Thursday, 18 December 2014

Books, dentists, Christmas shopping and odd coffee.

I was listening to the radio: the arts programme, Front Row on BBC Radio 4. At one point they were talking about books and one of the presenters suggested that Donna Tart should employ a technique which gives background information about events, environments and characters and thus reduce the length of her books. Why? Because apparently quite a lot of people bought her book, "The Goldfinch", began to read it and gave up, ostensibly because it was too long! 

Now, personally, I loved the book. I read it twice in quick succession, once to satisfy my curiosity about events in the novel and a second time, more slowly, savouring detail and style. I do this quite often with books I really enjoy. I also go back and reread certain books every few years. 

However, the radio discussion provoked another argument in my head. Can a book be too long? If it's well written and the events move along at a reasonable pace, does it matter if it's 200 pages or 600 pages? In fact I often find myself in something of a dilemma: I want to know what happens at the end of a novel but at the same time I don't want to finish it. It's a little like leaving an alternative reality where you have got to know the characters and you feel quite comfortably at home. OK, this might seem a little odd, but I am aware of other people who feel the same way. There's even a young man who works in a bookshop I have been in today who agrees with me! 

This, of course, explains why I frequently dislike the film version of books I have loved. Occasionally I object to the choice of actors to play the protagonists; they just don't match my mental image of that character. What really gets my goat, though, is when important details are omitted and happy endings are created, because someone feels that the cinema audience needs to leave on an upnote!!! Give me strength!!! 

It may be that the modern generation just doesn't have the sticking power to read a full length novel. Short attention spans abound (the young man in the bookshop agrees) and everything must come in bite-sized chunks!! I could seriously go off the modern world! 

This morning I went to see the dentist for my usual check-up. I had to dodge the rain and the spray from passing motorists on the way. Yes the damp continues? 

On the way back I stopped to do odds and ends of shopping. Hence the visit to the bookshop. The local Halford's store, where I was buying puncture repair stuff for Phil's bike, asks what could be better than a bike for Christmas. Hmm? Cycle lanes? Housing the homeless? Feeding the hungry? Finding a cure for horrible diseases? World peace? I feel sure we could come up with a few other ideas. 

However, I may be wrong; what might be the best thing, according to some people, is a gadget called a "selfie stick", an object which allows you to hold your camera-phone away from your body to take a selfie. Peter Bradshaw, talking about it in the Guardian, described it as the latest must-have gadget. Here's a little of what he had to say: 

 "I decided I had to have one. But when I mentioned this glorious innovation to my wife, she replied: “What’s wrong with asking someone else to take your picture?” Oh. Oh yeah. Asking someone to take your picture. It’s sort of a nice, shy way of interacting with your fellow human beings. I’d forgotten about that." Well, yes, there is always that! 

He went on to comment on the latest fashion in coffee drinking: coffee with butter. Milk in coffee, he says is apparently passé. Instead you should drink your coffee with a blob of butter in it. They call it "bulletproof coffee", goodness only knows why. He tried it and was less than impressed. In fact he suggested its name might come from the fact that drinking it felt like being shot. 

Reading about it I was taken back to my time as a student in France (Proustian moment?) when I had a tiny one ring gas-burner on which I could make coffee in my little room. One Sunday, alone in the school as all the pupils had gone home for the weekend, I realised I had no milk for my coffee. Sunday, in a small village in the depths of the French countryside and nowhere open. Instant coffee was just not right served black. All I had to take the edge off the bitterness was margarine. It worked after a fashion. 

Clearly I was ahead of my time!

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Dreaming of a Wet Christmas. And silly news items.

The weathermen are expressing their amazement at how mild it is all of a sudden. As for me, I am simply expressing amazement at how soggy it is. Because it is so mild, there has been no frost to speak of and the ground is trying hard to soak up all the water that keeps on falling. The net result is MUD. And if not mud, then very soft and soggy grass. The ladies who teeter around on spiky heels must be having a difficult time of it. 

As the rain was falling steadily this morning, instead of running to the market in Uppermill, I walked, under my trusty, huge, spotty umbrella. It is not the most convenient to carry around with you as an insurance policy to prevent the rain from starting. Once the rain has started, however, it is big enough to keep me and my rucksack reasonably dry. 

When I reached Uppermill, I found the stepping stones across the river submerged and converted into some kind of rapids. Beautiful in its way! 

I walked along the canal towpath, past a barge that has been moored there for a good while. I am almost convinced I could hear music coming from the barge. Is someone overwintering in their barge on the canal? If so, what do they do for drinking water and washing water and so on? There is plenty of water around but I wouldn't fancy using the canal water to do anything other than water the plants in the pot on the roof of the barge. Do they have to pay mooring fees if they plan to stay there? Life is full of these questions. 

I imagine the canal barge people are quite pleased the weather has become so mild. It must not be fun in a boat on a canal if the temperature plummets to blow zero. Others might dream of a white Christmas but I suspect that these would prefer it to remain simply soggy. 

Having bought fish and fruit at the market, I caught the bus home in time for a second breakfast and took a look at the newspapers online. 

After all the bad news stories of awful events going on around the world, which I am not commenting on at the moment as it will only make me angry, I found some silly stories instead. 

Here's an underwear story, A Japanese lingerie maker is recalling more than 20,000 brassieres after complaints that underwires suddenly poked out, sometimes while women were wearing them. You will be pleased to hear that no-one has been injured in this lingerie catastrophe. A spokesman for the company commented: "It would be terrible if it happened again and somebody's skin was scratched." Well yes, I suppose it would. But does this make it world news, even with a headline about faulty wiring in underwear? Especially as none of the faulty items were sold outside Japan. 

What really intrigued me was reading that the company concerned made a name for itself with concept lingerie such as a solar-powered bra. What is that exactly? (Come to that, what is concept lingerie?) Why does a bra need to be solar-powered? Would such an item be wireless? It's all too much for me. 

And then there is the French railway company SNCF which has been giving advice to its staff about personal presentation. A document was leaked onto Twitter (what else?) and the train operators have been accused or sexism because they advise their female staff on use of lipstick and mascara and keeping their hands looking nice. They defend themselves on the grounds that they also advise their male a staff about beards and deodorants and aftershave. Here's a link to the article

Personally, I think SNCF don't have a leg to stand on. They highlight the advice to ladies in PINK and the advice to the gentlemen in BLUE. That sounds like sexism to me!

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Perceptions! Ideas! Ways of doing things!

No village chaos this morning. Or at any rate, no more than normal chaos. I ran round and through the village at the time when people were taking their children to school. Even though the village itself is quite small, a large number of people still take their children to school by car. I suppose some of them live in more outlying places and others have jobs to go to and need to drop the children off quickly and make a fast getaway. Even so, there seem to be an awful lot of cars making their way from the school and through the village centre at around nine in the morning. All it needs to slow everything down is a delivery van outside the co-op, like this morning. Nowhere near as large as the truck that got stuck yesterday, it was still big enough to reduce the traffic to one lane. Faster on foot! 

I got home just in time to avoid the torrential rain that fell later. It hasn't kept that up all day but it has been rather dull and gloomy. It's probably a good job that some people over-decorate their houses with Christmas baubles. I was thinking about this as we were on the bus this afternoon, going past all the decorated houses. I can remember around 15 years ago, travelling to Southport by car to visit the family over there. We had the eldest, at that time the only, grandchild with us, then aged two and a half. We made a game of who could spot the next Christmas tree or set of Christmas lights. Now you would have to do the reverse and see who could spot a dark patch! 

It has to be said, though, that it makes the gloom more cheerful. I write this as a person who has put my Christmas ear-rings in today. Phil spotted them as we stood at the bus stop and harrumphed! The girl at the supermarket checkout loved them. I always used to wear them for the last week of term when I was teaching. I see no reason to change old habits if they raise a smile. Sharing a bit of pleasure is never a bad thing. 

Oversharing is a different matter. This is a new term I have come across for putting unnecessary details of your life on Facebook. You know the sort of thing: "Cleaned the toilet - boy was it horrid!" As if cleaning the toilet was such an unusual thing that you have to crow about it to all your virtual friends. Better to say nothing.

Scan pictures of a 12 week foetus almost classify as oversharing but I suppose it's not a bad way of letting your friends know you are expecting a happy event. And nowadays hospitals give a print of the first scan automatically (baby's first photo!) whereas in the past you were lucky if they let you look at the screen. How things change! 

Another thing that is changing, according to something I read recently, is the attitude towards underarm hair. Showing that you had hair in your armpits used to be pretty much universally frowned upon. Only really fierce women's libbers didn't get rid of it. Now it seems that the latest weird fashion fad is to have your head hair dyed an unusual colour, green, turquoise, pink or similar, and then to have your armpit hair dyed to match. Now I am a believer in being colour coordinated but that seems to me to be a step too far! Another kind of oversharing, in my opinion! 

Here's something else. George Monbiot, whom I enjoy reading as he usually makes a lot of sense, is trying to persuade us to change our meat-eating habits. He maintains that if we are to be able to feed everyone in the world, we should revert to the habits of yesteryear when people only ate meat about once a month. It would almost certainly be very difficult to persuade most people to do this. His suggested solution? School children should be taken, as part of the curriculum, on visits to factory farms - of all kind, not just chickens - and abattoirs to see what goes on. This would provide them with a reality to set against the storybook world of the kind of farms that hardly exists any more with a farmer caring for a range of animals, all of which he calls by name. 

It might work, at least to some extent. Our daughter is one of a quite large number of people I know who will not eat fish if it looks like fish. A nice anonymous fillet is one thing. A fish served up with its head and tail, looking at you and implying it might like to swim away, is something else again! 

In the meantime, Christmas approaches and I, for one, plan to cook that turkey and tuck into some fine sausages. Pigs in bacon, that's what our grandchildren will expect to see as well on the table. Now, there's a good gruesome name for a food item, if ever there was one!

Monday, 15 December 2014


The tree was finally decorated yesterday afternoon. It sat for a while in a half-way state, with nothing but lights, well, lights and one robin decoration, which I really like. I am always tempted to leave it just like that. In a pleasing state of simplicity. 

However, the grandchildren turned up and covered it in angels, baubles wooden Santas and the usual sort of Christmas tree stuff. Some people have beautifully themed trees. My sister's tree is almost always totally colour-coordinated. I, on the other hand, have never managed that. Like my flower bed in the spring, it has a kind of wild charm. Well, that's the theory anyway. What it hasn't got is tinsel - disgusting stuff- or chocolate decorations. The latter will probably have to be bought. I am feeling pressure from the grandchildren building up! 

After the grandchildren had departed yesterday, I spent an inordinate amount of time writing Christmas cards. Each year I toy with the idea of sending out an email or Facebook Christmas greeting to all my friends but somehow it lacks something of the Christmas spirit. And, besides, I truly loathe the e-cards that some people send for birthdays. So I simply sat down with my address book and wrote cards. 

This morning I walked into the village to post them before heading into Manchester to shop. (There are people who expect gifts at Christmas time, after all!) My idea was to go to the post office and then wait for the bus at the stop outside that establishment. When I reached the crossroads, however, I noticed a police "accident" sign across the road into the village and lots of police in hi-visibility jackets milling around. No one stopped me walking up the road, so clearly there was nothing too gruesome to be seen. 

As I got closer to the centre I could see it: a huge lorry completely blocked the junction of the main road through the village and the road coming down the hill. There was no way any vehicle was getting past it. 

Obviously, the lorry driver had come down the hill and tried to turn left to go through the village. My theory is that he was following satnav and ignored the weight limit signs, which should have been right up at the top of the hill. He might just about have managed a right turn although that too would have been difficult. As it was, he was well and truly stuck. 

Someone told me that he was unable to reverse because he did not have enough weight at the back of his truck to give him the necessary traction. They were sending for cranes. Goodness knows how the cranes would get themselves into the right position. I suppose that two would be needed, one approaching through the village from the other end and one coming down the hill. Quite a masterpiece of communication would be needed to coordinate it all. 

I was not hanging around to see it, however. I had a bus to catch and if that bus was not going to be able to get into the village to do its usual turn-around, it would miss out the village completely and head straight towards Oldham. Consequently, I had to get back to the crossroads sharpish in order to be there when the bus arrived. I assume that a successful rescue took place because when I returned later in the day the police notices were gone and the village appeared to be fully open once more. 

When I first saw the truck this morning, a policewoman with an odd sense of humour told me that they planned to put fairy lights on it and leave it there for the Christmas period. That would be the kind of Christmas decoration that the Wake Up Delph Committee had not been planning for.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Keeping busy!

We went into Manchester yesterday to have lunch with a host of old friends. So old that Phil was at school with most of them. When we arrived, we pretty well had the city centre pub to ourselves. A copious buffet lunch was served. Nostalgia was in the air, as everyone caught up with what we had all been up in the last too many years to mention. And suddenly it was late afternoon. I went downstairs to visit the ladies' room (why are ladies' toilets in old pubs always freezing cold?) and it was like descending into a Bosch painting. Bodies were squashed together. Faces leered up the stairs at those descending. And the noise was horrendous. Friday afternoon / evening in a city centre pub! What else should you expect! It's a good job we had met for lunch. Had we met in the evening, I doubt we could have heard each other reminiscing! 

Somewhere in the middle of all this nostalgia fest I checked my phone for messages. Or maybe I just wanted to find a photo to show someone and discovered messages on my phone. Three or four consecutive messages from the second grandchild, aged eleven. The first asked me if I could go round to her house and talk to her. The second explained that she had accidentally sent a message to her mother, a rude message intended for someone else and never meant to be sent at all. Writing the message had just been a way of relieving stress about a grumpy teacher. The third expanded on this, explaining that her mother might think the message was really meant for her and that would be a disaster. And finally the last one said," GRANDMA, ANSWER ME!!!!!" That's how you shout in text-speak. I couldn't do anything except send a consoling text as I was busy in Manchester. By then, though, everything had calmed down and all was well again. But sometimes the whole texting and messaging thing gets a little out of hand. 

On that subject, I was reading today an interview with a young actress, Maisie Williams, who has become famous playing the role of Arya Stark in "Game of Thrones". Apparently, when she began to be famous, aged only about 13, she suffered a lot of cyber-bullying. People sent her vindictive messages on her phone and via Twitter, including people she was at school with. How sad that her schoolmates - she was at a school specialising in performing arts - should be so jealous of her success. 

She seems to have come through it though and appears to be a fairly well-balanced seventeen year old, doing normal seventeen year old things but with rather more money at her disposal than the average teenager. 

In the interview she spoke about one of her brothers having a job - with the a lingerie company, I think - which she found amusing or, as she put it, "so jokes". When did we start using nouns as if they were adjectives? I almost ranted about this yesterday but got too busy to do so. Yesterday's provocation came from the headline, "Why kissing is so fun!" "SO FUN"? Surely that should be "so much fun" or "such fun". I keep hearing "fun" used in this way. People say things, "This is very fun". I have not yet heard about things being "funner" or "funnest" but I expect to do so any day now. The article about kissing was not very satisfactory: some talk about how we swap microbes when we kiss and things about pleasure centres in the brain, but nothing new or excitingly interesting! 

Today has been a run-around sort of day. I did a run around the village this morning in the fog. Yes, damp, even dank, fog had descended on the place and made it feel very cold indeed. Later I set off, in sunshine, amazingly, for the local supermarket. En route, I walked through a hailstorm. Fortunately I had arranged for my daughter to meet me at the supermarket; I had far too much stuff to carry home on the bus. 

Later still we went out looking for a Christmas tree. It's actually quite hard to find one that is not six feet tall at least. There is a mania for putting up a tree that totally fills your living room. The one I finally bought was described as small. OK, it's not as tall as I am but even so, I would have preferred something even smaller. But it was raining hard and we could not be bothered to trail round to another place in the increasing gloom of the end of the afternoon. 

So, a tree has been bought and set up in a corner of the living room. Tomorrow the grandchildren can help to decorate it. Christmas has officially begun in this blogger's household. Mince pies can now be eaten!

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Back up north!

Yesterday we left a chilly but fine and bright Chesham, where our son and his little family live, to make our way back to the north west of England. By the time we arrived in Manchester it was raining. Somehow there was something predictable about that. Of course, I know that the weather does not follow those kinds of rules but sometimes it seems as though it has to conform to the stereotypes: in this case, that Manchester regularly has bad weather. But it does feel very cold up here in the North! 

We had arrived at Euston Station yesterday in plenty of time for our train so we went for refreshments before boarding the train. I had a halfway decent but still oversized and overpriced cup of coffee from one of those station cafes that claim to have a connection with France but, despite selling pain au chocolat, really have no idea what France is all about. 

Phil made the mistake of ordering a tea with milk. It was a truly disgusting cup of tea. Like the coffee, it was far too big, although as a rule it is quite acceptable to drink a large mug of tea. This was supposed to be a small paper cup but still held a good half-pint. The main problem with it was that no time appeared to have been left between pouring hot water on the teabag and adding milk. At first sight, after removing the plastic lid they always clamp on such hot drinks, it looked like watery hot milk with a teabag string hanging from it. It only became remotely tea-coloured after the teabag had been agitated a little in the mixture. Not good at all! Eventually Phil abandoned it and we went to investigate the train situation. 

An almost complete lack of information awaited us. Although the train was now due to depart in about twenty minutes, there was no platform announcement. This would be slow even for budget airlines telling you which gate to go to! According to the (imminent) departures board, the train was "preparing". If this meant that they were cleaning it up after its previous journey, then it must have been somewhere. However, even when there were only 11 minutes to go until departure time, there was still no information about the platform. Eventually there was an announcement, ending up with, "Will passengers please board the train as it is ready to depart". Goodness knows what anyone with mobility problems would do!! 

After that the journey was more or less incident free. Naturally, we had to walk almost the full length of the train to find our compartment but that has become par for the course. We had seats in a "quiet coach" so we only heard one phone ring and being guiltily answered during the journey. Mind you, even a "quiet coach" doesn't escape the numerous messages from the train staff, always preceded by a bright "piiiiing", giving customers, not passengers these days, helpful advice about remembering their belongings and so on. 

Back in Manchester, I saw Phil onto a tram with both suitcases and went off to meet a couple of friends. This had been planned before we left the country so it was no surprise to him. I felt he should regard it as an opportunity - an opportunity to get the house nicely warmed up before I arrived home!!! 

For five or six years now my friends and I have attended a carol service, raising money for an organisation that helps alcoholics and drug addicts find solutions to their problems. It has become a kind of symbolic start to the Christmas festivities for us and, besides, having a good sing song is always good. 

As a rule we go and have something to eat before hand. This time we went along to Jamie Oliver's Italian restaurant in Manchester. One of our number has a loyalty card which entitles her to free gifts or reductions from time to time. She was rather hoping that this time she might receive a free bottle of wine to share with us but this was not the case; a piece of pottery was promised. So we selected some dishes from the menu, all very tasty, and bought a bottle of wine to share anyway. 

Eventually, as we were about to pay the bill, the promised pottery arrived: a sort of earthenware plate, emblazoned with the words "pasta plate". My friend can be quite blunt. "Is that it?" she demanded, in somewhat disgruntled tones. A little taken aback, the waiter offered an alternative, perhaps a deeper dish of some kind. My friend calmed down and recovered her usual charm, even persuading the young man to wrap it for her and even put it in a larger bag than was necessary so that she could hide in there some presents she wanted to keep out f the sight of other friends she was seeing at the carol concert. Some people lead unnecessarily complicated lives, it seems to me. 

We enjoyed the carol service, which took place in the lovely little church of Saint Ann, one of Manchester's treasures, in fact usually called "the hidden gem". The choir from Chethams School of Music sang beautifully for us. We tried to sing beautifully in turn but with less success. 

I almost had a fit of the giggles over the words of "Ding Dong! Merrily on High". The second verse was printed as follows: 

 E'en so here below, below, 
let steeple bells be swungen, 
and i-o, i-o, i-o, 
by priest and people sungen. 

I can never previously remember having to sing what I assume to be old (olde?) English "swungen" and "sungen" in that Christmas carol before. And all that "i-o" business seemed new as well. Or maybe I am suffering from selective forgetfulness. 

And then someone seemed to have changed some of the words of the old "Once in Royal David's City" as well. However, on investigation it turned out that they had just omitted one verse. Maybe it is no longer politically correct to sing a verse that ends up with these lines: 

Christian children all must be 
mild, obedient, good as He. 

 It was written in or around 1848 by Cecil Frances Alexander, wife of a clergyman and eventually of a bishop when the clergyman progressed upwards in his career. She also wrote "All Things Bright and Beautiful", the children hymn which had to have some lines removed in more politically correct times. As a child I sang about everyone having his place in society: the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate. We thought nothing of it then but such sentiments are no longer allowed in children's songs and hymns. 

The 19th century was perhaps a more innocent age!

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

A busy Tuesday!

After much deliberation about how to spend today, we finally opted to go into London and see the Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery. 

En route, as we had a change of tube trains at Baker Street station, we had to go and call in at the Chess and Bridge shop on Baker Street itself. This is a sort of London routine we have. It beats having your photo taken with the statue of Sherlock Holmes outside the tube station. I saw lots of Japanese tourists doing that! 

While Phil was contemplating purchases of even more chess books, I walked up and down Baker Street looking for somewhere that might sell me a cardigan. Before we set off I had debated putting on another layer and had decided just to put on my trusty trench coat over a thin jumper. Mistake! It was chilly! However, Baker Street has almost nothing but cafes and places to eat, with the occasional posh kitchen shop thrown into the mix. Fortunately, the walking up and down warmed me up. 

As I did the aforementioned walking up and down Baker Street, I spotted a Tesco Extra and a Sainsbury's Local, both mini-manifestations of the big supermarkets. But I also found a Little Waitrose. Who knew there were such things? Who knew it had such a sweet name? Who thinks up these names? Presumably it's those strange people in advertising known as "creatives". They don't seem to have Little Waitrose in Manchester. Maybe in the posher bits but not in the parts I go to. 

Anyway, after buying chess books, we went back to the tube station and caught a train to the National Gallery. The Rembrandt exhibition, of his later works, borrowed from all over the world it seems, was excellent. We also took a look at some Canaletto ( should the plural be Canaletti?) and some Caravaggio. Splendid stuff. And then we found a couple of Goya as well. The National Gallery is really well worth visiting!!! 

However, the large blue cockerel currently on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square leaves a little to be desired. 

Then we headed for Euston Station for a rapid rendezvous with our daughter and her school party who have been at a chess event today. They seemed to have been successful. What was it she said? "The smallest team but the highest prize to pupil ratio." When we saw them, the children were counting their money to see how much food they could order from Burger King in the station. Too much, as far as I could tell! 

We left them to it and headed back to Chesham where our son lives, quite fortuitously bumping into his friend (and best man at his wedding) on the train. How small the world really is!!!! 

Tomorrow we catch the train back to Manchester, just in time for me to go to the carol service which I always go to with an old friend, organised by a charity group helping addicts of various kinds. 

And suddenly it's Christmas. Time to buy a tree and lay in stocks of mince pies and other goodies. Ho, hum, humbug!