Friday, 24 April 2015

Travelling plants!

Today I took snowdrop plants to give to my friend Heidy. She has long admired the snowdrops that grow on my garden. For just as long I have promised to give her some. So far we have never coordinated it properly. Last time I saw her, the snowdrops were buried under snow and there was no way I was digging under the snow to find them. 

So, having organised to meet today, I was out last night at eight thirty in the evening digging up snowdrop plants. It was so late in the evening because I had been entertaining the grandchildren, feeding them bacon sandwiches, taking them to the park and eventually home again. I carefully dug up a nice clump of snowdrops - no flowers, only leaves. You have to get them now before the leaves die down and you can no longer see where they are. The plants were safely transferred into a plant pot, plant pot into a small plastic bag, plastic bag into my flowery shopper and carefully carried to Manchester. 

We met at the Deansgate tram stop (sorry, Metrolink stop), from Oldham in my case and from somewhere along the track from the East Didsbury end in hers. Heidy was very pleased to see my little gift for her in my bag. And we had a nice wander around Castlefield, stopping for a coffee and moving ourselves from a table in the sun to a table with a chimenea heater thing when the sun went in. We had a good long chant and set the world to rights and then made our way back to the tram station and said goodbye. 

As my tram set off I swore softly, making a chap opposite me smile, especially when I explained that the snowdrops were still in my bag. This happened because of my altruism. I carried them around myself instead of giving her the bag straight away as she has some problems with arthritis. I very nearly hopped off the tram at the St Peter's Square stop but saw that the tram which Heidy was going to catch was just setting off from there. Had there been more time I would have gone back to the Deansgate stop, given her the snowdrops and caught a later tram back home. However, as it was I would have been chasing after her all the way to Chorlton and probably would not have caught up with her. 

The snowdrops may have to be planted back in my garden I fear. The best laid plans and all that sort of thing!!!

Wednesday, 22 April 2015


I do like to find out the origin of words. Yesterday it was the turn of "grog". According to an article I found yesterday we gained that word this way. Sailors used to receive a daily tot of neat rum. I knew that already, as a matter of fact. What I didn't know was that the practice continued until 1970. Maybe someone decided that it was not a good idea to be operating increasingly technological machinery after drinking a tot of rum. The practice was introduced in the first place because the water they took with them on the boats was so foul. 

Anyway, in 1740 a certain Admiral Edward Vernon introduced a mixture of one part rum to four parts water, flavoured with lemon juice (to provide vitamin C and try to prevent scurvy) and brown sugar. The admiral was known as Old Grog because he wore a cloak made from grogram, a waterproof fabric. And so the drink was given the name grog in his (dubious) honour. His aim was to reduce drunkenness but many sailors used to save up their drinks and then go on a spree, ending up feeling "groggy". 

It's interesting to discover where the words for feeling out of sorts come from. Words that we use all the time without thinking about where they come from. There's "groggy" and there is also "lousy", which comes from a time when it was difficult to combat headlice and the constant need to scratch your head as the nasty little creatures nibbled away at you made you feel ill. Oh my goodness, I now want to scratch my head! 

Back to grog: the fabric that old Grog's cloak was made from - grogram - gets its name from a mispronunciation of a French word "grosgrain" which means "rough weave", producing a tough, heard wearing fabric. Actually, it's not so much a mispronunciation as an anglicised spelling of the French pronunciation. The Spanish have the habit of "hispanifying" borrowed foreign words in this way, "leader" became "lîder", "meeting" became "mítin" and "croissant" became croisán". They have not yet put an accent on the first syllable of "penalty" but then, they simply mispronounce it, putting the emphasis on the second syllable. But they have made "goal" into "gol". 

You can't win them all.

Monday, 20 April 2015


Discussion of matters political continues here with only a few weeks to go the election. It seems that in the televised debate on Thursday Ed Miliband has persuaded some people that he might not be such a bad bet for the role of Prime Minister after all. This does not stop some very personal attacks from his opponents though; if anything it probably provokes them. There is some very nasty campaigning going on this time. Whether it is this or the much publicised almost open racism of a certain party but some people appear to feel they have been given carte blanche to be downright rude to campaigners. 

A Labour Party candidate introduced herself to an elderly man (it is impossible to call him a gentleman) on the campaign trail. His response was, 'I know who you are, I've got your leaflet. Get off my doorstep, Jew.' It's rather worrying to think that people feel that it's all right to shout abuse in this way in public, which is what the old chap did as the campaigner walked away. Are we really becoming a less tolerant society and, disturbingly, one where it's okay to voice your prejudices out loud for all to hear? 

I was reading an article about the American writer Saul Bellow, who spoke Yiddish or Russian at home with his parents, spoke English or French at school and learnt Hebrew from the age of three. By his own account as a young child, "I didn't know what language I was speaking and didn't understand if there was any distinction among these various languages". The natural tolerance of children, I suppose. He also spoke the street slang of Chicago, spending time on the streets with other youngsters. He said that the neighbourhood schools "earnestly tied to convert or civilise their pupils, the children of immigrants from every European country. To civilise was to Americanise us all." To "Americanise" is a wonderful turn of phrase. I wonder if you could still say that now. Is it politically correct? 

Here are a few odd facts. 

The first curry house in Britain was opened in Brighton in 1809 by ex-sepoy Dean Mohammed. 

English converts to Islam numbered about 1,000 at the turn of the last century and supported the building of Britain's first purpose-built mosque in 1889 in Woking. 

These facts were gleaned from a review of "Exotic England" by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, herself a Ugandan Asian who came to the UK in 1972. She asks, "What kind of England will emerge in the coming years? Will it become soulless, colourless, mean, closed off and small? Or will it choose ... to be open, big, international and curious, easy with diversity because it always has been?" 

Then the Observer ran a poll on all sorts of things concerned with Europe, immigration, the state of the UK, housing, money and so on; you name it, it was included! Now, I wonder, of the 48% of those polled who said that they strongly agree that "immigrants coming to this country should embrace the British way of life rather than hold on to the lifestyle they had at home" go on holiday abroad and look for places serving an English breakfast and English fish and chips and turn their noses up at the "foreign muck" served in restaurants in those sunny places. 

So much for tolerance.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Second hand stuff.

In our local Co-op shop there is a TV screen with a rolling programme of odd news items and reminders that the Co-op belongs to it's members (other shops have loyalty cards but the Co-op cardholders are "members", going back to the original idea of the Co-operative movement. I don't accumulate points that have to be used in store; I receive a dividend which is paid into my bank account. I can still remember going shopping for my mother and being asked in the co-op for her "divvy" number - 9232 by the way!) and urging members to swipe their card, by buying stuff, and so be entered into a draw at the end of the month. 

One of the news items this morning was something about a dress worn by Vivien Leigh in her role as Scarlett O'Hara in the film Gone with the Wind. It had sold for a fabulous sum of money, which seemed to me a bit much for a dress that might have been made out of curtains. (An impoverished Scarlett makes a dress out of green velvet curtains when she wants to impress society and persuade them that she is still doing fine.) 

So I googled the news item when I got home from my run into the village. It turned out not to be the curtain dress. It's a much shabbier affair. Everyday wear, I suppose, rather than what you choose when you dress to impress. The collector who was selling it had bought it originally for $20, saving it from just being thrown away, and now sold it for $137,000. Not a bad profit! 

In the same auction, Scarlett's straw hat sold for €52,000, a suit worn by Clark Gable as Rhett Butler for $55,000 and a black bonnet worn by both Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara and Olivia de Havilland as Melanie Wilkes for $30,000. You would have thought that the last item might have got more as it was double memorabilia but clearly the world of nostalgia is as fickle as fame itself. 

Either way, that's an awful lot of money for a pile of second hand clothing.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Modern Times.

I continue to find social media strange and somehow alien. Oh, certainly, I post stuff on Facebook and indulge in arguments there with former students about whether it is more valid for people to post pictures of where they are than pictures of their babies' progress. (As far as I am concerned, both work as a way of keeping your friends (real friends) up to date with what you are currently doing.) But I haven't got my head round tweeting. I read today about someone who tweets pictures of stuff he finds in ancient manuscripts in his work at the British Museum: ancient pictures that look like Yoda from Star Wars, for example. And then there's a shepherd who tweets about his work out on the hills with his flock. At first he was amazed to find he had 700 followers. Now he has around 7,500. All interesting stuff. 

And then there are the death threats. It appears to have become the norm for people to send death threats to famous folk who do something that offends them. Sack Jeremy Clarkson: death threat! Be a possible replacement for Jeremy Clarkson: death threat! Make almost any statement about anything at all: death threat! How did expressing your displeasure at something or your disagreement with an opinion change into the need to threaten violence? Why is that acceptable? Some of these messages are so horribly explicit that they are truly disturbing and the recipient has to withdraw from tweeting altogether. Are the people who send these messages the sort who would resort to fisticuffs in the pub if someone said something they disagreed with? Surely not all of them! The amount of money wasted because the police have to investigate a fair number of these threats and provide protection for the recipients must be quite considerable. And of course, if they ignored them and something happened to one of the high-profile receivers of threats, there would be a major outcry. We live in a crazy world! 

Over in Cannes, where they are gearing up for the Film Festival, they are trying to reduce the number of selfies taken during the proceedings. They are trying to put a limit on the number of selfies that can be taken with the Palais du Cinema in the background. Quite how they will do it is a different matter altogether. You would think that the famous would not need to take selfies but apparently some do. Surely they have enough pictures taken by the paparazzi! 

My lack of understanding of social media and how they work does not stop me from finding bits and pieces of stuff that amuse me. Here is a link to an article about expressions in modern everyday usage that are really annoying to its writer - and to me, for that matter!

And here's another thing that I have been getting a little stressed about recently: sloppy use of language. Today a certain Ben Jacobs was writing in the Guardian about Hillary Clinton and her attitude to same-sex marriages. Suddenly I came across this: 

"While first lady, former president Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (Doma), which prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages." 

Now, to my way of understanding things, that sounds as though Bill Clinton was once First Lady. Really? Was he? Did this happen in an alternative reality? Of course, what the journalist meant was " While Hillary Clinton was First Lady ....". However, that is not what he has written. This isn't even a case of my being pedantic. This is just plain sloppy. And it is not the first example I have come across. 

What is going on? Is there a younger generation of journalists who never paid attention in English lessons at school? And where was the editor, or at least the sub-editor, when this was allowed to go to press? 

Ok, another rant over!

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Life's casualties.

Well, so much for the promised fine weather. On the radio I heard someone commenting on the blue sky in Camden, I think it was. Here we have cloud and fine drizzle. To be fair, the newspaper does say that the country is split, summer in the south and back to winter in the north. That's the way it goes. 

It was fine and dry enough for a good run this morning but by the time I went out later to the post office it was decidedly damp and miserable. I needed to post a pair of pyjamas left behind by one of the young Spanish chess players. Initially when I asked for his address, the responsible adults in Spain responded by saying we didn't need to post the pyjamas. They know we are due to go back to Galicia some time soon and suggested we just took them with us. So I had to explain the hand-luggage-only travel philosophy that we follow. We really need every milligram of the 10 kilos each for stuff of our own. We have it down to a fine art and could probably run seminars an the art of travelling light! 

It is, however, very easy to leave stuff behind when you travel. We once had to contact a French hotel to retrieve a jacket carelessly left behind by a friend of ours when we were on holiday together. This was in the days before internet and so we had to find the phone number of the hotel in order to get in touch. I seem to remember we put a ten franc note in an envelope to cover postage. That is not as good as the German exchange teacher who once left half his summer wardrobe behind in our son's bedroom. He had brought shorts and tee shirts just in case the weather proved warm (no chance!) and never wore them. Our son discovered the clothing when he moved back into his room, having doubled up with his sibling for the duration of the visit. We were a little surprised at the amount of stuff left behind though. Did his suitcase not feel extremely light? 

For as long as I can remember there has been an old tramp (probably no older than I am, truth to tell) who could be seen wandering the length and breadth of Oldham town. I have seen him in all sorts of far flung spots. A friend of mine once found herself standing behind him in the post office, an uncomfortable place in the queue. Every few years you might notice that he had a new, or new-to-him, parka, soon rendered as disreputable as the rest of his attire. I never once saw him beg. He simply walked and walked and walked. And now, this morning, my daughter tells me that the news is "all over Facebook" that he has died. I must have the wrong friends as the news is not there on my Facebook. 

I wondered what happens about the funeral of someone like this but my daughter commented that she had heard that he came from quite a wealthy family. He even had a place in a care home but would not stay. She had heard that he went off the rails when his wife died. Now, that must have been years ago for he has been tramping the highways and byways of Oldham for nigh on twenty five years. 

What pushes people like him into a life choice like that? I remember an old, truly very old, lady who we used to see around our village years and years ago. A strange fey creature, she never spoke to anyone, managed a bit of a smile for children and would buy bits and pieces in the local shops. This was back when we had more shops than the Co-op which is all we have now. She lived in an old caravan, a tiny little place, parked up in the hills above the village. If you went hiking, someone was sure to point it out. And she lived there summer and winter, come rain or shine or even snow. Often she would be seen in snowy weather with the most inappropriate, broken footwear. She was another who was said to have come from a wealthy family. Rumour had it that she became reclusive and strange after her heart was broken but nobody seemed to know the truth of the matter. Rumour also had it that she had been cheated out of her fortune by a family member taking advantage of her distress. From time to time someone would organise a place in a residential care home but she always returned to her caravan where she died, years ago now. 

Another of life's casualties. 

It always seemed to me that her story could well have fitted into Laurie Lee's "Cider with Rosie, except that it was taking place some forty or fifty years after his tales. And yet we still seem to have people falling through the cracks of our society and simply not coping with life. Let's see one of the political parties put that right.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Political nonsense.

I am growing more than a little tired of hearing David Cameron tell us that his party is the party of working people. The party of people who work in extremely highly paid jobs perhaps! How are ordinary people persuaded to vote for the Conservatives? It has always mystified me. 

His latest ploy is to promise to revive the right to buy your council house, assuming that you are actually renting a council house and not paying an extortionate amount of rent to a private landlord. Being able to buy council houses won't help those people to get on to the property ladder. And we are a little obsessed in the UK with the idea of having to own our homes: an Englishman's home is his castle and all that sort of thing. Now, I can understand the desire to own a bit if property. And I know that my parents would probably not have bought a house if the chance to buy their council house had not come up. And yet ... and yet, having sold off council property in the past something was lost along the way. 

It used to be the accepted thing that a young couple rented their first home, usually a council house if they could manage it because that was the most reasonably priced. This enabled them to save up the deposit for a little place of their own. Some people never managed it and remained in their council house forever but no one thought any the worse of them for that - unless they were unfortunate enough to live in a really rough council estate, in which case the were pitied rather than looked down on. But if the only council housing available is precisely on those rough estates where no one chooses to live, then young couples nowadays are forced into the more expensive private rental market and bang goes their chance of saving any money for a house of their own. 

Surprisingly (to most British people anyway), in some other European countries it is much more common to rent and nobody feels inferior because they don't own the place they live in. Or maybe they do and nobody talks about it. Maybe I am just talking total nonsense. However, I still don't think David Cameron should pretend to be a man of the people. In fact, I don't think any of our politicians can truly claim to be a man of the people. That era seems to be in the past and nowadays they are all professionals, unfortunately! 

I came across a curious article about politicians, all about the most frequently Googled questions about them. For almost all of them, one of the things questioners wanted to know was how tall the politician was. Almost all the leaders of the main parties are nicely tall, hovering around or just above six feet tall, probably a sign of the good diet they had as children. Nigel Farage is considerably shorter, about five feet eight. This does not stop him making a lot of noise. Nicola Sturgeon is only five feet four but she is a Scotswoman after all and her people seem to look up to her anyway. 

But what a strange way of judging people. Maybe the ballot paper should tell us the age, height, marital status of candidates as well as the party they belong to. Perhaps we could also have a photo so that we could vote for the best looking!