Random Favourites

You know those questionnaires the papers give celebrities: ‘Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?’ ‘Which book made you cry?’ ‘What is your favourite film?’, that sort of thing.

Here are the answers to a bunch of questions nobody ever asked me.

Favourite colour?

Blue. Always has been. My mother’s favourite is also blue. I like all kinds of other colours, too, and I wear clothes in many different colours, but my favourite is definitely blue. I always get a bit conflicted when Autism Awareness Month rolls round and the autistic community calls for a boycott of blue, so as not to align themselves with Autism Speaks type activities. But that isn’t really a thing here in the UK anyway. I love blue. I embrace blue, all year round.

Favourite planet?

Saturn. It’s just the coolest, with its rings and everything. It is also my favourite movement from Gustav Holst’s suite ‘The Planets’, in which it is called ‘Saturn, the bringer of old age’. I like the astrological connotations as well. As a Capricorn, my sign is dominated by Saturn, and it’s all about boring stuff like responsibility, rationality, discipline and hard work etc. But I like that. Also melancholy, which I experience a lot. Also I was born on a Saturday, which is of course ‘Saturn’s Day’. So it’s definitely my planet.

Favourite film?

Sense and Sensibility. But:

Greatest film ever made?

Once Upon A Time In The West.

Favourite disabled character in fiction? (Weird question? Well, it’s something I’ve been thinking about.)

Matthew Shardlake. But I have a soft spot for Felix Leiter as well.

Favourite disabled character on television?

Harold Finch.

Favourite rock band?

The Rolling Stones.

Favourite composer?

I can’t possibly answer that. I can’t pick one favourite, and anyway, preferences change over time. When I was a baby, my parents say, I seemed to get particularly excited when Handel played on the radio. Now I have a taste for Wagner and Richard Strauss, more the instrumental stuff than the operas. I wouldn’t nominate them as my favourite composers though. My mother is pleased because her father was a big fan of Strauss, but that sort of music means nothing to her, so she likes the fact that I like it. Maybe the taste for it skipped a generation.

Favourite book?

Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers. I have read it so many times, I read it about once a year, but it never gets boring. It’s also the book that kindled a desire to come to Oxford – I ended up working there for over a decade. One of the few things I count as a success in my life. I don’t work there anymore, and I don’t live there, but I’m not far away, and I go into Oxford every few weeks. So when I read the book, I know the setting extremely well. My non-fiction comfort read is ‘Delusions of Gender’ by Cordelia Fine. I love books which tell me that the whole male brain/female brain thing is nonsense, and this book tells it with such vigour and humour that it’s irresistible.

Favourite bit of movie trivia?

Al Pacino’s ancestors came from Corleone.

I can’t resist sharing this gem with you either – I heard it from my sister, no idea if it’s true:

When they were making the third (or maybe forth) Harry Potter film, the director gave his three young protagonists a bit of homework: write down how they think their character has developed over the course of the films. Rupert Grint (Ron) didn’t do it. Daniel Radcliffe (Harry) scribbled down a single page. Emma Watson (Hermione) handed in a twelve-page essay.

Favourite literary anecdote?

John Galsworthy trained as a barrister, but his family had a shipping business. Once, when travelling on one of his family’s ships, he struck up a friendship with the First Mate – Joseph Conrad.

That’s all for now. I’ll give you some more when I can think of them.

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Japanese Cars

This is probably the most pointless blogpost ever, but it’s something that amused and pleased me a bit. Not something funny or great, just something kind of nice.

My sister has just bought a car. She and her family did without one for years, but now she has started a new job, and the location, the nature of the job and the hours made it necessary to buy a car. So she went and bought one, used, and I was pleased to find out that she, too, had gone for one of the lesser spotted Japanese brands: I have a Suzuki, she has bought a Daihatsu. I don’t know what model, but she sent me a picture, and she claims it’s the cutest car in the world. Now, that is debatable, but it’s a nice looking car. My parents have just visited my sister and went for a drive in it.

And that is literally it.

Okay, to make this a bit more amusing for you, I can tell you this: this morning my car was shat on by a passing bird from a great height. I didn’t see the culprit, but there were a few gulls around at that time, so it might have been one of them. It went splat right on the windscreen, and as I picked up speed, the wet poo spread further upwards…

Now, some say it’s lucky to be pooped on by a bird. I don’t know if the same goes for cars. It’s not so lucky for me because now I have to clean it. Oh well.

R.I.P. Spider

About a week ago or so I was sitting in front of the television, and I suddenly saw a spider walking across the floor. It was one of those big grey-brown house spiders (Tegenaria sp.). It didn’t run, as they often do, but it walked at quite a leisurely pace. It then disappeared behind the television. I was far too lazy to creep around behind the telly to hunt for it, and anyway, if it’s not sitting right next to me, or above me, or anywhere near my bed, I don’t care. I then didn’t see it for a while, until Sunday morning. When I came into the living room in the morning, there it was, sitting on the wall. It basically didn’t move all day. I was joking to my parents that maybe it liked the music I was listening to, or perhaps it was waiting to be offered a cup of coffee. (Cue mental picture of spider sipping coffee from a tiny cup.) It was there until about 11 in the evening, when it disappeared again. I didn’t see where it went. I didn’t see it again until today. Sadly, I found it dead in a corner.

I had taken a picture of it on Sunday, and the fact that this spider is now dead makes it rather poignant. It’s just so strange to look at the picture now, and to think that it was alive only a few days ago, and is now dead. And that I now have a memento of some random spider. And I’m making it all even weirder by writing a blog post about it…

There are other spiders in my house, thin, spindly ones, but don’t be fooled by their appearance – they are cannibals! I just saw one of them eat a fellow spider – suck it dry and then throw the remains away for me to tidy up. Thanks, spider. They used to eat woodlice and throw the empties down, but woodlice mysteriously disappeared from my house a couple of years ago. It’s a shame, they were fun, trundling along like little armadillos, and very pretty, too, with marbled or speckled carapaces.

If spiders annoy me, or there are just to many of them, I catch them, using the jar-and-postcard method, and throw them out. I vaccuum up their webs (that stuff is everywhere!), but I take care not to hoover up any of the spiders. I just don’t like the thought of doing it. I find dead spiders more unnerving than live ones.

It will be house spider season soon. When the nights start to get longer and cooler, they come in, possibly to secure a nice spot for the winter. So I will probably have more spidery visitors before long. In the meantime, I will give this one random spider everlasting fame on the internet by posting its picture here.

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R.I.P. spider.

Fun Moments: Something Fishy

Every workday, when I try to leave the town where I work to drive to the town where I live, I get stuck in a traffic jam. As the crocodile of cars slowly creeps along one of the main streets, I always pass an establishment called ‘Salami’s Fish Bar’. Somehow I always think about that name.

Is it owned by a Mr Salami? Can people be named like foodstuffs? Well, yes, they can. I once met a guy whose surname was Pizza. So Mr Salami is definitely within the realm of possibilities. Funny, though, if you are named after a sausage, to then open a fish bar. Shouldn’t he be selling sausage rolls?

But then I think, what if the apostrophe is misplaced? Happens often enough, particularly in shop names. Maybe it’s ‘Salamis Fish Bar’. Because that brings to mind the Battle of Salamis, a famous naval battle from ancient Greek history, in which some Greek city states defeated the Persians despite being outnumbered. This was in 480 BC. (Yes, I had to look that up, I didn’t actually remember it.)

So the connection is: Salamis – naval – sea – fish! Obvious, isn’t it?

Of course, this is pure speculation. There might be a way to find out the truth behind the name. But I think I don’t even want to know, because a minute’s musing on Salamis on my way home is much more fun.

By the way, I’ve stopped counting the Fun Moments, because it’s too tedious going back every time I come up with a new one to see which number I’m up to.

Drinking Coffee

Just some random thoughts about coffee, probably brought on by not having enough this morning (of which more later).

I usually have coffee in the morning, which I make in my one-person cafetiere (I believe  these devices are called French Press in other parts of the world). I used to prefer instant coffee which I had with sugar. I have now switched to ‘real’ coffee, without sugar. I don’t stick to one particular variety, but try different blends from different supermarkets. Some of these are nicer than others, so for a while I used to keep a list, noting how I found each particular coffee: ‘Waitrose Italian Blend – nice and strong, chocolatey’, something like that. If a coffee turned out to be not so nice, there are ways of making it nicer.

A while ago I bought a coffee machine, just for making filter coffee, not one of those fancy espresso machines. Actually, I bought one, fairly cheap, used it once, used it a second time, dropped the pot while drying it and completely smashed it. That was the end of that machine. I then bought another one, slightly more expensive, which I still use, but it’s kind of crazy. It randomly switches itself on and off, so I have to turn it off at the socket, because sometimes, even when it’s off, it will switch itself on again if you look at it funny. On the other hand, it might switch itself off several times during the brewing process. It also seems to think that after going through all that effort of making the coffee, it is too much work to keep the pot warm. So when I make a whole pot of coffee, it will cool down fairly quickly, and I have to re-heat my second and third cups in the microwave.

Anyway, when using the machine, there is a neat way of making unloved coffee more palatable, and that is by adding a bit of cardamom. I learned that trick from my sister. I also made Christmas coffee by adding not only cardamom, but also cinnamon and cloves powder.

I have made a point for years of buying fairtrade coffee, but I have read an interesting book recently which argued that fairtrade doesn’t necessarily do much good. Very little of the extra money the consumer pays actually benefits the coffee growers, it all gets absorbed by various middlemen. Also, it costs money to get fairtrade certification, possibly not because you pay the certifiers a fee, but because you (as the grower) have to fulfil certain conditions, which might be unobtainable for poor coffee farmers. This is why much of the fairtrade coffee in the shops comes from not so poor countries, like Costa Rica or Colombia. It might be better to buy coffee grown in really poor countries, like Ethiopia, even if the trade isn’t fair, because the difference is not in ‘fair’ versus ‘unfair’ trade, but in ‘trade’ or ‘no trade’. Your purchase might not benefit an individual farmer, but you contribute a tiny bit to a poor country’s GDP.  (The book was ‘Doing Good Better’ by William MacAskill.)

Which brings me to the reason I didn’t have enough coffee this morning. Yesterday I did buy a bag of Ethiopian coffee. This is not fairtrade certified, but comes from a small company which buys the beans from smallholders they work with, and roasts them in vintage equipment. I like to imagine that each bean is turned lovingly by hand under the grill by a bearded hipster – at any rate there’s a stamp on the bag telling me it was roasted by Steve. It’s that sort of coffee, comparatively expensive gourmet stuff. So, this morning I still had the rest from the previous bag of coffee to use up, which was fair less fancy, but it wasn’t enough to make a full cafetiere. With the new coffee being such a posh one, I didn’t want to mix the two, so I was forced to use the last few crumbs from the old batch to make only half a portion of coffee. And that’s why I didn’t have enough.

Here’s some more about special coffee I sometimes have. This is Wacken coffee. Let me explain:

Wacken is a small place in northern Germany, but it is famous for being the site of Europe’s biggest heavy metal festival, the Wacken festival. This takes place annually and has been going for many, many years. The organisers also have founded the Wacken Foundation, which supports up-and-coming heavy metal bands. And they produce their own brand of coffee, as part of the fund-raising effort for the foundation. Each year they bring out a limited amount, usually single origin but not always from the same country. It comes in collectable tins, with a different colour each year. My brother goes to Wacken most years, not to attend the festival, but because the logistics company he works for transports portable toilets to the site, so he goes with a lorry load of portaloos. He usually comes away with a Wacken goody bag, including such things as t-shirts, sunglasses and earplugs. Not coffee, unfortunately, but being the loving brother he is, he buys a tin for me. I have three tins already, into which I now decant the coffee I buy at the supermarket, because the tins are more fun to use. One tin will hold exactly the amount of coffee in a standard bag. Handy!

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I didn’t want to wait too long to try my hipster coffee, so I made some in the evening. The smell as I opened the bag was delicious. The coffee itself was really nice, but not the earth-shattering taste sensation I had hoped for. But as I sampled it, I felt a certain hipness come over me. I put on a CD of folk songs recorded by a retired teacher from Worpswede* and stroked my imaginary beard. Result.

 

*I’m not making this up! The guy is a family friend, and Worpswede is a small town in Germany, famous for its artistic and bohemian inhabitants. I don’t know what hipsters listen to, but I felt that something obscure and handmade would fit the bill.

Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More in Wolf Hall

When I first read Wolf Hall and watched the TV adaptation (actually it was the other way round for me), I looked on the internet for reviews of both, and I quickly discovered that a lot of ink had been spilled in particular on the portrayal of Thomas More and his relationship with Thomas Cromwell. The general tenor of these reviews is neatly expressed in this headline: ‘Thomas More is the villain of Wolf Hall – but is he getting a raw deal?’ Let me give you a few more examples, just to show that this attitude in a review is not an isolated case.

Paul Lay in History Today thinks that Wolf Hall shows More as ‘a vile and despicable tormentor of the blacksmith’s boy made good [meaning Cromwell]’. Peter Stanford, in the Daily Telegraph, writes that Hilary Mantel portrays More as a ‘ruthless schemer’. Historian Tracy Borman, whose opinion is cited in the same article, believes that ‘because she is writing a novel, Hilary Mantel obviously feels she needs a goodie and baddie. And so she tees Cromwell up as the goodie by making More the baddie.’ Melanie McDonagh, in the Evening Standard, claims that the novel is doing More ‘a grave disservice’ by showing that his ‘world view is simple religious fanaticism’.

Joan Acocella in The New Yorker thinks that More comes off badly in the novel, with his ‘milky piety’, and although Mantel ‘acknowledges that he was a renowned thinker and writer’, she ‘turns this to his discredit’ by giving him an attitude of arrogant superiority towards his intellectual inferiors.

In short, reviewer after reviewer sees Thomas More portrayed in Wolf Hall as a scheming villain, a religious fanatic, Cromwell’s mortal enemy or simply the baddie.

I don’t see it. I have read the book twice (I’m half-way through my third turn), and I have watched the TV series four times (actually I’m one episode short of the fifth time), and I still don’t see it. Several questions now arise.

One: am I just obtuse and unable to see what is right in front of my eyes, what is obvious to others who read the book and watch the TV series? Or (as I like to think), is there a reason why I might possibly have a clearer view?

Two: where do all these reviewers think Hilary Mantel gets her characterisation from? What are her reasons?

Three: how do I think, then, Thomas More comes out of Wolf Hall? How does his character appear to me?

To the first question then: the main reason why all these reviewers jib at Mantel’s portrait of More seems to be that it goes against what they learned about him at school. (See also my possibly at some point forthcoming post ‘Why does everybody hate Thomas Cromwell so much?’) Even if you are not Catholic and therefore maybe not care so much that More is a Saint, he is clearly one of the heroes of English history.  A thoroughly good guy, someone to be admired, to look up to – ‘an example of integrity for all times’ as the Bishop of Shrewsbury put it, ‘the historical equivalent of a national treasure’. And people are curiously reluctant to abandon the views they learned at school. As Hilary Mantel herself put it during the Q&A at one of her Reith lectures:

The problem is that people are very loyal to the first history they learned. They are very attached to what their teachers told them and they are very resistant to having this subverted…

This is exactly the problem that I see with all these reviews. People have been told ‘More = good, Cromwell = bad’ for decades, with those teachings compounded by ‘A Man for All Seasons’, and they greatly dislike having this entrenched picture in their minds challenged. What’s more, they react to this challenge by simply seeing Mantel’s version as the opposite (More = bad, Cromwell = good), and it completely blinds them to the subtleties of the fiction, which is never as simplistic as that. So where does my advantage come in? Well, I went to school and I studied history in Germany, where no one is much concerned with the heroes and villains of English history. I first encountered More in my first semester at university, when I wrote an essay (my very first essay at uni!) on three ‘Utopias’, one of which was More’s. (The others were Plato’s Republic and Campanella’s The City of the Sun.) I wasn’t aware of Thomas Cromwell’s existence at all. So when I watched Wolf Hall I had no preconception of either character. I have since read a great deal about Thomas Cromwell, less about Thomas More, but this post is not so much concerned with their lives and relationship with each other in history, but in the novel and the TV adaptation. And how I see that will be the answer to my third question. First the second question, though:

Why (in the reviewers’ opinion) is Hilary Mantel so down on Thomas More? I think they mostly put it down to anti-Catholic prejudice. Mantel was educated at a Catholic school, and has since apparently said a few critical things about it. I knew nothing of this when I read the book.  I have since read the book she wrote about her life, and it appears that she wasn’t exactly happy at the school, but to infer from that a motivation to make Thomas More a bad guy – well, that seems a bit much. Perhaps she has said more things critical of the Catholic Church, I simply don’t know. Although some of these Catholics appear to have very dainty toes that she seems to have trodden on – one bishop (I forget which one) even wrote that to see Thomas Cromwell in a more positive light is ‘the new acceptable face of anti-Catholic prejudice’.

Anyway, all this stems from a major fallacy, and that is to think that Wolf Hall reflects the author’s own viewpoint. More is portrayed not as a saint, but as a very fallible and sometimes disagreeable human being (they say), therefore Mantel doesn’t like him. Wrong. The whole book (and its sequel) are told from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell. Any of the other characters appear not as Mantel thinks they might have been, but as she thinks they might have appeared to Cromwell. Everything in the book is seen through Cromwell’s eyes and is therefore at one remove from reality (whatever reality means when we are talking about the 1530s). And no, Cromwell is not simply Hilary Mantel’s mouthpiece. Again, the book is far too sophisticated for that. It seems to me also that people overlook that More is not a one-dimensional character. If you read the book, you will see that he appears as stern, mocking, gentle, caring, all possibly on the same page and within the same piece of dialogue. If you read the conversations Cromwell has with him and the thoughts that run through Cromwell’s head, you will see how Cromwell’s attitude towards More shifts and changes. He is infuriated by him, but in the next paragraph he is concerned about his well-being. Attitudes and relationships don’t stand still, and characters change, shift, show different sides of themselves. To say that ‘More is portrayed as this’ is to deny the complexity and, I repeat, sophistication of the writing.

Just to emphasise the point, here is how Hilary Mantel makes it herself (in an interview on the blog thecreationofanneboleyn.wordpress.com):

After Wolf Hall was published, I was constantly being asked ‘Was Thomas More really like that? We thought he was a really nice man!’ I could only answer, ‘I am trying to describe how he might have appeared if you were standing in the shoes of Thomas Cromwell: who, incidentally, did not dislike him.’

If you keep that in mind, much of the criticism levelled at Mantel falls flat, but it seems most people have missed that.

And with that, on to my third question: how did More appear to me, and how did I see his relationship with Cromwell when I read the book and watched the TV series?

First I would like to point you back to what Hilary Mantel said above: Cromwell did not dislike More. They do not appear as mortal enemies. To see one as the goodie and the other correspondingly as the baddie is a false dichotomy. There is no reason assume that as a reader you need to choose between one or the other. More is not Cromwell’s ‘vile and despicable tormentor’ (seriously, where do they get that stuff from?), nor is he a villain. And he’s not scheming either.

When I say ‘how did More appear to me’, I really should say ‘how did I read More through Cromwell’s eyes?’ And with that in mind:

I think they know each other quite well. They visit each other’s houses. They invite each other for dinner. There is a scene where Cromwell comes into More’s house, and More says to his daughter Meg: ‘leave us, I won’t have you in this devil’s company’. But she does no such thing, she smiles at him and talks to him. It is clear that Cromwell is well-known in More’s household (this comes across particularly clearly in the TV version), that he at least knows Meg well and is on a friendly footing with her. It is also clear that More’s words sound much sharper than he means them (he makes no further attempt to send his daughter out and clearly accepts her contact with Cromwell). That is one of More’s foremost flaws in Wolf Hall: he can’t keep his sharp tongue in check. (By the way, Mantel’s Cromwell is not the only one to notice this. In C.J. Sansom’s Sovereign, one character says ‘A man of rare invective, was he not?’ and another replies: ‘Yes, he was not the gentle saint some people paint him.’) When Cromwell says something friendly to him, he can’t resist saying something pointed back. He can’t resist exercising his wit. I think on the whole Cromwell likes More more than More likes Cromwell, but that is not to say that he is Cromwell’s sworn enemy and schemes against him. They are not friends, that would be going too far, but I think in a way they enjoy each other’s company. They have opposing views, they are antagonists, but they spark off each other, and I think they enjoy that. ‘I have always respected you’, Cromwell says to More, and there is no reason to doubt it. So why does he appear as ‘a charmless prig, a humourless, alienating nasty piece of work’, as one critic put it? Because, respect and even a degree of liking notwithstanding, there’s something about him that rubs Cromwell up the wrong way. And remember, it is Cromwell’s viewpoint that we are dealing with here. Sorry to keep harping on about this, but it is very important, and yet it seems to be something that all these critics seem unable to get their heads round.

The one thing that makes More a ‘national treasure’ more than anything else is that he stuck to his beliefs – this is why he has been held up as some kind of role model. And that is exactly how he comes across in Wolf Hall. He has his principles, and he won’t give them up, and he ultimately dies for them. I don’t see that this is portrayed in any kind of negative way, neither in the book nor on TV. And yes, he is inclined to be somewhat haughty and arrogant, but there are many moments when he is not. I’ve said it before, More is a multi-faceted character, just like Cromwell, and you can’t reduce him to ‘fanatic’ or ‘scheming villain’ or whatever. So what about the nasty things he does in the story? The heretic-hunting? Well, that’s historic fact. It’s hardly to ‘demonise’ him when this is put into the story. But wasn’t he one of the foremost scholars in Europe of that time? Yes he was, and that’s in the book as well. So which is he, a torturer of perceived heretics, or a forward-thinking Renaissance man? The answer is both. He was a lot of things, perhaps even a lot of contradictory things, and they are all in the book. Like I said before, you can’t reduce him to a couple of words.

So, next time someone bemoans the appearance of More as the ‘baddie’ and Cromwell as the ‘goodie’ and tries to persuade you that they are somehow polar opposites, remember this:

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And answer them by quoting this classic book title:

I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.

 

Featured image: Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell and Anton Lesser as Thomas More in the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall. Name of the rabbit unknown.

Fun Moments #2: Car twins

My car is a Suzuki Alto. Suzukis aren’t exactly rare on British roads, but they are one of the lesser spotted makes, so you do notice when you see another Suzuki. Yesterday as I was driving home from work, I saw one coming the other way: same model as mine, same colour, and the same license plate with one letter different! UK number plates are Two-Letters-Two-Numbers-Three-Letters, so on the car I saw only one letter of the three letter group was different to mine. An almost identical twin! An amazing coincidence, and definitely a fun moment.

The even funnier thing is that the exact same thing happened to me with my previous car.

Have you ever seen the Autism Quotient test? It asks you 50 questions, and your score basically tells you whether you are more of a ‘systemiser’ or ‘empathiser’, and (I’m simplifying here) a high systemising score correlates with a high probability that you are autistic. The test has been criticised, and you can see one problem right away – ‘systemising’ and ‘empathising’ are not mutually exclusive. But anyway, I don’t really want to talk about this test or the problem with it, I only mentioned it because one of the questions is ‘Do you notice license number plates?’ To which my answer is ‘yes, all the time’ (which I’m sure got me a lot of systemising points when I took the test). Not only do I notice the number plates, I also notice the makes and models of the cars I see around me. Does that mean I have a special interest in cars, that I have an encyclopedic knowledge of cars and can identify hundreds of models at a glance? No. I often have to look what is written on the car. But the point is, I do look. I’m not especially interested in cars at all, but still I look and notice. I think it’s more a “wanting to know” attitude. It’s the same with birds, when I see one, I want to know what it is. My mother always says that ‘nice bird’ is enough for her, but it’s not for me. I do have an interest in birds which I don’t have in cars, but even with the cars it’s more of an automatic noticing. I think I couldn’t ignore the incoming information even if I wanted to.

It is actually not easy to spot a twin of my car. After all I have said above, it is possible that it wasn’t exactly the same car. The Suzuki Alto and the Suzuki Swift are practically indistinguishable for me from the front. There are other cars which look almost the same as mine: Volkswagen, Citroen, Toyota, they all make cars which look almost the same as mine. Quite often I think ‘oh, there’s one like mine’, only to discover that it’s not.

Number plates are interesting. I only know how German ones and UK ones ‘work’, and they are quite different. On UK number plates, you can see when a car was first registered – basically, how old a car is. The two numbers on my car are 62, that means it was first registered in the second half of 2012. If it had been registered in the first half, the numbers would have been 12. My old car had 04, that means first half of 2004. The UK issues two numberplate series per year.

I am told that there is some code in the letters which tells you where a car was first registered as well, but if you are haven’t got that specialised knowledge, it’s in no way obvious. Once a car in the UK has its registration number, it keeps that number, even if it changes owner and moves up and down the country.

Contrast that with the German system. On German number plates, you can see where a car is registered. So if you live in Munich, your car registration starts with M. If you live in Kiel, it will be KI. Not every town and village gets its own location code, in rural areas only the district gets one. So if you are in Munich and you spot a car with KI, you know that they are a long way from home.

Except, not anymore necessarily. It used to be that when a car changed hands, the new owner would have to re-register it where they lived, with a new registration number. Or, if the owner moves, say from Kiel to Munich, they would have to re-register the car with a new number, changing from KI to M. But not anymore. Very recently the regulations in Germany have changed, so that owners don’t have to change the registration even if their residence changes. I find this quite annoying, because you used to be able to tell where a car is from, but now that certainty has been removed. And the fun. People are driving round under false flags! Also, if you can tell by the number plate that someone is obviously a stranger, you might cut the driver some slack, if e.g. they drive slowly or end up in the wrong lane. But since you can’t know anymore if someone is a stranger, what will happen to the slack-cutting?

Which brings me to one of my inventions: the T plate.

If you live in the UK, you will know L plates. If you don’t, let me enlighten you: L signifies ‘learner driver’, and you have to stick one of those big red Ls onto your car if it’s driven by someone who is just learning to drive and hasn’t got their license yet. There are also P plates, for ‘probationary driver’, i.e. someone who just got their license, which is only given to you on probation for the first 2 years. P plates are not compulsory.

Now, I passed my test in 1992, but I’m an anxious driver at the best of times, and even more anxious and uncertain when I drive in unknown locations. I might well drive infuriatingly slowly, turn suddenly or end up in the wrong lane. Of course, UK number plates being what they are, nobody can tell whether I’m a stranger or a local. This is where my T plate would come in: T is for ‘tourist’, and it would signal to the other drivers that I’m a stranger, and hopefully they would cut me some slack, too. If they’re nice.