Saturday, 31 March 2012

Odds and ends.

So, it seems as though summer has been and gone for 2012. We’ve had a week of sunshine and amazingly high temperatures for the time of year but it appears to be over and things have got back to normal. Well, almost: it’s not raining!

Funny things happen when the sun comes out here. Not only do legs come out but tables appear outside all the pubs and all the blokes – no, not all but far too many of them – feel that they have to bare their chests. Every pub becomes a seaside bar where a state of undress is the norm. Now, I understand that in Barcelona they have been applying bye-laws to prevent people from doing that except in … yes, you’ve guessed … seaside bars and more specifically beach bars.

I can just about understand the feeling that the sun is so rarely seen that you have to take advantage of it when it’s there but, really, there has to be a limit. And large expanses of white flesh at the roadside are just not what you want to see as you travel back from the town centre.

However, it has been very nice to be able to walk about in the sunshine without having to take extra layers with you and a raincoat in case of showers. Even the local mudbanks have dried up somewhat.

Mind you, if last year is anything to go by, that may have been summer that we just had. Last year we had a very nice April and May, I seem to remember, but after that the “summer” was a disaster.

Ah well, so it goes. This has been a funny week in other areas too. I discovered, to my surprise, that the Duchess of Cornwall, aka Camilla, have something in common: our admiration for the Danish police series, “The Killing”.

The Prince of Wales and his missus have been visiting Denmark and Camilla apparently asked especially for a visit to the set of “The Killing” where they are filming series three. It seems she is a big fan. It was very odd to see actress Sofie Gråbøl, who plays stroppy, rule-breaking, I-refuse-to-conform-to-your-norms Sara Lund, bobbing a curtsey to Camilla. But then, Denmark has a royal family so I suppose they are used to that sort of thing. Anyway, they gave Camilla the cardigan version of Sara Lund’s famous jumper and she was very pleased. If you want to see the curtsey, a hard thing to do when you are wearing jeans, here’s a link.

I’d like to share another video with you all. Someone sent me this link to an odd festival which forms a part of Carnevale in Sardinia. These Mediterranean places really know how to do processions.

And then in today’s paper I read an article about the playwright Eugene O’Neill, whose “Long Day’s Journey into Night” is being performed again in London, Now, the O’Neill’s seem to be a family who truly know how to do the guilt trip in a big way. First of all there’s Eugene’s older brother Jamie who had measles when he was about six and passed it on to his baby brother who died of it. The six year old was pretty well accused of deliberately giving his baby brother measles and lived guilt ridden for the rest of his life. There there’s Eugene himself. His mother suffered from what was probably postnatal depression after the birth of little Eugene. She was prescribed morphine and quickly became addicted. When Eugene reached the age of fourteen, his father and older brother decided it was time he knew that his decision to be born at that time effectively ruined his mother’s life and mental health. What a great family to belong to!!!

It’s been a funny old week.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Railway lines and other stuff.

In the film “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café” one of the characters hears an invisible train rush through an unused railway station, rattling windows and making papers blow around. In our neck of the woods there are at least two former railway stations which have been converted into desirable residences, one of them just down the road from us. Very picturesque is it too, with a wrought iron and glass canopy over the old platform and posters advertising products from the 1950s.

The other that I know of, for surely there are more, is round the corner from my daughter’s house. This is a much more utilitarian building aptly named “Station House”. You can see that it wouldn’t take much to re-convert its rooms into ticket offices and waiting rooms. I wonder if the residents hear ghostly trains running along the track next to their house.

For, like the one near our house, the line is now a bridle path; no trains have run on these tracks for a long time. However, both would probably be good commuter lines if still operational today. I suppose dear old Dr Beeching couldn’t foresee the commuter workforce living in the outer suburbs and travelling into Manchester centre every day.

Of course, back then Greater Manchester as such did not exist. Places like Oldham, Middleton, Ashton, now part of the huge built-up area which is Greater Manchester, were separate towns with open spaces between
them. If you go back even further to the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, textile workers from Oldham were said to have marched over open fields to get to the meeting place in Manchester. Saddleworth, where we live, was mostly still part of Yorkshire and remained so until boundary reorganisation took place in the 1970s. There are some people who still think it is in Yorkshire and have white rose symbols on their houses as if that proves their point.

We have some old Ordinance Survey maps which still mark the old railway lines and as we needed to go the n
earby Lees and as it was a beautiful sunny day on Friday we decided to explore some old tracks that we had not walked before. The line was supposed to run from Lees, to Grotton, through Lydgate and on to Greenfield where it joined the line which still runs from Manchester to Huddersfield.

We found the old Grotton Station with
the platform still in existence. Apparently the station closed on 1955 although the line remained in use for goods traffic until 1964. As for the station building: well, even though I didn't see it, I understand it’s been turned into a private residence. What a surprise!

The bridle pa
th doesn’t actually follow the old railway track after the remains of the station bit goes up onto the hillside. You can look down on the old track and see the blocked-off entrance to a tunnel which went from Grotton to Lydgate.

Even though you can’t actually walk into the tunnel a
nd you see very little evidence of it as you walk from Grotton to Lydgate apart from the odd artificial-looking mound in the fields, the tunnel is apparently maintained to prevent subsidence.

The tunnel must have been quite a feat of engineering and goes on for quite a distance. More pictures of the tunnel and information about the railway line and our own Delph Donkey line are available through this link .

So we had quite an informative walk on Friday in the end, through the sunshine and admiring spring lambs along the way. I always thought sheep recognised their own lambs by their distinctive bleat but nowadays they have the extra security of having their numbers painted on their fleece.

The spring sunshine continues this weekend. Is this summer? I ask
myself. Last year’s delightful spring weather led on to a very mediocre summer. In the meantime, though, I am taking advantage to get out and about. I’ve even managed to snap the local heron, probably waiting for us to go so that he could eat the frogspawn in the nearby pond.

Make hay while the sun shines, carpe diem and all that sort of thing

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Differences of opinion

I may already have mentioned that my daughter and I had a difference of opinion about when the start of Spring was supposed to be. According to her the Met Office had decided the official start was the 1st of March. That way the seasons divided nicely into three month chunks. However, I now find myself with odd friends sending me Happy Start of Spring messages on Facebook and even the Guardian explaining that the vernal equinox (i.e. the start of Spring) can be any time between the 19th and 21st of March. It’s all to do with having an exactly equal split between daylight and darkness apparently. This year we get it today because it’s a leap year or something like that.

In La Voz de Galicia newspaper they have been commenting on the unusual weather in some parts of Galicia. Not so long ago Ourense was the hottest place in Spain for a day an now there has been snow in the province of Lugo. The headline yesterday read, “A 48 horas de la llegada de la primavera, nieva” – 48 hours before the start of Spring, it’s snowing. So they think Spring starts on the 21st of March as well. We don’t really need any new-fangled changes to the start of the seasons.

I’ve been hearing other slightly new-fangled ideas on the radio. Now, for as long as we can remember men have hired suits and evening wear for special occasions. Fortunes have been made hiring out wedding outfits for grooms and their best men. For a somewhat shorter time it has been possible for brides to hire their frothy frocks as well, thus avoiding having a concoction of tulle sitting in the wardrobe waiting for the first girl child to need a fairy frock to dress up in. Ladies invited to weddings and other such events tended to use that as an excuse to buy a new expensive outfit. It was all part of the fun. Well, now it seems there is a thriving business in hiring out expensive frocks for all sorts of occasions, and not just for brides and bridesmaids.

Trendy ladies who want to wear designer dresses to special events can hire them for anything upwards of £100 for an evening instead of paying extortionate amounts to buy these dresses. Apparently the social networks are partly to blame for this phenomenon. The explanation given by the interviewee on the radio was that when you go to a wedding your picture is taken and before you can say “How lovely!” it has been published on Facebook. Now, again according to the radio lady, if you are invited to several weddings and your photo appears each time in the same fancy frock you are likely to be mocked, or at the very least subjected to commentary, on Twitter and so on. So, in order to avoid such adverse remarks you need a different outfit each time. This used to be a problem only for members of royal families and for famous people going to awards ceremonies as they are photographed wherever they go. Now, though, we ladies are all subject to this pressure.

How to avoid it? Hire a designer dress each time you need one and avoid the problem of having a £600 dress moldering in your wardrobe and being unable to wear it because it’s already been seen in public. (This did not prevent one person on the programme saying that she had hired the same dress several times as she really liked it!)

I must not move in the right circle as I don’t appear to have these problems. Maybe I don’t get invited to enough weddings.

On the other hand, I have also recently come across a news item about a certain Kate Middleton. We are probably supposed to call her the Duchess of Cambridge now but the papers will continue to call her by her maiden name. She has been in and out of the news recently, accompanying the queen to various places and learning how to accept bunches of flowers from small children. This time she has been making her maiden speech as a member of the royal family, talking at a charity event, I believe. Disregarding the content of whatever she had to say, certain uncharitable reporters have remarked on the fact that she was wearing a dress she had borrowed from her mother. Yes, from her mother!!! Not only does this young woman appear in public in clothes she has bought from high street stores (not the very cheapest of high street stores but all the same, places where you or I might buy clothes) but she borrows from her mother! Whatever are things coming to?

It would seem that you can really never get it completely right!

Friday, 16 March 2012

Words, words, words.

My small grandson – almost seven but going on seventy in his belief that he knows everything – has been getting indignant about words, their meanings and on occasion their pronunciation. He has a regular argument with me about what the letter H is called; is it aitch or haitch. As his schoolteacher favours the local pronunciation (haitch) he refuses to believe his grandfather and me when we try to persuade him that aitch is in fact more correct. We also have occasional differences of opinion about how to pronounce the word “envelope”. Then there are the times when I tell him to get his football gear and he replies scornfully, “It’s called “football KIT”, Grandma!!! Bikes and cars have gears!!!” As I said, seven going on seventy!!!

Today I came across a comment in the Guardian about the use of the word “muppet” to indicate that someone is a bit short of brains. Greg Smith, resigning from an executive position in Goldman Sachs, more or less said that he had lost faith in the bank’s philosophy, particularly the way the client had become one of the least important things to the company. He stated, “It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail.” Without further comment on the ingratitude of bankers regarding their customers in that way, the use of that expression “as a byword for dimwittery”, as the commentator in today’s Guardian said, has caused some indignation. Apparently actor Steve Martin has said on Twitter, “I recently worked with Kermit. Behind his back, I referred to him as a “Goldman Sachs employee.” I like it.

This was from a Guardian blog/feature called “In Praise of ...” . Earlier in the week it had this to say about rivers:

England's drought draws attention to the condition of England's rivers. And England's rivers – with those in Scotland and Wales – have ancient names, often conferred before the Roman legions came, and passed down almost unchanged to the present. Daily Mail spread on the misery that will last all summer featured the Bewl, the Chess and the Pang. But these are just the start. What about the Mease, the Tees, the Dee, the Cree, the Nar, the Ter and the Ver? Or the Box, the Yox and the Axe? Or the Neet, the Fleet and the Smite? Do not forget, either, the Ebble, the Piddle, the Polly, the Nadder or the Wandle. Or the Feshie, the Mashie and the Wissey. Then there are the Lugg, the Ugie, the Meggat, the Tud, the Lud and the Irt. Like these other rivers, the Wampool, the Snizort, the Skirfare, the Deveron, the Cocker and the Stinchar speak of a deep Britain, to which we are more connected than we realise. Or would be if it rained.
There are some excellent names in there but I still have some difficulty believing in the drought, especially here in the North West. It hasn’t actually rained for a few days (note that I said a few days, not a few weeks or months) but there is still standing water on the local bridle paths and it’s still very soggy underfoot. I know that other places have been drying up but not around here. I do know that Galicia has been having the second driest winter in fifty years and has had some unseasonably high temperatures earlier this week with Ourense hitting 27° one day, hottest place in Spain!! Other high temperatures in that lovely bit of Spain were Vigo and Pontevedra with 24°, Santiago with 25.5° and Padrón with 26.2°. The world is a little bit crazy.

Finally, getting back to words, here’s a link to the King of Spain talking at some kind of awards ceremony and asking Mrs. Borbón (Queen Sofía) to let him get a word in edgeways. It's nice to see an old married couple getting on so well!

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Elusive pictures and odd coincidences.

In our Italian class we recently spent some time talking about this painting by Renato Guttuso, a Sicilian artist.

Reactions varied from enthusiasm to repugnance. I love the way it invites us to enter the Vucciria market in Palermo, Sicily. One of my class companions, however, hated it for the portrayal of a great carcass and, as she saw it, the way the woman central to the picture, is similarly a piece of meat. As well as expressing our varied opinions of the pictu
re, we had fun counting people. We started of believing there were about seven and ended up, on closer examination, thinking there were at least a dozen.

We had got onto this because some of us had talked about a p
rogramme on the BBC called Sicily Unpacked where art critic Andrew Graham Dixon and celebrity chef Giorgio Locatelli went round the island of Sicily looking at interesting places and eating interesting food. One of the things they looked at was the Guttuso painting.

Andrew Graham Dixon went on to say that his mother had owned a cookery book, Italian Food by Elizabeth David, which contained illustrations by Guttuso. My Phil had tried to find a copy of the book to give me as a birthday present but had only be
en able to find a more modern copy without the aforementioned illustrations. It's still a book worth having. Elizabeth David was probably responsible for my first attempts at Spanish recipes.

Anyway, today I took the book along to show Adalgisa, ou
r Italian teacher. Great minds clearly think alike because another member of the group, Richard, regularly referred to as Ricardo Cuore di Leone, had also brought the book along. Small world syndrome strikes again. However, the difference was that his was the older edition with the Guttuso illustrations. So I borrowed it so that I could show Phil the illustrations he hadn't managed to obtain. Here are a few of them. Pretty good!
Here’s another little coincidence: Renato Guttuso comes from Bagheria, near Palermo in Sicily, home town of Giuseppe Tornatore, maker of the film "Cinema Paradiso".

Oh, and the town apparently featured in "The Godfather, Part III".

Oh, again, and I am probably among the few English people who have read the book "Bagheria" by Dacia Maraini.

Small world, eh?

Friday, 9 March 2012

Bus pass philosophy.

I popped into town late this morning. I use the term “popped” loosely as it’s at least a twenty minute bus journey, turned into thirtyfive by the roadworks at what used to be the famous Mumps roundabout, famous for a railway bridge built in 1891 at a cost of £20,647 3s 4d. I bet it would cost a lot more now.

The bridge was demolished, amidst flowing tears on the part of many onlookers, around eighteen months ago to make way for the arrival of the Metrolink, the tram service which does such a good job connecting Bury, Eccles and various other places swiftly and efficiently with central Manchester. The area where the roundabout and the bridge used to be are in traffic turmoil as work supposedly goes on. Every time I take the bus that way I overhear conversations about how useless the Metrolink connection is going to be as no-one is really going to want to come to Oldham; everyone will use it to escape. Today’s contribution was that what the town needs is a cinema and bowling alley complex. I wonder! Comments about silk purses and sow’s ears come to mind.

Anyway, I popped into town to visit the bigger supermarket and pick up one or two things I can’t get locally. Amazingly the bus arrived more or less on time. The cynic who accompanied me (my Phil en route to a friend’s house) commented that it was probably the previous bus arriving very late. I did my bit of shopping and made my way to the return bus stop. Buses leave that stop at 24 and 54 minutes past the hour. At 26 minutes past I saw what I suspected was my bus sail past the top of the road. This was confirmed by someone at the stop when I got there. Sod’s Law, you see, insists that buses are only late if you arrive at the stop on time and are never late when you are. This was further proved by the fact that the next bus arrived a good ten minutes late. If the 24 minutes past bus had been equally late, I would have caught it. So it goes!

At the bus stop I fell into conversation with an aged philosopher who assured me that there is no point worrying about buses; the sun was shining (just about), it wasn’t raining and far worse things are happening in the world than buses being late! Our conversation continued on the bus where he bent my ear about the way the English language is changing and how he expects at some time in the future to look down from above and see that people are speaking a wholly different version of English. Well, yes, I would expect that to be the case. After all, it works that way for all languages.

We have friends who have lived in France for a good few years and have been told that their French is excellent except that it’s about forty years out of date. Apparently they are still speaking the French we studied at university instead of moving wih the times. I can’t say I’m surprised as they don’t excatly use a lot of slang when they speak English. Maybe that’s the problem of going to live in a small place in a foreign country: you lose touch with the slang and current expressions of your own language but never learn to speak the argot of the place you’ve moved to. It’s rather like those urban myths of the people who forget their own language but never fully learn that of their adopted country and so end up unable to communicate at all.

So, getting back to my bus journey, the old philosppher and I were both amused by a notice on the window of the bus which read as follows:

This bus has kneeling facilities.

Please ask the driver if this is required.

Judging by the images accompanying the notice, this meant that the bus could lower itself to allow wheelchairs, baby buggies or old folk with wonky legs to get on and off easily. However, both the aged philosopher and I had immediately visualised the bus driver distributing prayer mats or cushions on demand to passengers of whatever faith who felt the need to pray. Or possibly, as the buses on that particular route are usually the oldest and most decrepit available, the bus itself would be able to kneel down and say a quick prayer before tackling difficult slopes and bends or maybe just saying, “Please let me arrive on schedule!”

It turns out that the aged philosopher lives in our village although he still has traces of the Falkirk accent from his place of birth. I thought he looked vaguely familiar and now I shall have to look out for him as I run around the village. I already stop and greet an old chap called Jack who walks his ancient dog. I had better stop before this collection gets out of hand.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Creatures of habit.

As I ran past one of the local ponds this morning in the rain (running on the rain is something I try to avoid but it wasn’t raining when I set out) I was rather surprised to hear a lot of very loud croaking. Looking down at the water I saw that it was already pretty full of frogspawn and that the local frogs were very busy producing some more. I don’t know where they go the rest of the year but somehow they always know where to return to in the spring.

As children we once hatched - is that the right word? - some frogspawn in an old kitchen sink at the bottom of the back garden. It was murder when the tadpoles grew into little froglings and got out of the sink and went exploring. You had to be really careful not to tread on them. Not nice at all. The following year we had some very confused frogs looking for their place of birth; the garden had been tidied up and the sink had gone to the tip. Poor confused amphibians!!

This year’s local frogs are also somewhat confused if you ask me. They were probably lulled into a false sense of spring-security by the mild weather in the second half of last week and decided it was time to procreate. Unfortunately, today seems to have returned to more wintry conditions with a bit of sleet mixed in with the rain. Alternatively, they may have heard that the official start of spring has been brought forward. This is what our daughter tells us. We overheard her telling the smallest grandchild that today is only the fourth day of spring and, in the belief that spring began on March 21st, we tried to put her right. But, of course, she knows best and assures us that the meteorological office has declared that March, April and May are officially Spring. There you go.

It does disturb us though when things are changed around. Lucy Mangan, writing in the Guardian’s Weekend magazine, was bemoaning the fact that her father had experimented with the apple crumble he makes for dessert. He had tried putting raisins in, to see what it would be like apparently, but Ms Mangan and her sister had protested bitterly. Traditional desserts should not be messed with. It rather reminded me of when my father took over the bulk of the cooking after my mother had been ill. Having spent a few holidays in Spain he had discovered the delights of garlic. My mother told me on the quiet, “I don’t mind a bit of garlic. It’s all very well in its place but not in Shepherd’s Pie and Lancashire Hotpot!!!” We know what we like and we like what we know!

One thing that the British don’t know, according to recent reports is, how to do maths. It seems that many British adults don’t even have the maths skills of nine year olds. So there’s a lot of mumbling and muttering in high places about how to improve the situation. Having taught in sixth form colleges and seen some of the students who go off to do primary teacher training, I would suggest first of all making sure that those recruits have higher than a grade C in GCSE Maths for a start. One radio commentator said that he felt it was quite understandable as all the people who have really good maths skills don’t want to get teachers’ salaries but go off to work as bankers where they can get big bonuses. Another valid point!

Possibly the most worrying aspect of this problem is that most people are almost proud of being no good at maths. Those who have real problems with literacy often go to great lengths to hide the fact that they can’t read but nobody minds declaring themselves innumerate. This has also led to a whole lot of media debate. “Why do people feel this way?” “What can we do to change attitudes?” So the questions go but, as for me, I think the problem goes deeper than just maths.

Many people I meet hold their hands up in amazement when they discover I speak several languages fluently and then go on to say, again quite proudly, that they are useless at learning foreign languages. In other situations people also declare a proud ignorance of opera, music, art, history, geography and almost anything you care to name. Studious kids or even those who just like to have their nose in a good book are labelled geeks and seen as a bit odd.

So, what’s the answer? Don’t ask me. I don’t know anything at all.