honey into yoghurt make it go runnier than either the honey or the yoghurt?



cairo nights: the cave of the motors

Hirafiyeen is an area in Cairo just past the airport where they dismantle and sell car parts and parts of cars. I say this advisedly as one is assaulted at once by stacks and stacks of fronts and backs of cars sitting in the dust waiting to be welded onto a vehicle missing just such a huge and vital piece.

We were there to buy an engine, the second engine in a week no less, a Honda civic engine of the type D16Y6 no less, I had done my internet research and thought I knew what I was looking for. The first engine had been bought by a mechanic and turned out to be wrong, the mechanic was fired and now it was all down to me. The one before that, the original engine, had been destroyed by an over eager driver employed by us to take the kids to school who had poured water (the driver did this not the kids) onto the block to cool it down. You shouldn’t do that I told him and then the engine blew up. He was so embarrassed he fired himself from the job the next day.

I was there with my brother in law who is a judge, though rather young and not at all judge-like in demeanor, but that’s the Code Napoleon for you, and a faithful, if inept, Mr Fixit called Ibrahim who has been with my wife’s family off and on for twelve years now. Ibrahim is also known to be going mad. He talks to himself as he drives and provides a running commentary of any difficult driving manoevre he might make, “turning left, avoid that truck, turning into the entrance now…” It is all said sotto voce and appears highly nervous rather than mad, though everyone says he’s got worse. He supports a large family on meager wages earned teaching welding and doing odd jobs like buying engines for our family. Ibrahim is the only one who knows the labyrinthine dust roads stacked with car parts that is Hirafiyeen.

Yet he is soon lost and we are reduced to asking the way at all the brightly lit parts shops. Some owners barely acknowledge us and others speak excellent English and are very helpful. There are intelligent folk down here who fly to Japan and bring back container loads of spare parts to be cut up and sold. This is recycling at its realest and most efficient. I find it funny that we think it new and efficient in the West to recycle- it’s been going on forever in the mysterious East. For a start , instead of crushing all the good parts in a car the Egyptians take everything out and then cut up the body into reusable bits too. More complicated technology means that whole units are now discarded- our engine would have been rebuilt- twenty years ago- now that is too difficult and costly – better to replace the engine with one from Japan with a guaranteed less than 100k km on the clock.

So they say. Who can you trust here? I am assailed with feelings that were once very common and now only slightly less so, that everyone in Egypt is out to rip me off high and dry. This is very far from the case as I have found time and again. The problem starts though with both parties: the rip off merchants and the honest chaps behaving in the same casual manner. Both bad and good mechanics will talk glibly of fixing things only to achieve a veneer of realism once a few hours have been spent under the bonnet. Both good and bad will rarely explain what they have to do, will be reluctant to source spare parts and seem just too.. damn casual for something as awe inspiringly important as the all sacred automobile…but hold on I think as I stride through the dust glumly maybe I am the one who is wrong, I am too uptight, I should enjoy this, cars just aren’t that important…easy to say.

Finally Ibrahim and my brother in law settled on a slick talking chap whose English was good, incidentally, and who said he had just the engine for us in the cave of the motors a short distance away. He didn’t call it the cave of the motors but that’s what it was. After a confusing journey through more pitch black labyrinthine streets, on foot, through dust and tripping over stones, we arrived at what looked like a deserted tower block. The groundfloor was all shuttered up with rollup metal shutters. There was one street lamp across the street shining like the single glowing bulb you see dangling in front of a luminescent deep sea fish. Men, I now saw, we sitting on the walkway in front of the shutters, in front of them was a dismantled…something…oil reflecting the light from our mobile phones. For that is what we had been reduced to- entering Aladdin’s cave armed only with the pathetic light of a mobile screen. The shutters rolled up and our guide threw a switch and light illuminated the horde- a huge expanse of engines, pile upon pile of them as far as the eye could see in the gloom, the lights being unsurprisingly rubbish inside as well. We walked along aisles of black and greasy engines with wires strewn all over them looking for our model. Ibrahim periodically got down on his knees with my phone (the brightest) to read off engine numbers. In the end we settled for one that was not quite what I had intended but everyone said it would work.

Would it? 10 at night surrounded by darkness and metal and not knowing what to believe. In the end the slick seller suggests that if it doesn’t work he will take it back. I say that he better as my brother in law is a judge. He doesn’t act scared or that impressed. We buy with my sweaty roll of money that has been bulking out my jeans for the last few hours. Four hundred sterling pounds.

Ibrahim will pick it up the next day. He drives us home around the ring road, scene of many horrific accidents. We are all slightly lightheaded after the experience. Ibrahim mutters away to himself and I think- hey, you just bought your first engine.

A month on, engine dropped in and running well, and apart from a strange light that no one can turn off everything, Inshallah, is going very well.



zenslacker #1

Zenslacking is a new way to get your head around a cluster of age old problems- I’m stressed, I’m stuck, my life is bad, what can I do… Zenslacking says the answer is to do nothing, but do that nothing thing well. Most of our lives are spent doing nothing, sort of moving from one thing to another, in between time, down time, nothing time. When this nothing time is polluted by the rush and bustle of modern life you lose your bearings. Depression and anger vie for control of your mind. It’s time to chill, but your old ways of chilling don’t seem to work anymore. You just can’t seem to relax.

Doing nothing, badly, includes all that time you’re pretending to be doing something, thinking you should be doing something, feeling bad because you’re ‘wasting time’, feeling bad because the little you are doing fails to match your grand plans about what you could be doing.

I lived in Japan for three years and a kind of low key Zen permeates very many aspects of the culture. This isn’t to say that the Japanese are relaxed, most of them are just as stressed as we are. The standard way of letting off steam is to get blind drunk after work and throw up on the train home. But Japan is the home of Zen, which originally was an exercise designed to help people detach from their surroundings. It was practiced by ‘doing nothing’, often just sitting on the floor for hours on end. The low key Zen in Japan is simply the widespread knowledge that you have to be able to detach from things you really care about. From time to time. Without this ability to detach Japan would be even crazier than it already is.

It’s easy to get the work button jammed in the modern world. Or, rather, the way-of-working button. We get so attached to success we end up trying too hard. At everything. So, when we import something foreign like Zen, we contaminate it with our neurotic desire to try too hard. So part of Zenslacking is dropping down a gear in one’s approach to being detached. This is the slacking aspect of Zenslacking. This includes not seeing Zenslacking as a panacea. It’s really about taking bites, or even nibbles out of certain disabling states of mind. It’s not for everyone, and certainly not something you do all the time. But if the world is getting on top of you, Zenslacking is the way out…

So next time you’re doing nothing, badly, bear in mind


1.    Less is More


2.    More is Less


3.    No question the world is mad. You have to be able to drop out of that madness from time to time. Zen slacking is one such way. Conventional zen is about ‘just sitting’ and thinking of nothing, but in a Japanese way which means on a hard floor for hours which can be very uncomfortable. The zen becomes a macho exercise in enduring pain. Before you know it you’re starting to go mad again. My zen slacker teacher (my only bona fide Japanese one) was a Buddhist priest who drank beer for breakfast and taught me how to practise ‘just sitting’ in front of the television. I didn’t learn much from him at the time, but over time his example proved enduring. Zen slacking is about doing nothing, well,- but not in a noisy way, in a real way- what better place to do nothing than in front of the TV?


4.    My Zenslacking teacher never gave me any koans (tricky zen questions you have to solve to become enlightened.) All he ever said was, “You’re already enlightened- now you can forget about it.” His other favourite phrase was, “Zazen is easy, Zen is easy.” (Zazen is meditating and trying not to get attached to what you are thinking about and some people take it very seriously). I think what he meant was that doing nothing, well, involved not trying too hard. At anything.


5.    Don’t try harder, just give yourself more time than you usually allow.