Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Serious discussion on the tram.

Yesterday I braved the weather and went into Manchester for my Italian conversation class. I am glad that we only caught the tail end of Hurricane Gonzalo. If that was the tail end, I dread to think what it must have been like earlier. At one point I stood under the shelter at the tram station in Oldham when it started to rain. The wind blew the rain so that it was horizontal. We were under the shelter but still getting wet and cold. 

As people complained of the cold, one man commented that in his country this would not be considered cold. There they had snow on the hills and mountains all the time so this bit of rain and wind was nothing. From his dress he was clearly Muslim and I wondered where he was from. And so, being a friendly sociable person (aka a nosy Parker) I asked him. Afghanistan, he revealed. At that point the tram arrived and we all got on after, unusually, being asked to show our tickets and passes. I sat down and, to my surprise, the man from Afghanistan came and sat next to me, even though there was plenty of room in the tram. 

And so began a conversation that went on all the way to Shudehill in Manchester, where I alighted. I learned that he had been in England for three years and that when he arrived he spoke no English at all. He had not been to classes but had picked up English from listening and talking to people. Maybe he makes a habit of talking to tram passengers. He said he had not learnt to read and write English. I tried, unsuccessfully, to find out what he is doing in England, although I got the impression that he had come initially for medical treatment. He showed me the scars on his leg and told me that he had been injured in both legs and had been unable to walk at all for a long time. Even now he still walked with a crutch. 

I was told at length how wrong the fighting and foreign intervention in Afghanistan is. His argument went along the lines that in England ("your country" was how he described it) people can be prosecuted for hitting children and yet it is considered all right to send soldiers from the UK, from the USA, from France, to kill families and children in his country. What happens, he told me, is that people gather to go to market, to do their shopping, to get on with the business of life and this is seen as an illegal gathering and bombs are dropped. He had lost his father and all his siblings that way. It's a powerful argument. 

What I found less palatable was when he started to talk to me about religion. Assuming that I am a Christian (well, I had already assumed he was a Muslim) he informed me that we are mistaken to call Jesus the son of God. God does not have sons. God is simply there. Jesus, a prophet, was the son of Mary, or Miriam as he called her. And like the prophet Mohammed, he is in fact not dead but has been taken up to Heaven. And then there is the Bible, which apparently is different in Birmingham, London, Oldham or wherever people live. I had to protest at this but he corrected me, assuring me that people re-write the Bible to suit their own lives. Interpretation? Is that what he meant? 

The Koran on the other hand, he told me, is pure and unique. There is only the one. He was not impressed by people who read the Koran in English translation and say they are converted to Islam either. Maybe that is the problem: his belief that the Koran should be accepted without understanding or study. It was all becoming very confusing, and his English was really not up to the argument he seemed to want to have. Besides he appeared to be a nice chap, if a little fanatical, and I really wasn't in the mood for an in depth discussion. 

So I was quite glad when Shudehill tram stop the turned up and I was able to get off, without revealing to him that his assumption of my belief in Jesus as the son of God was mistaken. He was so passionate about the whole thing that I didn't want to disillusion him. 

One of my companions in the Italian class told me I had clearly come across a fanatic, possibly dangerous. But, of course, my travelling companion may just have wanted to practise his English. It'll teach me to keep my mouth shut when I'm waiting for the tram.

Monday, 20 October 2014

The Spider Post.

On Saturday evening I caught a huge spider at my daughter's house. I had to catch it. The two youngest grandchildren refused to go upstairs to bed if they had to step over the spider, even though it was tucked into a corner of one of the stairs. So I had to get a glass, pop it over the spider and wait for someone to bring me a card to slide under the glass, thus trapping the spider. This is the time-honoured and generally humane method of catching spiders in our family. The aforementioned spider, as might be expected, woke up and kind of reared against the side of the glass, revealing how big he or she really was. So I took it outside and deposited it at the bottom of the garden. 
 
Several hours later, when I arrived home, I went down to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. There on the floor, large as life and twice as nonchalant, was another huge spider. So, employing the same method as before, I caught this spider as well and took it off to the bottom of the garden. I have been known on occasion to carry them down the road a way, trying to take them as far from the house as possible in a vain attempt to confuse them and prevent them returning. Does it work? No idea. 

A fair number of Facebook friends have been posting photos of similar arachnids. My daughter even had one use her arm as a kind of bridge, dropping down from her ceiling, walking down her arm, on his way to who knows where, when she spotted him and brushed him off in horror. She then took a photo of him on the floor by her bed. 

I was discussing this spider problem with a friend recently. We both agreed that we do not remember such huge spiders back in the 20th century. In our opinion they are a 21st century phenomenon. Scientists on the TV try to persuade us that they have always been around but I remain unconvinced. I remember invasions of harvest spiders, with their small, round bodies and looooong legs. But these ugly creatures with what look like pincers at the front of their bodies are a recent development as far as I am concerned. I have been known to theorise that they have come into the country in boxes of fruit from warmer climes and, because our winters have been milder, with the occasional exception, in the last decade or so, they have survived and adapted to a British lifestyle. Not beyond the bounds of possibility. 

And then this morning I read the story of a family in South London who had a food delivery from Waitrose. In their order was a bunch of bananas. As the father of the family put them in the fruit bowl he realised that there was a huge spider nestling In the bunch of bananas. Initially trapped by a leg under the bunch of bananas, the spider disappeared from sight. The householder phoned the RSPCA who said they did not deal with such things and suggested he dial 999. The police would have nothing to do with such a venomous creature. For by now they had discovered that it was a Brazilian Wandering Spider, one of the most poisonous in existence. Great! 

Eventually Waitrose sent a pest expert, Steve Trippett, who described the spider as “hardcore”. In amongst the bananas there was also an egg sac containing hundreds of spider eggs. Mr Trippett put the eggs in a freezer to kill them and, armed with a 3ft stick, found the spider hiding in the fruit bowl. The spider became aggressive standing on its back legs and showing its fangs, this despite having ripped at least one of its legs off trying to escape. But using his stick, Mr Trippett manoeuvred the creature into a heavy plastic box, which was placed inside two other boxes. Apparently the spider was taken later to a scientific centre abroad. So you see, big spiders do come in from abroad! This was a Wandering Spider who wandered a long way. 

The family was described as being traumatised by the whole experience. Well, yes, I can understand that. A bite from a spider of this kind can cause paralysis and even death so they were right to be scared. However, one thing that strikes me is that they were not so traumatised that they couldn't take a photo of the spider. Now, when I see a huge spider, my first instinct is to get a large glass to trap the thing, not find my phone to take a picture. I might take one later once the creature is safely under glass. Mind you, my phone is usually in my handbag in some other part of the house, not in my pocket or right next to me wherever I am. (Yes, I take a lot of photos, usually when I am out and about. Yes, I also post a lot of pictures to Facebook. But my first reaction to an emergency is not to take a picture of it.) Maybe the people who take pictures first do so before they go to find something to trap the spider in. 

Anyway, it seems to me that the moral of the story is to buy your bananas in person at the supermarket, not have them delivered to your house. That way you can at least take a look to see if there is an illegal immigrant on board.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Ways of looking at things.

Perceptions of things can be odd and at times amusing. Here's an example: 

"Perhaps they're Spanish." Walking back from Greenfield the other day we came across someone talking to her daughter who was about to leave in her car. The mother was in the middle of the pavement, taking up all the space. Now, I would have moved towards the car, allowing the people walking on the pavement, in this case us, to go past. This person just stood here. I don't think she even registered that we were there. This happens all the time in Spain but as a general rule the British are a bit more aware of other pavement users. Phil and I looked at each other and said, almost simultaneously, "perhaps she's Spanish". We did wait until we were out of earshot before commenting, I hasten to add. 

 And then there's my experience last night: 

I had been babysitting, putting our daughter's two youngest to bed and eventually leaving them in the care of their teenage sister, when she finally returned from a friend's house. I set off for home, taking with me Phil's guitar which the teenager had been borrowing. She had had the idea that she might teach herself to play but never had the persistence to get beyond the painful finger ends stage. I sympathise! You need to be very dedicated and she has other interests taking up her time, not to mention sixth form college work. So, as the guitar was not being used, Phil had asked me to pick it up next time I was at our daughter's house. There I was, on the last bus home with the guitar in its case over my shoulder. I got off the bus along with a neighbour from further up the road. "Been playing somewhere?" he asked me, jumping to quite the wrong conclusion. I didn't even get to the painful finger ends stage as I could never get my fingers to keep enough pressure on the strings to make the chords. I can just carry a guitar and give the wrong impression. 

In today's newspaper (it's Sunday so I have bought a proper paper) Alan Milburn, former Labour cabinet minister and now chairman of the government's Commission on Social Mobility, talks about the problems facing under 30s in the UK and the increasing divide between haves and have-nots in modern society. One thing he comments on is that the proportion of 16 and 17 year olds in full time education who also have a job has fallen from 37% to 18% in a decade. The "Saturday job", in reality the "whenever your college timetable lets you work job", is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. 

One reason, as I see it anyway, is that university students maintain those part time jobs all year round. When I was in sixth form I worked Saturdays and holidays in a shoe shop. When I went to university my employer held the job open for me for when I came home for holidays, on the understanding that there might or might not be a job, depending on demand and so on. But I went away from home to university and I received almost the full grant available at the time and I didn't have to pay fees. So I wasn't too concerned. I didn't need to work during my university term and if there was a job waiting for me during the holidays, that was a kind of bonus. Present day students, on the other hand, have no grants as a rule, pay fees and many of them live at home. So they keep the jobs they had in sixth form. If they go away to study, often they transfer their job from their home town to their university city within the same chain. 

And then, of course, there are those graduates who can't find a job commensurate with their new status and continue in the part time job. I know a number of ex-students of mine in that situation. Some of these left college when I retired ( not related events, just coincidental ) and graduated from university three or occasionally four years later, two or three years ago now. I have followed their progress on Facebook and I know that they have continued to work in shoe shops and restaurants until eventually finding a "proper" job. Only recently I came across one of them still working in Claire's Accessories in the Arndale Centre in Manchester. All of this means that there are fewer jobs available for the 16 and 17 year olds. This is why our granddaughter is finding it so hard to get a part time job! It's also why the percentage of 16 and 17 year old students in part time work has fallen. 

As regards the gap between the haves and have-nots, here are a few interesting quotations: 

"Last year , the top 1% of Americans took home 22%of the nation's income; the top 0.1% 11%. Ninety five percent of all income gains since 2009 have gone to the top 1%." 
Joseph Stiglitz, Columbia University. 

"A chief executive in one of Britain's biggest businesses takes home in three days more than an average employee can earn in a year." 
Deborah Hargreaves, The High Pay Centre. 

"Whereas in the past, the average CEO made about 20 to 30 times the income of the average worker, today's CEO now makes 273 time more. The basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed." 
Barack Obama. 

Why this suddenly increased divide? The newspaper analysis concludes that mid-skilled jobs have disappeared. Factories have become mechanised and fewer people are needed to keep conveyor belts or modern equivalents working. Secretarial staff need has shrunk as files are kept in computer data base and of spreadsheets, even top executives do a lot of their own typing - the word processing programmes make that possible. So mid-skill workers are squeezed out. Most of them find it hard to move UP into the top level and so they have to apply for jobs at a lower level. Consequently there are far more people applying for low-skill level jobs and employers are able to keep wages down. This is less the case at high-skill level where employers offer higher pay and bigger and more frequent bonuses to attract the "best". 

I think we need to take a good long look at our society and see if there isn't a way to put things right before it's too late.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Haircuts, weather and political nonsense.

For at least two weeks now Phil has been planning to go and get his hair cut. At various points each week he has said, " Must get my hair cut" and then things have got in the way, time has gone past and the hair has grown a little longer. Not that it was in ringlets on his shoulders or anything like that but he was starting to feel those scissors calling. So today, as the sun was shining this morning, he got organised and off we went, combining a haircut with a walk. 

Of course, by the time we got going the sun had been covered by drifting clouds but off we went anyway. This is a frequent weather pattern here: the day starts beautifully and then deteriorates. Friends of mine are convinced that Saddleworth is blessed with a wonderful climate as I frequently post "good morning" photos of blue sky and sun-spangled autumn leaves. It's all an illusion, like so much in the world today. And I don't even need to photoshop the pictures. 

Spurred on by Phil's example, I decided to make an appointment to get my hair done as well. Because I am a woman, my situation is more complicated, at least in this country, and you have to book in advance, not just turn up and wait. As luck, or Sod's Law, would have it, my usual stylist is on holiday and I will have to wait another week with increasingly visible roots before I can get the colour sorted again. Of course, were I in Vigo, I could do as Phil does and turn up at the hairdresser's on spec. I have never yet had them turn me away or ask me to come back another day. 

I hear from a friend of mine in Vigo that they have been having the same mix of weather as we have. Looking at the forecast on the internet I see high temperatures forecast for some days next week, as high as 25 degrees, which seems silly for October. And then yesterday the newspaper Faro de Vigo put out a video clip of a flooded Vigo street with one of those street rubbish containers being washed along by the force of the water. Strange extremes of weather. 

Before we went out, I heard a news item on the radio: another of those announcements that one or other of the major political parties was changing its policies regarding immigration, foreign workers or goodness knows what else. General elections are due in May and the parties are already in catch-votes mode and since UKIP won a seat in parliament the major parties are terrified of losing votes to them. So instead of explaining what is wrong with UKIP's policies, they adjust their own to be more in line with what they have decided the electorate wants. And so they tell us that Nigel Farage has the "right" ideas. And so Nigel Farage has won, in a way. 

What has happened to standing by your beliefs? How has knee-jerk reaction replaced properly thought out debate? We move closer and closer to all the parties spinning the same line and I, who have always argued that it is our duty to vote, find myself wondering if there is any point at all. 

Maybe it's always been like this and it's just got a little more obvious in the modern age. Like Voltaire's Candide I might end up saying simply, "il faut cultiver notre jardín".

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Ways of looking at things.

18% charged. That's what my phone told me just now. Not even half full. What a pessimistic phone. We often talk about being a glass half-full or a glass half-empty person. Nowadays it sometimes seems as if it's more important to have your phone battery more than half-full. How quickly we have all adjusted to being permanently in contact with the rest of the world. 

We have been watching, or rather re-watching, Heimat, a German series by Edgar Reitz. He calls it "eine Cronik in elf Teilen" - Chronicle in 11 episodes. And that's just series one, which takes us from around 1919 when Paul Simon manages to make his way home from the First World War to some time much later in the twentieth century. We watched it years ago on television and recently I came across it in the wonderful Fopp shop in Manchester, a shop that sells all kinds of CDs and DVDs without the in-your-face top-volume music that you get in some such shops. And usually the staff are well-informed about what you are looking for. So, as we were on the lookout for something interesting to watch, I bought the first box set. 

At the start of the series radio is just developing. We see the first radio sets appearing in people's homes, the first telegraph poles going up in the countryside of Germany. Like a kind of magic. How would those people from the 1920s react to modern day communication? 

"Heimat" - more or less homeland, I believe - was a very ambitious project, filmed over a number of years so that the same actors could be used as the characters grew progressively older. It is filmed partly in colour and partly in black and white, apparently to reflect the way we remember things in more or less detail. The episode length seems to vary from one to another. My theory is that Edgar Reitz anted each episode to be a story in its own right, not finishing partway through and leaving you with a cliff hanger. 

Consequently, last night we started watching the episode about your Hermann, the troubled youngest son of the family who scandalously has an affair with an older woman. It must have lasted for over two hours. A gripping story but causing me to go to bed later than planned. The knock-on result of that was that I didn't wake up until almost 10 o' clock this morning. Not like me at all. So I forewent my run and got the day organised so that I could go to the supermarket. 

 I finally read the paper when I came back and came across an odd article about rethinking positive thinking. Two New York psychologists have come to the conclusion that if you imagine yourself having a really productive week you are less likely to achieve much. Because you have imagined it too well, you no loner feel the urge to work at it so effectively. What you need to dogs something called "mental contrasting" involving "Woop", which stands for “wish, outcome, obstacle, plan”. 

The article in the newspaper explains: "The acronym sets out the four stages of the process. First, spend a minute or two thinking in detail about something you wish to accomplish; second, vividly imagine the best thing you associate with having achieved that outcome. (That “best thing” might be an emotion, a promotion, praise – anything, really.) Third, ask yourself what internal obstacle’s most likely to get in the way. (This isn’t about your boss, or your spouse, so much as that weakness inside you that holds you back from better pay or a better relationship.) Finally, formulate an “if-then” plan for what you’ll do when that obstacle arises. (“If I find myself feeling terrified when I stand up in front of the audience, then I’ll recall how diligently I’ve rehearsed.” “If I find myself checking Twitter, I’ll get up from my desk immediately.”)" 

It sounds rather like a reworking of the old "Swot" analysis - looking at Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats when planning a project. Here's a link to the article

Psychologists could drive you crazy if you took all they say seriously. In the meantime, it would seem that those who see the world as a glass half-empty should succeed more than those of us who see it as a glass half-full. 

But I bet the latter are happier!

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Attitudes to snacks.

Celebrity cook Jay Rayner described how he was vilified when he gave his recipe for cheese on toast on a radio programme. First of all, I didn't know you needed a recipe for cheese on toast but I suppose that if you are a celebrity chef and cookery writer you need to have a recipe for everything. The recipe that got him into trouble added bacon to his cheese on toast. Lots of listeners took exception to it and contacted the programme to say what a dreadful person Mr Rayner is. How weird is that? Yet another example of the immediate feedback effect that goes on in modern media. 

Personally I don't see anything wrong with adding bacon to cheese on toast. Provided, that is, that you like bacon in the first place. It works very nicely if you beat an egg and add that to grated cheese before putting it on the toast. The egg bubbles nicely and you get a tasty snack. Not that I make cheese on toast that often. Phil objects to cooked cheese in or on any dish except pizza. So there we are. If the grandchildren demand toasties of any kind I use some clever little bags I acquired recently. You put whatever filling you choose between two slices bread, put the whole thing in the bag and the bag in the toaster. Et voilà, a tasty toastie without any sticky mess! And the bags can be washed out and re-used. The wonders of modern technology! 

Secondly, what I fail to understand about the listeners who objected to Jay Rayner's cheese on toast recipe is why they felt the need to pour out the bile of ill-feeling towards him. Why did they not just ignore his suggestion? It's not as if he was obliging anyone to follow his idea. Surely it is possible to accept that we might all have tastes that others disagree with. 

Our eldest granddaughter likes nothing better as a snack than honey and banana sandwiches: no butter on the bread, just a smear of honey and a mashed up banana. Do it on brown bread and it's perfectly nutritious. Her younger sister pretends to vomit at the very idea but then she doesn't eat fruit at all except maybe blended into a smoothie. 

Now, the smoothies, that's a modern food invention that I regard as completely unnecessary. And yet the "Innocent" company has made millions selling people bottles of blended fruit combinations. Amazing! I once took a group of students to Paris to some kind of conference about Europe. One of the talks was about business models, given by a chap from Innocent. At the start of his talk he asked if anyone had never had an Innocent smoothie. I think I was one of only three to raise our hands in the whole hall. 

Just a little food for thought! No accounting for taste! 

Oh, and thirdly, what are celebrity cooks for?

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

In the news.

On the one hand I read that the wealthiest 1% of the world's population own 50% of the world's wealth and on the other I find reports of schools in England that have had to set up funds to provide help for pupils whose families simply cannot afford to feed and clothe them or get them to school. Schools receive "Pupil Premium", an allocation of money intended to help improve the school performance of disadvantaged pupils but the schools are not supposed to use that money to provide "social" help. If they use the money to set up a breakfast club, for example, ensuring that children at least start the school day with food inside them, they need to justify this in terms of academic outcomes. This is the 21st century. This is England. Something is very wrong. 

The headteacher of a primary school providing social help for the families of her pupils reports visitors to the school commenting on her pupils being generally smaller than pupils of a similar age in other schools they had visited. Consistent under feeding will do this. And most of us are unaware of these problems. People hide problems. Children ask staff who take them home, if they are taken ill for example, not to go into the house with them. Already at primary school age they are aware and ashamed. 

That's one aspect of the child poverty, global crisis, what-are-we-doing-with-the-modern-world? problem. I came across all that stuff this morning. Then this afternoon in the Italian conversation class our teacher Adalgisa talked about the problems primary teacher friends of hers are having in Italy. In one case, the school is so underfunded that they cannot even afford loo paper. It's already an accepted fact, as in Spain, that parents buy school books but you might expect that loo roll would be provided. But no, the parents are asked to send the children to school with their own roll of toilet paper. Is the world going crazy? 

So what are we leaving behind for those who succeed us? 

Well, according to something I have just found online, some people will be leaving their tattoos. Now, I have never felt the least inclination to have pictures inked into my skin but a surprisingly large number of people do so. Now I have found out about something called the "Foundation for the Art and Science of Tattooing". 

A so far still quite small number of people have signed up to this so that after their deaths, pathologists can remove the skin carrying their tattoo, pack it in formaldehyde and send it to a laboratory where the water and fat will be removed and replaced with silicone. They then become the property of the foundation, put on display or “loaned” to family and friends of the deceased. I have heard of tattoos being photographed by tattoo artists so that they have a record of their work but never until now have I encountered a suggestion for preserving the tattoo itself. Rather gruesome! 

The model Kate Moss apparently has two swallow tattoos at the base of her spine. These were done by the artist Lucien Freud, who learnt the tattooing trade in the navy in his youth. The tattoo is said to be worth a million pounds and Kate Moss is reported to have joked to Vanity Fair, "If it all goes horribly wrong, I could get a skin graft and sell it.” Now it seems she may be right and she can pass it on to future generations. 

Is this the kind of thing the 1% spend their wealth on?