Saturday, 23 May 2015

The joys of travelling!

I have often been known to go on at some length about the failings of our local bus service. Infrequent. Unreliable. Expensive (for those who have to pay). I could go on and on. Yesterday, however, excelled itself in being a problem travel day. 

We had a number of things to sort out in the town centre and had thought about going in on Wednesday. When Wednesday came round, however, we both found other things to do, especially Phil, who was having a rather stressful week. Thursday was also a busy day, with too many commitments all round. Yesterday, finally, seemed like the day to sort out all this stuff that needed doing. So, after Phil had caught up with the Friday repeat of stuff he had missed on the radio on Thursday evening, we set out with the idea that we would catch the 2.27 bus. We missed it. 

We might have missed it anyway but there was an outside chance that we might have caught it had one of our number (not me, so it will be easy to work out who it was) decided to make sure there was a radio playing in the house when we went out. In justification I have to say that there has been a spate of burglaries in our area in recent weeks and so the need for security measures was high! So I set off for the bus stop, with Phil planning to run after me as soon as possible. As I reached the corner, the bus was at the stop. Had we been together, we might have made a run for it and, by dint of frantic arm waving, persuaded the driver to wait. But Phil was too far behind for this to be a viable option. In reality, we were always too late for that bus. 

So we returned home for a twenty minute wait, the necessary time for us to be able to be at the stop for the 2.57 bus. We left the house in plenty of time and made our way "hot foot" to the bus stop. Before we were anywhere near the crossroads, though, we saw the bus sail round the corner and disappear in the direction of Oldham town centre ... a good five minutes early. Two buses missed! We were not impressed but decided to make a virtue of necessity and walked around the village. At least we were getting some exercise out of our misadventure. 

As we completed the circuit and approached our house once more, I suggested that we might as well have another try and see if we could catch the 3.27 bus. Some might have given up but we were undaunted and, what's more, we were working on the "third time lucky" principle. And yes, we successfully caught the bus. Things seemed to be improving. 

Then we arrived at the Mumps Interchange, where there is often a change of driver. We had a change of driver. Our jolly lady driver got off and a young man got on. He fiddled around with the ticket machine and other gadgets in the cab before re-starting the engine. This took up several minutes. There was a kind of ping. The doors opened and closed. The engine revved for a while and stopped. More fiddling ensued and he started the engine once more. Another ping was heard. The doors opened and closed once more. A little more engine revving led to another total stop. The young man spoke to someone on his phone. Another driver got on and they had a little consultation. By now the passengers were beginning to comment. We could have walked almost to the stop where we wanted to alight by now. Some wag suggested asking the jolly lady driver to come back. After one more ping, opening and closing of doorstep revving of the engine and another stop, a consensus was reached: our bus was broken! 

We all got off and were thinking of walking the rest of the way into the centre when another bus, of a different number but still heading for the right place, turned up. Everyone trooped on, chatting with that kind of British camaraderie that comes of sharing a broken-bus experience! And so ended the bus saga. 

Eventually we achieved the objectives of our trip into town: visit to the bank, spare keys cut, new shoes for Phil and a few items bought from the supermarket. And then we had to organise the return trip!

Friday, 22 May 2015


Today I have been updating my recipe scrapbook. (There I go, like a Victorian lady with my scrapbook!) I don't buy recipe books any longer. I have one or two old favourites that I keep and a couple more that were bought for me as presents and which it would seem churlish to throw out. Never let it be said that I might be a churl! But in the case of most recipe books I bought over the years I found that I was using maybe one recipe and that was all. So I kept a copy of the one recipe and sent the books off to a charity shop. And that, more or less, is when the recipe scrapbook began. 

Most weekends we buy newspapers, a proper printed version. The rest of the week we read the papers online but the weekend has to be marked out as special in some way and this is one of our ways. Besides, it would be impossible to get on with life if we tried to read a whole newspaper every day of the week. In the weekend papers there is usually a cookery page, sometimes several pages, sometimes a whole cookery supplement. I always scan this for ideas and it then follows a process of elimination. 

If a recipe attracts my interest, I will cut out that page and stack it with other cuttings for review later. Closer inspection will make me remove some recipes because they include ingredients that can only be obtained if you live in the great metropolis. No doubt all these esoteric ingredients would be available somewhere in greater Manchester but it's rarely worth making a long expedition just for an experimental cookery session. 

Then I consider the practicality of the recipe. How realistic is it that I will spend as long as the recipe calls for in preparation? How likely is it that Phil will eat the dish once prepared? This last has led to the ruling out of many a recipe with too much cooked cheese. Cooked cheese is a serious no-no in our house. I do keep recipes with a bit of goat's cheese grilled on top and just serve up one section of it without the cheese. 

Any recipe that looks as though it is never likely to be tried out has to end up in the bin. Eventually, if a recipe appears to be a "keeper", out come the scissors and the glue stick and it is added to the scrapbook. A rather haphazard scrapbook, it has to be said. Dessert recipes are side by side with soups and meat dishes. Properly printed recipe books have different sections for each type of course. Not so my homemade version although it has got to the point where I have a kind of index so that recipes can be found in a hurry. Some of the charm of such a book, however, is leafing through and rediscovering recipes you have forgotten about, recipes with memories attached, such as the ones I have tried out on friends. That's how you discover that certain friends will not eat, for example, parsnips, not on any account or in any mode of preparation! 

The first version of the scrapbook had to be cannibalised and the salvageable pages put into a new book as the first one had become so splattered with gravy and sauce and such a variety of ingredients that it truly was becoming a health hazard. Not the sort of thing you really want to have in your kitchen. From that original scrapbook I preserved a recipe for ginger wine, handwritten by my mother. Her ginger wine, I hasten to add, is non-alcoholic but it was always very good if fortified with a little whisky or brandy. Interestingly, the list of ingredients begins with a number of items that have the instruction to "get the above made up at the chemists". I wonder if chemists still provide this service. Sometime before next Christmas I will try it out. It was always just before Christmas that she made her batch of ginger wine. 

What I don't have, although I am pretty sure I used to, is her ginger beer recipe, another non-alcoholic beverage. It was usually referred to as a ginger beer "plant" and needed feeding with sugar and ground ginger until bottling time came along. I know that I once had the recipe because many years ago I had a batch go noisily wrong. Somewhere in the process of straining the mix to get rid of the yeast, some of that yeast was left in and we were woken in the small hours of a summer morning to the sound of corks blowing out of bottles and hitting the underside of the kitchen units. What's more, the yeast that had made it continue to ferment also made the brew taste foul! Maybe that's why the recipe disappeared. 

Anyway, the recipe scrapbook is now up to date again. An amazingly large amount of paper is now being recycled! But at least it's not a whole book, bought on impulse and never used. 

Finally, here is a link to an article giving a solution to the Vietnamese children's maths problem I mentioned the other day. I didn't understand a word of it. Well, I exaggerate. If I had sat down and really studied it and dredged up my old O Level maths equation solving skills I might have understood it. 

In the end I decided life is too short for that sort of thing and I went back to rereading books I read years ago. Oh, and sorting recipes. Much more satisfying!

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Mysteries and discoveries.

Looking for some thing light (literally, physically light as I would have to carry it along with other stuff I was taking on the bus) I came across a book I had not seen before on the shelf. It was a Penguin book, "The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar" by Roald Dahl. A set of short stories, first published in 1977, this version dated from 1982. Relatively recent, I thought. After all, the price on the book was £6.99, unlike he odd 3/6d that we have on some very old Penguins. Then I stopped and thought about it. It's 35 years ago after all. All is relative! Anyway, I had never seen this book before. When Phil saw me reading it, he asked where I had got it. He had never seen it before either. I wondered if one of us and picked it up in a second hand book shop but there was no penciled price on the inside of the cover, which usually happens with second books around here. So it is a complete mystery where the book came from. This is quite appropriate since the book is described on the flyleaf as follows: "The seven stories in this collection are brilliant examples of the macabre, the sinister and the wholly unexpected." 

The story of the title tells of a rich young man with little purpose in life who discovers yogic methods of seeing without using his eyes and so manages to make millions in casinos, only to use the money to set up orphanages around the world. Learning to control his mind and body gave him a new insight into life. Very Roald Dahl! It's interesting to find something new (to you at any rate) by someone whose work you thought you knew. Although I have to say I only knew Mr. Dahl as a children's writer. So a mystery book! Very good. 

In similar fashion some time ago I discovered that another writer whose work I had enjoyed also did other things. I had gone to an art gallery with my granddaughter and found an amazing painting of a glass blower. Very dramatic, full of colour and movement! It turned out to be by the writer Mervyn Peake. I had read his Gormenghast trilogy years and years before and been transported into a strange and different world. I had read "Mr. Pye", a book I had been attracted to because my maiden name was Pye. This Mr. Pye turned out to be a character who found that when he was exceptionally good angel wings started to grow on his shoulder blades. When he was bad they disappeared and he began to grow horns and a tail, turning into a devil. Somehow he has to maintain a balance between good and evil in order to keep an ordinary human appearance. Very odd! 

But I never knew Mervyn Peake was an artist. It turns out that he first made his reputation as a painter and illustrator in the 1930s and 1940s. During the Second World War he was commissioned as a war artist to paint war scenes. In 1943 he was commissioned by the British Ministry of Information to paint the glassblowers at a Birmingham factory: hence the picture I discovered. In 1945 he was sent to Germany and France. The paintings and poetry he brought back with him record the deep impression made on him by the victims of the war, notably those in Belsen. So far I have not located his poetry. This can be a future project for me. 

In the mystery Roald Dahl book, there is an account of his childhood experiences at a minor public school. In particular I was struck by the punishments inflicted on him as a small boy of only eight years old. Punishments were meted out for minor offences like not having polished his shoes or tidied up his bed properly. How did anyone ever think that such treatment was appropriate? And yet there are still people today who would argue for the return of corporal punishments in our schools. Small wonder that Roald Dahl wrote so many children's stories in which the underdog eventually triumphs and the bully gets his, or quite often her, comeuppance. 

I wonder what else I can find hidden away on the bookshelves.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Words, numbers and phones!

Today I came across a new verb: to excerpt. In a review of some writer, whose name escapes me and whose book didn't sound all that interesting, I found this strange expression: "her book is excerpted today". It looks as weird as it is difficult to say. It is an extreme example of a phenomenon that perhaps began with the idea of being able to "table a motion" and to "chair a meeting". Call me old fashioned, but I still think that tables and chairs should be nouns not verbs, objects not actions. 

Here's a link to an article about a maths puzzle for 8 year olds. Well, it was set for 8 year olds in Vietnam anyway. Our daughter, doing her final teaching practice for a degree in education, says some in her class of 8 year olds have difficulty with column addition and subtraction. I wonder how they would get on with this. Presumably the children in the Vietnamese school are used to being presented with this kind of problem. I have so far failed to complete it, despite my sudoku experience. 

In this country a topic for debate at the moment is the use of mobile phones in schools. On the one hand, there is a report that says that results go up by significant amounts when schools ban mobile phones in the classroom. On the other hand, there are people who say that we should harness the mobile phones, accept that they are there and make active use of them. Teachers should factor into their lesson plans the moment when they can say to the class, "Let's see who can find the information we need on their smartphones!" When schools can't afford to replace IT equipment they should remember that students have powerful computers in their pockets. So say the pro-phone lobbyists. But, the cynic in me asks, what about those pupils who do not have a smartphone? Is this not another pressure on parents to provide their children with equipment they simply cannot afford? It's a tricky one! 

I remember one student in particular in one of my classes who would occasionally go glassy-eyed, seemingly paying close attention to what I was saying and yet not quite there. Every time I asked her quietly to put her phone away she would huff and puff and bluster for a while and then grudgingly ask how I knew she was texting under the table. A sixth sense that teachers develop, of course. I have to say that I admired her ability to text without looking. Or maybe she just texted messages that were complete gobbledegook! 

That brings me back to where I started: nouns that morph into verbs. In the case of the verb "to text", I even have arguments with my daughter and granddaughter about the correct use of that so-called verb. Is the past tense "I text" or "I texted"? They say the former while I maintain that only the latter is acceptable. 

Clearly we need the kind of institution that many other European countries have, like the Académie Française, which stands guard over the language and tries, usually unsuccessfully, to keep it pure and grammatically correct. Fat chance of that!

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Odd news items!

Today has been a day of changeable weather. It was reasonably fine when I set out on my run this morning and then within five minutes it was raining steadily with occasional hailstones mixed in. It didn't last long but really that set the pattern for most of the day. Having said that, it did clear up somewhat towards lunchtime and managed to stay mostly fine, although windy, while I was in Manchester for my final Italian conversation class before heading out to Galicia next week. 

Curiously enough, as Phil and I are soon heading to one of the parts of Spain where they insist on the use of the local language (or is it a dialect?), we have been looking at Italian dialects. Today we read about the Lega Nord, a party made up of various regional political parties on the north of Italy, who are proposing that schools in their area should teach in the local dialect. I suppose there could be a number of reasons for wanting to do this: regional identity, a chance to gain support for their party from the local people and so on. But the main reason turns out to be a way of keeping teachers from the south of Italy from getting jobs in their area. To teach there you have to be able to speak Ladino. Now, that sounds like a familiar story! 

Here are some other odd goings-on that I have heard about over the last couple of days. 

In Waco, in the United States, a restaurant has been the scene of a shoot-out between rival biker gangs and the police. Like something from a violent film or television series, hoards of leather clad men on motorbikes turned up and had a battle, but with real guns. People were killed. I read that the restaurant was one of a chain of Twin Peaks themed restaurants. That in itself is weird enough, as anyone who saw the original Twin Peaks series on television long ago will understand. Even more strangely, the senior management of the chain is supposed to have commented about this event: 

“Unfortunately the management team of the franchised restaurant in Waco chose to ignore the warnings and advice from both the police and our company and did not uphold the high security standards we have in place to ensure everyone is safe at our restaurants. We will not tolerate the actions of this relatively new franchisee.” 

Since when do restaurants need to be able to ensure that their customers are safe from shoot-outs? As if armed gangs are normal! This is not quite like making sure there is a handrail so you don't fall down the stairs on the way to the loo. Health and safety gone mad?

Then I read something about legislation Obama has been trying to bring in which will prevent police being equipped with grenade launchers. Really? Do police need such high powered weapons? Do they even THINK they need them? 

On the one hand, then, we have extreme violence going on. On the other there is a move to protect the delicate sensibilities of some people from just such violence. I read about a lecturer in literature at an American university. For nigh on twenty years she has been teaching courses at university level but in the last couple of years has been receiving complaints from students if she has not warned them in advance of scenes of violence coming up in the books they are studying. Suddenly coming across the description of a rape scene, for example, leaves them traumatised apparently, and they feel that they should know in advance that this is going to happen so that they can be prepared. She thought long and hard about showing the film "Thelma and Louise" because of the attempted rape scene but, as she said, removing the surprise/shock element would seriously detract from the film as a whole. Here's a link to the whole article.

Much of that lecturer's course was about equal rights and the treatment of women. I wonder how she would feel about this. It seems that women have been turned away from screenings at the Cannes Film Festival because they were not wearing high heels. Not that the women turned up in trainers and track suits. No, they had posh frocks on and were all dressed up but were wearing flat sandals instead of killer heels that nobody can walk in. But it has been decreed that formal dress for women means high heels. So no entry for them! How silly! 

And finally there are the pandas. For years we have thought they only liked bamboo shoots. And now scientists have discovered that panda bears are poorly adapted for digesting bamboo, despite the plant being almost the only thing they eat. The research shows that two million years after shifting to a herbivore lifestyle, the giant panda still has carnivore-like gut bacteria, which is better at breaking down protein. There they are, cute and appealing, trying desperately to get by on indigestible (for them) bamboo when they don't have the kind of stomachs cows have which process such stuff properly. They really need a good chunk of meat but they don't know it. They went off it long ago. So they try all day to get a good square meal, eating every hour or so, to no avail. No wonder they have no energy left for reproduction. 

Life is just full of really strange things!

Monday, 18 May 2015

Healthy living.

Contrary to their earlier suggestions, health people are now telling us that drinking three to five cups of coffee a day does not harm you and may in fact protect you from type 2 diabetes and one or two other diseases. Or at least that's what some of them are saying. This benefit does not apply to fizzy drinks containing caffeine as they usually contain enough caffeine to give you insomnia and palpitations, as well as probably rotting your teeth. Neither does it work if you drink what the report I read describes as "the creamy, sugary versions from coffee shops". No, just ordinary black or white coffee. So you should still feel bad about drinking caramel lattes in huge cups! 

This must be a day for reading about health because almost immediately after reading that I came across an item about how much healthier it is to go the loo squatting instead of just sitting. Actually I knew that already. The Romans used to squat apparently. According to what I read today, if you don't fancy perching on top of the toilet seat to squat, putting your feet on a little stool and leaning forward is almost as good. Amazing what you can read about in the papers! 

Bad for your health is something called BASE jumping or B.A.S.E. jumping. BASE jumping is an extreme sport. As far as I can tell, extreme sports are practised by people with no sense of what might happen to them, or possible just with no sense! B.A.S.E. is an acronym - Building, Antenna, Span and Earth (i.e. cliff) from which idiots jump. My attention was drawn to this by a headline about two well known BASE jumpers who died in Yosemite National Park in the USA over the weekend. Well known in the extreme sports world anyway. When they failed to return from their jump at the weekend, friends reported them missing and their bodies were found some time later in a gorge. Base jumping in Yosemite is illegal and those who attempt it risk being arrested and fined. Maybe the illegality of it just added spice to the activity. 

Presumably sending out planes and a search party to find them cost their friends a fair amount of money. But then, I suspect this extreme sport is probably a pastime of the rich, as ordinary working people don't have the resources to get to the venues and pay for the equipment. Once again I am obliged to ask why anybody wants to jump off a high building with a parachute or a set of "wings". Oh, I know all the arguments about how climbing places and getting yourself into and out of difficult situations is something that people do "because they can", "because the mountain is there" and such like but it doesn't mean I am convinced by them. 

I read about this after having watched a gutter man climb up ladders to clear out our blocked downspout. Our house is perhaps a little odd - although it's style is quite common around here - in that it has two stories at the front but three at the back. The ground slopes down at the side of the house so that you can go in through the front door, apparently at ground level, and then go downstairs into what should be a basement but which in fact opens onto the back garden: hence the difference in number of floors. Recently we have noticed that when it rains the water running down the sloping gutter at the back of the house fails to go down the downspout but kind of cascades down the wall, increasing the possibility of damp affecting the building. And so we arranged for a man to come along and poke about at the top of the down spout and clear away any collected gunk. This he duly did, with Phil supporting the bottom of the ladder and risking having the aforementioned gunk land on his head. The rain now runs nicely down the downspout. 

Now, this chap went up the ladder as part of his job, something he gets paid for. OK, nobody forces him to do this job but still, he is doing it to earn money, not paying out a sum of money to risk his life by climbing up into a high place. We spoke about the fear of heights thing and he said that he has on occasion found himself freezing - with nerves, not cold - at the top of a ladder in a high place. I suppose that every once in a while up at the top of a ladder or on the roof of a house a workman's imagination can suddenly kick in and he finds himself visualising the plummet down to earth. Our gutter man said that in such a situation he simply has to bite his lip, settle his nerves and get on with the job, because after all he will still have to get down that ladder when the job is finished. It's definitely not a job I would want to do though. 

I think I'll just stay in!

Sunday, 17 May 2015

The price and value of stuff.

Sitting on the train waiting for it to set off from Newcastle to Manchester, I listened to the routine announcements all about seat reservations, numbers, looking after your luggage and so on. Amazingly, unlike the last time we travelled on this particular service, they actually opened the doors to the train a good five minutes before departure. Last time it was only about one minute in advance, barely time for people to stow heir luggage before setting off. We arrived at the station in plenty of time, following the advice of our friend in Gateshead who suggested we should leave her house at 1.45 to ensure catching our 3.10 train without any stress. I suppose we could have had more delays, this being Sunday and buses running on a reduced schedule, but we caught a bus just before 2.00 to the Gateshead interchange, hopped almost immediately onto the metro to go to Newcastle Central Station. As a result we were there by 2.15, plenty of time for coffee and wander around a bit before being able to board the train. 

This train takes us through our local station, Greenfield, but does not stop there. So we wave to all the familiar places and continue to Manchester, from where we have to make our way back by tram and bus. I suppose a so-called express service can't stop at every station along the way, just for our convenience! 

Reading the paper this morning I found the usual sort of fashion anomalies. On one page there was an interview with a Radio 1 presenter who apparently owns 52 pairs of trainers. Why does anyone need 52 pairs of trainers? I freely admit that I have more shoes than are really necessary but they are not all of the same kind. However, it is almost certainly true that I could manage with fewer pairs. On the same page in the newspaper was some advice from the "ethical editor". I was unsure whether this was the editor who just happens to be ethical or a specific editor who deals with things ethical. Probably the latter. Anyway he, or possibly she, was giving advice on clothes buying, stuff like checking where the garments were made, what sort of dyes were used and so on. The one that struck me was this: "Only buy if you can commit to wearing the item at least 30 times". How many years before the radio presenter has worn all her trainers 30 times? I wonder!

Perhaps we should all stop and examine our wardrobes in the light of this advice. How many things have we bought on impulse and only worn a couple of times? Funnily enough, my friend and I had been talking along just those lines. She had been roped into helping a couple of friends buy an outfit for a wedding. One of them could afford to buy the sort of items that feature in colour magazine articles: jackets that cost £225 and so on. The other had to set herself a limit to what she spent on the whole outfit - dress, jacket, shoes, hat and all the other trimmings. We both stopped and thought about expensive items we had bought and the number of times we had worn them, the price-per-wear going down with each time the outfit came out of the wardrobe. As if, my friend reflected, there were not more important problems in the world, and indeed in our own lives, than the value per wear of our clothes. 

But if you stop and think about it, if you buy a dress for £120 and you wear it 30 times, that makes it £4 per wear, much more reasonable. However, it does mean you have to go to 30 posh events before you change your dress size and discover you can't even get into you pricey frock!