Friday, 31 October 2014

Kids and words and stuff.

Yesterday I got up moderately early to walk part of the way to our daughter's house. The skinflint in me refused to pay bus fare (almost £4 to her house) just because the bus came before the time after which I could use my old biddy's bus pass. So I walked some of the way to a point where the bus would arrive a little later. Such a lot of silliness but it also ensured that I got some exercise, the walk replacing my usual jog. 

So before ten o' clock I was at her house, taking over on the childcare front while she went off to do some university work with a fellow student. My great niece was staying over. It makes me feel quite ancient to use such a term but what else can I call my sister's granddaughter? Quite a houseful then! 

At lunchtime, since we had the use of my daughter's car, we went out for lunch - quite a carful! The kids had requested one of those pizza places that does a lunchtime buffet. I was only vaguely aware that such places exist. You pay around £7 per person, less for children, and you can eat as much pizza, pasta or salad as you wish during the buffet time. Quite a horrific concept, really! It's quite amazing how much pizza and pasta a nine year old can put away! I think the only one who had salad was me. And after stuffing their faces with pizza and so, they still had space for ice cream! I was astounded! 

The conversation, however, was very civilised. Everyone remembered their manners and discussed favourite films, computer games, even books! Although the nine year old, the only boy, did state at one point that reading was boring. This led to an outcry from the four young ladies (17, 16 and 11), revealing a common difference between the genders. We agreed that he still needs to find books that really grab him and then he'll be fine. Today's children are often accused of lacking any interest in words but the bunch I had lunch with showed every sign of enjoying playing with words to make jokes. 

And later I read about a workshop that the Guardian Education Centre puts on regularly. They run sessions on news media for classes of schoolchildren from year five to sixth form. Apparently the most popular is a workshop using the day’s breaking news stories to make their own front page. They spend four hours researching, writing and subediting. And they love it. And they come up with wonderful headlines for their articles. A pair of nine-year-olds was writing recently about the British Museum’s plans to create a digital version of the museum using Minecraft. “British Museum mine their own business” was their headline. Impressive wordplay from such young journalists, with a pun that accurately describes the story and uses an active verb to boot. They were beaming as they wrote it. Fantastic stuff. 

Who says creativity is dead? 

Today we are off to Newcastle to visit an old friend. We are fast approaching the station so this blog post must come to an end. Now, I need to establish a wifi connection so that I can post it.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

A few things to do with security.

First there was talk of the UK withdrawing from the European convention on human rights. Now I read that Britain will no longer support search and rescue operations to prevent migrants and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. It seems that Foreign Office ministers have quietly announced that supporting such operations just encourages more people to attempt the crossing. 

What happened to humanity? 

It goes along with reducing benefits to "encourage" people to find work and discourage them from relying on "hand-outs". I'm quite surprised they haven't shut down food banks to make people be more self-reliant and find other ways of feeding their family. All of this at a time when UNICEF reports child poverty on the increase in the developed world. The proportion of children living in poverty in the UK has gone up from 24% in 2008 to 25.6%. In Greece it has gone from 23% to 40.5%. The USA is up to 32% and Spain 36%. What are things coming to? 

The writer Doris Lessing once imagined a future society where the rich live in walled communities while the poor marauded round the country in gangs, scavenging for food and occasionally attacking the rich enclaves. Is this what we have ahead? 

Talking of walls, I hear that bits of the Berlin Wall are spread all over the world. This is not just the keyring-sized pieces that you can buy in German airports. No, huge segments have been sent all over the place and are sometimes given to visiting foreign dignitaries. Five pieces of the Berlin Wall are in South Korea, 30 kilometres from the border with North Korea, a kind of symbol of hope that the country might one day be peacefully reunited. 

I like the tales of bits of the wall getting lost. In May 1998, they were going to present a segment of Wall to Bill Clinton during a presidential visit to Berlin. However, a previous meeting had overrun and Bill Clinton was unable to attend the presentation ceremony. So the German embassy agreed to present the bit of wall in the US. And so the chunk of brickwork was transported from Berlin to Hamburg and then shipped to Baltimore. But then along came the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the presentation never took place. The piece of wall remained in storage in Baltimore and eventually vanished. I imagine someone coming across it during a storage inventory and thinking, " This is a scruffy looking chunk of masonry. Let's throw it out!" A piece of history gone for ever! 

All of these walls and measures taken to keep people out or in or just secure gets me thinking about my running. It might be dangerous. Runners could be a security risk. On Monday a young man was out running in Leeds when he ran into David Cameron. He reckons he didn't see him but just saw a lot of men in suits and was continuing his run, weaving in and out of people, as you do if you run in an urban environment. The next thing he knew he was tackled to the ground, handcuffed, arrested and stuffed into a police van. An hour later they "de-arrested" him. That was the term used on the radio in my daughter's car where I first heard this story. She tells me this is police terminology meaning that he was released without being charged. I suppose she should know these things; her fiancé is a policeman, after all. Anyway, I think I will stick to running on bridle paths where I am unlikely to come across politicians and their security men. 

I wonder how much money is spent on these security measures. I read today that one of the tourist sights in London is Tony Blair's residence. You can recognise it because there are policemen with machine guns around it. Really? There are advantages to not being an ex-prime minister. I don't have to worry about stuff like that. Does Cherie take them cups of tea and coffee like we do around here for workmen? 

Presumably the Blair residence is also surrounded by CCTV cameras. They seem to be everywhere. Apparently police have released a CCTV image of a man who stole a double-decker bus and then went on a seven-mile joyride through the streets of south-east London. He appears to have just walked into the depot and driven out in the bus, which he drove around for a while. Then, when he had had enough he parked it a bus stop and walked away. Did he do it for a dare? Is he terminally ill and driving a bus is on his bucket list? Did he do it on impulse, simply seeing the bus there and getting in and driving it away? Or was he testing security measures at the bus depot? 

Like the mystery of Bill Clinton's bit of the Berlin Wall, this conundrum might never be solved!

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Clocks, books ... and spiders again!

Last night, in the middle of the night, the clocks went back. My phone and iPad changed automatically but there are a couple of timepieces around the house which still have us an hour ahead. We all gained an extra hour in bed. Or maybe some people just stayed up even later than usual. There is some discussion about the UK falling into line with most of Europe, timewise anyway. Would Portugal, who have the same time as we do, follow suit, I wonder. From what I see on social media, this has led some people to believe that this may be the last time that we ever change the clocks. Not so. Spain does the same tinkering with the clocks as we do. Nothing really changes. But there are specialists who maintain that it would be beneficial if we had the same time as France and Spain, because our children would have an extra hour of playing out time after school. Running around outside would no doubt be very good for them but would they do so? Would they not still want to play on their electronic gadgets? 

Now, the other day we overtook a child on her way home from school. I was going to say a small girl, but in fact she can't have been all that small as she was in secondary school uniform. What was surprising was that she was walking along reading a book, completely lost in it, moving along slowly and turning the pages as she went. Quite oblivious to the world around her. Phil and I looked at each other and murmured, in unison, "That's something you don't see very often!" 

Here's another book story. An American tourist was trapped recently in a London Waterstone's bookshop. I'm not sure what happened. Perhaps he went to the loo. Perhaps he spent too long in a secluded corner of an upper floor. Whatever it was, when he got down to the ground floor, the doors were locked and he couldn't get out. Despite his setting off the alarm as he tried in vain to open the door, the police were unable to help. His story became known when he tweeted about it: "Hi Waterstone's, I've been locked in your Trafalgar Square store for two hours now. Please let me out." 

So they let him out but by then his tweet had been re-tweted all over the place and the next morning he was interviewed on "Good Morning America" and ITV's "Good Morning". Why did he tweet? Well, he said he was bored. In a bookshop? I would have thought that so long as he could phone anyone who needed to know where he was so that they didn't worry a bookshop was as good a place as any to be trapped. He would have had plenty to read. And the big Waterstone's shops have cafes with food available so he would have been ok. With that attitude in mind, on Friday Waterstone's organised a lock-in by invitation this weekend. Nineteen people were chosen through a competition in which they had to say which book they would like to read on the night. What an excellent bit of marketing on Waterstone's part. And the participants all received a goody bag! Splendid! 

And finally, spiders again. Alice Roberts, described by Wikipedia as an English anatomist, anthropologist, TV presenter, among other things, as well as being professor of something or other at a university, was writing about spiders in today's Observer. She says they have grown large this year because the summer was, as she put it, lovely and warm. The insects they eat were bigger so the spiders also grew bigger. In the autumn they head for warm, dry places, probably to mate in. 

She wrote, "... A 21st century, dry and heated house must be irresistible. How kind of us humans to build such a thing just for them! Just so they can come inside, as the weather's getting less clement, and try to find a mate." So there it is: the expert's opinion. She is presenting a programme called Spider House on BBC4 on Wednesday. She finishes her article, however, this way: "But that house spider, that Tegebaria gigantea scuttling across the floor ... I know he means no harm and I don't wish him any harm, but I do wish he would find some old tree or little cave to live in, rather than my house." 

 Yes, I'm with her on that.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Thinking about cities.

Cities are strange places, full of life and often so difficult to live in. The more trendy a city, it seems, the more inhospitable it becomes in so many ways. One third of New Yorkers pay more than 50% of their annual income in rent. Nearly half of New York is living close to the poverty line. In 2009 the top 1% earned more than a third of the city's income. And because it is expensive to do business in New York City, factories, workshops and shipyards have gone elsewhere. It's the same old story. I have these facts from someone called John Freeman writing in today's Guardian. 

John was lucky; an inheritance allowed him to buy an apartment in Manhattan. For some time John Freeman's brother also lived in New York, but as a homeless person. He also writes about life in New York: 55,000 homeless people, including 13,000 homeless families living in New York shelters. That's 23,000 children living life at subsistence level. For various complicated reasons, John Freeman did not invite his brother to live with him. His brother says, "I did not want anyone's help when I was homeless. If a family member had offered to take me in, I probably would have declined the offer." Eventually he moved out of the city to make his life elsewhere. 

All the stuff that is said about New York could probably be said about London as well. The statistics would be different but the message would be the same: a difficult and expensive place to live, And yet I know loads of young people - former students, our son and his friends - who were drawn to the capital city after university and stayed there, declaring that it is the best place to live. And for those fortunate enough to have a decent job, I suppose it is. Mind you, many of those young people, our son included, as they reach the point in their lives when they want to have children, move out of the centre, seeking places close enough to the city to commute but economical enough to enable them to live reasonably well. And they are the lucky ones! 

Yes, cities are odd places. You can have the time of your life or you can be thoroughly miserable and lonely. And we grow attached to them and love them. I know I get quite defensive when people tell me that Manchester is an ugly place. You just need to walk round with your eyes raised a little so that you see the upper parts of the buildings that have not been made into the standard routine city centre with exactly the same shops as every other city in the country. A friend of mine was recently bemoaning the fact that in Barcelona's gothic quarter old traditional shops are being bought up by chain stores. The individual shopkeepers who ran toy shops, bookshops or whatever kind of small business it might be could no longer afford the extortionate rents and had to move to cheaper parts of the city. And so the charm of individual shops with character is replaced with the corporate image of the shops you can visit anywhere. But it's that same thing again: the city is too expensive for the small people. 

Mind you, it could be worse. Instead of moving to another part of the city, you might find your whole city having to move. Kiruna, the most northerly town in Sweden is doing just that. The city, well really a town, I suppose, is largely dependent on a huge iron-ore mine which was founded in 1900. It provides employment and has made the town rich. But now the mine is undermining the city. As the mine follows the seam of iron-ore it is going under the streets and houses and the place is in danger of disappearing into the ground. So they propose to build a new city further south and move everyone lock, stock and barrel. It's that or stop mining. Which would mean that the town would have no reason to be there. You can imagine the consternation. All your memories are tied up in the place where you grew up and these people would have to leave all that behind. 

I wonder though if they might not be better moving south. Kiruna is located 145 kilometres within the Arctic Circle. In the heart of winter they have no daylight and temperatures go down to -15 degrees and below. You wouldn't catch me living there.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Words, words, words!

The French and Spanish, I believe, both have organisations that regulate, for want of a better word, the official entry of words into their language. The French one works very hard at keeping foreign words out of the language and pushes hard to promote the use of a genuine French word in place of a foreign interloper. They are, of course, fighting a losing battle. A language is like a naughty and very independent-minded child. It will insist on going its own way and you can cajole it as much as you like but it will still continue along its wayward path. 

This does not stop me railing against the over-correction that produces abominations like "for you and I", the tendency for "wonder" to be mispronounced as "wander" (in other words both pronounced with an "on" sound) and even the intrusive "r" that appears all over the place. I can accept small children talking about "drawing" as "drawring", although I strongly believe that their parents and teachers should try to prevent it. However, I really think that pundits and news reporters on TV and radio should be aware that there is no "r" in the word "law". And yet I hear a lot of talk about something called "lore and order". It all conspires to turn me into a grumpy pedant. 

The Spanish academy accepts the inevitable use of foreign words in the language and adjusts the spelling to match Spanish spelling rules. "Leader" and "meeting" long ago became "líder" and " mitín". As far as I know they have not yet put an accent on "penalty" - it needs to be "pénalty" to give it correct English style pronunciation - and consequently every Spaniard pronounces it with the stress on the "a", making it "penAlty". Some purists still prefer the use of good Spanish expressions but, like the French academicians, they are fighting a losing battle. 

I'm not sure that we have such an institution keeping an eye on the English language. Perhaps I could form one. Maybe I could get government funding. No, on reflection, in this time of austerity and government debt and cuts in all sorts of services, I think that is highly unlikely. 

What seems to happen as regards English is that words are "accepted" into dictionaries and new words are rated "word of the year" and so on. Usually these neologisms are not so much borrowings from other languages as creative combinations of already existing words. 

This year there is "photobomb", defined by Collins as “to intrude into the background of a photograph without the subject’s knowledge”. And we could consider "overshare" which apparently means "to be unacceptably forthcoming with information about one’s personal life”. This happens a lot when people reveal unnecessary details about their lives on Facebook or give you graphic detail of their latest operation, child being born or similar occurrence that you have no need to hear about in technicolor. Apparently "overshare" is used as what is described as a "genteel put-down - there's another modernism. Somebody from Chambers' dictionary said about "overshare", "It is beautifully British. It's subtle, yet devastating; a put-down few would want laid at their door". 

I have barely adjusted to people using "hashtags" all over the place and I now discover that there is also a “bashtag”, defined as “a hashtag used for critical or abusive comments”. That may be because I am not a “digital native” – “a person who has learned to use computers as a child”. 

 Some people, I am told, also agitate for words to be removed from the English language. Well, I could probably come up with a few myself. Lake Superior State University in Michigan receives nominations through the year for "words to be banished from the Queen's English for "misuse, overuse and general uselessness". Earlier this year "selfie" was found to be the word most people felt should be removed. "A self-snapped picture need not have a name all its own beyond ‘photograph’,” complained one respondent. 

And finally, words related to "sequel". Films about events preceding well-known films, for example stories about Superman's childhood, have been described as "prequels". Now someone is suggesting that there is the possibility of William Shatner playing James T Kirk once again, resurrected somehow after dying in the last one, and now starring in a third Star Trek film, thus making a "threequel". 

I remain lost for words!

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Celebrations

Our next door neighbour tells me she is organising a Hallowe'en party for her grandchildren, of which she has quite a lot. Would we like to invite our grandchildren along? I'll pass the invitation along. I must say, I think she is very brave, foolhardy(?), perhaps crazy to want to fill her small basement flat - bedroom, bathroom, living-room cum kitchen in a space which is our house is the kitchen and dining area - with a bunch of youngsters of assorted ages all getting on a sugar high from the kind of food served at such parties. Not to mention the mud that will inevitably be walked in. 

The affair is becoming something of a community matter too. I ran into - almost literally as I was on my back from my morning jog - another neighbour the other morning. He told me he was organising a garden party and was on his way to rent one of those big tent-like shelters to put up in case of rain. A garden party? In October? He explained that it would be a combined Hallowe'en and bonfire party, Hallowe'en being the 31st of October and Bonfire Night the 5th of November. So that was it; he was joining forces with the grandmother of many grandchildren. Clearly the barbecues of the summer have led him to want to continue the community social life. 

We used to organise bonfire parties in our garden up to the point when our children decided they were too old and sophisticated for such things. Friends with children of the same age came along. My brother, always a big kid, brought his wife to celebrate her birthday - November 5th. A bonfire at the bottom of the garden, everyone brought fireworks and food and there was a pan of mulled wine on the go for most of the evening. It was all good fun. But we were younger and possibly more energetic then. Surely now our neighbour's daughters should be organising the Hallowe'en party and inviting Grandma, or Nana as I believe they call her, to go along as a guest. 

We started having bonfire parties when we moved into this house which has just enough garden space to permit such activities. I was nostalgic about the bonfire parties we used to have when I was a child, big family affairs that all the cousins came along to. The ones whose parents didn't want to spoil the lawn by setting fire to a pile of stuff on it. We enjoyed the whole process: collecting wood, building dens with the stuff that was drying around the garden before we got round to building the fire itself. And then on Bonfire Night itself, one of the culinary highlights was the potatoes that my father wrapped in foil and put in the hottest part of the fire once it had got going well. These were raked out later, perfectly baked, too hot to handle but quite delicious. And that was the kind of memory I wanted to give to our children. It seems to have worked as we have had occasional requests to resurrect the tradition. Too late! The moment has passed! And besides, the bit of shared garden where the bonfire used to be lit has now been fenced off. Things change. 

However, a Hallowe'en party, with a bonfire and fireworks thrown in, seems to be on the cards. Maybe I will resurrect my mother's treacle toffee recipe as my contribution to the fun and games. You have to show willing, after all. And Mum's treacle toffee recipe works well. All good stuff. 

But then this morning in the craft shop in the village I spotted a sign advertising Hallowe'en cards. Hallowe'en cards!? Who do you send them to? People you want to scare? And the shops are full of Hallowe'en displays. Fine! But they almost all wish us "Happy Hallowe'en!" Since when do we go round wishing everyone "Happy Hallowe'en"? 

"Happy Christmas" is fine and I send loads of cards with the best will in the world. "Happy Birthday", yes, that's perfectly good. I'd wish any American friends "Happy Thanksgiving", if I had any American friends living nearby. We don't go in for "Happy Anniversary" much in our house; when you've been together as long as we have you stop celebrating the fact that you're still together. I've come to accept "Happy Easter" as a greeting you give to people even if neither you nor they are practising Christians any longer, although I draw the line at sending cards to all and sundry. The cynic in me believes that Easter cards, along with Father's Day cards, congratulations on moving house / passing your exams / passing your driving test cards are an invention of the card industry who just want our money. 

I'm rather surprised no-one has come up with a "congratulations on conceiving your baby" card. After all, you now have "baby showers" where the parents to be receive gifts before the child is born. So what do you do after the baby is born? Give another gift? Or just a card and a bunch of balloons? (Although it may be that the baby shower is meant to provide larger items of baby necessities. My taxi driver yesterday was telling me that his wife wants to spend £1400 on a pram for their as yet unborn baby!) 

I have a sneaking suspicion that baby showers are an American import, like "trick or treat". Now I know "trick or treat" has been around for a good while now. Some twenty years ago, possibly more, there was knock on our door on Hallowe'en. A small group of local kids, led by a huge 15 year old girl, chanted "trick or treat". I was tired after a long day at work and looked at the 15 year old and told her she was old enough to know better. And then I shut the door. Next morning I had to scrub rude words off my front door. But back when I was a child, that "tradition" didn't exist. On November 4th we had Mischief Night, when youngsters went round playing tricks all over the neighbourhood: knocking on the door and running away; setting off "bangers" or "rip-raps" under people's windows; if you were really bad, posting "bangers" through people's letter boxes or lighting someone else's bonfire a day early. 

Mostly it was pretty harmless stuff- well apart from posting fireworks through letter boxes - and none of it involved asking for stuff. Children went round with their "guy" on a trolley in the few weeks before Bonfire Night, asking for a "penny for the guy". The most organised went from house to house singing, " We come a cob-calling for Bonfire Night". My siblings and I were not allowed to do any of this stuff. My mother said it was tantamount to begging and no child of hers was going to be seen begging in the street. Far too "common" an activity. So that was that! 

Nowadays "bangers", silly little fireworks that just give a loud bang are banned. Mind you, the Spanish still seem able to get hold of them to throw around during fiestas. "Rip-raps", a series of five or six "bangers" tied together and going off in a series of bangs, leaping around unpredictably to frighten everyone, are similarly banned. And small boys ( for it was mostly boys who bought the "bangers" and "rip-raps") can no longer buy fireworks of any kind. The world is a safer but for small boys probably a less exciting place. 

And, in fear of what might happen to their children out and about knocking on neighbour's doors, parents accompany their small children as they go "trick or treating", usually dressed in expensively bought costumes that prettify terror. The world may not be such a safe place after all and the only danger parents will subject their children to is the sugar rush and tooth decay! 

Happy celebration season everyone!

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?

Monday, 13 October 2014

Meat and two veg or just veg?

Don't hold your breath but I have read that the number of vegetarian restaurants, and even vegan restaurants, in Spain has doubled. I would love to see the statistics and find out where these increased numbers of vegetarian and vegan restaurants are. I'm betting that they are in Barcelona or maybe Madrid, although Barcelona is more likely as it has more of a really cosmopolitan reputation. Madrid always feels more "small town Spain" than Barcelona to me. I bet there are still precious few vegetarian/vegan restaurants in the whole of Galicia. 

I have often been slightly amused watching vegetarians trying to find a menú that suits then in Spain, and then frustrated on behalf of those vegetarians and rather guilty about finding it amusing. One of the things that happens is that the restaurateurs offer fish. Well, it's not meat!!! And then they fall back on "ensalada mixta". You shouldn't be able to go wrong with a mixed salad. Except that "ensalada mixta" in Spain usually comes with a large dollop of tinned tuna fish. If you speak Spanish you can get round it but you do get a lot of pitying, mystified looks. Vegans have it even harder because all the options involving eggs disappear. Personally I don't have a problem. My veggie days are behind me. I happily eat fish and shellfish. I eat chicken. I just avoid visits to "churrasquerías" as far as possible as I still won't eat huge plates of red meat. When people invite us to barbecues and churrascadas we find ourselves eating lots of tortilla and green salad and pushing around the barbecued ribs that are forced on us. Apparently Lonely Planet's World Food Guide to Spain once warned vegetarians that many Spaniards "consider a dead pig to be a vegetable". I love that! But I now read that the Happy Cow Vegetarian website (yes, that IS its name) listed 353 vegetarian or vegan restaurants in Spain in 2011 whereas this year's figure is 686. Similar figures for the UK show an increase from 842 in 2011 to 1344 this year. Mind you, if you compare population figures I don't think the UK can really congratulate itself on providing all that well for the veggies. In fact, Spain is improving faster. The main difference is that most restaurants in the UK regularly offer a vegetarian choice rather than blank looks and the suggestion that you are rather mad not to want a huge steak on your plate. An acknowledgement of the Spanish attitude comes from a famous Spanish chef, who says he is all in favour of cooking with vegetables and said,: “If I could get away with it I wouldn’t cook with fish or meat at all.” I think that probably says it all. He knows he wouldn't get away with it, not if he wanted his restaurant to stay open. 

He went on to say, "The bad thing about vegetarianism is that it’s negative. It’s more about the maltreatment of animals than it is the love of vegetables. I’m somebody who loves vegetables because I like eating them, not because I worry that animals suffer when we kill them.” I thought we had got beyond sentimental vegetarianism. I know people who are vegetarian for health reasons. But apparently not everyone agrees. Laura Jiménez, a journalism student in Alicante who organised something called the Vegan Fest isn't pleased with the "trendiness" of vegan/vegetarianism. 

“Things have definitely improved,” she says. “Three years ago we didn’t have any vegan restaurants here in Alicante. Now we have a vegan bakery, a tapas bar, and there’s another vegan restaurant opening in October. But I think a lot of people are becoming vegan for health reasons, when it should be about defending the rights of animals. What should really worry people is that there are still animals being maltreated. Fundamentally that’s the issue we should be dealing with, not the flavour of the food.” So, there's still a lot of argument going on. 

As usual, the article I read about all this was accompanied by a photo of colourful vegetables on sale, in the Boquería market in Barcelona in this case. Very pretty. Now, I am one of a whole load of people who wonder what happens to all those colourful vegetables. Very few restaurants serve many of them. And in Galicia, the standard thing seems to be that you serve excellent fish (and probably meat) with potatoes and possible greens. With "excellent" fish (and probably meat) you don't need to serve fancy stuff; that seems to be the attitude. 

I'm not complaining about the food I eat in Galicia. In fact I really appreciate it. And I have eaten some wonderfully imaginative dishes with fish and shellfish. I'm just commenting on the gap that exists there. 

And I have come across restaurants in various places that serve very interesting and imaginative salads. However, in general, they can say what they like, the Spanish remain largely a nation of meat eaters. My Spanglish nephew doesn't really consider himself well fed if he has not been served meat. There was a famous occasion when the Spanglish family ate at our house and he prowled around the table declaring, "Pero ¡no hay carne! ¿Dónde está la carne?" 

That says it all.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

The twelfth of October. Running. In Vigo.

Today is Spain's Fiesta Nacional. This was the date on which Columbus discovered America for the Spanish king several centuries ago. In the 21st century, King Felipe oversaw the military parade in Madrid for the second time, his first time as king; last year he stood in for his father who was recovering from a hip operation. I wonder if Juan Carlos knew then that the next year would bring abdication. Well. today Felipe and Letizia stood there regally with the children, the Princesa de Asturias (poor little Leonor no longer merits a name in news reports but is simply referred to by her title as heir presumptive to the throne) and the Infanta Sofía. 

Here in the UK it is simply the 12th of October, nothing special. But in Saddleworth it is just a little bit special as a road race has been taking place this morning. For several weeks we have seen signs warning us: "Caution Runners". I am afraid these signs have brought out the pedant in me and I want to ask what "caution runners" are. Are they something like the people you see in films who are supposed to hand over subpoenas directly into the hand of the person they are intended for? Do they rush around taking warning messages to important people? I know that TV production teams have "runners", although I have no real idea of what they do. Are "caution runners" similar to them? I know it's silly and picky on my part, but would it have been so hard to put in a couple of exclamation marks? "Caution! Runners!" would be so much more satisfying. Anyway, there it is. Nothing I can do about it except make feeble jokes. 

One positive consequence of the "caution runners" was my meeting an old friend. I had got up moderately early to run round the village in the early morning mist and came across the race marshals setting everything in place to make the road racers as safe as possible. One of them turned out to be someone who used to work with Phil years ago and whose son went to school with our son. So I stopped to say hello and we caught up with news of what our offspring are up to. 


As I said, I ran through the mist this morning. I very nearly put on the silly hat I bought in the sale from the shop in Manchester that sells running gear. It has a small battery and a line of flashing lights so that you can be seen in the gloom on winter mornings or evening. In the end I decided it was not yet dark enough to merit going out looking like a Christmas tree. I may never actually need to wear it as I really don't favour running in the dark. I have occasionally seen people running in the early morning dark as I have been making my way to my daughter's house first thing. I know some people have to run at that time of day as they have a busy working day ahead but it just seems a little excessive to me. 

Having said that, I came across an article by someone called Kate Carter, singing the praises of running in the dark. This is what she had to say about clothing: "To fully enjoy any run, you need to be dressed correctly. As the temperatures dip, leggings, base layers and a good running jacket become an essential part of your kit. A hat and gloves are also worth investing in – hands that are warm when you begin can, in contrast to your rapidly heating body, get colder and colder as the blood is diverted to parts that need it more urgently." So maybe she would wear my Christmas tree, flashing lights hat. Here's a link to the whole article.

The mist did clear later. By mid morning the sun was burning the mist off nicely. Another good autumn day. We need to get organised to go for a walk and enjoy the sun.

My Facebook connection to Synergy Spanish School showed me Stephen Hawking enjoying the sun in Vigo yesterday. Like many an English tourist, he arrived in Vigo on the Independence of the Seas, a boat often photographed and posted onto Facebook by Vigo friends of mine ... and by me for that matter. I wonder what Stephen Hawking made of the "ciudad olívica". 

As for me, I shall read the newspaper I bought when I ran in the mist. That should take up a good part of the day, which is why we only buy newspapers at the weekend!

Friday, 10 October 2014

Things to laugh at.

In our village there is a For Sale notice on the public toilets. These public toilets have been closed for as long as I can remember. All around the area "public toilets" have largely been replaced by what they now refer to as "community toilets", usually located in a pub. Presumably some official from the town council has gone around asking pub landlords if they mind their premises being used in that way. I suppose in some cases people out hiking and so on might choose to stay for a drink after popping in to use the loo. That does, I realise, rather defeat the object of going to the loo in the first place but life is full of these small contradictions. 

In some countries, of course, it is taken for granted that you can pop into a cafe and use the toilet without needing to stop for a drink. Having said that, I remember once having to negotiate a price with a Parisian cafe owner as I had a group of around 25 schoolgirls all wanting to use his facilities and he felt that it was a little excessive. And then, if it is accepted that you can use cafe toilets, why do so many men in mainland Europe seem to feel the need to pee al fresco? The number of corners of steps going from one street to another, the number of backstreets, the number of areas behind the large rubbish bins on street corners which have been rendered disgustingly smelly constantly amaze me! 

Anyway, getting back to the toilet for sale, I find it hard to imagine who might buy such an item. A friend of ours believes that it is not just the toilet that is for sale but also the patch of land on which it stands. That being so, he argues, the purchaser could demolish it and build a house on that corner. Maybe so, but I remain unconvinced. 

Then this morning in the newspaper online I spotted an item about public conveniences in London being converted into other things. As land prices spiral out of control in the capital nineteenth century toilets are being turned into cafe, restaurants and boutiques. At the same time, however, the number of public conveniences is in decline. There is a price to pay for everything. Some of the Victorian exteriors are quite elegant; those wrought iron archways giving entrance to steps downwards deserve to be preserved. I can't say I am quite so keen on the places that have kept the original urinals as part of the decor, converting them cleverly into alcoves or tables. Not my thing at all but here is a link to the full set of photos.

Another article I found was all about someone's idea for what to give her husband for his 50th birthday. I know the problem. What do you give year on year to someone who can probably go and buy whatever he fancies anyway. In the end she came up with the notion of giving him a series of suggestions for things to do, what she referred to as "a series of mini-challenges". Each idea was put into a little parcel with the aim that he should choose one at random each week. Here are a few of them: 

"Every day this week, capture a moment of your day with a drawing or painting." 

"Go to a dance class." 

"Pick a random novel in a bookshop. Read the first paragraph. Do something (anything) triggered by these words." 

"Put £5 in a prominent book in the library with a note making it clear that the finder is meant to keep it. Wait discreetly for it to be discovered." 

I'm not so sure about this last one; you might have a long wait in the library and then just miss the moment as you turn away to look at something else. Neither did I appreciate what she called "Knock down Ginger", basically knocking on someone's door and running away. And besides, why is it called "Knock down Ginger"? What has the ginger got to do with it? 

But the idea as a whole seems to have worked. The lady in question declares her husband to be more relaxed, a bolder and more outgoing person after working through half a year's challenges. 

Articles you read online nowadays give you the option of commenting on them immediately. Interactive journalism. You don't need to bother writing to the paper, or even emailing. You just go to the comments section and type your reaction. This one got mixed reactions: many people thought it was great but others were quite abusive and rude, saying that they didn't see the point of the thing at all. Would they have written a letter to that effect? I doubt it. 

Maybe those negative people need to try "Laughter Yoga". This was one of the challenges set by the writer of the article. I have often read stuff about laughter being very good therapy, how it relaxes every muscle in the body and is generally good for you. Now it appears that Dr Madan Kataria, a medical man from India, has developed a system of exercises based on laughter. Described as a "complete wellbeing workout" it has spread to 72 countries in the world. Here is a link to more information about it and the chance to sign up to the newsletter, if that's the kind of thing you do.

All this laughter stuff almost makes up UKIP winning a seat in Parliament, but not quite!

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Forward planning.

They have been building new houses on a plot of land behind the houses just up the road from us. Rather nice looking, probably very expensive houses, although with very little by way of gardens. They began building years ago and then stopped. Presumably the builder ran out of money. Or maybe he decided that the time was not right, what with the crisis and house price slumps and so on. 

Whatever the cause, it all ground to a halt and then a while back we received notice that it was all going ahead again. And so it did. One of them has been sold and is already occupied. One of the consequences of this construction work is that the little road, barely more than a drive, that formerly just went to the two houses round the corner from our row has become an access road for the new estate. Back at the planning stage we knew about this and were warned that it could affect parking outside our row of houses. Continued parking outside the houses might restrict vision for cars coming out if the access road and so could lead to accidents. Fair enough! Good point! So they promised us parking spaces on the estate itself. All good so far! 

The work progressed and reached a point where they began widening the pavements outside our row of houses, ostensibly to prevent parking along the roadside. That was when we discovered that in the agreement to provide parking for us on the estate itself they had neglected to put in the word "designated". An important omission. Yes, we will be able to put our cars in the parking spaces provided near the new houses. But the folk who buy the new houses might have more than one car and, having only a small drive in front of each house could well occupy the other spaces. This just might lead to arguments if some of try to park there. We have sought the help of local councillors, all to no avail. And, of course, we are aware that anyone could park in those spaces, just as anyone could park outside my house. As much as anything we wanted to avoid tension with the occupants of the new houses. Good neighbour relations are advisable, after all. 

Anyway, all of this stuff is water under the bridge now. The situation as it stands now is that there are still parking spaces outside our house, without any restrictions so far. Just a few houses up the road pavements have indeed been widened. We wondered how long it would be before someone parked on the pavement. 

This morning I went out for my morning run as usual and saw a large van and a car parked on the pavement just beyond the access road. Another pulled onto the pavement as I watched. So much for deterring parking and improving visibility for drivers coming out of the new estate!! Some of the neighbours have been heard to mutter "Bollards!!" as they walk out to their cars. 

Things go on that are hard to understand, not always changing life for the better. 

The French Prime Minister, a certain Manuel Valls, wants to bring changes into French society. One of the things he wants to do is to allow shops in Paris and other major towns in France to remain open on a Sunday. I remember years ago taking a bunch of sixth form students to Paris and their being amazed to find that they could not go shopping on the Sunday of our visit. These of course were youngsters who had grown up with Sunday trading and huge shopping cathedrals like the Trafford Centre being open until silly times at night. Monsieur Valls wants to bring his country in line with that sort of idea. Daft, I call it but who am I to criticise the French. 

Monsieur Valls was in London to meet David Cameron and persuade fellow EU leaders that he is trying to take the French economy on the path to structural reform. Sunday opening for shops is one measure and it could be that an end to the 35-hour working week is another. 

I never quite understood how Sunday trading was supposed to make people spend more. Surely they have the same amount of money to spend, whether they spend it on Thursday or Sunday. And as for getting rid of the 35-hour week - what a shame! Restricting the working week to a civilised number of hours always seemed to me to a Very Good Thing. I know it caused problems for small employers but in the end surely it should lead to more people being in work and, therefore, more people having money to spend, in turn boosting the economy. But hey, I'm not an economist. 

It's another element of the modern world which convinces me that there's a lot of craziness around.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Perfect weather for a nice cup of tea!

The weathermen may well have said that October was going to a really good month but they must have been talking about another country, or at any rate another bit of the country, not the place I am living in. Winter seems to be just around the corner here. 

Yesterday I was going out to meet a friend for lunch and had selected a pair of shoes to wear. Then I took another look out of the window and changed my mind. Boots! Definitely boots! And hat and gloves! The autumn colours may be around still but that's just window dressing! 

The same goes for the early morning sunshine. The latter looks very pretty but it's not giving out much heat. 

 It's a good job I had put my boots on yesterday or my poor feet would have frozen. I went out for the bus which is supposed to come at 10.02. I arrived at the stop in plenty of time as our buses are notorious for leaving Delph early and then taking a five minute rest somewhere further along the route. Most annoying! Anyway, 10 o' clock arrived. No bus. 10.05 still no bus! I almost got on a bus going in the opposite direction with the idea that I could get off a few stops along and change to another bus or even the train going into Manchester. Foolishly I opted to wait, thinking that my bus would be along in minutes. At 10.25 an apologetic bus-driver told us he had been stuck behind a traffic accident and had been unable to move. How very annoying! 

I was JUST in time to meet my friend. We set the world to rights, in the way that women do when they get together. 

We didn't manage to solve the problem of getting the perfect coffee in Manchester, apart, of course, from in my kitchen. However, that is a minor problem compared with the difficulty of getting a perfect cup of tea in continental Europe. I came across an article on that very subject the other day. This told me they even investigate the art of tea making at universities. I am assured that this is true even though it seems to me that there must be more serious things to investigate, especially if my money is being used to fund such projects. Anyway, a certain Dr Stapley of Loughborough University has been examining the thorny question of which should go in the cup first: tea or milk? 

Dr Stapley maintains that if you put the milk in after the tea then the milk heats unevenly which causes the proteins in the milk to "denature", whatever that means, and affects the taste of the final beverage. It seems that some people can really taste that difference; they are not just being picky and fussy. It's been proved scientifically true. I would have believed it anyway. I am the person who can sniff a cup of tea or coffee and tell you whether or not it has sugar in, a skill that some people do not possess. 

Personally I avoid the milk in first or second problem by drinking my tea black these days. And I particularly enjoyed this comment from the writer of the article: "As an aside, having been to America and sampling the weak tea made there, it must be stressed that the teabag should either be in a pot or the mug itself; it is not sufficient just for it to be in the same room." 

Some quite illustrious people have had strong opinions about tea making. Here is a link to the writer George Orwell's instructions for making tea.

Moving on, I want to know when tweeting or twittering abuse about people became "trolling". I keep coming across the term in various news articles. When my children were small you could buy "cute" troll toys. Not at all threatening. In stories trolls used to live under bridges and leap out and threaten to eat anyone who trip-trapped over said bridges. Perhaps it's the lying in wait that makes internet stalkers and the like into trolls. Then the mythology kind of evolved into trolls into beings who would turn to stone if exposed to sunlight - thank you Mr Tolkien for making that clear. 

Maybe that's what should happen to the modern "trolls" who apparently make life thoroughly miserable for their victims.