My son takes an interest in Bear Grylls. Partly because he himself was almost called “Bear”; partly because Bear Grylls climbs big mountains and eats gross stuff on TV. But these days, it’s mostly because it has recently come to his attention that Bear Grylls proposed to his wife by pulling her engagement ring out from between his bum-cheeks while skinny-dipping.

This was his other idea for making it a really special and memorable moment.

This was his other idea for making it a really special and memorable moment.

My son thought this was awesome, because he is eight and it involves extensive discussion of the bum-cheeks of someone he admires, so of course he did. So awesome, in fact, that he decided to draw a picture of it.

BG full piece

He drew this at bedtime, while allegedly listening to me reading The Famous Five. I’m not sure why it’s meant to be read right to left, but maybe he was channeling his inner Manga artist.

As you can see, it comes in three distinct parts. The first part is the moment of the proposal:

BG proposal 2

There’s clearly some thought gone into this. It contains all the essential elements of a really good marriage proposal, as understood by an eight-year-old boy. Bear is down on one knee, because that’s the proper way to propose to someone. There’s some sort of disturbing phallic symbolism going on with Bear’s arms. The ring is gigantic (I bet Bear was glad to get that bad boy out from storage, Christ). His future wife is smiling, because she’s so happy to be proposed to. Naturally, she’s asking the question all newly-engaged women ask at such a moment: “Where did you get it!” And Bear, also smiling, proudly replies, “From my butt”.

I will admit that’s a much more memorable answer than “Beaverbrooks”.

By the way, my son and I are both painfully aware that he has spelt “Where” wrong. Sometimes in the white heat of artistic creation, these things slip through the net.

The next piece of the picture is a bit more mysterious:


My son’s best explanation of this is that it was “some of my homework that I had to cross out”, accompanied by the mysterious smile that means he doesn’t want to discuss it any further. As far as I can tell, it’s a picture of a pyramid with an eye on the top, and the inscription “50 gerfit” scrawled across the bottom. Maybe they were studying Masonic initiation rituals.

And now the final piece of the triptych, which shows Bear happily contemplating what he’s just achieved:

Bear Grylls proposal

“I got my ring from my butt.” Well, yes you did, Bear. Yes you did.

Goodbye Vacuum Cleaner

Sometimes, I knit or sew stuff. For the last few months, I’ve been knitting a blanket, inspired by Cornish Blue pottery in general, and my Cornish Blue gravy-jug in particular.

Cornish Blue Blanket

Quite a few Facebook friends have asked for the pattern, so here it is. It’s free to use, share, adapt and generally distribute to anyone who fancies a copy – although if you are sharing publicly, a credit would be very much appreciated.


Wool: I knitted this in Sirdar DK Snuggly, in Denim (shade 326) and Cream (shade 303). I’m honestly not sure how many balls of each colour I used, because I basically make my craft projects up as I go and I had to restock halfway through – but I think I used about a dozen 50g balls of each colour. If you’re looking for a good place to buy, I really like Wool Warehouse.

Needles: this is knitted on 4.5mm, extra long (40cm) needles, like these. 40cm long needles can be annoying to work with, so as an alternative you can also knit this on circular needles, like these.

Finished project size: the finished blanket will fit a single bed. It also makes a nice sofa throw.

Stitch: the blanket’s knitted in British Moss Stitch (in the US this is called Seed Stitch), which makes a lovely nubbly texture that feels gorgeous. It’s a dead simple stitch to do. First, you cast on an even number of stitches. Then on the odd rows, it’s Knit One, Purl One; and on the even rows, it’s Purl One, Knit One.

Moss Stitch

How to make:

1. Cast on 260 stitches in cream wool. You can make your blanket wider or narrower by varying the number of stitches – but it is very important that the total number of stitches is an even number.

2. Knit twenty rows in British Moss Stitch:
K1, P1 on the Odd rows
P1, K1 on the Even rows

3. At the end of Row 20, change to blue wool.

4. Knit twenty rows in British Moss Stitch:
K1, P1 on the Odd rows
P1, K1 on the Even rows

(You’ll find that your transition rows between the stripes will be a lovely mini-stripe as the front of the stitch alternates between the front and the back, like this.)

Transition between stripes

5. Knit alternate 20-row stripes of blue and white until you’re happy with the size of your blanket, finishing with a white stripe. My blanket is 29 stripes long.

6. Cast off, and weave in the ends.

And that’s it! It’s quite a big project so it does take a while, but it’s not technically challenging at all – if you can knit, purl and count then this is definitely do-able. If you have a go, I’d love you see the finished project, so do please leave links or photos in the comments.

Stuff my kids will remember about their summer holidays - portrait


ME: Blimey. You’re quite big.

HORSE: Fear not, small human female. Although I am large and powerful and may initially seem more suitable to being ridden by Gregor Clegane, I am in fact a gentle giant. Did you happen to bring any offerings about your person, concealed perhaps inside this blue woolen outer-garment you wear?

ME: No snacks. Sorry.

HORSE [RESIGNED]: Ah. I thought as much. T’was ever thus. And yet still I permit myself to hope – perhaps if I look inside your hood -

ME: Aww, your nose is so nice and soft.

HORSE: Even though you failed to bring me a Polo mint, I will patiently tolerate your stroking of my nose, for lo, I am the nicest, most chilled-out horse in the stable. While you scramble up onto me and then ineptly adjust your stirrups for what seems like several years, I will stand like a rock and stare serenely into the middle distance. You are safe with me.



ME: You’re not going to fall over, are you?

HORSE: What is this thing you humans call “fall”? I know it not.

ME: Fair enough. This is quite a steep downhill slope though. Are you sure you’re not going to -

HORSE [PATIENT]: I will not fall. I will not slip. I will do nothing to alarm you. The dainty mare your daughter rides may prance about and insist on leaving the yard before everyone else is ready, but I am above such foolishness. I am calm and unflappable. Were I to be sold, I believe the description which would be applied to me would be “bombproof”. Are you asking me to trot?


ME: Well, yes. If you wouldn’t mind.

HORSE: Although trotting did not feature in my plans for the afternoon, I shall oblige. Let us circle this field twice, then come to a gentle halt and await the arrival of your small son, who I see rides upon a pony whose legs are but short and stumpy.


ME: I can see a wind-turbine. Can you see a wind-turbine? Aren’t horses supposed to be scared of wind-turbines?

HORSE: I see nothing of interest.

ME: Well, okay then.



ME: Do you want me to let you have your head, or do I have some role in steering you down this hill?

HORSE [REASSURING]: Fragile human female, be at peace. I have navigated this hill many times. I fear it not. It is of no – HOLY FUCK WHAT IS THAT

ME: What? What?


forget me nots

ME: You mean the forget-me-nots?


ME: You’re spooking at flowers? Are you serious?



ME: Come on. Be brave. Walk past them. You can do it.



ME [TRYING NOT TO LAUGH]: Feeling better now?

HORSE: I feel splendid. As always. Why do you enquire?

ME: Hey look, I can see a rabbit. Can you see the rabbit? Is it frightening?

HORSE: I do not know the meaning of the word “frightening”. Let us discuss other matters. Perhaps we might trot again.

ME: And a blackthorn in blossom. Are we cool with the blackthorn in blossom?


HORSE: I have literally no idea what you are talking about.

ME: Or how about that primrose? Any problems with the primrose you’d like to discuss?

HORSE: I am a leaf on the wind; watch how I soar.



BOSSYCAT: It’s morning! Morning! Hello! It’s morning! Time to get up!

SHYCAT: Hello! It’s morning! Hello! We love you! You slept through your alarm so we came to get you!

Startled ringtailed lemur

ME: What? What? I slept through the alarm? Oh my God, what? How did that happen?

BOSSYCAT: Ha ha, not really. We fooled you. It’s not really morning at all! April Fool! Good thing we’re so cute! Bye!

SHYCAT: She made me do it. Bye!


Exploring The World Of Robots

I first came across “Exploring The World Of Robots” when my brother got a copy of it for Christmas at some point in the early 1980s, and we both loved it very hard indeed. The reason we loved it is simple. It was crammed full of facts about our marvellous robotic utopian future that was quite definitely coming up in just a few short years.

Seriously; this book made all kinds of promises. In the very near future, it alleged, we would all have robots to do boring tasks we humans didn’t want to both with, like the housework and building toy cars and so on. Fake-people robots would replace the always-hard-to-come-by sick people that medical students traditionally learn on, which would somehow make learning medicine a more effective process. (Somehow.) Strap-on robot exo-skeletons would give us superhuman strength, allowing us to lift one-tonne weights with ease. Robots would even come to church (I swear, I am not making this up) and tell Bible stories.

And my brother and I believed all of this, because 1) we were kids and didn’t know any better and 2) that was what the book said, damn it! It was the early eighties! The printed word had value and meaning! What did we have to believe in if we couldn’t believe what we read in books?

I know I use this picture of a cat quite a lot, but I really really like the expression on its face.

I use this picture of a cat quite a lot, but I really really like the expression on its face. It’s endlessly useful.

So: we both spent a good four or five years wondering when our Housework Robot would be delivered and when we could expect to get a giant robot exo-skeleton in our Christmas stockings. After a while, we realised it wasn’t going to happen, and forgot about it. Then a few weeks ago, my brother sent me a copy of this book in the post, with a note that read, “THIS ENTIRE BOOK IS COMPOSED OF LIES AND WE BELIEVED EVERY WORD OF IT”.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Here’s the first page:

Maid Without Tears

Maid WIthout Tears Head

Let’s ignore all the strange and terrible questions raised by this strange and terrible illustration. Let’s ignore the troubling implications of the name “Maid Without Tears”, and its suggestion that most domestic workers spend their time sobbing over how awful their lives are. Let’s not pause to speculate on why this robot is unquestionably female, or why you can take its clothes off. Let’s not ask ourselves why its skin is purple and its clothes consist of moon boots, a mini-dress and a bathing-cap. Let’s even skip over the mysterious fact that its god-damn head comes off for no apparent reason. No; the really important thing to focus on here is why we’re looking at an illustration.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s a place for illustrations in fact-based books for children. Some things, like intestines and childbirth and dinosaurs and so on, are just inherently better when presented as drawings. But this isn’t intestines or childbirth or dinosaurs. This – the author assures us – is an actual robot that actually exists and is going to be on the market very soon. Surely if you were a robotics expert and you’d built such a thing, you wouldn’t be shy about being photographed?

"Maid Without Tears" also available in black, for added racially objectionable overtones.

“Maid Without Tears” also available in black, for added racially objectionable overtones.

Why is there no photograph? BECAUSE THERE NEVER WAS A BLOODY MAID WITHOUT TEARS ROBOT, that’s why. A quick glance at the Maid Without Tears clearly reveals that she(?) was a recycled version of the Miss Honeywell Illusion from the late 1960s, as documented by the brilliant blog Paleofuture.

Check out the date. Miss Honeywell made her fraudulent debut in 1968, and was apparently ridiculously unconvincing even at the time. The Piccolo Book of Outrageous Robotic Lies was published in 1978. That means that, a whole decade later, a professional writer for a well-respected publisher happened across a picture of a woman dressed in a robot suit, thought, “Yeah, that sounds plausible”, did zero further research, briefed some hapless artist to draw a picture of a scientist decapitating a robot and putting his hand inside her dress, then put it in a book for children and presented it as true.

Here’s another snippet of glorious mendacity:

Man in giant robot

“Inside this robot is a man.” Well, okay, if you say so. “When he moves his arms, the robot’s arms move too.” Wait, what now? We had this technology back in 1978? Are you absolutely sure about that? Because I kind of thought this was something we were only just getting to grips with recently. “[The robot] can pour medicine into a spoon, without spilling a drop.”

Seriously? Back in the late 1970s, someone had already built a robot with the same dexterity as a person? A robot that was controlled, not by joysticks or repetitive programming, but by the individual and idiosyncratic movements of an actual human hand? So where did this marvel of technology disappear to, then? Did we just leave it behind the sofa and forget about it?

Moving on:


Yes, you’re seeing that right; that’s a robotic exoskeleton, giving a puny human the power to lift a 1000kg weight with ease. Actually, I think I remember something like that. I think it came to market some time round about 1986? Some sort of gigantic loader thing, with arms, that gave you the power to lift really heavy stuff?

Oh wait, hang on a minute –

Ripley exoskeleton

By the way, later on in the book we get another look at the exoskeleton concept. The writer is so confident that this one is, like, for reals and stuff, that he even provides a rare reference – the Hardiman 1. Confusingly, he’s overlaid his Hardiman 1 picture onto a shot of Robbie the Bible-story-reading Church Robot, but that’s okay. I think we’d all be disappointed if I didn’t feature at least a little glimpse at the robot that liberated the Sunday School teachers of the world from their bonds of servitude:

I'll admit it: if I'd heard bible stories from the mouth of a massive yellow robot, I'd probably be a bit less dismissive of the whole organised-religion thing.

I’ll admit it: if I’d heard bible stories from the mouth of a massive yellow robot, I’d probably be a bit less dismissive of the whole organised-religion thing.

This one must be real, right? I mean, it’s got a name and everything! Wrong. The Hardiman 1 was apparently a total failure, with any attempt to use the full exoskeleton causing “violent uncontrolled motion”, which was so dangerous that “the exoskeleton was never turned on with a person inside”. (Anyone else think that was a missed opportunity?) The Hardiman inventors finally managed to make a single-armed version that would lift 340kg, but as the whole thing weighed more than double that, the Hardiman was given up as a bad job.

I found that out on Wikipedia, by the way. Remember this for later.

The really sneaky thing about this book is that not everything in it is a lie. Instead it contains a seductive blend of indubitable truths (there really were cruise missiles and chess-playing computers), half-truths (“Danger, Will Robinson…my Hardiman hooks are flailing wildly”) and sheer fantasy (Maid Without feckin’ Tears? We’re only just invented the Roomba! And Roombas are really crap!). There’s no distinction made between these three wildly differing types of information. Every single robot in this book is presented as a done deal, a real piece of kit, a thing you can buy right now.

Here’s why I find this culturally interesting; this book is thirty-six years old. That means this book (like me) is officially older than the web. It’s a relic of the golden age, when we all got our facts from reputable sources. Back then, information was treated properly. We learned from real books, written by professionally-trained researchers working to highly maintained standards, who would never (to pick a random example) cheerfully recycle a ridiculously transparent marketing stunt from a previous decade and present it as an apparent scientific breakthrough in the field of robotics.

Can you tell yet how completely pissed off I am that I still have to do my own hoovering?

Can you tell yet how completely pissed off I am that I still have to do my own hoovering?

Remember this, kids. This is a book, from a traditional publisher with a reputation for quality, written by a professional writer, presented as scientific truth and sold to children. And last week my brother and I debunked it in under an hour, using this apparent snake-pit of lies we like to call the Internet. Remember this the next time someone of my generation or above starts going on about how much better it was when information was properly controlled, and gets all sniffy about Wikipedia.

Of course the internet is also full of poorly-researched lies presented as gospel truth, because it’s in the nature of human beings to present poorly-researched lies as gospel truth from time to time. But I think what I’m saying here is: I bet my kids won’t spend bloody years of their childhood waiting around those purple-skinned cleaning robots to finally turn up at all good retailers.


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